Herman Shapiro, Grocer, 42 Years Since the Pogram in Berdichev
(after a poem about Edward Lieberman by Philip Levine) Beneath the neon lights that sound as if bees are trapped in the flickering tubes, he stands at his counter slicing cold cuts that fall into his calloused palm before they are stacked on waxed paper and weighed. He has been in this store in Arverne, Queens, for over thirty years, been here six and a half days a week since before dawn, standing on swollen feet, only seeing daylight through the smeary window. The lenses of his tortoiseshell glasses pinch the sides of his pug nose like glasses never did years ago when he'd bought them off a pushcart. He could have saved plenty, bought a pair with just one lens. Who needs more with the way he squints his left eye from the smoke rising from the Lucky Strike that dangles from his thin lips? His voice is cigarette-raspy when he asks, "What are you watching me for? You think I'll put my thumb on the scale?" He says "tum" instead of thumb, the h missing as it is from his name on the window where one of them scratched it off. Right below the shelves of canned goods, burlap sacks of onions and potatoes sit on the oiled floor. "Potatoes have a thousand eyes," he says. He means that if he puts his money in the bank instead of in the rafters of his basement, they will know he has money and rob him blind. He means that the cops who come and demand free sandwiches on Kaiser rolls and Pepsi and the inspectors who write up violations unless you schmear them, reports false as The Protocols of Zion, that Russian excuse to wipe out Jews, to murder his five older brothers, the Protocols that claim Jews are trying to take over the world. Take a moment, if you will, to consider this 64-year-old grocer. Does he, in his apron tied over his congested chest and the crack in his left rib from where he fell shoveling his way into the store on an icy morning, this father who was named Herman at Ellis Island by immigration clerks too lazy to spell Chanina look as if he's planning to take over? When he asks, "What are you watching me for?" he means that as he sleeps, he keeps one eye open to see who is watching him.