On a late October afternoon in 1994 I hurried from the subway to the diamond exchange on 47th Street. A cold drizzle dampened the sidewalk. My leather jacket fought off the cold and my boots prevented the wet from touching my feet. It was 9:25 and I would have arrived to work on time, except a slovenly beggar wearing a soggy yamakah stepped into my path.
“Damian, can you spare a few coins for a drunk?” Lenny pushed his busted glasses up his nose.
Other diamonds dealers were hurrying to their stores. The GOP still controlled the House, although Bill Clinton ruled the White House. It was a good time to be making money.
“Isn’t it a little early to get shikkah?”
“Yashim doesn’t wear a clock and neither do I, besides the money goes to a good cause.”
The homeless schmiel smelled like a slave ship. His wardrobe consisted of a stained tee-shirt, soiled gray flannel pants, and torn sneakers.
“For me to take care of my crazy sister. She’s even more verkocht than me.”
“Here.” I gave him all my change and a dollar.
“Bless you, Damian.” The empty brandy bottle in his hand needed filling. “Can you tell me why your boss hates me.”
“Manny doesn’t hate you. He just doesn’t have any use for bums.” Manny’s life was his work.
“I wasn’t always a bum.” Lenny shivered in the cold.
“I know that.”
I didn’t have the time to hear the retelling of his tragic tale.
Manny stood in the front window of the exchange, tapping his watch.
I waved for him to wait.
“Lenny, you want me to bring you a coat?”
“No, the other bums in the shelter will only steal it. Make a sale today.”
I watched the Hassidic schmiel waddled down the sidewalk with an outstretched palm and I hurried to the door of the exchange. The guard buzzed me in and I stepped behind the counter.
“Nice of you to show up.” Manny was at the safe with the combination in his hand. The tumblers rolled without a click.
“I’m only a few minutes late.” The door opened to the public at 9:30. It was 9:35, but Manny operated in a different time zone than the rest of us. He hated tardiness.
“Late is late.” Manny twisted the tumbler to the right and then the left.
“Shouldn’t we wait for Domingo or your sons?” Opening the safe with only two people was an open invitation to the thieves of 47th Street constantly on the prowl for a slip-up.
“Wait till when?” Manny spun the tumbler again. “Shut up for a second. I need to concentrate on the combination.”
It took five attempts for Manny to open the safe and I laughed aloud.
“What’s so funny?” The safe tumblers clicked and Manny yanked open the safe.
“Nothing?” Manny lifted a metal box from a shelf. “Start setting up the window and try not to smudge the jewelry with your greasy fingers.”
“My fingers aren’t greasy.” I hadn’t stopped at Veselka’s Diner on 2nd Avenue for breakfast or else I would have been really late.
“You touched Lenny.” Manny stood next to aisle counter. “Why you give that schmendrick money anyway?”
“Lenny’s my charity.” I laid out the glittering diamond rings. One tray was worth more than $500,000. “It’s not like I’m paying taxes.”
“Enough.” Money issues were no one else’s business. “Just set up the window.”
I obeyed Manny and later he gave me several manila envelopes to deliver to the setters and polishers.
“I don’t like leaving you alone.”
“I don’t know.”
“And my hero son?”
“I don’t know.” I had left Richie Boy at a Soho club around 2am.
Fuck ‘em both. I’m fine by myself.”
“Are you sure?”
“I come from Brownsville. I was fighting in a gang at age of 15.” Manny opened his jacket. My boss had a license to carry and his .38 was in a shoulder holster. “Who’s going to rob me?”
Manny was on the wrong side of 70 and I sat down.
“Could be anyone, so I’m not leaving you alone.”
In the Diamond District criminals outnumbered the customers.
“I’m not alone.”
His partner’s daughter walked into the booth wearing sunglasses. Eliza looked as beautiful as a Caribbean dawn, despite my having put her in a taxi around 1. We were just friends.
“Morning.” Eliza went to her desk. She wasn’t a big drinker, but she loved her sleep.
“Watch Manny for me.”
“You got it.” Her phone was rang and she sat at her desk. We would talk later.
“Get going.” Manny liked giving orders. He had started out as a schlepper on the Bowery and his smarts came from someplace other than school or schul.
“You’re the boss.” I picked up the NY Times.
“Where you going with that?”
“Sometimes the pen is stronger than the sword.” Rolled up the newspaper packed a good punch.
“Everyone’s a hero.” Manny lifted his eyes to heaven. “Don’t go disappear.”
I completed the rounds in record time, stopping to gaze at the our competitors’ glittering windows. Some stores specialized in high-end diamonds and other dreyed dreck. Manny’s store offered the in-between and our big diamonds came from his partners, the Randolphs. They were old money on this street of nouveau-riche hazars from Central Asia.
By the time I returned to the store Richie Boy, his brother Googs, and Domingo were working three customers. I handed the envelopes to Manny. A walk-in customer entered the exchange. Before I could greet him, Manny gave me another sheaf of envelopes.
“Bring them back quick.” Everything was a rush with Manny. I hesitated, as the man surveyed the merchandise in the display case. Manny waved me out the door. “Go already.”
I wasted more time on this trip and the Gotham Book Store was a good place for killing a few minutes. I read a few chapters of The Curious Lore of Precious Stones by George Frederick Kunz. The bookstore wanted $15 for the Dover reprint of the original 1913 publication expounding on the magical aspects of gemstones. I bought Charles Williford’s A BURNT ORANGE HERESY instead and headed back to the exchange. It was lunch time.
Manny looked at his watch. I would have dropped the envelopes on his desk, except he was sorting through a packet of tiny diamonds.
“What are they?” I placed the envelopes carefully on a shelf.
“I have these loose diamonds. Anything less than .22 carats is what we call ‘melee’. Lesson over. Leave me alone.” Manny plucked a diamond from the pile with tweezers and examined it with a loupe, which magnified the stone 10 times. “Go already. You’re making me nervous.”
I sat at my desk and took off my leather coat. The Randolphs ordered sandwiches from Berger’s Deli. The delivery boy showed up fifteen minutes later. The aroma of pastrami reminded me of my sandwich and I sat down at my desk. Richie Boy snagged a slice of salami off my sandwich.
“I see you have no shame in being a schnorrer!” We had been friends for almost twenty years. Eating each other’s food before the other could get it in their mouth had been a contest that neither of us could win.
“Only because I learn from the best.” Richie Boy popped another peppery slice in his mouth and returned to fielding the onslaught of phone calls from friends and customers.
“What’s a ‘snorer’?” asked Myrah, the blonde girl working for the Randolphs. Her mother was a schitzah and her father Jewish, but she had been bought up agnostic and couldn’t get her mouth around the guttural ‘schn’.
“A schnorrer is someone who mooches off you.”
“Mooch?” This antiquated term also stumped Myrah’s English.
“A mooch or schnorrer is a beggar.” A passing Hassidic pearl dealer partial to blondes interjected his two cents.
“Yes, but not always,” I explained. “A schnorrer is more someone who eats off your plate, because he likes to have what you have.”
“You mean like how someone else’s potato chips taste better than those you buy.” Myrah understood this analogy and I turned to the Hassid. “Can you think of another word for beggar?”
“Not that I know.” The Hassid pulled on his long curly side lock. Richie liked to call ‘peyes’ ‘yidlocks’, then again he was a bacon Jew. Eating pork ran in his family.
“Marty,” I yelled to the retired principal, who schlepped merchandise for the Randolphs. “What’s the Yiddish word for beggar?”
“Have to admit I really don’t know.” Marty shook his head.
“So a ‘snorer’ is like those ladies with the canes begging on 47th Street?” Myrah was referring to the seemingly crippled women dressed in Hassidic attire
“No, those ladies are Palestinian Gypsies,” Marty frowned disapprovingly with an added shaking of his head. “They pretend to be Jews.”
“So there’s nothing wrong with them?” Myrah’s eyes widened in revelation.
“They have a school where they learn to walk like ballerinas with broken feet,” Marty explained without bitterness. He had nothing against gypsies other than they were thieves. They came into the exchange every day trying to steal. Robbing was an honest profession in comparison to pretending to be a Jew.
“I thought they were cripple.”
“They’re thieves running a scam.”
“So beggars are more honest.” Myrah had been giving them money. She was a little slow, but had a good heart.
“Beggars are just as bad.” Manny chirped from his desk. He had quit school at age 14 to slave on Canal Street humping boxes. He had no pity for any able bodied person who didn’t want to work even if they were family, but one beggar on 47th Street drove him insane. “Especially that schlemiel Lenny.”
“Not Lenny!” Slagging off my good luck charm was bad luck.
“Lenny was the worst of them all. He pretends to be mad, but he’s mad crazy smart. He has more money than all of us put together. Just like the goy. You have money socked away someplace. The goy fortune.”
“Manny, I wouldn’t be working here, if I had money.”
“No, you’d be here, because we make you laugh.” Manny was losing his temper.
“Manny, I’m broke. My bank account’s broke.”
“Dad, he’s so broke he can’t pay attention.” Richie Boy attempted to defuse the tension.
“Go blow smoke up someone else’s ass.” Manny was eager to bruise anyone’s ego. Idle hands bugged him and I put away my sandwich. Richie Boy backed off and I said, “Manny, you’re right. I have a pirate’s chest buried in the sand. Maybe a million dollars and I’ll lend you some at 7% vig per week.”
10% was the standard hit from a loan shark.
“Such a hero.” Manny’s face was red. He had high blood pressure.
“Maybe Lenny could do better. How much money you really think Lenny makes in one day?”
“Fifty dollars easy,” Marty ventured and even Mr. Randolph entered the discussion. “Lenny doesn’t need the money. His family was rich.”
“Too drunk more like it!” Manny muttered, then added, “Don’t you have anything better to do than talk about that bum!”
“Yeah, the world’s a better place without him!” Mr. Randolph returned to his end of the booth.
Lenny certainly was no saint, so I dropped the subject to phone several customers about picking up their merchandise. Once I was hung up, Myrah came across the aisle and whispered, “Why did everyone get so angry about Lenny?”
“This street has plenty of bums,” I spoke quietly, not wanting to re-ignite another debate. “There’s a mad rabbi who always is shouting ‘Shalom!’ and another Hassid pretending to be asking for alms for the new temple in Jerusalem. Lenny’s the only Hassidic bum not running a religious scam.”
Manny walked past us to place a diamond brooch in the window.
“So Lenny is a good person?” Myrah asked loud enough for only me to hear.
“No, Lenny wasn’t such a nice person, but I like him.” Maybe because he resembled an overweight puppy.
Myrah left the store to deliver a diamond. Manny handed me a set of earrings.
“Go up to the setter and have him check these stones.”
“Can I eat my sandwich first?”
“Sure.” Manny picked off a slice of pastrami. “Nice. Almost as good as we used to get on the Bowery.”
“I remember that place. The sandwiches came from an Italian deli.”
“I miss the Bowery.” He had been a big player on Canal Street. He looked at Myrah exiting from the exchange. “Why are you bothering to tell that girl stories about that gonif?”
“Because Lenny is special unlike your buddy, Tie-Coon.” Tie-coon was a well-dressed gentleman from Harlem selling name-brand ties and belts at a fraction of the price. Manny gave him $20 every time he came into the store, which was once a week on Fridays.
“Tie-coon provides a service.” Manny had a soft spot for Tie-coon and I had mine.
“Lenny always has a nice word for me.”
“Cause you give him a buck!”
“Yeah, well, it’s my dollar.”
“Money you get from me.”
“Do me a favor and leave me alone.”
For once Manny did as I told him, but the day worsens, as the drizzle became rain. No more customers came into the store and the Randolphs started packing up at 4:30. They always went home early.
Manny was desperate for a final sale and said we were staying till closing time. The guards weren’t happy to hear this news. Like Richie Boy, Googs, and Domingo and me they wanted to go home.
“Maybe we’ll get lucky.” Manny was eternally hopeful.
A hand slapped the glass door. It was Lenny. He pushed his way inside. His stench smelled more like rancid alcohol and everyone stepped away from the front door.
“Anyone have anything to give today?” Lenny blew on his hands.
“Get out! This is a place of business,” Manny shouted from his desk.
“What you have against Jews?” Lenny’s voice was irritatingly high-pitched.
“We have nothing against Jews, only bums!” Mr. Randolph yelled from the other side of the aisle. “You heard the man, get out of here!”
“You’re both Nazis!” He faced me. “What about you? You’re a gentile, right? You got a dollar. I don’t do drugs. All I do is get a little schitkah.”
“You tell me the word for beggar in Yiddish and I’ll give you a dollar.” I dug into my pocket.
“Most people think its schnorrer, but they’re wrong. The more applicable word is bonsai or even belter. Of course the pronunciation depends on the accent of the shetl.” Lenny played the audience. “You know Mr. Randolph, there’s a very good book by Israel Zangwill. THE KING OF THE SCHNORRERS.”
“Enough already.” Mr. Randolph slapped a dollar on the glass counter top. “Go.”
“Lenny, you really should take a bath.”
I handed him a dollar and Lenny took off his threadbare yarmulke. “Sorry, but I don’t wash in the shelter. It’s not kosher.”
“You’re more than ripe.”
“I’m worst in the summer, but my ipish keeps anyone who wants to hurt me and in the shelter there’s plenty of people who don’t like Jews.” Lenny showed my dollar to Manny. “See how gentiles treat Jews.”
As soon as he left, Manny said, “I don’t want you giving that bum any money. Not in my place of business.”
“Okay,” I answered, but my money was my money.
The next morning I spotted Lenny in front of Berger’s Deli. It was below freezing and his skin steamed in the frost. He wasn’t speaking to anyone, but I listened to his articulate treatise on Microsoft stock, though I wasn’t banking anything on someone who smelled like a dead man’s shoe. As I began to walk away, the bum said to a passing Hassidim diamond dealer, “There’s the goy who gave me a dollar yesterday. The good goy, Damien.”
“His name isn’t Damien___” The dealer recognized me at Manny’s store.
“I like the name Damien fine.” I couldn’t resist Lenny’s utter helplessness. “You want my lunch?”
“From Berger? It’s not really kosher,” shrugged Lenny.
“Just what the world has been waiting for, a finicky bum,” The Hassidim laughed and Lenny shambled off with a mutter. “I’m not finicky, just don’t eat tref. See you, Damien.”
Berger’s was definitely kosher, though not dairy, and I said to the Hassid, “Lenny’s is better on some days.”
“Believe it or not, Lenny used to be a big stockbroker on Wall Street.”
“He went nuts after the 1987 Crash. Lost his fortune and his mind, but he really does know what he’s talking about.”
“So you would use his stock tip.”
“About Microsoft? No way they’ll beat out IBM.”
Of course no one listened to Lenny.
We all made fun of him, but no one picked on the schlemiel more than himself and he worked self-deprecation to a fine art. People would ask him to come home in hopes of salvation, but Lenny was beyond redemption and apparently happy despite his sufferings.
The following day I saw Lenny limping up the sidewalk and asked him what was wrong.
“You know I sleep outside, because the crackheads in the shelter will steal everything I have.”
“Lenny, what could they want from you?” Lenny possessed nothing even a crackhead would want, but desperation is the evil step-father of need.
“They think I’m rich, just like everyone here. The Nazis!” He unbuckled his belt and dropped his pants. “I was sleeping on a bench and a cop hit me.”
The bruises across his thighs were not self-inflicted and I told him, “Pull up your pants, Lenny. There are women present.”
None of them were looking, but Lenny chuckled, “Sorry, I forgot where I was.”
I held out five dollars and Lenny said, “You don’t have to, Damien. I know you don’t make a lot of money.”
“Yeah, I know everything about the street.” His eyes were clear. “Maybe one day I’ll tell you everything I know like how three years ago there was a drought in Angola. You know where it is, right above South Africa.”
The country had been suffering from a savage civil war since the Portuguese abandoned their old colony in 1975.
I nodded and Lenny continued, “Well, there was a UN truce and things were getting back to normal, but because the water was so low, people were able to go into the rivers and pick millions of diamonds from the riverbeds. Billions of diamonds and diamonds were getting about as rare as light bulbs, so deBeers got tired of paying out this money and paid Savimbi from UNITA to start up the war again. Don’t worry, you won’t find it in the papers. Thanks for the money, Damien.”
I had heard rumors about this. Lenny was filling in the holes. It all made sense.
He was no schnorrer about the truth.
He shared what he knew and what he knew Lenny knew.
Everything else was a Mystʻryʻ.