Tuesday, July 9, 2013

My Dad, My Hero

My mom is beginning to fail. I'm going to visit her in NY tomorrow. Among the many thoughts that float through me are of my dad, Boris Nemko.

I've often written about his having used work to get past his Holocaust memories and to afford to move my mom, sister, and me from a Bronx tenement. But I just flashed on some other things about him that, on reflection, really were quite heroic. Perhaps they'll inspire you as they continue to inspire me.

My dad didn't open his clothing store in one of New York City's poorest neighborhoods (105 Moore St. Brooklyn) because he had a political desire to serve the poor. It was all he could afford. He didn't charge $1 for shirts and $1.98 for Ray-Ban sunglasses because he wanted to be kind to the poor. That was all the market there could bear.

But even after he could afford to move his store to a less dangerous neighborhood, he stayed...for 40 years. He stayed even though people would constantly steal from his store. Twice, he was awakened in the middle of the night by the police--they called to tell him that robbers had emptied his store. A third time, the police called to say that someone broke a window and tossed a lighted kerosene-soaked towel into his store. Half the merchandise was burned, much the other half ruined because of the smoke.

Apart from those anomalies, every day, my dad had to endure the smell of stale blood from the live chicken market next door merging with the smell of deep-fried pork intestines from the deli on the other side plus the smell of the garbage that people would throw into the street. So often, he had to endure unfair customers. For example, when I was helping my dad at the store one Saturday, I recall one customer who, for 20 minutes, tried on suit after suit, asking my father question after question, which made all the other customers wait. And after that, he said he couldn't afford the $25 for the suit and asked if my father would sell it to him for $10. My father said the best he could do was $20 and the customer pranced out laughing.

My father kept his store open from 8:30 a.m. until 7 p.m.Monday through Saturday. And before he could afford a car, he would take a bus, train, plus a six-block walk (rain, snow, or shine) to and from his store. And on many Sundays, he would go to the Lower East Side to buy merchandise for the store, carting boxes of shirts, pants, etc back to his store. 

Nevertheless, my dad stayed for 40 years, serving that community, providing basic products, things they really needed, at an affordable price, and providing services unheard of today. For example, my dad would do alterations for customers for free. He had a sewing machine in the back and did the work when business was slow.

I believe that the small shopkeepers who, like my dad, endured everything from ongoing robbery to ongoing stench and kept on serving--with integrity--are far more worthy of praise than are the politicians, athletes, and pop culture stars we genuflect before.


Anonymous said...

All the best to you, Marty, during this very difficult time.

Melisa Singh said...

I loved your story. It reminded me of my own father who has some similar characteristics and who I love dearly. I hope you will share this story and others on StoryShelter.com when it launches. We need great writers like you who have excellent true stories to tell!

Marty Nemko said...

Thank you both.


scott lubbock said...

Dear Marty, I am moved by your thoughtful story and reflections on the dignity and integrity of your hardworking father. For years I have noted that you bring those qualities to your work, not backing away from what you believe and profess strongly. That has drawn me to you and led me to value your insights. I wish you 'traveling mercies' as you visit your mother. Earlier this year, we were with my mom the day before she passed. and we celebrated who an d what she was and is in our lives. Scott Lubbock

Grace said...

Blessings and peace to you. I can understand why you consciously strive for a life well lived. You've been given such beautiful role models.

Irma said...