The man in my rear view mirror
[ people - april 11 ]
In life, the future sometimes brushes against us, like a pet dog. Only later, looking at the past through a rear view mirror, one sees it and wishes heartily that he could have stopped and changed it.
In 1950, I was 21, a recent Catholic college graduate, unemployed, having only 35 cents to my name and standing on a line in a small Italian-American grocery on Avenue A near 9th Street on the Lower East Side. A man approached me, identified himself as an FBI Agent, showed me a photograph of a bookish looking, bespectacled man, and asked me if I knew the man or knew of his location. I said no, though I thought that the man in the photo looked like the brother of the strikingly beautiful, soft-spoken Sicilian girl at the counter who was preparing sandwiches. The man I assumed to be her brother had just left the store. In 2001, I would write a review for the New York Law Journal of The Brother, The Untold Story of Atomic Spy David Green Glass, by Sam Roberts of the New York Times. It was a history of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg who, I learned as I read the book, were living around a corner from the grocery store where I was standing on line for a sandwich. Julius Rosenberg was the man in the photo.
When my turn came, I jokingly confided to the girl at the counter that the apparent customer who had been behind me was an FBI agent in search of her brother but that Irishmen by tradition were never informers. In any case, I asked her for the price of a ham and cheese on an Italian bread. I told her that I had only thirty-five cents. She smiled, said that her brother was about to study for the priesthood, and began slicing a ham and cheese, slice after slice. I said, "Hold it! I have only 35 cents", but she smiled and kept on slicing. This triggered a conversation in which I delivered what I believed was my college-tested, hilarious narrative of my short life, including witty sayings, sad side references, and a jab or two at the Catholic Church. At last, wrapping the sandwich with a warm smile, she handed it to me, our hands briefly holding the sandwich as if it were a newborn. Little did I realize, until it was too late, the symbolism of that act.
I then stood back intending to continue speaking to the girl, but allowing the next customer to place his order. That customer, as it turned out, owned the nearby housing appliances store. Unknown to me, he had been listening to my performance and had warmly laughed as I wound it up while accepting the sandwich. As he paid for his sandwich, he turned to me and said good naturedly, "Kid, be a lawyer. You think like a lawyer, you talk like a lawyer. Marry the girl. I never saw such a 35 cent sandwich in my life." With that, he turned and left the store. I never saw him again until 35 years later I saw his face looking at me from a New York Times photo, the face of a desperately ill, 69-year-old retired man sitting in a wheelchair on the cruise ship Achille Lauro, a man who would be shot in the head and chest and thrown in the wheel chair into the Mediterranean Sea by the Palestine Liberation Front. His name was Klinghoffer, Leon Klinghoffer.
I did not know when Klinghoffer walked into the grocery store that I would marry that Sicilian girl to whom next year, following five children and nine grandchildren, I will have been married 60 years. As we were once accustomed to say, my having only 35 cents and walking with it into that grocery store for the first time in my life "was a gift from God".
But if it were in my power to change that scene in that grocery store, I would grab Leon Klinghoffer and drag him out of the path of a cruel, barbaric century, a world in which the scum of the earth triumph by slaying the innocent.