His shop was on the street around the corner from where I lived on Detroit’s West Side, in the early ’fifties. It measured 10x20 feet, with a single window in front. On the window, lettered in faded gold, was “Shoe Repair.” The shop was a lapstrake wooden structure, the color of mud, a shack, really. One side leaned against the cinderblock of Freda’s Candy Store aka Freda’s Numbers Joint. The other side, held upright by a dumpster, bordered the alley which ran down the middle of our block. The rear wall backed up to a small dirt and cement yard shared by two three-story flats.
The front of the shack was the shoemaker’s place of business where, at a workbench behind a counter, he stitched, stretched and patched leather, glued, nailed and trimmed heels and soles and shined the final product. The space for customers in front of the counter accommodated no more than three medium sized adults or four smart-assed kids. Occasionally I went there with one of my parents, dropping off or picking up shoes. The rear of the interior was concealed behind a wall-to-wall hanging blanket. That is where the shoemaker lived. When he went in back to get more polish or thread, I got a glimpse of a sagging bunk bed, a straight chair with turned legs, a shelf of books, a sink, a gas fired hotplate—more a cell than a room.
It was always dark in his shop, even on the brightest days. The sole illumination came from a gooseneck lamp on his workbench. But on warm nights, standing near his shop long after dark, sucking on a Popsicle or trading baseball cards, I could see the glow of a single bare bulb filtered through the threadbare blanket.
His name was Rocco. No one knew if it was his first or last name. He was short and muscular, with thick black hair flecking gray and a permanent stubble on his jaw. His hands were large with splayed fingers stained brown from shoe polish and tobacco, his forearms thick like Popeye’s and covered with dark hair. He wore rimless bifocals, which magnified and distorted his brown eyes when he looked at you, which he rarely did. Instead, he looked at your shoes, the ones you were bringing in or picking up. His only words were the charge for the repair. After the customer paid he would concentrate on the next repair and wait for the bell on his door to announce the arrival of more shoes.
He did beautiful work. My parents said so. And he never turned down a job, from the cheapest, machine-glued, Flagg Flyers, to hand-made, calfskin, Allen-Edmonds wingtips. He kept no records but marked each shoe he worked on with a tiny “R” on the outside bottom of the arch.
One day, during the spring of my eighth grade at St. Francis of Assisi School, I was sent by my father to pick up a pair of his shoes that Rocco had resoled. I paid, then opened and closed the door so the bell would ring. But I stayed inside the shop. I watched him for several minutes as he re-stitched a cordovan blucher, a heavy shoe that defied the thick needle carrying the waxed thread. He looked up, saw me, stopped sewing and stared, his distorted eyes fixed on mine.
“Whatsamatta? Somthin’ wrong with da shoe?”
I shook my head.
“Whatta you want?”
“I want to watch.”
“You. Fixing shoes.”
“G’wan gittattahere. Yer lookin’ to steal stuff. I fix shoes, don’t mean I’m stupid. G’wan.”
“My ma and pa say you do beautiful work.”
He looked at me, steadily, for a long minute, the longest time I had ever seen him look anyone in the eyes. He finally said “Yeah?”
“So why you wanna watch? You wanna be a shoemaker? A cobbler? Like me?” Then he laughed, a short, bitter, bark out the side of his mouth.
He yanked the blanket off its line, revealing the whole of his meager homestead. “You wanna live like dis?” His mouth twisted in a mirthless grin.
I looked down, embarrassed for him
“I like shoes,” I said.
“I like shoes,” he said in an unflattering imitation of me
“Sorry,” I mumbled, and turned to open the door.
“Wait. Hold it,” he said.
“Ah, ya know, I like shoes too. So. Okay. You can watch. Maybe you learn somethin.’ That’s the way I learned.”
I let go of the doorknob and turned back toward him. He nodded, then picked up one of the shoes.
“Okay. So, look here. This is a pair of cordovans, horsehide, very tough, very heavy. Well built. Leather-lined. Ya buy ‘em, takes ya two weeks, at least, break ‘em in. So when they finally come apart I got to use the stitch machine with the biggest needle, then, on top of that, work it by hand, then glue it with stuff they use to retread tires. Now lookit these….” He held up a pair of patent leather pumps
I spent an hour watching and listening to him. He strayed from one aspect of shoe repair to another, unsystematically, becoming more animated as he went along, as if the dam of his reserve had overflowed. We talked about other stuff too, Hank Greenberg, the Tiger’s Jewish home run slugger; radio programs like Suspense and The Inner Sanctum; the merits of Almond Joy versus Mounds Bars and Orange Crush versus Nesbitts; his dream of buying a nicer place to work and live in. Then I told him I had to go.
“Wait.” He looked out his window and bit his lip. “Lissen, kid. I’ll make you a deal. You come in Sunday afternoons, when I’m not even open, and I’ll show you how to fix shoes, even how to make ‘em. And we can drink some Nesbitts, or Orange Crush and listen to the ball game. But only if you promise you don’t tell nobody, not yer ma or pa, not yer brothers or sisters, not yer friends.”
“That’s easy. I never tell ma and pa anything. I got no brother or sister and I don’t trust my friends.”
“What are ya gonna tell ‘em where you are?”
I thought for minute, then said, “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of that.”
“Hey,” he said. “What’s yer name?”
“Joey. Joseph Nowak. What’s yours?”
“Well, you got me. Now I suppose I got to tell ya. Radzik Raszkowski. That’s why they call me Rocco.”
* * *
On Sunday afternoon, I told my mother I was going to the library. I read a lot so there was no reason for her to think otherwise. In fact this fed into her cherished visions of me as the prominent surgeon or successful attorney, introducing her to my peers as the woman to whom I owed everything.
I went to Rocco’s instead and hung out for about an hour, watched him fix shoes, talked, listened to the radio, drank orange pop and ate candy bars. Then I ran to the library and checked out some books.
On my third Sunday visit, I asked him where he learned to fix shoes. He was quiet a long time, working the hydraulic punch on a pair of work boots. Then he muttered, “In the joint.”
“Yeah, the joint, jail, prison, the hoosegow. Now, you satisfied?”
“Wow. Why? I mean, what for? Like, what did you do?”
“What didn’t I do? Jesus. Me and these guys I ran with, we stole cars, broke in warehouses, heisted trucks, set insurance fires, smuggled cigarettes. Then, boom, we got caught. A truck, supposed to be full of fur coats, when we open it, was full of cops. I got ten to twenty in the slammer. I did fifteen. How come not ten? Obviously I’m not too smart. I figure I learn a trade. So I learn shoe repair from an old dago con, number one shoe man at the state pen. He dies five years later, and I’m number one. The screws, you know, the guards, even the warden, bring me their shoes, which I fix for free. So finally, after eight years I come up for parole and nada. No dice. Nuthin for six more years until I find out from a screw that’s retiring, that they didn’t want to lose their shoemaker. So I start makin’ the shoes too tight, or too loose, or shoddy so they fall apart. They bitch about it, but I say my eyes are getting’ bad. So, next year, I get the parole.
“Anyway, nobody’s gonna hire me, so this way I work for myself. Keeps me out of trouble. So now you know. Gonna tell your momma?”
“Good. Never be a snitch. Now what about you. What are you gonna be? And don’t tell me ‘shoemaker.’ Yer too smart.”
“Don’t laugh. Maybe a poet.”
“I’m not laffin’ Joey. I like poetry.”
“I know. One time I was here with my pa, you pulled back the blanket to get something and I saw you had a book of poetry. My parents don’t take it seriously. My ma says ‘Forget it. You’ll starve. You’re gonna be a doctor or lawyer.’”
“What’s your father say?”
“‘Listen to your mother.’ That’s what he always says.”
“You should be what you wanna be, except like me, of course. Hell, I read poetry in the joint. It helped me get through my time. Some guys in the joint wrote poems. Helped ‘em do their time. Including a guy I was, well, close to. What about yer friends? Whadda they think about you writin’ poetry?”
“Are you kidding? I might as well tell them I’m the Queen of May. It’d be suicide. I got enough trouble as it is.”
“Me too. So what’s yer favorite poet and poem?”
“Yeats. The Second Coming. What’s yours?”
“Poe. The Raven. Gives me the creeps but I can’t stop readin’ it.”
And so we read poetry to each other and talked about it and developed our secret weekly friendship.
* * *
One Sunday afternoon, he let me try the stitcher on an old pair of brogans that had been abandoned. Predictably, I ran the stitch all over the shoe. He was showing me how to steady the leather under the needle when the bell rang.
Our neighbor, Mrs. Kowalczyk, a nervous woman whose husband drank and who had to care for a schizophrenic adult son, stepped into the shop.
“I thought you were closed but I saw the light on,” she said, rummaging in her bag and taking out a pair of high heeled shoes with one heel detached. “I really need these shoes tonight....” She looked up and saw me behind the workbench with Rocco and froze.
“I was just showin’ him how the stitch machine works,” he said to her, his face pale. “You g’wan now,” he said to me. “You can pick up yer shoes Tuesday.”
I looked at him but he turned and bent to his lathe and didn’t meet my eyes. I slithered past Mrs. Kowalczyk and out the door. I went from there to play stair ball alone against the steps of the school. Then I went to the library to check out some books and went home. I walked slowly, knowing what was coming.
I got home at 6:00 p.m. and, like always, went around the back to enter through the kitchen. I no sooner got in when my mother nearly yanked my arm out of its socket as she pulled me into the darkened living room.
“What the hell were you doing with that convict shoemaker!? And don’t you lie to me!” she demanded, twisting my arm till it hurt. “Kowalcyk, that nosey cow next door, saw you with him.”
“Doing?” I said, wincing. “Nothing. He was showing me how to fix shoes. When I went to pick up dad’s shoes I stopped to watch. You said he did beautiful work. He said I could come back. We just talk about stuff, like….”
“Now you listen,” she hissed, cutting me off, digging her talons into my arm, her frantic monologue delivered six inches from my forehead. “He’s an ex-con. He did time in Jackson Penitentiary. You’ve got no business hanging around him. He’s nothing but trouble. What does he want with you? Did you ask yourself that? Huh? Maybe he wants you to steal stuff from us for him. Or pick up dope for him. They all use dope. Plus he’s probably a pervert. You know what perverts are? They diddle young boys. You know what diddling is? Sure you do. I’ve seen those filthy pictures and comic books under your bed. Why do we spend all that money on a good Catholic education? Don’t the priests tell you in confession that you can go blind or crazy doing that. That’s bad enough, but if you let him play with you, you’ll go to Hell along with him. That’s for eternity. And you’ll never get into a good college. You stay away from him, you hear me? Now go to your room.”
Then it was my father’s turn to catch Hell. He came home from his job on the line at the Ford Rouge Plant, after stopping for a shot and a beer at Urbaniak’s Corner Bar. She let him have it for twenty minutes about sending me to get his shoes, then segued into his failure to work two jobs to enable us to move out of this land of schizoids and convicts and into the suburban land of Ozzie and Harriet. He sat at the kitchen table, looking at the red and white checkered oilcloth, nodding occasionally, dusting his Pall Mall cigarette ash into a broken glass ashtray until he finished the cigarette, got up, went out the door, into the garage and drove in his 1938 Ford sedan, with the WWII Class C Gas Rationing Sticker still on it, back to Urbaniak’s where he spent the rest of the evening.
I was banished to my room without supper. My mother stalked the kitchen, muttering oaths in Polish and English, until my father finally came home again, whereupon she amplified her protest to a war cry, punctuated by the crash of flying crockery. My father spent the night on the couch.
The next Sunday I had to return the library books. My mother walked there with me. She saw to it I went nowhere near the shoe repair shop. On the way back, I saw Rocco, in his leather apron, a block away, standing on the sidewalk in front of his shop, looking back at me, his face expressionless. I shrugged my shoulders. He wiped his hands on a grimy rag, turned, and went back in.
* * *
That was a hot summer, and the only air conditioning available was in a couple of neighborhood movie theatres that draped their marquees with faux, snow-dusted icicles. The sidewalks radiated heat, and the asphalt pavement went soft. After an early dinner, people sat in their kitchens in front of rotating fans, sucking on ice chips, listening to the soaps or the news until nightfall. When it was dark, everyone not otherwise engaged went out on their covered porches in the streetlight’s deep shadow, and sat on rockers, gliders, or old sofas, greeting the strolling passersby. News of anything interesting happening on the block was shared with all households within the hour.
Seventh- and eighth-graders were the exception. We were also out there in the dark, but away from home and our killjoy parents, generally up to no good, mindful only of not getting caught. We did silly stuff that would not survive our transition into high school—like stealing pink flamingos and mirror-balls from back yards, lobbing firecrackers into alley garbage cans, tossing rocks through the windows of the Holy Rollers church, or passing around Tillie and Mac porno cartoon books stolen from the parish priest when we were altar boys in the fifth and sixth grades.
I was a year younger than the rest of the bunch I ran with. My mother, in her overweening ambition, enrolled me in first grade at age five, having somehow convinced the Mother Superior I was a prodigy. I did well academically but was always a critical year behind in physical development, a fact noted often by my classmates, especially the class bullies. This led to repeated dares and challenges from my peers that I felt I had to meet or be outcast.
On a Friday night that summer, I was hanging out with the craziest kids on the street—the Zibor brothers, Richard and Alan, dwellers in the three-story flats behind Rocco’s shop. Six of us on their back steps, under a porch light, were playing Crazy Eights, a card game that ended with the loser getting rapped across the knuckles with the deck. The younger, and crazier, Zibor brother, Alan, said “Let’s play Stick.”
Richard, big, but a little slow, said “Yeah, let’s play Stick” both of them smiling and looking at me.
“Ever play ‘Stick’ Joey?” asked Alan
“Naw,” I said, shuffling the cards and beginning to deal them out.
“It’s easy,” said Alan. “You take this stick and see if you can hit the circle on that wall.” He pointed to the back of Rocco’s shop. “The one who can hit it in the least tries wins and gets to hit everybody else on the ass with the stick.”
“Won’t Rocco get pissed off?”
“Nah, he’s passed out drunk by now and won’t hear a thing.”
“Nah, let’s just play cards,” I said.
“Watsamatter? Chicken? Chick, chick, chick.”
Alan joined in “chick, chick, chick,” flapping his elbows like chicken wings.
The other kids started in “chick, chick, chick, chick, chick, chick, chick.” It was a hen house from Hell. I grabbed the stick. It was a piece of sawed off tree limb, a foot and a half long and an inch thick. “Where do I stand?” I asked.
“All right!” said Richard while Alan giggled and everybody stood up to watch. “Over here.” Richard said, pointing to a spot about twenty-five feet away from the target, a chalk circle about a foot in diameter, scratched on the wooden wall.
I knew I had to go through with it. But I didn’t want to bother Rocco. He was nice to me, and it was fun talking to him. And he never tried anything dirty with me.
So I stepped back and lobbed the stick underhand, hoping to lessen its impact on the wall. The stick tumbled end over end and hit the wall with a double whack just above the circle.
“Sheeeit. You throw like a girl.” Alan laughed. “C’mon, wing it, you little sissy or we’ll put you against the wall.”
No way out, I thought. Better just throw hard and straight and get it over with.
And so I did. Bullseye. I ran over and bent down to pick up the stick. “Now it’s your turn, Zibor,” I shouted. I didn’t see or hear the alley gate opening. I just heard the other guys scream and the sound of sneakered feet pounding up the stairs, between the buildings and over the fence. “Hey, where you goin’? It’s Zibor’s turn.”
I got a strong whiff of tobacco, leather, whiskey and sweat and an instant later, felt a vise grip the back of my neck and my feet lift off the ground.
“You little shit!” growled Rocco, his breath hot on my neck. “This is the third time tonight. Where do you live? I ought to whup yer ass!”
He twisted me around to see my face.
“You!” he said.
“Rocco, please let go!”
“You!” he said again. He dropped me and staggered back two steps.
“Rocco, I’m sorry.”
He turned and lurched back through the alley gate. I heard a noise above and behind me. Richard Zibor was coming down the stairs from his flat, doubled up laughing. The Zibors had set me up. I waited till he got all the way down, then I flew at him, fists closed, arms wind-milling. His longer reach held me off, and he smacked me around a little, bruising my lip and cheek, but I got in a few licks, and he wasn’t laughing anymore. When he saw I wasn’t going to quit he pushed me away and ran to the front of the flats and down the street with me chasing him yelling “Chicken! Chicken! Chicken!”
And then I saw her, coming up the street at a fast walk, trailing a gaggle of curious neighbors and laughing kids, headed up by Alan Zibor, who had gone to get her.
“No! No, ma!” I yelled. “It’s okay! I’m okay!”
But I didn’t look okay to her. When she saw me she gasped and said “Jesu Christu! Go home! I’ll take care of that jailbird son-of-a-bitch!” She pushed me aside, and barreled around the corner towards Rocco’s shop. I tried to grab her but Alan Zibor tripped me, I fell, and it was too late—she was at Rocco’s door, banging on it and yelling, “Come out of there you goddamn convict.” A crowd of twenty or so had gathered under the street light at the end of the alley, some laughing, some serious. I stood at the back of the crowd, hiding my face with the tail of my t-shirt, burning with shame.
After five minutes of her yelling, the door opened slowly and Rocco came out and stood in the doorway, his thick hairy arms folded across his chest. “Now lissen, missus…” he started to say.
“You listen to me you pervert bastard. I’ve called the police and when they get here and see what you done to my kid they’ll take you back to Jackson Prison where you belong.” There were a few cheers, some laughter and much tsk-tsking in the crowd. Rocco looked down, backed into his shop, and closed the door, just as a patrol car pulled up.
I turned and ran. She’s not going to use me, I thought. I ran and ran. I was three blocks away before I slowed and stopped and realized I was in front of Urbaniak’s Corner Bar. I waited till I caught my breath, then pushed the door open and looked around. The smoke-filled room was crowded. My father was sitting at the bar, drinking from a long neck bottle of Stroh’s. I went up to him.
“Pa, I got to talk to you.”
“Oh no,” he said. “Did she send you here to get me?”
I shook my head. “No. She doesn’t know I’m here. It’s me. I got to talk to you.”
He looked at me for a long minute. Then he said, “All right. “ He waved over the owner/bartender Wanda Urbaniak and said, “Wanda, a glass of Vernors Ginger Ale and a bowl of pretzels for this guy and another Stroh’s for me.” He motioned me over to a small table next to the wall and we sat down there.
I told him the whole story. I felt better. The Vernors and the pretzels tasted good. At the end I said I was worried about Rocco. He told me not to worry. Without me, the cops couldn’t do anything to Rocco tonight but that, knowing ma, she probably told them she’d go to the station house with me tomorrow.
“I won’t go,” I said.
He took a long drink from the bottle and said, “Yeah, well, maybe she’ll cool off by then. C’mon, we better head home.” On the way home we encountered a few night owls who had witnessed the wind-up of the confrontation at Rocco’s. They said the cops took Rocco to the station to cool things off for the night and told my mother she should bring me in the next day if she wanted to file a complaint. She was madder than Hell that I wasn’t there.
My mother was beyond hysterical upon our arrival. I made a run for my room, slammed the door and locked it, then listened. To his credit, my father held firm, refusing to let her drag me into criminal proceedings against some poor guy who didn’t really do anything. Finally, she gave up, but she warned that this wasn’t the end of the story. Then everything was quiet and I slept. My dreams were full of the Zibors laughing, my mother screaming and sirens wailing. I awoke late, got dressed and found my father in the kitchen drinking coffee and my mother still in bed.
“The good news
is that this morning I called the precinct and told them we were not filing
a complaint and to let Rocco go,” he said. “The bad news is that there was
a fire at Rocco’s shop last night.”
He was going to say more but I was out the door and running down the block before he could get out a sentence. I turned the corner and found Rocco standing in front of a smoldering pile of rubble and ashes that used to be his shop and home. One firefighter was still dousing the ashes with his hose.
“Rocco, I didn’t…”
“Don’t talk to me, “ he said, not looking at me.
I stood there, and the tears came. I ran home, grabbed a book off my shelf and ran back. It was a hardbound edition of The Complete Works of Edgar Allen Poe. I pressed it into his hands. He said nothing but he held onto the book. Then I walked slowly home.
* * *
Our family life resumed its awkward progress, my mother constantly hovering, my father detached. I refused to go to High School at St. Francis, got admitted to the then-elite Cass Technical High School in downtown Detroit and spent as much time there as possible.
My parents divorced soon after my high school graduation. My father immediately married Wanda Urbaniak, with whom he had been having an affair for ten years. My mother disappeared into the Scientology church, rising quickly to an administrative position where she got paid for telling people how to run their lives. My vision of Hell is meeting my mother in the afterlife.
In high school and college I studied literature and, of course, wrote poetry. It was well received, and I won a few awards. But the gods of irony will have their little joke. I got caught up in the political issues of the ’sixties, got arrested a few times and figured the best way for me to contribute was to be a lawyer. And so I was and so I am.
I still write poetry, for myself and for Rocco. He was never heard from again, except, perhaps, once. Just after my high school graduation, I got a standard Hallmark card of congratulations with no return address or signature except a tiny hand-lettered “R” on the inside. I still have it.