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The Store
Domenick Angiello

The son learns about life amid used typewriters, calculators and checkwriters.


"If you’re not going to work at being a college student, then you might as well help me at the store," my father announced after examining my spring semester report, which revealed an F in Calculus II and no grade over C. My father’s dream that I would be a doctor had died when I was dropped from Fordham’s premed program at the end of my first semester. That and my continued poor grades in the spring convinced him that I wasn’t willing to make the investment in study that he thought would guarantee a lucrative, independent career. Unaccountably, I would not stand on the broad shoulders of his hard work, self-deprivation and shrewd investing to reach above the world in which he struggled with wits and will to make his family safe from material hardship. Maybe I would stand shoulder to shoulder with him in that world.

Not that my father wasn’t proud of his accomplishment in establishing his business; he had told me more than once that it had turned a profit from the very first month he opened it in 1955.

The store, as we always called it, located first on Church Street near City Hall in Manhattan, was the sort of business machines establishment that is almost extinct now. We sold and serviced new and used typewriters, adding machines, calculators and checkwriters. The word store doesn’t do the place justice, really. It was a storefront, perhaps thirty feet wide and fifty deep, but the rear third was walled off as a repair shop with a long workbench, at which four mechanics could work simultaneously. On the back wall of the shop were chemical baths and a compressor for washing office machines in preparation for overhauling them, and a powerful, noisy exhaust system to remove the fumes and clouds of spray from the solvents used for this purpose. Still, the smells of Fedron cleaner, carbon tetrachloride, alcohol and lubricating oil were always present.

A partition of "frost green" sheet metal topped by glass panels formed the otherwise open office which occupied a corner of the showroom and contained two heavy steel desks: my father’s, where he gleefully typed his invoices with two fingers on an ancient Royal model XS; and the one where I would eventually sit, earnestly doing the bookkeeping that always revealed a comfortable profit. Along both walls of the showroom, in the same green as the office-partition, were steel racks on which were displayed new Olympia and Smith Corona typewriters and reconditioned Royals, Remingtons, and Underwoods. Occasionally, an Oliver, L. C. Smith or Woodstock, relics of another era, would squat there in the stolid meditation of old age. IBM Electrics, mostly model As early on and some older 01s, so heavy that they could easily anchor a small craft in a storm, patiently awaited the fingers that would set their motors humming and their keys clacking. Other shelves held adding machines and various brands of calculators: Monroes, Marchants and Fridens. By the standards of our microchip era, these mechanical miracles of that time were noisy and slow. The stock was rounded out with checkwriters and occasional Comptometers, time stamps, check signers, Stenographs and stock cancellers. From the store, my father also ran a wholesale business in used checkwriters and parts for them, shipping them to dealers all over the States and in a few foreign countries.

Before I arrived, he ran the whole enterprise alone, riding the subway from the Bronx to open on weekdays at 8:30 a.m. and closing as late as 9:00 p.m. on the nights when the various mechanics would come in to work on the machines he couldn’t fix himself. On Saturdays, he opened at the usual time, but he allowed himself the luxury of driving in and of leaving work by 3:00.

When my father expressed his desire that I help him in his business, I couldn’t deny that it would be only fair. I began to go in with him on Saturdays, often suffering with a hangover and lack of sleep, and occasionally did a business errand or two during the week. Summer work at the store became part of my routine, too. As Dad expected, none of this had any effect on my studies because they consisted only of going to class and cramming before tests. We continued in this way through the rest of my college years, and when I graduated without much sense of direction and without attracting the attention of corporate recruiters, I made the transition to full time work at the store, an inauspicious beginning, as I saw it, under a penumbra of failure.

If I wasn’t so young, twenty-two, and just starting a family, I might have surrendered to despair. As a pragmatic solution having to do with curriculum requirements, I had become an English major when I was no longer welcome in premed, and in spite of my poor grades, I had been touched by the world of ideas as they are expressed in writings of philosophy, history and literature. I hadn’t accumulated much knowledge, but I had, between bouts of drinking at the Web and marathon sessions of poker in the student union, developed a sense of the world and of myself that made my heart unquiet at sharing my father’s success at the store. Although it immediately provided me with an adequate living and promised me affluence in the future, the store also was the place to which I had been sentenced for crimes the nature of which I couldn’t fully articulate but which had to do with a waste of promise.

My talents, if they weren’t illusory, lay in some other direction—although exactly what direction that was I couldn’t say. Nevertheless, I resolved to do the best I could because, apparently, the store would define my life’s work.

The work and the surroundings were dirty and my daily tasks boring. Malaise hung over me like the fumes from the washing tank in the rear, and I breathed in ancient dust that seemed like the ashes of the mercenary Dutch from centuries ago. The basement was the turf of rival gangs of quick roaches and bloated water bugs that embodied the revulsion I had to suppress to come to work each day. My father advised me to adopt the way he used to deal with his disgust over the bugs: turning on the light a while before going down to the basement. That would drive these denizens of the dark into hiding so that I wouldn’t have to see them. But the bugs were so large that I could hear them scuttling over the dry and dusty cardboard boxes stained with their filth. When packing anything in a carton retrieved from down there, I would have to knock the box against a wall several times to avoid sending a stowaway cockroach as an accidental immigrant to Seattle or St. Paul.

Right from the start I was thrown into every kind of work we did. Dad gave me little training or instruction. For example, he might say, "See what you can do with that Royal HHP. The backspace isn’t working." More often than not I was able to troubleshoot the problem. Or I’d be sent by subway on a delivery in the Empire State Building, shifting from time to time a heavy Friden calculator from one hip to the other to counterbalance its weight, and lurching like a drunken seaman, first to one side—then the other. I shipped Speedrite matrices to Denver and F & E inkrolls to Savannah, Paymaster model 900s to Hamilton, Ontario. I kept the books, set up the window display, demonstrated equipment to customers, and designed mail order brochures.

In spite of my disappointment with myself for not making more of my education, there was pleasure for a while in learning new things. In those days before great economic shifts rearranged the geography of commerce in the city, before Hunts Point market and the World Trade Center, before Tribeca, Soho and all the acronymically-named places, I learned my way around the city in general but especially lower Manhattan: Vesey and Varick Streets, Nassau, Water, Mott, Houston, Lafayette, Greenwich, and West Broadway; the financial district, radio row, the wholesale shoe section along Reade and Duane and the produce markets.

I learned to correct a typewriter’s uneven line spacing by rubbing down a platen with emery cloth soaked in carbon tet or alcohol, and how to use bending tools to bring skewed letters back into line; how to renew a Royal keyboard, using a special tool to fasten the nickel-plated rings that would secure the shiny new letters under clear plastic; I learned how to adjust a Paymaster checkwriter matrix to achieve a uniform imprint; I learned why the German-made Olympia typewriter we sold, with its spring-steel keys and precision engineering, was better than the new Royals, Remingtons and Smith-Coronas.

I never did learn not to make that one last turn on the screwdriver in an effort to bring nearer to perfection something that was already satisfactory. Ping! The overstressed assembly would fly apart, screws and springs scattering across the bench and dribbling onto the floor, the tiny parts bouncing and rolling invisibly into crevices and under immovable objects to lurk there forever lost in the dust. "Dom!" My father would call from the office. "Didn’t I tell you it was good enough?" I learned how to break expenses and income into their appropriate categories in maintaining the books. But I never learned to be comfortable offering five dollars for a used checkwriter I would eventually sell for ninety. I learned a whole new language of brand names and machine parts. I learned the prices of all the things we sold. But it took me a long time to learn the value of my experience in the store.




My main interest was always in the people.

In the relaxed atmosphere of the evening, I chatted with the mechanics who came in to do piecework, moonlighting after their day jobs.

Bill Pond was a handsome and engaging young man with a permanent tan and a carefully maintained pompadour of full, black hair. He would wrestle with one of the Friden calculators he stopped by to repair, his face an ever tightening knot of frustration. Clearly not a student of Zen, he would finally lift the heavy machine six inches off the bench and let it drop with a slam—after which, usually, the stubborn opponent finally submitted. Bill would sometimes drive Dad home. They became friends, and my parents had Bill and his girlfriend, Karen, to dinner a few times. When I first met Karen, she was a pretty and self-possessed girl. I always remember her with a prim smile on her lips and a pink chiffon kerchief around her neck. But she seemed more and more forlorn as the years passed, delaying the culmination of her expectations. She was middle-aged by the time she and Bill married. By then Bill’s careful coiffure was streaked with gray along his temples. Their long courtship seemed strange and wasteful to me as one who had married straight out of college.

Vinnie Randazzo didn’t look like a mechanic with his carefully trimmed mustache, immaculate white shirts and fashionable gray suits, their slacks pressed to a dangerous edge and his left hand adorned with a gold ring in which was set a large, sparkling stone.. His hair was pure white from the first day I saw him when he was, perhaps, forty. Having a wife and children didn’t prevent him from a carnivorous inspection of any attractive woman—defined as anyone in a skirt or dress who was not wearing surgical stockings. There was an opening over the bench that would allow us to see the sales floor from the repair shop in the rear. When he was back there working on a Remington adding machine, Vinnie’s head was sure to appear in that opening whenever the click of high heels signaled the entrance of a pretender to his surreptitious attention. If I happened to be back there with him, he’d turn to me momentarily, pointing the screwdriver in his hand to the subject of his appreciation and say, "I’d bite that!"

Salesmen stopped by for the gab and the rest it gave their feet.

Andy, a neat, diminutive Royal salesman with curly blond hair, a snap brim hat and a gray suit with narrow lapels, complained of the company cutting his territory in half just when he was starting to make some money. Whenever I asked him how he was doing, he would answer in his distinctive southern accent, "Well, Dom, it’s a great life—if you don’t weaken."

Jerry Feit, the short, plump salesman from the Italian company, Olivetti, had dark, thinning hair which rolled back in tight waves along his scalp. He was a forty-something Jewish guy who had seen action in Italy during World War II and knew more Italian language and geography than I did. When I had occasion to tell him that my paternal grandfather came from Santa Maria, he responded with a perfect accent, "Ah, vicina di Napoli!" Jerry had the salesman’s tendency to tell the same stories or make the same observations over and over, forgetting where in his many stops he had already delivered them. Consistent with that habit, he must have told me a dozen times that there were many Jewish Italians. Fellow Jews addressing him in Italian was an experience he hadn’t anticipated, so he found it remarkable and amusing. He was very fond of the Italy in spite of the war.

Gregarious and cheerful, Jerry seemed a person married to his habits but, in all other respects, committed to lifelong bachelorhood. He only became miserable when, after a brief period of bliss, he ruined his relationship with a woman by marrying her. In his visits to the store soon afterwards, he would tell us of his wife’s recriminations and tears in perfect innocence as to their cause. Within weeks, he reported, with the puzzled wistfulness of a child who couldn’t understand how one of his favorite toys had gotten broken, that she had packed her things and returned to her mother. He, in turn, was freed to resume his whimsical good humor.

A lifetime city dweller, for a year he repeated the story of finally buying his first new car, a Chrysler New Yorker, only to have Olivetti provide him with a company car two weeks later. In a combination of regret at his unnecessary expense and appreciation of the irony, he would tell over and over of the Chrysler New Yorker that never came out of the parking garage. One day he said, "When I die, I’m not going to be buried in a coffin. I’m going to have them make a ramp into my grave, and I’ll be buried in the Chrysler New Yorker—you know, so I can drive to the candy store to pick up the newspaper." In the spirit of these comments, I replied, "I just wish everyone could be so sensible about such arrangements. I can’t tell you the number of people I know who haven’t given a moment’s thought to how they would follow the Knicks once they’re dead."

Dealing with customers exposed me to a variety of experiences, not all of them pleasant.

Two late middle-aged ladies came in once, sisters who looked like twin knock-offs of Aunt Bee on the old Andy Griffith Show and exclaiming in the same musical voices. Dad sold them the heaviest electric typewriter in the store, and I was to have the pleasure of delivering it to their home in Brooklyn. By the time I got to the address on the receipt, both my hips were sore from shifting the machine from one to the other to ease my fatigue. Theirs was an ill-kept house near the end of a street of modest single-family houses in Coney Island, the edge of nowhere from my perspective. I knocked on the door several times, but no one responded, and it seemed dark inside. I was about to leave, puzzled and dreading the punishing trip back to the store with my burden, when a neighbor caught my eye. "They’re in there," he called from the front stoop next door. "Just keep knocking." Thanking him, and wondering at the tone of distain in his manner, I did so.

After several minutes, one of the sisters did come to the door, and as she opened it, a stench rose from behind her and surrounded me. I took one last breath outdoors and held it as I stepped over the threshold into a nightmare. The interior was dark and gloomy. I must have visibly shuddered as I realized that indistinct shapes oozed along the floors. The woman asked, "Are you cold, dear?" and without waiting for an answer, slipped into the next room for her checkbook. As my eyes adjusted, I saw that the walls and floors of the place were riddled with holes and that the oozing shapes were cats, which were emerging from some of them and disappearing into others. Judging from the stench that assaulted me again when I had to take a breath, there must also have been many rats, which the cats killed and left within the walls, the headless bodies gradually changing to liquid and gas and leaving behind a maggot-ridden pelt.

What business the cat ladies had with an electric typewriter I couldn’t guess, nor did I pause to ask. I hoped its weight wouldn’t send me crashing through a hole in the floor to a snake pit in the cellar.

Another time, a woman in a neatly tailored suit and a pillbox hat with a veil came into the store. Her look was familiar to me from the many films I had seen with my mother twenty years ago in the late forties. She glanced at some reconditioned IBM electrics then approached the office cubicle. As I rose to meet her, she peered at me through the veil which gave her eyes a hint of intrigue, but her tone was matter-of-fact when she said, "I wonder if you could assist me."

"Certainly, madam" I said, unintentionally falling into the obliging tone of the eager shopkeeper from those same films, and she walked back to the IBMs with me in tow.

"Maybe you are the people to help me," she whispered in what seemed a mock-confidential tone suggesting facetiously that she and I were, after all, on the same side.

"If we can’t, no one can."

"I have one of these at home," the woman said, pointing at a model A. I thought whimsically that her voice and look suggested both fascination and fear, as if she were playing Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity.

"Are you looking for a later model?"

"Do you do repairs as well?"

"We do expert repairs on the IBM. What’s the problem?" Her manner had begun to shake my initial view that, although we were playing a scene from a B movie, we might ultimately come to terms on the purchase or repair of an IBM electric.

My typewriter is bugged," she said in a conspiratorial tone. She didn’t wait for a response, adding that she had recently discovered that the FBI and the CIA had wire-tapped her phone. She’d avoided using it, but then she discovered that they had cleverly placed a listening device in her typewriter. Perhaps I broke the spell or undermined her confidence in me when I said that I didn’t see how a typewriter could be bugged. Anyway, she never returned. For all I know, she had cast me as a double agent.

When Paul Muni walked into the store I recognized him immediately. It was 1966. The character actor, famous for his portrayal of Al Capone in Scarface, was seventy at the time and looked his age. He was tall and gaunt with a ready smile and spoke with the resonant voice of a stage actor. Dad smiled with pleasure as he chatted with him, and called me over to meet the famous man. It was the only time I ever saw my father star-struck. But Dad never lost focus. He still sold him a Marchant calculator. When I went to deliver it to Mr. Muni on East End Avenue, I brought along a cousin, who was a Marchant mechanic, under the pretense that he could better demonstrate the machine’s features, but really to meet him. The aging star, who was to die the following year, told my cousin he could be typecast as the good kid in a film about inner city youth.

When I went on a delivery in City Island, I expected to find that my destination was a conventional place of business since the delivery receipt read, "Lynch’s Tugboat Service." Instead, the place on piers lapped by the waters of Long Island Sound seemed to be a residence, though only a little more than a shack. Its siding shakes were gray and cracked, the asphalt shingles of its roof curled and the paint on the boards of its door raised in flakes. Every thing on the pier which was the bungalow’s roofless porch was cracked from many cycles of dousing and drying. As I knocked, the high sun of late morning shone on the door, which, after a minute’s delay, Captain Lynch opened. Since he stood inside the doorway in nothing but his boxers and a ruddy beard with matching curly hair, it was easy to see that he was trim and well put together. His eyes revealed that he had been sleeping off the night before. He apologized and invited me into the modest sized room which was his home, as I could see from the daybed with its rumpled sheets—and the terra firma part of his business, which he apparently ran from a desk by the window.

"Thanks for lugging this thing all the way out here," he said with a sleepy smile as he handed me the signed receipt.

"That’s what I get paid for," I responded, and then added, "Oh, thanks, but this isn’t necessary," as I realized he had also slipped me a five dollar tip. As the owner’s son, I always felt that I should reject tips as offered under a misapprehension of my position.

"Not to worry," he said. "I’ve done worse with my money."

We parted on a laugh. His seemed to affirm that he had, indeed, done worse and didn’t entirely regret it. Mine was meant to indicate that I had done the same and had adopted pretty much the same attitude about it. In my case, this was a lie, the kind of thing that I said to put a stranger, and myself, more at ease.




Being with Dad at the store was, in part, the reprise of a familiar experience that had receded into the past.

A dozen years before, during the time he was employed by Checkwriter Company, Dad would put in a long day downtown and then do piecework at home. After dinner, he’d overhaul checkwriters on the sturdy bench Grandpa had built for him in the basement. I was allowed to keep Dad company, doing my homework down there, as he worked at the bench. I paced back and forth, a textbook in hand, reading or working at some task of memorization. When I had finished, we tuned the radio to Boston Blackie, Gangbusters, The Shadow or Inner Sanctum. As we listened, I clasped with one hand a lally column, one of the central supports of the house, circling it with the cool, rough steel pulling at my palm and fingers, and seeing in turn, my father’s back as he bent over his work, the wall that separated this room from Grandpa’s wine cellar, some washed garments Mom had hung to dry by the old steam boiler and the windows to the world outside.

When Dad went on his own and opened the store, he put in the same long days, but now they were spent entirely away from home, and I saw him less. High school and college, along with a maturing social identity of my own, took me away from home more, too.

Although starting to work at the store was not what I had envisioned for myself, it was, in a way, a return to some of the pleasures of that earlier time. In fact, I saw Dad more now, and talked with him more than I had at any other time in my life. In the process, I discovered more about my father and formed a closer bond with him than I would have if I had become a doctor as he had hoped.

I had already realized he was generous in the large matters affecting his family: the provision of a good place to live and a high quality of education; but I was aware also that he was careful about money to the degree one might expect of a person who came from a relatively poor family and who had arrived at working age just at the moment the Great Depression began. One of my aunts, who had lived with us in the two-family house on Giles Place, complained in a letter to Uncle Robbie when he was away in the Navy during World War II: "Don’t tell Joey [Dad], but he won’t let us turn the heat on, and I’m freezing." A story, which was supposed to be about my mother’s naivete when she was newly married, sheds just as much light on my father’s relation to money. At the end of the week, Dad would ask Mom if she had any money left, and if she did, he would take that remainder in return for what he called "fresh money." By becoming his right-hand man, I got a more intimate look at how close he was in his spending—mostly in his expenditures on himself—and at his determined pursuit of money, but I also saw his remarkable generosity.

Some of this was the ostentatious kind. If someone who was driving him wouldn’t accept his offer of the toll, he would throw the money out the window of the car. Whether he went out to dinner with four people or twelve, he would insist on paying the check. But much more of his generosity was unostentatious. Dad was by no means wealthy, but I saw him lend $5000 to a friend without a shred of paper to record the transaction or any real expectation of being repaid. On the way home with him in the car once, he asked me to stop by the home of one of his sisters, who was having financial problems. Shy about going in himself, he handed me a thick envelope to bring in to her.

Not all his business practices agreed with what I had learned from my mother or from the institutions in which I was educated. Still, I couldn’t help admiring his cleverness, his charm and the intensity of his focus on the task at hand in the store: making a buck. Among his family and friends, he was generous, forgiving and loyal; at the store he could be tough, skeptical and opportunistic. One instance stands out as typical.


Richard Bolton was one of our regulars. Usually he came in with something to sell. One day he tumbled into the store, the compressed features under his ragged curls eerily lit by a smile. His Hawaiian shirt, its tails sprung from the waist of his slacks, was in kaleidoscopic combat with the tie that hung loosely around his neck like a noose. He wrestled to keep four heavy F&E checkwriters under control as he glanced around for a place to set them down. Coincidentally, back in the glass-partitioned office, Dad was, at that moment, on the phone with Richard’s boss, the manager of a Safe-Write branch. He covered the mouthpiece just as Richard called out a greeting in his distinctive voice that suggested a tightening of the noose and a corresponding constriction of the vocal cords.

"Hey, Joe, where can I put these beauties down?"

"Hi, Richard," I answered, "How are you?"

"Hi, Dom; give me a hand with these, willya."

I hurried forward as Richard hobbled toward a crowded display table, and I quickly made a space for him to let down his burden. The machines were the recent Premier model and looked to be in almost mint condition. Behind me, Dad was getting off the phone as quickly as possible, and I winced when I realized I had used Richard’s name while his boss was on the phone. As Dad approached, he glanced at me with compressed lips and a tilt to his head that communicated his exasperation with me. It was the policy of the Safe-Write Corporation to destroy trade-ins to reduce competition from used checkwriter dealers like us, but some salesmen sold them to make some extra money. If Richard’s manager found out he was doing this, Richard could be fired, and we could lose a source of highly profitable merchandise. We could also lose the business of the Safe-Write branches all over the country that bought checkwriter parts from us.

"Howya doin’, Joe? Look at these babies! Just like new."

Dad said, "Hi, Richard," and pursed his lips as he looked at the merchandise.

"You’re the first one I thought of when I got these, Joe. I hadda come all the way from Bensonhurst, but I figured I’d give you the first shot at them."

Dad looked into Richard’s eyes and smiled. "Richard, you have to stop doing me all these favors."

"What’re ya talkin’ about? All you have to do is maybe ink them and run a rag over them and you couldn’t tell them from new—perfect finish and everything. Not a scratch on them. Joe, you should’ve seen me. Last time I went through this place I put my repair stickers on all the machines and I rigged the sum bars so they wouldn’t slide all the way over. It’s an insurance outfit—fuckin’ crooks. So this time I go to do an inspection, and I show the office manager, a woman, that it would be simple for someone to put another number on their checks ahead of what they already wrote, make a thousand dollar check into eleven thousand. The hag’s mouth fell open like a fish." Richard laughed, maybe at his deception, maybe at the memory of the woman’s alarmed expression. "I sold four new electrics, $425.00 each and gave her a loaner and got these babies out of there real quick. Told her she better not use them. If somebody altered a check, they could be out thousands."

Dad let Richard run down, and let his own smile shift to a wince as he continued to look the machines over. "Where’s the door for this one, Richard, and the electric cords? That’s twenty-five dollars worth."

"Oh, Jeez, let me have a look in my car." As Richard turned, to look, he spotted a meter maid eyeing his double-parked station wagon and leapt out the door, shouting, "Hey, whoa, wait a minute, hold on, I’m just finishing up here." The door closed giving the rest of the scene the quality of a silent movie. Through the plate glass I watched the exaggerated flailing of Richard’s arms and the impassive stare of the meter maid. His arms stopped flailing, and he held them spread slightly from his thighs with his palms forward as much as to say, Now, isn’t that reasonable? Finally, the meter maid addressed him, wagging a finger in his face, and Richard nodded his head vigorously at her, but when she turned away, he raised a finger of his own at her retreating back. As he entered the store, he said, "Give them a little power and they want to run the world, for Christ’s sake."

At the display table, Dad was taking imprints from the checkwriters with an air of expertise, sliding a sample check into each machine and punching in whole rows of buttons with two hands and hitting the operating bar with the side of his hand.

"Have you got the electric cords?"

"I just remembered I didn’t take the cords. The broad said she wanted them."

"How about the door? And did you see the scratched check table on this one? I’m going to have to disassemble it and have it nickel plated. That’s another twenty-five dollars worth in itself."

Richard was beginning to lose air; he seemed smaller, his muscular chest deflating. "It may be in the car, but I’m gonna get myself a ticket if I try to find it. What do you say I get it for you later?"

"Richard, what do you wan t for these things, anyway?"

"I was thinking maybe fifty each? They go for much more in your catalogue."

"Would you like to pay my rent and insurance, my electric bill, overhaul each of these, wait thirty days for payment, guarantee them? They’ve got custom nameplates, too, which means I have to install regular sum bars in them as well as get the door and the cords."

"O.K., give me forty each," Richard conceded. All the while he had been frequently turning to see if the meter maid was returning.

Dad said, "Look at these two imprints. These have to be adjusted or may need new matrices or matrix supports. This one here has an earlier serial number that won’t bring as much. The best I can do is eighty for all four—cash."

Richard was edging toward the window—looking like a pummeled fighter back-pedaling into the ropes—so that he could see down the street. Just then, he spotted the meter maid making her way back on the other side. "O.K., Joe," he said, torn in two directions at once like one of those carnival figures suspended on a string, the ones that spin when you squeeze the sticks. Dad reached into his pocket and snapped four crisp twenties from his wad, and Richard stuffed them in his pocket.

"Thanks, Joe," he said, as he plunged for the door. "I gotta get out there before that bitch starts writing."

He met the meter maid at his car just as she flipped open her pad. She looked up at the flurry of limbs that was Richard. He spread his arms in a gesture that said, Why me? She was clearly exasperated as she moved her considerable bulk aside to let him get into his car. His mouth never stopped moving until he glanced back to the store. With his full jack-o-lantern smile and a wave of his hand, he pulled out, cutting off a beat up delivery van whose tires screeched against the pavement as its front dipped in arthritic pain. The driver leaned on his horn. Richard, apparently not realizing where the sound had come from, braked hard in instinctive response, then lurched forward, his left arm raised out the window in the waddaya-want-from-me gesture, and blasted his own horn three times in response.

"God," I thought, "What ever will become of him?"

"How about coffee," Dad said, handing me a twenty when I turned back to the office.

"Sure, Dad. What would you like with it?"

"Get me a bowtie."

We sat at our desks which were laden with papers, my father’s in neat piles, mine awash. Our coffee was on their pull-out writing tables, the pastries next to the paper cups on the spread deli paper. I was alternating sips of coffee and bites of cheese Danish, saving the thickest part of the cheese filling for last. Dad was eating his bowtie neatly, so that every stray crumb fell on the paper. He mused, "That was not a bad buy. I have what amounts to a standing order for those Premier models from Checkwriter Sales and Service out in Boulder."

Between then and noon, Dad removed a door and a perfect check table from one of a batch of damaged machines he had been cannibalizing for saleable parts and took four sum bars from a bank of parts drawers. He inspected the type and found it clean. The inkrolls of two of the machines were slightly worn, so he changed them expertly and quickly. He inked the inkrolls of the other two machines and took imprints of all four. Before lunch, he was balling newspaper to pack the checkwriters for shipment, and soon I heard him on the phone with Ted Martin in Boulder. "They’re cream puffs, Ted. You can’t tell them from new." As I worked on the books, Dad sat at his ancient Royal manual and clacked out—hunt-and-peck style—mailing labels and an invoice for $780.00, plus shipping, and filled out the C.O.D. form. The net cost was under $100.00. Dad was illumined with satisfaction. Lunch from the Greek deli was a celebration.

As I munched ravenously on my roast beef hero, the lopsided victory gnawed at me even though I rationalized that Richard was an unscrupulous roughneck and Dad had treated him accordingly.


I wouldn’t have believed one incident if I hadn’t witnessed it. Two young men dressed in the style of Hassidic Jews came into the store and identified themselves as students at a yeshiva over in Brooklyn. They rented a typewriter and paid for the first month, saying they expected to use the machine for several months. Dad took an address from their identification and, when the first month had almost passed, he sent them the usual document offering the options of renewal or return of the typewriter. Weeks passed without payment, typewriter or response of any kind. Finally, Dad called the "yeshiva," if that’s what it was. The person who took the call said that he had never heard of the men and that he didn’t know of any rented typewriter on the premises. Dad, apparently at a loss, put down the phone. But in a few minutes he redialed the same number and got the same voice on the line. Then my gentle father, who had never struck any of his four sometimes unruly sons—or anyone else, as far as I know—made the following concise statement very much as if he meant it: "This is Mr. Angiello again. Tell those boys you’ve never heard of to have that typewriter you’ve never seen back in my store in two hours. Otherwise, I’ll pick up the phone and call a man I know who will find them and break their legs."

Then, without waiting for a response, he promptly hung up the phone.

The "yeshiva students" walked through the door with our machine forty-five minutes later, faces as ashen as those of real and honorable scholars who spent most of their time indoors studying the Talmud. Dad inspected the typewriter, saying sternly, "It better not be damaged." The "yeshiva students" stood by anxiously until it passed muster. Then they apologized for their "error."

Dad didn’t forget to charge them for the extra month either.


Dad’s relationship with Eddie was a different story. Dad identified with him to a certain extent, perhaps because they were about the same age, in their early fifties when Eddie first started with us. Their association was close, and as with all of those in his small inner circle, Dad did his best to treat him equitably.

"Oo, Joe, oo, Joe, oo, Joe," Eddie would cry as he strode through the door at lunch time. The first oo was drawn out and all of them were intoned like an indefinite article. The name was stressed, and the whole series accelerated in a ritual crescendo of bonhomie. Eddie was a salesman of business machine maintenance and repairs. He had come to us from Downtown Business Machines, where the owner, Jake Graberman, had a reputation for being hardnosed and ruthless. The Grabber, Eddie called him, his sandy eyebrows raised and his chin dropped in disdain. I had occasion to visit Graberman’s premises from time to time to deliver or pick up various items for Dad. Errands to that place always depressed me. Graberman was a humorless man with a post office slot for a mouth, and when I entered his place, he looked at me as if I were just another check or bill. His business was conducted from the ground floor of a stolid building on a desolate corner of Canal Street. It wasn’t a bad neighborhood; it was a non-neighborhood, isolated between bridges and tunnels and jammed among cars honking vehicular expletives day and night.

I suppose Graberman was not sharing with him what Eddie would have considered adequate compensation for the revenue he brought in because, after a few weeks of negotiation, Eddie wound up with us on the basis that we would split profits fifty-fifty. He would hawk the work and the maintenance contracts, and we would do the actual service and repairs.

The checkwriter business, from which Eddie’s methods derived, was a tough one. Its salesman faced many closed doors, hostile rejections and flat-eyed resistance. The competition in Manhattan was especially fierce because the concentration of money was like blood in the water. Cold canvassing there must have felt like being in a tank with slippery sides and lots of sharks. As I saw it, these denizens were a reflection of the whole evolutionary enterprise, full of the most ingenious adaptations in the name of survival. Some cultivated a veneer of integrity; others practiced fraud and a few committed outright theft.

Eddie had generalized methods common in the checkwriter business, to the whole array of other office machines such as typewriters, adding machines and calculators. He would make his way into an office by any means he could think of. He was a tall, gangly man with Buster Keaton hands and a large and formidable nose, which was a prow he used to barge into the various places he hoped to do business. He could be charming or businesslike, navigating fluidly the environment in which he found himself. He would use the front entrance or a side door, if he could find one. To him, a PRIVATE sign was just a convenient indication that there would be no receptionist inside to challenge his entry. Rejection could never drive its teeth through his tough skin. As long as he was doing well, being ordered out of an office by an indignant manager was just a sign that he had, in fact, pushed hard enough to determine that no business was to be had there. "Ock ’em!," he might say, his euphemism for fuck them, an expression he would never use in its undisguised form.

One office manager called to complain that he had encountered Eddie in his office under what he considered bizarre circumstances. Passing a secretary’s desk a number of times, he had noticed a tall, gangly man, whom he assumed was an employee of the company, chatting with her as they ate their lunches, which were spread on the desk in front of them. When he finally discovered that Eddie was not an employee, he ordered him out of the office and forbid him ever to return. That afternoon, we told Eddie of the complaint. "Shkee," he said, with a ping-pong slap at an invisible butt. This expression had several meanings, pretty much in line with skedaddle. In this case, it seemed addressed to the absent office manager, advising him to piss-off. What did Eddie care? Business was good, Manhattan was a big place, and for that matter, office managers came and went.

Eddie’s main tool was his supply of stickers. These were, in effect, small business cards with his name and telephone number. They were made up on a roll and backed with a permanent adhesive. When he got into an office, he’d slap his stickers on dozens of machines in a few minutes, wandering at will from one office to another taking care to cover anyone else’s sticker. Sometimes he did this by permission of the office manager; sometimes he just did it. Often he was covering the stickers of companies that already had the machines under contract—machines that some other company was responsible to repair free of additional charge. He especially liked large, busy offices that had many machines and a staff too busy to be fastidious in researching the most economical sources for service and repairs. Sometimes in such places, personnel who had the authority to order repairs didn’t have detailed knowledge of service arrangements. When the secretary or the receptionist heard a strange noise from her typewriter, or her calculator jammed, he or she would follow management’s instructions to call the number on the machine. Only it was Eddie’s number. He was energetic and relentless. He would pick a large office building on Madison Avenue or Fifth Avenue, say, and, starting at the top, he would work his way from office to office, floor to floor, putting his sticker on every machine he could find. I used to say that he’d put his sticker on your butt, if you bent over at the wrong moment, probably one on each cheek.

When Eddie sold a service contract, we had to check the machine out initially, clean it once a year and respond to repair calls—if there were any. If he decided the machine needed to be overhauled, there was a hefty additional charge, often depending more on what he guessed the office manager would go for than what the typewriter or calculator actually needed. Although Eddie had been in the business for a good many years, he knew next to nothing about the operation of the machines or how to repair them. Sometimes we would get a desperate call for help from him because he had tried to do the simple task of replacing a ribbon and couldn’t get the machine to work right. Still, he often ordered a machine pulled (brought into the shop) with the price of the work already established, based on the extent of the repairs he judged necessary. He might quote the customer $225 for "extensive repairs" which turned out to be releasing a cam that was stuck, something that would have taken five minutes to detect and fix in their office.

When he quoted the price of the work, it was always some squarish number, from his grab-bag of prices that were usually in multiples of $25. The price would be $175, or $225, or $325. Seldom did the actual cost to us amount to more than $25 to $50.

Eddie would come in around noon after a morning’s canvassing. "Oo, Joe, oo, Joe, oo, Joe," he would cry, "Oo, Dom, oo, Dom." If he thought both Dad and I weren’t noticing, he might run a cold hand down our middle-aged bookkeeper’s back under her blouse. Ronnie would give out a little yelp, but like many, she didn’t quite know how to cope with someone who crossed lines of propriety with apparent immunity from embarrassment. He loped up the stairs, two at a time, to the small mezzanine space a section of which contained the small desk that was his office. On the desk was a telephone and a 3x5 card file. That was it.

Sitting alone with his long legs crammed under his little desk, he opened the brown-bag lunch he had brought from home or that he had just picked up at one of the many nearby delis. He stared vacantly as he ate. Dad, who always pressed lunch or coffee and a Danish on any regular who was present when he sent me out, often spoke with disdain of Eddie’s near-perfect record of avoiding his generosity, which Dad attributed to Eddie’s reluctance to reciprocate. As Dad used to say, "Eddie wouldn’t go for spit."

When Eddie was finished with lunch, he began the series of phone calls to quote on the pulls he had ordered. Later, he would come down and sit with Dad to set up the next day’s pulls, to give him information on new contracts and to give him OKs on his quotes for repairs and overhauls, all scribbled on scrap paper. Dad encouraged or commiserated. For him it was a win-win situation. He got highly profitable additional business with no aging receivables and no increase of overhead, the only added cost the direct expense of doing the actual service work. Eddie did OK, too, churning out hundreds of dollars a day in OKs—substantial money in the sixties and early seventies when a dollar was worth five or six times what it is now.

Like many a salesman, Eddie was usually upbeat. Then he would chatter ebulliently about "darling Millie," his wife, whom he never mentioned without her fixed epithet. But when an extended dry spell got him down in the dumps, Dad would walk him out of the store and across the street, and there give him a pep talk. When Dad was finished, Eddie was ready for another swim in the shark tank. He’d walk back into the store exclaiming, "Ock ’em, Joe; ock ’em all."

When Eddie left for the day at around four, Dad was usually brimming over with satisfaction. Everything Eddie brought in was over and above what Dad needed to consider his business successful. He would outline each deal for me in terms of revenue versus the actual cost of the repairs. I think he could hardly believe how fat the deal was. Things went along this way for several years.

Enter entropy.

One afternoon, Eddie handed Dad a couple of routine cleanings under a service contract for a company whose name my father didn’t recognize. He had a good memory and the confidence to rely on it. He told Eddie the machines weren’t under contract, but Eddie said he was sure they were. When Dad asked him to show him the record, he couldn’t produce it. In time, these incidents grew in frequency. When Eddie was forced to produce records, it might turn out, that he had concealed a contract for as much as three years. As long as the machine didn’t need any real service work, he could keep the whole contract amount for himself. Nice work, if you can get it! When Dad confronted him, Eddie agreed to reveal all the hidden contracts and promised not to withhold any in the future. Although Eddie hadn’t lived up to his end of the deal, Dad knew that he couldn’t push him to recover all the back payments to which we were entitled. Eddie would "squeal like a stuffed pig," as he used to say. So Dad settled for what was due him for the current year when these hidden contracts came to light. The bottom line is that Dad didn’t want to drive Eddie away, and even with the cheating, having him was very profitable. So whenever he caught him cheating again, something which happened many times, Dad recovered what he could and maintained the relationship. He had no illusion that Eddie could be replaced. Whenever Eddie said, "Do this service call the first of the new batch," it was a pretty reliable sign that the machine involved was another of those on which he had secretly had a contract for a long time but had never serviced. The urgency arose because the customer had suddenly realized that the machine had never gotten the maintenance the contract promised.

When Eddie announced his decision to retire, he had been speaking for a long time about moving to a rural area upstate, where, by his description, he would live an idyllic life with his "darling Millie." I doubted an idyll was her style. He had been involved with the Boy Scouts for many years. Now he planned to make this volunteer work his life, he said.

For a while after he left, Eddie continued his telephone service, and though the business his stickers generated declined precipitously, his phone rang occasionally, and Dad continued to send him his share of the revenue that came from that source.

When Eddie’s phone went completely silent, Dad’s suspicions were aroused. He got a dial tone on Eddie’s phone, then dialed his own number from it and got through. The phone hadn’t been turned off. How could it be that, with the tens of thousands of stickers Eddie had slapped on machines, not one call had come through in weeks? Not one person had called the number—even by mistake—in all that time? Then he tried a call to Eddie’s line from his. He got a recorded announcement directing him to a different and instantly familiar number with the old CANAL 7 exchange. Eddie had abandoned the scouting Eden in the Adirondacks to return to the shark tank.

He was back with the Grabber.


Well rewarded financially, I was a partner in effect, and soon would be in fact. I had begun to enjoy a modest affluence. I bought my first home overlooking a pretty lake in a rural area an hour north of the city. As my family had grown with the birth of my first two sons in 1963 and 1964, the chance of doing anything other than continue at the store seemed to fade.

My father’s sheer weight of authority as the source of my life, livelihood, and education was enormous, and although he was kind and generous, other elements of his personality only added to this weight, which I carried all day and all night—even in my sleep, wearying my bones. He was sure he was right when he wouldn’t let me purchase an Addressograph for a few hundred dollars, a machine which would have made easier and more frequent the direct mail advertising which reminded lucrative wholesale clients around the country of our existence. He was sure that it wasn’t necessary to stock many of the new Smith-Corona electric portables in various colors and typestyles when I wanted to make a splash to attract new retail business. In his opinion, we would be better served by purchasing the machines on receipt of customer orders. He probably saved me from many mistakes. But his protectiveness did not allow me to develop an adequate sense of my value to the business, so I regarded my substantial annual bonus more or less as a gift.

Getting smothered with love was still getting smothered. I could have fought back against meanness and hostility, but I felt helpless in the face of Dad’s generosity. I came to understand that, if I didn’t do something on my own, I would always stand in his shadow. I longed for my own achievement, something I could be proud of doing for its own sake, but that would also allow me to support my family.

Eventually, I became tormented with my sense of missed opportunity and failure. This grew more and more profound, and early in 1965, I was crying myself to sleep at night over it. When I finally became desperate enough, I forced myself to realize that I would have to leave my father’s business, but I knew that I couldn’t do it quickly. I would have to prepare. Whatever path I might be interested in taking would require graduate school. Where would I get the time?

Phil Garfield had been my father’s accountant from the time the store opened. Warm-hearted and absolutely loyal to his clients, Phil seemed to me a Damon Runyon character that had somehow escaped into real life as that humorist attempted to type him into fictional existence on a page in the world of Nathan Detroit. I always enjoyed seeing him. He’d come in with a big smile and a witticism which he, at least, always found amusing. When I tried to comment in kind, he’d raise his hand to my arm to forestall my response, saying, "Wait, wait, wait a minute!" And then he would launch into a follow-up that he thought was even more amusing. He wore a trademark fedora that seemed a size too small for his head. Even back then, when he was in his mid-thirties, he had begun to develop bags under his eyes that would eventually turn literal, becoming almost big enough for a squirrel to hide nuts in.

He was dead-sure of all his business and accounting advice. And there was good reason. He was, in all my experience, right. When Phil said, "I want you to do it this way," any uncertainty I’d had disappeared, and I forged ahead with confidence. His own practice was the best evidence of his business acumen and his character. He built it from a one man show to a Madison Avenue accounting firm with several partners and over a dozen employees. He chose good people, trained them well and rewarded generously those who could step up and take on the responsibility that went along with the opportunities he offered them.

When Phil saw the numbers arrange themselves in a certain way on our financial statements, he would come into the store with his smile, his fedora and a cigar. He would hand down his pronouncements about the appropriate future course of the business as if he were the descendant of Moses and had inherited the tablets containing the business commandments. At one point he suggested getting into photocopiers; another time he advised us to expand into stationery; another to devise a regular marketing program. He might have been Cassandra as far as Dad was concerned. He seldom took Phil’s recommendations, any of which would have achieved good results, preferring his own time-tested method, which boiled down to: Buy as cheaply as you possibly can and sell as expensively as you can.




When I decided that I wanted to go to graduate school and eventually leave the business, I had difficulty approaching Dad to tell him. I felt guilty. I sought Phil’s advice, and he offered to come in and talk to Dad about it. I’ll never forget it. He called ahead but wouldn’t say what it was about. When my father asked me, I simply shook my head in silence. I couldn’t say the words. No matter how I put it, I would be leaving Dad to carry the whole load of the store again, after he had rescued me from aimlessly drifting into some dead-end job. Any words would have been hypocritical euphemisms for: ingratitude, selfishness, abandonment and betrayal.

Phil came in with his usual smile and his usual fedora. He found my father and me in the showroom and said, in his most commanding tone, "Come into the office, Joe, we have something to discuss."

"What’s this all about," my father asked, "Dom won’t tell me a thing."

"Let’s talk inside."

"So serious?"


"O.K. What is it?" Dad asked, not sure whether to be irritated or apprehensive as he sat down and looked back and forth between Phil and me. Phil stood over him next to his desk, and I hovered at the entrance to the office as if poised to make a break for the door if things didn’t go well.

"Dom wants to go back to school to get his masters so he can teach. Can you let him leave early, say two P.M. each day, so he can go to class and study?"

"Is that all?" my father replied, "Of course."




In some ways, Mitchell Goodman was as different from Phil as another human being could be. He was a regular customer in a small way, buying typewriter ribbons and bringing his portable in occasionally for repair. From the first time he found the store, which was within ten blocks of his home, we began to talk. Mitch was a tall and large-boned man, in his early forties, balding but with long iron-gray hair sticking out from under a knit cap. His eyes were soulful, and his smile warm and genuine. When I helped him, his attention made me feel I was being regarded as an individual rather than a type (shopkeeper) or someone who functioned occasionally as a tool (the guy who fixes my typewriter).

My favorable impression of him was ratified as a relationship developed between us. I was very ill-informed, had never developed the habit of reading the newspapers, and was very focused on myself and my family. I was nesting, I guess. I had two children by then, the spring of 1965. Over time, Mitch and I shared our stories.

He had been in the army during World War II, and had written and published a novel, The End of It, based on this experience. He was married to a poet, Denise Levertov. I didn’t know who she was really, but I was impressed anyway. I showed him some poetry I had been writing for a while, and he said he liked it. He shared it with his wife, who had been a friend of William Carlos Williams. I’d never even heard of Williams, who had recently died, much less read his poetry, so I was surprised to hear from Mitch that he and Denise thought that my stuff sounded a lot like his. I had lunch with them once at their home over a meat packing plant down on Greenwich Street, and they encouraged me in my poetry, Denise saying she thought it pretty good: "Better, in fact, than lots of the stuff that is being published in the little magazines," is how she expressed her judgment.

Mitch was a person of conscience and commitment, who was growing ever more concerned about American involvement in Vietnam. During the time we saw each other frequently in the middle to late sixties, he wrote and edited a book called The Movement Toward a New America, which amounted to a manifesto of all the high-minded ideas that surged into the public consciousness then, some of which have survived as permanent changes in our culture: women’s liberation, the anti-war movement and racial equality, to name a few.

When I was admitted to Fordham with the help of an old professor of mine at the college, a Jesuit, to pursue a graduate degree in English, Mitch and I saw each other less but still kept in touch. That was the summer of 1965.

In the next few years, his anti-war activities, became more consuming and put him in league with such people as Noam Chomsky, the Berrigans, Marc Raskin, Rev. William Sloan Coffin and Dr. Spock, the famous baby doctor turned peace activist, and Mitch was convicted in 1968 along with the rest of the Boston Five for his courageous stand in support of the draft "refusers," as he called those young men who wouldn’t serve in Vietnam, some of whom demonstrated against the war by burning their draft cards. The conviction of the Boston Five was overturned in the same year.

In his conversations with me, Mitch never made much of his own peril, sacrifice and hardship, but he did tell me once that the local people in Temple, Maine, where he had a small subsistence farm, people he regarded as decent folks, had warned him that strangers had been in town asking questions about him: the FBI, of course.

Mitch opened my eyes to an idea about life different from those models I had been offered previously. His life was one of courage and conviction but not buttressed by religious faith nor dedicated to the service of family. He served mankind as a pacifist warrior who held himself responsible to do the right thing at all costs. At a time in the Cold War, when it appeared to me that the human race would end in atomic annihilation, a fear Mitch seemed to share then, I asked him why he bothered to struggle at great cost to himself against the inevitable. He answered, "When the end comes, I want to know that I’ve been "on the right side." Just as I never had the vocation or faith to emulate the Jesuits, whom I admired, I did not have the courage or vision to follow his path. But I have been grateful ever since that he saw something in me worth his time to encourage.

When I finally left the store to begin my teaching career at Mercy College in 1970 and to raise my family, I left, too, the common ground on which we met, where I used to fix his typewriter and he used to read my poetry. I still heard from him from time to time and had his wife to the college for a reading of her poetry. Then we fell out of touch as people often do when the practical business of life carries them in different directions. When I learned that he had passed away in 1998 up in Temple, Maine, I hoped that he did so with the conviction to which he had earned the right: that he had been "on the right side.




During my interview for the professorial position at Mercy, Sister Joannes was impressed with my business experience, which she felt would eventually be of practical value in the conduct of the English Department’s affairs. The truth is that I had learned very little of business methods or principles that could be transferred to my work at the college. But when I first met Ophelia gone mad in Hamlet, she was not the first case of insanity I had ever known. Troubled people, heroes, thieves, lechers and opportunists in the plays of Shakespeare and in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales had counterparts in my experience at the store. When, I read in the General Prologue of the "verray parfit gentil knyght," his moral qualities were reminiscent of people of courage and virtue to whom the store had introduced me. Much of what I had learned at the store came from my insights about the people I encountered there, especially Phil Garfield and Mitch Goodman, and about my father, my knowledge of whom deepened as we worked together.

When I had occasion to encounter dishonesty and hypocrisy in my later life, especially in academic life where it abounded, I had the examples of these people to guide me. They helped me, too, in recognizing those flaws in myself. When I could help someone else by listening or by intervening in their behalf with authorities they found intimidating, I did so. When I had the platform to speak against unfairness for friends and faculty colleagues, I spoke with directness and passion. Often it didn’t count for much—but I was aware, at least on those occasions, of being "on the right side." I know that the heroes, whom I met at the store and whose beliefs were so different, were part of that. Mysteriously blended with my father’s strength and unwavering dedication to family, they have been my models.



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