a Jewish Story

    January 2009            
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No Returns

By Keith Bloomfield

The train left Amsterdam Centraal at 7 PM and sped toward the Hoek van Holland as it did on every run to meet the ferry to Harwich.  Gary Fischer was on route to meet a friend in London.  It was vacation time for Gary.  Two weeks away from his studies in Dublin.  The first week was spent in Amsterdam and the second was to be spent with his friend Steve.  Both boys attended college in the US and were enjoying a semester abroad.   It was 1970 and the world was so very different than today.

Gary was a New Yorker, born and bred.  Ski, as everyone called Steve Kaminski, lived just outside of Boston.  He earned his nickname not so much from a shortening of his surname, but because of his passion for the sport of skiing.  He said he learned to ski before he learned to walk and if you ever saw him in competition, it was easy to believe. He began competing as soon as he was old enough to meet the eligibility requirements and he excelled in virtually every event he ever entered.  When he started high school, a major equipment manufacturer sponsored him.  Steve was the only student his college had ever recruited for athletic ability alone and he applied the same competitive edge he used in skiing, to everything he did.

Gary slept most of the way from Amsterdam, missing the blur of the villages and towns that rushed past the window.  His week in the Netherlands had been a whirlwind for him – the museums, the markets, and the nightlife of the city still spun around in his head.  It would have been perfect if the house where Anne Frank and her family had hid during World War II had not been closed for repairs. It was one of the principal reasons he had come to Amsterdam.

In Schiedam, he followed the crowd and soon found himself boarding the Stenaline Ferry for the overnight trip across the North Sea.  Gary had not eaten since lunch and once aboard the boat he found the dining room.  It was empty.  “Maybe folks don’t eat until later,” he thought, as he bought the roast chicken with mashed potatoes special and selected a seat at an empty table – they were in fact, all empty. 

As he was about to begin eating a voice called to him, “I hope you don’t mind if I join you,” said a gentleman in a green suit with a finely waxed moustache.  “I make the trip all the time and I rarely have any company in the dinning room this time of year.”

“It’s my first time,” said Gary, bringing a fork-full of chicken to his lips.

 Suddenly, the stranger reached out and grabbed his wrist.  “I wouldn’t do that young man, if I was you.  The North Sea can be fierce this time of year.”

“What are you talking about,” retorted Gary.  “I’m hungry.” Gary finished his meal despite the stranger’s warning.

“You’ll have to learn the hard way.  I’ll see you in Harwich,” chuckled the stranger as Gary left the dining room.

Gary Fischer had confused invulnerability with youthful foolishness.  As the night progressed and the ferry heaved left and right on the turbulent waters of the North Sea, Gary heaved along with her.  He was quite a sight when Ski spotted him at Liverpool Station the next morning.

“I recognize that look,” laughed Ski.  “You had dinner, right?” Gary slowly nodded.  “I should have warned you about that.  Anyway, it’s great to see you.  I have the week all planned out.”

Gary’s head throbbed as he listened to the agenda his friend had assembled for the visit.  Though Gary had cut his hair on the advice of a family friend who made frequent trips to Europe, Ski had let his grow.  They had not seen each other since the previous May and Ski’s curly red tresses had become an unruly mop.  He had also grown a moustache to complement his titian curls. They were a strange pair as they took the tube to Ski’s flat in Earl’s Court.  Once there, Gary slept for most of the day. 

“Tomorrow morning I have an errand to run,” said Ski to his half-asleep friend.  “I’ll meet you at the Wimpy Bar in Piccadilly Circus at noon.”

When Gary awoke the next morning, Ski was gone.  “He said he had something to do near Regent Street.  And you’re. . .”

Gary interrupted one of Ski’s many flat-mates.  “And I’m supposed to meet him in Piccadilly Circus at noon.  Well, if I made it from Amsterdam to London, I can certainly get to Piccadilly.  Which way is the tube station?”  Ski’s flat-mate gave him directions.  Gary dressed and left.  He too had a stop to make en route to Piccadilly.

London had a proud Jewish history and its Central Synagogue was to celebrate its 100th anniversary in a few short weeks.  The building on Great Portland Street had been consecrated in November 1870.  The community flourished during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  In 1917, during World War I, the Synagogue basement was used as an air-raid shelter.  In 1940, the Synagogue became an assembly center for refugees whose homes had been destroyed by enemy bombing.   Finally, on May 10, 1941, the building became a victim as well, when German bombs leveled the structure. Its successor was finally consecrated in September 1948, a few months after the creation of the State of Israel.  The building that Gary was headed to, was the Synagogue’s most recent incarnation, built in 1958.  He stood in front of the edifice and tried to picture it at different times during its history.  He was proud to be a Jew and it permeated nearly everything he did.  He looked at his watch and realized that it was time for him to find his way to Piccadilly.

Piccadilly Circus is to London, what Times Square is to New York City.  Five streets converge at Piccadilly making it one of the world’s most congested traffic circles.  Historic landmarks, shopping, and restaurants put it near the top of most tourists’ must-see lists. Gary stationed himself in front of the Wimpy Bar and waited for his friend to arrive.  At the stroke of noon, Ski approached him, his long locks blowing in the October breeze.

“What’s in the box?” he asked his friend.

Nestled beneath Ski’s arm was a large, flat brown box, tied all around with thick brown twine.  “It’s something I bought.  I’ll show it to you when we get back to the flat.  I’m hungry, how about you?”

They found a restaurant nearby and settled in at a table. Ski placed the box on the floor, beneath the table. Though they took turns talking, Gary’s attention was always on the box.  They were quiet during the ride back to Earl’s Court.  “I probably spent more on this than I should have,” moaned Ski.  “But after I saw it, I had to have one too.”

Gary pondered all of the things that could be in the box and nothing seemed to fit.  When they reached the flat, none of Ski’s mates were home.  “You sit in the living room and I’ll bring it out to you.”  Ski disappeared into his room and Gary made himself comfortable on the couch.  “I think you’ll recognize it,” he called to his friend from the other room.  “Ready or not, here I come.”

Ski bounded into the living room in a long brown leather coat the same color as the kind of mustard you find at a deli.  Big brown buttons ran down the front of the garment.  What caught Gary’s attention was the electric-blue boa trim along its edges.  The feathery adornment wrapped around the neck, bordered its pockets, and encircled its sleeves.  Ski looked like a long skinny plastic worm, skirted in color to attract a Leviathan of the deep while it danced on the end of a hook.  “Jimi had one just like it,” he added.

Suddenly it all made sense: the hair, the moustache, and the coat.  It looked like something that Jimi could have worn in a photo for the cover of one of his all to few albums, with his southpaw-strung Strat, playing to the adulation of his fans.  Jimi could have gotten away with it. 

“No Steve!”  He only called him Steve when he was serious and Ski knew it.  “You don’t look anything like him.  How much did you pay for this?”

Ski took a deep breath,  “One hundred pounds.”

With one pound equal to $2.80, Gary did not need a pencil and paper to realize what the coat had cost his friend.  “Your parents are going to kill you.”

“Does it really look that bad?  Gary pointed to the bathroom.  Ski angled the mirror on the medicine cabinet door toward the bathtub and he stood on the edge of the tub so he would get the full effect.  Ski marched out of the bathroom with his head hung low.  “What was I ever thinking?” he moaned.  “I’ll never get my money back.”

“Why not?”

“Because there’s a big sign behind the counter that says ‘No Returns On Made To Order Goods.’  I practically had to twist the shop owner’s arm to make it for me.”

“Well you can’t keep it. Tomorrow it goes back to the store.  We’ll have to figure out a way to get your money back.”

Ski slowly unbuttoned the coat.  He took it off and carefully folded it before returning it to cardboard box.  He ran his fingers over the shiny leather and flicked one of the buttons with the tip of his finger. “I still think it’s a far-out looking coat.”

“So do I, but not on you.”   Gary brought the top of the box down on the coat and it disappeared from view.

The next morning, Ski and Gary caught the tube to Oxford Circus and strolled down Regent Street.  They turned left on Great Marlborough Street and Carnaby Street lay before them.  “Where are we going?” asked Gary.

“It’s called Zoom.  It’s about two blocks down on the left.  A guy named Mel owns it.  He was born in Iran and his family moved here when he was a kid.”

Ski gripped the box beneath his arm like a vise, while Gary looked at the store windows and the girls with long ironed hair and tiny miniskirts parading up and down the street, doing their best to be seen.

“Well here we are,” said Ski.

“Do you know what you’re going to say?”

“No,” replied Ski, reaching for the shiny brass doorknob.  There on the door jam was a long, slender Mezuzah. A Mezuzah is a decorative container affixed to the entrances of Jewish homes and businesses.  Inside the container is a tiny parchment that includes the words of the Shema - "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One."  Mel, the owner, was an Iranian Jew.  A plan began to blossom in Ski’s mind.  “I have an idea,” he whispered to Gary.  “Just let me do the talking and agree with everything I say.” As they entered the tiny shop, Ski brought his fingers to his lips and touched the metal cylinder.  An act of faith he had long ignored.

Ski laid the brown box on the glass-topped counter filled with used jeans, and tee shirts emblazoned with every imaginable design.  Ski motioned at the “No Returns” sign behind the counter.  Gary was not sure what Ski had in mind, but if anyone could pull it off, he could.  They would not have to wait long.  The door behind the counter opened and out walked Mel.  Gold bracelets encircled both wrists, nearly every finger sported a gold ring, some with, and some without highly polished stones.  Peeking out from his open collar was a massive Hebrew letter chai.  Chai is the eighteenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet and it means life.  Worn as a charm, it was supposed to bring good luck to its wearer.  Mel would need it. 

“Ah Ski, it’s you,” said Mel.  “Doesn’t it fit?  I knew I shouldn’t have rushed the tailor, but I promised that I would have it for you and I always keep my promises.”  He stopped and looked up at Gary.  “Ah, this is the friend you were telling me about.  I am Masoud Soleimani, but my friends call me Mel.  You can call me Mel because you’re a friend to Ski.” He reached out and shook Gary’s hand.  “I was telling Ski that I always wanted to visit the United States and especially New York.  We left Iran years ago.  It was a country filled with Jews.  We had good days and we had bad days.  It’s not a good place for Jews now.  You can smell it in the air.  Something is going to happen.  Now Ski, what’s is wrong with the coat?  Whatever it is, I will have it fixed,” he said with a flourish.

Ski slowly whet his lips with the tip of his tongue.  “It’s not the coat Mel.  It’s a letter I received from my parents.”  Gary listened closely.  “I’ve been drafted.  I’ll probably have to go to Vietnam and fight in the war.  I can’t do that Mel.  I’ve decided to go to Israel.  I need to return the coat so I can buy an airplane ticket.”

Mel took a deep breath and the smile melted from his face.  “I understand Ski.  I will be right back.”  Mel scooped up the box containing the coat and retired through the door behind the counter.  Gary and Ski exchanged glances in silence.  Mel quickly returned with a lumpy white envelope.  “Do what you feel is right and stand by your decision.”  He reached out and grabbed Ski’s hand between his two.  “Shalom Ski.  Peace unto you.”  He laid the envelope on the counter in front of him.  Ski retrieved the envelope and deposited it deep in the pocket of his jeans.

“Thank you Mel.  I‘ll never forget you.”

They backed out of the shop and walked briskly toward the underground.  “I can’t believe you got away with it,” said Gary.

“Neither can I.” Ski withdrew the envelope from his pocket and began to count the bills.  “Mel made a mistake.”

“What do you mean?  Let me count it.  You said you paid one hundred pounds.”  Gary flipped through the envelope’s contents.  “There’s one hundred and fifty pounds in this envelope.”

“Like I said, Mel made a mistake.”

“There was no mistake.  Mel knew exactly what he was doing.  You were just trying to get your money back.  You didn’t bargain on being on the receiving end of a mitzvah!”

“But he hardly knows me.”

“I think Mel would have done exactly the same thing for a perfect stranger.  He’s that kind of man. In his mind, the money wasn’t his to begin with.”

Ski felt sick to his stomach.  Mel believed his lie about going to Israel and found it in his heart to help Ski to get there.  He thought that Mel’s Judaism was a weakness that he could use to his competitive advantage.  He was so wrong.  A tear trickled down his cheek  “I can’t keep this extra money.”

“No Steve, you can’t.”

“Then what am I supposed to do?

“Return it!”


“That would be the right thing to do.”

“I’m too ashamed of myself.  We’ll go back tonight.  After the store closes.”

That night, Gary and Ski returned to Carnaby Street.  The street was deserted and only the lights from the shop windows illuminated the pavement.  Ski had scribbled a note on one side of the envelope before they left the flat.  He would slip the envelope under the door and leave.  When they arrived at Zoom, Ski could see a light at the back of the shop. “I thought the place would be empty by now.”

“Maybe it’s just the tailor working late.”

Prominently displayed on a mannequin in the store window, Gary saw Ski’s coat.  A tag with the word “SOLD” in bold black letters was pinned on one lapel.  Gary nudged his friend with an elbow.

“He sure didn’t waste any time,” observed Ski.  Ski bent down and tried to push the envelope under the door, but the space was too narrow.

“Is there a mail slot?”  asked Gary.

Ski looked all around the door and found nothing.  Just then, he saw Mel step out of the backroom and he pushed Gary away from the front of the shop.  “How fast can you run?” he asked his friend.

Gary looked at his friend quizzically.  “Fast enough,” he whispered.

“When I say NOW, start running.”  Ski wedged the envelope between the brass doorknob and the edge of the door and tapped on the glass.  As soon as he saw Mel look in his direction, he said “NOW!”  Gary and Ski ran up Carnaby Street to Great Marlborough Street. They turned onto Regent Street and ran all the way to the tube station without ever turning back. 

Mel unlocked the front door of the shop and the envelope fell to the ground.  He picked it up and found the extra fifty pounds he had given to Ski.  Then he read Ski’s note:

    “I lied to you Mel about being drafted.  When I finally tried on the coat, I realized that I had made a mistake.  Instead of telling you the truth, I told you a story.  When I realized that you were a Jew like me, I thought that I could use it to my advantage.  I was wrong.  Not only are you a better Jew than me, but you’re a better man as well.  I’m ashamed of myself and I hope that you can find it in your heart to forgive me some day.  I’ve learned a lesson from you that I will always remember.”

Mel smiled as he read the note.  He put the money in his pants pocket.  He carefully folded the envelope and placed it in his shirt pocket.  He looked up and down the street, but he was alone.  He thought he heard the distant sound of sneakers echoing on the concrete.  He went back into the store and locked the door behind him; a broad smile brightened the dark shop.

Gary enjoyed the balance of his visit to London.  Both boys returned to school the following semester and a larger school, out west, recruited Ski the next year.  Though Gary tried repeatedly to contact his friend, it was not to be.

Sometimes, when the pressures of life clear like clouds in the wake of a rainstorm, Gary recalls his trip to London.  He thinks about Ski’s leather coat, their friend Mel, and most of all, a simple, unselfish act of pure tzedakah that will stay with him for the rest of his life.

* * * * *

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from the Februrary 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine