The delivery work was kind of hard on me. Those sacks of rice and potatoes could get pretty heavy. Most times there was another boy on the truck to help out. On this particular day Micah Lieberman worked with me. He was a couple of years older than me, and bigger. Had dark, curly hair and seemed to be smiling all the time. He lived several blocks from me. We saw each other mostly at school, but we weren’t really close friends.
The Saturday morning in question started out routinely. Warm, damp air settled in a wispy fog over everything. I showed up at the store a few minutes before my seven o’clock starting time. Mr. Minelli was standing next to his red truck making notations in his important black book. He smiled when he saw me strolling up to the truck. I thought he was a very nice man, and so did my father. “Joe Minelli is a good guy,” my dad had told me. “He’ll treat you fair and look out for you.” I think my father had some other kind of side business going with Mr. Minelli, and I’m pretty sure it had something to do with the funny-smelling stuff my parents liked to roll up in cigarette paper and smoke together on the weekends.
“You and Micah can finish loading the truck,” Mr. Minelli instructed.
I nodded and climbed up on the dock. Several sacks and baskets full of produce were sitting at the back of the truck. I didn’t see Micah, so I started the loading by myself. But just then Micah showed up wearing a White Sox baseball cap and patched blue jeans.
“I’m not late,” he said to me, jovially. “You’re early.”
“Sox will win the pennant this year,” Micah said as we loaded the truck. “Billy Pierce and Early Wynn are the best pitchers in the American League.”
“You betting on it?” I asked.
“Yeah. If I can get somebody to bet against me.”
“Well, it can’t be me because I think the Sox will win it, too.”
“Huh. I know if my brother, Jacob, was here he’d bet against me. He thinks the Yankees can’t be beat. And everybody knows they’re out of it this year. He’d figure they were going to come from behind and win it all.”
“Where’s your brother? I haven’t seen him for a long time.”
Micah glanced around nervously and lowered his voice. “He’s in Mississippi working with freedom fighters. They’re doing sit-ins on buses, and at lunch counters like in Woolworth’s. They’re trying to help your people so they don’t keep on being treated bad.”
I’d seen things on the TV news and heard my parents and their friends discussing what was going on down South. “The Civil War was never really over in this country,” I’d heard my father say just the other night. “The Confederacy still wants to have its way. The organizers of this civil rights movement preach non-violence, but there’s going to be plenty blood shed before it’s all over.”
“Why does your brother want to help Negro people? You all are white people.”
Micah shrugged. “He believes in doing what’s right. My father is like that, too. He’s a union organizer.”
Micah laughed. “I see you’ve got lots to learn about the world. A union organizer brings working people together on their jobs, so things can be better for them.”
I realized there was a right and wrong side to these grown-up situations, and I belonged on the side with my parents. I didn’t really know all that much about what was going on down south, or with union organizing. I was still more interested in things like comic books and baseball.
Mr. Minelli made a noisy entrance, coughing and slamming the door, when he climbed into the truck cab behind the wheel. Micah cut his sarcastic eye at me, and I grinned.
Traffic was light on the South Side streets that Saturday morning as the vegetable truck rumbled along its route. Light drizzle came down out of the fog. The windshield wipers made a rhythmic squeaking noise sweeping the glass. We made a couple of deliveries before Mr. Minelli stopped and parked the truck. He got out and went into a restaurant and came back a few minutes later with doughnuts and coffee—milk for us youngsters.
We wolfed down our snacks and resumed the morning deliveries while it rained harder. Although the atmosphere was murky I felt a glow inside knowing that when the work was done I would receive my five dollars pay and most likely something more. There were comics I wanted to buy. An old neighborhood man named Mr. Gault kept some rarities, in a box inside his newspaper stand a couple of blocks from my house. He’d shown me an old Batman comic that I wanted real bad. He contended that collectors would pay him good money for it, but he’d let me have it instead for just a dollar because he knew my parents, and he figured I was an ace student in school, which I suppose I was.
Micah knew how to work. He knew the right way to lift heavy loads, and Mr. Minelli didn’t have to give him much direction. I carried my weight, but needed Micah’s help sometimes when things got too heavy. We were making a delivery at a church where I made a misstep while carrying a load and fell against a kitchen counter. A bottle of ketchup got knocked onto the floor and broke, spilling and splattering. The lady that let us in to drop off the produce was a tall woman with skin the color of maple syrup and thick lenses in heavy black frames, making her look like she was wearing goggles. “You clumsy boy,” she snapped at me. “Look at the mess you’ve made. Where’s Mr. Minelli?”
Micah rushed in to my defense. “It was just an accident, m’am. We’ll clean it up for you.”
She showed us where the mop and bucket were kept, and we quickly took care of the mess. When we were done she stood over the clean spot and frowned. “Very well. But be careful, you hear, young man?” She gave me a little squeeze on the shoulder.
We hurried back to the truck. Mr. Minelli was about to come looking for us.
“Lady in there loves to chat,” Micah said.
“Yeah,” Mr. Minelli agreed. “I know how she is. But don’t let the customers tie you up for too long. We’ve got more stops on the route.”
“Yes, Mr. Minelli,” we replied, almost in tandem.
Micah leaned over and whispered to me as the truck eased away from the church. “I thought the old dame was going to make us pay for the ketchup.”
The rain had stopped by the time we reached our next drop-off point at the Lake Shore Country Club. I’d never made this stop before. Mr. Minelli had to show something to a guard at the front gate, which was like the entryway to some regal castle. Once past the entrance, the truck lumbered along a gravel roadway past rows of colorful flowers. To our left lay an expansive golf course, mostly obscured by the eerie, low-hanging fog. To the right were horse stables where little pennants flew from the rooftops. Beyond that was the lakefront sandy beach, and directly ahead was our destination, a grand three-story building with a driveway which swung in an arc past the front doors.
Mr. Minelli took a cut off from the roadway, ended up at the rear of the building and told us to start unloading. He went up to a door and pressed the bell.
A heavyset man wearing a white short-sleeved shirt and a red necktie opened the door. Wore his silver hair slicked back into a ducktail. Mr. Minelli handed over a sheet of paper.
The man gave the paper a quick scrutiny and said, “Bring it on in.”
Micah and I were unloading quickly and getting ready to start taking the stuff inside when the man wearing the red necktie came over to us. He pointed at me and said, “You can take those bags and baskets right on in,” then pointed at Micah and told him in a gruff voice, “You can’t set foot inside there, understand?”
I didn’t know what was happening. I hadn’t seen Micah do anything wrong, like I’d done earlier with the ketchup at the church.
Just then Mr. Minelli walked up. The man in the necktie rushed over to him. I heard him say in a coarse whisper, “No damned Hebrews allowed in here, no kind of way. Don’t you know that?”
Mr. Minelli dropped his head, like a little boy being chastised. “Yeah, yeah. I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.”
The necktie man glowered at Micah. I thought he was going to say more, but he didn’t.
Mr. Minelli and I carried on with the work while Micah waited in the truck.
When we finished taking in the load, the necktie man handed Mr. Minelli an envelope, which I’m sure contained a check. The two men exchanged farewells. Mr. Minelli and I returned to the truck.
A Gothic silence held sway after we got rolling again. Micah sat with his hands folded in his lap, staring out at the bleary fog. I didn’t know what to say, so I just kept quiet.
“Micah, I’m really sorry about what happened,” Mr. Minelli finally piped up. “That guy was a first-class jerk. But let me tell you. There was a time when my people were discriminated against, and still are. And look what’s happening right now in the south.” He stared directly at me when he said that. “So, I guess all of us have to take a turn at being picked on in this world.”
We finished the route, almost in silence. Mr. Minelli tried to strike up conversation a few times, but Micah chilled things out with a seething vibration and rolling eyes. I talked to Mr. Minelli, if he directed his attention specifically at me, but I preferred to not say anything. I understood what had happened to Micah at the country club in an intuitive sense, but I didn’t understand the nitty gritty of it. But I knew Micah’s feelings were hurt real bad.
When we were back at the store, Mr. Minelli took us into his office and paid us. Apologized again for what had happened at the country club. He doubled our pay, and I think he gave Micah some extra money on the side.
That evening I got a chance to tell my father about what happened and how Mr. Minelli had tried to apologize afterward. Dad looked at me with a very sad expression on his face. “I feel so sorry for Micah. And I feel sorry for you, too, son. And for Mr. Minelli. You all were exposed to a strong dose of human ugliness. White folks are real strong on that in this country. This time it was directed against the Jewish boy. I suppose Joe could’ve spoke up, but I know he’s out there struggling to make a living like all the rest of us.”
I went to Minelli’s to work just two more Saturdays, then I stopped going. I think I came to dislike Mr. Minelli. I’d lost respect for him.
The extra money from Mr. Minelli evidently did nothing to appease Micah. He never came back, and he stopped speaking to me at school and on the street. I think he might’ve felt more embarrassed than angry with me.
The friendship between Mr. Minelli and my dad got strained, too. My parents continued to buy fruits and vegetables from him, but also took more of their business elsewhere.
Many years later, I happened to cross paths again with Micah. He was working at a downtown jewelry store where I’d stopped in to look. Our gazes locked and we stared at each other for a long moment. I’m sure he recognized me. But he said nothing.