Friday, July 29, 2016

not bad

In one of his books of essays, reminiscences of early twentieth-century growing up in the Jewish garment district of NYC, I don’t remember which book, I loved them so much that I had them all, Harry Golden writes about when his parents decided he needed a new suit. Probably twelve and maybe headed for his bar mitzvah at thirteen, he was a growing boy and needed a new suit. Dead serious, no simple matter, such a purchase would be a family undertaking, with several family members going along on the shopping trip. Mother, father, Harry himself. An aunt. And of course The Maven, the uncle or cousin or close family friend who had worked in a garment factory at one time or other and so styled himself and was considered the family expert in fabrics, their quality and value. He may have sewn on buttons, but having worked in the sweatshop he was the expert.

Harry’s story is hilarious, the family going from tailor shop to shop, looking at material, the maven examining cloth, jerking, twisting and pulling fabric knowingly, contemptuously muttering such things meant to get the price lowered as, “trash, a piece of junk.” In the bargaining the shopkeeper and family go back and forth about the quality and the price, and then the family storms out of the shop in a feigned rage that the shopkeeper tried to cheat them, vowing never to return as the shopkeeper follows them out and down the sidewalk pleading and still bargaining. It is as much liturgy as "The Lord be with you."

At one material shop the fabric is found, the right cloth. Harry’s suit will be made from this. As the shopkeeper looks on, the family sneers about the ugly color and poor quality, and makes to throw the bolt of cloth aside. The maven unfortunately blows everything. Pulling and twisting the cloth, he mutters, “Not a bad piece of goods.” The shopkeeper’s face lights up. The family’s bargaining position is utterly destroyed. Harry’s mother is furious. Furious. But a deal is made. Harry’s new double-breasted, brown suit will be made from this bolt. It will last years and be handed down in the family. The shopkeeper takes Harry’s measurements and the price is agreed, $12, twelve dollars. If not for the maven they might have got the suit for ten dollars, or even nine, the mother knows someone who got a better piece of cloth and superior suit for six. But the bargaining position was destroyed by a stupid remark from the “expert,” the — maven. They will return in a week for the fitting. As the family trudges home toward their tenement apartment, the uncle lagging back, scorned and shamed, Harry’s mother rages that he blew the deal. “Such a maven,” she fumes, “‘not a bad piece of goods.’ Such a maven.” The outrage will be told over and again in the family, and he is disgraced and discredited henceforth and forever.

Pastoral counseling, which as a retired parish priest I try to avoid altogether anymore, often happens to involve scenes, scenarios, situations in which I found myself over the years. If for no other reason than that, as Kohelet says (Ecclesiastes 1:9), “There is nothing new under the sun,” black shirt and white collar or not, I’ve been there, done that, felt that, suffered that, survived and moved on. As priest, pastor, clergyman, I have found, in fact, that everything that has happened to me in life has prepared me for this very moment of ministry. But I cannot, must not, tell or share my own travails. The best wisdom is for the maven to keep his mouth shut, to listen, nod wisely, even knowingly, keep his mouth shut, listen. Never, ever, ever utter, “Not a bad piece of goods,” "not bad," "not too bad," a discrediting misutterance that will follow you home, haunting, taunting, said and forever not unsayable.


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