The Finger of Wisdom
Brody and I started out working in the parts department of a large auto dealership in Philadelphia’s 'greater northeast' about the same time, We met up in the mornings for coffee, and then left driving our respective Chevy pickups into some of the more scenic sections of the city under the Frankford Elevated Railway for deliveries. That was the train that snaked its way from Bridge and Pratt Streets and then dove underground into the subway as it entered the city.
The area where we delivered parts was dotted with pizzerias, funeral parlors, neighborhood bars, and body shops by the dozen.This is apparently where they filmed much of the movie Rocky beneath the dirty green girders that form the rail bed above the bustling traffic.
Having been raised as a Reform Jew, I avoided the religious entrapments that many others fell into, but nonetheless, I was aware and proud of the Judaic culture. I stood ready to defend our nation when and if the time came, and I made it clear that I would not come in to work on Yom Kippur, But then, when the boss asked Brody if he’d be in, he casually figured “why not?”- he could use the money - and that was that.
The parts department employed at least twelve people with jobs as countermen, drivers, stock boys, gophers, etc. Of the six countermen, only old Walt was Jewish, which brought the grand total of Semitic employees to three, him, Brody, and me. Every day Walt and I would exchange greetings but we never really talked because of the difference in our ages.
Walt had a solemn but friendly demeanor and was a hard worker who really knew ball joints from coil springs. His serious expertise was revered and only challenged occasionally, as he worked the shop counter that served the mechanics rather than the general public. This is where the parts men dispatched all the necessary components the mechanics required to quell customer complaints. It is generally the heart of the industry, where crumbled cookies are reassembled and dreams are restored.
Depending on how the cards fell, the shop counter played host to interactions that ranged from moments of hilarity to near fisticuffs between the blue-shirted mechanics and the white-clad parts men. Brody and I never dared get involved and if tempers flared and humor didn't step in to diffuse a showdown, we knew the only safe place to hide.The counter that Walt presided over represented the demilitarized zone between the two opposing sides that vaccilated between highly explosive war and dissolution into a tenuous peace. Some contend this counter to be the historic battleground where practical application always deflated academic theory.
Automotive engineers were cursed daily in moments of disgust for building things the wrong way by those who had to fix them (even though they made a nice living doing so). And while no one ever threw a punch, the possibility of this happening always kept a nice edge on life --and in a few instances, nearly cost Walt his hide. I had great respect for this weathered old man who shrugged off threats of physical violence like a pesky mosquito and got on with his work. Old and bony, Walt was a brave man to face what he did day after day.
Walt’s frail physical presence was far from intimidating compared to the younger, feistier blood that slammed down greasy hubs, bearings, and whatever else was busted, in front of this practiced parts man and demanded the new replacement item ‘yesterday’. It was Walt's example that made me feel that later in life I, too, might hope to earn my oats at the “shop counter” out back (as opposed to the retail customer counter).
The veteran mechanics recognized the value of the parts department and saw this as the MASH unit of the business, but the cocky young techs resented this time-wasting detour. Even if the counterman could magically hand them the part they needed at the very moment they stepped up to the counter, it still wouldn't be fast enough. The young blood displayed impatience and arrogance in a flashy but futile attempt at the macho persona they felt was required to command the respect to speed things up. The clever ones, however, seized the opportunity and stepped up to the counter as if they were standup comics stepping onto the stage on Open Mic Night.
You couldn’t help but admire the way Walt handled customers, each one in a timely manner regardless of their temperament or mood. He maintained a business attitude and treated everyone equally with an air of respect, even when undeserved-- and the treatment wasn’t necessarily reciprocal.
When Walt overheard Brody stating his holiday intentions and agreeing to come into work on the highest of Jewish holidays,Yom Kippur. he waited for the right moment and pulled him aside by the fan belt rack for an important little chat. I was nearby and caught the entire performance.
With one eyebrow up and the other one lowered, Walt raised a finger in front of Brody’s face to hold his attention and to emphasize the seriousness of the wisdom he was about to tender. With a slight bend in it, his finger wagged in perfect timing to the beat of each word he delivered, carefully and precisely. The drama that unfolded was as entertaining as it was enlightening and I was held captive during the entire process.
“Whether you’re religious and attend Shul,” he began in a clear, even tone, “or you are not religious and choose not to attend, you should always take the holiday off from work in honor of those who celebrate it.” Then, with one eye just a slit, he held up the revered finger of wisdom and said the sage words I can still hear today: “If you don’t show respect for your own religion, other people won’t either.” These words ring as true today as they did then. I saw the sense of it register on Brody’s face as he collected himself and readjusted his thoughts accordingly. It made me proud.
The following day Brody sought out the boss and calmly stated he would not be in for work on Yom Kippur.
The years flew by, I married, had children, and moved across the country for a job in Pasadena. It was barely ten years, but it was a lifetime. The world had changed, I had changed. And with so many new things on my plate, the excitement of my teenage memories were mostly forgotten.
I now had a job in a large dealership that catered to some of the wealthiest people in southern California. And true to my goal, I worked the shop counter along with several other countermen. Then one day I noticed a familiar face, new among the staff. Miraculously, I found myself staring at a graying Brody from back East. What were the chances we would ever cross paths on the other side of the continent, let alone end up working together ten years later?
In the fall, as the Jewish holidays rolled around, we both put in for time off to observe Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. A younger mechanic, also Jewish and fresh out of school, didn’t feel the need to miss work. We overheard him tell the boss he’d be in on those days, and this had an immediate effect on both of us. But it was Brody who took the bull by the horns and pulled the young gun aside to have a serious chat in the air bag aisle. I could see what was going on as I watched and listened, and I thought “Whoa! Here we go again.”
I experienced an erie deja vu
Now Brody was the ‘wise old Jew’
With one eyebrow up and the other one down
The finger of wisdom rode back into town
In my mind I heard the whistling theme of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly wafting in the background as, in a low even tone, Brody repeated the wisdom as it had been bestowed upon him long ago and far away. Word for word he explained what old Walt had instilled in us all those years ago (finger and all), and what was at stake here. As he reached the lesson, I heard Walt's immortal words of old: “If you don’t show respect for your own religion, other people won’t either.” I grinned to myself and nearly applauded.
His protégé was clearly star-struck. The young man’s eyes sparkled as if somewhere inside a switch had been thrown and he acquired a vague smile. I had seen the beauty of this wisdom pass from age to youth twice now and quietly wondered how many more generations would benefit from this lesson. It was perhaps one of my deepest religious experiences when our new found young friend mentioned that he had gone back to the boss and put in for time off for the holidays as Brody suggested. I think we both thought about our old finger-wielding sage and silently thanked him.
Calendars rarely make mistakes but when they do, you can bet it’s on a Jewish holiday. Ironically, we were brave enough to choose the right path but we slipped up and landed on our collective tuchus. Technically, every Jewish holiday begins at sunset. And even today calendars may err as to which day to label as the holiday, the day it actually starts, or the following full day. I’ve seen this go both ways and this was one of those times we assumed the calendar knew what it was talking about and allowed wisdom to fly out the window. We all took off the wrong days.
It's a wonder no one was struck by lightening because in the end it appeared that the ‘wise old Jew’ wasn’t so wise after all. But even though we missed taking off the right holiday dates, the sun still rose and set over the beautiful California hills and Brody and I both learned two new things:
1) Don’t go aiming the finger of wisdom at someone unless you know how to shoot the thing! and
2) Apparently 'Somebody' has an impeccable sense of humor, but I'm not pointing any fingers.