One day a couple of weeks ago, I heard an urgent voice with a Brooklyn accent in my head. It was a middle-aged woman who would not take no for an answer: She wanted to start her own business. She's not the first character who appeared to me out of nowhere. Just the loudest. This is the story she spoke to me.
My Crystelle is not what you’d call a big earner. So the other day, when I goes in the salon for my usual, I slips her a $50.
“Mrs. Entwhistle, what’s this for?” she says, but I notice there’s no hand hesitation on the way to her pocket.
“Honey,” I says, “it’s because I got real pain-in-the-ass hair,” and I also notice she don’t deny it.
So later, when she finishes my comb-out, real full, extra spray, like I like it, I asks her, I says, “Crystelle honey, you know I ain’t the kind to poke my beak in your business, but I can’t help asking how much you take in a week, on account of this place being so small and all, and there’s never hardly any clientele.”
So she leans in close and whispers, she says, “Mrs. E, this place ain’t supposed to take in a lot of money on account of the boss has other businesses, and he launders the money over here that he makes over there.”
So now I’m confused, but I don’t say nothing, and I walk over to the off-track because it’s Ladies’ Day Thursday. I’m thinking how nice it would be to win big and open up a little bakery (but no wedding cakes, too much agita). So then I’m crossing Delancey and I sees my friend, Rhoda Lazinsky, on the opposite sidewalk by the green grocer, and I calls to her, I yells, “Rhodie, don’t buy the plums! They’re non-union!”
She gives me the A-okay and I keep walking, although these orthopedic inserts are real bastards until they’re broken in. Fortunately, I can afford a taxi. My Sollie, he makes a nice living, thank God. He likes to say, “The gravy train always has happy passengers.”
Which makes me think about what Crystelle said, and I’m thinking I have to ask Sollie (he knows everyone who’s anyone in Brooklyn and two more burroughs), what kind of “other businesses” was she talking about?
So at dinner, after the fish soup but before the roast chicken, I says to Sollie, I says, “Who owns the Bon-Ton Salon on west Delancey, and what other businesses do they own?”
Sollie starts buttering a slice of rye-with-caraway but he doesn’t say a word. I know him well enough to know I touched a nerve. Normally, nothing can stop him from business gossip (which he says is NOT gossip because it’s actual information, whereas women’s gossip is made up). When I sit down, leaving the chicken to get cold in the pan, Sollie sighs and swallows.
“You do,” he says.
I stare at him like a poodle in a butcher shop.
“What do you mean, I do?” I says.
“I mean, there is a corporation with your name on the letterhead that owns some nice small businesses, and the Bon-Ton is one of them.”
“Sollie,” I says, “are you telling me there’s stationery with the name Mayda Entwhistle on it that I never knew about?”
“Honey,” Sollie says, and I can tell he really wishes I’d bring in the chicken, “it happens all the time. Businessmen put companies or cars or property in their wives’ or children’s names so that if something ever happens, like a tax problem, the government can’t take those business away.”
“What exactly are those other businesses under your corporation, Sol Entwhistle?” I says. I’m still in shock. I’m thinking, “I’ve been paying to get my hair done for eight years at a salon I myself own?”
Sollie picks up his plate with an insulted expression and walks to the kitchen, but I notice he doesn’t take mine with. He serves himself both drumsticks and the livers.
Me, I’m waiting for an answer. For all I know, I already own a bakery.
Sollie chews for a few minutes and I finish a glass of Manishewitz (red, but not the sweet kind).
“You own,” Sollie says, putting down his fork and counting on his fingers, “the off-track on Delancey, the Bon-Ton, a bar in Queens where the clientele go to see women dance, and a two-storey building by the 125th Street subway full of dentists’ offices and one for electrolysis.”
He takes a sip of wine and smiles at me with red teeth.
Now my Sollie, I met him fresh out of the gate at the end of WW2, even before he took the cross-town bus home to see his Mama. I was working at the station where the troop trains came in, along with about a hundred other girls, to give our GIs a big welcome. Sollie stepped off the train with his rucksack and his wide brown eyes, and I knew right there my life’s work was going to be making that man smile. So of course I walked right up, hooked my arm through his and said, “Welcome home, soldier! What company were you in?”
Two months later, he puts a gold ring on my finger and we move upstairs from my father’s dry goods store. Sollie has a real head for business, and I can bake. For a while, I operate a little street cart where I sell hot cross buns and apple turnovers. Sollie uses the money from my cart to set up other street peddlers.
He always says, “Mayda, every dollar is just a seed to make more dollars grow.”
On Friday morning I make a nice pot of Oolong tea and sit at the kitchen table to consider my situation. Part of me is miffed at Sollie for keeping secrets, but part of me is very proud that he has built up so many nice businesses. But all these years, it occurs to me, we haven’t exactly been living in high cotton. Someone has benefitted from these companies, and I’d like to know who. The Off-Track and the bar, I'm sure, are raking in the gelt.
Since I’d just had my hair done, I decide to go and visit my companies and introduce myself to my employees. Plus, I am very curious to know, who is the man who finds it necessary to launder proceeds through my beauty parlor? If this man is making excessive money, then shouldn’t he be sending more profits back to Sollie and me? I have a good mind to fire him. In fact, I decide right there to make Crystelle the manager of the Bon Ton.
My first stop is the office building on 125th street. It’s very plain, and I’m right away thinking it could use a little color. I make a note to order plum wine awnings for all the windows and the front door. Inside, I locate the rental office, but it’s empty. I leave a post-it note on the door asking the agent to call me. I notice that the electrolysis business is empty, too.
Next, I taxi to Queens to see my bar. It is closed at 10 a.m., but I take notes just the same. The windows could use a good washing. Also, the neon sign that says “Girls, Girls, Girls” is flickering. We’ll need to order a new one.
Back in Brooklyn, I have the taxi drop me at the Off-Track and I go inside to have a word. Benny, the front-of-house manager, is pleasant But when I tell him I need to speak to the top man, he gets an expression like he ate a bad shrimp.
“No can do, Mrs. E,” he says. “This ain't a social club.”
When I tell him it’s urgent, his wrinkle multiplies.
“Benny, you look like a Sharpei,” I says. “Go in the back and ask the gentleman to come talk to a customer, will you please?”
Finally, Benny goes in the back room and five minutes later he comes out, followed by a small man with a long face and a comb-over.
“Yes Ma’am, how can I help you?” combover asks, although his voice don’t sound so helpful.
“My name is Mayda Entwhistle, wife of Sollie Entwhistle,” I says by way of introduction.
He gives me the dead eye.
“Entwhistle,” I repeat. I am waiting for the penny to drop. I mean, surely the man knows who his boss is.
“Lady, I don’t care if you’re a train whistle. I’m a busy man,” he says. “Is there a problem with a recent wager?”
“No, but there IS a problem if you don’t know who I am,” I says. “I am the owner of this betting parlor.”
The combover turns to Benny and they burst out laughing.
“Lady,” he says, “unless your name is Gambino, you ain’t the boss of squat.” Then he turns and disappears behind a pea-green metal door.
I’m so flustered, I leave without asking his name or laying a bet. I can’t wait to get home and talk to Sollie.
“I went to visit my businesses.”
“Mayda… you… aw shit Mayda.”
“SOLLIE!” He had never used that word in my presence before.
“Mayda, you can’t just go barging into places and tell employees who’ve never seen you that you are their boss. It’s just not done.”
“But I am their boss, Sollie. You told me so last night. You said my name was on the letterhead.”
“Mayda… that’s just for show. That’s just a ... paper trail.”
“I don’t understand Sollie. Am I, or am I not, the owner of the office building, bar, and Off-Track?”
“In a sense, Mayda. But not in the sense where you have control over operations. There are men who take care of that. And some of them are very powerful men.”
“Who is this Gambino? Is he one of those men?
Sollie’s skin takes on a greenish tone and his eyes grow narrow, like a pickerel's.
“What do you know about the Gambinos, Mayda?”
“Nothing Sollie. That’s what I was going to ask you!”
Sollie gestures to the loveseat in the living room and pours us each a glass of wine. For a while he sits very quiet, and then the story comes out. When he’s through, I understand that our original seed dollars have grown into a forest, and that it takes a lot of muscle to cut down the trees. As a result, Sollie (and I) have acquired some partners along the way. They run the businesses. I am merely the name on a shell corporation. I am never to rock the boat or visit the Gambinos or their associates ever again.
“Sollie,” I says when he finally stops talking, “I need a favor from you. I think it is a reasonable favor, all things considered. If the favor is granted, I will keep silent forevermore.”
“What is it, Mayda?” he says, sounding very weary.
“I want to open a bakery.”
“How big?” he asks.
“The whole ground floor of the building at the 125th Street subway stop, where the empty rental and electrolysis offices are.”
“And if I arrange this, you promise to be good and not make trouble?”
“My word of honor.”
“Okay,” he says, at last. “We’ll split the profits between us two. If the Gambinos come around, just tell them they get the benefit of fresh hot cross buns and coffee, whenever they like, but nothing more.”
Then, “Deal?” he says.