AuthorCohen, Jed Phillip

What was Morty Goldfader doing in the Bronx?

In candlelit joints up and down the flanks of Manhattan, the boys of 181st Street asked themselves about their pal. First, they laid out the facts. Sixty-eight years breathing, widower of five years, retiree of one--the ratios weren't newsworthy--Mortimer Lewis Goldfader had traded his castle in Scarsdale for an apartment in University Heights. He called it his "second act"--he was consulting for an assisted living facility in Highcrest and wanted to be near his new gig. The boys didn't buy it. "It's a repetition compulsion," said Norman Grunbaum, a Freudian. "He's revisiting the primal scene of trauma. And the way his mother used to smack him around, there's plenty of it to keep him busy." Chickie Leventhal thought it was noblesse oblige gone wrong. "Look, my firm writes a fat check to the United Way every year. I do hundreds of hours pro bono. Just last month, I defended some livery cab drivers against their nogoodnik boss. I don't need to live in the shit to be a stand-up guy. I look just fine in my mirror on 5th Avenue." Their wives thought Goldfader was brave. "Brave?" said Alfred Kaplan, the real estate broker. "It's brave to take a job you don't need instead of kicking back somewhere warm? It's brave to put your life on the line at 70, when the cemetery's already mowing your plot? Yeah, for you, from Woodmere, it's brave. But if you were born where we were, it's anything but, It's the work of an imbecile. It's nuts."

Goldfader didn't understand what all the excitement was about. When his friends rang him up, he made a pragmatic case: "What do I need a big house in Westchester for? Junie's buried five years, the kids are settled, the thing cost a fortune to heat. We bought in under a million--the work it needed--and sold it for five. The asking price. I set up trusts for the children and I still have enough for a rainy day. Now I'm paying $800 a month for a one-bedroom, two-bath on Davidson Avenue. Where the fishmonger used to be. You remember? Tell Mama: Get your nova from Naphtali. I take the bus to work. Pleasant ride; doorstep to desk in ten, fifteen minutes. While you're sucking exhaust on the FDR or squishing into the 4 train."

His buddies still couldn't square it. What would his poor father say? Pale, hairy-handed Avram Goldfader, his jaw and throat raspberried with razor burn, had toiled as a track worker for the Interborough Rapid Transit Authority.

In the 1940s, this meant repairing mechanical signals and switches, maintaining rails and ties, installing wooden gap filler, clearing the tracks of snow and debris. All day Avram danced above Jerome Avenue like Nijinsky, futzing with cranks and gearboxes and risking fatal electrocution to provide for Morty and his brother. Goldfader's mother, meanwhile, did sewing work out of their apartment. Leah was cheaper than the tailors on the Grand Concourse; she preferred the challenge of modern French dresses but wouldn't turn up her nose at challah covers or an embellished tallit for a bar mitzvah. Her kitchen had the feeling of a seraglio--sultry, shadowy, overrun by full-fleshed women, with steam rising from the sink and fabrics streaming from clotheslines overhead. Every night of the week, Sabbath no different, Leah Goldfader could be found humming over her machine, the treadle rattling like the El, her muscular fingers pressing and turning the cloth. The veins on the backs of her hands were kinky like a stock-index graph; her fingertips were burnished with calluses. Grade-school Goldfader joked that she could rob a bank and get away with it--she'd leave no fingerprints.

The Goldfaders, like the Grunbaums and Leventhals and Kaplans, like the rest of the hard-up yiddishkeit of the West Bronx, struggled so that their children could make good. Study and keep your mouth shit, they said, and you'll be royalty in New York. Just remember your humble tate/mame when you're drinking in the sunset from Riverside Drive. The Goldfader boys, alongside scores of dutiful sons and daughters across the five boroughs, did as they were told. They gave the truth to their parents' prophecies. Morty's younger brother, one example, graduated Brandeis and NYU law and now chaired a Wall Street firm. His base was seven figures, plus a rainmaker's share of profits. His due-he was the exclusive representative of Kazakhstan's national oil company. The Kazakhs, suspicious of Jews, overlooked his last name because the contracts he devised secured them billions. Also because he was an impressive guy. He spoke Russian and French with fluency. He wore custom Italian suits and wide silk ties. He was groomed daily by a live-in attendant: The pewter hair was slicked back with pomade and the beard, spotted like a composition book cover, was kept short. He'd even married a shikse from Park Avenue named Kelly. They owned a townhouse in the East 70s that once belonged to a UN secretary-general.

So in Alexander Goldfader, the assimilationist dream had been fully realized. Not that the older brother had underachieved--Morty's success, too, was tremendous. After Columbia's College and Mailman School, he'd worked at Cornell-Weill and then Langone Medical Center, ultimately as its chief financial officer. He was a sought-after authority on hospital administration and wrote editorials for the Times. He was cautious on reform, recognizing that most doctors overprescribed for safety's sake, not to pad bills or screw policyholders. Rumors persisted that he'd be tapped for a federal post--in whatever administration: His politics were a soup--but he never made it past the long list. That was no great shame. Accounting for the thousands of patients, doctors and students across the NYU system was heavy duty enough.

His wife was the civil servant in the family, anyway. She'd fared better in the appointee racket. When June felt the agita that turned out to be stomach cancer, she was chief judge for the Southern District. Goldfader had met her at an NYU gala, through his brother; at the time she was Abe Fortas's ace clerk. Leaning conspiratorially over the laden table, June Isikoff was thin to the point of brittleness and had a witch's bump in the nose, but she argued circles around Alex and told dirty jokes. Her smile was clever, but also warm. She had the entire table in stitches.

At the start of their courtship, Junie was enthusiastic over Goldfader's broad shoulders, his wheat-green eyes and the sliver of space between his front teeth. She told him he looked like a real-deal Polish peasant. Goldfader, for his part, adored June's mouth. It was plum-colored, pouty; the lips swelled outward like a horn bell. All day in court the mouth sounded off, then yielded softly to him at night.

He proposed to her twice; she accepted the encore. They raised four children in a mansion in Scarsdale. There was water damage in the basement, but that was a nonfactor. The house was built into the surrounding foliage--moppish forsythias, pines, changeling deciduous trees--villa-style, with an intimidating stone facade and small, half-moon windows designed for archers. The backyard was vast, level, bordered by dense juniper. Thanksgivings, the Goldfader kids and their cousins played six-on-six football between two shaggy willow trees. On New Year's Day, if the weather had been cold enough, the family skated on a nearby pond.

In the eyes of his old friends--who'd made gains themselves and become central players in finance, medicine, academe--Goldfader's allotment of time on Earth had been well spent. He'd been a good earner. His kids were launched. He had his height, his looks, his hair, his health. The guy was set up for a graceful exit. Everyone assumed he'd spend his twilight years in Miami, wearing pleated chinos and Panama hats, chaperoning a litter of grandchildren down to the beach, lighting a Yahrzeit candle for Junie once a year. But instead he'd left Langone and taken a job with a no-name place in the Bronx; he'd sold his house...

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