Today would have been my grandmother’s 102 birthday, she was a wonderful Grandmother and I love, loved her as much as I’ve loved anyone…this is one of the Waks family legends involving The Big B-
The Emerald Story.
My grandmother had a flexible moral compass. Ok who am I trying to kid, my entire family has an open relationship with what other people say is “right”. This is not say that we are thieves and liars, cheaters or fakers, though possibly at one time or another every one of us has been one or the other.
My grandmother Bella, would find things. We never knew the real story of how she managed to come home with the wallets and tee-shirts, single gloves, wads of cash, broken earrings, jackets and silver dollars, but it seemed odd that one person could find so many wallets. We’d accept her gifts of used wallets curiously absent of any identifying factor but with cash intact, as we slip the one glove back into the drawer full of single gloves. This one time, though, she came home with suitcase full of raw emeralds.
It was the late 70’s or maybe it was the early 80’s, JFK was still being called Idlewild by long time New Yorkers and you could buy a plane ticket with cash and without ID. If you left your suitcase in by the gate while you went to make a phone call, you wouldn’t return surrounded by sniffing dogs and the bomb squad, though you may find, as this one gentleman did, that your suitcase was no longer your suitcase.
My grandparents, Bella and Willy were returning home from visiting his sister in Argentina, and while Bella was waiting for Willy to get their suitcases, she happened upon another one, just sitting there in the airport, obviously forgotten and abandoned. So she did what anyone would do, she picked it up and took it home, because it was too beautiful to leave just sitting there, all alone.
My Poppa Willy was not a great noticer of things; it is 100% possible that he had not realized that though they left South America with two suitcases they returned to Manhattan with three. I can easily see how this happened, since I myself have inherited Bella’s talent for small chaotic moments, we are whirlwinds of activity with too many things to say and too many bags and too many things in our hands, often with keys, glasses, chocolates and oranges spilling out of all sides. A quiet, thoughtful man can easily become befuddled around us, which is why we marry them.
Home again home again, with one more suitcase than they left with. Once their dirty things were in the washing machine, and their clean things were put away, and breakfast had been made, dishes washed, once Poppa Willy had settled comfortably in his chair with the New York Times and the radio blasting, Bella went to open the Suitcase.
It was a beautiful suitcase, embossed leather with brass hard ware; it must have been very expensive. It was lined inside with pockets, and at first she pulled out some beautiful men’s shirts so nice and white, hopefully they fit Willy. Underneath were a few pairs of just wonderful men’s underwear, so beautifully made. She could not believe her luck to find such lovely items, the suitcase could very well have been filled with dreck, on the other hand it could’ve been filled with money, which just goes to prove there’s all kinds of luck.
Underneath the shirts, the socks and the underwear was a largish cloth bag. The bag was heavy for its size; in fact it felt like it was full of rocks. What kinda meshuga carries around a bag of rocks? Unless…she held her breath and slid them out on to the bed in the small room. They were rocks, they were green rocks. She thought they could be emeralds, she’d have to call someone and certainly not Stinko Sam the Jeweler, that gonif. She’d call Ira, of course.
Ira, my father, was at that time, not without his nefarious contacts. My daddy started out as an Adman, a younger, Jewish Don Draper. But he’d moved on to working with the fledgling cable channel known as HBO planning parties and special events. Ira also had a nice sideline business, assisting his friends and coworkers in the purchase of a certain popular Schedule II narcotic. It was lucrative, or at least it helped pay for his lifestyle choices many of which involved models and took place at Studio 54, Area and at parties where it would not be unusual to answer the doorbell and find Keith Richards holding a machine gun and a bottle of vodka. So besides being the main light and day of Bella’s existence, her Ira was someone in the perfect position to fence stolen goods.
My father came over immediately. He lived 4 blocks away and he stopped only to pick up a few black and white cookies at the bakery near Poppa Willy’s old candy store. Sitting down next to his father at the table he had a bowl of matzoh ball soup, it was nearly noon and he must have been starving, already. He ate soup, he had some strong Ukrainian bread, some apple sauce, some cole-slaw, a few grapes, they had tea and cookies and then Bella beckoned him over to the small room. Ira, she said I just want to show you something.
After refusing to try on the underwear and the shirts, opting not to take home the socks or even the suitcase. Meshuga, but maybe Stuart will like them. He got a look at the jewels and they looked like raw, uncut emeralds, there was really nothing else they could be, besides fake raw uncut emeralds. Ira agreed that Sam the Jeweler was a gonif shyster and couldn’t be trusted, besides who knew if this had been reported to the police? They’d have to go underground, call some who knew how to deal with this situation. From the phone in the his parents’ bedroom, my father called Uncle Louis, himself a South American import as well as a supplier of Schedule II narcotic substances.
Emeralds were not part of Louis’s repertoire, he’d have to pass on this one and send my Dad one step up and above on the criminal ladder. He knew a guy, he’d put my father in touch with the Guy. My father should wait to hear from the Guy.
A few hours later he gets a call, from the Guy. The Guy says, how can I help you? My father says “My mother brought something back from South America that may interest you”. They agree to meet. My father goes back to my grandmother’s house, has some more soup, a piece of chicken, some cucumber salad, a slice of the apple cake that was baked since he left in the afternoon. My grandmother is elated not only has she seen her Ira twice in one day, but my grandfather still hasn’t got a clue as to what’s going on.
My dad goes the meet the Guy, at his office in Midtown. It’s a nice nondescript sort of place, an office like any other office, with a secretary, a coffee table, a small sofa and a couple of chairs in which sat a couple of other guys with curious bulges in their sides. Bulges which became less curious and more obvious when they stood and put their hands in their pants pockets.
They pat my father down and escort him in. The guy stands up from behind a messy desk and shakes my father’s hand. They discuss the weather, the Mets, where to get a decent cup of coffee in the neighborhood; finally the Guy asks my father again “What can I do for you”. My father explains the story, his mother found a suitcase at the airport… the Guy raises his eyebrow…she took it home and to her surprise there was this bag of uncut emerald in the suitcase, she was going to give them to Sam the Jeweler his Aunt Helen’s boyfriend to sell, but he’s a criminal, no disrespect. The Guy raises the other eyebrow, OK, he says, lemme see.
He pours the emeralds out of the bag and on to his desk, he carefully weighs each one in his hand, he gets out a loupe, he examines each one carefully. “Where did you say they were coming from when she found the suitcase??” “Argentina”, my Dad says. “Ok well that explains it, Argentinian emeralds are shit, I can give four- five hundred bucks for these”. My Dad says sure that’s great, that’s fine. Then the Guy says “You wanna see something? “My Dad says sure, that’s great, thinking that this was probably the moment when the Guy would shoot him in the face and steal the emeralds. The Guy reaches behind him to a pile of stuff on the top of his filing cabinet and brings out a velvet bag, from the velvet bag he pulls out an uncut emerald as big as a tangerine- it looks like something from outer space it’s so green. “This, my friend”, he says “this, is a fucking emerald”.
He buzzes the secretary, laughing he says “Jeanine, give Ira here six hundred bucks to bring back to his mother”. My father says thank you, shakes his hand and leaves.
When he gets home he calls my grandmother to tell her the emeralds were worth five hundred dollars and he’ll pick up bagels and bring it over in the morning, my grandmother is beside herself with joy.
The story does not however end there, a few days later my father gets a call from the FBI, the Guy’s phone was being tapped, what was it, they wanted to know that my father was bringing him from South America, they’d like to see him in their office the next day at 11 am. Now my father panics, this could be really bad, the story is so ridiculous they’ll never believe him and besides at this very moment there is most definitely enough of a certain Schedule II narcotic in his apartment to send him away for a very long time, besides he has the kids that weekend. This can’t be happening. Then he stops panicking and he starts thinking. He’s going to need a lawyer.
He calls Mitchell his friend’s husband, besides being an enjoyer of Schedule II narcotics Mitchell is a Real Estate lawyer, a somewhat inept Real Estate lawyer who wouldn’t know a criminal code if it bit him in the ass. A lawyer so ill-suited for the situation, that only someone either very innocent or very stupid would bring him with them so go see the FBI.
And so they went to see the FBI, My father, Mitchell and Bella, they brought the suitcase though my grandmother refused to give up the shirts, the underwear or the socks. They explained how my grandmother got confused sometimes, it has been a long flight, she thought it was hers, when she found the emeralds she didn’t know what to do. My father, he bet on the horses occasionally and his bookie gave him the Guy’s number, it was only a couple of tiny rocks. The Guy gave him a hundred dollars for them, this hundred dollar bill in fact if they want to trace it and see if it was stolen. Bella told them all about her trip to Argentina, how terribly her sister-in-law kept house, but how delicious the pastry was and such good coffee.
Afterwards, my father, Bella and Mitchell went back uptown but on the way the stopped at Katz’s and with the Guy’s hundred dollar bill bought a couple of corned beef sandwiches, a couple of pastrami sandwiches and a tongue sandwich on seeded rye for Bella, who loved them.
This is a true story with which I have taken a few liberties. All of the things that happened did happen, but maybe not in the same way.