Guest Column

Making myself useful

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This is part four of a four-part series.

One of the first bits of wisdom my father imparted to me was: “Make yourself useful, Brian, make yourself useful.” Mrs. Pechenik showed me how.

When I was a kid, the Pecheniks owned the candy store just around the corner from my family’s home. You could get all kinds of things there — ice cream sodas and penny candy, newspapers and magazines, toys, baseball equipment, even some items like galoshes, shoes and cosmetics.

I liked Pechenik’s because of the comic books — there were racks and racks of them. “Spiderman,” “The Green Hornet,” “Captain Marvel,” “Mandrake the Magician” and many, many more. The trick was to read the comic books without buying them. I thought that sipping a bottle of Pepsi while I browsed the comic books masked my intentions, but no matter how accomplished I became, I could never put off that dreaded moment when Mrs. Pechenik turned her gaze on me.

“Gehsduheim, Brian, gehsduheim,” she’d yell. Somehow I knew what she meant even though I couldn’t understand Yiddish. Enough already, Brian, go home! But I was persistent. Back I’d go the next day, armed with a nickel to buy a soda so I could finish all those comics I had missed. Every month a new batch arrived, and so did I.

After a while I guess I just wore her down. Pretty soon there were fewer “Gehsduheims.” We were entering a new phase — now it was “Move your tuchus” which I took to mean, “You’re blocking the aisle, let some paying customers through.” Aha! I was making progress.

If nothing else, Mrs. Pechenick was resourceful. She found herself with a lemon, so she made lemonade. She put me to work carrying empty cases of soda into the cellar and bringing up full ones, lugging in the morning newspapers and tying up the unsold ones for return to the distributor, and collating the various sections of the Sunday newspapers for display.

Mind you, she wasn’t making me a member of the family, but those chores did make me feel a little more secure when I was sipping a soda and catching up on what was happening in the comics.

I’m not sure when I stopped parking my tuchus next to the comic book rack, but eventually I grew up and went to high school, and then to war.

Looking back, I can see that Mrs. Pechenick was a formidable lady. She looked like one, too: Strong, sharp features, dark hair tied in a bun, sturdy, no-nonsense shoes, always wearing a dress, protected by an apron, sometimes with a coat-sweater, as well. There was a presence about her. She wasn’t pretty in my young eyes, but she had strength, character and determination. Later in life I realized that was her beauty.

I came back to the Pechenik’s store again after the war. Mrs. Pechenik had aged. Her hair, still in a bun, was graying. Her vitality seemed diminished. Somehow, I hadn’t expected that. Then I was off to college. Later, I married and moved to a town farther out on Long Island, some distance from Baldwin. The meetings became less frequent.

Over the years, my sister, Pat, kept me in touch with the old neighborhood. Then, one day, she told me that Mrs. Pechenik had died. The news brought back memories of my childhood and my early encounters with her. I also wondered if Mrs. Pechenik had ever thought: “Well, maybe he didn’t turn out so bad after all.” I hoped she had.

Growing up, you never know who will touch your life. Often, it’s the one you least expect. It wasn’t until I got older that I remembered Mrs. Pechenik with appreciation, even affection. My father had told me to make myself useful — she had shown me how.

Brian Masterson grew up in Baldwin in the 1930s. He now lives in Melbourne, Fla.