It’s a cool New York spring day in the 1960’s but inside the conference room of the Jewish-American Welfare Society (JAWS) it’s hot and stuffy and I’m having a hard time staying awake. Half a dozen people are crowded in the small room. Mrs. Rubin, the Executive Director, sits at the head of the table. Mr. Himmelwerz, my boss, is of course there. As the newest employee, three months, I’m at the bottom of the table. Suddenly I snap my head up as Mrs. Rubin utters my name. “What?” I say.
“The fund raiser at the Furniture Center. We need to pep it up. The furniture business is hurting and they’re going to keep their money in their pockets.”
Everyone looks expectantly at me. I’d worked in an advertising agency and so I’m expected to have clever ideas. My mind is a blank. But then I think aloud, “What about Miss Israel?”
“Yes. She’s in New York, on her way to Hollywood. I read it in the Post.”
Mr. Himmelwerz starts to speak. “She’d never consider . . .,” he begins but Mrs. Rubin cuts in. “I like it,” she says. “And I have a contact. My brother-in-law Mort, the agent.” Mrs. Rubin always has a contact. “Danny,” she tells me. “Go over to the Furniture Center and see how Mr. Kitzel feels about it.”
The Furniture Center is one of my favorite places to go as Mrs. Rose, Mr. Kitzel’s secretary, is from California and it’s been kind of a dream of mine to someday go there. When I got out of college I thought I might go but one of my uncles got me the advertising agency job. Then, after the agency lost a big client and I was among those let go, I thought again of going but another uncle got me the JAWS job. Of course, any time I even mentioned California my mother threatened to disown me and in the meantime she and all of my aunts were on the lookout for a nice Jewish girl so that I could get married, start a family and forget all about such foolish things as leaving New York.
“Hi, Danny,” says Mrs. Rose when I come in. She’s a woman in her fifties who dies her hair red, wears lots of rouge and eye shadow and tries to keep young. She tells me about a letter she’s just gotten from her sister, still in California and we talk about that for a while. Mickey, the Furniture Center cat, appears from somewhere to be stroked. I like Mickey. The only pet we’ve ever had at home is a canary inherited from some great-aunt.
I tell Mrs. Rose about Miss Israel. “That’s a great idea,” she says. “Mr. Kitzel is out now but I’ll tell him as soon as he comes in.” That settles that. If Mrs. Rose, who really runs the Furniture Center, likes the idea, I’m sure Mr. Kitzel will.
After work, I take the subway home to the Bronx. When I worked at the ad agency I could afford my own place but now I’ve moved back into my mother’s apartment. As soon as I arrive, she starts bustling around, getting ready, as she reminds me, for the ladies who are coming over to play mahjong. (My father died a few years before. I sometimes think my mother wore him out.) On mahjong nights I always go to a movie. “Don’t forget to clean up your room before you leave,” she tells me. I reply that nobody’s going to look in my room but she’s already dashing off with the vacuum cleaner. I quickly eat my supper, with Gwendolyn the canary glumly looking on, then get my coat and go before the mahjong ladies can come and ask me if I’ve met a nice girl yet.
The next week we’re all at the Furniture Center waiting for Miss Israel. Mr. Himmelwerz looks at his watch. It’s ten AM and she was supposed to be there at nine. “Are you sure they said she’d be here?” he asks me accusingly.
“Yes, I talked to her personal assistant,” I say, trying to sound confident.
“We spent all day yesterday getting ready,” says Mr. Kitzel.
“Be a little patient,” says Mrs. Rubin.
“I’m sure she’ll come,” says Mrs. Rose.
And sure enough, just then Miss Israel and her entourage arrive. When I see her I understand why she took so long. She is made up flawlessly, not a strand of her long black hair out of place, not a blemish on her olive skin. It must have taken hours. She is lovely, even though she reminds me a little of a department store mannequin. Up close, I see that she’s even younger than I am, 21 or 22 at most.
Everyone clusters around Miss Israel, talking at once. “It’s so gracious of you to take the time . . .”; “We sincerely appreciate your coming on such short . . .”; “Can we get you anything? Would you like some coffee?”
She would actually like some tea and while everyone scuttles off to see if they can find some I have a chance to approach her. I try to think of something brilliant to say but instead what comes out is, “Hi, I’m Danny Stein. How are you doing?”
“I’m sleepy, we had to get up so early. And then we got lost on the way over.”
“Sorry. All this was my idea so I guess I’m to blame.”
“Don’t worry, Danny Stein. I’m glad to help.”
“How do you like New York?”
“It’s so big, but exciting. If only I can get away to see it. But every minute is scheduled. And in a few days we go to Hollywood.”
“I might be going to California myself soon,” I find myself saying. “Why don’t you get rid of all these people and come out with me? We could really see the country.”
I can hardly believe I’ve said that, but Miss Israel giggles; she’s a real person under that mannequin shell. “I’d like to do that. It would be fun. But . . .” She shrugs expressively.
“Yeah, I know,”. Before I can say anything more, the gang is back. Mr. Himmelwerz looks at me as if I might have contaminated Miss Israel. He quickly thrusts himself between us and hands her a container of tea. Led by Mr. Kitzel, they sweep her off to make the rounds of all the furniture places. The fund raiser is a big success. The furniture dealers all but drool over Miss Israel and compete with each other over how big to make their pledges. Just as everyone is leaving, Mickey the cat comes out from under a chair to see what’s going on. Mr. Himmelwerz starts to shoo Mickey away but Miss Israel says, “Oh, what a beautiful cat.”
I pick up Mickey and hand him over so she can stroke him. “Well, maybe I’ll see you in Hollywood, Danny Stein,” she says, pressing my hand. The touch goes through me like an electric current.
Two weeks later, on another nice spring day, I’m driving over the George Washington bridge into New Jersey on my way to California. Everyone at JAWS was sorry to see me go but Mrs. Rubin had gotten me a good deal on a rental car and I think they were excited, also. I’m not going to Hollywood but to San Francisco. Mrs. Rose has given me a letter to her sister there. My mother, after threatening once again to disown me, relented when the time came and has loaded me with enough sandwiches to last the whole trip. I open the windows and the fresh air comes in. Outside, the trees and the houses go by. I look over and, in my imagination anyway, there she is, no make-up, smiling, giggling, her black hair blowing in the wind. I’m going West with Miss Israel.