Mom was there for the meat, specifically chicken backs and pigs’ feet – cheap cuts that she couldn’t get in the tiny markets that dotted the corners of our north side neighborhood.
Mounds and pounds of slimy calf’s liver, called ‘velvet steak’ by one butcher, and tubes of bright-pink baloney were also options, if she could come to terms with the guardians behind their tall glass cases, swathed in their bloodied aprons.
“You boys stand over there, out of the way,” she told us.
This was the signal that the haggling was about to commence with the targeted butchers sharpening their long knives behind their counters piled high with stacks of neatly displayed meats.
Once a month we made this trip downtown to the large open markets there. My two brothers and I were taken along as carriers.
The trip began with a 20-minute bus ride from our neighborhood because Mom didn’t drive. Bus fare was a big expense, a dollar for the round-trip for each of the four of us, but the savings at the butchers’ stalls would quickly recoup that cost.
The city’s streetcars had made their final trips a few years earlier, replaced by the nimbler buses no longer tethered to the steel rails of their clanging predecessors. Those bus routes, which now had a stop six blocks from home, had set my Mom free.
We hated this monthly trip downtown. As the afternoon wore on, the thin twine handles of our doubled-up shopping bags cut more deeply into our fingers. The stalls in the open markets were crowded and noisy. And the butchers and produce vendors hawking their wares often directed their terrifying shouts at us, prime targets with our bulky bags in hand, as we rounded corner after corner in that maze of displays.
“What can I do for you, my young lady?” a butcher bellowed at Mom as he wiped his hands on his apron.
“These chicken backs,” Mom said. “What can you do if I get ten pounds?”
As this exchange began my brothers and I slipped further into the shadows. We knew this haggling mortified Mom. The daughter of proud immigrant farmers, she had been raised to never, ever, ask for favors from anybody, especially strangers.
But she had mouths to feed. And rows to go.
The butcher would take $.20 cents off a pound for the ten.
Nope, we really only needed six, maybe seven pounds, my Mom responded.
“Well, lady,” the butcher countered, “…you know how they say things are ‘cheaper by the dozen.’ Buy a dozen pounds of these delicious backs and I’ll take $.25 cents off a pound.”
“OK,” my Mom said.
Three round-trip bus fares, already paid for.
This exchange was repeated at more stands for coils of sausage, piles of purpled chicken gizzards and those dreaded, gelatinous pigs’ feet. The damp parcels were divided and stowed in our bags, the cords now cutting ever deeper.
Over all of this gore and shouts hung the glorious aromas wafting from smoldering pits near the back of the market where vendors prepared soups and grilled meats on oak-wood kindling for shoppers and coworkers. It was lunchtime, but we would not squander our savings on store-bought sandwiches. Peanut butter lunches were in our bags, where they would wait until we returned to the bus.
As we were finally about to head out of the cavernous market and into the sunshine, I saw my older brother anchored under one of the market’s arched brick doorways.
“Get Mom,” he whispered.
“Why? She’s talking to that man,” I responded.
“Get Mom,” he repeated. “Now!”
She was annoyed when I interrupted her negotiations.
“Not now,” she hissed as I silently tugged at her elbow.
“It’s Stan,” I said, knowing that this appeal would rivet her maternal attention.
She looked at me. I pointed at Stan. He grimaced and waved.
“What is it, boys?” she asked under her breath, knitting her brow and folding her arms as we assembled at Stan’s side.
“Mom, look,” he whispered, pointing to the bag at his feet. Raising his foot slightly, then elevating the corner of the bag, there on the cement floor lay a rolled wad of cash.
“Stanley where did you get that?” Mom exclaimed.
“It was just here, lying here, honest, Mom,” Stan said.
With that, Mom lowered her purse to the floor, palmed the green roll, and deftly slid it into her pocket.
“You boys come with me,” she said, and off we filed to a far corner of the market, near the restrooms.
Mom swung open a ladies’ room door, spied the empty inside, entered, and then exited, all in less than a forever minute.
She crouched to her knees, circling us around her.
“Stanley, there’s $334 dollars here!” she whispered.
“Three hundred and thirty-four dollars!” she whispered again, swallowing each syllable as she digested the windfall.
“Let’s go, boys,” she whispered, and we fell into a straight line like ducklings behind her, waddling with our bulging bags.
To our surprise, we hustled straight to the northbound bus stop. We were making a getaway.
I knew that this was a small fortune for our family. I knew this because my brothers and I took turns on Saturdays to go to the small garage that Dad and his two brothers owned to retrieve his weekly pay.
The garage was only a few blocks from our home. Dad walked to work. His customers teased him – a mechanic who didn’t drive a car. I have to walk, he always responded. I can’t afford what the mechanics charge here. It was better to get it out there, because that’s what everyone in this neighborhood was always thinking.
The garage was open weekdays, and until 2 pm on Saturdays. Saturday was payday, at 12 noon sharp. When we arrived to get Dad’s pay, he would hand us an unsealed, greasy envelope, its glue strip long gone, with cash folded inside.
It was impossible to resist checking the envelope’s contents on the way home. On a good week there would be $80 or $90 dollars, in twenties and tens. On a bad week, and that was often, there would be less, sometimes much less. We needed to know this detail because it helped prepare us for Mom’s moods once she peered into the delivered envelope.
Our monthly bus trips to downtown always immediately followed this Saturday payday delivery.
And now we were sitting silently on that bus, heading home, Mom staring straight ahead, saying nothing.
I had expected to be trooped to the market manager’s office or to a local police precinct to report the found money. But now we were fleeing the scene.
I understood Mom’s quandary: Giving it up almost certainly meant giving it away. But keeping it meant stealing it.
The issue remained a silent shame throughout the week. We were not even sure if Mom had told Dad about the secret cache.
The following Saturday, however, Mom summoned us three boys.
“We’re going back to the market,” she announced. “Our trip last week got cut short,” was all she added.
Once we got back to the market, bags in hands, Mom told us to stand at the counter just outside the market manager’s office. We could see him through the large plate glass windows that fronted his office, in a haze of white smoke, puffing on a cigar and rifling through stacks of skinny register receipts. Mom tapped three times just below the peeling Office Manager gold stenciling on the front door’s glass.
“Yeah, what is it? Enter,” the man shouted without looking up.
“Follow me, boys,” Mom said as she swung open the door. We understood our role as props: good boys with combed hair and pleated pants and pressed shirts, with a good Mom, from a good family.
“Excuse me, sir,” Mom began.
“Yeah, what can I do for you, lady?” the manager asked, still puffing on his cigar and shuffling the papers threaded through his fat fingers.
“Last week we were here shopping,” Mom began. “We come here once a month, on the bus,” she continued. “My oldest boy here, Stanley, found some money on the floor.”
She pulled Stan forward, and he nodded at the manager. Now we had his beady-eyed attention.
“We’re here today to report that money,” Mom concluded. She stopped there, awaiting the manager’s response.
He chewed on his cigar a few bites, blew his nose on a handkerchief pulled from his vest pocket, and then told Mom to take a seat, his eyes rapidly shifting left and right, sizing up his quarry.
“I’d rather stand,” she said. She had given him enough time to think, and she was eager to press for a settlement.
“Really?” he responded. “Found it here at this market? This lad here?” he added. “How much was it, my good man?” he asked, bending and staring straight into Stan’s eyes.
“I’d rather not say,” my Mom interrupted. “I’m just reporting to you that we found some money, and if anyone comes to you and tells you that they lost the money we found, I’ll return it, of course. We will come back in one month, on our next visit, to check in with you to see if anyone has reported this loss,” she concluded.
“Now hold on here, lady,” the manager replied, edging his way forward to block the office door. “I’ll need to involve the proper authorities in this. That money is not yours, and it’s not mine. But it belongs to somebody – maybe one of the guys working here, or one of our customers. And I’m sure they need that money,” he concluded.
With that he rapped on a glass window by the office door.
“Hey, Joe, do me a favor – find Bevan. He’s wandering around here somewhere, I’ll watch your stall,” he said to the man below.
Then he turned back to us. “Lady, this is a police matter because that money is someone’s property. Officer Bevan will know what to do,” he added.
And with that, we waited, silently.
Officer Bevan soon appeared at the manager’s door, a crisp display of blue felt with brass buttons and a silver, shield-shaped badge.
“What is it, Mr. Z?” he asked, settling his right hand on the handle of his shiny black nightstick and eyeing us suspiciously, especially us boys. Shoplifters, he had concluded, and now we were his.
“This lady’s boy found some money here last week. Laying on the floor. She’s reporting it now, a week later. I told her that we had to involve the police,” he said. “And she won’t tell me how much,” he added.
“OK, Mr. Z, thanks, I’ll take if from here.”
Then he turned on my Mom, his clenched fists arched on his hips.
“Lady, I’m sure you will understand that I got to have that money and report this issue to my captain at the precinct. I appreciate you and your boys bringing this to our attention. That’s very good of you. And you have the money with you now, I hope, don’t you?” he asked.
“Yes, we do,” Mom responded. “It’s $134 dollars,” she said calmly, pulling a rubber-banded roll of greenbacks from her purse.
“Thank you, Ma’am, that’s very good. One hundred and thirty-four dollars,” he repeated. That’s a lot of money,” he said, his eyes rolling as he glanced at Mr. Z.
Now I’ll need to get your name and address, and a phone number if you have one, so we can contact you if no one claims the money,” the officer said as he slid a slender leather pad from his beltline.
“That won’t be necessary, the address and phone,” Mom responded. “We will come back in one month to check to see if our money has been claimed. Will that be enough time? And if the money is not claimed by then, we will we get it back, is that right?” she added.
“Lady, I’ll have to check with the captain, but, sure, I think a month should give the rightful owner enough time to come in and make a claim,” the officer said as he extended his hand to retrieve the wad of bills. “And if we don’t hear anything, I don’t know why the money wouldn’t be yours, finders, keepers, you know,” he added, smiling and snatching the green roll from Mom.
“OK, thank you, officer. We will return in four weeks,” Mom said.
With that we followed her out of the door. Glancing back, I saw the manager and Officer Bevan huddled, spreading the bills into neat stacks, and then pounding each other’s back.
On the bus ride home Mom did not speak. And she never spoke about it again during the next four weeks.
While we didn’t talk about this, a dialog nevertheless dogged my days.
Recently, in religion class, Sister Mary Angelica had introduced the concept of sins of ‘commission’ and ‘omission.’ Was this one of those sins of omission that Sister had talked about? Keeping that money was not my sin, but I was keeping quiet about it. And that was, surely, an omission of truth.
And how would I ever explain this sinful omission in confession to Monsignor O’Malley? I knew that he would instruct me to tell the sinner to turn all the money in. That I could not do – and that failure, that disobedience of the Monsignor’s direct order – would surely blacken my soul all the more.
“Let’s go, boys,” Mom said four weeks later as I handed her Dad’s envelope on that Saturday morning. “We’re going back to the market to see if anyone claimed our money.”
Once inside the flourescent maze of displays Mom bee-lined straight to the Manager’s office, ignoring the calls from the butchers and bakers behind the glass cases along the way.
Without even knocking she swung open the Manager’s door, waving us in, the first wave to take the scene, followed by her authority.
“Good morning, Mr. Z,” she began. “You may remember us from a month ago. We found some money here, turned it in to you and Officer Bevan, and now we’re back, as we were instructed, to see if anyone has claimed our money,” she said, as she stared at the Manager, the three of us arched in front of her.
“Sure, yes, Mrs. …. I don’t think I got your name,” he said as he tried to recall the specifics of our last meeting, for surely there had been one since Mom had named names.
“Oh, yes,” he finally recalled. “That’s it, one of your boys found some money here. You returned it. Officer Bevan, yes, I believe it was, took the money to his precinct.”
“Yes, and we were told then that the money would be returned if no one claimed it,” Mom pressed the point. “So we’re here today to claim that money, if it was unclaimed. It was $134 dollars,” she said, enunciating each of the digits.
“Yes, right, and Ma’am, within a few days after you left the money with Officer Bevan, a little old lady dressed in a tattered grey shawl came to this very office, standing where you are right now, asking if we had found a roll of bills here at our market. When I asked her how much she had lost, she said ‘$134 dollars.’ I questioned her again on this. She said, yes, ‘…exactly $134 dollars.’
I told her that, yes, some money had been found here, but didn’t tell her how much. And that’s when I sent her to the police precinct to see Officer Bevan. He reported to me two days later that she was the rightful owner. The captain had also questioned her carefully, and she was still giving the correct amount and all. I haven’t heard anything since,” he said.
“And it was exactly $134 dollars that the lady lost?” Mom pressed. “She didn’t ask for some other amount?” she questioned again.
“Yes, lady, she said ‘exactly $134 dollars.’ That’s what I just said.”
“OK,” mom said. “I just want to be sure the money is going to the rightful owner,” she added.
“And here, just to wrap things up, she also left $4 dollars with Officer Bevan to thank the finder. She was so grateful. Here, I have it here now for you since I knew you’d be coming back,” the manager said.
With that he shoved his fist into his pocket, withdrew a wad of rumpled bills, carefully peeled off “One, and two, and three,” he said, handing one dollar to each of us boys, then the last one, “four,” with a flourish over his head, to Mom. “There’s your reward.”
Round-trip fare – paid for.
“Thank you, sir,” Mom said. “And you’re sure, it was exactly the $134 dollars, not some other amount?” she added, her eyes narrowing.
“Yes, Mam, she was very sure – exactly $134 dollars,” he said, smiling broadly.
“OK, thank you, sir. Boys, let’s go. No shopping today,” she said, herding us out the office door and down the steps.
On the bus home, after collecting each of our dollars, Mom said nothing. I noticed from time to time, however, that her brow furrowed in deep rings, followed then by thin smiles that pursed the corners of her lips during the bumpy ride home.
She had been cheated.
But not defeated.