He even trimmed the few tufts of grass out back, with a sickle no less, one of the many little ways in which Mr. Paul linked you to a simpler time.
“Don’t try to invent characters. The almighty has given us enough.”
I found this quote scratched on a piece of paper lodged in an anthology of short stories I’d saved from college. The paper served as a bookmark for Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Gimpel the Fool. The title page was autographed by the author and the notes came from a session I attended where he discussed his thoughts about story writing.
I have always cherished those few moments of interaction with Singer. Literature, to Singer, so say my notes, was not for messages. It could only “stir the mind, not direct it.” I recall asking whether the value of the stories one tells comes from the value of one’s life, its intensity, its attractiveness to the world at large. He responded emphatically that story and character were equally as rich in one person’s experience as in another’s.
Singer’s Gimpel brought to mind a character in my own life, Paul Steinbach. Mr. Paul, as he is known, must have been approaching 70 when I worked in his dress shop in junior high, and when I dropped by to see him last summer, he was approaching 100. He was slightly misshapen and his mouth hung open to facilitate his breathing, but he was vital. Not having seen me for a quarter century, he invited me in with the easy grace he always extended to everyone, instantly acknowledging me in his broad Hungarian Jewish accent: “Mr. Barry, so good to see you.”
Mr. Paul is far from the village idiot type embodied by Gimpel, the butt of incessant practical jokes, a genuine schlemiel. Mr. Paul is not a simpleton, but he is a simple person, and in his relation to the society around him as ill-fitting as Gimpel. In the southern Pennsylvania Presbyterian stronghold where I grew up, you could go your whole life without ever meeting a Jew, unless like me and my brothers, you went to work as a store boy at Mr. Paul’s little dress shop.
It’s hard to imagine a job today with so simplistic a title. In those days, one could progress through a series of upwardly mobile “boy” jobs-from paper boy to store boy to bag boy. For about an hour each day after school, Mr. Paul’s store boy swept the floor and the sidewalk out front, collected the hangers, made up boxes, and Windexed the glass cases and the mirrors. He even trimmed the few tufts of grass out back, with a sickle no less, one of the many little ways in which Mr. Paul linked you to a simpler time.
A flighty sort, I was never very good at these jobs. There were many corners missed and surfaces smudged, but unlike so many “boy” employers, Mr. Paul never raised his voice. He registered his disapproval with a slight comment and a winsome smile. Mr. Paul was an Old World gentleman, whose regard for people superseded any other consideration. His manners were courtly but warm. His use of “Mister” in front of first names was a kind of honorific: people deserved more respect than simple blurting out their name. Without fail, Mr. Paul asked after family before engaging in any other kind of talk, always remembering not only details of their lives but something of their personalities as well.
Mr. Paul was observant-of people, of ritual, of religion-yet his life was circumscribed by very small parameters. He conducted his affairs from a dark closet-sized office. Each day at the appointed times, he donned his hat and walked over to meet his brother, who operated a dress shop a half-block away, for morning and afternoon coffee and for lunch. He went to temple on the sabbath and the high holy days. An eminence grise amid an ever-declining group of observers, he is still concerned about how they will afford to fix the roof.
After asking about all my family, Mr. Paul allowed himself a reverie about the time back in 1965 when a couple insisted he accompany them on a tour. With evident joy, he recounted the month he spent traveling to Israel, Athens, Rome, Paris and London. “It was the greatest time of my life.” He had not ventured overseas since; one month out of almost 100 years would suffice for wanderlust.
The man who drives him called and they went over his arrangements for the following day-grocery shopping, lunch and a meeting at the bank, the same old rituals. He should be long past caring about anything or anyone, but not so. When it was time to leave, Mr. Paul looked at me endearingly and said as if to absolve me of the small sin of being a lousy store boy all those years ago in comparison to my brothers who did the job so well, “You were the thoughtful one of your clan, I believe. I missed you, Mr. Barry. I wondered, ‘Has he left or does he just not come to see me?’ I feel better now than I did before you came.”
If being a simple man is foolish, then Mr. Paul is indeed a fool. When Gimpel consulted his rabbi about this condition, he told him, “It is written, better to be a fool all your days than for one hour to be evil.”