“Kessler and the Grand Scheme”

Fiction by Leonard S. Bernstein

In the old days of the garment center, if you walked into Dubrow’s cafeteria on Seventh Avenue for your morning coffee, you would enter a world of cutters, pressers, and pattern makers, all unemployed or laid off. You would hear the stories of the discontented: The bosses are unreasonable, the unions are corrupt, the buyers are compromised.

They would say, if they were in charge, things would be different. It is the language of Seventh Avenue; everyone thinks he should be running General Motors. And so it should not surprise you that one morning they told the story of Kessler and his grand scheme.

Kessler, a man of failed opportunities, was one day reading the obituaries in The New York Times when he came upon the name Morris Pearlstein. “My God, I know him,” Kessler said to himself. “He worked next to me as a presser in the old pajama factory on 29th Street.”

Kessler had been part of the New York apparel world before it moved to Georgia and South Carolina and then to China, working as a cutter, a presser — sometimes doing a little shipping — and never holding a job for more than a year or two. Companies found him difficult, always quarreling, always negative, and since pressers were not scarce in the marketplace, the companies did not have to put up with him and he was soon out the door. He never held a job long enough to save money, and so, aside from being difficult, Kessler was poor.

As he read Pearlstein’s obituary, the picture of Pearlstein returned to his mind, and what he remembered most was that Pearlstein, for a presser in a garment factory, was a very sharp dresser. Nobody in the old garment factories dressed very well, because nobody was paid a living wage. And besides, the factories were full of fabric shavings and dripping machine oil.

So Kessler thought back to his days working next to Pearlstein and admiring Pearlstein’s attire, and, he thought, wouldn’t it have been nice if Pearlstein had left me one of his stylish suits.

Kessler thought about this for a while, and was struck by an idea: What is Mrs. Pearlstein going to do with the suits, anyway? So he leafed through the phone book, got the number, and called Mrs. Pearlstein, a woman he had never met.

“Mrs. Pearlstein, I called to express my sympathies. Morris and I were old friends from the garment factory — a very fine man. We worked side by side in the pressing area and spent many hours talking about our jobs and our families. We were very close, like brothers. I remember especially how well Morris dressed, how stylish were his suits and ties.”    

“Well, it is very thoughtful of you to call, Mr. Kessler. My memory is no longer so good, but I remember Morris mentioned you.”

“You could call me Irving,” said Kessler. “You know, Morris and I had a little joke. I admired his suits, especially the navy blue, and Morris said if he died he would will it to me. Of course, it was just a little thing between us, but I wonder, Mrs. Pearlstein, now that Morris has gone to a better place, whether you have any use for the suit. It would be an honor to own something of Mr. Pearlstein’s.”

“The suit, what do I need it for? It goes anyway to the Salvation Army. Come by and pick it up.”

And so, in a few days, Pearlstein’s navy blue suit hung in Kessler’s closet. Indeed, an interesting idea had entered Kessler’s otherwise inactive mind. The following week he scanned the obituaries again, and although there was no one he knew, he found the name of a man about his age who had worked in the garment center. It took a little courage, but he was soon on the phone with Mrs. Greenberg.

“You don’t know me, Mrs. Greenberg, but I called to express my condolences. Mr. Greenberg and I were friends from the garment center, and I was just wondering. . . .”

“A suit? You want a suit?” said Mrs. Greenberg, a bit bewildered. “Well, what am I going to do with them, anyway? Come, you can have two suits.”

So Kessler’s closet was soon full, and the rest of his apartment resembled the menswear racks in Filene’s basement. Of course, many of the suits were not in Kessler’s size, but that hardly mattered, because Kessler had connected with a close-out shop on the Lower East Side, which happily paid him $40 or $50 for a suit. Kessler, late in his life, had become an entrepreneur.

In time, Kessler’s bravado exceeded all limits. At the beginning he had held his conversations to a few words, just enough to get the suits, but with experience he grew confident, anticipating the questions. He became so adept that he now accepted invitations to have a cup of tea and chat about the old times.

“Well, no, Mrs. Brodsky, we didn’t work side by side. We were in different parts of the factory, but we occasionally had coffee and talked about the trials of the working class.”

Or, “No, we were not the same size, but he didn’t promise the suit to me. You see, I had a cousin who fell on hard times. . . .”

He could handle everything, and the grieving widow was often happy for a little company.

And anyway, the widows thought, why would anyone lie about this? Who would invent such a story?

Time marches on and Kessler was doing very nicely. He made his weekly visit to the shop on Orchard Street and pocketed his $50, when a most unexpected event occurred. Standing behind him at the counter of the shop one day were two ladies, friends, it turns out.

“Why, Mr. Kessler, how nice to see you again, but aren’t you carrying the very suit I gave you last Tuesday?”

To which the other lady said, “You know Mr. Kessler?”

The jig was up. The gun was smoking.

“So would you rather,” said the first lady, “that I call the police or that I send the Salvation Army around tomorrow morning? And I will naturally expect an appropriate check to the Hebrew Retirement Home in honor of your dear friend and co-worker, whose suit you are about to exchange for $50.”

Alas, it is somehow the law of the garment center that the grand schemes, however imaginative, inevitably fail. Like a feudal manor, the lords remain lords and the serfs remain serfs. And so Kessler, inventor of a grand scheme and on his way to join the world of entrepreneurs, is back at Dubrow’s cafeteria telling his story to nods of approval, but finally back to where he started.

Leonard S. Bernstein is a resident of Westbury and Amagansett. “Death by Pastrami,” a collection of his short stories, will be published shortly by University of New Orleans Press.