“Max Hosiery,”

A Memoir by Ken Miller

Early on a Sunday morning on Delancey Street on the Lower East Side of New York I accidentally met my father on my way to work at Max Hosiery on Orchard Street. I was 14 and hadn’t seen him since I was 10.     

Max Hosiery was located on this famous street and sold ladies, mens, and children’s hosiery and underwear, pajamas and nightgowns, wholesale and retail.

Max was the brother of my mother’s sister’s husband. He was a bachelor, and I think he had a crush on my mother. When he passed away, two of his nephews took over the operation of the store. This was during the mid-1950s and women were still wearing nylon stockings versus panty hose.

Max had an agreement with a company in the South that produced the nylons in many shades, and they were sold packaged in slim, flat, pink and aqua boxes, three pair to a box under the brand of Hollywood Hosiery. He had been quite successful. My job was to sell to the onslaught of bargain-seeking customers who descended on Orchard Street every Sunday. I also worked there during the summers and would do stock work and sales. I loved selling; I was low-keyed and knowledgeable about the merchandise. My one problem was when very big ladies would come into the store for underwear and I could not help laughing when I had to hold up bloomers for them in sizes 1X to 3X. Some of the ladies would start to laugh with me and pinch my cheeks. 3X (extra, extra, extra large) were enormous. I always wanted to tell them that if they bought a dozen of 3X bloomers they could reupholster their living room sofas.

The store was long and narrow. At closing time we would set very thin black cords about four inches above the floor throughout the store. These were connected to the burglar alarm system and were known as traps. To use the bathroom you had to go out the front door, unlock another door of the building, and go down a long, dank, and cold hallway. No one lived in the building, and it was hardly ever cleaned. At the end of the hallway there was a small backyard where a man would store his Italian ice wagon each night.

Knowing the prices to charge was somewhat of a challenge. If someone bought a dozen of something, there was one price versus their buying one item (retail), which generated a higher price. What did help was that stacked boxes of merchandise were marked in code as to the cost price. I am still fascinated by the code, which paired the numerals 1 through 9 plus 0 to the 10 letters in the words “Max Hosiery.”

So if a box was marked “AESI,” it meant the cost price per dozen was $28.67. I always felt this code could be used by the C.I.A. for some means. The reason for the code was that almost every customer shopping on Orchard Street would try and bargain, especially if they were buying in quantity. The code gave us the bottom line. I found that when I went to other stores on Orchard Street, boxes were marked with their owner’s code. I used our code at one of my later jobs to list the hourly wages of my staff, and the accountant went crazy with laughter when I explained “Max Hosiery.”

Orchard Street was a phenomenal place, as was the Lower East Side at that time. Orchard between Delancey and stretching south to Division Street was filled with stores similar to Max Hosiery. There was one store that just sold men’s dress shirts; one store sold only handkerchiefs. Orchard on the other side of Delancey extended three blocks to East Houston Street and was an open bazaar of outdoor vendors where you could buy almost anything you needed: luggage, pocketbooks, winter coats, pants, shoes, hats. A few blocks away on Allen Street there was a whole street of shops that only sold men’s ties. Finkelstein’s on Delancey Street sold crystal, and Daniel Jones on Grand Street sold expensive furniture.

Katz’s Delicatessen on Houston Street is still there and is world famous. Its legendary motto is “Send a salami to your boy in the Army.” During the summer I would eat there almost every day. The pastrami sandwiches were enormous and the French fries to die for. This along with a Dr. Brown’s black cherry soda was heaven. Sometimes I ate at the fancier French Roumanian where I would have a steak sandwich and pommes frites. High cholesterol was diagnosed in later life. I loved walking the crowded streets and felt the Lower East Side was in my soul, that I somehow belonged there. My grandparents and parents had lived there when they first came to the United States after World War I.

Back to my father. At first when we met on the street he thought I was my brother, who was five years older than I was and hadn’t seen my father either. He gave me his address and said he would like to somehow reconcile with my mother. It was all inappropriate, and even at age 14 I knew it was not goig to happen. My mother would have nothing to do with him. They had been together for 20 years, and my mother could no longer deal with his chronic gambling. At one point, she appeared on the John J. Anthony radio show. John J. Anthony was a radio talk show personality who provided domestic advice on the air. His show was sponsored by Carter’s Little Liver Pills.

My parents argued all the time, and my father was hardly ever home. He played cards every night at some club in the city and was very often in debt. Every Sunday we would go out for lunch as a family, and then he would just take off and would return home after we were all asleep. During the week he went to work, came home, read The Forward, a Jewish daily newspaper in Yiddish, had an early dinner, and took a short nap before he went out. When I was 5 my mother and I took the trolley from Brooklyn over the Williamsburg Bridge, and she had me go into the back room of a bar to see if my father was there. There were many men sitting at big round tables playing cards, but he was not there. It looked like something out of a cowboy movie.

She was a little obsessed. A few times, shylocks came to our house and my mother kept us home from school. What was not understood at that time was that gambling was an addiction and he could just not stop. So she packed up his suitcase, which she called a “chamavatch.” I think it was the Russian word for suitcase. My mother’s main curse, she would say, was that she would live not to go to his funeral — and when he died in his early 60s, she did not. After the funeral she hosted a lunch for our relatives and purchased his headstone. These conflicting actions were always a source of disquiet for me. She later made arrangements to be buried at a different cemetery rather than in the prepaid plot next to my father.

Sadly, my father’s residence was a single-room-occupancy place. The city notified us that they had some of his belongings, and I went to retrieve his wallet, which had $MM. It cost me $A to park, and my brother, mother, and I went to Sunning’s Chinese restaurant on Queens Boulevard in Rego Park using our legacy towards the bill. I had the number six combination plate, which was spare ribs, fried rice, and an eggroll. Total cost was $X.EY, or $3.80, including wonton soup and a choice of Jello, pineapple, or ice cream (vanilla, chocolate, or pistachio) for dessert.

Ken Miller, a longtime resident of East Hampton, is a retired social worker. He is working on his memoirs about growing up in Brooklyn and Queens.