My Aunt Birdie worked, at various times in her life, as a juggler, a dental hygienist, a dog-sitter and a paid rabble-rouser. And for a brief period, in the summer of 1965, she was a baker’s assistant.
Jonah Katz, the owner of Katz’s Bakery on Fordham Road in the Bronx, broke his wrist while swatting a fly. No one was sympathetic. He was not a well-loved man.
Now Jonah was out of commission. His son, Aaron, was a gambler and couldn’t be trusted behind the cash register. His daughter, Dottie, had such long fingernails she was practically an invalid. So Mrs. Katz asked my Aunt Birdie to help out.
Not that Birdie knew the first thing about baking.
“She’ll read baking soda in the recipe, she’ll put in Coca Cola,” my Aunt Trudy predicted.
But Mrs. Katz was a good teacher. In only two days Birdie got the hang of what to do with flour. She uncovered the secrets of yeast. By Friday morning she was cranking out challah like nobody’s business.
So alright, so far, so good. Then trouble walked in the door.
His name was Doctor Leonard Pinkus. A podiatrist. Aunt Birdie always had a weakness for a professional man. Pinkus spotted her working in the back, flushed from the heat of the ovens, and he was smitten. Never mind that Birdie was a married woman with four children. He had to have her. As for Birdie, what can I tell you? She had the morals of a peanut.
That night, instead of going home to her family, she went to the movies with Leonard Pinkus.
And it didn’t stop with the movies. They went to restaurants; to the elephant house in the Bronx Zoo. Once they took the subway all the way out to Coney Island, just to watch the waves.
The whole neighborhood knew about it. Mrs. Katz knew. My parents knew. Even my Uncle Stanley, Aunt Birdie’s husband, he knew too. Everybody. A collective eyebrow was raised, as if to say, “What can you do with a woman like this, she has no sense of shame.”
The only one who didn’t know about Leonard Pinkus was Aunt Birdie’s other boyfriend, Myron Pitt. Also a professional man — a math teacher at the local high school. They had been an item for two years.
One Friday, late in the afternoon, Myron Pitt comes into Katz’s Bakery to say hello to his girl. Remember: he’s the only person in the Bronx who doesn’t know what’s been going on between Dr. Pinkus and Aunt Birdie.
Myron takes a little paper number out of the machine, he’s waiting his turn for a loaf of pumpernickel, when in walks Leonard Pinkus for his challah.
The two men don’t notice that everybody else in the bakery is holding their breath. Mrs. Katz, poor woman, all three of her chins are trembling. Aunt Birdie peeks out from behind an oven, sees what's what, and cool as lox on rye, she hatches a plan.
She writes a little note to Myron Pitt. “My little gefilte,” she writes, “meet me tomorrow at the drinking fountain, Crotona Park, two o’clock,” and she pokes the piece of paper deep into the still warm pumpernickel.
She takes another slip of paper. “Pinky, sweetheart,” she writes, “tonight, Bowl-a-Rama, seven o’clock, don’t be late,” and she slips this note into the braids of the Doctor’s challah.
Then she leaves it to Blinky Fagen, the guy who sweeps up, to bring the two breads up to the counter while she takes herself off to the bathroom to wait things out.
Everything goes according to plan: Myron leaves, he’s pleased with himself. Doctor Pinkus, the same.
Aunt Birdie’s got herself two hot dates, plus a brilliant idea: Jewish Fortune Cookies.
She took out a patent. But nothing ever came of it.
Although she did have a six-week fling with the patent lawyer.
But that was only to be expected.
A work of fiction.
A work of fiction.