The Death of A Good Man, All In All

The funeral service for the late Herman Kaminski was not well-attended. The Riverside Chapel in Mount Vernon was near enough to the Cross County Parkway for a quick on and off for mourners up from Manhattan or down from lower Westchester. It also offered an ample parking lot as well as a compassionate understanding of the religious traditions in a Jewish memorial service. For no extra charge, they provided the services of a Rabbi, one Arthur I. Shankman, who spoke with the bereaved family before the service. His fingers interlaced in front of him, he asked Kaminski’s two sons for any remembrances they wanted him to mention. They declined.

The brothers sat, with their respective wives beside them on either end of the front right-hand pew. Folded winter coats filled the space between the couples.

Behind them sat a smattering of distant cousins and, further back, the men who would serve as pall bearers. Kaminski’s downstairs neighbor wept.

The cousins whispered details of what little was known about the man’s passing. Speculations they’d overheard from someone in the hallway.

Herman had lived alone since his wife died. Complications of diabetes.

Needles and syringes he boiled and assembled each day and with which he punctured the rubber tips of medicine vials and then the tender bruised whiteness of her abdomen. Pills and ointments. Bandages, alcohol swabs, and bloodied tissues remained, unmoved beside their bed and beneath it.

They had removed her leg below the knee. Gangrene. He stayed with her through it. Holding her calloused fingers on the days when he was able to visit. Taking two buses. One downtown to 181st Street; another across and up along the west side to Mother Cabrini Hospital. Sitting by the window watching the boats on the river. Listening to her breathe.

He lived alone, save for the ghost she left behind.

They had met in the Lower East Side. She: young and sturdy, from somewhere outside of Vienna. He: older, an earnest tailor from Riga by way of Milwaukee and Hoboken. They were socialists, Workmen’s Circle friends. She was a seamstress. They married in the days before the first war and bought a shop together. She did the mending in the front window facing upper Broadway, sitting at her Singer and spools of colored thread.

When her eyesight failed, he hired a neighborhood girl. She stole from the till and he let her go. When someone scrawled Jew across the front of the shop, he found a willing buyer who paid him in cash, which he kept at the bottom of the salt tub hung beside the stove.

She was a quiet woman. They talked little, had two sons who fought in the big war, and who both found women and moved away.

He owned no car. Walked in the park. He had no one he would call friend. He shopped for cottage cheese, scallions, sour cream, rye bread, and pickled herring, using some of the money he had hidden. He drank tea and read the Herald Tribune in the afternoon. He owed not a penny to another soul.

He was hard of hearing. He listened to the ballgames, a lit Herbert Tareyton filter tip always moist on his lips. Things were what they were.

After Dora died he spent a short time at one son’s home. He heard them talk about him behind their bedroom door at night. The wife didn’t like his smoking or how loud he played the TV, how he left his dishes in the sink, and how she said he roamed the house at night. The son said nothing.

He asked to be taken back home.

It was Mrs. Moynihan who found him. The downstairs neighbor. She had the key. She collected the rent for the landlord.

When the rent was late she knocked on the old man’s door and when no one answered she opened it. She held her apron to her face against the odor.

There was no autopsy on the sloughed and swollen grey-green remains of him they found in the half-filled tub. The poor man was double-bagged, and claimed by his accountant son, who lived in a condo in Tampa.

None of the relatives could bring themselves to go through his things in the apartment above the tailor shop. Mrs. Moynihan cleaned it out from top to bottom. She sent the salesman son an envelope with birth certificates and other papers, and a framed picture of the two boys she found in the bedroom. Another one of the long-faced tailor, wearing a homburg and rimless glasses, standing beside his seated wife in a long white dress and cloche hat, his hand resting on her shoulder.

Mrs. Moynihan said she had found nothing else of any real value, and asked could they send the last months rent to cover the cost of cleanup.

Before they stood to say the kaddish, a nephew, a fleshy former postman from Flatbush, from the Miller side of the family, rose to speak.

“My uncle,” he said, “was a kindhearted man. He took me to the movies and we talked baseball. He made no trouble for anyone. Not a political man, per se, but one who could not conscience war. Quiet, like his wife. He worked hard. Lived to be 89. Not bad,” the smooth-faced postman said, with a smile, holding a folded piece of paper in front of him. “What more could you ask for? He took me to the movies,” he said again. “He was a good man, all in all.”

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