My Grandpa Al was a seminal figure in my life. The youngest of 12 children, he was born in 1913 in Austria-Hungary and came to America at age 2. He was raised in a poor Jewish family and acquired a worldly education on the tough Bronx streets. He married young and became a traveling pasta salesman singing Italian songs to his customers.
Tired of east coast winters, he moved his wife and three daughters (my mom included) across country to Los Angeles in 1948. After a failed pretzel business, he opened a liquor store in midtown Los Angeles at the corner of Western Avenue & Pico Boulevard. During the 1965 Watts Riots, many of the neighboring stores were burned. My grandfather’s store was spared because the locals appreciated his kindness and concern for the community. He often supplied food for families who were struggling.
The liquor store was adjacent to Redd Foxx’s nightclub Foxx’s and celebrities came by for Al’s barbecue chicken and ribs. Al loved telling the story about the time he almost killed Wilt Chamberlain. Wilt entered the store via the 8-foot high Western entrance. He bought some ribs then left through the 7-foot high Pico door. Being 7 foot 1" tall, Wilt slammed his head on the door frame and fell to the ground. Al gave Wilt a lifetime supply of barbecue to keep him happy.
When I was 14, Grandpa Al gave me my first job as a clerk in his liquor store. I’d lived a sheltered life in the suburbs and that summer at Al’s store was eye opening. The surrounding area was impoverished and crime-ridden. Two years earlier, Al was robbed twice at gunpoint. Six weeks before I began working, the store was robbed in the middle of the night and half the liquor stock was stolen or destroyed. Al was not intimidated. He considered himself a “tough Jew.”
Al taught me the tricks of his trade. “Never leave more than twenty dollars in the register…Don’t open the register until you see the customer’s money…If someone asks you a question while the register is open, close the register, then answer the question.” He showed me a thin strip of rubber beneath the counter that triggered the silent alarm. He taught me how to spot a counterfeit bill by rubbing it against a white piece of paper and looking for a faint green mark. He instructed me to leave a hundred dollars in singles in the fake safe in the storage room while leaving the lion’s share of money in the real safe upstairs. He showed me the secret compartment beneath the register where he carried his loaded pistol. “I’ve never had to use this but if that day comes, I’m ready.”
Grandpa Al was a prankster. Once he decided to teach a lesson to a customer named Clarence who came in every day and stole a candy bar. Al took a foil-wrapped Ex-Lax chocolate bar and inserted it into the outer wrapping of a Kit Kat bar. When Clarence approached, Al left the faux Kit Kat on the counter and walked away. I watched from the storage room as Clarence pocketed the Kit Kat and left. We didn’t see him for two weeks. When he finally returned, he looked noticeably pale and lighter. “Where you been, Clarence,” my grandpa asked. Clarence’s reply was unforgettable. “Man, you wouldn’t believe the stuff that’s been happening to me.”
My grandfather sold the store in 1988 and retired. He and my grandma devoted the rest of their life to raising money for City of Hope Hospital to help aid children with cancer. This was my grandparents’ tribute to their daughter who died of cancer at a young age. Grandpa Al passed away in 1994. He was a beautiful man and I still miss him.