"Sons of bitches!" my father said. "Fascist bastards!" and then
the light changed and we drove on in silence to look at the office
building where he was about to get his chance to earn more than
fifty dollars a week.
It was my brother who, when we went to bed that night, explained
why my father had lost control and cursed aloud in front
of his children: the homey acre of open-air merriment smack in
the middle of town was called a beer garden, the beer garden had
something to do with the German-American Bund, the German-American Bund had something to do with Hitler, and Hitler, as I
hadn't needed to be told, had everything to do with persecuting Jews.
The intoxicant of anti-Semitism. That's what I came to imagine
them all so cheerfully drinking in their beer garden that daylike
all the Nazis everywhere, downing pint after pint of anti-Semitism
as though imbibing the universal remedy.
My father had to take off a morning of work to go over to the
home office in New Yorkto the tall building whose uppermost
tower was crowned with the beacon his company proudly designated "The Light That Never Fails"and inform the superintendent
of agencies that he couldn't accept the promotion he longed
"It's my fault," announced my mother as soon as he began to recount
at the dinner table what had transpired there on the eighteenth
floor of 1 Madison Avenue.
"It's nobody's fault," my father said. "I explained before I left
what I was going to tell him, and I went over and I told him, and
that's it. We're not moving to Union, boys. We're staying right
"What did he do?" my mother asked.
"He heard me out."
"And then?" she asked.
"He stood up and he shook my hand."
"He didn't say anything?"
"He said, 'Good luck, Roth.'"
"He was angry with you."
"Hatcher is a gentleman of the old school. Big six-foot goy.
Looks like a movie star. Sixty years old and fit as a fiddle. These are
the people who run things, Bessthey don't waste their time getting
angry at someone like me."
"So now what?" she asked, implying that whatever happened as
a result of his meeting with Hatcher was not going to be good and
could be dire. And I thought I understood why. Apply yourself and
you can do itthat was the axiom in which we had been schooled
by both parents. At the dinner table, my father would reiterate to
his young sons time and again, "If anybody asks 'Can you do this
job? Can you handle it?' you tell 'em 'Absolutely.' By the time they
find out that you can't, you'll already have learned, and the job'll
be yours. And who knows, it just might turn out to be the opportunity
of a lifetime." Yet over in New York he had done nothing
"What did the Boss say?" she asked him. The Boss was how the
four of us referred to the manager of my father's Newark office,
Sam Peterfreund. In those days of unadvertised quotas to keep
Jewish admissions to a minimum in colleges and professional
schools and of unchallenged discrimination that denied Jews significant
promotions in the big corporations and of rigid restrictions
against Jewish membership in thousands of social organizations
and communal institutions, Peterfreund was one of the first
of the small handful of Jews ever to achieve a managerial position
with Metropolitan Life. "He's the one who put you up for it," my
mother said. "How must he feel?"
"Know what he said to me when I got back? Know what he told
me about the Union office? It's full of drunks. Famous for drunks.
Beforehand he didn't want to influence my decision. He didn't
want to stand in my way if this was what I wanted. Famous for
agents who work two hours in the morning and spend the rest of
their time in the tavern or worse. And I was supposed to go in
there, the new Jew, the big new sheeny boss the goyim are all dying
to work for, and I was supposed to go in there and pick 'em up off
the barroom floor. I was supposed to go in there and remind them
of their obligation to their wives and their children. Oh, how they
would have loved me, boys, for doing them the favor. You can
imagine what they would have called me behind my back. No, I'm
better off where I am. We're all better off."
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