This is about my personal Memorial Day. Forty-four years ago today my father’s father, Aaron Homnick, shuffled off this mortal coil, leaving me doubly bereft. My mother had died a year earlier and I was beginning to think all my anchors were becoming unmoored.
He and I enjoyed an especially close relationship, because I was the eldest grandchild living in New York City. My father’s sister and brother were living in Virginia and Pennsylvania, respectively, so my cousins were not competing with me for quality time.
Aaron arrived in New York from the Ukraine at age 15 in 1908. He quickly absorbed excellent language skills in English. When he attended Syracuse University, his writing attracted consistent A grades, leading the school to approach him with a proposition. He became the tutor for members of the football team whose inability to express themselves in essays was endangering their scholarships. My younger brother, named after Aaron, celebrates that legacy as a Syracuse booster.
Before long, he turned that into a cottage industry, going beyond the Syracuse squad to expand his customer base. His most famous protégé was Paul Robeson on the Rutgers team, although Robeson was on an academic scholarship. Robeson’s career path from the gridiron to singer to actor to civil rights activist to unapologetic Stalinist has been amply documented. I’m not sure whether I should be bragging about the connection or hiding under a rock.
Who really wrote Robeson’s famous valedictorian speech? Sometimes I wonder.
Aaron did his graduate work in pharmacy at Columbia University. When he began his practice circa 1920, he often prescribed drugs directly to patients who could not afford to visit a doctor. He managed to open his own store before long, and he was a fixture on the corner of 1st Street and Third Avenue in Manhattan for more than three decades. His was the only drug store in Manhattan that was shuttered on Saturday in observance of the Jewish Sabbath.
Ironically, throughout my childhood and young adulthood I never encountered a single person who recognized my name as matching the longtime East Side druggist. The first and only time this occurred was when I spent Passover at a Miami Beach hotel in 2010, more than half a century after the store closed its doors. An elderly woman at the Passover event made the connection as soon as I was introduced!
Sadly, Aaron was robbed numerous times but he resolutely refused to carry a gun, believing it would increase the danger. He told me this in his own words: “I had a colleague who mocked me for not keeping a gun behind the counter. He said if he ever gets robbed he’ll shoot once in the air to show he means business and if the thieves don’t scatter he’ll aim at them. Sure enough, he was held up at gunpoint, he shot once in the air, they shot him once in the chest, and he was dead.”
He shared amazing memories of a bygone era that seemed unimaginable. As a teenage boy he had done piece work in the New York garment center, cutting brims for hats at five cents each. He was strong and he cut straight, so he made as much as six times as the average employee. When the others called a strike, he joined the picket line despite his handsome wages. The owners sent a limousine full of mobsters to spray the crowd with submachine gun fire. Aaron spotted them as they pulled up to the curb and he alertly rolled to safety under their car until they revved the motor to leave.
Aaron was a fine singer and actor in his own right. He always led the High Holiday services as a cantor and he performed in summer stock in the Catskills. When he sang the liturgy he would become inspired, sometimes experiencing epiphanous moments. One year he approached a man after the prayers and assured him he and his wife would have a child that year after twenty years of trying. When the prediction came true, the congregation was astounded.
He was a major influence on my life, with his integrity, cheer, wit and equilibrium, although I have not accepted his instruction to vote Democrat. I still cherish many of the jokes he told me, so it seems fitting to close with this one.
Three men were running to catch a train. They huffed and puffed but only two of them got into the last car before its doors closed. The third one, standing in the station short of breath, began laughing uproariously.
“What is so funny about missing the train?” a bystander asked.
“Because I was the only one actually traveling. Those two guys just came to see me off.”