Friday, July 20, 2012

Orchard Street Connection

Was down on Orchard Street in Manhattan last evening observing Ellie getting fitted at Adriennes for her wedding gown for next month’s nuptials.

To those not familiar with Orchard Street, a little history. Located in the heart of the Lower East Side populated by waves of immigrants, especially Eastern European Jews in the decades before and after the turn of the 20th century, the narrow-laned Orchard Street has always been a mecca for savvy shoppers and sharp retailers. Above the shops, immigrants lived in squalid, cramped quarters of walk-up apartments. Today hip, young people share the confines with newer immigrants. The neighborhood is gentrifying with trendy stores and restaurants.

As a child I would tag along with my father and my mother as they plied the small, merchandise-stuffed storefronts looking for bargains in apparel, textiles and electronics, all the way kibitzing with the merchants along the busy street.

Orchard Street has a long history with our family. After my father came to New York from Danzig, Poland, in 1939, he worked for his cousin Morris in a shirt store on Orchard Street. It was there one day, when he was several steps up on a ladder, that he met my mother for the first time. It was sort of a prearranged meeting, but my mother’s hair was not very cooperative that day. As family lore tells it, her hair was downright scary, so much so that when dad gazed upon her for the first time, he fell off the ladder. Nevertheless, they agreed to go out on a date that Friday night, to see an operetta, Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus

When he arrived at her parents’ door Friday evening he was met by an attractive young woman whom he assumed was one of her three sisters. He was only slightly embarrassed but quite relieved and happy to discover his date stood before him. They married six weeks later.

Ever the businessman my father opened his own shirt shop on Orchard Street after returning from military service in World War II. His store was at 99 Orchard Street, in the shadow of what today is the Tenement Museum at 97 Orchard Street. Indeed, a year or so ago the museum contacted me for information on his store as part of its research on an exhibit of businesses of the Lower East Side. I never knew of that store as I wasn't yet born when he ran it, but an older cousin who worked there provided details. As Herb explained to me, it was common back in the 1940s for my father to give a helping hand to relatives and friends who needed a first job. 

As a child, I was aware of and intrigued by my father’s familiarity with the merchants along Orchard Street. I now understand from where his knowledge derived. It seemed only fitting then that his granddaughter came full circle back to Orchard Street to choose her dress for her wedding which will take place 11 days shy of what would have been my parents’ 70th wedding anniversary.