Grandpa reached out his right arm playfully and gently commanded, “Shake my hand.” I eagerly complied, sensing something was about to happen.
“You just shook the hand that shook the hand that shook the hand of Abraham Lincoln,” Grandpa said with a grin earned from a multitude of identical attempts. His old grammar school principal apparently claimed to have similarly exchanged sweat with Honest Abe.
Charles (Aurelius, Orias, Caius, Casius… I’m messing up his silly list of faux middle names but it went on for about 10 specimens and ended with Juniper) Farber was born in the Lower East Side of Manhattan when it was a late 19th Century poor and vibrant Jewish neighborhood. He didn’t fit in all that well. Nearsighted and colorblind, the kids teased him unmercifully, calling the spectacle-wearing boy “Four Eyes.” He was irreligious. He wasn’t great at stickball, though he did love the “New York Baseball Giants” and their best pitcher Christy Mathewson.
Grandpa Charles was an enthusiastic, even rhapsodic, autodidact. Never got past 8th grade, yet he was a voracious reader of high lit and timely non-fiction, and a passionate and knowledgeable classical music consumer. When I listen now to a Bach fugue, Beethoven sonata, or Brahms chamber piece, I’m listening as Grandpa Charles, swinging my arms, jabbing the sky, my face dancing to the music’s demands.
“I got arrested as a Bolshevik in 1920 for not wearing a hat,” he proudly recalled, basking in his unearned subversive youth. It was only later did I read about that year’s famous Palmer Raids, named for the crusading anti-communist Attorney General who saw a red under most every bed. At the time, Grandpa was a floor trader on Wall Street. Hardly a bastion for socialist revolutionaries. And he was doing pretty well. Photographing his lovely wife, dancing like Isadora Duncan. Doting on his sweet son (my dad). The 20s, found Charles, for the most part, with dollars in his pockets, living the New York bohemian idyll.
The market crash of ’29 hit the Farbers hard. Grandpa lost his job and most of what remained of his self-confidence shortly thereafter. Unemployed, he struggled. The marriage suffered. It was up to Grandma Ida to pull them out of a deep hole. She went to her brother who helped set up Charles with a small bookshop. For 36 years he owned and managed the Mayfair Book Shop on Northern Boulevard in Flushing, Queens. It was really a glorified Hallmark card store, with 2 rows of cards surrounded by walls of dusty old book classics.
I wonder if he ever sold a book. Grandpa was a lousy businessman. I remember one incident when I was about 10.
I stood outside on the sidewalk and appeared to gawk at offerings in his shop, just to draw in customers. In fact, it was beginning to work. “Stop that,” he called out to me. “All these people are interfering with my reading!” And there was Grandpa, sitting in the back of the store by the cash register reading a book. Yes… that’s right. His cash register in a New York shop was in the back of the store. When the store was finally sold, the first change by the new owners to reduce theft was to reverse the location of that register.
Charles’ father died at age 39 and Grandpa was convinced he would as well. He was hospitalized with pneumonia at 39, but then recovered. He proceeded to live another 45 years.
Grandpa’s stressful marriage after the Great Depression never fully returned to its sanguine youthful joys. He never left the city until his 40s when he visited Dad and Mom in Florida during WWII. He said death would be his reason to depart the bookstore and he almost pulled that off. Hospitalized at age 79, he and Grandma sold the store, moved into an apartment near their daughter and in a complete surprise, Grandma died two days later.
But then, there was a second act. He met a vibrant and saucy German refugee lady. They paired up, and for the first time in his life, he traveled to Europe, and to other exotic climes. The last four years of his life were his happiest.
My dad, the gerontology professor, would teach that we are capable of growth and change through all stages of adulthood. The way my mom put it, was “you never know what might happen next.” For them both, Grandpa Charles made the case.