Suburban Soliloquy


The story my father told is that Grandpa was a bootlegger. Grandpa Harris Bentzman, for whom I have been named, used to concoct gin in his bathtub. My father, when he was only six or seven, used to deliver it. Rarely did the police interfere, usually not suspecting a child. The local officers knew and on occasion they would intercept my father to confiscate the evidence. But charges were never brought against Grandpa and later my father would be dispatched to the local police station to retrieve the now emptied bottles.

Grandpa Harris Bentzman came to this country from Minsk and, possibly being descended from a long line of tailors, worked as a cutter in the garment district. That was until he accidentally cut off his thumb. Becoming a small-time bootlegger was one way to make ends meet during hard times with five children.

It was a colorful story which in childhood fed my need to be the nonconformist, the outsider, an outlaw. What boy did not wish for swashbuckling pirates or bold and gallant highwaymen as their heritage? What was a bootlegger to a kid? He was an adventurer with business sense who wore silk shirts under perfectly tailored suits, a Tommy gun beneath his raincoat, and was chauffeured to clubs and speakeasies in a bulletproof limousine. The cold-blooded killers these monsters really were was sugarcoated by tenderhearted portrayals in Damon Runyon stories. Who could forget Glenn Ford in Pocketful of Miracles?

Grandpa Harris probably never owned a silk shirt, nor owned a car, nor sported a .45-caliber submachine gun. What an excellent inheritance for a young boy would be a Tommy gun. My only inheritance from my grandfather is a rusty penknife with a broken pearl handle.

The story goes, according to my father, Grandpa Harris got into trouble when "some asinine girl" thought she went blind from drinking Grandpa's liquor. Not that blindness was unheard of when cheap liquor was made using wood alcohol, but my father insisted that Grandpa Harris never used wood alcohol and the girl simply drank too much, had become blind drunk. I had heard the term "blind drunk" before, but assumed it was a metaphor for drinking oneself into a stupor. In any case, she recovered and no one else drinking from Grandpa's product that night experienced blindness, so it must not have been Grandpa's recipe. Do people actually go temporarily blind from drinking too much? I certainly haven't.

A month or so ago, I was occupying the time in that vanity of doing an internet search on my name. Each time there are more hits. Recently, my father's name began to appear on the internet, although he's been dead since 1995. My father was an electrical-mechanical engineer and the references were to his many patents. Still, what was particularly exciting this last time was to find a 1931 news report in the December 28th issue of The New York Times mentioning my grandfather. "GIRL, 19, IS BLINDED BY WHISKY IN BRONX". The article goes on to read:

"After friends of a young woman who had taken three drinks of liquor had reported her temporarily blinded, Harris Bentzman, 58 years old, who was described by the police as a bootlegger, was arrested yesterday at his home, 2,114 Aqueduct Avenue, the Bronx. He was booked on charges of felonious assault and violation of the prohibition law."

It was true! The asinine girl was a 19-year-old telephone operator named Dorothea Clark. She had come to the Bronx to party. According to the article, "Physicians at Lebanon and Lincoln Hospitals, in the Bronx, were more cautious than the police in describing her malady, listing it only as 'toxic amaurosis,' without reference to alcohol." After she quickly recovered, she returned home to Brooklyn. It did not end so well for my grandfather. The police went to his apartment and showed him the bottle from which Miss Clark drank and he honestly admitted that the bottle was his. The police searched his home and found more wine, whiskey, and gin. He explained that he made his liquor from alcohol, burnt sugar and water. They took him away to the Ryer Avenue police station. "While being questioned at the Ryer Avenue police station, Bentzman collapsed and was removed to the prison ward at Fordham Hospital after the police had learned that he suffered from a heart ailment." My father never mentioned this.

Knowing more about my grandfather raises more questions. The dates don't match. In 1931, my father would have been twenty years old, yet he had told me that his father had died when he was twelve. My father could not have been making those deliveries when he was six or seven, that being 1917-18, because Prohibition did not start until 1920. Did my Grandpa Harris remain incarcerated? Did he die in prison? He was dead before my mother met my father in 1938. Neither my father nor any of his siblings ever mentioned this matter and perhaps this was due to the shame it would have brought the family. Since none of my father's siblings are alive, it doesn't seem likely I will ever learn the truth. What little truth I have is that I’m not named for a dashing rogue. He was just a hardworking father and husband scraping his way through the Depression.

My Aunt Dolly told the story of how my father as a boy approached Grandpa Harris asking for a nickel. All Grandpa Harris had in his pocket was a quarter. He gave the whole quarter to my father. This story reminded me of my own father, who was sometimes generous to his own detriment.

I have taken out of my desk drawer my grandfather’s penknife to look at it again. Engraved into the pearl handle are the initials “H.B.” and on the other side “KARLSBAD 1929”. What does this mean? Was he in Germany that year? What for and how could he afford it? Yet another mystery, another story. Other than this penknife, what else have I inherited in my blood and behavior from grandfather?

Bruce Bentzman

This essay is the most recent in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any
comments or suggestions,
the writer would be pleased to hear from you.
Mr Bentzman's collection of poems, "Atheist Grace" is available from Amazon,
as are "The Short Stories of B.H.Bentzman"