The Wandering Jew
by Stephen Brynes
The spring and summer of 1975 were gloomy times. Nixon
had been kicked out of office the year before, and
America had been kicked out of Vietnam in April. A
Christian fundamentalist preacher on a local radio
station was talking about the end of the world. And
this very self-centered 20-year-old kid was worrying
about tuition for the next term. I was majoring in
philosophy and compulsively reading self-improvement
My parents were in the middle of a divorce. So during
the weeklong Easter vacation I went to see both of
"Jimmy, don't talk about money," my mother said. "Look
at me. At your age I was cleaning a parrot's cage to
put that selfish bastard of a husband through medical
school. No matter. He is forgiven. I have forgiven
everything, and have renounced the world and found
Formerly an atheist, she was now a follower of the
Baghwan Shree Rajneesh. Yes, the Baghwan who was
featured on "60 Minutes." The one with a commune in
Oregon, 14 Rolls Royces, and a different woman every
night. Carefully, I never asked whether she slept with
him. (She would have denied it anyway.) But that was
my family's only brush with celebrity.
I concluded once again that she was a certified
fruitcake. Her line of patter had changed, but
underneath everything was the same. Ours had been a
"two-career family," and I had been an only child and
a "latch-key kid." Even so, I had never been as
self-involved as she was. Nothing could penetrate the
shell. After an hour of eating some kind of tasteless
cereal and listening to her ramblings, I fled to the
phone and booked the earliest flight back to to the
Then on to my father, for whom I at least felt a few
vestiges of affection. (Maybe because he had paid for
the plane tickets.) Separation from my mother had left
him in a good mood, and he vaguely and cheerfully
admitted that her grievances "might have some point."
In that spirit I hit him up right away for tuition. He
refused at first. "All medical people are bastards,
Jimmy," he told me with a wink. "The unwashed public
thinks we're loving and caring, and we get away with
"Yes, father." My voice was trembling on the verge of
emotion. "But your son needs money for college."
"Humpf!" That brought him up short. I could see his
mind spinning like the rotors of a slot machine. "Your
mother and I are at war, Jimmy. She brought suit. She
wants to pick me clean to the bone for a few lousy
"You don't know lawyers. They slice and dice. All the
money's locked in escrow until we get a settlement.
"Hey," he continued. "Here's a W.C. Fields joke."
Fields, my father was fundamentally a mean man. His
great frustration was that, unlike Fields, no one ever
thought he was funny. But he kept trying to retell the
comedian's jokes in moments of embarrassment. "What
did W.C. say to the panhandler?"
I shook my head sullenly.
"Very sorry, dear fellow, but all my money's tied up
"That's not funny."
"O.K., Jimmy, O.K." He took out his wallet and handed
over five $20 bills. "This should tide you over.
Appointment in surgery ... very busy these days." And
he was gone.
I was too angry to say anything. Didn't know who was
lying about money and didn't care. My family had been
barely functional for long time, and now it was gone.
A bitterness remains when thinking about my parents.
They were both uninterested in children. Why did they
decide to have me in the first place?
But here I was in the big world, and there was nothing
I could do about it.
I was a junior at a small liberal arts college some 30
miles from Boston, just off Route 1 North Shore. For
low rent, they would let me stay in my dorm room over
the summer. I moped around for a couple of days after
my last final and then decided to look for a job.
The placement office staff was unhelpful. I wanted
some kind of assistantship, but most of the professors
were away for the summer. Aside from cutting grass and
running errands, my experience was very limited. But
there was a muddy yellow sticker on the bulletin board
that caught my eye.
"Carriers wanted. Work all you want. Earn all you
want. Deliver for Mercury Advertising Distributors!"
Then a phone number and a crude drawing of Mercury,
known to me from a mythology course as "trickster of
the gods and God of Commerce and Market," with wings
on his helmet and sandals.
Delivering what, I wondered. I called the number and a
voice answered, "This is MAD. Get your MAD bag now!"
"I'm not mad at anyone," I said. "Just looking for
"Ah ha! Very cute, boychick. Very cute. That's a
capital M, capital A, capital D. Mercury Advertising
Distributors. Do you read, Houston, do you read?"
"Yes, an acronym, just the first letters. And I don't
want to become an astronaut either."
"Mumm ... you've got a mouth. Must be a college boy.
Come by tomorrow, about this time. Ask for Mr.
The town was compact enough for me to reach his office
in 15 minutes on my rusty old Schwinn balloon-tire
bike. His office/residence was a small two-story New
England "salt-box colonial" with garish purple vinyl
siding and a large sign with the same ugly logo I had
seen on the bulletin board.
A short skinny kid with shoulder-length hair, probably
a high school student, was coming out the door.
"Is this the place to apply for the delivery job?"
"Yeah," he said, walking on.
"Wait a minute ... what's the job like? Do I need a
"Nah. You deliver these." He was holding a yellow
plastic MAD bag filled with coupons and advertising
circulars. "Bike's fine."
"What do they pay?
"Seven cents a house. Make 35 bucks on a good day.
It's OK. Too hard, though. I just quit."
"So what are you going to do?"
"Goof off ... I guess. Family's got a place in Maine."
"What's Mr. Berkowitz like?"
"Kind of weird. Checks up on you all the time. Doesn't
trust anybody. Jewish, squeezes the money." He rubbed
thumb and forefinger together.
I walked in the open door and saw a fat, bald-headed man
with a beard who looked a little like the "Mr.
Natural" character in Zap Comix. He silently passed a
form to me which I filled out and handed back. "O.K.,
Mr. James W. Folsom," he said with mocking formality,
"you are now an independent contractor. Company not
liable if you fall off your bike, get run over by a
semi ... whatever. Come back tomorrow about 9 in the
morning. Oh yeah ... you got a bike?"
"Yes. And my name's Jim."
"We'll give you saddlebags to carry the stuff. You
related to Big Jim Folsom?"
"Big Jim from Alabam? Two-term governor. Suds Bucket
Campaign of '46. Every time he gave a speech I went
around with a mop and bucket collecting money.
Fund-raising gimmick," he went on, apparently
impatient with my befuddled stare. "Promoting clean
What did that have to do with anything, I wondered.
"Come back tomorrow," he repeated. The interview was
So the next morning I set out on my rusty Schwinn
balloon-tire bicycle loaded with those ugly yellow
We were supposed to loop the handle of each bag over a
doorknob, but homeowners or their dogs often chased us
away. Beside the mailbox was second best, but never
in the mailbox or the Post Office would complain,
Berkowitz emphasized. But for the homeowners
themselves he had only contempt. "Throw the bag down
and get the hell out," he said.
I later learned that many people in town had tried to
put him out of business. It was one of those quarrels
that go on endlessly. The City Council had never
passed the necessary ordinance. "I've got connections,
boychick," Berkowitz said self-importantly.
Maybe he did. Jews were indeed mysterious and a little
sinister to me then. My maternal grandfather was
Jewish, my mother said once, adding that he was "the
black sheep of the family." I had never met him. Why a
"black sheep"? Where was he? No one would tell me.
When setting out, my bike heavily loaded with MAD
bags, I awkwardly peddled away and turned on my
transistor radio. The fundamentalist preacher
came on prophesying the end of the world:
"The mountains shall fall,
And the valleys shall rise,
And great shall be the tumult thereof."
Oh hell! Twisted the dial and landed on the country
and western station:
"Pickin' it up
And puttin' it down.
I'm jus' a rodeo-deo clown."
That was reality, that was life. Back in high school, a
personality test had stamped me as a "subjectively
oriented intuitive feeling type." Perhaps a
poet or philosopher thinking soft, vague, and
comfortable thoughts. I was dreamy, absent-minded and
often forgetful -- not good qualities for deliverymen
or airline pilots. But there were many more jobs for
deliverymen and pilots than for poets and
philosophers. On with the "tortured finality of
right/wrong and yes/no" as the poet E. E. Cummings
would say. The Twenties were different times. Unlike
Cummings I would have to struggle with it.
So all through June I strained and sweated, building
muscle strength and memory for details. A couple of
times I saw Berkowitz driving by and guessed he was
checking up on my work. By the middle of July I was
working 7 days a week and finally became top carrier.
"Very good, boychick," said Berkowitz. "You were kind
of slow getting started, but you've got it now. You
can show Joe here the ropes."
Joe was a new hire. Together we rode along the route
and I pointed out the surly dogs and surlier people.
Two weeks later he quit. "Too hard," he said. But
Berkowitz and I knew the real reason was hostility. He
couldn't take it. Most of the new hires couldn't and
quit after a couple of months. Many people, probably
the majority, just didn't like what we did.
Once, after only a few days on the job, I rode up to
the door of an imposing house with an immaculately
kept lawn. A large dog came out snarling ferociously.
Threw the MAD bag on the lawn and peddled furiously
"Hey you -- stop!" An elderly man had collared the dog
and chained it to the door. Now he was stamping
angrily on the bag.
"Goddamn piece of crap! Never come here again, you
hear. Never, never, never!" On the bike, I watched
from a safe distance.
"Get out!" he sputtered. "You people have ruined this
country with your garbage -- McDonalds, Coca-Cola,
Kentucky Fried ...." He was too hoarse to speak and
could only sputter as I rode away.
Told Berkowitz about it that evening. To my surprise,
he just laughed and laughed in his long giggling
chortle. "That's Himmelstein," he said. "The
kike deserves what he gets. Wants to put me out of
business, but I showed him."
In Berkowitzian language, a kike was a Jew who had
converted to Christianity. And Himmelstein, who had
married a "shiksa" and become Episcopalian, was
especially obnoxious to him. Berkowitz thrived on
hostility and reveled in it. No business is run for
money alone, and for him the psychological
satisfaction of lashing back at the world
and surviving was enough to keep Mercury Advertising
He claimed, for example, that the ugly yellow color of
his bags was to make them more visible. We both knew
better. When dropped on Himmelstein's lawn they were
like a red flags to a bull.
Though uneasy at first, I grew to like working there.
The pay was good, and I could work as many hours as I
wanted. Above all Berkowitz was fun to be around.
Having dogs snarl and people wave their fists
enlivened a dull day. More and more, he and I would
sit down after work, drink and swap stories, his about
the "old days" and mine of the last few days.
"Fifty cents off a liter Pepsi, Mrs. Jellieby."
"Go away, young man! Why don't you find a decent job?"
And so it went. The theme of hostility echoes
throughout the entire coupon business. Hundreds of
billions of coupons are printed each year, but
less than 1 percent are ever redeemed. Why do the
companies bother? For marketing information. If people
can overcome their hostility sufficiently to take a
coupon to the supermarket, then the product is worth
"A secure business, boychick," Berkowitz had said.
"Good times, bad times, coupons go on forever. Hey, if
a goofball like me can make it, anybody can."
It was now September. He was angling for me to work
full-time, and I was resisting. I still wanted to
become a philosopher, something that struck him as
utterly incredible. Finally a compromise, strongly
loaded in his favor. I would take two courses that
fall and spend the rest of my time working for him,
handling paperwork, training new hires, only
delivering when no one else was available. I was like
some wandering asteroid which had been sucked into the
orbit of a heavier planet.
It was "Jim" now, no longer "boychick." and he
"Obie," his contraction of Old Berkowitz. Together we
met at the office after work and drank "Obie's Private
Stock," a homemade beer with a powerful kick. "Can't
get anything like this in a supermarket," he said.
"Why not?" That was long before the coming of the
"Light on the hops. They're expensive. Damn brewing
companies are run by accountants, that's why." Bit my
lip to keep from laughing as he launched into a
denunciation of corporate America that might have
come from Himmelstein. Even funnier, I knew he never
used coupons himself, preferring to buy no-name
brands at warehouse sales.
"Obie," I asked, "why do you like to piss people off?
Purple house, yellow bags on their lawns, all that
"Do I? Maybe ... they're more 'human' that way."
Then I blurted out, "My grandfather was Jewish."
"But not your mother?" He eyed me curiously.
"I knew it!" He rubbed his forefinger along his nose.
"This is a Jew-sniffer, Jim. Can smell 'em a mile
off." He lapsed into silence again, but soon resumed.
"You'll never make it as a professor. Wake up! Look at
"What does Barry Goldwater have to do with anything?"
"How old were you when he ran in '64? Maybe 10. Poor
ol' Barry could never get respect. His staff made up
this dumb slogan, 'In your heart you know he's right.'
Then the goyim media jumped his ass. 'In your guts you
know he's nuts.' And a thousand shrinks signed a paper
saying he was nuts. Barry lost by 16 million votes."
"Did you vote for Goldwater?"
"Hell no. I never vote ... in national elections
anyhow. But the point is, Jimbo, other people have
Jew-sniffers too. The goyim media saw that Barry was
part-Jewish and stomped his ass. And if you make it as
a professor, the rest of that chickenshit crew will
stomp your ass too!"
It all seemed paranoid, but I liked him too much to
argue. Shifting the subject slightly, I asked, " ...
never get respect, I've heard that somewhere."
"Arrgh! That SOB! Jake Cohen, alias Jack Roy, alias
Rodney Dangerfield. Some other time, Jim. My bum
ticker won't take it." And so we adjourned our
"You were going to tell me about Rodney Dangerfield,"
I reminded him at our next drinking session.
"Oh Jake ... that bastard. "I could get arrested for
talking about him." Suddenly Obie seemed very old and
tired. But he continued.
"My old man sold hot dogs at Yankee Stadium. Had a
pushcart. Then the war came -- the Big War. He got a
job in a war plant in Birmingham.
"Didn't want to go to college. Then came Big Jim
Folsom and the 'Bucket o' Suds' campaign. Jim was a
good guy, but, hell, the South is no place for a Jew."
"What did you do?"
"Back to New York, looked around. Then ... don't
remember the particulars, became a shingleman."
"Shingleman. Sold siding for houses -- vinyl,
aluminum, that stuff. Sometimes put it up. You see
this house? 'Purple Passion' they called it. Put it on
myself. Cost nothing. Stupid factory couldn't give it
away. I think it looks great!"
"A slight disagreement," I said laughing. "But what
about Rodney, ah, Jake rather? "
"We were business partners. We had our own company,
'Windsor Estates.' Our slogan: 'Real homes have vinyl
siding.' Coke stole that from us when they started the
'real thing' crap. Maybe sold a thousand tons of
siding together. The late 40s. Crazy suburban goyim.
If they couldn't afford Levittown, nail siding on the
"That was the best time of my life. Went up and down
New Jersey selling siding. Know that state like the
back of my hand. Jake and I called ourselves the
'Wandering Jews.' We were both divorced. Get drunk,
get laid -- the hell with tomorrow.
"Jake's father was a small-time comedian. Used to play
the Brooklyn clubs on weekends, and Jake was sometimes
part of the act. Yeah, he was ambitious, you could
"We had a really bad week once. Couldn't sell squat.
Then I said, 'You know, Jake, we just can't get
respect. That's the problem.'
And a light goes on in his eyes and the wheels start
turning. Didn't think anything of it.
"Then I hear -- two weeks later -- he auditioned for
the Ed Sullivan show. Used my line and blew everybody
away. Kapow! He's a celebrity, and I'm still a jerk
selling siding. Very sneaky, he comes by the office
one night and takes all his stuff away."
"Didn't you ever hear from him again?"
"Wrote a couple of letters, no answer. Then almost a
year later I was in Vegas and caught his act at
Caesar's Palace. Watched him getting laughs, and all
the hurt comes back. Went backstage
later, looked him straight in the eye and said, 'You
know Jake, I'd like a credit line.'
"He looks back, cold as ice, and calls me a dirty
name. So I belted him. Right on the side of the head.
Went down like a sack of potatoes. Two rent-a-cops
come running in and jump me. Spent the next two weeks
in jail arguing with lawyers. Coulda been put away for
a long time. But I got out of it."
"Jake was scared I'd spill my guts to the National
Inquirer or some damn tabloid. No one would have
believed me anyway, but he's still paranoid. So I
signed this damn paper promising I'd never catch his
act again, never say anything to anybody. My lawyer
said it was unconstitutional, but, hell, I was getting
tired of jail."
I was thinking of what to say when he slapped me on
the knee. "OK boychick, the old man's going to bed."
Then he went into the bathroom and passed out. He was
a big, fat guy and it was an effort for me to haul him
to his room and put him on the bed. Took off his shoes
and left him sleeping.
"What title do you want?" Obie asked a couple of days
"We're a corporation, Jim. You can be President, and
I'll be Chairman of the Executive Committee. A
committee of one," he added teasingly.
"No. I'll be manager. But how about a raise?"
That was it. No more college. Taking care of the
business, and of him, now took all of my time. He was
a sick man with diabetes and a history of heart
attacks. Twice divorced, no children, alienated from
his relatives -- if I didn't look after him, who
would? He had pulled me out of a period of confusion
and depression and given me a livelihood. So I owed
At the same time, he was often either evasive or
deceptive, both about the business and his past. The
company was apparently at least breaking even, but he
refused to show me the books.( I doubted if the
Dangerfield story were true.) Even if true, had
anything of value been taken from him? Although often
funny, Obie was not a comedian. He did not have the
quick wit to compete with his "partner." That's
the whole point of Dangerfield's act -- he comes on
stage looking like an unmade bed, then jabs and
maneuvers to at least get respect for his
intelligence. I don't think Obie could ever have done
Winter passed, then spring. In the summer we had an
argument. I wanted to redesign the MAD bags and make
them more acceptable. Anything was better than that
hideous yellow. "At least try it, Obie," I said
adding, "if we don't, I'm thinking of quitting."
He looked at me to see if I was serious. "OK," he
said finally. The new bags were light beige with just
enough "earth tone" not to clash with a green lawn.
The printing was silver, and a new picture of Mercury
was copied from an old engraving I'd found at the
Harvard Art Library. "A class act," Berkowitz conceded
reluctantly. Coupon redemptions went up 7 percent in
the first week.
After that he seemed to lose interest in the business.
Some days I would come to the office in the evening
and find him sitting in the backyard, staring into
space. Asked for a second raise and got it, but still
he refused to show me the books. And contact with the
companies that issued the coupons, the real core of
the business, remained in his hands.
Then he did something stupid. His car broke down, and
he walked three miles to the office in a cold rain.
The next day he was sick and the day after that
couldn't get out of bed. I called an ambulance. The
doctors at the hospital told me he had pneumonia and
would require a stay of at least two weeks. That
Saturday as I was preparing to visit him, they called
again. He was dead.
I cried for most of the night. He was not yet 60, and
I had never expected him to go this way. Now I had to
arrange the funeral, taking care of all the
conventionalities for a man who scorned conventions.
There was no synagogue in town, so I called a rabbi in
Boston. Obie was buried in the local cemetery.
Besides the rabbi and myself, only four people showed
up. Three were carriers I'd pressed into coming, and
one was the local marketing representative of a
national food company. Obie's relatives had been
invited, but none of them showed up.
"Do you expect to stay in business?" marketing man
"Of course we do."
But figuring things out was tough. Brought in an
accountant to go over the books. Yes, as I suspected,
the firm was just breaking even. But there seemed to
be no debts of any kind, not even a mortgage on the
purple house. Two weeks later a lawyer called from
Boston. Obie, formally named Moses Elkanah Berkowitz,
had left a will.
This time, a couple of the relatives showed up for the
reading. Obie had left me almost everything -- the
relatives got nothing but some junk jewelry and
clothing. A real "f__k you" type of will.
So what remains to be said? I'm still running the
business, although it's moved from frosty, staid New
England to the warmer climes of central Florida, just
a few miles from Disneyland. Great place for a coupon
business. I direct a squad of fresh-faced high school
kids distributing MAD bags to tourists every day.
Have even acquired a new wife, a divorcee with two
small children. She has never been outside of Florida.
My wife and I are members of the Hosanna Baptist
Church. Sunday mornings we sing hymns and listen to
boring sermons. So far as I am concerned Christianity
is only emotional. The music is wonderful, but the
words fail. For example, this is something my wife
thinks is cute and whimsical:
"Baptist I was born,
Baptist I shall die.
When I get to heaven,
I'll eat that Baptist pie."
"How dumb can you get? Totally ridiculous," I stormed
after leaving. "Never want to go back there again!"
"Don't you believe in God?" my wife asked with a hurt
"Yes, but not your God. My God was born 14 billion
years ago in the Big Bang. Impossibly old, impossibly
huge. The galaxies churn, the DNA replicates, and
genetic errors are punished to the 4th and 5th
generations. Most important, He/She/It does not have
She said nothing, but next Sunday we were back in
church again. It wasn't worth fighting about. An hour
a week won't kill me. She doesn't care what I
think, only what I do. Incomprehensible to me. The
rest of the congregation hasn't caught on, and
probably never will. I am a stealth Jew, flying under
Sometimes I dream about Obie. He is dressed in a long
black cloak in the manner of Medieval woodcuts of the
Wandering Jew. Alone, he plods doggedly along a high
mountain pass through a raging winter storm. Then he
disappears in a flurry of snow and is gone. I awake
with a start. It isn't Obie. The Wandering Jew is