I grew up in the grocery business. My grandfather, (I called him “Zaydie,” Yiddish for “grandpa”) Louis Paperny, had arrived in Omaha, Nebraska, with five kopeks in his pocket and began to peddle fruits and vegetables. He was so successful, he bought a corner property and built an open air fruit stand and a small brick building for a family bar. Eventually, his four sons-in-law came into the business and they established the first modern supermarket on the property. What made it modern? There were self-serve aisles and check stands instead of the old country store model where you had to ask a clerk to hand you a box of detergent over a counter. In 1957, Louis Market was a phenomenon.
All nine of Louie’s grandchildren were given jobs in the store as soon as we were able to help out. Of all the jobs in the store, my favorites were the produce section and the pickle aisle. Over the years, I got pretty good at trimming lettuce and corn. “Don’t take too much off, now,” the produce manager would say. “Pull the silks out from under the husks, but leave the husks,” he would instruct. And then there was candling eggs. In those days, we got cases of loose eggs that had to be inspected before put into cartons. I held up an egg in front of a light to see if there was any blood. If there was, the egg was fertilized and we couldn’t sell it. The back room of the produce section had its own special smell - the fresh whiff of greens and the rotten stench of overripe fruit, combined in a unique bouquet all its own.
One summer when I was fourteen, I was offered an “intership” with my Uncle Morton’s father, Herman Friedlander. A short, plump balding man, Herman had once owned his own store and now, near retirement age, he worked at Louie’s, stocking the pickle aisle. Herman was a colorful character; he spoke with a Russian accent and had a contagious laugh. We would begin each day checking the shelves, making a list of items that needed restocking. Then, down to the basement to retrieve cases of merchandise. Then, up the conveyor belt to the loading dock where I’d stack the cases on a cart. Once we got the cart to the pickle aisle, the fun really began. “On the roof, Mr. Boss,” Herman would say, meaning he wanted me to take the case to be opened and place it on the very top of the stack, easing his access. Since box cutters were very sharp, Herman always opened the case. He’d take out his ink marker which he carried on his hip in a holster like some kind of Western cowboy, twirl the individual stamp pads until the price read “$.59,” and then punch the top of a jar until the mark magically appeared. My job was to take the marked jars out of the case and place them carefully on the shelf. “Don’t forget to front each row, Mr. Boss,” Herman would say in his thick accent. I loved when he called me “Mr. Boss.” Somehow, I felt much older than I really was. This went on for a couple of hours each morning until it was time for lunch. We would saunter over to the meat department, grab a raw T-bone steak, and walk over to the bar to grill it.
The bar was another world. There were three main areas of activity. In the front of the store was the package liquor department with its shelves of wines and spirits. In the middle of the store was the bar, outfitted in a Western theme, saddle-like stools and brass rails. In the back was Louie’s Chuck Wagon, a short order grill offering up Louie’s famous chili dogs, burgers and fries Louie’s Bar was known in Omaha as a “family bar.” People brought their families because there was food sold on the premises. While sitting at the bar was forbidden to anyone under 21, minors could sit in the booths surrounding the bar to enjoy the chili dogs and hot tamales. I loved sitting there looking at the ingenious advertising displays provided by the beer companies. My favorite was the Budweiser neon sign that featured a model of the Clysdale horses pulling a wagon that circled ‘round and ‘round endlessly. Sometimes my mind would wander back to my earliest memories of the bar when there was sawdust on the floor, roughnecks in the seats, and a real Wild West atmosphere in the air. The décor itself was Western – mock saddle seats for the bar stools, and a six-gun toting, mustachioed cartoon character with a Stetson looking something like Yosemite Sam hawking Louie’s famous 25 cent beer on draft. A mural of a Western prairie scene had been painted on the back wall, complete with secret messages. On the rumps of each horse was a brand: “BR,” “MF,” “LL,” and “AW,” the initials of the four uncles who ran Louis Market, along with Zaydie.
Herman and I would sit and eat that steak while he regaled me with tales of his younger years in Russia. Although I hardly understood it then, truth is Herman was a Communist. He spoke lovingly of Karl Marx. He complained about the inequality of capitalism, even as we did our small part in the capitalist venue of Louis Market. “Vell,” Herman would sigh, “you gotta make a living somehow. Right, Mr. Boss?”
I was never much interested in the package liquor - it was like the grocery store but with booze. It was the bar that seemed to be an endlessly engaging soap opera, with a cast of characters out of some novel. There was Russ the bartender, a grizzled ex-Marine with a buzz haircut, a no-nonsense “what’ll ya’ have” master of the bar. His wife, Lil, ran the front of the store, and the two of them were like members of the family. First stop at the bar was to ask Russ for a bottle of Coke and he’d retrieve one for me from a cooler. Second stop was for Mrs. Yawel’s popcorn. Mrs. Yawel was an immigrant from Russia whom Zaydie had befriended. No one is even sure how he met her. But Louie knew that the more his bar customers ate salty popcorn, the thirstier they would be. So, he bought a Cretors popcorn machine, huge sacks of unpopped corn, and tubs of coconut oil and salt and literally put Mrs. Yawel into business. She sat all day at the popcorn machine, making the most delicious popcorn I ever ate. People would drive from miles around just to get some of that popcorn. She sold her brown paper bags filled with hot popcorn for ten cents a pop - so to speak - and Zaydie let her keep every penny. He wasn’t interested in the profit from the popcorn, much preferring the profit from the drinks. Mrs. Yawel put three kids through college on that popcorn machine.
Sometimes, the entire family would gather for a meal at Louie’s bar, commandeering a back section of the booths for a feast. The short order cook would yell out the names of family members when their order was ready; “Mort, chili dogs!” One of the uncles would watch the front of the store while everyone else enjoyed the food and drink. And, the place reeked of smoke. Of course, I was used to it – Dad smoked four packs of cigarettes a day. These family gatherings usually happened quite spontaneously; one of the aunts would say “Why don’t we eat at Louie’s?” to one of the other aunts on their daily phone calls to each other. And, on New Year’s Eve, everyone would be at Louie’s – as much to help out with the huge crowd as to celebrate together as a family.
But, of all the images I retain from my childhood experiences working at Louie’s, it is the full-color portrait of Zaydie on the wall above the produce department. To this day, whenever I visit Omaha, I make my pilgrimage to Benson, to Louie’s Market, to visit Zaydie’s portrait. It is a particularly vivid painting, capturing his deep blue eyes, eyes that I inherited from him and from my mother, his rough and ruddy cheeks, his stocky build, his non-existent neck. I gaze at the portrait and overwhelming feelings of warmth embrace me, much as he would gather me into his arms in that patented leg lock of his. I could not have asked for a more wonderful, loving grandfather – a man of few words but great deeds. A man who taught me through his actions – his love of family, his ambition to succeed, his unabashed joy with the things success brought him, his happiness at giving presents, his competitiveness, his hospitality, his loyalty to employees, his patriotism. He was beloved by all who knew him, a true legend in his time. And, Herman? Well, that first job in the pickle aisle with Herman Friedlander will always be a fond memory.
(Image of Louis Paperny by Benson High School Alumni Association "Benson Bunnies" link to http://bensonbunnies.com/louis-paperny/)
Dr. Ron Wolfson is Fingerhut Professor of Education at American Jewish University in Los Angeles. He is the author of The Best Boy in the United States of America: A Memoir of Blessings and Kisses (Jewish Lights).