There’s more to Norman’s Big Nosh than breakfast.
Every weekday morning for more years than any of them care to remember, breakfast was not just a meal, it was an address, it was Norman’s Big Nosh, in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. You could set your watch by the time the last of them drove into the small parking lot and made it to the booth, their booth.
By 5:15 every morning but Sunday, rain or shine, the huge mugs of coffee, baskets of assorted rolls, toast and extra onion pockets – Norman had the best onion pockets; overfilled plates of pancakes and eggs and the “exotic coffee concoction of the day” was brought to them by Norman himself. There was no reserved sign or anything special to cordon off the table for their use but the other regulars just knew that this table was off limits for anyone but these four men. Newcomers that sat there out of ignorance of the rules and accepted protocol were quickly moved to another table. Norman saw to that.
How long the rightful caretakers of that booth sat there depended upon that day’s topic of conversation. Politics tended to stretch the time out even though they agreed on most everything from “Nixon was a crook…” to “FDR was a saint…” to “the working stiff ain’t never gonna get any respect or support from those shlemozzles- the ‘suits’ –who are running the business, their business, into the ground…”.
The booth was in the rear of the Diner by a window that looked out onto the boulevard. There was a time, regardless of the hour or day of the week or season of the year, when it was just a given that the front vestibule of the diner would be filled with hungry people. There were also times when the overflow of line of very hungry people would wind out from the front door down the twelve steps to the parking lot and out to the sidewalk. During those days having an assigned table at Norman’s Big Nosh was like having a key to the executive washroom, or season tickets to the New York Giant football games, or… I guess you know what I’m talking about. Norman’s Big Nosh was famous for mouth-watering baked goods and overstuffed sandwiches and obscene portions of just about anything on or off the menu. If you could describe it, Norman could get it made, put it on a plate, and get it to your table before you could whistle Yankee Doodle dandy. Norman’s was the place all right.
And the food was good, very good, but that wasn’t the real star at Norman’s Big Nosh. The real honest to goodness star was Norman himself. He was one of the first Doo-Wop singers off of the streets of Brooklyn. His group, the Angel Voices made it all the way to a Murray the K’s Big Holiday Review Show at the Brooklyn Fox Theater in the late 1950’s. That led to a scheduled appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. Unfortunately, the scheduled appearance never became an actual performance because Norman got into an argument about baseball with the show’s band leader, Ray Bloch. Ed Sullivan walked over to see what the argument was all about. One word led to another, and that was the end of the Angel Voices. Not just the end of the Angel Voices on the Sullivan Show – it was the end of the Angel Voices period. However, Norman’s popularity never lost its oomph in the neighborhood. He went on to distinguish himself as a pretty good middleweight fighter and, in 1964, with a loan from his Uncle Max, opened the Big Nosh. The rest, as they say, is history.
Years passed, tastes changed, as did the old neighborhood, and the new flock of yuppies with their organic this, natural that, and fat free the other thing resulted in very few days where more than a few of the tables were needed for the regular breakfast or lunch customers. Dinner time was so dead that Norman eventually stopped serving after 4:00 PM all together. But I do digress; I was telling you about the four men at the window booth who met there every morning.
When they first made the Big Nosh their home-away-from-home there were six of them. Each of them drove bread or milk trucks along the same route. Eventually a seventh person joined the group, a local bookie – their local bookie.
Two left the group when they were drafted and sent to Korea and never returned. No, they didn’t get killed, they just never returned to Brooklyn. A third member of the group did die, in a house fire during the nineteen-eighties. That left four: Sal Columbo, the bookie; Fred Orenstein, formerly the Wonder Bread driver, then cashier at Sears, and eight years ago, New York State lottery winner. Nothing big, just two or three thousand dollars, but he used it to buy Apple stock and so today he is what you would call, comfortable.The other two drove for different Jewish Rye Bread bakers, Milt Steadly drove for Messing Bread and Phil Kramer drove for Pechters Jewish Rye. Both of them got caught up in the economic squeeze. Not this, most recent economic squeeze, a few squeezes ago. Kramer went on food stamps, drove a hack days and was a night watchman nights; Milt Steadly survived the easy way, he moved in with a widow from Ocean Parkway and between his social security check and her social security check they made ends meet.
Unfortunately, for these four men, this time they spent together was actually the highlight of their day.
So, back to my story; the other day Fred announced to the guys that he was diagnosed with Cancer and might not be around long? Now these guys knew each other, maybe better than they knew themselves. Over the years they talked about the most personal happenings in their world; but that is way different from caring about any of the others. These were bread drivers; they never really cared too much about any one at the table but themselves. They were kind of in their own little worlds, if you know what I mean? Maybe the glue that kept them together was just the huge breakfasts at Norman’s.
Any who, although none of the four realized it at the time, today was about to change their lives and the lives of others in a lot of strange ways.
That is the story I want to tell you……………….
The time exchange club
Orenstein sat quietly while the others argued about the Yankees latest losing streak.
“Steinbrenner ain’t gonna let them lose too many more before he bangs their heads together and reminds them that he is in the winning business not the losing business”, Steadly roared.
“Which Steinbrenner?” Colombo broke in.
“What are you talking about?” Steadly screamed, “How many Steinbrenner’s do you think there are?”
“Well, if you are talking George I would say, yeah, he could pull that off,” Colombo smiled, “but he’s dead and his kid ain’t no George.”
“I can’t waste the limited hours I may have left to worry about the Yankees.” Orenstein said, mournfully.
Norman walked by and put his hand on Orenstein’s shoulder. “Hey, I heard about the Cancer. I’m really sorry.”
“According to the Doctors there’s nothing they can do.” Orenstein said. “Unless of course you got some extra years on the menu.” Orenstein laughed then began coughing, almost uncontrollably.
“I don’t know about years, but if it is more time you want, maybe I can make a suggestion or two.” Norman said calmly.
Conversation around the table stopped. All eyes were on Norman. Colombo, the bookie, grabbed Norman’s arm, “Hey,” he yelled, “this ain’t no joke. The guy is on his last leg. He can make a joke of it if he wants to, but you, you ain’t got the right.”
Norman leaned in, “I wasn’t making a joke,” he said in a whisper, “If it is more time that he wants there may be a way to get him more time.”
Orenstein stared up at Norman, “What ya got? I’ll try anything.”
Norman wedged himself into the booth and sat facing Orenstein. “You see the guy sitting at the table by the kitchen door?”
They each turned their heads toward the back of the restaurant.
“He was diagnosed with Leukemia and his Doc told him that he had waited too long to have it diagnosed and wouldn’t have long to live. Leukemia is….”
“We know what Leukemia is,” Colombo yelled, “get to the punch line!”
Norman looked around and leaned in, “That was almost four years ago. Does he look dead to you?”
“So what happened?”
“The time exchange club happened.”
“Get outta here”, Colombo snorted.
“No, really, ask him. Tell him I sent you. It’s the emmis.”
No one spoke for what seemed like an eternity – but of course it was only a few seconds or so. Finally Orenstein put his hands up.“I think you have crossed the line here. I’m living in a horror show and you’re talkin’ cartoons to me.”
“Hey,” Norman shot back, “I know when to kibitz and I know when to talk serious, this is the real deal.”
Orenstein wiggled his way out of the booth, stood up, and with his face inches away from Norman, said, “I don’t care if you did knock Moisha Baranski out in ten seconds of the opening round, if this is a joke I will come back here and beat your ugly face into next Tuesday.” He turned and slowly walked towards the back of the restaurant.
The man was reading the newspaper. Orenstein sat down and said, “Excuse me. My name is Fred Orenstein.”
“I know who you are, Norman told me about you.”
“He told me about you, too.” Orenstein shot back. “Is it true?”
“Is what true?”
“Can you get me more time to live?”
“You come right to the point, don’t you?”
“Look,” Orenstein said, “I don’t have a lot of time to dance around. My doctor gave me a death sentence. Can you help me or not?”
The man put his newspaper down and pointed to the chair on the other end of the table, “Sit down. Yes, I can help you. But it isn’t going to be easy and it certainly isn’t going to be cheap.”
Orenstein didn’t return to the booth that day or the next or the next. Each morning the rest of the guys asked Norman if he knew what was happening and Norman just shrugged, “I don’t know anything you don’t know.”
About a week later, it was Colombo, the bookie who finally mumbled to the rest of the guys, “I gotta find out what happened.”.
He walked over to the back table and sat down, across from the stranger and said, “Hello, my name’s Colombo. I’m a friend of Orenstein, the guy you talked to last Tuesday morning.
“Hello to you,” the man said, “You can call me Paul.”
“Well, Paul, he ain’t been back since he talked to you and I want to know how he is.”
“Sooo ask him,” the man shot back.
“I don’t know where he lives.”
“I thought you said you were his friend.”
“I am his friend.” Colombo shouted.
“And you don’t know where he lives or how to get in touch with him? Doesn’t sound like much of a friendship.”
“Look,” Colombo said, awkwardly, “we’re worried. Is he all right?”
The man looked at Colombo, gently put his hand on Colombo’s arm and said, “I can’t say; only he can say. But I can get word to him and will let him know you are concerned. It is up to him if he chooses to get in touch with you.”
“Is he all right?”
“I can’t tell you anything more.”
“Please,” Colombo begged.
“I’ll see what I can do.” Paul said sternly, “We will have to leave it at that.”
The next morning, when the group showed up at the diner, Paul was already sitting at the table – their table.
One by one each of the regulars sat down. Finally, it was Colombo who broke the uncomfortable silence, “Have you spoken to Orenstein?” He asked, haltingly.
“Yes I have.” Paul said.
“So?” Colombo asked.
“He said I can tell you whatever you want to know.”
“Why can’t he tell us whatever we want to know?”
“For all I know, someday he will. Would you rather wait for that day to come or can I just tell you what I came here today to tell you?” He said, annoyed.
“Sorry,” Columbo quickly said, “I am really sorry. I’ll be quiet, please, please tell us.”
The man took a deep breath and then said…
“There is an imbalance,” he began. “There are people who believe that life is no longer worth living….”
“Life is always worth living,” Milt Steadly broke in. “It’s not right to just give up on life.”
Paul held up his hands, “Hey, people have their own reasons – who is to say what is right or wrong?” Paul said. “For the moment, let’s just say that there are such people. There are also people who would do anything to buy more time for themselves.”
“You can do that?” Phil Kramer asked.
“Let’s just agree that there are these two separate groups of people.” Paul went on, ignoring the interruption. “People whose life is about to end and people who have some unknown and still unused life left; now suppose there was a way to allow both groups to have what they want… a way in which those who want additional time to live can simply take over the unwanted and still unused life of someone else… allowing that someone to end their life at a predetermined day, time, place.”
“What does the guy giving up his life get?” Colombo broke in.
“Yes, there should be a price; a fair and equitable price; fair is fair.” Paul then asked, “Any questions?”
“You’re kidding, right?” Colombo said.
“You wanna go through that again… slower this time?” Steadly said.
Paul smiled, “I realize that this sounds strange,” He said, “But for a minute, just suppose it was possible, then everyone wins?”
“But that’s just weird,” Kramer said.
“Okay,” Paul began again, “Let me start over. If you, “he said pointing at Steadley, “decided, for whatever reason, that you had enough of living. Of course, you would have no way of knowing how much life was left. For all you know you could stand up right now and walk across the street and be hit by a bus and life… your life… could end at that moment. Or, you could live another 20-30 years. No one really knows when the end will come; all we know is that at some point, the end will come for each of us.”
Then he pointed at Colombo, “Now let’s say that you are Orenstein. Your doctor tells you that your organs are beginning to shut down; you have – give or take – a few weeks left. If it was possible to take over the unused portion of life he has,” pointing to Steadly, “what would that be worth to you?”
“Everything I own and could borrow against.” Colombo said quickly.
“Now you have it!” Paul said, smiling.
“We have what?” Kramer asked.
“You have the time exchange club.” Paul said.
“And Orenstein joined this time exchange club?” Colombo asked.
“Only he can tell you that.”
“And what if this life he took over was just an hour or so because the other guy was already destined to walk across the street and get hit by a bus?”
“That is the chance one takes.”
“And you are on the New Member Committee for this time exchange club?
Paul laughed, “Let’s just say that I help bring the two sides together.”
“So Orenstein’s Cancer was given to the other guy?”
“Of course not, that would be impossible.” Paul said.
“This whole thing is impossible.” Colombo said.
Paul smiled. “I came here today to answer your questions. I have done that, now I need to leave.” He stood and walked away.
Several morning’s later, Norman was clearing a table when he overheard two women arguing, “I can’t live without him, Doris.” I just can’t.”
“But you are still young, there will be others, trust me.”
“I don’t want anyone else. No, for me, there is no further use for this life.”
Norman wedged himself into their booth and sat facing the young woman. “You see the guy sitting at the table by the kitchen door?”