“It Happened in Quogue"

A Memoir by Marilyn Gottlieb

Frank drove to the Quogue post office to pick up the mail and returned with four new men’s size medium jackets that may or may not be leather. The man selling the jackets had approached him as he was about to toss his bills and textile recycling magazines into his car — the silver Lexus two-seater convertible that made him appear wealthier than he was. 

He never intended to impress. He liked cars. If it was a top-down day he volunteered to drive to the Westhampton Cleaners, the Beach Bakery, and Rite Aid with the wind blowing whatever hair he had left on his head. On this early autumn day, he was the only person parked near the post office.

“You look Italian, Are you Italian? Are you from Italy?” the man asked. 

It could have been a line or perhaps the man sensed the cultural differences Frank carried as a toddler from Berlin to Palestine in 1936 and then to America as a pre-teen 10 years later. Three times he had been forced to change his country, his culture, his language, even his first name. Maybe the man could feel the European aura Frank had picked up from his parents or subtleties Frank had absorbed on extended business trips to Italy where he took potential customers to evaluate textile-recycling machines before they ordered the custom-made equipment.

By now, Frank had lived in the States for over 65 years. Nobody could tell German was his first language, Hebrew his second, and English his third. Still, he had an accent. After a few minutes’ conversation, strangers inevitably asked him where he was from. Frank knew what they meant but had grown more than weary of the question. He was an American — a naturalized citizen since 1953. When would he stop being an outsider? When would people stop asking, “Where are you really from?”

For the past ten years Frank said he was from the Hamptons, a safe haven on the south shore of Long Island. The nearby coastline reminded him of Bat Yam, the little town where he grew up along the Mediterranean Sea south of Jaffa and farther south of Tel Aviv. Between classes at elementary school his childhood friends had held a daily soccer game that lasted the entire school year. Nobody had enough money to buy a real soccer ball so he made one from his mother’s torn stockings and old clothes. It was good enough. For his 13th birthday he hoped he would get a real soccer ball and maybe even a used bicycle with lights. He never envisioned that one day he would own a Lexus convertible.

Frank and his family had fled Nazi Germany by train through Italy and then by passenger ship to Palestine while it was still legal for Jews to travel, before the start of World War II and before their neighbors were transported to Auschwitz to work and then to die. When Rommel’s German tanks inched up the coast of North Africa and submarines were sighted in the Mediterranean, Frank and his sister went to bed every evening with a backpack at their feet. It contained bread, cans of food and a change of clothes in case they needed to hide in the sand dunes or flee to the north.

It was a time when British soldiers had fun shooting bullets into the sea — over the heads of the swimmers. It was a time when sirens warned people to take shelter from Italian bombs aimed at Tel Aviv and nearby Jaffa. But that was long ago, before he found safety in California, then Westchester, and now on Long Island. The sandy dunes, fresh air, and sounds of the waves lapping along the beach were peaceful. Life was good and he could afford to be kind.

The man in front of the Quogue post office seemed to be waiting for Frank.

“I need your help,” he said. “I lost my money gambling at Foxwoods. I have to return my rented car out here and I need to pay for a taxi to J.F.K. to catch a flight back to Milan. Here’s my passport,” he said, offering proof he was Italian. “And here’s my airline ticket. I’ll give you these Emporio Armani jackets — a token of thanks for helping me. They’re all I have left from a men’s fashion show.”

Frank thought it sounded like a bluff. In his gut he knew something was off. It didn’t matter. Maybe the guy was hungry though he was cleanshaven and well dressed. Besides, it was Quogue, not some seedy section of a sprawling urban environment, and Frank had not seen warnings on the internet about similar situations—scams in Florida, Texas, California, and even Canada and Russia. Between his two boys and his wife’s two sons, the jackets would make great gifts.

“I need size large,” Frank said reaching in his back pocket for his wallet. 

“They’re all size large,” lied the man while eyeing $150 in Frank’s hand. “The jackets are the latest design. They’re worth more.” 

Frank put his arm on the man’s shoulder, as he was prone to do when making a point, engaging a stranger, pulling him into his special world. 

“That’s all I have,” he said. “To me that’s a lot of money.”

For a brief moment, Frank remembered his first earnings. Kite fights were big in the Middle East but Frank was too poor to buy one so he learned how to make his own. He was so good at building kites he started a business at age 10. His grandfather provided the colorful paper and string, never asking for payment. Frank cut bamboo sticks from his backyard, mixed glue from flour and water then coaxed his little sister to twist fancy kite tails. He sold 25 kites a month to his best friend’s father who then sold them in his general store in Tel Aviv.

“I’m happy to give you $150. It’s all I have,” Frank said.

Their eyes locked long enough for a nod to seal the deal. Frank placed the jackets, along with their unidentifiable smell of lighter fluid, or perhaps it was petroleum, in the back that was big enough to hold a dog or at least one of his eight grandchildren secured in a child’s car seat.

It wasn’t the first time Frank had helped someone. On a business trip he traded dollars for Czech money that was useless back in New York. He left $20 between two books in an apartment in China for an acquaintance to buy a bicycle that otherwise would have taken a year to acquire. At an international machine show in Moscow he gave a local stranger $50. The walls of Frank’s house held oil paintings by a street artist who needed cash to pay his rent.

Frank sensed he shouldn’t help the man with the jackets. Maybe it was stolen merchandise. The tags said Emporio Armani, or something like that, but Frank never paid attention to fancy designer names or knock-offs. He was an engineer selling recycling machinery for the textile industry. He was concerned with the environment. He was proud to have won an international award for creating technology to recycle carpets and help clear landfills. 

Someone selling fake jackets in a sleepy, tiny town like Quogue didn’t make sense. Frank wasn’t a push­over but when he was faced with a person in need, something more powerful than logic led the way. In his underbelly he was connected to suffering and starting over. He refused to allow anything to block choices from his heart. 

Frank handed the cash to the man with the jackets. 

“Tell me,” the man said. “Where are you from? Are you sure you’re not Italian?”

“No,” Frank said. “I am not Italian. I am American. Take this money for your jackets and remember, an American helped you get back to Italy.”

 


Marilyn Gottlieb taught as an adjunct professor at the New School in New York City for 18 years and was a senior vice president at Lintas, part of the Interpublic Group. She received her bachelor’s and first master’s degrees from New York University. She received a master’s of fine arts in writing and literature from Stony Brook Southampton in 2012. A more complete look at Frank Levy’s journey as an immigrant is in her book “Life With an Accent,” available on Amazon.com.