Back in the Days of Ben Polay

by Bill McKeon

"Are you a meshuggener?" he asked me, looking over the top of his reading glasses.

"No, I'm not crazy," I said, wondering what I had done wrong. It was 1968, I was 17 years old, and 2732 Gerritsen Avenue was home to Polay & Son, the finest variety store and toy emporium in Brooklyn. Ben Polay, proprietor, was obviously upset.

"No marbles," he said. "Take them back to the stockroom. We don't sell marbles."

Look who's calling who a meshuggener, I thought. This is a toy store isn't it? What was I supposed to do with the case of marbles in the stockroom, eat them?

Ben composed himself and told me about the young teens who had been shooting marbles through store windows using homemade slingshots. Maybe he wasn't so crazy after all, I thought.

When he wasn't protecting the local merchants from the teenagers, Ben was protecting the teenagers from themselves. "You don't need glue with the 79-cent models, they snap together," he said, studying the faces of the two young teenage boys standing at the counter.

"We'll get something else," the taller boy said. The two boys walked back to where the models were and swapped three 79-cent model-car kits for three 99-cent model-airplane kits. Back at the cash register they asked for three tubes of glue.

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"These are small models," Ben explained. "One tube of glue will be more than enough for all three of them." When they tried to argue their case, Ben confiscated the models saying he couldn't sell them because they were defective. The boys stormed out of the store in a huff. "Did you see their eyes?" he asked me. "They throw away the models and squeeze the glue into the bag. Then they cover their nose and mouth with the bag and inhale the fumes. Two neighborhood kids have died already."

Some days Ben concentrated more energy on things that didn't generate business than things that did. In 1968 it seemed like everybody in Brooklyn smoked cigarettes. But Ben wouldn't sell cigarettes. He was a reformed smoker and he had a lecture ready for anybody who came looking for tobacco. "Are you meshuggah? Do you know what that stuff does to your lungs?" I had to admire him. The people he preached to were going to buy cigarettes somewhere anyway, and he probably lost a small fortune in sales practicing what he preached.

In spite of all the people Ben sent away empty-handed, business was good. On special occasions, like the first day of school, people packed the store to buy school supplies. Sometimes the store was so crowded, students desperately in need of a compass or a protractor waited outside for a chance to squeeze in. Customers stacked their purchases on the counter and we totaled up each sale by hand, writing in pencil on brown paper bags. "When you carry a number, circle it so the customer doesn't think we added an extra item to the bill," Ben would say.

No matter what season it was, the store had to be in tip-top shape. There was always a shelf to stock, a bicycle to put together, or a window to wash. On weekends, Ben would buy lunch and we would stand at the counter and eat. "Did you ever notice there are no chairs in the store?" Ben asked me one day. "Do you know why that is? I told him I didn't know. "Because people sit in them and no work gets done," he said.

Of all the activities that took place in the store, nothing was more exciting than the window decorating ritual--especially at Christmas time. Ben had once earned his living decorating windows for some of New York's finest department stores. Locally, his seasonal window displays were famous.

On a cold evening in early November, as the dinner hour approached and customer activity slowed, Ben climbed into the main store window and went to work. As fast as I could catch them, Ben tossed things out of the window and into the store. These items would be sorted out and restocked later, but right then the new window had top priority. When the window was finally empty and clean, and the window glass was polished, Ben popped his head into the store and said, "Now let's do some work."

With one foot in the window and my other foot in the store, I handed him the foundation material for the new display: A dozen stainless steel pedestals, five rolls of colored paper, four strings of colored lights, a large roll of white cotton, assorted markers, poster board, clips, tacks, pins, wire, and a cutting knife.

Fifteen minutes passed, twenty, then suddenly Ben's excited voice echoed through the store: "Get me a Barbie doll, a Monopoly game, two toy trucks -- different colors, a baseball, a softball, a jewelry box, four medium-sized plush animals." Running like mad I scooped up these items from around the store. Back at the window, only his arm was visible, reaching into the store to grab the next item. Before I could deliver everything, there were more instructions: "I need a pair of girl's roller skates--white, a basketball, a catcher's mitt, a 500-piece puzzle, a paint set, a toy telephone." Off I ran again, trying to imagine how he knew he needed exactly these things. I hurried back to the window. The items were snatched out of my hands. New orders were issued. This cycle repeated again and again and then--silence. The window was finished.

I waited until Ben climbed out of the window and we walked outside together. A light flurry of snow was falling and the light from the window made the sidewalk glow. People being lured by the magic of the window made a scene that Norman Rockwell might have painted. Two glamorous dolls in long red dresses stood in front of a green and white board game. A baseball glove hung on the handle of a wooden bat. White ice skates dangled by their laces alongside a sled with bright red runners. Colors contrasted with overlapping colors. Shapes worked with other shapes to move the eye across the display and back again. Passersby stopped and pointed and oohed and aahed. Cars slowed down to take a look. The window was magnificent.

"Ben, is that a bag of marbles next to that toy trumpet?" I asked, pointing at the window. Just for a second he thought I was serious and he squinted his eyes to see what was there. When he looked at me he was holding back a smile.

"Are you a meshuggener? What are you doing standing out here anyway? Come on, let's go. We have work to do.

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Last changed: March 09, 2005