Hooligan oil? Did you say hooligan oil? I’m so sorry, I was deep into this letter from my sister back east, I didn’t even hear you come into the store. It’s so quiet this time of day, in the early afternoon, sometimes I just close up and go for a walk.
illustrations by Avi Katz
Alaska’s spring is so beautiful this year, the lupines are blooming early and it’s simply glorious. I always tell my girls, Sarah, Minnie, I say, there is so much to look at in this world, I mean irises the color of the purple of Sidon. Turn your gaze on them, not on Harry and Joe, the ships’ boys on the passenger steamer from Dyea. You might notice that the irises, unlike Harry and Joe, don’t have pimples. Max, Simon, I say, don’t walk with your eyes on the ground, look around you, see what an Eden God has given you here in Skagway.
Now let me see, hooligan oil, not many people ask for that any more, but you know that they used to call it “liquid gold,” before they discovered the solid stuff it was made the natives’ fortune, such as they had. I know some women who say it prevents wrinkles, but others can’t stand the smell. Once Max, he is only twelve but a true rascal, got hold of a bunch of those fish, hung them from the rafters in their bedroom, and lit the tails. Nearly burned the house down! He said that he wanted to see if what the old-timers said was true, that you could use the fish as candles. You want to be scientists, I’ll send you to Harvard, I say. No experiments at home. But better they should study medicine. It’s one profession where we people can make our mark, where we get some respect.
No need to say it in such a low voice. Nothing to be ashamed of. Yes, Jews. Everyone in Skagway knows exactly who I am. Except these people, look at this letter, from the Women’s Christian Temperance Union of Sitka, who want me to ban drink from Skagway. You and I know that we are brought up to drink responsibly, a glass of wine every Friday night and Saturday morning. But they are almost right about suffrage, those dry women in Sitka. I replied to them this morning, see the letter here is ready for mailing, and I told them that I would be most pleased to join their crusade to grant women the vote, on one condition—that we also take the vote away from men. Why? Just go out and talk to the first five of them you run into on the street and you’ll see.
Hey, why are you taking that letter? I have to mail it? You’re what? The new postmaster? But you weren’t supposed to arrive until next Monday! Well, I am pleased to make your acquaintance. Mr. Baxter, your predecessor, would see me on the street and call out to everyone around “Here’s my best customer! Without Peppy Samuels the US mails would have no reason to come to Skagway!”
Yes, it’s very sad about Mr. Baxter, but livers will do that if you drink that much whiskey. I hope that the Portland sun will offer some solace.
And your name again? Mr. Harold Fein? And is the hooligan oil for Mrs. Fein? I mean I can’t imagine that she needs any, you look barely 30 so she must be quite young and pretty.
There is no Mrs. Fein?
And you said you are Jewish?
Well, you are number seven, if you count my children, which you should. Number six is Aloysius Bloch, who gave up prospecting last winter and founded The Daily Alaskan. I don’t count Mamie Schwarzkopf, who you’ll hear called Imogene Astor because that’s what she goes by, but I know exactly who she is. But you’ll agree with me that it’s for the best of all concerned that a proprietress of a house of ill repute not be associated with our ancient heritage. But I will give credit where credit is due—it is the largest and cleanest of the many such establishments in Skagway—it’s our business sense and hygiene, you can’t take that away from us. My Max is confined to his room today because I caught him lurking just a little too close to Mamie’s place yesterday evening. “Oh, Ma,” he said, “I just felt like my racial instincts were drawing me toward a fellow Jew!” “I’ll mention that in my next letter to Herr Doktor Herzl,” I said. “I’m sure he will agree with me that the instincts in question were not racial at all. We have a reputation to keep up in Skagway.” He’s a good boy, they are all good children, but try bringing them up wholesome and pure in such a place. Maybe I should have sent them away to school long ago. But without them, what do I have here? My Morris …”
Thank you, I’m so sorry, I so seldom lose control like this anymore. I’m keeping you. I must find you that hooligan oil. In this drawer, yes, I remember. No, it’s the only size we have, but it doesn’t spoil. Is there anything else? You aren’t in a hurry? Show you around town? Well, I would be delighted. My keys are right here. But let me just put this letter in my bag. From my maiden sister Lillian. Feel how thick the envelope is even though she writes on fine onionskin stationery.
She is already on the Northern Pacific, chugging her way to Seattle and thence by steamer to here. She says here that she misses the children, but I know how to read between the lines of her delicate ladylike penmanship. She is coming at the behest of my parents, Dr. Elias and Mrs. Harriet Samuels, to take me home to Philadelphia.
Lillian was always the obedient one. Look where it got her. Papa and Mama are strict German types who tried to plan our lives out to the last detail. In the end one daughter flew the coop and the other never left home.
They had very specific ideas about my life. I also had very specific ideas but they were different. They wanted me to be a prim and proper lady, to marry up, to run a genteel bourgeois household. I wanted to dance, to travel, to create, to have adventures. After graduating, I wanted to go to Paris, but they had already planned a wedding. They just forgot to tell me about it. I was to move to Charleston as the wife of a 40-year old textile exporter named Blaustein who was twice the size of President Cleveland. I screamed, I cried, I even packed my suitcase to run off to New York by myself, but Lillian saw me and told Papa. He locked me in my room and I thought I would die.
But they didn’t shutter the windows and I saw Morris bicycling down the street with a parcel balanced between his handlebars. He was in his shirtsleeves and had his cap cocked to one side and was whistling loudly. He stopped by our house, slow and easy so as not to drop the package, and then I lost sight of him. Then I heard the bell ring and our Betsy’s voice saying something and the door closing.
When Betsy brought me my lunch I waited until she was almost out the door and asked what had been delivered and she said some tools the gardener needed to fix the shed in the yard and I asked who delivered it and she said a young man named Morris from Gimbels who had joked with her and made her blush.
That evening at dinner I told Mama and Papa that I had thought the matter over and now believed that Mr. Blaustein would make an excellent husband and would like to proceed with the engagement. But, I said, I really must have some new things and suggested that Mama and I make a trip to Gimbels the next day.
Mama was only too happy, though she kept complaining that I was straining and staring instead of paying attention to the seamstress who was pinning the dress we had chosen. Finally, in desperation, I asked the saleswoman where the facilities might be, and once Mama was out of sight I asked at the haberdashery desk where the delivery boys could be found and, following his directions, found myself in a corridor smelling of sawdust, knocking on the door to a back room.
Well, God must have been on my side because the delivery boy who opened the door was Morris, Morris Skolnik, as I soon found out. He was somewhat surprised to see a young woman at the door inquiring into what he might be doing that evening, but as soon as he understood my drift a wide, beautiful smile broke out all over his face. And, as the stories go, that evening he cast pebbles at my window and I told Mama that I really must get some air and that Betsy (who was surprised no end) would be going for a short walk with me. We walked down the street to Fairmount Park as I swore Betsy to secrecy and there Morris was waiting for me.
Well, once I’d held Morris’s hand on a park bench there was no way I was going to Charleston. Morris was everything Mr. Blaustein could never be—young, funny, determined to make something of himself. Mama wept and Papa bellowed, they told me I was dooming myself to a life of poverty by marrying a delivery boy. But in the meantime Morris was making a fine impression on the Philadelphia Gimbel, who promoted him to stockroom clerk and then, just three months later, to chief of inventory. Soon he was practically running the store. He knew how to get and keep customers, how to manage his stock and treat staff well, and everyone at Bnai Abraham started congratulating Mama about that talented young businessman who was soon to be her son-in-law, and so polite even if he spoke Yiddish.
Here, just let me lock the door. Now you must excuse me, but I have a rather personal question to ask you. You don’t mind? Good. Will you marry me?
Did I shock you with my proposal? I know that etiquette requires that I wait for you to ask. Women are only supposed to cast modest glances and drop hints that they would be delighted to receive a proposal. But most men are such dimwits that the hints go right by them and so single-minded that the glances are not seen as modest. Furthermore, I can’t wait. Lillian will be here in two weeks at the most.
That’s the boarding house run by Mrs. Pullen, who can be a little too much. Many of the bachelors eat their dinners there but she’s been known to serve horse and bear, so you are always welcome to share what we have. I can’t claim that the rabbi who married me would eat my food, but we live in unusual circumstances and try to keep the spirit, if not the letter of the law. Over there? The tracks? That’s the train to nowhere, that’s what I call it. Crazy man came over from England with wads of money to put into building a train that goes over White Pass into gold territory. Have you ever seen a train climb straight up into the air? That’s what it’s going to have to do. And for what? They’ll soon find gold somewhere else, somewhere where you don’t need to lug all your gear up a mountain in the freezing snow, and as soon as they do no one will come to Skagway anymore. No, I’m not worried. The whores and drunks will leave but there is great potential here. Did I mention that I am the chairwoman of the Skagway Music and Culture Society? We are holding our first program a week from Monday, Aloysius will play Brahms on the piano and Sarah, Minnie, and two of their friends will perform an original ballet that I have choreographed, expressing the beauties and awful beauty of the Alaskan coast. I danced when I was at Smith and I was quite good. I have been in correspondence with Mrs. Jeannette Thurber, the founder of the National Conservatory of Music of America in New York City. I’m sure you have heard of her? She is a great patron of the arts and I have impressed on her the vital importance of bringing high culture to the American frontier. I believe that she may provide some funding for our little project.
Here, we’ve reached the docks and there’s a nice breeze. Let’s sit here on this wall and look at the ocean.
How was life with Morris? It was all I could ask for. I didn’t mind living in a smaller house and I certainly didn’t mind it that I was not a housefrau. I took a bookkeeping course and Morris convinced Gimbel to give me a job in the back office, doing the accounts. I showed I was no less diligent than Morris and I was soon promoted as well. I worked straight through my pregnancies, no confinement for me. First Sarah came, then Minnie, then Max, finally Simon. Mama was scandalized that I worked every day but on the other hand she and Betsy were quite happy to have the grandchildren every day.
Morris and I were successes, but we saw where we were heading—to the same kind of life my parents led (not his, they were poor and incomprehensible). We both had an itch. We knew there was more to life than a plaque on the wall of Bnai Abraham. We talked, on breaks in the back office, about moving the family out west, maybe to San Francisco, or perhaps even to Hong Kong.
Then one day, on my way back from the Post Office, I stopped in Leary’s Book Store, next to Gimbel’s, one of my favorite places. I’d ordered a copy of Mr. Wells’ new novel and went to pick it up. Julius, the sales clerk, presented me with two books, not one. When I said there had been a mistake, he said that, no, the boss had specifically said that I should be given the second volume as well, and that I should be informed that he would be extremely displeased if I did not purchase and read it.
On the cover was a log cabin, topped by a strange animal totem, in a gray landscape. Two small figures stood by the cabin, with their backs to the reader. The title was Alaska: Its Southern Coast and the Sitkan Archipelago and the author was Mrs. Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore. I’d never heard of her, but her middle name caught my eye. Scidmore was obviously not a Jewish name, but Ruhama, I remembered from my childhood lessons, means “comfort,” and, oddly, that stormy, dreary picture comforted me—it promised a world different from my own. I began reading that night. Mrs. Scidmore turned out to be a woman of adventure, the kind of woman I’d always longed to be. Two days later I had finished it and gave it to Morris. Halfway through, in the back office, he clapped the book shut and looked me in the eye. “Alaska,” he said. “Good things are going to happen there.”
Alaska, he said, was the new frontier, a place where a man could start from scratch and, just like the Gimbel brothers, turn a family store into an empire.
“But it will be so far from Mama and Papa,” I said, shaking my head. Then we looked at each other and laughed.
Well, for the next three months Morris collected all the information he could about Alaska, focusing on where the best opportunity for Skolnik’s Dry Goods would be. He soon settled on Skagway, which he reasoned was a small town on its way to greatness. The Canadians’ attempts to lay claim to the area meant that the army and navy would have to ratchet up their presence. That meant visiting ships and an army garrison that would need to be provisioned. There were already established shipping lines from San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle, so stocking the store would not be a problem. And Morris was convinced that, as soon as the border dispute was settled, travelers like Mrs. Scidmore would be coming by, first more adventurous ones and then less and then, who knows, whole families.
In April 1895 Morris asked for a year’s leave from Gimbels and boarded the Pennsylvania Railroad on his way to San Francisco. Mama was of course scandalized and Papa tried to get me dismissed me so that I could be a proper mother to my children. But I needed the income and loved the work. From San Francisco Morris wrote enthusiastic but judicious letters about the contacts he made with suppliers. He was very careful, had his feet on the ground, didn’t sign anything without checking every angle. Then in early June he took a steamer to Alaska and reached Skagway later that month together with his initial inventory. He rented the store, the same building you found me in, hired some idle men to help him redo it, and put out his shutter at the beginning of August.
Was it good business sense or providence? At the end of the month a bedraggled prospecting party came down the pass and announced they’d discovered gold on Rabbit Creek. Rabbit Creek was 600 miles away in the Klondike, but to get there you had to go through Skagway. Suddenly there was money in the territory, and as word spread men started moving in.
Morris wired me: “More work than I can handle. Pack up things and children. Come immediately.”
Mama screamed. Papa disowned me. Gimbels offered me a raise and promised to make Morris a senior manager if he would just come back. “We’re going to live with Indians!” Max told a shocked Rabbi Gottlieb at Sunday school. “And see whales!” Simon chortled.
Traveling cross country with four small children—I could write a book about that. Max still hasn’t forgiven me for grabbing the rifle out of his hands just when he’d taken aim at a bison.
The sea leg of our trip was much easier for me. We set sail on a boatful of whores, and they all went wild over the children, especially over Simon, who at four years old was at the height of his impish stage. At first I tried to keep them away, but I quickly learned that these women of the night were just like other people. Some were truly immoral—lazy, rude, slovenly, and selfish—but others were of high intellect and refinement. One, with the interesting name of Aspen, had a trunkload full of books and introduced me to a writer who had thus far evaded my attention, Mr. Henry James. She lent me his novel, Portrait of a Lady, and I was astounded to see an American writer who could get so intimately into the minds of his women characters. She and I often call on each other to share books and thoughts. You might not believe this, but she pays dues to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and, in her professional contacts with men, seeks to wean them from the bottle. She is able to offer them certain attractive alternatives.
To make a long story short, we landed in Skagway, Morris installed us in a house, acquainted me with the business and, just two weeks after our arrival contracted a strange and fierce fever. Two days later he was dead.
I don’t want to watch the waves anymore. Would you mind walking me back to the store? Thank you.
I like your laugh. The laugh itself and the fact that it is a joyful laugh, one full of fun, not of derision or of shock. Morris laughed like that. It makes me feel young again.
After Morris passed on, Mama and Papa wired me five hundred dollars and told me to come home immediately. I wired it back to them and said thank you, I have a business to manage, one with great potential. And business has been flourishing. I have put aside a considerable nest egg, enough to send the children to good schools when they come of age. And I’m not a fool like so many of the prospectors here, who hand their money over to swindlers and card sharks or spend it on drinks and women.
But Mama and Papa have not given up. They have sent Lillian to fetch me back. They cannot accept that a woman can fend for herself. They cannot bear to have their grandchildren growing up among gentiles, gamblers, and harlots.
That’s why I need to have a husband in hand when Lillian arrives. If I do she’ll have nothing to say. She can’t break the bond of holy matrimony, can she? And a postmaster is even better than a newspaper editor for respectability.
This is where you are staying? At Mrs. Pullen’s? Oh my. Aren’t boarding houses sad? I’m sure you’d prefer to live in a house. And hear the pitter-patter of children rather than the groans and sighs of other lonely men. Whatever you do, don’t eat her meat.
How nice that you walked into the store and suggested this walk! Do you have your hooligan oil? Good. I’m not yet at an age where I need to worry so much about wrinkles that I need to put up with the smell. You must be tired. Take a nap. Consider my offer. I’ll be back at the store. I must catch up on my correspondence. I must convey to Dr. Herzl my plan to colonize the Alaskan panhandle with Hungarian Jews. And Mrs. Thurber has not replied to my latest letter and I must send her a reminder. So I’ll have many letters to send by the end of the day. If you don’t come to get them, I’ll drop them off at the post office tomorrow morning.
More Necessary Stories!