According to a Yiddish saying — one of many that pepper the bittersweet nostalgia of author and illustrator Martin Lemelman’s graphic memoir Two Cents Plain: My Brooklyn Boyhood — “Life is the biggest bargain. You get it for free.”
And for a lucky many, the author shares his life — whether episodically or in arcs, via snippets and vignettes — being raised the son of Holocaust survivors during the 1950s and ‘60s in the back of his family’s Brownsville, Brooklyn candy story. These particular wonder years came and went before the ‘70s when an era of decay and poverty overtook the resourcefully-maintained Jewish neighborhoods, and the “ice cream, cigarettes, and toys” of the Lemelman family-owned Teddy’s Candy Store were “replaced with rubble, broken glass, and splintered wood.”
In this rich sketch and scrap book of sorts – a compelling compendium of expressively-rendered anecdotes and black-and-white drawings, documents, photos, and artifacts — Lemelman begins Two Cents Plain with those grim days of wartime and war torn Europe to chronicle the struggles of his and his brother Bernard’s parents to get to the United States, and their ultimate dilemmas and decisions that went into opening the candy, comic books, and novelties store – kid tested, mom ultimately approved.
With extended family in the area and cultural links in the community, evocatively rendered by Lemelman — as a child called Mattaleh by his parents — the storyline of Two Cents Plain, all wit and woe, is variously made up of piecemeal fragments and extended sweeps. As much as we come to know friends and local denizens – the fish man, the fruit man, the deli man – increasing strains of changing times, demographics, and violence, where “it was open season on Jewish boys,” are vividly portrayed, too.
In the meantime, however, Lemelman harkens back to a time of personal recollections and pop cultural touchstones. One event that turned out to be an important milestone was the time an inquisitive Mattaleh found a painting set and artist supplies among items left behind by a previous tenant of the store. “The moment I pressed brush to paper…” Lemelman says, “time slowed down. Minutes turned into hours. As if by magic – a face appeared on my paper, a tree, a house, a bird, a Pepsi bottle, hands…”
A distracted artist-in-the-making only knew that “The cracked walls, dusty flowers, screaming parents, worries, faded away. All I saw and felt were the marks I made on the paper.” Preoccupied, Martin “drew and painted in a frenzy. I was a painting machine…”
On another occasion, a family friend gives the Lemelmans a German Shephard puppy that quickly becomes “a crap factory.” “Oy, this is too much work for me,” bemoans Mattaleh’s mother, who decides to keeps the puppy in the bathroom for the time being.
Soon enough, though, Bernard gets up to use the bathroom only to see two puppies! Doing a double take, however, he determines he’s seeing the puppy and a big rat. That’s enough of that! A week later the puppy is given away (the rats are an ongoing problem but there are no takers for them, natch), upsetting Mattaleh. “Afterwards,” he says, “Mommy gives me a genuine plastic Rin Tin Tin – my consolation prize… And that actually does make me feel a little better.” (In an interesting aside, Lemelman adds in a footnote that “That plastic Rin Tin Tin now lives in my art studio — broken leg, chipped ears, and all.”)
Indeed, that telegenic canine figured favorably in the assimilation and immersion of ‘50s and ‘60s kid culture, especially when the Lemelmans got their first television set – won from the Dairy Crest Company in an ice cream selling competition – and The Rin Tin Tin Show, along with The Cisco Kid and The Lone Ranger, was a favorite. Even more than “shows that included guns, horses, dogs, and cowboys,” however, the young Mattaleh simply loved wrestling. His goal was to learn all the holds: “the Scissors, the Gorilla Press, the Butterfly, the Full Nelson… Anything, to defeat my arch-enemy – BERNARD!”
In addition to these kind of erratically-presented and punctuated incidents, are more successfully sustained and overarching stretches of complexity and craftsmanship. “The Present” is a 19-page chapter with a lead-in about the young Mattaleh’s sometimes discordant relationship with his mother and his decision to repair it, to make things up with her. With his brother Bernard in tow, Mattaleh is “on a mission” – the reader kept in the dark – that takes us on a little adventure of finely-tuned episodes at the Marketplace, an excursion deeper into the Brooklyn sense of place that marks the setting of Two Cents Plain.
Images depicting flurry and scurry foretold that “There was always something going on at the Market – rushing, pushing, bargaining, and once in a while, a fist fight.” It really did seem that “Life was everywhere. ‘Listen, Missus, take a chance, Come in.’ ‘Hey Mister, we got good prices.’”
But it wasn’t just voices that spoke or implored — the hands never stopped moving either, familiar hands that “were the same ones that were ripped from the study halls, synagogues, and villages of Eastern Europe.”
Along the way Mattaleh flashes back to memories of shopping trips with his mother – whose thriftiness and resourcefulness made sure he was taken to a certain shoe store for half-size bigger black or brown leather lace-ups that most certainly wasn’t Thom McAn where his friend got a more coveted pair of sneakers.
As the brothers resume their expedition, the escalating cacophony of clucking and squawking reminds Mattaleh of trips to the Kosher Chicken Market where “hundreds of live, crated chickens were waiting their turn to become kosher.” As an added attraction, “Blood-soaked sawdust covered the floor. The air was hot and wet and smelled of copper and bird shit.” The Kosher Butcher was a good alternative, with less clucking and squawking, of course.
Speaking of alternatives… the Bakery, just two stores down from the Chicken Market, filled its windows with challahs, cookies, cakes, and the Charlotte Russe. “’What’s a Charlotte Russe?’” Lemelman answers deliciously with ingredients, illustrations, and diagrams. Everything but pie charts — Mmmm, pie…
I can’t blame Mattaleh for hurrying past the barber shop – an occasion that evokes my own childhood tonsorial tortures — considering the fact that “After each haircut Mommy asks him, ‘Nu, why should I tip him?” A similar price-tag clash is recalled at the clothing store while shopping for a winter coat. “’How can you charge so much,’ Mommy says. ‘This is robbery, pure geneyvah.’” A deal is finally struck when the store owner throws in a bunch of plastic flowers plucked from his display window — for ultimate placement on top of the Lemelman’s TV.
Journey’s End: “The Grocery and Appetizing Store was loaded with loaves of Moishele’s pumpernickel, blocks of farmer’s cheese, slabs of spongecake, wooden barrels of salty shmalts herring and dried fruit.” And there were innumerable other items. “But,” the single-minded Martin was thinking, “munching on sour pickles and tomatoes wasn’t why we came.” He spotted the rows of “super-deluxe, heart-shaped, box[es] of chocolates,” bought one and promptly head home with his present.
His mother was so surprised, and still touched: “In my life, this was one of the best presents,” she said. “That my Mattaleh would think on such a thing – this was something.” And in one of Two Cents Plain’s more striking visual treats, Lemelman – to depict how his mother used the heart-shaped chocolate box to keep all her photographs – creates a befitting and almost page-size montage using a share of the old photos.
As for the chocolates?… Says Lemelman, “It took Bernard and me about a day to finish them off.”
With over 300 pages of Martin Lemelman’s Brooklyn Boyhood to explore, it’ll take most busy readers over a day to finish Two Cents Plain. And though it may be a page-chaser for the autobiographical slant and the expressive graphic edge, the book should not be considered merely breezy escapist fare. Cultural, pop-cultural, and Post-WWII American social history is apparent with the good in its glory. But negative impulses – racial troublespots, prejudice, political disturbance – are also evident as Lemelman indicates and intimates throughout, though the devil may be in the details. It comes with the territory — it comes with the life you get in the bargain.Powered by Sidelines