It happened in a bank, and Uncle Beinish was holding the gun when the police came running — into the most cockeyed snafu that ever turned a detective grey
Whatever opposition the lean edgy gunman
dimly envisaged when he shoved his revolver into the bank teller's face he couldn’t in his wildest dreams have reckoned on meeting up with my Uncle Beinish. The events which followed the desperado’s unhappy decision to invade the McCaul and Baldwin Street Branch of the Mutual Bank of Canada bore my uncle’s inimitable touch all right. Nevertheless he took everlasting pride in this farrago as one of his finest if not the finest of all the good deeds, or mitzvahs as he referred to them in biblical Hebrew. he went about performing so avidly. But this, to put it mildly, has always been considered a minority opinion by the fifteen or so others trapped in this unlikely holdup by the gunman —or was it by my uncle? To this very day none of them is quite sure which.
To look at him one never would have suspected anything untoward about Uncle Beinish. 1 can't recall any unusual feature about this short, heavy-set, middle-aged man that might have caused anyone to stop and look in his
direction—except perhaps for his outsized head and its thick crop of tightly curled greying hair. But the oddity of this characteristic was, in a manner of speaking, strictly seasonal in that once every five or six weeks or so, several days prior to his haircut, he’d look like a ponderous unshorn ram. Nor were there any of the familiar uncle quirks about him. He was not an
inventor, or a busybody, or a lazy bachelor and certainly not one of those formidable wrestling uncles whose visits are apt to finish up with a casualty or two among the nephews or nieces. Uncle Beinish was none of these. But he was
the consummate master of the snafu, and by
comparison the common garden varieties of eccentricity that uncles in general bring to the human race pale into insignificance. His gift for addling people he brought not only to such celebrated affairs as that attempted bank robbery but into ordinary, everyday incidents as well.
For instance, just to make sure that nothing went wrong, his wife would invariably accompany him when he’d go to pay his respects to a bereaved family. Once he went by himself on such a mission and landed up in the wrong home. Before things were straightened away the mother had fainted, her four children were weeping and screaming and the man he presumed dead had to come dashing home from a Turkish bath to prove he was alive and well before peace and quiet were restored to his home. When my uncle entered a situation he’d invariably set loose a chain reaction of bizarre events so that a kind of bewildering new reality would emerge at the other end.
Take that robbery with the amateur desperado. Now, bank robberies follow one of two pre-ordained courses; either they are foiled or they’re carried off successfully. But with Uncle Beinish on hand to pay his gas bill the order of things inevitably gave way, with the result that a billowing confusion descended on Mutual’s little branch in the heart of Toronto’s immigrant section during the Thirties, and enveloped the gunman, the line of depositors, the entire staff from manager to messenger and no less than four policemen who’d rushed up in a cruiser, siren screeching and all.
The only creature whose lines of communication with my uncle remained unsnarled was his horse Shimshon. The animal was a lamentable
specimen, but just the
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“This is a holdup/’ he said. “Go ahead and hold up/’ my uncle invited. The gunman was baffled
same Uncle Beinish named it Shimshon, which is Hebrew for Samson, out of respect for the labors the horse performed in pulling his fruit wagon on the daily rounds to his customers. Its legs jutted up into its back like four bed posts and the spine dropped away in a looping curve seemingly unequal to the job of supporting the sagging belly whose very weight appeared to draw Shimshon’s head and hind quarters together. Shimshon kept track of my uncle’s customers on his own and in time got to know the streets in Toronto's Ward Four where they lived better than the sitting aldermen.
With every step the horse’s head would go lip and down mechanically and this Uncle Beinish took as Shimshon’s nodding approval of the commentaries he’d deliver from his perch atop the wagon. These would always begin as mild reproofs for some trivial misdemeanors committed by Shimshon but would quickly get broadened out to include life as a whole. So if, for example, his horse failed to move promptly on a green light all of mankind would soon be admonished on the folly of holding up progress. The grave deliberate tone he delivered these preachments in my uncle carried over into his conversations and often it left people nodding and speechless, much like Shimshon. But this weighty manner was by no means an affectation; it was part and parcel of an oaken stolidity no amount of provocation was ever known to dislodge. Even at the bank when the gunman shoved him away from the wicket with such violence, my uncle simply righted himself and came back to the teller’s cage.
“Young man, get in back of the line,” Uncle Beinish commanded.
But no one paid any attention to him, least of all the fellow who’d sent him flying. People froze in their places as the gunman fanned his arm from side to side to keep everybody in the bank within his range. Out of sheer nervousness he could barely control his actions and he waved the gun about in a movement that was very nearly spastic. He kept gulping as though his throat were parched.
“This . . . is . . . it!” he finally panted at the group.
“What is it which is it?” my uncle asked in the fastidious language he used when he wanted to ridicule someone. He looked at the petrified statues about him and was amused. It wasn't that he was being brave. Uncle Beinish just couldn’t conceive of the possibility of being killed by this fellow. In a war, yes. Bullets flew, people got in the way and there were casualties. But that one man would shoot another down when they were close enough to talk it over? Impossible.
“Listen you,” the desperado said as grimly as he possibly could, “this is a holdup.”
“Go ahead and hold up,” my uncle replied, waving invitingly at the bank teller.
At this the other became plainly baffled. He wasn't meeting any opposition and yet his robbery was indubitably being loused tip. He set his jaw in obvious determination to maintain his integrity as a thug. Aiming the gun point blank, at Uncle Beinish he growled, “See this?”
But my uncle ignored the question. Shaking his head sadly he summoned a Biblical passage. "Children 1 have brought up and they have rebelled against Me.” He quoted the prohesy as if Isaiah had littered it having a vision of just this very robbery.
The momentary lapse of time coupled with the gunman’s clear display of indecision spurred the others back to life. With a nod of his head Mr. Hall, the bank manager, sent an unspoken command to his messenger, Gus Daley. Standing behind the counter Daley eyed the partly open door just in back of him and with a kind of wise look assured Mr. Hall that he knew exactly what had to be done. In a deliberate attempt to draw the gunman’s attention the manager called out to my uncle, “That’s the way, Mr. Blumgarten. Go ahead and tell him.”
"Shut up, you!” the holdup man shouted desperately at Mr. Hall. But the poor fellow had hopelessly lost control of the situation. The moment he turned to deal with the manager, Daley ducked out unseen. The desperado, sensing he was unequal to the growing complications, became even more frantic. Confusion blazed from his eyes as he turned back to my uncle. “You’re wasting my time,” he shouted. "Get out of my way if you wanna stay alive.”
As he spoke he grabbed hold of Uncle Beinish. He pushed him so hard that my uncle took off in a limp, rag-doll (light and landed almost at the other end of the counter. “I need the money and nobody here’s gonna stop me,” the holdup man screamed. But his outcry was more of a plea than a threat. It confirmed what had been obvious from the moment he entered the bank: here was an amateur bungler who’d somehow been driven to a desperate act intensely distasteful to him.
My uncle got to his feet immediately. He went over to the gunman as if nothing had happened. “If you need a job, young man,” he said, dusting his coat off vigorously, “I have a son-in-law, a pocket-book maker . .
But before he could say any more he was interrupted by the first faint wail of a siren. Mr. Hall ran to the door, blocking any means of escape. “All right, fellow,” he called out, “you’re finished. The police are on their way over.”
On hearing this the gunman turned to my uncle, of all people. There was a look of indescribable fear in his eyes. A good deed beckoned and without a second thought Uncle Beinish went into action. He took the ex-desperado by the hand as one would a terrified little boy caught in a traffic jam and lead him over to the line of depositors. "We have maybe two minutes, maybe three minutes to save this boy,” he intoned. “You, Mrs. Leoni, and you, Mr. Kopstik, please make room for him.”
The obedience was startling. Not only did the two people he’d addressed move to his command but the entire line of customers, acting like a well-drilled football team in response to its quarterback, parted to receive the crumpled gunman. Nudging the fellow in among the depositors my uncle took the revolver away from him with one hand and with the
other slipped him a folded piece of paper. “This is a gas bill,” my uncle explained with a touch of erudition as one scholar might when handing a Dead Sea Scroll to another, “and rolled up inside in the bill is the money. There, you look just the same like any other customer,” he added reassuringly. “The police will not be able to tell the difference.” Then, realizing he had a revolver in his hand he eyed it uneasily, as if never in his life had he expected to hold such a deadly weapon. “He needs the money and spends it on guns,” he remarked ironically.
“I didn’t buy it. I found it on the rifle range at Long Branch,” the fellow exclaimed. Then in some groping attempt to explain to the others who’d accepted him into the line-up he started out hectically, “Look, if it wasn’t for sickness . . .”
But the screech of the siren was mounting every moment and my uncle would tolerate no further explaining. “Please, please, you’re wasting time, young man,” he cautioned. “This is a bank which deals mostly in gas bills so everybody here understands—including Mr. Hall, which is a fine man and which we can all depend on.” More than a compliment this was a last-minute warning, a warning that Mr. Hall was now part and parcel of a sacred conspiracy and that if he betrayed one he betrayed all.
Forgetting his managerial restraint Mr. Hall virtually pleaded with my uncle in the few moments that were left. “Ye gods, he’s a crook!” he cried out passionately aggrieved. "What do you expect me to do with a crook — treat him like a martyr?”
With the siren wailing dangerously close Uncle Beinish still managed to deliver a little sermon. “For your information, Mr. Hall, it’s a depression. And it happens sometimes in a depression an honest man can be forced to act like a crook.” Since the vague outlines of the police rushing toward the bank could now be discerned through the partly frosted windows, he could do no more than conclude with a relentless driving stare that was meant to burrow its way into Mr. Hall’s conscience.
OUT on the street two policemen took up strategic positions as a detective, obviously their leader, and another man in uniform plunged into the bank, guns drawn. But the sight of such an incredible holdup man as Uncle Beinish checked them momentarily. The detective, a giant of a man, took command of the situation while the policeman, an individual almost as large as the plainclothesman himself, remained back covering the doorway.
My uncle faced the police official with the exaggerated affability of a host out to make the party a success. The revolver looked immense in his hard. Moreover, he held it by the barrel instead of the handle. Far from reassuring the detective Uncle Beinish’s unorthodox way with the weapon plainly unnerved him. Switching from a lumbering gait he began to walk haltingly toward my uncle with the ginger step of a man picking his way through a mine field. Though he was infinitely shorter than the gigantic policeman, Uncle Beinish did with his sheer calmness manage to loom up as something of a figure as the detective advanced upon him.
The police officer was still a pace or two away from my uncle when he reached out and violently yanked the gun from his hand. “What’s going on here?” he demanded.
Uncle Beinish decided to overlook the detective’s offensive manner. “What should be going on?” he countered with a question of his own.
“I’ll ask the quéstions around here,” the detective growled rather murderously.
“After all, it’s your right,” Uncle Beinish conceded immediately, straining To look up at the constable as one sometimes does, trying to tell the time on a firehall clock from a position almost directly beneath the tower.
"What’s the idea coming in here with a dangerous weapon?”
“It’s a present for Mr. Hall,” Uncle Beinish explained matter-of-factly, nodding to the bank manager. “So he shall be able to protect our savings a little better.”
The detective drew his upper lip taut over his large tobacco-stained teeth and sucked in a massive quantity of air. “What’s your name?”
“Where did you get this gun?”
“I found it.”
“In Long Branch by the rifle ranch,” my uncle answered, recalling to the best of his ability the words of the gunman he was protecting.
The inadvertent touch of poetry which had crept into my uncle’s answer did
nothing to mellow the detective. “What were you doing out in Long Branch?” he persisted in his ominous way.
“Being there are people in Long Branch and being the people in Long Branch like fruit ...”
“Answer my question!” the police official roared, nipping what promised to be a kind of talmudic circumlocution my uncle often ventured into when he felt that a query merited his weighty answer. “I am a fruit peddler and . . .”
“That’s enough,” the detective put in quickly like an appeased quiz master. “Anyone see you pick this weapon up?” “Well . . .” Uncle Beinish hedged. “Well what?” the detective closed in hopefully.
"You could say yes and you could say no,” my uncle reasoned uneasily.
“I asked,” the other demanded again, meaning business, “if anyone saw you pick this weapon up.”
My uncle realized there was no putting off the arm of the law. “Well, I would say yes, officer.”
“Who’s that?” the police officer enquired warily, making no attempt to repeat the weird name.
“My horse,” Uncle Beinish elucidated, finally convinced he had a bona fide witness after all.
The answer plainly w'ent hard with the detective. But my uncie held his ground. After all, didn’t the policeman with his
relentless persistence bring this wild piece of intelligence down on his own head? The plainclothesman swallowed hard and his Adam’s apple bobbed up and down like a yo-yo. For a moment it looked as if he might level both guns at Uncle Beinish and do away with him right then and there. But he righted himself. The swallowing subsided and he walked quietly away.
MY uncle watched with utmost confidence as he crossed over to Mr. Hall. Maybe it was the feeling he had that everyone was with him that gave Uncle Beinish all that stolid courage. Indeed, the only one he wasn’t quite sure of was Gus Daley who’d slipped away without the benefit of my uncle’s indoctrination, so to speak. The customers had shown him where they stood by the readiness with which thèy opened their line to his protégé. As for the staff, the five workers behind the counter would, my uncle figured, undoubtedly take their cue from Mr. Hall. And in the manager Uncle Beinish had great faith.
True, he was the one who ordered Daley to send out the alarm. However, that was an understandable if unfortunate mistake. But everyone in the neighborhood knew the kind of person Mutual’s branch manager actually was. Didn't he, like Mr. Tobin, the travel agent across the street, always have his hands full explaining, reassuring, and generally unwinding the intricacies the newcomers were forever getting themselves trussed up in when they went forth to cope with Canada, as they called the bewildering newness that surrounded their immigrant neighborhood? To be sure there were times when Mr. Hall, alarmed by these wide deviations from what he considered standard rapport between manager and depositor, would deliberately assume the role of the clear-headed, distant bank official with the enigmatic smile who looked on people as accounts. But what of it? Wasn’t Mr. Hall human, my uncle would demand from the people who were baffled by those, fits of aloofness? Wasn't he entitled to enjoy a little play acting?
The detective came to a halt midway between my uncle and Mr. Hall. “Arc you the manager of this branch?” he called out to Mr. Hall.
“Yes,” the manager replied unhappily. “Do you know this man?” the detective asked, pointing to Uncle Beinish but careful not to turn in his direction. “Yes.”
“How long have you known him?” “About eight years.”
“And was it you who sent out the alarm?”
“Yes, through one of my men.” “You’ve known this man for eight years and yet you sent for the police?” the detective pushed on. “Has he tried anything like this in the time you’ve known him?”
“Does he look like the type and size of a man that’s likely to go robbing a bank?”
“Well . .
“You saw him holding a gun when you came in, officer,” Mr. Hall ventured ambiguously.
“The wrong way,” the detective reminded him in the dark condescending tone of a police official addressing a dangerous public nuisance. Then he waited patiently for the manager to speak up but Mr. Hall maintained a wretched silence. Looking past the plainclothesman, he directed the same wordless cry for help to my uncle the gunman had sent out a little while earlier. Mr. Hall was the image of a ruined man standing on
the debris of his career and he seemed to convey that he'd gone as far along with my uncle’s ballooning fib as his own limited faculties could carry him. Just then Gus Daley came back into the bank, diverting the detective’s attention from Mr. Hall. A look of utter astonishment mushroomed out over Daley’s face when he saw the gunman standing for all the world like another customer in the lineup. Worried that out of sheer amazement Daley might blurt out something fatal, Uncle Beinish immediately took evasive action.
“Officer, here we have the man,” he said pityingly pointing to Daley, “who pushed the button and started the whole business for nothing.” Then turning to the messenger he chided him gently, “Believe me, Gus, for a holdupnick like me you didn't need to bother the police.” Daley searched Mr. Hall’s eyes frantically for some explanation.
But the bank manager evaded him. “Mr. Blumgarten has a point, Gus,” he mumbled in the blighted manner of someone wishing ardently he were dead.
Mr. Hall’s enigmatic reply was hardly
enlightening but with the intuitiveness of the ideal subordinate the messenger evidently realized that his superior had miscalculated somehow and was now asking him to go along with my uncle. This he did at once. “Sorry,” he apologized to Uncle Beinish without having the slightest notion for what.
THE detective pushed his fedora back on his forehead. He gave the appearance of a harassed zoo keeper trying to count a newly arrived cageful of scurrying, evasive little animals. For the first
time he glanced back at the uniformed man. The sight of his comrade standing rocklike in front of the door seemed to give him comfort and he stared at him for a long time. Then very suddenly, perhaps as a tactic to throw the entire group off balance, he whipped about and made straight for the teller. “What do you know about this?” he asked him abruptly.
At first the teller was just as startled by the detective as he’d been by the gunman. “Well . . . officer ... I was . . . entering a deposit,” he started out falteringly, but regained his presence of mind soon enough and continued in a rather noncommittal way. “And when 1 looked up, there was Mr. Blumgarten. Next thing I know a siren is screaming and you and the other officer are running into the bank.”
“How do you know his name is Blumgarten?”
“He’s been coming in here for years, sir,” the teller answered brightly.
His dramatic stunt having gotten him nowhere the detective moved away from the teller a little the fiercer if anything. Slowly, almost scornfully, he began to eye the line of depositors, his gaze bouncing from individual to individual in the tantalizing manner of a ball making the dying round in a roulette wheel. The exgunman in his anxiety to appear no more concerned than the others assumed a casual pose, his face immured in a feeble smile. Into this position he froze like a rabbit caught in the beam of a headlight. The others, hardly less frightened than the wanted man himself, also turned into so many rigid forms, so that the entire line assumed the appearance of a peculiar assortment of waxworks. A strange silence came over the bank.
For his part the detective gave every indication of relishing the shudder of fear he'd sent through the entire bank. He sustained the tension with his endless scrutiny of the customers. Then after what seemed like an eternity he finally spoke up. “You there, what do you. know about this?” he asked, pointing directly to the woman at the very end of the line.
On seeing herself picked out, two tiny beads of terror lit up in her deep-set eyes. She was a handsome young woman with an olive-tanned skin and her ears were freighted down with two thick, pearly earrings that looked like hearing aids. At first she seemed too frightened to speak, but after a supreme effort she managed to mumble, “Eh pices, I’m eh no spik . . .”
Silencing the woman with an impatient wave of his hand the police officer began to examine the depositors once again. Only this time he walked up and down the line stopping before each individual with the contempt of a highly displeased sergeant-major. All this time my uncle kept a close watch on the detective. When the inevitable happened and the officer stopped in front of the gunman, Uncle Beinish remained calm. He allowed the fellow in the line to endure the searching scrutiny of the law for a decent interval so as not to arouse any suspicion. Then he moved to the rescue.
“If you would like to talk this over, officer,” he offered genially, “we could settle it in a minute. It is as plain and simple as one and two.”
The detective's cheeks turned the color of volcanic ash. For a moment he kept right on staring at the wincing desperado as though he hadn't heard my uncle at all. Then he turned suddenly about in that dramatic way of his that was now old hat. He approached Uncle Beinish in a wide circling movement, like some enormous bird that couldn’t quite make up its mind what to do with its prey. “So you wanna talk this over?” he asked in a strangely indecisive way.
“Please,” my uncle replied urgently.
“Okay, let’s go,” the detective blurted out woodenly.
“Where?” Uncle Beinish asked.
“To talk it over,” the former replied more in the nature of a threat than a comeback. He joined the other policeman and from the doorway beckoned to my uncle with one of the revolvers he held in either hand.
Though triumph was in sight Uncle Beinish remained unperturbed. For one thing, it wouldn't look right, he figured, to go rushing off willingly to the police station. For another, he was concerned about the horse and wagon he’d left standing out in the street. He took several steps toward the door in token evidence hat he didn’t shrink from the detective’s nvitation, but then he stopped.
“What about Shimshon?” my uncle asked the plainclothesman, dropping the name matter-of-factly as one does when speaking to another man about a mutual acquaintance. “What about my wagon?”
The poor manager, who had visibly brightened at the prospect of Uncle Beinish and the police clearing out. sort of caved in at this new development. He locked his hands in a clasp so tight that the blood was driven from his fingers, and he assumed a tense erect position that gave him the strange appearance of being suspended in mid-air. My uncle made a careful study of Mr. Hall and of the others who, for that matter, were responding in pretty much the same way to this delaying tactic. He took their reaction as a lack of faith in his sense of timing and he was a bit disappointed. Hadn’t he steered them masterfully through this obstacle course he’d taken them over? No, he wouldn’t be pushed into rushing things now and perhaps betray with one false move his charge in the line-up. Facing the detective resolutely, he awaited an answer.
Trivial as my uncle's intransigence was the police officer seemed to welcome some semblance of opposition he could come to grips with. “I don’t want any trouble with you. Now, you get going.” lie snarled, refusing to be drawn into any kind of discussion on the horse-andbuggy question.
As usual, to fortify his position in such situations my uncle started to cite a Biblical passage. “It says in the Bible that you have to treat a dumb animal just like . . .”
“I don’t care what the Bible says,” the detective exclaimed categorically and then immediately checked himself, obviously horrified at the statement he had permitted to pass his lips. This inadvertent bit of blasphemy only added to the policeman’s anger and Uncle Beinish decided he’d better not overplay his hand. He contented himself with a futile shrug of the shoulders that conveyed it was senseless to struggle any longer. “If you don’t care, officer . . .”
The unfinished sentence left no doubt that from here on whatever sins were committed against the animal person of Shimshon would surely fall on the detective’s head. As he approached the two policemen he turned to look at everyone in the bank separately, ignoring only the fellow he had saved from the clutches of the police, it was the laudatory look of an inspired actor-director who’d driven his cast through a play that’d left them exhausted and confounded. It was, moreover, a look that told them they had given a sterling account of themselves Then throwing his head back in the manner of the master who was about to take over the final scene himself, he stepped erectly between the two constables and disappeared as though he’d walked into a canyon.
TNSIDE the cruiser the minions of the Alaw sitting up front remained erect, looking straight ahead without once casting a backward glance in my uncle's direction. The air was heavy with the suggestion that they took no pride in their catch.
For his part Uncle Beinish sitting in the back with the detective made, in spite of his sober nature, a gallant attempt to be sociable. This only helped to dismay the policemen who were quite lost with the bubbling respectability of their captive.
The static scowl that had taken possession of the plainclothesman's face hardened into a papier-màché-like mask. Every now and then when he thought Uncle Beinish wasn't noticing he'd catch a stealthy glimpse of the apparition he’d apprehended. The detective had the abstracted. deeply troubled look of a man who couldn’t free himself of the responsibility for the confusion which was about to descend on the Teraulay Street police station. At one point the police officer turned and glanced momentarily out the back window. Then, jerking his head
violently forward again, he ordered the driver in front to step on it, as if he’d caught sight of something he could not endure. And maybe he couldn’t at that, for a few hundred feet behind the cruiser my uncle's concave horse was in full view. Atop the wagon one of the uniformed policemen sat like a stone-faced martyr, giving the odd, almost imperceptible tug at the reins only when absolutely necessary. Otherwise Shimshon followed Uncle Beinish to the police station without interference at a clattering leisurely trot, if