New York’s Lower East Side. Orchard Street circa 1960. Kaplan’s pickle stand is just a few yards away. Filthy Joe and I shuffle nonchalantly down the sidewalk. Eyes down. Kaplan is inside. He’s known as “The hummer.” His doctor told him to hum to keep his anxiety in check after a heart attack. Kaplan hates/loves us. He knows we want his dills and have no money to pay. Suddenly, Joe makes a dash for the wooden barrels filled with brine, thrusts his arm deep inside and fishes out a few glorious gherkins. I’m right behind him. Kaplan stops humming and starts running. The chase is on! No chance. We’re ten years old, sneakered and fleet of foot.
This old cat and young mouse game would continue for years but Kaplan never called the cops. He got even by kicking us in the ass as hard as he could on the rare occasion when he caught us. That was good enough for him and it was fine with us. It was all about the game; the sweet and sour game. Was it a bitter “dill” to swallow? Sometimes. Yet it was a world of adventurous dreams. A lovely place in space and time where a child could run free and dare to pilfer pickles from a guy who had as much fun as we did but would stubbornly refuse to show it. Without us to antagonize him and snap him out of his “hum”-drum existence, his days would be without joy. He lived to catch us. And when he did, he was transformed by glee as his boot landed squarely and repeatedly on our bottoms. The humming would stop for hours, replaced by a self-satisfied grin.
Kaplan was a prick but we loved him. I know he felt the same way about most of the street urchins. Many years later, I learned Kaplan got himself into a “pickle” with the tax man. He stopped humming and suffered another heart attack; this one fatal. He was preserved in brine and buried in a barrel. He was survived by his wife Dillma, his son Gherkin, and his daughter Relish. I miss Kaplan. Wait. I hear someone humming by my door! I gotta go.