He was 6’8″ with an even bigger personality and heart. I was barely five feet, 14 years old, and depressed to the point of numbness. We met at the Englishtown Auction, the largest outdoor flea market in the free world, at least according to Little Ben, who worked with his father, the much-smaller Big Ben, at the stand next to ours. They sold men’s sportswear, particularly those Izod shortshirts with the alligators on them. We sold large women’s clothes, especially polyester stretch pants — black and white plaid or orange — up to size 52. All of us sold IRs — irregulars, which were garments slightly damaged in the making, which we bought from worn-out shop managers in the garment district of New York.
I met Ben in 1974 while working at my father’s stand, where I was ordered by my dad to stand on an old wooden table and yell out, “Two for $5, ladies, step right up” for hours each day after we unloaded the racks and boxes from an old truck at 5 a.m. each Saturday. Ben was also his stand’s barker, but he was far more creative than me, singing in full-throated baritone “Somewhere My Love” from Dr. Zhivago or that 50s song, “Silhouettes.” He sang all day, made jokes about various sales, crooned to babies and old men in the crowd, and generally was the most expert flea market circus performer anyone could imagine. When people remarked on his height, he spread his eagle arms and yelled out, “Power lines!”
Besides being a giant at the auction, he was a giant in my life, or more accurately, a rock I could perch on during such a stormy time in my family’s post-divorce mishmash that I often wondered if I should go on. For whatever reason, he picked me as one of the recipients of his love, and he showered that love full-force on me, coming over to tell me jokes, share pieces of advice, argue politics, or lift me up however he could. “You’re going to a great mother,” he once said to me at a time when it was the last thing in the world I could believe, but for Ben, who believed in the power of family above all, this was the ultimate compliment. He also gave me lots of books — literature and art — all with a page or more of his all-caps writing in black marker that bled through the page. He would write about how this book would show me more of the world, what was possible, how I could make my way.
Sometimes, when the weather was bad and his widowed father had a hot date, Ben would sleep at our house, overflowing the sofa when he snored or sitting up late with me talking. He loved reading, and read four newspapers a day, plus numerous books. He wanted to be a lawyer, he once said, but I imagined he would have loved to have been a writer or journalist. When he told me that he was 19, only four years older than me at the time, I was dumbfounded. He had been supporting his family for years instead of pursuing any of his own dreams, and when I encouraged him to go to college, chase after what called to him, he just shook his head. “This is my life. Who else would take care of everyone?” he said, reinforcing that without him, the family business would collapse. “In my next life maybe….” We danced polkas at Italian family weddings, went out to see “Rocky Horror Picture Show” dressed in long underwear one night, and wrote for years.
Yesterday, I looked for Ben on the internet, something I’ve done every so often for years after losing touch about a decade ago. This time I found him: his obituary. He died at 54, suddenly and at home after over 30 years of being a “jobber” — someone who sold whatever IRs came his way through his business. I remember his large face, his giant hands, larger than the paw of a black bear. I remember him sleeping once on our couch, his head on my lap, after telling me how four hours sleep was all he needed, that and a pot of coffee before driving the truck to the next town.
I’m not surprised he died young. It was a hard life, years of setting up and tearing down a whole clothing store each day, working out in the elements, and then later in his own store long hours. Someone described him as a “big man with a bigger heart,” which was utterly true. For me, he was a giant who held his lantern high, nudged me on, gave me the encouragement he himself wouldn’t receive.
I’ve been thinking of Ben all night through my dreams and all day, and this is what I want to tell him: Thank you. I love you. Rest in peace.