Working my way through college
January 14, 2022
News of prominent NYC business woman and Jewish philanthropist, Helene Fortunoff’s death brought back memories of working in the Fortunoff family business during my college years in the 1960s.
Helene was the last of the second generation of matriarchs of a very successful family of retailers who created a mini-retail empire, a model and forerunner for the Walmart and Target stores, which today dominate the big box retail business
Soon after graduation from high school in June 1960, I landed a summer job in a warehouse and housewares store owned by Helene’s husband, Alan Fortunoff. The store was located on Livonia Avenue in the East New York section of Brooklyn.
Along with all the other Fortunoff stores; they were strewn along Livonia Avenue under an elevated subway known as the IRT Lexington Avenue Line. Several blocks away from the Fortunoff stores, the Canarsie Line running at street level crossed paths with the IRT Line running overhead.
My employment with Fortunoffs lasted 4 years until I graduated from college. During that 4-year stint it brought me in touch with four individuals who had a significant impact in my life.
I was hired by the manager of the warehouse section of the store; a gentleman named Abe who was a career employee with the company. Abe was a compassionate manager who treated everyone with respect and in turn was highly respected.
Abe became my friend and somewhat of a career mentor in terms of teaching me the ethics of business and how to treat people. During the school year Abe would always accommodate me and adjusted my work hours to fit my school schedule and study time requirements.
In the warehouse I worked alongside three Black men in their late 20s: Eddie, Leroy and John Henry.
Eddie had come up recently from the South to find work. He was quiet and went about work trying not to make waves or to attract attention to himself. Leroy, who either was born in the New York area or came up from the South at a much earlier age was much more expressive. He had a good sense of humor, and liked to chatter mostly about woman. John Henry was from the neighborhood and was very flamboyant and popular.
While these men were very different as individuals, they had one thing in common: None of them were educated and in two of them illiteracy was quite pronounced.
To be candid, Eddie, Leroy and John Henry did not take kindly to this white kid who joined them. It was understandable since it was quite obvious from my observations, that except for Abe, these guys were not well treated by the rest of the store’s white management.
That first summer I worked side by side with the three of them, unloading trailer trucks of merchandise to be sold at retail, working with them in an abandoned theater down the street without electricity or air conditioning that served as a warehouse, and pulling heavy skid loads of stock from the warehouse to the store across an uneven sidewalk in all kinds of weather.
In time we earned each others’ mutual respect and trust by working together to the point that we could speak about personal things and confide in each other.
This is not to say my relationship was the same with each of them. That was the point. They accepted me for who I was, and I accepted each of them. We saw each other as individual human beings.
My conversations with Eddie were deeper than with the others. Eddie felt the hurt of being discriminated all his life. He was disappointed because he came up North only to find prejudice in NYC not much difference than at home in the South.
Leroy and I felt comfortable bantering, but I do not recall ever speaking to him about anything substantial.
John Henry, although not formally educated, was street-wise and in Brooklyn that was a ticket for success. I knew he and I had set aside any barriers to our relationship when he told me he put the word out on the street that no one was to harass me as I walked the several blocks through the Black neighborhood to the Canarsie Line which took me to and from work.
These four individuals helped me more than they will ever know in
defining my own life’s values; and the four years I spent with them working in Fortunoff’s was just as important to me as the time I spent in college.
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Mel Pearlman holds B.S. & M.S. degrees in physics as well as a J.D. degree and initially came to Florida in 1966 to work on the Gemini and Apollo space programs. He has practiced law in Central Florida since 1972. He has served as president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando; was a charter board member, first vice president and pro-bono legal counsel of the Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center of Central Florida, as well as holding many other community leadership positions.