Bags, Scrap Metal, Bottles and the bare Bones

 In the Russian Empire. Jews were limited to professions such as tailoring, baking, shoemaking carpentry, tanning, tin-smithing and black-smithery. Some were permitted to have grocery storhaberdasheries, butcher’s shops, and tobacconists. My mother’s father, Mendel, was a shoemaker in a shtetl in Latvia. When my father’s father, Sha-ul came to South Africa he started an empty bottle business.

Golda, Izzy’s mother, died in the 1920s when Izzy was in his twenties. Shaul, his father, married Bertha. They had a son called David. When I visited David (Izzy’s half brother in Sea Point, Cape Town, in 2006), his wife was very bitter towards Izzy. She told me that when Shaul died, Izzy “stole” Shaul’s business in Maitland from under Bertha, his stepmother’s, nose. She didn’t say how this happened. I can only surmise that Izzy’s felt that he had more right to his father’s business than his stepmother. David was only eight years old at the time, while Izzy in his 30s. Izzy had various jobs. In the late 1940s he had gone into the empty bottle business, or, as David and his wife describe it, “taken over” Shaul’s business, lock, stock and bottle.

Until I had met David, I never knew that Shaul, my grandfather, had gone into the empty bottles business. When the Jews arrived in South Africa, they had very little, and I can see Shaul starting off early in the morning with his hand- drawn cart traipsing round the neighbourhood collecting empty bottles – either buying them from private homes or picking them up in dumps.

Izzy bought a small green van (bakkie) with an open back, the same one that Izzy used to transport my bicycle home from the Raleigh bike shop. He used the van to round up empty wine bottles. The bottles were recycled by the wineries. Izzy and the family moved from Maitland to Claremont in 1950, the year that I returned from the Orphanage.

Izzy rented the ground floor of a little V-shaped building in Claremont – a shtetler’s version of the the Flatiron building in Tmes Square – situated at a fork in the road. The one prong continued down Landsdowne Road; the other led into Rosmead Avenue and on to the Kenilworth Racecourse, where Gerry, my brother, must have spent many a heartstopping moments. His passion was betting on the horses. As I described earlier; I saw him in hospital after his heart operation a few days before he died at the age of 39. he talked about the horses and the race he almost won.

The store was very drafty. My mother helped Izzy in the store. Sometimes, I went there after school. When the hawkers arrived with cartloads of empty bottles, they offloaded them and placed on the cement floor. If the bottle whiffed of paraffin , it was rejected, because the bottle companies would not recycle them. When Fanny helped in the store, she did a lot of whiffing. I can still see her – with her marked limp because of her shortened left leg – leaning awkwardly over a motley array of green and blue topless bottles, supporting herself by her walking stick. She bends her head covered with a scarf to keep off the dust blowing everywhere, picks up a bottle by the neck between thumb and forefinger, raises it to her bent head and takes a whiff of the rank vapour . She moves rapidly through the ranks, bottle after bottle. When she smells paraffin, she earmarks it for rejection by placing it one side. The smell of stale wine filled the air. When she got home, she made supper. Izzy helped, especially with washing up the dishes. The children sometimes helped with the dishes, but only on condition that it was recorded in the Gamaroff Annals.

A few years later, Izzy was doing well enough to build a big store. He became the King of the bottle and scrap metal business in the Claremont-Landsdowne area. Sammy, my brother, left school at the age of about 15 and joined Izzy in the store. One day, Sammy came home from school (1955), and said that the Bookkeeping teacher “Bob” at Wynberg High had given him a few hundred lines to write out. He never went back to school. He joined the “Business.” Izzy obviously encouraged him because he wanted him to help in the business. My eldest brother Joe had, a few years earlier, gone into selling shoes; Izzy rented a little shoe store for Joe – so Sammy was the next best prospect, I suppose.

Izzy’s new big store, called “The Store”, employed about a dozen black workers who packed the bottles into bags, stacked them and loaded them into the big new truck that Izzy acquired for his new expansion. He employed a truck driver as well. Sammy got stuck into the heavy physical work and led from the front. He’d lift a bag of about 50 empty bottles on to his back, dashed to the truck, offload and run back for another, and another. The workers also did their share but found it very difficult to keep up with Sammy. For one thing, they didn’t have reason to be so motivated. Also, they didn’t seem to have the same energy, their lunch often consisting only of pepsi cola and a half loaf of white bread, which may have either been the cheapest they could afford or because they enjoyed it. The “Business” was too small to provide a canteen so they brought their own lunch. The way they rolled their eyes and sank their white teeth in the soft bread made it look like manner from heaven. We seldom ate white bread in our house, because Fanny was very health conscious. I remember seeing only one book in the house: Gaylord Hauser’s “Look younger, live longer.” Izzy’s favourite lunch at the “Store” was a tin of sardines and a fresh rye or brown bread. Afterwards, his mouth and bristly chin shone with the oily residue.

Allen Bennett said: “Life is rather like a tin of sardines. We are all looking for the key.” Someone commented on Bennett: “If I asked 10 people ‘What makes you happy?’ would it be the same thing?  Okay, I guess some would think, a million on the lottery and a yacht would make life a lot nicer, but really there is nothing better, nothing more satisfying than having time to yourself and doing something you’ve always wanted to do.” The way Izzy enjoyed his sardines, I came to think that the key to life was a tin of sardines.

At the end of the day, Izzy would cash up. There was always a huge pile of silver and copper coins left over at the end of the day. Izzy lays all the coins in the middle of the big table in his office. He separates the silver and coppers into two piles in the middle of the table. The silver coins consisted of tickeys (threepence), sixpences, shillings, two-shillings, and half-crown (two shillings and sixpence). The coppers were farthings (quarter of a penny), ha’pennies (half pennies) and pennies. He stacks the coins into neat little towers. He adds up the towers and writes the total in his A4 hardcover notebook.

He then coaxes the coins into different linen bag and pulls the string shut. He will take the bags to the bank. The day is complete: the bottles are packed in bags, ready to be loaded onto trucks first thing tomorrow morning, the floor of the store has been swept, the workers have gone home. Time to lock up and go home to Fanny’s nice supper. Or if she is not feeling well, Izzy will step in and cook supper, as he did on so many occasions. Sammy and Izzy lock up and go home.

Besides “empties”, there were also bones. The hawkers brought their bags of bones and these would be weighed on the scale. The bones in the bags had to be checked for foreign objects such as rocks and bits of metal. Once, a hawker rolled a handcart into the Store containing a fresh horse’s head. Izzy and Sammy were not experts on horse anatomy, so they made a rough guess as to the the gross weight minus the soft parts. No customer was turned away. Poor as these hawkers were, they didn’t eat horse’s heads.

There was a great famine in Samaria; and behold, the king of Aram besieged it, until a donkey’s head was sold for eighty shekels of silver” (2 Kings 6:25).

There was also scrap metal: steel, copper, brass, copper, aluminium. Throughout the ages, metals have been recycled. The scrap metal business thrives in all countries. When we think of a scrap yard we usually think of a site where the scrap is piled high, where cranes are lifting and sorting the metals, where trucks piled high haul the scrap metal in and out of wide gates. Recycling is not only good business; it also plays an important role in conservation. But Izzy was more occupied with his own conservation than the conservation of his whole species.

The profits on scrap metal were much bigger than on rags and bones. As the business prospered, scrap metal began to eclipse the rags, bones and bottles. The hawkers arrived with a cartload of metal: bed frames, door knobs, pipes, bicycle frames, roofing, toys, tools, sinks, bath tubs, metal offcuts, electric wire, door frames, playground equipment, cooking pots and eyeglass frames. The items are divided into two types: ferrous (iron and steel) and non-ferrous (all other metals).

Before it was weighed it had to be sorted into the different kinds of metals. Each metal had a different price; from cheapest to most expensive – steel, lead, zinc, chromium, brass, copper, aluminium. Steel, the heaviest was the cheapest, while aluminium, the lightest was the most expensive. Sometimes the parts of an item would contain different metals such as steel and aluminium, for example, a car radiator, which contains steel, copper and lead.

In large scrap metal enterprises, which deals with tons of scrap at a time, the metal is sorted and then put on to the scale and weighed. The operator then creates a cash slip/weight ticket. Izzy didn’t work with tons of metal. This was to come later when Sammy took over the business when Izzy died. Izzy’s scales were modest devices like the floor scales found in a vegetable market. Modern scales have electronic weight indicators. The scales of the 1950s were operated manually. The floor scale consisted of a platform on which the metal was placed. A vertical shaft connected a horizontal oscillating beam to the platform. The beam was marked from zero to 100 kilograms. A sliding indicator was attached to the beam.

There was always the temptation to fudge the scales. You tip the scrap onto the scale. Instead of moving the indicator slowly to obtain the exact weight, you undercompensate (the customer) and overcompensate (yourself) by spiritedly nudging the indicator to the left. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink, say no more, say no more. This blatant “sleight” of hand was not lost on the customer. But what could, or would he do about it? He probably stole the stuff in the first place. Most of the copper cable – cut up into short segments – was brand new, and was – like the horse’s head (cut off?) – probably stolen.I am reminded of the verses in Deuteronomy 25:13-16:

“You shall not have in your pouch alternate weights, larger and smaller. You shall not have in your house alternate measures, a
larger and a smaller. You must have completely honest weights and completely honest measures, if you are to endure long on the soil that the Lord your God is giving you. For everyone who does those things, everyone who deals dishonestly, is abhorrent to the Lord your God.”

There are many other places in the Bible that refer to dishonest weights and measures, for example, three places in Proverbs: 11:1, 16:11 and 20:10. Much more than dishonesty in business is mean here; all kinds of dishonesty, for example dishonesty in argument, as Michael  Brown points out in his riposte to anti-missionaries. But I don’t want to get into a religious scrap here. Where was I. Oh yes, I was talking scrap.

Sometimes precious objects were found among the scrap such as antique brass fittings and ornamental plates. You had to have a sharp eye to pick these out, because they were usually congealed by grime. Sammy found a coppery-bronze plate that looks like something out of an Egyptian tomb. He polished it with “brasso”.

There is Napoleon, the metal separator. His job is to break up objects that contain various non-ferrous metals, and “decompose” it into the different metals they contain; for example, a copper kettle with a brass handle. He is old and heavy. The coils of coir on his grey head glisten with toil. He is seated atop his empire of metal; an emperor on his throne. He heaves and grunts. His feet protrude from his ankle-length trousers, the bulbous toes in different stages of decay. He works his screwdriver into the gap between the brass and copper. He prises up and down and sideways. He’ll be busy for another hour on that one. By the end of the day, he would have made small dent in the pile that was his throne. He works slowly atop the pile. His breath reeks of mortality. He doesn’t want to come down in the world. Neither does he want to leave it, yet.

While I was doing my second stint at school in Wellington, my brother Bennie came home from the Orphanage. He joined the “business” soon after. There were many tensions between Izzy, Sammy and Benny. Izzy would keep Fanny awake at night worrying about the “business”. I was seldom at the Store, so I was not party to these heated exchanges.

Benny went to Israel when he was 20 years old. I went the following year and joined him on kibbutz In Hashofet (I say more about this in the chapter on Israel). Benny came back to South Africa and rejoined the “business”. He then married Shirley Kaplan.

Benny had lots of ideas for improving the “business” (My sister Rachel related these anecdotes to me). One was to acquire a huge desk for the office. There was a lot of dispute over this, but in the end Izzy forked out. Was this the desk on which I saw Izzy counting out his money?

There was one other bright proposal that, sadly, went awry. By this stage Izzy had acquired more than one truck. Benny suggested that they advertise the “business” with a sign on the doors of the truck: “Gamaroff Supply Store” with contact details. It would have to be done by a professional signwriter. Izzy would have none of it. He didn’t want to change his humble shtetl ways. He couldn’t see that the financial reward for the sign would more than cover the outlay. Izzy refused. That was the last straw. Benny didn’t only leave the “business” never to return, he didn’t only leave his family never to return, he also left South Africa never to return.

Shirley filled in some of the details for me. “In June 1976 (Shirley relates) Bennie participated in the Six Day War in a crack paratrooper unit. A few short weeks after that Fanny and Izzy came to Israel to be at our wedding. You were at our wedding too. Bennie came back to South Africa in 1968 at Izzy’s request. Within a year they had a fight about Izzy not being honest with Sammy about his share of the business, and Bennie left the business. We stayed in South Africa until 1972. During this time Bennie went into a furniture business. He has been a “furniture man” ever since and is in fact, one of the best furniture restorers in Israel today.”