My family was not well to do. So the 1950s found us living in Washington Heights with my father, a small-time entrepreneur of a thousand ventures, working as a building superintendent – a “super” in New York City parlance. The building had gone up sometime in the 1920s when the neighborhood had been fashionable. And many of the tenants had lived there since. There were niceties found on buildings of the era you don’t see anymore – louvered doors for summertime and large storage areas so tenants could change their suites of furniture seasonally.
As my father described, there was the opportunity for much “cumshaw, and bakshish.” But, you ask, what were these? They were terms from China and the “Far East” describing small gifts that eased the path of commerce.
Merchant sailors learned these terms on their first voyages to Chinese or other Asian ports. They are so much nicer than their English counterparts. A bit of cumshaw lubricates transactions. Three showerheads on the fourth floor need replacing, but Mrs. Rubins will be first. That little envelope she shoves into my shirt pocket? Well, that’s just cumshaw. Indeed, my father was paid to do all the showerheads, but the cumshaw determined priority. As I pointed out, cumshaw was the lubricant of transactions. To be clear, If offered opposing bids, my father declined; there were rules to the system. Violate the regulations, and the system of trust would break down. This separated cumshaw from mere bribes; the highest bidder did not win.
I learned to participate in the system as soon as I was old enough to run errands and do small tasks. ” Please, go to my storage, and fetch the red suitcase with the foreign travel stickers on it.” Money for these services was nice, but nicer still was the wealth of small objects that came my way; the small teak chest I was given, the genuine pith helmet I paraded around in, and the theatrical prop scimitar I used to repel pirates with savagely. My benefactors had worked in theatre, traveled far east, and visited India under the Raj.
Much of the cumshaw came my way as bits and pieces of knowledge. I first learned about French Provincial furniture by changing the Scottish lady’s furniture ensemble for summer. Others introduced me to the sculpture in their apartments. I first learned about prints, watercolor, silk screening, modernism, and surrealism. I saw my first Dali and learned to appreciate the difference between signed and ascribed work.
I also learned to have empathy for people who had all these material marvels but little else in their life.
Eventually, my father was offered a job as a maintenance manager for a large real estate company, and we moved to a new neighborhood. New opportunities for cumshaw and bakshish presented themselves at my father’s new job. But the educational opportunities were fewer.