Little Russia

By Melissa Bank
Sunday, February 11, 2007

MY FATHER WAS A BIG SHOT IN JERSEY CITY. He called himself Lord G, and so did everyone else, including my mother. His normal speaking voice was a yell, and he talked with his hands; he'd shove you to make a point. He was a bookie, so the phone was always ringing, and the doorbell, too; he liked being the host. Denise, he'd say, get Blackie a scotch and soda, and I would.

I don't know what he went to prison for -- racketeering? Tax evasion? College, we called it. He got seven-to-10 and came home after five. By then, I was a teenager. When he said, "Wash my car," I said, "Wash your own car." I woke up in the emergency room. After that, just the sight of me made my father's hand curl into a fist.

He had cash all over the house -- sewn into coat linings, wedged under mattresses, packed under steaks and ice cream in the basement freezer -- but there was no way I was stealing from my father. Instead, my grandmother did. She gave me a hundred frozen hundreds, and I got out of there fast.

A few months later, I was living in Manhattan with my friend Patty when I noticed a blue Cadillac with Jersey plates idling outside our building. I was scared my father was after me for the cash, but Patty reassured me: "He's just worried you're going to rat him out."

I WAS 19 WHEN I STARTED WORKING FOR MR. OMERA. He was old and almost blind -- I'm saying this because he was, but I didn't see him that way. He gave the impression of a man at the height of his powers and in complete control. He dressed impec-cably -- usually in a cream wool suit -- and if his beard was more goaty than goatee, he carried it off as arrogance rather than neglect. He spoke several languages -- Russian, French, German, Spanish -- but never said which was his first or where he was from. Omera was just one of the names he used. I didn't know what business he was in. I never went into his office or the room with all of the computers, and I never spoke to the men who did. When I'd pass them on the stairs, they'd turn their faces to the wall.

This was in Westchester. The estate was like a park, with acres of grass and trees, a pond, a pool. The main house was too big to be called a house; its wings had wings.

What did I do? When Charmin changed the swirls on its packaging from red to blue, Mr. Omera got it into his head that the blue version wasn't as soft; he had me buy up all the old red Charmin I could find. I must have called a hundred distributors, a thousand grocers: "I'm wondering if you have the Charmin with the red swirls on it? Yes, I'll wait."

I REPORTED TO EVELYN. A small woman in her 60s, she was a miracle of efficiency and detachment in a cashmere twin set and ballet slippers. After a few weeks, she asked me to take over reading the Wall Street Journal to Mr. Omera. I was to read the first paragraph and pause; if he wanted me to keep reading that story, he'd say, "Go on," and, if not, "Next."

But the first time I paused for his verdict, Mr. Omera said, "Are you wearing black again, Miss Galgano?"

I told him I wore black every day.

"What're you -- a widow?" Then he said, "Next."

By the time I got home that night, Bergdorf's had delivered half a dozen red, orange and yellow dresses in my size.


CONTINUED     1                 >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company