Photo by Ruth Fremson/The New York Times
COMMITMENT George Kramer, 71, at Kramer's Hardware in Flatbush, where he knows everything about everything, including the keys
By SAKI KNAFO for the New York Times
Published: January 9, 2010
George Kramer sat hunched on his stool behind the counter of the small hardware store on Coney Island Avenue, gazing out the window at the passing traffic. He was bundled up in a heavy sweater, a maroon wool cap folded above his ears. Toward the back of the store, beyond Mr. Kramer’s field of vision, Isaac Abraham was rifling through a cabinet. Mr. Abraham, the store’s owner for many years, knows Mr. Kramer about as well as anybody, and he was about to give a demonstration.
Quietly, he removed a faucet knob from the cabinet and hid it behind his back. Then he approached the counter and clapped it down with a flourish.
Mr. Kramer gave it a perfunctory glance. “Gerber,” he said.
“Gerber what?” asked Mr. Abraham.
“Ninety-nine, eleven fifty-one.”
Mr. Abraham turned over the package to show the catalog number: 99-1151. Mr. Kramer — George to me — is my second cousin, and he has worked at Kramer’s Hardware, in Flatbush, Brooklyn, for 58 years. He has a developmental disability, which is obvious to people who meet him, but he also has a rare and less apparent ability: Like the late Kim Peek, the inspiration for the film “Rain Man,” George, 71, has a powerful memory for dates and numbers and facts. If you tell him your birthday, he can tell you what day it will fall on two years in the future. He studies phone directories and atlases in his spare time. As one relative recently put it to me, “If you drop him in Oshkosh or anywhere, he’ll find his way home.”
On the surface, a run-down hardware shop in Flatbush might seem an odd place for a person like George to thrive. But if you set aside the sheets of pegboard and the metal cabinets and the key-making machine, what is left are hundreds and hundreds of small, obscure utilitarian objects, many almost identical to the casual observer. George can identify each nut and bolt and screw on sight, as Mr. Abraham’s test was intended to show, and he knows where, exactly, in the store it is kept. He can tell you its cost. And he can tell you the name — and often the phone number — of the company that made it.
His command of the inventory is such that Mr. Abraham has never had to invest in a computer to track it. “My reliance on him is mind-boggling,” Mr. Abraham said.
That reliance began with a favor. Thirty years ago, Mr. Abraham took over the store from George’s father, David Kramer, who was worried about his son’s future. Mr. Abraham agreed to keep George employed until George was ready to retire, and when he transferred the store to a new owner about a year ago, his successor did the same. These owners well know of George’s value to the business; still, the fact that David ensured such a secure future for his disabled son is as striking a feature of Kramer’s Hardware as George’s memory.
WHEN George was a child, his parents were told to put him in an institution. Though it’s not clear whether doctors gave him a precise diagnosis at that time, they said he would never be able to get along in society. His mother visited a couple of schools — including the Willowbrook State School on Staten Island, which later became notorious for its brutal treatment of residents — but ultimately they kept him at home. George’s younger brother, a copywriter in New Jersey, said George was eventually found to be mentally retarded but has not been examined for his disability since childhood.
In retrospect, the choice his parents made may seem like an obvious one, but it went against the prevailing wisdom of the day, and it also raised a difficult question for them: Who would support their son after they were gone?
David Kramer, whose father, Gdal, founded Kramer’s Hardware around 1930, started giving George small chores around the shop — moving the stock, taking out the garbage. According to the accounts of some of our relatives, George had been an unruly child, yet he proved an eager and reliable worker, and over time, his responsibilities multiplied.
Three decades passed and Mr. Abraham, then a young Brooklyn entrepreneur, began expressing an interest in acquiring the store. By this time — 1979 — David was thinking seriously about retirement. “He was ready to teach me the business,” Mr. Abraham recalled, “but there was a ‘but’ — and this was a big ‘but’ — he wanted to make sure that George would be secure.”
George was now 41. He handled the phones, dealt with customers and counted the cash at the end of the night, and had long ago committed to memory the catalog number for every eye bolt and corner brace and turnbuckle. David asked Mr. Abraham to hang around the shop for a few weeks, and at the end of that period he sat Mr. Abraham down and asked him a pointed question: “What about George?”
If David’s plan in requiring Mr. Abraham to spend time at the store had been to show him George’s value as an employee, it worked.
“I saw that George was an asset,” Mr. Abraham said. “In the medical terminology they might call him autistic, but I immediately called him a genius.”
Mr. Abraham promised David that he would never need to worry about his son, and he says he repeated the promise 12 years later, when David, on his deathbed, asked about George one last time.
“If I shine shoes on Broadway,” Mr. Abraham said he told him, “he’ll be shining shoes next to me.”
MR. Abraham has not had to resort to shining shoes, but his three decades owning the little neighborhood hardware store have not always been smooth. Kramer’s has narrowly survived several rough economic periods, and has contended with the arrival in Brooklyn of two huge competitors, Home Depot and Lowe’s, both of which have outlets within three miles of the store.
Through it all, George has been an ideal worker: honest (perhaps because he is incapable of lying), uncomplaining and extremely punctual.
His routine is as inflexible as a brass-plated wood screw. Every day, without fail, he arrives in the neighborhood by bus at 7 a.m., an hour before the store opens. Every day, he eats breakfast in one of two places — a restaurant called La Guadalupana Taqueria Mexicana, next to Kramer’s, or a Dunkin’ Donuts a few blocks away. And every day, regardless of which place he patronizes, he orders the same thing: a bagel with cream cheese, coffee and orange juice — “the combo.” George raises the store gates at exactly 8 a.m. Most of the customers are building superintendents, and as they trickle in, they greet him playfully: “Hey, George, did you miss me?” “How’s your girlfriend, George?” Much to their amusement, he answers straightforwardly, with little inflection. “Yes, my friend,” he might say, or “No,” or “I don’t know.”
At exactly 5 p.m., George lowers the gates and takes the bus down Coney Island Avenue to his home. He lives in one of several Brooklyn residences run by the Adult Retardates Center, a group for people with developmental disabilities that his parents helped found in the 1950s. He eats dinner with the other residents at 5:15, showers at 8 and goes to bed at exactly 11. His weekends are similarly scheduled, with visits to the Young Israel synagogue on Avenue J and to a recreational center — “the Club” — where he plays games, drinks Diet Cokes and dances with his companion of 21 years, who lives in one of the group’s other residences.
Every year George sends out dozens of birthday cards to relatives; every year he calls to make sure the card has arrived on time. At family gatherings, which he begins talking about months in advance, he insists on taking a picture of every person at the table. His photo albums contain the most comprehensive record of my family that there is — thousands of unevenly framed snapshots documenting decades of Seders and Thanksgivings.
And yet, as devoted as George is to these routines, it is difficult to say exactly why he performs them or how they affect him. He seldom makes eye contact. Hardly anyone has seen him laugh, or cry, and although he is often pronouncing things (mostly restaurants) good or bad — “Garden of Eat-In on Avenue J! That’s good!” — it is hard to know whether he is expressing genuine feelings or repeating opinions picked up from others.
Most of the time, he is quiet. When he speaks, it is often to blurt out some phrase that has no apparent relevance. Only when he is pressed does it become clear that these utterances do, in fact, have meaning. “April 5th Monday night!” he shouted out one afternoon in December, prompting a request for an explanation. “I have to go shul April 5th,” he replied. “Mommy’s yahrzeit. That’s important. But electric bulbs only. No candles in the house. That’s dangerous.”
Jews commemorate the anniversary of a person’s death, the yahrzeit, by lighting a candle or a ceremonial light bulb and reciting the mourner’s Kaddish during daily prayers. George’s mother died in 1985 and his father in 1991.
He is the only member of the family who still marks their memory this way.
TO the extent George does engage in conversation, much of that conversation centers on the past. “I’m reading a book about Ansonia clock factory on 420 13th Street,” he announced at the store one time. “Who lived there? Pop Kramer and Mom Kramer lived there.”
Another time he got into an excited discussion with a customer over the pedigree of a local apartment building. George was excited, that is. The customer, a super, didn’t quite share his enthusiasm.
“1620 Caton. Is it the big building?” asked George.
“George!” said the super. “Write down 1620 and that’s it.”
“1620 Caton Avenue,” George persisted. “I remember that building used to be Waxman brothers!”
When George declares that the Waxman brothers owned this or that building, or that so-and-so lived at this or that address, it often seems as if he is rattling off an arbitrary, inconsequential piece of trivia. But these pieces of trivia, put together, form a jigsaw-puzzle picture of a world that exists more vividly in George’s mind than perhaps anywhere else.
In the many years that George has worked at Kramer’s, Brooklyn has transformed around it: high-rises have shot up, new immigrant populations have swept in, and most of the people who grew up with him have died or moved to the suburbs. Old businesses are forever “going out,” in George’s phrase, and he announces the passing of each with a staccato shout: “Brandz for Less 1351 Coney Island Avenue is going out December 31st!” “Bargain Hunters 1605 Avenue M closed up for good!”
Amid all these closings and openings, George appears to have changed relatively little. He observes a host of customs that his parents taught him years ago, and many of the obscure facts that preoccupy him have been preoccupying him for ages. Even the store is sort of a time capsule. Almost all of its products were bought years back, from companies that no longer exist. Piled on the shelves in the rear are boxes and boxes of screws and bolts with old-fashioned labels reading “Sturdy Nut and Bolt Co., New York, N.Y.” and “Universal Screw and Bolt Co., N.Y. N.Y., U.S.A.,” relics from the city’s industrial past.
At 71, though, George is slowing down. Mr. Abraham said that he did not expect him to last in the job much longer. “How long can he do it physically?” he said. “There were times two years ago where he wasn’t very well and I was under the full assumption that he was not going to make it back.”
The business is slower, too. Perhaps because of the recession, the flow of customers is more like a trickle. The shelves are half empty, and the bottles of cleaning fluid are covered with dust. George typically spends a good part of each day sitting at the counter and leafing through hardware and restaurant supply catalogs, and occasionally reeling off facts about the various companies whose names are displayed on passing trucks (“Driscoll Foods! Clifton, New Jersey!”).
Change has arrived at Kramer’s in one other way as well. Mr. Abraham, who had long served as an unelected advocate for Brooklyn’s Hasidic community, embarked in 2008 on a campaign for City Council. He ultimately lost, to Stephen Levin, but when he began his time-consuming bid, he handed off the business to a new owner, a 36-year-old friend of the family named Moshe Meyerson.
So, what about George? Where did this transition leave him? Mr. Meyerson, noting how long George has been at Kramer’s Hardware, said, “He’s going to be there until he retires.” Given George’s age, Mr. Meyerson added, he imagined that might happen in three or four years.
When I brought up the prospect of retirement with George, he told me that he, too, had been giving it some thought. But when I asked what he might do with his time, all he said was, “I don’t know yet.”
He was facing away as he spoke, toward the store window, with its charmless view of Coney Island Avenue and the auto-body shops and apartment buildings beyond. As usual, it was impossible to know what he was thinking. Nevertheless, it seems likely that, someday soon, he will wake in the morning and have no gates to open, no customers to greet, no shovels or wrenches or Gerber faucets to sell. All of it will be gone.
But not forgotten.