Here’s to Marvin “Hawk” Albom, the North American champion of all kibitzers. He left us this week, trailing behind him not only nine decades on earth but the lessons of a good life: Keep ‘em laughing, kick up your heels, and maybe even throw in a few yo-yo tricks.
He was great at each. He was part of that little minyan of street guys who latched onto each other early and held on. Never mind formal education, they were graduates of the University of the Streets.
Some were tin men, some were home improvement guys, some worked in the installment business. A few maybe did a little bookmaking, if truth be told, and almost all matriculated at Pimlico Race Course. The Hawk drove a cab, where the kibitz came in handy.
Kibitzing all the way – every day, often twice a day.
There they were, one afternoon some years back at Miller’s Deli at the Greenspring Shopping Center, maybe a dozen of them, and the Hawk at the heart of the conversation.
“We’re just sitting here and kibitzing and watching the girls go by,” he said. He was 76.
“Do they watch back?” somebody asked.
“Oh, sure,” the Hawk said. “Especially when I say, ‘Honey, I want to buy you a house.’”
The words were said with a laugh. He was married for more than half a century to Yetta, who died more than a decade ago. In his son Ronnie’s eulogy this week at Sol Levinson’s, Ronnie mentioned what a terrific marriage they had, and the Hawk’s enduring grief over her loss.
He covered his private loss with the public kibitz.
“Good news,” he said one time. A bunch of the guys were nursing coffees at Miller’s. “My doctor says if I stop smoking right now, I can have five extra years in the nursing home.”
“Don’t do anything hasty,” said Lester Brutzkus. It was that kind of give-and-take among the whole bunch.
There they were, the usual gang such as Frank Landsman, Harold Tabb, Phil Rosenberg, Manny Magram, Dave Hoff, Hal Lipsitz, Jerry Cohen, Leon Goldberg, Morris Zweigel, Nathan “Nookie the Bookie” Brown, Dave “Poopsie” Zandick, Harry “Hold the Phone” Landsman and Leon Goldberg, who’d walk into Miller’s and holler the eternal question, “Who’s finished eating? I’ll take what’s left.”
The conversations had a sweet, wry choreography. Set-up, punch line. Set-up, punch line. These guys knew each other by family history, by loves and hates, by strength and weakness.
They knew the Hawk as a guy who never capitulated to the year’s infirmities. Always, he had the joke. Asked how he was doing, he’d kick up his heels like a Rockette. There’s your answer, he’d imply. And then he’d have another joke, or the latest trick he’d picked up on his yo-yo. Anything to entertain.
And, around the table every day, lingering over a meal, grabbing a laugh, nurturing their time together.
“We made our fortunes,” the Hawk wisecracked one day. “But when the check comes for a buck and a half, you never saw so many guys run so fast.”
A joke, that’s all. The Hawk had a million of ‘em.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” has just been re-issued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.