May 19, 2014



Yeah, I use a little hair spray.

Recently I was frustrated because the spray didn’t seem to be holding. Two spray containers were on the bathroom counter, and I was using the one labeled with the expensive, can’t-pronounce, designer name.

My wife buys hair spray in industrial-strength-size containers from a local cosmetologist, then fills the spray bottles as needed.

The other spray bottle on the counter had some off-brand generic name, and I didn’t even bother to try it. I was convinced that it was inferior because the label was unimpressive. I judged that the contents inside must not be very high quality.

Then one day I saw my wife use the cheap bottle.

She answered my puzzled look by explaining that the good stuff was in that bottle. The fancy-labeled bottle contained nothing but water.

People Labels

A long time ago, after graduating from Union College, I began a career in recreation with Jewish Community Centers (JCC). I was with JCCs for 10 years: three in St. Louis, two in Philadelphia, and five in San Diego.

The St. Louis JCC was an amazing place. We had the largest indoor and outdoor swimming pools in St. Louis, four softball diamonds, 13 handball/racquetball courts, two full gymnasiums, and a 12-acre campground on site.

Pro athletes worked out there. Members of the St. Louis Cardinals football team (before relocating to Arizona), the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team, and the St. Louis Hawks basketball team (before moving to Atlanta) were always on our courts, in the pool, or in my office. As the staff rookie I worked three nights a week, securing the physical education facilities at closing time, which was 10:00 p.m.

Every night I worked, a man named Charlie would enter the gym about 9:45 and start running laps. My colleagues had warned me about Charlie. He had an attitude, a problem with authority.

He was gruff, a loner, and was bound and determined to do things his way, including when he wanted to run laps. The rules were that activities stopped at 10:00, and everyone had 30 minutes to shower, dress, and be out by 10:30.

Except Charlie kept running after 10:00. I would holler, “Last lap,” or “Lights out in five minutes,” but he’d keep going.

When other members saw Charlie running after 10:00, they too wanted to stay “just a little longer” on the racquetball courts, or play “just one more little game” of H-O-R-S-E.

I couldn’t leave the building with Charlie still running. He was my responsibility, the building was my responsibility, and I was liable for both. Charlie was one of those fiftyish types who seemed a self-made man. Slightly balding, ruggedly handsome, extremely fit, he played volleyball with the older men, then swam or ran laps until the cows came home.

Word was that he, like so many other “J” members his age, had come to America from the Old Country, probably Poland, Hungary, or Germany.

Eventually Charlie and I were at odds. I hated to see him in the “J,” and he probably didn’t want to see me. Charlie wanted to run against the rules. I wanted to close up and go home.

Under the Surface

One night, as I was making final rounds through the locker room, making sure everyone was out, there was Charlie. He had finished early, for him, and was about to shower.

It seemed like one of those scenes out of a movie: the 23-year-old kid approaches the old veteran and ever-so-politely wants to know if he has offended the old guy, and asks to understand the reason for the hostility and the distance.

No one else was around; we were alone. Charlie walked toward me. I had no idea what he was going to do, and I regretted that I had said anything.

Charlie extended his hand. As I extended mine to shake his, he stopped me. Instead, he used his right hand to show me something on his left wrist. There, as Charlie Dubman brushed away the hair on his forearm, was his concentration camp number.

Charlie had been at Dachau. There his parents had been taken away from him, never to return. No one at the “J” had ever asked him about it before. He had faced death; and now no rule, no authority, could or would ever intimidate him again.

After that, Charlie arrived earlier and always finished by 10:00. I think he appreciated the fact that I cared enough to ask, to find out. I never told Charlie, but he could have run laps past midnight.

I would have waited.