M. Berger Co.

If I had been asked to describe my family’s business growing up, I would have said, “Industrial hardware.” It was a catch-all phrase for a catch-all business. M. Berger Co. sold anything it could. In the mid-1980s, in Pittsburgh, that meant hoses mainly. In my 10-year-old mind, I pictured green garden hose, but that wasn’t us. We sold suction hose and discharge hose; air hose and steam hose; four-inch fire hose and—our specialty, used to dredge harbors—sand hose. For a brief time when Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” raged the charts, we even sold garden hose cut into belts for petite waists and painted in a rainbow of colors that suited the Day-Glo ’80s. But the Boss Belt never took off. It was just one of various efforts over the years to reinvent a business that, like the city in which it had prospered for so long, was figuring out how to survive.

 

A year after my grandparents eloped at age 19, they left Ohio and the Great Depression for a better life. Pittsburgh was their promised land.

Economic hardship had bankrupted my great-grandfather’s burlap bag business. Thirty years of immigrant effort, suddenly for naught. My grandfather’s quick progression from a son of the middle class to poverty meant he had no money to pay for tuition at Ohio State’s law school. In the summer of 1932, though, Meyer Berger, my grandfather, proved he could make a profit even in the worst of times. Trying his own hand selling burlap bags, he took a commission-based, pay-your-own-way sales job and headed to the rich, black muck country of northwestern Ohio, where the lowly onion had given farmers a bumper crop. Meyer quickly realized that the best way to sell burlap bags to farmers would be to find buyers for onions.

He proposed to the A & P buying office in Cleveland a sales promotion: a 25-pound bag of onions for 25 cents. Soon he had an order for 5,000 bags to be delivered in one week late that October. Once an onion farmer agreed to sell him the onions at a quarter-cent per pound, he knew he had a shidach, a “marriage.” When harvest time came, Meyer hitched a ride downstate, staying with the farmer and helping him and his family pack and load 125,000 pounds of onions into burlap bags. The $100 he cleared lasted him until the banks closed the following March. Newly married and unable to afford his last semester, he left school without a degree (in part because he refused ROTC training). His liberal ideals and belief in the justice system had led him to law, but pragmatism landed him in business. Work, to Meyer Berger, meant selling something. While his stint as an onion entrepreneur was over, his career as a middleman had just begun.

After my grandparents moved to Pittsburgh, where no one would know how poor they were, Meyer took to the road, selling patent drugs and drug store notions in nearby coal mining towns: bandages, brooms, irons, razor blades. A foot lotion made by a relative in his bathtub. Money remained tight. Meyer slept in his Pontiac coupe only to return to the apartment and find that the utility company had shut off the gas. He missed meals; missed his wife, Merle, and their son, Michael, born in 1935. Pressure to make ends meet manifested as an interminable migraine. Meyer’s sinuses clogged; his eyes tightened and pulsed.

It took time, but Meyer eventually developed a stable of customers charmed by the confident young salesman with the swept-back hair and bright blue eyes. These loyal customers became a base upon which the family grew with the addition of my mother, Susan. Their savings grew, too, and on Jan. 29, 1945, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania hereby certified that Meyer Berger and Merle N. Berger could conduct business. M. Berger Co. was born.

 

My mom eyed me in the dressing mirror as the tailor picked the last stray threads from my cuffed leg. When my grandfather died in 1997, I inherited his tailor-made suits, cut from wool and silk, that he purchased during one of his buying trips to London after the war. The suits were just part of the spoils of his many successes, and with a few alterations, they fit me almost perfectly. My mother gasped and shook her head.

“You always did look so much like your grandfather,” she said.

As the youngest in my family, I was no stranger to hand-me-downs. But my cousin’s underwear, these were not. The pinstriped suits were trim and form-fitting, very 1960s and, in 1998, on the verge of being in vogue again. My grandfather, in a subtle design touch, had asked his tailor to add an extra belt loop over the pants button so that the belt buckle would be worn on the hip, visible only when he was in thoughtful repose, his hand in his trouser pocket, parting open his jacket. As I mimicked the motion, I saw Meyer Berger in my reflection. Now that I was wearing his suit, I understood why he swaggered when he walked. It was a persuasive aesthetic, a sharp suit cut against a lean body, with a tightness in the crotch that forced you to stand upright. I could see how this confidence, channeled into his blend of humor and optimism, convinced others to buy or sell, to give money for this or that political campaign, or to join him in the family business.

“You’ll never be able to afford a suit like that,” my mom said, interrupting my reverie.

A year out of college, with a degree in religion, I was working on a dairy farm, making $800 a month. The suit was worth $5,000.

It wasn’t just the suit’s cost that put it out of reach. It was “a suit like that.” Custom-made and one of a kind, it was a status symbol of the self-made man, a man whose life reflected the times in which he lived. Meyer Berger’s success gave him credibility because it was achieved on his own terms, without the benefit of his dad’s business or a college degree. Meyer’s success came without the aid of a hand-me-down. He conquered the Depression by virtue of youth and hunger, and he rode the great boom of the postwar years in the city that became synonymous with the industrial strength of the nation.

 

When the troops came home from World War II, several months after M. Berger Co. was born, they brought with them hope, victory and a seemingly endless supply of Alka Seltzer. Even as peace broke out, there persisted the fear that the country would slip back into the Depression out of which the war industries had taken it. In an effervescent moment, a simple yet lucrative idea bubbled to the surface of Meyer’s mind: war surplus. Goods that had been scarce for years were about to flood a ravenous market. Meyer sold his taciturn banker at Washington Trust Company of Pittsburgh on the simplicity of his business plan: If it was cheap and in large supply, he’d buy it. From the War Assets Administration, established to sell the spoils of war and the largesse of inefficient factories, Meyer bought 100,000 multi-colored cotton signal flags and sold them piecemeal to used car lots. To pharmacies, he sold catgut surgical sutures, innumerable tubes of Palmolive shaving cream and razor blades. Thousands of rolls of photographic film, seized by Allied forces as enemy property, ended up in the dexterous hands of young Michael, whose brown hair, blue eyes and slight overbite resembled his father’s. Michael spent Saturdays rolling the film into boxes to be sold individually. Meyer bought enough Alka Seltzer to force the company, concerned about getting undercut by its own product, to buy back the remaining surplus and dump it—plop plop fizz fizz—into a French harbor.

By the end of 1945, Meyer had tripled his start-up capital. Business soared, and the family moved twice in four years, to ever more exclusive addresses, settling finally on an eight-room, white brick Georgian on the top of verdant Fair Oaks Street. News of the family’s two-week vacations in Florida appeared in the society pages of The Jewish Criterion. Michael and Susan attended private high schools, Susan proving herself worthy of taking one of the spaces allotted to Jewish kids by climbing to the top of her class.

My grandfather was not alone in his success. Elsewhere in Pittsburgh, the economic tide was rising for Jewish businessmen like him, men whose foregone exclusion from corporate America served only to better focus their entrepreneurial energy. Rewarded for capitalizing on their opportunities, they enjoyed a patriotism born from the feeling that they had as much right to a better future as anyone else in America.

Meyer could see this rising tide in the steady growth in membership at his Jewish country club; in the fine suits, dresses and jewelry worn during the High Holy Days at Rodef Shalom Synagogue; and in the elegant brick homes behind neat-trimmed lawns in the upscale section of Squirrel Hill.

He could see it, too, on lower Fifth Avenue, in the heart of the Jewish wholesalers’ district, where business flourished and where many of his business associates were located. The Avenue, home to the Washington Trust Company of Pittsburgh, the bank that served many of the Jewish community’s businessmen, was both a starting point and a destination. It was where my uncle, at 16, made his first sales call. By a quirk of economic fate, it was also the neighborhood where my own father would spend a quarter of a century battling the social and economic decay wrought by the good intentions of city planners.

In the early 1950s, the flat, half-mile stretch of the Avenue packed scores of wholesalers into narrow brick row buildings like so many boxes of rubber galoshes stacked floor to ceiling. It was a place of dust and bulk goods, where middlemen wearing suits sold boots, gloves and plumbing supplies packed by the gross and carried away by chutes and freight elevators.

The Avenue was a destination for children who watched ticker-tape parades through coal dust-covered windows and for families who made Sunday excursions from the iron and steel towns in the countryside to purchase kosher meats, dry goods and glassware wrapped in brown paper and tied with twine. It was where the salesmen gathered after a day off, before setting out for a week on the road, a week that ended Fridays at sundown when their wives lit Shabbat candles.

The Avenue was a starting point for immigrants whose stories hewed to a similar line. Like my great-grandparents, they had fled the pogroms and poverty of Eastern European ghettos. They came to America, peddled goods, bundled their optimism with their savings and started businesses carried on by their children.

Shortly after Michael got his driver’s license, Meyer sent him to the Avenue to meet with the bank’s vice president, Buck Gefsky, who would give him a list of customers to whom Michael would sell knockoff metal cigarette lighters made in Japan.

“Now, remember,” Meyer said, opening a box that contained 144 shiny, rectangular lighters, each one snugly encased in its own cardboard pod. “You’re selling Ronson-type lighters; you can’t say Ronson because they’re not made by Ronson. But they’re just as good as the real thing, only half the price.”

Michael put on a coat and tie like he did every morning before school. The sample lighter he took with him felt warm and solid in his hand. He lit it with the press of his thumb. “Just like the real thing,” he thought. Click. Fire.

Michael drove his mother’s Chevy to the Avenue. He passed the showrooms of Robert E. Comins Co. displaying cases full of rubber boots. Comins, with whom Meyer would sometimes buy a lot or two of factory seconds, had been set up on the Avenue by his father-in-law, a Lithuanian immigrant who had started a hosiery business on the Avenue in 1907.

Michael passed the narrow, five-story warehouse of Trau & Loevner, a haberdashery whose showcases displayed menswear: suspenders, garters, underwear, robes, pajamas, sweaters, knit shirts and auto wear. This business had grown out of the suitcase of Phillip Loevner, an Austro-Hungarian immigrant who peddled underwear from East Liberty to Etna. Loevner sold long- and short-sleeved union suits, as well as ribbed shirts and drawers, in cream, red and random colors; with twin buttons or triplets; in wool or cotton. This was the turn of the century, before indoor heating became ubiquitous, when underwear was, if not a hot commodity, then at least a warm one.

Michael passed these businesses, fixtures on the Avenue for so long that families could plot their genealogies by invoices and bills of lading. He parallel parked in front of Al Rice’s restaurant, where the regulars came in equal numbers to eat corned beef sandwiches and to place bets on a numbers game in the backroom pool hall. Michael crossed the street.

Washington Mutual Trust was the financial center of the wholesalers’ district, and like everything else on the Avenue, the bank was tired and simple. Clerks keeping tabs on outstanding loans occupied dim offices. Michael felt a rush of excitement as he, son of Meyer Berger, was ushered directly into the bank vice president’s office.

“The reason they need these cigarette lighters, Michael, is they need a gift for Chanukah or the High Holy Days,” said Buck Gefsky. Wanting to help out the son of a salesman in whom the bank had great faith, Gefsky explained the logic of Michael’s sales pitch. “Remember, Mike, they need to be a gross. If you can’t sell a gross, you gotta upcharge, like 5 percent. ‘Oh, I only need 70; I only need a dozen.’ What are you going to say? You’re going to say, ‘Well, I’m sorry. That’s a 5 percent upcharge; we pack ’em by the gross.’”

Michael nodded. The lighter slipped about his sweaty hand. The meeting was brief; the list of customers, long. The summer was even longer as Michael sold up the Avenue and across the city. He sold lighters to middlemen who had made their livings selling scrap aluminum or waste rags, working his sales pitch into profits for the family business.

“You can buy a Ronson lighter for $5, but we have Ronson-type lighters,” Michael would say, setting a sample lighter upright on the counter and taking out an order pad. “They’re silver, just as beautiful and only $2.50. And since you are giving these away, why buy the expensive one? These are just as nice. People can use them just as easily, and you will make just as many friends.”

 

Thanks to the success of the family business, I graduated from college debt free. Drawn to the environmental and social wisdom of small farms, I spent my days engaged in the yoga of stacking hay bales on a dairy farm and school run by Catholic nuns. I prided myself in being able to distinguish between red clover and alfalfa. Feed-Lot Magazine became my reading of choice during coffee breaks. “If you don’t start out liberal, you end up Neanderthal,” my grandfather used to joke. As a liberal activist, Meyer was an idealist like me, though as a businessman, he was conservative, pragmatic and risk-averse. The business was a way to finance endeavors he valued more highly than buying and selling hose. When our family gathered for Chinese food Sunday nights, we spoke of Democratic politics, not diesel compressors. The family business was an identity, but it didn’t define us. As much as my grandfather hoped for a successor to the business, mostly he wanted his grandchildren to pursue the convictions of their consciences.

My mother thought differently. We were in downtown Pittsburgh in 1998, dropping off clothing at a thrift store, when the unresolved conversation about “plans for my future” inevitably came up.

“I think I raised you to be too idealistic,” my mom said.

I had never said as much, but I had always known farming was going to be a temporary occupation. I’d like to think it was my need for greater intellectual stimulation, but the truth was that I was allergic to hay.

My dad had never asked me to join the business though I knew that if I showed genuine interest, he would welcome me. My mom, on the other hand, thought she had given birth to a lawyer.

“A mouth like yours is a terrible thing to waste” was the one-liner she used on me when conversation turned into cross-examination.

My mom said she worried I wouldn’t make enough money to afford a lifestyle like the one my sister and I had grown up enjoying. She worried I didn’t understand how expensive private school was. I sensed there was more to her worry than my idealism.

“Are you upset because you can’t brag to your friends that your son works on a farm?” I asked.

She surprised me with her candor. Yes, she said, she was.

What I perceived as her shallowness nonetheless illuminated a larger truth about myself: I wanted to make my parents proud as much as I wanted to make my own mark on the world. I just didn’t know how. M. Berger, to me, was one possible occupation among many—a safety net, even, in the same way law school was for many of my classmates, who had no better idea of what they wanted to do for a living. Unlike law school, though, the business was a gift from my family to me, painstakingly built over 50 years. As the last person in the line of succession, I felt an obligation not to let that gift slip past me into oblivion. Why couldn’t I channel my personal ideals, as my grandfather had done, through the rich vein of the family business?

 

Meyer’s own father had always said education would set you free, and though not getting a college degree had never hindered Meyer’s own progress (a fact that gave him some pride), he passed the value onto his children, both of whom attended Ivy League schools.

Michael was a sophomore at Harvard when his roommate decided he’d rather spend an afternoon making out with a Wellesley girl than sitting in the basement of the Fogg Art Museum, taking Fine Arts 13. So Michael covered for him. The teacher dimmed the lights and, using a pointer, identified the hidden meanings of treasures projected on the screen. The effect was immediate. Michael decided to major in art history.

When the subject of life after school came up, Michael told his father he was interested in pursuing a career in the art world. M. Berger Co. was growing, though, and Meyer needed help. He had recently hired a secretary—a woman who would work for him until her death 40 years later—and a second employee, Joe Marinzel, a Polish contractor who knew enough about hoses, compressors and pumps to help lead the business into the direction of buying and selling them.

Late in his junior year, Michael felt troubled. He wasn’t sure by what exactly; typical college stuff, he thought—girls, roommates, family. He found the quiet he needed to temper his unease in the Fogg Art Museum. Michael tilted his head as he studied the Rembrandt etchings. In the print made from the soft metal was “Abraham’s Sacrifice,” a story Michael had listened to during High Holy Days but that now spoke to him through art. The etching shows the very moment when Abraham’s arm is cocked, ready to plunge his dagger into his son’s neck. Rembrandt’s cross-hatching, his dashes and flecks, create a dark, textured anguish on Abraham’s face. The beatific angel, meanwhile, appears out of the darkness on Mount Moriah to stay the execution. Unlike in most depictions, Isaac is not bound. He kneels over the altar. He submits to the will of his father. In the fury of Rembrandt’s etchings, Michael sensed an intellectual calling in art, but in that moment, staring at Isaac, he also found peace.

After graduation, Michael had many options, but like those in the family who would graduate a generation later, he didn’t know what to do with them. Meyer listened as Michael laid out the possibilities. Then he pointed out that Michael could pursue art. He could study for a graduate degree and work in a museum as a curator. Or he could help build up the family business and, with the freedom money afforded, become an art collector. Increasingly, Meyer himself was taking his business profits and investing them in politics. He funded candidates who backed liberal causes and used his salesmanship to get others to do the same. In 1960, he attended his first Democratic convention, starting a quadrennial tradition that would continue until 1992 when I went with my grandfather, by then a notable party fundraiser, to see Bill Clinton receive the nomination in Madison Square Garden. My grandparents’ house became a port of call for influential Democrats, from Arthur Schlesinger Jr. to Hubert Humphrey, when they came to Pittsburgh. Presidents John F. Kennedy and Jimmy Carter became permanent fixtures on the walls of my grandparents’ house in photos taken with Meyer smiling at their side.

Admittedly, Michael could see a certain aesthetic beauty in six-inch hose, especially if you could sell it at a 100-percent markup and use the profit to buy a pastel piece by Fernando Botero. The logic of Meyer’s enthusiasm sold Michael, who joined his father in the business, becoming vice president in charge of sales and marketing. He shared a small office with Marinzel in a warehouse Meyer had bought on the bluffs overlooking the Monongahela River.

“Get your fuckin’ shit together!” Marinzel would yell in a typical rant at a supplier. “You get that goddamn compressor over here right now. Don’t give me that shit! I don’t give a fuck about your wife not fucking making you breakfast!”

This was the post-graduate education of Michael Berger, the only Harvard graduate he knew in government surplus.

By 1958, the year Michael joined M. Berger Co., a century of economic good times in Pittsburgh had come to an end. The city’s rise as an industrial power had peaked along with its population. Just after World War II, 676,000 people lived in the city’s 60 square miles, infusing its neighborhoods with the flavors and sounds of the homes from which they had emigrated. Among the most vibrant was the neighborhood bordering the Avenue. The Hill District had been home, first, to freed slaves brought from Virginia and, subsequently, to Jews, Italians, Syrians, Greeks and Poles, eventually blossoming into Little Harlem, one of the most vibrant centers of African-American life in the country.

Then the decline set in. Suburbs, smog, inefficiently run mining and steel companies, and a shift away from river and rail transportation undermined the city’s economic might. Urban planners and politicians came to see the obsolete warehouses, derelict land and the haphazard neighborhoods that had grown around them as threatening. The Hill District became the object of their visions of renewal.

As early as 1943, city councilman George E. Evans had argued in favor of leveling the neighborhood. “Approximately 90 percent of the buildings in the area are substandard and have long outlived their usefulness,” he wrote, “and so there would be no social loss if they were all destroyed.”

City officials revitalized these neighborhoods the way a wrathful God did during the time of Noah. Instead of a flood, they used a wrecking ball. By 1960, when Pittsburgh’s population fell—for the first time in its recorded history—to 604,000, the city had razed 80 blocks and relocated 416 businesses and 8,000 mostly black residents, according to newspaper reports at the time. A limb of the city had been hacked off, only to leave neighboring communities with an infection. Warehouses sat empty and neglected. Businesses and residents fled.

Robert E. Comins, the rubber footwear wholesaler, relocated after the city knocked his building down. Deciding it was time to diversify their business, Trau & Loevner took Hanes undershirts and printed “Pitt,” “Love” and “Equality” on them. Then they sold their building—“gave it away” is how they described it—and left the Avenue.

Meyer, though, bought five warehouses, spreading his wealth across the city’s three rivers. He would move M. Berger Co. to a corrugated steel warehouse on the South Side, but his most prized acquisitions were two steel- and timber-framed brick warehouses just off the Avenue, blocks from the wrecking ball’s reach. Like his industrial supplies, Meyer’s new buildings were the leftover surplus of dead and dying businesses, the physical remnants of once prominent families.

There was a steep cost to these bargain prices. The same economic forces eroding the hegemony of steel titans would be no less sparing of a small, family-owned industrial supplies company.

 

In the summer of 1968, with a doctorate in metallurgy and a job offer from Westinghouse, my dad left England for Pittsburgh. Peter Smerd bought a Dodge Dart and commuted to a suburban office park in Monroeville, 20 minutes outside the city. With the wonderment of a postwar child raised on rations, he eyed the five flavors of toothpastes and the dozen cereal brands at his local Giant Eagle. Earlier that year, race riots sparked by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. had ravaged the Hill and fueled Peter’s interest in the political fervor that gripped the country. At a rally for anti-war presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy, Peter, with his distinguished British accent, wide smile and powder-blue eyes, met Susan Berger, a freckled red head who seemed to be at the center of conversation.

Three years later, Peter and Susan married in the house on Fair Oaks, where art and antiques showed off the Berger family’s success. It was Merle’s era of yellow and white decor. Striped damask lined the dining room walls. White slips covered the living room furniture. Yellow drapes framed the windows. There was a Botero painting on the landing; a Milton Avery hung above the fireplace. A brass-inlaid mahogany table with turned and fluted legs stood in the living room where the civil ceremony occurred. A year later, my sister was born. My dad’s career developing nuclear fuels took the family to Germany, where I was born, and then to Connecticut. When Meyer got wind that my dad was thinking of starting his own business, he hopped a flight to Hartford to try to convince him to join M. Berger instead. Not wanting to blurt out his intentions, he brought Grandma along and made it into a family trip. After all, family was his business. That’s what he was selling.

My grandparents stood in our flagstone foyer in West Hartford, dressed in their tailor-made finery. In the pocket of Meyer’s camel-haired sports coat sat a jaunty red silk handkerchief, like so many of the thousands of signal flags he had bought low and sold high to gas stations wanting to announce a free car wash with a fill-up. A smile beamed forth his perennial optimism. A good salesman sells laughs, you see; he’s got to make himself well liked. Sitting beside Peter, Meyer talked of the brick warehouses off the Avenue and his plans to turn them into high-tech office space. Meyer wanted to know if Peter would join him. Peter felt drawn into the orb of enthusiasm that Meyer created around his ideas. Working together, Peter felt they could fill the warehouses with tenants in a couple of years.

So, in the summer of 1985, we moved to Pittsburgh. The city’s population had fallen to 400,000, and it showed. Along the Avenue, razed buildings had become parking lots. Prostitutes and drug dealers peddled their wares from abandoned corners. The Jewish wholesalers had been replaced by businesses like Ace’s Deuces Lounge Bar, Mr. Ribbs and China Wok. The Catholic institutions of Mercy Hospital and Duquesne University anchored the neighborhood and kept it from slipping into complete abeyance.

As a welcoming present, Meyer bought Peter a new suit. Equally wing-tipped and pinstriped, the two stood on the corner of Forbes Avenue and Pride Street, assessing the state of a warehouse Meyer had bought 20 years earlier. Peter adjusted the wide-framed glasses that sat on his round and ruddy face. There was no lobby or proper entrance. Mercy Hospital’s accounts receivable department, the building’s only tenant, had cobbled out a maze of cubicles under a haze of cigarette smoke backlit by fluorescent bulbs. Old mechanical calculators, the size of televisions, whirred away. On another floor, fallen ceiling tiles exposed live wires. Dusty metal desks and half-open file cabinets held their remains halfheartedly. The air was hot and dirty. It was going to take a lot longer to fill the warehouses than Peter had expected.

 

As Meyer turned his attention to real estate, Michael took control of M. Berger Co.’s day-to-day operations. Jack Stanley was his top salesman and right-hand man.

Originally Jack Stanley Goldberg from Squirrel Hill, Jack Stanley was a drinker, smoker and sweet-talker. He had been a runner for an auto parts store across the street when Michael decided his knowledge of compressors, drills and generators would make him a better salesman than errand boy. He looked ill at ease in a shirt and tie, and the first time he picked up the phone, his hand shook. But he was a born salesman. He had saykhel, “smarts,” and he made selling fun.

“Ok, whaddaya got in the hopper. What’s cooking?” Michael would say to his rotating roster of three or four salesmen.

The one constant was Jack Stanley, whose contributions always stood out. “I got a guy in Carolina who needs some sand suction hose,” he said one time.

“This guy,” Jack said, shaking his head, “he sucks crab off the ocean floor, and he needs suction hose. And, uh, I can get him to give us a case of crab, you know, in cans, 100 percent. How many cases should I get?”

“Ok, sure, Jack,” Michael would say. “Get a couple of cases, and give him a length of hose.”

That was gorgeous stuff, a perk in a business where relationships were personal and you’d make deals just to keep customers happy. Times had changed, though. The days of the middleman were coming to a swift close. Several years earlier, Trau & Loevner had exited the haberdashery business completely and brought in the younger generation to run the printed T-shirt business. The Comins family sold their rubber footwear business in 1988, just as the Wal-Marts and Targets of the world were putting the squeeze on the mom-and-pop stores that were the Comins’ customers.

By the late 1980s, cheap surplus goods had begun to dry up as factories became more efficient and as other middlemen got in on the action. You could no longer go to the lot of a scrap dealer to buy six heavy-duty compressors and discover 500 automatic shoe-shine machines that would be perfect for airports and train stations across the country. Demand had also shrunk. For 15 years, Michael had one customer who came every two weeks in his little white pickup, bought some product and took it out to the steel mills. He was the middleman’s middleman. One month, he simply stopped showing up, never to be heard from again.

In his windowless, back corner office at M. Berger Co., Michael met with Jack, who was in his 50s but still had plenty of deals left in him, to go over the ever-declining sales figures.

“Jack, it’s your responsibility,” Michael said. “You got to get those sales up.”

Here, Michael could hear his father talking: Keep your eye on the ball, he had said. It was an afternoon in 1967, and Michael had wanted to knock off work early for the big night ahead, his first gallery opening. He had been working at M. Berger Co. for 10 years and felt his perfect attendance record had earned him an afternoon off. Keep your eye on the ball, Meyer had said. Michael left anyway. Girls wore slinky evening gowns. Michael uncorked the champagne. The opening of the Michael Berger Art Gallery was a hit.

Years later, it became clear to Michael that the gallery’s success was a sign that he should have spent his youth pursuing his dream of becoming the director of a museum somewhere—in Pittsburgh, Detroit or possibly Chicago. Soon after the opening, Michael married. In 1969, my cousin Mark was born. By then, Michael’s involvement with the business was too deep to pursue other careers.

Twenty years later, Meyer’s words—“Keep your eye on the ball”—came out of Michael’s mouth. Keep your eye on the ball, Jack.

“What are you going to do, Jack?” Michael said. “What are you gonna do? To get that sale?”

The talkative, ebullient Jack remained silent. He closed his eyes and lowered his head as if to think of something to say. Then he slumped over and died.

 

A small business is a vulnerable organism, easily buoyed or sunk by shifts in economic tides. The death of Jack Stanley became a flashpoint in an enduring battle to keep the industrial supply company afloat. Michael tried replacing his top salesman but discovered others either couldn’t pull their weight or, in the case of one morbidly obese manager for whom that would have been an unrealistic expectation, stole from the business. The phrase “soldiering on” went through Michael’s head, but in his heart, he knew the business was dead.

Unbeknown to Michael, Meyer asked my cousin to join the business. It was the early 1990s, and Mark Berger, whose initials embodied the family’s hope that he would work for M. Berger Co. one day, said he wanted to make documentary films. He wanted to change the world. Meyer told him what he had told Michael years earlier, that the business allowed him to do just that in politics. Meyer’s smile, exaggerated slightly by his overbite, made him quite agreeable. Mark felt himself wanting to agree, but he told Meyer no. Mark was never asked to join the business again, by Meyer or by Michael.

In 1993, after nearly 50 years, Meyer and Michael sold M. Berger Co. like so many of the surplus goods that had once made it so successful—at a steep discount. A sense of relief was mixed with sadness as Michael saw his employees walk across the scuffed linoleum and out of the office. Michael all but retired to his second career and original passion, buying and selling fine art. By joining the business, he had taken on the responsibilities he thought came with being the oldest child. Meyer was wrong, though, Michael thought: he could have made just as much money in art.

Meyer, always one to look ahead, had by then focused his own attention almost exclusively on his pet political projects. He had long said Pittsburgh’s future was not industrial, but high-tech, and two years earlier, he had begun championing an effort to bring high-speed, magnetically levitated trains to the region. He imagined that the buzz of maglev would vault Pittsburgh back to international prominence. He had a personal interest in the matter, too; what he liked to say of others whose business sense he admired—“He’s no dummy”—was something he could have easily said about himself. Appointed as chairman of the governor of Pennsylvania’s maglev taskforce, Meyer envisioned a new transit system that would have its terminus on a beautiful plot of land on the banks of the Monongahela River, right across from downtown Pittsburgh. The land he had in mind was his own.

Meyer’s dreams for maglev, however, faded as quickly as his memory. By 1996, a series of mini-strokes had left him hunched in a wheelchair, unable to care for himself. The last moment of real clarity I ever witnessed came one evening after a small stroke left him slumped over in a bowl of matzo ball soup. Hours later, in the local emergency room, an overzealous resident shouted questions in Meyer’s face in an effort to determine the extent of his brain damage. Meyer did not respond when asked to identify the date or his location, but when the resident held up a pen and, in a tone that suggested Meyer was deaf, asked him to explain what one did with it, Meyer reclaimed, for a brief and final moment, the humor that had served him so well in business. He opened his eyes, lifted his head and, in a voice all his own, said: “You shove it up your keister.”

 

Of the family business, only the real estate remains.

It took 25 years, but Dad finally filled the two brick warehouses just off the Avenue. The two buildings were washed of their grime and stripped down to show their raw beauty. One of them contains a pathology lab as well as your more typical desk-and-computer offices. Prostitutes still flash our maintenance man when he drives to the building in the middle of the night to respond to the burglary alarm, but the neighborhood, Dad says, sharing Meyer’s optimism, may yet be on the rise. The hockey team’s new arena may spur development nearby, and the houses that were wrecked 50 years ago are beginning to be rebuilt. The rate of the city’s population decline has finally slowed.

Meyer beat the odds when he convinced my uncle and my father to return to Pittsburgh to work in the family business. Two-thirds of family-owned businesses don’t survive into the second generation. Only 12 percent make it into the hands of the third. Supported by the business, my cousin, sister and I all left Pittsburgh for college, just as our parents did a generation earlier. Unlike them, we have not returned.

After the farm, I worked in Kathmandu, Nepal, where, as a college student, I had lived for a year with Tibetan refugees. Living once again outside the country, far from the locus of my family and the pull of the family business, I followed my own passion, a desire to understand the world around me and then tell its stories.

Dad has said I can still join the business; I just need to get experience elsewhere first. What he means is I should find something I believe in. The important thing is to commit.

The suits I inherited from my grandfather now hang in my closet in New York, where I work as a journalist. I’ve taken good care of them, but they have begun to show their years. The day will soon come when I will have to discard them. The navy suit with the light blue pinstripes will be the first to go; the knees are nearly threadbare. Then the black suit will follow; its red pinstripes are fading fast, receding, like my grandfather himself and the city that made him, into memory.

Author Bio

Jeremy Smerd

Jeremy Smerd lives and works as a journalist in New York City. He graduated from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and... read more