A Mother's Selfless Act: The Pawnshops of Newark

by Barbara L. Rothschild


Along with the many bridal shops, musical instrument stores, and among any other of the diverse varieties of commercial establishments located in the Springfield Avenue section of Newark, there existed any number of pawnshops.

Recognized by their trademark three gold balls which hung over the entrance to the pawnshops, I distinctly recall one in particular, known as the William S. Rich pawnshop. I recall looking into the storefront windows, heralding the customer to come in to examine the many watches, jewelry, guitars, workshop tools, all manner of cameras, and items of any other description one could imagine. Within the shop, many of the items were usually tagged, along with the name of the person pawning the item. Thereafter followed the date of pawn, and the ultimate date of final pawn loan repayment or redemption of the item. The total debt to be satisfied by that last date, else the pawned item would be sacrificed and lost forever to the original owner. The lost article would then be placed up for sale to the general public. This would allow the pawn shop owner to recoup his loan, and garner his interest and profit through the sale of the item.

Being a child at the time, I did not have the vaguest idea of how the pawn shops operated, other than seeing many of the items described above, spread out within the shop. The pricier and more valuable items were placed behind what appeared to be a brass-like teller's cage, as recalled in an old fashioned bank. There, behind this partition, the pawn shop owner or employee would sit, dealing with his clients and their myriad and endless possessions to be used as collateral, in exchange for loan funding. The clients would approach this partition with a plea for funding to "tide them over," to help resolve whatever might be their personal tragedies and financial dilemmas. Typically worn around the neck of the pawnshop owner, hung a jeweler's loupe, similar to a lavaliere, at the end of a long, black cord, to enable the pawn shop owner or employee, to examine and monetarily evaluate the merchandise preferred for pawn.

The pawn shop told many tales of broken hearts, broken dreams, broken hopes, and in many cases, shattered lives. Going into one of these establishments did not evoke a "warm and fuzzy" feeling, if one considered the many unfortunate histories and circumstances of the many items offered for sale within. Nor were there any clues as to the sad tales surrounding the items, if it were possible, to be orally related by these very same pawned goods-for-sale, of the many hard sacrifices of their original owners. Undoubtedly, very many of these pawned items completely lined the walls and window cases of the pawn shops, to be "lost" forever, never to be regained by their original owners again. Dealing sometimes with unsophisticated clients on many occasions, some of the more unscrupulous pawn shop owners, (in fairness, there was also great honesty and sympathy among many pawn brokers as well,) would intentionally underestimate the value of the item offered up for pawn money loan. Unfortunately, in many cases,however, an amorally dishonest pawn shop owner might recognize the true value of a pawn, knowing the dire and often urgent need of the client for funds. The pawnbroker may even know the probability of certainty of loss of the item by the needy client, recognizing the history of the particular client in need, such as compulsive gamblers, folks behind on the rent, and the like. Unfortunately, in many instances, although illegal, some of the more unscrupulous pawn shop dealers would accept "hot" or stolen merchandise, giving the thief a fraction of the value of the item pawned, to be later "sold" at a great or greater profit. The colloquial term used to describe those people is, I believe, called a "fence."

So begins the story of a mother's selfless act........

Back in those many Newark years and school days ago, it was customary and required for young girls to wear white dresses at their elementary school graduation. For the more fortunate and wealthier family, this posed no problem to purchase the finest, most beautifully ornate and most costly garment, for their daughter to proudly wear and be admired in the elementary school graduation procession. To the strains of "Pomp and Circumstance", the girls, beaming in their beautiful and brand new white dresses, would slowly descend the downward slanting school auditorium aisle, moving and approaching forward to the stage area, sometimes partnered side-by-side with the co-graduating boys. The male counter parts in the procession, usually would be uncomfortably scowling, unhappy with the warmth of that auditorium, forced to wear their new suits, white shirts and ties, bought especially for this occasion. The parents, seated in the auditorium, and beaming with joy and satisfaction, would watch their progeny ascend the auditorium stage, their names to be called up to receive their individual grammar school diplomas,. In a sense yet today, the grammar school graduation denotes a coming-of-age, if you will, a certain end of childhood, and entry into adolescence.

Grammar school courses back in the day offered a sexist curriculum, in that young ladies pursued a class in what was known as "Home Ec", or otherwise, Home Economics. Boys would usually pursue a course in "Woodshop",or Industrial Arts, in which by the end of the semester or course, a simple wooden project would be produced by the student, usually a simple shelf or bookcase.

In the case of the girls, besides generalized cooking instruction and the preparation of simple foods,(such as apple sauce, etc.,) girls would later be allowed to communally enjoy the "fruits of their labors", in a dining room setting within the Home Ec area, whose purpose was also to teach young women how to "set the table", and demonstrate good manners while seated at the dinner table.

One area of the Home Ec course, also stressed the teaching of sewing skills, and with it, the operation of a sewing machine. Usually, the sewing instruction began in the second half of the semester, or at the Springtime term, going from January to June. Again, a simple sewing project would be assigned, (perhaps an apron or simple skirt or blouse,) the finished product being "modeled" by the girls at the end of the semester in a student "fashion show", featuring the young ladies wearing or demonstrating their creations.

Being one of the most indigent students attending school among the wealthy, it was my idea to adopt as my spring sewing project, the creation of the white dress which would ultimately become my graduation day garment. Of course, being an unrealistic and unsophisticated child, my ambitions and enthusiasm were high, but in reality, my skills were quite low. My mother, not having the funds to purchase a beautiful white dress for me, thought this an excellent idea, and thought perhaps she could help me create and complete the dress, in time for the graduation in June. The purchase of sheer white organdy material,( think the fabric and dry goods shop a few doors down from the Griffith Piano Company on Broad Street), would be an inexpensive alternative to the store bought dress, in order for me to experience the equal pride and happiness of the other classmates, during the graduation exercise. It was mother's kind way of concealing the sad fact of our family's misfortune and poverty, lest I appear at graduation in something lesser than the fortunate ones regaled in their Bamberger's, Haynes or even custom made and ordered graduation dresses. In my childish naiveté, I never realized the attempt on my dear mother's part to make me happy; she would always go out of her way to make me smile, always being cheerful, despite her many problems, always avoiding the mention and reality of our poverty in any way she could. She felt this would assure a somewhat happy and hopefully normal childhood for me, avoiding the true knowledge of what really was.

Needless to say, the dress was way beyond my or even mother's limited ability. A kindly neighbor who was an amateur seamstress, sympathized with my plight, and tried to come to my rescue, but the dress was so badly botched, that even the finest couturier, Mademoiselle Coco Chanel, herself, could not salvage it. The damage had been done: seams clumsily and unevenly sewn by me. Hems cut and sewn unevenly, too short here, and too long there....destroyed. In sum, a total disaster. So I cried, and mother cried along with me, not so much for the ruination of that fabric or the unsuccessful completion of that white dress, but for the fact concealing the truth that she could not afford to provide me with another graduation dress in time for the actual ceremony. Graduation Day was a mere week or so away. What to do?......

By the evening before Graduation Day, there was still no solution in sight, certainly no mystical appearance of that required white dress. I went to bed with tears in my eyes, and prayers on my lips, that I too, would be able to enjoy and cherish my special day, which now stood hours away, starting at 9 A. M. in that very familiar school auditorium. If only........

Upon arising the morning of the graduation....lo and behold, there lay a beautiful, beribboned and lacily delicate white graduation dress at the foot of my bed....the most gorgeous creation I could ever imagine!! Indeed, unknown to my young mind, mother had gone to pay a visit to the William S. Rich pawn shop, and had sacrificed in pawn the very wedding band placed on her hand, at her marriage to my late father. The golden sparkle of her treasured ring had magically turned into the dazzling beauty of that white graduation dress. I will never forget the sacrifice mother had made for my happiness. Somewhere in my home today, in some remote suitcase in the attic, there exists a photograph memorializing that special Graduation Day. Mother stands proudly next to me, beaming with pride and joy.....and me, wearing a great big smile of happiness and success, for all the other classmates to see, admire, and perhaps even envy, that singularly exquisite dress, with its many flounces and beautiful details. What a happy day that turned out to be!

Unfortunately and very sadly, mother passed away the following year, shortly following my 14th birthday. She passed away at far too young an age, suffering a cerebral hemorrhage, (a massive stroke), on the day of her 59th birthday. Father had also passed away six months previous to mother's passing, leaving me orphaned before my 15th birthday.

Many years have passed since that long ago Graduation Day, and mother's passing....almost 48 years now, to be exact. I am now a grandmother, myself. The memory of mother's sacrifice will remain vivid with me until the end of my days. To this very day, I cannot ever forget mother's sacrifice for me......a mother's selfless act, in the pawn shops of Newark, which took place so very long ago.


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