Saturday, April 20, 2019

Robbie outside Grand & Essex.

Robbie, heart to heart with Shia.

Robbie with friends.

Robbie with his birthday cake in the store.

Robbie and Yossie.

There are most definitely people who knew Robbie longer, better, deeper than I did. His family can tell stories of growing up with Robbie; Robbie as a big brother, a beloved uncle and even how devoted a son he was. There are those who were his friends for 10, 20, 30 and 40+ years with many a tale to tell. I can’t do that. What I can do is share what Robbie meant to all of us at Grand & Essex. And I hope I can do justice to that.

Early on, when I started working at Grand & Essex, I thought Robbie was just one of us. One of the many employees who go to their jobs, put in a full day of work and go home. While most of us are happy to have a job, happy if we kind of like our jobs and uber lucky if we really love our jobs and have bosses who appreciate us, I soon realized there was something different in Robbie’s case. It became very apparent to me that Robbie loved working at Grand & Essex, loved his bosses/the owners, and what was even more remarkable was how much the owners, as well as the rest of the staff, loved Robbie.

Robbie and I “shared an office.” We both had our “makom kavua,” our designated spots, in Little Italy. This gave me a special view of Robbie and the various relationships he shared.

Robbie was the unofficial mayor of Grand & Essex. With his spot by the entrance to Little Italy he was there to greet us when we came to work as well as customers coming and going. It was where he waited to be tasked with his jobs of the day. Robbie was ready to help in whatever ways he could. He was happy to be there and be part of the fabric of the day-to-day goings-on to help make it another successful day at Grand & Essex.

Robbie would often say to me, “Mali, do you know Rabbi Yale Butler? He made my shidduch here at the store.” (Sidebar: Rabbi Butler also made my shidduch with G&E, but that amazing story of hashgacha pratit can fill a whole article on its own!). I came to understand the reason Robbie told me this so often was because he was so appreciative and happy to be working at Grand & Essex. He loved the camaraderie and close relationships he shared with the owners, staff and all the customers.

Just as people came to the store to pick up their weekly groceries, they also made sure to stop by to say hello to Robbie, check in on him and catch up a bit. They would ask about him and he was always asking after them and their families. These were people I believed to have known Robbie from the early days, or through his brother, Rabbi Duvie Weiss, or through his sister, Karen Wagner. I thought he must know them from his days growing up together in Brooklyn, New York, or from his later home in Fort Lee. And while that was the case for many, I recently came to learn that a lot of them only got to know Robbie when he started working in the store. What began as Robbie greeting them when they passed by turned into caring friendships over the years. I only learned this after Robbie passed away. People shared this either with me or on Facebook. I never would have known just judging from their interactions in the store. They all looked like they had been friends for years. And because of our “shared office” I could also hear snippets of conversations that Robbie had on the phone. I’d laugh and thank God I was not the customer service agent on the other end of the line who messed up! I’d be intrigued with all the times Robbie checked on the stock market and I’d take note of new restaurants he was critiquing. (Robbie became my personal Zagat’s guide!). But the one thing I would hear often and was always touched by was how many times I heard Robbie signing off with “I love you.” To me, Robbie was a typical guy’s guy, with that typical kind of New York-y persona. While that was what you saw on the outside, ever so slightly below the surface he was really just a very warm and loving friend, son, brother and uncle. Robbie was not ashamed to share his feelings with those who meant so much to him.

Then there were the friendships Robbie had with all of us, his fellow employees. Everyone checked in with Robbie and Robbie checked in on all of us. His birthday was celebrated in the store or on a special trip to Gottlieb’’s in Brooklyn, a favorite haunt of Robbie’s. He had special nicknames for some, back massages from others, specially made dishes to Robbie’s specifications (NO MUSHROOMS!!), political discussions, the benefits of water vs. Diet Coke, sports talk with others and so much more. Believe it or not, Robbie and I talked a lot about the Yankees. While I am much newer at following the Bronx Bombers (thanks to my son Avi), Robbie was a lifetime fan. And true confessions: because I know what a Yankee fanatic he was, as much as I would have loved for the team to make it to the World Series, I’m ultimately glad they did not make it this year (sorry, Avi). It would have been too painful to go through the series and perhaps the Yankees winning and for Robbie to not be here to share in the excitement and glory. That could not happen this year without Robbie.

And as special as all the above relationships were, nothing compares to or has moved me more than the relationships I got to witness daily between Robbie and the managers and owners of Grand & Essex. Check-ins with Robbie throughout the day and stopping by for a quick schmooze was part of the normal day-to-day at the store. Robbie was also part of many a family simcha in New Square. The mutual love was palpable. When Robbie lost both his parents a couple of years ago, within several months of each other, it was almost too much for Robbie to bear. He sunk to a deep sadness that worried us all. Someone actually said to me on Shabbat that she believes the owners of Grand & Essex saved Robbie’s life. Aside from the love and concern they showered on him, giving him a reason to get up and have a place to go every day was what slowly helped get him back close to his old self. That same concern and nurturing took over when Robbie went into the hospital for what was to sadly be the last six weeks of his life. The WhatsApp groups set up to check on Robbie, posts of who was visiting when and daily updates on Robbie’s condition were constant. There was also Tehillim being recited, mi shebeirachs said, and including Robbie’s name on the list of cholim when challah was taken for the many batches of dough made daily for the pizza department. And when we felt at a loss because there was nothing more we could really do for him at that point, special treats were sent to the ICU staff at Holy Name Hospital to thank them for taking such good care of our Robbie.

How can I even begin to explain the special love and relationship between Robbie and the owners of Grand & Essex? Shia Schonfeld, who runs the store, would stop by and schmooze with Robbie several times a day. Aron Green and others would make Robbie a first stop whenever they came into the store. And because Robbie did not see them on a day-to-day basis, he called them at least once a week, each, to check in on them. Or he’d always ask Shia how they and their families were doing. No matter what was going on, Robbie was a top priority to the three of them as much as they were to him. That was definitely visible to all at Robbie’s levaya. I can’t tell you how many people have stopped me over the past few days to tell me how blown away they were by seeing so many members of Grand & Essex at the funeral. Did we close the store?? It was very apparent how broken up everyone was. As Shia so beautifully said, “Robbie was never an employee of the store. Robbie was family. We loved him and we will miss him dearly. And we are, im yirtzeh Hashem, going to do something very big in Robbie’s memory in the not-too-distant future. Something for the whole community to feel a part of. Robbie will never, ever be forgotten; not at Grand & Essex, not in Teaneck and not by everybody who loved him.”

Amazingly, what was to be the last time Robbie’s parents were in the store, upon seeing and hearing how Robbie was being treated, his father said, “I can rest easy now, knowing what good care the owners are taking of Robbie.” It was so true.

Robbie, we love you, we will miss you and we will never, ever forget you!

By Mali Baer