June 2020 – My father, Michael Prevor, may he rest in peace, worked in the family produce business on the Washington Street Market in Manhattan. On occasion, as a young boy, he would bring me down to the market on a Saturday and get me out of my Mom’s hair. We would eat breakfast at the Market Diner, always open 24 hours, 7 days a week, every day of the year. In its day, as a rare 24-hour Manhattan restaurant with a parking lot, it was frequented by Frank Sinatra, Broadway stars, politicians and gangsters! It was said that the gangsters would sometimes have bodies in the trunks of their cars, as they enjoyed a meal after a hit!
He was young, not even 30, so I was younger than six years old. When we arrived at his office, he would set me up at a desk, give me some magic markers and I would color. Sometimes he gave me real work, ask me to look over sales cards seeking a particular name or transaction amount.
The first black man I remember in my life was the custodian. On this particular trip, I walked to take a drink at the water fountain and saw the man, who I had met before. My father always taught me to be polite and engage with people. I remember saying hello to him, asking if he was having a nice day and telling him that we were in the office because my father had some things to do before we left the next day to go to Puerto Rico.
My father had an identical twin, Sydney Prevor, who lived in Puerto Rico and ran the company’s operations there. What really had happened was my grandfather, Harry Prevor, who is also of blessed memory, had followed in the footsteps of my great-grandfather, Jacob Prevor, also long past, and he took over the family produce company.
It was a small business, and when my father and his twin joined, they didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes. So my Uncle started selling in Puerto Rico, and my father would buy the produce in America and Canada to send down there. So we would routinely visit Sydney, stay at the Americana Hotel, the El San Juan or, mostly, the Caribe Hilton. In those early years, my brother and I would go to the beach with my mother, while my father went to work with my Uncle.
Once in a while, we would fly to other Caribbean islands where we would visit my father’s customers. I remember Henderson Supermarket in Curaçao. Also, perhaps a warning for our time, I remember those visits of my childhood changed dramatically. In Curaçao they had a big market, often displaying high-end clothes, but most of the vendors were white, many Jewish. In 1969, there were riots and most of the vendors retreated; some left for the Netherlands, some to America, others to gated communities outside the city. The market had new vendors, mostly selling less expensive things to tourists.
I remember asking the custodian who worked for my father if he had ever been to Puerto Rico and if he had plans for a vacation. He motioned for me to come closer. He said “Jimmy, I would never take a vacation.” I told him about Puerto Rico and Curaçao and asked him why he wouldn’t want to go on a vacation. He told me that when my family went on “vacation,” it was really because my dad could keep working as he was a produce exporter and could meet with customers. He then said, “Besides, if I took a week off, your dad might find out he could do without me!”
He was joking, of course, but I asked my father about it on the way home and he told me that a company is like a team. Everyone is needed, though everyone has a different role. He told me that as I grew up, I would realize that every job requires expertise and that I should always try to respect the expertise of others.
Only a year or so later, they had opened the Hunts Point Market, and my family was an original tenant there. My father brought me on another Saturday, as we had received rail cars filled with grapes, apples and pears. It was Thanksgiving weekend, and we were loading up vans to send down to the Dominican Republic so the residents could enjoy fruit for the Christmas Season. There was a line of men, almost all black, tossing the fruit from hand to hand, to load into the ocean-bound vans. In their midst was the black foreman, standing on a box so as to be higher than the others; he clapped to keep the beat as the men loaded the fruit.
As we drove home, I told my father that I could save him money. Having that guy clapping a beat was ridiculous. I could do it.
My father told me that, indeed, it was easy to clap. But it was not easy to inspire others to pass the fruit. I have never forgotten that lesson. pb