LA Sketches: Fred Saidy, Humorist

15 February, 2022
British poster of the Fran­cis Ford Cop­po­la film ver­sion of Fini­an’s Rain­bow (1968).

 

Humorist Fred Saidy (1907–1982) born in Los Ange­les of Lebanese immi­grant par­ents, wrote for movies and Broad­way, most notably the musi­cal Finian’s Rain­bow and the pic­tures I Dood It direct­ed by Vin­cente Min­nel­li and Meet the Peo­ple, direct­ed by Charles Reis­ner. Those FOB new­com­ers could be fun­ny. He often told sto­ries about them for hours, includ­ing skilled mim­ic­ry, keep­ing a house full of guests in stitch­es. When “angels” gath­ered to con­sid­er back­ing a new play, he would read it aloud, voic­ing all the roles. “Let ‘Em Eat Bread” will be famil­iar to Lebanese-Amer­i­can old timers. It is from a mag­a­zine of Sep­tem­ber 1939.

 

Fred M. Saidy 

 

I have just returned in weary tri­umph from Mrs. Nazralla’s can­dy shop on Hol­ly­wood Boule­vard, where by dint of care­ful diplo­ma­cy I suc­ceed­ed in buy­ing five pounds of bakla­va. Bakla­va is not what it sounds like, the name of a Cen­tral Euro­pean vil­lage where a war broke out at one time or oth­er, but a Syr­i­an pas­try which — if it could be dis­trib­uted to the armies of the world — would prob­a­bly end war alto­geth­er. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the total annu­al out­put is hard­ly enough to sus­tain a troop of healthy Boy Scouts, let alone an army, and a con­tribut­ing fac­tor to this peren­ni­al scarci­ty is the ori­en­tal psy­chol­o­gy of mer­chan­dis­ing. The qual­i­ty involved, of which Mrs. Nazral­la is a prime expo­nent, may be best described as a deter­mined sell­ing— resis­tance on the part of the vendor.

Mrs. Nazral­la is a roly-poly, mid­dle aged woman with glit­ter­ing black eyes and shiny black hair part­ed in a zigzag and pulled back over the ears into a chignon. Dom­i­nat­ing her face is a Lev­an­tine nose of which the con­vex curve resem­bles the beak of a parrot.You prob­a­bly infer, between the lines, that she is not beau­ti­ful, but the point is not impor­tant. Beau­ty is a dime a bar­rel in Hol­ly­wood, but who owns the tal­ent to con­fect but­ter, dough, sug­ar syrup and pis­ta­chio nuts into the apoc­ryphal real­i­ty which is bakla­va? Only Mrs. Nazral­la and a few soli­tary genius­es like her, and when they van­ish from the earth, their mag­ic goes with them. I know it is mag­ic because I have seen hard­ened gourmets, upon first sam­pling the stuff, burst into lit­tle twit­ters of delight. Mag­ic, also because the method by which Mrs. Nazral­la piles twen­ty lay­ers of flaky crust into a slab a half-inch thick is just as obscure, to me, as the work­ings of a zipper.

Lebanese Amer­i­can humorist Fred Saidy.

I am no fledg­ling afi­ciona­do myself — if I’ve eat­en one piece, I’ve eat­en two — and when Mrs. Nazral­la greet­ed me warm­ly from behind her show­case of home­made sweet­meats, I quick­ly returned the greet­ing and asked for five pounds of bakla­va, to be put up in two box­es. I hoped to take her by sur­prise, before we came involved in a long dis­cus­sion of my family’s health, and be out of the place in ten min­utes, which is equiv­a­lent to shoot­ing a birdie. But the brusque­ness of my approach stunned her. Ral­ly­ing her forces, she launched into nego­ti­a­tions. “Five pounds,” she repeat­ed. “You want that much. You sure?”

wasn’t sure — the amount was a stab in the dark and could as well have been sev­en pounds or six — but in the moment of my hes­i­ta­tion, my doom was sealed. “Well,” I tem­po­rized, “I just want­ed to give a cou­ple of presents to some friends —”

She was lis­ten­ing eager­ly, her eye­brows lift­ed in con­cen­tra­tion. “Big fam­i­lies?” she said. “Chil­dren?”

 “No,” I replied, “no children…but these peo­ple are crazy about your pas­tries. I guess they could actu­al­ly use about fifty pounds.” I smiled weak­ly to indi­cate a witticism.

“I see,” she said thought­ful­ly. “Well, you know I make it fresh every day, my bakla­va, you don’t have to take just as much you want.”

I thought I knew what she meant, but to press for an expla­na­tion might result in my get­ting one; I didn’t feel con­sci­en­tious­ly, that I could spare the time. “Any amount you think is ok, “ I said. “Just put it up in two boxes.”

Her fore­head was still wrin­kled in puz­zle­ment. Then quick­ly the wrin­kles cleared away; she had come to a deci­sion of some sort. “Wait,” she said. “I show you a tray. I just bake it this morning.”

She scur­ried through a door­way into the small kitchen, and short­ly bus­tled back with an alu­minum bak­ing pan full of the pas­try neat­ly criss-crossed into dia­mond-shaped pieces. “This run four and a half, five pound,” she said. “It look good?”

“It looks beau­ti­ful.” I topped her. “Just divide it into —”

“Maybe you like it not brown so much?” she continued.

“I like it any­way at all, Mrs. Nazral­la,” I assured her.

She glowed with sat­is­fac­tion. “Fine. I give you some to eat.”

Before I could stop her, she had dished up a por­tion and set it on the counter. I duti­ful­ly munched on it and announced it deli­cious. This was, more or less, a mistake.

 “Maybe you like to try it my can­dy,” she pur­sued, eager­ly. “All home­made, I make it right here, pure butter.”

It was no use point­ing out that that I had sam­pled her can­dy and her gen­eros­i­ty on numer­ous pre­vi­ous occa­sions; she took my demur­rer for ori­en­tal bash­ful­ness. Nim­bly she reached into the case and pro­duced some fudge, a cou­ple of caramels and a slice of Brazil­ian nut-roll, which she heaped on the dish before me. “Real­ly,” I plead­ed, “I don’t think I can eat anoth­er thing — I had a heavy break­fast just before…”

She dis­missed the protes­ta­tion with a moth­er­ly wave of the hand. “Healthy young man like you? You could eat all day, I bet you!” She winked arch­ly, mak­ing it clear she had pen­e­trat­ed my trans­par­ent excuse. With an effort I nib­bled off the cor­ner of a caramel, pru­dent­ly sup­press­ing any com­ment for fear Mrs. Nazral­la might maneu­ver her­self into a net loss on the trans­ac­tion. Any attempt to com­pen­sate her for the refresh­ments, I knew, would be con­strued as an insult, pure and simple.

After I had turned down her offer of hot cof­fee, just made fresh, Mrs. Nazral­la lapsed into momen­tary silence as she laid out two box­es, lined them with wax paper, and pre­pared to trans­fer the pas­tries from the pan. We were mak­ing progress, final­ly. She was about to insert a knife around the edges, when she caught her­self short. “I for­got to show you oth­er kind,” she announced, with an air of self-reproach. “Some peo­ple like not so brown.” She start­ed for the kitchen.

I knew it was use­less to say any­thing more. If my friends had to have bakla­va — I per­son­al­ly, would set­tle for a plain vanil­la topped cof­fee cake, with­out raisins — this was the only way to get it in greater Los Angeles.

She was back now, bear­ing anoth­er pan­ful, the glossy crust a shade more blondish than the first. “You like it bet­ter?” she asked eagerly.

“I like them both,” I said. “What’s the difference?”

“Well, not real­ly much,” she replied. “This one” — point­ing to the sec­ond — “maybe lit­tle bit sweet­er. You like to taste?”

 “No thank you!” I assured her. “Give me whichev­er you like.”

The wheels of activ­i­ty again came to a stand­still. She could not con­sum­mate the deal on this unprecise basis. Her hand, the knife into it, fell to her side and her brows went up again. “Is not what I like,” she said, like a patient school­teacher address­ing a back­ward child. “Is what you like.”

 “Alright,” I decid­ed with brisk final­i­ty, “I’ll take the first pan — just pack it in two boxes.”

As I had only a lit­tle cash with me, I would have to give Mrs. Nazral­la a check — and I dread­ed the prospect.  She would, of course, be com­plete­ly gra­cious about accept­ing it, and this in fact was the whole trou­ble. I feared anoth­er delay of five min­utes while she con­vinced me it was quite all right, dur­ing which time she prob­a­bly would ply me with home­made fon­dant and pralines.

“May I give you a check,” I inquired boldly. 

“Mr. Saidy!” She placed her hands on her hips and wagged her head rogu­ish­ly. “Did I ask you for money?”

She was still shak­ing her head when she tied the last blue rib­bon around each box. Pack­ing the pas­tries in box­es was some­thing of an irreg­u­lar­i­ty, as I usu­al­ly took the whole pan with me, and returned it emp­ty lat­er, but I was sure Mrs. Nazral­la had been pleased with the extra trouble.

“This the right amount — “$3.75?” I asked, hand­ing over the check. She paid no atten­tion to the check and even ignored the ques­tion. “There’s sales tax, isn’t there?” I con­tin­ued reach­ing into my pock­et for some more coins.

“That’s all right,” said Mrs. Nazral­la, with a quick blink­ing of the eyes and a con­fi­den­tial nod, as though she were a boot­leg­ger deliv­er­ing a case of con­tra­band gin. I didn’t know exact­ly what was all right; to make an issue of the sales tax might con­tin­ue our lit­tle tete-a-tete well on into the night. The box­es were under my arm by now and I was poised for a quick getaway.

“You didn’t have to give me a check,” was Mrs. Nazralla’s part­ing word. “You could pay me when you bring me the pan back.”

She was, of course, well aware of the fact that I wasn’t tak­ing any pan with me this time. She was also aware that I was aware, but it would have been gauche and unrea­son­able on my part to point out the obvi­ous flaw in her ori­en­tal log­ic. Our eyes met for a moment in word­less acknowl­edg­ment of the sit­u­a­tion; then with a curt occi­den­tal “Thank you,” I turned and left.