Updated legend of America: Gold turns into tears


January 04, 1991|By ROGER SIMON

"I'm the third generation in Baltimore," he is saying. "Aaron would have been the fourth."

Aaron is dead. Aaron, his son, was shot once in the chest and then twice in the back. He had $7 on him. The killers ran away without it.

"The company started here in 1891," Joseph Levenson is saying. "So this is our 100th year. Aaron never lived to see it."

This is one family's century in Baltimore. It begins with the highest of hopes and ends in a violent, profitless murder.

Which makes it a typical story.

"The Levensons came from Russia," Joseph Levenson, 70, is saying. "My grandfather played clarinet in the czar's band and so the czar gave him a piece of land. But then there was a change in the law and they took his land away. And so he came to America. I think it was a clarinet. Maybe a trumpet."

A typical family legend, a little cloudy around the edges now, but what difference does it make? As long as they got to America, land of opportunity, where the streets were paved with gold.

And they were! Not with literal gold that you could pick up and put in your pocket, but with the gold of opportunity, available to all who wished to work for it.

And so the Levensons began in Baltimore. And founded Royal Furniture in 1891 with two warehouses at Ostend Street and Frederick Street. And they grew and prospered.

"We all lived in the city and I remember my grandmother's house didn't have locks on the doors," Joseph is saying. "Never locked a door. You could walk -- anywhere! Do anything. No fears. No fears."

Time marches on. Stop me if you heard this one before.

Now it is the present, and Royal Furniture is a large corporation with 90 employees and 300,000 square feet of space in locations stretching from Baltimore to Bethesda. And now people lock their doors. Not that this always will save them. But it's a sensible precaution.

Joseph's son, Aaron, leads a healthy, happy life. Small but scrappy, he makes the varsity wrestling team in high school. He grows up, gets married to Christine -- "an attractive girl," Joseph says -- they have a daughter and live in a house near Otterbein in South Baltimore, not far from the Inner Harbor.

And then one night in 1988, Aaron is walking home and he is attacked by two guys. One grabs him by his tie and drags him to the ground and the other tries to crush his skull with a concrete block.

They get $80 from his wallet and flee. Amazingly, they are caught. (I say "amazingly" because the vast majority of criminals are never caught. Not in Baltimore, not anywhere.) Also amazingly, they are tried, convicted and get 2 1/2 years for assault with a deadly weapon, that being the legal definition of a concrete black.

Now, however, Aaron and Christine decide to move, something they have been thinking about ever since the police horse patrol was canceled in their neighborhood. Enough is enough. So in late 1989, they move to Baltimore County to a very nice house with five bedrooms, which is a few bedrooms too many.

But Joseph is happy and encourages the move. "So you'll give me a lot of grandchildren," he tells Aaron, "and you'll fill up the bedrooms!"

Which Aaron and Christine proceed to do with the birth of their second daughter in 1990. Aaron, who has a finance degree from George Washington University, had wanted to go into the family business since high school and now he is general manager and controller of Royal Furniture.

Joseph is there only a couple of days a week, but they are together on the morning of Oct. 4, 1990, a Thursday. The furniture store is in the 500 block of South Monroe Street and a warehouse is a few blocks away on Fulton Avenue.

Joseph and Aaron are talking together at the Fulton Avenue location when Joseph sees a truck trundle by that Aaron has been waiting for. "Aaron," he tells him, "there's your truck."

So Aaron gets into his car and follows the truck to Monroe Street. With him in the car Aaron has what are called manifest bags, which are filled with the receipts that the delivery men have collected. There is rarely any cash in the bags and today there is none at all, there are only checks. Normally Joseph would go with Aaron for the short drive, but today he does not.

Aaron leaves, a few minutes pass and there is a phone call for Joseph. "Get up to the main building," he hears. "Aaron's been shot."

Joseph rushes the few blocks. "And I see him lying there in the parking lot," Joseph is saying. "Down on his face. Not crumpled, straight out. Flat. Police cars there. And they are holding me away. 'He'll be all right,' they are telling me. 'We've got a pulse,' they are telling me. I can see his hand is all white but I don't know. So the paramedics come and they turn him over. And they cover him with a sheet. Just like that."

"You told me you had a pulse!" Joseph shouts at them. "How can this be! You told me you had a pulse!" But somebody holds on to Joseph and the paramedics put Aaron's body on the stretcher and take him away. He is 30.

The manifest bags are still lying there where his body was.

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