Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Sweet and Low

A Family Story

Rich Cohen

Farrar, Straus and Giroux


Sweet and Low

Cumberland Packing, the company that manufactures Sweet'N Low, occupies a boxy building across the street from the Brooklyn Navy Yard. It sits amid the factories of Fort Greene, the last of the city's vanishing industrial base. The neighborhood is ringed by housing projects, dark windows looking out on the long skies over Williamsburg,.
In the summer of 2003, I drove to the factory to talk to my uncle Marvin, the president of the company. I had not seen much of him since my grandmother died. I gave my name at the door and was told to go around the side of the building, where my uncle was waiting.
To me, Marvin is always forty-five, blond, thin-hipped, and handsome, the kind of uncle who fixes things. When I was a kid, he took me on tours of the plant and had an ID made that showed my face in front of Cumberland's pink musical logo. He always had the newest gadgets and the biggest televisions. When he was a block from his car, he'd press a button and the trunk would pop open. It was a convertible. I would sit in back as the storefronts of Brooklyn whistled by. Even into his sixties, Marvin was as peppy as a camp counsellor. Now, as I shook his hand andfollowed him inside, he seemed slower and sadder. He had a tremor in his voice and a shuffle in his step. Uncle Marvelous had gotten old! It's like this: young, young, young, young, young, OLD. Like the sun going down and down and down and bang, you're in the dark. It reminded me of something a journeyman baseball player once told me: "Some guys go on and on, but other guys just fall off the table."
Marvin led me to his office. It's cramped, with the kind of drop ceiling you can fling pencils into. One wall is covered with photographs. By following these, you can watch Marvin age--face fill out, eyes deepen, children arrive. Some of the pictures go back to the 1950S--Marvin in sepia tone, trim and tan, like a memory of Coney Island. He smiles in others, puts his arm around his wife, my beautiful aunt Barbara, or holds his kids on his back. None of the pictures was taken less than five or ten years ago, maybe when the scandal broke. It's as if he just shut off the camera and stopped recording. Most were taken on vacation, tropical beaches on Caribbean islands--the triumph of the Jews, across the Jordan at last. My family had been along on some of these trips, but there was no hint of us--why should there have been? It made me blanch to see the familiar settings with his sister Ellen and her issue so neatly excised.
Marvin wore a sleeveless fleece coat--an "alpine wife-beater" or a "muscle fleece"--over an Izod shirt. His face was florid, as if one of those Caribbean tans had recurred like a fever. He said he had been prescribed a pill for failing memory, but told me he forgets to take it. He does remember that he forgets, which struck me as suspicious. An aquarium is built into one of his walls. It was once a saltwater tank, schools of tropical fish as gaudy as muscle cars amid a world of colored gravel and faux seaweed, a vibrant seascape that has degraded into an acid pond.
The fish died in the course of a single season some years ago, one of those strange kills that can decimate a closed system. I learned about it while reading the court papers. (A defense attorney wanted to know why Marvin had asked Cumberland's controller and chief financial officer, Gil Mederos, to clean out the tank.) "Unfortunately, yes, there was one incident where there were saltwater fish, which are very delicate, and allthe fish were dying," Marvin testified. "I felt so terrible. I remember telling Gil to cover the tank so I couldn't see the fish die."
Marvin asked why I had come. I told him about the book I wanted to write: It would be about Ben and Betty and the factory; and Brooklyn; and the waterfront; and the Second World War; and Betty's brother Abraham, who died in the Philippines and won the Purple Heart and the Silver Star; and Bubba, Betty's mother, who tried to jump off the roof of her Brooklyn apartment house; and the diner where Ben first worked; and the diner across from the Navy Yard, where Ben invented the sugar packet and Sweet'N Low. And it would be about the history of sugar, which is the history of the West, and how Sweet'N Low is part of that history; and about dieting, and fat people; and packing, and the saccharin ban that almost wiped out the company; and Equal and Splenda; the whole epic of uncles and aunts, Gladys in her bed; and my father and mother, and Ira, and the will, and the lawsuit my parents threatened to bring, and how my brother went with a lawyer and a stenographer and a videographer into the house in Flatbush to depose my aunt, and how, during a break in that testimony, my brother asked Gladys if the pizza place where he used to eat as a kid, where the pizza was so greasy and delicious, was still in business; and the scandal, and the kickbacks, and the raid by the Feds; and always the factory sitting on the waterfront, smoke rising from its chimneys, millions and millions of pink packets pouring off its belts.
That is, I got carried away and threw my arms around and made boasts for the book, and if Marvin would help me, great, and if not, not; and as I spoke, he grew more and more florid; then, at last, he spoke. It was a shout that had collapsed on itself, what might be left of a Bobby Knight harangue after that harangue had passed through a black hole.
He said, "You do what you want, I just don't want you to make my mother and father look bad."
He said, "Your mother wanted to get the money away from Gladys."
He said, "I don't know what your father has against me."
He said, "I agreed to talk to you only because it was you, and Barbara and I always liked you, but if your brother or father had called, forget it."
I said, "My brother or father would never have called."
He said, "I will help you, but I want you to let me proofread whatever you write."
I said, "No."
I said, "Look, Uncle Marvin, I did not come to make you look bad, or look good. I just want to figure out the truth."
I said, "For all I know, my parents have been the biggest assholes in the world."
I said, "You know, when you are young, you accept things as you are told they are, but when you get older, you look around and wonder and you want to know: Is that really how it was?"
He said, "My father was a great main."
I said, "I think so, too."
Hehad a way of speaking about his father and mother, and about his siblings, even my own mother, as if they were people whom I had never met. It was as if, to deal with this situation, he had convinced himself I was just some local newspaper reporter working on a human-interest story.
He said, "That lawsuit your brother brought almost killed me."
He said, "Gladys follows your career, Richard. She reads everything you write."
He said, "If there is a heaven and a hell, your brother is not going to heaven."
When Marvin spoke about my mother, his eyes filled with tears.
He said, "The thing you've got understand is this: Betty hated Gladys. She was trapped with her in that house. Betty hated Gladys and she loved your mother."
He said this again: "Betty hated Gladys and she loved your mother."
It was like the big reveal in act three, but it made no sense.
"Well, if that's true," I asked. "Why did Betty disinherit my mother?"
He said, "Well, I don't know what you mean by 'disinherit.' Because if you think that your mother was disinherited, then I was disinherited, and Ira was disinherited. The only one who was really left anything in that will was Gladys. To be perfectly candid, the only people that were disinherited were you and your brother and your sister. Because my mother left my kids fifty thousand dollars apiece. I paid my kids that money. Gladys could not afford to give up the money from the estate. So it came fromMarvin Ernest Eisenstadt. Period. So my mother's will actually cost me fifty thousand dollars times four. I mean three. One, two--how many kids have I got? Fifty thousand dollars times four. That's what the will cost me. And here I am paying off the lawyers because your mother's contested the will."
I told Uncle Marvin that I wanted to call Gladys and talk to her the way I was talking to him, and he said, "Okay, but I don't want you to tell her that we had this visit."
I said, "Fine. I will just call her on my own."
He said, "But she'll wonder why you're calling."
I said, "I'll tell her about the book. I'll tell her I'm getting older. I'll tell her I'm having a kid. I want to know the story."
"You're having a kid?"
"Congratulations, Richard."
He said, "Don't ask Gladys for anything. Tell her you just wanted to give her a call. Say whatever you want. Just keep me out of it."
I said, "Fine."
He said, "Don't tell her you came here to see me."
I said, "Fine."1
He said, "I don't think you should tell your father about this visit either."
I said, "Fine."
He said, "Your father gave instructions. He said I was never to talk to your mother again. It wasn't good for her health."
"He said that?"
"Yes, but that's between us."
I said, "Fine."
He said, "This is not easy for me. You children were always a big part of us. And yet it's not so unusual either, this kind of split in a family."
I said, "I guess it's why so few people know their second cousins."
He said, "That's right. And basically it's all because your mother and father wanted the money. And the only one who suffered because of it was me."
I said, "I don't think it was all about money for my mother."
He said, "Then what was it about?"
I said, "Well, it was about ... love."
He said, "Well, when you contest a will, you are not asking for love. You are asking for money."
Here's what I wanted to say: You are a momma's boy, Marvin, and you never grew up, and never left home, and never took that cover off the fish tank, and maybe got beat up but never learned from it, and you were given the company and the product itself, which generates over sixty million dollars a year in sale,2 and all the property and rights, and I know because I've seen the papers; you've been handed everything you own, so for you to say you know what it means to be cut off and told that you do not count and to have your mother say, with her last words on earth, to my daughter and her issue I leave nothing, well, it's like the man sitting on a pile of doubloons telling the man cadging for a cup of coffee, "You care only about money."
That's what I wanted to say.
Here's what I did say: "I could be wrong Uncle Marvin ... but it's my sense ... if in the will my mom had been left ... something of symbolic value ..."
He said, "I told my mother that. I told her, 'Give Ellen some little thing,' but she said no. I said give her some little thing just so she won't come back and complain. But she wouldn't do it. My mother was a stubborn woman. Toward the end she was even more stubborn."
I said, "If she had just left her a brooch or something."
I don't know why I said a brooch. Maybe because my grandma Betty was always wearing a brooch. She was one of those old women with a gold tarantula with ruby eyes pinned just below her shoulder.
He said, "Your mother should think of the people she's hurting."
I said, "I don't think anybody's happy about this."
He said, "I agree. But that's just between us."
And then we settled down and talked, for one hour, or two or three--a long time, anyway--about the factory, Ben, everything. When I asked about the scandal, Marvin said he had been the victim of a surfeit of trust. He spoke so much about ethics and doing the right thing because the right thing needs doing that it made me nervous. If you call the factory and get his voice mail, the message ends (or used to), "Have a nice day, and make it an even nicer day for someone else."
Then he took me on a tour of the factory. Out of his office, through an anteroom, onto the factory floor. The plant that began here as a cafeteria in the 1940s has since spread across the street into the Navy Yard and across the world, with facilities in North America, South America, and Europe. To me, Cumberland, with its antiquated packing machines and mixing rooms, is a perfect example of the vanishing urban factory, the behemoth that swallows up workers and forests and spits out product and smoke. To most people, the factory is more concept than actual locale, a place of misfortune, whistles, boredom, and injury. The factory owner is out of Dickens, the evil grandfather, Scrooge. But for a boy, the factory still carries a nineteenth-century sense of awe. It's an erector set. It's amazing machines. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, the boss is not the fat cat exploiter of lore. He is the tinkerer, the visionary whose vision has remade the world. At the end of that book, Willy Wonka fears only for his legacy, finding his successor in Charlie, but you just know the kid will never be up to the task. Within five years, Charlie will go public, sell to Hershey, or get indicted.
During peak hours at Cumberland, the packing machines rattle and the building vibrates and the workers shout over the racket, and all of this builds into a roar. As the packets are filled, saccharin dust drifts into the air, and you breathe it into your lungs. It flavors everything sickly sweet. To make Sweet'N Low, Cumberland uses tons of cream of tartar,dextrose, and saccharin each day. The ingredients are combined in a mixing room on the second floor, a lab where workers wear bathing caps and booties. You see them behind glass, stirring the premix. This product is fed into tremendous whirling, Sheeleresque machines, which cut and load it into packets and dump it onto a conveyor belt that winds through the factory like a river. Every packet is tested and weighed. On the factory floor, the conveyor belt breaks into tributaries, each headed for a different machine. Ladies in hairnets direct this flow into boxes, which totter off to the shipping bay, where they are loaded onto trucks that carry them all over the region.
As Marvin walks across the floor, he shouts, "Hola!"
The women at the machines shout, Hola!"right back.
This is meant to show Marvin as a man of the people, a regular guy. But because it's so theatrical and because I've read so many newspaper articles in which my uncle executes the same trick, it makes him seem less like a regular guy than like the boss of a sugar plantation walking the fields at harvest time.
Hola, workers!
Hola, Marvin!
But I was less interested in the workers than I was in the machines. Cumberland started with the machines. With these machines, Ben took the chaos and diversity of Brooklyn, all those neighborhoods with all those appetites and all that merchandise, and stacked it and packed it and readied it for sale. Ben packed sugar in the early years, but he also packed soy sauce, perfume, and Sea-Monkeys. Ben had dozens of patents. Marvin has still more. Marvin started on the machines. In his first years at the factory, he came to work in coveralls, a grease monkey with tools on his belt. He is a genius with his hands. You can see evidence of this all over the factory.
He led me up a short flight of steps into a wreck of a room. The floor was covered with debris, the windows were boarded, and sunlight streamed through the cracks making Jacob's ladders in the dust. This was the site of the old cafeteria that was the beginning of it all. It's not hard to picture the room as it was during the Second World War, when it was likeKatz's on Houston Street, a big cafeteria on the waterfront, sailors and factory workers loading steel trays with chicken and fish and getting their order cards punched. Ben worked the counter, refilled the coffee cups, watered the whiskey, and dragged out the drunks.
Marvin then took me to see my cousin Little Steven. I've always called him Little Steven to distinguish him from my brother. It's a nickname that goes back to a vacation when Steven was the youngest and the smallest in the family and spoke in grunts and groans because Chewbacca was his favorite character in the movie Star Wars. Little Steven is a name my cousin has outgrown. He is big and beefy in a way that, in our family, has no precedent. His skin is freckled. On that day, his short blond hair was combed forward into a Caesar. He was waiting at his desk, smiling. If the rift between our families is ever healed, it will be because of Little Steven, who does not know or care to know all the facts. He is untroubled by the past.
Marvin introduced us as if we were strangers. He said, "This is my son, Steven Eisenstadt."
The three of us continued through the factory. Marvin showed me the first machine Ben bought more than fifty years ago, the tea bagger he converted into the original sugar packer. It was as stately as a Chinese junk. It's still in operation, used for runs too small for the new machines, which cannot turn out less than twenty thousand packets at a clip. It was on this machine that Ben made the special Sweet'N Low packets for my sister's bat mitzvah: a pink pack with a drawing of a triple-scoop ice cream cone over the words THE COHENS.
In a room filled with boxes, we saw a man asleep in a chair, legs out, cap over his eyes. Little Steven wanted to take a picture of the man with the camera in his cell phone; he'd probably bought the phone for just such occasions. Marvin said, "Let's not embarrass the man." And we crept out.
In the stairwell, Steven's phone rang. He answered it, looked at me, then spoke quickly in a low voice. I heard him say, "Don't worry. It's fine. It's not going down like that."
Handing the phone to Marvin, he said, "It's Jeff."
Steven and I talked, but I kept an eye on my uncle. He was saying, "No, no. It's fine. He's not asking about that. What should I do? No, you tell me! Fine!"
He gave the phone back to Little Steven and said to me, "Come on, let's hurry. I don't have all day."
We went into the parking lot and got into Little Steven's car and drove across the street into the Navy Yard. In 1966, the federal government closed the yard and sold it for twenty-four million dollars to the City of New York, which has since leased it out to industry. There is a jewelry manufacturer and a sign engraver and a printer, but Cumberland is among the biggest tenants. We drove in and out of warehouses, the water at the end of each street, the towers of Manhattan beyond. We parked and walked through the Cumberland buildings. In one, we saw the ghostly rails of a vanished train. In another, we saw giant hooks, relics of the golden age of shipbuilding now deputized in America's never-ending war on fat. One machine seemed to replicate the workings of an angry God: Boxes packed with Sweet'N Low raced across a scale; if a box was even one ounce too light, a mechanical arm did a Heil Hitler, throwing it with great force off the belt and into the ash heap of history.
We got back in the car and drove around--past the ruins of barracks and weed-choked parade grounds; uphill to the Victorian mansion where the commandant of the Yard once lived, with the harbor and the harbor islands stretching below; through the streets of Vinegar Hill, a neighborhood once filled with the Irish immigrants who worked in the Yard, but now a windy ruin, like a ghost town in the West, with creaky storefronts and vacant houses shadowed by a buzzing power plant; then back into the Yard, through the vast construction site where part of this landscape was being turned into a film studio.
We parked near the water and looked back at the buildings above the harbor. We could see the tops of tenements and church steeples. The bridges were at our back. The river was broad and dark. There were tugs and ferries on the water. Down the shore were converted factories and abandoned machine shops. Brooklyn had once been the largest sugar producer in the world, with the biggest refineries on the East River. The last of these, Domino Sugar, shut its doors in 2004. And looking at this, Isuddenly realized that Cumberland Packing, and Grandpa Ben, and Grandma Betty, and Uncle Marvin, and my parents, and my aunt, and the sugar packet, and Sweet'N Low, all of it, is really the story of Brooklyn. The money and the product and the people all come from Brooklyn, but it's more than that. It's the longing of the borough, the collective energy of the millions of immigrants who flooded Brooklyn at the beginning of the twentieth century. The diet craze that turned Sweet'N Low into a household name is a concrete manifestation of this longing. Diet cola, the bathroom scale,3 Sweet'N Low--it all comes from Brooklyn, the cradle of a new culture, the culture of the body, with its quest for complete freedom: freedom from histoy, freedom from exclusion, freedom from fat, freedom from the bad bodies of our ancestors. It's the longing that created the fortune and destroyed the family.
SWEET AND LOW. Copyright @ 2006 by Rich Cohen. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critiral articles or reviews. For information, address Picador, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.