People seem to be comfortable telling me their life stories. One of my willing ‘victims’ was Ted Buckwald who I had the pleasure of meeting with his ‘significant other’ Ecuadorean Mercy Medina, his soul mate and partner for the last 4 years. They met playing ping pong. ‘I pinged and she ponged!’ he told me tongue in cheek in Cartagena, Colombia where they approached me in the street beckoning me over as they loved my style of dressing. Ted, at a sprightly 85, looked dapper in his colourful bandana which he changed every day of his life. A man prepared for all seasons!
An amazing storyteller and joker who loved to make willing listeners laugh. A collector not only of 40,000 butterflies which he incorporated into his artwork of blown up photographic butterflies suspended in space, but also of one-liners heard over 40 years on the radio, cinema and TV. In addition to this gigantic collection of words, his thoughts on the power of positivity and happiness would come to him while soaping his lean and fit body in the shower every morning. Thus he would write these down too. Words flowed effortlessly like running water.
He assured me longevity was in his genes as his father Benjamin (known as Buck to be Americanised), had lived to the grand age of 105 and Ted was out to beat Buck by any which-way even if he had to buck the system!
A typical Jewish immigration story starting in Imperial Russia in 1899 when Ted’s grandfather, Joseph Samuel Buckvald, a tailor, wanted a better life fleeing from anti-Semitism, first to Vienna then moving after World War One to America, the Land of Opportunity. Arriving at Ellis Island he changed one letter in his surname to sound less guttural. Buckvald became Buckwald! He came with some means and 4 children including baby Benjamin aged 1, born to become an all-American and proud of his country. ‘God bless America’, wrote Jewish Irving Berlin.
Uneducated academically, young Benjamin, known as Buck, lived in the multi ethnic area of Brooklyn called Bensonhurst, a mixed neighbourhood of Jews and Italian immigrants at the turn of the century. The grandparents spoke Yiddish and probably never learned English. Buck grew up, married Esther and produced 3 sons, Ted being the eldest, born 85 years ago. Then the middle son Arnold and finally the youngest of the trio, Peter. The family was tightly knit with no secrets, at least not in the early days!
Young Buck was clever with his hands and fascinated by electrical components, alternating currents and high-frequency power circuits. He had been inspired by the doyen of electricity, none other than Tesla. He could repair anything and was proud of his knowledge. So many people in his neighbourhood came to him wanting their cherished radios repaired that Buck thought he would open a small shop selling new radios. He loved the Art Deco angular lines. To Buck it was sculptural art emitting sounds and thus he began his intriguing radio collection. Obviously influenced by his father’s passion for collecting and hoarding, young Teddy, as Esther called him after President Roosevelt, helped his father in the basement workshop of their large family house.
His grandfather, Joseph Samuel, had put aside some money to help finance Buck’s dream business, but where? Not Bensonhurst for sure. Buck was reaching for the stars and there was only one place which drew the crowds right on his doorstep in Brooklyn. Coney Island! Coney Island was a huge attraction in the summer months comprising of 3 distinct areas, the 5 mile beach extending from Brighton Beach, Wonder Wheel with its famous Ferris Wheel and Luna Park, an amusement park featuring the famed Cyclone roller coaster, as well as street performers and the circus sideshow. In fact between 1880 and 1945, Coney Island was the largest amusement park in the US.
Buck was far sighted and had become a collector of 100 dollar bills, putting aside a bill every week. Later in his heyday he would hoard each $100 bill every single day during the summer season! Witnessing the advent of television in New York City on July 1, 1941 , he decided to increase the size of his shop to incorporate the growing demand for TV sets. He even provided the Turner microphone for President Kennedy’s speeches to be broadcast to the patriotic crowds.
Ted was 22 by this time, having served in Korea and Germany for the US army as a trained combat photographer. In 1954 he moved to New York City, first working as a stylist for the well-known hairdresser to the stars, Mr Kenneth. Later when he got fired, he opened his own salon, taking his 300 best customers with him. He would tell his blue rinse ladies that beautiful things never grew old! Everyone adored chatterbox Ted and so his salon was a big success.
He, however, never forgot his love for Coney Island in the summer, the smell of candy floss, licking ice cream popsicles, munching roasted popcorn, riding the carousels and roller coasters. Memories of Buck’s arch-enemy Dutch Nathan with his wife Ida, famous for their sizzling hot-dogs which Ted devoured daily with sweet mustard. A meal in itself, he salivated at the memory of Nathan’s famous hot dogs.
Ted's shrewd father had moved with the times, realising that the hawkers and buskers needed microphones to draw the crowds in to the shows and thrilling rides. Buck had the monopoly and the knowledge that others did not, so other funfair owners would sub-lease technical sound equipment from him as their businesses expanded too. Money was the name of the game. Buck’s collection of undeclared $100 notes grew. He became a Scrooge hoarder, giving his wife money from time to time but was stingy and frugal. He collected the notes in bundles of 5” thick, with a $100 note at the top and the bottom, each roll sealed with special electrical masking tape to secure the bills. Over the years Ted reckoned he had squirreled away $1 million which he never spent. Always living in the same house, he had become, instead of the merchant of Venice, the merchant of Bensonhurst. Esther was not happy in her Scrooge marriage.
She knew there was cash in the house and one evening in Buck’s absence called her three sons together, instructing them to search the house for the hidden fortune. Though they searched high and low - or low but not high enough! - they gave up looking as it was not to be found. Ted’s long-suffering, frustrated mother finally left Buck and bought a guest house in the Borscht Belt. Ted would go there in his fancy Pontiac every summer, fraternising with comedians such as Jerry Lewis, Lenny Bruce and countless others who had begun their stand-up comedy acts in the Catskills. He would impress them by taking them for rides in his black coupe 1955 Pontiac, bought through the US army who shipped it back to New York. Ted already knew Vic Damone, Elliot Gould, Eddie Fisher and Larry King, as they grew up in the same neighbourhood of Bensonhurst. This of course gave him the traditional love of Jewish American humour and one-liners which was to influence Hollywood and the movie industry.
All three sons married and had families. Peter and his family moved to California and Ted often wondered how he managed to buy a big house and set up his vacuuming store, as he apparently had so little to start with. The brothers all went their separate ways. Later Esther moved to California to be close to her beloved Peter, her favourite son. The years passed, fifteen in all. Ted was not in touch much with Peter, as they had grown apart over the years with life styles and all that jazz, but he kept up his brotherly friendship with Arnold, who remained in New York. He was also in the vacuum business with four successful stores, but he had a run-in with the Mafia when he refused to pay for protection, so he too moved to California. Ted had no intention of leaving his beloved New York, and continued to make his upmarket clientele beautiful.
One night back in New York, Ted was caught with Arnold in a terrifying electrical thunderstorm in his Pontiac. Arnold was scared and, thinking they might not make it through the night, decided it was time to confess to Ted that the weasel Peter had left for California with the hidden money! He had confessed to his mother that he found it in the ceiling and had spent hours substituting the $100 bills inside each roll for $1 bills, leaving the top and bottom $100 notes so Buck would not suspect the theft. No wonder he had shrewdly invested the cash in real estate and set up a vacuum cleaning business. He told his mother in confidence which is why she had moved, colluding with her adored rogue of a son.
Poor Ted had not known about his family’s betrayal and even his trusted brother had hidden the truth from him. Arnold had eventually been told by Esther but he, like Ted, never got his share of the stash of money either. Beats me how Arnold could still love his mother and younger brother after her betrayal, let alone Peter’s dishonesty.
But Lady Luck took over. Ted somehow knew the tax law and what a ‘Walking Trust’ was. After his mother’s death from excessive smoking at the age of 72 in 1982, Buck could not access Esther’s money, which ironically unknown to him was his own money. He needed her signed death certificate as they were legally separated and Ted was the Executor of her will. It was blackmail - Ted refused to release the certificate unless he was given his share of the booty! When Buck finally relented, Ted deducted his thieving brother’s portion and divided the rest between himself and his brother.
Ted asked Buck if he had any secrets but Buck Said ‘No’, never mentioning his hidden fortune. That was his mother’s estate, but when Buck finally passed away at the grand age of 105 in 2004, Ted inherited a mere $200,000. Why so little you might ask? Buck in his senility decided to put his cash of all places in the bank because he thought it would be a safe place! What a joke as of course the bank took most of his undeclared cash for tax purposes!!
Ted however got enough to invest in a goldmine in Mali of all places. Once again Lady Luck was not on his side. He decided to fly to Mali to check out his investment and discovered the owners had not released the property from the Government, as they should have done within 6 months. Thus the company lost their right to mine and Ted lost all his money. Undeterred he remained in Africa for a further four years and saw real poverty which altered his values. He began to search for rare butterflies again and to help educate the poor with the technical knowledge he learned while working for Buck in Coney Island.
One day, after his dear brother Arnold had died from smoking like Esther eight years earlier, Ted decided to forgive Peter the weasel, after a 30 year silence. He was his only family left. Egged on by a distant cousin, he spontaneously called him in California, not mentioning the money and they resumed their brotherly friendship just like in the old days.
‘Let bygones be forgotten’, said Ted. Blood, after all is thicker than water, especially Jewish blood!
Today Ted lives frugally but blissfully, through happenstance, in a rented condo in Deerfield, Florida surrounded by his 40,000 butterflies and his butterfly art. Long live Ted who beat Buck to win back his lost bucks!
Written by Jilliana Ranicar-Breese in Casa Isabel, Getsamani and Sofitel Santa Clara, Cartagena, Colombia with help from the indefatigable Ted on WhatsApp!