Sid Applebaum and John Nasseff have cut their fair share of deals since they were born six days and a couple of blocks apart on St. Paul's West Side 72 years ago.
But their first deal needed a broker - Applebaum's mother, Bertha. And ever since she persuaded Nasseff to protect little Sidney from neighborhood thugs in the 1930s, in exchange for a bag of candy each week from her husband Oscar's grocery store, the two West Side natives have made pretty good names for themselves.
The outgoing president of Rainbow Foods, Applebaum went from bagging beans and bundling soap at Oscar's corner market to orchestrating a 25-store empire that gobbles up about $1 billion of the Twin Cities' annual grocery bill.
A recently retired vice president of West Publishing, Nasseff went from unloading boxcars for $100 a month in the 1940s to a payout reportedly worth more than $150 million when the legal publishing company was taken over by a Canadian firm last year.
Applebaum and Nasseff reunited recently to talk about their 66-year friendship and to journey back across the Robert St. Bridge to the West Side, where their roots and memories run bedrock deep. Of all the deals these men have cut, they most love to retell how the first one went down 60 years ago in the white house with pillars on the porch at 273 E. Winifred St.
"My mother was unbelievably meticulous," Applebaum said. "She was always out front, washing the sidewalk and trying to keep the street clean. You always had to come in the back door, never the front door, and then you had better take off your shoes if you knew what was good for you."
The boys - one Jewish, one Lebanese - first met in kindergarten while they were growing up among the immigrant families during the Depression era across the Mississippi River from downtown St. Paul.
Applebaum, the youngest of seven brothers, admits he was "scared of my own shadow" back then. He had just been beaten up by some neighborhood bullies. Nasseff was on the other end of the testosterone spectrum. "He was plenty tough," Applebaum said. "Take my word for it."
And that's precisely why Bertha Applebaum summoned young Johnny Nasseff to her immaculate home one day in the mid-1930s.
"When an adult wanted to see me back in those days, I figured I was in deep trouble," Nasseff said. "I sat down in the kitchen, and I'll never forget Sid's mother, with her Russian accent, saying: 'Why do they beat up my little Sidney?' "
Then Bertha Applebaum proposed the deal: Nasseff was to stop at the Applebaum home every morning before school and walk Sid home every day after school. "In return, she said, 'My husband, Oscar, will bring you a bag of candy every Friday from his grocery store.' It was my first exposure to good old payola."
But negotiations weren't finished yet.
"Sid was the smartest, brightest kid in Roosevelt School, and I was tough, but not real book smart," Nasseff said. "So part of the deal was that Sid had to let me copy his homework. I remember Sid saying: 'OK, fine, but don't be a big dummy and copy it exactly, or the teacher will know what's up.' "
To this day, both men joke that they wouldn't have gotten out of junior high school without the other's help. Decades later, as they began to amass their fortunes and drift apart, Applebaum and Nasseff bumped into each other at the Minnesota Club, the square chunk of marble and mahogany on Rice Park where St. Paul's elite still hold court.
Applebaum walked over to the cigar counter, grabbed a handful of panatelas and stuffed them into Nasseff's pocket. "Thanks for protecting me all these years, Johnny," Applebaum said.
The old neighborhood
When Applebaum and Nasseff met the other day, the Minnesota Club was nearly empty, except for the memories that filled and echoed through the place.
"We used to sit on the library wall across from the front door in 1936," Nasseff said. "We'd sit and watch all the big cars pull up and park, remember, Sid?"