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SAMUEL PROCTOR ORAL HISTORY PROGRAM at
the University of Florida.
ORAL HISTORY PROJECT
JEWISH FEDERATION OF
PALM BEACH COUNTY
INTERVIEWEE: Robert Fine.
INTERVIEWER: Alec Jacobson
DATE: January 6, 1982
PLACE: West Palm Beach, Florida
J: Robbie, would you tell me what year and where you were born?
F: I was born in Vilna, May 20, 1894.
J: What year did your family come to America?
F: My father arrived here in 1894, my mother and myself arrived in 1896.
J: Do you recall where your family resided?
F: Yes, very vividly. Our first residence was at 93 Hester Street in
the city of New York, on the second floor looking at the Allen Street
elevator going by, every five or ten minutes.
J: Was that the Lower East Side?
F: The Lower East Side. Hester and Allen Streets.
J: That typical picture of pushcarts?
F: The streets were full of them on Hester Street. In fact, at that
particular time when we arrived, my father had received his first
promotion. Arriving in this country with ten dollars and peddling
with a half a box of lemons on his shoulder, he had become wealthy
and had saved up about twenty-five or thirty dollars and had rented a
pushcart. He was a pushcart peddler himself.
J: Do you remember going to school on the East Side?
F: Yes, my first school, in 1A, I was approximately 6 years old. P.S. 42
was on Hester Street between Orchard and Ludlow. The school there
continued up to 3B and then I went to P.S. 75 on Norfork Street,
between Hester and Graham Street as far as 6B. Then we were
moved to P.S. 62 where I graduated in 1908.
J: And did you go to work?
F: No. My father wanted me to be a physician and one of the requisites
of being a physician in those days was two years Latin; and I was a
very poor Latin student. Having flunked Latin the first year and
struggled through three terms of foreign languages, which I never
could master very well, I decided that I would be better off leaving
high school and going to work. After a year and a half of going to
high school, I left, and worked at two or three other jobs until
1910, when I joined my father in the produce business. I have been
in the produce business ever since.
J, In 1910 you were about 14 years old?
F: No, 16. I graduated at 14. I went to public school 8 years.
J: You were born in 1894, and at sixteen you started your career in the
produce business. At that time, were you in wholesale or retail?
F: My father was a subsidiary wholesaler. He bought merchandise
from the original receivers of carload lots, and trucked it over from
Washington Market to Ludlow Street, where we were in business.
His customers.were, nine out of ten, pushcart peddlers on the East
Side, and occasionally a little store keeper or grocery that bought
a barrel of apples, or a bushel of cucumbers, or a box of peaches
to sell among the groceries. I would say that 90% of our customers
were pushcart peddlers, from all over the East Side, and some
Italians over in the Italian neighborhood.
J: Did you stay with your father's business?
F: We were in that business until my father passed away in 1920. I was
in business with my brother, and we kept the business going until
1927. In 1927 we decided to split up. My brother went down to
Washington Market as a jobber and I stayed on the East Side until
1934, when I rejoined my brother.
J: Did the war have any influence on your business or your personal
life at that time?
F: Not particularly.
J: Were you in the Army?
F: Yes, I was in the Quartermaster Corps of the Army. I had enlisted.
J: What year was that?
F: I enlisted in 1917. I was in the army approximately a year and a
half. I was discharged July 1919, approximately a little over a year
and a half later.
J: Then you went back into the business?
F: My younger brother was still with my father, and I went back in
in the business. My father passed away about a year later. We
kept the business going.
The Jews were moving away from the East Side. Mayor LaGuardia had
taken the pushcart peddlers off the street and we had no customers.
So the business just died out, for lack of people to do business with.
J: What did you do after that?
F: I was still in the produce business. I rejoined my brother who was
a broker. In 1938, we decided to branch out and become a direct
receiver. Instead of buying from people that received merchandise,
I became a buyer on the road. I started to go down to North Carolina
to buy vegetables and in the spring of 1938 I made my first stop in
Florida. I worked in Alachua, Florida and in Gainesville in 1938
J: How did you wind up in Palm Beach County?
F: In June and July of 1940, while I was working in a place called
Faison, North Carolina, I met a trucker whose name was J. T.
Fuchway. Fuchway lived in Pahokee, Florida and outside of being a
trucker was a farmer, and he intrigued us very much with his farming.
He needed a little finance to grow his crop that particular year.
I told him after the season was over to come up to visit my brother,
and we'd talk it over with him and we could see what we could do.
Well, the windup of the deal, when he came up was that we decided to
finance his farming deal with ten thousand dollars in Pahokee and
Indiantown. He planted his crop, and the crop was supposed to
mature late in October. Late in October we hadn't heard from
him. November, we didn't hear from him. The fifth of December of
1940 my brother and I decided that we better take a ride to Florida
and see what happened to our ten thousand dollars.
I had a Plymouth van and I left New York City. I recollect the date,
December 5th; the temperature was exactly 5 degrees in New York City
when I left there that morning. We drove. I had a brother-in-law,
my wife's brother, who accompanied me on the trip to help me drive
and we never took off our overcoats and our heavy underwear until the
morning we arrived in Jacksonville. I arrived in Pahokee, Florida.
The trip took us three days. December 8th I arrived in Pahokee,
Florida which had no hotels or anything else. But, there was a
boarding house run by a woman named Sally Ann. My brother and I
rented a room for a dollar a night. If you stayed there seven days you
only paid six dollars (a dollar off for the week). I stayed there
and met the farmer who we had loaned the ten thousand dollars and
learned that he had had a crop disaster and had to replant. He was
very honorable. When his crop matured, he shipped us the merchandise.
We got our ten thousand dollars back. In the meantime, while I was
there I started buying other vegetables for my brother, in the
Pahokee, Belle Glade, Clewiston-Canal Point area. It turned out to
be quite a profitable venture. We decided that as long as possible,
the following year when I normally would work in the fall of the year
(I worked around the Norfolk area at Charleston, South Carolina)
that I would come down to continue buying. So, I came down in 1941.
I stayed here. I lived in Miami Beach in 1941. I met some friends
who were living at Miami Beach, who were coming to Belle Glade,
Florida every day and the environment was so much nicer in those days
than Pahokee, Florida.
I stayed there in Miami Beach, until December 7th, the day the Japs
attacked Pearl Harbor, when I got a call from my brother that my
mother was in the hospital. I drove back to New York, and came
back to Florida. That particular year of 1941, from the time I left
home to the time I returned, I was gone from home seven months.
Having a very intelligent wife, when I came back, we sat down to
discuss the matter, that it was very unhealthy for a husband and wife
to be separated for seven months. Then we decided as long as we
spent seven months in Florida, the thing for us to do was to move.
At that particular time we lived in 1280 Commonwealth Avenue on the
East side of the Bronx, on the Pelham Bay line. We stored our
furniture in September, I having earlier stops before I hit Florida,
because I stopped off in Virginia to buy vegetables. I stopped off
in South Carolina, wasn't due to reach Florida until late in October.
My wife decided to come down and rent or purchase an apartment or a
house, whatever was available. She came down to one of the nicer
hotels available then. There were two hotels available, which were
the George Washington Hotel which is now Mrs. Wilkes, our local
council woman here in West Palm Beach, and the other one was the
Dixie Court Hotel, which was also a nice hotel. She stayed at the
Dixie Court Hotel. She decided when she got up the next morning
she was going to get on a bus and look around for a nice place to
rent an apartment or a home. At that time the bus station was on
Dixie between Clematis and Datura, where the parking lot is now. She
got on a bus without the knowledge of where the bus was going. The
bus happened to be the Palm Beach bus. The bus went over the
middle bridge and got into Palm Beach. This is September of 1942 and
Palm Beach in September is beautiful. She waw the beautiful homes
there and the nice streets. She asked the bus driver, "Is there a
school available?" My younger son was 12 years old then. He said,
"Yes, lady, there's a school two blocks away." She said, "This is
for me". The next day she went into a real estate office, Studstill
and Hollenbeck, who were the big shots then in the real estate
business and told them she wanted to rent a home in Palm Beach.
They assigned a woman to her and the woman took her everywhere my
wife didn't want to go. She took her up the north end and the
central part and everything else and finally my wife asked her,
"Don't you have any homes on the south end?" She said to my wife,
"You wouldn't like it there." My wife said, "Well, you mean they
don't like Jews on the south end of Palm Beach? You take me back."
The next day she went into another brokerage office and specifically
told them (the woman was Kitty Farren) "Kitty, I want a home on the
south end." As a result of this, Kitty got us a home at 322 Sea
Spray Avenue. We rented a house there, five bedrooms, two baths, a
garage apartment for the magnificent sum of eight hundred dollars
for the year. No, eight hundred dollars for the season. The owner
was so pleased with the way we kept the house that he allowed us to
stay an additional six weeks gratis.
J: What did you do the following season?
F: The following season we rented a two-bedroom, one-bath house on Sea
Breeze Avenue; also a rental.
J: You came down just for the winter season?
J: And rented homes? How many years did you rent?
F: Approximately 10 years.
J: What was your impression of the Jewish community that you found
here at that time?
F: When I came down here, in the Jewish community from Ft. Pierce to
Boca Raton, there weren't over 500 families that acknowledged the
fact that they were Jewish. Maybe 100 or 150 that were Jewish
hid their identify.
J: Did you find a congregation here and did you join one?
F: Six weeks after my family moved into Palm Beach, about 7:00 o'clock
I was eating my dinner. I had just about completed my dinner, when
my front door bell rang. We were newcomers in town and didn't
know a single, solitary person. I was surprised at having visitors
at that time of night. I went out and opened my door. There was a
man about my height, who weighed approximately 130 to 135 pounds,
standing there with a woman who was quite a heafty woman. I looked
at them and said, "Good evening, who are you looking for?" The
gentleman said, "Is your name, Fine?" "Yes, my name is Fine.What
can I do for you?" The man said, "My name is Rabbi Manny Greenstein.
I'm the Rabbi of Temple Beth El and I heard that a new Jewish
family moved into Palm Beach." I invited them into my house, and
met the Rabbi who until he passed away approximately two years ago,
I had kept up a close friendship with. I was invited to join
Temple Beth El and at that particular time told the Rabbi that I
wasn't sure whether I was going to make Palm Beach my permanent
address. But, if we came back the following year we absolutely
would join Temple Beth El. We started to go to services as visitors
in the old Fern Street Shul. The following September, when we came
down, we were there before the holidays and we joined Temple Beth El.
I'm delighted to say that I've been a member of Temple Beth El
since the fall of '43.
J: So, the fall of '43 is when you became a member. Where was your son,
Abraham, Bar Mitzvah?
F: In Temple Beth El. The spring of '43.
J: You did manage to use the facilities of. the Temple in the rearing
of your family?
F: That's right.
J: Did your children go to school here?
F: My youngest son graduated Palm Beach High School and went to the
University of Florida for a couple of years before following in his
father's footsteps; he joined the army. At that particular time,
when he got out of the army, he joined his brother in the produce
business, in which they still are. They follow in their father's
footsteps. Both my sons are in the produce business.
J: Are they in the brokerage operation?
F: The operation is highly different from the days when I was in it.
They specialize in foreign vegetables. They handle vegetables.
Most of the vegetables are grown in Mexico, Nicaragua, Jamaica
and in Honduras. Their speciality is bringing in farm vegetables when
there is a lack of this commodity in the United States.
J: Let me bring you back to '43 when you brought your family here.
Did you participate in any of the community activities pertaining
to rallies for Israel or attending lectures pertaining to Jewish
causes. Was there anything like that?
F: No. I think my wife was the first one, outside of joining the
Temple, my wife joined Hadassah. They started a Hadassah here two
or three times, and never could get the Hadassah to become involved
with anything. It would'start, and by the following season would
break up. I think it was 1947 when they first got a viable Hadassah.
I worked in Belle Glade. I was busy with my customers. I drove
to Belle Glade, Florida, every day and covered the surrounding
territory. I would be busy with my customers on the phone every
morning, and I never got back from Belle Glade until seven, eight,
nine, ten o'clock at night. With the business interests I had
besides going to Shul, we made going to Shul, a habit every Friday
I became active in Temple Beth El almost immediately upon joining
it. One of my particular delights was being the outer guard with a
very close friend of mine, Itzik Rothman. We stook outside the
doorway on Fern Street every Friday night, welcoming the people that
came to Shul. I was elected to the Board of Directors, I think four
or five years after I joined the Shul. I believe I was Vice Presi-
dent four times, twice under Irwin Levy, once under Narkier, and
once later under Bob Rapaport.
J: Did you have any dealings with Jewish people in your business at
F: Yes, some of my customers up North that I did business with were
Jewish. I did business with all kinds"of religions.
J: Particularly in Florida, did you run into any problems involving
anti-Semitism either in business or in the neighborhood?
F: The original people that we did business with in Belle Glade were
all what one would call "red necks." Or, they were crackers who came
out of Florida, Georgia and Alabama. They were brought up that
way. They were told we killed Jesus Christ, and Jew was somebody
to be hated. They hated the Jews until it came to their pocket.
But as along as they could make money from us, or we bought their
merchandise, we were tolerated. We had two particular instances that
I remember. We had a group of about six or seven Jewish buyers
in Belle Glade. We were the heaviest buyers in the area. We were
buying as much stuff as 15, 30, or 30 other buyers. Most of the
stuff, we ship is 60% by freight and 40% by truck.
I was told that one of the solicitors that I was doing business
with, a solicitor for the Seaboard Railroad, belonged to the
Ku Klux Klan. The Ku Klux Klan had become very active in Belle Glade.
I gathered all of the Jewish buyers together and said, "Boys, we've
got to get rid of this character." So, we decided that for the next
three or four days not to give the Seaboard any business. Well, he was
an assistant to the head buyer whose name was Mr. Carlton. After
three days of keeping Mr. Carlton "dry", not getting any merchandise,
(I was a particular friend of his), Mr. Carlton came to me and said,
"Robbie Fine, what are you fella doing to me?" "We're not doing
anything to you," I told him. I said, "Your associate belongs to
the Ku Klux Klan and as long as he's a Ku Kluxer and he's active here,
with this anti-Jewish propaganda that was thrown around Belle Glade,
you're not going to get any business here."
I came to his office, we called up the head office in Ft. Lauderdale
of the Seaboard Railroad, I explained the circumstances to the head
agent of the Seaboard Railroad in Florida. That particular day the
man was shipped out of Belle Glade.
There was another instance. A lot of this merchandise we bought
was sold at auction and one of the smart Georgia Crackers one day
said to us, "You white folks come forward and you Jews stand there
in the back." So, I looked at my co-buyers and we decided to give him
'the old no-bidding business'. Well, he started to auction something
and we were the main buyers. We refused to bid on them. So, after
starting the action, Getty said, "What's the matter with you boys,
you're not buying today?" We told him politely, "You go sell your
merchandise to the white folks. We Jews are not buying your
merchandise." Well, he abjectly got down on his knees and apologized;
he didn't mean anything, and everything else. That was the last
time we ever heard any of the big boys there saying anything about
white boys, Jews, or anything else.
We lived with the people for years and after a while they became
more liberal and they became more tolerant. In fact, one of my
Irish friends, Yemen Cabe who knew I went to the Synagogue every
Friday night around 4:30 or 5:00 o'clock, would say to me, "Hey
Robbie Fine, it's getting late, aren't you going to Shul tonight?"
That's the history of Belle Glade.
J: Are you saying that the Christians actually respected you because of
your religious devotion?
F: That's right. And you know the peculiar part of the whole thing, as
much as they'basically were brought up believing that we were the
worst people in the world and we had killed Jesus Christ, they
still believed that we Jews were God's chosen people and we had
powers beyond something that you can't place.
J: Was there any specific incident?
F: Oh yes, there were three specific incidents. A friend of mine,
Hal Raven, who was Jewish, had a packing shed, He was selling
his own merchandise. I walked into the office one morning and
one of his bookkeepers who was pregnant, says to me, "I'd give
anything in the worked if it is a boy." Well, I'm the habitual
kibitizer. I said, "You want a boy? It's a cinch, I'll go to
my Rabbi tomorrow morning, I'll ask him to make a prayer for you
that was number one with Fishman and it's sure to be a boy."
What do you think happened three months later, a boy! Well, the
news spread like wildfire in Belle Glade, if you're pregnant and
you want a boy, go see Robbie Fine, he'll talk to his Rabbi and
it's going to be a boy. Well, about three months later I got a
call from another woman who said that she's pregnant. I said,
"I'll go to see my Rabbi and see what I'll do." Believe it or not, it's
a boy! One thing about me, I know when to quit.
After that, that particular year we got a very, very bad weather
report and the weather report said that freezing weather is coming
in that night and all the crops are going to be killed by the
It was December, the usual cold month, I had a very good friend,
Sam Senter (Senter Hall is named after Sam), who also was in
the produce business. When we got through at night, occasionally
we would sit together playing pinochle for a nickle a deal just to
pass an hour or so. We were sitting in my house playing pinochle
when we got a telephone call from one of the groves out there with
the prediction of frost, and would we please call our Rabbi and ask
him to pray that the Lord send the frost away and not freeze the
poor growers. To top it off, he said that he would give me two
dollars to put in the poor box. I told him he couldn't buy God for
two dollars; that we Jews were for the welfare of the world, whether
it was for Christians, Jews, Arabs or anyone else, we would pray.
Rabbi Fishman went to Shul that night and we had a prayer service
and believe it or not, the clouds came in that night; there was no
frost. But, that's when I quit being a soothsayer, and a prog-
nosticator. I thought three out of three was enough for me,
J: I noticed on the bronze plaque on our synagogue wall that quite a
few Pahokee and Belle Glade companies made contributions.
F: Yes, thanks are due to our late Sam Senter, may his soul rest in
peace. This is the odyssey of a poor Jewish boy. Originally, he
drove a taxi in New York City. He pushed a hand truck in the
produce business. We both came down together in 1942.
J: Did he solicit those donations?
F: Wait, let me explain. He started off as a small farmer and eventually
he became one of the biggest. He was so big that those people that
you see on the plaque are people that were selling him; doing business
with him. He solicited them, they were people that sold him crates,
people that sold him fertilizer, people who sold him all kinds of
tractors and equipment. I remember one of the outfits, Georgia Crate
Company, for a couple of years, every year while we were starting,
they would donate quite a large sum of money to our Shul.
J: Now, in the Palm Beach area, in your residential experiences, did
you run into any conflicts with Christian neighbors?
F: No! Oh yes, there was evidence of anti-Semitism all along, but no
conflict. They ignored you and you ignored them. They had their
own clubs where the Christians, during the summer, had their lockers
and pools and everything else. You didn't go to join their club.
You couldn't get into the-Everglades Club and they couldn't get into
the Palm Beach Country Club. We sort of stuck together; we were
very close. The only thing I could say for all that, is the
stupidity of some of my non-Jewish neighbors.
I had a neighbor with whose wife we were very friendly. His wife
would come into our house every night to chat with us, have a drink
with us, have a cup of coffee with us. She would invite us, this
is when I owned a home up in the north end of the town, she would
invite us in to have tea or coffee with her. But it took her
husband 16 years until he finally said "Good morning" to me.
Well, I just placed that as stupidity and narrow-mindedness.
J: Were the Jews that you found here friendly towards strangers? How
did they accept newcomers?
F: Oh yes, we were very, very friendly with strangers. We had almost
what you would call a welcoming committee.
J: How were you received when you were a stranger?
F: How was I received: I was very busy in my business. My wife made
friends very rapidly. There was a Lido pool here, which is non-
existent now. That was the place where everybody went. It was on
the ocean between Worth Avenue and the street south of it; owned
by the Phipps family which was quite a wealthy family. They had
cabanas, lockers and everything else. That was a gambling place
for the medium class people. Some of the rich people came there.
J: Were there any other Jewish organizations, or organized Jewish
charities, or landsmanschaft groups in the area?
F: Very, very few. When I came here, Temple Israel was in existence
on Broward Place and Temple Beth El was in existence. About 10
years after I moved here, a Mr. Arnold who was a member of Temple
Beth El and lived in Lake Worth, donated the land that eventually
became the Jewish Temple in Lake Worth.
The influx of Jewry that we had here started at the termination of
World War II. A lot of the younger soldiers who had been
stationed in Boca Raton, in Morrison Field, in Miami Beach, or the
various Florida resorts, like the climate here. In 1945, '46 and
'47, we started to get an influx of Jewry into this area. It was
the result of the soldiers having their wives here while they were
in basic training and this and that. Originally, when I lived here,
I think there were 200 families in West Palm Beach and Lake Worth.
We all knew each other.
J: Did you find that this was an expensive area to live in?
F: I don't think so. The only problem I had here, when we came down
here was the kosher food. When we came down here, we were strictly
kosher. We asked around and we were told that the way they got
kosher food up here, was by calling up the butcher in Miami Beach
and he would put it on the Greyhound Bus. We would receive it and
send him a check. He even enclosed a bill. We got two shipments
out of Miami Beach and due to the heat of October when it's still
in the 90's here, the meat came up blackened and my wife wasn't
pleased with it.
My first experience going to Miami Beach to buy meat was when we
left here at 8:00 o'clock at night in 1942, the days of single-lane
highways to Miami. We had to go through every red light in every
little town. We reached Washington Avenue approximately at 11:30
and thank The Good Lord, we finally found a butcher shop open.
The man was just about to close up. My wife and I came in and we
asked him if he's sell us some meat. "You're crazy," he said.
"I'm closing up." I said, "Mister, please do me a favor; I drove
85 miles from West Palm Beach because my home is kosher. I want
kosher meat." "You drove 85 miles from West Palm Beach?" He
said, "Anybody who drives 85 miles from West Palm Beach deserves to
To make a long story short, we bought approximately $75 or $80 worth
of meat which was quite a customer in those days in 1942. When we
got through, we became very friendly and I told him that once a
week I would drive down. He said, "Mister, you call me up and let me
know when you're leaving, I don't care, you know how things are,
maybe some nights you'll get a flat; I'll be waiting for you. I
don't care if you get here at 12:00 o'clock, one o'clock, or two
o'clock in the morning. If you call me up, I'll wait for you."
That particular year, until we left June 1st, I would drive down
once a week to Miami Beach (believe me, that was a hard drive in
those days) and buy my kosher meat. When we came back the following
year, the shochet from the Catskill Mountains by the name of
Kaufman, arrived in town and, thank God, he would slaughter. We
still went down to Miami to buy meat. He would slaughter chickens
so you could buy a fresh killed chicken.
The following year he opened up a butcher shop on Rosemary Street.
He was in business about a year and he was getting old and he quit.
This was the end of the saga of the kosher butcher ship, until the
present Ira arrived in town and opened up his kosher store about
10 or 12 years ago.
J: What was your reaction to the climate when you first moved down
F: Oh, I loved it.
J: Did your family like it?
F: Oh, yes.
J: Were you personally affected by any of the hurricanes?
F: We were fortunate, I think I've gone through, maybe half a dozen
hurricanes. I was in Wauchula, Florida one time, in the fall of
the year buying vegetables, when we were hit by hurricanes. The
hurricane was very bad, blowing down trees and closing the roads.
I think the worst thing that happened was that I wasn't able to
get out of Wauchula for four days until they cleared the road. I
was in 255 Park Avenue where we had a very bad hurricane. Fortunately,
for us, we were the only people in the neighborhood that had gas
heat. It was two weeks before Florida Power and Light was able to
resume giving us electricity. We were the only ones in the
neighborhood that people would come to, this is, our particular
building; to Ceil Cohen who owned the building and ourselves. We'd
let them warm the babies' milk, if they had babies, food and
everything else. But, I've never been through a hurricane (even my
own home when I had it, I went through two or three hurricanes)
that was a major disaster.
J: Robbie, in the course of your experience in Temple Beth El, can you
tell us something about the relationship between Temple Israel and
Temple Beth El with regard to the differences between the conser-
vative movement and the reform movement?
F: Actually, for the local people that lived here, there was no
conflict whatsoever. If you wanted to join Temple Israel, you
joined Temple Israel. If you wanted to join a conservative temple,
you joined a conservative.
We were all close friends. The original settlers (what I call the
original settlers in the '42's and '45's before this became a big
town) knew everybody in town. Somebody you knew had a wedding at
Temple Israel, the whole town went to Temple Israel. If the wedding
was at Temple Beth El, the whole town went to Temple Beth El. If
there was a Bar Mitzvah at Beth El that particular Saturday morning
(well, they didn't hold Saturday services) but for the Friday night
service you can be sure that Tem-le Israel was half empty because
half the constituents of Temple Israel visits Beth El and vice-
versa. If they had a Bar Mitzvah, we would go there. I think the
Jews of this town typified in my days, before it became too big,
"Kol Yisroel Haverim". We were all friends. No animosity. No,
"Why do you belong to Temple Beth El, why don't you join our temple?"
Nothing of that around there. You joined wherever you wanted, and
that was it.