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Monthly Archive for September, 2009

MY CAREER AS A PETTY THIEF/PART TWO

I GET CAUGHT STEALING

 

It’s September 1957 and World War II hasn’t ended. Every man I know is still reliving his time in the “service.” My Uncle Sammy was drafted at age 38 and spent four years ” talkin’ to the god damn goats” in the Galapagos Islands and running a laundry for the troops. My Uncle Willie flew sixty-seven missions as a tail gunner, way above the maximum twenty-five and was court martialed when he refused to go on the sixty-eighth. Now he can’t get a good job because of his dishonorable discharge.

My father had a good war. He graduated at the top of his Officer’s Candidate School class. As a combat engineer he won a commendation for building pontoon bridges ahead of the troops who were retaking the Philippines. Even had his picture taken with General Macarthur. Now he sells gravestones. He comes home smelling of whiskey and dozes before dinner in front of the TV. In the morning he stubs out his cigarette in the yoke of his fried egg and my mother dumps his plate in the sink. To this day I get queasy every time I see an order of “sunny side up.”

I’m fourteen and a half and I’m a careful thief. I take a quarter out of my mother’s change purse when it’s full, a cigarette out of my father’s pack of Pall Malls, but only when it’s freshly opened. I’m working at my first after school job–bicycle delivery boy at Bohack’s Supermarket on 7th. Avenue in Brooklyn. We’re paid the minimum wage, $1.00 an hour, plus tips. The store manager, Phil, is a neat little man in white shirt and tie. He wears a gold officer’s ID bracelet, engraved with his name, rank and serial number and spends most of his time laughing with the housewives. Dennis is the floor manager. He was in the first Marine wave to land on Tarawa and has an angry red trench in the side of his face where a Japanese bullet grazed his jaw, shattering his cheekbone and shearing off his ear lobe. He rolls his sleeve up over a Marine Corps tattoo of eagles and writhing snakes. (Tattoos are rare in those days and almost exclusively military.) He always has a cigarette in his bad ear. He butchers sides of beef first thing in the morning and wears his bloodstained white apron the rest of the day. He unloads the trucks, makes a change bank for the checkout clerks and stocks the shelves. Then he packs all the orders for the delivery boys. He staples the orders to the bags and when we come in he adds the perishables, milk, eggs, ice cream, sodas and beer, which everybody wants cold.

There are four of us. We work from 4 to closing. There are three new bikes with “Bohacks” painted in red on the sides of the bins. I’m the new kid and I go to a different high school so I get the old Schwinn. Dennis has welded a shopping cart basket onto its handle bars, making it completely unwieldy. With fifty pounds of groceries in the basket it’s almost impossible to handle. As I ride it fully loaded up the hill toward Prospect Park, items fall out of the bags and I have to stop, brace the bike and run down the hill to retrieve them. Once a dozen eggs falls out. I run into a small corner grocery and buy a replacement.

The other kids steal Milky Ways and Clark Bars off the shelves, but one day I see Dennis lurking behind the canned goods and I know he’s looking to catch somebody in the act. I notice that he doesn’t patrol the produce department so I take a banana off the bunch and stuff it in my school bag.

Dennis knows all the customers. He sells the good tippers to the boys, taking half of what they make. After my first week he slips me an order.

“This is a two dollar run, so you owe me a buck.”

Two dollars is an enormous tip. I climb four flights, carrying three bags full of cold cuts, Velveeta, Wonder Bread, Campbell’s pork and beans, Chef Boyardee canned spaghetti and meatballs, French’s Mustard, Miracle Whip, four quarts of Rheingold beer and a carton of Walter Raleigh cork tips. A jovial fat guy with a cigar answers the door. A woman in an embroidered Chinese bed jacket is watching TV. “Look at this kid, he weighs less than the groceries,” he says and gives me a crisp five dollar bill.

Dennis is waiting when I get back. “Where’s my end?”

I give him a dollar. He snaps it with his finger. “You little thief, I was testin’ you. That’s Jimmy Tully, the bookie. He’s always good for a fin. You should only owe me two fifty, but I’ll take the whole five to teach you a lesson.”

After that Dennis sends me to the dime tippers, the old ladies who make you bring the groceries into the kitchen and put them on the top shelves of the cabinets. He makes me stay late and mop the floors; flatten the cartons and tie them together with twine; stuff the garbage in black iron oil barrels and roll them out into the alley.

One Friday, he calls me into the meat locker. “You been a good soldier so I’m gonna give you a break.” He points through the frosty window, “See that broad?”

It’s a busty blonde in a low cut sleeveless yellow sweater green Capri pants and spiked heels. Dennis nudges me. “Looks like Jayne Mansfield, don’t she?”

I’ve been covertly eyeing her for weeks as she wiggles up and down the aisles and flirts with Phil. Sometimes I’ll walk by her just so I can get a quick sidelong look at her bra. She smiles as if she’s read my mind.

“She’s married to a fireman,” Dennis says,” but always comes in when he’s workin’ round the clock to give the all clear, know what I mean? I’ll send you over there for your last delivery in case you have to stay and give her a hand…”

I spend the next few hours overcome by fear and fantasy. At seven Dennis calls me over. “613 11th., basement apartment…Don’t say I never gave you nothin.’ “

The carton is loaded with cans and bottles. A light drizzle is falling through the dusk, the drops silhouetted in the streetlights. My hands skid off the rubber grips. My heart is pounding. I wheel the bike into the areaway and go into a gloomy alcove under the steps of the brownstone. No bell. I have to brace the carton against the wall and knock.

A man answers. So tall I can’t see his face over the door frame. Only his thick football neck. He’s wearing a gray undershirt and thick black woolen fireman pants.

“Whaddya want?”

“Grocery delivery,” I say in a quavering voice.

He steps out into alcove. His bald head glows like he’s a creature from outer space. Without taking his eyes off me he calls:

“You order groceries?”

A voice responds promptly. “No…”

“Sure you got the right address?” he says and before I can answer he finds a delivery order tucked in between the bottles. “Menino,” he reads. “703 President. That ain’t even close. How’d you get here?”

“This was the address they gave me,” I say.

“Who?”

I realize if I implicate Dennis he’ll deny it and I’ll be in more trouble. I’m stuck.

“I must have made a mistake,” I say.

“Yeah, you made a mistake.” He hits me in the forehead with the heel of his hand. I stagger. The back of my head hits the cobblestone wall. Somehow I manage to hold on to the carton.

He squeezes my neck so hard I think he’s going to choke me to death.

“If I ever catch you sneakin’ around here again you won’t have nothin’ to do with girls every again, you understand?”

My head is roaring. My hands shake so badly I can hardly get the carton back into the basket. A can of Del Monte peaches falls out. I run half way down the hill and catch it in the rainy gutter.

Now it’s raining hard. Mrs. Menino complains that her groceries are all wet.

Next day Dennis acts as if nothing happened. After a week he starts sending me to the better tippers. I make sure to give him half.

It’s been a long time, but I can still see the anguish on that fireman’s face.

MY CAREER AS A PETTY THIEF/PART ONE

MY FIRST REALLY NICE FOUNTAIN PEN

 

It’s the summer of ’57. America has never been more prosperous–or more paranoid. The serpent of Communism lurks in our post war Eden, threatening to tempt us, corrupt us, brainwash us, conquer us by force or subversion. Thousands have been fired, blacklisted, even imprisoned on the mere suspicion of Communist association. John Wayne rules the Box Office battling Commie spies. Sci Fi movies warn about aliens who take over our bodies, post-nuclear insects that enslave humans–invaders from outer space whom we appease at our peril–all metaphors for the Commies plotting against us.

My woodshop teacher claims that the Panama Canal was built to allow Communist invaders easy access to the US. Once a week an air raid siren sounds and we have to take cover under our desks. When we giggle and horse around our Home Room teacher screams: “Wait until the Chinese are bayonetting babies on Coney Island Avenue. You won’t be laughing then!”

Our biggest shock is yet to come in October when the Soviets launch sputnik. Now we will live in fear of Hydrogen Bombs raining down on us from outer space.

And to top it all off the Dodgers have left Brooklyn…

I am fourteen and a half years old and ready for my first real summer job. But because I’m a minor I need the approval of the State of New York. Getting my “Working Papers” trumps Confirmation and compulsive masturbation as the true rite of passage to manhood. I feel very grown up as I buy a NY Post at the subway station. I try to mimic the same bored, weary expression I see on the other passengers.

The State Department of Labor is in a hulking gray stone office building on Livingston Street in downtown Brooklyn. I am buffeted in the swarming lobby by people who know where they’re going. A Post Office cop slaps his billy club into his palm at my approach. I ask where I can get my working papers. He gestures toward the elevators.

“Go get your physical on the tenth floor.”

I walk down a dimly lit, film noir corridor, past offices with smoked glass windows, until I come to a door with a sign reading State Dept. of Labor. Typewriters are clattering in a large office. A man gets up from a desk with a surly “Can I help you?”

“I’m here for the physical for my working papers,” I say.

He’s fat red-headed guy with bloodshot blue eyes, his tie askew, a cigarette dangling out of the corner of his mouth.

“Let’s go to the examining room,” he says.

He walks me into a smaller office where three men look up from their desks.

“Kid’s here for his physical,” he says. He pulls me toward a table. “Sit there…” Stubs out his cigarette. “Open your mouth.” Pulls my jaw down. “Wider…” Looks down my throat. “Say Ahhh…Do you get tonsillitis?”

“I had my tonsils out when I was a little kid,” I say.

He turns to the men in the office. “It’s okay, he had his tonsils out when he was a little kid..Good.,” he says to me. “That could have been a problem.”

Next, he pries my eyes open. “Wear glasses? Suffer from pink eye or wall eye…?”

Before I can answer he twists my head and pulls my ear down. “You’ve got serious wax deposits , son. Do you wash your ears?”

“Every day,” I lie.

A man rushes out of the office, head down, coughing and sputtering.

“You oughta take care of that asthma, Doctor Mulrain,” the red-headed guy calls after him. ” We may have to have you come back with clean ears so we can check on your auditory canal,” he says to me.

My mother had told me to take a shower the night before. I’m thinking of what lie to tell when I come home empty-handed.

” Stand up and face the wall,” he barks.

I obey numbly, still worrying about my mother.

” Bend over and drop your pants,” he says.

My mother had told me to change my underwear. I didn’t and now I’m hoping the stains don’t show.

“Underwear, too,” the guy says.

I hesitate.

“You want your working papers or what?”

I pull my jockeys down.

“Okay,” the guy says. “Now spread the cheeks of your ass…C’mon spread ‘em, this isn’t a fashion show.”

I’m fourteen and a half. Nobody has ever seen my ass before. I’m mortified. The red-headed guy walks up and down.

“Okay, pull ‘em up..” He turns to the men in the office. “Okay?”

“Okay,” they say.

He takes me outside to his desk. “You pass,” he says. Scribbles a note and hands the folded paper to me. “Give this to the nurse across the hall.”

This door has a sign that reads New York City Board of Health. The office looks more like a doctor’s waiting room. A chill of suspicion spreads through me. A nurse at a desk is putting on lipstick, puckering into a compact mirror.

“Yes…?”

“I just took the physical for my working papers,” I say, and give her the note.

She reads it, shaking her head. “Fat red-headed guy across the hall give this to you?”

“Yes…”

“Did he examine you?”

“Yes,” I say and realize from her look that something is horribly wrong.

“Wait here,” she says, and walks into an inner office.

I dive for the note. It says: “Lunch? Blarney Castle?

A minute later the nurse comes out with an elderly man with a droopy gray mustache. “You’re not in mama’s kitchen now, sonny,” he says in a thick Yiddish accent. “You have to know where you’re going, who you’re supposed to see and what you’re talking about. ” He takes a gold pocket watch out of his vest pocket. “I’m going to lunch.”

“Those guys played a mean, stupid trick on you,” the nurse says.

“But the guard downstairs told me I needed a physical.”

“He was wrong,” she says. ” All we need is an adult’s consent.” She hands me a form. “Fill this out and have your parent or guardian sign it. Then bring it back or send it in…” She sees my stricken look. “Those guys are big jokers. Workman’s Comp claims, they have nothing to do all day long…They’re jerks. Forget it.”

Humiliation is felt sharply by the very young. I go out into the hall, sick with the memory of what just happened. I want to get out of that building and never come back. But in 1957 Brooklyn is still under the Napoleonic Code. Honor must be defended, insults avenged. I barge back into the fat redhead’s office to have it out with him.

The office is empty, phones ringing, cigarettes still smoldering in ashtrays, like everybody ran out in a panic. Just a typical lunch time in the Civil Service.

I go to the guy’s desk bent on retributive damage. A typewriter–I could bend the keys. A stack of forms–I could tear them up. I open a drawer. There is a fountain pen case. On a red plush bed is a Parker Pen. It’s the new 61 model, gold cap, red body, “self-filling by capillary action,” the advertisement says. It’s the coolest pen brand in the world. William Holden, the epitome of suave, is its official spokesman. This guy obviously loves the pen. He keeps it in its case on its red plush bed.

I pocket he pen and snap the case shut. The corridor is empty. The lobby is teeming, but I know exactly where I’m going. Outside, I pass the Blarney Castle on the way to the subway. The redheaded guy is laughing it up with his buddies at the bar.

I used that pen for twenty years. Every time I wrote a note or signed a check I thought of that redheaded guy trying to figure out who had stolen his precious Parker 61. When its capillaries couldn’t suck up ink anymore I put it out to pasture in my desk drawer as a reward for services rendered.