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Monthly Archive for December, 2009

MY CAREER AS A PETTY THIEF/PART SEVEN

I STEAL A MATCHBOOK FROM MARILYN MONROE

PART FOUR

I GIVE MARILYN THE GRAND TOUR

 

I have a guilty secret: I’m not attracted to Marilyn Monroe. I’m a serial self-abuser when it comes to her earthy imitators–Mamie Van Doren and Jayne Mansfield. I can sit through seven cartoons, a newsreel and a Randolph Scott western just to get a second look at Jane Russell in The Fuzzy Pink Nightgown. After I see Janet Leigh in Psycho, I lock myself in my room for days, only coming out for meals. I’ve spent so much time in the shower with Yvonne De Carlo I’m getting webbed fingers. But Marilyn just isn’t on my Fantasy team. She has an aloof, distracted look like she’s getting messages from another dimension. I can’t fit her into any imaginary scenarios and it bothers me. I fear for my masculinity.

Marilyn is standing so close I can smell her perfume. It’s a warm April day, but she is wearing an ankle length fur coat, opened slightly onto a black dress. Her breasts seem to quiver with the slightest movement. I’ve never known a woman, from 11 to 90, to go braless so I am transfixed. No jewelry, nail polish, make up or lipstick. Her skin isn’t blushing ivory as it is in Technicolor, but pasty with a tiny pimple here and there. Her eyes are invisible behind the dark glasses and her white blonde hair disappears in the sunlight.

“Miss Monroe?” I ask.

She gives me the “Duh” smile.

“I’d like to see the the Miller family?” she says.

“I will direct you,” I say with my best funereal politesse.

“Do we have to go through there?” She gestures toward the milling lobby. News of her arrival must have spread through the ether. People are peering through the glass doors. A traffic jam is forming on Coney Island Avenue. A mounted cop rides out of the park at full gallop. ” I don’t want to draw attention,” she says. “Is there another way?”

“We can take the back elevator,” I say.

I lead her around the corner. My colleagues are standing at the office window, waving and shaking their heads. In the parking lot the chauffeurs step out of their limos, putting on their caps. Sconzo runs out the back door, buttoning his coat.

“Mr. Gould,” he calls

“Excuse me, it’s my boss,” I say and leave her on the ramp leading to the basement.

“Are you fuckin’ crazy?” Sconzo whispers.

“She didn’t want to draw attention so I’m taking her through the back elevators,” I say.

“You’re gonna walk her right by the embalming room for Chrissake,” he says with a panicky look. “Alright, alright, I’ll call down and tell them to close the door…” He shoves me. “Go, go…”

It’s been fifteen seconds and already Marilyn has drawn a crowd. A column of horseback riders from the Prospect Park Riding Academy next door rides by. There is a chorus of “whoas!” The horses stop and plop. Bowlers pour out of the Park Circle Lanes across the street, some still holding their balls.

“Hope I’m not causing any bother,” she says.

“Of course not,” I say.

She teeters on her heels and grabs my wrist as we walk down the steep ramp. The sunlight stops at the garage overhang. It is suddenly very dark and shivery. I walk her past the hearses down a narrow hallway. Marshall, the porter emerges from the supply closet lighting a cigarette. He gapes, match in midair.

“Hi,” Marilyn says.

At the end of the hallway is the harsh light of the embalming room. Two bodies are on the white porcelain embalming tables. Marilyn stops for a moment. A dark figure–probably Marshall– whooshes by and closes the door, but we can still hear the tinny radio playing rock and roll.

“Is that the morgue?” Marilyn asks.

“The embalming room,” I say.

She walks on ahead of me.

“Then, what’s this?”

I realize with a jolt that we haven’t closed the door of the tohorah room where Orthodox Jews prepare their dead for burial.

“That’s for the very religious people,” I say. “They have a special ceremony…”

Marilyn is staring into a small bare room where a shrouded body lies under a bare bulb on a long wooden table. It is a female–we can see the sparse white hair against the bony skull. An elderly woman is bustling around the body with a sponge.

“What’s she doing?” Marilyn asks.

“Purifying the body,” i say. “You see the religious people don’t believe in embalming. They wash the body in vinegar and eggs and bury the person within twenty-four hours.”

A bent old man with a white beard comes out of a dark corner, mumbling. Marilyn gasps and reaches for me. “Who’s that?”

“That’s the shomer,” I say. “The religious people believe the deceased should never be left alone. This man watches the body and prays over it…”

“He scared me to death,” she says.

The service elevator is full of casket dollies. I push them out and escort Marilyn in. The door creaks slowly shut. The cables squeal and the elevator labors.

“You know a lot about this,” Marilyn says.

“I’m working my way through college,” I say. It’s a senseless response, but she doesn’t seem to notice.

“Oh,” she says.

The door creaks open on the second floor. I lead her down a crowded hallway. Mourners from other funerals are jostling for a look.

As we approach the Miller family room Marilyn steps behind me. Nobody ever wants to enter a reposing room. No one knows how to condole. I suddenly feel protective.

“Excuse us please,” I say.

The crowd around the door parts. An old man staggers up from a sofa near the casket.

“Marilyn.”

“Papa.”

He falls into her arms.

“They’re very close,” a woman whispers. “He’s the father she never had…”

The visitors step back as she leads him to the couch.

“Watch, see, if she even says a word to Arthur,” a woman says. “From what I hear it’s not amicable.”

Mr. Miller reaches under Marilyn’s coat to embrace her.

“That’s right Izzie, get a good handful,” someone says.

It’s a bent, squinty old man with Maalox crust around his lips.

“Shut up Ben…”

This from a stout old lady with swollen ankles in a black dress with a lace collar.

“Wonder who I can get when you go,” the old man says.

“I’m warning you, Ben…”

The old man prods me in the ribs with thick working man fingers. “Hey kid, you booking this? Can you get me Mitzi Gaynor for her funeral?”

Albino, the semi-dwarf with a beak nose and patent leather hair, steps into the room and clears his throat, dramatically.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, will you all please take your seats in the chapel now for the Miller services. Only the immediate family need remain.”

The visitors file out, leaving Marilyn, the old man and a young women who I guess is the daughter. The tall guy standing by the window must be the son, the famous playwright, Arthur Miller.

Albino gives me the let-me-show-you-how-it’s done wink. He tries to take Marilyn by the arm.

“If you’ll come with me, Miss Monroe…”

But she pulls away from him…”Wait…” And goes to the tall man by the window. He stares down at her as if he doesn’t understand what she’s saying. She turns away and looks around like she’s lost.

“Come Marilyn, sit with me,” the old man says.

“No, no, Papa, I’ll see you later,” she says.

Reluctantly, Albino, leads the family out of the room.

Now it’s just the two of us. Protocol dictates that the last visitor be out of the room before the casket is moved.

“Do you wish to be seated?” I ask Marilyn.

“No, no, wait,” she says.

Aiello and Celiberti appear in the doorway.

“Mr. Shmatzner, Mr. Plotzstein,” I call. “You can come in…”

They enter…”Excuse us…”

As they are wheeling the casket out, Marilyn turns to me.

“Stay with me, please…”

NEXT: I TAKE MARILYN TO THE SECRET PLACE

 

MY CAREER AS A PETTY THIEF/PART SEVEN

I STEAL A MATCHBOOK FROM MARILYN MONROE
PART THREE
I BUY A TOE TAG FOR MARILYN

Hollywood has names for them. The “double-takers” –the ones who look familiar so you look again and still can’t remember their names. The “isn’t that,” or “wasn’t he in” celebrities. I’ll learn those categories in a life to come. Now it’s 1961 in the Riverside Memorial Chapel across from Prospect Park, and we get plenty of double-takers. Comedians, supporting actors, politicians–a slight thrill of recognition and they melt into the crowd.

But everybody in the world knows Marilyn. Every man has fantasized a lurid encounter with her. Every woman has wondered what it must be like to have every man in the room lusting after you. Gay men, too, I suppose, but they are still in very deep cover.

How much seed has been spilled over Marilyn’s calendar? How often has she substituted for a humdrum partner?

And now she’s coming to a funeral. She’ll walk through that door and one of us will be there to escort her.

Thirty guys are jammed into the tiny back office, each hoping to be the lucky one.

Sconzo, the day manager, originally appointed himself to the job. But he has been shouted down by the mob.

“Okay, we’ll make it democratic,” he says.

He takes out a handful of toe tags, the name tags, tied to the toes of the deceased to identify them.

“Everybody pays a five dollar entry fee and gets a tag,” he says.

There is a roar of protest, but Sconzo doesn’t waver.

“If you guys give me a hard time I’ll pull rank and you can all take a walk,” he says. “You buy a ticket for the Irish Sweepstakes, don’t ya? Well, this is the Marilyn Monroe Sweepstakes…”

“Yeah, but five bucks,” whines Aiello, a young apprentice.

“You give three bucks to that fat old hooer on Pitkin Avenue,” Sconzo says. “You won’t pony up a fin for Marilyn Monroe?”

Out come the fives.

“No owsies,” Sconzo decrees.

“But I only have three bucks on me,” says Rizzo, the grave robber.

“So go borrow a deuce from your wife,” says Sconzo.

The limo drivers in their dark coats and gray striped pants take a flyer. Earl, the handyman in his greasy work clothes, promises to rush home and put on a suit if he wins. The black porters, Marshall, Bill and Walter, right off the tobacco fields of South Carolina, watch from the doorway. Sconzo waves to them.

“You guys in?”

“Who you kiddin’?” Marshall says.” You just gonna palm our tags.”

“If you win, you win,” Sconzo says.

The porters caucus, still mistrustful, and decide to buy one ticket with all three names on it.

“If we win, we’ll pick the guy,” Marshall says.

We write our names on the tags. Sconzo puts them in a trash can and starts to draw.

“No, no,” says Rizzo, also a card cheat and a thief. “You could crimp your own tag that way.”

“Mix ‘em up,” we say.

Sconzo empties another can and pours the tags from one into the other, mixing before and after each pour. After the fourth pour he looks up.

“Okay?”

“Okay draw…”

“Draw already…”

He reaches into the can and comes out with a tag. “And the winner is…Gould…”

“GOULD???”

A chorus of groans, a shaking of disgusted heads.

“The kid?”

“Marone, what a waste.”

I am pushed, reviled.

“He wouldn’t know what to do with it.”

A shove from Albino, a semi-dwarf with a banana nose, who fancies himself a great lover.

“Tell the truth, kid. Didja ever get laid?”

I take a beat too long to answer.

“Sure I did…”

Albino reaches up and clocks me with the heel of his hand. “Fatchim! I’m not talkin’ about a handjob under the stairs.” His face screws up and he blinks back a tear. “I’m talkin’ about makin’ love to a real woman.” And turns away in despair. “This is a tragedy. A fuckin’ tragedy…”

Cesario, a hearse driver, shoves a handful of bills at me. “Cut the crap. Thirty bucks for your tag.”

The room gets quiet. Ceasario is rumored to have mob connections.

Still, I waver. I am stung by the sneers at my manhood, my inexperience. I know that if I surrender the ticket I will be seen as a coward.

Then, Sconzo comes to my rescue.

“He won it fair and square,” he says.

Cesario turns to him. “And I’m makin’ him a fair offer,” he says.

“No propositions,” Sconzo says. He checks his watch. “Funeral’s at one. They said she’d be here at twelve-forty five. Better get out there to meet her.”

Cesario is humbled, his power broken. He pockets his money and walks out. In a second the mood has changed. Everybody is grooming me for my big moment.

“Button your jacket…”

“Stand straight and look her in the eye.”

“If you get a chance to shake her hand, see if you can put her finger on her pulse. That gives broads chills…”

Albino takes me aside with an urgent look. “When you talk to her, keep a normal face, you know what I mean, but try to imagine her takin’ her clothes off. You know like pullin’ the skirt to unhook the stockings. Unbuttonin’ the blouse…Just keep thinkin’ it, y’see and that’ll give her the idea…” He breathes a blast of expresso and Lucky Strikes in my face. “Okay?”

“Okay…”

Mourners mill in the lobby. Nobody knows that Marilyn Monroe is coming today.

It’s a warm April day. The chapel is on a traffic circle that feeds to the park, the Parade Grounds baseball fields and Coney Island Avenue.

A charcoal Lincoln Continental Convertible, top down, comes around the circle. In the front seat, a chauffeur with a gray cap. In the back seat, a blonde wearing dark glasses. The Continental pulls up to the curb.

I’m frozen.

I hear Albino’s anguished whisper. “Shmuck! Go grab the door for her.”

Too late. The chauffeur opens the door, and offers a helping hand.

Marilyn Monroe steps out and looks around.

 

NEXT: MARILYN GETS THE GRAND TOUR

MY CAREER AS A PETTY THIEF/PART SEVEN

I STEAL A MATCHBOOK FROM MARILYN MONROE
PART TWO
THAT ARTHUR MILLER? WHO KNEW?

 

It’s 1961. I’m only 18, but my black deeds are mounting. I win an $800 scholarship for high scores on the State Board of Regents exams. I tell my parents I’ll use it for text books and a new typewriter, but my secret plan is to cash the check and run off to Europe where I intend to sport a beret, seduce French girls and write the Great American Novel. I see myself, standing alone on a windswept deck, while my sobbing mother reads my terse note of farewell.

I smoke marijuana and drink cheap wine every night, curing the morning malaise with a cherry Coke and an egg salad sandwich. My father tells me I look like a raccoon. To cover I make up symptoms–back pain, insomnia, nausea. My mother plies me with cod liver oil and chicken soup–I draw the line at an enema.

I am an erection in search of a home. Candidates can be of any age. Breasts are the main attraction. But I can be driven crazy by thighs swishing through a tight skirt.

I am an eclectic lecher. I nurse a frenzied fantasy for one of my buxom aunts. Somehow she senses it and won’t give me her usual wet kiss when she comes to visit. Occasionally, I am transfixed by the swinging buttocks of police horses.

NY State won’t send the scholarship check until the winner has completed at least one semester with a 3.0. Every morning I wrestle torpor and lose in freshman survey courses at Brooklyn College. In the afternoon I go to the Riverside Memorial Chapel across from Prospect Park where I defame the dead, the bereaved and the faith of my forebears.

NY State law requires all undertakers to serve an apprenticeship. My colleagues are young men whose families own small funeral homes. They are Italian and Irish and Riverside is a Jewish funeral parlor so the night manager, Tom Mammana, gives them Jewish aliases. Celiberti becomes “Krieger;” Aiello is “Altman;” McCadden answers to “Morris.”

But these names are too tame. The boys make up their own burlesque versions, calling to each other across a lobby crowded with mourners…”Mr. Shmatler, will you please take these people to the Gladstein room…” “Mr. Krapinsky, could you please direct these people…” “Be right there Mr. Plotzstein…” And then run into an alcove red-faced with suppressed laughter.

Still, there is some sacrilege not even these pranksters will commit. They’ll wear skull caps, but won’t say the short prayer for the dead. Because I am the only real Jew I’m elected. On Sundays funerals begin at nine-thirty and go non-stop in fifteen minute intervals until three-thirty. I stand in the family room off the chapel keeping an appropriately grave face as Shmatler, Plotzstein and Krapinsky try to crack me up. They lurk out of sight in the wings of the chapel, making faces, obscene gestures, even dropping their pants. I stare at them stony and unmoved. Before the ceremony I recite a short prayer, which the immediate family repeats after me. Then I rend their garments with a razor blade and lead them into the main chapel, requesting the mourners to “please rise,” and then “be seated.”

The families often misunderstand my simple instructions. “Please repeat after me,” I say to one man. “I’m going to cut your tie…”

“I’m going to cut your tie,” he blubbers.

“No, just the prayer,” I say.

“Just the prayer,” he repeats.

“No the Hebrew part…”

“Say the prayer already,” someone interrupts. “He’s only the brother-in-law.”

I begin the prayer…”Baruch atah adonai..”

Aiello/Plotzstein enters at the proper funereal pace. I know what he’s going to do and steel myself.

“Eloheinu melech haolam…”

As Aiello passes he turns to me and opens his mouth. Out pops a lit cigarette. He swallows it and walks on. I bite hard on my lip and finish the prayer.

“Dayan ha emet…”

Most funeral are models of decorum, but there are occasional outbursts, which test my impassivity.

A widow looks down at her husband.

“Harry, how many times did I tell you: Nobody buys pencils. Paper Mate ball points Harry…”

And is cut off by an anguished cry. “Let Daddy rest, Mama, you’ll sell the pencils…”

For weeks after that we greet each other with “Paper Mate ball points, Harry,” and answer in helpless mirth: “we’ll sell the pencils, Esther…”

One night I drink a bottle of Romilar Cough Syrup. An hour later I am whirling, aimless in the cosmos. Space winds howl in my ear. I try to open my eyes, but they have been locked shut. Then I realize:

I’M GOING TO HELL!

God is punishing me for my lies to my parents, my petty larcenies and perverted lusts– my disrespect for the dead. I cling to the slimy walls of my sanity, thinking: this isn’t real, this isn’t happening. But the deceased fly by me in their shrouds, their hospital gowns, their sad pajamas. The fat lady I threw onto the stretcher. The old man with the camp tattoos on his arm. Chalk white, blue veins protruding, crabbed fingers pointing.

Somehow I am on the cool tile of my parents’ bathroom. Then under a hot shower. The same God who is sending me to hell has also provided cherry Cokes and egg salad, heavy on the mayo. I am given another chance. Henceforth, I will be truthful, honest and respectful.

But mere days later I am in an Orthodox burial shroud stuffing myself with Italian sausage.

“MARILYN FUCKIN’ MONROE” is coming to the Miller funeral.

We grab the “first call sheet.” The deceased is Augusta…Next of kin, husband Isidore, daughter Joan, son Arthur…

That’s it.

“Arthur Miller, the playwright,” I say.

“Debts of a Salesman…”

” They’re separated,” Sconzo, the day manager says.

The office is now crowded. No one is out on the floor directing the mourners. It’s anarchy. People wandering into the wrong reposing rooms. Looking in the caskets: and running out:

“That’s not my Uncle Max.”

Sconzo has been on the phone with Marilyn’s secretary. “She says Marilyn is still very close to the family,” he says. “She wants to come and express her condolences, but she doesn’t want to cause a commotion.” He takes a dramatic pause. “She asked if it would be possible for someone to meet her at the door and take her to the family room? Then, escort her to a private place where she can watch the service without drawing attention…Then, back to her car…” Another pause. “I told her it could be arranged…”

The room explodes.

Who’s gonna meet her?

“Me, who else?” says Sconzo.

Suddenly, everybody’s a communist.

“Just ’cause you’re the boss?”

“You don’t have no special privileges…”

“We have just as much rights as you do…”

“What’d we fight the war for?”

“Okay, okay,” Sconzo says with a gleam, as if he had it planned all along. “We’ll do it the democratic way.”

NEXT: I BUY A TOE TAG FOR MARILYN

MY CAREER AS A PETTY THIEF/PART SEVEN

I STEAL A MATCHBOOK FROM MARILYN MONROE
PART ONE
THE HORNY AND THE DEAD

It’s 1961 and Brooklyn isn’t cool yet. It’s still a tributary, sending stenographers and piece workers across the bridge to mother Manhattan. Where colorful locals “tawk like dis” and mourn their departed Dodgers.

No war movie is complete without a “dese and dose” Flatbusher getting a salami from his mommy while he wisecracks in the Army. No B-musical can be filmed without a gum-popping Coney Island chorine who “knows the score.”

The Brooklyn Museum has a world renowned collection of hieroglyphs and papyri; the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens has the finest stand of Japanese cherry trees outside of Kyoto. But those joints (as we say in Brooklyn) are just for tourists and field trips.

Norman Mailer and Truman Capote are Brooklynites, not to mention poet Marianne Moore for whom the term “doyenne” was invented. But they live in Brooklyn Heights, a spit, which broke off from Manhattan Island after the Ice Age and has been trying to reattach ever since.

The real Brooklyn is a seething mass of sexual speculation. Three million people existing in uneasy intimacy with total strangers. Standing nose to nose and crotch to buttock on the subway. Adjoining each other in crowded apartment buildings where you can hear a sigh or smell a fart through thin walls. Looking at each other and wondering: “Does she want to?” “Is that a hint?” “Why is he staring at me like that?” “Should I say something?” ” What if Morty finds out?” “Jeeze, her boyfriend’s a fuckin’ giant…”

You want libidinal chaos? Try Coney Island on a summer weekend. The beach is a heaving mass of wriggling limbs, so jammed you can’t see the sand. Every age and variety of human anatomy is on display. You seesaw from repulsion to infatuation as you tiptoe between the blankets.

In my wanderings I see a clump of humanity, risen like a bush in the desert. That means there’s a hot bod on a blanket. I change course, trampling shrieking infants and dozing oldsters until I find myself on the fringe of a group of desperate men, all trying very hard not to look at what they came to see. A babe in a bikini pretends she doesn’t know she’s being watched and continues doing her nails, smoking a cigarette or, most excruciating of all, lying on her stomach while her friend spreads Bain de Soleil on the backs of her legs. She doesn’t have to be a beauty. A bit of boob peeking out of the bottom of a bra, a wisp of unshaven pube is enough to draw a frenzied mob.

Brooklyn is a place to be from, not to go to. This is proven by who dies and who buries them.

I’m working at Riverside Memorial Chapel, a funeral parlor on Park Circle across from Prospect Park. I’m a “removal man.” Every night I go to cluttered apartments in shabby neighborhoods where a very old person has quietly passed among his/her souvenirs. The deceased can lay undiscovered for days, even weeks, their death scent oozing out from under the door, obscured by cooking smells, gas leaks and general funk. Eventually, the uncashed Social Security checks in their mailboxes sound the alarm and cops arrive with crowbars. I show up soon thereafter, black suit and body bag my badge of office. I walk past stiffly posed photos of the old country, wedding pictures, Bar Mitzvah shots to a rumpled bed where a crumpled person in a cotton nightgown or striped pajamas settled in for a nap and never woke up.

I move bodies out of morgues in large hospitals. The attendant slides open a drawer on staring faces in the blue hospital gowns they died in.

I venture into Brooklyn’s vast, uncharted interior. To forgotten Jewish nursing homes in the encroaching black ghetto. The splintered steps creak. The warped screen door squeals. On the porch skeletons turn.

Is he here for me?

No Shmuel, you’re not dead yet.

The deceased is covered by a threadbare gray sheet. A friend sits by the window, nodding and licking cracked lips. They hand me a small valise and a shopping bag filled with used sundries. I belt it onto the stretcher on top of the body.

Two days later we bury them. The families show up all sleek and suburban in shiny sedans. The men are dressed for the office. The women wear dark suits, fur capes and walk in clouds of scent. The grandchildren bicker and fidget. Everyone has that extra layer of flesh that you get when you’re born in America.

A hired rabbi reads the prayers and gives a brief summary of the person’s life. It’s 1961 so we get a lot of “he/she survived the hell of Auschwitz;” or “came to this country at the age of nine with nothing but the clothes on his/her back; ” or “sent three children through college on a cutter’s salary…”

Occasionally, a cry of grief escapes like a hiccup.

“Momma, don’t leave me…”

Or:

“Forgive me Papa…”

It is answered by a brief of chorus of sobs and murmurs. The rabbi waits for silence, then concludes with the prayer for the dead. The chapel empties. We wheel the casket into the hearse. And wheel the next casket in for the next service.

Jews don’t bury on Saturday so Sunday is our busiest day. The manager is Italian, Anthony Sconzo, but he calls himself Yale Slutnick in deference to the clientele. On Sundays his wife cooks dinner for the staff, A big pot of veal pizzaiola with meatballs and chunks of sausage. Baked ziti with eggplant and mozzarella. Broccoli rabe. We eat in the back office, slipping on Orthodox burial shrouds so we won’t get sauce on our suits.

I don’t get this food in my mother’s kitchen so I am gorging myself when the phone rings. Sconzo listens for a while.

“Very funny, Angie” And covers the phone, shaking his head. “My stupid sister-in-law…” But then gets serious.

“Yes, okay, I understand…Sure…We’ll take care of it…”

And hangs up with a look of utter stupefaction.

We watch as he struggles to regain the power of speech.

“Why is this day different from all other days?” he finally gasps.

We pause, forks poised.

He rises and stretches his arms to the sputtering fluourescents, looking like Lazarus in his sauce-spattered shroud.

” Marilyn Monroe will be attending a funeral here,” he announces.

A scream issues from his limbic recesses.

“MARILYN FUCKIN’ MONROE!”

Next: THAT ARTHUR MILLER? WHO KNEW?