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Monthly Archive for February, 2010

MY CAREER AS A PETTY THIEF/PART EIGHT/Part Two

I GET AN EDGE
PART TWO
MY “INVISIBLE ANGEL.”

 

It’s 1961. I’m 18 and I’ve peaked. Playing on the freshman basketball team I try everything to increase my vertical leap. Deep knee bends, stairway sprints, hops and skips, leg presses–nothing works. I still can’t get more than three fingers over the rim from a standing jump.

We fool around in bio lab, flicking the organs of a dissected fetal pig at the girls, who squeal obligingly. This enrages the professor. “Laugh while you can, boys,” he says, “because after the age of seventeen the male goes into rapid sexual decline. In her early thirties when the female has reached the height of her estral excitability you will be unable to satisfy her. You will be like the impotent chimps banished into the jungle by the younger males.” I bluster out of class, but am secretly haunted by the vision of females poised on their haunches while I scuttle, hunched, hairy and flaccid into Prospect Park, pursued by screeching studs.

And there is now a new frustration in my life: I cannot get better at chess. After a few months of rapid improvement I’ve hit the wall. Every night I challenge the players one or two levels above me and am humiliated.

Chess players browbeat and insult their opponents. It’s part of the game and anything goes. “You’re not even mediocre,” a bald DA named Jack shouts at me, slamming down the winning move.

An intern named Serge who comes up from Beekman Hospital in surgical blues screams in mock pain: “You are torturing me with your ignorance.” And traps my Queen.

Joe the Russian sticks a stubby yellowed finger in my face. “Don’t you see the train speeding down on you, patzer? You have no hope…”

I can think of nothing but chess. I buy more books, study more games. Each of my opponents has a favorite opening and defense. I spend hours preparing all possible responses. But still I lose.

In those pre steroid days I try caffeine and nicotine. A beatnik bongo player sells me a benzedrine inhaler for a dollar. He breaks it open and rolls the drug-soaked paper into a ball. “Eat it, man, you’ll rule the world.”

I sit at the table, a subway roaring in my brain. The drug fractures my focus. I hear every conversation around me. I look into the faces in the crowd and sense their contempt. Going home at dawn I replay the games I lost and cringe at the blunders I made. I’m so crazed I go four stations past my stop.

I am losing eight to ten dollars a night. With a net of $72 a week after taxes I’ll have to hit my secret stash. I’ve been saving that money to make my escape to Paris and literary eminence. I should stop now. Give up…But I can’t.

One night I am playing Ronald, a fat, smelly teenager who eats gooey baloney sandwiches, belches root beer and grabs the pieces with mayo-slicked fingers. Ronald is an Asberger’s hustler; I see him playing scrabble with the NYU kids at Washington Square fountain and Go with the old Asian guys from the restaurants. In a hurry to take my two dollars he plays the Queens Gambit, an opening which confounds weaker players. He moves quickly, egging me on. “C’mon, don’t prolong the misery…” After the opening moves he attacks my center. I panic. I’ve seen this variation in Alekhine vs. Capobianco, but I can’t remember the response. I decide to retreat. As I touch my Knight someone sneezes. A lanky guy with greasy shoulder length hair is standing behind Ronald. He’s a serious player. I’ve seen him at the big tables, leaning back to blow smoke rings while his opponent agonizes over a move. I’ve passed him looking away with a distracted air as an astonishing blonde in a cashmere coat clutches his sleeve, whispering urgently. He covers his mouth and shakes his head slightly.

Is it a signal? I touch another piece. He purses his lips and blinks , which I take for a “no.” There are a few more possible moves. I touch the pieces until he lowers his head, which I read as “yes.” I make the move.

Ronald jerks and scowls. I’ve stymied his plan. People mutter in admiration, a new sound to me. He makes a move. I touch a piece. My benefactor brushes his hair away from his face, which I take for a “what else?” I make the move and initiate a furious exchange which results in an even position.

Ronald does a quick calculation. It will take him another half hour to beat me,if he can, and that will cost him money. He wants to trap the other fish before they wander away.

“Okay, you got lucky,” he says. “It’s a draw…”

“That’ll be two dollars,” I say.

“It’s a push,” he says.

“A push is no gain, but a draw is a half point,” I say. The spectators, happy to take Ronald down a peg, back me up. “C’mon, a draw wins…” “Pay the man…”

There’s nothing a hustler hates more than to lose money. Ronald digs into his pocket and comes out with a crumpled dollar bill, which he throws at me. “Here’s a buck. That’s all you get.” And sneers up at the crowd of eager losers. “Next fish…”

I step away from the table. The guy turns away, which I take for a “don’t talk to me.”

At dawn he is sitting on a rail as I leave the park. He’s skinny. Blue veins run up his wrists to his shoulders. Sniffly with a big nose and bulging bloodshot eyes. He points to the book I’m carrying. “Myth of Sisyphus,” he says. “Is that for reading or impressing girls?”

“A little of both, “I say.

“How come you wear black?”

“I work at a funeral parlor in Brooklyn.”

“Only the dead know Brooklyn,” he says.

I have a feeling he’s testing me.

“Thomas Wolfe,” I say.

“I hate a hustler who can’t play,” he says. “Ronald picks on weak players. Next time we’ll clean him out.”

“Next time?”

He turns quickly down the block. “Let’s go, I don’t want anyone to see us.” As we walk he explains: “Look, you’re a B player. You’ll never get better…”

“Why not?”

“Chess is a prodigy’s game,” he says. “By the time I was five I was beating grown ups. Were you? From twenty to death there are no big jumps in skill. You just try to conserve…”

“If I’m just a B player why do you want me?” I ask.

“A B is better than 90% of the population.” He offers me a Gauloise, a noisome French cigarette that Belmondo smoked in Breathless. ” Nobody here will play me anymore so I’ll play through you. You’re good enough to win an occasional game without causing suspicion. I can get action on you in the crowd. We’ll split fifty fifty…”

“How do you know I’ll win?” I ask.

“Signals,” he says. “It’s a simple system. You can learn it in ten minutes…”

“You mean cheating?”

“What are you, a naive moralist?” he says.” Every competitive athlete, game player, politician is looking for an edge…”

“Within the rules,” I say.

“Nobody obeys the rules willingly. That’s why there are referees. Part of the skill in winning is hiding your edge.”

“I want to beat these guys on my ability,” I say.

“You’re not good enough,” he says. “At least you can get the money and the prestige…”

He senses me faltering. “Look, what if God sent an invisible angel that only you could see to stand over your shoulder and give you the moves? That would be okay wouldn’t it?”

It’s like a forced move in chess. There’s only one answer.

“I guess so.”

“Well he sent me” he says. “I am your invisible angel.”

NEXT: I STEAL SOME GLORY

 

MY CAREER AS A PETTY THIEF/PART EIGHT/Part One

I GET AN “EDGE”
PART ONE

It’s 1961 and Brooklyn is a living, breathing Antiques Road Show. We’re sitting on trillions and don’t know it. Everything in my parents’ house–from the fiesta ware, the Heywood Wakefield furniture, oriental figurines, candy dishes, Nelson clocks, Danish lamps, silver serving spoons from the “old country”–will be a classic collectible in the future. My tipsy uncle careens around our cluttered living room. “Better not break anything, Sammy…” my mother warns. “Why don’t you get rid of this junk?” he yells back.

The streets are lined with cars that in thirty years will be bid up to a half a million by Saudi sheiks. Now they’re just “lemons” with lousy brakes that won’t start in cold weather.

I give an elderly neighbor $350 for his 1957 Chevy Bel Air, I hate its mint green color so I pay Earl Sheib $39.95 to paint it black. I hate driving its “three on the shaft,” and burn out the clutch. I park it with the doors and windows open on a dark street alongside Prospect Park, notorious haunt of thieves and muggers. In a year, a vandal– or anonymous ill-wisher– will flip a lit cigarette through the back window and turn the car into a fireball.

Today, a ’57 Bel Air is worth between $55,000 and 100,000.00

My grandfather leaves me a battered leather box full of silver dollar and half dollar pieces that he had been collecting since 1928. I use them to buy gas and cigarettes when I’m short of cash. In a year I’m down to one silver dollar, which I save for good luck.

Estimated value: $100K.

I have been an obsessive game player since childhood. At the age of eight I was flipping baseball cards with my friends. Closest to the wall won. “Topping” or landing on top of another card won two cards. A “leaner,” or leaning a card against the wall brought in three. Between flipping and trading I amassed a complete set of Topps cards. Plus I had the lineups of the 1952 Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Yankees and New York Giants right down to the coaches. I would lay them on my bed and replay the games for hours.

At the age of ten I took up marbles. We dug holes in the dirt called “pots.” You had to roll into the pot first and then roll out to hit and win the opponent’s marble. I wore bald spots into the knees of my corduroy pants, but won over two hundred “pee wees, immies and puries” –classic marbles which have avid collectors all over the world.

In 1963 when I move in with a woman eight years older than me my mother goes on a ritual rampage to erase my presence. She boils my sheets, gives my clothes, books and records away and chucks everything else she finds in my room, including a shoebox full of the Topps baseball cards, a bowling bag where I keep hundreds of marbles and my collection of 150 Classic Comics, which had been gathering dust under my bed.

Estimated value 75 to 100 grand.

My new obsession is chess. It entered me like a virus at the same time I got my draft card and realized I would have to stay in college forever to avoid the military. My every waking thought is devoted to openings and variations. I dream games in which the perfect move appears to me and the onlookers applaud. I study books on strategy, memorize the famous games and read about the great eccentric champions–Alekhine, Capobianco, Bobby Fisher, the Brooklyn wunderkind .The sight of a checker board tile floor sends me into a trance in which I stare at the squares visualizing moves.

My life is now about marking time until I can play chess. In the morning I doze through my classes at Brooklyn College. In the afternoon I move bodies and direct mourners at the Riverside Memorial Chapel. At ten in the evening my day begins. Still in my undertaker’s black suit I drive across the Brooklyn Bridge to Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village. I pull into the first open spot, knowing I will return to find one or two parking tickets, flapping like trapped pigeons on my windshield. Under the street lamps in the southwestern part of the park, a crowd has gathered to watch the chess players. From early spring to late fall, the games are on, 24-7. There are about thirty stone tables, the boards etched into their tops, each manned by a “strong” player. By tacit consent the best ones have the tables closest to the street lights. The weaker players, derisively known as “patzers,” are consigned to tables in semi darkness on the outskirts.

The dominant players act with more privileged disdain than any movie star or billionaire I will ever meet. There is Duval, an elderly Haitian in dark suit, streetlight gleaming off his smooth brown pate, who sets up ornate ivory pieces and a chess clock and dispatches all comers at a dollar a twenty minute game. “Fish!” he cries, slapping down the pieces. “You lose!” Next to him is Jimmy, hunched and intense with prematurely gray Toscanini hair. Five dollars for unlimited time, but when the loser makes a bad move he mutters “blunder,” and forces him to resign. There is Joe “the Russian.” Bald with a drooping gray mustache, he puffs furiously on Parliament cigarettes as he bullies his opponents. “Stupid move, patzer .Don’t insult my intelligence…” And Fritz, a massive black dude with a full beard, who analyzes every move. “You think I’m gonna do this so you can do that, but I’m gonna do this and you can’t do nothin’ about it…”

Every other game has an element of the miraculous. You can throw up a buzzer beater that bounces off the rim and drops in. Hit a ball off the handle that just clears the infield to score the winning run. You can make a crazy shot and sink the nine ball. Or draw a Royal Flush and beat a lock poker player. But chess is unforgiving. There are no lucky moves. The better player wins every time. The hustlers in the park know this so they can afford to be arrogant. When a player sits down and says “I’ve been watching you. I know your weaknesses,” they can roar back “I have no weaknesses!” And trounce him in twenty moves.

I am determined to get better. For months I neglect my school work, stop seeing my friends and don’t open letters from Selective Service, probably scheduling my Army physical. I immerse myself in chess, studying during the day and playing all night. A girl I know comes and sits next to me, joining the girlfriends of some of the other players in what is at that point an all-male obsession. One night I realize she hasn’t been around for awhile. But I don’t care. I’ve made a breakthrough. Suddenly, I can see four, sometimes five moves ahead. I am beating players who used to beat me. It all amounts to a few dollars a night, enough for four gallons of gas (24 cents a gallon) and a hot roast beef sandwich at the Cube Steak Diner on Sixth Ave with a little profit left over. But the prestige is enormous. I still haven’t traveled the light years to the main tables, but I’ve moved up to one that had enough spill to illuminate half the board. I am greeted as I walk into the park. I see the weaker players talking about me.