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Monthly Archive for April, 2010

MY CAREER AS A PETTY THIEF/PART NINE/Part 3

I BURGLE BOOKS ON PARK AVENUE
I MEET THE FINDER
Part One

It’s 1961 and you have to work hard for your information. There is no Amazon or Google Books to get you every book or record in the world, no Internet to give you instant free access to absolutely everything.

Instead, there is Saul Gross.

In his tiny ad, which runs in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, Saul describes himself as a “finder of the out-of-print and the esoteric.” He has thousands of books and records piled floor to ten foot ceiling in every room of his eight-room rent-controlled apartment on 108th. and Broadway. His clientele is scholars, writers, collectors and fans avid for an obscure volume, photo or record album. He has letters of inquiry on his kitchen table–postmarks from all over the world. The phone rings with exotic requests at all hours. “Gimme a minute,” Saul tells the caller. He knows the collected works and discographies of every writer and musician who ever existed and where to get what he doesn’t have. “Gimme a few days,” he says. Sometimes even: “Gimme a coupla weeks…” But he always tracks down “the item.”

Saul gets his inventory from estate sales, bankrupt bookstores, library liquidations and fraud. He makes deals with other “finders,” splitting the small profits. He pays Gerald, an old palsied lush, five dollars a day to sit on the corner of Broadway and 79th. with a sign: “Please donate old books and records to the Veterans Administration Library.” He is a familiar face on Park Avenue every Tuesday when the rich dump clothes, furniture, anything they don’t want, on the street. People bring him their old books, paintings, photos. He puts them in a canvas bag, which he slings over his shoulder like an itinerant peddler and carries across the park.

Saul is a tiny man with laborer’s scarred hands and a huge head of frizzy gray hair. He rents cots in his book-filled rooms to elderly housekeepers who don’t want to take the subway to the Bronx late at night. A weary, stick-thin black woman named Bernice earns her board by cooking short ribs, greens, Kraft macaroni and cheese and wedges of cornbread, which Saul sells to the ladies for two dollars a plate.

When Saul can’t find, buy, chisel or trade an item he steals it. My handball partner, Benny, works for him, lifting rare salsa albums and .45′s from second hand record shops. One night Benny brings me uptown. “Saul says I don’t look intellectual enough to boost books,” he says.

Saul checks me out and pats Benny on the shoulder. “Well done, Benny. “

Bernice gives me a plate of fried chicken and homemade potato salad.

“You steal for fun or profit?” he asks.

“Fun, so far,” I say.

“Stay outta the Eighth Street and Schulte’s. They’re onto you kids and they’ll get suspicious if you keep coming in.”

I get a chill because those are the two bookstores I’ve been plundering.

“Go into the chains, Brentano’s, Doubleday’s,” Saul says. “The clerks don’t give a crap…”

He watches me eat. “Good chicken, huh? Better than that boiled rooster your bubbe gives you every Friday night…You wanna make a quick buck?”

The phone rings. Saul let’s it go on for a while, then answers curtly. “The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett”? he says . “Pretty rare. I’ll make some calls.” And hangs up with a triumphant look. “Needs this for his thesis. He’ll pay through the nose.”

He scurries through a maze of books, into a room where where a large black woman snores peacefully. He bumps the cot– “Get up, Ruth–” and goes unerringly to a pile just over her head. “Gimme a hand, ” he says. Ruth and I hold the pile steady while he prises the book out of the middle. He waits an hour and calls back. “I can get it for you for thirty dollars plus postage.”

He hangs up and calls: “Hey Dale”

A wan, blonde man appears out of the stacks.

“Think he’ll blend in?” Saul asks.

Dale wrinkles his nose like a rabbit. “How should I know?” he says, peevishly.

Two days later I’m in the reading room of the Forty-second Street Library. Dale walks through. That’s my signal. I go to the third floor bathroom. There’s the usual public toilet population of pervs at the urinals and homeless guys washing their socks in the sink. I go to the last stall as instructed. A moment later Dale squeezes in, breathless, carrying a copy of the Times.

Turn your feet around so people think you’re sitting for gosh sake,” he whispers.

He climbs onto the seat so his feet won’t be visible and pulls my shirt out of my pants “Take it off, hurry up,” he whispers. “Bend down a little, you’re too tall…”

He takes a watercolor of a dead fish out from between the pages of the Times and tapes it to my back.

“Why do you want to steal this?” I ask.

“I think it’s called money,” Dale says. He smoothes the painting against my back. “Careful putting your shirt back on. This thing is worth three hundred bucks”

“Why couldn’t you just take it?” I ask.

“They watch the employees like hawks,” he whispers. “They know we hate them.”

He hands me the Times. “The guards like to check something…” Pushes me. “Go…And for gosh sake don’t look so guilty…”

The pervs smirk as I step out of the stall. On the main floor two guards are standing by the revolving door. Three hundred bucks, I’m thinking. This is a big deal. This is jail time. My heart pounds. Sweat prickles on my forehead. Calm down, I tell myself. Calm down or they’ll get suspicious.

They hardly look at me and I’m out and down the steps so fast I’m still scared when I get on the subway.

Saul welcomes me like the prodigal son. Bernice brings me a chicken salad sandwich, swimming in Miracle Whip with flecks of pear and relish.

Saul shows me the watercolor. “This is how they observed Nature in the civilized days,” he says. “It comes from a book of watercolors made in the 17th. Century. Dale’s removes each page with a razor so careful they can’t even tell it’s gone. We’ll have the whole book before they know it.” He puts his hand over the phone so I can’t see the number he’s dialing and is soon bargaining with a buyer. Later, he gives me a ten dollar bill. “You did good.”

“I don’t feel right stealing from a library,” I say.

“What are you, a worrier?” Saul says. “Ever hear of Jelly Roll Morton?”

“Sure…”

“I got a guy who’ll pay anything for a record he made in Richmond, Indiana. It’s in the jazz section of the Brooklyn Public…What do you wanna bet it’s got a coat of dust this thick ’cause nobody ever listens to it…?”

 

NEXT: I MAKE A BIG HAUL IN A FANCY BROWNSTONE

 

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

It’s 1961 and I’m living in a theocracy that brutally stifles dissent–Greenwich Village.

In Brooklyn, the backwater of my birth, people disagree violently– and coexist grudgingly. But across the Brooklyn Bridge the local Bohos enforce a rigid cultic orthodoxy.

The politics are easy enough to master. You’re safe anywhere from JFK to Joe Stalin with side trips to Trotsky and the brand new hero of the world revolution, Che Guevara. A Republican can’t even get in as comic relief.

The culture is more complicated. The Pantheon changes daily, new names added and subtracted. The criteria are what you read, wear, watch and listen to, who you know, what you’ve done or what you will do. In all of these I am judged and found wanting.

One night everyone is rushing to the NYU Student Center. I trail along, trying to impress Amelia, a poet with long, tawny hair–tall, broad-shouldered, wearing nothing under her granny dress. “You remind me of a lioness on the prowl,” I say, trying to be poetic. She gives me the arched eyebrow of disdain. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

A skinny kid with frizzy hair and an annoying nasal voice is singing Corinna Corinna.

I like Joe Turner’s version better,” I say, playing the purist card.

“Dylan is singing it the way it was originally written,” says a kid who’s famous for his collection of .45′s. “Joe Turner was just doing a Rhythm and Blues cover.”

A week or two later I’m in a crowd in the Art Theatre on Eighth Street watching Godard’s latest, A Woman Is A Woman.

It looks like they’re trying to do a Gene Kelly movie, but they can’t sing or dance,” I say loudly to impress the lioness.

“It’s not a conventional musical,” a fat kid corrects. “It’s an interrogation of the musical form.”

“It’s neo realism set to music,” someone else says.

This is the year of Kahlil Gibran, of smoking pot and trancing out to Wanda Landowska playing Bach on the harpsichord. Everybody’s carrying Franny and Zooey. I brandish Sons and Lovers. In secret I read best sellers, The Carpetbaggers, The Agony and the Ecstasy.

I try for the right note, but keep hitting clinkers.

Dave Brubeck?

Wrong…” Miles Davis says he doesn’t swing…”

Invasion of the Bodysnatchers?

Clunk. “Cold War propaganda, designed to cause an anti-communist panic.”

Old Man And the Sea?

Clang..”Patronizing, stilted…Hemingway blaming the world for his flagging powers…”

I walk the streets looking for celebrities. Here’s a face I think I’ve seen on a jacket cover. Wasn’t that guy in West Side Story? That little bald guy could be e.e. cummings. Or Yul Brynner. A couple on Sixth Avenue–tall, hunched guy with a tiny chattering lady. “That’s Edward Hopper,” somebody says.

I stand outside the San Remo Bar on MacDougall and Bleecker, watching the Boho nobility, the men laughing and waving drinks, the women intense and attentive.

Sports give me partial cachet. On weekends handball is the hot item at the playground on Waverly Place. Played at top speed with a hard black ball, it’s my game. In Coney Island the old pros ran me ragged, but in the Village I’m a star. I hook up with a Puerto Rican kid named Benny and we hold the court as a doubles team for hours. On the hot days we roll our pants up over our knees and take our shirts off. The other guys have tapered waists, tendoned biceps and muscles rippling on their backs. I’m stoop-shouldered and you can count my ribs, but I play with vengeful arrogance and no one can beat me. The “parkies” hook up a hose and we run cold water over our heads. The lioness and her friends walk by swinging their shopping bags and stop to watch us through the fence. We shout and play harder. Lust swirls like summer dust.

On my way home from work one night I pass Benny and the lioness, making out on a bench in a dark park off Sixth Avenue. He jumps up. “Hey, man, wanna go to a party? Where’s the party at Ammie?”

She glares. “It’s at James Baldwin’s. For his new book.”

Baldwin is an angry, eloquent black writer, author of The Fire Next Time. I’ve been reading his essays. I’ve taped one of his quotes to my typewriter. “I am what time and circumstance and history have made me, but I am also more than that. So are we all.” I want to tell him how much that means to me.

” I don’t want to bring a lot of strange people,” Amelia says.

“He’s my boy,” Benny says and grabs my arm. “C’mon, man, it’s cool,”

Benny has to reach up to get his arm around Amelia’s shoulders. He ignores her and talks to me about the handball players and do I want to play in the money games on Essex Street on the Lower East Side? She is docile and quiet, a far cry from the oracle whose poetry intimidates and whose pronouncements settle all disputes.

“Why are you wearing that suit?” Amelia asks me.

“I work in a funeral parlor,” I say and– anticipating her scornful disbelief–”I really do…”

On Horatio Street the party crowd has spilled onto the street. James Baldwin lives up a narrow flight of rickety stairs. We squeeze past the people coming downstairs and push through the crowd in the hallway into a cramped apartment . There are more black faces than usual, but otherwise it’s the same people, nose to nose, shouting in each other’s faces. A Charley Parker record is tinkling somewhere. The walls are lined with bookshelves.

“Look at all the books he has,” I say.

“Makes sense, he’s a writer,” Amelia sniffs.

She puts a jug of Almaden Red on a bridge table. I try to follow her and Benny, but the crowd keeps closing around them.

A kinky-haired man with curling nose hairs and thick moist lips puts his hand on my shoulder.

“Just coming from a wake?”

“I work in a funeral parlor,” I say.

“Really…” He clutches my sleeve. “There’s something I’ve always wanted to know. What do they so with all the blood they pump out of the people?”

“Nothing,” I say.

In a corner James Baldwin is trying to pour vodka into a dixie cup and hold a cigarette at the same time. He’s a small man with a large head and bulging eyes.

Benny turns and giggles. “Cat looks like a fly, man…”

Benny’s eyes are red. He’s stoned. So is Amelia, but the weed has just made her obsessive. She towers over Baldwin. “Congratulations on the book, Mr. Baldwin…”

“Thanks, uh…”

“Amelia, from the Hudson Church Poetry Project? We met at the benefit?”

“Oh yes…” He gives me a quick look, dismisses me, and turns to Benny. “Are you a poet, too?”

Amelia slides over between us with a don’t try to talk to him look. I step away, starting to sweat in my woolen suit. I see a thick hardcover book–The Most of S.J. Perelman. I’ve seen that name as a screenwriter on a Marx Brothers movie. I read the inscription: “To Jimmy/Humbly/ Sid…” In a minute I’m shaking with repressed hilarity. This is a revelation. The way Perelman uses language, the mixture of puns, Yiddishisms and esoteric references. I had no idea that prose on a page could be so funny. I have to have this book. I jam it down the back of my pants.

Nose Hair heads me off at the door. “Can I ply you with alcohol? In vino veritas?

He gives me a Dixie Cup full of sour white wine. “Seriously,” he says. “What do they do with the blood?”

I try to slide by him, anxious to get home and continue reading. “They let it drain out into the sewers.”

“Blood in the sewers,” he says. “The blood of the city’s dead…”

“And shit and piss, too,” I say.

“You’re a hardboiled realist, I see…” He puts his arm around me and feels the book.

“Is this a gun?”

” What do you think i?”

Now he’s intrigued. “I knew you weren’t an undertaker… You’re a cop, aren’t you?”

I give him the Bogey hard look. “What do you think…?”

He steps back, hands in the air. “Don’t shoot I’ll come quietly…” And shouts: “Everybody hide your drugs. the cruise is canceled. The polizei have landed…”

All eyes are on me. Astonished looks. The crowd parts to let me through.

“A cop…”

Across the room I see Amelia’s startled face.

Behind me, somebody giggles.

“You believe Amelia brought a cop to Jimmy’s party…?”

NEXT: I BURGLE BOOKS ON PARK AVENUE

 

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

I STEAL MY FIRST BOOK
Part One

It’s 1961 and the Godless Communists are on the move. Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin becomes the first man in space. “Now the Antichrist can rain death down on us from the heavens,” evangelist Nelson Bell warns. “America is in the gravest danger in its history.”

I’ve gotten a second notice for my Army physical. This one is mildly threatening. “You are ordered to report on…Failure to do so may result in fine and imprisonment…”

The Castro regime beats back a US proxy invasion at the Bay of Pigs. The East Germans build a wall. New president JFK advises all “prudent” families to get a bomb shelter. “Won’t be long now,” my philosophy prof says. “Your generation will have its war…”

I put the notice in a drawer under my socks.

I was always a reader, but now I’m am an addict. A book is the first thing I reach for in the morning. I can’t get out of bed without finishing a chapter and often doze with the clock radio blasting rock and roll in my ear, only to awake in a panic and stumble late into class, disheveled and blurting lame excuses.

I can’t eat without a book or a newspaper propped against a glass. Friday night dinner at my parents’ house is a torment because reading at the table is strictly forbidden. I hide a magazine on my lap and drape the tablecloth over it. My mother whisks it away with a worried look. “This isn’t healthy,” she says.

I can’t go to the toilet without something–anything– to look at. I scramble for reading matter, coming perilously close to crapping my pants.

Can’t go to bed without a book, but can’t sleep until I finish a chapter. I blink like an owl when I begin to nod, bite down on my lip and pull the hairs out of my chest. Then, the lamp is glaring in my face and the book is on the floor and I realize I’ve been asleep. So I find my place and begin reading again. When I finally decide to call it a night I have confused my brain with so many false starts that I lie in ragged exhaustion until the night turns gray and I drop off. An hour or a minute later I awake, haggard and unrested and begin to read again.

Ernest Hemingway, my instructor in male honor and courage, blows his brains out with a shotgun. Captured Nazi Adolph Eichmann claims he was only “the transmitter” of the Fuhrer’s orders, but he admits he did say: “I will jump gleefully into my grave knowing I have killed five million of my nation’s enemies…”

I’m living in a sub basement ($53 a month) on Barrow Street in Greenwich Village. It’s gloomy and the pipes sweat and the mice resent sharing the makeshift shower with me. I can barely see the street from my window. A sliver of sun tells me it’s daytime. I’m safe. Not even Adolph Eichmann could find me here.

I come home at dawn with a meatball hero and a Pepsi that I paid a buck seventy-five for at Whitey’s Pizzeria. I light up the joint I got for a dollar outside the subway on Sheridan Square and open the paperback I picked up for a quarter from an old guy with a book pushcart on Seventh Avenue. I read fiction, voraciously and uncritically. Irving Wallace, Franz Kafka, Jim Thompson—it’s all the same to me.

The 19th. century– Dostoevsky, Dickens, Balzac, etc.–is the best “reefer read.” Marijuana helps keep track of the characters and navigate the narrative switchbacks.

Dexedrine gets me into the rhythms of the moderns, especially Joyce and Faulkner. I finish the USA TRILOGY in a weekend.

In deference to all the alcoholic writers I am discovering I get drunk. But when I try to read I get the spins.

President Kennedy creates the Peace Corps and thousands of idealistic young people volunteer to help the natives of the Third World shed their ancient ways and become middle-class Americans. My mother urges me to join. “You could really find yourself in a program like this.”

Instead, I find a folk singer named Maxine who is willing to come home with me. It’s okay to smoke a cigarette, but reading in afterglow is a flagrant violation of post-coital protocol. When I open a book Maxine jumps up in revulsion. “God, I feel like I’m in bed with my dad.”

Vice President Johnson calls Vietnamese Premier Diem, “the Churchill of Asia,” and vows to defend his regime with American power. JFK increases “military assistance” to Vietnam, sending 16,000 “advisors.”

Maxine is throwing a party. Potato chips, gallons of Gallo California wine and somebody passing a joint in the kitchen. An older crowd. Workshirts and beards. Black tights, poorboy sweaters and Rapunzel hair. Maxine strums and sings Sloop John B, serenading a guy in a corduroy sports jacket, complete with patches, wavy graying locks and the smug look of every English professor who ever gave me a C-. I browse her paperback shelf and find a book by an author I never heard of— Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathaniel West.

After three pages I’m hooked. I barely hear the snatches of conversation around me. Maxine segues into Rock Island Line, then Cotton Fields Back Home. There’s another West book on the shelf–Day of the Locust.

I’m lost for hours. Then I sense movement. The party is breaking up. Maxine and the corduroy guy are in a clinch on the couch. He is whispering urgently, patting her on the shoulder like her dog just died.

I have to finish this book. And read the other one. I grab the two slim paperbacks. Can’t take them out. Someone might see me. I go into the bathroom and shove them down the back of my pants. Maxine bursts in, teary and distraught.

“What are you doing here?” she demands

“Just going to the bathroom,” I say.

“You can stay if you want.”

“What about your friend…?”

“Do you want to stay or don’t you?” she says and slams the door.

I know if I take my clothes off, Maxine will see the books. I slip them into the hamper and go out. The apartment is pitch black. Maxine is already in bed.

The first thing I think of in the morning is those books. I’m a good stealth dresser. In minutes I’m in the bathroom searching in the hamper. The books must have sunk to the bottom.

There’s a knock and a giggle.

“What are you doing in there?”

“Uh, just taking a shower…

Maxine comes in…”I’ll scrub your back…”

I jump back, but not fast enough. She sees the hamper cover on the floor and grabs my arm.

“What are you doing?”

A pair of black panties is hanging from my wrist.

Maxine is outraged. “You disgusting pervert. Are you stealing my underwear?”

“Well, I just wanted something to remind me…”

“Take anything you want,” she cries, running out. “Just get the fuck outta here…”

I find the paperbacks. Wrap them in a pair of black panties. Then, in another pair to be on the safe side. Maxine’s bedroom door is closed and probably locked. She won’t come out until I’m gone so I have time to check out her book shelf.

I find The Rosy Crucifixion, Sexus, Nexus and Plexus by Henry Miller and tiptoe out the door.

NEXT: I STEAL A BOOK FROM JAMES BALDWIN