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Monthly Archive for June, 2010

DRAFTED/Part Two

I AM HELD HOSTAGE BY THE MOB

 

It’s 1962. Uncle Sam has been threatening me with fines and imprisonment if I don’t report for my Army physical. Now he suddenly grants me a reprieve. I get a letter from the Selective Service Agency postponing my examination for sixty days.

“The System rules by caprice,” explains Morris Krieger, the Anarchist sage of Union Square Park. “It maintains power by keeping the people in a constant state of anxious uncertainty…”

Willie Mangelli, night manager at Riverside Memorial Chapel on Park Circle in Brooklyn, has a different take.

“You moved to Little Italy, right? All them big shots down there are bribin’ the Draft Board to keep their kids outta the Army. They gotta juggle the exams to make sure they got enough people comin’ in so it won’t look suspicious.”

Willie is a big shot himself. He has a “Hialeah tan,” wears a silver suit that almost glows in the dark and lights his cigars with a gold Dunhill. He’s not a licensed funeral director, but he’s the business agent of the limo driver’s local and the rumor is the owners gave him the job to avoid a strike.

“He’s gotta have some income to show the Government,” a driver tells me proudly. “He’ll be outta here as soon as his accountant tells him the coast is clear.”

Morris is a retired baker, whose union pension after thirty-seven years is $42 a month. He’s saving up from his Social Security to get his hernia fixed. “The Revolution is only a lifetime away,” he tells me and proudly quotes Emma Goldman:

“Anarchism stands for direct action, open defiance of and resistance to all laws and restrictions, economic, social and moral.”

Willie turns the chapel into his private criminal enterprise. In the morgue he buys “swag” watches and jewelry from furtive men in windbreakers. Out in the parking lot he sells the swag to men in Cadillacs who squint at his “goods” through jewelers glasses, pass him envelopes and drive away.

Willie runs a “Bankers and Brokers” card game in the garage. The “broker,” the player, has to beat the “banker’s” card–ties go to the banker. It’s quick and simple and fifty-one people can play. The deck is reshuffled and recut after every hand. Spiro, the “banker” crimps the deck so he can always cut himself a high card and raise Willie’s winning percentage.

Morris claims he takes his credo from “the great theorist Max Stirner” who wrote:

Whoever knows how to take and defend the thing, to him belongs the property.

He sells Anarchist books from a bridge table in Union Square. “Two dollars,” he says, but quickly adds, “or anything you can contribute.” And gives half his inventory free to people who plead poverty.

Morris and Mildred, mother of his two children lived for thirty years in “natural law,” he says. But they had to get married in order to make Mildred his beneficiary. “The state made sinners out of us,” Morris says and quotes “the great thinker” Prince Peter Kropotkin.

“Why should I follow the principles of this hypocritical morality?”

One night we are shorthanded and Willie has to come out on a “removal” with me. He throws me the keys–”you drive”–and grumbles “I can’t believe they got me workin’.”

We go to a tenement on Blake Avenue in Brownsville and walk up four steep flights of creaking steps. In a fetid bedroom an obese young woman is sprawled face down on the floor, her nightdress hiked up over huge, mottled thighs.

“She’s a fuckin’ whale,” Willie mutters.

“Why couldn’t it have been me?” her mother cries.

Willie puffs furiously on his cigar. “Stinks in here. Open a windah.”

He curses as we wrestle the corpse into a body bag.

“You take the head,” he tells me as we steer the gurney through the narrow doorway onto the landing.

“Drop your end, we’ll catch the express,” he says.

He kicks the gurney down the steps. It bounces and rattles and tips over. A swollen purplish, foot flops out of the body bag. A man pops out of his doorway.

“Have you no respect for the dead?”

“You wanna give us a hand, Rabbi?” Willie says.

The man steps back into his apartment.

“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” Willie says.

Morris has scars where he was beaten by gangsters and cops. He quotes Max Stirner: “One goes further with a handful of might than with a bag full of right.”

It’s a busy week. A mysterious blight is killing the chickens in Connecticut and New Jersey. The chicken farmers are killing themselves in Brooklyn.

A fifteen year old boy is found hanging in his shower, girlie magazines strewn on the floor. It’s called a suicide, but the Medical Examiner says the kid was probably choking himself to enlarge his erection.

We can’t leave bodies laying in their homes so we hire other undertakers to move them for us and then we pick them up at their parlors. Willie pays fifteen dollars for a “pick up” and takes a three dollar kickback for himself.

I hear him on the phone.

“I get the three beans from you or I get it from somebody else.”

Willie likes to pay with exact change, but he only has a twenty. “Be sure you get eight bucks back,” he tells me. “Five bucks change and three commission.”

I go to the T……….a Funeral Parlor on Avenue U. Two men in the same shiny suits that Willie wears are sitting in the lobby.

“I’m here to pick up a body,” I say.

They take me to a tiny, windowless office where a large, man with horn-rimmed glasses perched on a jaundice-yellow scalp, gives me a baleful look.

“It’s been two hours. What took you?”

“We’re busy,” I say. “Seventeen funerals…”

“Seventeen? You givin’ away toasters down there?”

I hand him a twenty.

“You’re short,” he says.

“It’s fifteen dollars for a pick up,” I say and invoke the magic name. “Mr. Mangelli arranged it.”

“Mr. Mangelli gave the wrong price to my night man,” the large bald man says.

The two men in the silver suits push into the room behind me and close the door.

The large bald man shoves the phone at me. “Get Mr. Mangelli on the phone.”

They find Willie at the bar of the bowling alley across the street.

He answers gruffly: “Whaddya want?”

The bald man snaps the phone out of my hand. “Gimme that…” And growls: “Know who this is jerkoff? Think I don’t know what you’re doin’? You’re payin’ fifteen and puttin’ in a thirty-five dollars expense chit. You think you’re gonna make twenty bucks off me, you fuckin’ little chiseler?”

I am shocked to hear someone call Willie Mangelli a “fuckin’ little chiseler.”

There is a muffled tirade at the other end.

“I’m holdin’ your body, your wagon and your guy,” the large bald man says. “Send the fifteen bucks up here and I’ll let ‘em go.”

Another tirade.

“Call anybody you want,” the large bald man says. “Call the fuckin’ pope…”

I feel a hard hand on my arm.

“Take him downstairs,” the large bald man says.”Let Artie the fruitcake babysit him.”

NEXT: ARTIE’S AMAZING STORY

DRAFTED/Part One

I AM STALKED BY UNCLE SAM

It’s 1962 and the State is closing in on me.

A few months after my eighteenth birthday I get a letter from the Selective Service Agency, enclosing a draft card, registering me for military service, with the command: “You must carry this on your person at all times.”

To me it’s just a drinking license. I don’t need phony “proof ” anymore. I can walk into any saloon head held high.

A month later I get an ” Order to Report for Armed Services Physical Examination” where “it will be determined if you qualify for military service.”

I’m a student and get an automatic “2-S” deferment.

Six months into my freshman year at Brooklyn College I drop out and go to Paris to write the Great American Novel. When I return, having barely managed to write a few postcards begging my parents for money, there is another “Order to Report.”

I complain to my mother. “They didn’t tell me they were canceling my deferment.”

“What did you expect, a personal letter from the President?” she says.

There is also a notice from the Department of Motor Vehicles, stating that I owe $300 in outstanding parking tickets.

And a letter from the State Board of Regents demanding that I repay my $800 scholarship because I didn’t complete a year in college.

“If you don’t pay they’ll hound you for the rest of your life,” my mother warns. “You can’t get away from them.”

But I’m convinced they will never find me. My sub basement on Barrow Street in Greenwich Village is an illegal residence so I have no lease. I pay the super $53 cash a month and $15 extra to use his phone and hook up to his electricity. I’m making $90 a week, $110 with overtime so I’m rich. I have no bank account. Willie, the shylock at the Park Circle Lanes bowling alley cashes my paychecks from the Riverside Memorial ChapeI. My chauffeur’s license has my old home address and a teenage photo of me, but I look completely different now–long hair, Fu Manchu mustache…

“There is no record of me anywhere,” I brag to Naomi Krieger as I follow her around Union Square Park. ” I don ‘t exist.”

“That’s very existential,” she says.

Union Square is a meeting place for radicals of every stripe and Naomi is its temptress. While orators mount benches and makeshift podia to harangue passersby with predictions of doom, indictments of America and fervent espousals of their one true cause, she glides through the crowd, handing out Anarchist leaflets. She has a mountain of brown hair, rimless glasses, fierce black eyes and moves with lissome grace. “Revolution is accelerated evolution,” she chants. “Force is the weapon of the weak…”

I join the ranks of the smitten, who follow Naomi on her rounds, hoping to get her attention. Some try to show their erudition, but she knows more about Marx and Engels and the Second International and the flaws in Dialectical Materialism than any of them.

Others try flattery. “You are the avatar of Vera Figner,” a bearded East European gushes, invoking the Russian who helped assassinate Tsar Alexander II.

She laughs. “Do you mean I’m the mythic device of an oppressive religion? The incarnation of a woman who devoted herself to a corrupt ideology which she repudiated later in life…? Thanks a lot…”

She is airy, unapproachable. Trotsky’s implacable intellect on Audrey Hepburn’s body. I’m humbled and exhilarated just to be in her presence.

Then, one afternoon, she walks across the park to the bench where I am eating a Sabrett’s hot dog with “the works.”

“Have you ever read any anarchist texts?”

I am caught in mid bite and spray mustard, ketchup and onions on my Dickey carpenter pants.

“No…”

“Here…” She hands me a pile of mimeographed leaflets–ABOLISH THE WAGE SYSTEM, THE BETRAYAL OF SACCO AND VANZETTI, THE MYTH OF THE DEMOCRATIC STATE, all written by Morris Krieger.

That night I try to plow through the dense, smudgy single-spaced pages of anarchist theory. The next day she is on me like a teacher checking homework.

“Did you read the material?”

“Oh yeah…Interesting…I was always taught that Sacco and Vanzetti were innocent…”

“Because you came from a Communist household, am I right? Liberals made them innocent to hide the fact they had committed the robbery as a propaganda by deed to inspire others to attack the Employer Class and overthrow the wage system…Come meet the author…” She takes my hand and leads me to a bridge table where a bald, old man with a battered fighter’s face and sleeves rolled up over brawny forearms is hectoring the crowd.

“Who protects you in this wonderful Democracy? Your government which taxes you and forces you to fight wars to enrich its oligarchs? Your boss who exploits you? Your landlord who raises your rent and cuts off your heat? Your family that extorts money and guilt with emotional blackmail…?”

The crowd enjoys baiting him. “Are you a Communist or Capitalist, Morris?” someone shouts.

Morris scoffs. “Communism, Capitalism. What does it matter who coerces you, the state or the Corporation? Krushchev and JFK are merely cult totems for the ruling class.”

“But they are enemies.”

“They are collaborators,” Morris corrects. “The Cold War is window dressing. Authoritarian systems secretly cooperate to oppress their subjects. The Hungarian Revolt, the Bay of Pigs were planned to fail. The CIA conceived them, funded them and then aborted them…”

“Our Lord Jesus will judge us,” a wild-eyed man shouts.

“Your Lord Jesus said ‘render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s,’ Morris says. “He was just the first Capitalist propagandist.”

The crowd laughs and wanders away to seek amusement at another bench.

Naomi smiles proudly. “He’s brilliant. Makes you see things in a new way.”

“Morris Krieger,” I say. ‘Is he your grandfather?”

“He’s the father of my mother, according to Mildred, her mother,” Naomi says. “But since bourgeois morality forces women to lie about their sensuality who can really say and does it matter?”

“It doesn’t matter at all,” I say, eager to agree with anything.

Morris calls us over. “Naomi, bring your friend…So young man, is your father a party member?”

“Democratic party.” I say.

“FDR was an admirer of Mussolini, did you know that? Joe Kennedy, the President’s dad, loved Hitler.” He points to a livid scar above his eyebrow. “Lepke’s goons gave me this, the day the gangsters took over Local One of the Bakery Workers. The same day Hitler was selling out to Krupp and Stalin was starving the Ukrainians. And that Democratic Party stooge Sidney Hillman was having tea with Eleanor Roosevelt…”

I turn to Naomi. “Who’s Sidney Hillman?”

Morris shoves a pile of books in my chest. “We strive for the administration of things, not people. Educate yourself. Free your mind…”

“They’re heavy,” Naomi says. “I’ll help you carry them.”

I fly the two city miles to Barrow Street, borne by Naomi’s relentless rhetoric. The wind is on my face. The world races by as if seen from a passing train.

Naomi feels her way down the metal stairs to my pitch black sub basement.

“This is a magic place,” she says. “You could plot great deeds here…”

She brushes my hand away from her shoulder.

” Do you have to play the chivalrous rapist?”

She pushes me down on my unmade bed and presses her cool, dry lips against my neck.

“Can you imagine yourself a female?” she whispers in my ear. “Welcoming…? Receiving…?”

I can. No problem.

In the morning Naomi scours the food-crusted pots on my stove, washes my underwear in the shower and makes me get out of bed so she can soak my sheets in the super’s work sink.

“Don’t confuse this with an atavistic domestic tendency,” she says, merrily. “I clean because it gives me pleasure. I am not a slave of a peer-controlled feminist ideology.”

In the afternoon I plow through the Anarchist texts, scribbling statements I’ll be able to quote to Naomi.

Bakunin: “I am truly free only when all men and women are equally free.”

Stirner: “Society is a chimera. Individuals are the only reality.”

Kropotkin: “America shows how all the written guarantees for freedom are no protection against tyranny and oppression. In America the politician has come to be looked on as the very scum of society.”

True enough, but I’ll be able to tell her what I’ve observed on the streets of Brooklyn: Only the thieves and hustlers who live outside the law are truly free. I will impress her with my knowledge of the real world.

I run to Union Square. Morris is at his bridge table, offering the same books, the same replies to the same jibes.

“Naomi’s back at school,” he tells me.

“School?”

“Sarah Lawrence. She was just here for her vacation. She’s leaving next week for Paris for her junior year abroad to study French Literature.” Morris smiles proudly and I see the family resemblance. “She’s got a full scholarship.”

I go to Whitey’s Bar on Sixth Avenue. Nobody asks me for “proof.”

Next morning there are four envelopes on the steps outside my door.

One from the Division of Motor Vehicles stating that a warrant will be issued for my arrest if I do not pay what has now grown to $425 in parking tickets.

Another from the Board of Regents that “Collection Procedures will be initiated” if I don’t repay my $800.

Something from the NY State Department of Taxation that I am “delinquent” in submitting my return.

And a notice of “Failure to Report…” from Selective Service, warning that I face “imprisonment of up to five years and a fine of $10,000″ if I do not appear for a physical on the specified date.

My cover is blown. Someone has informed on me.

I call home and my mother confesses:

“I gave them your new address.”

“You?”

“The letters were piling up,” she says. “All these official envelopes. You could get into trouble.”

“But I am in trouble now that they found me,” I say.

“What are you going to do, hide like a mole in that cave?”

“At least I’d be free,” I say.

“Free? Who’s free? Free to be what? A bum?”

“You betrayed me…My own mother betrayed me…”

I hear my father’s voice. “What’s he yelling about?”

And my mother’s muffled reply. “He’s very upset…Sounds like he’s crying.”

NEXT: I AM HELD HOSTAGE BY THE MOB