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Monthly Archive for July, 2010

DRAFTED/Part Three

MY FIRST PHYSICAL
Part 1
A NOTE FROM A SHRINK

It’s 1962 and I’m in a boho Garden of Eden.

I live in a sub basement in Greenwich Village. “The coolest place in the world,” my friends from Brooklyn say.

The super lets me tap into his electricity and use his phone. His wife takes messages for me. “You should call your mother,” she says. I feed his two cats. They kill mice and leave them outside my door.

I never take cabs or go to fancy restaurants. I live on diner food, peanut butter and jelly and chocolate milk.

Won’t go north of 14th. Street. Except to Birdland on 52nd. where I pay $1.25 admission to see the greatest jazz musicians in the world–Dizzy, Miles, Count Basie, Gerry Mulligan, Sarah Vaughan–every week another genius.

Don’t go on dates. My friend David lives in a four story walk up in the Flower District. I’m so stoned the trip up the stairs seems to go on for hours. We sit in the dark and watch the light on the amplifier blink in synch with Wanda Landowska playing Bach partitas. The door swings open. Female silhouettes appear, then disappear as it slams shut. Something warm slides in next to me. A wisp of hair brushes my cheek.

There hasn’t been a war in nine years, but the orators of Union Square warn of world cataclysm.

“Satan has been released from his thousand year captivity,” a skinny old woman shrieks in a dense German accent. She sits under a bed sheet with “TURN TO JESUS” scrawled in lipstick. ” Gog and Magog have gathered the minions together for war,” she says. “They are as numerous as the sand in the sea…A great multitude will die untested. Only the righteous will be saved…” Brandishing a dog-eared Bible she cries: “Turn to Jesus now before it is too late.”

Across the park Morris Krieger, the anarchist, invokes Randolph Bourne:

“War is the health of the state,” he says. “It sets in motion the irresistible forces for uniformity. It coerces into obedience the exploited minorities and the individuals who are straying from the herd.” He stops and walks through to the crowd to where my friends and I stand, dazed with marijuana and Italian Swiss Colony muscatel.

“Democracy is an excuse to excite the masses,”he says. “Pursuit of happiness? Only the happiness they allow you. The happiness of acquisition and slavish obedience, the happiness of sycophancy. You have found happiness outside of their system through drugs and interracial fellowship. You are a threat to the state.”

A few benches down, a kid strums a guitar and sings in a Woody Guthrie whine:

“The General needs his War

To get that extra star.

Ford needs a war

To sell his armored car

JFK needs a crisis ’cause his New Frontier’s a lie

He ain’t never gonna give poor folks

A slice of the pie.

The doomsday warnings are comic relief for the drunks and the junkies lolling on the benches. Workers on lunch stop to heckle the speakers before returning to the grind. Even the cops shake their heads indulgently.

Meanwhile, the date of my physical looms.

“My shrink will give you a note that will get you out,” David says. “It’ll cost you thirty-five bucks for the visit.”

The office is on the ground floor of a building on Riverside Drive. I look at the names on the plaques and find: Dr. Paul Fruchtman. He’s at the end of a warren of tiny rooms. Doesn’t look much older than me. Short in a brown suit with a soft handshake and a few strands of hair across his bald head. He sits in an armchair, almost brushing knees with me and lights a pipe upside down so the window fan won’t blow it out. I stare at it wondering how he keeps the ashes from falling.

“Why don’t you want to go into the Army?” he asks.

David has told me he wants a crazy, radical answer.

“I don’t want to serve a state that exists to perpetuate the power of the capitalist oligarchy,” I say.

He scribbles on a legal pad on a clipboard.

“Do you worry about being in close quarters with other men?” he asks.

He wants me to say “yes.” To admit to being a latent homosexual. It’s a lie that will get me out, but I can’t tell it.

“No,” I answer.

“Are you afraid you might be killed?”

Another “yes” is indicated here. Another lie I can’t tell.

“No…”

He sits back, puffing on his upside down pipe.

“Tell me the truth. What is that worries you the most about being in the Army?”

I give him my first honest answer.

“Making my bed.”

He leans forward, eagerly. “Making in your bed?”

“No, just making my bed,” I say. “My father says they punish you if they can’t bounce a quarter off your blanket. Also, folding my clothes. I can’t really fold my shirts. My mother always yells at me. Sewing, too. My father says you have to sew your stripes on your shirts, he calls them blouses. We had to sew our own shop aprons in sixth grade and I couldn’t do a hem stitch and had to get one of the girls to help me…”

He raises a hand to stop the torrent.

“Okay, I’ll give you a note that you’re in treatment with me and aren’t ready for the stresses of military service. That will give you a temporary deferment, known as a 1Y. After a year they’ll call you again and I can renew the deferment.”

I rise, relieved.

“Of course there’s one condition,” he says, relighting his pipe. “You’ll have to continue in treatment with me.”

“You mean, be a patient?”

“Yes. Once a week should be enough.”

 

It’s a shakedown. He gives me a bland smile. “You’re in limbo” he says.” You can’t make the transition to productive, responsible adult life. As you get older that can become very serious.” He hands me a form. “Fill this out and bring it back” —he checks his calendar—”next Thursday, same time…You can pay Miss Rubin at the front desk.”

Miss Rubin is whispering urgently into the phone. I glide by without paying.

I can’t go out that night. The super’s cats creep through the window yellow eyes glowing in the dark. I see endless rooms of green filing cabinets. Echos of doors clanging shut. Clerks shuffling past each other down dusty aisles. A thick manila file with my name on it is dropped on a pile of files…Carried to another room. Dropped on another pile. Handed to a man in a baggy, gray suit.

He’s out there now. In a dark doorway across the street. People hurry by him with their heads down, each followed by a man in a baggy, gray suit.

NEXT: MY FIRST TRIP TO WHITEHALL STREET

 

DRAFTED/Part Two Con’t

I AM HELD HOSTAGE BY THE MOB
Part Two
ARTIE’S AMAZING STORY

One shiny suit takes my car keys. The other pokes me with a hairy finger.

“Go.”

They walk me down a dark, narrow ramp, bumping me back and forth between them. My legs buckle, my mouth goes dry. They breathe hard like they’re angry. I am sickened by the sour combo of coffee, cigarettes and Bay Rhum. Are they taking me somewhere for a beating? Or will I just get the hard smack to the back of the head I’ve seen shiny suits give guys outside Tony’s candy store on Tenth Avenue?

They knock on a steel door under a naked bulb.

“Artie, you in there…?”

From inside comes a hoarse grumble. “No, I’m ringside at the Copa.”

Another poke. “Get in there…” And they take a few steps back to make sure I enter.

It’s the embalming room. Only one table, we have four at Riverside. Our embalmers work with white coats, which are left unlaundered until they look like butchers’ aprons. The man I see squinting over a body, cigarette dangling between his lips, is wearing a frayed, gray sleeveless undershirt. He’s wiry and darkly tanned. Blood under his manicured fingernails, a gold watch rolled halfway up his tendoned arm over a tattoo of snakes and eagles and blurry letters…A pencil thin mustache, a pile of black hair, combed into a glistening pompadour.

The body has had a full autopsy –scalp peeled off to reveal the brain; skin parted along the chest cavity, from the stomach to the clavicle. He points derisively at the door. “Tough guys” he says. “They’ll split your skull with a two-by-four and eat a bowl of macaroni, but they won’t go near a deceased…”

There’s a body on a gurney in a corner. The toe tag says. “Gendelmen.”

“That must be yours,” Artie says. “We don’t get Jewish jobs.” He brushes his finger across his nose. ” Only the nice people get buried here, know what I mean?” And points to the body on the table. “Almost every job we get the cops order a full post mortem to make sure it wasn’t a homicide.”

He flips me a crumpled pack of Camels with traces of dried blood around the edges.

“Relax, you might be here for awhile. You got in the middle of a bad beef. Red Hook versus Bensonhurst.”

“But it’s only about fifteen bucks,” I say.

“Jurisdictional dispute,” he says. “Mangelli’s like a housefly on a pile of shit. He don’t know where to go first, you know what I mean?”

I don’t, but I nod anyway.

“He might be a big shot on President Street, but he’s nothin’ here, know what I mean? So now he gets caught with his hand in the wrong cookie jar. And now you’re the pawn in the game. Jungle drums are bangin’ as we speak. Everybody in Brooklyn knows what’s goin’ on and they’re watchin’ to see what he does. If he sends the fifteen bucks to bail you out it means he backed down. So now he’s callin’ people, you know important people, so they’ll call other important people to make Big John let you go.”

I light a Camel and try not to cough. Artie blows smoke through his nose without taking the cigarette out of his mouth. A long ash drops into the chest cavity of the body on the table.

“The big shots live for this kinda shit,” he says. “They got nothin’ better to do, but sit around watchin’ the money roll in. So now they’ll get all jazzed up talkin’ back and forth. They might even have a special sit down about it. Give ‘em an excuse to go eat spaghetti. Get treated like big shots at some joint downtown. This could take all night. “

Once, on my first day in a new school, three kids pushed me into a clothes closet, laughing as I thrashed desperately in the darkness. I have that same feeling now.

“How old are you kid?” Artie asks.

“Nineteen.”

“Get your draft notice?”

“I gotta go for my physical.”

Artie scoops up a handful of viscera and drops it in a cellophane bag. “Don’t tell ‘em you worked in the business. They’ll put you in Graves Registration and you’ll never get out.”

A phone rings. He jabs an extension button and answers. Looks at me.

“Yeah, yeah,” he says.

He hangs up. “What was I talkin’ about?”

“Graves registration,” I say.

“Oh yeah, you wanna hear what happened to me?” He continues before I can answer. “It’s ’41, I’m lookin’ for pussy. I’m a smart guy, don’t shit where I eat. So I go to a dance outta the neighborhood in Prospect Hall. Pick up a little guinea broad, Caroline…Hot to trot, you can tell by the way they sock it into you when you’re dancin’. Coupla slow Foxtrots and we’re in the back seat of my brother’s Plymouth. Coupla months later three guys show up at my uncle’s place where I’m serving my apprenticeship—Sabbatino and Sons, ten funerals a year, he’s gonna make me a partner, I’m set for life…Caroline’s knocked up, they tell me. Not by me I say, I used a bag. Bang! they smack me. You callin’ my sister a hooer?”

Artie is talking fast in a whisper, as if he wants to get the story told before someone catches him.

“So my uncle brings me here to Big John— not this one, his father. Don’t worry, I know the family, he tells me. It’ll cost you a coupla dollars. And you oughta get outta the neighborhood for a while. Join the Army. By the time you come back everything will be blown over.

“You gotta do what these guys tellya so I enlist. They send me to Governor’s Island. I set up a morgue. It’s a picnic. I don’t even embalm, just ship bodies back to their home states. I’m home for Sunday dinner every week…

“Then guess what happens?” He smacks himself in the forehead. “Pearl Harbor. The war, you believe this? So guess what: they got plenty of guys to shoot rifles, plenty to type orders or drive trucks. But what they don’t have is enough undertakers to take care of the bodies that are pilin’ up all over the place.

“See, these generals, they’re like the big shots around here. They sit around drinkin’ highballs in the Officer’s Club for twenty years and all of a sudden there’s a war and they come up with ideas. Like now they gotta have a clean battlefield. It’s bad for morale to see bodies lyin’ around. And that means work for me…”

The phone rings again. Artie picks it up. “Yeah, yeah, okay.” He hangs up and lights a another Camel.

“I was in every theater, kid. Startin’ in Morocco where we had to dig bodies outta the sand…In combat you gotta bury guys where they fall…We’re duckin’ ordnance in the desert Messerschmitts doublin’ back to strafe the field…Then we went across to Sicily. General Bradley used to check to make sure the battlefield was clean, you believe that. We had to bury the Krauts, too…Some days we had to duck into the graves with the bodies when they counter-attacked…Gotta pick up the guy’s tags, plus any personal items he might have. Make a note of tattoos or scars or any identifying marks…That’s where I got the tattoo…See this? AFGRREG. Know what it stands for? Artie Fiore Graves Registration. So just in case they blew my head off they would know who I was and could send my wallet home to my mother…

“They sent us into England and we thought our war was over, see, after all that time in combat. Instead, we go over on D-day and hit the beach a few hours after the landing. Corpses floatin’ in the water—everywhere. We take fire but we get the beach cleaned hours after we hit. Did we get a medal, did we even get a commendation? Nothin’…See, they didn’t want to remind the homefront that people were dyin’ over there. They made these little films they showed in the theaters about every thing the Army did. But nothin’ about Graves Reg…”

The phone rings again.

“Yeah, yeah,” Artie says. “C’mon kid, that little prick Mangelli folded and sent the money.”

Artie puts a sheet over the body. He slips into a white-on-white shirt hanging over the door. Ties a fat Windsor knot in a shiny silver and green tie. “Take your body, kid.”

He guides me through a dark maze to the garage, lighting one Camel off another, talking even faster.

“’45, VE Day. War’s over right? But not for me. They keep us in to set up morgues in Japan for the Occupation. Then, in ’46 when I think I’m finally gonna get my discharge they come in with this shit detail: MacArthur wants to find the remains of the guys who died on the Bataan Death march. We been handpicked because we got so much experience. So we get rewarded with flies, and crud and fireshits for another three months. That’s what they do. They take the best guys and they run ‘em ragged. Like recyclin’ guys back to the front to break the rookies in. See, you can’t let ‘em know you’re good at anything…”

He watches as I horse the body bag into the back seat of station wagon.

“October ’46, I’m out. I had more than five years in. I come back here and they do me a big favor. Gimme a job in this joint. Same thing. They know I’m good so they abuse me. Let’s get your keys…”

In the office the big guy with glasses on his bald, yellow head, hands me an envelope.

“Give this invoice to Mr. Mangelli…”

A silver suit flips me the car keys. Another needles Artie.

“Hey fruitcake, where you goin’ all dressed up?”

Artie winks at me like he knew this was coming. “I’m goin’ to your mother’s house for dinner…” He waves the cellophane bag of guts in the guy’s face. “I’m bringin’ the tripa…”

The silver suit recoils. “You sick bastard. Get back in your hole…”

Artie laughs. “Everybody’s a tough guy…”

He turns to me.

“Remember what I tole you, kid. Don’t tell ‘em nothin. Don’t tell nobody nothin’.”

NEXT: MY FIRST PHYSICAL