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Monthly Archive for October, 2010

DRAFTED/Part Three

A VERY SHORT REPRIEVE
Part 4

Like a condemned man I’ve learned to savor my reprieves.  To relish that moment of bliss  before my misdeed is punished. 

The criminal knows he’ll be caught, but wants the champagne and dancing girls. As a kid I lied about my grades so my mother would let me go out on Friday nights knowing I would be smacked, shrieked at and grounded when I brought my failing report  card home.  I forged her signature on an excused absence note when I “played hooky” to go to “Forty-deuce” to see Madame Olga’s House of Pleasure and eat ten cent hamburgers  at White Castle. I did it on Friday so I would have a glorious weekend and a tranquil Monday before my 8th Grade teacher called on Tuesday to report  the forgery.

“Why was I cursed with such a lying bum for a son?” my mother would cry.

I was unmoved by her despair. The freedom of the “D” train  to Times Square, the taste of fried onions while watching buxom ladies disport in complex lingerie was worth anything she could do to me. 

Now I’ve connived a reprieve from Uncle Sam. I’ve been classified 1Y  by Selective Service, granted a whole year before the System turns it baleful eye back onto me.

A cultural revolution is taking place on MacDougal Street in clubs like the Cafe Wha and Gaslight Cafe. Folk music, jazz, comedy. Bob Dylan, Peter Paul and Mary, Bill Cosby, Charlie Mingus, Lenny Bruce, Jimi Hendrix, even Joan Rivers: every major artist of the next thirty years is getting a start here.  At the San Remo Cafe, the stars of the Boho world are mingling. Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs, John Cage,  Delmore Schwartz, James Agee, Tennessee Williams. Up the block on Bleecker, at the Bitter End,  Woody Allen is opening for Richie Havens. 

I am oblivious to this ferment. I sit for hours at  a window table  in the Cafe Figaro at Bleecker and MacDougal, nursing a hot cider with a cinnamon stick,  smoking Gauloises, playing chess, reading Notes from the Underground–watching the girls go by. Occasionally, there’s a flurry when Burt  the manager throws out a drunk. Burt was kicked off the Cincinnati police force for brutality, although Pierre, a black kid from Cleveland, says that’s next to impossible. “You’d have to eat a motherfucker to get kicked off the Cincinnati police…” Burt punches first, a looping right to the bridge of the nose and issues instructions to the slumping victim– “get the fuck outta my store”–later. 

One night Burt and his tipsy brother Tom, the owner, stand over my table, arms folded. I think I’m about to get the bum’s rush. 

“I guess we’ll  have to hire you if we want our table back,” says Tom. “You can be our new machine man.”

I give notice at the funeral parlor. They take me to Cookie’s Buffet on Avenue M for a farewell dinner. Owning an all-you-can-eat restaurant in Brooklyn is the closest thing to hara kiri the West has invented. People rush the buffet like it’s the end of Yom Kippur.  Veal cutlets parrmigiana are secreted in purses.  Drumsticks are shoved down pants. Steaks are passed through the ladies room window to confederates in the parking lot. The eponymous Cookie stands by the door, blanching under his Miami tan. The place is jammed and he’s going broke. A few months later Cookie’s  burns down after being hit by “Jewish lightning,” a peculiar phenomenon that only strikes businesses on the verge of bankruptcy.

I’m taking a thirty-five dollar cut from $75 to $55, but “machine man” is the the coolest job in coffee house culture. I make espressos, hot cider, cafe au lait in tall glasses, ice cream sodas and sundaes. I taste hazelnut coffee and herb tea for the first time. Plus I eat for free–cheeseburgers, BLT’s, Yankee bean soup, pie a la mode. 

I’m a member of the proletarian aristocracy. I have no money, no resume, but I have cachet. I’m greeted by the important customers, the NYU profs, the freelance journalists, the mysterious old guys at the corner tables who turn out to be blacklisted screenwriters.

Suddenly, I’m a trophy screw. French girls with a few days to kill in New York love my sub basement. “Oh formidable…”  NYU girls like walking the streets with someone under 40 who knows everybody.

I have months of joy. No drudgery, no need for lies or excuses. I’m the “machine man” at the Figaro. I can do no wrong.

One night there’s an awestruck girl from Brooklyn College. “Oh my God, are you actually working in the Figaro?” Her boyfriend wears a tweed jacket and an ascot. He takes off his gloves to shake hands. Very classy. 

He works as an Assistant Make up editor for the NY Post.  There’s been a 114 day newspaper strike and they lost most of their copy boys, he says. The strike is over and they’re hiring. It’s a good time to get in.

“But I dropped out of college to go to Paris,” I say.

“The Managing Editor’s wife is French,” he says. “His name is Alvin Davis. Write him a letter.”

It takes a whole day to write a four paragraph letter. I tell the truth. How I hated college and fled to Paris in the great tradition of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, but  became so fluent in French I was terrified that I  was losing command of English. How I can think of nothing better than working for the paper I grew up reading.

A week later I get a reply. My letter has been jammed into a small envelope with a scrawled note: “Interview, Davis..”

I  put on my black undertaker suit and go to the NY Post building downtown at 75 West Street.  Leonard Arnold, the Personnel Manager  is in a cubicle at the end of the Classified Department.  He’s a gray-haired guy in a brown suit. “You read the Post?”

Every day all my life,” I say. 

“Okay, give me the names of three sportswriters.”

I name the whole department. Even Jerry De Nonno who handicaps the races.

He gives me a one page application. “You’re on probation for thirty days,” he says. “If you’re hired the union will see it to you can make $50 a week for the rest of your life. The rest is up to you.”

“You mean I’m really working for the NY Post.”

“Al Davis liked your letter,” he says. He shakes my hand. “Come in Monday morning.”

I go out to Brooklyn to tell my mother. “I got a job at the Post.”

She gets a worried look. “A real job? Did you lie about college?”

My grandmother is rinsing potatoes at the sink. She stops to wave the peeler at me. “Look, he thinks he’s a big shot already…”

I’m taking a five dollar cut down to $50 a week. and losing my privileged status. No more French tourists for me. But it’s worth it. I’m going to be a newspaperman.

Next morning there is a letter from Selective Service… “You are ordered to report for your physical examination…”

My year is up.

NEXT: ANOTHER PHYSICAL