Tag Archive for '1958'



It’s Brooklyn 1958 and nobody has ever heard of the “Mafia.”

The word is never mentioned in the black and white B movies (later reborn as noir masterpieces) which we see on rainy Saturdays. There it’s the “Syndicate,” usually located in a luxurious office with a view of downtown LA, the San Gabriel mountains super-imposed in the distance. In the movies, the “boss” is a sleek, well-tailored, well-spoken Robert Ryan-Albert Dekker-Kirk Douglas kind of guy. There is no one who even remotely resembles “Louie from Fulton Street.” who sells fresh fish on beds of ice out of the trunk of his Buick Regal on Prospect Avenue every Friday. Or Rizzo, a hunchback, who occasionally shows up at our apartment door, peeking around me to call my father, “Hey Boinie, I got somethin’ nice for the missus.” And, after a quick confab on the back stairs sells him a watch or a pair of earrings for my mother. My father buys a gold Rolex from him for $85 which he sells for $11,000 thirty years later.

Nobody in the movies looks like Mr. Leo, a shrunken old man in a brown suit who sits at the end of the counter in Tony’s candy store cashing checks for the black and Puerto Rican washer-ironer-folder women from the Pilgrim Laundry with a “hiya doll,” and a “how much you need sweetheart?” So, in 1963, when apostate mobster Joe Valachi tells the world that all of these men are loyal to a tightly controlled hierarchical organization modeled on the Roman legions we find it hard to believe.

It’s summer and my prowess in stickball has led me into bad company. We play in the schoolyard of PS 154; five man teams, two dollars a game and the right to hold the court. I hit the ball over the fence onto the steps of the whitestones across the street. After the game, one of the losers, a stocky kid with a husky voice runs at me. “Who you think you are, Mickey Mantle…?” I flinch, thinking he’s going to hit me, but he grabs me in a headlock and gives me a friendly nougie. “Now you’re playin’ for us.”

His name is Andrew. I’m taken by his supreme self-confidence, the knowing laughter in his black eyes. His older brother Johnny Boy drives us to the games in a red Impala convertible. We’ve been using the ten cent balls made out of two rubber spheres that split in two when you hit them on the seam. Johnny Boy opens a box of “Spaldeen” Hi Bouncers, 27 cents apiece. One piece, hard rubber, I hit them almost twice as far.

We travel all over Brooklyn, playing in schoolyards and on ruined streets in industrial areas where weeds push through the buckled roads. I see guys in knit shirts and slacks, passing money and I realize these older men are betting with Johnny Boy. I overswing and hit grounders.

Johnny Boy laughs at my nerves. “Whaddya worryin’ about, it ain’t your money…” After the game, win or lose, he takes us to Jahn’s Ice Cream Parlor on Church Avenue where we get the Kitchen Sink, a sundae with 32 scoops plus syrup, nuts and bananas.

On Sunday afternoons I am invited to Andrew’s house for “dinner.” He lives with his family–brothers, nieces, nephews, grandparents– in a four story brownstone in Red Hook. We eat in the back yard under a vine covered trellis. I sit at the foot of a long table with Andrew and Johnny Boy, trying not to look at their sister Rose’s huge breasts. Andrew’s dad is at the head drinking wine out of a gold-plated goblet. There are platters of roast chicken, salad with bottles of Kraft’s French, ziti with sausage, meatballs, chunks of veal and stuffed pig skin. I rise to bring my plate into the kitchen.

“Whaddya tryin’ to do, take the girls’ jobs away? ” Andrew’s father calls.

“He just wantsa get in the kitchen with Rosie,” Johnny Boy says and everybody laughs.

One Sunday, Andrew takes me aside. “Can you meet me later?”

At midnight I sneak out and ride my bike to 19th. Street, alongside the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, which was built when the city invoked eminent domain and demolished thousands of homes. Andrew gives me an ice pick. “See that baby blue El Dorado in the middle of the block? Rip up his tires, all four of ‘em.” His eyes gleam under the streetlight. “Rip ‘em to shreds…”

I’ve never done anything like this, but the movies have taught me how. I run low to the ground like the soldiers in “Battleground.” The lights are on in the house behind the El Dorado. I scramble around the driver’s side and plunge the pick deep into the tires. They deflate and start to sink. A figure appears at the window. I duck under the car and slash the rear tire on the other side, then scamper all the way around, using the car as cover, and puncture the front tire.

Andrew crouches behind the car. He reaches up and pours something down the grille onto the engine. “Fish oil,” he whispers as we run down the block. “Every time he starts the car he’ll get this stink and he won’t know where it’s comin’ from.” He’s shaking with silent laughter. “It’ll get worse and worse and nothin’ he can do about it…”

“Who is this guy?” I ask.

“Friend of my Uncle Artie’s…”

Andrew picks me up the next day. My mother won’t let him leave without eating. I cringe as she gives him a cream cheese and cucumber sandwich on pumpernickel; chopped eggs with chicken fat and fried onions; a piece of my grandmother’s cherry strudel. To me it pales in comparison with his mother’s ziti. He wolfs it down and thanks her, politely. “You have a nice friend for a change,” my mother tells me later.

“Wanna work at my Uncle Victor’s?” Andrew asks. He takes me to an empty store on Sackett Street, near the docks. A dumpy, cross-eyed guy looks me up and down. “Make a muscle, kid.” He squints dubiously at my skinny arms. “Gotta do push ups and chins.”

His name is Walter and he’s in charge. He leans a bridge chair against the wall and sits there all day, smoking Kools, reading the Daily Mirror and taking pulls on a quart bottle of Ballantine Ale. Andrew and I sit at the curb playing Casino. Once in awhile a truck rolls up and Walter calls: “Hey guys, you wanna get this?”

Sometimes it’s racks of suits or fur coats. Sometimes boxes of .45′s or LP’s or cases of J&B scotch. Anxious to prove myself I jump into the truck and hand the goods down to Andrew who puts them on a hand truck and wheels them into the store.

At the end of the day Walter peels two twenties off an enormous roll. “Don’t do nothin’ I wouldn’t do,” he says.

I realize I’m dealing with stolen goods or “swag,” as Andrew calls it, but for some reason I don’t think I’m breaking the law.

One day a nervous guy in a bloody smock pulls in with a truck full of sides of beef. “Hurry up, I gotta get back,” he says.

We have to carry the half-frozen meat down a ramp and into the store. Andrew jerks the sides onto his shoulder. I can’t get them up that high and have to hold them below my waist, straining my back. Walter watches in amusement. When the last side has been dumped he raises my arm in victory. “Winner and new champeen…” Slaps me on the behind. “You got guts…” And slips me an extra ten dollar bill.

Walter is an ex boxer. “Middleweight,” he says. “Toughest division in the fight game in those days.” I’m a worshipful listener to his stories. He talks about club fights–”Sunnyside, Eastern Parkway Arena…”–working his way through the prelims–”La Motta, Graziano, Joey Maxim, I seen ‘em all in those days.”– and crooked managers. “If I’d have had a connected manager I woulda gone right to the top. As it was I was just a cockeyed mick from Brooklyn with nobody behind me.”

Walter says he had a hundred forty-seven fights. “You fought twice a week in those days,” he says. “Now it’s twice a year for some of these guys. But I can still do the times table– two times two, three times three. I know guys who can’t even wipe their own asses anymore.”

He puts his arm around me. “Like my stories, huh? Come up to my room one of these days, I’ll show you my scrap book…”

One morning a flatbed with a high wooden fence around it is waiting as we come to work. The driver, a big, red-faced guy lunges at us. “Snap to it…”

Walter saunters around the corner with his paper, bridge chair and quart of Ballantine’s. “Mornin’ all.”

“Get goin’,” the driver says. “I been on the road all night.”

He opens the gate onto about fifty crates of live chickens. Half-dead really, some of them already gone. It looks like they just jammed as many chickens as they could into the crates and then nailed the crosspieces over them. The clucks and squawks are subdued, but the smell is overpowering and the flat bed is slick with droppings.

I try to lift a crate and can hardly move it. Even Andrew is straining so we decide to lift them together. Chickens peck at our hands. We have to put the crates on the edge of the truck, step off, lift them again and carry them into the store.

The driver watches with his arms folded. “Why don’t you get some decent guys for this?” he says to Walter.

“”What do they weight a hundred and a half?” Walter says.” If you’re in such a hurry why don’t you give the kids a hand?”

“I loaded em,” the driver says. “You unload ‘em. That means you, too, Pop.”

Walter waves his wad of bills. “I do the real heavy liftin’ around here, pal.”

The driver stands over Walter, clenching his big fists. “Get off your ass and unload these fuckin’ chickens or I’ll throw you on the truck with ‘em…”

“Okay, keep your shirt on,” Walter says, getting up.

We watch as they walk back toward the truck. Walter looks so small and hunched, next to this big guy. Tears of helpless humiliation rise in my eyes.

Walter stops to light a Kool and the driver walks a few steps ahead.

“Hey pal,” Walter says.

The driver turns and Walter hits him in the ribs with his right. He doubles over and Walter hits him under the chin with his left. It sounds like billiard balls colliding. The driver’s head snaps up. He staggers backwards, clawing the air until his feet slide out from under him and he goes down with a crash, banging his head against the fender.

A ribbon of blood flows out of the side of his mouth.

“Musta bit his tongue,” Walter says.

I’m amazed and triumphant. A bully has been defeated.

“How’d you do that?” I ask.

Walter shrugs. “You spend eight hours a day in the gym for twenty years you better learn how to throw a punch…Hose him down, Andrew.”

Walter watches as Andrew runs water over the driver until he finally stirs. Then nudges him with his foot.

“Get to work if you wanna beat the traffic.”

The driver rises to his hands and knees until his head clears. Then wobbles to his feet. Without a word he starts taking the crates off the truck. I hold the door open for him.

“C’mere,” Walter calls sharply. “He don’t need no help.”

It takes him an hour. He’s still woozy when he finishes and sits on the running board of his truck before getting up.

“Kid’s got your money,” Walter says, pointing to me.

I have seventy-nine cents in my pocket.

“Give it to him,” Walter says.

The driver stares at the coins in his dirty, callused palm.

“Seeya next time, pal,” Walter says.

As the truck pulls away Walter turns to us with a laugh. “If he thinks he caught a beatin’ now wait’ll he gets back upstate with seventy-nine cents.”

An hour later Johnny Boy drives up with an angry man in a rumpled suit. As the man speaks to Walter we tell Johnny Boy what happened.

“They say a fighter never loses his punch,” he says. “Walter was good in his day.”

“He could have been big, but the managers didn’t back him,” I say, full of indignation.

“Nobody would touch him after he did time,” Johnny Boy says. “They caught him humpin’ his nine year old nephew on the roof. He got nine years. Sat out the war.”

The next day I can’t go back to the store. Can’t face Andrew. I’m sick with the memory of Walter slapping my behind and putting his arm around me. Of his beery proposition…”C’mon up to my room I’ll show you my scrapbook.” It takes me a week to get over it and start masturbating again.

Fifteen years later I’m working as a bartender in a mob-owned disco in Times Square. Through the smoke and the strobes I recognize Andrew at the end of the bar. He’s the guy in the suit now, but still has that knowing laugh in his eyes.

“Bartending, huh?” he says. “I woulda figured you for somethin’ better.”

No point in explaining that I’m a writer picking up some extra money.

“How’s Johnny Boy?” I ask.

“He passed away a coupla years ago,” Andrew says and then quickly: “How’s your mom? Still with us?”

“Still with us,” I say.

He turns to the two guys behind him.

“His mother was some cook. Made the best egg salad I ever ate.”



It’s 1958 and America needs workers.

The New York City high school school system offers vocational training for those students who plan to skip college and go right into the work force. Girls can learn secretarial and bookkeeping skills at Washington Irving and Eastern District High Schools. Grady and Chelsea Vocational will teach you how to be a carpenter; Newtown High to be a farmer. There’s Manhattan Aviation and Brooklyn Automotive; Food Trades High for those who want to be butchers or bakers. Maritime High will prepare you for the Merchant Marine. High School of Performing Arts to be a star.

Along with 6,000 other boys I go to Brooklyn Tech, one of the three elite high schools (Bronx Science and Peter Stuyvesant are the other two) which grant admission based on exam scores. My scores say I am suited for a career in engineering. My scores are dead wrong. I am clinging by my fingertips to the bottom of the curve in math and science. Mechanical Drawing is a cabalistic mystery to me. My classmates take one look at a cam shaft and produce a detailed rendering of the top, side and front views. I stare at it like an ape contemplating a can opener.

The curricular plan is to blueprint a cam, make a pattern of it and cast it. The pedagogy doesn’t work for me, but it does sharpen my bargaining skills. I get a copy of the mechanical drawing from a fat kid named Iskowitz in exchange for a good mark on the high bar in gym class where I am a squad leader. An amazingly skillful kid named Duncan trades an extra pattern for a book report on Silas Marner. A kid named Shlosser promises to make a cast for me if I do his Civics homework for a month. But he reneges, alarmed by our prowling teacher. With the devil-may-care fatalism of a WWI pilot taking the sky against Baron Richtoven I make a mold out of my lunch, a cream cheese and jelly sandwich and a banana, and quickly pour molten metal into it. My teacher, Mr. Ryan, calls his colleague Mr. Nepo over to look at the finished product.

“You could put this in the Modern Museum of Art, but not in an automobile,” he says. And gives me a 55.

After school I take the subway to a dingy office building on Nassau Street in the financial district. I’m working as a runner for American Clerical, a company that appears in court for busy lawyers and gets adjournments on their cases. There are thousands of law firms in this congested area. Tens of thousands of lawyers who take on as much as work as they can and then juggle court dates like mad. Firms like American Clerical allow them to be in three places at once and the clients are never the wiser.

There are about twenty of us, mostly high school kids, working for minimum wage, a dollar an hour. Our job is to deliver slips with the new court dates to law offices in the area and collect a two dollar fee for the day’s work and a new order for the next day. We get in at about 3:30. Marvin, the dispatcher, a dour, sallow kid in his ’20′s with a new black booger–or the same one– hanging out of his comically large nose, silently hands each of us a worn leather portfolio and a typed itinerary with about fifty firms. We have to be back at the office by 5:30 so the partners can make up their schedules for the next day.

We go on a mad dash through the dense downtown streets, running from one building to the next. There are four or five firms in each building, sometimes more in the skyscrapers. We take the elevator to the highest floor, run into the law office where the switchboard operators hand us the money and the new orders like batons in a relay race and run out to the next office. Sometimes the slips aren’t ready so we run down the stairs, jumping four or five steps at a time to the other offices, then run back up the stairs. We have to clip the cash to the slips and make sure they don’t get muddled. Then we weave through the rush hour multitudes on the narrow streets back to the office. We’re each carrying at least a hundred dollars. Marvin waits under the clock and takes our portfolios. Kids who come in only a few minutes after 5:30 are fired on the spot. One kid falls down the back stairs of an old building and breaks his ankle. He crawls down to the first floor and is discovered by the cleaning ladies, whimpering in the darkness. He is fired, too.

American Clerical is run by five lawyers, ex Communists who have been barred from more lucrative legal work. Five little men–we call them the midget All-Stars–their white shirts soiled with carbon soot. In the morning they scurry from court to court adjourning other lawyers’ cases for a two dollar fee. In the afternoon they sit in a row banging away at their typewriters, squinting through cigarette smoke, coffee containers littering the floor around their chairs. Ben, my father’s friend from the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, a volunteer army that fought against Franco in the Spanish Civil War, is a senior partner, and has gotten me the job. A trim little bald guy with coke bottle glasses he gets vicious after a few shots of my father’s Haig and Haig Dimple Scotch. At the mention of a name he’ll sneer:

“Oh yeah, Morris Mermelstein, shot in the back while charging.” Or:

“Sid Tassler, that informer… He was so terrorized by the FBI he converted to Catholicism…”

A few more drinks and he starts cutting up his partners.

“Leo doesn’t know from dialectics. He joined the Party for the girls…”

“There’s plenty of Reds in Legal Aid. They fired Sid because he’s a lousy lawyer.”

Ben warns me not to tell the other boys that I know him. “They’ll think you’re a spy and gang up on you on the back stairs,” he says, blinking urgently behind his thick glasses.

He’s wrong. It’s a very diverse group– unusual for the time–white, black, Hispanic, foreign, even Chinese, but we have great solidarity. Like coal miners or infantrymen we respect each other for excelling at a very hard job. After work we go to a lunch counter for knishes and thick shakes.

But then the firings begin.

Cash is missing from the portfolios and the partners blame the boys. I come in one day and Iggie, a big, blotch-faced kid whose hands and feet have outgrown the rest of him, is crying. “George fired me,” he sobs. “I didn’t do nothin’.”

George has slick backed gray hair. He walks on the balls of feet and hitches up his pants like a boxer. When I come back from my route the next day he has Sal, a chunky kid who reads weightlifter magazines, backed against the wall. “You fuckin’ thief,” he shouts.

“I didn’t steal nothin’,” Sal says.

George shoves him. “Get outta here.”

Every day I notice some kids are missing. New kids come and are canned after a few days. “Get outta here,” George shouts as they run, heads down, out of the office. “Rotten thieves!”

One day he fires Jenkins, a black kid from Tech, who I take the subway with every day. “You Jew motherfucker,” Jenkins shouts.

“Get out,” George yells back. “You’re lucky I don’t call the cops.”

I am a careful thief, restricting my pillage to legal pads and boxes of pencils. I’m amazed that all these kids would think they could get away with stealing money when every penny is accounted for. It never occurs to me that they might be innocent.

One afternoon I walk in to find George and Ben in the alcove. I’m fifteen and already I tower over them.

George jumps at me. “You rotten little thief!”

Ben holds him back. “How could you do this to your parents?”

“What did I do?” I ask.

“Don’t get cute with me,” George says.

“You have shortages for the last two weeks.,” Ben says. “We gave you the benefit of the doubt because of our regard for your father…”

I’m too stunned to protest my innocence. On the way out I see Marvin the dispatcher looking at me. He drops his head quickly and I realize:

It’s him!

I point a j’accuse finger. “It’s him, he’s doin’ it.”

Ben shakes his head. “Take it like a man. Don’t accuse your fellow worker.”

On my way out I shout at Marvin. “You did it, you prick,”

He looks up at me blandly.

Now I have a failing report card and I just got fired for stealing. I walk down to the Hudson River and look longingly at the freighters putting out to sea.

Ben has already called by the time I get home.

“Did you take the money?” my father asks.

“No,” I say. “It was Marvin the dispatcher. He got all these kids fired and he doesn’t care.”

“If they’re so worried they should take checks only,” my mother says.

“They want the cash so they don’t have to pay taxes,” my father says.

“So they’re stealing, too. Anyway, it’s all for the best,” she says, looking at my report card. “Now you’ll have more time to study.”

Six months later Ben calls. They finally caught the thief. It was Marvin all along. After five years of scrupulous employment he had become a degenerate horse bettor and whoremonger and was stealing to support his vices. The partners had him arrested so they could file an insurance claim for the missing money.

“My son the detective,” my mother says proudly.

Ben offers me my job back, but I have basketball practice three days a week and my mother is slipping me a few bucks as a bribe so I’ll stay home and study.

In the intervening years I’ve been accused of racism, fascism, plagiarism and philistinism, but my real crimes have gone undetected.