Tag Archive for '1960'


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?”


“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…?”






It’s 1961 and Brooklyn is a living, breathing Antiques Road Show. We’re sitting on trillions and don’t know it. Everything in my parents’ house–from the fiesta ware, the Heywood Wakefield furniture, oriental figurines, candy dishes, Nelson clocks, Danish lamps, silver serving spoons from the “old country”–will be a classic collectible in the future. My tipsy uncle careens around our cluttered living room. “Better not break anything, Sammy…” my mother warns. “Why don’t you get rid of this junk?” he yells back.

The streets are lined with cars that in thirty years will be bid up to a half a million by Saudi sheiks. Now they’re just “lemons” with lousy brakes that won’t start in cold weather.

I give an elderly neighbor $350 for his 1957 Chevy Bel Air, I hate its mint green color so I pay Earl Sheib $39.95 to paint it black. I hate driving its “three on the shaft,” and burn out the clutch. I park it with the doors and windows open on a dark street alongside Prospect Park, notorious haunt of thieves and muggers. In a year, a vandal– or anonymous ill-wisher– will flip a lit cigarette through the back window and turn the car into a fireball.

Today, a ’57 Bel Air is worth between $55,000 and 100,000.00

My grandfather leaves me a battered leather box full of silver dollar and half dollar pieces that he had been collecting since 1928. I use them to buy gas and cigarettes when I’m short of cash. In a year I’m down to one silver dollar, which I save for good luck.

Estimated value: $100K.

I have been an obsessive game player since childhood. At the age of eight I was flipping baseball cards with my friends. Closest to the wall won. “Topping” or landing on top of another card won two cards. A “leaner,” or leaning a card against the wall brought in three. Between flipping and trading I amassed a complete set of Topps cards. Plus I had the lineups of the 1952 Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Yankees and New York Giants right down to the coaches. I would lay them on my bed and replay the games for hours.

At the age of ten I took up marbles. We dug holes in the dirt called “pots.” You had to roll into the pot first and then roll out to hit and win the opponent’s marble. I wore bald spots into the knees of my corduroy pants, but won over two hundred “pee wees, immies and puries” –classic marbles which have avid collectors all over the world.

In 1963 when I move in with a woman eight years older than me my mother goes on a ritual rampage to erase my presence. She boils my sheets, gives my clothes, books and records away and chucks everything else she finds in my room, including a shoebox full of the Topps baseball cards, a bowling bag where I keep hundreds of marbles and my collection of 150 Classic Comics, which had been gathering dust under my bed.

Estimated value 75 to 100 grand.

My new obsession is chess. It entered me like a virus at the same time I got my draft card and realized I would have to stay in college forever to avoid the military. My every waking thought is devoted to openings and variations. I dream games in which the perfect move appears to me and the onlookers applaud. I study books on strategy, memorize the famous games and read about the great eccentric champions–Alekhine, Capobianco, Bobby Fisher, the Brooklyn wunderkind .The sight of a checker board tile floor sends me into a trance in which I stare at the squares visualizing moves.

My life is now about marking time until I can play chess. In the morning I doze through my classes at Brooklyn College. In the afternoon I move bodies and direct mourners at the Riverside Memorial Chapel. At ten in the evening my day begins. Still in my undertaker’s black suit I drive across the Brooklyn Bridge to Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village. I pull into the first open spot, knowing I will return to find one or two parking tickets, flapping like trapped pigeons on my windshield. Under the street lamps in the southwestern part of the park, a crowd has gathered to watch the chess players. From early spring to late fall, the games are on, 24-7. There are about thirty stone tables, the boards etched into their tops, each manned by a “strong” player. By tacit consent the best ones have the tables closest to the street lights. The weaker players, derisively known as “patzers,” are consigned to tables in semi darkness on the outskirts.

The dominant players act with more privileged disdain than any movie star or billionaire I will ever meet. There is Duval, an elderly Haitian in dark suit, streetlight gleaming off his smooth brown pate, who sets up ornate ivory pieces and a chess clock and dispatches all comers at a dollar a twenty minute game. “Fish!” he cries, slapping down the pieces. “You lose!” Next to him is Jimmy, hunched and intense with prematurely gray Toscanini hair. Five dollars for unlimited time, but when the loser makes a bad move he mutters “blunder,” and forces him to resign. There is Joe “the Russian.” Bald with a drooping gray mustache, he puffs furiously on Parliament cigarettes as he bullies his opponents. “Stupid move, patzer .Don’t insult my intelligence…” And Fritz, a massive black dude with a full beard, who analyzes every move. “You think I’m gonna do this so you can do that, but I’m gonna do this and you can’t do nothin’ about it…”

Every other game has an element of the miraculous. You can throw up a buzzer beater that bounces off the rim and drops in. Hit a ball off the handle that just clears the infield to score the winning run. You can make a crazy shot and sink the nine ball. Or draw a Royal Flush and beat a lock poker player. But chess is unforgiving. There are no lucky moves. The better player wins every time. The hustlers in the park know this so they can afford to be arrogant. When a player sits down and says “I’ve been watching you. I know your weaknesses,” they can roar back “I have no weaknesses!” And trounce him in twenty moves.

I am determined to get better. For months I neglect my school work, stop seeing my friends and don’t open letters from Selective Service, probably scheduling my Army physical. I immerse myself in chess, studying during the day and playing all night. A girl I know comes and sits next to me, joining the girlfriends of some of the other players in what is at that point an all-male obsession. One night I realize she hasn’t been around for awhile. But I don’t care. I’ve made a breakthrough. Suddenly, I can see four, sometimes five moves ahead. I am beating players who used to beat me. It all amounts to a few dollars a night, enough for four gallons of gas (24 cents a gallon) and a hot roast beef sandwich at the Cube Steak Diner on Sixth Ave with a little profit left over. But the prestige is enormous. I still haven’t traveled the light years to the main tables, but I’ve moved up to one that had enough spill to illuminate half the board. I am greeted as I walk into the park. I see the weaker players talking about me.




It’s 1960. The US is beginning its longest period of economic expansion in history. But as business booms disillusion gnaws at the national psyche.

The Russians shoot down the U2, an American spy plane. President Eisenhower disavows its mission, then backs off and becomes the first American president to admit he has lied.

There are bloody uprisings in the Asian and African colonies of our wartime allies France and Britain. We had thought of them as bulwarks of democracy and freedom, but now realize they are oppressive imperial powers.

Four black students sit in at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. They are arrested. Protesters all over the South are beaten, jailed, attacked by police dogs. Six years after Brown vs. Board of Ed. one quarter of our country is still a police state.

John F. Kennedy, a dashing young war hero with a hot wife, runs for President, promising change and a New Frontier. He is tied with Vice President Nixon until late returns from Cook County, Illinois make him victorious by one tenth of a percent. “The boys in Chicago fixed it,” says Mr. Leo, who runs numbers in Tony’s candy store on Eleventh Avenue in Brooklyn. “Just like Luciano fixed New York for FDR in ’32.”

My father has given me a job at the Riverside Memorial Chapel on Park Circle across from Prospect Park. He has worked himself up from monument salesman to manager, but is mortified at being in the funeral business. When people ask him what he does he says: “I play third base for the Cubs…” Or: “I’m the wine steward in the Woman’s House of Detention.”

I need a special Chauffeur’s license to drive the hearses, panel trucks and flower cars. But I’m 17 and you have to be 18 to get a Chauffeur’s license. Plus you have to pass another written exam and road test.

“Albino will fix it,” my father says.

Albino is a limo driver with connections way above his station. He is short and dark with a sharp, chin and beak of a nose. His eyes rove restlessly and his head jerks like a hungry bird’s.

On the way to the DMV I hear the story of his life. He talks in staccato bursts… “Youngest of eight. My father only had enough gas left in the tank to make a dwarf…He was a big guy,too…Everybody in the family shot up… Even in my sisters…I’m shorter than my mother for Chrissake…”

We drive over the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan. “We’ll go to Worth Street,” he says. ” I don’t trust those mamelukes in Brooklyn…”

He spent five and a half years in the Army during World War II. “They didn’t let me out until every Jap was dead.” He asks me if I’ve gotten my draft card. “Tell me when they call you for your physical,” he says. “I got a doctor who’ll make you 4F.”

There are lines out the door at the DMV. Only one window for the Chauffeur’s License applicants and there are at least a hundred guys ahead of me.

Albino pulls me away. “Wiseguys don’t stand on line…”

He gives me the form. “Fill this out.”

A few minutes later he is back. “Let’s get your picture took…”

The photographer is a little guy in a plaid bow-tie, eyes bulging behind horn rimmed glasses.

“Anybody ever tellya ya look like Tony Curtis?” he asks.


“They will now…Stand straight and look serious…”

Albino takes me aside. “Got ten bucks?”

I don’t carry that much cash.

“Never mind, I’ll front it…”

My license shows up in the mail five days later.

I pay Albino back the ten. Years later I find out he told my father it cost 20 and got that plus a ten spot for his time.

I’m taking morning classes at Brooklyn College. Between the boiling radiators and the boring professors I go into a coma every morning. My Western Civ instructor, Professor Hoffman asks the class to talk quietly. “We don’t want to wake Mr. Gould.”

At two o’clock I run to my ’57 Bel Air, my home away from home. I change into a black suit in the back seat and head to the chapel. My job is to stand in the lobby and direct people to the reposing rooms. After visiting hours Albino and I load up a Chevy 31 Panel truck with mourner’s benches for religious Jews.

“Here’s a little trick, kid,” Albino says as we go to the first house. The order is for five benches, but he takes three.

A haggard old man, nose running, eyes red-rimmed complains: “We ordered five. We have to have five benches for the immediate family.”

Albino pats his arm. “Let me see what I can do.” He brings the two extra benches into house and comes back with a five dollar bill and a gleeful smile.

“Works every time.”

No one can be buried without a valid death certificate, issued either by the attending physician or the Medical Examiner. The Board of Health is very strict about correct cause of death and has been known to disallow a death certificate, causing a delay in burial. Also, religious Jews and Catholics object to autopsies, causing more costly complications.

But Albino has “fixed” Katz, a clerk on the night shift. He gives me careful instructions.

“Wait ’til there’s nobody in the room. Go to the cage and tell him you’re Albino’s friend from Riverside. Slip the certificate under the bars with two bucks under it.”

I do exactly as ordered. Katz, his face shadowed by a green visor, stamps the certificate without even looking at it and slides it back.

It occurs to me that we might be helping somebody get away with murder.

Albino agrees. “We might be at that.”

And puts in an expense chit for five dollars.

My Bel Air is what they call a “big six.” It can fly. The Brooklyn B ridge at 2am is a great proving ground.

But one night I get a speeding ticket. Next day I’m telling everybody how this motorcycle cop came out of nowhere. Later Albino sidles up.

“You wanna beat a ticket?”

He gives me a copy of the NYPD house organ, Spring 3100, a magazine distributed only to cops. “Put a copy of this on your windshield, and write Albino on the front page,” he says. “Keep your license in a little plastic envelope with a tensky folded up behind it. The cop’ll see the magazine. You slip him the license…” He snaps his finger. “Bingo, you’re outta there.” Then, in all seriousness, he warns: “it probably won’t work if you run an old lady over, or somethin’.”

That Friday night I go to a loft party in Greenwich Village. Four hours later I have ten very stoned beatniks in my Bel Air. Arms and legs sticking out of the windows, people giggling and struggling for breath under the pile. We decide to see the sun rise at Coney Island. A cop car follows me across the bridge and pulls me over. It’s a sergeant with a chest full of commendations. He looks at the squirming mass in the car.

“You tryin’ to break a college record or somethin’?”

As I open the door three people fall out at his feet.

“I’m gonna get writer’s cramp with you, pal,” he says.

He makes me walk a straight line. Close my eyes and touch my nose.

“If you were drunk at least you’d have an excuse,” he says. “You’re just a moron.”

He takes the magazine off the windshield. Takes my loaded license back to his car.

I wink at my friends. “Watch this…”

Ten minutes later he comes back with a fistful of tickets and hands them to me one by one.

“Overloading a car…Changing lines without signaling…Driving over the lane markers…One red light infraction…Broken tail light…Going 45 in a 35 mile zone. Normally, I would overlook that, but I’m throwin’ the book at you, asshole.”

He follows me as I drive everybody to the Borough Hall subway station and watches as they get out to take the subway back to Manhattan.

Then, he hands me my license with the ten still in it.

“You were lucky tonight, kid,” he says. “Next time I’ll be pullin’ your body out of a burning car.”

Next day I tell Albino the story. “At least there’s one honest cop in the world,” I say.

Albino doesn’t accept that explanation. He shakes his head in puzzlement. Then, he brightens.

“You said it was a sergeant, right?”


“That’s it, ” he says triumphantly, his vision of a corrupt universe confirmed. “Dopey me.” He smacks himself in the forehead with the heel of his hand. “I forgot to tellya. Sergeants you gotta pay double, ’cause they kick back to the captain…”