I GET AN “EDGE”
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.