Tag Archive for 'eastern district high school'

MY CAREER AS A PETTY THIEF/PART THREE

FALSELY ACCUSED, FOR A CHANGE

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.