Tag Archive for 'New York'

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It’s 1961 and Brooklyn isn’t cool yet. It’s still a tributary, sending stenographers and piece workers across the bridge to mother Manhattan. Where colorful locals “tawk like dis” and mourn their departed Dodgers.

No war movie is complete without a “dese and dose” Flatbusher getting a salami from his mommy while he wisecracks in the Army. No B-musical can be filmed without a gum-popping Coney Island chorine who “knows the score.”

The Brooklyn Museum has a world renowned collection of hieroglyphs and papyri; the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens has the finest stand of Japanese cherry trees outside of Kyoto. But those joints (as we say in Brooklyn) are just for tourists and field trips.

Norman Mailer and Truman Capote are Brooklynites, not to mention poet Marianne Moore for whom the term “doyenne” was invented. But they live in Brooklyn Heights, a spit, which broke off from Manhattan Island after the Ice Age and has been trying to reattach ever since.

The real Brooklyn is a seething mass of sexual speculation. Three million people existing in uneasy intimacy with total strangers. Standing nose to nose and crotch to buttock on the subway. Adjoining each other in crowded apartment buildings where you can hear a sigh or smell a fart through thin walls. Looking at each other and wondering: “Does she want to?” “Is that a hint?” “Why is he staring at me like that?” “Should I say something?” ” What if Morty finds out?” “Jeeze, her boyfriend’s a fuckin’ giant…”

You want libidinal chaos? Try Coney Island on a summer weekend. The beach is a heaving mass of wriggling limbs, so jammed you can’t see the sand. Every age and variety of human anatomy is on display. You seesaw from repulsion to infatuation as you tiptoe between the blankets.

In my wanderings I see a clump of humanity, risen like a bush in the desert. That means there’s a hot bod on a blanket. I change course, trampling shrieking infants and dozing oldsters until I find myself on the fringe of a group of desperate men, all trying very hard not to look at what they came to see. A babe in a bikini pretends she doesn’t know she’s being watched and continues doing her nails, smoking a cigarette or, most excruciating of all, lying on her stomach while her friend spreads Bain de Soleil on the backs of her legs. She doesn’t have to be a beauty. A bit of boob peeking out of the bottom of a bra, a wisp of unshaven pube is enough to draw a frenzied mob.

Brooklyn is a place to be from, not to go to. This is proven by who dies and who buries them.

I’m working at Riverside Memorial Chapel, a funeral parlor on Park Circle across from Prospect Park. I’m a “removal man.” Every night I go to cluttered apartments in shabby neighborhoods where a very old person has quietly passed among his/her souvenirs. The deceased can lay undiscovered for days, even weeks, their death scent oozing out from under the door, obscured by cooking smells, gas leaks and general funk. Eventually, the uncashed Social Security checks in their mailboxes sound the alarm and cops arrive with crowbars. I show up soon thereafter, black suit and body bag my badge of office. I walk past stiffly posed photos of the old country, wedding pictures, Bar Mitzvah shots to a rumpled bed where a crumpled person in a cotton nightgown or striped pajamas settled in for a nap and never woke up.

I move bodies out of morgues in large hospitals. The attendant slides open a drawer on staring faces in the blue hospital gowns they died in.

I venture into Brooklyn’s vast, uncharted interior. To forgotten Jewish nursing homes in the encroaching black ghetto. The splintered steps creak. The warped screen door squeals. On the porch skeletons turn.

Is he here for me?

No Shmuel, you’re not dead yet.

The deceased is covered by a threadbare gray sheet. A friend sits by the window, nodding and licking cracked lips. They hand me a small valise and a shopping bag filled with used sundries. I belt it onto the stretcher on top of the body.

Two days later we bury them. The families show up all sleek and suburban in shiny sedans. The men are dressed for the office. The women wear dark suits, fur capes and walk in clouds of scent. The grandchildren bicker and fidget. Everyone has that extra layer of flesh that you get when you’re born in America.

A hired rabbi reads the prayers and gives a brief summary of the person’s life. It’s 1961 so we get a lot of “he/she survived the hell of Auschwitz;” or “came to this country at the age of nine with nothing but the clothes on his/her back; ” or “sent three children through college on a cutter’s salary…”

Occasionally, a cry of grief escapes like a hiccup.

“Momma, don’t leave me…”


“Forgive me Papa…”

It is answered by a brief of chorus of sobs and murmurs. The rabbi waits for silence, then concludes with the prayer for the dead. The chapel empties. We wheel the casket into the hearse. And wheel the next casket in for the next service.

Jews don’t bury on Saturday so Sunday is our busiest day. The manager is Italian, Anthony Sconzo, but he calls himself Yale Slutnick in deference to the clientele. On Sundays his wife cooks dinner for the staff, A big pot of veal pizzaiola with meatballs and chunks of sausage. Baked ziti with eggplant and mozzarella. Broccoli rabe. We eat in the back office, slipping on Orthodox burial shrouds so we won’t get sauce on our suits.

I don’t get this food in my mother’s kitchen so I am gorging myself when the phone rings. Sconzo listens for a while.

“Very funny, Angie” And covers the phone, shaking his head. “My stupid sister-in-law…” But then gets serious.

“Yes, okay, I understand…Sure…We’ll take care of it…”

And hangs up with a look of utter stupefaction.

We watch as he struggles to regain the power of speech.

“Why is this day different from all other days?” he finally gasps.

We pause, forks poised.

He rises and stretches his arms to the sputtering fluourescents, looking like Lazarus in his sauce-spattered shroud.

” Marilyn Monroe will be attending a funeral here,” he announces.

A scream issues from his limbic recesses.







It’s the summer of ’57. America has never been more prosperous–or more paranoid. The serpent of Communism lurks in our post war Eden, threatening to tempt us, corrupt us, brainwash us, conquer us by force or subversion. Thousands have been fired, blacklisted, even imprisoned on the mere suspicion of Communist association. John Wayne rules the Box Office battling Commie spies. Sci Fi movies warn about aliens who take over our bodies, post-nuclear insects that enslave humans–invaders from outer space whom we appease at our peril–all metaphors for the Commies plotting against us.

My woodshop teacher claims that the Panama Canal was built to allow Communist invaders easy access to the US. Once a week an air raid siren sounds and we have to take cover under our desks. When we giggle and horse around our Home Room teacher screams: “Wait until the Chinese are bayonetting babies on Coney Island Avenue. You won’t be laughing then!”

Our biggest shock is yet to come in October when the Soviets launch sputnik. Now we will live in fear of Hydrogen Bombs raining down on us from outer space.

And to top it all off the Dodgers have left Brooklyn…

I am fourteen and a half years old and ready for my first real summer job. But because I’m a minor I need the approval of the State of New York. Getting my “Working Papers” trumps Confirmation and compulsive masturbation as the true rite of passage to manhood. I feel very grown up as I buy a NY Post at the subway station. I try to mimic the same bored, weary expression I see on the other passengers.

The State Department of Labor is in a hulking gray stone office building on Livingston Street in downtown Brooklyn. I am buffeted in the swarming lobby by people who know where they’re going. A Post Office cop slaps his billy club into his palm at my approach. I ask where I can get my working papers. He gestures toward the elevators.

“Go get your physical on the tenth floor.”

I walk down a dimly lit, film noir corridor, past offices with smoked glass windows, until I come to a door with a sign reading State Dept. of Labor. Typewriters are clattering in a large office. A man gets up from a desk with a surly “Can I help you?”

“I’m here for the physical for my working papers,” I say.

He’s fat red-headed guy with bloodshot blue eyes, his tie askew, a cigarette dangling out of the corner of his mouth.

“Let’s go to the examining room,” he says.

He walks me into a smaller office where three men look up from their desks.

“Kid’s here for his physical,” he says. He pulls me toward a table. “Sit there…” Stubs out his cigarette. “Open your mouth.” Pulls my jaw down. “Wider…” Looks down my throat. “Say Ahhh…Do you get tonsillitis?”

“I had my tonsils out when I was a little kid,” I say.

He turns to the men in the office. “It’s okay, he had his tonsils out when he was a little kid..Good.,” he says to me. “That could have been a problem.”

Next, he pries my eyes open. “Wear glasses? Suffer from pink eye or wall eye…?”

Before I can answer he twists my head and pulls my ear down. “You’ve got serious wax deposits , son. Do you wash your ears?”

“Every day,” I lie.

A man rushes out of the office, head down, coughing and sputtering.

“You oughta take care of that asthma, Doctor Mulrain,” the red-headed guy calls after him. ” We may have to have you come back with clean ears so we can check on your auditory canal,” he says to me.

My mother had told me to take a shower the night before. I’m thinking of what lie to tell when I come home empty-handed.

” Stand up and face the wall,” he barks.

I obey numbly, still worrying about my mother.

” Bend over and drop your pants,” he says.

My mother had told me to change my underwear. I didn’t and now I’m hoping the stains don’t show.

“Underwear, too,” the guy says.

I hesitate.

“You want your working papers or what?”

I pull my jockeys down.

“Okay,” the guy says. “Now spread the cheeks of your ass…C’mon spread ‘em, this isn’t a fashion show.”

I’m fourteen and a half. Nobody has ever seen my ass before. I’m mortified. The red-headed guy walks up and down.

“Okay, pull ‘em up..” He turns to the men in the office. “Okay?”

“Okay,” they say.

He takes me outside to his desk. “You pass,” he says. Scribbles a note and hands the folded paper to me. “Give this to the nurse across the hall.”

This door has a sign that reads New York City Board of Health. The office looks more like a doctor’s waiting room. A chill of suspicion spreads through me. A nurse at a desk is putting on lipstick, puckering into a compact mirror.


“I just took the physical for my working papers,” I say, and give her the note.

She reads it, shaking her head. “Fat red-headed guy across the hall give this to you?”


“Did he examine you?”

“Yes,” I say and realize from her look that something is horribly wrong.

“Wait here,” she says, and walks into an inner office.

I dive for the note. It says: “Lunch? Blarney Castle?

A minute later the nurse comes out with an elderly man with a droopy gray mustache. “You’re not in mama’s kitchen now, sonny,” he says in a thick Yiddish accent. “You have to know where you’re going, who you’re supposed to see and what you’re talking about. ” He takes a gold pocket watch out of his vest pocket. “I’m going to lunch.”

“Those guys played a mean, stupid trick on you,” the nurse says.

“But the guard downstairs told me I needed a physical.”

“He was wrong,” she says. ” All we need is an adult’s consent.” She hands me a form. “Fill this out and have your parent or guardian sign it. Then bring it back or send it in…” She sees my stricken look. “Those guys are big jokers. Workman’s Comp claims, they have nothing to do all day long…They’re jerks. Forget it.”

Humiliation is felt sharply by the very young. I go out into the hall, sick with the memory of what just happened. I want to get out of that building and never come back. But in 1957 Brooklyn is still under the Napoleonic Code. Honor must be defended, insults avenged. I barge back into the fat redhead’s office to have it out with him.

The office is empty, phones ringing, cigarettes still smoldering in ashtrays, like everybody ran out in a panic. Just a typical lunch time in the Civil Service.

I go to the guy’s desk bent on retributive damage. A typewriter–I could bend the keys. A stack of forms–I could tear them up. I open a drawer. There is a fountain pen case. On a red plush bed is a Parker Pen. It’s the new 61 model, gold cap, red body, “self-filling by capillary action,” the advertisement says. It’s the coolest pen brand in the world. William Holden, the epitome of suave, is its official spokesman. This guy obviously loves the pen. He keeps it in its case on its red plush bed.

I pocket he pen and snap the case shut. The corridor is empty. The lobby is teeming, but I know exactly where I’m going. Outside, I pass the Blarney Castle on the way to the subway. The redheaded guy is laughing it up with his buddies at the bar.

I used that pen for twenty years. Every time I wrote a note or signed a check I thought of that redheaded guy trying to figure out who had stolen his precious Parker 61. When its capillaries couldn’t suck up ink anymore I put it out to pasture in my desk drawer as a reward for services rendered.



July ’73, Times Square, New York…There’s a recession on, but you can’t tell by me. I’ve got a bar job– twenty-seven bucks a night and all the goldfish I can eat. It’s at the Hotel Diplomat, an SRO on 43rd. St. and Sixth Ave. We call it “the Roach Motel” because once you check in you don’t check out. Half the tenants are seniors, shuffling around the mahogany chairs and sputtering lamps in the lobby until they find a spot on a lumpy sofa where they can lean on their walkers, muttering to the ghosts in the gloom. They stop breathing in rooms filled with fifty years of clutter, and lie forgotten until their stench signals their demise. The stronger ones make it to the hospital, bounced down the steps on a gurney, heads turning for one last dazed look around before they vanish into the ambulance of no return.

Hookers live in rooms rented by their pimps, who hang out in a bar off the lobby. They are hustled out, handcuffed and hysterical, by Vice Squad cops. New girls immediately take their places like there’s a waiting list. The seniors lean on their walkers and watch as they lead raucous sailors, nervous high school kids or furtive men in suits across the lobby.

Slouchy guys mutter in the phone booths by the elevators. Some of them are found with the needles still in their arms. Alerted by a trail of blood under the doors the maids enter to find the others tied, gagged and slashed in ransacked rooms. The seniors hobble down the hall as EMS workers wheel the bodies out, wrapped in their bloody sheets.

Rats the size of anteaters raid the liquor room, ripping open the bags of pretzels, unscrewing the tops of the maraschino cherry jars. We shout and sing to get them to scatter before we enter, but there are a few practical jokers in the pack. You don’t know what terror is until you’ve been startled by a giant rodent covered in Red Dye No. 2.

The Diplomat was once the hotel of the soft Left. The Socialist Party had its meetings and dances in its three ballrooms. Now promoters rent the spaces for dances and special events. Friday, Saturday and Sunday night the Crystal Room, so named for its chandeliers, is taken over by Alfredo, a twitchy middle-aged Neapolitan and Gerry, his blonde Brooklyn girlfriend. They put on dances for Italian immigrants. They charge ten dollars at the door and the hotel gets the bar. The room has a capacity of seven hundred and fifty. Every night begins with Alfredo pacing nervously as a few people straggle in. But by ten o’clock the place is jammed.

Three of us work a ninety foot bar. It’s Paul, a retired mailman from Harlem, Al, an angry butcher at Gristedes, who sells swag steaks out of the trunk of his car and me, a recently separated hack writer with a six year old son. We each have a bottle of Seagrams Seven, Highland Dew scotch, Gordon’s gin and Wolfschmidt’s vodka–and a soda gun. Seven and Seven is the cocktail du soir; we go through at least three cases of Seagrams a night. All drinks are $1.25 and served in plastic cups. No bottled beer; quarrels often erupt and the management doesn’t want any throwable glassware available.

The customers rush the bar, hundreds of them, shouting and shoving and clamoring for drinks for like they’ve been crawling on the Sahara for weeks. They pay in small change. “These greaseballs don’t go for spit,” Al says. By midnight, we have so many nickels in the register that Lester, the night manager dumps them in a huge sack. A quarter is considered a big tip and is presented with much pomp and ceremony. A few of the guys proffer a buck like it’s the papal crown on a plush pillow, but then they want free drinks for the friends and any stray girl who happens by. We do the math and figure that with people coming and going Alfredo is grossing ten thousand cash a night on Friday and Saturday and about five on Sunday– twenty-five G’s for low. Figuring an average crowd of twelve hundred, averaging three drinks at $1.25 per, that’s about $4500 for the hotel. For very low. “Everybody’s makin’ money and we get screwed,” Al says. We decide to charge the customers and steal from the till.

A quintet plays Top 40 and traditional Italian. Vito, the vocalist, a short kid with a gimpy leg and coke bottle glasses, is the ideal cover singer, doing Marvin Gay, Frankie Valli or Domenico Madugno with equal fidelity . Gerry rakes the dance floor with disco lighting, flashing, strobing, changing color, sweeping the room like a prison spotlight. The dancers do the same steps to a proto party list, going from Swear to God to Let’s Get It On to Volare.

There is a hard core of about a hundred regulars who show up every week. Among the men, an older group, smooth-shaven and slick-haired in wide-shouldered suits clusters at one end of the bar. They own pizza parlors all over Brooklyn and Staten Island, Vito explains. Another faction, young and modish in jeans and leather vests over sleeveless tees comes to my end. They work in “debt collection, you know what I mean?” Vito says flicking his nose. The two groups greet each other guardedly and never mix.

The females are either overdressed, heavily made up and deliriously sexy, at least to me, or mousy and awkward and giggling with each other. They arrive in groups like a bus tour and dance together for the first hour until the men join in. Everyone usually pairs off, but one night I spot a melancholy lady staring at me as she knocks back Seven and Sevens. At closing an invitation to coffee leads to a lurching clinch in the lobby and more stumbled kisses on the subway steps. But she sobers up on the long ride out to Brooklyn and by the time we get to Bensonhurst it’s life story time with lots of names and places, weddings, spiteful cousins, he saids, she saids… I find out she lives on 18th. Avenue with her parents and her “fiance” is a few doors down and I’m out of there. The next week she’s at the bar with one of the “debt collectors,” giving me a complicit smile like we’re having a mad affair.

The ’60′s had been a stressful time, what with psychedelics, army physicals and the shock of parenthood. Now, in the ’70′s I wake up broke, rejected and full of guilt on a mattress on the dusty floor of an empty apartment. But I’m not in school, I’m not in the army, I’m not married and I’m up for a job writing porno novels at ten dollars a page. Life is good.

One night I come to work to find a line a gleaming limos in front of the hotel.

“We doing weddings now?” I ask Lester.

“They’re havin’ a big party at Le Jardin tonight.”

He’s a black dude who’s been at the Diplomat for forty years, working his way up from porter. You’d think he had seen everything, but he shakes his head in amazement.

“They had Diana Ross and the Supremes up there the other night. They get just about everybody…”

I remember a few weeks ago when the place opened. “They got a fag joint on the roof,” Al had said.

Vito had gone up there one night and come back with a dismal report. “No live music…They got a DJ like on the radio. Two turntables goin’ back and forth…” He looked at me helplessly. “Everybody’s gonna do this now. We’re dead…”

It’s the beauty of narcissism. A seismic cultural phenomenon was erupting right under my nose and I didn’t even notice it.

For the first time I notice that the lobby has a new population. Young, stylish, flamboyant, pushing the seniors off their perches, interfering with the orderly process of prostitution, even sending the dope dealers into temporary retreat. They jam into the only elevator that goes to the roof, making so many trips that the motor burns out and they have to take the stairs.

“They wait on line like they’re givin’ out twenty dollar bills,” Lester says. “You oughta go up there. They got everything goin’ on…”