Tag Archive for 'park circle'




It’s 1962. Uncle Sam has been threatening me with fines and imprisonment if I don’t report for my Army physical. Now he suddenly grants me a reprieve. I get a letter from the Selective Service Agency postponing my examination for sixty days.

“The System rules by caprice,” explains Morris Krieger, the Anarchist sage of Union Square Park. “It maintains power by keeping the people in a constant state of anxious uncertainty…”

Willie Mangelli, night manager at Riverside Memorial Chapel on Park Circle in Brooklyn, has a different take.

“You moved to Little Italy, right? All them big shots down there are bribin’ the Draft Board to keep their kids outta the Army. They gotta juggle the exams to make sure they got enough people comin’ in so it won’t look suspicious.”

Willie is a big shot himself. He has a “Hialeah tan,” wears a silver suit that almost glows in the dark and lights his cigars with a gold Dunhill. He’s not a licensed funeral director, but he’s the business agent of the limo driver’s local and the rumor is the owners gave him the job to avoid a strike.

“He’s gotta have some income to show the Government,” a driver tells me proudly. “He’ll be outta here as soon as his accountant tells him the coast is clear.”

Morris is a retired baker, whose union pension after thirty-seven years is $42 a month. He’s saving up from his Social Security to get his hernia fixed. “The Revolution is only a lifetime away,” he tells me and proudly quotes Emma Goldman:

“Anarchism stands for direct action, open defiance of and resistance to all laws and restrictions, economic, social and moral.”

Willie turns the chapel into his private criminal enterprise. In the morgue he buys “swag” watches and jewelry from furtive men in windbreakers. Out in the parking lot he sells the swag to men in Cadillacs who squint at his “goods” through jewelers glasses, pass him envelopes and drive away.

Willie runs a “Bankers and Brokers” card game in the garage. The “broker,” the player, has to beat the “banker’s” card–ties go to the banker. It’s quick and simple and fifty-one people can play. The deck is reshuffled and recut after every hand. Spiro, the “banker” crimps the deck so he can always cut himself a high card and raise Willie’s winning percentage.

Morris claims he takes his credo from “the great theorist Max Stirner” who wrote:

Whoever knows how to take and defend the thing, to him belongs the property.

He sells Anarchist books from a bridge table in Union Square. “Two dollars,” he says, but quickly adds, “or anything you can contribute.” And gives half his inventory free to people who plead poverty.

Morris and Mildred, mother of his two children lived for thirty years in “natural law,” he says. But they had to get married in order to make Mildred his beneficiary. “The state made sinners out of us,” Morris says and quotes “the great thinker” Prince Peter Kropotkin.

“Why should I follow the principles of this hypocritical morality?”

One night we are shorthanded and Willie has to come out on a “removal” with me. He throws me the keys–”you drive”–and grumbles “I can’t believe they got me workin’.”

We go to a tenement on Blake Avenue in Brownsville and walk up four steep flights of creaking steps. In a fetid bedroom an obese young woman is sprawled face down on the floor, her nightdress hiked up over huge, mottled thighs.

“She’s a fuckin’ whale,” Willie mutters.

“Why couldn’t it have been me?” her mother cries.

Willie puffs furiously on his cigar. “Stinks in here. Open a windah.”

He curses as we wrestle the corpse into a body bag.

“You take the head,” he tells me as we steer the gurney through the narrow doorway onto the landing.

“Drop your end, we’ll catch the express,” he says.

He kicks the gurney down the steps. It bounces and rattles and tips over. A swollen purplish, foot flops out of the body bag. A man pops out of his doorway.

“Have you no respect for the dead?”

“You wanna give us a hand, Rabbi?” Willie says.

The man steps back into his apartment.

“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” Willie says.

Morris has scars where he was beaten by gangsters and cops. He quotes Max Stirner: “One goes further with a handful of might than with a bag full of right.”

It’s a busy week. A mysterious blight is killing the chickens in Connecticut and New Jersey. The chicken farmers are killing themselves in Brooklyn.

A fifteen year old boy is found hanging in his shower, girlie magazines strewn on the floor. It’s called a suicide, but the Medical Examiner says the kid was probably choking himself to enlarge his erection.

We can’t leave bodies laying in their homes so we hire other undertakers to move them for us and then we pick them up at their parlors. Willie pays fifteen dollars for a “pick up” and takes a three dollar kickback for himself.

I hear him on the phone.

“I get the three beans from you or I get it from somebody else.”

Willie likes to pay with exact change, but he only has a twenty. “Be sure you get eight bucks back,” he tells me. “Five bucks change and three commission.”

I go to the T……….a Funeral Parlor on Avenue U. Two men in the same shiny suits that Willie wears are sitting in the lobby.

“I’m here to pick up a body,” I say.

They take me to a tiny, windowless office where a large, man with horn-rimmed glasses perched on a jaundice-yellow scalp, gives me a baleful look.

“It’s been two hours. What took you?”

“We’re busy,” I say. “Seventeen funerals…”

“Seventeen? You givin’ away toasters down there?”

I hand him a twenty.

“You’re short,” he says.

“It’s fifteen dollars for a pick up,” I say and invoke the magic name. “Mr. Mangelli arranged it.”

“Mr. Mangelli gave the wrong price to my night man,” the large bald man says.

The two men in the silver suits push into the room behind me and close the door.

The large bald man shoves the phone at me. “Get Mr. Mangelli on the phone.”

They find Willie at the bar of the bowling alley across the street.

He answers gruffly: “Whaddya want?”

The bald man snaps the phone out of my hand. “Gimme that…” And growls: “Know who this is jerkoff? Think I don’t know what you’re doin’? You’re payin’ fifteen and puttin’ in a thirty-five dollars expense chit. You think you’re gonna make twenty bucks off me, you fuckin’ little chiseler?”

I am shocked to hear someone call Willie Mangelli a “fuckin’ little chiseler.”

There is a muffled tirade at the other end.

“I’m holdin’ your body, your wagon and your guy,” the large bald man says. “Send the fifteen bucks up here and I’ll let ‘em go.”

Another tirade.

“Call anybody you want,” the large bald man says. “Call the fuckin’ pope…”

I feel a hard hand on my arm.

“Take him downstairs,” the large bald man says.”Let Artie the fruitcake babysit him.”




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…”