I AM HELD HOSTAGE BY THE MOB
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.”
“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.”
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