The Moon Landing and the Mafia Excerpts)
By Bill Honer
Originally published on WordPress as
“The Queens Traveler” in 2009
Reader screens: 706
Lou finds his dreams of world travel fulfilled by a wild ride that takes him to Hong Kong, the magical “El Fna” square in Marrakech, Kuala Lumpur, the Amazon River, the jungles of northern Guatemala, and many other destinations. He often travels with his good friend Carl, a brilliant chemist by profession who ingests homemade chemical compounds while living slightly to the left of sanity. Lou rides the “Magic Bus” between Istanbul and the Serbian city of Nis, meets beautiful ladies from Northern Europe while living on the Spanish island of Mallorca, and experiences adventures, the comic, and the erotic as he enjoys the sexual freedom of the sixties and seventies. He learns of the dangers facing an American traveling alone behind the “Iron Curtain” of Eastern Europe as he crosses the Berlin Wall into East Germany and Czechoslovakia. Readers will hopefully find pleasure in sharing the ride. Although a work of fiction, the novel was inspired by the author’s independent travels to more than fifty counties throughout the world. If you enjoy it, I may be contacted at email@example.com
or firstname.lastname@example.org (default e-mail) Book Reviews are welcomed-novel is available free at billhonerwordpress.com/
This novel is dedicated to my father John Honer, with gratitude for providing his children with loving affection and encouragement, along with a philosophy of life based on compassion, social justice, and the sensibility that life is to be enjoyed, not simply endured. Bill Honer, 2009
Lou is a New Yorker who makes the most of life in the late sixties and early seventies, a time known for sexual freedom,and for some Americans, world travel. A social worker who has worked inside some of New York’s most infamous prisons with hard-core murderers and other violent offenders, Lou travels with Carl, a brilliant chemist by profession who spends considerable time ingesting homemade chemical compounds while living slightly to the left of sanity.
Dreams of world travel are fulfilled by visiting Hong Kong, the wild “El Fna” square in Marrakech, Kuala Lumpur, the Amazon River, the jungles of northern Guatemala, and many other places. Lou attends a major trial of heroine smugglers in Hong Kong, rides the “Magic Bus” between Istanbul and the Serbian city of Nis, meets beautiful ladies from Northern Europe while living on the Spanish island of Mallorca, and has his share of exotic experiences. He learns the dangers facing an American traveling alone behind the Iron Curtain of Eastern Europe during the seventies as he crosses the Berlin Wall as he visits the former East Germany and Czechoslovakia.
While all characters in the novel are fictional, the novel was inspired by my experiences traveling independently to more than 50 countries around the world. I had considered writing a memoir, but decided that some readers might well reject some of the more outrageous events in my life as sheer fiction; writing a fictional novel eliminates such concerns.
The novel is a wild ride that I hope will prove enjoyable for the reader. Bill Honer 2009
Part I: New York City
Queens 1969: Lou Shares the Moon landing with the Mafia
Lou lived in Forest Hills; his apartment was located on Burns Street and Yellowstone Boulevard. The view from the terrace included Forest Hills and Middle Village. For a city location, there were many trees to admire on a spring day.
New York in the sixties was highly segregated. The primary difference between Johannesberg and New York was that apartheid had not been formally codified into law, but New Yorkers in the sixties knew the unwritten rules of discrimination. Black people in Forest Hills were largely a rumor, while White people in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn were a miracle.
Forest Hills had good Jewish delicatessens and restaurants; there were also numerous cocktail lounges along Queens Boulevard, most of which were believed to be mob-controlled.
Lou had his phone number listed in the Queens directory. Sometimes, he received from former inmates who wanted to talk to their old social worker.
Margot, his lady friend, was getting ready to leave with him to attend an antiwar rally at United Nations Plaza. Thousands of people were taking the day off from work to protest the Vietnam War. Peter, Paul, and Mary, the folk singers, would be there. The protest leaders would no doubt have ample criticisms of President Nixon’s policies. Lou and Margot considered the President a craven politician with limited sensibilities; they had labored hard to convince friends at college to vote for the Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey, but to no avail. It promised to be an interesting day.
They were an attractive couple; Lou was six feet tall, with blue-green eyes and a slender build, while Margot was a brown-haired beauty with a hint of Asian features.
As they were leaving, the phone rang; it was Johnny Manning, an ex-convict that Lou had worked with inside Dannemora prison; he wanted to get together that evening. They agreed to meet at a bar on Queens Boulevard. This seemed a good idea because it happened to be the night of the moon landing; they would be able to see history made on a good television screen rather than the old Salvation Army purchased television sitting in the living room.
Lou had met Johnny while doing research with multiple felony offenders; there was directness about him which was reflected in his crime of choice, which was armed robbery.
“Look Lou, Johnny had once said to him, “I’m not going to try to present myself other than how I am. I am a thief, and I am not likely to change; it may not be the greatest thing in the world, but that is what I am.”
Johnny had first been arrested when he was sixteen years old. Due to prior convictions for theft, he was labeled “incorrigible” and sent to the Auburn State Prison for men. He was not released until he was twenty-one. Johnny once spoke about the day that he was freed.
“They gave me a white shirt, black suit and shoes, and two hundred dollars; then the bulls drove me down to the train station. When I was sitting in the train, I felt that everyone was staring at me because of the suit; local people knew that was the station where prisoners boarded the train.”
“Sometimes, the bulls bring a con handcuffed because they are taking him to a funeral in the city, so anyway there I am feeling like everyone is looking at me. I just kept staring out the window and avoiding eye contact. When I arrived at Grand Central Station, I still felt that everyone was staring at me and could tell I was a con because of that fucking suit. I called home and told my Mom to send my cousin Joey over with pants and a shirt for me. I went into the men’s room and changed; then I took a cab over to Greenpoint. I swear to God, Lou, it was only when I was out of that suit and into other clothes that I felt like I was out of prison,” he said.
The Enchanted Evening Lounge looked like a connected place; it was dimly lit, with a beige satin dropped ceiling. The seats were oversized white leatherette and were very comfortable. Upon sitting, one descended ten inches. Sinatra was singing “There’s a Small Hotel” from the juke box. Other than two men seated at the bar, the place was empty. Lou ordered two Schaefer beers, their New York brew of choice.
Lou discreetly observed the two men at the bar; both were wearing black suits and white shirts; the expensive clothes suggested Wall Street. However, the large hands, heavy eyebrow ridges, and long sideburns indicated ties to the mob. One said, “Hey Gizzooch. I bet you five bucks you can’t name the seven dwarfs!”
The other gangster looked at his colleague carefully to make certain that he wasn’t bull-shitting him; he wasn’t. “Joey!” he yelled to the bartender. “Did you hear what Frankie said? I win five bucks for naming the seven dwarfs. Okay, you animal, listen good, Dopey, Grumpy, Sleepy…” Frankie shook his head and opened his wallet to retrieve a five dollar bill, saying “I didn’t think you were that smart, go figure.”
Lou and Margot sat quietly sipping their Schaefer beers. It was becoming clear why Johnny had chosen this bar; his “homeboys” from Attica and Dannemora congregated there. Their sense of civic responsibility was limited to a monthly visit to the office of their respective parole agents. Rather than make Margot and Lou nervous, it had precisely the opposite effect. They felt safe and secure; no one would be robbing a “connected” establishment. In the early seventies, there were three streets in the Bronx named Fox, Simpson, and Tiffany which were known to be very rough places to live. Crime statistics revealed that a person living on those streets had a one in eighteen chance of becoming a homicide victim, not even a twenty-to-one shot! On the other hand, persons living where the Mafia did in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn had a one in twelve hundred chance of becoming a crime victim! Lou and Margot continued to talk softly, although it was more fun to overhear the mobsters’ conversation.
“Hey, Frankie, my cousin said to me that he thought he seen you working at a store on West Thirty-seventh Street. I told him he gotta stop eating those mushrooms.” said Grizzooch, as he gave everyone his best Cro-Magnon smile.
Frankie laughed “Working? Ya gotta be kidding me. I ain’t worked since that time in the fifties when Carmine got us that job painting one of the bridges. I think we lasted three days. This friend of Carmine’s comes over with an Irish guy and says that Mike is our crew chief and that if we got any questions, all we gotta do is ask Mike. So me being a smart ass, I say to him, ‘Listen, Mike. Do you think Ericco can get that pig he is riding home first in the sixth at Aqueduct?’ So the Mick just looks at me with a hard stare and says, ‘This is a bridge, not the track. So get to work.’ I look surprised and says, ‘You mean this ain’t the track? I must a taken a wrong turn and I’m in the wrong place; thanks for telling me.’ You shoudda seen the look on the Irishman’s face when I walked off. He started yelling ‘Where are you going?’ I yelled back, ‘I’m going to the Big A, where do you think I’m going?’ said Frankie.
Even the bartender laughed at that one. Finally Johnny entered the club, shook hands with the mobsters, and came over to the table.
“Margot, this is my old friend Johnny.” said Lou.
“Hi Johnny, I’m glad to meet you.” said Margot.
“Same here Margot, I hope you don’t mind spending the evening with these goombas,” said Johnny, pointing to the gangsters at the bar.
“This place has a colorful atmosphere. I’m enjoying myself.” said Margot.
“I go back a long time with those guys; we are all graduates of the University of Sing-Sing.” he added.
“What was your major?” she asked.
“Armed Robbery,” replied Johnny.
“I heard that you were indicted last year for that two million dollar armored truck robbery at Aqueduct racetrack.” said Lou.
“That is true, but not at this moment; it seems the District Attorney had trouble getting a trial date and finding witnesses, so the case was dismissed with the right to represent.” he said with a tight smile.
Johnny leaned over in conspiratorial fashion. “About two months ago, my lawyer calls me and tells me to get down to La Fontana restaurant on Queens Boulevard at one o’clock. He had arranged a meeting with Carmine Mosca, who has a lot of political connections. There we are having some pasta and wine. My lawyer turns to Carmine and says, “Carmine, I want you to know that Johnny is a good boy, but he has a very big problem with the Aqueduct armored truck indictment. I thought that we might at least let you know about it,’ he said. Carmine just kept eating his penne, not saying much at all. My lawyer was doing most of the talking. After drinking his espresso, Carmine walks out. My lawyer turns to me and says, ‘It will cost you twenty-five grand to get the indictment dismissed.’ I said to him ‘How do you know that?’ He picks up Carmine’s napkin and shows me a small 25k printed in the corner. I couldn’t figure out how he wrote it; he must have done that many times. All I know is that the case against me was dismissed yesterday.” he said.
“It’s too bad that one of the guards had to be a hero and go for his gun.” Johnny continued . “He shot Billy Jackson in the chest; his brother Eddie freaked out when he saw his brother lying there dead, and he began pumping bullets into the guard. So for playing a hero protecting someone else’s money, that guard wound up dead.” he said shaking his head.
“Two million was a lot of money, but it never brought anyone luck.” he added.
The television announcers were busily building the suspense of the moon landing. The gangsters at the bar were even beginning to pay more attention to the event.
Margot was originally from a small community in western New York. This was her first meeting with a professional criminal. She found him charming in a boyish way; it made her forget that he made his living by sticking a thirty-eight in people’s faces.
“Johnny,” said Lou, “please tell Margot about the candy store incident.” asked Lou.
Johnny laughed. “So you want me to be the one to corrupt Margot’s view of New York’s finest? All right.” he said.
“I had been out on parole for a while; the Green Point cops were always busting my chops for the sheer fun of it. They had nothing on me and that made them mad; not that I was leading a clean life, but we won’t go into what I was doing. One night I was with a woman whom I had known for awhile. It was Saturday night, we visited some clubs in Manhattan, and got back to Green Point around four in the morning. Now I have a routine that I follow. On Sunday mornings, I go to my Mom’s candy store and help her with the Sunday newspaper inserts. The problem was that Margie just kept hanging around the store, pestering me to pay attention to her; when I kept working, she started pushing on my shoulders.” said Johnny.
“That made me mad, so I grabbed her arm and pushed her out of the store and locked the front door; then I pulled the shades down so she couldn’t see me.”
“Margie started banging on the door so hard I thought she would break the glass. Meanwhile, she was out there on the street calling me every name in the book. After awhile, things went quiet outside; I figured that she got tired and went home. Well the next thing I know, two cops are pounding on the door. When I opened it, they grabbed me and tell me that I am being arrested for assault against one Margie Riordan. I told them what happened and that it was nothing but a bum beef, but these guys knew all about my past, and were not about to give me a pass. I said to them, ‘Look, guys. Can I at least make a phone call before you take me in?’ They weren’t happy about it, but they weren’t bad guys. I called a good friend named Joey and told him to meet me at the station house with a thousand in cash. Joey was a player, he knew that money could grease the wheels of justice with the Green Point detectives.”
“They put me in a holding cell after they booked me; I was a little worried because I was still on parole. Then I saw a detective named Schuster walking toward the cell; that was when I knew my problems would soon be over. Schuster couldn’t be straight with the help of a fucking ruler, excuse my French Margot. He took me to an interview room and closed the door. At first, he didn’t say anything. He just read the paperwork on me slowly. Finally, he looks up and says, ‘Johnny, it looks like you’ve been a bad boy again. Aren’t you still on parole? This won’t look good. No sir,’ he said shaking his head.”
“Look Detective Schuster, this is a bad rap. I swear to God all I did was shove her outside because she was pushing on my shoulders while I was trying to get the Sunday papers ready for my Mom, I said to him.”
‘Oh yeah,’ says Schuster. ‘You were always a fucking boy scout.’
“Look detective,” I says “Can’t we do something to work this out? I’m telling you there is nothing to this case. Couldn’t five hundred wrap this up? I mean for the inconvenience and everything?”
“He looked at me real hard. ‘I think you are minimizing the inconvenience Johnny.’ he says.
The greedy fuck, excuse my language again Margot, wanted the full yard, so I tell him Joey has the money in the waiting area. Schuster left me and went out to see Joey; he was stuffing the envelope in his pocket as he returned to the interview room.” continued Johnny.
“Now the son of a bitch is all smiles. He picks up the inkwell on his desk and proceeds to pour the ink onto the police report. Then he looked up at me, smiled and said. ‘See, Johnny, accidents happen.’ “That’s great, Schuster,” I said. “Can I go home now?”
‘Sure, no problem, but you still gotta go to Court. he says.”
“Go to Court? I screamed at him. I just paid you a grand to handle this piece of bullshit, and I gotta go to Court?”
“He said ‘Look Johnny, calm down and relax. You got my word the case will be dismissed. It’s just that there is already some paperwork for a court date, but I guarantee you the witness will not show up. I’m telling you can forget this ever happened.’ Sure enough, he was right. I went to Court and the case was dismissed for lack of evidence; Margie didn’t show up.” said Johnny.
“Later, I found out what really happened that day in court. Schuster and his partner went to see Margie early in the morning. They told her I had been spotted on Staten Island. ‘We need you to make a positive identification; can you come with us?’ they told her. So they gave Margie the grand tour of Staten Island and she never made it to Court.” said Johnny.
“Johnny, do many New York police take money?” asked Margot.
“Only those who are offered money accept. It is considered bad etiquette to refuse, and New York cops like to be polite.” said Johnny smiling.
Margot became pensive. “That is awful; I had no idea things were so bad.” she said.
“I knew a man whose uncle was a detective with the New York City police. He said his uncle told him that on the first day of each month, a cop would walk through the squad room and slap an envelope filled with cash down on each desk.” said Lou.
“My only complaint about them is that they are so greedy,” Johnny lamented. “No matter how much you give them, they always want more.” he said.
“This was not discussed in my criminology class.” said Margot shaking her head.
The bartender raised the television volume; the first astronaut from the earth was stepping onto the surface of the moon. Even the two gangsters appeared to be engrossed in the historic moment.
“Hey Gizzooch! Look at this.” said Frankie.
“Frankie, you wonder how they can tap a phone?” said Gizzooch. This was the relevance of the moon landing to the Mafia.
The evening passed quickly and pleasantly, with a few more mobsters arriving; the juke box appeared to be dedicated exclusively to Frank Sinatra.
When it was time to leave, Johnny stayed behind with his friends.
“That was different,” said Margot, as they walked hand-in-hand down Queens Boulevard. It was a beautiful night; the lights from apartments in the high-rise buildings dotted the urban landscape. It was a pleasant walk home.
Albany 1969: The “Psycho-ceramics” Weekend
Lou often visited friends in Albany on the weekend. His friend Beth’s apartment in Albany was illuminated exclusively by colored lights; there were green, red, and orange bulbs. Even the refrigerator contained a rose colored lamp. If smoking grass resulted in the munchies, the subdued lighting enabled them to conduct a search and destroy mission in the food box without having their bloodshot eyes assaulted by white light. Since they liked to read, two white light bulbs were kept in a handy location and could be screwed into a light fixture when needed.
Beth was lovely and gracious; she made Lou feel as though it was his apartment whenever he came up from the city. The relationship between Margot and Lou was not exclusive.
Beth was a graduate student at the state university; Lou was strongly attracted to her. In fact, he had a difficult time keeping his hands off her well-rounded bottom. Fortunately for Lou, she never complained; the attraction was reciprocal.
The big weekend was starting that night; Carl the chemist was coming from the North Country, along with Bob the mathematician, while Jim and Lorraine were coming from New York City. Even Nicko was taking the weekend away from his work at Broadway Burlesque to join the party.
Beth performed a final inspection of the premises. After viewing the supplies of grass, wine, cheese, coffee, bread, pasta, sauces, and salads, she was satisfied. The party should start around seven on Thursday and continue until Sunday evening. Past experience had taught them that a Friday to Sunday party was simply not long enough.
Nicko was the first to arrive. His long black hair extended over his leather jacket, he was wearing rose-tinted glasses and wore a facial expression that was even more haggard than usual.
“What a night! I worked the Broadway for eight hours. Two of the strippers did not show up, so everyone else was mad about having to do extra shows; then I went home with Helen Bed; it was a long night with her. She lasted two hours with the vibrator after we took some Jamaican ganja weed. I woke up at about eight-thirty this morning, and there was Helen was pushing on my shoulders saying ‘C’mon, Nicko you promised to whip me this morning.’ And you know, I hadn’t even had my coffee.” he said, pleading for understanding.
Lou sympathized with Nicko on the rigors of an evening with Helen. He had done it one time and thought he might have to undergo physical rehabilitation in order to walk erect again.
Lou offered Nicko some food, wine, and smoke, placing a Bill Evans album on the stereo. Nicko was an electronics specialist by profession; however, he was going through an unpleasant divorce and preferred to earn less these days, lest his soon-to-be ex-wife receive any additional money from him before the final decree.
Nicko was kind and generous, except when his former consort was concerned. She still lived in the same three-story brownstone building in Brooklyn. Nicko took a hit off a thick joint Lou had rolled for his companions. “I nailed the old lady and her Japanese boyfriend last night with a pincer movement.” he said happily.
When pressed for an explanation, Nicko replied “Well you see, we have been plagued with roaches. So I sprayed my own first floor apartment and also the one on the third floor. It drove all the roaches into her apartment on the second floor. It was beautiful!” he said joyfully.
It was time to change topics. Nicko could discuss art, jazz, French literature, and a wide range of philosophy, but it was important to avoid conversations about his ex-wife.
Carl was the next to arrive. He was smoking his pipe as he cheerily strolled in and said, “Hi, everybody! I hope you are. If not, I have something that could put a smile on John Mitchell’s face.” he beamed.
Nicko smiled. “What is the world like these days in the North Country?” he inquired.
“It’s still colder than a witch’s tit! There are fools who are still taking their Cadillacs out on the ice in Lake Champlain.” he said.
“What do they do out there?” asked Lou
“They cut a hole in the ice, fish, drink beer, and feel like they are in paradise because their wives never go along.” answered Carl.
“It really gets cold up there.” said Nicko.
Carl was now waxing on an inescapable topic for the Plattsburgh residents of the North Country; it could not be ignored any more than a heart attack.
“I’ll tell you a true story Nicko. As you know, there is a prison outside of town called Dannemora. Several years ago a convict escaped in January. There were roadblocks all over the place, with dozens of police carrying shotguns. The first day went by without a trace of the prisoner. On the second day, a squad car was about a mile away from the main road. Suddenly, they saw the escapee running up to them, waiving his hands frantically.”
‘I never thought you would get here, I’m freezing!’ he said. They couldn’t get him back inside the walls fast enough to for his liking. That’s why the inmates call the place Little Siberia.” said Carl.
Lou decided to roll another joint as they reflected on the meteorological vagaries of the North Country. The doorbell rang; Lorraine and Jim had arrived. They had seen the latest Woody Allen comedy called “Sleeper”; everyone was interested learning whether it was a good film.
“It was funnier than hearing Nixon sing ‘Mammy’.” quipped Loraine.
“How is life in the City?” Lou inquired.
“Well, it isn’t easy getting gas, I can tell you that. I had to get up at five o’clock to get some. The oil companies are making the shortage appear worse than it is by not unloading the oil from the ships. I visited my family in Bensonhurst yesterday. From the Fort Hamilton parkway, you could see the tankers sitting low in the water; they are holding a lot of oil.” he added.
“It’s a shame.” Said Carl.
“This is good stuff” said Beth “I think it put half the campus to sleep last night.”
Everyone took a toke and passed it to the next person. Lou put John Coltrane’s “Equinox” on the stereo; the group grew silent as they became absorbed in the music.
“I had a funny thing happen to me last night at the Broadway.” said Nicko. All present knew Nicko was the backstage floor director at Broadway Burlesque who provided audio and lighting support for the show.
“It was about two-thirty a.m., we had just completed the last show. There was Misty Lake, Golden Shanna, and Gimme More.”
“Gimme says, ‘Listen, Nicko, here we are baring our asses all night long; the least you can do is give us a little dance.”
“So I put on a G-strong and pasties. I showed them how to work the audio and microphone and went out onto the stage and did a five-minute strip number for them. They were yelling and cheering me on to continue the strip routine until I was naked.” said Nicko.
“I am very pleased to report that my genitals received a standing ovation! Then I feel asleep in the boss’s office. The next morning, Murray, the manager, shows up.” Continued Nicko.
“There I am, asleep in his easy chair, and all I’m wearing are the pasties and the G-string.”
‘Nicko!’ he yells at me ‘For Christ’s sake, I know boys have to be girls, but not on my time!’
“You can imagine the bullshit I put up with the rest of the day. He kept telling all the ladies ‘Nicko didn’t take a walk on the wild side, he took a five-mile run.’ From now on, I’m sticking strictly to floor directions and ass-grabbing, no more dancing.” Nicko said emphatically.
Lou sympathized with Nicko in having to deal with Murray. As an occasional weekend announcer and stage manager himself at the Broadway, he knew that Murray enjoyed being a ball-breaker when he was not occupied trying to convince a new dancer to lay down on the ‘casting couch,’ which consisted of an old green sofa that he had no doubt rescued from his most recent divorce. In his free moments, Murray would walk around the theater like the lord of an English manor. His only regret was that he was not fluent in Japanese and was therefore unable to communicate with the majority of the club’s patrons.
He was short, fat, and sloppily dressed. Murray did not walk, he waddled. If a group of young ducklings ever took a wrong turn and wound up on Lexington Avenue when Murray was out for a stroll, they probably would imprint and waddle right behind him. He was unfamiliar with the art galleries and museums New York had to offer, viewing an excursion to Aqueduct race track in Queens as a cultural activity.
Lou remembered a day when he and Nicko were talking in the control room at the Broadway. They were discussing Solzenhitzyn’s book, “The First Circle.” Murray came into the room and listened to the conversation for a few seconds.
“Solzenhitzyn?” said Murray. Isn’t he the guy that the Giants traded to the Raiders last year?” he asked.
The only book Murray had been known to read was “Lesbian Cowgirls at the Lavender Corral”; it took him six months to read it.
Explaining the writings of Alexander Solzenhitzyn to Murray would not be easy. Lou had taken the easy way out. “Murray, you have it wrong about Solzenhitzyn. It wasn’t last year the Giants traded him, it was two years ago.” Lou said.
“Oh,” replied Murray. “I thought it was last year.” Murray replied as he waddled back to the plate of cold spaghetti in his office.
Lorraine had a story to tell. She worked as a nurse in Manhattan, often visiting patients in their homes.
“One of my elderly patients has a daughter named Marsha. She and I became friends; sometimes we go to films and concerts together, especially when Jim was visiting his family in Brooklyn.” said Lorraine.
”Marsha never married; her greatest passion in life was listening to the Beatles. We went to a showing of the “Yellow Submarine” at the Regency Theater. There were several people in the row behind us who were making some mildly critical comments about the acting ability of John Lennon. Suddenly, Marsha stood up and turned to face them, saying ‘John Lennon is a great man!’ It was touching to see such a normally mild-mannered person rise to a level of dignified passion.” said Lorraine.
Jim nudged Lorraine ”Tell everyone about Marsha’s mother.”
“Well, her mother’s name is Erma. I went with Marsha to visit her at the nursing home. She is frail, but her mind is very sharp. She is opposed to the war; Erma never refers to Nixon by name. It is always ‘that creep in the White House.’ She told me ‘Never trust anyone who goes on television with a dog on his lap.’ Marsha thought it was wonderful that her mother kept up on politics.” continued Lorraine.
“What bothered Marsha was that her mother, despite her advanced age, seemed obsessed with sex. While we were sitting in the dining room, another resident came in; he looked to be in his early seventies. His name was Harry; he wore a gray suit and a tie, and looked as if he paid considerable attention to his appearance.” Continued Lorraine.
“‘Good morning Erma, good morning folks, nice day.’ he said graciously.”
‘Erma winked at him and said, ‘Harry, I would really like to get something straight between us!’ Well! Marsha almost lost her Viennese coffee.” said Lorranie.
“Harry looked at her quizzically. ‘What would that be, Erma?’ he asked innocently.”
“She looked at us and shook her head. ‘Harry may be seventy-two, but he is still a babe in the woods. He thinks “Deep Throat” is a medical condition, but he is nice looking and presentable, don’t you think?’ she inquired of us. Harry did not seem to know what to make of the conversation. ‘Erma is a great kidder.’ he said.”
‘Listen, sweetie pie, when it comes to you, I am as serious as a brain tumor. Let’s take a trip to Paris, shall we? The left bank is so colorful.’ she added brightly.”
“Harry appeared inclined toward the literal. He relied ‘Well, Erma, my grandchildren are coming from Texas next month.’ This acknowledgement of familial ties seemed to irritate Erma. ‘Screw the granchildren! It’s time you began to live Harry! Before you know it, you’ll be too old to enjoy yourself.’ Erma cautioned.”
‘Well, I suppose that is true, Erma. Hum-ah-well, perhaps we can discuss this another time.’
“Erma smiled at him. ‘You are right, Harry. We need to talk about this in private’ she said seductively.”
“I thought it was pretty funny, but Marsha was upset. ‘Mother, you can’t go about throwing yourself at men like that!’ she told her.”
“Erma gave Marsha a warm smile. ‘Well, dear, I really don’t throw myself at them. I just sort of nudge a little closer.’ she said”
“Marsha shook her head. ‘Mom, you are hopeless.’ said Marsha.”
“‘No, dear, that’s not true. I still have quite a bit of hope for Harry and me; I would bet he is a tiger in bed!’ Erma said enthusiastically.”
“Erma is special.” said Lorraine.
“Lou, you got the gas mask here?” asked Nicko.
One outrageous feature of the parties was the presence of a World War II gas mask. The smoke from the grass would fill the mask, producing a very nice high.
“Great idea! Let’s use the gas mask?” asked Carl, who was sometimes referred to as the mad chemist.
“I’ll get it Nicko, but the thing should be outlawed!” said Lou.
“It is outlawed.” added Jim. “Don’t worry about it.”
The doorbell rang, it was Bob. He was a mathematician by profession; his favorite field of exploration was topology, which addressed theories of limits. He had certainly chosen the right group of friends, since limits often posed challenges for them.
Snow was falling outside. Lou put Wes Montgomery’s “Bumpin” on the stereo. The snow was intensified by the bright street lights. Occasionally, the rush of the wind could be heard; it was good to be with friends in a warm and cozy place.
“Mrs. Thompson was her usual weird self tonight,” said Beth. “I cannot believe how this woman spends her life. She has a ham radio and listens to the police communications. That is all she does; then she goes to work and spends her time telling us about the latest burglary. It would not be so bad if it were New York City, where strange things happened, but this is Albany!” she lamented.
Lou agreed. “You are right about that, Beth. Do you remember when I did research for a crime victimization project? Even for a jaded New Yorker like myself, some crimes had me shaking my head in disbelief,” he added.
“What were some of the stories?” asked Carl.
“Let me roll another joint. These stories are going to take a while,” said Lou. He changed the music to “Mort’s Report” by Red Garland. The tune was named in honor of Mort Fega, a jazz announcer who had a program called “Jazz Unlimited” on a New York City radio station in the early sixties.
“It was one of the hardest jobs I have ever had. The most difficult part of it was interviewing the next of kin in homicide cases. I will tell you this; there is not enough money to pay me to do that again. I tried to offer the victims something, such as telling them about the Crime Victims’ Compensation Board.” he added.
Joan, a friend of Beth’s arrived from the Albany suburbs to spend the night.
The hour was growing late. As Joan entered the apartment, Carl, Bob, and Nicko were sitting in the kitchen talking; Beth and Lou had gone to sleep.
“Listen fellows, could you keep the noise down? I have to get up early tomorrow to teach a class.” she said.
“Sure, no problem.” said Carl. “What kind of class are you teaching?”
“I teach ceramics.” she responded.
“Oh!” said Nicko. “Do you teach psycho-ceramics?”
Puzzled, she repeated the word ‘psycho-ceramics?’
“Yes!” said Nicko “Crackpots!” After that little exchange, Joan was rather cool to the group.
The party would be referred to in the future as the ‘psycho-ceramics weekend.’
Beth and Lou came out after awhile and rejoined the party.
“Hey Lou.” said Jim. “How is Jack doing?”
Jack was a mutual friend. He was only twenty-three years old, but had already worked as a bassist with Art Blakely and Horace Silver.
“Nicko, you are not going to believe what happened to him earlier this year. Let me tell you all about Jack and his dead dog.” said Lou.
“Jack makes his living as a jazz musician, but augments his income by apartment sitting for some wealthy people in Manhattan.”
“One weekend, he was due to sit in a beautiful apartment on Park Avenue, where the doorman had a uniform similar to a high-ranking general in the Guatemalan army. The apartment itself was spacious and elegantly furnished. His main job was to feed and walk a large German Shepard named Klaus.”
“When Jack awoke on Saturday, he discovered a major problem. Klaus had died, apparently in his sleep. He was lying there peacefully, but also quite dead. Not wishing to spend the weekend with the deceased canine, he called New York City Animal Control.
‘Hi. I am calling to ask you to come pick up a dead dog at 730 Park Avenue, Apartment 10. My name’s Ferguson’ Jack said nervously.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Ferguson, but we don’t pick up dead animals over the weekend. We used to do it seven days a week, but we have had cutbacks in our budget,’ was the patient but firm reply from New York City officialdom.” Lou continued.
“Jack was starting to panic, even though the dog’s untimely demise was not his fault. The inescapable fact was that Klaus died while in his care, he felt guilty about that. What would he tell the Seldrige couple when they returned on Monday?
‘Listen.’ he pleaded, ‘You gotta’ help me. I can’t spend the weekend with a dead dog.’
“New York City officialdom was growing impatient with Jack. ‘Listen, fellah. I’m sorry, but what do you want me to do, call up one of the workers at home and say, ‘Listen Joe. I know you have two tickets to the Jets’ game, but Jack’s dog has died, and he needs a rescue squad to come to Park Avenue right away. How about coming in on your day off as a volunteer? You know the Bronx is especially beautiful on weekends. Now I’ll tell you, Jack. If I made that call to Joe, there would not be a single word he would say that I could repeat to my mother, and her language is not always the best, so what you gotta do is bring the dog up there by five o’clock today. OK?’ he said.”
“Jack started searching frantically for a covering. In the kitchen closet, he found a large burlap bag that could accomplish the task. After pushing Klaus inside, he hauled the bag over his shoulder. To his horror, the right leg of the dead dog broke through the bag, stopping just under his chin, scaring the hell out of him.” continued Lou.
‘I have to put him in something!’ thought Jack. A frantic search of the bedroom closet produced a large cloth suitcase. With Klaus now suitably encased, he took the elevator down to the street and started hailing cabs. New York City Cab drivers have two rules; the first is to never wear body deodorant, the second is never go to the Bronx.”
“After waiting forty minutes for a cab without success, Jack decided to take Klaus on the subway to his final resting place. He deposited a subway token, then struggled to lift the case over the turnstile; the dog weighed a ton! A man came up behind him and cheerfully said, ‘Can I help you with that?’ Jack looked at him gratefully and said, ‘Hey, man, I really appreciate that.’ Jack went through the turnstile. When he turned around to pick up the suitcase, he saw the man running like hell out of the station with the case!” said Lou.
“Jack couldn’t believe it. A Good Samaritan thief had saved him a trip to the Bronx. He laughed as he thought of the thief’s amazement and horror upon opening the suitcase. Then he tried to imagine what the thief would do when he opened the case.” said Lou.
“Jack’s scenario for what happened next was as follows: The thief ran out of the subway and caught a bus to Harlem, which was only a few minutes away. He would have wanted to put a little distance between himself and the subway station.”
“Jerome, as Jack envisioned him, was nineteen years old and a veteran thief. He had the build of an athlete, the result of exhaustive weight lifting, compliments of the New York State Correctional System. This suitcase weighed a ton; what could be inside? After getting off the bus, he entered a back alley and went behind a dumpster. He opened the case. ‘Sheet!’ he screamed. ‘I don’t believe this.’ Jerome didn’t scare easy, but the glazed eyes and frozen grin of that dog sapped the strength from those over-developed biceps. As he stared transfixed at the open case, he was spotted by one of his home boys, Jason, who walked down the alley to see what was happening. ‘Jerome, how you — what the fuck is that? That motherfuckin’ dog look like he dead.’ Jerome just shook his head in disbelief.”
Lou continued, narrating Jack’s description of subsequent events.
‘What kind of pervert goin’ to take a dead dog for a subway ride?’ said Jerome. ‘Ain’t much to be seen on a subway train. The guy looked like he was on his way to Miami; a dead dog don’t need no suntan. When I opened that case, I’m thinking ‘Maybe he got a stereo inside cause it was heavy. Stereo my ass! Ain’t getting no music from a dead dog. Thing look like it was smiling at me and taking me off, like we sure fooled you mother-fuckin’ ass, didn’t we? Running out of that station like you carrying gold bullion! Well, the bull on you, stupid. I mean that’s how he was smiling with this shit-eating grin on his face. This city getting stranger by the day, that the last time I boost a suitcase from a white dude. Black folk got more sense than be carrying something like that around. Listen bro, you think that Chinese place on 135th pay me anything for this? He be a pretty big dog. Mystery meat over rice, what cha think man? It be worth a try.’
“The muscular thief trudged his wares over to the Golden Dagon restaurant. Ten minutes later, he emerged without Klaus, looked both ways, then hurried down the street.” said Lou.
“How long were you at Knosole Insurance company, Lou?’ asked Beth.
“Five years, it was definitely the nadir of my existence.” said Lou.
“What made it so bad?” asked Lorraine.
“It was demanding work. I went there immediately after high school; in fact, it was as regimented as school and involved more hours.” said Lou.
“The thought of still being there sends chills down my spine. There was a little bell that sounded at eight-thirty in the morning to signal the start of the work day; that was followed by bells for lunch and quitting time. The work of processing claims was endless.” he said.
“How come you stayed there so long?” asked Bob.
“That’s a good question,” said Lou. “I received free tuition for New York University as a condition of employment; that was the primary reason.” replied Lou.
“Most of the men and women who worked there smoked cigarettes and drank substantial quantities of alcohol on a daily basis. For the most part, they lived out on Long Island. In addition to the demands of the job, they had an ugly commute every day; they had total economic responsibility for the family. The wife was on Long Island with the kids and the house. By the time many of them reached the age of forty-five, they were dropping dead like flies from heart attacks.” he said.
“Some of the old-timers urged me to leave.” said Lou.
“God, that sounds terrible.” said Jim.
“The one redeeming quality of the place was the people; there were some real characters, like Honest Roy.” said Lou.
“Hey Lou, why don’t you tell everybody about the time that Honest Roy took his wife to Atlantic City?” asked Carl.
“Sure Carl, that is one of my favorites.” said Lou.
“I met Honest Roy when I was eighteen. By the time I reached twenty, his wife Dora, accused me of corrupting her husband. There was no basis for this accusation since Roy was quite debauched at the time of our first meeting. On my first day on the job, he tried to convince me that he had a disability claimant from the Bronx of Jewish-Irish lineage whose name was Turalura Lipshutz.” said Lou.
“He was thirty-two years old and had worked for Knosole for twelve years. Other than smoking, drinking, gambling, and visiting brothels, Roy was a clean living guy.” continued Lou.
“On Saturday mornings, he would wake up, pour himself a beer, light up a Pall Mall cigarette and watch cartoons with his two young daughters. After a while, he would be there by himself watching the cartoons! The girls had gone off to play; there he was still watching Yogi Bear!” said Lou.
“On one occasion, he took his bride of eleven years to Atlantic City. Roy was a pure city boy who only felt at home around concrete and asphalt. In a typical week, the only grass he saw was the turf course at Aqueduct Racetrack. After breathing the brisk ocean air, he needed to restore his system to its normal state of dissipation with a few drinks; the problem was his wife Dora was not interested in spending her vacation inside a bar.” continued Lou.
“Roy’s mouth was watering at the thought of a Seagram Seven and ginger ale. As he looked at the crowded boardwalk, he noticed there were plenty of available pedal cabs pushing people up and down the boardwalk.” continued Lou.
‘That looks like fun, honey.’ he said to Dora. ‘Would you like to try it while I take a nap?’ said Roy.”
“Dora thought about it. Somewhat doubtfully, she said she would give it a try. Roy gave the pedal cab driver a large tip and told him to ‘give her a nice long ride.’ With Dora safely ensconced in the cab, he crossed the street and headed into the nearest bar. Taking a window table, he had an excellent view of Dora’s travels up and down the boardwalk. He lit a Pall Mall and ordered a Seagram Seven and ginger ale. Roy was amazed when, two hours later, Dora emerged from the pedal cab in high spirits. She had loved it!” said Lou.
‘I think I would like to do that again tomorrow, honey.’ she told him. Honest Roy was ecstatic at this fortunate turn of events.”
‘Sure you can honey!’ he told her. ‘Only the best for my girl,’ he added”.
“Roy had a great sense of humor. One afternoon, we were at the Metropole café on Seventh Avenue. There was a copy of the New York Daily News on the bar; Roy looked at it and said ‘Hey, there is my brother Joe; I have not seen him in years.’ I looked at the paper. On the front page, there was an electrical worker with his head sticking out of a manhole! What a way to see a long-lost relation, but that was Roy. He gave me a many laughs; I miss him.” said Lou.
“Didn’t you tell me about another guy who worked there who was also very funny?” asked Beth.
“Oh yes! His name was Arturo; he was even funnier than Roy. I have to tell you all this story if it is all right.” said Lou.
“Lay it on us! Then we will turn up Coltrane and blow the walls off!” said an enthusiastic Carl.
“My middle name is William; Arturo always called me ‘Billy Boy.’ He worked for Knosole as a claims investigator; Arturo was married and had three children. Before he took on those responsibilities, he was a minor league baseball player in the farm club of the Dodgers. However, the family required more stable earnings than those of a minor-leaguer, so he joined the ranks of the employed at Knosole Insurance Company, Mother Knosole, the mother of them all, at least that was how the majority of the Workers at Edison thought of their employer.” continued Lou.
“Knosole had seven thousand workers employed in one building; it was office work in the early sixties, a dehumanizing experience. Unlike some who became broken men due to the work and the dismal ambience, Arturo kept his spirit and soul intact. His humor was legendary.” Lou continued.
“One day, Arturo was walking down a very crowded Avenue of the Americas at lunch time with Honest Roy and me. We were all brothers of the turf and no strangers to Belmont and Aqueduct Racetracks; I continued to place bets through my contacts even after I quit working there.” said Lou.
“Arturo was walking in the middle, his arms draped over our shoulders. Suddenly, he screamed out, ‘And they’re off! It’s Billy Boy in front by two lengths, Honest Roy is second, and old Arturo is last. Moving down the back stretch, Billy Boy continues in front, Honest Roy inches a little closer to the lead, and old Arturo continues to trail.’ Now Arturo is really screaming loudly, ‘As they turn for home, Honest Roy joins Billy Boy for the lead, they are running neck and neck, and here they come down the stretch!’ yelled Arturo.”
“He then started pushing our shoulders back and forth as a jockey would urge a horse to go forward. Some lunch time strollers were becoming alarmed at the sight of this agitated man jerking the shoulders of his companions.” continued Lou.
‘As they pass the sixteenth pole, it’s Honest Roy on the outside, and closing fastest of all is old Arturo! They are nose and nose, as they hit the wire, it is old Arturo by a head!’ he screamed.”
“By the time we returned to our gray skyscraper, we were all in great spirits thanks to Arturo.” said Lou.
“He sounds like a good man.” said Nicko.
“Let me tell you, brother. We did not make a lot of money, but we had some good times.” said Lou.
The party went on for three days. People would get tired, go to sleep, then rejoin the party. There was usually someone around. On Saturday at six a.m. everyone was asleep except Nicko; he walked over to the twenty-four hour supermarket called the Price Whacker. Business there was slow; the clerk was grateful to talk with Nicko.
By Sunday afternoon, Carl and Bob had headed back to the North Country. Lou and the others said goodbye to Beth and made their way back to the city. The psycho-ceramics weekend had come to a close.