Wednesday, June 24, 2015

On the Road Again

By Raanan Geberer

It was an ordinary day at the office of the Section 8 Leased Housing Bronx Team No. 2 at the New York Housing Authority’s Central Office. Today was one of the two days a week Rob Bergman went out on apartment inspections. First he’d have to wait for his partner, Manuel Enriquez. He opened his copy of the Daily News and started reading. More on the Iran hostage crisis, another demonstration against Mayor Koch, speculation about who President-elect Reagan would appoint to his cabinet—nothing new.
“Hey, Rob,” said Mike Gerson, a pudgy, balding fellow management assistant from Queens Team No. 1. “You know this one, babe? `My own true love..’” he began singing a horribly out-of-tune version of the Duprees’ 1962 hit. Since he’d learned that Rob was into oldies, Mike kept quizzing Rob with his renditions of ‘50s and early ‘60s songs.
“Hey, you wanna go to the next Ralph Nader show at the Garden?” “Maybe,” Rob answered. “I’ll let you know.” Mike was the problem child of the Section 8 office. While all the assistants were expected to do eight reports a day, Mike could barely manage three. At age 40, Mike still lived with his parents, and his only real interests were oldies, betting on sports and betting at the racetrack. He was now on probation—Rob hoped he made it.
Behind Rob, Rick, the unit’s token hippie, was taking to Lou, who had walked over from the Manhattan unit. “This summer, I’m going to be going back to The Farm for a few weeks. I try to get there every year.”
“A farm?”
“No, THE Farm. It’s a giant commune in Tennessee, man. You live on the land. It’s nice to get back to the land, man…..” And across from Rick, Jolene, a middle-aged black  woman, was talking to someone on the phone about her latest cruise-ship vacation.
From across the room, Rob saw Mr. O’Leary, the team manager, walk in his direction. “Ah, Rob!” he said. “The man who can do everything! Annual reports, apartment inspections, transfer requests, move-ins, move-outs, you name them, he can do them. Listen, Rob, can I ask you for a favor?”
“Sure! What?”
“I know it’s not your day to do interviews, but one of the housing assistants at Bronx Team No 1 isn’t here, and there’s this tenant waiting. I’ll give you her folder. I heard from Manuel—he’ll be a little late—so there’ll be plenty of time, provided it’s a short interview. Here’s the folder.”
Rob sighed. “OK!” After a few seconds, a buxom, heavy-set woman in her late 20s or early 30s wearing a white blouse and dark skirt came to his desk and sat down. Rob looked at the folder. Irina? Hmm. A Russian. The notes in the folder told him that she was a substitute teacher but also a masseuse.
The conversation went fairly quickly. She felt her studio apartment was too cramped, and she wanted a voucher for a two-bedroom apartment, where she could use the other room as an office. The case was fairly cut-and-dried: Since she was only one person, she was only entitled to a studio or one-bedroom.
“You sure?” she said. “If you give me a transfer, I can give you a special massage.”
Rob got the point, but shook his head and said no. As she left, he reflected that this would be a great story to tell the guys at home.
Mr. O’Leary approached Rob’s desk. “Manuel’s here. He’s waiting for you in the garage. Better go downstairs so you can get a jump on those apartment inspections.

” * *

Rob and Manuel were speeding up the Sheridan Expressway with Manuel at the wheel. Manuel was a short, stocky Puerto Rican guy who wore an Army jacket. At 34, he was six years older than Rob. The two of them had seven inspections today. The Section 8 program’s inspections, Rob reflected, were the easiest ones known to mankind.  The assistants didn’t have to inspect the condition of the apartments or anything—they just had to verify that the apartment had the same number of rooms as the record stated and that the person whose name was on the lease was still living there. There was another funny thing about Section 8, Rob reflected. You would think that as a government subsidy program, the main people it helped would be the very poor, but instead, the clients included a lot of immigrants, retirees, single parents who had jobs, people who worked part-time….
“So, I was telling you about my son?” Manuel asked, interrupting Rob’s thoughts. “I was changing his diaper, and he pissed in my face! Yeah, I knew it would happen sooner or later. I got christened!” Manuel smiled.
“You get angry?” Rob asked.
“Naah,” said Manuel, “He don’t know what he’s doing!” Rob was sometimes jealous of Manuel because he had a wife and a family. ”Hey—what’s the first address.”
“The one on Webster Avenue near 181st—Mrs. Sanchez.”
“Oh, no! Not again!”
They had been to Mrs. Sanchez’s place two or three times before, and she was never home. Her apartment, in a decrepit two-family wooden house, had two buzzers jerry-rigged next to the outside door. They always rang the one closest to the door—the other one was just too high up to be functional.
Manuel got onto Webster Avenue and proceeded up through the South Bronx. “Hey,” he asked Rob. “You ever wanna be a cop?”
“No. Why?”
“Well, in the eyes of a lot of the people around here, you are one! We got the official car with the New York City license plates—as far as they’re concerned, we’re cops…Hey, I see a space near 180th Street, coming up. That’s as close as we’re gonna get.” They got out of the car and walked up to the house.
“Mrs. Sanchez isn’t home again!”
“Okay, we’re going to have to tell Mr. O’Leary. Who’s next?”
“Mrs. Fierro. Fordham Road. Right near Fordham University, across from Arthur Avenue.”
“Cool.”
Mrs. Fierro lived on the third floor of a five-story walkup. She had long, flowing black hair and Native American-type features. As soon as she saw Manuel, she started talking to him in Spanish. They had a brief conversation, then Rob and Manuel looked at the apartment to make sure it had the right number of rooms. Rob gave her the annual inspection form, she signed it and we headed back to the car.
“You know what?” Manuel asked as he started up the car. “She’s Ecuadorian. I can tell by the way she looks and the way she speaks Spanish.”
“OK! So?”
“So a lot of Ecuadorians don’t like Latins! The minute she saw who I was and that I had, you know, a fairly high position in the Housing Authority, she started to make with that Spanish, to get me on her good side. But I know….”
Rob didn’t know what to say. As far as he knew, Ecuadorians WERE Latins. But why get involved in something he didn’t know about? They headed under the tunnel, then past the zoo, heading for the Pelham Parkway area, where the next inspection was scheduled.
The first stop was an apartment occupied by an elderly Russian-Jewish couple, recent immigrants. Their income was SSI and a subsidy from an immigrant-aid group. Rob talked to them in the rudimentary Yiddish he learned in college. They both got a kick out of the fact that they had a Jewish, Yiddish-speaking management assistant. “In Russia,” the man said, “you no see any Jewish person in any important job, government job!” This inspection, too, went basically without incident.
“Wanna eat lunch?” Harold asked after they left.
“Sure,” Rob said. This was his territory—his grandparents used to live around here. He directed Harold to a pizza place on Lydig Avenue. Rob had an eggplant parmesan; Harold had a Philadelphia cheesesteak sandwich. In the background, the radio played WABC.
“You know,” Harold said in between bites, “I remember when pizza first started coming out of the Italian neighborhoods and spreading all over the city, maybe about 1962. Sitting in a pizzeria and eating a slice while listening to the jukebox play the Four Seasons, something like, `Walk Like a Man,’ that was something else! That was the mood!”
Rob just nodded his head. As an oldies and doo-wop fan. he regretted that he was too young to really remember the pre-Beatles era in depth. He remembered a song here, a song there, but those six years in age between him and Harold really made a difference.
After about a half hour, Rob and Harold got on the road again. The first stop was an older Italian-American woman who lived in a two-family house near Allerton Avenue. The whole time they were in her apartment, Rob kept staring at an elaborate, small doll, depicting a very young child, inside a plastic bubble. Finally, he just had to ask.
“What’s that doll you have there?”
The woman shuddered, as if he had committed a terrible faux pas. “That’s the baby Jesus!” she exclaimed.
“Man, I should have told you,” Harold said, laughing, as they got into the car. “We celebrate the big holidays, but I stopped believing in the church when I was with the motorcycle gang, and we asked the priest to bless our colors. He did it, no questions asked. Later, I got to thinking. We were doing a lot of bad shit, and maybe the priest should have asked us what we were doing and tried to straighten us out. But no, he just blessed our colors….”
“Wait a minute,” Rob interjected. “I knew you were in a gang, but not a motorcycle gang. Were they the same?”
“No. The first gang was back in high school – it was a neighborhood thing. The motorcycle gang, that was after I got home from the ‘Nam. A few guys I knew got me into it. I thought it was just a motorcycle club, but by the time I realized it was a gang, I had gotten deep into it already. The only way I could get out of it was that I started taking classes at City College. Once they knew I was back in school, they left me alone…”
Next stop was Deborah Horowitz. Rob remembered her from last year. Deborah was a single woman in her twenties who lived in a studio apartment and was on psychiatric disability. She was attractive, had a pleasant smile and acted friendly, although she seemed somewhat spaced out. The last time he’d visited her apartment, they had a brief conversation, and Rob was sure she liked him.
Rob felt a commonality with Deborah--she, like him, she was an introvert and an underdog. The fact that she was Jewish was another plus. Until recently, Rob had few friends. He was rarely invited to parties, he had trouble finding a roommate in college and he had fairly bad luck with young women. Deborah, as he saw it, was the ultimate underdog. He wanted to start a relationship with her and guide her to happiness.
When they got to the apartment, he found his scheme foiled. Her mother was there, sitting at the kitchen table. Had Deborah sensed that Rob had tried to get too familiar with her during the last inspection and called her mother in for protection? Probably. Rob and Harold looked around, gave Deborah the papers to sign and left.
“You know,” Manuel said as they rode the elevator down, “I saw you looking at her. I think she would be a nice girl for you.” Rob, who had never told Manuel about his infatuation with her, said nothing. He felt hurt.
The next three inspections, and the last of the day, were in the predominantly black area north of Gun Hill Road. They were all within walking distance of each other, so Rob and Manuel could park the car and take care of them all in one shot.
First up was Saundra Washington, a middle-aged woman who lived in an elaborately furnished apartment in a co-op. Her write-up said she had three kids, but they were all in school today. “You know, I work for the Housing Authority, too,” she said.
“Is that right?” Manuel asked.
“Yes, I work over at Baychester Houses. I started as a teller and I worked my way up to supervisor. You see everything here? Working for Housing helped me buy all of it. I could never have dreamed of it when I was growing up in Harlem. I’m so happy I work for the Authority!”
“Congratulations,” I said. She signed the papers and we wished her good luck.
As they walked to the next place, five blocks away, Rob asked Manuel, “What are you doing tonight?”
“I’m gonna have dinner with my family, then go to the karate dojo to work out,” Manuel said proudly.
“I’m taking a t’ai chi class over at Lehman College,” Rob offered meekly. He assumed that a tough guy like Manuel would look askance at t’ai chi, which took a more gentle approach to self-defense than karate. He was wrong.
“Hey! I’m really glad for you, man. I’m impressed.” Manuel said. “I hope you become a martial artist. I really do!”
The next visit was to an old guy, around 85 years old. Rob remembered reading his folder in the office—he was a retired railroad employee. The apartment was sparely furnished. The guy, Mr. Wilson, answered “Yes, sir” and “No, sir” to all their questions.
When it came time to leave, Mr. Wilson insisted on not only giving them their coats, but helping them put them on by holding their coats over their shoulders. Rob felt embarrassed. The guy probably had been taught to act subservient to whites on the job way back when, over and over until it became part of his personality. Rob resented being put in the role that Mr. Wilson was forcing him into, but Manuel just took it in his stride.
The last inspection, in the same building, was Jim Barnes, a tall, bearded guy who reminded Rob a little of Marvin Gaye. As Rob and Manuel stepped into his apartment, both were overwhelmed. On every wall were whimsical, colorful abstract paintings, punctuated here and there by black-and-white photos of street scenes. Although he tried not to, Rob couldn’t stop looking at a photo of a two half-naked, provocatively posed male dancers. Jazz was playing in the background—Rob was able to identify it as Sonny Rollins.
“Come, sit down,” said Mr. Barnes. “Hey, I’m glad to see you’re admiring my work. When I actually worked at a job, I did architectural drafting. Then, I had the bad luck to go to ’Nam.”
“Hey, I was in the ‘Nam too!” Manuel exclaimed. “Where were you?”
“Mostly in Saigon, but I was all over. I was in the Air Force—an aircraft mechanic. I worked on Huey helicopters, Boeings, Douglasses, Grummans….”
“Yeah, I was just regular Army. A grunt here,” Manuel answered.
“Anyway, I got injured, I really didn’t have the stamina to work full-time anymore. I’ve been using my time to take classes at the Art Students League. I had a few exhibitions—the Bronx Council on the Arts, the Studio Museum in Harlem. Doctor says my rehabilitation is going real good and I can go back to work next year. Then, you guys won’t see me no more.”
Rob and Manuel took a perfunctory look around the apartment, then gave Mr. Barnes that paper to sign. Mr. Barnes looked at them.
“Are you real guys?”
Rob and Manuel looked at each other. “Real guys?”
Real guys. Do you do herb, drink wine?”
“Oh!” Manuel smiled. “He does herb,” he said, pointing to Rob. “I drink.”
“Well, OK. Just a minute.” Mr. Barnes disappeared into the kitchen, then returned with a glass of red wine in one hand, a hash pipe in the other. He handed the glass to Manuel and the pipe to Rob.
“Thanks very much,” said Manuel. “I’ll drink the solution, and he’ll do the pollution!” Everybody laughed. Manuel finished the glass. Rob took a few deep puffs, then left it alone.
On the way back to the car, Rob commented, “Now, that was interesting! By the way, did you catch the photos of those two male dancers?”
“Absolutely! In fact, when he said, are you two real guys, I thought he meant gay guys. But, to each his own, I say.”
As they got to the car, Manuel asked whether Rob whether he’d do the drive back. Rob agreed. After Rob had been driving west for a while, Manuel asked, “How far are we from the parkway?”
“We’ll be there in two or three minutes. There’s the sign for it over there.”
“You can see that far? It doesn’t look clear to me at all.”
After they came closer to the sign, Manuel acknowledged, “Hey, you were right! You know, we could have used someone with your eyesight in the gang. We could call you `Eagle Eyes!’” Rob smiled.
Once Rob had turned onto the parkway, Manuel turned on the radio. He fiddled with the dial until he found Christopher Cross’ “Sailing.” He started to sing along with it: “           Sailing, takes me away, wo wo wo wo….’  Hey, Rob, I love this song. It’s so peaceful, so mellow.”
Rob couldn’t believe that Manuel liked this song, which he considered to be overly slow and sentimental. He thought that a macho guy like Manuel would like either heavy funk like Parliament-Funkadelic or the Ohio Players, or loud, driving rock like the Stones or Deep Purple. Clearly, Manuel was a complicated guy. Rob remembered Manuel telling him that when he was a kid, he had been a model student and an altar boy. But after his parents moved to a new neighborhood, they had to take him out of Catholic school because of a technicality and put him into a public school. The other kids picked mercilessly on Manuel, who soon realized he had to get tough in a hurry. Maybe, Rob theorized, Manuel’s softer side went underground, but came out in his music.
After Rob and Manuel got back to the Housing Authority building, parked the car and went up to the office, Mr. O’ Leary told them they had a guest—Mrs. Sanchez! The one whom they had visited several times, but was seemingly never home.
“Why you no come to see me?” she asked. “I stay home three, four times, but you no come.”
“We rang the bell,” Rob answered. “The bottom bell. It looked like the right one.”
“Bottom bell no work,” Mrs. Sanchez said. “You gotta ring the top bell.”
Rob, Manuel and Mr. O’Leary all had the same idea simultaneously. “Um, Mrs. Sanchez,” Mr. O’Leary asked, “would you mind coming with us to the conference room?” Mr. O’Leary picked up a form, and the four of them walked down the hall and into an unused room with a round table and chairs.
“Now Mrs. Sanchez,” he said, “why don’t you look this form over and sign it? And if anyone asks, tell them that Mr. Bergman and Mr. Enriquez came to your apartment.” She signed the form as Rob and Manuel smiled.
As they left the conference room to go into the hallway, Mrs. Sanchez turned to the three of them.

“Happy Thanksgee’vee, everybody!” 

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

125th Street--the West Side's unique elevated station

NOTE--This was one of two transit history columns I wrote as an "audition" for an Upper West Side weekly. The publisher originally wanted me to write two a month. When she changed their tune and said she couldn't pay me for them, I told her I wasn't interested--RG

By Raanan Geberer

Once, elevated lines traversed Manhattan. We had four of them: the 9th Avenue El, the 6th Avenue El, the 3rd Avenue El and the 2nd Avenue El. One could look out the window (or, if you were daring, from one of the wooden elevated cars’ open platforms) and see City Hall, the Financial District, the Empire State Building, the great department stores and more. And as the trains rattled through the old tenement districts, you could actually see through people’s windows.

The last of the Manhattan els, the 3rd Avenue El, was torn down in 1955, although a portion in the Bronx lasted until 1973. Transit riders today, unfortunately, don’t have the experience of seeing Manhattan from a moving train – well, almost. There are several elevated stations in Manahttan today – three at the northern tip of Manhattan, and the 125th Street station on the Number 1 line.

Tourists are often surprised that the 1 train comes out of the tunnel for one stop at 125th, and even longtime city dwellers who are used to it sometimes wonder why this is so. It turns out that the train doesn’t climb to the surface at all. It stays totally on a level grade, says Charles Seaton, a spokesman for MTA New York City Transit.

What changes is the topography. At 125th, we are in the middle of the Manhattan Valley, a natural depression running east to west across Manhattan. For the line to stay underground, the transit planners of the early 1900s would have had to put it in a deep tunnel with steep approaches and descents at either end. Building an elevated viaduct allowed the line to stay at grade.

And what a viaduct! Its centerpiece is an arch that the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) has called “a testament to the skills of the engineers and contractors who built New York’s first subway between 1900 and 1904" and “the most imposing and visually impressive above-ground engineering structure of the IRT subway system.” The station itself sits right above the arch.

The arch was built both for aesthetic reasons and to avoid obstructing traffic at the busy intersection of 125th and Broadway, according to information provided by the LPC’s Elisabeth de Bourbon. And while the construction of the underground sections of the subway took place out of the public’s sight, the building of the viaduct drew large crowds of spectators. In 1981, the LPC declared the viaduct a New York City landmark, and in 1983 it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Today, says Seaton, the station serves the northern part of Columbia University, the New York City Housing Authority’s Grant Houses, the 125th Street shopping district, Grant’s Tomb and more. It is in walking distance of both the revived Cotton Club, named after the 1920s and ‘30s-era Harlem nightclub that helped launch the careers of Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway; and the Old Broadway Synagogue, the last remaining European-Jewish synagogue in Harlem.

Because it is in such a busy location, it is also fairly heavily used. In 2012, according to the MTA, it had 2,560,513 riders and was the 181st most-heavily used station in the transit system, out of 468 stops.

Today, when you’re riding on the Number 1 train and look out the window just north or south of the 125th Street station, you’ll see a varied streetscape – once-elegant old apartment houses, the projects, the shopping district, garages, warehouses and more.
These vistas may change in the future, in this ever-changing city. But to riders on the Number 1 line, the train’s “coming up for air” (even though it stays at grade level) will continue to be a welcome relief.


Thursday, December 25, 2014

A Requiem for Sheepshead Bay’s El Greco Diner




Sheepshead Bay elicits a warm feeling for me. It was one of the first areas of Brooklyn I ever got to know, thanks to an early girlfriend and several co-workers at the New York City Housing Authority. In those days, the highlights were Lundy’s, Pips Comedy Club (where my stand-up routine bombed, but a young Andrew Dice Clay, on the same bill, got tremendous applause), Joe’s Clam Bar and Captain Walter’s.
Today, as the Eagle’s Lore Croghan wrote recently, the highlights along Emmons Avenue include the Cherry Hill Gourmet Market, the Turkish restaurant Liman, Randazzo’s Clam Bar (which was also there in the old days), the Opera Cafe and more. And, of course, on the other side of Emmons Avenue is the bay itself, with its fishing boats.
Throughout the years, one mainstay on Emmons Avenue, much less exotic than many of the locales named above, has been the El Greco Diner. When someone walks from the subway to the bay, the El Greco is one of the first things they encounter.  But not for long! As Sheepshead Bites, Gothamist and a host of other media outlets have reported, the owners plan to close the diner by the end of this week, reportedly to make way for a “new residential tower with ground-level commercial space.”
Many of the aforementioned restaurants are geared to both locals and visitors, but the El Greco, it seems to me, was mainly for locals. I can’t see anyone making a trip to go there. It’s not that different from other Brooklyn diners, including the Park Plaza in Brooklyn Heights, the Purity Diner in Park Slope, the Green Pavilion in Bensonhurst, the excellent Three-Star Diner on Avenue U and more.
The menu at the El Greco reveals a lot of variety but few surprises – mainly the usual burgers, omelets, pancakes, sandwiches, pasta, dinner specials and so on. Online reviews of the food there are mixed—Yelp gave it an average of only two stars and Google reviews gave it an average of three stars.
But classic New York City diners aren’t meant for fine dining. They’re meant as a place to go for breakfast, on the way to the bay, after a date, after a softball game, for a late-night snack or to meet old friends and family members. They offer solid, hearty food. And if a diner has a back room or large tables, chances are you’ll find all kinds of groups meeting there, from political discussion groups to poetry readings to board-game fanatics. Just check meetup.com.
It’s not just the El Greco that’s closing. In the past few years, diners have been closing all over the New York area. In Brooklyn, these have included the Kings Plaza Diner, the Americana Diner in Dyker Heights and, unfortunately, one of my favorites, the Celeste Diner in Concord Village.
Diners have traditionally occupied a “middle ground.” They attract people who aren’t accustomed to upscale restaurants or can’t afford them on a regular basis, but who demand something better than fast food.
For all of these reasons, I’m lamenting the closing of the El Greco Diner. Time to raise your glass of Diet Coke, say a toast and wait for the last turkey burger or spinach omelet with French fries to arrive.


Thursday, November 6, 2014

More F Trains Could Alleviate Express Problem

Special to Brooklyn Daily Eagle

Every few years, it seems, a call goes out to restore rush-hour express service on the F train. The last time this happened, the campaign died down after the G train, which shares part of its route with the F, was extended to Church Avenue. Some advocates saw this as a case of, “Well, if we didn’t get one of the improvements along the F-line corridor that we wanted, at least we got the other.”
Now, the campaign for express service has risen again, supported by Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, a dozen Brooklyn elected officials and the Transport Workers Union. “The F train should stand for fast service, not failed opportunity,” said Adams. “We need to reduce crowding on these platforms, which are causing significant safety concerns, and we need to alleviate the burden riders are facing with one of the city’s longest commutes.”
For many years, F-train express service was a fact of life. The late Dennis Holt, who wrote the “Brooklyn Broadside” column for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, remembered standing near the stairway connecting the upper (local) level to the lower (express) level of the Bergen Street station during the 1970s, prepared to run down the stairs if the Manhattan-bound express got there first. This express was discontinued later in the decade, although a co-worker told me that it continued unofficially for a number of years.
When I first heard about the campaign to reinstate F train express service, I supported it unconditionally. After all, what’s as exciting as a fast express train speeding down the middle track, passing local stations one after another?  Then I got an email from an MTA representative who made me see the other side in part. The letter read, “Approximately two-thirds of F riders in Brooklyn are on the northern segment of the Culver Line, between Church Avenue and Bergen Street, and two of the busiest stations on the line — Bergen Street and Carroll Street — are local stops.”
The most telling part of this statement is “Bergen Street AND Carroll Street.” In the old days, Bergen Street was an express stop. But since then, another MTA representative once explained at a meeting, the Bergen Street express platform has been used to store heavy HVAC equipment that can’t be moved easily.
If Carroll Street was local and Bergen Street was express, Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill residents might learn to live with it. But if both heavily-used stops are bypassed by local trains, that’s a problem. Yes, there’s the G train, but rush-hour commuters generally want to go to Manhattan, and the G train, except for two or three stops in Queens, is “all Brooklyn, all the time.”
One solution might be to run some rush-hour trains that run express in southern Brooklyn — skipping local stops between Kings Highway and Church Avenue — while making all of the busy stops north of Church Avenue. This might not make southern Brooklyn residents’ commute as fast as they would like, but it would be faster than it is now.
The best solution, in my opinion, is to put more trains on the F line, which serves several rapidly growing areas of Brooklyn. This would allow for express service while ensuring that people living near local stops won’t have to wait long for their rides. More trains were put onto the L train — now it’s the F train’s turn. The residents of Park Slope, Red Hook, Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill, not to mention southern Brooklyn, deserve nothing less.
__

Monday, September 8, 2014

That Thar Bebop--a Short Story

Rob couldn’t believe his luck. The first car – actually, a pickup truck – that came by picked him up. A student at the State University of New York at Binghamton, he had a gig with his amateur rock band with his hometown friends back in the city. And in moment of daring, he’d decided on the spur of the moment to hitch hike all the way down. 

Not that this was uncommon – in the early ‘70s, everybody hitchhiked. It was sort of a reverse status symbol for many young people, kind of like wearing one’s jeans or flannel shirt for three days straight. But this was the first time that Rob would hitchhike to the city, rather than just around the Binghamton area. When Mark, the freakiest guy in the dorm, the guy with the longest hair, congratulated him, Rob joked, “It’s easy for you! You’ve been a hippie for five years, or whatever! For me, it’s only been a few months!” 

So here he was, holding his third-rate bass guitar in its cloth case in one hand and his shoulder bag containing his schoolbooks in the other. Beside him sat two farmers. “You wanna hear the radio?” one asked. Rob nodded, and the driver turned on a country music station. “You like that?” “Yeah,” Rob answered in a weak voice. “He wants to hear that thar bebop!” said the other man “Yeah, he wants to hear some o’ that thar bebop!” The two farmers laughed good-naturedly. Rob knew they meant rock and roll rather than “bebop,” but he didn’t want to spend the time correcting them. 

He looked out the window. “Bunn Hill Road,” the street sign read. How odd. Where he came from, in the Bronx, there was a street called Gun Hill Road. From Gun Hill Road to Bunn Hill Road! The story of his life. But he didn’t even want to be here. After eight months up here, he was ready to transfer to a college back in the city if his parents would let him. Most of the other students up here were upper-middle-class kids from Long Island, and he found their ultra-confident way with girls, their fancy stereos and cameras, their recent-model cars, their trips to Europe and to California, hard to take. He preferred his Bronx friends, who didn’t have any of their pretentiousness. He’d made only one friend at Binghamton – Danny Weissberg, a really short kid from Brooklyn who wore a black leather jacket and talked like a tough guy. Rob got to know Danny because they liked the same music – ‘50s rock, Commander Cody, J. Geils – and the same R. Crumb underground cartoons. Sometimes Rob felt guilty about laughing at Danny’s crude racial and sexual jokes, but most of the time he was just grateful that he had a friend, period. Danny also played the bass, and when he bought a new instrument he gave Rob his old one – the very bass guitar he was now carrying in its bag. 

“Sorry, buddy, but this is as far as we go,” one of the farmers said, laughing. Ron picked up his bass and his shoulder bag and jumped out. He was still on a country road, not even on the highway yet, but at least it was a start. 

After about 20 minutes without a ride, he got worried. After all, this place was somewhat off the beaten track. What if he was here for one, two hours and no cars came? Not only wouldn’t he get to the gig, he wouldn’t get anywhere. When the sun went down, he’d be all alone and forgotten. The thought was terrifying. He grew more and more nervous. He began to rock back and forth. 

Suddenly a car slowed down. Ron couldn’t believe it–he ran as fast as he could and got in the front seat. The driver was an older black guy in a suit and tie, and yes, he was going to Route 17. He looked like a lawyer or something. As they proceeded down the road, the guy turned on his radio. The sounds of “When The Love Light Starts Shining Through His Eyes,” the Supremes’ first semi-hit, filled the car. “I haven’t heard this in such a long time,” Ron said, hoping the guy would think of him as an OK white guy, not the prejudiced kind, the kind of white person who appreciated black culture. But the guy said nothing, driving on. Perhaps he was tired of young whites trying to impress him with how hip they were, Ron thought. The guy kept on driving. Finally, he let Ron off near Deposit, or as the upstaters pronounced it, “Dee-paah-sit.” It wasn’t anywhere near where he wanted to go, but at least it was on the highway.
Once again, Rob stood by the highway with his thumb out, but this time it was busy Route 17, whose traffic included huge trucks as well as cars. He didn’t expect any of the trucks to pick him up, but you never knew. Hey, here’s a Pinto that’s slowing down. Deliverance! He ran up and got into the front seat. 

This time, the driver was a sloppily dressed, half-bald guy who looked like he was in his late 20s or early 30s, “old” to the 19-year-old Rob. “I can drive you all the way to the Red Apple diner,” the guy told him. For at least 15 minutes, they drove in silence. Finally, the guy asked, “Where do you go to school. By the way, my name’s Joe.” 

“My name’s Rob, and I go to SUNY Binghamton.” 

“Hey! I’m from Binghamton myself! Do you hang out in any bars there?” 

“Well, sometimes my friend and I go to the pub on campus, sometimes we go to the bars on Clinton Street or to Poncho’s Pit. My friend Danny, he just discovered this bar called the Turf Exchange Motel. Ever hear of it?” 

Joe made a face. “It’s OK, if you want to get your dick sucked!” Something about the way he said it made Rob nervous. 

“I thought the gay guys in Binghamton go to the Cadillac,” Rob said, trying to appear cool and not rattled. 

“They sometimes go there, too. Where you from? You from New York City?” 

“Yeah.” 

“You ever been to that Port Authority Bus Terminal? That’s where the guys hang out in New York, right?” 

Rob saw what the guy was driving at, and was trying as hard as he could not to show any anxiety. “Yeah.” 

“Hey, nothing personal, but what would you do if I asked you to suck my dick?” 

“I don’t think I’d be interested.” 

Joe drove on for another minute or two. “Well,” he said, pulling over, “I guess I’ll leave you off here.” It wasn’t even halfway to the Red Apple, but Rob felt relieved. 

Another hitch, desperate for a ride, and another driver. This guy drove a blue VW and was a musician. At last, someone interesting. He was also older, but Ron felt he could talk to him. The guy played alto saxophone and preferred to play jazz, but found himself playing in wedding bands most of the time. 

“So, who do you like on alto? The Bird?” 

“Yeah, you know, the Bird, Sonny Stitt, Cannonball, Lee Konitz ... yeah, it’s a tough life,” the musician answered. “Here, let me take a little drink.” He took out a bottle that was lying on the seat next to him, took a swig, then put it back. Ron admired his chutzpah, but was a little concerned about his driving ability. 

“Hey, you want a drink, too?” 

“Um, no thanks.” 

“What’s in that case, a guitar or a bass?” 

“A bass.” 

“I thought so. My brother plays bass. He used to play with Stan Getz.” And the guy went off on a tangent about all the famous musicians that he 
knew, or met, or played with, or just missed playing with. He was going to look up some of his old friends when he hit the city and have an all-night jam session. Rob wished he could go, but his own gig took priority. 

“Yeah,” the musician continued, “It’s a tough life. When you play club dates – that’s what we call weddings – they really don’t want you to play solos, and you have to play songs they already know. Even if you play a song by an artist they like, but one that’s less well-known, they look at you like there’s something wrong with you. Yeah, being a musician is a tough life.” He picked up the bottle and took another swig. 

By this time, the car was wavering back and forth in the lane. Rob didn’t want to get into an accident. On the other hand, he couldn’t just say, “Please stop the car and let me out, because you’re drunk.” That would be an insult. What should he do? Rob’s anxiety was building up, minute by minute. He started to have breathing problems and had to take out his asthma inhaler. Then, around the bend, far away at first but getting closer, a rest area appeared. Rob knew had to make his move fast. 

“Oh, excuse me,” Rob said, turning to face the driver, “but I’ve decided to get off at this rest area. I haven’t had anything to eat all day. I’ll be able to get another ride from there.” 

The musician shrugged his shoulders, took another drink and said, “OK! Cool, man!” He slowed down and let Ron out. As the car sped away into the distance, Ron heard the sound of brakes squealing and saw the VW stop short, just inches from another car. He felt incredible relief. 

Rob walked over to the main building, took a much-needed piss and then got a cheeseburger and a Coke. There were a lot of interesting things for sale and he would have liked to have looked around, but he couldn’t – he had to be at the community center in two hours. He walked absent-mindedly back to the side of the road. Here, this brown Maverick is slowing down. Better run to it. 

The Maverick had two girls in front and another long-haired guy in the back. Because the girls were constantly talking to each other and not to the guy, Ron correctly guessed that he was another hitchhiker. They were going all the way to New York. What great luck! 

One of the girls, the one who wasn’t driving, turned around. “Rob, is that you?” 

“Definitely!” 

“I heard you were up at Binghamton, too. I saw you on campus a few times. I’m Reena Greenstein. You remember, right?” 

Ron remembered. He’d known her, although not very well, since junior high school. Something about her made him – and a lot of other kids –somewhat uneasy. Her father owned a hole-in-the-wall candy store that carried a lot of girlie magazines, and he was known to take bets on the side. It was rumored that one time in ninth grade when her parents weren’t home, Reena had made out with four guys, one after the other. In her first year in high school, she had gone out with Joey Fernandez, a neighborhood guy at least 10 years older than her who eventually OD’d on heroin. True, she was smart in school, but still ... She and the other girl, the one who was driving, had started talking to each other again. Rob started to eavesdrop on what Reena was saying: 

“I might as well start having good relationships with my professors now, so I can get good recommendations for graduate school a few years down the road. I’m completely sure now that my future is in anthropology, probably cultural anthropology, teaching and doing research, and having relationships with people in the anthropology community. I’m trying to get a summer internship in New Mexico.” 

Ron was surprised. Now she’s reinvented herself as some kind of prissy “A” student type! Well, this “B” student salutes you. Maybe she should get together with Danny Weissberg. That would be something – Danny, who tries to act like a hood, and Reena, who actually had been a hood! Something to think about. 

Rob looked at his watch. He’d be back in the city in plenty of time. When they got to the toll to the Tappan Zee Bridge, he generously kicked in two dollars for the tolls. For the first time since he’d left his dorm room, oh, it was only a few hours ago but it seemed like a month ago, Rob began to relax and to be filled with positive energy. Soon, he’d be at the community center with his friends, doing one of the few things that really mattered to him – playing music. “Back in the USSR,” “Honky Tonk Women,” “Watching the River Flow,” “Beware of Darkness,” “Smoke on the Water,” “Ramblin’ Man.” His girlfriend would be in the audience. And Binghamton? It was 300 miles away. He was happy at last. 


Thursday, August 7, 2014

Mr. FInkel--a tale of an aging Jewish gangster in the 1954 East Bronx



Mr. Finkel paced up and down in his spacious apartment on Crotona Park East. He lived in the best building in the area, an elevator building that had been built just before the crash in ’29. It had a marble lobby, three staircases, a big courtyard with a statue in the middle and a laundry room . It was one of the few things that gave him solace nowadays. In the background, his wife watched the Army-McCarthy hearing on TV.

He’d been out for two years already and was itching for some action. He kept his job as a Wall Street clerk that he’d been given as a condition for his release, but let’s face it, there was no future or real money in that. He wanted to get back in the game in the worst way, but his parole officer wouldn’t even let him go to Tillie’s candy store, with its two-bit bookies and its penny-ante pinochle games. His wife’s brother owned a big commercial laundry on Allerton Avenue and White Plains Road, and both his wife and his brother-in-law both wanted him to become a partner.

But so far, he resisted. After all, he’d been in the outfits since he was 17 and Dutch Schultz hired him to work on the truck delivering barrels of beer. He was still only 52 years old—he had a lot of years ahead of him. Some of the guys he used to run with, like Meyer Lansky, Longie Zwillman and Doc Stacher, were making millions in Florida, in Vegas, in Havana. Why not him? It just wasn’t fair! He wasn’t ready to throw in the towel and become a square.

On top of it all, his wife kept pushing him to move to a better neighborhood, to the Concourse or Pelham Parkway.  But Mr. Finkel resisted. Yes, the neighborhood was changing. But the changes hadn’t reached his block, or any of the adjacent blocks. He’d lived in this building ever since he moved up here from down-and-dirty Fox Street. He knew the butcher, the baker, the appetizing store guy, the newsstand owner, the local movie theater. No, he’d stay here for the time being – unless, of course, he got his big break and moved to Miami or Vegas.

Suddenly, he got the call he’d been waiting for. It was Mr. Vellela. He wanted to see him tomorrow in his suite at the Concourse Plaza. They agreed on a time. He wouldn’t miss this for anything in the world!
“How you doin’, Sol,” Mr. Vellella greeted him as he walked into the office. “You want a drink? Scotch, 
bourbon, rye, anything? A martini, maybe? My girl will make it for you.”

“Just a Canadian Club and soda,” Mr. Finkel answered, sitting down in the plush armchair. “What took yiz guys so long?”

“Well, we’ve been a little preoccupied. Frank Hogan, the Manhattan DA, is startin’ to make some noise again. Also some tension between some of the families. Don’t worry about it—it’s a Sicilian thing. But let’s let bygones be bygones. You up for a little proposition?”

“Sure. You know me,” said Mr. Finkel eagerly, sipping his Canadian Club. He was finally going to get some action. “Watcha got in mind?”

“We want you to run some numbers for us.”

It wasn’t much, but at least it was a new start. “Sure! Where?”

“In your area, you know, East Tremont, West Farms, Crotona Park.”

Mr. Finkel frowned. “I dunno. About half the neighborhood is P.R. now. Those people want to bet with their own kind.”

Mr. Velella smiled. “That’s why we want you to partner with this kid, Jesus! He’s smart, he’s resourceful, he knows the lingo, he knows the people.”

“His name is Jesus? You bullshittin’ me?”

“It’s pronounced Hay-Zoos! Lots ‘a Puerto Ricans have that name.”

“Whatever.”

The next day, Mr. Finkel met Jesus, whose family owned a private house near the old railroad tracks south of 180th Street. He was impressed with his intelligence,  his organizing ability, the way he had a backup plan ready if anything went wrong. Jesus would organize the street operation, recruit local teens as runner and do the collections, while Mr. Finkel would do the bookkeeping and deal with Mr. Vellella and the other higher-ups.

“You and me, Jesus, we’re gonna make mucho dinero!”

“That’s Hay-Zoos!”

“Whatever.”

For awhile, things went great. It was almost like the old days before the war, although not quite. Because he didn’t want to attract too much attention from the parole board, Mr. Finkel wore suits from Robert Hall nowadays, not the $100 suits of yesteryear. For the same reason, he didn’t drive a Packard anymore, just a more plebian Oldsmobile.

After about six months, however, things began to go sour. Jesus became late with some of his payments and became increasingly difficult to find. And, of course, Mr. Vellella put the pressure on him. He decided to take things into his own hands. Going through his ledgers, he focused on one address that was two months behind in payments. He decided to go there himself. He was a little nervous about going that far south, to 169th Street, but why should he be afraid? Wasn’t he the same guy who had personally bumped off three hijackers when he was riding shotgun for the Bugs and Meyer Gang back in the ‘20s? He might be a little more overweight and a little more gray, but he was still the same guy, he told himself. He headed out. Just to make sure, he put his gun in his pocket.

Walking up the tenement stairs to the apartment where that particular numbers drop was located, he had the sense that something was wrong. Suddenly, he found himself face to face with five Puerto Rican teenagers.

“Where you going,” one of them asked. “You don’t live here.”

Thinking fast, he said, “I have to visit someone. I’m a Welfare investigator.”

“No you’re not,” said the same kid, whom Mr. Finkel gathered was the leader of the gang. “We know who you are. As soon as we saw you on the street, we followed you here. You’re Mr. Finkel, right?”

“What’s it to you?” Mr. Finkel asked in a oud, aggressive voice. “You don’t know who you’re dealing with. You don’t know the people I’m connected with.”

The gang laughed. “We’re not afraid of anyone, man,” another one said. “We’re the Diablos!” 

“You’re making a mistake,” Mr. FInkel said, yelling even louder. “I’m gonna tell Jesus about this!”

They laughed again. “That’s Hay-zoos, man. He’s working for us now!” the leader bragged. “He’s been with us for about a month.”

So that was why the money wasn’t coming in, Mr. Finkel thought.

“Look,” the leader of the Diablos said in a suddenly conciliatory voice. “We don’t wanna hurt you. We give you respect because we know you’re one of us. You’re a player. But your Jew gangsters and your Italian compadres don’t run things about here no more. We do! So why don’t you just go home?” 

Mr. Finkel was packing heat, but he knew he couldn’t take on five guys. As he started going down the stairs, he heard the Diablos’ boastful chant:

“Out came the Diablos
From the coconut trees
They were bad motherfuckers
In their BDVs!”

When Mr. Finkel got home, he was shaking. “What’s wrong?” his wife asked. “Something happen to you?”

“Nothin’,” he said brusquely, waving her concern away with his hand. “Just gimme a Canadian Club and soda, will ya?”

Mr. Finkel stayed awake all night, thinking. If he left the life, Mr. Vellella would be pissed, but Vellella knew enough about him to know that he wouldn’t start running to the cops and the DA. Maybe it was time, he thought. In the morning, he woke his wife up with a smile.

“Rachel,” he said, “Tell your brother I’m goin’ in with him in the laundry. And so we can be closer to the place, we’re movin’ ta Pelham Parkway!”

Monday, June 30, 2014

Bay Ridge--a Brooklyn Success Story



Originally from Brooklyn Daily Eagle

A recent Brooklyn Daily Eagle article by Paula Katinas states that “Bay Ridge is such a desirable neighborhood to live in, people will do anything to live there.”
Many buyers are purchasing one- or two family homes, gutting them, then transforming them into multi-family housing with as many as eight apartments. In some cases, says Katinas, the buyers claim they’re only making minor improvements, get permits for the work, but then redo the house from top to bottom.
If they are caught doing so, they should pay the penalty. But the question remains—what is it about Bay Ridge that makes the area so attractive? It’s common to see third- or fourth-generation residents living in the area – something that can’t be said about most neighborhoods.
One reason is that Bay Ridge has a mix of private homes, two-family houses and apartment houses. The smaller houses range from spacious wooden homes to row houses that in many cases are as appealing as those in Park Slope and nearby areas. The apartment houses are generally solidly built, many are elevator buildings, and they are generally well maintained. This is not the situation in some nearby neighborhoods where the single-family homes are well cared for, but many of the older apartment houses are somewhat rundown.
Another factor in Bay Ridge’s success is its nightlife. The bars and restaurants of Bay Ridge don’t feature famous singers and musicians, but they make the neighborhood as lively at night as during the day. If a neighborhood has crowds of people walking around at night, crime is less likely to occur. The clubs and bars contribute to a sense of community, and many of the bands have a local fan base. If one particular bar is a problem, the community moves into action, but the majority of them are solid, law-abiding enterprises.
In addition, Bay Ridge and nearby Dyker Heights have a very high number of people who are actively involved in local affairs. Political clubs (of both types), churches, Boy Scout troops, PTAs, youth baseball leagues, amateur arts groups, community gardens and more all have very high rates of participation.
Why this is the case I don’t know, but this type of cohesiveness may easier to maintain when you have large numbers of people who have grown up together and known each other for many years. One Bay Ridge resident who works for the Eagle once told me that most residents know who their local politicians are. By contrast, when I went petitioning to get my assemblyman back on the ballot in my own neighborhood, quite a few passers-by didn’t know who he was – even though he’d been in the Assembly for more than 25 years.
Finally, Bay Ridge is a community where small business thrives. A case in point is Hinsch’s, now known as Mike Hinsch’s Greek-American Diner. There used to be hundreds of places like Hinsch’s all over the city, but it’s not an accident that Bay Ridge is where this one has survived. Yes, chain stores are making inroads on 86th Street and other Bay Ridge arteries, but not as much as in some other neighborhoods.
This type of small-town living isn’t for everybody, but it appeals to enough people to make Bay Ridge a Brooklyn success story. No, builders shouldn’t cheat to get more people in – but can you really blame them?