An excerpt from the fictional picaresque, WONDER, published in 'From Somewhere to Nowhere: The End of the American Dream' (NY: Autonomedia; 2017)
In the spring of ’81, my friend Drew found an apartment in the Lower East Side, and he asked if I wanted to share it. A fifth-floor walk-up on East Eleventh, it was moderately priced, so we decided to grab it.
At once, we set about to renovate the place: slapping up sheetrock, coating the floor with polyurethane, and sealing the cracks along the baseboards. The latter task was of special import, because so many roaches came crawling out at night that they would have walked across our faces if we hadn’t positioned the bed legs in sardine cans filled with kerosene.
The flat overlooked a school yard across the street: a big open space with trees flanking the eastern and western edges of a cyclone fence, so you could almost imagine that you weren’t sandwiched into a claustrophobic Manhattan maze. Downstairs, there was a jewelry store, but Drew said it was really a money-laundering joint, filled with a slithering lot of repugnant reptiles with thick gold chains hanging from beefy necks. Shortly after we moved in, it was busted and shut down by the Feds.
The building next door, toward First Avenue, featured an Italian American club, and the cigar-chomping man who ran it, a short stout fellow named Freddie, was our landlord. Although we didn’t realize it at the time, the real owner, a mobster, was locked up in a federal penitentiary, and Freddie was fronting for him.
Freddie owned an overweight mastiff named Peggy, a beast that was so obese that it took ten minutes for it to climb the three cement steps that led into the club – with her stomach dragging along each step. The men inside fed it filet mignon, lasagna, and spaghetti with mushrooms and tomato sauce. Peggy devoured everything without the slightest hesitation. Her favorite toy was a regulation-sized football, which she munched as easily as another dog might chew on a rubber ball.
Freddie seemed to take an instant liking to us, and especially to me for some reason. At first, we thought it was because, coming from Gravesend, Drew and I knew how to talk respectfully and in a certain down-to-earth manner to men such as Freddie, even though it was obvious that we weren’t quite like Freddie, being a bit more schooled and polished. But we never behaved pretentiously or felt awkward in his presence: something he appreciated since there were so many yuppies scrambling to find flats in the neighborhood, which was rapidly changing. But as we soon discovered, Freddie’s gregariousness had other, more sinister roots.
A few months after we moved in, I lost my job as a photographer’s assistant, so I was forced to quickly find something else. From that moment on, we suspected that Freddie had planted a bug in our flat, because he always seemed to know when things were tight. Whenever I was about to have trouble paying the rent, he’d appear with some work. Eventually, he hired me as his right-hand man, and together we’d renovate apartments so that he could charge the yuppies even more.
A typical day with Freddie would begin in his flat, the only one on the ground floor, where we’d devour a lumberjack breakfast of three or four eggs each, with ham, sausage, bacon, or all three, and topped with an espresso that would, as he said, “stiffen the hair on your nuts.” All this chez Bonzet, a Sicilian word meaning “little fruit,” for Bonzet – the only nonmobbed-up man around, as we later learned – was over three hundred pounds. A fair haired, blue eyed, and slightly nervous fellow, Bonzet – or Jimmy – enjoyed the simple things, such as relaxing in the sun in his folding chair, devouring an enormous spread, or chatting about whatever nonsense happened to be the order of the day. Jimmy also possessed a delightful sense of humor, and, more than anything, he loved to laugh. Only something stressful, such as Freddie’s snide comments, endless ribbing, or gruff commands could flip his switches and trigger his more anxious, jittery side.
This trait also formed a keynote in the personality of Bonzet’s younger brother, Rocco: a diminutive fellow with a blond crew cut and a big toothy grin. Besides being high-strung, Rocco was also a bit manic. On sunny days, he’d continually sweep outside the club with an oversized straw broom, twitching nervously and jabbering like a cockatoo. Rocco could never remain still; he hopped about like a sparrow searching for birdseed, whirling his broom over the same spot that he’d swept just seconds before. But like Bonzet, he always exhibited a palpable warmth and gregariousness, and so Rocco and I also quickly bonded.
Well fortified by Bonzet’s cooking, Freddie and I would clamber up the slate steps inside the building, where he’d lead me into some ancient, dilapidated tenement. These were the same apartments that the nineteenth-century immigrants had lived in, gaining their first foothold in America. And there we were, Drew and I, college-educated guys from solid, middle-class families, and what the fuck is wrong with you kids? It’s as if your grandparents’ American dream is running in reverse! And how on earth can you afford such astronomical prices? People are paying seven hundred bucks a month for these dumpy, roach-infested holes! Freddie would exclaim, all the while insulting us, berating us, and puzzling over why we’d let him take such advantage of us.
A classic Freddie rant, it was the kind of thing he pulled on everyone. He loved to break your balls; that was just Freddie. He was also crowned with a Napoleon complex, not just because of his petite stature but for some other, more mysterious reason: something I never quite fathomed, and which I never asked about, but I suspect it had something to do with the father that he never once mentioned.
At the beginning of each day we’d bust hump, perhaps down on our hands and knees as he taught me how to lay linoleum tiles:
“You heat the edges slightly, with this here blowtorch” – pointing it directly at my face and nearly singeing my eyebrows – “then they melt right into place. When you trim ’em to fit those oddball angles, they’ll cut just like butter.” Freddie loved his propane burner, and he cradled it like a Nazi enamored by a flame thrower. He also used it to melt away decades of lead paint from wooden moldings that ran along the entrances to each room. Being of the devil, he was immune to such toxins, so there were never any gas masks to protect us.
One day, while we were in the basement rummaging through supplies, he asked me to hand him a can that was filled with a white powder. When I looked inside and accidentally breathed a bit, coughed, and asked what it was, he matter-of-factly replied, “Asbestos” – as if it were as harmless as plaster of Paris. Then, as we were approaching his car, I noticed that his license plate read 666. This triple six appeared in the center of an otherwise meaningless series of letters and integers, but it was grouped together just like that: 666. When I stopped, pointed, and said, Freddie, look! Six, six, six! he replied, Yeah, so? having no idea what it meant. After I explained, without missing a beat, he grumbled, Yeah, well … I’m glad I got the devil on my side.
Just when we were kicking ass on the job, Freddie would say, “Damn, I forgot my Scotch. Robbie, do me a favor, go get it. It’s in the club.”
So I’d climb downstairs, knock on the door, and tell Nicky or Ralphie or Harry that Freddie wants his Johnny Walker Black. And they’d let me in, the only nonmobster other than Bonzet who was ever allowed inside, and hand me a bottle. But always with a sly, witty remark, such as: Ain’t he had enough already, or That lush, or Make sure he don’t drink it all in one gulp!
And I’d smile and nod, never once talking back to these killers, maimers, and torturers. At first I didn’t know what they were up to, but I could sense these were not men to be fucked with. Unless you assumed the proper role – of being the younger, less experienced one, nodding with respect to the elders – your ass was grass.
As if to illustrate this point, Dick Bittle, who lived cattycorner to us and whom Drew called Dick Little behind his back, had once invited his brother, Gary, to visit: a clueless hick who was a goofball, just like Dick. Drew and I even wondered if Dick had scrambled his noggin because of his former job: stripping paint from furniture with highly toxic solvents that eat away at brain tissue and dissolve your humanity faster than it does the pigment. But then, after we met his brother, we figured it must ran in the family. In any case, when Gary showed up, he craned his neck back and hollered for Dick from the pavement. This was before Freddie had installed a buzzer on the front door, which was normally locked. So Gary was screaming: Hey, motherfucker! Hey, cocksucker! Hey, you no good little prick!
The men in the club had no idea who he was, but just as he belted out, Hey, motherfucker! a woman happened to be passing by. Although these guys entertained some rather primitive ideas about the opposite sex, they also abided by the Sicilian tradition of always treating women – at least outwardly – with respect. And, as anyone in Little Italy could have told you, Gary, you don’t use that lingo in front of a lady! I mean, that’s somebody’s mother, fer krist’s sake! So they beat Gary to a pulp. And it made them feel good to punch him in the face, kick him in the balls, and draw blood, for it was just an excuse to do what they did best: to break the law and fuck with you for the slightest of reasons – if they could get away with it.
Anyway, after I’d return with the Johnny, things would get a bit blurry, if I might call it that. Like a baby nursing on his mother’s breast, Freddie sucked away at his bottle. Soon, the tiles would have gotten laid sideways if I hadn’t volunteered, in the most diplomatic fashion, to finish up:
Hey, Freddie, I’d say, save your knees, take a break. You’re working your butt off; let Robbie take over. Come on, relax, enjoy your drink. You did enough for one day. Besides, I appreciate how you’re teaching me all this stuff, so, let me practice a bit, and get it down.
Freddie would stop, take a deep, dramatic breath, and say, Yeah, maybe yer right. OK, but do me a favor. Reach over there, on the floor, behind that toolbox, and hand me one of them cigars.
I’d pass along a cheap Denobili, and he’d offer me a slug of Johnny, and I’d say No, I’d better not. I can’t handle it like you can, Freddie. If I do that, the tiles will end up glued to the wall! And Freddie would laugh, especially since the joke was on me.
He’d imbibe some more, and start slurring, and that’s when the day would end, the workday that is: about three in the afternoon, when he’d suddenly announce: “OK, that’s it. I’ve had too much. We better call it a day.” We’d leave the tools and half-cut tiles right there, on the floor, then we’d enter his flat, wash up, and go next door to the club.
Once inside, he’d hand me cash for a day’s work and insist that I join him in a drink. There was no way around that, so I’d sip a shot as slowly as I could, because, if I downed it, Freddie would pour me another, and then another, until I’d be unable to write for the rest of the day. So, instead, I’d sip and try to blend into the woodwork as Nicky Joe “The Cook” turned on the espresso machine, and somebody knocked at the door, and Frankie “The Foot” slid the curtain open just a hair and said, It’s them fuckin’ junkies.
Two skinny scruffy beady-eyed guys in their late twenties would step in – but no farther than the threshold – and open their long trench coats. And just like you’d see in a B-movie, the linings were stuffed with filet mignon, nicked from a local supermarket. Freddie would offer them six bucks a steak, then settle accounts and say, Scram. He’d throw me a steak or two, and Nicky would hand me an espresso, and I’d thank them profusely but not too profusely: just the right balance. For, as Walt Whitman says: Be profuse, be profuse, be profuse. But be not too damned profuse!
Then someone – usually, the most reptilian creature among them, that being Joey “Guts” – would mutter: Fuckin’ junkies. I never once saw Joey smile. Whenever he spoke, his eyeteeth would emerge from the corners of his lips and glimmer, and it was often during such moments that I felt he only barely tolerated my presence. Whenever he’d say hello, it was always grudgingly: just a nod or a softly murmured, barely audible, How ya doin’. It wasn’t merely that Joey didn’t care for me; he was so profoundly evil that even the slightest expression of etiquette annoyed him. Joey didn’t really like anyone; he was incapable of liking anything on this earth. But his greeting, his regard, and his general manner toward me was markedly different than it was toward the others. More suspicious and begrudging, more reserved and withheld. For, after all, I’d always remain an outsider; and what the hell was I even doing there? It was only out of respect for Freddie, who was the alpha male, that I was tolerated by Joey. Otherwise, I’d have a knee to the groin or a bullet to the brain.
After Freddie knocked off his bottle, we’d retire to his apartment. As soon as he grew hungry, he’d stick his head out the living room window facing the courtyard and yell: “Oh, Bonzeeeeet?” as if Jimmy were his downtrodden maid or overwrought housewife.
Moments later Bonzet would arrive, and he’d snap at Freddie in short, clipped beats:
“What the fuck do you want? Why are you always yelling like that? What the hell is wrong with you?”
Only Bonzet could get away with that, because he really was a sort of wife to Freddie. And because they possessed the informality of old friends who had grown up on that very street. And because he was, after all, not the slightest threat. So, Freddie enjoyed cranking him up and bringing out his hysterical side, and that’s why Freddie put up with it.
Once Jimmy had simmered down a bit, he’d turn to me and nod: a warm, benevolent, respectful nod, and maybe murmur How ya doing, Bobby? Then he’d unstack the aluminum pots and pans and begin his elaborate preparations. And it was more like what you’d cook for a regiment. You’d never imagine that it was just Freddie, Bonzet, Peggy, and me. In one of those gleaming vat-shaped containers, Bonzet would boil water and toss in ears and ears of corn. After unwrapping the filets, he’d heat some tomato sauce in another pot filled with mushrooms, red and green hot peppers, and everything Sicilian imaginable.
As I said to Drew, try as we might, it was as if we could never escape Gravesend. There we were, more Sicilianized than ever, and there was no avoiding it. Because, after all, you can’t just walk away from the Mob or from men like Freddie. But, at the time, we hadn’t yet realized how deep into this mobster mire we’d sunk.
After our filet, baked ziti, or chicken parmigiana, or, I should say, during it, there would be knock after knock at the door, with Freddie barking who is it? and someone answering Paulie, or Tiny, or Ralphie. Then Paulie “The Pipe” or Tiny “The Ton” or Ralphie “The Rope” would saunter in and hand Freddie a piece of paper marked with a number, along with some cash.
Freddie would nod his head and make small talk with these goons as Jimmy and I devoured his delectable spread. And I’d say Bonzet, this is magnificent; I can’t believe how good this tastes. Then he’d assume his most serious demeanor, because now we were talking about that most holy of holies. With a concentrated look on his face, he’d hesitate a moment, as if gathering his thoughts and searching for words, words usually being so unnecessary to Jimmy. For who needed them when, instead, you had sun, wind, food, drink, and life itself right there, in the palm of your hand? But eventually he’d say, “Bobby, it ain’t hard. This is what you do. You boil some water …” Then he’d spend the next twenty minutes describing, in minute detail, how he’d prepared the filets, or the mushrooms and tomato sauce, or how to chop garlic, or what to look for when you shop for red and green hot peppers.
Freddie would finally lose his patience and shout: “Bonzet, what the fuck are you wasting yer time for? Robbie ain’t never gonna cook nothing for himself! He’s an upper-class man! He even has a college degree! And look at him now! He’s working for me! What does that tell you, Robbie? What’s more important, book knowledge or life knowledge? Nothing beats real experience …”
But the “experience” Freddie was jabbering on about had nothing to do with what my Uncle Byron had meant when he’d watched me complete my first oil painting when I was six years old and said, Robbie, you’ve had a new experience. Instead, it had to do with incarceration in Sing Sing, or the Tombs, or wherever Freddie had slept behind county walls.
Freddie never spoke about being in the Mob. He even tried to lead us off the trail, making a seemingly innocuous remark about how, once, he’d met a guy who had seemed to be in the Mafia. A red herring if there ever was one, as I later realized. But he made no bones about how he’d done time for various crimes. In fact, he was proud of it, as he knew it would only bolster his image as a tough guy.
Freddie often taught me peculiar little things, odds and ends that he’d learned in prison. One afternoon, while we were looking for a nut to fit a bolt, he grabbed the tray inside his long metal toolbox, which was filled with a heterogeneous assortment of orphaned nuts, bolts, nails, and screws, and said, Hey, grab that there paper! meaning a copy of the Daily News that was lying on the floor. After spreading the paper open, he dumped the contents of the tray onto the centerfold. Poking his knobby fingers through the mess, he finally found what he was looking for. Then he carefully gripped the paper by the edges, forming a funnel, and poured everything back into the box, minus any mess.
Smiling his mean but wily grin – his diabolically charming yet unquestionably pathological smile – he blurted out: “Let me ask you something. I bet you never learned how to use a newspaper like that in school, did you? Well, you know where I learned that? Same place where I got all my best education. In the can.”
One evening, in the midst of an unspeakably delicious feast of calamari and sautéed garlic, a Longshoreman named Eddie “The Breeze” showed up. Eddie was distraught because even though the guys on the job had pooled their resources and played a winning number, he’d scrawled it so carelessly that it resembled a 451 instead of a 431, so now the numbers men refused to pay up. To make matters worse, the Longshoremen were convinced that Eddie had pocketed the prize and was bullshitting about not getting paid because of an ambiguous scrawl.
So there he was, bug-eyed and pale as a specter, as we ate our corn on the cob smothered with nature’s best butter and glistening with heaps of salt. As it melted in our mouths and I complemented Jimmy on his cooking, Eddie, who was accompanied by a tall, strapping Longshoreman named Ronnie, said that the guys had nearly lynched him when he claimed that he hadn’t collected anything. That’s why he was there now, with Ronnie, so that Freddie could explain what had happened and they could receive a final verdict about what the “numbers guys” at the top had decided to do, since they, the Longshoremen, still felt they should be rewarded.
“Because, Freddie, remember when I gave it to you? I even said, ‘431, Freddie, I’m prayin’ for it: 431!’”
But Freddie, who treasured the opportunity to lord it over other men, especially when they were three times his size, was in no rush. In between succulent bites of calamari he’d pause, burp, and savor each morsel of his story, recounting how he’d gallantly strolled into Mikey “The Meat Hook’s” office and explained: “Mikey, these Longshoremen are stand-up fellas. We’ve been doing business with them for years, and they never pulled nothing like this before.” To give Mikey an idea of what an exemplary character Eddie was, he added that whenever Eddie came in with a number, Freddie would invite him to sit down and have a shot of Johnnie. But Eddie was a good, respectful man who always politely declined, knowing how busy Freddie was and how inappropriate it would be to take too much of his time.
Mikey interrupted and said never about mind that bullshit. What happened? When he handed it to you, did you look it over or not? And if you did, why the fuck didn’t you ask, What is this; I can’t read chicken scrawl! You sayin’ 431 or 451?
And Freddie said, Mikey, I didn’t ask nothing because Eddie said, “Say a prayer for the 431! If I hit it, I’m taking Suzie” – that’s his wife – “out on a cruise.”
Mikey drilled his eyes into Freddie and said, You sure about that?
Absolutely. He repeated it twice: Pray for the 431, Freddie!
Mikey glowered but then smirked, scratched his chin, spit on the floor, lit a cigar, and asked Freddie if he wanted one. But Freddie said, No, thanks; I’m good.
“Because Mikey loved them fucking cigars. They were like fifty-dollar Cubans. You ever smoke a Havana, Eddie?”
By now, Eddie was nearly crawling through his skin. He was sweating like a pig, and not a pig in shit but one about to get roasted alive. Then Freddie looked up from his plate and said, Hey, you sure you don’t want no calamari? And Eddie got so choked up that he couldn’t talk. He just shook his head, no, while his partner stood beside him, mute. Eddie must have told Ronnie not to say a word, because he knew Freddie hated to converse with strangers. So Ronnie just stood there quietly and turned a deeper shade of red, and I don’t know whether it was from fear or from anger.
After letting go a long sonorous burp, Freddie wiped his chin, made like he was about to reveal the final decision, then turned to me and asked if I wanted to watch Buck Rogers in the 25th Century or I Love Lucy.
I said, “Let’s go with Buck,” so Freddie hit the TV zapper just as Buck was just coming on. And we both agreed, Freddie and I, we always agreed that although this Buck was cool, he wasn’t as cool as the original one from the Thirties. How I loved to watch the old Buck Rodgers and Flash Gordon serials! With those ancient black-and-white shows, everything was so obviously faked. The sets were constructed of paper-mache and cardboard, and sometimes they’d shake – just as Eddie was shaking now – while Flash or his angelic heartthrob, Dale Arden, ambled across the stage. But the best part was the spaceship, which sputtered like a sparkler and moved so slowly and in such a wavering, crooked line that it looked as if it were about to fall from the sky at any moment.
Yet there was something terrifying about those old tales, because people were always getting killed: even the main characters, whom you’d never expect to get offed. But they were captured and zapped by aliens who appeared at just the wrong moment. Thus, there was something so lifelike – or deathlike – about Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. It was just like the Mob. One wrong move, and it didn’t matter if you were Joe Blow or Mikey the Meat Hook, you were gone – poof – just as quickly as Flash’s comrades were vaporized by those guns.
After swallowing one last chunk of calamari, Freddie burped, farted, said Excuse my manners, then looked Eddie straight in the eye and grumbled, “Listen. Mikey said: ‘Next time you write a three, make sure it looks like a fuckin’ three.’ But for now, you’re good.”
Meaning, the Mob had decided to fork it over.
Eddie’s eyes popped, then rolled across the floor. He could barely contain his joy, or greed, or whatever the hell it was.
When I consider it now, years later, it’s amazing how unabashed Freddie was about that whole numbers racket. At one point, they’d even positioned a kindergarten chalkboard right in front of the club, where they’d draw in the digits as soon as they were announced. But according to Bonzet, the cops finally told them to be more discreet, so the blackboard was 86’d.
It wasn’t just the numbers that made us suspicious of Freddie, who claimed he was handling it as a favor for one of the local tough guys. What really did it was a story that he related one night when Drew, who occasionally worked with us on bigger jobs, was seated beside me at Freddie’s kitchen table. We were savoring a cheesecake that Freddie had portioned into what he called humungous slices, passing it round and round until we could eat no more.
I can no longer recall how we drifted into this horrendous tale or what, exactly, the segue had been. But whatever it was, Freddie had been drinking too much and had let it slip that, a few years before, his sister, who lived in L.A., had phoned to complain about her neighbors: a free-loving – in every sense of the word – couple. What nowadays we’d call a New Age couple perhaps, but the main point being that they were nudists. Although she’d politely asked them to erect a fence so she wouldn’t have to see them and their friends cavorting around naked in the yard, they did nothing; they refused.
So Freddie said, alright, sit tight, I’m coming over. And he flew to L.A., and he set their house on fire.
After he returned, he phoned her, as per arrangement, and asked, “How’s the barbecue coming along?”
“Everything’s turned out to perfection.” And they laughed, and that was the end of the freewheeling couple.
Upon hearing this, Drew and I shot each other a look, and we nearly gagged on our cheesecake. But we carefully masked our shock until Freddie had gotten up to pee – “To relieve myself,” as he said, with faux diplomacy.
How Freddie loved to display his “manners”! When he lived in California, he worked in the film industry – the porno business, to be precise – and he’d hobnobbed with some wealthy businessmen in L.A. Unlike the other low-level hoods at the club, Freddie knew more about the whole class divide and how the well-to-do speak differently and carry themselves more gracefully. So this was Freddie’s sardonic way of saying, Yeah, sure; I could do that too. But fuck it, and fuck you …
We never learned if the nudists had been hurt in the blaze, and, to be honest, we didn’t want to know. But, at that moment, we realized we needed to distance ourselves.
A few days later, Freddie came up with the idea of taking me to a bordello – a proposition I successfully managed to avoid. And whenever he brought it up, he’d make odd remarks about male anatomy: something that seemed a bit out of character, but eventually it fit snugly into the Freddie jigsaw puzzle.
Freddie later confided in me that, when we’d first moved in, he’d assumed Drew and I were a gay couple. It wasn’t until my Ethiopian girlfriend, Abebe, showed up – a moody, brooding statuesque lady with black fire in her eyes and an enigmatic smile on her lips – that Freddie realized we were just “regular guys.” Yet, he related this to me with a lingering tone of uncertainty, as if hoping that he might be wrong.
One night when he was really hitting the bottle, Freddie insisted that I accompany him to his other flat. This wasn’t his usual digs but was located in a building a few doors away, where he’d grown up with his immigrant parents.
As is often the case with mobsters, Freddie regarded his mother as an unblemished saint. His eyes would tear at the mere mention of her name. And, of course, prominently displayed on his dresser, there it was: a photo of the most hideous woman I’ve ever seen.
Freddie’s mother closely resembled the iguana-eyed matriarch who stars in Lina Wertmüller’s Seven Beauties: an obese Nazi who runs a concentration camp. The story revolves round a handsome prisoner, Pasqualino, who decides that the only way to escape is to seduce her. But when she sits there naked before him – with a grave, unsmiling expression, and with all the allure of a hippopotamus – he can’t get it up.
Just as one might attempt while studying a portrait of Hitler’s mother, I scanned the image for a detail that might reveal an essential link between the beast and the diabolical runt it had spawned. As I continued to gaze, she seemed to scowl, her ebony eyes afloat in a vat of pale, jelly-like flesh. Garbed in woebegone widow’s attire, she appeared like a black widow spider that had just swallowed her son’s meager soul … and was about to vomit it out at any second.
A final overlay of hideousness I have yet to mention. As I later learned from one of the old-timers on the block, the spider had died a most fitting death:
One day, a garbage truck had come careening round the corner. A heavy metal chain, which was normally attached to each side at the back of the truck, had slipped off one of its hooks. As it flew out, unfurling across the street, it wrapped itself round Freddie’s mother’s neck. Then it lifted her up and snapped her back, into the gaping maw where the trash was churned and crushed to a pulp, which is precisely what it did to her.
All this filtered through my mind in brief, fleeting moments as I stood there and Freddie muttered: Yes, it was a picture of his mother. Then he stepped into the kitchen to pour himself a bumper glass of Johnny. When he returned, after hemming and hawing and acting a bit more distracted than usual, he said, “You know, it’s late. Why don’t you stay over? Here, you can sleep in these” – handing me a pair of silk jammies.
And, oh, boy; all at once it hit me, naive little bunny that I was. Freddie’s gay. And he wants me to be his chicken. And that’s what he learned in the can …
Of course, I scrammed. Then I really distanced myself, working as little as possible until I found a construction job that paid more, and I had a legitimate excuse to move on.
* * *
About a year later, as I was walking along the block one evening, Freddie waved at me from the driver’s seat of his black sedan, which was idling near the club.
He said that he’d just sold the building and was about to move into his mother’s old flat. “Call this number,” he added, handing me a scrap of paper. “It’s the Manhattan housing authority. Tell ’em you’re being overcharged.”
We’d always assumed that Freddie was ripping us off, but we never dared to mention it. But now, he was giving us carte blanche to do as we pleased and to take the new landlord to court.
It was his going-away gift.
Freddie continued to manage the club for a few more years, but then, shortly after I left for Paris, he moved to California. A smart relocation on his part, because the Feds came down hard on the Italian Mob in New York, no doubt to make way for the more powerful Russian and South American gangs.
But one thing Freddie couldn’t escape was AIDS.
I didn’t hear about it till decades later, but that’s how he died. Especially at that time, when the illness was newly discovered and the treatments were harsh and ineffective, a bullet to the brain might have been more merciful.
When I learned of his demise, I tipped my hat to Freddie: son of proud immigrants, and the craziest motherfucker on the block.
Copyright © 2012, 2018 Rob Couteau.