November 25, 2010 |
No car idled in the parking lot as Sean Mac Breen exited the train…not unusual. No one answered his call home…very unusual. Though rarely received with excessive familial warmth, Sean was accustomed to a modicum of hail-fellow-well-met cheer on Friday evenings. It was, after all, payday. For the past year, the oldest brother's paycheck, though modest, promised to keep the wolf at bay for one more week.
Perhaps the Old Man, Connor Mac Breen, had finally found a position for the chemist he had been sending out on interviews for the past two weeks. He was hawking the young man for $13,000 a year. Success meant a ten percent commission, split equally with the engineers-only head hunter firm.
If this was the case, experience dictated that he would be found in the Deer Blind Tap, sipping vodka and sharing the wealth. Though checking this out entailed adding another mile to an already tiring three mile hike, Sean took a chance. Had it been December rather than June, he would have chosen otherwise. No one living in far northern Illinois walks an extra mile in winter.
As he entered the Tap, owner Charlie Guzack, who seemed to know the exact age of every young man in Sylvia Lake, greeted him.
"Sorry, Sean, you still have another year before your legal."
"I know, Mr. Guzack," said Sean, " I thought I might find Dad here."
"Not tonight. Haven't seen him in several days. You might check the bowling alley."
That received a hearty laugh from the several patrons. It was no secret Mac Breen's father regarded bowling as a pseudo-athletic exercise pursued by those who could do nothing else. That one of the town's best bowlers was legally blind lent this observation a gram of validity. Nor was it a secret that a goodly number of bounced checks had made the elder MacBreen unwelcome. An unfortunate circumstance since located in a dark nook was a pinball machine that the Old Man had mastered and viewed as a small, non-taxable annuity.
As he headed out the door Sean was followed by Lou Hahn, the local vet.
"I saw your Dad with all the kids early on Wednesday heading toward the Expressway. Had one of those rented trailers hitched to the back, too. I waved, but he ignored me…again."
"Probably thought you wanted your money," observed Sean absently.
"Naw, gave up on that a long time ago."
Though he didn't show it, Sean was jolted by the information. No one in his right mind would hitch a trailer and load four kids in a beat up '48 Plymouth and expect to get far. But then someone running from something might well try something that stupid. He headed home.
By the time he arrived it was completely dark; as was the house. All the drapes and blinds were drawn and little looked different…other than the new locks on the front, rear, and basement doors. It seemed that the other shoe, airborne for so long, had finally landed. The MacBreens had broken the most sacred of American covenants and been pinned with the appropriate scarlet letter "E"… for Evicted.
This was a communal sin shared by all family members. The money borrowed was not from some New York facility but from the bank in town. The bank where Sylvia Lakers saved. The MacBreen's hadn't stiffed the bank, they had stiffed their neighbors.
Actually, the event should have occurred much earlier but Sean's mother, Maria Therese, was a very much admired woman in that small community. Not that admiration is enough to warm the heart of a banker. But any woman with terminal cancer and four children under 10 presents the flintiest banker with an image problem. So they waited six months and then dropped the hammer.
With this in mind, Sean had little choice but to hike down the road to the home of his nearest neighbor, Carl Brenner. He hoped to get some more information but it was an encounter he had been avoiding for two years. Carl's son, Dale, had been a neighbor and classmate for six years; in that time Sean had probably spoken with him on a dozen occasions - and then only briefly.
Dale was always a quiet guy who never joined anything nor seemed interested in much. He never spoke in class unless called upon to do so. The space beneath his picture in the senior yearbook was blank. Three days after graduation Dale committed suicide. Although his father never said anything to us, it was common knowledge that he felt Dale's classmates' collective refusal to even once extend a hand of friendship played no small role in his ultimate decision. At the time most thought he was nuts; Sean wasn't so sure.
Brenner was sitting on the porch when Sean arrived.
"I've been expecting you, Sean. Have a seat. Want anything to drink?"
"No thanks, Mr. Brenner. Why were you expecting me?"
"Your father dropped by with something he wanted you to have," said Brenner, handing Sean a small box.
The box contained two prescription bottles and a note with a short message: "Consider the renewed prescriptions a gift. Don't bother going to the bank, don't call me at work, and don't look for us."
The note, though brief, was revealing. First, Sean, an epileptic, may have temporarily forgotten about his meds, but the Old Man hadn't. Of course he hadn't. Both were inordinately expensive and a never-ending drain on the family budget. They also provided a regular reminder that the unexpected inheritance which appeared to be a godsend a decade earlier had been immediately dissipated by the necessary brain surgery. Though Sean survived, a lot of dreams died on that operating table.
The more jarring element in the note was the mention of the bank. As a serial check-kiter, Connor had been rejected by every bank in a three-state area. Sean, along with Maria Therese, did the family banking; for the past six months Sean carried on alone. The check writing consisted of little more than paying the utility bills and auto insurance.
Yet with Maria Therese's death, Connor had shared less and less of the few commission checks he had since received. As a result, mother's old friend, Virginia, from the water company, was once again alerting the family to imminent shut downs. It's amazing how quickly a disciplined family can fill every tub, sink, pot, pan, and bottle. (Glass bottles were still the standard container; we had six, all of which were filled weekly with the much cheaper, unpasteurized product from a local farm.) For reasons Sean could never discover, the electric company was more compassionate and gave a week's warning when they were moved to act.
Well aware of his father's ability to con the unwary teller, it appeared that the Old Man had tapped out the checking account. However, of greater concern was the secret (he hoped) savings account he had opened three months earlier.
"Mr. Brenner, did he say anything at all?"
"Nope. Just thanked me and drove off." He paused for a moment and went on, "I'm assuming you still have business to settle and it's obvious your place is shut tight. If you need a place to stay, you're welcome to use Dale's old room."
Sean could certainly "use" Dale's old room, but he doubted he could sleep in it. Among his several private pursuits, Dale was manic about his model planes and ships. While most of us made the occasional attempt, we were satisfied to finish without any left-over parts. Dale not only finished but went on to give each a custom paint job, secure it from the ceiling (or to the wall), and dust it weekly.
Dale had taken on a presence he had never possessed in life. Hamlet fondly remembered Yorick for carrying him around on his back; Dale, Sean felt, was a painful memory riding the back of his once-indifferent neighbor.
"Mr. Brenner, we've talked more tonight than we ever have in the past seven years; but I know from others that you feel we - I - treated Dale poorly and I'm curious why you're being so nice?"
"I'm surprised at you, Sean. You're about the only one of Dale's classmates I still see at church on Sunday. Don't you listen Father Pearce's words? Or are you there to admire the subtle charms of Cindy Broderick?"
"I don't know that Cindy's charms are that subtle. And Father's repeated pleas to cling to the Golden Rule are hard to ignore -especially considering the downside. Frankly, it's easy to suggest it, but just about impossible obey. I mean I continually forgive Cindy for ignoring me for the past three years…so it's not totally impossible."
"Keep working at it. You're still too much like your father. Continue on and you'll turn into a real jerk, too."
"Sounds like he remains unforgiven."
"Not so," said Brenner with force, "it's easy to forgive cripples. Your father is a very frustrated man. He was going to be a real star - but Hitler and Mussolini screwed him up and he never got over it. The war did that to many, but most overcame it. A few, like Ted Williams, came back and triumphed. The rest of us just had to pick up the best we could. And, frankly, we've done quite well in spite of the early inconvenience - if that's the right word."
"How about "bad luck" instead?"
"No, no, no. Nobody born in this country can ever, ever plead 'bad luck.' Almost anyone born anyplace else might lay claim to that excuse. But to be born in America during this century - well - go pick up Thucydides, Herodotus, Josephus, or Gibbon and discover how miserable a world you could have been born into."
"You're beginning to sound like a history or philosophy teacher…"
"Once upon a time I was."
"And you gave that up to be a firefighter?"
"Oh, yes. Better pay, better pension, better hours, and the public I deal with is a lot more grateful, rarely criticizes my style or personality, and never claims to be able to do it better. And if I get hit in the head with a brick, it's almost certain to have come from a damaged building and not a vengeful teen…anyway, let's call it a night. I begin my next 48 tomorrow at ten and I'll drop you in town on my way."
It was a long and revealing night. In addition to the models, Dale had put together a substantial library. In addition to the adventure classics Dale had read were a number of old beaten up selections: Rider Haggard's "She (who Must Be Obeyed)", Gogol's "Taras Bulba", Spengler's "Decline of the West", and Hugo's "Toilers of the Sea". The real discovery was Giuseppe di Lampedusa's "The Leopard" which he spent the greater part of the night reading and was given permission to borrow.
As he feared, the Old Man had not only found his savings book but also a pliable young teller. Surely this gentleman with four young children in tow wouldn't attempt to swindle the bank. And, yes, he had heard that the MacBreen's were moving on so the request to close both checking and savings accounts seemed reasonable. Sure the names weren't identical but everyone knew Sean was still a minor and that he would certainly defer to his father. Especially since he was driving in to Chicago specifically to pick Sean up for their destination "out west."
Had it happened to almost any other patron and the bank might have been willing to deal. But the MacBreens weren't just regular patrons; they were deadbeats. And the bank president, rather than being apologetic, was outraged that Sean would even contemplate hiring an attorney. No local attorney would accept him as a client and were one to come forward what would he use as a retainer?
He reluctantly withdrew and realized that the Food Stamp Pyramid would have to be rebuilt. No big deal. His loss amounted to $882, but with his $750 in working capital he'd have it back in a year. How does money compound at at roughly 9% per month?
Any government program offers untold wealth to the person in the right place at the right time with cash on hand, patience, and modest goals. It began innocently enough at Sean's first job in a mail order house. His duties consisted of receiving an invoice listing the ordered products and the products themselves. There could be as few as two items or as many as twenty. The first procedure was to check the invoice against the products provided. Half the time items were either missing or had been duplicated.
After assuring the correct items were present, he picked a box that could most economically fit all the items.The larger the box, the more the postage, the less the profit. Too small a box couldn't accommodate enough cushioning newspaper and led to broken merchandise, customer anger, and less profit. With newcomers like myself, the floor manager, Claude Harper, provided the box he felt would be most appropriate. His judgment was generally quite good but on occasion slightly off.
In Sean's case, they were all off. He was told it was an easy job and one he'd quickly learn. What Sean failed to appreciate was that this was still the "slow season" and his fellow workers, all from well south of the Mason-Dixon line, loved to haze the new kids. The truth was made known after two days but he couldn't understand why Harper would allow the deliberate accumulation of wastage that occurred in those days.
A week in the lunchroom taught Sean why. Old Claude was quite a pinochle player and each day did his best to fleece his employees out of their $1.60 per hour. On those occasions when he found himself losing he merely told his opponents to ignore the bell and play on. While the rest of us returned to work, Harper had his assistant punch in the remaining players and the game continued.
Lunch wasn't a big deal at first as Sean didn't have enough money to buy it. A round trip ticket on the Milwaukee Road cost $2.80 daily -a monthly ticket $42.30. The only money he had was in his coin collection and since the Old Man had assured him his aunt was sending a check for both their travel expenses, he sold enough Morgan quarters and halves to pay for a week's transportation. The downtown coin dealer Sean dealt with - and the only one within walking distance of the office - gave him less than fair value.
With nothing to do but sip coffee and read Sean noted two men always sat a table far away from all the other employees, addressed each other in an unfamiliar tongue, and ritualistically prepared their lunches. Every day each had his own lunch box and a thermos of coffee. Each day they pulled from the box two large pieces of rye bread, a small block of Philadelphia Cream Cheese, a half dozen or so green olives (with pimento), and an apple, orange, or banana.
After methodically spreading the cream cheese over one piece of bread they would slice the olives four or five times, sprinkle them over the cream cheese, and lay the second piece of bread on top. Then they would pull out a chess board with a diagram detailing where the pieces had been prior to quitting the day before. It became apparent that their separation from the rest was more at the direction of Claude. He may have been a conniver with everybody else but with these two he recognized talent.
Sean discovered that Kornel and Sandor were father and son, medical doctor and chemistry professor, Hungarian refugees, and the best sorters and packers on the floor. As a result they demanded and received a higher wage: $1.80 an hour. And this caused the southern contingent tons of grief.
Why were they packing boxes a full five years after escaping the Russian tanks? Because the AMA and the relevant university boards refused to recognize their credentials.
Sean learned this at the Monday lunch break when he steamed into the room with a measly three dollars he had received for three very nice Morgan halves. Kornel, the father, approached Sean as he sat chewing on his coffee cup.
"We saw you run out of here over to the coin store and come back angry. You do business there?"
"Yes, or to be accurate it was partially business, partially robbery."
"What kind of coins do you have?"
"Mostly Morgan quarters and halves, about a dozen Morgan dollars, a bunch of Peace dollars and some really old dimes and nickels, and Indian Head pennies."
"If you bring them in, we'll bring the coin book and give you fair price. After a while if you want them back, we'll sell them to you for same price."
"That's very fair, but why would you do such a thing when there is so little benefit?"
"Because there might be big benefit. We think these coins are good value and we will hold for long time. And even if you do buy them back, we will have made a friend; something it is difficult to do around here."
And so began Sean's first friendship of the work world. Several more obstacles presented themselves with the arrival of his first paycheck. Expecting $64, he was stunned to see $49.18. When he brought it to Harper, he was told to look at the stub attached to the check. Withholding tax and FICA. What's a FICA? Then he had to get the check cashed.
He quickly learned that there are banks and commercial banks. The latter can be found on just about every block in Chicago's "Loop." Unfortunately, commercial banks didn't sully their balance sheets with check cashing facilities for the day laborer. Only through the intervention of an imposing traffic cop and fellow Irishman did one of the banks relent and cough up the loot.
But winter was coming on and he still needed warmer clothes for the walk to Union Station across the Chicago River and toward the Lake. He thought northern Illinois was cold but at least it didn't have a giant body of cold water with a persistent northeast wind blowing over it.
Walking to the train station would be a little easier but lately the Old Man had been catching an earlier train home as Maria Therese's condition worsened. Those long walks in winter would be equally challenging. So he sold Kornel $250 worth of his coins, hid it away carefully, and spent it judiciously. A real nice new coat or jacket would be a tip-off to hidden wealth and a subsequent third degree on the source of funds. A new garment from Robert Hall, on the other hand, was a badge of impending pauperism and discouraged even the most avaricious.
He learned of food stamps at the beginning of the next month. Sean had heard of them but really didn't understand how they worked, and knew no one (or so he thought) who received them. Imagine his surprise when at least half of his fellow workers got together one day at lunch and started naming stores and prices.
It worked like this. For the eligible, every $6 purchased $10 worth of food stamps. A good deal in anybody's book. But no one wanted to admit they needed or used them. And those who lied to qualify (which his fellow employees did) wanted to get rid of them for as much cash as possible. Saloons and restaurants were not allowed to take them. So, as one would expect with any government program a black market quickly developed. Who would offer stamp holders the best deal?
The poorer the neighborhood the worse the deals. Saloon owners (who always knew someone who would factor the merchandise) gave less than anyone else; usually around .76 to .83. Grocers who didn't fear gaming the system might go as high as .94 or .96. With Maria Therese in bad all the time now, Sean had become the designated shopper. Bargains and coupons were quickly becoming a way of life even though Marie Therese insisted that all food money come out of Connor's pocket or out of his allowance.
This didn't last long as the Old Man's extended stays at home limited his already limited income generating opportunities. In short order it was determined that Sean would kick in one week's pay, With that and another $43 going for train fare, Sean was left with $104 a month. The ideal solution would be to emulate Kornel and Sandor. Unfortunately, a pre-made sandwich in a home with four growing and perpetually hungry young children had the life expectancy of a fly hitting a windshield.
The Eighty-Niner special at B&G ( a small sandwich and a cup of soup) was eighty nine cents, Add a cup of coffee and tax and it came to $1.09. Two dishes of hash browns at the Huddle House were $.90 - with coffee and tax, $1.06. The monthly meds now ran to $22. That knocked off another $45. That left $59 - two bucks a day barring any emergencies.
Food stamps offered a way to ease the burden. Sean would have had an easier time had he suggested the re-introduction of the Volstead Act. After determining that the local food store accepted food stamps he sold another $350 worth of coins and when food stamp day rolled around, Sean sat in. Prices bounced around but seemed pretty much in the $.83-$.86 range.
Sean offered $.89 and received $281 in stamps for a $250 outlay. That was for the family's use. The other $100 brought in $107 from one of the named groceries that paid $.96 on the dollar.
Pocketing the weekly funds for food purchases and using the already purchased food stamps, Sean was now clearing about $38 every month, Sean sold the remainder of his coins for another $400 and combined it with the other proceeds. He refused to go over $1000 a month. It was a big pie and no one bothered over a nibble here and there. But take a big bite and everyone got concerned.
A grand was chump change in the program and on a straight deal with an established grocer he could realize $90 a month, $1080 a year. If he played around the fringes, he could make a bunch more but each new buyer and each new seller presented an added threat of exposure. Nine percent a month couldn't be beat; but neither could it last. Things that were too good to be true were too good to be true.
Sean had gained some additional influence when it was discovered he could spell, touch type, and do complex math problems in his head. He was promoted to "chief label typer and postage man." The extra nickel an hour didn't make him any friends but it didn't create much antagonism either. As long as he was paying top dollar for the stamps, he was OK with those who counted.
It was hard to believe that the one course he had taken (actually Connor forced him to take it) and received a "C" in, was the one that gained him a promotion. Lightening was to strike a second time when he applied for an entry level job at one of the big newspapers. He went through the process to keep Maria Therese happy - it had been her contention that Sean would be best off at a newspaper. All because he had been an editor in high school.
When he was offered the job Sean was surprised and ambivalent. No doubt the new job was cleaner with better hours, no post-Christmas layoffs, and easy transportation from the train station. The paper also employed women!
The downside would be the loss of his sideline business, a $1 a week pay cut, and the expenses involved in upgrading his wardrobe to something appropriate to white collar employment (this had been emphasized when offered the job).
Out of curiosity he asked his boss-to-be what it was that got him the offer He was told he had done very well on the 50 question test. But others had done well, too. Of all the candidates, though, only he had passed the typing test - so much for the high school editorship and writing ability.
His major responsibility would be composing mass-mailing letters directed to food retailers, large and small. The thrust was an urgent call to stock up on Aunt Nellie's Peas or Hormel Spam as upcoming advertising featuring 15-cent-off coupons would have customers flocking to the store, stripping shelves, and demanding more.
It was a great job and really challenging. Every national advertiser (and there were many) was guaranteed a merchandising program the cost of which would equal 1% of the ad budget. While most consisted of letters on stock stationery with gimmicky headlines, the larger budgets involved the selection of appropriately related "premiums" (like specially designed ties with the advertiser's logo and the current theme stitched on).
The workload increased substantially when Sean's fellow copywriter and a member of the National Guard was called up for the Cuban missile crisis. (Sean was called in for his third physical, once for Berlin and twice for Cuba. He flunked it with flying colors. He asked the examining doctor if there was ever any chance he would ever be drafted. The doctor looked at his record and said, "Son, when the Russians cross the Michigan Avenue bridge, you'll be at the top of the list."
A big change was dictated by his new finances. So he left home and moved into what can best be described as a boarding house on the far north side. The building was owned by the Archdiocese of Chicago, was 4 stories high, with five 8'x12' rooms on every floor, and for men only (Christian men, preferably Catholic). Although each room had its own sink, the remaining bathroom facilities were in one large room on each floor. Everybody adjusted their schedules accordingly. The building was overseen by two ancient Irishmen (Mike and Brian), and the rent was $13 per week.
Three months later Maria Therese died. There were a lot of tears, a lot of relief, and a little bitterness. Sean's married sister was especially upset since she had married only 18 months earlier after solemn assurances from Sean that the illness wasn't that serious and the prognosis good. He well knew Susan would call off the wedding and hang around rearing the children. The Old Man knew this, too, and wished to tell her the truth. Sure he did. It would guarantee him an unpaid babysitter for years; but Sean's threat to walk out and quit contributions to the family budget dissuaded him.
Marie Therese's death brought significant changes. For the first time, Connor began drinking at home. He went to work less and less. Sean's younger sisters now 7 and 8, felt a sympathetic bond and began skipping school to care for him. Had I attempted that at the same age, I would have received a real thumping. But it appeared Connor enjoyed being the center of a tragedy and the girls, never enthusiastic scholars, enjoyed the absence of school. Of course, Sean learned none of this from them; it was only through Mr. Brenner that he was kept abreast of the situation. (Another big development for young Sean - his own phone - admittedly an office phone but, still, his own office phone.
His new living quarters had been found through the recommendation of Sandor who, with his father, had both lived there when arriving in Chicago. Though they were sad to see me leave they assured me it was for the best: "You're young, but you must think long - look to future - there is none here." We kept in touch and got together on an occasional weekend at one of their favorite Hungarian restaurants.
My new neighborhood was also inhabited by several guys from the mail order house. They, too, had moved there on Kornel's recommendation. He had informed them it was cheap and that they would find many other southern boys in the area. At first, this appeared to be a joyful development which foretold the continuation of my food stamp sideline. I was warned by Blitzer (a former Tide second string linebacker) that this was not a good locale for this type of business. The locals didn't like competition. I looked for competition but found none. Almost every retail outlet. restaurant, and service outfit was owned by an Asian - some Korean, some, Cambodians, some Chinese, some Japanese, and a few Thai.
Ethnic neighborhoods had long been a hallmark of Chicago. But, despite the common Asian background, this was really an extraordinarily diverse amalgam. I made regular stops at the local diner to keep in touch with my old comrades attempting to drum up business that, mysteriously, remained sparse. Not only that, but the local merchants wouldn't trade for the stamps; except at a significant loss to me. Something just wasn't right and I had to learn why…before I went broke.
If anybody knew what was happening in the area it would be Mike and Brian who had been watching over that building for more than 15 years. Both knew what my sideline was, heartily disapproved ("yes you're offering them a better deal, but it still isn't a fair deal -they're still not getting full value"), and had decided not to boot me out only because they knew I'd fail.
"Why will this fail? it's worked before with the same people."
"Yes, the same individuals, but now you're a part of this neighborhood - they, your opposition, know who you are and how to frustrate you," said Mike - Brian rarely spoke and then only to Mike.
"I still don't get it. I've looked for competitors but find none and find no one willing to do business with anyone."
"But you see, they are doing business with someone. They still trade for the stamps at discounts but only with the individuals to whom they're issued and at prices they set. What's the first thing you notice about the area that strikes you as unusual."
"No Jewish delis, no Irish-owned bars, no Italian restaurants, no ethnic bakeries - nothing but outlets of various Oriental backgrounds."
"Exactly. This is an exceptionally different Chicago neighborhood -the typical ethnic groups are absent. Things like this don't happen by accident, they occur by design."
"So, whose the designer?"
"You've heard of Bobby Chu?"
"Sure owns a huge joint in China Town - very successful - gives tons to charities, loves the Cubs, loves publicity more."
"Yes, that's him. He's been in Chicago for years. Was one of the pioneers and has been marvelously successful. But Bobby has always loved to expand; he currently owns three places in China Town but everything worth owning is owned and is not for sale."
"So why doesn't he look elsewhere?"
"He is. And you're witnessing it. Bobby wants to create a China Town North right here on Lawnmore Ave. This is the starting point and you're an aggravation."
"It will never happen. The cost of buying out all the locals out will be huge, the cost of rebuilding huger, and the aggravation he'll catch from City Hall isn't anything compared to mine."
"Let's take that a point at a time, Sean. First, there are no locals. All the Orientals you see running shops and stores were brought in and financed by Bobby. The titles may have their names on them but, trust me, they'll be signed over to Chu when the word comes down. Point two, financing. That's never been a problem for the Chinese. They know how to make, save, and invest money. Third, City Hall would love nothing more than to see this neighborhood cleared of rednecks and populated by highly productive, politically loyal, tax-paying citizens and enterprises.
"Next week it will be announced that a new group of investors have purchased the Armitage Hotel and that, due to much needed renovations, it will be closed down in three months."
The Armitage was a nine-story red brick structure of many years. It was a dump but because of its low rates, it was popular with the southerners I had come to know. This move would effectively displace them permanently.
"So Chu is aware of the kind of people he's about to turn out?"
"Mike, I don't mean any disrespect but these are not pliable people. They've been brought up rough, they've lived rough, and they have a curious sense of right and wrong. And if they feel they've been wronged, they'll not go gently."
"There's not a thing they can do, Sean."
"Probably not, Mike, but suddenly the neighborhood has lost much of its charm. And, I might ask, why aren't you concerned?"
"Nobody, but nobody, plays power games with the Cardinal. He'll get his price or this building will be here for the last trump."
If things weren't bad enough, Connor upped and died. A quickly called family conference determined all four would move to Nebraska with my sister before the state could get involved. So, after a brief funeral, lightly attended, Susan took off with the young ones and beyond the state line.
I returned to the city after a funeral dinner with Brenner, who was the only one from the old home town who showed up. I outlined what was occurring, my concerns, and my plans to move elsewhere before things got hot.
I stopped at the diner before going home and found Blitzer looking very content.
"Did ya hear what happened last night, Fingers?" (A nick name I acquired due to my typing skills.)
"Nope, Blitz, I was otherwise occupied."
"Buried the old man, huh? Sorry to hear it."
"Well, Sean guess who got the hell kicked out of himself right here on Lawnmore?"
"No idea, Blitz.."
"Bobby Chu! He and the driver got real thumpings and were left in the street."
"Nope. Ole Bobby still had his Rolex and a wallet full of cash and the keys were still in the ignition of his beautiful Caddy. The police can't figure out a motive."
"Yeah, Blitz, that's a real head scratcher. Probably a rival tong."
I found a new apartment for December 1st occupancy; same owner, different managers, right across from the Cathedral. Fifteen bucks a month. Location, location, location.
I called Brenner and told him what had happened. The word was going around that Chu was having second thoughts but nothing was certain. He asked what I was doing for Thanksgiving, and I told him I planned to spend my ill-gotten gains on a nice dinner for Kornel and Sandor. I wanted to do something with the six holdovers from the mail order house but couldn't find a place that would welcome a crew like ours.
Brenner said we'd talk again before the holiday.
On Wednesday night of Thanksgiving week, Kornel, Sandor, and I dined at a very nice, but very expensive Hungarian restaurant. We were treated like royalty - and the two of them were a sort of royalty in that crowd - they had actually defied the Russians and lived to tell about it.
By prior arrangement, the Mail Order Gang held a 10 o;clock meeting at the diner. Over much happy banter regarding Chu's change of heart was the quiet sadness experienced by those away from home on a family holiday. Around 11 o'clock a paddy wagon pulled up outside and two very large officers came in. They approached our table and announced we were all under arrest. Meanwhile another squad with two more officers pulled up.
"Let's not fight this, guys," I counseled, "let's just find out what the problem is and get it over with."
Although this was a first for me, several of my fellows seemed familiar with the routine. several commented that, for a paddy wagon, this was really clean and didn't smell like - well, it didn't smell. It was also pointed out that the driver wasn't making any of the real sharp turns that some seemed to delight in.
"I don't know where we're going," observed Blitz, "but it sure isn't the local station. We would have been there five minutes ago.'
We drove on for another 10 minutes, pulled into a building and rolled to a stop. The backdoor opened and revealed a huge hook-and-ladder truck in the background with two long trestle table in the foreground. Both were set for a formal dinner and already large plates of food were being laid.
Carl Brenner smiled and greeted us.
"Happy Thanksgiving, gentlemen, and welcome to Firehouse 732. If you don't see what you want, ask. If we don't have it, we'll get it. If we can't get it, then it just too darn bad. Barring an alarm, we have three hours. You'll be driven home in the paddy wagon so feel free to drink as much of the Jack Daniels as you wish. Sean has so graciously supplied an ample quantity.
"There will, of course, be leftovers. Firemen never under-serve. If you want sandwiches to go, speak up, if you want biscuits and gravy to go, let us know, if you want to take some booze home, that's too darn bad."
And so a bunch of urban ethics shared their Thanksgiving with a group of rural rednecks.
- February 2017
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