Saturday, December 26, 2009

Different Planets

In 1861 Turgenev and Tolstoy had a hell of a fight. It started when Tolstoy made some offhand, though pointed, reference to Turgenev's illegitimate daughter and Turgenev, understandably, got upset. Afanasy Fet was there at the time, it all happened in his house, and he reported later that Turgenev threatened to slap the other man, then ran out of the room. A little while later, after stewing and steaming for a while, Tolstoy sent Turgenev a letter. Tolstoy wasn't used to being slapped, or even threatened, and he demanded an apology. And I don't know why, but Turgenev wrote Tolstoy the letter. He said he was sorry, hadn't meant for the incident to get so out of hand, and then he mailed it to the wrong address.

Tolstoy never got the letter, and thought that Turgenev was ignoring him. The slap, or at least the threat of the slap, was bad enough. But to be ignored completely was just too much for the guy. He sent Turgenev another letter, this time challenging him to a duel in the woods. Turgenev was confused. He still didn't know that his letter had been sent to the wrong address, he had apologized to Tolstoy just as the man asked him to do. Why this? Why now? Turgenev was a fair guy, maybe even too fair, and he wrote Tolstoy again. He said: "I say in all sincerity that I would gladly stand under your fire in order to wipe out my truly insane words." Though Tolstoy was probably the one who should have been doing the apologizing in the first place. This all started over Turgenev's daughter, after all, and what business was it of Tolstoy's?

Anyway, Tolstoy actually got the letter this time, and he wrote back to Turgenev right away. He said: "You are afraid of me, but I scorn you and do not want to have anything to do with you." Strong words, but in another couple of months he changed his mind. He wrote again, this time apologizing for everything that went down. But now it was Turgenev's turn. He was abroad, and he never got the letter. He went to Paris, he went to London, he even met the Queen. While he was gone he heard news from back home. He heard that Tolstoy was showing Turgenev's letter around to all their old friends - the letter where he apologized for his "insane words" - and mocked him for being a coward. For Turgenev this was just too damn much. He had done everything he could, went above and beyond to make peace with the guy, and now this. This time Turgenev challenged Tolstoy to a duel. Almost as soon as he put his fresh threat into the mailbox, a letter came to his door. It was from Tolstoy, apologizing for the whole incident.

That day, giving up on the whole thing, Turgenev sat down and wrote to Afanasy Fet...

"Today, at last, I received the letter Tolstoy send in September via Davidov the bookseller (admirable punctuality of our Russian businessmen!), in which he states thathe had insulted me intentionally and apologizes, etc. And almost at the same moment, owing to certain gossip I think I told you about, I challenged him to a duel. What can we do? We must act as though we lived on different planets or in different centuries."

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Snakes and Fish

"The best tippers ('fish') and the worst ('snakes') were well known to the Pullman porters, by occupation and name. Grooms were fish, to impress their blushing brides. Musicians were skinflints, actors marginally more philanthropic, journalists sugar daddies. Baseball players - especially Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson - were cheapskates. They let off steam by punching the stuffing out of their pillows or lathering windows with shaving cream - and left the porter not a penny. Ditto with boarding school brats. Valets held on to money their masters intended for tips. Drunks and hookers were almost as generous as mobsters. So were salesmen, moms with kids, Jack Dempsey, and nearly everyone who rode the Twentieth Century Limited. Sammy Davis Jr. would hand over twenty dollars 'as soon as he looked at you,' agreed porters who waited on him, but pals Peter Lawford and Jack Benny were snakes who snuck out the back door. George M. Cohan, Morton Downey, 'Diamond Jim' Brady, and Humphrey Bogart were grand, Jay Gould miserable. Old man Rockefeller would hand over a mere penny; his wife discreetly added a dollar. Japanese were the most generous foreign businessmen, followed by Englishmen, Frenchmen, Italians and Russians. Adhering to the adage 'watch what I do, not what I say,' porters themselves tipped big after eating in the dining car."

- Larry Tye, "Rising from the Rails"

Monday, December 14, 2009

Fourth Street

They found her uncle once along Fourth Street when she was seven or eight. It was sometime around Christmas when they found him and he was just about dead. The police called her mother from the hospital and asked if she would come down and claim him. If she could take responsibility.

She watched her mother hang up without answering, then stand there over the phone, staring it down. It started to ring again almost immediately and her mother just stood there with her arms crossed in front of her. She stood very still, and after a while the ringing stopped.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Etowah, TN.

My Great-Grandfather was a railroad man, he was the Night General Dispatcher for the L&N Railroad in Etowah, Tennessee. There were only a couple of trains a week that went through Etowah back then, and if you missed one, you were just out of luck. Because of that, all the men in my family feel compelled to arrive at any station, any airport, any terminal at all at least four hours early. We always bring plenty to read.

When my Grandfather and his sister were still very young, in 1916 or thereabouts, the family lived for a while in a dismantled Pullman sleeper that had been shunted off to a side rail at the Etowah depot. They slept in the berths along the center aisle, one up one down. One Saturday afternoon, while the family was out walking around the McMinn County countryside, a coal train unexpectly rolled in through the Etowah station and collided with the sleeper car. The coal train's engineer was killed outright, as my Great-Grandfather's family surely would have been, the sleeper car was completely destroyed. Anyway, that's the story, but you never know. My Grandfather was an inveterate liar.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Louella Gallagher, 1950

Ladies and Gentlemen, the incomparable Louella Gallagher with her daughters Connie Ann and Collena Sue. Don't mess with Texas, folks.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Whatever Lola Wants...

Marie Dolores Eliza Rosanna Gilbert was born in Limerick, Ireland in 1818 or Sligo in 1821. She liked names, she born with five of them and picked up a few more along the way, "La Grande Horizontale", The Countess of Landsfeld. But the one that stuck was Lola Montez. She was, in many respects, a tough lady to pin down. In her youth she was "an elegant and graceful child" with eyes of excessive beauty, an orientally dark complexion and an air of haughty ease. Things weren't all sweetness and light, however. Her teacher, a Mrs. Grant, also wrote that "the violence and obstinacy of her temper gave too frequent cause of painful anxiety to her good kind aunt."

She married at 16, separated at 21, had ambitions towards a theater career. She was a terrible actress, showed even less talent as a dancer, but never the less she could charm the birds out of the trees, and there's a certain talent to that. She liked powerful men, had a series of affairs. English lords, the viceroy of Poland, Alexandre Dumas. Paris was a busy time. She packed a gun, carried a whip, used both of them at the slightest provocation. She found the greatest love of her life in Alexandre Dujarier, an editor, but he was killed in a duel. In Paris she met Franz Liszt and the two of them had a torrid affair. So torrid, as a matter of fact, that she wore the poor man out. To finally escape her violent streak and jealousy, the story goes, Liszt locked her in their hotel room and ran, leaving money at the desk for the furniture she would break in her rage.

Lola hit the big time in Munich in 1847, when she met King Ludwig I of Bavaria. King Ludwig fell hard. He built her a palace, paid her allowance from the state treasury, and elevated her to Bavarian nobility. "What Lola wants, Lola gets," King Ludwig said, and for a while that was true. The plain folk of Bavaria were not so easily taken in, though. They hated her. In the face of rioting and political unrest, Ludwig took a stand. "I will never abandon Lola," the once hugely popular King said, and abdicated the throne. But Lola had other ideas. Fleeing the revolution she helped spark, Lola went to London and took up with George Trafford Heald, a young cavalry officer with a recent inheritance. But scandal followed her everywhere. She was arrested for bigamy and the couple took off to Spain. After two years her enthusiasm for George dried up, along with most of his inheritance, and Lola called it a day.

Europe was just too small for Lola Montez, and soon she ended up in California. Not surprisingly, there was a gold rush on at the time. She opened a saloon in the frontier town of Grass Valley, where she could finally dance without being booed offstage. In fact, unlike the crowd in Munich, the miners loved her and adopted her as one of their own. She went on tour in Australia, where she performed her erotic "Spider Dance", where she got into a screaming fight with her audience following some "mild heckling" from the cheap seats, where she attacked a newspaper editor with her trusty whip following a bad review. Eventually she returned to the States.

She ended up in New York, and died in a boarding house on West 17th Street in 1861. She had a stroke, or pneumonia, and she was forty years old. Or forty-two, or thirty-nine. They say in her final years she had schizophrenia but I think she was probably just tired, and who could blame her? There's a mountain named after her in California, a lake in Nevada, a song in the musical "Damn Yankees." She's in Brooklyn now, buried in Green-Wood Cemetery along with Boss Tweed, Louis Comfort Tiffany, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Leonard Bernstein and Albert Anastasia. I bet they're having a hell of a time.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009


"There is a story about an anonymous naval photograph-er whose job during World War II was to film the take-offs and landings of carrier-based planes. Although it was a routine assignment, he believed that it was charged with moral urgency, and he devoted himself to it accordingly. One day a bomb detached itself from a returning plane just as it touched down and bounced across the flight deck toward him. Everyone except the photographer ran for his life. The footage, which survived, showed how he stood his ground, absorbed in his job, how he kept the bomb perfectly framed as it bounced wildly across the deck toward him."

Ray Reid, Photographer's Mate 3/C
U.S.S. Enterprise (CV-6)
1st raid on Majuro

Thus dies anonymity (and thus died Ray Reid)

Monday, November 30, 2009

Art Sinsabaugh

We moved to Chicago when I was six and my parents were both about twenty-seven. It was the first city I ever really remember, the first idea of a city I ever had, and it's still the city I compare other cities to. Paris is a little like Chicago, New York is different to Chicago, Prague is surprisingly similar to Chicago. Dublin isn't much like Chicago but Liverpool is...

I came across these photographs by accident once, and I showed them to my wife.
"Look at these, these are amazing."
"Oh, yeah," she nodded. "That's Elizabeth's dad."
"Elizabeth from work?"
"Yeah, I told you he was a photographer."
"You did?"
"You never listen."

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Sing it, Mother Maybelle...

The Lonesome Ballad of Private Noonan

Been re-reading Evan S. Connell's great book, "Son of the Morning Star" and came across a story you probably haven't heard...

"[Cavalry] laundresses turned up in a variety of shapes, colors, and dispositions. At Fort Conch, Texas, three were discharged because of 'utter worthlessness, drunkness and lewdness.' At Camp McDermit, Nevada, a certain Mrs. Cavanaugh threatened a lieutenant with a butcher knife because he had suspended her husband by the thumbs. At Fort Bascom in the moody southwest a Latin laundress vowed to cut out a soldier's tongue if he told one more lie about her - which he did - and she caught him in a drunken sleep and sliced off the tip of it.

"Then there was Mrs. Nash, who joined the Seventh in Kentucky and followed the regiment north to Fort Lincoln. Invariably she wore a veil, or a shawl pinned beneath her chin, and she is described as being rather peculiar looking. John Burkman, [General] Custer's orderly, said she was a good laundress, a good nurse, and a good midwife, always in demand to 'chase the rabbit' when a woman was expecting. Her next-to-last husband, a quartermaster clerk named Clifton, was known as a jolly fellow until he got married. After the ceremony, however, Clifton seldom laughed and a few days before his term of enlistment expired he deserted.

"Her last husband was a private named Noonan. They lived together in obvious bliss on Suds Row east of the Fort Lincoln parade grounds, but while he was away on a scouting mission she sickened and died. Just before graduating to a better world she asked her friends to bury her without the usual cleaning and dressing. They refused. They would not hear of such a thing. Lo and behold, when two of them set about this mournful task they perceived that the much-married laundress, seamstress, nurse, baker of delicious pies, and popular midwife was not female. Burkman and several other troopers were gathering flowers on the prairie so Elizabeth Custer could make a funeral wreath when a laundress hurried out of the Noonan quarters with this extraordinary bit of information. Said Burkman: 'We was flabbergasted.'

"Pvt. Noonan did not say much when he got back, but he turned pale and he twitched. he quit playing poker with the boys, and took long walks alone, he began to lose weight. One day when he entered the blacksmith shop a trooper remarked, 'Say, you and Mrs. Noonan never had no children, did you?'"

Which just goes to show, there's nothing new under the sun, Annie Proulx be damned. Well, I hate to tell you, but it only gets sadder from there. Noonan took his own life in one of the stables, and nobody much missed him in the 7th once he was gone. But I'm glad he and Mrs. Nash found each other, at least for a little while, and I sure would have liked to have tasted one of those pies.


Well, I guess we have to start somewhere...

Monday, October 5, 2009

Newark, 1963

On Halloween Night, 1963, your grandfather sat down with a deck of cards.
This was at the Edison Hotel in Newark, New Jersey, Room 721, which hosted the same Saturday night poker game for as long as anyone could remember. But this wasn’t your ordinary neighborhood card game, with buddies from the factory floor burping up their salami and beer and joking around about the shift foreman’s fat ass. This was serious poker, and nobody joked about anything.
At some point everybody passed through Room 721 at the Edison Hotel, at least anybody with enough money to get through the door and an interest in the game. Movie stars and senators, baseball players and cops, sooner or later they all sat in the same rickety wooden chairs and stared across the same scarred-up wooden table into the same smiling, pudgy, indulgent face of Paulie “Baby Boy” Frapaollo. And, to tell you the truth, your Grandfather had no business being there.
Now, Baby Boy Frapaollo was a mean man, not the kind of guy you’d want to upset, but you wouldn’t know that to look at him. He looked sweet. He looked happy. He looked… well, he looked like a baby. Three hundred pounds of soft flesh crammed into an old silk suit and shorter than a jockey. He had to reach up to touch a light switch, he had to stand on a stool to brush his teeth, and if you passed him on the street you’d be happy to see him. He looked as round and as happy as a circus balloon. You wanted to rub his little belly and tickle his little chin. But that’d be a bad idea. A very bad idea indeed, because Baby Boy was a very bad man indeed with a lot of very bad friends, and when they got together they did a lot of very bad things. Houses went on fire, people climbed into the backs of cars and disappeared forever. Nobody wanted to hurt the Baby’s feelings.

In fact, just a few hours before the Halloween Night poker game, Baby Boy said a very mean thing to an old Greek man in that very same room, room 721. The old Greek had come to America four decades before hungry and smart, but that was four decades ago. He’d grown fat and he’d grown careless, he had an expensive wife at home and an even more expensive girlfriend in the City and man had borrowed money that he couldn’t pay back. And so here he found himself, face to face with the Baby Boy and the Baby was giving him a choice.
“You can walk out of this room,” he said. “Or you can fly.”
The Greek swallowed hard and looked out the window. The Greek had optimistically, even foolishly, brought in a tray of fresh Baklava, guessing from appearances that the Baby liked his food, but it was going to take more than a couple of pastries to clean up the mess he’d gotten himself into. It was seven long floors down to the street below, and the landing would be painful.
“I’d rather walk,” he said.
“Good,” the Baby nodded. He eyed the golden Baklava cooling in its tray and the glazing honey smelled like heaven itself, but his appetite was a little bigger than that. “Good. You mentioned you had a diner…”
If the old Greek man was surprised, he shouldn’t have been. Baby Boy Frapaollo knew everything, he knew everyone, he had his fat little fingers in everybody’s pie. He knew all the secrets and he had a few himself, and he ran a tight little poker game at the Edison Hotel.

Now, you never knew him but let me tell you something. Your Grandfather looked good in a suit. He lived a rough-and-tumble life, no doubt about it. He ran away from home when he was nine and he made his money any way he could, loading barges, stealing coal, sweeping out the stables behind the ice-house. But you put a suit on him and your Grandfather looked like City Hall. So when he knocked on the door of Room 721, all anybody saw was a handsome Irishman with sea-green eyes, a “how’s tricks” smile, and a pocket full of stolen cigars. Nobody dreamed that his wallet was as empty as his hat. Nobody guessed that he was riding on luck.
“What’s the game?”
“Grab a seat.”
Your grandfather smiled and he looked around the room. A TV cowboy sat on one side of the table and a Philadelphia shortstop sat at another. A couple more men sat in the shadows, but the room centered around Baby Boy Frapaollo, and your Grandfather pulled up a chair directly across from him.
“Deal me in.”
The dealer was a tall pale man with a mournful air, but he dealt the cards with a crisp and professional snap that sounded like breaking bones. Snap, snap, snap. Baby Boy Frapaollo looked across the scarred wooden table at his newest guest, sizing him up. He nodded, he smiled, but deep behind the blubber his eyes were dead.
“What are we supposed to call you?”
“Jimmy,” your Grandfather answered. “Jimmy Scanlon.”
“Well, Jimmy Scanlon, welcome to the Edison Hotel.”
Your Grandfather nodded his thanks and he picked up his cards.
He figured he was due some luck, luck owed Jimmy Scanlon a favor or two, and he was calling it in tonight. Only a week before he lost everything he had to a horse in Saratoga. Mayflower was the horse’s name, a sure thing. Money in the bank, gold on four legs, bet the house the man said, and Jimmy did. Fifteen horses ran on the track that day and Mayflower didn’t come last but he came close. So that Halloween night your Grandfather was living in his car and he knew he was overdue. He knew if he didn’t get lucky tonight, he’d never get lucky again.
“Five card, jokers wild.”
Baby Boy smiled, he always smiled, but the truth was he wasn’t happy. His afternoon meeting with the old Greek had left a bad taste in his mouth. On paper it all went well, for a small amount of somebody else’s money he now had a business concern up in Bonneville, wherever that was. But the truth was taking the old man’s diner made him sad in a way he couldn't quite name. Because beneath it all, Paulo “Baby Boy” Frapaollo was a patriot. He believed in America and taking this fellow immigrant’s tiny, greasy little piece of the American dream left him feeling uncomfortable. Bad, even. And “Baby Boy” Frapaollo didn’t like feeling bad. Feeling bad made Baby Boy angry, and feeling angry made Baby Boy dangerous.
“So where do you hail from, Irish?”
Your Grandfather looked up from his cards and across at Baby Boy.
“I said…”
“Yonkers,” he said. “I’m from Yonkers.”
“Long way.”
“Not too bad.”
“What brings you to Newark?”
Your Grandfather smiled right into those cold dead baby eyes. He could feel the thin ice getting thinner beneath his polished shoes but he didn’t feel the cold. Your Grandfather was the kind of guy who liked to push himself right up against the edges of things. He liked to feel the weight against his open palms. And so he did something that nobody ever did to the Baby Boy, knowing it could only make the little gangster angry. Your Grandfather winked.
“Why, you do, Baby. You do.”
The table laughed, a little uneasily until the Baby laughed too. The Baby laughed loudest. The Baby laughed and he looked across the table at this big, smiling, pie-faced Irishman and he knew a piker when he saw one. He may have fooled the others but not the Baby, no Sir. Cloth yards of confidence and nothing to back it up but a smile.
The Baby grabbed a handful of chips and splashed them down into the middle of the table. The Baby had his number, all right, and he’d hang him out to dry.
With pleasure. That wink was gonna cost Jimmy Scanlon plenty.
“I’m in, Irish. I’m in.”

The Greek was never lucky.
He lived most of his life clinging to the rocks of his hillside farm, on an island more vertical than flat. He was barely nineteen years old, and already he had a hungry wife and two hungry children and four hungry goats that were little more than walking bags of bones. Every night his family would dream about food, of tables piled so high with the stuff an army couldn’t eat it all. They’d wake up in the morning and compare their dreams.
“The cheeses, so big…”
“The breads, so fresh…”
Then, one day, a magic letter reached the little island and changed their lives forever. A cousin had gone to New York the year before and the streets were lined with gold. Beautiful girls danced The Lindy on top of flagpoles and wealthy men lit cigars with hundred dollar bills. Only a fool would let such an opportunity pass him by, and the Greek may have been poor, but he was no fool. So he kissed his hungry, now angry, wife goodbye, tousled his children’s dirty hair and kicked one of the goats on the way out the door, and in September 1929 he set sail for New York on the rusty frigate Marianne.
The Greek was no fool, but his timing was bad. When he boarded the Marianne, America was richer and louder than it had ever been. Pot-bellied businessmen were tipping shoe-shine boys with twenty dollar bills. Ten days later, on September 29, 1929, Wall Street crashed and a rich country woke up poor.
The Marianne docked on September 30th.
But how could he have known? The Greek charged up the gangplank, clutching his battered suitcase and his magic letter and fully expecting some fresh heaven to welcome him in. What he found was closer to hell, with stockbrokers throwing themselves from high open windows and yesterdays millionaires selling apples on the streets. The Greek stood on the pier as the Marianne pulled away, and for the first time he suspected that he’d never see his family again.

“I think you’re bluffing.”
Your Grandfather was right. Luck was on his side that night, and he was slowly, artfully building a mountain of chips at his left elbow while Baby Boy Frapaollo was just as slowly and artlessly losing his. The other men had dropped out of the game a while ago. The TV cowboy was breaking about even and the Philadelphia shortstop couldn’t catch a hand, but this was a game between Jimmy Scanlon and the Baby Boy, and everybody knew it.
“You’re bluffing.”
“Gotta pay to find out.”
It was three o’clock in the morning, and Baby Boy had stopped laughing by one. By two he wasn’t even smiling anymore. The keys to the Greek’s diner were bunched up in his trouser pocket, reminding him of his unhappy afternoon, and no matter how he shifted in his chair they dug into his fat and veiny thigh. To make matters worse, much worse, this smiling Irishman from Yonkers was walking away with his money, and it didn’t seem fair. Twenty years ago, when Baby Boy was twenty years younger and a much thinner man, he had tossed another well-dressed, handsome young piker down a flight of stairs for bluffing with no cash to back it up. But that was twenty years ago, and anyway it was too late for that. Whether Jimmy Scanlon had money when he walked in didn’t matter, not anymore. He had money now. He had the Baby’s money.
Baby Boy grumbled, but he took a handful of chips and he threw them into the center of the table.
“Raise,” he muttered. “Five hundred.”
Everybody turned and looked at Jimmy, sitting behind his cards. The room was with your Grandfather, even the men in the shadows. Everybody knew it though nobody said a thing. The TV Cowboy was watching the game through bloodshot eyes and the Philadelphia Shortstop was rocking in his chair. Nobody was playing but nobody was leaving, they wanted to see how this game would end. They wanted your Grandfather to win.
Jimmy nodded, he shrugged, he took another handful of chips from his own stack and he tossed them on the pile.
“I’ll see you, and I’ll raise you another five.”
Baby Boy nodded to himself. Yes sir, he thought, just another sucker on the vine.
“You’re bluffing.”

The Greek found the old dining car in Hoboken, New Jersey. It had been pulled out into the weeds behind the rail yard and left to rust away. For three days he stood across the fields and stared at it, and on the forth day he approached.
As he got closer, he heard a strange and familiar sound echoing around from inside the car. Snoring. He tiptoed his way closer, and as he peeked in through one of the cracked and dirty windows he was amazed to see an entire family, a father and a mother and three little children, huddled together on an old brass bed. The Greek was shocked to see Americans so dirty, so thin.
He knocked on the glass, then waited a few feet away from the door. Soon the father came out into the sunlight and the weeds, adjusting his belt and rubbing the sleep from his eyes.
“I’ve come about the car,” the Greek said.
The Father said nothing for a minute, then shook his head.
So they weren’t Americans, either. Dutch, maybe. German.
“How much do you want for it?”
“You want to buy my home?”
But it wasn’t the German’s to sell and the Greek knew it. They both did. The Greek looked at the man, he thought of the wife and the three children waiting inside, and then he named his price.
“Twenty dollars, it’s all I have.”
The German glanced at the Greek, then shook his head and spit into the weeds.
The Greek saw the man’s children peeking out through the open door, dirty cheeks and glassy eyes, and they reminded him of his two own back home. He hadn’t seen his children in three years.
“Sir, listen to me,” The Greek took the man aside into the weeds and he spoke quietly so the children wouldn’t have to hear. “I’m not here to bargain.”
“Twenty-five,” the man stubbornly repeated.
The Greek sighed, then shook his head sadly.
“Fine. Nineteen.”
“Eighteen, then.”
The German looked at him again, then he looked at his family. Eventually, he nodded. He understood.
“Yes,” the Greek sighed, relieved. “OK. Twenty.”
The two men shook hands and the deal was done. The Greek had brought along a jar of homemade brandy for the occasion, and the two men drank from it ceremoniously. It tasted like cherries and gasoline.
Two days later the Greek and his cousin towed the railway car up to Bonneville and they sank its foundations deep into the earth. They picked a good location, they were surrounded by factories and factory workers ate and ate and ate. Soon the Greek would have enough money to send for his family and they’d finally have their tables piled high with food. So much food an army couldn’t eat it.
As for the German and his family, they hopped aboard another train car, this one heading West. A train car teeming with hungry families just like them. Every car on every train was teeming with hungry families just like them, all of them silently praying to great golden California as they disappeared forever across the muddy Mississippi. But our story stays in New Jersey.

It was five o’clock in the morning when the mournful dealer called last hand in room 721. The TV cowboy was gone, the Philadelphia shortstop was sleeping on the couch, all the chips were on the table and there was nothing left to play for, but Jimmy and the Baby were still in the game.
“You’re bluffing.”
Your Grandfather was all out of chips, but he wasn’t done. He reached into his pocket and he pulled out the keys to his car. A 1962 white Cadillac, his home and his only possession. He pulled out the keys and he tossed them on the table without a word.
“It’s a long walk back to Yonkers, Irish.” Baby Boy laughed, then reached into his own pocket and grabbed the first thing he found, the keys to the Greek’s diner. He felt a little better tossing them away.
“All right, lets get this over with. I want to go to bed.”
Baby Boy put his cards down on the table. He had three queens and two aces and that’s a very tough hand to beat.
“Your turn,” he said.
Your Grandfather smiled, and before the Baby even saw the cards he knew the Piker wasn’t bluffing. A straight flush, Baby Boy had lost it all. Jimmy Scanlon sat back in his chair and he closed his eyes. His luck was with him, and it was there to stay.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Yellow Honda

As Matt drove to the hospital he tried to remember the last time he had seen his cousin, and he couldn’t. Last Christmas, the summer before, he couldn’t pin it down. It threw him a little, the way his number had popped up so readily in Billy’s cell-phone. Matt certainly didn’t have Billy’s number, wouldn’t have taken it on a bet. Thanksgiving, he decided. Must’ve been right around Thanksgiving sometime, ran into him pretty much by chance. Some restaurant downtown. Even if he couldn’t quite remember it, he could still imagine the scene pretty clearly. Billy red-faced and laughing too hard at his own stories, talking too loud at the bar. His wiry little girlfriend nervous behind him. Matt saying how good it was to see him again and looking for the door. Must’ve been Thanksgiving.

Billy had gone down to Florida not that long back, thought he’d go down there and make some money, never did say how. Get fat and happy, sit out in the sun. Drink Coronas and fish for Marlin all day, that was the plan. He was convinced a whole new life of ease was just down there waiting for him, that’s what he called it. All he had to do was go down and grab it. He was back home within the year and he’d gotten fat alright but Matt couldn’t say he seemed particularly happy. He’d brought the girlfriend back up with him, the thin nervous girl with the auburn hair. The girl with the yellow Honda.