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.