“Yeah, Dogs, I remember,” Lenny said.
I almost asked, “Why were they bullshit?” It was getting harder and harder for me to stay quiet.
“It was a case of self defense. Everybody knew those guys had a thing on me – you know, orders, a contract – so I had to get to them first. That’s the way it is out here. It’s like a game of chess – you got to anticipate the other side’s moves and act first. Besides it was war. I was a soldier. You know that.”
Lenny said, “Yeah, Dogs, I remember it all too well. I was in that precinct when all that shit was going down. You guys kept homicide busy. Bodies were turning up all over the place.”
“That’s right,” said Dogs, knowing Lenny was a guy he could relate to. I was impressed by Dogs’ chess strategy analogy and returned his clam sauce choice nod of approval without the wink.
Lenny needed to take control of the conversation to find out why he was called to this sit-down. Where was the business in it for him?
“So Eddie – how’s life in the country, or wherever they put you now?” he asked.
“Yeah, it’s in the sticks, you got that right, and it sucks. It’s fucking boring. I’m going out of my mind. The food’s like cardboard and I got some dumb-ass 9-5 job where the boss is a complete moron.”
Another urge to speak rises up inside of me once more. I knew I was about to fuck up again but could not stop the urge to speak.
“Well, I guess it's better than prison,” I blurted out.
Lenny stopped cutting his veal with mushroom and wine sauce and Dogs’ fork ceased spinning around his linguini. I felt the tension rise as my friend Lenny’s gun foot in its size 13 dress shoe kicks me under the table.
“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” Eddie barked. His face started to turn red and a large vein twitched in his neck.
“Ah,” I stammered. “It don’t mean nothing – I mean – it means it’s probably better to be free than locked up. I guess that’s what I was trying to say.” I dug myself in deeper.
“What the fuck do you know about prison?”
“Lenny – who the fuck is this guy anyway? I thought you said he was a friend of yours, so why is he saying dumb shit like that? You know the witness protection program sucks ass, right? ”
“Yeah, Dogs, I know, I know.”
Lenny’s voice was uncharacteristically raised a bit too,
“EDDIE – EDDIE, FORGET ABOUT THAT PRISON STUFF! Please now, why did you call me?” Lenny finally asked.
Lenny gave me a look, as in, “Please, buddy, no more questions.”
“Okay, okay. You remember a wise guy, Larry Handsome, right?”
“Of course, I do. I locked him up – a real ladies man. He was screwing all the broads in the neighborhood and even a made guy’s wife, which got him into deep shit with the bosses. He broke the code. I think prison saved his life.”
“That’s right – the fucking rat. He broke the code and he thinks with his dick.”
“Eddie, you got a beef with Handsome?”
“Yeah, I got a beef with him all right. I’ve heard through the grapevine that he’s been living with my ex-girl, Terry. To be honest, there ain’t much I can do about that, but I’m hearing bad stuff like he’s been slapping her around and that he even sent her to the emergency room a few times. I just can’t have this.”
“That sucks, Eddie. It’s horrible. I never liked that guy when I was a cop. I always thought he was a conceited son of a bitch, maybe even a psychopath.”
“Yeah – he is a psychopath and a piece of shit too.”
This was heavy-duty stuff I was hearing. This was the real deal. Makes TV seem like phony bullshit when you are seeing and hearing right from the mouths of gangsters and cops.
“Okay, Dogs, I think I see where you’re going with this,” said Lenny. “Sounds to me like you want hard evidence and not just hearsay on Handsome.”
“Goddamn right, I do. I want some fucking pictures or a video of this jack-off laying his slimy hands on Theresa – the fucker.”
“Then, after you get the pictures, Dogs, then what...?”
“Then it’s none of your fucking business anymore – that’s what. I’m offering you two grand, cash.”
Suddenly the table became quiet as Lenny processed the proposal.
To me, the silence became unbearable and I squirmed in my seat. Something had to break.
“So,” I said, “Is this your first time back to Brooklyn in a long while, Eddie?”
“No, I've been back a few times,” he said with bravado, his chest puffed out.
“You’re not worried?”
“Why should I? What’s gonna happen? Nobody’s got the balls to fuck with me over here.”
Lenny did not seem to mind the course of this conversation because it was feeding into Eddie’s ego and keeping him distracted while he ate, thought and planned his next strategic move.
“I don’t know. I was just saying.”
“Listen, if anyone comes up to me with fists – I’m gonna kill 'em with my bare hands. If they pull a knife, I pull a knife. If they pull a gun, I pull a gun. That’s how it’ll go down and I never lost a fight. Not on the street and never in the joint either.”
No doubt, the pit bull, like Eddie Dogs, would be a vicious opponent in close combat.
Lenny still had not rejoined the conversation. I think Eddie Dogs’ proposal was troubling him and he was trying to figure out a way to decline the offer in a way that would not enrage Dogs or alienate him as a future resource. Street cred as a P.I. is a very delicate act. If word got out that Lenny handled Dogs like a pussy, his workload could be badly damaged in this tough business, from the clients and attorneys who pay him to work the dark-side and also from the street sources who now know him as a stand-up guy they can trust.
At this moment I was glad I was not in his Big and Tall man shoes.
We all were sort of pushing our food around our plates and not eating with gusto as before. The air got thicker than the homemade tomato sauce.
“What about the Feds?” I jumped back in.
“THE FEDS? THE FEDS? WHAT THE FUCK DO THEY HAVE TO DO WITH THIS?”
Eddie raised his voice for the first time. I had struck a chord. I fucked up again, but much worse. Lenny pushed his chair back. I think the mere mention of the Feds had put Dogs into attack mode.
“I was just thinking,” I said.
“What were you thinking, pal?” Dogs blared back.
“Why not have the Feds take care of Larry Handsome and you can stay out of it,” I advised with trepidation.
“Lenny, what is this shit? Who the fuck is this guy you brought here?”
“Eddie, try to calm down – he’s just a friend. He’s not in this life. Sometimes he asks dumb questions because he’s curious. He just doesn’t know any better, that’s all…”
“Fuck that, Lenny. Who is he? A fucking cop? He looks like a cop – or a reporter. Maybe he’s even a Fed. I could go back to the can if they find out I’m even 100 miles near Brooklyn. Lenny, what’s going on here? What about the deal – the two grand and the pictures of Handsome? What the fuck?”
Dogs, enraged, was gripping his fork in a tight fist, like a weapon. In an instant, he could have easily gone berserk and plunged it right into my eye. My complete inexperience of the Lenny’s and Eddie’s of the world had brought the deadly pit-bull rage out in Dogs, which had earned him his well deserved nickname.
Needless to say, I was terrified. I looked down at my food, wishing to become invisible. I wanted to get back out of this Brooklyn place and over the bridge to Manhattan more than anything.
Lenny tried his best to calm Dogs down, but Dogs was still on a paranoid tirade about the Feds and Theresa, including everything that had been bottled up inside of him for five years living the quiet life and before that locked up in prison. It came pouring out of him like a caged-up fighting dog, suddenly set loose in the ring.
My submissive body language was not working. It was actually making matters worse as Eddie was on the prowl for an Alpha Dog to tangle with. It was time to try a new strategy. Although I was never exposed to the criminal world, I did run a business for over twenty years, and that takes guts too.
I raised my eyes to meet his and just locked into his anger. I didn’t speak. I did not dare blink either. We all have a dark side and mine had been awoken. Strangely, my fear had subsided. Some animal fight or flight instinct had taken hold of me.
Eddie bragged about mano y mano so, I thought to myself, “Here I am, Eddie. Are you going to yell and scream at me some more – use the fork – pull a knife –a gun? Bring it on!”
Lenny, wisely, continued to lay in wait. I suppose his instincts had also kicked in. And they told him to hold off and let Dogs continue to blow off his pent up steam and see if that’s as far as this thing will go. Just the same, Lenny’s right hand drifted down toward his ankle holster.
The veins in Eddie’s neck were engorged like well-fed pythons.
The shouting trailed off as the standoff became big death stares between the two of us. I could feel that he wanted to kill, and that I had become the object of his rage against the world. My question just happened to be the trigger. His emotional gun had been locked and loaded long before we ever laid eye on each other.
The stare-down continued but then everything turned surreal. The sounds of the street, the classical music, clank of dishes and chatter of people up front in the pizza parlor went silent in my head. Time warped into slow motion as, suddenly, I heard a distinct metallic PING near our table, an unfamiliar sound of hard materials making swift contact with each other.
It was like the premonition of lightning before the actual bolt cracks in a storm.
Milliseconds after the noises of the real world were tuned out and by then the mysterious ping, Eddie Dogs’ head exploded right before our very eyes, vaporizing into a cloud of red mist that sprayed over everything.
Blood, brains and bone shot across the room, splattering a white bust of Julius Caesar, the Mediterranean stucco wall, and a Romanesque painting of a nude woman in a gardenlike setting.
Lenny and I were covered in this goo.
The last thing I recall was seeing brain matter in Eddie Dogs’ half eaten linguini with red clam sauce, or more like linguini with brain sauce. Even more incredible of a sight, and probably due to the Dogs’ squat-based body gravity, the force of the powerful projectile didn’t even knock his body out of his seat at the table, so it just sat here headless, as if he was patiently waiting for more crusty bread to arrive.
Lenny shouted. “BUDDY, GET DOWN!” as he hurled his 260 pound 6’6” body in my direction, knocking me violently onto the tiled floor in a cluster of chairs, plates, food and blood.
Eddie Dogs’ grandiosity, or stupidity, had him convinced that when they eventually came for him, it would come from a frontal assault like two pit bulls in a ring. He was deluded into believing that he would have the chance to prepare himself for battle. But human beings are far more cunning than animals when it comes to killing and have devised all sorts of ingenious diabolical methods to dispose of one another.
The ping I had heard was the sound of a hit – a high-powered, sniper bullet breaking through the restaurant’s plate glass window. It came from a gunman who had positioned himself in the warehouse across the street with a telescopic sight. Dogs had made a tragically poor seating choice when he chose a sunny seat near a window.
Eddie’s enemies knew he could not stay out of Brooklyn for good.
Once the dust and shock had settled, in about a month or so, I saw “Call From Lenny” flash on my cell phone one late morning back in Manhattan, as I was writing in my underwear and sipping coffee.
“Hey buddy, would you like to take a little ride?”
At first, I was going to say “No, thanks.” Then, I felt like I could use some adventure, and I knew my old friend Lenny likes my company. So I said, “Sure, when will you be here?”
A Hidden Warrior in the Park
In mid-November, I took an early evening walk around Carl Schurz Park on the Upper East Side and ran into a guy I recognized but did not know well. Like many people walking their dogs in close proximity, we made idle conversation. He was walking a friend’s Jack Russell terrier. As we talked, the terrier passed the time sniffing around the bottom of a city trashcan, a pastime most dogs enjoy.
Eventually our conversation got to the point of asking what we do for a living. He told me he bought old art and tried to resell it. As he said that, the Jack Russell tugged the leash, and our attention went to the dog and the trash can. Noticing something on top of the can he put his hand in and withdrew a small statue of an American Indian ready for battle, his war paint on, bow and arrow drawn.
“This is what I do,” he said. “I find stuff like this.”
We were both amazed.
He handed it to me. It was heavy. “I think it’s bronze,” I said. “This is really nice – you should take it.”
“I don’t know. It’s kind of weird,” he said. “It’s probably junk.” He seemed ready to throw it back.
“I think it’s cool. If you don’t want it, I’ll take it,” I said.
“Well, maybe I can get 50 bucks for it at the junk shop on 88th and First.”
“I think it’s worth more,” I said, “but good luck with it.”
The next morning I got an e-mail from him thanking me for encouraging him to take what I thought of as “The Warrior,” because he had sold it for $400. He said he owed me a dinner. A perfect example of how one man’s trash can definitely become another man’s treasure!
Park Avenue to Park Bench
Sharing a bench with a stranger and ignoring each other is not unusual in this crowded city, but something made me look at the man sitting next to me out of the corner of my eye. As I did, I got the feeling that here was a person whose body was physically present but whose spirit was not. For some reason I had an impulse to break the silent wall that always exists between people sharing a park bench, and make contact.
I turned toward him slightly. “How ya doin?” I said, and smiled.
No response. I tried again.
“How ya doin’, pal?”
It was the word “pal” that did it. He lowered his sandwich onto the paper and slowly turned to look at me, long and hard. What was that something I saw in his eyes?
My work week lunchtime habit is simply that I don’t have one. There are just too many great restaurants in Manhattan and too many different kinds of foods to eat. I see “lunch” as a mini adventure that breaks up the monotony of the office. I do, however, always go out, even in the worst weather. I need to get away, breathe fresh air, and clear my head. On nice days, I usually get something to go and eat in Central Park. I always go to lunch alone. There is no shortage of human contact in the office so I don’t feel antisocial in choosing to eat by myself. I’m also a people-watcher, so I don’t bring a book or the newspaper. I eat slowly and look around, then usually walk a bit before going back.
The day after my meeting with the lonely man on the bench, I made an exception. I decided to go back to that same spot in the park to see if he was there again – and there he was.
“Hiya, pal – good to see ya!” I said.
“Hi, buddy, good to see you too,” he responded.
I unwrapped the gyro sandwich I had just bought from a food truck.
“What a mess. How am I going to eat this with my hands? I told the guy to go easy on the Tahini sauce and the onions, but I don’t think he understood. Oh well, here goes nothing.” I dug in. It was heavily seasoned, squirted all over the place and tasted delicious.
“Whatcha eating there?” the man asked, watching me stuff my face.
“A gyro. It’s Greek food,” I slurred with full cheeks and sauce dripping down my chin.
“I never had one of those – it smells good.” He looked hungry.
“Why don’t you get one?”
“No, not today – I’m a little tight – I just had a bagel anyway so I’m full.”
“Oh, okay.” For some reason I did not believe that he had eaten yet. I thought of offering to buy him one, but something about him made me feel I might offend him, so I held back.
It was June, with a long stretch of warm summery weather, so I ate outside every day. I kept returning to the bench, and oddly enough I was beginning to develop a comfortable routine with my new acquaintance, since he was almost always there to make small talk with. It felt nice to greet him and be greeted. The small talk continued, and after a few days we exchanged first names, Hal and Mike. More often though we would use terms like buddy, pal, guy, chief and other male-to-male expressions of friendship. Hal, I learned, was twenty years older than I was, and our vocabularies reflected our ages. I liked hearing some of his Bogart-esque expressions such calling women “dames,” and calling bars gin mills, which were reminiscent of the film noir movies I’d watch with my father while I was growing up. One day I repeated a priest/rabbi joke I heard that morning around the office coffeepot and told it to him. Much to my surprise, Hal had a uniquely jovial laugh. Every day I searched for at least one funny thing to come up with when we spoke, just to provoke that happy laugh.
I had to admit that over the weekend I missed Hal and our lunches on the bench that first week, and looked forward to Monday. I hoped he would be there for a second week. Sure enough, he was.
That Monday, though, I could tell something was off with Hal. He looked pale, withdrawn and jittery.
“What’s up, fellah?” I asked gently, concerned.
“Not doing too good, pal,” he said, looking away.
“What's the matter, Hal?”
“I gotta get off these goddamn pills,” he said.
“All this shit my doctor has me taking for my head. It’s not helping. I think I’m over-medicated. I’m in a fog. I need help.”
“Okay,” I said. I thought, no more small talk today. “So you want to find a new doctor. Is that what you’re saying?”
“Yeah, pal. This guy I’m seeing now has me way over-medicated. I need to find a new guy.”
“Well, the good news is that this is New York City and doctor heaven.”
“Yeh, maybe so. But try to find a good one who just takes Medicaid. That’s the damn problem.” I could see he was getting agitated.
“Let me see what I can do,” I said confidently, aware I had just made a commitment.
“I’ll look online tonight and bring a list tomorrow – Okay? “
“Oh, that would be great, pal. I would really appreciate that. My phone is dead, and my landlord is so up my ass night and day that I can’t even think. Thanks, pal – thanks, pal,” he said.
“No problem, Hal. We’re friends now. But I’m sure when I call they are going to ask why you need to make an appointment. What should I say?”
He looked me square in the face. Tears began to well up in his eyes and he bit his lower lip, clearly trying hard to stem the tide of his emotions.
“They’re all gone –all dead. I’m the last one.”
“Who, Hal? Who’s gone?”
“Friends, family, guys I used to work with and hang out with at clubs. There are not even any more funerals left to go to. I buried my last friend in the world just two weeks ago. And the rest of it is gone too.”
“The rest of what?”
“The money, the apartments, cars, women. It’s all gone.”
“Okay, I understand. Take it easy. I’ll be here tomorrow with some names for you. Listen, Hal – there are no problems, only solutions. You hang in there and I will be here to help you tomorrow, same time – Okay, pal?”
“Okay, Mike – thanks, friend. Listen, when you make those calls you need to ask if they are a psychopharmacologist.”
I had never heard that term, but I said “No problem – I’ll make sure to check that out, Hal.”
“Thanks again, pal.” He looked a lot better now, having transferred his burden to me. The funny thing was, for some reason I was happy to help this stranger. I walked back to my office wondering if I had crossed a line. At the same time, I felt more connected and useful in a way that nothing in the working world could offer me anymore.
Finding a psychopharmacologist in New York City who accepts Medicaid was no easy task. It took nearly a month of looking up names on the Internet and making calls to find places where Hal could go for evaluations – not comfortable calls to make, on behalf of a near-stranger!
Eventually, we were successful and the detoxing process to get Hal off prescription psychotropic drugs finally began. The first thing the new doctor did was to immediately take him off three of the eight meds he had been taking for various mood-related issues. The other five were dose-adjusted or subject to a slow weaning-off process. I learned through this exercise into the world of prescription pharmaceuticals that the corner drugstore with its store of little plastic orange pill bottles had replaced the white street powders and dirty needles of yesteryear as the drugs of choice to anesthetize the city population. No wonder there are legally-prescribed, pill-popping zombies everywhere these days!
As Hal’s dosages decreased, a happier and livelier personality emerged. There’s a saying in the world of recovery: “Be careful not to replace one addiction with another.” In Hal’s case, the fewer pills he took, the more gyro sandwiches he ate. I had introduced him to a new habit – that of eating Greek food from the Central Park lunch truck – which he did whenever he had the money to indulge in it. My new friend was a very proud man and would not accept charity from others or from me. On the days he said no to an overstuffed, aluminum foil wrapped gyro or souvlaki pita, he would always say that he had already eaten or was just not hungry. Once I realized what was going on, I stopped offering to buy him sandwiches from the truck.
Most unfortunately, Hal’s living situation was becoming more precarious by the day. The threats and harassment from his building’s super continued. Some days he was illegally locked out of his room, and as a result began spending full days and nights on the park bench until his housing authority case manager could get him back in. All the same, the handwriting was on the wall. Hal’s days in his room were numbered. Lawyer letters began showing up. The formal eviction process had begun. The downward spiral continued.
On good days – meaning when he had slept in a bed, had some food in his belly, and the demons in his head were taking a temporary vacation – Hal began to reveal his past life to me over lunch. Bite by bite, he explained how he wound up in his present circumstances, after owning a Park Avenue condo, an oceanfront summer place in posh East Hampton Long Island, a thriving business empire that included 16 broadcasting stations, commercial property in New York and other cities, not to mention a retreat in Miami to escape the cold Manhattan winters that blew hard and fast against the floor-to-ceiling glass windows of his sky-high penthouse, which windows, by the way, overlooked the same area of Central Park where we now met on a green wooden bench for our lunchtime talks.
For thirty years, Hal pushed an elevator call button that whisked him up to his spacious Park Avenue penthouse apartment.
There was even a special slot on the floor number panel where a key had to be inserted and turned, which then cleared the polished brass doors to open directly, and exclusively, to his penthouse door. Everyone else in the luxurious high-rise building had to walk down a hallway to get to their apartment. On Saturday mornings the doorman would send Hal’s New York Times up to him the same way, hands free – lobby to Penthouse!
Hal pushed all kinds of buttons that made him all kinds of millions upon millions of dollars. Hal had created a kingdom by the sweat of his brow, along with his cunning wit.
“He has it made,” people would say. “Hal is the man!” He was often described as a genius and even a wizard.
It took a mere four years for Hal’s pushbutton elevator-controlled life to hit rock bottom and his street address to shoot up forty blocks. Hal has been telling people that walking up six flights of stairs is great exercise. In fact, it’s the only exercise he gets, living in an elevator-less city rent-controlled, dank and dingy apartment building in upper upper Manhattan. There the streets all have three digits, as in 110th street and higher, as opposed to two digit streets on the Upper East Side’s 60s, 70s or 80s blocks.