s a boy of fourteen, fifteen, sixteen I felt most alive late afternoons, early evenings, after school was out and before I came home from my job as a delivery boy and the fights began, fights almost every night between me and my father, then between my father and my mother over me. Defending me, she goaded him—which got me into worse trouble with him.
But I’m remembering Columbus Avenue, Upper West Side Manhattan in the old days, a funky street long after the El got torn down in 1940, bars and shops, a cheap hotel with a reputation for renting to whores, remembering Columbus Avenue in the late fall when it got dark early and the air was wet with snow or was dry and cold. Dressed warm, I sang to myself, sang Cole Porter or Frank Loesser or Gershwin, and danced, imagining I was like Gene Kelly, swing-ing around lamp-posts, jumping onto fire hydrants, as I half-walked, half-ran to the pharmacy to begin work.
I waved through the window into the pharmacy, old dark wood and mirrors, past the window display with its ancient-looking glass balls of colored water suspended in air by metal straps. Below these there was a large brass mortar and pestle on a wooden platform, indicating the mystery of pharmacy, signifying that the pharmacists weren’t just pill pushers. Pharma-cists—chemists, as they’re called in Britain—often in those days still compounded prescrip-tions. I waved at the brothers who’d taken over the business from their father, waved, hurried inside, left my book bag under the counter in the back room. Most afternoons there was an old black man, a sweet man named Charlie, who swept up, straightened out containers on the shelves, delivered certain prescriptions the brothers didn’t want me to touch.
I organized the deliveries into routes. On foot I delivered prescriptions, medications, hot-water bottles, carried the wrapped packages in a canvas bag and delivered them to apartments in the grand elevator buildings mostly along Central Park West; I worked for a buck an hour, maybe less, plus tips. The money was a help—I didn’t have to take an allowance from my father, I could pay for some of my own clothes and put a little money in my bank account, and it would be less likely he’d call me a goddamn bum and the fights would start. Or, in fact, they’d start anyway. I knew that, but he couldn’t blame me for taking his “blood money.”
But it wasn’t the few dollars that made me so happy afternoons I worked for the pharmacy. Maybe the best thing was my being treated like a buddy by the brothers—that, and simply the freedom of being alone on the cold avenue at dusk, the excitement of the unsafe side streets, the danger of the Irish gang that would push Jewish kids around. Even the drunks throwing up in the gutter, and the cold darkness that made every-thing half-visible, mysteri-ous. Street lights and neon signs reflecting off the fire escapes, the vegetable store, the butcher, the barber, getting ready to close down, their plate-glass windows fogged up—and then my excitement of entering many lives, if only by the back door, lives I touched briefly in the grand buildings.
I was friendly, the door-men were usually friendly, and sometimes I got a tip, some-times got treated to a cookie or a bowl of soup by the maid or mistress. Once I was given a tip at Christmastime of not a quarter but a ten-dollar bill, about a hundred dollars now. In the Dakota on 72nd Street, I lifted myself by old-fashioned rope elevator, surely no longer legal, by hauling down on a rope attached to a system of pulleys—up to the kitchen entrance of an apartment, where—sur-prise!—I was met by a pretty girl who’d danced with me one night at a party. She was wearing a cashmere sweater, and all I wanted was to touch her. She’d ordered from the pharmacy just so I could visit her; with her parents out of the house, we made out awhile in a fancy parlor.
The Friedman brothers, partners, mentored me—how to handle myself if stopped by the Irish gang, how to pick up a “lady friend.” I heard stories from the tall, good-looking brother, Ron, of his weekend adven-tures with the broads in Rockaway. The younger, fat-faced brother, Davie, winked and handed me a packet of Trojans. “Be cool, Jack.” I thanked him, slipped one foil-wrapped condom into my wallet, where it stayed and stayed. I’d be embar-rassed to tell you how long. Davie patted my shoulder for emphasis: “You say to a girl, ‘I know what you’re thinking, babe; and you know what I’m thinking. Why pretend?’ Hey! Guy like you’ll have the women all over you. Maybe not yet, but soon. You’re a handsome guy.”
I really liked those brothers. They didn’t know, of course I didn’t tell them, that at school I was fair game to be bullied, that at home my father called me a “weak sister,” a pansy, a bum. Absorbing, but hiding from the brothers, those descriptions of myself, I played, at the phar-macy, the role of a cool guy—when I was so uncool! But when they gave advice, I listened. They wanted to wise me up. They gave advice about street drugs. “Stay away from that poison. You hear me? If they try to get you to smoke reefers—even reefers—you tell them, ‘Thanks, fuckhead, but I know better.’ You hear me?” Then he calls out to his brother, “Tell him, Ron.”
“Davie’s right. That includes shit like paregoric. You stay clean, little brother.”
Little brother! I liked that. Me, I had no siblings. And these guys, they took care of me.
One night Davie called. My father answered the phone. When he heard it was one of the pharmacists, my employer, he tried to charm them. How can I remember the words after all this time, but it was something like, “How’s my boy doing? . . . Good, good, glad to hear that. You need a set of tires, you come see me, I’ll fix you up . . . . Yeah, kid’s right here.”
I took the phone. Davie said, “Jack? Don’t come in tomorrow. You hear me? No time to go into it. Call you when things change.”
“Problems about money or something? You don’t have to pay me right away.”
“What are you telling him that for?” my father called out in his killer whisper from across the living room.
“It’s not that kind of trouble,” Davie said. “But really, thanks. You’re some good guy. You stay away. I’ll call you.”
ut next afternoon I didn’t stay away. I got to the pharmacy, the lights were off inside, the balls of colored water didn’t shine. There was yellow tape across the entrance. On the front door a sign said “CLOSED.” I went next door to the butcher shop to ask.
I’d known Mr. Bramante, the butcher, my whole childhood. A fat man with a high-pitched voice that didn’t seem to belong to someone so big. We were among his “special customers.” During the war he and my mother had finagled her ration books—I don’t know how—to make sure we had enough meat.
Bramante was alone in the store that afternoon. He rubbed his greasy hands against his stained white apron. “Not like it’s a big deal, kid. But this kind of thing hurts my business,” he sang. “It taints all of us, you get me? See, customers go into the pharmacy, then come next door to get their meat or next door on the other side to get their vegetables. No big deal, but stores kind of depend on each other. And it’s a decent neighborhood. That means a lot.”
“But what did they do? They give somebody the wrong pills and the person died?”
“Naw. It was no mistake. Your bosses were getting a little too rich.” Mr. Bramante motioned me over with a twist of his head, and he whispered, “Cop I know, guy on the beat, gave me the lowdown. Some doctor was selling prescriptions for morphine, codeine, paregoric, then Davie and Ron were turning around, filling in the customer’s name, and selling the stuff at a hell of a profit.”
“Selling dope? Come on. They wouldn’t do that.”
“Yeah, right. And you know what I think? Cops didn’t get paid off enough is what I think. Or maybe this arrest is like the cops showing muscle. Or the evidence was just too strong to avoid. You get what I’m saying, Jack?”
“But they wouldn’t. The brothers. I mean, you should hear how they steered me off dope.” Then I remembered the prescriptions I wasn’t permitted to deliver. And I wondered if Charlie had been arrested.
A customer, a woman I remembered delivering to at the Beresford, came in to the butcher shop and waved, “Mr. Bramante, you promised me a beautiful rack of lamb for tomorrow. I wonder, can I pick it up this afternoon?”
I kept talking. “They made me swear I wouldn’t get near drugs.”
Bramante grinned at me. He held up a hand to ask the woman to please be patient while he answered me. “You? For them you’re different,” he called across the store. “It’s not a contradiction, you get me, Jack? You, it’s different. You’re like one of the family.”
Now he turned to smile at the lady— “Absolutely, Mrs. Shapiro. I can do that for you. I’ll french you a nice rack of lamb. I’m not busy. You heard about next door? It’ll take me just a few minutes.” And he went to work, lugging what I guess was a side of lamb from the walk-in cooler, cutting, weighing.
hose bums! See what happens when you work for trash like that? They could send you to jail, then what would we do?”
“It’s hardly the boy’s fault,” my mother said. I can hear the way she says it. A Jew who immigrated from Kishinev when she was nine, somehow she learned to speak in various accents: a Yiddish singsong to indicate wisdom and feeling, theatrical speech like Jean Arthur’s, or full-blown upper-class speech tinged with Oxbridge to connote elegance. But in every mode her speech was meant to shame my father for his vulgar, broad New York accent.
This time the voice was something like Katherine Hepburn’s, upper-class but full of feeling. “Can he help it, my dear, if those criminals sell drugs?”
“Kid’s gotta be careful, that’s all I’m saying.”
“Yes! And you’re saying it so forcefully. Who would disagree with you, my dear?”
“You’re a pain in the ass, Myra.”
“Charmant,” she sighed. “Quelle élégance!”
“I’ve got homework,” I said, and went to my room. I felt terrible. Betrayed. But I wouldn’t let my parents know that. The pharmacy was a money-making enterprise—it had to be, given the business it did. Did they have to sell poison when they knew what it did to people? But, then, who said they did? Just the cops. I went to the extension in my parents’ bedroom and dialed Davie; dialed Ron. I let the phones ring.
In those days, a fix cost a lot—much more than now. A guy had to bust ass to keep mellow; had to rob, had to break into apartments and burgle, often wound up in jail forced to go cold turkey, retch and shiver in a cell. How could Ron and Davie be part of that? But who said they were? Maybe, I thought, maybe the cops planted evidence. I’d heard of such things. Maybe the brothers hadn’t done anything. There was just this crooked doctor. Maybe they had no idea what was happening. Anyway, they were like my older brothers, only brothers I had—a family I wanted to stay a part of. It’s not that they were just decent to me. They respected me, believed in me.
Where were they? In the correctional facility on Rikers Island? Or were they out on bail, home but not answering? While my father was sitting by the radio, listening to the ballgame, I put on a coat and tried to slip out.
He yelled, “Where the hell you going at this hour?”
“Taking a walk.”
“I thought you had homework.”
My mother: “Give the boy a little room. He’s had a hard time, if you understand me.”
“He can go kiss my ass.”
My mother ran from window to window, shutting windows so the neighbors couldn’t hear the yelling. Not that a pane of glass did much good—it was one of her grand gestures.
Turning to me, he said, “If you get back after nine, don’t bother coming at all. I’m gonna chain this door. Just try; you’ll see.” Then he went back to the game.
he brothers lived right in the neighborhood—each had an apartment on 86th Street near the park. Davie shared a place with his father—I’d been sent there with pills for Mr. Friedman. Ron lived alone or, recently, with a girlfriend. I figured tonight they were likely to be with their father, Marty Friedman, who’d opened the pharmacy thirty years before. I walked up to 86th and rang from the lobby.
Davie answered. “Yeah?”
“Davie? Okay if I come up?”
I heard nothing; I figured Davie was muffling the phone against his body. Then, “Sure, sure come on up. Thanks.”
Davie was standing in his doorway. “I’m sorry for your troubles.” I’d rehearsed the line on the way over, but, Jesus, I meant it. At the same time, I felt excited. This was real, this was adventure. I was en-tering a grown-up world. In a way I was part of a gang.
Davie wrapped a hand over my shoulder. “Come on in. Have a Coke.”
Marty Friedman, their father, was sitting by the window, chin cupped in hand, elbow on the arm of the wing-backed armchair. My mother always described him as a “charming gentleman.” Tonight he wasn’t making an effort to be charming. He glanced at me with annoyance. I said, “Hello, sir.” He looked away again. I couldn’t blame him.
“So,” I asked, “how soon will you be able to get the pharmacy open again? I sure hope it’s soon. There’s all those people with prescriptions.”
Ron brought me a Coke. “Sit down, sit down. Jack, m’boy, I’d be surprised if we’re closed more than a couple of days. Maybe a week. At the outside.”
“Good. Terrific. They haven’t got anything on you. Right?”
Davie blurted a laugh. “Right!” His father turned from the window to glare at him.
I said, “Can I help?”
Nobody looked at me.
“Tell me, you guys. Will they ask me questions? The cops?”
“Why should they bug you? What do you know? You don’t know anything,” Ron said.
“And you shouldn’t know anything,” Davie said. He laughed. “Just that we’re nice guys is all. You can just say what good guys we are. We are, right? Nice enough, right?”
“Well, you are. Really. I can sure say that.”
“Maybe,” Davie said, “depending on the evidence, one of us might have his license suspended for a while.”
His father, his voice tired and sad, said, “David? You need to learn not to talk so much.”
Davie said, “Pop, it’s okay. Jack’s definitely on our team.” Davie turned to me. “You’re on our team, right? So, Jack,” he went on. “You probably think we’d do anything for money, right? It’s not true. If we thought we could do any good, keep those bums off the juice, we’d do it for sure. But those guys, you know they’re gonna get it somewhere. Am I right?”
“Sure. I know.”
“They’d die if they didn’t get it. It’s their whole life. Not a one, rich or poor, isn’t a washed-out bum.”
Now Ron tried to shut Davie up. “Davie, don’t let’s worry the kid,” Ron said. “None of this happened, Jack. You understand? It’s hypothetical. You understand? We’re talking hypothetically.”
“Sure. Sure.” By then I knew the brothers weren’t on the level. I’d have been pretty stupid not to catch the drift. Still, I was fiercely on their side—until I took the elevator down. Out on the street again, as I walked home, the excitement collapsed. Loyalty collapsed. Out in the night, a cold night, full moon coming up over Central Park, things looked different. Looked cheap, looked sad. On Columbus, the marquee at the Schuyler Theater announced some Western. The soda fountain next door to the theater was closed. It was almost ten o’clock. I didn’t think my father would put the chain on the door. What would I do if he kept me out? Make a lot of noise, I figured. Embarrass him. Bang on the door till he opened. I didn’t hurry.
I used my key. The chain was on. My father was standing at the door. “You were visiting those bums, weren’t you? Killers, I call them. Bums and killers.”
I heard my mother’s voice: “Dear, tell your father you want to come in. Leo, open the door.”
I didn’t want to come in—not because my father was mad enough to smack me. Maybe it was because I felt my father was right. But I played the victim. I said, “The hell with him if he doesn’t want me home,” and turned back toward the elevator.
“Where the hell are you going?” he yelled.
“To a bar to get drunk,” I said, and opened the elevator door.
On 86th between Columbus and Amsterdam, there was a cafeteria. I’d been there often after a fight. I ordered a cup of coffee and I waited. I had a book with me. After a while, I looked up to see my mother, dressed up in her Persian lamb coat and fur hat taking a ticket from the machine at the entrance, sitting across from me. “Jackie? You want to share a piece of cake?”
I put a paper napkin in my place in the book. “Sure.”
“He doesn’t mean it, the poor fool. He just worries.”
“He’s so damn stupid.”
“Actually, Mom, they kind of deserved to get in trouble. Ron and Davie.”
“I know. Their father is the one I feel sorry for. Such a shandeh, a shame.”
As it turned out, the pharmacy was closed only a few days. The Pharmacy Board handed out a warning but didn’t take away anyone’s license. I don’t know why. Lack of evi-dence? Or somebody had influence? But I knew. Still, I stopped in there often that week. I told my parents I was out looking for another job, and I was, but that next week I kept stopping in at the pharm-acy. The brothers weren’t there much. That was just as good. I talked to Charlie. Marty Friedman came back out of retirement while the brothers were under a cloud. Tem-porarily, they couldn’t legally fill prescriptions; he could. He was polite to me but not friendly. I offered to deliver; Mr. Friedman thanked me but refused. He spent much of his time calling customers, speaking in his most charming voice and making light of the situation—as if it were all a foolish mistake. He laughed, he laughed, he blamed it all on a money-hungry doctor.
It wasn’t much fun now, walking in the winter dark on Columbus. It was just dark—cold and dark. I was bothered by the wind that blew street dust into my eyes. I got a job delivering for Gristedes, pushing a big-wheeled wagon with an aluminum carry-all full of groceries.
It was just a job.