When Stan Rittman walked out of the basement of the Flatiron Building it wasn’t dark, yet. It was the first day of the second week of fall, but it felt like the middle of summer, except for the autumn-like light. He wore a short sleeve shirt and linen trousers. The thin wallet in his back pocket was flush with more fives and tens than it was with one-spots.
He gave his wallet a friendly pat. I can buy the kid some new clothes, get up front on the office rent, and score tickets for the Series.
The Socialist Labor Party used to have offices in the Flatiron Building, but not in the basement behind the boiler room. He wondered if they would have banned gambling, arguing it was exploitive. You took your chances at poker, but it was only exploitive if you had no skill at it.
He walked down 22nd Street to Lexington Avenue, turned right, walked through Gramercy Park to Irving Place, and looked for a phone booth
The Yankees were in and the Indians were out, that was for sure. The Redlegs were running on an outside track, but the Braves were neck and neck with the Dodgers. Sal the Barber had no-hit the Phils earlier in the week at Ebbets Field and the Cardinals were going at the Braves out in the boondocks, getting the Dodgers to within a half-game. It was all going to come down to the weekend as to whether there was going to be a subway series, the same as last year, or not.
Last year it went seven, the damned thing being the Yankees won three at Ebbets Field and the Dodgers won their four at Yankee Stadium. Neither team won on their home field. Nobody won that bet. Nobody took the backside odds on the seventh game, win or go home, especially since Jackie Robinson wasn’t penciled in to play the deciding nine.
Who would have thought the Cuban would be the difference-maker when he took over right field in the sixth inning? Stan was in the upper deck with his sometime partner, Ezra. The Yankee dugout was on the first base side, so most of the Bum fans were on the third base side. A client who was a Yankee fan, after Stan had gotten him the photographs he needed to get his divorce done, had given the tickets to Stan. They sat in a sea of Bronx Bomber fans.
“Beggars can’t be choosers,” said Ezra.
When Yogi Berra hit an opposite field sure double, Ezra sprang out of his seat, like everyone else, but the lightening fast Sandy Amoros caught it coming out of nowhere. He fired a pill to Pee Wee Reese, who relayed it to Gil Hodges, who doubled up the retreating Gil McDougald off first, ending the last threat Stengel’s Squad made that afternoon.
Casey Stengel managed the Yankees. He had been a streaky ballplayer in his day. “I was erratic,” he said. “Some days I was amazing, some days I wasn’t.” When he wasn’t, he played it for laughs, catching fly balls behind his back. One afternoon he doffed his cap to the crowd and a sparrow flew out of it. Another day, playing the outfield, he hid in a drainage hole and popped up out of it just in time to snag a fly ball.
When he stood leaning over the top rail of the dugout he looked like a cross of a scowling Jimmy Durante and Santa Claus in pinstripes. He managed the Braves and Dodgers for nine years and chalked up nine straight losing seasons. But after the Bombers hired him in 1948, the only year he hadn’t taken them to the World Series was 1954.
Stan and Ezra were the only men in the their section who hadn’t fallen back into their seats, stunned, after Amoros snagged Berra’s liner. Stan had to pull Ezra down so there wouldn’t be any hard feelings. As it was, Ezra was so excited in the end there were hard feelings, and Stan dragged him away to a beer stand.
“This beer is bitter,” scowled Ezra, looking down at the bottle of Ballantine in his hand. Ballantine Beer was on the Yankee Stadium scoreboard, its three-ring sign shining bright, Purity, Body, and Flavor. Whenever a Bronx Bomber hit a homer, Mel Allen, the broadcaster, hollered, “There’s a drive, hit deep, that ball is go-ing, go-ing, gonnne! How about that?! It’s a Ballantine Blast!”
The Brooklyn Dodgers, Ezra’s home borough baseball team, played at Ebbets Field. The scoreboard boasted a big Schaefer Beer sign, with the ‘h’ and the ‘e’ lighting up whenever there was a hit or an error. “That’s some super beer, that Schaeffer’s,” said Ezra, polishing off his bottle of Ballantine Beer.
Below the Schaefer Beer sign was an Abe Stark advertisement. “Hit Sign, Win Suit”.
Stan Rittman didn’t have a home borough, although he had an apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, up from Times Square and down from the Central Park Zoo. He wasn’t from New York or New York City. He was from Chicago, although he wasn’t from there, either. He had been born in Chicago, but when his mother died two years later, in 1922, his father moved the family, himself a new wife two brothers two sisters two dogs and all their belongings to a small house behind St. Stanislaus Church in Cleveland, Ohio, in the Warszawa neighborhood south of the steel mills, where his father worked the rest of his life.
As long as I put some of this away, Stan thought to himself, walking down Irving Place, thinking of the jackpot in his pocket, I can blow some of it tonight.
Dottie was at Marie’s for the weekend, it wasn’t too early or too late, and if Vicki hasn’t taken any work home, and is at home, and picks up the phone, maybe she could meet him for dinner.
He found the phone booth he’d been looking for and called her. It rang almost two times before Vicki answered. That’s a good sign, he thought.
“Hey, Vick, it’s Stan.”
“Stan, my man,” she laughed.
“How’s Stuy Town tonight?” he asked.
“Hot, quiet, lonely,” she said.
“How about meeting me at Luchow’s for dinner?” he asked. “I’m buying.”
“Stan, I love you for the dear, dear Polack you are, but the food at Luchow’s is not so good, even if you can ever get though that insanely long menu of theirs.”
“That’s what I’m here for,” he said. “Only a dog-earred obsessive P. I. like me would look into everything the kitchen’s got to offer.”
“All right, but the other thing is, since they seat more than a thousand people, how am I ever going to find you? The last thing, with that strolling oompah band of theirs, if we do find each other and maybe get a table in that goulash and Wiener schnitzel palace, we’ll only be able to make ourselves heard some time and not the rest of the time.”
“We can take our coffee and their pancakes with lingonberry over to the square after dinner and chew the fat there,” he said.
“Chew the fat? What is it I like about you, sometimes I just don’t know,” she said.
“I’ll take that for a yes.”
“Yes, give me a few minutes to change into something fun,” she said lightly. “I hope there’s no goose fest or beer festival going on.”
“Meet me at the far end of Frank’s bar, he’ll find a quiet spot in the back for us. Frank says the new herring salad is out of this world.”
“Don’t push your luck, Stan, don’t push your luck,” she said.
Luchow’s was a three-story six-bay reddish building with stone window surrounds, pilasters, and a balustrated parapet on top, while below a red awning led to the front door. The restaurant was near Union Square. It looked like the 19th century, or some earlier century, heavy Teutonic, North German. A huge painting of potato gatherers covered most of a wall in one of the seven dining rooms. Another of the rooms was lined with animal heads, their descendants being eaten at the tables below them, while another was a kind of temple of colorful beer steins. There was a beer garden in the back.
“Welcome back to the Citadel of Pilsner,” said Frank. He gestured Stan to the side. “Did anybody tell you Hugo died?”
“No, I hadn’t heard, although I heard he wasn’t feeling well,” said Stan. Hugo Schemke had been a waiter at Luchow’s for 50 years. He firmly no ifs ands or buts believed in reincarnation.
“Did he say he was coming back?”
“He did say that, but I haven’t seen him, yet,” said Frank.
“How’s Ernst doing?” asked Stan. Ernst Seute was the floor manager, a short stout man both friendly and cold-hearted. He had been at Luchow’s since World War One.
“He took a couple days off,” said Frank. “Remember that parade back in April over in Queens, they’ve got some kind of committee now, he’s over there with them trying to make it an annual thing here in Little Germany, calling it the Steuben Parade.”
“You going to be carrying the cornflower flag?’
“Not me, Stan, not me.” Frank was from Czechoslovakia.
Frank led Vicki and Stan to a small round table at the far end of the bar. He brought them glass mugs of Wurzburger Beer and a plate of sardines. Vicki ordered noodle soup and salad. “Hold the herring,” she commanded. Stan asked for a broiled steak sirloin with roasted potatoes and horseradish sauce on the side.
“I saw Barney the other day,” she said, cocking her head. “He told me you’ve made progress.”
“I didn’t think there was anything to it the first day I saw him, that day you brought him over to the office,” said Stan. “I didn’t think there was much to it all that first week the top of the month. But, then there was all that action, and Bettina finally got it worked out, that it was the shrink. So, I know who did what to get Pollack to drive himself into that tree. I know how they did it. What I don’t know is why they did it.”
“Do you know who they are?’
“No, I don’t, even though one of the two, a psychotic by the name of Ratso Moretti, who roughed up Ezra is being held at the 17th. He doesn’t seem to know much, but what he does know says a lot. The shrink is going to tell me all about it, no matter that he doesn’t know about the talk we’re going to have, yet.”
“You don’t think Jackson Pollack had anything to do with it?”
“He was the wrong man, that’s all, if you look at it from his point of view. Bettina and I think he was a test run. We think they’re up to something bigger. It’s hard to figure. We can’t see the pay-off in it. You know her, though. She’ll piece it together.”
After dinner they looked at the dessert menu, but it was only a peek.
“How about coffee at my place?” asked Stan. “We can stop and get pastry at that Puerto Rican shop on the corner, sit up on the roof.” It was a clear sky night.
“I can’t pass up that pass,” said Vicki.
They hailed a Checker Cab.
“Take us up 5th to 59th, the corner of the park,” said Stan.
The cabbie dropped them off at the Grand Army Plaza and they walked into the park, following the path below the pond towards the Central Park Driveway and Columbus Circle. He liked her careless walk. They didn’t notice the two greasers, as they strolled on a quiet wooded path south of Center Drive, until the two of them were in front of them, blocking their way.
One was taller and older, the other younger and thinner, their oiled hair combed back. Both of the dagos were wearing high tops, jeans, and white t-shirts, one of them dirtier than the other. The younger boy, he might have been fifteen, had small capital SS’s topped with a halo drawn in red ink on his left sleeve. The older cleaner dago had LAMF tattooed on his neck above the collar line and below his right ear.
Stan knew what it meant. It meant ‘Like a Mother Fucker’. He kept his attention on LAMF.
“Hey, mister, got a double we can have for the subway, so we can make it back home,” he asked, smiling, his teeth big and white as Chiclets.
They were part of the Seven Saints, thieves whose favorite dodge was holding back the door of a subway car just before it was ready to leave the station, one of them grabbing and running off with a passenger’s pocketbook, while the other released the door so the woman would be shut tight in the train.
“Where’s home?” asked Stan, stepping forward a half step, nudging Vicki behind him with his left hand on her left hip.
“You writing a book?”
Stan asked again, looking straight at the older boy.
“East Harlem, where you think?”
“Why do you need twenty dollars? The fare’s only fifteen cents.”
“The extra is for in case we get lost.”
“It’d be best if you got lost starting now. “
“I mean to get what I want,” he said, reaching into his back pocket.
Stan took a fast deliberate step forward, his right foot coming down on the forefoot of the boy’s sneaker, grabbing his left wrist as it came out of the back pocket a flash of steel, and broke his nose with a short hard jab with his right elbow. Stepping away he let him fall backward and turned toward the younger boy, flipping the switchblade its business side face front.
“Go,” he said. “Go right now.”
The boy hesitated, looked down at the other Seven Saint on the ground, splattered with blood, and ran away like a squid on roller skates.
Stan let the switchblade fall to the ground and broke the blade off the knife, stepping on it with his heel and pulling up until it cracked at the hinge, and threw it at the older boy getting up. It hit him in the chest and bounced away.
“The next time I see you,” he spluttered, on his feet, choking, his mouth half-full of blood.
“The next time I see you, you fill your hand with a knife, I’ll break your face again and your hand on top of it,” said Stan. He took a step up to the boy and spoke softly to him so Vicki wouldn’t hear what he was saying. “Actually, it won’t matter what you do, nosebleed, who you’re with, where you are. The minute I see you is when I’ll stack you up. Make sure you never see me again, make sure I never see you.”
He took Vicki by the arm, eased the teenager to the side, and they walked away.
“You didn’t have to do that,” said Vicki. “You won plenty of hands tonight. You could afford to give up a few chips. You might have tossed them a dollar-or-two.”
“I know,” said Stan.
“But, here’s the thing Vicki, I care about you and me here in the park. I don’t care about them. They were working themselves up to be dangerous and that had to stop. The sooner the better.”
Stan paused, then said, without thinking, “I care about you, Dottie, Ezra and Betty, what we do, not who we do it for or whatever they think it’s all about. I care about getting it done and getting paid. I like playing cards and I like the Dodgers. When you throw in a dinner, a dance, a drink, I’m all done. I don’t need anymore. I don’t want anymore.”
They passed the USS Maine Monument.
“I don’t want greasers in my face.”
They walked out of the park under a quarter moon, crossing Columbus Circle and strolling down Ninth Avenue. At West 56th Street they turned towards the river, stopping in front of a four-floor walk-up with a twin set of fire escapes bolted to the front of the flat face of the brick building.
“Anyway, maybe it will do them some good,” said Stan, fitting his key into the door lock. “Not everyone is as nice as I am. Someday somebody will go ballistic on them.”
“Ballistic?” she asked.
“Like a rocket, a missile that goes haywire.”
“Oh,” she said, as they took the stairs up to the fourth floor. “We forgot our pastry.”
“Another time,” he said.
At the door of the apartment Stan fitted his key into the lock, opened the door, reached for the light switch, and let Vicki go around him as he did. In the shadow of the back of the front room there was a low menacing growl and a sudden movement. It was Mr. Moto. He crossed the room fast. He lunged at Vicki’s lead leg as she stepped across the threshold.
“Hey, watch out for my stockings,” cried Vicki. She was wearing Dancing Daters. “I’ll smack you right on your pink nose if you make them run.”
Mr. Moto came to a sudden stop a whisker from her leg.
“That’s better,” said Vicki, bending down to stroke his head.
Mr. Moto arched his back and purred.