“I know you,” said Ezra.
He was looking down at Bumpy Williams who was handcuffed to a pipe at the back of the boiler room in the basement of the Warsaw Baking Company in Little Poland. Bumpy’s lips curled, trying to smile. Ezra tried to jump him. Stan, standing between him and Bumpy, held him back.
“Cut it out,” he said.
When the Warsaw Bakery opened at 9 o’clock in the morning they had been open for four hours. When the first two women turned on the lights at 5 AM, the first thing they did was clean the kitchen again and prepare dough. By 6 AM everyone was mixing and kneading. By 7 AM they were baking. Buns and bread went in their own bins, doughnuts and cookies were baked on their own trays, and their potato bread had its own oven.
The potato bread had been awarded a blue ribbon for “excellence of freshness, flavor, quality, uniformity, cleanliness, and value” by the Independent Bakers Council of America in 1954.
When Karol, sitting on a stool in the boiler room, cut into his half-loaf of bread, Bumpy Williams nodded at him.
“I’m hungry,” he said.
“Later,” said Karol.
“I’m thirsty, too.”
“Later,” said Karol, tipping a mug of black coffee up to his mouth.
The door opened and Bartek slipped in.
“Good,” said Karol. “The shrink hasn’t said a word, but sooty is complaining about losing weight.”
“You want to stay lean and clean,” said Bartek.
“Don’t rattle my chain. I got a name and it ain’t sooty, honky,” said Bumpy.
“You ain’t got no name today, big man, not until we say so, so keep it zipped,” said Karol.
“You’re kind of big,” said Dottie on Wednesday, three days earlier.
Marie had taken Dottie to Ebbets Field to see the Dodgers play the Philadelphia Phillies.
“I’m almost 300 pounds,” said Happy Felton. “I used to play football in college, although I always wanted to be a ballplayer, be behind the plate. But I was a perfect circle. How could I be a perfect catcher?”
Dottie was in the right field bullpen, she and two boys, playing catch and throw, warming up for Happy Felton’s Knothole Gang show on WOR-TV. The program aired 25 minutes before every home game at Ebbets Field. Happy knew how to put on a matinee. He had been in a medicine-man show, beat the drums in a circus, sang as one of the Four Ambassadors, headlined an orchestra for ten years, had appeared on Broadway, and been a contract player for MGM.
After introducing the kids, Happy always introduced a Dodgers player, who judged the kids on speed, fielding ability, and baseball smarts. This afternoon it wasn’t a player. It was Buzzie Bavasi, the general manager of the team. He had led the Dodgers to National League pennants in 1952, 1953, and 1955. They won their first World Series in franchise history in 1955.
They were shooting for the stars the rest of the week.
“We don’t usually have girls out here,” Buzzie said to Dottie.
“I always called him Buzzie, not Emil, because he was always buzzing around,” said Emil’s sister Iola.
Buzzie called his sister Lolly.
“I can do anything a boy can do, and better,” said Dottie. “I’m the best stickball player in our neighborhood.”
“Let’s see what you’re made of,” said Buzzie.
Tony the Phil walked by on the warning track, glancing over the fence at the kids swinging bats and running imaginary bases, and went his way. He veered into center field and stopped where he knew the storm drain was. It was where he was planning in two days on planting nitro, enough of it to kill a man. He looked down at the ground. He hoped it didn’t blow anybody else up besides who was going to be in the car, but he knew it as going to be a hell of a blast. He didn’t want anything to happen to Happy or any of the kids who might be in the bullpen.
But, he had to do what he had been told to do. He was going to follow orders. It was all there, all in his head. He had to go ahead.
After the kids had gone through their paces, and Happy and Buzzie had put their heads together, they pinned that day’s blue ribbon on Dottie. The two boys got baseball equipment for their appearances, and Dottie was told she was eligible to come back the next game, the first of the last series of the season, for a solo chat with her favorite Dodger’s player.
The Little Colonel!” she exclaimed when asked.
“Why is he your favorite player,” asked Happy.
“Because he’s the best shortstop ever. His glove is where base hits go to kick the bucket. He can swallow them down and he can double them up. His wife’s name is Dottie, too, the same as mine,“ said Dottie.
Pee Wee Reese had been a champion marbles player as a kid in Louisville, Kentucky. A peewee is a small marble. He was a small child. He could knuckle down playing ringer, boss-out, and black snake, getting low to the ground. His size was a prize in the sand. One year he was runner-up to the national champion in the Courier-Journal’s marble tournament.
He was an undersized teenager, too, not playing baseball until his senior year in high school. Since then he’d grown beefed up and been in professional baseball for 17 years, making the National League all-star team ten years in a row.
“Can I come back Wednesday instead of this weekend?”
“I like your spirit, but we have to win today and we have to win when the Pirates come into town, too, for there to even be a next Wednesday.”
“I just know you will. I’m counting on it. Can I come back Wednesday, please?”
Buzzie and Happy put their heads back together.
“Ladies and gentlemen, join us before the game on Wednesday next week, what we hope will be the first home game of the series, when Dottie Rittman will spend a few minutes talking to Pee Wee Reese on the show. Until then, this is Happy Felton signing off for WOR.”
It was going to come down to the weekend, it turned out.
The Phillies pummeled the Dodgers with ten hits, taking the game 7 – 3. Del Ennis drove in two runs on three hits, which was three hits more than Pee Wee Reese, Roy Campanella, and Jackie Robinson all together managed to put together. Only Duke Snider matched Del Ennis, while the rest of the Dodgers eked out two separate harmless singles, one of them a blooper.
Dottie didn’t go home unhappy, though. She wasn’t somebody who needed her team to win to make the trip to the ballpark worthwhile. Winning was a part of it, but everything else, the sunshine in the daytime, jumping to your feet in the stands, peanut shells and tobacco butts, all the fans, the fun of the game, the heroes and goats and memories, was more the whole part of it.
“If people don’t want to come out to the ballpark, nobody’s going to stop ‘em,” said Yogi Berra on the other side of the river.
Nobody was going to stop her from going to the ballpark.
The weather stopped everybody from going to the ballpark on Friday. A drizzling rain started at 5 o’clock. The game was called by Umpire Jocko Conlan at 7:30 and rescheduled as a twin bill on Saturday.
The Milwaukee Braves lost to the St. Louis Cardinals that night, 5 – 4, cutting their lead in the National League to half a game over the second-place Dodgers.
In the first game against the Pirates on Saturday afternoon Sal (No-Hit) Maglie was jolted early, giving up two runs in the top of the first, but stiffened, and slammed the door shut. The Dodgers came back with three in the bottom of the frame and won going away, 6 -2. Clem Labine, a crack relief hurler pressed into starting, couldn’t solve Roberto Clemente, who went three for four, in the second game, but the Bucs scattered their other four hits, and were barely able to push across a single run in the eighth.
“Sometimes the only thing worse than a Pirates game is a Pirates doubleheader,” said a sportswriter for the Pittsburgh Press, a writer who had endured four finishes landing dead last in the cellar in the past six years.
After the Dodgers took the front end and then the back end of their doubleheader against the Pirates, it left one game on Sunday for all the marbles. If the Dodgers won, nothing the Braves did would matter.
“You’ve lost your marbles,” said Bumpy Williams.
“Hear me out,” said Stan.
Karol and Bartek had dragged Dr. Baird away. Stan brought sandwiches and beer, lost the cuffs shackling Bumpy, and they were having lunch over an empty overturned Elmhurst Dairy milk crate. They took bites out of their sausage sandwiches and downed daytime pulls of beer.
“The Polacks are on the other side of that door, am I right?” asked Bumpy.
“They might be, but they don’t like being called Polacks,” said Stan. “My father was Polish, but I’m second-generation. They’re from the old country. Besides, I’m not sensitive. They’re young. They take things the wrong way. They don’t like the slur, you know what I mean?”
“Believe me, man, I know what you mean,” said Bumpy.
“I’ll bet you do,” said Stan.
“All right, but why should I go along with you? I’ve got it good, no reason to jump ship.”
“It’s not sinking right now, no, but it’s full of rats. Maybe you think you can trust the colored man, but you can’t, not always. The Dago’s, no, you can’t trust them, and the police will always be dogging you. Even the Dago’s get dragged down, even when they have Carmine DeSapio and Tammany Hall in their back pockets.”
Frank Costello, waking up that morning in prison, where for the past two years he had been waking up serving a five-year sentence, woke up still an American, after court attempts to denaturalize him finally failed the day before.
“By the law of averages I was bound to win this one,” he whispered in his hoarse voice.
He had only been jailed once before in 1915 for carrying a gun, and convicted once before for contempt in 1952 when he walked out on the Senate Crime Committee, pleading a sore throat, but the Federals had gotten him for tax evasion in 1954.
It didn’t matter to the Prime Minister of the Underworld, since he controlled the Lucky Luciano mob from his prison cell, and was embroiled in a power struggle with Vito Genovese and his crime family.
“You got me over a barrel right now, no matter what I say or do,” said Bumpy.
“No, just for a few days,” said Stan.
“What do you mean?”
“The shrink, I’m going to have to do something about him, but you, I just need to keep you on ice for a few days. You’ll be able to go after that. I can’t keep feeding you.”
“Just go? Go where?”
“Back to where you came from. I’ve got nothing for or against you. You didn’t put your hands on Ezra. After we get square with whatever is going on, you’ll be free to go your own way.”
“That might put me over the same kind of barrel.”
“It might, but you won’t be my problem. You can lay low in Harlem.”
“You can’t never get low enough when they want you.”
“Think about what I said,” said Stan.
“I’ll think about it,” said Bumpy.
“Think what you could do with all that money,” said Dr. Robert Baird, looking up at Karol and Bartek.
He was handcuffed to the chair he was sitting in. Bartek stood with his back to the door. Karol was reading the Daily News, sitting opposite the psychiatrist.
“You could go and do whatever you want. You wouldn’t have to live in this rat’s nest of a neighborhood, in this rotten borough.”
Karol was reading about the Poznan protests three months earlier that had been put down by 400 tanks and ten thousand soldiers. The ringleaders were being put on trial. There was a picture of a march at the head of which two young men carried a sign aloft.
Another photograph was of three young men accused of killing a policeman during the riots. “I felt great hatred for them,” explained Ludwig Wierzbicki, a fireman at a distillery, when asked why he shot at the secret police.
“The police treated me inhumanely,” said Stanislaw Kaufman, a year younger than the 21-year-old fireman.
“I was taken to the commandant of the police who put me through my second christening. I was beaten with rods on my face and knocked over with a blow from behind. An officer dragged me by the hair down to the second floor and beat and kicked me. I was stood up against the wall while he pummeled the back of my head, knocking my face into the wall.”
Karol looked across at the doctor.
“Shut your face. We like living here,” he said.
“I’ll give you fifty thousand dollars each, in cash, if you let me go,” said Dr. Baird.
“We’re the housekeepers, not the householders,” said Karol. “You’ve got to talk to Stan about that.”
“I don’t know about that,” said Bartek, flipping a cigarette between his lips. “You tell Stan you want to give him fifty, he’s going to wonder where the rest of it is, what you’re holding back from him. He’s a snoopy guy that way.”
Dr. Baird blanched, shrinking back into his chair.
“The good news is you’re not bust, yet,” said Karol. “The bad news is, you’re close.”
Dr. Robert Baird didn’t care about being uncared for or unloved. He didn’t care about being unwanted. What gnawed on him was losing everything he had, going hungry and homeless. Maybe poverty was the mother of crime, but he didn’t want to be any more than the professional man committing a crime for the fortune it brought him. Poverty was inconvenient. It meant being stuck in one place the rest of your life. He couldn’t stand the thought of being poor. Being rich was glorious. Being poor was miserable. It scared him to think he might have worked his way up from nothing to a life of nothing left.
Stan Rittman came into the room.
“All right, back in the boiler room with him.”
“OK, boss,” said Bartek.
“He tried to buy his way out,” said Karol.
“How much?” asked Stan.
“Fifty large each.”
“He’s throwing you a curveball. He’s buying you short,” said Stan.
“Is that right?”
“Let’s go, shuckster,” Karol said, freeing Dr. Baird and pulling him to his feet. “Time to go talk about some real bread.”
Stan stopped at Miller’s on his way to pick up Vicki. They had plans for drinks and maybe dinner at the El Morocco and drinks and maybe dinner later at P. J. Clarke’s down the street. Nat King Cole had named the bacon cheeseburger at Clarke’s the “Cadillac of burgers.” Stan bought two sour pickles out of a barrel for a nickel each and ate them standing outside the storefront.
They had drinks at the El Morocco, at the bar, at a slight remove from the blue zebra stripe motif. It was crowded. There was a party going on, spilling into the club after the premiere of Arthur Miller’s “A View From a Bridge” at the Coronet Theatre. Marilyn Monroe was there, having divorced Joe DiMaggio after nine months and married Arthur Miller three months earlier.
“Egghead Weds Hourglass” was how the papers ran with it.
“I’m a ballplayer, not an actor,” said Joltin’ Joe.
Stan and Vicki didn’t have dinner at the club. They had more drinks and bacon cheeseburgers at P. J. Clarke’s.
Danny Lavezzo was in his usual spot between the front and back rooms, greeting his customers, when they got there. The back room was a dining room of bare brick and checked tablecloths A group of regulars met every Friday for lunch at the large oval table. They called themselves the Science Club. Jessie, the saloon’s terrier who ran up and down Third Avenue picking up newspapers, was sleeping behind the bar.
Stan spotted two seats at the bar. He and Vicki snagged them. Danny never let unaccompanied women stand at the bar.
“It would just encourage prostitutes,” he said.
Buzzie Bavasi walked in and walked to the end of the bar. Jessie jumped up, ran past the bartender, and out the door. He came back with a copy of the Herald Tribune. Buzzie tossed fifteen cents into Jessie’s tip jar.
Anastasio Somoza, the President who made himself President of Nicaragua in 1937, had died in the still dark morning sometime on Saturday from gunshot wounds after a poet shot him four times pointblank a week earlier. Almost 25 years earlier Anastasio Somoza had assassinated Augusto Sandino and seized power with the help of the United States Marines.
“I was a high class muscle man for big business, for Wall Street and for the banks,” said Marine General Smedly Butler. “In short, I was a racketeer for capitalism.”
Dwight Eisenhower had ordered a team of physicians to the Canal Zone to treat the dictator, but the big man’s time was up
His son, Luis Somoza, was named Acting President in the afternoon, and looking calm in a white suit, thanked the United States for its “inestimable aid to save the life which guided our destiny.” Luis’s brother Anastasio took control of the National Guard, making sure their political opponents stayed out of the way.
“Oh, goddammit, we forgot the silent prayer,” said Dwight Eisenhower, opening the meeting with his National Security Council the following week when they too soon broached Anastasio Somoza’s murder with a minute of desultory attention to it.
Stan and Vicki paid attention to each other all the evening at P. J. Clarke’s, all the way back to Hell’s Kitchen, and afterwards, too, when they paid even more attention to each other.
Mr. Moto spent the night on the fire escape.
Storm Drain – A Stan Rittman Mystery
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.