“I can’t be a catfish without no waffles,” said Bumpy Williams.
Bumpy and Stan walked out the back door of the Warsaw Bakery, around to the front, and down the street.
“I’ve got your meaning,” said Stan.
The tropical storm Flossy had fallen apart and passed harmlessly east of the city yesterday afternoon. It was late in the afternoon, it was in the low 70s, the sun was starting to arc downwards, but the light was still good, sunny and pleasant. The Weather Bureau was keeping a close watch on rain squalls moving west up from the Caribbean.
“It is the weakest sort of a disturbance, but it remains as a suspicious area,” the bureau said.
No one was taking it seriously.
“Are you up for a bite to eat?”
“The sooner the better,” said Bumpy.
They crossed Lorimer Street and walked into McCarren Park, around two baseball fields, and past the pool building, the biggest of the eleven built by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s. In the summertime it was one of the social hubs of Greenpoint. The entrance to the pool was mammoth, arched in brick, and the pool could hold, if it absolutely had to, close to seven thousand swimmers.
Bumpy looked down, as they walked the other way, at a copy of that week’s New York Age Defender left on a park bench.
“South Is Using ‘Hitler System’” screamed the headline on the front page.
“I’ll bet they goddamn do,” he muttered to himself.
“If you’re saying, Thomy Fitz, you can make it from New Jersey to here anytime you want to in fifteen minutes flat, I’ll take that bet,” said Bulmer MacNeill, not far away as the crow flies, not far by the hands of the clock, waving his hands, ready to reach for his wallet.
“I bet I can be back here to the heart of darkness in no time flat and be having a beer to celebrate before anybody catches their breath.”
“Watch your mouth,” said Bulmer. “There’s still plenty of us left in the neighborhood.”
“Hell, we’ll all take that bet,” piped in the two other young men at the table.
“I’ll make a fine landing and have a fine time taking your money,” Thomas Fitzgerald laughed, bending his elbow again that early evening with his friends at a bachelor party being staged at Joe’s, a corner bar at St. Nicholas Avenue and 191st Street in Washington Heights.
“Helen’s not going to like you losing the family fortune,” said Pat Hartling.
“I’m going to be adding to the family fortune,” said Tommy. “The wife is going to be happy as pie.”
“The bet’s on?”
“It’s on, but not until maybe midnight, and I’ll need one of you to come with me, so we’re all clear about when I got started and when I got back here, so that there are no arguments among friends afterwards.”
“You’re on,” said Bulmer.
It was after midnight when Tommy and Bulmer staggered out of Joe’s, staggered to Tommy’s car, and staggered down a succession of roads and streets to the Teterboro School of Aeronautics on the west side of the Hudson River, near Tommy’s home in Emerson, New Jersey. He drove slowly carefully watchfully. His wife and sons were sound asleep and he didn’t want to wake them. It was close to one o’clock when he spotted the red and white Cessna 140 on the runway. He eyeballed its wingspan, which he estimated at about thirty feet.
“That’ll do,” he thought. He checked the underside of the wings.
“Never heard of it. I wonder whose it is,” he asked himself.
“Tommy, what’s going on?” asked Bulmer.
Tommy opened the door on the pilot’s side and looked at the controls. It was a late 1940s model with a white dashboard, black and red control wheels, and two-tone tan seats. It had shipshape wing flaps and he guessed the stall speed was at about 40 MPH.
“This will do just fine,” he said to himself.
He had a pilot’s license, but not a plane. He rarely actually flew an airplane, although he knew them well enough. Tommy Fitzgerald was a union steamfitter and worked part-time as a mechanic at the airport. In 1944 he lied about his age and volunteered for the Marines. He was sent to the Pacific and saw combat. When the war ended he was fifteen years old. Four years later he volunteered for the Army and was sent to Korea. He returned home after winning both the Purple Heart and Silver Sar.
“During a strategic withdrawal Corporal Fitzpatrick noticed a wounded officer, about 100 yards forward of his position. Attempting a rescue, he and a companion were seriously wounded. Despite severe pain and loss of blood, Corporal Fitzpatrick made it back to safety, directed a second successful rescue party while organizing and providing covering fire to support the rescue,” is what the citation said.
“You saved my life,” is what the officer said.
After recovering he was sent home.
Stealing a Cessna wasn’t going to be much of a problem. Landing it in front of Joe’s might be challenging, but he was sure he could do it. Besides, he needed another drink-or-two. He checked the gas gauge. The gas tank was nearly full. George Washington High School was near the bar. He could land on their ball field.
“What time is it?”
“I’m not getting into that thing,” said Bulmer.
“Take my car,” said Tommy. “I’ll take off at a quarter after two. Check your watch when I’m off the ground. I’ll see you back at Joe’s.”
He made sure the radio and navigation lights were off. The Cessna 40 was a simple airplane, an unfailing Continental engine up front, manual flaps, a yoke, throttle, and rudders. It was like flying a piece of Kleenex. He pushed the power up for takeoff. It was a short strip, so he levered the flaps in 25 degrees as he hit 30 knots. The plane launched itself into the air and he bled the flaps off. Inside of a couple of minutes he was at his 90-knot cruise speed with a 2:30 scheduled by his own reckoning landing at Joe’s.
The Teterboro control tower operator watched the airplane take off. It took him a minute to realize the plane didn’t have clearance. It took him five minutes to realize whoever was piloting the plane wasn’t going to respond to his radio calls. It took him a few more minutes to find out the plane been stolen. He picked up the telephone and dialed the police.
The afternoon before the Cessna sailed away Stan hailed a cab when he and Bumpy stepped out of the park and onto North 12th Street.
“Tom’s on Washington,” he said. “Do you know it?”
“Prospect Heights, mister” said the cabbie. “About three miles, maybe ten minutes. Ain’t it a breakfast and lunch joint? No mind, we’ll get you there under the wire, whether it is, or not.”
Ten minutes later the cabbie deposited them in front of Tom’s Restaurant. Stan paid the fare. Bumpy took one look and squinted. It was a small eatery, the windows filled with neon, flyers advertisements menus, painted platters, and both real and artificial plants.
“What is that,” asked Bumpy, pointing to a shiny undersized rhododendron.
“Some new kind of plastic.”
“Is that what the future looks like?”
“Probably,” said Stan.
High on the window to the right of the door white block letters said, “TOM’S EST. 1936.” The casing was dark brown, although above it the signage was white with “RESTAURANT” in lime green and “DRINK COCA COLA” in red and white.
“How’s the food?” asked Bumpy, taking a step back.
“Let’s go in, some of the Dodgers eat here, but I’ll let you decide for yourself,” said Stan.
Ebbets Field was nearby. Jackie Robinson had a sweet tooth and liked Tom’s Frosties, stopping in before day games for a heap of ice cream mixed with a thimbleful of milk.
“In here, Jackie can sit wherever he wants,” said Gus Vlahavas.
Inside a small good-looking middle-aged woman greeted them.
“Hello Stella, I hope we’re not too late for a late lunch. Have you got a booth for me and my friend?” asked Stan, nodding at Bumpy.
“Yes, of course, come on, there’s an empty booth in the back.”
In the back wasn’t far back. Stan and Bumpy slid into the booth. Stan slid cigarettes out for both of them. Bumpy slumped back, letting the smoke slide down into his lungs, exhaling slowly. Stan noticed him counting the American flags in the dining room, big and small, free-standing and on the walls, with his eyes.
“Gus’s grandfather, Constantin, named the restaurant Tom’s to honor his son,” explained Stan. “Tom was over in the Philippines, got shot up, won some medals for bravery.”
“I know you like it black,” Stella said to Stan. “But your black friend, him I don’t know.”
Stella Vlahavas lived upstairs above the restaurant with her husband, worked the cash register, and knew, like her daughter-in-law Phoeni knew, how everyone took their coffee, once they had gotten coffee at Tom’s.
“Cream and sugar ma’am, thank you,” said Bumpy.
“Where’s Gus?” asked Stan.
“He and Nonie had to run home for a minute,” said Stella. Gus and Nonie, who everyone called Phoeni, lived in a brownstone around the corner. Gus had worked at the restaurant since he was nine-years-old, when it was an ice cream shop. He fired up the grill for Tom every morning at 5 AM.
“Tom does the cooking,” Stan said to Bumpy. “I recommend the meat loaf. It’s the star attraction.”
Bumpy had a platter of meat loaf with eggs and potato hash.
Stan ate light, blueberry and ricotta pancakes served with flavored butter.
“What do you have in mind?” asked Bumpy, finishing his lunch, pushing his empty platter away.
Stella brought them a plate of cookies and orange slices, refilling their coffee cups.
“I have in mind you throwing in with us,” said Stan. “We’ve been talking about adding a man, and you strike me as a capable man. I think you understand you don’t get three strikes with the mob. It’s one strike and you’re out. It’s not whether, it’s just a matter of time, when it comes to the hoods. Throw in with us, the pay is good, you’d be surprised, even better sometimes than others.”
“Bird of paradise, huh?”
“I’ll tell you what the bird of paradise is, which is the Belgian waffle sundae for dessert.”
Bumpy ordered the Belgian waffle sundae
“No, I’m not saying that,” said Stan. ”What I’m saying is it’s good, it’s steady, and we won’t stick a knife in your back. We might tell you to take a walk, but it won’t be a walk off the end of a pier in the middle of the night. We don’t expect anyone to follow orders blindly, or die for us, or any of that Hitler bullshit, like the gangsters do. We’re not vultures.”
That night the bird’s-eye view from 5000 feet of the big city was big and wide and bright. The cabin was only three-or-so feet across at the elbows and he could see clearly on both sides of him. But the field at George Washington High School was dark. What had made him think it would be lit up? He circled the school and thought fast. He banked the Cessna, keeping the sink rate steady, blipped the throttle over the threshold and rolled the yoke forward. He soared over Snake Hill, gliding between stores buildings tenements on both sides of the street, landing in front of Joe’s on St. Nicholas Avenue.
“I saw something coming down,” said John Johnson, driving a jalopy, who slammed on his brakes. “I didn’t know what to imagine. The plane skidded over the top of my car and made a perfect landing ahead of me. I saw a man get out and run.”
The man was husky tall wearing a gray suit bare headed and laughing up a storm. Tommy ran into Joe’s. It was 2:29 in the morning. It was fifteen minutes before last call and a half-hour before closing time.
“Time to pay up, boys,” he said, throwing himself onto a bar stool.
When their late lunch was done Stan paid the check, said hello and goodbye to Gus, who walked in as they walked out, and he and Bumpy shook hands.
“All right,” said Stan. “You know where we are, since you were keeping eagle eyes on us. Don’t come in to the office before nine, but don’t come in after ten, either. I’ll see you Monday.”
Bumpy didn’t often leave Harlem on Saturday nights for Striver’s Row or Sugar Hill or Washington Heights, but there was a bar in Washington Heights he liked, and after taking a nap, changing his clothes, and putting some money in his wallet, he took a subway to the 191st station. He had seen neighborhood kids jump the fence at 200th Street and jump on top of the IRT 7th Avenue cars, riding them to Van Courtland Park. He knew without a doubt that one of them was going to kill himself doing that one of these days. He walked up out of the subway and then down the street towards Shorty’s.
There was gang graffiti on part of a brick wall of an apartment building that had collapsed. Lucky Lords. The Enchanters. Egyptian Kings. One of the Egyptian Kings, somebody called the Cape Man, had shot a Lucky Lord, who ran out of luck that day and went to the Lord.
Farther down somebody had spray-painted “Guns For The Jews.”
There were plenty of Irish and Germans and Italians in Washington Heights, but there were Jews, too, and some Puerto Ricans, as well as Negroes. Irish whiskey, Italian wine, and Jewish pastries were always right around the corner.
The five-story apartment building that collapsed had collapsed when the abandoned ice house next to it exploded.
“It was horrible, said Dorothy Fiege.
“The rumor mill said it was kids playing with matches, causing leftover ammonia fumes to ignite. The icehouse came down and cut the apartment building in half. It was like you were looking into a dollhouse. I don’t remember how many people were killed, but among them was Old Joe, the not-so-humorous Good Humor Ice Cream man who used to ride his refrigerated bicycle around the neighborhood.”
There were World War Two veterans up and down Washington Heights. Some of them limped, others walked with a cane, and one walked very carefully. His eyes had been damaged by a grenade. More than a few of them drank too much, even though most of them were family men and held steady jobs.
Bumpy strolled into Shorty’s and found a seat on a stool near the end of the bar. He was a free man. On Monday he would have steady work. It deserved a drink.
Harvey Joffe, a Surface Transportation bus driver, was on 191st Street when the Cessna 140 came in for a landing
“I had just got back into my seat when all of a sudden I heard something that sounded like a large fan,” he said. “I looked in my rearview mirror and saw this plane coming at me. The plane hit the ground and bounced twenty feet in the air. I thought he was going to take off again. Then he hit the ground again and taxied. “
Harvey Joffe stopped and jumped out of his bus.
“God forbid if I ever hit a plane. What could I say at the safety hearing?”
“That was an almost impossible landing,” said Sgt. Harold Behrens of the Police Aviation Bureau.
“When I saw it, I thought maybe they had trucked it in, as a practical joke,” said Sammy Garcia, a kid in the neighborhood who woke up slowly from a dream and looked out his bedroom window. ”I thought, there was no way a man had landed in that narrow street.”
“A great many terrible things could have happened,” said Magistrate Edward Chapman on Monday morning when Tommy Fitzgerald was arraigned for breaking the city code forbidding landing airplanes on NYC streets.
That same morning the Cessna 140, after having been pushed aside to allow busses and cars to get by, the back half on the sidewalk and the wheels in the gutter, was taken apart and towed to the police station at 182nd Street.
“He landed on a street with lampposts and cars parked on both sides,” said Fred Hartling, a friend of the family in the neighborhood. “Tommy had a crazy side, but he pulled off a miracle.”
“What the hell is that? “Bumpy asked himself, stopping short coming out of Shorty’s, astonished at the vision of an airplane in the middle of the street in the middle of Washington Heights in the middle of Manhattan. “That’s a tight fit,” he thought. Then he noticed it was blocking the front of the opening to the subway.
How was he going to get home to Harlem?
Storm Drain – A Stan Rittman Mystery
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.