Chapter I: Booze and Petty Larceny
Home, a great refuge from the storms and hostile forces of the outside world: this sounds comforting, but my home did not fulfill any of these expectations. Within a few days, the same old pressures reasserted themselves.
"Get up and look for a job," the stepfather would say, shaking me vigorously. "This is not your boxcar where you can lay around all day. If you want to stay here, you have to earn your way."
It was hard to take this from him, since he was the biggest loafer on record. But my mother knew that, as bad as he was in providing, his small government pension check did offer something in the way of support.
I scanned the newspapers for jobs, running down what leads there were, but the want ad columns offered next to nothing. I'd come home exhausted from walking. If there was anything to eat, it was handed to me reluctantly. Even that was hard to eat when the discussion at the table centered on why I was not employed like "the boy up the street."
My mother was completely dominated by my stepfather. There was no argument I could use that could make her understand the situation. "Your stepfather is right. You don't care about getting a job and supporting your mother," she would say, removing the dishes from the table. After two weeks of this, I said to hell with the whole mess and started to concentrate on getting a ship. But shipping, too, was slowly diminishing. The seamen's shipping centers were crowded with men standing around like sheep in a pen waiting for a nod or a blink from the shipping master that meant they had a job.
I ran into an old buddy. He had a bottle of bootleg booze. A few nips and I was on my way to becoming a boozer. He had a room on the East Side, big enough to allow me to sleep on the floor. During the day we concentrated our energies on getting a meal or two, along with a twenty-five cent piece for a pint of booze, which we shared at night. Within a week, I knew the address of every bootlegger in the neighborhood. There was one in every tenement house. Each had his own formula for making the stuff. One house used potato peels, and the booze they made came out white. A spoonful of burnt sugar and it looked like the real thing. Others used raisins and plums. I saw stills of all shapes and sizes bubbling away in many of the joints I went to. If they weren't making booze, they were producing home brew, and the place stank with ether fumes or bubbling yeast.
The doors on the tenement speakeasies were usually the strongest doors in the building. Steel plate on the outside of the door made it easy to locate the business. All one had to know was the owner's code name and their hours of operation. The home speakeasy was a source of income for those who couldn't find a job but who had the necessary paraphernalia to set themselves up in business. It also served as a source of extra income for the beat cop who "knew nothing, heard nothing and did nothing."
For the next several months, I maintained no contact with the family and didn't care to. I shifted around during the day, eating where I could. As bad as things were, I always managed to end up with a bottle of booze at night. When my friend lost his room, I found another one. When there was no room, I found an empty truck along the waterfront as refuge from the cold and slept in that.
Soup lines were forming everywhere. As the days and weeks went by, the lines became longer. At first, there was a pride in people; they didn't want anyone to see them lining up for a free meal. But as time went on, that false pride disappeared and people talked openly of which soup line provided the better meal.
It was a warm Sunday morning that I lay flat out on the sidewalk, sound asleep. Someone was banging on my feet with a stick. I woke up. The sun was staring me in the face, as was a policeman. "Get on your feet, bum," he said coldly.
I reached my knees, and with a superhuman effort rose. I stood dizzy, sick to my stomach. The street was empty. My clothes were dirty and disheveled. One shoe was off my foot and lying a few feet away. My face was dirty, my hair a mess.
"Put your shoe on and get the hell off my beat before I run you in. Hear me?"
It was only a block to the waterfront. I headed for an open pier where I knew I would find running water. Splashing myself with cold water to wake up, I quickly realized that what I had been doing had come to an end. I didn't appreciate the term "bum," but I knew that was what I had become. There had to be another way to get by, a better way than the one I had been pursuing.
A few days later, I ran into another old buddy known as "Junkyard Scotty." I had met him at the Seamen's Institute one day, and he had propositioned me to go into some kind of junk business. At the time it didn't appeal to me. Now it took on a new dimension. Over a bowl of soup, we discussed some of his ideas. They seemed simple enough. Scotty always seemed to have a few dollars with him. I put in with him.
He spent many hours traversing the neighborhoods, checking out the houses he passed and noting those that were empty. When he found a house that suited him, he would reappear the next day, posing as a delivery man with a package in his arms. He put on a show for anyone who may have been watching, going to the front door, trying the knobs and banging on the door. Finding the house empty, he proceeded to his next move.
I was handed a coil of telephone wire which I put over my shoulder. With small tools dangling around my belt, I would locate an alley door down the street, get into a backyard and work my way over fences until I came to the empty house. Had anyone witnessed my antics, they would have surmised that I was a telephone man doing some repair work. Once I reached the designated house, it was easy to pry open the back door or window and get inside. A quick survey of all the rooms followed, including a check of the walls to determine how soundproof they were. Making sure all the doors were locked, I would descend to the basement, shut off the water mains and start the actual job. With a simple hacksaw, we had every piece of lead pipe removed from a three-story house cut and rolled up in small coils, ready to be sacked and hauled away, all in two hours. For the hauling part of the enterprise, we waited until dark, then dashed out, fetched the burlap bags and got the stuff to the junk dealers. If the junk dealer knew you had a big load, he would stay open for an extra hour or two and, in most cases, he would lend you a pushcart to haul the stuff.
At least once a week we would case a place, enter and strip it clean of its lead pipe and brass fittings. I felt exuberant with money in my jeans again. When President Hoover was having his picture taken in full Indian headdress for the cameras, we were sitting back in the plush comfort of the theaters, watching him in newsreels.
If I saw my mother on the street, I would hand her a ten-dollar bill, with the explanation that I had a very small job. She asked no questions, but always parted with, "I pray the Lord will look out after you."
A few blocks from where I lived was a huge, five-story warehouse. It was jammed into a block of warehouses. The big door was bolted, and dirt and garbage blown by the wind had collected in front of it. The odd thing about this particular warehouse was that it had dirty windows--a sure sign of no steady people around. It was impossible to determine what was in that warehouse. Trying to break in from the front was impossible. We circled the block and found an old garage that had a ladder running up the side of the building to the roof. Once on the roof, we were within a hundred feet of the back of the warehouse. Since it was Sunday, no one was around to watch our activities. We felt safe going from roof to roof, then prying open a window and entering the warehouse.
Inside, we were amazed at what we found. The warehouse was owned by George M. Cohan, the great Broadway theatrical man. Floor after floor was stocked with scenery from plays of bygone years. There were trunks and trunks of costumes and crates of wigs, shoes and slippers. We searched every floor, looking for some item that could be turned into a few dollars. We knew we couldn't sell big canvasses or 17th-Century costumes. We had no idea of what their value might be. All we knew was that lead pipe, copper wire and brass fittings brought a good price at the junk dealers.
We continued our hunt through the warehouse. On the first floor, we found what we were looking for. Hundreds of chandeliers were lying in neat coverings or linings. These we had to rip off and take to the junk man. The stripping might well take a week. With a pair of pliers, we slipped off the brass outer layer of the chandelier, leaving a crude, cast iron skeleton. We then flattened out the brass tubing, making it heavier, but smaller. This was the finished product to take to the junk dealer.
After about six hours of desecrating some beautiful art objects, we ended up with one-hundred-and-fifty pounds of brass fittings. Split two ways, the money only took care of our immediate needs. Three days of this hard work for peanuts produced a new idea: to strip the huge copper cables used in the freight elevator. Since copper fetched next to the highest price for junk (aluminum brought the highest), we decided to concentrate on the elevator cable. This meant bringing in another guy, since it was hard work ripping through walls and tearing up sections of flooring.
We had no trouble picking the guy we wanted, a 230-pound coal passer from Liverpool nicknamed "The Lip" for his ability to sit down with a group of men and say nothing during an entire evening, as well as for his silence of movement. He was intelligent and sharp when engaged in conversation, but we didn't want him for his intellectual capacities, nor for his ability to maintain a high degree of serenity. We pulled him into our group because of his strength and endurance.
As a threesome, we got along great. The first day together we ripped up a good section of flooring and a piece of wall and rolled up some 200 pounds of copper cable. We stuffed it into sacks and sneaked out the front door, fixing it so it would be easy for us to return the next day. For the next three days we worked like mules, tearing up the floor and tracing the copper cables. But in the midst of success, carelessness overtook us. One day we could not enter through the front door. There was some activity in front of the warehouse. Workmen were repairing part of the street and we did not want to be seen going in. Instead we sought the original way we had found entry, through the back of the warehouse.
Nothing seemed out of line until we were climbing through the window and, upon turning, saw some guy flying pigeons off the roof across the street. He watched us entering the building, then quickly turned and looked the other way. We entered anyway. An hour later, we heard footsteps upstairs that turned out to be those of two policemen and a detective. Looking out the front window and down into the street, we saw a police car stationed at each end of the building. No escape was left. The best we could do was to try and hide, creating the impression that we had gotten away somehow. Quietly, we hid behind some tall canvas scenery as the police came to our floor. They saw the prop machine gun we had set up on a tripod as a jest. They took it seriously and took out their guns. We held our breaths. We heard the cocking of pistols as they entered the loft cautiously. I moved my arm to take it out of sight. The slight touch on the canvas must have sounded like the winds of a tornado to them. They turned quickly, firing their pistols in the direction of the sound. Fortunately for us, either their aim was bad or they were deliberately firing over our heads. Plaster chips from the wall rained down on us. Even among the cops, panic ensued. One shouted, "Throw away your guns and come out with your hands up!" while another shouted that we should throw away our guns and stay put.
There wasn't much to do but ease out slowly with our hands raised over our heads. When I emerged from behind the canvas, I faced three members of New York's Finest waving blue steel revolvers in my face. The police found themselves let down when they discovered that, with no guns or knives, we were not the big-time crooks they had figured on meeting, but penny-ante junk collectors.
One cop, furious that we weren't armed to the teeth, shouted, "Whatcha do with the goddamn gun? Where's the gat?"
"We ain't got no guns," replied the Lip shakily. The cop growled at the Lip. The revolver still in his hand, he brought it smashing down to the Lip's ear. He reeled back from the blow, dropping his hands to his ear, which started spouting blood. In a second, the blood covered the side of his face and ran down onto his shoulder. The pain must have been excruciating; the Lip twisted his face and, still dazed, looked at the cops as if he expected another blow. We were sure to be next, but the fury of the cop had been spent with the blow he gave the Lip.
Having searched us, they led us down the stairs to the front door. Outside, the street was deserted, as most streets are on a late Sunday afternoon. At both ends of the street we could see police cars. Within minutes, the Black Maria came rolling along and we were on our way to the station house. The desk sergeant took a look at the Lip's ear and decided he should be driven to Bellevue Hospital to have it stitched up. Two hours later, he was returned to the station house with seven stitches across his ear and a bandage that made him look like a Turk in a dress parade.
We were told to sit down and wait until the desk sergeant got around to booking us. Sitting there, we watched the never-ending parade of faces that came into the station. Some were victims; others were "victimizers." One guy was being dragged in by two burly policemen. His nose was bloody and it was evident he had undergone some rough treatment. "He took a poke at Officer O'Hanlon," the cop said as he turned to the desk sergeant.
"Oh, he did now, did he?" the sergeant said. "So it's fighting with policemen you like, is it?" he shouted at the prisoner. "You sit down in that chair or I'll knock the living Jesus out of you." The prisoner sat a few feet from the sergeant, took out his handkerchief, and started to wipe away the blood on his face.
As each cop came in off his beat, he would stop to receive acknowledgement from the desk sergeant. Then, looking at the bloody prisoner, he would ask, "And what's with this one?"
"Oh, he's a fine one," the sergeant would reply. "He likes to fight cops. He took a few belts at Officer O'Hanlon."
"Oh, he did now, did he?" the cop would answer. Then, facing the prisoner: "So you like to beat up on policemen, now do you? Huh?" Then the cop would aim a blow at the prisoner. This went on for some fifteen minutes. Twice the desk sergeant had to help the prisoner off the floor and back to his seat, but he never made a move to prevent cops from slugging the prisoner if they felt like it. In fact, the prisoner seemed to expect to be belted by every cop that entered the station. We never did find out how that guy made out. He was still sitting there when we were led out to be fingerprinted and "mugged." Afterwards, we were placed in a cell to await transportation to the Tombs, a horrid monstrosity of stone and steel located downtown next to the courts.
Copyright © 1993 by Bill Bailey. All Rights Reserved.
The Kid from Hoboken: Book Two