Chapter V: Hoboken Drama and Petty Larceny
One day I came home to find the house full of excitement. There were several wooden barrels in the center of the kitchen. What few dishes we had were being wrapped in newspaper and placed in the barrels. We were moving.
It wrung my heart to say goodbye to all my friends--Pauline, Peter, Helen--all the kids I had grown up with. The refrain of my farewells, repeated again and again, was that I would return some day.
Hoboken, my new residence, was one mile square. Our house was adjacent to the industrial area, not far from the railroad tracks. My mother sent me to public school instead of enrolling me in Catholic school. She did not want to start the hassles all over again about not having money for books or regulation clothing. In public school one needed not to worry about such details. Books were free, and the only clothing requirement was that it be clean.
Public School Number Five took in a large section of Hoboken. It was only a couple of blocks from where I lived. I adapted easily to the new classroom routine. The time I had spent at St. Peter's parochial school had made it that much easier. Here, discipline was more relaxed; I didn't witness anyone being brutalized with a ritual morning stropping across the palms for little infractions of dogmatic rules. There I found the greatest teacher who ever lived, Alice A. O'Rafferty. She was a small, frail woman with pince-nez, impeccably dressed. She was in her fifties. She could see through me as no one else could. Within five minutes, she knew when I was about to commit some sort of mayhem in class. Once, while she was facing the blackboard, chalking up the next day's lessons, I began performing a little mimicry, waving my hands in all directions. Without turning around or pausing in her writing she said, "Will the person who is making a fool of himself please stop." From that moment, I figured she had some spiritual power working for her; she did not turn her head once, yet she knew I was the one performing. For years afterward, the incident remained a mystery. I finally decided that, somehow, she got my reflection bouncing off her glasses when she tilted her head a certain way.
She lived in a better section of Hoboken, the area that faced the river. At night she could look out the window and see the towering lights of New York City, including the Woolworth Building, the world's tallest. In front and in back of her residence she had gardens full of lovely flowers. Alice A. O'Rafferty immediately noticed that I lacked three good meals a day, as well as warm clothing. It did not take her long to discover that I came from a family with a good many problems.
At least three times a week, a young Jewish boy whose father owned a furniture store on the main street would bring her an apple. She would thank him warmly and leave the apple on her desk all day. I would stare at it, cursing the "teacher's pet" for boot licking. When it came time to dismiss the class, Miss O'Rafferty would always have someone stay behind to clean the blackboard erasers. Usually that was me. When I had finished my chore she would say, "Put this apple in your pocket and eat it when you get home." Finally I realized that whenever I saw the apple on her desk, I should stay behind after class.
On Easter Sunday she had me come to her house to receive an Easter basket loaded with eggs and chocolate bunnies and jelly beans. When Christmas came around, she again invited me to her house. When I arrived, she had me try on an overcoat. It was a beautiful, long, black wool coat, several sizes too big for me. I was so grateful to receive it that I cried with jubilation. I felt warm all over.
Our school maintained its own traffic control police. I was assigned a street corner to patrol. My job was to stop all traffic, letting the kids cross safely. A badge was strapped to my upper arm. After the area was cleared of kids, all the badges were tuned in to the assistant chief, who put them in the janitor's workshop until the next day. Within three months, I took over the assistant chief's job. The collection of badges fell to me. The janitor was a heavy smoker who left partial packs of cigarettes all through his workshop. Every time I walked in with the badges I saw a pack here and there, but never any janitor. It was the perfect setup.
Just a few months after moving to Hoboken, I teamed up with the local group of kids always responsible for petty mischief. Naturally, we were all striving to grow up quickly--to be rid of childish chores and to shed those knicker pants and long stockings. Smoking was one of the evil steps to growing up and reaching manhood. "Look at me!" you felt like shouting to the whole darn world, "Look! I'm smoking! I'm a grownup! Don't lay any more kid stuff on me, I'm a man!" We would sit around in groups of five or six, carefully watching the one guy who knew how to inhale as he slowly drew in the smoke and let it out through his nose. Man! That was something: to make smoke come out of your nose like a dragon! That was living!
After days and days of trying, I finally made the grade and found myself going around in a dizzy twirl. We would buy small packs of "Sweet Caporals" or "Mecca," which came in half-size packs for a nickel. But nickels were hard to come by, and the discovery that the janitor left cigarettes lying around was the perfect solution. At first, I only took a cigarette or two out of his pack, leaving the package where it was. But as time went on and the demand for cigarettes grew stronger, I began taking the entire pack.
These easy pickings and a life of crime came to a fast end one afternoon when the janitor hid in a closet. Peeking out, he watched me play "Raffles." He jumped out of his hiding place and dragged me to the principal's office. The principal looked up when we entered. "Aha, you finally caught him!"
I stood there like a sheep ready for shearing. Had this been the parochial school, I would have been drawn and quartered. Here, however, the discipline was different. My own teacher was still in the building. She was summoned. Now I was boiling with indignation at being caught--I would have to face Miss O'Rafferty. She came in, looked at me and said, "Wait outside." After a few minutes, she came out and walked me away from the door. "Why didn't you come to me and ask for money for cigarettes instead of stealing them? If you must smoke--and I think it's asinine that you do--I would rather give you the money than see you steal it and end up this way. What am I going to do with you?" She looked at me with those eyes I was sure always peered right through me. I studied the floor.
"Look me in the eye when I talk to you," she demanded.
I raised my head sheepishly, but I couldn't keep my eyes focused on hers. "What do you think should happen to you for stealing?" she asked. I didn't utter a word. "Very well, then. I will find something for you to do that will keep you out of mischief."
The next day she had a list of things for me to do. She named two books I had to read. Each morning I was to bring a written report on my reading. For at least a month, my play time with the "gang" was reduced to nearly zero. I didn't realize at the time that she was increasing the tempo of my education.
Not long afterward, news that a play was shaping up spread through the school. I was assigned a part in "A Day at the Court of King Arthur." I was handed two typewritten pages; for the next three weeks I was to learn lines. The juicy role was that of King Arthur. He was played by the richest kid in the school, Sol Fineman, whose father was a well-established doctor. King Arthur sat in a big royal chair, elevated two feet off the floor. This way he could look down on his subjects. All he did in the play was shout to his court flunky, "Who dares enter the court of King Arthur?" The flunky would then announce the name of the caller. The king would answer, "Let him enter," and the flunky would bang his staff on the floor and shout, "Enter, sir, and pay your respects to the King." The King was dressed in royal garb, and he was always on stage.
My big problem with my lines was a difficulty in pronouncing "Hoboken." I kept saying "Hobucken," It infuriated the teacher. As a cure, she worked out a formula: no matter where I was, if she approached me, I was to repeat the word, "Hoboken."
"Just remember the word `hobo'," she said.
I mumbled, talked to myself, and kept repeating, "hobo, hobo, hobo." I finally got it: "Hoboken."
In the play, I represented the Red Cross. I stood in the wings waiting for my cue. I carried a big white flag with a red cross in its center. The pole to which the flag was attached was nine feet long and heavy. I was to walk up to a designated spot, stopping about ten feet from the king.
When the flunky announced, "Come, sir, and pay your respects to the King," I came charging out much too fast. Instead of stopping within ten feet of the king, I charged ahead, holding the flag pole almost straight up and stopping six feet away. I started to recite, "Five years ago, the President of the United States called upon the children of our country to organize for services during the great World War. Among the hundreds of thousands of children to answer the call were the children of Public School Number Five of Hobo Ken." There were other lines about the number of bundles of clothing and toys that we gathered and something about how our gifts brought hope and enlightenment to the children who were victims of the war in Europe. I was terrified that I might fumble my lines in front of so many people in the auditorium, so I blurted them out quickly. I felt so good when I reached the last line, so proud that I had "done it," that I failed to pay attention to the position of the flagpole.
Instead of stepping back several feet and then turning to exit the way it had been rehearsed, I turned quickly to get off the stage as fast as I could. Though I have no memory of doing so, I lowered the flagpole. It clunked Sol Fineman, alias King Arthur, right on the head, knocking loose his crown. He tried to maintain his composure. But now I turned, and as the pole swung around, it belted him on the side of the face. A series of "oohs" and "aahs" came from the audience. The king was dethroned and sprawled on the floor.
By a stroke of good fortune, I was the last of the king's subjects to appear before him. The curtain came down, and someone picked up the king and his crown and gave him a handkerchief to wipe away his tears. Someone else called me a dummy. And still someone else called for first aid for the scratch on the king's head. Fortunately, it was the last day of school before summer vacation. Everybody would have many weeks to forget the incident.
The main toughie in the neighborhood was a kid named Carson, whom we called Kit. He was small in comparison to the rest of the "mob," but he was skinny and fearless. He was as crooked as a barrel of snakes. He had knew where every small merchant in the neighborhood kept his money overnight. The only obstacle that had face him so far was how to break into a place without tripping the alarm. On such small details, however, he was working assiduously. Kit was much admired by all of us. He knew how to smoke a cigarette, blowing smoke out of his nose and mouth at the same time. He taught us all a lot of tricks.
There were a few saloons in the area that catered to petty thieves. Carson knew them all. One time when things were tough--meaning that there was little to steal and peddle--Carson made a deal with one of the saloon keepers to buy all the electric light bulbs he could steal. The streetcars and buses that made up the transportation system of Hoboken each carried a 100-watt bulb in a cage-like structure in the rear. Just as the streetcar or bus was about to take off from its corner stop, one of the "mob" would climb onto the rear bumper. Holding on with one hand, he would use the other to flip open the cage and unscrew the bulb. Then he would hop off at the next stop. Within three days the Hoboken transportation company was without lights. That brought about an innovation: the two-prong bulb that could not be attached to the system in houses. We were out of business.
In the meantime, the saloon keeper bought bulbs from us at two for a nickel. For a while, there was competition in the "mob" as to who could hop aboard the most streetcars and buses in one day. It was considered only natural that our leader, Kit Carson, won all the honors. We blew our loot on cigarettes, pizzas and charlotte russes. Carson, with his ever-keen eye, picked a grocery store in our immediate neighborhood for his next caper. He knew that the Italian owner never walked home with the store receipts on a Saturday night. So, one Saturday, he climbed up on a roof across the street from the store. From this vantage point he could look down into the large window of the Italian's place. He watched as the owner went about his routine of emptying the cash register, counting the money, separating the ones from the twos, fives and tens, stuffing it into a small cloth sack, and finally locking it in a small steel container. Carson watched, his heart beating faster, as the owner went to the oatmeal shelf, removed a few cartons, placed the cash box on the shelf, then neatly replaced the oatmeal cartons. Out went the lights. He locked the door and went home.
Skinny, tough, small, wiry Carson was clever enough not to call upon the 12 or 13 kids who made up the "mob" to join him in the burglary. He picked only two who suited his purpose. Come Monday, there was much activity in the neighborhood. Cops and detectives ran in and out of the grocery store. From time to time, the owner would come out and stand in front of the door, slapping his head with his open palms and shouting something in Italian. I imagined he, a poor, humble Italian who had been robbed, was appealing to the neighborhood to please bring back his money, whoever had stolen it. To us kids, it was obvious who stole it.
Carson and the two others were not around to witness the antics of the police and owner. No sir, Carson and his cohorts were busy at Rockaway Beach and its amusement park, spending some $200 which just the previous day had rested comfortably behind some boxes of oatmeal. Around the middle of the week, after four days of swimming, eating hot dogs, drinking countless bottles of soda, smoking countless cigarettes and taking in all the amusements the park offered, the trio came home, tanned, refreshed, well-fed--and broke. Since the cops knew Carson as the neighborhood petty crook, they picked him up when he arrived home. He lived up to his tough reputation: after several hours of grilling, he said nothing. The cops let him go.
How did he enter the store, since it was wired against burglary? The rest of the mob asked him that a number of times. The secret lay in the transom over the store's front door. The door itself had been wired against unlawful entry, but the transom wasn't. Since it was the middle of July and a heat wave scorched the city, the grocer invariably left the transom shutter wide open when he locked up. Carson had turned this opportunity to his advantage.
Carson's cutting out most of the mob from the goodies didn't sit well with us. We realized that he could not be relied on to cut us in on any future lucrative projects. We would have to cut it on our own. Of all the ways of making penny-ante dough, the junk-shop route was the most appealing. If you weren't inclined toward robbing stores or grabbing somebody's purse, you could locate and collect any old junk and haul it to the junk shop. Copper paid most, with brass and then lead following in price. Old rags paid very little; you needed a whale of a load to get ten or fifteen cents. An empty house in the middle of the block became our target. One of my cohorts and I managed to sneak into this house through an open rear window. It had three stories. All of its pipes were exposed, as they were in most of the old homes in those days. All the pipes were lead. We knew enough to go to the basement, search out the valve and shut the water off. The rest was easy. We went to the top floor and yanked off the pipes under the sink. We rolled up some 25 pounds of lead and wrapped it in a sack. We fixed the door so we could re-enter when we returned. Then we headed for the junk shop with our loot. It weighed out at 27 pounds. At five cents per pound, it came to $1.35. That night we sat on the doorstep, eating a pizza and licking a charlotte russe, happy in the knowledge of the location of more lead pipe, which meant more pizza and charlotte russes.
There are all sorts of laws, some good and some bad. The law of averages was one we were not familiar with. On the fifth day, we had worked ourselves down to the first floor. We used a hacksaw which cut easily through the pipe. We even brought our own burlap bags to hold the lead. Soon it became clear that the more lead we took to the shop, the more the owner cheated us. According to him, the price of lead could go down in a single night by as much as a penny. If we didn't like it, we could always haul our stuff to the other junk shop ten blocks away. Exhausted as we were, ten blocks did not appeal to us. Sometimes we made two trips a day with our lead. We were making it in the junk business. The other kids were jealous, watching us smoke "tailor-made" cigarettes and eat pizzas every night. We kept the source of our wealth to ourselves.
It happened quickly. Two detectives nailed us as we took a few steps outside the house, each of us with a bag of lead over our shoulders. The steel-barred doors clanged shut behind us. Caged! We were in a cell with two bunks chained to the wall, two lumpy straw mattresses, a couple of moth-eaten thin gray blankets and two tin cups. The walls were full of scratches and penciled initials, with a word or two for the wise: "Don't cop a plea with Judge Sullivan," Advised one. "Make your peace with God," counseled another. We were lucky. Our families came and took us home after a few hours. I had my ears boxed that night and my mother chased me from room to room as she laid the poker across my butt.
Five days later, my mother appeared with me before a judge in his private chambers. The red-faced, pudgy man sat behind a desk. To his right sat the probation officer. My mother faced him nervously. He shuffled a few papers, then looked at me. "You don't seem to have any productive outlet," suggested the judge.
My mother jumped in quickly. "But he's really a good boy, sir. It's just some bad company he got into lately."
"It's always bad company," countered the judge. "Every mother or father that comes before me insists on blaming their son's habits on the company he keeps, never on him."
"But he has never been in trouble before, sir. And besides, I gave him a good licking when I got him home. That will teach him," ventured my mother.
"I think he needs more than a good licking," replied the judge as he turned toward the probation officer. "Let's try two weeks at the Farm for Wayward Boys." It was all over. My mother started weeping. I pouted. The probation officer took me by the hand and led me outside into another office.
"He goes to the Farm," he informed the man at the desk.
"Sit there and don't move," ordered the man. An hour later, a small bus took me to the Farm.
The Farm was located on the fringes of Jersey City. It was comprised of a few buildings, a large number of work sheds, and plenty of rich black soil. There were a hundred kids there, all from the working class. I remember no fat ones; they were all skinny, bony guys like myself, who entered the place hungry. This was the first time I had been forcibly separated from the family. I did not like it. Only the fear of being humiliated by the other kids kept me from bursting into tears. Every kid at the Farm was in the same boat.
During the day, we were sent out to work in the fields, to hoe row after row of carrots, cabbages and onions; to pull weeds; or to fertilize the rows with manure. At meal times, we crowded together in a small building, the mess hall, to eat. The food was plain but fresh, and there was plenty of it. A wire fence seven feet high separated us from the outside world. What kept kids from trying to escape was the fear of a severe beating, an ice cold shower, and more time at the Farm.
The day I entered the place, a nurse checked me over and gave me a few tests. Three days later I was summoned to her office, and within minutes I was en route to a hospital at a place called Snake Hill. I had diphtheria. After ten days in the hospital, I returned to the Farm to serve the rest of my two weeks.
Back on the streets, I quickly picked up my old habits. I was back to smoking, back to making plans to turn knowledge into money. I found a few hours of work in one of Hoboken's three bowling alleys, setting pins a couple of nights a week. The competition was tough, and even two bits for three hours of backbreaking work was considered good.
Another boy and I went on a scouting expedition, looking for something to turn into cash. We wound up around the big car barns that housed and serviced Hoboken and Jersey City street cars and buses. All sorts of fire ladders led to the roof of the one-story structure. We climbed one, expecting to get a view rather than to find anything of value. We scanned the city in all directions, locating our school, the city hall, the church. Nothing we noticed on the roof could be negotiated into cash, and we prepared to leave and scout other territory. My partner caught his pants on a piece of thin metal sticking out slightly from the roof parapet a foot below the top of the roof. As I bent down to untangle his cuff, I discovered that the pitch-covered metal was copper. A bonanza! A complete city block of copper! It was used as a waterproofing sealant strip that ran around the top of the roof. All we had to do was work the copper sheeting loose from the side of the wall, pull and tear. The sheeting would peel off in ten-foot strips. We would roll it up, step on it to flatten the roll, pop it into a burlap bag, and haul it off to the junk dealer.
Once a day, we appeared on the scene with our potato sacks. We checked the area to make sure no one was around, then we climbed the roof and started our operation, the "big rip-off." Each day's work netted us at least three dollars apiece. That was big money for the short amount of labor involved. And if the junk man had been honest with his weights and prices, we would have been paid triple that. As it was, we were happy for small favors. For ten days we tore up that roof, peeling off copper strips as if we were peeling bananas. The junk man gloated over our success.
On the eleventh day it rained, and we laid off work to enjoy the fruits of our labor. The next day, when the sun came out, we too were out with our sacks, ready for work. As we started to leave with our sacks loaded, a small army of conductors and repairmen fell upon us. The roof had sprung a thousand leaks. The machine shop was soaked with rain water. Someone had gone to the roof to check, found all the weather proofing torn up or missing, and then set the trap. The game was up. A week later, it was back to the same judge, then back to the same Farm. This time the sentence was doubled. If you returned to the Farm for a second time, they made it rough for you. No more simple work like picking potato bugs off leaves or pulling weeds. "Shake hands with the pick and shovel," they told me. I spent that month digging ditches, with very few breaks. That did it--no more jails, I told myself. No more banditry.
Three days on the outside, bored and broke and listening to the heated arguments between my mother and stepfather started me off again. A few blocks from the neighborhood stood an expensive hotel and drinking place. Only the very rich and sporty frequented it. A few other kids and I started hanging around it, looking for an opportunity. One night we spotted a swanky car pulling up. The driver got out and entered the bar. The car was full of rich-looking suitcases. The door was unlocked. We opened the door and pulled out the first suitcase we saw. We headed down the street to a dark alley. The suitcase was loaded with the most expensive shirts we had ever seen. Someone peering out of an upper-story window had seen us commit the act. The police received a fair description. We hid the suitcase under a warehouse loading platform. Every evening for three days straight, we made a trip to the suitcase to change shirts. For three days we were the ritziest kids in Hoboken, while the cops continued their search for us. A detective picked two of us up after he noticed us wearing silk shirts under overalls with sneakers. We insisted that the shirts belonged to our fathers, but the detective was suspicious. We were held until some member of the family appeared to take us home.
My mom came to get me. The first thing she said when she saw me was, "Just wait until I get you home. You'll get the licking of your life." The detective smiled at this. In the next breath she said, "And where did you get that shirt? You never had it on when you left the house."
The detective turned and stared at me. That was it. The detective got the suitcase and the rest of the shirts and I got nabbed for rap number three. This was serious. Now I was really flouting the law. This meant being sent to a strict reform school where there would be harsh treatment and few privileges. I did not get a beating when I got home. Instead, my mother was rather morose about the whole deal. She felt that she had unintentionally put the finger on me. She was worried. After all, the other two brothers had been sent to the strictest reform school in New Jersey, and she didn't want to see the same thing happen to me.
As luck would have it, the juvenile judge went off on a two-week vacation, leaving a backlog of cases. There were just three more weeks of summer vacation.
Copyright © 1993 by Bill Bailey. All Rights Reserved.
The Kid from Hoboken: Book One