By Ed Staskus
Mr. Moto knew a straight cat when he saw one so when he saw Bumpy Williams stepping out of a cab and walking up to the house, he didn’t sweat it. He could see black and white and blue colors best, like all cats. He wasn’t good with reds and greens. Bumpy looked like a blues man to him. Mr. Moto could feel boneyard blues in his bones when he heard 12 bars thrumming.
He didn’t know a thing about baseball but knew he could steal home plate faster than Jackie Robinson could blink. He knew Dottie was big on stickball. He didn’t know she was going to Ebbets Field this afternoon for the first game of the World Series between the Bums and the Bombers.
Dottie was waiting downstairs on the inside stairs. When she saw Bumpy reaching for the door, the cab tail piping smoke, she jumped up and barged outside.
She was wearing a Brooklyn Dodgers pinback button on her shirt, had Pee Wee Reese’s 1956 Topps baseball card in her hand, and a blue cap with Chief Wahoo inside a red wishbone “C” on top of her head.
“You got buck teeth on your head,” Bumpy said.
“My dad is from Cleveland,” Dottie said. “He gave it to me. He said we have to stay true to our roots. I don’t let anybody say anything about it when I’m wearing it.” She gave Bumpy a pointed look.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, and pushed the brim down.
“I’m hungry,” Dottie said, looking up.
“So am I. How are you with waffles?”
“I love waffles.”
“Me too. Let’s go.”
When they drove past the Socony Mobil building, built that year at 42nd Street between Lexington and Third Avenue, Dottie pointed out the window of the cab.
“It’s a shiny waffle building.”
The world’s first stainless steel skyscraper was sheathed in thousands of panels studded with pyramid designs. The architectural critic Lewis Mumford from Flushing, Queens, wrote that the building looked like it had the measles. He thought the ideal city was the medieval city. He didn’t say what living in a medieval city without indoor plumbing and running water and power at the push of a button might be like. If she knew who he was, Dottie would have told him to go back to Flushing.
“You said the ballpark, right?” the hook-nosed cabbie asked, the toothpick in his mouth staying still as a crack in cement, stuck between two close-set teeth.
“Close enough but drop us off at Flatbush and Lincoln.”
Childs Restaurant on the northwest corner was a two-story building with a grimy fish window featuring an urn facing Flatbush Avenue. A red-faced grill cook was in the window flap-jacking.
“That’s where he’s going to make our waffles,” Bumpy said, swinging the front door open for Dottie. They sat in a booth. It was purple vinyl with an upside-down white triangle on the back rest. The table was pale green flecked with small white slashes.
“No need for a bill of fare,” Bumpy said to the waitress. “Two big plates of waffles, butter and syrup, joe for me and lemonade for the young lady.”
“I don’t want lemonade.” Dottie said.
“What do you want?”
“That’s the same as lemonade.”
“No, it’s not, it’s grapefruit, and it’s carbonated. And one more thing, please make mine a Belgian waffle.”
The waitress slid away, smoothing her white apron, which matched her white collar and white trim around the sleeves. She looked like a maid in a big house. She checked her no-nonsense non-slip work shoes for coffee stains.
“Well cut my legs off and call me Shorty if it isn’t Bumpy Williams,” a tall handsome more-or-less Negro man said stopping at their table.
Bumpy and Dottie looked up.
“If it isn’t my man Adam who still has never done nothing for me,” Bumpy said. “How are you?”
“Keeping the faith, baby, keeping the faith,” said Adam Clayton Powell.
“How’s Hazel?” Bumpy asked, looking the leggy lady standing next to the congressman up and down and up again.
“My secretary,” Adam Powell said, nodding at the curves next to him.
“See her much?”
“Here and there,” he said.
Adam Powell’s wife Hazel Scott was summoned and appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee six years earlier. She was a classical and jazz piano player and singer and hosted a variety show on TV. She denied “ever knowingly being connected with the Communist Party or any of its front organizations.” She admitted being associated with socialists, a group she said that “has hated Communists longer and more fiercely than any other.” When the Red Scare in Congress leaned on her, she shot back that they should try “democratic methods to eliminate a good many irresponsible charges.”
They didn’t like that and started huffing and puffing. Hazel lamented that entertainers were already “covered with the mud of slander and the filth of scandal” by congressional goons trying to prove their loyalty to the United States.
Her TV show “The Hazel Scott Show” was cancelled the next week. She suffered a nervous breakdown. The next three four years she played on and off with Charles Mingus and Max Roach, more often in Europe than the United States.
“I think she might be on her way to France, maybe for good,” Adam Powell said.
“Are you a Negro like Bumpy,” Dottie asked him, looking into his hazel eyes.
“No, honey, I’m a man who is part African, part German, and part American Indian.”
“What part of you are you today?”
“The Bums part of me,” he laughed.
Dottie pointed to the button on her shirt.
“You and me both, sister,” he said.
“I hear you came out for Ike,” Bumpy said.
“I did, and I’ve been taking a lot of heat for it, but I got some great seats.”
Bumpy could have told him to stay as far away from the president as possible but he didn’t. He wasn’t loose-lipped when it came to business, especially when business was a bomb that might blow Ike up. His job was to look out for Dottie, not for politicians, who were always looking out for themselves, anyway. He liked Ike, which made him different. He looked and saw waffles coming their way.
“See you at the ballpark, then.”
“How’s that? One of your numbers hit to pay for the ticket?”
“No, that’s for chumps. Dottie here is going to be on the Happy Felton TV show before the game. I’m her escort.”
“Good for you, Dottie, and put a good word in for your congressman.”
“She lives in Hell’s Kitchen, not Harlem,” Bumpy said.
“Close enough,” the congressman said, and wrapping his arm around the waist of his secretary, walked to his table, where a table tent “Reserved” sign sat.
“Why did he want me to say something about him?” Dottie asked.
“He’s a politician, a Washington politician. He never spends his own money except by accident, so a good word free of charge on TV is like gold to him.”
“Oh, he’s a government man. Dad gets sour when anybody talks about the government.”
“Honey just be glad we aren’t getting all the government we’re paying for,” Bumpy said, and dug into his stack of waffles, topped with fried eggs and bacon. Dottie pushed butter into the pockets of her plate-sized Belgian waffle and poured Sleepy Hollow syrup on it, spreading it with her knife and licking the blade clean.
“Hey, don’t lick that off your knife, you’ll cut your tongue,” Bumpy said. “How are you going to be able to talk to Pee Wee if that happens?”
“Oh my gosh!” Dottie exclaimed, putting the knife down in a flash.
After their late breakfast they walked up Flatbush to Empire Blvd to Ebbets Field. The streets were full of cars and the sidewalks were full of fans. Vendors were everywhere. Scalpers were peddling tickets. The Mounted Police Unit was out in force, their horses leaving piles of shit behind them. The ballpark stood on one square block. It was surrounded on all four sides by shops and apartments and parking lots.
“Did you know Bugs Bunny was born in Ebbets Field down the left field foul line?” Bumpy asked Dottie.
“He was not! Was he? Who says so?”
“Warner Brothers says so, the outfit he works for. He was born there just before his first cartoon in 1940.”
“He was born on the field, out in the open?”
“That’s the way rabbits do it,” Bumpy said. “They build their nests out in the open, in plain sight, the last place anybody would expect, and that keeps them safe.”
“So, they are right there but nobody can see them?”
“That’s right, it’s like they’re invisible.”
“But Bugs always pops up out of a hole.”
“That’s just in the movies.”
The stadium was named after Charlie Ebbets, who started out as a ticket taker for the team and grew up to become its owner. He laid the foundation for the new diamond by buying land in secret starting in 1905, more than a thousand small parcels of it, finally accumulating enough ground to build the ballpark eight years later.
Fans bought tickets at gilded ticket windows, went into the marble rotunda through gilded turnstiles, and if they looked up saw a colossal chandelier with twelve baseball bats holding twelve baseball look-a-like lamps.
Dottie flashed her Happy Felton pass at one of the turnstiles.
“Who’s he?” the ticket taker, flanked by a policeman, asked, pointing at Bumpy.
“That’s my Uncle Bumpy,” Dottie said.
“I work for Duluc Detective, and the boss asked me to watch his kid while she was here, seeing as she was going to be alone.”
“All right, just don’t let the TV camera see you. You aren’t any Dark Destroyer, not on my beat,” the policeman said.
“Yes, boss,” Bumpy said.
“That policeman sounded mean to you,” Dottie said as they walked towards the field.
“A happy raisin in the sun is a field of dreams, honey, a field of dreams.”
Happy Felton was glad to see them, especially since they were on time. He explained the skit, where Dottie would stand, and where the camera and microphone would be. He showed her the certificate Pee Wee Reese would be handing her. “Hey, somebody roust Pee Wee, tell him we’re almost ready to go with the girl.” He told Dottie her time in the spotlight would last five minutes and to not be nervous.
“I’m not nervous,” she said. “But I can’t wait to meet him.”
He was more, not less what she thought he was going to be. He was taller.
“You’re not a pee wee,” she said.
“Not me, kid,” he said.
Harold Henry Reese was five-foot-ten in his bare feet and pushing nearly 170-pounds. He played small ball, bunting, slashing singles, and stealing bases but he wasn’t a small man. He played the hole, shortstop, was the team captain, and wore number one on the back of his uniform shirt.
“He takes charge out there in a way to help all of us, especially the pitchers,” said Jackie Robinson, the team’s second baseman. “When Pee Wee tells us where to play or gives some of us the devil, somehow it is easy to take. He just has a way about him of saying the right thing,”
Pee Wee and Jackie were the aces in the hole, the men who plugged the gaps between the bags. Not many balls got by them. They played shoulder to shoulder turning double plays. They ignored the catcalls on the road. They made their stand ending innings.
“I like your button, but I don’t know about that cap,” said Pee Wee.
“My dad is from Cleveland.”
“Well, that makes it all right then. It seems to fit you A-OK.”
“I took a hot bath in it and wore it until it dried. Then I curved the bill and stuck it in one of my dad’s favorite coffee mugs overnight. The next morning, he was mad about it, and made me wash it out twice.”
Happy Felton introduced the baseball player and the stickball player to each other and to the TV audience.
“Your name is Dottie?”
“That’s my wife’s name. Not only that you look a lot like her.”
Dottie beamed, happy as could be.
“Would you sign my baseball card?”
“I sure will.”
When he did, he congratulated her on her ball skills, she said she was rooting heart and soul for the Dodgers, he presented her with an official Dodger’s Certificate of Achievement, she held it up for the camera, and he pulled a big marble out of his pants pocket, handing it to her.
“I played marbles when I was your age. This one is a shooter. The smaller ones we called ducks. You’ve heard about playing for keeps.”
“That’s what my dad always says to do.”
“That’s what you always do playing marbles, and baseball, and everything else. This one is yours to keep. You never know when it might come in handy.”
Her five minutes were over in the blink of an eye. Pee Wee Reese glided away, Happy Felton eased her to the side, and Bumpy waved for her to come with him. As they walked down the right field foul line Dottie looked toward the opposite dugout.
“Look, there’s dad,” Dottie said suddenly, pointing past Bumpy, who was on the inside track.
Stan and Ezra were in front of the third base home team dugout talking to a short thickset man smoking a fat cigar. The man pointed down the left field line. Another man, who had been leaning over the dugout, waved, and shouted something, and the cigar waggled him onto the field. The man stepped on the roof of the dugout and jumped down to the field. Stan Ezra the Cigar Man and the jumper huddled, and then went running up the foul line.
“You stay here,” Bumpy said, starting to go around home plate. Dottie hesitated, but then ran straight across the field, cutting the corner in front of the pitcher’s mound.
“Oh hell, “Bumpy swore under his breath, and broke into a sprint after her.
Excerpted from “Stickball” at http://www.stanriddman.com.
Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”