Seven in the Bag

By Ed Staskus

   When Stan Riddman walked up from under the Flatiron Building it wasn’t dark, not new dark yet. The sky was lemon and pale blue.  It was the first day of the second week of fall, but felt more like the middle of summer, except for the shorter autumn days. He wore a short sleeve shirt and linen trousers. The thin wallet in his back pocket was flush with more fives and tens than it was with one-spots. 

   He gave his wallet a friendly pat. The seven-card stud they played in the basement next to the furnace room had been good to him. I can buy the kid some new clothes, get up front on the office rent, and score tickets for the Series, he thought.

   The Socialist Labor Party used to have offices in the Flatiron Building, but not down in the underground. He wondered if they would have banned gambling, making it out like it was exploitive, if they had ever come to power. You took your chances at poker, but it was only exploitive if you had no skill at it. You deserved to be taken if you played dreamland cards.

   He walked down 22nd Street to Lexington Avenue, turned right, walked through Gramercy Park to Irving Place, and looked for a phone booth

   The Yankees were in and the Indians were out, that was for sure. The Redlegs were running on an outside track, but the Braves were neck and neck with the Dodgers. Sal the Barber had no-hit the Phils earlier in the week at Ebbets Field and the Cardinals were going hard at the Braves out in the boondocks. It was all going to come down to the weekend as to whether there was going to be a subway series, the same as last year, or not.

    Last year it went seven games, and the oddball thing was the Yankees won three at Ebbets Field and the Dodgers won their four at Yankee Stadium. Neither team won on their home field. Nobody won that bet. Nobody took the backside odds on the seventh game, win or go home, either, especially since Jackie Robinson wasn’t penciled in to play the deciding nine.

   Nobody but Stan and Ezra, and anybody else who flipped a coin.

   Who would have thought the Cuban would be the difference-maker when he took over right field in the sixth inning? Stan was in the upper deck with his sometime partner, Ezra Aronson. The Yankee dugout was on the first base side, so most of the Bum fans were on the third base side. A client who was a Yankees fan, after Stan had gotten him the black and white’s he needed to get his divorce done, gave a sudden pair of passes to him, so they were on the wrong side.

   “Beggars can’t be choosers,” Ezra said, sitting in a sea of Bronx Bomber fans.

   When Yogi Berra hit an opposite field sure double, Ezra sprang out of his seat, like everyone else, but the lightning fast Sandy Amoros caught it coming out of nowhere. He fired a pill to Pee Wee Reese, who relayed it to Gil Hodges, who doubled up the retreating Gil McDougald off first, ending the last threat Stengel’s Squad made that afternoon. 

   Casey Stengel managed the Yankees. Back in his day, when he still had legs, he had been a good but streaky ballplayer. Good glove, fair bat.

   “I was erratic,” he said. “Some days I was amazing, some days I wasn’t.” When he wasn’t, he played it for laughs, catching fly balls behind his back. One afternoon he doffed his cap to the crowd and a sparrow flew out of it. Another day, playing the outfield, he hid in a drainage hole and popped out of it just in time to snag a fly ball.

   When he stood leaning over the top rail of the dugout, he looked like a cross of the scowling Jimmy Durante and Santa Claus in pinstripes. He managed the Braves and Dodgers for nine years and chalked up nine straight losing seasons. But after the Bombers hired him in 1948, the only year he hadn’t taken them to the World Series was 1954.

   Stan and Ezra were the only men in their section who hadn’t fallen back into their seats, stunned, after Sandy Amoros snagged Yogi Berra’s liner. Stan had to pull Ezra down so there wouldn’t be any hard feelings. As it was, Ezra was so excited there were hard feelings, and Stan had to drag him away to a beer stand.

   “This beer is bitter,” Ezra scowled, looking down at the bottle of Ballantine in his hand. Ballantine Beer was on the Yankee Stadium scoreboard, its three-ring sign shining bright, flashing “Purity, Body, Flavor.” Whenever a Yankee hit a homer, Mel Allen, the broadcaster, hollered, “There’s a drive, hit deep, that ball is go-ing, go-ing, gonnne! How about that?! It’s a Ballantine Blast!” 

   The Brooklyn Dodgers, Ezra’s home borough baseball team, played at Ebbets Field. Their scoreboard boasted a Schaefer Beer sign, with the ‘h’ and the ‘e’ lighting up whenever there was a hit or an error. Below the Schaefer Beer sign was an Abe Stark advertisement. 

   “Hit Sign Win Suit”.

   “That’s some super beer, that Schaeffer’s,” said Ezra, polishing off his bottle of Ballantine and spitting. 

   Stan Riddman didn’t have a home borough, even though he favored the Bums. He had an apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, up from Times Square and down from the Central Park Zoo. He wasn’t from New York or New York City. He was from Chicago, although he wasn’t from there, either. He had been born in Chicago, but when his mother died two years later, in 1922, his father moved the family, himself a new Polish wife two boys two girls two dogs and all their belongings a year later to a small house behind St. Stanislaus Church in Cleveland, Ohio, in the Warszawa neighborhood south of the steel mills, where his father worked the rest of his life.

   Stan wasn’t working on anything he thought would bring him free Series passes this year. As long as I put most of this away, he thought to himself, walking down Irving Place, thinking of the jackpot in his pocket, I can blow some of it tonight, and still have enough for ballgames and more card games.

   Dottie was at Marie’s for the weekend. That happened about as often as the Series. It wasn’t too early or too late, and if Vicki hasn’t taken any work home, and is at home, and picks up the phone, maybe she could meet him for dinner.

   He found the phone booth he’d been looking for and called her. It rang once almost twice before Vicki answered. That’s a good sign, he thought.

   “Hello.”

   “Hey, Vee, it’s Stan.”

   “Stan, my man,” she laughed.

   “How’s Stuy Town tonight?” he asked.

   “Hot, quiet, lonely,” she said.

  “How about meeting me at Luchow’s for dinner?” he asked. “I’m buying.”

   “Stan, I love you for the dear German or Polack or whatever you are, but the food at Luchow’s is not so good, even if you can ever get though that insanely long menu of theirs.” 

   “That’s what I’m here for,” he said. “Only a dog-eared investigator like me will look into everything the kitchen’s got to offer.”

   “All right, but the other thing is, since they seat more than a thousand people, how am I going to find you? And if I do, with that strolling oompah band of theirs, if we do bump into each other and maybe get a table in that goulash and Wiener schnitzel palace, we’ll only be able to make ourselves heard some of the time and not the rest of the time.”

   “We can always take our coffee and their pancakes with lingonberry over to the square after dinner and chew the fat, it’ll be quiet there,” he said.

   “Chew the fat? What it is I like about you, sometimes I just don’t know.”

   “I’ll take that for a yes.”

   “Yes, give me a few minutes to change into something fun,” she said gaily. “I hope there’s no goose fest or beer festival going on.”

   “Meet me at the far end of Frank’s bar, he’ll find a low-pitched spot in the back for us. Frank says the new herring salad is out of this world.”

   “Don’t push your luck, Stan, don’t push your luck,” she said.

   Luchow’s was a three-story six-bay building with stone window surrounds, pilasters, and a balustrated parapet on top, while below a red awning led to the front door. The restaurant was near Union Square. It looked like the 19th century, or some more earlier century, heavy Teutonic, North German. A titanic painting of potato gatherers covered most of a wall in one of the seven dining rooms. Another of the rooms was lined with animal heads, their offspring being eaten at the tables below them, while another room was a temple of colorful beer steins. 

   There was a beer garden in the back.

   “Welcome back to the Citadel of Pilsner,” said Frank. He gestured Stan to the side.  “Did anybody tell you Hugo died?”

  “No, I hadn’t heard, although I heard he wasn’t feeling well,” said Stan. Hugo Schemke had been a waiter at Luchow’s for 50 years. He often said he wasn’t afraid of death. He had firmly no ifs ands or buts believed in reincarnation.

   “Did he say he was coming back?”

   “He did say that, but I haven’t seen him, yet,” said Frank. 

   “How’s Ernst doing?” asked Stan. Ernst Seute was the floor manager, a short stout man both friendly and cold-hearted. He had been at Luchow’s a long time, too, since World War One.

   “He took a couple days off,” said Frank. “Remember that parade back in April over in Queens, they’ve got some kind of committee now, he’s over there with them trying to make it an annual thing here in Little Germany, calling it the Steuben Parade.”

    “You going to be carrying the cornflower flag?’

   “Not me, Stan, not me.” Frank was from Czechoslovakia. “I’m an American now.”

   Frank led Vicki and Stan to a small round table at the far end of the bar. He brought them glass mugs of Wurzburger Beer and a plate of sardines. Vicki ordered noodle soup and salad. “Hold the herring,” she commanded. Stan asked for a broiled steak sirloin with roasted potatoes and horseradish sauce on the side.

   “I saw Barney the other day,” she said, cocking her head. “He told me you’ve made progress.”

  “I didn’t think there was anything to it the first day I saw him, that day you brought him over to the office,” said Stan. “I didn’t think there was much to it all that first week the top of the month. But then there was all that action, and Bettina finally got it worked out, that it was the shrink. So, I know who did the thing to get Pollack to drive himself into that tree. I know how they did it. What I don’t know is why they did it.”

   “Do you know who they are?’

   “No, I don’t, even though one of the two, a psychotic by the name of Ratso Moretti, who roughed up Ezra, is being held at the 17th. He doesn’t seem to know much, but what he does know says a lot. The shrink is going to tell me all about it. He doesn’t know about the talk we’re going to have, yet, but that doesn’t matter.”

   “You don’t think Jackson Pollack had anything to do with it?”

   “He was the wrong man, that’s all, if you look at it from his point of view. Bettina and I think he was a test run. We think they’re up to something bigger. It’s hard to figure. We can’t see the pay-off in it. You know Betty, though. She’ll piece it together.”

   After dinner they looked at the dessert menu, but it was only a peek. Vicki shook her head no.

   “How about coffee at my place?” asked Stan. “We can stop and get pastry at that Puerto Rican shop on the corner, sit up on the roof.” It was a clear sky night.

   “I can’t pass up that pass,” said Vicki.

   They hailed a Checker Cab. 

   “Take us up 5th to 59th, the corner of the park,” said Stan.

   The cabbie dropped them off at the Grand Army Plaza and they walked into the park, following the path below the pond towards the Central Park Driveway and Columbus Circle. He liked her loose breezy walk. They didn’t notice the two greasers, as they strolled on a quiet wooded path south of Center Drive, until the two of them were in front of them, blocking their way.

   One was taller and older, the other younger and thinner, their oiled hair combed back. Both of the dagos were wearing high tops, jeans, and white t-shirts, one of them dirtier than the other. The younger boy, he might have been fifteen, had a half-dozen inflamed pencil-thick pencil-long scratches down one side of his face and more of them on his forehead. Small capital SS’s topped with a halo drawn in red ink adorned the left sleeve of his t-shirt. The older dirtier dago had LAMF tattooed on his neck above the collar line to below his right ear.

   Stan knew what it meant. It meant ‘Like a Mother Fucker.’  He kept his attention on LAMF.

   “Hey, mister, got a double we can have for the subway, so we can make it back home,” he asked, smiling, his teeth big and white as Chiclets.

   They were part of the Seven Saints, thieves whose favorite easy pickings was holding back the door of a subway car just before it was ready to leave the station, one of them grabbing and running off with a passenger’s pocketbook, while the other released the door so the woman would be shut tight in the train.

   “Where’s home?” asked Stan, stepping forward a half step, nudging Vicki behind him with his left hand on her left hip. 

   “You writing a book?”

   Stan asked again, looking straight at the older boy.

   “East Harlem, where you think?”

   “Why do you need twenty dollars? The fare’s only some cents.”

   “The extra is for in case we get lost.” 

   “It’d be best if you got lost starting now. “

   “I mean to get my twenty, and maybe more,” he said, smiling smirking mean, reaching into his back pocket.

   Stan took a fast step forward, his right foot coming down on the forefoot of the boy’s sneaker, grabbing his left wrist as it came out of the back pocket a flash of steel, and broke his nose with a short hard jab using his right elbow. Stepping away he let him fall backward and turned toward the younger boy, flipping the switchblade its business side face front.

   “Go,” he said. “Go right now.”

   The boy hesitated, looked down at the other Seven Saint on the ground, splattered with blood, and ran away like a squid on roller skates.

   Stan let the switchblade fall to the ground and broke the blade off the knife, stepping on it with his heel and pulling until it cracked at the hinge, and threw it at the older boy getting up. It hit him in the chest and bounced away. 

   “The next time I see you,” he spluttered, on his feet, choking, his mouth half-full of blood.

   “The next time I see you, you fill your hand with a knife, I’ll break your face again,” said Stan. 

   He took a step up to the boy and spoke softly to him. “Actually, it won’t matter what you do, nosebleed, what you’re doing, who you’re with, where you are. The minute I see you is when I’ll stack you up. Make sure you never see me again, make sure I never see you.”

   He took Vicki by the arm, shoved the teenager to the side, and they walked away.

   “You didn’t have to do that,” said Vicki. “You won plenty of hands. You might have tossed them a dollar-or-two.”

   “I know,” said Stan. “But they were working themselves up to be dangerous and that had to stop. The sooner the better.”

   “They were just kids.”

   “You saw the scratches on the face of the kid who ran away.”

   “Of course, the whole side of his face was gruesome.”

   “The Seven Saints have an initiation to get into the club,” Stan said. “They find a stray cat and tie him to a telephone pole, about head high, and leave the cat’s four feet free. The kid getting initiated has his hands tied behind his back and he gets to become a Seven Saint if he can kill the cat, using his head as a club.”

   “Oh, my God!” Vicki gasped, stopping dead in her tracks. “How do you even know that?”

   “I make it my business to know, so I don’t get taken by surprise.”

   Stan paused, then said, “I didn’t want them near me. I don’t give a damn about them. I care about you, Dottie, Ezra, Betty, the crew, what we do, not who we do it for or whatever they think it’s all about. I care about getting it done and getting paid. I like playing cards. Throw in a dinner, a dance, a drink with you, I’m all done. I don’t need anymore.”

   They passed the USS Maine Monument.

   “I don’t want greaser punks in my face.”

   They walked out of the park under a quarter moon, crossing Columbus Circle and strolling down Ninth Avenue. At West 56th Street they turned towards the river, stopping in front of a four-floor walk-up with a twin set of fire escapes bolted to the front of the flat face of the brick building.

   “Anyway, maybe it will do them some good,” said Stan, fitting his key into the door lock. “Not everyone is as nice as I am. Someday somebody will go ballistic on them.”

   “Ballistic?” she asked.

   “Like a rocket, a missile that goes haywire.”

   “I wish we had a rocket to take us upstairs” she said, as they took the stairs up to the fourth floor. “We forgot our pastry.”

   “Another time,” he said.

   At the door of the apartment Stan fitted his key into the lock, opened the door, reached for the light switch, and let Vicki go around him as he did. In the shadow of the back of the front room there was a low menacing growl and a sudden movement. It was Mr. Moto. He crossed the room fast. He lunged at Vicki’s lead leg as she stepped across the threshold.

   Hey, watch out for my stockings,” she cried out. Vicki was wearing Dancing Daters. “I’ll smack you right on your pink nose if you make them run.”

   Mr. Moto skidded to a sudden stop a whisker from her leg.

   “That’s better,” said Vicki, bending down to rub his head.

   The big cat arched his back and purred.

Excerpted from “Man in the Dark” 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.”

Mexican Stand-Off

By Ed Staskus

   My nephew Wyatt was smart enough to get admitted into St. Edward High School and scatterbrained enough to get suspended. He made it to graduation day by the skin of his teeth. He wasn’t so lucky at Cleveland State University. After one thing and another they told him he had to find another school. When he left, he forgot to take his “Get Out of Jail” card with him.

   St Ed’s is a Catholic high school in the Holy Cross tradition in Lakewood, Ohio. Thousands of young men apply to get in every year. A couple of hundred make it. Cleveland State University is a state school. So long as your high school grades make the grade you can get in, no problem. After he left, leaving his student housing apartment a disaster relief scene, he started looking for another place to live.

   He camped out at his sister’s apartment until she said he had to go. His father suggested an uncle. He stayed with his uncle until he told him he had to go. He stayed at my mother’s house, throwing parties for his friends whenever she broke a leg or had a stroke and was recovering at the Welsh Home in Rocky River. 

   When my brother asked me to throw some work his son’s way, I was of a mind to say no. It was almost the first thing I said. It was what I should have said. I had agreed to hire him to waterproof our basement walls and repaint the concrete floor a few months earlier. In the end it was such a makeshift effort that I spent almost as much time in the basement as he had patching things up.

   Every time I looked, he was easing himself down onto one of our lawn chairs and lighting up. He liked to smoke weed and cigarettes rather than attend to the work at hand. When he wasn’t blazing, he was talking on his cell phone. When I was done taking care of the splats runs and misses, I thought, that’s the last time.

   What I said, though, when my brother asked, was OK.

   I worked more-or-less full-time for Light Bulb Supply in Brook Park. There were no brooks or parks anywhere. The biggest greenspace was Holy Cross Cemetery, 240 acres of it, across the street. I went there for walks instead of taking lunch sometimes when the day was warm dry and sunny. The office work more-or-less paid the bills. It was a family business, however, and I wasn’t a part of the family. I wasn’t going to get anywhere by relying on their good will, of which there was little. It was like my paycheck, on the stingy side.

   I got ahead by repairing tanning equipment part-time, on my own time, stand-ups and beds at tanning salons, beauty salons, gyms, and people’s homes. Tanning was booming. I taught myself how to do it. My hourly rate was more, by far, than what Light Bulb Supply paid me. If it was an insurance job, I raised the price.

   Allstate Insurance sent me to Dearborn, Michigan to inspect a tanning bed that had been under water for a few days in a family’s basement rec room. They found out their sump pump had failed when they got home from vacation. I drove there on a Saturday, since it was going to be an all-day job getting there and back.

   Dearborn is just west of Detroit. and home to the most Muslims in the United States. It is also home to the largest mosque in the country. I got my signals crossed, missed the turn-off off I-75., and missed the mosque. When I got to Detroit and saw an exit for Dearborn St., I took it. When all I saw were bars churches funeral parlors beauty shops empty littered lots more bars and no white faces, I parked, found a phone booth, and called the folks with the soggy tanning bed.

   I told them where I thought I was.

   “Get back in your car and drive away from there right now,” the man of the house said. “It’s not safe.” There was no sense in tempting fate. I got back into my car, counted my blessings, and followed the Rouge River to Dearborn.

   I had a job at a big tanning salon in North Royalton south of Cleveland. There were some repairs involved and re-lamping 9 or 10 tanning beds. It was going to take Wyatt and me two or three days and nights. It took me closer to a week of nights and the weekend. Wyatt was supposed to re-lamp during the day while I did the repairs at night, except he only showed up once and didn’t finish even one of the tanning beds.

   One day he wasn’t feeling well. His stomach hurt. Another day his garage door broke with his car inside it. Another time he said he needed a mental health day. The last day before I told him not to bother anymore, an asteroid smashed through his roof. In the end I chalked it up to experience.

   “Nobody wants to hire me,” he complained, one of his many Millennial complaints. He thought he could get the job done without going to work. He liked to say, “I don’t want to be tied down.” He didn’t want to be another cog in the wheel. There was little chance of that.

   My mother and brother both asked my sister to let him move into her house. They knew well enough to not ask me. She had the space but was reluctant. She and her husband had split up. He moved out and stayed out on the road working as a long-haul trucker. Her daughter had left for Miami University and after graduation struck out on her own. There were two empty bedrooms.

   She told my brother she had reservations, especially since everybody knew Wyatt wasn’t just popping pills and smoking weed. He was selling pills and weed to anybody and everybody. She didn’t want a drug dealer in her house.

   “He doesn’t have anywhere else to go,” my brother said.

   “What about your house?”

   “Sharon doesn’t want him in our house.” Sharon was my brother’s wife, Wyatt’s foster mother. She was a schoolteacher. Wyatt had been in her class during middle school. She knew what he was up to.

   Wyatt was arrested in 2015 strolling down Detroit Rd. on the Cleveland side of the border in the middle of the night. He was puffing on a stogie-sized spliff. He was packing pills in his pockets and having a high old time. A year later he went to court and was rewarded with intervention instead of jail time. My brother spent a fortune sending him to assessment counseling treatment and prevention classes. I drove Wyatt to the classes now and then. He was as repentant as a cottonmouth.

   When he moved into my sister’s house, he brought clothes, shoes, and a safe. He moved into one of the vacant bedrooms. My brother paid his $200.00 rent occasionally. He kept his clothes within easy reach and his shoes on display.

   “He thought nothing about buying $150.00 tennis shoes,” my sister said.

   She didn’t ask what he kept in the safe. She didn’t want to know. One day she noticed one of the floorboards had been pried up and put back in place. When she looked under the board, she saw a stash. She put the board back in its place. Boys and girls drove up to her curb day and night. When they did Wyatt ran outside, handed them something through their open car window, and they gave him something in return.

   He texted his girlfriend a photograph of tens twenties fifties fanned out across his bed cover. “Top of the world,” he seemed to be saying. When he was done, he neatly packed the dough up and put it back in his safe.

   My sister had told Wyatt, “No friends in the house.” A week later, pulling into her driveway after work, she saw more than twenty boys and girls on her front porch and front steps. Two of them were sprawled across a railing. They were waiting for Wyatt. My sister called my brother.

   “Get over here and tell your son’s friends to leave.” 

   I happened to be driving by and stopped to see what was going on with the crowd on the front porch. When I asked if they were waiting for somebody, one of the youngsters on the railing said, “We are the ones we’re waiting for.” I assumed it was a smarmy Millennial trope and left when I saw my brother’s car coming down the street.

   When Wyatt came home, she asked him, “What do you not understand about no friends?”

   He was terrific about explaining and apologizing. Before he was done my sister cried uncle. “Just don’t let it happen again,” she said. It happened again and again. Wyatt was sincerely insincere when he had to be.

   The driveway was defined by the two houses on its sides. It wasn’t a wide driveway by any means. There was a grass strip on the neighbor’s side but no buffer on the other side. Fortunately, Wyatt drove a compact car. Unfortunately, he had forgotten what he learned in driver’s ed. He bounced off the house several times, denting his car, and ripping siding off the side.

   He liked to text my sister, asking if she needed anything done around the crash pad. When he mixed up the driveway and house he texted her, promising to fix it right away. He never did. He never did anything else, either, except breaking in through the back kitchen window whenever he locked himself out. Every time he did my sister had to replace the screen. One of the neighbors called the Lakewood Police Department when he saw one of the break-ins, but Wyatt was able to explain it away.

   After the intervention went bust, Wyatt was arrested again and charged with drug possession, possessing criminal tools, and a trafficking offense. He pled guilty since the cops had the goods on him. His charm good looks and a sharp enough lawyer carried the day. He was ordered to be drug tested on a week-to-week basis. It was what saved the day for my sister.

   She wanted Wyatt gone but didn’t know how to get it done. He was a blood relative and needed a place to live, even though he wasn’t willing to do what it takes to possess an apartment and stock the shelves. It was a stand-off. My mother and brother insisted there wasn’t anywhere else he could go. He had burned one bridge too many. She bit the bullet, but it tasted bitter.

   The magic bullet turned out to be the court-mandated drug-testing Wyatt was obliged to undergo. When spring turned to summer and summer turned to fall, Wyatt fell over his tennis shoe laces and tested positive. It might mean the slammer. It meant he was packing up, shoes and safe and all. It meant my sister could slam and lock the door the minute he left, which is what she did, for good reason.

   Ohio law enforcement has the power to seize cash and property involved in drug trafficking. Asset seizures and forfeitures are a crime deterrent and a tool to take down drug trafficking, policemen say. “We generally seize assets that are believed to be the fruits of drug trafficking or used to facilitate the crime of drug trafficking,” Paul Saunders, a senior police official, said. “The courts have a litany of rules that are applied to each case to determine whether assets will be forfeited.”

   The last thing my sister needed was to have her home taken away from her because of somebody else’s bad behavior. Fortunately, no searchlights were searching for her. She went back to watering her lawn, walking her dogs, and watching “Law and Order” on TV. When the crime drama wrapped everything up on a happy note, she went to bed snug as a bug with nobody to bug her.

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.”