Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The Art of Crime

Criminals I Have Known
One comes to mind; a half-Gypsy/half-Jewish kid I met when I was seducing his mother, who was a chef in a restaurant I used to frequent. And as his mother's seducer, it meant that I was over to his mother's apartment a lot and this kid was always there and then when I got to waking up in bed with his mother for many "next mornings," you know, he'd got to making coffee for us and then, after he got to trusting me, he began whipping up really tasty breakfasts. His scrambled eggs were gourmet and hash browns, man, the best with onions and jalepenos--I even got him making me huevos rancheros, which I had learned to love while living in Mexico City.

This kid was very nonchanlant when it came to who I was and that I was "doing" his mother as long as she permitted me that privilege, of doing what I was doing, and doing it often, being at those breakfasts for a many-moons number of days that turned into weeks that turned into months. As long as she didn't tell him to throw my ass out, which he would have done expeditiously well, too, had he been given the order, I was living the life of a spoiled duke..

The boy loved his mother; more than I did, that's for sure. I even had my wonders about their relationship. I mean she'd already confessed to me that she been letting her brother do to her what I was doing to her since they were kids--I learned that when I asked if I could come do her one weekend and she informed me that she'd have to give me a temporary "No" since her brother was in town from Katmandu or somewhere strange like that and while he was in town she would be sleeping with him, but "certainly, temporary, like I said, 'cause Sunday night after he's gone back to Katmandu you're definitely welcome to come over with bells and that other thing on." What a woman! The kind I always get mixed up with.

She had met the boy's father in 1963 while she was visiting Europe with her mother, who as a young girl had escaped the Warsaw Ghetto by running off to Budapest where she was saved by a Hungarian official who was anti-Nazi and loved her.

Her mother had revisited Warsaw but then she demanded they get over to Budapest, where they went and stayed with the family of the official who had saved her mother's life, which was in the Pest section of that old city in the center of Pest, next to a famous and wonderful Hungarian restaurant owned and operated by an ex-Hungarian prince. It was in that restaurant that the boy's father worked as a Gypsy violinist, accompanied by his brother on guitar. The minute she laid her eyes on his dark Gypsy eyes and his svelte Gypsy muscles this Jewish princess let his fiery romantic nature have its way, and since she was pretty easily seduced by such romantic flare, she ended up sleeping with this Gypsy fiddler, as she put it, "About seven times in 5 days." The result was a beautiful but very tiny baby boy who came into the world nine months later to the delight of his mother but unbeknownst to his father, as so many of his father's sons and daughters were. She said she never tried to find the Gypsy; she just wanted his kid anyway, and that she got.

The kid was 17 at the time I met him. He went to what is thought of as the best New York City high school, a school for achievers, though [I'll call him "the Climber"] the Climber had no intellectual ambitions. He did read a lot and he kept his intellect sharp, but not in order to debate with Harvard and Cambridge fops but rather to hone his wits and program his brain to all the do's and don't's of his most passionate interest: burglarizing difficult to get to NYC apartments--high floors his metier, of which he was a maestro, that I guarantee you.

First of all the Climber was solidly built though he wasn't tall at all; in fact, he was short, 5' 4" maybe, yes, that short, but damn was he built, physiquewise like an ape, all huge upper body, arms much longer than his torso, overdeveloped arms that trick-bag faux wrestlers call "pythons" slendering down to delicate hands with long fingers, though you knew he had strength in his hands once you'd shaken hands with him. One thing he prided himself on, too: nobody could beat him at arm wrestling, though he had no ambition to hit the arm wrestling circuit--as popular one time as Texas Hold 'Em poker is at the current time.

He was a nice kid, that's for sure; easy to talk to. One night I was discussing Miles Davis with him. I told him a friend of mine had seen Miles Davis in San Francisco and that Miles had given a lecture on the art of picking pockets, complete with charts, at the start of a set-- this was during Miles's run at the Blackhawk Club--yes, where those very famous Miles Davis LPs, Friday Night and Saturday Night at the Blackhawk, were made on one of the nights my friend was there--I know because I was working a piano bar in Santa Fe when he called the bar from the Blackhawk and my bass player and I shared the receiver as this guy held the phone out so we could hear Miles in the far noisy background playing what my friend said was "So What." "They say he walked off the stage," sang Eddie Jefferson to the riff of "So What," referring to Miles's being subject to disappearing from the stage while his sidemen were soloing. Miles would also turn his back on his audiences all the time and play toward the back wall of the stage--he was doing it for the effect of the sound reverberating off that wall--Sonny Rollins used to play against walls with his back to his audience for the same reason, but Miles's critics, and there were many, thought he was being an asshole, which he was, too, to be sure.

So we were talking about pickpocketing and the Climber handed me back my old Gruen watch. He'd picked me. "Damn," I hollered with glee, "you can pick pockets." "Yep, I guess I inherited it from my dad." "Hell, Climber, there are plenty of good Jewish pickpockets." He handed me a set of keys I kept deep in my back pocket that had a button-down flap over it. "Son of a bitch. That's masterful, man; slick as black ice."

Then our conversation moved to crime and I told him about some characters I had lived with in my early days of working when I was still a greenhorn right out of college. One of the characters I lived with, he was called Big Boy because of the length of his body and the length and bulk of his manhood, had a brother who hauled trailer houses, big mothers, too, from the trailer house manufacturers, a lot of them in Ohio--but he had some in North Carolina and Georgia, too, to locations all across the country, the best money coming when he hauled them to California or the Pacific Northwest. He was on the move year-in year-out, his home his tractor cab, his hobby: filling those trailers he was hauling up with merchandise--especially color teevees--he would steal while making his distant hauls following the sunsets out to La La Land, or to Vegas, where these guys had another brother who was a dealer in one of the big clubs on the strip. He was a crook, too; the brothers said he was one of the best chip palmers in the world; he could palm a chip and have it hidden safely inside one of his cheeks in the twinkling of an eye. "That mother can get a thousand bucks worth of chips in both his cheeks at once--he's amazing." Their mother had been a chorus girl in Vegas; their father--"Who the hell knows?" Big Boy used to say. "Look at my brother," he'd continue, "we're different as night and day, so his father, who the hell knows? same as mine. People ask me what my father's name was and I say, 'Who Knows,' to which they ask, 'Chinese?' Yeah, the chink in my armor, you bastards." Big Boy was six-five; his trailer-haulin' brother was like five-nine.

The Climber listened intently to my stories of criminals I had known that day and then he took me to his room and opened a closet and shit the closet was full of everything. Jesus, there was a Trinitron teevee right up front in that packed space, surrounded by video cameras, stereos, clocks, coffeemakers, toasters, boomboxes. Shit. Then we went out on the fire escape just outside his room's window and he suddenly said, "Watch this," and like a cat, he leaped up on the outside of the fire escape ironwork and off he went up...until he disappeared. I went to the edge of the fire escape and looked up. He was waving down at me from the roof seven floors above me--his mother's apartment on the 3rd floor of a 10-story apartment house down in the East Village.

I watched him monkey back down and plop himself over the fire escape railing flat on his feet right by my side. "Wow," I said, "you really impress me, Climber. What else can you do?" "I can walk wire." "What?" "Wire, like a highwire, or, hell, a gabled roof, make suction cups out of my hands, and one time I found a brick building that I was able to scale 4 stories before I chickened out and went in a window--I found this Rolex watch in that apartment." He pulled down a small box from his closet. "Here, take it." He handed it to me. I opened the case and checked it out. Hell, it was a real Rolex, a gold one, a $7,000 watch, with that bubble back, you know that one? Trouble was it was engraved, "To Chuck; Tempus fugit," except the "fugit" was worn down and looked at first glance like "To Chuck; Tempus fucks." "Shit, man, you serious?" "Yeah, man, it's yours; I've got plenty of watches." I put it on. God, it looked expensive; it was rude with its gold flashing, its sparkling gold reflections and its rich diamondy face. It was so expensive looking, I wore it that one time and couldn't wear it again; I hung on my apartment wall instead and told people it was a piece of sculpture called "Eventually Time Will Melt Me." The only person who ever bought that was a dipstick Middlebury College graduate student I picked up one night while on a Manhattan Island prowl. "Wow," she squealed in fine arts delight when she saw it, "who's the artist?" Of course I said, "Yes." She looked puzzled; she was too young to know the routine. She was supposed to say "What?" to which I would have replied, "No, Who," to which she would have said, "Who?" to which I would have replied, "That's right."

I got to where I hung with the Climber a lot one week when he pearl dived in his mother's restaurant the same week his mother got me a gig playing the piano in the joint for the lunch and supper hours. On my breaks, I'd go out back with the Climber while he smoked a Camel and I sucked on a doobie roach. One night out back there I told him I knew a trombone player who lived over in the next block and if we went over there and he was home we could score some black beauties or red jackets from him, you know, like he was a dealer. The Climber's ears perked up. "Damn, that's what I need; where's his apartment building?" I said, "Right over there; you can see it from here--see that building over there with the crooked water tank on the roof?" It was silhouetted against the moon-silvery night. "That's the building, eh? So, OK, I'll meet you over there in front of the building." And with that, away he ran. I watched him jog across the street and then make a remarkable leap up off the sidewalk, about 10 feet at least, and grab the pull-down ladder of a building's fire escape and up he went, up to the top of the fire escape. I took off walking as fast as I could, up the half block to the avenue, then up the avenue one block to the trombone player's street, then the half block over to the front of the trombone player's building. The Climber was there already; standing right in front of the trombone player's building with a grin on his face that Texans refer to as resembling "a possum eating shit."

"Which is his apartment?" he asked. "Well, let's see, he's on the fourth floor--that's it up there, the window with no shades." "Come on," he signalled. By now he had leapt up onto the top of a portico. "Here, take my hand." "Hell, man, what the hell..." "Take my hand," he insisted. I took his hand. Like a bullwhip, he snapped me up with his powerful grip off my feet and planted me on a ledge that had a hall window exiting on it-- though the window had a grill over it for protection against breaking and entering. No problem for the Climber. This little son of a bitch was able to slide his body into a crack in that grill that I swear a mouse couldn't get through, snapped the grill open some way from inside it there, then pulled it free from its lock, opened the grill, then opened the window and told me to climb in.

We then walked on up the stairs to the 4th floor and I found the trombone player's apartment--you could hear him practicin' some bone as we stood in front of the door. "Hold on a minute," he said, pushing me away from the door onto which I was about to knock. With the adroitness of a swordsman, he whipped some kind of tool out of his pants from somewhere--I couldn't imagine where he got the tool since he was simply wearing jeans and a teeshirt--amazing, like pulling a rabbit out of a hat. He made one little jiggle with this tool and the trombone player's door cracked open--the dude had the chain-lock on the door--but not for long, with another whip of his wrist, the Climber snapped open the chain lock and the door sprang open to reveal the trombone player sitting back naked in a big easy chair playing his trombone with an erection, which he was managing to use the slide of the trombone to titilate quite dramatically until he looked up and saw us and in leaping to his feet, actually got his erection caught in the slide near the bell of the horn-- running cursing like a first mate on Satan's meanest four-master as he stumbled about the room, me and the Climber laughing our asses off and the trombone player threatening to kill us both.

After we settled down and made a business deal with the naked trombonist, after we had all three relaxed with a tad of crystal meth taken with some black coffee--"I just got back from Haiti, man; gig down there; this coffee's fresh from nature, man." We swigged the coffee and soon the meth was cleaning out our brains of unwanted thoughts and setting us free to imagine life to be anything but what the hell it was.

The Climber and I were zipped to the gills when we rushed back over to his mom's restaurant, him taking the long route with me this time. Back at the restaurant he went back to his dishwashing and I finished my supper hour and hit the road home.

The trombone player called me the next day. "Who the hell was that little rat bastard with you last night?" "He's the son of this chick I'm seeing." "Is he a thief?" "Why, not that I know of, Boney, why do you ask?" "Because I had 5 grand I had made in Haiti hidden where not even God-damn God could find it and I went to borrow something from it this morning and by God it's gone. I've wrecked the apartment looking for it; it's fucking gone, man. If it is that little bastard, I'll cut his nuts off, you tell 'im that." "Oh, Boney, come on, man; you must have gotten high and misplaced it." "No I didn't misplace it; besides, I saw that little rat bastard over by where I had it stashed last night, I remember now...god-damn that rat's ass bastard." "Boney, please; I'm sure it wasn't this kid; he's nice as hell; works hard, man, pearl diving at a restaurant."

I calmed the trombone player down, but I avoided him for a long time after that; in fact, I've only seen him once since that night and the son of a bitch was still harping on losing his 5 grand and asking about the rat bastard Climber.

That night I asked the Climber if he'd stolen the trombone player's money?

He looked at me and said, "No," but I knew he was lying. I knew he was lying because he had that sweet liar's look in his eyes that told me, "Hey, I'm sayin' 'no' but you know better...I'm the best, man. Besides," I imagined I heard his inner voice saying, "man, that shit was illegal drug money anyway."

The Climber. Quite a thief. I've no idea whatever happened to the Climber. His mother and I broke up and I've only seen her once since then and then when I saw her, in a subway station, she had lost a lot of her Jewish princess sexual appeal and looked rather haggard, like she'd been awake for a couple of days. I didn't have a chance to jaw with her and ask her about the Climber. You see, her brother was in town from Samarkand or some strange place like that and she didn't have time to chat.

for The Daily Growler

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