Crumbtownby Joe Connelly
Sentenced to 15 years in
Some might say that Crumbtown isn’t a place. It’s a state of mind. And for the residents of this sinking, stinking, carcinogenic, potholed neighborhood, “There’s bad luck in the world, and then there’s crumbluck.” But for Don Reedy, a true victim of this phenomenon, his crumbluck is about to change.
Sentenced to 15 years in prison after a botched armed robbery, Don is paroled early when a television producer decides to turn Don’s tragic story into a television show. Back in Crumbtown and working as a special consultant on the shoot, Don wrestles with delusional actors, pines for a beautiful Russian bartender, and reunites with cops and accomplices alike. But when the opportunity presents itself, Don decides to do something really daring: He robs the re-enactment of his legendary robbery. With the cameras rolling and the line between television and reality blurring, the hunt for Don—and a ratings coup—is on.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
“Funny . . . not to mention original and surprising . . . smart, engaging.” –The Washington Post
“Crumbtown is a playful romp. . . . All hell is breaking loose, and lively and entertaining hell it is." –The Boston Globe
“A masterly comic triumph.” —St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“[Crumbtown] showcases Connelly’s knack for humor and snappy, cinematic prose.” —The San Francisco Chronicle
Read an Excerpt
Joe Far unlocked the door to the bar and held it open with a chair, to let in what was left of the morning and air out the last of the night. He filled the mop bucket in the sink, set the chairs on the tables, the stools on the bar, and rolled the bucket mop and broom into the men's room in the back. Through the dim light of the gated window he swept the used cigarettes from around the sink, the derelict pipes in the corner. The door to the bathroom stall was locked, the handle of a cane hooked over the top. Joe bent down and found the cane's owner sitting on the pot. "Wake up, Tim," Joe said, jabbing his broom into the man's legs. "Up. Get up." When the man didn't move, he took out the mop and rubbed it over the splintered tiles around Tim's feet, then he rolled the bucket out and closed the door.
"Joe, hey Joe." A bald man wearing a neck brace had come into the bar, and was sitting in the shadowed rear end, his stool tilted back into the surrendering paneling. "Get me a beer," the man said.
"No, Tom. We closed." Joe walked to the front door and shut it, slamming the lock.
"Come on, Joe," Tom said. "I need a beer, and one for Tim. He ought to be getting up soon."
Joe Far threw a glass that shattered a foot above Tom's head, a framed photo of a police lineup. "Now I clean," Joe said.
Tom adjusted his brace and walked behind the bar and pulled two bottles from the cooler. "Tim," he yelled, setting a stool on the floor next to his. "Beer," he said.
The bathroom door opened and the cane came out followed by Tim, who knocked down two chairs as he made his way to the bar. "What happened?" he said.
"You fell in there last night. We couldn't wake you up." Tom raised his beer and leaned his stool against the wall. With the brace around his neck, Tom could only drink at sharp angles to the floor. "We thought you were dead."
"Oh no," Tim groaned, "I can't keep living like this." He reached for the bottle in front of him, pressing it to his ribs. "What about my kids, Tom, who's gonna take care of my kids?"
"Who's been taking care of them?"
Tim sighed. He drank for a long time. "I have no regrets," lowering his bottle and lifting it again. "Just tell me one thing, brother, who was better than us?" He stood and banged his cane against the bar. "That's what I want to know. Who was better than us?" He walked to the back corner and hit the switch that lit a spotlight in the ceiling, shining a section of wall hung with newspapers, Tim reading from the top headline, "Robbing Hoods. Bank robbery turns into riot as masked gang tosses $$$ to crowd." The grainy photo beneath, of four men in black ski masks. "Tim and Tom Dwight, Don Reedy, Happy Jones. We were heroes, Tom. They can't ever take that away."
"We were kings," Tom said.
"You're right there, brother." Tim finished the beer and sat down, out of breath. He rested the bottle on its side, "Joe, help us."
Joe Far stood facing the window, broom in hand, and stared at the women clutching their bags at the bus stop, a man punching a pay phone on the corner.
Tim walked around Tom to the cooler behind the bar. The two men were half twins, same birthday, same father, different mothers. They had turned forty together three months earlier, and were still recovering. "Joe, comrade," Tim said, "my Chinese buddy pal. I need a big favor."
"No," said Joe Far, throwing a glass that crashed where Tim had been sitting.
"I need you to call Loretta and tell her I'm dead," Tim said. "It's better if she knows."
Joe swept furiously at the damp floor. "You owe me twelve bucks."
"It's in the will," Tim said. "Loretta will have it for you. My wife gets everything."
"What about me?" asked Tom.
Tim handed him a beer and placed another on the table near the cloud of broken glass that Joe Far was sweeping. "Please, Joe," Tim said, "call Loretta. Tell her I died."
Joe grabbed the remotes and pointed them at the television chained to the ceiling. On the screen, a rabbit was kicking a duck. Joe dropped the broom and lifted a cigarette from his Chinese army-issue raincoat, which in the five years he'd been sweeping there no one had seen him not wearing. He blew a series of smoke rings at the tarred tin ceiling.
Rob Landetta could get his hand on the front doorknob of his apartment. He could turn it. He just couldn't pull. Soon his boss would be calling, asking how come he wasn't in the office yet to pick up the contracts. Why wasn't he on the road already to Crumbtown, to sign up the woman too fat to get out of bed? Rob could understand how his problems with the door were simply the physical manifestations of his inability to write, yet this understanding did not bring him any closer to the computer on his desk; it only reminded him how many used and expired words awaited there. Twice in the past month, desperate for a solution, he'd left the oven on with the burners off, both times forgetting to close the window. The night before he'd been up until two talking to the angry lady on the suicide help line, asking her advice on the best way to die.
Rob was twenty-three when he wrote his first television pilot, The Monkey House, about homeless teens living in the Bronx Zoo. His "grit opera," which he directed himself, lasted two seasons, and was quickly followed by: Black Tide, clam diggers vs. oil refinery, half a season; Veracruz, hard-bowling vigilantes in a busted mine town, two episodes; and the short-lived Death Valley Days, snowbelt refugees on a desert oasis, canceled in preproduction. His last project, Exley, about a burned-out building inspector, had been cooling on the studio shelves for six months. He'd directed two deodorant commercials in the last two years, and was due to turn thirty in less than four months. Rob could see the other side of the hill now, the long downward climb.
To pay his rent, he'd taken a job with his former college friend Brian Halo, the third-biggest mass media superagent in New York, and worked as Mr. Halo's Fringe Client Outreach Assistant, the Freak Department. Rob paid visits to those who couldn't make it to the office, like the woman too fat to get out of bed, and other clients too deranged or delinquent to converse with on the phone. Rob made sure they signed the bottom line: Brian Halo Inc. gets one-third of all earnings, ninety percent of which goes directly into supporting the company director's lifestyle, documented for anyone to see on channel 63: The Brian Halo Show, every Friday at six-fifteen.
Rob tried the knob again, and fell to one knee in the attempt. There was a time when he used to start his days at six, sprinting five blocks to the gym, his next hour on the treadmill, wondering which girl to call, Ula, Tammy, or Kym.
He walked to the bedroom and pulled three sheets out of the closet and tied them together while listening to the TV, a song about powdering men's feet. He brought the sheets to the bed and tied one end to the frame and tugged at the knots, testing them, and threw the other end through the open window, his emergency exit. Before climbing out, he glanced back at the television he'd forgotten to shut down--Today on Cheryl: Women who kill their men.
"What's the point of writing," he shouted to the screen, "when everyone is writing themselves?" He walked down the wall, ten feet to the ground, threw the sheets back up to the window, and headed for the office.
Loretta dropped her arm off the pillow and groped for the phone. "Harbor Homes," she said, as if she was in the office already, instead of in bed. "Who is it? Joe Far? From the bar? Tim's dead? What happened? Listen to me, Joe. You tell him he has to sign those papers. I'm getting this divorce."
She heard the sounds of glass breaking downstairs, doors slamming, her daughters leaving for school. She put down the phone and picked it up again and called the police. "I need to speak with Detective Hammamann," she said, "yes it's an emergency. Hi Harry, it's Loretta, anybody kick last night? Oh Jesus," she said, grabbing a pen, writing down the name. "He lived alone, how big? A studio, huh, any light? I got an appointment at noon, you think they'll have him out by then?"
With the phone under her ear, she pulled a pantsuit out of the closet, held it up in front of the mirror, dropped it on the bed. She clicked on the television, a woman in a bathing suit was preparing to leap from a bridge. "No, Harry, I can't see you now," Loretta said, "I'm still a married woman, remember. I've got the girls to consider." She put a free ear against the bedroom door, listening for her daughters, to be sure they were gone. "Not until you take care of this thing, like you promised me you would." She bent over and reached under the bed, two shoes and some underwear. "No, Harry, there's no talking to Tim. His mind is gone. You said it yourself. That there was only one thing to do..." She waited through his excuses, the phone between her teeth, trying to be patient. "Just tell me that my husband is out of our lives, that it's just us, baby, me and you...now I got to go...no, Harry..."
Rita remained in bed the few minutes it took the framed border of the sun to descend the wall and cross the pillow to find her. When it left, she made the coffee, holding the cup to her stomach as she walked to the window's edge. She couldn't see the man sitting in the doorway across the street, three floors below, but she knew he was there, waiting to see her face, and if she took just one more step toward the window he'd be on his feet, crossing the street without looking, calling for his Rediska, come five thousand miles to beg her forgiveness, to bring her home.
Her name was Rita now, Rita Bell. She'd moved to a forgotten section of a lost city; she thought she'd disappeared. Six months later he was crying at her door, sleeping in the shelter of the alleys across the street, living out of an Aeroflot bag, brushing his teeth in the Mrs. Donut. The man who'd once been her shining husband, her proud, scowling Misha. He swore to kill himself if she refused to come back, or kill her and then himself, or both of them at the same time; he couldn't make up his mind.
She dressed beside the window, in order to see the far corner where the bus would eventually come and make its turn onto her street. An appointment with the real estate agent at noon, then to work in the bar. When the bus passed her door, she'd be out and running alongside, the bus blocking her husband's view, two blocks to the next stop. If he found out where she worked, he'd not only kill her but probably get her fired as well. "That is very funny," she said to the window, the bus starting its turn.
Rob crossed the makeshift bridge where Washington Ave became Lemmings, the recently restored cobblestones of Old Dodgeport narrowing into the double-parked potholes of Crumbtown. Four clients of Brian Halo lived there: Scarman, the dog swallower, the human fidget, and the still-to-be-signed woman too fat to get out of bed. Over the past six months, Rob had crossed that bridge half a dozen times, and yet no matter how well he steeled himself for the trip, memorizing the maps and bringing plenty of bottled water, he could never shake the need to flee that always struck the moment he entered. Fleeing was the only way to describe driving there, everyone leaving one accident for another, or leaving their cars wherever traffic stopped them, then running madly into alleys and empty storefronts. Every car was a ten-year-old sedan, many of them old taxis repainted and fitted with diamond-plated fenders, welded steel beams for bumpers. The men behind the wheel were made of corrugated tin, the backseats full of broken furniture and old women.
He passed through the corridor of Chinese fish stores and basement shops of secondhand gifts, and made his fifth right onto Low. The next block was cordoned off with a line of orange cones, a young man in headphones yelling at him to make the left. Rob ducked into his seat as he drove past the line of trailers and trucks marked wardrobe and props. He recognized Walter Yoshi, the director, walking toward an island of camera equipment on the corner. Walter had been his third AD on The Monkey House; now he was directing his own show, Ten Thirteen, which had started shooting in Crumbtown the year before. That was another reason Rob hated coming here--you couldn't drive five blocks without hitting some television drama moving up from New York. The production costs were much lower, and the network bosses said that the streets of Crumbtown looked more like New York than New York.
Back when Rob had an agent who answered his calls, he'd been led to believe he had a good shot at writing for Ten Thirteen. He knew Walter, and had worked with some of the cast and crew, but the producers went with the same old master's degrees from USC, who'd probably never been east of West Hollywood, and how did they expect anyone to believe Dyan Swaine as a police captain, that bulletproof chest she wore even to bed. The show was in the top five every year. Rob never missed an episode.
The light went red and Rob stopped and slid himself lower under the wheel, hoping Walter didn't see him. When it was green again, Rob raised his head and saw his former assistant standing in the windshield, "Hey, Wonderboy, what brings you to paradise?"
Rob looked up at the light. "Big things, Walter. The biggest."
"I saw that dwarf commercial. Great stuff. Hey, we're kidnapping Dyan Swaine today. You want to help me tie her up?"
"Thanks, Walter. Can I get through here?"
"Make a right, and then a left and then another left. You look stressed, Rob. I mean it's coming out in your skin."
Rob drove past the actors' trailers and the rows of cars with NYPD painted in blue and white on their side. Spending three million dollars an episode in a neighborhood where most of the residents were eating dog food. The injustice of it. Five hundred channels and no one would give him a job.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Meet the Author
Joe Connelly's first novel, Bringing Out the Dead, was made into a film by Martin Scorsese. A native of New York City, he now lives in the Adirondacks with his wife and family.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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