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I had to have a job. A good cover, in case there might be suspicion, was mandatory. Perhaps I had been reading too many counter-espionage novels in which T-Men or the like were tripped up by their true identities being revealed to The Bad Guys, perhaps I was being overly melodramatic, and then perhaps what I had seen in the eyes of that bunch of kids on Times Square made me realize I was not playing tot games; these could be very dangerous youngsters. I had to have a job.
Anything steady would hinder my making the scenes whenever I needed to, because for the most part the kids attended school (when they felt like it) and I had to regulate my roaming hours with theirs. So I needed part-time work; the money didn't matter too much, because I had a small but satisfactory income from stories being sold by my agent.
I decided dock work would be the best, and so showed up at a dawn "shape-up" in an attempt to get laid on. After half an hour I realized without joining a union I was strictly from Forgetitsville. So regular dock work was out.
But there were enough decent guys shaping for me to inquire and find out that driving a Coca-Cola truck was non-union, and they always needed drivers to service the hold-gangs unloading the ships.
I found out who the licensing outfit was, and asked them for a job. They gave it to me, and I started that day to drive a push-pedal Coke truck around the docks. It was no-think work, and this is the last mention I'll make of it here. I had a name, a job, a pad, and I was ready to try and bust a gang.
That took a bit of doing; it also took a great deal of reconnaissance.
I wandered the neighborhood for almost three days, asking here and there where the kids hung out, if there had been any trouble in the area, who was who and what was what. Eventually, I found a talkative group of Polish and Italian ladies who gossiped on the front steps of a brownstone every afternoon, while airing their sore feet and their tots; no more perfect barometer of neighborhood tensions can be found than the old (and old does not necessarily mean chronologically) women who park their folding tubular-metal chairs on the sidewalk before their homes, and run the block without moving a step.
I grew to know them, began asking discreet questions, and in several hours learned what I needed to know.
A malt shop called Ben's had become the hangout of the neighborhood gang. The fellow who ran it, an uncomplicated little Jewish man named Ben Adelstein, had been decent to the kids originally, and that had been his downfall. They had begun congregating there, had requested a juke box (to which request Ben had acquiesced and been under the thumb of the Syndicate juke box boys ever since) and had given him trade. For a faltering neighborhood candy store, the business had been appreciated, but by the time Ben realized he was being used as a hangout, it was too late.
In essence, the kids had taken over the malt shop. It would have done Ben no good to appeal to the beat cops, for he knew the kids—if thwarted—would come back some afternoon or night when the shop was closed, and break every window and backbar mirror he owned. And his business, which had been pale and thin before the advent of the kids, was now wholly dependent upon them. The neighborhood women would not stop in for their afternoon egg cream any longer. He was living off the kids, and so had to put up with their indignities and attentions.
I made a decision to stop in at Ben's that afternoon, when the kids would be out in force.
The shop was narrow across the front, with a long corridor-like section immediately upon entering, opening out into a large square in the rear. Across the left-hand side of the corridor was a soda fountain and candy case, with stools. The right-hand wall was a magazine rack, and in the back was a phone booth, the juke box, a door leading to the stockroom and the back alley, and eight enclosed booths for seated couples.
I surveyed the place from across the street in an all-night Laundromat, and when I saw more than a dozen kids enter the shop, knew it was almost time for my grand entrance. It was a very testy business; I had to get myself in with them, but not alarm them. I had to gain their trust, and hadn't the vaguest idea how I'd do it.
I looked like one of their crowd ... same age ... same easily identifiable status symbols (the hair d.a., the black jacket, the boots, the insolent curl to the lips) ... but a newcomer was always suspect, always had to prove himself.
I pushed open the front door of the Laundromat and started across the sidewalk. Somehow my eyes were drawn to Ben's candy shop, and every detail of the place was burned into memory. Trucks passed across my line of vision and were only momentary blurs as I advanced, step after step. It was as though the store-front was the only thing in this life, and I had to remark on every facet before it was too late.
There was a large plate glass window, silled in wood that was oily brown and decaying. The window was dark with fly-leavings, the faint patina of soot that could never really be cleaned from a New York window, and an absence of light from within. It was almost a mud-brown, with the words Ben's Malt Shop on it, beginning to peel away the silver with black edges. There was a 7-Up decal near the lower right hand corner of the window, and an El Producto decal, and a half dozen other signs and metal plates either Scotch taped or stuck in otherwise manners to the inside of the glass. The entire window was covered by a metal grating, almost like the wire fences surrounding schoolyards.
I have no idea why I noted this all so completely. Perhaps I felt I was entering a cave of terror and might never again emerge. Whatever it was, as that building grew larger in my sight, I noted the striped, faded awning, rolled up above the window; the metal machinery for lowering that awning when a sprocketed pole was inserted in the turnpost.
I was across the street now, and how I had avoided being hit by the great, lumbering produce trucks that snarled along the cobblestones, I'll never know.
The door had the numbers in gold decals (peeling) near the top, and almost at eye-level a small cartoon figure—product-image, I suppose—of a child with blonde hair, clutching a bottle of Squirt. There was an L & M decal and another El Producto emblem on the glass, and a pull-handle with a lock attached. I could make out dim figures in the store.
At that moment I had a terrible feeling of wanting to turn and run. A feeling of something almost like history, though now when I think about it, the feeling seems ludicrous. But at that moment I knew I was going on, could not turn back, and it frightened me.
I pulled open the door and walked inside Ben's.
The stools along the left-hand side of the room were filled. But the kids were not turned toward the counter. On the contrary, they had their backs braced against the marble counter-edge, were slouched across the stools, and had their feet pressed flat against the opposite wall, just under the wooden magazine racks nailed there. Long black slide marks on the wall indicated this was their traditional position, and they had done it many times before, scuffling their soles down the wall when they got up. It was, in effect, a perfect barricade of legs. No one could pass unless he either shoved their legs away, allowing passage, or waited for them to drop feet.
Simple. Perfect. A test of guts and spunk for whoever entered the shop.
In the space of a second I took in the ten or eleven sets of legs, and the frightened, harried-looking little man behind the counter pouring milk into a metal milk-shake tin, and the girls sitting on the stools, and the couples in the back dancing—despite the absence of a cabaret license that permitted dancing.
The juke box was playing something by Fats Domino. It stank. The entire place, for that matter, had the faint reek of tension and kids waiting for something to happen.
I made out the dim brown bulk of the telephone booth at the back, and decided my excuse for having entered the place was to make a phone call.
I took a breath, no deeper than usual, but a good deal more important at that moment than any other breath had ever been, and moved forward toward the first pair of barricading legs. I was not going to stop.
He was a tall boy, and most of his height was in those terribly-braced legs right in front of me. He had a shock of oily black hair, and a curl that hung down carelessly, Sal Mineo-style, across his forehead. His eyes were almost like bits of coal, or little raisins, thrust into the doughy white mass of his face. But he wasn't fat. His face was white, almost cadaverous, and even more brilliantly-highlighted by the hollows in his cheeks, the dark splotches under his black eyes. He stared at me, sizing me, the way they say it "making me," as I advanced steadily on him. Just at that split-instant before I would have to hit his legs away, or hip-shove through them (but in the same instant he knew I would not back down), he dropped them.
It was a signal to all the others. As I moved down the line, everyone watching me, silence now save for the nasal twanging of Fats Domino alone in the juke box, each pair of blue-jeaned or chino-covered legs dropped with a clank against the counter.
The last person was a girl, slouched back on the stool so that her breasts became painfully apparent against the yellow wool of her sweater. She was not a particularly good looking girl, but there was a heavy sensuousness, an Italian langour, on her petulant lips, in her deep eyes, in the fine texture of her cheekbones and eye-socket ridges. I was later to find out she was Anybody's Girl (as they called her in "West Side Story"), that she had been balled by every stud in the gang, and was looked on more as a chattel than a human being. But this status was something that was hers, hers only, all hers. She had become a hard, chippie-like female, ready to smart-mouth or slap anyone who buzzed her.
I walked up to her legs and she tightened them at the knees, making them harder to knock down. Her skirt rode above her knees, on the lower, less-fleshy part of her thighs. She smiled at me insolently.
Without really knowing what I was doing, I stopped.
"Goin' back, Big Man?" she asked. It seems peculiarly adolescent and false-to-the-ears now, but at that time, in that fraction of a moment when my getting the hell beaten out of me rested with what she said and how I replied, it had all the import and significance of the world's greatest exit lines.
I leered back at her with what I hoped was adolescent bravado, and shoved her legs straight away—rather than down—spinning her on the stool so she almost lost her seat.
"I stopped pickin' green apples like you when I was twelve," I snapped, and without looking at her, walked quite steadily past the empty space between the corridor and the open square back room, past the booths with their staring-at-me occupants, past the juke box and into the phone booth.
Reflex took the dime from my jeans' watch-pocket; reflex put the dime in the slot; reflex held my right index finger over the receiver hook as I put the receiver to my ear. Reflex dialed the nonsensical number.
I was breathing like a deer run halfway cross-country. The sweat that lived in my armpits, the spine down my back, my palms, my upper lip was something too cold to think about. All I could say to myself was Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, that was as close as I ever want to get. Oh Jesus!
With the booth door accordioned shut I could hear very little from the malt shop beyond, but even if there had been no door closed, I was so after-the-fact paralyzed I wouldn't have heard anything in any case.
Finally, when my mouth moistened and my knees (behind my knees, actually) grew calm, I replaced the receiver, pocketed the dime that had clinked back, its clink covered by my hurried dialing, and left the booth.
As I emerged from the booth, I heard someone laughing, and someone else saying, "Man, he plugged your hole, Flo!" Then they were all laughing.
They had been laughing for some minutes.
I was only later to learn that Flo had seldom been put down completely by her associates; that I was one of the first strangers who had ever bucked her. (I attribute this to stupidity on my part, hardly bravery.) She was a private joke among them; someone they felt close to, but who was the brunt of jokes. I had struck a common denominator; I had hit a proper chord. It could easily have gone either way, but they had laughed, rather than taken offense.
No one was glaring at me. No one was angry. I was a tolerated visitor in the enemy camp.
I walked up to Flo, who was crimson with rage at being put down, and smiled at her boyishly. I hoped it was even engagingly. "Sorry," I grinned, meaning that I was not sorry but if she'd call it square, so would I.
She turned away spinning on the stool with an indignant exhalation of breath, that peculiar expression without words or motions that means get the hell away from me, big mouth, I'm insulted.
Everyone was laughing.
I had to cement my place among them, tenuous though it might be.
Clichés are clichés because they're true. They work. I employed as simple a cliché as I could dream up on the spur of the moment. "Hey," I called to the white-around-the-eyes frightened Ben, "give everybody a Coke on me."
Set 'em up for the house, bartender.
It was so trite, it was so hokey, it was so pure and simple a grandstand play, it got carried off flawlessly. I bought them Cokes, and they didn't mind when I took Flo's seat as she left the malt shop in anger and frustration.
They talked to me sparingly, not telling me their names, and myself refraining from asking. They did not tell me what club they belonged to, what they did, where they went, nothing. I was still a stranger. They didn't ask me about myself, and I didn't tell them.
We talked about inconsequentialities. Ball games, movies, the street cleaners, the cops, the stores around, records on the juke box, whether Coke or Pepsi was better, that a piece of meat left overnight in a glass of Coke was eaten by the acid, a lot of crap like that, as they phrased it.
But I was talking with them, and whether they knew it or not, they had a new member in their gang.
It was a feeling that knotted me inside like a length of hemp rope. I was about to get involved more deeply with trouble than I had ever been before.
These kids played hard, and they lived hard, and they were jealous of their lives. They wanted no interference, no interlopers, no prying youth counselors. If they knew I was a busy-body writer gathering their expressions, the absent movements of their hands when they spoke, their facial expressions, they would stomp and slice me like a pound of salami.
I tried talking to them about current events, mentioned some local governmental disturbance. They thought I was a kook. I got off that kick and recouped my conversational losses and learned a lesson, my first about the gang kids:
They lived in a private world. A teen-aged universe outside adults and adult matters. Their world was the turf—their neighborhood, their territory, the blocks they ruled—and sputniks, revolutions, United Nations, strikes and depressions were of no interest to them, did not, in effect, exist for them. They lived in the malt shop, on the doorstep, on the rooftop, in the parked car, on the dance floor, and other worlds were not their concern.
This was their kingdom, and anyone wanting admission had to think like them, act like them, be like them.
I never made that slip-up again.
From the moment I raised that valuable Coke to my lips, I was a seventeen-year-old hood named Cheech Beldone, and if they killed a druggist while robbing his till, or knocked down old ladies in the park, or if they zip-gunned a rival gang member, I was with them.
I had to write the truth, and that meant no play-acting.
It meant living the life of the doomed.
I was a hard rock j.d. from that moment on.
Excerpted from Memos From Purgatory by Harlan Ellison. Copyright © 2003 The Kilimanjaro Corporation. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted September 11, 2010
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Posted November 12, 2010
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