The Bribeby Philip Ross
The mob offers the young mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey, a $500,000 bribe to rezone land adjacent to the George Washington Bridge. Risking his life, the mayor pretends to go along with the plan but wears a wire. His efforts lead to the convictions of seven people. See more details below
The mob offers the young mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey, a $500,000 bribe to rezone land adjacent to the George Washington Bridge. Risking his life, the mayor pretends to go along with the plan but wears a wire. His efforts lead to the convictions of seven people.
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By Philip Ross
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1976 Philip Ross
All rights reserved.
It is a cold and windy Saturday night in March when my father and I arrive for dinner. The evening is meant to be an informal celebration. The trial is still in progress but my brother Burt, a week away from his thirty-second birthday, has just finished on the witness stand. A verdict may be a month off, but there is reason enough to celebrate now. He was terrific.
"Ross: Unflustered and Forthright," the morning paper had headlined.
"All our witnesses should only be like him," the U.S. Attorney prosecuting the case had whispered during a recess.
Yet this dinner tonight is not so much to pay tribute to a great performance as it is to take quiet pleasure in the fact that the curtain itself has finally fallen. For Burt, at least, it's over now. Ten months of FBI and staked-out restaurants, hidden mikes and recording equipment, U.S. marshals and Tommy guns, threats on his life and country hideouts. It's all over. And we have come to drink to that. To survival as much as to success.
The front door of Bill and Joanne Miller's Long Island house is partly open and we walk in without knocking. Joanne Miller, Burt's mother-in-law, is sitting on a couch next to an elaborately set dinner table. She is nursing a scotch. No one else seems to be around, which is strange because we are twenty minutes late.
"Where is everybody?" my father asks.
Joanne shrugs. Her usually effervescent voice is now almost a whisper.
"They're all out looking for Willy," she says.
"What do you mean?" my father asks.
"He must have jumped over the fence in the back," Joanne says. "I don't know how the hell he could have gotten over that fence, but he's not there. Maybe he jumped or slipped into the canal."
Willy is the half-shepherd, half-collie that Burt and his wife, Laurie, picked up as a pup from a farmer while they were hiding out in the country. He is almost full grown now, sixty or so pounds of awkward energy with a brain that has impressed no one but Burt, who calls him "my boy."
Joanne says they first noticed Willy was missing about an hour ago. Since then, Burt has been combing the neighborhood with Bill in one car, and Laurie has been driving alone in another.
The three of us sit silently, nibbling on some peanuts, perhaps more concerned that the festive evening we had looked forward to appears ruined than that Willie has disappeared.
"When is it ever going to end with him?" my father mutters. "When is the drama ever going to end?"
Perhaps twenty minutes pass and the door opens. Laurie walks in carrying Willy, who is soaking wet but seemingly all right. She lays him down on the living room rug and begins drying him off with towels. She had found him on a patch of mud near the end of the canal.
"He must have slipped off the dock and been unable to get back on," Laurie says. "Thank God the tide was out or he would have drowned."
Another fifteen minutes go by and Bill Miller and his son-in-law pull up. Bill, for most of his life a cop and undoubtedly one of the gentlest men to have ever donned a holster, walks in first. He sees the dog, shakes his head and walks directly to the kitchen.
Burt, in jeans and an olive ski jacket, comes limping in behind Bill. He takes a step or two into the living room and stops. He sees the dog. He stands there frozen, only his head moving, eyes darting from person to person. Suddenly he breaks down, his voice a series of low moans turning into one long primal scream ...
"Willy, Willy, Willy." The sound is so pure and so filled with anguish that it is both terrifying and cathartic.
The dog leaps from under the towels and is all over Burt, knocking him off balance, tail wagging, licking his face. Burt sinks to his knees. His eyes are wild. Tears are running down his cheeks. He is sobbing uncontrollably, violently.
Bill stays in the kitchen and begins carving the ham. Joanne keeps a tight grip on her scotch. My father's eyes are watery. Laurie walks up behind Burt and puts her arms around his neck.
I am confused.
Ten months earlier, on a warm Sunday afternoon in May of 1974, my phone rings. It is my brother and his voice is filled with the urgency I have come to expect as a political campaign draws to a close and he has some last-minute ideas he wants me to work on. I informally run the campaigns and am looked to for advice, but he calls the shots and does most of the work. As his brother, my major contribution is to get him to slow down.
On this day, I would like to bring him to a grinding halt. I have just come back from planting a garden at a friend's house in the country and I am covered with spring. On the way back, I stopped with my daughters to pick wild flowers. I am not feeling very political.
"Listen, Phil," he says. "I've got to talk to you."
"Let me guess. They just sent out a mailing calling you a child molester."
"C'mon, will you listen to me? Something incredible just happened. I think I was just paid a visit by the Mafia."
"You were what?" "Yeah, I'm sure of it. This guy I've never seen before comes to my apartment and says I've got to delay the board of adjustment vote on the Sutton property. He says that if the thing is voted down on Wednesday, a lot of lives are going to be ruined."
"What makes you think he's Mafia?"
"Everything. He was wearing a silk suit. He had on a big pinky ring. He was incredibly tough-looking. You know, big chest, broad shoulders, the works. I think I saw a gun under his jacket. And he wouldn't tell me his name. He called himself Joey D. He even turned up the volume on my TV set to make sure no one could listen to us. I'm telling you, it was like in the movies."
"What exactly did he want from you?"
"He kept saying that the vote has to be delayed for a few weeks because the banks are applying pressure and if it's voted down now, the whole thing will go under."
I ask my brother if that was the whole conversation. He says no. The guy who called himself Joey D. had said he could destroy the other slate in the upcoming primary, and he had asked Burt several times whether he had any money problems.
There are a number of thoughts racing through my head. They all come together in my next question.
"Burt, are you out of your goddamned head?"
He seems taken aback. "What do you mean?" he asks.
"What do I mean?" I shout. "What the hell is the matter with you? Some guy you don't know but think is Mafia comes to your apartment and asks if you have money problems. And you let him talk to you? Why didn't you say that if he didn't get out, you'd call the cops? That's what you should have done."
Burt answers in an exasperated voice that makes me feel like a parent who has just told his teen-age daughter to be home before midnight.
"Aw, c'mon," he says. "I can take care of myself. If I had done what you said, that would have been the end of it. I'd never know who the guy was or whom he was representing or what kind of political information he had. I want to find out what the mystery is all about."
I'm beginning to think that my younger brother is more than just stubborn. He is an idiot.
"Look," I say, "this isn't some cops and robbers game you used to play. What's wrong with you? If you read this guy right, you're going to be in over your head. I'm telling you, these guys don't play games."
Burt remains silent for a few seconds. I hope that I have made an impression.
"Don't worry about a thing," he says finally. "Nothing happened that I can't take care of. And besides, I didn't give him the slightest indication that I would do anything. I even told him I couldn't do anything even if I wanted to. But he was very persistent. He just kept saying that people should be able to talk and help each other and that I should think about it. So I'll call the U.S. Attorney first thing in the morning and see what he says. And stop being so nervous. I know what I'm doing. I can live with myself."
There comes a point in all my conversations with my brother when he has heard everything he is going to hear and wants to get off the phone. We have now reached that point. I make one last try.
"Burt," I plead, "you're talking about living with yourself and I'm talking about living."
"Very funny," he says. "Send my love to the kids."
And so it begins.CHAPTER 2
Based on childhood appearance and intellect, Burt Ross was not a likely candidate to someday draw comparisons with Omar Sharif or to make the dean's list at Harvard. He didn't talk until he was past two. His ears stuck out so much that his parents considered taping them back. With one thumb in his mouth he liked to run the fingers of his free hand through other people's hair and contentedly repeat the words, "Golly, golly."
Even his name had a vaguely comic quality. When he was born, a nurse asked for the infant's full name. A middle name hadn't even been discussed, but his father suddenly felt compelled to provide his second child with a complete identity. "Burt Lee Ross," he blurted. Berkeley Industries was the company for which he worked.
At the time of his birth, Burt's parents had begun to achieve a measure of the financial security and middle-class respectability that were the guiding stars of so many first-generation Americans.
David Rosalsky—the name would become Ross when he was 27—was the youngest of seven children born to Lithuanian Jews who immigrated to New York in the 1880s and settled into tenement poverty. His father, who made his debut in the New World as a pushcart peddler, had severe epilepsy. The attacks would come with such sudden violence that David did not regret that his father left for work before he got up or that he returned late at night to eat alone and go to sleep. In thirty years the two exchanged barely a thousand words.
What familial benefits did accrue to David Rosalsky came largely from his being the youngest by eight years. Because most of his four brothers and two sisters had already left home while he was still a child, he got more than a full share of his mother's attention. And there was tangible fallout from the small businesses his brothers had opened. He had a second-hand bike. He was sent to camp for a summer. He went to Manual Training High School and had enough leisure time to become an accomplished runner and lacrosse player.
If, by the standards of his family, all this made him spoiled, it did not make him weak. The Red Hook section of Brooklyn he grew up in was Italian and rough. Jews defended themselves or were bullied. David chose to fight. He became so conditioned to protecting himself that once, when he was told someone had just beat up his kid brother, he belted the alleged perpetrator before remembering that he had no kid brother.
After Red Hook he went to college. Not just any college, but to the University of Virginia, which for a young man from the concrete jungle of New York seemed like four years in paradise. For most people those years meant the beginning of the Depression; for David Rosalsky, they were boom times. He was away from home, and he met people without his ghetto mentality. He was exposed to ideas that transcended reducing the inventory of a dry goods store. He was invited to estates in the rich clay countryside around Charlottesville, and he learned to ride a horse. Summers he worked as a busboy in the Catskills and bought a roadster with the money he saved. He fell in and out of love.
David Rosalsky came out of Virginia with the dream of becoming another Clarence Darrow. He started going to Brooklyn Law School but was soon summoned to a lower calling: His brothers had started to manufacture razor blades, and they needed his help. The dream died, replaced by an unfulfilled fantasy that would haunt his nights in all the years to come.
By Labor Day weekend in 1937 he had been working for his brothers for a couple of years, was pulling in a nifty thirty-five dollars a week and needed a vacation. He went to Camp Tamiment, a singles resort in the Poconos. While waiting in line to take out a rowboat, he met the woman he would marry.
Her name was Rose Rogovin. She was a welfare department organizer and part-time teacher from the Bronx who had skipped a year in high school, majored in English at Hunter College and had begun studying for her masters at City College before dropping out to join the labor movement. She had both the bohemian and socialist aspirations that were common to her time. She hung out in Greenwich Village. She was amorously pursued by the poet Maxwell Bodenheim. She applauded the speakers who shouted the coming of a just society.
David Rosalsky was none of these things, but there was something about him that made her feel he was the one. He was passionate in nonpolitical ways. When she leaned on him, he didn't bend. Most of the other men in her life were drifters; he seemed to know where he was going. And even though the direction he was headed in had not been part of her conscious itinerary, that he knew what he wanted was in itself reassuring.
Rose Rogovin still lived with her parents and younger brother and sister, and Dave Rosalsky quickly adopted her family as his own. Her father was a Polish immigrant who had a keen intellect and a good education but had been forced to earn an unhappy living auctioning off the wares of bankrupt stores. Dave Rosalsky listened to her father speak in a Yiddish that was literary compared with that spoken in his own home. He learned from him about Zionism. But most of all, he began to understand the quality of giving. Louis Rogovin was a man who sneaked extra money to people whose wares he had just auctioned off because he couldn't stand profiting from other people's misery. He brought strangers in off the street for a warm meal. He refused to eat sugar during the war because there was a shortage and he thought the soldiers needed it. He sometimes displayed a violent temper with his children, but he cried when the Allies bombed Berlin.
Rose's mother was a simple woman with twinkling eyes who sometimes laughed so hard she wet her pants. Dave Rosalsky naturally came to call her "Mom." He loved her cooking. He helped her son get a job. He played ping pong with her younger daughter. The whole family was crazy about him.
The courtship was brief. They were married on Lincoln's Birthday in 1938 and settled into a small apartment across the street from Yankee Stadium. Rose taught until the birth of her first son a year and a half later. Dave continued working for his brothers and changed his name to Ross because they had changed theirs. His salary continued to grow and by 1943, when Burt was born, the family was living in a rented home in Teaneck, New Jersey, a model suburban town five miles west of the George Washington Bridge and Fort Lee.
Berkeley Industries continued to prosper through the war, and by 1948 David Ross was making nearly $30,000 a year. Then he did a rather gutsy thing for a man with a family and a mortgage on his home. He quit. For years he had been promised a partnership by his brother-in-law, but nothing ever materialized. So with three other men and a total investment of $14,000, he opened a factory in Newark that first manufactured folding rules and then steel measuring tapes. His wife went back to teaching. He worked seven days a week and did his share of the physical labor. In the clichéd tradition of American success stories, it paid off. By 1950 the company was beginning to see daylight. Ten years later Evans Rule went public and David Ross, at forty-nine, was a wealthy man.
The year 1950 should have been a good one for David and Rose Ross—but it wasn't. In September, seven-year-old Burt became ill with what seemed to be the flu. But when the nausea, fever and aching bones disappeared, he was left with one other symptom. He couldn't walk.
The diagnosis was polio. The recommended treatment for his paralyzed right leg was six months at the Sister Kenney Institute in Jersey City. The prognosis was for a life on crutches or, with a little luck, a knee brace. Ironically, the night before Burt became sick, his father had coached him in starting positions for a track meet he was to have been in the next day. Burt had shown signs that he was going to be a hell of an athlete. And he loved competition.
Parts of a personality began to emerge over the next year. When other children cried after visiting hours at the hospital, a nurse would wheel Burt over to cheer them up. Others screamed when hot wax was applied to their afflicted limbs. Burt didn't. Most kids would mope away the long days. Burt organized wheelchair races in the halls.
Excerpted from The Bribe by Philip Ross. Copyright © 1976 Philip Ross. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Philip Ross is a writer and psychotherapist. He is the brother of Burt Ross, the subject of The Bribe. He lives with his wife and six chickens in the Adirondack mountains of upstate New York.
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