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By Rich Cohen
Vintage Books USA Copyright © 1999 Rich Cohen
All right reserved.
Nate 'n' Al's
THEY ARRIVE IN German and Italian sports cars. They double-park and discard the ticket. They come through the door of Nate 'n' Al's, a delicatessen in Beverly Hills, they come in from the glare of Rodeo Drive expecting friendly faces. They are not disappointed. They float in on Italian-made shoes. They jam the aisles, fill the air, talk pseudo-Yiddish. They ask for the pickles, the ketchup, the herring, and they never say please. It's always gimme, gimme, gimme.
"C'mon, you heard Asher," says Herbie, folding his arms. "Give 'em the herring." Asher gets the herring, lays it on his bagel, and never says thank you. It's okay. It's understood. There are lots of things Asher never says.
They sit each morning at the same booth in back of the restaurant. They look over crowded tables and booths, over mingling bigwigs and hustling waiters, over the cigar case, where toothpicks and mints can be had for free. They blink in the half-light known to all true delis, where every morning is the same morning. They sit among Jews who have moved from the East--Baltimore, Chicago, Brooklyn--and are now looking for something that got lost on the way west. They arrive at the hour agreed on the day before. "Nine A.M. tomorrow," Sid had said, tapping his watch. "Last to come, pays. Agreed?" Heads nod. Agreed.
Today, Sid is the last to come. Sid will pay. Sid is a man of his word. He follows the rules. "Especially when they're my rules," he says, sliding into the booth. "A man who breaks his own rules is no man at all."
Sid is a few inches under six feet tall and broad shouldered and burly, but size is not the first thing about him you notice. The first thing you notice are his eyes, which are full of mischief. "Good eyes see the present and the past right at the same time," he says.
Sid has good eyes. Over the last several decades he has moved west with the country, from New York to Los Angeles. He has passed time at real estate conventions in the Midwest, drink in hand, corn and rye ripening all around. He has been to seminars, talked PTA, the future of the Rust Belt, computers, the explosion of the Southwest, the Internet. Still, in all these years, in all the houses with all the women, he never took his eyes off Bensonhurst, the neighborhood in Brooklyn where he came of age fifty years ago. Wherever he goes he surrounds himself with people who remind him in some vague way of those kids who formed his world in Brooklyn, where every son was an immigrant's son, every dream the pipe dream of an immigrant's son. In Los Angeles, where so many of his boyhood friends have also landed, he runs with the old crowd. "Hello, fellas," he says, reaching for a menu. "Happy to see everyone looking so happy."
Sid is a millionaire. He was in real estate. He sold his company. He says being from Brooklyn is a full-time job. When Sid talks, it's in a high singsong that is pleasantly at odds with his frame. "I see I'm the last through the door," he says, motioning for a waitress. "Guess I have to pay. Well, okay. Don't be shy, boys. Eat up. I'm loaded."
They grunt in acknowledgment. They're lost in their food: Asher and his egg-white omelet, runny and covered in ketchup; Herbie and his bagel, light toast, light schmere; Larry picking at Asher's egg-white omelet, runny and covered in ketchup. "I want a bagel and a whitefish," Sid tells the waitress. As he hands her the menu, he says, "Tell the counterman to gouge out the eyes. I don't want breakfast looking at me."
"Hey, Asher, you trying to hide your eggs from me?" asks Larry, looking at Asher's plate. "What's with all the ketchup?"
"Shut up," says Asher. "No one invited you."
A breed of such men thrive in Los Angeles, brokers, lawyers, entertainers, entertaining lawyers, promoters, moguls, former furriers, distributors, importers, exporters, self-promoters, men of leisure. They fled Brooklyn thirty-five, forty years ago and have shed as many outward signs of their heritage as would be shed, yet still retain something of the old world, a final, fleeting glimpse of what their fathers must have been. Their faces are concentrated, their talk full of warnings, premonitions of things to come, of time repeating itself, of good men stripped of all worldly goods and left to fight again with nothing but instinct. Every time he enters a room, Asher notes where each man stands, who poses the biggest threat, and who, if necessary, he'll take out first. "This is the stuff I'm thinking about all the time," he says, wiping his hands." For me, it's just like a crossword puzzle."
On those mornings when the gang is in high form, when the stories come fast as tracks on a CD, they pull Nate 'n' Al's off into a swamp of time, where old Brooklyn comes face-to-face with modern Los Angeles. On such occasions, the group is an attraction to those who fill the outlying booths, the regular clientele of Nate 'n' Al's, who watch the gang as if they're watching mimes on stage, reading meaning in each gesture, seeing in them everything from how wealth is wasted on the uncouth to the last of a vanishing breed, whose very dialect, a thick Brooklynese, exists nowhere but in such storytelling, backward-looking circles. "They're trying to teach my grandkid Spanish in school," says Asher, yielding his plate to Larry. "What the hell? If he needs to learn anything, it's Yiddish. The language of my people is dying."
And when the men on stage look back across the restaurant, take in the eyes taking them in, what do they see? Many things. People who ruin every sandwich with mayonnaise, who buy high and sell low, who do what they're told, who say things like "It's nice to be important, but it's more important to be nice," who fall for every cheap carnie who comes through the door, and who know nothing of Brooklyn, of days when the old world existed alongside the new, when each roof looked like the scene of a police chase. "I go wherever I want to go and act like me," says Sid, looking around the room. "Everyone else's home is home to me."
Around each other, these men have a kind of ease that makes you want to confide things. The ease of old friends. Late nights. Stories by now more fiction than fact. Stories set on the stoops and corners of Bensonhurst, Flatbush, Brownsville, in a time when Jewish gangsters, that lost romantic breed, still roamed the streets, when Italians had no monopoly on hooliganism, when a Jewish boy could still fashion his future as murderous and daring and wide open, a future shot full of holes. Alleys. Blue smoky rooms. Basements. The ominous echo of footsteps. Leather shoulder holsters.
In his youth, Sid could leave his family's apartment house on Seventy-fourth Street, walk among the row houses to Kings Highway, where he could follow the immortal Sholem Bernstein, who ran "errands" for the Jewish Syndicate, clear out to the waterfront, where the world seemed to open up. If he tried hard, Sid could almost walk like Sholem, duck his shoulder like Sholem, drag his foot. Or like any of the other members of Murder Incorporated, a Jewish gang involved in racketeering, bootlegging, and shylocking. But all this happened so long ago, back when a Jew in jail didn't have to mean white-collar crime.
"Did I tell you guys who I met?" asks Larry, looking up from Asher's plate. "Mike Tyson. I interviewed him in the ring after that farce of a fight with that bum McNeely. We talked a little about the fight, then spent an hour on the old gangsters." Tyson is from Brownsville, the home of Murder Incorporated. And no matter how many middle-class families flee for the suburbs, for the shrubs and hedges of Long Island, heroes never really leave. "When Tyson talks about Lepke," says Larry, "he chokes up like a schoolgirl."
Larry is the television personality Larry King. As Larry Zeiger he grew up in Brownsville and Bensonhurst, tagging after people like Sid and Asher, dreaming of long nights on the radio. "I give Larry a hard time," says Sid, glancing at his friend. "Needle him. An hour goes by and still he can't believe what's happening, that someone's mocking Larry King. Larry Zeiger, maybe, but Larry King?"
Larry, held together by blow-dried hair and suspenders, is hunched over the table, checking his reflection in Asher's plate. Like the others in the booth, his trip to Nate 'n' Al's was an extended ramble over years and landscapes. In 1962 he was seated with a microphone in the window of Pumpernicks, a restaurant in Miami, interviewing any fool who happened through the door. One morning he ate alongside Meyer Lansky, an old man hosting an old friend, triggerman Jimmy Blue Eyes. "Lansky kept saying, 'Jimmy, why do you stay in New York?'" Larry recalls. "'Do you know the temperature in Brooklyn today? Two. Why do you want to live like that? Move down here. Miami's the promised land.'"
A few years later, Larry picked a bad horse and was himself just about chased from Miami, splashed across the newspapers, and locked in some cracker jail. "I used to be there, but now, thank God, I'm here," says Larry, rapping the table.
Larry is in Los Angeles to cover the trial of O.J. Simpson. He flew in this morning, dropped his bags at the Beverly Wilshire, and walked right over. "Hey, Larry, what's the deal with that Simpson case?" asks Asher, picking up a fork. "What does the jury know? How sequestered is sequestered?"
"They had a conjugal visit last night, so they know everything you know," says Larry.
"Conjugal visit? How often do they have those?" asks Asher,
"Once a week."
"That's enough," says Asher. "I'd have time left over."
Asher is the dashing dark-eyed member of the group. When he smiles, his eyes disappear. His hair is gray, his glasses tinted. He sells real estate from an office around the corner. "When did you get in, Herbie?" he says, looking across the table.
Herbie has dozed off. This means nothing. Herbie dozes off all the time. He is relaxed. He once dozed off while having his teeth drilled. "Hey, Sid, shake Herbie."
"What?" asks Herbie, opening an eye.
"When did you get in?" Asher repeats. "Don't tell me you've been out here hiding from your pals. That'd break my heart."
"No, Asher," says Herbie, closing the eye. "I got in late last night."
Herbie is my father. My whole life, Herbie has been happy to see me. When he sees me, he acts in a way entirely unlike the way he acts before he sees me, something I know from overhearing him and from the way he is described by friends. When he does not see me, his language is filled with obscenity, with cocksuckers and motherfuckers and fuckin' pricks. One thing that frequents his stories--before he sees me--are dead men. "That motherfuckin' cocksucker and those fuckin' pricks he calls a crew are dead men." After he sees me, the talk is about the future, the way one should act, God, the mysteries of life, the neighbors, what Hank Greenberg would hit in this park, funny road signs, Jewish sports legends.
Before he sees me, his talk revolves around Louis Lepke and Gurrah Shapiro. After he sees me, it's Sandy Koufax and Sid Luckman. Of course, the same thing that drives his conversation (without me) to Louis Lepke drives his conversation (with me) to Sandy Koufax. It's all about Jews acting in ways other than Jews are supposed to act, Jews leaving the world of their heads to thrive in a physical world, a world of sense, of smell, of grit, of strength, of courage, of pain. "The day Koufax refused to pitch in the World Series on Yom Kippur was a great day for our people," says Herbie.
In the house where I grew up, we had no fewer than three books on the exploits of Jewish sports legends. My father used to point out the entry in The Baseball Encyclopedia that encapsulates the entire experience of the Jews in America: "Mo Solomon. 'The Rabbi of Swat.' At Bats 8. Hits 3. Born New York, N.Y., 1900. Died Miami, Florida, 1966." In my house we did not have a single book on Jewish gangsters. And though I enjoy the conversations I have with my father (home runs, no-hitters), I sometimes wish I could talk to him before he sees me, a conversation about Lepke and Shapiro, a conversation riddled with obscenity, a bloodbath of a conversation where every other sentence hides a dead man.
My father has a highly expressive face, where every emotion registers like a shade of light. The lines in his face run north to south, like furrows in a mountain. He talks in a slow, drawn-out manner that pulls people in and holds them longer than they intended to stay. Friends call looking for me and spend hours on the phone with him, at last agreeing he is right, they are on the wrong career track, heading nowhere fast.
My father grew up with Sid and Asher and Larry in Bensonhurst. They formed a gang called the Warriors but never really had the opportunity or inclination to emulate Murder Incorporated in any way other than language and dress. And nicknames. They gave themselves the sorts of loopy nicknames gangsters are supposed to have: the Mouth Piece, Who-Ha, Inky, Bucko, Lefty, Gutter Rat, Moppo. My father named himself Handsomo, a name that to me sounds ridiculous. Still, some of the old gang insist my father really was good-looking. "Your old man deserved to be called Handsomo," Larry told me. "He had dark black hair and green eyes, a rare combination in our neighborhood." Larry has written at least two books that chronicle Herbie's childhood exploits. My father moves through such texts the way the youthful hero, the hero destined to fall, moves through all coming-of-age novels: "There was a stage in my life when I wanted to be Herbie," wrote Larry. "Herbie was a provocateur. He was a schemer and a troublemaker, but he was in it for the sport, and he got just as much satisfaction getting into trouble as getting out...."
After serving in the army and graduating from NYU law school, my father was hired by Allstate Insurance Company, where he announced his daily arrival saying, "Company Jew passing through." Several transfers later (New Jersey, Long Island, Illinois) he quit Allstate and set out on his own. He would consult, lecture, negotiate. "Just who will you consult?" his father asked at the time.
"General Motors," said Herbie.
"How long has this General Motors been in business?"
"For decades, Dad," said Herbie.
"And have they done okay without you so far?"
So my father found himself starting over in the wilds of Illinois, where the "s" is silent. And as I grew up, I found that I was becoming in some ways very different from him. I came to see myself as a midwestern character, as open and friendly as the plains, while he only wrapped himself more tightly in Brooklyn. By age fifty he had developed a great man theory of history, whereby all men of significance are from Brooklyn. "You like that guy?" he would ask, looking at the TV. "Well, that's another one from Brooklyn."
About ten years after he quit Allstate, my father wrote a book that went on to become a best-seller. The book was called You Can Negotiate Anything, a title for which I was punished in high school. "You can't negotiate everything in this class, Mr. Cohen."
Oh, yeah? Fuck you.
To me, that title, You Can Negotiate Anything, sums up the ethos of his old block, an ethos that means as much to Sid and Asher and Larry as it does to my father. It's about being savvy, about never letting anyone know if you're real or fake, crazy or sane, righteous or fallen, good or bad. It's about risks. On family trips, my father would steer the station wagon as he read the paper (stretched wide across the wheel) and ate a hamburger (left hand). "Any damn fool can drive a car," he would say, turning a page. "Reading the paper, eating a meal, and driving a car, now that's something!"
During the Korean War, my father, like Elvis--who, incidentally, was not from Brooklyn--was stationed in West Germany. He was stationed in Bad Kissingen on the East German border a decade after the Second World War. One day, looking over some grainy photos of him in fatigues, I asked if this scared him, being surrounded by men who may have been Nazis so soon before. "Scared?" he repeated, as if I were a fool. "Hey, baby. I had a thirty-eight on my hip. That means when I talk, you listen. Army of occupation, baby. I wasn't the one who had anything to be scared about. The Kraut, the Jerry, the Hun, that's who was shaking."
And this is a lesson many Jews of my father's generation took from the war. Shooting is bad. Shooting is to be deplored. But if shooting should break out, make sure you're on the right side of the gun. Army Of occupation, baby! Which is one reason my father's friends cling to the romantic image of the Jewish gangster. In their formative years, those following the Holocaust, as they were faced with the image of dead, degraded Jews being bulldozed into mass graves, here was another image, closer to home--Jews with guns, tough, fearless Jews. Don't let the yarmulke fool ya. These Jews will kill you before you get around to killing them. Bugsy Siegel, Abe Reles, Louis Lepke, antiheroes whose very swagger seemed to provide another option. If Jewish gangsters still thrived today, if they hadn't gone legit, if Jews of my generation didn't regard them as figments, creatures to be classed with Big Foot and the Loch Ness monster, I think the Jewish community might be better off. After all, everyone needs someone who gives them the illusion of strength. How else to explain the sacred position in which American Jews hold the Israeli army? Army of occupation, baby!
The Jewish gangster stories told each morning by my father and his friends are really the remnants of old neighborhood stories, legends that have been passed from clubrooms and street corners to boardrooms and delis and on to suburban towns, like the one where I grew up. Over the years, in tellings that have worn them smooth, these stories have certainly been worked up and embellished, fitted less to the need of the subject than the teller. The story I am left with is therefore not so much one of facts as the noise those facts make passing through time. It is a story of shifting perspective, the way a group of Brooklyn thugs, each with his own rise and fall, fills a need in the lives of my father and his friends, and also in my life. So what follows is less a straight history than the story of a Brooklyn gang as seen through the eyes of my father and his friends, and then that story (my father looking at gangsters) seen through my eyes, like laying colored glass over colored glass.
And though this story sprawls across decades and time zones, from the stoops and candy stores of Brooklyn to the driveways of suburban Chicago, where fathers let their sons win at basketball, it is really just the story of three generations: the gangster generation, that handful of early century Jews who tried to bust into the palace with a crowbar; my father's generation, diligent sons who carried us over the threshold with hard work; my generation, cool-thinking suburbanites who wonder what it was like back on the outside. For people like me, who grew up hearing only of the good Jews, fund-raisers and activists, the gangsters offer a glimpse of a less stable time, like the Ice Age, when a greater variety of species thrived on earth.
The Jewish gangster has been forgotten because no one wants to remember him, because my grandmother won't talk about him, because he is something to be ashamed of. Well, to me, remembering Jewish gangsters is a good way to deal with being born after 1945, with being someone who has always had the Holocaust at his back, the distant tom-tom: six million, six million, six million. The gangsters, with their own wisecracking machine-gun beat, push that other noise clear from my head. And they drowned out other things, too, like the stereotype that fits the entire Jewish community into the middle class, comfortable easy-chair Jews with nothing but morality for dessert. Where I grew up, it was understood: Even the most reckless Jew winds up in medical school. Well, the gangsters helped me clear this trap, showing me that since the worst is possible, so is everything else. If a Jew can die in the electric chair, anything can happen.
After living in Chicago for twenty-seven years, my parents repatriated east, settling in Washington, D.C. Every now and then, however, when my father is in Los Angeles on business, he spends his mornings at Nate 'n' Al's. Once there, he picks up the narrative of the Jewish gangsters like something he left off only a moment before. "One day, I'm coming home from school and this guy comes running onto Eighty-fifth Street," says Herbie, coming out of his doze. "A car lurches after him and two guys come out. They're wearing hats. They throw the guy against a wall. They get him by the neck, punch him in the stomach. He doubles over and they kick him in the head. The guy slumps against the wall. As the thugs walk back to the car, they see me and one says, 'What the fuck are you lookin' at?' That was the first time I saw real violence--cruel, unprovoked violence. This wasn't two guys fighting. This was something else."
In a real way, people like my father, Sid, Asher, and Larry are the offspring of those old gangsters. They grew up on the same blocks, were part of the same world, were being pulled toward the same future. They were children on streets where Lepke and Reles were parents, grandparents. In some way, Sid, Asher, Herbie, and Larry are the dream the gangsters had of the future. Jews who are indistinguishable from Americans. Jews who are Americans. Jews who go to temple with all the nonchalance of a President Clinton going to church. Jews washed clean of Odessa, the shtetl, the camps, the tenements, millionaire Jews who drive German cars, who make legit deals before breakfast that pay off just after lunch.
And still, these Jews, are they happy? Can they ever be happy? Is any real Jew ever happy? Happy, is that a word you would use to describe Moses? Jesus? Freud? Einstein? Groucho? Hell, no, they're not happy. They crave the physical power of gangsters. They've seen The Godfather dozens of times. They talk tough in the produce line. Mess with them, you'll get hit with something heavy--maybe. No. They're not happy. They long for the past, for a time when all the old assumptions about Jews were like the German mark after the Great War--worthless.
Each day, after the eggs but before the coffee, after the box scores but before the futures, conversation turns back to those old criminals. And in the gang's deliberate way of speaking, you hear again the voices of killers under the bridge, the Gowanus Canal at dawn, sharpies and sharks, washlined streets and early morning walk-ups where young hoods make their last nocturnal rounds as sucker big brothers are just rousing for another chicken-shit payday at work.
Excerpted from Tough Jews by Rich Cohen Copyright © 1999 by Rich Cohen.
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