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Work and Other Sins Life in New York City and Thereabouts
By Charlie Leduff
Penguin Books Copyright © 2005 Charlie Leduff
All right reserved.
Introduction Among the more fantastic nobodies hanging from my family tree are a pair of heavy-drinking lighthouse keepers, a sleepy morphine addict, a grave robber, a rumrunner, a streetwalker, a numbers maker, a dean of a sham college and a police informant. A few of these relatives are still living, a few lived long lives, a few died young by misadventure or of self-neglect. Those are sad biographies ending with "done me wrong."
My grandpa Roy was the bookmaker for the Detroit Race Course, which no longer stands. Like everything else, it has been replaced by a shopping mall, I think. They say Grandpa was a math genius. Maybe, but he never struck me as one. He was a sharp dresser with a thin pencil-trim mustache, a sophisticated and sociable man, but a math genius? I can't say. He did make a lot of money in his time, but when the president of the Teamsters and the under boss of the Bufalino family were your dinner pals, you didn't really have to be that good with the numbers.
Grandma insists that Grandpa was not a gangster but the most decent and honorable man she had ever met. I believe her, but I wonder why she kept the photos of Grandpa and Jimmy Hoffa at the bottom of the trunk, above the one of Grandpa and a strange woman laughing it up in a fishing cottage somewhere far away. I am working from memory here, since relations of mine stole that trunk and most of the rest of my grandma's things and sold them away to strangers.
But this is not a memoir. There are too many of those. I give you some family background as a way of credentialing myself, to show you that everybody's got a history, that most everybody comes from nowhere and that in every family there is a cousin no one wants to admit to. This book is about such people: New Yorkers almost exclusively, working people most definitely.
The dandies I know say I write about dives and losers, but they are wrong. I write about the people who live in neighborhoods, crowded apartments and dreary ranch houses. These are the people who shovel their own snow and have fat aunties who wear stretch pants with stains on the ass. This is not a book about the people who have doormen but a book about doormen. It is about the laborer, the dreamer, the hustler, the immigrant-whether he is a writer from Michigan or a waiter from Michoacân. I suppose in all of this I'm trying to find myself and justify him, to you.
When the cocktail set tells me they enjoy the cast of losers, I never mind them. I smile and drink their liquor. They don't know work.
The elders in my family told me our stories. The better stuff has come more recently, pried out with the crowbar of old age. Nobody likes to admit he cheated his way to the middle. As far as I know, our stories of half-breeds, half-asses, half-truths, crawdaddies from the Louisiana swamps and kicking birds from the Great Lakes have never been written down or chronicled except for that newspaper photograph of Grandpa and Jimmy Hoffa standing on the picket line in front of the track two generations ago.
That picture, that one piece of acknowledgment and notoriety, is lost to my family. The stranger who bought the trunk has no idea that the thin man standing next Hoffa was known along Woodward Avenue as the Duke.
That American nobody is somebody to me. He's the guy who taught me about horses. You will not find recollections of him in these pages, but he is here. Pete the Gambler and I spent hours at the Aqueduct Race Track in Ozone Park, Queens, talking about my grandpa, about his handicapping system and his philosophy on horses. That philosophy: Stay away from the track. But it doesn't work that way and so there you have it.
The nice thing about being a reporter is that you can show a gravedigger your press card and ask him: "You mind if I watch?" He lets you watch for a while. He will let you try his shovel until your hands start to blister and your back starts to ache. You hand him back his shovel and you watch some more and it dawns upon you to ask, "Doesn't that hurt your hands and back?" Usually, people try to make their lives sound better than they are. But that falls away after a while, and the longer you hang around, the less they realize you're around and eventually you get at it.
Reporters like to tell themselves that they are doing something socially and culturally important and that in the best of circumstances they are doing some good-righting wrongs, exposing crooks and such. That's what they tell each other over free drinks at the awards ceremonies, anyway.
The truth is, we reporters are window peepers, suck-ups, people too ugly for the movies. That's what normal people say. That's the bad part. The good part is the job beats manual labor.
The stories in this book appeared in The New York Times at around the turn of the century. Chronologically, they end with September 11 and its aftermath. I wrote some stories about Squad 1, a firehouse in Brooklyn that lost half its men. Rereading them now, these stories seem salty and cold to me, like watering eyes in the wintertime. There was so much more to be said, but I could not say it, because life in those moments was hard enough. I hope the stories at least seem limber, that something good can be gotten from them by somebody.
New York is a glamorous city, constituted mostly of nobodies. They crave the lights, and if they tell you differently, they're lying. Only dreamers come to New York. As a matter of course, few people have control of their lives. You live at the whim of your boss, your landlord, your grocer, the stranger, the judge, the bus driver, the mayor who won't let you smoke. On the other hand, you live at the whim of your whims, and that is the most exciting thing there is.
New York is a lot like a shit sandwich. The more bread you have, the less shit you taste, and this town would tumble to the ground without money. For those who don't have it, there is always the hope of getting it. This book is meant for them.
Work and Other Sins
When I was a cub reporter at the Times, I was talking with an editor about a strike at an auto-parts plant in Flint, Michigan. There was some story in the paper that day about workers who were spending their idle time antique shopping and speeding around the lakes in their powerboats.
"Since when is it bad to have a boat and make good money?" I asked.
The editor, a smart guy with a weak chin, put his palm to his nose and said: "Those people had about this much foresight. They should have seen the writing on the wall and gone to college."
That's what he said.
But if we were all poets, we'd starve on words.
Good-bye to Mr. Hello and Good-bye
Robert E. Mitchell will retire on March 29. He will take his belongings and his doorman's pension and go back home to New Orleans, where he plans to grow old on the front porch with his relations.
No one need apply, as Mr. Mitchell's job was filled just days after he announced his retirement. "That's the way it goes," he said at four one afternoon as he dragged his broom and dustpan around the perimeter of 801 West End Avenue, a prewar building with seventy apartments on the west side of the avenue between Ninety-ninth and One Hundredth streets. "Time moves along and things are forgotten. Including the memories of you," he said. There are, after all, eight thousand doormen in the city.
And maybe the new guy will make the residents of 801 forget that for thirty-three years, Mr. Mitchell was the man who mopped their hallways and shoveled their snow. Or that he was the man who took their children by the scruff of the neck when he saw them doing wrong. Or that he was the man who ran down the wig-wearing mugger who attacked their mother. Or that he was the man who discovered their dead locked away behind the doors.
But it seems unlikely, if the card the six-year-old girl gave him the other day is any indication. I love you. Please don't go, Robert, it read.
Nearly every block in New York has its mayor. Some acquire the title through milk-crate endurance, passing away the hours in the same spot on the same corner, becoming such a fixture and spectacle that people just start calling out, "Hey, Mayor." But others earn it by giving of themselves.
"He was my second father after my father moved away," said Beck Lee, forty, who grew into a man in apartment lB. The neighborhood was tough in the sixties and seventies, Mr. Lee said. Schoolchildren were robbed so often that their fathers gave them broken watches and expired bus passes to give the muggers. But the children developed their own method of self-defense. They learned to stall, pat their pockets and wait for Mr. Mitchell to catch sight of the larceny from his perch near the building's column.
In the seventies, there was a parade of fathers who packed their bags and walked out through the marble foyer for the last time. Mr. Mitchell was there to help them with their bags. And he was there to help the women put a fresh coat of paint on their apartments and move their furniture around. He was there to teach their kids the curveball. He was, Mr. Lee said, a surrogate man of the house.
Mr. Mitchell cut a handsome figure in his gray uniform with white piping. He wore a colorful sweater, a threadbare tie and smooth hair the color of the uniform. At sixty-five, he is thin and stands erect. When the neighborhood started changing in the eighties and the silk-stocking crowd moved in, they asked him to wear a hat. He refused. He has never worn a hat on the job and is proud of it. They do that on the East Side. He's a West Side doorman.
"I opened this door so much they'd run out of numbers if they attempted to calculate it," he said, standing in the cold foyer in thin shoes and no coat. "I'm going to miss this building. It's been my whole life for half my life."
September 28, 1967, was the beginning of that life. That's when the unemployment office sent him to the building's superintendent. "The super told me, 'If you like it, you've got the job for life,'" he said. "I been here ever since."
The true gentleman never insinuates himself into other people's business, Mr. Mitchell said. He keeps to his own, never talks about things unless asked and never talks about people in the building, period.
"Which doesn't mean I don't know what's going on," he said. "I know just about everything that goes on around here. If I didn't, I wouldn't be a good doorman."
Maybe the people of 801 West End Avenue will forget him, he said. But he'll be thinking of them on his porch down in Louisiana.
The Michelangelo of the Hard Sell
Tony Razzano is a used-car salesman on the Gold Coast of Long Island. He is moving high-end, hey-notice-me cars, even in these spooked economic times, because, he says, he understands a basic concept of Long Island life: "You are what you drive."
He is one of eight salesmen at Champion Motor Group, a dealership that specializes in the "slightly used" Jaguar, Porsche and Rolls-Royce. The car market caved after the September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Car sales rebounded to record levels in October, due in large part to interest-free financing deals.
"The big companies are giving their cars away below cost," Mr. Razzano said. "You won't see me giving away the store. I need to make money to make dreams happen."
He sold sixteen luxury cars, including a $300,000 Bentley, between September 11 and the beginning of November. He accounts for 25 percent of sales off the lot. To prove this, he pulled a stack of sales receipts from a drawer and tossed them on his mahogany desk while continuing to speak to a customer on the other end of the line.
"Look. Two and two are four. If you want it to be five, God bless you," he told a man named Richie, who worried that he could not manage the finances on a '98 Bentley, at 6.8 percent interest, which translated into a monthly payment of $3,657 and a lump sum of $160,000 due at the end of five years. "Whatever you want. Just come see me. You know I love you, Richie."
Tony Razzano bleeds ego. He hung up the telephone, smiled and recited the well-worn psalm of the showroom: "I could sell ice to an Eskimo."
The products sell themselves, Mr. Razzano said, but these days he helps the Mr. Joneses and Mr. Smiths of the world make their decisions with a devilish pitch.
Terrorists and anthrax, he reminds them. "Why would you wait for tomorrow to get what you want today, when tomorrow may never come?" he asks. "Do what the president asks of you. Go out there and spend and be a patriot."
Tony Razzano is forty-nine and engaged to a twenty-eight-year-old blonde. His hair is swept back and gray around the temples, his dress is impeccable and his jewelry, silver. He tans twice a week, is short of stature, and his presence is announced by the metal taps inlaid into the soles of his shoes. Tickety-tap, tickety-tap, tickety-tap.
He is the type of man who cannot tell you the make of his shoes but will tell you that they cost seven hundred dollars. He drives what he calls a young man's car, a black Mercedes coupe with black tinted windows, and has a cell phone glued to his ear. The conversation is usually not about automobiles but about how to pay for one.
And there lies the foundation of Mr. Razzano's livelihood, which he says is around a quarter million dollars per annum-creative financing. There are three ways to get a car, he says: the conventional loan, balloon financing and the lease.
The conventional loan, according to Mr. Razzano, is preferred by Solid Joe America, a hardworking man who wants to make payments on his car and who after five years wants to own it. "He's got a wife and kids and wants to own something by the end of the deal," he said.
Then there is balloon financing. This is for men-rarely women-who want to look like big shots but in reality don't have the money to be big shots. (He compares them to "a fancy home without furniture.") For them, balloon financing is a way to buy a car with little money down and to stack the big payment three years down the line. The car is usually sold before the big payment comes due, a new car is purchased, and the process begins anew. It is akin to rolling over credit card debt.
"A guy like that I own cradle to grave," Mr. Razzano said. When he makes that kind of sale, he calls it "taking him down."
The other road to car keys, the lease, is recommended for the man who has bad credit or a short attention span. Banks are getting out of the leasing business in this tattered economy, since a bank cannot recoup its losses on a repossessed car sold at auction. But Champion Motor Group has an arrangement with the banks that allows for lease swapping. Luxury cars hold their value better than run-of-the-mill Chevrolets. So, instead of the auction yard, the cars go back to the Champion showroom, where they are resold. The dealership keeps its customers interested, and paying, by letting them swap one car for another.
So while other salesmen starve, Mr. Razzano eats. "Men with good credit, they're an easy sell," he said.
Excerpted from Work and Other Sins by Charlie Leduff Copyright © 2005 by Charlie Leduff. Excerpted by permission.
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