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Authors: Tracy Daugherty

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A few of the girls admired the Boy Scout uniform he sometimes wore to school. Joey had never been much of a joiner, and he probably became a Boy Scout under pressure from Lena or Lee, who extolled the wholesomeness of the group's social activities. He didn't participate much in the organization, but the uniform made him feel like a comic-book superhero. It hid his secret identity—the nail-biting worrier.

At the Alteo, Joey was torn between villain and hero. Sometimes, he'd see three or four older boys latch onto a girl with whom they seemed to have an unspoken arrangement. One by one, they would disappear into a back room with her. He felt titillated, sad, strangely angry—at who, or what, he wasn't sure. He should do something, shouldn't he? What should he do? Stop what was clearly bad for the girl (he had overheard some of the girls whispering about these fast Coney Island boys who'd dance you into a back room and force you to give them what they wanted)? Or join in? Was he just being a coward?

When he turned sixteen—the year was 1939—he got a part-time job as a messenger for Western Union, earning the minimum wage, twenty-five cents an hour. For four hours a day, after school, he delivered telegrams in the city. He spent most of his paychecks on secondhand phonograph records for the Club Hilight. But the clubs were beginning to lose their allure for him. More and more vipers filled the alleys behind the cellars, or congregated in the stores' back doorways to smoke. The older boys stole away the most attractive girls.

*   *   *

IN 1939
, Russia invaded Finland. the
Iliad
clashed in Joey's head with Mandel's comic books as well as details snatched from the newspapers. He drafted a short story about a Finnish soldier fighting off Red hordes. After many hours of scribbles, more scribbles, and erasures, he rushed downstairs to Irving Kaiser's typewriter and got the story down on beautiful clean white sheets. Immediately, he mailed it away—first to
Collier's,
then to
Liberty,
and finally to the New York
Daily News,
which published fiction in those days. They all rejected the piece. He didn't tell Mandel. He hid the rejection slips. For a while, he avoided the clubs; he had nothing to talk about to distinguish him, to raise his esteem in the eyes of his friends and the girls. He took solitary walks on the beach. One evening, he saw a woman he knew, the older sister of a girl in his building whose little brother had drowned one summer, not long ago. The woman was kissing a man beneath the boardwalk, letting him run his hands across her breasts. The man's face was hidden in shadow. Joey looked out at the ocean, at the invisibility—the absolute erasure—of the woman's dead brother. Each time the man touched the woman's breasts, the drowned boy's spirit seemed to drift farther and farther out to sea.

Joey returned to his apartment house. He heard someone typing behind the Kaisers' door. He paused on the stairs. His Finnish soldier was a joke. The Red hordes had swept him away. They were sweeping everything away. The world was changing—newspaper headlines had gotten bolder, darker, scarier. The social clubs were changing. Girls were changing. So was he.

Within a few years, he would stand again on these stairs, outside the Kaisers' door, thinking of his friend. Irving Kaiser would experience his last thought in Italy, where he would be blown apart by a German artillery shell.

*   *   *

“THIS IS THE VOICE
of … miserable men who are buried but not covered over by earth, tied down but not in chains, silent but not mute, whose hearts beat like humans, yet are not like other human beings.… [W]hy are we [treated like this]? For the horrible crime of being poor.”

These sentiments appeared in the
Jewish Daily Forward
's “Bintel Brief” in 1910, but nearly thirty years later, they could have served as testimony for many of the men on subways and in train stations whom Joey witnessed on his way to work each day for Western Union. In Coney Island, “[w]e were prudent with money,” he wrote, but “I was … kept ignorant [of] the threat of true poverty.” It was not until he took a job in the city and began to keep track of wages that he registered real desperation. The contrast with certain other commuters, men wearing Rogers Peet suits—some of these fellows could even afford suits from Brooks Brothers—was stark. He noticed that passengers from Coney Island, Bensonhurst, and Borough Park tended to read the
New York Post
and
PM
. At the Bay Ridge stop, where riders from tonier areas caught the train, copies of the
Journal-American
or the
New York World-Telegram
appeared in well-pressed laps. For the first time in his life, as far as he knew, Joey found himself among Republican voters. These people wouldn't be caught dead in Coney Island—not outside the Pavilion of Fun.

He was amazed to be working in the city. The job connection had come through Sylvia or Lee (later, he couldn't remember which); one of them had a friend who managed a Western Union district office in Bensonhurst. This man arranged an interview for Joey with someone named Shorter, in the main headquarters at 60 Hudson Street. Joey assumed he'd be assigned to Brooklyn, but his optimal hours—after school and on Saturdays—best matched the schedules of on-the-go city businesses. He was told to requisition a uniform (brown leather puttees) from the supply office and prepare to learn his way around the West Side.

After school each day, he'd catch a trolley to the train (this took a ten-cent bite out of his pay, and there'd be another ten coming home—until he learned to take the subway directly from school), ride to Union Square, and then walk to the Flatiron Building, where a central locker room offered space enough for forty or fifty messengers to change into their uniforms. In an office on Seventeenth Street, Teletype machines spit out half-inch paper strands dark with words (the comedies and tragedies of daily commerce, and of ordinary lives); the machine operators pasted these strips onto yellow forms, folded the forms into envelopes, and handed them to the waiting messengers to be delivered to nearby addresses. Businesses in the area included Ohrbach's, Mays, and S. Klein's. Joey amused himself by timing the traffic signals as he hopped from one office complex to another, adjusting his pace so he always caught the
WALK
command. He dreaded the day (it never came) when he'd have to hand someone a yellow envelope with two red stars stamped on it, meaning sad news.

Many of the offices he saw were nondescript, temporary-looking. Lots of closed doors. What went on in these places? How did these outfits justify the amounts of money (
whatever
amounts they were) spent on lighting, carpeting, rent? He was astounded to see trucks lurching into the city, apparently from all over the country, bringing vegetables and fruits, dumping them at various distribution points, from which they'd be disseminated to the kitchens of the rich and the poor, into the bodies of penthouse dwellers and cellar rats, and finally into sewers and trash mounds. He was appalled to hear the squealing of animals and to smell blood from within what looked to be warehouses near the Hudson. To quell his stomach at the end of a day, he'd bum a Spud or a Kool from one of his older coworkers. Once in a while, he'd saunter into a tavern and bluff his way to an ice-cold beer.

One day, one of the older fellows, a full-timer, twenty-one or twenty-two, returned to the office from a delivery he'd made to an apartment up near Gramercy Park. He swore that a man had let him into the apartment, where a beautiful and provocatively dressed woman languished on a couch. The man offered to pay him to make love to the woman. The messenger's coworkers scoffed at this tale—hesitantly. Certainly nothing like that had ever happened to Joey. Not even close. He wondered if this guy was making up stories to take his mind off rumors they all heard about something called the Selective Service Act, which, if passed by Congress, could mean military conscription for boys his age.

Soon, Joey was transferred uptown to a Western Union office in the General Motors Building between West Fifty-seventh and West Fifty-eighth streets, near Columbus Circle. Now, the subway ride was a little longer after school, but the job was easier: This office served only those businesses inside the GM complex. It was staffed by a pretty young woman, a Miss McCormack, who mused freely about her man troubles. Joey's fellow messenger here was a friendly twenty-one-year-old named Tom Fitzgerald, who fretted mightily about Selective Service and whiled away his time practicing penmanship.

Joey's favorite office in the complex belonged to the Manhattan Mutual Automobile Casualty Company. The receptionist, a “Miss Peck or Miss Beck,” he recalled, smiled at him broadly each time he popped in with a telegram for the company. She was “dark, buxom, married, mature.” Each afternoon, he looked forward to her warmth.

In another office nearby, two young men tinkered with the taste of ice cream dispensed by vending machines. When Joey brought the men a telegram, they'd ask him to stay for a moment and try their latest formula for chocolate or banana. He felt like a kid, cozy and safe, and took to dropping by the office even when he didn't have a message for the guys.

Each day, he overheard business chatter: deals, plans, concerns about advertising. He knew that many of the General Motors execs were sending telegrams to potential delegates to the Republican National Convention. Most of the GM men supported Wendell Willkie as the man to beat FDR.

Talk of politics and the draft filled Automats, bakeries, and food stores in the immediate neighborhood. Joey listened closely to arguments, hopes, and fears as he wolfed down buttered rolls, baked beans, and chopped sirloin in Horn & Hardart, or lingered over a cream cheese sandwich in the Chock Full o' Nuts on Fifty-seventh Street.

*   *   *

ARGUMENTS WOULD NOT HELP
George Mandel. Or Henny Ehrenman. Or Abie Ehrenreich. Or many other boys from the neighborhood. On September 14, 1940, the United States Congress passed the Selective Training and Service Act, requiring men between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-five to register with local draft boards. It was the country's first peacetime conscription. Draftees would serve for twelve months. Mandel, Ehrenman, and Ehrenreich rode down to Whitehall Street, in lower Manhattan, for the induction ritual, where they were tested, processed, and labeled. Soon, they left for military training. Club regulars mourned the loss of Mandel's swanky car, which many of them had borrowed or ridden in.

For the boys left behind, still awaiting high school graduation, it was hard to know how to plan. College was out of reach for them financially. Good jobs were scarce. The draft was the only certainty. In the evenings, Joey came home from his Western Union job, to find more and more boys smoking dope in the stairwells of his apartment building. No one ran them off.

Western Union reassigned him to Brooklyn. Each day he rode up Kings Highway or Flatbush Avenue, sometimes all the way out to Gerritsen Beach, on his bike, which he had purchased the summer before, on the day Lou Gehrig gave his farewell speech at Yankee Stadium. “[Y]ou have been reading about the bad break I got,” Joey heard Gehrig say on the radio. “Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on … this earth.… I have an awful lot to live for.” Joey couldn't imagine what the man faced. Total paralysis? What would that be like? How could he be so cheerful about it? For the first time, Joey felt keenly grateful for his arms and legs. The bike flew him past Dubrow's Cafeteria and Floyd Bennett Field, with the big silver planes on its runways. He delivered telegrams to Italian families, whose houses were pungent with the “fragrances of olive oil, garlic, and tomatoes … ingrained in [the] wallpaper, rugs, plaster, and upholstery,” he recalled.

One day, on Bedford Avenue, a desperate young man offered Joey a dollar to run into a house and sing “Happy Birthday” to a girl at a party inside. Before Joey left, the girl's mother, or perhaps it was her aunt, tipped him an extra quarter. This was his biggest single payday as a Western Union boy. The flush times didn't last. Western Union let him go just before his high school graduation. On the advice of some older colleagues, he applied for unemployment benefits; he received six dollars a week for thirteen weeks. This was more than he'd made while working. Clearly, money played by its own wacky rules.

Meanwhile, graduation came and went for the class of '41. To celebrate, Joey went to dinner with his mother, Sylvia, and Lee, then took a subway into the city to hear Billie Holiday perform at a jazz club on Fifty-second Street. The next day, after receiving his diploma, he perused the want ads in the paper. The following Monday morning, he went back to the city to canvass employment agencies.

An outfit on Beaver Street, in Manhattan's Financial District, sent him to the General Motors Building, which he knew so well from his Western Union days, to an interview with the Manhattan Mutual Automobile Casualty Company. He was crushed to discover that the lovely Miss Peck (or Beck) didn't remember him. Another secretary, a Miss Sullivan, followed by her boss, talked to Joey for a few minutes, then offered him a job as a file clerk for sixty dollars a month. The company provided liability insurance to taxis, limousine services, and independent travel operators. Files proliferated whenever an accident occurred; Joey's task was to shuttle them to and from the appropriate desks until they were no longer required, at which point they were banished to the basement storeroom or to the even more morguelike warehouse in midtown Manhattan for the deadest of dead records. Joey dreaded entering these shadowy catacombs, where people's lives were piled up and discarded. On the other hand, he liked seeing how fragmented bits of information could be cataloged, cross-referenced, saved—the abstract made concrete, shuffled and reshuffled into manageable form, or mixed until surprising new information emerged.

BOOK: Just One Catch
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