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Authors: Tracy Daugherty

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BOOK: Just One Catch
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*   *   *

LIKE LEE
, Sylvia was often gone from the apartment now. She had always been a hard worker. As a little girl, she would take the family's empty soda bottles back to Mr. Moses at his corner candy store for a two-cent deposit (that is,
if
she could snatch them away from Lena; before the beach became too “vulgar,” Lena liked to bathe her legs in the surf and then fill one of the bottles with seawater to wash the sand from her feet). When Sylvia was older, she worked as a locker girl at Hahn's Roosevelt Baths and then sold frozen custard on the boardwalk. She always hoped to save enough money to buy the kinds of fashionable skirts and sweaters her classmates wore, and discard the dark hand-me-down dresses that came from an older first cousin. As a teenager, she offered to help Mr. Moses in his store. For a long time, his telephone, in a booth just inside the door, was the only one in the neighborhood. Sylvia's first dates were arranged on this phone; she blushed as she flirted and joked with the boys, whispering into the receiver as people milled about her in the aisles. As a kid, Joey sometimes earned a couple of pennies from Mr. Moses for running to get someone who had a call.

By the time Joey reached high school, Sylvia had secured a spot at R. H. Macy's department store in Manhattan, but not before encountering astonishing barriers at various employment agencies. In newspapers, many “Help Wanted” ads stated explicitly that no Jews need apply; the agencies' attitudes were only a bit less obvious. Sylvia learned to put the word
Protestant
on her applications. “I didn't even know what Protestant was but I knew it was good,” she said. It cost a dime for the trolley and train into the city, and a quarter or so for lunch. “I would give my pay to Momma each day but most of the time she wouldn't take it all. She'd put some of it in my drawer for me to save,” she recalled.

Lee also faced anti-Semitism in the jobs he'd gotten, which included making deliveries for a laundry in a horse-drawn wagon (“Where does a Jew come to a horse?” Lena would say in a worried tone each day. “Watch out for those horses”), working at Woolworth's, and serving as a caterer's assistant. Now, in his Wall Street job, he was miserable; temperamentally, he was not a bully, and he was therefore ill-suited to the brokerage firm.

Joey knew none of the specifics of his brother's and sister's professional lives, but he felt their tensions in the evenings, when Lee would stop by to check on Lena, and when Sylvia returned from the city, her fingers smelling of the corned-beef hash she'd had for lunch (“We all hated [it], but it was the only thing that could be divided” among several people with little spending money, she said). She talked about a “fanny pincher” she had to work with, but in a veiled and jokey way, as though he didn't really bother her. Lena listened silently to the stories, frowning, shaking her head, while turning a frayed collar on a man's shirt or altering a dress. A cousin of hers had opened a clothing shop in Flatbush and threw her some work now and then.

The stress and exhaustion in the apartment drove Joey from it as soon as he finished most of his homework each night. He sought a space of his own (the others had kept from him a secret existence; now, it was
his
turn to forge a separate life). He'd go downstairs to his friend Irving Kaiser's apartment—just above Mr. Kaiser's tailor shop—and listen to records. Also, Irving owned a typewriter. Joey would pound out some of his book reports on it; occasionally, one of them veered into a free-form fantasy or the beginning of a short story, most of which he kept to himself (it pleased him almost as much to hoard his brilliance—a surprise that would one day dazzle everyone—as it did to show it off). In school, he was forced to read Keats and Yeats, but he didn't give a fig for them. Nor did he join the students who worked on the literary magazine or the school paper,
The Lincoln Log
. They liked to run about, à la Walt Whitman, shouting Shakespeare into the wind. Danny the Count (“I taught you how to hustle, so
listen
to me”) told Joey he should read Benchley and Wodehouse.

Instead, he preferred the contemporary fiction in the magazines Lee and Sylvia brought from the city, or the books they checked out of the circulating library in Magrill's Drugstore, over on Mermaid: the Studs Lonigan trilogy and the stories of Damon Runyon and John O'Hara. A friend of Sylvia's, on learning that Sylvia's little brother showed an interest in writing, brought him a copy of Irwin Shaw's story collection
Sailor Off the Bremen
. Afterward, Joey began looking for Shaw's fiction in
The New Yorker
. “When I [finally] came in contact with good literature [in college], it was kind of a joke,” he recalled in a radio interview in 1984. “It took me many, many years to be able to read novels in which dialogue and melodramatic actions were not the key.” At one point, however, a copy of James Joyce's
Ulysses
made it into the Heller apartment, on the strength of its alleged obscenity. It returned to Magrill's unread by any member of the family, though years later Joe recalled the thrill of running across the word
snot
in its pages.

For a while, he was drawn to the Kaisers' apartment for reasons other than records and the typewriter. A young woman boarded with them. Her boyfriend worked at a concession stand in the amusement area. The woman had a habit of walking around in a half slip and bra, with the door to her room partly open, or in the hosiery she'd bought at Baumel's Specialty Shop nearby. Joey kept hoping to catch glimpses of her. More and more, girls had the power to astonish him. One day, he was standing outside Kaiser's Tailor Shop when Dolly Partini, an Italian girl who lived across the street, walked past him carrying a pail full of mussels from the beach. Often, Joey and his friends killed time by plucking mussels from rocks or catching crabs by using cracked mussels as lures, but otherwise, he didn't know what they were good for. Dolly dizzied him by telling him they were wonderful to eat. The smell of the sea rose, brackish, from her pail and unsettled his stomach.

At school, he developed “secret and serious, nonsexual crush[es] on one girl or another,” he wrote in
Now and Then
. Usually, his ardor settled on whichever female occupied the sight line between him and the teacher. The joy was less in interacting with a girl, or even watching her, than it was in storing a hidden pleasure.

Food was his other private, sweetly guilty indulgence. He had never forgotten the comfort of sitting around eating ice cream with Lena, Lee, and Sylvia in the days shortly after his father's death. Now, whenever he felt unhappy or tense, he “prowl[ed] about the kitchen” at night, “agitate[d]” by a “rapacious appetite,” he wrote. He kept his kitchen raids secret, and yet, from time to time, he appeared to desire an end to the furtiveness. “[Once,] I found in the cupboard a bulb of garlic with several of the cloves already broken loose,” he recalled. “I thought surely that if I ate one or two, nobody would know. They soon knew. Everyone knew. For the next few days, people even half a block away knew.”

*   *   *

“[ONE EVENING]
I learned that once you had a breast in your hand, there wasn't much you could do with it,” he said.

The boys and girls of Abraham Lincoln formed social and athletic clubs in the basements of homes or in back rooms provided by local store owners. Adults encouraged these clubs, hoping to keep the kids out of trouble on the streets and (though this went largely unsaid) to prevent too much intermingling of ethnic groups, as well as fraternizing among lower and middle-class kids. With money from his newspaper route, Joey chipped in with several friends to rent a cellar in a two-family house and buy some bare-bones furniture and a phonograph. They called this Club Hilight. The Club Alteo (“All Loyal to Each Other”) was another popular gathering spot; it was located in the back of a store on a side street, two blocks from Joey's apartment. The Alteo was a venerable institution, started several years earlier by kids who were now in their twenties. Joey and his pals constituted a second generation.

Kids of roughly the same age, and all known to one another, hung out at the Hilight, listening to records. The Alteo's crowd was decidedly more diverse in age, geography (though limited to Brooklyn), and experience. There, Joey heard Duke Ellington's music for the first time, and that of Count Basie. He realized with mild shock that he preferred these innovative black musicians to the blander, more commercial talents of Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller. At the Alteo, he heard older boys brag about sexual derring-do. He saw the “vipers”—the heavy marijuana smokers—sneak out the back door. He watched couples do the lindy hop, and tried to discern the physical signals sent by girls
and
boys, for it amazed him how the sexually precocious always found one another quickly. Clearly, he was not advanced that way, because most nights he was stuck against a wall, gawking, though his body hummed with curiosity.

Fortunately, there were plenty of curious girls, too, including some he'd known since elementary school: Ruth Gerstein (the first girl he ever kissed, in a game of Spin the Bottle at their eighth-grade graduation party), Gladys Simon, and Phyllis Ritterman, who had told him as early as fourth grade that she wanted to be a novelist. Before long, he had managed to explore a female breast, then sat there wondering what to do with it. (A few months prior to joining the clubs, he got his first quick “feel,” from a classmate he barely knew, at a well-known gathering spot for teens, Lindbergh Park, named after the famous pilot. The park was in Sea Gate, where Jews were not particularly welcome.)

One night, a girl from Joey's French class, known to him as Gertrude, showed up at the Alteo accompanied by her older sister, who introduced her as Gail. What did this mean? Had she adopted an alias in preparation for indulging in unspeakable behavior? She wore a tight sweater and a high-lift bra, lipstick and mascara. Joey had never seen her like this. She caught his eye, recognized him, and looked away, embarrassed. The older boys, the seniors, circled her. Women's secrets were many, their mysteries manifold and deep.

Sexual maneuverings aside, the clubs provided safe places for like-minded kids to mingle and find support. To his fellow club members, Danny the Count sang his Faulkner refrain. George Mandel rhapsodized about Beethoven and Basie. He and Joey had become quite close, though Mandel was three years older and Joey was a junior member of the club. Joey was “perceptive enough to be wary of [people], even scared,” Mandel noticed. But he was also “courageous enough to be … daring.” The two of them shared an interest in contemporary fiction; already, Mandel had earned the right to call himself a professional writer. He was making three hundred to four hundred dollars a week scripting and illustrating comic books. His drawings of the human figure had an angular clarity, and he possessed an uncanny ability to expose the foibles of vanity. His sly puncturing of social hypocrisy would undergird what the mainstream press later termed the “Beat ethos.” At first, some of his friends laughed at the amount of time he spent doodling, but the comic-book industry was beginning to burgeon. An outfit called National Allied Publishing, working out of a tiny office in Manhattan, solicited freelance artists, many of whom were high school kids happy to work at a rate of five dollars per page. In just a few years, ever since Dell Publishing and the Eastern Color Printing Company in Waterbury, Connecticut, had teamed up to present newspaper funnies in a tabloid-style format, the comic book had flourished. When Mandel drove up to the Club Alteo one day in a blue convertible with hydraulic transmission and an automatic top, his friends stopped laughing at his doodles. Over the next couple of years, he earned more and more, working primarily for a company called Funnies Inc., as comics became increasingly popular, riding the caped shoulders of Superman. Two Jewish high school kids in Cleveland had created the Man of Steel. They sincerely believed in America's promise. Superman was the ultimate assimilationist, emigrating from another planet to proclaim the American way. No shadowy evildoer—not even a Nazi—could escape him.

Joey spent hours at the Club Alteo, poring over Mandel's drawings, sharing story ideas with him. Together, they recited absurd variations of well-known passages from the Bible, or conceived jingles that parodied radio ads. Joey's take on a popular Pepsi-Cola commercial went like this: “Pepsi Cola hits the spot / When I drink it, how I fart / Twice as much for a nickel too / Pepsi Cola is the drink for you.” Playing off another ad, he'd sing, “If there's a gleam in her eye / Each time she unzips your fly / You know the lady's in love with you.” This silliness required little creative effort, but it got Joey listening carefully to the “Lucky Strike Hit Parade” and absorbing the pacing and structure of ads. A successful parody, he learned, gauging the depth of his friends' laughter, depended on crack timing and perfect understanding of the form. He also discovered (consciously—he'd known it all along) that twisting English into the Yiddish syntax he'd heard all his life from his mother usually produced satisfying comic results.

Bleaker and bleaker, Coney seemed, after an evening of music, tall tales, and maybe an intimate grope with a girl. Walking home, or wandering past Feltman's, Hahn's Roosevelt Baths, or Paddy Shea's saloon, the boys passed ash cans stuffed with chewed corncobs or half-eaten hot dogs. Occasionally, they'd go as far as Gravesend Bay, where a dye factory heaped sulfur on its grounds. The boys pulled matchbooks from their pockets and tossed fire into the little yellow hills. The flames flared blue, igniting the night, providing a moment's distraction.

School was distracting, too, for which Joey was quietly grateful. Math gave him a little trouble now and then, but his English classes were a snap. He took a typing class, ostensibly to aid his writing, but mainly to meet new girls. His fondness for their sweaters explained his mediocre progress on the keys.

BOOK: Just One Catch
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