Authors: Reggie Nadelson
“Who? The nun? She'll be one of the sisters from over at St Joseph's school. My cousin Oona went there.”
“You've never seen a nun?”
“No. I've never been inside a church.”
“No kidding. Come on, man. I'll show you, if you want.”
He picks up his jacket, puts his notebook in his pocket.
“You keeping good notes?”
“Yes, definitely. For my classes.” Hurriedly, he shoves it into his pocket, and picks up his copy of Hemingway.
I think, I wouldn't mind a look in that notebook, but it's probably just the cop in me, an automatic reflex.
Months later, the way I remembered that day in the park it seemed another life, me eager to talk to Ostalsky, the sun shining. Now I stood on the pier jutting into the Hudson.
The wind whipped the water into waves that spewed over the rotting wood. Hurricane Ella had been rumbling up the coast most of the week, there was a threat of high tides and flooding. Indian summer was gone. Otherwise it was silent except for a radio somewhere, Tony Bennett singing his new hit about San Francisco, and the little cable cars, sweet and incongruous in this stinking sea of death. Seeing the tattoo on the dead man had knocked me for a loop.
“Tommy?” Where the hell was he?
Where was the damn kid? The line to my precinct was still busy. Buzzing at me like an insect in my head. It was two in the morning, I was holding the phone, an eye on the corpse in the black body bag. “Anybody there?”
Nobody answered, not Tommy, or anyone else. Strange because the Port Authority had stepped up security during the Longshoremen's strike. Tonight, the usual guards, the cops who walked this beat, were all gone. Somebody had ordered the shut-down of security. Somebody with power who wanted the dock deserted.
The Longshoremen had gone out up and down the east coast beginning of October. Bad blood between the union guys, the suppliers, the warehouse owners, and the Mob who still had a piece of the action boiled over. Scabs were brought in. Fights broke out, and worse.
The Red Hook strike in '54, I was walking a beat in Brooklyn. People got hurt. Died. One young kid working there got hauled up on one of those big hooks, then dropped on his head on the deck of a ship. Head cracked like a coconut.
On the Waterfront
came out, I had to leave the theatreâit was too real; it made me sick. I went back later and saw it three times. That line where Brando says, “I don't like the country, the crickets make me nervous,” while he's playing with the girl's glove, Jesus, that was something. Broke my heart. I was in love with Eva Marie Saint for years.
“Tommy? Where the hell are you?”
All I heard was a single dog somewhere, yapping; then it stopped.
Late at night, when business was slow, the warehouse men fought their dogs. I knew an elderly Italian who fed his dogs on hot sausage sandwiches, the dog was always drooling red sauce and his breath stank of pepperoni. Kept them on their toes, he said. Sometimes, they fought them for money. The local hoods came out, juvenile delinquents, too; sometimes the Longshoremen egged them on.
In Korea I'd heard they ate the damn dogs. Life was cheap over there.
“I'm here, Pat.” Tommy appeared suddenly and scared the bejesus out of me.
“Listen to me, how did you get beat up?”
“You telling me the truth?”
“Yeah, OK, a guy pushed me, and I fell on one of them, whadya call it, anchors, big mean iron kind of thing, stuck me right in the head. Cross my heart and fucking hope to die.”
“Who was he?” I grabbed his skinny arm.
“I should have told you right away. I found some metal chain around the other side of the shack, figured I could sell it to the salvage guys, and I'm dragging it, I see this guy looking at me out of nowhere, maybe he's gonna take me in for stealing, but he just shoves me over hard. I cut my head. Then he runs.”
“Not sure. I couldn't see good.”
“What kind of man?”
“I don't know. Tall. With glasses, maybe. Hat pulled down.”
“What kind of hat?”
“One of them uptown jobs, like you go to a funeral in, big brim, double dents in the crown sort of. He had a sack.”
“What kind of sack.”
“Yeah, a book bag, canvas. Pat, I don't feel so good.”
“Listen, kid, I need you to do something. You too sick?”
He shook his head.
“Find a phone. There's one on Greenwich Street.” I gave him a fistful of nickels and dimes. “Go call my station house, OK? You know the number, right?” Panic was creeping up on me, but I had to stay at the scene, or risk the body might disappear. “Go call it in. Ask for Lieutenant Murphy. If he's not there tell whoever answers you're calling for me, and it's an emergency, tell them where I am, if you can't get through, get a taxi, and go over there, Charles Street, right? Then go home. You can stay at my place. Eat something. Here's a dollar for a taxi. Can you do it?”
Tommy reached into his pants pocket. “I found this. Maybe the man I saw dropped it.” In his hand was a silver medal. “You mad I ain't told you earlier, Pat?”
“I'm not mad.” I was sure I had seen the medal before. For now, I wrapped it in my handkerchief and shoved it into my pants. “Anything else you gotta tell me?”
“The man, it was sorta like he knew me.”
Tommy looked at me. “I seen him before some place. I swear to God he takes off his hat, and Pat, I see horns. I'm telling you, I know who he was.”
“Who was he, Tommy?”
“He was the Devil,” Tommy said, crossed himself and ran.
I watched Tommy until he disappeared. I was feeling rotten, sick, exhausted. I sat down on the pier, my back against the warehouse. Out on the water, a few of the big ships lay at anchor, empty. A mile north, maybe less, was the pier where the
brought in passengers who survived the
would have docked at 59, and never did. The
left 54, and never came back. Ghost ships. Ghosts, too, that lived around here in the dank night.
I had showed Max Ostalsky the piers. I had walked him along the Westside and explained the history of the city, the ships, their stories. It had been me who showed him these damn piers.
Putting my hand into the body bag had made me retch, but I had seen the tattoo, and now, steeling myself, I did it again and found a piece of paper scribbled in Spanish. I took some Spanish in high school, and I made out something about the Cuban Revolution. Somebody wanted Castro dead.
Again I thought about Ostalsky. He loved Castro. Loved the son-of-a-bitch. He told me that the first day we met.
After we leave the park that June day, I show him St Joseph's Church and then we walk up Sixth Avenue where in front of Howard Johnson's there's this raggedy line of high school kids handing out leaflets and calling out how they want “fair play for Cuba.”
“I would like very much to visit Cuba,” Max says. “I admire this country. I had quite a good friend from Havana in Moscow.”
I look at the kids and think, bunch of crazy Reds, but I keep my mouth shut and we move on, me and Max, and I show him the Women's House of Detention.
“Certain times of day, see, Max, the girls in there, they yell out and joke with their pimps on the sidewalk, it's pretty famous, you want to cross over and take a look? Sometimes they hold their babies up so their guys can see.”
“Is this permitted?”
“You shocked, man?”
He's looking everywhere, turning around 360 degrees, can't get enough of it, taking it all in, smell of the city, the noise. A man in denim overalls on the corner handing out copies of the
a bum panhandling for change; the kid in blue jeans, plucking at a banjo, nobody listening. Carmine DeSapio, in his dark blue dandyish suit, hands out red roses to a clutch of little old Italian ladies. His time as head of the city political machine is fading, Tammany Hall on its last legs. My ma regrets this because her own brother was a big-deal ward-healer and he got a lot of stuff from the party, turkey at Thanksgiving, that kind of thing.
I try explaining to Max about city politics. “Look, the President, when he wants the nomination, his brother, Bobby, goes to sweet-talk the likes of DeSapio. And Frank Costello, who's a gangster, pulls DeSapio's strings. You dig?”
“How does a criminal become so influential in your government? Is that considered proper? Proper, this means correct, I think. Correct is OK?”
“Sure. Correct? Who can say? It's how it is. All governments are corrupt. They're all a bunch of crooks. You know what, Max, it's hot and I'm damn thirsty. How about I buy you a cold brew? Come on, man, we'll head over to the Cedar.”
I've been a homicide detective for nine years, and I can't remember when I took a day off for the hell of it. Business is slow. Maybe the weather's too nice for killing. It's not going to last long. But for now, it's making me happy and I take my new pal over to the Cedar on University Place.
“This is kind of you, Pat,” Max says, and we climb up on stools. I order a couple of Rheingold and I tell him it's the working man's beer. He likes that. I guess he feels sympathetic to the workers, or something.
“Going, going, gone.” On the radio, Mel Allen is calling the game in that sweet singular voice, and briefly I explain to Max about baseball, about Maris and the Mick.
“Do you know that last February, our newspaper reported that baseball is an old Russian game,” Max says, tasting his cold beer.
“Gimme a break, man.”
“Pat, can I ask you what your work is?”
“I'm a cop. A detective. Homicide. Murder cases. You have those in Moscow?”
“Surely, of course, we also have detectives in Moscow, but there are not so many murders in our society. It is quite orderly.”
I don't care about the baseball thing, it's so obviously dumb, but the burst of stupid ideology gets to me.
“I guess it makes sense since people have to toe the line pretty much over there. I mean with the KGB watching you pretty close, right? Nobody's going to get out of line. People can't ever say what they want.”
Max ignores the sarcasm. “This beer is delicious, Pat. You know, perhaps one day you would show me something of your work? I would be so interested to visit a, do you say, crime scene?”
“Is this where he drank?” A couple of girls have arrived and are looking around, and yapping. Tourists. This is why I don't go to the Cedar much anymore, too much talk about how it was when the artists were there, too much about Jack this and Jack that, and how Jack pissed in the ashtray, and too many girls wanting to touch the place where he sat, and tourists wanting to see where the famous beatnik writer broke the toilet door.
Used to be girls didn't much come in. Ones that did, the men, those artists and writers, swarmed them. “Like a lamb with a pack of wolves,” said my old friend, Tom Doyle, a great sculptor I used to drink with at the Cedar. “One girl was a fantastic looker, and she would only turn up on Tuesdays and moon around until Pollack showed, this was his shrink day, otherwise he was on Long Island.” Later on Tom married a great womanâtoo smart and beautiful to look at meâand moved to the country.
Most of the artists have moved on, some of the time there's a professor from NYU sitting in back in his tweed jacket with elbow patches, writing his novel. Tells me he's writing about the modern condition, anxiety, despair, and I think, give me a good suspense story, like that
“Give us a couple more brews, Kev, will you?”
“Sure. Listen, Pat, you see about how Senator Keating says there's Russian missiles on Cuba? You believe that?”
“I think he wants to rattle the President's cage before midterm elections. The Republicans hate JFK is what I think. The bastards are out to get him because he's a Catholic.”
“My father wants me to put a fallout shelter in his house out in Astoria, says the Reds are gonna nuke us, gonna start in Berlin, or Cuba. Me I'm gonna hole up with a case of good Scotch.”
Beside me, Max lights up a Lucky, and I can feel what Kevin is saying is of interest to him.
“They hit us, you don't want to survive.”
“Let me pour you a couple,” says Kevin, reaching for a bottle of Black & White.
Max picks up his glass. Sips cautiously. “This is very nice,” he says. “This is my first drink of Scotch whisky. Of any whisky.”
I say I always thought the Russians drink like fish, but he tells me it's mostly working men, and adds, hastily, that it's because they labor hard in the cause of the state.
“Try it like this, first the whisky, then the beer.”
After a few, Max gets plastered, but he's a good drunk: voluble, good-natured, a little melancholy. “You said you were not currently married, Pat, but perhaps at one time you were?”
“Yeah, you could say so.”
I was young and she was pregnant, and in my neighborhood, you marry the girl. My ma said I had to; no decent man fails in this duty, she said.
“I would take one glass more of beer. Yes, I am married,” says Max.
“What's her name?”
“Nina Andreyevna. In our country, everybody has the name of her father. Men also. This is the patronymic. She is a talented teacher of the French language. We have known each other from childhood.”
“Do you miss her?”
“Yes, of course,” he says.
Turning towards me, his eyes look sad, turned inward. Max puts his elbows on the bar and I can see he wants to say more, but he stops himself as if he's unused to this kind of talk.
If not for the booze, Max Ostalsky would never have confided in me at all, a man he just met. But he's homesick, and feeling the solitude of a new place, and I'm ready to listen. I'm good at it.