Read The Hoods Online

Authors: Harry Grey

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The Hoods (2 page)

BOOK: The Hoods
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She sat down smiling at us, nodding her head in happy anticipation.

Patsy growled, “She means Lefty Louie and Dago Frank.”

Maxie spit through his teeth. “A couple of dumb clucks, them guys!” He turned to me. “That Lefty Louie, was he really your uncle, Noodles?”

I shook my head regretfully. I would have been proud to admit kinship.

“No, he was just a friend of my uncle Abraham's, you know, the one his friends threw off the boat when they were diamond smuggling.”

Maxie nodded.

Our teacher took a heavy brass watch out of the folds of her black skirt. “Thank goodness, only fifteen more minutes before the dismissal bell,” she said.

She sat looking at us with a half smile on her face, pleased, relishing the end she had prophesied for us.

Maxie took his Western out of his back pocket. With an insolent look at the teacher he slouched down behind his desk. The rest of the class went back to work.

I imitated Big Maxie's careless slouch and lolled deep down behind my desk to listen to the familiar clamor of New York's lower East Side through the open window. I indulged in my favorite make-believe: the outside pandemonium was like a discordant operetta. The piercing police traffic whistle was the orchestra conductor's starting signal. The cloppetty-clop, cloppetty-clop of dray horses pulling squeaky, rumbling wagons over cobblestones was the steady rhythmic beat of the drum. The blare of truck and passenger car horns were the wind instruments playing up and down the scale. The thin whimpering of hungry or ailing infants was the sad music of the violins, and the distant low rumble of the elevated trains was the palpitating beat of the bass viol. The medley of voices calling and shouting in a profusion of dialects was the background chorus, and the stentorian singsong of the peddler calling his wares, the male lead. Finally, dominating this musical uproar, was the ear-splitting screech of a fat woman. I fitted her in as the soprano voice, the primadonna. She was leaning out of an upper window.

“Shloymie... Shloymie... Yoo-hoo, Shloymie, don't forget, tell the grocer a nice fat schmaltz herring!”

Then I imagined goblins and witches riding on these waves of sound, and on the different stinks floating in. They flew in on the stink of rotting garbage from open cans, on the stink from sewers, mingled with the sharp cooking smells from the dank tenements and the acrid urine from the school toilet in the play yard. They came through the window in suffocating waves, particularly offensive goblins discharging fetid secretions. Forever after these sounds and smells of the streets of the East Side were branded in my memory.

I came back to reality after a few moments. I looked around at Big Maxie, Patsy, Dominick and Cockeye Hymie, wondering what they were thinking. I visualized all of us on horses, six-shooters in our hands, banging away at a pursuing posse. That would be fun, I thought. I laughed to myself—me, Noodles, having kid ideas. Another few months I'll be bar-mitzvah. And I still have these dumb-cluck thoughts, like Cockeye Hymie. I laughed to myself.

“What's funny, Noodles?” Max put his book away and looked at me.

“Nuthin', just thinkin'.”

Max chuckled, “You too? About what?”

“I dunno—about Cockeye joining the Jesse James Gang.”

“Yep, pretty dumb, that Cockeye. We join up with them, them small town guys.” Maxie gave a scornful grunt. “Not that Jesse James wasn't pretty hot with a six-shooter, but you know what I mean, Noodles— using horses on a heist. That small-town old-style crap. When we get started, we'll show them.” Maxie wiped his nose with the back of his hand. “We'll make a million bucks sticking up banks and then quit.”

Dominick asked, “A million for the five of us, Max?”

“Nah, a million apiece. How would you like a million bucks, Noodles?”

Maxie was very serious.

“A million? Yeh, I would like it, but maybe a half a million is enough and we quit. A million bucks is a lot of bucks, Maxie,” I said sententiously.

“Maybe a half million is a lot of bucks for some guys, but for me it's gonna be a million.” Max looked defiant.

I shrugged my shoulders. “Yeh, all right, so we'll go out for a million. What the hell's the difference now?”

“We gonna quit when we get a million?” Patsy challenged.

“Yep, we'll quit and move up to the Bronx and be big shots.” Maxie's tone was final.

“Hey, fellas.” Cockeye leaned over. “How much is a million bucks?”

Maxie slapped his head in disgust. “How d'ya like that question? The guy is past thirteen and he asks how much is a million bucks?”

Dominick cut in, “Cockeye, you're a real cluck, a million bucks is a million bucks.”

“Yeh, that's right,” Cockeye smiled agreeably, “but how much is it? You tell me, Dommie. How many thousands?”

Dominick scratched his head. “I think a million is ten thousand bucks.”

“Whattcha talkin' about, it's more than fifty thousand, ain't it, Noodles?” Patsy jeered.

I was proud. I knew all the answers. That's why they called me Noodles. I said importantly, “It's ten hundred thousand bucks!”

Pat smiled sheepishly. “Yeh, I was just gonna say that.” To hide his embarrassment he quickly changed the subject. “When we gonna start collecting wood for the election fire, Max?”

Maxie gave it judicious thought. “We start collecting this Sunday.”

Cockeye was excited. “We gonna have a big fire this year, like always—even if Wilson loses?”

“Yep, don't we always have the biggest in the neighborhood? We don't care who's elected, Wilson or Hughes, we have a big fire just the same.”

The dismissal bell rang; we grabbed our books. The rest of the pupils stood respectfully to one side as we made for the door. Miss Mons stood up. She put her hand out to stop me as I passed.

“You!” she said imperiously.

“Who, me?”

I was ready to push her aside. Maxie edged up beside me ready to help.

“Yes, you, young man. Mr. O'Brien wants to talk to you.”

“The principal, again?” I said in dismay. “What for?”

“None of your impertinent questions, young man. You just march upstairs.”

I turned to Maxie. “Wait for me, I'll run up and see what the old cluck wants.”

Max walked with me to the stairway. “We'll be outside if you need any help,” he said. “Holler and we'll come up and throw the old bum out the window.”

“Nah, he's all right, he ain't such a bad guy, this O'Brien.”

“Yep, for a principal he ain't too bad,” Max agreed.

He walked outside. I waited until he was out of sight. I did not want him to see me take my cap off. I knocked timidly on the door. A pleasant bass voice said, “Come in, please.”

I stood politely at the open doorway. “Did you want to see me, Mr. O'Brien?” I said.

“Yes, yes, come in.”

His large red face smiled a welcome. “Come in and shut the door. Have a chair, young man, I'll be through with this in a moment. I was looking through some of your test papers; they are very good, very good.”

He looked at me. He frowned. “But your application for work papers is a disappointment to me.”

He went back to his inspection.

I sat opposite him, fidgeting uncomfortably. He pushed his chair away from his desk and tilted his chair, rocking back and forth with his hands behind his head. His understanding blue eyes twinkled. He just looked at me. He took his time about talking. I began to feel uncomfortable. Then suddenly he stopped rocking and leaned across his desk. A grim expression spread over his face.

“Sometimes I wonder why I take an interest in you,” he said. “I guess it's because I see possibilities in you. According to your school reports, you are an exceptionally intelligent boy. I thought I would talk to you—”

He stood up and began pacing the floor. “Now don't take this as another lecture. It isn't. You haven't many more months of school here, so your behavior one way or another isn't too important to us— but,” he raised a finger dramatically, “your conduct from here on is very important to you and to you alone. This moment may be a turning point in your life. I repeat, if you weren't an intelligent boy, I wouldn't waste my time with you. I wouldn't try to make you understand the road you and your companions are following—the road that leads to no good. Believe me.” He said it with excited earnestness.

I sat thinking, let the old man talk himself out. What does he know about boys, an old guy like him? Yeh, he's at least forty-five with one foot in the grave. He's a pretty good Irishman, though. And for a principal he's the best we ever had in this dump. Not like that last old bastard, always hitting.

The principal continued, “Your environment is partly to blame. Do you understand what I mean by environment?”

For a moment I forgot myself. “Do I know what environment means?” I sneered.

He laughed. “I forgot, you're the one they call Noodles; you know everything.”

Crestfallen, I changed my manner. I mumbled, “Environment. You mean the East Side?”

“Well, yes and no, mostly no. Many, very many, successful and good people have been born and brought up in this neighborhood.” He stopped and looked intently at me for a moment. “The last scrap you and your friends were in—what was the real reason for it? Why did you boys do it?”

I shrugged.

“Do you know what I'm referring to?”

I shook my head. I was lying. My face was burning. How did he know about it?

“You know what I'm referring to.” His voice sharpened. “Look here, young man, let's be frank with each other.” He continued his pacing. I felt like a prisoner being cross-examined.

“I'm talking about Schwartz' candy store, the one you and your friends broke into a few days ago.”

I wanted to sink through the floor. So he knew. So the hell with him.

“Don't you realize that if it wasn't for your rabbi and the priest of your Catholic friends, and a little help from me with the authorities, you boys would have been sent to an institution of correction?”

I shrugged. That's what he thinks, the cluck. He don't know who squared the rap for us. I wonder if I should tell him it was Big Maxie's uncle, the undertaker, who squared it? He went to Monk, the gangster, and Monk went to the Tammany district leader, and he's the guy who gave the judge his orders, before the rabbi, the priest, or O'Brien ever spoke to him. Dumb clucks, all of them. Monk and the district leader—there's two guys to keep in with. They're everybody's boss— police, judges, everybody.

“I'm talking to you, young man. Why don't you answer?”

I shrugged my shoulders. I couldn't look him in the face. He continued pacing up and down. “I ask you, why did you do it? For the mischief? The money? Tell me, boy, do you get any spending money, an allowance from your parents?”

“Sometimes, when my father works,” I muttered.

“Is he working now?”

I shook my head.

“How many times have I told you it is impolite to shake your head or shrug your shoulders. Speak up, don't give answers with bodily movements. They're getting to be a ridiculous habit with you.”

I shrugged my shoulders.

He threw up his hands in despair. “Oh well—there's another thing I'd like to know.” He hesitated for a moment. “All term I have been curious—mind you, I am not prying into your personal affairs—I just want to know for my future guidance why it is you and your companions do not take advantage of the hot free lunches provided for in the school? Instead, I have noticed you boys play basketball in the yard every day at lunchtime. You're pretty slim, and I imagine you could do with hot soup at midday.” His tone was kindly and hesitant. “Tell me, is it because it isn't what you call kosher?”

I shook my head. “Nah, it don't mean a thing to me, kosher.”

“Why then? I'm interested to know.”

I didn't answer; I shrugged my shoulders.

“This city is going to quite a bit of expense and bother to provide these free lunches,” he continued, “and a lot of you children who should take advantage of the city's generosity do not.”

“Generosity,” I sneered.

“Yes, generosity,” he repeated. “What's wrong with the lunch?”

“Soup,” I said derisively.

“Soup?”

“Yeh, charity soup,” I muttered.

“Hmmmm... yes, unfortunately, it does seem that soup and bread is the main dish to be supplied free of charge to supplement the home diet of you undernourished children in these overcrowded areas.”

“Soup schools,” I said contemptuously.

He smiled sadly. “Yes, yes, I've heard that before. Soup schools. Well, let's forget soup for the moment, shall we?”

I nodded.

“All right, all right, where were we?” he asked, smiling. “Oh yes, your father is one of the unfortunate unemployed?”

I nodded. He shook his head sadly. With his tongue he made a sympathetic, “Tsk, tsk, tsk.” I began feeling uncomfortable.

He sighed deeply. “That's why you put in your application for working papers? And why you aren't going to finish public school? You want to go to work and make money to help your family?”

BOOK: The Hoods
5.26Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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