Read The Telephone Booth Indian Online

Authors: Abbott Joseph Liebling

Tags: #History, #True Crime, #General, #Literary Collections, #Essays, #Business & Economics, #Swindlers and swindling, #20th century, #Entrepreneurship, #Businesspeople, #New York, #New York (State)

The Telephone Booth Indian

BOOK: The Telephone Booth Indian
7.98Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub


by Luc Sante

Unless you think it stands for a slightly tarnished category of theatrical entertainment, you are probably under the impression that Broadway is merely a street. That street is either the original model, which begins at the foot of Manhattan and runs up to somewhere near the Canadian border, or one of its lesser replicants, the kind Wilson Pickett found in every burg, each of them invariably containing a bar, each bar containing a woman. The idea of “main stem” is still attached to Broadway, but that is the last vestige of its former glory “Broadway” was once a culture unto itself, with its own tribes, castes, customs, and language. It was somehow connected to the entertainment industry, but its compass was broad, extending well past the theaters. It took in costumers' ateliers and actors' boardinghouses, tradepaper publishers and vaudeville agencies, flea circuses and pokerino parlors, pawnshops and cafeterias, hair salons and painless dentists that catered to chorines and voice coaches and supperclub magicians and intinerant Swiss bellringing troupes. It also sheltered a substantial parasitic population, of chiselers and percentage players and seekers after the main chance, of all degrees of probity or the lack thereof and at all stages on the road of life. Even dineanddash specialists and stormdrain fishermen and people who spent their waking hours sitting in hotel lobbies had a purpose, however occult, in that complex ecosystem.

Somehow, though, the students of Franz Boas at Columbia
did not consider the folkways of Broadway to be as worthy of their interest as those of the Trobriand Islands, and so the task of anthropological investigation was left to the newspapers. These did a decent if unscientific job of it, at least in disseminating the substance of their findings among the general population, so that the proverbial inhabitants of Oshkosh, if confronted by a green suit with a windowpane check picked out in magenta, would instantly identify it as a Broadway suit. Newspaper readers could retell jokes that had allegedly been hatched along the counter at Lindy's, and had a rough idea how many paces separated the stage door at the Winter Garden from the nexttolatest venue of a notable floating crap game. This was all glamourstuff, of course, roneotyped by Walter Winchell and airbrushed by Damon Runyon. The more subtle business, which occurred well away from the footlights and among characters less likely to own more than one hat, was left for the feature writers, who did not tend to be syndicated. It did not catch a nationwide audience until the mid to late 1930s, when several of the best of these writers fetched up at a magazine that had once primarily covered the bon ton,
The New Yorker.

A. J. Liebling, along with his colleagues Joseph Mitchell and Meyer Berger (who was at
The New Yorker
only briefly, an interlude in a long career mostly spent at the
New York Times),
introduced into those pages all manner of flotsam and riffraff, which they refused to play for cheap laughs or moral scores, treating them instead with seriousness—not solemnity—and even respect: mitt readers, bearded ladies, street preachers, bailbondsman, racetrack psychics, promoters of all sorts. Their study of Broadway was so intensive that, for example, Meyer Berger could not only detail the existence of an entire society of chiselers, giving an hourbyhour breakdown of a typical nonworking day, but could go so far as to name the specific street
corners on which chiselers from different parts of the country tended to forgather (Southern chiselers on 49th and Seventh, New England chiselers on 46th and Broadway.) For Berger, who hailed from Brooklyn, the study of Broadway was a chapter in a lifelong celebration of the hidden byways of New York City, which culminated in his beloved
column of the 1950s, “About New York.” Mitchell, from North Carolina, also devoted his life's work almost exclusively to the city, and his recurrent interest in Broadway was one facet of his poetic contemplation of urban microsocieties—fishermen, Gypsies, Bowery bums— with roots that went back at least to the Middle Ages, if not to the Paleolithic Era.

Abbott Joseph Liebling, known to one and all as Joe, was actually born in Manhattan, in 1904, but for him New York City and its inhabitants figured among a vast constellation of interests he returned to episodically over the course of his thirtyoddyear career. Although he was comfortably reared—his father, who had worked his way up from the Lower East Side, was prominent in the fur trade—he maintained an inclination toward lowlife from his youth onward, and he had a knack for finding its traces and effects everywhere, including medieval history and early French literature. After his expulsion from Dartmouth (for repeatedly cutting chapel; he later completed his degree at Columbia), he went to work for the
New York World,
and then for its successor, the
where he wrote many of the short features that are collected in his first book,
Back Where I Came From
The World
was a firstclass paper; the
was decidedly not, and Liebling suffered there (anyone confused as to why a profile of the head of the ScrippsHoward Syndicate should be included in this, a book about riffraff, should know that Roy Howard was the
's founding publisher; both the profile and its placement were acts of revenge).

In 1935 he went to work at
The New Yorker,
where he first made his name with a profile of the Harlembased deity Father Divine, written in collaboration with St. Clair McKelway. The piece in this book, along with about half the contents of
Back Where I Came From,
were written in the period immediately thereafter, between 1936 and 1939. The first things that will strike the reader about Liebling upon starting to read
The Telephone Booth Indian
are his sense of humor, his virtuoso ear, his timing, his sense of style—and his boundless capacity for appreciation. This appreciation was first and foremost linguistic. As his
New Yorker
colleague Philip Hamburger wrote, “Tinhorn entrepreneurs who called the Club Chez Nous the Club Chestnuts sent him joyously humming, in a state of euphoria, to his typewriter.” Liebling as a reporter was among other things an impresario, with a nose for linguistically gifted civilians, such as Morty Ormont, the renting agent of the Jollity Building (“whose expression has been compared, a little unfairly, to that of a dead robin”), whose phrasings and coinages make him in effect a contributor to the piece in which he figures, not simply a subject. Reflecting a modernist sensibility, Liebling the impresario saw art in outcomes rather than intentions; thus he made no special distinction between epigrammatists who successes resulted from their imperfect command of English idiom (the boys at the I & Y Cigar Store: “Hymie is a man what knows to get a dollar”) and those whose effects were calculated (the great boxing cutman Whitney Bimstein: “I like the country. It's a nice spot”).

Liebling also had an eye for the beauty of a con, and if this book has a hero, it is a man who, lying low somewhere, is present only in conversational reference: Maxwell C. Bimberg, aka Count de Pennies (who, according to Liebling's biographer, Raymond
Sokolov, was actually a promoter named Samuel J. Burger). The telephone booth Indians may be gardenvariety schemiels, the cannon fodder of swindling, but the Count is an artist. And if Broadway is a microcosm of the human condition, then the Jollity Building is a thimbletheater representation of Broadway, an entire world contained in a single, squat, shabby office building, whose tenants all have their eyes on the prize while they are struggling to assemble twentyfive cents. Most of the subjects of the other pieces can also be termed promoters, including Roy Howard and the Shubert Brothers, who are shown as merely more successful representatives of the species— and even they were arguably to be outdone over time by Tim Mara, the teenage bookie who went on to found the New York football Giants and whose family owns the team to this day. The book finally has a pleasing fullness, as a delineation of an American economic food chain based on guile and palaver. The steep stratification of this edifice is something that can otherwise be found only in the pages of Balzac.

When this book, Liebling's second, was published in 1942, its author was in the middle of covering the war, accompanying the Allied forces from London through North Africa, then from the Normandy invasion to the liberation of Paris. Afterward, he became
The New Yorker's
deadly press critic, and simultaneously established himself as the greatest boxing writer of the century. He eventually published some fifteen books—the number is difficult to establish precisely because of overlaps. All of them have gone in and out of print over the years, including the one you are holding, ehich is enjoying something like a fourth life. A. J. Liebling died of multiple causes on December 28,1963. As his friend Joseph Mitchell noted at the funeral, the secondhand booksellers who were then clustered together in a district
on Fourth Avenue held his books in special esteem because they were in perpetual demand. “Literary critics don't know which books will last,” Mitchell quoted a bookseller as saying, “and literary historians don't know.
are the ones who know. We know which books can be read only once, if that and we know the ones that can be read and reread and reread.”


There was once a FrenchCanadian whose name I cannot at present recall but who had a window in his stomach. It was due to this fortunate circumstance, however unlikely, that a prying fellow of a doctor was able to study the man's inner workings, and that is how we came to know all about the gastric juices, as I suppose we do. The details are not too clear in my mind, as I read the story in a hygiene reader which formed part of the curriculum of my fourth year in elementary school, but I have no doubt that it is essentially correct. I believed everything I read in that book, including the story of the three regiments of Swiss infantry who started to climb a mountain on a very cold day: the first regiment had been stimulated with a liberal ration of schnapps; the second had been dosed with about half an ounce of alcohol per man; the third had had only milk. The soldiers of the first regiment froze to death unanimously after marching only 223 yards; half the members of the second arrived at their destination, after losing their fingers, toes, and ears; the fellows in the third regiment not only raced to the top of the mountain feeling warm as toast, but took the mountain down boulder by boulder and threw it at a shepherd who was yodeling flat. This is a digression. What I meant to say is that the Telephone Booth Indians, a tribe first described by me in a monograph called “The Jollity Building,” offer to the student of sociology the same opportunity that the fenestrated Canadian gave the inquiring physiologist. The glass side of the telephone booth which forms the Indian's habitat affords a chance to observe all his significant activities. These in
turn illustrate the Economic Structure, for the Indian is a capitalist in what my Marxian friends would call a state of preprimary acquisition. He has as yet acquired not even the nickel with which to make a telephone call, and so must wait in the booth until another fellow calls him.

The Telephone Booth Indians range over a territory approximately half a mile square, bounded longitudinally by Sixth and Eighth avenues in New York City, and in latitude by the south side of Fortysecond and the north side of Fiftysecond streets. This in part coincides with what is called humorously Broadway, the Heart of the World, and is in fact a sort of famine area, within which the Indians seek their scanty livelihood. Scattered about the district are a few large structures like the Jollity Building, but less imaginary, which are favorite camping grounds of the Indians because they contain large numbers of the telephone booths necessary to the tribe's survival. The Telephone Booth Indians are nomads who have not attained the stage of pastoral culture in which they carry their own shelter.
Like the hermit crab, the Telephone Booth Indian, before beginning operations, must find a habitation abandoned by some other creature, and in his case this is always a telephone booth. The numerical strength of the tribe is therefore roughly limited by the number of telephone booths in the district, as a sow's litter is by the number of her teats. Yet between the Telephone Booth Indian and the great man of the Indian's special world there is only the unessential difference between grub and worm. Instead of spending his working day looking at a coin box, the great man has from three to six telephones on his desk. In the land of the Telephone Booth Indians, according to the definition of my profound friend Izzy Yereshevsky, a successful man is one who knows how to get a
dollar and the rest haven't got what to eat. All of the subjects of the sketches in this book come under one or the other heading. That is about all they have in common, but there is a good deal that some of them have in common with some of the others. Mr. Yereshevsky thinks that the Telephone Booth Indian is a key figure in our city and age. He has always refused to allow the installation of a telephone booth in the I. and Y. Cigar Store which he owns at Fortyninth Street and Seventh Avenue. “The store is open twentyfour hours a day,” he says, “so if I had a booth how would I get the guy out of it?”

The only subject of a piece in this book who does not at least make his business headquarters in the territory of the Telephone Booth Indians is Mr. Roy Howard, the publisher. He dresses like a Telephone Booth Indian's idea of a fellow who knows how to get a dollar, and he likes to use the telephone. However, the main reason that he is in this book is that we needed the 15,000 words.

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BOOK: The Telephone Booth Indian
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