I went off to war at the tender age of sixteen. My mother cried and begged me to stay, but my country needed me. I would not see my mother again for four very long years.
Due to my age, I was assigned to field headquarters as a dispatch courier for the first two years of the war. However, by the beginning of the third year, I had grown a foot taller and was shaving. And because men were dying at an alarming rate, I was sent into the trenches.
They say that war is hell. I say hell is peaceful compared to living in a muddy trench with bombs exploding around you at all hours of the day and night. Though there were periods of respite from the shelling. Those were the hours when the enemy had to let their big guns cool or else the heat of firing would warp them. I lived like that for two years.
I was at Verdun where I saw the true hell of war. After eleven months, we fought to a standstill. When the dead were counted, almost a million men from both sides had given their lives and not one inch of ground had been gained.
By November of 1918, we were out of food, out of ammunition, and almost out of men to send to the slaughter. The people at home had had enough of seeing their sons and fathers and brothers shipped home in boxes. There were marches and protests against the war. Near the end, the dead were not even sent home. They were buried in the fields where they had fallen.
At last, the war was over. I am told that nine million men died in those four years, and another twenty million were wounded. I was there and those numbers seem a little low to me, but what do I know? I was only a private.
When I returned home, President Ebert was there to meet us soldiers. He shook my hand and said, “No enemy has vanquished you.” He said the same thing to each man as he stepped off the train. Then I read in a newspaper that he repeated the same phrase in a speech. He should not have done so. It was the basis of, the beginning of, Dolchstoßlegende, the Stab-In-The-Back Myth. The myth that said we lost the war because of the Jews, the Socialists, and the Bolsheviks. But mostly because of the Jews.
I told you of my war experience because I wanted you to know I was there. I saw why we lost the war, and it was not because of Dolchstoßlegende. However, Dolchstoßlegende would affect me much more than the war ever had.
My mother, when she saw me, dropped the dish she was holding. It broke on the floor, shattering into many pieces. She rushed to me and held me tight. I felt her warm tears on my neck until she let go and held me at arm’s length. “Let me look at you,” she said as she cried with happiness. “My, you have grown so big! You remind me of your father.” My father had died years earlier; I barely remembered him.
It was good to be home. I had no plans except to sleep late every morning and eat my mother’s good cooking. However, the sleeping late was not to be. When I left, my mother was working in her friend’s millinery shop, but the shop had gone out of business during the war. My mother had been living off the money I was sending home every month. She said she did not write me of her plight because she did not want me to worry about her.
I was no longer a boy. I was now a man of twenty years. I had seen the horrors of war and I had lived through those horrors. Certainly, I could provide for my mother and me. Four days after returning home, I went in search of a job.
My first employment was with a blacksmith. However, that did not last long. The automobile was driving him out of business, and he had to let me go. Then Herr Hoffman hired me; he ran the largest bakery in Berlin. It was a good job because I was treated well and shown respect by Herr Hoffman. It was a job I was to have until . . . well . . . until I could no longer work. More on that later.
It was about that time the troubles began. The Allies had demanded reparations, and because of the war itself, there were food shortages and inflation. It was not uncommon to see someone with a suitcase filled with Mark notes going to buy a few groceries. One day, a man came into our shop with a 10,000 Mark note and asked if it would be enough to buy ten loaves of bread. Before the war, a loaf of bread cost 10 Pfennig, the equivalent of an American nickel. It was good to work where I could take a little food home every day, even if it was only a loaf of stale bread.
By 1924, inflation had gotten so bad that the Mark was replaced by the Reichsmark, but it did little good. There was still rampant inflation, and food shortages persisted. Of course, someone had to be blamed for the sorry state of affairs. That is when the Brownshirts appeared. I used to see them on the street corners giving speeches. They were always going on about the Jews and the communists.
In those days, I kept mostly to myself. However, being a young man, I did, on occasion, go to a beer hall for a stein or two. It was on one of those occasions that I had my first, but not my last, run-in with the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei or the National Socialist German Worker’s Party. They called themselves Nazis.
The year was 1931. I was thirty-three years old. I still lived with my mother and I still worked for Herr Hoffman. But by then, I did more than carry the fifty-pound bags of flour for the bakers. I was now a baker myself. It was a very good position.
I was sitting at a table with four other young men, none of whom I knew. At the next table was a group of Brownshirts loudly going on about how the Juden betrayed the Fatherland during the Great War.
After my second stein, I could take it no longer. I turned to them and asked, “Were any of you in the war?” I knew none of them had been because of their age. I think the oldest one couldn’t have been more than twenty-five.
One of the younger ones answered my question. “No, but if we had been, we wouldn’t have lost the war.” At that, I had to smile. I was dealing with children.
My smile seemed to anger them. “What are you laughing at?” one of them asked. Another stood and approached me. “Are you a Jew?” he demanded.
That was enough for me. I stood and said, “No, I am not a Jew, but I fought shoulder to shoulder with them during the war while you were sucking your mother’s tit. And pound for pound, I’d rather have a Jew fighting next to me than any of you!”
True to the Nazi form, they took out their batons and beat me. There were six of them, so I did not have much of a chance, but I did get in a few good punches. One of which knocked out a front tooth of the man who had asked if I was a Jew.
Someone called the police, and they broke up the brawl. Just in time from my way of thinking; I was getting the worst of it. I was told to go home, and as I paid my bill, I saw the policemen talking to the Brownshirts. They all seemed quite friendly with one another.
In January of 1933, Herr Hitler became the chancellor of our republic. In February, the Reichstag burned. The Nazis said it was arson and Hitler persuaded President von Hindenburg to pass the Enabling Act, which suspended our civil liberties. The Act empowered Hitler to name himself dictator of Germany, which he did in 1934. His first act as dictator was to outlaw trade unions. Then he passed laws prohibiting Jews from working in the civil service and as lawyers or doctors for anyone except their own people.
By 1938, I had been promoted to master baker in Herr Hoffman’s shop. My life was good. My mother was still alive, and we still lived together. On my way home one night, I stopped off at a local ratskeller for a stein. As I entered, I bumped into a man wearing the black uniform of the Schutzstaffe; he was missing a front tooth. I knew him right away. He was the Brownshirt whose tooth I had knocked out back in 1931. All of Germany knew of Hitler’s storm troopers, and all of Germany feared them. I could see that he remembered me from somewhere, but was not sure where. Before he could remember, I left without having my stein. As I was going through the door, I turned to see him talking to the barmaid, pointing in my direction.
Since the passing of the Enabling Act, it was legal to arrest a person for little or no reason. Most of the arrests were of people who spoke out against Hitler. The SS Storm Troopers were the ones that did the arresting. Once the SS had you in custody, you ended up in a concentration camp.
The establishment of the camps was also one of the things Herr Hitler did in his first year as chancellor. I had no desire to be sent to a camp for punching a party member in the face years earlier, so I hurried home that evening. I remember the date well. It was 8 November 1938, one day before Kristallnacht or Crystal Night, also known as The Night of Broken Glass.
Over a two-day period, the SS and non-Jewish citizens throughout the country destroyed property owned by Jews. Storefronts were shattered; homes entered and looted; synagogues set afire. The property of Jews was easy to identify because their stores, houses and synagogues were painted with a yellow Star of David or the word Jude.
When the rampage ended, the sunlight reflecting off the fragmented glass lying in the street gave it the look of broken crystal. Two thousand Jewish men had been arrested—two thousand Jewish men . . . and me.
On the final night of Kristallnacht, the SS—led by the storm trooper with the missing tooth—came for me. My mother cried and pleaded with them not to take me. I said nothing; I knew what it was about. It was about revenge for a single punch in the face seven years earlier.
The SS put me in jail and there I sat for a month before I was charged with treason to the Fatherland and being a “Jew-lover.” Without a trial, I was sent to Dachau, which was located in southern Germany. At first, I was treated as any other prisoner. I was sent to a sub-camp and used as slave labor, hollowing out a mountain for a military installation. Then one day, two prison guards hauled me out of the mountain, transported me back to the main camp, and escorted me into the office of the camp commandant, Hauptsturmführer Piorkowski.
I stood before his desk with a guard on either side of me. Piorkowski was reading a file and did not acknowledge our presence. I was hopeful that at last someone had realized my arrest had been a mistake, that it was due to a vengeful major of the SS. I had been in the camp five months by then and had lost forty pounds. I would not last much longer if I was not freed.
Presently, Piorkowski raised his head from the file and looked at me. “It says here in your dossier that you are a baker.”
It was not a question, but I answered him anyway. “Yes, I am a master baker.”
Piorkowski smiled and asked if I knew how to make strudel. Of course I did, and I told him so. Again he smiled and said, “We will see.” He told the guards to take me to the showers, get me a clean prison uniform, and escort me to the kantine. Turning to me he said, “This might be your lucky day. If you can make a decent strudel, I will take you out of the mountain and put you to baking for the officers and enlisted men. Our cooks are adequate, but none of them can make a proper strudel. And their breads are not much better.”
With those words, any hope of my release flew out the window.
After I cleaned up, the two guards took me to the main kitchen. There were two kitchens, the main one that prepared the SS’s food, and another one that did the same for the prisoners. Both were staffed by men of the Wehrmacht or regular army. The men of the Waffen-SS were above such things as running a mess hall. Of course, prisoners could not be trusted to work around food considering the insufficient amount we were given. They would not have been able to help themselves and would have stolen more food than they prepared.
When we arrived, one of the guards left and the other one told the cook on duty what the commandant wanted of me. The cook shrugged and pointed to a table next to a wall of ovens. The guard said, “You will find what you need under the table.” And he added, “The ovens are heated and ready to go.” He did not leave; he just stood there and watched me work.
I did have to ask where to find certain ingredients. But I soon got down to work. It felt good to knead flour once again.
The smells of the kitchen were driving me mad. I was hungry, incredibly hungry, but I knew if I asked for something to eat, I would probably be beaten. Soon the strudels were ready for the oven. I had made twelve filled with cheese.
When they were done, I took the pan out of the oven and laid it on the table. The guard was a young private; he was licking his lips as his eyes followed the strudels from oven to table. Then the cook came over. He looked at my work and then picked up a strudel. It was hot, but it did not seem to faze him. He took a bite, chewed and swallowed. Without saying a word, he nodded at me and went back to whatever it was he had been doing. It was all I could do not to shove a strudel into my mouth.
The private took me and the strudels back to the commandant. This time we had to wait in the outer office for about fifteen minutes. But at least I was not in the mountain with a pickaxe in my hand and a machine gun at my back. At length, we were summoned into Piorkowski’s office.
As we entered, the commandant told me to lay the pan on his desk. I could see that a place had been cleared for that purpose. Then he said, “If they taste half as good as they smell, you will have a new job here at our little camp. Now wait outside until called for.” The guard and I left Piorkowski to enjoy his strudels.
By the time we were called back in, two of the strudels were gone, and Piorkowski had a smile on his face. “It is a good thing for you that you are not a Jew,” he said. The questioning look on my face must have prompted him to go on. “If you were a Jew, I couldn’t allow you in the kitchen. None of my men would eat anything that was touched by a Jew, no matter how tasty.” As I turned to leave, Piorkowski told the guard that, after he brought me back to the kitchen, he could go about his regular duties. “I don’t think our new baker will try to escape because, if he did, then I’d have to have him shot.” To me he said, “The head cook will tell you what you need to know. I’ve instructed him to give you one meal a day, regular rations. We don’t want you getting too weak to make your wonderful strudel.”
As I bent to pick up the tray with the remaining strudels, he told me to leave it. Then as an afterthought, he said, “Keep clean. I will give orders allowing you to shower every day. And when your uniform is soiled, ask for a clean one. I do not want dirt or lice falling onto what you bake.”
I nodded, and the guard and I started out, but before we got to the door, Piorkowski asked, “How are you with pfeffernüsse?” I told him I was the best with anything he wanted baked, including spice cookies. When I answered him, there was a slight edge to my voice. I was still disappointed at not being released.
His smile was quickly replaced with a frown. “Never use that tone of voice with me again or I’ll send you back to the mountain. Now get to work!”
I was brought back to the kitchen and placed in the hands of the head cook. He informed me of my duties. His main concern was bread. There were 1500 camp personnel, mostly SS, but there were also, as I have said, some Wehrmacht. He would need 1000 loaves per day. Of course, it was also going to be my duty to make desserts. Unless ordered by the commandant to produce a particular dessert, he would leave the decision of what to prepare up to me. He was a nice man, a sergeant in the Wehrmacht. He treated me as an equal the entire time I worked in his kitchen. His name was Joseph Müller.
It was late in the afternoon, and there would be no more baking that day. They fired the ovens at 3:00 a.m. and that was when my day would begin. It would not end until I had everything baked for the evening meal, usually between 4:00 and 5:00 p.m.
After he had finished showing me around and told me what was expected of me, I told him that I could not come up with 1000 loaves of bread per day and desserts for 1500 men twice a day, every day, without some help. Sgt. Müller said he had detailed six men to help me. He had told them to do what I said and pay no attention to the fact that I was a prisoner. It was the first time in five months that I had been treated like a human being and it brought a tear to my eye.
Unlike Auschwitz and Buchenwald, Dachau was not a death camp. It was a camp for political prisoners. Many died, but the deaths were mostly from disease and starvation.
I felt guilty eating my one meal a day in the kitchen while my fellow prisoners lined up for their meager meal of watered-down soup. We were always hungry, but I had it a little better than the other prisoners. That is why, one afternoon when my work was done, I smuggled two loaves of bread from the kitchen and brought them to my barracks. My intent was to feed a few poor souls. But when the people saw what I had, a riot broke out. People were shoving and stepping over one another to get to me. The loaves were wrenched from my hands before I was five steps into the barracks. Of course, with all the commotion, the guards came in, and when they saw what was happening and what had caused the disturbance, I was brought before Piorkowski.
He was furious and paced back and forth as I stood in front of his desk between two guards. Finally, he stood in front of me, and after a moment’s hesitation, he slapped me hard, right across the face.
“So that is how you repay my kindness?” Without waiting for an answer, he went on. “One more incident like we had this afternoon, I will hang you in the yard and your body will stay there until it rots. It will serve as a reminder to the other prisoners that my will is law, and anyone who breaks my law will suffer a similar fate.”
He then calmed down, and in a softer voice, he said, “Seeing as how you love your fellow prisoners so much, you can eat with them for the next four days. After that, you can go back to your meal in the kitchen. I don’t want you too weak to work.”
When I returned to the barracks, no one would look me in the eye or speak with me. They were ashamed for the way they had acted and resentful of me for being the cause of their shame. But I could not blame them. Hunger is a terrible thing. To be hungry day in and day out, with no relief in sight, will take away one’s humanity.
Six other commandants followed Piorkowski, and they all kept me baking my breads and strudels. That is how I survived Dachau. I did not starve to death because I ate relatively well. Besides my daily meal, I snuck cheese and fruits meant for the strudels and a piece of bread now and then. I had to be careful because, if caught, I’d be reported. Sgt. Müller knew what I was doing, but as I’ve said before, he was a good man. I did not succumb to disease because of my diet and the fact that I was allowed to shower daily.
I’ll never forget the date the camp was liberated. It was 29 April 1945. I was forty-seven years old.
The commandant and the SS officers left in the morning; the Americans came in the afternoon. The first thing the Americans did once they had control of the camp was separate the men of the Wehrmacht from the SS. Then they stood forty-five men of the SS up against a wall and executed them. At the time, I did not speak English, but a prisoner who did told me why the SS were shot.
A half mile from the camp, the Americans had come upon railroad cars that were locked and standing idle. When the cars were opened, there lay two thousand dead Jews. They had been left locked in the cars with no water or food for three weeks. Many of the Americans retched from the smell of feces and rotting flesh. Many more were sick just from the horrible sight.
So, when the Americans liberated our camp, they were not feeling too kindly towards members of the SS. In fact, they stood around and watched, and did not interfere, when prisoners who were not too weak or too sick attacked SS guards that had been rounded up and herded into the roll-call yard. When the SS men were dead, one man who took part in the killings came towards me holding a shovel, shouting that I was a Nazi-lover. He would have struck me, but another prisoner came between us. He held up his hand and said, pointing to me, “This man has done nothing against any of us. He did what he had to do to survive. You were not here at the time, but, at great risk to himself, he brought bread to us. He was found out and told that he would be executed if he did it again. What would you have done differently, my friend?” The man dropped the shovel, buried his face in his hands and cried. I think he was crying because at last the horror was over and once again he could live as a human being and not as a feral animal.
We could not leave the camp because the war was still raging all around us. The Americans were fighting their way to Berlin. My mother was in Berlin and I wanted to see her again so badly. We could not leave, but we were fed three meals a day, and the Americans brought in medical personnel to treat the sick. Half the camp was down with typhus.
Two large warehouses held the clothes that were taken from us upon our arrival at the camp. We were allowed to pick out a suit of clothes to replace the hated prison uniforms.
The war ended about two weeks later when Admiral Dönitz unconditionally surrendered. Hitler had appointed him head of state in his will. We were free to leave the camp, but before we could go, we had to queue up and get a card stating that we were ex-prisoners. This was done because many SS men had discarded their uniforms and were claiming to be either civilians or ex-soldiers of the Wehrmacht.
There was no train service because the tracks had all been bombed. So I started walking to Berlin. It was a three-hundred-and-fifty-mile walk. Along the way, I saw what the war—or more to the point—what Hitler had done to our country. There was devastation of one sort or another in all the cities. The countryside for the most part looked untouched. But wherever I went, people were hungry. And so was I. I stole vegetables from some farms and received handouts from others. There was no food to be had in the towns or the cities, at least not for me.
I was stopped numerous times by allied soldiers. Even though I had the card stating I was an ex-prisoner, I was asked on more than one occasion to remove my coat and shirt and raise my arms. The soldiers were looking for the tattoo of the SS. All SS men had the symbol tattooed on the inside of their biceps. Some soldiers let me pass without checking for the tattoo because of my thin frame. It was obvious that I had not been eating very well or very much for a long while. All members of the SS were well fed.
It took me eighteen days to reach the outskirts of Berlin. I thought I had seen devastation on my journey, but I was not prepared for what I beheld as I walked the streets of Berlin. The city had been thoroughly destroyed. There was not a building left intact, and the people were walking around in a state of shock. I went right to my former home to find only a crater and half of a wall standing where my house should have been. My mother was nowhere to be seen. I prayed that she had not been in the building when the bomb struck.
I spent the rest of the day walking the streets looking for my mother before I had to stop because of darkness. I found a cellar that was unoccupied. Even though the floor was rough and hard, I slept through the night. I was awakened by an excited clamor up in the street. It was the sound of many people talking all at once. I brushed the dust off my clothes and went to see what was happening.
There was a line of people waiting to be fed. At the front of the line were American soldiers ladling out what looked to be soup. I hurriedly got to the end of the line and asked the man in front of me what was going on. “Isn’t it obvious? The Americans are feeding us so that we don’t devolve into cannibalism,” he said with a slight grin on his face. He went on to tell me that twice a day, at various locations, they dished out just enough food to keep a person alive. Then he looked at my empty hands and added, ‘Unless you are going to carry your soup in those, I would recommend you find a bowl somewhere.” By then there were about twenty people behind me and I hated to give up my place, but he was right, so I left the line.
I had to go only a block. In a destroyed building, on the ground floor, I saw an exposed kitchen. I moved bricks around until I unearthed a pie tin. Next, I looked for a spoon. I was throwing bricks aside as fast as I could. I was in a panic that the soup would run out before I could get back. Then I found what I was looking for. There was only one problem. The spoon was attached to a woman’s hand—a dead woman’s hand. It was all that I could see. The rest of her body was buried under a pile of bricks.
I had seen many a dead body over the last five years, so one more did not shock me. And I am ashamed to say it, but I took the spoon from her cold, dead hand and hurried back to the food line without giving her another thought. As I said, hunger is a terrible thing and a man will do terrible things to alleviate the pain.
That was my life for the next month. I would line up twice a day for something to eat, usually soup. When I wasn’t in line, I would search for my mother. At night, I slept in an air raid shelter with two hundred other displaced Berliners. The occupiers had converted all the shelters into sleeping quarters. Unless you were extremely sick, you were not allowed to be there during the day.
On all the light posts were notices put up by people looking for lost family members. I borrowed a pencil from a nice woman and found some paper that I tore into four pieces. I wrote my name, my mother’s name, and a short message on each piece, saying that she should meet me at the house where we used to live. I then placed one of them on the wall left standing at our old house and the other three on different light posts around the city. For as long as I was in Berlin, I went every day to where our house had stood, even long after my plaintive notices had blown away.
It wasn’t long before the Americans told us that all able-bodied people would have to work if they wanted to eat. I was given a wheelbarrow and told to collect bricks and deposit them in neat stacks at a certain location. I wasn’t the only one doing so. Men and women all over Berlin were doing the same thing. I think the work that the Americans had us do was as much about keeping us occupied as it was about cleaning up Berlin. But there was no shortage of bricks, and I kept busy in that fashion for the next five months. At the end of each day, I was given a piece of paper that allowed me to get in the workers’ line for food; a little more food was doled out there than at the other food lines.
After six months in Berlin, I had given up hope of ever finding my mother. If she were alive, she would have been at our old house waiting for me long before I even got back to the city. It was time to get on with my life. I was a baker, not a brick picker-upper. And as things were, there was no need of my services in Berlin, nor would there be for the foreseeable future.
By the time I came to that decision, some of the railroad tracks had been repaired, and there was limited train service, but only for commercial reasons. I hid in an open car that was carrying coal and heading northwest. The train stopped in Cuxhaven, a small seaport town on the North Sea. On the spur of the moment, I decided I would try to get to another country. Germany had been destroyed and, without my mother, there was nothing to keep me there. But first, I would need some money.
I was in luck and found a job loading and off-loading ships. Everything was still a mass of confusion; however, the Allies wanted to get the economy up and running as soon as possible to avoid the inflation that followed the Great War, and shipping was a necessary component of that strategy.
I had been working on the docks for a little over six months when I decided that I wanted to go to America. But I did not have enough saved for my passage. I worked hard and I got to know a few of the captains that frequented the port. One captain in particular, Captain Hans Becker. One day he invited me to come to his cabin when the loading of his ship was completed. “Come and have a glass of schnapps with me when you are done,” he bellowed from the bridge.
Once we were seated at his table, both of us with a glass of very good schnapps in hand, he said, “You once told me that you were a baker. Do you know how to cook also?”
I took a sip of my schnapps and thought for a moment before answering. “I cook for myself every night. I do not waste money eating out. I am saving for my passage to America.”
“That is very good, but will the Americans let you into their country?”
“I don’t see why not. I am able-bodied and can support myself. It is a big country. I am sure they can use one more baker.”
“There are such things as passports and visas, my friend.”
Yes, I knew of those things, but I refused to dwell on them until I had the money in hand for the trip.
Hans poured me another glass of schnapps and said, “I am sailing for America in two days, and I need a cook. If you agree not to poison my crew with your cooking, you can sign on. We will be in America for two weeks before returning. It will give you a chance to see if you like the country, and you will be earning the whole way there and back with no expenses for lodging or food. You will be able to put more away than if you stayed here.”
It may have been the schnapps, but I accepted his offer without hesitation. I was going to America!
It was a fast crossing. We pulled into New York Harbor just seven days after leaving Cuxhaven. The customs people came on board before we had even finished tying our lines to the dock. They checked Hans’ paperwork and when they saw that he was carrying industrial parts from the IG Farben Company as part of the war reparations, we were quickly documented and told to enjoy ourselves while in the city of New York. IG Farben was the company that made the poison gas used in the death camps.
At first I had trouble adjusting to the tall buildings. I had never seen anything like them before, except in the moving pictures that came from America prior to the war. I soon began to love the city. Whenever I had the time, I would walk the streets and observe the people. They were all so intent with their lives. Rushing to wherever it was they were going. I wondered if they knew how lucky they were that the war had not affected America as it had Germany.
One day while walking in a part of the city that I later learned was known as Little Germany, I happened upon a bakery. The smells coming from inside reminded me of Herr Hoffman’s shop. I went in not knowing how I was going to make myself understood. At the time, I still spoke no English. However, I need not have worried. The shop was empty but for a man behind the counter who asked me, in German, what I would like.
I told him I was just over from the Fatherland and it was good to hear my native tongue spoken in America. When he heard that I had been in Germany just a week earlier, he asked me to sit down at a little table by the window and excused himself. He was back in less than a minute with two cups of coffee and a plate of cinnamon cookies.
He had seen newsreels and read the papers. He wanted to know all about how things were back home. He asked if it was true that Germany had been totally destroyed. I told him what I had seen from one end of the country to the other, especially what had been done to Berlin. He sat there and listened without interruption and without touching his coffee.
As soon as I had finished speaking, he took my cup, went behind the counter and refilled it. When he sat down again, he asked about me personally. Was I immigrating to America? What had I done during the war, and a thousand other questions. We talked the afternoon away. By the time I realized that I would be late getting back to the ship, I had learned that he was a Jew and had left Germany two years after Hitler came to power. He had seen the handwriting on the wall. And I told him that, like him, I was a baker. He said he had things he wanted to talk to me about, but I didn’t have the time right then, so I agreed to come back to his shop the following day. The baker’s name was Herman Klein. He would turn out to be the best friend I would ever have.
I arrived early the next day, and the shop was busy. There were at least fifteen people in line and Herr Klein could not serve them fast enough. When I saw one lady get frustrated at the wait and walk out, I joined Herr Klein behind the counter and helped him serve his customers.
At last, the shop was empty. Herr Klein poured two cups of coffee, and we resumed our seats by the window. After blowing on his coffee to cool it a bit, he said to me, “If you would like to stay here in America, I think I can fix it for you. I can vouch for you and tell the authorities that you have a job with me so that you will not be a burden on the people of this great country. And when they find out that you were in one of the camps, they are bound to let you stay.”
I wasn’t so sure of that and I started to say something, but he silenced me by holding up his hand and saying, “Let me finish what I have to say, and then you can talk.”
“My wife died before I left Germany, and I have no children. I’m over-working myself and I could use some help, but good bakers are hard to come by. If you come in with me and we get along, I will give you a 25% partnership in my business after six months.”
When it was my turn to talk, I could think of nothing to say. I desperately wanted to take him up on his offer, but I had a commitment to Hans. I told Herman that I would have to discuss the matter with my captain, but whatever the outcome, I wanted him to know that I was deeply moved by the proposition.
That night, Hans only laughed when I told him that I did not think I could stay in America because it would leave him without a cook. “Listen, my friend. You would be a fool not to take Herr Klein’s offer. The crossing is seven days; I think we can manage that long without a cook. The men can take turns doing the honors. It might be interesting to see what they come up with.”
That is how I ended up in America. I was allowed to stay because I had money, a job, and a sponsor. Herman was right—having been a prisoner did help my case. When I showed the man who was interviewing me the card stating that I had been at Dachau, I saw something in his eyes, something sad.
Herman taught me English and when I was proficient enough, I took the citizenship classes to learn about this wonderful country and its history. Six months to the day after I started working for him, Herman gave me a 25% interest in the bakery. It was official; his lawyer had drawn up the papers.
I became a proud citizen of the United States on 9 February 1947. I was forty-nine years old. Herman and I worked together for ten years. He was nineteen years older than I and in the fall of 1957 when he was seventy-eight, Herman announced that he could take the cold no longer and was retiring to Florida.
He sold me his interest in the shop, but no cash changed hands. Our agreement was that I would send him a check every month to cover his expenses with a little left over. If I sold the shop, then I would send him his percentage of the proceeds. This time there was no lawyer involved. It was a handshake deal. Two years later, Herman died in his sleep . . . two days after his eightieth birthday. I was listed as his next-of-kin and was duly notified of his passing. I closed the shop for a few days and flew to Florida to bury my friend under the warm Florida sun. I was sixty-one-years-old.
I ran the shop until I was eighty-five. Of course, I had help. I trained a young man to be a master baker and ended up selling him the shop with no money down. He sent me a check every month for ten years.
I am now one hundred and three years old as I sit in the Florida sun waiting to die.
Now I come to the purpose of my narrative. My hands shake too much for me to write, that is why I am speaking into a tape recorder.
I told you the story of my life so that anyone who hears these words will understand that I know whereof I speak. I lived through two of the worst periods in human history. And they took place only twenty years apart. The first, of course, being what was then known as the Great War. I saw the carnage first hand. In that war, nine million men were slain. The second occurrence of man’s inhumanity to man was the second great war. Sixty million men, women, and children died in that war, including the eleven million human beings that perished in the concentration camps.
To my point: All that suffering and all those deaths came about because of fear. I was young at the time, but I remember the election of 1912. The left-wing Social Democratic Party made huge gains in that election. The right-wing Prussians feared a loss of power and started agitating for war to distract the populace. Terms like “nationalism” and “territorial rights” were used. We Germans began to fear that there was not enough land. We felt that we had to take land from others so that we would have enough for ourselves. It is ironic, or maybe not, but that is the same argument Hitler used when he had his army march into Czechoslovakia. He wanted land for the German people.
In 1914, it was fear of not having enough space in which to live that caused the death of nine million men and seriously wounded another twenty-two million. And here we are one hundred years later and still there is plenty for everyone.
All wars are fought because of fear. Hitler did not hate the Jews, he feared them. He feared the left-wingers, and he feared anyone that was not just like him. Unfortunately, there were too many people in Germany at that time that had the same fears. That is how concentration camps come about. Concentrate those who are different from you behind fences of barbed wire.
In Germany, we gave up our civil liberties through the Enabling Act because of fear. The Reichstag had just been torched, and we were all fearful. Fearful of what, we were not quite sure. We were definitely afraid of the Jews, but our other fears were not so self-evident. We believed our leaders knew best, so we allowed them to take our freedoms in the hope that they would protect us. And once you give up your rights to a government—any government—it is very hard to get them back.
Here in America, this beautiful adopted land of mine, we gave up our civil liberties after 9/11 through the Patriot Act, another act that was born of fear. Like the Enabling Act, it was supposed to lapse after four years. And like the Enabling Act, it is not going anywhere.
In Germany, it was the Jews. Now many of us here fear Muslims. I am not saying that America is on the verge of another Hitler. What I am saying—and this is from an old man on his way out who has seen it all and lived it all—what I am saying is this: Come from a place of love, not fear.
I am one hundred and three years old as I speak these words, and I can still get around. I walked to a pawnshop not far from where I live and bought this recorder. It is a cassette recorder. The man in the store told me they were obsolete, so he gave me a good price. I bought it to say just one thing. I have to say it now because tomorrow I will be either in heaven or in hell, I do not know which, but wherever I am, you will not be able to hear my words. So I speak them into this microphone to be placed on a tape, and I pray that someone, someday, somewhere will hear them. Not only hear my words, but also heed them.
This is what I spent the better part of an hour getting to: There is only love and fear. That is all. All negative emotions come from fear; jealousy, hatred, greed, just to name a few. Fear of not having enough, fear of not being loved enough, fear of someone that is different from us, fear of someone who worships a different God than we do. There is only fear and love. I tell you: Live your life with love. The kind of love a mother has for her child. The kind of love that a man has who jumps in front a bullet to save his friend; love like Mother Teresa had for the poor of this world, the love that Jesus had when he laid down his life.
Love or fear?
Please . . . do not let what took place in Germany ever happen again!
To those of you who have been following my hitching adventures, I want to thank you for reading my stuff. This is the last of those adventures I’ll be posting. There just ain’t that much more to tell. I wrote this in a rather flippant style, but I assure you, when it was going down, I was shaking in my boots. Also, now that the statute of limitations has run out on most of my crimes, I reckon it’s safe to tell you that Andrew Joyce is my pen name. In another life, I was known as Billy Doyle.
It all happened in a little café just across the border. The year was 1971 and I was twenty-one-years old. I was hitchin’ west and was let off outside of El Paso, Texas. It was just before dawn and I had not slept or eaten in a day. But at twenty-one, that’s not a big deal. This is a story of friendship, and how the length of the relationship does not matter. What matters is the commitment and intensity the participants feel for one another.
As I stood on Highway 90 waiting for my next ride, a little man walked up to me and said, “Excuse me, sir, but would you like to make some easy money?”
Now, if you know me, you know money has never interested me all that much. However, the unknown—something new—drew me as a moth to flame.
I said to the man, “Whatcha got in mind?”
It seemed that, because I was a gringo, he thought I might be able to help him. He then laid out the plan to me. His wife was being held captive for a debt that he owed. She was forced to work in a café just across the border in Juarez. He wanted me to go into the café and ask for her, and then pretend I wanted to go upstairs with her; but I was to bring her out the back door and walk her across the border. For this, he offered me the princely sum of twenty-five dollars. Son-of-a-bitch! Even to a kid who hadn’t eaten in a day, $25.00 was chump change.
But his story got me angry. How could those damn assholes keep a man’s love from him? It got my Irish up. And goddamn it, I was going to get that man’s woman out of that café if it was the last thing I ever did. And it nearly was.
But first things first. If this guy had money on him, then he could buy me breakfast and fill me in on the details at the same time. I suggested we adjourn to the nearest diner and he readily agreed. We walked a few blocks until we found a hash house that was open. We entered and made a beeline for the counter.
Because I had not eaten in a long while, I ordered the biggest damn breakfast you’ve ever seen. Of which I could only eat half. I don’t know how many of you have gone a day or two without eating, but a funny phenomenon takes place. The first day you’re hungry as hell, but by the beginning of the second day, the hunger, for the most part, is gone. Mentally you’re hungry, but physically you’re just fine. At the time, I was told it was because your stomach shrinks, but I don’t know how true that is. I’ve never gone a full forty-eight hours without food, so I don’t know what happens then. Anyway, that’s why I could only eat half of what I had ordered. But while I was eating, the little man, whose name turned out to be Miguel Delarosa, told me his story.
He was of Indian descent, as are the majority of Mexican people. There are two classes of people in Mexico: those descended from the Spanish who own most of the country, and those descended from the people who used to own the land, the Indians.
He came from a town in the estado (state) of Oaxaca, which is located in southern Mexico. The town’s name, which I never did learn how to pronounce properly, was Tehuantepec. He had been married about eight months by the time we met. Three months after getting hitched, he made the determination that he wanted a better life for himself, his wife, and any children that might someday come along. So it was decided that he would go to America to get work and get settled. When he had saved enough money so his wife could make the trip by bus, he would send it to her and they would be reunited. The reason his wife, whose name was Asuncion, or Asun for short, did not accompany him to begin with is that they had no money. Miguel would have to make the trek by walking and hitchhiking; and he’d be traveling the entire length of the country. Not the sort of trip a man wants to bring his bride of a few months on. The trip would be not only arduous but also dangerous. There were still bandits roaming the highways and roads of Mexico. A man and women alone could very easily find themselves in dire straights out in the countryside.
Now we come to the part of Miguel’s story where he fucked up. It seems he was homesick, so on Saturday nights he’d walk across the border into Juarez and hang out at this particular café. Of course, he was in the country illegally. And with all the hysteria today about the great horde coming up from Mexico to take our jobs, rape our women folk, and pillage our cities, it may be hard to believe that in those days the border guards where hip to the goings on. I mean they knew the guys going and coming on Saturday night were not kosher, but the local farmers and ranchers needed their labor, so everyone was cool.
The name of the café was “The Mouse Trap,” or as the sign above the door read, Café La Ratonera. It was owned by a man named José. He’s the villain of this piece. He was big and fat, but more big than fat. He stood 6’ 4”, wore a grizzled black beard, and had a large scar in the form of a lightning bolt on his right cheek. (No shit. This guy had the scar on his cheek just like I said. He was right outta central casting!) When he smiled, the gold front tooth that he was so very proud of shone brightly in the dim light of his café. He was a bad motherfucker. No … bad is not the right word. The man was downright evil.
José could spot an “illegal” a mile away. By illegal, I mean a man who was in the United States without documentation, without his “papers.” Most seemed to get homesick at some point, as Miguel had, and would walk across the border for a little bit of home. And the biggest, gaudiest place in all of Juarez was the Café La Ratonera, so naturally that is where most of the men ended up.
José’s choice of name for his establishment might have been a coincidence, or it may have been by design; but regardless of serendipity or intent, he did snare the weakest of men in his “trap.” His method of doing so was quite simple; once he had scouted his prey, he would befriend his intended victim in some small way. He might forgive that evening’s bar bill, buy the man a few drinks, or perhaps, if he was in an expansive mood, give the man a few pesos to put toward bringing his family to America. All the men José preyed upon were working, and saving for one reason, and one reason only, to be reunited with their loved ones. Of the men’s longing to be with their families, José was able to make a very despicable living.
This is how Miguel got taken. José scoped him out and did his usual bullshit, pretending to be his friend. Then when Miguel told him of Asun and how he was working to bring her to America, José laid out his trap.
The trap consisted of exactly what Miguel wanted to hear. José told of how he had connections throughout Mexico, how he could arrange to have Asun brought up to Juarez, and then he, Miguel, could walk her across the border on a Saturday night. Of course, Miguel wasn’t completely brain dead. He did ask, “Why would you do this for me, and will there be a cost involved?”
To which José responded, “Man, you are my compatriot, mi amigo, we are simpatico. Yes, there will be a small cost, not everyone thinks as I do. But we’ll work it out, mi amigo.”
And work it out ol’ José did. He did indeed bring Asun up from Tehuantepec and got her to the Café La Ratonera. But once there, Miguel was told the fee for bringing her up was $1,000.00. It might well have been $100,000.00 as far as Miguel was concerned.
That’s when Jose cut out the being nice crap—the “I am your amigo” crap—and let Miguel have it right between the eyes. He informed Miguel that until the debt was paid, Asun would work in his hellhole of a café. And then to emphasize his intent, he pushed a button that was affixed to the side of his desk (they were in José’s office at the time) and two men appeared out of nowhere. José simply said, “Eighty-six the son-of-bitch.” Eighty-six being a universal term used in the bar and liquor business meaning throw the bum out, and don’t let him return.
Miguel told me that was two weeks ago, and he had yet to set sight upon his wife. And he was beaten if he even walked by outside the café. Of course, he was not allowed in. He knew she was there because he had friends, or more like co-workers, go in and they had spoken with her. She told them that her job was to serve drinks, be nice to the men, and if things were slow, she was to help out in the kitchen. The damn place was open twenty-four hour a day. She had a small room she had to share with two other young girls who were in the same predicament as she.
If my Irish was up when he first told me of his problem, it was through the fuckin’ roof after hearing the details. I might not have seemed upset on the surface because I was so busy shoving eggs, bacon, and hash browns in my mouth, but I was. When I pushed away the remainder of my breakfast, and told Miguel to pay the man, I rose and walked to the door of the place, stretched, scratched my stomach, and looked at the brightening sky in the east.
As Miguel joined me at the door, I asked him if he would be so kind as to answer a few questions. He said he’d be glad to. So I asked the most obvious question first. “How come an illiterate bean picker like you speaks better English than me?”
I’ve got to admit he did have a ready and plausible answer. “The priest in our town was from your country. He taught me when I was very young, and we conversed only in your tongue whenever we spoke.”
Okay, next question: “What the hell day is it today?”
He had a ready answer for that also. “It is Friday, my friend.”
Wait one fuckin’ minute, thought I. I am now this little man’s friend. Then I thought I did have him buy me breakfast, and I did intend to help him out. But holy shit! If he was now a friend, that would mean there would be no pulling out if, or when, the going got tough. So be it, I’ve got me a new friend. What the hell.
Third and last question: “You got a place I can crash for a while? I’m not going to be good to anybody until I get some sleep.”
“Yes, my friend. There is a small shack that I share with other men who work on the farm with me. We will be in the fields all day. You will have it all to yourself.”
There he goes with that friend shit again, but I had resigned myself to that. What touched me, though, was the way he offered his humble abode. He seemed to imply having what I was sure was a shithole all to myself was a high honor. Nothing against my little friend. My point is that the assholes who employ men like Miguel house them in conditions that, if you housed your dog in like manner, you’d be arrested for cruelty to animals.
So, the two new friends turned their backs to the rising sun and Miguel walked me to his domicile. By the time we got there, it was empty of inhabitants. He showed me which bed was his, and told me he would see me at the end of the day. He was late to the field and said he had to vamoose. I dropped onto his bed, and I was so tired I think I was out before Miguel hit the door.
I woke up a few times throughout the day, but thought it advisable to keep a low profile. I didn’t know how the owner of the outfit would take to a gringo, a non-working gringo at that, hanging out in his shithole of a shack. So I went back to sleep to await Miguel.
I was awakened by Miguel shaking my shoulder. When I opened my eyes, I beheld Miguel and three other men standing over me. When Miguel saw that my eyes were open, he said, “Mr. Billy, these are my friends, and I have told them that you are here to help me. They are now your friends also.” There he goes with that friend shit again. I rubbed my eyes and yawned before saying in my best American accent, “Hola.”
I know I’ve used this phrase before, but it is so apt. First things first: “Miguel, I need a shower. Whatcha got?”
He, as it turned out, didn’t have much. I’m not even going to tell you how these people were forced to wash themselves. No, the hell with it, I’ll tell you. There was a hose outside next to the shack and you had to stand there holding the damn thing over your head while cold water poured down on you. The owner of that place, I am sure, is roasting in hell as I relate this tale to you. So everything works out in the end.
After my “shower,” I dressed in the best clothes I had with me, which ain’t saying much. And even though the sun had just sunk beneath the horizon, I asked Miguel to buy me another breakfast. In my mind, I planned it more as a council of war than an eating experience. Miguel and I had to lay out our strategy. His original idea of me just waltzing into the café and walking out with his beloved, I was pretty sure, was not going to work.
As I shoveled my second meal of the day into my mouth, I told Miguel that the “extraction” would take some planning, and most importantly, some reconnoitering. I thought it good that it was a Friday night. If the café was busy, then I might have a chance to talk with Asun. Then it hit me, Does she even speak English? So I asked Miguel, and his answer was a simple “No.” That was going to make my job a whole lot harder. I couldn’t see her just walking outside with a perfect stranger, especially one babbling in a foreign tongue.
We dawdled at the hash house until just before midnight. I figured that the café should be getting up a good head of steam right about then and I wouldn’t stand out as much. But first, I needed Miguel to tell me something I could tell Asun so she would know I was a friend. I had the “Mi amigo … Miguel” down pat, but I thought I should have a closer, just to make sure that if the chance presented itself, she would leave with me.
Miguel thought for a moment before saying, “I gave her a ring for her birthday last year when she became a woman; it was her eighteenth year. No one ever knew of it but us.”
“Okay, Miguel, lay it on me. Teach me to say, “Miguel gave you a ring for your eighteenth birthday.” It took a while, but I finally got it down, “Miguel te dió un anillo cuando cumpliste dieciocho años.”
To quote a man I am not too familiar with, but he did come up with some good lines now and then: “Once more into the breech. Cry havoc, let slip the dogs of war.” Man, I love that quote. I use it whenever I can. But in simpler terms, I merely said to Miguel, “Let’s boogie.” Yeah I know, very archaic, but hey, so am I.
We walked into town and crossed the border without incident. There was never any trouble going into Mexico. They were damn happy to have you and your gringo dollars come into their country. Miguel led me to the café and said, “I better not go any farther. They know the sight of me. It would not be good for us to be seen together.”
Well damn, why hadn’t I thought of that?
Miguel had already told me what Asun looked like, so now it was up to me. I pointed to a little bar down the street and told him to wait for me there. I walked the half a block to the front door of the café and entered.
From the outside, the Café La Ratonera didn’t look half-bad. But once inside, what a fuckin’ dump. You entered, and through the haze of cigarette smoke, the first thing you saw was the bar. It was a massive thing; it stood against the far wall, and ran the entire width of the room. Of course, at that time of night every stool was taken. And there were men and women standing in between and behind every stool. Between the bar and the front door were tables, maybe thirty. They were not set up in rows or anything like that. No, they were haphazardly strewn about, and they too had people sitting at each and every one of them. There was no band, but some kind of noise (some, not many, might call it music) was blaring out of a single speaker situated over the bar.
Running back and forth from the bar to the tables were girls—young girls—serving drinks and talking with the men sitting at the tables. Then I noticed something I’d missed when I first entered. The place was all men, the only women I saw were the ones serving the drinks and the few at the bar who I was sure were “working girls,” if you know what I mean. To me, they—and the drink servers—all looked alike. How was I to tell which one was Asun?
I was conspicuous enough being the only gringo in the place, so I thought I had better order a drink and go into my dumb and stupid act. I saw that the girls were getting their drink orders filled at the far right-hand end of the bar, so that is where I headed. I figured at least there I’d get a chance to ask each girl, “Asun?” When I got an affirmative answer, then I could use my code phrase.
As I stood at the bar waiting for the bartender to notice me, I made another observation of something that had escaped my attention previously. Against the far wall was a staircase that led to a balcony that ran around the entire room. It was hard to see in the dim light, but it looked like there were rooms, one every twenty feet or so. I counted ten doors. That meant that if the layout was the same on the other three sides, there were forty rooms up there. What the hell took place up there, as if I didn’t know? I didn’t think Asun had been there long enough to be indoctrinated into that part of José’s scheme. But, We better get her out of here quick before a fate worse than death befalls her, I thought as I surveyed the upstairs.
As I was thinking the worst, I was asked something in Spanish by the bartender. I guess he wanted to know what I wanted to drink. So I said the first thing to come to mind, and the only drink I knew how to order in Spanish, “Tequila, por favor.”
After being served, I paid for the drink, with a healthy tip for the bartender so I’d be left alone for a while. Hey, it wasn’t my money. Miguel had given me all he had on him, which wasn’t much. But I did need a front, no matter how meager.
As I stood there, the girls, one by one, came up to the bar to order their drinks. I was less than three feet from the serving station. And as the bartender left to fulfill an order, and the girls stood waiting, I’d lean into them and say, “Asun?” The first two ignored me completely; the next three shook their heads, and then ignored me completely. On my sixth attempt, the girl turned, looked at me, and then nodded towards the girl standing behind her.
So it was to be lucky number seven? When number six had departed, and number seven took her place at the serving station, I did my usual, “Asun?” The startled look told me that I had finally hit pay dirt. Before the bartender returned, I went into my act, “Miguel mi amigo. Miguel te dió un anillo cuando cumpliste dieciocho años.” Just then, the bartender walked up and she gave him her drink order. He saw that I had spoken to her, but it looked like he thought I was just hitting on her, which was cool with him. Asun played it cool too. She turned away from the bar, so no one could see, and winked at me. Hey, Miguel got himself a smart one!
Now that I knew my target, I thought I’d get a better lay of the land, so to speak. If there was a back door, I sure as hell couldn’t see it. What the hell was Miguel talking about? Also, José was nowhere to be seen. As I scoped out the skinny, I came up with a plan. Admittedly, a simple plan, but a plan nonetheless. I ordered another Tequila, so not to arouse suspicion, drank it, and left.
Once outside, I proceeded to the bar where Miguel was waiting for me. He was standing outside looking forlorn, like he didn’t have a friend in the world.
“Whatcha’ doin’ out here, amigo? Why aren’t you inside?” I wanted to know.
“I gave you all my money and they won’t let me sit in there unless I buy something.”
“Okay, mi amigo, let’s go in. I’ll buy you a drink … with your money.”
“Si, mi amigo.” We went in, got a couple of beers, and I laid out my plan of action.
“First of all, I don’t know what fuckin’ back door you’re talkin’ about, pal, but if there is one, it’s gonna be locked up tighter than Kelsey’s nuts. Next, the only plan I can come up with is just getting Asun near to the front door and then we make a run for it. It might work if there was some interference put in place as we hauled ass. Or more to the point, as you and Asun haul ass. I plan on being the interference. And by the way, that’s one smart broad you got hooked up with. No offense.” Fortunately, Miguel did not understand the lexicon of 1950s America. He took no offense of me calling his wife a “broad.” Then I said, “Miguel, any chance of us getting a firearm?”
“You mean a pistola?”
“Yeah pal, a fuckin’ gun. You know … boom, boom! And don’t worry; I’m not gonna shoot anyone. I just want to use it as a persuader.”
“Yes, one of my amigos I live with has one.”
“Well, go get it, boy. I wanna’ finish this up tonight. I was California-bound when this little detour came up. Comprende? I’ll wait for you here, now git movin’.” I always drop my g’s and talk like I was in a Gabby Hayes movie (look it up) when I’m nervous. And nervous I was. But I said I’d help the little guy, and after getting an eyeful of his wife, it was my mission to get her outta that hellhole.
Miguel was gone two beers’ worth, and returned with a bulge under his shirt. I thought it a good thing he was coming into Mexico, and not going out, looking like that. I told him to sit down, and went to the bar and got him a beer. After we were settled, I asked him to hand me the gun under the table, which he did. Once I had it in my hand, I sneaked a peak at it. It was an old Colt .45, the kind you see in cowboy movies. While still holding it under the table, I checked to see if it was loaded. It sure was—every chamber filled.
While Miguel was gone, I had formulated my plan. I told him to go to the bar and get a piece of paper and a pencil from the bartender. After he returned with said items, I told him to write the following (I didn’t have time to learn any damn Spanish):
“This is a friend. Get near the door, and when he tells you, run out into the street. I will be there waiting for you. Miguel”
Of course, it was written in Spanish.
The plan, as I’ve said, was simple. I’d get Asun out the door, and then the two of us, me and Mr. Colt, would try to dissuade anyone from following her. “The best laid plans …” Another favorite quote of mine, though one I don’t like to use often. It usually means that I fucked up.
“Okay, amigo; let’s get this circus on the road. When Asun flies through the door, you grab her and haul ass.”
“ ‘Haul ass’? ”
“Yeah, run for the fuckin’ hills. Get your asses across the border; I’ll be right behind you. Tell your friend you owe him a gun because no fuckin’ way am I bringing this monster across any border, let alone into the United States.”
Before getting up, I slipped the gun into the waistband of my pants, and covered it with my shirt. Now I had the bulge. When we got back to the café, I told Miguel he better keep a low profile to ensure his being there when Asun exited. It wouldn’t do to have some of José’s bouncers see him and drive him off … or worse.
I left him standing on the street, and that was the last time I saw him until he rescued my ass. But I’m getting ahead of the story.
I went into the café and proceeded to my usual haunt right next to the service station. When asked, I ordered my usual Tequila; everything was as usual. Except for the gun under my shirt. It wasn’t too long before Asun came up for a drink order, and I was able to slip her the note. She, as I’ve stated, was one smart cookie; she took it in stride without even looking at me. I had no doubt she would read it the moment she had a chance. So I thought I better position myself by the door and be ready.
I moseyed (more Gabby Hayes talk) toward the door and stood by the table that was closest to the exit. I stayed there pretending to listen to, understand, and enjoy the conversation at said table, all the while praying that Asun would make her move soon. The guys at the table kept looking up at me, wondering what the fuck I was doing.
It wasn’t long before I saw her come out of the back. I reckon she had to go someplace private to read the note. She went from table to table taking drink orders. All the while working herself closer to the door. When she got to the table I was at, she took the boys’ orders, and then looked at me. I nodded, she nodded back, and then all hell broke loose.
She dropped her tray with the glasses still on it, and made a spectacular dash for freedom. I didn’t, at that stage in my life, know a woman could move so fast. I stepped into the space Asun had just vacated as she went through the door, pulled out my partner, Mr. Colt, and fired a shot into the ceiling. I hadn’t planned on discharging the weapon, but I saw two burly types come charging toward me. They were obviously bouncers, and girl wranglers. The shot stopped them in their tracks, but only momentarily. Then both of ’em pulled out their own version of Mr. Colt and started firing right at Yours Truly. I think the only thing that saved my ass was a conk to the back of my skull. All I remember is seeing stars.
I don’t know how long after all the excitement that I came to. But I found myself in a dark room lying on a bare mattress, which was on the floor. The only light was the light that came in from under the crack at the bottom of the door. My head was pounding. It was worse than the worst hangover I’ve ever had. Before or since, and I’ve had some doozies. I knew I was still in the café because I could hear that goddamn noise they took for music.
When I got around to thinking about it, I figured it must be early morning because the din of drunken revelry had diminished considerably. So there I sat, or more to the point, that is where I lay for what seemed like hours. And it seemed like hours because that’s what the fuck it was.
I know as I relate this to you years later, I may come off as glib at times, but I assure you, I was one scared motherfucker while all this was going down.
Finally, a little action. I heard someone at the door, I guess unlocking it. Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you, I did try the door shortly after regaining consciousness. I’m not a total boob, just a partial one. Anyway, the door swings open and in walks the big asshole himself, José, followed by a man in a lime green suit with no tie. He looked like a bookkeeper, which was a good thing, because I was shortly to find out that’s exactly what he was. He wore horn-rimmed glasses and stood a little over five feet in height. And he turned out to also be José’s interpreter.
I was lying down when I first heard them, but I made sure I was standing when the door opened and they walked into the room. José says something in Spanish to the little guy, and he in turn tells me that the man before me holds my life in his hands. Wow, no preamble, no how do you do, no nothin’.
I told you what the bookkeeper was wearing, so I guess it’s only fair to tell you of José’s taste in clothing apparel. From the ground up: cowboy boots, jeans, and here’s the kicker, an oversized Hawaiian print shirt. I reckon he thought it would help cover his bulk. It didn’t.
Now, down to business. José, through his interpreter, tells me that I stole one of his women. His women! I thought, Jesus H. Christ! What fuckin’ balls on this asshole. He then goes on to tell me I have two choices. One, I can be driven out to the desert and have a bullet placed in my head. Or two, I can work off the debt Asun was working off.
I was told José was going to have his noon repast. That’s not how it was phrased, but that was the general idea. And afterward he would come back for my answer. Yeah, let me think about that. Death or servitude? That’s a hard one. Take your time, José ol’ buddy. I’ll wait for you right here.
José and his toady left and locked the door behind them. I sat back down on the rank mattress and thought, Billy boy, how do you get yourself in these messes? Or better yet, how the hell ya gonna get yourself outta this one? Well, at least I made a friend. One who is probably getting laid at this very moment. I know I’d be, if I hadn’t seen my woman in three months. Friend, smend, I hope I never hear the fuckin’ word again.
I was thinking those negative thoughts when all hell broke loose downstairs. At least that’s what it sounded like from my vantage point. I listened with keen interest. Had the Marines landed? What the hell was going on?
Within a very short time, there was a crash on the door, then another, and finally a third. That’s when the door gave way and fell from its hinges. And guess who comes in carrying the leg that used to be on a table? My old amigo, Miguel. He was followed by a few others, but I only had eyes for Miguel.
“What the fuck is going on?”
“We are here to rescue you and the women,” was the simple answer to my simple query.
Because you and I were both out of the loop on this one, I’ll fill you in on what I later learned. When I didn’t return by daylight, Miguel got his housemates to forsake work for the day, and instead they went into the fields and told the men how Asun had been freed. But the man responsible for her freedom was now being held a prisoner at the same location. Word spread as the morning progressed. Somehow word got to the neighboring farms, and some of the men who heard the story also had women held at the café.
Without anyone actually suggesting it, as the noon hour approached, the men walked out of the fields and met at Miguel’s shack. They were about fifty in number, and it was decided that they would do something about the café and its owner once and for all. The men who had women there—and they were the majority—were going to free their women now that they knew it was possible. The others were outraged that the gringo boy who had freed Miguel’s wife was now in José’s hands.
Miguel took charge. He told the men to cross the border in groups of twos and threes and meet up at the little bar down the street from the café. Once they were all there, they simply walked to the café and stormed its battlements. Because the placed never closed, gaining entrance was no problem. And they got lucky in the fact the gunmen were off duty. José probably didn’t think the expense of gunmen was necessary in the middle of the day.
When inside, they broke up the tables and chairs to use the legs as clubs, just in case anyone got in the way. Clubs weren’t really needed. The sheer force of their numbers kept any would-be heroes at bay. As soon as the ground floor was secured, the men, both patrons and employees, were herded to one side of the room. The women were put in a protective area near the door, and while half the men stayed downstairs to keep an eye on things, the rest charged upstairs and went room-to-room freeing women who had been locked in. Oh, and by the way, they also freed me in the course of events. Unfortunately, José was nowhere to be found. Or fortunately, depending on your point of view. I’m sure José found it quite advantageous not being on the premises that afternoon.
Now that the men had me and the women, Miguel issued his marching orders, “Back to America!” It was said in Spanish, but I got the “America” part. We left the café as a conquering horde, but soon split up into twos and threes. Each man with his woman, and those who didn’t have a woman, paired up with the guy or guys nearest him. Miguel was my date.
When we got close to the border crossing, we held back, out of sight, so two of our little group could cross at a time. We spaced it out. Because even though the border guards were hip, they were not going to let almost eighty illegals cross in one fell swoop. Miguel and I were the last to cross. When we got back to the shack, he formally introduced me to his bride. Not being able to speak English, she thanked me in her own way. She put her arms around my neck and gave me a big kiss, one on each cheek.
Asun told Miguel that while he was gone the foreman had come looking for the missing men to find out why they were not in the fields. She told him her story, and he being of Mexican descent, told her to tell the men they all better be in the fields first thing Monday morning. He also said that she could not stay in the shack, that was for single men only. She and Miguel would have to move into one for married couples. He then smiled at her and said, “Welcome to America.”
I didn’t stick around either. I gathered up my stuff, put it in my suitcase, and turned to Miguel and said “Gracias, mi amigo.” He started to say something, but I held up my hand to stop him. “There’s nothing to say. I’ve gotta go.” I turned to Asun and said, “You are beautiful.” She cocked her head to one side, indicating she did not understand. And as Miguel turned to her to translate my statement, I walked out of that shithole of a shack and into a new life, one where I took a man’s friendship to heart.
Well, that’s my story of how I came to believe in friendship. Miguel had what he wanted, but he organized and led the revolt to free me because he had said he was my friend. It was as simple as that.
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We sit upon your couch. Your head rests on my chest. I hold you to me. Your legs are drawn up under you and your left arm lies across my belly. The top of your head is just below my chin.
You have just gotten out of the bath. I love the smell of your body mixed with the aroma of the soap. You burrow deeper into me. I, in turn, pull you closer. We cannot get close enough to one another.
Twilight has descended. We sit in the semi darkness with only thoughts of each other going through our heads. There is no television, no radio; there is nothing to distract our thoughts. We do not speak … we have no need of words.
It’s 3:07 a.m. and I am thinking of you, my love. I am also thinking, How did I ever get myself into a mess like this? I am hiding in a culvert—a cement pipe—under a farm road I found myself on; I am a hunted man. Still, my thoughts are of you. The water flows around my ankles, and it is cold. For the moment, I’ve thrown the hounds off the scent. I hear their barking and baying retreating in the distance.
Perhaps, my love, I should start at the beginning.
Do you remember the last time we saw each other? It was a week past, at the church social. You wore your pink gingham dress. You know, the one I like so much, the one with the purple and yellow flowers on it. And you had on the sunbonnet I bought you for your birthday. You sure were a pretty picture. Well, that’s where all the trouble started.
I reckon you wondered what happened to me that night. I mean, why I never came back when I went to get you some punch. You remember that fella that came up to us and asked you to dance and I sent him on his way, telling him you were spoken for? That was Jess Baker; he lives up by Big Gap. Him and his family been croppin’ up there since Ol’ Dan’l Boone was in Congress, before that even. The Baker boys are a mean lot; they don’t take kindly to a slight, real or otherwise. And Jess’ uncle is deputy sheriff up in that neck of the woods.
Well, my love, this is what transpired. I was standing in line at the punch bowl when Jess comes up to me and says, “Thar’s a fella outside running down your woman. If she was my woman, I’d let no man talk the way he’s a talkin’. I’d have to do somethin’.”
I should have let it go, but what Jess was sayin’ just got my dander up. So I asked him to point the fella out to me. He agreed to do so, and together we walked out into the night. As soon as we got outside, Jess says, “He’s over this a way,” and led me ’round the corner of the church. And, my love, that is the last thing I remember until I woke up tied to a hitchin’ post.
Standing over me was Jess, his brother John, and their uncle, the one I told you about—the deputy sheriff. His name is Samuel. They must have thrown a bucket of water in my face to bring me ’round, because the drops were still falling from my hair onto my face.
When they saw I was awake, Jess grabbed me by the hair and pulled my head back so I had to look right into his mean brown eyes. He said, “Us Bakers is a queer bunch, when insulted we just gotta do somethin’ ’bout it.”
When he had had his say, the other two laughed. I knew those words, and I knew the laughter did not bode well for me. The three of them then went into the house and that is the last I saw of them until the next morning. I was left tied to the post all night.
Natural to say I didn’t get much sleep that night. When I heard the Baker boys emerging from the house in the morning, I feigned being out. But through the slits of my eyes, I saw Jess pick up the bucket, walk over to the pump and fill it with water. He walked back to the post and threw the water straight into my face. I pretended to come ’round, and he said, “We got chores to do, you stay right thar. We’ll be back presently, then we aim to have us some fun.”
As they walked away, I tried for the hundredth time to free my hands. My arms were behind me, one on either side of the post, and my hands tied at the wrist. During the night, I had rubbed the skin from my wrist. It hurt awfully to continue trying to get free, but I knew other things would hurt even worse if I was still tied and waiting for the Bakers when they returned at the end of the day.
The morning drew on; the sun beat down on me, causing a powerful thirst in me. As the noon hour approached, I heard the Bakers returning, so I once again pretended to be out in the hopes I might get another bucketful of water in the face. I was hoping that this time I might catch some in my mouth. My head was hung down, and looking through the slits of my eyes, I saw Jess’ boots stop and stand before me. Then I heard his brother John say, “Not now, Jess. We gotta eat and git back to work. ’Sides, we promised Uncle Sam not to start nothin’ till he got back.” With those words, Jess kicked at the ground, hitting my chest and chin with earth.
After they had returned to their work, I redoubled my efforts to get free. The pain in my wrists was unbearable, and my arms had gone numb. But I persevered, and along about sundown, I slipped one of the ropes. I was frantic; I knew they’d be along anytime. I managed to slip the remaining rope, and I was free. My arms were still too numb to do anything but hang limply at my sides. But I needed water bad, so I got to my knees and flung my arms around the crossbar of the hitchin’ post. And using the crook of my elbows, I hoisted myself up.
Once up, I staggered, more than walked, over to the pump and knelt before it. I grabbed the handle with both hands, put my head under the spout, and pumped that cool water onto my face and into my mouth.
When I had quenched my thirst, I stood and listened—nothing. The sun was below the horizon, but there was still a little light and I still had a few minutes before they returned, I hoped. I went into the house looking for a weapon; about then my arms were beginning to get their feeling back.
It was dark in the house and hard to see, but after a moment, my eyes adjusted to the gloom and I saw an old-fashioned single-shot rifle leaning against the bricks of the fireplace. I went straight for it, lifted it, and checked to see if there was a cartridge in the breech. There wasn’t. I looked about for a box of cartridges but saw none. I had to move, they’d be back anytime now. I took the gun. I could use it as a bluff or at least it would make a dandy club.
As I was leaving, I saw the two brothers walking up the road. I darted back into the house and made my way to the back, slipped out of an open window, and ran into the woods. I knew that the moment they saw I was gone, they’d be after me. And I knew from talk that the Baker boys could track anything … some said they had Injun blood in ’em.
As I ran into the woods, I made my first mistake—well, my second mistake, if you count leaving the church with Jess in the first place. I had never been to the Baker place, and I didn’t know if I was north or south of Big Gap. Their cabin stands at the foot of the mountain, so I knew it wasn’t east or west. Then I thought that even if I knew my way into town, Sam Baker was the law, and if he saw me, he could haul me away before I could say a word. So I decided to go up the mountain.
My only advantage was that they wouldn’t know how long of a start I had on them. For all they knew, I could have been gone for hours. Or so I thought. As I was walking deeper into the woods, I heard, “Hey you, we know you ain’t far, the earth is still wet under the pump. As soon as we et somethin’, we’ll be a comin’ for ya.”
If they were going to give me a few minutes start on them, I thought it prudent to use the time to think, and not run. What was my plan to be? You know me, my love, I’m a city boy; stalking, and tracking is foreign to me. I’ve never hunted in my life, and now I am the hunted. I needed a plan to first of all get rid of Jess and his brother, and then to get to a place of safety, anywhere but Big Gap and Sam Baker.
So, my love, this is the plan I came up with. I would go halfway up the mountain and circle around to the east and descend, and just hope I reached a place of safety before the Bakers caught up with me. It’s just too bad things didn’t work out that way.
But I’m getting ahead of my story. By the time I decided on my plan of action it was full dark, so going up the mountain side was slow work. I ran into trees, hit my head on low lying branches, and tripped and fell over logs and large stones a number of times.
Just when I’m thinking that there was no way in hell that the Bakers could track me in the dark, I saw the light of a lantern below me, maybe three or four hundred yards down the mountain. At this rate, they’d be upon me in no time. So I did the unexpected, what only a man filled with fear would have done. I climbed the nearest tree and went right for the top.
You know, my love, sometimes the unexpected works. They passed right under me and continued up the mountain. I sat on my perch and watched the lantern grow dimmer and dimmer until it was out of sight. At that point, I decided it best to stay where I was until first light. Blundering around the mountain in the dark would only have brought the Baker boys and me together.
The next morning, I climbed down from the tree and set about trying to get back to you, my love. That is the thought that has sustained me throughout this week. Just so you don’t have to relive the entire week with me, I’ll just say that I got lost up on that mountain. The Bakers, with Uncle Sam’s help, brought in dogs to hunt me down.
Just know that I got lost on the damn mountain. I’ve gone a week without real food. Oh, I’ve had some grubs and some worms. Even found some berries yesterday. I’ve been licking the dew off leaves in the morning to quench my thirst. And for the whole week, the Baker boys have been one step behind me.
This morning I finally made it down the mountain. I don’t know where I am; as I’ve said, it seems to be a farm road … wait … the hounds … they’re comin’ back this way. You know, my love, there is a time when a man has to be a man. I think my time has come. Know that I love you, and I would have asked you to be my woman if this had not happened.
The baying is coming closer. I will not be hunted any longer. I will not hide any longer, my love. I will stand up and be a man, or at least die as one. Please, my love, come walk with me, give me strength. I am leaving the culvert now. I see the men in the distance. It is my intention to walk up to Jess, or one of the others, and take a stand.
They are firing their guns at me now. Bullets are passing me. The ones that are close to my ears sound just like bees flying by. Stay with me, my love. I fear not when you are with me.
A bullet has just hit me in the shoulder, but has not knocked me down. Don’t worry, it doesn’t hurt. I will continue my march of freedom. I will not stop until I am dead, or they turn and walk away.
I’ve just been hit. I know not where, but I am lying on the ground. I’ve tried to get up, but I seem to have no strength. Is it because of the wound, or the lack of food?
Things are nice now, I am at peace. I’m looking up at the bluest sky I have ever seen. And the clouds are so beautiful. Look, my love, you see that one? Doesn’t it look just like a dog?
It’s getting dark on the sides. I mean my vision is like I’m looking through a tunnel of some sort. And the tunnel is getting smaller. I can’t see all of the sky. I can see only that one cloud … you know, the one that looks like a dog. Now, I can see nothing. I think I am dying, but dying with you by my side is so sweet.
’Nough said … good-bye, my love …
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Tommy “The Rat” Callahan was a small-time Irish hood from South Boston. He was known as “The Rat” because of his rather long, pinched nose and his beady eyes that were set too close together. In short, Tommy looked like a rat. And the fact that he was not above ratting out a comrade to advance his own position added to the mystique of “The Rat.” He had no family except his sister, who he idolized.
Tommy was on to the caper of all capers, if only he did not fuck it up as he usually did. Tommy had learned, quite by accident of course, where there was one hundred large—one hundred thousand dollars to the rest of us—kept in a safe. He had cased the joint, and it looked like a breeze. All he needed was a cracksman to handle the safe. Once again, to us law-abiding citizens, a cracksman is a safe cracker, one who opens safes without a combination, and without the owner’s permission for that matter. For this job, he thought he would use Scooter O’Malley. Scooter was the best in the business, but he did not come cheap. Tommy thought Scooter might take it on spec, but then he’d be in for a piece of the action, Scores of this sort don’t happen everyday. No, Tommy would figure a way to get into that goddamn safe without paying an arm and a leg to do so.
However, before he could worry about that, Tommy had to see his sister. Not a day went by that Tommy did not stop in to check up on Joanie. She was the only family he had. And in this rough and tumble world you can’t be too careful. Tommy considered Joanie’s well being the most important thing in the world. He’d even turned down being in on big scores because it would have involved him being out of town for a few days. It didn’t matter that on each of the three occasions when he had turned down the invitation to participate, the crews were busted. And the individuals involved were now doing hard time in Norfolk, the state’s maximum-security prison. As Tommy entered Joanie’s apartment, he heard the usual greeting his dear sister reserved just for him. “Not you again, fuck wad. Don’t ya’ ever knock?”
“Come on, Joanie. Why ya gotta be like that?”
“Why do I gotta be like that? Why do I gotta be like that? You fuckin’ dumb mick you. You beat the shit outta Billy Doyle last night for just holdin’ my hand. And he was about the last guy in South Boston who would even speak to me.”
“Yeah, but, sis … you don’t know what these guys are after.”
“What they’re after! Listen, Tommy Callahan, and listen good. I wanna get laid! You got it? I wanna get laid!”
“Come on, Joanie, don’t talk like that. What if Ma could hear you?”
“Sheesh, Tommy, you’re too fuckin’ much!”
And so the Callahan siblings continued the same discussion they’ve had daily for quite some time. You see, Tommy had appointed himself Joanie’s protector when their mother died. They never knew their father. He had run off with a burlesque dancer a year after Joanie was born. But Tommy was not subtle about protecting his sister’s honor. If Tommy saw his sister with a guy, he would assume the guy was up to no good; and most of the time, he was right. So, as a result of many pummelings, word got around not to mess with Tommy Callahan’s sister if you didn’t want to get your face rearranged. Which left poor little Joanie Callahan without a boyfriend—something she greatly desired.
Tommy thought to himself, I don’t have time for this crap, not today. I’ve got things to do. So he approached his sister and tried to give her a good-bye kiss. She ducked his attempt at brotherly love and said, “Sit down for a moment; I got something I want to tell you.”
This can’t be good, thought Tommy. And to his way of thinking, it was not.
“Tommy,” said Joanie, “if you don’t let me have a life of my own, I’m moving to California.”
“What! You can’t do that. Who’d protect you?”
“That’s just it, Tommy, I don’t need no protecting. You got this mixed-up notion in that fucked up head of yours that I’m still eight years old. I’m a woman of twenty-two, and I have a woman’s needs. I want to love and I want to be loved.”
“But, Joanie, I love ya.”
“Don’t interrupt, Tommy. This is the way it’s gonna to be. I’m dating whoever I please, whenever I please. And the first sign of trouble from you, I’m outta here.”
“I told ya to keep ya yap shut. You’ve got nothin’ to say in the matter. It’s my life.”
Tommy did not like what he was hearing. No, not one bit did he like what he was hearing. However, he knew Joanie well enough to take her advice—for once—and keep his yap shut.
“Okay, sis, we’ll play it your way. But don’t come cryin’ to me if some asshole breaks your heart.”
To which his sister replied, “Don’t you worry about me, I’m the heartbreaker in this family, ya dumb mick.” With that, Tommy took his leave, and this time his sister did allow a brotherly peck on the cheek.
To Tommy, there was nothing more important than Joanie, and he would have to figure a way around her ultimatum, but that could wait. Right now, he had to scare up a plan to get into that damn safe with the hundred large in it. So, for the next two weeks, Tommy looked at it from every angle as to what he could do to effect his score without bringing someone else in on it. But try as he might, no way presented itself. Of course, he could open it; there were explosives. But he wanted to open the safe and not get caught. An explosion would bring every cop within miles of the damn place before he could get a block away. And besides, with the luck he’s been having lately, he’d probably blow himself up instead of the safe. He was so busy trying to figure something out, he thought this would be a great time to let Joanie think she got her way. That’s why he stayed away for those two weeks.
But not seeing Joanie for so long left an emptiness in Tommy. So on the fifteenth day since he last spoke with her, he thought, The hell with it, I’m goin’ over there. She’s had her little tantrum and she’s had two weeks to think she’s got her way. I know she hasn’t been seeing anyone or someone would have blabbed it to me by now.
Upon arriving at his sister’s place, Tommy tried to enter in his usual way, bursting in without knocking. However, his ingress was hindered by the fact that the door was locked. He took a step back and stared at the door for a moment, as if he had never seen one before. Then he stepped up to the door to do battle with it. He started pounding on it as though it had wronged him in some great fashion, all the while yelling, “Sis, sis, ya all right in there?” Within seconds, the door flew inward, and there stood Joanie, hands on her hips and a scowl on her face.
“What are ya trying to do, break down my door?”
Tommy let out a sigh of relief when he saw that Joanie was unharmed … and her usual lovable self. “I thought somethin’ might have happened to you. Jeesh. I haven’t seen you for two weeks, anything coulda happened.”
Removing her hands from her hips, his sister said, “Well, come inside. Ya want the neighbors to know all my business?”
With this congenial invite, Tommy stepped into the apartment, and without missing a beat, he said, “So, I’ve been leaving ya alone. Ya got that crazy idea outta ya head about moving?”
Joanie shook her head in disgust before saying, “Tommy, it was not about ya leaving me alone. I—and only God knows why—love you, you’re my brother. No, Tommy, it’s about me seeing who I want, when I want, and with no interference from you.”
“So who’s the lucky guy?”
“You know I haven’t been seein’ anybody from around here. Your Southie rat-fink friends woulda ratted me out, and you woulda got your goddamn mick ass over here a long time ago. So don’t give me none of your mick bullshit.”
There was not much Tommy could say to that. Joanie was right. She knew it, and he knew it. However, he did try a bluff anyway, “But I stayed away like you wanted.” To which Joanie just shook her head before walking back into the kitchen where she had been when Tommy started his Tom-Tom exercises on her door. Tommy stayed where he was, looking like the big goof that he was.
From the kitchen, his sister called to him, “Tommy, will ya come into the kitchen for a minute?”
Tommy stopped looking like a goof long enough to walk into the kitchen. When he entered, he exclaimed, “Holy shit, Joanie. Whatcha doin’?”
“What does it look like I’m doin’ … I’m cookin’ dinner.”
“How’d ya know I was comin’ over?”
“It’s not for you, you dumb asshole. It’s for me and a friend.”
Tommy looked a little hurt, not because Joanie had called him an asshole, but because she had not invited him to dinner also.
Then Tommy thought to himself, Well, this is good; sis has a girlfriend she’s hangin’ with. Maybe it’ll get her mind off of running around with guys. Now all I gotta do is find a way into that goddamn safe.
It was at this juncture that Joanie hit Tommy—SMACK—right between the eyes. Figuratively speaking, that is. Joanie was quite capable of physically hitting him smack, right between the eyes, but this time she only wanted to speak with him.
Joanie said to Tommy, “Go over to the table and sit down. I got somethin’ I wanna tell ya.” Tommy dutifully obeyed and sat himself down, awaiting the pronouncement from on high, which was not long in coming. Joanie started by saying, “My friend will be here soon, and even if I threw your ass outta here right now, you’d know what’s goin’ on sooner or later. So I’m tellin’ ya now, so it can be done and over with.”
As his sister was speaking, Tommy was thinking, All this shit just because a girlfriend is comin’ over. Does she think that I’m some kind of asshole who doesn’t want her to have any friends? Sheesh!
“Tommy, are you listening to me?”
“Yeah … sure, sis. I heard every word ya said. And I’m glad ya got a girlfriend comin’ over for dinner.”
“It’s not a girlfriend that’s coming, it’s …” Joanie faltered. She was having trouble getting out what she wanted to say. But after a few seconds, she took a deep breath and said, “He’s a guy.” That was it … just three little words.
At first, Joanie thought, Tommy looks like he’s taking it well. However, that was not the case. As with most things of a new or complex nature, Tommy’s cognitive thinking took a while to kick in. So, while Joanie was thinking, This might not be so bad, Tommy was thinking, What’d she just say? A guy, what guy? What’s she talkin’ about?
Eventually the message hit home. And by the slow change of expression on Tommy’s face, Joanie knew there was trouble ahead unless she cut it off at the pass, so to speak. She took the initiative by saying, “Just one cotton-pickin’ minute. Don’t start no shit and there won’t be no shit. Got it? I’ve been seein’ a guy and his name is Paul. He’s in town for his sister’s wedding. We met over at Tina Ruggerio’s house, and he’s a very nice boy. Polite, has manners, and most important of all, he likes me. And you, Tommy Callahan, ain’t gonna screw this up for me. Got it?”
By now, Tommy had regained all his faculties—speech, thought, the whole nine yards. His first thought was, No way. And the first words out his mouth were also “No way.”
“Stop right there, Tommy Callahan. I told you before, one peep outta ya mouth and I’m California bound. Got it? Don’t answer because I don’t care if ya got it or not. So what’s it to be? When Paul gets here, are you gonna act decent or do I go into my bedroom and start packin’?”
So what’s a guy to do in a situation like this? Tommy had been around the block more than once. And he knew his sister well enough to decide that now was not the right time to start a war. He did not think these exact words, but his thoughts were along similar lines. Sometimes discretion is the better part of valor. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “Okay, sis, you win. When does the paragon get here?”
“He’ll be here soon. I’ll introduce you, and when I give the high sign, you split. And no fuckin’ bad language when he’s here, I don’t wanna give him the wrong idea about our fuckin’ family. Got it?” Joanie didn’t wait for an answer; she turned her back to Tommy and resumed her domestic duties. And Tommy? Well, he just slumped back down in his chair, a defeated man.
Tommy may have been defeated, but he thought it only a temporary defeat. He was one mick from Southie who knew the score, who could roll with the punches. Oh no, not by a long shot is this over, thought Tommy. Just then, there was a knock at the door. And the hip mick who could roll with the punches was startled into jumping two inches off the chair upon which he was sitting.
Joanie hurried to the door and opened it to show a handsome young man, dressed in a suit and tie, holding flowers. “Please come in, Paul,” intoned Joanie.
Tommy, who was still sitting in the kitchen, heard the reception Joanie had given her guest and thought, This I gotta see. So Tommy walked out of the kitchen and into the living room and he could not believe his eyes. He’s wearing a suit, a fuckin’ suit. Ya gotta be kiddin’ me, thought Tommy. He did not say that aloud. The look he was getting from Joanie had withered men stronger than he.
Turning back to Paul, Joanie said, “Paul, I would like you to meet my brother, Tommy. And Tommy, this is Paul Puglisie.” Tommy was standing about three feet from Paul and hesitantly extended his hand. In turn, Paul grabbed it, and with a firm grip said, “A pleasure to meet you, sir.” Tommy said nothing. Nothing, that is, until he received a surreptitious kick to his shin from Joanie; then he said, “Glad to meet ya.” But thought, You’re not foolin’ me, buddy, with your fancy suit and your fancy manners. No, not one bit are ya foolin’ me with those manners. I invented manners. Of course, Tommy had not invented manners. In fact, he barely knew what the word meant.
Once the formalities were out of the way, Joanie said, “Why don’t you boys get acquainted. I’ve got somethin’ to do in the kitchen. And I’ll put these beautiful flowers in some water, thank you so much, Paul.”
To which Paul remarked, “May I help with anything?”
“No, Paul. You and Tommy get to know one another. Dinner’s almost ready, and Tommy’s got a business meeting he has got to go to; don’t you, Tommy?”
“Huh? Oh yeah, down to the Union Hall. Me and the boys got a meetin’ planned.” Tommy was quite proud of himself for coming up with a lie like that on the spur of the moment.
After Joanie had left for the kitchen, Paul said, “Why don’t we make ourselves comfortable.”
Why not, thought Tommy. He grabbed a chair and turned it around, then straddled it. He sat with his arms folded on the back of the chair and stared at Paul. Paul sat on the couch and smiled at Tommy.
At this point, Tommy started thinking, which for Tommy was always a herculean affair. I know this guy from somewhere, but fuckin’ where?” Aloud he said, “Joanie tells me you’re in town for your sister’s wedding. I wish Joanie would get married so that I can stop worrying about her. But hey, that’s no hint, I’m just sayin’.”
“I know what you mean, no sweat.”
Tommy was thinking hard. I know this wop from somewhere. “Ya ever live in Boston?”
“Why yes. I just moved out to Chicago three years ago.”
The fact that Tommy was sure he knew the cat just gnawed at his soul, until he exclaimed, “I’ve got it! You were with that dago outfit that did all those Back Bay heists. Smooth work, that was. Too bad you guys had to take a fall. When your crew went down, is that when you hightailed it out to Chi Town?”
Paul was nonplussed for a moment before regaining his composure and saying, “I’m sorry, Mr. Callahan, but you must have me confused with someone else.”
“Don’t give me that shit. I used to see you wops around Lorenzo’s Pub. I remember you because you were pointed out to me as the best cracksman in all of Boston, north or south. They said you were even better than Scooter O’Malley, and that’s sayin’ somethin’.”
Paul swallowed hard and whispered, “Please, Mr. Callahan, do not let your sister know.”
“Don’t worry, Paul, no need to worry at all. Mind if I call you Paul?”
“Not at all. May I call you Tommy?”
“Sure, pal, sure.”
This guy Paul was the answer to Tommy’s prayers. A guy who opens safes like the rest of us open our medicine cabinet door each morning. And I’ll get him to do it for love. It won’t cost me a cent, went through Tommy’s mind as he smiled his Cheshire cat smile at Paul. I just need a few minutes alone with this guy without fuckin’ Joanie bein’ there to throw a monkey wrench into the works. Then he had it! He called to his sister in the kitchen, “Hey, sis, me and Paul’s gonna go down to the packy to get a bottle of wine.”
With her sweetest, most feminine voice, Joanie purred, “Tommy, could you come in here for a moment?”
When he entered the kitchen, he was accosted by Joanie, who grabbed him by the collar and shoved him up against the refrigerator, whispering in a not-so-feminine voice, “Whatcha up to, asshole?”
“Nothin’, sis. Paul just wanted to get you a bottle of wine to go with dinner. He asked me where the closest packy was, and I told him I’d show him, it would be easier. Don’t sweat it, sis. This is the type of guy I been hopin’ ya’d hook up with; not like the bums down here in Southie. I mean, what’s not to like? He’s got manners, and not too bad lookin’, huh, sis? Too bad he’s a wop, but ya can’t have everything.”
“Mind your own fuckin’ business, Tommy Callahan. Okay, get the wine, but then ya leavin’. Got it?”
“Yeah, sure, sis.”
Tommy left the kitchen with a big smile on his face, and said to Paul, “Let’s go. Joanie wants some wine with dinner.”
Tommy did not wait long before he started his play. On the way down, while still on the stairs, he said, “So what happened with the Back Bay thing? Why wasn’t you hauled in with those other wo… I mean guys?”
Paul sighed and said, “Listen, you seem to know the score, so I’ll tell you. But, you’ve got to promise not to tell Joanie any of this. I like her, I like her a lot.”
“Sure, sure. I’m just interested, that’s all.”
“Well, my job was to open the safes. I seem to have a talent in that direction. I was never part of the crew; they would hire me on a per job basis. They would find the score, get to know the layout and do their homework. They were really professional about it. I would be called in only if there was a safe involved. But when they started doing houses in the Back Bay … well, all those houses had safes. The way it would work is, the night of the heist, I’d wait in my car about two or three blocks away from the action. The crew would have already cased the joint, they knew if there were dogs, guards, or whatever. Once they had secured the premises and overcame all obstacles, I would get a call over the radio, just one word, ‘clear.’ With that, I would walk to the house, enter, open the safe, and then walk back to my car and leave. I wouldn’t even open the door to the safe. It was none of my business what was inside.
Tommy was spellbound. He had never heard of an organization so well run. He thought, No wonder our guys are always takin’ falls.
“Why didn’t they haul you in with the rest?”
“Because I was just an employee, not part of the crew. And those guys don’t squeal. They’d rather take the max than talk.”
Again, Tommy thought, Ya gotta hand it to those wops, even if they are dago scum. Aloud he said, “So ya that good with safes?”
“I just have a talent, that’s all. However, I got the fear of God put in me three years ago and I’ve gone straight ever since.”
That, Tommy did not want to hear. Just then, they reached the package store and entered. “Joanie say what kind of wine she wanted?” asked Paul.
“Naw, just get somethin’ cheap, she won’t know the difference.”
Paul paid no mind to what Tommy had said and continued down the wine aisle, inspecting the array of wines. Tommy, on the other hand, had planted himself by the magazine rack, and was paging through a copy of Playboy. Paul finally selected a wine, paid for it, and together he and Tommy left the store for the return trip to Joanie’s apartment. But Tommy wanted to slow things down a bit; he had not finished pumping Paul. As they approached a bus bench, Tommy said, “Let’s sit here for a minute and let Joanie finish fixin’ dinner. And besides, there’s somethin’ I gotta tell ya.”
After they had seated themselves and got as comfortable as one can get on a bus bench, Tommy said, “First of all, when do you plan on goin’ back to Chi Town?”
Paul hesitated before answering, “I had planned on going back last week, right after my sister’s wedding, but then I met Joanie, and well … you know.”
“Sure I do, sure I do. Amor in the spring. Only it’s not spring it’s summer.” Tommy thought that was a hoot, and thinking he had a brilliant sense of humor, could not stop from laughing.
After his fit of laughter subsided, he said, “Paul, I’ve got to tell you somethin’ about Joanie, but you can’t mention it to her, or she’d die of embarrassment. You promise not to say anything?”
“Sure, Tommy, what is it?”
“Sis has got to have an operation.”
This revelation took the wind out of Paul’s sails. He had grown very fond of Joanie, and anything that affected her, affected him. As those thoughts coursed through his mind, he came to the realization that he was in love with her, and he smiled inwardly. Then he said, “Is it serious?”
To which Tommy replied, “Well, yes, and no. She could stay healthy and maybe live another ten years, but …” That was Tommy’s specialty, letting his mark think the worst.
When Tommy saw the look on Paul’s face, he knew with a certainty that he had him … hook, line and sinker. So he continued, “Yeah, the operation is expensive and we don’t have the money. Hey, don’t think I’m askin’, ’cause I ain’t. I’m just sayin’. Anyway, I know where I can get the money, but I’m gonna need a little help. And I was thinkin’ you might be just the guy I need to help me save Joanie’s life.” Tommy thought to himself, If that doesn’t get the poor sap, nothin’ will.
Tommy decided he had laid enough groundwork for the night. He figured, and rightly so for a change, that the slow move would work the best. He stood up and said, “Come on, Joanie’s probably throwin’ a fit, we’ve been gone so long. Tell ya what, if you’re interested in helpin’, why don’t we get together tomorrow and talk this thing through?” Tommy was going to say, If you’re interested in saving Joanie’s life, but thought better of it at the last moment. Even Tommy knew that was laying it on a bit thick.
“Of course, I want to help. Let me give you my card, I’m in the insurance business now. Here, I’ll write my mother’s phone number on the back. I’m staying with her. I left my phone in Chicago; this was supposed to be a vacation, and I didn’t want to be bothered with a lot of phone calls.”
As Tommy put the card in his shirt pocket, he was thinking of all the things he could buy with one hundred thousand dollars.
When they reached Joanie’s, Tommy escorted Paul to her front door and said, “I’ve gotta go to that meetin’. You two lovebirds don’t want me around anyway. I’ll call ya tomorrow morning, and remember, not a word to Joanie. She’d rather die than accept help from someone outside the family. Good night, brother-in-law … hey, you never know.”
With that inappropriate quip and a nudge to Paul’s ribs, Tommy left the young lovers to their own devices, at least for that particular evening. For the first time ever, Tommy did not fear leaving his sister alone with a man. He thought he was a good judge of character, which he was not, and he felt Paul would behave himself. In this observation, he was correct. And as he descended the steps, he thought, Paul’s the one I should be worrying about. I hope Joanie takes it easy on him. Tommy would not have used his sister for all the money in the world. He believed Paul was a safe bet for a few days, then once the safe was opened and he got his hands on the loot, he’d runthat wop right outta the city and back to Chi Town where he belongs.
The next morning saw Tommy up bright and early. He had not gotten much sleep for thinking of his soon-to-be wealth, and the man of means he would become. However, he did have to call Paul before any of his dreams could come to fruition. He wondered if 7:00 am was too early to call, but then thought, No, I’ll play it cool. He did not want to seem too eager, so he would wait till nine, but having to wait those additional two hours would just about kill him.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Joanie and Paul had had a lovely dinner and spent a lovely evening together. When you are in love, everything is lovely. Because of Paul’s belief in Joanie’s vulnerability and because he was already on the precipice, he fell madly in love with Joanie that evening. And as far as Joanie was concerned, she had never met a boy like Paul before, plus he was so handsome. But most importantly, Joanie had looked into his soul in the way only a woman can, and saw the man she wanted to spend the rest of her life with; Joanie also fell head over heels in love that night.
Meanwhile, back at the other ranch, Tommy was chomping at the bit to call Paul. He wanted to get the caper going as soon as possible and get it into full swing. That little beauty of a Corvette he had already picked out called to him. And he sure as hell was not going to let her call go unanswered by leaving her on the display room floor of the dealership. He had to get his hands on that money no matter who he had to step on.
At precisely 9:01 am, Tommy dialed the number Paul had given him. The person who answered the phone seemed to think there was some mistake. Tommy was advised that, “Mr. Paul was still in repose, and if you would care to leave a number by which you may be reached, I am sure Mr. Paul would be more than happy to return the call when he awakens.”
Tommy simply said, “Nuts, I’ll call back,” and hung up the phone. What the hell was that all about? What’s this Mr. Paul crap?
As it turned out, Paul was from a very wealthy family of Beacon Hill stock. Who knew? It had been the old family retainer that Tommy had spoken with, and as with all old family retainers everywhere, he was loathe to awaken the young master.
It killed Tommy to wait, but wait he did—until noon that is, and then he tried again. If that goddamn wop ain’t up yet, I’ll kill him, but only after he opens the safe, thought Tommy as he redialed the number. To his surprise and delight, the phone was answered by the young master himself. How democratic of him.
“Hey, Paul, that you?” was Tommy’s way of saying hello.
“Yes. Hello Tommy. This is Paul.”
“Finally! You guys sleep all day?” And by “you guys,” Tommy meant Italian-Americans, though those particular words were not in his lexicon of phrases.
Not being aware of Tommy’s previous call, Paul was perplexed at Tommy’s initial statement. However, after speaking with him last night, Paul had decided to ignore Tommy’s non-sequiturs and get right down to business. Paul informed Tommy that his parents were having a lawn party at their Back Bay estate, though Paul used the word “home” rather than estate. Still, “a rose by any other name,” etc. He also told Tommy that he had invited Joanie and was sending a car for her. He concluded by saying, “Why not come out with Joanie and we can talk at some point this afternoon. The car will be at Joanie’s at 2:00 p.m.; the party is informal, just wear a sports jacket and slacks.”
“Okay, I’ll be there,” said Tommy.
“Fine. I’ll see you guys about three o’clock,” concluded Paul.
Just slacks and a sports jacket, what crap, thought Tommy as he hung up the phone. Well, I’ll only have to put up with the wop bastard a little while longer, but how am I gonna explain to Joanie the invite?
Tommy did not have much time, so he rushed home and got his single dress jacket. He did not know if it was a “sports” jacket or not, but it would have to do. He dressed quickly, slicked back his hair, and made a beeline for Joanie’s.
On the way there, he rehearsed his spiel until he had it down pat. His sister would not trip him up this time with her incessant questioning. He arrived at Joanie’s about 1:30. Good, he thought, this gives Joanie time enough to get all the shit out of her system before the car gets here. It would not do for the help to hear us bickering. Tommy just could not believe how his sense of humor had improved recently. Of course, it had not, but for Tommy to quip as much as he had in the previous twenty-four hours was quite an improvement … for him. He tried to enter the apartment in his usual manner, but to no avail; the door was locked, but this time he did not panic. In fact, he was quite the gentleman. He politely knocked upon the door and awaited a response. And he prayed that it would not be a typical Joanie response.
He need not have worried. The voice from within was as sedate as any that he had ever heard. “Yes, who is it, please?”
“Who the fuck you think it is? Open the damn door, sis.” Which she did immediately thereafter.
“What the hell are you doin’ here? Is it Halloween? What are you made up for?”
Tommy stepped into the apartment—uninvited—and simply said, “Tut-tut, sis, one question at a time, please.”
Without going into the gory details, the upshot of the siblings’ “discussion” was that Tommy did his usual lying and told Joanie that he and Paul had hit it off so well the night before that they had exchanged phone numbers. And that Paul had called him with an invitation to the party, suggesting that they both ride out together. Joanie knew Tommy was not to be believed one hundred percent. Hell, you were lucky if twenty percent of what came out of his mouth was the truth. But it was plausible, and besides, she did not have the time to beat the truth out of him. She figured she could either confront Tommy, or finish making herself beautiful for Paul. She chose the latter of her two options.
A few minutes later, there was a polite rapping at the door. “It must be the car,” said Tommy.
“No shit, Sherlock,” was Joanie’s only reply. The brother-sister team left the apartment and got into the Lincoln Town Car that Paul had sent for Joanie. They were off to their first Back Bay party—actually it was their first Back Bay anything. The ride out to the Back Bay was uneventful; each of them looked out their own window, deep within their own thoughts of the future, and spoke not a word.
There is no need to chronicle the events of that afternoon. There were only two developments, which are germane to our story. One was the meeting between Tommy and Paul, the other is what Tommy observed while mingling with the upper crust.
The former first:
Upon arriving at the Puglisie home, Paul took Tommy and Joanie up to the roof garden and introduced them to various people. After a few such introductions, Paul said, “Tommy, can you manage for a while? I want to introduce Joanie to my parents. Help yourself to the refreshments, and get to know some people. See you in a little bit.”
Tommy said to Paul, “Yeah, sure, go knock yourself out.”
Until Paul came for him an hour later, Tommy sat by himself at a table with a large umbrella, and seethed. Tommy was just wishing Paul dead for the umpteenth time as Paul walked up and said, “You picked out a good location; we won’t be disturbed over here. Joanie and my parents hit it off, I couldn’t drag her away. So, let’s get our talk out of the way while we can.” He then pulled up a chair and sat down as Tommy thought, About fuckin’ time, asshole.
“So, what’s up, Tommy? What do you need me to do?”
Tommy thought, Well, he does get right to the point. That’ll make things a lot easier. Then he said, “Okay, Paul, I’ll cut to the chase. I got a safe I need ya to open. There’s enough cash in it for Joanie’s operation.”
“I thought it was something like that. Have you cased the job thoroughly?”
“Yeah sure, got it all scoped out.”
“Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?”
“No, ask away.”
“First of all, where is this score?”
“It’s in an office building downtown.”
“How do you plan on getting into the building? I assume you want to hit the safe after business hours.”
“Wait a minute, let me finish. How many guards are there at night, if any? What are the shifts? What kind of safe is it? When was the last time you were in the building? Tommy, there are many things to know before you go into any place, let alone an office building in downtown Boston. Did you think any of this through?”
“I didn’t think so. During my time with my former employers, I picked up a little knowledge of how a job should go down. Now I’m sure you don’t want to take a fall, and I sure as hell don’t, so if you don’t mind, how about letting me plan this caper?”
“Sure, Paul there’s no ego involved. We’re doin’ this for Joanie.” But he was thinking, You’re damn lucky I need you, you fuckin’ wop.
Paul continued, “I’ll take you down to the library where you can write down all you know. The building name, the address, what floor the safe is on, name of the business in which the safe is located. In short, write down everything you know from your own research. I’ll go there tomorrow to check things out. You stay away. There are cameras everywhere nowadays, and even if you don’t see them, you have to assume they are there. The first thing the police will do after the heist is review the video. Have you been back there in the last ten days?”
“Good. Most machines can only hold seven to ten days’ worth of video before deleting it to make room for the new stuff. I’ll disguise myself somehow so when they do review the video, I won’t be recognizable. Your job will be to monitor the comings and goings of the security staff. You won’t have any trouble picking them out. After hours, they’re all in uniform. Take as much time as you need. If you see nothing at one entrance, say the front door for instance, move to another location to observe what’s going on, like the back, or side door. But stay at one vantage point for at least five hours. The guards, and we don’t know if there are any, that we are interested in will most likely come on duty sometime between four o’clock and eight o’clock. Do not go from entrance to entrance on the same day, you may miss something. And stick at it no matter how boring it gets. Try not to be conspicuous, wear a hat and sunglasses, carry a newspaper, and pretend to read it while keeping your eyes on the entrance. And stay with it until you know if there are guards, and if there are, the times of the shift change. Do you think you can handle that?”
“Yeah sure, but is all that really necessary? Can’t we just walk in some night, catch an elevator, and bust into the office? You’re supposed to be so good, we could be out of there in minutes.”
“No, Tommy. The safe may have an alarm, there may be guards in the building, any number of things, big and small, could land us in Norfolk for ten years or more. And how do you plan on getting into the building to begin with? Have you thought of that? They’re not going to leave the place unlocked just to make it easy for us. So let’s do it my way, okay?”
“Okay, Paul, you’re the boss,” said Tommy while thinking, Just wait till I get my hands on that hundred large.
As they got up and started for the house, Tommy said, “Let me ask you one thing, Paul.”
“Sure, Tommy, what is it?”
“With all this,” and as he said it, he moved his arm in an expansive gesture to encompass the house, “how did you ever get into safe cracking?”
“My best friend when I was growing up used to stay overnight sometimes when we were kids, and I would amuse him by opening the family safes … we have two. He would blindfold me and I would do it strictly by touch, with a little hearing thrown in for good measure. Later, when he hooked up with his crew, he told them about me. They eventually approached me and wanted to see what I could do. I agreed. I was kind of a show-off in those days. They took me to a number of stores in their neighborhood and asked the proprietors if they would allow the “kid” to try to open their safes. All agreed, and all thought there wasn’t a chance in hell I could do it. But I opened every one of them. I think there were six in all. A short while after that I received a call, asking if I would like to work for them on a piecemeal basis. I jumped at the chance. I was only twenty, and looking for adventure.”
Now on to the second occurrence of the afternoon that has anything to do with our story: It is what Tommy perceived concerning his sister and, to a lesser extent, Paul. Whenever they were together, Joanie was positively radiant. There was a glow about her, and Tommy had never seen his sister look more beautiful. The way she adoringly watched Paul’s every move, her eyes never left him for a moment. And Paul seemed to be as smitten with her as she was with him. Much against his will, Tommy thought that they did indeed make a nice couple. This observation of Tommy’s is brought up for one reason, and one reason only; it was the defining moment of our story, as we shall shortly see.
The next day, Tommy was on the job, complete with Sox cap, sunglasses, and newspaper. It is not certain that Tommy could read a newspaper, but he had one nevertheless. That first day, he sat across the street from the “objective,” Tommy’s new word for the building in which sat the object of his desire—the safe with the hundred large in it.
His base of operation was a small park, and on that first day of observation, Tommy was sustained by his enthusiasm. He was 007 on the case, but halfway through day two of the stakeout, he faltered. He thought to himself, I’ve been watching that goddamn door for a total of six hours, and it seems like six weeks, and I haven’t seen one fuckin’ uniform to save my fuckin’ life. Fuck this, I’m gonna get me a beer. And with those thoughts, the career of Tommy 007 came to an end. He lifted himself from the bench upon which he was sitting and walked two blocks to an Irish pub. It was in this pub that Tommy performed the remainder of his stakeout duties—not only for that day, but for the rest of the week.
Paul had said it would be better if they had no contact while they did their “homework.” They would meet up at the end of the week, compare notes, and come up with a final plan. On the sixth day, Paul called Tommy to set up a meet. “You got a favorite pub?” inquired Paul.
“Yeah,” answered Tommy, “Sully’s on Broadway and …”
“Never mind, I know where it is,” said Paul. “Let’s meet there at four this afternoon.”
“Alright, I’ll be there,” was Tommy’s comeback before hanging up.
Tommy got to the meeting place early; he had been sitting in a pub all week, aching for action. Paul? Well, he had been working all week to ensure everything went smoothly and that they did not end up in jail.
Paul arrived a few minutes after four, saw Tommy, approached him, and sat down. Before Tommy could utter a word, Paul said, “What about the guards?”
“No sweat, no guards,” answered Tommy.
“Okay, then we’re ready. We’ll do it tomorrow night.”
About fuckin’ time, thought Tommy.
Paul continued, “Here’s the set up. Number one, we meet here tomorrow night at ten thirty. Wear two layers of clothes, one light and one dark. Have the dark clothes on top. No jackets. The reason is that if there is a problem and a call goes out to the cops, we’ll be described as two guys wearing dark clothes. But what we’ll do is remove the outer layer as soon as we’re out of eyesight, and then split up. So the cops will be looking for two guys wearing dark clothes, and we’ll be single individuals in light clothing. Next, we’ll park half a mile from the building. If there is a problem and we do have to split up, we’ll rendezvous at the car.”
Paul handed Tommy a small package saying, “These are disposable latex gloves, you’ve got three pair. Tomorrow night just before entering the building, put on one pair. They may rip; if so, do not take off the ripped glove—put another on right over it. Your hands will sweat in those and DNA can be taken from sweat. Although I think it unlikely they would do a DNA test just for a simple robbery. But why take the chance? Once outside, after the job is done, take the gloves off. It wouldn’t do to be walking down the street wearing them. But keep them with you until we can dispose of them down a storm drain.
“The lock to the door in which we’re going to gain access to the building is a Schlage. I went to an associate from my old days, and he made me a master key for that door, and for the door to the office in which the safe is located. As to the safe, it’s a Humboldt 850, a piece of cake. I’ll have her opened within two minutes. Also, I could detect no wires leading up to it, so there’s probably no alarm. But even if there were, seeing as there are no guards, we can still be out of there before any cops arrive. The only drawback is the elevator; we’ll probably spend as much time in it as we will in opening the safe. That reminds me … there’s a camera in the elevator on the left side, up in the corner. From the time we enter the elevator until we exit, keep your back to that location. When we have done what we set out to do and leave the building, the first thing to do is, as I’ve said, take off the gloves. Then we will walk away slowly, like two guys on their way to the Red Line. Okay, Tommy?”
“Man-o-man, you sure did your homework. I don’t usually say this to the guys I do business with, but it’s a pleasure to do business with you,” said Tommy, a wide grin upon his puss.
D-Day finally arrived for Tommy. He could not wait to meet Paul, so he got to the meeting place two hours early. When Paul arrived, he was in a somber mood and simply said, “Let’s go.” Tommy shrugged his shoulders, what did he care? He was feeling exuberant; finally, after running around looking for an angle, not finding one, coming across Paul, and then scheming to involve him, he was probably not more than an hour away from the score of a lifetime.
Paul had rented a car when he first hit Boston and they decided to use it for the caper instead of Tommy’s. They drove in silence into downtown Boston, each lost in his own thoughts, Tommy thinking of the easy life that lay ahead for him, Paul thinking of Joanie. They parked a few blocks from the objective, as both men had come to refer to the caper’s location.
Still nothing was said as they exited the car. The two men, one of whom would never be the same again after this night, walked to the locale, which housed the aspirations of each man, though the aspiration of each was quite different. When they arrived at the utility door located at the back of the building that was to be the locus of their entrance, Paul said not a word; he put on his gloves and looked to make sure Tommy did the same. He then removed a key from his right pants pocket and unlocked the door. Before opening the door, he turned to Tommy and whispered, “Just follow me and do what I say.” By this time, Tommy had stopped thinking his wise-ass retorts to everything Paul said. His contempt for the guy had turned to awe.
They entered the building. Paul knew there must be cleaning crews around somewhere. His plan was to avoid them if possible, and if not, he and Tommy would play the part of tenants working late. Of course, the rubber gloves might arouse some suspicion. However, it was Paul’s experience that those who work overnight cleaning office buildings avoid looking directly at any tenants they may encounter. For the most part, they desired no trouble, and just wanted to finish their work and go home.
They made their way to the elevators. After pushing the call button, Paul softly said, “Remember, from the time we enter the elevator until we leave, keep your face pointed to the back right-hand corner. You will be facing backwards so it will be on your left. And back out when we get to where we are going.”
When they got into the elevator, and again when they reached the desired floor, Tommy did everything he had been told, letter perfect. Which made two accomplishments for Tommy: He had finally listened to someone who knew more than he did, and he finally did something letter perfect.
Upon leaving the elevator, they headed for the office in which sat the safe that had caused these two—who could not have been more dissimilar if they had been born on different planets—to come together. When they reached their goal, Paul took a single key from his left pants pocket and unlocked the door. He then put the key back into its original resting place.
There was nothing left for them to do but enter and claim their prize. Paul entered first, with Tommy a close second. Paul turned on the lights and Tommy exclaimed, “What the hell are ya doin’?”
To which Paul replied, “If someone were to walk by while we were in here and saw a flashlight bobbing around, what do you think would happen? Those doors are not opaque. Sure, the glass is frosted, but light passes through them. If the overhead lights are on, anyone passing by will think that the tenant inadvertently left them on, or perhaps someone is working late.”
Paul turned his back to Tommy, walked over to the safe, and knelt down in front of it. From his back pocket, he extracted a well-folded, seemingly small cloth bag. But when unfolded, the dimensions measured twenty-four inches deep and eighteen inches wide; it had a drawstring at the opening. Paul handed the bag to Tommy and said, “Hold this and put the money into it as I hand it to you. Now just stand there.” Paul was not in the mood for any of Tommy’s shenanigans, and Tommy for his part was happy to oblige Paul in any way possible.
Then Paul got to work opening the safe. After about a minute, Tommy heard, “Damn” coming from the general vicinity of Paul. Tommy immediately issued this prayer, Shit; not now. God, please, we’re so close. Just let me have this one score and I promise I’ll go to mass every Sunday for the rest of my life. Tommy need not have worried; by the time he had finished his prayer to the Almighty, the safe was wide open.
“Tommy, hold the damn bag over here where I can reach it,” complained Paul. Tommy made a mental note not to pray during capers in the future, it ruins one’s concentration. Paul reached into the safe and brought out stacks of currency, all one hundred dollar bills. He proceeded to dump the stacks of money into the bag as fast as he could. To Paul, there seemed like there was a lot more than one hundred thousand dollars, but he was not about to stop to count it now.
Once the safe was empty of cash, Paul told Tommy to draw the bag closed. He then stood up and Tommy noticed that Paul had been sweating profusely. “Anything wrong, Paul?’ questioned Tommy.
“No, I always get like this when I’m stealing from people. Now get to the elevator and hold it, we want to get the fuck out of here as fast as we can.” Tommy did a double take, thinking, The poor son-of-a-bitch must be nervous, I’ve never heard him cuss before. Aloud he said, “Why, aren’t ya coming with me?”
“I’ll be two steps behind you. I want to make sure we leave the place clean. We don’t want to make it too easy for the cops.”
Tommy started for the door saying, “Hurry up, I wanna’ get outta here.” Paul said nothing. Tommy walked down the hall and turned the corner, heading for the bank of elevators. Just as he rounded the corner, he heard something that didn’t sound right. It was a jingling sound, sort of like the sound keys make when hanging from a person’s belt. Tommy’s first thought was, Naw, that can’t be right. But, just to be safe, he flattened himself against the wall and peered around the corner. What he saw froze his heart; it was a uniformed security guard. A goddamn fuckin’ rent-a-cop!
Tommy’s first instinct was to run. Why not? He had the money. But something held him in place momentarily. He chanced another glance around the corner at the approaching security guard. The man was standing in front of the door Tommy had just exited. He was looking at the still opened door. He hesitated for a moment, and then walked through it. When Tommy saw that, he turned and ran for the elevator, entered, and pressed the button for the ground floor. In spite of his fear, he had the presence of mind to keep his face averted while in the elevator. When the doors opened on the ground floor, Tommy made a beeline for the door he and Paul had entered through just moments before. He reached the door and went through it, leaving it ajar, and found himself in the alleyway before he knew it. He took three steps toward the street and was stopped in his tracks by an invisible force. Try as he might, Tommy could not put one foot in front of the other. The force had a sure grip on him. His feet were rooted to the cement upon which he stood.
The force not only held him in place, it entered his mind. Tommy started to think of his sister, Joanie, and how happy she had looked in the late afternoon sunlight, standing by the pool the day of the party. He also thought of Paul, how the man had trusted him to ascertain if there were guards or not; and how he had given up after only one day, and sat in a bar for the rest of the week. Paul believed in him, had trusted him. With these thoughts of Paul and Joanie swirling in his head, Tommy did something he had never done before in his life; he felt real responsibility for another human being. Not the phony responsibility of being Joanie’s protector, that was more about him then it ever was about her; but real, honest to God, if-I-don’t-do-something-that-person-will-come-to-harm responsibility.
Paul is up there in deep shit because of my fuck-up, and Joanie would be miserable without him, were his thoughts as he looked down at the moneybag he still gripped tightly in his right hand. Suddenly, the bag started to heat up … it was scorching his hand; he had to fling it to the ground to avoid serious injury. The moment the moneybag hit the ground, Tommy was released from the force that held him. He was now free to move, and move he did—right back through the utility door for the third time that night. As he reentered the building, Tommy took off running for the elevator. When he entered the elevator, more out of habit then anything else—it was surely not by conscious effort—Tommy kept his eyes on that right-hand, rear corner. Because what Tommy had in mind, it would not matter if his face did end up on the video.
Tommy left the elevator at a run, but slowed as he approached the still open door to the caper office. Once again, he peered around a wall. This time he saw that the guard had a firm grip of Paul’s left bicep, and was trying to dial a phone with one hand, while keeping a wary eye on Paul. Paul for his part was very passive, his thinking being, If there is one guard, then there must be others. Why even try to make a run for it? All this guy has to do is pick up the phone and call his buddies and the whole damn building will be sealed off.
Tommy, not knowing what was going through Paul’s mind, thought, You stupid motherfucker, just run! Then he concluded that if any positive action were to take place, he would have to do it. He instantly came up with a plan, which for Tommy was rather remarkable. However, much like Tommy, the plan was simple; but in this particular situation, the simpler the plan, the more chance of its success. As just stated, the plan was simplicity in and of itself: Tommy would exchange himself for Paul. Without further thought, Tommy catapulted himself into the room and took a flying leap, tackling the guard at waist level.
As the guard and Tommy tumbled over a desk, Paul stood transfixed, staring at the brawl taking place before him. From somewhere within the din he heard, “Get outta here you stupid fuck! I’ve got this under control.” The words stopped at that point, as Tommy tried to wrestle the guard under control. Then the words continued, “Go, get outta here! I’ll meet you at you-know-where.” Tommy had suddenly become a thinking machine, he did not use Paul’s or Joanie’s names. Tommy was protecting them. Which the Tommy Callahan of one half hour ago would not have even entertained, much less have thought of doing. He had no plans to meet anyone anywhere, except maybe the police. He wanted Paul safe for Joanie. Paul finally got the message. He figured the physical stuff was Tommy’s forte, so as a man of perspicacity, he left the situation in the hands of an expert and departed the premises.
After Paul had left, Tommy continued to struggle with the guard until he had the man on his back and himself sitting astride his chest. Once relatively settled, Tommy said, “Calm down, ya fuckin’ bastard. Ya still get to be a hero, only now ya got me instead of the other guy.” Still the man fought, and the more he fought, the less charitable the “new” Tommy felt until he could take it no longer. He let fly a haymaker right to the man’s chin. Well, that put a stop to the commotion right then and there. At this point, Tommy found himself sitting on top of an unconscious man. It took but a moment for him to realize that there was no earthly reason keeping him in that accursed room any longer.
As Tommy walked out of the office, he thought to himself, Fuck the goddamn elevator, I’m takin’ the stairs. In minutes, he was down the stairs and through the utility door for the fourth time that night. The only thing on his mind was to get to the Red Line and to the safety of Joanie’s apartment. He was three blocks away before he remembered the money. When it slowly dawned on him that he had left it in the alley, he momentarily considered going back for it. However, the new Tommy won the debate with the old Tommy. He shrugged his shoulders and proceeded to the train.
Within forty-five minutes, he was standing outside Joanie’s door, and this time he gently knocked upon it. The door flew open immediately and Joanie rushed to embrace him, and there were tears in her eyes. She said nothing, just tugged him into the apartment with a firm grip on his arm. The first thing Tommy saw upon entering the apartment was Paul sitting on the couch with a big smile on his face. Paul greeted Tommy by saying, “Hey, buddy, that was some pretty heroic stuff you pulled back there.” Tommy was too spent to respond; he flopped down on the nearest chair and sighed.
As Joanie dried the tears from her eyes and slowly recovered her composure, she started to get angry, as only she could, until there was a full-blown hurricane by the name of Joanie raging within that small apartment. The winds started to blow when she bellowed, “You goddamn motherfucker! What do you mean, pulling my Paul into one of your sorry-ass capers? I’m gonna fuckin’ kill ya, Tommy Patrick Callahan.” The eye of the hurricane was passing as she finished those words, so there was a momentary calm. However, as with all hurricanes, the eye passes quickly and Joanie resumed her rant. “Do you know ya could have gotten yourself and Paul killed? Or at the very least have me goin’ to Norfolk once a month to visit ya two assholes.”
Joanie was about to continue when Tommy held up his hand in the universal sign for stop. He affirmed everything she had said by saying, “Sis, ya absolutely right. I learned my lesson tonight. Tomorrow I go out and get a fuckin’ job. My caper days are over. And, Paul, I’ve gotta tell ya somethin’. That was crap about Joanie needing an operation.”
“I know, Tommy. It took less than an hour for me to reach that conclusion. I knew almost right away you were conning me. But by then I had decided to marry your sister. So I thought I would go along with you to keep you out of trouble. I did not want my brother-in-law doing hard time. But the funny thing is, it was you who saved my bacon.”
Tommy looked sheepish as he declared, “Well, it was my fuck-up that led you to believe that there were no guards on duty.”
“There is always that,” opined Paul, “but everything worked out for the best.”
Tommy nodded his head in agreement, but could not help saying, “Yeah, but we woulda been able to walk away with the money if not for me.”
Paul looked at Joanie and they both smiled. Tommy, seeing the smile that took place between the two, said, “Okay, I’m a lousy crook. All the trouble I went through to set up the score, and for what? For squat, that’s what. Go ahead, rub it in. I deserve it.”
Paul asserted, “We’re not rubbing anything in; we’ve got the money. It’s here behind the couch, but it’s not one hundred thousand dollars.”
Tommy found it hard to get too excited about Paul’s news. “Even if it’s only fifty thousand, half of it is yours.”
“No, it’s not fifty thousand either. Joanie and I counted it while we waited for you. There is two hundred thirty-seven thousand dollars in that bag behind the couch. And it’s all yours. Joanie and I have no need of it.”
Tommy’s mouth fell open and his eyes grew wide before he said, “But, Paul, ya a working stiff, ya gotta buy nice things for Joanie. Please take at least half of it.”
“Listen, Tommy, the insurance company I work for is owned by my family. Joanie and I will do all right.”
“Well, no fancy cars for me. I’m takin’ that money and buying into a pub.”
With that declaration, Joanie threw her arms around her brother saying, “You know Paul and I will be living in Chicago?”
“I’ll come out and visit you as often as ya let me, but one thing I don’t understand. How’d you end up with the money, Paul?”
“As I came out of the building and into the alleyway, there it was, just lying on the ground. So I picked it up and brought it here.”
“I’ll be a goddamn son-of-a-bitch!” said Tommy.
Note: As to the mysterious force that held Tommy in the alley, that was Love; some call it Agape, the plutonic, unselfish love that asks nothing in return. Tommy “The Rat” Callahan had indeed finally found Love—and so had his sister.
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