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Authors: Jerome Charyn

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I didn't wear as many muscle tee-shirts after the Brando mania began to fade. I modeled turtlenecks, bow ties, sport coats, vinyl jackets, or whatever leapt into the national clothing craze. I never saw Beth Bacharach again, and I wondered if she was on the scrap heap of worn-down Rosenzweig models.

Needless to say, I lived in the “narrow” of a schoolbook and the blinking eye of a camera. But I did have one friend, also a freshman at M&A. Miles Neversink. He was a runt, and I would protect him from certain seniors, who might have preyed upon Miles, except that I was tall for my age and had the Tartar cheeks of Rembrandt's Polish Rider—I would return to that portrait at the Frick whenever I had the chance, since it was like looking at some ancestor of mine, with his quiver of arrows and his riding crop.

Miles' dad, Arthur Neversink, was the most celebrated criminal lawyer in Manhattan; a menace in open court, he could flay any government witness, but he couldn't keep Frank Costello out of jail. Prosecutors were still frightened of Arthur. And policemen waved to him whenever they saw his silky white hair. There were rumors that he'd once been a taxi dancer in Hell's Kitchen and that Costello himself had sent him through law school. But I also heard that he'd grown up on the Grand Concourse, that his father had been one of the most prominent manufacturers on Seventh Avenue. I suspect he didn't need Frank Costello's largesse to finance his legal career.

He lived in one of those Art Deco palaces on Central Park West with gangsters and Jewish millionaires who had been shunned by all the palaces on Fifth Avenue and now formed their own incredible clique. They were the new lords of Manhattan. Much of the West Side was still a slum, but they had their golden mile across the street from the park. And there were no muggers or highwaymen along this golden mile. Not because of the police. Frank Costello lived in the same Art Deco palace as Arthur Neversink, lived there on his short furloughs from jail.

That building would soon become my second home. On some evenings I was driven directly from Rosenzweig's Seventh Avenue fortress to the Neversinks on Central Park West; it saved a long trip back to the Bronx. Even when I arrived well after midnight, the Neversinks weren't asleep. There were dinner parties every evening. The main attraction wasn't the mob lawyer himself, but Mrs. Neversink.
Miranda
. She must have been in her mid-thirties at the time. She had sultry gray eyes that seemed to beckon you onto her own private moon. Her hair was slightly unkempt. She always wore a man's shirt and slacks that had never seen an ironing board.

She was a patroness of the arts. That might not have impressed most people, but it had a magical soupçon for a boy who studied painting and lived in the shadow of Vincent van Gogh and his avatar from Wyoming, Jackson Pollock. She had plenty of Pollocks on her walls. She'd sat with him at the Cedar Tavern, shared his little cigars, long before he was known. Miranda had given him pocket money, and Arthur had helped him out of legal scrapes, since Pollock constantly got into fights during his Cedar Tavern days, pulling women's hair, battling with bartenders, as I imagined Van Gogh would have done had he lived in the twentieth century.

I never saw Pollock at the Neversinks' dinner parties. I only saw his paintings, with their lashing rhythm, as if colors could cry out—I would close my eyes and crash right into those time bombs on the wall. And then Miranda would pull me right back into her own terrain. Her musk was enough to make me sick with excitement. I was crazy about her men's shirts. I wish she could have modeled them in Rosenzweig's catalogues. That Seventh Avenue Dracula would have made a killing.

Miranda cursed like a longshoreman. It didn't come from her husband's gangster clients. It was from having been the companion to a band of rogue painters—Pollock, Rothko, de Kooning, Kline—the new gangsters of American art. Her pale eyes would be puffed out whenever I returned from Rosenzweig's after midnight. She would begin to sway.

“Kid, didn't I see you somewhere?”

I was bewildered. I thought she hadn't recognized me in her alcoholic haze. “I go to school with your son,” I said.

“No, no, not that,” she muttered. “I've seen your face—Arthur, isn't he a handsome boy? My Adonis.”

She didn't mean Joey Adonis, Costello's partner in crime, who was looking after business while Costello was in the clink. She meant that minor god who was born with such hot looks he had to spend half the year with Persephone, queen of the underworld, or he would have been seduced by every goddess in ancient Greece.

Miranda must have had Persephone's prescience. A week later I was listed in Rosenzweig's catalogue as “Adonis.” I had a page to myself, posing in jockey shorts and muscle tee-shirts with a brooding look. It seems Count Dracula had a lucrative sideline as a pornographer and a pimp. He sold shots of me to wealthy war widows, that is, women who had lost their husbands during World War II. He offered me a hundred-dollar bonus if I'd have dinner with one of these war widows.

I also graduated from the photography studio to the showrooms and the salons, where I could prance around on a platform in my muscle tee-shirt, under the same blinding lights. I wasn't allowed to wash up or change my clothes after these performances. Rosenzweig would slick back my hair, as if he were grooming a prize pony, and with a plum-colored velvet jacket over my muscle tee-shirt, I would climb into the limo, where a war widow was waiting. There was nothing sordid about these assignations. I would have dinner with the war widows in a rear booth at a northern Italian restaurant on Ninth Avenue. I later realized that the restaurant was owned by Frank Costello, and that these widows had lost their husbands in some gangland version of World War II. They might hold my hand at dinner, but nothing more than that. They were all stunners in their thirties and forties who weren't permitted to marry again, according to some unwritten rule of gangland lore. These widows “slept” in the coffins of their slain husbands.

They couldn't work, but they could go back to school. The widows were as hungry to learn as hawks. I told them about Jackson Pollock, how he lived in the dizzying uncertitude of his art, how his explosion of splotches on canvas was Pollock's own avalanche of pain.

We drank wine that arrived in a cradle and cost a hundred dollars a pop, even if I was too young to drink. We ate chopped salads in silver bowls, broccoli brushed with burning olive oil, glazed carrots, goat cheese, and a hazelnut cake cut into two leaning towers, while we sipped coffee with a
tinto
—stain—of hot milk.

One of the war widows grew impulsive and kissed me on the mouth while we were in the limousine. She begged me to take off my muscle tee-shirt. I did. She brushed my body with her fingers as a blind woman might have done, memorizing the details of my skin. She dug one hand under my belt and caressed the hair on my belly. Then she started to whimper.

“You mustn't think I am wicked,” she said. “But it's been so long, and I have forgotten how a man feels. . . . You won't tattle on me, will you, my darling Adonis? They'll lock me up for a month.”

I stroked her cheek, and she leapt back like a startled deer.

“You mustn't,” she said, “or I'll explode like Mr. Pollock.”

Her name was Louise. I never saw her again. I hate to think that Frank Costello punished her from his federal prison in Pennsylvania. But it was all very confusing to me. I'd become a little whore for the mob; I'm fairly certain that Costello or Joey Adonis had an interest in Rosenzweig's catalogue company. But as Rosenzweig himself had predicted in front of
The Polish Rider
, I was getting rich.

Bankbooks leave a trail, according to Rosenzweig, so I kept my cash in a shoebox under my bed. In the Bronx, circa 1953, we paid our bills with money orders. And because I was busy day and night and my mother was half-blind, and my father too forlorn to be much of a courier, the burden fell on my kid brother, who was nine. He had to dole out cash to the landlord and buy money orders at the savings bank. Soon he was my surrogate.

But the Adonis of Seventh Avenue was falling apart. I could wing it at school, and I didn't mind modeling under the lights, or having my own page in the catalogue. It was the monkey business in the limousine, that powerful eroticism of touch and no touch. I'd grown fond of the war widows and their sad tale of being buried alive. I gobbled up their sadness until it became mine. Miranda must have sensed my inky disposition, and she tried to pull me out of my own skin. She was having a shindig, a gala for indigent artists, and she wanted the two of us, Miles and me, to help her make and serve the hors d'oeuvres.

The shindig was set for that Saturday night, and so I feigned illness and begged off work at Rosenzweig's. I didn't want to sit in a limousine with another war widow, dine in a secret alcove at Villa ——, burn my lips on coffee stained with scalding milk. I spent the whole of Saturday afternoon with Miranda and Miles. First we had lunch on her balcony—smoked salmon on bread roasted in her oven—while we looked upon the greensward of Central Park, with its lake that was like a lopsided heart, and at the alien world of Fifth Avenue. We belonged to that clan of West Siders who never wore watch fobs or attended debutante balls. We had galas for indigent artists.

It was the most splendid afternoon I'd ever had, preparing hors d'oeuvres with Miranda and Miles. Miranda told me a little about her life. She had come to Manhattan with her parents from the Dominican Republic when she was twelve, had lived on the Upper West Side, where she played ping-pong and chess and attended Joan of Arc Junior High, which had more geniuses per square foot than any other school in America—scientists, writers, artists, musicians, theologians, rabbinical scholars.

“Miranda, did you go to Music and Art?”

And suddenly there was a look on Miranda akin to Pollock, as if she were privy to a hundred little explosions under that beautiful mask of a face. Why did I think of Beth Bacharach, the bombshell who had disappeared from the Bronx? But Miranda wasn't Beth. Miranda could recover from whatever wound she had.

“I wasn't lucky,” she said. “My
papi
died. I had to go to work. I quit high school.” Now she smiled, with only a hint of Pollock's pain. “It
was
Music and Art. Where else would I have gone? A Latin bagel baby. The school had opened that year—our castle on a Hundred and Thirty-fifth. None of the painting studios were ready. We walked around in all the debris. We had to set up our easels in the hallways. I loved it, that wonderful reek of turpentine. I left in the middle of my second year. The counselors all cried. They worried about what would happen to their bagel baby. But she survived. Look at this! A palace over Central Park. Two gorgeous boys.”

She hugged Miles and me, tousled our hair. And we helped her glaze the cupcakes; we rinsed the cherry tomatoes, chopped cucumbers for the gazpacho, put Gouda and shreds of smoked salmon on the crackers, chilled the white wine. Miranda went to fix herself. And when she came back, she wasn't wearing a man's shirt—she was Persephone in a black dress. All the pluck had gone out of me when I saw that black silk cling to Miranda, her bared shoulders like two soft wings, while her arms moved with the dexterity of a magician's uncoiling sticks.

I didn't know any of Miranda's indigent artists—I hadn't struggled enough in any craft to call myself indigent. I couldn't lash out with a rhythm of my own. I had none. My canvases looked like explosions of porridge. But I served Miranda's hors d'oeuvres. Then the doorbell rang, and there was Count Dracula. He was startled to see me. And I was no less startled. But it all made sense, particularly if Frank Costello was financing the catalogue business and wanted an occasional Adonis for his war widows.

“Little one, I thought you were in the Bronx nursing a cold. And what's your connection with Madame Neversink?”

Before I could utter a word, Miranda whisked me away.

“He's poison,” she said. “I don't want you to have anything to do with that guy. He's my husband's partner. I never invited him here.”

But how could I avoid Rosenzweig? My livelihood depended on him. We would have been on welfare without his catalogue company. And when I caught him whispering in Miranda's ear, I teased out the connection between Rosenzweig and her. That's where she'd gone after a year and a half at M&A—into Dracula's catalogue. She must have modeled brassieres, like Beth, and graduated to the showrooms, which meant dinner dates with manufacturers and mobsters who muscled out other cataloguers, and a bit of syncopated prostitution under Seventh Avenue's veil.

And that's when Arthur entered the story, as Frank Costello's man. It wasn't so hard to imagine. Call it 1938, and Frank Costello is the crime lord of Manhattan, with a finger in every racket, including Rosenzweig & Co. He asks his lawyer to check things out on Seventh Avenue,
Shmatahland
. Arthur saunters into the showroom, expects to find a bimbo in leopard-skin slacks, and discovers Miranda instead. She's eighteen and bored to death with the whole business of modeling, of having to wrestle with mobsters in midtown hotels. And he has to make a very quick calculation. He recognizes the burn of intelligence in her eyes, and her beauty, defiant and timid at the same time. Either he grabs her away from this street of rags or he'll lose her to some manufacturer. He proposes on the spot.

She smiles at him. “Mr. Neversink, we haven't even met.”

“Makes no difference,” he says.

“What if I can't come up to your expectations?”

“Then I'll suffer,” he says.

As a wedding present, their Uncle Frank offers them a duplex in his own West Side apartment-palace. Costello has been fuming. He can't even rent a closet on Fifth Avenue. His long beak isn't welcome there. He plans to wage war against Fifth Avenue, kidnap doormen, set canopies on fire. Arthur has to talk him out of it. “They'll win, Mr. Frank.”

BOOK: Bitter Bronx
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