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Authors: Jerome Charyn

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BOOK: Bitter Bronx
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“How?” asks the king of crime. “Arthur boy, they don't got the muscle.”

“But they have something else—tradition. They have created their own invisible wall. Try to breach that wall, and your whole gang will disappear. They tolerate us, Mr. Frank, as long as we destroy
our
precincts. Enter theirs, and we'll all strangle to death.”

“Ah,” said Costello. “My Einstein, who keeps me from getting strangled.”

And the king went off into his galaxy of crime, far from Fifth Avenue, while Arthur prospered and Miranda gave birth to Miles. He kept returning to Rosenzweig's showrooms, looking for whores, while Miranda gravitated to the Cedar Tavern. She ran with Pollock, became Rothko's muse. That much I would learn from Miranda. She was still in love with her errant mob lawyer, who had proposed to her before she could catch her breath and figure out who the hell he was, and she still had a fondness for Uncle Frank, who would send her a dozen roses on her birthday and continue to plan his assault on Fifth Avenue.

I
slid deeper and deeper after that shindig. I didn't mind slaving for Rosenzweig and Frank Costello. I just couldn't bear the cloistered lives of those war widows. Why didn't they rebel, flee from their coffins? But there wasn't a trace of rebellion in their bones. I'd become the doll they could dine with and fondle in the back seat of a limousine. I soaked up more and more of their sadness, the suicidal indifference to their own fate. I faltered at school. I could scratch out compositions under that rattling lamp of the limo, but I was frozen in my studio classes. I couldn't paint. I'd lost my belief in Van Gogh's missing ear—it seemed like madness, not the mystery of great art.

I still had a mountain of cash under my bed. My strutting in the showroom, on Rosenzweig's little runway, had pushed us out of poverty. But I, and not Miranda, was Beth's secret accomplice. I had inherited her mortally wounded look.

And one afternoon, while I was on Rosenzweig's runway, under the sweltering lights, I heard a ruckus. I thought the cops had come to take revenge on Costello and all his enterprises for having dared to covet Fifth Avenue. But it wasn't the cops. It was Miranda in her man's shirt. She ripped out the wiring of the lamps; glass splintered on the floor; bulbs shattered. I listened to Rosenzweig rant and roar.

“Darling, you could go to jail. Mr. Frank won't take kindly to this.”

“And you,” she said, “shouldn't have a high school student become your whore.”

I emptied out the little locker I had at Rosenzweig's, with all my schoolbooks, and then Miranda drove me uptown in her Lincoln Continental. She wasn't addicted to chauffeurs. She preferred her own saddle, she said. But she drove like a wild woman, weaving through traffic, cursing at cab drivers. She started to laugh—and cry.

“Aren't we a pair, kiddo? Two whores on the lam.”

And that's when she told me about her former life at Rosenzweig & Co. The manufacturers who danced with her like drunken bears while she fell asleep in their arms, the mobster who couldn't make love until she strapped him into a corset . . .

“But Miranda, you could have worked in a linen shop.”

“Kiddo, it would have come to the same thing—customers ogling me and bosses patting my derriere. I was available meat until Arthur happened along, pretending to be the big bad wolf. He swept me right out of Rosenzweig's rooms.”

“The way you did with me.”

“Didn't I tell you? A couple of whores on the lam.”

We roared up the West Side, went into a coffee shop on Ninety-fifth, near Joan of Arc. It was one of those Manhattan sugar bowls where schoolkids spent half their lives. But it didn't jump at night, even with a jukebox. This sugar bowl was a somber place, with darkened booths and sinister coat hangers shaped like hatchets and bulls' horns.

“I lost my cherry in one of those booths,” she said. “I was a precocious kid.”

I couldn't quell my own curiosity. “Who was the culprit?”

“My art teacher at M&A. He lived across the street with his wife and three girls. He was the neighborhood Gauguin. He was going to abandon his wife and run to Mazatlán with his canvas stretcher and me. . . . He's still wallowing on Ninety-fifth.”

Both of us had lime rickeys. You have to nurse a limey rickey along until the syrup begins to settle, and you have to sip it from a straw, or you'll never get that delicious sting. Miranda and I made out a little. It was nothing serious. She was in love with her Concourse lawyer, and I was one more Adonis who happened to be her son's best friend. But I did taste the tartness on her tongue.

She found me a job at a haberdasher's on Broadway. I was the local celebrity, because the other salesclerks recognized my picture in Rosenzweig's catalogue. But my celebrity soon wore thin as we had to compete for sales. They were sharks who could land a customer much quicker than I ever could. I borrowed from the owner, fell into debt. I stopped going to Music and Art. The haberdasher's ate up more and more of my time. And I had no limousine service. I had to ride the local in and out of the Bronx. Each stop was a kind of purgatory. Freeman Street. Simpson Street. Intervale Avenue . . .

I did have a rescuer, and oddly enough it was the king of crime—not Costello himself, but one of his custodians. Count Dracula. He entered the shop with that whitewashed complexion of his, and all the clerks began to shiver. The haberdasher's couldn't have survived without his catalogues.

He halted in front of the shop's spindly owner. “I believe this young man owes you some gelt,” he said, without ever pointing to me.

“It's nothing, Mr. R., honest to God. A trifle.”

“A trifle?” Rosenzweig said, tossing him a wad of cash tied with a rubber band. “Shame on you, Paulie, taking advantage of such a fine young fellow. An artist, even. He's my own discovery. I met him at the Frick.”

And then Rosenzweig came to my counter, his nostrils widening, as if he meant to suck all our men's furnishings into his nose like some magnificent anteater.

“Have you had your fill of selling cuff links? How long haven't you been to school?”

“Two weeks, Mr. Rosenzweig.”

“A month,” he said. “Did I ever keep you away from your books?”

He started to cry in front of the salesclerks. “Look what's become of you! You'll die here without the sunlight. We can't make do without our Adonis.”

And the negotiations began. Count Dracula was all about negotiation, nothing else.

“I won't have dinner with war widows.”

“All right,” he said. “I'll say you're allergic to food. But you'll meet with them for fifteen minutes, right in the showroom.”

“Ten,” I said. “Not a minute more.”

I collected all my things and went out the door with Dracula. We drove down to
Shmatahland
in his limousine. The streets were cluttered with men and boys wheeling enormous carts of merchandise—Seventh Avenue had a hum I've heard nowhere else, the sound of human traffic spinning off the walls of buildings, bouncing up and down, until the air itself was swollen with a soft, incessant noise that entered showrooms and factories right under the roofs. I wasn't sentimental about my stay in
Shmatahland
. I was a high-priced prisoner of war. But there was nothing diabolic about that noise. It was the hubbub of angels, brutal and busy, but angels nonetheless.

ARCHY AND MEHITABEL

I
'd never heard of Archy and Mehitabel. The idea of a cockroach who could write poetry would have appealed to a kid from the Bronx. But I had to wait until I attended high school in Manhattan before I would learn about that cockroach and his companion, an alley cat who thought she was Cleopatra. The kids at Music and Art would quote line after line of Mehitabel's meditations while I nodded my head.

“Toujours gai, kid.” That was her love cry to the cockroach.

I was smitten by Archy and Mehitabel, and by the swagger of all those M&Aers from Manhattan's Upper West Side. The boys wore white bucks, shoes that looked like anteaters or rumpled rats and were the favorite footwear among Ivy Leaguers. These boys had one ambition: to get into Harvard or Yale.

The girls weren't that different. They scribbled poems at night and practiced their acceptance speech for the Pulitzer Prize. I had a secret crush on one of them—Merle Messenger. It happened in the fall of '53. We were both sophomores in the same English class. She was tall and
zaftig
, with the ripeness of an opera star. She sang in the school choir and could have walked right into Julliard. But Merle didn't want a career in music. She wanted to teach world literature at one of the Seven Sisters. She read with a terrifying appetite. She had lavender eyes, like Elizabeth Taylor, and when she talked of Mehitabel or Natasha in
War and Peace
, those lavender eyes had all the little explosions of the Milky Way.

I was mute around Merle. The Bronx had very small purchase on West End Avenue. And I was startled when she asked me to study with her.

“You'll give me courage,” she said. “I always shiver before an exam.”

And so I visited Merle on a Friday night in November. It was like entering Ali Baba's den. The building had a doorman in a gray uniform, and elevator operators in identical gray. I had to announce myself. I was summoned into the lobby. One of the elevator men pulled on a golden lever and we shot upstairs in an ancient, shivering car.

Merle's mother met me at the door. She was president of the PTA at Music and Art. Her name was Yvonne. She wrote novels for young adults. Merle's father was a book critic for the
World-Telegram
& Sun
.

He clapped his hands and Merle came out of her room. She was wearing slippers and gorgeous blue pajamas under a silk robe—that's how she dressed for a study date. Her mom and dad didn't even notice.

“Yvonne,” said the book critic, “look what Merle has done. She's brought us Jerry Salinger's double. Doesn't he have Jerry's big ears?”

It's true. I did have big ears—and Salinger's brooding, dark demean.

“Ah,” said Mrs. Messenger, “leave the kid alone. He's interested in your daughter, not J. D. Salinger.”

Salinger reigned over the Upper West Side; half the kids at M&A knew his stuff by heart. But it took me an entire month to grasp that “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut” and “The Laughing Man” were short stories rather than pickle merchants at the Jennings Street Market.

I walked hand in hand with Merle through an endless maze of dark rooms—West End Avenue had all the light of a sepulchre. And finally we came to her room, which was almost as large as our apartment in the Bronx. It had two beds, a sofa, and a desk near the window. Merle didn't believe in preludes or preambles. She undid her robe and let me glimpse at her partial nakedness in pajamas that almost served as a second skin.

She meant to play Manhattan's own alley cat and seduce a cockroach from the Bronx, but I was as much of a trickster as Merle. I moonlighted after class. I was a male model for a Seventh Avenue clothing cataloguer, Rosenzweig & Co. Girls were always running around the showroom in their panties and peekaboo bras. Romances would flare up behind a photographer's curtain. The whole place was a tinderbox.

It took me a while to understand the mechanics of Merle's household. Her mom and dad didn't like her running around to parties with college boys and coming home after midnight, smothered in mascara. They weren't snobs. I went to Music and Art and looked like J. D. Salinger. That was enough of a résumé.

I saw Merle once or twice a week, stayed over, and had breakfast with her mom and dad. But I was on a tightrope, since I had no time to read the books they talked about at the kitchen table—Kafka and his castle, Cervantes and his crackpot of a knight, James Joyce and the river that rattled through his bones.

Merle was the snob, not her mother. Whatever delight we took in the wonderful warp of our bodies didn't carry over to M&A. I wasn't included in that web of friends she had. She mocked me in our English class when I fumbled for the right word.

“What Jerome is trying to say, Dr. McCloud, is that Hamlet is dangerous to all mankind—he kills on the advice of a ghost. He'd marry his own mother if he had half the chance.”

No one could argue with Merle. Literature was her own private tablet and proving ground. She could talk about a text as if she were in the middle of making love. Her sentences were a kind of intelligent delirium.

My hair began to fall out. Rosenzweig, the catalogue king, gave me a special shampoo. He sniffed the air with his huge nostrils, looking like Count Dracula with a whitewashed face. But he was gentle with me. I was his most successful protégé.

“I'm in love,” I said.

Rosenzweig had a quick solution. I should overwhelm my sweetheart with
his
largesse. It sounded like a military operation. But I was desperate and listened to Dracula. I announced to Merle that we were going on a real date—beyond her bedroom. She wasn't very pleased, but she must have been curious. I showed up on West End Avenue in a maroon sport coat from Rosenzweig's racks. Merle was waiting for me in high heels and a miraculous silver gown. Her lavender eyes weakened whatever will I had. I was her Archy, the cockroach who couldn't type capital letters. And she was my myopic Mehitabel.

BOOK: Bitter Bronx
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