Authors: Robert Grossbach
“I said, how’s about we all go on a stickup? It’s foolproof. If it works, we’ll be in great shape. If not, maybe they’ll give
us three years… maybe… and that would be free room and board and when we’d get out we’d each have thirty-six Social Security
checks waiting for us. And that, by the way, adds up to eight thousand, five hundred and thirty-two bucks… apiece. Not a bad
hunk of change. Maybe we could all put it together and buy one of them newspaper and candy stands in one of them big buildings
in Manhattan. A friend of mine’s son bought him one and he lives pretty good. But what the hell am I talking about that for?
That’s only if we get caught… and I don’t think we’d get caught.”
WARNER BOOKS EDITION
Copyright © 1979 by Warner Books, Inc.
All rights reserved.
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New York, NY 10017
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First eBook Edition: November 2009
For Joe Seinberg, who taught me
all I know about erasing.
It had been four years since Joe had last eaten dogfood. Cycle Four had been advertised as especially suited for “the older
pooch, the dog who may have difficulty chewing, who may not get around like he used to.” That’s me, Joe had thought sardonically.
The older pooch.
He hadn’t liked it. “I’ll take Alpo or Carnation any time over that crud,” he’d said, and Willie and. Al had laughed, although
it wasn’t funny. Joe had been a braggart. “I was eatin’ dogfood before it became popular,” he’d crowed. He was the most adventuresome
of the three old men, or the most foolhardy, depending on one’s point of view. It was Joe who had proposed they all move into
one apartment. “Share the misery,” was his phrase.
“I don’t think I can get along with anybody,”
said Willie, and he went on to explain that thirty-nine years of driving a cab had soured him on humanity. “Not that you guys
aren’t the best, dearest friends a man could have,” he added, “but, still,
with you…” He lowered his head and, with a peculiar, horse-like motion, shook it from side to side.
Al was not too hot on the idea either. “Never did room with anyone,” he explained. “Man or woman.”
“How about beast?” asked Joe.
“That neither,” said Al, “although I did have some plants. I like my privacy, you know. That’s why I’d never go into one of
them nursin’ homes.”
Joe had rolled his eyes skyward. “So you’d rather stay where you are, is that it? Keep the status quo. Tell yourselves that
two hundred fourteen dollars a month is really providin’ ya with ‘social security.’ You feel secure, walkin’ down the streets
of Corona? You feel secure lyin’ in bed with a fever, not able to afford a bottle aspirin? You feel secure wearin’ the same
trousers for two weeks in a row, because you can’t take your other pair out of the cleaners till your check comes? Does it
give you a good rush to see some mutt on TV diggin’ his snoot into the same thing you just ate for dinner?”
Willie and Al remained silent.
“Ah, but our sensitive personalities
not harmonize in one large apartment,” continued Joe, “so we better let it go. Preferable to continue on like we are.” He
shrugged. “Oh well, it was just a thought.”
Of course, it was only a matter of time before he had reasoned and shamed them into it. Joe was a master at that, Mr. Hard
Guy and Mr. Softy rolled
into one aging, wrinkled body. They’d found a four-family house in Astoria, just off Ditmars Boulevard. It seemed perfect—a
kitchen, living room, three bedrooms, reasonable neighborhood, good shopping, close to Manhattan. Rent was three fifty-five,
steep but not impossible. The landlady was a nasty bitch, but so what? They were ideal tenants—quiet, no children, income
guaranteed by the U. S. government. They signed a three-year lease.
Al and Willie’s fears about group living had not materialized. The benefits of steady companionship, of mutual care, outweighed
the minor loss of privacy. When one man was cranky or irritable, the others learned to leave him alone. When one was sick,
the others helped take care of him. They went to movies together, sat in Astoria Park together, accompanied each other to
the mailboxes in the hallway, and then to the bank. Once Joe had brought a woman up to the apartment, but she hadn’t stayed
overnight. For the most part, things went quite well… until the economy soured.
In the mid-1970’s a crazy thing happened—simultaneous unemployment and wild inflation. The Arabs cut off oil. Fertilizers,
which require oil for various steps in their manufacture, skyrocketed in price. Which led to increased costs for grains. Which
led to meat shortages, and made beef unaffordable for great numbers of Americans. Farmers were killing their chickens because
they could not absorb the cost of feeding them. There was a depression, yet prices did not come down. Those who suffered most
were those living on fixed incomes.
Joe, Willie, and Al found themselves living on pasta. “Spaghetti for breakfast, lunch, and supper,” Al complained. “My body
is starting to look like a
noodle.” The movies had to be eliminated; even at senior-citizen rates the prices were too high. Once again, the old men found
themselves scrimping on medicines, wearing clothing till it had holes in it, not running the exhaust fan even on hot summer
nights. When the new lease came up, the landlady wanted four hundred twenty-five dollars a month. “And I can get it,” Mrs.
Flaum had snapped. “If not from you, then somebody else. I got people waitin’ for this place.” They’d signed a two-year renewal.
Their social security payments were now two hundred thirty-seven dollars a month, an increase of about ten percent over three
years earlier. During that time, of course, the cost of living had risen thirty percent. Even pasta was becoming a luxury.
On the night the men shared their first package of dogfood, eating quickly and ashamedly in glum silence, Joe found himself
unable to sleep.
A couple of the day’s events had stimulated him so much that he lay wide awake in his bed, tossing uncomfortably in the darkness.
He felt righteous anger. He was seventy-eight years old, had worked hard all his life, had never accepted welfare. If society
was going to reduce him to living like an animal, eating an animal’s food, he would retaliate. Someone, somewhere, he knew,
was making a bundle on his misery. He felt this to be a law of economics—average wealth remained constant. Increases in productivity
were offset by increases in population. If some bastards were raking it in, piling up profits, it was because he, Joe, and
people like him, were on the verge of starvation. Time for us to get ours, he thought. Old is not dead. At least not yet.
After an hour and a half, he climbed out of bed, walked through the darkened hallway, and entered
the kitchen. He flicked on the light and scanned the small counter for a pencil. His mind was whirring like an eggbeater.
Why not? he thought. Desperate people have always taken desperate actions. The operative principle was:
Nothing to lose.
It was the idea behind murders and revolutions. Besides, thought Joe, this has an advantage. This will be fun. He located
a tiny stub of a pencil, sharpened it to an irregular point with a kitchen knife, and sat down at the table. He retrieved
from the trash pail and placed it in front of him. This was the second time this newspaper had been removed from the garbage;
Al had found it that morning in a waste basket in Astoria Park. The men referred to that particular basket as the “newsstand,”
since it was their primary source of newspapers. Joe carefully wrote the multiplication example in the margin: 237 x 36.
He mumbled as he worked out the answer; 8532. He grinned. He checked his work, stood up, and sat back down. “Eight thousand
five hundred thirty-two dollars,” he said aloud. He replaced the pencil stub on the counter, shut out the light, and started
back toward the bedroom. Although it was still early September, the night was chilly; Joe, dressed in shorts and sleeveless
undershirt, should have been cold. But the figures had left him pleasantly warm. His mind burned with a thousand plans and
calculations and fantasies. He returned to his bed, not to sleep but to dream.
Al poured the steaming water, and the coffee crystals dissolved to a rich brown liquid in Joe’s cup.
Joe had gotten up an hour earlier than usual; already he was showered, shaved, and dressed. Normally he strung these activities
out slowly, a way of using time, making the day pass. But not today. Al gently pushed the cup toward him.
“Thanks,” said Joe.
Al filled Willie’s cup.
“Thanks,” said Willie. He stared at the coffee a moment, then looked up. “Lemme have a little more water.”
Willie was finicky. Sometimes after Al poured the water, Willie would add several more crystals of instant coffee to get the
strength just right. Sometimes he’d actually
“You want I should get an eyedropper?” said Al.
“Don’t be a wise guy,” said Willie. “Just pour.”
Al gingerly tipped the ceramic pot.
“That’s good!” said Willie quickly. “Perfect.”
Al nodded, then filled his own cup. He put the pot back on the stove and returned to his seat. Joe and Willie added milk to
their coffee; Al took his black. The three drank in silence. Today was not a “toast” day; the coffee would constitute their
entire breakfast. Four days of the week, they allotted themselves one slice of white bread each. The remaining days were devoted,
as Al put it, to “keeping trim.”
“Must you sip so loud?” asked Al teasingly as Willie drank.
“Why, you got something better to hear?” said Willie. “This is my enjoyment.”
“For your birthday I’ll buy you a straw,” said Al.
Joe smiled as he looked at them. “How you fellas feeling this morning?” he asked.
“What’re you, a nurse?” said Al.
“Maybe he wants to take our temperatures,” said Willie.
“Aw, come on,” said Joe. “Give a guy a break. I was just interested in how my two best friends were doing.”
“Well, I’m doing fine,” said Al. “I’d be better if not for Willie’s sipping, but I’m still pretty good.”
“Willie?” said Joe.
“Well, that’s good to hear. Me, on the other hand, if I gotta spend another day doing nothing but sitting around in that park,
looking at them ugly kids, I’m gonna go nuts.” Joe pushed his cup away, and swallowed nervously before he voiced the idea
that had kept him awake most of the night. “How’d you guys like to go on a stick-up with me?” he asked.
The germ of the idea had generated spontaneously in the crushing boredom of the previous day. It began as a feeling, an intense
desire for change, something to break the routine, no matter how good or bad or irrational.
The park where the three men were setting in spite of its openness, might as well have been a cage. The bench was their perch.
And they themselves were tired denizens of an urban zoo, rotting away in captivity. Willie fed the pigeons with a piece of
moldy bread he’d found in the garbage. Al read his
And Joe sat staring out into space. Behind them, children laughed and screamed as they ran through the shower of a water
sprinkler. Young mothers rocked infants in carriages, talking about the price of meat, or their husbands’ new jobs, or the
start of school. It was 11:30 in the morning, and the old men had already been there for two hours.