Authors: Robert Grossbach
“Yeah… well… I think a bank would be pretty good,” said Joe.
“As Willie Sutton once observed, ‘That’s where the money is,’ “ commented Al.
“I say, we might as well go all the way,” continued Joe. “Banks are often lightly guarded, their funds are concentrated, and
you can find times when there’s hardly any people in ‘em.” He looked at Willie. “An’ one very important thing is that no
little guy ends up gettin’ hurt. Banks are insured by the government for exactly the kind of thing we got in mind.”
Willie tilted his head. “You wouldn’t rob our own bank, would you?”
“Nah,” said Al. “That would be foolish. Why pick one in the neighborhood? They know us here. Besides, if we succeeded, I’d
lose all my confidence in them. I’d never deposit any more money.”
“We’ll take a ride into the city,” said Joe. “We’ll do it tomorrow. We can ride around the whole day. Must be a million banks
“Sounds good,” said Al.
“To you, everything seems wonderful,” said Willie. “If I said, ‘Tomorrow, we all die of cancer,’ you’d say, ‘Sounds good.’”
“Sounds good,” said Al.
Joe turned to Willie. “You gonna come along with us for the ride?”
Willie met his gaze for a moment before lowering his eyes. “Yeah… I’ll come with you.” He glanced up. “But no funny stuff!”
“None,” said Al.
“Serious business only,” said Joe.
The three men stood up. “I bought some cans of stew,” said Willie.
Forget stew,” said Joe. “I say, tonight we eat out. We celebrate.”
“Celebrate what?” asked Al.
“Our coming good fortune,” said Joe.
Willie shrugged. “Suits me,” he said. “I don’t have to tell you what we’ll be eatin’ all next week, but if you guys wanna
live it up tonight, I’m in.”
“Okay,” said Al. “Will it be 21 or The Four Seasons?”
“I’d prefer McDonald’s or Burger King,” said Willie.
“We’ll compromise,” declared Joe.
They settled on a White Castle.
It’s 1907, and Alan McGuinnes is born in Summer’s Point, a small resort town in southern New Jersey. Business in his parents’
luncheonette is not good that year and the number of free-spending vacationers is way below usual. Still, the family hangs
on, and in the next years things get better. Al’s father works seven days a week, and in 1910 manages to acquire a small,
two-story house, which he converts to a hotel. The mortgage is small, and the family is able to make ends meet.
Amusements are simple: a short train trip for a day in Atlantic City, a walk on the beach, a perusal of the Sears Roebuck
catalog. Alan learns to play the banjo and harmonica, does a great rendition of “Waiting for the Robert E. Lee.” After school,
he helps out in the luncheonette, jerking sodas, waiting
tables. His idol is Ty Cobb, the famous baseball player. The major issues of the day—corrupt city governments, labor abuses,
tariff policies—seem remote and unrelated to his life, although one day in 1919 a strange thing happens. A group of belligerent,
sign-bearing women barge into the hotel and demand that Al’s father stop serving wine at the small bar off the lobby. Al’s
father is at first amused, then irritated, and he attempts to throw the women out. There is a scuffle; eventually the women
leave. Through it all, Al notices a very pretty young girl near the rear of the lobby. She is holding a sign but, looks passive
and out-of-place. He observes that she seems uninterested in the proceedings; instead, she watches him.
Her name is Mary Doyle, and she and Al go together for four years. Al loves her. He tells her they will be married when he
is eighteen, but in 1923 Al’s father abruptly makes an announcement: They are moving to Florida. A feverish real-estate boom
is under way. He has made a deal to purchase a luncheonette in Coral Gables; in the back, says Al’s father with a laugh, are
complete facilities for brewing now-illegal beer. Al is heartbroken. He and Mary say tearful good-byes, promise to write,
The move is made, and business is good. Coral Gables is the “American Venice,” a subtropical middle-class paradise. The back
room of Al’s parents’ store is expanded. Al is a singing waiter. He plays the banjo when Gilda Grey, the famed shimmy dancer,
comes down from Chicago for a three-day booking. The homey luncheonette speakeasy grows increasingly successful; even millionaires
from Palm Beach and Boca Raton come to visit to see what all the fuss is about. Occasionally, they and other customers
throw Al money, but he refuses to pick it up. The owner’s son doesn’t take handouts, he thinks. Let the other waiters do that.
Wine is added to the beverage list (Al’s father mixes water with a processed grape jelly called Vine-Glo; after sixty days
it is potently alcoholic), and then smuggled rum. Al sings, to the customers’ amusement:
Mother makes brandy from cherries;
Pop distills whisky and gin;
Sister sells wine from the grapes on our vine—
Good grief, how the money rolls in.
And then, suddenly, it stops. One night, a certain rotund “millionaire” turns out to be wearing a disguise. He is actually
Izzy Einstein, the famous Prohibition agent. During the raid that follows, the premises are reduced to rubble in an orgy of
bottle breaking and furniture smashing. Under the provisions of the new Jones Act, passed in 1929, Al’s father is fined five
thousand dollars and sentenced to jail for three years. He dies in prison after four months. Al, however, has made a connection.
The “businessmen” who furnished the smuggled rum from the Bahamas need people to transport it to New York. Al’s mother and
sisters have no income; it is up to Al to be the breadwinner. He makes fifty-four separate trips in three different Packards,
their back seats and trunks bulging with bottled booze. Financially, he does quite well, especially considering that the country
is in the Depression, and nearly everyone else is out of work. In 1933, however, the Twenty-first Amendment is passed. Prohibition
is repealed, and the need for liquor smugglers is over.
Al is nevertheless able to connect again, this
time as a bartender at a Bronx speakeasy he formerly supplied. He has an outgoing personality, and the customers like him.
He has arm-wrestling and headbutting contests with the patrons. The latter, in which two men stand inside a painted circle
with their hands behind their backs and try to force each other outside the boundary, become a big local draw. Al’s boss increases
his salary. Al bets on himself, wins a little money. He brags: “I take these popcorns for everything they’re worth.” This
is meant in more ways than one; Al is not averse to relieving a thoroughly drunk customer of some extra cash. Occasionally,
he even steals from the cash register. After all, he thinks, I’m supporting my family, and that comes first. In 1938, a Greek
soccer player butts Al unconscious and fractures his skull. Al’s boss pledges to rehire him when he comes out of the hospital,
but does not keep his word.
Al doesn’t worry. For a month he sells Christmas trees, then lands a bartending job at the Bilt-more Hotel in Manhattan. He
is still lovable, still a free spender, still enjoys a good time. Twice a week, after work, he and a bunch of friends make
the rounds of the whorehouses on MacDougal Street in the Village. One day in 1943, Al spots a face that is wrenchingly familiar.
The woman, on her way to one of the bedrooms with a john, tries unsuccessfully to hide.
They talk. He asks why she stopped writing, why she never answered his letters. She explains how she met someone else, married
when she was seventeen, divorced, and married again. “He was killed at Pearl Harbor,” she says vacantly.
Al sees her a few times, but feels vaguely uncomfortable, and finally he breaks it off. The fact is, a lot of girls are crazy
about him, and he is having too much of a good time to think about settling down with anybody. The metal plate in his head
(from the butting accident) has made him ineligible for the Army; while America’s young men are overseas defending the country,
he will see to it that their women are kept happy. In 1952, a tiny article on page twenty of the
catches his eye:
Prostitute Murdered in Village.
Al sees the name: Mary Doyle. Stabbed to death by a customer. His melancholia lasts for nearly a week.
Always, he is a ladies’ man, but always he remains unattached. Photographs show him on city beaches—Orchard, Brighton, Coney
Island—with a beauty on each arm. He bartends at many different hotels, many different restaurants. He is happy-go-lucky,
a free spirit, “no permanent obligations,” as he puts it. In 1979, Al is seventy two years old. He has high blood pressure,
arteriosclerosis, and frequent headaches. He still has no permanent obligations. His income from Social Security is 237 dollars
Three Puerto Rican kids entered the car at the Thirty-sixth Avenue station and immediately set up shop near one of the doors.
While the oldest, a teenager, knocked out a furious beat on a set of dilapidated bongos, the other two—a boy and a girl who
appeared to be less than ten—did a frantic series of shimmies, tap steps, cartwheels and handsprings down the center aisle.
Then the younger children made their way among the passengers, collecting the proffered coins.
“How old are you?” asked Al, when the boy stood in front of him.
The child had the honey-brown skin of the Caribbean Latin. He wore a loose, torn cotton shirt that exposed his dark, skinny
chest, and one front tooth
had been jaggedly broken off. He held up nine fingers.
“Nine?” Al said.
The boy nodded shyly.
“Barely older than Kevin,” muttered Al. “You dance very well,” he added loudly.
“Come on,” Joe prodded, “give him his dough. He’s waitin’ to go to the next car.”
Al, who had been groping in his pocket for a quarter, decided on a dollar. He put the bill in the boy’s hand. Imagine if it
Kevin, he thought. Go-in’ through trains like this.… These kids probably don’t eat if they don’t get a certain amount of
said the boy.
“You’re a good lad,” said Al. He reached out to pat the boy’s head, but the child had already moved on.
“Probably make a fortune, those kids,” said Joe, when the troupe had disappeared into the next car.
“There’s the germ of Joe’s next idea,” said Willie. “The Three Dancin’ Old Men. Al, you can play the ocarina, while me an’
Joe does a soft-shoe in the aisles.”
“Sounds good,” said Al.
The subway train rocked and rumbled on its way to Thirty-ninth Avenue. It was late morning, past the rush hour, and not too
many people were riding. The inside and outside of the car were covered with elaborate graffiti. Willie scanned the messages,
which were mostly obscene insults, and was amazed, not by their subject matter but by the artistry with which they had been
created. Giant red, blue, and yellow letters, painted by seemingly accomplished calligraphers, covered almost all the
wall and ceiling areas. It seemed strange that such gifted artists chose to express only the most banal sentiments.
“Wha?” Willie looked up as he felt Joe’s elbow nudging him.
“It’s great to be doing something, huh?”
Willie’s expression remained pensive.
“Come on,” chimed in Al. “Admit it.”
Willie raised his eyebrows slightly. “All right, I admit it. But only because you’re forcing me.” His smile was barely noticeable.
At the station, a very skinny old man entered the car. He was carrying a paper shopping bag. His chest was so concave, and
his back so hunched, that he looked like a question mark without the dot. When the doors closed, he tottered toward a seat.
“I hope I never look like that,” whispered Joe.
look like that,” said Al.
Joe punched him lightly on the arm. As the car lurched, the old man stumbled. Quickly, Al leaned forward to steady him. The
train accelerated just as the man began to regain balance; once again he fell back, and once again Al gave him support. Al
remembered a children’s story he’d recently read to Colleen; it was about a beautiful princess marooned on top of a glass
hill. Would-be saviors would mount furious upward charges, only to slide sadly and inexorably back to the bottom.
Al stood up and put his arm around the old man’s shoulders. “Damn motonnen nowadays,” he said. “They don’t teach ‘em how to
drive proper anymore.” He steered the man toward a seat.
“I’m going shopping,” said the man. His voice was a thin, dry rasp.
“I see,” said Al.
“I’m seventy-three years of age.”
“Nice,” said Al. He waited till the old fellow was comfortably settled before returning to Joe and Willie.
“Thank you,” the man called after him.
Al waved. “Too bad we can’t take him along with us,” he said to Joe.
“Too old,” said Joe.
“He’s younger than you.”
“He’s too young, then. He can barely move. I think in a strong breeze he’d blow away like so much dust.”
“A shame,” said Al.
Joe shrugged. “What can you do? I felt like him two days ago.”
The train crossed over the Queensboro Bridge on the way to Manhattan. Far below, even in the bright sunshine, the East River
was a cloudy blue-brown, gentle swells too muddy to reflect much light. Barges and tugs dotted the length of the waterway;
ten thousand toy cars clogged the East River Drive. Ahead, the sky was crowded with the thrusting spires of the city.
“I used to swim in that river,” said Willie.
“You did?” said Al.
“Sure. When I was a kid. We lived in Long Island City then, about a block from this bridge. Every summer afternoon you’d have
maybe twelve, fifteen kids in the water.”
“Bet it was a lot cleaner then,” said Joe.
“Oh, it was cleaner,” agreed Willie, “but you’d still have the river rats to look out for. Sometimes I’d raise my face from
the water, and next to me
would be this big, ugly snout—large as cats they were—twitching, covered with fur.”