Big Johnny O and Why I Almost Missed Breakfast

[written November 2017]

Muggy nights, I always had a hard time going to sleep. My old room felt alien now. Home from college for a brief visit, the walls seemed too close, the smells too familiar in an uncomfortable sort of way. The light came through the edges of the door to the kitchen; apartments in New York were always poorly designed, as the cost of comfortable design was too great for your average city-dweller to bear.

I think I was half-awake when I heard rustlings in the house. At 2 am, what was going on?

I slowly opened my door to find my father standing across the kitchen, buttoning his shirt. His trousers were pitched neatly over the back of one of the kitchen chairs as he stood there in his shoes and socks and boxers.

“What’s up, dad? You okay?”

“Stanley, what are you doing up? I was trying to make no noise, not wake you and mother.”

“Well, I’m a light sleeper, dad, you know that.”

I think he remembered then; he and my mother would be up late playing cards at the kitchen table, the edges of the cards making a distinct click when they hit the Formica, and with me yelling from the bedroom for them to go to sleep already, I had a big test in school the next morning. They must have loved when I decided to go to college “away,” so they could stop tip-toeing around the selfish sensibilities of their darling son.

“Yeah, sure,” he said. “I gotta go out.”

“What’s the matter?”

“Nothing, I told you nothing is the matter.” He looked at me and saw he was not going to get away with the answer. “Okay. Johnny O was arrested. They have him down at the Tombs, lower Manhattan. I have to bail him out.”

“Uncle John? When did this happen? What did he do?”

“He just called me. Good thing it didn’t wake up your mother. She stirred but I grabbed it before it could ring a second time.”

“He called you at two in the morning?”

Dad looked up with a smile. “Yes, he called me at two in the morning. Why are you so shocked? When you get arrested in the middle of the night, you’re supposed to call your lawyer with your one dime. Who would you call, pray tell? Your girlfriend?”

“Wow. This is sort of exciting. How much is the bail, dad?”

He was pulling his pants on with one hand, steadying himself with the other. I was sure I misheard him.

“How much?”

He cinched his belt, some of the trouser fabric gently rolled over the top, prodded along by a small roll of fat. “I said, one million dollars.”

“Holy shit, that’s a lot of money.” Looking back today, to 1961, it was really a lot of money. Who wanted to sleep, get up the next morning and read Spinoza, when people were in jail and their bail was a million dollars.

“What the fuck was he arrested for,” a question which elicited an annoyed glance followed by a single word, “murder.”

“Murder? Really?”

My father had a sardonic side and lack of patience for stupidity, which made it all the more amazing that he loved me so much. “Yeah, murder. Here’s how it works: you steal it’s ten years, you shoot and miss its twenty years, you shoot and hit the guy and he croaks, that’s a million in bail and they fry you. No one can make a million dollars bail.” A pause. “Well, some people can, and those guys call their lawyer.”

I turned back into my room. “Wait a minute, I’m comin’ with you.”

“It’s no place for a kid. And keep your voice down, you’ll wake your mother. She’s not feeling well, you tell her when she gets up.”

I am already pulling up my jeans over my sweaty shorts. “No, I’m coming, dad. Write her a note.”

In a minute I am fully dressed: trousers, T-shirt, sneakers no sox, old Dodger baseball cap. “I’m ready.”

“Don’t you have homework, Stan? Don’t you think you should get a good night’s sleep and do your homework. You need to get the grades to go to law school.”

“Dad, I told you I’m not going to law school and this is exciting, I’m not going to miss this.”

And so we are in my father’s big grey Buick Roadmaster, with those big ugly fins and bench seats wide enough for four people, and all of a sudden I realize we are driving on the Belt Parkway and we are going East, away from Manhattan.

“Dad, you made a wrong turn, you’re headed out to the Island.”

“No, it’s okay, that’s where we’re going first.”

“Dad, why are we going to the Island when Uncle Johnny is in jail in Manhattan?”

Now he was really grinning, the grin visible weirdly in the greenish glow from the impressive instrument panel with all those extra dials for RPMs and FM radio and new air conditioning, all those things that had boosted the cost of our shiny Buick all the way up to four grand.

“Thought you’d never ask,” he said. “Guess what? When the call came in and I looked in my wallet I said to myself, Joseph, I said, will ya look at that? You shoulda gone to the bank today like you intended. Because you don’t have a million dollars in your wallet so what are you gonna do about that?”

Never occurred to me. “Hey, dad, so what are we going to do?”

“I called ahead to Johnny’s house. Well pick up the money there and go into the City.”

“Oh, okay,” I thought to myself and a minute later it occurred to me that not a lot of people had a million dollars sitting around their houses and I was about to ask when I remembered about Uncle Johnny and his house about half the size of our apartment building, with the security gate out front with always a man in the booth, and the interminable green lawn sloping all the way down to the Long Island Sound which seemed a million miles away, and I thought to myself that, yeah, would not surprise me if Johnny O had a million or so lying around the house, just in case he decided to buy another boat or fly to Italy or, well, just decide to shoot somebody and get arrested.

A half hour later we pulled up to the gate, which was still closed, but there were five or six men standing behind it, which was odd but then again visits to Uncle Johnny always were — different. One of the men slipped out between the fences, which opened for a moment, and stepped towards the back door of our car.

“Just don’t sit there, Stan. Open the door lock.”

“What? Wait, sorry.” I twisted around and pulled the locking pin up. The man stepped silently into the back seat. He was carrying a small dark leather satchel which he placed on the seat beside him. The seat depressed a good deal; the bag must have been pretty heavy, I thought.

All of a sudden the car was moving. There was no discussion, no one had said a word. It was all awkward, so I turned around and stuck out my hand. “Hi,” I said, “I’m Stan and this is my….”

“Shut up, will you, Stan?” It was my father’s voice, a bit loud I thought and clearly full of annoyance.

I turned my head, my body still twisted towards the back seat, arm extended and not yet shaken.

“Stanley, just turn around and face front and forget about the man in the back, will you?”

I looked over at my dad, who gave his head a jerk, back to front, just to make sure I had understood which way he wanted me to move. In the glare of an oncoming headlight, to this day I can swear that he was rolling his eyes upwards because of my gaffe.

So for forty-five minutes we drove in total silence. There were few cars on the road. We came over the Queensborough Bridge, never so empty as at almost four in the morning, and zoomed downtown, pulling up in front of a dirty grey building that could only be either a prison or a New York City public school. My dad stopped under the “No Standing” sign. I guess he then realized it was going to be strange to just leave me in the car alone, although at this point I had no idea what to expect.

“So how about you go inside and make bail,” he asked as casually as if he were asking me if I wanted another pickle with my pastrami on rye.

“What do you mean,” I heard myself ask, devoid still of comprehension.

“What I mean is I want you to step out of the car. The gentleman will hand you the satchel. You will walk through those two doors right there, and turn right, and go up a few steps, and you will come to another set of swinging doors. You will walk through those doors and you will see a desk with a policeman behind it. You will tell him why you are there, and he will ask you for the money and you will give it to him, and you will wait. When Johnny comes into the room, you will not say anything. You will then turn and walk out with him.” He paused, and then that same grin. “And you need not tell Johnny what to do, he will know it will be time to go.”

I managed an “uh-huh,” or at least I think I did, and stepped out into the waning night. Somewhere the sky was beginning to lighten, but in the City you never could tell directions, the buildings always blocked the geography, you just got the light or the dark or the rain or the shine down on the street, coming between the towers from some location you did not know.

Our passenger stepped out of the back of our car and held out the bag, which I took. I was afraid to say “thank you,” and my silence seemed to be the wise choice as he silently turned away and walked slowly down the street towards Broadway without looking back.

I turned towards the building, and sensed my father waving his hand at me, pointing in the direction of the doors. Sure enough, in the first set, right turn, four steps, more doors, and then an incredibly bright room, neons hanging in profusion from the ceiling, and straight in front of me a very tall desk, dark wood, and a fat policeman sitting on what must have been a high stool behind it.

He ignored me, which was strange as the place was totally empty and still. I waited. I cleared my throat. I was obviously doing this incorrectly. “Excuse me, officer,” I croaked. My voice was cracky and high, not the tone I had hoped to convey.

“Yeah, kid, whaddaya want?” I did not earn his looking up. He seemed to be reading something, although perhaps he was just studiously disrespecting me. It occurred to me I should have thrown on a suit jacket before leaving my bedroom, but it was a bit later for that now.

“I’m here to bail out Johnny O,” I said with confidence.

“One million,” he replied, as if asking for a ten-spot. He still had not favored me with his gaze. All I saw was the top of his cap, and the pink jowls of his lower face.

I reached up, holding the black leather case. It was very heavy, it took all of my strength to lift it a couple of feet upwards.

“Fa Chrissake,” he said, finally looking in my general direction, “take the fuckin’ money outta the bag, will ya?” Apparently, I was so inept that I could not even manage to give someone a million dollars in cash at four am without screwing it up.

Speechless, I fussed with the clasps, there were two, and put the case on the floor as I could not really hold it up and deal with the neat clumps of bills. I reached into the case, bent at the waist, grabbed two handfuls of money, reached up to my eye-level to place them neatly on the top of the desk, bent and repeat, bent and repeat, my back and arms began to hurt, God there were a lot of bills to add up to a million dollars I thought and then thought well that’s no surprise is it, bent and repeat, bent and repeat, until finally the case was empty.

“That’s it,” I sighed, not even aware I was intending to speak.

The policeman stood. He looked old, really old, with a short white mustache, several chins, and what looked like female breasts underneath his sweaty shirt; the room was still and hot and he was not handling the heat very well. He swept the money off the desk with his forearm, and I could hear it dropping with successive thumps into a drawer. Then I heard another drawer open and the same thump-thump. I guess desk drawers in police stations hold about five hundred thousand each, they were not built for the bail for Johnny O.

I fought down an urge to ask him why he hadn’t counted it. I guess people like Johnny O are stand-up. They don’t chisel you on the bail money, I guess. What did I know? I was still in college….

I heard a rotary phone being dialed; three numbers, then an audible tinny ring. “Yeah, Hogan here. Bring the Guinea up, he’s been bailed.”

He looked up. “Sit down, kid. You makin’ me nervous.” He waved towards a wooden bench a few yards away where I sat for what seemed like forever.

Then a door opened at the other end of room and out walked my Uncle Johnny. One thing about Uncle Johnny, he always was well dressed. In fact, long time ago I asked him about his suits and jackets, I was just a kid but even then I thought his clothes were “unusual,” and he showed me some different fabrics up in his massive bedroom, you could walk into his closet, it was bigger than my bedroom at home, and showed me what hand-stitching looked like, I had never even known there were different ways to sew a suit but I saw that all my own clothing was not sewn like Uncle Johnny’s.

Johnny was wearing a blue pinstripe suit, alligator belt, pointy loafers, silk shirt, no tie. The usual, now that I think about it, but at the time all I could think of was that most people never in their lives looked that nice, forget about just stepping out of jail.

“Hiya, kiddo,” he said, and gently raised me from the bench and gave me a friendly push towards the door. ‘’

“See ya soon,” said the policeman as we reached the door.

“Fuck ya mother,” allowed Johnny O, all in his usual even voice, throwing the remark over his shoulder as the inner doors swung shut.

We walked without talking to the car; I was afraid to say anything and Johnny was not in the mood for chit-chat. Instinctively I opened the front door for him and Johnny sat right down in my old seat. I slid into the back. My dad rolled away from the curb.

“Rat, bastard douchebag,” said my Uncle.

“Later,” said my father.

And we drove down to the ocean, over near Floyd Bennett Field, before it was renamed Kennedy International, before the President was shot and eligible to have big things named after him, and no one said a word, and my Uncle’s head lolled back on the headrest and I could swear he started to snore, the gentle snore of the righteous.

Johnny awoke with the bump into the parking lot of a silver-bodied diner with a near-empty macadam parking lot, the shadow of the diner casting a long rectangle of deeper blackness.

“Good, I’m hungry.” Johnny stretched his short arms in front of him, then reached for his door.

“Me, too,” said my father, who was always hungry.

Wordlessly I opened my back door and was half-way out when my father walked around the car and looked down at me.

“Stay put,” he said.

“I’m hungry.”

“Just stay in the car, please. I have to talk to my client, and that has to be confidential. You can’t be there.”

I collapsed back into the seat and my father was gently closing the door when Johnny O’s head appeared. “Relax, Stan m’ man,” said Johnny O. “We gonna take care of you. You, you’re a real nice kid, ya know.”

“Thank you, Uncle Johnny,” came out of my mouth. He reached in and patted me on the cheek.

“Real nice kid,” he said with a smile, and then the door closed and I was sitting in a parking lot, in a dark car, all alone, with the sun now glinting over the reeds at the edge of the ocean, and a couple of gulls strutting over the pavement, pecking at what was left on the ground.

I must have dozed off but was awakened by a knock on my window. I looked out and two waitresses with little caps were standing outside, each holding a tray. I jumped out and handed the food onto the back seat.

“You got eggs scrambled, bacon, sausage. You got a bagel, rye toast, toasted English. Ya got a short stack of blueberry pancakes. You also got cheese blintzes, coffee, juice, chocolate milk.”

I just stared. Then I broke out in a big smile.

The other waitress smiled back. “The guy in the nice suit? He said you wanted to be alone but were hungry and didn’t know what you wanted so he ordered you all of this stuff. Said it was fine, you were a nice kid.”

I’m sure I sort of beamed, standing there with the two of them staring at my back seat full of all that food, coffee cup on the floor so it wouldn’t spill, napkins and utensils all over place.

I turned to the two of them and said a simple “thanks.” They looked at each other, giggled, and the pretty one said “And he gave me five dollars to do this” and she leaned towards me and gave me huge wet kiss on the mouth.

I watched their backsides hustle back to the diner, turned and began to figure out how to eat all that food. In the window of the diner, I saw my father and Uncle Johnny talking at their table.

What I did not know at the time was that Johnny O was going away for the rest of his life.

But he was always okay by me.