My father was not your conventional New York City lawyer. Back in the 1950s, lawyers donned suits and took the IRT or the BMT into Manhattan. They arranged their Herald Tribunes and New York Times into subway folds, thin vertical strips to be held in one hand while their other hand grabbed the overhead strap, which allowed them to read in their narrow standing space while swaying with the lurches and screeches as the subway car navigated the numerous twists of the tracks snaking beneath the City above. You did not place your paper in front of your fellow strap-hanger, invading his own reading space.
If the bottom of your paper happened to obstruct the seated passenger’s view, or if you readjusted to balance against a particularly egregious lurch and thus planted your wing-tipped foot on top of some seated passenger’s soft Keds sneaker – well, that was the price they paid for sitting down in the first place.
Our Brooklyn Brownstone had a marginally heated back room, really a porch with flimsy insulation and single-paned windows installed decades ago as an afterthought. This was my father’s home law office. His in-town office at 150 Broadway held most of his files, his secretary and an occasional law clerk, but he was seldom there. Unless compelled to visit Manhattan for a hearing or court appearance, my father donned his baggy dark pleated trousers, strapped T-shirt in summer, plaid shirt in winter, and worked overlooking our miniscule dirt-covered back yard with incongruous apricot tree in the only corner that got regular sunlight from between the nearby apartment houses. Two or three times a week, a Yellow Cab would shuttle files to and from Brooklyn to Broadway.
This office contained several old-fashioned glass-windowed book cases with glass front doors on each shelf that rolled upwards out of sight above the books, a pair of gray metal file cabinets, a dark red leather guest chair cracked from the harsh weather it endured on the porch, and a massive desk of some unknown dark wood typically covered with papers and a thin powder of cigar ash from ten-cent White Owls. Nearby on a rickety metal stand, a black Remington upright typewriter sat next to a pile of typing paper, letterhead and loose carbon papers resting on the floor.
The room smelled mildly of smoke all summer as the windows stood open to create circulation in the pre-air conditioned era; with all windows shut down in winter, the smell was unbearable, leaks of nausea creeping through the closed glass-paned door into the kitchen and ruining even mother’s energetic cooking.
My room was safely down the hall, far enough to escape the odors and the occasional noise as my father and a visiting client would talk and yell; I imagined all his clients, mostly middle-class business owners or truckers, were a particularly stupid lot, as my father always seemed to have to yell at them until they finally understood what he was trying to tell them. I would sit at my small desk next to the radiator, enjoying the warmth, doing my homework or putting stamps into my album, pausing each day to stand on my bed and rearrange as needed the small pennants I had thumb-tacked to the dark blue walls, one for each of the sixteen major league baseball teams, reflecting their standings in the two Leagues after each day’s contests. Over time, the holes in my walls got wider and the pennants less secure through constant rearranging, although usually the first pennant in each league did not change, as the Dodgers and Yankees dominated the baseball world while I was growing up a few blocks East of Ebbetts Field.
Normally clients rang the bell, my dad walked past my room down the long hall that connected almost all the rooms on the first floor, they would trod together past my room on their way to the office in the rear, the door would close with a click of the latch and a rattle of the glass, and other than occasional raised voices I would not be disturbed until they retraced their steps out to the front stoop after their meeting. Sometimes my dad would have a casual hand on a client’s shoulder as he soothingly escorted the man – never once a woman – out the door. Sometimes they walked, my father in the lead, in sullen silence.
One day, however, there was a lot of yelling and cursing that escaped from the office. I recall a very warm day in the late Spring, the City humidity had made an early arrival, the windows of the office were no doubt open including the windows that let out onto the alley that separated our end brownstone from the apartment next door, the same alley onto which my one bedroom window also looked out. That day, my mother was not home I recall, there was a hell of lot of yelling, it rolled down the hallway and was audible also as an echo bouncing down the alley and entering my window a split-second after the sound from the hallway reached me. I could not follow the conversation but it sounded much like an argument growing more intense until, unexpectedly, the glass door was pushed open, its glass doorknob rapping into the wall at the end of its swing, and all of a sudden there was father, as I looked out of my room, hunched over like a crab, shuffling down the long hallway in a crouch, his head twisted back towards his client who had followed him out of the office. As he hobbled down the long hallway, my father’s finger was pointed at the wooden baseboard that ran the length of the hall.
“You know what that is? Do you know what that is? Tell me what that is,” said my father. Silence. He was now half-way to the front door, almost even with my doorway.
“Tell me what that is, you dumb shmuck. What am I pointing at? Tell me what it is.” The client was standing in the middle of hall, face beet red, fists tight. My father stood up, out of breath, all five feet five inches of him, his stomach stretching the fabric of his T-shirt which was soaked with sweat, a cigar stub still glued to his lower lip, his right arm pointed straight down at the floor.
“I’ll tell you what that is. Ya know what it is? It’s the fucking bottom line, you dumb asshole. You understand what I’m trying to tell you? What I’m telling you is the fucking bottom line. You gonna listen to me, or you gonna continue to be the dumb shit I think you are?”
There was a moment of total silence. At first I thought the man was going punch my father as he walked slowly up to him, but when he got near I saw he was slight of frame and even shorter and older than my dad.
“You know what, Mickey,” the man said evenly, his face now pale and his tone flat and frightening. “You remind me of my old man. He used to talk to me like that.” The man half turned and passed my father on his way to the front door. When he reached it he turned the handle, half opened the door, looked over his shoulder and spoke in the same cold tone.
“Ya know, counsellor, I hated my father. Coulda killed him a thousand times.”
In the silence, the door shut softly and he was gone.
That night, after my parents talked for a while in the living room, my mother told me to pack up my school books and she loaded a lot of my clothing into a tan valise that my dad used to take when he traveled on business. I was driven to my grandmother’s house in Queens, where I stayed for a week or more. I missed the last days of that school year, and I really missed my friends. There were no stickball games in my grandmother’s green suburban neighborhood, no kids on the sidewalk playing boxball or up-and-over, no walls for Chinese handball, and nothing much to do except play rummy with my grandma and my aunt. When I asked, I was just told that I had to stay in Queens until some business dispute was settled.
Then one day, just as school had ended, my father picked me up and redeposited me on my block. My friends were there, curious where I had been, but the summer began, the wonderful Brooklyn summer of playing ball, and Hide and Seek, and picking up empty Elsie ice cream wrappers and bringing them to Ebbetts Field with a quarter; ten wrappers and twenty-five cents got you a grandstand seat for the Dodgers and you could see Jackie Robinson jiggle along the basepath and do things we pretended to do at the field in Lincoln Terrace Park. Only Jackie, he did them better.
It was several years later, when my father deemed me able to “understand,” that we sat in his office and he told me why I had been banished to Queens for ten days or so. Seems it took that long for the police to locate and lock up my father’s client.
“He was a button man for Murder Incorporated,” said my father through a particularly acrid burst of White Owl smoke.
“He was what?”
“Murder Incorporated. They did the wet work for the mob. Bunch of guys I grew up with. They were the Jewish mafia. That guy, he was a professional killer. Do you remember what he said, he threatened me.” Another puff, released in slow contemplation.
“Mother and I, we just didn’t want you around until the cops could take him off the street.”
I sat there a bit and then said something like “well thanks dad.” He said “sure” and I escaped awkwardly back into the house where you could breath the air without choking.
I never thought of my father in the same way after that. And I never asked him what he was talking about with his client that day, either. Just didn’t really want to know.