Friday, February 24, 2012

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 290: MacDougal

We left our hero Arnold Schnabel leaning over a second-story windowsill, in pain, in the quaint seaside resort of Cape May, New Jersey, on a sultry wet Sunday afternoon in August of 1963…

(Kindly click here to read our previous chapter; if you have finally finished Tolstoy’s masterpiece War and Peace, you may then go here to return to the very beginning of this Gold View Award©-winning 54-volume memoir.)

“Just the other day I made the mistake of dipping at random into Railroad Train to Heaven on my Kindle as I rested on a park bench after my morning constitutional. Only when I noticed that the park lights had come on did I realize I had spent the entire day completely enthralled in the bizarre adventures of Arnold Schnabel.” -- Harold Bloom, in Redbook.

The policeman had stopped the car about a foot from the curb just below Mr. Arbuthnot’s window, and so with his head stuck out the driver’s window he was staring almost straight up at me, looking directly into my eyes which now grew watery with tears of pain.

“Mr. Schnabel,” yelled the cop, “you okay up there!”

I was not okay. I was kneeling on the floor, with my head hanging over the sill, and it felt as if someone had driven a railroad spike into a place just to the right of the base of my spine.

“Answer me, goddammit,” he yelled. “I’ve had about enough of your bullshit today.”

“Ow,” I said. But because of the pain I had trouble enunciating and I think it might have come out like “meow”.

“What?” he yelled. “Don’t fuck with me! You fucking weirdo.”

I tried to say, “My back, I hurt my back,” and I did produce some sort of vocal noise, which could probably be phonetically rendered as, “Mubagga, muh, muh, ah, urt, urt, bag. Gag. Bah.”

“What?” said the cop. “You think you’re funny? If you think you’re funny you got another think coming, pal.”

He opened the door of the car, and put his foot out, but because he hadn’t stopped the car right next to the curb his foot splashed down into the flood water.

“Shit!” he yelled. “Fuck! God fuck! Damn!”

At this point I slid down and away from the window, because someone was pulling on the spike that was stuck in my lower back and the spike wouldn’t budge. The pain was unbearable, and I suppose my body or my brain or both in concert did me a favor by allowing my whole world to turn into ink-colored cotton candy, and my consciousness withdrew from my awareness and disappeared into the black cotton candy, and a half-second later my awareness disappeared as well.

After some passage of time, whether it was years or a few seconds I have no way of knowing, but my consciousness encountered my awareness somewhere in this thick world of darkness.

“If you wake up you will probably be in pain. It’s best to stay here,” said my consciousness.

“We’re only putting off the inevitable,” said my awareness.

“Who cares?” said my consciousness. “Future pain is always preferable to present pain.”

“You have a point,” I said. “I only wish there were some way to avoid the pain entirely.”

“Join the club,” I replied to me.

“Wait,” I said.

“What is it? I want to go back to sleep, so make it quick.”

“Why don’t we ask Josh for help?”


“Yes. He’s the son of God, after all.”

“You’ve really got a lot of nerve.”

“What do you mean?”

“All the starving babies in the world, in Africa and China. All the poor sick really wretched people suffering from horrible incurable diseases, and you expect Josh to do you a favor, just because you have a sore back?”

“But it’s really sore,” I said. “What if I slipped a disc or tore my sacroiliac?”

“Big deal.”

“It’s going to hurt you, too, you know.”

“I’m well aware of that, and that’s why I intend to pass out completely again, and stay that way for as long as possible.”

“Another thing,” I said. “Now we have to worry about that cop, Officer Woznicki or whatever his name is. He has it in for me.”

“He’s got it in for both of us.”

“That’s right,” I said, although I was getting confused.

“But he can’t do anything to us as long as we’re unconscious.”

“But I’m afraid.”

“Look, just be glad you’re not in Soviet Russia with the KGB after you, instead of some self-important small-town cop.”

“I am glad, I am, but -- but --”

“He’s got nothing on us.”

“I’m not so sure. I, I --”

I, I, I -- It’s always all about you, isn’t it?”

“But -- but --”

“That’s how selfish you are.”

“But -- but --”

“All you care about is yourself and your own problems. Maybe you should start worrying about other people and their problems for a change. Did you ever think of that?”

“Well, I, uh, I used to donate money to the pagan babies --”

“Big deal. A sop to your conscience. Oh, wait --”

“What?” I said.

“I can sense the faint glimmerings of a returning of the world of existence, and pain, of selfhood, of humiliation. And pain. Shit.”

“Oh, great,” I said.

“Do something. I’m trying to pass out again but I see a soft glow working its way through this thick dark cloud we’re enveloped in.”

“Yes,” I said. “I can see it too. But to me it’s more like we’re in a world composed of black cotton candy, or wool maybe, like a giant black ball of wool --”

“I don’t give a shit what it seems like to you.”


“Do something. It’s getting lighter. I’m starting to feel the pain again. Do something. Do anything. For Christ’s sake!”

“You mean I should ask Josh for help?”

“Yes, damn it. Anything. Do it. Now. I can feel existence approaching. And the pain. Hurry!”

And then I was standing on a sidewalk in a rain-wet city street, at night. It wasn’t raining anymore now, but the air was very warm, and humid, smelling of car exhaust and old bricks and stone. Muffled music came from various directions and merged into a symphony that would never be heard again.

I realized after only a moment’s bewilderment that this was MacDougal Street, in Greenwich Village, in the past, but the recent past, sometime in the mid-fifties or so, in the fictional past of the world of Miss Evans’s novel, Ye Cannot Quench. I looked down at myself. I was no longer wearing my polo shirt, my Bermudas, my Keds with no socks. Instead I wore the bohemian attire of a young poet: faded blue jeans, unpolished work shoes, a rumpled seersucker jacket, a plaid shirt, a loosened dark-grey necktie.

Laughing and chattering people walked past me going both ways, paying no attention to me. This was Greenwich Village, where often poets and artists would stand quite still in the middle of the sidewalk, or perhaps not quite still but swaying ever so slightly, lost in reverie or inspiration, or perhaps just drunk or under the influence of drugs.

I was standing on this sidewalk and staring at the below-the-pavement entranceway of the bar called Valhalla, with its dim red neon Rheingold Beer sign in the glass-brick window.

This bar was the last place where I had seen Josh, the son of God.

And so my selfishness and my fear had got the best of me after all. I had somehow traveled back to this world -- this world which I had so recently been at such pains to escape -- in order to try to find surcease for my pains in my own world. I had run away from my problems, seeking help in a redeemer instead of facing them like a man.

Now that I was safely at a distance from the excruciating agony I had been in just a few seconds ago (if it was even that long ago) I was able to see the situation for what it was.

I had thought I was somebody special.

Well, I wasn’t that special.

I was just a coward.

I sighed.

The only honorable thing to do was to return, to return to my own world and face the music. Face the pain. The music of the pain. After all, it was probably just something like a pulled ligament that I had, not that I was sure what a ligament was, or of how serious a pulled one was or could be.

But then there was that Officer Woznicki. What if he found some excuse to arrest me? What if he somehow arranged for me to be sent back to Byberry? Well, I would just have to deal with Officer Woznicki also. I couldn’t be running to Josh every single time I got in a jam.


However, I was already here, the least I could do would be to go in and see if Josh was still there, just to say hello. I didn’t have to ask for his help. I could just go in and say hello. And then -- provided I were able -- I could return to my rightful universe and face the music. Face the pain. Face Officer Woznicki.

I reached into my side jacket pocket, which was the place I normally would keep my cigarettes if I was wearing a jacket. Then I remembered that I had quit smoking as of the previous morning, that yesterday morning which felt as if it were at least forty-five months ago. I really wanted a cigarette now. What difference did it make if I smoked in this fictional world? I determined to buy a pack of Pall Malls as soon as I got in the bar.

I went past the metal railing and down the steps into that dim concrete areaway, lit only by the Rheingold sign.

I put my hand on the door knob. I could hear the sounds and feel the vibrations of music and of the shouting and laughing of men and women.

I paused a moment.

Who was I kidding? I wasn’t going in here just to say hello to Josh. I was going in here to plead for his assistance. But it wasn’t too late to change my mind. Somehow I was sure that if I only concentrated and set my whole will to it, that I would be able to return to my world, perhaps instantaneously. Then I remembered the back pain, and Officer Woznicki. And then I remembered my leg pains: what about them? They were sure to return, perhaps in force. I was practically turning into a cripple back in my own world. What a fate, not just to be a cripple, but possibly to become a cripple locked up in a hospital for the incurably insane.

I pulled open the door, letting out the noise and the juke box music and the smell of tobacco smoke, the sight of drunken laughing and shouting people.

I went inside.

(Continued here, as we must.)

(Please look to the right-hand column of this page to find an often up-to-date listing of links to all other available episodes of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©. An Aaron Spelling Production.)

Thursday, February 23, 2012

tales of the hotel st crispian: chapter 47

"all in this together"

by horace p sternwall

illustrated by roy dismas and konrad kraus

artistic supervisor: rhoda penmarq

for complete episode, click here

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 289: ambrosia

Let’s rejoin our hero Arnold Schnabel in the cluttered rooms of Mr. Arbuthnot, above that old gentleman’s “Whatnot Shoppe” on Washington Street, in the quaint seaside resort of Cape May, New Jersey, on a wet grey day in August of 1963…

(Please go here to read our immediately preceding episode; if the concept of time means as little to you as it does to Arnold, then you may click here to return to the very first chapter of this Gold View Award©-winning 67-volume memoir.)

“The other night I made the mistake of starting the latest volume of Arnold Schnabel’s chef-d'œuvre just as I had retired to my bed for the evening. The next thing I was consciously aware of was my alarm clock ringing, for I had been absorbed in Arnold’s adventures the whole night through; I decided to take a ‘personal’ day off from work, and then spent the entire day abed, drinking tea and nibbling madeleines, and reading the rest of that thick volume through. And a better more fulfilling day I have never spent.” -- Harold Bloom, in Collier’s.

“Well, then,” said Mr. Arbuthnot, “why don’t we retire to the kitchen then?” And then, in a lower voice, “So as not to disturb Shnooby.”

“Hell, we wouldn’t wanta do that,” said Mr. Jones.

“Lead on,” said Ben.

“You okay to walk, Arnie?” Ferdinand asked me, swooping over and hovering before my face.

“Yes, I think so,” I replied.

“Well, let’s go then and get our whistles wet.”

Mr. Arbuthnot led the way, followed by Mr. Jones, and then by me and Ben and the fly.

Mr. Arbuthnot and Mr. Jones both walked very slowly, and so Ben and I would take a step or two, and then wait a minute as the two old gents shuffled another foot or two across the dining room in the direction of the hallway to the kitchen. Neither of my legs were hurting very much, so I suppose the LSD I had taken on the island of lost souls was still working.

“So, Arnie,” said Ben, during one of our rest periods, “how was the next world? Lots of clouds and angels with harps and shit?”

“No,” I said, “nothing like that. It was -- sort of like this world in many ways.”

“Like what? Fucked up?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Ha ha,” said the fly.

Ben and I took a step and then stopped again.

A question occurred to me. “Ben,” I said, “how long was I unconscious?”

“Just a second,” he said. “You put your hand on the old guy’s head, then you sorta just fell back. And the old guy woke up, and then you woke up.”

“Maybe five seconds,” said Ferdinand. “Tops.”

“I see,” I said.

“What do you see?” said Ben.

“Yeah, whaddya see?” said Ferdinand.

“Apparently time exists in a different way in the next world.”

“Oh yeah?” said Ben. “How long did it feel like there?”

“A few hours, no, more than that, five, six hours, but it felt like more.”

“All time is relative,” said Ferdinand. “Like, ya know when somebody really boring is talking to ya, and ya feel like committing suicide? Or murder?”

“Tell me about it,” said Ben.

We took another couple of steps forward, which brought us almost abreast of Mr. Jones and Mr. Arbuthnot, and so we stopped and waited again.

Ben leaned close to me.

“So, Arnie, what exactly was this 'stuff' old Arbuthnot was talking about? Hop? Hash? Mescaline? Amazonian monkey juice?”

“I don’t think so,” I said. “He said it was the, uh, food of the gods.”

“The food of the what?”

“The gods. Like, the ancient Greek gods.”

“I thought them gods were mythological.”

“So did I,” I said. “But what do I know?”

“What does any fucking body know?” said Ferdinand, buzzing in between me and Ben.

“Yeah,” said Ben. “You got a point there, fella.”

“We weren’t back there in them ancient Greek times,” said Ferdinand.

“That’s true,” said Ben.

“They had all kids of weird shit back then,” continued Ferdinand. “Gorgons, giants, titans, dogs that had a whole bunch of heads. Cyclops. Sirens.”

“We’ve got sirens,” said Ben.

“These were different kinds of sirens,” said Ferdinand. “They were beautiful broads that sang these songs that made mariners crash their boats on the rocks.”


“You didn’t want to fuck with them sirens,” said Ferdinand. “Anyway, I’m just sayin’, they had a lot of weird shit back in them Greek times. Like this food of the gods. Ambrosia they called it.”

“Ambrosia,” said Ben. “I knew a dame called Ambrosia once, down in Port-au-Prince --”

“Yeah, well, in them days ambrosia wasn’t some dame in a Haitian whorehoouse, it was the goddam food of the gods,” said Ferdinand. “You cracked a book now and then you would know this shit.”

“Hey, pal,” said Ben, “I read.”

“Trash you read. Men’s adventure magazines, right? Man’s Life? Man’s Action? Man’s Epic?”

“Nothin’ wrong with them magazines,” said Ben. “But I read books too. You ever read Diary of a Dead Man, by Horace P. Sternwall?”

“No, I think I missed that one,” said Ferdinand.

“It was an Ace Double. The other half of the book was G-Man Junkie, also by Horace P. Sternwall, that was pretty good, too.”

“I’m sure it was,” said Ferdinand.

“How about Backwoods Bacchanal, by Horace P. Sternwall?” asked Ben.

“I’m drawing a blank,” said Ferdinand.

My Gun Does My Talking, there’s another good one,” said Ben.

“Who wrote that one?” said Ferdinand.

“Horace P. Sternwall.”

“You like his stuff, huh?”

“He’s my favorite author,” said Ben. “So that’s all I’m sayin’. I read. Sometimes. When I find the time.”

“I stand corrected,” said Ferdinand. “No offense, big guy.”

“Sure,” said Ben.

We took another couple of steps forward, then stopped again and waited for Mr. Jones and Mr. Arbuthnot to make some more progress. They were going slower all the time, almost as if they were slogging through a swamp, or a river of mud.

“So, Arnie,” said Ben, “this chow of the gods stuff --”

“Ambrosia,” said Ferdinand.

“Whatever,” said Ben.

“It’s called ambrosia,” said Ferdinand.

“Yeah, sure,” said Ben. We were standing near the dining room table, and Ben reached over and tapped his cigarette ash into a cut-glass ashtray on it. Then he looked at me. “You try any of that shit, Arnie?”

"The, uh, stuff?"

"Yeah. The stuff."

"The ambrosia," said Ferdinand.

"Yeah," said Ben. "You get a taste of it?"

"No --"

"Scared, huh?"

"Arnie ain't scared of nothin'," said the fly.

"Then why didn't he try some?" said Ben. He looked at me. "You a prude or somethin'?"

“No,” I said, “I just never got a chance to try it. You see, I accidentally stepped on the cat and knocked into Mr. Arbuthnot, and he fell over and dropped the tin --”

“What tin?”

“The snuff-tin this stuff was in.”

“Okay, go on.”

“He dropped it and it slid under that grandfather clock and I guess it came open, and Shnooby ate it all.”

“I get it. Something like that happened to me one time out in Borneo. I was running some guns for these rebels, see, and these girl pirates --”

Mr. Arbuthnot turned and put his finger to his lips.

“Not so loud, Mr. Bigwell!” he whispered.

“Blagwell,” said Ben.

“Not so loud, we don’t want to awaken Shnooby!”

“Oh, sorry,” said Ben.

In silence we made our way by stops and starts to the hallway to the kitchen. Fortunately it wasn’t very far, and it only took us a few more minutes. I amused myself by looking at all the strange objects in Mr. Arbuthnot’s dining room. Over there on the top shelf of the large bookcase was the Book of Time, through the powers of which the world had almost been brought to a violent end the previous evening, but then again, I pondered, it was through the powers in this book that the world had also been saved. Over there on its side table was the big old globe with its own magical powers.

As the old gentlemen proceeded in slow motion one after the other through the short passage to the kitchen Ben and I stopped again. Ben bent over towards me and whispered in my ear: 

“So I guess this grub of the gods stuff must be pretty valuable?”

“Hey, what do you think?” said Ferdinand, buzzing down close to our faces. “Arbuthnot was willing to trade his magic ring for it, wasn’t he?”

“Yeah,” said Ben. “Just what I was thinking. So it’s worth something to him anyways.”

“Yeah, he’s got a real bee in his bonnet about that shit all right,” said Ferdinand.

“Listen,” said Ben, and, leaning his face closer to mine, he gestured to the fly to come nearer.

“We should score some of this stuff,” he said. “This aphasia stuff.”

“Ambrosia,” said Ferdinand.

“Ambrosia,” said Ben. “We should score some, Arnie.”


“He means get some,” said Ferdinand.

“Oh,” I said, feeling a little wary I must admit. “Well, I was supposed to get some anyway, Ben. That was why Mr. Arbuthnot gave me the ring, to try to trade it, so he --”

“I mean get some for us,” said Ben.

“Oh,” I said.

“The whaddyacallit,” he said.

“The ambrosia,” said Ferdinand. “The stuff.”

“Right,” I said.

“It could probably give us all kinds of godlike powers and shit,” said Ben.

“Well, maybe,” I said.

“Maybe nothin’! Look what it did for that cat!”

“He’s got a point, Arnold,” said the fly. “Jeeze, maybe if I got some I could be a human being again. Like a millionaire playboy maybe. A millionaire playboy with super powers maybe.”

“Maybe,” said Ben. “Y’know what kind of power I would like?”

“What’s that, Ben?” said the fly.

“I’d like to be able to get babes in the sack without having to talk to ‘em first.”

“That would be nice,” said Ferdinand.

“I never know what to say to dames,” said Ben.

“Who does?” said Ferdinand. “Only other dames.”

“Yeah,” said Ben. “And the other thing I’d like would be able to drink all the rum I want to without getting a hangover.”

“Now you’re talking, pal,” said Ferdinand.

“So, Arnie,” said Ben, “whaddaya say?”

“Well, uh --” I said.

“Hey, you fellows!” hissed Mr. Arbuthnot, from in the kitchen. “Come along!”

“Right,” said Ben. “We’re coming!”

“And not so loud!”


Ben went down the passage and I followed, with Ferdinand circling above my head.

In the kitchen Mr. Jones was sitting at the old yellowed-white enamel table with its red trim, smoking his cigarette, and Mr. Arbuthnot was taking an ice tray from the Frigidaire.

Ben sat down in one of the chairs covered with cracked red plastic with yellowed white trim, and I went over to the right, to a window that looked out over Washington Street. The window sash was down, but through the wet and smudgy glass I could see that not only had the rain stopped, but the flood seemed to be abating, flowing back into the ocean. The street was still covered with water, but the sidewalks were clear already, and there were even a few people walking about. The sky however was still as grey as granite.

“How’s it looking out there, Arnie?” said Ben.

“Better,” I said.

“You can open that window if you like,” said Mr. Arbuthnot. He was opening the ice tray over the kitchen sink, yanking at the metal lever. “It is a trifle warm and stuffy in here.”

In fact it was very warm and stuffy.

I reached down and pulled at the two curved brass lifts on the bottom rail of the sash. The window wouldn’t budge.

“It gets stuck in the damp,” said Mr. Arbuthnot. “Sometimes it’s hard to open.”

I pulled again. Nothing happened. I turned around.

“Keep trying,” said Mr. Arbuthnot. He was dumping the ice cubes into a flowered glass pitcher on the counter next to the sink.

I tried again. Nothing. I turned around. On the counter in front of Mr. Arbuthnot there were two bottles of Canadian Club, one that looked full, one half-full, and a bottle of Martini & Rossi sweet vermouth. Mr. Arbuthnot poured a little of the vermouth into the pitcher and then a lot of Canadian Club.

Ben was sitting at the table facing me, smoking his cigarette. Mr. Jones sat across from him, also smoking. He turned in his seat and looked my way.

“I thought you were gonna open that window, Arnie,” he said. “It’s stuffy as hell in here.”

“Stuffy as the boiler room in a tramp steamer down in the Sulu Sea,” said Ben.

“Yeah, even I’m hot,” said Ferdinand, who was sitting on the bill of Ben’s rumpled old yachting cap. “Usually I don’t mind the heat.”

I turned, and I yanked again. To no avail. I had only been a little sweaty a minute ago, but now I was streaming with sweat, for the ninth or tenth time that day.

“Try pounding the stile with your hand,” said Ben.

“The what?” I said.

“The side of the window sash,” said Ferdinand, who had flown over near me, and was hovering, watching me.

“Oh,” I said. I pounded the old wood with the heel of my fist.

“Try it again now,” said Ferdinand.

I got my fingers under both of the curved lifts and yanked again. I thought I felt a very slight movement in the sash. And I yanked again, but nothing happened.

I turned around, I wanted to give up. I didn’t care about the window. Mr. Arbuthnot was stirring the contents of the pitcher with a long metal spoon he had pulled out of a drawer. I wanted a Manhattan.

“You just gonna give up?” said Ferdinand.

“Let Ben do it,” said Mr. Jones from the table. “Big strapping fella like him.”

“Ah, don’t make me get up,” said Ben. “I just sat down.”

“Come on, Arnie,” said the fly. “You can do it.

“Manhattans are made,” said Mr. Arbuthnot. He poured the Manhattans into four cocktail glasses that he had taken from a cupboard, holding the ice cubes back with the spoon.

“Hey, don’t forget me, Mr. Arbuthnot,” said the fly. “You got like a little shot glass?”

“Yes, I believe I do.”

“Just a little shot-glassful for me.”


I turned back to the window, and then, as if trying to take it by surprise I suddenly gripped the lifts and pulled.


My fingers hurt.

I was breathing heavily from my exertions, sweating progressively more profusely.

“Don’t give yourself a coronary, Mr. Schnabel,” said Mr. Arbuthnot. “Let it go.”

“You want me to do it?” said Ben.

“Let Ben do it,” said Mr. Jones.

“Ben’ll get it,” said Ferdinand.

I turned back to the window, stretched and flexed my fingers like a pianist preparing to play a concerto.

I reached down and grasped the hard bronze lifts, which were wet with my perspiration.

“Just -- one -- more -- try,” I said.

I took a deep breath, and pulled again with all my might, and finally the window shot up, but as it did a bolt of pain attacked a point near the base of my spine and I let out a cry and fell forward, my collar bone striking the window sill. I knelt there with my head out the window, looking in agony down at the street below, where a police car had just stopped. The policeman at the wheel put his head out the window and looked up. It was that Officer Woznicki. Apparently his car was working now. I tried to pull my head back in but another bolt of pain stopped me and I yelped again. The cop continued to look at me.

(Continued here, because we can’t just leave Arnold in this predicament.)

(Kindly turn to the right-hand column of this page to find an allegedly current listing of links to all other published chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©, now available for a mere pittance on your Kindle. All contents vetted and approved by my uncle, Monsignor Giacomo “Jimmy” Di Leo, SJ, chief censor of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura of the Holy See, in Rome, Italy.)

Saturday, February 18, 2012

"The East Oak Lane Boys"

Looking sharp at the Lord Cheltenham Tavern, 1964
Mike Halloran, Steven Willoughby Jr, Carl Steinberg, Mickey Schwartz, Joe Reilly, Al Stein, Gaetano “Ace” Grappatino

Because your humble amanuensis has had a severe cold compounded with a pulled back ligament this week (but getting better now, thank you), the publication of this week's rather long and epic chapter of Arnold Schnabel's
Railroad Train to Heaven© will be delayed perhaps until this coming Monday, or Tuesday morning at the absolute latest; as a sop to Arnold's many fans we re-broadcast this tale from the northern reaches of his old "hood", a cautionary fable which first appeared here way back in June of 2007...

One of the more colorful and somehow not so despicable of the many criminal outfits in Philadelphia history, the “East Oak Lane Boys” -- AKA “The Sturgis Playground Mob” -- came together as an enterprise in the summer of 1963. Most of them dropouts or expellees from Cardinal Dougherty High School or Olney High, this band of rascals started out as a multi-ethnic group of lazy idle young loafers who hung around the Sturgis Playground, mostly on the crabgrassy little hill on the west side that sloped down into Third Street and looked out over the noble broad expanse of the Oak Lane Reservoir. All of these young men lived with their parents in the surrounding neighborhood, in the modest semi-detached- or row-homes of a generation that had survived the Great Depression and World War II and escaped the crowded brownstones and noisome alleys of Kensington and Swampoodle to try for a better life in this relatively green and pleasant land just a few short miles to the north. The trouble with this group of young fellows was simple enough: they just didn’t want to work, or to do much of anything except to sleep a lot, eat, drink, cruise around in cars, and chase girls. In long confabs on that scrubby shoulder of ground outside the playground the boys would smoke their cigarettes and gab and talk about various fantastic schemes to make the money they required, if not to pay for their rent or meals (that’s what their parents were for), then to pay for beer and cigarettes, for snazzy sharkskin suits, for automobiles and for gas to power the automobiles so the lads could cruise around and try to pick up girls with little or no self-esteem.

It was Mickey Schwartz who came up with the plan that would bring the gang fortune and infamy. All those rich people who lived in the neighborhoods on the far side of the city limit of Cheltenham Avenue: these people didn’t stay at home on their tree-lined winding streets all summer -- no, they went on vacation, most of them for at least two weeks and many of them for longer. How many of these houses would be empty, especially in the months of July and August? And how much saleable loot would these foolish suburbanites leave lying around the empty house? Mickey and the boys took the two available clunkers they had among the seven guys in the group and they went on a reconnaissance mission through Cheltenham and Abington . Sure enough, many houses were dark, empty, inviting. The boys drove back to the playground and talked it over. These houses were ripe for the picking.

The next night the gang broke into their first house. This was their modus operandi that night, one which they would follow on all future jobs: One guy would stay in each of the two cars, one on either side of the target house, keeping lookout. Using army surplus walkie-talkies, they kept in contact with the other five lads who broke into the house through a rear window and quickly turned the residence over, looking for jewelry mostly but not failing to pick up the odd rare-stamp or coin collection or other easily fencible valuable object. Within five minutes they were out of the house, back into the cars and cruising quietly away.

That first night the boys hit four houses. Next day they took their swag downtown to Jeweler’s Row, to a second-floor wholesale firm called Schwinkelman’s. Art Schwinkelman was an uncle of Mickey Schwartz’s and the black sheep of the family, for the very good reason that he was “mob-connected”. Not to put too fine a point on it, Art Schwinkelman was a professional fence. He took the swag off the boys and gave them $250 back, in crumpled bills no larger than twenties. Not a lot of money even by the standards of 1963, but a lot of money indeed for these seven young fools.

Thus was the rest of the summer spent. Each night (telling their parents that they had jobs delivering advertising circulars) the boys would drive out to a different section of a different suburb and hit four empty houses. Every day following, one or two of the gang would take the loot down to Schwinkelman’s. As the boys got better at finding and recognizing good material, their pay-offs increased. By the end of August they were averaging a thousand dollars a day in proceeds. Still not really big money when split seven ways, but plenty for a group of guys who still lived with their parents and got three free meals every day of their lazy lives.

September came and vacation season gradually drew to a close. The boys decided to withdraw from their illegal activities for the nonce and to enjoy their ill-gotten gains. Each boy now had his own new used car, the acquisition of which they explained to their parents by claiming that they had been out selling magazine subscriptions during the days that they actually spent going to ball games at Connie Mack or shooting pool and playing pinball. Another fall, winter and spring passed by, and, just as the time came when the boys were having trouble coming up with gas and beer money, summer arrived and with it vacations and ripe empty suburban houses.

Several years passed by, each with two months of assiduous burgling paying for a full ten months of loafing. The lads got a little older and a little softer and fatter, and in the summer of ’66 they discovered the rich joys of marijuana. Pot was great, but it was also a brand-new expense on top of the aforementioned beer and gasoline and cigarettes. That summer, to pay for their new addiction the boys decided to start hitting five houses each night instead of their customary four. What was one more house? Properly planned, this would entail perhaps only one extra half-hour’s work a night. They forgot two little things though: one -- they were now pot-heads, and two -- the milkman.

Any pot-head or acquaintance of a pot-head will not be surprised at how it all went down. Al Stein, Mike Halloran and Mickey Schwartz stood around in the master bedroom of the house, talking heatedly about who was the better pitcher, Jim Bunning or Chris Short. All the while Mickey held an unlocked jewelry box in his hands but did not open it. In the dining room Steve Willoughby and Joe Reilly stared obliviously at an open cabinet drawer, shimmering with silver and gold knives and forks and spoons, discussing who they’d rather make out with on “The Patty Duke Show”, Patty or Cathy. Out in the two lookout cars Ace Grappatino and Carl Steinberg were sound asleep. No one saw the milkman pulling into the house across the street from the target house. But the milkman, Joe Schwbanda, saw the two parked cars with slumped dark human forms in the drivers’seats. He continued on his rounds, but, encountering a police cruiser several blocks away, he reported the two suspicious cars. The police officer, Max Studebaker, drove slowly by the house. The two lookouts were still sound asleep and the boys inside were still deep in discussion. Officer Studebaker parked his car down the street and called for back-up. Within ten minutes our seven hoods were in handcuffs and on their way to the Cheltenham jail.

“The East Oak Lane Boys” (as the popular press dubbed them) were never indicted for any other crime, although police suspected them of having broken into some 500 or more houses in their three-and-one-half summers of pillage.

The boys were fortunate in pulling the Honorable Thomas Coogan as the presiding judge in their case. Judge Coogan just so happened to have grown up in “the old neighborhood” (Harrowgate) with Joe Reilly’s father, and a deal was proffered. They could take the case to trial and get two-to-five for burglary, or they could volunteer for this country’s proud armed forces. Figuring that they would have to get up early and make their own beds in either case, the boys conferred and decided to join the army. Well, some of them tried for the air force or the navy but it was only the army that would take them. Pulling family strings right and left, most of the boys managed to spend most of their hitches in Germany or Korea, and only Ace and Carl wound up having to go to Vietnam. Wiseguys to the bone, even there they managed to get over; Ace blackmailing his way into a cozy job unloading body bags in Saigon, and Carl forging some paperwork to magically promote himself to buck sergeant and into a supply job that consisted primarily of keeping the GIs in the Big Red One fully supplied with dynamite weed.

After their terms of enlistment were up the boys returned to their parents’ homes in East Oak Lane, and, older but only infinitesimally wiser, met again each evening on that weedy slope on the west side of Sturgis playground, passing joints and telling stories, gazing out at the deep still waters of the Oak Lane Reservoir, and planning their next big escapade.

(For more "Tales from the O-Zone" kindly turn to the lower right hand side of this page.)

Monday, February 13, 2012

tales of the hotel st crispian: chapter 46

"Call me Mac"

by Horace P. Sternwall

edited by Dan Leo*

illustrated by konrad kraus

artistic supervisor: rhoda penmarq

*Associate Professor of Classics and Entomology, Olney Community College; editor of The Importunate Policeman and Other Previously Uncollected Tales of Suspense and Death by Horace P. Sternwall; Olney Community College Press, “The Sternwall Papers”.

(Go here to read this entire thrilling episode!)

Saturday, February 11, 2012

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 288: Manhattans

After many strange and perilous adventures in the next world our intrepid hero Arnold Schnabel, with that aged reprobate Mr. Jones in tow, has finally managed to return to the previous world…

(Click here to read our previous episode; if you’ve finished rereading all of Dickens then you may go here to return to the very beginning of this Gold View Award©-winning 73-volume memoir.)

“What indescribable joy it is to crack open up a brand-new volume of Arnold Schnabel’s monumental chef-d'œuvre.” -- Harold Bloom, in The Wall Street Journal.

“Hey, can I ask a question,” said Mr. Jones.

“Please do,” said Mr. Arbuthnot. He was smoking his little meerschaum pipe.

“What’s up with the talking flies and cats in this joint?”

“The fly is Arnie’s friend, Ferdinand,” said Ben. He was smoking a cigarette. “Say hi, Ferdinand.”

“What’s up, old-timer,” said Ferdinand, who was hovering about six feet above where I lay on the floor, I suppose keeping out of reach of the cat, who was sitting on my chest.

“And you know me, Mr. Jones,” said Shnooby, looking over his shoulder.

“Yes, indeed I do,” said Mr. Jones. “But I never knew you to talk before.”

“He ate some special stuff,” said Mr. Arbuthnot. “You know what kind of stuff.”

“Oh,” said Mr. Jones. “He ate some stuff. Well, that explains it.”

“I ate some special stuff one time,” said Ben, “at a little combination cat house-and-gambling parlour called Mama Wang’s, down in Port Moresby, New Guinea -- whew! Oh, my name’s Ben Blagwell by the way, pops. But they call me Big Ben Blagwell. You can call me Big Ben.”

Ben extended his great hand above my prostrate body, and Mr. Jones gave him his small old hand.

“Jones is my name, big fella,” said Mr. Jones, “and you can call me any damn thing you want. You got a coffin nail to spare?”

“Sure do, old buddy.”

Ben stepped over me, taking his Sweet Caporals from his shirt pocket and giving the pack a shake.

Mr. Jones picked one out and put it between his withered old lips and Ben held the lit end of his own cigarette to Mr. Jones’s for a light.

“Thanks,” said Mr. Jones, and he exhaled smoke with a look of satisfaction. “You a friend of Arnie’s?”

“Yeah, we go way back,” said Ben, “at least an hour. Seems longer somehow though.”

“I’ve only known the lad since last night,” said Mr. Jones. “And it seems like a lifetime already.”

“That’s just the way Arnie rolls,” said Ferdinand.

“Never a dull moment for friend Arnold,” said Mr. Arbuthnot.

“Hey, Arnold,” said Shnooby the cat, who was still standing on my chest. “What about my seafood?”

I tried to get up at this point, but instead all I did was say something that was unintelligible, even to me.

“Hey, he said something,” said Mr. Arbuthnot.

“What’d he say?” said Mr. Jones.

“Beats me,” said Ben. He bent down toward me. “Arnie, say something, buddy.”

“Hello,” I said.

“There ya go,” said the cat, and he licked my nose. “He’s all right. Come on, get up, you lazy bastard. Nothing wrong with you.”

“What do you know?” said Ben. “You’re a talking cat.”

“At least I’m not a talking fly,” said Shnooby.

“Watch the the species-centric aspersions, puss,” said Ferdinand. “I wasn’t always a fly. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a fly, mind you.”

“Flies are disgusting,” said Shnooby. “You eat shit.”

“Yeah, so?” said Ferdinand. “So cats eat flies who eat shit. So that makes you pretty damn disgusting yourself.”

“Okay,” Mr. Arbuthnot said, “both of you, leave us not squabble, for life is both fragile and short.”

“For a fly it’s short,” said Shnooby. “But maybe not short enough.”

“Keep it up, Felix,” said Ferdinand. “I’ll poop in your cat food when you’re not looking.”

“Just try it, pal…”

“Gentlemen, please,” said Mr. Arbuthnot.

“Yeah, cool it,” said Ben. “Hey, Arnie, do you think you can get up now?”

“Possibly,” I said.

“Help him up, Ben,” said Mr. Arbuthnot.

“Sure,” said Ben.

He put his cigarette in his mouth, came over behind the top of my head, reached down and grabbed me under the armpits, and with a grunt he heaved me up to my feet, Shnooby jumping off of me as he did so.

Once I was standing Ben kept one hand on my upper arm, in case I were to keel over again.

“How ya feel, partner?” said Mr. Jones.

“Okay, I guess,” I said.

Ben released his hand from my arm and gave me a clap on the shoulder, which almost did knock me over.

“Yeah, Arnie’s fine,” said Ben. “You said you’d bring this old gent back from the dead and you did.”

“Well, I said I’d try,” I said.

I felt sweaty, but at least I wasn’t soaked after my plunge into the river of Death.

“He tried and he succeeded,” said Mr. Jones. “I don’t care what anybody says about you, Arnie boy, you’re all right in my book. Hey, by the way, where’s my fedora?”

He was looking around on the floor.

“I think you left it in the next world,” I said. “When we were being chased by the damned.”

“Oh, right, now I remember. Oh, well, small price to pay, I suppose.”

“Wait,” said Mr. Arbuthnot. He was pointing at my left hand. “Where’s my ring?”

“Oh,” I said. “The ring.”

I touched the pink circle on my little finger where the ring had been.

“Yeah, my ring,” said Mr. Arbuthnot. “My ancient priceless magic ring.”

“Well,” I said.

“He gave it to a little dead boy,” said Mr. Jones.

“He gave it to a dead boy?”

“Yeah, little Chinee kid. Couldn’t be helped, Arbuthnot. The little bastard had us over a barrel. We were being pursued by the legions of the damned, and we needed the kid’s help. He wanted the ring. Whaddaya gonna do?”

“Well, that’s just swell, isn’t it,” said Mr. Arbuthnot. “Now I’m well and truly fucked. I really wanted that stuff, too.”

“What’s the ring got to do with the stuff?”

“Arnold was supposed to take it down to Wally’s cigar shop and try to barter it for some stuff for me. Of course he probably had drained most if not all of its power in rescuing you, but Wally wouldn’t have to know that. Damn the bad luck!”

“Well, that sucks for you,” said Mr. Jones. “But, look, I’m back, Arnie and I are both back from the land of the dead, that’s something, ain’t it?”

“Yeah, terrific,” said Mr. Arbuthnot.

I looked across the room to the windows that looked out over Washington Street. The rain appeared to have stopped, although the sky was still grey.

“So,” said Mr. Jones. “How about a cocktail to celebrate our return?”

“Yes, why not,” said Mr. Arbuthnot. He paused. “But I really wanted that stuff.”

“Will you please shut up about the stuff,” said Shnooby. “You’re like a broken record with that shit.”

“Easy for you to say when you ate a whole snuff-tin of it,” said Mr. Arbuthnot. “But if I don’t get some soon I’m going to grow old and die just like any mortal.”

Going to grow old?” said Mr. Jones.

“You know what I mean,” said Mr. Arbuthnot. “Older. And then death.”

“The afterworld ain’t all that bad,” said Mr. Jones.

“You say that, and yet you came back.”

“I didn’t say it was great. I said it weren’t that bad. Now how about them drinks?”

“Oh, yes, of course. I suppose I am being a dreadful host. Shall I make a pitcher of Manhattans?”

“Please do,” said Mr. Jones.

“I could go for a Manhattan,” said Ben. “How about you, Arnold?”

“Uh,” I said.

“Wait a second,” said Shnooby.

“Yes?” said Mr. Arbuthnot.

Shnooby jumped up onto the coffee table and turned so that he could look at all of us.

“What about my fresh seafood?” he said.

“I’ll get you the seafood,” I said. “I’m sorry. I was on the way to the docks with Ben and Ferdinand here, but then the streets got flooded and --”

“I don’t want to hear excuses,” said the cat, firmly. “What I want is for you to do what you said you were going to do.”

“Well, um --”

“You guys are sitting around, traveling to the next world and back, smoking your pipes and your cigarettes, drinking your Manhattans. But what am I? Chopped liver?”

“Hey, be cool, kitty,” said Ben. “Soon as we have a drink we’ll go get your cat food.”

“Fresh seafood, not cat food,” said Shnooby. “I don’t want that canned shit. I want what this guy said he’d get me, what was it?”

“I think you decided on bluefish and scallops,” I said.

“Bluefish and scallops,” said the cat. “Good. Now how about getting me some?”

“We’ll get you your bluefish and scallops,” said Ben.

“When?” said the cat. “After I starve to death?”

“As soon as we have a drink.”

“Okay,” said Shnooby. “But only because whatsisname here --” he nodded in my direction -- “just traveled to the next world and back. But only one drink.” He glanced over at the grandfather clock across the room. “It’s two-thirty. I’ll give you guys five minutes to drink your drinks.”

“Or you’ll what?” said Ben. “Scratch our eyes out?”

“Five minutes,” said Shnooby. “The clock is fucking ticking.”

“Jesus, we just got here,” said Ben.

“Tick,” said the cat. “Tock.”

“Well, I suppose I had better make the drinks then,” said Mr. Arbuthnot.

“Yeah, I think you better,” said Shnooby. “I’m gonna curl up on the couch and take a five-minute nap. When I wake up I want you guys out of here.”

“Enjoy your nap,” said Ben. “You want us to wake you up?”

“Don’t worry about me, big guy. I’ll wake up.”

And with that he turned and jumped onto the sofa, causing the cushion to sink a foot or so. He curled up and appeared to go instantly to sleep.

“So,” said Mr. Jones. “About those drinks.”

“Yes, of course,” said Mr. Arbuthnot. “Manhattans all around then?”

“I could go for a Manhattan,” said Ferdinand, buzzing around merrily in the upper regions of the space that separated the human beings present. “Just a small one for me, pal.”

(Continued here, with no end in sight.)

(Please turn to the right-hand column of this page for a rigorously up-to-date listing of links to all other published chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©, now available for a modest fee on your Kindle. All proceeds in aid of the Arnold Schnabel Society of Philadelphia, to be disbursed as it deems fitting.)