Let us rejoin our hero Arnold Schnabel and his deific companion “Josh”, at the bar of a rather unusual subterranean establishment in Greenwich Village known as the “Little Caesar Room”…
(Please go here to read our preceding episode; if you happen to suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder and are looking for something new to become obsessed with then you can click here to return to the very first chapter of this Gold View Award™-winning 73-volume masterpiece.)
“I still remember that first day I read Arnold Schnabel, that cheap Gold Medal ‘paperback original’ on a bus station’s revolving rack. I was looking for something light, forgettable, perhaps enjoyably lurid. And, instead, I found myself reading the greatest prose ever written by an American, with the possible exception of course of Horace P. Sternwall.” — Harold Bloom, on The Camel News Caravan, with John Cameron Swayze.
So here we were, and here I was, at a bar again, for what seemed like the hundredth time in the past twenty-four hours. But I knew there were worse fates, worse fates by far. Even the worst bar in the world is better than a padded cell…
“So,” said Josh, “what are you drinking, pal? Should we go for those nickel Rheingolds?”
“Okay,” I said, “that sounds good.”
The bartender was already standing there, politely waiting, so not only was this a quiet place but it looked like the service might be okay, at least once you got past that Maxie Rosenbloom guy at the door.
“So,” said Josh to this bartender, who looked just like one of those character actors you see in movies all the time, Roscoe Karns maybe, or Frank McHugh, “how are you?”
“Myself, sir?” said the bartender, he had an Irish accent.
“Yeah,” said Josh. “How you doing?”
The reader must remember (ha ha, as if anyone will ever read this) that Josh was still pretty drunk, despite having thrown up so voluminously just five or ten minutes previously.
“I am fine, sir,” said the bartender, “as well as can be expected under the circumstances.”
I suddenly realized he was Alan Hale, not Frank McHugh or Roscoe Karns, and, not meaning to, I blurted out the word “Oh.”
“I beg your pardon, sir,” said the Alan Hale guy.
“Oh,” I said, again. “I, uh, I just thought of something.”
“Indeed,” said the bartender.
There was a pause here, the awkward pauses were coming fast and furious.
“I, um, it’s hard to explain,” I said.
“Is it now,” said the man.
I don’t know why I didn’t just say the truth, that I had been taken aback by the realization that he was the actor Alan Hale, or even why I felt the need to explain myself anyway. He was a bartender, what did he care? But nevertheless I improvised:
“I was just thinking, that, you know, did you ever get one of those feelings, like, I don’t know, that the world is just a figment of your imagination, and, even beyond that, what if you yourself are just a figment of someone else’s imagination, or —”
“Sir,” said the man.
“Yes,” I said.
“I am paid to give people drinks. Not to listen to their arrant shite. That is the job of your unfortunate companion here.”
“Sorry,” I said.
“So, gentlemen,” he said, “what is it I can be getting you in the way of liquid refreshment?”
“Two of those nickel Rheingolds, please,” said Josh.
“Right away, sir,” said the Alan Hale guy, and he went over to the beer taps a few seats to my right.
“Arnold,” said Josh, in a low voice. “Don’t be weird, okay?”
“Sorry,” I said.
“I just want to have a beer and a little quiet chat, and not get thrown out of here before we’ve even had a chance to get our seats warm.”
“Right,” I said.
“What the hell’s the matter with you, anyway?”
“I’m nervous,” I said.
“What’ve you got to be nervous about?”
“Well, I’m in another dimension,” I said, “for starters. And I’m talking to the son of God. And I’m in a place where everything is in black-and-white, and Maxie Rosenbloom is the doorman and Alan Hale is the bartender.”
“Oh, is that all it is?” said Josh.
“Well, it may not seem like much to you,” I said, “but –”
The bartender was right there again, sliding two big mugs of beer toward us, the handles forward, I have to say he was a real pro.
“Two Rheingolds, gentleman,” he said.
“Ah, for this relief much thanks,” said Josh, picking up his mug. Looking at me, he said, “Here’s to ya, Arnold.”
I picked up my own mug, we touched glass together, we drank.
It did taste good.
I sighed and put my mug down on the bar.
“Ten cents, please,” said the bartender.
“Coming right up,” said Josh, and he reached under his jacket’s back flap and pulled out his wallet. He opened it, took out a hundred-dollar bill and laid it on the bar. “Here ya go, pal, take it out of there, and keep ‘em comin’.”
“Very good, sir,” said the Alan Hale guy, and he picked the bill up, held it up toward a ceiling light in both his hands, and examined it. Then he rubbed the bill with his thumbs, then looked at his thumbs. He pulled and snapped both ends of the bill a few times quickly, and then, finally, he headed over to the cash register.
“So, Arnold,” said Josh, putting his wallet away, and leaning in toward me a bit. “The reason I wanted to talk to you –”
“Oh, wait, I get it now I think,” I said.
“Get what?” said Josh.
“This place,” I said. I was looking around the room while I was talking, looking at all the faces of the men and women at the tables and at the bar. “All the people here are characters from movies. Just like at that last place we were in all the people were characters from books.”
“Oh?” said Josh.
“Yes,” I said. I began pointing, as discreetly as I could, at various people in the place. In a lower voice I said, “Look, there’s Colin Clive, the doctor from Frankenstein?”
“Huh,” said Josh.
“And over there, I think that’s Carole Lombard.”
“Yes,” I said. “And look, there’s Robert Montgomery. And I think that’s Kay Francis over there, no, wait, I think it’s Norma Shearer –”
“Here’s your change, sir,” said the bartender, and he laid some bills and change on the bar in front of Josh. “Ninety-nine dollars and ninety cents.”
“Thanks,” said Josh. “Hey, what’s your name, pal?”
“Call me Alan, sir.”
“Hi, Alan. I’m Josh, and this is my friend Arnold here.”
“A poet I’ll warrant,” said Alan.
“Yes, he is,” said Josh. “How’d you guess?”
“By his bohemian dress combined with his distracted manner, like as if he didn’t feel quite at home in this world we’re living in.”
“Right,” said Josh. “That’s our Arnold. Anyway, Alan, can I get a pack of cigarettes? Pall Malls?”
“Certainly, sir. Do you want matches, too?”
“No, thanks,” said Josh. “I’ve got a lighter.”
“I’ll be right back then,” said Alan the bartender, and he went away.
“How you fellas doing,” said the voice of someone who was standing behind us. Josh and I both swiveled inward on our stools to see who it was. It was a little guy in a tuxedo, holding a big lit cigar, with a face kind of like a bulldog’s. For a moment I couldn’t place him, but as soon as he spoke again I knew who he was. “First time I seen you gents here,” he said, and it was Edward G. Robinson.
“Yes,” said Josh. “It’s our first visit.”
“Maxie tells me Gabriel the trumpet player sent you.”
“He did indeed,” said Josh.
“You know Gabriel well?”
“Very well,” said Josh.
“Okay, then,” said the little guy. “If you’re pals with Gabriel then you’re pals with me.”
But then he raised his finger and pointed at Josh and then at me.
“Until you screw up,” he said. “Then I’ll bounce you out of this joint so fast you won’t even know it until your nose hits the wall outside, and down you slump to the tiles in a pool of your own blood.”
“We won’t screw up,” said Josh.
“See that you don’t,” said the guy. “I run a nice quiet establishment and I aim to keep it that way, see?”
“Yes, I do,” said Josh. “My name’s Josh, by the way, and this is my friend Arnold.”
“A poet, huh,” said Edward G. Robinson.
“Well, uh,” I said.
“I ain’t got much time for poetry myself,” he said.
“Me neither, really,” I said.
“Hey, I like you, kid,” he said.
And he offered me his hand. I took it, and, thank God, he wasn’t one of these guys who had to prove their manhood by squeezing your hand into a jelly. He gave my hand one good shake, and then he shook hands with Josh.
“You fellas probably know what they call me,” said the little guy.
“Um,” said Josh, as if he were riffling through his mental inventory of all the sentient creatures in all the myriad universes of creation, and quite understandably drawing a blank, so I pitched in:
“Edward G. Robinson?” I said.
The little guy looked at me.
“You trying to be funny?” he said.
“Um, no,” I said. “I just, uh –”
“Caesar they call me,” he said. ”Little Caesar, on account of my heighth.”
“I see,” I said.
“But what they don’t know is that the original Caesar, Julius Caesar, he was of modest heighth also, so to call me Little Caesar is kind of redundant or just plain ignorant. But I don’t care. The important part is the Caesar part.”
“Here’s your cigarettes, sir,” said the bartender.
Josh and I turned and the bartender was standing there, and he placed a pack of Pall Malls on the bar in front of Josh.
“Ah, thanks, Alan,” said Josh.
“You’re welcome, sir. That’ll be a dime.”
“Wow, only a dime?” said Josh. “Okay, just take it out of my change there.”
“Thank you, sir.”
The man picked up a dime and he went away again.
“This is what I like to see,” said Little Caesar. “Two pals out having a beer, maybe a cigarette or two.”
“These are the things that matter,” said Josh.
“The little things,” said Little Caesar.
Josh was pulling the little ribbon off of the pack of cigarettes.
Little Caesar looked down toward one end of the bar, raised his hand and snapped his fingers. Then he lowered his arm and faced us again.
“Enjoy your beers, gents. Because tomorrow who knows what may happen. Maybe you get run over and croaked by a bus.”
“That’s possible,” said Josh.
“Happens every day,” said Little Caesar. “Some square john, hoofing it back from work, just wants to catch Jack Benny on the radio, he gets squashed like a bug by a bus, maybe a garbage truck. So enjoy life while you can.”
“We will,” said Josh.
“Nobody lives forever.”
Josh, who obviously will live forever, held his peace, out of modesty I suppose.
“Keep it clean, boys,” said Little Caesar. “And I’ll catch you later.”
“Nice meeting you, Caesar,” said Josh. He had gotten the cigarette pack open while they were talking, and now he put one in his lips.
Little Caesar pulled out a fancy lighter, I think it was gold or platinum, and he gave Josh a light.
“Nice meeting you, too,” he said. He put the lighter away and looked at me. “Poetry,” he said.
“I know,” I said.
He shook his head slightly, and then walked away.
“Well, I think that went pretty well,” said Josh, and he seemed much happier now that he was smoking a cigarette again.
“Hiya boys,” said a blonde young woman who was suddenly standing right near where Little Caesar had been.
“Ditto for me,” said another blonde, who was now standing right next to the first one.
“We thought you might like some company,” said the first one. She was a little shorter than the other girl, with a rounder face, and rounder eyes and a lot of other rounder parts that I tried not to gape at.
“Two nice looking young fellas, you shouldn’t be sitting here all by your lonesomes,” said the other girl, who looked as if she were ready to burst out laughing for some unknown reason.
“Yeah, you guys obviously look like you could use a woman’s touch,” said the first girl, and she began to straighten the knot of Josh’s tie.
It hit me all of a sudden, the first one was Joan Blondell. I couldn’t place the second one yet, but then she ran her hand along the stubble on my chin.
“Don’t tell me,” she said. “A poet, right?”
“Well, uh,” I said.
“I’m Joan,” said Joan Blondell. “But my friends call me Bubbles.”
“And I’m Glenda,” said the taller one, and it hit me, she was Glenda Farrell, boy, I hadn’t seen one of her movies since I was a young fellow. “But they call me Blondie.”
“Bubbles and Blondie,” said Josh.
“That’s our monikers,” said Bubbles.
“Yeah, don’t wear ‘em out,” said Blondie.
“They call us B&B,” said Bubbles.
“Which is also what we drink,” said Blondie.
“B&B?” said Josh. “Is that good.”
“It’s delish,” said Bubbles.
“We like it with seltzer,” said Blondie.
“Prosecution is leading the witness,” said Bubbles.
“Sometimes the witness has got to be led,” said Blondie. “With a ring in his nose, and a chain in the ring. Sometimes you’ve got to tug on the chain, and pretty darn hard.”
“Oh!” said Josh. “Well, would you ladies like a couple of, what is it, B&B-and-seltzers then?”
“Now you’re talking our language, pal,” said Bubbles.
“Shakespeare to our ears,” said Blondie.
It was then that I knew that I might never get out of this bar.
(Continued here, relentlessly, like a hungry dog with a bone.)
(Kindly turn to the right-hand column of this page to find a roughly current listing of links to all other officially sanctioned chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©. Nihil Obstat, Msgr. Patrick “Paddy” Fitzcarraldo, S.J. Now appearing every Saturday in the Collingswood Patch™: “South Jersey’s answer to the Times Literary Supplement.”)