Thursday, July 9, 2020

“The Ballad of Waldo McGee and Mickey Pumpernickel”


After twenty years in the marines and another twenty-some years running this joint, Bob figured he’d pretty much seen everything there was to see, but then one hot bright Sunday morning Waldo McGee came into the joint carrying his dummy Mickey Pumpernickel under his arm. He took a seat at the bar, with Mickey sitting on his lap. Mickey was just a ventriloquist’s dummy, but he looked more alive than Waldo did.

Bob came over and took the cigar out of his mouth.

“You don’t mind I brought my dummy in here, do you?” said Waldo.

“No, I don’t mind,” said Bob. “Long as he behaves himself.”

“Oh, you ain’t got to worry about Mickey,” said Waldo.

“Yeah,” said Mickey, and to be honest you could see Waldo’s lips moving just a little bit, but just a little, almost like it was just a nervous twitch. “It ain’t me you got to worry about. But this bum I ain’t so sure about. Keep an eye on this guy, mister.”

“Okay,” said Bob, “I will. Either of you want a drink?”

“Nothing for me,” said Mickey, “but this drunken bum will have a libation. How’s that basement-brewed bock you got on the blackboard there?”

“I don’t get too many complaints,” said Bob.

“Nickel a glass seems reasonable,” said the dummy.

“I like to think so,” said Bob.

“Give him a glass of that then.”

So Bob drew a glass of the bock and put it in front of Waldo, who had put a small handful of change on the counter. Bob took a nickel, went to the register and rang it up.

Just then Philip the uptown swell came in, sober, so far, and sat down next to Waldo and Mickey.

“Hi, Bob,” said Philip, taking out his cigarettes. “I think I’ll start with a Manhattan today.”

Philip always started one of his sprees with a Manhattan, but he always said it like it had just occurred to him. After he had taken his first sip, he sighed, and seemed to notice Waldo and Mickey for the first time.

“Hello,” he said.

“Hi,” said Mickey. “What’s your name, fella?”

“Philip. What’s your name?”

“Mickey Pumpernickel’s my moniker, and this drunken clown is Waldo McGee.”

The dummy extended his tiny right hand, and Philip, with only a moment’s hesitation, took it and gave it a shake.

“Pleased to meet you, Mickey. And Waldo.”

“Hi,” said Waldo. “I hope you don’t mind Mickey. He likes to talk.”

“Oh, not at all,” said Philip.

“See?” said Mickey, turning to Waldo. “This guy is a gentleman. You can tell. Unlike some people I could mention.”

Philip was willing to let it go at that. He never minded just sitting and drinking quietly, but the dummy spoke again.

“Maybe you seen us perform once or twice? We was regulars on the old Pantages circuit for years.”

“Vaudeville?”

“Yep. All across this land o’ liberty we worked. Also night clubs, burley-Q joints, Shriners conventions, VFWs, that kind of thing. Birthday parties, bar mitzvahs. Even got on the radio a few times. Waldo McGee and Mickey Pumpernickel?”

“No,” said Philip, “I’m afraid I don’t think I ever –”

“For better’n twenty years we worked steady, from New York to San Francisco, from Bangor, Maine, alla way down to New Orleans, and every two-bit whistle stop in between. It was not a bad life. But then this guy –”

The dummy jerked his tiny thumb at Waldo.

“Okay, Mickey,” said Waldo. “This gentleman don’t want to hear our whole life story.”

“I don’t mind,” said Philip.

“It’s a sad story, a story that’s been told a million times,” said Mickey.

“Haven’t they all?” said Philip.

“Hey, that Manhattan you’re drinking looks pretty good,” said Mickey.

“It is,” said Philip. “Would you like one?”

“I don’t drink,” said the dummy. “Never touch the stuff. But this guy,” he jerked his little thumb at Waldo, “I’m sure he wouldn’t turn one down.”

“Okay,” said Philip. “I say, Bob, would you make a Manhattan for, uh –”

“Waldo,” said Mickey.

“– for Waldo,” said Philip, “and I suppose I’ll have another too, please.”

“Thanks, mister,” said Waldo.

“Please, call me Philip.”

“Thanks, Philip.”

“See, McGee?” said Mickey. “A gentleman. The last of the dying breed.”

“Yes, I can see that,” said Waldo.

“Unlike some people I could mention,” said Mickey.

Waldo said nothing to this.

“Don’t mind him, Philip,” said Mickey. “He ain’t much of a talker. But me, I like to talk. You mind if I talk?”

“Not at all,” said Philip.

“You want me to shut up, you just say so.”

“Okay.”

Bob laid down the fresh Manhattans, and Philip paid for them.

The bar began to fill up with the usual Sunday morning crowd, and Philip and Mickey, and, to a much lesser extent Waldo, talked through the morning and early afternoon, until Waldo’s head suddenly began to nod to his chest.

“Uh-oh,” said Mickey. “Hey, it’s been great talking to ya, Philip, and thanks a lot for all the drinks, but I think rumdum here needs to take a nap, ya know what I mean?”

Waldo lifted his head with a weak smile.

“Yes, of course,” said Philip. “Nice talking to you fellows, too.”

“Maybe we’ll catch you in here some other time,” said Mickey.

“That well might be,” said Philip.

“Awright, Waldo,” said Mickey, “let’s get you back to the hotel before you get thrown outa here.”

And Waldo got up, and, carrying Mickey under his arm, staggered out into the hot bright sunlight of the Bowery.

{Kindly go here to read the “adult comix” version illustrated by the one-and-only rhoda penmarq…}

Thursday, July 2, 2020

"St. Philip"


“Bleecker and the Bowery, comin’ up, pal.”

“Ah, so soon.”

Philip had been lost in a reverie, looking out the window at the warm sunny day, looking back over his largely misspent life.

“Where ya want me to stop.”

Here he was again, and he’d regret it when it was all over and he was back at the rest home, or at Bellevue or the drunk tank, but that was the future, and this was now, and it was time.

“I said where at, buddy.”

“Pardon?”

“Where exackly ya want me to let you out.”

“Oh, just let me out at Bob’s Bowery Bar over on the right there.”

“Bob’s Bowery Bar?”

“Yes.”

The driver pulled up at Bob’s. Someone was throwing up on the pavement, not in the gutter, but right on the sidewalk.

Philip got out his wallet, took out a ten-dollar bill and handed it over to the driver.

“Keep the change.”

“This is a ten.”

“I know. Keep it.”

“Why such a big tip?”

“Do you really want to know why?”

“That’s why I acksed.”

“Because you didn’t try to engage me in conversation.”

“Wow. Maybe I oughta learn to keep my trap shut more often.”

“Ha ha.”

“Hey, mister, before you get out, you mind I acks you anudder question?”

“No.”

“Why you getting out here, at Bob’s Bowery Bar?”

“I like this place.”

“I don’t get it.”

“I don’t get a lot of things either.”

“Nicely dressed well spoken gennulman like you. I don’t get it. Ten million bars in this town. Why this one.”

The driver had adjusted his rearview mirror so that he could look at Philip, who paused and thought before answering.

“Well,” he said, not knowing what he was going to say next, but then the man who had been throwing up on the pavement was looking into the passenger window at him.

“Hey, Philip,” said the man. “Long time no see.”

It was the hopeless drunk (well, one of the hopeless drunks) they called Tom the Bomb.

“Oh, hi, Tom,” said Philip.

“Hey, Philip, can ya spare me fifty cent so’s I can get a bottle of Tokay?”

“Come on in the bar with me, I’ll buy you a drink or two.”

“I can’t, pal. Bob flagged me for the rest of the day on accounta I peed myself.”

“Oh, that’s too bad.”

Philip still had his wallet out. He took out a dollar and handed it to Tom the Bomb.

“Wow, a whole buck! Thanks, Philip, you’re okay in my book, I don’t care what anybody says about ya.”

“Don’t mention it, Tom.”

Tom staggered away, happily.

“Friend of yours,” said the cab driver.

“Sort of,” said Philip.

“So you’re like St. Francis.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“St. Francis of Assisi. He was the patron saint of birds and dumb animals.”

“Yes?”

“You’re the patron saint of drunken bums.”

Philip took pause. Was that what he was?

“Wha’d he call ya – Philip?”

“Yes.”

“St. Philip. Patron saint of drunken bums.”

“Heh heh. Well, thanks for the ride.”

“You’re welcome.”

Philip opened the door and got out of the cab, closed the door.

“Hey, buddy!” yelled the cab driver.

Philip bent down so that he could see the cab driver’s face.

“Yes?”

“All God’s creatures are all God’s creatures.”

“Uh, yes, I suppose you’re right –”

“Even drunken bums.”

“Yes, I guess that’s true –”

“The birds. The squirrels in the park. The bums in the park.”

“Yes, uh –”

“You have a nice day.”

“I’ll try to.”

The driver put the car in gear and pulled out. Philip turned around. He started to take a step, but then he saw the puddle of liquid vomit Tom the Bomb had left on the sidewalk, and he sidestepped just in time.

St. Philip, patron saint of drunks. 

Maybe his life wasn’t entirely wasted after all.

Philip crossed the sidewalk and opened the door to the bar, and inside all was dim and smoky, but he could tell the joint was crowded, alive with laughing and shouting voices.

All God’s creatures.

Philip stepped inside, and the door closed behind him.



{Please go here to read the “adult comix” version, illustrated by the illustrious rhoda penmarq…}

Thursday, June 25, 2020

"Hello, Miss Abernathy"


Philip pressed the intercom button.

“Hello, Miss Abernathy?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I feel as if I might be coming down with a virus, so I think I’d better take the rest of the day off, and maybe tomorrow as well.”

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Just to be on the safe side, maybe you’d better cancel all my appointments for the rest of the week.”

“Of course.”

“Better to err on the side of caution.”

“Yes, certainly.”

“I’m going to leave by the back way now. Give me a five-minute head start, then you can let my brother know.”

“I will, don’t worry, and, Mr. –”

But Philip had switched off the intercom.

He got his hat, went out the back door of his office, and walked down the service corridor to the staircase. The last thing he wanted was to meet someone he knew getting into the elevator. As he went down the six flights to the ground floor, he considered the typical itinerary he had followed for his binges ever since rejoining the family firm after the war. First he would hit Joe’s down the block for a quick bracing one before the lunch crowd started coming in, then out the door, and a brisk walk west to the Hi-Low Club on the next block, from there another block west to the Ten Hut, and then a gradual descent downtown through the Irish saloons on Seventh Avenue, and after that the Village bars: Chumley’s, the White Horse, the Kettle of Fish, the San Remo, and so on and so on to the Prince Hal Room at the Hotel St Crispian, where, depending on his state, he would spend the night, before heading off to his final destination the next morning.

But this time, between the mezzanine and the ground floor, Philip had a brainwave.

Why not skip all the preliminaries for once and go right to the heart of the matter? I mean, really, who was kidding who here? What was he trying to prove? He had nothing to prove, and suddenly he felt rather like an eighteen-year-old ball player going right from high school to the majors. And, after all, if he wasn’t a major-leaguer by this point he would never be.

He went out the back of the building and down the alley to the street. It was a sunny warm day in June. Philip raised his hand and an empty cab pulled over at once, so the gods were with him.

He got in, shut the door, sat back, and sighed.

“Where to, buddy?”

“Bleecker and the Bowery, please.”

“What?”

“Bleecker and the Bowery.”

“Bleecker and the Bowery?”

“Yes.”

“Well-dressed gentleman like you? What you want to go down there for?”

“I'm afraid that would be hard to say.”

“You’re the boss, boss.”

The driver pulled out into the flow of traffic. Philip took out his cigarettes, lighted one up, and watched the city drift by the open window.

It would take a while to drive all the way down there, but he was in no hurry now.

No need to rush things. Now was the time to relax.

The buildings and the people on the crowded sidewalks passed by, like a movie, like real life, all these mobs of people going somewhere or other.

Philip knew where he was going.

And Bob’s Bowery Bar would still be there, God willing, whenever he got there.

{Kindly go here to read the “adult comix” version in A Flophouse Is Not a Home, illustrated by the one-and-only rhoda penmarq.}


Thursday, June 18, 2020

"Ithaca"


Frank X Fagan, the nature poet, had taken a lot of good-natured ribbing from his fellow poets after that one day when he tried to take a “nature walk”, and had returned to the bar only five minutes later with his friend Howard Paul Studebaker, the western poet, whom he had accidentally urinated on in an alleyway.

“Hey, ya know what?” Frank now said to his fellow poets at their usual table at Bob’s Bowery Bar. “I’m gonna take a walk today, and for real this time.”

“What?” said Scaramanga, the leftist poet. “Go out there in that bright sunlight?”

“Yeah,” said Frank X. “Bright sunlight and all, I’m going for a walk.”

“Great, go then,” said Howard.

“No need to take that tone,” said Frank X.

“I’m sorry,” said Howard. “I’m hungover.”

“We’re all hungover,” said Lucius Pierrepont St. Clair III, the Negro poet. “As usual.” Then he added: “Perhaps a bit more than usual.”

The assembled poets all said nothing to this, but nodded and sighed, because this was the day after Araminta’s famous tea party, and every man jack of them was indeed even more hungover than usual, which was saying a lot for this sorry lot.

“But, dear Frank X,” said Seamas McSeamas, the Irish poet, breaking this unusual spell of silence that had just transpired, “if you take a walk in your present state you may easily stumble in front of a speeding  motorcar and get runned over.”

“Thanks for pointing that out, Seamas,” said Frank X. “But I shall try to be careful.”

Hector Philips Stone, the doomed romantic poet, was not even listening anymore, and he didn’t even notice when a half hour later Frank X finally got up, and, after visiting the men’s room, went out into the warm and shimmering June sunlight.

Almost immediately Frank X regretted his decision. It was bright, hot, and everything was ugly. He turned the corner at Bleecker, passed Morgenstern’s cobbler shop and paused for a moment next door at the entrance of the tenement building where he lived in a small room on the fifth floor. It would be nice just to go up and take a three-hour nap, but Frank X knew he wouldn’t be able to sleep, he would only lie on his narrow army cot, staring at the stained ceiling, hating existence, longing to return to Bob’s and to his friends and to a nice cold bock. No, he would forge on.

At the next corner some teenagers wearing T-shirts and jeans stood in his way. The boys all looked malnourished and weak.

“Where you going, man?” said the one kid.

“I’m taking a walk,” said Frank X.

“A walk he’s taking,” said another kid.

“Give us a quarter, daddy-o,” said another kid.

“The hell with you guys,” said Frank X. “I got no quarters to spare for thugs like you.”

“You don’t give us a quarter, we give you no quarter,” said the first kid.

“That’s actually kind of poetic,” said Frank X. “But I’m still not giving you a quarter.”

“You give us no choice but to roll you, buddy,” said this first kid.

“You would roll me?” said Frank X. “A shabby poor poet who barely has a pot to piss in?”

“You’re a poet?”

“Yes, I am, and I am not ashamed to admit it.”

“Tell us a poem.”

“If I tell you a poem will you let me pass?”

“If it’s a good one, yes. If it sucks, we roll you.”

“Very well,” said Frank X. “Let’s see. All right, here we go. I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as my pee. I love to watch it splash into a toilet or into a barroom urinal. This makes me happy, like bock beer washing down a Tuinal.”

“Is that it?” said the first kid.

“Yes,” said Frank X. “If you want a second verse, then you have to give me a quarter.”

For a moment no one said anything, and then the first kid said, “Okay, Mr. Poet Man. You can pass. This time. But if you go by this corner again you got to give us a quarter.”

“How about if I just tell you another poem?”

The kid paused before speaking.

“Maybe,” he said. “If it’s a good poem, maybe we let you pass. Maybe. Otherwise we roll you for everything you got in your pockets.”

“That ain’t much,” said Frank X.

“We’ll be the judge of that,” said the kid. “Now scram.”

Frank X crossed the street. Jesus Christ, he wanted to be back in the bar, but he figured he’d better go at least as far as the next corner, then he could take a right, then another right at the end of that block, back down Bond Street to the Bowery, another right, and then down the block was Bob’s Bowery Bar, his own private Ithaca.



If he walked slow he could at least say he had taken a fifteen-minute walk. Maybe next time he could stretch it out to a half hour, or, say, twenty-five minutes, or twenty…

{Kindly go here to read the “adult comix” version in A Flophouse Is Not a Home illustrated by the illustrious rhoda penmarq.}