Sunday, March 25, 2007

Gangsta Dream

Here's a little yarn from my old pal from the hood, the right honorable Kevin McDoom, AKA Frank Scattergood

Ray Carver, eat your goddam heart out.




Hollywood had crossed the Cardinal for the last time. In vain had his Eminence Dennis Cardinal Dougherty pleaded with the movie moguls to make decent films; they laughed in his florid face as they smoked Havana blunts. Finally, in a furious rage, His Eminence had forbidden all practicing Roman Catholics in the Archdiocese (whose number was legion), under pain of eternal damnation, from attending moving-picture shows. Bishops in other dioceses soon followed suit. Movie attendance dwindled. In a fit of despair, one of the owners of the Fern Rock Theatre, a gaunt, grey-haired man, hung himself from the marquee one night.

At last the film moguls acquiesced to the Cardinal’s demands. No sooner had his Eminence lifted his ban when a massive heat wave settled upon the city. The Cardinal’s clemency afforded his flock some relief from the heat in the air-conditioned movie theaters.

The heat tore the city apart. Mayor James H.J. Tate had declared a state of emergency. The sky was sooty from the fires in the slums. Many of the gin-soaked elderly living there, as dry as kindling themselves and surrounded by heaps of rubbish, had undergone spontaneous combustion. In order to prevent low water pressure from hindering the firefighters’ valiant efforts, the Mayor had commanded Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo to club with their nightsticks any street urchins opening fire hydrants. The Commissioner’s goon squads zealously carried out their orders.

The P.T.C’s powerful union leader, Mike Quill, had threatened to call a strike were his outrageous demands not met. Exact fare would be required from passengers, for instance, so that bus drivers could steer their vehicles through the teeming streets unimpeded by the need to change $50 bills for drunken, vomiting citizens returning from a night on the town.

“’Mayor Tate’s sick. He’s got a quill up his a-s!’” joked drunken wags.

The mayor had had Quill’s Melrose Park estate staked out by plain-clothes detectives, who, for sport, savagely pistol-whipped innocent passers-by. Fearful for his life, Quill had barricaded himself in his front bedroom with his tripod-mounted Thompson machine-gun. He was under a 24-hour lock-down.

Hot, thirsty citizens, guzzling cheap, ice-cold Reading beer, packed the air-conditioned taprooms day and night. Afterwards, staggering home drunk, they ensnared themselves in the nettles that choked the alleys (sown by unspeakably misshapen, malevolent aliens eons ago, the nettles had poked through the cracked cement and, nourished by the excessive, moist heat, grown to a monstrous height). Ravenous packs of nocturnal hobo cannibals sodomized and devoured the thrashing drunks.

Black-robed monks drove slowly through desolate streets in Dodge pickups, chanting “Bring out the Dead” through their loudspeakers.

In the midst of the heat spell, on a late Saturday afternoon in August, I left my comfortable twin-home on Acker Street and rode my bike down 5th Street, intending to make the last payment on a stereo held on lay-away at FAT JACK’S. Every Saturday for the past summer, after collecting my pay from the Evening Bulletin circulation foreman in the dilapidated corrugated steel shed across the street from a dark, narrow Frankford Unity store, where rowdy paperboys like Antman and Scum-of-the-Earth fortified themselves with Tastykakes and Frank’s orange sodas (a pleasure from which I always regretfully abstained), I had ridden my bike to Mr. Jack Stec’s record store and made a $5 payment on the phonograph. At last, it would be mine.

FAT JACK’S lay on a stretch of 5th Street bordered by Grange and Chew Avenues. Narrow store fronts and row houses jostled for space along the sidewalk, whose concrete slabs were pushed up at odd angles by the roots of the overarching elm trees that shaded the street. Hunter green and cream-colored P.T.C. trolleys rumbled by and clanged their bells; dusky orange sparks showered from their pantographs onto the cobblestones in which were embedded the trolley tracks.

In addition to the record store, there was a haberdasher, a jeweler, a nudie magazine store, a malodorous rag-and-bones shop, whose equally foul-smelling owner, the hateful Luke Thruppenny, stood constant watch looking out the plate glass window, fearful lest anyone filch his nasty wares from his outdoor stalls, and a model railroad shop, GRUMPY JOE’S TRAIN DEPOT. Its owner, Joe Dugan, had a huge, pitted nose, whose scarlet hue attested to his avidity for Elwood Smith’s V.O. manhattans (Mr. Smith teasingly nicknamed him the Pope, after John XXIII). Grumpy Joe had flagged me from his store because I had become a general nuisance, spending every afternoon there mooning over the American Flyer trains.

After reaching FAT JACK’S entrance, I secured my Schwinn bike with a combination lock and entered the nearly always-deserted store. Sitting behind the counter, bathed in shadows, his shaven head gleaming in the gloom, Mr. Jack Stec, who weighed nearly three hundred pounds, stared balefully at me.

“You again, kid?”

“I’ve come to make the final payment on my stereo, sir.”

I gave him $5. Fat shambled into a back room and returned wheeling my precious on a brass tubular cart.

“Could you test it?” said I anxiously.

“It works, kid. Don’t go getting your b-lls in an uproar.”

Fat Jack pulled out an album from a bin. Plugging the phonograph into a wall socket, he placed the LP on the turntable, and pressed the start button. The turntable began to revolve; the tone arm ascended from its perch, moved slightly, and descended majestically onto the record’s rim. Louis Armstrong sang HELLO DOLLY. Though never a fan of this illustrious son of the South, I coveted the album jacket’s black and white photograph of Satchmo, along with its crisp Columbia logo in the corner.

“Mr. Stec,” said I timidly, “could I have that album?”

“You got four bucks? I don’t do nothing for nobody.”

Suddenly, I heard groans of ecstasy coming from the second floor. Bedsprings squeaked rhythmically; a headboard knocked furiously against the wall.

Pulling a K-bar from his ankle-sheath, Fat Jack pointed it at me.

“Get lost, kid!” he shouted. “If you say a word about what you heard, I’ll slice you down to your wish-bone!”

I grabbed my stereo by its handle and ran out of the darkened store.

It was reported later at great length in the Olney Times that Fat Jack had operated a cut-rate bawdy house on the second floor of his store. Deeming the store an affront to common decency, Police Commissioner Rizzo had had his goons storm the shop and slay its owner. Though fighting valiantly with his Tech-9 (he was a Guadalcanal marine veteran), Mr. Stec had died from multiple gun-shot trauma. Afterwards the Commissioner decreed that the shop be dynamited and the earth salted and blessed by Bishop Graham, pastor of St. Helena’s Church.

I rode my bike home to Acker Street with my new possession stowed in the basket. Fearing the fell enemy, I chose to return on Sixth Street, whose large Oak trees offered both excellent cover and shade from the heat. After cycling along Sixth Street for several blocks, I reached a steep, gravel-covered embankment upon which railroad tracks stretched endlessly. They marked the rear border of Fisher Park. Serial killers used this location, with its tall grass and its huge, dying trees, as a dumping ground. Half-buried vics’ skulls leered from the rancid earth; putrid corpses rotted in the sun. Mud-stained, dog-eared nudie magazines from the forties and fifties lay strewn about. At Midnight, horrid high-priests, robed in black albs and coiffed with black miters, performed satanic rites under a Hunter’s moon. They shook their monstrously twisted crosiers in the black fetid air and offered human sacrifices to their malign deity. Oftentimes, drunken revelers, staggering home late at night from the luridly-lit taprooms that occupied the side streets, were dragged to the sacrificial sites by the high priests’ misshapen, maleficent minions. The hapless vics’ screams echoed through the park on weekend nights.

No sooner had I reached the embankment when with strident diesel horn blasts there approached a freight train. The ground shook as a Gulf, Mobile & Ohio FA-1 lash-up rumbled by, pulling an endless row of Hooker Chemical tank cars. They contained Agent Orange, a defoliant used to denude the steamy, treacherous jungles of the ‘Nam .

Though my wiry legs had been toughened by my exhausting paper route, they proved no match against the steep ascent of Champlost Avenue. I dismounted from my bike and walked alongside it, my stereo safely stowed in its basket. As I approached Fifth Street, I saw a large crowd of people and heard a great lamentation. It was a press gang. Two soldiers of fortune ran the affair: Pauly “Bedpan” Lyons and Tommy “Rags” Larkin. Bedpan, the younger of the two, wore wrap-around sunglasses, wife-beaters, camouflage pants, and combat boots. He sported a “mullet”. Across his shoulder was slung an M-4; around his neck was a brown scapular. Rags was an older, white-haired man who wore a tee shirt upon which was emblazoned: I DRINK! I RATE! He carried a fifty-cal. sniper rifle, with which he liberally poked the dozen or so chained conscripts.

“How are ye holding up under the heat, Rags?” asked the solicitous Bedpan.

“I’d sell my soul to the Arabs for an ice-cold Reading.”

“Ye’ll never change, lad. Not as long as ye’ve got a hole up your arse.”

“I wanna go to Smitty’s, Bedpan, where the brown, beaded, beveled beer bottles are buried in ice: Reading, Carling Black Label, Duquesne, Ortliebs, Piels, Schmidts, Schlitz, Iron City, Blatz, Robin Hood (‘Hits the Spot’), Old Heidelberg, Century, Black Pirate—“

“Elwood Smith expelled ye a fortnight ago, Rags. Not even a papal dispensation‘ll get ye back in.”

“What did I do?”

“Ye took a dump on the floor after slurping two dozen clams on the half-shell and downing buckets o’ Dab.

“What have I done! What have I done!”

“’A li’l Dab ‘ll do ya,’ lad.”

Suddenly, the conscripts tried to escape. Though shackled together, the conscripts attempted to flee from the park. Rags shot his rifle in the air and stopped the young men in their tracks.
“Hi! Bedpan, if ye kill the PUCS, we won’t get any bounty for ‘em.”

Though they had ceased trying to escape, the young conscripts kept up their cranauning. No longer able to endure it, Bedpan roared at them:

“Don’t make me take the strap to ye, lads! What was, was. I’m sending ye to the ‘Nam and that’s all there is to it. Man yerselves up, lads, though, if I could dampen yer horror by giving ye handfuls o’ Oxys and Perkys, washed down with dozens o’ Dabs, I’d do it.”

The conscripts, whose only misfortune was to have been ensnared while going about their usual business, perhaps attending the cinema or sitting down to a full-course chopped steak dinner with mashed potatoes, mushroom gravy and canned lima beans (a sure cure for the Schaeffer shakes) at the Fern Rock Diner, suddenly began to vomit in fear and revulsion. They reared their heads back and sprayed the sidewalk.

“Break out the buckets, Rags, and give me one,’ said Bedpan. “I must drain the dragon.”

“Old piss pot.”

“Old booze bag.”

Soon the young men were vomiting contentedly into their buckets.

“O vomit not in revulsion, lads. Vomit not. Sing ‘em a song to settle their stomachs, Rags,” said Bedpan.

Rags had sought shelter from the sun under an Elm tree in the park. While standing on a high hill overlooking the conscripts and pointing his sniper rifle menacingly at them, he began to sing a medley of television theme songs and commercials:

“Now let me tell you a story about a man named Jed.
Poor mountaineer, barely kept his family fed.”

“Want you to meet a family, known as the real McCoys.
There’s grandpappy Amos, head of the clan,
Roars like a lion but he’s gentle as a lamb.”

“There’s a holdup in the Bronx.
Brooklyn’s broken out in fights.
There’s a traffic jam in Harlem
That’s backed up to Jackson Heights.
Queens is crushed by a tidal wave.
Kruschev’s due at Idlewild.
Car 54 where are you?”

“Lucky Lindy and bathtub gin.
Benny tells you to walk right in.
Roaring, soaring twenties.”

“Riverboat ring your bell.
Fare-thee-well Annabell.
Luck is the lady Maverick loves the best.”

“You meet the hipster and the grifter.
And even a private eye!
Seventy seven Sunset Strip.
Seventy seven Sunset Strip.”

“Shotgun Slade
With his two-barrel gun.”

“Johnny Yuma was a rebel,
He roamed through the west.”

Marked with a coward’s shame.
What do you when you’re branded
And nobody’s to blame?”

“Mabel, Black Label.
Carling Black Label Beer.”

“Rewarding flavor in this man’s world
For people who are having fun.
Schaeffer is the one beer to have
When you’re having more than one…”

“Crisp, refreshing…
Ballantine, Ballantine Beer.”

Far from soothing the captives, the songs only agitated them all the more. The young men tried again to sunder their fetters and flee. Rags shot his rifle over their heads.

“I’ll knock you out!” roared Rags at them.

“Enough!” shouted Bedpan. Don’t ye see, Rags, these songs remind the poor lads of the life they once had, watching the tele with their mums and dads, drinking hot cocoa, safe and sound in their warrens on the sacred streets of Olney! O Fern, Roselyn, Sparks, Spencer, Roselyn, Acker, Mascher, Front, Fairhill, Widener, Lawrence, Fisher, American Streets!”

Thereupon Bedpan buried his head in his hands and sobbed. The image reminded me of an illustration in my Baltimore Catechism of a young man in hell, submerged to his waist in a lake of fire, who hid his face in shame with his hands.

Bedpan soon recovered himself. Looking up, he smiled malevolently.

”What was, was. It’s the slaughter house for ye and the taproom for me. Let’s get cracking!"

His eye caught mine as he began shoving the young men into the truck.

“What kind of stereo is that, lad?”

“It’s a Columbia, sir.”

“Good outfit.”

Suddenly I blurted out: “My father’s a publican!”

“Where you at?”

“Third and Spencer, Pat’s Café.”

“Do ye have Reading beer?”

“Aye, sir,” said I with an impish grin to my new-found hero. “In both draft and bottle.”


Suddenly, one of the conscripts, a short, pudgy youth, who had broken his fetters with a rock lying nearby, made a mad dash for safety. Rags waited until the craven youth was almost out of sight as he rounded the corner of Widener Street before he shot him in the back.

“’Dynomite’”, said Rags, after killing the deserter.

“Let’s get cracking, lads,” shouted Bedpan as he frog-marched the youths to the back of the truck and shoved them into it.

After securing the rear latch, Bedpan and Rags walked to the front of the truck.

“Bedpan, where’s Con O’Brien?”

“Dead, and dead for a number of years, too.

“What about us?”

“They’ll have to beat us into the grave with a stick, lad.”

Climbing into the truck cab, they drove away with Rags at the wheel.

Left alone again, I proceeded on my Via Dolorosa to Acker Street. After reaching 5th and Champlost, I rode my bike on the level pavement along Fisher Park. Across the street, a long line of people were waiting in front of the Fern Rock Theater to see a double-bill of “The Robe” and “Demetrius and theGladiators.” I envied them. I had grown weary of my prized new stereo. I was almost compelled to throw it into the tall hedge bordering the park.

At 5th and Godfrey, in the middle of the P.T.C. trolley turnabout, sat a ramshackle luncheonette. Though longing to enter it and quench my parched throat with a dozen Frank’s orange sodas, I dared not, for the fell enemy was everywhere. On a nearby bench sat forlornly a poor young retarded man, wearing horn rim glasses and a beanie. His heavily scarred face and body bore testament to his near-immolation several years ago by thugs from the ‘hood who, all cracked-up, all smoked-out, had doused him with gasoline and set him afire.

For the last leg of my journey, I chose to proceed up Fairhill Street, parallel to 5th. I feared the open space of the reservoir that ran along the length of 5th Street from Chelten to 65th Avenue. I made a left onto Godfrey Avenue, and then a right onto Fairhill. I agonizingly pedaled up the street, the stereo in my basket adding to my exertion.

As I toiled up the hill I thought of my father tending bar at Pat’s Café. It was almost 5 P.M. (a perfect time for P.M. whiskey, a fine American blend). His taproom was packed with thirsty men working double shifts at the nearby armaments factories, especially the Heintz Heavy Industry Company, at B and Olney, which manufactured airplane and tank sheet metal for the ‘Nam.

I reached the corner of 5th and Chelten. On one side was Feeney’s Funeral Home; on the other, Mrs. McGettigan’s. Hence the sign above the house’s entrance: “Have a seat. It’s better here than across the street.” Mrs. McGettigan and her girls were lounging on the screened-in verandah; ceiling fans whirled above their heads. Sipping Old Fashioneds, and awaiting their T-bone steak dinners, the ladies chatted amiably. A transistor played Archie Bell and the Drells’ “(Do the) Tighten up.” One of the girls, a stunning, tall mulatto, rested her gorgeous buttocks (I was an ass-man) on the verandah railing as she drank a Colt 45 40-ouncer.
Mrs. McGettigan caught sight of me through the verandah’s screen.

“Hello, boy. You look awfully hot. Would you like an ice-cold beer?”

While I craved a chilled Reading with all my heart and soul, I forced myself to refuse the offer.

“No thank you, ma’am,” said I regretfully in a parched, cracked voice.

“That’s a fine Victrola you have there in your basket.”

“It’s a stereo, ma’am.”

“The Lord may save us! And who might you be?"

“Mooney. Ulrick Mooney."

“What a queer name! Well, Ulrick, when you’re older, you must visit and play us some tunes on it.”

“He old enough now, Miz Mary,” drawled the beguiling young mulatto. “Look at that whopper!”

The ladies roared with laughter.

In my maddened state, delirious from the heat, I failed to notice that I had become aroused. I gave the women a polite yet stiff bow and proceeded up Fairhill Street. Their raucous laughter followed me for quite a distance.

As soon as the sun set, pimped-out Packards, riding on huge chrome D.U.B.’s, would motor up to the curb. Sleazy valets, wearing ill-fitting, grease-stained red jackets, would open the car doors. Out would step the city’s elite: Mayor James H.J. Tate, Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo, Racketeer Al Capone, Union Boss Mike Quill. Everyone relished both Mrs. McGettigan’s hospitality and Sam the cook’s crab cakes. Even the lesser lights of our fair ‘hood attended these Saturday night functions. Several patrons from Pat’s Café often made an appearance there: pedagogue Barney McTague, alcoholic Dick Almighty, loner Armstrong.

The house on Chelten Avenue afforded the only neutral territory for the Police Commissioner Rizzo and Racketeer Capone. They had become fast friends when they attended St. Helena’s grammar school. Indeed, Frank Rizzo owed his life to Al Capone. One summer afternoon, the foolhardy lads, after constructing a raft from bits of old planks, had tried to sail it down Pennypacker Park in the Far Northeast. It immediately sank. As they were swept by the current towards the immense falls and certain doom, Al Capone grabbed an overhanging tree limb. Had not young Master Rizzo held on for dear life to the sturdy legs of the future capo di tutti capi, he would have ended his short life on a marble slab at the city morgue.

It was only on Saturday nights, at Mrs. McGettigan’s, that they held a truce and checked their pieces at the door: the Commissioner, his Smith & Wesson .44, Big Al, his Tek-9, Gaetano, Al’s younger brother, his M-16, and Frank Nitti, Al’s ruthless bodyguard, his AK-47. After feasting on oysters and crab cakes and consuming vast amounts of liquor, the men retired upstairs with the ladies. Groggy and exhausted the next morning, the two friends emptied the huge stainless steel Bunn coffee makers, shook hands, and went their separate ways: Frank, ever the common man (although he had quite a stash squirreled away in the vaults of The First National Bank, Front and Duncannon), drove himself to St. Helena’s Church in his late-model Mercury Monarch coupe, where he attended Sunday mass, received the Sacrament, and later backslapped Bishop Graham; Big Al, ever the grandiloquent thug, had his brother Gaetano and himself driven back to his penthouse lair at the Drake Hotel in his bullet-proof Packard limo by the President of “Murder Incorporated,” Frank Nitti.

I continued my weary journey homeward. The image of the mulatto girl’s brown buttocks seared my soul. My mind seethed with impure thoughts. The smell of oleanders in full bloom intoxicated me like a drunken man. Jove! How I wished I was one of those rich, powerful men. I no longer gave a fig about my stereo; I could just as easily have smashed it to bits against a tree trunk.

At last I reached Acker Street. I carried the stereo into the house and placed it on the coffee table. I gazed at the two goldfish swimming in my aquarium. The 6 o’clock news was on our imposing RCA. John Facenda, the “voice of God,” was wrapping up the newscast with his familiar tag line: “Good night to all, and to all a good night.” I looked at the T.V. Time magazine. BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK, with Spencer Tracy, was going to be shown at 9 o’clock. I particularly liked the opening credits of the movie, where a red and silver Santa Fe F-7 streamliner is dashing across the late-afternoon Yuma desert. It was great companionship, television, as my mother said. It neither bitch-slapped nor jacked you up in a corner.

(Kindly turn to the right hand column of this page to find a listing of links to other fabulous "Tales From the O-Zone", although unfortunately the above saga is the only one {so far!} from the inimitable pen of Kevin McDoom {"the Dickens of Olney, although far less boring than Dickens" -- Harold Blooom}.)


Unknown said...

OMG, Dan, you know so many multifariously writers: how did the Cardinal's high school happen to capture of a class full of writers to rival Proust and Raymond Carver at once? Who was the sainted English teacher?
Historically, though, genius often arises in waves: a group of innovators come to the fore, and watch out everybody.
Still, I wonder, how much you as editor here may have not only cleaned up typos, incorrect homonyms, and (subconsciously?) found necessary re-phrasings.

Then, too, it never fails to amaze me the people who are honestly anxious about their bodies' spontaneous combustion? Did I miss a major TV show where people went home, ate dinner, took phone calls, argued with house mates, and preparing for a glass of wine before bed: Phewsh! turned to ash? If so, I'll want to put it on our Netflicks cue, right after the Scarlett Johanssen fest Manny's got going now (who knew she made movies playing an 11-year old?), followed by "The Extras."
Say hi to your friend, and don't lose him. He's definitely worth your time.

Dan Leo said...

Ah,dearest Kathleen, I might have fixed a couple of typos here, but believe me, the phrasings are all 110% Kevin McDoom. I owe a lot more of my style and inspiration to the talented Mr. McDoom than I could ever express, not to mention years and years of unremitting hilarity and amusement and good old friendship.

Oddly enough, and it does seem odd, I don't think we ever had the same English teachers at Cardinal Dougherty high school; but Dougherty was and is enormous, the largest Catholic high school in the world I believe. It was not impossible to go through four years in the same grade with someone and never even meet them. Fortunately Kevin and I met even before Dougherty, and it was in the basement of his parents' house, reading old Tom Swift books, that we plotted our take-over of the western world.

I think -- and I'll have to check with Mr. McDoom here -- that the spontaneous combustion gag had its origin somewhere in Charles Dickens.

Peter Greene said...

Well, there's a pocket classic for you. Echoes the chandlers (Raymond and Brossard). You should never have let slip that the spontaneous combustion was a Dickens number! Damn it's a good one. Ice rain blasts my porch: this may be the last comment I ever write, frozen in my tracks like a pants-down mammoth.

Pants Down Mammoth. that, sir, is a title. If only I had a book big enuff for it.

and curse this brokken shift key! Great story - really, rather fun. Thanks, to you and the mysterious McDoom.


Dan Leo said...

Hey, PG, thanks for checkin' out this golden oldie from the earliest primeval era of my blogging career. This piece really was written by my boyhood friend "McDoom", who hasn't written a damn thing since. I think he doesn't want to flood the market