Thursday, January 30, 2020

“The Bowery don’t look so bad in the snow”

“Nice view you got up here of the el tracks,” said Janet. “And down over them rooftops you can just see the Brooklyn Bridge. Still there in case you ever decide you want to jump off it again.”

Hector Philips Stone, the doomed romantic poet, said nothing, and drank the hot tea with milk and honey she had brought him in a large take-out cup.

Janet lighted up a Philip Morris, shook out the match and laid it on the window sill. She leaned her head to the side, looking up at that sky the color of the sidewalk down below.

“Looks like snow again,” she said. “The Bowery don’t look so bad in the snow.”

She turned to Hector, lying in his narrow bed. He was unwrapping one of the sandwiches she had brought.

“You want me to crack this window, Hector, let a little fresh air in for a minute?”

“It’s stuck,” he said. Ham salad. He loved ham salad. “I haven’t been able to open it since early November. I guess I could have asked Mr. Morgenstern to open it, but I didn’t want to, especially because I had to ask him to close it in the first place.”

He took a bite of the sandwich. Delicious – even better than Grandma Stone’s!

Janet looked at the window, as if taking its measure, and then she hit its upper sash with the heel of her right fist, once, twice, three times.

“It’s really hopelessly stuck Janet,” said Hector, talking with his mouth full.

Janet put her cigarette between her lips, grabbed the two worn metal sash-pulls, gave them a good yank, and the window opened, letting in the cold air of the Bowery, which did not smell so bad six floors up from the street like this.

“Just a crack,” she said, lowering the window a bit. “Blow some of the stink out. I’ll close it up when I leave.”

Hector swallowed, wiped his lips with one of the paper napkins she had brought.

“Y’know, Janet,” he said, “I really can’t thank you enough, taking care of me while I’ve been laid up like this.”

“Hey, least I can do since I’m the one laid you up,” she said.

“I deserved it,” he said.

“That’s true,” she said. She flicked the dead match on the sill with her fingernail, sending it flying out the window. “Young guy like you. Educated, and a poet and all. Wanting to jump off the goddam Brooklyn Bridge.”

“You don’t understand,” he said.

“Yeah, I guess I don’t. Me, I was born in this crumby neighborhood, but you don’t hear me talking about jumping off no bridges.”

“You’re stronger than I am, Janet.”

“Yeah,” she said. “But anyways, I got a kid sister and brother to support. Who’s gonna take care of them two if I top myself?”

“Well, I can never repay you.”

“I ain’t looking to get repaid, Hector. Oh, by the way, you got some mail.”

She reached into her old cloth coat and brought out a letter, tossed it over to the bed.

Hector picked it up. From Smythe & Son, Publishers. Another rejection letter, doubtless.

He tore it open, and read:

Dear Mr. Stone,

    We have read your collection, Doom Be My Destiny, and are very interested in publishing it, if some deletions and odd changes would not be unamenable to you. Perhaps you are free this coming Friday, and if so I would be delighted to give you lunch, and we can talk the whole matter over. My preferred midday dining spot is the Rose Room at the Algonquin, easy stumbling distance from our offices, and I think you will find the food quite edible and the cocktails refreshing not to mention an excellent cellar. You did not mention if you have representation, but if you do have an agent, feel free to bring him (or her) along as well, as my guest of course. Do please call the number printed above, and I’ll have my secretary make the reservation. Shall we say about one-ish?


Julian Smythe
Director of Acquisitions

Hector folded up the letter and replaced it in the envelope.

“Janet,” he said, “how would you like to be my literary agent?”

{Please click here to read the “adult comic” version in A Flophouse Is Not a Home with illustrations by the redoubtable rhoda penmarq.}

Thursday, January 23, 2020

"Basket Lunch"

Hector Philips Stone felt terrible. It’s true that normally this doomed romantic poet felt more or less terrible, but today he felt extra terrible. Not only was he subsumed by his usual Weltschmerz, along with just an average hangover, but his jaw, his left shoulder, and his left kneecap all ached terribly from where Janet, the beautiful waitress at Bob’s Bowery Bar, had smacked him with her leather sap the night before. And why? All because she had overheard him announcing his intention to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge after the bar closed down.

Next time he would keep it to himself, God damn it! Just go down to the bridge and do it without first broadcasting it to all the world, or at least to the tiny portion of the world consisting of Bob’s bar and its patrons and staff.

Well, he would never be able to make it to the bridge today, that was for sure. It was all he could do to limp the six feet to his little bathroom and and then back to his bed, forget about making it all the way down six flights of stairs to the street, even if he did have bus fare to the bridge, which he hadn’t.

On top of everything else he was hungry, starving! Once again he had forgotten to eat the previous day, preferring to spend the last of his Christmas money on bock beer and shots of Schenley’s whiskey at Bob’s. So maybe he wouldn’t have to go to the bridge after all, maybe he would starve to death. Not as dramatic as jumping off the bridge, but pretty damned romantic and pathetic, that was for sure.

It occurred to him that he might jump out the window, but his lone window was stuck, and had been stuck ever since Mr. Morgenstern had managed with great difficulty to close it when the cold weather came this past November. Of course he could try to break the window pane, but he hated to put Mr. and Mrs. Morgenstern to the expense of replacing the glass, especially since he was over a month in arrears on his $20-a-month rent.

Misery. Such was his lot. He wondered if he had some aspirin, and he was thinking about dragging himself out of bed and hobbling to the bathroom to check the medicine cabinet, when a knocking sounded on his door.

“Yes, who is it?”

“It’s me, Janet.”

Janet? Had she come to finish him off?

“Let me in, Hector.”

“Come in, it’s not locked.”

He never locked the door, knowing he would only lose the key if he did.

Janet came in, carrying a wicker basket, covered with dishtowels.

“I thought you might be hungry.”

She came over and sat on the side of the bed, and laid the basket down, pulling off the dishtowels.

“You got sandwiches here, roast beef, chicken, liverwurst and ham-and-cheese. A container of split pea soup, eat that before it gets cold. Some hard-boiled eggs, and there’s hot tea with milk and honey in this big container. This here is Bob’s Mom’s boysenberry pie, still warm. Eat up, and I asked Mrs. Morgenstern to check in on you later today to see if you need anything. How’s your knee, anyway? Is it broke?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Let me check.”

She started to pull the bedclothes away, Hector’s old army blanket and the quilt his Grandma Stone had made for him when he went away to college. Hector drew his legs up and grabbed at the covers.

“Janet, please! I’m not dressed!”

“You wearin’ underpants?”

“Yes, but –”

“Oh, please, don’t you know I got a little brother?”

She yanked away the blankets and felt Hector’s swollen knee.

“Okay, it ain’t broke. Another week or two you’ll be dancing the black bottom with the best of them.”

Hector covered up his legs.

“I assure you I have never danced the black bottom and never will.”


She had laid out all the provisions on Hector’s little night table, and now she stood up, taking the empty basket and the dish towels.

“I’ll stop by tomorrow around the same time. Rest that leg, and don’t go jumping off any bridges in the meantime.”

Without another word she left Hector’s small room, closing the door behind her.

Hector waited until he heard her steps going down the stairwell, and then he broke into great heaving sobs. Three minutes later he caught his breath, wiped his face on his grandma’s quilt, and then he began to eat and drink.

{Please click here to read the full-fledged “adult comics” version in A Flophouse Is Not a Home, with illustrations by the illustrious rhoda penmarq.)

Thursday, January 16, 2020

“Something to Whine About”

Janet laid down the fresh pitcher of bock.

“I’ve had it,” said Hector, the doomed romantic poet.

“Ah, we’ve all had it, lad,” said Seamas the Irish poet.

“Up to the ears,” said Scaramanga the leftist poet.

“And out the butt,” said Frank X Fagan the nature poet.

“Had it and been had by, son,” said Lucius Pierrepont St. Clair III, the Negro poet. “The game was fixed before you were born.”

“We have all heard that high sad moaning whine across the prairie,” said Howard Paul Studebaker, the western poet.

“Tonight I do it, damn it,” said young Hector. “Down to the Brooklyn Bridge, and off I go.”

“We’re heard that before, me boyo,” said Seamas.

“That old sad song,” said Scaramanga.

“But somehow it never grows old,” said Frank X.

“The Comanche call it the coyote’s song of death,” said Howard.

“Just make sure you go all the way out to the middle of the bridge,” advised Lucius. “You don’t want to botch the job.”

“I won’t botch the job,” said Hector. “Just you guys wait and see.”

“Hey, Hector,” said Janet, who had been standing there the whole time. “Can I talk to you a minute?”

“What about?” said Hector. This was unheard of, beautiful Janet actually asking one of these bums to talk to her.

“I just want to talk to you a minute. Step outside with me and we’ll have a smoke.”

“But it’s cold out there,” said Hector.

Janet just stared at him, and so he said okay.

Outside it was snowing again, and they stood under the slight shelter provided by the entranceway of Bob’s Bowery Bar.

“What is it, Janet?” said Hector. He was wearing his old army overcoat, he hadn’t taken it off all night, nor his Greek fisherman’s cap, but Janet only wore her old threadbare cardigan.

She offered Hector her pack of Philip Morris Commanders, and of course Hector took one. Janet popped out one for herself, and she gave them both a light.

“So you’re gonna top yourself, hey, Hector?” She flicked the match out into the falling snow. “Jump off the Brooklyn Bridge.”

“Yes,” said Hector, “in point of fact I am, and please don’t try to talk me out of it, Janet, because my mind’s made up.”

“Oh, I won’t try to talk you out of it. But can I ask you exactly why you wanta jump off the bridge?”

“Because I’m tired of it all, Janet! The rejection, the failure, the poverty, the, the, gee, all of it.”

“Tired of it all, huh?”

“Yes, tired to my soul.”

“Okay, I can understand that. But, Hector, before you take that long jump, can I at least give you somethin’?”

“Gee, sure, Janet. What is it?”

Hector for a brief moment thought he might be getting a kiss, a farewell kiss, but instead Janet brought her leather sap out of her apron pocket and whacked him hard across the jaw with it. Hector fell back against the wall and slid down to the pavement, and Janet drew back and gave him another stout whack on the shoulder. Crying, Hector curled up in pain, but Janet leaned over and gave him one more well-placed whack right on the kneecap, and he screamed, but his scream was softly muffled by the thick falling snow.

Janet straightened up, and slid the sap back into her apron.

“Now you got something to whine about,” she said.

She went back in the bar and told the poets to go outside and carry Hector back to his trap around the corner.

Maybe someday Hector would jump off the Brooklyn Bridge, but he sure wasn’t going to do it tonight.

{Kindly go here to read the “adult comic” version in “A Flophouse Is Not a Home”, illustrated by the immortal rhoda penmarq.)

Thursday, January 9, 2020

“Hector’s New Year’s Resolution”

It was new year’s eve, and Hector Philips Stone, the doomed romantic poet, had but one resolution for the new year: the next day, January the first, he would walk out to the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge and jump off, and good riddance to it all – the failure, the struggle, the tedium, the poverty…

Earlier this day it had occurred to him, for no particular reason, to check his mail box downstairs, something he tended to do no more often than once a week if that, and, lo and behold, what should he find in the midst of the usual pile of rejection letters from literary magazines and publishers, but a Christmas card from his dear old Grandma Stone, and in it, oh happy day, was a twenty dollar bill.

Twenty bucks! Just enough, in fact way more than enough, for one final grand blowout around the corner at Bob’s Bowery Bar. One last glorious drunk, and then after the bar closed at 4 am and Bob kicked everyone out, that ultimate long reeling walk through the slums down to the East River, shimmering grey and cold in the sickly glow from an opaque sky the color of a filthy old circus tent, and then out to the enormous hulking bridge and the end of it all…

Hector pulled on his old army overcoat, wrapped his muffler around his thin long neck, pulled on his Greek fisherman’s cap, and went down the six flights of stairs to Bleecker and a driving snowfall and then around the corner to Bob’s Bowery Bar.

It was only five o’clock but already the joint was packed with boisterous revelers, including all the usual gang of failed poets, all sitting at the usual round top: loud and hearty Seamas McSeamas the Irish poet, who always spoke in a shout if he spoke at all; Howard Paul Studebaker, the “western poet”, born and bred in Hackensack, whose entire experience of the west had been six weeks on a dude ranch in New Mexico when he was twelve years old, before his old man lost his money in the crash; Frank X Fagen the nature poet, who probably hadn’t been closer to nature than Washington Square Park in a dozen years; Scaramanga, the leftist poet, despite the fact that he had been drummed out of the Communist Party for unrepentant dipsomania and general obstreperousness; and Lucius Pierrepont St. Clair III, the Negro poet, whose specialty was poems of the Harlem tenements, although he had lived for years just up the block at the Parker Hotel flophouse, and hadn’t actually been up to Harlem since he had been bounced out of the old Cotton Club one night in 1934 for drunkenly invading the stage in an attempt to declaim his poetry during a Cab Calloway performance. But these were Hector’s friends, his only friends, and so it was fitting that his last night on earth should be spent in their company.

Hector was not well known for buying rounds, and so imagine his buddies’ surprise when he hailed Janet the waitress and ordered two pitchers of Bob’s basement-brewed bock for the table as well as shots of Schenley’s whiskey for all.

This was just about the last thing Hector remembered clearly of this new year’s eve. There were songs, shouted songs of Irish rebels from Seamas, cowboy songs sung in a surprisingly clear tenor by Howard, “On the Banks of the Wabash” from Frank X, “The International” and some supposedly Spanish Civil War songs from Scaramanga, “Ol’ Man River” from Lucius, and even Hector let loose with a favorite Gregorian chant. Beyond that was only oblivion…

Hector awoke the next day with the worst hangover of his life, which was saying something. He was lying in his bed fully-clothed, still wearing his old army coat, his muffler, and his Greek fisherman’s cap. He forced himself out of bed to the bathroom.

When he had finished voiding his bladder he stared at his thin unshaven face in the mirror. Boy, what a blowout that had been! Despite his killing hangover he felt terrifically hungry. Had he not eaten yesterday?

He staggered out of the bathroom and sat down on his bed.

On his night table, right next to the overflowing ashtray (on which was painted the legend THE ST CRISPIAN HOTEL WHERE THE SERVICE IS SWELL) was Grandma Stone’s Christmas card. He picked it up and read her palsied handwriting:

Dear Hector,
Please put this twenty to good use.

Well, if getting absolutely bombed was putting the twenty to good use, then he had followed her injunction to the letter.

Hector wondered if he had blown the entire twenty, and he searched his pockets. Mirabile dictu, he found five crumpled one dollar bills. Happy day, he could go across the street to Ma’s Diner and treat himself to an enormous hangover-dulling breakfast, and then come back to his room and have a good long nap!

Hector went down the six flights to Bleecker, and once again it was snowing. It was dusk and the street lights were blinking on in the swirling snow. So he had slept through the whole day – no wonder he was so hungry!

So this was the new year. Had he made any resolutions? He had a vague idea that he had made at least one, but the devil if he could remember what it was. He walked up to the corner of the Bowery and crossed Bleecker Street to Ma’s. Thank God she ran her breakfast menu all day long, because Hector was in the mood for eggs and scrapple, home fries, toast with lots of butter, half a dozen of Ma’s homemade doughnuts, a big slice of apple pie with vanilla ice cream, and lashings of Ma’s strong black coffee. What a great way to start the new year!

{Please click here to read the “adult comic” version in A Flophouse Is Not a Home, with illustrations by the inimitable rhoda penmarq.}

Thursday, January 2, 2020

“New Year’s Eve Story; or, Back to the Bowery”

It was December 31st, and Reggie Wertham had finally spent all but ten bucks of the three hundred and forty dollars he had rolled from that passed-out swell in the alleyway next door to Bob’s Bowery Bar. That had been Thanksgiving day, so he had had a good five weeks living high off the hog here at the Hotel St Crispian.

The St Crispian was a nice clean old-fashioned Greenwich Village hotel, reasonably priced, with good food and pleasant entertainment downstairs at the Prince Hal Room. Reggie had made friends with Mortimer the elevator operator and Jake the bellhop and Olaf the doorman (through the time-honored method of tipping them each a fin on his first night here), and the three of them had seen to Reggie’s every modest want. Jake had even asked Reggie if he would like some tail, but Reggie hadn’t taken him up on the offer. To be quite honest he was afraid a piece of tail would be a bringdown – you know, thinking about the girl’s impoverished background and sick little brother, that kind of thing. No, Reggie preferred to spend the swell’s gelt on steaks and chops and cocktails in the Prince Hal Room, on Philip Morris Commander cigarettes and a warm and comfortable bed in a room that was not in a flophouse.

But now he was down to his last ten, and it was time to say goodbye to the St Crispian.

He dressed in the new grey flannel suit he had bought at Al’s Tall and Small Men’s Shop down the street on 7th Avenue, his new stout Thom McAn brown brogues, and the passed-out swell’s red-and-grey regimental-stripe silk tie and Camel’s hair topcoat and felt trilby hat with a blue feather in it.

He was clean, bathed, freshly shaved and barbered, and he knew he wouldn’t be any of those again for quite some time, if ever.

Reggie picked up his cheap new Gladstone with a couple of changes of fresh linen in it, and left his room for the last time. He went across the hall with no regrets and pressed the elevator button.

On the way down Mortimer said, “So you’re leavin’ us, Mr. Wertham.”

“Yes, I am,” said Reggie. “Business calls, I’m afraid. But here, Mortimer, I want you to have this.”

He handed Mortimer a one-dollar bill.

“Gee, thanks, Mr. Wertham,” said Mortimer. “Have a good business trip, and I hope you’ll be stoppin’ with us again next time you’re in town.”

“I certainly shall, Mortimer.”

Outside on Bedford the sky was grey and snow was just beginning to fall. Reggie turned up the collar of his topcoat.

“You want cab, Mr. Vertam?” said Olaf, the ancient doorman.

“No, thank you, Olaf,” said Reggie. “I think I’ll walk.”

“Is good to walk in snow,” said Olaf.

“Yes, it is,” said Reggie. “Well, happy new year, Olaf.”

“Happy new year, Mr. Vertam,” said Olaf, “and as we say in my old country, may your akvavit be strong and fiery like your women.”

“Ha ha,” said Reggie, and he started down the steps. But then he stopped and turned, went back up to Olaf and gave him a dollar, which left him with seven, because he had given Jake a buck in the lobby.

Seven bucks, way more than enough for a grand new year’s eve blowout at Bob’s Bowery Bar and a fifty-cent cot at the Parker Hotel flophouse.

He turned left and started walking in the falling snow, back down to the Bowery.

It was New Year’s Eve, and, who knew, maybe it wouldn’t even be his last one…

{Please go here to read the “adult comic book” version with illustrations by the illustrious rhoda penmarq.)