Thursday, August 27, 2020


“Where the hell ya takin’ me,” said Mickey Pumpernickel.

“Keep your shirt on,” said his fellow ventriloquist’s dummy, Mr. Fleeber. “Like I said, it’s a surprise.”

“Where the hell are we anyway? It’s spooky round here.”

“We are at the mysterious junction of Chinatown, Little Italy, Greenwich Village, and Fifth and Jipip.”

“Looks like just another slum to me.”

“Shaddap, we’re here already.”

Mr. Fleeber turned off the narrow dark street into a narrower and darker cobblestoned alleyway. Halfway down the alley a faint light glowed down near the ground on the left.

“Wished I brought my switchblade,” said Mickey, “or my sap.”

“Relax,” said Mr. Fleeber, “you ain’t gonna need no switchblade nor no sap. I been here a million times and ain’t never had no trouble.”

“It’s that million-and-first time ya gotta worry about,” said Mickey.

They reached the pale light, which turned out to be a dirty low-wattage light bulb in a wire-mesh fixture down the steps of a basement areaway.

“What gives?” said Mickey.

“I told ya I was gonna pay you back for helping me and Mo out,” said Mr. Fleeber. “This is the payback. Come on.”

The little dummy went down the steps and Mickey went with him.

Under the light bulb was a small door, only about four feet high. The door had what looked like a little shuttered window in it. Mr. Fleeber pressed a button to the side of the door, and the two dummies waited for somebody to answer the buzz.

“You got one of them Philip Morris Commanders?” said Mr. Fleeber.

“Sure,” said Mickey, and he took out his cigarettes. He lighted them both up with a Hotel St Crispian match, and the shutter on the other side of the window in the door slid open.

“Whatta we gotta do, stand out here all night?” said Mr. Fleeber.

The shutter closed, the door opened, and who was it but the Constable from the Punch and Judy show.

“Ah, Mr. Fleeber, my friend!”

“Whatta ya know, and a hidey ho,” said Mr. Fleeber, and he shook hands with the policeman. “Constable, this is my pal Mickey Pumpernickel. Mickey, this is the Constable. He may be a cop, but he ain’t all bad.”

Mickey shook hands with the constable.

“Nice to know ya, pal,” said Mickey. “I seen your work a few times, up in Ottawa when I played the Pantages there in the old days.”

“As have I seen you, Mr. Pumpernickel. My pleasure.”

“We gonna stand out here jabbering, or we gonna get outside some drinks?” said Mr. Fleeber.

“Of course,” said the marionette. “This way, gentlemen!”

He waved the two dummies in, and after closing the door and turning the latch he led them down a short passage into a crowded and noisy barroom.

All the old gang was there, or, if not all of them, a lot of them, at least the ones who were working in the city. For a good ten minutes Mickey shook hands and said hello, to Punch, to Judy, to various Japanese and Chinese puppets he hadn’t seen in years, along with the entire cast of the Mabel Beaton Marionettes, and a few oddballs like Maxie Doolittle (of “Maxie and Joe” fame) and Stumpy Mulligan (“Monty & Stumpy”) and T-Bone (“Gracie Molloy and T-Bone”). No humans, just puppets, marionettes and dummies.

“Awright,” said Mr. Fleeber finally, “enough jawboning and glad-handing, let’s get some drinks,” and they shoved over to the bar.

“Two shots of Three-in-One oil,” said Mr. Fleeber to the bartender, “outa here.” And he laid a crumpled dollar bill on the bar.

“Hey, no,” said Mickey, “let me get this.”

He reached his hand into his pocket, but Mr. Fleeber put his hand on Mickey’s arm.

“You want that arm broke? Tonight the drinks are on me.”

“Gee, Fleeber –”

“Gee nothing. You and McGee helped me and Mo out when we was in the gutter, now we got a good gig over to Mitzi’s thanks to you guys, and tonight your dough’s no good here.”


“Hey, next time we come in, then you can spend your money. But tonight? Do me the favor.”

The bartender (it was that big puppet used to work all the midwestern state fairs, Gabbo the Gorilla) laid down the shots.

“Here’s to you, pal,” said Mr. Fleeber.

Mickey and Mr. Fleeber raised their glasses and emptied them in one go.

Mickey felt a gentle touch on his shoulder, and he turned around.

It was that cute girl marionette from the French puppet show, Madelon. How long had it been? Not since back in ’45, when McGee and Mickey played Paris with the Special Services. She and Mickey had had a thing for a few sweet short weeks that spring. A good thing.

“Long time no see, Mickey.”

“Too long, Madelon.”

She hadn’t aged a day. Say what you want about marionettes and dummies and puppets, you take good care of them, they aged a hell of a lot better than humans did, and Madelon’s skin looked freshly painted and varnished, her lips as red as cherries, her dark eyes deep and black as the night.

And Mickey had a feeling this was going to be a very good night, a very good night indeed.

{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, August 20, 2020

“The Code of the Dummies”

“Hey, Mickey, wake up.”

The dummy Mickey Pumpernickel had been sleeping the oblivious sleep of the just beside the ventriloquist Waldo McGee in their bed at the Parker Hotel, but somebody or something was tugging at his little arm and whispering in his little wooden ear.

“Wake up, ya lazy bum.”

Mickey opened his eyes, looked to his right, and who was there in the dim moonlight coming in from the open window but his fellow dummy Mr. Fleeber.

“What the hell?”

“Shhh, not so loud, you’ll wake up McGee.”

McGee was snoring to beat the band.

Mickey sat up, reached for the Philip Morrises on the night table.

“He ain’t gonna wake up,” said Mickey. “He got loaded at that Bob’s Bowery Bar last night, so he’s out like a light.”

He shook out a cigarette, lighted it with a Hotel St Crispian paper match.

“What the hell’s up, Fleeber.”

“I wanted to thank you.”

“For what?”

“For getting McGee to loan Mo that double sawbuck, and for putting in a word with Louie.”

“Don’t mention it. When we’re flush, our buddies ain’t never gonna have to sleep in no alleyway nor drink no canned heat, and if we can help a buddy out, we’re gonna help him out. That’s just the way we roll.”

“Stand-up guys.”

“We try to be, Fleeber. We try. So how’s it going.”

“That’s the other thing I wanted to tell ya. Louie got us a gig.”

“No kidding? Where at?”

“Little jazz joint over to MacDougal, name of Mitzi’s Tap Room.”

“I heard of the place.”

“Tiny little basement joint, but class, Mickey. The owner, Miss Mitzi, she don’t hire no ham-and-eggers. She’s had Charlie Parker playing there, Coleman Hawkins, Helen Hume, Pee Wee Russell. Class. Anyways, she likes to have somebody work the crowd in between the musical acts, so Louie sent us over, I turned on the charm, and presto, she hired us on the spot.”

“No kidding.”

“Wednesday through Sunday nights, ten bucks a night, plus Mo gets a free meal. She’s got a little kitchen, y’understand, limited menu, but good home-cooking, she’s always got a nice stew or a stroganoff in the crock pot.”

“That’s swell, Fleeber.”

“We start this Wednesday.”

“I wish you the best of luck, my friend. If we wasn’t working ourself we’d come out and give yez a little support.”

“I understand, man. And you can tell McGee, another week and he’s got that double sawbuck back.”

“Don’t worry about it. Get settled first. You guys still down at the Starlight flop?”

“Yeah. It ain’t so bad.”

“Not bad for a flophouse. Soon’s you get your first pay, move in here at the Parker. It’s cheap, it’s clean. No bedbugs, no termites.”

“Okay, I’ll tell Mo that.”

“You need a good room, Fleeber. It’s hard to put on a good show when you know you’re going home at night to a goddam flophouse.”

“Don’t I know it?”

“So first get a room here, make sure Mo is solid and on his feet, then when you get a little bit ahead, you can pay us back.”

“You’re a reet guy, Mickey.”

“I got my moments.”

“I just wanted to say thanks.”

“Well, you’re welcome, Fleeber.”

“And I’m gonna make it up to you.”

“That ain’t necessary.”

“For me it is. For me it is, Mickey.”

Mickey let it go. He knew what Fleeber meant. It was the code. The code of the dummies. If they didn’t look out for each other, who the hell else was going to? Nobody, that’s who.

“I’ll let you get back to sleep now,” said Mr. Fleeber.

“Awright. Careful getting back to the flop this hour of the night.”

“I’m always careful, buddy.”

“How’d you get in here, anyways?”

“Up the drain pipe, then onto the fire escape.”

“Okay. Just watch your step getting down, that pavement down there ain’t made out of cotton candy.”

“Gimme five.”

The two dummies shook hands, and Mickey watched as Mr. Fleeber went across the room, climbed up onto the chair next to the window and then up onto the window sill.

He turned and waved.

“Whatta ya know, and a hidey ho!” he stage-whispered, and then he was out the window.

Mickey sat there finishing his Philip Morris Commander. Would Mo Mosco blow this opportunity? For that matter, would McGee keep on the straight and narrow? Mickey hadn’t minded Waldo getting loaded last night, it was Monday, their night off; the guy deserved one night a week to get a little loose, and God knew he’d pay the price today. Mickey would have to kick his raggedy ass out of bed and down the street to Ma’s Diner to get a good healthy breakfast in him, best thing in the world on a morning after. A stack of blueberry pancakes, half a dozen of them home-cured bacon rashers of Ma’s, maybe a side of scrambled eggs and some of them fried and breaded green tomatoes, wash it all down with a pot of coffee, finish up with a big slice of peach pie with ice cream, then back to the hotel for a nap.

Mickey stubbed out his cigarette, then lay back down. Waldo was still snoring. Let him sleep.

And soon Mickey Pumpernickel was sleeping too, dreaming of that cute little French marionette Madelon…

{Please go here to read the “adult comix” version in A Flophouse Is Not a Home, profusely illustrated by the one-and-only Rhoda Penmarq…}

Thursday, August 13, 2020

“The Secret Language of Dummies”

Waldo McGee was on his good behavior. He had a good steady job now at the Prince Hal Room in the Hotel St Crispian, and he didn’t want to blow it. After his last set he would pack up his dummy Mickey Pumpernickel in his suitcase, have his one free staff drink at the bar, one and done, and then catch a cab to Bob’s Bowery Bar for a nightcap. One bock beer, maybe two, and then back to his room just up the corner at the Parker Hotel.

But on this August night, as on most nights, Waldo woke up after only an hour or two of sleep. He lay there in bed, Mickey next to him, Waldo stared at the dark ceiling, he heard the elevated train roar by, and he knew there was nothing to be done but to go down the block to Ma’s Diner on Bleecker for a glass of milk and some pie.

Waldo got dressed, and with Mickey under his arm he went downstairs, past Zeke the night clerk asleep at his desk, and out to the street.

It was just five a.m., the sun had not come up, just a faint glimmering above the rooftops and the chimney pots of the Bowery.

The diner was empty except for Ma, sitting at the counter reading a movie magazine. She had just baked a fragrant batch of pies for the morning. Waldo asked for a slice of sweet potato pie, with fresh whipped cream and a glass of milk, and, picking up yesterday’s Federal Democrat from next to the cash register, he took a seat in the corner booth.

The news was bad, as it usually was, but Waldo knew he should try to keep up, because you never knew when you might read something you could turn into a bit for the act. Three sets a night, six nights a week, you had to try to keep the routine fresh for the regular punters. But the thing about the news was, it was all in the headlines, and there wasn’t much point in reading the whole articles. Waldo turned to the funnies, and he was reading Mutt and Jeff when somebody tapped on the window.

Could it be? Yes. It was. Mo Mosco. And looking a hell of a lot worse for the wear, but then Waldo doubted that he had looked much better himself a couple of weeks ago. Jeeze, when had he last seen Mo? Before the war?

Mickey gave Mo a “come on in” wave, and next thing you knew Mo was sitting across the table. He had a beat-up old suitcase, and he set it down on the seat next to him.

“Nice little joint here, Waldo. Real nice. Whatcha got there, pie? And I see you still got Mickey Pumpernickel.”

Mickey was sitting to the left of Waldo, on the window side.

“Long time no see, Mo,” said Mickey.

“Got an old friend of yours with me, Mickey,” said Mo, and he opened up the suitcase and took out his own dummy, Mr. Fleeber, and sat him up next to him across from Mickey.

“Whatta ya know and a hidey ho!” said Mr. Fleeber, his usual catchphrase. That hadn’t changed in twenty years.

Ma came over and stared at the two men and the two dummies.

“Now I seen it all,” she said.

“Hey, beautiful,” said Mr. Fleeber, Mo’s lips just barely twitching, “how’s about a nice hot cup of joe?”

“Sure, little fella. Anything else?”

“Nah, just a nice cup of joe, thank you very much. Hot, sweet and creamy, just like you, doll.”

“Get my friend a slice of pie, Ma,” said Waldo. “You like sweet potato pie, Mo?”

“Yeah, sure, but I ain’t really hungry, Waldo –”

Mo looked like he hadn’t eaten in a day or two or three. His skin was the color of an old gunny sack, and he had two or three days’ growth of salt-and-pepper beard.

“Make it another slice of sweet potato pie for my friend, Ma,” said Waldo, “with whipped cream, and get him a nice glass of milk, too, on my tab, including the cup of joe.”

“Gee, Waldo,” said Mo.

The two ventriloquists sat and talked about the old times, the last days of vaudeville on the old Pantages circuit, the hundreds of road houses and gin joints from the Catskills to the Ozarks, from Frisco to Key West. They each had another slice of pie and another glass of milk, and then they both began to doze.

“These guys,” said Mr. Fleeber.

“I know,” said Mickey.

“Living in the past.”

“You can’t do that,” said Mickey.

“No,” said Mr. Fleeber. “Once you do that you’re dead. You might still be walking around, but you’re dead. Dead inside.”

“You get Mosco cleaned up, you’ll get a gig,” said Mickey.

“Maybe,” said Mr. Fleeber.

“You got to try, Fleeber. You can’t give up.”

“I know that, Mickey. God knows I know that. But this guy.”

He jerked his little thumb at Mo, sitting there slumped with his stubbled chin on his chest.

“You think this jerk is much better?” said Mickey, pointing a finger at the sleeping Waldo. “But I pushed him, and I kept pushing him, and now we’re working, and if it’s up to me we’re gonna keep working.”

“That’s what I’m gonna do,” said Mr. Fleeber. “I’m gonna push Mosco. But, say, you know I hate to ask, but you think Waldo might front Mo a fin, maybe a sawbuck, just so’s we can get a flop, get a bath and a shave, maybe get the suit cleaned and pressed.”

“I don’t know about a sawbuck, but I’ll bet McGee’s good for a fin,” said Mickey.

“Gee, that would be great,” said Mr. Fleeber. “A flop, a bath and a shave, that’s all Mo needs. You watch, he’ll make the rounds and have a job tonight.”

Sitting at the counter, Ma looked over at the two ventriloquists. They looked like they both had fallen asleep, but they weren’t hurting nobody, so she would let them sleep for a while. It was almost six, and the breakfast trade would be coming in soon, so she got up to start making the pancake batter.

{Please go here to read the “adult comix” version in A Flophouse Is Not a Home, illustrated by the one-and-only Rhoda Penmarq…}

Thursday, August 6, 2020

“Say There, Young Fellow!”

It had been Terry Foley’s luck (whether good or bad no one could say) to complete his modicum of required military service between the end of the Second World War and the beginning of the Korean police action, and ever since his honorable discharge he had been, with the help of the G.I. Bill, “working on his novel”.  

Terry was a harsh critic of his own work, and he had summarily abandoned the entire 3,100-page first draft of his novel, set on an army base in Kansas, titled variously I Got the Olive Drab Blues; Last Call for Chow; Make Mine Khaki; and Ten-hut, Private Hooley! 

Terry had put a lot of time and effort into that draft, and for each sheet of completed typescript he had filled up God only knew how many pages of marble copybooks, and how many aborted sheets of expensive 20-lb typing paper had wound up in the waste basket or had been scissored up and converted into cigarette papers? But, let’s face it, who wanted to read about life on a dreary old army base in Kansas? It had been bad enough living through it all, let alone writing about it, and finally his own boredom and common sense won out. Terry shoved the whole enormous pile into his footlocker and began afresh with a saga of a young man from the provinces, fresh out of the service, who comes to New York City to become a novelist. He was four hundred pages into the first draft of this new approach now; working title: Say, There, Young Fellow!

Terry was twenty-four years old, and he was a virgin, he had no idea why. Well, no, actually he had a lot of ideas why, and these ideas were covered in detail in his novel. But could his novel be any good if his protagonist, Jerry Hooley, never lost his virginity? Would anyone want to read a Bildungsroman with no sex, let alone no romance?

The time of the year was August, a hot and oppressive August, but, Terry wondered, was there any other kind of August? He lived in a small studio apartment with no air-conditioning on Bleecker Street near the Bowery. One Wednesday afternoon a week he attended a summer creative-writing workshop at N.Y.U., but other than that his time was his own. Not counting his two years in the army he had never held a job since his boyhood paper route, and Terry was content to live off his modest government stipend and the odd ten-dollar bills sent to him by one or the other of his two grandmothers and four maiden aunts back in Ohio.

On a typical morning, shortly after the heat awakened him, usually between ten and eleven a.m., Terry would gather up his marble copybook and his #2 pencils and stagger downstairs and across Bleecker Street to the air-conditioned comfort of Ma’s Diner,  and there he would while away the rest of the morning and afternoon and early evening drinking copious cups of coffee, eating up to four or five slices of Ma’s delicious pies, and scribbling away in his copybook. When he grew tired or when the creative afflatus abandoned him, he would read a book or someone’s abandoned newspaper or movie magazine, or simply stare out the window at the passing parade of humanity. In the evenings he would take public transportation uptown to the Thalia or across town to the Waverly on 6th Avenue and catch a foreign film or a 1930s screwball comedy; afterwards, his long day done, it was back onto the el or the bus and home to his tiny apartment.

One day in Ma’s Diner a young woman sitting on the next stool addressed him.

“Excuse me, but I see you in here every day, writing in that copybook. May I ask what you are writing?”

Terry was not used to being addressed by strangers, and it took him several moments to rouse himself from his reveries.

“If I am being intrusive,” the young woman said, “please feel free to say so.”

“Oh, not at all,” said Terry. “I am writing a novel.”

“Indeed?” said the young lady, who, despite the season, was dressed all in black, topped with a black beret. “May I ask what is the thrust, or theme, or argument of your novel?”

“To put it bluntly,” said Terry, “it’s about a young man who comes to the city to become a novelist. But, of course, it is about many other things as well.”

“Of course,” said the young woman. “This is really quite the coincidence, because you see I too am writing a novel.”

And she tapped the large black leather-bound notebook lying on the counter before her.

Terry wished he had one of those handsome nice notebooks, but what was the use, his bohemian mode of life precluded such extravagances. Maybe he should move to Mexico, where the cost of living was allegedly much cheaper, where he could afford nice leather-bound notebooks instead of these cheap dime store copybooks? He bet Ernest Hemingway didn’t write in cheap copybooks. Or did he? He must go to the library and look up that New Yorker profile. He couldn’t remember if Hemingway’s preferred writing materials were mentioned in that, although he seemed to recall reading somewhere that Hemingway used #2 pencils, so at least Terry had that part of the deal covered…

“Do you want to know what my novel is about?” said the young woman.

“Oh, sure,” said Terry.

“It’s about the journey of a young girl who goes from a Catholic girls’ school to Vassar, and then she graduates and comes to the city to pursue a career as a jazz poet, and, yes, to awaken to her womanhood. But of course it’s about loads of other stuff as well.”

Womanhood, awakening. Loads of other stuff…

Suddenly it dawned on Terry that here was a girl – and, a bonus, a pretty girl – initiating a conversation with him, in a diner, and that this was like a pivotal scene in a novel: the boy meets girl scene.

This was his big chance, possibly. A new chapter in his life as well as his novel. He must not blow it. He must say the right thing.

“I would love to read some of your book,” he said, which was not entirely true, but probably much preferable to saying what he was actually thinking. 

He wanted to take a quick moment to write the previous sentence down, but, no, he would just have to try to remember it and get it down later. He must try to stay in the moment.

For her part the young lady, whose name was Araminta Sauvage, was thinking: could this be the plot turn, mutatis mutandis, she had been searching for in her own novel, the working title of which she had recently changed from Virgins of Vassar to The Womb of the City? 

This chap was not the best-looking fellow she had ever met, but, after all, what was more important: looks or brains? And wasn’t it high time that she (as well as her heroine, Amanda Bricolage) divested herself of her tedious so-called chastity?

“I’d be delighted to show you some pages of my novel,” she said. “But you must let me read some of yours.”

Yes! thought Terry, yes! 

But what he said was, “Gee, that would be swell.”

{Kindly click here to read the “adult comix” version in A Flophouse Is Not a Home, illustrated by the one-and-only Rhoda Penmarq…}