New York scramble
I had to make a sober effort. So, I shouldered my way through the pedestrian horde, searching for that silly bird.
‘Frank Costello, the Mafia boss, got hisself shot in the lobby of his hotel last night. My buddy, Carl, the doorman over there ... he seen the whole thing!’
Photo courtesy of Bert Silva
An illustrator’s memories of gags and gangsters
Who wants to be a gardener or a taxi driver? Who wants to be a tax accountant? Weren’t we all artists? Weren’t our minds better than that? Better to suffer this way rather than the other.
By Bert Silva
The shooter would later be identified as Vincent “The Chin” Gigante. His intended victim entered the lobby and walked towards the elevator. The hulking gunman, hiding in the shadows, aimed his weapon at point-blank range. “This is for you, Frank!” he said, and fired. Hearing those words, Gigante’s well-dressed target turned and dodged a split second before the slug entered at the left side of his neck, just missing the carotid artery.
Frank Costello, infamous as “Prime Minister of the Underworld,” fell to the floor. The shooter, certain he’d killed the Mafia boss, escaped out the lobby entrance. On the way to Roosevelt Hospital, Costello too believed he was going to die.
The following day was fairly successful for me. Sam Bierman, editor of Crestwood Publications located on W. 22nd St., bought three cartoons from my batch. And the humor editor at True magazine, one of the big ones, held out a gag for consideration. I decided to reward myself and wandered over to a favorite tavern, place called Costello’s (no relation to Frank) on Third Avenue near E. 45th St.
Taking a stool at the bar, I ordered a Lowenbrau draft. I felt comfortable there, a watering hole long popular with New York cartoonists.
I found myself lured to that tavern frequently. I drank, gabbed with other cartoonists I met there, and looked over the original art that hung on the back wall. There were framed contributions by New Yorker magazine cartoonists, including Charles Addams and Cobean, a favorite of mine. I saw the place as inspiration for a novice like me. So, I kept on _ paid for Lowenbrau beer, and tried not to worry about what possessions I might next forfeit to the pawnbrokers.
Dominating the wall above the half-dozen mahogany booths appeared the careless outlines of two large shaggy dogs, said to have been drawn by James Thurber. I learned from longtime customers that Thurber had often occupied the rear corner booth, willing to take on anyone in reasonably intelligent argument.
I remembered a friendly woman, slim and middle-aged, who turned up every so often. She once bragged to me of her unique association with the great humorist. It had to do sadly with Thurber’s increasing loss of eyesight. The lady told me she sometimes escorted Thurber to the men’s room whenever he needed to go. It was a service she appeared to be exceedingly proud of.
It was late afternoon when I hoofed it across town and through Central Park to our hotel on W.72nd St. Mara and I rented a studio apartment on the seventh floor overlooking Columbus Avenue _ thirty dollars a week. We were lucky, considering that a block away the rents were in the thousands. I walked through the lobby to the elevator and there was Tommy, the building maintenance worker, waiting, worked up about something. Tommy was a black man of indeterminate age and quite thin. He usually wore khaki pants and blue chambray shirts that were a couple of sizes too large for him. He liked to talk, and today appeared about to explode if he didn’t find someone to listen.
“Man, you heard about it? It’s all over the papers, big headlines!” His scuffed shoes, almost danced in place as he stabbed the button for my seventh floor. “The shooting, you know ... right down our street, around the corner. Frank Costello, the Mafia boss, got hisself shot in the lobby of his hotel last night. My buddy, Carl, the doorman over there ... he seen the whole thing!”
It sounded bizarre. I didn’t know yet whether to believe everything Tommy told me.
“They didn’t kill him though ... not that time. Gawd a’mighty!” Tommy eyeballed me closely, as if looking for some appropriate response. The old elevator lurched upward. “You must’a seen that Mafia bigshot around somewhere ... at them Kefauver hearings on TV maybe.”
“Well, sure …” The elevator jolted to a stop. But the janitor blocked the exit, not wanting to lose me.
“I … I got to warn my buddy, Carl. He’s the doorman over there at the hotel where that Costello was shot. I know he seen it all, ‘cause they told about that in the paper ... him being a witness. I got to warn him not to blab nothing more to the police.”
I was suddenly impatient for the overstuffed chair in our apartment. I had walked miles that day covering the cartoon markets.
“Trouble is, Mr. Weinberg won’t give me no time off. I just know he won’t.”
“Well, look, Tommy, I have to be going,” I said, making an effort to wedge past him.
“Maybe I’ll just sneak over there. It’s only a block more or less. Don’t you think I should, huh? I got to make Carl realize that shooter might come back to shut him up for good. He seen it all, you know.”
“You do whatever you think best, Tommy. Now, I really have to go.”
The next day sizzled. The vaporous heat and humidity knocked Mara and me flat on our backs. We lay on the bed naked and drenched in sweat, inert as cadavers. A siren wailed in the distance, grew louder, then faded away. We heard sirens around the clock, grim reminders that day and night people suffered _ all the casualties of this tumultuous, intense city. It was hard out there. Even the cops had recently begun walking their beats in pairs. Strange, but you sort of got used to it.
Most mornings I set up my art board on the dining table, while Mara dressed, then hurried off to the theater district to read for play directors. I enjoyed watching while she got herself ready. I liked how her raven-black hair glimmered with reddish tints when the light was a certain way. She had such a broad mischievous smile, gleaming white teeth—a petite, curvy body. I thought she was gorgeous. I knew men tried to pick her up. But she had a lively temper, and never hesitated to use it. I hoped it was enough. It was a precarious life. And maybe we had developed a mild schizophrenia. That way, we could ignore harsh realities and pursue our own self-centered dreams.
But shit happens. I thought about the clerk in the delicatessen across from our apartment on Columbus Avenue. He was back behind the counter, still unable to shave. Three Puerto Rican juveniles had sliced his face and throat with their knives, grabbed the cash in the register and fled. Now, two weeks later, the clerk was back on the job, the ugly scabs revealing where he’d been cut. Life goes on, most people doing the best they can.
We let George out of his cage that scorching day. It was recreation for Mara’s yellow parakeet to get out and flitter about the apartment. Only, this time we forgot about the open window. In a flash, the bird darted out into the stifling haze seven floors above the chaos of pedestrians and auto traffic on the street below.
“Bert, it’s George … he’s flown away!” Mara shouted. I leaped up and raced to the window, scrabbled onto the fire escape, forgetting my nakedness. “Oh, poor George!” Mara cried.
I tugged on jeans and T-shirt and searched again out on the fire escape. Climbing back inside, I said, “I’ll go down and check out the street.” But I already figured it would be a hopeless gesture. I rode down alone in the elevator and hurried out to the corner _ and nearly asked the cigar-smoking vendor at the newsstand if he’d seen a small yellow bird. Of course, the man would laugh his bald head off. The Blarney Castle tavern across the street offered a temporary solution. Still, I had to make a sober effort. So, I shouldered my way through the pedestrian horde, searching for that silly bird. I wandered up and down both sides of the block, feeling like a damn fool, then gave it up. Returning to the apartment house, I walked into a mad scene in the lobby.
“You old tightwad, you gonna fire me ... that’s all right!” Tommy blurted out. Weinberg, the manager, crouched with his arms braced against the door jams of the open elevator. Tommy, in his loose-fitting khakis and blue shirt, faced him, maybe five feet between them. “Just ‘cause I took off a few minutes to see my buddy, Carl, down the street ... I had to warn him about not blabbing no more to the police, get hisself killed.
“You don’t care anything about that, but it’s all right!”
“You were paid to stay on the job,” Weinberg growled.
“OK, go ahead ... you fire me without no two weeks notice. But you better give me the wages I got coming ... that’s only fair, Mr. Weinberg, sir!”
“I told you,” the manager said, his face red as a brick ... “I do all my bills at the end of the month, and you know that. You’ll get a check then.”
“I gotta have it now ... I’m entitled!”
“Go home,” Weinberg ordered. “I’ve got things to do.”
“I want what’s coming to me!” Tommy yelled. He took a step forward, then another. His clenched fists jabbed the air. His thin body shook as if possessed.
Weinberg turned suddenly, reaching behind him. I stood in awe as the manager heaved the five-gallon bucket of water. It soaked the startled janitor from head to foot. And I realized that the bucket was put there earlier, made available for just this kind of situation. Amazing!
Tommy was dumbfounded, sputtering in protest as he wiped his face. “What th—? you ... you crazy, man ... plumb crazy, that’s what! I gonna get you for this!”
Tommy started backing out of the lobby. “You wait, you just wait ... you’ll see, by gawd!” Hugging his water-soaked shirt, Tommy retreated out the entrance and disappeared into the city crowd.
I walked up to Weinberg. “That was a hell of a shitty thing to do,” I said.
“I’ve got a hotel to run, if it’s any of your business ... which it isn’t.” He seemed so cold-hearted, his expression contemptuous. “You going up?”
“I’ll take the stairs, I think.”
“Suit yourself,” Weinberg said, and stalked away to his office down the hall. The door slammed shut behind him. I stared for a moment at the puddles that darkened the floral-patterned rug. Then I entered the elevator and rode it to my floor.
I found Mara in the apartment staring out the window. “I looked everywhere, sweetheart, but I’m afraid he’s gone.”
“Let’s leave the window open,” Mara said. “Maybe George will fly back.”
“Sure, babe, who knows...?” I crossed the room and held her close.
The days passed, Mara looking to score an acting role in a play, while I drew my weekly batch of cartoons. It was frustrating because I hadn’t yet found a personal style. Sam Bierman, the editor at Crestwood Publications, asked me when I first showed up in his office, “Whose work do you like best? Copy him. It’s the quickest way to get published. But don’t copy Gallagher. Everybody copies Gallagher.”
So, we struggled, Mara and I, nearly always short of money. And I learned how enterprising she could be. Sometimes Mara went to the little market a half-block down Columbus Avenue, purchased a cabbage for a nickel and two potatoes for a dime. She cut up and boiled the three vegetables in a pot on our two-burner stove, and we dined _ on fifteen cents.
Returning late one afternoon, Mara said, “Guess what happened?” Concerned, I looked up from the drawing board. I always worried about her out there in the city alone. “I walked out of this rehearsal hall on West 45th St., and one of the actors told me to look up at a certain window. So, I did and there was a man up there, maybe five or six floors up. The actor said it was Lawrence Tierney, who used to play gangster parts in the movies. He sits in a chair at that window all day long with a bottle ... drinks and watches the people down on the street.”
Sure, I remembered seeing Tierney in the movie “Dillinger” when I was a teenager. “Sad way to end up,” I said.
Mara took off her coat and stared at me for a moment. “What’s the matter?” she asked.
“Oh, I was just thinking. It’s kind of depressing ... about Tierney, isn’t it?”
I wondered if I was headed that way myself. We were still so young though, but Mara and I did go out to the bars a lot _ whenever we had the money. It was like we needed those drinks to feel more confident about ourselves. It was too easy, getting high and feeling grand about future success. My life actually seemed like a paradox _ so much discontent, violence _ not on the other side of town, but practically on our doorstep. And here I was trying to make a living drawing gags for the magazines. What the hell was I doing?
After a meager supper a few nights later, I was finishing another batch of drawings to show the editors on Wednesday “look day.” Mara put down a play script she’d gotten hold of. “I think I’ll call my producer friend,” she said.
I had learned about him the night we were caught up in the mob that swarmed his movie premier at a theater in Times Square. The epic was titled “The Vikings,” featuring major Hollywood stars. Mara knew the producer in Germany. She had acted in one of his pictures as a telephone operator, spoke one line.
Mara used the phone down the hall, guessing correctly that he would be registered at the Algonquin Hotel. They made a date for dinner on Friday. I told her what I thought about it. “Go for it,” I said. “This could be your last big chance.” I decided she should make the most of this, even though it probably meant losing her. She had struggled for years, doing little theater, low budget films, acting bits in television.... She deserved a real break.
Friday evening she returned late. “It was the same pitch ... I kind of expected it,” Mara said. “You do for me, and I’ll do what I can for you.” And she turned him down. Mara had this peculiar morality. She was certainly no angel. Yet, she apparently refused to trade her body for acting opportunities she desperately craved. Mara chose instead to remain with a starving cartoonist. Go figure.
In early June Mara got a sudden call to join a summer stock company beginning a tour of the resort circuit. It wasn’t “Broadway,” but at least she’d be acting on a stage where she needed to be. The tour would last the next three months. In no time at all I missed her and wasted too many hours in the bars.
The empty birdcage ended up in a local junk store where I sold it for a buck and a half. At the Blarney Castle on the corner, Old Crow was on sale for fifty cents a pop. I thought of it as a jolly wake, however late, for Mara’s ill-destined parakeet. And whom should I find in that shady tavern but our old maintenance friend.
“Tommy … how the hell are you?” I said.
“I’m doing OK, man.” He looked it too. Gone were the baggy khakis and work shirts. He was hardly recognizable, dressed in a lightweight grey suit and black and gold striped tie. His black oxfords sparkled. Tommy sipped Scotch whisky while he brought me up to date, first telling me he eventually got his check from Weinberg. “And what do yuh think…?” Tommy said, “that ol’ bastard offered to take me back! And I sure told him what he could do with his stinking job.”
We laughed about that. Then Tommy went on about how his friend, Carl, helped get Tommy employment at the apartment house where he works. “That Carl, he’s practically a celebrity, after being right there when Frank Costello got shot.”
“I’m really glad for you, Tommy.”
“Yeah, I get a better salary … and good tips too, not like it was with you cheap lowlifes at Weinberg’s place.”
“So, what about Costello … you see much of him?”
“Oh, yeah … he comes and goes.” Then Tommy glanced around the bar and leaned close to me. He explained that maybe the heat was off of the Mafia boss. The gossip, and what they wrote in the newspapers, seemed to tell that some kind of peace was agreed on between Costello and his ambitious rival, Vito Genovese. The word was Costello would retire, keep his gambling operations and legit business interests. With that said, Tommy finished his drink. We shook hands, and he ambled out into the sunshine.
A week later, as I walked over the bridge in Central Park back to the apartment, it hit me! I had saved a bundle while serving in the army overseas in Korea. During a thirty day leave back home, my father persuaded me to invest in life insurance. “At your age the low premium is a bargain,” he said. I had forgotten all about it. The parent company was here in Manhattan. I immediately swung around and headed for the bus stop at 59th St., and to a phone booth nearby. In a battered directory I looked up the “Continental Life Insurance Company” located downtown on Wall Street. I felt sure they would cash me out. My cup runneth over. Now I could find a better apartment for Mara and me _ and get busy drawing some good gags. §
Bert Silva is a regular contributor to The Rogue Voice. His “Bottoms Up” illustration accompanies Letters. His cartoons have appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, Playboy Magazine, The National Enquirer, and other publications. He is the author of “Butt Busters” (www.buttbusters.net).