WillisWeb Del Sol 2000
Elaine and I spent a weekend in New York City to try and get our lives back on track. Since the kids were grown and out of the house, I'd found more excuses to stay away from home and in the City where I had clients. Elaine felt an emptiness--she told me, that she tried to fill by courses, clubs, and for the first time, a lover. She told me that, too. He was another teacher, also married. We both acted very mature during the conversation. I had a succession of lovers over the past ten years--I chose not to share.
We walked Fifth Avenue, sometimes holding hands, popping in and out of shops. Trump Tower, Gucci, Tiffany, Steuben Glass -- they all held no more fascination than the black guys scamming the tourists with the three-card monte game or the Haitians selling the fake Rolex watches or the Greeks hawking Kosher Sabrette hot dogs. It was all part of the same circus.
I was in the city often and Elaine came in three or four times a year, but she could not get the beggars and street people out of her mind. "Don't acknowledge their presence," I told her. "Don't engage in eye contact or conversation and don't slow down. If you do they've got you. And if you don't bite for their pitch they'll go on to the next person. It's all a numbers game for them."
We walked out of Steuben Glass and sitting down leaning against the building was a young thin bearded man holding a sign that read, "I have AIDS and can't work. Help me feed my family." Elaine dropped a dollar in the baseball hat that sat upside down on the man's lap. A well dressed man in a tuxedo carrying a walking stick walked by and gave the man a push in the leg with his cane, and Elaine reached in her wallet and gave the man another five dollars. I saw it even though I was watching a three-card monte game. The screaming and yelling going on by the players and dealer were code words, I told Elaine when she walked over, and the other black players holding fistfuls of bills were only shills. "They always let the sucker win the first time and then hook him for the big bucks," I said. "Watch. I'll beat them at their own game." The monte dealer was snapping and moving the three cards and bending corners so it seemed impossible to lose, and sure enough, the black man standing next to me won a hundred dollars on his last bet. Then a line of rap went out from the dealer and I found himself pointing at a card for no bet, just for practice and as expected, I found the red jack. I winked at Elaine. The dealer pushed me for a hundred dollar or even a fifty dollar bet, but I just wanted to win twenty for the hell of it and get out. I held out a twenty. The dealer gave me a disgusted look and the monte rap began. I picked the center card, and it was a black jack and I couldn't understand how I lost and that wasn't how the con was supposed to work and despite their pleas and laughter I skulked off to get Elaine who had wandered off and found her dropping some money in a cigar box lying next to a smallish woman who held a sign with pictures of two infants. "My babies need food. Please help!"
I had seen this same woman before with different signs on different corners, and in fact I once said to her after running into her for the third time in a day, "You're smarter than the others. You always pick the sunny side of the street to hang out on. What a business." The woman never even acknowledged my presence.
We turned the corner and a well dressed Latino man approached us head on holding his wallet and showing us his driver's license and saying how his car was towed and he needed a hundred and twenty-five dollars to get it back and that he was embarrassed but could we help him out and I, for some unknown reason, dropped a ten in his hand and pulled Elaine away. I was immediately angry at myself and said to Elaine, "see what happens when you slow down for these people -- they get you every time." She patted my hand lovingly because she believed the man's story and was proud of me for being sensitive even though I was now trying to act callous.
We walked silently, heading towards Fifty-seventh and the Russian Tea Room. I told her how I recognized some of the beggars from different spots and with different approaches, but I didn't tell her about my three-card monte loss. Moments later when she asked me if he won, I told her the truth. She smiled.
Twice more we passed the man in the tuxedo with the beautiful walking stick. I recognized him from years gone by but chose not to acknowledge him. The man wore patent leather shoes, sported a white carnation, and was impeccable except for the fact that in looking at his face one thought not of tuxedos but of bib overalls, a sprig of straw in the mouth, and a plug of Red Dog. He looked like a Chester Gould character right out of a Dick Tracy comic. He had a face that was close to flat, with almost no profile. His nose was Negro wide and his lips were old lady British thin. His eyes were set about two inches apart and were continually darting about. We had passed him before -- near the Modern, at the Plaza where we had drinks, outside FAO Schwartz and now, as we approached the Russian Tea Room he was standing, talking to a Haitian Rolex seller in front of Carnegie Hall.
• • • • •
Tuxedo turned and walked inside the Russian Tea Room just seconds before us and handed his scarf and bear's-head walnut walking stick to the hat check girl and was escorted to a banquette where he sat facing the room. The restaurant was crowded and we were led to the table next to the man, and I sat facing the crowd and Elaine sat facing me and the wall.
"The usual," Tuxedo said to the waiter, who then brought a bowl of tiny black caviar, with crackers and all the fixings plus a frozen carafe of vodka and a martini glass with a twist. He spooned the caviar, chopped egg, and onions onto each cracker very delicately, popped the cracker into his mouth, bit once, and swallowed. Then he followed up with a half glass of vodka.
Elaine and I had ordered and were sipping our vodka tonics when Tuxedo said to me without turning his head, "You've come a long way, Mirsky."
"So have you," I said. "I'd ask you how you've been but I can tell."
He now turned to face me and, putting out his hand to shake said, "Nice to see you." I ignored his hand. He smiled and dropped his hand as if I had not insulted him. Elaine, obviously appalled at my behavior, stuck out her hand to shake and said, "I'm Elaine, Mirsky's wife." They shook and Tuxedo smiled and said, "Willis Turk. Nice to know you."
"Pleased," she said, looking defiantly at me.
"What are you into?" Willis asked.
"Investments," I answered.
"Teaching," said Elaine, resting her chin on her palm as she looked at Willis. "And you?"
"I have my hands in a few different ventures," Willis said.
"Not much has changed in some respects," I said dryly.
"What kind of ventures?" Elaine asked.
"Elaine," I said, trying to end this association. "Don't pry."
"Am I prying, Willis? If I am, just tell me."
Willis and Elaine were basically ignoring me, but not to the point of rudeness.
"No, you're not prying, but instead of telling you I'd rather show you and Mirsky. How about it?"
"I'm not so sure that's a good idea," I said, squirming just a bit.
"Sure it is," said Elaine. "We'd love to, Willis." Elaine smiled widely.
"Tell me where you're staying and I'll have my car pick you up at seven in the morning and I'll show you the works. Afterwards we can have breakfast."
"I don't know," I said.
"Parker Meridian," said Elaine, taking charge once again.
Willis finished the last of his caviar and martini and got up, not even waiting for his check. With a quick bow and beady eyed wink he walked away, stopping only at the hat check room.
Back at the hotel Elaine said, "You were not all that nice to Willis. How do you know him?"
"We went to school together."
"Were you enemies? You wouldn't even shake his hand."
"No, we were friends. As a matter of fact his brother was my best friend, and I saw a lot of Willis and his family."
"Then what's up?"
I explained to Elaine that when I was in fifth grade the Turk family moved to town, a couple of blocks away from my house. The school year was almost over and Willis and his younger brother Lathrop were both assigned to my class. Willis was at least two years older than everyone else and much bigger. The second day of school he had a crowd gathered around him in the schoolyard and another classmate was collecting money from the other kids. Anyone who hadn't paid his or her quarter was shooed off, and Willis proceeded to whistle. A large scruffy brown dog came running. With the crowd gathered around him, Willis jerked off the dog, wiped his hands on his pants, took the money and walked back into the school. He pocketed six bucks, and in those days, when Coke was a drink and a dime, Devil Dogs were a nickel, and McDonalds was still a novelty, six bucks was big money. After that morning, Willis Turk always had a crowd, a gimmick, and plenty of walking around money. He also had all the neighborhood dogs following him around.
"Do you think he's still masturbating dogs?"
"I don't know about dogs, but you can be sure that Willis Turk is jerking someone off every waking minute of his life."
"Tomorrow ought to be interesting," Elaine said.
I looked at her, and she was a bit flushed and looked turned on.
"You ought to reconsider," I said.
"No way," she said. "I have an idea. Let's order in and afterwards we can play schoolyard. I'll be Willis and you can be Fido."
True to his word, at seven sharp, Willis' Town Car was waiting for me and Elaine. We were driven past the Village and through Soho, and the driver pulled the car into a driveway and blew the horn, and a garage door opened and we drove into a very large warehouse. He escorted us upstairs to Willis' office, where there were three large dogs hanging around, and Willis said to Elaine, "I'm sure Mirsky told you of my start in the business world - would you like to see how it all began?"
Elaine laughed politely and just a little nervously.
Over in the corner of the office on a marble stand was a large stuffed scruffy brown dog.
Willis saw me eyeing him. "Yep, that's him." Willis said. "That's Squirt. Roy Rogers stuffed his Trigger and I stuffed mine."
He led us to the windows, looking down inside the warehouse, and there were people everywhere. "C'mon," he said.
We walked downstairs and passed groups of Greek Kosher Sabrette vendors getting their location orders for the day from a man standing in front of a city map. There were a couple of dozen Haitians examining suitcases of watches that were sitting on folding TV tables. Off in a large separate room with a glass wall were beggars sitting on folding chairs in front of a man with a pointer and a large blackboard. The blackboard looked like a football locker room at half-time -- X's and O's and arrows and the beggars taking notes. I recognized the AIDS guy and the downcast young lady. There was a quota board, and someone was standing in front of it head down, with one of the instructors, obviously getting reamed out.
There was a Three-Card Monte Clinic going on with three monte games and two dozen shills waving bills and practicing their coded messages. Beyond that group there was another group loading up on T shirt and scarfs. Against another wall people were loading books into vans and they were being given maps for their turf. Lying in a corner was a group of Salvation Army kettles and a rack of Salvation Army and Santa suits hanging next to them.
We passed a group of artists making badges and signs and city permits for charity collections, and there was a different group of people role-playing their parts in collecting for these charities.
There was a time clock with over a hundred cards and a printing press cranking out business cards and flyers. I noticed a rack of costumes at least fifty feet long: Nuns, Hasidic Jews, tuxedos, threadbare clothes, and more. It was a costume shop. There were instruments hanging from a pegboard that could be checked out and played in assigned territories, and leaning against another wall were hundreds of paintings and "starving artist" signs that could be checked out. Willis seemed to have thought of everything. He just walked around and no one paid any attention to him -- everyone just did their jobs.
He showed us a fleet of vans that were on call to deliver change, product, or bail money when necessary. Two of the vans were refrigerated and they all had made-up company names: PLAZA PLUMBING, FRIENDLY FOODS, ACME ART SUPPLIES.
We went back up to his office, stepped over one of the dogs, and while Elaine kept looking around obviously amazed, I told Willis how impressed I was with his business acumen. He said that there was a major flaw in the whole program. When pressed, he told us that he couldn't leave for vacation or take a day off because he had no one he could trust to watch over the industry. He said that he'd be willing to take in a partner if he could find one that he could trust. "Interested?" he asked. Elaine and I looked at each other.
I spoke for both of us. "We appreciate the offer Willis, but this just isn't for us."
"Do you feel the same way, Elaine?" Willis asked.
"I said that we weren't interested, Willis," I repeated.
"Elaine?" Willis asked again.
Elaine looked over at me and I had a sinking feeling that Willis was winning out.
"Well, Elaine? Tell Willis." I said.
Elaine still had not responded, but turned and looked at the stuffed dog for a while and then looked back at me. She turned to Willis who got up from his desk, walked to the door, opened it, and before leaving, looked at Elaine and said, "Pick one."
When I left, Elaine was still looking at the three dogs as if trying to decide.