|(MID-SEPTEMBER-1971) THIS PHOTO APPEARS TO BE OF ME COMING HOME FROM MY FIRST DAY AS A HIGH SCHOOL SOPHOMORE. ACTUALLY, IT'S A RARE PICTURE OF MY SIS'S CAR.|
In 1976, dad bought himself a new Plymouth Volare station wagon. So I was thrilled that his less-than-cherry hand-me-down, 1968 Dodge Polara (a.k.a. The Thunderbolt Grease Slapper), was my first car.
|WHILE IT WAS STILL DAD'S, I DROVE (above) MY GRANDPARENTS TO THE RUBIN'S HOTEL (MAY - 1973, ELLENVILLE NEW YORK). AND FOR YOU WISEGUYS OUT THERE...NO! I WASN'T SUCKING IN MY STOMACH...BUT CRAZY AS IT SEEMS, I JUST THREW OUT THAT BELT...NO, REALLY !|
In my regime, (a little more than a year), I had some high adventures in that Dodge, including several out of town road trips. The car never let me down but alas, I let the car down myself. By neglecting dad's suggested periodic maintenance schedule, it didn't take long until I ran my pride and joy into the ground.
I felt awful when my father told me that his mechanic (Sammy of Stone Avenue) needed $412.00 to fix the timing belt and the collateral damage it caused. I chose (poorly) to junk the car. Dad realized that I was making a decision that I would regret, (I told you he was a champ). He stepped in like a knight in shining armor and offered to lend me the money for my folly. Stupidly, my stubbornness out weighed his classiness...I still refused. Dad tried to change my mind by offering to pay (his gift) but that made the guilt, for my lack of responsibility...worse.
A few months later, (July 13, 1977), NJPHILSKIM and I we clubbing in Long Island. In his car, on the way home, we crossed back into New York City (Queens) and found ourselves in the dark. We would soon learn the, "25-HOURS OF TERROR" complete with violence, thefts, vandalism and arson was underway, all over the five boroughs.
Phil dropped me off to a dark, empty house. A note on the kitchen table informed me that my parents went to "defend" their juvenile furniture store in Brownsville. At 3:AM, my folks returned. The store was still intact but if the situation changed, they would not risk their lives trying to stop anyone.
|THE CRIMES DURING THE MASSIVE BLACKOUT CAUSED OVER $300 MILLION IN DAMAGES.|
We all got no sleep. At sunrise, dad and I drove through the craziness of the Rockaway Avenue business district. We found that the interior of the store, (the family business since 1918) hadn't been broken into but ten or so looters were busy in the store's window, carrying out the last of the merchandise. Dad made a tough decision and said, "I'll lock us in, let me get a few personal items, financial records and they can have everything else." Before we left, dad noticed that one delivery that was paid in full was going out that day. I thought he was nuts but dad was a sensitive and conscientious man. He said, "Grab the crib, I'll get the mattress and the bumpers." He locked the door and the gates on the way out. Our hands were full as we exposed ourselves to the dangerous mob in the street. In the safety of the car he sighed, "Let the chips fall where they may."
Dad insisted that we make the delivery immediately. We drove to the other side of Brooklyn and woke the family. The husband got pissed off that be disturbed his beauty rest. Hopefully at some later time, that "last" customer realized what a champ dad was.The next day when the power was restored, we returned to Rockaway Avenue and our store was an empty shell.
My father was displaced for quite some time. At the same time, I was trying to assert my independence but I couldn't land a job using my communications degree. In August of 1978, I decided to go to a casino dealer school. The admissions officer worked out a weekly payment plan that would extend till mid-December after I made a minimal down-payment. To pay the tuition, I drove for a local car service, (I netted about $40.00 for a six hour shift).
My coworkers were rather unsavory, the cars weren't safe and some of the bosses were kind of scary. Be that as it may, the real problem was happening in the trenches. In a short time, I knew two drivers were robbed at knife point, another received a death threat from a drunken husband as the cabbie was whisking his beaten and bloodied wife away and another incident had a psycho try to push the driver out of the taxi (at high speed) on the Belt Parkway.
Monday October 2, 1978 was my last shift, (I was NOT motivated by a near-death experience). Instead, a scary, mystery pick-up, (a small parcel handed through an over-sized peep-hole, at 2:AM, near Newark Airport) made me realize that no amount of chump change could rationalize the potential hazards. I quit the next day and thus was faced with the dilemma of how to pay the last $400.00 to the school.
It killed me to ask dad for money. He wasn't solidly back on his feet, so I delayed the inevitable for many days. When I finally did, I was shocked at how happy he was to help and happier that I saw the light and quit driving before it was too late, (pretty insightful considering I never shared the plight of other drivers).
At the New York School of Gambling, I gravitated to four guys in my craps class. They were around my age and like me, were Las Vegas bound. My little rat-pack included Ciro (before he was either Ciro the Hero or Ciro the Zero), BB (a lush who drank his lunch at the Ireland's Eye Bar and chain smoked Merit menthol 100's), JLOOPY, John Heaverlo and me.
Ciro and BB moved to Vegas in November and became roommates. JLOOPY, John and I were invited to stay with them when we hit town, (January 1979). I arrived last and slept on the floor. But I didn't have it as bad as BB. Maybe it was his Irish/Native American ethnic background but right after the new year, he was hospitalized with acute alcohol poisoning, (he was like a kid in a candy store with Vegas' free booze while gambling or top shelf liquor for 50c a drink). His life was in such danger that his mother and sister flew out. In the mean time JLOOPY slept in BB's unoccupied bed and John had the couch.
BB made a full recovery and moved back in with Ciro. Once John Heaverlo got a job and his own apartment, he ended his rat-pack membership by sending for his wife. Soon, JLOOPY and I became roommates at the Fiesta Apartments on Harmon Avenue, (two blocks behind the Aladdin).
The New York School of Gambling's job placement service set-up BB at the California Club, John Heaverlo went to the El Cortez and Ciro, JLOOPY and I broke-in at the Slots-A-Fun Casino.
All three of us were on different shifts at Slots-A-Fun. It was too bad because JLOOPY had a car. He was generous with his rides during our off time together but I had to commute to work on my own. It was such a long walk to the bus stop that I realized that if I walked in a diagonal path all the way to work, it wasn't much farther.
Being a New Yorker, I didn't mind the walk because in the beginning, it was always sunny and usually in the sixties. By the time March rolled around, I was a lot less idealistic and those morning strolls to work became tiresome in 80+ degree temperatures. I was considering a move to Reno where my friend from Canarsie the "Amazing Mr. K" said he had juice, (help me get a good job).
A few days before visiting Mr. K., I was waiting outside Slots-A-Fun, for the city bus to go home. A change-person named Dara (Da-Ra-Ra-Booms-EE-Ay) walked by and said she saw me walking one morning and offered me a ride home. She was heavy, not especially good looking and had a big mouth with an overbearing personality. Plus she had a loose reputation (thus earning her nickname) so I just wasn't interested in her...but a ride...that was another story.
I was grossing about $150.00 a week in that toilet and Dara made less. Her 1970, Datsun Sunny-140Y, was a rolling hunk of junk. She said she only kept the piece of shit because the "D" logo badge in the grill (above the license plate), made her feel that the car was personally monogrammed.
|DARA'S CHOCOLATE-COLORED CLUNKER WAS ACTUALLY IN SLIGHTLY BETTER SHAPE THAN THIS.|
We had a little party. When JLOOPY said, "Let's do a beer run." BB said, "And a bottle of Jack Daniels." Dara said, "Shit, I gotta go but definitely another time." Then she took my phone number and said, "I like you and your friends, I'll pick you up and drive you home whenever our schedules match."
On my next day off, I flew up to see the "Amazing Mr. K." in Reno. He lived up to his nickname by showing me an amazing time. But he said, "I never said anything about getting you a job." The town without solid work had nothing to offer so I decided to stay in Vegas.
When I got home, my room reeked of smoke and I found a half-full pack of Merit menthol 100's on my nightstand. The rarity of those specific cigarettes led me to ask JLOOPY, "Was BB in my room?" He said, "Yeah, him and Da-Ra-Ra-Booms-EE-Ay sort of spent the last two days in there...and if BB was telling the truth, you might want to turn the mattress."
It pissed me off that my bed was getting more action without me. I confronted BB the next time I saw him. He shrugged, "She was hurtin' for a squirtin'." I said, "Yeah but..." But he cut me off, "C'mon buddy, you know, any port in a storm." I was still nauseated but I couldn't hold back a smile. When I factored in that he almost died, I let it slide.
In the morning I told JLOOPY, "I gotta buy a car." I ran outside and pulled the classified section out of my crazy neighbor's newspaper (McHugh, the accused cat poisoner). I had $370.00 and was willing to spend the whole shebang to keep Dara out of my apartment and to not owe her any favors. I soon discovered that there weren't many cars out there I could afford. I was stymied. I still hadn't repaid dad for dealer school and wanted to save face by not sponging off him from thousands of miles away. JLOOPY read my frustration and said, "You can get a used Vespa (scooter) for under a hundred."
|VESPA IS THE ITALIAN WORD FOR WASP. THE NAME COMES FROM THE SOUND OF THE ENGINE.|
JLOOPY drove me to Bonanza Road. What bullshit, the unpaved lot had only one car in my price range...and it wasn't the one I wanted. A tall skinny man with a cowboy hat and a char of tobacco in his cheek came out of a dilapidated trailer. A breeze blew dust into his face. He turned away from us, spat a wad of disgusting brown liquid on the ground and twanged, "What can I do y'all for."
I soon "learned" that a wholesaler just bought up the car I wanted and three other cheapies. He pointed to a shiny orange Corvette and said, "Looky, you can't do better'n $1,999.00 on thisy here nowhere." I recognized the old bait-n-switch routine but I was determined to buy my first car. I took a dented, faded yellow Ford station wagon for a test drive. Afterwards, JLOOPY looked under the hood and said it was worth, $399.00. I bickered over the price and got the salesman down to $390.00 including all the incidentals. Still, JLOOPY had to look under his car seats to scratch-out two bucks with change, in order to lend me the last twenty.
|MY CAR WAS AN EIGHT-YEAR OLD, FORD LTD WAGON. TO COVER A RUSTY DENT, CIRO GOT ME A BUMPER STICKER THAT READ; MAFIA STAFF CAR. BB REMARKED IN REFERENCE TO ALL THE OTHER BLEMISHES, "CIRO, YOU SHUDDA BOUGHT THIRTY OF THEM."|
In April, I got a new craps dealing job at the Western Casino. To celebrate, I rounded up the rat-pack and we ate dinner in a dumpy Mexican restaurant called, El Cholo, (or as Ciro called it, El Choko). The beer and tequila was out-weighing the tacos and burritos when JLOOPY said, "Let's see what your heap can do. Let's go up to Mount Charleston."
In the midnight darkness, we never found our ultimate destination. But our forty mile (in each direction) excursion to the ski area netted two conclusions about the Mafia staff car; it drove well in the mountains and the brakes worked perfectly. I discovered the latter when JLOOPY with my foot on the accelerator, pressed his foot down on top of mine. He yelled, "Let's see what this baby can do!" Suddenly out of the blackened woods, a herd of wild horses ran across our path. I slammed on the brakes as the last stallion galloped safely across the road.
|SEVERAL TIMES, I SAW WILD BURROS, (DESCENDANTS OF THOSE ABANDONED BY MINERS), IN THE DESERT NEAR LAS VEGAS. THE HERD OF WILD HORSES I ALMOST HIT WITH THE MAFIA STAFF CAR WAS THE ONLY ONE I SAW, IN MY FIVE YEARS IN NEVADA.|
In May, I got an even better job at the Holiday International Casino. When the Fourth of July rolled around, I had trouble parking for my 6:PM shift. I ended up with the last spot on the roof of the Four Queens. I was walking down Fremont Street when I was stopped by a scrawny, pimple-faced girl handing out coupons in front of the Friendly Club. From inside, I heard my named called, it was BB at the bar, (still in his dealer uniform after his graveyard shift). I shook my head when the bartender said, "What'll you have?" When BB got up to hit on the coupon girl he muttered, "Any port in a storm." The barman scratched his head and said to me, "Never saw anyone like your buddy. He's been slamming bourbon and beer for five hours and he's not even tipsy. Where does he put it?"
My casino was busy for the holiday so we had to work two hours of overtime. On the way out, my friend and supervisor Dick Paynlewski said, "Let's go for a drink." At the Golden Gate Casino, he swilled two double scotches before I was half-done with my draught. He had a third drink in his hand as he said, "I'm gonna play blackjack...sit with me." He downed that drink and ordered another before we sat down. He was slurring his words when he bought in for seventy-five dollars (about his day's pay). He had lost his first two hands when his fourth double arrived with a bottle of Lowenbrau. He lost again, sucked the beer bottle dry and giggled, "Damn the booze is expensive here."
Paynlewski struggled but managed to pile the rest of his chips in the betting circle. He belched with double-edged satisfaction when he hit to a six-card twenty. The young Asian girl dealing to him was showing an ace. Then she turned over a second ace. Dick smiled and yelled, "Paint, paint..." But he sank in temporary silence when the dealer revealed a nine.
He was loudly cursing her heritage and stoic expression so I shushed him. He grinned, "Lend me twenty till pay day." I turned him down and added, "Let me drive you home." He said, "I'll find Carmichael (his girlfriend), I'll borrow the money from her." He staggered a few feet but collapsed into a seat in the keno lounge. He said, "You're a good friend...even if you don't lend me the twenty...but will you lend me..." I cut him off, "No." He was blithering for a short while and then said, "People can be such pricks. I hate all the Pollack jokes...even Carmichael uses 'em. But I have an idea. I'm going to legally change my name." "To what?" He said, "How does Richard Thomas Payne sound?" I said, "It sounds like a good, strong name...and if you are really so annoyed...you should do it."
I re-offered him a ride home. He refused but said, "You drive safe. There's a lot of drunk assholes tonight." Outside, maybe because it was Independence Day, I was mulling Dick's proposed new name when the historic significance of Thomas Paine, (the author of the Revolutionary War-era pamphlet, "Common Sense"), came to mind. I laughed to myself at his expense when I considered Dick Paynlewski and the notion of common" sense in the same sentence. Then I found it even funnier when I realized that he'd be changing his name to "Dick Payne."
It was 4:30 when I walked by the Friendly Club. I ducked my head in and was shocked to see BB passed out at the bar. A different bartender said, "This kid is one hurtin' buckaroo. He's been knock'n 'em back since one in the afternoon. His roomie (Ciro) was just here, he's getting a cab to take him home." I would have liked to know if BB got anywhere with the coupon girl but I was pretty tired. So with the situation well in hand, I left. In the Four Queens parking lot elevator, I was glad that BB had enough common sense to not even have a driver's license.
At that late hour, the Mafia staff car stood alone on the top level. I stopped for a few seconds to admire the view of glittery Fremont Street. Then in the opposite distance, I was happy to see that my route home on I-10 south was free of traffic.
Moments later, in the middle lane, I had the highway all to myself as the Lynyrd Skynyrd song, "FREEBIRD," came on the radio. I was lustily singing along as I approached the Sahara Avenue exit.
|1974's FREEBIRD, IS MY FAVORITE SONG AND PERSONAL ANTHEM. CLICK ON THE LINK BELOW TO HEAR THE 13-MINUTE FULL VERSION.|
While pouring out the lyrics, I noticed in the rear view mirror, a car flying in the left lane. He was about to whiz by when the driver veered towards me. I cut the wheel right but it was too late. I got sideswiped and lost control. While he sped off, I was pounding the brakes as I skidded towards the exit ramp...and BOOM ! I hit a streetlamp and careened back onto the interstate. I did a 180 degree turn and faced oncoming traffic in the center lane.
My car's hood had a giant "V" gouged out from the impact. I tried the ignition... and nothing. Dazed, I hobbled to the shoulder, sat on the neck of the downed street lamp and waited for the police. It killed me to think that if just one of the oddball things that happened that night was different, I wouldn't be in my predicament, (working overtime, drinks with Dick, stopping at the Friendly Club...and not sticking around to help Ciro with BB, the long walk to the Four Queens, admiring the view from the roof as well as every stop sign and street light).
In my mind, I was eulogizing the short life of the Mafia staff when true anxiety gripped me. That's when I realized that I might have to ask my dad for a car loan.