I knew very little about diamonds as a child other than Superman could squeeze coal with his steel-hard hands to create diamonds and my father had bought a diamond ring for my mother. It was a hundredth of the size of the diamonds Superman never gave to Lois Lane, but my mother loved hers, often singing, “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.”
Marilyn Monroe performed a breathy version of that song in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. I like my mother’s rendition, however this preference failed to diminish my ignorance of diamonds as did films like To Catch a Thief and The Pink Panther. All they taught was that diamonds were worth stealing.
Murph the Surf must have seen the same movies, because in 1964 he masterminded the theft of the ‘Star of India’ from the New York’s Natural History Museum. His arrest didn’t deter my casing Boston’s museums and jewelry store. The guards were armed with pistols and the salesmen scrutinized every teenage boy as a potential thief. In the end I bought a gold locket for my girlfriend and abandoned this outlaw ambition to become a writer.
My pursuit of literary success took me from Boston to New York in 1976. I lived in the East Village with my hillbilly girlfriend. She studied acting and I wrote detective poems. For money I worked at Hurrah, a punk disco, on West 62nd Street. An off-duty cop moonlighted as security. His 17 year-old nephew wanted to see the Ramones. As doorman I possessed the privilege of granting free admission. Seymour’s skinny nephew and his friend got their wish. Richie Boy thanked me with a g of blow. The teenager from the Five Towns and I became friends.
Richie worked for his father that summer. Manny had a jewelry store on Canal Street. The window glittered with diamonds and gold and pearls. All his kids were grown up and he was happily divorced from Richie’s mother. After all Manny looked like Jackie Mason and he wasn’t above not telling the girls he wasn’t the Jewish shtick comedian.
I came downtown to have lunch once a week. It was a perk for buying Richie drinks at the bar. Manny ordered sandwiches from Little Italy and told funny stories about thieves, women, and diamonds. None of them explained women’s attraction to the sparkle other than in base greed.
“If anyone says it’s not about the money, then it’s definitely about the money.” Manny’s low estimation of humanity was based on his daily contact with gonifs, schnorrers, and shtarkers. I had read most of Isaac B Singer’s books and Manny was surprised by my knowledge of Yiddish. “My son knows nothing.”
“Weiss nichts, sagt nichts.” It was basically monkey no know, monkey no say.
“I know how to sell.” Richie made more than an investment banker that summer buying graduation Rolexes from his high school friends desperate to finance their disco evenings at Studio 54. Richie smiled at his father. “I know ‘nimmt geld’. Take the money. That’s enough.”
“Alevai, my son, the genius.”
Richie Boy was supposed to go on to college, instead he followed my nightclub career from Hurrah’s to The Jefferson on East 14th Street. It was the hottest after-hour club in Manhattan; movie stars, pop singers, top models. Richie never got home before dawn. His professors couldn’t grade a student whose existence was merely a name. They gave him incompletes.
I left the hillbilly girlfriend for a blonde model from Buffalo. Lisa disappeared in the summer of 1980 on a trip to Milan. Richie dropped out of Baruch and started full-time with his father when gold spiked to $800 in January of 1980. They ran a foundry behind the store on Elizabeth Street. They couldn’t count the money fast enough, but this gold rush died out after a few weeks and I was arrested by Internal Affairs for running an illegal establishment. I got off with a good word from Seymour, who told the judge, “Basically the goy was a schlemiel.”
No one likes being called an idiot even if it gets them off with a full dismissal, but Seymour also said I was the shabbat goy for his family, the gentile who turned on the lights for holy days. That comment was a little nicer and closer to the truth. I attended a whole slew of the Jewish family functions; weddings, funerals, bris, Seder.
“If there was some way to make you an honorary Jew, I would.” Manny declared after a few too many cocktails at the Hanukkah party in 1981. He held up a knife to demonstrate how.
“Sorry, but my schlong is already schnitten.” My circumcision came at birth.
“So you’re a sheygetz. Some people think that’s a bad word for a goy and it can be, but for me it means you’re a smart goy, unless of course I mean sheygetz the other way.” Manny liked leaving himself an out for every eventuality. I thanked him and wished everyone a happy holiday. Richie wasn’t happy, since I was leaving in January for Paris.
“I don’t know why you’re going.” Richie was teary-eyed. He was two drinks ahead of his father. “The new club is doing great.”
“True.” I was making $500/night at the door of the Continental on West 25th Street. The owner, Arthur, had partnered up with the FBI and Russian counterfeiters. Lisa’s being the Russian’s girlfriend was more than a coincidence and Arthur warned me that Uncle Seymour couldn’t save me from the rumored Internal Affairs investigation.
“So why leave?” For Richie the Continental was simply a good time. Like almost everyone else not written into the main drama the minor participants would have to learn about the NYPD payoff scandal from The New York Times.
“Weiss nichts, sagt nichts.” I knew nothing and said nothing. “Trust me, it’s better I get out of town.”
“Yeah, sie gesund.” Richie had learned how to say ‘be well’ in Yiddish.
Two months later I was sitting at the Cafe de Flore on the Boulevard St. Germain. I read a story in the Herald Tribune about a cop scandal in New York. Arthur had kept my name out of the paper, although my subleasee said a Grand Jury subpoena had been stuffed under the door of my East Village apartment.
I remained in Paris for 6 years, coming back once a year to see my family in Boston and friends in New York. I stayed with Richie.
The jewelry business was good under Reagan, although the Bowery was changing under the influx of Chinese overwhelming the Italians north of Canal Street. Richie was looking to move uptown to 47th Street. His father wanted to stay put on Elizabeth Street. They argued about the future, especially when Richie’s older brother entered the business after a failed career as a car salesman in New Jersey.
“I don’t mind him coming into the business as long as Googs doesn’t affect my income.”
“He’s your brother.” Manny cared for all his kids. “How could he affect your income?”
Googs was crazy. A horse kicked him in the head at a stable outside Boston. My older brother was a lawyer. I called him to see if Googs had a case. My brother explained Googs had been whipping a horse in a stall.
“Oh, so there’s no case,” Manny said after hearing this story.
“No, I guess not.” I returned to America later that year to write porno scripts for my cousin Sharon in North Hollywood. I was hoping to become the Hemingway of XXX. Her producer criticized my scenarios as too pseudo-intellectual.
“Too much cheese and not enough pizza boy.”
A literary agent read one of my efforts GONE TO HELL and hooked me up with an albino film producer. We wrote WHERE THE HIGHWAY ENDS in a snow-bound cabin outside of Kent. Ct. I thought my career was finally taking off and refused the producer’s offer to meet a prospective lead for our film in Thailand. Willem was my friend. I thought it was a lock and jetted to France instead to write a collection of semi-fiction. The agent disowned me for this move and the producer refused my phone calls. When I returned to New York, Manny castigated me without any restraint, “What’s the first rule?”
“Don’t trust anyone.” It was the first rule I had learned in New York.
“No, what’s the first rule in selling diamonds.”
“Yes, take the money.” Manny threw his hands the air. “We might have to revoke your honorary Jew status.”
Richie was more forgiving. They had made the move to a diamond exchange on 47th Street. No more Italian subs, but the pastrami sandwich from Bergers Deli was built for two. Richie and I shared one.
“So what are you going to do?” Richie positioned napkins on his lap and chest to avoid any grease dripping onto his Armani suit. He had bought it ‘hot’ from Frankie Fingers, the street’s haberdasher.
“Work in a club, I guess.” Fifteen publishers had rejected my stories.
“None at all.” Working nights wasn’t too appealing and I stalled getting a job for several months, while I rewrote my short stories. The amount of typos was astounding, almost as if my fingers were suffering from dyslexia.
The New Year brought an eviction notice. I didn’t panic. My landlord couldn’t take me to court for another three months. The refrigerator went empty and the heating was augmented by the gas range, as I typed away at my kitchen table, imagining fame and fortune would save me two minutes after I wrote THE END, then the springs of my typewriter broke with a off-note twang.
I walked to the repair shop through a snowstorm. The man at the counter said fixing the Olivetti portable would cost $50. My wallet held $10. Richie had returned from a ski trip to Jackson Hole. He had to be in a good mood to lend $50 and I trudged up 5th Avenue to his store. My toes were wet icicles and my fingers frozen worms by the time I opened the glass door to the diamond exchange.
Richie was behind the counter. He wasn’t wearing his usual tailored suit, but a fleece sweater and jeans, which had been sliced to the knee to allow access to the steel pins screwed into his legs.
“What happened?” This was not good. No one on crutches likes to be asked for money.
“I popped both my knees skiing. I’ll be off my legs for six months. You working?”
“No.” I could see what was coming and realized THE END would have to wait until summer.
“I need someone to schlep around goods.”
“Diamonds, jewelry to repair, money. Someone I can trust. Manny, what you think?”
“Why not?” Manny looked up from a small pile of iridescent stones. “As long as you show up on time and don’t break my balls, you’ll do fine. $100 a day.”
“Cash?” I hadn’t paid taxes in ten years.
“I’m not the IRS.” Manny dropped a necklace into a small manila envelope and wrote an address. “Take this to the setter. Have him call me, then come back here fast. I got more for you to do.”
“Sure.” I stuffed the envelope inside my damp jacket. “What time’s lunch?”
“Hasn’t been working for more than a minute and already worried about lunch. I’ll order you a sandwich for when you get back.”
“Thanks,” Richie said from his desk.
“Thank you.” I would be able to pay off my back rent within the month.
“Can you two stop the love story and let the goy get going?”
“You know, Manny, I know nothing about diamonds.”
“Whatever you need to know I’ll tell you.”
“Tomorrow, unless I fire you today. Go already.”
Six hours later we locked the merchandise in the safe. I hadn’t lost anything.
“So now you’re an official shabbath goy.” Manny flipped me a 20. “For dinner. Now help Richie to a cab. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“You’ll tell me about diamonds tomorrow?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’ll tell you a story or two.”
There would be much more than one or two, because I had survived day one as a goyim on 47th Street and my life wasn’t going anywhere fast. At least not in 1990.
Peter Nolan Smith left New England in 1976 for the East Village. Most of his 21st Century has been spent in Pattaya, Thailand, although this year he summered in Palm Beach writing BET ON CRAZY, a semi-fiction book detailing his career as a diamond salesman on New York’s 47th Street. His future travel plans are fluid.