Redemption Birthday

by

03/31/2008

Cherry Street and the FDR, 10002

Neighborhood: Lower Manhattan

My dad was the Ralph Kramden of St. Peters Avenue. He always had some plot, some scheme to try to make extra money. The first I remember, he played the number. No, not “Lotto,” but the real, old-school number “played” to scary old men in the back rooms of candy stores that sold wormy Chunky bars and pretzel sticks so stale you’d break off a baby tooth just looking at them. My mom hated it and whenever she found one of those scribbled little slips of paper in his pockets she’d stick in another, with a Bible verse about the evils of gambling. But that never stopped him from trying to hit “the big one.” Usually he only won enough to keep playing. But twice, as if by some quasi-divine criminal intervention, he hit “the big one”. Both times just in time to move us a few more stops up the #6 line and both times the exact amount of money needed for the move. But then one summer evening in our new neighborhood, he missed the light and in the minute he waited to cross Westchester Avenue, the cops swarmed in on the “candy store”, arresting everyone inside. And that was the end of his gambling days.

A little while after that, my dad became the neighborhood pet rescuer. He had always loved animals and had tended pigeons on many rooftops in Spanish Harlem as a child and teenager. I have vague memories of animal wards on our fire escape. Shoeboxes with anything from a broken-winged pigeon (that disappeared) to a baby squirrel (that died) to a couple of poor, mangy, flea-ridden kittens, one of which my mother actually let me keep (it died too). But one day on his way home from work he saw a puppy get hit by a car and thought if he saved it and found the puppy’s owner he’d get a reward. So my dad brought it home, shaved and cleaned up its gashes with hydrogen peroxide and sewed up the biggest one with my mom’s crochet thread. He made a splint for its broken paw—with sticks from the popsicles he made all of us eat after dinner—in January. He gave the puppy a bath, fed and brushed it, and pet it until it fell asleep. It was the best treatment that poor dog probably ever had and as I recall, my dad did not get bit once. But when my dad tracked down the owner—who happened to live in our building—the owner said he had thrown the dog out on purpose, he had wanted him to die. And my dad said, “What?!? How about I take you outside and throw you in front of a car, see how you like it!” “Oh yeah, how about I punch you in the nose!” “Oh yeah, how about I… “This went on until someone finally called the cops. Nothing happened to my dad except having to hear every Bible verse about minding one’s business for the next couple of days. I don’t remember what happened to the dog. But that was the end of his veterinary hobby.

Then when I was a little older, my dad got the idea he could rewire lamps people had thrown out and sell them back to the junk shop (this was before “junk” became “vintage”). My mom said, “What do you think you’re doing? You know nothing about electricity.” But since, or maybe in spite of her not being able to find any verses about lamp wiring in either the Old or New Testaments, our living room was soon filled with a collection of lamps that had probably been “the cat’s pajamas” when they were new. But one day I came home from school and plugged one of them in. The next thing I knew, my brother was crying, my mom was saying “I told you not to bring junk into the house!” and my dad yelled back, “Well, who told her to plug the damn lamp in!” Meanwhile, I was clear on the other side of the living room with overcooked spaghetti for limbs and brain, and little black marks on my right thumb and left toe. The trip to the emergency room ended up costing my dad more than he would have made on ten lamps. That was the end of his electrical career.

A couple of years after that, my dad lost his real job. The construction company he worked for closed down overnight and moved to North Carolina. He didn’t work for almost two years–and it turned him from a life-long Democrat into a “Republi-Rican”–but that’s another story. For almost two years we endured welfare peanut butter that tasted as if it was made from shells off a barroom floor, welfare cheese that tasted like mutant Velveeta combined with spackle and various powdered food products that none of us dared talk about. My mom’s Bible readings now centered on prosperity and blessings, as opposed to punishment and damnation. And for once, my dad had no money-making ideas.

Then Louie “The Light Bulb Man” Eisenberg hit the legal number, (a.k.a. “Lotto”) took his million-plus dollars and retired, and somehow my dad ended up with his job, at the courthouse on 100 Centre Street. In-between screwing in light bulbs, he followed the cops and detectives around all day, picking up the trash they left behind. My dad would bag it up and put it out back, on Baxter Street, to get picked up. One afternoon he was leaving the courthouse from the back way and saw the neighborhood homeless guys picking through the trash bags. “Hey Rudy!” they called out to him. They all knew who my dad was because my dad would buy them coffee every morning. There was Flaco, who was fat, Lucky, because he obviously wasn’t, and Ching who was well…Ching: The Drunken Kung Fu Master of Columbus Park. “Hey Rudy, can you do us a solid? If you separate the deposit bottles and cans from the rest of the garbage, we’ll cut you in, 10%.” “What do you do with them?” my dad asked. “We take ‘em to the Pathmark on Cherry Street, can make $20 a bag. C’mon man, do us a solid!” I can only imagine the ring of light bulbs appearing around my dad’s head as he did the math: At least 10 bags a day @$2 a bag, every day… “Deal.”

And so, in the wake of the first wave of Reaganomics, a new economy was born. In-between the cans, letting JFK Jr. leave from the basement so Pablo Guzman, now a Channel 2 investigative news reporter, couldn’t ask him why he failed the bar again–plus getting free hot dogs from Pablo in return for information about JFK Jr.’s whereabouts–my dad was making about an extra $100 a week. But then one day Flaco disappeared and Lucky and Ching, being small, skinny and quite likely in the final ravages of alcoholism, couldn’t handle the load. “Hey, you guys gotta get this junk out!” “Yeah man, we do it, we do it. Give us time, man.” Later that afternoon, my dad’s boss opened up the storeroom, saw all the bags and told my dad he had to get them out of there or else. That evening, dad went to Columbus Park, found Lucky and told him he’d pay him to get the bags out of there. “Yeah, man, no problem, I meet you 10:00 tomorrow morning.”

Well that Saturday morning happened to be my 18th birthday and my dad was going to take all of us to Carmine’s at the Street Seaport for lunch. But as we were having breakfast he said, “You and your brother have to come to work with me first, I need help with something.” We got to the courthouse, went to my dad’s storeroom and found it filled top to bottom with huge black industrial garbage bags bursting with cans. “Just help me load this up outside, someone is going to come and get it.” So we carried the bags outside and we waited and we waited, and Lucky never showed up. After a while, Ching passed by and asked my dad for a quarter. My dad said, “Where’s Lucky? You guys gotta take these bags, I can’t keep them inside anymore.” Ching goes, “Hey, man, not my problem.” So my dad said, “OK, the hell with this, we’ll just leave the bags, let’s go”. But then a cop, who obviously had been watching us the entire time, came over and told my dad he couldn’t leave the bags there. And when my dad said, “Well, I can’t bring them back inside”, the cop went, “Hey, man, that’s not my problem.” My dad turned around to offer Ching $20 to take the bags but Ching was long gone. So we had no choice but to take the bags ourselves. We loaded them into a wheeled canvas dumpster that looked like the biggest shopping cart you ever saw and my dad said, “Look, we’ll just bring the cans there and someone will take them. It’ll be fine.”

It took all three of us to wheel that cart, that huge canvas dumpster chock-full of garbage bags the 15 or so blocks from Centre Street to Cherry Street and the FDR. All along the way people were looking at us funny, my brother was almost crying from humiliation and my dad was quite visibly pissed. But I was okay with it, I thought it was kind of punk actually. When we finally made it to Pathmark, my dad saw Lucky, grabbed him and said he had to take the cans, but Lucky told my dad to fuck off. Of course he did. He was homeless, he was happily drunk at 11:30 am and he had already done his cans and gotten his 50 dollars, so why should he do any more work. My dad was so angry he himself used the F-word, something he almost never did. “Fuck it! We’re leaving them here.” So we started unloading the cart and the same cop, who must’ve followed us all the way from the courthouse, came over and said “You can’t leave them here,” and my dad said, “Well, what am I supposed to do with them?” The cop pointed across the parking lot to the row of redemption machines and the lines of homeless people in front of them. My brother couldn’t take it any more and really started crying. But with the cop watching us we had no choice, so we took our bags and took our place among the homeless.

It wouldn’t have been so bad, if it hadn’t of been July and the cans hadn’t of been so sticky and there weren’t so many yellow jackets buzzing around. After doing two or three bags my brother refused to do any more and walked over to the side of the parking lot to sulk. I went to him and said, “Why are you being such a pussy? I’m the one spending my birthday with homeless people.” He threw a can at me. I went back to the redemption machines. My dad was kind of slow at it, but for some reason I got the hang right away. You just tossed a can into the slot and pressed a button. For every five cans, you got a quarter. It got to where I was doing two machines at a time, right and left-handed, and I was so quick, some of the men on the line offered me a cut if I’d do their bags. I looked over at my dad, who I knew was keeping an eye on me the entire time. It never crossed my mind that I was probably the only female ever to grace the Pathmark Redemption Center. But even at the age of 18, I still looked about 12 and with my black jeans, Doc Martens and Devo t-shirt, not to mention my “Flock of Seagulls” haircut, they all probably thought I was a boy anyway. So I said, “OK,” and on top of the bags we brought I must have done an extra ten bags and as promised the homeless men came back and gave me my cut. Some of them looked at my dad and nodded. I guessed they thought my dad had brought me up right. Yeah. Right.

By the time we finished all the cans it was three o’clock and we had made $200 dollars. In quarters. By the time we had stood on yet another line to redeem the change, it was after four and my dad said “OK, let’s eat”. We took the dumpster back to Centre Street–which went a lot quicker being it was empty–and finally got to the Seaport. Only we were all filthy. Our hands were black and sticky, my brother’s new, white, New Balance sneakers were new and white no longer and all our shirts were disgusting. We looked homeless. My dad said he’d buy us some new clothes, so we went to the brand-new Pier 17 shopping mall where he took us to the Gap. My brother smiled for the first time all day. But now I wanted to cry. The Gap? The antithesis of punk? The shame! But I had no choice. My dad bought us all new t-shirts and jeans and we had to go to the public bathrooms to clean up and change. In the ladies’ room, a couple of people looked at me with averted eyes. I resisted the temptation to ask them for a quarter.

At Carmine’s we had the Lobster Fra Diablo, the Veal Marsala, the Eggplant Parmigiana and the Zabaglione with Ricotta Cheesecake. After all, it was my birthday. But my mom never made it. Between Lucky and Ching and the cop and Pathmark, my dad had forgotten to go to a pay phone to call her. When he finally did–from outside the restaurant–she was so angry, she said she wouldn’t come. My dad joked that between the dinner and the new clothes we really didn’t have a lot of money left over for her to eat anyway. My brother and I laughed. What mom did remains a mystery to this day. And as we walked up Fulton Street back to the subway, who did we run into but the same cop who had been the catalyst to all the events that day. He unwrapped a piece of gum and tossed the wrapper into the street. My dad walked right up to him and said, “Hey, you can’t leave that there.” The cop looked at my dad for a long moment, bent down and picked up the wrapper, stuck it in his pocket and said, “Even.” As we walked away my brother asked, “Daddy, you know that cop?” “Who, Officer Colletti? He works at the courthouse. I used to pick up his cans all the time. Not anymore.” And he whistled all the way home.

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Michele Carlo has lived in four of the five boroughs of NYC and can remember when a slice of pizza cost fifty cents. She has been published in the short story anthology Chicken Soup For The Latino Soul, is Editorial Director for the online underground entertainment newsletter Toxic Pop and is the curator/producer of It Came From New York, a storytelling show featuring and celebrating native New Yorkers. She is currently at work on a memoir of growing up in the NYC of the 70s-80s, entitled Red Sheep: The Search For My Inner Latina.

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