Every morning on our way to school, me and my buddies stopped off at Tony’s, a small grocery just around the corner from the projects. Robbie usually bought Tootsie Rolls, Georgie, a box of Good and Plenty, and Mickey a Chunky or Turkish Taffy bar. My favorite candy was red licorice. I spent most of my lunch money – if I had any – on these long strands of twisted pleasure.
One morning, however, I came up short. I frantically searched my pockets but found nothing but lint and an old Ludens cough drop. So I decided to take a chance and help myself to some licorice – just this once. While Tony was busy counting the change laid out on the counter by Robbie, Georgie, and Mickey, I grabbed a handful of licorice, shoved them in my jacket and calmly walked out.
As we ran down the street, my buddies and I all had a good laugh. “That was easy,” I said as I munched on a piece of licorice. I found this piece especially tasty, maybe because it was free.
If you don’t count the occasional dime I took from my mother’s purse in the morning while she slept, or that quarter I took off my grandmother's dresser one afternoon, or the loose change I found under the cushions of my Aunt Rose’s sofa, I was no thief. Well, occasionally, engrossed in the latest Superman or Fantastic Four comic, I might "accidentally" walk out of Tony's or one of the other two grocery stores in our neighborhood without paying.
Later that week, overconfident, greedy, and once again broke – and thinking Tony was too stupid to notice – I stuffed the pockets of my jacket with red licorice, Tootsie Migees, Atomic Fire Balls, and wads of Bazooka Bubble Gum. But as I walked by the register, a piece of licorice fell out of my jacket onto the floor. I froze. Tony calmly came out from behind the counter and held out his hand.
As I pulled licorice, candy, and bubble gum from my pockets and handed them back, my face flushed and my knees began to quiver. I wanted to run, but my legs wouldn’t work. I looked to my buddies, but they were long gone.
To my surprise, Tony just took back the licorice and other candy I’d lifted and told me to get along to school. I was shocked and relieved at the same time. But I was at a loss to explain why he’d let me go. I was sure Tony would kick my ass then call the cops. Or worse. I was afraid my Aunt Rose would find out. But Tony didn’t call the cops and my Aunt Rose never learned of my short-lived life of crime.
I spent a lot of time with my Aunt Rose and Uncle Jimmy. With my step-father gone and my mother waitressing five nights a week at The Brass Rail on South Main, my Aunt Rose fed me just about every evening. But there was always a price to pay for the free meals. All through supper she’d flip through the New York Daily News and our local paper, The Advocate, looking for further proof that the world was a cesspool of sin and degradation.
“See,” she’d shout, pointing to a picture of a guy being led away to prison. Then she’d point to a picture on her religious wall, next to the crucifix and a portrait of Pope John. In the center of this picture was a black, heart-shaped object surrounded by flames and wrapped in thorns. “And that’s what your soul will look like if you break even one of the Commandments,” she’d add, her eyes bugging out like she’d had too many cups of coffee. My Uncle Jimmy would poke at his dinner, squirm in his seat, then yell, “Rose, shut up and eat!” I hunched over my plate and worked at my meat loaf, avoiding her eyes.
After supper my uncle and I would retreat to the living room and watch TV while Aunt Rose did the dishes. If it was a Thursday night, we'd watch The Untouchables. Every week G-Man Eliot Ness fought Big Al Capone over large vats of beer hidden in some Chicago warehouse. The high point of just about every show was a car chase and a gun battle between the Feds and Big Al’s "associates." Under a hail of Federal gunfire, bad guys grabbed their chests, winced, spun around, and, arms flailing in agony, fell to the ground, dead. Occasionally, one of the good guys, an Untouchable, got winged.
“Just a flesh wound,” the wounded G-man would say as he clutched his shoulder, blood oozing from between his fingers.
On The Untouchables I’d seen what Big Al did to anyone who crossed him. And over dinner, Aunt Rose showed me pictures in The Daily News of guys who tried to stiff the mob. Their bodies were being fished out of the East River by the harbor police. Or they lay face down on the sidewalk, covered with a blood-stained sheet after "accidentally’"falling out a tenth-floor window before they could testify before some grand jury. “Flying lessons,” Uncle Jimmy joked. I often wondered how he knew about such things.
After the incident with Tony and the candy, me and my buddies got our morning sugar fix at one of the other small, family-owned grocery stores in our neighborhood – there was one right across the street from Tony's and another just down the block, owned by an eagle-eyed old witch named Mrs. Reilly, who looked like she just fell off her broomstick – face first.
It wasn't until the following summer that I took a chance and stopped by Tony's again. I knew I probably wasn’t the only kid from the projects trying to heist his candy, so I was sure Tony had forgotten about all me. While thumbing through a Spiderman comic one Saturday afternoon, Tony came up and asked if I wanted to work for him.
“I could use some help around the store,” he said. "Couple of afternoons during the week, Saturday, and maybe a half day Sunday." For a moment I didn’t know what to say. I wasn’t sure if he’d forgotten about the incident with the candy, but when I saw no hint of recognition in his eyes, I said “Sure.”
Tony said the job involved stocking the shelves, filling the cooler with milk, soda, eggs, packages of cheese and bologna, filling the comic book and magazine rack, sweeping and mopping the floor, washing the windows, stacking the empty milk containers, breaking up empty boxes, and taking out the garbage. I wasn’t allowed near the register, though.
Tony’s grocery wasn’t very big and there wasn’t much stock on the shelves, and what stock there was had a thick layer of dust on top. I wondered how he stayed in business with that grocery store just across the street and the other just down the block, the one owned by Mrs. Reilly. But I figured working at Tony’s was easy money, a lot easier than dragging around heavy golf bags for eighteen holes at the municipal golf course every weekend. I started working for Tony the following Monday afternoon.
Tony was short, bald, and wore glasses. He looked harmless in that white grocery store apron he wore to protect his white shirt and gray pants, but he had hairy, muscular arms and could have easily crushed my head with one of his hands if he ever caught me trying to heist his candy again.
We exchanged little small talk, Tony and me. In fact, when there weren't any customers in the store, the only sounds you heard were the hum of the cooler and the buzz of the neon light fixtures. Tony quietly went about the business of running a small grocery while I quietly went about the business of sweeping, stacking, and stocking - and occasionally helping an old lady out the door with her groceries.
I didn't even know Tony's last name, where he lived, or if he was married. I knew he was probably Italian, though. Sometimes he spoke in Italian to the few customers who shopped at his store. And he always spoke Italian to the guys in suits who stopped by but bought no groceries. For the most part, Tony was a mystery.
As I worked for Tony that fall and into the winter, I noticed that some customers would lay down a buck or half dollar on the counter, but bought no groceries. Tony would pull a large gray ledger book out from under the counter, the customer would say something in a low voice I couldn’t always hear, then Tony would jot something down in the ledger book with that stubby Number 2 pencil he kept behind his ear. Then he would put the ledger book back under the counter and deposit the coins or bills in his pants pocket, not the register.
One afternoon, while Tony was busy in the basement, I stole a look into that big gray ledger book. I found page after page filled with long columns of three digit numbers, nothing else. No names, no dates, no nothing, just numbers. Later, when I asked my Uncle Jimmy what this ledger book was all about, he gave me a long look then put his hand on my shoulder.
“Tony’s a bookie. I thought you knew that,” he said, leaning close and keeping his voice down so Aunt Rose, who was in the living room watching the news, couldn’t hear.
“A bookie?” I replied, almost whispering. I’d heard the word before but wasn’t exactly sure what it involved.
“These so-called customers are placing bets on the number that comes up that day.”
“What number?” I asked. My uncle gave me this look then turned to see if Aunt Rose was still watching the news.
“It’s the last dollar digit of the daily total of the win, place and show bets at the track.”
“Oh ... so ... I’m working for ... the mob?”
My uncle looked at me for a long minute, then said, “Maybe it’s better you don’t ask any more questions. And don’t ask Tony. Your ignorance is your bullet-proof vest.” He winked, gave me a soft dope slap to the side of the head and went into the living room to watch the news with Aunt Rose.
On my way home from school the next day I realized that working for Tony meant that any day could turn into an episode of The Untouchables, with raids and gunfire and all. Now I understood why there was so little merchandise on Tony’s shelves and how he managed to stay in business in a neighborhood that already had two other grocery stores.
More importantly, I understood why Tony had hired me, of all people, the kid he’d caught trying to heist his candy. He'd probably looked into my soul and saw that black, heart-shaped object in that picture on my Aunt Rose's religious wall. Maybe after a suitable probation period – sweeping the floor and stacking shelves – he’d let me take bets and enter three digit numbers into the large gray ledger book.
One Sunday a family friend, Eddie Hogan, stopped by our apartment. Eddie and my mother were knew each other from high school, but Eddie was also a cop, a sergeant on the vice squad. He had a local establishment under surveillance, I heard him tell my mother over coffee in the kitchen. I wondered if he was watching Tony’s. Did he know I worked for Tony? Is that why he’d stopped by?
I was worried. If I continued working for Tony there was a chance I could be arrested and taken away in cuffs when Sergeant Hogan and his squad raided Tony’s so-called "grocery." I’d be charged as an accomplice even though Tony never allowed me anywhere near his gray ledger book.
If Sergeant Hogan and his "Untouchables" come crashing through Tony’s front door – Elliot Ness-like – with Tommy guns blazing, there was a chance I could take a slug in the gut, or, if I was lucky, only get winged. If I survived, I’d be hauled into some Federal courthouse in cuffs, flashbulbs popping all around me.
Later, after being found guilty of racketeering and sentenced to a long stretch in the state pen, the reporters would yell, “Why’d ya do it, kid?” as I was thrown into a paddy wagon and taken to the train station for the long ride upstate.
I took a chance and continued to work for Tony anyway. I needed the job. But I was not happy. At the end of my first week, Tony paid me in cash, all singles. When I counted the stack of one-dollar bills in my hand, I did the math and quickly realized I was making less than minimum wage – $1.25 an hour. I looked at Tony, but his face betrayed no emotion. Was he paying me less because I was just a kid? Or did he feel I owed him for the licorice and other candy he caught me trying to heist?
Still, I felt I was being robbed. If I was one of them now – working for a guy who worked for the mob – wasn’t I due my fair cut of the take? I took Tony’s money, but every payday the resentment built. I needed the cash, so I kept my mouth shut. What good would it do to complain anyway? Secretly, I hoped Eddie Hogan would raid the place. I’d show them where Tony hid his ledger book. Maybe not. That’d make me a rat. And I saw in The Daily News what happened to cheese eaters.
I worked for Tony all that winter and into the spring. Every Saturday at five, he paid me – in cash, all singles, at less than minimum wage. Fed up, one day I just stopped showing up for work. I wanted to tell Tony to take his job and shove it. Better yet, I wanted to fill my pockets with candy and walk out, but I was afraid he might catch me – again.
One Sunday morning, as me and my buddies sat around watching cartoons and reading the funny pages, I told them about being short-changed by Tony – robbed was more like it – and how I just up and quit. Mickey, who I'd told about the gray ledger book, looked over at me. “Nobody quits the mob,” he said. “The mob quits you."
“Yeah,” Robbie added. “Tony’s 'employers' might just pay one of his former employees a visit late one night and teach this former employee how to fly. Know what I mean?” I knew exactly what he meant. I lived on the sixth floor, a long way down to the concrete sidewalk below. I knew too much about Tony’s operation and the gray ledger book. And if they found out I knew Eddie Hogan, I’d have to go into hiding.
Fearing Tony and his "employers," I kept a low profile. Whenever Aunt Rose sent me out for milk and bread, I went to one of the other grocery stores in our neighborhood, the one owned by Mrs. Reilly. And I went by night, slipping from shadow to shadow, the collar of my jacket pulled up high.
But I was still pissed off about my lost wages. Tony owed me. I worked in his lousy, two-bit store and never once did he slap me on the back and say “Good job” like Big Al did when one of his "associates" took care of some "business." I still thought of ratting him out to Sergeant Hogan, but then there was still the problem of Tony’s "employers." I worried that if they found out, one morning Aunt Rose would open The Daily News and see a picture of my bullet-riddled body slumped over the steering wheel of a Buick. I didn’t have my license – and we didn’t own a car – but they’d fill me full of holes and prop me up in the front seat of some other car just to make an example of me.
My resentment simmered until one afternoon when I decided to get even. Me and my buddies put our heads together and came up with a plan that would allow me to recoup my lost wages, or at least part of what Tony owed me. It was a brilliant plan, one that involved brains not brawn. No baseball bats or Tommy guns involved.
When empty, the plastic one-gallon milk containers would net a twenty-five cent deposit each. The plan was for Georgie to bring back four empty containers to Tony’s, who would then pay him the dollar deposit. As usual, Tony would stack the empty containers in the rear of the store, by the back door with all the other empties. I knew that during the day Tony never locked the back door, in fact, on warm days, he left the back door wide open. He was in and out with cardboard boxes and other trash all the time, a job I used to do – for less than minimum wage.
After Tony stacked the empty containers at the rear of the store, I’d quietly slip in the back door, reclaim these very same containers and pass them along to one of my buddies who would then bring these same four containers to Tony for the one dollar deposit. My buddies and I would have a revolving door going, bringing back the same four containers over and over for the one dollar deposit. We’d quit when I had recouped my lost wages ... or when Tony began to wonder why his collection of empty milk containers at the back of his store wasn’t getting any bigger ... or when he realized that the same three kids were bringing back the same four containers. For a moment I even thought of sneaking in and stealing Tony’s big gray ledger book from under the counter. But if he caught me, there would be no call to the police. One evening my Aunt Rose would find that picture of me in The Daily News.
Before we could put our plan into operation, however, Mickey brought some unexpected news. "I stopped by Tony's. The lights are out and the door is locked. I looked in the front window and the place is a mess."
"What happened?" I asked.
"Don't know. When I asked that old bitch, Mrs. Reilly, she just smiled and said, 'Tony got what he deserved. This was a good neighborhood until him and his kind showed up ... and you kids with your quick hands. I know youse punks from the projects have been stealing from me. I wish you'd all disappear one night.'"
I wondered what she meant. Did Sergeant Hogan and his Untouchables raid Tony's store one night, find the big gray ledger book, and haul Tony away in cuffs? We went to see for ourselves. When we got to Tony's, it was closed, like Mickey said. We looked around for any signs of a raid, but there were none to be found. There was a large dark stain on the ground by the back door, though. Maybe it was just an old oil stain left by a delivery truck. For a second it reminded me of that black, heart-shaped object on my Aunt Rose's religious wall.
No, if there was a raid, it would have been in the papers and Aunt Rose would have told me about it over dinner, her eyes bugging out. Maybe Tony was just quietly taken away by Eddie Hogan and his store locked up by Eddie's Untouchables.
"Maybe it wasn't the cops," said Robbie. "Maybe Tony's 'employers' checked the ledger book ..."
" ... and Tony came up short ... " said Mickey,
" ... so they took him for a ride ... " said Georgie.
I wondered about the big gray ledger book filled with three digit numbers. Was it confiscated by Sergeant Hogan, to be used later at Tony's trial? Or did Tony's "employers" take it with them after going over the numbers, like Robbie said. Either way, Tony and his big gray ledger book were gone.
We looked at each other, then at the dark stain on the ground. We shoved our hands deep into our pockets, hunched down in our jackets, and quietly headed off to school. The plan to recoup my lost wages was forgotten.
A couple of days later, as usual, Aunt Rose searched the pages of The Daily News during dinner looking for further proof that the world was a cesspool of sin and degradation. On page two she found a picture of the harbor police fishing a body out of the water. The guy they’d fished out wore a white shirt and gray pants. The accompanying article said he was reputed to be in the numbers racket. The police could not release the name of the deceased until the next of kin had been notified, however. My uncle stared at the picture.
"Wages of sin, kid. Wages of sin," my uncle said as he got up to get another beer. I hunched over my plate and worked at my macaroni and cheese.
After dinner my uncle and I retreated to the living room while my aunt did the dishes.
“What’s today, Thursday?” my uncle asked, turning on the TV. “The Untouchables is on tonight.”
I thought about Tony, the picture in The Daily News, and the stain on the ground behind Tony's store. “Can we watch Red Skelton instead?”