But this Sunday was not about to end with dinner and a snooze.
When I got back to the paper at 6:30 p.m., I wasn’t surprised that The Boss was still out. I know he likes the quality of the cigar smoke at the Algonquin Hotel so I went on over to West 44th Street to talk to him there.
This was risky. His dinnertime was usually off-limits. But he had said at least a hundred times that initiative was the thing he wanted from all of us. That, and to use our heads.
On the way, I detoured over to the Hotel Penn to see the chambermaid again before her shift was up. Maybe she had softened a bit. And I’d already pulled a larger bill from my stash at the apartment just in case.
I asked for her at the front desk when I saw that the Bell Captain’s stand was empty. The clerk there disappears and comes back with the assistant manager.
This is a roly-poly fellow with a stiff collar and a bow tie and he says, “Molly’s not available,” before I can open my mouth.
I say, “Her shift isn’t over yet.”
He says, “We have instructed her not to talk to the press. Or you. You’re just a photographer, am I correct?”
I say, “No. Not just a photographer. I am the best.”
And then, from behind me, I hear, “Hey Pops.”
I turn and Benny Goodman is standing right there.
He says, “ So, is the best photographer in the world finally going to take my damn picture?” He winks. I think he is thanking me for not snapping that shot earlier.
I open my bag and take out the beast. It’s set. It’s always set. That’s rule number one. All I have to do is back up ten feet, press the switch on the flash and hit the shutter. Goodman smiles. He’s got a funny smile. All reserve. I’m done in thirty seconds. Right there in the lobby at the Hotel Pennsylvania in the midst of the potted palms and marble.
He shook my hand then and says, “Send me a copy.”
I had typed up my report, added a couple of thoughts by hand in the margin, and my idea was to give that to Barry George there at the Algonquin, along with the prints I’d made. Otherwise he wouldn’t see them until nine or ten or so and that would be pretty late to change directions. Something was going on with the cops and I figure he ought to be made aware of that before he decides on how to handle it.
The dining room there is smaller than you’d think, for all you hear about it. And the tables are not round. The Boss had his back to the far wall and saw me coming across the dining room from the door. There were several familiar faces at the table with him but I tried to keep my focus. I needed to make my case quick and get away.
I squeezed in there between two other tables and managed to get an eyeful down the decolletage of a woman I was sure I knew from the movies, and then put the manila envelope right in his hand.
He didn’t speak. He is a plain-faced man of medium height and, sitting at a table, not the first you would take note of. He often speaks without any inflection at all.
I said, “Hi sir. I thought you might want to see this before it got too late. I’ll be at the office if you need me,” and started to move away.
Without hesitation, he asks, “Did the Empire State building collapse?”
I turn back. “No, sir, it—”
“Did David Rockefeller shoot Mr. LaGuardia?”
“No. Not yet.”
With no change of tone he says, “Well then, no, I don’t think I will be needing your services. Not now or later. Not at all. Not ever again.”
You’d think that would be a blow, but he had fired me several times before.
I just nodded and said, “Yes, sir. Good night sir.”
The lady with the fine bust beneath her low cut dress was sitting just behind me there, and given that everyone within a dozen feet had quieted down to find out what the emergency was, she had heard this exchange. She giggled.
I went back to the paper anyway. Just in case he changed his mind. Besides, I was hoping to see someone else.
Cass was at her desk. This is not a common sight. She has a way of being busy, even on Sunday night, but she was there and she saw me immediately when I came in from the elevators and her face was not nearly as severe as Barry George’s had been as I came across the floor. With no ‘bulldog’ on a Sunday, about half the crew was still busy wrapping up and the noise from the typewriters and the chitchat was considerable. My desk isn’t near hers but given that she was doing the looking, I took the beeline.
She waited until I was right beside her desk, like a schoolboy called to the teacher.
She says, “Wha’da ya got?”
“A murder over at the Hotel Penn.”
“So I heard.”
Now I want to know, “What did you hear?”
“A hooker and a salesman,” she says.
I give that the shake-off, “No. I’ll bet the guy’s a politician. Something like that. Washington, maybe. It was a flat-out murder.”
“You think? Why?”
I pulled the folded carbon copies of my report to George from my jacket along with a couple of extra 4x5s I’d made to leave in Brooklyn, but then had second thoughts about.
She handed me the hard copy that Tommy had submitted on the murder, and started in reading mine.
Tommy had almost word for word everything Sergeant Hadley had said. At least his short hand is that good.
When she finished reading mine she said, “You have any second sources?”
I say, “Not one. Chambermaid is still out of bounds an hour ago. And that makes it clear that they’re hiding something. I was hoping I could get George to run the story with a few more open ends and then give someone else a chance to work on it.”
“Like me, maybe?”
“Do you think he’d let you? He just fired me for disturbing his dinner.”
That got a smile.
“Yeah. One way or the other. But that’s a good sign. You ought to get fired at least once a month to keep things fresh.”
I am still standing there by her desk and she has an eye on me and I am feeling uncomfortable.
She says, “Did ya eat yet?”
“It’s Sunday. I went home to Brooklyn.”
“But I skipped dessert. Lets go get something. Boss won’t be here for another hour.”
Her plan was to write the report up from my notes the way I wanted, with all the loose ends attached, and give that to George as an alternative to Tommy’s copy work. We went over everything I had done pretty thoroughly and she wrote while I talked. We were back at the paper by nine and she had the thing typed out by 9:15, and in walks George. He sees me standing there right off, but he stops at half a dozen desks along the way and chats with one guy or another.
Let me say something more about Mr. George.
On those rare occasions when his temper flares, his favorite phrase is, “What do you think, I got a glass eye? I can see right through you.” But he does not have a glass eye. His most distinguishing characteristic is a lack of distinguishing characteristics. He is a plain man of the sort you’ll see sometimes in court. The one who gets away with murder because no one can be absolutely sure of his appearance, which is always neat; he is neither fat nor thin, short or tall; his hair is thinning but he is not bald and the color of the hair he combs straight back with an adequate application of Brylcreem each day (you know it’s Brylcreem because you can smell it) is the color of tree bark, not brown, nor gray.
Some personal notes of Barry George’s biography that I have collected unintentionally, mostly by being in the wrong place at the wrong time, are that he is 42 years old and he is of Scots-Irish extraction. Evidently the extraction was painful. He is married, and his wife lives in Port Washington. He has no children. He drives home most nights at about 2 a.m. and returns to work before noon. He takes one day off per week but not always the same day. He was a reporter and sports editor at the Post-Dispatch in St. Louis for many years before he came to New York.
While we’re waiting, I ask Cass, “Have you ever thought of being a travel writer?”
She had no quick answer. The half a minute of silence was amazing. I could see the confusion in her eyes as she tries to figure my angle. She has very pretty brown eyes.
“Why did you ask?”
“I was just thinking. It would be nice to go places.”
Then she says, “Well, now’s your chance. The Boss doesn’t look too forgiving.”
George is suddenly there, in front of her desk and looking down directly at her and ignoring me.
He says, “Wha’ da ya got?”
She says “I got the piece on the priest up in Harlem who’s taking care of all those dogs while his parishioners are at work.” She hands him about 600 words on three sheets. “And I have a re-write on the John Doe story from the Hotel Penn.”
George says, “Why?”
Now, Cass usually has things set down in her head before she speaks. Not like me.
She says, “The Daily News is going to run with the same copy Tommy handed in. Word for word. You know that. It’s just what the cops dished out at the scene. I didn’t think you’d want that stuff. And a little added mystery might sell a few more papers.”
George jerks his head around like something else had happened.
“What? Did I walk into the Black Mask office by mistake? This is a newspaper.”
“I thought the questions were part of the news.”
He grimaces in faux pain. “Then they’ve got a school for you up at Columbia. Down here we run a tabloid.”
She asks, “Did you read Hugh’s report?”
Now, I note, George had not looked over at me yet. I was still just three feet away.
“Hugh? You mean the photographer that used to work here?”
She says, “The same.” She has a tone in her voice that makes me smile.
He says, “Yeah, I read it. That’s just a lot of in one innuendo and out the other. Though some of the pictures will do.”
She asks, “You want to read what I wrote?”
“No. I want to put the paper to bed and then myself, in that order.”
He turned then and walked on back to his office.
Cass said, “Must have been something he ate. He’ll feel better in the morning.”
That was when I finally headed on home.
I had not been back in my apartment before midnight in months. Not since I was sick with pneumonia before Christmas. When I’m about a block away, still on the far side of Seventh, I can see down Perry Street to the entrance to my building. There is no light hitting the stoop from the lobby. My eyes go up to the third floor. There’s a light on in my front room.
What I should have done is call the cops right then. Probably. There is a phone booth way back by the subway exit on 14th. But if I was being burglarized the police wouldn’t get there for half an hour and then just to make a report.
Instead, I walked on and crossed over to the big building on the corner.
They told me when I started my job that my press card opens doors. And it does. You slip that stiff cellulose ticket in the jamb break, right at the lock latch and about half the time, voila! I went up to the roof from there, breathing pretty heavily because I was already tired from the day, but the adrenaline was in my legs.
The big building is one floor higher but the fire escape goes right down to the adjoining roof and I used my pocketknife to lift the latch and open the fire door to the stairwell in my own building.
I was at my own door in about three minutes and just at the time the guy inside comes out. In his left hand he’s holding a large paper market bag stuffed to the top. All I have now is the pocketknife. He sees me with an “Ah!”
A big guy, he grabs inside his coat with his right hand and I don’t want to know what he has to show me. I put a fist in his face and kicked him in the balls. He tumbles right down the stairs from there all the way to the second floor. He was out cold immediately, not from my punch, but from hitting the tiles with his head. The paper bag he was carrying, filled with my pictures and negatives, had broken apart and they fluttered down through the air behind him.
Then I went inside and called the police.
But they were there in thirty seconds. Like they were already somewhere on the block. And they arrested me before they even had their friend sitting up.
I think that about covers everything that happened on my day off. At least what I can think of.
By daylight, the Charles Street Police Station is a grand affair. Granite columns and all. I hear that Teddy Roosevelt built it. But the interior is naturally dark. The cells are like closets. Small closets. And there is a hole in the corner of each cell where you can pee or whatever, if the need arises. That is just about where my nose was when I woke up on the floor in the wee hours, Monday, to nature’s smelling salts.
I know that they give you a basin of water and a bit of soap to wash up with and you are supposed to pour what remains down that little hole in the floor to help with the odor, but I think the last occupants of this particular cell had probably swallowed their water instead.
The right side of my face had taken some abuse and didn’t want to be touched. I ran my tongue over my teeth and was happy at the complete findings. One eye was in the process of swelling shut but I could still see a bit out of that for the moment. Both arms were sore from being twisted around behind my back. One hand had been stepped on and had the tread mark from a shoe to prove it. I sat back on a bunk that was not quite six feet long. I’m 6’ 2”. But then again, as tired as I was, I didn’t want to sleep.
First thing I said out loud was, “I gotta call my paper.”
Now this choice was deliberate. Maybe they didn’t know I worked for the Mirror, though that was unlikely, but it made the point that I was someone with a connection to an organization that they had to accord a little respect. Besides, I don’t have a lawyer.
I said this half a dozen times into the half-dark of the walkway between me and the cell across. I got a few replies from other cells that are unprintable but amounted to telling me to use my newspaper to stuff my mouth after I had taken care of some other business with it. What I heard in return, besides the aforementioned recommendations, were several snores, and the distant hubbub from the street.
I sat back on the bunk again and contemplated my future. But thankfully, not for long.
A cop in uniform came and opened the door, reached in without stepping any farther into the cell than necessary, grabbed an arm, and hauled me out, dragging me stumbling toward the better illuminated doorframe ahead. Thoughts of another beating entered my brain. Instead, through my good eye I quickly saw the unhappy face of The Boss standing out in the middle of the floor by the main desk.
The cop dragging me along leaves me catching my balance in front of Barry George and says only, “He resisted arrest. We had to quiet him down.”
My boss looks away from me in disgust and says to the cop, “Where’s the camera?”
Now, that should have been his first concern. Granted. Those things cost a couple hundred bucks.
Another flatfoot rummages around in the accumulated crap behind a side desk and comes out with it, dangling at the end of the strap along with my empty bag, my Florsheims tied together by the laces, my key chain, and my belt.
George says, “Where is the rest of his stuff?”
The first cop says. “That’s all there is.”
So I knew immediately that I was out the ten bucks from my stash, and my pocket knife, and my new wallet from Christmas, and a swell picture of Benny Goodman.
The Boss waited impatiently, but silently, for me to get the knot out of the laces and get my shoes on before I followed him out. I have been in these situations before, but not on the receiving end. I have only been the observer. I know there is nothing to say.
George was driving a company car from the Mirror. I climbed in.
As soon as I get the door shut he says, “You are still fired. Until further notice. You want to go home to Brooklyn, or to your own place?”
The odd nature of the statement went uncommented upon by me.
“My place. I don’t need my dad seeing this. He’ll come down here with his shotgun and get himself killed.”
George nodded, “Okay. I suspect your dad knows the score. But you should know that your place is a mess. I saw it.”
“The police radio said you’d been arrested there. That’s how.”
“You have a radio?” I looked under the dashboard.
“The one in the wire room. Kelly heard it and told Cass. She told me.”
I think I said, “Crap!”
Everyone at the paper would know. Given the perversity of the place, I’d have to buy them all drinks for saving my ass.
Barry George answered, “Watch your mouth.”
He had me home to Perry Street in five minutes.
I said, “Thanks,” and eased my sore parts out. Every joint of me was feeling it now.
I was already out of the car when he reached into the backseat and lifted the camera and the bag into the air by the straps and said, “You’ll need this.”
When I got upstairs, I could hear that there was someone in my apartment. But the radio was on and I jumped to the conclusion that if the cops had come back they would probably have been a little more quiet about it.
I opened the door up to a very nice picture.
Cass was standing there with a broom and a dustpan. She was sweeping up the coffee grounds from the overturned garbage can.
She said, “Holy cow!”
I thought for a split second she was actually going to give me a kiss when she dropped the broom and came right to me, but instead she took my face in her hands and gave it a good looking over. I could smell something like vanilla. I don’t cook so I was pretty sure it was whatever perfume she was using. Her hands were a lot softer than I thought they would be. And I also noted that, up close—because this was about as close as I had ever been to her—and through just one eye, she looked even better than she ever did before, which was considerable.
She went to the icebox then and took out the tray with the remaining lump of ice from what I had bought a couple days before and used the pick on that with a vengeance until she had enough chips to fill up a wash cloth and very neatly pinned the corners with a safety pin from a drawer in the counter where I keep my odd stuff. She apparently already knew where things were as well as I did.
I sat on the folding couch and watched all of this with some amazement at first, letting her do the talking.
“I came over with The Boss. He didn’t really want me with him going to the Station so I stayed here because the cops had left the place in such a mess. I think it’s at least a little better now.” She scanned the accumulation of debris she had put together on the table nearby. “I guess you better sort that out tomorrow.” Then she looked toward the bedroom door. “Your bedroom is hopeless. They turned the bed over and all the trays. I guess the trays were empty, thank goodness. But it still stinks in there.”
“It always does. I usually keep the door closed.”
“Where do you sleep?”
“Here,” I patted the couch.
At that point she had the cloth ready and came over and pressed it as gently as she could. Still, it seemed an appropriate moment to complain.
I gave her an, “Ouch!”
She said, “Don’t be a baby. Hold this.”
What I got to hold for just a moment was her hand, which was still on top of the cloth.
I said, “Thanks.”
She shook her head at me.
“This is all my fault. I should have been at the hotel this morning.”
It was after midnight but I didn’t correct that. The day had been long enough.
I said, “You looked a little tired earlier. You probably needed the time off.”
“Well, that was it, wasn’t it? You know, I was giving a lot of thought yesterday to quitting.”
“Because of this!” Her arms spread out at the apartment around us. “Because everything is so cockeyed and wrong. Everything is a mess! And because I’m not really doing anything about it.”
She sat down hard in my one wooden chair by the table, with all the mess she had picked up for me piled right there beside her. Suddenly she looked rather dejected.
I said, “What happened? What got you so down? The priest with all the cats?”
It was a feeble attempt at humor.
She ignored that. “Dogs! No. Do you remember that girl in the blue dress they pulled from the water that day over by the docks?”
“Yes. Her name was Florence Roberts. She was from Queens. She worked at Macy’s as a salesgirl in the toiletries department.”
“I read your story.”
“What was left of it, after George pulled out anything that told the truth.”
“What was that? What was the truth?”
“She was pregnant. The father was more than likely the floor manager at the store. He’s a real slime bag. And she was an only daughter. She was the sole support at home. Her father had worked at the sewer department. He was killed in an accident. Her mother is an invalid. And she was devoted to her mother. That was why she hadn’t married. But you saw her. And she was pregnant. And she was a Catholic. I was the one who found the paper bag that she’d left over on the pier. It had her coat in it and a note to give the coat to her mother. The dress was what she had worn to her high school prom. The best thing she ever owned. So, then I went on the Macy’s and talked to the floor manger. And he already knew she was pregnant! I’ll bet you a week’s pay she told him and he refused to help. The store office said she had been fired the previous Friday.”
I said, “Now, that’s a story. Why didn’t George use it?”
“Macy’s advertises. That’s why. You know.”
Then she says, “Though, you know, I was thinking that you got it right. In that picture of the drowned girl with that big luxury ship there in the background. Why did she go all the way over there wearing her best blue dress? It seemed to me that she was looking at that ship and thinking about the life she’d wished for herself before she jumped. The one she’d never have.”
Cass nodded and caught a breath. “And then I went to the funeral a couple days ago over at Linden Hill for that young lawyer, Sam Schechner. The one who supposedly hung himself. I spoke to the father again. And the mother. And his brother. There was quite a lot of family there. You know they’re Jewish right off. Religious. Very close. And the father cried right in front of me again. He couldn’t stop himself. It was like everything he had ever worked for was lost. But the one thing they were all very positive about was that Sam could not have committed suicide. That was not in his nature.”
The ice was sending a sharp pain from my cheek to my brain. I tried to keep my head on the more important subject.
“What do you want to do? You think there’s more of a story there? Maybe something about what can drive someone to do a thing like that, especially when they’re otherwise so unlikely for it?”
She said, “George isn’t interested.”
Then she looked at me for almost half a minute in silence. In spite of the pain I pressed the cloth a little tighter to my cheek as some defense against her scrutiny. I didn’t want to ask.
She answered my silent question anyway. “Because, just another suicide won’t sell papers. But there was something else to it, Hugh.” She paused again. Whatever the matter was, the reluctance was pretty visible. And finally she says, “Did you know that I was Jewish?”
This fact had never entered my mind. There was no cause for it to. She never even took Saturdays off—except yesterday. Though pretty clearly, she hadn’t been practicing that faith recently. Not that I was aware of, and it was clear enough she had been affected by the religious service she’d attended.
“Did the funeral bring back some memories?”
“No. No. I wasn’t raised as a Jew. My father’s name was Greenfeld. He left Poland when he was still a boy. He changed his own name at Ellis Island because he didn’t want to be a Jew. He wanted to be an American. He liked to say he had more faith in Joseph Conrad than he had in any Rabbi he ever met. And my mother—she was a schoolteacher. Being Jewish wasn’t really a part of the culture she knew as a girl either. Her father owned a shoe store in Cleveland.”
I tried to make something more positive out of it.
“We have that in common, then. My dad doesn’t read much, but he reads Conrad.”
Thankfully, she ignored this comment too.
She says, “But being there with those people the other day was an odd feeling. With all the weeping and unhappiness for Samuel Schechner’s death, it felt like I belonged there.”
I said the obvious. “Then maybe you did.”
Her reaction to that was sudden.
I said, “What you felt is as true as what you know.”
She looked oddly skeptical at my simple statement of fact.
“That doesn’t say much for reason, does it?”
I suspected she knew a lot more about this sort of thing than I did. I just laid out all I had then.
“Sure. From what little we know. We do our best. But I’ve been listening to Hendrik van Loon on the radio. He says mankind is just at the beginning. We’re still just at the start of things. I guess there’s a lot left to understand about all that. How we think. Why we do.”
She squinted at me for just a moment. What was it she saw? I figured my hair was probably up in a riot from my previous activities.
But what she said was, “Do you ever read? I don’t see a single book in here.”
She had me there. “Not much. Mostly just the papers. And those story magazines you piled up over there.” I looked at the stack on the table. “I never did get into Dad’s set of Conrad.”
She took a very long breath on that, as if it was a primary fault on my part, and it was a difficult matter for her to overlook. I immediately reconsidered going to the library more often.
Then she says, “You ought to know, The Boss is running our rewrite on the John Doe.”
I liked the way she said, ‘our’ rewrite.
I just said, “No kidding?”
“Yeah. He’s upset about the cops taking an extra interest in this.” She scanned the room. “But, right now, you better get some sleep. Do you have any aspirin?”
“No. But I do have some Seagram’s.”
“I saw that!”
She went to the cabinet and pulled it down, but then had some trouble opening it. I’d never touched it since Dad gave it to me. That was the challenge. The cork came out at last and she poured a juice glass full.
I said, “Pour something for yourself. I think you probably need it as much as I do.”
She did pour a little into another glass, but she looked long and hard at me after she handed me mine.
She said, “I can’t stay.”
It was funny how she said it.
I said, “Then call a cab. But sit down first and tell me a little more about what you were thinking before.”
Again the hesitation. This is not like the Cass Green that I’d gotten to know in the last few months. She studied her glass. I took my first sip then and practically coughed myself to death. My ribs were sore and the convulsion doubled it. This was prohibition whiskey and not the stuff you get now. It had a steel edge to it. But at least it got her hand onto my shoulder for a minute.
When I’d settled and taken my second bite of the dog, she said “Which thoughts? About Sam Schechner?”
“Maybe. You’ll have lots of time to work on that. I’ll help you, if I can. If you’ll let me. But what about your idea of quitting.”
The drink went right into a fairly empty stomach and then directly to my softened brain.
She sighed. She does not sigh much that I’ve noticed. Not like my mom can.
She said, “There has to be something more than this, Hugh. This is a game. It’s just an everyday sort of game. All of these unfinished puzzles. Just the pieces we find spilled on the floor after the fact. And then we’re off to find another.”
I offered, “Maybe The Boss’ll give you a feature now and then.” It was a weak encouragement, but all I had.
“Maybe. But I just wonder how it matters. We can never tell the whole story anyway. No one really wants to know the whole of it. They only want the parts that fit easily into their own expectations.”
“Like what? What story? Tell me a story you want to tell.”
Even as I spoke those words I knew my brain was not communicating very well with my tongue. The load from the day and the whiskey were holding hands in my head.
She said, “You’re right. I would like to know what happened to Sam.”
At least I remembered that much in the morning.