Moe Minsky Tale
Written By Al Geto
wasn't until years after McDuffy bought a wristwatch with no works in
it that I began to realize how much hokum is for sale in Brooklyn, including
the bridge. But the way McDuffy envisioned it took me by such surprise.
I never got over it. Those were the days hot dogs were a nickel. With
mustard and sauerkraut. You could have bought a subway station and all
the privileges that came with it, such as running the change booth whenever
you were short of change.
could not, of course, afford the whole bridge. But you might be excited
by the idea of a share in the secret consortium, strictly limited to
ten. And since nine shares were always already taken, you were incredibly
lucky to get the last share just before the deal was about to be closed.
You had to grab it immediately because they were right there-and-then
on the point of giving the go-ahead to the Mayor. He was waiting at
a telephone to sign a city order passed by the Board of Aldermen to
install toll booths at both ends. Delay was out of the question, because
in the upcoming election the reform candidate, a shoo-in, would kill
the entire scheme. To provide a final touch of legitimacy, your obligation
and responsibility as ten percent owner was carefully laid out in the
contract: every three years when the bridge required a new coat of paint,
you had to provide your ten percent of the paint - in cans or however
- but you could choose the color.
scams were deviously practiced by covert men in Chesterfield overcoats
and spats late at night in shady hotel rooms. Later, when I heard about
the sewer scandal, I couldn't believe anybody would risk a nickel on
it, but two investors bought in for ten thousand each. Documents entitled
them to assess each new householder a dollar a month to flush their
toilets. The investors, a couple of Hungarian immigrants, paid cash,
but it turned out they had made the bills themselves.
thought of McDuffy every time I read of another such scheme in the newspapers.
McDuffy was my age then, twelve, a gangly, freckled Irish kid, blazing
hair neatly combed and parted in the middle, an ingenuous stare permanently
on his face as if he was rediscovering the world every minute. He sang
in his church choir, a soft Irish mist in his voice, which was probably
why his nose always ran. Money was his big problem. He had no father
and his mother supported the three kids as a nurse.
morning we walked over the bridge into Manhattan, planning to sneak
into a show, I had thirty-five cents lunch money and he had a quarter
and holes in his shoes into which he had shoved folded up newspaper.
We stopped in the middle of the bridge to look at the river. The tugboats,
the ferries, the barges hooting and whistling dawdled in the water,
searching for their piers.
how much one a them scows cost?" McDuffy said, leaning over the rail
and squinting at the scene below.
"What would you want with a scow?" I asked him.
"I don't want a scow," he said. "I was just wonderin' how much they
cost. You can think about somethin' without actually wantin' it. Or
you can want somethin' and try not to think about it because you can't
have it anyway."
I was grappling with that as we left the bridge and walked up the East
Side. McDuffy stopped to look in nearly every store window, gazing hungrily
at everything. "I'd get that for my mother," he said, pointing to a
worn volume in a second-hand bookstore. On the cover was the title,
Irish Tales, slightly rubbed out. "She likes to read to us."
"Yeah. She has a voice like lilacs."
"Come on if we're gonna try to get in," I said, and walked fast ahead
short, fat man in a straw hat wearing a vest of colors waltzed down
the street. He had a thin moustache that looked painted on. He carried
a cardboard box half-filled with little wrapped packages, and in a hoarse,
underground voice called to everybody he passed, "Wanna buy a wristwatch?
Twenny fi' cents! Wristwatches! Complete with leather bands. Twenny
Yeah! Yeah!" McDuffy cried. Before I could turn back to stop him he
gave the fat man his quarter and in return received one of the small
packages from the large box. "Wow!" McDuffy yelled at me. "I got me
a wristwatch!" He was tearing open the paper tied around the box. It
took him a minute or two to rip it off.
the matter with you, Duff?" I said.
"Huh?" he said and threw away the box. "For two bits!" He stared at
his purchase. From the cheap strap dangled a piece of shiny tin with
the face of a watch under a paper-thin slice of glass. The hands moved
fixed together as he turned the tiny knob. There was nothing inside.
McDuffy looked around. The fat man had disappeared.
to stop you," I said.
"Huh?" He looked at the wristwatch.
"I didn't hear ya."
"Did you expect to get a real watch for a quarter?" I asked him.
"You could. There's always sales in the city," he said.
"A real watch?"
He looked at me with his frank, blue eyes. "He didn't say it was real,"
"You thought it was," I said.
"How do you know that?" he said.
"How do I know you thought it was real?"
"Well, didn't you?"
"What's the difference if I did or didn't?"
"What are you talkin' about?"
"What are you talkin' about?" McDuffy said.
We stood looking at each other, then started walking up the street slowly,
each of us chewing his own mind.
"You got taken," I said.
"I always wanted a wristwatch," he said.
I didn't answer him.
"You want to make me feel stupid," he said. "You don't know everything,
y'know." He looked down at his beat up, battered shoes then began strapping
the watch on his wrist. "When you ain't got the real thing you go with
the make-believe. Or you got nothin'."
I shook my head. "You'd buy the Brooklyn Bridge if it was for sale,"
"Wouldn't you?" he said.
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