McDuffy's Law

A Moe Minsky Tale
Written By Al Geto


   It 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.

   You 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.

   Such 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.

   I 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.

   The 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.

"Wonder 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."
"Oh, yeah?"
"Yeah. She has a voice like lilacs."
"Come on if we're gonna try to get in," I said, and walked fast ahead of him.

   A 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 fi' cents!"

   "Hey! 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.

"What's 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.

"I tried to stop you," I said.
"Huh?" He looked at the wristwatch.
"I did."
"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," he said.
"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," I said.
"Wouldn't you?" he said.

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Copyright August 3, 2000-


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