Monday, October 20, 2014

BIG FOOT by Peter Nolan Smith

In 1977 I moved out of my SRO room in Greenwich Village to the East Village with my hillbilly girlfriend. The third-floor walk-up on East 10th Street had a bathtub in the kitchen and a water closet off the living room. I carved Alice’s name on the wooden window sill. We lasted until 1979. The lack of privacy was not to blame for our break-up.

Alice got a bigger place on Avenue A and I kept the apartment, working at various nightclubs the next ten years. It was easy money and drinks were free.

I rode a 1964 Triumph Tiger and 1970 Yamaha 650 XS. My mechanic was Dmitri from the East 6th Street Bike Shop. The Russian emigre introduced me to Tim, who owned a bar south of the Holland Tunnel. The Californian had a Ducati and Norton. Our bikes were the loves of our lives, for neither of us had girlfriends.

Tim and I traded nights cooking dinner for each other, after which we would play gin rummy. He was a better cook and I was lucky at cards as long as the play didn’t involved money. Dmitri joked that we were man and wife. It was only funny the first time that the mechanic said it.

When Tim mentioned to a neighbor living farther into Alphabet City that I had been brought up outside of Portland, Maine the middle-aged woman extended an invitation to Thanksgiving dinner at their tenement building and I showed up on time with flowers at their building between Avenues B and C.

It was a cold night and a huddle of vagrant junkie warmed themselves around a trash an fire. The north side of the street was dominated by a row of abandoned buildings and rats lurked in the shadows. I checked the block for trouble and pressed the buzzer.

A scrawny Puerto Rican opened the door and pointed to a narrow set of stairs.

“Top floor.” His voice was dusty with dope.

I climbed the steps past offices and bedrooms. The decor was late-20th Century suburbia, as if this one family had failed to heed the call for White Flight in the 60s.

Jane and Carmine were older than the rest of their guests; an ironworker from Montana, an anti-Zionist writer, a female cop from the shooting range, a marine historian from the Natural History Museum, Tim, and me.

Their two kids were high school age.

Neither the tall boy nor the skinny girl looked much like Jane, who could have passed for a Mormon diesel dyke at the Cubby Hole in the West Village in her calico dress, but they didn’t bear much resemblance to their bald cigar-chomping father.

Carmine wasn’t a pretty sight in his tobacco-stained tee-shirt and baggy jeans and judging from the thickness of his glasses I doubted that the thick-bellied ex-merchant marine saw any reason to shave his scruffy beard.

“So this is my fellow Mainiac.” Jane hugged me, as if we had been separated at birth, and handed me a full glass of red wine. It was a pricey Barolo. “Where are you from?”

“Falmouth Foresides.” My town was across the harbor from Portland’s Eastern Promenade.

“That’s almost like coming from Massachusetts.” Jane elbowed Tim in the ribs. “I’m from Columbia Falls in Aroostock County, which is the last place God created before his rest.”

“Way Down East.” I had never been there. The nearest city was Ellsworth, the gateway to Bar Harbor. “Only Lubec is farther Down East.”

“You do know Maine.”

“Then you know Maine has the ugliest women in New England.” Carmine stashed his unlit cigar in the top pocket of his shirt. He sucked on his teeth and the upper deck came loose from the gums. His physical warranty had lapsed on several parts of his body.

“Thank you.” Jane seemed inured to this remark. “There isn’t anyone Down East uglier than you.

“But they try.” Carmine smiled without his upper teeth. He could never be a Christmas Santa, but that grin showed a streak of humanity more deeply-seeded than his hard facade.

“The key to triumph is in the first syllable,” I said without hesitation.

“It’s not everyone who can quote a Salada tea bag, you sit next to me.”

During the dinner of turkey, yams, pea, creamed onions, turnips, squash, and more wine Jane recounted her history.

“After graduating from University of Maine I had moved to New York to become a beatnik.” She looked to the head of the table. “Instead I met Carmine at a poetry reading.”

“It was Ginsberg’s queer lover reciting MARRIAGE ‘O God, and the wedding! All her family and her friends and only a handful of mine all scroungy and bearded
just wait to get at the drinks and food.”

I applauded his memory.

“Sounds almost like this dinner.” Carmine carved the bird with a vengeance. It was stuffed with raison, nuts, and garlic.

“Now you see why I married him.” Jane beamed at the first generation Sicilian. The two opposites were very much in love, but the cigar-chomping plumber regarded Jane’s friends as weirdos and growled, “I feel like I’m serving turkey at a Bowery shelter.”

“Shut up, old man. This is Thanksgiving, not Pearl Harbor Day.”

“I know what day it is.”

“My younger brother was born on December 7.” The juicy turkey smelled of over the river and through the woods, even though the only trees in the East Village were shivering in Tompkins Square Park

“In 1941?” He was looking for the right answer.

“No, 1960.” I could only give him the truth.

“You want white meat or dark?”


“What do you know about Pearl Harbor?” Carmine loaded my plate with meat and passed it down the table.

“Just that none of our carriers were sunk there?” I had minored in history at university. “And we were lucky that the Japanese didn’t carry out a third attack.”

“They couldn’t, because the returning planes would have had to land at night and no one knew how to do that.” Carmine showed his knowledge of that Day of Infamy, then finished serving the rest of his guests, after which we ate to our hearts’ content. I pushed away from the table and undid my belt. The third helping had been overkill.

Waiting for desserts we discussed the 1948 Israeli-Arab War with his friend Ira. The slouched contrarian believed that the Zionist State shouldn’t exist until the arrival of the Messiah. If anyone knew weirdos, it was Carmine.

For post-dinner entertainment Carmine put on THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY followed by EL TOPO. We lounged around the cool glow of the holiday TV in turkey comas.

Carmine mumbled stories about the East Village from the 50s interspersed with racial epitaphs. The marine historian’s girlfriend called him racist.

Rick defended his pseudo-uncle. Racism was a serious accusation.

“Carmine is an equal hater of everyone.” Tim knew that Carmine supported a number of blacks and Puerto Ricans. His bad mouth was a shock to squares. Their disapproval gave him great pleasure.

“That’s right. I don’t have a good word to say about anyone.”

Carmine lifted from his chair and motioned for me to follow him into his den. The ground-floor room smelled of old cigars and dirty feet. War books covered the walls. I picked out THE ENEMY AT THE GATE.

“What do you know about Stalingrad?” He was testing me.

“Just that in 1944 DeGaulle came to the ruined city and said to a Free French journalist, “Stalingrad, they are great people.” The journalist replied with a nod, “Yes, the Russians.” DeGaulle corrected him by saying, “Not the Russians. The Germans, because they got this far.”

“Where you read that?”

“I think John Toland’s book on Hitler.”

“You’re not as stupid as you look, scumbag.”

After that Carmine and I saw each other from time to time, trading war history books. I gave him GUNS OF AUGUST and he let me borrow ENEMY AT THE GATES.

The East Village native had learned pipe-fitting in the Merchant Marines. Plumbers from the five boroughs sought his advice. Carmine had pull with City Hall. The connections were a gift from his father. The old man had been a bookie.

Tim met a lovely jeweler from the Upper West Side. He moved out of the neighborhood. I was on my own. Dmitri called it a trial separation, but I knew the split was for keeps.

Tim was in love and I inherited his role as surrogate nephew for Jane, although at holiday time he resumed # 1 position at the table. He was family more than me.

She had me drive her to dog shows. They raised Neapolitans and grand mastiffs. Carmine and I dined at a small Italian restaurant on 1st Avenue. The two of us drank red wine and ate pasta, arguing over Lee’s second invasion of the North versus the relief of Vicksburg or the British surrender at Singapore. One night he looked around the dining room and asked in a low voice, “Can you hold your sand?”

“I know when to keep my mouth shut.” I had been arrested for working at an illegal after-hour club. The precinct cops had been on the take. I had said nothing to Internal Affairs.

“Good, then I have a proposition for you.”

He lowered his head and mumbled like the FBI might have wiretapped the restaurant. His scheme didn’t sound risky and I agreed to help him in a venture. We kept Aunt Jane and Tim out of the loop

Every month I dropped over to his cluttered office and handed him an envelope. He never counted the money.

Around that time I stopped the nightclubs and worked as a diamond salesman on 47th Street. Uncle Carmine bought jewelry with his extra earnings. He became a fixture in my life along with his wife.

Jane had tickets to the opera and Rangers game.

“I got another proposition for you,” Carmine mentioned the next autumn. We were heading out to the cheap Italian restaurant on 1st Avenue. “Jane needs someone to go with her to the hockey games and opera.”

“Ranger games?” I was pure Boston, but I did love hockey.

“They’re good seats.” Carmine played with the end of his cigar. It hadn’t been lit once. “But if you want to go to the hockey games, then you got to go to the opera, because I ain’t going to neither.”

“Opera?” I hadn’t ever seen any opera.

“Yes, opera. You can be the old lady’s walker.” He laughed to himself, as we left the house.

“This ain’t no Palm Beach.” 11th Street between B and C had no palm trees.

“Don’t I know that.”

I wasn’t too sure of this accommodation until I saw that the Rangers were playing the Bruins at home. Jane was adamant about Carmine’s deal. ”One hockey game. One opera.”

“I don’t know.” Fat people sang forever.

“Bruins-Rangers at Madison Square Garden and Pavarotti at Lincoln Center. It won’t be so bad.”

“Which comes first?”

“The opera.” She was too smart to play it the other way around. “And I want you to wear a jacket and tie. I’ll pay the taxi. You have ten seconds.”

“I’ll go.” I loved the Bruins that much.

I picked up Aunt Jane on East 11th Street and Avenue D. I was wearing a dark-blue pinstriped suit from Jaeger. Aunt Jane was in a flowing gown and a battered mink, which her husband called ‘dog’. We exited from the building.

The dealers on the street said about us. Aunt Jane’s husband had taught them better. Uncle Carmine had laws unwritten by courts.

A taxi took us far uptown. The crowd before Lincoln Center was excited like it was a Who concert. I searched the crowd for a pretty face. The women were wrinkled as turtles and Aunt Jane at 55 was the youngest in our section.

The seats were good and I made myself comfortable. Aunt Jane elbowed me with the power of a defenseman’s forecheck. “No, snorting or sighing. This is something special and I wanted it to be for you as much as me.”

I had never heard of Pavarotti, but when the curtain raised, the audience wildly shouted his name. The big man appeared in the first act. His strong voice was on the money. Aunt Jane was crying, because it was so beautiful. I didn’t look at my watch once and when the first act ended, Aunt Jane asked, “Now that wasn’t so bad, was it?”

“No, how more acts are there?” The first had lasted about 40 minutes.

“Three, but each gets shorter.”

“Three.” Heaven would become purgatory somewhere in the second and hell during the third.

“Don’t worry, let’s get some champagne.”


“Yes, you didn’t think I’d let you stay sober that long, did you?”

“You know what I like.” And the rest of the evening passed pleasantly with each intermission celebrated at the bar. Pavarotti received a standing ovation for about ten minutes. I shouted like he had scored a hat trick.

Carmine lent me his station wagon to visit my mother during her last days. Jane lit candles at the local church for her passing. It was good having about family in your life, especially since mine was distant.

Tim and his wife had a baby, then another. Jane called herself their grand-aunt. Carmine thought that his wife was a kook, but wanted to buy her a pearl necklace for Christmas. I found one of South Sea pearls. It wasn’t cheap.

“How much you make on me?” He was eating his cigar.

“50%.” The real number was 10%

“Thanks, scumbag.” Carmine meant nothing by calling me ‘scumbag’. He called people who he didn’t like a lot worse. We had a profitable run of scores. Only a few of them skated across the line. We never got in trouble. It was a good sideline to my day job.

I thought that the old man would live forever, except in the mid-90s he started complaining about a stomach ache. He refused every entreaty to submit to a doctor’s examination. I supplied stomach medicine with fake scripts. The pills helped a little bit, but not much, because Carmine had something worse than a stomach ache. Neither of us said what.

In 2000 I left for my annual trip to Asia and Carmine said, “You take care.”

He handed me a small envelope. It felt like money.

“What’s this?”

“You have a good time in Bangkok for me. I was there in the 50s. It was a good time then and it’s probably a good time now.”

“Why don’t you come with me?”

“And leave all this.” He waved his hand in the air. “I already been everywhere. Just don’t go crazy, scumbag.”

Two months later I received a phone call at room 302 at the Malaysia Hotel.

It was Aunt Jane.

“Carmine’s dead.”

“Dead, you want me to come back?” I was only a little shocked by the news.

“No, he’d want you to have a good time, but we’re burying on October 12th.

“Columbus Day.”

“He wasn’t Italian.”

“Carmine’s father came from Sicily.”

“Not Carmine, Columbus. Carmine always said he was a Jew from Genoa.”

“Everyone comes from somewhere.” Aunt Jane actually was a Jewish orphan from Russia. A doctor in Maine had taken her brother and her for his own.

“We’re planting him in the blueberry patch above Schoonic Bay. I’d like you to be there. He liked the view from the hill.”

“I’ll be there.” I scheduled my return for late-September. The flight stopped in LA. I continued on to New York. My subleasee, a Swedish male nurse, had cleaned the place before leaving. Everything seemed to be in order.

I dropped my bags on the floor and walked two blocks over to Jane’s compound. Carmine had bought two buildings and a vacant lot for $15,000 back in the early 70s. The property was now worth millions.

Jane gave me a big hug and said, “Carmine wanted you to have some books.”

The best were 1st editions of TRUE GRIT, NAKED LUNCH, and THE ENEMY AT THE GATE.

“You’re going to help drive up to Maine?” Jane sat down heavily. She was not in the best of health.

“Wouldn’t miss it.” This trip would be a home-coming for both of us complete with lobsters and a funeral. She opened the closet in Carmine’s office and held out a ceramic urn.

“The old man.” Two identical urns were in the closet.

“Are those extra?”

“Those are the dogs. Carmine wanted to be buried with them.”

No markings were written on the urns to distinguish them from each other. Jane saw my eyes and said, “No, I don’t know which ones are which.”

“Never said you didn’t.” Jane was almost as near-sighted as me.

We went to dinner at the Italian restaurant and she outlined the funeral arrangements.

Burial was planned for atop a blueberry hill. Family consisted of Jane, her son and daughter. The latter two were not on speaking terms.

Tim, Steve the iron worker, Carmine’s workmates, and Ira the anti-Zionist would present a strange gathering for Schoonic Point any time of the year, but Jane said, “We’ll be welcome. It’s off-season.”

Two days before Columbus Day our convoy took off from the East Village under overcast skies. The rain held off throughout the journey.

We stopped in Brunswick for lobster rolls at the Chamberlain Inn. Tim and Steve were enthralled with the Maine delicacy. It meant more to Jane and me.

Maine was home and every mile was more like heaven. Pine trees lining US 1 broke open on long coves linked to the sea. The foliage was a little past prime, but the crisp air was champagne from Canada.

Jane had picked Ellsworth for our stay. The hotel was on the strip leading to Bar Harbor. It had seen a hundred thousand customers this summer. The rooms had yet to stop vibrating from the vacationers’ comings and goings.

“Nothing is open in Schoonic Point this time of year.”

She distributed room keys. This trip was on Carmine. We had a great lobster at the bridge leading to Bar Harbor. The pound was closing after this weekend. The lobsters were soft-shelled and delectable. We agreed that Carmine had made the right choice about being buried in Maine. Anything was better than some hole in Queens.

Upon re-entering Ellsworth, Jane said, “I checked out the bars for you and Steve.”

“What about me?” Tim was married with a kid.

“You’re a good boy.” Jane turned to us. Steve was divorced and I was perennially single. “There’s one that’s a fern bar and the other that is always in the police reports. I’m not letting you drive, but here’s a twenty for the taxi.”

We said our good-nights and headed to the fern bar. It was good for a single drink. The same taxi took us to the bad boy bar. The driver told us to watch out for the girls.

“They like strangers.”

Steve and I stood outside. Loud rock music blasted under neon lights. We had drunk beers on more than one occasion and he knew my tastes as well as Maine’s reputation for the ugliest girls in the USA.

“You can have all the skinny ugly ones and I’ll have all the fat cute ones.”

“It’s a deal.”

He opened the door and then shut it.

“What about the Big Foots?”

A she-man grabbed him before he could explain his comment. The two women dragged is inside the bar and was immediately set upon by a large woman. Steve was dancing to Deep Purple with a 200 pound-plus human version of a moose in heat. She wore size 14 boots. The men at the bar appeared relieved to drink without any female interference.

We were new meat.

Steve shouted one word. I couldn’t hear him, but I knew the word was ‘help’. The faces on the men at the bar said that we were on our own. They were wrong. We were with the Big Feet.

We stayed three beers too many and were driven back to the hotel in a van loaded with four seriously masculine women in flannel shirts. Steve was groping one of them and whispered, “I’m checking to make sure they don’t have any dildos.”

“Dildos?” Steve’s date asked with a smile. She wasn’t just trying to scare us.

The Big Foot women were talking dirty. Sex was a Sumo wrestling event. I told them that we couldn’t do anything and they said, “Date rape.”

Their station wagon braked before our rooms. Hands unbuttoned my shirt. Steve was dragged out of the car. We were doomed, until Jane appeared in a celestial nightgown.

“Leave those two men alone. They’re with me.”

“Gigolos,” they muttered, reluctantly letting go of us. Jane stood her ground until they left the room and then asked with a smile, “You boys have fun.”

“Yeah.” We were glad to have escaped Big Feet’s grasp.

“I’m sure Carmine would appreciate it, now go to bed. We have a busy day tomorrow.”

She was right. We buried Carmine without a priest on a blueberry hill overlooking Schoonic Bay. The sun came out as we lowered the urns into the earth. Jane cried and her children hugged her. They almost seemed like a family.

The post-funeral lunch was in a small restaurant and two of the waitresses were from last night’s Big Foot tribe. Work clothes tamed their savage side and they made no sign of recognizing us. We gave them a good tip.

Jane couldn’t help but tell Tim about last night’s scene and he was happy to tell everyone in the East Village that Steve and I had mated with moose.

Jane knew the truth, but said, “It’s funnier the way he tells it and Carmine would like that ending too.”

I had to agree with Aunt Jane, for Carmine was the kind of Uncle only a Big-Footed woman could love and Jane loved him forever. After all she was from the Great State of Maine.

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