Friday, August 7, 2015


Back to school I was again under the auspices of my parents, teachers and school officials, but now I had acquired wants, lusts, behaviors...and friends. They supplied me with relief, temporary though it might be, and I wasn’t about to give them up.
Abraham Lincoln High School was so huge with so many kids that it needed two shifts to educate us. Being an incoming sophomore I had the late one; my day started at 11 and went to 5. I’d get up, take my shot, eat breakfast, look at yesterday’s homework assignment, do what I wanted to do of it, steal some of my parent’s Chesterfield regulars, and leave for school. Getting off the bus at The Gate I’d walk into the Seagate Center, into the locker room, where I’d smoke two or three cigarettes in rapid succession, walk through my nicotine haze, say hello to the big-titted secretary, and board the Surf Avenue bus to Lincoln. I’d hook up with some friends, have a few laughs, go to classes, lunch, a few more classes, and home for supper. After that, I’d go back to The Center or bowling alley. It depended on whether I had some extra cash to roll a few lines, felt like playing basketball or, if my parents were really on the warpath, in which case I had to be cool, stay at home.

I didn’t know the state of my diabetes...and I didn’t care. I wasn’t testing my piss at all, although now we know that urine tests for glucose don’t mean that much anyway. A test tape can read negative and blood glucose could be up around 350 before it spills into the urine. (80-150 is a normal reading.) My bladder was able to hold a lot of fluid because I wasn’t going to the bathroom much, but looking back, I must to have been running high to low glucose counts because my mood swings were monstrous. I went from elation to depression, from acting rationally to crazed. At the time my parents and I didn’t know that insulin has a harder job of being effective during adolescence because of the surge of other hormones. I was nervous, irritable, and constantly on guard. I attributed all this to my family. I’d take shots at different times, ate what I wanted, usually when I wanted, and avoided, as best I could, seeing Dr. Z. And when I couldn’t avoid it, I’d lie my ass off. The one I began lying to mostly was myself and that created quite a problem. I didn’t want to be self-disciplined and manage the disease. Fuck, I didn’t want to have a disease. Discipline, or the lack thereof, spilled over into most other areas of my life. “If the going gets tough, the tough get going.” I “got going” all right; I got the fuck outa there.

I didn’t make the basketball team but I did, with The Heart and Tommy, make the bowling team. I got to wear Lincoln leather: a blue and white team jacket with a bowling ball scattering pins on the back and my name written in script on the front. My dad was not impressed. Bowling, what the hell kind of sport is that? I’m sure he wanted to say it, though instead communicated it non verbally. But I continued, in fact, I got more involved. I was so good that in my junior and senior years of high school and up until my 20th birthday, I’d bowl on weekends for big money. The day that President Kennedy was assassinated I know where I was: in Tommy’s mother’s Cadillac parked across the street from Nathan’s, eating some franks, waiting to be driven to a bowling match. Kennedy was dead and we hoped, being only sophomores, we’d get into a game; the match was not called off.
One lazy day, Tommy, Mike, The Heart, and I decided to cut our fifth period class that day and meet up. We couldn’t go out for a smoke so we went looking for alternatives. We went to the back of the auditorium, behind the curtains, and found ourselves at a door at the back of the stage. We opened the door and saw it led to stairs, which we climbed. They led us to one of the back rooms which stored some of the school’s musical instruments. We all lit smokes and proceeded to play with any of the instruments that caught our fancy: we tinkled the piano keys, brushed the cymbals, kicked the drums, blew into a sax. We had a few laughs and kept smoking. We didn’t know it, but the room we were in was directly behind the huge metal sculptures of the Greek gods that adorned both sides of the auditorium. It wasn’t more than a half hour when we heard the fire alarm.
“Fuck it,” we said in unison, “probably another goddamn drill.” Drill my ass. In five minutes we heard feet pounding up the stairs. Our collective hearts stopped. The door burst open, and the first fireman rushed into the room followed by four or five more. They looked at our stupefied faces. Our cigarette smoke filled the room and had filtered through the metal gods in the auditorium. The firemen escorted us out of the cumulus nimbus cloud we were in, and downstairs where some school officials and more firemen waited. The school officials wore those faces of scorn, derision, and doom while a few of the firemen were smiling.
Each of us caught a two week suspension--hell, it was the beginning of spring--and our parents had to come up. The only one of us who wasn’t the least fazed was The Heart because his parents were deaf and dumb; he could have told them he was getting an award for all I know.
“Bowling alley bum! Gangster! Bastard! My luck I should have a son like you, you bastard, you, you,” my mom crooned. There was no stopping her when she got lathered up. I knew that and just let her run it. “Some friends you have. You call them friends? When, oh God when, are you going to learn? When? Water seeks its own level, remember,” she concluded.
“Yeah, O.K. mom, I’ll remember.” I knew what to say, and not to say.
My father was less verbose, though no less lethal: “You’re going to go to work with me every Saturday, you sonofabitch.”
Quickly, knowing that my summer might be at stake, I thought a mediator might help me.
We sat opposite the school’s guidance counselor, a pleasant faced, blond haired, blue-eyed woman in her 50’s. She looked like a Norman Rockwell painting while we resembled Goya’s Neptune eating his kids: “It was you!”
“No, it was you!”
“No you!”
“No you!”
Before any real conversation could take place, my father, a shrewdie if there ever was one, in a calm and pleasant voice, as if he was trying to sell her one of his melons, related incident after incident; going far back to when I was in that closet with the little girl at the age of five; of how much of a fuck-up I had been, and how I’d resisted any advice to better myself. My mom interrupted constantly to add how great each of them were as parents, how much they’d done for me and how they couldn’t understand why I’d acted the way I had. I was put on the defensive. When I’d try to explain how I felt I was met with, “that’s ridiculous,” “not so, no sorry, not so,” “Norman, I’m surprised at you; that’s an out and out lie.” It was hopeless. The counselor was quiet; she should have paid admission for the entertainment. I felt like asking if she wanted a bag of popcorn. I got real still, but was inwardly steaming, furious, and did what I normally did: burrowed deeper into my shell.
Home was not safe. Sometimes I’d come home and be afraid to turn the key to let myself in. I would explore any avenue that opened and if none existed, would dynamite to create one.

In the summer of my junior year I had my feet firmly planted in Seagate’s normalcy, Coney Island’s carnival, and my father’s world of business and friendships. I was securely tri-polar.
My friends from Seagate now included Donny, Steve, and Warren. They were all a year ahead of me in school. We met playing ball at the Seagate Center, and I joined their circle. They were intelligent, athletic and as sane as humanly possible. They had their own quirks, flaws and eccentricities, but they were on the path to a mainstream and middle class life: marriage, kids and professions out of college. I still maintained my bowling alley and pool room buddies, Tommy and The Heart. My friends from Coney Island, on the other hand, were insane and would embrace a life of crime, addiction, murder, mayhem, and death. My father’s store bridged those worlds.
Even as a little boy I was more lost than amazed inside his store. You could restock shelves, clean, build displays, take down displays, take the cardboard that lay underneath items and once those items were nearly gone take the cardboard, fold down the edges and stack them in the back for when they got bundled. Ten thousand items in grocery, cigarettes, then the milk and diary and frozen foods, and vegetables and fruit, meats and poultry. My one memory of being young and standing in his store was his telling me, “Never stand with your hands in your pockets, do something; break down the cardboard, shakedown the shelves just don’t stand there like that.” The only place I was not lost was ringing the register. It was a function I got real good at. In a matter of weeks, I had almost memorized the price of every item in the store, and, like a good typist, did not have to look at the register to hit the proper keys. I was fast, very fast. I worked next to Ziggy and Selma, survivors of the concentration camps, Jack, a nice soul from Brighton Beach, and Simon, a wonderful old man whose demeanor today reminds me of a Jewish Sir John Gielgud. Now I was allowed to smoke. And smoke I did. Lucky Strike. A cup of coffee and a cigarette burned near my register. The other task I did was unload the trailers that pulled up on some Saturdays with dry groceries; a thousand to two thousand pieces at a time placed on steel rollers inside the truck came to me on the outside where I turned and dumped them down the shoot. I sweated my ass off and popped salt tablets every half hour, but loved it.
What began as misery and penance for my transgressions turned into something else. It turned into the unexpected. There was Rufus, built like Darryl Strawberry, and Carl, built like a Doberman Pincher, who had the fastest hands of anyone I had ever seen, both of whom had worked for my father years before I came on the scene. And they were the ones he had likened me to when he would tell me, “you spend money just like a nigger; you’re nigger rich,” either humorously when I’d ask him for some extra cash or seriously after he’d just given me some. They liked me well enough. They let me see the hidden bottles of liquor they carried and nipped on during the day, and, on occasion, they gave me a nip as well. I heard their patter about women, and clothes and singers and clubs. I heard, “Ah, man you don’t be wantin’ to do this shit, do you?” “Nah, not you man; get the fuck outta here man, go on get.”
And then there was Arnie Beck. A kid about ten years my senior but young when compared to the others who worked there. He’d eye me and I him. We laughed over the silliness of customers, and the other help who were old and set in their ways and were, well, square. One day going into the bathroom, I opened the door to find Arnie about to shoot junk into his vein.
“Close the door, will ya?”
I did. I looked at a syringe much like my own. But it was not like mine. Mine was “clean,” clinical, unemotional except in the demands it made on my life, like needing it to continue it. His syringe, his needle, had mystery, warmth, more than warmth, heat, and in a flash I was drawn to it. This was instantaneous. I had fallen in love.
He had a belt wrapped around his arm and was looking for a vein. “It’s junk, man, schmeck, scag,...her-o-in.” He laughed nearly dislodging the cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. “Yer not goin’ ta tell your ol’ man are you?”
“ beat it...and don’t do this. It fucks with ya too much.”
I closed the door to the bathroom and tried to figure out what I felt, but couldn’t; at the time it defied what language I had.

“We’re going out tonight after we eat, so get dressed,” my father announced on the car ride back home one Saturday at the start of the summer.
“We are? Where we goin’?”
“A joint in Bed Stuy on Eastern Parkway called The Towne Hill. You’re gonna hear Sam Cooke.”
“No kiddin’?”
“I’m not kiddin’. We’re going. Just don’t say nothin’ ta ya mother. I’m tellin’ her we’re goin’ to a ball game.”
I laughed, leaned into the plush Cadillac leather, and wanted to light a cigarette but didn’t. Instead, I thought about all the Sam Cooke songs I knew by heart and that beautifully soulful sweet high voice of his.
The Towne Hill at 8 o’clock was jammed. A circular bar near the entrance was already two-deep. Three bartenders were behind the stick working up a sweat. It was loud with talk, with laughter, and with booze, plenty of booze. Sid, my dad’s friend who had invited us, was easy to find. He was the only white guy sitting on a stool. My father put his arm on his shoulder. He broke out in a smile. “Hey Mickey, Norman; I got the others a table inside, right next to the stage; whatareyadrinkin?”
“Lemme have a J&B.”
“Hey Blackie, a J&B over here and I’ll have another.”
My eyes must have been wide as saucers. I looked and looked and looked some more. Sid turned to me. “You excited?”
“Yeah, I’m excited. Never saw nothin’ like this.”
“Wait, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Wait til Sam comes on. Man, they go crazy. I saw him before. He loves playin’ here, just loves it. You like Sam?”
“Yeah, a lot.”
“You’ll meet him between shows. We’ll go into his dressing room...if he’s not fucking somebody.”
The men, some alone and some together, were dressed in “high vines.” Some of the women were alone and sitting languidly on stools delicately sipping cocktails, and there were those who had men watching from the corners of their eyes. They all looked dangerous and beautiful. The music, rhythm & blues, surrounded us. And it was hot. There was a sexuality coming from the floor and through my shoes and under my slacks and into my under shorts and around my chest and into my heart and shoulders and neck and eyes and ears and brain that just moved me along, made me move without moving, without my having to do a goddamn thing on my own and I could tell others felt it too.
“He’ll be on soon. Take your drink, Mickey,” Sid said, sliding off the stool. We followed him past the bar and into the adjacent room that was mostly dark, except for the stage bathed in colored lights and candles lighting the tables which surrounded the stage that ran the width of the room and down to the middle where I saw some people from the store, including Arnie Beck, Rufus, Carl, and other friends of my father who I knew to be, according to him, “wise guys.” The noise level became muted, people started to hush each other, almost like in a church when the preacher is about to take the stage.
I was sitting next to Arnie who nudged me in the side. I looked over and he motioned me to look under the table. My father was engaged in conversation with his friends and wasn’t aware of Arnie and me. I ducked my head under the table, where Arnie snuck for me a glass filled with ice...and scotch. I bent down, drank what I could and Arnie lowered his hand which held a Marlboro; I greedily sucked some smoke and emerged lightheaded, but cool. Just as the room darkened, everyone grew quiet, and a voice from the heavens said, “Ladies and gentlemen, The Towne Hill is very proud to present Mr. Soul, Sam Cooke.” A spot hit the curtain and there he was in front of me. He was, what can I say, beautiful. Handsome, sexy, he stood there gleaming at us, moving toward the mike stand, taking the mike, curtain rising, his band beginning to hit, and his lips pressing into the mike, “How ya’all feelin’ tanight?” Women and men began to scream to him, talk to him, and he was laughing and laughing and saying, “I can’t hear ya, what ya’all sayin’? speak up.” Then the first chords of “Havin’ A Party” and the place went wild and handkerchiefs came out and the lights spun and he’s singing and moving, hands thrust to the stage and women screaming and crying and trying to get closer and he moving closer and it seems like this night will never end. I poked Arnie in the side and slid underneath the table for another sip and another drag and everything was cool, fluid, everything was fine and I have never felt quite that way again in my entire life.
The set ended and Sid motioned to me to follow him and with my legs a bit unsteady and my heart beating rapidly I did. We entered Sam’s dressing room to see him with his band and five or six men and women drinking and talking. Sam, sweating profusely, got up and embraced Sid who introduced me to him. He asked me whether I liked the show and I could hardly speak. He looked at Sid and laughed, “I guess you did, huh, well that’s fine; how old are ya?”
“I’ll be 17 in October.”
“Old enough, man,” and he laughed again. “Have somethin’ to drink or eat, Hey Cliff--that there is Cliff Norman, and Cliff, this here is Norman--take care of em.”
“No thanks, Sam,” Sid said, “ I gotta get back out there. I’m with his ol’ man and a few other people, but I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“That’s cool; seeya tomorrow,” and to me, “Come back man, anytime.”
Walking back to the table I asked Sid if I could go with him tomorrow. “It’s O.K. with me if it’s O.K. with your ol’ man.” And with some struggle I convinced my father to let me go. I remember one of my father’s friends saying to him, “This joint is the biggest moneymaker next to the Copa.”
I met Sid every night for the next few weeks, and he took me to see and hear Sam. One night in his dressing room, he must have noticed me staring at the women who were lounging around. Sid was drinking and talking with one of them. He came and sat down next to me. “You get any pussy yet, Norm?” I looked at him a bit incredulously and I must have blushed. “Nah, take it easy man, I’m serious man.” But I could see the twinkle in his eye.
“Yeah, I got some.”
“You bullshittin’ me man; you don’t have to do that.” And he smiled.
“No, man, I ain’t bullshittin’ you, I got some, I did; it was no big thing though. I was like thirteen; didn’t know what the fuck I was doin’.”
“Well, I can tell you gonna get a lot of pussy an you gotta watch it man. That pussy like a drug, man. It’s good, man, but shit, it can killyatoo, ya better watch out. Right Sid?” And then he laughed that beautiful high sweet laugh he had.
I usually was able to sit at the bar, sip a club soda and just observe. With no real parameters I could look, though not stare, at what was around me: faces, old and young, gradations of brown, a few white, mostly blond women always accompanied by men, black men, who took their time strolling to the stool or table that was waiting for them; men with scars, some thin as razors, others keloid, a deep brown; some mouths open to grin showing one or two gold teeth. On the women I saw frosted hair, permed over golden brown faces with blue or violet eye shadow and red, orange and pink lips glistening and tongues pink and pointed rounding the lips of glasses. They wore suits and dresses, some gowns and hats and knotted ties bright with colors. At times I saw conversations turn rotten. She’d fling a pocketbook over her shoulder and go out the door and into the night without looking back. He’d turn to the bartender, and they’d exchange looks. Years later, they would close The Towne Hill, claiming prostitution. The word was that they just didn’t pay the cops enough. The owners had said, ”Fuckem” and just put a lock on the door.
A year later we were invited to hear Sam at his opening night at the Copacabana in New York City. We went into his dressing room before and after the show. He was as great as the first time, though a little more toned down, probably because of the place and crowd he was playing to. The other thing that stood out that night was a side order of tomatoes cost ninety cents. Tomatoes regularly sold for 10 cents a pound, shit. The year was 1964. Six months later, he was shot dead by what the authorities said was a woman who owned the motel they found him in. It was rumored that he checked in with an Eurasian woman that he was with that night who was never found, neither were his clothes, any clothes. He was known for carrying a thousand dollar bill pinned to the inside of his sport jacket pocket. The money was never found either. I still have, in my wallet, his signature on a cover charge card from The Towne Hill. It became part of me.

That summer, approaching my senior year, there was work at my father’s store, The Towne Hill, softball, basketball, swimming, sunshine, days with nothing to do but read the works of writers that mattered to me or that I stumbled upon, lazy days, days fat and useless and rich. And then there was gambling and sex.
She lived in those run-down motel-like apartments across from Surf Lanes. Her window faced the street, and the first few times I saw her she was leaning out the window impassively looking at the action below. She saw me looking at her. I knew that her building was filled with hookers. Hell, me and my friends laughed, and fantasized about them. I looked for her every time I passed, which I did often. Maybe, it was the way the sun hit her face and arms, turning them a honey-molasses color; maybe it was Sam Cooke’s laughter; or maybe it was nothin’ except the chemicals I was made of, but I was drawn to her and knew, sooner or later, I’d be going across the street to get closer.
“How old are you, baby?”
“Old enough,” I said and sheepishly smiled.
She looked for a beat and grinned, “I suppose you are,” she replied. She had come out of her apartment to throw away some garbage and had watched me come down the street. It was near dusk, and she was made up for the night: a thin silky dress, with red spaghetti straps that were almost off her shoulders, high heeled shoes and black fishnets. She was tall. Her legs stretched to heaven. “You lookin’ for some company?”
“Yeah, I think I am.”
“Well be sure honey. I don’t want no crazy man changing his mind just before he ready to come,” she laughed.
“No, I’m sure. How much?” The heat inside me, rising.
“Well, I get five for a blowjob, and ten for a fuck. Half and half we can do too.”
“I gotta meet some people, but I’ll be back later,” I nervously said.
“Well, looka here. You see that window up there. That’s mine. If the lights on I’m free, if the lights off don’t be bothering me. Just wait ‘til I’m free, it ain’t usually but a few minutes and then come up. I’m in number 5. It’ll be real nice, baby.” She turned, and then turned back to me. “Hey sugar, what’s your name?”
I was tempted to lie, but said, “Norman.”
“Well, Norman, I’m Eunice.” I watched her legs and round ass walk away and up the stairs and knew I had to come back later.
At ten, I made my way out of the bowling alley and peered across the street at her window. Her light was off. I repeated this at 10:05, 10:10 and 10:15. The darkness burned brighter it seemed. “What the fuck is this?” I said to myself. “If that light ain’t on the next time, fuck it, I’m going home.” It was off and I didn’t go home. At nearly eleven, I climbed her stairs. It was dark inside that front door leading to the stairs, and it smelled of mildew and salt and piss. The stairs sagged, the wood banisters were chipped, splintered and, in some places, completely detached. I looked for #5 and knocked. She opened the door, and she was more beautiful than before. Immediately I could feel myself get hard. She looked quizzically at me. “What you want?” she asked.
“I think I’ll have a roast beef sandwich.”
She looked at me for a moment longer before she broke out laughing. “That’s good, baby, that’s good. Come in, make yourself comfortable.”
I sat on the edge of her bed, beside a chair that was the only other piece of furniture in the room. “You know Sam Cooke?” I asked her, not at all sure what to say but feeling I had to say something.
“Sure I know Sam Cooke, well I don’t “know” Sam Cooke, but I love Sam Cooke.”
“Look at this,” I said and reached for my wallet where his autograph was. She looked at the card as I proceeded to tell her of my adventures at The Towne Hill, making myself a bit more important in the telling than I actually was.
“You think you a colored person, baby?” she asked.
I never thought about that.
“Or just maybe you like colored people? Don’t answer that now, baby, we can talk later. Let me take care of you real good; what is it you want?”
And I told her. And she did.
After getting over the sound of mice scurrying around Eunice’ place, I felt pretty comfortable there. The times I saw her were few and far between, but the imprint she left on me has stayed. Her little transistor would play the only jazz station that New York City had at the time and she would tell me about some of her loves: Bird, Miles, Monk, Lady Day, and Dinah Washington. I began hearing pain and a freedom of expression in the form of improvisation that is so much a part of jazz, something like a gunslinger who lives on the edge.
“Why don’t you move outa here?” I’d ask her sometimes.
“And be away from you, baby?” she’d ask back. And although I knew it was a lie it sounded wonderfully sweet to my ears. I was a young impressionable white boy, and she, she was a black provocateur and educator.
One day, while I was smoking a cigarette after having sex with her, she asked, “Is that the only thing you smoke?” I didn’t know what she meant and my expression must have told her that. “You ever smoke boo?” No response. “Boo, reefer, pot, tea, maryjane...marijuana, baby.”
“No,” I laughed but was scared at what I knew was coming. “I don’t know about that, Eunice. It ain’t that I’m not old enough...”
“Forget about old enough. This ain’t gonna grow you up baby. This here’s gonna keep you young.”
I watched as she went to a corner of the bed, reached underneath it, took out a plain brown paper bag, stuck her hand in and pulled out a little clump of what looked like grass, out of the bag, placed it on a newspaper. She bounced this clump on the paper until whatever seeds were in there loosed and rolled out and over the edge of the paper. Then she separated this grass-like substance from the twigs that held it. Eunice went back inside the bag and got out some rolling papers and rolled, in a matter of seconds, a skinny cigarette. She explained how it was smoked. I followed her instructions and got high for the first time. It got me scared at first, but she told me to concentrate on the music, and then the sex. She told me how to move and when. She told me how to be slow, something I’ve always had a difficult time in mastering. And then she told me, that anything you’re good at, really good at, is just like good fucking, anything.
One afternoon, going to meet some friends at Dukes, I passed by her place. I figured I’d just say hello and bullshit for awhile. I went upstairs and found her door open but there was nothing in the apartment. The bed was gone, her dresses gone, no chests of drawers; there was nothing that told me she had existed at all. All I heard were the mice running around. I left and looked up to her window for the next few months but the light never did go on again.

I couldn’t wait for the light of day to get out of the way and make room for the night. The night was a dangerous time. Occasionally, it was Eunice. But more often, and more importantly, it was time to bowl and bet. I’d walk into Surf Lanes, and I’d be greeted with, “Hi Norm, who is it tonight; whoya ya gonna bowl? I got 50 for ya; howya feel?”
“Good, I feel good.” And I usually did.
Sylvia would be behind the lunch counter to the left of where you entered. A pretty good looking woman in her late thirties, early forties, who I always wanted to get closer to. She, on the other hand, tried to steer me to her sister who wasn’t a bad looker, in her twenties, but who had a kid about three or four. I went over to her place a few times but could never get beyond the kid crying in the other room.
Lulu, a short dumpy Italian, was always behind the cash register. He had a permanent DeNapoli cigar implanted in his lip, a pencil mustache, and a heart as big as God’s eye. He knew I liked lanes 3&4 and 7&8 and tried to keep either pair empty for me as long as he could. I’d argue with him about warming up. “Don’t put the meter on yet, Lu, I’m just gettin’ loose.”
“My balls are loose. Ya already thrown 3 lines; I ain’t gonna let ya roll no more.” And on it went.
The action didn’t really start until 9 or 10 on the weekends. Crowds who knew my right arm took out their “case” fives and tens trying to parlay them and end the night rich. I enjoyed being watched, applauded, and backed for hundreds of dollars a game on any given night. Hell, I was seventeen. I felt powerful, unbeatable. There wasn’t a feeling that duplicated crushing an opponent. There were nights when the ball was an extension of my right arm. I imagined the pins quivering in the rack. It was heady. I began to understand who would perform better with none of their money wagered and those whose legs would shimmy if a buck of theirs was on the line. A place of gambling is as good a place as there is to get readings on people, and more importantly, on yourself. For example, I liked to feel that putting up my own money was part of the deal. If I didn’t have money, I would steal it from my father’s store, not to cover losses, but to insure I had enough cash to begin the evening. I could make a case for stealing. I could make a case for anything. Consequently, when I laid down in bed at night, I did not think of myself as a bad person.
There was one night I remember vividly. I arrived at Surf Lanes about ten, a Saturday, after working until seven in my old man’s store. Saturday’s were always good for that. I met a few friends, drank a few beers, smoked and talked about nothing in particular and on lanes 3&4 I began throwing games. I could tell by the first few frames how I was “on”. But when some guys I knew came over and asked me to spot them pins, which I did sometimes, I declined. I didn’t want to waste what I believed was a good rhythm on “nowhere action.” It must have been around eleven or eleven thirty when the phone rang, asking if anyone felt like some action in a half hour or so. It was Richie Grossman, a bowler from Shell Lanes, who was pretty good. Lulu put me on the phone. We spoke for a few minutes and agreed to meet at Surf Lanes. I quickly talked to some of my friends in order to get a group of people who would back me for what was big money back then.
By the time Grossman got there I had gathered fifteen to twenty friends and other people who had liked to see me bowl, waiting. He brought about ten of his people with him as well. I shook his hand, asked him what was up, he said that’s what he was about to find out, we smiled and agreed to begin bowling for three hundred a game. It was protocol to have the visitor choose the lanes. He chose lanes 3&4.
I had a hundred on me, took out fifty, and gave it to George. George was “respected” in almost every Brooklyn neighborhood. He gathered the bets and held the money.
Warming up, I felt as loose as I did when I was rolling before. I took the first two games easily. Grossman asked to double the bet. I looked at George. George, never one to back down from any challenge, saw the way I was bowling, and nodded his head. We were up to six hundred. I won the next game 223 to 205. Grossman was bowling well, but I was better. I turned around and saw that the crowd had increased, as had the cigarette smoke and banter; I had not seen or heard any of that while I threw. It was now about one thirty in the morning and no one was going home. George was saying how indestructible I was and how I could not be beat. I lit a cigarette, exhaled for what seemed like the first time that night, and I sat down on the bench behind the scorer’s table.
Grossman went over to the people he had come with and spoke with them for a few minutes. He then came over to where I was talking to Donny and George and asked if I wanted to bowl for three thousand: one game. I looked at George and Donny who looked at Grossman. George pulled out a wad of money from his pocket as did Donny, as did anyone in earshot. I knew in my heart this was wrong. You never let anyone double, or in this instance, multiply by five, his bet, especially if he was losing. You never want to gamble with anything other than other people’s money if you were lucky or good enough to have other people’s money. But I was hot. I reached in my pocket, took out the three hundred I had, and went back to work.
We threw strike for strike through the first five frames. Grossman looked over at me, muttered a few, “I can’t believe this fuckin’ shit,” and continued. I tried not to look at him, much less distract myself by speaking to him.
He threw the next three strikes, but so did I. That made it eight frames, nothing but X’s. The ninth frame is probably the most important in bowling. If successful, by striking, you put yourself in a very good position to gather all the extra pins you can in the tenth and last frame. I struck. But so did he.
I took the ball, made sure my fingers were dry, and placed my feet, as I always did, to the right of the middle approach on the first two dots. My legs were nervous, my thighs buzzed. I approached the line and threw what I thought was a good ball. It had good lift and hit the mark that I had been hitting all night. It hit the one-three pocket nicely, but left the ten pin standing. For the first time that night, I heard the crowd groan. I finished the spare and struck in the last box for a 279 score, enough to win on most any night. But not tonight. Grossman didn’t miss. Not once. He finished with a perfect game, a 300. George gave him the three thousand and they left. He put his arm around my shoulder, gave me a playful hug, and took me out for bacon and eggs at an all night diner. The score of my game with Grossman hung behind Lulu’s register for many months. A few years later, they found Richie Grossman. They found him in the trunk of a Buick with three bullet holes in the back of his head. Too bad, I always wanted to bowl him again.


Norman Savage
Greenwich Village, 2015

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