In the spring of 1963, Ron imagined the corners of Newark’s Broad and Market streets were a miniature Times Square. He fantasized watching the New Year’s ball squash it as it scanned the four corners. Navigating the streets like a PT boat pilot, he made believe that they were all racing down a river. He shifted gears and sighted his target. It was someone in a trench coat and a Bogart hat. He banked to the left and breezed by slower traffic. A side-street gust of wind turned everything numb as he walked. His mind told his legs to move faster. He had set The Square as his finish line. The rules said that he wasn’t allowed to run.
He broke to the left again and slalomed between parking signs. He almost whacked into a telephone booth. If he left the sidewalk, he was out of bounds. He would have to drop back to the center of the sidewalk and begin again, behind a pack of slower traffic.
The newspaper stand marked the finish line and there was a small crowd milling around it. He broke into his flat out walking sprint. It was early for the move but it was his only chance to overtake the Trench Coat. When he realized that his sprint wasn’t going to work, he turned it on even more and smiled. He passed the Trench Coat. He won! Cheers sounded in his ears.
While he caught his breath, Ron stared at the shrinking stack of evening newspapers. The vendor snapped each dollar bill with a professional crack as he repeated the price of each purchase. Ron smelled the vendor’s pipe smoke and felt quiet inside. Then the vendor said, “Are you buying or reading, kid?”
Ron moved off without answering. He wandered and looked in store windows. The street was wet. An icy vapor was accumulating on everything. He considered the items that the cheap stores were pushing.
His mother worked across the street in a men’s clothing store and Ron was supposed to meet her. She was a well dressed woman in her thirties, heavy but with a pretty face. Ron thought that her boss, Sid Bernstein, was one of the men who was always trying to hit on her. Sid was married but at least he wasn’t a slob like some of the others.
“I’ve got to work late,” said Marjorie sadly, when she saw him in front of her counter. “We’re closing out the books for the month and Charlie Nittman is due in.”
The store was close to making its assigned figure and Sid needed her there in case they had to adjust some sales receipts before they closed things out.
“OK,” said Ron. He was trying hard not to look disappointed.
“I’ve got a pass, if you want to go to the movies.”
Ron’s round face brightened. “What have you got?”
Marjorie smiled. She knew that having to meet her every day was hard for him. She tried not to think about it. “I’ve got the Adams and the Branford.” She threw a furtive glance over the top of his head to see who might be watching. “Take both and we’ll save the one that you don’t use for another day. Ron nodded and started back out the door. “Make sure you’re back here by seven o’clock at the latest.”
He was almost back out into the street when the manager stopped him. Instinctively, Ron put his hands into his pockets and felt for the movie passes as he walked over to Bernstein. The manager put his arm around Ron’s shoulder and walked him down the aisle of folded slacks and over to the part of the suit section that was usually empty.
“Maybe it’s time we put you to work,” said Bernstein, his eyebrows bushing up over the tops of his dark rimmed glasses. “We’ve got an opening for a stock boy. You’ll box suits and keep things straightened up. At some point, we’ll teach you how to do a little selling.”
“That would be great,” said Ron. He could see himself working there. He already knew the routine and all the other people who worked there. It would be easy.
“You’ll have to get working papers, but the important thing is that you’ll have a few dollars in your pocket and be able to give your mother a hand.” Bernstein liked Ron and by giving the kid a job, he would be doing a good turn for Marjorie. Bernstein looked around to see if anything else needed his attention. The salesmen never moved unless they saw commissions. “You’ll listen to me and I’ll train you the right way.”
Ron was happy as he walked through the alley that connected Market Street to Branford Place. He always thought that the alley looked creepy, but he enjoyed the feeling of being brave enough to use it. There were large puddles that he had to skip over and on the edge of one he saw a leather wallet.
Before he picked it up, he looked all around. No one could see him. He slid the wallet into his pocket without looking up and did not look back over his shoulder again until he was out on the street. A policeman was standing back on Market Street talking with a man. Ron felt his heart race. Maybe they were talking about what he had picked up.
One impulse told him to bring the wallet back down the alley or give it to the cop, but another impulse told him to just beat it into the movie house and act like he didn’t know anything. He decided that was the best choice. Besides, how could he be in trouble for just picking up the wallet?
He presented the pass without looking up to see what was playing. He headed for the bathroom. He would feel safe enough to inspect it there. It was empty. There was no money, no cards, and no pictures. It was a beat up thing that someone had thrown away.
Ron began work two weeks later on a Saturday. He was going to work a full day and he was happy that his mother was off because he didn’t like her seeing him make mistakes. After they got the store opened, Sid Bernstein sent him for coffee. The alley was the easiest way to get to Hobbies Deli. He walked through feeling confident and adult. He didn’t have time for his kid fears anymore. When he got back, they sent him out again. This time he sauntered down the alley feeling like a man.
The salesmen were standing in a circle in front of the counters. They congratulated Ron on getting their orders right. They teased Howard Bernstein about never getting their orders right. Andy’s counterpart smiled at him and said, “These guys will use any excuse to give me a hard time.”
The manager’s son could have cared less what the salesmen thought of him. He was nineteen and had been doing this job since he was Ron’s age. He hated working there but it was the only way that his father was going to allow him to go away to college in the fall.
Having Ron around meant that he could take it easy, at least when his father wasn’t watching. Ron watched Howard thinking that the older boy dressed much better than he did. All of Howard’s clothes had a new look and he was tall. Ron’s shirt always worked its way out of his pants.
The salesmen were talking about their commissions for the week. A fat bald guy named Bill, who had body odor that always made Ron want to back away from him, was arguing with a short, white haired man named Saul about who had been on top for the week. Both were claiming that it was the other. The tradition was that the salesman with the best week had to buy coffee the next Saturday. Saul was claiming that somehow Bill had managed to cheat him. Bill was denying it but offering no explanations.
Nobody really liked Bill because of the body odor, but he had seniority and called himself the assistant manager when Bernstein wasn’t around. The argument would be resolved the way that it always was, when they compared Wednesday’s commission checks.
The salesmen finished their coffee and began to walk away. Saul said to Roger, “You look like Eunice was good to you last night.” Ron couldn’t hear the answer.
Howard showed him the proper way to box a suit and then had him practice with the same suit, over and over. Then he showed Ron how to make boxes and sat next to him while he folded the cardboard along the perforations. Sometimes Howard smiled at the part time cashier. After several smiles, Ron noticed that she was smiling back at Howard but neither of them was saying anything to the other.
Ron knew Julie from when his mother had broken her in and he thought that she was pretty except for her fat thighs. He wondered if Howard would like him more if he helped him to get to know Julie. When the two boys were busy in back room, Ron said, “Do you know Julie pretty well?”
“I haven’t banged her, but I’d like to,” said Howard.
Ron felt his face turn red and knew that his mouth was hanging open. Howard smiled with the thought that it would give Ron something to think about.
Midway through the morning, Sid Bernstein took Ron downstairs. Ron hadn’t been there before. It was a whole other store, except that it was empty. Bernstein showed him where they kept the off season stock that would be put on sale just before the beginning of spring. “This all has to be cleaned up. You’ll dust them off and refold them. He opened his jacket and took out his personal whisk broom and demonstrated how the tops of the jackets needed attention. He showed Ron how to reverse the fold on the trousers and reverse the crease on the pants…
Ron said, “There’s room for a whole other store down here.” The mystery of it sitting there and doing nothing excited him.
“Sometimes we open it for boy’s clothes just before Christmas. We don’t carry as much stock as we used to carry.”
Ron liked the secret store. It was just waiting there for people to come down and do business. Three naked boy manikins stared at him with a mournful gaze. Ron remembered a Twilight Zone episode where the manikins came alive at night and then he jumped at the sound of Howard Bernstein’s voice. “My father’s got you in the morgue dusting off the dead, huh?”
“That’s what everybody calls this place, the morgue. It comes from the days when it was still open and somebody had to stay down here and never get any customers.”
“I didn’t even know it was here,” said Ron.
“That’s why they closed it up,” said Howard. “Want to see something really weird?”
In a quiet voice, Ron said, “yeah.”
Howard showed him the mirror lined dressing room. It was filled with piles of manikin parts. Decapitated heads and unattached torsos and limbs were strewn in careless plastic heaps. The room was dark when they walked in and then Howard switched on the five fluorescent lights simultaneously. They blinked like strobes and Ron jumped. Howard laughed at him. “This is where the window trimmers work,” he said.
“You know,” said Ron, “it looks like one of those movies about concentration camps, doesn’t it?”
Howard’s body twitched and a sickly look flooded his face. Ron continued, “Did you ever see that documentary, ‘Remember Us’?”
Howard said quietly, “I never saw it. Let’s get out of here?”
“When do we get lunch?” said Ron.
Ron walked through the alley to fill the lunch orders of the people who weren’t going out to eat. He stared at the metal doors that must be the delivery entrance to the downstairs store. A fire escape was above it and stretched up to the second floor tailor shop. Ron hadn’t ever thought about the doors being connected to his store before.
He was on his way back with the sandwiches when he heard the tailor shop door slam shut. A man in a black leather jacket came down the outside metal cage staircase with three coats draped over his arm. Ron ducked into a doorway. Someone was stealing from his store!
Quietly he put the lunch bag down on a ledge and stuck his head back out into the alley. The thief was moving fast. He was almost at the mouth of the alley and about to head onto Market Street. Ron started after him.
The leather jacket was almost a half a block away. Ron knew what he was going to do. He didn’t want to alert the guy by running after him. He banked to the inside of the sidewalk where there was less traffic. He had gained almost ten strides. He couldn’t understand why nobody was even looking strangely at a guy walking down the street with three coats over his arm.
He saw a cop that was standing in front of Nathan’s. Now he knew what to do. He broke into a flat out walking sprint. He had to get to the guy while he was right around the cop. The sidewalk was getting crowded and the thief was keeping to the center and setting a fast pace. What if the flat out walking sprint didn’t work? He rammed into the back of a woman in front of him. She stumbled and grunted out a frightened yelp.
“I’m sorry,” said Ron over his shoulder as he sprinted ahead. It wasn’t going to work. He didn’t have the time to make up the ground. He began to run. He dodged around a group of people and had a clear sight of the leather jacket thief with the cop about twenty feet ahead of him. He yelled, “Officer! Stop the guy with the coats!”
There was a frozen moment where everything seemed to stop. People turned towards Ron and then towards the thief and the cop. It felt as if a clear path was opening on the sidewalk at the sound of his words. Ron felt like Charlton Heston but he was parting a sea of humanity in order to achieve justice.
The leather jacket whirled on Ron with wide-eyed disbelief. “What’s wrong with you?” said the man, just as the cop took hold of him.
“I caught him sneaking out the back of our store with these coats over his arm,” accused Ron.
The man looked very frightened and tried to step away. The cop snarled, “Don’t do it. Don’t make me hurt you.” He had taken out his gun and it was pointing at the man. When Ron saw the gun, he wanted to urinate.
“This kid is crazy! I bought these coats for $30.”
Ron couldn’t take his eyes off the gun. It was pointed right at the man’s face. The cop said, “Have you got a receipt?”
The man was holding his arms up in the air. People were stopping and watching. The coats were dangling from his raised arms like evidence. “The salesman said that at that price I didn’t need no receipt.”
“The smelly, fat, bald guy,” said the man in a pleading whine. A crowd of people was watching and listening.
“Let’s go back and find out,” said the cop. It seemed to Ron that the patrol car and the two other policeman came from out of nowhere. The car had cut right across Market Street with its red lights flashing and its headlights blinking. One cop took the coats away from the man. The other began to load him into the patrol car.
The man’s face took on a look of desperation. He screamed again, “I told you that I paid my money.” He tried to break away from the cops. Then all three of them had him down on the ground. One brought up his nightstick tight under the guy’s chin and the other leveled the guy down at the man’s face.
“If you move again without me telling you to move, I’m going to shoot you,” said the cop that Ron had hailed.
The man began to cry. Ron stared at the tears that were bubbling out of his eyes. They put handcuffs on him before they allowed him to stand. Ron was standing there holding the coats that had been dropped to the sidewalk in the scuffle. He handed them to the driver of the patrol car and then he and the apprehending officer walked back up the street towards his store.
The woman that he had rammed said, “You’re a brave boy.”
Ron saw the patrol car parked at the Market Street mouth of the alley. Sid Bernstein was standing in front of the car talking with the cops while the thief sat in the back of the patrol car. He was hunched forward because of his cuffed wrists.
When they saw Ron, they walked over to him and the third cop. Bernstein looked apologetically at the cop. The store was on his beat. “The kid is new, Jimmy. He’s Marjorie, the credit manager’s son, so I put him on.
Jimmy stared down at Ron and then back over at Bernstein. “It looked pretty bad to see the guy with the coats over his arm and no bag.” His voice was angry. “Jesus Sid, couldn’t they have given him a bag? I might have stopped him even if the kid hadn’t done anything.”
There was a pause where everyone shifted on their feet. Bernstein looked apologetic. The cops gathered around Bernstein and Ron. “Three for $30,” said Jimmy the cop. “We’d all like to take advantage of that deal.”
“Jim,” said Sir Bernstein, “you come and see me whenever you like. You know that I’ll always take care of you.” The manager’s face had a painful grin spread open on it. Jimmy nodded and then slowly looked past Bernstein to the other two officers and then back to Sid. “And you bring the other two officers with you as well.” Bernstein glared at Ron.
“That will be real nice,” said Jimmy the cop. “They’re good coats.” Jimmy smiled down at Ron who smiled up at him. The cop’s teeth were yellow and crooked. Ron’s teeth were straight and white. “I think you made a mistake here kid. But you had the right idea. Next time, just let the police handle their job.”
“OK,” said Ron. He smiled over at Bernstein who was no longer smiling at all.
Jimmy said to Bernstein, “If this guy hadn’t tried to hit one of us, we could just forget about this.
“You’ll do what you have to do,” said Bernstein, spreading his palms and turning them upwards.
Jimmy the cop regarded Ron one last time. “Say hello to your mother for me. We know each other a long time. Tell her that Jim Sculiani said hello”
“What will happen to him?” said Ron looking over at the patrol car.
“Probably nothing,” said Jimmy. “We’ll just scare him a little so that he knows not to do it again.”
Ron and Sid walked back into the store. Bill and Saul were staring at them with a look of worry.
“Go downstairs and wait for me there,” said Sid.
“What do you want me to do while I’m waiting?” said Ron.
“Not a thing,” said Bernstein.
Bill and Saul exchanged a look about what they thought Ron should do. They walked towards the back of the store like they were distancing themselves from the whole sad event.
Ron looked around for Howard’s face and then he saw him standing in the back by the cashier’s window talking to Julie. She was letting him touch her arm.
Ron waited in the downstairs store. One fluorescent light was flickering by the door to the dressing room with the plastic body parts. Ron thought it looked like a movie marquee. He walked over to where he had been brushing clothes and stood still as Bernstein came down the stairs. “Did you ever get our lunches?” said the manager.
Ron had forgotten. “I left the bag in the alley,” he said. “I could go get it.”
The bag was in the alley where Ron had left it. He handed it to Bernstein. It was soaked through the bottom and left a sticky ooze on his hands. Sid Bernstein took out his monogrammed handkerchief and wiped his hands clean.
Ron couldn’t wait any longer. He blurted, “What did I do wrong?”
“You could have gotten hurt very badly,” said Bernstein. “And would it have been worth it for a couple of coats? A certain amount of items walk out of here all the time. I’d rather that it didn’t happen, but I don’t want anyone risking his neck over it either.”
Ron thought about the way the guy in the leather jacket sat hunched over in the police car. “How come the guy was coming out the back door into the alley?” said Ron.
Bernstein gave him an annoyed look. “Sometimes it’s easier to let some customers go directly to their cars from the tailor shop.”
Ron said, “But this guy didn’t have a car.”
“Let’s not talk about it anymore. I want you to take the rest of the day off. This has been a pretty nerve wracking thing. You’ll go home and we can talk again when you come to pick your mother up on Monday night.”
Sid walked him up the stairs and straight out the door like he was afraid that something else was going to go wrong if he left him alone. When Ron left, Sid went to call Marjorie. This was going to cost everybody something.