The Volkswagen was almost six years old. I had planned to buy something new, or at least newer, about six months before it was time to go home from German. But after a wire broke and the engine quit, stranding me on a foggy autobahn night, I decided it was time to start looking for another car.
At that time I was an adjutant, the battalion CO's principal paper-pusher, in charge of everything that had to do with manpower and personnel. Our unit operated the communications links between air defense missile sites guarding Western Europe's airspace. We kept microwave and shortwave radio systems on the air around the clock. It meant that my headquarters went to the field only once a year and my duty schedule was very predictable. I went into the office at eight and was home in our two-bedroom apartment by five-thirty, and rarely had to work evenings.
On Friday night, after services, I asked an Air Force chaplain then serving his third tour in Germany, if he could recommend a local car dealer.
"Sure," he said "I've bought four or five cars from Werner Herrmann. A mensch. And he’s part Jewish."
"Oh, he’s not observant. But he had a Jewish great-grandmother, and that was enough that during the war, although they were Lutherans, his family made him join the Navy. They didn't seem to care that he was one-sixteenth Jewish. That got him through the war."
"And he's an honest man?"
"Honest as any car dealer I know," said the rabbi.
Herrmann was a perpetually smiling man in his fifties, not very tall. Almost bald, he carefully combed a few remaining strands of dark hair across the vast expanse of his scalp. He spoke colloquial English with the merest trace of an accent. Herrmann showed me around his lot, but most of the two dozen cars he had were about the same age as my VW.
"And what would strike your fancy, Captain?" asked Herrmann.
"Maybe a BMW or a Mercedes. Something two or three years old."
“A tough order. We Germans take care of our cars, and we tend to keep them a long time. Why don't you consider a new Mercedes?"
"I'm not sure I could afford one. And, I'm told, it takes as much as a year to get one. They build each car to order."
"That's true. But there might be a way to get one faster. In two or three months, more or less, if you can wait that long."
"How can I get a new Mercedes that quick?"
"Well, sometimes a car is delivered, and the buyer changes his mind. He doesn't like the color, or he's not satisfied with the options."
"Wait a year for a car, then send it back because of the color?"
"Absolutely. And at other times, a car will be built for export, but then the deal goes bad and the dealer doesn't have a customer. So he has either to front the money himself and hope to sell the car, or cancel the order. Because once they accept an order, the factory must build the car.”
"And every year there are also a few cars that are delivered, and accepted, and then the owner for some reason decides he doesn't like it. We Germans are very finicky about some things, you know."
"So there's something wrong with these cars?"
"No. Not usually. It's more like, he doesn't like the upholstery, or his wife doesn't, or he thinks he should have ordered a bigger engine, or a smaller one, something like that. And so these cars come back to the factory with a few thousand kilometers on them. That's nothing for a Mercedes. Not even starting to wear in. So they have to resell them."
"And you can get one of them?"
"I have a friend, a broker. He puts buyers and sellers together."
That week I visited all the used car lots near Kaiserslautern, but none offered anything better than basic transportation. I'd replaced the broken wire on my VW and it was running fine; I was almost ready to forget about a new car. Then Herrmann called. He had a nearly-new Mercedes. Less than five thousand kilometers, metallic blue with gray upholstery, a five-speed manual transmission, and a sunroof. Was I interested?
"How much?” I asked.
"About $5,600," he said. “In Deutschmarks, of course.”
That was a healthy sum for us. But the moment that I saw the car, I fell in love with it. It was more car than I had ever hoped to own, and it was $1,000 less than a new one. There was one tiny flaw, something few would even notice: a piece of chrome below the trunk said 280SE, meaning that the car had fuel injection, while in actuality, the car was a 280S, with conventional carburetion.
I gave Herrmann a deposit, called my bank in Maryland and got a loan, and four days later I was driving a Mercedes. A wonderful window opened. I went on weekend trips to the great cities of Europe—to Antwerp, Paris, Amsterdam, and Munich—flashing down the autobahn in comfort and safety at almost 100 mph.
About two months after the Mercedes came into our lives, a little man in a large floppy felt hat and a brown suit, shiny from too many ironings, marched into my office, followed by a uniformed cop, one of the biggest men I have ever seen. The little man held out a worn leather case with a German police identification card. Its photo showed a man with a cruel mouth, small, soulless eyes, a falcon's nose far too big for its face, and bushy hair. There was no hair on the head of the man standing before me, quivering with excitement. Aside from that, he was unmistakably the same person. Shivering with apprehension, I felt like I had suddenly yanked from my world of military order into a movie, and I couldn’t find the script.
"You are Herr Hauptman Norman Farkas?" he said with a thick, guttural accent, like a character from a Dashiell Hammett movie.
"Yes, I'm Captain Farkas. What I can I do for you?"
"You are the owner of Mercedes-Benz Model 280, engine number aye arr, one, eight, one, seven, seven, four, nine, one?"
"Well, maybe. I don't know the engine number. What's this about?"
"This automobile is in your possession at this time?"
"Out in the parking lot. What is this about, please?"
"We will inspect this automobile now."
"Can you tell me what this is about?"
"We will inspect this automobile, NOW!"
I got up and followed the little man out into the parking lot, the uniformed cop trailing us. When I got to my car, I read off the number from a plate on the dashboard.
"Ja," said the little man, consulting a notebook. "We will return to your office now." He snapped the notebook shut and put it in his breast pocket.
"Would you mind telling me what this is all about?"
"We WILL return to your office NOW!" he bellowed.
Back in my office, bursting with curiosity, I asked again, “What is this all about?"
"You will sit down, please."
"Sure, but what is this about? Something wrong?"
"YOU WILL SIT DOWN!"
"Hauptman Herr Norman Farkas, I officially inform you that Mercedes-Benz Model 280, serial number aye arr, one, eight, one, seven, seven, four, nine, one is a stolen vehicle. You will not attempt to remove it from the Federal Republic of Germany. You will not attempt to sell it. You are NOT a suspect in any crime. You will hear from us."
Without another word, the little man turned on his heel and marched out of my office, trailed by the monster in uniform.
I sat, stunned, for several minutes. Then I called the office of the Staff Judge Advocate, where a neighbor of mine worked.
"Ken, Norm Farkas. I just had the weirdest visitor. German cop. Says my Mercedes is a stolen car."
"You're my sixth today. And four yesterday,” he said.
"Holy shit. Does that mean I'm screwed? Am I going to lose the car?"
"Looks that way. But don't do anything until I tell you. I'm sorry this happened, I know how much you like your new car."
"Let me know if you hear anything."
I dialed the prefix for an outside line. Maybe Herrmann knew what was going on. I let the phone ring for five minutes, but there was no answer. I tried again at half-hour intervals, but still, no one answered. At five I locked up my desk and drove to Herrmann's lot. The gates were padlocked, and a strip of orange tape ran across the office door. Something was posted on the door, but it was too far to read. I drove to the police station to see my boss's poker pal, an English-speaking traffic investigator.
"I'm trying to find Werner Herrmann," I said. "You know, the car dealer?"
"Try the jail. But I doubt they allow him visitors."
I had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. "Jail?"
"You bought one of that Jew's 'almost new' Mercedes?"
I nodded, not trusting my voice.
"Too bad. A terrible mess, this is."
As the story in Overseas Weekly explained, a week later, at least 89 American soldiers were victims of the scam, which took advantage of a loophole in the German automobile registration system. When a German bought a used car, he took the title–-a little gray book–to a police station, where the car's engine number was punched into a terminal linked to a nationwide computer system. If ownership was verified, the buyer was allowed to register. But there was no way for the US military to access the computer system; repeated requests to do just that were turned down by the Bonn government, which regarded US access to their computer as an infringement of German sovereignty. So those in the American military needed only a bill of sale to get a US Forces license plate.
As the story explained, a German mastermind had hired several Yugoslavian mechanics and told them to find jobs in Mercedes dealerships. They secretly copied keys to cars brought in for servicing, and at the first opportunity stole the cars from their owners. The cars were driven to a farm in the Harz Mountains, where superficial changes were made to each. For example, the article said, optional chrome trim might be switched between two cars. The cars were wholesaled to dealers who dealt with Americans and provided with authentic-looking title books purchased illegally from wrecking yards, each with a forged page replacing the one with the engine number.
I contacted my insurance company. So sorry, they said, but my policy didn't cover a clouded title. I wrote my bank and explained the situation. A very nice loan officer telephoned to say that while I still had to pay the $5,000 I'd borrowed, they would give me two additional years to pay, and they would lower the interest rate one point.
A few days after that, a terse note arrived by Bundespost, the German postal system, from the city police. I was ordered to deliver the Mercedes to a town about 250 miles away.
I called Ken again. He told me that the Kaiserslautern High Court had no jurisdiction over me. The provisions of a decades-old treaty between the US and the Federal Republic of Germany held that all civil actions between a US serviceman and any agency of the German government must begin by the Germans notifying the US Ambassador, who would forward the complaint through military channels to the soldier’s commander. The commander would then communicate back to the Ambassador, through channels, a response to the charge. The disposition of each case would take place between representatives of the respective national governments.
“So I don’t have to surrender the car?” I asked Ken.
“Technically, no. But in reality, the local authorities will arrest you, hold you in a prison for up to a week, and then notify the US Ambassador. They will then release you and apologize. But, they will keep the car. So the question is, do you want to spend a week or so in jail?”
I wrote the police a polite letter informing them that my military duties didn't permit me to deliver the car to the place they asked. About a week later I got a curt note telling me the bailiff of the Kaiserslautern High Court would contact me to make arrangements to pick it up.
At 11:00 Saturday morning the doorbell rang and there was a thin, balding man in baggy workman’s clothing shifting his feet awkwardly as he handed me a police document in English and German. "Please give me the car keys," he said.
The license plates were US Forces property. I had to turn them back to the Provost Marshal. "I have to take off the license plates," I replied.
The man became agitated. "But Herr Hauptman, I am a civil employee. I have no authorization to drive a car without plates."
"Then you have a problem. The plates belong to the US Government."
He scratched his head. "Take them, then. I'll be back in one hour."
He returned with a lowboy, a big tractor-trailer with a rear ramp. The plates under my arm, I gave him the keys and watched my car vanish.
In the next few days, I got together with other victims of the "Hot Wheels Club" and retained a German attorney to sue Herrmann. The lawyer wasn't optimistic. "He owns nothing in his own name except a few old cars. The business property is leased. Everything else belongs to his wife. But we will see," he said, shrugging as if to say "don't expect too much."
In the end, all I got out of Herrmann was one of the cars on his lot, a shabby, ten-year-old Opal Cadet worth maybe $500.
The same week, I came down on orders for Korea. I was to depart in early November; a brief leave en route was authorized. Then I got a notice from the High Court. I was to pay 101.50 Deutschmarks–about $35–for the truck that the bailiff used to haul the Mercedes away. I threw the notice away. A week later, a second one came. I threw it away, as I did the third, which came five days after the second.
With six days until my departure, I had my household goods packed and shipped, turned my government furniture back to Quartermaster, and spent my days briefing my replacement;
On the morning of my fifth-to-last day, I got a special delivery letter at the office. The court ordered me to pay the 101.50 marks within seven days or face arrest. I was pissed. I mean, I was the victim here. I was the one out $5,000. I sat down at an office typewriter and spent the whole day writing and re-writing a three-page letter to the court.
The first page, in summary, said: "Fuck you, we won the war." The second page explained that none of this could have happened if the German government had let the US Forces check vehicle ownership in their stupid computer and that because of the Status of Forces Treaty, the Kaiserslautern High Court lacked jurisdiction to compel me to do anything.
The last page explained that I was the victim; it was unreasonable to charge me this fee, and I wasn't going to pay.
It was a good letter and I felt much better after writing it. I made only one mistake. I mailed it, forgetting about the Bundespost's excellent, overnight service to even the most distant corners of the country.
The day before my scheduled departure, I left the office at noon and went by the PX for some last-minute purchases. The PX manager found me in the toiletries section. "Your colonel is on the phone," he said.
"Six of the toughest-looking German cops I've ever seen just left my office," said my battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Richard Hughes. "They have a warrant for your arrest. What the hell did you say in that letter?"
I told him.
"If they can't take a joke, I guess I'll just pay the damn thirty-five dollars," I said.
"Too late for that. They've got a list of charges."
"What am I supposed to have done, defamed the great German people with my little nastygram?"
"Don't try to be cute, Farkas. It doesn't suit you."
"I didn't read the whole list. One said you could get four years. Now maybe it's all bull, but you don't want to test them on this. I called your buddy, Ken something—"
"At the Staff Judge Advocate?"
"Yeah. He said to take the warrant very seriously. And he said the smartest thing to do is not get arrested. So don't go back to your quarters. Don't come to the office. Stay away from all the gasthauses. Get lost until dark, then go to Major Ashe's house.”
Ashe was the battalion executive officer. He had a French wife, who was a glorious cook, and I had often dined at his table. "Yes, sir. About three miles out of Landstuhl, the south road."
"Good. Stay there tonight. I'll have someone go by your quarters and pick up your gear. I'll get you to the airport."
Hughes came for me just at first light in a camouflaged jeep with half a dozen radio antennae bobbing from it. His driver stowed my suitcase and duffle bag in a two-wheeled, canvas-topped trailer behind his jeep. I got in the back seat. Avoiding the autobahn, we drove back roads to Frankfurt, a route over 100 miles longer than the autobahn route, to Rhein-Main Air Force Base near Frankfurt.
It was late afternoon and light snow was falling as we neared the air base. The base shared runways with Frankfurt International Airport; one side of the field had a military terminal and aerial port facilities, the other housed their civilian counterparts.
Colonel Hughes took my paperwork and walked it through the Military Airlift Command (MAC) formalities while I hid behind canvas side curtains in the jeep.
As I waited. the snow became heavier, the day gloomier. Three Mercedes-Benz diesel sedans, painted in dark green with a broad, wrap-around band of black-and-white squares, pulled up to the terminal. Six large, uniformed and armed policeman and a tiny man in a brown suit and a floppy felt hat ran inside.
I felt the terror that drove thousands from Germany a generation earlier. What if they catch me? Will I go to jail? Did someone tell them that I'm a Jew?
Minutes later, Hughes returned with a conspiratorial gleam in his eye and handed me a boarding pass. He directed the driver on a roundabout route through the base. Eventually, we were on an unpaved access road near the end of a runway. The driver backed the jeep deep into a copse of trees bordering the runway and shut the engine off. In minutes snow completely covered the jeep. Then, abruptly, it stopped. The skies cleared.
But the runways were strangely frozen. Every few minutes, a plane landed. But none took off. The German police were searching the terminal, boarding every departing aircraft and looking at every passenger.
We sat in the frigid woods for over an hour before departures resumed. Plane after plane moved past us to the end of the runway, turned into the wind, and took off into the starry night. Finally, a huge Saturn Airlines Boeing 727 lumbered down the runway toward us, slowing before rocking to a halt in front of our hidden jeep. The landing lights flashed once, twice, three times.
"That's you," said Colonel Hughes, and flashed the jeep headlights three times.
"How the hell did you arrange that?" I asked.
"None of your business," said Hughes. "Wait until he turns around."
The plane turned slowly on its landing gear until the tail pointed at our jeep. "Now," said Hughes. "Good luck, Farkas. Let me hear from you."
"How can I ever thank you, sir?"
"Remember me in your memoirs. And next time, don't mail the letter."
"Thanks again, sir."
"Get out there before he leaves without you."
As I stepped out of the jeep, a hatch below the Boeing's tail opened. A stairwell ramp descended to jet-melted slush. I picked my way carefully, getting snow in my shoes, avoiding the deeper drifts, until I reached concrete. Headlights swept across the plane from the access road. Two dark sedans sped towards the woods, diesel engines chattering above the roar of idling jets. Flashing blue lights and singsong sirens approached.
Slipping and sliding across the icy runway, I heard the shriek of brakes. Car doors slammed. Heavy boots crunched snow.
Silhouetted by glaring headlamps, indistinct shapes ran toward me from the darkness.
Stomach churning, heart racing, I reached the ramp, soaked with sweat despite the freezing air. A male flight attendant threw my suitcase and duffel bag through the open hatch, and then shoved me up the stairs. The engines changed pitch, roaring with ferocious energy. As I entered the cabin and fell into an open seat, the plane rocked on its gear.
I thought I heard a shout as the hatch slammed shut behind me. Heads craned and eyes questioned as my trembling fingers wrestled with the seatbelt buckle. I felt the plane rolling forward. Still trying to catch my breath, we hurtled skyward. I let out a big sigh and silently thanked God for sending Colonel Hughes to save me from the Germans.
Across the aisle, a nicely dressed fortyish woman leaned toward me. “What was that?” she said. “Why didn’t you board from the terminal?”
A moment later a deep male voice announced that we had entered French airspace, and then a female flight attendant appeared to save me from answering.
“The captain would like to see you,” she said.
I followed her to the cockpit, and the captain shook my hand. “Dick Hughes was my West Point roommate for two years,” he said. “Lucky for you I saw him at the ticket counter.”
“I think you may have saved my life, sir,” I said.
“Naw. They’d have let you go after ten or twelve years,” he said, then laughed.
“What was in that letter you sent?”
© 1971 Marvin J. Wolf
Sometimes after aleph bet class we watched movies. Living skeletons in black-and-white striped uniforms danced and shivered, flickering on the bed-sheet screen. When the 16 millimeter film broke, the lights came on and one of the younger teachers, a heavy-set giant with a curly black beard, spliced the celluloid, all the while cursing under his breath in Yiddish. The lights went off, the movie continued and we watched piles of bodies bulldozed into mass graves, the camera pausing to show emaciated faces frozen in final rictus. I saw my first picture of a naked breast, a slack, waxy protuberance sagging from a bony, lifeless ribcage dumped without ceremony into a pit from a wheelbarrow.
The narrator's grim voice becomes lively and animated as giant furnaces lined with charred human skulls dissolve to tanned, well-fed young adults driving tractors, laying irrigation pipe, harvesting grain, baking bread, playing with plump babies, dancing and celebrating Jewish festivals in their kibbutz.
After the movies, teachers hand out Zionist pamphlets with pledge cards from the United Jewish Fund, and tell us to give them to our parents.
At eleven I have been forced to give up my paper route and put aside my baseball dreams. Monday through Friday, after my last class at Grover Cleveland Elementary, I walk several blocks to the classroom of Rabbi Starr, Auschwitz '45. Starr is an immigrant's name chopped from a longer string of mostly unpronounceable Polish consonants; he came complete with blue tattooed forearm and a long white beard stained with food and tobacco from chain-smoking Chesterfields and gulping endless glasses of tea through a sugar cube clenched between rotted teeth. He was silently, sickeningly flatulent and wielded a steel ruler without warning or mercy, smacking hands and fingers whenever he thought a student's attention had wandered.
Bounced from relative to relative and then to a string of foster homes after his parents died, my father never had a chance to learn Hebrew, to celebrate his coming-of-age with the traditional bar mitzvah. Poor as we were, he wanted better for me. Once a month Mom put a few dollars in an envelope that I handed to Rabbi Starr. Each time he tore open the envelope, examined its contents, then gave me a sad look. "Tell your mother I said thank you," he said in his thick, guttural accent, always sounding disappointed. No other boy brought an envelope; I was afraid to ask why.
The Hebrew was not so hard. In days odd squiggles took on meaning, letters and vowels became words that melded into sentences. Every few months a pimply teenager from the principal's office brought a stack of report cards. Starr passed them around, but there was never one for me. Mom said that the rabbi called regularly to say that I was doing very well, my father should be proud of me. There was no need for a report card, added Mom. There was more to it, I thought, but I knew not to ask.
Dad had given up all his jobs and made a living prowling alleys and factories in search of rags, paper and scrap metal. He started with a rented horse and wagon; by the time I had progressed from simple Hebrew words and phrases to reading sentences and learning the trope that would guide my bar mitzvah Torah chanting, he was making payments on an old truck.
Unless there was a movie or guest speaker, my Hebrew class ended at five,. I strolled home down Irving Park Road, taking my time, knowing that dinner was about seven, when Dad got home. Afterward, while my sister Freyda washed the dishes, I would do my homework on the kitchen table. Unless Mom or Dad sent me out for a loaf of bread, a pack of Camels, or a late newspaper, I would be in bed by nine.
I tried not to get home too early. Mom was slowly losing her battle with schizophrenia, though none of us knew what caused her angry outbursts, and she was usually screaming at somebody. Freyda, well into puberty, was the favored target, but if I was home Mom always found something to scream at me about. Or nothing.
It was dark and the few boys who I knew from the neighborhood were nowhere to be seen. I dawdled along Irving Park, peering through shop windows. I passed the dry cleaners, where acrid smells issued amid clouds of steam, then a tailor shop that Mom had visited once. Beyond the restaurant that Dad called a "greasy spoon," I stopped to peer at a parchment-skinned man using a giant magnifying glass, rebuilding a watch. And then I came to Kresge's, the five-and-dime.
I liked to steal mints at Kresge's.
Usually it was just one patty wrapped in silver paper that I slipped into a mitten or pocket. After that I spent five or ten minutes looking at packets of needles, spools of thread, sewing patterns, buttons, lace trim, Lincoln Logs, Tinkertoys, dolls, train sets, kitchen gadgets, cheap perfume, nail polish, makeup, costume jewelry, plastic and paper flowers, baby clothes, umbrellas, drinking glasses, dinner plates, tea cups, ceramic pitchers and vases, throw rugs, pictures in cheap frames, and flashlights. On the darkened sidewalk I gobbled the evidence of my crime, shivering with excitement and relief. The sweets Mom gave me never tasted as good.
Candy was fine, but I really wanted to steal a flashlight.
Not a big one like Dad kept in his truck, but a penlight, a shiny cylinder that took tiny batteries. I could carry it anywhere, use it to read under the covers, or when I was sent to the store at night. The one that I coveted cost a dollar, but when I asked Mom to get it for my birthday she gave me socks instead. I knew that I would never be able to afford such an expensive gadget, and that anybody could steal candy. On the way out of Kresge's on a snowy winter evening after cheder, I glanced around to see that no one was looking, then slipped a penlight into my coat pocket.
A balding man in a wrinkled blue suit flew through the door behind me like he was pursued by a swarm of bees, spun me around by the shoulder, took a death grip on my collar and dragged me inside. Desperate for a toilet, dying of shame, I stood alongside the counter until a policeman came. He wore a leather coat, high black boots and a round cap with a polished bill. Like a storm trooper. "Little kike comes in here every day and steals candy," said the balding man. "Now it's a flashlight."
"Do you want him locked up, or should I just kick his ass down the block?" returned the cop, face expressionless, watching me through opaque blue eyes.
"I think you ought to give him life in prison," said the store manager. "Teach all them Jewboys a lesson."
I fought back tears. Life in prison. Had I not watched the films, boys and girls my age—even younger—sent behind barbed wire to starve and die? Would I ever see my parents again? Would they take them all to prison, or could they escape to Israel?
"Come," said the cop, a huge hand gripping my shoulder. In the squad car he produced a notebook. "Name? Address?" he demanded, then wrote down what I said.
The look of fear on my mother's face stabbed red-hot icicles down through my colon. "This your kid?" said the cop, shoving me forward.
"He's a good boy!" Mom screamed. "What did he do?"
"Shoplifting. Kresge's Five-and-Dime," said the cop.
He was drinking a third cup of coffee when Dad came through the door. Before anyone could say a word, he backhanded my face and head five or six times. "Go to your room while I speak with this officer," my father bellowed.
I saw myself fighting for air in a packed boxcar, herded past rows of snarling Dobermans, shoved into a shower where no one washed. The minutes crawled by.
When I was summoned, the cop stood at the open door. "I could put him in jail tonight," he told my father. "We have lots of room."
"Do you want to go to jail?" said my father, calmer but contemptuous.
"This policeman is ready to take you downtown right now," he said. "I ought to let him. You spend a few years in prison, you won't be so quick to steal."
I did not want to go where people starved to death and dead bodies were tossed into pits like so many sacks of flour. Tears streamed down my face.
"Please don't send me to jail," I said. "I won't ever steal again."
"I should let him take you away," yelled my father, hitting me full in the face. I licked my lips, the blood salty on my tongue.
"You get plenty to eat! I keep you in warm clothes! I send you to cheder and you steal from the five-and-dime!" he railed, well into his second wind. "Get into your pajamas—If this policeman doesn't put you in jail I'll beat you black and blue."
I stood, stunned, not understanding.
"Get into your pajamas now! I'll be in with my belt to teach you a lesson!"
The next day, accompanied by my mother, I found the balding man in his dusty, cramped backroom office. "I'm sorry for stealing," I said, Mom's fingernails biting my arm. "I won't ever do it again."
"Don't ever let me see you around here," said the man.
A few years went by before I discovered that in America juveniles are rarely jailed, that shoplifters are not imprisoned for life, and that jails are not concentration camps. Not until I became father to my own adolescent, however, did I realize that on that dark winter night in Chicago that I had been the beneficiary of a conspiracy between a cop and a concerned parent equally determined to frighten me into respect for the law.
© 2001 Marvin J. Wolf
Shivering in the slush by the Kedzie streetcar stop, I wished that I had used the toilet again before leaving. My head ached and I was a little dizzy, but I understood when Mom explained why my errand was so important. I was not to dawdle; I was to go straight to the Loop, deliver cash to an office in a big building, get a receipt, come directly home. She pinned the envelope inside my coat with a giant safety pin, the kind used by laundries, then wrote out directions for the streetcar and bus.
Mom gave me two nickels for carfare. I put them in my pocket, but she took them out, felt around inside.
"When I'm feeling better I'll mend that hole," she said. "Keep the money in your mittens."
I was a little scared. At nine I had traveled by trolley, but always with Mom or Dad. Not even Freyda, who was 12, was allowed alone on a bus or streetcar.
"Why can't Freyda go?" I complained while buckling my galoshes.
"She has the flu."
We all had the flu. Even Dad was sick, but since he couldn't afford to lose a day's pay, he went to work. Mom was the sickest, and she also had to take care of Ted, who was in kindergarten, and Ila, the baby.
"Anyway, it isn't safe to send a young girl by herself," she continued. "Nobody will bother a boy."
"But you never let me go on the bus or streetcar by myself," I whined. "Who do I give the nickel to?"
"You've seen me do it," she said. "Drop the nickel into the box by the driver. Be sure to ask for a transfer. Both ways. You'll need one transfer to get there, and another one to get home."
I paused at the door. "Mom, can I have another nickel?" I asked.
"In case I get lost, then I could call home."
"Don't get lost," she said.
When the streetcar stopped, I climbed the high steps, nearly losing my balance as it started with a clang before I was all the way up. I clung to the rail, then dropped my first coin in the box.
"Transfer?" said the driver, and I said yes, please.
"I have to get off at Jackson Boulevard," I said.
"Don't call stops," said the driver, looking me over. "Ask somebody or watch the street signs."
Down the aisle I went, pushing past people clutching dangling straps. The car lurched as we braked, and I had to grab at the handle in the corner of a seat to keep from falling. An older woman smiled at me, and I smiled back.
"Would you please tell me when we get to Jackson Boulevard?" I asked.
"Oh, honey, I get off before that," she said. As we rolled south down Kedzie the sun vanished and the morning sky grew dark. A brisk lake wind shook the streetcar and pelted the windows on the driver's side with big flakes. I worried that I would miss Jackson, but agonized more about the fiery pain wrenching at my gut: I was afraid that I might soil my pants. Trying to ignore the throbbing, I peered out the windows at a billowing white curtain.
When the woman who had spoken to me got up, she said, "It's about six or eight more blocks to your stop, I guess." She pulled the cord that ran above the windows, and stepped into the blowing snow.
I counted the stops, thinking about what to do if I got off too early. I knew the car usually stopped every two blocks, so I would just walk the rest of the way, I decided. As what I hoped was Jackson approached, I asked a man to pull the cord; jumping down from the step, I slipped and fell. In my fear I lost control, and the thing that had worried me more than getting lost happened.
The sign at the corner didn't say Jackson. At the next block, I crossed to a service station. In the rest room I peeled off my galoshes and tennis shoes and finally the long johns, my teeth chattering. There was no toilet paper, only a dirty towel jammed in a wall roller. I used my shorts and tap water to clean myself, dried my hands on my shirt, left the ruined shorts in the wastebasket. I sat on the filthy floor to pull on my overshoes.
It was three more blocks to Jackson. Waiting for the bus there, I pulled down my cap earflaps and sought shelter in a doorway. I had no watch, but after what seemed like a very long time, I realized that almost nothing was moving on the streets. Cold and thirsty, stamping my feet to restore circulation, I weighed my options. I must deliver the envelope before five, when the office closed, or the finance company -- Dad called them "loan sharks" -- would take our furniture. I was closer to the Loop than to our apartment on Irving Park Road. Maybe the snow would stop soon, I thought.
When it didn't, I left the doorway and began walking east through the snow. Flakes stung my cheeks and forehead, gusts pushed me backward. Drifts blocked my way or sucked at my galoshes. I bowed my head and kept moving, glancing over my shoulder every few minutes for the bus. I thought about turning back -- but back to what? I went on, concentrating on a cadence in my pace: Breathe in, step step step, exhale, step step step, inhale, step step step. On and on I tramped, the air searing my lungs, the breeze knifing through my coat and underclothing. My eyes watered from the wind, and freezing tears threatened to glue my lashes shut; I rubbed them with a mitten again and again. My feet grew sore and my legs ached with effort. Every fourth block I took a short break, catching my breath, huddling out of the wind against the wall of a corner building. I lost all track of time.
After an eternity the wind slackened and the snow stopped. I went on, keeping the rhythm of my pace for a long time, until skyscrapers loomed out of low white clouds. The Loop streets were mounded with snow, but with street signs I had no trouble following Mom's directions. I found the office on the lobby directory board, drank heartily from the water fountain, took a creaky service elevator to an upper floor, knocked fearfully on the closed door. After a few minutes, I knocked again.
After a time I heard footsteps. The door opened a crack. "We're closed," said a balding man in a brown suit. A clock was visible over his shoulder.
"It's not even four, you're open until five o'clock," I said, outraged.
"What do you want?"
"My mom sent a payment," I said.
"In this weather? Your mother sent you out in a blizzard?" said the man, opening the door.
"It wasn't snowing when I left," I said. "It was morning."
"How did you get here?" he asked, hanging his coat on a rack.
"Took the streetcar," I said.
"You found a streetcar running?"
When I explained that I had been forced to walk after leaving the streetcar, the man stared at me. "You walked from Kedzie?" he said.
"I kept hoping the bus would come, but it didn't," I replied, and asked if I could use the bathroom.
"Down the hall. You have a payment?"
Numbed fingers struggled with buttons. It felt hot in the office, and I was flushed and lightheaded. The safety pin was too big for me; finally, I handed him my coat. He counted the cash twice, and I buttoned the receipt into my pocket.
When I came out of the toilet, the man was waiting near the elevator.
"It's snowing again," he said. "How will you get home?"
"I have directions for the bus and streetcar."
"I'll drive you," he said. "Irving Park Road is only a little out my way."
I awoke when he touched my shoulder. "You're home," he said, parking near the corner. "Tell me, why didn't your mother mail the payment?"
"Maybe she was afraid it wouldn't get there on time."
"There's a ten-day grace period," said the man. "It's in our standard contract. She could have sent a money order, it would have been okay."
Who knew the ways of grownups? "My mother must have had a good reason," I said, meaning it but wondering all the same.
I gave Mom the receipt, and she fed me soup and put me to bed. I blamed my blistered feet on the combination of sneakers and galoshes, told no one how far I had walked, or that I had accepted a ride from a stranger.
And from that day forward it was understood that I had earned the right to roam Chicago alone by bus, streetcar or on the El, a privilege enjoyed by no friend or classmate. Armed with new self confidence, I went around the city as I pleased, discovering parks and big buildings and exploring distant neighborhoods that seemed like so many new universes. It wasn't yet manhood, but it was freedom of the sort that opened my mind to the fruits of inquisitiveness, a lifelong gift.
# # #
Copyright © 2001 Marvin J. Wolf
On the morning flight in, I sat next to Irwin, a bulky, rumpled, oversized manufacturer's rep for a line of pharmaceutical machinery. An engaging fellow, he was conversant in Latin and German and bubbled over with baseball lore and astute insights on events social and political. I was headed to a professional symposium and he for some sort of medical convention. He seemed affable enough and this was my first visit to New Orleans, we agreed to meet for dinner. I told him my hotel, the Crescent, but forgot to ask his.
We had exchanged business cards, but after changing clothes and enduring two agonizingly long-winded speakers, by late afternoon I'd mislaid his card. As I grew hungry, I thought about calling a few of the bigger hotels, but then I couldn't remember his last name. It was something vaguely Slavic, perhaps Polish.
It was one of those stultifying late summer days when even the breeze off the river didn't help. I ventured briefly onto my hotel's inner veranda, but the oppressive heat and humidity drove me back inside. Suddenly exhausted from my long trip and a tedious day of note-taking, I retreated to the cool comfort of my room and ordered from room service. By eight, when it was almost dark outside, I was comfortably full, stretched out on the bed watching the Braves throttle the Cubs on cable.
I had almost nodded off when someone knocked softly on my door. For a long moment I considered getting up to answer it. But I knew nobody in town except this Irwin fellow, and I was no longer in the mood for conversation. Had he phoned, I certainly would have answered, but moving seemed like too much trouble. I lay inert and after a few minutes imagined that I heard footsteps moving away from my door.
Half undressed, I fell into an uneasy slumber. I awoke from some ugly dream to what I fancied was a muffled scream down the corridor. Unbolting my door, I cautiously peered in both directions but saw and heard nothing. It was past midnight. I stripped off the rest of my clothes and went back to bed.
I overslept and missed both breakfast and the morning's first workshop. By noon I was feeling punk; one of my infrequent migraines was inbound and my empty stomach had turned sour. In search of seltzer, I ducked into the bar, where a newspaper lay open next to the register. A headline thrust at me:
MIDWEST MAN STABBED IN CITY HOTEL
The hastily-written front page story said that one Irwin Patrinic, 43, a salesman from Moline, Ill., had been found murdered in a ninth-floor room at the Crescent Hotel.
My testicles crawled into my belly. A shiver flashed down my spine: My room was on the ninth floor. I systematically searched each of my pockets yet again; this time I came up with the misplaced card. The machinery merchant was Irwin Z. Patrynic—just one letter different from the name in the paper. It had to be the same man.
Suddenly ill, I hurried to the men's room and knelt before the porcelain, my mind reeling even as my guts tied themselves in knots. Yesterday Irwin was alive. We had cracked wise together about airplane food and the little indignities of traveling coach. He'd mentioned a wife, children, parents. Now he was a corpse: According to the paper, he had been savagely beaten, perhaps tortured, and his throat slit from ear to ear. Was it he who had tapped on my door? Had I answered the door, might I have saved his life?
Wracked with guilt, I returned to the bar and snatched up the newspaper. There was a little more to read: The victim, identified from the contents of his wallet, was not registered at the hotel and the room where he'd been found was that of a Jesuit en route to a mission in the Amazon. The priest's luggage was in the room, but he had not been seen since checking in.
I tried to push this out of my mind and continue with workshops and symposia, but it was all too much. At noon, tottering from the migraine, I retreated to my room, hung out the "Do Not Disturb" sign, threw the deadbolt, took my prescription painkillers, went to bed, and sank into a deep, dreamless sleep.
When I awoke the next day it was well past noon and the events I had come to attend were all but over. I decided to skip the farewell cocktails and fly home at once. I checked out and let the doorman hail me a cab.
The driver was an older man, deferential but overtalkative. "I see you survived the Crescent Hotel," he chirped.
I nodded, unwilling to be drawn in.
"Did you see that priest before he got himself murdered?" he said, persisting.
Not wanting to continue the conversation but unable to stop myself from setting him straight, I answered,
"He wasn't a priest. A machinery salesman from Moline."
"That's what the cops thought at first--didn't you see the TV? Come to find out, the priest in that room had gone by the archdiocese, picked up some money—thousands!—and then disappeared. So they sent somebody down the morgue. That body wasn't no salesman. It was the padre! Whoever killed him, they musta took his cash, then put that salesman guy's wallet in his pocket."
So Patrynic might be alive, I thought, still confused.
We pulled up to the curbside baggage check-in and I hopped out, eager to leave New Orleans. I cleared the TSA checkpoint with no time to spare; my flight had already been called. Hurrying toward my gate, I stumbled and fell to my knees. As I got up I saw, from the corner of my eye, the unmistakable bulk of a man I knew among a group boarding a Brazilian flight. It took me a moment to put it together: black suit, white shirt and Roman collar. A priest—but his arms were too long for the jacket. At the boarding door, Patrynic paused to look over his shoulder. For an instant our glances met. The look on his face made my blood run cold.
I was obliged to recite this story to three different policemen, and then an FBI agent, so of course I missed my flight.
© Marvin J. Wolf
The kitchen door opened and there was Dad, covered with sleet, teeth chattering, lips blue, a murky puddle forming on the clean linoleum beneath his boots, exhausted from hours of wrangling a huge sheet metal sign into place atop a factory roof. After he took a hot bath, Mom mounted the stepladder to the pantry’s top shelf and retrieved a bottle of Four Roses. She cracked the seal, carefully measured half a shot, then mixed it into a steaming cup of tea. Dad stirred in honey, sipped the brew, then set the cup down and handed Mom the empty shotglass. "Straight," he croaked, his voice rough as emery cloth. Mom gave him a look, horror mixed with astonishment, but he held the glass out until she poured. Pinching his nostrils between grease-blackened fingers, he swallowed the whisky, gulped down more tea, and tottered off to bed.
That sort of thing happened no more than twice during my childhood — the only times that I ever saw my father drink hard liquor. Later, he went into the scrap business. Even in the dead of winter he braved the frozen white sheets billowing in from Lake Michigan to prowl Chicago’s streets and alleys, then brought his finds to the junkyard. He’d sit around a glowing pot-bellied stove in the office dickering with old Mr. Rushicoff over prices; he always accepted a grubby tumbler with a splash of slivovitz to seal their bargain. He raised it to his lips — but never did he imbibe. At weddings or bar mitzvahs Dad took only a glass of wine, which he never finished.
The whisky bottles hidden high in our pantry were testimony to my parents' youth, to the hunger of surviving the Depression. Neither could bear to discard anything of value. Every year at Christmas, a few of the janitors, machinists, foremen and purchasing agents from whom Dad bought scrap presented him with a fifth of Four Roses, Seagram's Seven, or some other bargain booze. And every few years, when we moved to another apartment, Dad gave those sealed bottles to neighbors and to the men he hired to help wrestle our furniture onto his truck.
We were not teetotalers. Friday nights, before making the blessing over bread, Mom poured each of us children a thimble-sized cup from a bottle of Manischewitz wine, and after reciting Kiddush, we sipped it. No one ever asked for seconds.
Even when we had visitors, I doubt that it occurred to my parents to offer anything stronger than coffee or soda pop. The one possible exception was Uncle Maeshie, my father's uncle, a fruit peddler who usually arrived for Saturday night dinner reeking of schnapps. Mom always locked the pantry before he arrived.
Yet such aversion to strong drink was rare in our neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, where on scorching summer evenings whole families sat out on porches and stoops drinking beer by the quart. Come winter, many indulged a taste for something harder; as the snow melted during the spring thaw, amber whisky bottles emerged on sidewalks and the narrow strips of weedy earth that passed for lawns.
The neighborhood was also dotted with saloons, including one on the corner of our street. I was forbidden to set foot even on the sidewalk in front of it; when Mom sent me on some errand in that direction, she always reminded me to cross to the other side of the street. This was hardly necessary: I would have gone blocks out of my way to avoid passing within sight of those who idled in front of that tavern, pitching pennies, smoking, and making rude remarks to passers-by.
The youngest of this corps was my special nemesis, young Richie Davis, who could always find a reason to beat me up or some new way to humiliate me. Two or three years my senior, roaring toward puberty, Richie was lean and fair-haired and his clothing always seemed either too small or too big.
Richie haunted the tavern sidewalks, but his father was usually inside it. Once in awhile Mr. Davis, as dark as his son was fair, came to the door to holler for Richie, a slurred shout that ranged far down the block. Less frequently, Richie stuck his head inside to call to his father, who usually responded with curses. I was never sure what this was all about — but Mom knew. One day, under my persistent questioning, she said that it had to do with Mr. Davis, who held no regular job, drinking up all the money that his wife earned by scrubbing toilets in a downtown office building, and from taking in washing.
"That poor woman," was all that Mom would say, shaking her head. "Be glad that your own father doesn't drink."
"Why does Mr. Davis drink?" I asked, curious as ever.
"Why does any man drink?" she replied. "Because they are unhappy with their lives. Because they are too lazy to work and too stupid to know that they are lazy. And always their wives are just as stupid and afraid to leave them," she added.
When Mr. Davis was not in the tavern he was often in Jackson Park, a block to the east, and one of my favorite place. I liked to play Indian. I fashioned snares, laid mock campfires, built bows and arrows from twigs and limbs. Mr. Davis liked to sit under a shady tree chasing whisky with beer until he passed out.
That's what he was doing one summer afternoon when the sky suddenly darkened. Mothers, including mine, shouted for their children.
I scampered home as cold, wind-driven raindrops soaked my clothes and little balls of flying ice stung my neck and arms.
I was halfway up the back porch steps when the whole sky lit up. A gigantic thunderclap filled my ears. It seemed to go on forever. Dogs howled in terror. A strange odor filled my nostrils — and as the echoes died away, I heard the long, sickening sound of timber tearing.
Mr. Davis never knew what hit him. He was a smoking, blackened cinder before the tall tree against which he had been resting split in two and came crashing down.
A few days later something was going on over at the nearby Catholic church: Through my bedroom window I saw Richie Davis, swathed in a new suit far too large for him, being dragged down the street toward St. Gelasius by his mother.
I never saw either of them again, and when I asked Mom what had happened, she pulled a face. "God punished Mr. Davis for his excessive drinking," she said.
I believed that for a long time.
When in early manhood I finally summoned the courage to tempt fate with my first taste of whisky, as it burned its way down my gullet all I could think of was the crash of that lightning bolt and the mingled odors of ozone and the burnt flesh that had been Mr. Davis.
Copyright © 2000 Marvin J. Wolf
FROM Marvin J. Wolf
On this page are true stories, magazine articles, excerpts from books and unpublished works, short fiction, and photographs, each offering a glimpse of my life, work and times. I'll be posting weekly. Your comments welcome. © Marvin J. Wolf. All rights reserved.