Thursday, October 14, 2010
A Baker's Dozen
By Richard E. Noble
This story has been published twice. This is one short story from my book of short stories, "A Baker's Dozen." You can order a copy of this book by simply clicking on the "A Baker's Dozen" link at the right on this page. Thanks.
Cain and Bernard’s
We stumbled into Cain and Bernard's early – me and Big Jim. Big Jim was not called Big Jim because of his extraordinary height but because of his phenomenal girth. He was an enormous little man who was almost as high off the floor standing up as he was lying down – which was not so unusual a happenstance. He was a good man – old enough to be my father and I respected and admired him in just such a fashion.
A wide shaft of sunlight coming over the mill-top across the street – Broadway – struggled through the colorful, flashing neon beer lights and the soot encrusted window above the stained curtain. It illuminated an infinity of dust particles which represented the least of the health hazards composing the hundred year old nostalgic tradition of good old Cain and Bernard's – the neighborhood mill worker’s retreat.
Cain and Bernard's was even at this modern date one of the last places on earth where a workingman could get a shot of Coronet or Seagram's 7 and a beer for fifty cents. And that is important because who wants to be carrying home with him at the end of a long day – and night – a pocketful of damn nickels and dimes. My god, what a pain in the ass.
This was the third morning in a row that Big Jim had dragged me over here. We were supposed to be working on my new shop. I was opening a small specialty butcher shop in my old neighborhood. It was a pretty big deal to me. No one in the family had ever been successfully self-employed – as far as I knew. Supposedly, I had a grandfather on my mother's side who had a not-so-successful cobbler shop back in the Depression days. My father talked all through my early childhood about that big break that was going to come his way one day. But it never happened. When he died he was working as a gas station assistant manager. The gas station only had two employees – my father and his boss, the manager. Nevertheless, my dad was quite proud of that achievement. To be honest at the age of twelve or thirteen, I thought it was quite an achievement too.
Big Jim was a Master Plumber. He was the dad of one of my closest childhood buddies. Big Jim had been the "main man" on many huge construction projects. He knew his plumbing. But at this stage of the game he was old, retired and, shall we say, overly celebratory.
In my neighborhood everybody was inclined to alcohol. I drank considerably myself. I had been drinking on the sly since the age of twelve. I never thought of it as a problem. It went hand in hand with cigarette smoking, swearing and hanging out. I started that bad smoking habit at about that same age I started drinking.
I had gotten Jim out of bed very early, about 7 a.m. This was per the advice of Big Jim's son, "... and whatever you do, don't take the old man for an eye-opener. Take him directly to the job site, or it is over."
That was good advice, but it wasn't easy. It wasn't easy because of two reasons … one being Jim and the other being me.
My problem was respect. I had always had a great respect and admiration for the heroes of my neighborhood community. Just as I respected my friends and pals who hung out on the various street corners, I respected their moms and dads. They were the heroes who had rescued us in our disputes. They had stood up for us to the other neighbors, to the bullies from across the way, or from adults who were so inclined and to the cops and whoever. On top of that, when you had a guy like Big Jim who was a boss and a "Master" plumber and who was well known in the "professional" working community, how could a kid like me be telling this man what to do?
Jim would say: "Dickey boy, I'm a little shaky this morning. I just need a little eye-opener and something to steady these trembles. I promise you Laddie we'll get this job done today, before the afternoon is done."
What could I say?
We had been sitting on these same two barstools now for the last three days, from 7 in the morning until nearly 10 o'clock each night. We had been living on a diet of boiled eggs and pickled pigs feet while snacking on cashews, Slim Jims and Granite State potato chips. I had never been so constantly and unremittingly drunk in my entire career, not to mention the halitosis and gas that would kill a stray cat at one hundred yards. Even belching was self-abusive.
How could an intelligent, urbane man of letters like myself do this, you are probably asking yourself. Well that is a good question. And to be truthful it was because of my innate intellectualism that I was able to get caught up in this scenario.
I was the proud graduate of a local junior collage. I had been studying; psychology, sociology, philosophy, history, creative writing and dabbling in genealogy. This barroom experience fit in perfectly with all of my previous studies. So you might say that this was all research for my eventual thesis.
Jim was, of course, a psychological as well as sociological study and a challenge. The challenge was how was I going to finesse Jim down to my shop – all the while maintaining the proper degree of respect and formality, without violating our respective status within the class structure. This was deep.
Jim, there is no doubt, represented a father figure to me. I loved and respected my father. If he had lived I would have liked nothing better than to have his respect and camaraderie and been able to sit on a barstool next to him at a historically significant establishment like Cain and Bernard's. This was significant. If Jim were my father this experience would definitely have been a "right of passage." This was big, I’m telling you! Big stuff.
Then there is what has since been named the "Hey Norm" syndrome from the TV series Cheers. "You want to go to that place where everyone knows your name." Oh yes.
Now on the first day at Cain and Bernard's, no one knew who the hell I was. But by the end of that first day, I was a celebrity.
It went like this.
"Hey Big Jim!" a burly tradesman type would bellow. "You're up bright and early this morning. What the hell you up to?"
"That's good! That's very good. A man has to keep busy. What you working on?"
"I'm working on the boy here's butcher shop. You know Richard here, don’t-cha?"
"I don't think that I have ever had the pleasure."
"Oh sure you do. You knew Ernie Noble didn't-cha."
"Well, of course, I knew Ernie Noble. I knew his grandfather too. He was my foreman at the old Arlington Mill for nearly twenty years. A hell of a guy he was too; let me tell you."
"That's right! That's right. Well this here is Ernie's youngest boy. He's a good buddy of my youngest son, Jackie."
"Is that right? Well I'll be damned," the man says extending his large meaty hand to me across the front of Big Jim along the bar rail. "It certainly is a pleasure. I knew your dad well. Didn't he marry Gertrude O'Mally, Jimmy?"
"No, no no no. O'Rouke married Gertrude O'Mally. You remember Timmy O'Rouke?"
"Of course, of course! Then who was it that Ernie Noble married? What is your mother's maiden name, Richie?" the tradesman asks, leaning forward over the bar and directing his question and intense bright blue, but somewhat bloodshot, eyes directly to me.
"My mother's maiden name was Mary Essick."
"Oh my god! My god, my god, my god! You are not going to believe this Richie, but I used to date one of your mother's sisters. Her name was Anna. You have an aunt named Anna don't-cha?"
"Yes I do."
"Oh my god, my god, my god. Can you believe it Jim?" Jim laughs uproariously as if we had all just been struck with some sort of divine insight.
"Well, I used to date one of his father's sisters," the bald headed bartender interrupts. "Your dad was Ernie right?"
"Well then he had a brother Vinnie and another David, did he not?"
"And they had a number of sisters: Dorothy, Ruth, Betty, and Carrie. Am I right?" the bartender asked as if he had just recited by heart the entire Gettysburg Address.
"You are absolutely right," I acknowledged as if he had just won the 64,000 Dollar Question. Everyone roared with laughter.
"Well I dated Ruthie. She was a beautiful girl let me tell you."
"Oh yes, I remember her," says the tradesman with a sparkle in his eye.
It was but seven o'clock in the morning and already I was in the middle of a "good" time.
This type conversation would go on and on until we had gone through all of my aunts and uncles and a myriad of cousins, first, second and third. We followed the intermarrying from street to street and then block to block. It was the most amazing thing I had ever witnessed. I really didn't know if all of the genealogical meandering were accurate or not, but they did. God forbid if somebody had somebody marrying the wrong sister.
And then somebody new would stumble in through the front door, letting in a flash of light that was nearly blinding. Everyone would rush a palm to their forehead to shade their eyes and the whole thing would start over from scratch.
"You know who this boy is? Why it's Ernie Noble's youngest!"
"You don't mean "the" Ernie Noble who sailed half way around the world with me during the war, do you?"
"The very one!"
"Oh my god, my god, my god, my god. Who would ever have believed that someday I would be right here in Cain and Bernard's with the youngest son of Ernie Noble! This is an honor and a pleasure lad, let me tell you. Did you know that I once dated your mother's sister before she married that bus driver?"
By the end of that first day I was beginning to wonder about the moral character of my mother and all my aunts. Was there anybody in this town who hadn't dated one of them? My God, my god, my god!
On the second morning when Jim said that he needed a little eye-opener, I was in total agreement. I felt like a full bucket of week old garbage and all the toothpaste and mouthwash in the world couldn't take away the pickled pig’s feet and boiled eggs that were still fighting for their life in my stomach. I don't think that those type foods ever digest, they just ferment. Whatever was happening in my small and large intestines was beyond my colon's capacity. The occasional eruptions caused me to vacate wherever it was that I happened to be at that moment. I couldn't imagine going through the rest of my day with nothing better than this to look forward to.
So an eye-opener at Cain and Bernard's it was, but just one, damnit!
I almost had Jim ready to leave when he suggested that we both had better get something onto our stomachs before we got into all this work we had ahead of us. It sounded great to me. I anticipated a platter full of scrambled eggs with a mound of bacon and some fried potatoes. But the next thing that I knew I was swallowing two raw eggs that were in the bottom of a short beer glass which had been disguised with several dashes of tobacco sauce and following them down with a double shot of Coronet Brandy. Next we sat quietly sipping on a small glass of tomato juice while nipping at a water glass filled with vodka … a Cain and Bernard's breakfast special.
Believe it or not I was feeling much better.
When the alarm rang at six o'clock on that third day, I began to wonder how anybody could continue to live in this condition. An even bigger question was why would anyone want to live in this condition! I felt very, very bad, extremely poor. My hands were shaking, my whole body was jittery, my stomach was queasy, and my bowels were out of control. I could not estimate when they grumbled whether this was merely an expression of discontent or a serious accusation. But I was a good Catholic, trained and hardened by the Stations of the Cross to understand, tolerate and endure suffering. I would get Jim up this third morning and we would be "plumbing" at the future Noble's Butcher Shop and Deli – first in a future chain of J. C. Penny type individual butcher shop franchises all over America. This would be just the start, if I could ever get it started.
By three o'clock that afternoon I sat steering down at the napkin on the bar in front of me. How could a human being survive on a diet of pickled fat? Who had invented pickled fat? It was a great idea though. Put a jar of pickled fat on the counter go away for a hundred years, come back, open up the jar and eat lunch. A bag of potato chips and a mound of pickled fat and what more could a damn alcoholic ask for? The pickled pig’s knuckles had more meat than the actual pickled pig’s foot. And it was a damn pig's foot, there was no mistaking that. They weren't just being cute calling it a pickled pig's foot. It was a foot all right, hoof, toenails and all.
I had come to the conclusion that Big Jim and these other men actually lived here at Cain and Bernard's. And Mr. Cain or Bernard, or whoever this bald headed guy was, lived here also. Some of them would actually take sleep breaks at the bar … or at a booth, or in a corner on the floor. If one of the regulars didn't show up one morning there was a real concern among the other members of the fraternity.
Friday was the biggest day of the week. That was when Gussie Royle came in. Gussie Royle was the Coronet Brandy and Seagram’s 7 salesman. All the while that he waited at the end of the bar for Mr. Cain to get his liquor order together, he bought everybody drinks.
Gussie looked like W. C. Fields, nose and all. He was extremely polite and always jovial. Everybody loved him. At one time or another every one of the patrons would migrate over to his side, throw an arm over Mr. Royle's shoulder and congratulate him for something. It didn't matter what it was. The greeting would always end with a roar of laughter and a slap on Gussie's back. I thought to myself at the time, if a man had an automobile, he could follow Gussie Royle from bar to bar and be drunk for free for the rest of his life. Certainly when Mr. Royle came into Cain and Bernard's every Friday and it was free drinks for an hour or so, this was a touch of Irish Paradise. Could heaven, if it really existed, be any grander than this?
The next day was Saturday and of course Big Jim being a strong union man, he didn't work on weekends. So everything was off until Monday.
When I told my buddy Jack, Jim's youngest, about the trouble that I was having with his dad, he came up with the perfect solution.
That Monday when I got Jim up off the floor of his bedroom where he had his three mattresses stacked – Jim was too big for any bed and after he had his two inch thick pancake and we were in the car he said, "Dickey boy, I swear to god, this morning it will be just one little eye-opener. No all day affair. One quickie and you and I are out of there and onto this job. Today we are going to do it, son." I reached under the seat and pulled out two bottles, one Coronet and one Seagram’s.
"We will have our eye-opener down at Noble's future butcher shop," I told him with a big grin.
Jim sat there momentarily in shock. His eyes darted back and forth between the booze bottles and me. I had thrown him a pitch that he hadn't expected.
"But Dickey boy, there’s one thing wrong," Jimmy said with a difficult, not-defeated-just-yet smirk.
"What's that Jim?"
"You got no beer chaser. A shot of Coronet Brandy without a beer chaser is like a donut without a cup of coffee; it's like eggs without bacon; it's like corned beef without cabbage."
"Don't worry Jimmy boy; I've got it all covered. I've got a whole case of Holihan’s sitting in a cooler full of ice right down the shop. We have one eye-opener and a short glass of Holihan’s and we start plumbing."
Jim sat in silence. He was not terribly happy about this course of events. I wish that I could tell you that I had thought up the Holihan’s but it was my buddy Jack who had warned me about what his father would probably say and how I should anticipate.
By eight o'clock that morning we were working. We were drilling holes in the old hardwood floor and screwing things here and there. We were bending copper pipe with a blow torch and sweating joints with melted lead. It felt great. I don't know which made me happier, getting my shop started or outsmarting Big Jim. You know if you aspire to be a businessman you have to learn how to outsmart people. That's a part of it. I was learning.
At one point Big Jim was lying on his belly on the floor attempting to sweat a joint or something when he says to me, his temporary apprentice, "Dickey boy, there's two ways we can do this. We can do it the right way or we can do it the wrong way. The right way is going to take too much damn time and effort and the wrong way will have us out of here in no time flat. So screw 'em; we'll do it the wrong way."
"But Jim when you say "screw 'em," the "them" that you are screwing in this particular case is me. I'm paying for this. I'm the boss and the apprentice in this case. And if I may have a vote on this, I would rather we do it the right way than screw myself."
Jim, who when lying on his stomach, resembled a giant beach ball rolling about precariously on its axis as opposed to a pile of loose material in a sprawling sack, rolled onto his back and looked up at me with those little blue leprechaun eyes. He thought that what I had said was very funny and he began bouncing with joy. "So you're the boss here," he said. "We'll then we can't be screwin' the boss on this job, can we?"
"Not a good idea," I said laughing along. "No, no ... that's not a good idea."
When me and Big Jim had plumbed all the sinks and washbasins and sweated all the copper tubing on the Freon lines between the walk-in cooler, the meat cases and the compressors downstairs, I mentioned to Jim my need of an experienced electrician to hook up this old “warehouse” and make it look like a modern butcher shop as opposed to a 700 sq. ft. walk-in closet. He said, "Don't worry about a thing Dickey boy. I've got just the man for the job. I'll tell him to drop by and talk to you."
It was then that I met Adolph "the one-eyed Dutchman." Adolpf was a certified, card carrying retired member of the electrician's Local 713. He did most of his drinking at the Builders and Trade Club which was just a few doors down from Cain and Bernard's.
The Dutchman was pretty much Big Jim all over again. But I knew he was a Master Electrician by the way he would just fearlessly wet his fingers and touch the live circuits to see if they had "juice." A guy had to know what he was doing to get away with that. For the most part the Dutchman had been successful. He had a few twitches and an uncontrollable thirty second shrug, but other than that and, of course, the two "dead" fingers on his right hand, he was good to go.
But with the innate, natural wisdom of a "corner" kid I was finally able to capture the one eyed Dutchman and get him to perform a little electric-ing. He cost me a bit more than Big Jim had cost me. He was a little trickier. To tell you the truth I think that he and Jim had compared notes before Jim sent him over. He was on to me from the start. But eventually I was writing him his last check, most of which was for parts, he claimed with a wink. "You know that I would never screw the son of a son of the old neighborhood."
Of course, I knew that. Why all these people loved me. They were like "family." I'll tell you about my family some other time.
So the pluming and the electric were done. There were a few minor problems though. For example, if I entered the shop when it was dark outside, I had to carry a flashlight with me. You see the switch that turned on the lights in the main room was not the switch that was beside the entrance door. The switch by the entrance door turned the light on in the bathroom in the back. Conversely, the switch in the bathroom in the back turned the light on in the main room. I could tell you why it was like that but it would be difficult for any of you to grasp … seeing how most of you probably don't know much about "electric."
Several of the knobs on the sinks were reversed, the hot being the cold and the cold being the hot. And one or two of them turned counter clockwise as opposed to the usual and traditional clockwise, but nothing all that important.
You know though, to become a successful businessman you have to learn to overcome obstacles and deal with the "laboring" mentality. So I always figured that as long as I learned something from all of these experiences I was on the road to success.
In this case, I learned that pickled eggs and pigs feet can be a lethal combination. I learned that a drunk at rest tends to remain at rest and a drunk in motion can be painful. I learned that there are certain types of liqueur that "bite" and those types that don't. Coronet Brandy, for example, "bites" whereas Chevas Regal is as smooth as a baby's ass. This of course makes Coronet Brandy the better buy because when you're going to pay good workingman money for something you want to be able to taste it. My god if "smooth" is what you want, have a glass of milk!