CARNEGIE HALL TO STONEWALL

My Father was a bartender in New York City in the 1950’s. He worked in a bar off Central Park South on Seventh Avenue for over a decade and dreamed of one day buying the business, being his own boss and not being the boss’s “slave”. One night, an Irish bookkeeper from a bowling alley in Hoboken, New Jersey showed up with just the right amount of money to go into a 50/50 partnership. Dad would be the worker and Joe the paper pusher. They bought the business and renamed Crimmins Bar, The SOUTHMOOR Cafe. Central Park had been a swamp or a moor, and Central Park South is south of the moor, hence SOUTHMOOR Café. Turns out the Irish Bookkeeper from Hoboken, who happened to know just how much Dad was short for the purchase, was “connected”, and our family found itself in bed with the Mob for the next five years.

The local gangsters started hanging out during the day, in a booth towards the back of the bar, across from the public telephone where they took “book” – bets mostly on horses but any sporting event with odds would do. This was before the lottery, when off-site betting was illegal, and people went to bookmakers to place a bet.

Every Sunday, I would drive into The City with my father; over the Queensboro Bridge, down 59th Street past Bloomingdales and the Copacabana, left onto Fifth Avenue and down to the Plaza Hotel, right onto Central Park South passing the fancy horse drawn carriages and tired looking horses with feedbags brimming over with hay strapped over their mouths, and a final left turn onto Seventh Avenue, where he parked his black Studebaker until four the next morning. I’d spend the morning sweeping, eating maraschino cherries and helping him open up. He’d drop $5’s and $10’s on the floor for me to find. This was my weekly “time with Dad”. Afterwards, I’d go into the alleyway which separated the bar from the Century Theatre, and I’d find exotic and interesting props and stage detritus that was being tossed from the night before. I’d finally go into the back door of the theatre and watch theatrical rehearsals during those first two years, and television production setups in the last three, as the theatre transitioned from Broadway plays to Television productions; from Mary Martin in SOUTH PACIFIC and PETER PAN to Jackie Gleason and Milton Berle.

We were friendly with the theatre’s stage manager, Eddie Bracken, and I remember hanging out with him in the back of the theatre one Sunday matinee while Mary Martin pleaded with the audience to believe in Tinker Bell. Captain Hook had poisoned Tinker Bell and she slowly dies before out eyes. Peter Pan returns to find her dead and knows that if we just believe in magic, believe in forever young, believe in Tinker Bell she’ll come back to life. Martin sat at the apron of the stage in her boyish green tights with so much love and empathy and truth that she had the audience in the palms of her hands. Grown people were weeping for Tinker Bell to come back to life. Handkerchiefs flew from top jacket pockets and hankies from pocketbooks. They believed, they really believed. I remember turning to Eddie and asking, “Why are they all crying, don’t they know it’s not real?” “That’s what the theatre is all about,” he said. To this very day, it’s at least one play every month on date night. If I don’t see live theatre, I feel like I’m missing something, incomplete. It somehow fulfills some inner need in me, to see real people reciting profound thoughts and sharing it simultaneously with hundreds of other people.

I’d leave the bar about noontime when the “goomba’s” came in and occupied their real estate at the back booth. “Goomba”, in my world, was nasty slang for an Italian gangster. I vividly remember Joe Sherman, a fat giant of a man packing a holstered gun over his heart. He could barely get into the booth and had to grab onto the tabletop while he squeezed into the bench. I was between 10 and 14 years old during this period and I would wander downtown from 59th to 42nd Street on my own. The first big stop on my way through Times Square was on 48th Street. It would be about 1PM and I’d watch from outside as Gene Krupa set up on a platform on the top of the bar right in the front window of the Metropole Cafe. He was a drummer’s drummer. A flamboyant mad man with the sticks. He’d sometimes toss those sticks at a distant wall, like a magician throwing knives at the girl on a spinning target. The Metropole is still there, but it’s now a “classy strip -joint”, with curtains so thick you can’t see or even hear anything. After listening to his opening beats, I’d continue cruising down Broadway to 42nd Street, gawking at the XXX-rated movie theater marquees and the knife stores with their big bowie knives and the super-sexy switch blades. When I finished taking in the magic of the lights and the crowds and the sounds, the huge billboards, Mister Peanut Man swinging his arms, the Camel guy blowing cool refreshing smoke, the ribbon of news headlines floating around the oddly fronted Times building; I’d leave the Church of Excess, go underground and take the subway back home to the quiet of Queens. Whenever it came up in school to talk about family life, it never made sense for me to talk about any of it. It just didn’t fit in with any of the other stories that the other kids had. Maybe they all made up their stories, I don’t know. I know I definitely did.

It wasn’t all weird and irregular and I did have an extraordinarily positive experience one Sunday afternoon. It was early on, maybe 1954, I was about to leave when a boozy brunette in a short mink stole ran her fingers through my hair and asked me if I “want to go to a ‘talk of some sort’ around the corner”. She had been given a ticket and didn’t really want to go; it wasn’t her kind of thing. “Sure, I’ll go,” and she gave me the ticket. It was an afternoon television event at the ABC Studio around the block on 58th and Ninth. There were about a dozen people and little ol’ me. It felt in size and shape, like a mini jury. The cameras were ready to roll and out comes this very friendly chubby faced Doctor with boring glasses in a dark conservative suit. It’s Norman Vincent Peale and he’s lecturing on his recently published popular new book, “THE POWER OF POSITIVE THINKING”. I would never be crazy about his overzealous religiosity but the overall theme, I’m sure to this day, had a positive impact on my life. In fact, “Couldn’t be better”, is a refrain, that I wholeheartedly embraced two decades ago and still lead with when asked, “How are you doing?” It’s like Eli Weizer, the Jewish survivor of Hitler’s concentration camps, having a better mental attitude towards his captors than they did towards themselves. It’s accepting the reality of the present moment and being content with it. You can react to the present moment, or you can act with a clear mind and not react. If you can accept the present moment and not get reactive, you can proceed with a calm and peaceful mind and be positive in your thinking and attitude. There is nothing you can do to change the present moment. Accept it and keep your head above the fray or resist and fight your way through life.

My Uncle Arthur was Albert Anastasia’s barber. “Albert”, as my Uncle often referred to him as, was the Gambino family head of the Mob for all of New York City. He’s the guy that they shot in the barber chair two blocks down at the Park Sheraton Hotel, across the street from Carnegie Hall. The day before the “shoot”, a couple of Albert’s boys, came to Arthur and told him to “go to the track and get a ticket for the third race at Belmont”. He came back to the bar and said to my father, “Ernie, I don’t know what’s up, but THEY told me to go to Belmont tomorrow. I’m going.” He did. No questions asked. Billy Crystal and Robert De Niro’s movie, “ANALYZE THIS”, opens with the bloody pictures of the aftermath of what happened during the third race at Belmont. Scorsese ‘s recently released movie, “THE IRISHMAN” portrays the gangsters coming up the stairs of the Park Sheraton from the lower level with little pistols in their hands, passing a floral display and entering a window-lite hotel barbershop. In real life, the two hitmen actually came in the front door of the Park Sheraton with musical instrument bagged tommy guns and marched straight back to the barber shop. The substitute barber for the day stepped back, and they sprayed the place so badly with bullets, destroying all the imported Italian marble along with Albert, that it took them over a year to replace the marble and get the barber shop back in business. The two hit men, with smoking guns, walked back through the lobby to a waiting car and “arrivederci’ed“ into history. They probably tipped the doorman, who held the getaway car at the Hotel entrance, when they came it. The one hit man from the Gallo family recently died in prison, the other one is speculated to have been from the Genovese family and may have passed a few years back.

The side door of the New York Athletic Club was on Seventh Avenue right across the street from the bar. Every major team, or professional boxer, tennis jock, or any money producing athlete was automatically a member of the club. Yankees, Dodgers, Giants,  Knicks, Rangers, and famous players from Micky Mantle to Roger Marris; they all came into the bar at one time or another, and the gangster were waiting. Anything that had odds on it, the mob had their finger in. They’d threaten to break legs if you didn’t cooperate, and that meant to shave points. Not lose the game, just shave points so they could affect the point spread. It’s was all about that little edge, which separates the losers from the winners or the saps from their money.

We made payoffs to the cops and the mob four times a year, every three months. The payoffs were somewhere between $300 and $350 and usually the amount was within $25 of each other. It was price fixing. Both bills, from the cops and the mob, came the very same week each quarter. If you didn’t pay the mob, they broke your legs, if you didn’t pay the cops, they sent in an inspector who’d find the ice machine leaking and shut you down. The mob just gave you the bottom-line amount on a small piece of paper. The cops had so much “chutzpah” that they listed the name, rank and amount for each individual on very formal accounting paper. Decades late, when Frank Serpico went undercover and exposed police corruption, his little book, where he kept track of all the transaction, still had the name, rank and amount for each payment. The corruption was decades in its execution.

While the gangsters took book in the back of the bar and the cops kept the neighborhood safe from uptown ruffians, the wealthy sipped cocktails and flirted with the help. They all attended the concerts and theatrical events at Carnegie Hall, and when somebody with “white gloves” needed something fixed, they knew where to go. After all, they’d be sitting next to each other in the orchestra seats.

I was in the middle of it all – the corruption with the mob, the cops, and the “Richie-Rich” Carnegie Hall crowd. Famous Broadway actors and television personalities, sports heroes, authors, old money, new money, any money, the crème de crème of the ‘good life”. The pinnacle of the excess of the Golden Age of Capitalism, and all the dirt and filth and corruption that accompanied it. It was all just part of growing up; and as with all things that happen in your childhood, it becomes a part of you, an appendage for the rest of your life.

After five years Joe Barrett, the bookkeeper partner disappeared, nobody knew to where. The federal taxes hadn’t been paid for those five tense-filled years and Dad owed more than the place was worth. The mob said they would take care of the tax bill and made him an “offer he couldn’t refuse”.  He sold it to them, and they never paid the Feds, imagine that? The very next day they turned his dream into a “gay bar”. My Father couldn’t believe it, and to his dying day never understood why. He couldn’t figure out why the tough-guy gangsters would want to hang out in a gay bar. With a broken heart leading the way, he slowly deteriorated to an inglorious death in not too many years.

I was very young and never really understood or bothered to try to understand what had happened. I had no idea what a gay bar even meant, other than maybe some clean-cut guys with southern accents hanging out, drinking and dancing. It wasn’t until many years later that I stumbled onto the infamous pamphlet, “GET THE COPS AND THE MOB OUT OF THE GAY BARS” and figured out what was going on and why the mob had turned the SOUTHMOOR Cafe into a gay bar. It finally all made sense.

That was 1958 when I was barely out of Grammar School. Eleven years later, in 1969, the riot at the Stonewall Bar in Greenwich Village took place. By then I was married with two kids, two jobs, night school and barely able to stay awake long enough to finish my papers and get my degree. Stonewall came and went. Just another event in the series of events that made 1969 so unforgettably unforgettable. The anti-war marches, the women’s march, the pig’s head hanging at the front entrance to Hunter College were memorable. Stonewall was a blip in my world, but it was everything to a lot of other people. It took another year to coalesce, but once it did it didn’t stop. I wasn’t there that night, so I can’t recall from personal experience, but I was back there in my father’s bar, and I know first-hand what it’s like living with the oppression and fear that can be instilled. The same scenario that made my father “an offer he couldn’t refuse” led to the butch gal at the back of the Stonewall, refusing the offer she shouldn’t refuse, but did. It took a black girl with “stones”, to turn the Stonewall bar into the symbol for the Gay Liberation Movement.