Saturday, October 16, 2010

Getting Mobbed Up - The Disappointing Conclusion

Making karaoke singers pay what amounted to protection money before letting them into clubs was the fun part. But I was soon given tasks that weren’t nearly as enjoyable, and had me working 15- and 16-hour days. In the afternoon, I was to go to karaoke bars that hadn’t installed the new South Korean machines that permitted the operator to disable the pitch correction that has been built into all karaoke machines since 2007, and persuade them to replace their existing equipment. The first time they refused, I was to send them intimidating anonymous emails, saying, for instance, “I'd watch my step if I was you, pally.” On second refusal, I was to contact an unseen accomplice at and get him or her to write a scathing review of the place. Of one place, for instance, he or she might write, “This place is awesome except they don’t have any Fleetwood Mac or Abba or Beatles or Eagles.” Of another, he or she might write, “The projection system sucks, so if you don’t know the lyrics by heart, you’re in trouble, because you can’t read them!” If the proprietor in question continued to resist, I was to burn the place to the ground, preferably with him or her inside. This struck me as harsh, but this was the path I’d chosen for myself.

The good news was that I was paid by the hour, and within a couple of weeks was able to afford the sort of casual wear after which I’d long lusted, designed by persons whose surnames ended with vowels. When you look wonderful, you really do feel wonderful, and when you feel wonderful, women, sensing as much, swarm around you, for a reason that isn’t really that difficult to understand if you’ve ever been romantically entangled, as I have, with a zoologist: self-confidence suggests that you will be an avid and capable protector of the young you will produce together.

In any event, I was grabbing a bite to eat at one of the chic new eateries on Maine Street perhaps 10 days ago, apparently both feeling and looking irresistible in my Carlo Buitoni slacks and blazer, when who should slide into the booth opposite me but the of-a-certain-age beauty whose karaoke humiliation I wrote about in an earlier installment. She was wearing a lot of perfume that wasn’t particularly complimentary to the aromas of my lunch, but had also apparently received multiple botox injections recently, and was looking pretty appetizing. She batted her false eyelashes at me and observed that most women secretly love a bastard, her implication — and my inference — being that she regarded my having engineered her humiliation as bastardly. I slipped the restaurant manager a crisp $100 bill to vacate his small, cluttered office for a short while, and we did that which is required to produce young, though it was my hope that her reproductive days were behind her, as I could easily picture her being far too narcissistic and self-absorbed to be a very good mother.

It turned out that she wasn’t as shallow as I’d imagined, though, but much shallower. When we viewed condominiums together, she insisted on a two-bedroom, explaining that I would not be permitted to glimpse her in the morning until she’d gone through her extensive beauty regime, which typically took 150 minutes. I pointed out that I, at my age, am hardly an oil painting the first couple hours after I get up (or the 14 thereafter, for that matter), but she wouldn’t hear of it. I have had more than my fill over the decades of women who won’t hear of things, and so decided not only to cease to “see” her, but to divorce myself from organized crime. I might no longer dress in clothing designed by persons whose surnames ended in vowels, but I would have my self-respect.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Getting Mobbed Up - Part 4

I was told to report to Molly Malone’s, a bar on Maine Street that I had determined lacked a jukebox, but which turned out to have one of the new state-of-the-art karaoke machines with automatic pitch correction. I’d been told to report to the proprietor, the pronunciation of whose name I couldn’t even guess from the way it was spelled. But he was a good sport and said I should just call him Boss, or Declan, whichever I preferred. Declan is Elvis Costello’s original first name, and The Boss is what they call Bruce Springsteen. I have grown fed up with both of them over the years, and so asked if I might address him instead as Seamus, or Aidan. He asked if I were a wise guy. I asked if he meant in the old sense, or in the more recent one, connoting affiliation with organized crime. I admitted that I was naturally mischievous, and had indeed been called a wise guy in the traditional sense, and pointed out that I was taking the job in hope of becoming a wise guy in the Martin Scorsese sense. He wearily massaged the bridge of his nose and told me to remind him not to ask me anything else any time soon. He gave me a can of pepper spray to squirt into the faces of unruly patrons and sent me outside, where people had already begun to queue, or line up, depending on how refined they were.

I checked everyone’s ID that first night, even that of those who would never see 45 again, just so I could ask why they’d chosen Molly’s rather than any of the other karaoke bars in the vicinity. Not one of them didn’t say it was because he or she seemed to sing much better at Molly’s than at other bars. I would then point out that might have something to do with Molly’s system being state-of-the-art, with automatic pitch correction. A few people, who seemed to want to imagine themselves terrific singers, harrumphed at that. Several of the others seemed embarrassed. Whatever their reactions, I mused pointedly that the state-of-the-art system was expensive to maintain. I stamped the left hand of those who had the presence of mind to respond to that by pressing a crisp $20 bill into my palm. The others got stamped on their right hands.

One woman, who looked as though full of botox, with an expensive-looking hairdo and attire unmistakably bought in boutiques, rather than at department stores, was sorely offended. She snapped, “You might be interested to know that I was very, very close to signing with Atlantic Records in 1990, but decided to pursue modeling instead.”

“Well,” I said, thoughtfully, music’s loss was modeling’s gain, I guess.”
She wasn’t appeased. If anything, she was only getting more irate the longer she stood there, with her boyfriend or husband --- who was probably 15 years her junior, with the sort of features that are commonly described as chiseled — looking as though he wished the ground would open and swallow him whole. “It so happens that the last time I came here, and sang Whitney, half the audience was in tears at the end.”

When I said, without smirking, I wouldn’t be surprised if they weren’t in tears again tonight after she sang. She looked at her boyfriend, as though trying to inspire him to brutalize me with his fists, but as regular readers know, I exude the sort of self-confident virility that suppresses other men’s production of testosterone, and all he did was shrug at me, as though to ask, “Women: what are we to do with ‘em?”

Once inside the club, most of those with stamps on their right hands discovered that their sense of pitch was strangely intermittent. For eight bars, they’d be scrupulously in tune. But then there’d be eight bars of horror. The woman who’d given me such a hard time — I’ll call her Ms. Tears-at-the-End — wasn’t that lucky. From the opening bars of “I Will Always Love You,” her singing was like a roomful of North Koreans yanking Styrofoam carelessly from small appliance boxes. She hadn’t even reached the first chorus before people began jumping to their feet and hurrying toward the exit with their hands over their ears. She tried breathing more deeply from her diaphragm, but that only made her louder, a more excruciating. Finally, with only half a dozen people left in the club, all of them grimacing, she burst into tears, and ran from the club herself.

I resisted the temptation to trip her as she passed me, but only barely.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Getting Mobbed Up - Part 3

As I headed with bowed head back to my car after my humiliation at the hands of the loiterers in front of the soul food restaurant, a twerp in a hooded sweatshirt rolled up beside me on his skateboard, and informed me, in a voice unable to decide on a register, that he could arrange a meet between me and a local organized crime kingpin. I looked at him skeptically, and he changed his tune. “Well, maybe not a kingpin, but like a princepin.” I urged him to go play on the freeway. He called after me. “Like you’re doing really good on your own, dude?” I suspect he’d have spelled the two yours identically if given the chance, without an apostrophe, which he’d have saved to pluralize an ordinary noun. But he was right about my having nothing to lose, unless you counted my self-respect, and I’m more than old enough to know that if you go through life trying both to get rich and maintain your self-respect, all you can realistically count on is poverty and self-respect. But just try to get into the First Class section with only the latter!

I gave the skateboard twerp the five benjamins (that is, $100) he demanded, and waited and waited, to the point of nearly concluding that I’d been played for a chump. But then, just as my self-respect was about to decline precipitously as a result of my injudiciousness, I received a text message telling me to be in the allergy relief aisle of the pharmacy sector of the CVC on Route 52 in Fishkill in two hours. I thought it was presumptuous and inconsiderate of them not to ask me if that were convenient for me, but it was probably a moot point.

The appointed hour came and went with no one in the specified place. I tried to amuse myself by comparing the active ingredients in various brands of allergy relief medication. But then, around 135 minutes after I’d received my text message, my friend the skateboard twerp materialized. I surmised I wasn’t supposed to recognize him, as he was now wearing mirror sunglasses and a Jericho Cotchery (of the New York Jets) jersey rather than his earlier hoodie, and sniffling up a storm, though it was November, and there was no pollen in the air. It occurred to me that maybe he had a cat. Addressing me now as “my man,” he said if I were serious about a new career in organized crime, what I needed to look into was karaoke.

Funded by American organized crime interests, South Koreans had developed a method of overriding the digital pitch correction being built into the most recent generation of karaoke machines. Karaoke enthusiasts who’d become accustomed to sounding really good in spite of rotten voices, could, at the click of a mouse, be humiliatingly exposed. Organized crime had contracted with karaoke club doormen throughout the tri-state area to collect “protection” money from vain singers who sought to avoid such humiliation. “It’s like a windfall, my man,” the boy marveled, and you can get in on like the ground floor.” I couldn’t see a downside, but he took pains to make me aware that there was one. Only the week before, down in Hammonton, New Jersey, one of the mob’s doormen had been beaten comatose by the husband of a woman whose version of Christina Aguilera’s "Beautiful" had, according to the nightlife column in the weekly Hammonton Herald, made everyone in Jack’s Hi-Lo Room “long for temporary deafness.”

When I told him I’d think it over and get back to him, he smirked and said, in view of how much I now knew, I was either in or dead. It occurred to me I’d been foolish to expect organized criminals to be gracious and accommodating.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Getting Mobbed Up - Part 2

I thought maybe it made more sense to try to get mobbed up via what I’d heard called the numbers game in some movies, and the policy racket in others. I headed down to one of Maine Street’s two most popular soul food restaurants, in front of which a little mob of unemployed middleaged persons of the sort I thought likely suspects could commonly be observed loitering in fanciful headwear and facial hair, smoking cigarettes and affectionately insulting each other in voices that too many cigarettes had made raspy.

I wasn’t sure how I should approach them. The only time in my life I ever addressed a black man as bro, steam fairly came out of his nose he was so furious. He was about my own age. We’d both had our eye on a particular parking place in Golden Gate Park, and I, believing that he’d seen it first, called to him, “It’s yours, bro.” What he seemed to have heard, though, was, “If only there were some way to repeal the Emancipation Proclamation.”

The fellows in front of the soul food restaurant were all right around my old age, or younger, so I didn’t think they’d be able to feel patronized unless they really put their backs into it, but I didn’t feel I should take a chance with bro. On the other hand, if I addressed them collectively as “gentlemen,” I thought they’d either think me a high school PE teacher on the lam, or a dickhead. “Guys” wouldn’t work, and “fellas” felt pretty lame too.

And once I figured out how to address them, what would I do if any of them who wanted to shake hands? If I offered them my own grabber traditionally, with the fingers at a 30-degree angle to the ground and my thumb at 90 degrees, would they think I was from the FBI, or roll their eyes at my lack of cool? If I went instead for the classic fingers-skyward/thumb pointed back at myself soul grasp, would they react as though I’d addressed them as bro? If not, should I curl my fingers to hook their own curled fingers after we’d interlocked thumbs? I felt uncomfortably as though back in high school, trying desperately to figure out a way to make my lust known to a pretty girl in such as way as make her neither snicker at me nor hit me over the head with her looseleaf binder.

In the end, after extensive hesitation, I realized that those who hesitate are lost, took a deep breath, and just bounded into their midst, blurting, “How’s everybody doing this afternoon?”

The one in the bedraggled Mets cap turned away in disgust. The one in the dingy captain’s cap arched his eyebrows at me censoriously, sipped deeply from whatever he had in his brown paper sack, and did the same. The one in the do-rag spat in the general direction of my feet, and then arched his own eyebrows at me, as though to ask, “You got a problem with somebody nearly spitting on your feet, motherfucker?” But the guy in the straw fedora and Find the Cure T-shirt said, “Can’t complain.” His companion, a desiccated-looking old-timer with a space between his teeth through which you could have pushed a mandarin orange, said, “Shit, I sure as hell can,” and laughed the brittle, rattly laugh of someone who didn’t have years of laughter to look forward to.

When I told them I was interested in playing the numbers, the one in the do-rag spat again, closer to my feet this time, and the one with apparent emphysema wheezed incredulously. His pal, in the straw fedora, shook his head and said, “Shit.” Between them, they'd used four syllables to say it twice. “Ain’t nobody played the numbers in this town since before Rodney King, Jack.”

[Many of my books are now available for download from Amazon. They include The Total Babe & Other Wine Country Yarns, Lentils on the Moon (aka A Message From Jesus in Braille, aka A History of the Jews in the Hudson Valley), Self-Loathing: An Owner's Manual, Third World USA, The Mona Lisa's Brother, and, for baseball nuts, Foul Balls and Alpha Males. ]

Monday, October 11, 2010

Getting Mobbed Up - Part 1

As you know, I’ve now reached the point at which I think I may well have earned the last dollar I may ever earn as an actual employee. Because I eat well and exercise diligently and have both an irrepressibly positive outlook and a small army of close friends, though, I may live 20 more years. So it occurred to me that I’d better think of another way to earn a few bucks.

My first idea, of course, was the sale of some of my organs. I seemed to remember years ago reading about someone who made a bundle selling his kidneys on eBay, but they’ve apparently cracked down in the interim, because my little advertisement hadn’t been up for five minutes before I received an email telling me that I should stop trying to friend people I don’t actually know. Or maybe that message was from the good folks at Facebook. In any event, my advertisement never appeared on line, and I had to come up with an alternative idea.

I decided to get mobbed up, to see if organized crime was hiring in my neck of the woods. As you can well imagine, though, there’s no listing in the local phonebook for neither Cosa Nostra, Our Thing, or even the Mexican Mafia. Nor, to my knowledge, is there even a corner on which streetwalkers stand, with some difficulty, in impractical footwear and scandalous attire.

I remember that in the old days, the mob was said to control the country’s jukeboxes. Damned, though, if I could find a single jukebox on all of Maine Street, or on Vermonte Street, just to its north, or Newe Hampshire Street, on its other side. And you’re quite right to wonder if I’m ever going to stop telling that particular joke, which in turn was inspired by the sublime Nick Lowe’s entitling a late-70s EP of his Bowi in response to David Bowie entitling his famous album Low. The closest I came to a jukebox was a couple of teenagers with iPods, but they both assured me that they’d programmed them themselves, without any help from racketeer-influenced crime organizations.

Then, just by chance, I happened to need to use the restroom, and quickly, just as I passed the Yankee Clipper Diner on the southwest corner of Maine and Fishkill Avenue. I had never been in because the idea of spending $14.95 for a main course at a diner goes against my grain. I ducked in, prepared to buy some chewing gum or something if they waved a Restrooms for Customers Only sign at me, attended to my urgent personal business, and was delighted to notice that they have a jukebox — one loaded, as luck would have it, with recordings by Al Martino, Al di Meola, Tony Bennett, Connie Francis, Frank Sinatra, The Four Seasons, the Young Rascals, Luciano Pavarotti, Aerosmith, Bon Jovi, and other notable Italian or Italian-American singers. I sat down and ordered a cup of coffee. My server, who I think was Puerto Rican, and who had a grapefruit's complexion, said, “Oh, a whole cup of coffee? Can I bring you a glass of tap water with that?” I could understand his disappointment; the tip he was going to get on my order was hardly enough to warrant his limping (an old soccer injury, I guessed) across the restaurant to where the java was percolating, but it wasn’t I who’d neglected to institute a minimum-order policy in the restaurant.

A swarthy Middle Easterner who introduced himself as “the boss” came over and asked why I was busting their balls. I couldn’t place his accent, but I recognized the ball-busting thing from The Sopranos and other programs about blue collar life on the East Coast. He had some sort of small jewel in one of his two front teeth. I assured him it wasn’t my intention to cause trouble, but it seemed to fall on deaf ears. He said he was lucky he didn’t throw the coffee in my goddamned face, and said I had to a count of 10 before he got the baseball bat he kept in the kitchen and beat me senseless. It occurred to me to try to ascertain how quickly he intended to count, but something told me that wasn’t such a good idea. I got up and said, “Thanks so much for your hospitality.” He frowned and said, “But we ain’t been hospital, or whatever the word is.” I told him I’d been speaking ironically, and got out unscalded and unbludgeoned, if only barely.