The other day at the Twin Smoke Shoppe in South Philly where I puff cigars daily, Ralph got to talking about the time years back he used the $100 ‘given’ him to get poked with a prostitute… and instead bought dope. And Teddy got to jabbering about how well he dined while in prison for three years for selling dope.
“Just like in the movie ‘Goodfellas,’” boasted a gnarly Teddy. “We ate like Italians.”
You know, sometimes I feel like Moses – a stranger in a strange land. Even one that I’ve resided happily in the past few years. Ever since I escaped to the Italian region of Philadelphia a few weeks before the Assistant District Attorney finally recognized that my ex-wife’s lips blister lies.
“Lying is like alcoholism,” I explained to the suddenly ameliorating ADA, who adorned an endless array of ill-fitting, polyester pant suits. “She is always recovering.”
“I finally realized that,” she admitted.
“So,” I queried, “why didn’t you at least listen to my side of the story?”
“Because Stephanie said you were crazy.”
“And now you understand why…”
Anyway I tried to explain to Teddy and Ralph and the other Goombas puffing cigars that I seem to have been raised a tad differently than their once under-worldly ambitions. I think they’ve long figured that out. But I asked them anyway:
“Do you know what a Jewish drop-out is?” I asked. Of course they didn’t. Especially since I am about the only Jewish guy they know. “It’s a guy who doesn’t get his Ph.D.”
“Well, now you’re getting a real ‘edikation,’” laughed the round-faced Ralphie.
That’s the way he talks. In ‘philnetics.’ That’s Philadelphia’s version of phonetics. Ralph utters things like ‘gurgle-it’ instead of Google. He’s about 54 and been clean and happily sober and working a good job on the river wharves the last 22 years. He thinks his road to redemption began the night he woke up in a car trunk ‘without any bullet holes.’
Anyway Ralphie, who attends to many AA goodfellas in South Philadelphia, then went on to tell me that back in the days before he got clean and sober a celebrating friend gave him $100 to pay for ‘services’ at a massage parlor. And Ralph said he immediately – “and I mean: IMMEDIATELY!” he insisted — thought about something that he wanted even more than sex.
Really?! It stifles the mind.
Believe me, I never figured Ralph was much of a quick thinker until this moment. That’s when he told me that he gave the girl $10 NOT to do it with him. But to just walk out the door, smile at his friends and say they had a good time.
Then Ralph went out and directly got himself a ‘hit’ with the remaining $90.
Hmm… Now that’s crazy. I mean no Jewish guy ever turns down the rare chance for sex. I’m not kidding. After all, we can get a jug of Manischewitz any time.
“I’m just telling you the way I use to think,’ laughed Ralph as he puffed and smiled and joyously wiggled his feet like a man who now gets to ‘diddle’ every weekend.
I enjoy these guys. They are absolutely genuine. Many of them talk about their escapades with the law and prisons the same way I used to talk about higher college degrees and professional careers.
Indeed, sometimes I feel almost like that other Jewish boy they regularly genuflect to walking among the heathen. And, admittedly, there are times I envy them. Even if it is just a tad. Perhaps because they readily recognized all the bullshit, lies and deceits long before the rest of us got disillusioned. That just like the Panama Papers and Luxembourg tax havens reveal, ‘the rich get divorced and the poor get ethics.’ In other words: The law and justice ain’t the same for all of us.
And neither are the opportunities.
I mean we dutifully recognize that there is larceny in all of our hearts. But indeed some hearts steal much much more. And many of us, such as Walmart workers, get much, much less. Except in court where we get so much more than the too-big-to-fail bank presidents who, along with their ‘derivatives,’ almost sank the entire country.
And to think, as Ralphie put it with some cheekiness, guys were getting 20 years for smoking a joint.
‘Blame War on Drugs Nixon and Just-say-no Reagan,’ I said.
And, meanwhile, it’s not getting any better for us. The rich – the 1 percent – are getting richer skirting the law. All the while, opportunities for the rest of us seem to be diminishing.
Look at me. I worked for 7 different newspapers and news services. Over half of them are dead. Some journalist friends never found other work and they died a thousand deaths. They were mentally crippled. Just like many other folks whose factory jobs were shipped overseas.
And now many of the disenchanted and desiccated are voting for Trump.
I eagerly voted for Obama when he sold us on ‘Hope.’ Hell, after Bush I probably would have voted for most anybody who promised to deprive my ex-wife of oxygen. (And, by the way, last I heard, Stephanie, who is already separated less-than-amicably from her very next husband, has volunteered to become the first artificial heart donor.)
Anyway, now we really want to – and need to – elect somebody to get us back to the business of America… which IS business. And, as The Donald purports, making America great again.
Hmm… You know, I’m beginning to really sound like my dear ol’ boubon sippin’ Pappy. He didn’t mind if one of our 24 Great Danes or German Shepherds bit me. But if they bit the hand that fed them – namely him – he shot them.
Anyway, a few puffs later, Teddy got to chewing about the days when he used to sell ‘anything’ that smelled, tasted and looked like dope. Like the time he ‘discovered’ a few gallons of formaldehyde in a deceased veterinarian’s basement. Sprayed it on some oregano, and other salad vegetables, and went into the business of selling Angel Dust.
But after years of always being ‘20 minutes ahead of the law’ he finally got sentenced to 3 years.
And that’s when he figured he ought to reorganize his life. He soon came to discover that in many ways prison is much like life: It can go hard. Or it can go easy.
For the most part, he learned, all you gotta do is ask. Or don’t make trouble.
“If you asked, and you aren’t a guy who makes trouble, you could serve your time in peace, and get around a lot of things,” explained Teddy. His straight talk and tough but endearing demeanor, is ironically contradicted by his bent back due to a bad knee. “Because the guards and the warden didn’t want to be made to look like fools. You just gotta ask.”
Well, Teddy didn’t just ASK for everything. Sometimes he merely rationalized: ‘What are they going to do to me? I’m already in prison.’
Like the first time he was picked to be the look-out for the food deliveries of contraband like steaks, prosciutto, provolone and bread. This ‘smuggling’ was simply accomplished with garbage bags mysteriously dropped off’ by one of the dumpsters.
After that Teddy was a regular. And for doing a good job was rewarded with a box of his favorite cigars smuggled in twice a month. All he had to do was change the cigar bands with the only cigars sold in the prison canteen.
Only time he ever got mad, he said, was when he worked in the kitchen. And had conjured up some special crab sauce for some of his regular guys. As he was taking it up the their cell block he heard a guard approaching. So he quickly deposited the pot under the bed in the cell of ‘Goodman… a Jewish fellow.’
But of course. Italians crucifying another Jew.
The guard seized it anyway. And Teddy said he practically stormed into the superintendent’s office demanding his sauce back.
When the super excoriated him about it being contraband, Teddy insisted: “I want my sauce back!” And then he made a deal. “If I get it back there will be a hot bowl of it and great Italian bread on your desk. And if you like it, there will be another bowl every time I make it.”
And life was good again.
His goodfellas stories amused us for hours stirring our cigar smoke. But his time ended 13 years ago. Now he labors as a supervisor on housing construction sites. And figures that although he is in his late 50s he will be working to the day he dies. To pay for his family needs. His life needs. And what the government needs and demands.
Teddy smiles now at his memories. So does Ralph. They’re not really complaining. They know they got a second chance. And in many ways they express their appreciation.
But what they don’t seem to appreciate is – like Teddy’s prison guards – to be made to look like a fool. That for their little sins they were made to pay a price while others – especially the rich — reap the rewards. And people die.
“I guess there really isn’t any justice,” shrugged Ralph.
“Yeah,” I said, “there is just-us… voting for a crazy man named Trump…”
And dats yDrewIS on dis penal colony…