A Ticket to the Boneyard Page 1

New York had a cold snap that year right around the time of the World Series. Oakland and the Dodgers were in it, so our weather didn't affect the outcome. The Dodgers surprised everybody and won it in five, with Kirk Gibson and Hershiser providing the heroics. The Mets, who'd led their division since Opening Day, were in it through seven playoff games. They had the power and the pitching, but the Dodgers had something more. Whatever it was, it carried them all the way.

I watched one of the games at a friend's apartment and another at a saloon called Grogan's Open House and the rest in my hotel room. The weather stayed cold through the end of October and there were speculative stories in the papers about long hard winters. On the local news shows, reporters took camera crews to farms in Ulster County and got rustics to point out the thick coats on the livestock and the woolly fur on the caterpillars. Then the first week of November Indian summer came along and people were out on the streets in their shirtsleeves.

It was football season, but the New York teams weren't showing much. Cincinnati and Buffalo and the Bears were shaping up as the power in the NFL, and the best Giants linebacker since Sam Huff drew a thirty-day suspension for substance abuse, which was the current euphemism for cocaine. The first time this had happened he'd told reporters that he had learned a valuable lesson. This time he declined all interviews.

I kept busy and enjoyed the warm weather. I was doing some per diem work for a detective agency, an outfit called Reliable Investigations with offices in the Flatiron Building at Twenty-third and Broadway. Their clients ran heavily to attorneys representing plaintiffs in negligence suits, and my work consisted largely of tracing potential witnesses and getting preliminary statements from them. I didn't like it much, but it would look good on paper if I decided to get myself properly credentialed as a licensed private investigator. I wasn't sure that I wanted to do this, but I wasn't sure that I didn't, and in the meantime I could keep busy and earn a hundred dollars a day.

I was between relationships. I guess that's what they call it. I had been keeping company for a while with a woman named Jan Keane, and that had ended some time ago. I wasn't certain it was done forever, but it was done for now, and the little dating I'd done since had led nowhere. Most evenings I went to AA meetings, and afterward I generally hung out with friends from the program until it was time to go home and to bed. Sometimes, perversely, I went and hung out in a saloon instead, drinking Coke or coffee or soda water. That's not recommended, and I knew that, but I did it anyway.

Then, on a Tuesday night about ten days into the warm weather, the god who plays pinball with my world turned a shoulder to the machine and lurched into it. And the Tilt sign came on, bright and clear.

I had spent most of the day finding and interviewing a ferret-faced little man named Neudorf, who had presumably witnessed a collision involving a Radio Shack delivery van and a bicycle. Reliable had been retained by the bicyclist's attorney, and Neudorf was supposed to be able to testify that the van's driver had thrown open the door of his vehicle in such a manner that the bicyclist could not avoid running right into it.

Our client was one of those ambulance chasers who advertise on television, and he made his money on volume. His case looked solid enough, with or without Neudorf's testimony, and it figured to be settled out of court, but in the meantime everybody had to go through the motions. I was getting a hundred dollars a day for my part in the dance, and Neudorf was trying to find out what he could get for his. "I dunno," he kept saying. "You spend a couple days in court, you got your expenses, you got your loss of income, and you wanna do the right thing but how can you afford to do it, you know what I mean?"

I knew what he meant. I knew, too, that his testimony was worth nothing if we paid him for it and not much more than that if he wasn't well motivated to supply it. I let him think he'd get paid off under the table when he testified in court, and meanwhile I got his signature on a strong preliminary statement that might help our client get the case settled.

I didn't really care how the case was resolved. Both parties looked to be at fault. Neither one had been paying sufficient attention. It cost the van a door, and it cost the girl on the bicycle a broken arm and two broken teeth. She deserved to get something out of it, if not the three million dollars her lawyer was asking for. As far as that went, maybe Neudorf deserved something, too. Expert witnesses in civil and criminal proceedings get paid all the time- psychiatrists and forensics experts, lining up on one side or the other and contradicting the experts on the other side. Why not pay eyewitnesses, too? Why not pay everybody?

I wrapped up Neudorf around three, went back to Reliable's offices and typed up my report. AA Intergroup has its offices in the Flatiron Building, so I stopped on my way out and answered phones for an hour. People call there all the time, out-of-town visitors looking for a meeting, drunks who are beginning to suspect that something may not be working for them, and people coming off a bender and looking for help to get into a detox or rehab. There are callers, too, who are just trying to stay sober a day at a time and need someone to talk to. Volunteers work the phones. It's not dramatic, like the 911 command center at Police Plaza or the hotline at Suicide Prevention League, but it's service and it keeps you sober. I don't think anybody ever got drunk while he was doing it.

I ate dinner at a Thai place on Broadway, and at six-thirty I met a fellow named Richie Gelman at a Columbus Circle coffee shop. We sat over cups of coffee for ten minutes before a woman named Toni rushed in, apologizing for having lost track of the time. We went down into the subway and took a couple of trains, the second one a BMT line that let us off at Jamaica Avenue and 121st Street. That's a good ways out in Queens, in a neighborhood called Richmond Hill. We asked directions at a drugstore and walked half a dozen blocks to a Lutheran church. In the large basement room there were forty or fifty chairs set up, and some tables, and a lectern for the speaker. There were two large urns, one with coffee and the other with hot water for tea or instant decaf. There was a plate of oatmeal cookies with raisins, and there was a table of literature.

There are two basic types of AA meetings in the New York area. At the discussion meetings, a single speaker talks for twenty minutes or so, and then the meeting is open for general discussion. At speaker meetings, two or three speakers tell their stories, and that takes the entire hour. This particular group in Richmond Hill held speaker meetings on Tuesday nights, and this particular Tuesday we were the speakers. Groups all over the city send members to speak at other groups; otherwise we'd hear the same people telling the same stories all the time, and the whole thing would be even more boring than it already is.

Actually it's pretty interesting a fair percentage of the time, and sometimes it's better than a night out at a comedy club. When you speak at an AA meeting you're supposed to tell what your life used to be like, what happened, and what it's like now. Not surprisingly, a lot of the stories are pretty grim- people don't generally decide to quit drinking because they've been hurting their sides laughing all the time. Still, the grimmest stories come out funny some of the time, and that's how it went that night in Richmond Hill.

Toni went first. She'd been married for a time to a compulsive gambler, and she told how he had lost her in a poker game and won her back several months later. It was a story I'd heard before, but it was especially funny the way she told it this time. She got laughs all through her talk, and I guess her mood was infectious, because I followed her and found myself telling stories from my days on the job, first as a patrolman and then as a detective. I was coming up with things I hadn't even thought of in years, and they were coming out funny.

Then Richie finished out the hour. He'd run his own public-relations firm through years of blackout drinking, and some of his stories were wonderful. For years he had his first drink of the day every morning in a Chinese luncheonette on Bayard Street. "I got off the subway, put a five-dollar bill on the counter, drank a double scotch neat, got back on the subway and rode to my office. I never said a word to them and they never said a word to me. I knew I was safe there, because what the hell did they know? And, more important, who would they tell?"

We had coffee and cookies afterward and one of the members gave us a lift to the subway. We rode back into Manhattan and uptown to Columbus Circle. It was past eleven by the time we got there, and Toni said she was hungry and asked if anybody wanted to get something to eat.

Richie begged off, saying he was tired and wanted to make an early night of it. I suggested the Flame, a coffee shop where a lot of the crowd from our home group generally winds up after a meeting.

"I think I'd like something a little more upscale," she said. "And more substantial. I missed dinner. I had a couple of cookies at the meeting, but aside from that I haven't eaten anything since lunch. Do you know a place called Armstrong's?"

I had to laugh, and she asked me what was so funny. "I used to live there," I said. "Before I got sober. The place used to be on Ninth Avenue between Fifty-seventh and Fifty-eighth, which put it right around the corner from my hotel. I ate there, I drank there, I cashed checks there, I ran a tab there, I met clients there, Jesus, I did everything but sleep there. I probably did that, too, come to think of it."

"And now you don't go there anymore."

"I've tended to avoid it."

"Well, we can go someplace else. I didn't live around here when I was drinking so I just think of the place as a restaurant."

"We can go there."

"Are you sure?"

"Why not?''

The new Armstrong's is a block west, at Fifty-seventh and Tenth. We took a table along the wall and I looked around while Toni made a pilgrimage to the ladies' room. Jimmy wasn't around, and there was no one in the joint I recognized, neither employees nor customers. The menu was more elaborate than it used to be, but the same sort of dishes were featured, and I recognized some of the photos and artwork on the walls. The general feel of the place had been upgraded and yuppified a notch, and the overall effect was more fern bar than saloon, but it wasn't all that different.

I said as much to Toni when she came back. She asked if they'd played classical music in the old days. "All the time," I told her. "When he first opened up Jimmy had a jukebox, but he ripped it out and brought in Mozart and Vivaldi. It kept the kids out, and that made everybody happy."

"So you used to get drunk to Eine Kleine Nachtmusik?"

"It did the job."

She was a pleasant woman, a couple of years younger than I, sober about the same length of time. She managed a showroom for a Seventh Avenue manufacturer of women's wear, and she'd been having an affair for a year or two with one of her bosses. He was married, and for months now she'd been speaking up at meetings and saying she had to end the relationship, but her voice never carried much conviction and the affair survived.

She was a tall leggy woman, with black hair that I suspect she dyed and a squareness to her jawline and her shoulders. I liked her and thought her good-looking, but I wasn't attracted to her. Or she to me- her lovers were always married and balding and Jewish, and I was none of the above, so that left us free to be friends.

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