Like the audience at a New Theatre production, the Tunnel Bar sometimes found itself suddenly paradigm shift from front row center to an up on the stage performance participant in law enforcement dramas.
The first was Russell. Back in ’77, only some month or so after my getting the keys to the tavern, with a great quantum leap he just appeared and all at once seemed to know and be working with every street thief in Hoboken and Union City. Around 5′ 8″, he had the unusual mannerism — for anyone raised in Hudson County at least — of holding his hands out in front of his shoulders and waving them about as he spoke. Especially since he tended to shift his weight from one foot to the other and to step from side to side at the same time, his gestures didn’t give me the impression of anything ethnic; I thought instead of a middle-weight boxer sizing up an opponent in the opening round. For a goof, I would mirror his movements, a brief chat soon turning into a Noh Play of a prize fight. One representative conversational sample involved stolen goods:
“You know those car radios I had last week?”
(He’d shown me a cardboard box with six or so ripped radios, clipped wires trailing like the tentacles of an octopus on ice.”
“Well, I sold ’em all.”
“Good for you.”
“I still got customers lookin’ for more.”
“If you know anybody with radios, I’ll buy ’em.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
I’m the world’s worst judge of character, but it was real clear to me that Russell’s picture belonged on a $3 bill. Even with that being so, I did have to rub my eyes and read a second time the Hudson Dispatch article about a series of raids “coordinated by FBI Special Agent Russell Silverton.” Feds weren’t necessarily from Kansas anymore.
# # #
A gent who made a regular market in goods “with no birth certificate” by his own description stopped at the Tunnel Bar for a few drinks every so often. Following the example of Don Corleone, I wasn’t one to criticize how a man earned his living. Still, I wasn’t myself interested in any bargains. This was particularly so for his offer of cases of top shelf scotch at a give away price. As liquor is the “A” in ATF, the deal was not too good to resist. The next day, the Tunnel Bar got a visit from two stereotypical fedoraed Feds who wanted to know when the trader was expected back.
Soon after there were daily visits from a little troop of trust fund junkies. Heroin addicts in the neighborhood were nothing unusual, but this new crew was. The general local smack user was a tough guy; he had to be — if not to practice his criminal career — to survive the occasional Trenton or Rahway vacation. Also, their habit was hand to vein; they managed to steal enough every day to get high, but not obliteration of health. The novelties, having the money to do a fill ‘er up on a needle, tended to the skeletal frail. They also were shadows of sophistication with talk of European travel. These fans of the opiate would often be zonked enough to have difficulty finding their pant pocket to take out a couple of dollars to pay. The purchase was always just a beer or two to go and the only purpose for it seemed so as to be able to access the restroom.
The ringleader of the group was very different from the rest. Short and solid, he certainly wasn’t on drugs. He wore jeans and an army jacket, but these were new and clean, in contrast to the tattered and dirty of the others. After this circus had passed through every day for at least a week, one time I was at the cash register and my back was turned. When I looked around, I saw the clear-headed guy in khaki behind the bar inspecting the cases stacked underneath. In a loud voice, I said, “Can I help you?”
In two fast skips, he got back to the customer area, smiled and said, “I dropped a quarter and it rolled back there.”
“Whens I sweeps tonight, if I finds it, I’ll give it t’ya tomorrow.”
Still smiling, “That’s OK. Possession is nine-tenths of the law.”
I never saw any of them again.