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I was walking past Ripley’s Believe It or Not! at Times Square when all of a sudden it jumped out at me that a shrunken head in the window was someone that I’d known ten years before. Only it wasn’t Ripley’s at Times Square; it was the parking lot alongside the new courthouse on Newark Avenue in Jersey City. And it wasn’t a window; it was bench by a low stone barrier that served to keep vehicles from pedestrians. And it wasn’t a head; it was an entire person. But still leathered and shrunk. The skin was not cured and tanned by a day or so of brine and fire. In this instance, years of cheap wine, cigarettes, summer sun and winter freeze had had the same effect. The scalp was not pulled from skull and then dried to make it smaller; long spells of poor diet and inactivity had notched down the entire skeleton by several degrees.
Back when Jimmy Wolf drank under the bridge by the Tunnel Bar, he was over six foot and over two-hundred pounds. Some of that weight to be sure was extensive gut, but there also were the wide shoulders and burly arms. Now here he was diminished and frail, several inches shorter, with stick limbs attached to a delicate frame. Back in the ’80s, though he rarely worked — the only job that he’d ever seemed to have had was a brief stint as a cab driver — attired in presentable jeans and a plaid shirt, Wolf always gave the appearance of a very solid laborer. (Of this, I was jealous. My only activity besides bartending was the inevitably futile task of keeping some old car running. With stains and tears and worn out spots, my garments always looked like the discards from a punk band.) What Jimmy Wolf was wearing when I spotted him seemed to have the failing fabric only held relatively intact by being completely permeated with crud. And Wolf’s voice and manner had been gruff and menacing. Here he was chattering away and interrupting himself by giggling.
– – –
Looking out the door of the tavern towards the traffic exiting the Holland Tunnel, Sal Jr. saw what he feared most: a nice day. It was an early afternoon in June, back in the ’80s. With no rain or snow, truck drivers would be hesitant to stop, as they had no bad weather to use as an excuse for traffic delays. And it was too early in the season for vacation travel package good sales.
Sal Jr. noticed something unusual — a pedestrian. The neighborhood was not known for walkers but someone was crossing 14th St. The guy didn’t look like anyone working in the area. He was in very good shape, Sal Jr. thought perhaps a better than decent player on a college team, but just not big enough to be a pro. The stranger was carrying a small canvas bag, an old-style item that had been commonly used as a gym bag or for overnight bus or train travel quite a few years before. Finishing crossing 15th St., now smiling, the man headed towards the door of the Tunnel Bar. Sal Jr. expected a question concerning directions.
“I’m looking for a friend of mine.”
“And who might that be?”
“And where might you know Eddie Conte from?”
For a moment or so the man’s face registered confusion. Composure obviously returned as he managed to remember his lines. “Under the bridge. I used to drink with Eddie Conte under the bridge.”
“Gee, no. I can’t remember the last time that I saw Eddie Conte.”
The man turned and left and then continued up Henderson St. until he was out of sight. Sal Jr. thought, “Drinking under the bridge, yeah right. Probably never had more than one beer after a game. That’s gotta be someone from the Homicide Squad. Eddie Conte really must be dead. But why ask questions now, so many months later? Did they just find the body? Nah, more likely the prosecutor got this new guy right out of school working investigations. Sending him out to ask questions gives the recruit a chance to get some wear on his treads. And then they can wrap up the paperwork. Nobody’s gonna worry much about one wino killing another, especially when the ‘victim’ is responsible for the death of an elderly woman.”
– – –
It was 1977 and a beautiful early summer evening, even in Jersey City. Sal Sr. had only taken over the Tunnel Bar maybe a month before. Sal Jr. was the bartender. Three of the regulars – Marty, a little guy who used to work across the street at Hudson Refrigeration, Sissy, a woman who lived a couple of blocks away in the projects, and Steve Kucz, a retired longshoreman, were sitting outside on the step that led up to the door of the building. Eddie Conte walked in the door of the tavern. Conte was tall – maybe an inch over six foot – and thin. Even though he was always neatly dressed and he kept himself clean, Eddie Conte drank with the winos under the bridge. From the quite consciously taken measured steps and the distracted, though not yet dazed look, Sal Jr. surmised that Conte really had already had enough alcohol for that day.
Conte, not quite slurred, “Gimme a beer.” Sal Jr. was going to tell Eddie that that would have to be to go, but took a moment to ready himself before saying so. Sal Jr. expected an argument and Conte was big enough to take seriously. But, Conte then said, “And that’s to go,” saving himself a quarter and Sal Jr. a problem.
Conte took the can of Budweiser in a small bag and headed outside. He went over by the group chatting on the step. Looking away from the three, towards the traffic streaming out of the Holland Tunnel, Conte took a sip of the beer. Without warning, he spun around and said, “I want to sit there.” Marty was in the middle. Eddie Conte grabbed Marty by the shirt with one arm, jerking him up and then shoving him off to the side. Sissy jumped up. Eddie Conte sat down where Marty had been. Marty lay flat on his back on the sidewalk. Conte took another sip of the beer. Sissy looked in disbelief from Conte to Marty. Steve Kucz, most likely afflicted with Alzheimer’s, just sat there smiling. Marty propped himself up on his elbows and gave his head a shake. His head turned quickly, bringing Conte into view. Marty leaped up at him, landing in a boxer’s stance. Marty delivered a solid right. Conte jumped up and to the side, into the middle of the sidewalk. Denying his opponent the advantage of longer arms, Marty skipped in close and began to pepper Eddie Conte with jabs and punches. Conte turned and ran, not to be seen again in the neighborhood for some months.
– – –
During the week, when it was busy, Sal Jr. turned the lights on inside the Tunnel Bar whenever it wasn’t bright sunshine outside. Seeing that they were not about to be set upon made people not familiar with the area feel more secure and thus more likely to step through the doorway and proceed to spend. But today was Sunday and quiet. There was a movie on TV. With the peat brown bottles, a dark wood bar and backbar, and the walls and ceiling all stained from years of exposure to cigarette smoke a mottled brown, like layers of dead leaves, in the dark the tavern possessed an atmosphere that was still; the television screen glowed like a full moon in a crisp autumn sky.
Eddie Conte walked in with someone that Sal Jr. didn’t know. Both were wearing good-quality brown jackets and matching pants. Neither wore ties. Conte had on a sepia dress shirt; his friend’s was amber. Conte ordered two Seagram Sevens and water. Eddie Conte put a twenty dollar bill on the bar. Sal Jr. set up two shot glasses and chasers. After carefully filling each of the small glasses, he then poured the dark honey-colored liquor into the water. When Sal Jr. picked up the money, he noticed Conte’s reflection in the glass. For a moment, the curve of the glass and the tea-tinted water made the visage appear like a face seen deep under the water of some swamp.
Sal Jr. walked a few feet away and went back to watching the movie. Conte was speaking to his friend in an animated manner, something like a preacher. “Did you ever notice, it’s all a circle? We get to the bottom and then pick ourselves up and what do you know, soon we’re doing good. Then it’s just a drink or two and we wind up back on the streets. And after a while it’s cold or we’re sick and we’re broke and it’s no good no more. So, it’s off to the Sallie’s. Sleeping in a warm place, meals and work, we pick ourselves up. See? It’s all a circle. It just keeps going ‘round.”
– – –
Eddie Conte said, “But, I’m good for it!”
Conte had been outside for some weeks and – tired and worn — was beginning to show it. Eddie Conte had asked Sal Jr. for a pint of Thunderbird on credit. Sal Jr. had learned from hard experience that feeling sorry for winos was a mistake. If given a bottle without an immediate exchange of cash, not only would they not ever pay for it, the down and out then took their trade from there on in to the bar up the block.
“I didn’ say you weren’t; I said, ‘I can’t do it.’ We jus’ got too much on the book now and can’t handle no more, We gotta pay bills and need like more cash.”
“Listen. I’ve spent a lot here. You gotta give me a pint.”
“I told you that I gotta say no and that’s it.”
Conte scowled, turned and left. After a few minutes, as having to turn down requests for credit were routine, Sal Jr. forgot about Eddie Conte. Just then, Teddy Kucz (“Jackson”), an elderly homeless man rushed into the bar.
“The shed’s on fire! Eddie Conte set the place on fire!”
Sal Jr. ran out the door to look at the backyard. In a shack maybe forty feet away, a few flame sprites danced veiled in black smoke. The landlord stored paint there, but that had not yet gone up in an inferno. Sal Jr. hurried back inside the bar and pushed 911 on the pay phone to report the fire. He then went to warn the Mulvaneys, an elderly couple who lived in the building two doors down on 15th St. that was attached to the shed. They were already outside, but Mrs. Mulvaney was laying on the sidewalk screaming.
“Are you guys OK?”
“I’m all right, but me wife fell down the stairs gettin’ out.”
Sal Jr. now heard the siren’s wail. The fire engine sped up Henderson and made the turn onto 15th. The firemen quickly quenched the blaze. Sal Jr. yelled to one of them, “Mrs. Mulvaney’s hurt!” Pointing to Jackson, “He saw a wino named Eddie Conte torch the place.”
Sal, Jr. went back inside the bar. A half-hour or so later a policeman came in, “Did you see someone set the fire?”
“No, but I had some words with a guy named Eddie Conte and a few minutes later Teddy Kucz told me that Conte started the fire.”
“Yeah, I spoke with Kucz, but he’s drunk and was sleeping back there and maybe just dreamt the whole thing.”
“Are you looking for Conte?”
“With no witnesses, why should we?”
“An arson’s been committed. Jackson coulda roasted alive back there. An old lady’s hurt. And you’re not gonna do nothin’?”
“With nobody seein’ nothin’, there’s nothin’ to be done.”
Mrs. Mulvaney had broken her hip. She died after a week of horrendous pain.
– – –
Sal Jr. was walking down 15th, ready to work the 12 to 8 shift at the Tunnel Bar. For a second he thought that he was experiencing some sort of confused perception, like when a glance conjures up a snake by the side of the road that at a second look turns into a fan belt off of some old car. There right outside the tavern was Eddie Conte leaning on the hood of a station wagon. As Sal Jr. continued up the block, Conte remained in view, not shifting into someone else of similar appearance. On the side of the car was a business name, something equine.
Sal Jr. asked, “You’re working on a ranch?”
Conte went off into some rap about Sal Jr. not being capable of understanding fine people, fine clothes, and fine horses . . . Not being in the mood either to listen to malarkey or to punch Conte, Sal Jr. just went inside the bar.
The car only lasted a day or so. Whether Eddie Conte had returned it, ditched it or sold it, Sal Jr. never found out. Conte was back under the bridge, now with a whole troop of winos, including Jimmy Wolf.
A couple of months later, during the summer, Frank Meyer came in the Tunnel Bar one day and told Sal Jr., “Eddie Conte broke Jimmy Wolf’s leg.”
“How’d he do that?”
“I dunno. He just did it.”
“Why’d he do that?”
“For no reason.”
Later, Sal Jr. asked his father about this. “Yeah, the winos are all sayin’ that. Jimmy Wolf’s gone is what’s for sure.”
Jimmy Wolf stayed gone. For the rest of the summer and through the fall, Eddie Conte strutted about as alpha wino, but as the weather turned cold, his stamina began to fail.
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One particularly chilly day, Sal Jr. stepped outside the bar for a moment of diversion and fresh air. Eddie Conte and a few of the other winos were catching the warming sun, sitting on milk crates set along the warehouse wall on 15th St., around a hundred feet down the block from the bar. Just then, Sal Jr. spotted a not at all infirm Jimmy Wolf coming from the direction of Grove St., stomping down the block looking for all the world like Bluto in the old Popeye comics. Conte didn’t move. When Wolf got to Conte, he delivered a sharp jab to the side of the head, sending Eddie Conte to the ground. Jimmy Wolf then proceeded to the Tunnel Bar.
“A quart of Thunderbird, cold.” Producing a handkerchief, “And gimme some ice for this.”
Jimmy Wolf went back to where the winos were. He helped Conte up onto the milk crate and pressed the ice pack to the bump on Conte’s skull. Wolf passed the bottle around. Every half hour or so, Wolf returned to the bar for another bottle of wine.
Sal Jr. again went outside to break the monotony. He looked down the block at that seemingly all happy, let bygones be bygones wino reunion. Jimmy Wolf suddenly stood up in front of Eddie Conte. Wolf began to punch Conte with a series of rights and lefts, hitting the still seated man and driving his head into the concrete wall. Conte finally managed to stand up, but was defenseless, his arms only flailing about, as might those of a scarecrow in a storm. Wolf continued to pound away, arms like pistons. The only thing that Conte could do was to step back and try to turn to the side to avoid the strike, but Wolf each time still delivered a solid blow.
By the time Eddie Conte reached the street outside the Tunnel Bar, with Jimmy Wolf continuing to hit him, Conte’s head was swollen so that it looked like a pumpkin done up into a Jack O’ Lantern, including the rictus grin and the slit eyes. The other winos began to attack Conte, too, though only able to do so feebly, adding more insult than injury. Sal Jr. thought that Conte had had enough and something should be done to stop the attack. Suddenly, in his mind Sal Jr. heard Mrs. Mulvaney’s cries and the police officer saying that nothing could be done.
As the tottering Conte and his attackers got into the intersection of Henderson St., cars screeched to a halt and horns blared. Wolf was out of breath and panting. Conte finally turned and ran, up 15th, past Provost St. and towards the abandoned rail yards along the Hudson.
– – –
It was well past New Year when Sal Jr. said to his father, “Maybe we should be thinkin’ about what kind of trouble there’s gonna be when Conte comes back.”
“He ain’t commin’ back.”
“What makes you so sure? He always came back. He even came back after settin’ a fire that wound up causin’ Mrs. Mulvaney to fall down the stairs.”
“He ain’t commin’ back this time, for sure. That night they went down to the railroad property and finished him off. He wanted to be the king of the hill; well, someone went and pushed him off.”
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