The indigents’ graveyard

Early on one bright, warm, spring afternoon, a boozer not previously known, bounced into the Tunnel Bar. As winos start to wander when the weather breaks, and so newcomers generally were not a surprise, this gent had some noteworthy features. With short grey hair and beard, he was older. His skin had the leathery look of someone who for years had been mostly outside, but was not tanned, inside looking out pale instead. And his clothes were all new — blue shirt with a collar, jeans. Even the sneakers he wore were bright white, like just taken out of the box. As the man left with a pint of Thunderbird, Sal Jr. concluded that the customer was recently released from a hospital — or jail.

Around 5 o’clock, getting ready for the after work rush, Sal Jr. was walking to the door to take the garbage out to the yard. Before Sal Jr. could leave, two young Black guys entered, and stood in front of the doorway.

“Excuse me, Sir, but might I speak with the owner of this establishment.”

Sal Jr. smiled at the formal language not generally heard in a dive saloon. “I’m sorry, but he’s not here at the moment. Might I be of assistance?”

“Did you know that there was a dead man outside next door.”

“Why no, I wasn’t aware of that, but, as I’m headed there anyhow, I’ll be sure to take a look.”

The two guys left and Sal Jr. followed, dragging the refuse barrel behind him. He was wondering if the bearers of strange news were just jokers or if a day spent smoking marijuana had led to hallucinations. When he opened the gate in the wooden fence, Sal Jr. saw a whole troop of bompies, all quite drunk. And none of them were in buying anything all day! Sal Jr. spotted Frank Meyer. He’d given Frank eight-five cents credit the day before. Sal Jr. surmised that Frank Meyer had gotten paid for helping out on a truck. To avoid evening up the under a dollar bill at the Tunnel Bar, he’d walked on the sly to the tavern up the block, buying enough to treat all the local winos to a party.

Sal Jr. went into a screaming fit, berating Frank Meyer for being an ingrate, a conniver and a low life. Suddenly, Sal Jr. noticed the guy with the new clothes from earlier in the day, upper body propped up against the wall of the building, legs together and straight out, head hanging strangely loose to the side. His feet were clad just in socks, the sneakers missing. Sal Jr. cut short his rant. Pointing to the man on the ground, “Is he dead?”

“Yes, for some time now,” said Joe, a long-time resident of the Salvation Army — who happened to have on new sneakers.

Sal Jr. called the police. They arrived and as there were no signs of foul play, just notified the coroner.

One of the more frequent patrons of the Tunnel Bar, Margie, found the situation very upsetting and was sobbing over the passing of the unknown wanderer. When the coroner’s van arrived, she asked the men what they were going to do with the body.

“We’re taking him to Woods.”


With a smile, but politely and calmly they explained that they were taking the deceased to Woods Funeral Home on Bergen Ave.

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He didn’t say no.

One day back when Jimmy still owned the Tunnel Bar, a stranger walked in, took out a twenty dollar bill, sat down and asked for a Seagram’s 7 with water. Jimmy put a shot glass and a chaser in front of the man and then turned around and walked a few steps away to get the quart of whiskey. When he returned to the customer, the man’s arms were in a circle on the bar with his head resting in the middle.

Jimmy reached over and gently shook the man by a shoulder, “Buddy?” The only response was the head lolling to the side, jaw hanging, and unseeing eyes wide open. “HE’S DEAD! WHAT AM I GONNA DO?”

One of the regulars — Tommy, dishwasher at the Tunnel Diner — spoke up, “Hey, pal, buy me a drink? He didn’t say no, Jimmy, gi’mme somethin’ outta that twenty.”

Jimmy, bottle of Seagram’s 7 conveniently in hand, gathered up the glasses, took everything over to Tommy, poured a shot, and then rung up the sale out of the dead man’s cash. Everyone in the tavern now started yelling over to the corpse. Jimmy kept selling drinks until the money was gone, at that point calling 911.

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Hurricane Carter’s prison bout

One of the regular customers at the Tunnel Bar who we shall here call Hal was a long-time friend of Hurricane Carter, all the way from Yardville to Rahway. Hal told of an unusual Boxing match in prison with Carter as a contestant. His opponent was an unusually silent individual whose entire workout consisted of ten overhead reps with a 300 lb. barbell.

Initially, Hurricane danced around the opponent, fast flicking gloves cutting his face. The other man shuffled flat-footed about the ring, seemingly unaware of the punishment that he was receiving. His upper body swiveled slowly towards the prize fighter, like the guns of a battleship aiming at a target by slowly turning on their turrets. Every so often, a powerful arm shot out like a missile. Hurricane Carter at first easily avoided these attacks, but tiring, was caught by a solid right that sent him flying into the ropes. The other man skipped right in front of Carter and began to piston-pummel him with crushing blows.

The doctor was called in to revive Carter. Hurricane refused a rematch.

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Rambling Ray, Vinny the Rapist and the Motorcycle cop

Rambling Ray was in the Tunnel Bar getting ready to head out to a mega used car lot in PA that was supposed to be like the Holy Land for everything with four wheels. Vinny Buchelle (affectionately known to all as Vinny the Rapist) was going along for the ride. They finished their beers and walked out the door. Five minutes later, I’d completely forgotten about Ray, Vinny and their quest. Until the next day.

Late one hot and sunny morning, I was walking down State Highway somewhere past Baldwin headed to the Tunnel Bar. There was Vinny, standing next to a spiffy little car with cardboard Pennsylvania plates, waving his hands and telling three stories at once. He was in parley with a motorcycle cop.

Ray, mumbling and incoherent drunk, was spread out in the back seat. Since I knew that Vinny hadn’t had a license in at least ten years — if ever — I was waiting for an opportune moment to offer to drive the car. The policeman was going through and trying to make some sense out of a shoe box full documents, filling station road maps, and diner placemat menus. Giving up, he asked Vinny, “Do you have insurance?”

For a moment, but just a moment, Vinny didn’t know what to say. He then replied, “Yes, Medicaid.”

The copy yelled, “GET OUT OF HERE!”

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What’s in your wallet?

In response to one of any of many examples of bizarre and strange behavior, I commented to a regular customer of the Tunnel Bar, “You can’t imagine how many people that come in here don’ belong out on the streets.”

The tavern patron immediately became highly agitated. “THAT’S NOT ME!”

“Of course that’s not you. I wasn’ talkin’ about you.”

Opening his wallet, “That’s not me, Tony! I got my release papers right here! I got every right to be out on the streets.”

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As seen on TV!

Vinny Buchelle, one of the regulars at the Tunnel Bar, some decades before had been sent off to Trenton State Prison for statutory rape, or so he claimed. Underneath all that steel and concrete, Vinny suffered a breakdown and so graduated over to the hospital for the criminally insane. There he received what’s called a course of shock therapy. (“They roll ya in and it hits ya . . . You don’t know if y’r gonna see t’morra.”)

One evening, a rerun of a Saturday Night Live show was on the TV in the Tunnel Bar. A fake commercial for Spud Beer was playing. When the announcer said, “You’ve just had a heavy session of electroshock therapy . . .,” having some knowledge of Vinny’s curriculum vitae, I turned my head over towards him to see his reaction. Vinny’s attention was focused in a way that I’d never seen him achieve before. When the spot ended, Vinny said, “Something new, ‘eh?”

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Our Lady of Graham Bell

I was attempting to navigate the fog of 6:45AM and coffee not having kicked in yet, when all of a sudden, after nearly forty years, this reef of memory surfaced.

# # #

Me and some other guys were hanging out at a friend’s dorm room one Saturday. The phone rings.

John, whose place it is, answers, “Hello. No, I’m sorry Phillip’s not here.”

The phone rings again.

“Hello. Wait a sec, Anybody named Phillip supposed to be here? No, I’m sorry, Phillip’s not here and it doesn’t look like he’s headed this way. OK?”

The phone rings again.

“Listen, you’ve got the wrong number.”

The phone rings again. Now, John takes the phone off the hook.

An hour or so of reflections on the imperfections of the faculty goes by.

“John, can I use the phone.”

“Oh, jeez, I forgot to put it back. My mother always calls at noon on Saturday. If she hears that non-stop busy signal, she’s going to think that I didn’t pay the bill again and I’ll get all sorts of grief.”

As soon as he replaces the handset on the hook, the phone immediately rings.

“What did I tell you, that must be mom now.” Answering, “NO! YOU’VE GOT THE WRONG NUMBER!”

John hangs up the phone and then after just a second — as if afraid — pulls it off the hook.

“Put it back.”

“But, it’ll just keep ringing.”

“That’s OK, I’ll answer it this time.”

Very soon, the phone rings and I pick it up. “Hello.”

A shrill voice at the other end demands, “I want to talk to PHILLIP!”

“You’ve been told time and time again that there’s no Phillip here. He ain’t been here and he ain’t gonna be here,. If you’re like overcome by loneliness, you can stroll on over to such-and-such room at such-and-such dorm an’ ask for Anthony. An’ if’n you don’t wanna do that, that’s OK, too. JUS’ DON’ CALL AGAIN!” And I slam down the phone. The telephone’s quiet, but the room’s filled with my friends’ laughter.

Some hours go by — interpretations of various episodes of the original Star Trek, Stones albums, David Bowie, Clapton, a Humphrey Bogart movie, . . . — and we’re talking about when to head over to the cafeteria for dinner.

There’s a knock at the door. John answers. He looks in sorta quizzically, “Anthony, somebody for you.”

I can’t figger who it might be, but I jump up off of the floor where’d I’d been stretched out. A tall, skinny, young guy is standing there. He’s got long blond hair and a blond beard. His face is red and he’s shaking.


As my ’74 Impala of a consciousness back then had headlights for tunnel vision through the darkness of the future, but basically no rear view mirrors for contemplating what had been, I was momentarily shocked into complete confusion and unable to respond or even to move. Then, I remembered the audio apparition of Our Lady of Graham Bell.

“Why, Phil (he looks surprised that I know his name), I been lookin’ forward to meetin’ ya. You ‘know, some say there’s no God, but a lookee here. On a campus of THOUSANDS, two pieces of work like you and Ms. Telephone 1976 found each other . . . If that’s not proof of a divine presence at work in creation, I don’ know what is. But, I digress. Y’r lookin’ for me, “WHADD’YA WANT!?!”

He turns and runs away.

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Bobby with no legs

One of the Spanish guys who’d hang out all weekend at the Tulsa gas station on Henderson Street was in the Tunnel Bar for a six pack of beer and a pint of rum. Sal Jr. was the bartender. As he was handing over the change, the customer asked, “What ever happened to Bobby?”

“Bobby? Bobby who?”

“Bobby with no legs.”

“Oh, him. The city took him away to a hospital.”

“That’s too bad. He was always good for a laugh.”

– – –

It was late summer in 1977. Sal Jr. had been working at the Tunnel Bar, just outside of the Holland Tunnel in Jersey City, for some months and was by now rarely surprised. But then Bobby walked in and asked for $9.00. Maybe six years before, Bobby had landed on his head after falling the five feet or so off of the shipping dock of Blue Comet, a trucking outfit that’d been next door. After ripping through the accident settlement in a week in NYC (returning with a monkey in a cage), Bobby had been homeless. Sal Jr.’s reply was short, “Get lost.”

Bobby left, but quickly walked back in, now with a cab driver known as “Yatch” in tow. Yatch said, “Hey, this guy gotta pay me a $9.00 cab fare. He told me that you owed him money and would take care of it.”

“You c’n see the guy’s a bum. If you think that I owe him money, you mus’ be as crazy as him. You been beat and that’s that.”

Bobby leaves.

Yatch said, “I didn’t get beat. When a guy didn’ pay me ten grand for sports, then I was beat. This is just one of those things.” Yatch put a twenty dollar bill on the bar and ordered a drink.

– – –

Jimmy, a warehouse worker who once had a fairly substantial sideline in the illegal numbers business, was drinking one night in the Tunnel Bar and started to talk about Bobby. “He walks in in one day and asks me, ‘I got a gal doin’ tricks in the car, y’ interested?’ I asks him what she looks like and Bobby says, ‘You know her.’ And so I says, ‘I know her? Who is it?’ Bobby says, ‘My mother.’ An arm just shot out and sent my fist right into his jaw and I tell him, ‘You slimy skunk. Don’t ever come anywhere near me again.’ And you know, as disgusting as it is to think of, there were guys that stopped by here special for that action.

– – –

It was December. Bobby lay in a car for three days at the Tulsa gas station. An ambulance had been there to take him to the hospital. He’d screamed that he didn’t want to go, that he was being kidnapped and so they left him there. Now a motorcycle cop rode into the gas station, stopped and got off the bike.

Banging on the car window, ”Open the door. NOW! Listen! Here’s how it works. Sign this paper saying that you were offered help and refused it. If you don’t sign, I’m bringing the ambulance back and making sure you get in.”

Bobby signed. The police officer left. That night, the temperature went below zero. By the next morning Bobby’s legs were frozen and had to be cut off.

– – –

These were the Reagan years and nobody – double amputees, mental patients, what not – stayed in the hospital for very long. One day, an ambulance pulled up to the Tunnel Bar and lowered a wheelchair with Bobby in it down to the gutter.

The winos latched onto Bobby. They’d push him over to someone about to walk in the door of the tavern and ask for money on Bobby’s behalf. As soon as they got enough for a bottle of Thunderbird or Night Train, they’d leave Bobby and go to Burke’s, the bar up the block. Bobby then would bellow like a cow being slaughtered. Sal Jr. caught on to this scheme and would watch out the window. To stop customers from being hassled, whenever he spotted any of the bompies with Bobby, an irate Sal Jr.’d run out threatening violence. The other winos then steered clear of Bobby. Without the hope of anyone going inside to get a bottle, Bobby, too, stayed away and remained at the Tulsa station.

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Jackson came in from the cold.

Teddy Kucz (“Jackson”) first became homeless during a summer of endless drinking. When the steady freeze of January set in, being free as a bird was not enjoyable for one unable to fly south. Cold and hungry in Journal Square, the immense window of the J. M. Fields store provided inspiration. Jackson found a brick and tossed it. He then stood there waiting for the police to arrive and to bring him to the warmth of the jail.

The next day in court, Jackson started to tell his tale of woes brought about by immoderate imbibing, until interrupted by the judge.

“OK, you’re tired of the cold and are lookin’ for a warm place to sleep. Is 90 days OK?”

“Thank you, your Honor. That’s just right.”

Next year, Jackson again broke the big store window. When he went to court this time, the judge laughed and immediately asked, “Another 90?”

For the third January in a row, it was as if the Fields’ glass had a bull’s eye painted on it. Now the judge was not amused.

“Listen up and listen good. I’m doin’ y’ favor and givin’ y’ 90, but that’s it. If I see y’ again next year, y’er gettin’ a year. It’ll be just as cold commin’ out as it was goin’ in.”

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Tunnel Bar sign


This was inside, over the cash register.

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Rites of passage

One of the regulars at the Tunnel Bar, Hal, was something of an expert on the NJ correctional system. He had an amusing story of his graduation from a youthful offender to an inmate. Transported from Hudson County early in the AM, he and a number of others were placed singly in a row of small cells in a corridor. Eventually a door slid open and a prisoner pushed in a metal table on wheels. On it were metal plates, a set of tongs, and a galvanized bucket — shiny and clean, but the same sort that’d you use to put sudsy water in to wash a car. In the pail were whole potatoes that had been deep fried. The guy went from cell to cell, sliding a steel plate between the bars.

“How many you want?”

Some said “one.” A few, “two.” Here and there, “three.” He’d then place potatoes through the bars onto the held plate.

One of the recently convicted when asked answered “six.”

“I can’t give you no six. Most I can give is four. Here you go: one, two, three, four . . . Lookee, I gave you one extra by mistake, but you can’t get no six.”

Reaching the next one, “How many you want?”

“What’s this?”

“Hey listen, I got no time to play games. I got three more floors to do. Whata you mean, ‘what’s this?’ It’s breakfast.”

“Breakfast?! This is too heavy for breakfast.”

“Well I guess you gonna have to go someplace else from now on.”

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Applied Trigonometry

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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?”

“Eddie Conte.”

“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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