I MEET THE FIXER.
It's 1960. The US is beginning its longest period of economic expansion in history. But as business booms disillusion gnaws at the national psyche.
The Russians shoot down the U2, an American spy plane. President Eisenhower disavows its mission, then backs off and becomes the first American president to admit he has lied.
There are bloody uprisings in the Asian and African colonies of our wartime allies France and Britain. We had thought of them as bulwarks of democracy and freedom, but now realize they are oppressive imperial powers.
Four black students sit in at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. They are arrested. Protesters all over the South are beaten, jailed, attacked by police dogs. Six years after Brown vs. Board of Ed. one quarter of our country is still a police state.
John F. Kennedy, a dashing young war hero with a hot wife, runs for President, promising change and a New Frontier. He is tied with Vice President Nixon until late returns from Cook County, Illinois make him victorious by one tenth of a percent. "The boys in Chicago fixed it," says Mr. Leo, who runs numbers in Tony's candy store on Eleventh Avenue in Brooklyn. "Just like Luciano fixed New York for FDR in '32."
My father has given me a job at the Riverside Memorial Chapel on Park Circle across from Prospect Park. He has worked himself up from monument salesman to manager, but is mortified at being in the funeral business. When people ask him what he does he says: "I play third base for the Cubs..." Or: "I'm the wine steward in the Woman's House of Detention."
I need a special Chauffeur's license to drive the hearses, panel trucks and flower cars. But I'm 17 and you have to be 18 to get a Chauffeur's license. Plus you have to pass another written exam and road test.
"Albino will fix it," my father says.
Albino is a limo driver with connections way above his station. He is short and dark with a sharp, chin and beak of a nose. His eyes rove restlessly and his head jerks like a hungry bird's.
On the way to the DMV I hear the story of his life. He talks in staccato bursts... "Youngest of eight. My father only had enough gas left in the tank to make a dwarf...He was a big guy,too...Everybody in the family shot up... Even in my sisters...I'm shorter than my mother for Chrissake..."
We drive over the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan. "We'll go to Worth Street," he says. " I don't trust those mamelukes in Brooklyn..."
He spent five and a half years in the Army during World War II. "They didn't let me out until every Jap was dead." He asks me if I've gotten my draft card. "Tell me when they call you for your physical," he says. "I got a doctor who'll make you 4F."
There are lines out the door at the DMV. Only one window for the Chauffeur's License applicants and there are at least a hundred guys ahead of me.
Albino pulls me away. "Wiseguys don't stand on line..."
He gives me the form. "Fill this out."
A few minutes later he is back. "Let's get your picture took..."
The photographer is a little guy in a plaid bow-tie, eyes bulging behind horn rimmed glasses.
"Anybody ever tellya ya look like Tony Curtis?" he asks.
"They will now...Stand straight and look serious..."
Albino takes me aside. "Got ten bucks?"
I don't carry that much cash.
"Never mind, I'll front it..."
My license shows up in the mail five days later.
I pay Albino back the ten. Years later I find out he told my father it cost 20 and got that plus a ten spot for his time.
I'm taking morning classes at Brooklyn College. Between the boiling radiators and the boring professors I go into a coma every morning. My Western Civ instructor, Professor Hoffman asks the class to talk quietly. "We don't want to wake Mr. Gould."
At two o'clock I run to my '57 Bel Air, my home away from home. I change into a black suit in the back seat and head to the chapel. My job is to stand in the lobby and direct people to the reposing rooms. After visiting hours Albino and I load up a Chevy 31 Panel truck with mourner's benches for religious Jews.
"Here's a little trick, kid," Albino says as we go to the first house. The order is for five benches, but he takes three.
A haggard old man, nose running, eyes red-rimmed complains: "We ordered five. We have to have five benches for the immediate family."
Albino pats his arm. "Let me see what I can do." He brings the two extra benches into house and comes back with a five dollar bill and a gleeful smile.
"Works every time."
No one can be buried without a valid death certificate, issued either by the attending physician or the Medical Examiner. The Board of Health is very strict about correct cause of death and has been known to disallow a death certificate, causing a delay in burial. Also, religious Jews and Catholics object to autopsies, causing more costly complications.
But Albino has "fixed" Katz, a clerk on the night shift. He gives me careful instructions.
"Wait 'til there's nobody in the room. Go to the cage and tell him you're Albino's friend from Riverside. Slip the certificate under the bars with two bucks under it."
I do exactly as ordered. Katz, his face shadowed by a green visor, stamps the certificate without even looking at it and slides it back.
It occurs to me that we might be helping somebody get away with murder.
Albino agrees. "We might be at that."
And puts in an expense chit for five dollars.
My Bel Air is what they call a "big six." It can fly. The Brooklyn B ridge at 2am is a great proving ground.
But one night I get a speeding ticket. Next day I'm telling everybody how this motorcycle cop came out of nowhere. Later Albino sidles up.
"You wanna beat a ticket?"
He gives me a copy of the NYPD house organ, Spring 3100, a magazine distributed only to cops. "Put a copy of this on your windshield, and write Albino on the front page," he says. "Keep your license in a little plastic envelope with a tensky folded up behind it. The cop'll see the magazine. You slip him the license..." He snaps his finger. "Bingo, you're outta there." Then, in all seriousness, he warns: "it probably won't work if you run an old lady over, or somethin'."
That Friday night I go to a loft party in Greenwich Village. Four hours later I have ten very stoned beatniks in my Bel Air. Arms and legs sticking out of the windows, people giggling and struggling for breath under the pile. We decide to see the sun rise at Coney Island. A cop car follows me across the bridge and pulls me over. It's a sergeant with a chest full of commendations. He looks at the squirming mass in the car.
"You tryin' to break a college record or somethin'?"
As I open the door three people fall out at his feet.
"I'm gonna get writer's cramp with you, pal," he says.
He makes me walk a straight line. Close my eyes and touch my nose.
"If you were drunk at least you'd have an excuse," he says. "You're just a moron."
He takes the magazine off the windshield. Takes my loaded license back to his car.
I wink at my friends. "Watch this..."
Ten minutes later he comes back with a fistful of tickets and hands them to me one by one.
"Overloading a car...Changing lines without signaling...Driving over the lane markers...One red light infraction...Broken tail light...Going 45 in a 35 mile zone. Normally, I would overlook that, but I'm throwin' the book at you, asshole."
He follows me as I drive everybody to the Borough Hall subway station and watches as they get out to take the subway back to Manhattan.
Then, he hands me my license with the ten still in it.
"You were lucky tonight, kid," he says. "Next time I'll be pullin' your body out of a burning car."
Next day I tell Albino the story. "At least there's one honest cop in the world," I say.
Albino doesn't accept that explanation. He shakes his head in puzzlement. Then, he brightens.
"You said it was a sergeant, right?"
"That's it, " he says triumphantly, his vision of a corrupt universe confirmed. "Dopey me." He smacks himself in the forehead with the heel of his hand. "I forgot to tellya. Sergeants you gotta pay double, 'cause they kick back to the captain..."
Causes Heywood Gould Supports
Leukemia and Lymphomia Association
American Cancer Society
St. Jude's Children Research Hospital