Missing Men of 47th Street
By Adam Berlin
Big Sy lined the paper bags on the counter, bills stapled to the front, addresses scribbled on top.
Zell and Sons
The breakfast rush was on, too fast for me to pick out the best bags, deliveries to people who tipped more than a buck. The door opened. Paul came in, blowing into his hands. The shiner on his right eye was fading, a week since his last drunken brawl somewhere in Queens. Max was still out on the street. Sy sometimes allowed Max to take the best bags, especially in the morning. Max was close to seventy, so it was tough to begrudge him this fringe benefit though we sometimes did behind his back, me and Paul bitching like all workers bitched about work. I put a twenty down for three bags and waited for Sy to make change. He was on the phone taking an order.
I looked along the counter. Customer bodies balanced on stools, heads bent forward, forks moving fast. Behind the counter Lester, his mouth a constant scowl, worked the grill, folding omelets and flipping eggs, a mound of home fries warming at the corner. Frank poured juice, made coffee, moved a small knife around halved grapefruits, separating fruit from skin. Santiago cut bagels, bialys, rolls, toasted and buttered them, wrapped them in wax paper in record time. If you weren’t fast you’d be gone. Business was business.
Sy made change for my three bags. His sleepy eyes, darkly circled, hid all the sharpness behind them. He never made mistakes with money.
I pushed Central Luncheonette’s door open with my foot and walked onto 47th Street, the Diamond District. Wind, funneled and sharpened between buildings, turned my hands numb, but I couldn’t waste time putting gloves on, taking them off.
I walked past the security guard at 78 West, pressed into the crowded elevator, third floor already pushed. Coffee, buttered toast, and fried eggs warmed the elevator and everyone looked at the bags in my hand, something to look at, something good to smell, before they entered whatever office they worked in, another day.
Zell and Sons was engraved in gold on frosted glass. I hit the door buzzer and waited for the secretary to look at me through the mounted camera, buzz me in. Layers of security. They were all afraid. Every few months a big heist went down, inside jobs mostly, some outside jobs with armed men. Sometimes a dealer would get grabbed while walking down the street with a briefcase full of jewels and disappear. Some diamond dealers kept their briefcases handcuffed to their wrists. The buzzer buzzed. I pushed through the door.
“Twelve dollars, seventy-two cents,” I said. I knew the orders the way I knew the addresses. Two coffees. One toasted bagel with chive cream cheese. Two fried eggs on a roll with American. Tax.
The woman handed me a twenty. She was pretty the way many women were pretty on 47th Street. A little heavy on the make-up. An obvious nose job. An aerobicized body. She wore a lot of rings on her polished fingers, trick of the trade to show off the office’s handy work. In the back a man wearing a gray apron worked over a wheel, polishing a diamond against rotating metal. A whining buzz, a feather of sparks.
“Just give me six back,” the woman said. Always a twenty. Always asked for six bucks back. She never looked me in the eyes.
I gave her the bills and thanked her, for she’d allowed me to walk down a frozen street with her breakfast for $1.28. To her we were bodies. Running bodies with hands that held bags. I turned to the door, put my hand on the knob, waited until she buzzed me out. Down the elevator. Out to the cold. Off to the next office. And the next. Past Berger’s, our only real restaurant competition on 47th Street. Back to Central Luncheonette, Big Sy standing behind the register. It was always warm inside. From the grill, the fryolator, the coffee machine, two spigots of dark brown that dripped each time a cup was poured. When it was slow, the three of us, Paul and Max and I, sat in the front booth, counted our change, and waited for the next orders to go out.
Max was standing in front of the counter surveying the bags. He wanted the best tippers and the closest locations. It was still early so he looked okay. His hair brushed back. His eyes almost clear, pale blue with a few lines of red. His belt buckle tight. His leather jacket zipped. His cap straight, the kind of cap they wore on reruns of The Bowery Boys, the show I sometimes watched on Classic TV back at my place, an illegal sublet in Hell’s Kitchen, before I went out for a few drinks of my own. I had dropped out of a class at The New School. I had dropped out of a class the term before. I’d been running lunches for over a year. I had an application in at U. Penn, the state I was from, but wouldn’t hear until April. Even if I got in, I didn’t know if I’d go.
“You went over to Passavant?” Max said.
“That was me.”
“They don’t tip so good.”
It was the same line every morning. Like he was commiserating but letting me know he wouldn’t take that bag in a million mornings.
“They tipped me a ten spot,” I said.
“Not those cheap bastards. What do you think?”
Big Sy put a bag on the counter next to the two already there. Max checked the address, snatched it up. Sy didn’t say anything. Max took one other bag, left the last and worst for me.
“It’s a cold one, Sy,” Max said.
“You’ll be warm enough soon.” I could tell Sy was in a mood.
“I promise,” Max said.
“I’m warning you.”
Max took his change and left.
“Let’s go. Pick this one up. It’s getting cold,” Sy told me.
I didn’t say anything. About the order that was left. About Max taking the good bags. It was Friday. I let loose on Fridays, made the night stretch all the way to morning. Kaplan was scribbled on the bill. Kaplan’s place was on the corner. Max was right to call him a cheap bastard.
“Go on,” Sy said. “Take it. He called to see where it was.”
I paid up, took the one bag. It was still early, so there were no hawkers standing in front of their stores, herding people in with promises of best buys, perfect diamonds, custom settings. The sun was on the north side of the block, but Kaplan’s was on the south. I kept my one free hand in my pocket. With the other I held the brown bag, palm up, warmed by two coffee cups.
47th Street. Between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. The Diamond District. There were diamonds on display in each storefront that really sparkled when the sun hit just right. There were neon signs proclaiming jewelers’ names, bursts of color on black and white days. There were beautiful women, dressed corporate, erect postures in heels and stockings, who came down from their offices to browse and dream of three-karat engagement rings. There were hawkers, fake-happy and loud, who lined the sidewalk starting at noon. There were men in fur coats, Hasidic Jews too rude to hold open a door when my hands were filled with bags. There were the Bridge and Tunnelers, taking their girlfriends to look at rare gems, a ploy, I sometimes thought, to get their girls in bed. There was the Cubic Zirconia crowd that settled for glass over stone. And there was action on this street, constant action. Aside from the missing men that made the newspaper headlines a couple times a year, there were muggers and pickpockets and kids who grabbed at purchases and ran. Usually they didn't get far. On 47th Street catching thieves was as much a routine as stealing. A cry would go up. The men on the street would give chase. They’d corner the petty thief and use their bodies to pin him against a wall and keep him there until the cops arrived to put on the cuffs for real. You had to be fast. To deliver lunches. To steal diamonds. To abduct men with briefcases attached to their wrists.
Kaplan gave me the usual quarter for two coffees delivered. He would have called me Boy if he could have. He was a relatively young guy trying to look younger. He had good hair, and he always looked polished, like he rubbed the cloth he rubbed jewelry with over his face, smoothing his cheeks, smoothing his forehead. I imagined putting his face through one of his pretty glass display cases whenever he put that quarter in my palm. Sometimes he would make me stand there until he was done talking to a customer like I had all the time in the world and his was the only delivery I had to make. I pocketed the quarter, said Thank you loud and clear. He’d called up Sy one time to complain I was rude because I hadn’t thanked him when he’d tipped me. Sy told me to watch it. He said I reflected his business and if he went out of business I’d be out a job too. Sy Stein had owned and operated Central Luncheonette for almost thirty years. He was thinking of retiring soon, giving the restaurant over to his two daughters, both fat, both less kind than their father. When Sy went away, two weeks in West Palm Beach in the winter, one week in the Poconos in the summer, his daughters worked the register. Flustered by the breakfast and lunch rushes, they would yell at us to get the deliveries out faster. And every day, by day’s end, they threatened to fire Max.
I walked back to Central with my hands in my pockets. Max was in front of me, shuffling his shuffle, one foot pointing out more than the other, a war wound to the right leg he said. He claimed he’d been in Vietnam, that he’d seen action, that he’d been discharged. A bunch of bastards, he said of the army.
It was too cold to walk slowly, but I let my step fall into his anyway.
“Hey Max,” I said.
He turned, smiled, his blue eyes mostly clear. I could smell the whiskey on him. The Blarney Stone, around the corner from Kaplan’s, was where Max went, where the diamond dealers who drank cheap martinis with their meat sandwiches also went. They chipped in to buy Max his favorite, Chivas Regal, until he was falling-down drunk. They got a kick out of seeing the old man go down. Max went down in stages. First his face sagged like the toasted cheese sandwiches Lester pulled from the broiler, puffed orange slices deflating and creasing in on themselves. Before Max went down for real, his eyes would go dead, his mouth would hang, his chin would drop. Big Sy said the ones that bought Max drinks should be shot.
“Where were you?” Max said.
I tucked my head to keep the wind from stinging my face.
“I walked by,” Max said. “I didn’t see you in there. Cheap bastard. It’s slow today.”
“Slow for Friday.”
“What do you think? The holidays are coming. Everyone’s saving their money. You buy a ticket this week?”
“I never buy a ticket.”
“Forty-three million. No winners on Wednesday. You better buy one.”
“I’ll think about it.”
“I bought ten. Ten quick picks.”
I pushed my hands deeper in my pockets. The cold was numbing my ears. Max didn’t seem to mind. The first Chivas of the day had warmed him.
“You’ll do all right,” Max said. “What do you think? You’re a good guy. Not like Paul.”
“He’s got a big mouth. He tries cutting in. He’s only been here four months, the bastard. I told Sy, but Sy told me to keep my mouth shut. He said Paul’s a good worker.”
“I could teach him a few things about running lunches.”
A man could learn all there was to know about running lunches in half a shift, but I didn’t tell that to Max. It was his life’s work. If he thought he could deliver a bag with more skill than the average Joe, I didn’t want to be the one bursting his bubble.
“He’s not smart like you,” Max said. “You’ll do all right.”
“I’m doing great.”
“Pennsylvania College. That’s a great school.”
“U. Penn,” I said.
“If I win Lotto, I’ll foot your bill.”
“I mean it. It’s possible. You never know. Like they say, You gotta be in it to win it.”
“That’s what they say.”
“That bastard Kaplan. Gave you a quarter, right?”
“Right. Hold off today, Max. Sy’s in a mood.”
“What do you think? It’s cold. His arthritis acts up when it’s cold.”
“Just hold off.”
“Hold off what?”
I opened the door for Max. The counter was lined with bags. Max took first dibs. I took second. Paul was out. The breakfast rush lasted another half hour. We ran the last of the orders just before eleven and then the restaurant went into its usual lull. The cooks got ready for lunch. Lester placed pans over steaming water. Chicken cutlets, meatloaf in gravy, macaroni and cheese, the special of the day, sliced brisket with roasted potatoes. Alvin, who came in at ten, a wiry Puerto Rican with big hands who told stories about playing minor league ball on the island, carried a fresh pastrami from the back kitchen to the slicer, then split two loaves of packaged bread, a knife touched against paper before breaking each package in two. Frank replaced grapefruits with rice pudding, Jell-O, fruit bowls. Santiago was already done with his chores, a calm before a bagging storm, fresh coffee perking. The waitresses sat in back and drank coffee. The runners, the three of us, sat in the front booth. Paul and I on one side. Max on the other. We all had plates in front of us, cheese omelets and home fries, rye toast. Cokes for me and Paul. Nothing for Max. He didn’t want anything mixing with his whiskey.
“You left me the shit orders,” Paul said.
“Take what you get,” Max said. He forked some eggs into his mouth, more gums than teeth.
“Next time I’ll block you out. I’m sick of your shit.”
“Any fights coming up this weekend?” Max said. “Maybe you can get another shiner.”
“I’ll give you a black eye, old man.”
“If I was younger, I’d take you outside right now. What do you think? You think I’m scared of you?”
“Shut up and eat your breakfast, old man.”
I listened mostly. The two of them argued all the time. Paul in his hard-guy Queens accent, a high-school dropout with a flat forehead and Popeye forearms. Max from Canarsie, the last stop on the L train, a train I took to First Avenue in Manhattan when I took it, sometimes to Greenpoint, but no further. Sometimes while the three of us ate, I looked up from my food to watch Sy standing behind the register, counting his money, the money he’d worked hard for, continued to work hard for. He was a big man, but he never ate the restaurant food. Sometimes he asked me to take the morning’s profits to the bank and I’d stuff the envelope full of bills deep in my pocket and think about sprinting into the sunset. But I always walked steady. Sy was a good man. He treated us fairly, let us go early if the calls stopped coming in, rarely yelled when the orders were backed up, allowed us to eat whatever we wanted. I’d drop the money in the outside bank drop, thick-handled, silver-polished with a weight to it, a solid closing action that said your money is now safe.
“What you doing this weekend?” Paul asked me.
“I don’t know. The usual. Hit some bars. Maybe a club.”
We’d gone out drinking twice and both times I’d picked up a girl. Paul thought I was the man, called me a pick-up artist to his friends.
“What you doing, Max?” Paul said.
“None of your business.”
“Smells to me like your weekend already started.”
“Leave him alone,” I said and Paul went back to his omelet.
I caught Big Sy looking up from the register, studying Max’s eyes. The three of us finished our meals. I picked up all three plates and walked them to the back, gave them to Guillermo in his kitchen whites. He smiled his gap-toothed smile, took the spray handle in his hand.
“Nada,” I said. And nothing was except lunch. The usual rush would start soon. Then around three we’d count out our money, eat, leave for the weekend. Nothing new.
The lunch rush came. One phone call. Another. Another. Sy scribbling orders. Santiago bagging lunches. People filling the counter. The waitresses taking orders at the tables. And the runners running. That’s what we were called. Runners. I always thought they were called delivery boys, but the boy part was degrading, inaccurate, a lot of the boys carrying bags around the city were men or almost men. Runner sounded better. More urgent. More professional. It didn’t sound so bad to tell someone you were a runner. When someone asked me what I did, that most inevitable of questions, I said Runner, loud and clear. It usually stopped there. They didn’t ask what I ran, so I didn’t have to say lunches. Maybe they assumed it was something they should know, a code name for something important. So they’d move forward with the conversation. That’s the way it was with bar banter. Pick you up. Pick me up. Body. Body. And then morning would come and I’d run with my body. I picked up four bags and ran.
The afternoon didn’t get any warmer. The wind stayed strong. The sun reached across the middle of 47th Street and touched the south side curb. I saw Max in the distance twice. Once coming out of the International Jewelers Exchange, unaware I was going in with my own delivery. His hands were empty. He’d made the run. His legs looked heavier than before, from cold and from age and mostly from drink. His lips were moving, cursing the world, his private rant his only outlet to counter a life spent waiting for tips with an outstretched palm, not much better than a guy asking for spare change or bumming a smoke. I too had come to hate this gesture of subservience. Sometimes we were next to each other, me and Max, running a lunch at the same time in one of the larger diamond exchanges where sales booths lined the walls. I’d glance over at the old man just to see him in action. Max was the picture of running etiquette. He smiled, he was polite, he made small talk when the customer started the talk, but as soon as he got back on the street his smile disappeared and his lips began to move, a quiet chant of bastard, bastard, bastard.
The second time I saw Max was at the end of the lunch rush. He was rounding the corner when I was almost at Kaplan’s, my hand warmed by two afternoon coffees. Max was drunk. The diamond dealers at the Blarney Stone had loaded him up. Rounds and rounds. Doubles. Maybe even splurged for the good stuff. Max loved Black Label. “What do you think? The Red Label’s good, but the Black Label’s better. Johnny Walker Black beats the Regal any day of the week.” That’s what Max said when he spoke about whiskey, making sure not to say a word in front of Paul, who would say something back, or in front of Sy, who would warn him to wait until the shift was over. It was getting worse for Max. The colder it got, the more he needed to warm himself, to coat over a life of running with his palm out. Max’s shirt was untucked. His hair was a mess. His cap was tilted to the side. His pants were coming down, the belt unbuckled from pissing out whatever he’d tried to piss out before he got back to Central. He was glaring at the street and his lips were moving.
I watched Max trying to walk. He bumped into a man in a fur coat with a briefcase cuffed to his hand. The man looked at Max with disgust. Max kept slow-walking, his right foot right-angled from his body. It wasn’t a war wound. I’d figured that out quickly. He received nothing from the army. The discharge had to have been dishonorable. The army didn’t like runners. That was my guess about Max. Just a guess. I didn’t know Max’s story. I knew he lived in Canarsie. I knew he worked at Central Luncheonette. I knew he took the best bags for himself.
I waited for Kaplan to tip me a quarter. I thanked him.
I hustled back to Central. Max was almost there. He was hardly walking, his pants down around his knees, his underwear off-white and yellow. The guys at the Blarney Stone must have had a great time seeing him. I imagined them cracking up, slapping each other’s backs, shaking their heads at this poor drunk they’d never become because they had people to go home to, things to spend money on, diamonds to sell. Drink filled a small hole, but their lives were mostly full, or so they thought. That was my guess, just a guess, about their lives.
I slowed. I didn’t want to walk in with Max. He stopped in front of the luncheonette’s door, adjusted his cap, unaware that his pants were down. He was able to open the door. I saw the glass catch the reflection of 47th Street, then lose it. I looked in the window of Orbach Gems, diamonds and precious stones sunk into velvet like buried treasure, sparkling engagement rings promising a lifetime of happiness. I walked into Central.
Max was standing across from the cash register, the position we assumed when we paid for bags. Max had his head down. Sy was yelling at him. Paul was standing off to the side watching, the last of his shiner more purple than blue.
“No more chances,” Sy was saying. “Every Friday it’s the same thing. We’ve got orders to go out and you’re in the bar drinking yourself blind. That’s it.”
“The guys asked me in for a drink,” Max said. He could hardly get the words out.
“Do you work for these guys?”
“They asked me in.”
“They asked you in? They want to see you fall down. They bet money on when you’ll fall down. You don’t think I hear them? They eat at my counter. You’re a joke to them.”
“No I’m not.”
“I can’t do this anymore, Max. You’re done here. That’s it.”
Big Sy took some cash out of the register. I watched him count out ten twenties and give them to Max.
“Take this. Get yourself home. I can’t carry you anymore.”
Max lifted his head. He looked around. His eyes were gone, red, heavy-lidded. A customer came up, sidestepped Max, paid for his meal, left. Sy looked up from the register.
“Go on,” Sy said.
“Tell him,” Max said to me.
“Tell him what?” I said.
“Tell him I never fell down. Not here. Not on 47th.”
“He knows that, Max.”
“Tell him. You’re better than this place. You don’t have to lie. Tell him. He trusts you. He trusts you with the bank. Tell him those cheap bastards don’t tip. Tell him the guys just asked me in for a drink.”
“Get out of here, Max,” Sy said. “Go on. It’s not good for business.”
“I’ll see you Monday,” Max said.
“Don’t come in on Monday. I’ll send you home.”
Max turned to Paul.
“If I was younger, I’d take you outside,” Max said. “I’m not scared of you.”
“Any time,” Paul said. “You old drunk.”
I looked at Paul. I thought about taking a swing at him, freshening the colors under his eye.
“What?” Paul said.
I shook my head. I didn’t want to get into the whats, the whys, the reasons a man drank himself stupid to forget, drank so hard the hard thoughts moved to the back and became missing pieces, fragments that were too tough to put together on hung-over mornings, and then you had your excuse, then you didn’t have to think at all. I knew how it was. I did it on the weekends. But I was still young enough to keep my pants belted tight when I worked, still young enough to keep my lips from moving.
“Tell him,” Max said.
“There’s nothing to tell me,” Sy said. “Get out.”
Max didn’t take Sy’s money. It would have been an admission that it was really over. Sy asked me to walk Max to the subway station. I took the old man’s arm and led him out the door.
“I’ll see you Monday,” Max said.
“Sure,” I said.
The sun was on our side of the street. Max squinted his already-slit eyes. I grabbed his pants and pulled them up over his waist and buckled his belt.
“You’re a good kid,” Max said.
We walked along 47th Street, my hand on his thin arm.
At the corner, Max said what he always said when he passed Kaplan’s.
And I opened my palm and looked at it.
Instead of walking Max to the subway, instead of putting him on a downtown train to the L train, Brooklyn-bound, I opened the door and walked Max into Kaplan’s. Kaplan was talking to a woman and her boyfriend. Kaplan’s hair was neatly in place. His fingers were manicured. He was leaning over a display case pointing out different rings.
Kaplan didn’t bother looking up until I walked Max right up to the display case, so close our legs touched the glass. The diamonds sparkled from the overhead lights.
“I didn’t order anything from Central,” Kaplan said.
“Tell him, Max,” I said.
“Tell him what?” Max’s eyes were almost closed.
“Tell him to his face. You’ve got nothing to lose now.”
Max’s eyes opened a little.
“Go on,” I said. “Tell him.”
I watched Max’s eyes lighten the way I hoped they would. He was sizing up Kaplan, recording the hundreds upon hundreds of bags he’d delivered to this man, or the bags he’d left us to deliver, this man with his own store, a new Mercedes, a home on Long Island, a family, not much missing, at least the way Kaplan saw it, just my guess. Max was seeing quarter after quarter after quarter, one at a time, dropped in an open palm. His eyes were open now, and maybe it was a trick from the overhead lights, lights installed to bring out all these diamonds, but his eyes looked more blue, less red.
“You’re a cheap bastard,” Max said.
The polish went out of Kaplan’s face.
“Excuse me?” he said.
“I said you’re a cheap bastard.”
“Get out of my store.”
“You’re a cheap fucking bastard. A lousy quarter. Keep your lousy quarter. Keep your quarter, you cheap fucking bastard.”
I tapped the display case once and stood up straight.
I forced Kaplan to look at me and then I forced him to look away.
“How was that?” I said to Max.
“What do you think?” Max said.
“It feels good to say it to their faces, doesn’t it? It feels good when they have to look you in the eyes.”
“What do you think?” Max said again.
I took Max’s arm and walked him out. I walked him across the few remaining sidewalk squares of 47th Street. I walked him around the corner and into the Blarney Stone. I sat Max down at a small booth for two, went up to the bar, and ordered two whiskeys, Johnny Walker Black.
Adam Berlin is the author of four novels, including Belmondo Style (St. Martin’s/winner of The Publishing Triangle’s Ferro-Grumley Award) and Both Members of the Club (Texas Review Press/winner of the Clay Reynolds Novella Prize). He teaches writing at John Jay College in NYC and co-edits the lit mag J Journal: New Writing on Justice. adamberlin.com/@AdamBerlinNYC
— Bill Gaythwaite
"People have always looked up to Glen ― in school, in sports, on the job. He knows he is endowed with something called leadership quality. He has courted this reputation, built it carefully, like a log cabin, but occasionally the obligation overwhelms him, and he feels up to his neck with it. It’s rather tiring to always be so dependable. "