At two-forty p.m. one December afternoon in 1972, a cab pulled up to the curb at Terminal A of Newark Airport. Hal Krantz paid the driver, collected a receipt, and walked briskly into the terminal.
"American Airlines flight nine seven three, departing Newark for San Juan, Puerto Rico at three-thirty p.m. will begin pre-boarding in a few minutes...Gate thirty-four..."
Hal, in his late thirties with flecks of gray at the temples of his dark brown hair, wore a blue suit and tie, covered by a tan Burberry raincoat. He carried a brown leather briefcase, and a tan garment bag. Hal stopped at the entrance to gate thirty-four, glanced at his watch, and looked in both directions
"United Airlines flight fourteen, departing Newark for Chicago at three-fifteen...Now boarding at gate number thirty-one."
Head down, self-absorbed, Mitch Johnson, a black man in his late thirties, walked by slowly, as though the life had drained out of him. A day's growth of stubble covered his cheeks, and his short curly hair receded high up the temples. He wore a light blue windbreaker, and khaki-colored slacks. Hal looked at him with growing intensity.
Mitch stopped, turned around. The two men stared at each other, struggling to remember.
"Mitch Johnson? Is that you?"
"My, God, how long's it been?" Hal asked.
"Since South Side High..."
Hal lowered his brief case to the floor and shook Mitch's hand vigorously. "I can't believe it! Mitch! It's so great to see you!"
"You're lookin' real good, Hal. Where you headed?"
"Puerto Rico," Hal replied.
"Puerto Rico! I hear it's real pretty down there."
"Business trip. I'm with the EPA."
“Uh-huh,” Mitch said, pretending to understand.
"The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency..."
"Environment? You a scientist?"
"Me?" said Hal, smiling. "I near flunked chemistry in school! I'm in public affairs...I help the journalists who write about the environment."
"United Airlines flight fourteen, Newark to Chicago, now boarding at gate number thirty-one..."
Hal looked around, then glanced at his watch. "I'm supposed to meet a guy from my office. We're flying down together."
"Oh, then don't let me keep you," Mitch said.
"No problem! We can talk right here, while I wait. How about you, do you have time?"
"I...just got in," Mitch said. "I'm cool."
"Great." Hal pointed to a nearby row of plastic chairs. They sat down. "And your folks?" Hal asked. "How are they?"
"My Dad, he passed three years ago.” Mitch tapped his fist against his chest. “The heart."
"Gee, I'm sorry..."
"My Mom, she's fine," Mitch said. "She lives with Lonnie, my older brother, remember? He never married..."
"And your little brother? Whatsisname?"
"Artie. He's a stockbroker. Lives up in Montclair. Two kids. Drives a Mercedes..."
"That's great. And how about you?" Hal asked.
"I'm still playin' the field...renting in Irvington..."
"I'm right near you, in Maplewood!" Hal said. "Married. Kids. Mortgage! Just got back to Jersey. I was away quite a few years."
"So you missed the riots in sixty-seven," Mitch said.
Hal shook his had sadly. "First time I drove down Springfield Avenue...all those homes and stores burned to the ground...I couldn’t believe it!”
"Yeah, it's a bitch."
“I guess nothin’ stays the same anymore...”
"Mama, he treats your daughter mean..." Flashback twenty years to an afternoon in December of 1952. On the phonograph, Ruth Brown belted out her latest 78 rpm R&B hit. Hal, a few months shy of his eighteenth birthday, lounged on the sofa in the modest, neatly furnished living room of the Johnson family apartment on Sherman Avenue in Newark. Smoking a Pall Mall, Hal glanced at the sports pages of the Newark Star-Ledger, and tapped his feet to the music.
"He's the meanest man I've ever seen..."
Mitch, nineteen, stood near the phonograph, snapping his fingers, and moving vigorously to the music. "Whooooaaaa! That bitch can sing!"
"Mama, he takes my money, makes me call him honey..."
"When are your folks coming home?" Hal asked.
"Lonnie took 'em Christmas shopping at that new Two Guys store over in Harrison. My mom said she'll be back to cook dinner."
"Can I see the letter again?" Hal asked.
Mitch, still snapping his fingers to Ruth Brown, walked over to the new 12-inch Dumont TV -- a gift from Lonnie -- and retrieved a letter from the clutter of mail atop the set. He handed it to Hal, who had read it several times since it arrived a week ago.
"Jee-sus. Fifteen thousand dollars to play baseball! For the Cleveland Indians!"
"Soon as the first check arrives I'm gonna buy my mom a brand-new Frigidaire," Mitch said. "That old heap makes such a racket we can't sleep!"
"Man, you're gonna be on the same field with Bob Feller ... Larry Doby..."
Laughing, Mitch replied: "You mean, they're gonna be on the same field with me!"
Mitch, a left-hander, reached over to a fruit bowl on the coffee table, grabbed an orange, and went through the motion of preparing to pitch, with a man on first base. "The Cleveland scout said I got the best pickoff move he's ever seen," Mitch said, glancing over toward the invisible runner on first base. "How many runners 'd we get this last season?"
"Six or seven," Hal said. "You on the mound, me at first, we made one helluva team." Hal rose from the sofa, and bent over near an imaginary first base, guarding the invisible base runner. Hal punched his left fist into the invisible mitt on his right hand. He held up the mitt as a target. "Atta boy, Mitchie baby," he called out. "C'mon now, throw a strike!"
Mitch looked to "home plate," raised his front leg, appeared about to throw there, but let his front leg drop in the direction of Hal, and gently flipped the orange to Hal, who put the tag on the runner.
"Out!" yelled Hal, who then peeled the orange, and proceeded to eat it. "When you goin' down to Florida for spring training?" Hal asked.
"Mitch, is it really true that down South colored people have to sit in the back of the bus?"
"Maybe some Nee-groes. But not the big leaguers. You don't see no Jackie Robinson in the back of no bus! No, sir!
An afternoon in late December 1952. Hal's grandmother, in her eighties, sat at the kitchen table of the apartment on Belmont Avenue in Newark. It was a modestly furnished apartment, like the Johnsons’. Her silver hair tied in a bun, her hands trembling slightly, Grandma read The Forward, a Yiddish daily. She licked her thumb, turned a page. She was in the grip of the latest installment of a fascinating story about Holocaust survivors, by a writer named Isaac Bashevis Singer.
There was a knock at the door. Grandma Krantz laid aside The Forward, rose, and walked slowly on slippered feet to the door. When she opened, Mitch smiled at her.
"Is Hal home? We're supposed to go to the basketball game..."
"Herold! Your friend is here!"
Hal yelled from the bedroom. "Be right out, Mitch! I'm gettin' dressed!"
"Remember!" the elderly woman said. "First, you heff to go bakery!"
"Aw, Grandma! I'll be late. Can't I go tomorrow?"
"I'll go!" Mitch said.
Grandma looked at Mitch, a bit skeptically.
"Where's the bakery?" Mitch asked.
"What d'ya need?"
Grandma opened a small purse, removed a couple of wrinkled dollar bills, and gave them to Mitch. "I vant you should bring me a small pumpernickel, sliced..."
"Small pumpernickel, right..."
"Should be sliced."
"...end heff a pound Keech-lach..."
"Keech-lach," Grandma said.
"Keech-lach...Like sugar cake...good mit cup tea..."
"Kee-klocks," Mitch said. "Be right back!" He ran out the door, just as Hal entered the kitchen, buttoning his shirt.
"He vent bakery," said Grandma, shrugging her shoulders. "For pumpernickel...end keech-lach!" Hal looked amused.
"You should take heavy jecket," Grandma said.
Grandma took an apple from a fruit bowl atop the kitchen table, and gave it to Hal. "Take epple, too. Maybe you get hungry. Vot time you come home?"
"I'll be late, Grandma. We're goin' out after the game. Tonight, all you gotta do is turn on the teevee. I set it to your favorite channel.
"Grandma, it's Arthur God-free. He's not Jewish. He's Irish."
"Artur Gah-fieldt is Irish?"
Another knock on the door. Hal opened, and there was Mitch. Proudly, Mitch handed a paper bag and small change it over to Grandma. "Here it is. Pumpernickel, sliced. And...kee-klocks!"
Grandma regarded Mitch with wonder, as though he'd performed a miracle. She smiled. "Denk you. Such a nice young men."
Grandma reached into the bag, and pulled out one of the sweet cakes. She offered it to Mitch. "Here. Is goot."
Mitch took a bite. "Mmmm. Kee-klocks!" Grandma beamed at Mitch, and at Hal.
Moments later, Hal and Mitch were outdoors, shoulders hunched over against the December cold, walking towards the school gymnasium.
"I see Walcott's gettin' a rematch with Marciano," Hal said.
"Jersey Joe's gonna get his ass whupped again."
"Too old," Mitch said. "Slow as molasses. Now you take Joe Louis..." Mitch began jabbing, dancing around, like a boxer. "In his prime, Joe Louis, he'd whup Marciano's ass real good! Remember when that German guy beat Louis with a lucky punch?"
"Yeah, Schmeling. Then Joe gets a rematch. Wham! Wham! Tears him apart. Broke his ribs 'n all."
"Yeah. I saw it on Greatest Fights of the Century."
They walked along silently for a moment.
"Hal, can you do me a big favor?"
"You know Marlene. Marlene Wollensky? I wanna go out with her. Real bad."
So? You got a car dontcha?" Hal said.
"Where you been, man? Cops catch me alone with a white chick, my ass is grass. What am I gonna say? 'Oh hello offisuh, ah's dee cho-fer.' And if her father finds out...that cat is a gangster. He packs a gun."
"Yeah, man. He runs vending machines. Walks around with a roll o' cash this thick...and a gun."
"Mitch, your picture's always in the paper. Every place we go, people say hello. You can get any girl you want! Why mess with Marlene?"
"There's somethin' special about Marlene," Mitch said. "She likes me, too. I know it."
"Is it 'cause she's white?" Hal asked. "Seems like every girl you go after is white..."
Mitch laughed. "Look who's talking! I seen you in the halls, makin' eyes at that pretty colored gal!"
"Don't who me, man! The cheerleader!"
Hal’s face reddened. "Janet Randolph?"
"Yeah, Janet," Mitch said. "Seems like for me and you, the ass is always greener on the other side of the fence!” After a pause, Mitch added, ”I was thinking, maybe we could go on a double date."
"You and Marlene and me and Janet? I don't even know if she'd go out with me."
"Oh, she will," Mitch said.
"How do you know?"
"I already asked her."
"Janet lives right around the corner from me," said Mitch. "I saw her the other day in the candy store. I told her you wanted to go out with her!"
"And what did she say?"
"At first she got a little sassy," Mitch said, then imitating her voice: Why don't he ask me himself?"
"And then what?"
"I said you were sorta shy, but you really wanted to go out with her..."
"I think she likes you..."
"Stop the bullshit..."
"She does! She told me yes! She'll go out!"
Hal remained silent.
"Whatsa matter?" Mitch asked. "You never been out with a colored chick before? My big brother Lonnie. When he was stationed down in Panama during the war, he made it with white, colored, even Chinese! Lonnie says they're all the same in the dark!"
"It's not that," Hal said, looking away. "I don't have a car yet, like you. How'm I gonna take a girl out, even if I wanted to!"
"You mean you've never been out with a girl?"
"We talk in the hall at school sometimes," Hal said. "There's this girl in my neighborhood. Sometimes, when she babysits, she invites me over for a while."
"Well, man, you gotta start sometime!"
Hal looked away. Mitch, laughing, poked Hal in the ribs. "You scared shit! Aintcha?"
"I never know what to talk about with girls!" Hal said. "Hangin' round the corner with the guys, it's easy. Who had the best batting average? Who won the final game of the forty-six series? But with girls..."
Mitch reassured him. "Man, don't worry. I'll tell you all you need to know."
"Like what? When I see Janet in the halls, I say 'hi' and she says 'hi' right back. Then we smile, and that's it! I don't know what else to say!"
"First of all, when you see a girl, you tell her how nice she looks," Mitch said. "They love that."
"Uh-huh. That takes exactly five seconds. Then what?"
"Then maybe you tell a joke or two. Girls like to laugh."
"I hear lotsa jokes, can't remember a one," Hal said.
"None at all?"
"Well, let's see. My Uncle Murrey, he tends bar down on Halsey Street. Hears lotsa jokes. Last week he came over, told me this one. Guy walks into a store. He asks the clerk: 'Got any dates?' The clerk says 'no.' Then the guy asks: 'got any nuts?' The clerk answers: 'Listen buddy, if I had nuts, I'd have dates!'"
Mitch looked at him, unamused.
Hal pointed to his groin. "Get it? If he had nuts, he'd have dates!"
"Yeah, yeah. I think we better forget about the jokes. Don’t worry, man! You’ll be fine!
Hal looked unconvinced. "Gee, I don't know, Mitch."
"I'm thinkin' about a New Year's Eve party," Mitch said. "My place."
"New Year's Eve! That's next week!"
"Marlene and Janet said OK."
"What about your folks?"
"Lonnie's drivin' 'em down to Virginia to visit family," Mitch said. "We'll have the whole place to ourselves. Just the four of us. Have ourselves a ball."
"Oh! One more thing," Mitch said. "First I'll pick you up. Then we drive over to Janet's. I'll go up and get her. She told her folks she's comin' over to my house, for a family party. Then...we go over to Marlene's place. You go up and get her."
Hal suddenly stopped walking. "Me! Didn't you say Marlene's dad packs a gun?"
"Well I can't get her! He'd probably shoot me before I get halfway up the stairs! C'mon, man, do it for your buddy."
"Come on...What else you gonna be doin' New Year's Eve?" Mitch grabbed at Hal's crotch. "Messin' with li'l ol' Mister In-Between?"
The evening of December 31, 1952. A knock at the door of the Wollensky apartment. Marlene ran out of the bedroom, and opened the door. She was seventeen, buxom, with a mane of black hair and lively blue eyes.
“Hi, Hal! Right on time! Come in for a second. I’m almost done with my hair.”
Hal entered, looking around nervously, as though expecting disaster to strike at any moment.
“Who’s there?” a male voice growled. In came Mister Sheldon Wollensky, a man in his late forties, wearing a tux, brilliantly shined shoes, holding an unlit cigar in one hand. He was dapper, tough, like a retired middleweight.
“Daddy, this is my date tonight, Hal Krantz.”
Mister Wollensky eyed Hal up and down. He was suspicious of any male predator going out with his daughter. He reached out to shake Hal’s hand, holding it in an iron grip, and spoke in a voice that was calm, but laden with menace.
“Krantz? Your name is Krantz?”
“So where are you going tonight?”
“To a party, daddy,” interjected Marlene.
“I was asking him,” said Mister Wollensky, staring at Hal.
“Friends...they’re giving a party.”
“Friends? What friends?”
“Cousins of mine,” said Hal. “The Greenbergs. They have a house up on Osborne Terrace.”
Mister Wollensky released Hal’s hand. “Osborne Terrace. Nice neighborhood.”
“I’ve got to finish doing my hair,” said Marlene, retreating to the bedroom.
“Tell your mother to hurry it up,” said Mister Wollensky, glancing at his wristwatch. He turned to Hal again.
“So, Hal, where do you live?”
“Over on Belmont, just three blocks away.”
“Where on Belmont?”
“Five ten Belmont. Second floor.”
“Marlene tells me you play baseball.”
“In my day, I played football. The goyim and the schvartzes thought they could push a little Jewboy around. A few broken ribs later, they learned different.”
Mister Wollensky fixed him with a hard stare. “Never again, right?”
Marlene came out of the bedroom. “We have to go now Daddy.”
Mister Wollensky reached for his side pocket. Hal tensed, and wondered: is he going for his gun? Mister Wollensky pulled out a fat wad of money, and peeled off a twenty-dollar bill. He took a pen from his shirt pocket and scribbled on the bill.
“Just in case, here’s the phone number of the Rainbow Room. We’re sitting at Longie Zwillman’s table.”
“Okay daddy,” said Marlene, taking the bill.
“I want you back here no later than one o’clock.”
“Don’t worry, daddy, I’ll be fine. I’ll be back by two.”
Pleading, sweet-talking, Marlene caressed her father’s cheek. “Two?”
Softening, he said, “one-thirty. It’s a deal.”
Marlene hugged her father. Mister Wollensky put his arm around Marlene and stared at Hal. “This is precious cargo I’m entrusting to you.”
“Yes sir,” said Hal, as Marlene walked over to a wall mirror for a last-second touch up of her hair.
Coming closer to Hal, Mister Wollensky whispered, “She’s not here by one-thirty, I’ll be coming to see you, personally, at five-ten Belmont Avenue. Second floor, fershtay?”
“Yes sir” said Hal, frozen with fear.
Glancing at his watch, impatient, Mister Wollensky called out towards his wife in the bedroom, “Sheila! How much longer?” as Hal and Marlene dashed for the door.
A car radio played Errol Garner in a soaring piano solo of Lover. Mitch sat in the driver's seat of his tan 1941 Ford sedan. In the back seat was Janet Randolph, a black girl, age seventeen. She was tall and slender, with a shy smile.
Hal came running up to the car with Marlene. He opened the rear door and sat in the back, next to Janet; they eyed each other, smiling shyly. Marlene, sitting up front with Mitch, glanced back at Janet--they knew each other from school--and waved merrily.
Laughing, Marlene said, "When Hal came upstairs to get me, he was shaking!"
"Your dad gave me the third degree!”
“Don’t worry. I know how to get around him.”
“You do! But what about me?”
“I told him I was going out tonight with a nice Jewish boy” said Marlene, giggling.
Caressing Hal's cheek, Marlene said, "Such a nice Jewish boy!" She then reached over, dramatically, to Mitch, like a silent screen star. "If they do see thee, they will murder thee.”
Mitch placed his hand on his heart. "Alack, there lies more peril in thine eyes than twenty of their swords.”
"Mitch, I didn't know you like Shakespeare!" said Janet.
"Miss Emery had us readin' some lines in English class this week. I really dug it. Kinda like Marlene and me."
Marlene embraced Mitch, with an exaggerated flourish, and said: "Forbidden love!"
Hal and Janet, sitting quietly in back, eyed each other shyly.
"You look nice," Hal said.
"Thank you," she replied.
Silence. Hal groped for something else to say.
"Thank you, Hal. You do, too."
Hal and Janet smiled at each other. They both appeared a bit relieved.
"At last, my love has come along. My lonely days are over. And life is like a song," sang Etta James on the phonograph. The Johnson family apartment was dimly lit. It was shortly before midnight. A half-empty bottle of Seagram's 7 Whiskey, bottles of 7-Up, and a dish of potato chips were on a coffee table.
"At last the skies above are blue..."
Mitch and Marlene--she had been drinking heavily--slow danced close together, "belly rub" style, gazing into each other's eyes. They laughed, and occasionally kissed. Several feet away, Hal and Janet also slow danced, not quite as close together. They were both nervous.
"What are your plans after graduation, Hal?" Janet asked.
"If the Army doesn't get me first, guess I'll go to Rutgers, right here in Newark. Can't afford to go away."
"It's really expensive," Janet said. My folks saved up a long time so my brother Malcolm could go to Howard. That's down in Washington."
"Yeah, I know. Jimmy Young, from the baseball team? He's going to Howard next year."
"Malcolm's studying to be a teacher. Nice steady job."
"What about you?"
"My dad says a girl has to be independent. I'm going to business school up in East Orange. Learn bookkeeping."
"I'm okay in English or history," Hal said. "But algebra? That's like Greek to me!"
Janet brightened. "I get straight A's in math. "I love dealing with numbers. When you work on a problem, and it comes out just perfect...it's as if the whole world makes sense!" She broke into a brilliant smile.
"You're so good in math," said Hal. "Tell me: how much is five q plus five q?"
"That's easy! Ten q!"
"You're velcome!" said Hal.
Janet opened her mouth, with delight. Hal was proud, and relieved, that he'd told a joke. "Actually, I heard that on the Milton Berle show. But it's exactly the way my grandma talks."
Janet giggled. "It's cute!"
"Tenk you!" Janet giggled again.
"Maybe if I have a problem with math I can see you after school sometime"
"Sure, any time," Janet said.
“Tenk you!” said Hal, evoking more giggles.
Marlene broke away momentarily from Mitch’s arms, took another swig of whiskey from her glass on the table, and returned to him.
“You gonna write to me when I go to spring training?”
“I’ll think about it,” she said, teasing him.
“You’re not gonna miss me?”
“Maybe…” she said, as Mitch tickled her. Marlene squirmed in his arms and tickled him back.
“When you’re a big star, you’ll probably forget all about me,” she said.
“Oh, no! I’ll send you an autographed photo, signed: ‘From Romeo to Juliet.’
“My Dad’ll love that!” she said.
“Hey, you can tell him it’s just my Florida tan!” They both laughed.
"Next April, I'm getting my driver's license," Hal said. "This guy in my neighborhood has a forty-seven Mercury convertible. Says he'll sell it to me cheap. He's buying a new model."
"Convertible. Sounds beautiful!" Janet said.
"It's dark blue. Nice leather seats. And a radio. I'm working after school, saving up. Maybe I could take you for a ride some day."
“I...just want you to know...I really enjoy talking with you.”
“Tenk you!” she replied. They both laughed.
Hal and Janet looked over at Mitch and Marlene, on the sofa. They were quiet now, and kissing passionately. Hal rested his cheek against Janet's cheek. It felt hot to the touch. He wondered: Is my cheek burning like that, or hers? Hal pulled back and looked into Janet's eyes. They were lovely almond-shaped eyes, dark brown, glistening in the dim light. Hal tentatively kissed Janet on the lips. She responded. Hal rested his hand on Janet's small, firm breast. She kept kissing him. Hal slowly slid his hand down below Janet's stomach. She stopped him, and held his hand in hers.
"Uh-uh. Not there."
"I'm saving that...for my honeymoon."
"What if the Russians drop the atomic bomb?" Hal asked. "There'll be nothing worth saving it for!"
Janet smiled sweetly, and looked into Hal's eyes. "When they drop the bomb, you give me a call. I'll be waiting by the phone."
Hal gently rested his hand back on Janet's breast. They continued slow dancing, and kissing. Suddenly, Janet glanced at her wristwatch, and stopped dancing. "My God, it's nearly midnight!" she said.
Janet rushed over to the radio, and turned it on. She moved along the dial, as Mitch turned off the phonograph. "...and here we are at the Rainbow Room in Rockefeller Center, ladies and gentlemen ... with Guy Lombardo and his Orchestra, to usher in the New Year. In just a few seconds it will be 1953! Let's count down...ten! nine! eight!"
All four of them joined in. "Seven! Six! Five! Four! Three! Two! One! Hap-py New Year!" Hal and Janet, and Mitch and Marlene kissed, as Guy Lombardo's Orchestra played "Auld Lang Syne."
Suddenly, Marlene lurched towards the sofa, and vomited behind it. Mitch ran over, and looked. "Shit, Marlene! You puked all over my mom's carpet!"
Marlene, half sitting, half lying on the sofa, was totally bombed. Moaning, she rose weakly, and threw up again behind the sofa. "Shit!" Mitch yelled again.
Janet, like a take-charge mother, rushed over to Marlene. Then she began barking orders. "Mitch, get a bucket, with some soap and water. Got any coffee in the kitchen?"
Glaring at Mitch, Janet said, "You know you gave her too much to drink..."
"Gave her! I told her to slow down!"
"Hal," Janet said, "you watch her while I get the coffee going." Janet and Mitch hurried into the kitchen. Hal sat next to Marlene on the sofa. Trying to comfort her, he took her hand.
"Oh, I wanna die," Marlene moaned. "I wanna die! Kill me, somebody, please! Kill me!"
"Marlene, if you're gonna puke again, please don't do it on me."
Marlene laughed. "Such a nice Jewish boy...Oh, I wanna die." She leaned over and threw up again behind the sofa, just as Mitch came rushing in with the pail and mop. Mitch slipped and nearly fell in the mess.
"Shit!" Mitch yelled. "Shit! Shit!"
Janet came in with the coffee. She sat with Marlene, who continued to moan, and helped her to sip the coffee. Looking at Hal, Janet said: "Soon as we clean up, and give her the coffee, I think we should take her home. I'd better be going, too."
"Yeah, I guess," Hal replied. Will I see you in school next week?"
"In April, when I get my car...maybe we could go for rides... into New York..."
"I'd like that," Janet said.
Mitch tapped Hal on the shoulder. Hal rose, and reluctantly moved away from Janet.
"The carpet...my mother's gonna kill me," Mitch said. "The whole fuckin' night's shot. We better take 'em home."
"Yeah, I guess...” Hal said half-heartedly, casting a doleful glance at Janet.
"Then we're goin' to...Times Square!"
"Times Square?" said Hal. "Now? You're fuckin' nuts."
"The night is young, and we're so beautiful!"
"Mitch, it's an hour's drive. By the time we clean up here, and drop off the girls, and get there, it'll be after two a.m."
"I don't give a shit, man. We're gonna get us some pussy, some qwif! some poon-tang!"
New Year's Day 1953. A darkened room in a rundown hotel near Times Square. The faint sounds of traffic from the street below were audible. The early morning sunlight peeked through a torn window shade. Mitch and Hal were uncomfortably sharing a small, squeaky bed. Hal began to giggle.
"What?" Mitch growled.
"I can't sleep with that noise outside. Mitch, did you fart?"
"Man, if I laid a fart, you'd need earplugs and a gas mask!"
"Well, I smell something weird."
"Must be your feet," Mitch said. "Did you take your socks off?"
Hal tossed, turned, and finally sat up. "Man, I think there's fleas in this bed."
"Maybe you got a case o' the crabs," Mitch said, grumpily. "Gotta get you some blue ointment."
"No, I think it's fleas. Now I know what they mean when they say 'fleabag hotel.'"
"We couldn't stay at no Waldorf," Mitch said. "All I had was eight bucks."
"Man, I'm gonna be in deep shit when I get home," Hal said. "I've never stayed out overnight like this."
"I was too sleepy to drive," Mitch said. "And since you don't have your license yet, little boy..."
Hal laughed. "Man, when we checked in last night, the guy at the desk looked at us like we're a coupla queers!"
"Fuck him. Probably a fag himself."
Hal rose from the bed, pulled up the window shade, and the bright morning light poured in. Mitch shielded his eyes. "Don't!"
In a mocking tone, Hal said: "We gonna get us some pussy! Some qwif. Some poon-tang! Man, wait'll I tell the guys! We get to Times Square. It's two-thirty in the fuckin' a.m., and what do we find? A few drunks passed out. Vomit and piss all over. Garbage flyin' around in the wind!"
Mitch jumped up, grabbed Hal and began to tickle him. "You better not say word one to nobody!"
"Okay, okay! I promise!" Hal said, laughing. He sat up in a chair, and lit a Pall Mall. "You know, that Janet? She's real nice!"
"What did I tell you, man?"
"Mitch, this last night was...like..."
"A fuckin' disaster is what it was."
"I mean...It's like...soon we'll be startin' a whole new life," Hal said. "In a few days, after graduation, we--all the guys--are splittin' up. You're goin' down to Florida. I'm goin' to college."
"You better stay in college," Mitch said. "Else Uncle Sam'll draft your ass, send you to Ko-ree-uh. Get your ass killed."
"Mitch, what about that college scholarship they offered you?"
"Forget it. Artie's the bookworm in the family."
"You could major in phys ed...be a phys ed teacher."
"Yeah," Mitch said. "And get me a shitty job teachin' basketball to a buncha snot-nosed little nee-grows in the get-toe. No thanks, man."
"You could coach at a high school, or even a college..."
"Shit, you must be blind. When's the last time you seen a colored coach anywhere?"
"They didn't let colored play in the big leagues a few years ago. Now you're going to spring training! With the Cleveland Indians!"
"Well, whatever," said Mitch. "I ain't gonna be no fuckin' sorry ass teacher."
"What the hell's wrong with bein' a teacher?"
"Is that what you wanna be? A teacher?"
"No...I don't know what I wanna be!" Hal said.
"My brother Lonnie, works down at the airport," said Mitch. "Steady paycheck. Every Sunday, he's outside, simonizin' his car. Happy as a pig in shit. Not me, man. I want more. I wanna be somebody. I want a big apartment on Fifth Avenue. And when I go around town, I want people to open doors for me, and say ‘Hello Mister Johnson.’"
"I don't know, man," Hal said. "Tonight...it's like the end of somethin'. I hope we stay buddies forever."
"Sure," Mitch said. "When I'm in the big leagues, an' you call, I'll make sure my secretary always gives you an appointment." He laughed, and rose from the bed. "I'm hungry. Let's go get us some eggs."
"United Airlines announces the arrival of flight number fourteen from Atlanta..."
"I wonder what ever became of them," Hal said.
"Who?" Mitch asked.
"Last I heard -- this was years ago -- Janet got married, moved out of state," Hal said. "I don't know what happened with Marlene."
"Me neither. I lost touch after South Side."
"Mitch. When you first went to spring training, you sent me a postcard from Florida."
"But then I went into the Army..."
"I got drafted, too. But the shootin' was over, thank God. Now we’re in this fuckin’ Vietnam mess. Glad we’re too old for the draft!"
"Mitch...Whatever happened with the baseball?"
"I went to the Indians' training camp. Did real good. They sent me down to Buffalo, Triple A, for some seasoning. Few weeks later, my arm goes bad. Like a rubber band pulled too far. Snapped. Fast ball lost its hop. I was still hittin' pretty good. So they put me in the outfield. I played a coupla years, and they dropped me..."
"Gee, that's a shame..."
"After the Army, I signed up with the Negro League. Traveled all over America, in a bus. Had me some wild times..."
Smiling, Hal recalled: "I'll never forget the look on your mom's face when you cashed your first bonus check and bought her that big Frigidaire. That afternoon, when they delivered it, huffin' and puffin' up the stairs, they could hardly get it through the door!"
"Yeah. That Frigidaire lasted a good number of years..."
"You still playing ball, Mitch?"
"Nah. Few years ago, out in Kansas City, I ran into the left field wall. Fucked up my knee."
"So what are you doin' now?"
"My brother Lonnie...he still works here...got me this gig..."
"You work here? At the airport?"
"Yeah, man. Baggage handler...it's just temporary..."
"Hell, it's honest work..."
"Guy I know owns a bar in East Orange. Wants me to go in with him...get started in business..."
"That's a great idea..."
"Looks like you got it made," Mitch said.
"Yeah, I guess...Truth is, some afternoons I sit at my desk, and stare at the clock on the wall...waiting for it to be five o'clock!"
Mitch reached into his back pocket, pulled out a wallet, extracted a lottery ticket, and stared at it. "I play the lottery. Every week."
Hal patted his back pocket. "Me too. Jersey and New York both. Oh, and there's this guy sits near me at the office."
"We talk a lot. He's kind of...odd."
"Not really odd, but a little effeminate..."
"Uh-huh!" Mitch said.
"But he never messes with me. Says he's got a system to beat the horses. He's gonna take me to Aqueduct and show me how it works."
"He got such a great system, how come he's sitting around with you in the office, nine t' five, starin’ at the clock, with his finger up his ass?"
Laughing, Mitch said: "I think that faggot wantsa take you on a date to the track, and later jump your bones!"
"No, he would never..."
"Ah'm just kiddin’ you, man..."
"You ever see any of the guys at South Side?" Hal asked.
"Nah, after the riots lots of folks moved away."
"Your attention please. American Airlines Flight Nine Seven Three, bound for San Juan, Puerto Rico, will now begin pre-boarding at gate number thirty-five..."
"Sounds like your flight, man."
"Still got time," Hal said. "You know what I remember best? I'll never forget? One night, you took me to this club downtown. The one with Mister Goo-glee Eyes!"
Mitch chuckled. "Oh, yeah."
"We're sittin' there in this dark club, drinking Seven 'n Seven..."
"...an' eatin' fried chicken!" Mitch recalled. "It must've been a Wednesday night--yeah!-- 'cause they always served fried chicken on Wednesdays!"
"...out on the stage comes this tall skinny guy...with his hair slicked back...Mister Goo-Glee Eyes!"
"He grabs the floor mike," Mitch said, "sticks it between his legs, like it was a big shiny dick..."
Hal, opening his eyes wide, said, "He stares at it with those big Goo-Glee Eyes, and he sings..."
Mitch sang in a bass voice:"Ah got somethin' long an' tan, ah'm the last o' the b-i-i-g r-ah-ah-kin' men!"
"The door to the street opens, remember?" Hal said. "An' Mister Goo-Glee Eyes looks over, with them big eyes. He drops the mike..."
"...and he runs out the door!"
"And then... bam! bam! gunshots! I nearly shit in my pants..."
"I heard later somebody owed him big dough, or he owed," Mitch said.
"I never found out who got shot, Mister Goo-Glee Eyes, or the other guy," Hal said. "You grabbed me, we drove away."
"Man, you were so...innocent!" Mitch said. "You had to know the cops'll be there fast. If we hang around...drinkin' Seven 'n Seven...under age and shit..."
"Mitch, why don't we have a South Side reunion? You and me, we'll get everyone together. It might be hard finding the girls, since most of them probably go by their married names, but I'm sure if we asked..."
"Hal! Sorry I'm late." Jerry Phillips, a white man in his early forties, interrupted their reverie. He wore a suit, tie, black topcoat, with dark heavy-rimmed glasses. Holding his briefcase and a carry-on, he glanced nervously at his watch.
"Jerry, meet one of my best buddies from high school. Mitch Johnson, meet Jerry Phillips. Works with me at EPA." Mitch shook hands with Jerry, who was clearly in a hurry.
"Mitch was the best pitcher in the whole state of New Jersey," says Hal. "He had one hell of a fastball. And his overhand sinker? It would come in right at the letters, you'd swing, and it was down around your knees!
Mitch sized up Jerry and asked: "You from Jersey?"
"Long Island...Great Neck."
"He once pitched, and won a double-header," Hal said. "Against Weequahic High."
"That's ancient history," Mitch said, feeling embarrassed.
"Then he got a big bonus to sign up with the Cleveland Indians..."
"Really?" Jerry said. "When was that?"
"Back in fifty-three. But my arm went bad..."
"Tough luck," Jerry said distractedly.
"American Airlines flight nine seven three to San Juan, Puerto Rico, now boarding..."
"Where you headed, Mitch?" Jerry asked.
Looking at Hal, Mitch lied: "Home...I just...got in."
Jerry glanced nervously at his watch. "Hal, we better..."
"We've still got a coupla minutes! You gotta hear this." Hal looked at Mitch. "Remember the time against Whitey Ford?"
"Whitey Ford?" Jerry asked, warming up to the subject. "Of the Yankees? You guys played against Whitey Ford?"
"Yep," Mitch said.
"I saw him pitch at the Stadium," Jerry said. "They say he's going into the Hall of Fame next year."
"Yeah, that's right," Mitch said.
"It was the summer of our senior year," Hal said. "South Side that's us...had won the state championship. We formed a semi-pro team. Challenged all comers."
Mitch chimed in: "One afternoon, at West Side Park in Newark ... we played against Fort Monmouth, the U.S. Army team."
Jerry shot a dubious look at Hal. "Whitey Ford played for Fort Monmouth?"
"After his rookie year with the Yankees, Ford got drafted into the Army," Mitch explained.
"It's the bottom of the ninth," Hal said. "We're behind, three to one."
"We come up, and load the bases," Mitch said. "There's one out. They bring in Whitey Ford as a relief pitcher."
"I come up to bat," Hal said.
"You batted against Whitey Ford?" Jerry asked.
Assuming a batting stance, Hal nonchalantly replied: "Yep. Whitey was real tricky. First pitch, he throws this B-I-G slow curve. I swung, and got just a tiny piece of it. Hit a foul pop fly to the third baseman, and I was out."
"Wow," Jerry said. "But at least you hit the ball! Against Whitey Ford!"
"Wait, man," Hal said. "Then Mitch comes up. He's batting clean-up. Ford throws...and...wham! Mitch slams the ball over the right-fielder's head. A triple! Knocked in three runs..."
"...and we win the game, four to three," Mitch said proudly. "We beat Whitey Ford!"
"Actually, Mitch, you beat Whitey Ford," Hal said. "You pitched the whole game, and knocked in the winning runs."
"Wow, that's a great story," Jerry said. You beat Whitey Ford."
Jerry, looking at Mitch, said: "That's something they can never take away from you."
Mitch glared angrily at Jerry.
“What?" Jerry said.
"Oh! Wow." He laughed
nervously. "American Airlines, flight nine
seven three to San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Now boarding rows fifteen through thirty-eight..." Jerry looked at his watch. "Hal, I'm gonna run ahead." "Go on, I'll catch up." "Mitch, it's great meeting
you," Jerry said extending his hand.
"Wow, Whitey Ford!"
Jerry shook Mitch's limp hand, and ran off towards the gate. Mitch watched Jerry depart.
"Fuckin' asshole." "Jerry's not a bad guy," Hal said. "He didn't mean..." "That's allright, man. Forget it." "Gee, there's so much we
gotta..." "It's okay, man, go on...don't
miss your plane." Hal pulled a business card from his
pocket and scribbled on it.
"Here's my home number.
I'll be back next week. Call me,
okay?" "Yup," said Mitch, suddenly
aloof. "You gotta meet my wife and
kids," Hal said. "She's a
great cook. You can come over for
dinner. We'll plan that reunion. And talk about old times. I mean it,
man!" "Okay." "Like that night in the
hotel. Near Times Square." “Yeah...that was wild." "Gotta go. See ya soon!" As Hal turned to leave,
Mitch crumpled the card, and dropped it to the floor. Hal looked back, saw it fall, and stopped. Hal and Mitch stared at each other. "It's no good, man," Mitch
said. "What's no good?" "How long were we buddies?"
Mitch asked. "Two years? Three years?" "Yeah? So?" "If you 'n me hadn't been on the
baseball team, we probably wouldn't even know each other, right?" "What are you talkin'
about?" "I'm talkin' about you bein' from
Belmont Avenue, me bein' from down below Elizabeth Avenue. You bein' white, me bein' colored." "What's that got to do..." "In school, we probably woulda
passed each other by in the halls.
'Hello. Goodbye.' Right?" "But we were on the baseball
many colored friends you got?" Mitch asked. "How many?" "Yeah. Right now. Not countin'
me." "I don't know. I..." "Five? Three? Zero?" Hal looked at him, silently. "Face it, man," Mitch
said. "All you 'n me had together
was baseball. And that's over. Long ago!" "Mitch..." "I come over your house. What the
hell we gonna talk about? The good ol'
days, right?" "Mitch..." "How many times can you tell your
white-ass suburban friends about you 'n
me beatin' Whitey Ford?" "God, Mitch..." "An' me standin' there. A fuckin' broken down, lame-arm, has-been
pitcher...just another no-account...nigger." "Mitch, please...you know...I never..." "It's okay, man..." Mitch
said. "Mitch, those times in high
school. Hanging out with you, an' Phil,
an' Jimmy, an' all the other guys...it was more than baseball. I don't know
about you. But to me, it was the
happiest fuckin' time in my life!
Walkin' around with our varsity letters, we were like...kings! It's never been better than that!" Fighting tears, Mitch looked away, as
Hal reached out and held his arm.
"Mitch, I played it safe.
You took the big risks. So it didn't
all work out. Fuck it! At least you tried! Man, I looked up to you...you were my
hero...you were the big brother I never had...You got me my first date ...
I...loved you, man." Hal and Mitch
looked at each other, tearfully. Laughing and crying, Hal said:
"You're the only guy I ever slept with, you know." Mitch broke into a smile, and shook his head. "Honest, Mitch! I've been true to you all these
years." Hal bent down, picked up
the crumpled card, and handed it to Mitch. "Will you call me? Please?" "Yeah, man, I will." "Promise?" "Yeah!" "You okay?" Hal asked. "Yeah, man..." Mitch raised his fists, feinted, like a
boxer. "You know me. Down but not out. Just like ol' Joe Louis. Go on! You're gonna miss your fuckin'
plane!" Hal, briefcase and carry-on in hand,
hurried off, yelling over his shoulder: "If you don't call, yo' ass is
grass!" Mitch stared at Hal's card.
Hal, a few feet away near the gate, waited to board. He stood there, bags at his side, airline
ticket in his hand. Hal looked back,
wistfully, at Mitch. They both yearned
for another time. "American Airlines flight nine
seventy-three, to San Juan, Puerto Rico...Final call for American Airlines
flight nine seventy-three, to San Juan, Puerto Rico...Final call..." The lights seemed to dim. "There I go, there I go, there I go,
pretty baby, you are the soul who snaps my control." Mitch and Hal both heard King Pleasure
singing "Moody's Mood for
Love." Then there was the laughter
of two young women. Janet and Marlene
appeared, still high school seniors, dressed for a party. Marlene glided past Hal, and caressed
his cheek in an extravagant gesture. "Such a nice,nice Jewish
boy!" Marlene walked up to
Mitch. She embraced him, ready to dance,
and asked: "Art thou not Romeo, and a Montague?" "Neither, fair maid, if either
thee dislike," Mitch replied. Janet walked up to Hal. Smiling, she extended her arms, inviting him
to dance. Hal stepped away from his
bags. "I'm still waiting for that
ride in the convertible," Janet said.
"And if the Russians drop the bomb...I'm all yours...okay?" The two couples danced slowly, close
together. "Every time you're near me, I never can behave." Mitch, young and carefree, on top of
the world, hammed it up, lip-synching to King Pleasure: "Am I insane or do
I really see heaven in yours eyes...I'm really feeling in the mood for
love." Marlene laughed at Mitch's playful
antics. Hal and Janet were smiling,
chatting, lost in each other's eyes. It was New Year's Eve again. "We Beat Whitey Ford" was
first written as a one-act play
and was produced off-off-Broadway. Kal Wagenheim (born in Newark, N.J.) is a journalist (formerly with The New York Times),
author and translator of eight books and nine plays and screenplays. His biography of Babe Ruth was a Playboy Book Club selection.
He is Adjunct Associate Professor at Columbia University and also teaches
a monthly creative writing workshop at Trenton State Prison.
“What?" Jerry said. "Oh! Wow." He laughed nervously.
"American Airlines, flight nine seven three to San Juan, Puerto Rico. Now boarding rows fifteen through thirty-eight..."
Jerry looked at his watch. "Hal, I'm gonna run ahead."
"Go on, I'll catch up."
"Mitch, it's great meeting you," Jerry said extending his hand. "Wow, Whitey Ford!" Jerry shook Mitch's limp hand, and ran off towards the gate.
Mitch watched Jerry depart. "Fuckin' asshole."
"Jerry's not a bad guy," Hal said. "He didn't mean..."
"That's allright, man. Forget it."
"Gee, there's so much we gotta..."
"It's okay, man, go on...don't miss your plane."
Hal pulled a business card from his pocket and scribbled on it. "Here's my home number. I'll be back next week. Call me, okay?"
"Yup," said Mitch, suddenly aloof.
"You gotta meet my wife and kids," Hal said. "She's a great cook. You can come over for dinner. We'll plan that reunion. And talk about old times. I mean it, man!"
"Like that night in the hotel. Near Times Square."
“Yeah...that was wild."
"Gotta go. See ya soon!" As Hal turned to leave, Mitch crumpled the card, and dropped it to the floor. Hal looked back, saw it fall, and stopped. Hal and Mitch stared at each other.
"It's no good, man," Mitch said.
"What's no good?"
"How long were we buddies?" Mitch asked. "Two years? Three years?"
"If you 'n me hadn't been on the baseball team, we probably wouldn't even know each other, right?"
"What are you talkin' about?"
"I'm talkin' about you bein' from Belmont Avenue, me bein' from down below Elizabeth Avenue. You bein' white, me bein' colored."
"What's that got to do..."
"In school, we probably woulda passed each other by in the halls. 'Hello. Goodbye.' Right?"
"But we were on the baseball team!"
"How many colored friends you got?" Mitch asked.
"Yeah. Right now. Not countin' me."
"I don't know. I..."
"Five? Three? Zero?"
Hal looked at him, silently.
"Face it, man," Mitch said. "All you 'n me had together was baseball. And that's over. Long ago!"
"I come over your house. What the hell we gonna talk about? The good ol' days, right?"
"How many times can you tell your white-ass suburban friends about you 'n me beatin' Whitey Ford?"
"An' me standin' there. A fuckin' broken down, lame-arm, has-been pitcher...just another no-account...nigger."
"Mitch, please...you know...I never..."
"It's okay, man..." Mitch said.
"Mitch, those times in high school. Hanging out with you, an' Phil, an' Jimmy, an' all the other guys...it was more than baseball. I don't know about you. But to me, it was the happiest fuckin' time in my life! Walkin' around with our varsity letters, we were like...kings! It's never been better than that!"
Fighting tears, Mitch looked away, as Hal reached out and held his arm. "Mitch, I played it safe. You took the big risks. So it didn't all work out. Fuck it! At least you tried! Man, I looked up to you...you were my hero...you were the big brother I never had...You got me my first date ... I...loved you, man." Hal and Mitch looked at each other, tearfully.
Laughing and crying, Hal said: "You're the only guy I ever slept with, you know."
Mitch broke into a smile, and shook his head.
"Honest, Mitch! I've been true to you all these years." Hal bent down, picked up the crumpled card, and handed it to Mitch. "Will you call me? Please?"
"Yeah, man, I will."
"You okay?" Hal asked.
"Yeah, man..." Mitch raised his fists, feinted, like a boxer. "You know me. Down but not out. Just like ol' Joe Louis. Go on! You're gonna miss your fuckin' plane!"
Hal, briefcase and carry-on in hand, hurried off, yelling over his shoulder: "If you don't call, yo' ass is grass!"
Mitch stared at Hal's card. Hal, a few feet away near the gate, waited to board. He stood there, bags at his side, airline ticket in his hand. Hal looked back, wistfully, at Mitch. They both yearned for another time.
"American Airlines flight nine seventy-three, to San Juan, Puerto Rico...Final call for American Airlines flight nine seventy-three, to San Juan, Puerto Rico...Final call..."
The lights seemed to dim. "There I go, there I go, there I go, pretty baby, you are the soul who snaps my control." Mitch and Hal both heard King Pleasure singing "Moody's Mood for Love." Then there was the laughter of two young women. Janet and Marlene appeared, still high school seniors, dressed for a party.
Marlene glided past Hal, and caressed his cheek in an extravagant gesture. "Such a nice,nice Jewish boy!" Marlene walked up to Mitch. She embraced him, ready to dance, and asked: "Art thou not Romeo, and a Montague?"
"Neither, fair maid, if either thee dislike," Mitch replied.
Janet walked up to Hal. Smiling, she extended her arms, inviting him to dance. Hal stepped away from his bags. "I'm still waiting for that ride in the convertible," Janet said. "And if the Russians drop the bomb...I'm all yours...okay?"
The two couples danced slowly, close together. "Every time you're near me, I never can behave."
Mitch, young and carefree, on top of the world, hammed it up, lip-synching to King Pleasure: "Am I insane or do I really see heaven in yours eyes...I'm really feeling in the mood for love."
Marlene laughed at Mitch's playful antics. Hal and Janet were smiling, chatting, lost in each other's eyes. It was New Year's Eve again.
"We Beat Whitey Ford" was first written as a one-act play and was produced off-off-Broadway. Kal Wagenheim (born in Newark, N.J.) is a journalist (formerly with The New York Times), author and translator of eight books and nine plays and screenplays. His biography of Babe Ruth was a Playboy Book Club selection. He is Adjunct Associate Professor at Columbia University and also teaches a monthly creative writing workshop at Trenton State Prison.