Sunday, July 06, 2014

Fagin is Still with us

I finished reading Oliver Twist. It was such a good book and it helped me. I resent most writers and that’s not an attractive disposition. I compare myself to other writers and that’s odious. But Charles Dickens elevates me. Dickens has plenty of room on the cloud where he roosts, so I have joined him there.

I will keep going on this Year of Dickens, and the next one I will read is Nicholas Nickleby.

Fagin. Fagin is the most interesting character in Oliver Twist, and the most enjoyable although I cannot detect any redeeming virtues in his character. He is the Jew. The Jew walked. The Jew talked, The Jew stood up. The Jew sat down. The Jew. The Jew. The Jew. Dickens said “the Jew” at least 300 times in the book.

I can explain that. Fagin was a Jew, so that is what Dickens called him. You can read your own prejudices into that as many readers have done, or just sail right past it as I did. I mean, if someone called you a Jew, would you be insulted? I would not be insulted given such an appellation., although I might point out the contrary -- I am not a Jew.

But Fagin was more than interesting to me. There was more than the appeal of such a delightful villain, I even liked him and I could not understand the source of my affection until yesterday when I was transplanting tomatoes at the greenhouse where I work part-time. This is what I remembered:

Seymour. It was early April, 1972. I left my editorial position at a small magazine in Chicago. I flew to New York and went to visit Mark Mikolas and Judy Capurso in the West Village. They lived in a converted storefront down the street from the White Horse Tavern.

I decided to try my hand at living in Manhattan, Mark and Judy loaned me their couch for a couple of weeks with the understanding that I was to get established and fairly quickly.

Well, I didn’t give this a moment’s thought and I had no plan -- travelling lightly you might suppose -- I just figured something would work out.

Mark said I might want to talk with Seymour, he could fix me up with a gig.

“Who’s Seymour?”

Mark said you can find him at the White Horse Tavern and they told me who to look for. “He can fix you up with something,” Mark said a second time.

Seymour came into the tavern and there was no mistaking him. He was a cripple, probably polio, with gimpy legs and metal crutches. He had massive shoulders and a broad muscular chest. He heaved his crutches and legs along in a methodical way making dull thuds on the tavern’s planked floor.

He was neither old nor young. He had a huge, bushy black beard, coal black eyes and a balding head. I would say he had a twinkle in his eye and a merry look about him, but that was not so. He did have a smile, and it was friendly, but that was only one layer. There were hidden layers beneath that smile, there were deeper concerns in his eyes. You might read his face and you might be wrong in the reading.

Nevermind. Mark said he could fix me up. “Are you Seymour?”

“I am. How can I help you?”

“Let me tell what I need.”

We took a table. Seymour’s table. Where he sat. A cripple. He knew how many steps from the door to the table, and from the table to the bar and to the pay phone on the wall. Measured steps for his strong arms and weakly legs.

He unfurled his crutches and set them aside. I told him I had just come into town from Chicago and I needed something.

“You mean you want some kind of hustle.”

Seymour was the Jew. Of course he was. This was the West Village in 1972 and he was the Jew, the cripple, the hustler and he was going to do something for me. He was the Jew.

“I have some ideas for you. Do you want to hear them? Yes, good. You can make the most money running numbers, this is some hundreds of dollars in a day and it’s not a long day. Nobody knows you because you just got into town and you have a clean record. You look like a college student. If you were carrying the bag it would look like your lunch. You might do for a runner.”

“In Harlem?”

“Not just in Harlem, all over town, down to Wall Street. I could set you up on a cleaner route. A lot of respectable people play the numbers. You’d be surprised…… Can you keep your mouth shut? You don’t want to talk too much. You don’t want to know too much either. Just run the route and you’ll get paid. Sound interesting? ……. Okay, probably not ….. the numbers …. You don’t really want to know…… But I have another way, you could run a gypsy cab. You would have to put up some money for this gig. I can fix you up with an unlicensed cab for under a $1,000. You gotta pay to get into this racket. You could be a cab driver, you take drunks home at 3 a.m. You meet all kinds of people. The money is good. The cops won’t bother you. But you gotta know your neighborhoods.

You can establish a route, like from downtown to the Puerto Rican neighborhood in East Harlem. You have to get to know people. They respect the right kind of white guy, and if they respect you, you can make a living. You won’t get ripped off. I know some people up there, so I can put in a word.

Nah, that won’t work…… Look, pardon me for saying this, but you strike me as kind of a lightweight.”

I heard all this. I was waiting for the catch. Seymour wasn’t doing me a favor – no warm-hearted smile, he was more matter of fact. So if he was offering me something, then what was he expecting from me? But honestly I was too dumb to worry about stuff like that.

“You might try selling balloons. It’s easy and you can make money. You’d be surprised. The money can be very good. I know a spot in Central Park, right across the street from the Plaza Hotel. The other vendors know me, so you can work there. If they don’t know you, they run you off, or steal your stuff, or let the cops hassle you. But I can talk to them. It’s not exactly legal, but it’s been going on for a long time and it’s lightweight.

I’ll meet you in the wholesale district where they sell toys. I’ll show you where to get the balloons and a pump and the other stuff -- it won’t cost you $50 bucks to get started.”

That was Seymour’s offer.

There was no catch. I met him in wholesale the next day. I bought the stuff. We went up to Central Park. On a beautiful spring day in Central Park in Manhattan you feel like you’re on top of the world.

We sold the balloons. Seymour worked the crowd. He was the cripple. He had a sense of humor – if it would help him make money. A spiel, a patter, and the mommas and poppas lined up with crying children to buy balloons. Seymour was like Santa Claus with a cash agenda.

“You talk with them, but not too much. You talk with them, give them a balloon, take their money and shut up. You don’t talk to them for free.

We sold a lot of balloons and the next day I was on my own. It was too much fun, spending the day in Central Park, sparking at pretty ladies, watching the horses and the carriages, watching the swells stroll out of the Plaza Hotel, eating hot dogs off the cart – and making money. Having fun and making money, thanks to Seymour.

I sold balloons in the park for two months, but you can’t ride in that good-time parade forever. After a while you get tired of smiling at small children and you want to throw rocks at them. I got a regular job. My friends fixed me up with a rent-control studio apartment on East 54th Street.

The funny thing is that I never saw Seymour again. There I was making a living in Manhattan and I owed him, only he never said so. There was no catch. So why did he do me this favor? I don’t know. He was the Jew. He was a small-time crook and but this was a mitzvah just the same.

Seymour was who he was. You could take it or leave it. He knew the prayer, Thank God I am not a Gentile, Thank God I am not a slave, Thank God I am not a woman.

He didn’t say the prayer but he knew it. He had no ironic affection for God. He knew who he was with the crutches and how people looked at him when he walked. That’s who he was and sometimes he did you a favor without calculating the interest.

In time I forgot about Seymour, but the memory came back to me yesterday while I was transplanting tomatoes. Fagin reminded me of Seymour and that’s why it resonated. Dickens never remotely hinted that Fagin had a good side, but I imputed a small amount of Seymour-style goodness into Fagin’s character and liked him for that.

You can do that with a generous author like Dickens. He gives you his characters, then you can play with them as you like.

Visiting Ballard, Anacortes and LaConner. I will be visiting my daughter in Ballard the week of July 17-23, also staying a couple of nights with Fred and Nora Winyard in Anacortes, and spending a little time in LaConner as well. I hope to see some old friends while I am there.

Fred Owens
cell: 360-739-0214

My gardening blog is Fred Owens

My writing blog is Frog Hospital

send mail to:

Fred Owens
35 West Main St Suite B #391
Ventura CA 93001

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