Enchanted by a forgone feeling of camaraderie, and an opportunity to do research for a novel, a writer is whisked into a seedy underworld of crime..
by: Alan Swyer
On a warm Tuesday evening in early September, sportswriter Dave Rosen left his Hoboken apartment and set off in search of a beer. Ignoring trendy spots such as the Pilsner Haus, the Carpe Diem Pub, and the Hudson Tavern, he ambled instead into the recently gentrified area’s sole remaining working-class gin mill, Cortese’s Tavern.
As he had taken to doing since Melanie left him, Rosen’s plan was to be a fly on the wall, nursing a beer while observing — and hopefully listening to — the last vestiges of the rough and tumble town once memorialized on-screen in “On The Waterfront.” It was people whose families were unwilling or unable to cash out as real estate prices soared who frequented Cortese’s Tavern: dockworkers, truck drivers, and retirees, plus, if local lore was correct, mobsters.
Grabbing a stool, Rosen received a nod of recognition from the bartender, who placed a Budweiser in front of him. Using what the athletes he had interviewed mistakenly referred to as “peripheral” vision, he glanced as inconspicuously as possible at his fellow denizens. In addition to the solitary drinkers scattered around the room — among them an oldster in a wheelchair, a coot in an Army Airborne hat, and a blue-haired lady — there were a couple of firemen hanging out, some blue-collar characters in groups of three or four, plus, not far from Rosen, a table of characters known to Jerseyites like him as Wiseguys, but to others more disparagingly as Guidos.
Rosen got a kick out of the snippets of conversation from the Jerseyites that he managed to overhear, especially when they included terms such as merch, vig, shakedown, and bag man. But his ears perked up even more when a man in an Armani sport jacket who appeared to be in his early thirties announced, “No fuckin’ way can LeBron hold Jordan’s jockstrap!” That led to a heated discussion of NBA players past and present, with a gentleman in an Adidas warm-up suit favoring LeBron, two others in hoodies voting for Jordan, someone in a faded Nets t-shirt mentioning Giannis (who was promptly dismissed as being too young), and another getting hooted at for suggesting Larry Bird.
To Rosen’s dismay, the impassioned fellow who had first advocated for Jordan, turned and pointed a finger at him. “What do you think, pally?” he asked.
Fearing he’d been busted for eavesdropping, Rosen feigned ignorance. “About?”
“The greatest NBA player ever.”
“Modern era, I’d have to say Jordan.”
“See?” announced the one in the Armani jacket to his buddies.
Then he gestured toward the bartender. “Vinnie, give my buddy here another.”
As the bartender approached with another Budweiser, Rosen’s new friend stood and intercepted it, then put an arm around Rosen. “C’mon and join us.”
Space was immediately made at the table, and an additional chair brought over. “I’m Richie,” said the man who invited Rosen, who proceeded to point one by one at the others. “Say hello to Ralphie, Donnie, Joey, and Lenny.”
“And I’m Dave.”
“So tell me,” Donnie began, “what’d you mean when you said ‘modern era’?”
“Go on Youtube sometime and check out Oscar Robertson.”
“He was good?” asked Ralphie.
“To me, the Big O was the best ever. And if he’d played the era of 3-pointers –”
It was Lenny who interrupted. “You involved in the game?”
“Kind of how?”asked Ralphie.
“I covered the Knicks for a few years.”
“Your last name is?” wondered Joey.
“I used to read you all the time!” Ralphie stated proudly.
“You can read?” teased Donnie.
“Except when your mother’s on top of me.”
Donnie stood. “Don’t go there.”
Rosen was uncertain if fisticuffs would follow until Richie put a calming hand on Donnie’s shoulder. “Be cool,” Richie said softly but firmly.
“So what do you do now?” Lenny asked Rosen.
“I write a column about sports on television.”
“Sweet,” gushed Joey.
Donnie seemed puzzled. “Why sweet?”
“He can sit home in his bathrobe watching games on TV, then send in what he writes by email.” With that Joey turned to Rosen. “Am I right?”
“What if two games are on at the same time?” wondered Donnie.
“Never heard of tape?” responded Ralphie.
“Enough!” interjected Richie. “Whose turn is it to buy the next round?”
Over the next hour-and-a half, those at the table started getting up and heading home — first Ralphie, who was teased for being “pussy-whipped,” then Donnie, then Joey, then Lenny — until only Rosen and Richie were left.
“Guess it’s time for me to turn into a pumpkin,” said Rosen with a sigh.
“Since you’re a sports guy, how are you at baseball?”
“I played in high school, but –”
“That was five or six years ago?”
“Try dubling that.”
“We’ve got a softball game Friday under the lights, and we’re short a guy because my cousin Louie’s behind bars.” Seeing Rosen flinch, Richie smiled. “Only joking. He’s down the Shore with his wife and daughter.”
“I don’t want to intrude.”
“I’ll take that as a yes,” said Richie.
While watching baseball and tennis on television, then writing two columns — the first about the passing of an old-timer who did color on Yankee broadcasts, the second about what promised to be the TV sports highlights of the coming weekend — Rosen was surprised to find himself looking forward to the softball game. Yet despite having interviewed the likes of Mike Trout, LeBron James, and Kobe Bryant, when he arrived at the park with his glove and cleats, he found himself growing uncharacteristically nervous.
Everything changed, however, when he heard a voice yell, “Yo, sportswriter!” It was Joey, striding toward the ballfield together with Lenny.
“How many homers you gonna hit?” asked Lenny.
“I’ll be lucky if I ground out or pop up,” responded Rosen.
“Making excuses already,” teased Joey.
As they approached the diamond, all were greeted with hugs from Richie, who pulled Rosen aside. “Feel like playing shortstop?” he asked.
Richie shrugged. “Like I said, centerfield.”
Though he was happy about the double to the gap in right-center that he hit in the third, and stunned by the running catch he somehow managed to make an inning later, what pleased Rosen most was a kind of camaraderie he had not enjoyed since high school. It was a great feeling to be a part of something where the team members were all pulling for each other.
After celebratory post-game hugs were exchanged, Rosen was changing out of his cleats when Richie strolled toward him. “Know what?” Richie asked.
“You’re one of us now.”
“Does that mean I have to start calling myself Davey?”
“And besides,” said Rosen, “I wouldn’t go that far.”
“Aren’t you having fun? Don’t you fit in?”
“Sure, but –”
“But, my ass,” said Richie. “Whatcha got going tomorrow?”
“Can you tape it?”
“What’ve you got in mind?”
“Come to the track with me.”
“It doesn’t seem right,” said Rosen.
“Going to the track?”
“You including me in this and that, and me doing nothing in return.”
“That catch in centerfield was nothing?”
“You know what I mean.”
“You really want to do something?” asked Richie, drawing a nod from Rosen. “Then how about you whack the shithead who ratted on Lenny?”
Seeing Rosen nearly panic, Richie guffawed. “I’m joking, Dave! Just busting your chops. This isn’t tit for tat.”
Rosen breathed a sigh of relief.
“We on for shooting hoops this afternoon?” asked another sportswriter named Mike Dickerson when he called Rosen early Saturday morning.
“Gotta take a rain check.”
“Actually,” said Rosen, “I’m going to the track.”
“I thought you don’t like the track.”
“I don’t usually.”
“This’ll be special.”
“I’ll fill you in after.”
“There’s going to the track,” Rosen would announce to Dickerson later that evening, “then there’s going to the track.” What he described was that in marked contrast to the treatment received by the general public, Richie was doted on, fawned over, and given special privileges by the staff, including choice seats on the rail. That meant that Rosen, too, benefited.
Best yet, thanks to what may have been amazing acumen, but was more likely insider information, Richie’s bets, which he urged his new pal to mimic, proved to be remarkably successful, enabling Rosen to leave the track close to $700 richer.
It was dusk when Richie’s Escalade pulled up in front of Rosen’s apartment building. “What’s on the agenda for tonight?” Richie asked.
“Sports, sports, and more sports,” replied Rosen. “You?”
“If I don’t take my girlfriend out to dinner, I’ll have to sleep with one eye open. But go ahead and ask.”
“C’mon,” said Richie. “My business is as much about reading people as it is about what I actually do.”
“Unless I’m way off the mark, you’re dying to know more about what exactly I do. Right?”
“Well –” said Rosen.
“Whatcha got tomorrow night?”
“You tell me,” said Rosen.
On Sunday evening a Peterbilt semi-trailer truck pulled out of the Port Newark Container Terminal, headed for Route One. Before it could reach the highway, it found the road ahead blocked by a disabled Toyota pickup.
Slamming on its brakes, the driver of the semi screeched to a stop, then gasped as two gun-wielding men in ski masks started banging on his windows.
Offering no resistance, the driver opened his door, then put up his hands as he climbed down.
As one man in a ski mask took the driver’s place behind the wheel, others wearing masks approached.
At the sound of a police siren in the distance, one of the thieves flinched. “First?” asked a voice that clearly belonged to Lenny.
“We’re cool,” responded someone whose voice was unmistakably Richie’s.
When, sure enough, the sound of the siren faded, another of the masked men — Rosen — turned to Richie. “What’s ‘first’?” he whispered.
“Some other time,” answered Richie.
Then everyone went into motion. One guy climbed into the pickup and started to drive away. A moment later, the semi started to follow. Then the other masked men sprinted toward cars parked inconspicuously down the road.
“Your adrenaline still sky high?” Richie asked Rosen as the Escalade pulled up in front of the sportswriter’s building.
“A little different than a night at Madison Square Garden,” Rosen acknowledged.
“Whatcha got tomorrow evening?”
“You tell me.”
“Our weekly poker game,” said Richie.
Sleep that night was hard to come by for Rosen, who spent hour after hour rehashing what he had witnessed and, more importantly, wondering why he hadn’t bolted when offered a ski mask.
“This is crazy,” he said to himself at one point. “I must be out of my fucking mind!” he gasped at another. Then came a moment where, through gritted teeth, he blurted, “I’ve got to get myself out of this mess!”
Resolved to extricate himself from the demi-monde he had entered, Rosen finally dozed off at 3 A.M.
By noon, his resolution having vanished, Rosen, whose usual attire was t-shirts and shorts in the summer, then sweatshirts and jeans once the weather turned cold, stepped into a place that was terra incognita for him: an upscale men’s store.
Trying his best at nonchalance, Rosen forced a smile when a salesman in an Armani suit approached.
That evening, those gathered at Donnie’s for the poker game gasped when Rosen arrived wearing a silk shirt and neatly pressed slacks.
“Somebody’s clean!” yelped Ralphie.
“Anyone know this guy?” added Lenny.
“I get it,” Joey said with a laugh, “the clothes fell off of a truck.”
“C’mon,” Richie chastised the others. “Can’t the man dress with pride?” As the others quieted down, Richie turned to Rosen. “Ready to win all our hard-earned bucks?”
“Gonna try,” Rosen replied.
The next morning, four men who seemed emblematic of the “new” Hoboken with their Brooks Brothers suits, blond hair, and builds that would have been appropriate on the Yale or Princeton crew, were striding toward the PATH train to Wall Street when out from a breakfast spot stepped Rosen, chatting with Mike Dickerson.
Caught up in the conversation, Dickerson accidentally bumped one of the Wall Streeters, who bristled. “What the fuck is with you?” he snarled.
To Dickerson’s surprise, Rosen stepped forward. “Don’t go there,” he warned, copping the attitude of his new cronies.
“What did you say?” asked the tallest of the aging preppies menacingly.
“I said be cool,” answered Rosen, again channeling the bravado of Richie and Donnie.
“You too stupid to realize,” interjected the one who had been bumped, “that it’s four of us against two?”
“Not any more it’s not,” blurted a deep voice that caused all of them to turn toward the Lincoln Navigator that had pulled up at the curb. Tough-looking Lenny opened the passenger door, while Ralphie emerged from the driver’s side.
With a sneer, Ralphie pointed a finger at the Wall Streeters. “How come,” he asked, “you motherfuckers suddenly don’t seem so brave?”
“E-everything’s fine,” mumbled one of the preppies, who started to walk away, with his buddies following.
Lenny watched them momentarily, then turned to Rosen. “You good?”
“Couldn’t be better.”
As the Navigator headed down the street, Dickerson faced Rosen. “Start explaining,” he said.
Instead of speaking, Rosen started to walk with a swagger Dickerson had never seen before.
The next day brought silence from Richie, Donnie, Lenny, and the rest of the crew. The same was true the following day, then the day after.
Each of those evenings Rosen contemplated strolling over to Cortese’s, then hesitated for fear of imposing or forcing the issue.
A couple of mornings later, after writing a column about the absurdity of Yankee games taking up to five hours due to incessant pitching changes, trips to the mound, pinch hitter after pinch hitter, and batters relentlessly stepping out of the box, Rosen grabbed his basketball and stepped out of his apartment building.
While dribbling toward the nearest playground, he heard first a horn, then a familiar voice. “Is that Michael Jordan?” Richie yelled from his Escalade. “Or maybe the Big O? Lemme buy you a coffee.”
“Getting set to write a book?” Richie asked as he and Rosen grabbed seats at a local coffee house.
“What makes you think that?”
“Doesn’t every sportswriter dream of being the next Hemingway?”
“Somebody’s surprised to hear me mention Hemingway,” said Richie with a half-smile.
“Bullshit. Think we’re all goombahs? Guidos? Illiterates? That I haven’t read Fitzgerald, Garcia Marquez, and Pynchon?”
Richie nodded. “There goes your stereotype.”
“And the others?”
Richie laughed. “They’re my guys, but I doubt they know the difference between Hemingway and hemorrhoids. But I figure when you’re hanging with us you’re soaking up material for your own novel.”
When Rosen said nothing, Richie pointed a finger at him. “C’mon,” he insisted. “Gonna tell me it never crossed your mind?”
“Well –” Rosen acknowledged with a shrug.
“Then something tells me there’s more you want to see.”
Rosen did not disagree.
“Okay,” said Richie, “tomorrow night you’ll see something else.”
“But there’s a catch.”
“Okay –” said Rosen uncomfortably.
“A couple of the guys want to be sure you’re really one of us, not a rat.”
“So I told ’em that from now on instead of just observing, you’ll participate.”
Unable to focus on the Mets game he was supposed to be covering that evening, Rosen found himself mulling over Richie’s words. Did his interest simply owe to curiosity? Or voyeurism? Or, as Richie suggested, was he, consciously or otherwise, absorbing material for a book that he, like most other sportswriters, had long dreamed about writing?
Whatever the answer, Rosen was unable to deny the excitement stemming from access, even if only peripherally, to a world that seemed far more alive than his own.
Toward midnight the following evening, a Ford Transport Van drove down a quiet Hoboken street. As it reached an unmarked garage, it flashed its high beams once, then a second time.
Immediately the garage door flew open, and the van pulled into the darkened space. As Louie shut the garage door, and both Ralphie and Joey emerged from the van, Richie opened the rear.
Wasting not a moment, he climbed inside and started handing boxes of Marlboros to Donnie, Lenny, Rosen, and the others.
As box after box was being unloaded, a police siren was suddenly heard approaching. Instantly, Lenny faced Richie. “First?” he inquired quietly.
“No need,” replied Richie, who then smiled as the sound of the siren receded into the distance.
Roughly an hour later, Richie and Rosen stepped into an all-night diner, where a waitress promptly took their orders: a chef’s salad and green tea for Richie, a patty melt and vanilla milkshake for Rosen.
“Disappointed?” Richie asked as the waitress ambled toward the kitchen.
“What do you mean?” Rosen replied.
“No gun play, no chases, excitement of any kind. Right?”
“And I bet you’re wondering why cigarettes.”
“Do the math,” said Richie. “What’s a pack of Marlboros cost?’
“Nine bucks in Jersey. Fourteen in Manhattan. But what do they cost in North Carolina?”
“You tell me.”
“Retail, $5.47. And guess who doesn’t pay retail. Or taxes. So when you figure ten packs to a carton, and how many cartons in a case. Plus no paperwork –”
“Whew!” said Rosen. “And who do you sell to?”
“Gas stations. Mom and pop groceries. Convenience stores. Everybody trying to get ahead in this rotten economy.”
Another extended period of silence ensued, with Rosen even more vividly aware than ever before of how much he craved what, with a nod to both Nelson Algren and Lou Reed, he had come to think of as “the wild side.” Still resisting the urge to pop into Cortese’s, he tried to balance work with shooting hoops and grabbing the occasional bite with Dickerson, then called an old girlfriend for dinner.
Even as he was downing oysters and sipping white wine with Sharon, it was hard for him not to wonder what Richie and the others were up to.
The following evening Rosen finally ventured into Cortese’s, only to discover that not a single one of his new buddies was in sight. Disappointed, he sipped a Budweiser at the bar for what was only forty-five minutes but felt like hours, then shook his head when the bartender asked if he wanted another.
Feeling forlorn, the sportswriter was trudging home when he was surprised by a familiar voice.
“What up?” asked Richie, pulling up in his Escalade.
“You tell me,” Rosen replied.
“We’ve got something cooking that you probably want no part of.”
“You’ve got a life. No need for you to get your hands dirty.”
“If I can help,” answered Rosen, “I want to.”
“I don’t know –”
“As good as you’ve been to me? I do,” insisted Rosen. “Want to give me a hint about –?”
“Let’s just say there’s a Russian who roughed up a guy whose factory we look after.”
“So this is payback?”
“That’s a nice way of saying it,” said Richie. “And guess who likes to cheat on his wife every Sunday night?”
At the wheel of his Escalade the next evening, Richie turned to Rosen, who was riding shotgun while Ralphie and Joey sat behind them. “Sure you’re up for this?”
“Absolutely,” Rosen replied, proud of his newfound toughness.
“If things start to go wrong,” said Richie, “just play the stronzo, okay? The poor schmuck who picked the worst time ever to be horny. Got it?”
“What makes it even easier,” Richie continued, “is you’re not Italian.”
“But out of curiosity –” Rosen began.
“What can go wrong?”
“All kinds of shit,” answered Joey, who was shaking his head. “All kinds of crazy fucking shit.”
And remember,” Richie announced to all of them, “somebody there hits an alarm, we’ve got five minutes — ten max — to get the fuck out!”
Not quite twenty minutes later, Rosen rang the doorbell of a colonial-style house in an affluent Jersey suburb. Almost immediately, an eyeball appeared at the peephole. A moment later, the door was opened an inch with a chain lock still in place.
“Yes?” asked a well-dressed blonde of a certain age.
“Alexei said this is the place –”
“Find a friend.”
The woman studied Rosen intently, then closed the door momentarily so as to unlatch the chain. But as she opened the door more widely, Richie, Joey, and Ralphie, who had been hiding out of view, pushed their way past her.
Rosen followed the others into a living room of what was clearly a brothel. Instantly, three suggestively-clad Eastern European women freaked.
“Where is he?” Richie demanded of the older woman, who was clearly the madame.
“Viktor,” said Joey, grabbing her shoulder and putting a knife next to her neck.
“Third door on the right,” she mumbled, gesturing toward the hall.
While Joey and Rosen kept guard in the living room, off strode Richie and Ralphie. Seconds later, a woman’s scream pierced the air, followed by the unmistakable sounds of a beating being administered.
Suddenly, in the distance, the wail of police sirens sounded.
“Somebody hit the fucking alarm!” Joey snarled.
Into the living room dashed Richie and Ralphie. But as the two of them rushed for the door, followed by Joey and Rosen, a Russian bodyguard stepped forth from the hallway, gun in hand.
With the women screaming even more loudly, the bodyguard started firing, missing with the first two shots, then nailing a fleeing Rosen in the thigh with the third.
Seeing Rosen crumple, Joey fired back, blasting the Russian in the shoulder.
Richie promptly grabbed Joey. “Run!” he demanded.
“What about me?” yelled Rosen.
“First!” shouted Ralphie.
“W-what’s that mean?” Rosen moaned.
“First-time offender,” explained Richie. “If they charge you, you’ll get off easy.”
Squirming on the floor with pain, there was nothing Rosen could do as Joey and Ralphie sprinted toward the Escalade.
As the sound of the police sirens drew ever nearer, Rosen heard the Escalade burn rubber.
Never again would he assume that he was ever really “one of us.”