LIVING ON THE SELVEDGE: Go see Big Frank up the street

THE CUTTING MACHINE

Nat was a short man, heavy around the middle.  He always had a cigarette hanging from his lips and there always seemed to be a long ash that could never shake it self loose. You could always catch Nat on the corner of 35th & 7th avenue before eight in the morning. This was where garment cutters, pattern makers and other factory workers met before they started their work day. They would exchange war stories about their jobs, place bets with bookies and schmooze. Weather permitting, this went on throughout the work week. In bad weather it went underground to the Horn & Hardarts’ cafeteria below Macy’s.

Nat was a connector, the mayor of 7th avenue. He had the inside word on what fabric cutters and pattern making jobs were available. How he knew this and how it came to him was a mystery to me. I would watch men walk up to him, shake his hand then lean in close and they would have a brief conversation. Nat would stick his hand in his pocket and fish around through slips of paper and finding the right match, he would hand it to the person and then the man was gone. Then there would be some male maneuvering, some posturing and repositioning, and then another man would approach. This same ritual would be repeated. It was a like watching the documentary March of the Penguins.

One morning when I went to see Nat, there was a line to see him. It was like waiting to receive holy communion. When it was my turn, I leaned in and told him Louie sent me. He nodded, fished around in his pocket and pulled out some papers and handed one to me and said “go see Big Frank up the street”. In the building occupied by Big Frank, the elevators, like most in Manhattan, opened up right into the factory. When the elevator door opened, there sat Big Frank in front of the cutting tables dwarfing an old wooden desk. I told him Nat sent me and he put me to work with one of the head fabric cutters. Later that morning the fabric cutter and I had just finished laying up plies of cotton tubular fabric that were stacked up really high on the cutting table. A blueprint paper was laid on top of the fabric. This schematic of the graded pattern pieces is used as a cutting guide. On each edge of this paper, the front, back and sleeve and other pieces are folded on the half to accommodate the tubular fold. The fabric cutter is supposed to cut around this piece and not cut off the tubular fold. The head cutter went to lunch and asked me to get the cutting machine ready for him. I did this and decided I needed a little practice to advance my apprenticeship. Without any knowledge of what I was doing, I proceeded to cut off all of the tubular fold.

The head cutter came back from lunch and took one look and noticed all the tubular fold had been cut away. He stood there staring at what he could not undo. A fabric cutters crime scene lay before him. Something had gone terribly wrong. The apprentice cutter  had ruined about 500 tubular tops! He shouted. “Oh no, Frank the f**kin kid has ruined the order for Macy’s!”. I can still hear it today as if it’s coming from the next room. There was a long moment of silence. Then Big Frank’s frame filled the doorway. His look cut deep and I knew that there was no explaining my way out of this. As I said before, the elevator opened up into the factory loft. I couldn’t just go over and push the button and stand there and wait for it. I was standing near an emergency exit door that looked like it hadn’t been opened since the civil war.

I caught one last look at Big Frank, he didn’t look good and he was bearing down on me. I pushed and kicked open the door to the emergency exit and leaped down landings over homeless people that were sleeping in the halls. I could hear Big Frank yell down the stairs “ If I ever see you on this street again…*@#*#!…” and his voice faded as I fled out of the building. After that day, I decided to work in Brooklyn for awhile and stay out of Manhattan.

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LIVING ON THE SELVEDGE: Chas the Bookie

I remember when I started working in the garment center in the 1960’s in New York. I had to walk from 34th & 8th avenue up to 11th avenue. The wind in the winter coming off the Hudson was so strong that I would have to seek shelter inside store fronts till it subsided.  It was a six story factory loft with an elevator that had a pull down wooden gate that rumbled its way to the top floor. This elevator was large enough to transport a buick. The company that I was working for was on the top floor and had a poor man’s view of the Hudson. In the winter months you could see ice floes coming down the river along with cargo freighters navigating through the frigid waters.

At this company I was an apprentice fabric cutter working with Charlie the bookmaker. We called him Chas for short. When I would arrive about eight in the morning he was usually there leaning on the cutting table turning the sports page with one hand and hollering into the wall phone with the other while puffs of steam were coming from his cigar. Saying things like ” Ok,Ok, parlay in the 2nd race. You want the number straight or you wanna do a combo? Yeah, Yeah you’re on the hangar till the end of the week”, stuff like that.  The phone wire would usually be stretched to its limit across a skinny aisle where people passing would be ducking under it. From a distance it looked as though people were genuflecting as they passed him.  As usual when Chas would see me he would pull out a fat roll of money that had a couple of rubber bands around it to hold the wad of dough in place. He would slide the rubber band up to his knuckles and he would peel off a hundred dollar bill and tell me to run down to the deli and pick up bagels, crumb buns and cups of coffee for the guys. One time he told this new guy who didn’t understand much English to go to the deli and pick up a couple of sandwiches and get something for himself. As usual he peeled off a $100 and gave it to him. When the guy came back with the sandwiches, Chas asked  him where the rest of his change was. The guy says, “Well, you said to get something for myself”.  Chas says, “So what the f**k did you get?!”  The guy looked down at his feet. He had on a new pair of shoes.

Chas was one tough guy from the old Italian section of Harlem. I’ve seen him leap over cutting tables and collar guys against the wall that would show any disrespect. Chas would take money on all sporting events, including the numbers racket. This is how the numbers racket worked: at the end of the local horse race day the amount of the mutual handling of the money was tallied. The last three numbers of that tally was what the numbers were for that day. The odds and the payout were 600 to 1. I’ve never seen anyone hit those numbers in my life. One of the guys in the factory comes in yelling one morning that he had a dream about these numbers, and these are the same numbers of his address and something like his mother in law’s birthday.  He goes around the factory telling everyone this story and is collecting nickels, dimes and quarters. He comes to Chas with a small fortune of coins and dollar bills that totaled somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 bucks. Now the hit on this would be about 60,000 dollars. Like I said, this is a 600 to 1 shot but Chas is not taking any chances. Chas makes a few phone calls and pushes off some of this money to other bookies in case this guy delivers a miracle. These were common favors in the bookmaking world. The next morning the number was off by a point or two. Still, it didn’t matter. The next day someone else was collecting nickels and dimes and helping to pay for Chas’ Cuban cigars. Chas has moved on to whatever heaven has to offer bookmakers, which could be a place where nobody wins in the betting world, or maybe Chas is in the eternal hell where the factory guys’ dreams come true everyday.