17 years old, naive and eager to please. Pimping myself out on the streets of Brooklyn for tips and a piece of pie.
Before you judge me, read my story. I claimed to be 18 years old, but I’m pretty certain Mr. Park knew I was lying. Back in the 70s you could sell and drink liquor at age 18. Back in the 70s there were a lot of things I could do that I cannot do now. I wasn’t quite 18, but I would be soon enough and I wanted the job badly. I altered my baptismal certificate by changing 1959 to 1958. Desperate measures . . . I was moving out of the house and I would have rent and college tuition to pay. Mr. Park said he’d give me a chance to prove myself; however, he’d made it clear that one slip-up and it was over. I’m certain he was fully aware of my actual age.
One would think that my mother’s all night poker games in the basement and the endless parade of drag queens and alcoholics, would have made me a jaded teenager, but in fact, I was quite naive; dense even. Bensonhurst was far enough away from Manhattan, that what went on globally was clearly not happening in Brooklyn. The only thing driving me at the time, was the desire to get out of Brooklyn.
The neighborhood liquor store was across the street from the subway station and although not hidden, it was somehow safe territory for the local alcoholics. The Park’s were Korean, very friendly, and way smarter than the rest of us. I recall Mrs. Park schooling her husband on how to talk to customers. I pretended not to understand, but I was intrigued by their culture and language and at times, I felt more a part of their family than my own. And to be truly honest, the meals they brought me were delicious.
My job was to stock the shelves and make deliveries. Having delivered groceries in the neighborhood for two years, I knew the streets and the people fairly well. I was the kid from that huge family on Marlborough Road. I was polite, shy, and fortunate to have inherited my father’s charm. In early days, I kept my head down and my mouth shut. I was surprised to learn how many customers wanted booze delivered to their door. I imagine some people didn’t want to be seen going in and out of the liquor store on a regular basis and others just didn’t want to carry the bottles home. Still others I came to learn, were clearly shit-faced when I arrived with their refill. I would imagine some started the evening thinking they’d just have a shot and ended up clearing out their liquor cabinet. I encountered a good deal of binge drinking and abuse, not me, the alcohol.
There were a few characters I delivered to several times a week and others, nightly. The only day we were closed, was Sunday. Trust me, if it wasn’t against the law in New York State to sell from a liquor store on Sunday, we would have been open. Thinking back, it didn’t make sense that you could open a bar and not a liquor store. There was this one customer, I’ll call him Mr. Taylor, Mr. Taylor ordered a bottle of Smirnoff vodka every night of the week. He was very quiet and always tipped me 50 cents (often a 50 cent piece). I suspect he was a raging alcoholic and afraid that if he ordered more than one bottle, he’d drink it all. I’m not judging, but that’s a lot of vodka. I worked at the liquor store for several years and Mr. Taylor seldom if ever, missed a delivery. Then there was Miss Greene. Miss Greene opened the door wide enough to stick her hand out, grab the vodka, pass me two dimes and then close the door. The stench from her apartment always made me a bit dizzy. After a year of delivering to Miss Greene on a regular basis, she offered me money to do her a monumental favor. More about that later.
There were these two very friendly men who lived in the same apartment, but they were never there at the same time. One of the two flirted with me quite a bit and once even answered the door wrapped in a bath towel. I looked up, but avoided direct eye contact. He was a big tipper, his partner was not. I always hoped the flirty one would be there to accept delivery, unfortunately it was mostly the bad tipper who usually showed up at the door. There was clearly either trouble in paradise or they had an open relationship, I’ll never know the truth.
I had dozens of regulars, but I think it was the Flannagan’s I most enjoyed. Very few customers invited me in. With most, niceties and a quick handoff was the norm. The Flanagan’s were different. This Irish couple considered me part of the family. There was usually a snack offered up and always a sweet kiss from Mrs. Flanagan. They were in their sixties, always laughing and carrying on and genuinely interested in my day. I knew they drank a lot because I kept inventory. They loved scotch, but oddly only Mr. Flanagan smelled of alcohol; Mrs. Flanagan smelled sweet (over 40 years ago and I can almost recall her scent). Mrs. Flanagan always answered the door. Mr. Flanagan was usually in his Easyboy. I remember seeing him fairly bruised-up a few times; he’d clearly fallen, inebriated and broken most of the time. Sometimes there was a third person, usually a man, usually drunk. I would be introduced as “the son.” Keep in mind this all took place in the matter of minutes, I had always other deliveries to make. I knew when they’d cashed their social security check because my tip was always doubled.
As months went by it became clear to me that Mrs. Flanagan was developing quite a crush; her lips often lingered on my cheek and her hands sometimes wandered to my chest. I would squirm away from her clutches thinking it was all very innocent; however, there was one time when she went too far. On this particular delivery, Mrs. Flanagan was more pissed than usual. It might have been during the Christmas holidays, as if she needed an excuse to imbibe. She came around her kitchen table and moved toward me. I backed myself up against the wall and put my hands up in front of me. She pushed herself on me quickly and before I could stop her, her tongue worked its way into my mouth. Mr. Flanagan warned her to back off, but she persisted. I did not say a word, pushed her off of me and ran out, this time without a tip.
I waited days for the Flanagan’s to place an order. I didn’t feel threatened by Mrs. Flanagan because I was clearly stronger and I knew I could resist her advances. I did feel guilty. I thought that perhaps I had led her to believe that I wanted her affection. When the door opened, it was Mr. Flanagan standing there with cash in hand. He said hello and quickly passed it to me. I started to reach into my pocket to give him change and he replied, “Keep it,” he then closed the door in my face. I didn’t see or hear Mrs. Flanagan that day. The tip was five and change; way larger than usual. Future deliveries to the Flanagan’s were mostly transactional. Mrs. Flanagan usually came to the door; kisses and invitations to enter were a thing of the past. I was both relieved and saddened by the state of affairs. I guess that $5 tip was guilt money.
I would often return from a delivery later than usual and the Parks would want to know why it took so long. Mrs. Park especially loved gossip and she’d try to squeeze information about our customers out of me. I made it a game. I’d be cagey at first, tease her a bit, let some time go by, perhaps a couple of deliveries, and then when I’d see she was about to explode from anticipation, I’d share a bit; perhaps what a customers apartment was like or who answered the door, Mrs. Park was jealous that I got to see a small part of their lives. I never did tell the Parks about Mrs. Flanagan, that was my secret, never to be told — until now that is.
I never did learn the first names of most of my customers. I guess an invisible wall existed between them and me. I supplied them their poison and they were grateful, but protective; grateful for my service, but protective of their privacy. So I rode my delivery bicycle through pounding rain, freezing wind, and heavy snow and they rewarded me handsomely. I made enough money part-time to pay rent and utilities, buy groceries, and save for tuition. Of all the events that shaped my experience for those couple of years, the time I spent with Miss Greene outside of her apartment was the most memorable.
Miss Greene suffered from severe agoraphobia. The idea of leaving her apartment terrified her and made her a prisoner in her own home. When she asked me to take her to the bank I had no idea that she was struggling with this affliction; nor did I know what I was in for. She offered me $20 which was surprising because she was a terrible tipper. I picked her up after school, eager to get the deed done.
I must admit I was pretty cavalier about the whole thing. I honestly thought it would all be over in 30 minutes and I’d be picking out a new sweatshirt at Korvettes. When I got to her door it was slightly ajar, which was never the case. She had on make-up which I found shocking, and a long heavy overcoat; it was early June and fairly warm. She asked for my arm and told me that she had called car service. When she grabbed my arm, I noticed her nails were long and dirty. I had to remind myself that I had a good tip coming. Miss Greene was shaking from head to toe, her lips quivered, and her nails were tearing at my skin. The walk down the two flights of stairs took over 20 minutes and at times, I was fairly certain she was going to collapse. I was strong, but I feared she’d fall and I wouldn’t be able to pick her up. When we got to the front door of the building she began to gently weep. I offered words of encouragement. I honestly wasn’t sure we could pull this off, in fact, I was certain we’d fail.
The car service driver noticed our struggle and came toward us to offer a hand. Miss Greene clutched onto me even harder and wouldn’t look at the driver. I winked at him and he seemed to understand. He asked me if Miss Greene was my grandmother and I told him that she was — I believe at that moment, she could have been my grandmother. We made it into the car. Miss Greene remained quiet and stared down at her feet. I cannot describe my feelings as all this was going down. I was filled with dread, fear, and pride. I worried for her; her fear was visceral and she seemed so tiny. The pride I was feeling had to do with the trust she had in me. I was only 18 years old, but on that day I was a man.
From start to finish, it took two hours to get the task done. The bank manager agreed to allow us to remain in the bank after closing. Everyone around us seemed to understand her pain. Up until that point in my life, I’m not sure I had witnessed that kind of empathy. The day did not get easier for Miss Greene. When we got to her door she was drenched in sweat and clearly spent. I lowered her onto her sofa, repulsed by the horrible smell in her apartment. Her sister peeked out of the bedroom door and retreated when I saw her. Miss Greene thanked me and gave me $40. It was the largest tip I ever received from one of my customers. I tried to refuse it, but it was important to her that I take it. I knew that I would never be the same. My arm remained black and blue for a week, but my pity for Miss Greene stayed with me a good deal longer. I kept my deed secret for a long time, never sharing what I had done with the Parks. When I arrived late for work that afternoon, I lied and said that I was held up at school. I felt no guilt, only sadness. Miss Greene continued to order vodka and increased her tip from 20 cents to a quarter. Her demeanor never changed and she never mentioned our afternoon at the bank. I have thought of her often since that day. I imagine her liver must have failed her at some point. I wondered which one of them went first, her or her sister, perhaps mercifully they died at the same time. I also wonder how many Miss Greenes wake up a prisoner in their own homes each day. My problems seem so small in comparison.
When I see a young person working, I imagine they might be learning the kind of life lessons I learned working for the Parks. I think, good for them, and I’m grateful for having had the experience. Life lessons are plentiful when we’re young and naive.
The truth is, Mrs. Flanagan wanted the scotch and I just happened to be there that day.