Authors: Reggie Nadelson
Did something drive her back out onto the High Line? Did somebody find her huddled, torture her, hang her from the viaduct?
That night, I work the case until dawn, and my mouth tastes like a sewer from all the smokes; I keep on working it day after day, but there's nothing. I start drinking too much.
The case, it runs right through July, my name shows up in a couple of the articles. In the
they even shove my picture in with the story, and some headline about a brave detective, garbage like that. The
picks it up. People around NYU start asking me about it, ghoulish questions about the girl, her death. Why is anyone interested in so much horror; it's not long after I meet Max Ostalsky in the park.
Leaving the High Line now on this miserable October morning, I remembered how Max Ostalsky had asked me about the dead girl. Polite, but insistent.
What did some Russki care about a Manhattan homicide? I had wondered more than once.
Now I knew. He had wanted information on how the cops worked a homicide. Wanted it because he was planning to kill the man on Pier 46. I felt sure about it, but I needed evidence, and I was burning up with fever, sick as a dog, exhausted.
Tommy was asleep on my couch, and I left him there. He could miss school for a day. I washed down three aspirin with a belt of Three Rosesâdrank it from the bottle I kept in the kitchenâ tore off my clothes, fell into bed.
The phone rang. It was my lieutenant. I said I was sick. He said, OK, take some time. Take two weeks. Don't come in, he said. Didn't ask about the case. Don't ask nothing, Pat, he said. Finally, I fell asleep. Dreamed I was running uptown, had to get to the piers, to the High Line, had to save somebody, except the face on the detective who was running wasn't mine. It was Max Ostalsky's.
October 17, '62
HE DREAM WOKE ME
I couldn't get back to sleep. I drank some more whisky and took more aspirin
and I still couldn't sleep. I lay in bed, trying to recall how I fell into the friendship with Max Ostalsky; how I ended up talking too much; how I let him play me.
I had signed up for a course at NYU the summer I was working the High Line. I didn't have much free time, but I went to my class when I could, and it turns out we have classes in the same building, Max and me. Same building; same time. Before class, he always has his nose in a book, checking his work, practicing his English. But afterwards it becomes a habit for us to meet up for a cup of coffee, or a beer.
Around NYU, people like Max Ostalsky. He's goodlooking, he laughs, he's interested in everything, and people take notice of it. “He's awfully nice for a Communist,” one girl tells me.
Students, professors too, invite him home for dinner. Miss NYU gets her picture taken with Max. Peaceniks inquire solemnly about his views on unilateral disarmament. Sometimes in his old-fashioned brown leather briefcase, he carries little gifts for his new friendsâpainted boxes with pictures of Russia, wooden dolls that contain smaller and small dollies inside, even Russian chocolate bars.
Max debates anyone who wants to, in class, in the park, he listens politely, and sticks up for his country. But he has a sense of humor, and tells me that for his paper on
he's planning an essay on the whale as the engine of capitalism, and then he chuckles about it.
Does Max know the crew-cut fellow in the wrinkled tan suit I saw opposite his building on University Place is FBI and only pretends he's a grad student? But it's none of my business.
The day in July my name hits the papers Max is waiting for me, as usual, on the steps at NYU, a copy of the
New York Post
in his hand.
“This case must be so difficult, Pat?”
“It's my job.”
I can see he wants to talk about it, but I've had it with the story for now. I take the newspaper from him, and lob it into a garbage can. “Enough of that. Enough.”
“May I buy you a glass of beer?”
I'm glad for some diversion. It's six, but still light, high summer. The park is full of pretty girls. Everywhere I see girls like the dead girl on the High Line: young, pretty, a whole life ahead of them. I'm not sentimental about the dead, it's my business, but this is different. I could use a drink.
“Sure, a beer sounds good. Why not?”
“That is fine,” says Max.
“Nice duds,” I say, as we stroll across the park towards MacDougal Street.
“Thank you,” says Max who looks pretty good, decent haircut, new tortoiseshell specs; in the chinos and pink button-down shirt, a dark blue jacket over his arm, he looks, what does he look? American. An all-American College Joe and even he way he holds himself, he fits in with the other adult students. A lot of them are in their twenties, even thirties. Most everyone goes to class in a coat and tie, the girls in heels and their mothers' handbags, the ones who are looking for a husband in the dental school at least. “So who's been advising you on your clothes?”
Max glances at the chess players on the north side of the park, eye on a couple of men in hats, one white, one Negro, hard at it.
“Some,” he says.
“You any good?”
“It depends who is on the other side of the table.”
“Let's get that beer.”
“Yes. Sure. It is Mrs Muriel Miller, by the way, my, what would you say, landlady, who helps me with shopping. She is very kind, Pat. I think she considers me like a son, or better to say, a nephew. I believe she is lonely because her own son is married, and on Long Island.”
“Of course. Last week she accompanies me on top of a Fifth Avenue bus to many stores.”
“What did you think?”
“I think she wants to convert me to your system through shopping, and to be honest, the stores are quite amazing, especially this F.A.O. Schwarz. Of course, we have a grand toy store in Moscow, but I am like a ten-year-old boy here. Grown men in suits are admiring the train sets. Perhaps Mrs Miller thinks I will defect for a beautiful Lionel train set.”
“How do you feel about that?”
He looks at me, startled, perplexed, concerned suddenly.
“I'm kidding you, man.”
“I see.” He's uneasy now, just for a moment, fumbling for his cigarettes.
“It was a joke, Max. I'm kidding, I'm fooling around with you, man.”
“Of course. Can you believe how time flies, Pat? It's almost a month since we first met. I have been meaning to tell you how grateful I am to you for answering so many of my questions. So many of the graduate students are, would you say, square? I try. I try to sound more, more swinging. Can you say that would be copacetic? Or am I cruisin' for a bruisin'?” He bursts out laughing. He makes me laugh. I say, “Very American, daddy-O.”
“I have also become pretty fond of the whisky you introduced me, too. I am down with it. By the way, Mrs Miller asks if you would come for dinner. She is awfully kind, I have my own room, and a bathroom for myself,” says Max. “Mrs Miller believes I, a young man, must have my privacy, and I am not sure what this means. We do not have this concept, you see. I feel I have fallen into a magic rabbit hole. What is privacy precisely, Pat? This is not something we understand in my country.”
I explain as best I can. Crossing 3rd Street, Max looks around MacDougal like a kid eating cake with both hands, he takes out his notebook and scribbles in it, puts it back.
“What language do you write in?”
“Ah, only English. I promise myself I will only speak in English, I will write in English. If I dream in English, this means I am truly fluent.”
“What do you write about?”
“Oh, everything. This is like theater. So many things I have to recall, to write to my family.”
Every night the Village throbs with music, music from folk clubs, jazz clubs, bars, cafÃ©s, coffee houses. Along MacDougal, kids wait to get into the Gaslight CafÃ© and CafÃ© Wha and they're crazy with excitement. “Did you hear that new guy, Dylan? You heard him? Is that her, is it Mary?” cries a girl in sandals. “My mother will flip her wig when she hears I've been to the Village.”
Suburban kids dressed in black as if for a costume party, return tickets to Long Island in their pockets, throng the street, drunk with the prospect of a night out in Greenwich Village. Italian boys stand around, posturing; like Bobby Darin, or Tony Curtis, they figure, pompadours glistening with Brylcreem, hands jammed in pockets, eyeing tourists with disdain, maybe spoiling for a little action on a hot summer night.
“This is like theater,” Max says. “So much.” He has out the little notebook, scribbling furiously. Puts it away. Extracts his pack of Lucky Strike. “Where shall we go for our beer?”
“Let's go to Minetta Tavern, it's across the street.”
Inside Minetta, Max examines the photos of boxers on the walls and then climbs onto a stool at the bar next to me. He orders Rheingold for us both. I add a double Scotch for myself. Me, I also want some meatballs. I haven't been eating. The food here is good, and it's cheap.
I down the drinks in one gulp and order cheap red wine. I eat a couple of meatballs and order more wine. I feel better. This is what I need, a night off the case I can't solve, and from my nightmares.
“So what's new, Max?”
“I am now familiar with disc jockeys such as Cousin Brucie Morrow, and Murray the K. and his Swinging Soirees for Submarine Watchers, isn't that it, Pat?”
“Max, man, I am proud of you, so easy to fall for the folkie stuff, living down here in the Village, as a reward I am going to take you to a real rock and roll show, maybe even the Brooklyn Fox, or the Apollo.” In Max, I can see a potential convert. “The music will send you. The chicks will dig you. You will become Moscow's ambassador of cool, the Messiah of cool even, and some day, I will visit Moscow, and who knows, you will take me to a rock and roll concert over there.”
“But cultured people will say it is just noise. I don't think rock and roll can ever have a place in the Soviet Union. But I hope you will come to visit me, of course.”
“Wait and see, pal. It's catching on like wild fire. Listen, down here in the Village, the folkies, most of them, think of rock and roll as music for lower orders, peasants you might say, but, man, I took some of my 45s over to Liverpool on vacation last year, and I played them my music, Smokey, and Marvin, and James Brown, of course, and Buddy Holly, and Chuck Berry, and they say, we want you to hear something. I think, Jesus, rock and roll is American. But they drag me into this lousy cellar in the middle of the day to hear these four boys. They are really good. When I go, I leave my cousins a few of the discs, and I got a letter saying the guys in that cellar went on tour with Little Richard who taught one of them, Paul was his name, his hoo holler.”
Max thinks Ray Charles is certainly fine so we agree on this and also that it's shame “I Can't Stop Loving you”, number one most of the summer, has been topped by Bobby Vinton, who is a drip, singing “Roses are Red”. I feel I've done some basic work on Max. “You want to share another bottle of this vino with me?”
“With pleasure. What do you think of my new shoes?” He sticks out his feet to reveal his brand new loafers. “They are called Bass Weejuns, I purchased them at the store, B. Altman, and there is a slot for a penny. I say to myself, Maxim, only in this country could there be shoes with a space for money. It is, as someone said to me, crazy. I call them my Capitalists.”
The bartender overhears him and starts to laugh, and it's infectious. Everybody roars with laughter, and Max, too, lets out that infectious chuckle of his, and tells a Soviet joke involving sausages. Soon a guy, still laughing, buys a round of drinks. Max offers to perform a magic trick. I've seen him in the park, entertaining the little kids in the playground, pulling coins from their ears. Look, he says, a Russian coin, twenty kopecks. Max the Magician. Changes his clothes, changes himself. “Can I confide in you, Pat?”
I gulp some wine. “Sure.” I'm flattered.
Loose now, Max tells me how he practices English in his room, how he tries to speak less formally, like an American.
“I think this sounding American and looking American go together,” he says, and tells me that when he's alone, he stands in front of the mirror in his room, to get the posture right. He understands you have to stand loose, casual, get easy in your joints. Bend your knees, amble around like nothing matters, swing your arms, snap your fingers.
“You see? So in my room, where there is privacy, I rehearse this. What a miraculous piece of language making, a true art form this American slang is, Pat. In the subway I eavesdrop on people, I hear one fellow say to his friend, âMe and the chick, we are Splitsville.' This is marvelous.”
“But you must have slang in Russia.”
“Sure, sure, naturally.”
Naturally, I think. Sure, they have everything we have, and it pisses me off, a little, this response. “Let me ask you something, Max. Are you a member of the Communist Party?”
“Why do you ask?” He leans forward, and I think for a crazy moment he's going to proposition me, that he thinks maybe I'm a candidate myself. “Yes,” says Max. “Of course. It is quite an honor.”
“Do they force you?”
“No, Pat, it is something to be desired. Why do some people fear it so much in the United States? They hate us. They say bitter things about Fidel Castro too, and that the Cubans are victims, that all socialists are spies and murderers. I hear them say, better dead than Red. Do they truly believe such a thing?”
“Do you believe this, that it is better to be dead than Red? You know in Russian, red is a beautiful word. It means beautiful.”
“I don't want to be dead under any circumstances. No.”