The Opening Bell

By: kmarulis

Aug 30 2010

Category: Uncategorized

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There are moments in time when there is a vibe in the air and that vibe pulls you to a road and that road takes you to a place. That time for me was 1976 and that place was Eugene Oregon.
It was September and dissatisfaction had me feeling that vibe. It wasn’t too long after my last big testosterone induced altercation with some New York City cabbies that I decided to leave the place of my birth. I was twenty nine years old and my forgiving wife Marlo was twenty eight. Our daughter Marlina hadn’t quite turned one yet and here I was, a young married man with a family to take care of and I was driving around stoned out of my mind and getting involved in drunken street brawls with strangers.
I had been working as a seasonal worker at the Woodlawn Cemetery in the north Bronx and had just gotten laid off. To supplement a very meager unemployment check I secured a job for which I was getting paid under the table. I was doing some side work for a small carpet store which was owned by an ex-boxer who went by the name of Freddy Pica.
On the night of that last fateful fight I had been driving around the Bronx in the wee small hours with two bona fide tough guys. One was a Puerto Rican named Eddy and the other was Eddy’s Irish oaf of a brother-in-law who went by the name of John Thomas.
As we drove the quiet and darkened White Plains Road on a stretch of Bronx street that ran under the elevated Third Avenue Subway line, a taxi that had been driving along side of us swung dangerously between the steel girders that acted as support for the trains up above and struck the front of our car. Our vehicle took some damage and being a stick-shift, immediately stalled out. Drunk and now filled with rage, we managed to get the car started and the chase was on to catch and beat the crap out of the perpetrator of this hit and run accident. Onto the Bronx River Parkway we headed towards the driver’s supposed sanctuary of the South Bronx where we were sure he would be looking for his compadres to back him up should a fight ensue.
It is true, I can’t deny it, I was drunk and my driving skills weren’t the best under those conditions and we got stuck in the sand on a surprise exit off the parkway. Full of anger and desperate to get our hands on that cabbie, we felt lucky when a brave and good Samaritan stopped to give us a push and free us with his vehicle.
After profusely thanking our fellow late night motorist for his assistance we decided to head on over to the Thruway Cab Company in the north Bronx and rabidly hunt down the driver who had so rudely interrupted our peaceful evening of merriment and inebriation.
The Thruway Cab Company was a call-in livery service that found it’s niche serving the people of the Bronx due to the lack of yellow cab drivers who were justly afraid of entering into dangerous areas of the city. As a former yellow cab driver myself, I knew that it was safer and more profitable for a cabbie to stick to the downtown streets of Manhattan and to avoid venturing into the outer boroughs of the Bronx and Brooklyn. If you wanted to get home safely and with more change in your pockets, then you were better off catering to the theatre goers and the young urban professionals that partied along the very entertaining streets of Manhattan.
Upon entering the driver’s rest area of the Thruway Cab Company still spoiling for a fight and with our anger unabated , we stepped through a doorway marked for employees only. Standing on a concrete and iron railinged platform from above, we spotted below us in a room filled with chairs and couches, three men, two Puerto Ricans and a black guy, who were engaged in the mellow(though illegal) activity of smoking some marijuana. Seeing us enter and not knowing who we were, one of them jumped up and tossed the weed behind a bank of vending machines.
Eddy , sensing some kind of advantage, started yelling to the cabbies that he saw them stash what they had been smoking. Somehow, through the pandemonium of a very heated conversation, those drivers got the impression that we were cops, which wasn’t immediately denied by us. We proceeded to explain to them that we were looking for the perpetrator who had smashed in the front of our car and we were sure that he was from the very cab company for which they worked and were now happily smoking their pot in. After hearing our complaints, those exemplary employees of the Thruway Cab Co began to realize that we weren’t cops after all and now the only redress that would suffice for the insults they had suffered would have to be an all-out war.
Eddy was hot and wanted to push his way to the front of the fray but I complained that I should be considered the most aggrieved due to the fact that it was my car that got damaged. Memory fails me and I do not remember who struck the first blow but the situation soon found me wrestling with the black guy in a struggle of strength to see who would gain the upper hand by bringing the other to ground.
Fortunately for me, I was stronger than he was and once I had him down and straddled his arms I began to pummel his head with all of the drunken enthusiasm I could muster. Having had this fellow amply dispatched I jumped up only to find that John Thomas had disappeared and Eddy had the two Puerto Rican dudes on top of him. As the younger of the two assisted, the older guy was trying desperately to stab Eddy in the chest with a knife. Eddy, who was very strong, and despite being cut, was managing from his position on the floor to hold back this older guy’s knife arm as he attempted to sink the blade into Eddy’s chest.
Knowing that time was of an essence, I came up behind the young guy with a full force roundhouse punch to the side of the head that sent him flying. The older Puerto Rican dude, seeing that he now had two crazed people to deal with, immediately jumped up and went into a frontal defensive position with the knife out in front of him for protection.
Eddy, only slightly wounded, jumped up from that hard concrete floor in a crazed state of mind. The blood lust of revenge was upon him and we both began screaming for that older dude to drop his knife and fight it out like a man.
Steadily and with caution we began to close in on that knife wielding cabbie whose back was against a wall and who had no intention of laying down his only defense against these two maniacs who were intent upon doing him severe bodily harm.
Just as this potentially fatal situation was about to escalate once again, the employee only door suddenly swung open with a loud bang and in charged a half dozen cops with John Thomas in tow. Upon seeing that the Calvary had finally come to the rescue of the Thruway Cab Co., a bald headed, overweight, middle aged white guy dispatcher gentleman appeared from nowhere out of the bowels of that building excitedly bellowing his complaints against these lunatic marauders who had invaded his lawful place of business. Me and Eddy, in the meantime, were still doing some screaming of our own that the cops should look behind the vending machines for that murderous knife and the drugs that the drivers had been using.
As the dispatcher screamed and as me and Eddy yelled at the tops of our lungs, a very calm and serious minded cop quietly looked at me and Eddy and offered us some advice in a manner that was for me very sobering.
“Shut the **** up” were the words that came from a man who was not to be messed with.
Shut the **** up was good enough for me and I immediately implored Eddy to calm down. Eddy though, seeing that the cab company’s dispatcher was still being allowed to speak felt put upon and his anger flared out of control once again. Hearing him call us names was too much for Eddy to bear and he reared back and planted a solid punch right onto the top of that dispatcher’s bald head.
The cops were stunned and as the dispatcher reeled backwards I grabbed onto Eddy and begged him to calm down. I did not want to go to jail and my newfound enlightenment enabled me to switch to a role as a voice of reason.
It should be explained to any contemporary folk who might be reading these words that there was a different mindset on the part of New York City cops in those days. Drinking and driving and drinking and fighting were forgivable offenses, provided of course that there were no observable fatalities. It would also help the perpetrator if those inconveniences occurred around shift change when an officer’s long night of peacekeeping was finally nearing it’s end. After all, who wouldn’t rather be home in a nice warm bed or sitting in an after-hours club enjoying an eye opener whilst violating one of New York’s blue laws. Having a few cocktails or getting laid might be considered a lot more fun than shepherding drunks and filling out a lot of paperwork.
As an intellectual plodder and as someone who relies on hindsight as a learning tool, I speculated for years about the motivation behind the decision by those police officers to let us go that night with only an admonition to go home and sleep it off. It was miraculous really, especially after Eddy had so rudely left a lump squarely in the middle of that dispatchers bald head and had perpetrated the heinous act right in front of the eyes of those officers of the law.
Sure, shift change probably had something to do with our ability to leave that cab station as free men, but in hindsight I am sure that law enforcement’s reasoning went beyond their carnal comforts and a need for a stiff drink. Thinking back, I am sure that these cops were on the take, and were simply serving the needs of the owners of the Thruway Cab Company. After all, how would it look if the word got out, possibly in the press, that Thruway’s drivers were sitting around as they waited for their next innocent fare and getting high on drugs with the obvious approval of company management?
Sure, those cops were on the take and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if they left the cab station that night with a gratuity in their pockets. It wouldn’t be the first time I had witnessed a penny ante shakedown on the part of New York’s finest. My first lesson in the chintzy greed on the part of the boys in blue had come some years before when a friend of mine named Roy Vega got stupidly drunk and was caught stealing beach chairs off of peoples porches as he wobbled down the street with nothing better to do.
The cops had nabbed him in the act and had then offered him a choice of either paying them a fee for letting him go or he could go to jail. Well, Roy was flat broke and so he showed up at our hangout in the parking lot behind The American Bar with those two detectives who demanded payment of a hundred dollars or Roy would face charges for burglary. Happily for Roy, another friend of ours named Carl Gervasi had the money(Carl always had money), and Roy remained a free man.
So yeah, lots of cops were taking bribes and stealing, this was a fact of life and it was more plausible as an assumption than to consider it as a rogue situation.
Nevertheless, as I was stating, I was feeling vibrations that were borne of dissatisfaction and desperation. The streets were getting uglier and uglier and just below the surface of my own light hearted personality was a screaming anger that was becoming hair-trigger and was sure to get me killed or at least thrown in jail.
I really wasn’t consciously thinking that it was time to get out of town but a couple of months before I had gotten an invitation from a good friend named Al Goldberg to head out to Washington state to be the best man at his wedding. The invitation had come in July for the wedding which would take place in August. I knew I wouldn’t be able to make it out to Seattle for this event but new thoughts of adventure began swirling inside my head and I began feeling an itch that only a complete uprooting could satisfy.

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