Ben Covington and Ken Carson were planning on borrowing Julia McQueen’s 1969 Chevy Impala on a mission of dire import. Julia and Ben were in a roller coaster ride of a relationship that was on the slow ride up to the long-awaited scare you to death drop off, that both of them knew had been coming for the two years that they had sometimes been together, but mostly not. Twenty-year old Julia lived with her parents in Pennsylvania, but had just quit her waitressing job to move to New York to attend Hunter College starting in September. She guessed that late August it would be the best time to visit Ben who had been living in Manhattan since he had started Columbia as a freshman five years previously.
After leaving her first college near Pittsburgh and moving back home with her parents, she needed a car and just picked the one that no other young woman would ever choose, she was just that cool! Or at least she wanted to show how cool, unorthodox, and unpredictable she was for a twenty-year-old suburban upper middle class cliché. It was her beat up, but dependable Chevy Impala that had showed up in upper Manhattan and parked as close as she could get it to Ben Covington’s apartment that he shared with Ken in the summer of 1986. That was the year the Mets won the World Series due to one of the greatest pitching rotations New York has ever seen, featuring Dwight Gooden. If you were a Red Sox fan then, you said the Mets won the series due to Bill Buckner’s error on a slow grounder to first base that should have been the last out in game six giving the Sox their 4th victory and first World Championship in forever, but you’d be wrong.
Ben and Julia were then tentatively on an on-again section of their romantic roller coaster ride love affair and she came to visit him because he was intent on quitting his job as an urban tree removal specialist and heading back West. In truth, every day he merely dragged branches to a wood chipper and turned them into a mulch that was only suitable for decorating hedges and bushes around lower middle-class houses that had pretensions and wanted to show that their laws were better than the working class Jones’ house. That’s how he put his Columbia bachelor’s degree to work for him.
Ben had returned to New York from Colorado hoping to find some way to stay in the city and close to Julia, but he hadn’t had any intelligent plan to make his stay permanent. Instead, he had simply drawn up stakes from his temporary floor arrangement in Boulder and flown back to New York to join his friend Ken Carson in his new “Tree Work” adventure. Ben had lived in New York since coming to Columbia as a freshman in 1979, and after graduating in five years, he was in no rush to finish school, he had found a job as a research assistant in an investment bank until he couldn’t take the routine and the monotony and ignominy of being on the bottom of the world of suits with no real chance of moving up. So he quit and went home for the first time.
Late in the summer of 86, he felt that he and Julia were on soon heading for the down section of the love roller coaster ride and so he saw no compelling reason to be poor in New York when it was cheaper and easier to be poor in Colorado. He seemed to have forgotten that Colorado poverty with no happy future in sight had become unbearable in the last year, especially with his family in such close proximity witnessing his failure after having had the gall to go beyond his station in life and attempt to live the life of an Ivy Leaguer. So, when Ken Carson called with the promise of six dollars an hour as a laborer in the posh neighborhoods of Westchester County, he borrowed what cash he could, put a one-way ticket on his credit card, and left his adopted state of Colorado for the second time since graduating high school.
It was the beginning of summer and there were lots of trees to trim back around expensive homes in towns like Bronxville, Tuckahoe, and Scarsdale. The real trick was how to drop a fifty-foot Tulip tree ten yards from the house without damaging the house, the garage, or even the grass on the lawn. But all Ben had to do was saw up the larger chunks of branches and trunk into humanly movable size using the company’s trusty Stihl chainsaw. When he had cut it up small enough, he then had to carry and stack potential firewood in the company dump truck. This wood would be split to the proper size and sold by the cord by the tree company owner entrepreneur Bob Dolan. The smaller branches would be shoved into the chipper by Ben to be turned into “decorative” wood chip mulch.
Bob Dolan and his crew constituted a varied collection of lost humanity. There was Dolan himself, a man who had dreamed of becoming a pro football player only to have any chance of that dashed by a knee injury in his junior year of college playing linebacker at a small Division II school that occasionally attracted pro scouts. After leaving school he had learned the tree trimming business from his father-in-law and had started out on his own after borrowing enough capital to lease his own cherry picker truck. He had been supplied the beginnings of a client list by his father-in-law who was cutting back on the physical end of his landscaping business as he neared the age of sixty. As the tree trimming lawn service business petered out in the Autumn and Winter months, Dolan used his size and fearless football player attitude to supplement his income with gig work as a bouncer at dance clubs, and as a bodyguard for local professional athletes he had met through his old college connections.
The tree work crew featured a bona fide criminal, Frankie Gianelli. Frankie had a criminal record which featured more than a couple assault charges, not all of which stuck. Burglary and shoplifting charges were also leveled against him, but most of them didn’t stick either, or at least didn’t seem to hinder his freedom of movement in any significant way. Frankie was important to Dolan because he was the only member of the crew besides Dolan himself who knew anything about tree removal. Frankie could climb a tree like a small bear, which was the animal his body shape resembled most. Only this little bear felon strapped on ropes and hung a chainsaw from his tool belt when he climbed a tree.
Frankie Gianelli also had a drug problem. If you asked him, he would say the problem only appeared when he didn’t have drugs. But for others the problems happened when he did. Case in point was the deputy sheriff he hit with the baseball bat. The deputy was only trying to de-escalate the domestic dispute between Gianelli and his wife called in by that nosey neighbor next door. Gianelli was taken in after that by the deputy’s pissed off friends on the force, and not another word was learned about him by his co-workers, but that’s getting ahead of the story. Besides, no one on the crew, except maybe Dolan, really wanted to hear any more information about him anyway. Good riddance is what they thought. They were also relieved that his anger problem wasn’t taken out on them. That last bat assault incident occurred just bout one month before Julia arrived in her Impala. In total, Ben only had the pleasure of working with Gianelli for two months or so. Ken had been working there a couple months when he called Ben in Colorado, so he had more stories to spread and serious warnings to hand out to Ben.
In actuality, Ben’s time with Gianelli on the crew was much less than that. There were some weeks when he wouldn’t show up and on those weeks Ben and Ken dared to hope that they had seen the last of him, but once Gianelli ran out of money he always showed up again. Ben as the newest and least experienced, received sixty dollars cash a day paid on Friday after work. Gianelli negotiated his wages daily with Dolan, depending on the work he was required to do on that particular day. On top of that, Gianelli insisted on being paid every day. If he was required to climb and take down two large trees in one day, he talked Dolan into paying him as much as one hundred and fifty dollars. Dolan charged at least a thousand dollars for a large take down, and Gianelli had worked long enough for Dolan to know what he was taking home so he could ask for his idea of a reasonable percentage.
But Dolan knew that if he paid Gianelli over a hundred dollars one day it was likely that he was not going to see him the next day. Sometimes Dolan’s greed got the better of him and he would intentionally not call Gianelli in and do the climbing himself to save himself a hundred bucks or more. Ken having been working for Dolan since the spring had had more experiences with Gianelli and had developed strategies to avoid conflict and was very wary and careful of crossing him. Ben respected and took seriously Ken’s warning about Gianelli, and so Ben knew not to get smart with him even when Gianelli said something stupid, which was quite often.
When Gianelli was on the job, Dolan sometimes felt freed up to make some sales calls, or even do some other non-work related errands. He knew Gianelli could do almost any job if he had some grunts like Ben and Ken to help him with the ropes or cut up the fallen branches and drag off the brush. Taking down a tree next to a house meant tying the branches with strong ropes to control the direction of their swing and drop them safely away from anything in the yard that could be damaged. That meant the climber who tied off the branch to be cut had to depend on someone on the ground to hold the rope long enough to get it to swing in the right direction and then letting go so it fell in a safe location. Ken being the senior ground grunt almost always held the rope, but occasionally when it was safe Ben had chances to develop his own skills with the rope. Gianelli would only trust Ken to drop the branch safely, which he always did, luckily. Ben would then go over to the branch with his chainsaw and cut it into pieces that would be used as firewood, and then dragged and stuffed into the chipper the rest of the tree branches to be turned into mulch. The chipper sprayed those chips into the back of the company dump truck to be hauled away to a rented wooded farm-like property to be stored for later sale, or simply left to rot.
It was on a day in late June when somewhere in Tuckahoe the crew was removing a thirty-foot tree whose branches were hanging down over the second-floor balcony of a home of some corporate lawyer who worked in Manhattan. Gianelli was on the job and was eager and compliant enough since he needed a small score to refill his stash. Dolan took the opportunity to run off and do whatever sales or personal stuff he did in such cases. He said he was getting a line on new business, but Dolan was always a bit shifty. He would be gone for at least two hours and Gianelli was given instructions on what needed to be done to remove the tree. Ken was on the ground in charge of the ropes and Ben was sawing the branches Gianelli had cut on the way up the tree. Ben had been working over a month and it hadn’t even taken him a week to become proficient of his end of the grunt work.
Gianelli was halfway up the tree when he suddenly hopped off the tree onto the second-floor balcony. He tried the glass double doors and found them to be unlocked. Ken and Ben stared in disbelief from down below as Gianelli first poked his head in the door and then quickly entered the house. There had been someone who answered the door when Dolan had knocked on it an hour earlier and they didn’t remember anyone coming out and leaving, so the guys assumed that Gianelli was taking a chance of being caught prowling around. Ken and Ben were both thinking that they were accomplices to burglary or at least trespassing, but they also didn’t want to rat out Gianelli because that came with the risk of permanent physical injury.
The two guys just looked at each other wide-eyed and then looked back at the balcony doors. In what seemed like a long time, but was probably only a few minutes, Gianelli popped back out of the doors carrying a bottle of Jack Daniels. He took a long pull on the bottle then climbed down and put the bottle in his backpack. He offered Ken and Ben a drink, but they both declined. They were accomplice enough without sharing in the ill-gotten gains, they both thought. Who knew what else he had found up there and shoved in his pockets. Gianelli and the ground guys finished the job off in the next two hours and then waited for Dolan to drive back in the van. Both Ken and Ben looked at each other knowingly to verify that they weren’t going to say a thing about this to Dolan.
After that day Gianelli didn’t show up for work for almost two weeks. The guys thought maybe they were free of him, but of course they weren’t. In those two weeks Ken was excited because he got to get some experience climbing and tying off branches using the famous Dolan Bowline knot. It was the classic ancient sailor’s knot, but he had a different way of teaching how it was to be tied. Ben got to learn how to handle the ropes carrying the heavy branches so that they fell where they were supposed to and didn’t give him any rope burns. Ken used Gianelli’s absence and his new climbing responsibilities to get a raise to eighty dollars a day. Ben didn’t even try to get more money.
On Fridays after getting paid Dolan would often offer Ben and Ken a ride back to Manhattan. On the usual weekday they had to take the commuter train back into the city. It wasn’t so bad since most people were leaving the city to go home, so travel into the city in the evening wasn’t very crowded at all. Most of the passengers were black women who worked as maids for the rich people in Westchester County. Ben and Ken felt they had something in common for once with working people. It was a feeling that had eluded them while they were attending Columbia.
One time, Gianelli, in a strange mood of generosity, offered to give the guys a ride into Manhattan after work. He actually lived the other direction in Dobbs Ferry, but he had some nefarious business to take care of in Manhattan so he made the offer which would be no skin off his nose. He also had a secondary motive for asking the guys along. He wanted to scare them to death and then laugh at them. He would put them both in their places, just in case as college graduates they had any thoughts about being superior to him in any way.
Ken had been given a ride by Gianelli before because he had “business” in Manhattan and for the same secondary motive, to scare the death out of him. Gianelli drove an old Dodge Charger, an American muscle car that sounded like it needed a new muffler. Once he got on the highway he just floored it. He loved to play frogger on the highway going over eighty miles an hour with the engine sounding like it was a stock car at Daytona. When he couldn’t find an open lane he would either turn into the center grassy area between the two lanes in either direction or he would power ahead on the shoulder of the road. All you could do when you were in the car with him was hang on and hope. Ken knew what they were in store for, but in a sadistic mood, wanted Ben to share in the experience of the fear of driving with Gianelli, and to prove to Ben just how screwed up and psycho this regular chainsaw user really was. In fact, Gianelli had a favorite line he would throw at his coworkers. He would glare at them and say, “Don’t forget that I might be behind you with a chainsaw.”
One good thing about riding on the highway with Gianelli was that it was over in ten or fifteen minutes. He got to where he wanted to exit the highway fast and then he announced he had a stop to make before dropping the guys off near their part of town. Of course, Ken and Ben wouldn’t let him take them to their apartment, he didn’t need to know where that was, and Gianelli would rather drop them off at a corner convenient for him anyway. Gianelli drove to a dumpy but not too impoverished neighborhood in the Bronx and parked with the motor running across the street from a park. He trotted over to the park, met a guy, and they made an exchange. He came back and asked Ben if he could borrow his lighter. He lit the lighter and tried to turn it up, but it wouldn’t flame up as high as he wanted so he gave it back. He then took the guys back to the highway exit closest to their neighborhood and they got out.
The guys didn’t go straight home. They had a bar to go to. There was a lot of weird shit to process, and it could only be done properly at their favorite Irish Pub, McTavish’s Cork, over at least four pints of Guinness. This was the bar that Dolan would drop them off at on Friday nights. Dolan would usually stay for four pints of his own. The reason to have four was that it was the policy of this place to give their regulars the fourth one free. Being that each pint cost two bucks fifty, you could get pretty drunk for less than ten dollars.
They went to McTavish’s because of the Guinness and the dark musty dive bar atmosphere. The first bartender they met there was a forty something Irish American bachelor named Jimmy O’Connor. Jimmy was a lifelong denizen of an Irish neighborhood in the nearby Bronx and after a failed marriage he had moved back into his childhood home to take care of mother, and vice versa. He said she always told him not to come home with a “package,” meaning don’t bring a bottle of whiskey home with you, so he drank for free behind the bar instead.
The first time Jimmy saw the guys walk into the bar, he was wary of them. Neither of them looked Irish and neither of them was. But ordering pints of Guinness made him think they might not be so bad. They asked what was the proper temperature for serving Guinness because they had heard that it was supposed to be drunk warm and these pints weren’t that warm. He explained that Seamus McTavish the owner thought the proper temperature was slightly lower than room temperature so he had his Guinness kegs in the basement, which was always colder than the upstairs, and he ran the line from the keg through the ice behind the bar. It still wasn’t cold, but it wasn’t room temperature either. Maybe because the guys were used to American cold beer they decided they liked McTavish temperature better than the competition’s.
The Inwood section of Manhattan had been mostly inhabited by descendants of the late nineteenth century Irish immigrants from the turn of the twentieth century, but starting in the seventies the neighborhood had been changing. Not for the better, the Irish-Americans thought. The Spanish language was being heard a lot more often on the streets north of Dyckman and there were then as many brown faces as white faces. After ten or eleven every night Bartender Jimmy would lock the front door, and he had to get a look at the customer before he decided whether or not to buzz him in. He had a distasteful title for that lock beginning with an “N” to describe its purpose. Ken and Ben had become regulars so they had no trouble being buzzed in for late night and early morning drinking.
Besides attracting a normally working class, white clientele, there were other distasteful things about McTavish’s Cork that just had to be ignored. One was that the Irish customers were always number one with Seamus. If the guys walked in and took seats, Seamus might just move them off the bar for first timer Irish kids with freckled faces and crooked teeth. If there was a special Irish party, the guys weren’t invited and they were told so in advance. And, if you brought in a pretty girl then Seamus was sure to put an arm around her and order her a free drink as his fingers felt up her breast. Fellow Columbia graduate and local Inwood friend Mike Lonergans’s live-in Ruth Steiner and Ben’s Julia had both experienced this and complained to Mike and Ben, but there was the fourth one free rule, and their tits weren’t being squeezed! The fourth pint free rule didn’t just exist everywhere, you know!
Another feature of McTavish’s place that Ken and Ben liked was the jukebox. It was an old-fashioned looking thing with all the analog push buttons and the names of some songs and artists typed as if on some old manual typewriter. Other songs and artists names were penned in by hand in a nice penmanship that signaled a man who was proud of his record collection. But what really set this jukebox apart was that Ben and Ken knew almost none of the songs in it. The songs were almost all by Irish artists and about Irish topics. One song that was different was Johnny Horton’s The Battle of New Orleans
Two other songs that Ben knew were by the Irish Rovers. One of Ben’s brothers had the 45 of The Unicorn and the flipside had The Orange and the Green. So, Ben had heard them a hundred times when they had first came out fifteen years earlier. The song that really drew Ben to Irish music was the rowdy bar ballad The Wild Rover. The opening sentiment caught Ben’s heart immediately, it went:
I’ve played the Wild Rover for many a year,
And I’ve spent all my money on whiskey and beer!
Ken had heard this before, most recently downtown at the popular Eagle Tavern in downtown Manhattan. After Ben expressed his affection for this song, Ken escorted him down to the Village so they could hear it live from an Irish band, whose singer played up his Irish accent and blarney filled roots.
There were a couple of other songs that led Ben to inquire about Irish history to another Columbia buddy who they had turned on to McTavish’s pub. This third Guinness drinker was the aforementioned Mike Lonergan, Ruth’s live-in, the son of a Columbia Business School professor, but a guy with no intention of going into Graduate Business School or business of any kind. He had graduated in the same class as Ken and Ben, but he then enrolled in graduate school at Columbia, tuition free because of his father, to get his Master’s degree in Irish history.
His girlfriend Ruth Steiner, who also graduated the same year as the guys had, but from Barnard, had been in classes with Ben since they were both East Asian Studies majors. Mike and Ruth lived in an apartment just a couple blocks away from Ben and Ken. Both Mike and Ruth were introduced to McTavish’s Cork by Ken and Ben, but Mike took to it more and felt at home in the Irish American atmosphere that Seamus worked hard to keep up in hopes of attracting Irish Americans. The Lonergans were Irish American, but they were hardly working class. Mike used to pop in while walking his dog Rosie, who became a fixture at the bar for a while, even welcomed and fed by both bartender Jimmy and owner Seamus.
It was Mike who explained to Ben and Ken the context behind two of the most popular songs on the jukebox, The Fields of Athenry and The Men Behind the Wire. It seems the first was about the Irish potato famine of the 1840s. It was the lament of an Irishman from the Galway area who stole some crops from the farm of a British overlord and was then sentenced to life in a penal colony in Australia. The second was about the British imprisoning IRA members in Belfast during the seventies. Those two awful periods in Irish history were the only things Ben had ever learned about Ireland in high school so he could put the songs in context and felt he could relate to the injustice, and would play those two songs anytime he felt he needed to get rid of some loose change.
Mike Lonergan was an interesting case. He was on the shorter side of both of the guys, had curly brown hair and sported a bushy mustache and beard. In other words, he looked a bit like Ben imagined a leprechaun should look like. He also smoked a pipe that he boasted was made of the best briarwood, and often talked up his favorite pipe tobacco store in midtown Manhattan. For a while he had Ken and Ben smoking out of their own briarwood pipes and buying ounces of Virginia Cavendish from the gay couple who owned the midtown store with the tobacco humidor. The running joke was about how often they cleaned each other’s pipes.
Mike was often slandered by his two friends, behind his back, for being “p-whipped” by Ruth. She had him on a limit on his Guinness consumption and the dog walking was partially an excuse for getting one pint, and when he was really bold he would stay for two. To her credit, Ruth allowed him that excess. She also allowed him to drop by Ken and Ben’s apartment sometimes at eleven when he knew they would be watching reruns of the Honeymooners on WPIX channel 11. On those occasions he would be given a bottle of Harp lager for his trouble, and another occasion to smoke his pipe. When he got home and had to relieve himself of that beer though, he was not allowed to stand up and do it since he was found guilty of belonging to the category of most men who have a little front of the bowl dripping issue. Needless to say, that information inspired more kindly, but derogatory talk among his two bar friends of what family jewels Mike had sacrificed for Jewish American Princess poontang.
McTavish’s Cork was also the place where Dolan started recruiting immigrant labor. When Gianelli was out of touch for two weeks, Dolan found that he wasn’t able to get as much tree work done. He was losing money. He would always complain to the guys how much the cherry picker truck lease was costing him, and he had it figured to the penny just how many jobs he had to complete every week to even turn a profit. And even though Gianelli was aggravating and a royal pain in the ass, he was a worker Dolan could overcharge his customers for and then underpay his other staff.
In fact, not having to pay Gianelli the hundred dollars plus a day would help his profit margin only if he could get another grunt like Ben to work for sixty dollars a day. Ken was good enough for the smaller tree takedowns and if Dolan had a really delicate job, in other words a huge tree very close to a house, then he himself would do the climbing, cutting, and lowering of the branches. In fact though, the reason Dolan leased the cherry picker was so he didn’t have to actually climb. He was a bit conflicted about that angle. Sometimes he did have to climb, and he was good at it, but he was a big guy and he closely resembled Captain Kangaroo’s Dancing Bear hugging a huge trunk and hauling his two hundred and fifty pounds fifty feet off the ground, with a chainsaw, tree saw, and other tools hanging from his belt.
But if Dolan simply needed a new warm body to raise his asking price by a hundred dollars a job, of which he kept forty, that a was rationalization he was happy to make since that meant an extra eighty dollars a day for him. One certain Friday in July Dolan drove Ken and Ben to McTavish’s and made a show of counting out their cash payment while standing at the bar smoking a fat cigar. Then he bought them a round of Guinness. Sitting next to Ben was a milky white, pasty-faced twenty something, cheaply dressed and sporting a stupid smile that was accented by a mouth he couldn’t seem to close, even when he wasn’t speaking. Clearly, he was fresh off the boat from Ireland, and Dolan knew it. Ken and Ben had met him before and had admired his thick accent and were drawn to his genuine friendliness and immigrant optimism. His name was Paddy Corcoran, and of course, he was in need of a job, not to mention a green card. But Dolan didn’t need to see a green card, and it was his practice to always avoid having to figure payroll taxes or social security. Everything was off the books if you worked for Dolan, and that was just fine for Paddy. As he put it so quaintly one day while having milk and a sandwich during lunchbreak sitting on a rich family’s lawn, working for Dolan was nothing more than a “grand Teddy Bear picnic.”
Of course, Gianelli finally came back in need of cash and Dolan, tired of climbing and frustrated with Ken’s slow tree climbing learning curve, was only too happy to put him to work. Gianelli had a quick wit and a sharp tongue for a gangster with a crack habit, but he knew to keep it in check when he came asking for work. He actually seemed a bit hurt that his absence didn’t cause Dolan any serious financial distress or economic hardship. Dolan’s rejection of Gianelli’s automatic request for a raise, and his suggestion that Gianelli could take it on the arches if he didn’t accept the old rate made Gianelli see Paddy as little more than a convenient target for taking out his frustration. Gianelli, as psychotic as he could be when he was high on crack, was really skilled at talking smack at work, while also working fast and efficiently enough for Dolan to value him, and most importantly, get paid the premium rate so he could afford his next crack high. Still, it nearly frightened Paddy enough to quit when Gianelli gave his usual warning not to turn his back on a Gianelli with a chainsaw.
Paddy also found it disconcerting that his new name, according to Gianelli, was now Milky. But then, after the next payday, Gianelli was gone again, perhaps never to return. The story went that he had gotten high at home and started roughing up his girlfriend. While on a break from that activity, when he was sniffing coke, someone called the Sheriff’s office. Gianelli didn’t take kindly to law enforcement restricting his freedom of expression so he unloaded on the deputy with a baseball bat and finally the weight of the law, plus that of a few angry fat deputies, was applied to Frankie Gianelli, at last.
About a week after that was when Julia McQueen showed up in her Impala. Ken was by then fed up with Dolan and threatening to quit. Ben was a bit sick of shoving branches into a wood chipper. After Gianelli got arrested Dolan realized he needed someone else to do more of the tree top cutting. Ken thought it was a great chance to go back to making eighty dollars a day as a climber. Every time Gianelli came back, Ken went back to sixty dollars a day. Ken thought that Gianelli’s arrest was his chance to make his raise permanent.
Dolan agreed to the raise, but had second thoughts whenever he had to pay the cherry picker lease. After a week of dithering about while Ken was still learning to climb, on the job training so to speak, Dolan decided to commit to the cherry picker truck and do most of the high tree trimming himself, and to him that meant Ken wasn’t earning his eighty a day. Ken felt that Dolan was simply going back on his word to pay as a climber. Dolan argument was that he had lost the ability to charge his customers at the rate he could when he could tout Gianelli as a skilled tree climber with years of experience. In Dolan’s defense Ken wasn’t that great of a climber yet, and although he could safely cut and lower most limbs that endangered the expensive suburban houses, it took him almost twice the time it took Gianelli and Dolan.
Still, Ben was with Ken and Ken’s only purpose in seeing Dolan again was to get him to cough up the sixty-dollars for three days at what he considered reduced wages. Anyway, Ken had already come up with his Dolan freedom plan when Julia showed up in her Impala on that Monday, which should have been a workday for Ben and Ken. Ken had accepted his reduced wages on the previous Friday payday, but he had steamed about it all weekend. He knew he couldn’t go to work that Monday because it would have been another day showing he had accepted the reduced wages, and he felt he would have lost any leverage if he gave in anymore. In Ken’s mind any more work for Dolan, only gave Dolan another chance to cheat him out of more money.
Ken called Dolan and said they, Ken and Ben were taking the day off, but both wanted to talk to him at his makeshift storage lot, lumber yard. They set the time at ten and drove the Impala, without Julia who stayed behind to get breakfast for herself, up to Tuckahoe where they pulled into the lumberyard determined to get justice. Ben was driving and after he pulled up to Dolan’s van, Ken got out of the car calmly and stepped determinedly up to Dolan. Ken was about six feet one and in good shape at one hundred and eighty-five pounds, but Dolan towered over him at six feet five and two hundred fifty pounds.
“You owe me sixty dollars, Dolan” Ken stated softly but firmly.
“On come on Ken, you get eighty bucks a day only when you climb trees!”
“That wasn’t the deal.”
“Sure it was.”
“You’re wrong Ken!”
“Then I quit!”
Ben had been standing six feet behind Ken during this short exchange, listlessly scanning the littered wood yard. But upon cue, he added, “Me too, Dolan.”
Dolan sighed, looking defeated. Without Ken and Ben he had Milky and possibly a couple other Irish immigrants that Milky hung around with. In other words, he had no one who would show up every day, and no one who could drive his truck or van. No one who operate use his heavy equipment, and no one that he could really trust with a chainsaw. In others words, he was stuck. He pulled out his wallet and handed Ken three twenties.
“Are you coming in tomorrow?,” he asked.
“I’ll call you.” Ken said.
Ben and Ken got back in the Impala and drove back to Inwood. It was only eleven in the morning and they had cash in pocket. When they got back to the apartment, Ken asked Ben and Julia if they had ever been to Coney Island. They said no, and so they formulated their plan. Ken was feeling that all he needed to figure out his future was a few hours of pressure drop. Ben knew that he and Julia had their future to figure out. Ben was happily looking forward to going to this famous amusement park, but he wasn’t looking forward to telling Julia what he had been planning.
They arrived at Coney Island in Brooklyn just around noon and found street parking a few blocks away from their objective. Julia was actually quite fearless in her driving, as she was in most activities, and had no problem navigating the bustling Manhattan streets. She was even great at parallel parking that huge blue boat of a car. Everyone was hungry and there was no argument when Ken directed them all to have hotdogs and chips at Nathan’s famous Hot Dog Stand. It was just part of what they thought everyone did when they visited Coney Island.
Another thing Ken insisted on was riding the Cyclone. The Cyclone was a roller coaster built in the twenties, and it was made of wood as the technology of the day insisted. Riding it is scary not just because of the steep rise and fall. It is a steep and twisting ride, but more scary than that was that it was in shitty condition. Old and rickety was the nice way to describe it. It seemed to threaten to break apart at every rise and fall, and especially at every curve. But the three of them rode in one car, Ken in the front and Julia and Ben in back. As the car was slowly towed up to the top of the first and steepest segment, Ken said it was always better, if not downright required, to hold both hands high in the air as you dropped. He said the sensation was like you were free falling, perhaps out of the car, to your death, and that was supposed to be a good thing according to Ken.
As they neared the top, with the sound of straining chain getting louder, Ben’s courage was wavering and he asked,
“Has anyone actually fallen out?”
Ken looked back at him and smiled as he answered,
“That’s what I heard.”
Julia had raised her hands immediately after she saw Ken do it. Ben was hesitating.
Julia squinted her eyes at Ben and said, half in jest, but half in seriousness,
“If you don’t raise those hands now, you’ll never get any from me anymore!”
Ken shot back with, “I was just waiting ‘til we got closer to the drop. I wouldn’t pussy out, and by the way, you could never say no to this!” pointing to his crotch.
Julia rolled her eyes and then looked away from Ben. Then in a flash, a smile came to her face as a brilliant inspiration arose, Lou Reed.
“This is Coney Island Baby! Do it for the coach!,” she screamed.
Ben laughed and raised his hands and their car seemed to free fall down the steep slope at breakneck speed. After a minute or so they arrived back at the start. Ken, looking inquisitively at Ben, said,
“There’s no line, let’s go again.”
“Yeah!” the two in back shouted immediately. Ben had actually had a thrilling time, and the second time around, approaching the top, his hands were the first raised. Julia laughed at him and shook her head.
“Not so confident in that thing’s power over me after all, are ya!”
Ben smiled at her, but he was heartbroken inside. He wondered if he could tell her he was giving up and going back to Colorado again. He couldn’t help facing up just a little to the fact that he didn’t have the guts or gumption to go out and get a real job and earn a real living.
He really felt disgusted with himself. He was a failure. He was an Ivy League graduate and he couldn’t find work. Immediately after graduation he had worked in a low-level Wall Street position at a well-known investment bank, but he didn’t have the initiative to find a path to promotion. Well that’s not quite true. He had actually, been promoted to a position with some power and responsibility after six months, but after another six months he couldn’t take the tedium and so he quit, and when his money ran out he went home to Colorado for the first time.
“That was strike one, loser!” he thought to himself. This time would be strike two. A week earlier, he had talked to an army recruiter, but when he came home and slept on it, he knew he could never take that kind of life. If he couldn’t take the freewheeling life on Wall Street, boot camp would kill him. He had also applied to take the NYPD exam, but they weren’t scheduled to answer for another month. He didn’t have the endurance required to keep working dragging branches to a chipper for another month to wait for the chance he could take a test to be a cop. And again, if he couldn’t hack Wall Street, how could he refuse to take bribes like Serpico. He had thought if being a New York cop was like being in the Tenth Precinct working for Barney Miller, then he could hack it. But he had actually met some New York cops and they were definitely not funny people. He was beginning to think that he was fated to strike out, and fast. He speculated that a keener mind would have seen this coming for years. Looking back, he now saw that he had spent five years in college actively working not to do anything that would help him in the near future. He didn’t realize when he was in college that that was what he was doing, but he was finally coming to grips with this fatal flaw in his character.
When they got off the rollercoaster ride for a second time, Ken thought that Ben and Julia needed time to be alone together. He not so secretly wanted Ben to stay in New York and get a good job. Ken knew that the first thing he needed to do was to get Ben to realize he had good reasons to stay. Ken felt that Julia was the best reason he knew of and he wanted Ben to get a good dose of that reason from Julia. That was actually why he suggested that they go to Coney Island in the first place.
Ken said he was going to try some other rides or maybe some games, but he suggested that the couple check out the beach. He had told them to bring swimsuits and towels. Ben had brought some old gym shorts, and Julia borrowed a pair of gym trunks and a wife beater T-shirt from Ben. That was her style. That was one thing Ben had always admired about her, her non-conformist spirit. She would have been beautiful dressing as a “girlie girl,” but she just wouldn’t play it that way. They had this makeshift “swimwear” under their other clothes so all they had to do was strip down, which they did once they reached the deserted beach.
By the way, back in the mid-eighties Coney Island’s amusement areas had lost much of their public appeal and patronage. There were a few dozen other patrons visiting the sprawling complex, but in the past, they would have expected hundreds if not thousands. Of course, the advantage on this day was no waiting for the Cyclone and a deserted beach. In truth, it was a strangely cool day in mid-August and a little overcast to boot, but Ben and Julia didn’t mind the privacy. Ben had recently re-watched “The Warriors” for the fifth or sixth time, and although that was fiction about a very deteriorating New York City, Ben thought the scenes of a dilapidated Coney Island in the movie were an accurate depiction of what he was looking at now. It didn’t just look beat up, it looked sad and lonely, perfect for the way Ben and Julia were feeling.
Once the couple had stripped down to their swimwear they ran into the ocean like a couple of kids. They splashed each other and dunked each other and came up gasping and spitting salt water spray into each other’s faces. They were still in the underwater dunking struggle embrace when Julia felt something pulsing against her lower body. Ben was thinking of her fondly. She kept her eyes locked on his and Ben returned the unwavering gaze. She reached down for something familiar and maneuvered herself closer. She rocked slowly against him never averting her eyes from his. What seemed like an eternity of love for Ben must have been over in just a couple of minutes. They separated slightly and sat in the shallow water facing each other in a loose embrace.
After about fifteen minutes they stood up and walked out of the ocean and toweled off and put their dry clothes back on over the wet stuff. They walked in silence back to the boardwalk area and found Ken sitting on a bench next to a stuffed animal, drinking a beer and eating a box of popcorn. After a stroll on the arcade and another beer or two they drove back to Inwood and arrived just before four in the afternoon. Julia had to drive the two hours back home to Pennsylvania that day, so they said their good byes and kissed.
Before getting into the car she slipped a folded piece of paper into Ben’s back pocket. Then she got into the driver’s seat and started the engine. She took off her shirt deciding being braless and wearing Ben’s wife beater T-shirt was the perfect look for driving. She topped off the Julia McQueen, I can rock anything I wear look, by grabbing a vintage scarf from her glove compartment and tying it in classic cleaning housewife style around her short brown hair. The knot was on top of her head and the two pointed ends flopped forward like chic grasshopper antennae. She put on big black plastic Hollywood movie starlet cat’s eye sunglasses and blew the guys a kiss. Then with David Bowie’s Young Americansblasting on her cassette player, she sped off. The lyrics, “It took him minutes, took her nowhere, heaven knows she’d a taken anything!” reverberated in Ben’s ears as the Impala disappeared down Broadway in front of a fog of exhaust. The woman knew how to make an exit.
It was only four in the afternoon and the guys still had money and no jobs, so they headed over to McTavish’s for a pint or four before dinner. At the bar when Ken went over to the jukebox, Ben took Julia’s note out of his pocket and unfolded it. The heading read “10 reasons to stay in New York.” The first five were jokey trivial things about their past like, “Who’s going to be your partner in two-on-two wiffle ball games?” The last five just read, “Because I love you!” Ben felt his eyes start to well up. He cursed himself for not having the courage to stick it out. He knew that strike two was imminent.
Ben closed his eyes tightly to hold back the tears that he couldn’t hold back once he heard the familiar lyrics of Ken’s jukebox choice ring out:
“I’ve played the Wild Rover for many a year, and I’ve spent all my money on whiskey and beer. And it’s no, nay, never. (Clap, clap, clap). No nay never no more. Will I play the Wild Rover no never no more.”
He wished whole-heartedly that this could hold true for him, but deep down he knew he was fatally flawed, and today was the last day he would ever have Julia’s complete love and devotion.