My Early Years of Apathetic Something Part 2: Chess, Fried Chicken, and the NJ Mafia

(Part 2 of Further Beneath the Underdog: A Fictional Autobiography. Pt. 1 here.)

After this life ends, there’s a special circle of hell reserved for writers. In this circle they spend eternity living the lives of all their fictional characters, and the ones that appeared in the non-fiction pieces twice.

I sometimes have dreams I’ve gone to this place, or at least awake with a sense I’ve been in it-that in my sleep I’m living the life of a fictional character I hadn’t put on paper yet. And like the strange predictive movements of molecules in the Feynman diagrams, I eventually find these characters returning in my flction. They seem more at home there. They anticipate leaving my head.

I was always unsure when I was making the art whether the activity was more spiritually akin to giving birth or taking a shit. If it was giving birth, it was most truly akin to child slavery as I would immediately pop something out without as quickly trying to sell it to any serious bidder. But it couldn’t be taking a shit either: America has many places to take a shit but no place for artists.

Sitting, listening to old radio broadcasts and drawing, I hoped to make my bold entrance into the world of alternative cartooning. I was never actually very good. I took to writing papers…well you know where this is going. It bought a fair share of groceries.

Baruch College, where I got my undergraduate, was touted as the diverse school in the nation, and this was probably true. Rather than ease tensions, this mostly seemed to lead to a lot of clubs with isolated rooms separated by ethnic group or religious denomination.

I spent a lot of time in the Chess Club. I didn’t actually play any chess, but found the characters interesting and the room confortingly dingy. There was a hole in the wall that had been filled in with a wadded up ball of masking tape with a smiley face drawn on it. There was a computer with internet access. I would sit in the chair playing streams of scratched up 1920s blues 78s researching random things and reading all the books the school library had on Lenny Bruce, Neil Postman, Ben Katchor or Lewis Mumford.

The president of the Chess Club at that time was a guy named Thomas. He looked like if Vladimir Putin had hair. Thomas had a key to the clubroom and had been taking “those Ukranian skanks” (there was an odd hostility in many of the clubmembers toward Ukranians) and having sex with them in the room before lunch when there weren’t people there. The janitor caught him once. Thomas, his administration not especially popular to begin with, was now embroiled in a pathetically small stakes sex scandal.

Revolution was in the air. The bulk of the club took him over to Popeye’s one day to give him the news of the coup. I wasn’t there. I heard he got a lot of extra grape jam packets with his chicken.

Thomas now ousted, the new favorite for club president was a guy I’ll just call JJ. JJ was a large Jewish man who had spent much of his life on a small pig farm with his senile grandfather in Puerto Rico. His accent was unusual; part coked up mobster, part well educated latin immigrant.

JJ was a small time con man. He had the sort of wits where if he’d ever applied himself he could’ve pulled something bigger than the 2008 crash, but he never was that ambitious. He used to tell me about flim-flam operations he’d operate on old ladies in Puerto Rico.

“Well, hehe,”-he’d chuckle confidently a lot in conversation-“what you do is you use a really common name and you go to all those retirement apartment complexes with the buzzers. And say ‘Tito! Tito! It’s about yout nephew.’ Most of them have nephews or grandchildren. And you say the car broke down down the road and you need like $60 to get gas and help getting it out of the ditch. Usually at least one will give you the $60. Then you go out and spend it on…you know…a good time. $60 bucks’ll get you a lot in Puerto Rico.”

He had an incredible charisma and an endless store of bizarre stories and observations about sexual politics that might be somewhat scandalous to publish.

His best stories were of his time working in a fake gym as a low level operative of the New Jersey mafia. The gyms would be set up and signs would advertise that they’d open in 90 days. Then after 90 days they’d go out of business.

“The secret to selling gym memberships is to make them think it was their idea to join. So you act really low key and just say stuff like ‘You look better, you feel better’ and ‘People in shape are always more attractive.'”

He also sold hypodermic needles meant specifically to shoot up cycles of steroids. You needed a specific smaller needle to shoot them or else you’d just get this bump on your arm. We’d eat Chinese food and watch baseball games on the television in the restaurant sometimes after class and he’d always point out when a guy would go up to bat and there was that puffy bump on his arm.

He was philosophical about it. “I’d always skim a little bit off the top sure, $20 here and there, but I’d never take a bunch. That’s how you get caught.”

Strange things would happen at the gym and be explained with shrugs.

“There’s this guy in the gym. Everybody calls him ‘The Master Apprentice’ because somehow he sawed off his ring finger in a woodworking accident. How do you do that? We never really figured out how he did it.

“Anyway, I’m cleaning the basement of the gym one day, and I see this person sized bump under one of the mats. I look at The Master Apprentice and I say ‘Is this a dead body?’ And the guy starts pointing around with his hand that was missing the finger-‘Dere’s a dead body, ovah dere’s anudder dead body, just shut up kid and staht mopping.'”

JJ became president of the Baruch College Chess Club when Thomas was ousted. JJ was the best chess player in the club. He had a ranking of 2200 or something. JJ soon started scheming up ways to make money renting out the Chess Club room on the third floor of the building. This money was then redistributed in the form of fried chicken for members of the club. They all loved eating fried chicken.

Around this time my friend Zach stayed at my apartment to get to a funeral in Queens. The funeral was for a  guy who’d been in Zach’s dorm hall. He’d been smothered in an avalanche in the Alps. Zach needed me to get him to Queens, so though I’d never met the deceased, I would attending his funeral as a plus one.  I had no dress clothes except a corduroy blazer I wore mostly for the extra pockets, a pair of wrinkled khakis, and a button down dress shirt with large black splotches from when I’d put it through the wash with a sharpie.

He’d gone to a ritzy college. The rest of the deceased’s classmates showed up dressed to the nines. They sat, choked up, telling stories of how good the dead man had been at playing Super Smash Brothers on the Gamecube. “He had such quick fingers,” said one mourner. “Yes, he would always get the most damage per game.”

After an awkward eulogy delivered by a minister discussed the “avalanche of God’s love”, it came time to line up to view the corpse.

My turn came. He had thick makeup like a wax doll. I looked closely at his thumbs. I thought. “These are the thumbs, the thumbs that were so good at Super Smash Brothers on the Gamecube.”

After the casket, at the end of the line, the dead man’s parents and an adolescent boy stood shaking hands with mourners. The father faintly smiled. The mother looked devastated. The boy looked confused. When I shook the grieving mother’s hand, she held onto it for longer than she had with the other mourners. She wailed and said “I have no son. Do you understand? I have no son.”

I took another look at the boy and realized it was her other son.

After the service we all had Subway sandwiches for lunch.

(Tomorrow: The Chess Club heats up. Strange blind dates. The seedy underground of Quiz Bowl.)

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2 comments

  1. […] (This part 3 of an excerpt from My Life and Harder Times. Pt. 1. Pt. 2) […]

  2. […] opus From the Belly of the Other Thing: Letters From Places That Aren’t Prison. Pt. 1. Pt. 2. Pt. […]

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