Sinatra Owes Us
I finally called up Sinatra Jr. I wanted to collect on the debt—the money his grandfather owed to mine. It’s from years ago, but put in the interest for all that time and you’ve got some real money. And I could use it these days. But more than that, I thought it was time to get it all settled, finally make things even. Now that my old man is gone, I wanted to do right by him. I wasn’t getting any younger and Frank Jr. had to be pushing sixty-something himself.
I saw him on the Telethon, that Jerry Lewis Labor Day thing. He was talking about his father, the real Sinatra. He even sang one of the standards. Not so good, but he tried. That’s when I thought I’d get his number somehow, make the connection. I decided it was time to bring this up. It’s been long enough for him to be done his mourning. I mean, I am, for my old man. He inherited the debt, just like I inherited the collecting. We’re both involved in the same thing, the same story. It’s years ago, but a debt is a debt. I thought I’d get my brother Bobby to run the numbers. He’s good with them, like our father was. On the Telethon Frank Jr. said he was living out West, the Desert, near L.A. His father had to leave him a house at least when he died. He didn’t get the talent, that’s for sure. The kid fronts a band and sings, but he’s no Sinatra.
I started by calling information for Palm Springs. I got that fake, recorded voice answering, and said “Sinatra!” I spelled it out, S-I-N-A-T-R-A, just in case the machine didn’t get his name. Then I added “Junior,” to be extra clear. I wished it was human, a regular woman operator, because then she would’ve said, “Sinatra? Frank Sinatra?” Like, “who the hell are you, you think you can call Sinatra?” But no way you’re going to impress a machine. So the voice came back and – like who wouldn’t figure – it was unlisted. That held me off a while.
Just a day, though. Long story short, my old man’s buddy, Champ Seeger, was a second cousin to the Sinatra family. Champ’s son and I pal around once in a while. I got a number that got me a number that got me Sinatra’s. I was back in business.
I dialed it up from my apartment. After two rings a man answered. This was not Sinatra, definitely not. This guy had some kind of English accent, but like from one of the islands. He sounded like he might be an actor from somewhere down there. I could just picture him: a tall guy, nice tan suit, brown skin. Handsome man, I’d say.
“May I help you, please?” the guy said.
I told him I was looking for Sinatra.
“Mr. Sinatra is unavailable right now, sir. Not right now.”
I love it when I get called sir. Especially when they don’t know me. I asked the guy when Sinatra would be back. I didn’t use the ‘Mister’ stuff. I wanted this guy to think I knew him personally.
“I can’t be sure, sir,” he said. “Not exactly sure.”
“Okay, fine. I’ll call back later. I’m calling from Hoboken. Hoboken, New Jersey. You know where that is? You’re like, what, three hours time difference from us, right?”
“Yes, I believe so, sir,” he said. “Very good, then,” and the phone went silent, without even a click.
I waited an hour and called back. I got the same guy, same reply. I tried an hour after that and once more before I hit the sack. Still no Sinatra.
First thing next morning I called again. When the guy answered I asked his name. I figured I had to know who I was dealing with.
“Harold,” he said. “My name is Harold, sir.”
“Listen, Harold. I got some business with Sinatra. It’s important I speak to him.”
“You can tell me the nature of the business,” Harold said. “I can inform Mr. Sinatra directly about your business, sir.”
“Harold, look. It’s personal. Something I want to speak about to him personally. Nothing against you, of course.”
“I am his personal assistant.”
“Oh. That makes a big difference.”
I wondered how you get a personal assistant. I could imagine me having one at the job. “Oh, Gus,” I would say, “can you bring me that brass valve? Yes, that’s it. The one with the lovely red knob. Wonderful, Gus.” The rest of the guys at the counter would be laughing. I’d be laughing, too, if it wasn’t me. But who am I kidding? You don’t get assistants at a plumbing supply business. And personal ones? No such thing. Especially with the shape our business is in. I can’t even imagine telling the guys I was trying to call Sinatra. They’d never believe it. Probably think I was going a little off. They’d bust my chops for weeks. But this was for real.
I thought I should let Harold know what was going on, though. He was keeping things straight. Sinatra had him for a reason. I might as well take advantage; let the poor guy do his job.
“Okay, Harold, listen,” I said the next time, “it’s about money. Sinatra owes us some money.”
“And that would that be in relation to? What, exactly, Sir?”
“It’s a long story Harold. From years ago. I’m trying to collect on a debt. It’s a family matter. My family, his family. Business.”
“Very well, sir. I will inform Mr. Sinatra regarding the nature of your call.” Then Harold was gone.
It hit me after the line went dead that he hadn’t asked my name. I punched the number again, even though I was thinking it was getting a little expensive, all the calls, all the way from Jersey out to Palm Springs, California, the desert. Who knows, maybe they didn’t have good lines out there, maybe it was peak time, maybe I was getting a little shafted, money-wise. But Frank Jr. should know my name. That’d make all the difference.
It took six rings before Harold answered. “Harold!” I said. “Where were you, man?” I got no answer from him, like, what, I wasn’t even talking to him? “Harold! Harold! What is it here? What’s going on? Listen! You’ve got to tell your boss who this is. Then it’ll make sense to him.” I told Harold my name and he wrote it down and then he was off.
My father told me about the money all the time. The Sinatras always owed on their bill for the kerosene and ice that he and my grandfather delivered. Dad worked the business with Gramps from when he was a kid. Then he inherited it when Grandpa died.
“Pop,” I’d say to him, “you ought to get that money from Sinatra! It’s your business now. Grandpa’s gone, Sinatra’s father is too, and Frank’s loaded. He’s gotta be worth a few million, easy!”
But he’d shrug me off like I was crazy. “What? I’m gonna call him or something?” my father would say. “You think he knows about this, this money? Anyhow, Sinatra’s a bum. Like his father was a bum. His old man always shorted us on the bill. And then Frank gets famous and what does he do? He’s outta Hoboken. Okay, I understand, you want to make a better life. But he never sets foot here again? And says it’s a dump? A dump! Mr. Big Shot. Mr. Frank Sinatra. It’s Vegas and Hollywood for him now. Forget Hoboken.”
My old man’s story would always go the same: first it’s him in the helper’s seat next to Gramps. Then he’s lugging blocks of ice up to Mrs. Saperstein, or kerosene cans to Fat Nicol’, who couldn’t fit through the door of his apartment and had to sleep sitting up. He’d tell me about Limpy, all six foot five of her, who came out to pay every week in just a brassiere and slip. She’d peel bills from a roll of cash as big as her fist, which was no small matter. My dad ended his stories by telling about Sinatra’s father making excuses and always asking for credit. The poor guy would almost cry, my father said. He didn’t know what to do, never had any cash. My grandfather would curse in Italian when he and dad drove away from the Sinatra’s place on Monroe Street. Gramps knew he was never going to see the money, and couldn’t do a damn thing about it. If I heard it once I heard it a hundred times: Sinatra owes us. I finally got to like hearing the story when my old man was getting sick, when all his muscles were shot, when just about all he could do was talk. He’d repeat it every other day. Until he couldn’t even do that any more. Then he died. Then Sinatra died, too, right after him. Weird, huh?
The night I heard about Sinatra on the news, I thought, great, both of them dead. That meant I had to get the money out of Sinatra’s kid. Somehow them both dying made it an obligation.
Something I owed my old man.
I went back to making calls. “Harold,” I said, “It’s me.”
“Yes, sir. How can I help you?” He recognized me! This was progress.
“Did you talk to Frank?”
“Yes, of course. Of course I spoke to Mr. Sinatra.”
“Harold, you know what? You repeat yourself a lot. Do you know that? That’s no good for business. People don’t like it. You follow me? Anyway, did you let Frank know my name? Did you tell him about me? About the money?”
“Ah, the money. Yes, the money, sir. You’re the gentleman who spoke of that particular financial predicament. I will speak to Mr. Sinatra. I will.”
“Don’t forget now, Harold. This is important. It’s not only the money. It’s the fact that it’s outstanding. It’s got to be brought in to balance everything. Make it all copacetic.”
“I do understand. It’s your family’s trust.”
“Right! That’s it. The trust. You got it. So, you tell him. Okay?” Then there was the silence and Harold was gone again. He’s funny that way.
I decided to wait a few hours before I called back, give them some time to organize themselves. In the meantime I got in touch with my brother, who lives up in Maine. Bobby was a broker, Wall Street, made a bundle and then, bam, retired. Unbelievable. Now he owns a bakery. What he always wanted, he says. Works fifteen-hour days, he tells me. Retired! Who’s he kidding?
“Bobby?” I heard dough being pounded and a tinkling bell. I pictured his little shop filled with good-looking blondes in chinos and polo shirts. “Listen. Do this math for me, would you?” I told him what’s gone on so far with Sinatra, the money, gave him all the specifics so he could work it out.
“You spoke to him?” Bobby was surprised. “You spoke to Frank Sinatra, Jr?”
“No, not yet. But I did get his personal assistant, Harold. Nice guy.”
“Oh.” Bobby paused for a minute. Speechless, I guess. “Right, okay, I got you.”
“So, what do you say? Can you do this, or what?”
“You know,” Bobby said, “you were the one who worked on the truck with Dad, not me.”
“So, I didn’t hear much from him once I left for college. I hardly knew this stuff about Sinatra. You liked all those old stories. You’re the one who’s got all that crazy history in your head. I don’t know the last time I was in Hoboken. I don’t know that I’d even remember where we lived.”
“But this is a debt, Bobby. It’s our family. You’re part of the family. Right?”
“Listen, can I call you later? I’m swamped here. It’s absolutely crazy.”
“Sure, Bobby. But I need you to come through on this one. All right? I need your help.”
“I’ll do what I can.”
I never heard back from him. Still swamped I guess.
On the way home from work the next night I went out of my way a little and drove by our old street. It’s all different. The whole neighborhood was slowly torn down, and a new one put up in its place. There are townhouses with names like Grande Court, or Jefferson Mews. The buildings go up before you know what hit you and each one costs more money than the whole block was worth when I was a kid. My father never got to see it. He and mom moved away, up to Bergen County, and once he got sick he never came down to Hoboken again. I used to tell him about it, though, when I visited him. Right before he died I’d tell him the prices, the condos and all, and he’d grunt or whistle since that was the only thing he could do when his speech went.
I put an old album on when I got home, one I kept from Dad’s collection. It’s scratched like crazy, but I sang along. I knew every word and I remember my father singing the same song when we’d take Sunday drives out of Hoboken into the suburbs. He’d be smoking one of his big cigars, holding the wheel down low like he was driving the truck. We’d go almost every weekend, all of us in the car, Mom holding Bobby in her lap, gawking at the big houses, big streets, people working on their lawns, their garages open and filled with stuff. My dad would take in the houses on both sides of the road. “We could really spread out here,” he’d say. The car was filled with bright yellow sun and blue cigar smoke. I’d stand up in the back, right behind him, both of us looking out the windshield. Or sometimes I’d rest my chin on his shoulder. I’d feel his muscles move as he turned the wheel and when he put his arm out across the back of his seat. Later we’d stop for lunch and have some fat burgers with the juice running down. Then for dessert I’d get two scoops of vanilla ice cream with chocolate syrup. I’d watch through the sides of the glass cup as the chocolate mixed into the ice cream. I’d get sprinkles, too, and the old man always took a spoonful, pulling some syrup up from the bottom.
“Gimme a taste,” he’d say, “so I know there’s nothing bad in it.” He’d dig in his spoon. “Okay. It’s good.” Then he’d wink.
I tried calling Sinatra a few times the next day, but no dice. I couldn’t get through, busy, nothing. I was crazy with this, got so I couldn’t come up with a strategy, didn’t know how to go on. Then it hit me. I finally smartened up and realized what’s what: Harold was giving me the brush. He’d talk to me forever; that’s his job, make out like he’s listening to me. But he never told his boss the story. Come on! What was I thinking? He was running flak for Sinatra, keeping the riff-raff out. And even though he was nice to me, never nasty or anything, he had a job to do, bottom line. This happens all the time with famous people. Somebody calling with some sob story about owed money, long-lost relatives, dying aunts, all kinds of desperate situations. You read about these scams every day.
I knew that I probably didn’t have a chance of ever getting the money, and I’d never talk to Sinatra Jr. either. I should’ve taken it up with the real Sinatra, not the kid. He was the one to work with. That would’ve been the right way to handle it. It was too late. I’d have to let Bobby know about how it was turning out. Maybe he’d pass the story on to one of his boys, keep it going somehow. But I bet his kids hardly even heard of Sinatra. How could they ever know what Sinatra meant to people, to us? And all they remember of my father was an old paralyzed man in a bed.
I figured I’d call and tell Bobby just once more, and he could decide if he wanted to get involved. Maybe it’d mean something to him later on, when he gets tired of baking fancy crullers.
I watched some TV, thought about how I was going to put it to my brother. As I was sitting there, the phone rang.
“Hello?” I thought Bobby was finally getting back to me, but when I put the receiver to my ear, there was just dead air. For a good ten seconds I didn’t say a word but it seemed like I heard something on the other end, some kind of static, maybe. Jesus, I thought, they’re tapping my line. What’s going on?
Then I heard, “Hello? Hello?”
I answered back the same, and someone asked for me, by name.
“Speaking,” I answered.
“This is Harold.”
For a second I couldn’t make out the name, but then I realized. “Harold, buddy! I’m shocked. Where you been? You okay? I was worried. What is it?”
“Thank you sir. I’m fine.” Harold was all calm and everything. “I appreciate your concern. I’m calling, however, about the financial matters you have raised with Mr. Sinatra. We’d like to settle this situation and to expedite its conclusion as well.”
“Yeah, right, Harold. Whatever. We’ll do that. But I got to work it out with Frank. I don’t want to disrespect you or nothing. I told you that. But Frank and I…’
“Mr. Sinatra is holding for you, sir.”
“Huh?” I didn’t know if I was hearing right. “You said what?”
“Mr. Sinatra is on the line.”
“Harold, c’mon. This is me. What’re we talking here?”
“Please hold, sir.”
The line went silent again, and I said, right, he’s gone. Same old act. I was ready to hang up myself. But then, like I was listening to a record, I heard the voice.
“Hello,” it said, “I’m told you have some business with me.”
I couldn’t believe it. I had Frank Sinatra Jr. on the line. And he had his old man’s voice, absolutely. At least his talking voice, that is. It took me a few seconds, but then I was right there.
“Mr. Sinatra. Thanks. I mean, thanks. Really. This is something. What a pleasure.” I tried to ease into a little conversation. “So, how’s it going? I bet it’s nice out there, in the desert. Not so crowded and all, like back here. They say it’s hot, but you got that dry heat. I bet you see some sights out there, too. The scenery, I mean. Am I right? And the shows! You get to many shows? Or you too busy?”
“I heard you called a few times,” Sinatra said. “Something about family money.”
“Did Harold tell you? Harold is a straight guy. He’s all right, does a good job, if you ask me. You don’t get help like that these days. I know that from experience. I hire people, too, like you.”
“Yes, Harold’s a professional.”
“That’s the word for him. You’re right. Harold’s a pro.”
“What about the money?”
“Right. The money.” I went into the story. I told him all the details and about how it was back then for guys like my gramps and my dad, lugging up the ice, and in the winter, kerosene, too, all on their backs. He wasn’t saying two words, but I knew he was taking it all in. “You don’t know, Mr. Sinatra, this was hard work. I only helped out a little when I was a kid, but it was hard work. You can imagine, right?”
“I can imagine. You know, I worked with my father some.”
“Wow, right! We both did that. How do you like that?” Then I thought, Christ! I’m talking to Sinatra’s kid. Who’s gonna believe this? The guys at work will crap their pants! I wished I was recording it somehow, so they wouldn’t think I was bullshitting them. And when I tell Bobby? This stuff don’t happen in Maine.
I told Frank Jr. how we grew up two blocks from where his father lived. I told him how great Hoboken was until the sixties, until that bad element came in, and then the place went to hell.
“Is your father the owner of the business now?” Sinatra asked.
“No. He’s dead. Died one month before yours. Is that something, or what?”
“I got a slew of stories about the place.”
“I’m sure.” He paused for a minute. Neither of us spoke. “I’ve never been there.”
“That’s too bad. You should see where your father came from. It might be nice for you. Even though it’s all different now. It would still be nice. I could show you around myself.”
“How much money is involved?”
“Right. That’s the thing we need to straighten out. This is about setting things straight. Like I told Harold. We’ve got to get it in so it’s all balanced.” I told Frank I’ve got my brother working on the numbers.
“I’ll talk to my accountant. I’ll run it by him and someone will get back to you. We’ll work out a settlement. Does that sound reasonable?”
“Hey. Yes, absolutely. That would really make it right, Mr. S. Can I call you that? Like they called your father. Mr. S.” It was too much. My father would croak all over if he knew what happened. The next minute we were getting to our good-byes and I was thanking him for calling me and everything. I started thinking how proud my old man would be about this, that I had finally got it settled. I remembered all those times he talked about it. It was like history for him, but he was right in it himself; his own story.
“Well, then,” Sinatra said, “we’ll call you.”
I knew he wanted to get off, but I felt like something wasn’t right yet. I stopped and thought about the old man and working on the truck with him, when he drove for a big outfit in Kearny. The times I did, when I was a kid, I realized how hard it was. Even then, I never wanted to spend my life at it like he did. The truck was hot as hell or colder than you could stand. My father never did anything else. And for what?
“Are you there?” Sinatra said.
“Yeah, I’m here,” I said. But I was stalling, still thinking about how my father loved being able to say those words ‘Sinatra owes us’. I thought maybe he didn’t really care about the money. He just liked telling the story. It kept him going, that story and all the other ones. That was the thing for him, telling it. “Listen, Mr. Sinatra,” I paused to think, one more second. “Why don’t we forget about the money? Let’s just call it even.” I said it simple as that, without another thought.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean forget it. Forget the money. We got to have a conversation. That’s a plus.”
“You don’t want anything then? No remuneration at all?”
“Do I want something else, you mean?”
“Well, since you ask. How about you send me a picture of you and your father. You got one of those? That’d do it.”
“Are you certain that’s all you want? Nothing more?”
“Couldn’t be more certain.”
“We’ll send you a statement to sign then. A letter of requital.”
“Mr. Sinatra, whatever. Send me whatever. Just don’t forget the photo. And could you autograph it? To me? Maybe put my dad’s name on it, too. Is that okay?” I told him my father’s name and then repeated mine, just in case.
“Autograph it to you and your father? I can do that. And if you come out to Desert contact me. I’ll arrange something for you.”
“Hey! Really? You’re not kidding? Me? Come out there? Well, sure. I could do that. In fact, you count on it.” Too much. Palm Springs, California! I couldn’t wait till the guys heard this. “Okay, so, let me let you go. I know you’re a busy man.”
“Yes. So, goodbye,” Sinatra said.
“Yeah, okay. Goodbye to you, Frank.” The line went silent, and I stood there with the phone in my hand, my TV on, everything like it always is. Except it wasn’t. I got through to Sinatra. I took care of it. “Some guy,” I said. “He’s alright by me, Sinatra.” I was talking to myself, but I knew what I was saying.
I didn’t even wait thirty seconds before I started to make another call. I got the machine.
“Bobby. Listen. You know I hate talking to these machines, so get back to me right away. You’ll never believe who just called me.” I hung up the phone.
I couldn’t wait to tell my brother the story.
Mauro Altamura was an exhibiting visual artist for most of his life, teaching it for many years. He returned to grad school in 2007 for a second MFA in Creative Writing at Rutgers, Newark. He is a former associate professor at New Jersey City University and also taught at John Cabot University, Rome. He left his teaching position at NJCU, recently, to devote himself to writing.