FRIENDS LIKE THIS
I was seventeen when I had my first taste of whiskey. It was my last day of high school, and I was alone in the storage room of the liquor store where I worked. Cases of canned beer were piled around me, and against one wall there were boxes of wine and hard alcohol. I’d decided to celebrate the end of my youth, as I thought of it, with a drink, and so I reached into a cardboard box and pulled out a nip of some cheap amber-colored booze and twisted off the cap. Immediately after emptying the tiny bottle into my mouth I ran to the bathroom and spat out most of it. I couldn’t understand how anyone could drink that burning elixir. I rinsed the sink out—and my mouth—to leave no evidence of what I’d done, and I went back to work.
I got the liquor store job because my father knew the owners. They’d bought the place toward the end of the summer of 1980 and needed someone to clean up the back room, to stock shelves, and to help with deliveries. I had been talking about getting a part-time job, but wasn’t doing much toward actually looking for one. My dad came home one day that fall and said it was all set. I’d work a couple hours every day after school and six or seven on Saturday for two bucks an hour. I knew that this was below the minimum wage, but my new bosses would assure me that I was getting a deal because I got the money “under the table”—in cash, no taxes. This was, as far as I could tell, the way that most of the economy operated in my neighborhood in those days.
The store was small and drab; everything looked like it’d been sitting in the same place for decades. The counter, the shelves, the walk-in cooler—all of it was grimy and unattractive, but the business only catered to locals who’d been coming to the corner storefront for years to buy the same beverages. No one was seeking us out for our selection of fine wines or top-shelf spirits, and the closest we got to “craft beer” back then was anything imported. The customers I saw drank Budweiser cans, jug wine and cheap booze.
The business was called Fiore Liquors, which was the name of the place when my dad’s two friends, Eddie and Leo, took it over. I don’t know if they bought the store from a guy named Fiore or if there ever was such a man, but I guess they figured that continuity would be good for business—or maybe they just didn’t want to buy a new sign—so the name remained. I walked to and from work most days, though on Saturdays I was usually dropped off at home after we were done with deliveries. The store was less than a mile from my house and the walk was no more than fifteen minutes through quiet residential streets.
My first duty was to clean and organize the storage room, and I was put to work back there within minutes of starting the job. Besides salable product, there were empty cardboard boxes, random junk (a used tire, a broken window screen), some trash and a few cases of beer that had gone bad. I discovered that day that spoiled beer is just about the worst smell I could imagine. I didn’t puke, but I came close more than once.
My father stopped by when I was midway through the task at hand, and he and Eddie came back to check on me.
“Wow,” Eddie said. “Now, we’re gettin’ somewhere.”
My dad nodded as he looked around the room, which measured about 30 by 30 feet, with a small bathroom in one corner and a couple of support columns toward the center. A dust-covered window was at the back and a wooden ramp led down past the cooler to the front of the store. Just before the ramp was a side door through which we accepted our deliveries.
“I told you he was a worker,” my father said, though I was certain he was making that claim more to himself than to my new employer. There was no reason up to that point for my dad to believe that I could actually perform any type of labor, and I think that the old man was proud that I did, in fact, appear capable—even if I was only a few hours into the new job. “And he’s as honest as they come,” he added.
I leaned against a column with one arm to take a breather and absorb the praise. Eddie clapped my dad on the back.
“You know, me and your father go way back,” he said. “We used to run these streets together.”
Both smiled, and I pictured the two of them as teenagers, scheming and fighting and spending their days on street corners. My dad was a tough man—not big, but solid, with strong arms and a stone-solid will. More than one person told me that my father had an “iron jaw”—no one could knock him out. He’d left home at sixteen when he was unable to get along with his stepfather and worked for a while setting up rides at carnivals; when he was old enough he joined the Navy and got into his share of scuffles there. He often referred to himself as “a hustler,” meaning that he did whatever he could to make a few bucks. After his military service he worked construction until an accident—a staging collapse at Logan Airport that killed the guy who’d been next to him—left my dad with a bum knee and a bad shoulder. After that he drove a cab, tended bar and did other odd jobs, including some bookmaking.
My father put his arm around Eddie and—with characteristic intensity—said, “I hope to god you have friends like this.”
Over the course of a couple hours I imposed order on what had been chaos, and Eddie — at that point joined by his partner Leo—expressed satisfaction with what I’d done, and they said they were happy to have me working with them. In the days that followed I got into a weekday routine that involved keeping the shelves and the cooler fully stocked, sweeping up and straightening out the front and back of the store, and carrying bottles and cases to customers’ cars. As time went on, I occasionally filled in at the cash register if Eddie or Leo—the two were rarely on duty at the same time—were in the bathroom or eating a sandwich or otherwise preoccupied. They trusted me almost immediately and—besides the covertly tasted and discarded shot of whisky—I never even considered taking anything from the store. Besides being an honest kid, it was unthinkable for me to steal from guys who were friends of my father.
I was, however, a bit clumsy—not so much dropping stuff, but occasionally bumping into things, like stacks of beer cases, usually in an effort to move quickly and, sometimes, while using a hand truck, which we called “two-wheelers” then. When tilted back with a load, the carrying appendage of the transport was just high enough to make contact with the aluminum cans in a beer case just above its cardboard carrier, and the metal of the arm was sharp enough to slice the cans if the two-wheeler was moving at a brisk pace. More than once I turned a tight corner and speared containers that then spewed forth their contents all over the floor, sometimes—with just the right angle and speed—spraying some of the beer on me and anyone else nearby.
There were also a couple of wine bottles that met a less than ideal fate at my hands, but my costliest and most embarrassing blunder was a big bottle of whiskey that I somehow banged against the metal edge of a shelf as I was unloading a case of the distillate. I was on a knee before the wall of shelves that stood opposite the counter. It was a cheap American whiskey, but still, the price was about half a week’s pay for me—though I was never docked for anything I’d broken. As was typical, I was moving quickly, always trying to appear hard working, when the fatal contact occurred and 1.75 liters of the amber spirit splashed adjacent shelves, other bottles and me, spilling down onto the already-slimy floorboards. From his usual spot behind the cash register, Eddie looked over with no discernable change in expression and calmly said, “Don’t worry. Just clean it up.”
Eddie was the more taciturn of the two owners. He stood at his post for much of my tenure at the store and stared virtually motionless out the front door, which was just across from the register. He smoked constantly, a cloud hovering about his head like a swarm of flies. If it wasn’t for the motion of his arm bringing the cigarette to his lips every fifteen seconds or so, an observer might mistake him for a statue. He was a short guy with a roundish middle and a full mustache, and his hair was deep brown with no signs of gray, but his head was thinning at the crown. He wore dark dress pants and shoes and a white or light-colored button-down shirt every day, and he had a nice watch, a gold ring, and a gold chain around his neck.
Occasionally, Eddie would move behind the counter to the telephone that sat among piles of receipts and bills on a small desk, and sometimes he’d step outside, where he’d continue to stand and gaze into the distance. Mostly, he rang up customers and engaged in conversation with the regulars, nodding and frequently looking past their faces to the streets outside as they spoke. He said little to me, except the simple imperative sentences of business: “Get two cases of Miller bottles from the back,” or “Fill up the cooler.” Sometimes we’d stand there in the store in complete silence, he at register and me in the entryway that led to the cooler door and the storage room—standing as far as I could to avoid breathing in any more of the cigarette smoke than necessary. At some point around 5 p.m. Eddie would break the silence and say, “You can go now,” and I’d walk past him, saying, “See you tomorrow.”
Leo had a mustache as well, but his was smaller and neater, and the shade matched his straw-colored hair. He was much more energetic and upbeat than Eddie, and he often had a mischievous sparkle in his eye. He would bounce around the store when he was there, organizing shelves and putting up new displays. He kept up a steady stream of commentary interspersed with questions, though I never felt that he actually wanted to hear what I—or whoever he was speaking with—had to say. He only wanted to create a reason for him to continue talking. He would ask how my grades were and then, after my ten-second response, he would offer a ten-minute description of his days as a high school student.
Though Eddie was at the store four or five days a week, Leo was there just two or three. It was my impression that Leo had put up more of the money to buy the place. I knew he owned other properties, including two houses next door—the second of which he lived in with his wife. When behind the register, Leo was more engaging with customers, but he also had a habit of making them feel uncomfortable. He would make an awkward pun or respond to a question with an absurd answer. He would often reach quickly for an item someone asked for, then place it on the counter and stare back at the customer, leaning forward with his hands pressed down in front of him, as though waiting impatiently for the next request.
Despite his sunnier disposition, Leo would get more outwardly angry than Eddie. On those occasions he would slowly move his head from side to side with a pained expression, repeating, “No, no, no.” Even so, I assumed that Eddie had the more violent temper. I never saw a manifestation of this, but there were hints—usually when he was speaking in person or on the phone to his son, who was a bit older than me and appeared to cause his father frequent disappointment.
Leo had a son as well—Tommy—and he worked with me delivering on Saturdays. He was a smooth guy: around 30 years old, he wore jeans, but fashionable ones, and complimented them with casual dress shoes and a button-down shirt that was always untucked and had its top few buttons opened. He turned up the sleeves just once, at the cuffs, and along with his well-manicured hair, this gave him the look of a ladies’ man. He smoked, but unlike Eddie’s brooding smolder, I felt like Tommy used his cigarette as a prop, to further his image of coolness, taking an occasional drag as though he sensed a camera trained on his every move.
Like his dad, Tommy liked to talk, but he did listen to what I said. We spent hours driving a van around the neighborhood and dropping off beer and liquor. Most of the deliveries were small—a couple cases or a six-pack and a bottle—and I took those in myself, occasionally collecting tips that Tommy made clear from the start were all mine to keep. Even when he and I worked together to carry as many as thirty cases up a flight of stairs, he told me to hang on to whatever gratuity came my way.
During our eight or ten trips on a Saturday, or while we sat eating lunch, Tommy told me about his wife—who was in the process of divorcing him—and his six-year-old daughter, who he adored. He leaned back and attempted to pass on whatever wisdom he’d accrued to that point, especially about women, and he often nodded his head and raised his eyebrows, whether giving advice or sympathizing with someone, as if to say, “Isn’t that the way life goes?” When a kid ran in front of the van or crossed before us too slowly for Tommy’s liking, he leaned his head sideways out the window, arch his eyebrows and say, “They make angels that way.”
In the spring, Leo’s cousin Edgar took over as my delivery partner. Tommy wasn’t fired—he still filled in a couple times—but he didn’t want or need the extra money anymore. Edgar did: he was up from Tennessee with a wife and kids and they were staying in one of Leo’s apartments. Looking like a caricature of a Vietnam vet good-ol’-boy type, Edgar wore an olive drab coat, droopy jeans, worn sneakers and had a shaggy head of hair poking out at all angles from beneath a mesh cap. A pair of glasses and a few days growth of beard always covered his face and his hand was never without a cigarette. He cursed constantly, not in anger, but as an integral part of his vocabulary.
One day in the midst of deliveries, Edgar hopped into the passenger seat and told me to drive. Up to that point I’d driven a bit—during driver’s ed lessons—but I was still nervous behind the wheel, and I’d never driven anything as big as a van. I started to say all this, but Edgar waved a hand at me and told me to start the engine, so I did. I pulled out from a parking space in front of a customer’s house and rolled up the street to a stop sign. I felt like I was doing pretty well until, on a narrow, one-way street, I sideswiped a parked vehicle. “Go! Just fuckin’ go!” Edgar said, so I did, leaving behind scratches on someone’s car. After parking near the store, I told Edgar that I was done driving for the time being.
At the store, there were daily customers, who routinely picked up a six-pack or a 40-ounce bottle on the way home from work, and there were weekly customers, who bought a case of beer or jug of wine every Saturday. There were also holiday customers, who needed a bunch of stuff in the days before Christmas, Thanksgiving, or the Fourth of July. There were also a few hardcore alcoholics, older men with faces that looked like they’d been scrubbed with steel wool and bodies that appeared flimsy and unstable. They’d usually come in with a handful of coins to buy a nip—or a half-pint, if times were good—of cheap vodka or gin. One guy staggered in and out several times a day, having come up with enough change for another hit. That same guy came in begging for a drink one afternoon, saying he’d pay later, and Eddie sent him back out the door and told him never to return.
Some people were allowed to pay later. Leo and Eddie kept track of customers who paid their debt at the end of each week or each month in a small notebook kept on a shelf below the cash register. They called it “the cuff list” and sometimes referred to something being purchased “on the cuff.”
I never touched that book, but I did man the register pretty frequently, if only for short periods of time. Late one afternoon, while Eddie was over at the small grocery store across the street, a young woman came in, pulled a six-pack from the cooler and set it on the counter in front of me. She was quite attractive and when she smiled at me I became temporarily unable to function coherently.
“Is that it?” I managed to say.
I bagged her beer and took her money and then watched as she sauntered out the door. As she disappeared up the street and the pixie dust began to wear off, I was struck suddenly by the realization that the girl had been nowhere near 21. She was closer to my age, and I hadn’t even asked to see her license. What if Eddie had seen her? Would I lie if asked and say that she’d been old enough? Or, much worse, what if she’d been sent in as part of a police department sting operation? The store could be fined or closed. I was worried about all that for a few days, but nothing came of it, and I never saw the girl again.
Soon after, Eddie and Leo became preoccupied with a new venture: opening a laundromat next door. They showed me the space when it was a cluttered, unused storefront, and I spent one afternoon helping to clear stuff out. Renovations started after that and in the spring the washing machines and dryers arrived. Also around that time I showed up at work to find a small backhoe and a couple of guys digging up the street just outside the laundromat—and I assumed that larger pipes were being put in place to accommodate the increased water flow of the commercial-strength washers.
The new business opened in the summer and seemed to do pretty well, but my time working for Eddie and Leo was coming to an end. I told them that I’d be starting college in the fall and my schedule would be different, but I’d also found a new job working in the gift shop in the observatory on the top floor of the John Hancock Tower in Boston’s Back Bay. A couple of weeks after spitting out the whiskey in the back room, I worked my last shift at the liquor store.
Two years later, my father bought the laundromat and the building that contained it from his two friends. He was excited: he’d never owned property or a business before, and I’m sure he had hopes that this would help move his family into the middle class. I would sometimes stop in to sweep for him or help gather the change from the washer and dryer coin boxes. He would sit and count the quarters at the green metal desk in a small back room that was just behind the laundromat.
Unfortunately, my dad would be dead in a year. No man could ever knock him down, it was said, but the cancer that attacked from the inside was not a target he could fight with his fists. The laundromat would end up being a disaster, as no one in the family, which included my two sisters, wanted to spend any time there cleaning or even just keeping an eye on it. Even after my mother had the apartments above the business renovated and we moved into the second floor, the place was still unsupervised for most of the time, and therefore untidy. The machines were constantly breaking down, and it appeared that someone was stealing quarters, as revenue fell significantly.
One afternoon I took my mom to lunch at an Asian restaurant that she liked on Route 1, north of the city. We sat in a booth and she told stories of her childhood, which I listened to closely, asking occasional questions for clarification. The death of one parent had made me realize that all my connections to family history would, in time, disappear, and I needed to learn as much as I could while I had the chance. Then we talked about my dad.
“A couple of years ago,” she told me, “we were driving and your father stopped the car and said, ‘This won’t take long,’ and he went inside a building. A few minutes later he walks out with his shirt untucked, his hair a bit messed, and a bunch of twenty-dollar bills in his hand. ‘Son of a bitch didn’t have it all,’ he said.”
That’s when I found out that my father had been doing some loan sharking before he died, and the laundromat’s back room had been the home base for this operation. I was a bit surprised but not altogether shocked: I knew about the bookmaking, and when I was younger my Uncle Mikey had done a year in prison for working for the mob. (“Your uncle is away at college,” my aunt told me at the time.) I had also heard stories about my maternal grandfather selling bootleg alcohol made in the bathtub and his wife, my grandmother—who I knew as a morally upright elderly woman—taking numbers from her doorstep. Clearly, the family hadn’t been strangers to unsavory business ventures.
“And then, the day after your father died,” my mother said as we finished our lunch, “someone broke into the back room and stole the little book that he kept.”
“What? I didn’t know this.”
“Yup. They kicked in the door and went through the desk and found it—the book that had a list of everyone who owed him money.”
I lowered the fork to my plate as my mother sat nodding. It seemed she had more to add.
“You know who it was?” she asked.
The co-owner of the liquor store and my father’s best friend, Eddie had—according to my uncle via my mother—gone around collecting money in my father’s name. Money that he hadn’t lent out. Money that belonged—putting aside the illegality of the entire process—to my family. In the days that followed I considered approaching Eddie and telling him that I wanted that money. I would have enlisted my Uncle Mikey to back me up, but he was old now and in poor health. I even daydreamed about buying a gun to look like I meant business, but my illusions of wading into that shady world faded pretty quickly. I wasn’t the tough guy that my dad was, and I would have been a fool to pretend I could get away with anything like that.
A few months later, I received a letter from the Boston Water & Sewer Commission. My mother, in reality, owned the house, but it was legally in my name, and it had recently been discovered that the laundromat had not been paying for its water for years. Water & Sewer officials wanted to meet with me. I probably should have hired a lawyer, but I went alone to the meeting, sat across from a pair of angry administrators, and said that I had no idea what they were talking about.
“It’s a laundromat, for Christ sake,” the guy who seemed in charge said, “and you never thought it was funny that you weren’t paying for water?”
He held up sheets of paper with numbers printed out on them. They apparently said that we owed thousands of dollars. I shrugged.
“I’m sorry, but it didn’t occur to me,” I said, and it was true that since the laundromat came into my possession I hadn’t thought about the water bill. The fact was that I didn’t think about the laundromat much at all. “My father died. I inherited the business. It’s not really making any money. That’s all I know.”
Of course, what I did know was that Eddie and Leo had the street dug up just before the laundromat first opened, and what I realized as I sat across from the frowning water guys was that the digging hadn’t been done by any city agency and must have included taking out the meter. The two guys continued to berate me, and I continued to feign complete ignorance. After a while they gave up and sent me away with a warning. On the subway ride home I perused the folder they’d given me, which included the relevant regulations and a summation of the unpaid water bills.
Instead of walking home from subway, I went to see Eddie. He and Leo had sold the liquor store by then, so I went to Eddie’s house and he answered when I rang the doorbell. His wife was out food shopping and he was alone. I stepped into his kitchen and tossed the folder on the table.
“I just came from a meeting with Boston Water & Sewer,” I said. “They told me that the laundromat hasn’t been paying for water the entire time it’s been in my name and my father’s name. The bills in there add up to $14,000.”
I hadn’t actually totaled up the bills, but the number had popped into my head, so I went with it. Eddie opened the folder and paged through it, nodding his head.
“I don’t have $14,000 to give them. In fact, the laundromat is losing money,” I said. “I assume that since it opened no one has paid for any of the water, though I’m not sure they know it even existed before we got it.”
Eddie looked at me.
“I do remember the day the street was dug up,” I said and his eyebrows jumped, “but I didn’t tell them that, Eddie.”
He nodded and pulled a hand over his thinning hair.
“I didn’t tell them because you were my father’s friend, his oldest friend, and I would never do that. My father raised me to never rat on a friend. Never.”
I stared at him and he sighed. Two days later I went back to Eddie’s house and left with an envelope containing $14,000 in cash. I don’t know if that was more or less than he stole from my father, but it seemed like a good number. My mother soon sold the building and moved in with her aging mother. Between the assets my grandmother had, the money from the sale of the house, and what I got from Eddie, they lived comfortably, if modestly, for the rest of their lives.
Jim Correale is a teacher and writer who lives north of Boston.