Different Slants

Seeing the World from a New Angle

Just One Punch, But Mickey Remembered…by Robert M. Katzman

Acts of Friendship: Mickey Remembers

by Robert M. Katzman © May 18, 2018

 I had dinner with a friend in Chicago last night at the kind of a classic guy’s dark wood steakhouse restaurant my Dad and I would go to on a special occasion. Except this was the 18th anniversary of his death in 2000 and in his memory, I had a great dinner with my old friend. He lived far south of Chicago and I live in southern Wisconsin, so this was a good central meeting place.

We talked about many old times, good and bad and the price Time can exact on a person and their relationships. One of the rare things as a person travels through life is to still have a person you can talk to about something that happened 40 years ago or more. That begins to change year by year when a person hits 68, which is what I am now. As my Dad used to say: “The circle gets smaller.”

After a couple of hours it was time to head out to our respective homes because it was a hike to get back, but still, worth sharing company with each other. You get what you give.

But once back in my car, I saw that the weather had gone south and now it was a black sky with cold rain failing down, steadily. Shivering because even inside of the car the air was chilled, but the heater cured most of it. Too much and I could fall asleep on the interstate going north. So, alert, I turned onto the interstate for the next ninety minutes and looked forward to seeing that state line to the Cheese State.

Then, because when a guy spends a couple of hours mining his past life with another guy, except that one of the guys, me, is a writer, once I start pulling on that loose piece of yarn in my memory, sometimes the sweater up there keeps unraveling. But it also keeps me awake, so I kept roaming around my mind in the dark. But then a very old door in a dusty corner came open, and Mickey appeared as a young child in 1962. How the hell did Mickey come back to see me?

Damn! This was a door better left closed because along with Mickey came a caldron of strong complex emotion. Too late, driving swiftly north in the dark icy rain at seventy miles an hour, there was no way to get little Mickey to go back inside of his door and leave me be.

Ok.

Two transient moments of spontaneous kindness which punctuated two different men’s lifetimes.

Here is a long forgotten story for good reasons because of the pain it stirs up within me, and because of the uniqueness of the flipping of what happened between us, the shifting of power and control, decades apart. There are only two scenes in this drama. Remember that no matter what you may read which follows, no matter how it may depict myself, this to me ghostly relationship, long ago and far away, really happened:

After leaving the far south side of Chicago when I was fourteen, I’d had a twenty-year run with a lot of success in Hyde Park. I was successful, married a great woman whom I loved, and we had smart children, I had five stores and fifty-five employees in 1983, and then, within two years, like life stabbing me in the gut with a spear, everything fell apart.

I’d received a ton of great publicity in those two decades, 1965 to 1985, but that became a two-way street when I was out of work. When you’re up and in the chips, lots of people want to know ya. But when your luck and money runs out, they don’t. I was out of work for years, and everyone whom I knew and went to for some kind of job told me:

“Bob, guys like you, entrepreneurs, they never stay. The minute you have the money to start over, you’ll be gone. I can’t invest time and money teaching you my business when I know, really know, you want to run your own show. I’m sorry. Can’t help you, but good luck.”

But there was no good luck.

Finally, desperate, I took a job as a messenger in a company that sent many young guys around Chicago at high speeds on foot, on bicycles, in cars and vans to deliver stuff that was too important to mail and was needed NOW! Except, I was thirty-eight, and they didn’t need one more guy like me, they needed another van like mine. I was included in the deal like I was the radio or some spare part, but not prized as a person. If they wanted another van in their fleet, I hadda come with it. That was the reality.

It also meant Mr Former Guy-in-Charge was going to be spending his day moving big Coke machines by himself from one place to another, boxes of drugs to Swedish-Covenant Hospital in Andersonville, and van loads of buns to a McDonalds in a distant suburb–where we were forbidden to ask for any fries, but scratch that. I was paying for my own gas and mostly, had no money at all. Where I was sent to deliver food, I asked for some of it. No one ever said no. But it was one working stiff to another. The work was hard, and I needed the fuel. One time, I brought a very large blackboard to some cult-like school in an extended log cabin way in the woods in Indiana. Took me a long time to get there and to get back, but I was only paid for half of the trip.

And also very long were sixteen-hour days, seven days a week. Push-ups in the early morning to get me in condition for this tough work. First a dozen a morning, eventually, one hundred. The real race for me was, could I make enough money to prevent my very old van from disintegrating on some distant run? They tried to get me to wear a uniform, but, well…yeah, I was a proud and stubborn son-of-a-bitch, and they could never get me to do that. They needed my van more than firing me because of my refusal to put on their damn uniform, so they let it go. But they didn’t like it.

One day, very hungry and very depressed, I was in a Polish deli on the west side of Chicago with a brief down period to myself before the radio in my van barked out another order about where I was to go next. I felt in my pocket and my fingers found a quarter. Too hungry to care what anyone thought about me by then, I found a waitress, nice face and maybe fifty years old, and quietly asked her if I could buy two pieces of thick Polish rye bread because that was all the money I had. She looked at me for a moment, right into my eyes and saw something. She went over to a table, wrapped up two slices of rye bread out of a basket and pushed it into my hand, while she folded my dirty fingers back around my quarter, whispering in a heavy Polish accent,

“Things’ll get better for you. Forget it.” She smiled a sad smile then walked away. I stared at her back.

I turned to leave the restaurant and saw the pay phone in the vestibule on the way out.

When the chain of newsstands closed, because I was stupid or whatever the reasons, I still owed taxes to the Federal Government. The letters kept coming, the penalties doubling to impossible levels, and the letters became more threatening. I let them pile up on a table, ignoring them and the threats because there was nothing to do, no money to offer to them, no way to make any kind of deal with the mighty IRS. But it was frightening my wife because the same letters came for her, too, because she was secretary of the corporation. I had to do something.

One day another letter came with the usual increasing debt and the usual dire threat. I decided to call the name on the bottom of the letter. A supervisor named Morris J. Bluestone. Being Jewish and knowing an Americanized version of an Eastern European name when I saw one, in this case it I was certain it had originally been “Blaustein” in old Lithuania. I thought to myself, maybe the guy’ll see the name “Katzman” on his copy of the letter when I call him and perhaps I’ll get some microscopic iota of mercy from him.

But really, I expected nothing. The IRS guys were wolves. I was a file number and owed the government money. My name wouldn’t save me.

So, with my same quarter, I put it in the pay phone slot, called the number and waited for some monster to answer the phone. It rang a while and then a guy answered it.

“Internal Revenue collections department. Supervisor Bluestone speaking. File number, please.”

His voice was cold, formal and abrupt. But there was also something. Something else. Couldn’t place it, but something was in his voice. I told him my name and file number. There was a hesitation on both ends of the phone. And in those silent seconds I fell back twenty-six years to see a very small and frightened boy, and I thought,

“Is it possible?”

So, I simply said, as a whispered question,

“Mickey?”

And the abrupt voice on the other end, unexpectedly softer now, barely audible, asked me, too,

“Bobby?”

Time disappeared. Twilight Zone now. We were ten and twelve, on a side street in South Chicago.

And we both quickly responded, speaking over each other confirming that Robert M. Katzman was really, for this moment, Bobby Katzman and Morris J. Bluestone was Mickey Bluestone, and we both knew it.

Then he spoke first, saying,

“Bobby, how are you? What the hell happened? This is a hellova jam here. Quickly, tell me everything.”

And I did. I felt about two inches high and worthless to this old friend. I was humiliated, because he knew me.

Then Mickey said, after letting my bad luck sink in,

“You know, Bobby, sometimes I still remember it, what happened that day.”

Mystified, I had no idea what he meant. What happened?

“Mickey, what do you mean?”

He said, stunning me,

“Well there was this group of kids on our block and I was two years younger than that gang–they were twelve and I was ten–and no one would ever let me play in their games, and sometimes they were rough with me.”

I waited. What?

“So, I was pretty lonely and miserable and one day you were there for the first time–I recognized you, but you lived farther down the block away from my house. You waved to me. Then a couple of the big guys started pushing me around like they always did and then one of them hit me…”

Suddenly remembering, like a rocket through time, and then immediately angry, I said,

“…and they knocked you down, laughing at you…”

And Mickey added,

“…and I was crying and so frightened…”

Then I said, like a parrot.

“…Yeah, you were crying and scared, I remember that…”

Mickey went on,

“You remember what happened next? Because I do.”

I didn’t know what to say. I could see him, sure, but I couldn’t see me,

“No, what?”

Mickey, his voice agitated, filled with energy, barked into the phone,

“Then, then, you ran over to one of the laughing boys and slammed your fist into his stomach and he fell back down on his ass! And then, I’ll never forget this, Bobby, because I had no one for me, you stood over the guy on the ground and said, “You hit Mickey, asshole, then you hit me, too. Got it?” And then no one moved.”

This was a moment in his movie I didn’t remember. I hated, hated bullies. But I lived with one, too. I knew exactly how Mickey, guys like Mickey felt, terrorized and helpless. Outside of home, it was too frequent that I tried to help the little guy. But it didn’t always go so well. Sometimes I got beat up, again and again. But I was crazy, I guess, and I kept at it. After a time, the jerks around my age in the neighborhood came to know me, that I wasn’t just talk and I wouldn’t run, and when I faced the guy, or guys, before they tried to beat me up for stopping their fun, there was a pause, like they were considering how much it would cost them before they knocked me down. People can tell when you mean it. Sometimes they’d just walk away. But not always.

Mickey to me right now was just one more of those times. What I do remember is, until I ran away from home two years later, maybe to him I was like the cavalry coming to save Mickey, but in my own life, the cavalry never came to save me.

I asked Mickey what happened then?

He said,

“Bobby, you just stood there looking down in the guy, your hands in fists and then the guy looked up at you, gasping from where you hit him and he said, “yeah, ok.” After that, when you were around and you did come around, no one touched me. The kids let me play with them. After some time, they became nicer to me, because of you. You made them give me a chance. Because of what you did that day, I made some friends when before that I had none.”

By now, there were tears streaming down my face, adding to the galaxy of terrible emotions swirling within me.

I was this guy, this failure with no money at all, holding two slices of rye bread some waitress gave me as charity, this loser who lost his place in the world….and this guy on the phone thinks I’m some kid hero. I’m no hero. I am nothing. And worse, if possible, I still owe the much older Mickey a lot of money. I am so fucked.

Barely able to speak, my voice now a croak of choked emotion, I tried to ask him,

“Mickey…um…you have said some very nice things to me, and I never…never hear stuff like that anymore. But still, there’s this letter, I owe so much and there’s nothing, nothing I can do right now…”

Then a pause. Silence.

Then Mickey spoke, who from the sounds I could hear was also crying like me, because this whole thing was heartbreaking for both of us. I was no longer the “brave” Bobby that he remembered me to be. I was this present day wreck, unexpectedly shattering his childhood image of me. I waited for him to collect himself.

“Bobby, ah, listen to me. I know you don’t get it, do you? This letter…forget about this letter. I’m going to bury this thing so deep, it’ll be a long time before…I just wish I could help more. I am so sorry for how things turned out for you.”

Astonished, I asked him,

‘Mickey, I don’t want you to get in trouble over me. Don’t do anything to hurt yourself, please!”

Mickey responded, voice older now, firmer,

“Bobby, I’m a supervisor here. I can do this.”

There was a longer pause.

I collected myself, calmed my voice and said to him,

“If that’s true, then you’re doing a big thing for me, Mickey. It will matter to my wife too, when I tell her about this. Thank you so much. Never dreamed I’d run into you again, never. Thank you.”

Mickey responded, his voice seemingly trying to get through to me,

“Bobby listen, you don’t understand. You may owe this money, but you’re not some criminal. You’re like a lot of guys with a run of bad luck. The bad luck ends. I see it endlessly here. Give yourself a chance and don’t think you will ever be less today then you have been to me my whole life. These aren’t equal situations. What you did mattered so much. You stood up for me, took a real chance and hit the bad guy, for me. You did that, and gave me hope. Next to that, this letter, forget about this letter, what you did was much more important, to me.”

I had no more words. He was more than a voice now. He was trying to tell me to stop beating myself up. Now it was him giving hope, to me. I understood that, and said to him,

“Ok, Mickey, ok, I understand. Please, take care of yourself, ok?”

And Mickey answered,

“I’ll be fine, Bobby, and so will you. Don’t give up, ok?”

Then we said goodbye to each other.

Eventually, all of the back taxes were paid.

Thirty more years have gone by.

We never spoke again.

Wow.

Mickey Bluestone.

My hero.

 

Publishing News! 

Bob Katzman’s two new true Chicago books are now for sale, from him!
Vol. One: A Savage Heart  and Vol. Two: Fighting Words

Gritty, violent, friendship, classic American entrepreneurship love, death, heartbreak and the real dirt about surviving in a completely corrupt major city under the Chicago Machine. More history and about one man’s life than a person may imagine.

Please visit my new website: http://www.dontgoquietlypress.com
If a person doesn’t want to use PayPaI, I also have a PO Box & I ship anywhere in America.

Send me a money order with your return and contact info.
I will get your books to you within ten days.
Here’s complete information on how to buy my books:

Vol 1: A Savage Heart and Vol. 2: Fighting Words
My books weigh almost 2 pounds each, with about 525 pages each and there are a total together of 79 stories and story/poems.

Robert M. Katzman
Don’t Go Quietly Press
PO Box 44287
Racine, Wis. 53404-9998                                                                                                                    (262)752-3333, 8AM–7PM

Books cost $24.95 each, plus shipping

For: (1)$3.95; (2)$5.95; (3)$7.95; (4)$8.95 (5)$9.95;(6) $10.95

(7) $11.95; (8) $12.95; (9)$13.95 (10)$15.95 (15)$19.95

I am also for hire if anyone wants me to read my work and answer questions in the Chicago/Milwaukee area. Schools should call me for quantity discounts for 30 or more books. Also: businesses, bookstores, private organizations or churches and so on.

My Fighting Words Publishing Co. four original books, published between 2004 and 2007 are now out-of-print. I still have some left and will periodically offer them for sale on my new website.

3 Comments »

Comment by Don Larson

May 19, 2018 @ 7:43 pm

Hi Bob,

Another Classic Katzman story!

Don

Comment by brad dechter

May 21, 2018 @ 1:28 pm

Brought tears to me. Good for you! Hugs!

Comment by Charlie Newman

May 22, 2018 @ 6:21 pm

beautifully done…as uaual!

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