BY NICOLE HOLLANDER
I’ve been working on a visual memoir called In the Old Neighborhood, which is a treatment of the ideas I worked on at Ragdale in 2010. I’m concentrating on the courtyard section of the building and the 3 families that lived in those apartments. My family lived in the middle apartment. The top floor was occupied by a family composed of husband and wife and grown unmarried daughter. At that time women lived with their parents until they were safely married. The first floor was a family headed by a petty gangster who lent money to gamblers at exorbitant rates. These apartments were really too small for a family. There was only one bedroom. I slept in the dining room, the protected daughter had a lavishly decorated bedroom and I have no idea where the boy in the family below slept…
The Gangster on the First Floor
Florence, the gangster’s wife was immune to my mother’s charms. She didn’t confide in my mother. We were forced to learn about their life, to listen to their fights through a glass pressed against the floor. Harry loaned money to gamblers at high interest rates. He didn’t have his own loan sharking business, he worked for others. He was just a guy working for more powerful guys. A guy who had a wife who wanted a full length fur coat. Florence, prim, thin. Harry crude, shlubby and chubby with a pockmarked face.
Harry needed to earn a little extra cash. I worked for Harry. At 10 years old I already was in need of cash. He had a side business: magic tricks. My job was to pack the “nickel into dimes” trick. The nickels were shown to the mark, a crown (which held the dimes) was placed over the nickels. When you pressed on the ring it released the dimes.
I sat in his darkened dining room packing coins for hours. We toiled at a large dining room table. The blinds were drawn.
Harry didn’t talk much, we just pushed nickel shaped coins into brass crowns. He gave me a ring once with a huge single zircon. I have it still. I keep it to remind me that a zircon will not turn into a diamond. No, that is not true. I keep it because one day I will open the little box and there will be a diamond there.
Harry and Florence had one scary son, Stuart. He had piles of comic books. To look at them I had to appear in his living room on command and play endless games of War. I was not allowed to buy comic books. My mother felt comics were money down the drain. “Worthless! You read them once and then throw them away!” Ditto for records and summer clothes. Yes, summer clothes. Summer was too short to waste money on.
War was mind numbing. The players had a double deck of cards between them. One player took a card, turned it face up and then your opponent did the same. Stuart won every time. A simple game and yet he won every time. This is my idea of Hell, playing a mindless game over and over throughout eternity and losing every time. His game, his deck. It occurs to me now that he had all morning to stack the deck .
Yes, it occurs to me for the first time that Stuart conned me.
Once he shot at me with a pointed pencil, narrowly missing my eye. Playing cards with a little girl who never caught on to the trick must have been enraging. Sorry Stuart. I wonder how your life turned out.
The magic business didn’t bring in enough. More money was needed to keep Florence calm. Harry started withholding cash from his bosses. Eventually they noticed. I can’t imagine he was clever.
Tough guys worked Harry over with a two by four. He went to the doctor we all knew. Everyone in the building used Doctor Samuels. Harry was covered with blood. It was too good a story for the doctor to keep to himself. One day the entire family disappeared. They went to Washington D.C. They came back for a visit. No shame was attached to the episode. No shame in trying to make a better life for the family.