(Here’s the first of a two-part post, the second half coming next week — this is something that happened when I first moved to Albany NY, a few months before I began working at The Lark Tavern.)
When I got up, it was just another day.
I took a morning run through the snow in Washington Park, then went to the Albany YMCA and worked out on the heavy bag. After lunch, I walked to the New York State Library and spent the afternoon with my nose buried in books about Nietzsche. ( I was determined to publish that paper on Jack London and Nietzsche.)
On the way home I walked past G. J.’s, and satisfied that I’d put in a full day I decided to stop for a beer. Once inside, I realized how good it is to be in a warm bar with other people.
There was an empty stool next to a guy everyone called “Teddy.” I knew him from the biker joint where my sister’s boyfriend, Dan Crowne, usually hung out.
Teddy was a huge guy with a massive potbelly and broad shoulders. He had a bushy head of hair and a full beard. He always wore layers of shirts and sweatshirts, and despite his intimidating size he was usually smiling so I figured someone gave him the nickname because he did look like a big teddy bear.
But I also knew he was an ex-con like Dan.
I took the empty seat and following standard bar courtesy, I bought Teddy a beer. One round later, he returned the gesture.
I’d never sat and talked with him before. He wasn’t a bad guy. We were just hanging out in the late afternoon, having a beer and talking.
We began to talk about Dan and I asked Teddy how long he’d known him.
Teddy stared at me for a minute as though I’d said something stupid.
“I knew him in prison,” he said finally. He was looking at me as though trying to read what I was thinking.
After a few minutes Teddy said something that would change everything in Albany.
“You’d better be careful,” he told me, while watching the TV, “Dan can mean and when he’s drunk he does some stupid things.”
I felt the hairs lift a little on the back of my neck. I wondered if Teddy knew that Dan and I recently had a bit of a problem. There had been some money missing over the Christmas holidays when my sister, Dan and I were visiting my mom. Nothing much, only twenty bucks, but I’d just about had it with Dan and I ended up yelling some things that he and my sister didn’t want my mom to know.
I knew Dan was pissed, but talking with Teddy now I tried to act unconcerned.
“I’m not worried,” I told Teddy, “I can take care of myself.”
“You’re not in Kansas anymore,” he said looking right at me. For some reason he seemed even larger than he was a minute ago.
“Dan’s got some crazy friends,” Teddy continued as he set his empty bottle on the bar.
“I shouldn’t be telling you this,” Teddy said, “But Dan has been talking about getting rid of you.”
My heart froze. I immediately thought of Dan and his biker buddies at that low life bar. Dan was always bragging about a friend who had once kicked a dog to death just for the fun of it. This guy was something of a legend among Dan’s crowd. He would supposedly killed people for as little as fifty bucks.
“I’m not worried,” I said, although struggling now to sound as though I meant it. My heart was pounding. I took a long swallow of beer, maybe almost half the bottle.
Dan wasn’t a member himself, but the thugs he hung around with rode with a gang called The Breed. These guys had a reputation. The body of a Hell’s Angel member had just been dragged out of a remote southern swamp, with the initials – “B…R…E…E…D” – carved into his chest. Somehow the Florida Police were able to determine that the man was still alive when the initials were made. What crazy plans might Dan and these guys come up with as they sat around getting drunk?
I kept my face unconcerned, but Teddy’s warning had me thinking.
“I can take care of myself,” I said, with all these things racing through my mind.
“Just a word to the wise,” Teddy said, then he looked back at the TV.
Teddy and I got pretty buzzed that afternoon and it wasn’t until the following day that what he said gradually began to sink in.
Suddenly his warning changed everything. It had been quite an adjustment all the way around when I moved to Albany. This was my first time living in anything like a city and I’m sure I could have dealt with things a lot better, but at least up until now I had felt safe.
If this had happened a few months later, everything would have been different. In a few months, I’d be a bartender at The Lark Tavern and working for Mr. Maugere would be all I needed. I’d meet the narcotics cops Paul and Sonny, and Paul once said that if I was ever in a jam just call him.
But this was happening when I first moved to town and had no one to back me up. Dan had a pack of crazy bikers on his side.
Now all it took was the rattle of a motorcycle and I was looking over my shoulder. In a bar, a rough-looking guy seemed to be watching me, then he turned away when I looked at him. Later on the way home, a car moved slowly down the street with its lights off. I was beginning to see signs of trouble everywhere.
One night after my conversation with Teddy, I was riding with Dan Crowne on the way back from dinner at my sister’s place. I kept a close eye on him, watching his hands tightly gripping the steering wheel. We were on Madison Ave in the middle of winter, and Dan was talking about how beautiful Washington Park was during the summer.
“But you won’t be here,” he said, then abruptly stopped talking.
His words rang in my ears.
“I’m not sure,” I answered.
“No,” he said again, “You won’t be here.”
It could have been an innocent remark, but did I see a smile at the corner of his lips?
That night I double-locked my front door and slept with the lights on.
I felt like a hunted man after Teddy’s warning. I made sure that I walked down the sidewalk facing the oncoming traffic in case someone should attempt a drive-by shooting. I figured I might notice an approaching motorcycle slow down, or see the windows of a car being lowered so I’d have a split second to take cover. These were violent, crazy guys.
I started carrying a back saw under my old tan trench coat, a short saw with a flat blade that had thick metal backing on the top. I would be able to swing it like an axe. I cut out a pocket of the trench coat so I could push my hand through and carry the saw underneath it without being noticed as I walked to the supermarket or liquor store.
“Thank you,” I said to the check-out girl as I struggled to take the returned change with one hand. I had pushed the shopping cart with one hand — I had fished the money out of my pocket and now picked up the two bags of groceries with one hand. My other hand was always pushed through the pocket hole in my trench coat, gripping the saw handle.
I thought about buying a shotgun, sawing off the twin barrels and carrying it the same way, but decided against it. If I got caught with a loaded shotgun, I’d end up in prison like Teddy and Dan.
I was a young man from a small town and I was in over my head.
I thought I was working hard at it before but after Teddy’s warning I began to train with a vengeance. Every morning I ran through the snow, struggling in drifts up to my knees. In the afternoon I pounded the gym’s heavy bag and in Karate class at night I fought as though I was fighting for my life. I’d choose biggest, toughest fighters and ask them to spar.
Dan was at least 6’4″ but I began to practice one move over and over, a move specifically designed for combating a larger opponent.
I imagined flicking my keys at Dan’s face, followed instantaneously by a short turning back kick to the groin. Those flying keys would cause a hundredth-of-a-second’s hesitation — Dan’s hands might come up to his face — leaving him wide open.
I practiced that move again and again. I tossed the keys into my own face to see how much time there was to follow up with the kick. If those keys froze Dan for a split second, . . . I’d have him. But his biker friends still worried me.
I didn’t have enough specific information to go to the police. When it came down to it, I wasn’t even sure about Teddy’s warning. Did he really know what he was talking about? Maybe Dan was just shooting off his mouth in a bar.
But what if the warning was a valid one?
Sometimes I wondered if this was all in my head. Maybe I was getting carried away by my own imagination. Ninety-nine times I noticed something suspicious, a shady man who seemed to be following me, and ninety-nine times it turned out to be nothing. But what about the next time? How could I be sure? I was spinning around in circles in my own thoughts.
If I had told someone about this — a friend or a roommate, neither of which I had during those first months in Albany — they probably would have said that I was letting myself get all worked up about nothing. It’s easy to tell someone they’re imagining things when you’re feeling safe and sound.
I didn’t know who I should turn to for help. I still had friends in Cortland, guys who hung out at the bar I had managed. I could have called Rudy “Shoe Tops,” one of the local wise guys. I once saw Rudy take his gun out and put it on top of the cigarette machine before talking business with the man who owned the pool hall just outside town When Rudy “Shoe Tops” spoke people listened.
But Rudy and the others had an impression of me when I left Cortland. I’d run The Mug and hadn’t backed down from anyone. They thought of me as a tough kid. Did I now want to admit that I’d moved to a larger city and couldn’t take care of myself?
I was driving myself crazy with all these imaginings. Then I thought Tom Grindle, a fraternity buddy from Cortland State. Tom Grindle . . . “Gringes” everyone called him . . . why I didn’t think of him earlier?
For part II of this story, click “Gringes” (Tom Grindle saves my ass).