In 1926, I was ready to jump the first train out of Baltimore. I’d done it before, never knowing when home couldn’t be home anymore. On a few occasions I hadn’t even packed my bag. I had to leave immediately or never leave at all.
Life was like trying to listen to the radio, which was new in those days, carefully tuning it so that the station came in clear, but every time I stepped away to sit and enjoy the program, static leaped into the channel, so that I was forever moving in a vain attempt to get the station clear, and it was that constant getting up that made me increasingly desperate to sit down, until I finally switched off the radio and collapsed into my chair. I may have been disgusted with the radio, but at least I was sitting. The only real difference was that in my life, I couldn't turn off that radio. I was always adjusting the dial but always hearing nothing.
At that time I worked the night shift at a warehouse. I was the night clerk, the person responsible for signing off on the paperwork and fixing the books. One night, my proverbial radio turned to static when somebody knocked on the shipping office door. That wasn’t unusual. I expected to see mobsters wanting a late pickup. Mob bosses like their champagne as much as the next lush, usually because they have some pretty girls to entertain. Instead of gangsters, two respectable seeming men came in, completely unlike the teamsters outside, meaning that they were either revenuers or missionaries. I had no reason to speak with either, but given the option, I would have preferred that they were revenuers.
Those two men were important and I would soon know them far better than I had the right to. They didn’t introduce themselves then, so I'll jump in and introduce them for you. The disheveled one who sat down next to my desk like a deadbeat uncle was Sloe Joe, a man who could make any well tailored suit look like a thrift store purchase. The other guy, who wore his clothes well, like a blue blood, was Fancy Charlie. He said nothing, as he almost always said nothing, standing by the shipping office door. He always kept his handkerchiefs well ironed, standing fashionably out of his pocket.
To this day, I don’t know their real names. They never told me those names nor wished to tell me. I tried asking once, but Joe just smiled and said, “Sloe Joe’s all you gotta know.” I might have pressed on the subject, but as I went by a fake name as well, dropping the subject seemed like the best move.
As I capped my pen, the red-faced Joe started bantering like an old friend. “Hey, bird, it’s a night out there. What a night. Rain and mist and all that. You know those really chilly days that just drive you nuts? This is one of them. For Christ’s sake, why don’t you have the heat on? What kind of cheapskate do you work for?”
The other thing about Joe was that he got you to answer truthfully, without thinking, because he just talked that way. That made him a killer card player.
“We’re out of coal,” I said, stating the facts. “The day shift forgot to order more.”
Joe showed his disgust. “You need a warm bowl of soup, bird,” he said, taking out a wad of bills. “On me. Really. Here, take a fiver. Skip down to that diner on King James Street. They’re open all night and they got a smokin’ dame who serves tables there. Order the franks and beans and you can’t go wrong.”
In translation, that was a respectable way of saying “get lost or else.” That also meant keeping the dockworkers quiet. Five dollars was a lot, but it wasn't what it used to be. Due to inflation, money was always worth less in those days. And as a rule, when offered a bribe, never take the first offer. “The boys here will wonder where I’m off to. I’ll need to buy them some cigarettes.”
Charlie nodded at that.
Joe smiled back. “Smart bird. Here’s a few more bucks. If the waitress says that she don't have no more cartons, don’t take no for an answer. The diner’s always got a few cartons behind the counter.” He tossed in one more dollar. “You gotta tip her, too.”
That was a ridiculous pile of greenbacks just to get dinner, even with inflation. I could feed everyone for a week on that. These nobodies wanted me out the door and I couldn't say no to that kind of money.
“How long should I be gone?” I asked, having no desire to see these men again. As I already had my coat on, I stood, putting on my cheeriest disposition.
Joe inspected me head to toe as I buttoned up.
“Hey, you’re a classy looking guy,” Joe observed. “What’s a guy like you doing down here? You must not be married. Do you have a girl?”
Joe knew the answer by seeing my reaction.
“I got this sister,” Joe offered. “She likes classy guys. How about I set you two up?”