Chapter 24

  “I can’t be a catfish without no waffles,” said Bumpy Williams.

   Bumpy and Stan walked out the back door of the Warsaw Bakery, around to the front, and down the street.

   “I get the picture,” said Stan.

   Tropical storm Flossy had torn itself to pieces in small bits and passed harmlessly east of the city the day before. It was late in the afternoon, it was in the low 70s, the sun was starting to arc downwards, but the light was still good, sunny and pleasant. The Weather Bureau was keeping a close watch on rain squalls moving up from the Caribbean.

   “It is the weakest sort of a disturbance, but it remains as a suspicious area,” the bureau said.

   No one was taking it seriously. Stan and Bumpy weren’t paying attention. They had moveable feasting on the brain.

   “So, you are up for a bite to eat?”

   “The sooner the better,” said Bumpy.

   They crossed Lorimer Street and walked into McCarren Park, around two baseball fields, and past the pool building, the biggest of the eleven built by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s. In the summer it was one of the social hubs of Greenpoint. The entrance to the pool was mammoth, arched in brick, and the pool could hold, if it absolutely had to, close to seven thousand swimmers.

   Bumpy looked down, as they walked the other way, at a copy of that week’s New York Age Defender left on a park bench.

   “South Is Using ‘Hitler System’” screamed the headline on the front page.

   “I’ll bet they goddamn do,” he muttered to himself.

   Stan hailed a cab when he and Bumpy stepped out of the park and onto North 12th Street.

   “Tom’s on Washington,” he told the cabbie. “Do you know it?”

   “Prospect Heights, mister. About three miles, maybe ten minutes. Ain’t it a breakfast and lunch joint? No mind, we’ll get you there under the wire, whether it is, or not.”

   Less than ten minutes later the cabbie deposited them in front of Tom’s Restaurant. Stan paid the fare. Bumpy took one look and squinted. It was a small eatery, the windows filled with neon flyers advertisements menus painted platters and both real and artificial plants.

   “What’s that?” asked Bumpy, pointing to a shiny undersized fake rhododendron.

   “Some new kind of plastic.”

   “That what tomorrow looks like?”

   “Probably,” said Stan.

   High on the window to the right of the door white block letters said, “TOM’S EST. 1936.” The casing was dark brown, although above it the signage was white with “RESTAURANT” in lime green and “DRINK COCA COLA” in red and white.

   “How’s the food?” asked Bumpy, taking a step back.

   “Let’s go in, some of the Dodgers eat here, but I’ll let you decide for yourself,” said Stan.

   Ebbets Field was nearby. Jackie Robinson had a sweet tooth and liked Tom’s Frosties, stopping in before day games for a heap of ice cream mixed with a thimbleful of milk.

   “In here, Jackie can sit wherever he wants,” said Gus Vlahavas. There were some diners where the star ballplayer didn’t go because he couldn’t sit down where he wanted without sour looks on the menu. There were other diners he never minded if a cracker with a baseball bat ran the front counter.

   Inside the door a small tart-looking late thirtyish woman greeted them.

   “Hey Stella, I hope we’re not too late for a late lunch. Have you got a booth for me and my friend?” asked Stan, nodding at Bumpy.

   “Yes, come on, there’s an empty booth in the back.”

   In the back wasn’t far back. It might as well have been the front. Stan and Bumpy slid into a booth. Stan flipped cigarettes out for both of them. Bumpy slumped back, letting the smoke slither down into his lungs, exhaling slowly. Stan noticed him counting the American flags in the dining room, big and small, free-standing and on the walls, with his eyes.

   “Gus’s grandfather, Constantin, named the restaurant Tom’s to honor his son,” explained Stan. “Tom was over in the Philippines, got shot up, won some medals for bravery.”

   “I know you like it black,” Stella said to Stan. “But your black friend, him I don’t know.”

   Stella Vlahavas lived upstairs above the restaurant with her husband, worked the cash register, and knew, like her daughter-in-law Phoeni knew, how everyone took their coffee once they had gotten coffee once at Tom’s.

   “Cream and sugar ma’am, thank you,” said Bumpy.

   “Where’s Gus?” asked Stan.

   “He and Nonie had to run home for a minute,” said Stella. Gus and Phoeni who everyone called Nonie, lived in a brownstone around the corner. Gus had worked at the restaurant since he was nine years old, when it was an ice cream shop. He fired up the grill for his father every morning at 5 AM.

   “Tom does the cooking,” Stan said to Bumpy. “I recommend the meat loaf. It’s the star attraction.”

   Bumpy had a platter of meat loaf with eggs and potato hash.

   Stan ate light, blueberry and ricotta pancakes served with flavored butter.

   “All right, what do you have in mind?” asked Bumpy, finishing his lunch, pushing his empty platter away, fiddling with a toothpick.

   Stella brought them a plate of cookies and orange slices, refilling their coffee cups.

   “What I have in mind is you throwing in with us,” said Stan. “We’ve been talking about adding a man, and you strike me as capable. I think you know you don’t get three strikes with the mob. It’s strike one and you’re out. It’s not whether, it’s when, when it comes to the hoods. This might be the when. You and the other two wise guys didn’t get it done the other night.”

   “The hell if I don’t know it.”

   “Throw in with us, the pay is good, you’d be surprised, even better sometimes than other times.”

   “Bird of paradise, huh?”

   Stan laughed.  

   “I’ll tell you what the bird of paradise is, which is the Belgian waffle sundae for dessert.”

   Bumpy ordered the Belgian waffle sundae.

   “No, I’m not saying it’s all clover,” said Stan. “What I am saying is it’s good, it’s steady, and we won’t stick a knife in your back. We might tell you to take a walk, but it won’t be a walk off the end of a pier in the middle of the night. We don’t expect anyone toeing the line blindly, or dying for us, or any of that Hitler bullshit, like the gangsters do. We’re not catbirds.”

   “I’ll think about it,” Bumpy said.

   “No, no thinking,” Stan said. “You’re either in with us or you’re not.”

   Bumpy looked down at what was on his plate.

   “No thinking?”

   “No, none of that.”

   “OK, hell, I’m in,” he said, digging into his waffle sundae.

   When their late lunch was done Stan paid the check, said hello and goodbye to Gus, who walked in as they walked out, and he and Bumpy shook hands to seal the deal.

   “You know where we are, since you’ve been keeping eagle eyes on us,” said Stan. “Don’t come into the office before nine, but don’t come in after ten, either. I’ll see you Monday.”

   “Monday it is, bossman.”

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