You know, we always called each other goodfellas. Like you said to, uh, somebody, "You're gonna like this guy.
He's all right. He's a goodfella. He's one of us." You understand? We were goodfellas. (Henry Hill in Goodfellas)
I’ll never forget the first time I watched Martin Scorsese’s 1990 film Goodfellas, starring Robert De Niro and Ray Liotta. The opening scenes sucked the breath right out of me. I gulped and gazed at a past that seemed awfully familiar. For the first time in my life I understood what the overused phrase “there but for the grace of God” meant.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Being the youngest member of the 93rd Street Gang, I had fewer financial resources than my peers. What am I saying? I had no peers. Everyone was older than I. They received allowances; I received none. Some of them had jobs; I didn’t. When other Gang members took their turn at treating for egg creams or ice cream sodas at the corner store, or even Italian ices from Teddy Bear the Ice Cream Man, I hardly ever could join in.
Finally, in junior high, I got my first job: delivering Canarsie’s weekly newspaper, the Courier. The pay was meager—three cents profit per delivery—but I had a route of about sixty that I’d inherited from an older kid at church, so it wasn’t too bad, especially when tips often doubled or tripled my profits. It still wasn’t much, but every so often, with a little help from Mom and Pop, I got to treat the Gang to a cheap confection.
Things changed dramatically when I inherited Billy Walker’s job at a drugstore on Rockaway Parkway. It was owned and operated by a guy named Morrie. About six years earlier, Morrie hired Grace Church kid Tommy Norris as his clerk. Tommy worked there for three years, and then Morrie hired Billy, from the Gang and the Church, to take Tommy’s place. Billy worked there for two years, got a better paying offer from a construction company, and passed the job to me. It was one of the best jobs imaginable for a bright but naive young man.
At first my work consisted mostly of keeping the shelves neat, which was easy because we only had three aisles of non-prescription products. Once or twice a week I unpacked orders from our wholesale suppliers: Towns & James (T & J), from nearby East Flatbush, and another Brooklyn wholesaler whose name I can’t recall. After stocking the shelves I’d toss the empty boxes down the basement steps which were under a steel door built into the sidewalk in front of the store. It was one of those heavy doors you had to brace with a crossbar to keep it from bashing you on the head. Stepping over the crossbar was tricky, but the alternative—a brain injury—would have been worse.
The basement was my quiet place. Every few days I’d go down there, momentarily forgetting my fear of rodents, and methodically break up boxes and stack the cardboard. Every couple of months, the stack would disappear. I never knew where it went or who collected it. That wasn’t part of my job.
We also kept expired prescription drugs on shelves along the basement wall. I suppose Morrie kept records of them, as no doubt required by law, but my job was simply to put the partially full bottles on the shelf and leave them there. Like the cardboard, every once in a while they’d disappear, and I’d fill the space up again. This precipitated my brief foray into drug use and dealing.
We accumulated a lot of expired bottles of barbiturates and amphetamines on those shelves, some only weeks past their expiration date. It seemed like a waste. I knew barbiturates were dangerous, so I avoided them; but what harm could a Dexamyl do? Being on the cross-country team, I figured a little pick-me-up before practice—but never before a meet—might help. It didn’t. I’d slip a Dexie into my mouth with some water just before changing into my running gear, but the effects never seemed to be enough to make me faster, more alert, or able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. I stopped taking them after three or four practices. Still, my teammates and other Canarsie High kids thought they were wonder drugs, so what could I do?
My career as a drug dealer lasted less than a month. First of all, my supply was severely limited. We only had a few bottles of dextroamphetamines in the basement. I wasn’t above selling expired stuff, but there was no way I was going to steal stuff out of the prescription drawers. Also, I didn’t want to take too many out of each bottle because I knew someone somewhere might be keeping a record. Judging by the fact that I was never caught, I may have assumed too much.
Fact is, I didn’t really like being a drug dealer. The money wasn’t great. How much does one charge for expired pharmaceuticals? Probably a lot more than I did. I was the bargain basement of drug dealers. Also, I never felt quite right about what I was doing. I saved every drug dealing dollar I made, maybe fifty or sixty, and eventually put them all in an envelope and gave them to a poor woman to whom I’d often deliver legitimate prescriptions. Like my gambling winnings, I felt guilty keeping them.
Once Morrie learned that I was trustworthy—well, given the previous stories, maybe trustworthy isn't the right word—he gave me two of my most important duties: filling prescriptions and fetching supper.
Getting Morrie’s supper was fun and sometimes profitable. Most of the time my boss packed his supper, which he heated on a hotplate in the back. Microwaves were a few years away. A couple of days a week, however, Morrie sent me for a sandwich. Sometimes he was generous enough to buy me one too. My favorites were the veal parmigiana from Armando’s, with an aroma that could not be held in by aluminum foil and called to me all the way back to the store; and ham salad from a non-Kosher deli. I never gave too much thought to why Morrie, a Jew, would eat ham salad; I just joined him. To this day, when people consider ham salad to be a paté made of chopped ham with bits of pickle floating in it, I cringe. Morrie and I ate a perfect blend of diced ham and mayo on a bed of lettuce. For years, after Easter’s traditional ham dinner, I’d beg Sandy to dice some leftover ham and make that kind of ham salad for me.
Supper with Morrie was awesome. Morrie was a firm believer in adding milk to soda. Root beer, with its inherent smoothness, seemed a natural for milk. Dr. Pepper and milk worked surprisingly well together. I started to draw the line when my boss insisted I add milk to a Coke. Some things just aren’t done! But the boss is the boss, so I tried it. I survived, but I never looked forward to those suppers. Even Armando’s veal parmigiana had trouble overcoming that taste. Nevertheless, Morrie and I bonded over those quiet suppers. I earned more of his trust.
That trust was shown in another part of the supper routine. Morrie generally ate around the time we made our daily bank deposit. He would open the register, count the till, and remove most of it. Then he’d prepare a deposit slip and put the wad of bills with it in a zippered pouch. My instructions were to walk to the bank, make the deposit, and stop by the deli or Armando’s for our meal. Each time I’d carefully tuck the pouch under my shirt and inside my pants so as not to arouse eyes bent on mugging.
One day, upon my return with our supper, and an empty bank pouch, Morrie seemed very quiet. We ate our dinner in silence, and then I settled into my end-of-the-day closing routine. Finally, before we locked the doors and went home, Morrie told me what had happened. While I was gone with the day’s profits, two guys came in and robbed the store. Morrie’s silence was part shock and part wanting to be a calming presence when he told me.
My first reaction was to laugh.
“They robbed the register? How much was in it? Fifty bucks? And here I was carrying hundreds in my pants right down the street.”
My second reaction was to wonder why Morrie hadn’t somehow signaled the fire station across the street. He always said he’d trust the firefighters over the police to help out if there were trouble at the store. But there were no firefighters. That provoked my third reaction. Why were there no cops? Could they have come and gone so quickly? I didn’t think I’d been gone that long. Was Morrie going to give a statement at the 69th Precinct later that night? Why didn’t the cops want to talk to me? I never asked those questions. I only connected the theft and the lack of investigation years later. My naiveté knew no bounds.
After a few months of quality service on my part, and some safe transport of sandwiches, cans of soda, and pouches of cash, I was ready for what would become the most important part of my job: filling prescriptions. This was another time when a more worldly-wise employee might have wondered why he, a high school kid, was filling prescriptions and the guy with the Pharmacy degree was sitting in the back room talking on the phone to some guy named Joey or visiting with regulars like Mooch and Curly, who never bought more than a candy bar but often tossed me a buck. I didn’t wonder, I just learned how to read physicians’ scribbles, count pills, measure powders for emulsions, and make a little extra profit by gently scratching the word “sample” off pills donated to Morrie by his brother, a physician, so we could sell them at full retail.
Filling prescriptions was great. I started teaching myself Pharmacy. I’d read the trade magazines that came monthly to the store. That’s where I learned about the latest wonder drugs and how they’re marketed. One time, we got a prescription for a drug Morrie had never heard of. He was about to call his brother when I said, “I know what that is. It’s manufactured by so-and-so for patients with such-and-such. I read about it in last month’s Journal.” I showed Morrie the article, he called our wholesaler, and within an hour I’d ridden my bike to T & J and back so we could fill the prescription. After that, I gave serious thought to becoming a pharmacist; so much so that when a recruiter from Columbia University School of Pharmacy came to Canarsie High to talk with the two kids who worked at drug stores—me and Mike, who worked at GlenRock Drugs—I was mildly interested. Then I realized I’d have to take more chemistry, which I hated, and decided on Bible college.
The question remains, why was a high school kid doing the work of a degreed pharmacist? You may have guessed already. Morrie had another job. I’m not really sure what Morrie’s other job was. I’ll just describe it and let you put a label on it.
Morrie spent a lot of his time on the telephone. People, all men actually, would come to talk with him while I was sweeping the store, stocking shelves, or filling prescriptions. Then he’d get on the phone and talk about things like “who looks good in the third at Aqueduct?” or how much money to put on the number three horse at Yonkers. It was while working for Morrie that I learned words like “perfecta” and “trifecta,” things I’m sure I would have missed in pharmacy school.
I did, however, get to do a few other things with those guys. By my senior year in high school I had my driver’s license. For some reason, they often needed a driver. I was pretty sure they had cars and wondered why they didn’t drive themselves, but I never mentioned it to Morrie. I’d just take the guys wherever they wanted to go: home from the drugstore, to and from girlfriends’ houses, that kind of stuff.
My favorite driving chore was when one or two of them would ask me to take them to Yonkers Raceway, just north of the city. The “trotters” ran there, the horses that pull their jockeys in those little cart-like seats. The guys liked to bet on, and watch, the trotters run. Since alcohol was heavily involved in these excursions, they needed a designated driver, and that would be me.
We’d drive up to Yonkers, I’d drop them off at the entrance, and whoever owned the Lincoln, Cadillac, or Chrysler would toss me the keys and a fifty and tell me, “Enjoy yourself, kid. Get a nice steak. Come back at 11:30.” I’d skip the steak, get a couple of slices of pizza, and read a book for a couple of hours. It was a great way to pocket about $45 at the end of an evening.
Guys like Morrie’s friends lived all over Canarsie in the sixties. Years later my dad told me that’s why the neighborhood always felt so safe. No petty criminals would mess with the locals. You never knew whose house you might be breaking into and what might happen if you got caught. Personally, I never gave it a thought. I just knew we walked the streets at all hours; there was virtually no crime, except occasionally when a neighbor would wash up on the shore of Jamaica Bay with a bullet in his head.
Maybe I did give it one thought. I had a friend whose dad was a garbage man. Not a city garbage man, but one of those men with a garbage truck that had someone’s name on the side. They called it “private sanitation.” Every year or so, this kid’s dad would go to the Oldsmobile dealer and drive home in a brand new Olds 98, their snazziest vehicle, kind of a middle class Cadillac. I always wondered how he could do that on a garbage man’s salary. But I never asked.
Work at the drugstore, plus my side job as a driver, put me in an exciting new financial position. I was able to buy my own car and also to travel by air to visit Billy Walker at college in Florida and to visit Clair in Buffalo. When the Grace Church youth group took their annual excursion to Rye Beach Playland, I could pay my own way and treat some of the other kids to snacks. I was riding high that last summer before Bible college.
Years later I talked to Pop about my youthful exploits as an amateur pharmacist. He explained some things to me about the neighborhood we called home. I won’t go into details. You can probably guess them if you’ve seen any gangster movies in the past fifty years. Private sanitation was a “Family” business. The funeral homes with their elaborate Italianate sculptures and owners who spent thousands on Christmas displays we kids drooled over, they were “Family” too. We were a “Family” neighborhood; safe, sound, and sometimes deadly.
“Phil,” my dad added, “You know Uncle Tom [Mom’s cousin] married a Gambino, right?”
The first time I watched Goodfellas I gulped. Now you know why.
Hospitality was something we Baisleys learned early and often, as you’ll see in the next episode of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.