The Big D
Back in the day, you needed to attain the ripe old age of sixteen before you could get working papers in New York State. It was a rite of passage for teenage boys, followed two years later by a visit to the local Draft Board on their eighteenth birthdays to register for the draft and be given a draft card.
You couldn’t get a decently paying job without working papers and you couldn’t get into a bar without your draft card. Both were tangible markers on the road to becoming a man.
But for sixteen-year-olds who lived in Brooklyn, there was an additional hurdle to getting working papers. Those of you who are as old as I am will still remember the sadistic Chinese doctor at the Board of Health. Supposedly checking for hernias, he would request that you drop your trousers. Then, he would place his fingers on your testicles.
So far, so good. But we all knew what was coming next. He would order you to cough, while he would squeeze too hard. Or maybe he didn’t. But everyone seemed to remember that he did. So here I am, many decades later, still traumatized by the experience. But it was just a waystation on the road to manhood.
As a child, Murray Dinnerstein, aka the Big D, who showed early promise of a lifetime of obesity, was a regular in a candy store just down the block from his apartment house. It was his primary supplier of comic books, candy bars, ice cream cones, and other essential staples. But he was unaware that this experience was grooming him for much greater things.
When he returned home from the Board of Health, now wondering if the Chinese doctor had done permanent damage to his future sex life, his parents had a surprise for him. After he had blown out the candles on his birthday cake, his mother confided that his dad had a few words to say.
But before telling you what those words were, I would be remiss to not report an obscure incident when Murray came home from school one afternoon and announced to his mother that he had gotten a part in a school play.
“That’s wonderful! What’s the part?”
“I’m a Jewish husband.”
“A Jewish husband! They couldn’t give you a speaking part?”
So now, Murray’s dad got to recite the two lines he had been allotted. “Mr. Saperstein has a job for you. Be at the store tomorrow at noon.”
Murray could not believe his good fortune. This was the dream job of every fat kid in America! Unlimited free ice cream and candy! And they actually pay you!
Murray reported to work ten minutes early. Mr. Saperstein patted him on the back and said his best customer would now be his best employee. He had five or six other teenagers – boys and girls – each working a few four-hour shifts each week in the store. “Murray, you’re a natural for the job. Once you get the hang of it, I’ll leave you alone in the stone to run things on your own.”
“Mr. Saperstein, this is a great honor. I won’t let you down.”
Just then the first customer walked in, sat on a stool, and said to Murray, “Make me a malted!”
“Poof! You’re a malted.”
Mr. Saperstein screamed at Murray. “Get out! And don’t come back till you grow up!”
Murray slinked out of the store. He was afraid to go home, so he wandered the streets for hours. He knew he would never find such a great job ever again. But on the other hand, how could he let a set-up line like that go to waste?
When he finally got home, his parents were anxious to hear about his first day on the job. Reluctantly, he confessed.
His father looked very displeased, but as usual, he didn’t say anything. Then his mother started chuckling. “What was the big joke?” Murray wondered. He decided not to ask.
Then she burst out, “Poof! You’re a malted! Murray, you’re a born comedian!”
Murray’s gloomy mood immediately dissipated. His mother was right. Maybe someone would actually pay him to tell jokes.
But Murray soon had a much more ambitious dream. Unlike other children who had visions of being baseball players, astronauts, doctors, lawyers, actors, actresses, cowboys, police officers, singers, or circus performers, Murray had a much more complicated ambition. His plan was to operate a pirate radio station just beyond the U.S. territorial limits about ten miles east of Coney Island. He would hijack a ship from the rusting World War II moth ball fleet anchored up the Hudson River, about sixty miles from New York City.
The station would broadcast jazz twenty-four/seven to an audience of millions of eager listeners. And best of all, since the station would operate beyond the territorial jurisdiction of the Federal Communications Commission, not only could it use profanity, but it could even advertise pot and other illegal goods and services.
This was Murray’s story, which he gladly repeated to everyone he met. He didn’t have to go to school for any lengthy or arduous training to perform his life’s work. He just needed to recruit a crew and enough fuel to get the ship out into the ocean, and then it would all be smooth sailing, so to speak.
In the meantime, he managed to accumulate a total of fifteen college credits at four different colleges, work at a series of very low-paying dead-end jobs, while moving back-and-forth between his parents’ Coney Island apartment and his grandmother’s apartment on the Lower Eastside of Manhattan.
The job that he hated the most was being a debt-collector, working at a phone bank just off Union Square. He had a list of nearly one thousand people who had stopped making payments on their furniture, TVs, cars, washing machines, and other sundry purchases.
Murray’s job was not to collect the debt in full, or even to substantially reduce it. His company had bought up the debt for pennies on the dollar, so their business plan was very simple: Just get something out of a fraction of the debtors every week or two.
Obviously, this involved making a whole lot of calls. Murray was paid a commission. He would earn thirty cents of every dollar he could collect. So, every morning, he and his colleagues would begin another depressing day of “dialing for dollars.”
“If you can just send us five dollars by Friday, we will not have to garnish your pay, Mrs. Horowitz.” “Let me put it bluntly, Mr. Jackson: Unless you send us at least ten dollars, we will be forced to repossess your TV.”
Every so often, I would see Murray, either on his way to work, or coming home. Most of the time he didn’t see me because he was dragging himself along, his head hung down, in a state of obvious depression. I thought to myself that it might take weeks of healthy salt sea air to revive him.
The other jobs he found were almost as bad. He sold burial plots, newspaper subscriptions, and abandoned possessions from storage warehouses. In desperation he even tried to enlist in the Marines, but he failed the physical. When he asked if it had anything to do with a hernia, the recruiting sergeant laughed.
“You must be from Brooklyn.” When he saw the look on Murray’s face he laughed even harder. “Don’t tell me that doctor squeezed too hard.”
“So what’s wrong with me?”
“You can come back after you’ve lost sixty pounds.”
Murray and I drifted apart over the next few years, and I never picked up the phone to see how he was doing. Maybe I just didn’t want to see him in this state, never really growing up and taking responsibility for his life. I wondered if he had finally given up on his cockamamie scheme to set up a pirate radio station.
Then, one day, there was a wedding invitation. Was it even possible? What woman in her right mind would want to take on that miserable load of psychic baggage? I mean, sure he was a really nice guy, but in some ways, he was still a kid.
When I called him to offer my congratulations, he suggested that we get together for dinner. He knew a great place to eat, and he could introduce me to his future wife.
When I arrived at a somewhat downscale restaurant, I spotted him in a booth with a rather attractive woman who appeared to be somewhat older than he was. As I approached the booth, they both stood, and then threw their arms around me.
Then we sat down. I immediately found Roz quite straightforward, admitting that she was not getting any younger, and that she and Murray were looking forward to starting a family. Then, reading my mind, she smiled, shaking her head “no.”
The three of us laughed. “But don’t be too sure,” quipped Murray.
After we ordered, Roz kidded that for a wedding present, her parents were giving them a pirate radio station on a ship hijacked from the mothball fleet.
“Well, I’m glad we got that out of the way!” I quipped.
“Actually, I met Roz a few months after I started working for her father. He owns this place and three others in Manhattan.
“Would you believe he decided to introduce us right after a customer asked me to make him a malted? He knew at that instant that Roz and I were made for each other.”
A recovering economics professor, Steve Slavin earns a living writing math and economics books.
Five volumes of his short stories have been published over the last sixyears, but he expects that the pace will slow.
Flights, Issue Three, December 2021