|Bobby at Work
by Anthony Bourdain
BOBBY GOLD, SIX-foot-four and dripping wet, squeezed past an outgoing delivery of Norwegian salmon and stood motionless, smelling of soggy leather, in the cramped front room of JayBee Seafood Company, taking up space. Men in galoshes, leather weight belts and insulated vests jockeyed heavily loaded hand-trucks around him. No one asked him to move.
Everybody smoked—their wet cigarettes held in gloved hands with the tips cut down. Men ticked off items on crumpled invoices with pencil stubs, stacked leaking crates of flounder, mussels, cod, squid, and lobster, swept crushed ice into melting piles on the waterlogged wooden floor. At an ancient desk by the front window, a fat man with a pen behind his ear was making conciliatory noises into the phone, blowing smoke.
'Yeah. . . yeah. . . we'll take it back. Yeah. . .I know…the dispatcher missed it. Whaddya want me to do? What can I say? I'll send you another piece—no problem. Yeah . . . right away . . . center-cut. I got it. Right…right. It's leaving right now.'
When he hung up, the fat man called back to somebody in the rear. 'Send twenny pounds of c.c. sword up to Sullivan's! And bring back what he's got!' Then he looked up, noticed the large figure in the fingertip-length black leather jacket, black pullover, black denim pants and black cowboy boots, obstructing commerce in his loading area.
'Yo! ... Johnny Cash! Can I help you with something?'
'I come from Eddie,' said Bobby Gold, his voice flat, no expression on his face.
The fat man at the desk rolled his eyes, took a deep hit on a bent Pall Mall and jerked a thumb towards the rear. 'He's in the back office.'
Bobby pushed aside long plastic curtains that kept the cold from escaping a cavernous, refrigerated work area. Salsa music was blaring from a portable radio at one of six, long work-tables where more men in long white coats smeared with fish blood packed seafood into crates and covered it with ice. But the dominant sound here was a relentless droning from the giant compressors that kept the room chilled down to a frosty thirty-eight degrees. They were gutting red snappers around a central floor drain, and there were fish scales everywhere—like snowflakes in the workers' hair, clinging to their knives, on their clothing. Black and purple entrails were being pulled from the fish's underbellies, then tossed carelessly into fifty-five-gallon slop buckets. Against one wall, a triple stacked row of grouper seemed to follow Bobby's progress across the room with clear, shiny eyes, their bodies still twisted with rigor.
Another room: white tile, with a bored-looking old man working a hose while another picked over littleneck clams and packed them into burlap. Bobby's boot crushed a clam shell as he swept through a second set of plastic curtains and into the rear offices. Two bull-necked women with door-knocker sized earrings and bad hair sat talking on phones by a prehistoric safe, a sleeping Rottweiler between them. Bobby opened Jerry Moss's door without knocking and went side.
'Oh shit,' said Jerry, a sun-freckled old man, hunched over a pile of price quotes and bills of lading.
'Hi, Jer',' said Bobby, sad already. The old man looked particularly tired and weak today—as if a good wind could blow him over. Bobby noticed with unhappiness the bottle of Maalox on Jerry's crowded desk, the dusty picture frame with Jerry's immediate family clustered around a fireplace, the half-eaten brisket sandwich peeking out from its wax paper wrapping.
'Is it that time again?' said Jerry, feigning surprise.
'I'm afraid so,' said Bobby.
Jerry sat back in his cracked leather swivel chair and sighed, 'So I guess this means I gotta take a beating. Is that right, Bobby? I gotta take a beating?'
Bobby just nodded, regretting everything that got him here and everything that was going to happen. He felt as trapped as the old man. It had been like that lately—the feeling bad part. Even with the tough guys, the mouthy, think-they're-smart assholes who he'd straightened up in recent weeks—the big-shouldered power-lifters who'd thought they didn't have to pay because of their hulk-sized chests and their bad attitudes—Bobby no longer took pleasure in proving otherwise. The technical satisfactions of a job well and precisely done just didn't cut it anymore—replaced by a growing sense of.. . shame—a tightening in the stomach.
Jerry Moss was sixty-two years old. He'd had, as Bobby well knew, two heart attacks in the past year, and a recent bypass operation. His last trip to Florida, the old man had come back with a small melanoma on the left cheek which had had to be surgically excised. And he was suffering as well from conjunctivitis, shingles and a spastic colon. He was falling apart by himself.
'How bad does it have to be,' asked Jerry, shifting uncomfortably in his chair.
'It's got to be an arm—at least,' said Bobby, controlling his voice. Any hint of reluctance now would give the old man hope—and there wasn't any. 'That's what he said. An arm. And of course, the face. You know how that is…There's gotta be something for show.'
The old man winced and shook his head, studying his desk top. 'That's just fucking great . . . I guess it don't matter I got the money now, does it? I mean ... shit, Bobby—he knows I'm gonna pay...'
'He knows that, Jerry.'
'I mean... Bobby....Boobie....I got the money right here. I can pay now for fuck's sake. This second. It's right there in the safe.'
'Jerry . . . he doesn't care,' said Bobby, sleepwalking through this part, trying to think about a faraway beach, running an advertising jingle through his head, wanting to get it over with. 'It's not about that and you know it. I'm not here to collect. You're late. That's the point. That he had to ask.'
'An arm. . .' mulled Jerry. 'Shit!' He looked pensively down at his body, as if taking inventory. 'That's just great ... That's just. . .' He struggled for a word. .. came up with ‘... boffo.'
'What can I say?' said Bobby, shrugging.
'You could say, "Forget it",' said Jerry, more exasperated than frightened. 'You could say, "what the fuck" and walk away from it... That would be a nice fucking thing to say...'
'Never happen,' said Bobby. 'Not today.' He lit a cigarette and sat down across from Jerry. He could see the fear starting to come on, welling up visibly now behind the old man's glasses, sweat forming on Jerry's upper lip as the memory of the last time Eddie had had to send him a message began to come back.
That time had been awful, Bobby knew. He'd been on vacation and Eddie had sent two oversized kids from Arthur Avenue to do the job, and predictably, things had gotten out of hand. They'd whaled the shit out of Jerry for fifteen minutes—beaten him within an inch of his life. If memory served, they'd broken both of the old man's legs, his collar-bone, forearm, nose and instep, then smashed his teeth so badly he'd had to have them all replaced. He now wore complete upper and lower plates.They made him whistle slightly when he spoke.
'How many times has it been now, Jerry?' asked Bobby, though he knew the answer. 'I mean. . . Jesus.'
'This'll make four,' replied Jerry, almost defiantly, poking his chin out slightly—a bit of business that didn't quite make it as bravado.
'It's pathetic . .. Really. You're not a young .... why the fuck you gotta be such a fucking donkey?'
Jerry just smiled weakly and shrugged his shoulders, looked out the dirt-streaked window at the rain coming down.
'Nobody likes this, Jerry,' said Bobby. 'I certainly don't like it. You think I like this shit? Coming here?'
'Oh yeah?' barked the old man, raising his voice so it cracked slightly. 'Those two retards he sent over the last time? They liked it, Bobby.. . they liked it fine! Those two behemoths? They had a great fucking time, those two ... I swear to God ... the one kid? He's dancing on my fucking stomach? Guy's getting a fucking boner!! Oh yeah ... Those two .. . they was all over me like a bunch a drunken Cossacks. They fucked me up good those two. Real good... They were having themselves a real good fucking time busting me up like a day-old fucking biscuit.'
Jerry had gone pale recalling the incident. He tried quickly to buck himself up. 'Hey... I should look at the bright side, right? At least he sent you this time. I should be grateful. I should be relieved. Am I right or what?'
'I brought some pills,' said Bobby, reaching into his wet leather jacket, coming out with a bottle of Demerol. 'Take three now. I'll wait . . . I'll wait around for them to kick in, okay? Then it won't hurt so bad . .. That's the best I can do for you, Jerry. The pills . . . they help a lot.' He passed the bottle over to Jerry, watched as the old man tilted his head back and dry-swallowed three. He was used to taking medication.
'Drink?' offered Jerry, motioning to a fifth of Dewars on the dirt-encrusted window sill. 'Since we're gonna be here a while.'
'Yeah . . . sure, thanks,' said Bobby. He fetched the bottle, poured two drinks after blowing the dust out of two promotional coffee mugs on Jerry's desk. Bobby's mug read 'JayBee Seafood' with a cartoon drawing of a leaping salmon on the side. Jerry's mug had a picture of a smiling Fred Flintstone on it, and the words, 'YabadabaDoo!' in bright red block letters.
'Cheers,' said Jerry. He poured his drink down in one gulp, coughed, then asked for another. Bobby poured.
'Why don't you just pay the man on time,' said Bobby. 'Like you said... you got the money, why piss him off like this—for nothing?'
'Liquidity problems,' explained Jerry, looking at the younger man like he was explaining the bond market to a pool boy or a gardener. He swept his arm through the air. 'Cash-flow.. . You know... It's ponies and pussy, pussy and ponies,' he said. 'And the dogs. I went the dog track down there at Hialeah? I don't have to tell you what happened,' Jerry smiled weakly. 'That ain't ever gonna change, Bobby... so why shit anybody? What? Am I gonna tell you it ain't never gonna happen again? C'mon!'
'If you say so...'
'I get to pick the arm?'
'Sure,' said Bobby. 'Your choice. You pick it.'
'I hope I pick better than I pick winners.'
'Yeah.. . no shit.'
'The left. I think. Yeah, the left,' said Jerry. 'I'm a lefty, but—' he lowered his voice, 'I jerk off with my right.'
'Too much information, Jerry. I didn't need to know that.'
'What—I'm too old to jerk off? I need that arm! First things fucking first!'
'Whatever you say.'
'How long... how long you think before I can use it again?'
'Three weeks in a cast,' said Bobby, talking about something he knew for sure. 'Four weeks tops. And the new casts they're making these days, they're much more lightweight. You'll be able to get around with it sooner.'
'Fabulous,' said Jerry.
They were both quiet for a while, Bobby sipping his Scotch, gazed idly out the window into JayBee's rear alleyway, listening to the rain pelt the thick panes of alarmed glass and the distant whine from the compressors. The Rottweiler, awake now, poked his head into the room, a filthy squeaky toy between his massive jaws. Seeing no one interested in playing with him, the big dog turned and left, the toy making hiccuping sounds.
'What's the dog's name?' asked Bobby.
'Schtarker.' said Jerry, uninterested. 'That's Yiddish, if you didn't know. People used to say that about you.'
Bobby let that go, consulted his watch.
'Few more minutes and I'll be ready, okay?' said Jerry 'I'm startin' to feel them pills.'
'No problem,' said Bobby. 'I don't have to be at the club for a while. I've got time.'
'How's that working out for you?'
'Good,' said Bobby. 'It's going good ... I'm head of security now.'
'Nice for you.'
'Yeah. . . It's okay.'
'You ever get anybody there I'd like? You know ... somebody... somebody I could take Rose to see? She loves Neil Diamond. You ever get Neil Diamond there?'
'No. . .' said Bobby.' We had... let's see.. . we had Lena Home once. . . we had Vic Damone and Jerry Vale. We had him.'
'Yeah... they were good. You know... Not my kind of music, but good.'
'Bobby ... if you ever get anybody there ... you know . . . that Rose would like . . . I'd appreciate it. If you could get us in. She'd love that if I actually took her out sometime. They got the dinner and the dancing and everything over there, right?'
'Yeah. . . the whole deal. And the food's not bad.'
'Lamb chops? I like a good lamb chop.'
'Yeah. . . we got that.'
'I'll put you on the list anytime you want to bring her,' said Bobby.
'Eddie... He ain't gonna mind?'
As long as you fucking pay on time, Jerry, he won't give a shit. You can do the fucking hokey-pokey on the table—he won't care—he's never there anyway. Just call me when you want to come.'
'Thanks. . .I appreciate that.'
'So,' said Bobby. 'You ready?'
'Shit,' said Jerry, exhaling loudly.
'Take off your glasses, Jer'.
'You gotta do that?'
'The face . . . You gotta do the face?'
'I dunno… I thought... maybe just the arm would be enough...'
'Jerry...' repeated Bobby, standing up.
'Awright... awright... Jesus ....... Lemme get a tissue at least.'
'I brought a handkerchief,' said Bobby, reaching again into his jacket, this time for a neatly folded cotton square. 'Here. Keep it.'
'Always prepared,' muttered Jerry, sourly. He removed his glasses and put them carefully on the desk. 'They teach you that in the Boy Scouts? What did you used to have to say? "A Boy Scout is ... trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, courteous, kind, clean and—"'
Bobby hit him across the nose with the back of his hand. Quickly. It was a sharp, precise blow that knocked Jerry into his chair-back.
'Shit!' said Jerry, honking a red streak onto his shirt front, then covering his face with the handkerchief. He rocked silently in his chair for a moment while Bobby looked around the room for a fat enough book to finish with.
'Get it over with!' hissed Jerry. 'Do it now . . . while I'm distracted!' He rolled up his shirt sleeve.
Bobby found what he was looking for—a thick, hard-back copy of Mollusks and Bivalves of the North Atlantic—and quickly placed the book in front of Jerry on the desk. Jerry knew the drill. He compliantly laid his thin, blue-veined arm against the spine so that the hand was raised, then closed his eyes. 'Do it!' he said.
When Bobby brought his fist down on Jerry's radial ulna—the thinner of the two bones between wrist and elbow—there was a muffled snap, like a bottle breaking beneath a pillow.
'Ohhh ...' moaned Jerry, tears squeezing from the corners of his eyes.
'Oh... Bobby... that hurt. Bobby... Boobie... it hurts...'
'It's over now, Jerry,' said Bobby. He wanted to comfort the old man now—wished he could put his arms around his shoulders—even kiss him on the cheek like he'd had to as a child.
'It hurts,' said Jerry. 'It hurts worse than I remembered.' Bobby went out and found a clean apron on top of a locker. When he got back, Jerry was still rocking back and forth, the injured limb held close to his body, his eyes still closed.
'C'mon, Jerry. Here we go,' said Bobby. He fashioned a serviceable sling out of the apron, helped the old man's arm into it, then primly adjusted it around his neck.
'Motherfuck!!' said Jerry, through clenched teeth. 'It's hot. It feels hot. . . and it hurts. .
'Hey... It's over,' was all Bobby could think of to say.
'Yeah . . . thanks,' said Jerry. 'Thanks for breaking my arm.' A thin dribble of blood ran from one nostril, collecting on his lip. The whites of his eyes were turning red, as intended. Bobby felt the urge to lean over and blot the nose with a tissue, but resisted.
'It could have been those kids from Arthur Avenue, Jerry,' said Bobby, lamely.
'Yeah... you're right. He coulda sent the kids,' said Jerry, bitterly. 'I love this! Like I'm supposed to be grateful? You broke my fucking arm!!'
'What hospital you want to go to? I can drop you at St Vincent's, you want.'
'Fuck you, Bobby. I'll walk over to Roosevelt.'
'St Vincent's is better... You won't have so much of a wait, Jerry. It's cleaner. C'mon . . . I'll take you in a cab...'
'Get the fuck outta here Bobby, okay?'
'It's raining, Jerry . . .'
'I know it's fucking raining, Bobby Gold ... Stop it, already... You did what you hadda do. Now get the fuck outta here and leave me alone.'
'I'm sorry, Jerry. It's my job. This is what I do. . Jerry looked up at him with sudden and unexpected clarity. 'I know . . .' he said. 'That's what's fucked up about you, Bobby. You are sorry. You got no fucking heart for this shit—but you do it anyway, don't you?' He turned his face away, as if looking at Bobby disgusted him. 'What the fuck happened to you for fuck's sake? Nice Jewish boy... educated... and you're beatin' on old men—your uncle.. . your own mother's brother, for a fuckin' living. Some fucking life you got, Bobby...' His voice cracked, barely audible. 'Little Bobby Goldstein, all grown up. Your father—he must be very proud...'
Bobby flinched. 'Fuck you, Jerry... I wouldn't have to do this shit, you paid your debts on time. Don't start talking about family—the way you live—all right?'
'Awright ... I'm sorry' said Jerry. 'I'm sorry ... I shouldn't have said that...' He looked out the window, voice steadier now, and sadder. 'Who am I to judge a person?'
It was coming down hard on 9th Avenue when Bobby and Jerry emerged from JayBee Seafood. The old man was looking drugged and dreamy now, his eyes pinned from the Demerol, mouth slack at the corners.
'Let me get you a cab,' offered Bobby for the last time, signaling with his hand.
Jerry waved him away. 'You take it. I'm not fucking helpless here, Bobby. I can take care of myself. I was having guys busted up worse than this when I was half your age—those two guinea cocksuckers he sent the last time? Next week, the very next week—from my hospital bed —I call Eddie and have him send those two down to see some other schmuck owes me money—so I ain't gonna curl up and die cause I gotta stand up for another ass-kicking, all right? Now get lost you little pisher… tell that midget gonniff cocksucker you work for he can send somebody over tomorrow to pick up the money. Now leave me alone... And say hello to your mother.'
When Bobby left him, standing hatless and coatless in the rain, looking up 9th Avenue towards Roosevelt Hospital, the old man was weeping. Bobby saw him holding the handkerchief to his nose as his cab pulled away from the curb. He watched him through the raindrop patterns of the cab window as Jerry slowly started to walk, one foot in front of the other, shoulders hunched protectively over the broken arm, growing smaller in the distance.