I first met Sal at the Harborview. I remember it was a couple of mornings after the moonwalk. He was standing behind me in line while I ordered my coffee from Babe light and extra sweet.

“Sugar’s no good for you, makes you fat,” he growled into my ear, and then

“Look at you,” he said.  “Face like a rose. I don’t know how you got here. You must be a college girl,” he continued, “one of those arty types, dancing around in your underwear full of peace and love.  This is a tough neighborhood, Rosie. I better look out for you. What’s your name?” I told him my name, but I didn’t tell him I had just quit college. Then he asked me if I had a job besides going to school. I told him I worked a waitress job in Manhattan. I didn’t say that I waited tables at Max’s Kansas City, a bar that was becoming legendary because of its famous artist patrons and their dissipations.

It was a warm June morning but Sal was wearing a black woolen cap pulled down on his head and a plaid sports jacket. I was to learn this was his usual uniform. When it got cold, he threw a navy pea coat on top. The wisps of hair protruding from his cap were white, his face was lined but his sharp blue eyes were clear as a boy’s. He stared at me intently. “What does your family think about you living on the waterfront?” he demanded.

They were horrified. My mother covered all the mirrors in the house and was still sitting Shiva for me in an effort to shame me into moving back home. I thought of telling him I was an orphan, but before I had a chance, he shook his head.

“You kids today, you want to learn the hard way,” he said. He shook his head again,   “you want to learn the hard way.”  He spun on his heels and turned his back to me. I thought he had decided I was a fool and was dismissing me. Instead, he exclaimed, in a much louder voice, almost bellowing, to the assembled customers, the longshoremen, truck drivers and seamen from all nations who worked on the cargo boats docked along Furman Street. “This here is a nice college girl, no one should hurt her.”  To my surprise, there was a scattered response from around the room; a chorus of “Yeahs,” and “Okays ” and one “Sure, Sal, you got it.”

I soon found out besides the parking lot across the street, he owned the parking lot under the Manhatttan Bridge, the old vacant stone bank on the corner of Front Street, and a dozen industrial buildings in the neighborhood.

The parking lot across from my building was his base of operations. He once told me that he won the parking lot from former Mayor William O’Dwyer  in a poker game after World War II. He also told me that in Palermo where he was born, the mummies in the catacombs come alive on All Hallows Eve and dance the tarantella in the streets.  His office was a wooden shed with a flat roof right below the bridge. One day he invited me in to show me the view.

The square room had two big windows. He had placed his desk where he could see when he was sitting down the Statue of Liberty out one window and the river flowing under the bridge out the other. Above his desk was the famous Marilyn Monroe calendar next to a picture of Pope Pius II. Sal opened the door that said Gents and showed me a tiny toilet and shower. There were a couple of battered kitchen chairs, a few file cabinets, a big TV on a packing crate and a narrow army cot. The cot was where Sal’s slave slept.

Sal would never have called him a slave. That was my secret name for him. Sal called him Mickey but told me his full name was Michelangelo. He was Sal’s cousin. Sal said he took care of Mickey because Mickey didn’t have all his marbles. Mickey’s job was to sweep the parking lot every morning.  It was always littered with trash; crumpled bags, cigarette butts, beer cans, as well as what we used to call Coney Island whitefish.  At night after the docks closed and Sal went home, it was a famous lover’s lane, notorious all over Brooklyn. I went there once in high school with Ed Zimmer in his father’s turquoise Oldsmobile. In the afternoons, Mickey sat quietly in a beach chair in front of the office leafing through girlie magazines.  When the piers closed at three p.m., Sal went up to Hiram’s Deli on Henry Street and got Mickey a chicken dinner. He made Mickey comfortable inside the office with his dinner and put cartoons on the TV. Then Sal locked the door from the outside and drove away in his black Cadillac Seville.

Twice a week, I worked the lunch shift at Max’s.  I would be just getting home as Sal was leaving. I liked to sit on the stoop and smoke a cigarette before I went upstairs. The first time he saw me smoking on the stoop, Sal immediately stopped the car and got out.

“You look cheap,” he said, like a tart, like a whore. “I’d never let my wife or daughters smoke,” His comments did not discourage me. After that, if he saw me sitting and smoking as he was riding by, he would roll down the window and call out, “Good night, Miss Cancer-stick.”

Suddenly our neighborhood was in the news. Tony Scotto, head of the Brooklyn Longshoreman’s Union, was indicted for tax evasion and fraud.

Down at the Harborview, the atmosphere was glum. To everyone there, Scotto was a saint. “They only go after the good guys,” Babe complained as she handed me my coffee. Sal was sitting at the counter eating scrambled eggs. “He won’t do time. We’ll get him the best Jew lawyer in the city,” Sal said, then he turned to me. “When you get out of college,” he went on, “maybe you’ll be a lawyer. You are a Jew. It’s in your blood. You can work for me. You’ll give me a good deal, because by now you learned that here on the waterfront we take care of our own.” I didn’t mind his comments. I had gotten used to them.  “If I become a lawyer,” I told Sal, “Even if I give you a deal, you won’t be able to afford me.” Sal told me had to go away for a few days.

“You want me to get Mickey food?” I asked. Sal assured me Mickey was taken care of. Friends were watching out for him. “You watch out for yourself,” he admonished, “Don’t set yourself on fire with cigarettes and burn up like one of those slant-eye gooks in the newspapers.”

A week later, I woke up as the first light of day was coming in my window. A man was snoring next to me in bed. His name was Aldo. He was a bartender from work. The night before we had gone to see the movie everyone at Max’s was talking about, Easy Rider. I fell in love with Peter Fonda; I wanted to be Mary, the hooker he met in New Orleans. I had a sudden vision of the final terrifying scene, Captain America’s motorcycle bursting into flame. I shivered, although the room was hot and the sheet below me sticky with sweat. I moved closer to Aldo who was sleeping on his back. He smelled of Jack Daniel’s and steak. I put my arm across his chest. I wanted him to wake up and hold me but he snored on.

I decided to go downstairs to the Harborview and get coffee and bagels.

As I was pulling on some clothes, I glanced out the window.  The buildings across the river were all gold and orange, reflecting the rising sun. There were no cars in the parking lot. The door to Sal’s office was swinging wide open. Mickey had escaped!

I ran down to the Harborview. It was still so early that, besides Babe and Lou, only a couple of longshoremen were in the place. “The door to Sal’s is open.” I cried out,

“Did anyone see Mickey?” Lou and Babe stopped what they were doing, the longshoremen stood up, and we all ran out across the street to the parking lot. In the shack, the T.V. was still on, showing a test pattern, but Mickey was gone.

The longshoremen ran off to Pier One. They were gong to find Blackie Soto, the pier boss and organize a search party. I went upstairs and woke up Aldo. We went looking for Mickey down by the Navy Yard.

When Sal got back a few days later, Mickey was still missing. No one said it out loud, but I bet everyone was thinking what I was, that Mickey had fallen into the river and been carried away by the dangerous currents. Sal had all the truckers and deliverymen in the neighborhood driving around looking for him. They searched for weeks but Mickey was not to be found.

“In the old days, we would have found him right away,” Sal said. “We all knew each other then, but now we got those Africans on Pier Seven, that Spanish outfit over on Pier Five. They don’t even speak American. The Jehovah’s Witnesses in the factory on Pierrepont Street, if they saw him they wouldn’t know who Mickey was. They’d think he was a bum. They wouldn’t know he belonged to me.”

Sal walked around all the time looking very glum. If he saw me smoking on the stoop, he didn’t stop to reproach me, he just drove by. He hired a porter off the docks to sweep around the parking lot.

A few months later, in October, the same day Paul McCartney contacted the newspapers to assure his fans that, contrary to rumor, he wasn’t dead, Mickey returned.    I was looking out the window and saw him walk right into the parking lot with a big grin on his face. He was wearing clean pressed chinos, a nice gray crewneck sweater and new white sneakers. He had gained weight. Sal told me that the first thing he did when Mickey walked in the door was hit him on the side of the head. Then he hit him on the other side of his head. Then he yelled “Where were you?”  Mickey never spoke more then a few words, and in response to Sal’s question, Mickey stuck out his tongue and said, “Birra, birra, birra.”  Sal told me birra means beer in Italian. Sal hit him again and asked again but got the same answer.

Sal and Mickey soon returned to their old routine. Sal was happy once more. He got a big box of cigars and gave them out in the Harborview. No one had a clue as to where Mickey had been. My theory was that a lonely woman had found him and taken him in, but what really happened to Mickey remains a waterfront mystery.

 

Tsaurah Litzky is best known for her erotic fiction and poetry. Her work has appeared in Best American Erotica, Penthouse, New York Times, Jews: A Peoples History of the Lower Side and The Blacklisted Journalist. Her poetry collection, Cleaning The Duck was published by Bowery Books. Tsaurah’s memoir, Flasher was recently acquired by Audible Books.  Sal’s Slave is excerpted from Harborview: True Stories of the Brooklyn Waterfront.