SHABBAS STARKER by Peter Nolan Smith

New York in the 70s was a tough place. Tough guys were a dime a dozen. Killers cost a lot more.

Nowadays some guys think they are tough.

Few of them are.

Four years ago Richie Boy, his father Manny and I went to Sofia’s on West 48th Street for an after-work drink.

Sitting at the bar was Lil Joe; 6-3 and 300 pounds plus. He had left several jade pieces on consignment at our store. No one had looked at them yet.

We waved for him to join us for a beer. He plodded over with his cashmere coat over his muscular arm. I could have used it as a tent.

“He’s good for a laugh.” Richie Boy liked a good story and Lil’ Joe told of his diving venture on the East River.

“I have access to a shipwreck in the East River.”

“The General Slocum?” That excursion liner exploded in 1904 with 1300 souls on board. 1100 perished in the accident, which had been New York’s greatest disaster until 9/11.

“No.” Lil Joe shook his elephantine head. “It’s a British ship from the Revolutionary War.”

“What you got off it so far?” Richie Boy was hoping for gold coins. Doubloons were popular with his hedge funder clientele.

“Just some broken plates. It’s not easy diving the site.”

“Why not?” Manny had swum in the East River as a kid. He came from Brownsville.

“Because the wreck is located in Hell’s Gate and they called it that, because the East River and Harlem River meet the Long Island Sound and unlike many confluences which have smooth bottoms, Hell’s Gate has jagged rocks on the bottom. Hundreds” Big Joe sounded like an expers. “Visibility is sometimes less than zero and the current runs at 13 knots. We’re lucky to get twenty minutes of diving at slack tide.”

“Treacherous waters.” I had seen the rip tides tear through those straits.

We drank a few beers and Lil Joe told a few more war stories about diamond purchases in Tanzania. Each entailed more danger than most people liked to experience other than at the movies.

“Is Lil Joe bullshit?” asked Richie Boy, when the big man went to the washroom.

“All stories are true, if interesting.”

A few more beers were consumed and it was time to head home, because happy hour is my new midnight.

I got Manny his coat. The old man has lost some freedom of movement. Lil Joe slid off his stool.

“I’ll help you.”

“Piss off,” snarled Manny. He didn’t need any help from a stranger.

“I could be your bodyguard,” Lil Joe offered with a smile.

“The day I need a bodyguard is the day you can throw dirt on my grave.” Manny pointed to me. “Besides I have the shabbas starker with me.”

“Shabbas starker?” Lil Joe wasn’t fluent in Yiddish.

“Shabbas means ‘the holy day’ and ‘starker’ means tough guy,” I explained Manny’s reworking of ‘shabbas goy’.

“You tough?” scoffed Lil Joe. He was twenty years younger and had me by a good 120 pounds.

“He was known as Maddog on his good days.” Richie Boy had witnessed my performance at various after-hour nightclubs.

“I’m quiet now, but manny is a true starker straight out of Brownsville.”

“Never ran never will.” Manny had lived the motto most every day of his life.

“And Manny doesn’t need a bodyguard. He could take you right now by himself and wipe that smirk off your face. Two years ago Manny was playing tennis with a friend. After the game they stopped at a bar. He looked down the bar and sees this guy who took 50K from him on a memo. Manny excuses himself from his friend and took out his racket. The gonif sees Manny and tries to run, but Manny swacks him the kopf with the tennis racket.”

“My best serve of the year,” Manny added with a smile.

“Manny swats him a few more times for a good measure> Everyone in the bar is horrified, except his friend, who drinks like this is nothing new, and manny lifts the gonif to his feet, saying, “Everyone remain calm. I’m making a citizen’s arrest. Call 911.”

“A stupid move, because we go back to the gonif’s apartment and he has all my jewelry. The police confiscate it all as evidence.” It took me two years to get it back from the thieves.”

“So Manny doesn’t need me or you.” I poked Big Joe in the chest.

At 61 I was a shadow of that Maddog, although the last year at the steel mill had tightened my muscles.

“Well, my family is from the Bronx,” Lil Joe mentioned a Mafia gang.

“But they’re not here and Maddog is.” Manny let me help him on with his coat.

“Sorry, Lil Joe, but a starker is a starker and you go to the grave with that rep,” I had to tell him the truth, for amongst starkers no one tells their own tales.

Richie Boy paid the bill and we got his father a taxi.

“You might think you’re tough, but I was tough when tough meant something.” Manny wasn’t leaving without a barb.

“And that’s true.” There’s nothing wrong with letting an old starker having the last word.

After watching the old man disappear into traffic, his son asked, “You think you could take Lil Joe?”

“He’s veakling.You know I don’t fight fair. Same as your old man.”

“Some things never change.”

“What about another beer?”

“Downtown.”

“Where else?”

He caught a cab to Balthazar.

No one cared about tough guys there.

Starkers neither.

ps we don’t turn off lights on Shabbas and we are peaceful as long as everyone else is.

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