The odor is an eye-gouging, throat-punching combination of sour milk served over steamed shit, with a dab of honey. Like the killing fields of Gettysburg in 1863, scorched into an indelible stench.
“This is atrocious, Leo,” I bellow through the deafening grind of the gigantic truck’s engine. “Can’t you smell it?” I’m kneeling in a puddle of something brown and viscous, trying and failing to latch a chain onto a brimming green dumpster.
“Smells like work,” Leo says from high up in the driver’s seat, where he’s making notes in his ledger. “Smells like a paycheck.”
It is one a.m. We have ten hours and thirty stops to go. “A piece of cake,” Leo declares. Urinal cake, I determine silently.
I’m out here on a sweltering summer night helping my friend Leo, owner of Kings Kounty Karting, a one-truck waste removal concern that trolls the outer fringes of northwestern Brooklyn. His regular “jumper” failed to show up tonight so Leo called me for assistance. I readily accepted. As a former tenured Ivy League history professor – and current part-time history lecturer at the local community college – I’m now very open to making a few extra dollars. Toss in some free coffee and a scone, and it’s, as Leo might say, “a score.”
When Leo launched the business a few months ago after completing his rehab stint, I had pointed out that the KKK acronym could be off-putting to some. He parried this charge. “It’s a catchy name that’ll stick in people’s heads,” he said. “Anybody who’s…putted off…is somebody who’s looking to gripe, someone who needs to mind his own fucking business and let me do mine.” Not exactly The Federalists Papers, but clear and compelling just the same.
Leo’s global headquarters comprise a battered garage and a cinderblock office alongside the East River, surrounded by auto salvage yards and scrap metal purveyors. Rats and junkies abound, but he keeps it surprisingly tidy. From this austere command post he plans his days, plots his conquests and pursues his opportunities to create an empire: Julius Caesar in a double-wide toga with a surfeit of hair gel.
Although we were raised an ocean and multiple tax brackets apart, Leo and I have founded a friendship based on our failings. I met him last year at a support group meeting in an East Village church basement. Leo was there for selling and then abusing certain Schedule I drugs, primarily horse. I was there for wagering poorly but nonetheless relentlessly on sports, primarily horses. Leo lost 30 months of freedom and a finger. (It’s a grotesque but not unamusing tale involving a potato peeler and a pair of crude Albanians; Leo tells it best.) I lost my position at Princeton, every last one of my alleged friends from my alma mater, Oxford – yes, that Oxford – and essentially all of my worldly possessions. Bitter? Yes. Reeking of slop on a stifling night in Greenpoint yet somehow grateful? Also, yes.
We rumble through the route energetically if not efficiently: me sliding across greasy dumpsters and grappling with slippery cables like a palsied pirate, Leo pulling and pushing the levers on the side of the truck like a maestro. The process is borderline bawdy. The hydraulics moan into action, teasing the thick cords in a slow seduction until they strain in taut anticipation. The overflowing container hovers over the truck’s belly, on edge, quivering, before convulsing into a guttural, unstoppable crashing wave. And then it’s suddenly empty, silent, sated. I have a strange urge to smoke a cigarette.
After a particularly harrowing stop behind a vegan Indian restaurant – rancid chana tikki is even more pungent than the fresh offering – I inquire about Leo’s girlfriend, Olga.
“One, she is not my girlfriend,” he says with the clipped precision of a Luftwaffe colonel. “Two, she was over last night because she called me. And three, she is not my girlfriend.”
“I thought she was mad about you?”
“She wants to get married, which I can’t do right now on account of the business and this and that.” He rolls the radio dial until he finds Sonja Suarez’ Sizzling Seventies on WQHT. Leo adores his Bee Gees and Gloria Gaynor. “I told it to her straight, said she should move on. But she still likes to get together, sideways, so we do.”
At least he’s being sincere with the girl. Honesty is Leo’s new mantra since his time in prison and in counseling and on a rehabilitation farm in Kentucky – surely the three darkest circles of Dante’s Inferno. He has returned to the place he knows, determined to make a new start with seemingly little desire to be on anything but the up and up.
At four a.m. Leo stops with a jolt outside a 99-cents store on Humboldt Street.
“Throw those boxes in the back,” he barks, arm extended across my chest, pointing at a massive pile of cardboard stacked on the curb.
“Cardboard? Are you authorized for that?”
“It’s all right, everybody does it,” Leo confirms, head on a swivel, surveying the surroundings. “Move.” He’s General Patton rolling into Bastogne in ’45, claiming victory in the Battle of Illicit Recycling Credits.
I push my heavy door open and leap out to the asphalt far below. My ankles are still stinging as I dismantle the towering paper pyramid and heave the detritus into the truck. Leo later tells me that “biting” on cardboard routes and collecting the cash is common in the trade. How common, I ask. He shrugs. I suspect relatively common is a fair assessment, as in, perhaps you can do it to a relative, but anyone else will take a crowbar to your truck.
We roll on.
I peer out my window at a twenty-something on a bicycle wearing what looks like a punch bowl strapped to his head. His pant legs are rubber-banded tightly around his ankles, his red Chuck Taylors are glued to the pedals. Leo sees him, too.
“That’s one of the new people,” he says with a smirk. “Now we got rich kids living on Morgan Avenue, four to a room.”
“It’s Bohemian, Leo.” I watch the cyclist toss the bike over his shoulder and disappear into a dark, mournful hallway. “It’s about community.”
“Sure thing. If their parents feel like sending that old Connecticut money down here, we know what to do with it, get it moving around.”
“I think Adam Smith would agree.”
“Does he live in Connecticut?”
“Scotland. He’s dead.”
“They drink too much.”
We stop at a bodega for coffee and I mention some news about a mutual acquaintance. “Jimmy is moving to Miami,” I say, oddly proud of this inside knowledge. “He believes there’s a fortune to be made in Florida.”
“Florida? That chooch wouldn’t know Florida if you shoved an orange up his ass.” Leo is bemused. “I hear he’s jammed up with some Dominicans over a bad blow deal. And as for his fortune, he still owes me fifty bucks since…jeez, since at least two haircuts ago,” he says, stroking a perfect sideburn for confirmation. “Stay away from him.”
I change the subject, opting not to inform Leo that the chooch helping him presently loaned Jimmy a bit more than fifty bucks for the purported commercial endeavor in Florida. I am an ignorant, ignorant man with many, many degrees.
Dawn seeps over the Kosciuszko Bridge and I notice the bruising on his knuckles.
“Did you do that tonight?” I ask, nodding at the enormous fist resting on the stick shift. Leo can undoubtedly palm a frozen basketball.
“Few days ago.” Leo flexes his fingers, opens then closes his mouth. He glances at me, then up at the rearview mirror.
“What happened?” I ask, not knowing if I’m prepared for the answer.
“I was on a fifteen-hour shift,” he says, feigning boredom but obviously relishing this next topic. “I’m finally done and it’s six in the morning and I’m blasting Donna Summer all the way home so I can keep my eyes open. I park across the street from the deli, over on Graham, and I pick up the paper and a bagel. As usual, the paper’s wet and the bagel’s dry, whatever. So, I’m getting back in the truck, and this fucking van comes flying down the street. It cuts across both lanes and just misses me by maybe half a foot. And then guess what? This prick slows down and stops at the red light on the corner. All of a sudden James Bond decides he wants to pass his fucking road test.”
Leo is agitated. He pulls over to finish the story.
“So I walk over to the van and what’s inside? Some shit-faced mamaluke who can’t see straight. He’s rocking back and forth with both hands gripping the steering wheel like it’s the last piece of braciole. I knock on the window and he turns his head like an owl and he’s just looking at me. I knock again, nothing. So I hold up a five dollar bill, right up against the glass. That got speedy’s attention. He rolls down the window and boom, I whacked him three times. Bam, bam, bam. I knocked him over into the passenger seat. Anyways, I drop the five spot in the car and I tell him, I says, ‘It’s dangerous to drink and drive, douchebag. You should wear your seatbelt.’”
He puts the truck in gear and we move along.
I consider this tale and decide it presents a teachable moment – a strategic blunder I soon realize, almost on par with Napoleon’s ill-conceived invasion of Russia in 1812.
“Well, you were right to be enraged,” I say. “A misanthrope like that puts everyone at risk. But, have you heard of the Golden Rule?”
“I heard of it,” Leo says, easing to a stop at our next pick-up, a Chinese meat market. “Treat others like you expect to be treated.”
“Precisely. So, that chap in the van, even though he’s wrong—”
“He’s driving like a jadrool and should expect to be treated like one,” he says with confidence. “There it is, the Golden Rule.”
I flinch. “Yes. Well, no.”
“Listen, if I look at your girlfriend like I want to bend her over, I expect you to kick my ass. If I don’t pay my debts, I know what’s coming. All I did was give that guy what he would have given me. You get what you deserve, you get the Golden Rule.” He adds with a chuckle, “I can’t make it any simpler for you, professor.” And just like that, the 3,000-year-old ethic of reciprocity is hacked. Socrates and Plato talking trash.
“Now zip up those overalls nice and tight,” Leo says, back in business mode. “This Chinaman uses every inch of that container. It’s like a zoo in a blender in that box.” And it truly is.
We complete our final stop just before noon. Leo checks his watch and grunts. “We need to meet Kaufmann at the coffee shop in ten minutes,” he says, zooming through a yellow light and tucking the truck through a tight right turn.
“Kaufmann who?” I ask, gripping my door handle like a paratrooper dropping in low over Normandy.
“I’m meeting Kaufmann the rabbi about maybe doing some carting for his son’s business.” He wrenches the transmission into another gear and we carom into a jaw-clenching, left-right combo onto McGuinness Boulevard. Introducing the new Twenty-Ton Porsche – from zero to forty in fuck you and get out of the way.
“You didn’t mention a sales call.”
“It’s just a quick sit-down,” Leo says, backing the monstrous truck into a tiny spot with the precision of a circus elephant. He doesn’t even need to use his mirrors.
Before we enter the diner he runs a comb through his hair and checks his manicured nails. He’s quite serious about these corporeal details. Leo keeps it clean and classy, with a cannoli on the side. He greets the waitress with a peck on the cheek and we make our way to a booth in the back, where Rabbi Kaufmann is waiting, legs crossed, reading The New York Times.
“Hello, rabbi, I’m Leo. This is my friend who’s helping me out today.”
“Good morning, Leo,” the rabbi says. And then to me, “Nice to meet you, friend and helper of Leo.”
I nod and shake my fellow teacher’s hand.
Leo, the rabbi and I order coffee. We toy with our forks and napkins waiting for someone to say something relevant. It’s Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin at Yalta discussing the new world order, but with fewer maps and more coleslaw.
“Thanks for taking the time to meet with me,” Leo says.
“You know Gary, Gary knows David, and David’s my son, so I’m here. But I’m not sure there’s any work for you at the moment.”
Leo tilts his head slightly and folds his hands on the dull green table. “What’s the matter, rabbi? I’m getting a bad vibe, like you’re uncomfortable.”
This type of brazen gambit would typically make me cringe, but I’m too exhausted for embarrassment. I just glance out the window, wondering and then remembering how one goes from a posh office overlooking Princeton University Chapel to a ramshackle diner under the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.
The rabbi frowns. “I appreciate your frankness, Leo, and yes, I’m a bit reluctant. It’s just that…I’m not…” The rabbi adjusts his glasses, refolds his newspaper. “I’m worried about doing business with organized crime.”
Leo takes a deep breath and nods slowly.
“Rabbi, I hear you,” he says. “But believe me when I say that, if anything, I specialize in completely disorganized crime.”
The rabbi blinks a few times and then his face blossoms into a broad grin. I laugh too. Leo plays it straight for a few beats before succumbing to the merriment. Before long he’s expounding on his colorful background and his new approach toward business, life and everything in between. He even mentions the Jewish girl he used to date who was “a real looker, but a little too pushy.” The rabbi sighs and says, yes, yes, he understands about the pushy.
I watch them shake hands and as they make their way toward the door, side by side, I’m reminded of Thomas Jefferson’s letter to John Adams. “I like the dreams of the future,” he wrote, “better than the history of the past.”
Image – Pixabay.com