Houston, We Have a Problem

Happy’s Bar and Grill was behind the NYC Criminal Courts at 100 Center St. and its annex, The Tombs; the name given to the NYC Corrections Dept. Detention Facility adjacent to the Courthouse. It’s a little strange to have the words Happy and Tombs in the same sentence and not be referring to an Irish funeral. Happy, most people called him Hap, I think his real name was Howard, was a retired policeman who must have done something right.    He owned a cop bar at one of the two major law enforcement nexuses in the city; Police HQ being one and the other exactly where he was, across the street from the back doors of the Courthouse and City Jail. We’ll come back to Happy’s later.

As the name suggests, the Tombs is not an up place, fairly sinister looking, dark, dark grey granite slabs with sharp right angle edges at every corner, windows that are as see through as the stone slabs with a lattice of thick, black iron bars. The Dept. of Corrections is a misnomer and misleading; if we are talking about being correct, the Dept. of Punishments would be more in line with the reality inside. The Tombs does what it was supposed to do; it emanates prison with the look and feel of a place that once inside, it wouldn’t be so easy to get out. Purgatory would also work as a good nickname as it is the temporary, interim prison where the arrested are held prior to arraignment or longer if after arraignment, now the defendant can’t make bail. Since Justice is blindfolded it may be understandable and beneficial in one respect that the wheels of justice turn ever so slowly. Hopefully it gives some time to get out of the way before being run over, or not. Months and more go by between preliminary hearings and motions until a case is ready for trial or a plea bargain while the defendant, what is the word, languishes in prison. If being locked in a cage for what feels like fucking forever because there is absolutely nothing to do except spend every second awake and asleep on guard, ready to defend yourself against molestation, mayhem and murder because your roomies are bored, then The Tombs are Languish Central, no Get Out of Jail Free Cards accepted here. Too many times at sentencing the Judge wouldn’t need to bang his gavel, only his rubber stamp; Time Served. Imagine if you were innocent. There’s an enclosed bridge/corridor at the 3rd floor between the Courthouse and the Tombs also with a Hell of a name; the Bridge of Sighs whereby prisoners are taken to and from the Courthouse in safety for all. The Tombs, the Bridge of Sighs; doesn’t it sound like The Old Bailey should be around the corner? Names that Dickens, maybe Poe would feel comfortable with.

And even so, a more up to date time frame is needed, it’s August 1970. I was 15 years old, going to be 16 in a month, but I looked older. I was a very stocky, overweight and muscular 5’10” with big mutton chop sideburns, as was the style of the times, I never got carded in my life. I had  a summer job as a clerk, goffer for Legal Aid at the King’s County Criminal Courts at 120 Schermerhorn St. in Brooklyn; what a great old Dutch name! This org provides the counsel the Miranda warnings specify when arrested; …You have the Right to Counsel, if you cannot afford a lawyer, the Court will appoint… the Legal Aid Society. In 1970, for my second summer with Legal Aid, and with all due respect and affection for Brooklyn; I moved to the Big Leagues, Manhattan, the City. How fortunate I was for this exposure, this experience! As a clerk for Legal Aid at 100 Center St., I worked with the Court clerks to set up the Docket Calendar, those cases to be heard by the Judge and became a regular visitor in the back-offices of the Courts and at Happy’s Bar. I would go to Happy’s mostly looking for the Legal Aid lawyers who were due back in Court, sometimes for my brother who was an up and coming criminal lawyer. Once or twice I was able to have his client’s case moved up on the Docket Calendar and be heard quickly. Every minute less inside benefits the client and the reputation of the lawyer. After all, he got me the job in the first place and what are brothers for…

The tenth of August 1970 is a landmark date in Tombs history, the first major riot of inmates at a city jail. Hostages were taken and held for a while, windows were smashed out, fires were set here and there, general vandalism, nobody was hurt badly, it lasted for a good few hours and opened the road upstate to Attica the following year.

Things don’t just start by themselves. Science and medicine and the Church in the middle ages proposed the idea of spontaneous generation, out of nowhere there were maggots in meat and if God did it in the beginning it must still be happening. Today we have microscopes, we can see the tiniest little spores and bugs laying their eggs and the little motherfucker germs  and microbes, so we know it’s not spontaneous generation. On the other hand, other than our acknowledgement re the existence we share, we really still don’t know jack about the original spontaneous generation. What was the fuel of the Big Bang? Where did it come from and what were the storage conditions? How many kilos were needed? Assuming the quote is close to accurate, God said; Let There Be Light, as He lit the fuse to the Big Bang? Not relevant here, for our purposes, no spontaneous generation. The riot in the Tombs didn’t just start, it was instigated and incited by the Legal Aid Society. They didn’t want or mean to, it wasn’t supposed to be a riot, it was supposed to be a J’accuse moment.

The Legal Aid Society had decided to sue the NYC Dept. of Corrections and its parent org,    the NY State Dept. of Corrections in Federal Court claiming that the conditions of incarceration at the Tombs constituted a violation of the 8th Amendment which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment of prisoners, especially pretrial detainees where there is still a presumption of innocence. It was supposed to be a surprise, Shhh… a big PR media event, the authorities weren’t supposed to know until the bomb was dropped. During all of July, the clerks and interns working at Legal Aid who were all, except for me, Conscientious Objectors to the war in Vietnam were in and out of the Tombs interviewing and taking depositions from the Tombs population. The CO’s had been given a choice, if no military service, then either jail or community service; with Legal Aid, they got both. And how many people are in a 6 person cell, 15. And the food is scarce and spoiled. And the guards are too outnumbered and scared to come out of their enclosures or just as vicious, and so on. The hours and hours of questions and horror story answers made great fuel and stoked the inmates’ anger and frustration, many Corrections Officers anonymously gave testimony as well. The interviews ended by the beginning of August and Legal Aid then employed dozens of temps, anybody with two fingers, to transcribe and type the hundreds of depositions in support of the lawsuit. The lawyers in the office, feeling very Constitutional and ACLUish were writing the brief to be presented at Federal Court but the inmates pulled the rug out from under because they couldn’t delay gratification. All of the violations and demands that were listed in the brief were aired first by the rioters. The lawsuit got filed a month after the riot, only 200% anticlimactic. It was supposed to raise a media stink, but it was as dry as a popcorn fart. Constitutionally, the Federal Judge agreed with Legal Aid and ordered the Corrections Depts. to make the necessary changes at the Tombs. A large percentage of the overcrowding, abuse and violence was simply bussed to other fun spots like Riker’s Island and Attica, undressing Peter to dress Paul, stripping them both actually.

I was in the Supreme Court Clerk’s Office on the 10th floor of the Courthouse, across the well between the Courthouse and the Tombs, above the Bridge of Sighs when the shit hit the fan. The riot was on the 9th floor of the jail and from the windows of the Clerk’s Office you could see and hear the thing happening in real time. The jail windows were comprised of very thick opaque cubes of glass held together by iron bars that were being smashed out and ejected down into the well with the aid of what looked like the end of a pipe. The iron bars were being attacked without much effect except for a lot of noise reverberating and echoing between the two buildings. With a few windows broken we could hear the smashing noises, the calls, whistles and screaming from inside, and I became very, very glad that I was on this side of the gap. And then, a Captain of the Court Officers raised his arm and his voice asking  for everyone’s attention and said the following to the people in the Clerk’s Office; for me personally, the first of two completely in my opinion, surrealistic things I heard within a matter of 2 days that August. He said that all those with weapons were to come forward to the windows overlooking the 9th floor; and take up positions; more than one or two armed Court Officers and others went around and over the counter to the windows. I thought, are you insane? Why think of such a thing? The rioters have no weapons. What the fuck can the rioters do besides make noise, they pose no threat to anyone on the outside from the 9th floor. It was impossible to see what was happening there because of the angle between the floors and most of the opaque windows were still intact. What the fuck would shooting at the window do? Keep them pinned down? Yow, Kent State here we come. I had no desire to see how things degraded and I was very glad to get the hell out of there. I went downstairs to the Legal Aid offices to find everyone pretty shit faced with the realization that the riot completely stole the thunder from the lawsuit. And again Shhh… this time for a different reason, the preparation for the suit was the catalyst for the riot. Shhh… Only afterwards did Legal Aid realize the bellows effect they produced and the can of Pandora’s worms they set free.

Happy’s Bar was on the street at one end of a big City park that was across from and as long  as the Courthouse and Tombs. The park was well equipped and well-kept with courts for handball, basketball, playgrounds for smaller kids with swings and seesaws and benches        for the old people. The other side of the park was Chinatown. The street was lined with 3 and 4 story tenements with the street level of each building being Chinese restaurants, pizza parlors, sandwich shops, groceries and Funeral Homes. The food shops catered to the hundreds, if not thousands of civil servants of all kinds and those compelled to appear in the building across the park. The Funeral Homes were there because Chinese people die and the street was one of the neighborhood’s peripheries. With the park on one side there were many less neighbors, it was wide enough for the funeral procession carrying the coffin to approach  the hearse and the other Cadillacs that followed the hearse, many Chinatown streets are not;    and from here it was easy to start the drive out of the area to the cemetery.

Walter’s Deli was on the street and he and his wife made outrageously delicious stuffed heroes, with cold cuts, salads, cheeses veal cutlet parmigiana, meat balls and sausages with onions and peppers, etc… good NY Italian. However Walter’s best sandwich by far was his Chinese Funeral Roast Beef covered in salt and black pepper, tomatoes, mayo, in a hard Italian hero. That’s what it was called, Chinese Funeral Roast Beef, apparently one of the staple dishes at Chinese wakes. The slice of roast beef was a foot in diameter, the first inch at the outer circumference was browned, crispy and juicy. Then the pink started; a big center medallion so rare and pink Liberace and Shirley Temple would have been at home. Walter and his wife were Chinese, and without saying a word about it, I understood when I was standing on the line in the Deli to order my 100% non-kosher sandwich, whatever it would be, that there were all kinds of immigrant stories from all kinds of places. I remember well feeling grateful to my family, refugees one and all that stopped moving for a while and made NY my birthplace and home,  and I was glad for Walter as well. I didn’t know his or his wife’s stories, but did it really matter? Everybody is different and really the same. I was sure that Walter’s kids would be straight A students. Mrs. Walter was a stunner and she knew it. Walter’s sandwiches were great, the word of mouth advertising which for food has no equal, double and triple entendre; was very effective. No doubt also a percentage of the guys on line also came more often than not for the view. She looked like the art on the fake Ming vase or one of the porcelain dolls in the windows of the Chinatown curio shops. She was also clearly very much an American woman at home, enjoying the prosperity they worked so hard for. Hair, make-up, jewelry as if she had on an evening gown and not an apron with a Boar’s Head printed on the front.

Happy’s everyday clientele consisted of police, court officers, correction officers, bail bondsmen, lawyers, the families of those recently incarcerated meeting with the bail bondsman and the lawyer, a few older Chinese men, a few older Italian men and others. Even on a sunny day the place was pretty dark inside, only the first few feet at the front of the bar near the front door and window, could you really see anything; and that’s where the machinery and electronics of the day were situated. Above the door was a b/w television on a shelf, maybe 16”. The bar was along the right side wall as you came in and Hap was behind the register at the corner of the bar closest to the front door; the other way to look at it is that you couldn’t leave without passing Hap at the till. To the left of the front door along the wall stood a cigarette machine and there were 3, 4 tables along the wall opposite the bar. Heading to the back another 4, 5 tables, kitchen, bathrooms, nothing special, a bar. Had an OK smell though; the old wood, the beer and alcohol food and smoke came together well, it wasn’t rank. I enjoyed ‘skirting the law’ at the bar with all the law around me, but I never really jammed up Happy; I didn’t drink alcohol or beer yet, once a week on Friday night I had a sip of sweet wine. Many patrons from law enforcement and from both sides and middle of the judiciary had liquid lunches and then went back into Court, just great. When at the bar I would get a soda and some pretzels or potato chips.

It was the day after the riot at the Tombs. There was still a buzz in the air; a lot of extra police, mounted as well, a lot of civilian protesters, mostly the families of those inside wanting to know something, and TV news vans from every station in the tri state area. When the riot started yesterday all the cases and proceedings were adjourned and the Courtrooms were locked until the all clear was given. Today, in spite of the to-do on the street outside the Courthouse, The Courts were open, justice was back in business. I was in Happy’s before lunch time because I had nothing to do. The paperwork for the day was done as most of the day’s cases were holdovers from yesterday. Talking about the riot with the Court clerks was getting boring and it was too depressing and noisy to be in the Legal Aid offices. The typists were still banging away at the keys and the lawyers not succeeding in hiding their self-pity kept working on the brief but with much less enthusiasm and even started to complain and condescend about the ingratitude of the inmates. Too bad they couldn’t take their colored pencils and go home. It was too early to eat and too hot to be outside. There were a few people at the far end of the bar, Happy was with them, and a few elderly Chinese men at one of the tables. I sat at the table closest to the front door mostly to be able to see and hear the TV that was above the door. The TV was usually on when there was an afternoon game being played, today it was on early when I sat down at the table because of all the News crews running around just down the block. Happy wanted to see if anyone he knew was going to be on TV and was no doubt correctly counting on a larger than normal lunch crowd, bolstered by the hordes of media personnel and the extra police. In between the News Flashes which began Live Updates from the Tombs, and nobody laughed; there was a program on TV about the Apollo Missions to the moon primarily 11 and 12, the first and second successful landings during the past year. The program showed the films shot by the astronauts of the lunar landscapes and of them hopping around the moon in their white spacesuits looking like something between the Pillsbury doughboy and an albino Michelin Man. The volume on the TV was low and it was difficult to hear what was being said, but it was clear when the documentary got to Apollo 13. No hopping, no landscapes, almost no pix of the astronauts; one or two pictures of the moon and many pictures of the earth from space. They kept one full face picture of the earth, continents, oceans, clouds and all on the screen, there were no other pictures to show, until the program was interrupted for commercials and another report, Live from the Tombs, how dumb.

And that’s when it got surrealistic at Happy’s Bar and Grill, it started out normal but I guess you never know which way things will go and what people will say. Happy came forward to watch the News, and when it was over he returned to the back. The Court Officer came into the bar, stopped, waited, looked around and when no one approached him he went to the back and asked Happy to change a one dollar bill to 4 quarters so he could buy cigarettes from the machine in the bar. Happy came to the register, opened the cash drawer, took the Court Officer’s dollar bill, put it in the drawer, closed it, gave him the coins and walked back to his conversation at the other end of the bar. Hap was always very deliberate and methodical when it came to money. The Court Officer went to the cigarette machine and I looked up to see the earth on TV again, the documentary was continuing. I had a swallow and a half of soda left and was going to make my move when the Court Officer turned his attention away from the cigarette machine back to Hap and called out to him; the machine isn’t working, it took my money and it didn’t give me the pack and it is not returning the money. The Court Officer waited a second or two for a response that didn’t come and said again as he walked towards Hap; the machine took my money, didn’t give me the cigarettes and it is not returning the money. Hap had to respond with something and said, then your brand is out, choose another. The Court Officer remained polite and calm and said; it has nothing to do with brand. The machine doesn’t show that my brand is out. I put the money in, the 4 quarters you gave me, pushed the button for my brand and nothing. Pushed for another brand and nothing, and I didn’t get my money back when I pushed the Change Return button. Hap said rather lamely; what do you want from me? To which the Court Officer answered immediately, you can give me my money back. I don’t think refund ever made it into Hap’s lexicon. Hap said; I didn’t take your money. You see the phone number in the corner of the machine with the name of the company, you see the phone booth in the back, call and tell them. The Court Officer didn’t budge and said; look I have to get back to Court, I don’t have time for this. You’ll see the guy from the company when he comes to fix the machine and refill it; give me my money now and take it back when the guy opens the machine. Hap didn’t exactly budge a lot either and didn’t look like his name  at the moment. In fact, Hap looked quite pissed, but the Court Officer, wasn’t backing down. He was probably in his late 20’s, early 30’s a fire plug, short, stocky with a big head of curly black hair. To his credit he never lost his cool, even when Hap was getting red in the face. This is all going on a few feet away from where I was sitting, Hap was behind the bar and the Court Officer was near the front door and cigarette machine, he said it before and you could see that he was anxious to leave. From Hap’s lack of response, I understood that he was just going to wait him out; the Court Officer would have to get back to his duties. He was standing there without moving and looking at Hap he said; this is your place and your responsible for what happens here, give me the dollar and let me be on my way, but he didn’t leave, he stood in the doorway waiting.

I am a NY Jew. NYC is a very Jewish place, but it is still America, and America is goyish, bigoted and racist. The stereotypes and stigma make life easy and understandable and the lines are clearly drawn. The Jews are the defense lawyers, when one inmate says to another inmate; get a Goldberg, it means legal representation. The Christians are the prosecutors. There are Jews ‘on the job’, the term for police officers in NYC, but still the overwhelming majority are goyim; Irish, Italian and everything else. Likewise, the overwhelming majority  of inmates are black and Hispanic. Of course there are the exceptions that make the rule,  black police and Judges and Jewish junkies, but not enough to upset the statistic. I learned early on from my Holocaust survivor family and growing up even in the very Jewish enclaves of NY that to a large extent the goyim can’t help it, the antisemitism comes with their mother’s milk. But I didn’t understand how important the pecking order was; how being anti black, anti Puerto Rican, anti somebody puts order in the universe of the xenophobic until Hap asked his question and at least for me, opened the door to jaw dropping amazement.

I guess Hap realized that this guy was not such an easy nut to crack. He looked at the Court Officer and in a condescending tone asked him; where are you from? The Court Officer was taken aback, I was too, by the question, and said one word in a tone clearly indicating that he didn’t understand the question; What? Hap asked him again; where do you come from? The Court Officer innocently responded; my parents are from France. And before he could say any more, Hap used the well known retort; well why don’t you go back to where you came from! Wow, this was a first! To ask someone where they came from so you could send them back was new to me. Are you allowed to do that? It’s either very polite under the circumstances or incredibly stupid. What does it matter from where or what the return address is, as long as it’s not here. But there was still an interesting difference between Jews and goyim. Goyim to goyim, go back to where you came from; it’s transfer or exile, but at least you’re alive; with goyim to Jews it’s a bit more final solutionish; Hitler should have finished the job. I remembered the Captain of the Court Officers yesterday and thought could there be a gas in the area that makes people say surrealistic, crazy shit? Naturally coming out of the ground, or was it a Communist attack?

What made Hap’s line and the scene so completely insane was that when he said it, the TV above the Court Officer’s head showed the image of the earth from space, a solitary ball of reflected light suspended in an endless blackness. I thought, OK, I give up you fucking moron, where did he come from? Don’t you see the same picture that I do? Does anybody come from someplace else? I think as long as we keep telling each other; why don’t you go back to where you came from, the beings that are really from someplace further away will continue to avoid us like the nasty little microbes that we are sometimes. The picture of the earth was replaced with the film of the Apollo 13 splashdown and opening the hatch on 3 guys who never thought they’d live to see the hatch opened.

Again to his credit, the Court Officer didn’t lose his composure and answered Hap; when you give me my money back, I’ll be glad to leave. It became clear that he wasn’t going to move without his dollar and Hap’s lunch time crowd was starting to show up. Hap saw that he had  no choice with this guy, turned around to the register, opened the cash drawer and took a dollar out which he put on the bar, closed the cash drawer and walked to the back. The Court Officer took the bill and didn’t say thanks, but said out loud so Hap could hear him in the back; you should put an Out of Order sign on the machine, and he left the bar. Touché, the French influence I guess.

One of the things you learn growing up in NY, in the Criminal Courts is to mind your own business, and not even by accident overhear the business of others. Of course not to the point of not helping someone in need, but you better be damn sure the situation really warrants involvement. An equally important lesson is to keep your mouth shut. The Constitution is good enough to give us a heads-up with the 5th. In the corridors of 100 Center St., the adage is; even a fish doesn’t get into trouble if it keeps its mouth closed. Good advice not only when you’re under arrest, but in life. I witnessed the scene and heard the dialogue and never said a word for a whole bunch of reasons. A 15 year old in a bar is totally vulnerable; low profile is a must. The Court Officer didn’t need my help and there was no point in antagonizing Hap any further; he got his.

I paid for my drink when I got it so I didn’t have to see Hap at the register. I waited for about another minute, finished my soda and left the bar. I don’t remember for sure but I probably didn’t spend any more time at Happy’s that summer. These two days had a profound effect on me. I realized that my karma brought me a beautiful, poetic 5 kilo hammer to the head completely clear lesson as to the illegitimacy and ignorance of racism, bigotry, etc… Since that time I tried to have sex with black and Hispanic and even Jewish women without regard to race. It’s a slippery slope from stereotype to stigma to prejudice. Walter’s kids will be straight A students because they’re Asian and not Bsian, and Jews are liberal leftists in the hopes that the goyim will take our money and pick on somebody else. We are conditioned by our own to fear, to feel threatened by another because they are colored differently, smarter or dumber, or just less or more of them. The best defense is an offense; so let’s see who can be more offensive first. Let’s face it, tall people look down on short people, and short people think they are French emperors. The Tombs were the Tombs because nobody gave a shit, and nobody gave a shit because it was a building full of blacks.  And you can still do pretty much anything to a schwartze, ask the police.

I spent more or less the next 10 years working for my brother’s firm as a law clerk and legal investigator and I would often pass by Happy’s on my way to Chinatown or to Walter’s. Once or twice I went inside to look for someone or to use the phone. Not much changed, except the TV became colorful and there was now a slightly stale smell at Happy’s Bar and Grill.

About the Author
I was born in NYC in 1954 to a Holocaust Survivor family. I grew up Brooklyn, and was a Yeshivah boy and a member of Betar, I made aliyah on my own at the end of 1979 and have had many positions in IL Jewelry salesman, photographer, police officer, tour guide, and others... I established a medical start-up based on my own invention and made a successful exit. I'm married with 2 kids, a daughter and a son.
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