Back in the day, you needed to attain
the ripe old age of sixteen before you could get working papers in New York
State. It was a rite of passage for teenage boys, followed two years later by a
visit to the local Draft Board on their eighteenth birthdays to register for
the draft and be given a draft card.
You couldnt get a decently paying
job without working papers and you couldnt get into a bar without your
draft card. Both were tangible markers on the road to becoming a man.
But for sixteen-year-olds who lived in
Brooklyn, there was an additional hurdle to getting working papers. Those of
you who are as old as I am will still remember the sadistic Chinese doctor at
the Board of Health. Supposedly checking for hernias, he would request that you
drop your trousers. Then, he would place his fingers on your
So far, so good. But we all knew what
was coming next. He would order you to cough, while he would squeeze too hard.
Or maybe he didnt. But everyone seemed to remember that he did. So here I
am, many decades later, still traumatized by the experience. But it was just a
waystation on the road to manhood.
As a child, Murray Dinnerstein, aka the
Big D, who showed early promise of a lifetime of obesity, was a regular in a
candy store just down the block from his apartment house. It was his primary
supplier of comic books, candy bars, ice cream cones, and other essential
staples. But he was unaware that this experience was grooming him for much
When he returned home from the Board of
Health, now wondering if the Chinese doctor had done permanent damage to his
future sex life, his parents had a surprise for him. After he had blown out the
candles on his birthday cake, his mother confided that his dad had a few words
But before telling you what those words
were, I would be remiss to not report an obscure incident when Murray came home
from school one afternoon and announced to his mother that he had gotten a part
in a school play.
Thats wonderful! Whats
Im a Jewish
A Jewish husband! They
couldnt give you a speaking part?
So now, Murrays dad got to recite
the two lines he had been allotted. Mr. Saperstein has a job for you. Be
at the store tomorrow at noon.
Murray could not believe his good
fortune. This was the dream job of every fat kid in America! Unlimited free ice
cream and candy! And they actually pay you!
Murray reported to work ten minutes
early. Mr. Saperstein patted him on the back and said his best customer would
now be his best employee. He had five or six other teenagers boys and
girls each working a few four-hour shifts each week in the store.
Murray, youre a natural for the job. Once you get the hang of it,
Ill leave you alone in the stone to run things on your
Mr. Saperstein, this is a great
honor. I wont let you down.
Just then the first customer walked in,
sat on a stool, and said to Murray, Make me a malted!
Poof! Youre a
Mr. Saperstein screamed at Murray.
Get out! And dont come back till you grow up!
Murray slinked out of the store. He was
afraid to go home, so he wandered the streets for hours. He knew he would never
find such a great job ever again. But on the other hand, how could he let
a set-up line like that go to waste?
When he finally got home, his parents
were anxious to hear about his first day on the job. Reluctantly, he confessed.
His father looked very displeased, but
as usual, he didnt say anything. Then his mother started chuckling.
What was the big joke? Murray wondered. He decided not to ask.
Then she burst out, Poof!
Youre a malted! Murray, youre a born comedian!
Murrays gloomy mood immediately
dissipated. His mother was right. Maybe someone would actually pay him to tell
But Murray soon had a much more
ambitious dream. Unlike other children who had visions of being baseball
players, astronauts, doctors, lawyers, actors, actresses, cowboys, police
officers, singers, or circus performers, Murray had a much more complicated
ambition. His plan was to operate a pirate radio station just beyond the U.S.
territorial limits about ten miles east of Coney Island. He would hijack a ship
from the rusting World War II moth ball fleet anchored up the Hudson River,
about sixty miles from New York City.
The station would broadcast jazz
twenty-four/seven to an audience of millions of eager listeners. And best of
all, since the station would operate beyond the territorial jurisdiction of the
Federal Communications Commission, not only could it use profanity, but it
could even advertise pot and other illegal goods and services.
This was Murrays story, which he
gladly repeated to everyone he met. He didnt have to go to school for any
lengthy or arduous training to perform his lifes work. He just needed to
recruit a crew and enough fuel to get the ship out into the ocean, and then it
would all be smooth sailing, so to speak.
In the meantime, he managed to
accumulate a total of fifteen college credits at four different colleges, work
at a series of very low-paying dead-end jobs, while moving back-and-forth
between his parents Coney Island apartment and his grandmothers
apartment on the Lower Eastside of Manhattan.
The job that he hated the most was being
a debt-collector, working at a phone bank just off Union Square. He had a list
of nearly one thousand people who had stopped making payments on their
furniture, TVs, cars, washing machines, and other sundry purchases.
Murrays job was not to collect the
debt in full, or even to substantially reduce it. His company had bought up the
debt for pennies on the dollar, so their business plan was very simple: Just
get something out of a fraction of the debtors every week or two.
Obviously, this involved making a whole
lot of calls. Murray was paid a commission. He would earn thirty cents of every
dollar he could collect. So, every morning, he and his colleagues would begin
another depressing day of dialing for dollars.
If you can just send us five
dollars by Friday, we will not have to garnish your pay, Mrs. Horowitz.
Let me put it bluntly, Mr. Jackson: Unless you send us at least ten
dollars, we will be forced to repossess your TV.
Every so often, I would see Murray,
either on his way to work, or coming home. Most of the time he didnt see
me because he was dragging himself along, his head hung down, in a state of
obvious depression. I thought to myself that it might take weeks of healthy
salt sea air to revive him.
The other jobs he found were almost as
bad. He sold burial plots, newspaper subscriptions, and abandoned possessions
from storage warehouses. In desperation he even tried to enlist in the Marines,
but he failed the physical. When he asked if it had anything to do with a
hernia, the recruiting sergeant laughed.
You must be from Brooklyn.
When he saw the look on Murrays face he laughed even harder.
Dont tell me that doctor squeezed too hard.
So whats wrong with
You can come back after
youve lost sixty pounds.
Murray and I drifted apart over the next
few years, and I never picked up the phone to see how he was doing. Maybe I
just didnt want to see him in this state, never really growing up and
taking responsibility for his life. I wondered if he had finally given up on
his cockamamie scheme to set up a pirate radio station.
Then, one day, there was a wedding
invitation. Was it even possible? What woman in her right mind would want to
take on that miserable load of psychic baggage? I mean, sure he was a really
nice guy, but in some ways, he was still a kid.
When I called him to offer my
congratulations, he suggested that we get together for dinner. He knew a great
place to eat, and he could introduce me to his future wife.
When I arrived at a somewhat downscale
restaurant, I spotted him in a booth with a rather attractive woman who
appeared to be somewhat older than he was. As I approached the booth, they both
stood, and then threw their arms around me.
Then we sat down. I immediately found
Roz quite straightforward, admitting that she was not getting any younger, and
that she and Murray were looking forward to starting a family. Then, reading my
mind, she smiled, shaking her head no.
The three of us laughed. But
dont be too sure, quipped Murray.
After we ordered, Roz kidded that for a
wedding present, her parents were giving them a pirate radio station on a ship
hijacked from the mothball fleet.
Well, Im glad we got that
out of the way! I quipped.
Actually, I met Roz a few months
after I started working for her father. He owns this place and three others in
Would you believe he decided to
introduce us right after a customer asked me to make him a malted? He knew at
that instant that Roz and I were made for each other.