I MET REUBEN NICHOLS for the first time during the City Council's Business Owners meeting; open to all business owners and employees on the first Tuesday of each month. In addition to the usual financial rigmarole, the meetings introduced new people with fresh ideas, new services, new products, and new methods of barter. Moreover, the meetings were a veritable catalyst for developing new friendships within the business community.
The small crowd always found common ground and convened in small cliques. The professionals were business owners like Calloway the Bail bondsman and a lawyer named Arial Melendez, among other pros and semi-pros such as accountants, engineers, teachers, and salespeople. We even had a handful of unskilled laborers who showed up each meeting simply because they cared.
Although he should stay home and enjoy retirement, Dr. Guzzick is the only medical person to show up at every meeting. He's a tall man with a weather-beaten face, wrinkled, pale skin, and dried out but piercing light blue eyes. He does have a few strands of hair left, and they're flowing in all directions. His pants sag as though he's had a sudden loss of weight, and even on the hottest days, he wears a shabby, full-length trench coat.
Dr. Guzzick's witnessed more death on the streets of this city than the European community saw during the black plague. Other than exchanging a few words with his best friend, G. Brown, the Funeral Director, the Doctor walks the floor alone with his hands in his pockets, sometimes stopping to point at one of us as if he's trying to guess who's going to die next.
Dr. Guzzick believes in reincarnation; claiming he came from simpler times when he built coffins as an undertaker in the early west.
There was a humming sound of voices from every section of the room, and as the new guy in town, Reuben wandered the floor, exchanging nods with everyone. Occasionally he'd listen for a moment, gauging the conversation to figure out where he may fit in. However, when he approached my small circle of auto body mechanics, plumbers, electricians, and handymen, I offered him a handshake, old coffee, and stale donuts.
"Matt Ponticello," I introduced myself, "I own an auto body shop here in town."
Reuben's handshake suited his character: weak. He was short and stocky, with curly black hair tucked under a Jewish beanie. He turned away from me as though seeking permission to continue shaking my hand, and then used his left hand to remove his yarmulke. This is when I realized his parents, Myrna and Irving, kept an eye on him. Myrna confronted us; Irving lagged behind.
"Put that back on," Myrna ordered.
Reuben put the skullcap back on his head. "My name is Reuben Nichols," he introduced himself; "This is my mother, Myrna, and my father, Irving."
He turned to his parents, "Mom, dad, this is Matt. He has an auto body shop right here in town. That's good to know, right; in case we ever have an accident?"
I extended my hand. Myrna didn't counter. She stared at me; she loathed me. I reached around her and extended my hand to Irving, who also had a weak handshake.
Myrna took Reuben's arm and turned him away from our group. "Reuben honey, your father and I talked to a lawyer and a doctor," she paused, "And equally important; an accountant. They said business is wonderful here."
"Hey Rube," I called out.
"My shop's right on 4th Avenue; drop by any time." Myrna let go of her son's arm, and approached me. Her beady eyes twitched. At first, she put her head down to break eye contact with me. From this angle, her head was a perfect square. I waved off her Aquanet hairspray while she stared at our shoes: hers being Gucci and mine being generic work boots. Finally, she lifted her head. "My son is the President of Nicholwest Corrugated," she smirked.
"Oh, you have the big building on the water?" I guessed, "The paper plant on the outskirts of the city?"
"We manufacture cardboard shipping boxes," Reuben added, then coughed. He tried to take a deep breath.
Myrna shushed her son. "Use your inhaler," she dictated.
Reuben sprayed into his mouth. "I have asthma," he explained.
I scanned the room. "This is a great way to meet other business owners. Sometimes you can make some connections." I pointed to the professional group. "We have a lawyer, a doctor, accountants, engineers, insurance agents, and we even have a bail bondsman."
"Who is that tall guy? " Reuben asked, "He is strange."
"Yea," I agreed, "That's Dr. Guzzick He is strange. He just walks around by himself."
"Do you think I'm strange?" Reuben asked.
"How the hell do I know?" I laughed, "We just met. For all I know, you and your whole family could be a bunch of fucking serial killers."
Myrna gasped. She grabbed Reuben's arm once again and led him away from us.
"Hey Rube," I called out. "If you or your mom ever needs your cars fixed, we can work something out. I'll fix your fender, and you can give me a cardboard box."
Reuben turned to me, "I like you," he smiled. "Perhaps you can come over one night and meet my family."
I smiled and winked.
Myrna and Irving pushed Reuben into the circle of professionals. Calloway the Bail Bondsman clenched his cigar between his teeth, shook their hands, excused himself, and called out to me, "Hey Matt, did you get the white Corvette in your yard yet?"
"No," I answered, "What Corvette?"
"The narcs busted Mackey-boy the other day," Ariel the Lawyer rubbed his palms together.
"Are you defending him?"
Ariel opened his arms to boast, "Who else?"
"You'll get the car soon," Calloway clapped his hands while almost choking on his cigar, "Baby; it's money in the bank; money- in -the -bank."
Howie, the Insurance Broker, poked his head out from the circle. "Friggin' moron had five pounds of Cocaine stuffed in the bumper of the car. Ready for this; no insurance, that's how they busted him."
"Are you talking about the white Corvette with the black, tinted-out windows?"
"Yes," Howie answered, "And the dumbass was probably going a million miles an hour and cutting in and out of traffic with a corvette with black windows and out-of-state plates while carrying drugs across the state line. He's probably sitting in jail right now, thinking: gee, I wonder why the cops stopped me?"
"Well, that's typical of the mentality around here. Does Manny know yet?"
"No," Calloway answered, "We'll tell the greedy bastard tomorrow."
"Mackey-boy's mom knows," Ariel said, "Rico and Laurie already told the family." He called out to Rico and Laurie Bane who sat by themselves and sipped on fruit smoothies, "Hey Rico, did you tell Mackey-boy's mom what happened?"
Rico laughed, "Yes, and she got upset. She said he should have used their 4-door family car to transport the drugs. She's just as bad as the rest of them."
"It's money in the bank," Calloway stressed each word, "Baby, money in the bank."
"I guess we should all be thankful that a drug dealer got caught," said Myrna, "They should lock them all up."
"Welcome to the neighborhood," Calloway said, and then took an explosive puff on his cigar, filling the room with a choking smoke. "When they lock them up, it's money in the bank," Calloway repeated.
"Then that's a good thing," said Irving.
"Yes it is; providing you have a link," Calloway added.
"What do you mean a link?" asked Reuben.
"A link to City Hall," Ariel explained, "If you don't have a link to City Hall in this town, you're screwed. That's where all the money is; in the link."
"Then we have to get one of those," said Myrna, "Where could we get one?"
Calloway laughed, "No, no, no, you don't buy links; they come with the job."
"I don't get it."
Ariel tapped on his chest, "I'm a lawyer. When someone goes to jail, I defend them. That's my link." He focused on Calloway, "And Calloway here is the bail bondsman. When you go to jail, you need bail, right? I'm telling you, this man's a walking bank."
Reuben turned his attention to me. "What about you?" He asked." Do you have a link?"
"Yes I do," I nodded, "Where do you think the police bring the criminal's cars? When there's a drug bust, the police confiscate everything, and I get their cars. They bring them to my lot and pay me a daily fee. Sometimes they even turn over the titles to me."
Myrna looked deep in thought, "I don't think we have a link."
Reuben founded Nicholwest Corrugated, a small paper company from Michigan. Like many entrepreneurs, he started at the kitchen table. He also saw the biography of Hugh Hefner who also started at the kitchen table and blossomed into the Playboy Empire. Reuben supported a wife and two children while they lived expense-free with his parents in their quaint cottage on the coast of Lake Huron. Armed with a business plan and his parent's money, Reuben and the entire Nichols family, including his parents Myrna and Irving, sold everything and relocated to this city seeking growth and profits.
I don't know why I took a liking to Reuben. He was a geek, and was the President of Nicholwest because his mother said so. His father was a pansy, and his mother was a bossy bitch who everyone hated and would do anything to taunt her. Plus, people with no chin always turn me off. They remind me of "Alice the Goon" in the old Max Fleischer Popeye cartoons. Well, maybe not the Goon, maybe the creature called "Eugene the Jeep." Anyway, I dated a girl with such a chin. She had small, puffy, pouting lips, but no chin. I remember a bit of coleslaw slobbering out of her mouth as we talked over dinner. I said to her, "Melanie, wipe your neck."
Reuben had the same slab of smooth skin: it started just below his bottom lip and continued at a forty-five degree slant, ending at his neckline. At 40-years old, he stood as the unwrinkled version of his father. In fact, let me go back; he did look like Alice the Goon; balding, a sagging proboscis, and eyebrows arched up above the middle of his nose as if he walked in on his own surprise party. He had beautiful, round gray eyes; at the same time, frightened eyes, moving to make sure no one talks behind his back. The touch of gray around his ears came from anxiety instead of age.
During my short friendship with Reuben Nichols, I found out he hated being Jewish. He despised everything about religion, especially the skullcaps. He even blamed the Jewish faith for triggering his asthma attacks. Reuben refused to participate in all the Jewish holidays, celebrations, and ceremonies with his wife and parents. His parents and wife preached every single aspect of the Jewish faith; driving it into Reuben's children, the same way marine instructors control their new recruits. Reuben asked me about a holiday. Is it Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Chanukah, or Passover?
I laughed, "Jesus Christ, how the hell do I know!"
Reuben refused to stay at home after sundown and pray with his family. Instead, he called and asked me to have a drink with him. We met at O'Malley's bar; a hole-in-the-wall frequented by regulars.
"I am glad you are Italian," said Reuben.
I held my glass to him, "So am I."
"I wish somebody would call me a frigging Guinea Bastard," he sighed.
I almost choked on my drink when I laughed, "What?"
"I heard a tow truck driver say he was going to tow a car for the frigging guinea bastard who owns the body shop. That is you, right?"
"Yea, that's Vinnie Bork. He brings me a lot of work."
" I don't know what to make of how people talk to other people," Reuben thought deeply, "The guy said you were a guinea bastard, but it was still friendly."
"Because it is," I answered.
"I guess I am envious, that is all," Reuben sighed. "It would not bother me either, if somebody thinks I am Italian and called me a frigging guinea bastard."
"I don't think that's ever going to happen." I lit a cigarette. "For instance, you don't look anything like an Italian." I opened my arms. "Look at the size of my nose Do you know how it got so big?"
"It does not look big; it looks crooked and lumpy."
"Right," I answered, "It's like that because my father hit me with a coal shovel while shoveling snow."
"I have a big nose too," said Reuben.
"Yea, but you have a sagging nose. It droops. You have a Jewish nose." I leaned forward to put out my cigarette.
"That's another thing; Jewish people use inhalers."
"I have asthma," Reuben answered.
I looked past Reuben. There was no one at the bar. O'Malley kept himself busy polishing the shot glasses with his apron.
"Hey, O'Malley," I called, "Did you ever use an inhaler?"
O'Malley shrugged, "A what? What the hell is it?"
"It's when you can't breathe, so you put this thing in your mouth and squeeze it."
"Oh yea," O'Malley answered. "No, never used one. I just cough."
I returned my attention to Reuben, "See? We just cough."
Reuben laughed, "So, you are saying if I stop using my asthma medication, I become an Italian or an Irishman automatically?"
"No," I laughed and lit another cigarette, "It's about attitude; it's about reputation; it's about how people look at you and perceives you."
"I do not get it."
O'Malley poured himself a shot at the bar. "Come to think of it, my grand kid married this Jewish kid. I remember he used one of those."
I shrugged, "See?" I leaned back in the chair and puffed through my lips. "Now, getting back to friggin' basdits; there's a big difference."
Reuben put his inhaler in his pocket. "There is?"
"Yes," I answered, "Guinea basdits call each other guinea basdits because it means we did something to piss somebody off, or make them happy. Either way, guinea basdits leave an impression. Guinea basdits don't even care if their best friend calls them a guinea basdit."
"How about somebody like O'Malley?" Reuben asked, "Is it offensive to him?"
"No," I answered. "Here, let me give you an example. Say this, repeat after me: "I can't believe that friggin' guinea basdit got everybody a drink, except me."
"Go ahead," I urged, "It doesn't bother me, you could say it. Even when my father was on his deathbed, he grabbed me and said, "Matteo, my son, you better take care of your mother, you friggin' guinea basdit."
Reuben twisted his lip a bit. He reached for his inhaler.
"Uh, uh, uh," I removed his hand from his pocket, "Now come on, you can say it. You said it before when we first came in, right?"
"I cannot believe that frigging guinea bastard."
"Dit," I interrupted, "Dit, dit, not terd; and it's can't, not cannot."
"I can't believe that friggin' guinea bas…dit got everybody a drink, except me."
"How does that sound?"
Reuben shrugged with a smile, "It sounds somewhat awkward. It almost sounds friendly, as though you are not hurting anyone by saying it." Reuben squirmed in his seat. Excited, he tried saying it again while using his hands like a true Italian. "Yo, Louie," his voice changed to a ghetto slur, "I can't believe that friggin' guinea basdit got everybody a drink, except me."
"There you go," I laughed; it's funny watching a short, chubby Jewish guy imitating a thirty-five year old pizza maker who still lives at home with his mother.
"That is what I mean," Reuben concentrated on talking while moving his hands, "I wish somebody would call me a friggin' guinea basdit. It does not bother me."
"It doesn't bother me at all. Now look at the bar. Look at O'Malley. Now, say this: I can't believe that friggin' Irish basdit got everybody a drink, except me."
"I can't believe that friggin' Irish basdit got everybody a drink, except me."
"And?" I raised my eyebrow.
Reuben laughed, "It sounds as if he keeps the drinks all to himself."
"That's because Irish people have a reputation of drinking. They'll share everything except booze." I laughed and raised my drink to Reuben. We tapped glasses. I lit a cigarette while we chuckled. "Okay Rube, are you ready for this?"
"Go ahead," Reuben, urged.
"Okay, now repeat this: "I can't believe that friggin' Jew basdit got everybody a drink, except me."
I noticed his body language. "What's the matter? It's different, isn't it? It sounds derogatory, doesn't it?"
"So what is the point of this whole conversation?"
"You asked, and I'm telling you; the Italians are Guinea basdits, only the Irish can be Irish basdits, but a Jew basdit can be anybody cheap."
Reuben sighed in frustration, "So, in other words, people put up with Guinea basdits and Irish basdits, but they hate a friggin' Jew basdit…who can be anybody."
"Anybody who squeezes a nickel till the buffalo shits," I reminded him.
Reuben thought in silence for a moment before he spoke, "What about bl…"
"Don't even go there," I cut his words off, "Race doesn't matter here. People are people. It's the way people misconstrue our words. Hate's a harsh word," I composed myself and laughed aloud, "As I said before, you don't look anything like an Italian. You don't even have a chin."
Reuben rubbed his neck, "I do look real Jewish, do I not?"
We stood together, "don't worry about it; looks don't mean anything. Come on, we have to go. I have an early day tomorrow." I put money on the table.
"How much is it?"
"Don't worry about it, just leave the tip; the drinks are on me."
Reuben put a dollar bill on the table.
On the way out, I stretched my arm across Reuben's shoulders and gave him a happy shake, "Did you have a good time, you friggin' guinea basdit?"
When we got to the door, O'Malley called out, "Hey, have a great evening; thanks for coming in. Drive safe."
We waved goodnight, "Take it easy you friggin' Irish basdit."
"Yea, have a great night," Reuben giggled, "You friggin' Irish basdit."
O'Malley cleaned our table, "You too, you friggin' guinea basdit." He picked up the money, and scoffed at Reuben's dollar before putting it in his apron, "….and you too, you friggin' Jew basdit."