I made Reuben Nichols’ acquaintance for the first time during the City Council’s Business Owners meeting, which is held the first Tuesday of each month in the basement of City Hall. Now that’s only a fancy name for the meeting, because it’s more like a big get-together open to anybody who works in this city. We don’t have tables or sit-down dinners or waiters, or people stepping up to a head table to make a speech, or anything like that. We’re just a bunch of men and women walking around in circles and saying “Hi” to one another. We just have coffee, and sometimes we have donuts and bagels. Most of the talk is from the big guns discussing the usual financial rigmarole, but us regular business owners, the rest of us showed up because the meetings introduced new people with fresh ideas, new services, new products, and new methods of barter. Moreover, the meetings had been a veritable catalyst for developing new friendships within the business community.
The crowd always split apart in their own small cliques. The professional business owners like Calloway the Bail bondsman and a lawyer named Arial Melendez usually stuck together along with a bunch of other pros and semi-pros such as accountants, engineers, teachers, and salespeople. Everybody formed his or her own circles. We even had a handful of unskilled laborers who showed up each meeting because they cared.
Although he should stay home and enjoy retirement, the only medical person to show up at every gathering, was old Dr. Guzzick. He never missed a Tuesday night. Stone-faced and a “creepy-type” of tall and hunched over, he never got angry, kept a passive demeanor, and laughed off our jostling when we said he looked like he pronounced himself dead a long time ago.
Anybody and everybody working in the medical profession around this city stays busy twenty-four-seven. They don’t have time to mingle or drum up business. The city’s main hospital, St. Dymphna’s, appropriately named after the Patron Saint of Insanity, has annexes spread throughout the city. I’m sure those annexes are filled with doctors and nurses, but it seems like Dr. Guzzick is the only doctor in town. It’s not his fault everyone in the city comes to him when there’s an emergency. And to make matters worse, everything is an emergency around here! Before he knew it, Dr. Guzzick found himself running from house to house, block to block, street to street, helping men, women, and children. Now I know I get paid for my services working on cars, but I don’t know who the hell pays this poor Doctor for everything he does, and all the responsibility he carries. He looks like he doesn’t get much sleep, and it seems like he’s living on baloney sandwiches and water while he works.
Other than exchanging a few words with his best friend, G. Brown the Funeral Director, Dr. Guzzick walks the floor alone with his hands in his pockets. He’s a man without a clique. He's a loner. He’s a threatening entity, receiving friendly waves by only a few of us who dare invite him into their circle, but he never acknowledges the welcome. He walks slowly, evocatively, sometimes stopping to point at one of us as if he’s trying to guess who’s going to die next. He claims he came from simpler times when he wore a long black coat and a tall top hat, and built coffins as an undertaker in the early west.
A whole load of voices turns into a giant ball of mumbling from every section of the room. I hear Men’s voices, women’s voices, high, low, whispering, screeching, and an entire shitload of gibberish. And as the new guy in town, Reuben wanders the floor, exchanging nods with everyone. Occasionally he leans over towards one of the groups and listens for a moment, gauging the conversation to figure out where he might fit in.
When Reuben 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 boldly 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 looked like he trembled in his boots for a second, and then turned his head away from me. When I realized his parents, Myrna and Irving, had been keeping their eyes on him, I felt he was seeking permission to continue shaking my hand, so I let go real quick. I figured I wanted to save him the embarrassment of his mom bending him over her lap and smacking his fat ass in front of everybody. I should have never let go of his hand because he used it to remove his yarmulke. Myrna confronted us; Irving lagged behind.
“Put that back on!” Myrna commanded like a drill sergeant.
Reuben quickly obeyed his mother. “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. Instead, she stared at me; she loathed me. I reached around her and extended my hand to Irving. Now I know where Reuben’s feeble handshake came from. Irving may have been a smart businessman, and had the sexual expertise to born and father a kid, but in laymen’s terms, he was a pussy.
Myrna took Reuben’s arm and turned him away. “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 looked square like Frankenstein’s monster. I waved off her Aquanet hairspray while she stared at our shoes: hers being fake Christian Louboutin’s 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.”
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.”
“Yeah,” I agreed, “That’s Dr. Guzzick He’s a strange ranger. He 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 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 said, “You can come over one night and meet my family.”
I responded with a friendly wink.
Myrna pushed Reuben into the circle of professionals. I could tell by the look in his face that he was embarrassed like a momma’s boy. And his dad, Irving, kept his eyes to the floor while he stood behind his wife with his hands on her hips. You know what I mean; like watching circus elephants holding each other’s tails. 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 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 into 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 sitting in jail right now, thinking: gee, I wonder why the cops stopped me?”
“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 cut in, “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.”
“It’s money in the bank,” Calloway stressed each word, “Baby, money in the bank.”
“I guess we should all be thankful 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?” Irving guessed.
“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 the money is; in the link.”
“Then we have to get one of those,” said Myrna, “Where could we get one?”
Calloway held his stomach and laughed like Santa Claus, “No, no, no, you don’t buy links; they come with the job.”
“I don’t get it.”
Ariel slapped himself on the chest. “I’m a lawyer. When someone goes to jail, I defend them. That’s my link.” He focuses on Calloway, “And Calloway here is the bail bondsman. When you go to jail, you have to make bail, right? I'm telling you, this man’s a walking bank.”
Calloway smirked arrogantly.
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 the narcs make 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 wallowed deep in thought, “I don’t think we have a link.”
Reuben founded Nicholwest Corrugated, a paper company from Michigan. Like many entrepreneurs, he started at the kitchen table.
I guess he also saw the biography of Hugh Hefner who 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’ve taken a liking to Reuben. He’s a geek, and he’s the President of Nicholwest because his mother says so. Everyone mocks his pansy father, hates his bossy bitch mother, and will do anything to taunt and provoke them.
The three of them; mother, father, and son, had no chins. People with no chins always turn me off. They remind me of “Alice the Goon” from the old Max Fleischer Popeye cartoons. Well, maybe not the Goon; maybe the creature called “Eugene the Jeep.” 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 has the same slab of smooth skin: it starts below his bottom lip and continues at a forty-five degree slant, ending at his neckline. At 40-years old, he stands as the unwrinkled version of his father. In fact, let me go back, he does 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 has 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 comes from anxiety instead of age.
During my short friendship with Reuben Nichols, I found out one thing; that man hated being Jewish. And not only did he hate being Jewish, he cringed at the fact that he looked like a Jew. He knew that we knew he looked like a Jew. He said he could get in a lineup with a million men, and somebody would point to him and say, “You’re 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, Myrna and Irving, and wife Emma preached every single aspect of the Jewish faith; driving it into Reuben’s children, the same way marine instructors control their new recruits. Reuben asks me about a particular holiday, “Is it Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Chanukah, or Passover?
I laughed, “Jesus Christ, how the hell do I know!”
Reuben refuses to stay at home after sundown and pray with his family. Instead, he calls and asks me to have a drink with him.
O’Malley’s bar has forever been a quiet hole-in-the-wall frequented by regulars, although most of the time it’s always empty.
“I am glad you are Italian,” says Reuben.
I hold the glass to him, “So am I.”
“I wish somebody would call me a frigging Guinea Bastard,” he whimpers, “I heard a tow truck driver say he towed a car for the frigging guinea bastard who owns the body shop. That is you, right?”
“Yeah, 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 says, "He said you were a guinea bastard, but it still seemed to be a friendly statement."
“Because it is,” I answer.
“I guess I am envious,” Reuben curls his lips, “It would not bother me either, if somebody thinks I am Italian and calls me a frigging guinea bastard.”
“I don't think that's ever going to happen.” I light a cigarette. “For instance, you don't look anything like an Italian.” I open my arms. “Look at the size of my nose Do you know how it got this big?”
“It does not look big; it looks crooked and lumpy.”
“Right,” I answer, “It’s this way because my father hit me with a coal shovel while shoveling snow.”
“I have a big nose too,” says Reuben.
“Yeah, but you have a sagging nose. It droops. You have a Jewish nose.” I lean forward to put out the cigarette.
“That’s another thing; Jewish people use inhalers.”
“I have asthma,” Reuben defends himself.
I look pass Reuben at O’Malley behind the bar. He keeps himself busy by polishing the shot glasses with his apron.
“Hey, O’Malley,” I call, “Did you ever use an inhaler?”
O’Malley shrugs, “A what? What the hell is it?”
“It’s when you can’t breathe; you put this thing in your mouth and squeeze it.”
“Oh yeah,” O’Malley answers. “No, never used one. I just cough.”
I return my attention to Reuben, “See? We just cough.”
Reuben laughs, “So, you are saying if I stop using my asthma medication, I turn into an Italian or an Irishman?”
“No,” I laugh with him, and then light 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 pours 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 shrug, “See?” I lean back in the chair and puff through my lips. “Now, getting back to friggin’ basdits; there’s a big difference.”
Reuben pockets his inhaler. “There is?”
“Yes,” I answer, “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 a lasting impression. Guinea basdits don't even care if their best friend calls them a guinea basdit.”
“How about somebody like O’Malley?” Reuben asks, “Is it offensive to him?”
“No,” I answer. “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 urge, “It doesn’t bother me, you could say it. Even on his deathbed, my father grabbed me and pulled me so close, I could smell the garlic on his breath. And he said, ‘Mattao, my son, take care of your mother, you friggin’ guinea basdit.’ And then he took one last breath and I heard his breath fade away saying, guinea basdit.”
Reuben twists his lip a bit. He reaches for his inhaler.
“Uh, uh, uh,” I remove 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 interrupt, “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 shrugs, “It sounds awkward. It sounds friendly, as though you are not hurting anyone by saying it.” Reuben squirms in his seat. Excited, he tries saying it again while using his hands like a true Italian. “Yo, Louie,” his voice changes to a ghetto slur, “I can’t believe that friggin’ guinea basdit got everybody a drink except me.”
“There you go,” I laugh. It’s funny watching a short, chubby Jewish guy imitating a thirty-five year old pizza maker still living at home with his mother.
“That is what I mean,” Reuben concentrates 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 raise an eyebrow.
Reuben laughs, “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 laugh and raise my drink to Reuben. We tap glasses. I light a cigarette while we chuckle. “Okay Rube, are you ready for this?”
“Go ahead,” Reuben, urges.
“Okay, now repeat this: “I can’t believe that friggin’ Jew basdit got everybody a drink, except me.”
I notice his body language. “What’s the matter? It’s different, isn’t it? It sounds derogatory, doesn’t it?”
“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 whimpered, “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 remind him.
Reuben pulls closer and whispers to me, “What about bla…”
“Don’t even go there,” I cut off his words, “Race doesn’t matter here. It’s not about black, white, or any other color. It’s about origins. People are people. It’s the way people misconstrue words. Hate’s a harsh word,” I compose myself and laugh aloud, “As I said before, you don't look Italian. You don't even have a chin.”
Reuben rubs his neck, “I do look real Jewish, do I not?”
We stand 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, leave the tip; the drinks are on me.”
Reuben puts a dollar bill on the table.
On the way out, I stretch my arm across Reuben’s shoulders and give him a happy shake, “Did you have a good time, you friggin’ guinea basdit?”
Reuben smiles proudly as I acknowledge him as an Italian wanabe.
When we get to the door, O’Malley calls out, “Hey, have a great evening; thanks for coming in, and drive safe going home.”
We wave goodnight, “Take it easy you friggin’ Irish basdit.”
“Yeah, have a great night,” Reuben giggles, “You friggin’ Irish basdit.”
O’Malley cleans the table, “You too, you friggin’ guinea basdit.” He picks up the money, and scoffs at Reuben’s dollar before putting it in his apron, “….and you too, you friggin’ Jew basdit.”