A Piece of the Action
A Piece of the Action
December 26, 1957
JAKE LEIBOWITZ STOOD IN front of the bathroom mirror, trimming his tiny mustache and cursing his eyesight. He was all of thirty-seven years old and already his eyes were going bad. Walter Winchell's column in the Mirror was nothing more than a gray blur. If he wanted to read, to keep up with the fast crowd, he was going to have to get glasses.
"With the Jews, it's always the eyes," he said to himself. "If I don't watch it, I'll end up with coke-bottle glasses and a gray beard." He shook his head in disgust. "Now I'm talkin' to myself, again."
But he couldn't be angry with himself. Not on the brink of a New Year's which had the promise of ushering in a really new year. He'd been waiting a long time to get his big break, long enough to know there might not be another one coming. He intended to make the most of it.
"I got lost for a while," he muttered, lifting the scissors to the edge of his upper lip. "But I ain't lost now."
The jet-black hairs of his mustache were no more than an eighth of an inch long. When he stepped far enough away to bring the mirror into focus, they melted into one another like a dark smudge on a piece of paper.
He tossed the scissors into the bathtub. "I shoulda gone to the barber this afternoon. Gotta look good for the wops." He picked up a hairbrush and began to tear at the tight curls on his head. Jake kept his hair short, but he couldn't keep it down. His curls, especially in wet weather, stood out in every direction. Even in a suit, he looked more like a shaggy-headed beatnik than a nice Jewish gangster. That's why he never left his apartment without wearing a hat.
Jake loved hats the way some men love shoes, kept a dozen in his closet (his mother's closet, he reminded himself, mustn't forget that little fact) and usually tried on most of them before leaving the apartment.
"I never met a hat I didn't like," he said, chuckling at his own joke.
Soon, very soon, he'd have enough hats to fill a dozen closets. And he'd shop for his suits at Brooks Brothers instead of Robert Hall. Maybe he'd even have a tailor make one up by hand. But not a Jew tailor with glasses so thick they looked more like binoculars. He'd go to Chinatown and find a tailor from Hong Kong. Let the chink make him a gray sharkskin suit, then buy a pair of Italian shoes and a matching tie and, of course, a snap-brim fedora.
"It shoulda happened long ago, Jake," he told himself. "If life was fair. Which it ain't."
The bitch about it was that you could control a lot of things in your life, but you couldn't control everything. For instance, you couldn't control wars. He'd been a twenty-year-old kid when the war broke out, and he'd been coming up in the world. The Depression (they called it the Great Depression though he couldn't see anything great about it) had hit the packed immigrant neighborhoods of the Lower East Side with the wallop of a Colt .45. Even the gangsters had suffered. He should know, his father had been a gangster. At least until they found him floating in the East River.
That was in '33 and life for the Leibowitz family had been harder than hard after Poppa made the mistake of challenging the wops. The wops had a genius for organization. They based it on their families and the villages they'd come from in Sicily. Jews didn't do that. There was no Pinsk gang, no Bialystoker mob. Jewish gangsters wanted their kids to be doctors (or, at least, to marry doctors). And there were a lot more Italians than Jews in the good old U.S.A. All the Jews had come to New York (most of them to the Lower East Side which, in the 20's and 30's, seemed more like the Warsaw Ghetto than Manhattan) while the Italians had spread out. A wop who wanted to kill a Jew could call in a button man from Boston or Providence or Chicago. A Jew who wanted to kill a wop usually di