Story by Bruce Harris/ Illustration by John Waltrip
I could have saved myself a lot of time and trouble if not for a thug named Benny. It was early April, the 1947 baseball season underway. It was good to be in New York City again, given the long, harsh Albany winter. I traded in my wet and overworked galoshes for loafers. The playing field a grimy pigeon-poop coated pavement. This trip, I promised myself to stay focused, away from temptation. No more dance halls or taxi dancers. Strictly business calls, make a couple of sales, dinner and a book in the hotel, and head back north. I waited outside Ernie’s Tobacco City and watched as a man in his early 40’s flipped the “Closed” sign over to “Open.” He unlocked the door and with a 60-watt bright smile welcomed me. When he noticed my suitcase, his grin disappeared quicker than a Bob Feller fastball. “You’re a salesman, right?” Before I could answer, “Sorry, don’t need any new pipes today. My stock is full. You’re wasting your time here,” he said.
“I got nothing but time this fine morning. Have you seen our new line of…”
“Nope. Not interested.” He turned away and began straightening framed displays of tobacco ads.
“Is Ernie here?”
“Yup, that’s me. Look, I don’t mean to be rude pal, but I don’t…”
“Bob Ballantine’s the name. I have here our newest and most economical pipe, the corncob. Made all the way out in Missouri!”
“Like I said…”
“They smoke like a dream and the cost to you is only 12 cents a pipe.”
Ernie backed up to get a better angle on a Camel advertisement. Satisfied, he turned toward me. “I really…wait…you said how much?”
I laid the faux leather briefcase down on a display case and produced a tray with one dozen corncob pipes. Each nestled in red silk-like beds. “Twelve little cents, my friend. One thin dime and two copper Lincolns. I’ll even accept Indian heads if you have them. And, they retail for one dollar each. I’m no mathematician, but that’s a profit of 88 cents a pipe! Not too bad, don’t you say?”
He grabbed the tray off the scratched glass top. He counted them with a thin boney finger. “Twelve pipes. Let’s just say for arguments sake I took them all. How much?”
I didn’t hesitate. “One dollar and forty four cents. Plus, I throw in the display case.”
He scratched a weak chin. “How many do I need to sell before I get my money back?”
I pulled a pencil from atop my ear and a small pad of paper from my inside jacket pocket. I licked the lead point and scribbled. “Ha! Two measly pipes is all. Two pipes. You’ll probably sell two pipes before lunch. And, what’s more, you’ll have a profit of fifty-six cents! Not to mention ten more beautiful new corncobs to sell.”
Silence. Then, as if possessed he grabbed the tray, and after making some space, centered the pipes near the cash register. I was out the door, whistling, with an added jump in my step.
At the corner of 8th Avenue and 44th Street, I stopped in front of a magazine stand. Tony, a one-man operation, had a thriving business. He pulled change from a long front pocket on his faded green apron, counted it out, and smiled. Tony always had a smile for everyone. A well-dressed gentleman, his girth that of Babe Ruth stood to my right checking out the day’s headlines. “How are you, Bob?” asked Tony. “Whatcha got for me today?”
Tony sold a lot of cigarettes, but cigars and pipes did okay as well. I checked his stock of briars. It appeared as though he had sold most of what I had supplied him with on my last visit. “Corncobs. Got a good deal on them.”
Before Tony made a move, the man to my right jerked his hand into my samples and grabbed one. “Let me see that!” Sweat beads had formed over his lip.
I pulled the pipe tray away from him. “Sorry pal, I don’t sell to the public. I’m a wholesaler…”
A policeman blew his whistle as he raced around the corner and headed toward us. Everyone on the street stood still. The cop pointed. “You!” he screamed, “Stay where you are!” He addressed the man next to me. The gent looked left and then right. He fumbled around, and then tossed the pipe back into the tray. The action seemed to have a strange cathartic effect on the man. He adjusted cufflinks, tightened his tie, and bent over in front of a small mirror that hung on the side of Tony’s stand and fiddled with his hat. The cop, now inches from the man, breathed hard. Tony and I stared.
“What can I do you for, officer?” the man asked. He offered a piece of gum to the policeman. It was waved away. The man shrugged, then unwrapped the gum and placed it in his mouth. Several lengths behind the policeman, a short bald man wearing a small magnifying glass attached to his eyeglass frames struggled to catch his breath. He pointed toward the man in the suit.
“That’s him!” he screamed. “That’s the guy who stole my diamond!”
“Where is it, Benny?’ asked the cop. His manner and tone were such that it wasn’t the first time he’d asked Benny that same question.
“Why, if it isn’t Officer Chessman.”
“Where is it, Benny?”
“Where is what?” cracked Benny. “I ain’t got any idea what this gentleman is talking about.”
“Search him!” commanded the short man, beginning to breathe more normally. “He’s got the Regal Diamond, I saw him take it!”
After the cop’s fruitless search, Benny smoothed his lapels with meaty hands and smirked. “Now, Officer Chessman, if you’re finished, I’d like to be on my way. Or, would you prefer to speak to my mouthpiece…er, attorney?”
The little jeweler continued screaming. “He took it! He took it!”
The beat cop quieted him down and turned toward Benny. “Go. You’re free to go, but just watch your step.”
Benny had a grin as wide as his thick neck. “You.” He turned toward me. “I’m interested in buying a pipe. How much?”
The man scared me, but Chessman was in earshot “Sorry,” I managed to spit, “I already explained I sell wholesale only.”
Benny removed his hat and pushed a hand through greased hair. “Fine. I’ll buy them all.”
Before I could respond, Patrolman Chessman intervened. “Move Benny. Take off. Leave this guy alone.”
“I know my rights,” countered Benny. “There’s nothin’ that says I can’t buy pipes from this man if I got the money.” He fisted a wad of green.
“Beat it!” ordered Chessman, “Or, I’ll bring you in for disturbing the peace.”
The cash disappeared into an exotic skinned billfold. Benny shuffled away, but glanced back over his shoulder at me. The little jeweler continued jawing at Officer Chessman as they turned away from the magazine stand.
I looked at Tony. “Wow! What was that all about?”
Tony shrugged his shoulders. “That’s New York for ya.”
There were pipes to sell. Time to get down to business. “Tony, I have two trays of these corncobs, whaddya say you take ‘em both? I’ve had about all the New York City I can take for a day.”
Tony grimaced. “Wish I could, Bill. Tell you what, I’ll take one of the trays. How’s that?”
Tony was no fool when it came to business. Never one to turn down a sale, I grabbed both trays of the corn pipes and handed them to Tony. After the Benny-Officer Chessman-jeweler experience, I didn’t feel like canvassing any other stores. “Give you a special deal if you take all two dozen.” Done deal. We shook hands.
Following a Salisbury steak, mashed potato, and three beers lunch, I decided to take in a movie and make it an early night. A knock and two words, “Room Service” startled me out of a nap, paperback open on my chest. “What? Who?”
“Room Service,” the voice gruff.
“I didn’t order anything. Take it away. I was sl…”
The door flew open and Benny dragged me from the bed before I had a chance to move or speak.
“Where is it?” he asked. His face inches from mine. I smelled whiskey. “Don’t play games with me or you’ll be sorry.”
What is it about New York City? Trouble has a way of finding me where these crazy slickers reside. “I don’t know…”
“The diamond!” screamed Benny. “You have it. I stashed it in one of the pipe bowls when that copper tried to pinch me. I’ll tear this place apart, and then you until I find it.”
Benny appeared to be twice the size from what I had remembered. “I sold the pipes. I have nothing left. You can check.”
The big goon made a cursory search and seemed to believe me. “Who bought them?”
“Um, no one.”
“If you don’t want to be walking with crutches, tell me!”
“Tony at the newsstand bought them. I sold the pipes to Tony, but he has no idea…”
Benny scrammed out the door before I could finish. I couldn’t warn Tony. Long closed, the newsstand wouldn’t open for another several hours. I paced around the room all night. At the crack of dawn, I grabbed a coffee and hurried over to Tony’s newsstand to warn him. The thunderous bang meant one thing. Tony looked up from the sidewalk, a bullet hole in his chest. The pipes I had sold him the day before were scattered everywhere. No one walked the streets at this hour. At least that’s what I had thought. Again, I was wrong. A second blast ricocheted off buildings. I turned in time to watch Benny drop like a Ewell Blackwell sidearm sinker. The barrel of a police officer’s revolver smoked.
My head turned back toward the magazine stand.
Confusion danced in step with my pounding heartbeat. The voice had come from Tony’s prostrate body. I moved closer. “Tony? You’re going to be okay, pal. I hear an ambulance siren. It’ll be here soon.”
“Die…” but his voice faded.
“You’re not going to die, Tony.” It was a safe bet he’d never catch me in the lie.
With effort, he shook his head. “No. Not Die. D-i-a-m-o-n-d.” It took five seconds for him to cough out the word.
“Diamond? What about it Tony? Keep talking. Help is on the way.”
“Bill, listen,” Tony’s voice nothing more than a croak. I knelt closer. Through gurgling blood bubbles, he choked out, “Donald…” I couldn’t make out the rest.
“Donald,” I repeated. “Yes, Donald.” The sirens grew nearer. “Donald. What else? Who is Donald?” I asked.
Tony’s eyelids began to drop like a burlesque dancer’s dress. He coughed as if ravished by tuberculosis. A moment ago lead had torn through Tony’s body, now pain pinballed against his insides. “Donald,” he repeated. More coughing, each successive wheezing hack weaker than the last until his final word was almost unrecognizable. It sounded like, “Addley.” I gave him a little nudge. “Donald Addley? Is that it, Tony? Donald Addley? Diamond? Speak to me, buddy. Hang in there. Help is here.” Tony gave a weak nod but death took its grip before the stretcher hit pavement.
Not until late afternoon, after spending most of the day at police headquarters, that I bee lined it for the reference room in the New York Public Library. I didn’t mention Donald Addley’s name to the police. I figured it best if I said nothing more than I had sold some pipes to Tony and was checking on him this morning to make sure he was happy with his purchase. With five phone directories, one for each borough opened to an, ‘A’ page, I jotted down the addresses of six Donald Addleys and one D. Addley. Not certain what I’d do or ask of Donald Addley once I found him. I figured I owed it to Tony to check him out. Somehow, Addley had a hand, if not his entire body in this mess. If I had it correctly, Addley knew the whereabouts of the jeweler’s stolen diamond.
Broome Street in lower Manhattan. The apartment building appeared typical of the day, a three-story walkup situated in a working class area near a park. My knock brought a man and the aroma of freshly baked pie. He wore dark pants, even darker sunglasses and a white short-sleeved shirt. “Can I help you?”
“It smells nice in there. Are you baking?” The words just blurted out.
“Wife’s making apple pie and we were just sitting down to some. It’s our anniversary today. Fourteen years. How time flies by. How can I help you?” he repeated the question.
“Um, I’m not sure. Are you Donald Addley?”
With a quizzical look, “Yes. And, you are?”
“Bill Ballantine. I’m in town from Albany, and well, um…” I noticed he faced my direction, but I couldn’t see through the darkly tinted lenses.
“Who is it, Donald?” came a voice from inside the apartment.
Addley spoke. “A gentleman named Bill Ballantine. He’s from out of town.”
“Well, invite him in. Would he like some pie?”
Another idiotic question spewed from my lips. “Mr. Addley, were you at a magazine stand at 8th Avenue and 44th Street this morning?”
“Heavens no. Haven’t left my apartment all day. Rarely get out these days, you know,” he pointed to his eyes, “but with the weather changing, I should go for more strolls. Say, would you like to join my wife and me for some pie? I guarantee you haven’t had better pie in your entire life, Mr. Ballantine. She’s a great cook. I’m a lucky man.”
Ashamed, I declined the offer and headed for the next Donald Addley on my list, but the results were more of the same. Over the next day or two, I waited for Donald Addleys to return to their homes in Harlem, Queens, and The Bronx. I became very familiar with the subway system. Fortunately, I didn’t have to travel to Staten Island. That borough was Donald Addley-free. I had struck out everywhere. One Donald Addley proved to be a military man stationed overseas, another deceased for over six months, one was bed-ridden with a nasty fever, another a frail retired schoolteacher who could barely walk, and one according to the landlord, was an airline pilot who never spent time in his apartment. I found myself in the shadows of Ebbets Field seeking the last name on my list, the lone D. Addley. A woman in her early twenties answered my call.
“Yes?” her eyebrows rose.
I took a chance that the ‘D’ stood for Donald. In my best official voice, “I’d like to speak to Donald Addley, please. I have a few questions I’d like for him to answer.” She backed up a step and cocked her head to one side. I’m no Sherlock Holmes, but I detected fear.
“That might prove difficult. Besides, Donald is sleeping at the moment.”
“I see. Well, ma’am, it’s rather important I speak to him. Perhaps we can wake him up. It’s only a couple of questions. It won’t take long.”
A complete change came over her face. She chuckled. “We can wake him up, Mr…”
“We can wake him up, Mr. Ballantine, but that wouldn’t do you much good.” More laughter.
I became suspicious. This had to be the place. My confidence rose. I could feel it grow. The young woman in front of me knew something. She was hiding information. I balled my fists. This was the residence of the Donald Addley that Tony had uttered through crimson lips. Bill Ballantine, on the cusp of unearthing the mystery man Donald Addley. With conviction and a sneer, “And, why exactly is that, ma’am?”
“Because he’s five months old! His vocabulary is limited at this point.”
“But, he’s listed in the telephone directory. Explain that.” I wasn’t ready to give up. Figured I catch her in a lie.
“I’m Dorothy Addley. Friends call me, Dottie. I’m a single parent and requested that specific phonebook listing.
It was no use. Feeling like a complete fool and failure, I took the train north and headed back home to Albany. But, Tony’s dying words gnawed at me. What had I missed? I followed the New York City dailies morning, noon, and night searching for some mention of Donald Addley. After almost a month, it dawned on me that the Donald Addley, the mystery man I sought, lived elsewhere, other than New York City. Of course, that had to be it! He was visiting New York City the same way I had been. Perhaps he too was a salesman. There were no Donald Addley listings in the Albany telephone book. It took another trip back to New York City’s public library reference room to search out of town and out of state phone directories. I started with Buffalo, New York and then Syracuse, New York. I expanded the search, mixing pipe selling business and personal Donald Addley business to Philadelphia, and to Baltimore and beyond. Six years later, three memorable results were a black eye, a night spent in a Washington, D.C. jail, and a shrunken bank account. I had all but given up hope of ever locating Donald Addley when sipping coffee one rainy Albany morning I saw the following article in the April 17 issue of New York PM Daily:
Police Chief Rathbone notified reporters of the death of the notorious Arthur “Alphabet” Zimbrano. Mr. Zimbrono passed away earlier this week but not before having confessed to illegally obtaining the Regal Diamond. Six years ago, New York City resident and jeweler Frank Morgan reported the theft of the diamond from his midtown office. At the time, Mr. Morgan identified Benny “No Brain” Branyon as the thief. Branyon, known to officials as the right-hand man of Zimbrano’s archrival Alvin Jones, took a police officer’s bullet. The patrolman witnessed Branyon as he ran from a newsstand following the murder of the newsstand’s owner, Tony Santorini. However, the diamond was not found on Branyon and the diamond theft case has remained open.
According to Chief Rathbone, Zimbrano informed authorities how he had obtained possession of the rare diamond. He explained that he had ordered one of his men to follow Benny Branyon from the jeweler to the newsstand. That man watched as Benny slipped the hunk of ice into the bowl of a new pipe that Mr. Santorini had purchased. The next morning, Zimbrano dispatched two of his soldiers to remove the diamond from the pipe and to bring the rock to him. Zimbrano named the infamous albino twins, his two henchmen known for their nonviolent robberies. The two, Donald and Lee are now in custody.
I choked on my morning joe and reread the last sentence a second and third time. Donald and Lee. I repeated the names out loud. Donald and Lee. That’s what Tony was trying to say! Not Donald Addley!
— ♦♦♦ —
Mr. Leiber’s Collection. By Brandon Ketchum, Art by Bradley K. McDevitt
Mr. Johann Leiber collected odd jewelry. The story behind an artifact counted more with him than its monetary value. What story could his latest artifact tell? Some stories are better left untold…