L. B. Deyo
The Birnbaum Case by L. B. Deyo
Part I: Motive
I seek neither to profit from nor to extenuate of the crimes of my youth. I set them down as a warning to young men everywhere.
I must begin by explaining the unusual circumstances of my adolescence.
I resided with my mother and sisters in the town of Briarcliff Manor, New York, but was enrolled at Horace Mann, a very expensive private school some thirty miles to the south.
My parents had separated a year before, and my father's law firm had broken up under pressure from the FBI; he had not subsequently been able to find work and was living with his girlfriend in Manhattan. My mother, a decorative artist, also had no steady income. I paid my own high school tuition out of the savings left over from my years acting in television commercials.
I had a great many troubles to preoccupy me in those days: the family strife, our sudden poverty, my abysmal academic performance, and a general sense that my life was a roiling, meaningless chaos. But the most immediate, unavoidable problem I faced on most days was getting to and from school.
The train station was on the other side of town; about a ten-minute drive. Getting there was no problem in the morning; my mother would drive me. I'd board the train at some horrific hour, perhaps 6:50, and ride for a half hour. Then I'd get off and board the subway north to 242nd Street, from whence I'd walk up the hill to school.
This simple-sounding process was in fact fraught with strife and peril.
Part II: Hell Commute
What could be so rough about taking a train to the subway, and the subway to school?
The answer, in part, is penury. Pecuniary distress. The condition or state of being flat broke. Which I was, most of the time.
What do you do, at the age of fifteen, after boarding a commuter train, when you have no money for a ticket? You move around a lot. You keep an eye on both adjacent cars to see if a conductor's coming. If he is, you move to the car in the other direction. Or, if there's a conductor there too, you hide in the bathroom for a few stops and start over. And if you get caught? Well, you just don't get caught. That's all there is to that.
At any rate, the train was the easy part. The trouble was the subway.
Here's how it is at Marble Hill. You get off the commuter train and walk up several long flights of stairs to the street. Then, to get on the uptown one train, the subway, you cross Broadway, below the Broadway Bridge. Then you walk up the stairs to the elevated platform, which is on the bridge itself, maybe forty feet above the street.
But now you get the shock. The uptown entrance isn't manned. It has no token booth, just a gate with a token machine that lets you through the turnstile. Not a regular turnstile, by the way. Not like the ones at manned entrances. This is a revolving door with metal spokes instead of glass windows. And here's the thing: When you put your token in the slot, nothing happens. The thing is busted, and nothing short of a dynamite charge is getting you past that turnstile.
So this was interesting. I went to the downtown side, which did have a normal token booth, and complained. They responded with all the charm for which the Metropolitan Transit Authority is famous. With all the speed, too: The turnstile would still be broken three years later when I graduated.
So I was on my own. I had to get on the uptown 1 train, but I couldn't legally access the platform. This left me a number of options, each of which I tried many times without ever settling on a least-awful.
First, I could walk up broadway to the next station, at 235th street, and board there. That took about twenty minutes, which meant I got to Mr. Simpson's English class fifteen minutes late. Mr. Simpson was a very fine explainer of Shakespeare, and he could rhapsodize about the slave Jim from Huckleberry Finn until your heart would almost break. But he was not a flexible man. Show up for his class thirty seconds late, never mind fifteen minutes, and it was off to the Headmaster's office with you to fetch a "late slip," which he would then toss into his wastebasket.
The second option had a similar result. I could board at Marble HIll and take the downtown train to Dykeman street, the nearest station that would allow me to transfer to the uptown side without paying again. Unfortunately, Dykeman street, despite it's hilarious name, was uninviting. It was about four stops south, which meant I'd get to school fifteen minutes late.
The only options I had that would actually get me to school on time, then, required me to actually board the uptown train at Marble Hill, in spite of the broken turnstile. I figured out two ways to do this. The first was to climb around the outside of the gate that surrounded the platform and slip underneath. Basically I'd start at the top of the stairs, perhaps twenty feet up, and cling to the metal bars as I made my way over to a section of the fence that had a gap underneath. There, with great care, and still holding on tight, I'd drop down and squeeze through the gap. All of this done, you understand, about two stories over Broadway in the Bronx.
The second method, which I tried only a few times, required me to pay. I'd board on the downtown side, and then surreptitiously descend onto the tracks to cross them to the uptown side.
If sneaking across four lanes of subway tracks during rush hour sounds reckless, you don't know the half of it. It wasn't just the third rails, cops and speeding express trains I had to worry about. This was an elevated line, high above a busy avenue. These tracks were not designed to be walked across. They were honeycombed with huge gaps, easily big enough to do a cannonball through. One morning I actually made the crossing after a blizzard. I was actually stepping onto wooden planks six inches deep with snow.
Part III: A virtue of necessity
So here I was, a petty criminal, guilty of theft of services from Metro-North and the MTA. Not every day, you understand. Sometimes, more or less at random, my mother would give me money to pay my way to school. Or, more frequently, I'd liberate a twenty from her wallet while she looked the other way. But at least one day a week, I'd beat the fare and ride for free.
At about this time, I discovered a pool hall down the hill from my school, in the Bronx. This was, to me, much more than a potential source of amusement during free periods. Shorty's pool hall was my church. For a punk kid who didn't fit in anywhere, it provided a template for my nascent personality. I got one whiff of the cigarette smoke and chalk dust and billiard felt and I knew what I wanted to be. I was already grifting, in my small way. Now I wanted to make it official. I'd become a pool hustler. A wise guy. A con artist.
It was so perfect. I saw myself as an outsider, at once far superior and pathetically impotent. I was surrounded by rich kids who, it seemed to me, got everything handed to them on a plate while my family took charity from the food kitchen. But I decided, or at least hoped, that my little disadvantages could be spun into gold. I would have real guts, be a real person, learn from the streets. All that foolishness.
Anyway, I dove right in. I started reading books about con artists. I watched movies like <i>House of Games</i> and <i>The Hustler</i> until my eyes crossed. I went to the pool hall every day, often several times a day, and was soon accepted as a regular. Real, actual pool-room bums called me by my first name. They'd teach me tricks and correct my technique. I had absolutely no native ability at pool, unfortunately. But I resisted that limitation with dogged, intense practice. I might not have had five minutes for my French homework, but I always had time to practice my bank shot.
And I was lucky. That's the only way I can say it. Long before I was ready, I started gambling against much better players and winning. Most of the good players were Chinese kids from Bronx Science. These guys were absurdly handsome, almost beautiful. They talked with heavy accents but perfect grammar, and perfect slang. And they shot pool like Wild Bill Hickock shot a rifle. They'd saunter over to you while you practiced, in groups of two or three, and one of them would say the same thing every time: "Race to three for five?"
Race to three for five. I'll tell you, those words still hit me like electricity. It was a bet. First guy to win three games of Nine Ball gets five bucks. And what was five bucks? It was a fortune. It was the difference between eating a real lunch and having pretzels from a vending machine. It was a ride home on the train without having to hide in the toilet from the conductors.
Now, Nine Ball is a wonderful game for gambling, because it's got a lot of wild cards. First, you can win on the break, which almost never happens in eight ball (except on the little coin-operated barroom tables). Second, you can win by exploiting an unexpected opportunity even very early in the game. Third, you win when your opponent scratches three times in a row. Fourth, you can play defensively without actually sinking anything. In short, the game offers many opportunities to the inferior player. And that was me. And most of the time, if there was money on the table, I won. It drove people nuts.
Anyway, the irony of the story was that after all my research, all my practice and discipline, I hit upon my biggest con purely by accident.
Part IV: Hop in, Mr. Birnbaum
Fate knocked one evening as I rode home on the train towards Briarcliff Manor. The train was crowded, and I couldn't find a seat. I stood amidst a bustling crowd, more or less stuck near a couple of little bastards.
I don't know how else to describe them. They were about a year younger than me and quite a bit shorter, probably just hitting puberty. They were well-scrubbed and spoke in squeaky tones. Their accents, their hauteur, their sneakers, everything about them projected entitlement. I wished I had the nerve to punch them.
Anyway, as it happened they got off at my stop, in Briarcliff. And they, like me, got into the cab. Briar Cab wasn't like the taxis in New York. There were no meters and they wouldn't stop to pick you up on the side of the road. But they'd always be there when a train pulled in from the city, and one cab would take everyone who needed a lift, even if it was six people and six different destinations.
So now I was jammed into the back seat with these two brats. I don't know what I was doing in the cab. Maybe my mother had given me some money, or I had had a good day at the pool hall. At any rate, I was headed home. But the little bastards' stop was first.
We pulled up at a mansion overlooking the golf course, and the first kid got out, but the second kid said something that rang out as a revelation. He said, "Charge it to Birnbaum."
"Okay!" said the taxi driver, who by the way was from the old school; he was a carbunkled old Irish with thick glasses and a thicker New York accent, and he actually chewed on a half-smoked cigar. Classic.
And that was it. The cabbie didn't ask the kid for I.D., or make him sign a paper, or anything. The kid got out, his ride fully paid for by those little words, "Charge it to Birnbaum."
Well. Here was something to consider. And consider it I did, for days. It burned in my mind like the guilty recollection of a crime not yet committed. I never even asked myself whether it was moral. It wasn't, but I knew that would have no bearing on my actions. I saw myself as driven by an urgent need, by straitened circumstances for which I wasn't to blame. And also, more secretly, I saw myself as a great con artist waiting to be born.
It was a few weeks later when I next found myself in a Briar Cab, with the same cabbie.
"Where to, sir?"
I gave him an address about five minutes' walk from my house.
It was a long ride. I squirmed in my seat, sweating. Could this crusty old hack really fall for it? Wouldn't he remember who was who? I was about to take a very serious risk. But ultimately, I'd already made the decision by getting into the cab; I didn't have a dime to my name.
He pulled up to the address and told me the fare.
I heard myself say, "Charge it to Birnbaum."
"Okay!" He got on the radio. "Charge this one to Birnbaum."
There was a pause at the other end, and then the voice: "Check."
I got out.
For the next several months, the Birnbaum family paid for my cab rides. I tried not to take cabs too often; maybe once or twice a week. It was still nerve racking every time. And I knew I was in deep when the cabbie started calling me "Mr. Birnbaum." And I'd have to answer. He even asked me my first name, and when I told him he said into the radio, "I've got Ben Birnbaum going to Todd Lane. Just charge that."
Yeah. Well, that was just swell. But Ben Birnbaum of Todd Lane was about to hear from his benefactors.
Part V: The last ride
How long did I think I could get away with charging my cab rides to a family I didn't even know? I often pictured Mr. and Mrs. Birnbaum, standing in their kitchen reading their bill and trying to figure out why it was so high, or why there were so many trips to a little street called "Todd Lane," or what they were going to do to the son of a bitch who was ripping them off.
One sunny evening in late spring, I stepped off of the train in Briarcliff and strolled down to the parking lot. The cab was there, and people were getting into it, but the cabbie looked distracted, and was talking over the radio. "Sir!" he said to me. "Get in, please. I need to talk to you."
This was bad. First of all, he hadn't called me "Mr. Birnbaum." Second, cab driver's usually ask you where you're going. They don't say, "Get in, please." Third of all, they never need to talk to you.
But what could I do? In I got, squeezing up against some other passengers.
"Okay," said the cabbie, into his radio receiver. "He's here." Then he turned, not to me, but to the other passengers, and said, "We're going to make a stop before we drop you off. Sorry about that."
We left the station, and turned left. This was bad. We never turned left, because the station was on the edge of town, and only the next town was to the left. The town of Ossining. Briarcliff's larger, poorer neighbor. Home of such attractions as Sing Sing Prison.
Where the hell were we going? I couldn't ask, even if I'd wanted to. I was actually petrified.
I was accustomed to being in trouble. I was in some kind of trouble every single day in those days. Every time I went to class I was in trouble, because I didn't have my homework. After school I was in trouble because I wasn't doing my homework, and because I wasn't studying for the test that I was about to fail. Even between classes I was in trouble because I was always down at the pool hall instead of on school grounds. I was accustomed to being in trouble. I had a defense against it: Spacing out. I'd just sort of mentally vanish from the room. And so, automatically, I abstracted myself from the back seat of that cab as I sat and stared through the window into the familiar strip malls and low-rent apartment complexes. But it was a futile exercise. I couldn't escape the knowledge that I was guilty, and that at the very least, even if the police weren't called in, the Birnbaums would expect to be fully repaid for each and every cab ride they'd unwittingly bought me.
"Okay, here we are," said the cabbie, again to the other passengers. We pulled into a parking lot. A sign on the building read, "Briar Cab."
So this was it. The little fleet known as Briar Cab had a headquarters, and I was here to walk the plank.
"One second," the cabbie said, and he got out and walked inside.
I tried to smile at the other passengers. They seemed to suspect something was wrong, and that it was my fault. But they couldn't have known for sure.
The cabbie came back. He looked at me with a pained expression, as though I'd just spit in his soup. "Is your name Birnbaum?"
"No!" I laughed, as though it were an absurd question. As though he hadn't been calling me Mr. Birnbaum for the last five months. "It's not!"
"Do you have permission to use the Birnbaum account?"
"Well, not exactly officially," I said, still smiling. "I'm friends with their son, and he told me I could use it."
The cabbie went back into the building. The other passengers had a much clearer grasp of the situation now. They looked at me with immense satisfaction. Is there any greater satisfaction in the world than seeing someone else caught in some little crime? If I'm doing my job, you're feeling a bit of that right now.
Now the cabbie's back, and this time he gets in and starts the car. He turns to me and says, "The Birnbaum's say you're not allowed to use their account anymore."
So now I'm feeling like Harrison Ford in The Fugitive, after the bus that's taking him to death row crashes. Yes, it's an incredible stroke of good fortune. No, I'm not out of danger yet.
Not allowed to use their account anymore? That's it? No "pay us the money you've been stealing all year?" No "we're calling the cops on your narrow ass?" It was too good to be true. The whole way back to my house, I'm expecting a call to come in saying, "The Birnbaums want to talk to this kid."
My course of action was clear. None of these people knew my real name, my phone number, nothing. If I could get out of this cab before the Birnbaums came to their senses, there was no way they could ever catch me again. There was just one problem: I had to pay for this ride. And of course I didn't have two nickels to rub together. My sole hope was that my mother, or at least her wallet, would be there when I got home.
So when we pulled into my driveway, I said, "I'll be right back" and bolted into the house. Mom wasn't home. I didn't see any of her purses. I started to panic. I didn't need this cab driver ringing up the station and saying I was trying to beat him out of another fare. I started rummaging through drawers, under sofa cushions, everywhere. And then I saw it, in a mason jar above the stove: A crumpled old twenty-dollar bill. My ticket to freedom.
I ran back out and paid the cab driver. He gave me my change. And he gave me something else: a break. He didn't ask me where I got off stealing. He didn't ask me why I'd answered to Mr. Birnbaum all year. He didn't even ask me what the hell I was doing living on Horsechestnut Road, when I'd been having him drop me off on Todd Lane. He just thanked me and pulled away.
And that was the Birnbaum Case. Technically, it was the biggest con I ever pulled. I'd grifted close to a thousand dollars, and, a little embarrassment aside, gotten away with it. But there was a price to be paid. When I told my friends about my little cons, they looked at me differently. Sure, I might have been adventurous and a little crafty, but I was dishonest. Entertaining, colorful, but not someone to trust. And from then on, every time I got to the train station in Briarcliff, I'd stay to the shadows. I didn't want that old cabbie to see the boy he knew as Mr. Birnbaum.