In Chapter 10 of In Your Hat, the 1933 tell-all memoir by Hat Check Girl to the Stars Renee Carroll, she shares tales of the various scams, cons, and rackets one was likely to encounter along Broadway back in the day and the characters behind them, including Harry, the Rose Seller, Dick the Bicyclist, and Angelo, the Newsboy.
KNOWING Owney Madden and Rothstein and thinking of them as racketeers of a higher order makes it just a little bit difficult to train your telescope down the line and pick up such characters as “Harry, the Rose Seller,” “Dick the Bicyclist,” “Angelo, the Newsboy” and the others who infest Times Square with petty rackets.
Still, for sheer ingenuity, Faginesque cunning with any of the harder criminal tendencies, these petty workers of the Main Stem take some kind of cake—and it’s probably sponge.
Because I know Broadway so well, from the tallest to the shortest, I’m also personally acquainted with the petty rackets, but maybe I’m exaggerating when I say petty, because if fifty dollars a night as wages is petty, then I’m Clara Bow and Rin Tin Tin was my favorite nephew.
I got to know Dick, who owns a bicycle and wants everybody to know it, because I used to pass him every night on his beat. After a while he came to know me, too, and would stop me and exchange stories, which was quite harmless.
Dick’s right name is Abie Marcovitch and he was born down on Allen Street. He was one of those kids who get wanderlust at the age of sixteen. So one day, bidding his father a penciled note of a good-by, he bought himself a bicycle with the money he had saved from his Saturday job and pedaled away towards New Jersey.
When he came to Harrison he got discouraged (who wouldn’t?) and decided that the great Wets would probably remain so, without any part of him. So he turned around and started to wheel home. But a few miles later he conceived a brilliant scheme. He was going into the petty racketeering business!
He stopped off in Jersey City and began to carry out his plan. First, he traded in his new bike for a second-hand one. It was a sturdy but dilapidated affair that had seen service on the velodrome floor. Then he visited an old bookstore that carried a sideline of curiosities. Here he selected a collection of used postal cards showing the sights of various countries of the world. The postal cards he pasted on a triangular cardboard which he has mounted within a frame and attached to the rear of his bicycle.
Then he bought a second hand aviator’s helmet, a pair of goggles, a windbreaker and a pair of puttees. These he splashed liberally with mud. Later he purchased a knapsack and filled it with a few essentials including a towel and soap.
With this equipment he proceeded on his interrupted journey into New York. Oh, I forgot,—in red ink he wrote across the postcards of his prowess as a wheelman. “New York to San Francisco in Fifteen Days”, “Paris to Rome”, “Moscow to Vienna”, and other phony inscriptions.
When he came to Times Square, he parked his wheel with a friend until nightfall and then went about his plan. He had it figured out that people are gayest at the time that the theater is over, for then the carefree usually start out on their merry-go-round of the evening.
Well, he parked up on Broadway somewhere, just outside the very busy zone but still in the theater district. All he did was stand his wheel at the curb and lean against it. He was a curious sight for Broadway. Spattered with mud and dust, his wheel was obviously the veteran of thousands of miles, his postcards testifying to his integrity. In five minutes a sympathetic crowd had gathered. Some read the postcards or the messages he had scribbled across them from the mayors of the towns he supposedly had visited. Some asked him questions which he answered glibly.
The racket, as he went on to explain to anybody he could buttonhole, was that he was trying to get to Japan and anything they could help him with would be like manna. After the first night’s work, some two hours of standing and talking, little Abie discovered that he had collected almost $25 for his pains. People were very generous and interested. To some he told stories of hardship and privation encountered in his fake travels; other learned of his proposed jaunt to the Orient—and everybody helped.
It seems that most people have a feeling that they’d like to travel and if they find they can’t but are able to help somebody else to do what they’d like to do by donating a dime or a quarter, more than likely they’ll come across. Besides, Abie was a quick talker, and knew whom to talk to longest.
This kept up for about a week, at the end of which time he discovered tat he was a rich man indeed. During that first seven days he had collected $225, more than he had earned in his whole life and more than his father could earn in two months. Unlike other kids of his age he kept quiet about it, stuck his money in a bank, and kept on riding his wheel up to Times Square every night.
After people got to know him they took him more or less as a joke. But figure out for yourself how much $200 a week is for a year and it’s no joke.
Abie kept it up for about fourteen months. He had to be careful. He was getting too well known to the cops and his spiel to the people about getting off to Japan on the next day was a little worn when the same people who slipped him a couple of dollars on more than one occasion came back to ask about it.
Finally, he rode off one night and I haven’t seen him since. As far as I can remember he worked that racket for about $10,000. I’m not sure but I think I saw him once after that on Broadway. He was dressed up in fine clothes and was escorting a nice Jewish girl. I said hello but he gave me a cold stare that froze my appendix to the spot, and the girl looked at him very suspiciously. If it’s his wife I hope he doesn’t try any petty rackets with her. She didn’t seem the type.
But Abie’s racket wasn’t as nervy as Harry’s. For sheer crust Harry could have sold himself to a pie factory and had enough to spare for his own skullduggery. Harry was a war veteran gone wrong.
He got his Big Idea from seeing other war veterans peddle those buttonhole flowers on days when they were trying to raise funds for something or other. Well, Harry decided to enlarge this idea to his own advantage.
After thinking about it for some time he finally arrived at a scheme that would net him a swell living with little effort.
Harry’s full name is Harry Bardus and he’s been around a lot in carnivals and circuses, fleecing the people whenever he could. But he got caught too many times and he wanted to settle down into easier racketeering channels.
As a result of this resolution he began reading books on everyday psychology and before he knew it he was applying the principles to his racket with a great deal of success. One night, after I was through work at Sardi’s, I watched him.
I’ve never seen anyone work a racket more skillfully, say so little and make so much. First of all, he dressed in a regulation army trench coat which you can buy at any Army and Navy store. This gave him a sort of semi-official look. Added to this he never wore a hat, and this made him appear a little more the ruddy, outdoor type of veteran you see ordinarily.
At the beginning of each evening he would get two dozen small roses. He bought them down in the flower market on Seventh Avenue for about a quarter because they were leftovers and couldn’t be used.
With this stock in trade he took up his post on 43rd Street at Broadway. Whenever a couple would out of the side door of the Paramount, Harry would close in on them. His first act was to take a pin out of his lapel, and without asking questions or saying anything, just maintaining a nice smile that was reassuring and pleasant, he would proceed to pin a rose on the girl’s coat.
Naturally, the girl was pleased with the rose and so was the young fellow with her.
“Thank you very much!” the escort would say and tip his hat.
Harry didn’t open his mouth. He just smiled nicely and kept walking along with the couple. A few steps later the man would thank Harry again. And finally, sensing something amiss, would stop.
“We’re very much obliged for the rose. Thank you again.”
“It’s quite all right,” Harry would assure them. “But the price of the flower is a dollar. Surely you don’t think I could afford to give them away for nothing?”
The could would be stopped then. Sometimes the girl started to unpin the flower to give it back, but more often than not, the young man was taking his girl out for a good time and couldn’t afford to be shown up as a piker for a dollar. So he came across with the buck and a wince. Harry just smiled a cheery “thank you” and came back to his post to wait for the next sucker.
This procedure kept on all evening. When the first two dozen roses were exhausted there was always the Astor shop around the corner where you could get roses for a dollar a dozen. A profit of eleven dollars on a dozen and you could afford to have them grown to order.
One night between 11:15 and midnight Harry disposed of fifty roses, a record for him. He was so elated that he insisted on buying me a soda and presenting me with a bouquet.
“Take it,” he said. “A friend makes them up for me in Havana.”
One of the craziest of the petty workers was Sam Guardia, whose occupation was a fast and fleeting one. He was one of those sidewalk hawkers who employ lookouts to spot the cops and shills to stimulate trade. When you’re a sidewalk merchant and have to employ two or three others to help, then business is certainly bad. But not for Sam.
A shill, by the way, is the confederate who stands by, feigning an interest in the article being sold. Shills are employed in the trick auction parlors in Times Square, in carnivals where a single customer spending a lot of money will attract a mob, in circuses and in almost any form of racketeering where a come-on business is the game.
But Sam didn’t depend solely on his shill. The shill was only a prop in Sam’s bag of tricks. His methods were much more spectacular.
First he appeared on the scene, any street corner in a busy neighborhood, carrying a satchel. This satchel he deposited on the curb. Then, in full public view, he removed his coat and laid it across the satchel. Then he retreated to the building, keeping his eyes all the time on the satchel and not caring whether there was a crowd or not. There wasn’t anybody watching at this time except the shill and lookout.
At the building he would begin to roll up his sleeves slowly, and when his sleeves were rolled up above the elbows he squared off at the satchel and with a whoop took a short run and leaped as far into the street as he was able. If nobody noticed this the first time they certainly would the second and third time, for usually by the fourth jump he had a typical subway crowd watching him jump over his satchel and into the street.
The lookout would move to the edge of the crowd to keep an eye open for cops, and the shill would stand inside. Sam then got to work. Opening his satchel he would taken out a pair of ladies’ silk stockings. Running his hand down inside them he would demonstrate their sheerness. Then, taking up a large nail in the other hand, he deliberately ran the point of the nail along the outer side of the stocking without doing any damage. During this demonstration he would be talking as fast as he could about the quality of the stockings he held. Then, picking up a dozen pairs of stockings he would offer them at three pairs for a dollar. The shill would fill his rôle by stepping forward eagerly and taking six pairs, hanging over a folded bill that was never unfolded but placed in Sam’s pocket to be returned later.
The crown usually fell and forgot all about the satchel-jumping as soon as it sense a bargain, whether it had any use for silk stockings or not. A bargain is a bargain.
However, the minute the lookout signaled that a copper was approaching, Sam folded up his satchel and disappeared from the crowd as rapidly as he had appeared in its center, to meet his cronies at an appointed place. It was all very curious and circus-like, the only hitch being that you could have gone into any five-and-ten store and bought the same stockings for a dime each.
Then there is Angelo, the little newsie, who swears he is a vendor of newspapers. But Angelo’s profession is really that of a tearjerker. He’s a worse offender than Al Jolson and his savings go to his mamma, Mrs. Zabalogione, rather than into horse racing.
Angelo’s trick is to cull sympathy from women subway riders. At the beginning of an evening, that time being selected because 7-year-olds are supposed to be in bed by then, little Angelo buys himself a dozen newspapers, wholesale. Then he enters the subway at Times Square and “opens up his office” for business.
He spots a likely looking lady and walks in front of her.
“Paper, lady?” he asks.
The lady usually refuses.
“No paper, lady?”
“No, little boy.”
“It’s my last one, lady.”
“But I don’t want a paper.”
Then Angelo goes into his act. The Coogans never performed with such abandon of the emotions, for Angelo thrusts his under-lip out and pouts like children will when they are about to cry. Then he looks piteously up at the lady and slowly but surely large, genuine, salty tears well up in his eyes and roll down his cheeks, the first to be followed by a stream that leaves a rut in the dirt.
Naturally, the lady is taken aback. If she isn’t there is usually someone nearby who is, and little Angelo sells a paper. But when he gets a nickel or quarter to be changed he reaches down into a pocket where he knows there is no change and brings to light an empty lining with that same timorous expression on his face working overtime. “Of course the lady says “Keep the change,” and that’s that.
But “that isn’t that” because Angelo, strange as it may read, doesn’t stop at the ordinary. If there’s another likely lady sitting next to the one he just worked, he goes into the same stunt all over again, in spite of the amazement of his previous client. And if there are ten women sitting in a row, he cries for each of them and reaps a suitable reward.
You see, Angelo has been taught to cry before likely ladies and cry he does whether they are one in a hundred or piled on top of each other from Bronx to Brighton.
Angelo’s is probably the pettiest of the rackets but deserves mention because it is deliberate and an act. Even at that it isn’t so petty when a 7-year-old ragamuffin can knock down from three to six dollars a night. Angelo seems to have dropped out of the scene recently—he’s probably gone into the bond business.
It’s needless to mention the fur and perfume rackets; there are so many people cheated by those eggs who want to sell you allegedly stolen stuff. These men dress as delivery clerks, ride around town in trucks and intercept you in the street, calling from their truck cabin, and demanding to know if you would be interested in some “goods”.
If you stop they pull up alongside and sotto voce describe their activities of the day, including the fact that they have been delivering goods for their firm and due to a mistake in checking they find themselves with a bolt of cloth that hasn’t been accounted for and which they would be glad to sell you at one-fifth or one-third the regular price. To prove their honesty they have bills from their house and prices marked showing the value of the material.
After you’ve bought you discover that they were overcharging for the good and realize the whole thing is a frame-up to make you think you’re getting something for nothing.
The same racket holds good for the disposal of fur pieces and the disposition of perfume, usually “Nuit de Noel” which “I just smuggled off a boat on which I am a sailor, lady.” Later you discover the perfume is usually “Nuit de” something else and the whiff he let you take of the contents was the whiff of another bottle.
One of the most profitable rackets in town is the rental of “dirty” films of the 16 m.m. variety. These are the old films reduced from the large 35 m.m. stock to fit home projectors. When you stop to consider that there are a couple hundred thousand projectors in people’s homes all over the country, you can begin to realize the scope of the industry and the money it makes for some people. There are certain stations in the city where these lewd films may be rented. In fact, they are so well known you can go into the places and demand them by name, certain of them being considered “classics” of their kind.
One of them in particular, said to be a film of a famous movie star who needed the money while starving on Broadway, is said to bring rentals of more than $100 a night. The owner of the film is reported to have refused $50,000 for its outright sale. Many who have seen the picture have definitely identified the star.
Another of the famous ones not distributed commercially but which has been seen by several authoritative persons, is an amateur film made by a famous artist. This particular person sometimes shows the film to his friends as his idea of a clever evening. The film includes views of himself and his bride on their bridal night.
There are also lewd cartoon films, available for home protection with the characters in them parodying the famous characters in well known cartoon strips.
Many persons have select libraries of this assortment catalogued as “home entertainment”. Something for the kiddies to find while daddy is out in a speakeasy.
New York is full of petty rackets almost too numerous to mention. If you’re disturbed at midnight from your sleep by men shouting extras with Roosevelt’s name mentioned, it’s purely a racket and the news event is hinged, without doubt, upon the fact that Roosevelt came to work that morning as usual. But there’s no way of getting your money back after you’ve paid the newsboy a dime for the extra. They’re not satisfied with a nickel for a paper that gives you only the weather, which is invariably wrong.
And when the apple sellers were in vogue on every corner of New York, selling their fruit to make enough to feed themselves, there was organized a gang of petty protectionists who engaged in the meanest racket of all. They forced the apple vendors to pay for “protection” on their corners or “get out”.
And I mustn’t forget the small timers who control block parking. By this I mean that every time you park a car in the theater zone or nearby, you are usually accosted by some kid when you return to your car. This urchin is a member of the Useless Citizens League and his job is to try and get a tip from you for supposedly watching your car. If the extortion works, you give him a dime or quarter thinking he has protected the machine. In reality he has done nothing of the sort.
The tipped one in turn reports to a “higher-up”, who controls a “block” of streets and divides with the smaller fry. This “higher-up” demands that when the kid gets the tip he hold his hand with the coin in it directly in front of him, palm up, and walk to his superior immediately. This eliminates the chances of stealing. Ha, ha!
There’s a slew of racketeers that are spread all over the city. These are men who give orders to newsstand dealers, the laundry boys, the night house guards who wreck your place if you don’t pay them to protect you, and a host of others, all indirectly connected with the bigger boys who carry the guns and get sent to Leavenworth. The smaller ones aren’t good enough to visit that institution.
Well, these “control” men have to keep in touch with one another and it was only by the sheerest accident that I discovered how it was done. None of these fellows have any sort of an office, their racket being too small to stand an overhead expense, especially because their jobs require that they move around the city all the time. The device they finally arrived at for passing on messages to one another was the subway.
The sheerest accident by which I discovered their method was in allowing one of these boys to escort me home after I had worked late one night at the restaurant. It was an accident that won’t happen again. At any rate he showed me something I had never known before. It opened up a brand new field.
Jake, I’ll call him Jake because that’s his name, took me down into the subway at Times Square, and as we walked through the tunnel to get a train he stopped at one of the advertisements pasted on the wall. Walking up close to it he peered at the ten inch letters.
I thought he was nearsighted and couldn’t see the ad.
“It says something about Arrow Collars,” I told him. “I didn’t know anyone in the world was that nearsighted.”
“Aw, mouth it, kid. I’m lookin’ for somethin’,” and he continued to squint.
I didn’t quite get the drift and I complained again.
“If you’re trying to rub noses with that handsome guy in the ad, you can’t take me home, Jakie,” I declared and started to leave.
Then he called me over and began to explain what is literally an “underground” code. It seems that whenever the boys had something to pass on to the next shift, they wrote it between the letters of the Arrow Collar ad. They picked the Arrow Collar advertisement because, thanks to some art director, there was always a good deal of white space on which to write, and also because there was usually an Arrow ad in every subway station.
Jake finally found his message. It was:
“Rubin 44 squawks.”
Which, according to Jake, when translated properly means that a store owner named Rubin in 44th Street was bellowing about the cost of protection or the papers forced on him or some other reason known to Jake, and that he was to take care of the matter either by argument or physical persuasion. And, judging by Jake’s arms, he did all his thinking with them.
This message business of the underworld got me interested in signboards as carriers of notes and I discovered that others besides racketeers made use of them. For weeks I copied stuff down in a notebook.
I found that on an ad in a station in the Bronx a young couple had carried on a written conversation for more than a week. They evidently met and went to work together. The messages ran as follows:
“Waited until 9:05.”
The answer was written directly beneath.
“Sorry dear, missed a trolley. See you tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow” the following appeared:
“Waited until 9:15.”
“Awfully sorry,” ran the answer beneath. “I took too long to shave.”
“Waited until 9:17.”
“Don’t be angry, I’ll make it tomorrow.”
“Waited until 9:20. The boss says he’ll fire me.”
“Hello, dear. I couldn’t sleep so I’m leaving at 8:45.”
There were no more notes so I assumed that they met on time after that.
The religious guys are very active in the subways. At 72nd Street on the downtown side I found:
“The Summer is over, the harvest is gathered and we are not saved. Sinner, repent while you may.”
And just beneath it penciled in another hand:
At 125th Street:
“Jesus saves, why can’t you?”
And beneath it is the answer:
“I do, in the Bowery Savings Bank.”
Gentlemen in the bond or cloak-and-suit business compute their earnings, bank accounts and liabilities on the ads while waiting for trains. College students write things like “B at Cornell!” “Hello Mabull!” and other phrases.
In one place I found:
“Marlene has swell legs—oh, baby!”
“”Mathilde J. 136 West—St. Two bucks.”