The Telephone Booth Indian

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The Telephone Booth Indian


    INTRODUCTION, BY LUC SANTEPREFACEMasters of the MidwaySparring PartnerThe Jollity BuildingMrs.Braune's Prize FightersTurf and GridironYour Hat, Sir?The Boys from SyracuseNo SuaveInflectionsThe Boy in the Pistachio Shirt“Pull His Whiskers!”


    by Luc Sante

    Unless you think it stands for a slightly tarnished category of theatrical entertainment, youare probably under the impression that Broadway is merely a street. That street is either theoriginal model, which begins at the foot of Manhattan and runs up to somewhere near theCanadian border, or one of its lesser replicants, the kind Wilson Pickett found in every burg,each of them invariably containing a bar, each bar containing a woman. The idea of “mainstem” is still attached to Broadway, but that is the last vestige of its former glory“Broadway” was once a culture unto itself, with its own tribes, castes, customs, andlanguage. It was somehow connected to the entertainment industry, but its compass was broad,extending well past the theaters. It took in costumers' ateliers and actors' boardinghouses,tradepaper publishers and vaudeville agencies, flea circuses and pokerino parlors, pawnshopsand cafeterias, hair salons and painless dentists that catered to chorines and voice coachesand supperclub magicians and intinerant Swiss bellringing troupes. It also sheltered asubstantial parasitic population, of chiselers and percentage players and seekers after themain chance, of all degrees of probity or the lack thereof and at all stages on the road oflife. Even dineanddash specialists and stormdrain fishermen and people who spent their wakinghours sitting in hotel lobbies had a purpose, however occult, in that complex ecosystem.

    Somehow, though, the students of Franz Boas at Columbia did not consider the folkways ofBroadway to be as worthy of their interest as those of the Trobriand Islands, and so the taskof anthropological investigation was left to the newspapers. These did a decent if unscientificjob of it, at least in disseminating the substance of their findings among the generalpopulation, so that the proverbial inhabitants of Oshkosh, if confronted by a green suit with awindowpane check picked out in magenta, would instantly identify it as a Broadway suit.Newspaper readers could retell jokes that had allegedly been hatched along the counter atLindy's, and had a rough idea how many paces separated the stage door at the Winter Garden fromthe nexttolatest venue of a notable floating crap game. This was all glamourstuff, of course,roneotyped by Walter Winchell and airbrushed by Damon Runyon. The more subtle business, whichoccurred well away from the footlights and among characters less likely to own more than onehat, was left for the feature writers, who did not tend to be syndicated. It did not catch anationwide audience until the mid to late 1930s, when several of the best of these writersfetched up at a magazine that had once primarily covered the bon ton, The New Yorker.

    A. J. Liebling, along with his colleagues Joseph Mitchell and Meyer Berger (who was at The New

     only briefly, an interlude in a long career mostly spent at the New York Times),Yorker

    introduced into those pages all manner of flotsam and riffraff, which they refused to play forcheap laughs or moral scores, treating them instead with seriousness—not solemnity—and evenrespect: mitt readers, bearded ladies, street preachers, bailbondsman, racetrack psychics,promoters of all sorts. Their study of Broadway was so intensive that, for example, MeyerBerger could not only detail the existence of an entire society of chiselers, giving anhourbyhour breakdown of a typical nonworking day, but could go so far as to name the specificstreet corners on which chiselers from different parts of the country tended to forgather(Southern chiselers on 49th and Seventh, New England chiselers on 46th and Broadway.) ForBerger, who hailed from Brooklyn, the study of Broadway was a chapter in a lifelong celebrationof the hidden byways of New York City, which culminated in his beloved Times column of the

    1950s, “About New York.” Mitchell, from North Carolina, also devoted his life's work almostexclusively to the city, and his recurrent interest in Broadway was one facet of his poeticcontemplation of urban microsocieties—fishermen, Gypsies, Bowery bums— with roots that wentback at least to the Middle Ages, if not to the Paleolithic Era.

    Abbott Joseph Liebling, known to one and all as Joe, was actually born in Manhattan, in 1904,but for him New York City and its inhabitants figured among a vast constellation of interestshe returned to episodically over the course of his thirtyoddyear career. Although he wascomfortably reared—his father, who had worked his way up from the Lower East Side, was

    prominent in the fur trade—he maintained an inclination toward lowlife from his youth onward,and he had a knack for finding its traces and effects everywhere, including medieval historyand early French literature. After his expulsion from Dartmouth (for repeatedly cutting chapel;

    New York World, and thenhe later completed his degree at Columbia), he went to work for the

    for its successor, the WorldTelegram, where he wrote many of the short features that are

    collected in his first book, Back Where I Came From (1938). The World was a firstclass paper;

    the WorldTelegram was decidedly not, and Liebling suffered there (anyone confused as to why aprofile of the head of the ScrippsHoward Syndicate should be included in this, a book aboutriffraff, should know that Roy Howard was the WorldTelegram's founding publisher; both the

    profile and its placement were acts of revenge).

     where he first made his name with a profile of theIn 1935 he went to work at The New Yorker,

    Harlembased deity Father Divine, written in collaboration with St. Clair McKelway. The piece inthis book, along with about half the contents of were written in theBack Where I Came From,

    period immediately thereafter, between 1936 and 1939. The first things that will strike thereader about Liebling upon starting to read are his sense of humor,The Telephone Booth Indian

    his virtuoso ear, his timing, his sense of style—and his boundless capacity for appreciation.This appreciation was first and foremost linguistic. As his colleague PhilipNew Yorker

    Hamburger wrote, “Tinhorn entrepreneurs who called the Club Chez Nous the Club Chestnuts senthim joyously humming, in a state of euphoria, to his typewriter.” Liebling as a reporter wasamong other things an impresario, with a nose for linguistically gifted civilians, such asMorty Ormont, the renting agent of the Jollity Building (“whose expression has been compared,a little unfairly, to that of a dead robin”), whose phrasings and coinages make him in effecta contributor to the piece in which he figures, not simply a subject. Reflecting a modernistsensibility, Liebling the impresario saw art in outcomes rather than intentions; thus he madeno special distinction between epigrammatists who successes resulted from their imperfectcommand of English idiom (the boys at the I & Y Cigar Store: “Hymie is a man what knows to geta dollar”) and those whose effects were calculated (the great boxing cutman Whitney Bimstein:“I like the country. It's a nice spot”).

    Liebling also had an eye for the beauty of a con, and if this book has a hero, it is a man who,lying low somewhere, is present only in conversational reference: Maxwell C. Bimberg, aka Countde Pennies (who, according to Liebling's biographer, Raymond Sokolov, was actually a promoternamed Samuel J. Burger). The telephone booth Indians may be gardenvariety schemiels, the cannonfodder of swindling, but the Count is an artist. And if Broadway is a microcosm of the humancondition, then the Jollity Building is a thimbletheater representation of Broadway, an entireworld contained in a single, squat, shabby office building, whose tenants all have their eyeson the prize while they are struggling to assemble twentyfive cents. Most of the subjects ofthe other pieces can also be termed promoters, including Roy Howard and the Shubert Brothers,who are shown as merely more successful representatives of the species— and even they werearguably to be outdone over time by Tim Mara, the teenage bookie who went on to found the NewYork football Giants and whose family owns the team to this day. The book finally has apleasing fullness, as a delineation of an American economic food chain based on guile andpalaver. The steep stratification of this edifice is something that can otherwise be found onlyin the pages of Balzac.

    When this book, Liebling's second, was published in 1942, its author was in the middle ofcovering the war, accompanying the Allied forces from London through North Africa, then fromthe Normandy invasion to the liberation of Paris. Afterward, he became The New Yorker's deadly

    press critic, and simultaneously established himself as the greatest boxing writer of thecentury. He eventually published some fifteen books—the number is difficult to establishprecisely because of overlaps. All of them have gone in and out of print over the years,including the one you are holding, ehich is enjoying something like a fourth life. A. J.Liebling died of multiple causes on December 28,1963. As his friend Joseph Mitchell noted atthe funeral, the secondhand booksellers who were then clustered together in a district onFourth Avenue held his books in special esteem because they were in perpetual demand.

“Literary critics don't know which books will last,” Mitchell quoted a bookseller as saying,

We are the ones who know. We know which books can be read“and literary historians don't know.

only once, if that and we know the ones that can be read and reread and reread.”


    There was once a FrenchCanadian whose name I cannot at present recall but who had a window inhis stomach. It was due to this fortunate circumstance, however unlikely, that a prying fellowof a doctor was able to study the man's inner workings, and that is how we came to know allabout the gastric juices, as I suppose we do. The details are not too clear in my mind, as Iread the story in a hygiene reader which formed part of the curriculum of my fourth year inelementary school, but I have no doubt that it is essentially correct. I believed everything Iread in that book, including the story of the three regiments of Swiss infantry who started toclimb a mountain on a very cold day: the first regiment had been stimulated with a liberalration of schnapps; the second had been dosed with about half an ounce of alcohol per man; thethird had had only milk. The soldiers of the first regiment froze to death unanimously aftermarching only 223 yards; half the members of the second arrived at their destination, afterlosing their fingers, toes, and ears; the fellows in the third regiment not only raced to thetop of the mountain feeling warm as toast, but took the mountain down boulder by boulder andthrew it at a shepherd who was yodeling flat. This is a digression. What I meant to say is thatthe Telephone Booth Indians, a tribe first described by me in a monograph called “The JollityBuilding,” offer to the student of sociology the same opportunity that the fenestratedCanadian gave the inquiring physiologist. The glass side of the telephone booth which forms theIndian's habitat affords a chance to observe all his significant activities. These in turnillustrate the Economic Structure, for the Indian is a capitalist in what my Marxian friendswould call a state of preprimary acquisition. He has as yet acquired not even the nickel withwhich to make a telephone call, and so must wait in the booth until another fellow calls him.

    The Telephone Booth Indians range over a territory approximately half a mile square, boundedlongitudinally by Sixth and Eighth avenues in New York City, and in latitude by the south sideof Fortysecond and the north side of Fiftysecond streets. This in part coincides with what iscalled humorously Broadway, the Heart of the World, and is in fact a sort of famine area,within which the Indians seek their scanty livelihood. Scattered about the district are a fewlarge structures like the Jollity Building, but less imaginary, which are favorite campinggrounds of the Indians because they contain large numbers of the telephone booths necessary tothe tribe's survival. The Telephone Booth Indians are nomads who have not attained the stage ofpastoral culture in which they carry their own shelter. * Like the hermit crab, the TelephoneBooth Indian, before beginning operations, must find a habitation abandoned by some othercreature, and in his case this is always a telephone booth. The numerical strength of the tribeis therefore roughly limited by the number of telephone booths in the district, as a sow'slitter is by the number of her teats. Yet between the Telephone Booth Indian and the great manof the Indian's special world there is only the unessential difference between grub and worm.Instead of spending his working day looking at a coin box, the great man has from three to sixtelephones on his desk. In the land of the Telephone Booth Indians, according to the definitionof my profound friend Izzy Yereshevsky, a successful man is one who knows how to get a dollarand the rest haven't got what to eat. All of the subjects of the sketches in this book comeunder one or the other heading. That is about all they have in common, but there is a good dealthat some of them have in common with some of the others. Mr. Yereshevsky thinks that theTelephone Booth Indian is a key figure in our city and age. He has always refused to allow theinstallation of a telephone booth in the I. and Y. Cigar Store which he owns at FortyninthStreet and Seventh Avenue. “The store is open twentyfour hours a day,” he says, “so if I hada booth how would I get the guy out of it?”

    The only subject of a piece in this book who does not at least make his business headquartersin the territory of the Telephone Booth Indians is Mr. Roy Howard, the publisher. He dresseslike a Telephone Booth Indian's idea of a fellow who knows how to get a dollar, and he likes touse the telephone. However, the main reason that he is in this book is that we needed the15,000 words.

The Author

* Example: Cheyenne, Sea Lapps, Bedawi, owners of trailers.

    • Masters of the Midway •

    ne of the most distinctive periodicals published in the land of the Telephone Booth Indians iscalled the Greater Show World, a trade paper for outdoor showmen. It is edited in one room inthe Gaiety Building, which is not a fictional edifice, by a man named Johnny J. Kline who hasfive typewriters in his office and usually has a sheet of copy paper in each of them. When hesits at one typewriter he is editorinchief, at another he is business manager, and at a third agossip columnist. He writes under different bylines as two other reporters at the remainingtypewriters. The magazine which he gets out all by himself every month is just as big as theNew Yorker, he reminds me whenever I see him, and he says he wonders what the hell the New

     staff does for a living. Since the advertising and editorial departments of the GreaterYorker

     are lodged in adjacent wrinkles of the same brain lobe, they sometimes getShow World

    telescoped, and the result is a spontaneous eulogy for an advertiser. Through the years a pairof showmen named Lew Dufour and Joe Rogers have drawn more eulogies and paid for more ads thanalmost anybody else. The pair never got a chance to work near Telephone Booth Indian territoryuntil Grover Whalen opened his World of Tomorrow over in Flushing Meadows in 1939. When thathappened they showed they knew how to get a dollar.

    Among the shows on the World's Fair midway presented by the firm of Dufour & Rogers, one, “WeHumans,” illustrated the grand strategy of evolution in a somewhat macabre fashion. Areverent, threedimensional presentation of Da Vinci's “Last Supper,” with lifesized models ofthe apostles, trick lighting effects, and a musical background of Gregorian chants supplied bya phonograph with an electrical recordchanging device, was to have been another Dufour & Rogersoffering. They could not find a suitable Catholic organization to sponsor the “Last Supper,”so they dropped it. Rogers says, without any intended disrespect, “The nuns would not playball with us.” Dufour, the senior partner, saw no conflict in the subject matter of the “LastSupper” and “We Humans.” He is a man of a speculative and scientific temperament. “We tellthe customers about evolution,” he says, “but we don't advocate it.” Jang, a Malay boy witha tail six inches long, was a principal in “Strange as It Seems,” another Dufour & Rogersattraction. Dufour wanted to invite all the inhabitants of Dayton, Tennessee, to come to seeJang and draw their own conclusions. Rogers, however, was against the necessary outlay forpostage stamps.

    As the partners had already rented a midway site for the abandoned religious spectacle, theysubstituted a hastily erected saloon and restaurant called the Rondevoo. The Rondevoo made itschief appeal to other concessionaires and their employees— an example of Dufour & Rogersresourcefulness, because, as Rogers said, “The attendance is off, but the boys have got to behere anyhow.” The Rondevoo turned out to be their most profitable stab.

    In deference to Dufour's scholastic leanings, Rogers, an earthy type, sometimes calls hispartner “Dr. Itch.” The firm believes in diversification of investments, as Dufour puts it,or, as Rogers says, spreading its bets. When the Fair opened, the partners had five shows andone ride, the Silver Streak, ready in the amusement area. They also had one of their evolutionshows in operation at the San Francisco Fair. The New York shows were “We Humans”; “Strangeas It Seems,” which they described as a “de luxe Congress of Strange People, Presented in anAirCooled Odditorium”; the Seminole Village, the title of which is selfexplanatory; “Nature'sMistakes,” an exhibit featuring Adonis, the Bull with the Human Skin, and “Gang Busters,” anepic depiction of the dangers and fascination of crime, with reformed gangsters reenacting theSt. Valentine's Day Massacre and Juanita Hansen, a reformed movie actress, lecturing on the

    evils of narcotics, to which she said she was once addicted. They also added “Olga, theHeadless Girl, Alive,” and the restaurant. This list includes about every kind of provedmidway attraction except a girl show, and that omission is due not to prudery but commercialprinciples. A girl show for a world's fair must have a rather elaborate installation, usually aname star, and always a considerable salary list. Moreover, one nude nonfreak woman is muchlike another, and while it is certain that one or two of the dozen girl shows at a world's fairwill make money, nobody can tell in advance which ones they will be. Freaks, crime, fiveleggedcows, and aborigines are staple midway commodities. At Flushing the fivelegged cows camethrough for the firm, but the human freaks lost money.

    Dufour and Rogers began their joint career at the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago in1933 and have figured conspicuously on the midways at San Diego, Dallas, Fort Worth, Cleveland,Brussels, and San Francisco since then. Long before 1933 they had worked separately in thatcurious world of sixty thousand outdoor show people, the “carnies,” who travel from town totown with carnivals. A stranger once asked Joe Rogers whether he had started as a barker with acarnival. “Hell, no,” Rogers replied. “I worked my way up to that.” And anyway, he mighthave explained, no carnie says “barker.” The man who holds forth outside the show to bringthe people in is the “outside talker”; his oration is known as “the opening.” The fellowwho guides them about inside the exhibit is an “inside talker.”

    Banks, as might be expected, are reluctant to lend money to carnival people, so Dufour & Rogersfinance their ventures largely by selling “pieces” of them to other men in the amusementbusiness—owners of touring carnivals, manufacturers of slot machines, and retired circusproprietors. The ease with which they promote money from this skeptical investing public isevidence of their prestige in the profession. Outdoor showmen always refer to important sums as“paper money.” When concessionaires with less of it ran through their bank rolls at pastfairs, Dufour & Rogers bought them out. That way the firm wound up the second summer of theGreater Texas Exposition at Dallas with thirtyeight attractions on the midway, including the“Streets of Paris.” The “Streets of Paris” was a girl show, but even a girl show may provea good investment after the original proprietor's investment has been written off the books.The competition of palefaced indoor showmen, like some of the concessionaires at the Fair whohad a Broadway background, always makes Lew and Joe feel good. “Give me the sky for acanopy,” Rogers once said, “and I will take Flo Ziegfeld and make a sucker out of him. How doyou like that?” The difference between what will draw in Beloit, Wisconsin, and what will drawin New York, they think, is not basic, but is chiefly a matter of flash—the old vaudevilleword for “class” or “style”—in presentation. “You can buy a ham sandwich at theAutomat,” Dufour says, “or you can buy it at the Waldorf. What's the difference? The Waldorfhas more flash.”

    The partners have little of that pure enthusiasm for a freak as a freak that distinguishes someof their friends. A man named Slim Kelly, for example, who managed “Nature's Mistakes” forDufour & Rogers, once spent three months and all his capital in the lumber country aroundBogalusa, Louisiana, where he had heard there was a Negro with only one eye, and that in thecenter of his forehead. Kelly still believes the cyclops is somewhere near Bogalusa but that hemay be selfconscious. Lew and Joe feel that the chance of finding a really new kind of freak isa tenuous thing on which to maintain a business.

    Joe Rogers is a hyperactive man in his early forties, with contrapuntal eyes set in a round,sleek head. He has a boundless capacity for indignation, which he can turn on like a tap.Rogers' complexion, when he is in low gear, indicates rosy health. When he is angry, it carriesa horrid hint of apoplexy. During the last few weeks before a fair opens, he carries on a warof alarums and sorties with contractors, delegates of labor unions, and officials of theconcession department. His theory is sustained attack.

    Once, on being approached by a stranger at the Fair grounds, Joe asked the man his business.“I'm a landscape architect,” the stranger said. “Oh,” Rogers yelled before beginning tobargain, “so you're the muzzler who's going to rob me!” He had a particularly bitter timewith the contractor on one of his buildings in Flushing, a tall, solemn, chamberofcommerce sort

    of fellow whose work Rogers regarded as slow and expensive. “He is a legit guy, abusinessman,” Rogers moaned one day, “and he tries to sell me a soft con!” “Con,” ofcourse, is a contraction of “confidence game.” A soft con is one that begins with a plaint,as, “When I made this contract I didn't know the site was so marshy.” A short con and a quickcon are less humiliating variants because they are aimed at catching a victim off guard ratherthan insulting his intelligence. “Me, a showman, a snake guy!” Rogers continued. A snake guyis one who has exhibited snakes in a pit at a fair. The incongruity of the contractor's attemptto invert the natural order appeared to affect Rogers deeply. “Trying to cheat the cheaters!”he screamed. “I'll wrap a cane around his neck!” And he went out looking for the contractor.

    Before he had gone three steps from his office in the “Strange as It Seems” building,however, he had become involved in a quarrel with two gypsies who sought employment in theSeminole Village. “Me Indian,” said the first gypsy, who was swarthy enough to qualify. “You

     Rogers yelled. “You want to open a mitt joint in my concession! Get outa here!” Agypsy!”

    mitt joint is a booth for palm reading. Its bad feature, from the point of view of arespectable concessionaire, is the frequent disappearance of patrons' pocketbooks. Thisprovokes beefs, which are bad for business. Rogers' life as opening day approaches is anassault in constantly accelerating tempo. Once a fair has opened, he goes to bed for twentyfourhours and wakes up thinking about the next fair on the international schedule.

    Rogers was born in the Brownsville region of Brooklyn, but for the last fifteen years he hasmade his headquarters in the Hotel Sherman, a business and theatrical hotel in the ChicagoLoop. He finds people out there more compatible. Dufour, however, lives in an apartment inForest Hills. Between fairs the partners keep in touch by air line and longdistance telephone.

    Lew Dufour is tall, sallow, and bland, and wears his dark clothes with a sort of mortuaryelegance. Superficially, he does not resemble Rogers. “Mr. Dufour,” a subordinate once said,“is a mental genius. Mr. Rogers is an executive genius.” When Rogers fails to overwhelm anopponent in a business argument, Dufour takes up the task and wheedles him. It is a procedureused by teams of detectives to make criminals confess. As a unit, Lew and Joe are nearlyirresistible. On propositions requiring dignity and aplomb, Dufour makes the first approach. AtChicago in 1934, however, Lew failed to impress General Charles G. Dawes, who was chairman ofthe finance committee for the Century of Progress. The partners had had a successful firstseason at the Fair, but the management wished to shift their “Life” show—an earlier editionof “We Humans”—to a less favorable site for the reprise of the Fair. When Dufour failed tomove Dawes, Rogers leaned forward, pincered the general with his intercepting eyes, andshouted, “You can't do this to us, General! We are good concessionaires. We made a lot ofmoney for the Fair.” The general said, “How much did you make for yourselves?” “Oh,” saidRogers, suddenly vague, “we made lots and lots.” Rogers says he could hear the famous piperattling against the general's teeth from the force of the general's curiosity. “And what doyou call lots of money, Mr. Rogers?” Joe's voice became a happy croon. “What I call lots ofmoney, General, is lots and lots and lots.” General Dawes permitted them to keep their old

    site. Presumably he hoped Rogers might relent someday and tell him. “I just worked on hiscuriosity,” Joe says, “like I wanted him to come in and see a twoheaded baby.” The partnershad made $111,000 on the “Life” show

    A favored type of investment among world'sfair concessionaires is an aboriginal village.Eskimos, Filipinos, or Ashantis usually can be hired at extremely moderate rates to sit aroundin an appropriate setting and act as if they were at home. The city dweller's curiosity aboutexotic peoples, built up by a childhood of reading adventure books, is apparently insatiable.Providing suitable food is not such a problem as it might seem once the concessionaire haslearned the fact, unreported by anthropologists, that all primitive peoples exist by preferenceon a diet of hamburger steak. Dufour derives from this pervading passion a theory that allraces of man once inhabited a common Atlantis, but Rogers does not go so far. He just says heis glad they do not crave porterhouse. Once engaged, the aborigine must be encouraged and, ifnecessary, taught to perform some harmless maneuver which may be ballyhooed as a sacred tribalrite, just about to begin, folks. This is ordinarily not difficult, as the average savage seems

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