About the Author
Jerome Charyn (b. 1937) is the critically acclaimed author of nearly fifty books. Born in the Bronx, he attended Columbia College. After graduating, he took a job as a playground director and wrote in his spare time, producing his first novel, a Lower East Side fairytale called Once Upon a Droshky, in 1964. In 1974, Charyn published Blue Eyes, his first Isaac Sidel mystery. This first in the so-called Sidel quartet introduced the eccentric, near-mythic Sidel, and his bizarre cast of sidekicks. Although he completed the quartet with Secret Isaac (1978), Charyn followed the character through Under the Eye of God. Charyn, who divides his time between New York and Paris, is also accomplished at table tennis, and once ranked amongst France’s top 10 percent of ping-pong players.
Read an Excerpt
Little Angel Street
An Isaac Sidel Novel
By Jerome Charyn
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1994 Jerome Charyn
All rights reserved.
He was in a field full of ice. But the ice couldn't hold him. His shoes sank under the freezing skin. He didn't drown. He'd created a splinter in the ice, a crack that widened with the bulk of him. He was too big. He'd always been that way.
He was coming out of a dream. He was in the Hollows, a resort near Morristown, New Jersey, where his daddy had owned a summer and winter palace. It was the most exclusive resort in America. It catered only to black millionaires. And the field of ice had been Sweets' territory when he was a child. It was also heroic grounds. George Washington hid his army in the Hollows during the winter of 1779-80 and outfoxed the British from the same field of ice.
He opened one eye. Somebody was sitting on his desk, wearing a wide-brimmed hat. It was his own point man, Albert Wiggens, who loved to sneak up on him, arrive unannounced. Wig was his most trusted aide, a brutal policeman and member of the Purple Gang, a mythical bunch of Harlem desperadoes. Wig was like some outrider who could cross invisible boundaries and create his own sense of inner space, where no police commissioner, black or white, could ever travel. Carlton Montgomery III, called Sweets, had been a star of the Columbia College baseball and basketball teams. But a knee injury had kept him out of professional sports. He didn't agonize over any missed career. He sat behind his desk, with a begonia he'd inherited from Isaac Sidel, the previous Commish, and dreamt about the Hollows until Albert Wiggens woke him up.
"Wig, you're sitting on an heirloom. This was Teddy Roosevelt's desk."
"A lot of white trash," Wig said.
"But it's my desk now. And remove your butt."
"Oh, I will, Mr. Sweets. I have news for you. I found the Pink Commish."
Sidel would move into Gracie Mansion in another month. He was the reluctant king of New York. And the king had obliged the current mayor, Ms. Rebecca Karp, to have Sweets sworn in as the first black PC. Sweets didn't care about racial gambits, but everybody else did. He had to speak at churches and synagogues and college departments of criminology. He wouldn't accept a personal fee. He donated whatever he got to Cardinal O'Bannon's AIDS hospice on Attorney Street. The cardinal's parishioners didn't want that hospice. But Cardinal Jim was courageous. Sweets admired the man, even though Jim had lobbied against him, had tried to get Isaac to appoint an Irish PC.
"And where is our king?" Sweets had to ask.
"That boy's no king. He craps in his pants morning, noon, and night."
"Where is he, Wig?"
"At the Seventh Avenue Armory."
"What the hell is he doing at a goddamn shelter in Harlem?"
"Sniffing around, like he always does."
"Sniffing for what?"
"Dirty old socks. The white boy's been living at the armory for a week."
"He disappears on us and moves in with a bunch of homeless men? That's weird. He'll miss his own inauguration."
"I'd love that, Sweets. The town runs better without a mayor."
There was malice in what Wig had said. He'd been chief of the mayor's detail, had guarded Rebecca Karp, who sat like a spinster at Gracie Mansion and would see no one. Wig had been her enforcer. And Isaac had sacked him, thrown Wig off the mayor's detail.
"We're going up to the armory, Wig."
"Not me, bro'. I'm not wiping the Pink Commish's ass."
"You'll wipe when I tell you to wipe, or I'll send you to Staten Island to guard all the cow pastures."
"You been around that white trash too long. You beginnin' to look like Al Jolson, a white boy with tar on his face."
"I'll flop you, Wig, I swear."
"Take my gold shield. I'll sell fried catfish on a Hundred and Twenty-fifty Street. I'll make a better living than any police commissioner."
"I'm glad. But you're still going to the Seventh Avenue Armory."
He'd inherited Isaac's black Dodge and Isaac's sick chauffeur, Sergeant Malone, who swallowed pink milk to calm his ulcer. But Sweets preferred to drive himself. He sat up front with his point man. Wig didn't have a daddy who was a millionaire dentist, like Sweets. He'd been brought up by a parade of uncles and aunts on Lenox Avenue. He'd gone to high school in East Harlem and belonged to no honor societies. But he did graduate. Sidel, the wandering police scholar, had talked at the high school, had come with Sweets, one of his rookie adjutants, and Wig hadn't listened to a word, but he'd fallen in love with Sweets' size, six feet six. If the Police Department accepted black giants, then why not Wig? He worked as an auto mechanic, took a crash course in criminology, and passed the police exam. He entered the Academy when he was twenty-two and never even served at a precinct. He was picked up by the First Deputy's office, went undercover, and was like a black Hawkeye in Harlem, sniffing out drug dealers and ambitious bandits. He was shot in the head and was shoved off roofs and fire escapes. He was the most decorated cop in the City, after Vietnam Joe Barbarossa, who was even crazier than Wig until he married Isaac's daughter, Marilyn the Wild. Joe and Wig had sworn to kill each other. Part of the venom came from the fact that they were so much alike. They had no fear out on the street. They'd both dealt drugs and were supposed to be assassins for hire. But Joe didn't have the aura of the Purple Gang around him. He had a suicidal sister and a suicidal wife.
Wig arrived at the Seventh Avenue Armory with Sweets. It was a dusty castle with dark brick walls. He'd never seen a soldier inside the armory, but he'd heard that it had housed a black regiment during World War I. Wig couldn't believe it. His uncle had told him about black cooks and black orderlies who'd attached themselves to white generals and had "grown" into sergeants in the white man's Army, but not one black battler. But his PC was a strange case. Sweets' ancestors had fought alongside George Washington as free men in the middle of the Revolution. That was some powerful shit. Brave niggers kicking some British ass.
Sweets seemed uncomfortable. Harlem had never been his terrain. It was broken country. He couldn't get used to all the abandoned buildings, the yellow grass that grew out of the cracks in the sidewalk, the half-empty beer bottles that lined the curb, waiting for some ghostly drinker.
Wig recognized the men loitering on the steps of the armory. They were whiskey preachers who had lost their congregations, convicted felons who were hiding from the law, brain-damaged psychopaths, Harlem rats who'd gone to school with Wig and couldn't pass the policeman's test. He knew their names, their rap sheets, their sexual preferences.
"Hello, Brother John, hello, Joshua. How's my man?"
"Aw, Wig, you aint gonna bother us?" one of the loiterers said.
"No. We looking for the white king."
The loiterers started to laugh.
"You mean the sucker that's got them delusions? Thinks a mattress in our barracks is better than Gracie Mansion."
"Yeah, that's the king. But don't you belittle him."
"Hell, we wouldn't dis the next mayor of New York. Who's your friend?"
"The police commissioner," Wig said. "Mr. Carlton Montgomery the Third."
"Aint our little fraternity brother still the Commish?"
"No," Wig said.
And the loiterers saluted Sweets. "Hello, Brother Carlton."
Wig shoved them out of the way and entered the armory with Sweets. A guard tried to stop them until he recognized Wig. The guard was carrying a nightstick. He wore a uniform of sorts, with shirt and trousers that didn't match. There was another man behind a glass cage. He was the "night manager," who worked in one continuous eighteen-hour shift, until time and weather merged into some endless midnight fog.
"You can't go in there, Wig, without a warrant."
"You're looking at the police commissioner, Brother William."
"That don't mean much. This is our armory, Wig. Them poor mothers have their rights."
"You wouldn't be hiding something, would you, William? Because if you get Brother Carlton angry, he'll come back with a pair of special prosecutors and shut down this stinky hole."
And Wig led Sweets into the heart of the shelter, a bleak barracks with row after row of beds, like some ultimate unwashed world. The smell was unbearable. It seemed to slide off the walls, circle that enormous room, and descend upon Sweets. He began to cough. He could barely breathe. Nothing in his own privileged life had prepared him for this. He'd come out of a place that still carried George Washington's ghost. He'd had his own nanny, who taught him magic tricks. He could have played for the Harlem Globetrotters, bad knee and all, or become a vice president of the Ford Foundation. But he'd discouraged all search committees. He was a police commissioner standing inside a shelter for homeless men, some of whom had covered themselves completely with white sheets, like figures in a morgue.
He recognized Isaac, who sat on a particular bed in his winter underwear, scribbling words in a long pad. He had no neighbors to bother him. The beds around Isaac were emptied of lost souls.
"Hello, Mr. Mayor."
"Not so loud," Isaac muttered. "I'm using an alias. Geronimo Jones. And don't call me 'Mr. Mayor.' I'm only the mayor-elect."
"But you're our king," Wig said.
"Did you have to bring him?" Isaac asked the police commissioner. "He's a hired gun. I suspend Wig, and you put him back on the payroll."
"That's right, motherfucker," Wig said. "You're a stinky old man. And I'd off you without a contract. I'd do it for free ... how's your son-in-law, Barbarossa? He still sell drugs to college kids?"
"Enough," Sweets said. "Isaac, you can't occupy this bed."
"Why not? I needed a holiday. I can meditate in this room."
"Isaac, you have an apartment on Rivington Street. The City doesn't have to shelter you."
"Sweets," Isaac said, staring at Wig. "Will you send him away? I can't bear him. He gives me the creeps. How the hell did he find me?"
"Harlem's his crib."
"Baby," Wig said to Isaac. "I could have done you while you were asleep, put my piece under your pillow and shot your brains out. I was tempted, Brother Isaac, listening to you snore like a walrus. I could have strangled you, nice and clean."
"Why didn't you?" Isaac asked, with a child's look in his eye.
"I wouldn't make Sweets a widow." Wig started to laugh and walked right out of the shelter.
"He gives me the creeps."
"Isaac, I can arrest you for malfeasance. You're not allowed to impersonate a homeless man."
"Sweets, I'm scared."
"Scared of what? You had eighty-six percent of the vote. It was a landslide."
"Ah," Isaac said, "the Republicans put up a dog."
"The town's crazy about you. It's the hottest romance we've ever had. You can do what you want. The town will go with you, Isaac. You have an open ticket."
"Do me a favor, Sweets. Move into the shelter with me, and we'll talk about tickets. I've read the budget. What happens in nineteen eighty-six? Do we build more shelters?"
"Ask your budget people. I'm not the mayor. I can't tell you what the City can afford."
"That's the problem, Sweets. No one can predict the City's fucking revenues. A two hundred million dollar surplus, they said. And we had a fucking shortfall. I can't find out how many teachers are in the school system. Teachers come and go. That's the answer I get. We're living inside a Leviathan. I can't change things. I'm doing a little research. That's why I'm here. I see guards stealing from people, I see them asking for sex."
"They're like jailors, Isaac, that's all."
"But this isn't a jail."
Isaac put on his shirt, pants, and shoes, knotted his tie, and got into one of his famous winter coats from Orchard Street. He liked to dress "downtown." He needed a shave, but he was still the mayor-elect.
"The cardinal's been asking for you, Isaac."
"I don't talk to cardinals these days."
"I thought Jim was your friend."
"I have no friends. I have supplicants and seekers."
"And what the hell am I, Mr. Sidel?"
"My former First Dep. You'll start asking me favors in five weeks, after my coronation as king. But there might not be a coronation, Sweets. I could skip town, you know."
"Wig would find you," Sweets said.CHAPTER 2
Isaac began to miss that armory the moment he arrived on Rivington Street. He was fifty-five years old, almost fifty-six, and the woman he loved was off somewhere with the FBI. Margaret Tolstoy, a refugee from Roumania. She'd split with the Justice Department, but Frederic LeComte, Justice's cultural commissar, had lured her out of Isaac's bed and back into the fold. She'd been Isaac's roommate for a little while, some kind of guest. The newspapers had discovered her during the campaign, had called her "the mystery woman, Anastasia." But all the papers loved Isaac, and they wouldn't reveal her past.
She'd gone to Odessa during World War II, as the infant bride of Ferdinand Antonescu, the Butcher of Bucharest, who'd slaughtered gypsies and Jews near the Black Sea. He was finance minister of Russian Roumania, and advertised her as his niece. They'd lived in a mansion on Little Angel Street. But when Ferdinand began to starve along with the rest of Odessa, he stole children from the insane asylum and devoured their flesh. He was a fucking cannibal without a future. Ferdinand sneaked Anastasia onto a Red Cross boat and she arrived in America, a lady of thirteen. She joined Isaac's junior high school class. It was love at first sight for Sidel. But it didn't last. Anastasia was whisked away, returned to Roumania, and was only a little item in the war between the FBI and the KGB. She attended a KGB kindergarten, lived with a general, seduced scientists, changed identities until she had one constant in her skull: a dark-eyed boy who reminded her of a gypsy. Sidel.
He'd married, had a child, Marilyn, and now a son-in-law, Joe Barbarossa, but nothing could jolt him as much as that junior high school princess, Anastasia with her torn socks.
The king was all alone. Isaac couldn't inhabit Rivington Street without Anastasia and all her wigs. He believed in astral bodies, but he never seemed to bump into Margaret's emanations in his own little rabbit's hutch of rooms. And so he'd lived at the Seventh Avenue Armory for a week as Geronimo Jones, a fictitious man who didn't have to respond to telephone calls and entreaties from politicians and businessmen and all those other seekers of Sidel. He'd have to form his own administration, find commissioners and secretaries, hire and fire, but he was stalled. He'd be mayor in a month and he'd interviewed no one.
He slept for sixteen hours, like a grizzly bear. Then he looked at the calendar he kept on his shirt cuff. He was due at the Waldorf for a power breakfast with three of the City's biggest real-estate barons. They'd all contributed to his campaign. Papa Cassidy, who was a Mafia go-between, Jason Figgs, the lord of residential real estate, and Judah Bellow, the architect-builder who'd once been an apprentice of Emeric Gray, the baron of an earlier time. Isaac loved Emeric, who'd built apartment-house palaces between the wars, with ornamental balconies and terra-cotta tiles, who'd had a kingdom of artisans at his command, who'd covered water towers with brick turrets, who'd never skimped on materials. Emeric didn't die a rich man. He lost whatever he had during the Depression and was run over by a trolley car when he was eighty-six.
Isaac's deepest pleasure was to turn a corner and stumble upon an Emeric Gray, with its terra-cotta pieces that were like musical scales on a brick and stone wall. Ah, he might have been an architect in another life.
He arrived at the Waldorf. The three barons had rented a private room. They had their own butler. Isaac ordered shirred eggs, like a country squire. Jason Figgs was forty-nine. He'd inherited his father's fortune and quadrupled it. He was old society gelt, a Protestant in a Catholic and Jewish town. Papa Cassidy had married a pornographer's model, Delia St. John. He laundered Mafia money. He'd tried to have Isaac killed, and had become the treasurer of Isaac's campaign. That's how alliances were made in New York. Judah Bellow was the wealthiest of the barons. He'd started with towers of black glass and then returned to the brick and stone of his master, Emeric Gray. But Judah's buildings were dull masterpieces, without Emeric's desire to delight. Their elegance weighed upon you, their ornamentation was much too announced. Isaac despised every single Judah Bellow, but he liked the man.
Excerpted from Little Angel Street by Jerome Charyn. Copyright © 1994 Jerome Charyn. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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