“It’s absolutely unconscionable,” the young man said loudly, shaking a banana in front of the fruit peddler’s face. “It’s simply not to be believed. It’s unbelievable.”
Murray Tepper looked up from his newspaper to see what was happening. Tepper was sitting behind the wheel of a dark blue Chevrolet Malibu that was parked on the uptown side of Forty-third Street, between Fifth and Sixth. Across the street, an argument was going on between an intense young man in a suit and the peddler who set up a stand on Forty-third Street every day to sell apples and bananas and peaches to office workers. Tepper had seen them go at it before. The young man was complaining about the price that the peddler charged for a single banana. The peddler was defending himself in an accent that Tepper couldn’t place even by continent. There had been a time when the accents of New York fruit peddlers were dependably Italian–Tepper had for years thought of “banana” as a more or less Italian word, in the way that some New Yorkers thought of “aggravation” as a more or less Yiddish word–but that time had long passed. As the young man in the suit practically pulsated with outrage, the peddler repeated a single phrase over and over again in his mysterious accent. Finally, Tepper was able to figure out what the peddler kept saying: “free-market economy, free-market economy, free-market economy. . . .”
It was six-thirty on a Tuesday evening in May. The air was mild. For ten days, there had been clear skies and spring temperatures, disappointing those New Yorkers who liked to complain every May that the weather had changed from bitterly cold winter to brutally hot summer as if God–a stern and vengeful God–had flipped a switch. Tepper was comfortable in the suit he’d worn to work that day–a garment that was in the category he sometimes referred to as “office suits,” slightly worn and maybe a bit shiny at the elbows. He thought of his office suits as the equivalents of the suits a high-school teacher nearing retirement age might wear to school. In fact, Tepper thought of himself as looking a bit like a high-school teacher nearing retirement age–a medium-sized man with thin hair going gray and a face that didn’t seem designed to hold an expression long.
There was plenty of light left on Forty-third Street. Tepper was reading the New York Post, which he still considered an evening paper, even though it had been coming out in the morning for years. The proprietors of the Post could publish it any time of day they wanted to; Tepper read it in the evening. People who had finished up late at the office were walking briskly toward the subway stops or Grand Central. A few of them, before going their separate ways, stopped to chat with colleagues at building entrances. The chats tended to be brief, perhaps because the entrances still smelled something like the bottom of an ashtray from a full day of smokers having ducked out of their smoke-free offices to pace up and down in front of the building, taking long, purposeful drags and exchanging nods now and then, like lifers in the exercise yard greeting people to whom they had long ago said everything they had to say.
Aside from an occasional argument over the price of fruit, Forty-third Street didn’t provide much entertainment for Tepper. Forty-seventh Street between Fifth and Sixth, just a few blocks uptown, would undoubtedly be livelier. Forty-seventh Street was the diamond district, after all, and it had always fielded an interesting variety of pedestrians–Hasidic Jews taking a break from their diamond-cutting jobs, young couples on their way to buy an engagement ring from a dealer who had apparently given a very good deal to some acquaintance’s brother-in-law’s uncle, innocuous-looking security people on the alert for thieves who knew that any number of people walked up and down Forty-seventh Street with thousands of dollars’ worth of diamonds jangling in their pockets. Tepper had, in fact, bought his wife’s engagement ring on Forty-seventh Street many years before, from a man whose device for building trust was to confide in the customer about the perfidy of other dealers.
“See that one over there,” Tepper’s dealer had said, indicating with a quick jerk of his eyebrows a small man in the booth across the way. “Perlmutter. I saw him sell a piece of cut glass to a young couple by implying, without actually saying so in so many words, that it was a four-carat diamond that may have been–may have been, he wanted to emphasize; he didn’t claim to have proof of this–worn by Marie of Rumania. The boy he was talking to was a yokel, a farmer. You could practically see the hay coming out of his ears. He looked like he came from Indiana or Idaho or one of them. Perlmutter had to spell ‘Rumania’ for him. Maybe ‘Marie,’ too; I don’t remember. The yokel bought the ring. A shonda was what that was, young man. A scandal. A disgrace to the trade and to those of us trying to make an honest living. Now, let me show you a small but elegant little stone that, to be quite frank with you . . .”
Forty-seventh Street would be livelier, Tepper thought, although the dealer who’d pointed out the wily Perlmutter was undoubtedly long gone and these days a lot of young couples probably bought their engagement rings over the Internet.
Behind Tepper, a car was coming slowly down Forty-third Street. As it passed the imposing structure occupied by the Century Club, it slowed even more, and, a few yards farther, came to a stop just behind Tepper’s Chevrolet. Taking his eyes away from the paper for only an instant, Tepper shot a quick glance toward his side mirror. He could see a Mercury with New Jersey license plates–probably theatergoers from the suburbs who knew that these streets in the forties were legal for long-term metered parking after six. The New Jersey people would be hoping to find a spot, grab a bite in a sushi bar or a deli, and then walk to the theater. Good planners, people from New Jersey, Tepper thought, except for the plan they must have hatched at some point to move to New Jersey. (The possibility that anybody started out in New Jersey–that any number of people had actually been born there–was not a possibility Tepper had ever dwelled on.) He pretended to concentrate on his newspaper, although he was, in fact, still thinking of the state of New Jersey, which he envisioned as a series of vast shopping-mall parking lots, where any fool could find a spot. The Mercury’s driver tapped his horn a couple of times, and then, getting no response, moved even with Tepper’s Chevy. The woman who was sitting on the passenger side stuck her head out of the window and said, “Going out?”
Tepper said nothing.
“Are you going out?” the woman asked again.
Tepper did not look up, but with his right hand he reached over toward the window and wagged his index finger back and forth, in the gesture some Southern Europeans have perfected as a way of dealing with solicitations from shoeshine boys or beggars. Tepper had been able to wag his finger in the negative with some authority since 1954, when, as a young draftee who regularly reminded himself to be grateful that at least the shooting had stopped, he spent thirteen miserable months as a clerk-typist in a motor pool in Pusan and had to ward off prostitutes and beggars every time he left the base. An acquaintance had once expressed envy for the gesture as something that seemed quite cosmopolitan, but Tepper would have traded it in an instant for the ability to do the legendary New York taxi-hailing whistle that was accomplished by jamming a finger in each corner of the mouth.
He had never been able to master that whistle, despite years of patient coaching by a doorman named Hector, on West Eighty-third. Tepper had encountered Hector while looking for overnight parking spots in his own neighborhood, in the days before his wife managed to persuade him to take space for his car by the month in a multilevel garage a few blocks from their apartment. He hadn’t seen anybody use the fingers-in-the-mouth whistle on the street for a long time. He hadn’t tried it for a long time himself. Was it something that might simply come to him, after all these years? Now that he wasn’t trying it several evenings a week under the pressure of Hector’s watchful eye, might it just appear, the way a smooth golf swing sometimes comes inexplicably to duffers once the tension of their expensive lessons has ended? He was about to jam a couple of fingers in the corners of his mouth to see if the gift might have arrived unannounced when he realized that the Mercury was still idling next to him, making it necessary to remain focused on the newspaper.
“He’s not going out,” the woman shouted to the man at the wheel, loudly enough for Tepper to hear.
“He’s not going out?” the driver shouted back, sounding incredulous. “What do you mean he’s not going out?”
“He probably parks there just before six and sits there so he can tell people he’s not going out,” the woman shouted.
The driver gunned the motor in irritation, and the Mercury from New Jersey pulled away. Just past the entrance to the Princeton Club, it briefly stopped again, the occupants apparently having mistaken a no-parking zone in front of the post office for a legal spot. Then the driver slowly made his way toward Sixth Avenue, speeding up suddenly when a spot came open on the left and screeching to a halt a moment later as a sport-utility vehicle two cars in front of him positioned itself to go into the spot. The woman got out of the Mercury and shouted back toward Tepper. “It’s your fault!” she said. “That should have been our spot! It’s your fault. Making people waste time talking to you! You ought to be ashamed of yourself.”
Tepper, pretending not to hear her, went back to his newspaper. He was reading a story about an office betting pool that had been held every week in a commodities-trading firm for as long as anyone in the firm could remember. A committee of the firm’s partners met regularly to decide on each week’s pool topic, always based on current events. The office pool had been a subject of press interest before. During the Vietnam War, some people objected to the pool’s being based for several weeks in a row on casualty figures. One of the firm’s partners responded by saying, “People who don’t want to play hardball should get out of the game,” but the casualty-figure pools were quietly dropped in favor of pools based on how many tons of explosives would be dropped on North Vietnam that week.
The commodity firm’s pool was back in the news because it had been based that week on how many people would be cited for hailing a taxicab incorrectly. The mayor, Frank Ducavelli, as part of his never-ending campaign to make the city more orderly, had declared a crackdown on people who stepped out in the street to hail a taxi rather than remaining on the curb, as required by an ordinance that nobody but the mayor and his city attorney had ever heard of. Tabloid headlines didn’t have the space for the mayor’s entire last name. It was known that when Frank Ducavelli first became a force in the city he had hoped that headline writers might refer to him as the Duke, suggesting not only nobility but the Dodger great Duke Snider. Given the mayor’s interest in order and his draconian response to anyone who disagreed with him, though, the tabloids tended to go with Il Duce. The item Tepper was reading about the weekly pool at the commodities-trading firm was headlined il duce edict hot commodity.
The taxi drivers had objected to the enforcement of the ordinance, of course, and the mayor had called them vermin. The senior staff attorney of the New York Civil Liberties Union, Jeremy Thornton, had said that Ducavelli’s attempt to enforce the ordinance was “another of the spitballs that our mayor regularly flings at the Constitution of the United States.” The mayor had replied that Jeremy Thornton had a constitutional right to demonstrate that he was a reckless and irresponsible fool but that he should probably be disbarred anyway, as a public service. When a city councilman, Norm Plotkin, usually a supporter of City Hall, pointed out that someone flagging a cab from behind a line of parked cars was unlikely to be seen, he had been dismissed by Mayor Ducavelli as “stupid and imbecilic–someone who obviously has no regard whatsoever for public safety and is totally unconcerned about citizens of this city being struck down and killed in the street like dogs.”
Years before, in an article about how jokes get created and spread around, Tepper had read that commodities traders were at the heart of the joke distribution system. The article had inspired him to test a list of licensed commodities brokers for a client who was trying to sell a book of elephant jokes through the mail, and the list had done fairly well–well enough to justify its use again to sell a book of lightbulb jokes and a tape-cassette course on how to be a hit at parties. Tepper had decided that the actual trading of commodities must not require a lot of time if traders could engage in so many extracurricular activities, like organizing betting pools and distributing jokes.
Tepper could hear the drone of another car moving slowly down the street behind him. He decided to use the backhand flick if the car stopped next to him. He had perfected the backhand flick only that week–a speeded-up version of someone clearing away cobwebs while walking through a dimly lit attic. He used only his left hand. Without looking up from his newspaper, he would flick his fingers in the direction of the inquiring parker. It had taken some time to find precisely the right velocity of flicking–a movement that contained authority but lacked aggression.
From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Tepper Isn’t Going Out by Calvin Trillin. Copyright © 2002 by Calvin Trillin. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.