“Don’t fall in love with any of the junk. Just sell it and get more junk.” – Manny my main man mentor
I found myself living a kind of John Waters kitschy lifestyle. I was in my early twenties, freshly graduated from College, working, going out to Punk and New Wave nightclubs, and then coming home to an apartment which looked like the set of an odd film noir.
After a night of sweating at dance club, I’d return usually by myself (not by lack of trying to get a young woman on the train) to my working class neighborhood on the Brooklyn, Queens border named Ridgewood.
Open the door to my apartment, switch on the light and I would be satisfied by what I had accomplished as a collector of the odd in a couple of years, with hardly any money.
Figural lamps danced with parchment shades. They were from the forties or fifties. Who knew exactly when these crazy dancers were popular or how or why. One of the dancers was a hula girl, that when you turned her on, she actually hula danced. I was most proud of her. I named her Shirley. I loved my lamps and when they were turned on, I no longer was in a working class neighborhood but a kind of Christmas light fairytale.
Once the lights were on, you’d see my pink beauty parlor chair in one corner and a standing Victorian Coffin which held my big beautiful colorful kitchen bowls and Fiesta-ware serving dishes.
Look to the right! And you would see a jukebox. Look to the left! And you would see a six foot tall Timex display case from the sixties spinning with all kinds of wind up toys, and other novelty items.
In a couple of years, during The Reagan Administration Recession, I was living like a Gypsy Prince!
This is the story of how I got into Collecting odd items, and the Oddball characters I met along the way… And I guess it is the story of how I became an oddball as well, or at least how getting into the business of collecting helped me manifest myself into a “Character.”
After graduating from Queens College with a Creative Writing degree, I suffered. I didn’t know much about getting a job with this piece of paper from the Institution. I did buy myself a Conservative blue suit with pin stripes and wingtip shoes. This was not me. I was used to wearing used suits off of dead guys that I was able to pick up at The Salvation Army for a couple of bucks. At 23, I felt like an aging punk and I needed to get a job using my creativity. So, I bought what I thought employees wanted to see.
Wrong. I looked like an Accountant and not like a creative force. Before interviews, I would read the New York Times on the subway. The economic forecast was so bad that I would sweat and wipe my hands on my face. The newsprint would be all over my face by the time I got to the interview. I looked like Eddie Cantor in black face or I had just been in a Coal Miner accident.
Finally, I got a job doing Production work at Time Inc. I retired the suit and in some ways was broken by the whole process of getting that job.
After graduating, I moved from Flushing to Ridgewood on the Brooklyn/Queens border. I lived on the Queens side, across the street was Brooklyn.
Ridgewood was a working class neighborhood full of hoodlums. It is a heavy old mob neighborhood. The Dutch settled here first. The oldest house standing is in Ridgewood and was built in 1709. By the time I moved in that neighborhood, that house was surrounded by Crack Whores.
Ridgewood was filled with character. There was a pork store on every corner and a cloud of doom over the town. The neighborhood was divided between old Germans who limped, Italians who smoked little Cigars called Guinea stinkers, and Puerto Ricans who worked in the factories and then came home and listened to music at exceedingly loud volumes.
Oh yes, there was a large community of white people who immigrated from The Ozark Mountains in the 1800’s in Ridgewood.
So, look at this diversity. Lots of poor people huddled together, trying their best to make it. Rumor was that Ridgewood had the highest amount of hit men for the mob living there. I heard the old-timers call the “The 5oo Club.” Rumor was there were at least five hundred hit-men living around a bocce ball park.
From my conversation with the Junk men, Antique Dealers Collectors, Cops, Politicians, Junkies and Crack Whores who Manny my mentor introduced me to, I was able to understand that Ridgewood was a heavy hitter for Mob ties at the Restaurant Casablanca, Cafe Gianni and Grimaldi Bakery. Later on the Mob plays a role in my life when they burn me out of my beautiful apartment with all the lamps in it.
My mentor Manny was the most important man in my life after my Grandfather. My Zadie (the Yiddish word for Grandpa) was a war hero. He saved his family (my Grandmother, and three of the children in hiding during the Holocaust.)
My Grandfather, my Zadie was more of a father figure to me than my father. My parents divorced when I was young and my Dad’s family came from a tough mob connected Trucking family. My Dad wasn’t much of a talker and a bit of a Sadist. More about that later.
Let’s get to Manny. On the way from my apartment to the subway, I noticed a ton of people milling about a small storefront… All kinds of movement of boxes and screaming and neat looking furniture.
All kinds of people were sitting in a circle outside on the street with boxes in front of them. Clearly, the old man was in charge of this mad tea party. I immediately wanted to become a member of this Knighthood when I saw Jazz records and old cool looking paperbacks.
“What are you doing with your life?” Manny asked me as I purchased a granny cart’s worth of lamps, and books and records, and costume jewelry, and dishware for ten bucks. Oh, and the ten bucks included the granny cart.
“I’m looking for something to do.”
“This business will keep you busy your whole life. You can never keep up with it.”
“Is that a good thing or a bad thing.”
“Both,” Manny responded in his thin New York Lower East Side accent. He sounded and looked like one of the Bowery Boys. He even wore a hat like Satch.
I worked nights and everyday I woke up and went to Manny’s. Manny’s had everything I wanted from life for a punk kid like myself. My Corporate job at Time Inc. felt hollow. People walked around scared of life, or at least I was too young to get what everybody was scared of talking about. I wanted to hold the cup of life up in the air and celebrate it. It wasn’t happening in this tall monolith of a building in midtown. It was happening for me outside a hole in the wall storefront with all these characters sorting through debris.
Some of the people who came to Manny’s were antique dealers, who weren’t interested in the people, place or stories of old New York. They wanted the desk and gave Manny twice as much money as he asked for.
Most people hung out by Manny for the stories he could tell of what growing up on the Lower East Side was like. He was an Italian kid who worked with a Jewish rag man. They worked with a horse and buggy during the Depression, collecting rags and selling it to…I don’t even know who you sell rags to. I guess to someone who bundles rags and sells it as…rags.
By the eighties, Manny was getting on in years but was known throughout New York. In his twenties, he worked for the Mob in a whore house on 10th street in Manhattan. He took a fall for them and went to jail.
When he got out, they gave him a huge factory. Some say it was the Gretsch Guitar factory. The Mob said, “You are in the clean-out business. When someone dies, you empty the apartment and bring it here. One floor is the beds, one floor is the knick knacks, one floor is the prostitutes and one floor is the stolen goods.”
Manny fell in love with the clean-out business floor, and went on to have 26 stores throughout New York of “Junkshops.”
He knew everybody, was not greedy, would do jobs for no money, or even at a loss, and everybody came to love his quirkiness. I wanted to become him, and in many ways I did.
This is my story, but without Manny, and many other Junkmen, I wouldn’t have the fun crazy stories I am about to tell you.