Sunday, April 19, 2015

Millicent and Her Cockroaches

I met "Millicent" in my office at the Archdiocesan Vocational Services of NYC Catholic Charities where I was in a transitional job from private school administration to the vast ocean of Fortune 100 mile-high culture.

Millicent's outward appearance and demeanor hid the fact that she lived on the streets of Manhattan.

Our office counselled people and helped them find jobs. I never guessed this pleasant woman was just using us as a warm dry place to hang out. She looked normal. Her English was fine. She was polite and pleasant, even had a sense of humor. She often smelled, but so do some of my most elegant friends at times!

After a couple of sessions it dawned on me that maybe she could use a decent free meal. So I treated her to lunch. Then this became a weekly ritual.

After a few weeks I realized this was not so good. We did not have the budget to offer clients regular meals—but I didn't have the heart to turn her away.

After about a month, Millicent started talking about her son, a grown man who lived in a single room, somewhere on the lower east side.

And she began to tell me about his cockroaches…

As a former Girl Scout in the southern swamps, I had dealt with bugs—mosquitoes, etc. as well as water moccasins—but the idea of roaches in a Manhattan bed terrified me!

At first, I tried to change the subject at the lunch… but each time Millicent brought her conversation back to the cockroaches…

By then, I realized the lady might not be a serious job hunter…

Our little office on East 52nd street was warm, cozy and friendly. We dealt with a lot of walk-ins, so anyone could come in and be served by one of us.

We had become Millicent's security blanket, I was beginning to see…

When I checked her application form, the address, phone and references all sounded fine.

But after some light detective work it was evident that " Millicent" did not really exist. But the woman did come in weekly to work on a job search.

Only the help she sought was not for a job…

I finally took my concerns to my boss, a devoted churchgoing Irish Catholic from Westchester. (I'll call him Kevin)

After listening to my situation he looked at me with a kind smile.

"I've known 'Millicent' for some time", Kevin said quietly. "The cockroaches are real—but only in her mind. Her name isn't really Millicent. I'm not sure we know her real name."

I stared at him, aghast. Unable to speak.

"You wonder why I let you work with her, " he said. "This woman came here to be accepted as a human being, not to hunt for a job. She could not hold down a real job for one day.

"When you offered to take her to lunch, my superiors and I thought, not only was it a kind gesture, but it might really help her to live a small slice of life like a real person. If only for a little while."

I was angry and stunned.

"Why didn't you tell me?" I stammered. "I'm not just some dumb kid." I blinked away the tears.

"You were a person willing to see this woman as a regular human being," Kevin said. "We'll never know if Millicent is alive now or not… but for a few weeks she felt like she was a real lady. Who was invited to lunch," he added softly.

Sometimes, I look back and wonder what happened to Millicent. And her cockroaches…

And wonder, at times, who else in life is the person we meet in some group or life situation… a Millicent… looking only for validation as a human being… and a little invitation to lunch…

Did you ever meet a Millicent?

If so, did it change your life? Please share it with us here at Crime Writer's Chronicle.

Warmest wishes to you, dear reader.

Thelma J. Straw

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Sorry, Wrong Number

My Dad used to tell me about his love for old-timey radio shows like “Suspense” and “The Shadow” and “Inner Sanctum.” His claim was that the imagination could create images more horrible than anything special effects could manufacture for the movie or TV screen. He also claimed that there was more of an onus on the actors and actresses of these old shows to really carry their parts, as they had no computerized special effects geniuses to save them from mediocrity with their 21st century legerdemain (or to upstage them, for that matter, I could have said, but I wasn’t in the habit or arguing with my father).

When I saw SORRY, WRONG NUMBER (1948, Paramount) I got to thinking about his claims. The movie, starring Barbara Stanwyck and Burt Lancaster as Leona and Henry Stevens, was based on a radio play written by Lucille Roberts. It was basically a one woman play, and Agnes Moorehead scared the pants off listeners so adroitly that Paramount asked Roberts to expand and rewrite the play for the big screen.

Sure, less is left to the imagination on the screen. With Moorehead, you couldn’t see her surroundings, you couldn’t see her, and in the movie we can see the posh, tony, chic bedroom Leona Stevens inhabits quite well (if in black and white) on the big screen, as well as the scale of emotions she runs up and down on her pretty, spoiled rich girl face. But this is still minimalist film making. Stanwyck’s portrayal of Leona has to carry the film, and it does. Most of the drama takes place in phone conversations. No fires, explosions, no trains disappearing into tunnels, no gun battles, aliens, slow motion Kung Fu Battles, death stars, no grand sets, epic scenes, no burning of Atlanta, nothing. Just a woman who, in trying to call her husband, gets cut into a call (this used to happen, I guess, party lines and all that) which she slowly begins to realize is about her own impending murder.

What a grabber, that first scene. Her own murder! And she’s an invalid to boot, and the servants are out for the night, and her husband is nowhere to be found. Alone in her bed, which is so nicely appointed with all kinds of frilly stuff, Leona sprawls in a nightgown that looks fancy enough to wear to a coronation. Poor woman, she can’t interest the police in her plight, and the phone company can’t trace the call after the party has hung up (I guess things have changed in that regard).

I read a NY Times review written shortly after the opening of this movie, and the critic cracked wise about not leaving women alone with their phones to whip themselves into hysterical frenzies (and run up the bill). That would go down as sexist today, and I think it is really true that men are on the darn cell phone as much as women are now, but it was a funny line. And Leona Stevens is a hysteric, and a hypochondriac, and a spoiled rich girl, so it is a little hard for her to get anyone interested in her case, or for us to care about what happens to her.

But slowly we do. Stevens gamely and doggedly pieces the wildly improbable story together, starting by tracking down her husband’s secretary, who leads her to her old college roommate (Sally Lord, played by Ann Richards), who is married to the DA Fred Lord, who just happens to be investigating Henry Stevens. Good old Sally (from whom Leona stole Henry at a college dance) decides to do an imitation of Nancy Drew and figure out why. Far-fetched coincidences, to be sure, but who cares? Suspend a little disbelief, ignore the minuscule chances you would get cut into a phone conversation about your own murder in a city of 8 million, and this movie is great fun, great thrilling and chilling fun, giving you that old frisson of terrified pleasure that good suspense movies do.

There are stunning revelations every time poor Leona dials that telephone. Leona realizes her husband is not who she thinks he is, and that even she herself is not, when her new doctor reveals to her that all her infirmity is in her head and not her heart. Spoiled rich girl or not, nobody deserves what she is going to get at 11:15 pm, a woman alone, who might as well be tied down to a railroad track with the hoof beats of Snidely Whiplash’s horse growing ever louder, ever closer.

And the way she must overcome herself, her own weakness and self-delusion, to save herself is classic. She must conquer her hysteria, get up and walk to the window, to scream for help, but she can’t. Perhaps she can’t give up the power her weakness has given her over her husband and father. She certainly bats them around with it. And maybe unconsciously she just can’t believe anyone will stay with her unless she stacks the deck in her favor, not only with her beaucoup bucks, but with her china doll fragility, her neurasthenia, and her poor weak heart. Doesn’t everyone leave? Didn’t her Mom? (Who died giving birth to her). Can she find safety, from herself, from heartbreak, from an 11:15 appointment with a murderer? It’s what you wish for, but this is noir, and like in any good noir, you are never safe, not from them and, in the end, not from yourself. The bomb ticks, and 11:15 awaits.

The movie flashes back and forth and sideways to give the back story, and it does a good job. Leona’s maiden name is Cotterell, and her father James has made a pile in pharmaceuticals. She meets Henry Stevens (Lancaster) at a college dance and asks him if he goes to Harvard. This starts her off on the wrong foot, as Lancaster is a hardscrabble guy from Grassville (great name for a down at heels town) who has only gumption and good looks going for him. She tries to cut in on him and Sally and he says no, but Leona doesn’t take no for an answer from anybody, but he’s not anybody, and you figure their back and forth, the sexual tension, will resolve itself into a nice romance, that he will tame the shrew and his real talents will be rewarded, a la Horatio Alger, and they will live happily ever after. HA.

They get married, but none of the above happens. He works for her father, in a kind of sinecure, and he calls himself the invoice king, the emperor of paperwork. With the help of the old man, Leona keeps Henry on a short leash, keeps him from taking a job anywhere else, and when Henry insists they move out of her father’s house, she has an “episode” and begins to manipulate him with her ailment as much as her money.

It’s classic. She doesn’t believe he could really love her, and so acts in a way that guarantees he won’t. And he, finding the yellow brick road to American success blocked off, decides to take a very illegal detour, which involves him with some very bad guys, who blackmail him for big bucks, which he can only get by knocking off his wife for the insurance money (and you wonder if he really minds knocking her off anyway—the moral ambiguity is great, classic noir stuff). And so he plans his lovely wife’s murder, but is nice enough to request that they make it quick and painless. If he can’t get by on a smile and a shoeshine, murder will do, especially for a kid from Grassville, from hunger.

Great tension, without any over the top FX type stuff. Could Arnold Schwarzenegger carry a film like this? Carry the whole movie with tone of voice and body language and facial expressions? I don’t think so.

And the great twist is that Henry Stevens has a change of heart, and confesses to Leona, from a pay phone, no less (she already knows, but he doesn’t know she does). He tells her to run to the window and to scream out, do it now (at 11:15 the El comes by and will drown out her screams) but can she overcome her psychological affliction, give up her whole flimsy persona, will she be able to lose her old self to save the new one? Nah. This is noir. Nobody saves themselves.

The movie gleefully fakes us out in two ways: As a thriller, where we think that the doughty Leona and her old college friend/rival will solve the crime and live happily ever after (they solve it, but no one finds happiness) and then with the standard romantic expectation that the lovers will be reunited, reconciled. She will save herself, won’t she? She must. She doesn’t deserve to die, we have found a kind of grudging sympathy for both of them in our hearts, there has to be a happy ending. Doesn’t there have to be a happy ending?

© 2015 Mike Welch

Friday, April 17, 2015

My Wife is Cheating on Me, But I Have a Job Offer in Bournemouth

I don't know where these people are getting my email address.

This morning I opened up my email only to be deluged with the usual flood of clickbait and spam. Five different people wanted me to know that my wife was running around behind my back. Their warnings were accompanied by a photo of a slutty-looking dame young enough to be my granddaughter in the arms of some guy. Click here to find out more. Luckily, I am not yet so far around the bend as to think I have a wife, even in the modern day when women are allowed to have them. Actually I have a husband. He’s not cheating on me. He knows it would hurt my feelings.

So I didn’t click on that one. Nor did I click on any of the emails that offered to spray away my baldness, two sprays every morning. Nor the cures for diabetes (a false disease, they claim. All you need is the right attitude. Click here and we’ll explain everything.) Nor yet on the promises to restore my eyesight. Throw away your glasses! Click here!

I have succeeded in automatically sending all the solicitations from the Party straight to my junk mail folder, ten or fifteen of them every day. The burden of their message is that the kabillionaire Koch brothers are buying up all the elections. To counteract the efforts of these evil men I must send the Party five dollars at once. Never mind how silly it is to imagine that the discretionary income of an old lady on Social Security is going to counterbalance the wealth of the Kochs. That’s not even why I won’t send them money. I won't send them money because I know they would use it to hire more people to bombard me with emails. If elections really are for sale, then I guess they’re going to have to go to the wealthy.

A number of years ago there was a congressman in a neighboring district who was plainly in the pocket of the pharmaceutical industry. I researched to see what Big Pharma had donated to his campaign, and it turned out to be $250,000. The value of our house. “How cheap!” I cried. “Harold, let’s sell the house and buy a congressman.” “What would we do with a congressman?” We decided we’d rather have the house. But I digress.

The daily job offer from Bournemouth is a curious thing. It's one of a number of solicitations that come to my mailbox from the UK. I once ordered a book directly from a British publisher. The book was great. It came in a big mailbag with customs markings all over it. But evidently the publishers sold my email address to various other entities in the UK, shopping and travel sites, even a newsletter for landlords on how to deal with government regulations and brutalize the tenants. All useless to me. I’m too far away to spend a weekend at a Scottish castle and I don’t deal in pounds.

I must confess that the reason I read my mail at all, aside from the occasional notes from relatives and friends, is to see the latest fashions being offered by the likes of Saks Fifth Avenue, Nordstrom, and Neiman Marcus. Most folks would probably consider that stuff to be spam. Still, by following it carefully, I can occasionally pick up a great bargain to swank around Lambertville in. Then there's Shoebuy, which has these great sales.

Shoes. Now you're talking.

© 2015 Kate Gallison

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Why Do Writers Like to Cook?

Yesterday a group of us got together to cook and eat and talk.  Oh, and drink wine.

I know a many writers who like to cook, so I invited a few over to do all of the above.

Here is a photo essay of how it went, pictures courtesy of Gerald Bartell.

The question arose, why do so many writers like to cook?  My quick answer—you do it standing up.

Another possibility, eating the resultant output often involves also drinking wine.

What do you think?

The festivities began with a trip to the fabulous DiPalo Italian grocery on Grand Steet.

Essential ingredients in hand

DiPalo Italian wine store--a great rose' frizzante and a nice Frascati

Gerald Bartell, he can write and take great photos,
but he can also sauté'!

Main course coming along nicely
Richie Narvaez and his fiancee Denise, he pours, she supervises, and bakes
sensational cakes

Treats to keep up the cooks' energy levels.

I demonstrate the old fashioned way to serve polenta.

The first of a several toasts!

Let the feasting begin, including Tim McLaughlin and Renette Zimmerly

Annamaria Alfieri

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Tale of Two Jacks: The Gangster and the President II

Denis Foley, a forensic anthropologist and historical archeologist, is author of the true crime thriller Lemuel Smith and the Compulsion to Kill (NK Burns Pub., 2006). He has a passion for researching the Irish in America whether they be gangsters, martyrs or rebels; most recently “On Tour and Exiled; James Connolly in America 1902-1905” in the 2013 issue of Saothar, the Journal of the Irish Labor History Society. He is working on his debut novel, Murder Most Irish, set in the Bronx and the Inwood Section of Manhattan. This is part two of his Tale of Two Jacks.

Robert Knightly

Part 2: A President Killed by Gangsters?

The Joe Kennedy-Dan O’Connell connection was cemented again in early 1960 when Joe called Dan to get his endorsement of his son’s run for the presidency during the Democratic Primaries. The two business partners came to an agreement and John F. Kennedy got Albany’s delegates. Later, JFK himself telephoned Dan at his home to say thanks. Robert Kennedy visited Dan O’Connell to get his blessing for his run for Senator from New York in 1968. In a lighter moment, Erastus Corning 2nd’s campaign manager once described the Albany Machine as an organization that would be prosecuted today under the RICO Act. Another Irish-American, Joe Kennedy, might also fall under the statute. Franklin Roosevelt when challenged on his appointment of Joseph Kennedy to the Securities & Exchange Commission reportedly said, “Sometimes it takes a crook to catch a crook.”

Although Joe Kennedy Sr. himself had been mentioned as a presidential contender, the business practices on Wall Street of Roosevelt’s former Ambassador to Great Britain and his isolationist leanings prior to WW II tarred his candidacy as not to be taken seriously. Yet, the senior Kennedy’s illicit contacts with alcohol distributors such as Dan O’Connell and the underworld lords in the Midwest and Middle Atlantic States served his son’s Presidential ambitions.

In his 2007 memoir Point to Point Navigation, published by Random house, Gore Vidal, Jacqueline Kennedy’s distant relative and Kennedy White House insider, repeats the idea of a Mafia conspiracy surrounding the death of JFK. Among the first to embrace this tale was Thomas Hartmann and Lamar Waldron in Ultimate Sacrifice: John and Robert Kennedy, The Plan For a Coup in Cuba and the Murder of JFK. Hartmann and Waldron tell how three Mafia godfathers, Carlos Marcello (New Orleans), Santo Trafficante (Tampa, Fla. and Havana, Cuba) and Johnny Roselli (Chicago), while in the employ of the Central Intelligence Agency, organized a plot to kill Fidel Castro, called Plan for a Coup in Cuba, code-named the C Day Plan. The three gangsters thought themselves immune from federal prosecution because they were working for the CIA.

During the 1960 elections, Joseph Kennedy reputedly paid off mobsters in Chicago and Philadelphia to deliver inner city wards to his son. Afterward, the gang leaders anticipated an unofficial truce between the new Democratic Administration and themselves. Attorney General Robert Kennedy broke that truce, as Gore Vidal saw it, to seek glory and self-aggrandizement; others believe Robert Kennedy had become genuinely outraged by the extent of mob corruption in American life when he was Chief Counsel to the McClellan Committee’s Investigation of Organized Crime. Naively, perhaps, Robert Kennedy decided to expose and prosecute the underworld as well as labor leaders like Jimmy Hoffa who had Mafia links. When he did this, he put himself and his elder brother in harm’s way. In retaliation, the mobsters initially decided to kill Robert Kennedy, but Carlos Marcello reportedly told Santo Trafficante: “When a dog bothers you, you don’t cut off its tail.” Thus, the murder plot against the Thirty-Fifth President of the United States was hatched. As early as 1962, Trafficante predicted the assassination during a meeting about a Teamster’s loan. Trafficante also told wealthy Cuban exile, Jose Aleman: “Mark my words, this man Kennedy is in trouble, and he will get what is coming to him.” When Aleman suggested Kennedy would be re-elected, Trafficante allegedly said, “No, Jose, he is going to be hit.”

The trio reputedly targeted the President twice before Dallas. Once on November 2,1963, in Chicago but the motorcade was called off, and again aborted in Tampa on November 18,1963, just four days before Dallas. The gangsters’ plot to murder Kennedy was incompletely investigated and subsequently discounted by the Warren Commission, the conspiracy theorists believe. They point to Commission member Allen Welsh Dulles, longest-serving director of the CIA (1953–1961), who had to be aware of the unsavory Mafia-CIA link, having orchestrated earlier assassination plots against Castro. According to biographer Evan Thomas, in Robert Kennedy: His Life (Simon and Schuster, 2002), Robert Kennedy reportedly told his closest aide that Carlos Marcello had ordered his brother’s death. The future Senator from New York and Presidential candidate himself could not reveal publicly the nature of The C Day Plan and Mafia involvement for fear that the Soviet Union would retaliate in kind. This is the substance of the claims of the conspiracy theorists.

America loves its presidents and gangsters. The Irish American community worshiped John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic president, and vicariously enjoyed Legs Diamond’s exploits. Legs’ parents were born in Ireland. Gentleman Jack dated gorgeous showgirls and defied authority. He appeared immortal. The poor Irish exiles, experiencing the endless toil and low status of immigrants, arguably yearned for the independence, glamour and recklessness of the gangster and the legitimacy conferred upon themselves by having one of their own as President.

The deaths of the two Jacks, one shot at close range and the other from a distance of 531 feet, illustrate how America’s illusions can suppress the truth. Legs Diamond died in Albany, shot by the Albany police. Evidence that Dan O’Connell ordered the hit wasn’t revealed, although many in Albany knew, until Pulitzer Prize-winner William Kennedy published O Albany in 1983, and confirmed at length in a filmed interview in the WMHT documentary Prohibition Story: All Over Albany, in 2011. A dying Detective McElveney reportedly told his daughter Betty, when she questioned him as to the circumstances of the Legs Diamond murder: “Fitz knows and he ain’t talkin’, God knows and he ain’t talkin’, and I ain’t talkin’.” But he did talk, they say, when drunk and in the company of his friends at Albany’s Fire Engine Company Four.

Legs’ Watervliet policeman-bodyguard was tactful enough to be absent the night Dets. McElveney and Fitzpatrick executed Legs in his bed. Those who swear by the truism What Goes Around Comes Around wouldn’t blink an eye on hearing that, in 1945, McElveney shot to death his former partner Fitzpatrick, then the Albany Chief of Police, in his office on Eagle Street, over a long-simmering grievance. He pled guilty to Murder 2nd Degree and was sentenced to twenty years in prison, but only served eleven, pardoned by Gov. Averill Harriman in 1957. John McElveney died of cancer in 1968.
In 1977, the Congress set up the Select Committee on Assassinations to reexamine JFK’s murder in Dallas. The New York City Medical Examiner, Michael Baden, was picked to head a team of eight other vastly experienced pathologists. After months of reviewing the forensic evidence, the Committee issued a “hybrid report” (from which Baden dissented): three shots were fired by Oswald from the Texas School Book Depository and a single shot by an unidentified shooter from the grassy knoll above Dealy Plaza. Dr. Baden’s verdict: “People will go on believing what they want to believe.”

© 2015 Denis Foley, PhD, Curator, Lewis Henry Morgan Institute, SUNY-IT, Utica-Rome


Baden, Michael, M.D., Unnatural Death: Confessions of a Medical Examiner (Random House, 1989).
Hartman, Thomas and Waldron, Lamar, Ultimate Sacrifice: John and Robert Kennedy, The Plan For a Coup in Cuba and the Murder of JFK (Counterpoint Press, 2008).
Kennedy, William: Legs (Penguin Books, 1975); O Albany (Viking Press, 1983).
Leamer, Laurence, The Kennedy Men: 1901-1963 (Harper Collins, 2001).
Levine, Gary, Jack ‘Legs’ Diamond: Anatomy of a Gangster (Purple Mountain Press, 1995).
Robinson, Frank S., Machine Politics: A Study of Albany’s O’Connells (Transaction Press, 1977);
Robinson, Frank S., Albany’s O’Connell Machine (The Washington Park Spirit, Inc., 1973).
Thomas, Evan, Robert Kennedy: His Life (Simon and Schuster, 2002).
Vidal, Gore, Point-to-Point Navigation (Doubleday, 2006).
Foley, Denis: Field Notes (1981-2015).