Harry Krakow was reclining on his bed in the corner of his small, sparsely furnished efficiency in Hell’s Kitchen. In one corner was a hotplate sitting on an end table to heat up soup or canned beans. The room also contained a battered chest of drawers he had found on the street. A cracked mirror hung above it, secured by a single nail in the wall. The only window in the place looked out on an airshaft with trash collecting at the bottom.
It was the summer of 1935 and Harry was feeling depressed and at loose ends. He was having trouble finding bookings in the city or along the eastern seaboard for his magic act. His wallet was also on the thin side and he could come up with only a few ways to fill it -- most had substantial risk attached. On the positive side, his rent was cheap and he had few other expenses. He was keeping his head above water but just barely.
His apartment did have the advantage of being close to the Dixie Bus Center. From there, he could grab a ride to Jersey or Philadelphia where he had occasional bookings. The bus depot also had a Greek restaurant in the basement where they served cheap hot dogs. It was also a place where he could pick up girls getting off the bus from Hicksville, USA. Their dream was to seek fame and fortune in New York and Harry could often persuade them he would provide them with the ticket. He was a magician after all.
Remarkably, Harry had been named after Harry Houdini who his father had admired. He had started as a pit musician on Broadway, playing the clarinet. Shortly afterwards, he had begun to hang out with one of the magicians on the vaudeville circuit, Jack Sperling. Jack had subsequently lost a lot of money to Harry in a poker game.
Harry was willing to forgive the debt in return for Jack handing over all of the props from his magic act: silks, top hat, doves, his waist-chop apparatus, and so forth. Jack also taught him some rudimentary card tricks and sleight of hand moves. Harry’s quality of life had improved somewhat from being in the pit orchestra but he was not a featured vaudeville act and just seemed to scrape by.
Desperation was in the air in the city in general, partly the result of the bread lines and masses of people out of work. However, cheap entertainment was also in high demand. The vaudeville theaters had begun to offer movies, alternating with the live acts, but management did not have the money to book any of the top grossing flicks. No, he understood that his days on the stage were numbered. Both he and vaudeville were on a downward course. He needed a new gig and he needed it fast. However, he did not realize that it would soon be thrust upon him, almost magically.
That very night was to be one of the most eventful in his life. He strode out on the stage as the second act of the bill at the Hippodrome Theater. He warmed up the audience with some rudimentary tricks, pulling doves out of his pockets. He then brought some people up on the stage and dazzled the audience with common misdirection routines. People clapped.
Things were going well up to that point when he brought his lady assistant, Trixie, out on the stage. He had met her up at the Dixie Bus Center several months before. She was a runaway from Pittsburgh, trying to avoid the wandering hands of her father and her loser boyfriend. It was now time for his “disappearing assistant” trick.
Trixie did a few dance steps to get the full attention of the audience. This was hardly necessary because her outfit barely covered what needed to be covered. He proceeded to hold a large blue silk scarf over her head. He dropped it suddenly and it floated down to cover her whole body. Presto chango. It ended up on the stage floor – Trixie, though, had disappeared. Harry performed a graceful pirouette, arms swirling in space. This final trick got a pretty good hand as he exited stage right.
He maneuvered through the crowded backstage and pushed open the door to his dressing room, anxious to get his makeup off and change out of his tux. He needed a drink badly and had made arrangements to meet Trixie in his dressing room and take her out for a late dinner on Broadway. She was not only his on-stage assistant but his current squeeze so he was humming in anticipation of the evening awaiting him.
To his surprise, the dressing room was empty. He returned backstage and asked some of the stagehands if they had seen her. None had. He then called her roommate with the pay-phone backstage. Her roommate said that she had not seen Trixie since that morning and assumed that she would return in the evening or the next morning.
Harry returned to his apartment, expecting to hear from Trixie with one of her typical lame excuses. However, no news about her came that night and even during the next several days. He finally gave up and assumed that she had blown out of town or whatever with nary a call or a note to him. Typical Trixie behavior.
“Oh well,” Harry muttered to himself. “Easy come, easy go. I did think that we had something good going. I need to pick up another assistant plus perhaps girlfriend. Off to the bus station tomorrow to scout for candidates.”
Two days later, Harry was walking along Broadway when a long black car pulled up to the curb, just adjacent to him. A heavy-set man jumped out of the back seat and scurried over, blocking his path.
“You Harry Krakow?” he asked aggressively.
Harry sensed that this was not going to be pleasant. “Yea, who wants to know?” he said.
“My boss, Big Lou Gigante. He wants a meet with you now at the Italian-American Social Club in the Village.”
“Let me check my appointment book which, fortunately, I have in my pocket,” Harry responded. “I may have some available times at the end of next week.”
The beefy guy grabbed Harry’s arm and roughly pushed him into the back seat of the car. “Do you need me to define the word now? Big Lou’s time is also limited. He’s a capo and he wants a parlay with you ASAP.
“Let’s roll,” he said to the driver, a skinny guy sitting behind the wheel.
The Italian-American Social Club was exactly as you might imagine it. A dilapidated store front with the windows papered over to shut out the light. In the main room was seven round wood tables and chairs. There was an espresso machine in the back of the room and a couple of skinny Italian boys with white aprons taking orders.
It was not possible to miss Big Lou who was lounging in one of the chairs with his belly hanging over his belt, which was barely doing its job. A couple of his lieutenants were sitting at an adjacent table, playing dominos and talking softly. Harry was walk-shoved by the beefy guy over to Big Lou’s table and pushed into one of the adjacent chairs.
Big Lou grunted and began to speak: “Kid, I saw your act at the Hippodrome with my wife Aurora the other night. We were both impressed when you made your assistant disappear, who was a knockout by the way. You don’t happen to have that same blue silk scarf on your person right now, do you?”
“Yes, I do, Mr. Big Lou,” I replied. “It’s my lucky charm and I never go anywhere without it. It’s in my pocket. Why do you ask?”
“Here’s the deal,” Big Lou grunted, now slightly lowering his voice. “Things are not going so well with my wife Aurora these days. Dinner not on the table when I get home. A lot of nagging. A little boring in bed, same-o same-o, if you get my meaning.”
Harry nodded vigorously to show that he was listening but was, at the same time, not exactly sure where this chat was heading. Whatever the direction, he needed to convince Big Lou that they were now best buddies to avoid any future damage to his face or other important body parts.
“So,” Big Lou continued, “it occurred to me that you might be willing to provide Aurora a little vacation somewhere else with me keeping the home fires burning.”
“Vacation?” Harry asked.
“Sure! Aurora is outside in the car. I will have one of the boys bring her in. She’s a big fan of your act. After she sits down, pull out your silk scarf and show it to her. While she’s looking at it, throw it over her head. She will disappear and I will get my vacation from her nagging. I, in turn, will be VERY grateful for your services.”
With that, he extended his hand for a handshake. However, their palms did not exactly meet because there was a wad of bills wedged between them. Harry glanced at his palm. He was unable to count the number of hundred-dollar bills in the wad but there were many. He quickly pulled his hand away, stuffed the bills into his pants pocket, and pulled out his blue silk. The deal was done.
“I am anxious to meet Aurora,” he said.
“See how easy it is for friends to do a deal,” Big Lou responded with an affirmative nod.
One of his associates, seeing his gesture, exited to the street and then escorted inside a large, 50ish woman, who was breathing heavily but smiling broadly at him. This was apparently Aurora. She wedged herself into the chair beside Harry, which creaked with this new challenge.
Big Lou started speaking before she was seated. His voice was rising with a sense of anticipation. “Aurora, my darling, I want you to meet Harry, the magician we saw the other night at the Hippodrome. He will show you the blue silk that he threw over his assistant to make her go away.”
Aurora rotated in her seat to face Harry directly. She smiled at him and extended her hand for a shake while mumbling how much she liked his act. Harry was nonplussed and unable to make small talk under these tense circumstances. Would the silk cover her, he wondered? There was no trap door in the immediate vicinity that he knew about. He quickly unfolded his blue silk, and threw it over her head.
“I think my life is about to change,” Harry mumbled out loud. Aurora grunted slightly and then disappeared. The silk floated down to occupy the chair that she had previously and amply filled.
After this disappearing trick and a round of attaboy’s from the audience in the room, Harry headed home by cab. Over the next week, his life improved considerably due to the recent cash infusion. He moved to a new, decent apartment near his last place. He was eating better and was able to hire an agent who found him some new bookings. He also bought some new magic tricks that would serve to dress up his act.
He had occasion to be walking down Broadway again about a week later when a familiar black car pulled up to the curb. Same beefy guy jumped out and pushed him into the back seat.
One sentence from him: “Big Lou wants another word with you.” Harry knew the drill better this time. He reclined in the seat. The car headed south to the Village and he once more entered the door of the Italian-American Social Club and saw Big Lou, his new best friend, sitting at his usual table. He beckoned in a casual way for Harry to sit down next to him.
“Thanks for coming to see me again,” he said, ignoring the fact that this was not exactly Harry’s choice.
“To tell you the truth, I’ve been missing Aurora,” he blurted out. “Well, that’s not entirely correct. I have been missing mainly her cooking. Bring her back!” he said decisively.
Harry broke into a cold sweat and started to breath slowly. His forehead was now drenched and he replied to Big Lou slowly.
“I’m so embarrassed but I need to tell you a little secret, Mr. Big Lou. I have no idea where Aurora is.”
“Oh, I get it,” Lou responded. “You’re holding out on me for more money. Well, two can play this game,” he muttered, gesturing for one of his burly henchmen to come over to the table.
“No, I‘m being honest with you,” Jack replied, with a catch in his voice. “I don’t know why or how my trick works. No idea whatsoever. I can’t bring back your wife or even Trixie, unfortunately. I don’t know where the hell they are.”
“This deal is beginning to make me very sad and perhaps even very angry,” Lou shouted. He then leaned back in his chair with his belly extended and appeared to be deep in thought. However, he then stood up quickly and addressed Jack in a statesman-like fashion.
“I have cogitated on this matter and have decided that I wanted Aurora back for the wrong reason – her cooking. I can now eat out more at restaurants and choose the stuff that I like. Leave her wherever you put her, Mr. Magician – the Bronx, Queens, Staten Island, wherever. I now got something else to tell you.”
“I have decided to put you in charge of my personal trash removal service,” Lou continued.” I shudder when I think of the time and trouble we get to eliminate guys who have been welshing on their street loans. It’s a very messy business and takes up too much time. Inefficient from a bottom-line perspective. No, my new plan is better. You will join us as an associate of the family starting now and helping us from time to time with your silk cloth. I really don’t care where these scum bags end up – I just don’t want them here.”
Harry slowly got up and left the room, talking out loud to himself on the street: “So, my life journey is now taking a turn from vaudeville magician to trash disposal for the family. However, I have come to view this as only a temporary career change. I will have my scarf in my pocket at all times. If things get uncomfortable with my new friend, Big Lou, I have a way to correct the problem.”
“The key question will then be whether it will be big enough to cover him with one throw. He’s a big guy! I may need to ‘disappear’ him in pieces. How do I know if it will work on him? I’ll need to experiment with some big stray dogs on the street maybe. I guess that I’m OK for now but I need to devote more time to career planning in the future!”