by Paul C. Rosenblatt
After my wife Mim died I was lost. Day after day of painful emptiness. I ached. Nothing was interesting. I was just hanging on by my fingertips. Then one day, 14 months after she died, I decided I owed it to her to get back on my feet. But I couldn’t just do it. At 84 there wasn’t much of a “me” left now that Mim was gone. I first had to figure out who I was.
How does a person figure that kind of thing out? I don’t know, but it seemed that I had to have a self that was built on who I had been. Who was I in my life with Mim? And what of who I was then might still make sense as part of the self I would have moving forward? I made a bit of progress thinking that through, but I was stuck because there was another very, very big part of my past life that I couldn’t come to grips with. The person I was before Mim was someone I didn’t know or understand or maybe didn’t want to know or understand. So I couldn’t deal with it. But then I felt trapped and not able to move forward. Instead of being back on my feet I was stuck on my butt, thinking in circles.
One morning I was sitting in the living room Mim and I had shared for years. I hadn’t changed it after she died. Still the same cream colored walls. Still the walnut colored bookcase, filled with books one or both of us cherished. Still the two easy chairs and couch with their faded flowery upholstery. Still the same print on the wall of a forest. I was sitting in one of the easy chairs thinking in circles about needing to get back on my feet but not being able to do it. And then the phone rang. It was a very strange call.
I didn’t reply, thinking it was a spam call. But my pause didn’t deter the person on the other end of the line.
“Agent Jack Smith of the U.S. Justice Department. I’d like to come by to talk about help you can give us with an investigation.”
I assumed it was a spam call, though I never had one like it. Just in case it wasn’t spam, I thought I’d act like he was who he said he was. “Mr. Smith, I’m sure you have the wrong number.”
“No, Mr. Cohen. This is no mistake. We in the Justice Department think you can help us. Would 1:00 this afternoon be a good time to come by?”
“What’s this about?”
“I would rather tell you in person.”
I was curious, and thought I could use a break from thinking in circles. “Okay,” I said, “Give me your supervisor’s phone number. If the person you say is your supervisor persuades me that you are who you say you are, I’ll see you at 1:00.”
After I hung up, I called the number he gave me. The person who answered said she was the secretary to the Deputy Chief, Organized Crime and Racketeering Section, U.S. Attorney for Northern Illinois. She told me that I couldn’t speak with agent Smith’s supervisor, but she sounded authentic and vouched for Smith. And as she talked, the background sounds of a busy office increased my confidence that Smith was who he said he was. So I decided I’d meet with him.
* * * * *
Promptly at 1:00 the doorbell rang. I buzzed Agent Smith past the downstairs security door. When he reached my apartment door, I opened it a few inches with the door chain secured so that it couldn’t be opened further. He held up an identification card and badge. They looked authentic. The picture on the card matched the face on the man at my door, a distinguished looking African-American man. He had on a dark suit, even though it was a hot summer day. He was in his 40’s, balding, muscular, about 6 feet tall, and maybe 30 pounds overweight. He looked safe enough, though like a man who had spent his entire life being serious.
I let him in. Smith had a voice that commanded attention, a military posture, and no patience with small talk. His first words after we sat down were about what brought him to my apartment. “Mr. Cohen, I am with the organized crime unit of the U.S. Attorney for Northern Illinois. We have discovered a new source of information, but we cannot tap into it without unusual help. We think you are uniquely qualified to provide that help.”
I snorted in amusement. “I’m an old man, not qualified to do anything.”
He nodded but clearly didn’t agree with me, because he kept on with his recruiting pitch. “We think your unique qualifications include your age and your past. We know you were once associated with organized crime and served a prison sentence.”
It was a shock to me that he had brought up that part of my life, because that was at the heart of what I had been stuck about. I didn’t understand who I was back then, didn’t like what I remembered about myself, and wasn’t sure how to deal with it or that I wanted to deal with it. But I knew that dealing with it was key to getting back on my feet. Quite a coincidence that a stranger would invite himself over to talk to me about what I had been struggling with. I sat in silence, trying to figure out what forces in the universe brought him to me, what it meant that a federal agent knew I had done bad things and thought that was good, and whether his coming here now would help me. My mind was racing, but I didn’t say anything.
Smith took my silence as an invitation to say more. “In your 20’s you were associated with the Pinky Goldfarb gang and were convicted of assault and numbers running. You served 37 months in prison and have been out of contact with organized crime ever since.”
I sighed. Agent Smith was definitely putting it to me to think about my old self, but I didn’t know if I wanted to think about it now or talk with him about it. I was feeling anxious and replied with words that were comfortable enough to say and moved the conversation away from my criminal past and time in jail. “While I was in prison, the Goldfarb gang was wiped out, every one murdered. So I couldn’t go back to them even if I wanted to. After I was released from prison I got a job as a conductor on the el trains and enrolled in night school. I met Mim, the woman I married, my first week in night school. I earned a teaching degree, we married, and I taught high school science for 37 years. Mim was a wonderful partner, and teaching was a good life.”
Smith smiled the smile people give who want to seem like they appreciate what one has just said but are impatient to get on with their agenda. “Mr. Cohen, because of your experience in organized crime and your age, you can help us in a way nobody else can. Just two miles from here is an eldercare facility, Quiet Shelter. It only admits residents who have been involved with organized crime and guarantees confidentiality for anything that is said there. Elderly residents who know a lot about organized crime can say whatever comes to mind without risk of the information getting to the authorities.”
I laughed. “Makes sense. Lots of old farts babble whatever comes to mind. Organized crime would need a place where their elders could blab without risk to anyone. Do they call it Quiet Shelter because everyone’s quiet about what they hear there?”
He frowned. “I don’t know why the name is Quiet Shelter. But it is a shelter from gang warfare. People from all gangs are safe there, even from gangs that have been at war with theirs. It is also a shelter in that everyone who works there has personal or family connections to organized crime and can be trusted to keep secrets.” Smith cleared his throat. “Now here’s where you come in. We want you to become a resident of the facility for a month and then report to us what you learn about criminal activities.”
Shit! Smith wanted me to walk into a nest of people my age who had done criminal things. Would it be good or poisonous for me to be around those people? Would I discover and come to understand pieces of myself from my criminal and prison days by getting to know them and by becoming a person who fit in with the social life at Quiet Shelter? And did I want to discover those pieces of myself? He was trying to push me into a place where I could possibly learn enough to deal with the part of my past that I’d been stuck dealing with. Did I want that? I felt a rush of anxiety.
And there was also the fact that mobsters beat, mutilated, or killed people who annoyed them. I was often scared in my days in the criminal world and jail. If I was in Quiet Haven as a snoop I’d be scared all the time. I knew what they would do to a snoop if they caught one. Lots of confusing thoughts, lots of anxiety. But I’m a good poker player. So I just looked at him as though I was calmly paying attention as he continued his recruiting pitch.
“My unit is particularly interested in money laundering, but we would use or pass on to other authorities anything you told us about drug dealing, illegal gambling, bribing government officials, hijacking, and other crimes.” He leaned back and watched me, like the devil trying to con me into destroying myself.
I was thinking of saying, “Go to hell! Get out!” But I decided I needed to hear more. Our conversation was pushing me to think in new ways about the old self I needed to deal with. And I was puzzled by why Smith and his people had targeted me. So I asked him: “Why me?”
Smith replied with the assurance of a man who could speak for a powerful police agency. “You have an organized crime past, so you are eligible to live in the facility. The Quiet Shelter staff would assume you know things that some people in organized crime would not want revealed. We think we can trust you because you have not been a law breaker for 60 years, not even a driving violation. You live near Quiet Shelter, so it makes sense that you would choose it. We identified more than 50 people in this part of the Chicago area who could potentially help us. But after checking out everyone you clearly are the best person for the job.”
I wondered what he meant by “checking out.” “Did you people spy on me?”
“We did not follow you or tap your telephone, but we looked through court documents and reviewed your medical records. And one of our agents sat next to you at a teachers’ union meeting last month and did a basic assessment.”
Ha! HIPAA didn’t protect my medical records from the feds, even though they were not investigating me as a possible perpetrator of a crime they were trying to solve. And I remembered the guy at the union meeting. He seemed too interested in me. I thought maybe he wanted to con money out of me, but he was conning information out of me.
Smith continued. “Our man said you were smart and hard to read. I agree with his assessment. I think you would be good for the job. For example, if you were shocked by my invitation to be an undercover informant, I could not tell. And for an 84 year old man, you seem in good shape.”
“Looks are deceiving. Sometimes I almost can’t get up from the toilet or out of bed. Often I black out for a few seconds when I stand up. I have back and hip pain every day. In fact, I’m having trouble right now.” I stood up carefully so as not to black out, but I couldn’t straighten up. My left hip was, as usual when I first stand up, hurting intensely and feeling very unreliable. I didn’t say anything to Smith. I was focused on dealing with my body. I pushed my left hand against the part of my left hip that was aching and walked slowly around the living room. At the end of the third lap my back was hurting less and was less bent over, and my hip didn’t hurt and was working well enough. So I returned to my chair.
Smith had quietly watched me stand up and walk around. Once I sat down he said, “We know from your medical records that you have health problems, and those problems make it believable that you would need an eldercare facility.”
“Ha! Being in bad shape makes me eligible for federal employment. Agent Smith, this is entertaining, far better than daytime television. But I never wanted to be a rat, and I know what people in organized crime do to informers.” I picked up an AARP Bulletin near my feet and tossed it to the side. “It doesn’t sound like anything a sane person would want to do. What would be in it for me?”
He looked at me with a totally unreadable facial expression. He was a good poker player, too. “It is a chance to help your country, and we would pay all your eldercare expenses plus the rent for this apartment while you were in the eldercare home. We would also pay you $1000 a week.”
“Combat pay. But I want to be safe. How could I be safe being a rat?”
“Nobody in our agency will leak information that might compromise your safety. And we would protect you by never using you as a grand jury or trial witness and by making all records of your role in our investigations top secret.”
“So I’d be on my own at Quiet Shelter? If I screw up I’m dead.”
“We would protect you by having nothing to do with you. Anything we did to try to protect you could tip off the Quiet Shelter staff that you are an informant. The plan is that you would be there for a month and out of contact with us. We would debrief you only after your month was up and you left Quiet Shelter.”
“Tough work for an 84 year old with no acting ability. So how would I get in and out?”
“You would apply for admission on your own, and if you apply for one month, Quiet Shelter would automatically discharge you when the month was up and the money you paid ran out. We will not contact your son, but you could encourage him to take you out periodically for walks, meals, and the like.”
My son Zach. I still thought of him as a kid, but he was in his 50’s, had a nice job, and was planning for retirement. I wouldn’t want to endanger him. He would be worried if I went into an eldercare facility, and he would certainly visit and take me for outings. Thinking about Zach made me want to get Smith out of my apartment and give myself room to think things through. I stared at Smith, who was watching me like a cat eyeing a mouse. “Okay, Smith, give me your calling card and a day or two to think about this. I’ll get back to you with more questions or my decision.”
He handed me a calling card and we said our goodbyes.
* * * * *
After he left I went to my computer and looked up the Illinois Department of Health report of eldercare facility inspections. It said that Quiet Shelter had no violations over the past three years. Wow! It’s a rare eldercare place that gets a clean “pass” on any inspection, let alone three years’ worth. Then I did a web search for ratings of eldercare facilities by residents, family members, and friends. There were seven ratings of Quiet Shelter. All were positive, 4 or 5 stars.
I went downstairs, squeezed into my old Honda Civic, and drove the two miles to Quiet Shelter. It was a sunny day, and I don’t see well on sunny days, even with sun glasses. Also, my reaction time is slow, and I get confused in complicated driving situations. But I’m safe enough on streets I know, and the route to Quiet Shelter was along streets I knew. I’d driven by the place hundreds of times, but it had never registered on me. This time I drove slowly by the front, then turned to drive by the side and the back. It was an imposing, four story, red brick building. The grounds were well kept, lots of greenery and flowers. Fences and shrubs made it impossible to see into the lower floor windows or to get close to the building anywhere other than at the entry to the building from the parking lot. I thought about parking in the lot and going in to check out the lobby and get whatever brochures they had. But just imagining doing it filled me with anxiety. It felt so risky. How could I help Smith when what he wanted me to do filled me with anxiety? I turned around and drove home to think things over.
When I got home I made myself a cup of tea and sat down to write my reasons for going along with Smith and for not going along with him. After a few minutes it was clear that my major reasons for not entering Quiet Shelter were the risk to my son and the risk to me. I decided my son would be safe if he didn’t know about my working for the FBI. The risk to me, I could live with. It’s not like I wasn’t taking risks by driving, living alone, or even standing up.
As for reasons to do it, I was way too cynical about the criminal justice system and organized crime to think I could make a dent in the world of crime. I didn’t need the money, and I felt no obligation to Agent Smith. But as I thought about spending a month in Quiet Haven I had a horrible flashback, to a time I had avoided thinking about for decades.
As one of the bullies for the Pinky Goldfarb gang, I had been sent to collect protection money from a Jewish newsstand operator named Morris. I had done dozens of “collections” and knew the routine. I got off the streetcar and strode up to Morris, who was standing in front of his newsstand. It was a cold, windy, dark afternoon in November, and it was drizzling. Morris was a short thin man, with a thin beard, and thin clothing. There was a little boy standing next to him who was also thin and wearing thin clothing. I said with the confidence of an experienced bully who had a violent organization behind him, “Morris, I’m here to collect money that you owe Pinky Goldfarb.” All the previous times when I collected money from a guy running a small business, the guy grumbled about it but always paid his $3.00 or whatever it was. But Morris started screaming at me, “You fucking thief! I hardly earn enough to eat and feed my family. We live in a tiny, dark basement flat with mice and cockroaches. $3.00 is a lot of money to me. Giving you $3 means we will eat almost nothing for days. Look at my little boy Abie. He’s the size of a six year old, but he’s 10. We’re starving. Leave me the hell alone.” He turned and walked into his little newsstand. I said, “Morris. You know bad things will happen if you don’t pay. You will lose your business and who knows what else might happen.” He stumbled out of the newsstand and swung wildly at me with his right hand. I dodged the swing and shoved him away from me. He lost his balance and fell into the street. His head hit the pavement, and instantly a big truck with brakes screaming ran over his chest and head. He was dead. His little boy Abie screamed and screamed.
As people gathered around Morris’s lifeless body, I turned and ran. Three blocks away I staggered into an alley behind a row of stores, bent over and vomited. Vomiting didn’t clean out what was in me. It’s still in me. I earned my living by extorting money from people earning barely enough to survive. Doing that was evil. And then this guy Morris died. I could have saved him. I could have just walked away from him. I could have let him hit me; it wouldn’t have hurt. I didn’t have to push him away from me. So many people going hungry because of what I did. Morris dead. And little Abie an orphan. I hadn’t thought about that stuff for a long time, but I knew it was always in me, always eating at me.
Thinking about that gave me compelling reasons for spending time at Quiet Shelter. My criminal past was at the crux of my being stuck trying to work out who I was. It was who I was in those years in the Goldfarb gang and in jail that I couldn’t deal with or even remember well enough in trying to make sense of my past self. Who was I back then? What was there about me that I could do such harm to people? How did all the other gangsters from those days live with themselves now?
Quiet Shelter would give me a chance to dig into my past. I would get to know people like who I was and hear stories about people doing things like I did. A month in Quiet Shelter might open up closed doors in my memory and tell me very unpleasant things about my old self, but I needed to understand that old self to figure out who I was now and what was reasonable to do next. Maybe I’d learn from others how to live with an evil past. A month in Quiet Shelter could be a godsend.
I didn’t need to ask Smith more questions. I called his office phone and told his voice mail, “This is Cohen. I’ll do it.”
Paul Rosenblatt is a retired professor who grew up in Chicago and lives in Minnesota. As an academic he has published 14 books and more than 200 journal articles and chapters in edited books. As a beginning writer of literary works he has pieces coming out in Streetlight Magazine, Avatar Review, and an edited book of writings.