The brownstone buildings that lined Chelsea’s 23rd street were all about the same. They were five story buildings. Elevators were required at six stories and so these were all walk-ups. The retail stores at street level were the same dimensions as the buildings themselves - twenty feet wide and fifty feet deep.
My typewriter shop was the same as the others: one thousand square feet, deep and narrow. My desk, positioned at the far back left corner, had a view of all that went on. Framed in the store window was the façade of Saint Vincent de Paul, the church that stood directly across the street. I would sometimes think that it was a Parisian scene out my window rather than New York.
As was often the case I was alone that afternoon when two men walked in. The first was short and wiry, sporting a big smile and a neatly trimmed pencil thin mustache under a wide brimmed fedora hat. He seemed at first glance, friendly and self-assured.
Getting up from my desk to greet him I noticed that the second man, who looked like a linebacker for the New York Giants had positioned himself in the doorway - and there he stayed.
I tried not to pay too much attention to the fellow blocking the door whose bulk caused me to inwardly name him “No Neck.” It bothered me that he made no move to come in, but I put that nagging doubt aside. Approaching Fedora Hat I said hello and asked how I could help him.
He had moved towards a display of the then new electronic portable typewriters.
“Tell me about this one.”
He was pointing to a new Smith Corona model that sold for $399.00. I had hardly begun to speak, not even to tell him that I could, and would discount the listed price when he said cavalierly, “Looks good. I’ll take it.”
“That was too easy,” I thought as we walked back to my desk to write up the sale. And as I looked outward, there was No Neck still filling up the doorway.
Fedora Hat sat easily at my desk as I wrote the invoice and as I looked up he handed me a credit card. Card readers of any type did not exist and so I imprinted the card on a sales receipt. Remember: this was long before the internet or any other electronic connections and the next step was a telephone call from me to the banks service center to receive an authorization code which would approve the purchase.
The phone rang and the person on the other end asked for the pertinent information. I responded with the card number, expiration date, dollar amount, etc.
And the conversation continued.
“Just answer yes or no to my questions.” The voice on the telephone said and then proceeded to tell me that the card had been stolen at gunpoint some thirty minutes before.
“I’m calling the police as we speak,” the voice continued, asking me to try and keep them there as long as possible.
So there I sat. Fedora Hat, across my desk and only a few feet from me very likely had a pistol in his belt. And No Neck, standing expressionless, was still blocking the door.
I looked up and smiled as easily as I could to Fedora Hat thinking that my intent was to get them out of my store as quickly and as easily and as safely as possible - not keep them there as long as possible as I had been asked to do.
“I bet your last payment has crossed in the mail,” I said as casually as I could while telling him that the sale had not been approved.
It was almost as if there was a relief on his face. Fedora Hat obviously knew that the card was now worthless, and he also knew that I knew it as well.
I wondered what would come next. Would the police come barging through the door, encountering No Neck at any moment? Was I in any immediate danger?
Fedora Hat stood up easily and with a certain distinct flair. He walked away from my desk and stopped about ten feet away. He reached into his pocket as I watched nervously, but his hand came out holding the credit card. With a big smile he flipped it back the ten feet onto my desk.
“Here kid,” he said. “You might as well make the fifty bucks !”
The banks gave a fifty dollar reward to any merchant who recovered a stolen card, and he obviously knew it.
The two men walked out together. Turning right and heading for Sixth Avenue, they were immediately lost in the crowded sidewalk.
I sat down, or collapsed in my chair reliving the whole thing.
About ten minutes later a cop came running in. I remember thinking that even then, when I was a young man, the cop looked as if he should have been in junior high school.
I walked out onto the street with him and pointed east, towards Sixth.
“They went thataway,” I said and went back into my shop.
A fifty dollar check arrived a few weeks later.
Harmon Rangell, has been married to the same good woman for 58 years. He is a father, grandfather, retired businessman, writer, part time musician, collector of Bonsai trees, and self-described “Pool Room Junkie.” His novel “Jake’s Tale” is available at Amazon.com.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org