In Macbeth Heights, it was Holy Writ that Murray Karp had been shot in the ass fighting Fascists in Spain. We children of a working class New York City neighborhood, growing up in the fifties and sixties, absorbed this truth with the truths of baseball, religion, and that college guarantees success.
Murray was the kind of person you never forget, the way you always remember favorite actors. I recall him in his full glory, almost a half century later.
“Fascist bastard snuck up behind me with a pistol and shot me before I could fire back. And it wasn’t like I was retreating,” he would shout when the mood possessed him, which was just about every time I saw him.
Murray’s troubles did not end with the bullet in his butt.
“When I got back home, there were no parades for us, no siree,” he screamed whenever he could corral an audience. Murray was forever trying to cajole the working class people congregated in front of our apartment building, who became practiced at avoiding his broadsides, so his audience usually consisted of young men like me.
“They called us premature antifascists. Like you could be anti Nazi too soon?
“Here I was, fighting for freedom, and what do I get?’”
He would then answer his own question.
“First a bullet in the ass, then blacklisting!
“So now you have me, with a degree from NYU, waiting tables!
“I’m still waiting for someone to set this right.”
Murray ended his exhortations by sweeping his arms upward, upward, followed by a partial swan dive which ended when his chest met his large belly.
I don’t remember my friends and I being angry at Murray. We felt sorry for him, and admired his courage, even if we did not understand him.
Murray was small and round. His head was large and he had a large mole on the tip of his nose. When he walked, he suggested a duck waddling down a lane. Murray was smart, more intelligent and better informed than any father in the neighborhood, even the handful of those with college degrees. He seemed to know everything. The capital of Paraguay? The population of Liechtenstein? The year Newton discovered the Law of Gravity? The thirteenth Vice President of the United States? Murray knew it all.
We used to joke that in Murray’s house, they did not need an encyclopedia because they had Murray.
I was best friends with Murray’s son, Andy, since the age of five, and remained so until I left for college. Andy was handsome, athletic, sharp, and personable. I always wondered why he picked me as his best friend. The nature of our relationship guaranteed that I would have more exposure to Murray than other residents of Macbeth Heights. It also means that so many of my memories of either Andy or Murray are blended with those of the other, that it has become one memory.
Andy shared none of his father’s political passions, which started out on the left and moved further out. Murray Karp was the only person in Macbeth Heights to speak well about the Soviet Union.
“It was Joe Stalin and the Red Army that won the Great Patriotic War!” he would bellow, using the Communist term for what everyone else called World War II.
“Truman and Eisenhower, they were the real dictators!” he shouted at twelve year olds, who knew Ike was a hero, but weren’t sure about Truman’s stature.
Murray’s views were not typical of the neighborhood.
One hot summer evening, when it seemed all of Macbeth Heights was gathered on the sidewalk outside our apartment buildings, folding chairs set up and cold drinks in hand, my own father decided to tell a joke he had just heard. It was about a famous debate between Richard Nixon, Ike’s vice-President, and Nikita Kruschchev, the Soviet Union leader. “So Khrushchev is talking with Nixon, and Nixon says that in America, anyone can get up on a soapbox in front of the White House and shout ‘Down with America!’
“And Khrushchev says’ it’s the same thing in the Soviet Union.’
“Nixon asks, “You mean anyone can get up on a soapbox in front of the Kremlin and shout down with the Soviet Union?”
“And Kruschchev tells him no, but says anyone can get up on a soapbox in front of the Kremlin and shout ‘Down with America!’
Everyone laughed except Murray Karp.
“What’s wrong with you people? he yelled, his fleshy face growing red as the USSR flag.
“How long will you allow the boss to turn you against your fellow workers in the Soviet Union?” he cried, knots popping out along the upper edges of his forehead.
“You should get your news from someplace other than the rags they allow you to read!” he yelled.
“You should read this!” he screamed, yanking a rolled up newspaper from his rear pocket with such force that I feared an attack was imminent.
Then he stormed away.
My father later told me that the rolled up paper was the Daily Worker, the Communist Party publication.
“I’ve been hearing this same stuff for thirty years,” he explained.
“They’ll never stop yelling about the Workers Paradise.” he added.
“You have to come and stay over with me tonight,” Andy implored one weekend afternoon in December. We were in junior high, and on the holiday break.
“Dad’s having some friends over to show slides from their trip to Russia.” Andy explained.
“Again?” I asked. I had kept Andy company when some other friends of Murray’s came by to show slides of their visit to a Bulgarian music festival, featuring a guest appearance by the Red Army Choir. I fell asleep after ten minutes and remembered nothing.
“Okay,” I agreed. We figured we would watch the slide show for a few minutes, then slip away unnoticed.
I arrived after dinner. A dozen folding chairs, set up in three rows, filled the living room. A roll-down white screen stood in front of a wall. Andy and I grabbed two seats in the third row. I saw Murray and Sally Karp, two other couples from the building, and two men and a woman I did not recognize.
Murray took the floor.
“It is my great pleasure to introduce Hank and Mildred Glantz, two of my oldest friends. I met them right after I returned from fighting Fascists in Spain. Hank was organizing Negro sharecroppers in the South and Mildred was running an after-school program for tenement children on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
“Hank lost his job as a teacher during the McCarthy era because he refused to sign a loyalty oath. He’s that kind of guy, I’m proud to say.
“Now he is an editor at a progressive publishing house,” he added.
“He and Mildred just fulfilled a lifelong dream and visited the Soviet Union.
“I’m sure you are all eager to hear what they have to say about the true situation over there, not the crap we get fed by the capitalist media.”
Murray paused and looked at the other gentleman in the room. He was tall and thin. His seater and beret were black.
“This is Lenny Mustler.” Murray said.
“Lenny is a lecturer in the Sociology Department at the New School.
“Teaches a course called Thought Control in America,“ he added. “Used to write for PM before it went under. The ruling class wasn’t about to allow a progressive magazine to spread the word.”
I looked at Andy. He shrugged and smiled.
Without warning, the lights went off, and images appeared on the screen. Hank Glantz narrated, in a nasal, high pitched voice with a strong Bronx accent. He pronounced th if it were a d, and dropped all final consonants. He drew out the letter u . When he told us that “In the Soviet Union, everything is coming along just fine” It came out as “In duh Soviet Yoonion, evrytin’ is comin’ alawng juss fine.”
There were several slides of a tractor factory, and Hank informed us that over the past ten years, tractor production has increased twenty five percent.
“Over half the farms in the USSR are mechanized,” he proudly declared.
“What about the rest?” I asked Andy in a whisper.
“Horses, I guess,” he whispered in reply.
The tractor factory was followed by a long series of slides from a visit to a power plant.
“Ten years ago this plant produced one million kilowatts of power a day. Under Khrushchev, it is now producing two million kilowatts a day!” he told us loudly, beaming with joy.
“Just imagine that,” Mildred chimed in.
Hank droned on over more slides of babushka-wearing women filling baskets with potatoes, concrete boxes which he called luxurious apartments, and unsmiling young men dressed in ill-fitting uniforms,. Andy and I tried to sneak away, but were stopped by Lenny Mustler. I thought about asking him why he was wearing a beret indoors. The thought was interrupted by more of Hank Glantz and his travelogue.
“Just wait until the end. We have something amazing to show you.”
The amazing thing turned out to be a slide of a rack of glasses.
“In the Moscow subways,” Hank explained, “one can buy a cup of delicious tea and drink it in a glass. Can you imagine something like that in the New York City subway system?”
“We have soda machines there,” one of the neighbors in the second row blurted out.”
“You’re comparing capitalist sugar water to good Russian tea?” Hank asked. No one answered.
After the final slide, Andy and I retreated to his bedroom and closed the door. Andy grabbed his transistor radio, and was tuning in the local rock station when he was interrupted by a knock on the bedroom door. It was Lenny Mustler.
“Can I come in and talk to you boys?” he asked.
Without waiting for an invitation, he walked into the room and sat on Andy’s bed.
“So what did you think of this window into the Soviet Union?” he asked.
“Kind of boring,” Andy replied, and I nodded is agreement.
“That’s more the fault of Hank than the USSR,” he replied.
“I wanted to talk to you boys about a really great opportunity.
“I run a group that brings young people from America to the Soviet Union so they can meet people their own age and make up their own minds about the folks that fought with us against Hitler not too long ago.”
This was 1963 and Hitler was still fresh in the memories of all Americans. So was Stalin, for that matter.
“I don’t think my parents would go for that.” I told Mustler.
“My parents probably would, “ said Andy. “But no way I want to go see those Commies.”
Mustler stared at Andy. His beret was sliding to the left.
“That kind of thinking will get you nothing but problems,” he admonished.
“It’s that kind of thinking that nearly got us into a war last year,” he added. We knew he meant Cuba.
“JFK really showed those Commies who’s boss,” Andy shot back.
Mustler ignored him.
“I could talk to your parents if you like,” he said.
“No thanks, I really don’t want to go to Russia,” I replied.
“Me either,” Andy interjected.
Mustler was quiet for a moment. Then he asked if he could leave us with some literature. We declined the offer.
“Well, boys, if you ever change your mind, just let me know. Murray knows how to reach me.” He left the room and closed the door behind him.
“Hope he’s not holding his breath,” Andy said.
A few years later, I was in high school, and like all the other young people, hardly saw Murray any more. When Andy and I got together, it was rarely in our apartments. We were busy with after school jobs, and exploring the wonders of New York City. Murray Karp and his recycled dramas lost what appeal they had a few years before.
Murray did not disappear completely. He occasionally positioned himself strategically in the neighborhood, so that chance encounters were unavoidable.
It happened once when walking home from the subway with Jake Silver. Jake was two years older than me, and had a full scholarship to NYU, where he was majoring in philosophy. He was encouraging me to apply to the school, and at the same time trying to define philosophy to me.
Our conversation was interrupted by Murray, who stood before us, blocking the sidewalk.
“Well, young men, it’s been a while. Have you forgotten your old Uncle Murray?"
“I’m sorry it’s been so long,” Jake replied. “In fact, I was just thinking about you.”
“Really? Why?” Murray asked.
“Well, you know I’m attending your alma mater. There’s a homecoming event next month. I was thinking maybe you’d like to come, see some of your old classmates.”
Murray reflected briefly. A frown crossed his face.
“No thanks,” he said. “When I was having my troubles with the U.S. government, none of those folks would stand up for me. So I think I’ll just pass.”
“Maybe not everybody,” Jake replied. “How about Professor William Crusher? Philosophy? He was teaching when you were there in the mid thirties. He was in Spain same time as you, freelancing, and got some of his stuff published. I’m sure he would love to see you. Remember him?”
“Oh, sure I do,” Murray said with a wan smile. “We crossed paths in Barcelona. I was on my way to the front, and he was off to the telegraph office to send in a story. Still, I’d just as soon pass. But thanks for keeping me in mind.”
“See you around,” Jake called out as Murray stepped aside to let us pass.
I went off to college -not NYU- and my friendship with Andy suffered the loosening of youthful bonds. Just before I left for freshman year, Andy joined the Marines. He was never much of a student, and college was of no interest to him.
“I was going to be drafted anyways, so I figured might as well join the best,” he told me with pride a few days after my graduation, when we drank a few beers in the park. Andy had just tuned eighteen and was able to buy.
“How are your parents taking it?” I asked. Most, I knew, were praying their sons avoided the draft. I was sure Murray wanted his son to get an education.
“You know my Dad,” he said as he took a swig.
“He would feel better if I was fighting for the other side.”
After the last beer, we hugged and promised to always stay in touch.
I didn’t see Andy again for over thirty years, and that was almost twenty years ago. We exchanged a few letters, and then life took over. I heard from my old neighbors that Andy came back from Vietnam unharmed, went to community college, where he became a star baseball player. He played a few years in the minors and had some unsuccessful tryouts win the major leagues. Last I heard he was coaching a baseball team in a small college out West and running a summer baseball camp for teenagers. I heard he was happily married, and had two sons. Then neighbors died and moved and I heard less each passing year, until I heard nothing.
By sheer coincidence, I was back in New York when Murray died. He was still working as a waiter, and suffered a heart attack while carrying a tray of dinner plates. His funeral was the next day, and I found out about this when I stopped by the old neighborhood to say a few hellos.
I arrived at the funeral home shortly before the services. Andy was with a group of older people, neighbors and coworkers of Murray. Except for graying hair, he hadn’t changed much since the night we drank beers and parted. When he saw me, he walked over, and we embraced.
I told him how sorry I was.
“He had a good, long life, and he died on the job, which despite all his complaints, probably made him happy,” Andy replied softly. “He loved the working class, so maybe he was pleased to die as one.”
“He must have been so proud of you,” I said. “Being a college coach, giving him two grandchildren.”
Andy flashed a wide smile, the same smile I remembered from all those years ago.
“He was fine with that. But he never forgave me for one thing.”
“What was that?” I asked, sensing an invitation for the question.
“I voted for Reagan,” he said with a chuckle.
“Me too.” I stage-whispered.
Andy slapped me on the back and said he had to greet the people coming to pay their respects. I suddenly realized how much I missed him.
There was a brief, non-religious service presided over jointly by a rabbi and the head of the waiters union local to which Murray had belonged for fifty years. Andy then took to the podium, standing before his father’s closed casket.
I had not known Andy to be a polished speaker, but his years as a coach and running a camp must have made him one, because he spoke with self-assurance, in a steady voice.
“I loved my father very much, as I’m sure everyone here did,” he began.
“My father was the most passionate person I have ever met, a man who never yielded on his principles.
“We all know what a pain he could be with his endless diatribes, but we all knew that he was filled with love for people, those he knew and those he never even met.
“I could not have asked for a better, kinder father. My late mother could not have asked for a more loving and caring husband."
That was the first I had hard that Sally had died.
How can it be, I asked myself, that my best friend’s mother could pass away and I would not know?
Then I realized that the grown man delivering his father’s eulogy was not the young boy who had been my friend so many years ago.
Where have all the years gone, I thought. I felt something stirring inside, which I knew was the sadness too elusive to grasp and resolve.
“My father was brilliant, the smartest man I ever knew. His mind was like a finely oiled machine, and I think part of his passion was really anger that everyone else was not as smart as he.
“I certainly wasn’t,” he added.
“But today, now that he is gone to join my mother, I have to tell you something I have wanted to reveal for a long time, but out of respect for Dad kept within me all these years.
He had everyone’s complete attention.
“Murray Karp never fought in Spain. He was never shot in the rear end.
“His behind was as intact as anyone else’s.
“I figured this out when I was just a little kid. We were changing in the bathroom out at Rockaway Beach, and I saw his smooth, pink, undamaged butt. I asked him where was the bullet wound. He looked startled and said nothing. That was when I knew the truth.
“He never went to NYU, never went to college, not even for one day. Whenever I asked to see his yearbooks, his diploma, or his class ring, he could never provide them. Just excuses that even a kid knew were lies.
“I figured out long ago that my Dad was not happy just being a great father, a great husband, and a really smart guy. He saw himself as just being a waiter in some dumpy second rate restaurant. So he made up these stories to explain his situation, and made himself out to be a heroic victim. None of it was true.
“So, Dad, today the truth comes out. And the truth is that we all loved you for who you were. We would have loved you the same without all those fake stories you told us all those years.”
Then Andy placed his hand on the coffin for a moment, looked at it with a faint smile and walked away back to his seat.
No one said a word when he returned to his seat. After a moment, a few old friends and neighbors stood up to say their last words about Murray. No one mentioned what Andy revealed.
I did not have a chance to speak with Andy after the service. At the cemetery, he was busy with the actual internment and the guests. I had to leave to catch my flight home. I haven’t seen or spoken with Andy since that day, but every so often he and Murray creep up through the back tunnels my mind. I clearly recall seeing Andy at the funeral, but my mind conjures up the Andy I knew in the early sixties. Murray was always the same.
Many times, when they seize my thoughts, I ponder why Andy revealed the truth. While it did not strike me as intentionally disrespectful, it seemed to have no purpose.
Time has a way of making sense out of what once seemed senseless.
Murray had told a parcel of lies, and I believed every word. In the end it made no difference. The kind words Andy spoke of him that day were all true.
Today I believe that was Andy’s point. He was as sharp as his father.
And he was so right.
Stephen Shaiken is a semi-retired criminal defense lawyer. He writes short stories in several genres, including historical fiction, thriller, literary. Several of his short stories have been published within the past year and a half. His first novel, Bankok Shadows, a noir thriller, is available on Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07C125MS1
His website is www.stephenshaiken.com