I first became a junkie when I was nine years old, but I was finally forced to give it up when I reached fourteen. Although almost everyone around Denver’s Curtis Park was a junkie in those days, no one seemed as deeply involved as I was. For five long years it was touch and go every Saturday morning, week after week, until mid-July in 1934, when my junking came to an abrupt and nearly tragic end.
Pablo Perez was my most constant fellow junkie, and Mario Siletto would join us now and then, whenever he could manage to stay out of reform school. Having never been caught flagrante delicto, Pablo and I miraculously avoided reform school all those years. Perhaps I’ve made junking seem more serious than it really was, because in those permissive times it was actually semi-legal or only quasiillegal, depending on one’s semantic bent. Indeed, most of our junking merely involved collectingjunk (mainly whiskey bottles and discarded clothing and shoes) in the back alleys of Denver and reselling it to the rag-andbottle dealers on Larimer Street; but occasionally we would go beyond mere “collection” and engage in outright theft, especially when Mario came along to give us the benefit of his fine Sicilian hand.
I mention the word “Sicilian” rather casually, but I must frankly admit that our junking activities were strictly regimented by a kind of teen-age mafia that informally assigned specific alleys to all the junkies in our neighborhood; and pity the poor fellow who poached on another man’s preserves. The older boys—Julius Lavio, HalfCracked Mendez, Pocho Lujan, Stump Fresquez, and Fatso Garcia—quite naturally assigned themselves the better alleys behind the big hotels and apartment houses or that very special alley behind the red-light district on Lawrence Street. These were the plush areas where you could usually find or steal the higher-priced junk such as empty whiskey bottles, broken jewelry, and dirty underclothing. Poor Pablo and I were relegated to the lesser pickings in the middle-class areas off Colfax Avenue.
The mafia, however, was not entirely sacrosanct. Once in a while Pablo and I would rebel against our assignments and would boldly go junking in one of the better districts. On one such occasion we were nearly involved in a kidnapping plot. Unknown to us (or almost anyone else, for that matter), a prominent Denver millionaire had been kidnapped and was being held for a fifty-thousanddollar ransom. The kidnappers had asked the family to place a paper bag filled with unmarked bills in a trash bin of a house on Franklin Street. On the very morning the ransom was supposed to be collected Pablo and I decided to scavenge for junk in the alley where the designated trash bin was located. Just as we had expected, the first four or five ashpits and trash containers were well stocked with empty bottles and other salable items, and we were bubbling with optimism. But when we started to open the lid of a large, green wooden trash bin near the middle of the block, four men suddenly jumped from an adjacent garage and pounced on us.
“’All right, you punks!” shouted the apparent leader. “The jig’s up. You’re under arrest.”
“But I’m only ten years old!” Pablo screamed. (He was always given to non sequiturs, especially in the presence of cops.)
“Shut up, punk! I’ll do the talking. Now you’d better tell us who sent you here and where we can find them. And no monkey business neither.”
“Julius—Julius Lavio!” Pablo was in obvious panic. So was I—but mine was a shell-shocked and mute panic. “Julius gave us this alley … but only for today. It’s really Fatso’s alley. Most of the time it’s Fatso’s alley.”
Finally I found my voice. “We’re only junking,” I stammered. “Julius tells us what alleys to junk in so nobody goes in somebody else’s territory. We’re only junking, mister officer.… There’s our wagon.”
Two of the officers grabbed the wagon and quickly rummaged through the bottles and old clothes we had already scavenged. “Maybe they’re right, Sarge,” one of them said. “They’re just junk collectors—that’s all. Maybe we jumped too soon.”
“We got the wrong guys,” said the other.
On a second try the kidnappers got their ransom, and the abductee was promptly released. The news account of the first attempt mentioned two unidentified Mexican boys. “I’m sure glad they didn’t put our names in there,” Pablo said, ’”cause Julius would give us hell for taking Fatso’s alley.”
Chastened by this misadventure, Pablo and I refrained from poaching until we were unable to resist the alley normally assigned to HalfCracked Mendez, who had just been sentenced to the reformatory at Buena Vista for peddling marijuana in the vicinity of Manual High School. His junking route extended several blocks through Denver’s downtown business district, and this special circumstance eventually caused me to digress into the rather improvident habit of collecting stamps. One of the trash bins behind an export-import company on Sixteenth Street had a dismally low , yield in whiskey bottles, but the postage stamps from Japan and India were a joy to behold. Pablo, of course, looked upon my sudden philatelic ventures with infinite scorn. “Don’t be a pendejo , man,” he would say in perfect pocho English. “Ese business don’t pay ni un penny.” Nevertheless, it was a postage stamp—a beautiful blue and yellow stamp from Ethiopia—that brought our partnership to a near rupture. I had found it on a tattered Manila envelope and was carefully detaching it when Pablo decided it was his, basing his claim on the vaguely legalistic principle that I had taken the envelope from a trash can on his side of the alley. Quite naturally, I refused his demand upon the far more ancient and honored principle of prior possession. The grubby fight that followed was neither legalistic nor principled. He, in fact, bit my right forearm almost to the bone, and I countered with a rather telling snap at his left ear lobe. The stamp, meanwhile, was torn beyond all recognition.
It took several weeks for Pablo’s ear to heal properly, but when it did we resumed our junking activities with a semblance of friendship. It was Mario’s brother Guido who broke the ice between us when he remarked: “I understand the Little Cheese bites back when you bite it.” I was the Little Cheese he was referring to; Guido himself had given me the nickname. My older brother, quite logically, was called Big Cheese, and my other brother was Middle Cheese. Only my sister was spared the grim logic of Guide’s nomenclature. I suffered the indignity of that nickname with a rather grudging good-guy-ness (imagine the prom queen turning you down with a snickering “I’m sorry, Little Cheese, but I’m booked for every dance”) until I moved out of the neighborhood to attend college. And I had almost forgotten my nickname when, while eating in a restaurant in Los Angeles some years ago, I ran into Half-Cracked Mendez. As I started to greet him with quiet decorum his raspy voice boomed halfway across the dining room: “Hey, Little Cheese! Howthehell are ya? Some guy tole me you went to Yale [pronounced suspiciously like “jail”] and become a doctor. How about that!” Then to his friends: “Me and Little Cheese we went to Gilpin School together and now he’s a goddamned doctor. How about that?” When I tried to explain that the school was Harvard and that my degree was in law rather than medicine, he brushed me aside. “What’s the difference, Little Cheese, so long as ya got a briefcase. Like I was telling you guys, me and this vato was in school together back in Denver.”
In any event, Pablo and I continued our weekly forays in the back alleys of Denver until mid-July, 1934. To be more precise about it, the specific date was July 15 and the exact hour was 3:30 P.M. I have ample reason for remembering the minute details of that particular afternoon. For several days prior to the fifteenth Pablo and I had been carefully observing a secret and ominously punctual operation in the alley behind Tito Lavio’s big house on Arapahoe Street. At exactly 3:28 every afternoon Mr. Lavio’s houseboy would run out to the ashpit with .a large paper bag held tightly against his chest. Cautiously but very quickly he would lower the bag into the cement ashpit and scurry back to the house. Two minutes later—at exactly 3:30—we would hear the muffled roar of Knocky Bernstein’s souped-up roadster coming down the alley at what then seemed a blistering speed. Drawing near Lavio’s house, he would slam on his brakes and skid to a screeching stop next to the ashpit. Then he would jump out of his car, yank the metal door open, grab the bag previously deposited by the houseboy, and scoot away with a huge, six-cylinder racket. The whole pickup operation took less than fifteen seconds. Since everyone knew that Lavio was a bootlegger, we could naturally assume the bag was loaded with bottles of rotgut whiskey. “Must be ten bottles in a bag that big,” I whispered to Pablo about the sixth time we watched Knocky execute his fast caper. “Imagine the money we’d make.”
On the following afternoon, without even mentioning the word “hijack,” we made our move. Hiding behind Pacheco’s brick wall, we watched the houseboy deposit the bag in the ashpit, clenching our sweaty fists in terror. Then, just as he disappeared into Lavio’s house, we rushed across the alley and pulled out the bag with frantic, terrified haste. It was heavier than we had imagined, and both of us had to heft it back across the alley and into Pacheco’s garage. A minute later we heard Knocky’s roadster barreling down the alley and skidding to a stop. Then we heard him cussing like a pirate. But ten seconds later he was gone. We huddled inside the garage for nearly a half hour before either of us spoke or even twitched a nostril. Finally we lugged the bag into an adjacent vacant lot and hurriedly poured all the liquor out of the bottles, leaving a puddle of whiskey an inch deep. No longer frightened, we were unutterably happy at the prospect of selling the empty bottles to our favorite rag-and-bottle dealer. “They’re all half pints,” I kept saying with obvious glee. “All of them are half pints.” (By some curious twist of bootlegger logic, half-pint bottles sold for two cents, whereas a full pint sold for a mere penny.) It never occurred to us to try to sell the bottles with the whiskey in them. We were summing up our expected income when my brother Fred appeared on the scene. In one quick glance he realized that we had hijacked Lavio’s whiskey, and his anger was enormous. But what nearly bowled us over was not his anger, it was his fright. “You could get killed for something like this,” he raged. “Those guys are gangsters! Not only are you stupid idiots, but you’re also damned fools.”
That was the last time we ever went junking.