The Confessions Of A Junkie


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.”