Scallops on Credit

When I moved into the neighborhood, it was still Italian but already a shell of its former wise-guy self—like the old-timers on the corner in their pointy boots and creased polyester pants, smoking cigars and cigarettes and swirling bodega coffee in paper cups. Here, for now but not forever.

Sure, there was still the coal-oven Italian bakery with its fresh-baked bread cooling in straw baskets and the old widows dressed all in black, counting coins from a small purse and laying them on the worn marble bakery counter. And Ann’s hair salon was alive and well, with the women in the salon chairs competing over whose hair could be more bluer, more bigger, more better.

I got to drink in the wise-guy bar on Madison Street, not because I was a knee breaker but because I wasn’t. And it didn’t hurt that I used to help my old next-door neighbor, Sadie, do things around the house, like take down the heavy gold fake velvet winter curtains and put up the yellow sheer spring curtains, or change the shower head while her wise-guy son, Anthony, held court at the bar. He always bought me a drink, or two, and if anyone looked at me kinda funny, Anthony would say, “He’s okay. He lives in my building.”

There were all kinds of characters back then, and I had names for most of them: “Pint-half-pint,” who was always walking around with a pint or a half pint of vodka tucked snugly in his back pocket. And there was “Chinese Charles Bronson,” a brooding Chinese guy who looked just like Bronson; and there was George, “the second-story man.”

And then there was the Italian guy who held court at the Greek coffee shop on Catherine Street; whenever he saw a pretty Puerto Rican girl, he would slide into the booth next to her and say, “ Did you know that any time I want I can go down to the Fulton Fish Market? I know everybody there and if I don’t have cash, no problem! They give me my scallops on credit. Do you know how connected you have to be to get scallops on credit?” So naturally, I started calling the Italian guy, “Scallops on Credit.”

Jimmy, the driver, drove a box truck for the New York Post at night. His truck would be parked on South Street in front of the loading dock. I used to sit on bundles of soon-to-be delivered newspapers and smoke pot with Jimmy, and when the teamsters went on strike, I watched Jimmy drive his truck with one hand and swing a baseball bat at scabs with the other.

The Italian bakery is now a Buddhist temple. The Fulton Fish Market moved to the Bronx. The Greek coffee shop became a Chinese noodle shop. Pint-half-pint disappeared, and so did Chinese Charles Bronson. George, the second story man, went back in the can, and the New York Post moved to the Bronx. Sadie died, and so did her son. The wise-guy bar is empty and for rent.

The neighborhood changed; that’s what neighborhoods do. Everything is different now, everybody’s gone. Except for Scallops on Credit. I see him every morning on my way to work as the sun starts to rise over Catherine Street. Scallops on Credit is standing alone in front of the Arab bodega, frantically jabbing his fingers at his cell phone and wildly swinging his cane, and yelling, “How you doing?” to anyone who walks by.

Darryl Graff lives and works in NYC.