Needles, The Right Hand Man

It's 1944 in Detroit at Jordan's Bar when a young medical student is pressed into action.

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GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:

Now so many of our stories, for some reason, they all come from the town of Detroit, Michigan, so many. This one is special. SNAP JUDGMENT's Mark Ristich recalls some time spent with a very, very dear partner in crime.

MARK RISTICH, BYLINE: One night I come home from work, and I have a message on my answering machine. Marky, it's Grandpa Jordan. Come-ski (ph). I drive over to my grandpa's around 10 o'clock at night, and that's when we start dinner - zelnik, which is Macedonian for spinach pie, manja, which is lamb stew, and waffles. At 86, my grandfather is an insomniac, and at 26 I am a night owl. So I eat. He berates me for not making enough money. And then he says don't listen to me. Marky, don't listen. I'm an old man.

And then we go into the living room. We throw on some Macedonian music, and that night he tells me the story about needles. Marky, World War II at the bar, it's lunchtime 1944 Detroit, at the corner of Grand River and Fenkell, right where the trolley car turns around. And there is Jordan's on the River. There's no river, just the street Grand River. But that's my Grandpa Jordan's bar. It's a busy place, and on this day he is short-staffed. He's back behind the bar serving up drinks, dishing lunch, making soup at the same time. And right as he's chopping chicken, lunch is interrupted with a wartime announcement.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I am telling you today about the liberation of Paris. It was indescribably dramatic. Fighting, yet the people frantic with the joy of liberation.

RISTICH: My grandfather goes, oh, my God, oh, my God, but not for the French. No, he's just sliced open his hand. Blood is pouring all over the counter, and he starts to stagger. One fella drinking coffee at the end of the bar, he takes notice. He hops down off his stool. He slips behind the bar. He grabs a clean towel and applies pressure to the wound. The bleeding slows, but the cut is deep. And then he says Mr. Jordan, you got to get to a doctor. My grandpa shakes his head - no, no doctor. You've got to stitch it up, believe me I know. It won't close. How you know? I'm a medical student at Bowling Green. OK, you stitch him up.

No, Mr. Jordan. See, I'm not a doctor yet, but - I'll give you free lunch for a week. OK, Mr. Jordan. So the guy goes over to his stool, and out of his bag he pulls this little tin. It's got iodine, bandages, sutures, scissors and a needle. So right there behind the bar he stitches up my grandfather right in front of all the regulars. At the end of it, they're all slapping him on the back calling him Needles. My grandpa one-handed, he serves him up a massive lunch with a nice slice of pie. Then as the lunch rush dies down, he says to my grandpa, Mr. Jordan, do you have any work that needs to be done? Grandpa says, Needles, can you tend bar? I'll try, Mr. Jordan. I'll try, give it a shot. OK. One thing, no drinking. Not a problem, Mr. Jordan. I never had a taste for this stuff anyway. So he hands him an apron, and Needles begins tending bar. He drinks coffee to stay alert.

On break, he reads. It's a good arrangement until one day at happy hour an argument between a couple of guys, it escalates into a shouting match and then a fistfight. Tables get upturned, bottles break, glasses shatter. Grandpa has to step in, separate them and kick them out. And then he looks around the room, no Needles. So grandpa checks behind the bar and Needles is on the floor quivering. Grandpa pulls him up. Needles, shake it off. Needles says, I'm OK, Mr. Jordan. Really, I'm fine. But then moments later when Needles thinks no one is looking, my grandpa spies him pouring some whiskey into his coffee. Grandpa does nothing, and then he says, Needles, take out the trash. And when Needles leaves, he takes a salt shaker, opens it up and empties it into Needles's coffee. And he says to the crowd, sshh. Needles comes back in, serves a couple of drinks and then he takes a strong pull on the coffee. His face sours. He spits it up in the sink, and it's all good fun for the regulars. But at closing time, grandpa calls him over. Needles knows what's coming.

And before he can even start he begs him, Mr. Jordan, look, I know I shouldn't be drinking. I got a nervous condition, and I can't lose this job. I need money for medical school, please. I'll do anything. Grandpa says, look, Needles, I like you. Come. So he strikes a deal with him. He has 30 gallons of white paint in the basement. Needles can go door to door painting houses until the paint runs out. And Needles, he's true to his word. He goes out painting, and he comes back with a load of cash. And they split it up. Then he says, you know, Mr. Jordan, if we had a truck, I could do bigger jobs. So they go downtown and grandpa buys an old pickup truck. The next day, Needles goes off to paint. And that night, Needles doesn't come back. He's gone. Vamoose. No more Needles. Instead, a few days later, two military police show up at the bar - white hats, white belts, white armbands that say MP. They say they're looking for a guy - a guy who's passed himself off as a medical student. Have you seen this guy? Sure, Needles. Used to work here, but I fired him for drinking.

Grandpa pours them some coffee, gives them some pie, and in between bites they tell him Needles was an Army medic. He could handle the death but not the shelling, and so he deserted. And now the military police were looking for him. Do you have any idea where he is? And my grandpa knows what everybody knows - for desertion, the ultimate penalty is death. Do you know where he might have gone, how he might get there? My grandpa pauses. And I say, Grandpa, did you tell him Needles took your truck? He says, no, Marky, no. And then he holds open his hands. Listen to me, Marks, how many lives, how many lives he saved, Marks? You don't shoot the doctor, Marky. You don't shoot him. You don't shoot him.

WASHINGTON: All right, it's about that time partners. But don't despair. Don't scream. Don't smack someone you love upside the back of the head, no, 'cause full SNAP episodes are available right now for your listening pleasure - snapjudgment.org. If you tweet me, then I'll tweet you back. Our Twitter handle is @SnapJudgmentORG. And Facebook doesn't even make any sense without SNAP JUDGMENT. Stitcher, SoundCloud, iTunes - however you want it, that's how we make it. SNAP was produced by myself and the most desperate band of desperados the world has ever known. Now have you ever felt sorry for beating up the neighbor kid, invited him over to apologize, and when he knocked on the door, you stole his lunch money. Well, that is no way to treat the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. And I for one will not stand for it. Many thanks to the CPB, PRX, the Public Radio Exchange, putting the public in public media and the public likes that are not - PRX.org.

And now, this is not the news. No way is this the news. In fact, you and your best buddy could come up with a scheme to take Las Vegas's Bellagio Hotel out of millions of dollars by supplying them secretly coded decks of cards designed specially by you. And when you sit down at the blackjack table, you know exactly which cards the dealer is holding. And right when you are about to make your big score, the pit boss comes over, puts his hand on your shoulder and says he wants to know something. Why is your face on every single joker card? You could do all that and you would still not be as far away from the news as this is. But this is NPR.

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