The Boy Detective

A New York Childhood

by Roger Rosenblatt

The Boy Detective

Hardcover, 257 pages, HarperCollins, List Price: $19.99 | purchase

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Book Summary

Paying tribute to his post-war Manhattan childhood, the author reminisces while walking home after teaching a night class and revisits the places of his past.

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Excerpt: The Boy Detective: A New York Childhood

It was ice, pal, I don't mind telling you. The revolver was ice. Since nine-year-olds didn't wear suit jackets, I had to carry it in a jury-rigged shoulder holster under my polo shirt, and the cap gun was ice against my chest. The look was that of a kid who had just snitched a mango from a fruit stand and was trying to conceal it. Nonetheless, I managed to maintain a grim, professional demeanor, lest my suspects spot any weakness and get the upper hand. I trailed them among the secret stores and wholesale houses of the neither-here-nor-there neighborhoods of downtown New York. Most of them hung around the Met Life Building, which looked innocuous enough, but clearly was teeming with crime. The businessmen under my surveillance also looked harmless, to anyone but me. I trailed them at short distances — called "rough shadowing" in the trade — making it easy for them to notice me, because if the killer did not know he was being followed, no one else would either. I saw myself as acting simultaneously in real time and in a film noir, so I was both tracking my quarry and watching myself do it. For his part, the killer, sensing danger, would turn around from time to time, confused and annoyed at being pursued by a kid with a mango in his shirt.

Which leads me, as you might expect, to the unpleasantness at Vercessi's Hardware. Mr. Vercessi was trussed up with electrical wire and gagged with a kitchen sponge. He rolled this way and that on the floor of his store at Twenty-third. The two robbers took all they could carry. Every so often they emerged from the store bearing ball-peen hammers, drill bits, and torque wrenches, which they dumped in the back of a small red pickup, double-parked with the engine running. Mr. Vercessi had only $18 in his cash register. The robbers were so angry; they could have killed him then and there. We can take some stuff, they said. We'll get something for the stuff.

It was two forty-five in the morning, and they had been at it since nine. Mr. Vercessi, about to close up for the night, had been alone in the store when the two men shouldered their way inside — one with a skeletal face white as chalk, the other speaking half in German, half in Japanese. The skeleton knocked Mr. Vercessi down with his fists. The bilingual one tied him up and shoved the sponge in his mouth. Then followed the enraged reaction to the cash, and the taking of the hardware. The skeleton considered clubbing Mr. Vercessi on the head with a length of pipe, but the bilingual one persuaded him not to.

Of course, I made all that up, but I had so little to go on, and the police, ever uncooperative, told me nothing as usual, treating me like a child. The following morning, I examined the scene of the crime while two cops in plainclothes asked questions of Mr. Vercessi. I was practiced dealing with cases like that, so I scoured the sidewalk for clues and found a matchbook with handwriting on the inside cover, which I took home for further study under my magnifying glass. I did not mention it that night at dinner, when we sat as we always did — my parents, my brother, and I — saying not a word.

Once I willed a sequence of dreams in which I was an owl detective, both an owl and a detective. Nothing much happened in the dream. I remember hailing a taxi and telling the driver to "Follow that car" through the downtown streets, without ever catching "that car." As a largish owl, I had some difficulty stuffing my feathers into the taxi. But I was so happy with the experience when I woke up, that the following night, through sheer force of will, I had the same exact dream. And the night after that as well. And the night after that. Four nights in a row as an owl detective getting into a taxi and following a car into the impenetrable dark.

In Speak, Memory, Nabokov observes an aged swan, heavy and powerless, failing in its attempt to board a moored boat. He knows that the scene contains significance for him, but it is obscure — akin to moments in dreams when a finger is pressed against one's lips, and the finger points to an explanation that the dreamer has no time to receive before he awakens.

A moment such as now, in fact. That moment on a winter's day when the streetlights click on all at once, and you cannot help but smile. You might think that an awareness of the dark, just a moment before, would make you sad, half-sad at least. But the exuberant insistence of light, the brass of it, drives off gloom with a snap. Here I walk with the others of my city, heads high, backs straight. Let the cannon topple from the parapets. Let the owl fall into its feathers. Let the dreams begin and end. Big lights. Don't you love it? A penny for your thoughts.

For no reason at all, I think of Europe at this hour. And of the movie, Foreign Correspondent — "Hang on to your lights, America. They're the only lights left in the world." The streetlights of London, Brussels, Prague, Budapest, lamps bowing from the neck like deacons. I don't know. They seem like ancient annotated texts, yet delve no deeper than the streetlights here, overlooking you and me. Somewhere in the city, your love lies sleeping in the curl of the night, and you proceed along Twenty-eighth Street gathering light like tulips, to bring to her bedside. She greets light in her dreams.

The street where lovers lost sight of each other was much like this one. And the street where villains with long knives stalked the waitress from the pub. Everyone walking from one pool of light toward another.

Clumsily I jump a patch of old snow stuck to a square in the sidewalk. Old snow, abandoned after the plows have cleared the streets. It hangs tough before it liquefies, clinging to the cornerstones, the bases of fountains, the knuckles of the statuary, in a last-man-standing gesture of self-assertion. Like the person who says "by the way" at the end of a conversation, introducing the subject he's wanted to speak of all along. The most important thing on his mind. Crusty, sooty detritus. A cold declension, but alive. Light falls on old snow. Are you with me, pal?

From The Boy Detective: A New York Childhood by Roger Rosenblatt. Copyright 2013 by Roger Rosenblatt. Excerpted by permission of Ecco.

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