Motherless Brooklyn (Jonathan Lethem)

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  Minna's Court Street was the old Brooklyn, a placid ageless surface alive underneath with talk, with deals and casual insults, a neighborhood political machine with pizzeria and butchershop bosses and unwritten rules everywhere. All was talk except for what mattered most, which were unspoken understandings. The barbershop, where he took us for identical haircuts that cost three dollars each, except even that fee was waived for Minna--no one had to wonder why the price of a haircut hadn't gone up since 1966, nor why six old barbers were working, mostly not working, out of the same ancient storefront, where the Barbicide hadn't been changed since the product's invention (in Brooklyn, the jar bragged), where other somewhat younger men passed through constantly to argue sports and wave away offers of haircuts; the barbershop was a retirement home, a social club, and front for a backroom poker game. The barbers were taken care of because this was Brooklyn, where people looked out. Why would the prices go up, when nobody walked in who wasn't part of this conspiracy, this trust?--though if you spoke of it you'd surely meet with confused denials, or laughter and a too-hard cuff on the cheek. Another exemplary mystery was the "arcade," a giant storefront paneled with linoleum, containing three pinball machines, which were in constant use, and six or seven video games, Asteroids, Frogger, Centipede, all pretty much ignored, and a cashier, who'd change dollars to quarters and accept hundred dollar bills folded into lists of numbers, names of horses and football teams. The curb in front of the arcade was lined with Vespas, which had been a vogue a year or two before but now sat permanently parked, without anything more than a bicycle lock for protection, a taunt to vandals. A block away, on Smith, they would have been stripped, but here they were pristine, a curbside Vespa showroom. It didn't need explaining--this was Court Street. And Court Street, where it passed through Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill, was the only Brooklyn, really--north was Brooklyn Heights, secretly a part of Manhattan, south was the harbor, and the rest, everything east of the Gowanus Canal (the only body of water in the world, Minna would crack each and every time we drove over it, that was ninety percent guns), apart from small outposts of civilization in Park Slope and Windsor Terrace, was an unspeakable barbarian tumult.

* * *

A true story, not a joke, though it was repeated as often, tugboatted relentlessly, was of the beat cop from Court Street who routinely dislodged clumps of teenagers clustered at night on stoops or in front of bars, and who, if met with excuses, would cut them off with: "Yeah, yeah. Tell your story walking". More than anything, this somehow encapsulated my sense of Minna--his impatience, his pleasure in compression, in ordinary things made more expressive, more hilarious or vivid by their conflation. He loved talk but despised explanations. An endearment was flat unless folded into an insult. An insult was better if it was also self-deprecation, and ideally should also serve as a slice of street philosophy, or as resumption of some dormant debate. And all talk was finer on the fly, out on the pavement, between beats of action: we learned to tell our story walking.

* * *

Wheels within wheels was another of Minna's phrases, used exclusively to sneer at our notions of coincidence or conspiracy. If we Boys ever dabbled in astonishment at, say, his running into three girls he knew from high school in a row on Court Street, two of whom he'd dated behind each other's backs, he'd bug his eyes and intone: wheels within wheels. No Met had ever pitched a no-hitter, but Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan both pitched them after being traded away--wheels within wheels. The barber, the cheese man and the bookie were all named Carmine--oh yeah, wheels within wheels, bigtime. You're onto something there, Sherlock.

By implication we orphans were idiots of connectivity, overly impressed by any trace of the familial in the world. We should doubt ourselves any time we imagined a network in operation. We should leave that stuff to Minna. Just as he knew the identity of our parents but would never reveal it to us, only Frank Minna was authorized to speculate on the secret systems that ran Court Street or the world. If we dared chime in, we'd surely only discovered more wheels within wheels. Business as usual. The regular fucking world--get used to it.

* * *

By the time Minna returned Gilbert and I were about to graduate--no great feat, mostly a matter of showing up, staying awake, and, in Gilbert's case, of systematically recopying my completed homework in his own hand. Tony had completely stopped showing his face at Sarah J. and Danny was somewhere in between--a presence in the yard and the gym, and in the culture of the school, he'd skipped most of his third-year classes and was being "held back," though the concept was a bit abstract to him, I think. You could have told him he was being returned to kindergarten and he would have shrugged, only asked how high the hoops were placed in the yard, whether the rims could hold his weight.

Minna had Tony in the car already when he drove up outside the school. Gilbert went to the yard to pull Danny out of a three-on-three while I stood on the curb, motionless in the rush of students out of the building, briefly struck dumb. Minna got out of the car, a new Cadillac, bruise-purple. I was taller than Minna now, but that didn't lessen his sway over me, the way his presence automatically begged the question of who I was, where'd I come from, and what kind of man or freak I was turning out to be. It had everything to do with the way, five years before, I'd begun discovering myself upon Minna's jerking me out of the library and into the world, and with the way his voice had primed the pump for mine. My symptoms loved him. I reached for him--though it was May he was wearing a trenchcoat--and tapped his shoulder, once, twice, let my hand fall, then raised it again and let fly a staccato burst of Tourettic caresses. Minna still hadn't spoken.

"Eatme, Minnaweed," I said under my breath.

"You're a laugh and a half, Freakshow," said Minna, his face completely grim.

Soon enough I would understand that the Minna who'd returned was not the same as the one who'd left. He'd shed his old jocularity like baby fat. He no longer saw drolleries everywhere, had lost his taste for the spectrum of human comedy. The gate of his attention was narrowed, and what came through it now was pointed and bitter. His affections were more glancing, his laugh just a wince. He was quicker to show the spur of his impatience, too, demanded less tell your story, more walking.

But at that moment his austerity seemed utterly particular: he wanted us all in the car, had something to say. It was as though he'd been away a week or two instead of two years. He's got a job for us, felt myself think, or hope, and the years between fell instantly away.

Gilbert brought Danny. We took the backseat; Tony sat in front with Minna. Minna lit a cigarette while he steered with his elbows. We turned off Fourth Avenue, down Bergen. Towards Court Street, I thought. Minna put his lighter away and his hand came out of his trenchcoat pockets with business cards.

L&L Car Service, they read. Twenty-Four Hours. And a phone number. No slogan this time, and no names.

"You mooks ever get learner's permits?" said Minna.

Nobody had.

"You know where the DMV is, up on Schermerhorn? Here." He dug out a roll, scrunched off four twenties onto the seat beside Tony, who handed them out. For Minna everything had the same price, was fixed and paid for by the quick application of twenty dollars. That hadn't changed. "I'll drop you up there. First I want you to see something."

It was a tiny storefront on Bergen, just short of Smith Street, boarded so tightly it looked like a condemned building. But I, for one, was already familiar with the inside of it. A few years earlier it had been a miniature candy store, with a single rack of comics and magazines, run by a withered Hispanic woman who'd pinioned my arm when I slipped a copy of Heavy Metal into my jacket and ducked for the door. Now Minna gestured at it grandly: the future home of L&L Car Service.

Minna had an arrangement with a certain Lucas, at Corvairs Driving School, on Livingston Street--we were all to receive lessons, free of charge, beginning tomorrow. The purple Caddy was the only vehicle in L&L's fleet, but others were on their way. (The car smelled poisonously new, vinyl squeaking like an Indian burn. My probing fingers investigated the backseat armrest ashtray--it contained ten neatly clipped fingernails.) In the meantime we'd be busy getting our licenses and rehabilitating the ruined storefront, fitting it with radios, office equipment, stationery, telephones, tape recorders, microphones, (tape recorders? microphones?) a television and a small refrigerator. Minna had money to spend on these things and he wanted us along to see him spend it. We might look for some suitable clothes while were at it--did we know we looked like rejects from Welcome Back Kotter?--the only thing to do was drop out of Sarah J. immediately. The suggestion didn't ruffle any feathers. In a blink we'd fallen into formation, Pavlov's orphans. We listened to Minna's new tonalities, distrusting and harsh, as they warmed into something like the old, more generous music, the tune we'd missed but not forgotten. He rolled on: we ought to have a CB radio setup, this was the twentieth fucking century, had we heard? Who knew how to work a CB? Dead silence, punctured by "Radiobailey!" Fine, said Minna, the Freak volunteers. Hello? Hello? We almond-studded cheeseballs were staring like we didn't know English - what exactly had we been doing for tvvo years, anyway, apart from researching how many times a day we could clean out our fishtanks? Silence. Spank our monkeys, whack our weeds, jerk off, Minna meant--did he have to spell it out? More silence. Hello? Hey, had we ever seen The Conversation? Best fucking movie in the world, Gene Hackman. We knew Gene Hackman? Silence again. We knew him only from Superman--Lex Luthor. It didn't seem likely Minna meant that Gene Hackman. (Lexluthor, textlover, lostbrother, went my brain, plumbing up trouble--where was Gerard, the other L in L&L? Minna hadn't said his name.) Well, we ought to see it, learn a thing or two about surveillance. Talking all the while, he drove us up to Schermerhorn, to the Department of Motor Vehicles. I saw Danny's eyes dart to the Sarah J. boys playing basketball in the park across the street--but now we were with Minna, a million miles away. We ought to get Limousine Operator's licenses, he went on. They only cost ten dollars more, the test is the same. Don't smile for the picture, you'll look like the Prom Date Killers. Did we have girlfriends? Of course not, who'd want a bunch of jerks from nowhere. By the way, the Old Stove was dead. Carlotta Minna had passed two weeks ago, Minna was just settling her affairs now. We wondered what affairs, didn't ask. Oh, and Minna had gotten married, he thought to mention now. He and his new wife were moving into Carlotta's old apartment, after first scouring the thirty year-old sauce off the walls. We jarheads could meet Minna's bride if we got ourselves haircuts first. Was she from Brooklyn? Tony wanted to know. Not exactly; she grew up on an island. No, you jerks, not Manhattan or Long Island--a real island. We'd meet her. Apparently first we had to be drivers who operated cameras, tape recorders and CB radios, with suits and haircuts, with unsmiling license photos. First we had to become Minna Men, though no one had said those words.

But here, here was the beauty part. By Minna's own admission, he'd buried the lead: L&L Car Service--it wasn't really a car service. That was just a front. L&L was a detective agency.

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Excerpted from Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem. Copyright © 1999 by Jonathan Lethem. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.