The Diamond District on West 47th Street was a closed community. Family histories have been intertwined by marriages and business deals. The smiling faces on the surface hid the turbid conflict behind the scenes. My boss, Manny, and his son, Richie Boy, followed the Corleone tradition of never laundering family troubles in public. Basing their discretion on THE GODFATHER was better than adopting the murderous plot-line of GOODFELLAS.
For the most part our lips were sealed by the Jewish version of omerta, but anyone outside the family was fair game for Manny, who rarely had a nice word for his family, workers, and business associates.
One morning in summer of 2010 I sold a walk-in customer a diamond for $55,000. The architect from Chicago had a 25th wedding anniversary in a week. The deal was consummated in less than thirty minutes. Richie Boy congratulated my success.
“Well done.” Richie Boy loved sales. He had bills to pay.
“All part of a day’s work.” I was pleased with the sale. The commish covered a flight to visit my kids in Thailand. “But that was easy.”
“Wham-blam, thank you, ma’am.” It was a good way to start off the day.
“It’s always easy, when the customer needs what you have.” Manny commented from his desk. Both of us groaned in anticipation of a further assault of negativism.
“Don’t fool yourself. Everyone is a piece of shit.” Manny stood up with difficulty. His hip was bothering him, but he came to work every day on time. The diamond exchange was the only life that the eighty year-old had left in the world. He examined the paperwork.
“Not everyone.” Richie Boy had inherited many of Manny’s traits, but he took more after his mother in hoping everything worked out in the end.
“Everyone is a piece of shit.” Manny had a long list of POSs. Richie Boy and I topped the charts.
“Great, I’ll call the customer and tell him that I won’t sell the diamond to him, since he’s a piece of shit.” I picked up the phone.
“Save the show for your friends.” Manny added up the cost of the diamond, the ring, and the setting of the stone. “Why didn’t you get more money?”
“Leave him alone. He did good.” Richie Boy was getting a headache.
“He did his job and he did it, because he wants money.” Manny had been mean from day 1, but in recent years he had excelled in pulling the knife in a wound.
“I’m going out for a cup of coffee.” I had heard enough of this conversation to know its destination was more of the same. I asked Manny, “You want one?”
“Here.” Manny’s hand fumbled into his pocket.
“I don’t need your money.” He was a mean old man. but the twenty years of supporting me and mine granted him a special place in my heart.
I walked outside and took a deep breath.
Inside the exchange Richie Boy and Manny were squared off toe-to-toe, splashing water under the bridge back and forth. Sometimes I thought that the bickering was an act, but not this morning and I went next door to the Russian coffee shop.
Several dealers were standing in the foyer. I said hello to Abel. The young Hassidic broker and I had sold several diamonds. He was a good man. When Manny lost a carat diamond memoed from him, Abel had knocked $500 off the price. Manny had called him a piece of shit for that gesture. I never mentioned the insult to Abel. Manny was man enough to tell people they were piece of shit to their face.
“How goes it?”
“Not bad.” I told him about the sale. Abel congratulated my luck and then said, “Whose stone?”
“None of your business.”
“Okay.” He seemed hurt by my cold shoulder, but in this business if a diamond broker commented in open conversation about a sale, then the information would be common knowledge from 5th Avenue to Avenue of the Americas by day’s end, albeit filtered through a myriad of mouths to be malformed into a miscarriage of the truth.
“What do you think about Farrid?” Abel had dealing with every ethnic group on the street. Money was money.
“Richie Boy’s old partner from the retail store on 5th Avenue?” I clenched my right hand into a fist.
“The Persian.” No one in the Diamond District called Iranian Jews Iranian. There were Persians and the entire tribe had colonized the Long island suburb of Great Neck.
“You want me to say good for him?” Our business depended on trust.
“He wants a stone from me.”
“Better you talk to Richie Boy about that.” I had sold a million-dollar ruby for Farrid and Richie Boy. The Persian had stiffed me for $2000 on the commish and then said that I had fucked up the sale.
“Are you saying he’s no good?” Abel considered me a ‘sheygutz’, which for a Hassid was one step less pejorative than a goy.
“I’m not saying nothing. It’s not my place.” Farrid also bounced the commission check twice. He was supposedly Richie Boy’s money man for the store. His accounts were persistently under-financed. His wealth had been sucked dry by Bernie Madoff.
“Thanks. I owe you a coffee.”
“I didn’t say nothing.” I paid for my coffee.
“And thanks for that.”
I returned to the exchange. Richie Boy was on the phone with a customer. Manny was fiddling with the electrical connection to his adding machine. It dated back to 1982. He raised his head and asked, “Where’s my coffee?"
“I forgot it.”
“Everyone thinks about themselves.”
I let it go. I wasn’t looking for a fight. The rest of the morning passed without incident. A little past noon Richie Boy hung up his cellphone and came over to my desk.
“Farrid just called me.”
“And?"“He said you told Abel not to give him a stone.”
“Abel asked me about him and I said it wasn’t my place to comment on him.”
“Farrid says you said bad for him.”
“I said nothing. He can think whatever he wants.”
“I do business with him.”
“I never will.”
“You made money from that deal.”
“Yes, I did and he screw me out of two grand.” It was money out of the mouths of my children. “I’ll never say bad about him to anyone else, but you can tell him if he’s ever in a room alone, he had a minute to leave.”
“And what?” He wanted me to paint the entire picture.
“Richie Boy, you know me a long time.” We had met at Hurrah, a punk disco on West 62nd Street. His uncle had been an off-duty cop working as security. Sam had seen me at my worst and Richie Boy had witnessed my breaking a drug dealer’s nose with a rolled-up GQ magazine for his calling me an asshole. It had been a double-issue. “I’ll be a nice guy. If Farrid is with his family, then he can stay until the end of their meal. But he is never to say hello to me or expect me to say good for him. He’s a piece of shit.”
“See, you feel the same way as me.” Manny was near-deaf, but the old man could hear whatever he wanted to hear. “Everyone’s a piece of shit and I know what Farrid did to you. He screwed with your family. He’s a piece of shit.”
“You’re right.” I usually hated when Manny proved that he was right, but this time I was 100% in agreement.
“But better to say nothing to Farrid.” Manny came from Brownsville. Mike Tyson’s old neighborhood. No one knew how tough it was there.
“What’s there to say?” I was hot enough to walk over to Farrid’s office and do something crazy. Only I was leaving for Thailand to see my kids. Two months in the Orient with my two wives. I didn’t need any trouble. Both women were trouble enough, so I said to Manny, “I’m going to be cool. I won’t speak to the piece of shit. He won’t get a fork in the eye. End of story.”
"Of course he could pay me the $2000. Then I'll be real nice."
"No chance of that happening."
I thought that was the end of it, except that afternoon Farrid saw me on the street. I blanked him like a dog. He called up and asked if we had a problem.
“No problem that $2000 would cure..” I hung up the phone.
Not speaking with pieces of shit makes life easier, but business was business and and the Persian telephoned our office several times in the next few days. I never answered the phone. I told everyone else to field the call. None of them wanted to answer either. Richie Boy’s partner was a piece of shit to them too. Manny fielded the call. He would speak to anyone. I told him thanks. I didn’t want to make any trouble before I left.
But some people can leave well enough alone and the next morning Richie Boy tapped me in the chest with a pen, “I want you to be good to him. I make money with him.”
I knocked away the pen. I wasn't in a fun mood.
“Really?” His partner had shorted everyone for cash, but I was on the wrong side of the equation. I was a goy. Then again I was a math major in university. I could add and subtract and no matter how Richie Boy painted his partner, Farrid was still a donkey in my eyes.
I kept my mouth shut. This was 2010. Jobs weren’t easy to hold and even harder to get. Later I mentioned Richie Boy’s comment to Manny.
“What are you going to do?”“Nothing.” It was the best tactic.“Nothing?” Manny was a starker. That meant a tough guy in Yiddish.“Whatever I do won’t change the fact that Richie Boy’s partner is a piece of shit.” I had forgiven Richie Boy for backing Farrid over me. We went back 30 years and those decades time outweighed his partner’s bad. Only by a little, but enough to cool down my core anger.“Can you keep your mouth shut?” Manny was a peacemaker. Fighting at our age was unbecoming, unless winning was the only option.
“As long as he keeps out of my face. No problem.” I didn’t like thieves.
“Then that’s the end of the story."
“So it would seem.” I liked Manny. The old man didn't take shit. People like Manny were hard to find. People like Richie Boy’s partner were everywhere. Farrid was lucky that I was leaving town.
It was a good thing, especially if I wouldn't have to make nice to a piece of shit.
It was not in my job description.