Jailhouse Tales


By Mike Lipstock
Illustration by Carolyn Skrzydlewski

It all happened on a beautiful spring day in 1937. I was 15 and sitting on my stoop dreaming of girls. Boomer, my dog, was stretched out dozing at my feet. Suddenly a truck pulled up, jammed its brakes, and a dog-catcher and a cop rushed us both. The letters on the side of the truck said ASPCA. Boy, were we in trouble! Boomer wasn't leashed or muzzled. I started yelling..."Boomer, Run! Get Outta Here! Run!" Too late. The dog-catcher had lassoed Boomer and was dragging him into the back of the truck. Boomer howled as the metal door slammed shut. He was now a prisoner of the city of New York. The cop was totally oblivious. He was too busy writing out a ticket for me.
"You gotta be in Coney Island court in three days, and the mutt goes into rabies quarantine starting now."
"He don't have rabies!" I screamed.
"Tell it to the judge, wise guy."
He handed me the ticket. From the corner of my eye I saw my best friend, Maxie, and his dog, Meddyboo, strolling down the block. He'd spotted the truck and the cop and knew something was up. I let out another yell.
"Get outta here! It's the dog-catcher. He's got a cop!"
Maxie took off, Meddyboo at his heels, the dog catcher after them, twirling his noose. Minutes later the dog-catcher returned panting and cursing. "Damn kid got away!" He collapsed on the stoop, and the cop began questioning me.
"What's that guy's name?"
I looked him in the eye and said, "I never saw him in my life."
"Never saw him, huh? I'm gonna send a special note about you to the judge."
With that, they drove off with Boomer howling.
I had a real problem. It was the Depression, so how could Mom and Pop pay the fine? Or would they? They were immigrants, and in Russian and Yiddish there was no word for pet. In the mountains where they came from, animals were used for meat, milk, and cheese. They knew about cows, goats, and chickens, but canaries, dogs and goldfish? A rabies quarantine?
I underestimated Pop. After I told him about the dog-catcher, the ticket, and quarantine, he consulted with the neighbors on the stoop. Everyone of them was an expert; this kind of problem was right up their alley. "A two-dollar fine and the mutt will be out in a couple of days," they told Pop. He took them at their word and handed me two dollars.
"Here, Harry," he said, "pay the fine." He was making forty cents an hour. That two bucks meant five hours of back-breaking work.
Three days later at 9am I walked into the Coney Island courthouse, sitting down in the last row, out of sight. The judge was an old guy, madder than hell, yelling at everyone and slapping out fines. He rapped his gavel and shouted.
"All you peddlers without a license, come up to the bench." A shuffling of seats and 20 guys pleaded guilty on the spot.
"Three dollars fine, see the bailiff."
One guy yelled out, "Last time it was two dollars, Judge." The judge raised his head and barked, "The price went up!"
He then called a bunch of Gypsies. He was really mad and gave them a tongue-lashing with the fine.
"Five dollars for telling phony fortunes."
The noisy courtroom was suddenly quiet; that was a lot of dough in 1937. The Gypsies cried and cursed in five different languages.
"Keep it up, and you'll pay ten bucks!" said the judge. The noise stopped immediately. Finally my name was called. The judge read the charge and bawled me out.
"You feeding a mutt? Don't you know there's a Depression? No leash, no muzzle, THREE DOLLARS! See the bailiff." I walked to a desk where a guy was holding out his hand for the money. I handed him two dollars.
"It's three, kid, can't you hear?"
"I only got two," I answered.
He motioned to a court cop who grabbed my belt and led me to a room behind the judge. He handed me a phone and said, "Here, call your mother or old man for the extra buck."
"They're working and get home late." He ignored my words and walked me down a hallway and into a room full of solid steel bars. My cell mates were the Gypsies and peddlers who were also short of dough. By 1pm my palm was read 20 times, and a Gypsy named Platon tried to sell me a watch.
"Here," he said, "listen to it tick. It keeps perfect time."
Boy, did I like that watch. He was still trying, "Gimme 75 cents and it's yours."
"I only got 15 cents."
"Okay, give it to me, that makes a buck and I can get outta this place."
I gave him my last cent and slapped the watch on my wrist before he could change his mind. What a bargain! By now the peddlers were in a frenzy. Their fruits and vegetables were outside on their trucks slowly rotting away.
They worked on the cops and guards to buy their stuff. "A nickel a pound," they cried. When the price dropped even lower, they sold the crop. This was a better education than I was getting in school.
The cops located Pop at his job in the Bronx, and at 8pm, after a two-hour subway and bus trip, he bailed me out of the Coney Island Jail. He said nothing. Just gave me a kiss on the cheek and led me across the street to Nathan's Famous where we had three hot dogs and a couple of root beers each. He didn't miss the watch either.
"What time you got, Harry?"
I took a quick look and answered, "Six o'clock, Pop." He pointed to the clock on Nathan's wall and said, "It's quarter to nine."
I stared at it. The ticking had stopped. The watch was dead.
As we headed for the subway, he mentioned that Boomer had passed the rabies test and that I could get him out tomorrow. It was then that he opened a paper bag and handed me a clothesline rope with the end fashioned into a collar. "Better put this on him, Harry. Next time you won't be taking him home."

About the author: Mike Lipstock is a 73-year-old optician who started to write after retirement. His work has appeared in almost 100 magazines and five anthologies. He is listed in The Directory of American Poets and Fiction Writers.