The notorious gangster Shushan Cats walked into my life through the doors of the Bhotke Young Men’s Society –in 1963 the only truly young man in the group was me—where I had become recording secretary the month before by a vote of 57 to 56 with three abstentions after it had been decided to switch the group’s official language to English. In one sense this was foolish, because while most of the members were fluent in Yiddish, Hebrew, Aramaic, Russian and Polish, in English there were few who did not sound like the character on the Jack Benny Show –when television was still mainly black and white– called Mr. Kitzel, whose voice, inflection and grammar made the average shopkeeper on Sutter Avenue, in Brownsville, the section of Brooklyn where I grew up, sound like Lawrence Olivier chatting airily with Vivian Leigh.
Why did the Bhotke Society make the change from Yiddish? In those days being foreign-born was somehow suspect. The Red Scare was still on, though somewhat evolved. Only a few years before Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were executed as nuclear spies, and now the US was engaged in, and apparently losing, a space race with the Soviet Union. Among the minorities Jews stood out, marked by a culture, to say nothing of a religion, that would not go away; aside from a few sects in odd corners, Jews were then the only non-Christians. In melting-pot America we were heat-resistant, tempered by several thousand years of being close to, if not in, history’s fires. In a largely Protestant nation, even the president, a handsome, charming and intelligent scalawag named John Fitzgerald Kennedy, had almost failed to reach the White House because many voters questioned whether his ultimate loyalty was to the Constitution or to the pope in Rome. While a younger and more affluent generation of native-born Jews felt as American as baseball, Frank Sinatra and Chinese food, the foreignborn, most of whom had escaped the Nazi ovens through pure luck, considered themselves marginal. For their sons the line between newly American and American never existed –many had fought in Korea, or in World War II, or both—but for the so-called “greenhorns” American was not a noun but a verb: you had to work at it. Even the long time recording secretary, whose Yiddish was not only perfect but perfectly legible, voted himself out of the job in a flurry of nativism that would have given pause to the Ku Klux Klan. Because my late father had been a member, I was drafted: my English was perfect. In fact, it was at the first meeting at which I was in charge of the minutes that the doors opened with a flourish –they were double doors, and they were flung open — and I saw what would be my fate.
The figure who stood there –it seemed for minutes—was one of those small men native to Brooklyn who appeared to have been boiled down from someone twice the size, the kind when a doctor tries to give him an injection the needle bends. Even in a belted camel-hair coat over a brown suit with sky-blue stripes he looked muscular, intense, dangerous. He may have had a babyface and a baby-blue hat with a brown silk band, but believe me this customer was neither childish nor comical, though with the election of John F. Kennedy, bareheaded at his inauguration three years before, hats would already seem archaic, like music without a strong back-beat. (Whether as cause or effect, car roofs were growing lower every year, making hats impractical for men and women both.) The man at the rear of our meeting room could get away with it. Shushan Cats could wear a clown costume and cover his face in jam and feathers, but the way he stood there would nonetheless demand respect, if not outright fear. Unlike the Bhotke Society members, who had wives and children, who had jobs or businesses, who had in fact something to lose, this type, known in Yiddish as a shtarker, a hard-guy, had nothing to defend, not even his life. If you cut off his fists he would go after you with the stumps of his arms; cut off his legs and he would wriggle like a snake and bite into your femoral artery until you died and he drowned in the blood. Even the Italian gangsters stayed away. There was something in these tough Jews that created a microclimate of anticipation, if not fear. These were the nothing-to-lose Jews who had fought to the death in the Warsaw Ghetto, the pimps who had run the white-slave trade in Buenos Aires, the Hebrew avengers who had strung up five British soldiers for every Jewish rebel hung in Palestine. In the thirties they had formed Murder Inc. to sell custom-made assassination to the Italian mobs. In boxing they had dominated the ring in the under-nourished divisions. In business they had been ruthless. And after the war they had become the smooth operators who managed criminal enterprises for a Mafia that was long on muscle but short on the kind of entrepreneurial skills that would build Havana as the world capital of gambling, and when President Kennedy closed that down with an embargo to punish Fidel Castro, Las Vegas to take its place. It could be seventy degrees in a heated room in the Crown Heights Conservatory on Eastern Parkway, which rented such places to fraternal organizations, political groups and social clubs, but when Shushan Cats walked in he brought with him a chill.
Also he did not close the doors, which did not help.
The president of the Bhotke Society at the time was a dentist named Feivel (Franklin) Rubashkin (Robinson) –he was in the process of Americanizing his name, a popular occurrence in the sixties. Feivel stood six-foot-three, especially tall in those days, and was a health fanatic who lived on nuts and then-exotic items like avocados and artichokes that most people at the time would not even have known you could eat, much less how, and he kept himself in top condition by lifting weights and swimming a hundred laps a day at the Young Men’s Hebrew Association on Rockaway Avenue. But I didn’t need a microscope to see him give an involuntary shudder when the man in the doorway finally spoke.
“Is this the Bhotke club?”
Addressing over two hundred men this way –all were turned around in their seats, only Feivel and I on the dais facing the door—was as close as anyone could get to asking the perfect rhetorical question. Poor Feivel looked at me as though to ascertain the truth: Is it? Is yes the right answer? Could someone else answer?
Whether because I was naive or simply took my new position as an officer of the Bhotke group seriously, I said in a clear voice: “It is.”
The shtarker stood in the doorway, letting in the cold. “My name is Cats,” he said. “My mother was born in Floris, next door to Bhotke. I understand people from Floris can become a member because there is no Floris association.”
Again it was left to me. I turned to Feivel, who nodded. “That’s true, ” I said with borrowed authority. I had never even heard of Floris. But I knew of Shushan Cats.
“So make me a member.”
“Please come in then.”
“I can be a member?” Cats said, so plaintively he sounded like a child who for the first time was offered love, or perhaps only acceptance.
“You have to fill out a card.”
“And pay ten dollars initiation. Then it’s eighteen a year in dues, including for a cemetery plot.” As with most of the Jewish fraternal organizations, this was the big draw. The Bhotke group had a choice piece of real estate in Beth David Cemetery in Queens, squeezed in on either side between the Gerwitz Association and the Loyal Sons of Bielch, and facing the huge plot of the Grodno Union.
“Not a problem,” the gangster said. Immediately he pulled a roll of bills the size of a baseball out of his pocket and peeled off a single banknote. “Ten to start, and another ninety, which takes care of five years. How’s my math?”
I don’t know where I got the nerve. “Maybe you’d like to shut the doors and come in,” I said. “There’s a draft.”
He took several steps forward. Behind him a large man in a light grey suit and a hat like a watermelon, both in color and size, appeared out of nowhere and closed the doors behind them both.
Probably a bodyguard, he had a thin mustache like a dirty line over his upper lip. “That’s it, that’s the whole deal?”
Feivel, the president, looked to me. It appeared I was the designated speaker. “That’s it. Is there something on your mind, Mr...?” Everyone in New York knew who he was.
“Cats,” he said. “Shushan Cats.”
Now the entire membership swiveled back to look at me. From the moment the gangster had entered everyone had turned around in their seats, magnetized. The man had been on the front page of the Daily Mirror the week before, being pulled along by two huge detectives in a perp walk on his way to an arraignment for a whole menu of crimes, the least impressive of which was racketeering. The headline was typical of the day:
HE’S NO PUSSY
BELLED BY COPS
SHOESHINE TO DA:
“DROP DEAD, NAZI!”
As he walked down the aisle toward me the gangster stopped to shake hands with those seated at the end of each row. It became a kind of triumphal procession. At each hand he would look the person in the eye and say, “How ya doin’?” or “Shalom Aleichem!” or “Good to see ya!” By the time he reached the dais even Feivel had relaxed sufficiently to press his hand. “Are you the boss?” Cats demanded.
“Dr. Robinson,” Feivel said to the accompaniment of a soft groan from several of the more unrepentent Yiddishists, who had never forgiven Isser Danielovitch, whose father had been a founding member, for changing his name to Kirk Douglas. “I’m the president. It’s not like a union, for life. My term ends in February.”
“Of dentistry,” Feivel said. He started looking for a card in his blue suit.
“A dentist ain’t no doctor,” Cats said, waving him off. “I got one. Fleishberg, on Pitkin Avenue.”
“Fine man,” Feivel said. He was becoming nervous again. There hadn’t been so much excitement in the Bhotke Young Men’s Society since the time –I was a child then but my father told the story when Maurice Kuenstler’s wife broke in to accuse him of adultery with his secretary, a shwartzer at that.
“Yeah, yeah,” Cats said, showing about as much patience as any of us had with Feivel, who had the job because nobody else wanted it. “Who’s the kid with the mouth?”
By this he meant me. “I’m no kid,” I said. “I’m the recording secretary.”
“You got a name too?”
“Russell ain’t a name. It’s a half of one.”
“Newhouse.” I put out my hand.
Cats took it. His own hand was small, smaller than my own, but seemed to be made of some sort of warm steel, with no fat on it, just sinew. He held mine in his, trapped. “Russy,” he said. “I’m going to deal only with you, because you got a set of balls on you could sink a battleship. You’re my man in the Bhotke group, okay?”
My hand wasn’t going anywhere. “Okay.”
“I’m a member, right?”
“Yes, Mr. Cats. Paid up for five years.” Most members were in arrears. The treasurer complained about it at every meeting.
“So I got a spot?”
I looked down at his hand. A spot? A dot? A freckle? “A spot?”
I still didn’t get it.
“Where the dead go.”
“A cemetery plot? A spot in the cemetery?” Was this gangster preparing for the next world –would other gangsters or maybe the police burst in with guns blazing to rub him out right here in some settlement of accounts? Like everyone else in New York, I fancied myself an expert on the underworld, not least because the tabloids pushed the Mafia in front of our eyes every morning. For my consternation, my hand was gripped even more tightly.
“What are you, a wise guy?” Cats said. It wasn’t a question. “A minute ago I thought you was smart, now you don’t know one thing from the other? Yeah, a cemetery plot. What do you think I’m here for, the social life? The booze? The broads?”
“I don’t know, sir.”
“Sir? How old are you?”
“Twenty-one,” I said, adding only a year.
“Friggin’ old enough to vote and you can’t tell when a guy is in mourning? My mama died last night. She’s laying on a slab in Maimonides Hospital, in a frigerator, because we ain’t got nowhere to lay her for her internal rest.”
“Don’t call me sir. You call me Shushan, not Shoeshine like in the papers. Shu-shan.” He turned to the rest of the membership. “Everybody else, you can call me Mr. Cats.” He turned back to me. “You’re a smart kid. I got a good feeling about you.”
“Thank you... Shushan.”
“Goddamn right,” the gangster said, giving my hand a further squeeze, tenderly now, as though it were a tomato being tested for ripeness. “So all the details, the arrangements, the hearse, the flowers, the invites, the rabbi, the gravediggers, all that shit, I’m leaving to you. I’m trusting you, Russy.” He released my hand –then grabbed it again, and pumped it like a well handle. “You take care of my mama, Shushan Cats’ll take care of you.”
THE IRON WILL OF SHOESHINE CATS
Jewish gangsters in 1960s New York City. A fast-paced, funny look at a time when America still seemed young and moving forward. A smart young man is mentored by the most famous gangster of his time.
2011 GOLD MEDAL FOR LITERARY FICTION
- Independent Book Publisher Awards
SOON TO BE A WARNER BROS TELEVISION SERIAL
"The Iron Will of Shoeshine Cats just may be the best book you never read. Think The Godfather on laughing gas, or Catch-22 with guns. It's also as good a novel about life in the 60s as you'll ever pick up. Witty, sexy, thrilling, and all story. You can't put the damn thing down. If you're still one of the blessed who reads for pleasure, get this book, because it's a pleasure to read."
Stephen King, Author
"A vibrant, hilarious addition to the genre of mob tragicomedy. Twenty-year-old Russell Newhouse, a quick-witted scholar and skirt-chaser, has New York’s organized crime scene thrust upon him by a man called Shushan “Shoeshine” Cats, who interrupts a meeting of a Brooklyn Jewish men’s society where Russell is serving as secretary. Shushan is in need of a favor and promptly takes Russell under his wing. What ensues is a classic boy-meets-mob story: part noir, part comedy, part epic. Kestin’s richly layered characters—a monstrously obese German organized crime attorney named Fritz von Zeppelin, a Jewish Texan who speaks in malapropisms, a dentist who anglicizes or Yiddishizes his name depending on his mood—are straight out of Dickens; his vivid attention to the details of place, New York, and time, 1963, is like poetic journalism; and his snappy, concise prose and dialogue is on par with Raymond Chandler. Kestin zips through Russell’s sexual trysts, dealings in back rooms of Little Italy restaurants, and encounters with historical events like the JFK assassination with unflagging humor and insight."
Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"This novel will make readers laugh, sigh, think - and remember. It is unequivocally one terrific read."
Washington Jewish Week