The Epic Survival Tale

From then on whenever he heard the song he thought of the death of Munson. It was the Jackson 5 after all who put Ray Carney back in the game following four years on the straight and narrow.

The straight and narrow—it described a philosophy and a territory, a neighborhood with borders and local customs. Sometimes when he crossed Seventh Avenue on the way to work he mumbled the words to himself like a rummy trying not to weave across the sidewalk on the way home from the bars.

Four years of honest and rewarding work in home furnishings. Carney outfitted newlyweds for their expedition and upgraded living rooms to suit improved circumstances, coached retirees through the array of modern recliner options. It was a grave responsibility. Just last week one of his customers told him that her father had passed away in his sleep “with a smile on his face” while cradled in a Sterling Dreamer purchased at Carney’s Furniture.

The man had been a plumber with the city for thirty-five years, she said. His final earthly feeling had been the luxurious caress of that polyurethane core. Carney was glad the man went out satisfied—how tragic for your last thought to be “I should have gone with the Naugahyde.” He dealt in accessories. Accent pieces for lifeless spaces. It sounded boring. It was. It was also fortifying, the way that under-seasoned food and watered-down drinks still provide nourishment, if not pleasure.

There was no retirement party when he stepped down. No one gave him a gold watch for his years of service, but he’d never lacked for gold watches since becoming a fence. The day Carney retired he had a box of them in his office safe, engraved with the names of strangers, as it had been a while since he made the trip to his watch guy out in Mott Haven.

His farewell to the stolen-goods biz mostly consisted of rebuffing former clients and telling them to spread the word in their criminal circle: Carney is out. “What do you mean, out?” “I quit. Done.” The door onto Morningside, carved out of the building to facilitate the night trade, became the innocent route for afternoon deliveries.

Two weeks after the Fortuna robbery, Tommy Shush knocked on the Morningside door with a black leather briefcase tucked under his arm. Carney took a look at the diamonds to test his resolve—and bid the thief good luck. The next day Cubby the Worm, one of his white regulars, showed up after hours with “some real hot stuff.”

Cubby specialized in unlikely hijackings that took years to off-load—the man was up to his eyeballs in Chinese pogo sticks and pantyhose encased in plastic eggs. Carney turned him away before he could describe this week’s misbegotten haul, nothing personal. They stopped coming by, the thieves, bit by bit, only momentarily glum, for there was always another hand, another conduit, another deal to be made in an enterprise as vast, complicated, and crooked as New York City. *** “Touch it—it won’t bite. It’s like grabbing a cloud of heaven.”

Across the showroom Larry reeled in a customer, a wizened specimen who flipped a red beret around and around in his hands. Stoop-shouldered and wilting. Carney leaned against his office doorway and crossed his arms.

A reliable subset of his clientele consisted of old men splurging on simple things they had long denied themselves. Then the creaky chair’s springs poked through too many trouser seats, or the doctor offered remedies for poor circulation and obscure pains, and they came here.

Carney pictured them, counting his blessings, the old men who lived alone in slant-floor railroad apartments or dim-lit efficiencies: bus drivers looking for new armchairs to eat soup on while they pored over racing forms, cashiers at one-hour dry-cleaning joints who hankered for something to prop their tired feet on.

The abandoned. They never haggled about prices, ticked off to break into the savings but proud to have the money on tap. The article in question was a 1971 Egon club chair in tweed Scotchgard upholstery. A tank of comfort, aprowl on Pro-Slide brass casters. “Heaven,” Larry repeated. When the customer entered the store he’d shaken Larry’s hand and introduced himself as Charlie Foster. Now he danced his fingertips across the green-brown fabric and chuckled in delight like a toddler.

Larry winked at Carney. When Rusty, Carney’s longtime floor man, threw out his back and was laid up for three and a half months, Carney needed a fill-in. Larry showed up on the second day of interviews and stayed. Larry was a study in controlled ease, a slow unfurling of pure style. Greet him when he punched in and he’d raise two fingers in a hold-on gesture as if in the middle of a transatlantic call with foreign powers, then respond after he changed out of his striped vest, flare trousers, and suede bucket hat or whatever groovy plumage he’d chosen that day.

Once in his salesman costume, he’d finally offer a velvety “What’s up, baby?” He belonged to that tribe of black player so nimble in his skin that all others were baby—old man, young mother, red-faced beat cop. Your average square would use the word slick to describe him, on account of that jaunty smile and stream of hectic patter, which Larry would take as a compliment.

Slick was an asset in the sales game. He was only twenty-one but had lived many lives, even if Carney suspected he had emerged full grown from a vat of Harlem Cool five minutes before he first laid eyes on him. Line cook at a Madison Avenue hotel; topiary wrangler at two cemeteries; chauffeur for the wife of a Connecticut marble magnate; “gassing doggies at Gotham Veterinarian,” which Carney assumed required some sort of specialized training or licensing, but no matter.

And now Deputy Sales Associate at Carney’s Furniture on 125th Street, “Fine Furniture for the Community for Over 15 Years.” “Never stays late, always has a date,” Carney’s secretary Marie liked to sing, stealing the tune from The Patty Duke Show. Like Carney’s late cousin Freddie, Larry claimed as his hunting grounds uptown, downtown, and every meridian of pleasure in between.

Hearing Larry’s chronicles of New York at night, and its multifarious cast, was like getting a morning-after report from Freddie in the good old days. It lifted Carney’s spirits. Carney kept Larry on after Rusty got back on his feet. There was more than enough work and it allowed Carney more time off from the floor.

It was as if the store had always been the four of them. Even when withered and hungover, Larry never let a customer see the misery. Keep your secrets in your pocket—an unspoken job requirement at Carney’s Furniture. Marie sometimes wore sunglasses to cover a black eye but never ratted out her husband Rodney.

Carney of course was well practiced in hiding his crooked aspects. Only Rusty was what he appeared to be, a genial Georgia transplant still befuddled by the city after all these years. As far as Carney knew. Perhaps Rusty was the most accomplished performer of them all, and come quitting time ran around performing brain surgery or routing SPECTRE.

Another siren passed up Morningside Ave. “Is it sturdy?” Charlie Foster asked. “I like a sturdy chair.”

He poked the left armrest as if nudging a water bug with his shoe to make sure it was dead. “Like the USS Missouri, baby,” Larry said. “You buy cheap, you get cheap, right? Egon prices these babies nice because if they do that, they make it up in loyalty. That’s how we do business, too. Sit, my brother, sit.” Charlie Foster sat.

He appeared to merge with the club chair. Shedding years of worry, from his expression. That’s a sale. Carney returned to his office. He’d bought the new executive chair in April and repainted last Christmas but his office had changed little over the years. His business-school diploma dangled from the same nail, his signed picture of Lena Horne remained in its holy perch.

Business was good. The fencing sideline had allowed him and Elizabeth to buy the place on Strivers’ Row and sprung them from their cramped first apartment before that. Made possible the expansion of the store into the bakery next door and helped them to ride out numerous rough patches.

But buying 381 and 383 West 125th Street?

That was all Carney’s Furniture. He bought the two buildings from Giulio Bongiovanni the first week of January 1970. A new decade, full of promise. If you’d said when he signed the lease that one day he’d own the joint, he would’ve told you to get lost. Carmen Jones was holding its movie premiere down the street at the Hotel Theresa and as he held the keys in his hand for the first time it was like all that light and noise were for him.

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