Retirement Retirement Age Stories

The Great Bagel Caper


Thinking, thinking, thinking, always thinking on my 20-minute walk to the clubhouse gym each day and the same on my return trip. On what do I cogitate? The stimulating banter at the gym as we go through our own exercise routines? What else? Heck, without the chit chat, we old geezers would be bored to death. Fortunately, we all have years and years of living experience and so never run out of topics.

Some topics are mundane, and some are profound. As an amateur scribe, I relish these discussions as fodder for my writing grist mill. The following piece resulted from a take-away from the gym: this one a somewhat heated discussion about bagels, of all things. There were some strong opinions, especially on where to buy the best bagels in the Atlanta area, and each bagel lover had his own bagel “story.”  On the walk home that day, I began structuring my own bagel story from the past. The completed piece follows.

The Great Bagel Caper              by Octo G. Enario

Vito Brazzi was one of the most feared teenagers around. This guy was strong and fearless. Nobody crossed him without risking peril.  Vito acted as the “enforcer” for the Ditmas Dukes, one of the toughest gangs in Brooklyn during the 1950s. And yet, Vito was fair and had a softer side, fortunately for me.

I knew Vito only by sight and by reputation throughout my youth. In my late teens, my best friend Kirk became a close pal of Vito’s. This was an unlikely relationship what with Vito being an Italian American greaser and Kirk a blond, Nordic, California surfer type. Their mutual attraction might have developed because they both were fearless with dominant personalities and innate leadership skills. As Kirk’s buddy, I was drawn into a tangential relationship with Vito.

Hanging out with the guys was our favorite pastime in our late teens. We roamed all over the neighborhoods late into the night, looking for “action.” We never really found “action” but reveled in the constant pursuit of it (go figure).   My set of friends consisted of wannabe tough greasers, but in truth, were goody two-shoes (I refuse to use the word wimps). We dressed and acted like greasers, but this was only an affectation. On occasion, we might think about crossing over the line of the law, talk about it a lot, but rarely if ever crossed it. If we did cross over, it was to commit minor offences (what’s below a misdemeanor?). The Ditmas Dukes, on the other hand, were real “gangsters.” They dressed like greasers and acted like greasers. While my buddies experienced rumbles in the stomach from eating too much cake, the Dukes actually fought in them, and Vito was one of their main weapons.

The scenario is now set for the great bagel caper. It is post-midnight, after my pals and I had searched for action all Saturday evening. It had been a good search, and most of us were satisfied with the evening. On the last leg of our adventure that early morning, we walked past a luncheonette that was getting its early morning delivery of fresh hot bagels. The restaurant was not scheduled to be open for a few more hours and could not take delivery immediately of the 5-dozen bagels wrapped in a giant brown paper bag. For practicality and because this was the custom back then, the bagel delivery van driver just left the hot bagels at the door-well of the shop.

As we walked by, I commented aloud that hey, anybody could just snatch the bagels—in my mind, just a theoretical observation. The bagel delivery men in the van lingered in the vicinity, wary of the group of teenagers passing so near to their precious delivery just sitting there unprotected. Their concern was heightened even further by my loud comment about how easy it would be to steal the bagels. At that moment, all the action seemed to move into slow motion, with us drifting down the street and the delivery van watching on high alert.

One of the players in the scenario broke out of slow motion and began to operate in real time. The bold and fearless Kirk, the unofficial leader of our pack, ran back and quickly snatched the bagels and rejoined us. We were dumfounded by his bold act. The theoretical had turned into reality. It was exhilarating, but mostly scary.

Unbeknownst to us, the delivery men were watching the robbery unfold and started chasing us in their van. Instinctively we all scattered in different directions. The ploy worked and each of us escaped safely.

Later we all drifted back to the route leading to our neighborhood, Kirk  with the booty in hand. By this time, we thought the men in the van surely had given up the chase. As we walked along in triumph, we met Vito Brazzi and his buddy coming towards us. Kirk greeted him warmly and asked the guys if they wanted some nice hot bagels. They were pleased and walked away contentedly chomping on their half dozen bagels. We continued on to my house.

Although it was about 2 a.m., the lights in my house were on, and I found my mother still awake watching an old movie on television. My mother was always very sociable and welcoming and enjoyed hosting visitors at any hour. She was delighted that my pals were visiting and that they had brought tasty, hot bagels. She put on the coffee and set the table with cups, plates, and silverware and brought out the butter and the cream cheese. We feasted on the booty (we never told Mom where we got them) in the comfort of my hospitable home, really pleased with ourselves.

Two days passed and the incident receded into history. But did it? One evening as our group gathered, Kirk told us that there was more to the story. It seems that after we left Vito Brazzi walking down the street, eating his bagels, he was spotted by the bagel men who had not given up the chase as we had thought. The van pulled up to Vito and his friend as they were eating their bagels, and the men jumped out with tire irons in hand, ready for a confrontation. They grabbed the two teens, rammed them up against the van, accused them of stealing the bagels, and threatened to call the police. Of course, Vito denied the accusation. When he began to resist the manhandling, a scuffle broke out; the police arrived, and Vito and his friend were taken to jail.

As we listened to Kirk tell this story, we started to realize that if Vito had ratted us out to save his own skin, we would be in big trouble. Our little group spent the next few days worrying about going to jail. A week later, Kirk gave us an update. Yes, innocent Vito had spent the night in jail. However, he was released because the evidence against him was too thin, but he never disclosed our guilt. He respected the greasers’ code of silence. Our apprehension levels dropped to zero. He was our hero.

But then it occurred to us that Vito experienced a lot of discomfort that night, which we caused. Vito was pretty big, pretty strong and really tough. He might be somewhat irked and might want to seek revenge on the group that caused him so much trouble. We spent another week worrying and looking over our shoulders, waiting for just retribution. Kirk again relayed the latest update in the affair: Vito was not going to take any action against us. While  annoyed, he did not think his experience to be so bad. He shook off the incident and all went back to normal in our neighborhood.

To this day, I think about the guilty ones sitting around eating warm bagels in comfortable surroundings, as innocent Vito sat in a cold, uncomfortable jail after a fight with two men. Somehow, because of Vito’s honor and munificence, we came out unscathed. Brava omerta! 

Active Adult Living Del Webb Communities Retirement Retirement Age Stories

Gym Musings

Who Is That Pilot?            by Octo G. Enario

Who is this man at our retirement community gym? I see him working out each morning while I and my fellow seniors are doing our various exercise routines. What can I say about him? He is intensely disciplined as he goes through what can only be called his process, a progression like no one else’s in the room. What flexibility, what determination. Has this fellow been to Tibet, trained by monks, snacked on yak butter (yuk)?  He is very tall and must have been thought a demigod by the Buddhist gurus who taught him.

How can an occidental geezer like he be so flexible?

Over the months my curiosity grows and grows. On my 20-minute walk to the clubhouse each day, I speculate about his “story.” Let’s see, how would Sherlock Holmes do this? Sure, review the evidence. Hmm, he is tall, lean, well-toned, with a serious and authoritative aura. To retire to this upper middle-class community, he probably had a long career requiring a lot of sitting, the bad effects of which can only be countered by regular stretching and exercise. The answer becomes obvious—he is a retired pilot. Isn’t the nearby mega city, Atlanta, the HQ for one of the largest airlines in the world, Delta?

Feeling smugly comfortable with my discerning analysis, the next step is to engage him in conversation and get around to confirming my conclusion. But he has a somewhat intimidating air about him, as he seems really into his methodical routine, suggesting that fellow exercisers had best keep their distance.  Do I wait until he finishes his entire set, or do I interject as he changes stations? How do I start the conversation? I toy with hitting him with my brilliant conclusion, opening with, “I’ll bet you were an airline pilot?”  I could then glow in my insightfulness as he answers in wonder, “How did you know? Amazing!” Another option is to just go up to him and introduce myself. Maybe there are even more options for breaking the ice? Over the weeks I work this dilemma to death. Should I, or shouldn’t I?  My walks to the gym are getting stressful.

This morning we are both working out, and I think about all my usual excuses for postponing action, cowardly trying to avoid any contact. At the end of my session I throw caution to the wind and comment directly to him about his extraordinary flexibility and his slow and disciplined stretching. I await his possible gruff, snobbish reply with trepidation, this former senior pilot of jumbo jets, responsible for on-board discipline and safety of hundreds. Has my scenario taken a life unto itself? 

To my astonishment, he replies in a friendly voice, saying how pleased he is that I took the time to speak with him. He puts out his hand and introduces himself. Wow! I think about all those wasted hours ruminating about this. What unnecessary apprehension.

No, he is not a pilot. As a youth his doctor told him that he had extraordinary flexibility. Then in college he had an exceptional and very talented coach with a PhD in calisthenics and physical therapy, who educated him on the benefits of regular exercise and proper stretching. The coach advised his students to do this one-hour exercise regularly throughout their lives. Apparently, my gym mate follows this advice assiduously, even into retirement.

With the ice broken, I blurt out that I had been trying to figure out the genesis of his uncommon routine over many, many weeks, thinking how to diplomatically initiate a dialogue.  Sheepishly I tell him about my jumbo-jet-pilot-with-the-bad-back theory.

He demurs, saying he too has a confession. I think, “A confession? This should be interesting.”  I listen silently, giving him full attention as he has more than piqued my interest.

He smiles as he says that he notices me walking to the clubhouse day after day, shouldering my accustomed blue back pack. He speculated about why I hauled it so religiously and what it might contain. Verging on obsession, he developed scenario after scenario in his head. He too pondered how to break the ice with me. He couldn’t just start with, “What do you carry in that darn bag?”  We both break out in smiles, realizing we were on parallel paths of curiosity over these past many weeks.

Thinking about how he wondered and wondered about the contents of my bag, I relate a story from my preteen years. This tale was in a popular 1950s comic book called “Tales from the Crypt,” specializing in eerie stories. It went something like this:

There once was a medieval village where lived a short grotesque looking man who was the gossip of the hamlet. He was a loner who traveled daily along the dusty main road from his home deep in the woods, through the village center, and back the other way a few hours later. He never uttered a word to anyone. On every round trip he carried a straw basket perched on his right shoulder, his right hand atop the lid, holding his burden in place. Never was he seen without it. The routine went on no matter the season, no matter the weather.

Such a mystery!

Children would run for the safety of their mothers’ skirts when he was sighted. Speculation as to the contents of the basket increased and intensified as the years went by. The village became obsessed with the daily inscrutable passer-by. Most said he was evil, some that he was a town menace, and all burned with curiosity about that infernal basket. What in heaven’s name could be in it?

The village folk started to lose all interest in their daily duties, so caught up with the basket obsession. This called for action by the village elders. To get things back to normal it was decided to confront the basket carrier on his trip the next day.

The next morning all work was forgotten as the townsfolk obsessed about the daily intruder. People demanded that he must be accosted and questioned. What the heck was he carrying in his basket? Others cried, “Drive him out of our village forever.” Another fast-growing faction was demanding his execution, reacting to fear as well as curiosity.

Around noon the grotesque figure came trudging through the village as usual. He ignored the unexpectedly large crowd forming a menacing gauntlet on both sides of the road. As he reached the town center, a rock arced through the air, smashing into his head, causing a trickle of blood to drip down his hair. He hesitated and groaned quietly but immediately resumed his plodding pace.

Infuriated by his stoical reaction, the villagers began hurling more and larger stones at the daily intruder. The townsfolk seemed to want to cleanse their home of this evil, fearsome intruder once and for all. The collective onslaught of  fists pounding and boots kicking had its cumulative, yes, fatal effect. The stranger fell silent in the center of the road, never to get up again. The crowd cheered wildly, their fear and angst dissipated at last. Ever so gradually the mood changed. Shoulders slumped, heads bowed, and neighbors could not bear to look in neighbors’ eyes. What had they done?     

One burly man seemingly unaffected by the gruesome execution pierced the hush with a shout of, “The basket, the basket. Look in the basket.” The throng awakened with renewed purpose and edged toward the lifeless, bleeding body, with the chief elder being gently pushed to the lead.

Reaching the stranger’s corpse, the elder looked around, signaling he wanted silence. All complied immediately. Eyes watched as he bent over the dead body and unhitched the lid of the basket. Looking in, he gasped in astonishment. All shouted, “What is it? What in God’s name is it?” 

The elder stood up slowly, holding a bottomless basket. There on the ground was the mystery disclosed. It was another head. This unfortunate stranger was a freak of nature, born with two identical heads. This victim needed not derision but kindness and understanding. The little village was never the same again. My new gym buddy got the irony of the story. We both smiled.  As I walked away, he hesitantly asked, “So, what do you carry in the back pack?  I smiled devilishly and just walked away letting the question hang there in my ethereal wake.