Thursday, March 19, 2015

A Guy Walked into a Bar....

This guy, Johnny Fingers, walked into this bar — a small, quiet joint in Detroit off Michigan Avenue near Griswold. And Johnny Fingers was his real name;  yeah, I know, it sounds like some mob nickname, but, I swear to God, that was his real name. He was a tough guy, but not with a gang. Just tough and independent.

Anyway, it was dark. The lights were low and not much daylight coming through the few small, colored windows in the walls, and the front door on the place was an old-time wooden front door with the painted-over stop-sign-shaped port hole. There was a smoky haze hanging in the air ‘cause this was long before they banned smoking in bars. It smelled faintly of stale beer and strongly of cheap cigars. At the bar there were a couple of guys hunched over their beer, separated by half a dozen stools.

There were nine small tables in the place, and an ancient pool table tracked with cigarette burns along the rails. All the tables were empty except for a couple that were pushed together near the back in the farthest corner from everything else. There were eight men crowded around the ad-hoc meeting tables, and there was a guy, Big Joe, sitting at the end, like he was in charge, with his back to the long wall.

Now Johnny Fingers was old-school construction. Like I said, he wasn't in a gang and he didn't run a criminal enterprise exactly, but he was known to be tough, not known to accept orders he didn't like, and never much afraid to break somebody’s arm — or head — to remove a roadblock to a construction deal. His company did paving primarily, and some foundation and excavating work, but they were big. It was hard to drive around the city in the summer without seeing them working on something -- road improvement or preparing the foundation for some new project going up.

The guy at the head of the tables was Joe “Big Joe” Bonnadao. He’s a player in Bonnaday Construction, which had a finger in just about every type of project from high-rises to asphalt. Bonnaday was everywhere; the biggest firm in the tri-state area, dwarfing the others including Fingers' outfit, and was reputed to be connected not only with wise guys but with honchos in the city and Wayne County as well, knowing everything that’s happening even before the mayor does.

Big Joe looked kind of soft at five-eight, 310. He always dressed nice, that day wearing a dark green sharkskin suit and expensive-looking Italian shoes.  He wasn't gonna be winning any marathon races on that day or any day, but he didn't have to;  if he wanted you to lose, it always seemed to happen. Looks can be deceiving.

Anyway, so Johnny Fingers walked in late, pulled the nearest empty chair -- the old, wooden kind with the round wooden seat and the back made of bent wood and curved like a light bulb. He put the chair down, backward, and straddled the seat, resting his arms on the chair’s curved backrest. Johnny is taller but lighter than Big Joe; he’s gotta be 6-4, but he was a hard 240 like he played linebacker for the Lions: big shoulders, narrow waist. He placed his chair outside the others ringing the table, and on the right side of Bonnadao, his back to the front door. He just dwarfed the chair, smothered it.  Big Joe would've had to turn to acknowledge Johnny Fingers, but he didn't turn. He just kept talking and looking down the coupled tables. He said, “Ok, to restate for any late comers, here’s how the project bids are going to come in for the Townsend project…“

Bottom line was that Big Joe made it clear among other things that Finger’s outfit is slated to get a small piece of this project pie, scraps is how Johnny Fingers must've seen it. According to Big Joe’s vision of how this was to go down, Fingers’ outfit was a subcontractor and not in on the initial bid, which would be covered by Bonnaday Construction.

There were a few morose faces around the table, but quiet, including Johnny Fingers, who had this dark expression, kind of glowering, but he didn't say anything. You could almost see the “f*** that” in his eyes;  but he just listened like a big, pissed-off clam all hunched over the back of that chair. The meeting broke up, Big Joe having made it clear how this thing is gonna be. Fingers just left and never said a word.

So some time went by. The bids were coming in but the outcome announcement was still weeks away. Johnny Fingers got in his Eldorado one morning going to work, turned the key, and the explosion broke windows two blocks away.

The word was that the company formerly owned by Johnny Fingers — when he was still intact — had submitted a bid on the project, an attractive bid, but then after Fingers’ unfortunate incident, the remaining principals found an error and retracted their bid, and never resubmitted prior to the deadline. They did get some work as a subcontractor though. Funny thing, it turns out Bonnaday Construction got the contract just like Big Joe had laid it out in that bar.

After, the story got around that somebody asked Big Joe his opinion about the cause of Johnny Fingers' demise. Big Joe shrugged and with a straight face said, “Dunno.  Guess he had some kind of hearing defect.”

That’s how business was done in Old Detroit.


Grandad lived and worked in Old Detroit. He wasn’t a big guy and he wouldn't break your arm -- or your head -- but he was tough. He shaved with a straight, then later, when his hand wasn't so steady, he switched to to a TTO safety razor. He would have liked the shave soap named after him: simple, no perfume, but effective, with a velvet touch around dangerous objects. Good for tough guys -- and sensitive guys too.

That's how business is done in New Detroit.

Happy shaving!

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