It all started when 18-year-old Alan Robins, following his third viewing of West Side Story at the Loews Pitkin, decided that if George Chakiris, a Greek kid from Ohio could play a Puerto Rican in the movies, then a Jewish kid from Crown Heights (who was also an accounting major at Brooklyn College), could reinvent himself as Abelotto Robelotto. Thereafter Alan referred to himself as A.R. the P.R.
He began to frequent the President Bowling and Billiard Academy, a subterranean poolroom two flights beneath Utica Avenue and began to smoke pot. It was there he met Carl and Lenny, two “beat artists” who sold counterfeit reefer. The stuff was actually Asthmador, an over-the-counter tobacco substitute favored by asthmatic smokers.
Real reefer was scarce in the Fall of 1963, and A.R. was persuaded to share a cab to Brownsville where it was rumored to be plentiful. At the corner of Grafton Street, Carl spotted a crowd of Puerto Ricans milling around and ordered the driver to pull over.
”Ask them if they have any reefer,” Carl told A.R. “You’re supposed to be Puerto Rican, make like one.”
“I only took a year of high school Spanish.”
“Ask them who’s got the boombah.”
“Yeah, it means pot.”
“All I remember is how to say is that the burro is the automobile of the poor man and some other crap.”
“Ah, never mind. I’ll do it,” Carl said.
Carl flung open the door. The crowd separated. Murmurs of policia circulated among it.
“Who’s got the boombah?” Carl demanded. People stared blankly.
“I don’t think that’s Spanish,” Lenny said. “Let me try.”
“Go ahead, genius,” Carl hissed. “We don’t have all night.”
Lenny took a deep breath and blurted out, “Yo tengo bomba.”
The corner erupted in pandemonium. Lenny stared disconsolately. “What the fuck?” he muttered, surveying the empty corner.
“I think you told them you have a bomb,” A.R. said.
“Shit! Yo no tengo bomba!” Lenny shouted down the empty street.
“Now what?” Carl asked.
Lenny’s face turned purple. “It’s all your fucking fault. You want to be a goddamn Puerto Rican, then learn Spanish.”
“Yeah, and the car’s gone,” Carl said, pointing to the empty spot where the cab had been waiting.
A black man wearing a dashiki who had been watching from his porch tossed an empty can of Rheingold and ambled over.
Carl studied his approach. “Let’s ask this chub where we can score some boombah.”
Carl coined words for which no known etymology existed. “Chub” and “boombah” were two of the latest. To him, all blacks were chubs.
“Ah, listen, you wouldn’t know where we can score some boombah would you?”
“Ain’t never heard of such. You ain’t The Man is you?”
“We look like cops to you?”
“Naw. You boys too dumb-ass to be the man. Name’s Harold. If it be smoke you be wantin’, my crib’s across the street. First need to see some ducats.”
Carl flashed a roll of bills. Harold smiled displaying a gold-capped tooth. “Let’s get to it.”
Upstairs in his small apartment, Harold pointed to a pile of pillows. “Have a seat. Be right back.” He disappeared behind a black and gold tapestry of lions lounging beside a zebra’s half-devoured carcass.
Carl elbowed A.R. “I’ll handle this. If he gets the idea we’re a bunch of lames he’ll try to get over on us.”
A.R. nodded. “I don’t trust this guy.”
Harold returned with an assayer’s scale and a cellophane bag containing finely ground grains of pot. “What kind of weight you boys be after?”
“An ounce. No oregano. We’re hip to that shit,” A.R. said.
Harold smiled. “Shit’s a hundred-percent Acapulco Gold.”
Carl gestured toward A.R. “It’s for my man, here. I’d have to taste it first.” Harold rolled Carl a joint. Carl took a deep toke and smiled. “Righteous,” he said.
A.R. reached to claim his purchase. Carl slapped his hand. “Stop coming off weak. Did you even offer our host a taste?”
“A taste? Why does he need a taste? It’s his reefer.”
Carl turned to Harold. “I apologize for my associate. He doesn’t know how to conduct business.”
A.R. appeared stricken. “Want a taste?”
“Don’t mind if I do.” Harold rolled himself a bulbous joint. “You boys be OK.” He took several tokes and handed it to Carl, who took a hit and passed it to Lenny who smoked it down to the roach. A.R. gathered up his remaining reefer and stuffed it in the bag.
Walking to the Sutter Avenue subway, Carl lambasted him. “You really came off weak. Embarrassed us. Lucky that chub was cool. Give me that stuff. You sure put a dent into this you greedy bastard. We better save you from yourself.” And he pocketed the bag.
Barry H. Schwartzberg is a retired NYS Supervising Labor Standards Investigator. He was born and raised in Brooklyn and now lives in Hudson Heights. “Harold the Chub” is excerpted from part of a series of unpublished stories.