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Mrs. Irwin was
a divorcee. She lived on the fifth floor, one
flight above us with her young daughter Marion. It
was rare to see a lady living alone in those days
unless their husband was dead. Most apartments were
crawling with in-laws, aunts and uncles, some even
had a grandparent or two. Me and Ernie kept an
eye on the comings and goings of Mrs. Irwin and we
wondered what she and her daughter did up there all
by themselves. It was none of our business, but our
young appetites were whetted by the whispered
innuendoes of our elders.
Every Wednesday afternoon seven women would come to
visit Mrs. Irwin, and every Friday three
different women would show up. In the morning
preceding those Wednesday and Friday afternoons,
Mrs. Irwin would run off to the store and buy
bottles of wine and something from the bakery -- we
couldn't figure it out.
"You know what I think? I think she's havin' augies
up there." Ernie (who knew everything) confided to
I was never embarrassed to admit I didn't know what
Ernie was talking about, so I asked him what an
"Well ... you know," he explained, "like back in
the old Roman days, guys in togas would lay on
their backs and eat grapes while women would come
in and fan them."
I pointed out that Mrs. Irwin was not a guy and why
would it take seven women to fan her anyway?
"Oh that's not all they did," he winked
conspiratorially, "they ... did you know what ...
He knew Mrs. Irwin lived over my apartment so he
continued pumping me about what I must have heard
going on up there, particularly the 'you know what'
part of it.
"A lot of laughing sometimes -- sometimes all
together, like somebody told a joke or something."
That was all I could come up with. He was beginning
to make me nervous. What if there really were
augies going on up there?
We made plans to investigate.
At this point I must pause and explain two
important elements of our investigation. They
involved the dumbwaiter in the cellar of our
apartment and 'Skinny' Bettelheim.
First, the dumbwaiter. Every five story tenement
had a dumbwaiter, a sort of refrigerator sized hand
operated elevator pulled up and down with a rope.
It accessed the kitchen of every apartment in the
building. The tenants would receive their blocks of
ice, their kerosene, their milk and their meat and
vegetables after the lady of the house completed
her negotiations with the street vendors below from
the parlor window. The tenant's garbage made the
return trip to the superintendent in the cellar
every morning -- a bell would jingle in the kitchen
and the tenant would know the dumbwaiter was
If the janitor was late for the garbage and the
vendors were early, there was often confusion
in the cellar down below and heated words would be
exchanged. An unsuspecting housewife might find
someone's garbage along with her fresh
'Skinny' Bettelheim was the other element in the
plan. He weighed no more than sixty pounds, and me
and Ernie planned to haul him up to the fifth floor
in the dumbwaiter to listen in on the augie.
'Skinny' was fragile and wouldn't dare say no to me
and Ernie -- or anyone else for that matter.
We went to the school library to look up augies so
we could tell 'Skinny' Bettelheim what to look out
for. It took a lot of searching until we finally
discovered we had the name spelled wrong. We found
it by backtracking our way through the encyclopedia
by way of Rome, and let me tell you our appetites
were quickly whetted by what we read about Roman
"Wow!" said Ernie, "just think, all that was going
on right over your head -- you must have heard
"Honest, Ernie -- just the laughing part. Maybe the
'you know what' part doesn't make much noise."
So we waited impatiently for a likely Wednesday
afternoon when there would be eight ladies going at
it and we told 'Skinny' exactly what he'd have to
do. Not much really. Just put his ear to the
dumbwaiter door and listen to what he could hear,
then maybe push the door open a little to see what
was going on inside. We tried to explain to him
what orgies were with the grapes and the fanning
and all. They'd be drinking wine too, we told him
-- we suspected that from our observations of Mrs.
Irwin. We had dreams, all three of us, of turning
this adventure into a school project to prove that
Roman Empire debauchery was still alive and
thriving in Brooklyn.
'Skinny' of course got cold feet, he was afraid we
would drop him, or leave him suspended up at the
fifth floor just when he needed us most. We assured
him that the three of us were in this adventure
together and furthermore we would kick his
ass in if he didn't go through his part of the
The seven ladies showed up two and three at a time.
All of them well dressed, and with the scent of
lilies of the valley trailing after them they
climbed the stairs of the front stoop. They smiled
at us indulgently and disappeared inside.
"Give 'em fifteen minutes," Ernie whispered, "they
ought to be goin' at it good by then."
We ran down to the cellar and counted off fifteen
minutes, then we crammed 'Skinny' Bettelheim into
the dumbwaiter and reminded him what he was
supposed to do. We reassured him that we would stay
down there no matter what -- but both me and Ernie
were ready to run at the first sign of trouble. We
hauled 'Skinny' up to the fifth floor with no
trouble, the rope was marked so you'd know exactly
where the dumbwaiter was. Then I kept lookout at
the entrance to the cellar and Ernie hung on to the
rope. So it must have been Ernie .... certainly not
me, that leaned on the button that rang the bell
for the fifth floor kitchen.
A gale of distant feminine laughter filtered down
the shaft and the rope went slack. That could
only mean 'Skinny' was no longer in the dumbwaiter
-- and since he hadn't fallen down the dumbwaiter
shaft where else could he be but in Mrs.
Irwin's apartment! It was a sure sign of trouble,
so we cut and ran up out of the cellar and across
the street to watch from a safe distance. Things
certainly looked bad for 'Skinny' and we weren't
sure if he'd be able to keep his mouth shut in the
presence of eight ladies.
Then Ernie had another thought -- "Suppose they
make 'Skinny' orgy with them? -- Jeez, I don't
think he can take it." We felt even worse than we
did the day we poured molasses in Pastor Tremayne's
We sat on the curb across the street for the better
part of an hour wondering if we'd ever see 'Skinny'
alive again. Then the ladies began to file out two
by two, a little giddy from the wine. They had
'Skinny' with them and he seemed none the worse for
it when they reached the street, in fact he looked
as though he had a good time. They said goodbye --
two of them even kissed him. One of the ladies
pointed across the street at us and asked 'Skinny'
.... "Are those the two ruffians, Elgin?" To our
everlasting gratitude 'Skinny' said, "No ma'am ....
they were much bigger, big enough to hoist me up in
the dumbwaiter." It wasn't camaraderie or esprit de
corps on his part for protecting us -- he knew what
would happen to him if he put the finger on us.
It's the same code of silence that keeps the Mafia
After much coaxing, and even a free soda down at
Margolis' candy store, 'Skinny' told us the story.
As he squatted
by the dumbwaiter door he could hear laughing and
the clinking of glasses inside -- he heard someone
say "Three hearts, that's nine tricks, right?"
Someone else said they would double that and
'Skinny' was sure he was just in time for the
orgy. At that moment the elevator bell in the
kitchen rang! He was paralyzed with fear ....
trapped in the little cubicle .... he was helpless!
Mrs. Irwin opened the dumbwaiter door and threw her
garbage (which consisted mainly of wine bottles) in
his lap .... she screamed when she saw 'Skinny'
crouched in the corner.
"My God -- there's a kid in the dumbwaiter! ....
what are you doing in there? Girls, come here ....
help me! There's a kid in the dumbwaiter!"
They grabbed him just about the time Ernie let go
of the rope, and dragged him into the kitchen.
'Skinny,' in tears, made up
the story about two brutes who chased him
into the cellar and crammed him in the dumbwaiter.
Mrs. Irwin was all for reporting it to the police,
but wiser heads prevailed, and since the hour was
growing late most of the ladies had to get home and
make supper. They gave him a glass of milk and a
piece of cake. Their afternoon of bridge was over.
'Skinny' promised Mrs. Irwin he would tell his
father all about it and how kind the ladies had
been to him. He didn't dare do either.
Our knowledge of the sins of the flesh went
unfulfilled but our respect for 'Skinny' grew
enormously. From that day on we always called him
"Elgin" .... we thought it was the least we could
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