Father and the Ghost of Bugsy Goldstein
By Michael Bookman
fought this Italian kid for twenty minutes; it was very, very bloody.
He wouldn't stop; I wouldn't stop. Bugsy was there cheering me on.
Kept fighting 'til we couldn't lift our hands. Bugsy taught me how
Frank Bookman, 91, relating an incident that occurred in East New
York, Brooklyn, 1918.
I completed my first novel, God's Rat, my father -- Frank
Bookman -- at 91, suffered his third stroke in less than a year.
He died a short time later. The novel was written because of my
father; it was written in spite of my father. It is his memorial.
A tribute, yes. But one drenched in ambivalence.
Rat is, among other things, an exploration of the Jewish criminal
culture, which was as much a defining aspect of life on the Lower
East Side at the turn of the century as its vaunted Yiddish Theatre,
Socialism, and thirst for Knowledge & Education.
the garden of a nursing home, about a decade ago, my father's oldest
sister briefly surfaced from the senescence she would soon drown
in, and spoke the last coherent words I heard from her: "I'll
never understand why these hard-eyed boys were always in our house,"
she whispered, her words hardly audible. "Your father came
from such a good home; he was loved." I knew immediately whom
she was talking about. But for confirmation I asked my father's
"Bugsy" Goldstein was my father's best friend. They lived
in the same tenement on Cleveland Street, East New York, Brooklyn.
Bugsy, like my father, was born in 1905. He died in 1941, electrocuted
at Sing Sing for the contract murder of a small time Boro Park thug,
Irving "Puggy" Feinstein. It is estimated by Burton B.
Turkis, the DA who tried and convicted him, that Goldstein personally
murdered at least ten men. Bugsy was a lieutenant of a notoriously
efficient hit squad -- the original Murder Incorporated -- under
the immediate command of Abe "Kid Twist" Relis who took
his orders from Albert Anastasia and Louis "Lepke" Buchalter.
father's life on the street was as exotic to me, a middle class
Jew growing up in the fifties, as flying carpets in the tales of
the Arabian Knights. And it was all Bugsy. I learned how brutal
Bugsy was with his fists; how quick to fire a gun. How he saved
my father's life; how, in their late teens they drifted apart and
chose different lives. But Bugsy was never really gone. I know --
I felt Bugsy Goldstein in the beatings my father inflicted on me,
the beatings that defined our relationship. Hurling himself on top
of me, fists flailing; a man out of control -- completely at one
with his deepest rage; grunting, covered from head to toe with tufts
of black hair he seemed, at 5' 10", and weighing almost 250
pounds, less a man than a huge predatory beast. Very dangerous.
Capable of beating me to death.
the real pain was that they -- the beatings -- were reserved for
me. My father never raised his hand in anger to my kid brother.
And was an almost perfect spouse -- uxorious, hard working, a good
I was a monster, or -- when it came to me -- Frank Bookman was possessed
lived not only in my father's rage, but in his heart. In my father's
words: "Me, Moitle, and five or six of the boys were cutting
school, hiking in the swamps near the River -- it's a garbage dump
now. Suddenly I'm in quicksand, nothing to hold onto. I'm going
down fast. I start screaming. The boys are trying to get me with
their jackets, their belts. Nothing reaches.
screaming for Moitle to do something. He's screaming back. We're
screaming at each other, crying like two babies. The muck's up to
my mouth. I can't move my arms. Moitle dives into the muck, goes
under; I feel his hands under my armpits. The boys grab hold of
his legs; they pull us in. The next day we both come down with typhoid
Goldstein lurked in my father's heart.
twelve years old I became obsessed with Jewish gangsters and found
books that brought pre-W.W.II Jewish thugdom to life. Mike Gold's
classic Jews Without Money; Irving Schulman's The Amboy
Dukes; Harry Stone's The Hoods; Harold Robbins' A
Stone for Danny Fisher.
world became more real to me than my own.
a "difficult" kid my defiance -- my anger -- now had a
context. I transformed myself, at least in style, into a "hood;"
a "punk;" a "rock." I scrapped my mother's proper
English for my father's street argot; my nondescript clothes for
hoodlum regalia: studded garrison belt to secure my "dungarees;"
Eisenhower jacket; heavy black leather jackboots; pants with a 14"
pegged cuff (black, pink stitching on the sides); a pack of Chesterfield's
wrapped in the left short sleeve of my white t-shirt. Saliva was
my venom -- I spit continuously.
was a good act. Nice Jewish boys crossed the street when they saw
me coming; teachers cowered when I strutted into their classroom,
and for good reason; the anger was real. The local gangs found me
something of an enigma. I remained adamantly unaffiliated: "Who
your boys Bookman?" they wanted to know. My "boys"
were in their 40s, their 50s, their 60s. Many of them dead or in
jail, or (worse!) reformed. My "boys" were specters haunting
the Lower East Side and Brownsville/East New York, those lost citadels
of a proud Jewish demimonde, their pool halls and candy stores and
saloons and dance halls and horse parlors and tenement brothels
gone and all but forgotten, even by the '50s. My "boys"
had names like Edward "Monk Eastman" Osterman, Big Jack
Zelig, Arnold Rothman, Lefty Louie Rosenberg, Gyp "The Blood"
Horowitz, Louis "Lepke" Buchalter, Benny "Bugsy"
Siegel, Arthur "Dutch Schultz" Fleigenheimer, Maier "Meyer
Lansky" Luchowljansky, Abe "Kid Twist" Reles, Moitle
"Bugsy" Goldstein. And yes, Frankie "Curley"
the age of 12 until my late teens I demolished time, space, and
logic to be close to my father. It was always 1920 and Frankie Bookman
was there -- in the shadows -- and one day I would turn a corner
and see him, and I'd say "Hiya Frankie" and he'd say "Hiya,
Mike" and slap me on the back and I'd smile and think: "He
likes me, Bugsy's best friend thinks I'm OK."
long ago, I transferred a childhood obsession into sixty-five thousand
words of narrative. It is my story; it is my father's story. A story
I could not have told if not for Bugsy Goldstein.
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