Continued from Part 1
I decided to take Mickey’s back-handed absolution in stride and move forward with the interview. It seemed that a short interview would best suit the needs of everyone involved, so I jumped to the million-dollar question. “How did you get involved with the Gentleman Bandit?” I asked.
Mickey snorted. “You mean Joe Sullivan? Save that Gentleman Bandit crap for your readers. Nobody from the town ever called him any pansy nickname like that. As far as how I got mixed up with Joe, that’s a good question. It’s one I asked myself almost every day I was in the joint. I guess it all started with me being a good driver, even before I had my license. When I was about 14 me and my buddies from the projects started ripping off cars, you know, joyriding them for a few hours and then ditching them in an abandoned lot somewhere. After a while we smartened up and realized that after the joyride was over, there were guys in the neighborhood who would pay good cash to take them off our hands and strip them for parts. We formed a little car theft crew and from day one I was lead driver. That meant I got to drive all the good cars, like when we grabbed a Camaro or a Trans Am.”
I withheld a sigh. Obviously Mickey took my question about his involvement with Joe Sullivan as an opportunity to review his own pathetic criminal career. Chuck had recommended I let him ramble on for a bit if I thought it would lead to something good, so I nodded my head and pretended to take notes.
“I did that for a few years and got good enough to get noticed by the real pros,” Mickey continued. “Pretty soon I was working for a serious crew swiping cars all over the place, even the suburbs. Everything was tit till I was about 21.”
Mickey paused and stared at me. “What happened then?” I asked, picking my head up and raising my eyebrows in mock excitement. The sum of my notes to this point was “Juvenile car thief.”
“I got busted,” he said. “Did three years in Deer Island for boosting some yuppie’s Benz in Coolidge Corner. Three prime years of my life, my early 20s, stuck behind bars breathing in fumes from the sewage plant next door and showering with my back to the wall. Meanwhile my buddies are out raising hell, scoring chicks and getting wasted every night. Whaddya think about that?” Mickey’s voice had slowly but steadily risen throughout his sordid tale and he was practically yelling by the time he asked me that question.
“I think it sucks,” I said, blurting the first thing that came to mind. What was I supposed to say? I think you should have thought twice about stealing cars for a living? I think you’re lucky it was only three years?
“Damn straight!” exclaimed Mickey. “Christ, what were you doing at 21? You were in college, right? Smoking dope and scoring sorority chicks?”
The dope smoking assumption was valid enough, but I have to confess the sorority girls operated by a code I was never able to crack. Joining a fraternity would have helped, had the whole idea of the Greek system not turned my stomach. Rather than spill my guts about my younger years to Mickey, I simply nodded and scribbled with my pen. At this point Mickey was basically addressing himself, anyway
“When I finally got out I stayed straight for a little while,” he resumed. “Hung drywall, ripped out trees, all that manual labor bullshit. But I picked up a nasty habit running around on the streets all those years.” Mickey pressed his finger against his left nostril and made a snorting noise with his right nostril. “I couldn’t indulge it that much inside, but when I got out I started making up for lost time. And nine-to-five wasn’t paying for it for very long. So I started dealing a little, buying twice as much as I needed and then selling half to get the other half free. But then I started snorting through most of the extra stuff I was buying and that line of work is already spoken for in this neighborhood by some heavy hitters, so my career as a coke dealer didn’t last too long, either.
“By this point I was running with a lot of guys from my old crew, and they were all pretty much in the same boat as me. Being the geniuses we were, we decided to start sticking people up. You know, liquor stores, dry cleaners, gas stations, real nickel and dime. Once again, my skills behind the wheel came in handy. That actually lasted a few years before I got busted again. So I did five years in Concord for armed robbery and was back on the street at square one. I was 33, a ninth-grade dropout, and a two-time loser. Even the guys who paid under the table for ripping asbestos out of old tenement buildings wanted nothing to do with my sorry ass. For the next few years I did whatever work I could scrounge up and freelanced as a driver. I wasn’t a regular member of any crew, but guys called me when someone got sick, or put in jail, or was too stoned to drive. All three happen a lot more than you would think.”
I had stopped even making the slightest pretense of taking notes or paying attention by this point. Fortunately, Mickey seemed too wrapped up in the countless mistakes of his past to notice or care about what I was doing. “Just when I thought I was gonna spend the rest of my life living in a boarding house and filling in for bums who couldn’t wake up in time for a 3 PM jewelry heist, Joe Sullivan called,” he said.
I was sitting upright and tightly clutching my pen faster than a Harvard grad tells you where he went to school. At last he was getting to the part that mattered. I was going to get my Joe Sullivan story, after all!
If Mickey was aware of my sudden change in demeanor, he didn’t show it. “Joe needed a driver, and he heard I had done some good work and was real available,” he continued in the same deadpan drone he had used to describe his pitiful career as a fourth-rate second-story man. “He set up a meeting, explained the kind of money his crew was pulling in, offered me a more than reasonable cut for driving, and I was in, simple as that.”
I resisted the impulse to pounce across the table and grab Mickey by his skinny, weathered neck to choke the colorful anecdotes out of him. “How does someone like Joe Sullivan set up a meeting?” I asked. “What did he say when he offered you the job?”
Mickey squinted at me like a giant spider had just climbed on top of my head and he couldn’t decide whether or not to tell me about it. Then he sighed. “A friend of his called a friend of mine, who called me,” he said. “It’s not the kind of work you send a resume for. My friend recommended I be at Tavern on the Water at a certain time on a certain day, and I might run into someone who could get me some work. I showed up, Joe flagged me to his table, we discussed business, and made a deal.”
I said nothing. I knew Tavern on the Water was one of those godawful yuppie places where everyone acted like they were auditioning for “The Apprentice.” I’d probably hang out at The Clover before I went to a place like that, but doubted Mickey would appreciate hearing about it.
Mickey sighed again, breathing hard enough to sound like a horse snorting. “All right, you’ve obviously had your fill of hearing my little hoodlum war stories, so let’s wrap this up for both our sakes. I joined the crew and started driving them to all their jobs, as far north as Augusta and as far south as Richmond. Joe offered me a pistol for self-defense but I said thanks anyway, since that way I technically couldn’t be charged with ‘armed’ robbery. I sat in the van with the engine running and waited for the boys to do their thing.”
“What was their thing, exactly,” I asked, doing my best to convey my interest. A first-person account of the gang in action would do wonders for my article’s “wow” factor.
“Walking into a place with a lot of cash or jewels lying around, pulling out big guns, threatening a few lives, and walking out with the goodies stuffed into briefcases or canvas bags.” Mickey put about as much emotion into his description of the gang’s exploits as a fifth-grader would into reciting the state capitals.
“But what about the Gentle…what about Joe Sullivan?” I said. “Something must have made him stand out from the pack.”
Mickey slammed his fist on the table so hard it left an impression. He was a Porsche of emotional acceleration. “I should have known!” he shouted. “This is one more job by the media to make Joe Sullivan out to be some kind of goddamned saint! The guy says please and thank you while he’s ripping off your life savings and people want him to be the next pope! Let me tell you something, moron. Nothing except a phony smile and a few nice words separate Joe Sullivan from the ‘pack’ of all us other crooks. He’s a lazy nobody who’d rather let someone else bust their ass to scrounge a few bucks together and then steal it rather than bust his own ass. He was a little more polite than your run-of-the-mill bank robber and maybe he was more careful not to get violent than most. Otherwise, he’s one more piece of Townie trash who’s too goddamned stupid to make a living the honest way.”
Mickey was now baring his rotted teeth. With his long, slender face he looked like one mean greyhound. I opened my mouth to apologize, but only a faint gurgling emerged. Then his eyes darted to my wrist, and his snarl turned into a smile.
“Nice watch you got there pal,” he said. “Doesn’t quite match the rest of your outfit.”
I glanced at my watch. He was right. The shiny glint of real gold contrasted with the dull, faded colors of my jeans and chamois shirt. It was the one part of my wardrobe that didn’t scream “overeducated and underemployed.”
“It was a gift,” I said.
“Some gift. Whoever it was must have really dug you. Was it your mom or a broad?”
I was getting very uncomfortable with this admitted criminal’s sudden fascination with my watch, but at least he was separating my mother from the “broad” class. “Girlfriend,” I said. “Ex-girlfriend.”
“You two must have been serious at some point,” he said. “That’s a beaut. Mind if I take a closer look?” He reached over and slipped it off my wrist before I could even fully process his question. His eyes gleamed brighter than the watch’s gold band as he gingerly played with it in his palm.
“So what happened?” he said. “Did you screw things up?”
Now I wasn’t just uncomfortable; I was getting angry. Why the hell did I owe this two-bit thug a detailed description of my romantic history? But playing along seemed like the wisest course. “I suppose so,” I said. “She left me for another guy, but I probably helped push her away.”
“Why would you push away a broad like that? This is an expensive piece. She must have been rich.”
“Her father was well-to-do,” I said. “He bankrolled her while she was in law school.”
“Ah, I see,” said Mickey, dangling the watch under the room’s lone fluorescent light bulb. “So was she messing around with her law professor, or what?”
“Not that it’s any of your business, but no, she wasn’t,” I declared. My voice was rising despite all my best survival instincts. The ones that had told me to smile and walk away when Tommy Baxter used to snatch my Twinkie out of my hands during second grade snack period. “She was seeing the guy who lived down the hall in her apartment building,” I said, my voice now falling in dejection. “Real cliché. He was a professional jazz musician.”
Mickey threw his head back and laughed, but I noticed he kept his eyes cast downward on the watch that still dangled from his hand. My watch.
“Those worthless broads,” he said. “Doesn’t matter how classy or rich they are, they’re all sluts looking for the next big kick. That’s why I never get too involved. Just find one who’s willing to put out, toss a few bucks around and enjoy the ride till she smartens up and runs away from me.”
“Thanks for the tip,” I muttered.
“Hey, I see some real fire in your eyes,” said Mickey. “Maybe there’s something buried somewhere in your crotch, after all. Listen, kid, some broad is gonna rip your heart out and dance on it in her stiletto heels again. I guarantee it. But until that time, you should probably do everything possible to clear your mind of this last evil wench. So I’m gonna do you a favor and take this watch off your hands. Allow you to have a fresh start before the next time you get kicked where it hurts.”
Was this guy serious? I make it a practice to never price out a gift, but I knew that watch was worth hundreds of dollars. And what business was it of his what kind of memories it did or didn’t give me? “Now you listen here,” I said, rising from my seat.
Mickey sprang to his feet. He was no more than five seven, but when he set those hard, unfeeling eyes on me his stature grew immensely. “Trust me pal, I’m doing you a favor,” he said. “Now sit down, please. I don’t want things to get out of hand.”
I slumped back in my seat. There was no way I was going to take on someone like Mickey Shannon in a one-on-one fight, and who knew what he might have tucked in his waistband. And his bartender friend was right outside the door, and this was the kind of place where they kept a gun behind the bar. Tommy Baxter had won himself another free Twinkie.
Satisfied that I had been cowed beyond any shred of resistance, Mickey sat down. He reached over and playfully punched my arm. “Cheer up, kid,” he said. “It’s only a watch.” I nodded, staring at the floor.
“Well, I think we’re done here, don’t you?” asked Mickey. I nodded again. “I’ll be sure to read your article. A smart guy like you should know exactly what to write and what to leave out, right?”
I nodded a third time. “Great,” he said. “Thanks for stopping by. I enjoyed it.” I forced myself to look at Mickey. He was smiling like a kid on Halloween. My watch was out of sight. “You can show yourself out. Eddie should have your stuff.”
Without a word, I got up and walked out. Eddie had turned a single dim light on over the bar. He was hunched over a mug and slowly wiping it with a rag.
“Mickey said you have my stuff,” I said, forcing out the words over my thick, dry tongue.
Eddie jerked his head to his left, not glancing in my direction for as much as a millisecond. My jacket and cell phone were piled on a table. I grabbed them and walked out the front door. I purposely opened it as wide as possible so as much daylight as possible would infiltrate The Clover. It seemed more fitting than slamming the door shut.
I climbed back into my car and slipped the key in the ignition. I had been mugged once, about six years earlier, at a T stop in Dorchester. A kid grabbed me from behind and held a switchblade at my throat while his accomplice reached into my pocket and yanked out my wallet. Then he pushed me to the ground and they ran. It was all over in less than 30 seconds and nobody spoke and I never saw their faces. By the time I got up they were indistinct figures in the distance, obscured by hooded sweatshirts. I never bothered calling the cops or even telling anybody about it. I didn’t see the point.
This time would be different, though. This time I had something to say. I had news for people, all right. My editor had wanted the dirt on “The Gentleman Bandit” and I had it. He was just one more lowlife dirtbag too lazy to earn his own living.