The First Interview: Mo
I thought I would start with Mo, anyway, since he seemed to be the mystery that everyone was really interested in; and from how my dad describes him, he was really the smartest out of the gang, so his perspective on Howie is probably the most interesting. I’m trying not to project and turn this into fiction, but I want to make a brutally honest and comprehensive account of Howard Kessler—through the eyes of his childhood friends—as I can.
Mo is also the one that no one knows how to get in touch with.
One phone call to a friend at the D.A.’s office and I had a couple of phone numbers and a work address. I drove out to Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn on a sunny Thursday morning. I had never been there. Dad was never interested in taking us back to where he grew up, and having spent my formative years in Bergen County, I didn’t make it to Brooklyn with the exception of the hipster clubs in Williamsburg and frou frou restaurants on Smith Street in Carroll Gardens…another world away from Brighton Beach, Bensonhurst, Coney Island and Sheepshead Bay.
Mo’s work address listed a large health club. It is a freestanding building right off Emmons Avenue with a huge yellow neon sign, and floor-to-ceiling windows on its three floors. I walked in and asked the receptionist where I can find Mo. She looked at me like I had ten heads.
“Does he work here anymore?” I asked.
“I don’t know what you mean—he doesn’t work here, he owns here. He doesn’t come in probably next week though.”
“Can you tell me where I can find him now?”
“That bad, huh? I can give you a cell number, I can’t tell you where he is though. He’s usually good about answering his messages.”
As she was writing down the number on a card, I couldn’t figure out what she meant by her comment. Sometimes people just say weird things so I didn’t think about it much. But it was something to catalogue for when I do meet him.
It was a different number than the two I had from the D.A.’s office. As I exited the building and walked to my car, a thin woman in spandex pants and matching jacket called to me.
“You’re looking to find Mo?”
“Yes, that’d be great.”
“Who are you?”
“I’m just the daughter of an old friend of his and was hoping to speak with him about some news,” I answered, not thinking that what I was doing could have been construed as illicit in any way.
“If you go out to the harbor, past the charter boats, you’ll see a couple of house boats. The one with the blue and white flag is Mo’s.”
“Really? A boat? That’s great—thanks so much, I really appreciate it. Can I tell him you gave me the info?”
“Please don’t do that, I’m not on his favorites list right now.”
I didn’t delve further, even though I wanted to, I wasn’t writing a story about Mo, I was writing a piece about Howard and needed Mo’s experience and perspective. But there were certainly enough details already that made me think I’m writing the wrong story.
I kept the car where it was and walked through the damp morning air to the harbor. I found the boat that the woman had mentioned, but I had no idea how to board it. There was no doorbell or anything, and it was just attached by a couple of ropes. I stood there for a few minutes wondering if I should just jump on.
As I walked closer to gauge the distance of the jump, I saw someone walking around inside through the windows. I stepped back a moment to watch him. This has to be Mo. He has his shirt off and is holding a cigarette and a take-out cup of coffee in one hand and his phone to his ear in the other. He looks pissed. I can’t hear anything because of the water slapping against the boats and the pier and the wind across the harbor. In his animation yelling into the phone, he spills his coffee and fumbles with the cigarette, the now half-empty cup, and the phone, still arguing verbally and physically.
I stood and watched for a few more moments just voyeuristically without having any intention of boarding the boat to speak with him at this point. I’ll come back. I turned to walk back to the car. A few steps down the pier someone grabbed my arm and swung me around. I didn’t even hear him coming.
“What are you doing here?”
It was Mo, presumably. What the hell am I getting into? There isn’t a soul in sight. I don’t know this guy. He could be a fucking murderer, and may have been one back when my dad knew him. My heart raced and I had trouble spitting out the simple words that I needed to in order to defuse the situation.
His grip was tighter on my arm and he raised his voice. “Who are you? You better be fucking lost, girlie.”
I took a deep breath. “My name is Jessica Plotkin. You knew my father, Karol, I think—are you Mo?” I said feebly. I am unused to being scared. I haven’t been one of those journalists on the front of a warzone, and my exposes haven’t exactly probed into the underworld. The most dangerous situation I was in was getting stuck in the airport at Phuket before the torrential storms in Southeast Asia when I was doing a story on girls’ secondary education in Cambodia.
Those words seemed to snap us both out of my fear and his suspicion.
“No, my dad? No, he’s not dead—“
“Then why’d you say ‘you knew’ him? You made is sound like he’s dead—“
“No, I’m sorry, it’s just that it is my understanding that you guys haven’t been in touch in years, so it would have been weird to say you know him, because, well, really, you probably don’t.”
He looked at me quizzically.
“Sorry, this wasn’t the right timing, I had a whole different speech prepared—“
“Let me get this straight, Punch is not dead; you’re his daughter you said?”
“Yeah, I’m here because I wanted to talk to you about—“
“How is Punch?” he smiled and instead of gripping my arm like he was going to break it off, he grasped both my arms and stood me in front of him to inspect me. “You look like him! Same nose!”
He obviously didn’t know that I’ve been conscientious of my nose for years so it wasn’t the way to my heart.
“He’s good, he’s, uh, lost his leg and rolls around in the chair quite nicely now. Diabetes. He lives in New Jersey and retired a couple years ago from AT&T.” How could I summarize my dad’s past 50 years (especially when I’ve only been around for 30) to this guy?
“His leg? Wow, I can’t get over that. Punch was so athletic. He kicked my ass all the time over on the courts,” pointing in the direction, of Brighton Beach where they used to all play pickup basketball. “He OK otherwise, though? Hey I’d love to see him—“
“He’s fine, yeah, and he’d like to get together, too—Howard Kessler is here and also wants to get together, but I’ll let you guys chat about that.”
“What? What is all this going on? Howie’s back? I was just thinking about that guy,” he sounded confused and I guess it was all too much at once. Whatever he thought I was doing spying on him, plus the blasts from the past, it seemed like his head was spinning. He wasn’t wearing shoes.
“You have a few minutes?” He asked. “I’ll buy you a cup of coffee. I’m sorry for jumping on you like that, it must’ve scared you a little. You wouldn’t believe the people out here–” he trailed off but I knew that he’s got people after him. You don’t act like that, live on a boat, and come running barefoot after people on the dock, if you’re an innocent bystander.
We walked over to a diner across the street for a coffee.
“I’d like to write a story about you guys, and Howard. I was hoping to get your thoughts, memories, experiences. Raw, unbiased, as you remember them. Are you up for that?” I asked bluntly. I didn’t want to insinuate anything about Howard, and how I didn’t like what I thought he might be up to.
“What kind of story? I mean, I don’t know what your dad has told you about me, but I don’t exactly want any spotlight on me.”
“No, of course, I understand. If you’d like to remain anonymous, that’s fine, I think I can work with that. It’s the recollections that are important. Above all, I want to be truthful.”
I can’t believe I said that. It was like Journalism 101. And, frankly, I’m not so sure I wanted to be truthful, but I had no idea of the background between Mo and Howard, or between any of the gang, so I tread lightly.
“Lemme think about it. I’m a busy guy, you know, I own that health club over there.”
I could see his full-of-shitness and was a little disappointed he thought I would buy it. I was straddling a fine line: a journalist and a subject’s daughter. I had to be a little more flexible than I ordinarily would have been.
“Well, I came all the way out here hoping at least to get a little background on your relationship with Howard back when you were young, and the last time you were in touch with him, you know, some basic stuff.”
“You don’t have a microphone or anything, a recorder, right?”
“No, not this time. I mean, not for this project. I recognize the sensitivities. You can attribute when and where you want. I just ask you one thing in return: that you don’t tell Howard about this in any form at all whatsoever.”
He put his cup down and glared at me. I was scared again. I got the confidence to confront him on my terms, and he then squashed me without words. Jesus, this guy is powerful. Why am I doing this story, again? If I feel like I’m in over my head before the interviews even begin, I should go back to covering NPR stories on woodcarving artists’ communes in Wyoming.
“What the fuck are you doing? Who do you think you are?”
Fuck. Fuck. Fuck!
I stared back at him for the longest few seconds in the history of time. I felt my body temperature rise to the point I thought my ears would combust. The whole story is a bust if Howard finds out about it. This thing could go down the drain before I even put pen to paper.
“Eh, I’m only kidding. Lighten up, will ya? How about some blintzes? This joint makes great blintzes.” And he motioned for the waitress.
(Excerpt from forthcoming full length novel Getting the Old Gang Back Together)