In my younger days, I was fond of playing practical jokes, and I was quite a hypocrite when I think about it, as I hated having jokes played on me, but I truly relished the satisfaction of a well-orchestrated scheme that victimized others.
Perhaps my cruel streak drove me to target a particularly vulnerable person more than once, as was the case with Joe Senior. Joe Senior was one of my bosses at the print shop where I worked when I first got my driver’s license. My other boss was his son, predictably named Joe Junior. You couldn’t find a father and son more different in temperament and personality. Joe Junior was an affable, stocky man of thirty-three years, with a mop of brown hair on his head and a hearty laugh like saxophone with a bellows attached. Though cheerful most of the time, he was clearly the organizational mind and disciplinary power behind the business. Employees made it a point to stay on his good side by working efficiently and leaving him to his cigarettes and phone calls.
The elder Joe, on the other hand, had the bulk of the experience and the technical knowledge boasted by our outfit. He was a man of sixty, whose glare was probably once stern and intimidating, but his decades in the printing industry had rubbed raw nearly every nerve in his being, and as a consequence he possessed a volatile but innocuous personality, quick to laughter or to shouting and pounding his fists. Everyone in the shop adored and respected Joe Senior, but we were not afraid of him.
Joe Senior’s nervous nature routinely inspired chuckles, as even the slightest unexpected noise would make him clinch his eyes shut and put his hand to his forehead as he tried to regain his composure. He worked assiduously at his light table, lining up elements of a document with a T-square and stripping negatives from which pressmen would burn plates to put on the presses.
Joe was an efficient worker when left in peace. He possessed a remarkable conservation of movement as he sat on his stool, leaning over his work, adhering pieces of photographic negative to sheets of opaque goldenrod paper using pieces of dark red tape. He only stopped his work for a pause every half minute or so to push his thinning gray hair over the bare area on the top of his head. And yet for all this, even when he was working for stretches at a time without distractions, one could notice in him a readiness to go berserk, as tiny muscles in his face twitched every few seconds—an eyebrow one moment, his top lip the next, perhaps his right ear the next. It was as if the panic center of his brain was constantly executing some kind of systems readiness check. For this reason, Joe Senior was an inviting target for mischief.
When I began working at the shop, I stuck mainly to my work. Offset printing presses were new to me, and our shop had rather old models that required a lot of attention. I never had much of a knack with machines, and I was a slow-learning apprentice. But time cures all ailments, and by the end of my first year on the job, I was proficient enough to assist a new hire as he learned the trade.
This new hire was a man named Ken Ferrarelli, but he pronounced his name Ferelly. Ken was a walking ambiguity. He was only twenty-three, but he had a forty-year-old speaking voice and a tidily-shaped, Erroll Flynn-style mustache. He was brilliant in conversation, and his sense of humor was a perfect match with mine, which was rather immature at times. Ken and I shared off-color jokes frequently, and we discussed things we could do to annoy other people in the shop. Initially, we would not have dreamed of carrying out any of our plans, but it was entertaining to discuss our schemes during breaks from our work. By degrees our ideas took on a larger scale, and the little ideas we had in mind would, if we were to put them into practice, require careful coordination and execution.
Inevitably, the day came when we would decide to go through with one of these scenarios. With equal inevitability, Joe Senior would have to be the target. Who else would respond so dramatically yet so harmlessly? We only had to take care that Joe Junior would not be around when we executed our plan. Sure, he could find out later; there was no avoiding that. But he would actually find it funny—as long as it were after the fact. The plan itself was ingenious, and it sprang from a lunchtime conversation during which Ken and I were laughing about Joe Senior’s chronic anxiety over our shop’s document camera. To explain briefly, in those days photography was a big part of the printing trade. Documents were photographed on a special camera in the shop’s darkroom, and the film was developed to produce a negative from which foil plates would be “burned” under a bright light in the pressroom. The camera was the most expensive piece of machinery in the shop, and the lens itself cost four thousand dollars to replace. Joe Senior was the only person in the shop allowed to touch the lens, and only then with a special synthetic cloth to remove dust from it. Anything else, Joe constantly told us, would damage the lens—even the softest cotton cloth or the smoothest silk.
If only Joe did not so often repeat his directive never, ever, to touch the lens in the camera, we would never have hatched our idea. We were especially encouraged in our plan by an incident that occurred the day after Joe trained me on how to use the equipment in the darkroom. I had approached him at his light table and told him that I had seen a spot on the lens, and that I had used a piece of newspaper to rub it off.
The poor man went apoplectic.
“You gotta be kidding me!” he exclaimed as he jumped up from his light table. With one hand on his chest, groaning with anxiety, he headed for the darkroom, but as he passed, I took hold of his other arm. I had to use all of my weight to hold him and prevent him from reaching the darkroom curtain. Had he got there, he would surely have whipped it open and ruined a negative that I knew Joe Junior was in the process of developing.
It took some minutes to reassure Senior that I was only kidding, and that I would always heed his warning never to touch the lens.
“Don’t ever touch that lens–“ he barked.
“I know, Joe”
“With anything! You got that?”
“I know, I know. I was only joking,” I explained.
“Don’t even joke about it!” He was still fired up.
“Come on, Joe, let me walk you back to your light table.”
“Keep your grimy hands off me, you no-good, vicious little…Get back into the pressroom!”
With Junior hearing all of this from the other side of the curtain, I was almost certain to get in trouble, but all I heard was a ceremonial shout to knock off the nonsense. By the time Junior emerged from the darkroom, even he was giggling about what I had done.
Ken rolled over with laughter as I related this story, and little by little, we put together a plan involving the lens. In the end, we had a masterpiece. At the end of the workday, Ken and I would meet at the shop sink to wash. As we scrubbed the ink off our hands, we agreed to have supper at the diner next door. There we could write up notes on the execution of this plot. Since it was a Friday evening, we could even come in the next day to walk through the plan when Joe Senior would not be around. The scheme was brilliant, and it went like this:
After our meal, we would go to the drugstore and buy a cheap magnifying glass. We would pop the lens out of it, and one afternoon Ken would pretend that it was the lens from the darkroom camera. He would make sure he was in the darkroom until about five o’clock, when Joe always went for a cup of coffee, but Joe never went without retrieving his coat from a hook on the pressroom wall—just outside the darkroom. With Ken properly positioned, I would be waiting in the bathroom with the door closed. As Ken heard Joe’s shoes clopping into the pressroom, he would pop out of the darkroom with the phony lens in his hand and start to tell Joe that he saw a spot on it. At this point Joe would almost certainly be starting to fly into a rage, and I would emerge from the bathroom, appearing not to know about their conversation. Ken would then drop the lens where I could step on it, and with practice, we would be able to work it so that my foot would slide on the lens, raking it over the grimy shop floor and making a horrendous sound. The result of all of this would be ours to enjoy, and as Ken was trained in CPR, Joe Senior might actually survive the experience.
The next day we practiced for about an hour. We could have worked it out sooner, but we had tears streaming down our cheeks from laughter. It required Jedi-like discipline to put out of our minds what we believed Joe’s reaction would be. Over and over we walked through the plan. We found our groove: Ken knew just where to drop the lens, and I knew precisely where to step. We had bought an extra lens just for the purpose of rehearsing, and by the time we were through, it was scored so horribly we could no longer see through it. At length we were satisfied, and our only worry was that we might get rusty by Monday, as we could not get into the shop on Sunday to practice.
I must explain that I was still in high school when all of this happened. I only worked part time in the pressroom. Ken, on the other hand, was a full-time pressman. He must have been itching with anticipation all of Monday morning, waiting for me to arrive in the afternoon. For my own part, I was distracted enough with my classes for the time to move by swiftly, but darned if I didn’t slip out with a chuckle at a most unfortunate moment during my English class.
“Fornale! I don’t see what’s so funny,” the teacher admonished.
“Sorry is what you call that pathetic excuse for a life that you’re stuck with!”
The class roared. That was fine. I could take everyone laughing at my expense. In a few hours, I would be pulling off the greatest gag of my life. Ken and I barely shared a glance when I arrived at the shop. We didn’t want anyone to know we were up to something. For the moment, the omens were good. Joe Senior was at his light table, Ken was a little more than halfway through a run of five thousand bank envelopes, and Joe Junior waved me over to the press he was operating. He had started a run of newsletters for Temple Beth Shalom. “Take over,” he instructed, “and don’t mess it up!” It was 3:45.
By the time Ken and I had finished and packed our jobs, it would be close to five o’clock. I looked over to where Ken was working. He knew I was looking but didn’t look back. Instead, he looked toward the front desk, but because he knew I was looking, he lifted a shop rag from the counter to reveal an empty magnifying-glass frame. Then he swept it into a trash bin with his forearm and tapped the pocket of his apron to indicate that the lens was safely stowed.
This was when the time slowed to a crawl. The worst thing that could happen now would have been for Senior’s daughter Kathleen to call the shop saying she needed a ride somewhere. Joe Senior would usually drop whatever he was doing if she needed something. Junior would then start muttering until Senior yelled at him to shut up. This could result in an argument that would force us to abort our mission.
I panicked when the phone rang. I thought for sure it would be Kathleen, but I sneaked away from my press for a moment to eavesdrop. Junior’s apologetic tone told me it was an irate customer. He was off the phone within a minute, and perhaps ten seconds or so after that, he had his jacket on and was walking out the door with the keys to the van in his hand. It was 4:30, and Ken and I had every reason to suspect he would be gone for at least an hour.
In twenty-five minutes, our orders were packed, our presses were clean, Ken was pretending to be cleaning up the darkroom, and I faked a need for a sit-down session in the john. I let Joe Senior know I would be indisposed for a little while, which served the added function of reassuring Ken that I was taking up my position.
“If you spent as much time behind the press as you do in the can,” Joe hollered, “ I’d be a multi-millionaire, ya little…”
He had a way of leaving his sentences incomplete like that.
I waited in the bathroom for about fifteen minutes, but I didn’t hear Joe come into the pressroom. I was becoming concerned. He was probably engrossed in painting over some spots on a particularly intricate negative. It was painstaking work sometimes, and if it went on much longer, we ran the risk of Joe Junior returning. Ken must have realized that he needed to goose the process.
“Hey, Joe?” I heard Ken call.
“What? Hey, are you in the darkroom?” came Joe’s reply. “I don’t like you being in there.”
“Don’t worry,” answered Ken, “I’m just cleaning the camera.” “Arright. Thanks.” Joe said absently, probably trying to concentrate on his work.
Then it sank in.
“What?! Cleaning the…”
Boy did I hear footsteps now! A bit faster than Ken and I had anticipated, however. This would critically alter the choreography, but Ken had had no choice but to go off script.
I didn’t know what to do. I knew Joe would be rushing to the darkroom curtain, and I wouldn’t be able to time my exit from the bathroom the way Ken and I had practiced. How would I know exactly where Joe was? Fortunately, I soon had my answer.
“You imbecile!” I heard Joe shout, now obviously at the opening to the darkroom, which I knew to be about three steps from the bathroom door. Joe started on one of his classic tirades, and I could hear Ken trying but failing to get a word in. Instinct told me that this was the moment to come out. I opened the door. Senior was pointing in Ken’s face and hollering. I closed the door to the bathroom harder than usual, and the noise made Joe’s head turn in my direction. That split second was what we needed to put things back on track.
I put my head down and pretended to be heading toward the plate burner. In the corner of my eye, as if in slow motion, I witnessed Ken’s finest moment. He took a hand from behind his back, held up the phony lens, and just as Joe’s face contorted into a look of soul-scorching panic, the lens left Ken’s hand.
It had some velocity and momentum as it landed on its edge with a bang, bouncing once, then settling into a coherent roll and passing me on my way to the burner. As it rolled, hit a tiny piece of grit on the grimy tile, wobbled, and rolled over as if on command. It rested precisely where my right foot would be in half a second.
At this instant, I would have expected some emotional explosion from Joe: a shout, a scream, a shriek—anything to warn me from placing my foot on what Joe believed to be the most precious item in his universe. But I heard instead something quite unexpected—a gasp. A broken, shallow, weepy, whimpering gasp like one might hear from a little girl whose doll was about to be decapitated by a sadistic older brother. This gasp was last thing I heard before I did the cruelest thing I would ever do in my life.
Words cannot do justice to what occurred in the following moment. Imagine the bottom of my shoe meeting the lens as it lay on the floor. Feel, if you can, the impression the rounded glass made through the hard rubber sole into the soft underpart of my foot. Hear the grains of dirt and sand as they were ground between glass and cheap asbestos tile. Worse than a rusty metal rake across weathered aluminum siding was the sound, and it was music to Ken and me. But as I turned to behold the scene, there was not a sound from Joe, just a look. The strangest look I’ve ever seen on the face of a grown man. His eyes were vacant; his jaw hanging. At any moment, I half expected to see a wad of drool drip off his bottom lip. And after the briefest of moments, his head sank forward to be buried in his hands.
Still, though, there was no sound—not even laughter from me and Ken. We were frightened. Not of getting in trouble, of course, we could explain the whole joke to Junior when he returned, and everything would be fine. No, we were scared of something we could only have vaguely imagined before. We thought now that we may have pushed the old man over the brink.
Just then, Joe started shaking. Actually, he was heaving convulsively. His shoulders bounced up and down as he stood there with his hands covering his face. But still, he made no sound.
“Joe!” I said, “Joe! Say something!”
“Yeah, c’mon, Joe,” Ken joined in, standing on Joe’s other side. “It wasn’t the lens from the camera. We were just playing a joke on you.”
“Joe, are you breathing?”
“Yeah, Joe, c’mon! In-out-in-out…” Ken implored, inhaling and exhaling in an exaggerated fashion. Ken and I looked at each other with panic in our eyes.
Suddenly, Joe emerged from whatever it was had overtaken him. His head rose, and he removed his hands from his face. In a split second, he had each of us by the upper arm. Then he started addressing us in a slow, deliberate, determined tone and got more excited as he went: “You…two…guys…are…gonna kill me! I swear it! You’re gonna play a joke or break something, or offend a customer—”
He was getting really worked up now, cutting off the circulation in our arms, looking from one of us to the other.
“I’m tellin’ you guys to cut it out! Knock it off! I’m an old man, for cryin out loud!” We were quite relieved he was all right, but boy, did he have a strong grip! He let go quite suddenly, muttering to himself as he took his jacket from the hook and left the shop to get his coffee. “Crazy, no-good…I’m an old man…gonna be my end…you vicious little…”
Ken and I accomplished nothing of note for the rest of the day, being content merely to look as if we were organizing the pressroom while we recounted the sequence again and again through suffocating laughter, each relating it from his own point of view. “How did you know where to drop the lens?” I asked him. And, “Did it really sound as glorious as I thought it did when the glass was shredded across the floor?”
Even Joe Junior, who returned some minutes after and tried to lecture us about productivity on company time, burst into laughter when he saw the lens.
“Cripes!” said Junior, “No wonder he nearly had a coronary! Look at that thing!”
“It was a masterful performance, Joe,” said Ken. “You should’ve seen it.”
“Like heck I should’ve,” Joe retorted, “I’d’ve fired both your butts on the spot.”
“And hired us back tomorrow,” I came back.
“You watch it, you little twerp. I can hire someone even dumber’n you to run off splotchy newsletters—and for less pay. Both of you, go home. You’ve wasted enough of my money today. And lay off the old man for a while!”
A reasonable request. We had pushed Senior to his limits, and Junior had taken the news of our prank in very good humor. But really, could he reasonably have expected us to leave it at that? Could Ken and I ourselves not have felt emboldened by our success to perpetrate something even more daring? More ingenious? More hilarious?
In a word, no.
TO BE CONTINUED…