Button Man: New Excerpt
Button Man by Andrew Gross is a stirring story of a Jewish family brought together in the dawn of the women’s garment business and torn apart by the birth of organized crime in New York City in the 1930s.
Morris, Sol, and Harry Rabishevsky grew up poor and rough in a tiny flat on the Lower East Side, until the death of their father thrust them into having to fend for themselves and support their large family. Morris, the youngest, dropped out of school at twelve years old and apprenticed himself to a garment cutter in a clothing factory; Sol headed to accounting school; but Harry, scarred by a family tragedy, fell in with a gang of thugs as a teenager. Morris steadily climbs through the ranks at the factory until at twenty-one he finally goes out on his own, convincing Sol to come work with him. But Harry can’t be lured away from the glamour, the power, and the money that come from his association with Louis Buchalter, whom Morris has battled with since his youth and who has risen to become the most ruthless mobster in New York. And when Buchalter sets his sights on the unions that staff the garment makers’ factories, a fatal showdown is inevitable, pitting brother against brother.
This new novel is equal parts historical thriller, rich with the detail of a vibrant New York City in the 1920s and 1930s, and family saga, based on Andrew Gross’s own family story and on the history of the era, complete with appearances by real-life characters like mobsters Louis Lepke and Dutch Schultz and special prosecutor Thomas Dewey, and cements Gross’s reputation as today’s most atmospheric and original historical thriller writer.
ALL OF THEM
There was a chill in the air, for April, as Morris Raab headed back down Seventh Avenue. And a chill was always good for the coat business, anyone on the street would say.
He and his brother Sol had had their own firm for seven years now. They had sixty machines in operation, a steady production in two other factories on Allen and Rivington Streets downtown, and a growing business even in the teeth of the Depression, when dozens of their competitors had been forced to close their doors. There were six years between them—six years which could have been twenty. Sol had always planned to pursue a reliable trade, like accounting or the law. But as the oldest son, when their father died it had fallen on him to take care of the family, so he dropped out of accounting school and found work preparing the books for the bridal shop on Orchard Street and for an engraver on Grand.
It was Morris, his younger brother, who had asked him to come on board.
“What would I possibly do for you?” Sol asked skeptically. “I don’t know garments. I know numbers.”
“I know all you’ll need to know,” his younger brother said. “And what I can’t teach you, you’ll learn. It’s not exactly rocket science.”
“If it was, I doubt you’d be much of a success,” Sol said.
From the start it was a schlecht shidech, their mother always said. A bad marriage. A circle made of two squares.
And yet the “marriage” had worked.
To Sol, who labored over every dime, Morris never seemed to spend a minute thinking much on anything. He only saw things as he wanted them to be, as he felt he could make them happen. Morris was tall, over six feet, with full shoulders and muscular arms that made him appear even larger. And he never backed down from anything. Sol was shorter and thin, with already receding hair and fists that had never been clenched in anger. The two were as different as two people could be who had come out of the same womb.
“Ich zol azoy vissen fun tsoris,” Sol would mutter in Yiddish with a shake of his head. I should only have half the trouble you cause for me. “You know that, right?”
“Du machst nich veynen,” Morris would reply with a dismissive wave. You’re making me cry.
They had grown up rough-and-tumble on the Lower East Side. While Sol was always in the books, Morris saw no point in staying in school when, at twelve, he was already set to make his way in the world. He was handsome in a rugged sort of way. He had a firm jaw and a wide, flattened nose, as if reshaped by a heavyweight’s jab. His hands were solid and rough, his knuckles scarred from a hundred scraps, not the hands of a man used to solving things by sitting across the table. And he had learned how to use them early on, and capably.
When he was only fifteen he had forged his mother’s consent and enlisted to go fight in Europe in the Great War. By then, he had already dropped out of PS 48 on East Fourth and joined in the trade. They sent him to basic training at a camp near Aqueduct Raceway in Queens. He was the only Jew in his unit; his fellow recruits, all street-hardened Irish and Italian boys, acted like they’d never even met one before. A week into their training, Morris’s corporal and four of his tent mates wrestled him from behind and shoved him into the latrine, basically a ditch dug outside half-filled with piss and excrement, while the rest looked on, laughing, peppering him with taunts of “Christ killer” and “Rumpleforeskin.” Two or three even opened their flies and let go. When Morris crawled back out in shame, soiled with piss and shit, the corporal said he smelled so vile he’d have to go sleep with the horses in the stables. When Morris finally told him to go fuck himself and charged, the rest of the unit tackled him and held him down while the corporal ran a sharp-bristled horse brush down his back until his skin was bloody and raw. Morris spent two days in the hospital, bandaged and covered in salve. When the sergeant found out, he tried to get Morris to divulge what had happened, but Morris refused to give up a name.
A second sergeant got involved, this one a Jew. A drill sergeant, with arms like cannons and a demeanor as tough as any soldier in camp. “I figure you’d like to get back at these bastards,” he said to Morris, sizing up what had taken place. Morris said, yeah, he damn well would like to get back at them. “Well, not here,” the sergeant said. They had a boxing team on base, so he said they would take it out in the ring.
Morris, who was ready wherever, said, “Fine. Pick any one of them,” leering at the corporal.
“Not any one.” The sergeant looked at him and handed him his gloves. “All.” All … Morris looked back at him, sure he hadn’t heard correctly. These were tough Irish and Italian kids, all with three years on him. Why would another Jew set him up for the biggest licking of his life?
“And if you take a quick fall,” the sergeant said, with an earnestness that made Morris sure he meant it, “be sure I’ll step in the ring myself and you’ll have to deal with me. Fershtayst…?”
“Farshteyst.” Morris looked at him and nodded. I understand.
So one by one he took them on. All. And each who came up cockily went down just as quickly, staggering sideways back to their corner, rubbing their jaws. The last to go was the corporal who had pushed him into the latrine and run the wire brush across his back, who turned out not to be so tough without his unit to back him up. At the end, his nose broken, his eyes puffed out twice their size, Morris himself could barely stand. He staggered back to his corner and collapsed onto the mat. He looked at the sergeant, blood streaming down his face. “You said all, right?”
“Yeah.” The sergeant finally smiled and nodded. “All.”
Soon after, the army found out Morris’s true age and sent him home. Which turned out to be a good thing in the end, since his unit ended up wiped out to a man at Belleau Wood.
But from then on, Morris was a man who others knew had the will to stand up for himself, and the means to back it up. And he operated his firm with the same conviction. There were pressures in the business, things that could sink a company every day. And not just the teetering economy, which had put enough of his competitors on their backs. The unions, which were no longer unions in any traditional sense, but rackets, taken over by the gangsters, who squeezed companies for payments—worker benefit funds, they were called, ostensibly for the slow periods, but everyone knew exactly what they were. Protection money. Protection from the unions themselves. And they had taken over the suppliers as well, forcing firms into agreements to buy only from them, adding a nickel here or a dime there to their costs, which went straight into the union’s pockets. And anyone who refused to pay up or play by the rules didn’t stay in business very long.
So far Morris and Sol had been left alone, but they both knew it was only a matter of time.
As he turned onto Thirty-sixth Street, where many of the garment firms had moved now, the block buzzed with activity. Pushcarts piled high with bolts of fabric manned by beige-smocked warehouse workers, wheels clattering on the pavement; trolleys of dresses and coats being rushed from factory to warehouse that could knock a careless person on his face. On the corner, O’Malley’s, the Irish bar where the owner booked bets in the back room, was doing its usual lunchtime trade, salesmen at the bar trading stories, swigging a last rye before their next call.
That was where Morris first caught sight that something was wrong.
A crowd had formed halfway down the block toward Broadway, people staring upward. Three police cars were pulled up in front of a gray stone building. His building, he could now see. Blocked, trucks and cars were honking to get by. Edging his way through the crowd, Morris looked around to see what had brought them there.
On the street he kneeled next to Buck, the vagrant in the ragged wool coat who camped out near their entrance. Morris often stuffed a dollar in his hand when he left at night. “What’s going on, Buck?”
“It’s Mr. Gutman, Mr. Raab, sir,” the down-on-his-luck black man said. “Some men went up there for him. And they didn’t look like any men you want to mess with.”
A knot of worry tightened in Morris’s gut. Manny Gutman had been a friend of his for years—as much a mentor as a friend. And Morris didn’t have to ask which men, or from where.
He knew damn well what had happened.
The Isidor Gutman Fur Company was started in 1883 by Manny’s father, who peddled furs out West and to New England in towns so small they had no retail stores, then, in the ’20s, rode the wave of raccoon coats and ankle-length beavers to become one of the largest makers on the block. An Isidor Gutman signature woven in the lining of a coat was a mark that it was only the very best quality. Manny had taken over from his father and been running the firm for thirty years.
The past two years, they’d been forced to buckle under to pressure from the International Fur Dressers Protective. Since the days of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in 1911, Isidor Gutman was always a union shop—“I’m a garment maker, not a union crusader,” Manny would declare. But since then the gangsters had seized control, first demanding protection money, then forcing them into buying cooperatives which pushed lesser-quality pelts and trims and drove their prices up, even in the teeth of the Depression. To stay afloat, Manny came up with a plan to buy some furs from the union suppliers forced on him and some from his own resources, firms they had been doing business with since his father’s time and who sold only the finest quality. Those of lesser quality they shipped to accounts who might not appreciate the difference, the finer stock to their longtime accounts who would know. But the union seemed to have ears everywhere, and what had begun as mere threats—intimidating phone calls, strong-armed people coming around—soon escalated into hijacking their delivery trucks, defacing finished inventory with red dye, and warning them to get in line or else. Still, Manny tried to keep on a few of his old suppliers in secret—off the books, so to speak, without purchase orders—dressing the furs himself at his own expense. “I mean, how would they ever know?” he said to Morris, “if there’s no documentation.”
But apparently they did know. An ambulance drove up, siren blaring.
And this was their response.
“How many were there?” Morris asked Buck, watching a medical team with a stretcher rushing in.
“I dunno, six or eight, Mr. Raab. They all ran out and climbed into two cars. Maybe twenty minutes ago.”
“Thanks.” Morris pressed a five into his hand. “I’d get off the street if I were you. Things are going to get hectic.”
He headed inside. He didn’t even stop at his own floors, three and four, but, adrenaline pushing him, bounded up the stairs to Manny’s offices on seven, hearing the slow freight elevator clattering on every floor. When he got up there, there were cops milling around in the hall and the wooden door to the Isidor Gutman Fur Company was open.
A young cop manning the entrance put an arm out and stopped him. “Whoa, what’s your business, fella?”
Morris knew the police were the last people you needed in these situations. The precinct captains were squarely in the mob’s pocket. They had usually been paid off in advance not to find a thing by the very people who had done it.
“I’m a friend,” Morris said, pushing past him.
The cop grabbed him by the shoulder. “You wait right there, buddy.”
One of Manny’s employees, his bookkeeper, Mr. Leavitt, white as a ghost, his tie undone, came up to the cop, seeing Morris’s position. “It’s okay. Mr. Raab is Mr. Gutman’s friend. You can let him through.”
There was a receiving area in the front, where raw materials were diverted to the warehouse area; those who had business with the firm came in through a separate wood-and-glass door. Morris went in. When he looked around, at the proud business that had prospered for two generations now in shambles; at Manny’s workers, many who had been with the company since his father’s time, glassy-eyed, huddled together, Morris’s heart sank.
Where piles of expensive and neatly laid-out furs were normally stacked on tables in line to be cut, there were now mounds of torn and mangled skins that had been sheared into worthless strips and scattered akimbo. And not just inexpensive squirrels like Morris used for collars and sleeves, but once-luxurious beavers and minks that would have been in the windows of Altman’s and Saks. Now worthless. Many of the pelts had bald spots on them and were singed as if they had been lit by a flame or doused with something corrosive.
A sharp, acrid odor filled the room.
Many of Manny’s staff huddled around. Some of the seamstresses were still whimpering as if they’d just witnessed something horrible. The old cutters and sewers seemed dazed, and when they saw Morris, just shook their heads in a blank way, as if to say, Can you believe what you see here?
In the stock room, racks of finished garments and excess pelts were similarly defaced. Expensive furs and fur-trimmed coats torn, shredded into jagged strips from neck to hem, linings slit, many giving off that same bitter smell. A few cops stood around, perfunctorily interrogating the employees with their pads open. But Morris knew no arrests would be made.
One of the staff, an old cutter named Oscar, came up to Morris. “Mr. Raab…” was all he could mutter, somberly shaking his head.
“Where’s Mr. Gutman?” Morris said. He didn’t see Manny anywhere.
“It was terrible, Mr. Raab,” was all the cutter said. “They came in like back in Russia, handkerchiefs over their faces, knocking people to the floor.” He wiped a hand across his face despairingly, as if he was gazing at bloodied bodies, not ruined garments. Morris knew Oscar had fled the pogroms back in Russia and likely survived the most terrifying attacks and slaughter. Still, he was always an upbeat man. Morris had never seen him look like this before.
“Where’s Manny, Oscar?” Morris asked him again.
The old cutter pointed toward the rear. On the floor, behind one of the two large cutting tables, Morris saw the doctor from outside kneeling, two cops nearby.
He went over. Manny was sitting upright on the floor. At least he was alive. He was dressed in an open vest, his tie undone, sleeves rolled, his face covered. Morris kneeled next to him.
His friend looked up and dropped the towel. Blood trickled from his right ear, where he’d clearly been struck, and there was a deep purple bruise on his cheek, his white hair all disheveled. But what Morris then saw on the left side of his face made him wince and hold his breath.
A bright red blotch, like a spreading rose, stretching from cheek to eye. The doctor dabbed a wet rag to the eye, which Manny closed. “Morris, is that you?” He held up a hand. “I’m sorry, I can’t see a thing out of this eye.”
“Manny, what the hell did they do to you?” Morris took in a breath, his chest tightening with rage. But he knew just by looking at him what had been done to him.
A large oil tin was on its side at Manny’s feet and Morris picked it up and smelled inside.
“I wouldn’t touch that if I were you,” the doctor warned.
“Who did this to you?” Morris said, gazing around in anger. He set the tin back down.
“What does it matter who did this?” Manny opined. “Look around. Fifty years we’ve been in business. Fifty years. Now … It’s over for me, Morris. I’m done. I’m glad my father’s in his grave not to see this.”
“Who was it, Manny?” Morris said again, his gut as stinging and raw as if he had taken a swig from that can of acid himself.
But he knew precisely who had done it. And who was behind it as well. The same people who had walked over all of them with the same brutality and indifference to the law. One by one, every business on the street was being forced to knuckle under to the mob’s rule or face the same consequences.
“Fifty years, Morris…,” Manny kept muttering. “My father used to carry these coats in a sack from town to town. Now…” He looked around numbly and shook his head in dismay.
“Try not to talk,” the doctor said.
Morris put his hand on his friend’s shoulder. He got up, took a last look around, letting the scene of destruction sink in.
He picked up the can of acid again.
“You stay out of it, Morris,” Manny looked up and warned him. “You’ll only get yourself killed.”
“You’ve been telling me that for a while,” Morris said, “and look around.”
“It’s not your fight. Be smart. And what are you going to do anyway by getting involved except get your own business ruined, and I’ll end up at your funeral.”
“It’s too late for that, Manny.” Morris placed the tin of acid back on the floor. “It is our fight now.”
“Don’t be a fool, son. You can’t win this. Just let it be,” Manny called after him. “Morris, do you hear me? Do you hear what I’m saying?”
Morris had heard him. He’d heard a dozen fellow garment men make the same plea. All desperate and futile, and nothing changed.
But by that time he was already out the door.
Copyright © 2018 Andrew Gross.