They found the smoke! Abby needs a job. She’s following the want-ads, and the office she interviews at is full of old white men and looks hazier than a dirty fish tank. But I’m getting ahead of myself. This is another fine episode that gives us a look into the power structure of ‘70s New York, with Lindsey and Muskie, the Westies and Italians, and how “The Deuce” was the Hamsterdam of its day—if you recall that season of The Wire, as well you should. So grab a Cutty and water, sit down with me at the bar, and let Simon, Pelecanos, Megan Abbott, and Lisa Lutz bring us back to the dirty Deuce…
When we left the Deuce, Elaine was studying the nascent porno industry. This week, she gets deeper into it, looking for an out from “the stroll” of walking the street. Another working girl shows her a scam a cameraman is running where he pretends to film a porno movie and charges the “live studio audience” forty bucks a head to watch simulated sex. With no film in the camera, he makes bank without leaving any film evidence for the vice squad.
She wants in and buys him lunch at a Jewish deli to talk business, but he only wants her as talent. She’s looking beyond that. I loved the scene where she takes her mom and son out for pizza; it was as real as a Ken Burns documentary, without any flourish. Just a family doing what they need to get by.
The vice squads were harder on porn flicks than they were on prostitution back then. Another story my uncle Paul told me was when Midnight Cowboy came out, it was rated X. So it was illegal to show in New York City where it was set. That didn’t stop it from winning Best Picture at the Oscars. They managed to get ahold of a reel of it and showed it in the basement of the bar for a buck a head. The movie later had its rating reduced to R. All I remember is a few nude scenes, but I suppose Jon Voight’s ass offended the censors—or maybe it was the implied rape scene that made Joe Buck flee Texas that got their ire. The Deuce would give them a heart attack.
Speaking of heart attacks, poor Bobby. I thought we lost Chris Bauer when his union foreman job gave him so much agita that he wound up in the hospital. Frankie and Vinnie show up and give their sister some cash, sneaking Bobby a cigarette to smoke while he’s on oxygen. Another perfect ‘70s moment. I knew a guy who was on a moving crew that smoked through his tracheotomy hole. Maybe you get a stronger hit that way, but you can’t taste it, so it’s like eating a slice of pizza through a feeding tube. More for the emotional reaction.
Frankie and Vinnie open their bar this episode, a new kind of bar for New York; it’s black and white and working class and business class. Everybody mingles, which was not common at the time. A bar “going black” was a serious concern in that era of white flight and blockbusting and redlining, and in your suburban segregated hellholes, it still is.
The scenes in Do the Right Thing about the jukebox were based on reality, and not just because Italians like Sinatra. The vending machines were all run by the mob, who also managed many of the bars and wanted them run a certain way. Black bars in this neighborhood, gay bars in that one. Therefore, they wouldn’t put James Brown on a juke in a white bar—even if the patrons liked it—because of fear of the bar getting a mixed crowd. That would bring more police pressure, neighborhood problems from “concerned white citizens,” and more racist bullshit. So it wasn’t done.
That’s why the scene in The Deuce where a former owner of Vinnie and Frankie’s bar is angry that they jimmied open his vending machines for the cash was a little off, even if it was funny. The mobs owned the machines, not the bars, and they didn’t care so much about the coins in them. You went fifty-fifty with them for the cash, as long as you signed a receipt that said whatever they wanted. The machines were a great money laundering racket because they didn’t have a record of how much cash they took in. Maybe your pool table took in a hundred a week, but who’s to say it didn’t take in three hundred? That’s two hundred in laundered money accounted for and made clean.
I still enjoyed the scene, and it gives Big Mike his turn to shine. A huge Vietnam Vet wandering the Deuce and eating pills, Mike saves Frankie when the angry former bar owner pulls a piece. He gets hired as a bouncer. Abby also shows up after quitting a soul-crushing job making cold calls on the telephone and having a date empty her purse. She has a nice moment with Darlene, who is reading a copy of A Tale of Two Cities at the bar while C. C. talks shop with his fellow pimps. Insert your “sale of two titties” joke here.
Aiden Gillen may be known as Littlefinger, but he’s back here as a Westie, finally getting to play a role with his natural-born Irish voice. He was Tommy Carcetti in The Wire, and here he plays a lace-curtain Irish mob man to the hilt. I hope we see more of him, as he and Rudy have the Deuce carved up.
The cops get the notice from downtown: no arrests on 41st to 43rd unless “it’s something freakin’ insane.” So, it’s Hamsterdam. Back in the day, we said you would only get pulled over if you ran over a nun and a cop happened to be watching, and now I know why.
The first night of the bar goes well—they sell a lot of stolen liquor, and no one gets killed—and they go home when the sun comes up. My uncle would show up at my grandmother’s for Sunday dinner looking like Frankie did, pale white and dead tired. After some pasta and sauce, he’d draw silly pictures with me and my sister on Mead notebook paper before he crashed on the couch, his tassel loafers pointed at the ceiling. “Let him sleep, he works hard,” my grandma used to say. Thanks to The Deuce, I’m beginning to see just how hard.
Thomas Pluck has slung hash, worked on the docks, trained in martial arts in Japan, and even swept the Guggenheim museum (but not as part of a clever heist). He hails from Nutley, New Jersey, home to criminal masterminds Martha Stewart and Richard Blake, but has so far evaded capture. He is the author of Bad Boy Boogie, his first Jay Desmarteaux crime thriller, and Blade of Dishonor, an action adventure which BookPeople called “the Raiders of the Lost Ark of pulp paperbacks.”
Joyce Carol Oates calls him “a lovely kitty man.”