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The Art of Marriage
Wifebeater Bob
by Dan Fante
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The Bennington Plaza Hotel/Apartments is located on Wilshire Boulevard in West L.A., not far from where Orange Juice Simpson sliced off the head of his sexy blond wife, then watched her blood run down the sidewalk into a landscaped bed of begonias.
      The building is tall. Up-scale. The hotel room and condominium prices at The Bennington range from high to very high. I became familiar with the place because I had a 'steady' staying there - a stockbroker guy named Amir from New York. Amir was raised in Manhattan and never learned to drive, so when he temporarily relocated to L.A., he used taxis for all his transportation. It was my cab that was head-out in the feed line at LAX the day Amir walked through the "Arrivals" doors at American Airlines.
      I had been back working a cabbie gig as a result of my need for money. And insanity. After our last blowup my girlfriend Debra moved out then mailed me a ransom note from the P.O. Box of a friend. She refused all communication and was holding my manuscript until I paid up. Her way of getting even. I'd been working on the book daily for eighteen months. Her demand was for me to send $600 a month until the five grand was paid in full. If I missed one extortion installment she would burn my pages and I would never see the manuscript again. Me and Debra had had a good run together until she gave up vodka and found Jesus.
      Hack driver is the only occupation I know about with no boss, and because I have always performed poorly at supervised employment, I returned to the taxi business. The up side now that I was working again was that my own boozing was under control, and I was on beer only except for my days off. Amir from New York and I had a deal. A six-month contract. Every morning I would pick him up at the main entrance to The Bennington at 6:35 a.m., hit the 405, then the 10 Freeway East, then the 110 North, and have him downtown on Spring Street at his brokerage house job by seven o'clock. In the afternoon at 5:00 p.m.. the process was reversed. On weekends I drove him and his friends to the Beverly Hills shops or the movies or the bars on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood. Amir was gay and not especially talkative even after we got to know each other, but he was one helluva good tipper.
      Because I was around The Bennington Plaza so often in my taxi I got to know the hotel's doorman on a one-to-one basis. His name was Bob. Bob was older than me, in his fifties and, at first sight, regal looking in his British footman's get-up with top hat and epaulets. And Bob was tall. At least six-foot-five. He might easily have been mistaken for a tv actor with his square jaw, slow speech, and snazzy western boots, but the more a person cultivated a speaking relationship with Bob, the more he came to regret it. Bob's basic problem as a doorman and a human was that he was a fuck. He lacked decency and a stable personality.
      On my off time from driving Amir I began hanging out with a few of the cabbies that worked the hack line at the side of The Bennington. In L.A. the taxi industry is an amalgam of misfits and gypsies: Musician-wannabes, unemployed screen writers, Viet Nam vets, ex-dopers, and Middle East immigrants. One of these guys was Sid Cohen, an owner-driver. Sid was a bright guy with a malevolent sense of humor. Once he'd been an advance man and organizer for political campaigns, and for a few years he'd even written a column for a newspaper in Michigan. Me and Sid had coffee together frequently and shot the shit. He and his twenty-year old Benz taxi were fixtures at The Bennington, and Sid knew the dirt on everybody who worked at the hotel. Especially doorman Bob.
      Sid enthusiastically despised Bob and had coined a name for him: "Wifebeater Bob." This handle was Sid's idea of an 'in' joke. Bob wasn't actually a spousal abuser. In fact it was his red haired wife Patsy who supposedly was the violent one.
      The two of them had arrived at The Bennington Plaza at the same time six months before. Patsy ran the maid and maintenance service while slow-thinking Bob took over for the retiring doorman. The Wifebeater Bob gag got started as follows: one morning in their first week on the job, according to Sid, Patsy discovered her husband on duty with gin on his breath and discarded her sanity. She began attacking the big goof in the hotel's parking lot. Tall Bob was taken down a peg.
      But after that, shit began rolling downhill. Wifebeater Bob underwent a spontaneous personality rearrangement. For the worse. To even the score for his public humiliation and lousy marriage he upped his alcohol intake and launched a daily terrorism campaign on all those unlucky enough to fall under his authority at the hotel. This included four bellmen, a half dozen Latino parking lot guys, and the sub category of taxi drivers. Doorman Bob had morphed himself into a giant pain in the ass.
      Because the jerk was now a consistent morning boozer (with coffee), by the time the mid-afternoon slowdown rolled around he would easily have gone through his first of two daily pints of gin and be jonzing for a drink. It was at these times that Bob reached the nadir of his most evil vengefulness.
      On his lunch break, on his way to the liquor store, or to his van for pint number two, the belligerent asshole in the Buckingham Castle uniform made it a habit to stroll down the taxi line, top hat cocked down over his eyes, and confront various drivers. I'd seen this for myself.
      Bob's favorite target was Sid Cohen. Sid was sure he'd been singled out because, from the first, he'd refused to pay Wifebeater Bob any kickbacks. And add to that that the doorman correctly suspected it was Sid who was the one responsible for the reverse nickname. (The handle had lately made its way inside the hotel to the pleasure and amusement of rest of the staff.)
      When Wifebeater Bob saw Sid's taxi on the hack line his aggression could be scary. One particular day after I returned from dropping Amir downtown I was a witness to his going completely nuts.
      "Yo, asshole," Bob snarled, leaning his pink head inside Sid's driver's window, pointing a chrome whistle in his face; "You think I'm a chump, right? Some kina bitch. Last week you got a fifty dollar fuckin' round-trip airport rip to LAX from my hotel, on my shift, and whaddid I get back from you? I got zip. No bird dog. Nuthin'. How 'bout this Sid, you cheap rat bastard: How 'bout next time you make it up to head-out after two hours in my cab line, I give you a chickenshit three-dollar-and-twenty-cent fare to Westwood? I bet you won't think that's funny, will ya, you tight-assed prick." Then Bob commenced to pound on the roof of Sid's Benz.
      Drunk or sober Wifebeater Bob made it a habit to go out of his way to get even with those he felt had crossed him.
      The real problem for Sid and the other guys who worked the taxi line was that there are few good, high-volume hotels on the west side of Los Angeles, and The Bennington is probably the best of the bunch. Sid and the other cabbies had been there long before Wifebeater Bob arrived and had no intention of moving on or submitting to greasing the schizophrenic doorman. It was a bad situation and it was getting worse by the day.
      But things had been going better than okay for me. From the beginning of driving Amir I had paid my monthly extortion payments to my ex-girlfriend on time, and me and the doorman had not seriously bumped heads. This was because I had little occasion to work the hack line. I'd avoided the verbal muggings and demands for kick-backs.
      But one morning that all changed. Bob had the second of his public run-ins with Patsy. This time it was at the service entrance to the hotel. Patsy caught her old man taking a snort from the short dog in his hip pocket, pitched a nutfit, and began pummeling him with kicks to the legs and hooks to the head.
      I was in the hotel's employee bathroom taking a squirt, and when I came out the side door I witnessed the action first hand. In the windup Patsy smashed her husband's half-full gin bottle against the basement's concrete steps, bloodied his lip, then confiscated his wallet.
      When it was over, not wanting to get involved or allow my mouth to make a comment that might cause trouble for me later, I slipped across the alley to my cab, got in, and took off.
      That's when my trouble started. Ten minutes later I was a block away at a liquor store on Wilshire, making a male liquor purchase, when emasculated Bob walked up behind me at the register. He had entered the place just after I did. His lip was still bleeding, and he had insufficient funds in his pocket to pay for a half pint.
      Shaking badly and in need of his bracer, Bob recognized me. "Yo, Shorty," he whispered, pulling me down the long counter in front of the magazine rack, "you seen me back there at the hotel with Patsy. Just now. Right?"
      I tried hedging. "My cab was parked by the side of the building," I said.
      "Thaz right. I seen you. You was fuckin' there. Don't bullshit me. So, what about it?"
      "What about what?"
      "You gonna keep your mouth shut?"
      I began walking away. "Your personal issues are not my concern," I said.
      Now the jerk was in my face and had me by the sleeve of my jacket. "I'm sayin' will you keep quiet about what you just seen? I mean to the others. I don't want no gossip getting back to the manager. Yes or no, Shorty?"
      I pushed his arm off. "Do not touch me," I snarled.
      "I know you're friends with that cocksucker Sid. I'm warnin' ya Shorty, don't mess with me? Ya hear?"
      "In point of fact I dislike being referred to as Shorty!"
      "Huh? What's wrong with - Shorty?"
      "Let's just say I'm sensitive about my height. Think of me as the only one of the seven dwarfs that Snow White refused to fuck."
      "Whaz that supposta mean?"
      "Forget it, moron."
      "I knew you was messin' with me."
      "No I'm not," I said. "For the last time, your absurd domestic issues hold no interest for me."
      Wifebeater Bob looked me up and down in an attempt to convince himself I wasn't a rat. Then he smiled. "Okay, fair enough," he whispered. "Šthen gimme a buck. I need a dollar more to get me my short dog."
      I'd been rattled by the exchange. I dug in my pocket and handed him the money. Bob paid for his bottle and was still in the store after I left.
      I crossed the sidewalk and was about to get into my cab when he was behind me again, restraining me by the sleeve of my jacket. This time I was ushered around the side of the building to the parking lot. There, out of view of the street traffic, I pried his hand away.
      He was leering and out of breath. Unscrewing the cap from his half-pint, the red-nosed imbecile wiped drying blood from his lip and took a long slam. "Listen my man," he whispered, after lowering his jug and exhaling deeply, "I owe you."
      I hated this absurd dufus. My sole desire was to escape from his sweaty Neanderthal hands, his bad temper and bad breath. But this was The Bennington's doorman and I told myself it was unwise to cross him. "Forget it," I said back. "I don't care. Pay me or don't pay me."
      Bob took another long slam that emptied his jug. "I ain't talkin' about the money. "You'll see Shorty. Just you remember what I said and keep your fucking trap shut."
      "I need to get back to work."
      The goon was smiling. "You wait. Juss wait. Old Bob never forgets a favor. You can bet your mother's stinky skivvies on it."
      "My mother is deceased, asshole." With that I crossed the parking lot to where my cab was parked at the curb, got in, locked the doors, and started the engine.
      Sitting behind the wheel I felt as though my hair was on fire. I looked back. Wifebeater Bob was still standing against the wall, smoking a cigarette. I despised being grabbed and bullied. But now that I was alone there was something else that was making me far more uncomfortable: self-disgust. What was wrong with me? Why had I not said what was in my guts? I could have used the fight with his wife against him, confronted the prick at his level, then intimidated him into mending his behavior. Instead I'd let the opportunity pass. The fear of jeopardizing my income and sweet deal with Amir had made me hesitate. For months I'd thought of nothing but getting my manuscript back. Now my obsession had rendered me a coward. A cheesedick. This tyrant fuck had ruined the hotel for a dozen cabbies. Men who busted their asses six and seven days a week trying to make a living. I'd had my chance to do something, but my only concern was covering my ass. That night, after work, after I arrived home, my brain refused to let go of the incident. Sitting in my darkened apartment I smoked cigarettes and drank warm beer continuing to replay my weakness. Shame and self-mocking congested my thoughts like the stink of alley piss.
      To clear my mind I decided I would write a letter to my ex-girlfriend. Since the theft of the manuscript I'd been immobilized by her treachery. My creativity had gone to shit. I was dried-up. A dead man. There had been two previous notes from me, both spiteful and ill-advised, enclosed with other payments. They had gone unanswered. Only the cancelled checks came back in the mail.
      Going to my desk I turned on the overhead lamp, clicked on my electric typewriter, and cranked in a piece of paper. This time would be different. I would compose a letter of resolution, somehow find the words to free myself from the tee-totaling vampire who had destroyed my character and ruined my life. I would say that our troubles were entirely my fault. It didn't matter. Nothing mattered. Whatever the cost I had to have my book back.
      But twenty minutes later the page in my typewriter was still blank. I couldn't do it. My brain and my fingers had failed me. I gave up in a rage. Insane. Ripping the paper out of the carriage I threw it across the room then smashed my half-full beer can against the wall.
      In my refrigerator freezer there was most of a fifth of Stoli. I poured four fingers into a dirty glass then turned the light off. By midnight the vodka was gone, and I was drunk.
      I began dialing phone sex numbers from the out-call massage section of the L.A. Weekly, then spent an hour chatting with a girl who called herself Erin-Lee. Erin-Lee said they'd piped my call in to her at home and she was in her bedroom wearing no bra and red thong panties. She said she liked my voice and that us speaking anonymously like this made her pussy wet. She wanted to know if me talking to her turned me on too. Was my cock hard? I said it was. She insisted that I write down her private answer phone number - just in case - and let me know that she charged a hundred bucks for an in-person blowjob. I could call her any time.
      Following that I was made me listen to a preposterous tale involving her Ford Escort. According to Erin-Lee the car had blown its transmission. She wanted me to stay on the line for another half an hour. If I did it would be a gigantic-amazing favor and totally-fuckin'-fabulous of me because she would then have the last sixty bucks she needed to pay her mechanic for his work. Erin-Lee whispered that she wanted us both to cum at the same time.
      "Sure," I said, "No problem. I've got nothing else to do. My flight to Athens isn't leaving until tomorrow night."
     Two mornings later after my day off, when I arrived at The Bennington for my a.m. pick up, Amir surprised me by checking out one month early. Instead of taking him
      downtown to his brokerage house I drove my New York client and his six suitcases to the airport for the last time. He was going home to Riverside Drive.
      Getting out at the United terminal he shook my hand but avoided eye contact. For five months this guy had exhibited the charm and personal warmth of a Korea-town produce vendor. Now from his inside coat pocket Amir handed me an envelope containing ten one hundred dollar bills. He was smiling. "Consider this as two weeks severance pay," he said.

Leaving the airport I stopped at the post office on Century Boulevard. Inside, on line, I located a big cardboard Priority Mail envelope and stuffed the money inside. While I waited I scribbled a note in longhand: "Debra, you know I love you! Goddammit, I'm sorry. Please come home."

I had not yet had the opportunity to discuss Wifebeater Bob's latest public disgrace with Sid and the other guys but now I was resolved to do just that. With Amir gone, as it stood, I had nothing to protect at The Bennington and nothing to lose.
      On my way back to the hotel I came up with a plan and invented a new, better-fitting account of my run-in at the liquor store with the doorman. I'd tell the guys at the hack line how I had been an eye witness to Wifebeater Bob's newest ass-kicking and, in the aftermath, seized my chance to settle accounts for us all. I'd let them know the way I'd gotten right into the jerk's greedy, bloated face. How I'd tweeked and lost my cool then gone chest-to-chest with the huge psycho, instructing him in no uncertain terms to either back off with his cab driver threats and bribe money demands or face me and the ugly consequences. To underscore this exaggerated version of the facts I'd decided to include the part where I'd stabbed my finger directly against the end of his nose. "Go ahead retard," I'd snarled, "try fucking with me! Call my bluff! I'll go right to the hotel manager. By next week you and that crazy bitch wife of yours will be pushing shopping carts up Wilshire Boulevard."

Back at The Bennington I wheeled my cab to the rear of the hack line and got out. Sid waved hello. He and Viet Nam Sal were leaning against one of the cabs, smoking and talking.
      My determination was at its peak and I was ready to shift into action.
      I locked my taxi's door and jammed the key deep in my pants pocket. All that was left now was for me to face Wifebeater Bob in private for five minutes with my demands but first I'd tip off the guys that something big was about to happen.
      Just then the doorman's whistle blew - the signal for everyone in line to move up and the first cab to come forward and take the next fare.
      We all returned to our cars and were about to reposition ourselves when Bob's whistle blew again. Twenty-five yards away he was holding up his hand in a 'stop' gesture.
      The whistle blew a third time. Bob was pointing at me and my cab, waving me alone to come ahead.
      Swinging my rattling Chevy out passed the other cars I pulled around the hotel drive then stopped at the main entrance.
      The big doorman came around to my driver's window and leaned in. He looked pleased with himself. But before he could open his mouth I cut loose. "Okay asshole," I barked, "You and I need to talk. Now!"
      "Save it Shorty," Bob whispered.
      "Right now, I said!"
      "Hey look, I got two pieces coming out. A mother and daughter from Austin. First time in town. They're going to Disneyland."
      "Forget it! I'm not interested. That's final."
      "Oh, okay. How about if it's an all-day fare. Wait and return. I told the lady it would cost her a flat two fifty."
      "Two-fifty? You told her two-hundred and fifty to Disneyland and back?"
      "Sure. There's waiting time, right?"
      "I don't believe you."
      "No? Well, they're on their way down in the elevator right nowŠSo, whatcha wanna do hotshot, bust my chops or make some money?"
      My tongue was stuck.
      Wifeabeater Bob was sneering. "This ain't no game show, ace. It's cash money. Yes or no? In or out?
      "Okay," was the word that came out from between my lips. "Okay, I'll take it."
      He had me.

On my way to Disneyland with Mrs. Dwan and her daughter Mimi my stomach was knotted. Two hundred and fifty bucks was two days pay. Only a fool would have said no. Bob had played me perfectly.
      When I returned to the hotel that night to drop off Mrs. Dwan and Mimi, the doorman had gone home and the hack line was empty of cabs. Mrs. Dwan handed me three one hundred dollar bills, smiled, then told me to keep the change.

The next morning at just after seven o'clock I swung my cab into The Bennington's taxi holding line. Again it was empty. Morning rush hour was keeping all the cabbies busy. There was Wifebeater Bob positioned under the hotel awning. When he saw my cab he whistled excitedly form me to come forward.
      Pulling around the circular drive I stopped with my back door even with the walk-way carpeting.
      Bob took his time strolling around to my driver's window. Eighteen inches away I could smell the gin on his breath. "So howdit go yesterday?" he slurred, patting my arm. "Missus Dwan and her kid?"
      "Din Old Bob tell you that he never forgets a favor?"
      I pushed his hand off. "Blow me, old Bob."
      The remark appeared to have no affect. "Din I tell you I'd take care of you? So how much did you collect, bottom line?"
      "My income is none of your concern."
      Wifebeater Bob's arms were folded across his chest. "Wrong answer, pal. We're partners. One hand washes the other. I want my cut from yesterday."
      "What cut?"
      "Thirty-percent. Fair is fair."
      "I think not, old Bob. Go fuck yourself."
      "It's that or you go to the back of the hack line with your pal Sid. Old Bob don't mind givin' his goodies to some of the other guys."
      "Hear this dickless!! I was there the other day. At the side entrance. I watched you - moron Wifebeater Bob - get his ass kicked by a five-foot-tall redhead. I saw it all. Remember? And now it's my turn. I'm going inside to have a little talk with the manager."
      What happened next happened quickly. I was pulled from my taxi and there were a series of punches. In the end I found myself on the pavement bleeding from my nose. It took three parking lot guys to pull the drunken goof off me.

Two weeks later everything at The Bennington was back too normal. My taxi had been permanently barred from the premises and I had taken a limo gig courtesy of a friend of Sid Cohen. Sid's pal owned his own private car service. Because the doorman's wife had a cousin and that cousin was the chain's GM, no action whatever was taken against Wifebeater Bob.
      The half-juiced asshole was on his morning break, in his van at the corner of the parking lot, when one of the cabbies from the line approached the vehicle with Bob's wife Patsy close behind. As me and half a dozen of the guys watched from a distance Patsy unlocked the van's sliding door with her key and pulled it open. Inside Wifebeater Bob was being orally serviced by a hooker named Erin Lee. It was the best hundred bucks I'd ever spent.

I had come to a decision regarding my relationships with women: Next time I got drunk and sold a girlfriend's signed first edition of Grapes Of Wrath, I'd come clean instead of acting surprised then insisting we'd been burglarized. Of secondary consideration was my opinion that John Steinbeck was wordy and, at best, a mediocre talent.

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