10 - When Elmo Wasn't the Creepiest Thing in Times Square
Updated: Mar 23, 2022
I forgot exactly how I was introduced to him, but Ed Caffrey was a retired New York Police Department sergeant who had been undercover managing a massage parlor in Times Square for four months. The plan was for me to do an “as told to” book for Playboy Press. This was an era when police were doing all sorts of sting operations. Ed was devoutly religious but managed to co-run a massage parlor with the goal of putting away corrupt city officials and mobsters. The proceeds he made were donated to a police widows fund. A stocky beer barrel of a man, he feigned being a dim-witted loan shark, with an oft-repeated line of “Gimme my fuckin’ money.”
Times Square, circa 1975
Out from undercover, he was a very pleasant, talkative guy with great anecdotes about his time as “Pete Johns.” But he insisted on the story being excessively accurate. He wanted to use literal transcripts of every conversation. If you’ve ever read a conversation transcript, you’ll see all the “umm,” “uhs,” mumbles, and various rambling digressions and non sequiturs that are okay in actual conversation, but tedious and borderline incoherent to read. Ed was adamant and forceful and I did the book the way he wanted it. There weren’t any major criminals caught in the undercover operation, nor dramatic shootouts or car chases. It wasn’t a very good book, I suspect, and Playboy Press, with whom he had a contract, held it up. Thus my first book, a non-fiction as told to, has never seen the light of day. I don’t have the manuscript and remain curious just how bad it was.
Meanwhile, my freelance career was going relatively well, with articles in Esquire, American Lawyer, NY Post and other publications.
And I was working on a big one. Lundy’s was a block-long landmark seafood restaurant in Sheepshead Bay. Frederic William Irving Lundy was a millionaire recluse who lived in apparent squalor above the restaurant with 14 Irish setters. His sister had been murdered in a mysterious burglary.
His butler had become involved with organized crime and there were art forgeries and a scam that stretched from Italy to Argentina. I wrote it up emphasizing “Brooklyn’s answer to Howard Hughes,” Nick Pileggi looked it over, made a couple of suggestions and said, “Could be a cover story.” (BTW, Nick was NOT one of the editors who suggested I buy coke. He always had a lot more sense, and integrity).
There was a new top editor, Ed Kosner, who scrawled across the first page, “Very good, but who cares?” Remember this was the days when Brooklyn was perceived as the domain of Neanderthals, the tunnel crowd, BBQs (Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens). Manhattan was the only borough that mattered to the cool kids.
I was crushed. I sent one resume north to the Providence Rhode Island Journal, another south to The Atlanta Constitution, and a third west to the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. My choice of the Herald was fortuitous. Tom Plate was an editor there, he had worked with Nick, called him, and I got a glowing reference.
I flew out and went for an interview in the grand old Examiner building built by William Randolph Hearst. Designed by Julia Morgan, the architect who did Hearst Castle at San Simeon. Citizen Kane was based on Hearst. And his humble digs in California reflect his grandiosity.
While the Mission revival exterior at the Herald building was still impressive, the interior looked like it had been used by scores of reporters and editors for more than a half century. Which it had been. Lots of wear and tear with deferred maintenance. Grooves in the linoleum, painful fluorescence, the hint of cigarette smoke in the air. It was a classic newsroom, so much so that it had been rented out to Hollywood to film the newspaper movie -30-, a delightfully bad movie starring Jack Webb as the hard-bitten editor with a heart of gold. The movie leaves no cliché unturned.
The paper had gotten computers, the monitors big beasts with blinking green screens, but not enough to have one at every battered desk. So, there was a row of computer terminals toward the back of the newsroom and reporters would share time at the keyboards.
I didn’t get to meet legendary editor-in-chief Jim Bellows at my interview, and truthfully had few interactions with him or then managing editor Mary Anne Dolan. But Tom Plate brought me in to the fold and I was made a cityside reporter.