MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
Born Fahnie Albert Becker, the custodians called him John. His origins were a subject of rumour and conjecture, an ever-changing story as the years and then the decades passed. But the man who would be Jack Riley to all in Shanghai was probably born in a Colorado logging camp near Manitou Springs in 1897, the son of a certain Nellie Shanks and Albert Azel Becker. His old man, a violent alcoholic, was gone before his son’s first birthday. His mother, broke and deserted, dumped him in a Tulsa orphanage, where the custodians beat the boys and left them hungry at night. Becker decided to bail when he was seven. He bummed around and somehow reached Denver, where he got a job polishing brass and emptying spittoons in a nightclub, sleeping out back; the joint was part casino, part dive bar, part brothel.
At seventeen he found a home and a family in the United States Navy. He shipped out of San Francisco for Manila on the U.S.S. Quiros as an apprentice seaman for two years on Yangtze Patrol, the ‘Yang Pat’ of the United States Asiatic Fleet. The Quiros was part of a squadron that patrolled upriver from Shanghai to Chungking and all ports in between, protecting U.S. citizens and interests, guarding the tankers of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company, the up-country terminals of Texaco, and the packed warehouses and go-downs of British-American Tobacco.
Discharged in 1919, Becker couldn’t think of anything better to do than re-enlist for another tour, this time Manila to Shanghai. Nights off he spent playing craps in the Hongkew and Chapei sailor bars and drinking along Blood Alley with money won in prizefights out back of the bars. Righteous bucko mate, rated fighter, all-round good guy. Then he was back aboard and upriver to Wuhu, Nanking, and Chungking, his downtime spent boxing on deck, going ashore to play baseball, or shooting craps in the mess. The Yang Pat rotated and the Quiros headed home. John Becker was honourably discharged in 1921.
John Becker stepped ashore in San Francisco and wandered the port towns of California, staying in one-night cash-only flops, eating corned beef in sawdust-floored restaurants or chop suey in all-night Chinese diners, oyster shells crunchy underfoot. Then came Prohibition, and he switched to speakeasies and shebeens, sucking down rotgut hooch, sandpaper gin, and near beer. Eventually he ran out of money and headed back to Oklahoma, to Tulsa County; the only city he could vaguely call home, though his memories of that orphanage and the violent custodians were far from warm.
He got a gig at a taxi company. He knew engines, and the company could save a mechanic’s wage by having him service his own vehicle. In 1923 Becker was still driving drunks home on the late shift, but he knew for sure Tulsa was a bust. Darktown was in cinders after the Greenwood race riots, and crime was out of control.
One night he picks up two guys at the Cave House speakeasy out on Charles Page Boulevard. It’s a good fare, and Becker has been drinking and feels like he can handle these boys. When they get to the destination, a house in the suburbs, the men tell John Becker to wait while they pick something up, and then they’ll head back to town. The meter’s still running, he’s supping a quart of rye, so what the heck. The men walk up to the house across the lawn, the outline of their hats visible as they open the door and smoke wafts out into the dark night air. There’s shouting, commotion, and a shot; the men come out fast, dragging a third who doesn’t look like he wants to leave.
If you believe John Becker, he didn’t know anything till he heard the shouting and the shot. The men threw the third in the back and jumped in, punching the daylights out of the poor sap. Becker drives them to another house, and they drag the beaten guy in with them, but not before one of the men hands him a hundred-dollar bill and tells him to vamoose. The next day the cops show up and bust Becker for kidnapping. His fare had boosted an illegal dice game, killed one of the punters, and kidnapped another. There’s a kidnapping epidemic in the Midwest, and it’s re-election year, so the judge is not inclined to go easy. John Becker goes down for thirty-five years in the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, McAlester.
His civvies are confiscated, his head shaved to prevent lice; he’s fingerprinted and photographed. On the cellblock: big guards with black batons; seven-by-three-foot cells; a disinfectant-filled bucket for your shit; a deafening siren in case of escape or riot; bad, bad food; men praying; hardened cons deranged with untreated syphilis, sobbing for their mamas; the mad and the bad of McAlester.
Becker plays dice for smokes. He becomes a trusty and gets a job in the shop. An old lag shows him how to make a pair of loaded dice that will always come out the way you want, if you learn to throw them just so and distract the heels. Those hours of pitching with the Yang Pat crew prove useful; he becomes the starting pitcher on the prison baseball team. They head for an out-of-pen game in McAlester City, and when the team heads one way with the guards, Becker heads the other. Walking away, the sweat streaming down his back, he waits for a guard’s bullet to smash into his spine. Not running, not turning back, heart beating fit to jump right out of his chest. But the bullet never comes. He hops a freight running the St. Louis–San Francisco line. He’s just skipped out on the lion’s share of a three and a half decade stretch.
On the run, he’s in a San Francisco boardinghouse down on the Embarcadero—as far west as you can get without swimming. He’s spent nights in hobo camps where nobody asks your name. Now he needs to hunker down, stay out of sight, hope Oklahoma forgets about him. He knows he got lucky; he got a second chance. He quits the booze and the smokes—no profit in either. He rolls a drunk tramp on the waterfront and nabs his papers, and he’s Edward Thomas Riley now. Fahnie Albert Becker is history. He likes Jack better than Edward, thinks he’ll keep the T, and Riley suits just fine too—anonymous, everyday, all-American. There must be thousands of Jack Rileys out there. But some things are more difficult to change than your name.
Jack sits at a small table, rolls up his sleeves, and pours caustic soda in a glass. He takes off his leather belt and puts it between his teeth, then lays two hand towels out next to the glass. He takes three deep breaths, looks out the window at the scrappy backyard of the boardinghouse, and dips the fingers of his left hand in the chemical mix. The acid burns, and he snorts through his nose, forcing himself to dip each finger, then switches to his right hand, breathes really deeply, and repeats the process—thumbs and all. He takes his last finger out and relaxes his jaw, lets the belt fall out on his lap. He manages to wrap the towels around his hands and staggers over to the bed. He lies there for days, in satisfied agony. The whorls on his fingertips are gone, and they slowly heal and harden into callused skin. It ain’t pretty, but he’s a new man with a new start. He signs on as a mechanic with a tramp freighter heading across the Pacific to the Philippines.
* * *
Jack had liked Manila on his two Navy tours. First he stays at the Seamen’s Mission, but then gets wise to where things are really happening. He hangs out at Ed Mitchell’s Rhonda Grill, swings by a hole-in-the-wall called Tom’s Dixie Kitchen that cooks tender steaks and sells imported Scotch for nine pesos a shot. He laps up the scene at the Metro Garden and Grill Ballroom, watching the Navy boys of the United States Asiatic Fleet drinking iced Pabst. On Christmas Day, the joints round Manila Bay and the Metro are a sea of white hats. It seems those boys can’t spend their wages fast enough—booze, girls, dope.
Jack trades up to a room at the Manila Hotel. He gets himself into some craps games and wins himself a stake with those magic Oklahoma State Pen dice. He attends the afternoon tea dances at the genteel Bayview Hotel to tickle the ears of the Navy wives and buys himself some Saigon linen suits to smarten up his act. Early afternoon he takes in the movies at the theatres near the Malacanyan Palace until he realises the seat cushions are teeming with lice; he has to wash his hair with kerosene to kill the bastards. He likes walking the wealthy streets where the rich mestizos and the expat Americans live: the quiet, wide, tree-lined thoroughfares by the Bay or Dewey Boulevard with high-end American compounds, a LaSalle convertible in every driveway.
Down at the Metro, Jack hooks up with a local called Paco who shows him the sights. Paco has a British gal called Evelyn who’s got a Russian surname, Oleaga, on account of having been married to a Russian some time back. Paco and Evelyn spot Jack for a bucko-mate-on-the-lam right off the bat. They hang out nightly at Ed Mitchell’s before hitting the Metro: determinedly teetotaling Jack on the seltzer, Evelyn on the house Dubonnet cocktails. Paco invariably gets shit-faced with his Manilamen brothers, leaving Jack and Evelyn to talk. Jack breathes in her chypre perfume and digs her fancy cut-glass accent. He tells her he wants out. Manila is a steamy version of Tulsa, but Shanghai is the real deal. She confesses she hates this swamp and wants to go to Shanghai too. Jack tells her to look him up.
A couple of weeks later Paco pulls a bank heist with his brothers on Evelyn’s tip-off and walks away with forty thousand pesos. Evelyn had her claws into the manager and sweet-talked everything out of him that Paco needed to know to rob the place right when the teller’s drawers were full to bursting. Evelyn asks for her share, and Paco laughs, spits in her face, and slaps her across the room before throwing her out on the street and calling her evil. Evelyn, black-eyed, finds Jack drinking coffee in the Rhonda Grill and tells him the sorry story. Jack takes umbrage on her behalf and walks her back to her Chinatown apartment, where he finds Paco liquored up and smooching a Japanese whore. Jack beats the living crap out of Paco and hands Evelyn her cut, only to watch while she kicks Paco repeatedly in the cojones. Paco was right, Jack thinks, you are evil, Evil Evelyn. She stays the night in his hotel room, leaving the scent of chypre on Jack’s sheets. The next morning he takes her to the harbour and watches her board a steamer for Shanghai, Paco already forgotten. Evil Evelyn pecks him on the cheek and says she owes him one.
In Manila Jack sees his first real industrial-size slot-machine operation and the gawk-eyed leatherneck marines lining up to lose their coin on payday. He’d seen slots in Tulsa, but only one at a time in a speakeasy or a blind pig. Nobody had much coin to spare back there. But in Manila, they cover whole floors. He watches the coins go in, the wheels spin, and a fuck of a lot fewer coins come out. Later, a thick-necked guy comes over and empties the back of the machine into a bucket, right up to the brim. Sweet business. Jack gets friendly with the lanky overseer, some ex-army Canadian called Penfold, or Pinfold. He explains the slots business to Jack. Easiest money on God’s green earth, no wages wasted on croupiers, machines don’t thieve the take, the dumbest hick could figure it out: just pop a peso in the slot, pull the lever, and wave it goodbye. Then do it again … and again … and again. It’s rigged to the house and pays out ten per cent max on a good day.
It’s time to move on. Jack buddies up with the Navy boys and jumps a U.S. Army transport heading for Shanghai. The U.S.S. Chaumont does the run regular and the crew are always willing to do a favour for a Yang Pat vet. Maybe they could carry the odd cargo from Manila for an old U.S. Navy man trying to make a go of it on the China Coast? Maybe they could at that.
Copyright © 2018 by Paul French