“JERSEY GUYS” by Alan Swyer

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Watching Resnick drift from gray areas into behavior that was blatantly criminal filled Littman with conflicting emotions.  On the one hand, he knew, at least intellectually, that it was not his responsibility to be anyone else’s keeper. Yet he couldn’t deny that he had long been the one who kept his lifelong friend’s worst impulses in check.

During their childhood in Jersey, their hijinks were neverending.  In grammar school that meant cutting school and forging each other’s parental notes, plus starting an ongoing stream of Q&A jokes about their home state, often performed as a comedy routine in front of classmates.

“What did Delaware?” asked Littman when they were in 3rd grade, kicking off what would become a favorite form of amusement.

“A New Jersey,” answered Resnick.

The next day it was Resnick’s turn.  “Where do fat cows go for vacation?”

“Moo Jersey,” Littman replied with a laugh.

In middle school their pranks became more imaginative:  sending taxis, tampons, and 100 live baby chicks to the home of a neighborhood bully named Buzzy Grant… breaking into the local Jewish Educational Center on Saturday afternoons to shoot baskets… plus buying cheap wallets at Woolworth’s so as to hear the PA announcer at high school games say, “We’ve found a wallet belonging to “Dick Hertz” or “Mike Hunt.”

Their Q&A’s, too, became more inspired.

“What’s the only thing that grows in Jersey?” asked Resnick on a Tuesday afternoon.

“The crime rate!” Littman responded.

The next day it was Littman’s turn.  “Why is Jersey called the Garden State?” he asked.

“Because Toxic Waste State won’t fit on a license plate,” stated Resnick.

By the time they reached high school, their geographical range had increased.  That meant they could accompany Resnick’s older cousin on drives to neighboring towns to moon kids at other high schools.  Even more fun were outings to Greenwich Village, subsidized by peddling bags of catnip, oregano, and twigs, which they billed as marijuana, to kids with money from Long Island.

Similarly the range of their jokes broadened.

“What’s the difference between a Jersey girl and a bowling ball?” asked Resnick at the pool hall where they often spent rainy afternoons.

“A bowling ball is harder to pick up,” answered Littman.

The next time there was a storm it was Littman’s turn.  “Why does New York have the most lawyers, and Jersey the most toxic waste dumps?” he asked.

“Jersey got to pick first!” was Resnick’s response.

Through all the mischief, mayhem, and misadventures, it was Littman who was the voice of restraint when Resnick was tempted to go too far.  Such as when he was about to egg the police station after being falsely accused of Halloween vandalism. Or when he was planning to puncture all four tires on the Vice Principal’s car after getting detention for punching a guy who tried to steal his Knicks jacket.  Or the time he was on the verge of calling in a false alarm when they were denied entrance at a Jersey Shore rooming house after the 11 PM curfew.

Even during their college years, the two friends continued their pranks and repartee when home for vacation, hiding a fish under a floor mat in Buzzy Grant’s convertible, as well as upping the ante on their patter.

“What do Princeton students use for birth control?” Resnick asked one Sunday morning when they hit the beach.

“Their personalities,” Littman shot back.

When they went to buy hotdogs for lunch, it was Littman’s turn.  “What’s the definition of Jersey foreplay?”

“Twenty minutes of begging!” replied Resnick gleefully.

When Littman moved to Los Angeles to take a job in graphic design, it wasn’t long before Resnick followed, sleeping on his friend’s living room sofa, chipping in on the rent, and upping the stakes on some of his scams.  But while Littman had no inhibitions about sneaking into concerts and screenings, or crashing catered parties, he did squelch Resnick’s use of their living room as a greenhouse for pot. And his friend’s passing off horse tranquilizers as a hybrid form of mescaline.  And, once Resnick got his stockbroker’s license, he voiced misgivings about doing unauthorized trading in clients’ accounts.

Since it was Littman’s name on the apartment’s lease, he was also able to squash several stunts that might have led to eviction, or visits from the cops.

But still the jokes continued, though with a mixture of wistfulness and pride about their home state.

“What’s the difference between Jersey and yogurt?” Littman asked one sunny afternoon when they were walking down the boardwalk at Venice Beach.

“Yogurt has an active living culture!” Resnick said.

When they on their way home they stopped at a dive bar in Santa Monica, it was Resnick’s turn.

“What’s the definition of safe sex in Jersey?” he asked.

“Placing warning signs on the animals that kick,” replied Littman.

Their period of cohabitation came to an end, however, when, Littman announced he was moving in with the woman he’d been seeing.

“Want to keep the apartment?” he asked

“Nah,” replied Resnick.  “I think I’ll look for a place closer to the beach.”

In the weeks that followed, Littman noticed what sometimes sounded like pique, and other times frustration, when he nixed requests from Resnick to hang out, grab a drink, or join him in one scheme or another.

Partially out of concern for the path his friend seemed to be taking, but also because he genuinely missed Resnick’s company, Littman made certain to check in by phone on a regular basis, as well as to set up occasional get-togethers.  There were lunches at a place that served Jersey-style pizza, plus dinners every so often when he and Wendy would meet Resnick at favorite Indian or Chinese restaurants.

Geography added an additional degree of difficulty when Littman and Wendy rented a little cottage in the Hollywood Hills, which doubled the distance between their residence and the apartment Resnick had found in what he called Baja Santa Monica.

Despite the diminished frequency with which they saw each other, plus his concerns about  what seemed to be increasingly iffy behavior, it was his oldest friend who Littman asked to be Best Man when he and Wendy decided to get married.

The newlyweds were delighted that right from the moment he arrived in Seattle for the ceremony, Resnick was on his best behavior – funny, warm, ebullient, and above all seemingly drug-free.

“Let me tell you a little about Mark Littman and what he means to me,” Resnick began when he gave a toast at the wedding.  “There’s no one in the world who likes baseball, basketball, or boxing more than my friend Mark. Or pesto pizza. Or Ray Charles, Solomon Burke, and Thelonius Monk.  Plus the French New Wave. You can’t imagine how many times I had to listen with him to Hit The Road, Jack, Cry To Me, or Ruby My Dear.  Or watch Pierrot Le Fou, La Guerre Est Finie, and Le Feu Follet.  Or hear why Michael Jordan was better than LeBron.  Or how Ray Leonard would have destroyed Mayweather. Mark, I had to put up with a lot!  It was one thing when we were growing up. But when I crashed at your first apartment in LA?  Downright excruciating!”

Resnick paused as the wedding guests – plus Littman and Wendy – shared a hearty laugh.

“But for all his foibles,” Resnick continued, “Mark’s the best friend anyone could possibly have.  And he’s more than a friend. He’s my conscience. The big brother I never had, who looks after me and does the impossible, protecting me against myself.  And boy, do I sometimes need it. So I’m not losing a friend – I’m gaining a sister in Wendy, plus a second conscience. Please join me in toasting the two greatest people on earth!”

It was that version of Resnick that Littman tried to keep in mind as his friend’s life began to spiral downward in the aftermath.  First came a blow-up when an unauthorized trade in a client’s account resulted a significant loss. Then an investigation which revealed far more unrequested trading which, though largely profitable, was blatantly illegal.  Finally, a revocation of Resnick’s stockbroker’s license.

To Littman’s chagrin, any semblance of legitimacy in Resnick’s life gave way to endeavors ranging from questionable to nefarious.

“Not me,” responded Littman when Resnick asked him to help bankroll first a purchase of bootleg OxyContin, then some stolen DMT.

“C’mon,” urged Resnick.  “It’s easy money.”

“Wendy’s pregnant,” Littman explained.

“So?  Can’t you use some extra bucks?”

“Extra bucks?  Maybe. Extra worries?  No way.”

“C’mon –”

“Not a chance,” stated Resnick categorically.

Even the Jersey jokes offered by Resnick started turning sour and ugly.  “Why won’t cannibals eat Jersey girls?” he asked Littman on a rare day when they met for pastrami sandwiches.

“You tell me,” said Littman, for the very first time not willing to provide an answer.

“Too fucking bitter.”

An extended period of silence followed, punctuated only by occasional phone calls in which Littman was troubled not only by what seemed like Resnick’s detachment from reality, but also by the bitterness in his jokes.

“What do you call a Jersey girl with a rape whistle?” he asked Littman one Thursday morning.

“I give up,” said Littman with little glee.

“An optimist.”

Littman chose not to respond.

Having left the graphic arts firm where he was working to venture out on his own, Littman found himself busier than ever before.  There were bills to be paid with designs for logos, t-shirts, and the occasional catalog; new opportunities to be sought in film, TV, and web design; plus ob/gyn appointments and Lamaze classes with Wendy.  The result was precious little time to chat, hang out with, or even think about Resnick.

Yet when baby Sarah was born nearly five weeks early – meaning that diapers, shirts, blankets, and everything else that Littman and Wendy expected to acquire during the last month of pregnancy were sorely lacking – it was to Resnick that the couple turned.

To their delight, he stepped up in a huge way, shopping not merely for the necessities, but also for baby presents plus an array of take-out delicacies, which he delivered on a daily basis for the first ten days after Wendy and Sarah came home from the hospital.

Grateful for Resnick’s help, both Littman and Wendy made an effort to reintegrate him into their lives, all the while choosing to ignore the less savory aspects of his behavior.

Then once again unacceptable demands began.

“No!” was the response when Resnick asked if he could stash a parcel of bootleg Ativan in Littman’s garage.

“No way!” barked Littman when Resnick asked him to front the money for crystal meth smuggled in from Mexico.

“No chance in hell!” Littman screamed when Resnick asked if a guy he knew could hide out at the cottage for a couple of days.

“He’s driving you crazy, isn’t he?” Wendy asked Resnick one night after they had gotten Sarah to sleep.

“What makes you say that?”

“Think I don’t overhear the conversations when he calls?”

“He’s not that bad,” protested Littman.

“In many ways he’s great.  But –”

“Know what he is?”

“Tell me,” said Wendy.

“Proof you can take the boy out of Jersey –”

“But not the Jersey out of the boy?”

Littman nodded unhappily.

Between an ever-increasing workload, plus battle fatigue from the rigors and sleeplessness of parenting, Littman had less time than ever to think about Resnick, plus less guilt than ever before about not responding to calls.

Still that did not inhibit Resnick from showing up at Littman’s new office at noon on a Friday in May.

“Somebody’s been ducking me,” Resnick announced.

“Somebody’s busy as hell,” Littman countered.

“So how’s about I buy you lunch?”

“Love to, but I’ve got to run to a meeting in Burbank.”

“Then can I ask for one little favor?”

Littman sighed.  “Fire away.”

“I need you to cash something for me.”

“That sounds sketchy.”

“Why would you say that?” asked Resnick, seemingly hurt.

“Okay, then.  What kind of check?”

“A cashier’s check.

“And why can’t you do it?”

“I’m not exactly getting along with my bank.”

“But if the check’s made out to you –”

Resnick shrugged.

“What’s that mean?” Littman asked.

“It’s made out to a dude I know.”

“Can I see the check?”

Resnick pulled the check out of his shirt pocket, then handed it to Littman, who grimaced as scrutinized it.

“You have a friend named Ashkan Esfahani?” Littman asked.

“Not exactly a friend.”

“Then what?  A tennis partner?  A guy you go bowling with?  A drinking buddy?”

“Why you giving me such a tough time?” Resnick protested.

“Why?  Because the whole thing smells fishy.”

“C’mon –”

“C’mon, my ass!  How’s this? What if we call your pal Ashkan and ask him why he’s not cashing it himself.”

Scrunching up his face, Resnick punched the wall.  “For Chrissake, what kind of friend are you?”

“What kind of friend am I?” countered Littman.  “I’ve got a wife and a baby daughter, yet you want me to risk going to prison for fencing a stolen cashier’s check?”

Resnick took a deep breath.  “So what exactly are you saying?”

“Ever heard the Jersey joke about the guy who wanted to fence stolen cashier’s checks?”

“What’s the punch line?” asked Resnick.

“Get the fuck out of my office!”

Though Resnick made several overtures toward Littman in the weeks and months that followed, his calls, texts, and emails were not returned.

Nor did Littman tell any more Jersey jokes.

 

Alan Swyer is an award-winning filmmaker whose recent documentaries have dealt with Eastern spirituality in the Western world, the criminal justice system, diabetes, boxing, and singer Billy Vera. In the realm of music, among his productions is an album of Ray Charles love songs. His novel ‘The Beard’ was recently published by Harvard Square Editions.

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