Missingest Man in America
I have loved; I have been loved—seldom simultaneously.
by Rob Hunter
“Your chastity is safe with me; I am a Democrat.”
Once upon a time, and a very jolly time it was, the Mayor of Our Fair City was the Right Rev. Jimmy Walker. Hizzoner was never ordained by any church or graduated from any theological emporium. The only cloth with which he was intimate was silk of the stocking and garter belt persuasion.
Well it appears that near the end of Jimmy’s reign one Joseph Force Crater, a Judge of the Supreme Court of New York, disappeared off the street never to be seen again. Rev. Jimmy’s name came up, retailed by the regular crew of courthouse hacks, but they couldn’t make it stick. The Reverend thing? Nah, an honorific is all. As Jimmy liked to say: “A reformer is a guy who rides through the sewer in a glass bottom boat.”
People loved Jimmy Walker, swindler that he was. Judge Joe Crater did not love Rev. Jimmy, for Crater Esq. knew things, being in on Hizzoner’s swindles. Both Jimmy and the Judge thought it would be better if one of them was to take a lengthy vacation. In the absence of a corpus defunctus, most figured it was the judge was on the run.
Jimmy Walker, New York City’s mayor from 1926 to 1932, was a charismatic and colorful character, but a questionable administrator. It appears that near the end of the reign of Beau James, Joseph Force Crater, a Judge of the Supreme Court of New York, disappeared off West 45th Street in Manhattan never to be seen again:
Every Aug. 6 for more than three decades, an attractive older woman entered a Greenwich Village bar, a place that had been a restaurant back in the Jazz Age. She sat alone in a booth and ordered two cocktails. She raised one, murmured, “Good luck, Joe, wherever you are.” She drank it slowly, rose and walked out, leaving the other drink untouched. Thus Stella Crater mourned her vanished husband, Justice Joseph Force Crater, who became famous on Aug. 6, 1930, when he, as the Daily News later said, “disappeared efficiently, completely, and forever.”
On Tuesday, Judge Crater worked in his chambers at the New York courthouse at 60 Centre St. On the morning of Aug. 6, he spent two hours going through the files in his chambers. He had his personal assistant, Joseph Mara, cash two checks for him amounting to $5150, worth roughly $50,000 in today’s money. He and Mara went by cab to the Crater apartment with locked briefcases containing five large portfolios, which Mara left on a chair. The judge then dismissed Mara for the day.
That evening, Crater bought a ticket for that night’s performance of a new hit comedy, Dancing Partners, at the Belasco Theater on W. 44th St. He had dinner nearby at Billy Haas’s chophouse, with two friends, William Klein, a lawyer specializing in entertainment law, and Klein’s girlfriend, Sally Lou Ritz, a showgirl generally considered one fine-looking babe. Afterward, the trio stood on the sidewalk chatting and laughing. Although the curtain had gone up on Dancing Partners, Crater seemed unhurried. Between 9 and 9:15, he hailed a passing cab. Klein later recalled it was tan. Crater waved his Panama out the window to his friends.
Someone called for the ticket at the Belasco’s box office. No one knows if that person was Crater. On the record, no one saw Joe Crater again.
Things are always darkest, just before it goes totally
— Hannibal Smith
A storefront nun confronted the contents of her tambourine. Empty. No, wait... a dull clatter on the drumhead. A nickel. Sister Elspeth Joyful frowned.
“Slim pickin’s Sister,” said a tall robust man in brown suit, gray spats and a Panama hat from the open door of the Chapel of Divine Satisfaction.
“I beg your pardon, but you have thrown a nickel on the tambourine,” Sister Joyful turned to the accuser of the day’s offering. “We ask not beyond the means of our flock, stranger. Matthew 7:7.”
“‘Ye lust, and have not: yet ye have not, because ye ask not.’ James 4:2,” said the man in the doorway. “The Bible is an almanac of failed good intentions, Sister. You can help me; I am asking. Here, accept this as a further token of my sincerity.” The visitor produced a large fruit basket, beribboned and covered with cellophane, of the kind often left by a well-wisher in a stateroom of a great ocean liner. “Tammany—the downtown Democratic club arranges the freight. Fresh fruit—aside from bananas, those go by boat. Heat raises the humors in tropical nations—nasty, the tropics. From far California the Democratic Party supplies fresh fruit daily to pacify its voters. A grand vision except for the bananas.”
Sister Joyful accepted the gift of fruit and looked the man over. Expensive suit, brilliantined hair parted in the center, a style long gone by. White silk cravat. “You have found abundant comfort, stranger. Have you been to services?”
“Yes, many times. I came in disguise as a simple working man. I am in disguise now, Sister.” He pulled back one side of the heavy velvet draperies that kept at bay the unruly doings of the unemployed. A smoky bronze sunbeam struggled in through filthy storefront glass. “Equinoxial light—the ecliptic. The long shadows of evening are most excellent for an apotheosis.”
The man—erect with a mane of white hair and yachtsman’s deep tan—must be a professor. This man was a gift and gifts were doubtful. “You are the Devil, then.” Sister Joyful stood her ground.
“I am Joseph Force Crater; I am a judge of the New York State Supreme Court. I am not the Adversary. Your chastity is safe with me; I am a Democrat.”
“We abjure the consumption of alcohol,” Sister Joyful volunteered.
“The Devil’s drink,” said the man. A lie, he smelled of brandy; he would not face life without a Chippendale armoire, Persian rugs and a drink close to hand. The man was not merely well-to-do; he was wealthy. He seemed perplexed—a time traveler off course in a flow of technology. A double martini would fix everything for him. He had the air of one born to command who at the moment hadn’t the slightest inkling.
“You are lost.”
“Amen, Sister.” The man removed his coat, then beckoned her to come closer. Through the streaked glazing of the storefront mission’s plate glass, he pointed to a crimson and gilt marquee across the street. Professor LaBonte’s Flea Circus—Extraordinary, Incomparable. See the Amazing Rollo perform His Bravura Exploits on the Flea Trapeze. Chariot races afternoons at 3:30 and 5:30 said the flashing blue neon.
“A good life—that of a flea,” said Judge Crater. “There are dogs everywhere. I am partial to schnauzers, myself. For a man stranded on the rocky shoals of matrimony there can be no hiding place.”
In the street a homeless man clutched at his chest and fell to the pavement. He collapsed like a slow-motion marionette whose strings were being cut one by one. “Interesting,” said Judge Joseph Force Crater. “That man out there, he seems to be having a stroke.” The man gave a final twitch, then lay still. There was a slight trickle of a greenish fluid at the corners of his mouth. “The man... we saw him clutch his chest. He died. Or is near death.”
“The city morgue wagon picks up on alternate Tuesdays. He’ll keep.”
“Isn’t it wonderful what they can do these days? Let’s help him nonetheless,” exclaimed Joseph Force Crater. “This is, after all, our Christian duty.”
“No,” said Sister Joyful. “That will only encourage them. First one derelict tosses a fit in front of the mission and then the next. They’ll be coming in brigades. We will be overwhelmed. I’ll be dishing out chicken broth and celery sandwiches all the day. There would be no time for my ministry.”
“Hmm... as you say.” Judge Crater composed himself as he adjusted the knot of his cravat. “Stella, that’s my wife, thinks I’ve run away with a chorus girl. She will be hiring private detectives. The Pinkerton thugs.”
“A chorus girl.” Sister Joyful took a step back and appraised the judge. Substantial—a man to watch they would have said in his youth.
“They are watching me—even as we speak,” said Judge Crater. “That man.”
“The man in the street,” said Sister Joyful. “He is dead.”
The judge attempted to open the door and found it locked. “Madam... Sister, unlock this door at once. Pinkerton operative or not, I will save that man if he yet has the breath of life in him.” He struck the door a mighty thump with the flat of his hand, rattling a leaded cut crystal pane incised with nouveau filigrees of the type much coveted by brownstone renovators.
“Deadbolt,” said Sister Joyful. “You locked yourself in.”
Judge Crater unfastened the bolt. “Hmm, so I have. Nice architectural detailing. It is wise you have a deadbolt. Young urban professionals have been known to loot churches in their avidity,” remarked the Judge. He swung open the door of the Chapel of Divine Satisfaction to be assailed by the sights, sounds and smells of New York. A trolley car clanged past, its motorman mouthing obscenities. Heedless of his own person Judge Crater strode through streams of yellow-liveried taxicabs. The Sister and the jurist dodged an onrush of homicidal hacks and juggernauting trolley cars to reach the corpse, which lay sprawled on the center median. The judge, kneeling to take a pulse, found none.
“Alas, we are too late,” said the judge to Sister Joyful. “He is indeed deceased.”
“As are you if you have uttered a falsehood in the hope that I, a poor woman of the cloth, would be deluded and thereby fall under your spell. I am very sure that even the Pinkertons’ brief does not extend past the Pearly Gates. Pardon me. I am coming undone.” Sister Joyful brushed a stray lock out of her eye. Undoing her kerchief, she thrust the unruly wisp of hair back in order and retied it all the more tightly to keep herself from future disarray.
“Modesty. I like that in a woman. The kerchief. You are a lay sister?”
“Not much,” replied the sister. “Not lately. The church...”
“I understand,” said Judge Crater. “One’s charms are not to be shared with the casual passer-by.”
Flung roses, roses riotously with the throng,
Dancing, to put thy pale, lost lilies out of mind...
— Ernest Dowson
In a squeal of brakes a taxicab swerved to miss them by a hair’s breadth, the whirlwind of its spinning tires against their faces. A driver of middle-eastern mien cursed them. “Fiacre,” said Judge Crater, as he knelt beside the derelict. The man’s face had turned blue.
“Huh?” exclaimed Sister Joyful.
“Saint Fiacre is the patron saint of taxi drivers,” elucidated the Judge, his arm suddenly around her waist.
“Oh. Interesting...” replied Sister Joyful as she disengaged herself. The man has power, she thought. Whether it was The Power remained to be seen. “We’ll see,” said Sister Joyful, as she folded her wimple into a pillow to place beneath the head of the newly expired wino.
“See what, my pigeon?” The arm was replaced.
“If there is a saint named Fucker,” she replied demurely.
“Fee-ACK-er,” a generous smile adorned the clean-shaven features of Joseph Force Crater, corpse and fugitive, styled the ‘Missingest Man in America’ by the sensational tabloids. “The Bowery was first envisioned as a tree-shaded boulevard, where the gentry of New Amsterdam might essay forth, wives and children in tow, on a charabanc, or in black lacquered landaus, called fiacres by the burghers.”
The dead man sat up. “Martha...”
“Wrong answer,” said Judge Crater as he pressed his thumbs into the man’s throat. “Kick the bucket; you have outstayed your welcome upon this mortal coil. Martha will have to be bereft.” The man gurgled and was still.
“But... you just killed him.”
“It was foreordained. Look closely, Sister; don’t his clothes fit him well for a down-and-outer? He is not a potential postulant. He is a suicide—abhorred by God and man alike.” This was Judge Crater’s first miracle.
“You have restored a dead man to life,” said Sister Joyful.
“Have I. I seem to be gifted with miraculous powers.”
“Then killed him again.”
“Etiam capillus unus habet umbram, even one hair has its shadow. His eye is on the sparrow.”
“It is a miracle. Not a big one, but a miracle nonetheless, and I am a witness.” The Sister’s eyes were moist. She snuffled. “There—I am crying tears of joy."
A mortuary wagon and three policemen stood by as a white-coated surgeon listened to the man’s chest with a stethoscope. Judge Crater placed the flat of his hand against the man’s chest. “Dead. Dead as a planked mackerel. Oh, I know what you are thinking. It takes one to know one. But that one died peaceably, by his own hand—in sin but right on time. Not like the trauma of having one’s life cut off before you’ve had any time to plan a proper farewell.”
“You are married...” observed the sister. The man wore a heavy gold ring on his left hand. There would be a pliant trophy of a wife to manage his household, to set off the vintage porcelain vases she stuffed herself with armloads of irises cut from her very own dooryard. “Physically you will resemble each other,” posited Sister Joyful.
“I have a wife. That is true. Stella—soon to be ex-wife, or would have been if I had lived to accept the divorce decree—warned me about playing on the edge. I was her lawyer for her first divorce, you know. A usufruct of the Law, you get to keep what’s left over.”
“When couples live together, over the years they come to look alike. But that still doesn’t explain why people come to look like their pets, or vice versa. Do you have a pet? A dog, perhaps?” Sister Joyful pictured her elegant proselyte at ease in tennis flannels with a golden retriever playing Frisbee in a deer park.
“Alas, I worked my way through college,” said Judge Crater, cleverly evading the thrust of the Sister’s questions.
“As do so many good and worthy souls,” said Sister Joyful. “But you have come to me, to the Chapel of Divine Satisfaction, out of a soul-sickness. You seek spiritual solace.”
“Here,” he withdrew an alligator hide wallet from an inside pocket and flourished a bill of large denomination.
The Sister recoiled as if from a serpent. “You want to buy your way into heaven!”
“Sure enough do. That’s a hundred-dollar bill. Good for twenty minutes of your time I figure, what with the nickel in the tambourine. I am a passing-fair pianist, a good dancer and well-liked by theater folk. I am not bragging; this is just a filling-in. You are a fine-looking woman, Sister Joyful, and I would find it pleasant to spend some time with you.”
“Well the social opportunities hereabouts are limited,” said Sister Joyful as she accepted the hundred-dollar bill. “And to think before today I never heard of you,” remarked the Sister. “You want to make love to me. You should know I am not a freethinker.”
“Dear... no, beloved Sister Joyful, I have loved; I have been loved—seldom simultaneously. I have stayed awake through Parcheesi, backgammon, pocket billiards and, yes, even cribbage tournaments. But these days a shapely leg or moist thighs throbbing with lust hardly turn my head. I have a medical condition.”
“You are dead.”
“Death is not a medical condition? This poor chap, f’rinstance...” The Judge had been rifling the derelict’s inside pockets as the police and the medical examiner stood by. He came up with a gold pocket watch and chain. Appended to the chain was a jeweled golden fob with Masonic symbols. Judge Crater pocketed the watch and fob.
“You are dead and you are robbing the dead. Whose pocket you picked.”
“Better me, an emissary of Heaven, than the police or the coroner’s hirelings.”
“We call ourselves civilized,” said Sister Joyful.
“There is a common fallacy in these modern times, that being industrialized means being civilized. Nothing could be farther from the truth. A horse-drawn landau in the twentieth century is an astounding anachronism.”
“This is the twenty-first century. You have been out of things. In... limbo? Heaven, hell?”
“A gray place with vapors. Rather like a hot springs health spa. But without the health. No whole grains and celery tonic. No colonics, upper or otherwise, I fear—high or low. Not much fun, in short. But I am certainly revivified. I don’t feel a day over forty-one. That is the age at which I died. I was garroted and stabbed by a pair of burly policemen and buried in Brooklyn. Coney Island, under the boardwalk.”
“Did you see Jesus?”
“Not in Coney Island. Oh... in the afterlife. A dapper gent wearing plus-fours? I certainly did, dear Sister. Jesus sends you His very best.”
“You have seen Him...”
“Not only seen the Savior put we played through—eighteen holes: His place in the Scheme of Things, and all. I let Him have two points when He nickered on his scorecard. Lost a ball in the trees, He did. A foursome. With Sammy Snead and Ben Hogan. Splendid gentlemen. As with you vis-à-vis myself, I had never heard of them.”
“Because you were dead...”
“Not as dead as our everyman here.” The judge had taken another fling at finding the dead man’s pulse. He dropped the derelict’s hand. Blue-veined and scrupulously manicured, it fell across his chest in a gesture of repose. “He is beyond temptation. Dead or alive, however, I fancy myself a connoisseur of the female form divine. And the goods you have on display are ne plus ultra. I have enjoyed many women, but never, never have I been offered the gift of sanctified flesh—to wit, yours. Alas, love has become a bore. I have no wish to get into the habit—God, how I love a well-formed pun.”
Sister Joyful stooped to adjust her hosiery. There was a flash of plump, golden thigh. The judge ogled. The sister snapped her ecclesiastical elastic and stood to challenge the Missingest Man in America. “A nun’s habit is her working clothes. I am at work while you, sir, are a malingerer and a cad.”
“Just the devil in my soul. I would blush if I could—bad circulatory system. Lack of use. You will have to pardon me, for these are my little ways.”
“You are not quite what I expected. What the Chapel of Divine Satisfaction has been prophesying for as long as I can remember is a miracle, an opening of the heavens.”
“It was a small miracle, but a miracle nonetheless. I have made a dead man presentable. A cosmetological thingy, but I did it. The Son of God did not command me to make the miracles personal, a dedication if you will, like the disc jockeys do. But I rather like it—a special effect.”
“You have played golf with Jesus. That is special.” Sister Joyful walked to the far corner of the chapel and opened a hymnal. “I don’t know who sent you, mister. But I fear you are here after doing no good. There’s the piano; do you play?”
Judge Crater pulled his sleeves up to his elbows and, carefully undoing a pair of cufflinks crafted out of fifty-dollar gold pieces, rolled back his sleeves. “There.” The piano keys danced under his touch. Rich resonances of the high renaissance filled the air. The Sister’s fine high contralto rose to a waiting heaven while the judge’s butterscotch basso rambled in and out with a manly counterpoint.
“...it is better to be happy for a moment and be burned
up with beauty
than to live a long time and be bored all the while.”
— Don Marquis, The Lesson of the Moth
“There are going to be great doings this night,” said the Judge. “We shall bring the wonders of the New Jerusalem to your frowsty storefront tabernacle. Attend me: I am to perform my Second Miracle.”
“One was enough. You killed that man. He was alive and you killed him, and that’s that. You are going to kill me.”
“No. Nononono. I have the Power. I am here to fructify a waiting womb. Are you ready, Sister?”
Sister Joyful looked relieved and terrified simultaneously. “I am not a virgin; I guess that leaves me out. I have never been possessed by a spirit, however.”
“Sister Joyful, I fear death has slowed my libido. The real, the corporeal me is moldering in a Brooklyn landfill till the municipal angel pops by toting a bon voyage hamper with an entire sliced ham, fruit basket and a dressed turkey on the side. You know, you bear a haunting resemblance to Necrophilia Jones. The woman who was my undoing?”
“She turned you in?”
“No. She lured me to my death. Dear Nicki—she was such a cozy little piece. I was smitten; what could I do but follow the call of the glands. I allowed myself to be murdered. Anything else would have been unfeeling, insensible. Nicki was a dancer in the Roxy chorus, a showgirl. Breasts like a renaissance whore, tight blonde curls. What we called a flapper in those days. A veritable heart-stopper, sister. She had that indefinable something, a je ne sais quoi.”
“August 6, 1930. I can read it as if it were yesterday. Time comes and goes, Sister Joyful. In an astral plane it expands and contracts on a whim. To me, it was only yesterday. Or today. I was famous as a fancier of chorus girls and fine dining—all the good things life has to offer. I can still smell sweet Nicki’s perfume, Chanel No. 5. We had just exited Billy Haas’s chophouse on West 45th Street in Manhattan. A cab—one of the Checker wide-bodies—came spinning around the corner. There was a cop on the running board. The taxi screeches to a stop and out pops Hizzoner the Mayor. Nicki slides into the cab and we headed for what I thought to be an evening at the theater. To my surprise there were two men already in the car. One, on the jump seat, was a copper—a police sergeant I knew from mayor James J. Walker’s bodyguard. Hizzoner the Mayor was a frequenter of Broadway theatre and the upper-class speakeasies like the Central Park Casino, much as was I. The other was a hooligan of the race track sort, checkered suit, a prison pallor and brass knuckles prominently displayed. The hooligan introduced himself as Schottke and flexed his fist around the brass knucks. The last thing I remember was Nicki batting those Wedgwood blue eyes at me as she teased a spit curl with her little finger. I suspected nothing. When I awakened we were in Brooklyn—Coney Island.”
“They killed you. Why?”
“Why, indeed—one of those big, sticky words. There, I was garroted, stabbed and buried beneath the Boardwalk near West Eighth Street. I was declared legally dead in 1939 and the Police Department’s missing person’s case was closed in 1979.”
“They didn’t investigate your disappearance?”
“Tammany. I was as corrupt as any of ’em. More than most. I think a lot of people knew that no good could come of delving into Judge Crater’s affairs.”
The couple had been strolling as they talked. Sister Joyful noticed that they were hand in hand. She did not disengage herself. By now they had reached a shady triangular park, placed by the city at an intersection of an angled avenue. An iron fence and a crop of starveling grass beckoned the weary passerby to stop and commune with nature.
“Thus you see why I feel an affinity for the unanointed dead,” said the judge. “That is why I performed my first miracle with the man on the meridian—to pretty him up. He had to stay dead; that’s the rule. I strangled him, just as I was strangled. We were brothers—under the noose, sort of...”
“So the dead man in the middle of the street has nothing to do with why you came to the church. You were looking for me?”
“No, sister. For a bowl of hot broth and a crust of bread. It’s been over seventy years.”
“Ohh...” Sister Joyful sat on a bench next to an old woman who was tossing scraps of bread to a flock of pigeons. “Pardon me,” she said to the old woman, indicating that room should be made for her escort.
“You farted?” said the woman not moving an inch.
“Well, I pardon you anyway.” The woman went back to feeding her flock.
“Some things never change,” said the judge. “Pigeons. Their hordes darken the sky at noon.”
“You spoke of two miracles. Or a second miracle. How many miracles do you have up your sleeve, anyway?”
“One more that I know of. But I shall require your help. The female perspective...”
“For the Second Coming.”
“Depends where one starts one’s counting, doesn’t it. Oh, alright, second coming. The new messiah at any rate. Like all sons of famous fathers he will have to start at the bottom. For this we need a Mom. A virgo intacta...”
“I am a Pisces, if that is any help.”
“...an unbroken bridge of flesh denying entrance to the birth canal. One of those prophesy thingys, but there is some wiggle room. Parthenogenesis is a tricky business. It requires a woman’s touch.” Here Judge Crater slipped a hand beneath Sister Joyful’s habit. “Your touch.”
“Parthenogenesis. That’s not French.”
“Do you have any children?”
“No. Stella wouldn’t allow it. All her demands—sex here, sex there: in the car, under the shrubberies, in the powder room at a cocktail party. I never figured it out until this very minute that she was unconsciously trying to get pregnant. The pitter-patter of little feet around the house.” Judge Crater looked lost in thought. “I’ll wager Stella was some pissed-off that I missed her birthday. She was reassured everything was all right, that I would eventually turn up.” Judge Crater picked up a stone and scattered the old woman’s flock. The woman cursed him in an ancient tongue and picked up her own rock.
“Tsk, tsk. Language,” said the judge as he whacked her over the head with his rolled umbrella. The rock was dropped.
“She is...?” asked Sister Joyful.
“The municipal angel. Shabby, alas. No fruit baskets today.”
“The pigeons are mine,” she cackled, “...the souls of departed aldermen. Bite on this, dead man.” The woman reached into a bulging tote and produced a huge pink overripe Florida grapefruit, which she prepared to hurl at the judge. Silent as an Indian scout, a figure loomed out of the smog of pigeons to stay her hand. “Hush, my darling. Not yet.” The municipal angel wept and unfurled slate-colored spotted wings—not unlike those of an overlarge pigeon. She fluttered over to the apparition to be consoled. Lithe and dapper, there could be no doubt as to the newcomer’s identity.
The Sister gasped and fell to her knees; Joseph Force Crater doffed his fedora. “Jimmy. James J. Walker. Is that you?”
“Yep.” Hizzoner doffed his gray Homburg. “The late Joseph Force Crater, I believe. The police assured me you were dead. I’ll have to look into that. Nonetheless, glad that you could come. This is the End of Days of which I spoke at, at...” He turned aside to confer with a person unknown and unseen. Hizzoner cleared his throat. “...the dedication of the Bayside Community Center. That was 1929 I believe, the 19th of October.” There was a roll of distant thunder; the ground shook. “And I’m never wrong.”
copyright 2013, 2015 Rob Hunter
The Missingest Man in America was first published as “The Miracles and Death of Judge Joseph Force Crater and His Questionable Resurrection” in the January 2013 Left Hand of the Father, Marianita Escamilla editor, and is excerpted from Midwife in the Tire Swing, a novel.