Nicky Dolman came out of the men’s room at the Blue Door Lounge wiping his hands on his pant legs.
“Motherfuckers,” he muttered as he slid into the booth and took a swig of beer.
Eli Jones, the boss of the Tenderloin scammers who hung out on Bottom Street, leaned back, draping his arm over the booth’s patched vinyl. “Man, most people go to the bathroom to take a piss. You’re the only guy I know who comes out of it pissed off.”
Ronnie Pervez, the Blue Door’s owner, was standing at the end of the bar a good forty feet away. Nicky put his bottle down, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and glared at him.
“These shit-eating Eye-ranian assholes,” he said to nobody in particular. “The cocksuckers took the motherfucking paper towels out of the men’s shitter.”
Peter “Bosko” Boskovitch, second in command of the Bottom Street crew, laughed. “Nick, you managed to swear three times in one sentence. You are a walking case of Tourette’s Syndrome.”
“What the fuck is tourist syndrome?” Dolman asked, suspecting he had just been insulted.
“Tourette’s, not tourist, dipshit,” said LaVaughn Walker, a purse-snatcher who sometimes worked with Eli’s crew. “It means you all fucked up in the head, and you say the first thing that come into it.”
“So what’s the big deal about paper towels?” asked Ray Campos, the pickpocket who worked as a single cannon, dipping tourists at BART stations, on the Muni and down at Pier 39.
“You people just don’t understand what’s going on in the world,” Nick muttered irritably.
Ray and Eli grinned at each other. By all rights, Nicholas Thomas Dolman should have been in a good mood. He had worked clean up when Eli’s crew wrapped the Mandragola scam a week earlier. He, Ray and LaVaughn each cleared $2,000 for what amounted to about four hours of work, hauling borrowed office equipment and furniture back to a warehouse in Oakland and then wiping down and vacuuming the rugs to pick up any prints or other evidence the crew might have left behind.
It was the first dishonest dollar Nicky had turned since he left the federal correctional center in Dublin after a one-year “sabbatical” for stealing a semi-full of cigarettes at a truck stop in Cordelia.
The problem was, Nicky was never in a good mood.
To Nicky the world was a place filled with people trying to take advantage of him. Through a peculiar coincidence, all of them happened to be of national, ethnic or religious persuasions different from Nick.
Eli gave Bosko a surreptitious wink. If they worked the conversation right, they might be able to keep Nicky worked up for an hour or so; listening to him rant would be cheaper than putting money in the jukebox. Eli cleared his throat.
“So, Nick,” Eli said, “if the towels aren’t what’s got your shorts in a knot, what’s the problem?”
Nicky took another slug of beer. “No towels is the problem,” he said. “They got themselves a fucking blower in there.”
Eli could tell this was going to be vintage Nicky – a rant about something nobody else gave a rat’s skinny ass about. “What do you mean ‘blower?’ Somebody giving hum jobs?”
The cords in Nicky’s neck stood out. He looked like he might blow a temple vein. “What I mean is, they got one of them hot-air blowers in the John,” he said.
Eli wasn’t pretending to be confused now. He was there, full-on. “Hot air?” he asked.
Nick fumed. “There ain’t no towels, just one of them blowers you suppose to dry your hands with. But there’s no hot air. You punch the button and all that comes out is cold.”
A light went on in Ray’s head. “Ah—that’s why you were wiping your hands on your pants!” he said. “No heat. Your hands were wet and there was no way to dry ‘em.”
Nicky sighed. He was finally getting through. “That’s what I been saying, Einstein,” he replied.
Pervez glanced over at the booth to see whether the Bottom Street boys needed anything. Nick glared at him again, but all their glasses and bottles still contained liquor, so he turned away.
Eli frowned. “I don’t see what Ronnie being Iranian has to do with anything,” he said.
“Nick’s family name was originally Dolmanis. I think that’s Greek,” said Phil Bagwell, who had just walked in and dragged a chair over from another table to join them. “Greeks and Persians haven’t gotten along since 300 Spartans held Xerxes’ army off at Thermopylae.”
Everybody at the table stared at Bagwell, trying to figure out what he was talking about. He’d read about Thermopylae standing at the rack in a comic book store in Berkeley but the only thing most of the Bottom Street mob read was the racing form for Golden Gate Fields. They had no clue why he had mentioned the place and thought Spartans were a type of prophylactic.
Nicky rolled his eyes. “Mr. College-Boy-Smart-Ass,” he said with a sneer. “My old man wasn’t Greek. He was from Lithuania, dumb fuck.”
Bosko smiled indulgently. “You gotta remember, Nicky here is an equal opportunity racist.”
“Yeah,” LaVaughn chimed in. “He hate everybody the same, Bags.”
Eli sipped more Jack, happy that new blood had joined the party. “So, Phil,” he said. “You score today?”
Bagwell smiled and caught Pervez’s eye with a circular gesture for refills that took in all the Bottom Street boys. “Yeah,” he said. “Big time. Next round’s on me.”
Pervez brought a tray of libations that included a generous Stoli for Bagwell. Bags gave him a U.S. Grant and said, “Let it ride, Ronnie.”
Turning to the others, the table, Bags grinned. “I sucked up $1,200 today, courtesy of Cal Berkeley,” he said. “Go Bears!”
Eli grinned. “Never underestimate the value of a college education. Phillip here has one and he’s the only guy sitting at this table who has never done time in a state joint. The worst beef he ever caught was a chickenshit 60-day stay in Santa Rita.”
“What you doing over there at Cal, Bags?” Campos asked. “Scalping tickets to the Big Game? You musta hustled a shitload of them to clear more than a G.”
Bosko laughed. “He’s got a better gig than that,” he said. “He’s got a cart he rolls around on campuses, picking up office equipment that needs fixing.”
LaVaughn frowned. “How you be making $1200 in one day like that, man?” he asked. “Fixing shit’s a nickel-dime grind. You must be a great motherfucking repairman.”
Bags grinned and sipped vodka. “I don’t repair the stuff. The people I take it from just think I will. Actually, I haul it to Titus Chan, the big fence in Oakland, and he sells it after one of his people fixes it. It’s good money and all I have to do is convince the marks I’m a drone in the campus repair shop.”
“Yeah, LaVaughn,” Bosko offered. “Some of that borrowed gear you took back to Chan after we wrapped Mandragola probably was shit Bags here glommed from one of the schools in the Bay Area. He’s been running that number for, what is it now? More than a year, right?”
Eli raised his glass in a toast to Bagwell. “A grand plus two for a couple hours of solo hustling,” he said. “Like I said before, there’s nothing like a college education.”
When Pervez had returned to the end of the bar, Nick struggled to get back in the conversation. “Anyways, the Eye-ranians got no trees so they can’t make paper. All they got in Eye-ran is sand and oil.”
“Oh, yeah,” Bosko said rolling his eyes. “Nicky here was complaining about the new hot-air blower in the men’s toilet, Bags.”
Bagwell knotted his brow. “Sand and oil?” he said. “What’s that got to do with hot air blowers?”
Nicky sneered. “That’s why these rag-heads put hot air blowers in the shitter. They make money off oil, not paper.”
Campos shook his head. “But Nick, you already told us the hot air blower was blowing cold air. If the air is cold, how are the Iranians making any oil money off the electricity used to make the heat?”
Nicky rolled his eyes impatiently. “The electricity makes the damned blower motor work. They turn the heat down so they don’t burn so much juice. That saves them money on electric, see. But they still make money off the oil that makes the electricity.”
Eli had been right in the first place: this was classic Nicky—which meant it didn’t make any sense at all to a person of normal intelligence.
“So what the fuck were you wiping your hands for, Bro?” asked LaVaughn, who had been paying little attention to the geopolitical discussion. “Did you take a dump or something?”
Nick shrugged. “Naw, had to piss’s all,” he said. “But you still gotta wash your hands.”
Eli was glad Nicky had moved on to another subject.
“You gotta wash your hands when you piss?” Eli said. “I know I’m going to be sorry for asking, but why’s that?”
Nicky made a face. “Piss’s full of fucking germs,” he said. “You don’t wash them off you could get sick or something.”
Bosko shook his head. “Actually, Nick, urine from your own body is sterile,” he said. “I read about it somewhere. There’s no germs. Your body heat and all the chemicals inside you kill ’em, dig?”
Nicky made a face. “Bullshit,” he said skeptically. “If your body kills the germs inside it, why does anybody ever get sick?”
The question was a show-stopper that nobody could immediately answer.
Bagwell wasn’t a member of Eli’s crew, but Boskovitch had been trying to recruit him. He elbowed his way into the discussion by defending Bosko’s comment. “Actually, your own urine is harmless to you. Moraji Desai? The former prime minister of India? He used to drink a glass of his own piss every day.”
Nicky thought about that for a moment. He had heard of India and thought it was near Africa and Indians lived there, like the chick in the curry joint up the street. But all he knew for sure was that it wasn’t where the baseball team came from; those Indians were from someplace in Ohio.
“So you say this Desai guy used to be some big shot in India,” he said skeptically. “What happened to him?”
Bags shrugged. “His political party fell apart and he got forced out of office after two years,” he replied.
Nicky leered triumphantly. “There you go,” he said.
“Piss is bad for you. I’ll keep washing my hands after I take a leak if it’s all the same to you. But I think I’ll bring my own paper towels from now on.”