A dying man, Gerald Geller, decides to reclaim his long-dead name so he can die with his record clean. This is what he tells the U.S. Marshalls, anyway, when he turns himself in, March 20, 2006, for Flight to Avoid Prosecution on a 35-year-old bank job. On September 3, 1971, he walked into the Atlantic Bank of New York, on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan, with three other accomplices, all armed, and a few moments later walked out with $63,535. Walked out, unapprehended, which was not the case with his accomplices. What the U.S. Marshalls tell him when he appears before them is, “What are you coming to us with this for?” Three recent trips to the Emergency Room at Bellevue for congestive heart failure, however, have convinced him to submit to incarceration in return for free medical care.
Mugshots of Gerry from a 1965 arrest for Bookmaking show a handsome, thuggish-looking character of forbidding, if sleepy-eyed, insouciance. A Louisiana driver’s license photo, taken sixteen years later, reveals a burly bearded gent with thinning hair and taxidermy eyes. The man who meets me downstairs at Andrews House, one of the last men’s lodgings on the Bowery, projects a willed and durable nondescriptness, the hard-shelled indifference of a bystander departing the scene of an accident. On his upper right arm, the Star of David tattoo framing the American Eagle has substantially faded.
Up Bowery we walk to Prince Street. Arterial blockages deprive Gerry of eighty percent of the blood necessary to keep his heart running right, so the going is slow. Because his usual coffee pot on Elizabeth Street is closed, we end up, an hour later, being evicted from counter stools at a diner on Prince and Lafayette. “You gonna order anything more,” asks the owner. “This conversation’s making me depressed?” In his scratchy New York accent, softened by years in the South, Gerry had been talking about his father, Solly.
“He hung out in Brownsville with what was left of Murder, Incorporated. Did a couple of major bits, major jail sentences, during my formative years. Athlete’s build, broad shoulders, no waist. He was everything I wasn’t and I idolized him, but it fucked up my whole childhood. He never encouraged me once he knew I was doing wrong things, but he should have discouraged me. I would have. ‘Go to school, pick up a profession. In the long run, you’ll have a better life.’ But he never felt that way. I think he believed all that crap in those ‘40’s and 50’s gangster films. That that was the life to lead.”
In terms of number of scores and less time spent in prison, Gerry has been a much more accomplished criminal than his father. “I’ve been extremely lucky because I’ve known some really bright guys that I was capable of learning from, and they spent a lot of time in jail. The one thing I had over them was my instincts. There was more money in a place, but I took what I took and walked the hell out. And I did that repeatedly over the years. When it came to stealing, I erred on the side of caution.
“Another thing I had going for me is not being unique. In a city like New York, I’m one of a million Mediterranean types. The Russians think I’m Russian, the Persians speak Farsi to me. The Italians, when I talk, they come Italian. In every Greek diner I ever worked, the Greeks were positive I was Greek and couldn’t understand why I didn’t speak it. Even my size. I’m on the small side, but I’m not a midget. Give me half a block, I’m lost in the crowd.”
The nitroglycerine pills Gerry takes for his heart cause edema in his legs, and keep the blood from going, he complains, to the main place it needs to go, although his girlfriend, a back and forth thing over 28 years, is mature enough not to make any big demands on him sexually. She lives in a sublet in Murray Hill and has fancy friends, who ask questions Gerry is not crazy about. He sometimes spends the night with her. Occasionally, they have dinner at Bouley’s or Elaine’s; attend a flamenco performance at the Joyce; a Charles Aznavour concert, or a French film.
Having re-established his actual identity, Gerry no longer has to recall when he wakes up every morning who he is today. George Cook? George Pearson? Pete Iannacone? He is Gerry Geller again, although at Andrews House, he is still known as George. A few years ago, Common Ground, a non-profit developer, purchased the flophouse for $2.3 million. From hundreds of lodgers living there, the number has dwindled to about ninety. “They’re carrying guys out of here feet first,” says Gerry. “Eventually, there’ll be nobody left and they’ll sell this place for twenty million. But what the hell. Means nothing to me. I’ll be gone, too.”
On May 5, 2006, in the Federal Courthouse at 550 Pearl Street, Prosecutor, Michael English, pleads in the courtroom of Judge Kenneth M. Karas for more time to assemble his case. Although efforts to apprehend Gerry over the years have produced an up-to-date FBI file, documents connected to the initial crime have still not been unearthed. When the bank robbery occurred Gerry was living in a middle-class neighborhood in Brooklyn. His wife, Connie, an island Puerto Rican, had opened her own beauty salon, after Gerry had paid for beautician school. “We were totally mismatched. She satisfied me sexually and I liked the way she looked, but it was a mistake. We should of never been together.
“For a bank robbery, you don’t want to necessarily load a gun. If you think you need bullets, if you can’t do the job on attitude, pick another job to do. Either the gun is a prop, or you’re somebody with a personality problem, where you want to hurt somebody. This, you would have to look in the face and know, if that’s why you were in the game, then you were, basically, a bad guy.”
The money taken from the Atlantic Bank on Sixth Avenue near Herald Square in 1971 was never recovered, but of the four bank robbers only Gerry evaded capture by the police. “What happened was Buzzy doesn’t show up afterwards at the meeting place where we divide up the haul. From there, everybody goes about their business with some money in their pocket that if they got any sense they know damn well they’re not gonna enjoy very long. I was a lame professional going out with amateurs. All illegal-type guys, but small time. So small time that had no business taking a bank. We walked out of the place cool, but Buzzy got arrested on the street. A bank official had followed him out. We had put ‘em all downstairs, but this one snuck back up.
“So now I’m thinking what to do, and finally I say, “What the fuck are you thinking about? Either you stay here and take the bang or you walk.’ And the fact that I wasn’t a happy camper at home made it very easy to walk. I know some people in LA, so that’s gonna be my first move. After that, I was in New Orleans three times for about nine years. In Florida three times for what probably wound up to be six, seven years. I came back here a few times and always left, but in the end, I stayed here permanently. I spent years in San Francisco and Reno, Nevada. Months at a time in Phoenix, Columbia, South Carolina, Provincetown, Hyannisport…”
At Gerry’s next court date, a five weeks later, Prosecutor English asks the Judge for another five weeks to locate the 1971 bank robbery file. Gerry has admitted to being a fugitive from justice, but not to his presumed motivation for flight. Furthermore, no forensic evidence, i.e., fingerprints, can tie him to the crime. His survival past the expiration dates of those whose signatures are affixed to witness statements means the case against him, thus far, stacks up as dead affiants testifying from beyond the grave about a bank robbery older than both the prosecutor and the defense lawyer. David Patton, Gerry’s pro bono defender from Sullivan, Cromwell, believes the feds will be unable to proceed.
Before court, on July 13, 2006, the prosecutor, Michael English, offers to withdraw the bank robbery charge in exchange for a Felony False Identity plea. Gerry says no. In response, English maintains that he has contacted several living witnesses to the bank robbery. Gerry gambles that an ID made 35 years after the fact will not be credible in court. Patton then outlines the penalty features of the False Identity count: a six year maximum sentence, to be mitigated by a plea to the judge from the prosecution and defense for probation.
“Probation, however, is not a slam dunk,” says Patton, clearly not wishing to be held responsible should the judge advocate a stretch in prison.
Taking the bench, Judge Karas demands briefs from both sides explaining why more time must elapse before this case can be tried. The Judge says he will rule on these motions, but states that “the clock runs out the week of September 18.” At which point, a trial date must be set.
In the courthouse hallway, David Patton confers with Michael English. Audible are the words “Grand Jury,” but the defendant shows no trace of concern. The impression presents itself, inescapably, that elements of Gerry’s success as a thief draw from this same sangfroid. Patton returns.
“English is willing to do a Misdemeanor False Identity charge.”
“Listen, they can go fine-tooth-combing over your past and find something to prosecute you for. Tax evasion, for instance. And they’ll probably do that.” The False Identity charge stems from Gerry’s use of social security information not his own for his trips to the Bellevue Emergency Room. As a misdemeanor, it carries a top-out sentencing number of one year, and an even greater likelihood that the Judge will order probation rather than prison time.
In our window seats at the Hipcup coffee shop on Chatham square, Gerry consumes a fried egg and sausage sandwich that he has peppered to an alarming extent by removing the top of the shaker to pour the coarse grains directly onto the meat. Spicy food has always been a favorite of his, especially now that multiple heart medications have dulled his appetite. According to Gerry’s doctors at Bellevue, a coronary bypass is not an option for him. His blood pressure has dropped and his heart functions have not improved. The next step is to install a fibrillator. But Gerry fears prison more than grim medical news.
“I did a liquor store with a partner and got caught. I ended up shaking, grand total of everything, seventeen months. Sing Sing. And all it taught me was that I really didn’t like it. And I never got caught again. Fifty-two years.”
A gloomy unconviviality descends over him as we stand on a Chinatown traffic island. The benefit of unspooling his life story these past few months does not outweigh his reluctance to reveal himself. Shaped as he was by the residue of Jewish street crime in Brownsville, his success as a thief was also sponsored by his habit of keeping his mouth shut.
After his next court date is cancelled, we meet at the Socrates Cafe, on Franklin and Hudson, a Greek diner where Gerry once worked.
“I started working with a guy, Barney Wolfson, who did house tricks. In other words, you have big cocktail parties in fancy areas on Long Island. I’d knock on the door in one of the better neighborhoods, forty, fifty miles out on the Island. I’d have a box of flowers or something, and underneath that, a gun. Once the door opened, three or four of these old-timers would push in behind me, looking like a commando raid. Everybody was put in a room and everybody was cleaned out. Purses, wallets, jewelry. The phones had been pulled to make ‘em walk to the next house to call the cops.
“From house tricks I graduated to payrolls. An older working guy comes to me. I’ll give you his nickname, you’ll know what he did: Milky. Yeah, a milkman. He had all kind of contacts and he himself was wonderful. Jewish married to an Italian lady. Normally, Friday was payday, and it was all cash. You go to the bank. We see you go, we see you come, we watch. The next week, there’s two of us, you’re on your way back to the office, we take the envelope from you. Somebody’s in front, somebody’s sticking something in your back. It could be a finger, whatever. We check your pockets to make sure there aren’t two envelopes because frequently there’ll be one envelope with the big bills and one with the singles, and if the guy’s quick thinking and you seem lame, he’ll hand you the singles envelope.”
On September 14, 2006, Gerry pleads guilty in Federal Court to Misdemeanor False Identity.
“Happy birthday,” says Judge Karas, upon discovering Gerry was born seventy years ago today.
“Thank you, sir.”
After answering queries regarding his competence to understand the proceedings here, Gerry willingly gives up his Constitutional Rights in order to enter a guilty plea to the following offense: That from February 2005 to March 2006, he used a stolen document, namely the social security card of a George Pearson, to obtain medical treatment at Bellevue Hospital.
The judge informs Gerry that he may contest his sentence, but not repeal his plea. A Joint Agreement letter handed up to the judge by prosecution and defense mandates that neither side will appeal or litigate any sentence which falls within the federal guidelines.
The judge then accepts Gerry’s Guilty plea.
Sentencing is scheduled for October 20th. “It would be monumentally foolish of you not to be here on that date,” says Judge Karas.
According to Gerry, he found the social security card on the floor of a diner on First Avenue where he was working. “I never used it, and then, just a year ago, I’m in the Emergency Room, they’re giving me medical treatment for my heart attack, but they want to collect whatever they can for Medicare. I give ‘em the information. And, of course, like any bureaucracy, it takes them months. Now I have another heart attack. I go back and they take the card again.
“I go back for the third time. And finally they figure out George Pearson’s been dead for 17 years and they’re treating him for a bad heart. At that point, I say, ‘Well, I’m getting tired of all this.’ I got a sense of humor, I’m laughing at them treating a dead man, but I say, ‘Let me get this over with. I’m dying anyway, let me take care of the legal aspect of this.’”
After informing his girlfriend what he was about to do, Gerry rationed out to his favorites at the flophouse most of his clothes, his tiny TV, and silver coin collection, which was worth about $50. Surrendering to the U.S. Marshalls, he was passed to the FBI, who took him to Beekman Hospital for a check-up, and then released him to his own recognizance.
One evening, Gerry shepherds me along Eighth Avenue in search of his old haunts. During one of his several returns to New York, he night-managed a bar on West 47th Street, the Club International. “I won’t introduce you as a writer, just as my friend. And you look Irish enough to be doing something wrong, which is important to them. They tend to be closemouthed, even with guys they did something with and hadn’t seen for six months. Maybe the guy got bagged, became a rat. It’s so goddamn prevalent now.”
Gerry is referring to the Westies, a crew of Hell’s Kitchen outlaws, largely dismantled in the late 1980’s by the criminal justice system. Although Gerry counted a few as friends, he kept his distance from the main cohort. “Piss off one,” he says, “thirty’d be after you. We used to call ‘em the Piranha Squad.”
Up and down the sidewalks flow an unsettling combination of old Eighth Avenue and new New York. Girls and young women, although not “working” in any police blotter sense, have tricked themselves out as hookers, and drinking age young men drift by in a Joe College haze. Among such amateurs, the more familiar street types move quickly and purposefully: not thugs exactly, but guys on a hustle. Snugged against the building line in journeys less specific are older, alcoholic men and women, provisionally homeless, except when barstoooled.
On 47th Street, a Hurley’s Saloon has been repatriated from Sixth Avenue and 50th Street to a building just east of the Hotel President, and for a moment Gerry thinks he may have discovered the lost tomb of Club International.
“The Club International was an action bar, and it wasn’t topless bullshit, which most of ‘em had enough sense not to want to be around. Vinnie, the newspaper guy, used to say, ‘This fucking place is so treacherous, you have a heart attack, your pockets’ll be empty before you hit the floor.’ There was just so much larceny going on. The boss’d hand you something every week, but it was, you know, ‘This is for your coffee,’ It wasn’t for you to live on, which was understood. It meant, ‘with the territory.’ You’re the manager, you’re supposed to hustle. I’m giving you little ‘viginettes’ here.
“That’s typical. You pronounce the word right. I understand the word from reading, but it’s not part of my speaking vocabulary. I mean, I appreciate you saying it right, but you have to understand about my education. Basically, I spent my life hanging out with assholes and being one of them. On a different interest level, a different reading level, but it was a compartmentalized life. And there’s conflicting shit in there because the books I loved, the heroes didn’t steal, so I had to make all these compromises with myself. And it’s not phony. Because in some ways I was just as dumb and just as vicious as I had to be, because that was part of me, too. But it wasn’t the essence of me.
“So what happens is I make contact with some people I know. I come back from New Orleans, sometime in the 1980’s, and I start night-managing this joint. In the bathroom I break up a drug deal gone wrong: hear the scream, bust in there, and without thinking, grab the arm of the guy with the gun, and throw both mutts out of the place. In other words, I’m ‘diplomatic,’ with a decent-sized pair of balls to back that up. Not a hothead shooting his mouth off.
“And in a short period of time, I become aware of who’s involved in what. The bookmakers come around, ‘Do you have any action here? We’ll take care of it.’ The drug dealers, they want to hang out, they’ll take care of me. I got a back room, a downstairs, and I want anybody who wants to do anything to understand that my religion does not preclude any of this. Only I don’t use those words with them. But I tell ‘em that a lot of cops from Midtown hang out here. And they say, ‘Yeah, we know ‘em from the street, so unless they’re strangers, we know ‘em better than you.’
“Some days ten guys walk in, and nine of ‘em are trying to sell fugazys: fakes. The gold’s not even melted down, just stolen; whether chain snatches or they went into a jewelry store. But you’ve got your testing kit you can buy on Canal Street. Two kinds of acid, a little black stone. You rub the gold on the stone. If the acid takes it off, it’s not gold. And you buy it by the pennyweight, twenty pennyweight to an ounce. But a lot of ‘em didn’t realize one pennyweight was actually two pennies. So you’re buying it for half.
“With the drug dealers, a guy would ask me, ‘You wanna hold something for me?’ Now I don’t want to hold anything for anybody, but at this point the guy is paying me rent for the privilege of selling. I don’t want the stuff on me, so I hide it well. You don’t put it behind the bar, you don’t put it in the kitchen, you put it with the garbage so you can say later, ‘I didn’t know it was there.’
“Bookmakers, same thing. For a cut, you let ‘em operate. With the credit card operators, they’d bring you everything at fifty percent. I’d take ten pairs of levis for $20, sell ‘em for $25. I just made $50 for standing here. So now truck drivers are finding out there’s action people in this bar and they’re bringing me $500 Italian leather jackets, and I’d buy ten, twenty at a time at $50 and $75 each. Cameras, I know nothing about, but I keep selling this dealer so many good ones, below used price, that he gives me his own buying guide.
“I even made connections with Greek skin guys, fur guys. There’s a certain type of thief, his specialty is walking into a busy place and stealing fur coats. Walks into a place, puts his coat on top of a fur, and when he takes his coat, takes both coats. Hatcheck places, he does it another way: the hatcheck girl, who doesn’t have this on her mind, she goes to the bathroom, she’s gotta pick up her skirt and sit down and this and that. He’s in and out in sixty seconds. He brings you a $5000 fur coat, he wants $500, you give him $300. You sell it for $1000, no questions asked. You made more money than the thief, but he’s happy, you’re happy, and the guy who bought it, rips out the lining, puts in a new one, and now he’s selling it for $2500, $3000.”
Outside Hurley’s, theatre-goers troop towards buses and indoor parking garages, or down side-streets no longer murderous in search of restaurants touted by dining guides. “While I was waiting for you, outside the flop,” Gerry marvels. “Six double-decker tourist buses. Ten minutes. Six buses. On the Bowery, 8:45 on a Thursday night.”
A month before his sentencing for Misdemeanor False Identity, Gerry agrees to another walk-around. We meet at Andrews House, a brick and masonry structure, circa 1909, now surrounded by scaffolding. Renovations planned by the new owner, Common Ground, include an elevator. In the narrow stairwell ascending from the street, one hundred years of weary male footsteps have dished empty puddles into the stone.
On Gerry’s floor, death has claimed every resident but four. At 5×7, these cubicles measure barely larger than prison cells. For the last foot of each interior wall, a cage-like grillwork extends to the ceiling. Originally, the mesh served to discourage “lush divers” from jumping rooms to rob passed-out fellow residents. Now, it provides air flow. Gerry’s cot occupies most of his cubicle. On a single shelf are crowded his grooming necessaries, a can of insect repellent, and his tiny reclaimed television set, earplugs attached.
Gerry confesses himself to be not one for housekeeping, which counts as an understatement. His room displays a species of schmutz more often encountered in camping environments. So weathered are his walls that the French blue paint has cracked and spalled like the impasto on ancient portraiture. Gladly impoverished, he seems to embody that equivalency in the male imagination between squalor and personal freedom. Freedom from all responsibility, even to the self.
“It’s quiet up here, and my room gets lots of sun. The house rule says you have to have headphones for any radios and TV’s, which is fine unless the guy’s too drunk to realize he’s forgotten to hook himself up. The way I ended up here, I was about to be evicted. A waiter friend tells me, ‘Try this place, $35 a week, leave whenever you want.’ I been here eight years.”
In a 19th century building on 26th Street and Broadway, Gerry ushers me into the Times Square Employment Agency. Blow-ups of street and mass transit maps decorate the walls. A game show beams down from the corner-mounted television set. Sitting at a desk like a grade school teacher, Niko, an employment agent, faces four Hispanic men. Silent and vacant-eyed, the four waiters occupy the same metaphysical plane as the non-ringing telephone.
“I was in between jobs and short on money, and my very first job, I got friendly with the manager of the place, who taught me a lot about the business. So many waiters have alcohol and drug problems. It’s work that suits them because they can do it for a month, go off on a bender, and then find another job. Because diners are all interchangeable. If you can work here, you can work across the street. Anyway, from that point on, I was more or less trapped in the diner business. Now, obviously, at various times in my life, I’ve had amounts of money that have precluded my need to work, but as I got older, and got comfortable in New York, I realized that, ‘My friend, as long as you can keep walking, you’ll never be without work.’ And you make decent money, and since you look like everybody else, you don’t need a mask, so just go to work and try to stay a little cool.’ And I did. Until I got sick.”
On 57th Street just west of Lexington, before the window display of a high-end jewelry store, Gerry falls into a species of trance. About eighteen years ago, early on a Saturday morning, he surprised a salesman and a woman customer by producing a .32 snubnose revolver from the pocket of his sports coat. Having cased the store, he knew the location of the exit buzzer and knew which pieces of jewelry were most valuable. Because the woman was carrying a purse, he knew she was a customer, not a salesperson; and also that a man in a sports coat, removing jewelry from the display window, would not appear to a passerby as anything out of the ordinary.
Directed to the rear of the store, the salesman and the customer were instructed to lie face down and count to fifty. To forestall pursuit, mention was made of a car waiting outside. The sports coat Gerry wore featured pockets wide and deep enough to admit his revolver to one pocket and the jewelry to the other. The egress buzzer was pushed and out Gerry went. To the corner, where, indeed, a cab was waiting.
The value of the jewelry, Gerry recalls, amounted to about $25,000, for which he received between $10,000 and $15,000 from a fence. “Usually when you put people down in the back, you don’t get much of a discussion. But occasionally, you’ll get some hothead who disagrees with you, and, him, you have to smack. You know: handle and barrel of the gun to the side of the head. When he thinks about it later, it comes to him how lucky he was not to get shot.”
Gerry now indicates items in the store window. “That necklace of small set diamonds, that’s the best piece. That one, and the Art Deco brooch over there. So? You wanna go inside?”
We are buzzed into the jewelry store by a young salesman, who removes, at Gerry’s request, the 1888 diamond necklace from the window display. Gerry and the young man then discuss the differences between rose cut, mine cut, European cut and Modern cut diamonds. Effectively, this covers the history of gem presentation from the 16th to the 21st centuries, and ranges from stones chiseled to a point; to flat-faced designs; to beveled styles, and finally, to the many-faceted sparkly diamonds of today. On the way out, Gerry asks me did I notice where the exit button was?
“Outer door, right hand side, not quite waist high.”
He nods, pleased.
“It never bothered me, casing a joint, asking to see specific pieces, and then coming back later to rob the place. And I’ll tell you why. Salesmen are trained to remember faces, but after a hold-up they run into problems with descriptions. You’d be shocked how many times they took me as Hispanic or Italian, which just shows how much prejudice there is still against those groups.
“For jewelry stores, if no one gets hurt, the cops don’t dust for prints. Blood means they take prints, but mainly there’s too much else for them to do. Anyway, I use that Liquid Bandage stuff. Comes in a jar, with a little brush. You can get it in any drugstore. It’s for people who don’t want to put a bandage on who have a cut. The other side of it is: no more fingerprints. By the way, we could have easily robbed that place. You know that, don’t you?”
From the corner of 56th Street and Lexington, Gerry points out the location of a former shoe store he once held up. First asking to see a pair of 9 ½ shoes, he pulled out a revolver; abstracted $1500 from the register, and then helped himself to two pairs of $200 shoes in his size.
On 55th Street and Lexington, we stand beside a hair salon Gerry robbed. “This place, you had to be buzzed in, but not out. The way I cased it was I grabbed an envelope out of a trashcan on the corner and pretended I’m making a delivery. I get buzzed in, walk downstairs and take a look at the set-up before I ask is this such-and-such an address, which is actually two or three doors down. The receptionist points me where I’m going, so now I can see whether I gotta be buzzed out. A couple days later, I hit the place and score.”
We head for the Waldorf, where Gerry once took down a jewelry store on the mezzanine level for $100,000 worth of gems. “A lot more security now, but that particular day, there’s only two salespeople. By the way, you never take an escalator and your never, ever run. Next day in the paper I see the guy claiming a $1 million loss. I had half a mind to contact him and ask him to chip off a little of his haul. See, the way it works is: let’s say I made off with three pieces. The owner or the salesmen, before the cops get there, pockets a couple others, and says five got stolen. The insurance goes up, but the sale of a few valuable pieces more than makes up for that. Sometimes even the cops will lift a piece.”
If Gerry had been nabbed for any of these robberies, his sentence would have been turbocharged with his other crimes, so he needed to create no more than a ripple in the day’s consciousness; needed to move quickly, but not too quickly; to be utterly receptive to omens of failure or success; to be smooth in going about the physical business of producing, shielding and emphasizing the gun; to be measured in departing the location without attracting sidewalk notice, or pursuit from those he had robbed.
“By the time I reached my 30’s, I had perfected my craft. I had become such a good actor that my acting and personality did the same thing as a gun.
“For instance, I’m walking on Madison Avenue, smoking a thousand cigarettes, and I look upstairs and there’s a beauty parlor. I try the door. Do you have to be buzzed in? No. I walk one flight up and see the door just opens and I think, ‘Well, access is very simple.’ And now I check to see how many policemen are in the area, and there aren’t that many. So I think, ‘They open about ten o’clock, and I gotta give ‘em time to take in as much money as possible,’ so I walk over to Central Park and sit down on a bench.
“A jewelry store, you do it on a day that’s raining because there’s fewer people involved. Beauty parlor, it has to be a nice day, otherwise the ladies aren’t going. So you wait till five, six o’clock. You’re dressed decently, with a sports jacket, slacks. The money’s in, and the ladies are all leaving because it’s gonna be supper soon and they’re meeting their lovers, or their husbands and children. And you walk in and you say in a nasty voice, ‘Okay, all you assholes. Get in the fucking back.’
“One place I went to, I still remember, I’m taking the money and I see a lady, she’s twenty feet away, she’s in the chair, she does this with the ring. It sounds ridiculous. I’m not trying to portray myself as a nice guy, because I’m not a nice guy. But I didn’t have the heart to take her ring. Maybe the ring was worth $10,000, maybe it had just sentimental value, but obviously it meant something to her, because they were all scared, and here she is pulling it off her finger and sticking it under her leg.”
On a warm night in early October, we take a cab uptown from Andrews House to McQuaid’s, a Hell’s Kitchen bar on Eleventh Avenue. At tremendous volume, the first game of the Yankee-Detroit 2006 playoff blares from four plasma TV screens. The customer catch tonight consists of half a dozen UPS workers from the depot down the street; and beer deliverymen, with key bunches on their belts: mechanical aptitude guys, not crooks, stealing a few moments from wife and kids before heading back across whichever river home.
“Where did you keep the cash? From the diners and the scores?”
“Depended on where I was living. Some places, like Andrews House, are safer than others. A lot of those guys are pretty old.”
“Yeah, you’re kind of Prom King at Andrews.”
“Otherwise, you gotta keep it on you at all times. Most cities have better flops than here, but if I walked into a place full of junkies and small-time thieves, I’d walk out of there and find somewhere else.”
“So how come you came back here to stay?”
“I was living in Tampa and not loving it at all, and missing my girlfriend, to be honest with you. And missing New York, too. I’d been nervous about my situation when I first became a fugitive, but then I reached a point where, you know, ‘What are you worried about?’ The FBI’s got so much to do, the advantage is with you, really, not them.
“The average guy gets caught because he can’t break his life patterns. And as jerky as I’ve been in a thousand ways, I could walk away from almost anything and do something else. I could go to work in your office, doing some bullshit job, or I could go out and dig ditches for you. And if I had to, I’d wash dishes. And if I had to, I’d pick oranges. You want me to drive for you? I could do a million menial things, but finally what I figured out in my 50’s, after I had closed down my stealing habit, was that I was not the guy who was gonna keep pulling scores. I realized I didn’t have to do this to be happy. I guess you could call it growing up.
“Look, you can rob a million people, but it’s the money you want, and you’re gonna enjoy it, hopefully. It’s not just getting over. You wanna say to your girlfriend, ‘Let’s go out to Montauk for a week,’ ‘Let’s eat in the restaurants and catch a Broadway show.’ And you’d take the lady to this, that, and the other thing. I mean it’s just so great to have a clear head, now and then.
“And I spent the money foolishly in many cases. Checking into the Barbizon Plaza, asking for a room overlooking Central Park in the wintertime, so we could look at all the beautiful lights on the trees around Tavern on the Green. And I know at the rate I’m spending, in a month I’ll be out looking for scores again, but it’s like when a guy gets married and goes on his honeymoon. Is he worried that in two weeks, he’s back at work? No, he’s on his honeymoon, he’s having a party. And I’m going on honeymoons every six months.”
We drift out to Eleventh Avenue, in search of a more promising bar, but end up looking for a cab. October 20th, the day of Gerry’s sentencing, is only two weeks away. “God willing, we’re lucky and we make a few dollars on this thing of yours, Tom. I tend to think positive. And there’s someone I care about very much. She’s no kid, but she’s younger than me. I want everything going to her, including, if there’s any advantage to it, I’ll marry the lady.”
As we motor down the West Side Highway, Gerry changes his destination from Andrews House to the corner of Canal and Mott. Promising we’ll talk next week, he climbs out of the cab. I agree to the cabbie’s suggestion that we double back, and turning down Mott we soon pass Gerry, headed south, destination unknown. Never before have I seen him walk so fast.
On Thursday, October 19, Donna Kaufman, a social worker at Andrews House, calls to tell me that Gerry died last night, in NYU Hospital, of a heart attack brought on by pneumonia. The weather had turned cold over the previous weekend, and when Gerry came downstairs Monday afternoon, his condition was such that an EMS ambulance had been summoned. Two days later, at about 10:00 at night, as he had so many times professionally, Gerald Geller, unaccompanied and unobserved, slipped from the scene.
One of Gerry’s cousins decides his body should be donated to science. Neither Ms. Kaufman, who suggested putting up flyers in Murray Hill, Gerry’s girlfriend’s neighborhood, nor the cousin, Arlene Botter, have any idea how to reach the girlfriend, or even know what her name is.
On a bright Wednesday in October, Gerry’s fellow Andrews House residents gather in the dayroom around an array of snacks. Several note Gerry’s detailed knowledge of the racing game, his extensive vocabulary and status as a higher authority on trivia questions. Opening remarks by Shari Siegal, the director of Andrews House, include a reminder of how important it is for residents to supply staff members the names of those to contact in case of an emergency. Now she brings the memorial to a close. “Before I start to cry, please eat,” she says. Gazing at her shrinking-by-the-day assemblage, she adds, “Thank you very much for coming.”
I remember what Gerry told me once. When circumstances, or the deep thrust of his desire to steal took hold and he needed to perform “a piece of work,” he would empty his pockets of wallet, apartment keys, loose change, even folding money, all except for carfare. And out the door he would go, leaving anything behind that could identify him.
Thomas Carney has written for Esquire, Rolling Stone, The New York Times Magazine, Los Angeles Magazine and Frontline (PBS), among other publications. He lives in New York City.