A couple of months ago, the papers were full of the familiar suspects, the Gigantes and Gottis, the whole Genovese-Gambino crew. They were doing what they usually do at the waterfront, running their scams, their shakedowns. The Feds came in on cue, handing down their 68-count indictments, making busts, setting trial dates. This time, the waterfront would be cleaned up once and for all, the Feds said.
This is, of course, what cops like Dewey, Morgenthau, and Giuliani have always said about the waterfront, where the bad guys have included Lucky Luciano, Johnny "Cockeye" Dunn, Tough Tony Anastasia, Mickey Bowers, King Joe Ryan, and any number of Westies, who liked to do "the Houdini," in which they disappeared bodies into the Hudson currents, the hands and feet never to be seen again except by little old lady beachcombers on Sandy Hook.
"Fifty years later, and it's the same," notes Budd Schulberg, who wrote the book -- or at least the movie -- On the Waterfront, which includes a young, beautiful Marlon Brando in a taxi bemoaning the destiny of "a one-way ticket to Palookaville" when he could have had "class" and been "a contendah." Amused that the Post ran a photo of Lee J. Cobb, who played the crooked Johnny Friendly in the 1954 Oscar winner, alongside pictures of the real-life gangsters, Budd, who turned 88 last March, keeps up with the docks. "Something about the harbor, the transfer point between land and water," he says. "Things get lost, and found. The potential for thievery is endless."
On this particular sunny morning -- more than 60 years since establishing the name Sammy Glick as an onomatopoeic synonym for sweaty, unchecked ambition in his all-time classic of Hollywood backbiting What Makes Sammy Run?, 45 years beyond the prophetic political drama A Face in the Crowd -- Budd arrives at Chelsea Piers looking his usual spiffy self. His once-dense boychik curls now snow-white but still amply covering his well-tanned head, Budd, fond of a nautical aspect, is attired in a natty green blazer and cream ascot, with neatly creased slacks to match. A recently repaired Achilles tendon has slowed his footwork somewhat, but he's coping stylishly, sporting a smart walnut walking stick with a gold-plated bird of prey at the knob. Father of two children in their early twenties, Budd, who doesn't need glasses to watch a prizefight, even from the upper rows, says he hears "okay," and still frets over making deadlines for $1,000 articles, is clearly a man who carries his punch into the late rounds.
Back in the early fifties, often in the inspiring company of Jesuit priest Father Corridan, who was waging a bare-knuckle crusade of the spirit to root out un-Christian malfeasance from the gangster "pistol" unions, Schulberg obsessively covered the waterfront, attending every session of Senator Estes Kefauver's hearings into criminal activities of the International Longshoremen's Association. This was before international cargo flights came to Idlewild Airport, before the invention of container shipping, back when 30,000 longshoremen manned 1,800 working piers, servicing 10,000 oceangoing boats a year, and everything was done by hand and hook -- when New York was, as Lee J. Cobb says in the movie, "the fattest harbor in the world," where nothing went in or out "without us taking our cut."
"It's hard to conceive of the power the ILA had. Every time a ship came in, it was a drama," Schulberg says, walking past the former site of Piers 54 to 62, where the Grace and U.S. Lines ships once docked. "They worked in gangs, a bunch of tough guys in undershirts. If a ship had perishable goods, they could let that stuff rot. The smell never went away. The payoffs were tremendous. Thousands, hundreds of thousands per shipload. This was the fifties! The union ran the shape-up, they said who could work, who couldn't, who'd make money, who wouldn't. ILA local 791, which had the piers from 14th Street to 23rd, was called the Mother Local. If you controlled 791, you controlled the West Side; if you controlled the West Side, you controlled the harbor -- that meant you controlled the East Coast, the Atlantic, and everything else. Those were the stakes."
Our visit was the first time he'd really been over to the current sports-and-shopping-mall version of the Chelsea piers, Budd noted before heading for lunch at Moran's, the erstwhile bucket of blood where the Westies rolled the head of the shylock Ruby Stein down the bar like a bowling ball. Not that Chelsea Piers was that alien. People were obviously making money here, or trying. The desperate lure of lucre and identity, the violent striving, the flush of success, the nagging creep of conscience, the often failed attempt to salvage decency in a corrupt world -- these had always been his core concerns, Budd acknowledges. Certainly the new Chelsea Piers, with its parade of Cadillac Escalades, was not devoid of these constants. Besides, there were memories here, even beyond the years spent with Father Corridan.
"Look! There's where my father worked," Budd says, peering at the series of giant photos that adorn the Piers walls. Beside a shot of the Titanic survivors disembarking at old Pier 54 was a shot of the building on West 26th Street that once housed Famous Players, the movie company founded by Adolf Zukor, a former penny-arcade operator on 14th Street. Before moving his family to Hollywood in 1918, where he would help start Paramount and become one of the original moguls, B. P. Schulberg, Budd's father, was Zukor's No. 1 guy, writing features for Fatty Arbuckle and the virginal Mary Pickford, whom B.P. would name "America's Sweetheart." (Pickford once gave Budd a fluffy blanket for his birthday.) Famous Players remains one of Budd's earliest memories: from the carriage ride down from the family apartment on Riverside Drive as a stammering young boy in his sailor suit, to the cigar smoke curling inside the former livery-stable studio, to the yellow-haired actress sobbing incomprehensibly on command. What struck him most, he says, was "how many people there were standing around in the dark watching so few in the light."