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Jewish World Review /Dec. 11, 1998 /22 Kislev, 5759


Mugger Irving’s the King Wolf

LET ME INTRODUCE YOU to Irving the Wolf, the marquee character of a bedtime story I told my child, MUGGER III, each night while on holiday recently in Puerto Rico.

Back in 1975, I traveled in Europe for a month with my oldest brother, his wife and two children. My niece and nephew were eight and five and my ticket to a wonderful tour of Scandinavia, France, Germany and Holland was to be the nanny. I was in college at the time, 20 years old, and residing in Baltimore, subsiding on wages from a vendor’s job at the Orioles’ Memorial Stadium.

Living it up in swanky hotels, drinking the finest wines and beers, as well as visiting world-class museums and castles, was a welcome switcheroo from dinners at Polock Johnny’s and arguing with a crooked union official about whether I’d be selling popcorn or Cokes at an O’s home game.

Anyway, each night, as I put the kids to sleep, I told them an ongoing story about Irving, a benevolent creature who was half-wolf, half-man, and spoke in a language that only Uncle Rusty could decipher. Don’t know how I pulled it off, but both Abbie and Cal bought the fable and as I drank the beer of each country --- Heineken in Amsterdam, Pilsner Urquel on the Rhine, Carlsberg in Denmark --- the story grew more and more fantastic.

Like Irving climbing the Eiffel Tower and spitting at tourists; Irving saving my skin from a knife-wielding thief at the Tivoli Gardens. It all got out of hand, but as the suds went down my gullet, my imagination went into overdrive and the kids nearly barfed from laughing so much. I’ve rarely had as much fun.

One day, while my brother and his wife were having a two-star meal in Copenhagen, the three of us (plus the invisible Irving) were at a sausage joint that doubled as a poor man’s casino. I was so entranced by the slot machines that I bought the kids dogs and fries and had my nephew ferry back beers to my station. Which was quite a sight: a four-year-old taking two beers at a time to his uncle who was striking out at the slots. I was on a losing streak at one point and so Abbie said, “Uncle Rusty, I feel lucky. Give me a krone.” Whereupon she won about $100 with one swipe of the handle.

The Irving stories were a constant throughout the trip and got more outrageous; by the end of our sojourn he was part of the family.

So, in San Juan, Irving made a comeback. I told MUGGER III all about our adventures of 23 years ago and he was transfixed. Hugging his Baby Dil doll, he wouldn’t go to sleep until I got to a “good” part, like Irving scaling the fire escape of Hotel Meurice in Paris or fending off another burglar. Junior just rolled his eyes at the perfidy of it all; he watched Doctor Dolittle on the tube and I had to bribe him with Sprites not to clue his little brother in on the subterfuge. But our youngest son is the sweetest soul in the world and believed every word; he especially liked the part where Irving dressed in a Savile Row suit--with his tail pinned back--so he could travel back to the States with us. He made me promise to keep up the Irving stories on every trip we take in the future, which, of course, will be my pleasure.

There's always a snafu at the beginning of a vacation, but while usually it’s the fault of an airline--in my case, Continental’s the most frequent culprit, since we fly out of Newark--this time it was the Ritz-Carlton where, upon arrival, we had to wait more than three hours to occupy our two-bedroom suite.

Yes, it was busy the day before Thanksgiving, and there was an excuse about the computer system being on the fritz, but when I saw other customers come and go, keys in hand, after we’d arrived, I saw stars and acted like the stereotypical New Yorker Iowans like to mock.

The meek receptionist finally found our room--but five minutes later we were back in the lobby, since it was a single for four people. I parked Junior and MUGGER III on the marble counter and said, “Listen, Buster, I’ve waited long enough. Get this straightened out, summon your manager or these two boys are going to jump out of their skins and bite your sorry behind!”

He disappeared for half an hour, but finally delivered our preconfirmed suite.

Once the bell captain deposited our bags, I immediately called our travel agent--Marv Kadesh (908-754-4449)--and had him ring the Ritz and administer a sound reaming to the manager. Voila! A cheese plate suddenly arrived, t-shirts for the boys, champagne and a call from the hotel’s top exec on the premises promising no further screwups.

The following morning the kids woke us up, angry that their favorite cartoons were in Spanish. Due to the time difference, it took an eternity for the English version of Pokemon to hit the tube on WB-11. By that time, they’d been stuffed with pancakes and apple juice and were relatively quiet while I watched CNN on another set. I couldn’t escape that darn Rudy Giuliani.

Commenting about Spider-Man deflating during the Thanksgiving parade, that card Rudy, decked out in a Yanks jacket, said, “I guess he had too much to drink last night.” Just shut, Mr. Mayor and senator-to-be.

(What a nightmare that campaign promises to be: With Bobby Kennedy Jr., an admirable man, I think, and by far the brightest of that family’s third generation, passing on the race, you can’t escape the horrid speculation that Hillary Clinton will make a run against Rudy for Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s seat. What chutzpah. Even RFK, whose clan at least had a summer home in New York, was called a carpetbagger by angry New Yorkers in 1964.

And this was less than a year after his brother was murdered. And now Hillary has her sights on the seat. I think it’s just momentary buzz; with all the baggage from her Rose Law Firm days, not to mention the White House, she’d be savaged by the press and will opt out.)

The Ritz, after the initial difficulty, a fine hotel, with prompt room service, a terrific pool and a beach, if not as pristine as that of Nevis, still pounding with a surf that enchanted the boys as we built sand castles with moats and bridges. Every day there were two or three rainbows to behold, vibrant with distinct greens, reds, yellows and blues, the kind you see in New York maybe once a year, only after a violent midday rainstorm.

The boys made friends with other kids, almost all from the Tri-State environs, and I ran into an old friend, Cynthia, whom I hadn’t seen in years. One group we commiserated with at the check-in desk was from Queens; when they asked where we lived and I said near the Holland Tunnel, the twentysomething woman said, “Oh my God, Tribeca, how cool!”

We chatted briefly with a couple from the Upper West Side, but when they claimed they’d never read NYPress, I dismissed them as Michael Moore acolytes and kept my distance. Mrs. Mugger also had to get rough with a crusty lady on the beach who complained about Junior digging holes in the sand too close to her umbrella-chaise lounge setup. “What’s the matter with you,” my wife gruffly asked, defending her pup. “Don’t you like kids?” That shut the hag up and she moved far, far away.

Before we set off for San Juan I told the boys that I’d be speaking only in Spanish once we arrived. This was sort of a whopper, since my college Espanol is shaky at best--“Pig-Espanol,” Mrs. M said. “Muy Pig-Espanol,” my brother Gary added over the phone--but I had a lot of fun teasing them. I’d say, “Andale, Senor Junior; Ay caramba, Senor MUGGER Tres!” and they’d laugh and tell me to knock it off. One night, after three hours of lollygagging by the pool, the boys were in the bath and I went on a Spanish roll; Junior said to my wife, “Mom, I think Dad really needs to get back to New York. He’s ready for the loony bin.”

Saturday afternoon, while the boys played with a lovely sitter named Marisa, and Mrs. M was lounging at the pool reading The White Spider, I ventured into Old San Juan, hoping to see the 17th-century Spanish architecture and maybe find a restaurant that would serve fare a bit more exotic than the Ritz. (Actually, unlike most hotels, the Ritz’s grub was pretty good: arroz con pollo, minced beef stuffed in fried plantains and delectable papaya.) The traffic was clogged, and once I alighted from the cab I was just one of a mob of mostly American tourists, roaming the streets and venturing into the souvenir shops that sold Caribbean knickknacks for dirt-cheap prices. I bought San Juan-manufactured piggy banks for the boys, a rasta voodoo doll for Mike Gentile, religious icons for John Strausbaugh and Katha Kearns and then kicked around like a carefree gent.

The buildings were indeed gorgeous; various shades of pastels, with floor-to-ceiling windows and lace railings like you see in New Orleans. Only problem was, the first floors were all inhabited by the likes of Hooters, Hard Rock Cafe, McDonald’s, Burger King, Foot Locker, Wendy’s and KFC.

I spent a scant two hours in Old San Juan.

Another afternoon found Mrs. M and me in the Ritz’s casino, which, not surprisingly, was nearly empty at 1 p.m. While she fiddled at the blackjack table, I had my ups and downs playing roulette, annoying the young workers with my naivete, but coming out slightly ahead. It was those damn slot machines that made our 45 minutes in the smoky den a financial downturn; I just couldn’t resist slipping dollar after dollar into the poker machines, and after I’d blown $100 we called it quits, much to the merriment of the bored crew waiting for the high rollers to arrive. I’m a sucker for vices of many kinds.

Fortunately for my Citibank account, gambling isn’t one of them.

JWR contributor "Mugger" is the editor-in-chief and publisher of New York Press. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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©1998, Russ Smith