Thick As Thieves: A Brother, a Sister--a True Story of Two Turbulent Lives

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9780805087673: Thick As Thieves: A Brother, a Sister--a True Story of Two Turbulent Lives

"Geng's memoir . . . does much to restore integrity to the genre of the addict memoir as presented in classics by William S. Burroughs, Hunter S. Thompson, and Jerry Stahl."―The New York Times Book Review

Steve Geng―thief, addict, committed member of Manhattan's criminal semi-elite―was a rhapsody in blue, all on his own. Women had a tendency to crack his head open. His sister? Also unusual: Veronica Geng wrote brilliantly eccentric pieces for The New Yorker, hung with rock stars and Pulitzer Prize winners, threw the occasional typewriter, fled intimacy. They were parallel universes, but when they converged, it was . . . memorable.

Spanning decades of unresolved personal drama and rebellion, Steve Geng's memoir, Thick as Thieves, is the story of their lives, the bond between them, and all the things they shared. This is a memoir about two siblings who loved each other (sometimes), the thrill of the shoplift, and the power of the written word, which will lift your spirits, kick you in the shins, and help you remember the person who understood you the most. Geng has made a lot of mistakes in his life. Thick as Thieves may just make up for them.

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About the Author :

Steve Geng grew up an army brat in Philadelphia with his sister, the late Veronica Geng, who wrote and edited for The New Yorker and died in 1997. He attended high schools in Heidelberg, Germany, and Orléans, France. He has been a thief, a saloon keeper, and an actor, and is an active member of Manhattan's recovery community. Thick as Thieves is his first book.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved. :

Prologue
 
The Big Rift
 
One of these days that kid's gonna get his tit in a wringer. It was the voice of an old, familiar ghost, and it spoke to me as I stumbled through waist-high drifts in the blizzard of '96. According to newscasters, this was the worst snowstorm to hit New York in decades. Parked cars on Tenth Avenue were visible only as little bumps on the white, silent landscape. And still it came down, big wind-whipped flakes that nipped my cheeks and scrambled my senses. I wasn't exactly homeless, but some instinct had been driving me through the streets, hunched into the storm. There was little refuge back where I'd come from.
 
Kid's gonna get his tit in a wringer.
 
The ghost, of course, was my father. He'd loved that expression, and I could still picture the baleful look in his eye as he snapped it at my mother whenever I pissed him off. Dad had been a career army guy with a hard-knocks take on life and a sideways rap on everybody, especially his kids. My sister and I rarely took anything he said seriously. I'd even enjoyed his rants, anticipating him like I did the guy on The Honeymooners with his zoom-right-to-the-moon routine.
 
Suddenly a sign loomed up out of the whiteness: emergency room. Don't know why I hadn't thought of it weeks ago. I stepped into St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital, glad for a timely reprieve.
 
In the warm ER waiting room I found a place to sit down and a dog-eared copy of yesterday's Daily News. The pain in my thawing hands suggested frostbite and my wheezing was probably a bad case of pneumonia. There was an unexplained gash on my forehead and my face was crosshatched with shaving nicks that refused to heal. I looked like I'd been in a street brawl. Booze and drugs, once my greatest comforts, had been sending me into seizures, and I couldn't remember the last time I'd eaten a meal.
 
Don't get me wrong. I'm not the type to sit around and boohoo. It was a damned good run I'd had at life on the edge. I'd savored my legit days as an actor with the same relish I'd got from a good score, or singing in a jailhouse doo-wop group. But as the bookies say, I'd lost my good looks. Lady Luck had jumped ship many moons ago.
 
After an hour or so (I was in no hurry) a nurse came by with a clipboard and asked me what the trouble was. The butts in the ashtray were just starting to look good when she came back and told me I was getting admitted. They put me in a ninth-floor room with a view of the snow-laden ramparts of John Jay College. Laid out on a bed of crispy-fresh linen were clean pajamas and one of those little robes that go on ass-backward. In the bathroom were brand-new toilet articles wrapped in sterile plastic. Food was delivered right to my bedside! I mumbled my thanks to Jesus, Mary, and Rudy Giuliani and passed out.
 
It might've been hours or days later, as I drifted in and out of consciousness, when a doctor in a white coat and necktie came in followed by two female backups. His eyes were riveted on a clipboard.
 
"So what's the skinny, Doc?"
 
"Mr. Gang?"
 
"Geng, as in Genghis Khan."
 
"Chinese?"
 
"Alsatian."
 
The two backups started fidgeting and the doctor scribbled something on his clipboard: responses vague, evasive. I couldn't actually see what he was writing, but a certain number of institutional interviews will sensitize your radar.
 
"According to the tests, Mr. Geng, you've developed thrombocytopenia. What that means is that you have practically no platelets."
 
"Christ, what the hell are those?"
 
"Platelets," he said, "are cells that make your blood clot. Your body's inability to produce them explains why those cuts on your face won't heal. You also have chronic pneumonia, are severely dehydrated and malnourished, so you'll have to remain here until we . . ."
 
He rambled on, but I stopped listening after I heard you'll have to remain here. Fine with me--anything to put off the rumble with Jack Frost. Just before the doctor and his flunkies filed out he asked, "Do you have any family that you'd like me to notify?"
 
Mom and Dad were long gone, and Ronnie had been having her own troubles since losing her job at the New Yorker. She was always supportive whenever I cleaned up and went legit, but seeing me once again in dubious condition was the last thing she needed. "I got a sister. I'll call her myself, later."
 
"Give me her name and number anyway. Standard procedure."
 
After they were gone I lay there for hours, staring out at snow flurries blowing off rooftops. Finally I made the call, got my sister's answering machine, and left a message about being in the hospital with some kind of a thrombo thing. Feeling suddenly expansive, I placed another call to my main gazain Smitty, told him to bring me some smokes and a little taste on the down low.
 
Next day they arrived almost simultaneously, Veronica hard on the heels of Smitty, who wasn't the sort you want to introduce your sister to. Smitty had done a bid in Sing Sing for a homicide when he was still in his teens, or as he put it, he'd "gone upstate with a body." He and I had blundered into the middle of a gang fight once and I saw him shank a guy--stuck homeboy in the chest and strolled off cool as you please. Smitty had a little sailor's roll when he walked, and when he blew into my room that day in an army field jacket and his perpetual jailhouse fade, I was delighted to see him.
 
"Smitty."
 
"Hey, cuz."
 
"You straight?"
 
He patted the cargo pocket on his field jacket, sat down, and immediately began helping himself to my lunch.
 
Before I had a chance to see what Smitty had brought I looked up and there was my sister, wearing an old tweed topcoat I gave her once when I was flush. She was standing in the doorway, her brown hair limp from the snow, reluctant to cross the threshold. I looked for that jaunty smile of hers, but her delicate features were etched with deep worry lines, and her chin was tucked into the turned-up coat collar.
 
Ron's reaction to sickness and tragedy had always been unpredictable, so bedside manner was not her strong point. Still, she was my big sis, and though her literary life was mostly a mystery to me, I'd always found in her eyes the same girl who'd watched over me since the cradle. Her face never seemed to age at all; beneath the surface there was a tug-of-war going on, ever since we were kids, that gave her features an air of gleeful devilishness. At that moment, though, she looked more frail and downhearted than I'd ever seen her. Her face was drawn with exhaustion, and her expression hardened as she took in Smitty.
 
"Ronnie, jeez. My friend here showed up two minutes before you did."
 
Smitty had commandeered the only chair, but with something strangely approaching chivalry he stood up, cheeks bulging with my macaroni and cheese, and offered the seat to my sister.
 
Veronica nodded icily, waving off the chair. "Thanks," she said, "but I really can't stay. I just popped by to see if you're alright." There was a terrible weariness in her voice.
 
"I'm fine, Ron. Really. They got great doctors." Suddenly I wanted to cheer her up. "I should be outta here in a couple days. But it's great to see you. Nobody ever comes to visit in here."
 
Ronnie raised her eyebrows and tilted her head to indicate Smitty, standing over my lunch tray, reeking of booze and examining a plastic bowl of Jell-O with unfeigned interest. Our eyes met for a moment and her expression seemed to say, Well, you chose your life so don't blame me. And then her gaze drifted away.
 
I'd seen that faraway look a million times--a wry half smile with her eyes focused on some remote, inner landscape. It was her knee-jerk reaction to pointless anecdotes, belligerent fathers, and the harebrained dilemmas of her younger brother. That distant, dreamy look of hers brought uncomfortable discussions to screeching halts, signaling her retreat into a private place where it was safe, and probably lonely too.
 
I fumbled for my robe on the back of the chair and knocked over the IV drip. When I finally got it straightened out I looked back up and Ronnie was gone.
 
"That's a cryin' shame," said Smitty, wagging his head philosophically. "Sis just rounded on you like a jailhouse con. By the way, cuz, you want this Jell-O or what?"
 
I should've told Smitty to scram when Ronnie showed up. Maybe there was something she was hiding that she might have confided if he hadn't been there. Later, that scene kept looping through my head. I couldn't believe I'd sat there and let her walk out on me, my sister, perhaps the only person in the universe I really cared about.
 
You have to understand: Ronnie and I had survived growing up together as army brats, with friends and schools left in the lurch each time we moved to a new locale. Mundane questions like, "Where are you from?" tripped us up, sent our minds reeling back through army bases and foreign cities glimpsed only briefly as our father's military career shuttled us about the globe like gypsies. It was a blessing and a curse growing up that way, but it forged a bond between us that I'd always deemed unbreakable, no matter how divergent our lives became.
 
She was my hero, full of endearing contradictions--so fragile that she seemed to go through life teetering on the brink of tears, yet she remained the most resourceful and self-reliant person I'd ever known. I watched her go from playing fag hag at The Hip Bagel and the Bleecker St. Tavern, to writing stories for every rag from Ms. and Cosmo to the New Republic, until she finally found a home in the fiction department of the New Yorker. I saw her get her heart broken in one ill-advised romance after another, then recycle them into funny stories and become one of the best humorists and editors of her day.
 
She, in turn, saw me get flattened by an endless string of calamities, starting with my first broken arm (at age seven) right up through the time some girlfriend slipped a Mickey into my coffee and torched me with lighter fluid. I had such a penchant for trouble that at one point my parents told me I wasn't welcome in their home anymore. But my sister remained a steady beacon, showing me where the real world was whenever I drifted too far astray. All our lives we drove each other into fits of laughter with our takes on people and the universe around us.
 
But after all those years of Ron and me against the world, I'd begun to take her for granted. When push came to shove, for the umpteenth time, I turned my head for an instant and bam--she rounded on me. It's not like I'd meant to betray her. It's just the way the deal went down. Shortly after that visit to St. Luke's, she cut off all communication with me.
 
From the hospital I moved into a residence in Chelsea that provided subsidized housing for people on disability. Six months went by and no Ronnie. She wouldn't answer my calls, letters, or pick up the phone.
 
One day I went over and rang her doorbell for five minutes. When nobody answered I sat on the stoop next door for hours hoping to catch sight of her. Probably a good thing I missed her, though. I looked like hell and was still holding on to the booze and drugs. Lurking outside those elegant brownstones on the Upper East Side I felt like an alien. The neighbors were giving me nervous looks, and when a cop strolled up I decided it was time to split.
 
She must be alright, I told myself, or I would've heard something.
 
Six months turned into nine, then a year. Sometimes I called her number just to hear her voice on her answering machine, but I soon gave that up. Hearing her message over and over hurt too much. I searched my room for phone numbers of people she was close to, tried 411 but couldn't remember last names or spellings and had ended up barking curses into the phone. Many of her friends were famous writers and critics. Not only was I baffled about how to get in touch with those people, but I dreaded the idea of approaching them. What would I say--that my sister wouldn't return my calls? She'd worked at the New Yorker for almost twenty years. When she lost her job it seemed like she'd lost her family, her friends, and her only home. In the end I figured she was overwhelmed by her own problems and just couldn't deal with mine anymore. I certainly had other distractions as my health continued to plummet.
 
Before I knew it, it was Christmas Eve 1997, a year and several months after the hospital. I found myself slumped in an armchair in the common room of the residence, absentmindedly watching a rerun of a football game. Next to the television was an artificial tree with lights, tinsel, and Christmas balls sprayed with frosting. I had five bucks for cigarettes, and in five days my disability check would arrive. I was grateful for these amenities. Far as I knew, there weren't any good retirement plans for thieves.
 
The holidays always made me think of my family, and images of them flickered at the edge of my peripheral vision. . . . Dad in his favorite armchair, hair slicked back with Vitalis, complaining about the goddamned commies taking over the unions . . . Mom doggedly going about her household chores with a cigarette stuck in her jowly face. My sister once quipped that she looked like a Raymond Chandler character on the way to a homicide. A happy moment with Veronica came into focus. As the muted play-by-play from the football game faded into the background, my sister's face and voice came to the fore.
 
"Hey, Steve," Ronnie said as I opened the door to her apartment. "C'mon in. You came at just the right time."
 
It must've been somewhere around 1991, during my thespian days, and we were very close. I flopped down on her studio couch and studied her. Ronnie was two years older than me, but she kept getting better looking with age. Her brown hair had a touch of gray that softened her intensity and a few enduring freckles fell across the bridge of her nose.
 
"Can I get you an orange juice or something?" She knew I'd stopped drinking then and was totally supportive--the whole planet was supportive of that decision.
 
"Listen," she said, "I need your help with a bit of dialogue for this story, okay?"
 
My sister had built a career for herself not only as a writer but also as a brilliant editor--guys like Philip Roth faithfully sought her advice--and I remembered how flattered I always felt when she asked for my help. Every bit of wall space in her apartment was covered with shelves crammed full of books, her coffee table stacked with magazines and journals, testaments to the one true passion in her life--writing. People didn't always work out, but a sentence you could usually get straight.
 
She came out of the kitchen, handed me a jelly glass full of orange juice, and made a beeline for a pack of Tru...

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