Once upon a recession, a family of wandering gypsies arrived in America by way of steamer from Istanbul, and later, by banana freighter from Panama. The clan was headed by Haggar Dreg of the Hungarian Dregs, a stout, red-faced man with big hands and a devious heart. His wife Rubellah loved those big hands, and placed her trust in them because they never failed her. Haggar’s hands were big enough to hide wallet leather, strong enough to force any hinge, and yet delicate enough to carry crystal or fine gold necklaces back across any Republican’s threshold. Although the knuckles of the right hand were callused from striking the bony jaws of many an interloper, no one could help but admire the stealth and consummate skill with which those hands moved. Legends are born of less.

Rubellah was just as impressive herself, but with her it was her eyes. Dark, penetrating, almost hypnotic in their effect, Rubellah’s eyes could hold the gaze of any others just long enough. Then, with a swish of long black braids, bound by golden bands, she would be on her way again, a little richer for the encounter.

I told them what they wanted to hear. I defined class envy as something which occurs in people who don’t have any class.Besides man and matriarch, there were sons and daughters numbering four each. Stone Dreg was the bald one since birth, but he made up for his unusual genetic condition by growing hair almost everywhere else. His thick, coarse chest hair had, on first sight, an animal attraction to women, and his marital engagements and subsequent disappearances averaged ten a year. Stone was bold, unlike his brother Jacob. Jacob was the one trained to fit through tight openings, late at night. He had to be coaxed early, and later used a penlight. Jacob would not participate in any daylight escapades, such as those perpetrated by Igor and his brother Ahab, who were the identical twins and bungling comics of the clan, and who would often approach a seated mark from either side as Stone moved in from behind with the ether-drenched handkerchief.

Of the daughters, Ruth was the only homely one. She kept the books, invested the family earnings, and dabbled in the market. Her sister Salome, however, looked like she’d stepped out of a Botticelli painting. Voluptuous, volcanic, verbose, she exuded passion from every pore, and went through men like a diva goes through chocolates. Meanwhile, Beulah was merely flirtatious, beguiling by comparison; she posed and accessed while Salome pounced. Finally, Caprice also liked to flirt, but she did not possess Beulah’s detachment, and so often needed to be extricated from amorous situations by Stone’s intervention and wrestling technique. All four sisters were blessed with their mother’s long black hair and piercing eyes.

5th Avenue Marriott from outside

Several years before its demolition, the family moved into the projects in Brooklyn just long enough to establish residency, U.S. citizenship, and to play the welfare roles. Jacob obtained SSI disability payments for his timidity and frail looks, and all the "children" got allowances for food stamps which were later sold on the street at the usual discounts. As it turned out, they did not need to lie very much, and Haggar even went for worker’s compensation by claiming a fictitious slump in "intrapersonal lifestyle analysis." Soon after, they set up a mail drop, scored one final fake drug bust on the building’s pushers, and moved uptown into the 5th Avenue Marriott, which had excellent room service.

"This was a real adjustment for us," Igor later confided to a cab driver. "Since poppa was getting older, and found it harder to work with his hands, we hired tutors to teach us proper grammar and etiquette. Hotel employees who’d complained when they heard Hungarian folk music and Liszt Rhapsodies echoing through the cooling ducts decided they could tolerate us when we stopped singing and dancing, and started tipping. Guests were not so sure. Once I was on the elevator during a psychologists convention and got asked if I thought what we were doing was wrong. After pressing the hold button I explained to a curious shrink what poppa had always taught us, which is that God created us the way we are, so He must rejoice when we do what we do. Then I asked what he knew, and demanded payment for my session, refusing to release the hold button until I was given a Ulysses S. Grant, although I settled for a Jackson and a Lincoln, which was all the bum had. After that I started dressing differently too, and began to resemble a politician or a game show host. It never occurred to me to question our family philosophy or moral judgment, whatever that means. Like Popeye, I yam what I yam."

The Dregs all began to wear different hats from that point. Beulah and Jacob ascended into high society, attending arts openings and benefits in order to case the patrons’ jewelry. Salome, finally achieving a modicum of self restraint, was able to play the witty rich divorcee just long enough to lure her gentlemen victims to secluded bedrooms where they were seduced and left exhausted and semi-conscious without their dignity, their Rolexes, or their credit cards. Confiding in Stone, Salome scoffed at marriage. "American men," she laughed. "No wonder women divorce them. Besides, the only reason to get married in America is to have kids, and I’m sorry, but I haven’t got eighteen years to spare. What if I have quintuplets, or Siamese twins when all I really wanted was a Siamese cat? And what will my baby’s first words be? ‘Sony Wi Wi?’ Please. Babies don’t come from heaven anymore, anyway. Heaven has been out of babies for quite some time. Then when the kid starts asking Why, what would I tell it? I don’t know Why. I don’t even know Why Not. To top it off, what if my baby is switched at birth, and I don’t find out until nine years later when someone named Cowell or Seacrest shows up?"

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Stone responded in kind. "With me, I find I’m often forced to leave Xerox copies of one dollar bills as tips on dinner dates. Afterward I send the women flowers with dead insects in them. If they don’t get the message, I describe my idea of an exciting evening as curling up on the sofa with a book by Kafka while listening to Bach’s Goldberg Variations and eating Fruit Loops straight from the box. If they manage to find me, I disguise our empty refrigerator with plastic roasts purchased from appliance salesmen down on their commissions, and I allow them to discover this while I’m watching Meet the Press and sipping Ovaltine from an elephant-shaped mug."

Speaking of politics, Igor and Ahab had some misadventures of their own. Identical twins on each side of the game, they raised funds which they also skimmed from both Democrats and Republicans. Their education on the matter was obtained by attending phony real estate seminars and taking copious notes on technique.

Ahab: "I told them what they wanted to hear. I defined class envy as something which occurs in people who don’t have any class, liberals as near-sighted people prescribing rose-colored glasses, and high school graduates as young punks who can whistle all the top forty tunes but still can’t read their own diplomas. Was I tough on crime? Well, for rape I suggested the perp do a stint as playmate for an amorous 800-pound gorilla. For DUI the stint would be as a bumper in a bumper car concession run by crazed 8-year-olds. For slapping, yelling at, or otherwise abusing a child the perp got incarceration for 24 hours with an abusive life insurance agent suspected of murdering his mother. And just for allowing your kid to watch TV as much as he wanted required you to be bound, gagged, and forced to watch Dancing with the Stars reruns for two days straight, your eyes stuck open with Crazy Glue."

Igor: "With the Democrats, I tried to cover myself by taking the rich versus poor debate one giant step forward. I proposed an actual class war by claiming to have inside information that the other side was already mobilizing. For K rations my lower class battalion would have grits, toast, and powdered milk for breakfast, Spam, Coke, and a slice of government cheese for lunch, and tuna casserole, tea, and a dollop of rocky road ice milk for dinner. Of course for the rich it was, I admitted, German Sausage Coquettes, fresh squeezed orange juice, and Belgian waffles for breakfast, Tuscan Veal with pine nuts, Amaretto Custard Cake, and cappuccino with chocolate garnish for lunch, and for dinner it was Roast Rack of Lamb Tiffany, Medallions de Trois Viandes aux Trois Poivron, Fresh Mango Sherbet with coulis of raspberries, and Mouton Rothschild 1938. Unfortunately, I was heckled as any bad stand-up comic might be. This wasn’t the kind of reaction I wanted, so I slipped out the back way with as much foreign slush fund money as I could carry."

Rubellah relished her job as a psychic operator, and often repeated a favorite fortune for people she disliked: that their ambulance driver would favor the scenic route. There were other failures for the twins. For instance, they later infiltrated the gangs, and attempted to convince various gang leaders of certain credentials, much like a national fraternity official might when visiting a local chapter. They even set up a school, or rather skool, to teach homies the history of gangs which they’d failed to learn. To qualify for GEDs, or Gang Education Diplomas, kids were told that it wasn’t enough just to know how to blow smoke rings, or how to walk around with their belts unbuckled and shirt tails out without dropping their baggy pants, or even the proper way to flash "get stuffed" to other gangs in order to provoke a shooting spree. They needed to learn how to fail at everything else in life in order to get into ANGER U, of which the twins were admissions coordinators.

"Unfortunately, we had a high dropout rate," Igor soon complained. "Many were fascinated at first when we told them CRIPS stood for Class Rebels Immortalizing Paint Spray, but when we said that BLOODS stood for Bitter Lads Objectifying Oppressive Dysfunctional Society, well, no one knew what ‘objectifying’ and ‘dysfunctional’ meant, and then it was too late to change it to Boys Learning Of Oppression, Drugs, and Suicide. So I blurted out something about two splinter groups of the Bloods that went to war—the B Positives and the B Negatives, and who did they think won? Then Ahab, thinking it a good joke, tried to up me by invoking the LORDS, and asking which faction did they think came out on top, the Legion Of Raging Demented Sociopaths or the Lovers Of Really Delicious Shortcake? Alas, our humorless would-be subjects suspected we were dissing them, then, and we barely made it out of klass by remembering that we needed to attend the funeral of Bloods impressionist graffiti artist Chico Rameriz, who was killed for having a ‘blue’ period."

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Although the twins did manage to start a gang of their own in Chinatown, that didn’t pan out either. The short lived Kung Yu Gang followed no particular martial arts code, although they had plenty of black belts, purple belts, and quite a few gold chains. To the twins’ fiscal disappointment, the gang’s rumbles became mainly intramural food fights, pitting the Japanese VS. The Vietnamese, or the Chinese Szechuans VS. The Taiwan Mutant Ninja Tenderloins. For fun the upstart youngsters even vandalized the gas mileage tags at American car dealerships to read in single digits.

Meanwhile Ruth continued to buy Kruggerands, gold stocks, and commodities futures in preparation for the coming economic collapse, which "any fool could see" was inevitable "now that our policy is to pay bonuses to those who lose the most of our money." Such became her acumen in international currency exchange that she had three additional phone lines installed into the Marriott suite where Rubellah had once sung songs of the old country and cooked goulash for Haggar.

"They tried to audit me once," Ruth confessed to a hotel maid, "but I put the kibash on that and diverted the audit by slipping an herb concoction into the auditor’s tea which had an aphrodisiac effect. Then I seduced him with what really turned him on—new ideas for torturing an auditee. One suggestion I made was that he strap the delinquent taxpayer to a Delco battery and jolt the truth out of him for two hours while his property was sold at auction to a bunch of yard sale junkies. The auditor was so excited by my concepts that he had to go back to his office and do some day trading."

For Rubellah’s part, she worked part time as a self-employed psychic hotline operator, so she could be near her children. When the kids were out she told fortunes with her crystal ball in the Marriott ballroom. Rubellah relished her job, and often repeated a favorite fortune for people she disliked, which was that their ambulance driver would favor the scenic route. But secretly she also longed for the old days, when her family danced and sang.

As for Haggar, he found employment by becoming a reincarnation of The Prophet. Simply by growing a long gray beard and calling himself Ahred Dustafo he was able to make a video tape dispensing Gibranesque wisdom, and was soon asked to speak at prestigious area colleges. This, after trying other unsuccessful boasts, like claiming his grandfather was King of Liechtenstein.

Haggar: "Before I found this particular niche, I was bragging to everybody I met that granny played gin rummy with Queen Victoria, that our family psychiatrist was Freud himself, and that before I was ten I’d been on eighteen boxes of cereal, including Muselix. But then I met a shoe salesman who told me his family was so rich once that even their butler drove a 1936 Auburn Speedster and had a winery in the Napa Valley he’d never seen. I grew tired of my con job after that. And then one day when a hot dog vendor asked me the meaning of life, for some reason I told him I couldn’t tell him or he’d go mad, shave his head, and attack the Pope. Other people asked me even sillier questions, like why I wore a long white robe (which was better to hide things under), or why the city of Toledo is considered holy. This was the last straw. It was time to get back to the old ways, to get on the move again, and to find happiness. So Rubellah bought me some Bengay for my hands, and we gathered our children together and hit the road. I can’t tell you how good it felt to laugh and sing again as we danced our way across America, doing what we do best in the land of the free and the home of the NASCAR fan."

So confessed Haggar Dreg in a letter to the Marriott doorman, explaining why they’d left, and how much they enjoyed trashing the room.

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