Mr. Clean and the Police Knock
A day in the life of an embattled social worker and his son.
Please note that this post describes violent events that may be disturbing for some readers.
“The important thing,” my father, Paul, was telling me, “is to know the ‘police knock.’”
Mr. Clean was missing, and the cops were after him. Mr. Clean — so nicknamed because he shaved his head bald, like the human mascot for the all-purpose cleaner — was in charge of maintaining the guns for what was, at the time, the most feared gang in New York. Previously these teens had called themselves the Bishops, but then, I guess in a bid for a smidge more grandeur, they upgraded themselves to the Royal Bishops. A slight young man with limpid, soulful eyes, Mr. Clean had a heart condition — suboptimal for someone who was constantly handling firearms.
Dad was a social worker with New York City’s Youth Board. He’d been assigned to the Royal Bishops and given the mandate of turning them into decent, productive members of society. He loved these kids, and was devoted to helping them learn to read and write, find jobs, and escape poverty.
A year earlier, in a 1963 article in a neighborhood newspaper called the West Side News, Jack Newfield, who would go on to become a great muckraking reporter for the Village Voice, wrote about my dad:
Paul Kornbluth was the third Youth Board worker assigned to the West 80’s last summer. He worked 12 and 18 hours a day with a gang called the Bishops. He got them jobs, took them to his home, sat up all night talking to them. He began to do what the social worker’s paternalism and the policeman’s stick could not.
The members of the Bishops asked Kornbluth if he could get them a clubhouse or a headquarters. He said he’d try, but his superiors at the Youth Board said no. Their policy is to break up the gang. But Kornbluth persisted in his search for a clubhouse.
Rev. Charles Yerkes and Joe Cohen of the Planetarium Neighborhood Council began to work with Kornbluth and gang. Last week a clubhouse was found, and Kornbluth was fired by the Youth Board for “administrative weakness.” He spent so much time with the boys in the gang he failed to submit the required number of written reports. …
Joe Lubell [sorry, Mr. Newfield, but I clearly remember him being named Jonny, not Joe] is 20 years old, has a 150 I.Q., and went to City College evening school for a while. He’s the leader of the Bishops.
“Paul is a straight guy,” he said. “Many times he sat up all night with us, explaining how important it is to have a job and finish school … With all the other Youth Board workers it was a nine-to-five job. But Paul used to take us to see his friends and one night he even let me sleep over [at] his place. He was different from all the others.” When Paul was fired, Joe wrote a petition asking for his reinstatement. So far he’s gotten 200 signatures.
Jonny Lubell’s petition eventually was successful, and Dad was reinstated to his position with the Youth Board — though he remained on a closely watched probation. And now there was this crisis regarding the gang’s feeble-hearted gun guy.
Mr. Clean had accidentally killed someone. Dad explained to me that Mr. Clean, looking to make some extra cash, had been hired by a gentleman to go to a hotel room and tie him up — kind of a game, apparently — only Mr. Clean had lied to this gentleman about knowing how to tie people up without actually hurting them. Now the man was dead and Mr. Clean had disappeared, and Dad was going to go out and try to find him and persuade him to turn himself in to the cops; if the cops found him first, Dad feared, they might kill him.
In the meantime, this was one of the rare occasions when I’d be left all alone in the apartment, and it was quite possible (given the common knowledge that gang members frequently visited our place) that the police would come here looking for Mr. Clean. If they did, Dad told me, I’d hear a “police knock” — which was nothing like the playful, syncopated knock that his friends used, the old “shave and a haircut — two bits”: LONG-short-short-LONG-LONG-[rest]-LONG-LONG. A police knock had no nuance whatsoever — just BANG-BANG-BANG-BANG-BANG!! If the cops came knocking, Dad said, I should not, under any circumstances, answer the door, lest the police mistake a five-year-old boy for the teenager they were hunting.
Dad was out all day, searching for Mr. Clean, but he couldn’t find him. Nobody could. The police manhunt had spread throughout the city.
By evening, as he returned to our apartment, Dad was exhausted. He unlocked the door, walked in, and found me sleeping peacefully on the floor mattress. Sleeping equally peacefully, beside me on the mattress, was Mr. Clean, who had stopped by earlier, when Dad was away. I’d let him in, of course: he’d used the right kind of knock.
Dad woke up Mr. Clean and explained that he’d have to take him to the police station. Mr. Clean nodded.
“Bye, Joshy,” he said. He gave me a hug.
Later that night, Dad told me that after they’d booked Mr. Clean, they put him in a cage that was right in the middle of the police station. It was so very sad, he said.1
Dad didn’t mention that this whole episode was probably not going to solidify his shaky job status with the city. As it turned out, his ultimate firing would come later, and only after he’d unwittingly helped the entire gang commit a brazen robbery (a story that will have to wait for a future post). But until the axe came down, he really did help a lot of those young men — including Jonny Lubell, who went on to become a crusading immigration lawyer.
Towards the end of that article in the West Side News, Newfield quotes a candy-store owner named David Schmidt:
“Paul Kornbluth,” he said, “is a man people have respect for. He prevented a lot of bloodshed around here.”
As a 63-year-old man today, looking back at my then-40-year-old father who never made it to 60, is it okay for me to say that I feel so proud of him?
Unfortunately, I don’t know what ultimately happened to Mr. Clean. I never knew his real name.