The Johnny Boy Story
A true story about importing bananas Written 1/2012 Re Written 10/03/2015 unedited
This is a 100 percent true story about my good friend Lou Gladstein of Bridgeport Connecticut. He was known as “Red” to all his friends, and his enemies as well.
Lou, and I met in 1961, that was when I was 22 years old, and Lou was about 40. When I first met him, I found it difficult to understand exactly how he operated. He was sort of what you would call an entrepreneur of all sorts, the kind of guy that never passed up a good deal, even if it was a little illegal.
How I met Lou was interesting, when I was going to college I worked part time at Milford Auto Wrecking, while working there, I met one of the entrepreneurial owners named Lenny, and by knowing Lenny I eventually met another character named Abe. Abe was an interesting intelligent person and I worked for a while with him, and through him, I met Lou “Red” Gladstein. I think you could best describe all of them as a part of a big network of really strange entrepreneurial guys, but, they were all eventually to become my friends as well as my mentors.
Lenny was the first in the line of odd balls that I met, he ran the Milford Auto Wrecking yard and was heavily involved in buying and selling stolen cars, which I unwittingly hauled from place to place from him, and h was probably involved in many more illegal things that I didn’t know about. Lenny had eventually conned me into leasing a junk yard in Stamford Connecticut that he really didn’t own, and that’s how I met the real owner Abe, and eventually got involved with him.
I ran myself ragged working with Abe, and eventually resigned from the company, and that’s when I met Lou “Red Gladstein”.
Lou was basically a used car dealer, but he was also an entrepreneur. Lou never turned down a good deal, I have to admit he was an inspirational guy to work with, but watching how he operated was a nightmare.
I think Lou and all of the other guys liked me because I was young, I was energetic, and I enjoyed getting involved in their different deals. They all needed a “Leg man” to work the deals with them, and pick up the pieces when the deal fell through. But I saw them all as smart entrepreneurs, and I was happy to work with them, and learn from them, and eventually become a part of their network.
Red Gladstein and the Johnny Boy story started this way.
It was 1962 is when I ran out of energy cleaning up the mess’s Abe always left behind as he moved from deal to deal, so I resigned from his corporation and that meant I became a free agent, so as a free agent I was constantly looking for a way to use the skills I had learned over the years. The only difference being that I wanted to do business in an honest way, which was the complete opposite of what I had learned from dealing with Lenny and Abe.
So now, here I was in 1962, my involvement with Abe was done and so was my lease for the automobile wrecking yard in Stamford Connecticut. With the wrecking yard went the used car lot we operated there, so you could say, I was out of a job.
Over the years the name Lou “Red” Gladstein had popped up, here and there, and it appeared that he knew who I was, that was even though I thought that I had never met him. So one day, when I was on the Connecticut Turnpike on my way to New York City, I went by my old Stamford Connecticut auto wrecking yard just to see what was happening there, and that’s how I first met Red Gladstein. Lou, who was called Red by his friends, had moved into my office, and he was buying and selling used cars.
When we met that day, we became friends at first sight. He was definitely a character. I knew that because as soon as I walked into my former office, I noticed there was a coin operated telephone hanging on the wall and it had a string hanging out of it. Lou said he had the phone rigged so all the money returned after you made a call.
Lou was about 5 foot 8 inches tall, a bit over weight, he had a button missing on his slightly stained shirt and he had thinning, light red hair, and lots of freckles. When Lou spoke he always smiled, even when he was serious.
So after meeting Lou, I saw him as being an opportunity, I saw him to be a sort of entrepreneurial extension course for me, and I started hanging out with him and you could say Lou became my new mentor.
At the time I met Lou, I had also met a nice fellow named Herb Schein, in Ansonia Connecticut. Herb was in the retail tire business selling car tires to the Ansonia locals. Herb had told me he wanted to do something more than just sell tires so we set up a rebuilt automobile inner tube business. It was an idea I had thought about for several years, we would buy hundreds of used automobile inner tubes, test them, paint them and pack them up to be sold as rebuilt inner tubes for half the price of new. (See the rebuilt tube story).The rebuilding of inner tubes soon caught the attention of the LeVine tire company in New Haven Connecticut. They were a big company that bought all kinds of new and used tires, and they were just expanding their operation to Tampa Florida.
When I met them, they were shipping railroad cars loaded with tires to Tampa. The tires took up a lot of space in the rail cars and they were looking for something they could buy that would fill up the empty spaces, and my rebuilt inner tubes sounded good to them.
The owner of LeVine Tire Company, said that his son, who had already bought a home on Davis Island, in Tampa, would be driving there the following week, and would I like to drive there with him. He had the idea, of me looking over his operation, and possibly joining up with them. I was curious and had never been to Tampa I agreed, to go there at their expense, and the following week I drove to Tampa with Mr. LeVine’s son.
Once I was in Tampa they put me up in a nice local hotel, and they gave me a Volkswagon bus to drive around with. Their operation there was very big, and I saw that they bought lots of military surplus tires as well as monster earthmover equipment tires, they even employed an expert from Holland who was patching up the giant earthmover tires. But the moment I got there, I could feel the tension within the company as everyone thought I was sent there to replace them.
After spending several days in Tampa, I decided it was not for me and I decided to leave, but I felt a little guilty considering the expense LeVine tire had spent on me, and I wanted to repay them somehow. While I was thinking about it, they were just building Dale Mabry Highway, and I was driving along marveling at all the construction that was going on. That’s when I saw it, was a giant earthmover tire that someone had stood up and was using as a sign to point to a dump. The tire was about seven feet tall and had a big white arrow painted on it. After haggling with an old black guy sitting in a chair at the dump, I bought the tire. But then I found that it was too big and it wouldn’t fit in the Volkswagen van. I studied the situation and with lots of pieces of rope and wire I hung the tire on the side of the van with the ropes going over the roof and wrapped around the window posts on the opposite side. In those days Tampa was kind of a hick town and no one stopped me driving back to LeVine’s tire company with a monster tire hanging off the van. At the company, I told them that I was giving them the tire in payment for their putting me up for four days and I was leaving. The tire must have been pretty valuable judging from what I heard as everyone there was inspecting it.
I returned to my hotel, watched TV and had a good last night’s sleep before deciding what to do next. When I awoke the next morning, I realized that here I was in Tampa, Florida, and I was at loose ends. So I got on the phone and called my good friend Red Gladstein in Stamford Connecticut. I knew Red was a real wheeler dealer, and perhaps he had something for me, while I was still in Tampa.
Well, I was partially right. Red asked me where I was, and I told him my situation. I told him I was sitting in my hotel room in Tampa Florida looking for something to do. Lou said, he did have some business to attend to in Tampa and he would drive right down from Connecticut and pick me up at the hotel the next day. Red said, “It’s now ten in the morning here, and I can leave for Tampa in about an hour, so I will see you at exactly twelve noon tomorrow at your hotel.
I knew it was about 1500 miles to drive from Stamford to Tampa, and there was no way Lou could do this trip in twenty four hours, and I told him so. But Lou assured me he would be there to pick me up the next day at twelve noon sharp.
I quickly mentally calculated that Lou would have to drive about 80 miles an hour nonstop to get to Tampa that fast. So when I hung up, I was thinking that he would be calling me in the morning from some jail in Georgia, where he would have been arrested for speeding.
The next morning I woke up, dressed and walked outside the hotel into bright Tampa sunshine. I looked across the street from the hotel, and I saw a Royal Castle restaurant, so I walked over to get some breakfast. As I studied the menu and the blond waitress with a deep southern drawl came over and asked if I was ready to order, so I tried to make it simple, ordering two eggs with bacon and toast. “You all, want grits with that she asked.” Hey, I was from New Haven Connecticut, and I thought grits might be some kind of sand paper, but I didn't want to appear stupid, so I said sure I wanted grits.
It was twelve noon, and I knew that Lou couldn't possibly be there yet, so I waited in my room, reading the local Tampa news. By one in the afternoon, when Lou failed to call, my curiosity got the best of me, and I called the front desk to ask if anyone had left a message for me.
Yes they said, there was a message from a Mr. Lou Gladstein who had checked in the hotel about an hour ago. Mr. Gladstein was resting in room forty three and I should wake him up at four that afternoon. To this day I don't know how he did it, but he made the trip from Stamford Connecticut to Tampa Florida in exactly twenty four hours, driving a 1958 Ford station wagon.
At four PM, I went to Lou’s room and woke him up.
Lou told me that we needed to go to the shipping Port of Tampa, as there was something he needed to see that morning. He was looking for a cargo ship named the “Johnny Boy” that was supposed to have arrived from Argentina that very morning. I didn't want to appear rude so I didn't ask Lou as to why he wanted to see the ship, I knew he would tell me sooner or later.
When we arrived at the port of Tampa, just as Lou had said, there was a big refrigerated freighter unloading, it was named the “Johnny Boy”. Lou walked over to a pallet to see what the cargo was. I could already see that it said in Spanish “Carne Seco”, or dried beef from Argentina.
Lou looked up at the freighters bow and said, “That dirty bastard did change the name of my ship.”
I could see Lou was very agitated, as he stormed back to the car with his hands in his pockets. After he settled down he said, “I have to get an attorney in Florida before we head back to Connecticut.”
I told Lou that the only attorney I knew in Florida was Stanley Haves in Miami, I had met him through my mother. So Lou said, “Let’s head for Miami.”
Then Lou told me the following story.
He said, that about three years earlier he had invested several hundred thousand dollars with a partner in New York, together they had purchased a refrigerated freighter, the same one that was now being called the Johnny Boy. Lou said that his partner was involved with a big shipping company in New York and that he, Lou, was sort of an outsider.
The refrigerated freighter, was suited exactly for what they wanted to do, their intentions were to buy unripe bananas in Panama and ship them to Miami, but right from the start Lou said that he didn’t trust his partner in New York. He had a bad feeling that they wanted to swindle him out of his share of the ship, he said that the group in New York were professionals with lots of connections in the shipping business, and without Lou’s knowledge they had already hired a crew, from Liberia and a Captain from Guyana, never mentioning anything to Lou. Now that the ship was ready Lou knew that it was his job to fly to Panama, where he negotiated with banana brokers to buy a shipload of bananas direct from several plantations that were formerly selling to United Fruit Co. Lou already had a pre-arranged plan to deliver the green bananas to a wholesaler in Miami. The whole deal had been put together in New York, with Lou guaranteeing that he would pay for the bananas by a bank transfer to the Panamanian brokers and then Lou would collect payment from the wholesalers when the bananas arrived in Miami. It was a sweet deal that would make Lou and his New York partner a lot of money, because they were now not only the shipper, but they were the owner of the cargo as well.
Lou told me that was the reason they needed a refrigerated ship, all bananas are picked green in Panama and must be kept refrigerated in the ships hold so they will not ripen and spoil on the voyage to Miami. He said he had wired the payment to the banana broker in Panama and the ship was loaded with green bananas. But in Panama the brokers recognized the ship Captain and told Lou to watch out for him. It appeared that the Captain they was a known alcoholic from Guyana that Lou’s New York partners had hired very cheap.
Right from the beginning Lou didn’t like their choice of captain, and Lou felt he was being set up for failure by his New York partners, and he may have been right.
The trip from Panama to Miami was a short one and should have been trouble free, however when the ship arrived in Miami, Lou's partner’s called him from New York, to tell him the captain had already radioed them, and said that the entire banana shipment was over ripe and starting to rot in the ships hold. Lou knew immediately that this meant that the refrigeration on the ship had stopped working during the voyage. The next problem he was faced with was what to do with a ship full of rotten bananas, so Lou took the next flight to Miami to assess the problem.
Lou already knew it was going to be a financial disaster, there was the cost of the bananas, the docking, the loading, the cost of the captain and crew. Now there was the additional cost of the dockage in Miami, and what about all the rotting bananas.
Now Lou being a resourceful guy, made arrangements for the ship to leave Miami immediately before any Federal agencies came to inspect the rotting mess and fine him. He also didn't want to have to deal with the Miami Longshoreman's Union regarding the unloading of a stinking rotting cargo. Lou also knew that after unloading the ship in Miami, he would have to dispose of tons of rotten bananas. He would have to pay someone a lot of money to haul them off to a dump. So as soon as the ship was out to sea, Lou had the crew open the hatches and with the shipboard cranes they lifted out all the ripe bananas and illegally dumped them all in the ocean, what Lou was doing, was illegal, and he knew it. Besides that, the captain and crew also didn't want to do it. It was not because it was illegal, but because they didn't want to work like stevedores, it was not their job.
But now Lou was really pissed off, and he became belligerent, screaming and yelling, the crew finally gave in, unloaded the ship and dumped the bananas into the ocean.
Then Lou started questioning the Captain and the ships engineer, Lou wanted to know who let the ships refrigeration shut off. This was no joke, and Lou got little satisfaction from the Captain, and he got less from the chief engineer, who now pretended he didn’t speak English. Lou couldn't get a straight answer from anyone, and no one would tell him why the generator that ran the refrigeration had not been restarted, Lou was livid.
After a lot of yelling and screaming, Lou, and the engineer finally got the generator started up again, as well as the ships refrigeration.
Then Lou made arrangements for the captain to take the ship back to Panama, and Lou flew to New York to discuss the situation with his partner.
This problem had cost them all a fortune, and Lou was now running out of money, and to make matters worse, his partners in New York blamed him for all the losses, and they wanted him out of the picture. They said Lou was a hot head, and he had now alienated the Captain and crew.
Lou was mad, he suspected that the Captain and crew had gotten drunk, and when the generator that ran the refrigeration went off, they were all so drunk that they didn't even notice it. He felt that the only solution was for him to fly back to Panama himself, buy another load of bananas, but this time he would stay aboard the ship to make sure the refrigeration remained running until the ship made it to the port in Miami.
By this time Lou's relationship with the Captain and all the crew members was pretty bad, his cabin was right next to the Captain’s cabin, so Lou could hear their muffled voices through the steel cabin wall. He knew that the Captain, the engineer and the whole crew hated him, but Lou’s attitude was that he owned the ship and they were all working for him, and it was his money that was at stake, not theirs.
That night, Lou tried to get some sleep but he could hear the party going on in the Captain’s cabin. The partying was loud enough for Lou to hear that everyone was very drunk. He could hear they were all talking in English, but he couldn't make out what they were saying.
By one in the morning, Lou decided to check on the refrigeration, as he hadn't slept at all, and the party was still going full blast, in the captain’s cabin next to him. He thought he heard his name mentioned, so he took a drinking glass, and put it to the steel wall to listen to what they were saying about him, and he then heard the Captain saying, “We will put that red headed mother fucker in the ocean tonight, I will kill him myself.”
Lou didn't know what to do, he was scared, and he knew he couldn't fight the whole crew, also he had no weapon to defend himself, so he quietly left his cabin, and went to the engine room, where he was hoping to perhaps find a pistol or other weapon in the ship’s engineer’s quarters.
That’s when Lou found the refrigeration generator had shut down again, and the engineer whose responsibility it was to keep it running was in the captain’s cabin, drunk.
Lou tried to restart the refrigeration generator himself, but he couldn't do it, so he picked up a three foot piece of pipe, and he carried it back to his cabin. Once in the cabin he could hear the Captain and the crew were still drinking, but even using the drinking glass against the wall, he couldn't understand very clearly anything they were saying.
Lou finally made a decision, and walked into the Captain’s cabin and struck the captain hard on the head with the piece of pipe. The captain fell on the floor, and the rest of the crew ran from the room. Lou grabbed the engineer and pushed him with the pipe to the engine room to restart the generator, but one of the crew members went to the radio room and had called the U.S. Coast Guard for assistance.
By morning they were three or four miles from the Port of Miami when the Coast Guard came aboard and arrested Lou.
At that point, we were nearing Miami and Lou stopped talking. He didn't seem to want to talk about his arrest, but I gathered that his partner’s in New York had found a way to get Lou's share of the ship. Lou said that the ship was eventually auctioned off on the Miami court house steps and his partner had bought it back for near nothing as they were the only bidder, and Lou was left out in the cold.
The ship’s Captain survived, but Lou never told me what happened regarding the charges that were brought against him. I know Lou hired the attorney in Miami, and I know that Lou tried several legal maneuvers to get his share of the ship back, and he tried to recover some of his loses, but I don't think he ever succeeded.
Lou was convinced that his former partners had made sure Lou lost his share of the ship, and he heard the ships name had been changed to “Johnny Boy”, that’s why Lou went to the Port of Tampa, to confirm for himself that it was the same ship.
I never heard Lou discuss anything to do with the Johnny Boy again, and I never asked him.