The Trouble With Harry Jay Katz

Harry Jay Katz's act is wearing thin. Philadelphia's aging libertine is facing lawsuits, accusations and bankruptcy. Still, the party must go on.

IT’S THE FOURTH OF JULY at Harry Jay Katz’s house. On the refrigerator, spelled with kiddy magnetic letters, are the words WELCOME CHRISTINA. Christina is a new guest chez Katz. A 19-year-old with dark eyes and baby fat, Christina had been working as a nanny for the family of former Rendell chief of staff David Cohen. Then fate intervened. A couple of weeks earlier, according to Katz, he rescued her from some “greaseballs” at a bar in Manayunk. The two became friendly. Eventually, Katz, impersonating a friend of Christina’s family, called Cohen’s wife to tell her that Christina was quitting because she was homesick. After a trip to her hometown of Geneva, New York, to pick up her poodle, Christina has returned.

The poodle is already causing trouble. This morning, Harry stepped in a pile of dog excrement in the hall. Later, the poodle will drop another pile. “If that dog shits one more time, you both go,” says Katz.

The day is spent by the pool. Visitors include Harry’s brother. A mountainous man, perhaps 6’10” tall, 300 pounds, Phil keeps an eye on Harry and begs him to show some discretion. When Christina repeatedly tosses her poodle into the pool, Harry quips: “You better stop, or we’re going to have another Val Sheridan on our hands.” Phil’s eyes bulge.

“What? What did I say?” asks Katz.

Also present is John Wallace, Harry’s friend who took him to the emergency room after his suicide attempt. Another bear of a man, Wallace stands 6’9″ and weighs in at 250 pounds. Best friends for 30 years, they tell war stories ranging from attending a civil-rights rally to Wallace’s recent stay in the New Jersey penal system for running what Katz calls the “biggest chop-shop in the Northeast.” Over the course of the afternoon, Katz repeatedly calls Wallace, who is black, “Big Nig.”

The gang heads over to Mel’s International in Bala Cynwyd for dinner. Dressed in black, hair slicked back, his sunburned nose red as a maraschino cherry, Katz orders for Christina. He scolds her for putting her elbows on the table. Everyone is in good spirits, and the liquor flows freely. But in a moment, the goodwill disappears. Wallace mentions a mobster friend that he and Katz have had some dealings within the past, and Katz lashes out at his old pal. “You stupid nig motherfucker,” blares Katz, brandishing his cigarette wildly. His face flushes blood red. “After all I’ve done for you, you stupid motherfucker.”

Restaurant patrons hold their forks and stare. Christina eyes her feet and looks very small. Wallace, who seems to have endured this treatment before, stares at his buddy coolly. After imploring from the waiter, Wallace and Katz move to the bar where Katz, sweat beading up on his forehead, repeatedly pokes Wallace in the chest with his finger. Eventually, Wallace leaves.

The rest of the dinner party drifts away. Harry, Christina, and I head off to Manayunk’s bars. The Lincoln trawls down Main Street at five mph so Katz can get a good look into the bars we’re passing. Much to Katz’s chagrin, Christina pops the radio on a rock station. Nirvana merges into David Bowie’s “Modern Love.”

Katz valet-parks the car. He spies a shapely woman through a bar’s windows. We go in so Katz can get a look at her face. Like an art dealer, he finds a suitable vantage point to appraise the object of his desire. No sale. Disappointed, he turns on his heels and leaves.

Back at home, Christina heads off to bed. Katz pours some vodka, and we sit on his porch. He wants to make sure I have one thing clear. “I’d give this all up to have the right woman,” he insists, his eyes glassy and blood-shot. “Just to come home and hear someone say, ‘Hi honey,’ and to smell soup cooking in the kitchen.”

We sit in silence. The rumble of faraway fireworks sounds like the advancing of troops. Then, the doorbell rings. In a minute, Katz returns with a thirtyish blonde we’ll call Stacy. “Fucking Stacy from Pittsburgh. She’s driven all this way to see Harry,” says Katz.

When she goes off to the bathroom, Katz confides that he’s been sleeping with Stacy on and off since she was a teenager. After she returns, I head down to the whirlpool that claimed Valerie Sheridan so the two lovebirds can be alone. Despite the water’s heat, I shiver. After a few minutes, I head back up and say goodnight. Inside, Christina grabs my arm. “Harry hired a hooker, didn’t he?”

I tell Christina that, as far as I know, Stacy is not a prostitute. Christina nods, her lip quivering, and heads back into her room.

From my bedroom window, I can see Harry trying to pull the cover over the whirlpool. He pulls, almost falls in, and pulls again. After a minute, he gives the cover a tug, and it falls into place. Katz lets out a childish laugh, slapping his hands, congratulating himself on a job well done. In the next room, Christina cries herself to sleep.