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A Christmas story: When Murphy met Baby

Published December 21, 2012

The other day I’m listening to my favourite holiday song, as I do every year at this time, called Driving Home for Christmas. And that got me thinking about my old pal Murphy Adams, and the Christmas Eve run to Rochester to get prize-fighter-on-the-lam Norman Benjamin Yakubowitz, a.k.a. Baby Yak, out of town before he got himself into even more trouble, or otherwise there would certainly not be any peace on Earth.

Now, it will take me a page or two to tell you this tale, kiddies, most of which is true, so put up your feet and relax.

Let me fill you in about Murphy first. I met him in the early 1960s when I was writing for the newspaper in Pembroke, Ont., and he was a guest at the Copeland Hotel, where I lived. I was 21 and he was maybe twice that.

The Copeland — or the Copey, as it was known to its residents — was one of two older hotels on Pembroke Street, the main drag through town (the Pembroke Hotel being the other) — and was just down the hill from the police station, which was a good thing because the cops were frequently called in to break up fights in the men’s beverage room, as well as the ones in the Ladies & Escorts room next door.

Many of the young guys passing through Pembroke lived on the third floor of the Copeland where, for $10 a week, you got a bed and a sink and they changed the sheets on Fridays. This eclectic group included Roger, a disc jockey and TV dance show host with talent; a hairdresser named Richard, who was getting rich quickly because all the ladies in town who got their hair done loved the fact he was a guy; one or two soldiers from nearby Camp Petawawa, including one named Dave Matthews, who was a pretty good singer and claimed to have written the song Angel that Elvis Presley recorded (he didn’t); a couple of men on relief (what welfare was called in those days); a newspaper reporter (me) and the taxicab driver you now know named Murphy.

Murphy, or “Murph,” as some folks called him, told me he was an Anglican priest from Minneapolis, Minn., whose main claim to fame was that he’d translated parts of the Holy Bible into the language of the Swampy Cree, a herculean task considering that the Cree dialect in Canada changes from one side of the street to the other. He’d done this, he said, while performing missionary work among First Nations communities in northern Manitoba.

At some point, he’d travelled to Winnipeg for some R & R and dropped into a bar for a beer. He felt a calling and became, he said, Canada’s first “pastor of the pubs.” He had the newspaper clippings to prove this, which were pasted into big scrapbooks.

Now, when you carry the word of God into dens of iniquity for any length of time, the dens can sometimes turn on you, and Murphy eventually found himself more than somewhat dependent on the beverages served therein. In short, he became an alcoholic, went for treatment that didn’t take, left the church and wound up driving a cab in Pembroke.

These things happen.

Murphy was sober 99 per cent of the time, only travelling to the hotels of Grand-Calumet Island in nearby Quebec on Saturday nights to celebrate after enjoying an exceptional week in his taxi. Not that he didn’t actually carry liquor around on occasion, seeing as taxicab drivers of the day were often called upon to deliver bottles of “cough medicine” to private residences in the wee hours of the morning, when everything was closed and someone in the house required medication.

Murphy, who said he had a sister in the U.S. but no other family, had become, over the years, very much a loner. He stuck to himself most of the time, except on Sunday mornings when he could be found (and heard) walking around the third floor of the Copeland Hotel, hammering on doors and urging one and all to get up, get out and to join him at church — St. Luke’s Anglican, preferably, but he wasn’t fussy.

He’d pile however many young guys showed up at the hotel’s front door into his cab and drop them off at St. Columbkille Cathedral in time for mass, or Calvin United just before the 11 a.m. service — but not without first making a pitch for the Anglican experience.

“You worship God your way,” he’d say, “and I’ll worship him His.”

Now, at the same time as Murphy Adams was driving around Pembroke in a taxi, another guy, this one from Toronto, was booking into the Copeland Hotel. He was an athletic-looking little guy — five-foot-five if he really stretched — who had a cast on his left leg that went all the way up to his waist, which made it very awkward to get around.

He signed the name Norman Benjamin on the register and was assigned a room on the second floor of the hotel, where the occasional tourist and semi-permanent guests like aluminum-siding salesmen got to stay. Although it took him awhile to learn how to get up and down the stairs — he was awkward with crutches — he soon settled in and told hotel employees that he intended to remain for at least several months.

The reason Mr. Benjamin had registered at the Copeland Hotel in Pembroke and planned a somewhat lengthy stay is because his real name was Benjamin Norman Yakubowitz and he was a professional prize fighter who went by the name of Baby Yak. Like many in the boxing sport of the times, and in many instances in the boxing sport since, Baby Yak punched people around outside the ring was well as in, and this extra-curricular activity would frequently get him into trouble.

For instance, the Baby had been in the vicinity of the Town Tavern in downtown Toronto on a summer night in 1961 when Hamilton Mafia boss Johnny (Pops) Papalia asked bookmaker Maxie Bluestein if he’d accept a drink. Maxie declined the invitation and was nearly beaten dead for his insubordination. Baby Yak had taken Maxie’s side in the ensuing dustup and had been the target of several assassination attempts in the two years since.

One of those times was just before his arrival in Pembroke. Somebody took a shot at him and the bullet went clear through his knee. Frightened, the Baby had to get out of Toronto fast and find a safe hideout. His reasoning was that nobody would even think to look for him in Pembroke and that was what took him there.

Anxious not to reveal information that might lead people to put two and two together, he told the folks in town that he had to wear the cast because he’d broken his leg when he tripped over a brick while running for a TTC streetcar.

Pembroke, in 1963, was much like all the other small towns and cities in North America: there wasn’t a lot going on. There was no “24-hour news cycle” and no Internet and people had to keep themselves occupied and entertained. In small-town hotels, the lobby would frequently be a gathering place for people who liked to talk sports. There might be upwards of a dozen leather armchairs where people would settle in to chew the fat about the Maple Leafs, or the Rough Riders, or the local hockey and softball scene.

This particular day, when the lives of Murphy Adams and Baby Yak would collide, was Dec. 24, Christmas Eve. The Baby was looking forward to the next day because it was his birthday. He’d been born on Dec. 25 in 1915, thus making him about to turn 48.

Although he’d been walking on the wild side for a number of years, Yakubowitz had earlier enjoyed a good reputation as a boxer, having won more than 90 fights as an amateur, losing fewer than a dozen. When he was 21, he was good enough to fight as a bantamweight on the Canadian Olympic team but refused to go to Germany for the Games because he was Jewish. He turned pro after that and, at one time, was ranked No. 4 in the world by Ring magazine.

But that was then and this was now, and the Baby was not happy to learn that it was going to be a lonely birthday the following day because the Copeland announced it was closing its doors to the public at 6 p.m. and would not reopen the beverage rooms, the dining room or the lounge until three days later, at noon on Friday the 27th.

If he was home in Toronto, Yakubowitz thought, he would have his boxing friends and his nightclub friends and his mobster friends around and it would be a grand time. The prospect of sticking around Pembroke was not particularly appealing.

So that afternoon, Baby Yak was not his usual jocular self when he arrived in the lobby of the Copeland Hotel to trade lies and opinions with others who liked to lobby sit and debate such weighty subjects as whether Frank Mahovlich would score more goals than Davey Keon and how long Sonny Liston would hold the title of world heavyweight champion.

After chit-chatting for a time, the Baby felt the call of nature. The lobby was jam-packed that afternoon, all chairs being full of men avoiding last-minute shopping with their wives and kids and others hiding out from their bosses at work.

Among them was a man who’d been out for a stroll that afternoon and had stopped in to say hello. He was an athletic man who enjoyed playing recreational sports and liked, on occasion, to engage in small talk with the Copeland Hotel regulars. He also happened to be the chief of police and he is the only character in this narrative not named, for reasons that will soon become apparent.

As the Baby struggled to get up out of his easy chair, with his leg sticking out straight as an arrow with that cast going all the way up to his waist, he lost his balance and pitched forward and sideways. Before he could grab hold of a chair, or somebody’s shoulder, something popped out from under his suit jacket and landed with a thud in the middle of the rug covering the floor in the lobby of the Copeland Hotel.

It was a .38-caliber Police Positive Special revolver and it was sitting there on the floor, and every eye in the place was suddenly on it.

Nobody said a word, but their wide eyes and open mouths registered their astonishment.

Barely pausing for the shock to sink in, the Baby recovered his dignity and his composure and, picking up the crutches that were leaning against the side of his chair, looked at the chief of police and said:

“Do you mind picking that up for me?”

And the chief of police did just that, after which he stood there in stunned silence, just like everybody else, and watched Norman Benjamin Yakubowitz, a.k.a. Baby Yak, hobble up the stairs to his second-floor room to pack his bags because, once again, it was time to get out of town.

Fifteen minutes later, Baby Yak called down for the one bellhop on duty to carry his bags to the street. He paid his bill, in cash, and left by the front door, where he then held up his hand to hail a cab.

And who should come driving along at that very minute but Murphy Adams.

It was most unusual for anyone to hail a cab in those days. Only in the movies did you see that. If you wanted a taxi to pick you up in Pembroke, as was the case in most municipalities outside of Toronto, New York or Chicago, you called a number and they sent one over.

But Murphy had been feeling blue that day because business was slow and he was tired of sitting around the taxi office. Also, he was facing another Christmas by himself. Yes, there was church to attend on Christmas morning, and a meeting later in the day of people who helped him to stay off the hooch most of the time, but if there is one day of the year when loner people really don’t want to be alone, it’s Christmas.

So he’s driving along Pembroke Street, thinking about all this, and wondering where he would go to rustle up a meal the next day because even all the greasy spoons were going to shut up shop, when he sees a hand in the air being waved in his direction.

He pulls to the side of the street, stops the car, leans across the front seat, rolls down the window and looks at Baby Yak, who is standing there.

“Can I do something for you, sir?” Murphy Adams asks.

“I need a taxi,” says the Baby. “I want you to take me to Rochester.”

“Rochester Street?” says Murphy. “I don’t think there’s a Rochester Street in Pembroke. There’s one in Ottawa, but not Pembroke.”

“Not Rochester Street, you dummy,” snarls Baby Yak. “I want you to take me to Rochester, New York.”

“You want me to drive you all the way to Rochester, New York?” says Murphy. “That will be a very expensive trip, sir. That will be at least a 100-dollar trip. Maybe more.”

Baby Yak takes a roll of bills out of his pocket and shows the wad to Murphy.

“I am sure I will be able to cover it,” he says.

At that instant, a light bulb goes off in Murphy Adams’s brain.

“My goodness,” he thinks to himself. “My sister lives in Rochester,” a place he would sometimes think about visiting but couldn’t because he was mostly tapped out.

So Murphy Adams helps to get Baby Yak, crutches and cast and suitcases and all, into his taxicab. Then he asks the Baby to hold on because he has to make two telephone calls.

He goes into the Copeland and asks Cecil, the night desk clerk who’d arrived for work at 2 p.m. that day because they were closing early, if he could telephone his boss to ask him if it was OK to take the taxi out of town. And if Cecil didn’t mind, Murphy would also like to make a second call, over long-distance, to ask his sister if it was all right for him to come for Christmas.

Cecil had to check with the hotel owner, Nick, first, but Murphy soon got the all-clear, it being Christmas Eve and all. Both times, he heard the word “yes” over the phone.

And that is how Murphy Adams and Baby Yak came to drive to Rochester together on Christmas Eve, 1963.

All the way there, Murphy talked about a friend of his, and the world’s, who had the same birthday as the Baby’s and although the Baby wasn’t particularly impressed, him being Jewish, he listened politely.

When they got to Rochester, Murphy dropped off his fare at the Plaza Hotel downtown, where Baby Yak wasted no time making contact with some of the local Wise Guys, most of whom welcomed him with open arms. The ones who didn’t were smart enough to get lost because nobody nowhere likes to make trouble on Christmas Eve.

Everybody was happy. Murphy was with his sister and her family, whom he hadn’t seen for years. And Norman Benjamin Yakubowitz was in his element and way away from Pembroke — a nice place to visit and to raise a family, but not if you’re a mobbed-up guy who’s looking to let off a little steam and not attract attention.

The Lord works in mysterious ways. This was one of those times.

Merry Christmas, everybody.

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