Rated PG (language, situations)
(Previous Chapter, 11—Chuckie’s Sweet Sixteenth)
Chapter 12—Days of Blunder
Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.—Albert Einstein.
I managed to creep home without incident, taking as many side streets as I could and going four blocks out of my way to avoid the obscenely large 112th Precinct. After that obstacle and Queens Boulevard, it was all downhill. I could afford to dream a little on the homestretch, to make plans. It was June, which meant we had all Summer to unload the stuff, eat in restaurants, go to concerts… Then? If I saved enough money I could take a red-eye to London and hitchhike my way through Europe to Paris, the city of my dream-to-come-true in the land of Rue du Rogues—my kingdom within, although I didn’t verbalize it as such at the time. It was more a feeling than anything else that always accompanied the memory of my dream—one that promised freedom, love and happiness.
Temptation increased in direct proportion to the potential accessibility of the idea. For the first time, I was in a position to make a dramatic impact on my own life rather than being at the mercy of some clown (other than myself). Even though I was fifteen, I could be captain of my own ship, setting sail and steering my own rudder to places unknown. I would have to wait and see how much cash unfolded in this deal before making any concrete plans. I’d probably have to get my parents to sign something in order to get a passport, but I’d deal with that at the appropriate time, or forge it if I had to.
News of a successful haul like ours traveled fast in our world. The word was all over town before I even took to the streets again, which was thirty-six hours later. To say that I was mobbed for drugs would be an exaggeration, but there were times when mini-mobs crowded around to buy and barter. Before long I was wheeling, dealing and trading with people from several neighborhoods. A lot of them I had never laid eyes on before, not once. Even an out- of-state acquaintance of mine got wind of the haul and approached me to front Blue Cheer acid for him. It added a little more variety to the product line, so I agreed and took sixty tabs to unload.
The conversations went something like this: “A hundred downs? Twenty bucks. I don’t have them on me though. A cab? Sure, if you pay for it. Want some acid to wake up with? No?” On an average night I cleared eighty to a hundred bucks. Stashed at home, a quarter-ounce of black, tarheel hash waited for me like a nest egg—a feeding spot for his highness. It got to the point that I couldn’t pull the goods out of my pockets without money falling out. Chuckie and I ate lobster at The Stratton on a regular basis, and fat burgers at the Hofbrau for lunch. We’d order pitchers of beer and toast ourselves into a drunken state of revelry, then head off to the piano bars in the West Village and McSorleys for more beer.
I wouldn’t say selling stolen drugs was all gravy. It was accompanied by the paranoia that comes with the territory. At night, when I couldn’t get a cab and was left to meander home on foot, I’d have to watch over my shoulder for unfriendlies as if I was listening for an avalanche. My instincts told me to lie low, to blend in, if that was possible. I kept expecting Miller to show up around every corner, waiting for me, and it wouldn’t be with spaghetti hanging out of his mouth this time. For over a month it went like that. Life was great, we had everything. Rather than sell all the acid I was fronted, the Blue Cheer, I bought it for use at concerts. Life was a smorgasbord of parties, pills, pot, acid and pleasure.
Money bulging out of our pockets, we were in a hurry to piss it all away. We took the elevated line to Coney Island and spent all day there—walking the moving stairs, falling down in the revolving tunnel, bumping the shit out of each other in the bumper cars, rolling skeeballs, trying to be the last one on the giant turntable in the funhouse, eating candy apples and foot- longs smothered in onions that you tasted for three days afterward, and cruising humanity on the beach. We watched the little kids dive for change as it rained down from peoples’ pockets under the Cyclone’s most terrifying curve, the same thing we were doing only the year before. Now that change was small pickings.
On a lark, I had a palm reader look at my hand. She told me I would have three children, that’s all I remember. After that, I didn’t hear a word. The thought stabbed at me. Three kids? Me? Adulthood couldn’t be that close.
On the subway home, with our eyes swimming in ketchup, ordinary people waved fan-like in their seats while the city screeched by on the turns. One dreamlike experience followed the next like glassy-eyed commuters through turnstiles. Time waited out the summer, also on vacation. Billboards smiled specifically at us. The city sang a life of its own and we were caught up in it to the tune of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.
We bought the barflies drinks and stayed until the bartenders threw us out. These were times of much spilling out onto the streets and eruptions into ridiculous song and buffoonery. We laughed until we barfed and then we barfed some more; until it came out our noses and I thought for sure I was gonna spit up my stomach and die. In the Bowery after a particularly hard night of drinking and smoking, I was on my hands and knees in the gutter, barfing again. I heard a rattling, scraping sound, like metal rollerskates on cement, and saw a guy flying down the sidewalk toward me on a dolly. He had no legs, but pushed himself with his hands; and at a good clip, too. He went by at eye level, said, “Hiya, Mac!” and kept going. The sound of rollerskates faded rapidly.
I mentally took stock of myself. That guy probably has his shit together more than I do. Speaking of shit, was I needing to fart just then? I sent out a little tester. It was shit. My whole life had evolved to this wonderful moment of now, and all I had to show for it was a fudgy, ass-crack brownie.
Soon it would be time to go back to school and the summer of ’70 was officially over. I checked my pockets after the three of us lined up at Sammy’s bar and produced three twenty- dollar bills, along with a few ones mashed in-between. Normally this would seem like a lot of money but now I felt broke again, and depressed. After all that, this was my savings. The stash was gone. I held the crumpled cash glumly in one hand, checking it one last time for any pills that might have gotten mixed up with it. Chuckie and Lewis were in the same boat. We nursed our drafts at Sammy’s bar, not saying much.
I was pissed at myself. “Damn, sixty bucks don’t seem like much right now.”
Forever the positive one, Lewis looked into his beer and with a determination born to be wild, said: “It’s time for another heist.”
With that, my Rue du Dreams reverted to old schemes.
Summer turned to Autumn, then Winter. The next school year was a course in ‘Stoo-pid.’
Lewis decided that he and I would go back to the clothing store we noticed during the drugstore robbery in search of a new wardrobe. It was cold the night we busted through the bathroom window and crawled inside. The alarm had gone off but we couldn’t hear it because it was frozen. It hung outside and hummed like chattering teeth. I noticed it as I made my way to the front of the store to check out the window merchandise. What’s that buzzing? I wondered. Then I realized it was the alarm, trying desperately to un-freeze. A cop car rolled by, its windows thankfully shut against the cold.
“We better get the fuck outta here,” I said to Lewis, explaining why. We grabbed a few dozen pairs of brown corduroy bell-bottoms and ran all the way to Lewis’s place, more than a mile away.
Once we were safely in his basement, we tried them on for size. None of them fit. They were all too tight and too short. We never wore shorts, and it didn’t seem worth it to make them into six-dozen pairs of corduroy cutoffs to try and sell to gay hookers at Times Square. I started to laugh as Lewis stood there in his underwear trying on the last pair just to make sure, but it was all a big joke by then. (Advice: if you’re going to steal clothes, try them on first.)
Mother! showed up at the top of the stairs. “Lewis? Is that you? What are you doing down there?” Her foot appeared as she made her descent. The stolen bell-bottoms lay in a dead, mangled heap in the center of the floor—a mass graveyard where brown corduroys go to die. The pile of disheveled pants stood three-feet high. You couldn’t miss it.
Lewis stood with one leg in his pants and started to tip forward. “Shit! Gettum-inda- closet!” There was no time for that. I dove for the closet—leaving him there to explain why he just crash-landed on a heap of brown corduroy bell-bottoms in his underwear.
“Don’t come down, I’m changing!” he pleaded in a vain, desperate attempt to stall her. I slapped my hand over my mouth to muffle the laughter (my automatic response for all things uncomfortable), and cringed in anticipation.
“Lewis? Why are you in your underw… What are all these pants!?”
“Mother!” (He always called her Mother!)
“Where did you get them?”
Here it comes, I thought, the only possible answer is…
“I found them, by the dumpster!”
Bingo! But stoo-pid. That was what I would call a stupid night—more so for Lewis than for me, but still. The only one who made out good in that heist was the owner of the clothing store. I was told by Sis’s boyfriend (who still worked there) that he cleared off the rest of the shelves for himself and his employees before calling the insurance company to claim the loss. Everyone but us got lots of new clothes. Sis got a leather handbag, which was more than I got. (Much later, Lewis’s younger brother was told about the corduroy episode and decided: Hey, that’s a pretty good idea! It was still a bad idea. He followed in his brother’s fingerprints and got caught. That clothing store was a regular family outing for those two—a real fun center. In a way, little brother’s added episode would make this two stupid nights in one.)
By the winter of ’71, the park had thinned out dramatically. Some people enlisted, got their license to kill, and went to Nam. The drugs were cheap there. Another score of poor saps were getting drafted or fleeing to Canada as a result. The recommended drug to take for the Army physical was downs. Sis’s boyfriend fell asleep during the hearing test with his finger on the buzzer and was declared 4F. Unfit for service, the lucky bastard.
A guy we called Big Bobby joined up because he didn’t want his younger brother to get drafted; the Army wouldn’t take your last boy back then. Lured by readily available drugs overseas, little brother enlisted anyway, so Big Bobby shot a hole through his own foot to get back stateside—where he hobbled around on crutches for a while before they sent him back to the jungles. Meanwhile, little brother had been diagnosed with ‘desk feet,’ and wasn’t infantry material after all. So it goes… We all had stupid days.
Many were busted for one reason or another and fled the state, most going to Florida and California. Some went to California to be-in at the love-in and wallow in free sex, drugs and rock-n-roll. Some even went off to college, mostly party schools upstate.
Billy Spivak, the only guy I knew with an actual pair of blue suede shoes, was tricked into going to Spain for a ‘vacation’ by his parents. We never heard from him again.
Some couldn’t freeload anymore and had to get real jobs.
Little Levine was shot dead by an off-duty cop he had antagonized and then threatened. They even ran a photo of him in the Long Island Press, lying prone on our handball court. Technically, that was a stupid morning for Levine—his last.
Jeff Stark was found stabbed to death in the old World’s Fair grounds, where we had gone to see Led Zeppelin and Iron Butterfly concerts; and where Billy King climbed the unisphere to bring thorazine to some poor, tripping sap stuck halfway up it so he could get down and on with his stupid night. They said it probably took Jeff two or three hours to die. We all knew who did it, too, on a drug deal gone sour.
Ronny Rosenthal got a mysterious bullet to the brain. He could still walk around with it lodged permanently in there, but he wasn’t the same.
I can’t remember one overdose that someone didn’t pull out of. If anything, we knew how to get stoned without killing ourselves.
There was, however, one addition to the park clientele. Margaret was pregnant. All I could think of was her father padding my shoes with cement and tossing me over a bridge into the cold, dark Hudson when he found out. I’m afraid I didn’t handle the situation very well.
“We can still get an abortion, right?” Which was less of a question than a hope on my part.
Margaret knew about as much as I did. “I don’t know…” She stared past me, through big, blue, red-rimmed eyes. She was in shock.
Take birth control seriously, or be prepared to make a hard decision—at the end of which there’s no guarantee of happiness. I should have asked her what she wanted to do instead of assuming she would get an abortion, especially since I knew how much she loved kids. For a while we even had a name picked out, but ultimately opted on the side of reason. Margaret was sixteen, her father was Sicilian—we didn’t want to die. Not knowing what to do, I confided in my parents. At the time you could still get an abortion for three hundred bucks in a hospital downtown and go home the next day. Ma drove us, and I felt stoo-pid. According to the palm reader at Coney Island, I had two more kids left to come.
Looking back on it now, I am conflicted. On the one hand, I miss the child who could have been. On the other, I’m happy with my life the way it is, so who’s to say this might not have been a disaster and heartbreak for all concerned? Perhaps this defines me as a pessimist, I don’t know. At the time, I had no such foresight about how I might feel later.
Winter didn’t help; it contributed to our downfall. The only warm place that would put up with us without spending any money was the local pool hall—a denizen of junkies, thieves, sharks, pushers, pimps, freaks, psychos, armed robbers and killers. All of us went there except Oscar, who had been caught robbing the till on one of his days of blunder and was promptly banned. He hid under a pool table when they were closing, then cracked the safe—a skill he perfected on his old man’s, the one with the stamp collection he used to have before Oscar pawned it. The plan was to stay there all night, then mingle with the crowd when the place opened and simply walk out. Once the proprietor found that he’d been robbed of his cash, he couldn’t open the doors that morning. When the cops arrived, they found Oscar under a pool table and before he could say oh, stoo-pid me, they hustled him to the precinct. The owner of the pool hall decided not to press charges. Unfortunately, it wasn’t Oscar’s last stupid day.
Oscar usually waited outside wearing his thin leather jacket. He’d freeze his ass off, but he’d also be first in line when the blue balloon came up the subway steps—indicating that Blue-Morphan Fred was open for business. If we were lucky he didn’t bring his girlfriend with him, who was just about the ugliest person I’d ever seen—of either sex. A hooker, we all knew her daughter, Sally Syph, who could give you a hickie just standing next to you. You’d find it later on your stomach or under an armpit and wonder how it got there.
We spent a lot more time waiting around for that pharmaceutical morphine than getting high on it. If we were lucky enough to cop some, we hightailed it to a safe apartment stairwell and broke out the gimmicks: the bottlecap to cook in, some water from the basement sink (preferably clean), cotton from a cigarette filter, a belt to get those veins to stick up, the stuff, matches to boil it down, paperclip wire to hold the heating bottlecap and a set of works you hoped had a clean, sharp needle that didn’t go pop when you stuck it in. We used either a regular plunger-type syringe or the makeshift nose dropper and pacifier bulb to boot it in. I hit the mainline on my second attempt and never missed again—a benefit of good eyesight and wiry arms. Afterward we might have a snowball fight, or simply hang around on the streets with our jackets open to the cold air.
When Fred and his balloon didn’t show, we sampled the smack. One day a dime bag would set you straight, the next day a nickel would knock you on your ass. That meant you had to sample it first, if you were patient enough, which left twice as many tracks in your arm. I never liked to shoot anything alone. Two people were safer; it gave you a better chance of getting an air bubble out of your vein before it reached your heart and killed you.
Oddly one night, when we were feeling particularly jonesy, it was Kleinberg’s father who saved our lives. The Kleinbergs had gone to play bingo and, more importantly, big brother Ira wasn’t home. It started out innocently enough with some barbituates and beer, but that wasn’t good enough. We had to snort the goofballs, so they’d come on quicker. Problem with that, Kleinberg found out, is that it’s like lighting a butane lighter up your nose, so we decided the best way was to shoot them. We’ll ram them right up mainstreet even if they don’t cook—which they didn’t, not very well at least. That is, if they don’t dissolve into liquid it’s impossible to shoot congealed lumps straight into your vein. We tried anyway. The first one foamed up, ruined. The second try produced a liquid when we coaxed it over the fire slowly and used it fast, before it turned to whipped cream.
Somehow we must have decided it’d be a good idea to nod out and die in the living room. The Kleinbergs came home and saw their fuckup son unconscious on the floor with his face resting in a cupcake (the kind with the white squiggle down the middle), and an abscess the size of an ostrich egg already turning black on his arm. Closest to the door, suddenly I was getting the bum’s rush and landing on my ass outside in the hallway. Mr. K. turned and went back for Chuckie, who quickly whipped out his knife. I remember thinking how glad I was that Kleinberg’s older brother, Ira, wasn’t home for the festivities. Mr. K. pulled up short at the sight of the shiny shiv. I watched him through the open door.
Chuckie waved it menacingly in his direction. “Don’t touch me, man! I ain’t bullshittin’!” Oh great, Chuckie, antagonize him some more… I thought, wondering if Kleinberg’s old man might simply pull out a pistol and put an end to this. He was from the South Bronx; this was just like the good ol’ days for him.
“Soooo, ya wanna play with knives, do ya?” he yelled, flying through the dining room toward the kitchen. Chuckie took that cue to show his heels to the door, while Mr. K. fumbled in a drawer for just the right knife to hack us into little, Hoffa- sized pieces. As we tumbled down the staircase together, Mr. K. came out brandishing a meat cleaver even Tarentino would have thought was overkill. We bolted and didn’t look back.
They managed to revive Kleinberg at the hospital; but that abscess… very nasty. With that under his belt, he was out on the streets again in two days looking for more. None of us, including Kleinberg himself, had seen Ira since the unfortunate encounter with Mr. K. The three of us nearly ran into him at the pizza place, but recognized his huge mass from half a block away and kept our distance. Kleinberg, showing some real backbone and pluck, went up to his brother while Chuckie and I hung back, far enough to flee at so much as a hiccup from him in our direction.
“Yo, I—” Little Brother managed to say. Ira’s arm was a blur. His upper body hardly moved as a vicious, open-handed clubbing came out of nowhere. With a whipping smack it actually lifted Kleinberg parallel to the ground before he crashed to the sidewalk like a piano dropped from a crane. Chuckie and I winced. We could see stars spreading copiously around poor Kleinberg’s head, and little birdies. In real life, only the crickets spoke.
While Kleinberg attempted to stand, Ira looked over murderously at Chuckie and me. From somewhere deep under unforgiving, malevolent brows—a searing, dangerous glare—he pointed at Chuckie and growled: “If you’re ever within arms reach, I’ll kill you.” It was plain and that simple. I knew pulling a knife on Mr. K. would backfire. Then he looked at me and just shook his head. I was poised on the balls of my feet, halfway turned and ready to haul-ass. Ira didn’t have anything further to add. I would have moved to Zamboanga had he told me to.
Kleinberg rubbed a huge red hand mark that covered the side of his face, neck and collarbone—but stood his ground. “Thanks, Ira,” he said. I was relieved that he was okay, and even more relieved he was taking Ira’s attention off Chuckie and me.
“How can you be so fuckin’ stoo-pid!?” Ira said to his flaming-red-haired brother. I took it as a rhetorical question. We waited for what was sure to be Kleinberg’s lame reply.
“So, this wouldn’t be a good time to ask you to lend me some money?” I closed my eyes, not wanting to watch anymore. Kleinberg was a little too quick for his older, more massive brother. The next thing I knew, we were all running for our lives down the block with Big Ira on our heels.
During the winter of this discontent, I managed to do something smart. When Sis’s boyfriend thrust Henry Miller’s Black Spring in my hands, I read it. From that moment on, I had a goal to become a writer. Though my habits didn’t change, my outlook was starting to. I tried to sit up and take note of all the stupidity in my life, but couldn’t seem to do much about. I had a mental addiction to getting high, and it was sure to lead me by the nose to places far worse than where my otherwise ordinary, middle-class life would have.