Rated R (Language)
(Note: Although the following chapter is a true depiction of characters, technically it’s Creative Non-fiction in an effort to better describe the prevailing attitude of the time.)
All that is gold does not glitter. Not all those who wander are lost. From the ashes a fire shall be woken. A light from the shadows shall spring.—J.R.R Tolkien.
These were the years when the great street gangs of the ’50s were slowly infiltrating into regular society and their younger brothers and sisters were on the verge of becoming the Love Generation. My young parents were content to let the streets and public school system raise me while they sorted out their own lives. Leo Gorcey and The Bowery Boys were my heroes. Gang fights were at least regular, if not common. Personally, I had no interest in fighting. I simply couldn’t see the need for pain, of any kind, especially my own. To achieve this delicately balanced, relatively trauma-free existence, I tried to give the impression I was a tough-enough clown—more fun to hang around with rather than kick the hell out of for little or no reason. Such was my motivation, basically, molded out of self-defense.
The hot cars were GTOs, ’57 Chevys and Cobras. They were jacked up in the back, had fat tires on the rear and flames painted on the sides. They were four-on-the-floor and the shifters were skeleton skulls—don’t forget the glasspacks. I’d watch them go by sitting on my Stingray (with the ‘banana’ seat) and occasionally stick a baseball card in the spokes so I’d sound cool. The bicycle turned out to be my main mode of transportation for many years, until it couldn’t take me far and wide enough and hitchhiking took its place. The New York winters were notoriously tough for bike riding, but it beat walking with frozen feet on ice. When you get a new bike for Christmas in NYC you sit on it in your living room looking out the window until it’s nice enough outside to ride it—in March.
There were a lot of kids on the streets in those days. It wasn’t uncommon to find thirty of us lined up for a handball game against the school wall, battling our way to the serving spot. On a Friday afternoon, you could find fifty of us for a game of Tag. Once I realized I was the speediest kid in the neighborhood, it emboldened me in many ways. Whatever the situation, I always felt I could get away to safety with my feet. By the time I was in the second grade I could already outrun most sixth-graders.
That isn’t to say I never got beat in the school races. (‘Racing’ and ‘running away’ had two vastly different incentives.) The second grade was where I learned how to finish a race, having lost one at the last second I should have won. By the fifth grade, the competition got much tougher and I barely beat Melvyn in the 100-yard dash at the school races. He was so pissed he threatened to kick my ass. Fortunately, since he was bussed in I never saw him after school. We faced off again when the sixth-grade races came around. I ran my holy fucking ass off but he beat me fair and square, by an inch or two. Then Willie showed up in the neighborhood and I was the second fastest kid. That Puerto Rican could haul. No shit, the kid was Mercury in a jet pack. His feet never touched the ground.
The more kids there are, the more handicapped there are as well. Our public schools had special classes for those unfortunate people, many of them bussed in from all over the city. Most were simply ‘retarded,’ as they were generally referred to back then—’special’ hadn’t yet entered the American lexicon. They were funny-looking, but mostly harmless. Among the more benign and commonly found unfortunates who had been dealt a hand of lemons, there were others who were downright scary. They were either freakin’ TOO BIG, or they were angry! Usually these edgy and unpredictable types were accompanied by a school aide, but sometimes they’d get out of class and if you were caught in the hall with one of them you quickly ducked into the stairs and went down or up, then to the other side of the school, and back up or down again to avoid them. Some liked to throw chairs around the cafeteria when they thought you were staring. This was the beginning of learning to not make eye contact, especially if looking at someone meant you might have to dodge a metal chair. Now I don’t blame them. If I was fucked up like that I might have thrown chairs around, too.
Us ‘normal’ kids stayed away (by an unwritten code of conduct), avoiding any kind of incidental contact. I don’t know about anyone else because no one ever said as much, but I couldn’t help feeling sorry and downright sad for them, even a little scared for myself that I had escaped such a fate.
It was a long walk from my house to the park, I had time to think. Daydreaming on a humid spring evening while on my way there, I thanked my lucky fuckin’ stars that I wasn’t born a melonhead. God I felt sorry for them, and yet we snickered at their football-shaped heads and sublimated this very real fear with mockery and embarrassing name-calling. It was somehow slick to be better than the less fortunate.
By the time we were in junior and high school, roaming the streets and staying out late at night, we became friendly with some of the less fortunate souls of the city—some of whom lived and died outside. Many were not disadvantaged, but lived on the streets by choice. Those who visited the park became playmates, of a sort. We saw them regularly, and they were at least interactive types of rejects from society—like us.
After spending the winter underground, they emerged from the subways at the first signs of spring. When they couldn’t tell us their name, we gave them one of our own choosing. Mae the Poetess was one such playmate. Mae was a meager, toothless old hag who looked to be in her sixties and recited original poetry while bashing on a broken tambourine she must have found in the garbage. She roved the boroughs and even came with an entourage of faceless boobs that followed her, laughing and clapping and trying to keep up. Mae may have been the original rapper.
I turned the corner, hopped down the hole in the fence to the handball court and said Yo to everyone. Loitering in large and small groups at the park, we heard her coming from a block away. “Sh-h-h-h!” someone said, and we listened for the approaching telltale crashing of Mae’s busted but not-busted-enough tambourine. “Here comes Mae!” There were cheers from some and groans from others. We sampled her latest poetic offerings; some tossed coins her way until she wandered off—smashing and rapping her way through the night, leaving a dull throbbing in the heads of the people watching her go.
One-Ball Paul stared after her with his mouth open, “What the fuck did she say?” No one ever knew.
Panhandlin’ Pete showed up to re-tell stories of his fight with Jack Dempsey, and share other pug-like tales in exchange for nickels and dimes. “I fought him toe to toe,” he said, posing as if waiting for the pop of a photographer’s flash from our invisible cameras. Pete was also a most generous street person, and would give you the jelly donut out of his greasy trench coat pocket if he thought he spooked you.
At our hangout, the all-cement ‘park’ that produced mostly cracks and crackpots, you could get your Cons spit-shined and buffed with a greasy rag and have your shoulders whisked clean for a quarter by Frankie the Bum. “Going to the ball tonight?” he might ask, while brushing off your t-shirt. He must have been the first bum to come by the park, since he looked the oldest. Frankie’s fate was to be found frozen, hard as week-old biscuits, in the alley behind Mitchell’s Bar during a long-ago, forgotten winter.
Haba-cigar George was also in attendance that night. He seemed to materialize out of the thick, polluted air and stand quietly on the fringes of our group. The first night he showed up the ageless One-Ball Paul looked him over from the seat of his Harley-Davidson and finally asked, “Who the fuck are you?”
Haba-cigar George just smiled real big, showing yellowed teeth and brown gums, greenish in the street lights, and made a hand-to-mouth motion—back and forth, back and forth. “Haba cigar! Haba cigar!” he replied over and over, pumping his hand and smiling.
Paul looked confused, and a little disgusted. “Where ya from?” he asked. “Haba-cigar! Haba-cigar!” We quickly found out that was all he ever said and couldn’t help laughing at the poor, demented man from Nowhere. It was a slow night at the park. Kenny had gotten his draft notice that day and was depressed about it. In an effort to amuse himself, he looked at George and said, “Hey George, what should we do tonight?”
George blurted it out happily on cue, “Haba cigar! Haba cigar!” (hand to mouth, hand to mouth).
It was always good for laughs, but they faded quickly for Kenny, who looked at him with pity. “Anyone got a cigar?” he asked the rest of us budding thugs.
Someone produced a Hav-a-Tampa and gave it to him. George accepted it gratefully and smoked it right away. No one knew where he came from or went when he disappeared, but he was harmless so we let him stay. Besides, he was amusing, in a limited way.
Crazy Al brooded silently in a shadowy corner by the swing set. Al never spoke a word but had this thing about holding onto people. When I say holding on, I mean latching himself to a person—a person of our choosing, or victimizing, as it were. A man well into his forties and stocky, Crazy Al’s grip was vice-like.
He’d lay in wait until someone sicced him on an innocent bystander. “Go gettum, Al, go gettum!” we’d whisper in his ear, pointing to the mark, and watch in fascination as he mentally mapped his route to the prey, angling obliquely through the playing field, until he could grab the back of someone’s sleeve, or shoulder, always someplace hard to reach. Then began the stare process, which lasted as long as he could hold on. He would just stare, boring through you from under his pushed-up-in-the-front fur hat that only the disadvantaged wore. The dupes would struggle, of course, but there was only one way to free yourself of this snapper turtle, this pit-bull gone psycho. Crazy Al was the Japanese finger-lock of the insane, you had to ease out of him by appealing to his sense of right and wrong by saying things like: “Al, you’re being a bad boy!” and “NO, Al.” Once you got him thinking about that he loosened up for the split second you needed to make a break for it.
If he thought you were bullshitting him and you missed your window of opportunity to break free, you’d have to bring out the big guns: “Al, I’m going to have to tell your father you were playing in the subways again. I’ll do it!” This always succeeded eventually. He could never quite tell if we were serious, since we would see him and his father walking hand in hand down the boulevard from time to time. At those times, he wouldn’t even look at us, even if we said Hi.
In the glum silence of the evening I smiled, remembering the time we picked a particularly tense looking guy working his way through the oncoming crowd and told Al to “Go gettum!” He started his whole process while we snickered and laughed in the dark corners of the subway station. The man eventually ripped off his sweater and ran, leaving Al standing there with it hanging limply in his vice-like grip. (Oscar, another partner in this sort of crime, got the sweater after shaming Al for terrorizing an innocent commuter.)
Of them all, Tommy Eat-Nyor was my sentimental favorite because I knew him since the second grade and was friendly with his younger brother, Allen, at PS 144. For me and the rest of the male population at the park, his arrival on his ancient truck bike was always a cause célèbre. All the women, however, eventually ran away screaming. Poor Tommy—whose real last name was Cackamont, but it sounded like Eat-nyor whenever he tried to say it—fell out of a quick moving car when he was just a baby and, the story as I got it, rolled along the highway for a while as a result. He was tall, skinny, wiry, strong, and very fucked up. At nineteen he had the mentality of a second-grader, and though his body was screwed by the fall, it didn’t seem to stop him from loving girls—he was apparently normal in that area. When properly instigated, Tommy could be convinced to go after any girl we chose for a ‘kish.’ Running after the poor girl singled out at random by us guys, he looked like The Mummy as he wobbled after them, drooling, with his arms out. Only a mother would kish poor Tommy. The girls were at our mercy when he came cycling around; they could live or die by our secret whispers to him.
“Heidi likes you, Tommy,” we’d tell him, pointing her out. “She said she wants you to spit on her.” Heidi was lots of fun to send him after; she was small, cute and squeaky.
“Oh no…” she’d hold up her hands. “Please don’t!” It was a well-known fact that if Tommy had anything going for him it was his memory, especially for a cute girl’s wishes that he should spit on her. Even if Tommy didn’t get to spit on poor Heidi, as she was running away and screaming, in twenty years he might see her on the street and clam on her as he rode by on his by-then-antique truck bike.
Having compassion today precludes guilt tomorrow. I want to apologize to all the people we unwittingly abused as entertainment for our own amusement. Humans are not toys. Andrew, if you’re out there (yes, you who stuttered so badly), I pray to all that’s holy you have the respect and success you deserve in this life. After having thought about some of the things I did during this time, the memories of ridiculing others were the ones I most wanted to erase. If you’re any kind of decent person as an adult, you’ll regret having made fun of anyone as a kid. Hopefully, my being more compassionate now will help improve the overall human condition.
That was fun stuff to do when there’s little else but other mischief at hand. By comparison to many other things we did, manipulating so-called playmates was seemingly harmless. Tommy Cackamont may still be happily riding his bike some thirty-five years later, but we had no way of knowing that poor Heidi would commit suicide in her twenties. I don’t feel as if we were the cause of her decision to take her own life, but I had only added to her misery when I could have very easily contributed to her happiness instead.
You were so easy with your smiles back then, Heidi. When did they turn to tears, and why? Were you spit upon once too much? I’m so sorry you couldn’t cope… so sorry I didn’t see it then, and so foolish… and I can’t hold back the tears for you any longer. Why didn’t I walk you home one night instead of helping chase you off? Why didn’t I walk you home, protecting you, and tell you what I really thought of you, my sweet, innocent Heidi? Why couldn’t I tell you that I thought you were so cute, and it made me happy when you came around with your giggles and easy laughter? Why did I make you scream and run away instead? Why must I seek forgiveness for these things when it’s too late?
It was this constant and unpredictable interaction that brought people from all over the city looking for something different in a hangout. For the locals who hung out there all the time, it was just another night’s entertainment with our human toys before they broke.