Almost every person I knew in my old neighborhood spent their spare time in and about the playground at the park on Van Cortland Avenue: after school, after dinner, on weekends. Everyone. Mothers with newborns, parents with toddlers, preadolescents, teenagers, old ladies seated on green wooden park benches, mobile ice cream trucks. The only people who didn't hang out at the park it seemed were my parents. Maybe they knew that if they hung out there I'd have found another place to go.
My friends and I would play handball and basketball on the asphalt courts behind the benches and park railing, talk endlessly, engage in gossip and romance, tell dirty jokes. Everyone knew who was the strongest, the fastest, the best ball player, what girls liked what boys. The park was the town water well, the teen center, the marketplace, home plate.
Ours was not a tough neighborhood as Bronx neighborhoods go, but we were still arrogant, proud, egocentric New Yorkers, united in our common interests, our schools, the housing project we lived in. We are mostly Jewish and Italian. There was an insularity to our neighborhood created by its location abutting the old Van Cortland golf course, the Major Deegan highway, the Sedgwick Avenue Reservoir, and Mosholu Parkway to the east. We were called Amalgies, after the Amalgamated Housing Project we lived in. Not tough, just united.
Other boys from adjoining neighborhoods would visit our neighborhood regularly, hang out on the rail, play ball with us. Often the boys were tougher than we were. They traveled from their home neighborhoods in packs. They were intimidating in posture and demeanor. They were Irish. They smoked. The draw for them were the ball games and the numerous girls who lived in the Amalgamated Houses and hung out on the rail. We were sitting on the rail one evening in June, about two weeks before I was to graduate from eighth grade, the sun late to set, at least fifty kids talking and playing, when I noticed one of the outside toughs, a guy named James, hassling a pretty younger blond girl, a stuck up shy little seventh grader named Enid. She was very cute, very young, and clearly uncomfortable as she tried to dodge James’ attempts to touch her, to sit with his arm around her, to get her to go off into the park with him. I unconsciously stared at them.
"Why won't you go out with me?" James asked, "I want to be your boyfriend. Don't you like me? Come on, I won't hurt you." It was crude, overt, a bit aggressive, not our neighborhood style. If her father saw her she was in trouble. If a neighbor even reported it to her parents she was in trouble.
The true answer to James' question was, "no, in fact I don't like you, you scare me, you're too old for me, you have pimples, you're not Jewish, and my father would kill me if he saw me with you." Instead she said, "I can't."
"Why can't you?" James asked teasingly.
"I already have a boyfriend," she said, a pretty clever answer for a seventh grader if you'd have asked me. Not bad at all.
But James, not easily dissuaded, misperceived her response as encouraging and parried, "Oh yeah, who,” an equally snappy reply in my book. I was easily impressed. So the cute twelve year old with the Veronica Lake hairdo looked around at the assorted boys available to her, she didn't have any boyfriend as far as I knew, caught me staring at her, and nodding toward me said, "him." Looked right at me as she said it. “Him.” Saw me looking at her, called my very name. Said, "yeah, him."
I was shocked. Maybe also flattered. After all, she was cute, even pretty, even if I'd never talked to her because she was a grade younger than me, stuck up, and shy. But before I had the chance to further review these events, James was walking in my direction. Walked right up to me, was easily two or three years older than me, not bigger than me, but clearly tougher, put his face about two inches from my face and asked, "Are you her boyfriend?"
Now I don't know about you, but from my vantage point a certain chivalry, a certain courage not ordinarily required in one's daily dealings, was unequivocally required in this situation. After all, less than a decade had passed since the end of World War II, a time we knew, even in our youth, when men and women were called upon to speak up for and defend the defenseless, a war in which my uncles had served, in which my father's best friend had been killed, in which those who responded to Jewish plight were honored and praised, while those who failed to respond to the call for help were roundly condemned, at least where I came from.
"Yeah, I guess I am," I said.
"Well, I want to go out with her," James said, "and she says she won't go out with me because you're her boyfriend. So you're going to have to fight me for her."
Really? I thought. I didn't know those were the rules.
"And if you beat me, which I doubt you will, you'll have to fight my brother. And if you beat him, which I really doubt you will, you'll have to fight my friend Smokey, who has a gun and just got out of jail. You understand?" No really, that’s how boys talked there and then.
Well, yes, of course I understood. I nodded. James looked at me. He smiled a crooked happy smile. He walked over to Enid and leaning in toward her right ear said, loud enough for me to hear, "I'm going to fight for you." He turned his back to the rail and walked cockily down the block.
Don't ask me how things like this happened, but that was the end of it and nothing more was said or done that evening. Nothing. James walked away. Enid went back to talking to her girlfriends. She didn't look at me or talk to me. I didn't talk to her. My friends didn't say anything to me about what had happened. I didn't say anything to them. I was not excessively concerned. It was just a moment on the rail, until about a week later.
We were sitting at the rail. Where else would we be? I noticed a black Buick coupe coming down Governor's Avenue toward the park. I saw the car stop at the end of the block, at the stop sign across the street from the rail. James and two older guys, I'd say they were actually men, were in the car. They got out of the car. One of them was James' brother, who I recognized, the other was a man who I took to be Smokey. They got out of the Buick, and sat on the front fenders of the car, arms folded and crossed upon their chests.
James called my name. "Hey you, come here," he said. And, of course, I did. Walked the twenty yards from the rail across the street and stood in front of him, in front of the Buick, in front of the two guys leaning against the headlights and sculpted front fenders of the Buick, arms crossed, watching.
"Now we're gonna fight," James said.
"But I don't want to fight you, James," I said.
"You got no choice. What are you, chicken?"
"No, I'm not chicken, James, I just don't want to fight you."
"You are chicken, right. Say you're a chicken. Admit it. You're afraid. You don't want to fight me. You're afraid. Right? Right?"
"No, that's not right."
"Are you still her boyfriend?"
"Uh, yeah, I think so," I said. I hadn't ever even talked with her.
"Well, then, we have to fight. You have to fight. You have no choice. You have to fight. Understand?"
He came even closer to me, stuck his face into my face. I could see the bloodshot lines in his eyes, the flecks of color in his eyeballs. I could smell the cigarette smoke on his breath. Saw stubble on his chin. Pimples. Freckles.
He pushed me with his the heel of his right hand hard in the center of my chest. "Come on chicken, fight me."
I said nothing. I did nothing. My hands hung limply at my sides. I had the same silly smile on my face that I knew I had when caught doing what I wasn't supposed to be doing. I tried not to look away or blink. I was afraid James was going to punch me. I wanted to see the punch coming, to not be surprised. I had no interest in fighting him, and absolutely less than no interest in fighting either of the guys on the hood of the Buick. I had no inkling how this was going to end. And although I didn't like it, I also wasn't scared. I just stood there, with that shit-eating grin on my face, unable to move, unable to think clearly, unable to walk away. What I actually remember thinking about were my blue jeans with the cuffs rolled up, how I didn't want them to get dirty or torn, didn't want to be in trouble with my mother.
I looked past James to see what the guys on the fenders were doing, but they were just standing there, feet planted, arms crossed, leaning on the Buick, staring. I was aware the street was unusually quiet and still. The rail was still. I sensed no movement, not among my friends behind me, not among the guys in front of me, not among the old ladies on the benches.
"Come on, chicken, fight me," James screamed. He was really angry and frustrated. Working himself up. Trying to provoke us both.
"You're a baby. You're a real fucking baby. You're afraid. You're a chicken. You're a fucking little chicken. Come on, fight me you bastard."
I don't know. I just wasn't moved. It's not as though I was completely frozen, but I certainly was stuck. I didn't want to fight him. I didn't want to get hurt. I didn't want to get my jeans dirty. I didn't want to turn and walk away. It was too shameful, too cowardly, something I would regret for years to come, an embarrassment in front of my friends. I didn't want to back down, but I also certainly didn't want to fight. I could get hurt.
So I stood there. Staring. Trying not to appear frightened, holding what ground was mine. Not sure what I felt. Smiling. Not really feeling anything or knowing what was coming next.
"You are a big fucking chicken," he said. He pushed me again. I thought he was going to spit on me. He spat at my feet. He shoved me again. This time I deflected his hand. Then I shoved him back.
"Come on you big baby, come on, hit me. Fight me. You're a chicken. You're chicken shit. Come on. You're afraid to fight me."
I still felt nothing. I was numb. Alert, but numb. Thoughts raced through my head, no solution amongst them. It was a stalemate, tense but almost safe. I'd stand there. He'd yell at me. I'd stoically take it. It would end. He'd get back in the car and drive away believing I was a chicken and that he'd won. I'd walk away a winner having stood him down. A win win situation I thought. Perfect.
"Come on, James," one of the guys on the car grumbled, "fight the jerk. Let's get it over with, will you, huh?"
"You're a chicken," James said. He was yelling. He was frustrated. His hands balled into fists. The veins in his neck stood out.
"You're a coward. You're a fucking yellow Jew prick. Your mother is a Jew whore. Your mother sucks dick. Hitler was right." He pushed me again.
Now those, unfortunately, were words that somehow pierced my heart and actually hurt, words with power. Fighting words. I stopped reflecting. I impulsively grabbed James' shirt in my right hand and pulled down hard, ripped it half way to his belt. I was shocked. James was shocked. A surprised expression was on his face as I pulled him toward me and kneed him reflexively in the groin. He backed away. His mouth was open. He hit me hard in the cheek with his right fist. It hurt. I heard yelling from the rail behind me. Cheering.
"Come on, hit him."
I was angry, acting on fear and adrenaline. I grabbed James in a headlock. He wiggled free and grabbed me in a headlock. We wrestled around and fell to the ground. Hard. I hurt my elbow but ended up on top of James, straddling him, facing the rail with my back to his brother and Smokey. I didn't want to be there. Didn't want to be on top of James with my back to Smokey. Didn't want to tear my jeans. But this guy was a bastard, a fascist, no better than Hitler youth. And he was in my grasp.
I was also in real danger … and I finally knew it. As we wrestled on the ground I consciously yielded my position leaving James on top. It was safer. I tried to hold him close so he couldn't swing hard. I had no idea what would happen next, James seated on top of me in the gutter, in the middle of the street.
As I lay there contemplating my circumstances, I noticed movement to my left and saw an adult man who lived in my building walking down the street. He was about twenty feet from where we lay when I heard him say, "What have we here, isn't that the boy from Gale Place?" He was totally naive, on automatic pilot. Two kids from the neighborhood were fighting he thought and he was simply going to break it up. He walked over toward us apparently intent on pulling James off me. As he came forward I saw James' brother move off the car. He reached into the front of his jeans and pulled out a long thin black handled knife. He pulled the knife back above his shoulder and started moving quickly toward my neighbor who was about to pull James off me.
As the man bent over James, James' brother was less than a yard from him, clearly aiming to attack, perhaps to even stab the man in the back, or at the least to pull the man off James before he could interfere in the fight. Suddenly, out of nowhere it seemed, my friend Joey came hurtling across the street from the rail and threw himself hard into James' brother's shins, knocking his legs out from under him. The man grabbed James, still intent on pulling him off of me. Joey got up and grabbed the man to pull him off James. James' brother got up from the ground and bent to find his knife. Smokey got off the car and started moving towards us. He reached into his pocket to pull out his handgun. I heard police sirens coming down the block. James got off me. He and his brother and Smokey quickly jumped into their car. I got off the ground ready to run. The man touched my arm and shook his head "no." The police car pulled up beside the Buick, stopping right in front of Joey, me, and my neighbor, all standing to the side of the street.
"What's going on here," the cop on the passenger side of the cruiser asked?
"These two boys were fighting, officer," said the man.
"Oh it was nothing," said Joey.
"Well keep it that way," the policeman said.
"And you guys get out of here," he said to Smokey, who was calmly seated behind the wheel.
"Yes sir," said Smokey as he put the car into gear, accelerated smoothly, turned at the corner, and drove up the hill.
And that was it. No one told my parents I'd been in a fight, or that some guy had come looking for me with a gun. At least no one in my family appeared to know. And it seemed better that way. Over the next week or two when I would come home from school I'd see the black Buick parked in front of the entrance to our apartment house and would go around the block to the back and come in through the basement. Nothing more.
Beginning in July my family rented a house for the summer in Long Beach, Long Island, outside the city, near the ocean. I don't really know why my parents rented such a house. It seemed impulsive and out of character. My mother wanted to be out of the city for the summer, wanted her kids out of the Bronx I guessed, wanted another context in which to manage and entertain us. My father was between jobs, retired as a New York City fireman on a small disability pension, not yet working a new full time job. He loved the beach. Maybe that was the reason.
It was an ordinary tract home, in a suburban neighborhood, though substantially different than the tenth floor high-rise apartment we lived in in the Bronx. Long Beach was different too. One main street filled with stores. An inner harbor. A long sandy beach. I was aware of the sun shining, could smell salt water in the air, sand filled every crack in the pavement, little dry beach plants sprang up in front of peoples' houses on the wide streets lined with parking meters.
I got a job as a stock clerk and grocery delivery boy at the King Cohen grocery on Main Street, made friends with a group of working class kids who wore crosses, regularly petted under the boardwalk with a slightly crippled fourteen year old girl who lived next door, had a permanent limp, and everyone called "Duckie." Sometimes I unhooked her bra and actually held her breasts. She would touch my erection through my pants. She wanted more. I somehow didn’t. I was too afraid I think.
I was caught smoking cigarettes that summer by my father who inadvertently walked passed the open window of the recreation room in the basement of the deserted beachfront hotel where I was absenting myself from work and playing poker. He never said a word to me. Didn't talk to me for a week in fact.
I saw the black Buick with James, and Smokey, and James' brother, twice in Long Beach. I don't know how they knew I was there, but I believe they didn't see me. And I told not a soul. When I returned to the Bronx that fall I saw the Buick parked in front of our house once. Then I never saw the car again. Weeks later James came to the rail. He talked to the girls. He talked to me. No one said anything about the fight. I never ever talked to Enid. Not once. Ever. I believe my parents never knew about James, the fight, Smokey, or the gun. If they had known, I’m certain that my father and my uncle the WWII aviator and NYC narcotics detective would have been involved. And they weren’t.