I loved New York. I know that sounds incredible today, but boy, those Staten Island ferry rides at sunset really got to me --and for only a nickel! Being a true New Yorker, I was securely embalmed in the smug belief that I was living in the rightful center of the known universe. London, Paris, San Francisco --merely (sneer, sneer) "interesting." If anyone had told me then that I would some day wind up in Maryland, I would've laughed in his impudent face. But then came the time when it suddenly dawned on me that everyone I knew --including me! --had been mugged and/or burglarized at least once, and that it was time to Move On.
Starting in 1975 I went through a four state shuffle that eventually saw me in Baltimore, where I had many Growth Experiences (including two burglaries and an attempted arson).
Nowadays I'm out in the tranquil suburbs of Randallstown. I walk the dog, mow the lawn, rake the leaves, shovel the snow, and scrape the deer poop off my soles before putting on my shoes. But even in the midst of rotting in this semi rural Walden trap, there are still times when I get these flashes of nostalgia for Manhattan, borough of my birth and first thirty-three years of life. Usually right after a Woody Allen movie.
I realize you can't go home again. Most of my childhood neighborhood, Yorkville, has disappeared under the wrecking ball of upscale urban development, most of the original inhabitants muscled out of their buildings through a variety of sleazy realtor ploys. (I doubt if I could even afford a broom closet on East 93rd Street now.)
But even real estate leeches can't deprive me of my youthful city memories, those childhood adventures amid concrete and asphalt --which seemed so natural!-- in the shadow of the immense and castle like structure of Rupert's Knickerbocker Brewery, with its beer barrel clock chiming out the hours, all surrounded by the heavy iron fence that would later impale one of my best friends, Eddie Leonard, right through the digastric anterior. (He survived, but did have trouble eating for a while.)
Then there were the nightly tugboat sounds from the East River, plus the availability of Central Park, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, all the mummies and dinosaur bones in the Natural History Museum. So many things within walking distance!
Even so, childhood has particular drawbacks, one of them being the Big Kids, or Predators. They're out there in Oklahoma, Bangkok, Glen Ellen --anywhere you can think of --giving someone little the "Indian burn." In the cities it gets worse because often the predators organize and form gangs; in my old neighborhood in the 1950s we actually had the Sharks and the Jets. At least according to the graffiti--I was never actually acquainted with a Shark or a Jet, but I was getting beat up a lot by the Comanche Dragons, older guys in black leather jackets, duck's ass haircuts, and thick, heavy buckled garrison belts --handy for wrapping around a fist when punching a victim in the stomach.
I had a number of ways of relating to the Comanche Dragons when it was unavoidable, mainly playing the fool and joking my way out, or running like hell. But when my particular Dragon nemesis, the rat-faced Pete Stoter, eventually cornered me on the third floor landing of a friend's apartment building, I had nowhere to run and he wasn't up for any laughs.
We circled each other, Pete enjoying it. "Where ya goin', shitface?" he inquired, giving me the preliminary violent shove. We circled; another shove. "Aw, c'mon, Pete, lemme alone, will ya?" Another shove, and then a harder one, and I was getting more frightened. And then, suddenly, this golden, beatific realization: we had rotated enough so that Stoter's back was facing the top of the staircase leading down to the second floor. I gave a shove of my own-- hard!
I will treasure the next few seconds forever.
It was as if Stoter had wings, a flying thing, descending every few steps only to soar up again, free.
He bounced all the way down and landed with a meaty thud. I think there were a few cartwheels, too. (I replay this memory in slo mo when I'm low.) But I knew I couldn't stand there and savor things. Within seconds, I had levitated two floors and was pounding on my friend's door: "Bob! Bob! OpenthedoorBob!!"
Bob Krolak was one of my best friends. I knew him from the days when we used to work on a four page hectographed newszine, The Yorkville Youth Center Globe. Bob was over six feet high and two hundred pounds by the time he was thirteen, and in personality was sort of a Dan Steffan kind of guy. (He had a sick sense of humor! ) He also introduced me to the writings of Leslie Charteris, Rex Stout and Richard Matheson, as well as to F&SF and Playboy. And we were total fanatics when it came to Pogo and the sacred E.C. comics.
We joked around and played records and talked about the prozines. I had forgotten about Pete Stoter. Finally it came time to leave. Bob glanced out the window. "Uh, Steve, you better take a look at this." Below us on the street, slouched on a car opposite Bob's door, were Pete Stoter and three other Comanche Dragons, carrying baseball bats and broom handles.. They saw us and began waving fists. Fists and middle fingers.
Well! A dilemma. We didn't quite know what to do, so we got some balloons, filled them with tap water, and hurled them out the window --when in doubt! But this just seemed to exacerbate the situation. It was getting late for supper and I really had to go. What to do?
We went up to the roof. Between Bob's building and the next four buildings was a gap ten feet wide and six stories deep.
Fortunately Bob knew where he could find a twelve foot plank....
I have little memory of crawling across that plank, but feel a few twinks of recognition when I watch Hitchcock's film Vertigo. I ran across the four rooftops, went down a fire escape to an alley, climbed a fence, and went home.
("What did you do today, Steve?" "Oh, nuthin', Mom.")
Now, I have no qualms about airplanes and even think I'd enjoy parachuting if I was ever crazy enough to try it, but to this day I get a bit queasy when looking down from tall buildings. It almost verges on a phobia when I let it, and yet I don't think walking that plank was alone responsible for this particular quirk in my personality. I realized this when I first started thinking about doing this article; there were five instances in my childhood where I either witnessed someone falling to their death, or knew someone who fell. It seems weird --or maybe just part of growing up in Manhattan.
I was just ten when Anthony Bednoze fell from a roof. He was one of the first Big Kid bullies I knew; he would give me frequent Indian burns while describing horrendous and imaginative tortures --usually involving crocodiles. Worse, he had a vicious cocker spaniel called Blackie that he trained to sic on little kids. How we hated that damned fleabag! So an instant neighborhood legend was started the day Anthony was loaded on the ambulance as we all stood around watching.
"Blackie, Blackie!" he cried.
Mr. Stein, our fifth grade art teacher, drank whiskey and smoked cigars in class. I thought he had some style. One day he walked into the supply room and never came out. After ten minutes we all began to get nervous. After fifteen minutes, somebody walked up to the door and knocked. No answer --maybe Mr. Stein had a heart attack! Finally someone worked up nerve to look inside.
That was when we discovered that the supply room had a window. It was open.
Jimmy McLaughlin was twenty-seven, epileptic, and our next door neighbor, along with his parents. I didn't know Jimmy that well, but really liked his mother, "Auntie," who looked like an 85-pound wizened spider monkey, chain-smoked Camels, and filled me with tea at every opportunity. Both his parents were elderly and from Ireland and looked on Jimmy's epilepsy as a dark and shameful secret; he never got the medical treatment he needed. One day Jimmy got undressed for a bath. As the water ran, he felt a bit of dizziness, opened the window, and sat on the ledge.
Just then his mother opened the door....
I have difficulty in relating this next one because I've grown up enough to feel a sense of decency --and a sense of shame for my youthful mindset, but in the 1950s it was considered desirable for us young New York snots to be completely callous and shuck all those normal human feelings that evolution has striven to provide us over the course of millions of years. To achieve this exalted and stultified lack of grace was to be a "Rock"; if you were a Rock, you were Real Cool. In reading the papers, I get the feeling that this teenage mindset is not yet passe´.
I was thirteen years old and eating an ice cream cone as I walked down 75th Street towards First Avenue on my school lunch break. Suddenly, behind me, I heard a horrible sound. A mere eight feet in back of me lay the body of a suicide. It was obvious he had landed on his head.
"Tsk," I said to myself, "how gauche!" Then I continued on walking and finished my cone. A rock never cries, an island feels no pain.
What a horrendous mindset! I think even as I donned that warped mental armor over the years, it troubled me. (I certainly felt some pangs of recognition when the Paul Simon song came out years later.) But unfortunately I wasn't alone in my "rockhood": growing up on the East Side, in a mostly poor and working class neighborhood, acquainted me with violence and death, sometimes firsthand.
This was our attitude: on one hand there was Reality, a big scowling fucker with a truncheon, and on the other hand there was Justice, that little biddy scurrying thing just on the edge of vision --occasionally it twitched, but that was about all. (And has this picture really changed?) So it was best to develop those callouses; certain feelings could literally be a drag. I used to think that our little pocket of life that bred that mindset was a New York aberration.
I used to think -stefnal optimist! -that this kind of thing would fade out in the March of Civilization, but today I think of the state of cities and even towns everywhere, here and around the world, and how there is a spiraling avalanche of young empathy stunted Rocks, growing more numerous in each generation. Civilization ho!, and I realize that -by comparison- my New York experiences were a pure idyll. Depressing, isn't it?
As a falling anecdote, this is, I suppose, a Classic of some kind, inasmuch as it involves the Empire State Building. I was seventeen and working as a machinist at Kelly's Wire Dies, located on the 22nd and 23rd floors of the Empire State Building. It was a summer job and I worked on six machines of three different types, becoming rather good at it, much to my own surprise, and even capable of doing simple repair work when one of them broke down. (My bosses begged me not to go on to art school.)
Two of my machines faced a large window, and one day as I knelt to oil a gear chain, I happened to glance up just in time to see a body flash by, arms flailing, all in a fraction of a second, almost a subliminal happening -so fast, in fact, that I spent the remainder of the day wondering if that split second vision had been some form of hallucination. But of course it wasn't.
And by that time I had fortunately outgrown that stupid "Rock" business: Ouch!
All the above may account for my slightly phobic reaction to building heights, but at that time, after escaping Pete Stator, my main fear was of being turned into raw hamburger in the next few days. Stator went to the same school that I did and there was no way to avoid him. Eventually he caught me alone in Home Room and proceeded to whale the tar out of me.
More out of reflex than anything else, I swung the lunch bag I was carrying; it connected with the side of his head.
Suddenly Stator emitted a high-pitched scream and reeled back, a geyser of blood spraying out of his ear in six-inch spurts. Shrieking hysterically, Stator ran from the room. I was nearly in shock but still puzzled enough to look in my lunch bag.
Inside was the can of tomato juice and the very sharp can opener my mother had packed for me.
The next two weeks were a nightmare. Stator had disappeared and I kept expecting the cops to come for me. On the other hand, jail might've been preferable to Comanche Dragon vengeance! But when Stator did finally show up, I was amazed to find him shaking my hand, his ear swathed in bandages. I was a real Rock, he explained, and besides he had been able to miss two weeks of school!
From then on, I was cool with the Comanche Dragons and they never bothered me again.
Unfortunately, this privileged immunity didn't extend to my younger brother, Jeff. Two years later the Dragons caught him in Central Park and beat on him with chains. He managed to escape by wriggling into a drainage pipe. This experience energized Jeff and changed his whole life. He worked out with weights for four hours every day for a year until, at the end of the period, he picked up eighty pounds all in the right places and looked something like Charles Atlas--very lumpy. But Jeff was satisfied, so I guess our experiences with a gang had a happy ending.
No pain, no gain!
(From Robert Lichtman's TRAP DOOR #17, April 1997. Art by Dan Steffan)