Written January 2018/ Set in Brooklyn NY in 1955
The kid looked familiar, but he wasn’t from my street. Not from one block down the hill, and likely not the next one either. I would have known him if he was nearby, either on my block or one of the blocks where we knew some kids and might sometimes walk through. Not stop, not play, but you felt safe enough to walk through.
Uphill there was nothing but a wide divided roadway, and across the roadway the Negro kids.
To one side of the block was the Park, no one living there. On the other side, a commercial avenue, who knew if anyone our age lived across there. Truth be told, your friends were on your block, there were so many kids your age just on one street that you didn’t need to know about anywhere else.
So he must look familiar from school. At school you also hung out with your block, why look for trouble. But if he looks familiar from school and he isn’t on your block, he must be a smart kid because your classes were with the smart kids, the kids who would skip the eighth grade because you could finish that grade in your spare time as you went from the 7th directly to the 9th. You didn’t talk much about skipping that year, though, even on the block; that kind of information could get you punched in the head.
Maybe more than once.
He was small, fast, agile, good on his feet, but mostly he hit a hard shot which was not easy. The outdoor handball is small, black and made of tight rubber; it feels like you are hitting a baseball sometimes. The trick is twofold: toughen up your hands, and then let the ball half-roll off your hand, not quite cupping it but more like smoothing its path from your hand to the concrete wall, where it had to bounce back into the rectangular field of play in fair ground to be hit back to the wall by your opponent or, if well placed, bounce off into the corner of the chain link enclosure unreturned, gaining a point for you. Eleven could win, twenty-one could win, but even as kids we played for money also. A quarter could get you a movie ticket; a half-dollar a deli sandwich with a whole sour pickle.
The kid had short crew-cut hair, not much by way of muscles, and no butt stuck out of his jeans. His white T-shirt was pasted to his sunken chest in sweat, which dripped from his nose and chin when he ran. He could crouch low and whip the ball into the corner, or gently let the ball roll off the rough fabric of his gloved hand to hit deep in the court and bounce above his opponent’s head and reach. He was wearing glasses, not usual on the court but no one in the day had heard of goggles and, if they had, they would not have worn them. The sides of his glasses were held solidly in place by large pink protruding ears.
The other kid, the opponent, was bigger, a couple of years older, dark hair and hawk nose, likely Italian with his gold cross jumping off his bare chest whenever he bent or twisted. His friends didn’t look familiar at all; high school kids, the high school was far away, you usually didn’t find kids from high school hanging out in our park, those kids could take care of themselves, they could play in the big-money games, the two dollar handball games, the 25-50 cent poker games, they were old enough to take care of themselves and they ran in packs anyway and went to the big parks with the big basket-ball courts and the dozens of concrete walls where the adult men came to play handball on the weekend and bet ten or twenty dollars a game and they were so good that it was a different game and they knew each other’s names and had been playing against each other for ten or fifteen years, going to different parks on a semi-regular schedule followed by the bookies and their marks.
So this kid, he’s making his points and he’s running all over the court and tiring out the older kid, who was smoking cigarettes before the game began and probably thought this was going to be an easy quarter. Only the kid, he starts pulling ahead, he’s got him 17-13, he’s got him 19-16, he is serving for the win at 20-18 and he hits a real rocket hard off the wall, it whizzes back along the side line to the older kid’s left hand which is a defensive hand and not a real winning weapon, the older kid just reaches the ball and flicks it softly to the middle of the wall with his last stretch, and the blond kid, he has time, he slowly circles the ball as it is coming down and POW he blasts it an inch over the ground and into the far corner where the ball hops up and bounds away and the little kid, he wins!
So when you win a game like that you shut up because you don’t gloat with the loser’s friends looking at you. You don’t shake hands and tell the other guy it was a good game because, hell, it’s 1955 in the City and let’s just say the social graces aren’t high on anyone’s radar and leave it at that.
“That’s a quarter, like we said,” says the blond kid and he holds out his right hand, palm up, the leather center of his glove rough from repeated contact with the hard rubber.
“Yeah, yeah, gimme a minute here, gotta get my glove off and get into my pocket,” says the hawk-nose.
He is pulling up on the fingers of his right hand with his left, which is not easy to do since the glove is sweated up and he is trying to peel the glove off with his other hand which also has a glove on it. Finally his bare hand is into his pocket, he is fishing around and it comes out with a quarter which he is holding daintily between his pointer and thumb, and he makes as if he is about to drop it into the blond kid’s palm when all of a sudden he grabs the kid’s wrist and pulls the lighter boy towards him.
“Hey, guys, get over here,” he shouts, and the blond kid leans back and digs with his heels to break away but he isn’t strong enough.
“Louis, take off this guy’s left glove, will ya?”
The big kid’s friend reaches around back, unhooks the glove and pulls it sharply downward and it peels off into his hands, revealing a silver dollar taped to the kid’s palm with a thick strip of black plumber’s tape.
“Knew it! Little fucker hit the ball real hard. Too hard.” Hawknose glared at the smaller boy and smiled. “You think I’m some dumb wop, some stupid spic, you fuckin’ sheenie bastard,” he inquired at the top of his lungs just before he smashed the kid’s face with his gloved hand. Blood spurted immediately and all over.
“Fuckin’ douche,” he screamed as the smaller boy’s head sagged down, “ya got blood all over my glove, it ain’t gonna come out,” and to be sure of that he punched the kid again and again until he sank to his knees and then fell on his side.
“Quick, go through his pockets, grab his money.”
The smaller boy tried to stick his hand protectively into his right jeans pocket but the other boys grabbed the arm and twisted it behind his back.
There was a popping sound, then a scream that did not stop.
“Got it,” someone said.
“That’ll teach ya, ya fuckin’ punk.” Hawknose bent down until his lips were even with the smaller boy’s ear. “You don’t cheat nobody, ever. Ever. You hear me?”
The blond kid opened his mouth to speak just as one of the other kids kicked him in the mouth, spraying a hand-full of white teeth along with the spray of saliva and blood onto the handball court. Hawknose bent down and gently picked up a few teeth and held them in his ungloved palm, displaying them for the smaller boy to see.
“Souvenirs. Of my trip to your park,” Hawknose spoke gently as he jiggled the teeth in his palm before slipping them into his trouser pocket.
“Hey, lookit, the baby kid is cryin!”
“Well, we can’t let his momma see him with all them tears. Let’s get him washed off.”
Two of the bigger kids picked up the kid and started toward the nearest park exit, the one that bounded a couple of old warehouse buildings. All of sudden Hawknose saw me, staring from behind the fence.
“Hey, you. Yeah, you the faggot with the Dodgers cap. You. He a friend of yours?”
I replied quick as I could, in as calm a voice as I could muster. “Nope. Don’t know him. Just watching the game.”
“Yeah, well keep it that was, ya pussy. Ya got that?”
I turned and started to walk slowly away. “I ain’t even here,” I said, loud and clear and I just kept walking. You don’t grow up in the City without picking up some street smarts, if you catch my drift.
Behind me I hear the blond kid crying and gagging and then the whole noisy gaggle is moving away from me as I am moving away also, which is all good news. I get to the edge of the hill where the land rises quickly and the woods are remarkably opaque for an urban setting, and I take a quick step behind a small embankment and let out a loud fart that is almost as loud as my exhaling. “Close,” I thought to myself. “That was close.”
In the distance I hear a small commotion, what is left of that happy band of sportsmen, and I slip behind a tall maple and stick my head up long enough to see the kid being carried across the street. I have lots of cover and they have forgotten about me. I am drawn in fascination; I think maybe they are going to kill the kid, or drown him, they said they were going to wash him off except we are miles from the waterfront and there are no rivers or streams in Brooklyn that weren’t buried in an underground sewer pipe fifty years ago.
I work my way through and to the other edge of the woods. The group has forgotten me, so I come out of the trees and walk slowly to the edge of the street curb. They have carried the blond kid up the wooden steps to the loading dock of the pickle factory. On the dock is a big wooden barrel where they put out the pickles that are so sour and soaked that they are falling apart. There is a tin box with a slot on top, nailed to the side of the dock, with a sign on it: “take a pickle, leave a nickel.” We would sometimes go over there, take a pickle, wince at how sour it was, squeeze out as much of the spicy brine as we could, and then bite into the green-white flesh. Heaven if you could take it. It was so good that every third or fifth time we would even drop a nickel in the slot if we had it.
So bullshit if they don’t pick the blond kid up and dunk him head-down into the barrel and then start running like hell down the street away from our park and back to where they came from.
So I am staring at this most excellent show when I realize the kid’s legs are kicking wildly, back and forth over the rim of the barrel. How much brine is in that barrel, anyway? Not the kind of think you ever thought about when you were sticking your dirty hand into the cold stench to steal your rotting cuke. All of a sudden I am running across the street, damn near run over by a big DeSoto with the flying angel on the hood, some guy yelling at me but I am up the stairs and thank god the legs are still going.
“You okay,” I ask. I hear something muffled. I stick my head over the edge of the barrel. “You okay,” I scream into the void.
The back factory door springs open, a big guy in a sleeveless T-shirt and a cigarette dangling from his lips takes one look at me, another at the legs, and he grabs the kid’s ankles and impressively lifts him straight up and dumps him on the deck.
“You crazy,” he asks? Then he sees the blood coming from the blond kid’s mouth. “And ya fuckin’ bled into the pickles too?”
We sat inside the door, watched by the big guy, until the cops came. We explained. We were not believed. We were suspended from school for fighting. My father paid the factory $15 over the barrel thing. I was put on the blotter for dumping the blond kid in the barrel even though we both denied it. I got to talk a couple of times to a nice lady social worker who told me that punks who keep lying end up in jail. I finally confessed so I didn’t have to keep going to the court-house downtown.
The blond, ten years later, he was my best man. He is a surgeon in the mid-West. I outlived the stigma of my “arrest” and am a lawyer.
I wonder what ever happened to Hawknose? I wish there was some way to find him. But this is what, sixty years ago, what’s the chance? Besides, what do you say if you go on line? ”Hawk-nosed dark-haired punk with a gold cross who beat up that blond kid in Lincoln Terrace Park in the summer of 1955 and threw him in a pickle barrel: all is forgiven, please reply”?
I don’t think so.