How did I get to Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, New York? A good question. Maybe a loss of direction? I think so. At least there were different expectations for my life. Did anybody care? Did I care? Like Holden Caufield, after a semester of college, I had gone out to find myself, first in Europe, on a motorcycle, hanging out with pot smoking beatniks. It all just made me more confused. I was not all washed up but jaded and worn at the edges, lost. I was twenty three.
Recently I had been caught with another man’s wife on the beach at Fire Island. Oh boy, a dramatic mess, a brief affair for me, and a divorce for them. Before that I had worn out my welcome staying with friends of my sister in a brownstone at 101st street and Broadway in upper Manhattan. The nice people of the house got tired of my traipsing up to the fourth floor to my little room with one girl friend or another in tow. I answered the door one evening and admitted a hysterical black transvestite who seemed to be in dire straits. Well, that was the last straw. He/she was a notorious robber, so it turned out.
From pillar to post I bounced, and bounced into the arms of an older woman, Caroline, with whom I was working at the time, she a film editor and I a sound editor and production assistant on a project for Eastern Airlines, an airline that no longer exists. Caroline had a loft on Atlantic Avenue in an industrial building but was not living there presently. But she had been though, until recently, and with an old Chinaman, Hsin Tow, as I came to find out. He was in police custody.
Here’s how it happened. The loft they had renovated was on the second floor above a big industrial space where a rag business operated. The loft didn’t take up all the footprint of the building so there was a rather large flat tar roof beyond the living space which Caroline and Hsin had turned into an urban garden with some plants in barrels and some chairs. It looked across to the backside of the brownstones on State Street, the first residential street in Brooklyn Heights. The people in those brownstones had little gardens between their buildings and the ones on Atlantic Avenue. Hsin and Caroline looked straight across to the brownstone belonging to the Paglianis, old Italian people who had been there forever. Later I knew that Joe would sit in the summer by his sacred mulberry tree and gaze lovingly across the little yard to his fig tree.
There had been a lot of robberies on State Street and on Atlantic Avenue too. People were on edge. Hsin had helped Mrs. Ramos, from the restaurant next door, recover after being robbed at gun point and hit in the face. Henry, a black guy who worked in the rag business on the ground floor of the loft building had come to work one day with serious bruises and cuts and a bandage around his head. Henry was a very nice man.
He said, “I will never let anyone get close to me again. They came up and asked for a match and the next thing they were beating me and going through my pockets. They kept beating me even after they got all the money.”
He was seriously depressed about what happened. It was as if a light went out in his soul the way Caroline described it.
One night Hsin was sitting out on the tar roof garden in the dark smoking a cigarette when he saw a man cross the roof of the Pagliani brownstone and start down the fire escape quiet as a cat. The robber stopped every so often to sense the situation; he was checking the windows to see if any were unlocked. Hsin, without hesitating, crept back into the loft through the small door that went into the bedroom and pulled out a 22 rifle he had, loaded it with a five shot clip, and snuck back out onto the roof. The thief was just moving down the fire escape to the next lower floor to check another window when Hsin shot him. He fell three floors right into Joe’s Mulberry tree which probably saved his life, breaking his fall. Next thing there was yelling and screaming and the sight of Hsin, slightly in shock, looking down at the result of his vigilante work still holding the rifle.
The police were all over this in a hurry because they had been trying to catch this thief for a long time. They were glad to see him drop. But, it was a gook who dropped him and that confused them. The Viet Nam war was raging. Not only that but the robber was dressed in a suit and, it turned out, had a business card saying he was in the roofing business. Very shrewd. This all looked bad for Hsin except that the robber had on his person a crow bar and also a glass cutter. Eventually, when the cops figured out where he lived and got over there, they found a treasure trove of stolen objects from the ten block area of our neighborhood. Despite that, it is understood even in New York City that one can’t just go around shooting robbers so the next stop for Hsin was jail, the Tombs in lower Manhattan, in Chinatown!
It took a while to sort this all out and their relationship was over anyway, which is why Caroline was presently staying with an old artist up on Riverside Drive. His name was Marshall Glover and he taught drawing at the Art Students League, having migrated to New York City from Walla Walla Washington after his wife ran off with the “We Wash It” laundry man. Ah life! He was a sweet old man and provided a zone of safety for a group of women who seemed to need a zone of safety. Years later I knew an artist who had married one of them like I did and he said, “There was something wrong with all those women staying at Marshall’s”.
I am not sure what attracted me to Caroline. She seemed in control of her life and organized. She was pretty without making any effort to enhance it. In my desultory condition of arrested development there was a spark of awareness that I needed remedial work both in life skills and in character growth . ‘Where there is life there is hope’. It seemed maybe Caroline, being six years older and a lot more mature, could help me. And for her maybe it would be good to not be living with a Chinaman twice her age, one who was presently traveling through the court system. Maybe her parents would like to see that she could get married before age thirty which, at the time, was the delineation mark separating the normal from the afflicted in the female gender. So we got married.
And that is how I got to Atlantic Avenue because after bouncing around in a couple of apartments and taking a photojournalistic trip together down south, killing time until Hsin Tow was able to clear out his stuff with the help of his Chinese ex-wife, we finally moved into the loft together. And I, a young man without much direction, and increasingly dependent on getting high to avoid the burden of adulthood, entered into the neighborhood life of Atlantic Avenue between Clinton and Henry Streets.
It was summertime. Inside the TV shop, fans were blowing the heavy air. Tom played chess with Anthony while Set, the Indian, worked at the bench where a row of old TVs waited to be put back in working order. On the other side of the bench was another row of TV’s waiting to be fixed. It seemed to me that they had grown there, planted, frozen in time. Chess was important, not TV’s, and yet Tom and Set repaired enough of them to pay the rent and have some food to eat.
It was a grimy place; you could see out of the storefront windows if you took a paper towel and made a few circles. Somehow the dust on those big windows softened the light and gave the interior a warm, homey feeling. It was Tom’s shop, Tom Stefanelli, half Lebanese and half Italian. He was a Korean War Veteran although they must have made custom uniforms for him since he was barely five feet tall. They might have made an exception due to his fighting power. Tom was broad and strong and intense, a coiled spring. He could be crazy and scary and especially scary, I could imagine, in a tight situation like war! After Korea he enrolled in a school run by RCA to learn how to fix TV’s. Maybe the army helped with that. It was a decent trade and, although he was not thrilled by it, there were parts of the work he liked. He enjoyed it when someone in a tenement apartment would call in desperation because it was a crucial Yankee game and the tube died just after the national anthem. Then Tom became the most important person in the world, the priest of TV’s, the exorcist of the evil spirit in “the box”.
I went with him on some of those emergency calls since I wasn’t doing much at that time. My photography career had promise but was stalled out. In between assignments instead of pushing myself I was afloat on marijuana dreams or focused like a laser pushing pieces on a chess board.
“Let’s go Rick,” Tom would say, and off we would go on an emergency call to one of the many unknown neighborhoods of Brooklyn, concrete and asphalt landscapes of elevated trains, storefronts, and apartment buildings- endless streets seemingly alike. He had a giant 4 door Buick sedan, a monster. “Where did you get this piece of shit, Tom?” I asked. “Is it even registered? I had noticed that the plates were tied on with some wire.
“You know I got friends in high places, Rick” “I would have to work hard to get arrested in Brooklyn with the favors I got out there to collect.”
For example, I knew, for one thing, that he let the Irish cop on the beat, Johnny Ryan, use his apartment to pork his Puerto Rican girlfriend when he had the urge. Sometimes when I would go by Tom’s apartment Johnny answered the door in his sleeveless T shirt and I could see Gloria pulling her clothes back on in the background. “Come back later for your reefer, Rick. Tom’s not here” Johnny would say. “We ain’t finished.”
Tom threw his black bag of tools on the back seat and off we went on our mission of mercy, barreling along those mean streets of Brooklyn at a break neck speed smoking a couple of Columbian Red splifs for courage. Short people are scary; they are dangerous. Tom drove that monster car like devil may care! He would tailgate to inches going fifty miles an hour!
“Come on Tom. Take it easy” I pleaded, since my mind was already out of control, almost hallucinating from that super pot recently arrived on “Picha de Oro,”one of the ships from Columbia docked at the foot of Atlantic just a few blocks down the hill from the shop.