The Neighborhood

One day we were huddled over the boards at the back of the shop, four of us on two boards and a couple looking on and Set in the front by the desk near the windows, fielding calls, wiping sweat off his brow.

“Oh yes Mrs. Jar Darian. Tom is working on it now. Yes, yes veddy veddy soon. Yes, I am sure….” In the front door stomped Moses.

“Hey you fuckin good for nothins “he yelled, his face all red and lit up in a smile. He was giggling hysterically as he cracked poppers, pushing one under Tom’s nose to inhale and tossing them on the chess boards and even threw one at Set who just looked at it. Of course we addicts snatched them up and inhaled violently. Inhaling was something we were very good at. And in no time we were all giggling too and unable to do anything but giggle. Amyl nitrate poppers were designed for emergency use, like just before you die. I actually thought they were invented by some doctor who wanted the dying to die happy. They were a last chance to get your heart going again and if it didn’t get going, well, that’s fine too. I am sure they raised your blood pressure way beyond reason but they were fun for sure.

“Yeah Moses. You’re the man! Whoopee! Yeah Yeah” and like that for about ten minutes. Moses was out the door almost as fast as he came in. He was like that, never staying and hanging out, always on the move. I got the feeling he was a big dealer, not a nickel and dime bag guy but a mover, connected with the bigger scene of drugs in Brooklyn. There was an edge about him too. You didn’t want him for a friend. You would like it better if you didn’t have to see him at all, that type of guy, dangerous. Instinctively, a person can know that. But also, the “white knight”, Angel, had told me about Moses, that he had been connected to a murder, that he had done a few years on Rikers Island. And that was not comfortable for us because no matter what our shenanigans were they were not about violence. Pot smoking, chess, and brotherly love in the neighborhood dovetailed with the popular culture of the time, a culture asking for peace and love instead of war and discrimination. We wanted to be associated with that idea of a gentler world even in our Brooklyn neighborhood.

Anthony, Mary and Angelo’s son, was also scary, almost like a three year old pulling the wings off flies. He was a grown up, dangerous Baby Huey. He was a big fat fucker. His head was like one of those triangular splitting mauls used to bust up fire wood, a head too small for that big body. From his giant chest and gut dangled skinny arms over stick legs since he never walked very far or did any work anybody ever heard of.

Anthony was loyal to the neighborhood and kept his depredations away from the blocks we cared about. We all patronized his parents’ Italian deli. The most recent thing we heard about him was a venture into Manhattan where he got into a road rage incident with another driver and pulled out his 22 pistol and shot up the guy’s car. It wasn’t clear whether or not he hit the guy. He laughed about it with a maniacal laugh. It was easy for us to believe he did it.

Anthony also played chess in the same way he would shoot up someone’s car. He had dirty thin fingers that were recently in his nose or some other serious place. His ferocious attack could make your heart stop. Those grimy fingers slammed the pieces down on the chess board as he marched to kill, giggling with glee as his powerful attack overwhelmed opponents. He crushed me many times until I finally learned how to control my breathing and could see the gigantic holes in his attack, holes that left him vulnerable to devastating counter attack. Once the tables were turned he got quiet and sad and depressed. After a while we didn’t see him at the chess table much anymore.

We never knew what Anthony did for a living. It wasn’t something that people asked on Atlantic Avenue. As long as they had some money to get along, well, who cared where they got it. He knew Moses, though. We could see them talking out at the curb from time to time when Moses would pull up in his low key Ford sedan, lower the window and have some words. That happened from time to time and I wondered about it because I knew Moses was a mean man; it was obvious, and Anthony was crazy which was also obvious.

One day I was out on the street and Albert was outside the cleaners and waved to me to come over which I did. Albert seemed to look up to me like an older brother.

“Rick, you know I am taking night courses to be an accountant.”

“That’s great Albert,” I said.

“I want to have a girlfriend but I have no money and am still living with my mother and sister.”

“Take it easy man” I said. “Take your time. Finish your accounting class.”

“Rick, it takes years, I don’t know if I have time for that.”

About that time Anthony came by and heard us talking. “I told you Albert,” Anthony said. “There are other ways of making money around here. You are such a goody goody Catholic boy you don’t know what’s going on.”
Albert said to Tony, “I don’t want to know about that. All I know is that I don’t want to be like you.”

And it was true that Albert didn’t know what was going on in this drug infested neighborhood with the stuff coming in off the ships three blocks away and dealing going on everywhere. He was a decent boy, a practicing Catholic who loved his mother and sister and took care of them the best he could by working every day at the cleaners and going to school at night. There were plenty of good people like that, the ones who worked every day in the stores selling middle eastern food and spices or going to honest jobs out farther in Brooklyn or across the bridge in Manhattan. They weren’t scared to do a day’s work, and another day’s work, and another day’s work….

We all liked Albert and respected him even though we didn’t want to be like him; it seemed too boring. Our idea of fun was to get high on that heart attack weed from Columbia, pile into Tom’s big old fuck mobile, me, Jimmy, Tom and sometimes Caroline too, although she didn’t inhale, and anybody else who was around, and head over to Cony island and ride the Dragon roller coaster, sitting in the front seats of the front cars, screaming with terror and delight as the old metal cars plunged straight down into the valleys of steel. We giggled like girls and ate ice cream and Nathan’s hot dogs and counted up another day gained for youth and lost for adulthood! The hum drum life of eat, work, eat again, sleep, work, raise kids, it just seemed like something to avoid as long as possible.

Tom with Rod the rocker / image copyright Ricker Winsor
Tom with Rod the rocker / image copyright Ricker Winsor
I knew I wouldn’t stay in this world forever but right now it was fun and there always seemed to be something happening and most of it around Tom and his TV shop with the dusty storefront windows and the rows of old TV’s waiting, waiting. Set’s presence gave it some stability while Tom ran around like a lunatic, talking, laughing, making excuses on the phone in his high pitched nasal voice. “Just be patient Mrs. Hadeed. I’m doing the best I can. I will get it to you next week for sure.” Then, hanging up he would shrug his shoulders and say, “Come on Rick. Let’s go over to my place and have a game, get away from this madness.” Somehow he couldn’t get excited about running his business, maybe because of his war experience. Regular life didn’t matter, didn’t cut the mustard for him, and neither for me. So we had that in common.

Caroline’s interest in meditation was deepening. I was willing to learn and had a spiritual bent through no fault of my own, only a sense of everything being ok on some level no matter how bad things were at the moment. We got up early, at five and meditated for an hour and then again in the evening at six for another hour. It was really difficult and way too hard a way to
begin, as I know now, but Caroline was good at it. That fat ass was made for sitting I found out, as much as my skinny ass was made for running away from things. She was talented at it while I endured it, knowing that there was something to it but unable quite get at what it was. The first thing I would do after meditation was to light up a cigarette; not a good sign.

At one point we went up to the country about an hour out of town. One of the members of the group volunteered his house. The idea was to practice meditation for the whole night, a kind of intensive meditation experience. It was grueling but I did my best. During a break in the program I came across Caroline in the hallway with her head in the guru’s lap as he gently stroked her hair. Later, during another break I saw the guru with another lady, a nice looking one I had noticed in the group over time. She was crying and in some kind of emotional crisis. This all gave me a very uncomfortable feeling. Caroline was a private person, a person with a sneaky side. She kept a lot of things to herself and you couldn’t really know her in the way a man might expect to know his wife. But I sucked up my uneasy doubts and we kept on attending the program on a monthly basis hoping for some kind of useful knowledge or direction to come out of it all.

Brooklyn Landscape / image copyright Ricker WinsorTom was also in a group run by a guy named Harold, a psychologist in Manhattan. It was a group therapy situation; they all sat around in a circle and spilled their guts out. I don’t know how they got acquainted but Tom respected Harold and thought he could help him with his issues. For all his brains and good qualities Tom was a lost soul.

Once in a while we would all get together at Tom’s or at the loft and cook a turkey or a couple of chickens and hang out with our friends. Harold came to one of those gatherings. Harold was also interested in meditation. He was crazy about all things having to do with spiritual India. To me he didn’t seem any more stable than anyone else I knew at that time despite being a head shrinker. His idea was to get high first and then sort of meditate while playing the tamboura. This seemed like a good idea to me, something to break up the ‘I’m just sitting here, oh God’ kind of feeling that I felt most of the time while warming my ass on the cushion. He had a nice tamboura and created that even droning sound that was so prevalent in that epoch. The Beetles had their Maharaj Mahesh Yoga, and the Rascals had Swami Satchitananda and on and on. Eastern religion was part of the whole counter culture of peace and love and wacky tobaccy!

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