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.
“You are a chicken shit, Rick” Tom said. “You would have lasted about ten minutes in Korea before you crapped your pants. How about a gazillion chinks running at you and you got no place to go. What do you do then? You stop one of your own men making a retreat in a jeep. How about if he doesn’t want to stop? Get the picture?”
It was a big relief when he screeched to a halt at a totally anonymous apartment building in the middle of this no man’s land, this Brooklyn. I still have dreams of those neighborhoods- no way out, no escape! Endless concrete, buildings, cars, trains and hardly a living thing. Even the people who wandered aimlessly seemed like zombies. It felt like you couldn’t breathe, get a breath.
This particular old tenement had no buzzer, no security, nothing. Up the stairs we went, five flights. By the time we got to the second floor Mrs. Lopez was already on the landing looking down from above. “God Bless you Tommy” she wailed.” Gino is goin’ crazy. The lousy TV conked out just after the national anthem. It’s a big playoff series and the Yanks are in trouble. Come on,” she encouraged as we plodded up the flights and into a little apartment with a couple of windows looking out on the street through the iron fire escape most of the buildings had or were supposed to have.
“ Youse want a soda?” she offered, wringing her hands. “Sure,” Tom said and she hustled off into the kitchen. Gino was in his comfy chair looking depressed, staring at the blank TV screen and shaking his head. “Didn’t you just fix this god dammed thing just a month ago Tommy?” he said.
“I told you Gino,” Tom replied,” you need to get some money and get yourself an RCA. These Motorolas don’t last. Let me see what I can do.”
“Ok Tommy,” Gino said. “I’ll say a Hail Mary. Maybe that will help.”
“Of course it will help,” Tom said and he got to work. He opened up his tool kit and prepared to operate. He was a doctor or a priest in these situations; he either fixed it, took it away to the hospital, or it died on the spot, in which case he administered last rites, some consoling words.
“Here Tommy” said Mrs. Lopez, bringing out a couple of glasses of Coke with ice and here’s one for your helper. “What’s your name red,” she asked.
“Rick” I said.
“Where did you get that red hair?”
”My grandmother. She was from Sweden.”
Today was a lucky day for the Lopez family. Tom had opened up the back of the set and was making some progress because the picture starting blinking, showing signs of life. Tom was very smart and knew his business. “A tube blew” he said. “I think I got another one.” And the next thing we knew the Yankees were up at bat and were leading by a run.
“God Bless you Tommy,” Mrs. Lopez said
“I owe you Tommy” Gino said. And he wasn’t kidding because it was pretty obvious nobody had any money. Mrs. Lopez scrambled around digging in her purse but Tom just said,” Forget about it. I shoulda fixed it better the first time. Enjoy the game. Come on Rick. We got another call to make.”
Well, the next one was similar but without the happy ending. We had to take the big 28 inch set down many flights of stairs and back to the shop where mostly, it seemed to me, TVs went to die.
“How long do you need to keep it?” they would ask.
“I dunno,” Tom would say.” I might have to order a part.” I understood this to be the kiss of death which is why there were four rows of TV’s on benches of the shop, one against each wall and one larger bench in the middle with TV’s on either side. I think there were tags on the sets and they would fix the ones they could and then call the people to pick them up. The ones requiring more mojo, well, it was not clear about the status of those. People would call and call and call getting more and more irate which, I guess, is why Tom left the shop a lot and turned it over to Set while he went to his apartment around the corner to smoke a joint and play chess.
Set did most of the work. He was from Kerala in the south of India, Hindu and vegetarian. I am pretty sure he snuck into the country on a tourist visa or some such thing and his wife and son followed. Like Tom he had gone to the RCA TV School and was learning the trade, probably with the idea of going back to India and starting a business. Set was a gentleman, a decent man who never cursed, honored his family, and kept his nose to the grindstone. He was a poster boy immigrant, the one who keeps things going for us.
I loved the food he brought for lunch. My wife had introduced me to different types of cuisine. She liked every type of cuisine. Truth be told if she could get it in her mouth and swallow it, that was ok with her! Yum! And since she was not much for exercise, well, her derriere was starting to look like a sack of potatoes. But, she broadened my appreciation of different tastes.
Set was amused that I liked the curries and mater mooloo stuff he brought, amused for about the first five times until I kept hounding him, basically eating his lunch! After a while when I would ask what he was eating a dark cloud would visit his face, a storm brewing.
“Mati didn’t make too much today, Rick. Can’t you get something at Angelo’s?” “Ok, Set. Have you been to immigration lately? How’s your status?”
“Rick, that is veddy veddy mean. How can you say like that? You know how hard I work for my family. I need to eat to stay strong.”
“Ok, eat your lunch. I‘ll go see Angelo for some heart attack food.” That would be roast beef on rye with Russian and onions, good but requiring a long digestive nap!
Set lived up in the Bronx in another one of those concrete neighborhoods always being redefined like the Grand Concourse which had been a solid Jewish neighborhood, then became Puerto Rican and then Black. After that it became territory for slow gentrification as the young and courageous saw opportunity in the distinguished old buildings and, with pioneering spirit, committed to fixing them up. I don’t think gentrification had gotten to Set’s neighborhood yet.
Set’s wife, Mati, worked in a market and their son, Rami, was seven years old and in school where he was a top student. That little boy got dropped off to school by his mother but had to get himself home and locked in their apartment under strict orders not to open the door for anybody and wait for his mother to get home. In New York at that time, one lock on the door was a joke. Generally it was 4 locks, three dead bolts on the door and one in the middle — an iron rod going back from the inside of the door at an angle into a steel casing in the floor. The key would allow it to slide sideways so the door could open. The commute for Set each way was an hour. Set was a nice man but always looked like he was about to throw up, just nervous and upset. He ate Tums nonstop. And who could blame him?!
He would say,” Oh Rick, my neighborhood is not safe. The neighbors got robbed the other day. A “tief”came in the window off the fire escape. When they got home they found the house a mess. They lost a lot of things!” I tell Rami to watch out all the time. He won’t open the door for anyone. And they try Rick! They try often to get in because they know he is just a boy and can’t do anything. Sometimes he calls me at the shop when they are banging on the door. It makes me worry so much.”
We all lived in a condition of red alert. I had bought a nice Peugeot bicycle with the money from one of my photo jobs. I thought it would be good to try to stay in shape, to fight back the stresses of the concrete jungle. With that bike I felt like a healthy young guy, riding across the Brooklyn Bridge on the wooden slats to Chinatown. On Sunday mornings I cruised all over lower Manhattan and it felt great.
Back on the block I rigged a pulley to hoist the bike up into the air on the landing of our loft building which had a strong front door with big glass windows. I had the bike for two weeks before someone broke the glass in the door and stole it. The landlady had some big iron grates installed over the new windows so they couldn’t break the glass and get in that way anymore. So much for the bike!
Down the block Albert worked at a dry cleaner. He worked there after school. He was Lebanese. This was primarily a Lebanese and Syrian neighborhood going back a long time. Sahadi, a famous Middle East importer of spices and food, was just a few blocks away. You could smell the spices, barrels full of olives, and many cheeses, and baklavas. Many smaller shops catered to the Lebanese of the neighborhood and to the Middle East restaurants all over the city. And there were small restaurants scattered up and down Atlantic in a ten block area, and bakeries too. It was like a neighborhood in Beirut but, of course, there were the outlanders like me and some Italian mixes like Tom and Angelo and some Spanish too like Gallego at the grocery store where we bought chicken and Santiago in the barber shop.
These Lebanese were Catholic, not Muslim. Nobody was walking around with head gear, covered up like mummies. Albert was a good Catholic Lebanese boy, the kind of kid that, if you had a son, you would want him to be like Albert. He was nice looking, slightly big for the gene pool, and polite and friendly. I always had time to talk to him. I guess I was somebody he looked up to, probably because I seemed to be cool, have enough money, live in a hip loft building like an artist and have a lot of time to do nothing. I’m sure he gave that some thought while he plugged away at that mind-numbing job he had.
“Rick,” he said one day out in front of the cleaners, “You know Rick I have never seen you do a day’s work!” That took me back a little because he was making a good point. Up to that time I am not sure I ever did a day’s work. I had done ok at school doing maybe half a day’s work. I didn’t know what to say to him except “Well, Albert, when I do get one of these photo jobs they pay pretty well. So, between jobs I have a lot of time.” He just shook his head and said “Nice job if you can get it.”
Caroline’s father and brother were engineers, the type of guys who can figure out mechanical problems. Caroline knew how to do some of these things too and that fascinated me. Everything I tried to fix broke almost immediately. So our relationship had to do with that to some extent, to fixing things in the loft and building a darkroom, which was supposed to encourage me to be professional about the photography thing.
The loft was an exciting place with brick walls and a cavernous space divided up into different living areas, a place near the big front windows above the street for plants, a desk for each of us, plus a living room area, a kitchen, a bedroom, and a darkroom under construction.
Caroline was very good with plants. She was friends with a guy who ran the greenhouses for Columbia University. She had worked at Columbia at one time and had gotten interested in plants through this guy whose name was Dan. She got me to help her fix up the roof garden better with more barrels from Sahadi for planting. In good weather it was a very pleasant place to be.
There probably is some kind of subconscious action drawing people together for good reasons even if they are left wondering what the hell they are doing with that other person. Maybe they are attracted to learn what the other one seems to know. Looking at it now, I see that Caroline had roots in the country, Arkansas, and a father and brother who could help me learn to be a man and know how to fix things, work with my hands. She was in the film business which related to my photography. She was a good photographer in her own right, and she was great with plants. Those things became very important to me later on.
I had an old beat up Renault, a 1965 R8 I had bought from the receptionist’s boyfriend at the doctor’s office where my sister Ann worked. I went to a locked garage in Queens that was full of cars, all stolen no doubt.” Pick any one you want, Rick. I will give you a good price.” So I picked that old blue Renault with the V shaped hood and the trunk in the front and the engine in the back. It had the most comfortable seats of any car in the world and a great transmission, four on the floor. It was a great car but nothing special to look at. Cost me five hundred bucks. Things would go wrong and, naturally, it also needed basic maintenance. Jean, from the upstairs loft, and I liked to work on our cars parked at the curb outside at the summit of Atlantic before it pitched down the hill toward the harbor. It was good to be at the top of the hill. That helped many times when my car wouldn’t start the normal way and I could get out, push it over the last little rise, and jump start it as gravity took over and it gained speed.
Atlantic Avenue is a major artery going all the way east and west across Brooklyn to Queens, a wide four- lane thoroughfare with parking on both sides and broad sidewalks too, a street full of trucks making deliveries all over the city, a humming street, a banging street full of action and life, horns honking, people yelling, brakes screeching, and, always somewhere, an ambulance or cop car siren screaming. Depending on your mental condition it either sounded like music or torture. But on Sundays in the morning it was quiet, and on a bright clear day Jean and I would mess around with our cars, get grease on our hands, and manage to replace a water pump or a belt or change the oil. Jean was French Jewish and spoke French. Like me he had red hair. He and his wife Maddy were five years older than I was and already had direction in life, upward direction. They had fixed their loft in a mod way- all white- and were fussy that everything should be just so. They were the first generation of yuppies, making their way into a prosperous future. They were a little bit ahead of themselves though. Jean didn’t have a job and Maddy was in school trying to be a psychologist. I suppose their parents were helping them; it wasn’t clear.
Jean always wore one of those white sleeveless tee shirts. He had those biceps all young boys wish they had and he wanted to make sure everyone saw them. His red hair was slicked back with the aid of some pomade. With a nice pair of Levis and some flip flops he created a little oasis of cool decorum and gentility on the block. Somehow he managed to work on his car without messing up his image. And image was important to him because he was in the process of trying to get a job in public relations.
In the late sixties there was a lot going in in America. The Vietnam War which the Vietnamese call “the American War” was raging. Civil rights marches and riots were common. Assassinations happened unthinkably and often. There was a revolution under way. To be hip was to be not involved with the establishment at all. I did my best to avoid being identified with the establishment by covering the marches in New York and Washington with my camera and photographing the pop icons of the time. I was on the cusp of having a real career as a photographer and photojournalist. And yet, I had real doubts about the whole thing, the “whole trip” as we phrased it then.
As an antidote to the “whole trip” as it was laid out before us, Caroline and I were learning meditation in a group meeting in lower Manhattan once a month under the direction of an Indian philosophy student named Kumar. It was a serious undertaking especially for someone as restless as I was. The group had about twenty people including Alan Ginsburg and his crazy coterie. That group showed up about half the sessions and usually disrupted things with behavior such as cursing or lighting a cigarette when we were supposed to be silently concentrating on the inner self and saying our mantra. But Alan was friends with Kumar and Kumar, like a lot of gurus around in those days, had stars in his eyes about American opportunity and fame. So he gave Alan a lot of slack the rest of us didn’t get.
My neighbor Jean was on the other side of all this. Public relations work was seen by the counter culture as being the lying mouthpiece for the establishment. Our fantasy was utopian and, of course, totally vague and blurry with pot smoke. Anyway, in his case, it was not easy to be proud of a public relations job and Jean was a sensitive guy, so he suffered.
Around the corner on Clinton Street there was another guy on a see-saw balancing between the new world in process and the old one he had been born into. His name was Jimmy Aboud and he was even younger than I was- maybe twenty and he had a girlfriend, Marilyn. They were living together without the sanction of marriage. Even that was considered a move against the establishment in those days. At the same time they ran a little candy and newspaper shop. The kid was a great personality- full of fun and life and smart enough to run his business, make a little profit from the shop, and pay the bills despite taking plenty of time off to play chess and smoke pot while Marylyn minded the store.
Chess in Brooklyn in 1969 could not have been more exciting. Or native son, Bobby Fischer, was on his way to becoming the world chess federation champion, an unprecedented achievement for an American. At the time the cold war was raging and the Russians dominated chess. Fischer was, is and always will be one of the greatest chess geniuses of all time- exciting, crazy, and brilliant. On the block we worshipped him and a lot of us were playing chess because of him. Chess can draw you in. It looks quiet and tame from the outside but on the inside it is life and death. Nothing is more exciting than a close game against a worthy opponent. Throw in some of that Columbian weed and anything could happen!
Jimmy was part of our gang and so was Anthony, Angelo’s son. Anthony had a ferocious attack, and Bobby the baker came after work for a long deliberate game, and Rod, the aspiring rock star, and Angel, the “white knight” on his big white motorcycle. Among us there was always a game or two going at the shop or at Tom’s apartment around the corner from Jimmy’s store. Nobody really dominated. We were all pretty good. Tom was the best during this period but I was coming along because I was addicted to it and reading about it and visiting other venues in Manhattan.
That was my focus during those years. Chess dominated my life the way shooting pool had done a few years earlier. Looking back, it was good I had that focus or at least focus on something other than getting high or drunk. I talked to a college friend years later after he had finally attained sobriety and a good life. Now he was running marathons instead of guzzling Irish whiskey and he said, “Yeah Rick but you always had something else going on, something you were trying to learn or accomplish. I didn’t have that. I didn’t have anything but the booze.” My interests saved me.
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.
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.
Tom 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!
Even with my limited understanding of meditation and spiritual matters it seemed to me that this “let’s all get high and meditate” approach had more to do with getting high than in finding inner peace or a relationship with the divine. So I guess I was a little disappointed in Harold who was sort of like Tom’s guru.
“Harold, I thought you are supposed to have a clear mind when you meditate.”
“No man. Or, put it the other way. The pot can make your mind clearer by helping to discard wayward thoughts. It can help you reach a higher state.”
“I would like to be able to reach a high state without drugs.”
“Didn’t you hear about Ram Das in Be Here Now, man, when he gave his guru a whole handful of LSD and it did nothing? Relax. Let the pot help you go deeper.”
That sounded like bullshit to me. I was getting tired of it all anyway, smoking pot, losing energy, drinking at night and not doing anything in the darkroom we had worked so hard to build.
Harold talked about India, how it was the font of all knowledge and how he was “called “to go there and was saving for the trip, a trip of a lifetime where he would “find his guru” and be “led to enlightenment”. We listened to that with interest because a lot of people were going to India and many interesting stories were coming back about their spiritual experiences. We knew India had a deep religion and a history of spiritual seeking going back thousands of years. We encouraged Harold because we were curious about what he might find there. We were all looking for something. He was our scout!
A photography assignment came along. I went up to New Hampshire for a few days to take pictures of Franconia College way up in the White Mountains. Franconia College was one of the most experimental of colleges in America at that time. You could do anything there- play chess naked and smoke pot, worship the pagan gods, stuff like that. The president was the youngest college president in the country, about twenty one or two- Leon Botstein. He was also a conductor, a serious musician, one of those prodigy types. So I went up there and took some pictures and met another photographer doing the same thing for another newspaper group. He was just back from Biafra in Africa and was not in great shape on account of what he had seen- starving children and crazy violence.
While all the love and drugs and kumbaya was going on, the world was continuing to suffer its steady stream of calamities- things like the Biafra situation and the Vietnam War, a war that tore the nation apart and made the veterans ashamed and want to hide. Their post-traumatic is still a fact of life today. It was hard to reconcile peace and love with the nasty stuff they saw and did over there in “Nam.”
I took my pictures, visited with the war torn photographer, and got high with the director of admissions and wondered about the future of this college which actually had been temporarily shut down because of a drug scandal. I was only away for a couple of nights but I got a message to call home and Caroline was on the phone saying somebody had gotten into the loft and tried to rob the TV.
In the hall outside the door to our loft we had an old dresser with hats and gloves for the cold weather and other things like that. Since it was just us and Maddy and Jean upstairs we felt secure about keeping things like that out in the hall and Rose, the landlady had put the iron grille on the downstairs door so all was fine, right? Not right, because Caroline had a bad habit of leaving her keys to the loft in the dresser and had somehow forgotten to lock the downstairs door to the street. An enterprising thief had gotten in, climbed the stairs in the middle of the night, gone through the drawers and found the keys. Caroline heard something, emerged from the bedroom in her undies just in time to see the thief with the television in his arms. He just put it down and took off.
I got home from Franconia as soon as possible and everything was relatively ok. Caroline was not too shook up. For one thing we still had the TV! But there was a new event on the block.
Caroline said, “Rick, you have to see the dog Tom found. He is really funny.”
“Oh,” I said.” Where did he get him?” I like dogs very much but Atlantic Avenue did not seem to be the kind of place where a dog could even survive. We didn’t see many dogs around or people walking them like they do up in Manhattan in the fancy neighborhoods.
“He found him with a coat hanger around his neck tied to a stop sign.”
“Oh no,” I said and headed down the stairs and up the street to see this orphaned dog.
Tom was there in the shop with “Pig Pen” as he called him because when he got him he was a wreck and a mess, foul; and who could blame him the way he had been treated. Tom called him “Piggy” and black Kenny had helped him get him in the bathtub for a scrub down. Piggy was medium sized, like a smaller lab but with curly hair and a moustache like a wire haired pointer or terrier of some kind- a mutt! He must have had quite a bit of standard poodle to him. He looked like that, and he was smart for sure! He could have been the inspiration for Tramp in Lady and the Tramp. His personality was splendid and his brain was on fire. He could have been a circus dog or celebrity like “Skid Boot”. He could walk on his back legs and balance that way so he could be up and looking at you almost eye to eye and in Tom’s case I think “Piggy” was looking down at him! I have never seen a dog do that. Tom loved him and Piggy just fell in to the whole scene like he had been born into it. He never had a collar. He would hang around the shop, accompany Tom back to the apartment, disappear into the neighborhood on his own for hours, and then show up like he knew exactly what was going on all the time.Tom enjoyed talking to him in his high pitched nasal vibrato:
“Pig Pen you mother fucker. You are a disgusting creature. You just pissed on Mrs. Lopez’s RCA!” And Piggy did that! Tom would laugh. He loved him.
“Pig pen you dirty dog, “ Tom would shriek, laughing at the same time,
”I am going to sell you to the Korean Restaurant but those cheap bastards probably won’t pay much because you are a skinny fucker, Pig Pen. You need to fatten up. Ha ha ha ha ah!”
We had a lot of fun with Piggy. Black Kenny loved him. Kenny was old, looked maybe older than he was, but old all the same. He had come from the south like so many, getting away from Harold Crow segregation and rural poverty. He knew country things, about dogs, and cooking and raising vegetables and so forth. That was in his background. The move to the city hadn’t been too kind; he was down on his luck, just scraping by, but we all liked him. Tom let him sweep up the shop and gave him a few bucks and a joint as an extra treat once in a while. Black Kenny called it “griefer” instead of “reefer.” He would say,
“Oh Tom I comes to woik so down, Tommy, so down, and then I smokes that “griefer” and I could kick a bear’s ass!” O yes!
He lived with Aretha whom he called Urethra. She was pretty and younger but dying of some unknown wasting illness. Kenny spent a lot of time talking about her, worrying about her. He really cared, but also, I think, she gave him a place to stay and some food in exchange for doing errands and cleaning up the apartment. Caroline was concerned about her. The “mother of mercy” part of her personality made her want to visit Aretha and see if there was something she could do. So we told Kenny and he agreed to take us over to see her about ten blocks away on the other side of Flatbush.
It was a basement apartment you got to from the outside walking down underneath the apartment building which was worn and humble but not a disgrace. The apartment was just a couple of rooms but clean, not bad. Aretha was there on a big king sized bed, sitting up, propped up by pillows and in her nightgown. It was late in the morning so one had to wonder if she was going to get up at all. Kenny pulled over a couple of chairs so we could talk with her in a comfortable way. He was looking down and shaking his head.
Aretha was a very pretty woman, much younger than Kenny and thin but not emaciated. We had a good visit talking about nothing much in particular and we asked if there was anything we could do for her.
“No”, she said, “y’all are nice to care about me. Kenny tells me the stories about ‘y’all over there on Atlantic. Y’all are nice to him. He’s a good man. I don’t know what I would do without him.”
“It looks like you should eat more”, I said. “Can we get you something to eat?” I was at a loss as to what to say.
“You are sweet, honey, “she said, “but I am ok. Really I am. I am comfortable and I have enough money to get by ok with Kenny helping me.”
He was sitting down now too, and just kept looking at his feet and shaking his head. It was a strange situation to see someone pretty and relatively healthy not wanting to get out of bed. It was clearly her choice. She seemed to be dying peacefully and slowly for no apparent reason.
After that we felt we had done what we could do. At least we had tried to be available but she didn’t care or want help. We would ask after her in the months ahead and Kenny would say. “Thanks, she’s ok” and then one day he was sitting in a chair outside the TV shop looking especially miserable. Pig pen was sitting next to him and nuzzling him as dogs will do when they know something is wrong, that their friend is blue.
“She gone Rick. She gone. Aretha gone, passed away. They took her out of there yesterday.” He shook his head and a tear ran down his cheek.
“I am really sorry Kenny. I don’t know what to say. We liked her. Couldn’t understand what was wrong.”
And we never did and Kenny never told us. We suspected it had to do with alcohol or drugs but there was no evidence of that when we visited and she didn’t look jaundiced like people with cirrhosis can look or strung out like drug addicts. She just wasted away for no apparent reason, as though the motivation to keep living abandoned her. ‘Can it do that, be like that?’ I wondered.
It seemed to me in my youth that the life force was stronger than anything no matter what your personality was or your mental condition. It was a type of faith I had, was born with I guess, that no matter how low you fall or how mean the world, it was still ok, that something would prevail somehow, that life would prevail. Aretha’s life and death made me wonder about that. Maybe what was true for me was not true for everyone. Maybe my peculiar understanding was a naïve one. And yet it was in me deep, a sense that I was taken care of and supported spiritually despite my failures and self-abuse.
Not long after that we didn’t see Kenny anymore. I expect he lost the apartment after Aretha died and had to find new shelter. Tom didn’t seem to know where he was and I wondered if Kenny might have gone back down south where rural poverty was better than urban poverty. At least it was warm and there was plenty to eat from the gardens and vegetable stands and chicken coops. Nobody seemed to care that he was gone and that surprised me, another lesson of the neighborhood. Life was like a series of scenes, still photographs interrupting the flow just long enough to focus, take it in, and then move on to the next one. Nothing was permanent and the neighborhood gang was used to that fact, enjoying the moments together and letting it all go at the same time.
Then Pig Pen left. One day he was just gone. It was common for him to disappear for a few hours at a time and even overnight once in a while and I think those overnights got more frequent as Tom and the rest of us sort of lost interest in him. The novelty of his outstanding personality and talent wore off and he was just another mouth to feed. Tom could barely look after himself so Pig Pen became a burden, I guess. I wondered if Piggy had been hit by a car but I doubted that very much since he was the most capable urban dog anyone ever knew about. My sense was that he stayed around as long as the love was there. When it faded he took off. But even for a “man” like Pig Pen, Brooklyn was not a safe place. I had only to remember that Tom found him with a coat hanger around his neck tied to a stop sign. Thinking about that really bothered me and I wished I had taken him in, but I was not much better than Tom about being responsible for my own life. That thought fizzled and, like the boys on the block, I just “let it go”. Another chapter closed.
Caroline and I were still meditating but I stopped going to the Kumar group once I figured out that he was fucking all the women there and just using his white robes and mantra to attract the vulnerable ones. That made me wary of gurus. And Kumar’s capers were a common story. We had friends; people Caroline knew who were into peace, love, and meditation, Trish and John Cohen. Trisha was deep into eastern spirituality as was Caroline by now. John, like me, was following as best he could. It seemed like there was something in it all but we were less inclined to jump in with both feet and I was not jumping at all, at least vis-a-vis the guru trip. I felt like a fool to be in a group where the guru was sticking it into all the lovely nubile young cross legged maidens while I was saying my mantra and pulling my pud. It was insulting. Trish and John were quite progressive sexually speaking and I came to find out that she was fucking all the gurus within a hundred miles of New York and it didn’t bother John at all.
I was kind of shocked again and again feeling left out somehow, but it was a relief in a way to know that these white robed mother fuckers from the east were just a bunch of horny charlatans. At the same time I knew by now that meditation itself was valuable and interesting. We still meditated every morning for an hour and another hour in the evening. Maybe that helped me from getting worse with drugs and mental defeat.
Meditation was still very difficult for me; Caroline had an easier time, was less restless than I was. It was never easy for me to sit still in school as a kid. Even now I have to get up and move, go outside, do something active. It was very tough for me. And yet, sometimes I would hit periods in meditation that were very peaceful, when time would just pass. Images from my life would pass through and I felt that “things” were being worked out somehow.
One morning in meditation I saw myself just as I was, sitting on the floor of the loft on my cushion. But I was looking down from way up high, higher than the ceiling and I could see every detail of the loft. On other occasions I could look around and see everything in the room
but my eyes were closed; I saw through my eyelids as if they were not there. These kinds of things caught my interest and, if nothing else, made me aware of the power of the mind. It made me want to go further but not with the help of any guru.
Harold’s fixation on India persevered. The big day had almost arrived and we had a sendoff party for him. Bobby the baker brought some pita bread and Caroline cooked some vegetarian food because, Harold, being Hindu now, was not eating meat. While a couple of us were playing chess in the bedroom, the rest hung around the tiny kitchen asking Harold about India and what he hoped to find there. With his long beard and always the tamboura in tow sitting comfortably against the wall in its case, he seemed the perfect seeker after truth, soon to be enlightened by the special teacher who, no doubt, was awaiting him. ‘When the pupil is ready the master appears!’
Angel, the white knight, was another one in the neighborhood who attended Harold’s group in Manhattan. Also there was a young woman from Tom’s apartment, Sue. She was in that group too. She was divorced and had a cute young son about six or so. I don’t remember if Tom introduced her to Harold or if it was the other way around. She had gotten Angel into it I remember; I think they used to hang out together. Angel was a ladies’ man. He was a great character, like a Don Quixote, all dressed in white, riding his big Harley and bringing truth and justice to all. That was his fantasy- the white knight- and just the fact of it was a relief from regular life. His visits lifted us up.
But even the white knight had reality do deal with; currently it was the fact of his girlfriend’s pregnancy. He was in denial about this and thinking maybe it was a trick.
“Rick can you believe this shit man? How do I know she is pregnant? Are you kidding me man. Women got tricks like that Rick. Don’t you know that?”
“Angel, amigo, I don’t know anything about it but somebody told me she looks like she is carrying a basketball under her shirt. That usually means they are pregnant.”
“Aw Rick, man, I know you are right. My mother says the same. She say ‘Como se puede cubrir el cielo con la mano?’ Yeah”.
That was a good one I thought.” How can you cover the sky with your hand?” Nice!
“My mother’s pissed man” Angel said. “She knows she will be raising the baby, sure as hell. But when she sees it man, she going to love it for sure.”
That thought pepped him up for a minute. He was such a loveable guy and I hoped nothing would interfere with his life of dressing all in white and riding his big motorcycle all around town inspiring the people, many of them good looking young women. I had a feeling his mother was going to be able to start her own orphanage or day care center with the offspring of the white knight!
Harold took off for India and we didn’t hear anything right away. As always during this time I was focused on chess mostly and getting high which was running me down. I couldn’t feel right about the life I was leading but I was stuck, with no direction out of it.
When I started learning chess from Tom that was the main reason for our friendship. He would take me over to his apartment where the board was set up in the bedroom since the living room was hardly ever used, and we would play with nice sized wooden pieces on a good wooden board. He was proud of the professional set up. Naturally the TV was on in there all the time which made it actually a little less oppressive than it would have been otherwise. He would roll a couple of joints and we would smoke and he would make the first move. Almost immediately panic would set in as I tried to defend myself on the board. Like a juggernaut of power he would hunt me and kill me with his moves. Tom , like everyone , was influenced by the playing style of Bobby Fischer who was known to have said when asked why he liked chess so much,” I like to crush their egos.” That is how we understood the game, so when I would ask Tom, “How did you do against Anthony the other day?” he would say, “I crushed him mercilessly.” That was the Brooklyn approach to chess; no mottle coddling or mercy!
And it went on like that for about six months, six months of getting beaten, badly beaten in the beginning, and the beginning lasted a long time. But I have my ways. I got some chess books and I started going uptown in Manhattan to the Chess House and watch the good European players. I even played some games there myself against much better players who also beat me mercilessly. But I learned from them.
Caroline was going to a guru group uptown on Broadway once in a while on certain evenings. The famous Indian guru Swami Muktananda was scheduled to visit America in the next year and there was already a coterie of devotees despite only one or two having actually met him over in India. While she would go to the group and meditate and hear about Muktananda, I would go to a chess and pool hall nearby and find somebody for a game of chess. All of that brought me up a notch or two in my ability at the board.
When we first started, Tom would take pieces off the board starting with his queen just to make it more interesting. Little by little he took off fewer or less powerful pieces until we were playing even and finally, an eternity it seemed, I won my first game fair and square. Even Tom was happy about that. He was proud that he had taught me well and glad to have better competition out of me. But then it became hard for him to win against me at all and I started beating most of the guys in our neck of the woods and had to go to Manhattan to get humbled by superior players.
In the beginning of my time on the block it all seemed kind of joyous, a time of youthful optimism; ‘we are the champions”, riding the roller coaster, Pig Pen and Kenny and all the high jinx. But systems degrade so physics says and emotionally this happened here. Jean Silverstein’s marriage was falling apart and he was in therapy- something about being gay which seemed farfetched to me. We used to hear him pumping away at his wife upstairs which seemed quite manly. And those free-lance shrinks around, many of them like Harold, well, how the hell you could trust them? But Jean got depressed and it got worse. One day he came over to Tom’s apartment while we were playing chess and looked around and just started crying. I could see the scene through his eyes, a den full of pot smoke and guys in retreat from the world with a mindless TV constantly blinking images against the dark walls. It wasn’t the end of the world for me. It was for him though; he just cried and left.
I was struggling too, knowing that I had to get something going in my life. The photography thing was providing some money and some action but I was burnt out too. I got beat up by the police at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago and the assassinations of all my heroes hurt me bad. The war was raging and the whole society seemed to be falling apart. Caroline, although complicated and strange in some ways, was chipper and positive. Her love of plants, for one thing, was healthy, wholesome. My father was a great flower gardener and although I didn’t want to do anything he did for a lot of reasons, it still was background for me. Caroline got me connected with her friend who ran the greenhouses for Columbia University at the Delafield estate up in the Bronx in Riverdale, a beautiful ten acres or so on the Hudson River, a real oasis of nature. And the guy who ran it, Dan Mikus, was a really nice person who loved planting things and didn’t mind some help. It got me away from the neighborhood and provided a new direction. Caroline and I grew herbs and sold them at street fairs. We read Helen and Scott Nearings’ book, Living the Good Life and we started thinking about getting out of the city and going “back to nature” as the sixties decade came to an end.
Back on the block things were moving too. Albert had quit his job at the cleaners and moved out of his house, leaving his mother and sister to carry on alone. I ran into him and was happy to see him, such a great young guy and now growing up and becoming a man. He was so proud to be out of the cleaners and with some money in his pocket and without that boring regular job to tie him down.
“Come on Rick, I want to show you my new apartment.”
Sure enough, we walked around the corner to the same old hulk of an apartment building where Tom lived. I wondered how many apartments were in there and how many vacant. His place was even on the ground floor like Tom’s. He opened the door and it looked like a Puerto Rican whore house with a mattress on the floor and colored lights strung up above it and a couple of bean bag chairs that were popular at the time.
“Wow, Albert, you must be happy to have your own place now. This is great,” I said as sincerely as possible.
“Yeah Rick. What do you think? Don’t you think the girls will love this, man?”
“Sure Albert, they flock to this like bees to honey!”
“Definitely” I said moving toward the door going out.
I didn’t want to ask him how he was paying for it. I was pretty sure he had gotten involved dealing pot and maybe coke too since that was just starting on the scene. We were the first stop for any drugs coming from the boats docked below. There were already more shootings in the bars down at the foot of Atlantic and the neighborhood had more of an edge to it.
I asked Tom about Albert’s situation and he said,” That fucking Moses got his claws into him. Moses is taking him for a ride, making him sell drugs to his friends and taking all the money.” That was bad news; you didn’t want Moses in your life.
Tom was getting laid as I found out. He had taken the route of convenience. Sue, who lived upstairs with her little boy, would come down to Tom’s place after the kid was asleep and Tom would mount her doggie style as she watched the perpetual TV.
“It relaxes her,” Tom said, always considerate. “Hey it’s better than jerking off in a handkerchief.”
“Sure Tom” I said, slightly confused.
But none of it, none of this life, was doing much for Tom anymore and his need for escape increased. When we would come over to his house he would take a couple of barbiturates of some kind, smoke a joint and within a half hour be passed out in a drug stupor. We would leave. Nobody knew what to do about it. A lot of these drugs were new to us and we were not sure how harmful they were. Heroin was not a part of our world; we knew that was seriously bad but the other stuff was not so well known. In Tom’s case it seemed maybe he needed some sleep. He was ok the next day and carried on but more and more he sought the surcease provided by the pills. It became part of his life and people drifted away.
Tom and Harold were close and finally, after a while, I asked Tom about Harold’s trip to India. I had never heard the follow up.
“Aw shit Rick. Didn’t you hear?”
“No. What happened?”
“Harold didn’t even get out of the airport. He took one look around and got back on the plane. He was in shock, Rick. It really scared him. I guess since he had never been anywhere other than Manhattan and Brooklyn it was just too much for him, too dirty or something.”
“Wow” I said. “I wonder what that will do to him. He was so in love with the idea of India and finding a guru. What did he expect; that he would find his guru in the airport?”
“Don’t ask me, Rick and don’t say too much about it to him. He is very ashamed, doesn’t want to talk about it.”
“What a fucking story, “I said, shaking my head.
“We are all sick, Rick.”
I couldn’t disagree with that. The pot and the booze were taking a toll on me and, sometimes now, some coke from Juanita who was selling it in small quantities. It pepped you up from the doldrums the other shit put on you. And I would take pain pills when I could get them, sometimes going through the medicine cabinets of people where we were invited to have a meal and hang out. I wasn’t proud of any of this but I was like an animal just trying to feel good and maintain my energy and, luckily, I had enough natural health to withstand the barrage of substances attacking my system.
But it was all starting to get too much for me. Without the visits uptown to work with Dan and get my hands in the dirt and work with a shovel I don’t know how I would have managed. My nerves were shot and the city itself seemed to be falling apart. The elevated Westside Highway downtown in Manhattan collapsed and a bunch of cars and panel trucks fell into the hole. The pollution in the city was terrible and a yellow haze blocked the view of Manhattan from Brooklyn. The whole thing seemed like shit. On the way up to Riverdale I saw where a raccoon had gotten smashed on the highway and over a couple of more trips I watched the carcass get beat into dust. It seemed so unnatural that the animal could not even disintegrate into the soil but only get pulverized into the concrete and asphalt.
My mood, which had been fair to poor, declined to poor to desperate. There was a store downtown on the lower east side of Manhattan, a good place to buy Levis and tee shirts, work clothes basically, socks and so forth. I bought all my clothes there, a place called Hudson’s run by two giant Jewish twin brothers. One day I was down there driving around doing errands. I dropped off some photographs at my agency, hoping for a sale, and came out to find another ticket on my old Renault. I had acquired quite a few tickets and even had the car towed away a couple of times. It was expensive and stressful. That was bothering me as I found a meter to park at for my Hudson’s shopping chore.
For men, shopping is like hunting. You know what you are looking for. You spot it and put it in the bag! And that’s what I did with a few pairs of pants, some shirts and socks, tallying up to a fair amount of money despite the discount nature of the store. I paid for it all and threw the receipt in the bag and then kept looking for something I had thought to buy but didn’t. While I was doing that, I put the bag down and then, somehow, left the store without the bag, got in the car and drove away. Just as I turned the corner I remembered that I didn’t have my package and made another swing, found a place to park, and went back to the store.
I told a grease ball sales guy in there what happened and he just looked at me. I said it was the big giant guy who sold me the stuff and he would remember. At that time I didn’t realize there were two of the giant kike mother fuckers. I was getting a little crazy talking to the numb nuts flunky with the shiny greased black hair just as the two giant kike mother fuckers showed up and got in my face.
“Ok, what’s the problem” they said in unison while I gulped and stuttered. The one giant closest to me had a stomach about the size of one of the olive barrels at Sahadi’s on Atlantic. My face came to about where his tits were located. It had only been about twenty minutes since I had been in there buying the stuff but they acted like they had never seen me before. My behavior was starting to get slightly hysterical and getting me nowhere except maybe hurt. So, I took a step back, a deep breath, and appealed to whatever decency they had, mentioning that I was a frequent customer and so forth. It finally worked and I got my stuff back but between that and the ticket on my car earlier and the whole buildup of my unsatisfying, purposeless life, well, my nerves were shot. And I wasn’t even twenty five years old yet!
I got into my Renault; a car beat up enough to win any argument in the city, and rolled downtown to the Brooklyn Bridge to go home. The ramp onto the bridge is a merge where one car enters and then another in some kind of orderly fashion. In my condition I might not have had the patience for that. I can’t remember really who was in the right but the guy in back of me got very pissed off and started honking his horn at me, annoyingly, persistently. Not only that but he kept at it once we were on the bridge, tailgating and honking his fucking horn.
I stepped on my brakes a couple of times to scare him but it just made him madder and, of course, my mood was very dark to begin with. I could see it was a big young guy in that car and that he had a girl with him, not a good situation since maybe he wanted to take a scalp for his lady.
My exit to Brooklyn Heights was the first one off the bridge and the young dick head took it too, honking all the time and cursing with fire in his eyes as I could see in my rear view mirror. I had had enough by then; there does come a time. I pulled over and he pulled over. I was out of my car and hit him square in the face before he could open his mouth and start with any bullshit. In New York we know that’s the best way. He must have been from New Jersey. He was down on the ground with me pounding on him before he knew what hit him while his girlfriend was watching and thinking maybe she needed to look for a guy with a stiffer dick. He was a big kid but a wimp and I was getting sick of hitting him when a Jewish intellectual with a book under his arm and walking his dog, came over and said, like he was talking to kids on a playground. “Get up out of the gutter. What are you, animals?” Even in the middle of the fray I thought that was great, that he would do that, say that in that situation. The Jews are the best; another proof.
The kid got up and we mumbled something and went our separate ways. He wasn’t hurt bad other than his pride and knowing he would have problems with his reputation and maybe have to find another girlfriend, maybe a peacenik!
My condition was strung out emotionally and physically and I was feeling desperate to get into a new life. My time working with plants with Dan had been the one bright light of my New York life and I wanted more of that. Caroline and I had made a photographic trip down south and spent time with her relatives in southeast Arkansas. They were great despite hating niggers. Their way of life, a rural life of fishing, hunting, gardening and time to be together, seemed perfect.
I had a connection up in New Hampshire, someone I had met on assignment for one of the magazines, a guy who was living that type of life and had experience building things and knowing how to go about it all. We had visited him and his wife and talked more and more about the possibility of life beyond New York City and more and more it seemed possible. By this time, I was ready and Caroline too although more on a part time basis so it seemed. I think she understood a couple of things by now; that life in New York City was not possible for me at this stage of my development and also that she had made a mistake marrying somebody six years younger who had not even started growing up.
We had asked our friend up in New Hampshire, Joe, to look for a house in the area where they lived, the upper valley of Vermont and New Hampshire in the little town of Lyme, New Hampshire near Dartmouth College. And Joe found a house for $11,000 right off the town common in the middle of the village. We liked that it was in the town and not in the boondocks. Coming from the big city a move into the forest did not make any sense. But still, this house was almost falling down and the barn in back had fallen down. There was only one light bulb, no bathroom, and pump in the larder and a couple of wood stoves. The place was a wreck but affordable and I needed something to do with my young energy other than what I had been doing.
It was winter now and Joe knew the owner of the old house and had put down a deposit for us of five hundred dollars. The plan was that I would go up in the spring and start the demolition which included taking all the plaster off the walls and stripping the structure down to bare bones so it could be fitted with wiring, plumbing and insulation. Meantime, we kept going with our Brooklyn life which continued to spiral down. I was still playing chess and visiting Dan up at the Delafield place and now with more purpose since I was going to be growing vegetables in New Hampshire.
Back on the block I heard bad news from the white knight who rode up to the curb on his Harley one afternoon. Albert had been killed. We were all in shock, although Tom looked less surprised, like he might have known something about it. Albert’s apartment was just down the hall from his.
“It’s true, amigos” said the white knight. “He’s dead. They found him a few days ago in his apartment. His mother got worried about him and they got Johnny the cop to get a warrant to break in the door. He was in there on his bed with two shots to the head. They whacked him.”
“How could they whack him?” I said, still hardly believing it. “He was a great kid. There wasn’t anybody who didn’t like him. What could he have done so that somebody would want to kill him?” I really couldn’t believe it.
“Listen man,” said the white knight, “I know what you are saying. I liked the kid too. Everybody did but if you get involved with certain people you are taking a chance. You have to know that.”
Well, we knew who he was talkin about, that weird mean bastard Moses who came through once in a while tossing around amyl nitrate and acting like a big shot. And maybe Anthony was involved, that fat manic lunatic. He hadn’t been around for quite a while I remembered thinking. Nobody even mentioned about the funeral. I guess his mother and sister kept it to the immediate family. What a waste! Albert wanted more than the regular working life. He got it for a while, a very short while.
I had noticed that Tom never got involved with any serious pot dealing beyond his own needs and a little for his friends. He didn’t want to get involved with the people you have to get involved with if you want to make any kind of serious money. He was too smart for that. But he was deeper into the pills and the escape into sleep.
Jimmy Aboud and his girlfriend had moved away, I can only hope to a better world somewhere, a better neighborhood, and Harold, the defeated seeker, had moved into Tom’s building and had taken over Jimmy’s store. After the debacle of his spiritual journey to India which lasted about twenty four hours he just sat in the little candy store drinking beer at ten o’clock in the morning and anesthetizing himself that way, watching the world go by from a condition of suspended animation.
Jean Silverstein had moved out of the upstairs loft and Maddy was exploring the singles scene on weekends in Manhattan, places like Fridays and Shenanigans, places like that, getting some action and a feel for the single life. Jean was shacked up with a very nubile French lady and when I visited they were living in a little apartment a few streets away in Cobble Hill. It had nothing in it but a bed and maybe a chair but they seemed in love and happy. It looked like his depression had cleared up and then, a couple of months later, I found out from Caroline that he had killed himself. This was another serious blow to my understanding of things, something else that made no sense whatsoever. He was a great guy with looks and talent and everything going for him and he killed himself. How is a person supposed to understand that?
Despite it all, I had hope and a new direction out of the neighborhood and into a new life. When March came I felt it was spring even though New York was still cold and up where I was going it was still winter. But I was ready, and so sometime about the ides of March I got into the old blue Renault and headed out. The pollution was so bad that day you couldn’t see across the Brooklyn Bridge to Manhattan.
I thought ‘This is the day when a hundred thousand people will die of air pollution’.
By the time I got over to the Westside Highway above where it had fallen down on twelvth avenue at around twentieth street, I was feeling liberated, heading out to a new life like a pioneer. My Renault was my covered wagon and I was the all American hero boy in my own mind. It felt so good and positive I lit up one of my last joints of that strong red pot and stretched my lungs once again. I was flying high by the time I got to the Cross Bronx Expressway and then I heard sirens coming from behind me, coming fast.
In those days you could get in real trouble for marijuana, even a little bit of it, and smoking it makes you, or could make you, paranoid. I knew they were after me! They were coming on strong. I threw the nickel bag I had out the window and kept driving .The sirens got closer. One patrol car passed me on the left and another on the right and there were still more behind. They zoomed right past me, up a quarter of a mile ahead and cut across traffic, stopping six lanes of trucks and cars. Everything stopped. Another cop car was right behind me and had slid across sideways ninety degrees to the traffic. Two cops were out of that car with guns pulled, using their vehicle as a shield. I was frozen with fear right in the middle of it and started to get out of the car to give up when I realized they were after the guy in front of me who at this point had about six guns aimed at him, a Puerto Rican guy with a beat up big Chevy.
Now I was afraid of being in the cross fire of a gun fight that seemed to be happening or about to happen. Everything was kind of in slow motion. I got back in my car. No shots were fired. They grabbed the guy who had decided to give up rather than die. Traffic started again and so did my journey into a new life up north.