When I started this blog a year and a half ago, I thought I might devote it, in part, to my life growing up during the 1950s in the Brooklyn, NY neighborhood of Borough Park, where I spent the first 24 of my years. So far, I have resisted writing about that extended time. I'm not sure why; maybe it's because I'm afraid to do what James Baldwin said you have to do if you expect to be any kind of writer: you have to look into the abyss.
So here goes. Following are the first of a few episodes that I recall when I think back to them there days. They are not in any kind of publishable order; nothing chronological, nothing like a straight line from early childhood to adolescence to college age and beyond. They are just recollections, written as they occured to me when I started to (re)think about them. All the names have been changed, for obvious legal reasons. But the rest is true, at least so far as I recollect.
1546 40th Street, Brooklyn 18, NY.
That was my address in Borough Park, Brooklyn for years and years, before zip codes changed the Brooklyn 18 NY to Brooklyn NY 11218, and when everybody in the neighborhood was either Jewish or Italian working class, and all the buildings had stoops, so you could play stoop ball.
I. Roller Skates
It was just a few houses down from that four-family house that skinny, ratty Davey Stein, who everybody on the block knew was a bad kid, ran up to me fast when I was on roller skates. I was eight. He was nine and a half. The roller skates I rode back in 1950 were the metal kind that you could take apart with a special key, separating the front wheels from the back and, if you cared to, attach the two sets of wheels to a piece of wood--a two-by-four--and then nail the wood to a wooden crate that you got from the grocery store on 15th Avenue and make a scooter.
But I didn’t want to make a scooter then. I wanted to improve my ability to ride directly on the skates, zooming down the hilly alleyways that separated one house from another all the way from 15th Avenue to 16th Avenue.
I had just sped down one of those alleys, when Davey ran up fast to startle me, deliberately. He must have had some magical power, because my skates lifted themselves out from under me and rose in the air, with my feet still attached. I started to fall backward. Involuntarily, my right hand shot out and landed palm down on the pavement. Scalding pain seared through my wrist, up my arm and neck, and into my brain. Davey grinned down at me and said, “Awww, you gonna cry now, Nathan? Cry baby.” Then, loudly: “Nathan is a cry baby, Nathan is a cry baby!”
I won, though. I forced back the tears. “I’m not crying,” I said.
I never cried again after that, until I was in my forties.
You play knuckles?”
“Yeah, who doesn’t?”
So Barry Levine, big and fat, 16 years old, dealt out the cards to us on his stoop. Which was across the street from my stoop. Arnie was there, and Selvin, and Jake whose sister, whose name I forget, was ugly, and Mikey, and Harry Shapiro, whose father had a retail car franchise (I didn’t know what that meant, but it sounded impressive) and me. Harry died two years later, when he was 17, from leukemia.
Knuckles was sort of like poker, but different. In poker, like five-card poker where you get rid of cards, or five-card stud poker where you don’t get rid of cards, or seven-card poker, you get dealt hands, and somebody wins. But in knuckles, no one person wins. Instead, one person loses. There’s one loser and the rest are winners. Instead of nickles or comics or baseball cards or anything like that, the only thing the winners get is a chance to smash the knuckles of the loser.
This is how you did it, in Borough Park: everybody gets dealt four cards. One guy throws down a card, and you have to match the suit. So, like, if he throws down an eight of clubs, you have to throw down any club you have. If you don’t have a club, you have to pick a card from the deck, and then again, until you get a club. Anyway, whoever is left with cards at the end, loses. If he has three cards, he gets three knuckles.
Here’s what that means: After you "win" (that is, don't lose)--assuming it’s just two guys who are playing (only guys, because girls didn’t play that game)--you hold a deck of cards, and you make sure to arrange them so that the bottom of the deck is not smooth, but jagged: one card up a bit, one card down a bit. Then you take the deck, and as the loser holds out his arm, straight out, in a fist, you smash the jagged edge, hard as you can, onto his knuckles. Make him wince. Make his knuckles bleed. Make him hurt so bad he can’t think clearly. Make him wish he could kill you. That’s how you show you’re a winner.
Then you play another round and hope you don’t end up holding cards.
Fat Barry lost the round, on that raw, windy November Saturday, 1957. When it was my turn to inflict the reward, I looked at his fist, inhaled, raised my own right hand high up and, holding the deck as tightly as I could, swung it down in a smooth arc. Fat Barry’s knuckles bled. Everybody around me said “Ooooh.” That was the best compliment I had ever received. I was glad, because I had always felt I was the weakest among them. Now I showed them that I wasn’t.
Fat Barry said, “Wait ’til next time, Nathan.” But I felt too good to care.
III: The Playground
The playground was two blocks away, on 38th Street between 15th and 16th Avenues, which abutted Dahill Road. All these playgrounds were built in the 1940s in working class neighborhoods throughout the five boroughs. Generally, these block-long stretches of concrete, protected with bushes and a chain-link fence outside, were divided into two parts: one for the younger kids, one for the older guys. I say guys because I never remember girls hanging out in the older kids’ part, except if they were with some of the guys. Usually with the Italians.
The entire playground was made of concrete and steel. Nothing soft. The kiddie section had a large concrete wading pool that was turned on during summer. It also had wooden slat benches for fat parents who would watch their kids splashing or running around, a bathroom building that always seemed out of order, and a small building holding supplies.
In the very beginning, maybe the late 1940s or early 1950s, when I was very small, I used to see an attendant or two in a green uniform. Later on, they disappeared. With no attendants, the playgrounds seemed to operate themselves. At least at first. Ultimately, they began to deteriorate. But we didn’t see it then. Anyway, the kiddie part had a maze of climbing bars, which we called a jungle gym. Kids would climb to the top, and if they slipped, they would fall down hard smack onto the concrete. Rubber tiles weren’t used then.
By the time you were eleven or so, you would make sure to be seen only in the older kids’ part. Otherwise you were a baby or a “faggot.” The older kids’ part had a handball court, basketball hoops, and steel exercise or gymnast bars. These included a horizontal ladder, some ten feet or so above the ground, on which you could swing from one rung to the next until you got across. The older you were, or the bigger, or the more agile, the more rungs in between you would skip, so instead of moving from one rung to the next, you could skip one or two, swinging like a monkey. Underneath all the bars, again, was concrete, no rubber mats.
It was 1956. I was 14. A bunch of older guys, mostly Italian, I thought, or maybe with one muscular Jewish guy, in their late teens, were hanging around. The ladder was not being used, so I climbed up the side, reached for the nearest rung with one hand, and then swung away, deliberately skipping two of the rungs, to reach for the next with my other hand.
When I awoke, I found myself lying on my back on the concrete. I could barely breathe. I was scared, because I couldn’t get enough air into my lungs. A bunch of the older guys were standing near me, looking down. One of them stood right next to me. He wore a black leather jacket with silver studs, jeans, which we called dungarees, and motorcycle boots--the standard gang and wanna-be gang member’s uniform. (Actually, that was only one uniform. The other was regular trousers pegged, or tightened, at the ankles, a pink shirt, pointy shoes with metal taps on the heels, and a duck’s-ass hair style.)
When I opened my eyes, I was staring up at the bottom of his boot, which he held about six inches above my head. He was grinning to his friends. I don’t remember what he said, but he was pretending to laugh. He also kept pretending to stomp his booted foot onto my head. He never actually did it, though.
Many, many years later, with all sorts of sociological and psychoanalytic smart-ass know-it-all under my belt, I thought back to that day, and concluded that he was just being macho, that he found it hard, in those pre-feminist times, to let on how he was really scared that this skinny kid spread out onto the concrete ground in front of him might be really hurt, and that he couldn’t admit to being scared, so he had to show how macho he was.
That day, of course, all I could do was stare up, make sure I didn’t cry, and try to catch my breath. Somehow, at some point, I got up, sat down near the chain-link fence at the handball court, and watched a game.