Sometimes, if we didn't want to play punchball, we played stickball. Which was like baseball, except instead of a bat and a real baseball, we used a broomstick or a mop stick and a Spalding pink rubber ball. We played out in the street, because the sidewalks were too narrow, and there were too many people.
So we played in the street, which we called the gutter, where the cars drove from 15th to 16th Avenues. When the cars came, the drivers would see us and slow down, allowing us to get out of the way. But when my mother would stand on the top step of our stoop at 1546 40th Street, in her sloppy housedress and men’s shoes and thin unkempt plastered hair, and would see me in the street, she would shout loud--sometimes scream--at me to get out of the gutter because cars were coming and did I want to get killed?
One day when I was around nine, I was playing stickball in the gutter with some other kids. We were just into the game: the other team was at bat, and my team was in the "field." My mother came out of the hallway and stood on the top step of our stoop. She looked up and down the block until she saw me. She began to scream. “Nathaaan! Get out of the gutter! Do you want to get killed?” which the whole block heard. "Do you want to get killed?" Screaming and screaming, like the rage-aholic she was. All the kids turned to look at me. So I leapt out of the gutter and ran towards my house and up the steps past my mother and into our apartment and into my room and crawled under my bed and stayed there forever.
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Another time my mother screamed and screamed was when little Chip, our upstairs neighbors’ son, told her that a group of boys surrounded me on 15th Avenue near 39th Street. I was maybe 14 or 15, and I think I had had a run-in with one of the boys a day or two before. I’m not sure. I don’t fully remember. But this guy and his friends saw me walking home from the playground on 38th Street, and they cornered me and forced me into a storefront.
The door to the store was closed, so they all crowded around me in the tiny outdoor vestibule and said they were going to beat me up. “Through the miracle of modern chemistry,” the head guy said, laughing (more like sneering)—he was tall and skinny and blond, is all I recall, and he was imitating a stupid television commercial at the time—and then he said something else, menacing, but I don’t remember what it was. I think they warned me to stay away from the kid, and that was that. They didn’t beat me.
They left, and I began to walk home. When I turned the corner onto 40th Street, there was my mother in her housedress and men’s shoes, walking towards me. She was screaming my name, Nathaaan, Nathaaan, holding my baseball bat, her lips blue and her eyes wild. I ran up to her and told her I was alright, they didn’t do anything. She just stared at me. Then we walked home together.