Wednesday, June 17, 2009

My Age of Aquarius

I’d been attending a Montessori School in Stony Brook, Long Island, NY, by far the least educationally rewarding experience of my life. An aging hippie named Mark Brubaker ran the franchise. Perhaps Mark had a family member or college buddy on the Montessori board of directors, but it was certainly neither his business acumen, nor brilliance as a teacher of children that secured him his position as director. He smoked pot with a chosen few of the students, myself included. I helped him by doing some light tutoring of the younger students, in return for which he relaxed my attendance requirements and inflated my grades. How the doors to this school remained open, even through the brief period of my tenure, remains a mystery to me.

Mark struggled valiantly but hopelessly to keep the school staffed with teachers and attended by students. After turning down Mark’s generous offer to give me a high school diploma for simply sticking with him through the end of the school year (he was lonely, and short on both intellectual stimulation and smoking buddies), my boredom had reached an unbearable level and I was looking for any way out.

My friend Paul, with whom I’d spent the previous summer in Stowe, Vermont, called and told me that he was working in Manhattan at a waterbed store, that it was blast, and would I like to come work with him. Given my current situation, I couldn’t resist. Despite Mark’s begging and bribery, I wished him well and, two weeks later, headed for the City, into an adventure that was anything but boring.

It was, technically at least, a “sales” job at Aquarius Products, a waterbed store above a pet shop on Lexington Avenue. The Different Drummer, Manhattans hippest rock and roll apparel store was one floor below us in the next building south. The store was located at the epicenter of midtown retail activity, three blocks north of Bloomingdale’s and Alexander’s, both of which sat atop the 59th Street stop of the IRT subway, and the foot traffic alone guaranteed any business located within five blocks more than a fair shot at success.

One benefit of the job was living in the store. In addition to sparing me the hassles and expenses of having to rent an apartment and commute to work, I wouldn’t have to worry about sneaking in and out of my sister’s at all hours of the day and night. Despite living only three blocks from the store, she had her own life, including a child to raise in an already cramped apartment. I kept what few belongings and clothing I owned at her place, showered there when necessary and otherwise kept out of her hair. Jill had always been kind to me in the past, opening her home to me for the immediate period after my mother died and at several other points later. Although grateful, I didn’t want to burden her further.

Having my choice of a half dozen sloshing mattresses on which to spend each night was a benefit that I found extremely compelling, and knew would come in useful in future romantic endeavors. And it certainly did.

Although it had not been disclosed to me at the time of my initial interview with Daniel Finestien, the company’s president, I quickly discovered that the store sold more than waterbeds. Although on the one hand it was indeed, an active, legitimate upper-east-side retail store, it turned out to also be a den of illicit drug dealing. The absentee owners, who took a cut of both the legal as well as extra-curricular profits, showed only waterbed sales on their books, and largely overlooked the day-to-day activities involving the sales and on-premises consumption of the drugs.

Danny Timmons was a tall, thin amiable fellow who visited the store only occasionally. He acted as liaison between management and the store staff, and oversaw the books. Danny didn’t party with the in-store crowd. He did his job when he came to the store and, although not entirely innocent, played an innocuous role in the business, mostly reviewing the finances and focusing on the company’s legitimate aspects.

Prior to the arrival of the new “store manager”, I’d been working and living in the store with Paul and later joined by a longhaired, blue-eyed money whiz named Jon. We sold waterbeds, to everyone from neighborhood residents, to loft owners from SoHo, Park Avenue brownstone owners, even the occasional hospital for use in their critical care and burn centers. We installed the beds as well and, once I learned the ins and outs of the various models, I got pretty good at assembling, as well as selling them. It was a very different kind of job, one that, at first, I enjoyed tremendously.

There was a romantic element to the waterbed business. It turned out to be something of a magnet to females. Upon finding out that my apartment was actually a playground, filled with a variety of bouncy, warm, water-filled and sheepskin covered beds, it usually wasn’t difficult to persuade them to at least visit. Paul, Jon and I took every advantage of our little Playboy Mansion on Lexington Avenue.

Word came down that a new manager would be arriving to take over the day-to-day operations of the store. Daniel Feinstein called a meeting and announced that he had hired a new man, named John Weiss. He was purported to be a brilliant sales manger from the auto industry and would lead us all to the next level of success. Aquarius was already the #1 name in New York City waterbeds. John Weiss was going to widen the gap between us and #2 and seal us into the spot permanently.

Weiss was an acne-scarred, nasal-voiced scam artist, who pounced on the opportunity that Aquarius offered him like a hungry cheetah on a weakened baby gazelle. John was in his late twenties but looked considerably older. He was gay and as it turned out, something of a sexual deviant, bringing barely legal boys, the younger the better, up to the store for drug addled sex and debauchery that sometimes lasted for days.

Once Weiss arrived on the scene, the mood rapidly shifted to one of negativity, even danger. If a business could be said to have its own karma, Aquarius’ was turning bad. Things began spinning out of control. The fun went out of the job. It was as if something poisonous had been loosed at the store and it quickly began to seem that we weren’t in the business of selling waterbeds at all anymore.

I had spent over a year at Aquarius, nine months of it prior to Weiss’ arrival. Although increasing the illegal profits, and thus pleasing management, Weiss’ addition to the staff had an increasingly negative impact on everyone around him. As he got more and more out of control with his use of drugs, he seemed to become more and more seedy, a frightening, pervert. His sexual habits, never previously hidden, became flagrant, filthy and outrageous. He abused his power over the rest of the staff, who became servants to his whims. We were charged with doing his work in the store, bringing him his drugs, cleaning up after his days and nights of debauchery, long K-Y jelly-soaked sexual escapades in the back of the store with his boyfriends. It was disgusting and he flaunted it.

Weiss brought in a shady heroin dealer who became a daily fixture at the store. Tony seemed, on the surface, a friendly, neatly dressed black man, quick to befriend everyone. He began, as many dope dealers do, by giving everyone free heroin for the first month or so of daily visits to the store. Then he began charging. Weiss’s heroin consumption alone certainly kept Tony profitable, but the rest of the staff eventually began to chip in as well.

One summer day, Weiss called me into the back office. He had a “fun” opportunity, he said. It involved driving a friends car, something I rarely got the opportunity to do, so at first, I became excited.

I was to drive up to Wilton, Connecticut with David, his boyfriend, to pick up a case of drugs that had been stolen from a local pharmacy by a group of teenagers. As he explained the “mission” I became apprehensive. I knew this was a bad idea, really bad, and I resisted with every argument I could think of. But John held firm, forcing me, threatening that I’d be forfeiting my job if I declined, enticing me with drugs themselves, which he promised to share with me. He stressed the ease of the trip, “just a stones throw” up I-95…but mostly with the threat that I would do it or else…I reluctantly agreed.

The following day, we made the two and a half hour drive and arrived at the home of one of the kids to find that another teenaged had overdosed on Dilaudid, a synthetic morphine derivative. To characterize the drug as powerful falls laughably short of accurate. Dilaudid (clinically known as hydromorphone) is said to be eight times stronger than morphine and three times the strength of pure heroin.

When we arrived at the house, the kids were panicked and clueless as to how to handle the situation. Knowing nothing myself, but wanting to get out of there immediately, I told them to put him in the shower, get ice from the freezer and apply it to his testicles. Hoping for a good outcome, we left the crowd of clueless teenagers, some in tears, huddled around the blue/gray body of their friend, laying fully clothed and soaked in the bathtub, pants pulled down to his thighs, a small mound of round-edged ice cubes piled on his crotch.

Once in the van, we backed out of the driveway, pulled away from the house and around the corner, and stopped at the end of the block. We looked through the box, amazed at the enormous assortment of potent pharmaceuticals. We came across some Merck cocaine, two bottles of it. It is the strongest, purest form of synthetic cocaine available. David and I opened one of the bottles and snorted a huge quantity, a typically impetuous, almost reflexive act that we would realize later, was a tremendous mistake. The soaring, euphoric high of cocaine that entices users to seek it out, lasts for a mere half-hour at best, making the drive back to the city a horrifying three-hour journey of paranoia.

The intensity was magnified to the level of nightmarish when we came upon an accident scene on the interstate, moments after it had occurred. As we slowed, we saw a broken male body lying face down in the far left lane of the highway, a stream of blood running from his head clear across all four lanes of concrete to the right side of the road. Fear and disgust, combined with the nerve-scraping crash from the cocaine and the knowledge that we were carrying a box filled with enough narcotics to send us away forever, silenced us for the remainder of the awful ride back. I drove, maintaining exactly 55 miles per hour until we hit the Triborough Bridge and crossed into Manhattan traffic. We spoke not a word.

When we finally got back to the store, shaken, crashing from the coke and worn out, I was exhausted and panicked. Weiss greeted us, big grin stretching over his pock marked face, grabbing at the box. “Al-right!” he said, walking the box into the back office and starting to empty the contents onto the desk. “Beautiful job, boys. Took too long, but beautiful work.”

“John, I can’t do this any more.” I said. “I won’t do this any more. It’s not worth it. You don’t know what happened up there.”

Weiss didn’t look up at me; he showed no reaction whatsoever. His eyes gleamed as he read the labels on the brown and clear bottles of medicine, a smile growing larger as he read the names of each one. He got to the Dilaudid and opened it immediately. He reached into the desk drawer and retrieved a set of works – syringe, teaspoon, a q-tip, from which he pulled off a piece of cotton. He dug into his pocket and pulled out a disposable lighter. He unbuckled and pulled his belt free, re-threading the end through the buckle and sliding up his forearm to his triceps. I left the room.

That day marked the end of my willing participation in an adventure that had started out as innocent fun and soured the day John Weiss entered the picture. Whether related to his entering the picture or not, and not to refute my responsibility for the part I played in the whole mess that Aquarius had begun, John Weiss seemed to drag with him, a karma that infected all those around him.

Over the preceding three months, I’d been robbed on three separate occasions, all work related. Once, while waiting for the elevator at the Aquarius factory, a smallish Hispanic man with a largish stiletto approached me from behind, wrapping his arm around my neck and pressing the blade to my throat. He asked for my money. It was payday and I had been paid only hours before, cashing my check on the way to the factory. All of the cash from my paycheck was in the right back pocket of my jeans. I reached into my back pocket, searching with my index finger for the crease in the center of the wad of bills. I carefully separated two twenties, pulling them up through the center of the folded bills. Once free, I handed them to him. He said nothing and backed away from me vanishing out the door.

The second incident, this time a street robbery, occurred less than two weeks later as I was about to enter a building to which I was delivering a waterbed. I had unloaded the boxed bed frame and several other boxes containing the mattress, liner, hardware, tools, etc. and had piled them together just outside the main entry door to the building. Again, seemingly from thin air, a man appeared, this time in front of me. Again, a blade was pressed to my throat. This time the tip was pressing straight into my Adam’s apple. “Give it up” he said. I gave it up. He ran away. The financial price I paid was more significant this time. He had taken approximately $200. Dan Feinstien looked quizzically at me as I recounted the story in his office the next day.

“Pretty odd coincidence.”
“I know,’ I said, hanging my head as I stood before him. I felt somehow guilty of being robbed too often. “I don’t understand it either. It’s freaky.”
Dan believed me and knew I was trustworthy. For all of the crazy, illegal things I did, I would never steal, and Dan had a solid belief in my integrity.
“This is the last time you’re allowed to get robbed” he said seriously. “No shit – stop it.”
“I’ll do my best” I promised.
Dan reached into his own pocket, unfolded his own, thick wad of bills and counted out ten twenty dollar bills.
“Get back to work” he said, a half smile breaking over his small lips. “And no more getting robbed.” He tossed the bills across his desk, landing them near to where I stood.”Thanks you, Dan, I appreciate it.”

Believe it or not, less than one month later, the final robbery took place inside the store. It was a sunny Saturday morning, always a busy day and I was alone in the front section of the store near the large plate-glass windows that overlooked Lexington Avenue. While I tidied up after a morning influx of customers, Danny was seated at the desk in the back office, doing some accounting work.

I had vacuumed the entire front area of the store. I switched off the vacuum and sat down on the edge of the wooden frame of a bed, no more than three feet from the front door. I leaned over to pick up a rubber band that I’d dropped next to the bed earlier and didn’t want to get caught in the vacuum. As I stood up, a man suddenly burst through the doorway, nearly crashing into me. He came to a jerking halt in front of me and raised his arm up to my face level, waving in front of my face. He seemed a bit crazy, maybe angry.

“Give me your money, mother fucker!” he shouted. “Now!!”

In his hand was a gun. But the gun appeared to me to be a toy. It had a green handle and a blackish barrel. I looked at him, then down at the gun, then back at him. I stared straight into his face.

Then I laughed.

This appeared to severely anger the man. “You think something’s funny motherfucker? I’ll blow your motherfuckin’ head off, goddamn it!!” At which point I grasped the seriousness of what was happening.

“I’m sorry, sir” I pleaded. “Take my money. Here.” I reached into my back pocket and pulled out the bills that were there. “Here you go. Please don’t shoot me.” He started to mumble something as he took the money and looked at it. And then…


An enormous explosion of breaking glass came from the back of the store. Danny had dived through the window of the back room, out onto a small ledge that hung above the back courtyard. I had no idea where Danny could go once he got out there, but I realized that now the robber knew he had two people to deal with.

The bad guy looked towards the back, and then broke into a run in the direction of the back office. As soon as he started toward the back, I made a dash for the front door. I made it through and started down the long, steep flight of red-carpeted stairs, toward the door at the bottom that opened into the street. Two steps at a time, I thought I could make it if I hurried.

I made it down only about eight steps before his voice yelled from the top of the stairs, behind me: “Stop mother fucker!!” I stopped instantly and covered my head, crouching down, waiting for the gun to explode. “Getcha ass back in here. Right now!!” I started back up the stairs – slowly, trying to give Danny more time. “Hurry up, goddamn it!!” he yelled and I moved a little faster, not running.

He waved me into the store and moved toward the back, looking back at me every other step. He glanced into the back room and, realizing that Danny was probably safely out of reach, cursed, rushed past me and out of the store. I slammed the door shut and locked it behind him. I ran to the back and saw the glass all over the back room and out on the back ledge. I picked up the phone and dialed 911.

We later heard that there had been a rash of robberies at second story stores in the neighborhood, specifically, waterbed stores, of which there were three or four in the general vicinity. The robber was a black male who carried a loaded .38 caliber handgun with a green taped handle, which he had use to shoot one of his victims. He was also in the habit of making his victims undress and perform acts of sexual perversion on each other, while he watched.

Fortunately, thanks to Danny’s fast thinking and sheer courage, he and I were spared that humiliation, not mention being shot dead. Danny later said that he’d been sitting at the desk when he heard someone yelling profanities and looked out through the very small area between rooms, through which all he could see, he said, was my face, and a shaking black hand holding a gun up to it.

He’d had to make the decision, he said, of whether to open or just dive straight through the window. He’d known that the amount of old paint combined with the weight of the massive window would make it a noisy opening. His decision sure worked for me.

Once again, fate or God, guardian angel or my intuition, perhaps all of the above, had combined to save me from a frightening situation that could have ended so much worse. How does one get so lucky? Is luck involved at all? I think not.

I began to suspect that looking for new employment might be in my best interest. Whether karma was evening up some score unknown to me, or I was just continuously placing myself in the wrong places at the wrong times, I was on a losing streak of such gargantuan magnitude that I could no longer chalk it up to bad luck. This being the third time I’d been robbed, it seemed that my circumstances were in such a state of decline that, if I didn’t change something soon, I was going to wind up seriously hurt.

At the age of seventeen, years from realizing that I was the architect of my own circumstances, I found myself surrounded by negative influences and events. I’d been repeatedly victimized by criminals in the big bad city, as well a by the tyranny that I was subjected to daily by John Weiss, whose drug use had by then turned him into a mean and hateful, babbling zombie. I’d started enjoying the heroin that Charlie brought around more than occasionally and even found myself missing it when he didn’t show up. This, I knew, was a dangerous sign. I was but a step short of needing it, and that needing impulse is the line which, once crossed is the kiss of death for many users.

All of these negatives combined to stir in my gut, telling me that a change was desperately needed, that I had to get out. And so I did.

(This story is followed by our exploits in Puerto Rico, one of which is described in the "Knife Fight" post)

Knife Fighting On Quaaludes

Every weekend, Jon and I joined several dozen regulars at the plaza San Jose, a corner park with few trees and a statue of Joseph the carpenter, step-father of Jesus.

We gathered each Friday and Saturday nights, many bringing musical instruments and their voices, joining in song throughout the night and often into the early morning.

Jon had recently gotten a small cache of LSD and had brought it with him to our parties at the plaza over the course of a couple of weekends. Not a lot of the partiers care too ingest the drug, but to Jon a sale was a sale, so, along with is normal stash of hashish, he brought the acid along.

One weekend, a group of three rough-looking, seamy locals, residents of the dangerous neighborhood, La Perla, made their way to the placita and hung around the fringes of the gathering, looking for something. I noticed them, uncomfortable but without fear of any kind, as their eyes combed the crowd, browsing for what – I couldn’t figure.

I nudged Jon as I watched them, wanting to see what he thought they might be up to. They were outsiders, their bearing, s they prowled on the outside of the group showed them to be separate and distinct, outsiders.”Yeah, I see them.” Jon said. “I don’t know.”

Soon the three were approaching people, their attitude serious, intimidating, asking questions. The responses of those they questioned were mostly a shaking of their heads, hands turned palms up, arms spread, as if to say: “I don’t know”.

Their eyes shifted from face to face, darting around the crowd, seeking a source for the information they wanted. They eventually made their way, nearby to where we sat and as they approached, the feeling of intuitive apprehension grew. I could feel Jon’s similar sense that these guys were wrong and we kept a close watch on their progress. One of the men bent down to ask something of a boy named Juan, a casual friend of ours who often sang with us and sometimes brought a guitar to the weekend festivities.

I watched as Juan looked from the man to Jon and I, angling his head toward us and mouthing the words: “ellos, ahi” Them, there. Great, I thought, here comes trouble. I looked at Jon, he rolled his eyes and said nothing.

The three thugs walked around the perimeter of the group, eyes glued to Jon and I. By now upwards of thirty people, sitting on the hard stone of the plaza under the streetlights, continued to talk and laugh, some drinking beers kept in small, brown paper bags.

Two of the men were taller than the third, all of them wore filthy t-shirts and chinos. The shorter of the three jerked his head toward the corner of the placita as he said; “Venga” – “come here”. Jon paused for no more than a second and then stood up. I followed, wondering why he was even complying with this sleaze’s demand. “Jon,” I said as quietly as I could, so as not show any fear. “Don’t worry. It’s okay. He said. I wondered if, somehow he knew them, but I sensed that he didn’t, that he was driven by nothing more than his greedy desire to sell some drugs. He’d been the business way deeper and far longer than I ever had, so despite my reluctance, I followed as the five of us walked across the plaza and around the statue in the center.

“Que tu quiere?” said Jon. What do you want?
“Acido” said the short guy Acid.
Jon looked around, clearing the area for police and other possible dangers, then reached into his pocket, pulling from it a small baggy with several, perhaps a dozen, tiny, round orange tablets in it.
“Quanto?” said one of the taler guys. How much?
“Cinco pesos.” Said Jon. Five bucks.
“No, mira, no cinco, meng, tres pesos bastante!” He was negotiating, as I’m sure Jon had expected going in. He wanted it for three dollars. Look, he’d said, three dollars is enough.
“Okay, mira”, said Jon. “Quatro, solamente. Es acido excellente, amigo.” Okay, look, four bucks, only. It’s great acid, my friend.

The tension was palpable by this point. I could feel the anticipation from the three guys across from us, clearly as if they were plotting something, as if they were considering, right then and there, whether to grab the acid and run, or perhaps to assault us and take it. But they had something different in mind.

“Okay, quarto, para uno. Pero si es no buena acido – volveramos. Usted serĂ¡ arrepentido. Usted lo sentira” There was a learing, sinister glint in the eyes of the little guy as he said this,as if he knew that, however good this acid might be, he’d be enjoying what was to come. “Okay, four dollars.” he’d said “But if it’s not good acid – we’ll be back. And you’ll be sorry.” I was already sorry.

“Okay, cool. Tu quiere?” said Jon, pretending not to be phased in the least. Okay, cool, you want it?


Jon handed the small guy the hit of acid after seeing the money in his hand. Jon took the bills, folded them and we turned and walked back across the plaza to join our frinds.

“That was a big, fucking mistake.” I said to Jon.

“It’s okay”, he replied. “It’s great acid. They’ll love it and be back for more. Watch.”

“I’ll watch” I said. Those guys, I was certain, were just aching for trouble. “That’s for sure.”

Throughout the next week, we spoke little of the transaction with the boys from La Perla. I had asked a couple of people about them, and they confirmed that they were, indeed from the neighborhood outside the city wall. Fort El Morro, with it’s imposing ancient walls and turrets around much of the outside of San Juan had few breaks in it. One such opening was the road that lead down to an area of beach where a small city had been erected, consisting of shacks fabricated literally from garbage. Some had tin roofing, many were walled by tires, plywood – virtually any and all means of forming a space in which to sleep and get out of the daily rains. Life in this mini city was some of the worst squalor I had seen, pigs roaming through the little community at the water’s edge by day and at night a few made their way up the road and into the streets of San Juan, rummaging for anything they could find to aid in their survival. Most, I’m sure, met their end on the dinner plates of the residents of la Perla.

Friday night, as we readied ourselves for the weekend gathering at the placita, I went to Jon’s room and sat on the edge of his bed.

“So…what?” I looked up at him as he buttoned his black shirt.

“What – what?” he replied, looking in the mirror.
“You know those guys are coming back tonight and they’re gonna give us some shit about the acid being bad and either want more or want their money back. You know that they’re gonna try something.

“Maybe” said Jon, pulling an elastic band around his ponytail and pulling his shirt partially out of his pants.

“Maybe nothing, Jon. Those guys are fucking junkies from La Perla. You know they’re gonna fuck with us! I’m bringing this.” I pulled out the switch blade that I’d dug out of my box of miscellaneous possessions. I’d gotten it while on a weekend trip to Quebec City six or seven years earlier while at Great Oaks, a summer camp I’d attended for several summers. “You do what you want, but you better have more than me to watch your back”.

Jon opened his dresser’s top drawer and pulled out a small box, from which he took a small canister of mace.
“I’ll bring this.”

I felt relieved that he was at least carrying something, though my sense of dread was still growing.

We each took two Quaaludes, checked ourselves one last time in Jon’s mirror and left for the placita.

By the time we got there, it was dark, the sun having set an hour earlier. A substantial crowd was already gathered on the south side of the square, music was playing, people sipping from bag-covered beer cans and liquor bottles.

We saw Guille and Hermando, two good friends with whom we spent many evenings partying. Guille smiled at us, guitar in hand, strumming away, as we approached the seated crowd and found places to sit near our friends. The Quaaludes were taking their euphoric effect and we joined in the songs, settling in for the evening.

It wasn’t long before Jon nudged me. Following his gaze, I looked up to see the boys from La Perla, all three of them, plus two additional, rough-looking - maybe brothers. They stood near the statue in the center of the plaza, staring directly at us, talking as they did. Finally, one of them, the short guy who’d done most of the talking the previous week, approached us. He walked to the edge of the circle under the watchful eyes of his boys, stood across from Jon and I and spoke: “Veng aka” Come here he said, looking at Jon, as he waved us toward his friends.

As I’d fully expected, they were back. With an obvious agenda, and looking pissed off.

“Beautiful,” I said to Jon, “Here we go. Fucking five of them, no less. This is great.”

“Maybe they want more ‘cause they like the first one so much”, Jon said, facetiously.
“Yeah, that’s it, I’m sure” I mocked.

We stood up, mid-song, and, looking back at our friends in the circle, fear in our eyes, we started across the placita, towards the five hombres. As we neared them, they started to slowly walk around the statue, out of sight of all the festivities.

“Mira,” said the short guy from the previous weekend. “el acido es malo. Dame mi dinero” The acid is bad. Give me my money. “Ahora.” Now
Jon, foolish, stoned idiot that he was, decided to object.
“Mira, meng, el acido es bueno. No uno problemo, por favor.” Jon slurred. Look man, the acid is good, no problem, please.
“Dame el dinero ahora.” Give me the money now. This so needed to be over, I thought.
“Permiso, un momentito” Please, a moment. I said. I grabbed Jon’s shirtsleeve and started to pull him a coupe of steps back toward the crowd, so as to have a private word, just in case any of them spoke English. The two new guys moved immediately into our path blocking our movement. Now we were effectively surrounded.

“Jon, just give them the fucking four dollars.” I didn’t care if they spke English. We need out of this, fast. “You see what’s happening here.” I looked into Jon’s eyes, glazed over now with the effects of the Quaaludes. He looked down, thinking, then back into my eyes. “Okay” he said. Thank God, I thought. Jon paused, staring.

“Jon, just give it to ‘em, really. No big deal. Four bucks” I started thinking I’d just give them $4 f my own money, if Jon was going to be stupid about this.
“Usted tiene que pagar nosotros. Nos dan todo su dinero” said bad guy #1. You have to pay us. Give us all of your money. Oh Jesus, I thought. We’re fucked.

I started to reach into my pocket for the money. Seeing me reaching, the three in front of us took a step backwards.

Then all hell broke loose. Like lightening, each of them reached into their pockets and came out with blades. They had both knives and straight razors. I looked back over my shoulder in time to see a fist coming straight into my face. I was able to duck only partially out of the way and caught a glancing blow above my right eye, to the temple. It stunned me but wasn’t severe. Jon was being grabbed by his jacket and dragged away, towards the street side of the plaza. I darted away from the two of them who were closest to me and reached into my pocket, producing the switchblade and flicking it open as fast I could. The look on their faces was of total surprise.

I pushed the one closest to me as hard as I could toward the nearest one of the other two, effectively blocking the third. I looked behind me to make sure they were all where I could see them. As I turned back toward the one I’d pushed, he slashed toward my hand that was holding the knife and laid a small gash onto the outside of the base of my thumb. It was bleeding, but nothing serious. I slashed back at him, missing, and turned just in time to miss being caught unaware by the taller of the other two. The third guy had, by this time, fled over to help the two that were after Jon. I looked across, past the statue, in time to see Jon spray on of the two he was fighting. He hit the guy directly in the face, the man’s hands immediately going to his eyes his body folding over, screaming loudly in pain.

As I saw this, I was grabbed from behind, a hand on each of my elbows and I was jerked backwards. I staggered, nearly loosing my balance, but managed to turn, twisting as fast as I could, breaking free of one of the hands. I turned and pulled free of the other hand and, once facing the man, slashed at him, narrowly missing him. He lunged at me with his right hand, the handle of a razor gripped between his thumb and forefinger.

I looked over and Jon was not anywhere I could see him. I turned my attention back to the two guys still dancing around me. I repeatedly thrust and slashed, trying only to keep them at bay, the one man cut and bleeding steadily from his hand. My own hand was bleeding, but not badly enough to divert my attention.

I looked for Jon but didn’t see him anywhere. Perhaps he’d run off, but the three other bad guys were nowhere to be seen either. I continued my standoff with the two guys, neither they nor I connecting. Suddenly I heard Jon’s voice, screaming out “Aaaahhhhgg” The sound suggested that he might be being punched hard, perhaps in the stomach. Looking in the direction his voice came from but still unable to see him, I gave a last flurry of slashes at my two attackers and broke away, running around the statue to the other side. There, I finally caught site of Jon. I gasped at what I saw across the plaza.

He was being pinned, face against the wall on the east side of the square by two of his attackers, one on either side of him. The third was stabbing him in the back, his arm arcing down repeatedly. Every time it landed, Jon yelled out, seemingly in agony, making that awful sound. I looked across the plaza at the crowd. The music had stopped. The crowd was silent. They stood there, every last one of them, watching as their friends were attacked. Not a single one moved to help us.

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, my best friend being murdered, dozens of people who knew us, at least casually, standing, watching, as if this were some Coliseum spectacle in which men were slaughtered for the public’s amusement.

I raced as fast I could across the placita to where Jon and his attackers stood against the wall. Without thinking, as I neared the guy stabbing Jon, I raised my knife and, as I reached him, slammed it down into his back, then raising it again, as if outside of my own body,
I watched as his body slackened, and then plunged it into him a second time. As his body dropped to the pavement, I punched the guy holding Jon’s left arm in the face, smashing his head into the concrete wall, stunning him temporarily. The guy on Jon’s right side had released Jon immediately upon seeing his friend drop. He was now reaching down to his stabbed comrade, mumbling at him fearfully. Two of the others were now coming toward us.

I grabbed Jon and pulled him away from the two men that had been holding him, repeatedly thrusting my knife towards the others to keep them away from Jon and me. I hooked Jon’s arm around my shoulder and, as the two attackers that had held Jon attended to their wounded friend, quickly walked Jon across the placita away from them. The two I’d been fighting had by then run to join their friends and, as I looked over my shoulder back to the wall where they’d stabbed Jon, all of them were dragging their fallen amigo around the corner and down the street.

I brought Jon over to the crowd of useless onlookers, stunned and silent now that the fight was over. I was furious at their complacency, but needed to stay focused on Jon.. Jon sat down, dazed yet totally conscious. I told him to take his jacket off and when he did, I was amazed to see that there was little blood on his shirt. The black velvet jacket that he’s been wearing had served to cushion him from what must have been an incredibly dull knife. I told Jon that we needed to get away from the plaza immediately, as it was likely that someone would have called the policia. We left and went back to our apartments, shaken and glad to be alive.

When I looked at his bare back later on, the evidence was at odds with the bloodcurdling cries that Jon had let loose with from his place against the wall and with what looked like powerful slashing motions of the attacker who’d cut him. There were but a couple of long slash marks but no punctures, two long cuts from the top to the base of his back, but no deeper than a bad cat scratch. There were no cuts requiring medical attention, indeed nothing even close to requiring stitches. We’d both been very lucky.

We were told over the next couple of weeks that the man I’d stabbed had nearly died, landing in intensive care that night and remaining there for two days. I was thrilled that he recovered fully. I’d acted entirely by reflex, under the numbing effects of two 400 milligram Quaaludes, reacting to the sight and sounds of my friend being murdered – I’d thought.

Nearly two months later, on a beautiful, sunny day after a filling lunch, a friend and I walked down Calle San Sebastion, heading back to our respective apartments. We talked as we walked, having passed by the Placita where the awful confrontation had taken place. Walking on the south side of the street, we thought nothing of the two shabbily dressed men as they approached us until one of them, looking at me, said: “Hello, sir. How are you?” I didn’t recognize him for a moment, and then it registered. It was the guy I’d stabbed. “I’m good, man, how are you?” I replied, my stomach tightening with apprehension. I was shocked, by seeing him again in the first place and second by his friendly greeting and use of the word “sir”. He backed away, almost in an act of respect and said “I’m fine sir, thank you.” He nodded, almost a kind of bow, again, respectfully, and moved away down the street. I never saw him again.

A Day At The Ballpark

My grandfather, Jim Kilgallen, “Pop” to us kids, was my mother’s dad and the inspiration behind her foray into journalism. In addition to supplying the footsteps in which she followed, he was one of the kindest, brightest people I’ve ever known; kind in word and deed, the most gentle of dispositions, bright in that he shined as a human being, both personally and professionally.

He lived 97 years, married to the same woman, Mae, for 70 of them, and almost until the end, he could rattle off the streets that crossed his home town of Chicago from one side to the other. He’d do it for me almost every time we got together and I never tired of it. He’d speed-rattle them off- from one side of town to the other – and then do it backwards. I laughed and laughed, thinking he must be some wizard of geography, the smartest man alive. He loved to tell stories to his grandchildren, as I’m sure he did with his girls, my mom and her sister Eleanor, as they grew up. He oozed a gentle, loving and warm spirit that he withheld from no one.

Pop took me to my first baseball game at Yankee Stadium when I was seven years old. It was an early afternoon in late spring, one of the first regular season games of the year. The Yankees were taking on the Baltimore Orioles. Prior to this day, I’d only ever seen baseball on our black and white television set, still magical in those early days, a miricle we prayed would never break down.

We got to the ball park via the uptown IRT subway, packed with fans like us, dressed in the peculiar way baseball fans have to show they’re part of the team – hats, shirts, even the occasional full Yankee uniform, pinstripes and socks, the whole nine yards. Even in those days, the Yankees were “The Tribe” in major league baseball, a force to be reckoned with, like New York itself, it was scary to find yourself in the middle of them. Scarier still, they came with a gang of equally dangerous temperament – the fans.

We arrived at the stadium early. Every step, starting in the parking lot was larger than life, the stadium itself gigantic, circular levels going up and around forever.

My first surprise came as the usher, a man who my grandfather called by name, brought us down the endless steps toward the field. I wondered for a minute if we were perhaps going to watch the game from the grassy field. It turned out that we had seats directly over the Yankee dugout, smack dab on the first base line.

As soon as we sat down I began taking in the size of field, the enormity of the stands, the number of fans – overwhelmed at how incredibly large everything seemed. The players were the icons of the greatest of all American sports, many of them whose cards I collected and prized. They were same larger than life men that I’d only ever seen on TV in black and white. Now here I was, almost close enough to reach out and touch them, my heroes proudly trotting out to the first base line in all their glory.

We stood for the national anthem, hands over our hearts. As I looked over the players’ shoulders at the huge masted flag, flapping proudly, looming over center field, I felt proud to be an American boy, alive in the greatest American city, watching the great American sport played by the best team in the world.

The game was thrilling, every minute of it. Pop and I cheered our team to victory. We ate hot dogs and sodas. I watched the capacity crowd, filling the seats all the way to the top of the enormous stadium, awe-struck by all those people in one place at one time. It was a great game, handily won by the Yankees, six to four.

I was breathless after the game, having yelled myself hoarse, filled with hot dogs and sodas. Reluctantly, I mentally readied myself to head home, the story I’d be telling my friends the next day at school beginning to build. Today was one giant feather in my cap, waiting to be shared. As the yelling, whistles and applause died down, the players waved as they exited the field and the fans around us stood to leave, I moved to the lip of my seat, ready to stand. But Pop remained in his seat.

“The game’s over, right, Pop?” I asked.
“The game’s over all right.” he said. He looked around at the crowd as they gathered their things and started to move up the aisles toward the exits. I followed his gaze. He looked towards the field, leaning forward to peer into the dugout, which seemed pretty empty. People were leaving.

“But we’re not quite done yet.” He said. I looked across at him quizzically, wondering if he thought maybe there was more to come at the ballpark. Pop was an old man. Even in my early childhood, he seemed ancient. In fact, by the time he brought me to Yankee stadium that day, he was 73 years old. Maybe he was imagining there was more to the game, I thought.

“Come on my boy, let’s see what we can see.” Hmmm. I wondered what there was left for us to see, after the spectacle of the game itself. Everyone else was leaving.

Pop had been, for many years a reporter who athletes trusted and respected. He reported fairly, knew what he wrote about. And he was a nice guy. People liked him. He was easy to be with, soft-spoken, never pushy. Players didn’t need to fear that he was after a “scoop” at their expense.

When he finally stood and began moving out of our row of seats, he turned right, towards the field, rather than up the stairs toward the exit.

“Pop?” I questioned, confused at his direction, thinking maybe it was he that was confused, him being rather old.
“C’mon, Kerry, there’s someone I’d like you to meet.” I scanned the crowd that was streaming up the stairs towards us, looking for someone that stood out as if waiting to meet someone. I saw no one. Pop moved down the stairs, against the stream of people and towards the field. He stopped and looked back at me.
“Come on, you’ll see” he said with a sly glint in his eye.

We walked down to the rail that surrounded the field, just above the dugout where a uniformed security guard stood, alertly eying the departing fans, next to a small gate that allowed access to the field.

“Hi, George” Pop said to the guard. “Good game, eh?”
“Yessir, Mr. Kilgallen. Who we got here?” George asked.
“This is my grandson, Kerry. Youngest one. He’s a big fan.”
“Please to meet you, Mr. Kerry”, George said with a bow and a broad smile.
“We’re goin’ down to visit, George, if you don’t mind.” And with a wink, he grabbed my hand, George grinned knowingly as he opened the gate, and down we stepped onto the turf of the house that Ruth built.

I was overwhelmed. I looked down at my sneakers, which were standing on the field at Yankee Stadium. The story for my friends at school tomorrow was really growing now.

Pop took me around the wall of the dugout and down the three steps into it. There were players in uniform, actual Yankees sitting around, talking and laughing. Before I could realize what was happening, Pop was introducing me.

“Kerry, this is Mr. Mickey Mantle. And …”
“Hi Kerry, I’m Yogi Berra. You know your grandpa’s a great reporter?” My mouth fell open. The intros continued. It was like a dream….
“Phil Pepitone”.
“Sandy Kofax”
Others. It was to much to be real. Had to be a dream.

I had my picture taken sitting in between Mickey Mantle and Yogi Bara a photo that, if there were to be a “proud look on the face of a child” contest, would win without a close second.

Following that, we went up to the Yankees locker room, where I met many of the rest of the team, some of them naked, but none of them bothered by Pop and me. Except maybe Tommy Tresh, who just seemed to be not very nice.

Imagine being a seven-year-old boy at his first ballgame and experiencing that. Are you kidding me? It was beyond any dream my sleeping mind could have created.
It’s still a bit hard to grasp. That was my first ballgame.