Charlie stands on the street corner, tall and lanky, tight blue dungarees, black garrison belt with sharpened buckle, white socks, black keds. His dark wavy hair is slicked back in a duck’s ass, the pompadour drooping strategically over his forehead. His white t-shirt is tight to his skinny torso, arms sinewy, muscular, street tough. He carries a short black satin jacket, with pink piping, the word “Halos” written across the back. Too hot to wear, too cool to leave at home, it is summertime 1956, dead end New York street kids, and we are the coolest motherfuckers in town. I am nine years old.
My father works in a factory down by the river. Most of the fathers are laborers, mechanics, bus drivers, WW2 vets. Many drink and are violent, and the shit rolls downhill onto these streets. I like hanging out with the older guys on the corner, they smoke Luckys, some weed when they can get it from the colored boys, they pass the bottle … singing the new rock’n’roll music, hustling girls, talking shit.
This is the summer of my initiation into the Halos street gang. The entry fee is the willingness to fight. They match me with a kid name Billy. He is a year older than me, he’s a bully, and he likes to pick on me. I am small, wiry, fast feet, faster mouth. I usually talk my way out of shit with Billy, and when I can’t, I can outrun him. So the next time we meet, he has forgotten any prior shit. He’s not too smart.
It is Saturday, the match is set for 7 pm. After dinner, I make my way out of the apartment, cross the street, and down the stone steps of the schoolyard to the large covered alcove along side the building. It is hidden, out of the rain, a perfect place for Halos’ business. I get to the den, Charlie is standing at the entrance. Charlie is the captain of the Halos, and the toughest cat in the neighborhood.
One time, I saw Fat Jimmy give Charlie some shit about the Greeks, and Charlie kicked his ass up and down the block. He even bit Jimmy in the cheek, drew blood. Jimmy ran down the street screaming. No one fucks with Charlie.
He silently motions for me to take a seat on the bench. I sit down, take a breath. I’m not afraid, but I don’t like to get my pretty face messed up. Besides, if I get my dungarees too dirty, my mother’ll give me all kinds of shit. She doesn’t like me hanging out with these guys. Somehow she thinks I’m better than them. My father doesn’t say much, he knows that boys need toughening up.
In a few minutes, the guys roll in, singing, hand jiving, talking shit. Billy walks into the circle with his brother Butch, they take a seat opposite me. He doesn’t look at me, I know he’s a chicken-shit at heart and I can take him. I think of Prince Valiant, Crazy Horse, The Lone Ranger … battle stories. I feel courageous.
Charlie strides to the center of the circle, everyone gets quiet. He slowly walks around, looking at each guy, then says …. “Everybody knows why we’re here. Little Dene wants to become a member of the Halos. We all know he can play ball, he can sing the new harmonies. But is he tough enough to fight? Can he kick ass, get his ass kicked, and not run home crying to his mommy? Tonight, we’ll see if he belongs.”
Charlie motions me and Billy into the center of the circle. The guys move the benches and chairs back toward the wall, the ring of battle made ready. My heart is pounding, my breath shallow, I feel my blood pumping through my veins. And all I can see is Billy’s ugly fucking face.
Charlie barely steps back, and I am all over Billy’s shit. I grab his dirty blond hair, wrestle him to the ground. We fall on the concrete, I bang my knee going down. Billy falls underneath me. He lets out a gasp, I can smell his stinky breath. He swings wildly, hits me in the head, I feel no pain. I push him down onto his back. I strain hard, get one knee up on his legs, inch my way up onto his body. I pin his arm underneath my leg, push my forearm into his throat. I have access to his face and I start slamming away. Bam, bam … I keep hitting him … over and over again, I can’t stop hitting him. I land one on his nose, and I see blood trickle down his nostril.
And in that moment, I remember the other night, seeing my grandfather sprawled on the kitchen floor, dropped by my father’s punch. Blood dripping down his face, splattered on his white shirt, he collapses in the corner. I hide in the shadows, trembling. I want to put my arms around papi, I want to comfort his pain.
I look down at Billy, and suddenly these big tears come welling up from deep in my gut, up through my heart, up towards my eyes, I choke them back, hard. Tonight, I know that I have won his fight, and probably gained entrance into the Halos. But I have come face to face with my demon … that I can feel another guy’s pain. And my weakness … that I actually care, even about Billy.
I hear the guys screaming, they are hungry for more blood. Billy has his hands up over his face, his body limp, I cannot hit him any more. I get up off him and go sit next to Charlie. He pats my back, I am indifferent to his acknowledgment. The other guys are all looking at me, the circle is silent. All I can feel is fear and shame.
Tonight, I have learned a hard lesson. If you’re a guy on these streets, and you want to belong, there are some things you have to watch out for …
- Always hide what is soft inside.
- Never let them see that you give a shit.
- And above all, you must never, ever let them see you cry.
I swallow hard, I swallow again, and I swallow for a very long time. Years later, these tears will arise from my body … in torrents, exploding out of me, like a hurricane. First as rage, then as wave after wave of grief.
And sometimes, gratefully, the tears still come.