Scenes in the life of two boys: Richie, 14, and the narrator, 13, in NYC in1958. Richie is a true juvenile delinquent; the narrator is his enabler. Together they cause mayhem that borders on disaster, and commit one accidental act of heroism.
By Ted Myers
He walked fast toward the edge of the roof, swinging the bowling ball back, just as if he was in a bowling alley, and then he let it fly. It traced a lazy arc, out, out, and then down. Straight through the roof of the A&P.
“Jeez, Richie, what if it hit somebody?” I said
“Then their brains would be splattered all over the A&P like mashed potatas―wit gravy!” He laughed. “Let’s get outta here.”
We scrambled down the fire escape, which was on the opposite side of the roof, and landed right in front of Richie’s building on East 22nd Street. We walked across the street where some of Richie’s pals, a small circle of young toughs, were gathered on the corner. “In two minutes you’re gonna hear sirens,” Richie told them, and sure enough, we could already hear the ambulances and the police cars approaching from up First Avenue.
“What’d you do Richie?” said Joey Carbone, the oldest and toughest guy in the gang.
“Read the papers tomorrow; you’ll find out. And oh, uh, don’t go shoppin’ in the A&P for a while.” Richie and I laughed.
Richie Downs was a self-proclaimed J.D., which in the street parlance of 1958 New York City, stood for juvenile delinquent. He was a skinny kid, not much taller than me, with flame-red hair, blue eyes and freckles. If not for the chipped tooth in front and the fact that he talked like Jimmy Cagney in Angels with Dirty Faces, he could have played the all-American boy on TV. He dressed in the classic J.D. uniform: a black leather motorcycle jacket with lots of zippers, tee shirt, and dungarees with a wide black garrison belt. The big square buckle, which he wore to one side, could double as a weapon, especially when you sharpened the edges. He would slick back his hair with Vitalis, but the front would always wind up drooping down over his forehead. I thought it looked cool. I tried the same thing with my dark naturally-curly hair, but try as I may to plaster it down, mine would only wind up looking wrinkled and stupid.
“Everybody split up,” said Joey. “The cops’ll be around here any minute. Thanks a lot, Richie!”
“Come on, I’ll ride you home,” Richie said to me.
We went into his hallway and unchained his bicycle. Richie’s bike was his pride and joy. He was always tinkering with it, adding more gadgets. It was equipped with rear view mirrors, several headlights and taillights and streamers at each end of the handlebars. He had even rigged a mount for his portable radio. He got on first, and then I hopped onto the top tube sidesaddle and grabbed the middle of the handlebars with one hand. He turned on the radio. It played “Little Star” by The Elegants. We would often ride around the neighborhood this way. It wasn’t very comfortable for me, but being seen with Richie on his bike was something of a perverse status symbol for me.
I lived in Stuyvesant Town, the middle-class housing project across First Avenue. Unlike Richie, who lived in a tiny tenement flat with his mother and two little sisters, I lived in a spacious three-bedroom apartment with my kid sister and both my parents. Most of my peers in Stuyvesant Town were goody-goodies and would never be seen with the likes of Richie Downs.
The population in Stuyvesant Town and the adjoining project, Peter Cooper Village, was pretty much evenly divided between Jews and Irish Catholics. The Catholic kids, almost to a man, went to Sacred Heart, the local Catholic elementary school. The boys went on to Xavier, a Catholic boys’ high school. The name of that school is emblazoned in my mind, because all the Catholic boys wore the maroon jackets with “Xavier” in light blue across the back. The Catholic school kids had been programmed by the nuns to hate Jews. They were taught that the Jews had killed Christ. Now, technically, they weren’t altogether wrong. I mean, it was the Holy Land, and the only people around were Jews and Romans, and I guess you could say they were both complicit. But then, of course, there’s the fact that Jesus was not only a Jew, but addressed by his followers as “Rabbi.”
The Catholic school boys were bigger, tougher, and meaner than the Jewish kids. Most of my Jewish friends were gutless wonders, and I disdained them for it. One of the more popular activities for the Catholic boys was “yarmulke hunting”―rousting and terrorizing the smaller, meeker Jewish kids.
Johnny Sweeny was a tall blond boy, about sixteen. He was my main nemesis. He would confront me every time our paths crossed.
“Hey, jewboy,” he’d say, “what’s your father, a rabbi?”
“No,” I’d say, “he’s a prize fighter. You wanna make somethin’ of it?”
Believe it or not, even though he was twice my size, he never physically attacked me. I think he had respect at some level for the one jewboy who wouldn’t back down.
I guess it was my spunk that first attracted Richie and caused us to become friends. One Friday, I was in the lunchroom at Junior High School 104 Manhattan, our school, which spanned the block between 20th and 21st Streets, just west of First Avenue, just a block away from where Richie lived. Technically Richie was a student there as well, but I never actually saw him inside the school. He would often be seen hanging around on his bike outside the school, however.
So I was in the lunchroom eating lunch with a bunch of my Jewish friends. The Jewish kids were all in S.P. (Special Progress), which meant they took more advanced academics and got to skip a grade. I was an underachiever; one of the few Jews who did not aspire to a lofty position in academia or science. To tell the truth, I didn’t aspire to much of anything at the time. In the fall of 1958 I’d turned thirteen and my parents had made me get Bar Mitzvah’d. I hated and resented the entire hypocritical business. My parents were no more religious than I was, and the whole thing was a sham, put on for the benefit of the grandparents and other relatives, none of whom had a shred of spirituality about them. That was the last time I’d set foot in a synagogue.
So, we’re in the lunchroom and this little Puerto Rican kid, even smaller and skinnier than me, walks up behind my friends and starts smacking them on the back of their heads. My friends, miserable cowards that they were, just stared down at their plates and took it. It made me sick. I got up and confronted the kid. I was half a head taller than him. I shoved him in his chest.
“Hey, you little cucaracha, what’re you hittin’ my friends for? What did they do to you, huh?”
“Nothing, mang. But they’re a bunch of patos.” (Pato, which literally means duck in Spanish, was Puerto Rican slang for faggot.)
“Well, you tell your pato friends to leave my friends alone or they can talk to me,” I said, getting a bit too carried away with my own bravado.
This being a Friday, there was a dance in the gym after school. Records were played and we got to dance slow and close with girls.
Susie Rothchild got asked to dance more than any other girl, and she would dance real close with just about any guy who asked her. Even me. Susie had blonde hair and blue eyes and her body had sprouted breasts before any of the other girls. The only trait that betrayed her jewishness was that little bump in her nose. She let a different guy walk her home every day, and when they got to her building, 14 Stuyvesant Oval, which coincidentally was also my building, he would get to go up in the elevator with her and she would let that guy do whatever he wanted, which included French kissing and even copping a feel. This ritual became commonly referred to among the guys in eighth grade as going “up and down in the elevator with Susie Rothchild,” as in: “Hey, did you get to go ‘up and down in the elevator’ with Susie Rothchild?” Even I had had my turn. But today it was Davy Marcus’ turn to walk Susie home.
I hung around the dance until maybe four o’clock, and when I exited the gym on 20th Street, there was a small army of Puerto Ricans waiting for me. They cornered me on the steps. The biggest one stepped forward.
“Hey, why you fuck with my friend here?” He indicates the little squirt I had faced off with earlier.
“He started it. He was picking on my friends.”
“Your friends are a bunch of patos. They let you do their fighting for them?” He laughs.
“Look, I don’t want any trouble.”
“Well, you got it, cabrón!”
At this he takes a swing at me and clips me in the jaw. I start swinging away, hoping I’ll connect with something. The other, smaller kids pile on, and soon I’m overwhelmed. I figure I’m a gone goose when, all of a sudden, here comes Richie Downs, with a blood-curdling yell, swinging his garrison belt over his head.
“Yaaah! Get outta here, ya dirty spics!” He grazes my main attacker with the razor-sharp edge of his belt buckle. The kid puts his hand to his face, sees the blood, and pulls out a switchblade knife. He pushes the button and the blade snaps open.
“Ine going to kill you, maricón,” he screams, and he charges Richie. Richie expertly whips his belt around and cuts the kid on his right wrist, causing him to drop the switchblade. The other kids are advancing on us, but cautiously. Ritchie heads for his bike and jumps on. “Come on, get on!” Ritchie yells, and I do. He pedals hard and we take off with the PRs nipping at our heels.
And that’s how I met Richie Downs.
The bowling ball incident never made the papers. I got the story from my mother. She went shopping the next day at the A&P and came back wide-eyed with the tale. Apparently it had landed in a storage area, causing major damage to the roof and some canned goods, but no injury to any people. My mother and father were incredulous at the thought of some hooligans committing such a senseless act that profited no one and could have killed someone. I feigned shock and agreed with them wholeheartedly.
One of my few talents was that I was good with my hands. I had “mechanical aptitude.” I could fix just about anything. I was always good at making model airplanes and such, and I had a good feel for electrical stuff.
I figured out a way of getting on top of the elevators in my building, and I shared this secret with Richie. There was an outer door, which opened on hinges, but which would only open when the elevator was at your floor. Then there was the sliding door of the elevator itself. The sliding door would not close, and the elevator would not move until the outer door was closed. I observed that the outer door had a protruding piece of metal that fit into a receptor in the wall that completed a circuit, and this enabled the elevator door to close and the elevator to depart for other floors. I created the simplest of devices to fool the elevator into thinking the outer door was closed: an angle brace shaped like an “L” made out of metal with adhesive tape wrapped around the long end for insulation. The elevator would arrive at my floor, I would push the button for the floor below. Holding it on the taped end to avoid being electrocuted, I would plug the angle brace into the rectangular hole that was the receptor, the circuit would complete, the elevator door would close, and the elevator would go down one floor and stop. With the outer door still open, we could then climb on top of the elevator. Once the outer door closed, we would hang out on top of the elevator and see where it would take us.
We soon figured out that there was a mechanism that would enable the outer door to open that we could control from inside the elevator shaft. It was just a kind of a trip lever that we could press. If we pressed the lever before the elevator reached its floor, the elevator would stop—even if it was in between floors.
The next day, Richie showed up with a pair of gloves. “What’s with the gloves, Richie?” I said. “It’s not cold out.”
Our elevator was on the top floor—twelve. Richie waited until the other elevator went down, way down to the first or second floor. “Watch this,” he said. Then he jumped off and grabbed the greased cable that led to the other elevator. He slid down ten stories and landed on top of it. Eventually the two elevators passed each other and Richie leaped back onto mine.
I was aghast. And enervated.
Richie was a danger addict and I was his enabler. This was a kid who would do anything. And this was the thing that drew me to him.
When I was ten or eleven I used to play with model cars that had mini jet engines. The engines were fueled by pellets called Jet-X, which was ignited with a wick that was built into the pellet. Jet-X created a powerful lot of stinky smoke, and it could be obtained at any toy store.
So Richie and I would wait until a nice-sized group of people were in the elevator, stop it between floors, light the wick, and drop a smoke bomb made with a cigar tin and a Jet-X pellet through one of the small ventilation holes that lined the top of the elevator. Then we would climb out on the floor above and leave the elevator full of our victims, coughing and choking on the smoke, stuck in between floors, and probably believing they were doomed. Of course, once we closed the outer door on the floor above, the elevator started again. If we laid on our bellies and put our eyes to the ventilation holes, we could see who was inside the elevator, so we could pick and choose our victims.
One afternoon after I got out of school, Richie and I were hanging out on top of the elevator when who should get in but Susie Rothchild and Sherman Strull. It was Sherman’s turn to go “up and down in the elevator” with Susie. Richie and I looked at each other, silently debating whether or not to drop a bomb on them. The elevator door closed and it went up one floor, then stopped. Three guys in Xavier jackets got in. One of them kept the outer door open. I recognized the biggest one by his blond hair―Johnny Sweeny! Johnny started beating up Sherman, while the third kid put his hand over Susie’s mouth to stifle her screams. Johnny threw Sherman out of the elevator, the doors closed, and all three guys were in there with Susie. Two of them grabbed her from behind, a hand still covering her mouth, and Johnny Sweeny started ripping her clothes off. Richie and I looked at each other. I didn’t hesitate; I lit the fuse and dropped the bomb. The elevator quickly filled up with smoke. There was a lot of coughing and yelling, as the three guys and Susie panicked. I waited until we were not quite halfway between the second and third floor and then tripped the hammer that stopped the elevator. Richie and I pushed the outer door open on the third floor and jumped down about three feet into the hallway. The top quarter of the elevator was now exposed. The guys tried to hoist themselves up onto the floor, but we stepped on their hands and kicked them back down. Richie kept them back with his garrison belt while I reached for Susie’s hand, grabbed it, and hoisted her up into the hallway. Then we closed the outer door. The elevator filled with smoke once more and ascended, with the Xavier guys still in there screaming obscenities and coughing. With Susie in tow, we took off up the stairwell to the fourth floor―my floor. The stairwell opened right in front of my apartment. I whipped out my key and let us in. My parents both worked and my sister was at a friend’s house, so no one was home. We were safe. I looked through the peephole. The three guys had exited the elevator on my floor, and they were looking at the names on all the doors. Johnny Sweeny knew my name, and when he came to my door he tried to see in through the peephole. For a second, we were actually eyeball-to-eyeball. I darted away, huddling in the corner by the door, hardly daring to breathe. I put my finger to my lips for the others to be quiet, and we waited. After a while I looked out and the guys were gone.
Susie’s clothes were in shreds, so I lent her a sweater and an old pair of jeans. I asked her if she wanted to call the cops. “No,” she said, “and I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t say anything about this to anyone.” Richie and I agreed to keep our mouths shut. I wondered if Johnny would seek retribution. If he did, I could always threaten him with exposing this little incident to his parents. As it turned out, this would not be necessary. Every time I saw Johnny Sweeny after that he gave me a wide berth.
The school year was winding down. It was now June of 1959, and I was looking forward to going away to a co-ed summer camp. The radio played “Here Comes Summer” by Jerry Keller as Richie and I rode down to the East River one warm and sunny day. On one of the piers about a dozen garbage trucks were parked in two lines. This was also the pier off of which Richie and his friends would go swimming. There were about six kids from Richie’s neighborhood already in the water. Richie stripped down to his trunks and jumped in. I looked down at the murky brown water. There was no way I was going in there. My stomach turned at the thought of those idiots swimming through that slime. The kids had rigged a thick rope with knots every few feet that served as a ladder for them to climb back onto the pier. Richie climbed out and grabbed a towel he had brought. “Jeez, Richie, that’s disgusting,” I said.
“Nah, it’s fine,” he said. “You just have ta keep your mouth closed.”
Richie eyed the fleet of giant trucks. “I got a idea. Hey, Frankie, Joey, get up here! I got a idea!”
The other guys scrambled up the rope. Richie climbed up on the lead truck―the one closest to the river. He tried the doors, but they were locked. “Anybody know how to get in here?”
I stepped forward. “Lemme see your belt,” I said.
The buckle was filed so thin that I was able to slip it down into the crack between the window and the door. After some manipulation, I felt it catch on the door lock. I gave it a yank, and the driver’s side door came unlocked. I opened the door and jumped down. All the guys clapped.
“The kid’s got talent,” said Joey Carbone.
It was the first time they had acknowledged my existence.
“Pride,” they say, “cometh before a fall.” If I hadn’t been so all-fired anxious to show off my criminal skills that day, maybe the lives of those kids would have turned out differently. At thirteen, you don’t think much about consequences.
“Great,” said Richie. He jumped into the driver’s seat and released the emergency brake. He put the truck into neutral. “Everybody push!” he yelled. There were eight of us, seven pushing with all their might and Richie steering. How we got that forty-ton truck to start moving I’ll never know, but we did, and as it rolled it gained momentum. When it reached the edge of the pier, Richie jumped out and the hulking mass of gray steel plummeted into the East River, making the biggest splash I’d ever seen. We all cheered, feeling jubilant and victorious. But our celebration was short-lived. We heard the sirens approaching only moments after the truck hit the water.
The cops closed in from both north and south, blocking off any possible escape by land. All the other boys―all except me―jumped into the river, but there was a police boat waiting to fish them out. My mind raced. I ducked under the nearest truck and ran between the two rows, praying the cops hadn’t seen me. One of the trucks had an open window on the passenger side. I climbed up, shimmied through the window, and crouched down on the seat. I poked my head up just for an instant, just long enough to see a cop wheeling Richie’s bike away. The radio was still playing. “There Goes My Baby” by The Drifters. I huddled in the truck until it got dark, then I walked home.
I never saw Richie Downs again, and I never found out what happened to him. School let out a few days later and I went off to camp. It seemed like every time I turned on the radio that summer it played “There Goes My Baby,” and it always made me think of Richie and wonder.