Shortly before my tenth birthday, we moved from Bell Park Manor-Terrace and that childhood bedroom to an apartment building on Beach Channel Drive in Far Rockaway, also in Queens. Far Rockaway was a tougher and more heterogeneous neighborhood than the predominately white and Jewish Queens Village, and I was confronted with some physical and psychological adjustments. Our apartment was on the building’s first floor, very near the apartment of the building superintendant. His son, Kenny Larson, was a tall, lean, Scandinavian with white-blond hair, a couple of years older than I, and he soon became a friend. Kenny had spent time in a 600 school, a system of reform schools for juvenile delinquents that had earlier been developed in New York City. He was also the first of a series of older and wilder boys to whom, from that point through my teens, I attached myself in an unconscious desire to overcome my fear of the world. He was the first person I knew, particularly white, who walked with a “bop,” that dip and snap of a knee, followed by a forward toss of the opposite shoulder, that was a mark of street cool and toughness. He tossed his long, straight hair back upon his head with a flip, and he taught the boys of the building how to rap out African-styled rhythms with their knuckles.
Kenny showed me his switchblade. He showed me how it worked and explained the difference, as then understood on the streets of the U.S., between a switchblade and a stiletto. One day the two of us walked into the small town of Far Rockaway (a long main street – Central Avenue – intersected by a series of side streets) a couple of miles from our home, and which for me, at ten, might have been a Humphrey Bogart waterfront. We made our way to the roof of what seemed an old office building, at the corner of Central and Mott Avenues. We were, perhaps, three stories up, maybe only two, but looking down from the roof edge on the activity of the streets below, the world seemed wondrously wider and more vital than I had yet imagined. We could see the cap of the beat cop standing against the wall of the building, just beneath us. Kenny proposed something with a laugh. He withdrew his switchblade and flicked it open. Then he suspended it, blade down, over the edge of the roof, above the head of the cop. I would never have done such a thing myself. I could never have imagined it. The impulse was not in me. Yet I stayed with Kenny as he dropped the knife.
We didn’t look to see what happened. I have no recollection of our path leaving the building, or of how far it was, finally, we traveled before we stopped. But we ran. We ran. Danger could come to you directly from the world itself – like a thunderstorm. It could come, I had now seen, to others through you. And it could come to you as a consequence of your actions. The world was a dangerous place.
On a couple of occasions, easy to anger, Kenny punched me in the face and bloodied my lip. I never hit him back. I’d been taught to box – well – at summer camp in the Catskills, but I had no experience at real, street fighting, and it was clear that fighting back would have been pointless and left me worse than where I began. On each occasion I was forbidden by my parents, who had always disapproved of the friendship, from spending time with Kenny again. I would always, ultimately, disobey. Something about Kenny, in his fearless engagement with the world, drew me to him. Or I was an idiot. The jury is out.
Another friend from that Far Rockaway apartment building was Robert Rosenberg, a short, wiry boy born to rule through his mouth and the manipulations of the might of others. Imagine Rahm Emanuel, or maybe his brother Ari, in a ten-year-old’s body. “Precocious” would sentimentalize him undeservedly. He was psychologically mature and clever beyond his years, and was certainly the only ten-year-old for whom Catch 22’s Yosarian became a personal mentor in recognizing and turning upon themselves life’s absurdities. That the other fourth graders and the lunch room servers with whom Robert shared and savored Yosarian’s delicious ironies had not read Catch 22 and could only stand in ignorant awe of Robert’s instructive references was of no consequence. Robert expected to be ahead of the game.
What Kenny Larson was to me physically, Robert was verbally and personally – notice of how people and life could be engaged through language and force of personality. When Robert broke the middle finger of his right – his writing – hand, he quite naturally exempted himself from the next day’s composition assignment. He had not, however, yet informed our teacher of the accident, and when asked, in the midst of class, why he was not writing along with the other students, only then provided the excuse. Challenged on the truth of his explanation (it was Robert, after all, and the teacher knew him) Robert held his cast out toward our teacher for all to see, with a smile.
It should be not very surprising, then, that Robert and Kenny and I sometimes hung out together, and we didn’t always need to range as far as the town of Far Rockaway. With expansive youthful imaginations, the immediate neighborhood was large enough. So there was the “haunted” three-story Victorian right next to our modern red brick apartment house, with which the act of bravery was to run up onto the porch and knock on the door. And there was the huge, vacant double lot, up an inclined approach from street level, right across Beach Channel Drive. The long-standing story was that older boys – probably 15-17 years old – had constructed a secret underground clubhouse somewhere on the lot. Previous efforts by the younger children to uncover it had failed. But on this one afternoon, Robert and Kenny and I were successful. As with most myths, the reality disappointed – it was only one room, and there was no Batmobile -but it was underground, where one could stand upright, and it had long escaped discovery.
We explored for a short while – there not being much there there – enjoyed the glow of success, and then decided to leave. Kenny climbed the ladder, made of tree limbs, to the surface, followed by Robert, after whom I took my first steps. But Kenny stepped in front of Robert at the entrance and pushed me back. I fell to the clubhouse floor. Kenny and Robert then – with Kenny in the lead, but Robert helping – took the foliage and branches that had served as cover for the hideaway and began to stuff them down the narrow opening. They then tossed matches in, to light the kindling on fire, followed by fire crackers, to intensify the assault – and the sense of my alarm. Each time I tried to ascend the ladder again they would push me back with branches or by dropping matches and firecrackers on me. I cannot even recall the fear I must have felt as the fire sprung up or the smoke spread. I was so bewildered by such an unexpected turn on me. Robert, too, apparently was soon struck by the quickly unfolding situation, as it became clear to him that they might actually kill me. The entrance now blocked by flaming branches, he began to scratch desperately at the earth around the roof of the clubhouse, until at last he opened a hole large enough to pull me through. Kenny stood back. I marched quickly away, stunned and reeking of flame and smoke. Robert trailed urgently at my shoulder, explaining himself in my ear. I left him behind.