It would be an obvious conclusion to draw that I was now finished with both Kenny and Robert as friends, but that would be only half true. It might, as well, more tightly shape my theme to be done with Robert here, but that also would be only half true. Robert talked his way back through the entrance of my foolish trust and remained there until I was about twelve. Then, one afternoon, Robert, Frank Tarentino and I, and I think Alan Cohen, were standing in the garage driveway at the back of the apartment building arguing the merits of a comparison that had enthralled New York sports fans and children for a decade – the relative baseball skills of Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle. I took it upon myself to demonstrate for my friends, with scholastic enthusiasm, the two players’ varying batting stances, indicating for each the particular bend of the knees as he stood prepared and waiting at the plate, the cock of the rear elbow, and so on. This was an ingenuous display that Robert found insufferable. He mocked me for it, imitating – what he now made appear ridiculous – my batter’s pantomime. I counter argued, as I recall, à la Moe and Curly, with a palm over the face and a push backwards, producing in Robert a humiliation and desire for vengeance one does not find in two-reel comedies. His retribution over the coming weeks was total and devastating.
In just a few days every friend I had – without exception – ceased to accept my calls or acknowledge me at school or on the street. I was shunned, an outcast. Phone calls to my home came nightly, in the middle of the night, with hang ups as my father, and soon the whole family, risen from bed, would reach or lift the receiver. Or there would be odd laughter or gibbering voices at the other end. It was soon obvious what was the source of the harassment. Phone calls or visits from my parents to other disbelieving, then angry mothers and fathers quickly brought the persecution to a halt. But I was friendless. For what turned out to be the remaining six months of life at that apartment in Far Rockaway, I lived without the companionship of other children.
It would be many years before I had the self-possession and presence of mind to do other than shine such brass balls.
At the end of those six months – my mother still in search of that domestic Garden of Eden that it was the family conviction, soon after our departure and for all of our lives, we had left behind in Bell Park – we moved to Rochdale Village, at the time, before the construction of Coop City in the Bronx, and at twenty apartment buildings of fourteen stories, the largest cooperative apartment complex in the world. As we had been pioneers at Bell Park, to which only veterans were permitted occupancy, so we were at Rochdale, which was founded by garment workers – and our father was a furrier, a sewing machine operator, who spent his entire working life in Manhattan’s garment district. Rochdale, then, was an almost all-white enclave in the midst of mostly black South Jamaica, where I went to school in even more mixed conditions than in Far Rockaway, and did yet more growing up. We lived there for only two and a half years, and it has been many years since Rochdale was transformed though “white flight” into an entirely black community.
We left Rochdale to return to Rockaway, to an apartment building at another point on the peninsula, in yet another new development – would this be paradise? – facing the ocean along the beach. Now I was fifteen, a distant journey from twelve. The trauma, for that it was, of my earlier betrayal and rejection had, much before, ceased to occupy my conscious mind, and I made all new friends in a different part of town. Still, it was early in those first months as a high school sophomore that I encountered for the first time in three plus years Robert Rosenberg, who spied me walking from the other direction through the second floor Far Rockaway High School hallway and came directly toward me, extending his hand with a full-throated voicing of my complete name as if he were the boss of the fifth ward greeting a potential vote in the upcoming congressional election. I shook his hand. How could I not? It would be many years before I had the self-possession and presence of mind to do other than shine such brass balls.
I had no further contact with Robert. I would hear a little of him. It was high school, and he hung with a fast Sixties crowd, as I soon would, though not yet.
It was at most a few months later that, one evening, I entered the Baskin and Robbins on Central Avenue, not very far from the intersection with Mott Avenue, where a third of my life earlier Kenny Larson and I had looked down from a rooftop on the street below. No beat cop now stood there, like a ghost of Macondo, leaning against the wall with a switchblade rising from his skull. In the ice cream store, I encountered Gregory Floyd on the line ahead of me.
My willingness to stand my ground with the Ring before the assembled penises elevated my standing dramatically.
Gregory was a hulking light-skinned black kid who had universally been acknowledged around P.S. 104, during my first Rockaway stint, as the toughest kid in the school. The acknowledgement came by dint of his size and sheer presence, so that Gregory had never had to prove his status by any actual display of might, and could instead continue as, in fact, the sweet and kindly guy he was. Frank Tarentino and I had ranked Calvin Bell or Richie the Ring second – I forget, though they once fought each other in the school yard in one of the more roosterish displays in P.S. 104 history – and reserved for ourselves a tie for third. No doubt, Frank really considered himself to rank higher than I did, and as he was, in our pickup tackle football games, an unstoppable Jim Taylor freight train to my more fleet of foot Paul Hornung, he probably should have. But in those days – pre the Mantle and Mays affair – the friendship meant enough to him to agree to an unnegotiated tie.
My own status, which you may have greeted with some small surprise, was based on two incidents. The first involved – Robert Rosenberg. Before or after the end of our friendship – I don’t recall – Robert angered me during a school yard punch ball game, and I exchanged some in your face angry words with him. By this point, one-time new kid in school Richie the Ring (real name Silverman), a good-looking cause of female swooning, but one truly tough and mean fucking ten-year-old, had taken up the role of praetorian guard to Robert’s Ceasar. He came barreling in between us, and he and I immediately went into full-metal pro-style circling and flurrying, with nothing landing before we were broken up. However, my willingness to stand my ground with the Ring before the assembled penises elevated my standing dramatically.
More dramatic still was my bout with Philip Scottie, in anyone’s top five or six of P.S. 104 tough guys. It was the same school yard, different punch ball game, who recalls what aggravation, and our fists went up around second base, my right cross catching Scottie solidly on the jaw and putting him down on his seat with a very startled look, his right hand bracing his descent as his left grasped at the nothing in midair. I didn’t really pay the teachers to break up my fights at just the cosmetically correct moment for me, but so they did, and flooring Scottie sealed my rep. I swear later that day I was receiving the early Sixties version of props from the adjoining urinal in the second floor boys bathroom. I still haven’t lost the inch.
But Gregory didn’t have to fight anyone, and I hadn’t really spoken with him since the move away and the return. I stood behind him in line for our ice cream. We said hello, and he said, “Did you hear about Robert?”
“No,” I said. “What?”
I hadn’t smoked my first joint yet, and didn’t know what OD meant, but I faked it until I understood. Robert and some older kids had been shooting smack for awhile. The night before he had shot up by himself in his bedroom, in that same red brick apartment building, from a supply going around that was insufficiently cut and far too potent. His parents found him dead before they retired for the night. He was fifteen.
No more than a year or two later, in a small shopping center in Wave Crest, very near the Far Rockaway beach, where scores of cars would converge on Friday and Saturday nights carrying teens in the hundreds to mingle and be seen, Richie the Ring overdosed and died on the parking lot pavement.