Thursday, August 6, 2015


"In motion a man has a chance, his body is warm, his instincts are quick, and when the crisis comes, whether of love or violence, he can make it, he can win, he can release a little more energy for himself since he hates himself a little less, he can make a little better nervous system, make it a little more possible to go again, to go faster next time and so make more and thus find more people with whom he can swing."
--Norman Mailer
"The White Negro"

My ninth grade at Mark Twain Jr. High School was a breeze. There was nothing I really had to do except fake it and go through it. Graduation rehearsals started in October and went almost up to the day before graduation, at the end of June. The school wanted to make sure we knew how to march in step and knew the words to the school song and, most importantly, knew our place. We enjoyed the privileges of being seniors. However, that was the first of many graduations I missed. I, and obviously my folks, had no real interest in those momentous events. I remember scoring well on the Iowa Tests and other tests that are said to put you in certain percentiles relative to your age and grade standing. I did care about those things.
Jack and Steve were going off in different directions without me. Sometime during that year, they both took the tests to get into specialized high schools in Brooklyn, the Bronx and Manhattan. Steve wanted to go to Brooklyn Tech, a school specializing in math and science, and Jack wanted to get into Stuyvesant, the most difficult of the prestigious three, Bronx High School of Science being the other. I wanted to go to Stuyvesant because my cousin Teddy impressed me with what he was learning there.
“What’s our least commodity?” he asked me. I thought for awhile. “Time,” he answered and then continued, “we think being young we’re going to live forever, but nah, that’s not true; the universe is what, billions of years old, and we live to what, sixty-five or seventy? That’s really short when you think about it. We really have very little time here.”
When the time came to take the test, I wanted to go where ideas held court, for, in truth, I loved reading literature and writing, though I couldn’t tell you why, then. By the end of the eighth grade, I had been through Lord Jim, Crime and Punishment and was finishing Moby Dick. I just took to it. Aside from some of the mischief that Jack, Steve and I got into, we got into talking about ideas that came from what we were reading and thinking about.
In the end, my parents would not let me take the test. They just refused. There was no explanation. “What’s wrong with Brooklyn? What’s wrong with Lincoln; it’s a good school, very good, everybody goes there.” My folks were people who were afraid. They were afraid of the unknown, which was really most of the world, and they were afraid for me. They thought the diabetes made me more vulnerable and, consequently, acted on that fear. My protestations to the contrary were ineffectual.
And so, after a hell of a time for two years Jack, Steve and I said our goodbyes that June. We said we’d keep in touch, but we didn’t. We were going off into different worlds. My parents, in fact, were not typical of those Jews who wanted their progeny to step up the rungs of the ladder of American success. There was no great push for education to become a doctor, lawyer, a person of privilege and profession. Sometimes they mouthed the words, but they had no idea how such feats were accomplished. I’m sure that my father wanted someone to inherit his business, no matter how hard, grueling, and backbreaking he professed it to be. It was not enough for him to have sons who would shoulder his name; he wanted one or both of us to take up his mantel. A grade to my father was the same thing as being good at sport: competition that would reflect well on him. Talking to my parents about “ideas” and my wanting to be around them made as much sense as telling them I wanted to be an astronaut. They listened but inquired no further, but, it was summer!
Summertime, and the livin’ is easy, fish are jumpin’. But it really was summer, and the livin’ really was easy, and I really was out of junior high, getting ready for high school, high school man, big time stuff, and I didn’t have a care in the world...except my morning shot...but who the hell cared about that...I was all right...nobody could see nothin’--and I still respected that morning shot (shoot insulin...or die)--Yeah.
And there was a marked shift in my friends. Instead of being intellectually smart, they were street-smart; I was just beginning to learn about that. They were of mixed religions; some were Jewish, some Italian, some Irish, some rich, some poor, but most were middle class. There also was a commonality of “I don’t give a fuck” attitude about us; it was never articulated, it just was.
Even my parents cooled out somewhat. It was summer, Goddamnit. Sunday mornings, my father and I would go to the ball field in Seagate and play in softball games. There were some terrific athletes from inside and outside Seagate and that was where we met, on the playing field. Sides were chosen and then the action would start and last until noon. After the games, it was time for the beach. Seagate has a private beach that only the residents of Seagate were entitled to use. For ten bucks you got a picture I.D. that would get you onto the beach. Tough guys from Coney Island who wanted to go onto the beach without an I.D. could get on, too. I’d meet some friends, Tommy C whose father, “Horseshit Harry,” owned steamships and a beautiful home right on the water, and The Heart, Ira was his given name, whose parents didn’t own shit and who were deaf and dumb. Ira was born with a heart murmur and had to go to a hospital in another state to have it checked twice a year. There would be other, more peripheral, characters and some young girls whom we didn’t care about very much. We’d go to our spot on the beach, establish our presence, leave whatever we brought with us, and push off to Mary’s for some lunch. Mary’s was a sandwich shop a block outside Seagate on Surf Avenue. Mary and her husband made the best hero sandwiches in the area. From a little wood shack on the corner, they turned out hundreds of heroes that you could taste a block away on any given Saturday or Sunday. Mary’s wasn’t cheap, but she didn’t skimp on anything. Even the mustard had bite and the mayo was Hellman’s. The lettuce was crisp, and the tomatoes plump. You saw her husband in the kitchen, grilling sausages, veal, meatballs, fresh tomato sauce and peppers. I’m telling you man, it was the real deal.
Back to the beach, chewing sandwiches, sipping soda, to swim or play touch football or look at the older girls who wore less, and knew least we thought they did. How many times did I dive underwater to look at those girls whose bathing suits would slip and slide with the added weight of water pulling their tops down? To see a nipple was like winning the hardon lottery for the day.
“Hey Tommy, Lisa’s goin’ in the water, let’s go. Heart, you better stay here. We don’t wantya dyin' on us.”
“Fuck you! C’mon, she ain’t gonna stay in forever.”
“Forever” at that time seemed like forever; time was lazy, you know. It was summertime and the livin’...
“I don’t know. Let’s meet up around 7, your place.”
“Nah man, not my place. Horseshit Harry’s on the warpath. Let’s meet at The Gate.
“The Gate” was shorthand for Seagate’s gated entrance at Surf Avenue. Outside The Gate, there were no gates: it was wild and overgrown with weeds and taboos and scintillation's and bars and other exotic erotica that stretched as far as the eye could see or imagine. And the best thing was that I knew I was not supposed to be there. I knew my parents would not like me to be there. I knew that, and loved it. It gave me this charge, this feeling inside my stomach and bones that buzzed me, awakened my senses, and said, “Don’t do this. Do it.” I’d had from my earliest memory been drawn to, and enjoyed, taking risks. In fact, anything beyond my parents purview would be something worth entertaining and, more often than not, exploring.
“C’mon let’s go to the alley.”
And so we went to begin our night. The bowling alley, Surf Lanes, was a few short blocks away. Yet those blocks took us past the sad remnants of a bungalow colony, where colored lights hung over the inner court to lift the spirits of those who were too poor to afford better recreational alternatives. Those blocks took us past crumbling one-and two-family homes, with stoops discolored and cracked and ripped screen doors that no longer kept the mosquitoes and flies at bay, but allowed in what little ventilation the apartments got. Across the street from the bowling alley stood another sort of colony, the colony of transients, prostitutes, red-lighted windows behind yellowed curtains. Tinny blues and jazz could be heard wheezing from transistor radios as the occasional cop car idled. We wouldn’t say much as we walked. I was grateful for that. I took in the shadows and figures, the eyes staring outward, bodies dressed in shorts, underwear, nightgowns, watching TV, black faces and white faces and elbows and arms and feet. I saved these images for when I would need them for what I didn’t know.
I was a natural bowler. I knew it the first time I fingered a ball and threw it down the alley. And while I struggled at the beginning, I knew it was just a matter of time before I’d be really good at it. I felt pretty good with a pool cue as well. My father had put a small pool table in the garage, and he showed me how to hold the cue, make a bridge, line up shots. I always had a good eye, but then I developed a stroke to go with it. A few blocks from Surf Lanes, on Surf Avenue and across from the projects, was Dukes, the pool room. Duke, the owner, was a man in his mid-30’s, tall, slender, and always dressed in black. He wore a belt with a silver buckle with raised pool cues in gold crisscrossed on it, smoked Pall Malls, nipped from a pint of Johnnie Walker Black and, if the spirit moved him, would get on top of one of his tables and dance to whatever music was playing on the radio behind his counter. One of the Coney Island guys who played ball with me on Sundays told Duke that I was O.K. So my friends and I were allowed in and allowed to play. At that time it cost 25 cents a game to bowl, and 50 cents an hour to shoot pool.
A third recreational alternative was to frequent the arcades owned by our friend Jeff’s father behind Nathan’s in Coney Island. He let us watch him from the corner of his booth, “pitch the suckers” as he called it. He had a few games where you’d try to land a nickel in the circle and another breaking water balloons. For what was pocket change to him and real money for us, he’d let us “pitch” after we learned how to look and spot and call. We watched for couples in love, first addressing their love of sport, then their love of competition, next their love of “honey” and finally the fear of the embarrassment of refusal. The idea was to get the guy to spend 20 bucks so his “baby” could go home with a 50 cent teddy bear. Jeff’s old man made it clear to us that nobody won except him; the balloons were sagged and soft, resisting the dulled-point of the dart and most of the circles were inclined...just a bit.
With our pocket money we’d get together and play poker or bowl each other for lines--a game was called a “line”-- with the lowest score paying for the other’s game. Coney Island was alive in the summer back then. Steeplechase was still open, though on its last legs, the Parachute Jump jumped, three roller coasters rocked, the Wonder Wheel rolled, fireworks roared every Tuesday, while movie theaters played double features, and busses loaded with thousands of visitors roared in with those soon to get liquored up and loose.
And I was in love. With Ruth. Ruth from Coney Island. I loved her all through ninth grade. She was cool. It was a West Side Story romance. She believed that Coney Island girls shouldn’t get involved with Seagate boys because the relationship was doomed due to our “class” differences. I worked hard convincing her otherwise. We’d take those long meandering walks on the beach at sunset, sharing a forbidden cigarette, Newports--her brand--and talk, talk, talk. She got me hot all the time. I wanted to touch those miraculous tits of hers--those ‘55 Cadillac bumper bullets--God, she was beautiful. But it was not to be. She stood fast. What sick maturity she possessed. I suspected she was in love with someone else.
There were Seagate girls whom I lusted secret. They already had their hearts set on or were involved with Coney Island boys--usually tough, handsome and tattooed Coney Island boys. The philosophy of my father and his friends about women was simple and similar to the toughs of Coney Island: “Treat a whore like a queen, and a queen like a whore” and they’ll love you forever. It was handed down from generation to generation, venerable wisdom of the ages. I saw this principle applied by guys I looked at from the corner of my eye and through the prism of my youth on girls who pined after them, no matter how brutally they were treated. In truth, I envied their toughness, that kind of masculinity. At night, I would go to the parking lot next to the Seagate Center to meet friends and watch the Coney Island guys gather around cars, smoking cigarettes, punching each other and talking while the girls flitted about like so many fireflies they casually swatted away or grabbed into cars and sped to a secret destination to return an hour or so later. I waited for a group of four or five of the guys to move into a circle and sing a cappella the songs of love: Smokey, the Temps, Ruby and the Romantics, The Jive Five, The Jarmels, Little Anthony, Clyde McPhatter, The Drifters and others, and I saw their breath reach toward the spectral glow of street lamps and the moon, and it sounded more real than anything I’d heard before. It infused a lyric and rhythm into me and has informed me in ways I can only guess about now. Years later I heard LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka read: “We ain’t the singers/We the song.” And that, my friends, is the truth about it. The singer could be just as fine as fine, but the song, the song is what’s sung.
By hanging out, being quiet, being good at what I did--bowl and shoot pool and pitch and hit and hit baskets--I developed a nodding friendship with the Coney Island crew. And that was enough for me. I was attracted to danger and they were dangerous. That adrenaline rush, those butterflies, the tingle at the nape of my neck was delicious.
Before the summer ended, four of us were caught trying to rob Korvette’s Department Store in downtown Brooklyn. We split up into teams: me and Allen Santamaria, Mike and The Heart. Allen and I worked the pen and key chain counter. Allen was taking the key chains and, after stealing with impunity, looked at me, said, “trick of the trade” and threw one in the air and caught it in the sleeve of his shirt; I laughed and stuffed a few more Scripto pens into my pants. We stole our fill, looked around and made our way to the entrance where two men wearing street clothes and sporting badges, grabbed us by our arms and escorted us back inside the store. While taking the escalator up, I kept trying to throw away the pens to no avail. I thought at least The Heart and Mike made it out. I looked down the escalator and saw them coming up flanked by two more detectives and two more behind them, carrying an air-conditioner. There was a big fat and balding man inside the Security Office sitting behind a desk.
“Why?” he asked. “What the fuck were you jack-offs thinking throwing key chains in the air and pens into your pants and what the fuck were you thinking about with an air-conditioner?”
The Heart looked at him and said it was hot and he and his family were poor; I picked up the poverty line and said I needed pens for the school year. He sat looking impassively at us. He didn’t buy it, and said so.
Mike, the idiot, unbeknownst to us, was found carrying a seven inch blade, which they confiscated. He was crying, “Please don’t tell my parents.” The three of us just looked at him. We were scared, but crying was simply not an option. They made us sign statements saying we’d never darken Korvette’s doors again--at least until we reached the age of twenty-one.
We left Korvette’s relieved and went to Horn & Hardart’s cafeteria for something to eat. We put our nickels, dimes, and quarters into those wonderful old slots. We ate and laughed and made fun of Mike. After eating, we walked out into the sunshine, looked around, and saw A&S, another department store, looked at each other, and walked in. We found an old lady in the book department stealing books, loading them into a suitcase that she carried. It seemed like a good idea to me. We exchanged glances. She knew we knew and knew we didn’t care. I saw a book adjacent to her on a table, Tropic of Cancer. I was attracted to the name. I motioned for her to take it, and she did. Outside, a block away, she gave it to me. We never exchanged one word. I not only had a constant hardon the rest of the summer, I also discovered a new voice, Henry Miller’s.


Norman Savage
Greenwich Village, 2015

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