The first half of this story was originally published in a diary titled, 'Tony Raced His Black '67 Chevy Nova While Susan Walked a Monkey.' This was not an easy memory to recall, the story required no embellishment, just a steadier hand than I had at the time, to complete it.
Please Note* There are descriptions of violence in this diary, there was no way to tell the story otherwise. Thank you as always.
I was a poor, pimpled, uncool sulker at 13, an emotionally, mixed up mess of a kid, spending the first weeks after school ended that year in '68 sitting alone, on the top step of the 10 foot high stoop to my building, scrunched in the shadowed corner of the doorway, day after airless day. There I sat, in the same spot, same position, long arms looped around my legs and acned face resting between my knees, just hoping that no one would notice and praying hard, to be ignored.
Like a gargoyle I watched, stone faced and silent, hoping to be invisible to all the comings and goings, the backwards and forwards of incessant car and human traffic, scared of everything that moved. Unfortunately for me, absolutely nothing stood still on this unfamiliar Brooklyn street, a continuous canyon wall of 4 story buildings that swallowed whatever thankful breeze there might have been, choking everything but the noise, the noise that never stopped.
Delivery trucks roared down the narrow, one way, steamy asphalt street blaring their big horns, rustling the litter along the curbs, barely missing kids darting between parked cars chasing balls and playing tag, young mothers pushed baby carriages and old ladies pullled shopping carts, choking the already narrow sidewalks. Heavy doors slammed behind people slithering past other people bunched on stairways, listening to transistor radios, each tuned to different channel.
My whole world was inside out and upside down, divorce does that to a kid.
The best perch to understand it all, was my third floor window. It was safe there, hidden behind the flimsy white curtains, I had distance and the view from that vantage point allowed for the eventual recognition of daily patterns, things people did each day. I was thankful perched there, thankful that at least something began to make some sense, because so much had changed so quickly for this kid. Divorce is a tragically shared trauma and my mom, who needed some space of her own to begin repairs, decided that I wanted to be outside, to soak up some sun and meet some other kids my age.
So, of course I sat there on the stoop alone, for weeks.
This neighborhood bore no resemblance to the manicured, fenceless grassed yards, single family house, 2 cars in the driveway, ethnicity free Long Island, that I spent the first 12 years of my kid life. There were languages here and English spoken thick with Italian and German accents by old, creased and grey haired woman in black mourning dresses and rolled down black stockings, who promptly at 7am, bent at the hip, were out scrubbing their stoops and sidewalk slabs in front of their buildings. The curbs were concrete but the 8' wide section between the curb and the stoop were huge, uneven, trip if you weren't careful, thick slabs of weathered slate, that were never quite clean enough, I guess?
Physically, this was not a human friendly environment, there were no trees along the straight line of streets, that you could view for miles. Not a single one. The small concrete 'yards' that fronted the four story, continously connected buildings on either side of the stoop, were just wide enough for four steel garbage cans, the other side was empty. That empty space was handy when it snowed, not much else, it was walled off from the sidewalk by thick, foreboding wrought iron, black painted fencing. Each building had their own looping designs, all topped by tri corner spears that if you accidently rubbed the palm of your hand against the tip, you'd get a nasty scrape for your stupidity, as intended. The stoops were also lined on either side by a wide, wrought iron railing, too wide for a kids hand.
My tomboy sister found this out the hard way, she slipped off one the railings monkey climbing, as kids so often did, slipped and was impaled on one of the spears. She lay there motionless, folded and in shocked silence as adults came to help but the aid proved difficult, the fences were over four feet high and it was impossible to remove her, without causing further damage. Some wooden milk crates were found, placed front and back to gain leverage and she was eventually lifted off.
She was lucky, she only needed a few stitches to repair the three inch tear in her belly.
Just as the old women were scrubbing away at 7:30, a hefty man always wearing a black tee shirt, with black wavy hair and a blacker moustache, would decend slowly down his staircase from the buiding to my left and walk to his car, which just happened to be in right front of my building and in my direct line of vision.
This car was not your typical, mother go to marketmobile or dad's everyday, train station driver. No, not even close. This car was infinite black and the mirror finish in the triple lacquered paint was so perfect, I could see my pimpled reflection from the top of the stoop where I sat. On the hood were two round steel circles, equally spaced, with small horseshoe clasps for little padlocks that were meticulously unlocked, without leaving even a partial fingerprint on the dustless, black paint finish. The hood would then be raised, the man's head would disappear for a minute into the engine compartment, he'd fiddle around, straighten up and walk slowly to the driver's side door, unlock it and slip seamlessly into the black vinyl bucket seat, leaving the hood up the entire time.
Tony was never in a hurry, he moved deliberately, rehearsed but purposeful.
I could hear the click, the turn of the key and what resulted next, the sound that crashed and echoed for miles off the close, canyon walls of this neighborhood every morning, was the unique roar of American auto manufacturing in it's heyday, the 425 cubic inch muscle car, horsepower rumble, that put me right square in the mouth of a mechanical lion, as it roared from deep within it's empty belly.
Rhhhhuuuurrrmmmm, rhuuurrmm, rhuuuuurrrrmmm! as he stepped on the accelerator gently, to get the oil flowing slowly through the cylinders. He always sat in the car for the ten or so minutes it took for the engine to calm down a little, to start purring with his beefy hand firmly clenched around the chromed ball, that topped the shifter.
I never covered my ears although I probably should have, the decibel level was that toxic and neither did the old women, who were totally oblivious to anything but their chores. I can't say that for the rest of the neighborhood who were woken up this way, whether they liked it or not.
Work days, Saturdays and Sundays were no different and that's just how it was.
People might have and very quietly, mumbled curses under their breath as Tony carefully let the hood down and drove away, but they didn't let anyone but trusted family members hear the complaint because word on the street whispered, that Tony was connected. He knew a guy who knew a guy, who's brother was a made man and the quiet rumours morphed into legend, an unverifiable truth that Tony himself was a made man, attached somehow and no one knew exactly how, to the Mob.
And in this tight knit, everyone could see what you were doing when you did it neighborhood, that's all you needed to know to stay healthy and vertical.
Everyday and all day, that coveted and spotless parking space was empty until Tony arrived back home, from whetever it was that he did. No one parked there, even as you could see every parking spot taken for as far as your eyes could focus, along the up and down streets that were choked with parked cars, that spot remained reserved and it was right in front of my house.
One hapless visitor unfamiliar with the rules, made the mistake of ignoring all the warnings, arrogantly parking his Pontiac sedan where it should never have been. The informed knew what would happen and word got around. We were all silent witnesses by late afternoon, as crowds gathered throughout the day, bunched on stoops and heads poking out of every window, waiting for the roar to be heard from blocks away, that signaled Tonys' return.
He drove up slowly, barely stopped and returned a few minutes later.
He parked his car right in the middle of the street, doors swung open and men piled out, in wool knit shirts and shiny shoes, the trunk opened and out came bats, crowbars and sledge hammers and they proceeded to pummel that Pontiac, into a shattered steel and glass corpse, as Tony sat in his black bucket seat waiting. The Pontiac was unrecognizeable, rendered undriveable when they were finally finished, they all silently slithered back into Tony's 1967, black Chevy Nova, rhhhhuuuurrrmmmm, and just simply, very slowly, drove away, leaving the message there for the neighborhood to consider.
That violent display, verified all the whispered rumours about Tony and no one ever dared park there again, during the ten years that I lived there.
Precisely at three o'clock each afternoonn another daily ritual occured and everything stood still, stopped all motion on the streets and sidewalks. Stickball games halted in mid swing, kids forgot who was 'it' in tag, mothers didn't hear babies crying because that girl, was slowly gliding over the bluestone slabs of the sidewalk again, holding as she did every day, a thin leather leash and teathered to that leash, was a little, bitty brown monkey.
Nobody moved and everyone went hush.
This mouth agape, daily diversion from our noisy, litter strewn existence happened seven days a week, you could set your watch to it. For us, it was way better than any Mutual of Omaha special on t.v., heck, we had our own, personal National Geographic reality, right on our street, in real time, every single day. This was Technicolor, before any of us could afford Technicolor, this was appointment t.v. before the term even existed.
It was the highlight of the day for so many people and so many people had so many opinions, that 'the girl with the monkey' had become a flashpoint, a neighborhood controversy. People divided into 'for' and 'against' camps and argued daily for hours, about Susan and her monkey.
I know it certainly marked my day complete when I saw Susan and her little, bitty monkey walk by, I certainly had no objections whatsoever. Most of the menboys slobbered sexual innuendo and crude one liners, I heard their whispers but I had other designs. Susan was the most beautiful human that two other humans could possibly conceive but despite that indisputable truth, at thirteen, her beauty had far less appeal to me, than petting that monkey. I wasn't in the position to make many promises in those emotionally unstable days, but I swore to myself, I would somehow, someday pet that little monkeys head.
I eventually got my wish a few years later.
Change came stubbornly to my neighborhood. Strangers were noticed and kept at arms length, not easily accepted and so it went with me as I spent those weeks on my stoop, alone. The first tentative introduction to join in a game of stickball, came very soon after my mom had taped our name in blue BIC ink, above our mail slot. Our last name ended in a vowel and that vowel was my ticket of acceptance, the stamp of approval with the 20 or so kids my age who hung out on my block.
Stickball was played in the street, on the sticky asphalt that got so hot, your sneakers would suddenly stop short in melting gum wads as you ran the bases, your fingers would stick together as you frantically crawled under cars to chase ground balls. Home base was a sewer cap, second base the next one 30 feet away, first and second base were mirrors of parked cars, which was never appreciated by the owners of said cars. It took me a few games to get the hang of things but eventually my athletic experience and instincts kicked in, I happened to be the star pitcher and hitter on my Little League team, back in Long Island.
A perfectly placed vowel and a knack for stickball and I was in. And that's just how it was.
It's just how it was and that's how people in this poor, working class neighborhood wanted things to stay but this was 1968, upheaval was sweeping the entire country, change was coming whether people wanted it or not.
Susan and her monkey was the personification of that change, you see, Susan was a hippy.