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.
And at 15, so was I. Even though I was born a little late to ride the initial wave of peace, love and understanding, I was all in and committed. My uniform consisted of 1 pair of tattered and patched bellbottom jeans, impossibly frayed at the hem, an historically faded denim shirt, beat up Frye boots and a peace sign on a leather rope around my neck and hair that reached the middle of my back, standard hippy uniform for a poor kid on Welfare who couldn't afford anything else.
Now Susan's hippy was something altogether different. For some reason, she could walk the same route, walk for miles everyday, yet the hem of her exaggerated bellbottoms were always perfect, not a single fray to be seen. She wore a different Indian style, long sleeved, clean white, cotton blouse everyday, despite the heat and each one had beautifully embroidered, colored stitching, opened low to reveal a shining, silver peace sign hung around her neck. She always carried a small brown, suede leather pouch, colored beads attached to the flowing tassles that shimmied as she walked and a thin leather headband that perfectly corralled her hair, parted in the middle.
Her hair was almost a miracle and no one in our neighborhood of dark brown and black hair, had ever seen anything quite like it. To simply call it blond would be to shortchange the truth, her hair was almost white. It's length reached the top of her low hung, hip hugger jeans and when the afternoon sun, which was always behind her as she walked, would attach it's rays to the back and forth motion, it looked illuminated. The reflection almost hurt your eyes and even as she started to disappear from view, down the long, straight blocks, you could still see her hair, gently swish back and forth as she walked.
Susan's face was a very pale white and it never tanned, it could be 95 sweltering degrees and humid but there was never a bead of sweat to be seen. Wide cheekbones, wide mouth, slightly parted, unlipsticked lips and grey eyes behind dark aviater sunglasses, resting on a narrow nose, she was an almost, Nordic princess who had an air of royalty while she walked through the crowds as they galked. Susan was utterly unfazed by the attention, her expression never changed and I never saw her once utter a word or look anyone in the eye.
Susan was otherwordly. She was untouchable, unnattainable and way out of anyone's league.
Even the hormone choked, macho manboys in our gang knew it and it pissed them off. They ridiculed her clothes but it wasn't just her clothes, it was how she wore them. Susan would tie her Indian shirts in a knot just at her ribs and her hip hugger pants rode low on her torso, so there was lots of pale white skin including her bellybutton, showing between the shirt and the top of her pants. None of the girls in our neighborhood dressed like Susan, no one had ever seen a girl dress like that, except me.
I was absorbed into this gang of ours but there was always a tension, an uneasiness between the macho manboys and me. Most of them were violent, I wasn't, many if not all of them were bigoted and hateful, I wasn't, most of them were doing heroin, I wasn't and they all had the same, steady girlfriends and I didn't.
Oh, I kissed a few girls and had some secret, makeout sessions in the top floor of stairways like everyone else, the only place that offered any of us some privacy in our, see everything when you did it neighborhood. Despite being the low man in the heirarchy and generally held in very low regard with the manboys, I remained popular with the girls. I was sensitive, quiet, I listened and though I was considered a close friend and confidant to all the girls in our gang, none of them especially lit a spark for me or I for them.
It was time to move on and I eventually spent less and less time on my block.
Being poor, walking was my mode of transportation and Queens, whose official borderline was only a few miles away, was always my favored direction. It was easy to tell without a map that I was in Queens, the tree lined streets were cleaner and wider, there were brick, bungalow style single, family houses with small grass yards and planted flowers. I was also guaranteed to find some hippies, partying on a corner or in a park, this borough was hippy central.
It was on one of these aimless walks one night, that I happened to turn a corner and there it was, right at my feet and so close in fact, I stumbled as I almost stepped on the little, bitty monkey. Without even looking up, intuitively I kneeled and offered the monkey my hand, with the widest grin my face could muster and before my fingers reached it's head, the little bitty monkey scampered up my arm, perched on my shoulder and proceeded to investigate my hair with it's little hands.
I let out a great big laugh, Susan was stunned. Apparently the monkey was never this friendly to strangers, it just didn't happen and she composed herself a little and began to apologize. To put her at ease, I told her of the promise I made years ago and we both had a little giggle, hers didn't last long though. Her face was different than I'd remembered, I wondered if it was the shadows from the dim street lamps, since I had never seen Susan at night before. All these years I'd watched her walk away from her apartment on the next block, but had never seen her actually come home, nobody in our gang had. It was also the first time I'd heard her voice, it was soft as summer mist, but very tentative, halting and not at all what I'd imagined. She tried extricating the monkey from my now tangled hair but it wouldn't let go, it started screeching right in my ear.
Susan sheepishly asked if I would walk her home, and so walk home we did.
Although we were quite a few miles from home, the time went quckly. I let Susan dictate the pace, she seemed in a hurry and we didn't talk very much. Keeping the monkey balanced on my shoulder wasn't all that easy, she appeared preoccupied, kept looking over her shoulder every few blocks and when we finally got to her building, I fully expected to hear her just say thank you. I mean this was Susan, untouchable, unnattainable, otherwordly Susan. Heck, I was happy enough just finally getting the chance to fulfill a silly promise about petting a monkey.
But then she asked me upstairs, to talk awhile in the hallway and my head started swimming.
By the time we climbed the stairs to the top floor, walking behind her, being that close and seeing that hair, that beautiful hair move as she moved up the stairs, it was all I could do to not reach out and touch it, but I didn't. She took the monkey off my shoulder and went inside for a few minutes, when the door opened she was followed by her mom, who had 2 cups of herbal tea for us in her hands. Now please understand, this was not the way events usually turned out when a girls' mother found you in the hallway with thier daughter, us boys were usually on the wrong end of a broom, being chased down the stairs.
Her mom handed me the tea and looked me right in the eye, her soft brown eyes said exactly what she did, 'Thank you', and closed the door behind her. I sat down first, close to the door on my right, Susan sat down and she sat close enough that our knees were touching, close enough that her hair would spill over my arm when we sipped our tea. She started talking about wanting to move, that she hated our neighborhood, that she had a friend in California who was begging her in daily phone calls to leave. We certainly had that in common, but I was only 15, my time would have to wait. Susan, as I could see now being so close, was much older, maybe in her mid twenties and seemed to look a little older that night, she seemed weary. So I asked her why she didn't just move, just pack up some things and move to California, people did that all the time.
'Johnny. Johnny won't let me, he won't let me do anything.'
And as she said this, we both put our tea on the stairtread and I felt her body shift a little closer, we were shoulder to shoulder, thigh to thigh, her hair was mixing with mine as she began to tell me about her boyfriend Johnny. They met in high school, he had a rock band and he wanted to be a star, it's all he ever thought about. He wrote songs, played lead guitar and was the singer and of course that all sounded exciting and romantic and very cool in high school, but he was nearing 30 and this dream, just wasn't happening. He was also insanely jealous, would routinely beat up guys who showed the slightest bit of innocent interest in Susan, then he would turn his anger on her. He controlled everything she did, told her exactly what to wear and it was his demand that had her walk everyday, walk the miles to his house in Queens, instead of picking her up in his car, as any decent boyfriend would.
That walk was a test, a loyalty test. She was not allowed to talk to anyone and she had to be at his house at exactly the right time, otherwise he suspected she was flirting, or maybe worse. Her clothes were expected to be perfect, her hair, face, nails and every detail was inspected before they went out and especially the night of a gig. She was his prop, eye candy for interest and for votes when he competed in Battle of the Band contests, which he routinely lost. He was an alchoholic, he was a heavy drug user and as time went on, as his dreams were fading faster and as hard as she tried, she could never do anything right.
Susan always payed the price for his failures.
Susan hung her head as she told me all this, I sat there stunned, paralyzed and really not sure what to say or what to do. I wanted to hold her, console her, protect her and just as I started to put my arm around her shoulder, she moved into me, her head was in my chest, her hair completely covered her face and she rolled up the long sleeve of her white cotton blouse and began to cry. I could feel her warm tears fall onto my jeans, one by one by one, as I looked at the bruises that covered her arm. My other hand then instinctively cupped her head, I gently stroked her hair, that miraculous hair that went slippery through my fingers, like water slow through a stream. I always imagined it would feel that way.
I held her a little tighter in my arms, kept thinking how much better she deserved.
Then, we both heard it, Rhhhhuuuurrrmmmm, rhuuurrmm, rhuuuuurrrrmmm, the screech of car tires and they sounded really close. I wondered why Tony was coming home so late, it was well past midnight and why he was stopping outside this building. Susan bolted to a standing position with terror in her wet eyes, put her hands on my shoulders and yelled,
'Oh my God, it's Johnny, it's Johnny! He'll kill you, he has a gun!'
Her mom heard the engine roar too, she opened the door, grabbed my shirt and pulled me into the bathroom and quietly closed the door. Their apartment was exactly like mine and like all the other railroad apartments, the bathroom was just 3 feet from the door and in the kitchen, as you entered. With my heart in my throat, terrified, standing in this bathroom I could hear doors slamming and heavy, bounding footsteps coming quickly up the stairs and Johnny, clearly drunk slurring,
'Where is that f----r. where is he? I knew you were cheatin' on me, I'll f----n' kill 'em!'
The apartment door flung open and I could hear Susan trying to reassure him but he wasn't listening, he began upturning every piece of furniture in the rooms and opening every closet as he moved through the apartment. His voice got further away and just when it seemed he was in the last bedroom, maybe in the last closet and out of view, Susan's mom opened the door and told me to run, and I ran like I never ran before. My long legs got down those 3 flights of stairs in 6 steps and once I reached the vestibule, saw Johnny's red Chevelle facing east, I ran west as fast as I could. I knew every inch of this neighborhood, every doorway, backyard and hiding spot and I used them all, because once Johnny heard me bounding down the stairs, he did the same. I heard the car start up, the tires screech and he spent the next 6 hours driving around, trying to find me.
'If I find you f----r, I'm gonna blow your f----n' head off!'
He never did find me that night or any night, although he tried hard. Johnny gunned his car through the streets of my neigborhood, yelling out the window and waking people up in the middle of the night. I hid out in my moms apartment, there was really no choice. This went on for a few nights, then it stopped. I hadn't slept in days, I finally did that night. I woke up the next morning and there I was again, looking down at Tony lifting up the hood of his Nova. When he finished fiddling around, he straightened up and paused for a second before lifting his head slowly in the direction of my window.
He stared up at me with his intense dark eyes, cocked his head and motioned downward with his eyes, which in Brooklyn speak meant come downstairs, now, so I did. Still in my pajamas I went downstairs and stood there on the sidewalk in my bare feet, not knowing what the heck to expect. Tony had started up his car, I waited for him to get out to close the hood, he came over to me and put mouth near my ear,
'You don't gotta' worry 'bout that red haired punk Johnny, no more, hear what I'm tellin' ya?'
He stepped away as I stood there dumfounded, he closed the hood and looked at me, lowered his head slightly for emphasis and raised his shiny, black eyebrows and that was it.
Tony slipped into his bucket seat and Rhhhhuuuurrrmmmm, slowly drove away.
I attended a few funerals the year following that summer of 1970, the summer of my education about people, their motivations, their assumptions, their bigotry, their loyalties and about the tenuous threads that connect us, whether we know those threads exist or not.
Three of the macho manboys died that year, one in a huge drug deal gone horribly wrong, one overdosed on heroin and one in a shootout with the cops, when he was caught breaking into an apartment. The last I heard years later, none of the macho manboys ever left the neighborhood and if they did leave, it was on a bus to prison.
I eventually came out of hiding after spending a few days in my window, behind the flimsy white curtains, summoning my courage. I always felt safe there watching the comings and goings, the backwards and forwards of the street and sidewalk traffic on my block. The old women still came out every morning to scrub the sidewalks at 7, Tony still woke everyone up with his Chevy Nova, but I never did see Susan walking down the street again.
Word on the street whispered that Tony and his knit shirt and shiny shoe boys, paid a visit to Queens and as he waited in his car, parked in the middle of the street, the bats, crowbars and sledgehammers pulled a Pontiac on Johnnys' Chevelle.
Word also whispered that Susan got into a yellow Checker cab early one morning soon after, with a suitcase and the little bitty monkey.
Neither Johnny or Susan were ever seen in the neighborhood again.
And that's just how it was.
7:01 PM PT: thank House of LIGHTS for your always support.