“All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true.”
Today I found a file on my computer entitled “Ditmas Park Tales.” It was a series of small vignettes about my life growing up in Brooklyn. Here are some selections:
The girl across the street had everything I wanted:
* naturally blond hair parted down the middle into two pigtails
* Mork and Mindy dolls
* the soundtrack to “Annie”
* lots of chocolate
* a sailor shirt with a matching jaunty cap
* professional headshots
The mom of the girl across the street was friends with my mom, so I had to go over her house a lot. We weren’t friends. We had nothing in common but our moms. She barely spoke to me while I was at her apartment, so I played with her cats.
I was tall and weird and talked about dinosaurs and wore thick-soled shoes I inherited from a male cousin.
The girl across the street’s mom would give my mom her hand-me-downs to give to me. It was the ultimate humiliation. Not only because I had to wear her old clothes, but because she was smaller than me and none of the clothes fit right.
Pant-legs would terminate inches above my ankles. Sweater sleeves almost reached my elbows. But they all had brand names, so I guess that was good. I would pretend I had fancy clothing.
But then the girl across the street would see me wearing a certain shirt at school and ask: “wasn’t that my shirt?”
The girl across the street had a large colorful mural painted on one whole wall of her room. The mural had words like “LOVE” and “MAGIC” painted on in psychedelic, pillowy letters. There were unicorns and rainbows and pandas and stars. It looked like Lisa Frank herself was hired to create this mural.
But one day I went over the girl across the street’s house and the mural had a big blot splashed right in the center.
It was like somebody threw water at the wall, but more than water; like a sauce or acid.
The blot had to be like over a foot long, with a halo of streams snaking out of it in every direction. On the bottom was one long dark drip that almost made it to the floor. The edges of the blot were the color of mud, the result of the various pigments pushed away from their former place on the wall, collapsing upon each other.
The very center of the blot was WHITE. Followed outward into blurred images. Sad half-faces of cherubic pink and purple animals drawn down by a sudden liquid blast.
There were even small splash marks on the ceiling above.
I never knew what happened to that mural in the girl across the street’s room. The next time I went there, they pinned a floral bedsheet over it. That bedsheet stayed on the wall for the rest of the time I knew her.
But the sheer satanic glee I experienced over seeing that blot takes me aback even to this day.
BACK TO THE BEACH
When I was 13, I got my first period.
I wasn’t scared, or nothing. Unlike my Aunt, who had received no sex education from my grandmother, and subsequently believed her insides were falling out.
No, my Mom—who was a scientist—explained to me beforehand that this thing called a “period” was definitely going to happen to me when I hit a certain age…
And so when I told her I finally got the thing, she simply gave me one of her maxipads and took me to see the 1987 Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello starrer “Back To The Beach” at the Kent Theater on Coney Island Avenue.
Of course, now that I had my monthly visitor I had to be very very careful indeed. My mom had also explained to me that now I was in danger of sperm wriggling through the very fibers of a boy’s underwear and pants—making its way singlemindedly to my ovaries—if I got too close to him.
I wore like three pads to school.
HOW WE STOPPED BEING FRIENDS
G. had told me that the doctor found a possibly cancerous mole on her back, “the size of a lentil.” She was getting it biopsied. “I’m scared,” G. said. “I’m only a teenager. I want to get married and have babies.”
I got off the phone and cried and cried and my mom asked: “Why are you crying?”
I said between tears: “G. might have cancer!”
(G. was my best friend at the time)
My mother scoffed and warned: “You don’t know if she really has cancer or not. So don’t overreact.”
This seemed like such a heartless reaction. “Cancer is cancer,” I thought. Also: my mother didn’t like G.
I picked out G. myself. My mother thought I couldn’t be trusted to pick out these friends on my own—to pick out friends from the Neighborhood. That’s why I was bussed to a junior-high a half-hour away.
(This was after the girl across the street and most of the other kids I went to grade-school with were shipped from Ditmas Park to prep schools and out-of-district)
So that’s what it really was about, Mom hating G. and hoping she was a liar—so I could be proven as a girl who had bad taste in friends and couldn’t be trusted to organize her own social calendar!
As it turned out, G.’s lentil-shaped mole wasn’t cancerous; which was a blessing because I prayed so hard and hard. G. wasn’t a liar; she was just lucky.
One day, G. told me she had a stalker at her school. Sometimes, she referred to him as a “secret admirer,” but with the idea that it was in a dark, obsessive way. He had even left her a box of chocolates once; I saw it, red cellophane over silver with a looseleaf paper note folded in fourths taped to the top.
“I don’t want to get jumped in an alley and raped,” she said, clutching the rectangular box. “Or grabbed into a van. I don’t even know this guy.”
“Call the authorities; we can get him written up.”
“No, my mom will beat me if she thinks I’m involved in something like this.”
This went on for weeks. There were letters. Mysterious phone calls. Even a fashion magazine left out in the rain on her front step, open to a certain picture that marginally looked like G. The eyes were blackened out.
Then the stalker threatened to meet G. after class.
I offered to leave early from my school, go to her school, and beat the shit out of him.
G. said that she could take care of it; that she didn’t want me to be in danger too. Also, that if news about this came out, her mom would get angry and beat her.
After that, thank God, G.’s stalker never bothered her again. Which was good, because I really would have beat the shit out of him.
Some time later, G. called me up and said she was going to kill herself. She told me to go to her apartment building and I would find her on the roof.
And so I threw on my shoes and jacket and went.
And G., just like she said, was up on the roof of that 3-story walk-up, straddling one stockinged leg over the edge.
She looked down at me and waved, and had this strange angry smile.
“Come down from there,” I yelled up to G.
G. continued to wordlessly maintain that unsettling grin, waving her leg in the air in an almost playful manner.
“Goddamit, get down from there,” I yelled again. For some reason, her smile was starting to make me angry; this unaccountable, raising anger which was quickly washing away my feelings for her.
Finally she said, in this unaccountably aggressive way,
“What are you going to do about it?”
Nothing, I guess.
I had the sudden impulse to beat the shit out of her because I was feeling played. I guess I didn’t trust nobody. I guess I was a bad friend. I guess I just didn’t understand girls. Maybe I changed too many schools. Maybe I wasn’t caring enough. Maybe I was an idiot, a fucking idiot.
After that, I mostly only hung out with guys who read comic books.
RAY, THE BAD KID
I saw Ray for the first time at the comic book store where I worked. I was sitting on the chair eating fried rice and breaded scallops. He was looking through the spinner rack, a small thin tan teenager with a lock of tan hair over one eye.
My boss had whispered to me as I ate: “keep an eye on him.”
Later, after Ray left, my boss explained to me that when Ray was a little boy, he had come to the store and got bit by a rat. The rat just jumped out from behind some boxes of crap and bit him.
And ever since that day, Ray’s growth was stunted. And he became a bad kid.
But later, me and Ray got to talking and we became friends.
One day Ray was at a Chinese restaurant on Coney and set it on fire with his Zippo lighter. He casually sat at a table, waiting for an order, and lit a menu or the vinyl tablecloth on fire.
Then he walked away as the table started going up in flames.
Ray told the cops that it was an accident. But he told me a different story: that he was a pyromaniac and just couldn’t help himself.
Anyway, the restaurant didn’t suffer too much damage, and used the incident and the insurance money to remodel.
But Ray was not allowed inside there anymore.
From the beginning, I was drawn to a soft-spoken part-timer at the comic store named Sid Lonesome.
Biologically, he was almost twice my age…but mentally we were on the same card. Sid, on the surface, was a typical comic book geek. He lived in a cramped apartment filled to the ceiling with his treasures —comics, magazines, books, Man From U.N.C.L.E. paperbacks, the complete Starlog, his old ice skates from when he was 12, his old flute from when he was 14, and every TV Guide since 1974.
Sid was a talented artist, and still held on to his dreams of being a professional comic book artist from when he was a kid. But while stardom idly leaned back on its heels, just out of his grasp, there were always shifts at the comic shop and the local video rental store to help him get by.
While the portrait I have initially painted of Sid might seem unflattering—and, truth be told, it might wrap up a little unflattering as well—what I need to stress is what “attracted” me to him.
Sid Lonesome was a nice guy. He was inherently nonviolent, as gentle as a Hobbit, and liked to let stray cats hitch rides on his shoulders while he petted their flat heads.
I had spent so many years without parental guidance or affection from either parent, and my need for love was a gaping hole inside my being. Instinctually, I knew Sid could fill that need. But I made no such pat psychological determinations about my true intentions towards him at the time. At the time, I wanted Sid to be my boyfriend. And Sid—who had sex only one time in his life and liked to audio tape theme songs from television programs and play them back on his Sony Walkman—was overjoyed.
Technically, this all leads to statutory rape; but fortunately, Sid was impotent.
I was so happy. Now we could be friends, real friends—just like with the boys at school before they grew pubes.
So one day these guys were chasing us, and me and Ray were holed up in the apartment.
We could see them six floors down on the sidewalk below, one of them with a baseball bat.
I didn’t want to get the cops involved. I was technically still a minor, living there with no parents; my mother having moved away and my father dead.
But Ray had this great idea: we’d freeze eggs and then use them as projectiles out the window.
So we shoved a carton of eggs in the freezer, next to a package of chicken.
We went to play SNES for a few hours, then peeked out the window and those guys were still there, smoking.
So we threw the frozen eggs at them. They were like OH SHIT!
Nobody expects frozen eggs.
One connected with this guy’s near-bald head, and some blood oozed out down past his cheek.
They were all looking at us, yelling and hopping.
Then Ray threw the chicken out the window, too.
And then I didn’t have any chicken.
Enter Rocco, Sid’s roommate.
Rocco was not of the comic book collecting crowd per se; indeed, with his “Fonz” leather jacket and swaggering attitude he was more likely to put down the “geeks” even as he himself hung out at the comic store, making his multiple special appearances just like Christopher Walken would do on “SNL.”
Rocco’s world was more Bret Easton Ellis than Coney Island, a world of clubs, drugs, and Versace suits of questionable origins.
But, in the end, Rocco was a mutant like the rest of us, a lifer, a neighborhood boy.
And though success was just about in his grasp—a hot new job, a hot blond fiancé, and an impending marriage—there was something in him, some switch or knob or red button, that was clearly marked “destruct” and which he knew by heart and had used before and would use again.
So though his roommate—the milquetoast comic geek—had only brought home ONE girl throughout the entire time they had shared the apartment, Rocco was going to fuck that one girl.
Rocco had piously declared he would not fuck me until I turned 17, but such a declaration—even in the face of the fact that he was engaged—would have fucked up his unconscious plan of self-destruction, crash-and-burn, bringing down the house about his heels like the end of any given Vincent Price movie.
So one day we fucked in the bathtub, just days shy of my birthday, just months shy of his wedding. The sex was ok, though I felt a little detached from it. I remember feeling really good that this first real time was the result of my own decision…and, honestly, I still feel that way today.
When it was over I noticed that I was bleeding a little bit. “Oh, that’s just your hymen,” he explained proudly. “It’s normal.”
Days later, I casually mentioned to my mother that I was no longer a virgin.
Perhaps deep down I was expecting to get some sort of rise from her, some sort of reaction that would jump-start her maternal instincts and send her running back to the apartment, taking me away from all this dissipation.
But her answer was calm and practically-minded:
“Well, what are you going to do if you get pregnant?”
HOW SID ENDED UP LIVING WITH ME
The next day Sid called me up to tell me that Rocco was standing across the street from the comic store with a hunting rifle. That night, Sid called me to report that Rocco was calmly sitting in the living room with the same rifle in his lap, wearing glasses.
“Sid…Rocco doesn’t wear glasses.”
“I know! I KNOW!”
The next morning Sid calls and says,
“I think Rocco wants to kill me. He hung a chair wrapped in chains upside-down from the ceiling. He’s not doing too well. I think he’s going to kill me.”
“Well, move in with me,” I offered.
We spent the next several hours frantically transporting Sid’s massive comic collection, plus a few pieces of furniture and some clothing, across three blocks to my house. Luckily, we had Ray’s band of hoodlums to help us out in exchange for a meal & ten bucks a piece. A particularly large fellow stared at a pair of foam cylinders connected with a chain that rested in one of Sid’s bookshelves. The young man picked them up and smacked the cylinders into his own forehead. He blinked, then asked,
“What are these?”
“Oh, those are nunchucks,” Sid replied, “I use them for ninja-moves.”
The boy hit his own forehead a few more times with the cylinders, blinked again, and proceeded to lift a box.
HOW RAY ENDED UP LIVING WITH ME
So this is how Ray ended up living with me:
He was over the house, and we were chilling, listening to rap music and drinking 40-ounces. The boy had taken to tagging up the walls with his thick stubby markers—he had jettisoned high-school for a career in professional “street art”—and I thought it was just peachy. I liked watching my childhood home be consumed in urban rage. I pictured having parents who actually gave a shit, like perhaps the Seavers from “Growing Pains.”
As for Ray he was getting continually locked out of his own house for his kleptomania, the latest and, as far as his folks were concerned, last blow being stealing their locked metal strong box containing $1000. The boy regaled me with stories of taking the box out to the tracks by the flea market in the middle of the night, stomping on it by the light of the moon.
He had also confided to me regarding his increasing comic thievery exploits. He was stealing from the old comic shop. Everybody was—my ex-boss’s most trusted workers all the way to any snot-nosed brat with a long jacket and dropped balls. At one point Ray said he was teaming up with Oswaldo Dominguez, comparing notes, until Oswaldo started fucking his girlfriend.
Anyway, on this particular night I received a call from Rocco, who I hadn’t spoken to since I threw him out. He started out cordial, but swiftly descended into madness:
“Take a look out your window,” Rocco said over the phone with a shaky swagger.
Down the block and across the street he was standing by a pay phone, sans rifle but with a jug of wine in his hand.
“Are you alone,” he quickly followed up.
Ray, who also saw Rocco from the window, lifted up his hands palms-out and shook his head vigorously.
“Yeah,” I replied.
“No, actually, you’re there with…RAY! I can hear him eating my potato-chips! The potato-chips I bought you! He’s fucking you, isn’t he?!”
“I wish!” Ray blurted out.
“O-of course I’m not fucking Ray, Rocco.”
And so Rocco threatened to kill the both of us.
And, long after the sun went down, I told Ray it was time to go home.
“Are you fucking CRAZY?! I can’t leave the apartment! That psycho’s out there!”
HOW RAY GOT THROWN OUT
And this is how Ray got thrown out:
We were all living together in harmony, just like a mommy, daddy, and stinky little foul-mouthed child, for several weeks. Ray had taken a renewed interest in comic books, and Sid, rather paternally, was more than happy to assist the boy in a rediscovery of the medium.
Sid: “For some really great stuff you need look no further than Jack Kirby’s New Gods…”
Ray: “Hey, do you have one of those, what do you call ‘em, price guides?”
Then I began to notice that several shelves of Sid’s comics seemed to noticeably lean to one side…like there were gaps...
And so me and Sid discovered that Ray, who had recently boasted of a new part-time job he had gotten, one that allowed him to give me a big stuffed gorilla for Valentine’s Day, had been systematically stealing all of Sid’s prize books.
Now, Sid, as I believe I’ve mentioned before and will most probably mention again, was a nice guy. He remained calm and peaceful, tender and understanding, even in the face of my revelation that I was fucking his roommate behind his back. But as we finished going through all his comic book boxes, all his shelves, all his milk-cartons, all the stacks that covered two bedrooms in my two-bedroom apartment, the man put his hands up to his head, mashed his hair between his fingers, and howled, “I’M GOING TO KILL THIS FUCKER!!!!!!”
I threw myself against the front door and refused Sid,—who by this time had the nunchucks in his hands—passage.
“You’ll go to jail!”
“I don’t care…I don’t care anymore…”
“He’s just a boy…”
“He’s EVIL! He’s a little evil bastard that has to DIE!”
“You’ll get thrown in jail…”
“My comics…oh, oh, my comics…”
And so Sid, defeated, knowing I was right, crumpled into a heap on the floor and sobbed, pausing every once in a while to shout to God in Job-like agony and bewilderment.
Feeling guilty, I would spend the next months buying most of the pilfered comics back—though, as Sid reminds me to this day, not all.
One day my mother entered the apartment after not seeing me for almost two years. There were beer cans and bottles strewn everywhere, a 33-year-old man sleeping in a boneless ball on the bed next to my half-naked body, and ashtrays and coffee cups overflowing with cigarettes. Graffiti tags covered the walls and Black Sabbath droned from a cassette player.
And there were the comic books. So many comic books.
My mother screamed. Then she dragged me out of bed and made me take the S.A.T. Not that long after, I was enrolled at the local city college.
And that was that.