Coney Island is where I see my first freak show. I am five and my father holds me up to see the stage. Outside the tent, a painted banner depicts a ferocious man with a head shaped like a ten-foot-wide light bulb. But, inside the tent, the meek, sickly man on-stage has only a slightly swollen head. He drives a nail up his nose to try and compensate for his disappointing deformity. My father explains that the man has a disease and the show is a gyp. There is also a woman on-stage who has dry, scaly skin. Outside she is depicted crawling through a swamp on all fours – a woman’s head on the body of an alligator. But, inside – no such luck. Another gyp.
When we climbed out of the Times Square subway station, I was mesmerized. I’d been to Coney Island plenty, but this was something else again, something electrifying. It was the lights – up and down and all around, lights neon, fluorescent and incandescent, lights all moving, all colors and all ablaze – even in daylight; lights that outshined the sun. The billboards were alive – a gigantic man blew smoke rings while Mister Peanut tipped his hat. I didn’t know it then but I had been rubbing shoulders with Diane Arbus and Bettie Page, both working in that 1956 Times Square world – a world of bustling strangers. A world of men in hats. Women with handbags. A world that smelled of Howard Johnson, Orange Julius, Nedick’s, popcorn and pussy. I was six and I could smell it; six and I could feel it; six and I could taste it. Times Square was a dirty dangerous place. And, I loved it.
Elvis blasted from the music stores and frigid winds blasted from the air-conditioned theater lobbies. I passed a newsstand and an excited man shouted “Extra!” I passed a doorway and a crazy man shouted “Cocksucker!” I heard the shuffle, scuffle and beat of the footfalls. I heard the horns, hollers and bleats of the cabbies – “Ya got wheels! Use ’em, Mac!” I saw my first “Street Corner Messiah.” He wore a sandwich board and was very worried about God. I was transfixed by him. I wanted to ask him why he was so worried but I was pulled away.
It was the bestest birthday party ever. We saw the Torture Chamber in Ripley’s Believe It or Not“ Odditorium.” Then we visited Hubert’s Museum – a freak show in a 42nd Street basement. It was even spookier and sexier than Ripley’s! We gaped at Hubert’s Cowboy Giant, midget, flea circus and Congo Witch Doctor. We gawped at Princess Sahloo and her sluggish snake. I determined that I would live in Hubert’s Museum as barker, caretaker and flea-wrangler. I would befriend the Witch Doctor, play pinochle with the midget and milk the snake.
During Prohibition, Mayor LaGuardia cracked down on saloons and forced them to serve food to combat drunkenness. Since then every New York bar has had a “grill,” if you count a broken hot plate with old newspapers piled on top of it and stored next to the eternally out-of-order toilet as a “grill.” I’d never heard of anyone in Brooklyn eating (or peeing) in a bar & grill – except in the Gallo Brothers Bar & Grill. It had an excellent Italian kitchen. But, only the wives and girlfriends of the local Mafia were allowed to enjoy it. One of these broads was driven there in a limo every night even though she lived all of three blocks away. Did I see Jimmy Durante drinking in Gallo’s one day? Maybe it was just a man with a big honker who shouted out to me, “Stop gawkin’ at me ya little bastid and go fuck your mother.”
My neighborhood’s Chinese laundry sat beside the “Ladies Entrance” to the Gallo Brothers Bar & Grill. The Gallo boys were notorious Mafia “wise guys” who ran a bookie parlor hidden behind a door at the back of the laundry. History does not relate if the Chinaman got a piece of the action or had no choice. On Thanksgiving, the Gallos distributed turkeys and booze to neighborhood numbskulls, which bought their undying loyalty – “Hey, leave dem alone. Dem Gallo boys is good boys.”
In 1972, Crazy Joey Gallo was assassinated in Umberto’s Clam House in Little Italy and Bob Dylan wrote a song about him. (Tourists still gawk outside Umberto’sunaware that the original joint where Joey got whacked is blocks away.)
Many of the stoop sages are veterans of World War Two. Joe Pinto lost an arm on Guadalcanal but still holds down two jobs. And, veterans or not, everyone on the stoop agrees that the Allies should have unleashed General George Patton. At the end of the war, Patton wanted to go clear across the steppes of Russia and clean out those commie creeps once and for all. But, Truman wouldn’t let him.
“That’s why they killed him,” grunts Joe Pinto while crushing a beer can with his one remaining hand. “You think Ike wasn’t in on it? Jeep accident my ass.”
Let’s say it’s another soft, summer night in 1955. Only lightning bugs and burning cigarettes illuminate the faces on the stoop as they agree, again – “We should have unleashed Patton.” Later, only flicker from TV screens illuminate their faces as they sit on their sofas watching Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. Again. And, sipping a beer, they murmur, again – “We should have unleashed Patton.” Their wives sipping beside them nod in agreement.
Between race riots and stoop jokes I am warned, “Kid, in your lifetime the mira-miras and jigs are gonna overrun America.” Those words rattle the core of my Brooklyn being. They make me ascared because I know that the men of the stoop are not only cops and cabbies and garbagemen. They are prophets. They are Jeremiahs. So, when the Masters talk, I listen. And, when they lower their voices to discuss anything doity, I pretend to be too busy gazing into Green-Wood Cemetery to listen. But, I listen. Extra hard.
The over-arching theme of their colloquies is the incontrovertible fact that Brooklyn and the world are well and truly fucked. The rot set in with World War Two. Joe McCarthy was right. We’d been betrayed by those Jews – the Rosenbergs, that fairy – Alger Hiss and those Jewish fairies in Hollywood. We’d fought on the wrong side in the war. Except for fightin’ the Japs. Those slant-eyed sneaks had it comin’.
“Kid, do you know those Jap bastards stuck a thin, glass tube up a soldier’s prick? Then they smashed down on his prick with a hammer. Thousands of glass shards got embedded in his dick. Think about it. The poor son of a bitch survived but whenever he takes a piss, two guys have to hold him.”
The Italian Grandmas and Grandpas live on the ground floors of the fire-escape-covered tenements while the families of their married sons are stacked on the floors above. The Polish and Irish families in the neighborhood prefer to live near but not on top of each other. Polish and Irish life revolves around the bars found on every corner. The Polish bars are all named The White Eagle and the Irish ones are all named The Shamrock.The men who drink in the former are all named Stosh and the men who drink in the latter are all named Mick. The Italians drink Guinea Red at home, so it is the Polish and Irish kids who have to stand outside those bars yelling to their drunken fathers that it’s time to come home. And, it is those Polish and Irish fathers (and often mothers) who stagger home and throw pennies to us kids sitting on the stoop or fall down as they try to jump rope with the girls or play stickball with the boys.
The Italian Grandpas in my neighborhood raise chickens in their yards and pigeons on their roofs. Grandpa Falco fattens and slaughters Thanksgiving turkeys in his basement where I visit the doomed birds before they go under his ax. Every fall, the Grandpas pool the grapes from their backyard arbors to produce a wine called “Guinea Red” – used to unclog toilets, eat rust off cars and quiet colicky babies. Every week, the Italian Grandmas cover every piece of furniture in their apartments with bed sheets, then cover every inch of those sheets with homemade ravioli in preparation for Sunday lunch. (These peasant women effortlessly transform their homes into ephemeral “pasta-art” installations that pre-date conceptual art by decades!)
The Battle of Brooklyn, the crucial battle of the Revolutionary War, takes place in Green-Wood Cemetery. George Washington loses but manages to escape across the East River while soldiers from Maryland fight a desperate retreating action across the cemetery and down into the swamps of Gowanus, where I will later work. The Marylanders are slaughtered on Third Street, where I will later live. Thus, my personal battles in Brooklyn trace the course of the Battle of Brooklyn.
As a child, long before I know this bloody history, I feel a kinship with the fallen rebels. Oh, I like Westerns but I love “Easterns” – movies set in Early America. I am instinctively drawn to them. I know every frame in John Ford’s Drums Along the Mohawk. I want to live in that time and I’m sure that in a former life, I did. So, I devour everything in my history textbooks about Early America. And, when I walk on the dirt paths in Prospect Park, or hide in a weedy vacant lot, or merely jump over blades of grass sprouting through the sidewalk, I am transported to 1776 and have a musket in my hand and a powder horn on my hip. All this emotional connection, spanning centuries, is forged before I know that I am living on sacred, blood-soaked battleground. It is a psychic mystery of Brooklyn.
I’m a Brooklyn boy. Born dead center in the 20th century – 1950 A.B. That’s Anno Brooklyn. In my Brooklyn, green canvas awnings shade the storefront windows and a glass globe filled with blue water swings over the pharmacy door. The butcher has sawdust on his floor and the grocer has a straw boater on his head. Kids are nicknamed Butch, Spike and Bruiser. (And, these are the girls!) Red and white striped poles twirl in front of the competing barbershops of Angelo and Nick. Angelo is humorless, maybe because he has a concentration-camp tattoo on his arm. But, Nick has a devil-may-care manner and sports the pencil-thin mustache of a gigolo.
It is in the mirrored, macho salons of Nick and Angelo that I learn how to be Homo Brooklyn. No, not that type of homo. (Whata you a wiseguy?) I mean a real Homo. A man’s man. A mensch. It’s where I learn the hard-but-fair rule of life – “If you leave, you lose your turn.” It’s where I learn to dismiss all current baseball players as overpaid pussies not worthy of carrying the jockstrap of Saint Joe DiMaggio. It’s where I learn the permitted hairstyles for Homo Brooklyn– Baldy, Flat Top and Elvis. It’s where I learn to distinguish between the after-shaves Bay Rum, Old Spice and Aqua Velva; and learn the proper application of Dixie Pomade – a hair goop thicker than axle grease. In Angelo’s and Nick’s, I ogle true-crime magazines –
I Escaped the Vampire-Nympho of Newark!
And Hollywood gossip-rags –
I Escaped Tinseltown’s Nympho Pajama Party!
And men’s-adventure journals –
I Escaped the Lair of the Lesbian Nazi-Nympho!
Most importantly, I learn how to hide “dirty” magazines like Gent, Dude and Dapper inside the covers of The Saturday Evening Post. When Nick and Angelo catch me, they threaten to tell my mother and give me a Baldy. But, I always spot a twinkle in their eyes as they shake their razor strops at me.