I don’t cry on 9/11. I cry on 9/12. I cry while watching a news report about people who had escaped the Twin Towers before they collapsed. One survivor says that as he walked down fifty flights of stairs with terrified co-workers, he was amazed to see a line of firemen loaded with equipment walking up. Up! Up to who knew what? “I’ll never forget the faces of those young men,” he says. “They all had blue eyes.”
That’s when I cry.
Of course, they all had blue eyes, you dumb fuck. They were New York City firemen. Every real New Yorker knows that New York firemen are Irish. New York cops, too. And, plenty of them died on 9/11. They were Irish kids from the street. Irish kids from the stoop. We went to St. John’s together and served Mass together. We got ascared at horror movies together and played stickball and swapped baseball cards and wrestled on the sidewalk and gave each other fat lips and black eyes. They called me “wop” and I called them “mick.” Their fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers had been cops and firemen. They’d sit on the stoop and shake their Irish heads and tell me that we should have unleashed Patton. They’d take a slug from the beer they clutched in their big Irish mitts and teach me that Joe McCarthy was right. They’d warn me about pinko-commie attack that was headed our way. And, they were right! And, I wept like a sonofabitch for their kind.
My Brooklyn friends and I obsess about the pockets of our gloves. We punch our gloves to deepen their pockets. We rub oil into our gloves to soften their leather. I get a catcher’s mitt one Christmas and mistakenly rub olive oil into it which makes it smell like leather lasagna. (When I find this mitt as an adult, I have an immediate craving for Chicken Tetrazzini.) For winter storage, we wrap our gloves tightly around a baseball so that, come spring, the pockets will be deeper than ever. We brag about the depth of our baseball glove pockets. We don’t have penis envy. We have pocket envy.
I’m pitching pennies against a wall of the corner grocery store just like I see the big boys do. It’s a form of urban horseshoes. I have no idea what the rules are and have only one penny to pitch but I try my best to look tough and cool. I am six. The big boys are sixteen and hanging out on the corner as they always do on summer nights.
They gather under the streetlight and serenade the block with “Earth Angel” and other doo-wop dirges. This is Brooklyn’s answer to the bel canto street singing of Naples. Figures. Most of these punks are second-generation Napolitano. Rico has a sweet tenor voice so he sings lead. And, despite his polio leg-braces, he plays stickball with the gang. They brag about how far he can hit a ball – “I’m tellin’ ya Rico hit da ball three sewers.”
My friends and I are too young to witness the serious nighttime “rumbles” between the local gangs – The Bishops, The Undertakers, The South Brooklyn Boys and The Testors. (They sniff Testorsbrand airplane glue to get high.) But, the following morning, we scavenge their battle scenes in search of bloody souvenirs – chains, bats, pipes, teeth, spent shells even a loaded zip gun. Its barrel is a car aerial attached to a plank with a sliding bolt and rubber bands as primitive trigger-mechanism. We fire it in a basement where it explodes nearly blinding us all. We decide to leave the heavy artillery to the big boys.
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.
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.