Photo by Hryck
Kids in America are supposed to like guns. Our movie heroes majestically wield weapons on the silver screen and TV cops dance through primetime gun ballets. Armed with air rifles and plastic weapons my friends and I played WAR in the woods behind my house. Imaginary bullets tore holes through the make-believe Nazis and Japs. None of us ever died in these battles, but I knew that wasn’t right and wondered what it would be like to fire a real gun.
My grandmother had a Winchester repeating rifle in the attic. I liked pointing the unloaded gun out the window at the cars on Main Street.
Pulling the trigger produced a dry metallic click on the empty chamber and I imagined a star-burst crack of glass and then the car swerving off the road. One warm August afternoon my father walked into the attic. He ripped the weapon from my hand. I said I was sorry. He didn’t hit me. That was my mother’s job.
“Guns are a weapon. Not a toy.” He learned this lesson testing 22mm cannons in B-25s during his service in the Army Air Corps.
I never received another toy gun from my parents.
I did shoot a .22 in Boy Scout camp. Ten bullets. Five of them hit the target. I got a merit badge for my marksmanship. I didn’t mention this to my parents and avoided guns throughout my teenage years, although I tried to enlist in the Marines in 1968. I saw myself in a uniform with an M-16. My mother wouldn’t sign the papers for her 16 year-old son. She had seen enough of her friends die in WWII.
Only cops and criminals had guns and New York had plenty of both in 1978. I was working at the door at Hurrah’s on West 62nd Street. It was a rock disco. One of the bouncers was an NYPD off-duty cop, the other three bouncers came from Harlem. Jack Flood was the biggest of all. He had fought Joe Louis in a 1951 exhibition bout, a year before I was born. Louis knocked Battlin’ Jack down three times without knocking him out. Most fighters would have sat after hitting the mat once. His record stood at 20-14-2 before he entered prison for several long stretches.
One night the B-52s were playing to a packed house. 3 Puerto Ricans tried to sneak in the side door. Jack and I threw them out. They yelled they were coming back. Neither of us thought much of their warning, since everyone said that after a beating.
Thirty minutes later the band was on stage. The show was sold-out. We didn’t have much to do, so I got us drinks from the bar and returned to the entrance. Jack was leaning against the wall. His friends were upstairs watching the show. The cop was in a parked car with his girlfriend. It was only the two of us.
I handed Jack his cognac and coke. He didn’t have time to drink it, because ten Puerto Ricans forced open the front doors. Five of them were holding stilettos and my stomach shrank behind my spine. Jack coldcocked the first attacker. The second stuck a shiv into his side. Jack said, “Motherfuckah, you fucked up my suit.”
He broke this one’s nose.
Another he booted with size 14 shoes. One of the boys from the previous night slashed at my face. Jack had had enough and pulled out a gun with his left hand. He threw the .38 to me. “Shoot the motherfuckahs.”
I caught the pistol in my hand and the Puerto Ricans fled the scene. I followed them onto the sidewalk.
“Shoot ’em. Shoot ’em.” Jack shouted holding his side.
They were already 100 feet away. My Boy Scout training hadn’t covered shooting at people, but the 10 Commandments said ‘Thou Shalt not Kill and I pulled the trigger aiming to the right.
The front windows of two car shattered upon the bullet’s impact. The gang accelerated like a divine DJ had sped up a 45 to 78 rpm. Jack hobbled up to me. Blood was dripping between his fingers.
“I’m goin’ to the hospital. You bettah get rid of that before the cops come.” Jack was a gangster. His cousin Malcolm had told stories about his uncle. All of them were scary.
“I’ll do it right now.”
“Good. Now flag me down taxi. They don’t pick up bleedin’ brothers.” Jack groaned and leaned on a car. I stepped in the street and stopped a taxi. The driver protested about messing up his seat. I gave him an extra $10. They drove away to Roosevelt on 8th Avenue and I went up on the roof of the nightclub. I thought about keeping the gun, then dropped it down an airshaft. It clanged twice on its ascent and I went down to the door, wondering about what to tell the cops and whether Jack would live.
The cops caught three of the Puerto Ricans. They had stolen a taxi and crashed it in Central Park. No charges were pressed by either side. No mention of gunfire either. The off-duty cop squashed that entry in the police report. The club’s lawyer said Jack had a long record of violence and not just in the ring.
“Better Jack drop it.”
Jack said the same thing in the hospital.
“Only a scratch.” The bandages covered his ebony arm and chest. He was a tough old man. “Good thing I wasn’t gettin’ killed, because you shoot like shit and that’s a good thing, because you don’t want to be wounding people who are tryin’ to kill you. You gotta have a killer instinct and you don’t got that.”
Jack and I remained friends. He came to my house for drinks and we ate in the Italian restaurant on the corner of 1st Avenue and 10th Street. Lanza’s was always empty and the food was mediocre. Jack couldn’t have been happier.
“Ain’t nothin’ bad gonna happen to a black man in an Italian restaurant.”
After dinner he’d walk across the street to get a beer at the bodega. The dealers on the corner stepped aside for Jack. They recognized him without knowing who he was and that respect had nothing to do with the two guns he carried on him. He was a killer and everyone could see that, but Jack wasn’t so hard.
“I’m a bad guy, but not so bad anymore.”
Jack and I would go to nightclubs. He was about 50 and black as night in a coal mine. I was 25 and white as mozzarella. Nobody called us Salt and Pepper. Not within Jack’s earshot.
We watched the first Robereto Duran-Sugar Ray Leonard fight at Danceteria on West 19th Street. Both of us had bet heavily on Duran and were ecstatic with the Panamanian’s unanimous 15-round victory. I ordered drinks for Jack and his two cousins, Marvin and Wheeler. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a familiar face. It was one of the Puerto Ricans from the stabbing. Jack sensed something was not right and slowly swiveled his head.
“Is that who I think it is?” Jack wasn’t expecting any lies.
“You don’t want a piece of this and you ain’t seen nothin’.” Jack snapped his fingers and his cousins trapped the Puerto Rican against the wall.
“Jack, we won money tonight.” I was pleading for a life.
“I win money all the time.” Jack’s hand slipped behind his jacket. He liked keeping a gun in the small of his back, because that way he could feel it.
“Don’t do this.”
“Don’t do what? Ain’t nothin’ happen yet.” Jack walked across the room. People avoided contact. The young Puerto Rican boy was praying with quivering lips. Jack leaned over and whispered in his ear, then patted him on the cheek. Jack returned to the bar with his cousins. The Puerto Rican boy was gone.
“What you say to him?” I was scared too.
“Said it was his lucky day, but I’d see him again.”
“And what will you do then?” I saw a boy on his knees in a dark alley.
“Depends on my mood and tonight my mood is good.” He checked the position of his pistol and we celebrated that evening with champagne. I kept expecting the Puerto Rican boy to come back with an avenging gang, but I guess he thought better of a plan that had failed once. Jack and I remained friends into the 80s. He introduced me to James Brown at the Lone Star Bar on 5th Avenue after selling the tickets twice. We each had $300 more in our pockets.
“James is a friend,” Jack said sitting in his Lincoln. “But James is doin’ better than me.”
“Jack, would you have killed that kid the night of Duran fight?”
“Kill ’em?” Jack scrunched his lips as if the next words were hard to say. “Nah, no reason for killin’. He ain’t killed me. See everyone thinks it’s easy pullin’ a trigger. Never easy pullin’ a trigger.”
“If I says it is it is.”
I never argued with Jack and we parted ways as people do in the lives we led. I never heard about him dying. No one ever said he passed away. His cousin Marvin got shot in a Harlem Alley. I heard that, but nothing about Jack, so I decided he lived on driving that big black Lincoln, bottom rusting out and I know that’s what heaven in like for men with guns. Not all of them, but for Jack Flood understood the real value of ‘thou shalt not kill’, because every bit of him was a little bit you and me. At least I’d like to think it was, but then I’m only me and I don’t like guns. Not any more. Not any less.
Peter Nolan Smith left New England in 1976 for the East Village. Most of his 21st Century has been spent in Pattaya, Thailand, although this year he summered in Palm Beach writing BET ON CRAZY, a semi-fiction book detailing his career as a diamond salesman on New York’s 47th Street. He is the editor and writer of www.mangozeen.com.