Photo by Fernando Hernández
It’s 1957, and the three of us, Jacky,Vinnie from 19th Street, and me, are doing this Brooklyn strut sort of a walk down Eastern Parkway. Vinnie is a thief. He will steal anything he can get his hands on, doesn’t matter who owns it. That’s just the way he is. But there’s something cool and hip about him. He has an Emerson portable radio in his arms and he’s talking about the rock and roll music that he listens to way down at the other end of the radio dial where the black stations are, where most white boys don’t go.
We didn’t know it at the time, but what he was playing for us was the very roots of Rock and Roll, Rhythm and Blues. Race music they call it. Vinnie has this Little Willie John song turned up full tilt and he’s singing along with it, throwing his head back as he struts along. He knows all the words: “IF I DON’T LOVE YOU BABY GRITS AIN’T GROCERIES, EGGS AINT POULTRY, AND MONA LISA WAS A MAN.”
Radio blaring, we walk by the Brooklyn Museum, a place of endless sleep, where inside ancient Egyptian bodies are wrapped in ceremonial cloth, so carefully prepared by relatives who didn’t realize that the journey they were preparing their loved ones for would all end one day on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, laying on marbled, exhibit slabs waiting for eternity to begin.
But this is our time. It’s a shadowy, late autumn day, and the air is filled with the chill of winter coming. We’re part of a street gang called the Gremlins. We all have our collars up, and our hair is done in that duck’s ass up sweep in the back, coated with globs of petroleum jelly to keep it looking slick and tight. In my back pocket I have a Bantam, paperback edition of Chandler Brossard’s “The Bold Saboteurs.”
As we cut over to Flatbush Avenue our biggest fear is running into some strays from a black street gang called the Chaplins looking for trouble. They can be dangerous, but we’ll fight like hell if we get cornered. I’m more than six foot two, so I get away with a lot as long as I keep the punk swagger to my walk working. But that can be a problem too. I get these guys, guys who aren’t bull shitting, like I am, and are really tough who want to take me down because of my size. It makes them look even tougher. I can give back a good fight if I have to, but I don’t have the killer instinct that they have. They smell it. I got Catholic school “Paddy Boy” written all over my Irish face.
So I’m always a little nervous when I’m hanging out, but you would never notice it. Never let them see you sweat. We’re wandering around Brooklyn, far away from the Irish working-class tenements of 17th Street and 9th Avenue in Windsor Terrace that born us. We’re just looking cool and killing time. And why not? It’s the fifties and we’re alive and young in Brooklyn. There’s something soothing about the slow passing of time when you’re young. Something that makes you feel like you’re going to live forever. We walk on. We have no purpose. We’re just feeding on Brooklyn.
Jacky was always in and out of this Catholic reform school in Staten Island, Mount Loretta. I always took the long trip out there from 17th Street to visit him. We were very close. In the summer I would take the 5th Avenue bus all the way out to the Staten Island Ferry in Bay Ridge, and then another long bus ride on the other side past these private houses that had their hedges trimmed to look like ducks, and swans and all sorts of other objects. Topiary, or something like that they call it.
It always fascinated me looking out the bus window at them, rows after row of private houses that looked like they belonged in fake comic book towns, places you read about in Archie comic books that had names like Riverdale. And here they were just a ferry ride away from the Brooklyn tenements where I lived.
Time seems to stop as we slow walk down Flatbush Avenue on this late fall morning, looking cool, just waiting for something to happen. Vinnie turns up the volume on his radio a little louder. “If I don’t love you baby…”
What I remember most about that morning when I was young in the fifties, is watching Danny walking toward us. He’s wearing blue jeans and a T-shirt and a red Jimmy Dean, style windbreaker. He’s got this Tony Curtis actor’s face, dark eyes, black hair falling down his handsome forehead. But there is something you catch ever so briefly in the eyes that tells you there is a part of him that is hurting.
Next to him are two guys that don’t talk much. They look like they are there to protect him from any trouble that anyone might foolishly bring his way.
It was said that Danny’s relatives were part of the mob in Brooklyn. They controlled several cocktail lounges on the outskirts of our neighborhood, starting at 21 Street and 5th Avenue. He would grow up to become the Godfather of the Gambino Family.
He smiles when he sees Jacky. The two of them talk alone for a moment. They whisper things to each other and they both laugh. And then the rest of us follow them over to the brown sandstone wall that borders Prospect Park and runs for miles down the magnificent stretch of Flatbush Avenue like the great wall of Brooklyn.
We sit up on it, and cigarettes are passed around. I tap a Lucky Strike out of a pack and light it up. For about three minutes or so, the six of us just sit there silently on the wall in one of the last innocent years of the fifties. The last days of Alan Freed and the days of Rock and Roll. We sit there just dragging on our cigarettes and pushing our hair back every now and then, quietly staring out at Flatbush Avenue as time slowly swirls above us and cigarette smoke flows by our faces.
In just two years Buddy Holly, who started out in 1953 singing, “I heard the Lord Calling for Me,” on KDAV radio in Lubbock Texas, would be dead. His plane would crash into a snow, filled field in Clear Lake, Iowa while he was bound for Fargo, North Dakota on a tour billed as “The Winter Dance Party.”
There would be nothing but silence after that. He would take the 50’s with him into that empty, snow blanketed field, and along with it the innocence of the America we were all still living in on that cold fall day in Brooklyn.
Four years later in the early 60’s the first Irish Catholic President of the United States, John F Kennedy would be shot down in Dallas Texas. Then Martin Luther King, then Bobby Kennedy. We had no idea what we were headed for. Nobody did. The innocence of the last winter dance party of America was over.