Gangland in Greenpoint



Freeman St. and Manhattan Ave.

Neighborhood: Brooklyn, Greenpoint


Thick, guttural laugher floats up from the street into our bedroom.

Krea-Krac! Krea-Krac!

Blearily, I grope the nightstand for my glasses. The bedside clock tells me it’s just past midnight.

Krea-Krac! Krea-Krac! Krea-Krac!

When I was a boy and it was time for bed, my father had a favorite ritual. He would stand up, a lumbering giant swaying over my brother and me, and slowly unbuckle his belt. With a mock ferocity and a deep-throated growling, he would fold the strap in half and crack the leather.


My brother and I would scream with laugher and sprint upstairs, the snapping of the belt chasing us into bed and under the covers.

Krea-Krac! Krea-Krac!

Dream-drunk as I am, I cannot help by wonder if my father is standing outside my window, snapping his belt as if I’m a seven year-old again.

“What-is-that?” Anne says, rolling over and pushing herself over on my shoulder.

“I think it’s my dad.”

“What? What?” Her voice is full of sleep and mounting irritation.

“It’s nothing. Go to sleep.”

Krea-Krac! Krea-Krac! Krea-Krac!

“That’s nothing?” She says, mounting over me. She pads over to the window, determined to find the source of the sound.

“It’s nothing,” I repeat, curling up in her body-warmed section of the bed. “It’s nothing.”

The snapping repeats three more time. More laughter, this time punctured by a man’s sharp retort in that most melodious of all languages, Polish. Not knowing any, however, even after five years of living in Greenpoint, isn’t an impediment to understanding what was just said (and drunken slurs are universal no matter what the language). It must be a fight, I think, a spill-over from the bar on the corner. Every month of so, there will be some sound and fury on the street, a preamble that dissolves into a free round before blows are exchanged or a black-and-white has to show up.


Anne’s voice is urgent and stripped of sleep.

“Colin, they’re belt-whipping him.”

I throw off the covers and cross the room to where Anne is standing at the window, her usage of the collective pronoun making me slightly queasy. Greenpoint is hardly a hot-zone of criminal violence, being known better for three things: pierogis, $50 Social Security Cards, and pierogis. As such, I can’t imagine what’s actually happening.

“Look,” she says, pointing. “Look.”

Outside across the street is a man – a man? A boy, probably around fourteen, wearing the red and white jersey and splayed up against the back of a parked car, looking like a suspect on a late-night airing of Cops. He’s surrounded by a group of other boys, a little under a dozen, all equally young and, from their staggering and swaying, all equally drunk, stoned, hopped up, etc.

The kid up against the car is getting cracked in the ass with a belt by one of the other boys. There’s cheering and hooting and chanting of what are probably numbers in Polish. Standing there, Anne sums up the scene with grace and aplomb.

“What the fuck?”

“I don’t know. Maybe it’s a, uh, I dunno–maybe.I dunno.”

The belt is getting passed around now, like a brown-bagged Smirnoff until apparently everyone gets a shot. In between cracks of the belt, the boy grabs his ass and hops around, trying his best not to whimper or cry. One of the bigger kids shoves him roughly up against the car where he dutifully takes up his former position as another member of the group eagerly winds up for his turn.

“Is it – ” Anne starts.

“I don’t know. A gang initiation?”

“A gang initiation?” Incredulous.

“Sure. Like a PG-rated version of a scene out of Herbert Asbury. The Gangs of Greenpoint.”

“And that’s how they bring in new members? By spanking them? That’s pretty lame.”


“I mean, that’s really lame.”

I really hate to call it a gang. Even three stories up and across the street, I can tell that more than half of them still have baby-fat. Let’s call it a gaggle. The gaggle seems to be wrapping up the initiation with a rousing chorus (in English, oddly enough) of “You’re a man, now,” from each of the boys. The newly “made man,” one hand clenched tight to his rear, is making the rounds, hugging each new “brother,” looking elated that’s he’s past the test.

There’s more hooting, more cheering, more embracing, and the boys start peeling off, exchanging convoluted handshakes and high-fives with the new member, who is leaning heavily on the largest of the boys, still clutching at his soon-to-be-swollen ass, or, as the Poles say, his dupa.

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