Neighborhood: Queens, Woodside


I was eleven when I got my first paper route. You had to be thirteen.

“If the route manager approves it, I’ll give it to you,” Freddy Bullwinkle said. Kids called him Bullwinkle because he had big ears. A few days later it was mine. The Long Island Star Journal.

“Remember, John, the most important part of the job is collecting.” He winked.  “If you get any new customers, you get cash or prizes.”

I did great. I liked people and people liked me, and most important it got me out of the house.

A couple of months later, I picked up the papers at the delivery spot at the 32nd Avenue underpass to the BQE. As I cut the twine away, I noticed the headline. Martin Luther King Jr. Killed.

They shot him. I sat on the paper stack and tried to read what happened. I sucked at reading. It said he was dead. I shuffled the papers into my cart and thought, who’s going to be their leader now? My Aunt Loretta who lived in a black section of the Bronx had said he was going to be killed next. She was right. They killed Malcolm X, and now him.

After I finished delivering I went home. I was working on a bowl of cereal at the kitchen table and looking through my route book. It was Friday. I needed to do some collecting. My mutt Charcoal barked wildly, and next thing I knew Dad was in the kitchen doorway.

“Where’s your mother?” He had the look and sound of booze in his eyes and voice.

“I don’t know, I just got in.” I wanted to say, what do I look like, a freaking crystal ball? But I didn’t. I wasn’t that stupid. Even if I did have an escape route behind me. I could jump out of any window of this second-floor house and get away from this crazy father of mine before he got one step closer.

“Where ya been?” he growled.

“Delivered the papers.” I held one out to him. “Here’s an extra.”

He looked at the headline. “Fuckin CIA did it again! First Kennedy, now this poor prick. There’s going to be plenty of riots.” He threw the paper back at me. “You’re too young to be delivering that shit.”

“I just turned 12 two days ago. You weren’t even home.”

“Don’t bullshit me. I watched you delivering for months now.” He glared at me. The window again became an option. “What does everyone say about that mop of hair on your head, Reidy?”

“No one says nothing.”

He lit a cigarette from the gas jet on the stove. I thought he would burn his eyebrows, he was that close.  I settled back into the bowl of Rice Krispies and heard the crunching of the cereal in my ears.

That’s when I first noticed a few cockroaches in the bowl. Legs up. My God, I thought, pregnant ones. The eggs on their bodies looked like the Rice Krispies. I had definitely eaten a few. I pushed the bowl away.

“I think I just ate roach eggs.”

Dad made a “who cares” face.  “Don’t worry, it’s protein. It won’t kill you.” He had all the answers. And that made it easy.

I thought about it, pulled the bowl back and finished it off. I put it in the sink.

“Wash that bowl and bring it over here,” he said. Dad pulled a quart of Rheingold beer out of a brown paper bag and guzzled some. “Come on, Reidy, clean that bowl off nice. I’ll be right back.” He left the kitchen.

I rinsed the bowl with water, then shook it off and dried it with my undershirt.

He came strolling back in with a smile. “Gimme that bowl and sit on the table.”

I did what he told me.

“If your Mom’s too busy to get you a haircut, I guess I’ll have to do it myself.” He placed the bowl on my head. It felt kind of like an army helmet, and that’s all Dad talked about anyway. I didn’t mind. It took me away from the thought of a million baby cockroaches hatching in my stomach. He pulled a large pair of scissors from his back pocket and started to cut my hair.

He cut and snipped while I searched my route book for customers who owed more than one week. I paid him no mind. He took another swig of beer, then pulled the bowl off.

He did a few quick snips on the top of my head then said, “Okay, you’re done.”

“Thanks, Dad.” I jumped off the table. He was happy and so was I.

I ran out the door to Mrs. Kahn’s house. It was right down the block. Timmy, her son, was in my older sister Carol’s class. Tim’s dad was a cop. He’d been shot in the belly by a bad guy and still had the bullet in him. He was back at work. I figured, you get shot you can retire. Not him.

Dad said, “The reason he’s working is the risk of being shot again is better than being home all day with his ball-bustin’ wife.”

Timmy was a big comic collector. His house was filled with them. Every Batman, Superman, Daredevil, he had them all. He never played outside ever. When Mrs. Kahn opened the door, I could see piles of them.

“Wow! Tim’s got a big collection.”

“Yes, John. His dad brings them home every night.”

“That’s neat,” I said. “I wish my dad did that.”

“Oh God, John! What happened to your hair? Who cut it?”

“My Dad did.” I must have looked puzzled.  I felt self-conscious. How come she’s making a big deal about this? I just saved seventy-five cents.

“Come in, I want you to see it. Did you see it?”

I didn’t need to. My Dad did it. I was right there. This lady is nuts, I thought. No wonder her husband went back to work.

She stood me in front of the mirror, holding my shoulders as if I was going to faint or something. I noticed a clip of hair on my lip. I tongued it into my mouth. It tasted like roach spray.

“Look at yourself.”

I didn’t look that bad. Sure, it was a little crooked, but when I tilted my head, which I did, it looked fine. Yes, there were a few unusual deep cuts out of the top, not too bad.

She handed me a cap and said, “Put this on, no one will notice. It’s a shame he did that to you. Was he drunk?”

I shook my head. “My Dad don’t drink,” I lied. But the truth was, he was what my friends called “shitfaced.”

She gave me a double tip. I guess she felt sorry for me. As I ran down the block I thought I should have looked at my own mirror in my house, but most of them were broken.

It took an hour to get the five blocks done. I got home and ran in. Off came the hat.

Mom saw me. “Jesus Christ, what the hell happened to you?”

“Nothing, I just went collecting.”

“Who did that to you?” I couldn’t believe she had to ask me, with all my hair under her shoes and on the table and chair behind her.

Mom got up and walked into Dad’s room. There was a lot of screaming and yelling. Then she came into the kitchen. She handed me a dollar. “Go get it fixed.”

“Where do I go?”

“Go to the Mirrors.”

The Mirrors was the neighborhood barber shop. It was near the projects where the blacks lived.

As I walked out, I thought about how if I ran into any black guys down there I should apologize to them about how their leader got killed. I figured they would be sad like we were when Kennedy got killed by the government.

I was in front of the candy store. There were no blacks. I was around the block from the barbershop when an older kid I knew stopped me. His name was Tommy Thomas. He had been caught for purse snatching. It was written up in the papers I delivered. He was tall with greasy stringy blond hair. Tommy wore a tee shirt and had needle marks on his arms with ripped jeans and sneakers. He had those sky blue junkie eyes that were always half closed.

He saw me and called me over. “I need a favor. You gotta go in the candy store and get me a model airplane. Pick any one you want. Keep the plane, but you gotta give me the glue.”

“Sure, no problem.” He wanted to sniff it. I had sniffed glue before, but never bought it.

He gave me two bucks. “The fifty cent change is for you. Don’t forget the glue, he won’t sell it to me.”

I walked in and looked up on the counter. The store smelled like a candy factory, sweet. It ate me up. I stared into the bright ceiling light. It was like a movie set.

The guy behind the cash register stared. “Can I help you?”

“Sure, I’d like a model airplane.”

He studied me like a cop. “Oh yeah? How long you been building them?”

I didn’t know what to say, so I pulled off my hat. He saw my head and was distracted. He shook his head at me, looking sorry.

“Give me that one,” I pointed. “And don’t forget the glue.”

His head whipped back at me like it was spring loaded. He looked around the store and barked, “Who’s this for?”

I smiled. “Me. My Dad got drunk and messed my hair up. He wants to make up for it. Okay? Or do you want him to come in here and give you a haircut? He’s in the bar on the corner. Want me to get him?”

I walked out of the store and followed Tommy to the back alley across from the barbershop. I gave him the glue and held the plane. He squirted it into a small bag, brought it to his mouth and nose and started sniffing. After a minute, he held the bag out to me. I smelled it and pushed it back. I pulled off my hat.

“I got enough problems,” I said.

“Holy shit,” he laughed, “A fuckin’ butcher job you got.”

I wanted to take a sniff to feel better, but didn’t want to turn out like him. I put my hat back on as he melted down the wall, his back against it. He started to take a few more huffs.

“See ya later,” I said.

I walked across the street with my glue-less model air plane under my arm. When I opened the door to the barbershop, the bells chimed. The smell of hair tonic was in the air. There were a few people ahead of me. I picked up a Sports Illustrated and next to it I noticed a Playboy Magazine. I quickly grabbed it and laid it inside and opened it. It said “Holiday Issue.” There were plenty of naked women inside.

The barber yanked it out of my hand. In a thick Italian accent he said, “You no eighteen.”

“So?” I said. “Why do you have them here if I can’t look?”

He shoved the sports magazine back at me.   He went back to the kid whose hair he was cutting. Every time I looked over, he was giving me the evil eye.  I was getting nervous. Even when I looked up above me, I could see him staring. The place was covered in mirrors. Finally it was my turn.

“Okay kid, you’ra next.”

I put the model airplane down and sat in the barber seat. I pulled off my cap and he stepped back.

“You, geta outa my chair,” he said.

I got up. I thought there was a fire or something. “What’s wrong?”

“I don’t wanna geta sued.”

“I need a haircut, or my Mom’s going to be mad. I can’t go back home without it fixed. I’m going to be in trouble.”

He came over to me and pointed. “I’m not touching that head with a ten foot pole.”

I looked at him, knowing that if I went home now my Dad would be pissed cause my mother would be bitching at him.

“You bringa back your momma or papa,” he said.

So I left. When I got back to the house, Mom looked at me. “What happened to your haircut?”

“He wouldn’t do it, he said he was going to get sued or something.”

Mom looked at my older sister Mary. “You take him back and get him his haircut now.”

I walked back into the barbershop with Mary. She acted like my mom.  He stopped us at the door.

“I’ma not a cutting his hair, he’s going getta me in a trouble.”

“Well, if you don’t cut my hair, my Dad is going to come in here and beat you up. He’s in the corner bar.” I said.

Mary said, “Please cut his hair.”

Finally the other barber pulled me into his chair.  I sat down.

“There is only one way to fix this,” he said.

I watched as he grabbed a big electric razor and started to buzz me. A shiver went up my spine from the vibration of the razor on my neck. I was getting a crew cut without my permission.

I pulled away. “Hey, what the hell!”

“It will grow back, kid.”

Mary was smiling. I was so pissed. A crew cut. I hated him. I wanted to burn the store down. He made me look how I usually felt. Ugly.

“You’re a dick,” I said as I walked out.

When I got home, Dad was standing there. “Now that’s what I call a GI haircut. You finally look human.”

My sister Sara started to laugh. Carol grabbed me and rubbed my head for good luck. I took the hat Mrs. Kahn gave me and ran down the street to put it in her mailbox.

Later that night I went back to the barbershop with a mason brick in my hand. I was scared because I had to walk past the creepy old cemetery. I thought ghosts lived there.  I looked around and as I ran by, I fast pitched it underhand through the barbershop window.

The smash was tremendous. Like an explosion. I ran my ass off.

As I turned the corner, I saw Tommy Thomas leaning against a building on the nod.

I stopped. “Hey, Tommy.” He looked up. “You better get moving. They’re rioting on the corner. The fuzz are coming.”

I kept running. At least I had warned him. When the cops came by they wouldn’t grab him.

I never went to the Mirrors again. But I kept delivering papers.


John Reidy has worked as a writer, director, and producer of award-winning independent films, and appeared in TV shows and major motion pictures. His most recent film is “The Signs of the Cross” 

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