Detours Through Dreams and Nightmares

by

09/08/2019

Neighborhood: Lower East Side

Untitled by Harold Shapinsky


Twenty New York blocks gets you a mile. Back in “our time,” a motley crew of urban youth crossed the Manhattan landscape with that formula in our heads. We understood distance. We got time. We lived the algebraic formula of Time x Speed = Distance. If we started peddling our bikes at the top of the hill on Lexington just above 34th, we would coast all the way to 23rd street, shaving minutes, reserving energy, and feeling wind on our faces all the way to Gramercy Park. In the New York summer that was special, like soft ice cream, a public swimming pool, and playing in an open fire hydrant.

Some days we ran through the subway. But riding a bike kept dollars in your pocket, something that mattered to me. With two impoverished artists as my parents, I never wanted money for money’s sake; but freedom, yeah. I started searching for that feeling of freedom on bike rides more than thirty years ago and I am still searching now. Longing for the same rush, the peace, and the joy.

We flew from the Lower East Side to the Cloisters. We glided down to Chinatown and back through Little Italy. On a Saturday or Sunday, we might ride from Washington Square to Central Park and back down to Wall Street. And wherever we went, we counted up miles at the end and marveled at our odometer. 100 blocks? By our soft math: Five miles. Up and back? Ten miles. We boogied. We inflated. We rose and fell through side streets and avenues, scraping up against cabs, barely avoiding pedestrians, and chasing all that we did not have.

Like children everywhere, we weren’t and yet we were special. Kids in pursuit of adventure. Looking for fun. Building our own realities. 

Beneath it all, however, something bled us. We tried to avoid the fires around us by moving rapidly through the alleys and parks and streets. When blind turns came, we kept moving. Was it enough? Not even close, but we were the lucky ones.

Cut a corner in Little Italy, riding up from South Street on a Saturday or Sunday; suddenly, there were white “Italian” boys on our tails chasing us and throwing bottles from their bikes. We had crossed a line. Wrong place? Wrong Time? Was it the way we looked or talked or dressed? Because we were a polyglot group, a stew of race, religion, and class? Were we feared and hated for what we were or appeared to be?

During those years, there was freedom, but there was also fear. That feeling—the cold sweating terror that eats away at you day after day after day and turns you inside out. Powerlessness creates an inner rage. Some of my friends fell prey to that rage, becoming enamored of guns. That was one way to live and die.  

Most of us simply learned that a random moment could change your life or someone else’s life, snuff it out, or put your body and soul in a blender. 

Certain days are embedded in my memory. I see my best friend, a tall and powerful African American teen who looked like a man years older, struggling on the ropes, unable to avoid a round of “who you looking at” with a crew of older boys.  A muscled teen banged my friend with his fists over and over, continuing the cycle of violence as I and other friends watched, helpless and ashamed, stuck behind a wall of boys. We felt weak. In our minds, we were weak. Sometimes we even thought we deserved to be called “faggots” by our tormenters. At a time when homophobia was celebrated, gay and straight could sometimes be victims together because of the blind hatred surrounding all of us. But perpetrators and victims also shared something: self-loathing.

By the standards of our East Village neighborhood, my crew of friends lived well but not easily. We were the children of intellectuals and artists, people who settled their families in or near Alphabet City, a neighborhood of new and old immigrants and working poor. Looking back, our parents might today be called urban pioneers. But back then, other people just thought them crazy. What parent would subject their children to poor public schools and crime? Prostitutes walked just a couple of blocks away. Homeless men often lay on the sidewalk; I stepped around them on the way to school.

My elementary school, P.S. 63, was mostly Puerto Rican, which opened my eyes to many things. I still feel a connection to that Caribbean island and its flag, having colored it so many times at school. But I wasn’t Puerto Rican. Nor was I Black or Chinese. I was skinny a kid with blond hair. Sometimes I stuck out. Other times I crossed over.  Luckily, one summer I played baseball with an entirely Puerto Rican team except for myself. I was embraced.  

It was all Russian Roulette. One day could change it all. How was I to know what a zip gun looked like when I was surrounded at my elementary school one winter morning by some boys. They pressed it to my gut. I stayed calm. I simply did not know the danger. And that probably saved me from a hospital. In that same school yard, sitting on a bench waiting to get into a basketball game, an older boy, maybe 15, showed me two large knives. All he said to me was: “I wonder what it would be like to stick these in someone’s neck.” In that moment, he held power over me but I just said “yeah.” Because I had already learned to pretend that I didn’t feel anything.

One of the worst days came when my best friend, the same one who had endured a terrible beating for nothing, spent a good chunk of his 5th grade recess being chased through the schoolyard by about a dozen older boys. None of the teachers moved. Maybe they didn’t understand the danger? I asked these adults to help my friend. They did nothing. And that was a powerful lesson. The only thing that saved my friend was an African-American stranger, a man we didn’t know stepping out of nowhere and with one punch, sending the horde fleeing. It seemed impossible. Like God had reached down and answered our prayers.

That was life for our little gang, the children of bohemians, whose parents had embraced a neighborhood they could afford. We were forever changed by living on a tightrope of wonder and fear. Our parents taught us ideals and talked about ideas. They were painters, writers, dancers, actors, musicians, and teachers. They believed in their art and had artistic egos.

They could see suffering around them. The Vietnam War raged. Our parents marched. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated in the same year. But did our parents know that as eight-year olds, we played “Chicago Riots” on the playground. Did they know how close the chaos and violence were to them through us? 

We never told them. But looking back on those years after I had my own children, I made one simple promise to myself and my sons. It was that they should never know such things—the hatred, the raw violence, and the early loss of innocence too. 

Still, all my friends paid a price. Most of us survived. Some danced at the edges of a violent world. Others fell to drugs and saw their lives spinning out of control. Some died. I escaped by moving thousands of miles away to California. We all took refuge; but inside, it has taken decades for me to find peace. 

Before finding any kind of peace, I learned that my many childhood nightmares about people breaking in to my family’s apartment were a metaphor for how vulnerable I felt and how fragile my life really was. On one level, as I got older, things were going great. When I was twenty years old, I fell in love with a beautiful and brilliant woman. On a summer night on a dark stoop in the East Village we kissed. I left her in the early morning to go to Europe for a college semester abroad, in Rome, one of the most romantic cities in the world. 

Then, months later, when the romantic semester was over, I learned my parents had given up their rent-control apartment and decided to flee New York with no money and hardly a plan. They had sold all their furniture or put it in storage. My childhood belongings might have existed somewhere, but they were essentially torched. I never found them again. The chaos that had always been lurking under my life had bubbled up. Friends taught me the value of love and friendship, keeping me above water. I stayed in college even as I had to figure out how to get myself through it all financially and emotionally.

The following summer, my parents had found a small sublet. My father had lost 60 pounds. He looked frail and barely went outside. My parents thought he was sick, suffering from MS or perhaps some other disease. I found a job and slept in a tiny dining room next to the bathroom. My optimism held, but I could feel it slipping.

And then one night that summer a sound woke me up. I stood. The bathroom door was open. My father lay in the tub. His wrists slit. I woke my mother and called the police and ambulance. We took him to the hospital. His own sticky reality had brought him to this place. Feelings of failure. Being told by his mother that she tried to abort him. Having to drop out of school to support his family. Knowing that he was a failure in his family’s eyes for being a painter rather than something useful. He heard voices and saw people who weren’t there. His fears became his entire life. Now I knew the fear came from inside my home as much as outside it.

Whatever innocence I still had was gone. My father survived, but it would take another ten years for me to get back the hope and feelings of adventure that went with those early bike rides through the canyons of the City. It would take me even longer to discover my own path. But the lesson I took from it all is not that any of us are victims or failures: We all struggle to become more than we are while breaking free of legacies of our past. There is nothing more heroic than that—or harder to achieve.

May we all succeed and help others along the way. 

***

D.F. Shapinsky grew up on the Lower East Side in the sixties and seventies. 

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§ 2 Responses to “Detours Through Dreams and Nightmares”

  • Daniel Polowetzky says:

    I am reminded of playing “Chicago cops” with my older brother. He would be the cop, while I would be the “hippie”. Violent games were the norm, but with a moral overtone. We would gleefully pretend to be killing German soldiers in fantasy World War II battles.

  • Growing up feels like struggling to become stronger, bouncing back on 52 psi, learning to coast in a world that is cracking in at all sides. What is the effect of a 40 year siege on a 6 mile strip of humanity? I’ll stop here because that’s unthinkable.

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