24 June, 2021
By the time I was fifteen, I was a regular in a bar. Which, back then, wasn’t all that unusual. It was the late-60s, we lived in Queens, and the bartender was a barmaid, a novelty at the time. Gracie. Black spit-curls, white boots, black miniskirt, white scoop-neck blouse. She called me Hon. She called everyone Hon. This one’s on me, Hon. She was our barmaid, and Foxie’s was our bar. We spent more time there than we did at home. And yet, we played the same song over and over again, nearly the entire crowd shouting out the refrain: “We gotta get out of this place, if it’s the last thing we ever do! …Girl, there’s a better life for me and you.”
There were several sad old men who shared the bar with us, men who never seemed to go home, who sat in the same seats every night, positioning themselves by the ice. When Gracie bent down to fix a drink, the men tried to look down her blouse. I can see them now, angling for a better view, rising up off of their stools. She had the deliberate, buoyant optimism of someone who had been through a war, slightly ravaged, but resolute, willing herself to go on. Her mascara would sometimes seep into the tiny web of cracks around the eyes, like a miniature oil spill. Her eyes had a rubbed look, rubbed and raw, so that you could easily imagine her crying.
She was old enough to be my mother.
* * *
The first time I had a gun pulled on me, it was the night of Christmas day. I’d just dropped off my girlfriend, and was standing at the bus stop, resigned to the long ride home, when two men approached, asked if I was waiting for the bus. I thought they needed directions, which bus went where, but when I said yes, one of the men told me to come around the corner. The other pulled out a gun. I can see it now as I write this, the black revolver, waist high, pointed at my stomach.
At first, I couldn’t believe it. It was about 11:00 at night, we were standing on a busy street, cars driving past, an outdoor mall across the road (though most of the shops would have been closed), a large, busy diner on the opposite corner. And for some reason, I don’t know why exactly, I started arguing with the thieves.
Man, I said, you can’t be doing this to me.
Both of the men were black, and I think I suggested they go to a wealthier neighborhood, mug someone with more money, that it wasn’t right to rob someone who didn’t have very much to take. I went on and on like this—You can’t be doing this to me, I said again and again—until one of the men, the one without the gun, became impatient.
Give me your wallet, he said, give me your fucking wallet!
I gave him my wallet, he fled around the corner, but I was still arguing with the other man, the one with the gun.
That’s all the money I have in the world, I said.
Which was ridiculous, I was still living at home. I had twenty-four dollars in my wallet, most of which had been given to me for Christmas.
Come around the corner, said the man, now more agitated than me. Come around the corner!
I walked with him, pleading my case the entire time.
When we got around the corner, he asked how much money I’d had.
He took out a large wad of bills, peeled off two tens and five, and gave them to me.
We didn’t want your money, he said. We wanted your ID.
Which startled me.
Okay, I said, after a moment, but it isn’t real.
I had a phony draft card—maybe it was genuine, but it wasn’t mine—as well as several fake birth certificates, which I’d made for several girls (proof, we called it), to get them into bars. At the time, copiers would print reverse copies, white to black, black to white. All I had to do was take a real one, which was black with white letters, cover the names and details, copy it, fill in the new information, copy it again.
Okay, said the man, absently, thanks.
Hey, I said, as he turned to go, when you’re finished with it, can I have it back?
The man was speechless.
I’ll give you my address. You can mail it to me.
I don’t have a pen, he said, flustered.
Someone happened to be walking by at that moment.
Hey, I called out, you got a pen?
I have a pen, said the thief, with some desperation, I have a pen!
And then, without a second thought, I gave my home address to a man who was holding a gun on me.
When I turned to go, I almost wished him Merry Christmas.
I never received anything in the mail, and, stupidly, I never told my parents. The whole thing was stupid, reckless, wild with risk, a headlong leap into the naked, electric unknown.
* * *
Drinking was like a job I had, a job I was good at, with its own familiar routine, starches (baked potato or bread) before going out, water (a quart of water) before bed. It was only when I opened my eyes that the room would stop spinning. If I turned sideways, it would be worse, my head whirling like a ball off a bat, the darkness swirling like a painting by Van Gogh. Eventually, I knew not to turn, not to move my head. The trick was to fix on one point in the room, like a sailor staring at the horizon.
There is a tendency—in me, my family, in the culture at large—to make a joke out of this, especially in retrospect. But it wasn’t a joke then. And yet, it was. It was a relief from the very fact of yourself, your very pitiful self, a fact that drinking only seemed to confirm. Drunk, you were aware of the misery of it, of the need to get drunk, even as you were free of it, free of the daily, redundant self-disgust, simply because you were drunk, or drunk enough.
We drank in stairwells, doorways, garages, drank behind the funeral parlor. We drank under the windy overpass of the parkway, standing in ankle-deep snow, numb hand wrapped around a beer can, scotch smuggled in a peanut-butter jar, whiskey in a mouthwash bottle. I can see myself passing out on the sidewalk, in a closet, pissing on the floor, sleeping in my own vomit, vomiting green when there was nothing left to vomit. I can remember not remembering, oblivion lingering like a migraine, the previous day surviving only in brief, disconnected flashes, like a landscape made visible by lightning.
In high school, when I happened to come across the twelve warning signs of alcoholism, I was surprised, and yet oddly gratified, to find that nine of them described me.
* * *
My uncles taught me how to drink.
Pace yourself, they said. Pace yourself. Always remember to eat.
At large family gatherings in cavernous catering halls, my uncles and my father would look down on any man who stumbled toward the toilet or his chair.
Amateur night, they’d sneer, it’s amateur night.
The point was to drink without showing it, and I was schooled from an early age. And what is clear to me now (though it wasn’t clear then) is that the first time I got drunk—the first time the room spun around on me, the first time I lost my footing, lost consciousness, vomited—it was at one of those large family gatherings in the Bronx, just after my grandmother’s funeral.
* * *
I can still see my grandmother now, the easy smile, hook nose, the deep creases in her olive face, the scent of garlic on her skin, the flower print dress—she was the first great love, the first great loss of my life. I can still see those endless Sunday dinners in her crowded living room, the small tables crammed together, chairs backed up against the sofa, my sister and parents and cousins and aunts and uncles eating and drinking and shouting throughout the long afternoon into the night.
Now that she was gone, the family began to get together in one of those same large catering halls in the Bronx, as part of what would come to be known as the Cousins Club (one of my uncles actually had letterhead printed up), whose stated purpose was to hold the family together now, in the wake of Grandma Minnie’s death.
The Cousins Club, though, for all its good intentions, would meet no more than once a year.
The selflessness, the devotion, the glue that had held the family together was an Old World glue. None of the women of my aunts’ generation, the generation that had been born here, wanted to take on such a daunting burden. No one wanted all these people in her home. No one wanted all that unavoidable work, the careful shopping, sizeable expense, endless cleaning, the artful cooking, my uncles’ blunt critique—no one wanted to go through all of this even a few times a year, let alone every week. My aunts had families of their own, and these families had other lives, lives outside the life of the large, extended family. And so, we began to see less of my aunts and my uncles and my many cousins.
I’m not sure I sensed this happening back then, sensed my life changing. I’m not sure I felt the world changing around me.
* * *
It was around this time that I stopped going to church. I would leave home each Sunday morning as if I were going to mass, then when I was several blocks away, turn toward the avenue and the diner, where I would meet up with my friends. I can’t remember the name of it now (we called it the Greek diner), but I remember the excitement of it, the chrome tube of a building, like a submarine, the tiny juke box at each opaline table, the selections on flip cards, the round chrome handle, chrome buttons, chrome speakers, the thrill of forcing the rest of the place to listen to whatever you selected, the thrill of ditching church, of ordering coffee, the thick white porcelain cups, the thrill of being treated like an adult. It was almost as exciting as hanging out at the bar.
Eventually, for some reason, I told my mother I didn’t want to go to church anymore. She talked to me quietly in my room, asked me why.
I said I no longer believed.
My mother, hazel eyes, pokey nose, hair permed into curls, inclined her head, considered it, and surprised me. She said I no longer had to go.
My sister called out from her room: I don’t wanna go either!
Why? said my mother
Because he’s not.
That’s not a good enough reason, said my mother. And my sister, at thirteen, was still expected to attend.
This was who my mother was. She listened. She was generous and thoughtful and kind. She was loving and selfless and cheerful. (Unlike my father. Which was one of the dire mysteries of my childhood, how she wound up with him.)
What I didn’t tell my mother that day was that even though I’d left the Church (and wouldn’t go back), I had already made a secret pact: with God.
Late one night when I couldn’t sleep, when the terror wouldn’t let me sleep, I begged, whispering as if I were praying—which, in a way, I was—pleading with Him to spare me, spare my family, refrain from killing us, and if He did this, I promised, I swore, I would never smoke another cigarette, never take another drink, never touch a girl’s breast.
* * *
When I was fifteen and floundering, sometimes I would dream away an entire day, without even realizing it. I might be sitting on the edge of the bed, black sneaker about to swallow my foot, and I would find myself looking at a pattern in the headboard. Sometimes I would see a face staring back at me, a face in the wood grain, and I would try to keep it in front of me, so that if I were to look away, the face would still be there when I looked back. But it rarely was.
When my father came in, I was sitting on the edge of the bed, examining the frayed green laces of my sneaker. It took a moment to adjust to this, the incongruity of his presence in my room.
My father was a man who worked with his hands, wide ears, long nose, trim moustache, reminiscent of Clark Gable. He often worked two jobs at a time.
Joseph, he said almost tenderly, what is it?
Tell me. Is it a girl?
I didn’t say anything. I didn’t know what to say. It was a girl. And yet, it wasn’t. I thought it was a girl. And yet, what it was was much larger than this, larger than I could possibly say. I didn’t see this then. I didn’t see many things (I don’t see many now). But back then I thought I saw what it was. I thought it was a girl.
And maybe it was.
I knew it, my father said. I knew it!
Now I’m grateful for this, the focus my father made of me that day. But I wasn’t grateful then. I was sneering. I was aloof. I was exposed.
Joseph, listen to me. I’m gonna tell you something. I’m gonna give you some advice. The words were strange in his mouth. I’d never heard them when they weren’t attached to a threat.
You listening? This is my advice. Here’s the girl, and he snatched up a knickknack from the top of my bureau, a small ceramic tiger, its glazed stripes reflecting the overhead light.
Here’s the girl, he said again, waving the tiny figurine. You want the girl? You want the girl? This is what you do.
He smacked the tiger down on the bureau. Then turned, and left the room.
I watched his huge mass retreat down the short hallway, then reverse itself, growing large again as it returned. When my father stood in the doorway, he nearly filled the frame.
You want the girl? he said, reaching for the little tiger, squeezing it between his thick fingers. Here’s the girl.
He slapped it down.
And, agile for his size, he spun around, ambled out of the room, and did not come back.
* * *
I’ll marry you, I say, declaring what I believe to be the ultimate declaration.
The bus swerves, its great bulk heaving like a ship, the oblong window swinging out, attached only at the top, opening like a door, then slamming shut.
Kathy stands out of her seat, the floor lurching beneath her feet, penny loafers, knee socks, wraparound skirt. She walks the length of the bus, throws herself into the back row, shoes on the wheel casing, bare knees in the air, face pressed against the window.
She’s the kind of girl who’ll go to a party or a dance with me, then hide until I find her.
I will, I say, sitting down beside her. I’ll marry you.
Are you for real? Where would we go? How would we live?
I’ll do whatever you need me to.
She rolls her blue eyes. I’m not, she says, head shaking, black hair flying, I’m not gonna quit school—I’m not even sixteen!
But what if you’re…?
I know, those blue eyes swimming, I know. I don’t want to talk about it.
I’m the kind of boy who believes in talking. Which Kathy, as a rule, finds pointless, boring.
Look, there’s nothing we can do. We just gotta wait is all.
She’s right. A week later, she’ll call. You can forget it, she’ll say. I got my friend. It’s all right.
But right now, all I know is: it’s my fault.
What I don’t know, what Kathy doesn’t seem to know, is that we haven’t really done what we think we’ve done. All I did was come between her thighs—then the two of us feverish with guilt, her eyes inflamed, mascara running down her face like soot. And a month or two later, the proposal on the bus. It was ridiculous, I could see it was ridiculous, impossible, overblown, but it was no less humiliating when she turned me down.
After calling to say everything was fine, she never went out with me again.
* * *
Half a year later, I was arrested by plainclothesmen for drinking in the park. I was on my sixth half-quart of Colt 45. Even the cops were, or pretended to be, impressed.
I was drunk, but not too drunk to try to get away. The cop was holding me by the arm of my jacket, and I thought I could just run out of it. But before I could slip it off, he grabbed me by the neck.
A few blocks later, I tried to throw up on him, shock him, so that I could run away. He just stepped back, held me at arm’s length.
It was only at the precinct that I started to register what was happening, sitting in a big wooden chair, waist-high partitions dividing the room, the uniformed cops eating ice cream out of a large paper bag, and then the realization: that my father would soon be there. It was summer, the wide heavy windows were open to the sultry night, and it suddenly occurred to me: that I could jump. I actually calculated the drop—we weren’t more than two stories up—and waited for my chance, watching the movement of the cops. At one point, they happened to be busy on the other side of the room, I had my moment, but before I could work up the nerve, there he was, a man the size of a door, glaring at me like a guard dog.
My father had the body of a defensive lineman, no neck, arms like legs, hands like sandpaper. His life hadn’t taken the kind of criminal turn that seemed to define my uncle Babe (who made the Daily News, who did time), but as a kid, my father had run wild. I’d heard the stories, jumping rooftops, riding in stolen cars, hanging out at the track, punching a cop, going AWOL in the Army.
When he got married, he said, he left that life behind.
The moral of these stories was often pointed in my direction. Don’t even think of taking a step sideways, I’ve been there, I know where the risk is in the world, so listen up, do as you are told. But there was another moral that went unstated, implicit in the telling itself, a moral having to do with the very authority with which my father spoke.
This is what a man is, this is what men do.
The trip home from the precinct was excruciatingly slow. My father made me walk ahead of him, his presence behind me radiating like fire, my thoughts scrambling like pigeons, my legs tacking involuntarily, my eyes like a camera that had been tossed in the air.
At one point, when I tried to turn around, tried to explain, he cracked me across the head hard. So hard, I still feel it.
Years later, my father told me why he had done it. He was laughing, he said, and didn’t want me to see it.
* * *
Of course, I was punished. Two months in my room. Two months during which I started to see myself differently. Which is when I came to a frightening realization. I enjoyed it, the silence, the solitude, the time spent inside my head. Contemplation is not a suitable climax in a novel. But it is in life. It changed me, that solitary time in my room, the uninterrupted thinking, the books I was reading—I can’t remember now which books they were, other than that they were stories in which I found people as confused and screwed up as I was.
Which opened my eyes: to the fact that each of us lives with secret fears and doubts and failings. Which, in turn, connected me to my friends in a new way. And yet, at the same time, it cut me off from them. I started to see myself from outside myself. I started to see others this way as well: from a distance. Separated from my friends, I began to see that I was independent of them. Their opinions did not reach me in my room. Their daily rituals, their relentless, competitive insults (a sport at which my uncles and father also excelled), went on without me. I was irrelevant, I was not who they thought I was.
They were Irish, I was Italian, and I had a new name among them (among the friends who would soon become my former friends). I was Ball. Which was short for Greaseball.
(Even though I didn’t look Italian at all. I had freckles and fair skin.)
This is not to suggest that there wasn’t an air of hilarity attached to it. This is not to suggest that it wasn’t cruel. The hilarity itself was cruel. The cruelty was hilarious. And everyone, everyone was subject to it.
I remember one poor girl being laughed at, right to her face. Regina.
You. Are. Ug. Ly! Uhhh-hug-leee!
(It comes back to me now that this girl was Italian, with a large, Italian nose.)
Everyone was attacked. Everyone attacked everyone else. The threat of ridicule, the threat of violence, was always present, always pressing upon us.
Jimmy C. used to tell the story of how he and a few of the guys from the park—Cuban heels, black stovepipes, swirling pompadours—amused themselves at a dance. They would arrive drunk, head straight for the men’s room, where they would comb their hair, then come out swinging—at whoever happened to be standing near the door.
Jimmy C. was older than us, a hitter, as we used to say, and this had been his time, a time of gang wars and ruined virgins and illicit joyrides. I can still see an overturned car in which three had died. I went down to the police station to see it, the blood on the ceiling thick and gaudy, swirling like stucco. I can see a purpled back that had been whipped with chains. And then the gang fight between our park and another. Drunken war hoops, zip guns, bottles and antennas used as weapons. Which was the only world I had known.
Jingle, the older boys would say, before I’d turned ten. You were expected to hop, to make any coins audible, so that they could then be taken. I can see one sly, sad boy, Brian, trying to muffle the sound, holding his pockets while he jumped. They lifted him by the ankles, upended him, shook the money out, like apples from a branch. Brian was often beaten up, and so was I.
But now fighting was suddenly obsolete, men were men without it, women weren’t attracted to men who were violent. A societal shift—having to do, in no small part, with Vietnam—entered my life like a reprieve.
And around this time, I started hanging out with a different circle of friends in the park, friends who sat on the scraggly lawn within the large oval of the track, friends who wore their hair long, played guitar, read books, did drugs.
One of these new friends once told me he was beaten for wearing a T-shirt, a washed-out, rainbow T-shirt with one word emblazoned across its narrow chest: phlegm.
Greg said the men who had beaten him had done so simply because they couldn’t decipher that single syllable, they didn’t know what it meant. In our neighborhood, wearing such a shirt was like raising your hand in class. It was considered arrogant, living beyond your caste, your origins. And when Greg told me this story, there was a kind of knowledge that seemed to pass between us, as well as a kind of sadness.
He made a point of this, that it was preferable to know such sorrow, to know extreme highs and lows, than to live your life in a comfortable, sheltered monotony, never knowing overwhelming despair or blinding delight.
It was an idea that spoke to me then. To lose yourself in raw sensation, fevered passion, heat. There was a new imperative, a new religion in the wind, and it danced in my veins, it sang in my brain, it breathed its sacraments into my mouth.
And yet, the paradox of that time is that my own raw sensations, my own fevered passions, were unbearable to me. I couldn’t live with them.
* * *
After the death of my grandmother, the night frightened me in a way I had never known. It wasn’t my dreams, it was my head—I couldn’t turn it off, couldn’t sleep. I kept seeing what I didn’t want to see. I can’t remember now what it was, what was haunting me. But it seems likely it had something to do with her passing. There were thoughts in my head I just couldn’t bear to think.
The one image that comes back to me now, as I write this, is my grandmother’s colorless face in her coffin—the flesh flaccid on the bone, like chicken that’s been cooked too long—an image, it seems likely, I couldn’t not see, couldn’t shut out. It seems likely there were others like this, torturing me, obsessing me, the dread of my mother dying, my sister, me.
Eventually, in order to fall asleep, I’d tell myself that the things inhabiting my head were a movie. I’d even imagine a literal screen onto which they were being projected, and at first, the movie would be indistinguishable from whatever else was going on in my mind. Then, in my head, I would step back, so that the movie was completely contained within one precise rectangle. I’d step back again and again, so that the rectangle would become smaller and smaller, shrinking until it disappeared, that final, flickering dot just before this would happen, a tiny bluish flash of light, like an ancient television when you turned it off.
But as soon as it got to this point, the point of vanishing, another rectangle would appear, larger than before, showing the same movie, as though my mind were battling back, insisting on its own autonomy. I’d battle back, too, imagine a projector, imagine myself shutting it off. And the screen would go blank. This was always a tenuous victory. I’d have to keep it there, that screen. I’d have to concentrate on keeping it empty, a broad, white, immaculate geometry. But then I was conscious of myself inside my own head watching the blank screen. And this in itself, the image of me sitting there in my own mind, this would become the movie I was now watching. Which would lead me back to places I didn’t want to go.
I was often up for hours.
* * *
Before I turned sixteen, I started doing drugs, largely because my mother couldn’t smell them on my breath. After I’d been arrested for drinking in the park, she’d stop me each night before I went up to bed, leaning in close, inhaling deeply. Whatever she might have been able to smell, she had no idea what it was. Which I found funny, even as it alarmed me. I was always anxious I’d get caught, always amused that my mother couldn’t catch me, the amusement, like the anxiety, amplified by the very thing she couldn’t detect.
Back then, almost everything was funny, almost anything could be frightening. Steve, a speed freak—thin face, freckles, wild eyes—would stand on the same street corner for hours, scoping out each passerby.
Narco, he’d say. He’s a narc.
Everyone was a narc, a hardhat, a suit, an obese woman wheezing as she walked, even a withered old man with a crutch, one leg dragging behind him.
When I laughed at this, Steve laughed as well, laughing at himself, even though he wouldn’t back down.
I know it looks ridiculous, but that’s how they get you, man.
Many of my friends thought Steve ridiculous as well, even though two plainclothesmen had once come out of nowhere, even though we knew the cops by name—they were so familiar to us. I can’t remember those names now, but I can still see them. One was older, black, tall, suit jacket, dark glasses, the other short, white, thick mustache, hair over his ears, long as mine.
They’d lined us up in the park. We were standing shoulder to shoulder on the track. They told us to empty our pockets, but before anyone could, Johnny was flying, arms and legs like pistons, one of the cops racing after him, the older one, belly jiggling, jacket flapping, his gun in the air. All these many years later, I can still see the flash from the nozzle, can still hear the shot, the shock of it. The line-up, the race, the gun going off—all of it was terrifying.
And yet, it was electrifying.
Later, I’d find out Johnny had heroin in his underwear. He was the son of a cop, and knew the officer couldn’t shoot him, could only fire a warning shot. He also knew he could outrun him. Which we found hilarious, that the cop never caught him, was too paunchy, too out of shape to catch him. It was hilarious that Johnny kept running, didn’t stop, didn’t even flinch at the concussive blast of the gun.
We all admired him for this, though not one of us would have admitted it.
* * *
At about this point, my friends in the park began talking about the books they were reading, books I might not otherwise have read, Steppenwolf, The Stranger, The Fall. At the time, I gave myself to these books. I swallowed them whole. And it mattered, mattered profoundly, that my friends were as deeply affected by them as I was. We talked about them without really talking about them directly, as though it were a test of their power, or a sign of respect for that power, as in certain religions where one is forbidden to speak the name of God.
My mother, attentive and, as I look back on it now, generous with her time—she was working full time, managing two kids, a husband, a home, falling asleep to the monotony of the TV—my mother took an interest in my reading, asked to borrow my copy of Demian.
When she gave it back, she wondered what I’d thought of the plot, started to offer her idea of the theme.
My memory of this is that I actually snarled at her. I can see my face twisting around my lips.
It’s not a plot, I said, dismissively. It’s true!
At fifteen, I really did believe this. I thought every novel was true.
I don’t remember my mother’s response, though it seems likely that my words would have left her speechless. In any event, she never brought the subject up again, and after this, I don’t think she ever asked to borrow any of my books.
I’ve reread Demian since that time, and was taken in again by the characters, the urgency, the mystery surrounding them. But I found myself recoiling at certain sentiments, all those ardent sentences about evil as a benign entity, the blind, dark blossoming of your own true destiny.
“Each man,” says the novel’s hero, Emil Sinclair, “had only one genuine vocation—to find the way to himself. He might end up as poet or madman, as prophet or criminal—that was not his affair, ultimately it was of no concern.”
In Hesse’s Steppenwolf, another book of supreme importance to me back then, Harry Haller is a man divided between his two natures, the ordinary man and the free roving wolf. Unlike the wolf, the ordinary man can’t “live intensely.” But the wolf, says Harry, is seething with a “wild longing for strong emotions and sensation.” He is swept up in a “rage against the toneless, flat, normal and sterile life.” He has a “mad impulse to smash something.”
Whether you’re a madman or criminal is of no concern. All that matters is raw sensation, passion, the authenticity of the self.
Somewhere in high school, I had begun to believe that what was real was only what you feel, as long as you feel it intensely. Which was difficult to resist, to see the world as you want to see it, the vivid picture dancing in your head. Soon, very soon, I would be taking almost any pill that was offered, without even knowing what it was. I would soon be hitchhiking hundreds of miles, without even knowing where I was going, walking naked in the woods, doing acid, losing my mind on acid, taking three days to come down. Then doing it all over again. Friends of mine would soon be shooting heroin. I would soon be trying to talk them out of it, out their addiction. Too many of my friends would soon die.
Our world would soon open up like a wound.
But at fifteen, I didn’t really know what was coming. I didn’t really know what I was doing. Back then there wasn’t anything to consider. There wasn’t any hesitation, any ambiguity.
“We are only what we feel,” sang Neil Young, somewhere in those years.
And I believed him.