Through horseplay along the Harlem River, threats of ethnic gang clashes, and a Mickey Mantle meltdown, a seventy-year-old New Yorker recalls the Bronx of his youth.
It was very cold. Snow was on the ground from the storm the week before and new flakes were in the air. Very large ice flows, some maybe twenty feet long, were speeding down the river, banging into each other and breaking up. My friends and I talked about how the ice may have come all the way from Canada, at least hundreds, maybe thousands of miles away. Such was the nature of our imagination, as we played downstream from where the Hudson River splits off to create the Harlem River, separating the northernmost tip of Manhattan from the Bronx. I can’t remember how old we were—somewhere between eight or eleven, although it is possible some of us were younger, as it wasn’t uncommon for little brothers to be in tow.
We gathered coat hangers, broomsticks, pieces of pipe, rope—anything from the rubbish that might help us grab hold of one of these “icebergs,” pull it in, hold it against the bank, get on and ride. Yes, I realize this sounds like a Mark Twain novel relocated to the Hudson, but this is really what we did to pass the time, even if we knew it was dangerous and most probably never expected to actually succeed. The battle against the river excited us. Sometimes we would get one and reel it in, but just when it seemed like we would be victorious, it always slipped away. We’d throw the bull around for a while about this flow and that one and how if we could only have held on a little longer we’d be on our way already. Growing up in New York creates very, very unique imaginations and character.
With the time we had left we’d go up on The Bridge, throw stones and guess how far these “icebergs” would float before melting.
“The Bridge.” The oldest surviving one in New York, it dates to 1837 and is officially named the Aqueduct Bridge for its one-time role in carrying water into Manhattan. As the first bridge to connect Manhattan Island with the rest of the continental United States, it also brought people across the river. The hills on either side made it necessary for the top of the bridge to cross at 150 feet above the water—the highest crossing in New York at that time. Locals appropriately nicknamed it “The High Bridge.” The areas on both sides became known as “The Heights,” and my neighborhood, in the Bronx, was later to be called “Highbridge.”
My friends and I walked across that bridge many times—it was a twenty-minute journey, door-to-door from our house to the Manhattan side, where a set of steep stairs took you right into the middle of Highbridge Park and its huge public swimming pool.
Back when the bridge was built in the nineteenth century, the steep hills on our side of the river were still covered in woods and most of the land was home to wealthy estates. Hunting was common, with dog barks and gunshots in the air, while horses and carriages rolled along dirt paths and later cobblestone roads. Before that, Washington used nearby Jumel Mansion on the Manhattan side as a temporary headquarters after being run out of Brooklyn Heights by the British; from there he could see not only the Harlem River but also Long Island Sound, the East River, the Hudson, New Jersey and most of Manhattan to the south.
When I was growing up in the 1940s and ‘50s, the past always emerged in our play—especially war heroes and gangsters. We made guns from the corners of orange crates, running a strong rubber band along the top of what became the weapon and slipping a small square of linoleum in the rubber band which, when pulled back, released. The linoleum sped through the air with dangerous speed. It was remarkable nobody ever lost an eye.
My friends and I—Arny, Leon, Dennis, Eddie, Allan, to be honest at this point I can’t remember all of their names—called ourselves “The Anderson Raiders.” We all lived in a complex of six buildings that ran a full city block along Anderson Avenue, with a back alley fifteen feet wide that served as a safe playground where our families could always check on you or whistle you home. There was a lot of whistling in old New York; each family had their own one. Some family whistles were passed down for generations. When you heard yours, you knew you better get going.
Out in the alley, one of our other favorite games involved a matchstick and a used spool of thread. We strapped a rubber band over the opening on one end of the spool, then slipped a wooden matchstick in the front opening, pulled the spool and the rubber band back, aimed and let go. When the match hit brick or concrete near our target, it would ignite. We never meant to hurt anyone, at least I didn’t; we were just experimenting with victorious fantasies that history had passed along to us.
Of course, there was a more thoughtful side to our upbringing and heritage, too. Halfway down our hill was an avenue named Shakespeare—a most peculiar place name to appear, as we had never read or saw any of his plays and had only a general idea that he was an important writer from England who lived hundreds of years earlier. We debated how and why his name had come into our little world, but never came up with an answer.
Because of this, we began wondering why our own street was named Anderson. When my friend Lanny’s family on the fourth floor got the first television in the building, we got to go watch once a week; and one day there it was: “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” by Hans Christen Anderson, the famous storyteller from Copenhagen. We jumped up. That was our Anderson. It all fit as far as we were concerned. Shakespeare. Anderson. Both writers. It couldn’t be a coincidence. I never did find out why the street actually was named Anderson, but that explanation made perfect sense to us kids.
There was a good deal more history in our neighborhood. A half-block past the school was an old, falling-apart wooden house. Even though we were inclined to go anywhere, we never entered and tried not to take notice as we passed it, whether on foot or bus. There was a darkness associated with it that no one ever talked about, except that it once belonged to a fellow named Aaron Burr, whose claim to fame was that he had a duel with Alexander Hamilton. It is said that although Hamilton despised Burr and accepted his challenge, he didn’t want to murder him and deliberately missed the first shot. Burr didn’t. He carefully aimed, fatally wounding Hamilton, who died from Burr’s bullet a few weeks later. (I had read that the run-down house received landmark status, but that must have been Burr’s other estate, in the North Bronx, because when I went back up recently to take photos, I was shocked to find a six-story apartment building on its plot.)
So we had our history and we knew it. Literature, the revolution, and of course sports.
From the roof of our apartment building we could see Yankee Stadium. When the flags were flying, it meant there was a home game that day. Strangely, very few of my friends were Yankee fans. In those days whomever your father was for became your team. Since our area of the Bronx was only just coming up—with immigrant families and those from Brooklyn, Manhattan and beyond moving in—our parents were a mix of New York Giants fans, Brooklyn Dodger fans and others; we even had an Indians and a Tigers fan. Team loyalty was something one didn’t give up easily in those days. My father wasn’t into sports, so I became a secret Yankees fan. Yes, even though I was born and bred in the South Bronx, I had to keep my allegiance to the Yankees hidden because it just wasn’t cool. The Yankees always beat everyone else, so in the alley it was unacceptable to root for them.
We went to the stadium a lot at a fairly early age. As long as we were traveling in a group and the family knew who else was going, it was OK. Though not more than a mile away, it was a bit of a maze getting there. Anderson runs along the east end of the neighborhood on a high ridge about one hundred feet above the other streets. There are no through streets because of these heights, and staircases have been built to get down or up again. Some are quite long and steep. The one by our house was about twenty flights, fifteen to twenty stairs each. So getting down to the stadium involved heated discussion as each had their preferred routes and there had to be agreement.
There was one way that it often came down to: The Death Ladder, behind a building passage infrequently used by anybody. It was supposed to be a fire exit should folks coming down the back fire escapes find the way to the street blocked, but I can’t fathom too many being able to navigate its perils. It was seventy-five feet straight down to a steeply inclined, slippery and rocky lot, which made it not an easy finish out to the street. For us, it was a rite of passage. Most of us had passed the test but it was still nerve-wracking each time you took it.
Arny was the unpredictable one in the group, always challenging and daring. One day he showed up to the Death Ladder with his little brother in tow. After our objections that the brother was too young for the Death Ladder, Arny said, “No problem, if somebody takes my glove I’ll carry him down on my back.” Everybody was shocked. The little fella was thrilled. Eventually we realized they were going down whether we cared or not. So we reconciled ourselves to one going down closely beneath them and one just above. I don’t know what we could have done if either of them had slipped. Perhaps our being nearby made them a bit more relaxed and confident, but more likely it was the challenge and having his way over us that prevailed. I don’t know about anyone else but I can’t remember using the Death Ladder ever again.
The stadium in those days was reasonably priced. You could sit in the bleachers for twenty-five cents. Top tickets were only five, maybe six bucks but the bleachers were a special place with real and committed fans. The sightlines were good and were probably one of the few places from which you could see the entire field in one glance. The bullpens on either side made it possible to chat with the players, who would often talk back to us—even the visiting team.
Once, on the way to the bleachers, a group of men in suits stopped us and said, “We have two extra tickets behind first base—any of you interested?” Arny had one in his hand before the rest of us could reconcile who, if any, should break off and go. Then the adult with the tickets put one in my hand, saying “You work it out” and went off to catch his mates. I looked at the other guys and shrugged my shoulders—they nodded their heads, giving me the go-ahead, and off I went.
I had never sat in a box before; it was so close to the field. I didn’t know what to think when the usher who led us to our seats wiped them off and one of the men gave him a couple of bucks, which he seemed to be expecting. We had no dollars, and wouldn’t have thought to give them if we did. The adults were real nice to us and every time they ordered a round of beers they’d get us a hot dog or a bag of peanuts.
From then on we never paid for a ticket. Sometimes we just stood outside glove in hand; or if we saw someone with a handful of tickets, we’d shout out to ask for extras. We started getting very good at it and quickly found ourselves with four or five tickets. We’d keep the best for ourselves and let the others go at face value. I guess it wasn’t pleasant for those who gave us the tickets to find someone else arriving at their box, but to be quite frank, we didn’t give much consideration to it. A free ticket and money to spend—what more could a kid ask for?
When a game was over, several dozen fans would make their way to the Yankee office behind home plate, hoping we could get an autograph or two as the players left the stadium. The players would always sign a few as they worked their way out. The fans were never unruly or disrespectful and always knew who had gone and who had not. One day Mickey Mantle was taking a particularly long time to show up, and when he did, it wasn’t pleasant. I don’t know what was up—he had a pretty good game, but came out tearing through the crowd, knocking men, women and children out of his path. It left a bad taste in my mouth, and I never was an autograph seeker again. I guess that was the start of my no longer being a secret Yankee fan, and for that matter, a Yankee fan at all. I still went for a while, but it was mostly just to make some money. To this day, I don’t like to go there. If someone I care about has an extra ticket, I wouldn’t want to turn them down, but I never would root for them again.
* * *
Our section of Highbridge was mostly Jewish and Irish and the two very rarely met. The Jews lived on Anderson, up to and a little beyond the school. From there over to Woodycrest Avenue and back to where it intersected with Shakespeare was Irish. We went to P.S. 73. They went to Sacred Heart. They had their territory and we had ours. I mean, it wasn’t like West Side Story. Mostly, we didn’t get in each other’s way. However, every year or so, the Woodys, as they were known, would get riled up and chants of, “The Woodys are Coming, the Woodys are Coming” would ring through the air. Everybody knew what that meant. You wouldn’t want to be out there on your own. It was like a modern-day pogrom, without the Cossacks. They always came down angry, acting like they were out for blood, screaming “Christ killers! Christ killers!”
Everybody knew to head for the courtyard in the middle of the block, where home court had its advantages. When the Woodys finally arrived there were lots of them, and we were always outnumbered at least two to one. Although I was around for at least three or four of these confrontations, they never actually erupted. It was almost like they just had to get something out of their systems. We didn’t know what they wanted, or what they meant by “Christ killers.” Perhaps they were trying to egg us on so they wouldn’t be accused of starting the whole thing, but we just held our ground.
Sooner or later a parent would arrive, or one or two might start screaming from the windows: “Get out of here! Go back to your own block! I’m calling the police!” That last one usually got them. It always went down like that. I guess they didn’t really want to fight after all, and neither did we.
The last time they came around it was particularly tense and I thought it was going to explode as they weren’t responding to the usual catcalls from above. But then, at the exact right moment my future brother-in-law Ira came walking out of my building with a baseball bat slung over his shoulder. The courtyard was on three levels. As he entered the scene, the Woodys were on the street level, we were one level up and he up two more, standing there surveying the situation. Now, he was twice as big as the biggest in either group and certainly four years older, not to mention big and broad. He was a star basketball and baseball player and was wearing his Fordham University sweatshirt—ironically, he was the first Jew to accept a complete athletic scholarship to Fordham, a school deeply steeped in the Roman Catholic Jesuit traditions. The funny thing is, he was in the courtyard totally by accident, having earlier made arrangements to hit a few balls for me to field. Ira slowly walked down the side of the courtyard opposite the two groups, keeping an eye on both. When he reached the level we were on, keeping his distance, he said to me, “Everything okay?”
“I think so,” I responded cautiously, looking at one I knew to be a leader among the other group. Ira then asked the same of him; he didn’t reply but instead stared at Ira’s Fordham sweatshirt, asking, “Where’d you get that?”
When he had his answer, he quizzically shook his head and said, “Yeah, everything’s OK.” They began slowly backing up the hill. We never saw the Woodys again after that.
Once we thought we were going to be in a real gang war. Word was circulating that the Baldies were coming—The Fordham Baldies, Italian-Americans from the Belmont area. Feared throughout the city, they were believed to invade neighborhoods, shave the heads of rival gang members, cut off girls’ ponytails, and in general cause havoc almost by the mention of their name alone. It was said they had alliances with twenty other gangs throughout the city, and more than 1,000 fighters they could call upon. On separate occasions, both the Bronx High School of Science and later DeWitt Clinton High School were surrounded by police cars just on the rumor that the Baldies were coming, although they never did.
We decided to walk down Anderson and talk with the older neighborhood guys. We didn’t care for them much as they were always hitting on our girls and frequently succeeding. But this was different. They were surprised to see us and we told them we wanted to help. One of them looked at me and said, “You’re father’s a cop isn’t he? I’ll tell you what—take one of your boys and be lookout at the big stairs at the top of the hill. From there you can also see Shakespeare. If you see the Baldies, signal us, then use the alley to get home and call the cops at the 44 [the local precinct]. The rest of you take the schoolyard. Bring anything that moves to the top of the stairs. Rocks. Bricks. Tree limbs. Bottles. Then lay low and wait. Should your man on the street see or get signaled they are coming another way, get the hell out of there. Make it back home and stay there.”
We waited for hours. It was getting dark and the guy who gave us our assignments told us to go home. On the way up the hill, one or two expressed disappointment they didn’t show. But we all breathed a sigh of relief, pleased we had broken the ice with the older guys.
Bronx folklore now has it the rumors about the Baldies were just that—rumors deliberately put out there to build up fear.
* * *
While we never did get involved in serious trouble, as you know from the river and other stories, we weren’t adverse to risk and seeing how far each might go with it. One day someone had the bright idea that we should rob the candy stores. There were five or six shops between our home and school, and it seemed like a pushover. Don’t get me wrong—we weren’t talking about hitting an old fellow over the head and emptying out his cash register. Two would go to the comic book section looking through and asking questions nonstop. “I’m really looking for last month’s Dick Tracy. You’re all out? Any chance of more coming in?” Meanwhile, the third, up front, would be filling his coat pockets with Life Savers, chewing gum and Tootsie Pops. We’d follow the others out while they were moaning about missing out on last month’s comic, then take off around the corner and split up the goods as we ran.
At the heart of it, for us it was a game. The small shop owners didn’t think so. They caught on quickly, spread the word and at our third heist the police walked in. They came quickly as other owners’ calls had put them on alert and they were already on the lookout for us. At their request we emptied our pockets, which were not only filled with that store’s Dots, Good ‘n’ Plentys and M&Ms, but the previous two stores’ take as well. They wrote down our names and addresses, put us in the back of the patrol car, drove down to the 44th precinct and turned us over to the detective who handled juveniles. He wanted home phone numbers and told us if there was no answer he’d be back for a number where he could reach one of our parents and we better have one.
I prayed my mother would show up rather than my father, who had a terrible temper. After a half-hour in she came, looked at me without saying a word and asked the desk sergeant where she could find detective so-and-so. He showed up a few minutes later, inviting her into his office and indicating I should follow.
He told her why I was there. Holding back tears, she opened up on me. “Who were you with? Whose idea was it? Was anyone hurt?” Then she turned to the detective, told him my father was a cop at the 40 and if he found out she was afraid he’d kill me. I guess the officer understood. He turned to me, told me I was lucky to have such good parents, but if I ever wound up there again it would be juvenile court and probably reform school. I assured him I wouldn’t be back. During the twenty-minute walk home she never said a word and in fact we never spoke about it again. But she was not far off about my father, as I soon found out.
Not long after, I was on the way to the schoolyard to check if there was a game or anything going on. Stanley lived halfway there and I rang his bell to see if he was interested. He was down in a minute. There was a city bus coming along and although it was a short enough walk, we jumped on the back. In those days city buses had a rear bumper you could stand on as well as a rear window with a ledge to hold on to. It wasn’t uncommon to see two or three kids up on the bumper, grasping the ledge not for a free ride but for the gratification that comes with taking risks. At a stop, a driver might stick his head out the window or the front door and yell “get the hell off”—which we did, only to jump back up as he started out again.
The three blocks to the school were flat until you got to the last stop on Anderson, after which began a very sudden steep hill down and out of the neighborhood. Before we got there we noticed the driver was going rather fast with a stop ahead. When he continued to pick up speed, we realized he not only wasn’t going to stop, but wanted to teach us a lesson we wouldn’t forget. We decided to jump. I hit the ground soft enough, rolling. When I looked up, Stanley was still flattened out, holding his arm in pain.
Stanley said his sister was a nurse, was at home and would know what to do. His sister said she thought the arm was broken, which it turned out to be, and took him for x-rays. I headed home.
When I got to the bottom of the hill leading up to our block, my father was already at the top. I never did find out how word got back so quickly, but it was quite clear he was more than up-to-speed. I put my head down and very slowly climbed the hill, which I had done many, many times before, never finding it so steep. As I got there he slowly took off his belt and as I passed him it started. He never said a word—just continued slapping me with the belt all the way down our block and into the building. No elevator for us that day. He smacked me all the way up the six flights of stairs. For good measure, when we got into the apartment, he grabbed me by the hair and banged my head against the wall two or three times, leaving me for my mother to look after.
I never cried that day and nobody, friends included, ever brought it up. Looking back I guess it was a bit much, but I figure there was a lot that I had gotten away with over the years and perhaps he knew more than I gave him credit for. In addition, he held a unique place in the community. Being a cop, and a Jewish cop at that, people often asked him for legal advice on everything from getting out of parking and moving violations to securing protective court orders. Also, if he saw something wrong going on in the neighborhood, he never hesitated to step in and put it right. If he saw one of the kids was doing anything unacceptable, you could be sure that child’s family would hear about it and the youngster would pay for it. So I guess it was not about the bus ride or the broken arm as much as his reputation and sending a message throughout the block that his kid was not going to receive special consideration.
* * *
The Alfons lived near the school. They were not really a gang, but like us, The Anderson Raiders, liked to think they were. Alfons stood for “all for one.” They were mostly Jews, with one Italian and one half-Irish, half-Italian. We often hung out on each other’s block, sometimes playing touch football or going mad in a snowball fight. A game we always loved was ring-a-levio. They would sit in the courtyard, no peeking, counting to one hundred and giving us a chance to hide. It had to be on the block and not in any of the buildings. That still left lots, courtyards, underneath parked cars and plenty of other places to hide. Then they would come looking. If they found you they had to grab on, hold you and say “ring-a-levio caw-caw-caw” three times. While this was going on you could break away and try to find another place to hide; or if not, you were out.
One summer evening the Alfons arrived with a new version of the game. It was called Gestapo. That’s right. Gestapo. I couldn’t help wondering why a bunch of Jewish kids would make up a game called Gestapo. Growing up we watched newsreels of the Allies entering Nazi concentration camps filled with dead Jews, the few still alive almost skeletons. Many of us, myself included, had even met a survivor or two in New York, the Nazi ID number still tattooed on their arm. Why? But we listened to the Alfons.
The play aspect of it was similar, one team hunting another. Only that’s where it ended. Before the first team went out you’d conference and make it known to each other where each would be hiding. Then, if you were captured, the other team could do whatever was needed to get you to reveal where one of your comrades was hiding. Punch you. Kick you. Wrap your arms backward around a telephone pole. Although they could do anything, they only took it so far. But they did want to see how much you could take and so did we.
Sometimes we’d give them false information just to get a break. They’d go, but if they returned empty-handed they would turn you over to Louie, a huge guy who was surely being groomed to be an NFL guard. Of all the torturers he was the only one who clearly enjoyed it and sometimes The Alfons would have to hold him back. But when our turn came and he was found, we all got even. As hard as we hit, he took it and never once gave up an Alfon. In the end, even though we had wanted to kill him, we had to admire his stamina and strength when he would smile and ask, “Is that all you got?”
Although we only played it once, it wasn’t because we couldn’t take it as well as give it. I think we knew there was something wrong about the fake violence of Gestapo; that reality was much, much worse—not a children’s game. But we never talked much about things like that—despite the ethnic separations in our neighborhood, we were all eager to assimilate. We were born here and we were eager for everyone to know we were just as American as them. People back then used to say you were only a true American if your family had been here for at least three generations. I remember us counting backwards with our fingers on each side of the family, but refusing to believe that we weren’t American when we couldn’t reach three generations.
Two buildings down from us I had a “sometime” friend name Lenny, who came into the building at a somewhat older age. I say “sometime” because if we got together it was always in his family’s apartment. I believe this was because, although I was acceptable, his parents thought the rest of my crowd a bit too wild for whatever it was they had in mind for his future.
One day I stopped by Lenny’s and there was a new kid there. His name was Arthur and he had recently moved into an empty apartment on Lenny’s floor. He was kind of quiet but OK. His mother and father were teachers and worked in the other Highbridge public school.
There was a food co-op two streets away from us and Arthur’s family shopped there. Rumors began to circulate that because of this connection perhaps they were communists. In the Red Scare of the late 1940s and early ‘50s food co-ops were seen as communist fronts. There had been co-ops in the U.S since colonial times, the first being set up by none other than Benjamin Franklin. Throughout our history co-ops have always been a way for everyday people to organize in various areas. During the Great Depression of the ‘30s, many could not get by without them as an inexpensive source of food.
There was also a fear that subversives were infiltrating the schools, and many states, including New York, began requiring all of their employees to sign a loyalty oath. Many thought it un-American and refused. Arthur’s mother and father were two of them. Soon after, under one pretext or another, they lost their jobs and quietly disappeared from my life. They were a nice family. I often think about them and wonder what became of them.
* * *
By the early part of the twentieth century one of the main reasons for building the High Bridge had become outdated. Water was then being delivered underground and discussions began about how to save the bridge, whether it could be adapted to new needs. It was decided that the high rounded columns supporting the bridge itself would remain, but the Roman-style aqueducts at their bases would go, allowing for development of highways on both sides to accommodate the traffic that the opening of the George Washington Bridge would bring in 1931. Over the river itself, the support columns were replaced by a high steel arch, which would allow barges, ships and, eventually, tourist boats, to circle Manhattan.
In the 1970s, the High Bridge was closed and remains so. The reason given was that young people were throwing things off the bridge at the increasing number of tourist boats passing below. Ironic, since as you know, young people had always been throwing things off the bridge, long before the tourists showed up.
The bridge has been closed now for about forty years, but renovation is slowly coming. Perhaps in the not-too-distant future cyclists, runners and kids growing up in New York will once again be crossing over the bridge, in and out of the Heights.
* * *
Larry Spiegel was born in the Bronx and presently lives in Manhattan. He spent the first half of his adult life in the theater and the second half teaching and coaching four- to nine-year-olds in New York City public schools.
Charles Forsman was born in Pennsylvania in 1982. He graduated from The Center for Cartoon Studies in 2008 and is a two-time Ignatz Award-winner for his self-published minicomic, Snake Oil. Forsman’s first graphic novel will be published by Fantagraphics Books in 2013. He lives in Hancock, MA, where he runs Oily Comics.