Friday, July 26, 2013

"The Four Corners" ~ A Yorkville Tale from Denny Ferado

The Four Corners


Dennis John Ferado

Eighty-Seventh Street between York and 1st Avenues was our block for a couple of years. We’d meet there then drift down to Irish’s (Warren’s) Candy Store on 89th St. and York Avenue and listen to the jukebox for a while. Then before Irish got disgusted with us we’d leave and head to Sully’s Luncheonette on the corner of 88th Street for some coffee or sodas. We’d hang out there for a spell--there were usually a bunch of us and no one could take us for very long, even when we were good. So we’d head to the empty storefront on the southwest corner of 87th Street and York Avenue which used to be McCann’s, Bar & Grill.

We were in the process of self-graduating ourselves from the “middle of the block” to the doorway of the boarded up McCann’s--all other corners of 87th Street being taken and overcrowded. We had no spot to hang out when we were on the street. The situation was growing more distressing every day especially when someone from another street corner asked:

“What corner do you guys hang out on?” and we had to answer with:

“Oh, we’re in the “middle of the block.” It was embarrassing.

Our corner spot was positioned directly across from Kronk’s Ice Cream Parlor on 87th St., Kronk’s was overflowing with three separate crowds. The youngest group was between 12 and 13, the next group between 15 and 17 and then the oldest crowd between 18 and 21 years old. Our group ranged from 12 to 14. The middle aged group blurred the borders of the other two age groups. Each age group had their own group of better-halves: “The Girls!” Kronk’s was the classiest ice cream parlor in our three block area but usually so crowded we tended to stay away. The fact that a dark frown contorted Mr. Kronk’s face if anyone from our crowd entered his shop gave us pause, we got the message loud and clear--we were the black sheep. Can’t blame the man he, no doubt, had watched us at play on the corner right through his store windows and wanted no part of us. But we did go in at nights, sometimes, when the boss wasn’t there and if it wasn’t crowded. Everyone who patronized Kronk’s, all the different crowds, got along with one another beautifully.

McCann’s was diagonally across York Avenue from “P&Cs Bar” (Powers & Costello’s). The third corner--southeast--supported single (and married) neighborhood men who, when they weren’t in “The Bar” hanging out playing chess or checkers, were usually outside the bar playing cards, pitching quarters or shooting craps on that corner--absolutely off-limits. We had laid claim to McCann’s entryway, a one step four-inch high, 3’ X 3’ square slab of concrete that led to a bolted-up black wooden door, the entrance to the bar. There were about 15 of us who hung around that corner and that one small step--it wasn’t much space but it was all ours. Plus, it held four when it rained. This we called the “Lunger Club.’

It was there, one chilly Saturday afternoon in November, that four of us were sitting on that cold little step drinking Cokes, all squished up, trying to harmonize. When, without warning, we unanimously decided to become blood brothers We cut the palms of our hands with the broken neck from a Coca Cola bottle and proceeded with our undertaking. For boys around the ages of twelve and thirteen this is a profound and mystical ceremony with its secret mingling of bloods but difficult for anyone other than a boy that age, or thereabouts, to truly comprehend. Through other eyes we were all demented.

Earlier that same week we started a singing group which Jim Jim quickly named The Melodies. It was Paddy Dougherty, Billy Auger, Jim Jim Whalen and myself. It turned out that, Jim Jim, to no one’s surprise, since we all knew he had a good voice, had all the motions and emotions of a man who’d been singing on the stage all his life. When he sang you knew that he was born to sing and you would think, This guy has to be at least twenty-eight-years-old. Our other three voices blended well and were the perfect compliment for Jim Jim’s swirling tenor lead--that is when we were on key. It was not easy to stay on key. The following day Jim Jim arrived with a song he had written called “The Morning Mist.” A sweet song, now lost forever in time and space.

There were two full-blooded Italians in our crowd: John Peregine and Joey Anello. The rest of us were mixed bloods: Wally Rau--Italian/German, Kenny Loonan--Italian/Jewish, Freddie Bernardi and I were both half Irish, half Italian and had the right to choose any side we wanted when we played, “IRISH/ITALIAN!” Everyone else was Irish. Freddie and I always stayed with the Italians because they were consistently outnumbered--besides the Irish didn’t want us on their side anyway, they considered Freddie and myself “mutts.” If we didn’t side with the Italians there wouldn’t have been a game to play. Whenever someone shouted “IRISH/ITALIAN,” no matter what we were involved in at that moment we would stop and the corner would turn into a cretinous free-for-all. It was the Irish against the Italians--but we all came under the one heading of “Barbarians.” Suddenly Jim Jim would have me in a headlock and Ronnie would be wailing away on my kidneys. When it was over we were all buddies again, as though it had never happened. We laughed like maniacs while we beat each other silly, we were a spunky group. However, I must add to this, the Italians usually fared quite well for being the minority. We rarely won but were proud of what we were able to accomplish. We exhausted them from beating on us.

There were two hardworking janitors who, between them, took care of seven or eight buildings in a two block area. I had never seen them speak to one another so I know they weren’t friends. Benny the Bum was the janitor for the building that housed our clubhouse. Benny was an angry man who must have taken an oath to hate kids for his entire life. None of us had ever encountered Benny in a state of sobriety; he was drunk and ornery morning, noon and night. He didn’t just chase us he usually had a club in his hand and menace in his eyes as he approached. We met his anger with our own anger. We’d shuffle off backwards keeping our eyes on him, cussing him all the way.

This night we were doing our IRISH/ITALIAN thing wrestling and rolling around on the concrete sidewalk and making a mess of our clubhouse area. Benny showed up, threatened us to stay away from the front of the old bar but we refused to take heed of his warnings, told him we’d be back the next day, cursed and insulted him then headed back to the “middle of the block.” We were beginning to feel like it was our destiny.

So we moved to the solitude by the office building of the Sanitation Department, opposite Saint Joseph’s School, in the middle of the block and were sitting against its wall. Benny must have sneaked through the street biding his time moving stealthily along from one parked car to another. Suddenly all the guys were scrambling and I looked up and Benny filled my screen running full tilt right at me. As he charged I tried to get up, scrambled, slipped and skidded on my belly along the sidewalk against the Sanitation wall. I was too slow and Benny was too fast. He threw a kick that landed on the side of my head, just above my left eye, snapping my head back into the point at the foot of the wall. The same point where we played ‘Off The Point’ (Sundays when the building was closed) but this time it was my head that went off the point. It was a double barrel blast as my head bounced off Benny’s shoe then bounced off the point like a rubber ball. I tried to get up onto my feet but I was dazed, my legs buckled, refused to carry out orders. Everything was spinning, the top of my head was throbbing and my thoughts were stuck together like a forgotten piece of chocolate left on a hot rock in the sun. I felt warm blood begin to trickle down behind my right ear and the side of my neck from the cut on my head. Benny began to close in on me for the second time with his fists raised in combat when, from nowhere, an horizontal rain of garbage began to fill the air coming from every direction, hitting him and landing all around his feet. The sky was filled with garbage, it was magical. Soggy brown paper garbage bags exploding overhead from their wetness and pouring down their contents. Benny tried to dodge burnt toast, orange peels, bottles, egg shells and paint cans. Jim Jim threw a flying block and knocked Benny off his feet. Ray Hart and Paddy Dougherty grabbed me under both arms and dragged me from harm’s way. Wally Rau, Jim Whalen, Tommy Dowd and Billy Auger continued hurling garbage at Benny until he retreated and headed towards York Avenue as he slapped away tomatoes, coffee grounds and potato skins from his clothing. The rest of the guys shouted to us they were headed down to Carl Schurz Park. All the time that Paddy and Ray were dragging me along, Ray (always pronounced my name Dinny) kept talking to me

“We’ll get the bum, Dinny. I promise you, we’ll get this creep. This is not right, your head’s bleeding man, we gotta get this guy.” Paddy said:

“We’re not gonna let him get away with this, Den. That son-of-a-bitch.”

I almost fell asleep, once again my knees crumbled and I watched the concrete sidewalk coming up at me when they yanked me back up. Ray was bouncing up and down, I thought, any second I’d see steam coming out of his ears. He looked at me and the two of them sat me down gently on the stoop of 417 East 87th Street. Bending my head over Ray said: “Let me see. Shit, man you may need a stitch or two. Maybe we should take you to the hospital? How do you feel?”

“I’m Okay, you guys.”

“Then, come on Paddy,” Ray said, “lets get him. Sit tight, Dinny, we’ll be right back.” Ray turned to go but I was holding onto the sleeve of his black motorcycle jacket and wouldn’t let go. I said:

“No! Ray, don’t go. We torture the guy constantly. So he got a good one in on me, so what! Can’t say we don’t deserve a good whack sometimes,” I tried to laugh. Ray and Paddy were insisting that they get Benny but I wanted to leave it alone, they were too angry. It took everything I had left in me to talk the two of them out of going after Benny, right then and there. Especially Ray, he was going wild. I managed to keep them on the stoop with me by telling them I thought I was going to pass out and they shouldn’t leave me alone. I’m satisfied I did. It would have gone badly for all concerned if they had gone after Benny that night. I know it.

Pineapple Jim got his name solely because he was from Hawaii. He was a good man and supported a wife and a small daughter with his janitorial work. He never minded us unless we got very loud and then he always treated us with respect when he confronted us. When he did, we did whatever he asked because he was a gentleman about it. He understood we didn’t have too many places to go. We’d tease him, call him “Pineapple Jim” and he’d laugh along with us.

When things were slow and we got bored we had a game that we played called ‘Get um.’ It was a make-believe-we’re-beating-up-the-smallest-guy-in-the-crowd game. We practiced down in Carl Schurz Park for hours on end before bringing our act to the street corner. We were so good at faking a fight that anyone who had seen us would try to break it up. Especially Ray Hart and myself, it was as if we had been doing it all our lives. We just couldn’t do anything wrong when we fought, we seemed to know just what the other guy was going to do and we reacted perfectly to one another. Just as someone was about to pass by one of us would holler:


We’d grab the littlest guy (usually Kenny Loonan or Tommy Dowd sometimes Ray Hart, he liked being the one getting beat up) and one of us would punch him in the face--the little guy always had his back to the approaching strangers--he would clap his hands together, around his mid-section area, and fall into someone else who would spin him around and do the same thing. Sometimes, after getting hit the little guy would fly over a car or scuttle around behind it--out of sight--and we’d run around the car and make as though we were kicking him. The little guy would howl and plead for mercy. People would scream and curse and shout for the police. One night a precious, well-meaning lady, a spry octogenarian, plowed into us swinging her cane and caught both Jim Jim and Paddy on top of their heads before anyone knew what was happening. Knowing no fear she transformed herself into a Samurai warrior wielding her weapon as she shouted:

“Leave that boy alone you filthy animals or I’ll whip each and every one of you until your black and blue from head to toe.” It was a cruel joke and it rarely failed to get a reaction. Sometimes the passers-by would totally ignore the victim’s screams and we figured they must have been from the neighborhood and had seen this before or they did not want to get involved.

This particular night the whole thing backfired. We had been pounding away on Ray on-and-off, for the better part of half an hour. Suddenly three cop cars pulled up and a gang of cops jumped out with their guns drawn, threw us against the wall, searched us, cuffed us, smacked us around unmercifully, stuffed us into the squad cars and hauled us off to the 23rd Precinct on 104th Street between Third and Lexington Avenues. The cops said they came because of an anonymous caller saying a gang of wild kids were outside his house killing someone. They gave us a few more smacks and told us:

“Now walk home through Spanish Harlem, you little bastards”

The following day Ray and I ran into Pineapple Jim’s little girl and we discovered the anonymous caller was her father. She said:

“My father was so upset he began to cry because he thought one of YOU was being beaten up real bad, so he called the police.” There was a long chilly silence as that thought rained down on Ray and myself and seeped into our minds and hearts.

Two things changed after that: ‘Get Um’ became a game of the past and “Pineapple Jim” became, “Jim.”

Copyright 2013 Dennis John Ferado

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