Long Island, 1978–1998

When I started first grade, I rebelled hard against the early bedtime that came with elementary school. I was now supposed to wake up at 8:00 a.m. every day? And for what? Nap time replaced by math? Picture books like Where the Wild Things Are replaced by chapter books like Frog and Toad are Friends? I guess I wasn’t convinced it was worth it, and bedtime became a problem. My mom handed nighttime duties over to my dad. And Dad started to tell me a story. His story, beginning from when he was a little boy all the way up till when I was born.

The first night started with 1950s postwar picket-fence stuff: Cub Scouts, diving under desks for air raid drills. Then he came to the part of the story about Paul Jud.

“One day, I was out sick from school,” he began. “And when I came back the next day, my friend Paul wasn’t there. I asked the teacher, ‘Where’s Paul?’ And she said, ‘Paul’s gone.’

“She told me he was running in front of the school bus when he dropped his lunch box. And he ran back to pick it up. The bus driver didn’t see him. And the bus ran him over.”

My dad’s face changed.

“He was there one day. And then I came back to school, and he wasn’t there anymore,” he said as he tucked me in. “And it was like everything was normal, but my friend was gone.”

Dad never took me to church. The only spirituality in my house was the two posters he had tacked on the wall of the family den. One was the poem “Desiderata,” which begins, “Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.” The other was a quote from Coolidge: “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence.” Heaven was not a place my dad believed in. The idea that if a person didn’t believe in a certain god they would be left out of heaven, no matter how just and good a life they might have led, was something Dad could never reconcile. He wanted to believe but couldn’t.

“When you’re dead, you’re dead,” he told me.

I was six.

By the second week of the bedtime story, he told me about the day his brother convinced him to steal a fishing tackle box from Modell’s department store, and how he got caught and all his friends got away and he was sent to juvie. He told me about the gangs he was in, the Asphalt Angels and the Jesters, how they would rumble with other gangs from neighboring towns, and how they would decide on the rules before each fight—skin, sticks, knives, but never guns.

He told me about the time in high school when he mouthed off to the gym teacher and the teacher actually punched him in the face. “I came home and told my father, and he took the side of the gym teacher,” he said, his anger long ago replaced by his new responsibility to protect me.

Then he was caught throwing spitballs in the cafeteria and for the rest of the year was forced to sit at a table with a bunch of older girls. Each day, he asked one of the girls if she was going to finish her lunch. He finally got up the courage to ask her to a movie, one of those beach movies. But he made the date for the daytime and blushed when they arrived at the theater and realized that the matinee was different from the evening show. He sheepishly followed my mother to their seats, and they watched the cartoon Gulliver’s Travels by the Fleischer Brothers.

By the third week, he told me how he ran away from home when he was fifteen, stealing his father’s rare-coin collection, buying an ID off an older, tattoo-covered greaser named Chris Keer, and hopping on a Greyhound for Los Angeles. Halfway through the trip, he felt bad and mailed the coins back, but he made it to LA. He went straight to Hollywood and Vine, which he had heard on the radio was the center of the universe, and got a job parking cars at a restaurant. When they discovered his real age, he was fired and went to work selling encyclopedias door to door. He sold one set.

He told me how when he was in LA, he traveled south one weekend to Tijuana and went to a whorehouse, determined to lose his virginity. He remembered that, inside, there was a line of men just waiting around, yet there were plenty of available women in the room.

“I asked the guy in front of me, ‘What is everyone waiting for?’ He told me ‘The best girls are upstairs. They are busy. We’re waiting for them to come back.’” Dad told me about how he waited and picked the girl he wanted.

“Okay, bedtime.”

After a month in LA, he returned to Long Island. But he was never going back to live with his family. He lived hand to mouth, on friends’ couches or on the street. One night, he was walking through TSS, a department store in Levittown. “I saw a sweater that I liked. I put it on, over my shirt, and started to walk out of the store. I’m on the escalator, and this woman comes up behind me. She grabs my arm with both her hands and says”—my father clenched his teeth—“‘Move, and I’ll break it.’

“I stood there, waiting for the escalator to hit the floor. Waiting. Waiting. And as soon as it did, I flung her off me. Whoosh!” He threw his arm in the air. “She went flying.

“I started running toward the front doors of the store. I was twenty feet away when this guy ran up to me. I didn’t think. I just reeled back and bam! I punched him right in the face.” The guy tumbled into a rack of clothes.

“Turns out he was an off-duty detective,” my dad said.

By then, I was far too wired to even think about sleep.

Dad was arrested and taken to the precinct. There, he gave his name as Chris Keer, the name on the ID he had purchased before he ran away to Los Angeles.

But the police were familiar with the real Chris Keer—he had been in trouble before and had arms full of tattoos. They knew my dad wasn’t him.

He said they ran his fingerprints through the FBI and got nothing. Then they tried a different tactic: they went to the media.

“They ran my picture in Newsday,” he told me, “with the headline DO YOU KNOW THIS MAN?”

He said his parents saw the story and told the police that the man in their custody was actually a fifteen-year-old boy named William Jensen.

He was sent to Nassau County Jail. They offered his parents a deal—he could do a year in prison with the adults or two years at Coxsackie, which was then the youth reformatory where New York City and Long Island sent their bad boys. My dad begged his mother to let him go to the adult prison. But she refused, and he was shipped upstate.

The next week, my bedtime stories got a lot more graphic. Dad told me tales of fighting in the yard, of shivs, of fibbing that he was from Brooklyn so he would have tougher friends than the Long Island kids, and of playing a lot of chess.

He got out of Coxsackie, hid from the draft, got hooked on heroin, kicked the habit, then learned how to paint houses, married my mother, and eventually started his own business with the goal of giving me the life he had always wanted.

It was a wild tale, and it stuck with me long past those elementary school bedtimes. As a teenager, I remember going to the library to find the article of the mystery man wanted for punching a detective in the face. I believed my dad’s story, but I just wanted to see it in print. I went through spool after spool of microfiche but didn’t find it.

Throughout the story, one thing was clear. Dad never had a best friend. Someone he could tell stories to. Someone he trusted above all else. So he made one—me. And we did everything together.

Every carnival he saw being assembled in a church parking lot on his way home from work? We were there the next night. Every cool playground he noticed with a rocket ship jungle gym or giant slide? We were there that Sunday. Every movie that looked completely inappropriate for an eight-year-old, from Stripes to Animal House? We went. When wrestling got big, we were at Madison Square Garden when Hulk Hogan won the belt and at the first WrestleMania with Mr. T and Cyndi Lauper. We would head back home from Penn Station, Dad letting me pick out a comic book from the newsstand to read on the train. But I would never read it because we spent the ride back talking about what we had just seen. (“Did you see when Ali punched Piper!?”) Because that was what best friends did. Same when we drove to Shea Stadium or Nassau Coliseum, listening to doo-wop or the Beatles. When the demented final chords of “Helter Skelter” ended with Ringo shouting “I got blisters on my fingers!” he told me about Sharon Tate and how Charles Manson’s family attacked her and cut her baby out of her womb and wrote the word pig on the walls in her blood. The cutting-the-baby-out part turned out to be urban myth, but it all stuck with me.

My parents let me stay home alone for the first time when I was eleven. They left me with two Stouffer’s French bread pizzas, the remote cable box, and instructions not to burn down the house.

They didn’t say anything about what I could or couldn’t watch on TV.

That first night, I sat transfixed on the floor, chewing my poorly cooked pizza and learning about my impending doom. The Man Who Saw Tomorrow was a documentary on HBO about Nostradamus, the Frenchman who supposedly wrote hundreds of quatrains that predicted the future. The booming voice of Orson Welles told of the rise of Napoleon. The rise of Hitler. The rise of a blue-turbaned tyrant in the Middle East, launching missiles to start World War III, one of the nukes landing with a deafening crash in the center of New York City.

But that wasn’t what freaked me out that night. World War III? The end of the world? Those events, I thought, were inevitable.

What freaked me out was the man on the grassy knoll.

We got to the part about the Kennedy assassination. I watched as the president rode in his limousine in Dallas, smiling and waving to the crowd. Then I watched his head explode. Jackie climbed onto the trunk to collect pieces of his skull. But then the camera zoomed into the bushes behind her and showed an outline of what looked like a man sitting among the leaves, holding a rifle.

Nostradamus had apparently predicted that there would be an assassin in front of the president.

Apparently, no one else saw him that day. But I saw him. Or at least I thought I did.

“There’s a guy with a rifle! In the bushes! He shot the president! I have to tell someone!” I yelled in my head.

That Monday, I marched into the school library and asked for every book they had on the Kennedy assassination. I spent the next forty-five minutes poring over autopsy reports.

I went back the next day. And the next. And the next.

“Can I have all the Kennedy assassination books?”

Soon, the librarian would see me coming and I didn’t even have to ask. Today, that might have gotten me on a watch list, but back then, I was just the skinny kid obsessed with blood-spatter patterns and magic-bullet theories.

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