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I entered the world on December 20, 1945, feet first, ass backward, a breech baby. They didn’t have C-sections in those days so they had to take me out with a forceps, like you would use for salad. My mom, Loretta, said the whole process was so painful that she didn’t want any more kids after me. Of course, she had four more.
I was also impatient, exiting my mother’s womb two months prematurely, a tiny little thing with long black hair down my neck. The nurses would dote over me; they had never seen a baby with that much hair. The cool thing is that I was a love child. My mom got pregnant, and then she and my dad got married a few months after. But my dad, Joe, wasn’t really ready to settle down. He was a handsome young Italian guy who loved ballroom dancing. My mother told one of my sisters that my father left for three years when I was young and then came back to the family. But I was never told that.
What a family. I was named Peter after my father’s father. He and his wife, Nancy, moved to the U.S. from Naples and settled in Hartford, Connecticut, where they had a farm. Besides their own kids, they adopted a bunch, so there were something like twenty kids in the family. My dad was born on the farm, but eventually his dad bought a six-family tenement building in Brooklyn, where he got a job as a mason. He was a real Italian who spoke only Italian, so one of the guys on the job, to bust his balls, would teach him English phrases like “Fuck you. Kiss my ass. I’d like some pussy.” He didn’t understand what it meant. One day he came home from work and my grandmother was cooking and he said, “Hey, fuck you, eat my dick.” My grandmother flipped out and my father had to tell him that wasn’t nice stuff to say, so the old man got furious and the next day he went to work and kicked the shit out of his coworker.
I loved to visit my grandfather. In his backyard he grew grapes, eggplants, and tomatoes. I’d sit on his lap in the yard and he was like the Godfather. He’d have the big hat, the big pants with the belt, and the big sweater with the holes in it. He was tall, about six foot one, a really good-looking man. He kept pigeons in the back, and in the cellar he had all these rabbits in cages that I used to play with. My mother told me that one day she was eating his pasta sauce and she said, “That’s delicious, Pa. A little greasy, but tasty.” Then she found out it was made with rabbit, and she never ate the sauce again.
He was a tough man. He didn’t believe in doctors. He used to pull his own teeth with pliers. He was a religious Catholic until one day he went to church and caught a priest screwing a nun, and that was it. He gave up his religion after he got a real dose of reality. I really loved him, and I was proud to be named after him.
But I disliked his wife, Nancy. She used to beat the shit out of me. My mother told me that when I was really young, she yanked me up upside down by my feet and I started hemorrhaging and literally bled from my penis. I got my revenge eventually. My grandmother moved in with us toward her last days. She’d sit in the kitchen bitching, complaining, her feet always soaking in warm Epsom salt water. She always wanted things, and she’d curse me in Italian. One day my friend Vinnie came over to play cowboys and she was all pissed because we were having fun, so we went to the back end of the railroad flat, got naked, and ran around the house, taunting her. She couldn’t do a thing about it because she was in her wheelchair. Finally my father came home and she mumbled something to him. He came over to us. “What! You got naked in front of your grandmother?”
“Why would I do that, Dad?” I said, all innocent. “I came home to drop off my books. We had lunch and we left. She’s seeing things.” She was getting a bit senile, so he bought it and she was furious. I got even for all those years she abused me as a baby.
Growing up, I never really knew my mother’s dad, my grandfather George, whom I was also named after. He was a real gigolo who left my grandmother when my mother and her brother were really young. Her brother, my uncle George, never forgave his father for deserting them. The old man rarely showed up in New York, but he used to send me things from all over the world: cowboy boots, trinkets. He was globe-trotting because he kept getting married to different rich women. After a few years he’d divorce the first one and then marry another one. He was a real smart guy. He’d read the dictionary for fun. When he moved to San Francisco in his seventies, he wound up smoking weed with all the professors in Berkeley and they gave him an honorary degree to put on his wall.
When I was living in Canarsie with my first wife, he came to visit us with this really rich woman from Amarillo. She was an art collector. She had bought him a saloon. Then he dumped her and he got another rich one to buy him a restaurant in Albany. When he was staying with us, he’d get up in the morning, put on a white shirt and a tie, and place a rose on my wife’s side of the table. “Good morning, darling. How are you feeling today?” He knew the magic words.
I visited him years later in San Francisco when he was much older and he had met a nice woman and they were living in an RV. We took a shower together in the trailer park facility and when he turned around, the guy was hung like a horse. He didn’t have a dick, he had a baby’s arm! My grandfather saw the surprise on my face and he said, “This is why I do so well in life. I’m a cocksman.” I had never heard that word before. “That’s a man who knows how to use his dick. I haven’t worked a day in my life, because once a woman gets some of this thing, it’s all over,” he explained.
My grandmother Clara never seemed to get over his desertion. She was from a large Irish family of major drinkers. Her family would come over to my grandma’s joint, get her drunk as a skunk, and then leave. By the time my granddad got home from work, they were gone and my grandma was passed out cold. Her drinking got so bad that my mom and her brother started missing school, and when my mother was ten, the state took them away and put them in a home. My mother hated it there. She never really got into it with me, but certain things would set her off. For the rest of her life, if she so much as smelled marmalade, she’d go off. “Don’t ever bring that shit around. They served me that every day of my life when I was a little girl.” My mother never forgave her mother’s sisters and brothers for not stepping up and helping them out before the state took her and her brother away. They had a very hard life, and when they were finally reunited with their mother, Clara had stopped drinking heavily, and they tried to resume a normal family life.
So this was the crazy world that Peter George John Criscuola was thrust into. I just made it crazier. I was a sickly child, and I put my mother through living hell. I caught everything—measles, mumps, whooping cough, a swollen testicle, chicken pox, ear infections, the works. I even caught ringworm from my grandma’s cat. When I started school, I was so anemic I’d go every week for a transfusion of fresh blood and vitamins. I was a mess. I must have weighed all of sixty pounds, a skinny kid with a big head and big baggy eyes and big ears. Thankfully, the priest at my school paid for the doctor visits. We couldn’t afford them.
When I wasn’t getting sick, I was getting hurt. When I was seven, my mom went to visit a friend. They were having coffee and somehow I wandered away from her and went into the backyard. There was a little dog out there. The dog was eating, and I poked my face into what was going on and the dog figured I was going to take its food so it ripped at my mouth and tore my top lip half off. My mother heard the screaming and she saw I was bleeding profusely and rushed me to the hospital. My parents didn’t have money or insurance, so it was off to the emergency room, my second home in my younger years.
I must have had an angel looking over me because there was a major plastic surgeon from Germany who was there to give a seminar. He saw me in the hallway bleeding to death and he immediately said, “Bring this kid in.” They didn’t even put me out. They just strapped my legs and my hands down and went to work on my face. It felt like a million bees stinging me in the face. I was hallucinating, the pain was so intense.
I was bandaged for months, eating through a straw. My father and my grandmother both blamed my mother for me getting fucked up. They thought I would be disfigured for life. Finally it was time to take the bandages off. We went back to the hospital, the doctors and nurses surrounded me, and my mother was biting her nails as she always did. They removed the last bandage and I remember everybody staring at me—either in amazement that I was so ugly or because the lip looked so good, I didn’t know. My mom started crying, and I looked in the mirror and could kind of notice the gash in my lip, but it didn’t look horrendous, and over time it went away completely. But from that day on, I wouldn’t go into a house if there was a dog.
My mother kept me close to her after that. I was always in the bed with her; she was always holding my hand. We were inseparable. My dad was another story. He was either working or trying to find work, or he’d be upstairs on the roof with his pigeons. He seemed not to want to get involved in other people’s lives. He was into his own world and he was very childlike, a trait I inherited from him. As tough an Italian street kid as he was, I think he was scared most of the time. He had no education. He had dropped out of school after the third grade so he was illiterate. He worked a succession of odd jobs when he did work. And eventually he had five kids to raise, so he had an enormous amount of pressure on him. He was just a very conservative, uptight guy. He would not allow bad language in the house at all. Except for my mother, who cursed like a sailor.
At times I think my father should never have been married or had kids. He never seemed to be happy. I think he wanted more for himself in this world and it never worked out, so he just retreated into his own little world. But despite his remoteness, he had a heart of gold. If you came over to the house and admired something, he’d say, “Take it, it’s yours.”
His job situation was never stable. He worked in a factory for a while making car parts. He fixed cars at a garage. But the best job he ever had was buffing the floors at the UN building. He got paid a lot of money under the table, working the night shift, and he loved it. My mom was afraid to be home alone, so I’d get in bed with her and she would keep me up all night watching the late show and then the late, late show and even the late, late, late show. I had huge black circles under my eyes from not sleeping. Christmastime, my dad would take me to see the big Christmas display at the UN and I’d think, “Wow, my dad’s the shit. He works at the UN.” Little did I know he was a floor buffer.
Among the few times my dad and I would bond would be over his pigeons. I remember many summer days when the sun was going down, I’d go and sit with him up on the roof and we’d share an apple and he’d point out the different types of birds and tell me about the races he would enter.
My dad didn’t dig sports; he liked staying home. But my mother’s brother, my uncle George, was always available for me. He was an ex-marine who was childless then because my aunt Rosie had had two miscarriages, so my Unc, as I called him, became my surrogate father. I really loved him. We’d go fishing or go to ball games or to Sunnyside Gardens to see the wrestlers. Sometimes on a Sunday he’d take me crabbing and we’d bring back all these blue claws. My mom would cook up a big batch and I’d grab a Pepsi and sit outside for hours, eating crabs and daydreaming. Life seemed so easy then.
For such a loner, my father depended on my mother for everything. My mother paid the bills, did the shopping, fixed things around the house. When they were first married they went to a movie occasionally, or maybe a Chinese restaurant, and my grandmother would babysit me. But that didn’t last. Once he had four more kids his leisure time was shot, and it seemed that once he came back from work to that apartment, he never left. His joy for life seemed to be fading, and he didn’t give a fuck about going anywhere.
I don’t want to make it sound like there was no love between them, though. I know they loved each other deeply, but they just didn’t know how to show it. My father wasn’t a kissy-huggy guy. Even my mom didn’t like to be touched. I was the opposite of them. I was very emotional, and I’d hug everyone I got near. But when I grabbed my mother and went to give her a big kiss, she’d kind of shy away and say, “Come on, Georgie.” I never did get those hugs and kisses that I wanted from my mom and dad. They protected me and did all they could, but they just weren’t emotionally available. They both had hard lives, but they loved me to death. Even though I was the oldest child, they called me “the baby,” or sometimes “Bubba.”
I’d have to say that I grew up poor, but it didn’t seem like that at the time. We lived in a tenement building, six families per house. We had a four-room railroad flat. There was a belly stove in the parlor and a coal stove in the kitchen. I remember my dad and I would go scrounging for wood in the middle of the winter, going down into people’s basements and breaking their bins up and stealing the wood so we could bring it home and throw it into the fire to keep warm. If you wanted to take a bath, the tub was in the kitchen, so you’d heat a pot of water and throw it into the tub and jump in.
We didn’t really go hungry, but we didn’t eat like kings either. On the way to school, I’d have a spartan breakfast. My mother would make a cup of coffee for me and then she’d put a fork into a slice of white bread, put it over the fire on the gas stove—when we finally got gas—and she’d toast it and butter it and that was breakfast.
When I was young, we had to share a bathroom with the family next door. They were an Irish family and they were clean but they were as poor as we were. Sometimes you’d go into the bathroom and there was no toilet paper, just a newspaper cut into slices. Trust me, wiping your ass with the funnies is a painful situation. The only upside was that the family next door had a couple of hot teenage girls. I used to go out on the fire escape and look in through the bathroom window and watch them pee. Growing up with these privations was just the way life was to us. If you were poor, so were the people upstairs, and the people downstairs were even poorer. So everybody helped everyone else out. It was always “Have some milk” or “Can I borrow a potato?” or “Take some butter.” There was a potpourri of nationalities in Williamsburg, a true melting pot of Irish and Italians and Polish and Jewish, and everyone got along fine.
The only time I got a taste of how other people lived was when I would visit some of my relatives who were better off and lived in nicer neighborhoods. My great-aunt May, my grandmother’s sister, married a really nice guy named John who made orthopedic shoes and was worth a lot. She would have my grandmother come out and clean her house, and my Nanny would bring me along sometimes. They had one boy, Johnny, who was in college, so I’d get to stay in his room. It was the typical Leave It to Beaver room: the perfect desk, college banners over his bed, model airplanes hanging from the ceiling. They had a basement with a bar and a television and I’d look at my grandmother and say, “Someday, if I ever get rich, Nanny, I’m going to have all this, too.” Meanwhile, I was wearing hand-me-downs that didn’t fit. Before we left, May would give my grandmother a box of clothes and some leftover food and a couple of bucks. She was my godmother, but she was cheap. But then John would come home and he’d slip my grandmother a fifty-dollar bill.
All in all, Brooklyn was a phenomenal place to grow up in the fifties. At first all we had for entertainment was a radio. Besides music, I’d listen to The Lone Ranger and Amos ’n’ Andy and The Arthur Godfrey Show. When I was five years old, we got a TV. The first show I ever saw was The Howdy Doody Show, and I’d sing along to the theme “It’s Howdy Doody Time.” All those shows were great—The Liberace Show, Queen for a Day, I Love Lucy, Flash Gordon. But my favorite was the cartoons.
Cowboy shows were huge in the fifties. I always had my cowboy hat, two six-shooters, and cowboy boots. Then I got my Davy Crockett coonskin cap and the long flintlock plastic Davy Crockett rifle. Maybe that’s how I got into guns. I could morph into all these characters I’d watch on TV and my imagination would just soar. Even at that age, I started performing. I’d watch that dance routine from Yankee Doodle Dandy, and when my mother had people over I’d perform it for them in the kitchen. I slicked my hair into a pompadour and came out with a broom and did Elvis doing “Blue Suede Shoes.” I wanted to be the center of attention at all times.
I was an only child until age seven, and I just built my own little world. I used to go through the stuff under my mother’s sink and be like a mad scientist brewing up some chemicals. I made big tents out of tables with blankets and had wars in them. I could play with my soldiers for twenty hours, acting out make-believe battles. I was a dramatic kid.
On hot summer nights, everybody would sit out on the stoops and bring out food and stuff to drink. We’d turn on the fire hydrants—we called them Johnny pumps—and cool off. But when we put them up full blast, we’d soak the houses and get the adults wet and they’d scream at us and the cops would come with a wrench and turn them off. If it was hot all night, we’d even sleep out on the fire escapes under the stars.
We didn’t have baseball fields like they had in the suburbs, so we played stickball in the street. If you hit the ball a distance of three sewers, it was a home run. It was tough catching a fly ball with the cars parked on the street and the bottles and the garbage cans in your way. All the old Italian guys would sit on the side and make bets on the games.
When I was a teenager, my mother talked me into joining the YMCA so I would stay out of trouble. I loved swimming, maybe because I had big, fat, flabby feet and I got good at it. I won a trophy for the freestyle, and they had a big chicken dinner at the Y and my grandmother and my mother came. I was so proud to go up and get my little trophy. It was the only thing that I had ever won in my life. I got into boxing at the Y and I fought Golden Gloves for two years. But the neighborhood began to change, and even the Y started to get a little dangerous: People didn’t want to go because you’d get your ass kicked.
Christmas was really special at the Criscuola home. Even though we weren’t that rich, we celebrated it to the nines. Christmas Eve, all of our relatives would go to church and then get real smashed and come home and we’d open up maybe a little teeny thing. Christmas morning, I’d get up and open my presents and play with them for months on end.
But the highlight of my youth had to be the trips we’d take to Coney Island. It was just the greatest place in the world. We would get up early Saturday morning, my grandmother would pack a suitcase full of sandwiches, and we’d hop on the train, which was still safe then. We spent the whole day swimming and running and eating. The beach was packed with what seemed like a million people jammed in like sardines as far as you could see.
Come sunset, my uncle George would drive out and meet us. Then we’d each get three rides and a hot dog and a drink at Nathan’s. That hot dog tasted like no other hot dog in the world. Once a year Pfizer, the big chemical company, would have Steeplechase Day; my uncle Billy worked there, so he’d get us passes and we’d go to Steeplechase Park. They had the best rides, especially the Steeplechase, which was a ride with mechanical horses that raced around a track that encircled the building. After you rode the horses you had to exit the ride a certain way, and they’d have these clowns who would shock the guys with a shocker in their rear ends. And the women would walk over a vent and a blast of air would blow their dresses up.
But the best thing was to go under the boardwalk and look up the chicks’ dresses as they walked by. Sometimes you’d get lucky and she wouldn’t be wearing any underwear and we’d be like, “Holy mackerel, what was that?” We were still boys: We weren’t familiar with a girl’s sexual equipment. I could have lived at Coney. It blew Disneyland away. People came from all over the world, no one looking for trouble, everybody wanting to have a good time. No hate, no killing, no robbery, no rape. Just good vibes.
I had that experience all to myself until I was seven. That’s when my sister Nancy came along, followed by my brother, Joey, and my sisters Joanne and Donna Donna. It was weird being a seven-year-old boy towering over a crib that contained this little girl. I immediately freaked out at my sister Nancy because she was a girl and everybody gave her a lot of attention. I was really jealous. That’s probably why I took up the drums. I needed affection and I needed attention.
My grandmother would say to my mother, “Let Georgie come over to my house for the weekend. You got two infants there and it’ll give you a break.” Georgie was only too happy to go! I didn’t want to hear the kids screaming and crying all night. That was a blessing for me. All that space was good for my brain. My grandmother lived downstairs in the same building, so I loved staying there. She’d buy me potato chips and she had a little TV set. I had my own room and my own bed. After a while, I just wound up staying at my grandmother’s place and my mother didn’t care, because she still saw me every day. It was almost like living two lives, sleeping at my grandmother’s house but living with my mom and dad.
As they grew older, my sisters and brother hated me for it. They would say, “Spoiled little bastard. You got your own room, you come over here, you fucking fill your face, and you leave.” But it wasn’t always that simple. I helped my grandma out, too. I would undress her and put her to sleep. At that age, I would sleep next to her. For a ten-year-old boy, undressing an elderly woman and putting her to bed was not easy. But I loved her to death and she loved me. She was the best thing in my life.
My grandmother taught me how to sew, how to hem pants, how to iron clothes, how to do laundry. I resisted at first, but she would say, “Someday you may be all on your own in the world and no one will want you. Trust me, these are important things to know.” I was so childlike, I think that she knew that I was going to have a tough time in the world.
When I was around fifteen, my grandmother moved to an apartment on the second floor of a nicer building. She had been working two jobs and got a raise, and these apartments were more spacious. Her new place was a five-minute walk from my mother’s, and I was happy to be even farther away from my brothers and sisters. My Nanny was part German, so of course she kept this new place spotless. And she was tough. Once she bought me a nice coat, and one day I didn’t hang it up. When I got back from school, all my clothes were in the street. My shoes, my socks, my underwear, and my new coat—she just threw them all out the window. People were laughing, watching me gather them up. And she stuck her head out the window and yelled down, “You get the message? You know how hard I worked to get you that coat? And you just throw it on the floor? Maybe now you’ll hang it up.” For the rest of my life, everything was hung, neatly folded, and put away in drawers. I was a tough little bastard, always getting in trouble, but my grandmother was tougher. My mom I could bamboozle, my dad was easy, but my grandmother, good fucking luck. She’d break my head with a bat.
Talk about tough love. When I was a teenager, I got drunk for the first time on Thunderbird wine. I got so high and dizzy that I stumbled home and banged on her door. She opened it and I just fell down on the floor, threw up, and passed out. When I came to, she was standing over me. “You want to drink? You think it’s all fun and games? Well, this is the other side of it.” To this day, the word Thunderbird makes my stomach turn.
When it came to school, it wasn’t tough love I was getting: It was pure sadism, courtesy of the nuns at my Catholic school. I went to Transfiguration, about twelve blocks from my mother’s house. I started there in kindergarten and I remember how scary it was the first day. I was petrified to look up and see these old sisters of Saint Joseph with the big black-and-white habits and the huge black crosses around their necks and the rosaries hanging around their waists. In the first grade, I actually had the same teacher that my mother had when she went there. This nun was ancient. She even smelled like she was dying. We used to throw chalk up at her, shoot spitballs at her, and she couldn’t even hit you because she was so feeble. She’d try to hit your knuckles with a ruler and whap, she’d miss and hit the desk. But I did respect her even though we tortured her.
My closest friends at school were the biggest troublemakers: Peter Cudereski, George Davidson, Tommy Gannon, Louie Demando, and Jimmy Greer. We were always getting into mischief and fights. So of course we became altar boys. It seemed like a cool gig to me. You got to mimic the priests and wear the same clothes they wore. They’d show you a little more leniency, give you a little more freedom, because we were a little more godly, being that close to the priest.
Well, the experiment lasted about two years. Part of the responsibilities of an altar boy was to do the funerals, which meant you had to get there at six in the morning because the funeral started at seven. It was depressing as hell for a twelve-year-old boy. People were all in black, crying; there was a big coffin out there. One morning, my buddy Jimmy and I said, “Fuck it,” and we went back to where the priest kept the wine and got drunk.
When the priest came in to get it, the wine was half gone and he looked at the two of us and we were slurring our words.
“I don’t believe you two!” he screamed. “Get your robes off??! Don’t ever come into my church again. I’m going to call your moms the minute I’m done with this Mass.” We knew we were fucked. And sure enough, when we went back to school, the nun marched us out to the playground and made us stand there for two hours under the most intense summertime sun. It was like Stalag 17. You don’t send a kid out into the sun where he could take a sunstroke and die. Where did they get these fucking ideas?
So I hated school. To be honest, I wasn’t a smart kid. I believe I might have been dyslexic. In the seventh grade I was left back one year. I didn’t seem to grasp the stuff they were teaching. But I had other things on my mind. I would rather stay home with my mother and watch TV and go into my never-never land. I didn’t want to deal with that ABC bullshit. Except for history. I always got an A+ in that.
I know I was deterred from wanting to learn by my fear of the nuns. It was definitely the old fire-and-brimstone shit in my Catholic school. You jerk off, you go blind. You must never touch yourself. They even tried to destroy my love of music. I was different: I had art and music in my blood. I’d walk home on my lunch break no matter what the weather was and play drums on my mom’s pots and pans, listening to the radio. I even joined the drum corps at school but, being me, I was showing off to the guys when the drum teacher was standing there, and he threw me out.
Then they banned Elvis Presley. I remember my nun getting up there, going, “This Sunday, Elvis Presley is going to be on The Ed Sullivan Show. No one in this classroom can watch it.” That was a dagger to my heart. I imitated Elvis. I’d have my hair long like Elvis and the girls would dig it, but the nuns flipped out. They put a pink ribbon in my hair and made me go to the girls’ classrooms and stand in front of their class to show them what a boy who needed a haircut looked like. I wanted to die. Then they made me cut my hair. God, it was traumatic.
Plus I couldn’t stand the hypocrisy. We’d go to see The Ten Commandments, and the nuns were all fixated on Charlton Heston on the screen. “Who are they kidding?” I whispered to my buddy Louie. “They got this guy half naked, sweating, everything hanging out. I think the nuns love it.”
Some of the older nuns were very mean to me. Maybe because I was different, I was the kid who cut up in the room and made a fool of myself to get attention. I wasn’t a great-looking kid. I was very skinny and sickly. I’m sure part of the reason I was getting sick so much was to escape the torture of these nuns: “I don’t feel good.” “My stomach hurts.” It was a litany of excuses I’d give my mom so I wouldn’t have to go to school.
Who could blame me? Let’s say I had to go pee. I’d raise my hand: “Sister, sister, I gotta go to the bathroom.”
“What’s your problem, Master Criscuola?”
“I have to go, sister.”
“Well, I think you could wait an hour, right, Master Criscuola?”
What! I’m ten years old. I gotta go now.
“Sit down, Master Criscuola.”
So I peed my pants. I had to go through the whole day with wet, pissed-up pants, and it was freezing out. I remember walking home and my pants got stiff, and my mom screamed at me.
Another time—oh, God—I shit my pants.
“What’s the problem, Master?”
“I gotta go number two.”
Well, you can’t wait: You’re a kid. So I shit my pants. And it stunk. And I’m sitting in it. Then I walked down the steps at the end of the day and the shit was falling down my leg and everybody was laughing at me. It was one of the worst days of my life. I came home and said, “Ma, the nun is torturing me. She wouldn’t let me go to the bathroom and I made in my pants and I had to sit in it all day.”
Where did they come up with these tortures? One time a nun threw me into a pitch-black cloakroom for hours. Well, you’re thirteen, and your imagination starts running, and the coats turn into monsters and the arms of the coats start moving. I was screaming bloody murder, but the nun wouldn’t let me out. I had to sleep with the light on in my bedroom after that, I was so traumatized.
Their major punishment was cracking your knuckles with a ruler till they bled. I’d be talking or I didn’t have my homework or whatever, so she’d march me up to the front of the room in front of the whole class. I’d put my hand out and she’d whack my knuckles four or five times. It hurt big-time. But if you moved, you’d get ten more smacks.
One time I made the mistake of bringing my toy soldiers to school. I was playing with them in the back of the class. The nun came up, took the toys, and then dragged me over to the metal wastepaper basket.
“Now you sit in it,” she said.
“In the basket?”
My legs had rim marks around them when I got out. I couldn’t walk: I was hunched over for hours. These were cruel and unusual punishments. Today, if you slap your own kid they put you in jail. But those nuns got away with all that shit. So after nine years of torture, I went to my mom.
“Ma, this ain’t right. I got one more year to graduate. Let me go to public school, please!”
Thank the Lord, she agreed and I went to P.S. 122.
In retrospect, that might not have been the smartest move. Sure, I got away from those sadistic nuns, but now I was facing big black guys, huge Hispanic guys, tough Italian guys who were left back year after year. We were fifteen and they were nineteen! They always sat at the back of the room and called you out so they could kick your ass and get your lunch money. I wouldn’t take shit from nobody. I would turn around and say, “What’s your problem?”
“What’s my problem, motherfucker? You’ll see after school.”
I was fucked. I’d try to go out the back way; they’d be waiting there. I’d try another way, but they’d have that covered, too. Then I’d get my beating. One guy would grab me in a headlock, another guy would punch me in the ribs a few times, punch me in the stomach, throw me to the ground, and then they’d both stomp on my head. I’d go home with a ripped shirt and black eyes and my mother would say, “What the hell happened to you?”
“I got beat up again.”
My dad had his own advice.
“If he’s bigger than you, hit him in the back of the head when he doesn’t see it coming. If he doesn’t go down, hit him in the head with a brick. I don’t care what you got to do, there is no such thing as fair fighting. Fight to win.”
My uncle George had the same attitude. “Get a bat. Wait until after school, come behind him, and break his knees with a bat.” I got really good with a bat. In fact, I still carry a bat in my car to this day.
But what they didn’t factor in was that these weren’t one-on-one fights. I was going up against organized gangs. There were no gangs in Catholic school. In public school there were fourteen gangs and I was getting beat up almost every day, so I had to get into a gang for self-preservation. If you weren’t in a gang, you were a pigeon.
I got in the Young Lords, along with my best friend, Jerry Nolan. Eventually, as you got older, you’d graduate to the Phantom Lords. They were one of the top gangs. The Phantom Lords were always in the news for killing other gang members, racketeering, robbery. They were really gangstery guys. That’s what you’d aspire to. Isn’t that great?
Gangs were all about turf. The Young Lords and the Phantom Lords were predominately Puerto Rican, but where we lived the kids were mainly Irish and Italian. If other gangs would try to come into our neighborhood, the word would get out to the Puerto Ricans and then they would come down and whoever had come, they’d get scared shitless and leave. You didn’t want to fuck with the Lords. We were really like wannabes. They let us fight next to them, but we weren’t as badass as these Puerto Rican guys.
One of the things we used to do was pick on the Hasidic Jewish who lived in the neighborhood. I was hanging out then with a bunch of asshole kids who were really prejudiced, so we’d chase the Hasids, knock their hats off, pull their curls, and kick their asses.
My aunt Rose, my uncle George’s wife, was Jewish. She was an absolutely gorgeous woman with the body of a movie star and long black hair. I’d go over to her house and eat matzo ball soup and gefilte fish, and I loved it. I’d even visit her mom’s house and eat herring with cream sauce. One day I was sitting there looking at her mom’s menorah and the Sabbath candleholders and it dawned on me that they were the same as the Hasidic kids: They were all Jewish. I loved Rosie and her mom, so why was I knocking these Hasidic kids’ hats off??? “What a piece of shit,” I thought. “What’s wrong with you? Are you a Nazi, running around beating up people who don’t deserve to be beaten up, just like you get beaten up after school?” I never messed with the Hasidic kids after that.
Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t an angel. I got into a lot of fights when I was running with the Lords. I used a stickball bat and I would get my shots in. I hit a guy once with an aerial from a car, wrapped it really good around the neck. Got hit with one, too. This black guy snapped an aerial on my head and the ball from the top of it stuck in my head. I had to go to the hospital to get it pulled out. I still have a hole there that hurts when I touch it. I’ve been in knife fights, been cut by razors, cut by a meat cleaver.
Sometimes the wounds were self-inflicted. One time I was being chased by a bunch of guys on the south side of Brooklyn. I didn’t know the neighborhood that well and it was dark. I ran down an alley between two buildings to escape them, and I ran right into a brick wall and knocked myself out. I woke up the next day with a big cut on my head.
Eventually I got a little reputation for being a tough guy and I worked my way up to war counselor. That was the guy in charge of the weapons that we’d use in our rumbles, whether it was bats or chains or switchblades. I started thinking that there might be some money in this shit, and I began to build zip guns and sell them for five bucks a pop. I used to hide the zip guns I made in a vent in my grandmother’s bathroom. I’d unscrew the four screws, put six or seven guns up there, and put the vent back on. Sure enough, my uncle George found them. I came home one day and he and my grandmother were sitting there with the guns on the table.
“This has got to stop,” he said.
“Okay, Unc. I won’t do it anymore, promise,” I lied.
Then my grandmother, who knew me well, said, “Bullshit!” and she took a broom and broke it over my head. I thought I would have to go to the hospital, my head hurt so much. They dumped the guns in the sewer and my gun-toting, gun-selling days were over. But I still had my knives.
Sometimes I’d take a girl to the movies. The best movies were at the RKO theater on the south side. But that wasn’t on our turf—it belonged to the Jesters, a tough all–Puerto Rican gang. If you went alone, just you and her, you didn’t know if you’d get home alive. A lot of times on the way out, I’d take a beating with a bat. One time me and a bunch of the guys from the gang took our girls to the RKO to see Tony Curtis and Kirk Douglas in The Vikings. We figured we could see the movie, slip out at the end, and we wouldn’t get snagged. It didn’t work out that way. Sure enough, every member of the Jesters was watching the movie that particular Sunday afternoon.
“We’re fucking outnumbered. We’re going to have to fight these guys, and we’re gonna get killed. I’m not up for this shit,” I moaned.
When it really got down to it, everybody got punky quick because we weren’t really bad guys. I could fight with best of them, but I’d rather not: I’d rather just look like a badass and not really be the badass, but sometimes you had to stand your ground.
We came out of the theater, and there were about thirty of them outside waiting. They had aerials from cars, chains, and a baseball bat with a nail through it. So immediately it was like, “Run!” and everybody just took off. They didn’t bother with the girls, but they ran right after us. I was running down the street and I tripped into a bunch of garbage cans and this Puerto Rican kid was right behind me and he grabbed a garbage can lid and started beating my head in with it. I was holding my hands up to protect my head and he was beating my hands and my knuckles started bleeding. There was blood all over my clothes. I popped my switchblade out, turned around, and boom, the blade went right up his armpit and out through his shoulder. He started screaming in Spanish and I just took off. I turned around and saw him pull it out, and there was blood squirting out of his shoulder. I couldn’t believe it. He was the first and only guy I’ve ever stabbed. But it was him or me.
I wasn’t raised in a violent family. The only two times my father beat me, I had it coming. I was basically a good Italian-German-Irish kid who didn’t want to get his ass beat every day in school. Now I was seventeen years old and after three years of this shit, what did I have to look forward to? Becoming a member of the Phantom Lords? Those were the guys you see in prison for life with tattoos all over their necks and teardrops tattooed on their faces. They were real killers. Stealing cars, robbing stores, assassinating people. But my best friend Jerry Nolan and I weren’t sociopaths. We certainly didn’t want to die. And by then, both of us had found something to beat on besides other people’s heads. We both had drum sets, and we both saw music as the antidote to these mean streets.
And as usual, my mother was right there, steering my moral compass. “Do you see Jimmy boy play drums?” she’d lecture me. “Does your friend Louie play drums? How about Peter Cudereski? No. The only person you know who plays drums is Jerry. Well, Jerry was born to play drums and so were you. You both got gifts from God. Don’t waste it. You’re going to break my heart if you stay with this gang stuff, because you’ll wind up in jail or dead.”
I don’t know if she really believed that. I was working while I was in school, and whenever I got paid, I’d bring her my full paycheck; she’d take a few bucks out and give me the rest. That’s how it was in Brooklyn. She’s feeding you, she’s raising you, you owed it to her. It was all about respect.
“God gave you a gift, your music,” she’d continue. “I want to see you have a great life, hit the top. I want to see my son have everything a boy should have and more.”
Who could argue with that?