My friends were dependable, and if and when I needed them they were there, and that was reciprocated. It could be anything from a small loan to standing by my side to ensure a fair one stayed fair. I knew I always had a place to crash if I needed to get away from my house. My cousin Kenny was a different sort of reliable. Maybe I’m not using the right word. While my cousin might not have always been within arm’s reach if he was close enough to grab for any reason he would help the best he could. The thing about Kenny, as well as my friends, is that they genuinely cared. We cared about one another and looked out for each other’s well being. In a world where everyone is out for themselves our bond was becoming more and more uncommon. I knew I could always count on Ozzy and Martin and Viggo, and maybe some of my other friends but I wouldn’t ask anyone else for anything. Maybe this would change, maybe it wouldn’t.
These were lifelong friends, blood brothers, who I would wager everything for. If you told me any different I wouldn’t believe you. I would never have believed that Ozzy was destructible. It pangs me to be proven wrong. Things could change as time marched on, I guess it had changed and everything had become different. Aren’t we supposed to change? Isn’t that growth? We were all works in progress. Ozzy was off into some great cosmic unknown and we were all left behind, lost and full of despair. A devastating and constant reminder of our own brittle mortality.
It should have been me.
My cousin was aces, with a predilection for doing dirt. Kenny was a good person to have on your side, you wouldn’t want to cross him. As embarrassing as it was to admit, When I was younger I felt safer in his presence. I only wished he had been around more in my younger days to protect us, but then again those were the lessons we needed to learn. An ass kicking tells you a lot about yourself. When we were young and trying to desperately figure out what kind of people we wanted to be, we were in reality just a bunch of naive little boys trying to fit in somewhere. We were extremely impressionable and more sensitive than we wanted to be. We were deeply immersed in the subculture of graffiti and the crew mentality like most park kids in that time. It didn’t take long for us to catch beef with a few different crews from other parks within walking distance. Beef was a part of that world. An underworld that meant everything to us.
The clean train movement had been implemented for a number of years already, as well as the strict enforcement of Giuliani’s quality of life crimes. Although we missed bombing the train lines, we hit some freights here and there, but there was enough square footage, and stretches of highway and storefront roll down gates to rag your enemies. Queens, like the other four boroughs, were still war zones for young men to engage in battle. We crossed out each other on walls and fought each other in the street. It was not as nearly as bad as it was in the 80s and early 90s but for those still carrying on the tradition, it was live. Live by the park, get beat by the park.
This one featherweight crew in particular got no props from us. The leader was an overweight man named Todd Gordon, the emphasis on man, everyone addressed him by his last name only. Gordon was a quadruple senior before giving up on academia altogether, though he never abandoned loitering in the schoolyard. He was much older than us when the beef started, our ages ranged from mostly fifteen to seventeen. When I was fifteen I looked ten. When I was seventeen, I looked about fourteen. Puberty took its sweet time with me. Their crew were all different ages, but most of those cunts were considerably older than us.
Gordon got his reputation for beating up kids smaller than himself. It baffled me that people sweated him, that people thought he was cool. After he got the lap-band surgery he thought he was even cooler than before. Gordon’s special move was a sucker punch. He was known for being incredibly brave when on the right side of the numbers. He used to fuck a girl that lived blocks away from us. To add insult to injury, Gordon and his leeches had been responsible for jumping Viggo one night in the park, and after that he would proudly walk past the Cravens house. The preposterous walk of his mocked us as we watched boiling with hatred, with his oddly choreographed and unnatural gangster lean. He awkwardly limped around the town with his head high and his pants sagging, ice grilling the boys he bullied, essentially little kids.
Gordon was rolling on us when guys his age were getting mentally prepared for upcoming prostate exams. We could surmise he would love it. When they first started to roll on us most of us barely had permits. We would walk or take buses to go and fight our rivals, but they would come to our park, and were often packed with bodies upon bodies. With the injuries Viggo sustained looming in our minds, we mostly took off into the night with our heads hanging low, other times we took our medicine. Either result felt terrible.
I felt overwhelming shame anytime I might’ve pussied out when I was a kid, regardless of the fact that we were usually outnumbered, not to justify any cowardice but I’m sure even the hardest rock had an embarrassing moment or two as a juvenile that they would rather not broach or reflect on. These were the moments in our collective youth that stood out in our minds, that troubled us deeply enough to never want to feel that way again. It hand fed the hatred we all already felt, for specific individuals and probably for the world as a whole. We were heartbroken with bruises on our souls. I suppose a little self loathing never hurt. It is the unwanted thoughts that pop into your head randomly on sleepless nights when you can’t even picture what Gordon’s face looks like, like he never existed at all, when you question if the events occurred at all. Did it all really happen the way I remembered? We all have dreadful life moments that we wished never happened at all. Adolescence is full to capacity with indignities.
When you catch a beating you’re not thinking about how it’s building character. You’re consumed with your anger, and the humiliation that comes with taking a loss, you’re thinking about round two or the next encounter. You wanted to redeem yourself. Our rivals helped us become little monsters with short fuses. We became unleashed ravenous, rabid dogs. We were likely to ruin your evening if provoked.
We adapted to conflict. You were prepared to walk out of school to twenty kids or so waiting for you. You were prepared to have car loads of kids roll on you along your walk home. You were often vulnerable if you had to leave the neighborhood. Taking a punch or getting snuffed or worse at the bus stop when you’re alone and surrounded is wack but was very probable. Prank phone calls were a nuisance but better than having your windows broken. The car chases were exhilarating. We never threw away our bottles, instead we collected them and lined them up on the checker tables in case of a roll up. One on’s and brawls were a regular occurrence but these things always have the potential to escalate. Sometimes you dodged a Louisville Slugger or an Orange utility knife, and sometimes you didn’t. No one goes out wanting to get stabbed. You didn’t look forward to getting stitches or staples but most of us did. Some scary hours, indeed, but it hardened us.
Some of our cohorts didn’t adapt, they couldn’t handle it, they didn’t want the aggravation or the worry. Some terminated their association and distanced themselves as far from us as possible and others bowed out amicably. Some kids were not built for it.
I understood not everyone was into it. If you didn’t toughen up how many beatings could you get, how many kicks to the face, how many times could you get jumped or chased before you tapped out. Usually not many. For those that stayed true, we lost our fear, we desensitized. Winning and losing, who gave a fuck, each was attached with its own emotions, of course, what it really came down to was just having the nerve, it was about having the balls to stand your ground and fight, that was everything. The real ones knew that. Most people were all talk and didn’t really want to throw hands or risk taking a loss in front of their friends, we didn’t want to be like most people. For me it was all about my friends. It wasn’t about being tough. You don’t feel very tough getting chased and beat up for whole summers. It was about loyalty. These were the only people I felt comfortable around. I was not going to turn my back on them. There were lots of wild things that happened during this phase of metamorphosis.
Dumb looking hooked up Hondas, sputtering annoying gaseous sounds, circled the park like vultures the night they got Viggo. They waited until more and more people left the park, for the numbers to dwindle and then preyed on the unfortunate few who stayed behind. Viggo and four other friends of ours hung out at the corner where the old pay phone stood, underneath the flickering streetlight. These particular foes wouldn’t get out of the cars if we were evenly matched or if we outnumbered them, regardless of our young age and small stature. I was months from hitting my growth spurt then, but still I was walking around with a baseball bat to protect myself. I think we thought we were more grown than we were. I guess in a weird way it was almost a compliment that they couldn’t square up. Losing to a group of little kids would be too much to bear. But they would say we were the pussies. Gordon had some kids fooled but I saw through the bullshit.
It wasn’t the first time any of us had been hurt before, just that it might have been the worst one to date. I had just left the park to go to my depressing home. I supposed I was lucky they didn’t catch me by myself along the way. Normally I’d never consider myself lucky. The witching hours on that night were not auspicious for Viggo. There were other incidents that were timely for me, having just missed it. I don’t know why that was. I would hear about things the next day, how this crew or that crew rolled the park or at school but I wasn’t there. I always walked everywhere, but I was cautious about switching up my routes. I knew of one case of mistaken identity where kids jumped some poor kid they thought was me. Wrong place at the wrong time. That shit happened a lot in those days. If I was a betting man I’d say city parks would be desolate by 2010, abandoned like old steel towns.
It takes a tough man to use a weapon on a sixteen year old but that was how it went.
My friends were dead to rights. They displayed bravery in the face of certain defeat. No one ever gets any recognition or credit for that. No one ran or tried to talk their way out of it instead they were left covered in their own dark, sticky plasma. Viggo was hit with a piece of 2×4 wood, a framing stud, that opened up the top of his head like a piece of fruit. The others were beaten with wrenches and pipes, and then repeatedly kicked while already down to near unconsciousness. The thing was this was not abnormal, it was not strange, it was quite the opposite. It could happen anytime to any one of us and we were responsible for it as well. Split heads and broken noses were routine. We were not innocent by any means, but this was excessive, unnecessary. Hands and feet alone could have sent the message. We grew up in a violent era. People fought all the time. Sometimes you just had to, it was unavoidable. We lived in the last days of the age of the roll up. There were nights you could feel it in the air like humidity. Which crew was coming? Which neighborhood? The older kids were unruly but not as wild as their predecessors. We got down but our younger proteges weren’t as unbridled as us. The culture was fading.
I supposed the aggressors, or victors always believe it’s something that’s justified, that they are teaching a lesson to uneducated, to unworthy opponents, that it is warranted but that is not always so. It’s rarely about vindication or lessons with cowards like Gordon and his associates. They needed a wee taste of a blunt object, or to be used as sheaths. While we were adversaries it still wasn’t that big of a deal, up until that night there was no need for some unmerciful violence, but beef is beef, with that being said there was no turning the cheek, there was no shaking of hands, no quarter, no forgiveness. I wished them all ill will. It’s funny for all the shit those kids talked about us, Viggo never identified any of them to the police who arrived on scene. No one told the cops anything. No snitches on our end. Although time would show more and more of them getting labeled rats throughout the neighborhood. I guess in the long run the truth finds its way out of the bullshit but when you finally grow no one gives a fuck anymore anyway.
No one talked to the police, but I told Kenny the moment he got back into town.
Gordon had walked by the Cravens in the direction of the deli as he often did. He was in his clunky puffy jacket with his pants sagging below his ass, applying his fake ghetto lean. He was a spectacle, an exaggerated front for the meek who idolized him, walking tough to the store to get milk and tampons.
The night was dirty and sweet. Darkness came on early for all the farmers and pagans of the world with something to reap. We harvested vengeance. Our reprisal was close. Gordon walked back from the store. I remembered thinking then that there are people of this world that don’t deserve to breathe, plain and simple, and Gordon was one of them. I sat in a strange car with Kenny and two strange men. Two rugged looking men with brogues that Kenny knew from Dublin, they worked in Hell’s Kitchen and resided in Sunnyside. The fellas in the front of the car were rather large men, they were cordial but I never got their names. That was for the best. Plausible deniability. Criminals or soldiers, either way I was happy to have them on our side. We parked across the street from Ozzy’s house, on the corner under a streetlight that we broke with rocks a week earlier. Gordon hobbled past the car, refusing to make eye contact with any of us, keeping his gaze locked straight away, the cunt.
I was the only one in the car whose face was obscured, I had a spray sock on. I took it from my father, it was a pull over mask to protect you from paint overspray and fumes. My associates didn’t care to conceal their identities but Kenny insisted that I do so I couldn’t be fingered if Gordon went to the police. Kenny wasn’t worried about retaliation or much of anything, Gordon would know it was Kenny and know that he was my relative. Word gets around. Kenny initially didn’t want me to partake at all, he rather I just watched from afar but I said let’s see how it plays out. I didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t want to say that I would do something and then when the time came what if I lost my nerve, what if I actually felt bad for Gordon. It’s easier to talk but I didn’t want to be a talker, no jive.
The car smelled like beer, and I fiddled with a box cutter in my jacket pocket. My feet toyed with my old little league Rawlings baseball bat, birch wood, that rested between my legs in the backseat of the car. After what happened to Viggo and the boys I wanted this retribution so badly. It happened in a flash, in a burst of wrath. The man sitting shotgun on Kenny’s signal, exited the vehicle and took out Gordon’s knee with no hesitation. Gordon was hit with a pipe that appeared to be altered, I’ve never seen this thing for sale at Home Depot.
“Chill, chill. Come on.” Gordon said, in between wails, rocking back and forth on the sidewalk, clutching his knee. He screamed when his knee turned to mush and dropped instantly.
“What’s the craic, Feta?” Kenny addressed Gordon by his tag name, but he didn’t really write, he had no style but it was a fitting moniker for such a cheesy motherfucker. “Me ears are ringing with your name, pal.” The driver of the car pinned Gordon down by his shoulders as the passenger smashed his other knee with the pipe. Kenny kicked his grocery bag across the street, busting the gallon, splashing milk and skittering tampons on the asphalt. “Ok. Ok. May we have your undivided attention? Time is a factor so I’ll be brief. I hear you thoroughly enjoy busting up wee lads.”
“I don’t know what the fuck your talking about, man? What the fuck are you saying?”
“Here’s the thing, Todd. You never know who other people know. And I know some people. I know a hell of a lot about you. I know where you sleep. I know where your girlfriend sleeps. The park where you hang out. I know where your wack fucking friends live and what piece of shit cars they drive. But you don’t have a car, now do you? Which is good for you we would’ve probably torched it. Anyway, I’ve travelled a great distance to make your acquaintance.”
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I didn’t –
“Shut your fucking mouth. Do you enjoy mathematics? Did you excel in school?”
“What? Just stop.”
“It’s easy. Let’s add up all the stitches the lads got and multiply a bit for good measure.” The driver turned Gordon onto his stomach, and Kenny clicked the utility knife and slashed Gordon diagonally down the back, from shoulder to hip. The jacket took the brunt of it but blood still soaked the down feathers exploding from the opening. A flurry of white clouded around the crimson.
Gordon was crying, blowing snot bubbles and pleading for us to stop. He was so sorry. Kenny motioned for me, like a manager calling out from the mound for the closer to take the game. I made Gordon my truck tire. I connected several times with his ankles, hoping to break them, it was a beautiful sound to hear.
“It’s been a pleasure, Gordon, but If we ever have to chat again it’s ear to ear, pal. Pick up your fucking pants. With love, Finglas.”
As I was getting back into the car, I looked across the street at the second floor window of the Craven’s house, to where Ozzy, Martin and Viggo watched from their lightless bedroom. We left Gordon as he left my friends, bloodied and on the floor.
“Colm, how are you feeling?” asked Kenny, handing me a beer, budweiser cans from an 18 pack that sat between us in the back of the car. He took a swig from his flask and passed it to the front.
“I’m grand.” I felt great, never better.
“Well, that was lovely boys. Anyone hungry?”
“I’m starving,” said the driver.
“I can eat,” said the passenger.
“Let’s get some Taco Bell,” said Kenny. “Taco Bell is fucking delicious.”
“I love it, too.” I was eternally grateful for Kenny and for fast-food Mexican.
“Mate, I’m such a believer now.”