Thursday, January 1, 2015

Charlie Ricardi Has to Hit Somebody by Richard Vetere - 2014 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist

          Richard Vetere

It was the last Sunday at the feast and Charlie Ricardi had to hit somebody.  That was the way it was every last Sunday of the Italian feast that took place at The Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Williamsburg, Brooklyn that summer of 1971.  Charlie Ricardi would show up at the feast the last Sunday and punch somebody out.  No one knew why he picked the person he chose and no one knew why he wanted to hit them.  That was just the way it was and had been for the last couple of years. 

Sometimes Charlie would hit someone he knew and sometimes he’d hit a complete stranger.  He usually threw only one punch and that was all he needed since Charlie was tall and muscular and though Italian-American, he looked like an American Indian with sun darkened skin, deep brown oval eyes, chiseled cheek bones and long straight brown hair that fell over his shoulders.  If you put him on a saddle-less horse in the American West you’d think he was Cheyenne or Apache.  

He liked to wear ponchos, blue jeans and cowboy boots and though handsome as he was he wasn’t a womanizer or big talker like other guys like him in the neighborhood. 
     Since I was new to all this I was told that Charlie would show up at the feast sometime around 4 P.M. just when they did the last dance of the seventy-two foot high Gigilio down Havemeyer Street in celebration and memory of Saint Paulinus.

     Every year a local young man was chosen by the Church as a capo and he would lead the hundred young men who launched the Gigilio on their backs and dance it down the street first thirty feet forward and then thirty feet of forty feel back.  Not only did they dance the Gigilio itself, with an entire band at the base, but a hundred other men behind them would lift a small boat and follow.

     I watched the men in their bright red shirts and red caps lifting the elaborately fashioned paper-mache sculpture representing a gigantic lily.

     “It’s in your blood to do that,” I was told by a stranger, a middle-aged man in his T-shirt and beige slacks, who was standing on the church steps beside him and then walked back into the crowd.

     As I listened to the band and watched the huge tower rock back and forth as it was lifted in the air, I caught a glimpse of Charlie as he made his way through the crowd stopping for zeppeli and then an Italian ice. 

I watched as Charlie then stopped for pizza and a beer and then walk to the make-shift charity casino with its roulette wheels and poker tables inside the school auditorium.  But as I had been told earlier that week when he was at the feast, it made no difference if Charlie won or lost he was still going hit somebody.

     Since I was new to hanging out with the guys from the North Side I kept close to Joe Duck, Louie Bug, Mike Afro, Eddie the Polack, Georgia, Lisa Parnelli, Gina Bamonte and my cousin Little Guy hoping to learn why Charlie Ricardi had to punch somebody the last Sunday afternoon of the feast.  The only thing anyone was sure of was that he had never hit a woman.  Yet.

     Waiting for Charlie to hit someone, I sat up on the last row of the church steps looking down into the crowd allowing the smells of Italian sausages and green and red peppers cooking on the hot grills.  Pizza pies and boiling zeppelis also filled his nostrils.  

     I saw two young thin uniformed cops standing in the shade thrown across the church’s courtyard hoping to get some relief from the July heat.  I wondered if the cops knew that Charlie was going to hit somebody and if they were going to do anything about it.  He also wondered if he was going to be the one Charlie was going to hit.

     I was ambivalent about the feast itself.  My mother was born and raised only a few blocks away on Richardson and Lorimer Streets and he still had Iannuzzi and Guiliano family members who would come by the feast on a Sunday and sometimes even on a weekday night but for me the feast was an old tradition that I had very little interest in.

What I did like about the feast were the sounds.  There were shouts, screams, yells and laughter exploding this way and that way in the sunshine.  The large stereo system was set up and wired to the church’s electrical system with large speakers blasting Old Italian music into the crowd and over the human voices making him think of the echo of voices from a far off place he had never been.

Another sound was of the ringing bells.  When someone won the water shooting contest a loud bell would ring.  It was the kind you would hear at a boxing match to start and end rounds.  Other times it sounded like a buzzer you’d hear at the starting gate at a horse race.

     For me, however, it was the sights the feast provided that were the most intoxicating.  Faces were everywhere as people jammed into and walk through four narrow streets making their way passed police barricades and then through small booths and food stands. 

I liked to sit in the hot sun watching the parade of people mostly dressed in white, soft blues, yellow and green shirts or skirts holding colored balloons or tall stacks of bright pink cotton candy or stuffed animals they had won at the games.

     There were the middle-aged and old, the young couples and the children strolling mostly of Italian Americans who still had family in the neighborhood and now lived either on Long Island or New Jersey and thought a Sunday afternoon at the feast on a hot summer day was the thing to do where they might run into old friends they hadn’t seen in years.

     There were also Puerto Ricans from Williamsburg’s south side, only a few blocks away towards the Williamsburg Bridge, who came to the feast to enjoy the same thing in the same way and party with their friends.  Both the Italian Americans and the Puerto Ricans were Catholic but that was the only thing they had in common.  

The Italian Americans believed that the Puerto Ricans brought only street gangs and crime to the neighborhood and the Puerto Ricans saw most of the Italian Americans as mafia.  Both groups did their best not to tread on the other group’s turf especially during the feast.

Another ethnic group who sometimes came to the feast were the Polish-Americans who lived only a few blocks north in Greenpoint.  Though they were also Catholic they had their own saints they liked to celebrate including Saint Stanislaus who had a Church and school named after him not far away.  But in general the Polish preferred their own food and their own celebrations and stayed on their side of McCarran Park.

     Italian Americans and Puerto Rican’s did have clashes.  Though both were there for the same amount of years the Puerto Ricans rented their apartments and spent their winters in Puerto Rico and the Italians, mostly home owners, resented this.  They saw themselves as the real and only community.

     I reflected on this history as he watched a small group of black teens enter the feast from North 8th Street.  I could see how they were being closely watched by the feast’s security, button men and soldiers in the local mafia.  I could pick them out by their size and clothing.  They were usually muscular or beefy sometimes short and stocky but always seemed to wear white Italian made linen shirts with their hair combed back with a large helping of Brill Cream to give it a slick and greasy look.

I would see them in groups huddled either near the tents right outside the church steps or near the entrance to the school auditorium.  It was their job to keep peace at whatever price.

Everybody knew that the mafia family that ran the neighborhood worked in tandem with the Church for the feast’s profit.  Half went to the mob as payment and the rest went to the Church charity.  It was common knowledge that it was Jimmy Nap who ran everything and anything in Williamsburg.  Jimmy Nap was a handsome well dressed don of the streets.  

Everyone on the north side liked him because they all believed he kept the north side safe from crime and not the police.  They also liked him because when he loaned money to anybody on the north side he never charged a vig, meaning interest.  

No one wanted physical conflict at the feast.  The Puerto Rican Latin Kings street gang never wore their colors at the feast and mafia guys were given strict orders by their bosses not to cause any violence unless they had to.  The cops, all two of them, were usually Italian guys from the local prescient who knew to look away when any trouble started allowing the security to handle it on their own.

     While waiting with gruesome anticipation for Charlie to choose his victim, I saw my cousin Little Guy stumble up the church steps nodding high from heroin shot.  Little Guy was a junkie and I was surprised to see him so stoned so early in the day but there he was, fried and totally out-of-it, with his eyes half-closed and his shoulders slumped forward.

     Little Guy was stocky with a barrel chest and a mass of curly brown hair.  He wore rimmed glassed and his shirt and jeans never seemed to fit well.  When he sat he did the ‘junkie nod’ which was an odd sight to see.  It was as if the junkie’s entire body was paralyzed in the middle of a movement making them look like an awkward statue ready to fall forward.  However, they would always snap awake seconds before they did.

     I noticed that he wasn’t the only one who was eying Little Guy.  A Puerto Rican Marine Sargent who was clearly on his second six pack of beer was doing the same thing as he stood in front of the Italian sausage grill truck through the gapes in the church’s iron grating that separated the steps from the sidewalk. 
Little Guy took notice.  “What are you looking at?” Little Guy growled.  “You got your big deal medals so fuckin’ what?  Who the fuck are you to give me the eye?”

     The Sargent was clearly back from active duty in Viet Nam and Little Guy who hadn’t served for some reason unknown to I was taking umbrage with the fact that the marine was wearing his uniform to the feast and showing off.

     Before I could blink I saw through the grating that Little Guy was in the Sargent’s face, the Sargent’s beer and his sandwich flew into the air and the two were throwing ferocious punches at one another so quickly and fiercely blood was flying in all directions.

     I stood watching the two men grab one another, pull one another to the ground then roll across the sidewalk falling under the sausage grill truck and disappearing from the crowd.  He also saw that as the two fought nobody paid attention.  Even the two cops only a few yards away under the tent in the courtyard ignored the two-man brawl.

     I stood and moved down the steps to the grill truck.  He was unsure of what to do.  However, it didn’t take long for Little Guy to emerge from under the truck with a swollen and bloody face.  He struggled to his feet then turned down away from the feast heading back to his home on Lorimer Street.

     Slowly the Marine emerged from the shadows underneath the truck and slowly stood up with his uniformed torn and dirty and with blood running down from his seemingly broken nose and puffed-up cheeks, he walked in the opposite direction through the crowd towards the south side.  That’s when I saw Charlie Ricardi strut to the center of the feast at the corner of North 8th Street.

I moved back up to the top step perplexed by why those who knew Charlie actually stayed at the feast even though they could be his next victim.  I saw Joe Duck cower and Louie Bug make his way to his family tent where they did an illegal but profitable ‘slight of hand’ card trick.

Mike Afro and Eddie the Polack all eased their way into the crowd hoping that being visible but surrounded by people made them less desirable targets.

As the wind picked up and the sun slowly eased its way down behind Manhattan’s enormous steel and concrete mountain range Charlie disappeared.  A shadow fell across everything prodding me to look and just as he did he saw clouds ease into the sky above the feast cooling the air as they did.

It was then that I sensed an electrical charge shoot through the crowd.  I wasn’t sure exactly where it came from but he had a better sense where it was when a wave of people made their way from the far corner of North 8th towards the church steps.

The air shuddered yet as quickly as it did all went back to the way it had been in a matter of seconds.  I moved closer to the edge of the top church steps and managed to get a glimpse of several people attending to someone else outstretched on the pavement.  I saw a man lying on his back facing the sky as someone else knelt beside him holding a bloody handkerchief over his nose.

Joe Duck ran up the church steps to get a better look.
“Who was it?” I asked.
“I never seen the guy before,” Joe Duck answered.  “Someone said Charlie broke his nose.”

Just then I saw Charlie Ricardi pass below and to his left.  I watched as Charlie then crossed the street joining the small flood of bodies as it swayed like the tide back to their parked cars under the Brooklyn Queens Expressway.  Joe Duck and I kept our eyes glued to Charlie until we were certain he had left the feast.

“That’s over,” Joe Duck said then turned and rushed back to where he had been in-hiding before the moment of mayhem.

I sat back down on the church steps.  Monday I would start my first day of my senior year at college and I gave my future a momentary thought.  I then conjured the notion of buying a delicious meatball hero and devouring it on the spot before I headed home.                 

                  The End

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