Thursday, January 4, 2018

"the classic could'a-would'a-should'a-been" by Mike Golden - 2017 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Semi-Finalist

"the classic could'a-would'a-should'a-been


 Mike Golden 

When we first got to Brooklyn I took her to see the apartment complex that had once been Ebbets Field, and tried in vain to explain to her what it all meant.  What Duke, Scunj, Campy, Pee Wee, Jackie, Newk and Gil Hodges had meant to not only Brooklyn, but to the American concept of loyalty itself. I sounded like I'd grown up in Happy Felton's Knothole Gang, but I'd actually only been to Ebbets Field once in my life. I'd come up during the summer to visit family; I'm not sure how old I was, but my Uncle Harry took me out to Brooklyn on the subway. . .my first ride on the subway. . .to see Stan Musial and the Cardinals play the Dodgers. When we got off the train and came up to street level the crowd was going everywhichaway at once; venders out front were selling hotdogs, pennants, buttons, baseball cards; hustlers were laying odds on this game, the Giants game, the Yankees game; scalpers didn't seem to care whether they were selling or buying tickets just as long as the action never stopped.  A gang of kids about my age who looked like they came right out of a Bowery Boys movie came walking by us singing Happy Days Are Here Again and carrying a telephone pole.  

It was almost too much stimulation to take in at once, but not a tenth as much as was going on inside Ebbets Field.  There were dockworkers and farmers and cowboys and cab drivers and stockbrokers and newspapermen and Dizzy Dean and Joe Garagiola were there broadcasting the game of the week on National TV. Down on the field there was a big brass band all dressed like bums, serenading Happy Felton and his Knothole Gang, a fat guy and a bunch of kids in Dodger uniforms who were playing catch with the players for local TV; it was by far the damnedest three ring circus I'd ever seen.  And the game hadn't even begun -as soon as it did, the gang of kids with the telephone pole came crashing and screaming through the fence, then dropped the pole and went running up into the stands, in every direction, with cops chasing through the crowd after them.  But that hardly held up the game -- nothing held up the game.

Preacher Roe was on the mound for the Dodgers, and he looked unhittable.  At least until Stan the Man came up and drilled one over the right field wall.  Nobody else could touch Roe, though he walked a man before Musial's second time up.  From his patented corkscrew crouch, Musial took a pitch then lashed a fly ball to right that backed Carl Furillo up to the wall.  With the nonchalance of a dark prince collecting his due, Scunj raised his glove to make the catch as the ball sailed 50 feet over his head into the crowd. The move was classic Scunj.  So classic in fact that Musial almost bumped into the runner on first, who hadn't moved more than two steps off the base for fear of being doubled off by Scunj's rifle arm.  After Musial's third home run in row, Dressen came out and yanked Roe, and that flipped the Preacher man out Big Time.  Those three homers were the only three hits he had given up, and he didn't like being yanked while he still had his stuff.  On the way to the dugout he threw his cap, warmup jacket and glove into the stands.  

The next day the Daily News said I traded the glove back to Roe for Dodgers season tickets, but actually I gave it to my cousin, because I was leaving to go back home to Tennessee the next day. 
It's hard to remember the good times when the memories of the bad times are so overwhelming. Our marriage, just like the Dodgers before it, had become the classic could'a-would'a-should'a-been American Dream.  The Dream that ended when the traitor O'Malley moved the team out to L.A.  And left the losers behind without any hope for their future, totally empty in their present, wreathing around, permanently stuck in a quagmire of abandonment, by the past.   Dodger fans always understood no matter how unbearable it got, some things you never forget.  I certainly can't deny that before she flipped out on me, the ex and I had some good times after we moved to Brooklyn. Stoned soul picnics in the Botanical Gardens, hanging out on the boardwalk at Coney Island, getting off watching the old one wall handball shamans in action, and then running all the way to Brighton Beach. . . In the spring we actually went swimming almost every morning.  

The infamous Coney Island of the mind was deserted outside of a few lone geeks and carnies who hadn't gone south for the winter.  The water was freezing, but relatively clean that early in the day.  You could always dive under floating ponds of scuzz and come out feeling reborn.  During the summer the water was virtually a cesspool by nine, but you could still get in under most of the garbage between six and seven a.m., if you weren't too queasy about what passed you washing up on shore.  And on low tide you could literally walk across the water from Manhattan Beach to Far Rockaway. Though the beach was never empty and the sand was too soft to play ball on, we still came almost every morning, and ran until the sweat poured off our bodies.  Then before going back to the real world grind, we’d throw a beach towel on the sand and we'd go to sleep in the sun for awhile.  Or at least start to go to sleep before getting interrupted by "the horror" that was Disco Freddie.

A washed up Borscht Belt comedian of the lowest order, Disco Freddie was there to entertain the residents of Brighton Beach whether they wanted to be entertained or not.  If you didn't listen to what he was saying you could actually get hypnotized by his patter and rhythms.  A tall, kinky-haired, hawk-faced geek of indeterminable age, if you treated his words like they were just shtick he could've been the consummate pro, could've been another Henny Youngman or Don Rickels or even Shecky Greene. . .if he had only had an act. . . But Disco Freddie was obviously into burnout before burnout became the rage.  His act was on that fine line between no material at all and material so bad it almost crossed into The Twilight Zone, though unfortunately almost is still almost and he never quite got there. . . Looking down on him from up on the boardwalk, he had all the moves of a contender, as they say, but once you got close enough to hear what he was saying you realized he was really a sick piece of work.  What he would do was draw a line in the sand and then put a stick down on the line and announce to the people he had intruded on, "And now for your own personal enlightened discombobulation, bubbalahs, I'm gonna tell you what 'dat traitor O'Malley said to Disco Freddie before he took our Bums to La-La Land.  But first, straight from Grossingers, Browns and your worst case study of indigestion, 'de one, 'de only, 'de curse 'dey call Disco Freddie will attempt to cut t'rough your recalcitrant noblesse by breaking 'de world's shtick jumping record.  Right here. Right now. Don't crowd. Don't push."  Then he'd drop a stick on the sand, back up ten yards and sprint towards the stick. But just as he got there he'd skid to a stop!  He'd eye the stick for a moment, almost like it had spit on him, then back up and start all over again.  He'd usually do that five or six times before finally jumping the two inches it took to get to the other side of his shtick.  "TA-TA!" he'd bow, dropping to one knee as he pulled down his baggy surfer trunks, bent over and mooned his stunned audience. He stood up then and turned to an imaginary orchestra he referred to as "Happy Felton and his Knothole Gang," then waved his hand like Dr. Strangelove, and started singing a medley of We Shall Meet Again, Auld Lang Syne and When The Saints Come Marching In, before bursting into a bitter Structuralist "'Dere's no business! Like show business! 'Dere's no business! I KNOW!" Then concluded his act by screaming, "EVERYBODY DISCO!" And twisted his body into the beach like a corkscrew, scattering sand all over the stunned faces trapped in the headlights of his nightmare.  

Fortunately, after you'd seen Disco Freddie's act once, you didn't need to see it again.  It never changed, it never got better.  He was obviously a victim of that old Show Biz condition known as too much not enough, and was taking mean spirited revenge he meant for audiences who didn't appreciate him out on us poor unassuming beach bums.  Every time after the first time he did his act in front of us, I'd roll over on my stomach, put my hands over my ears and look up at the leather faced old Russians sunning themselves on the boardwalk, until she couldn't take it anymore, and we'd leave the beach and go back to reality.

My reality since she walked out and left the car dead in the driveway was filled with overwhelming pain. It usually started like a vibrating electric current in the arms; I could barely breathe once it kicked in. Which is why running helped. The movement broke up the vampire emotions of despair sucking the lifeblood out of me. Sitting around smoking, drinking and singing the blues, on the other hand, was like turning the heart valve into an electric accordion being played by Edith Piaf while she romanticized fucking the monkey demon on my back to death before I could talk it into blowing me.
According to her, she left me because there was no romance left in our marriage.  No magic. I didn't agree with her assessment, but I hadn't been given an opportunity to convince her otherwise yet.  I stared blankly out the kitchen window and watched the sun coming up in the East. Though I hadn't been to Coney Island since she left, I suddenly had the overwhelming urge to watch the sun rise from the beach. 

Since the guy downstairs said I could use his scooter anytime I wanted, I went down the stairs to leave a note on his door. Then went out back and pulled it out of the garage, and went puttering through the neighborhood. It could have been Savannah or Memphis or Minneapolis; just short of being mansions, the houses were classic post war images of prosperity and hope, surrounded on all sides by trees and lush orchestrated gardens. They shot the film Sophie's Choice in a house two blocks away.  It was the kind of neighborhood young professionals moved into in the late 1940s and early 1950s to start their families.  Which was one of the unspoken reasons we moved there.  Once upon a time, it had been mostly Jewish, with a smattering of big shot Irish politicians, but the neighborhood was becoming decidedly West Indian.
  Centered around the shops, restaurants and bakeries lining Church Avenue between Flatbush Avenue and Ocean Parkway, the area that was once known as Kensington had a definite Reggae beat to it, and it was far easier to find great curried goat and jerked chicken than good bagels and lox anymore. Of course everything changed again once you turned on Ocean Parkway and headed out towards the beach. I got on it just before the traffic going the other way into the City congealed into a massive grid locked herd of neurosis and tension, and impeccably timing the lights so I'd never have to stop, virtually glided out to Coney Island in just under 12 minutes. 

I hadn't run more than a mile down the beach when I spotted Disco Freddie doing his wretched act for what looked like a visiting mobile Iron Lung unit from St. Petersburg.  The Russians seemed enthralled, proving once again it obviously helps not to understand the language.  To my surprise -- no scratch that -- to my horror, I stopped when I ran by him and heard him shticking, "and now for your own personal enlightened discombobulation, bubbalahs, I'm gonna tell you what 'dat traitor O'Malley said before he took our Bums to La-La Land."  In that moment of nostalgic weakness I was so moved by his voice I became mesmerized by his act.  

Tears ran down my cheeks as I watched the fucking maniac jump over the fucking stick.  God, I missed her!  After all that had gone down between us I didn't know how I'd ever get her back, but knew I had to, or die trying.  I thought about calling her, and almost instantly heard her voice in my head.  I didn't really know what to say to her, but didn't have to say anything, since she was doing all the talking.  Just when I sensed she was about to go into her Bad Husband-101 routine, Disco Freddie tapped me on the shoulder and saved me from her diatribe.
"Moved ya, didn't I, Champ?"
I was so trapped in my daydream I'd missed everything.  "You broke my heart," I lied, wiping the tears from my eyes.  "Broke my fuckin' heart. . ."
"I knew Disco Freddie's act would get to you some day, wise guy.  'Dey don't do material like 'dis no more."
"No," I agreed, "they don't."
"Fat Jack Leonard tried to steal 'dis routine from me."
"You don't say?" "I do say.  And he's not 'de only one.  Berle and Rodney Dangerfield too.  But I don't need any of 'dem bums.  'Dey need me.  And you might too, one day." He handed me a business card, and gave me a little punch on the shoulder.  "See ya around, Champ."  Then turned and walked down the beach towards Coney Island flipping his stick in the air like a miniature baton.

I stuck the card in my pocket without looking at it.  Tried to get back to the conversation in my head.  But somehow I'd been disconnected.  So I decided to call her for real and invite her to come out to Brighton Beach and meet me.  As I walked up the boardwalk looking for a phone I realized what a dumb fucking idea that was, but that didn't stop me; somehow I knew she'd find it romantic.  She was a sucker for romantic . . .but look who’s talking.
                                                                          © 2017 Mike Golden

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

"The Brass Ring" By Keith Haymes - Winner of the 2017 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize

Winner of the 2017 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize

"The Brass Ring"
 Keith Haymes  

My friend Gina always grabbed the brass ring, literally. You’ve heard the expression “grabbing the brass ring”?  It derives from a contraption that dispenses rings within reach of carousel riders as the mechanical horses go around and up and down. Most of the rings are iron with an occasional brass ring. The riders reach and try to grab the rings. The grabber of the brass ring wins a free ride or a small prize. 

  When we were little kids, growing up on West 5th Street in Coney Island, we’d often walk up Surf Avenue to West 12th Street and ride B and B Carousel , grabbing for the brass ring. There was usually a group of about six of us, boys and girls. Grabbing those rings, while going around and up and down on a carousel was trickier than it sounds.  It was even tough for adults, let alone a bunch of grade- schoolers, but Gina always grabbed the brass ring. Gina was more daring than the rest of us, barely holding onto the pole and leaning way out to reach the rings. She was even brave  enough at age 10 to hold her hands up high over her head on the Cyclone roller coaster, while the rest of us held on to the safety bar for dear life. Gina was also the strongest swimmer of the group, having learned from her two older brothers, who were the best swimmers in the neighborhood. Her oldest brother Steve eventually became the head lifeguard at Manhattan Beach, and was famously able to swim across the bay to Breezy Point in the Rockaways.  

 Gina was a cool kid and a leader among us kids, but as adolescence came around things began to change for Gina. You see, Gina was always overweight and as we grew out of hide and seek and began engaging in the hormonally charged games of spin the bottle, or run catch, and kiss, Gina was the one that got left out.  Certainly, none of us wanted to intentionally hurt her, but hurt her we did. In a popular song of the time, Janis Ian learned “at seventeen that love was meant for beauty queens”. Gina learned at twelve, that love was meant for Judy and Linda, and not her. Linda was a pretty girl who’d developed young and even had the interest of the older boys.  Judy, Gina’s best friend, was impossibly cute, with deep dimples and a cleft chin. I don’t think that there were any of us boys that didn’t have a crush on her.

 The summer of 1977, when we were fourteen,  was the Summer of Sam in New York City;  the summer when the notorious Son of Sam was shooting and killing young women in lover’s lanes around the city. In our apartment building, Brightwater Towers, that summer is also remembered for something else.  Gina’s brother Joey was four years older than us. Unlike his straight –arrow older brother Steve, Joey was a wild one. He was using drugs and running the streets. One day that summer, Joey dove off of the Steeplechase Pier in Coney Island. It was not an unusual feat for the strong swimmers of Coney Island to perform, but Joey dove into only a couple of feet of water, and broke his neck. Was it a miscalculation, drug induced stupidity, or too awful to contemplate, an attempt at suicide?  

Joey survived, and was brought to Kings County Hospital. A group of us went to visit him. He lay in the bed, immobilized in one of those halos drilled into his skull to maintain traction. We spoke awkwardly and wished him well.  Joey whispered to us that in the next room over was the latest victim of the Son of Sam, Robert Violante. Robert and his girlfriend, Stacey Moskowitz had been parked on Shore Parkway in Bensonhurst, when they were both shot at close range. Stacey died. Robert survived but was forever blinded in one eye. That night David Berkowitz received a parking summons that lead to his arrest as the Son of Sam killer. Stacey and Robert were his last victims. Curiously, we all took a peak in at the bandaged victim in his bed, surrounded by stunned family.

 A few years later, I was a young NYC Police Officer assigned to the 66th Precinct in Boro Park. I frequented a bagel store on Avenue J. Lots of cops ate there.  The bagels and coffee were good and the couple who owned the store loved the police.  I found out that the detectives had treated them with compassion when their daughter; Stacey Moskowitz, Robert Violante’s girlfriend, was murdered in 1977.  I thought back to that visit to Kings County Hospital. It felt like it was so long ago; a different time, and a different place.   Actually, it had been only seven years. Eventually, the Moskowitz’s sold the business and moved to Florida. The reminders of their daughter, all around them were too painful. As I grew older, I realized how fresh those wounds were for that couple. What had seemed like decades to me, must have felt like moments to them.
Gina and I didn’t hang out together in High School. The girls and guys from our building developed different circles of friends. The guys stayed in the neighborhood, hanging out at 3rd Street Park and the Trump Village Shopping Center parking lot. The girls, Gina and Judy in particular, spent a lot of time with a group of tough Italian guys on Kings Highway. We all remained friendly, since we still lived in the same building and spent days at the pool in the summer.

 Gina began to change though; to become visibly unhappy. Rumors were swirling and she was gaining a promiscuous reputation.   Her parents fought a lot and eventually divorced. There was no hiding that hers was a volatile household. From  Andy’s apartment next door, we could hear the shouting whenever her father was around. 
 One night when I was around seventeen, my parents were out, and as usual this was an excuse for me and the boys to hang out and drink beer in my room. This night, while fiddling with the radio dials, I discovered that if I turned the dial all the way to the left I picked up somebodies cordless phone conversations. Cordless phones were new at the time and they worked by radio waves. After listening for a while, we realized that it was Gina’s phone. Did I; did we; life-long friends with Gina, warn her to change her phone. Did we stop eavesdropping? No. We were jerks, and as jerks we continued to get together, drink beer and listen to Gina’s conversations, hoping to hear something juicy. We never did, but Gina eventually found out. She could not have known what we did or didn’t hear. I heard she was devastated, wondering what we might have heard, though she never confronted me, and I never apologized. 

 Our relationship remained the same, always friendly when we found ourselves both hanging out at the same Sheepshead Bay bar or a Bay Ridge disco, but never seeking out each other’s company.

Gina and I both turned 21 in November of 1983. That winter I was at my girlfriend’s house in Gravesend, when I got a frantic call from my mother. She was screaming, “Gina went out the window!” I was confused. My friend Billy also had a sister named Gina and I needed clarification. “No, Gina went out the window, I see her lying there”.  I knew who it was at that moment. My family lived in apartment 2F and Gina’s in 8F. My mother was looking down into the snow covered concrete, at the motionless body of a child she’d known since she was 5 years old, who had played with her son, who had eaten at her table.   

 I went to Coney Island Hospital, where they had taken Gina. When I got there, I flashed my badge and was let into the emergency room. I arrived just in time to see the doctors stop working and pronounce Gina dead. I went out to the hallway. Judy was crying hysterically. I hugged her tight and cried along with her. That night, Gina’s mother joined the same club as the Moskowitz’s. The club nobody ever wants to join; the club in which the members wake each morning to the fresh horror that their baby is never coming back.

 It was explained to me that the family was engaged in a shouting match and Gina simply ran to her room and jumped without warning.
 Who knows what drove Gina to suicide? Depression, I guess. Certainly, I wasn’t the reason but I’ve often thought though, that I also never gave her a reason for hope. I was supposed to be her friend. Life was knocking her all over the place.  Did I offer her comfort? No. Did I defend her when rumors were spread? No. What did I do? Listen in on her phone calls; for laughs.  What an asshole. I’m still sorry, Gina.  I’m glad that I got to see you grab the brass ring.