Winner of the 2017 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize
"The Brass Ring"
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.