For displaced, misplaced, and nostalgic ex-Brooklynites
Memories of Lenny
eath will come like a thief in the night," the good book tells us...but near-death and unsuspected tragedy will mug ya' pretty darn good, too.
It was a perfect summer afternoon under the shade of the full-leaved maple trees that canopied East Fortieth Street, Brooklyn, in 1966. I'd guess early August, but twelve-year-olds forget the seasons after the first two weeks of liberation, and the warm weather becomes an extension of the eternity that always was, always is, and always will be.
There were ninety-six kids under the age of sixteen that inhabited that one shortened street. And there were ninety-six more who had grown, whose elderly parents lived on in the houses that had sheltered them. Everyone was a descendant of European immigrants, if not an immigrant himself, like Mr. McLaughlin. They were Irish, German, Italian, and Jewish, with a little bit of French somewhere in the mix.
We were playing slapball and Googie Lazzaro was up. He always liked to hook that first pitch down the third base line into Higgy's alleyway if he could, so I was playing way off the line, trying to deke him, figuring I'd make my move just before contact, and cut the Spaldeen off for an inning-ending double play. Concentration was at a high point, when all of a sudden, the king of the little kids, Jerry Kane, skidded into the field on his banana-seat bike and stopped the action cold. I felt like back-slappin' the little pest 'til I saw the look on his face. Jerry could be an elfin tease when he wasn't included in a game, but whatever had happened was no joke. Pure TERROR possessed him. Not the half-terror that the nuns and mothers conspired to cook up on a regular basis, but the real, no-crap terror that Americans like to delgate to their battlefields, ambulances, and ICU's.
"Joe, there's an 18 year old girl up at the tracks screamin' 'cause she's gettin' RAPED!"
We were stunned. The message was confusing, but we all felt the breathlessness, and the horror.
We ran as a pack up the man-made hill that is East Fortieth Street, somehow thankful for the gravity that slowed us down. We knew something about rape, what we had picked up off of the street...it involved sex, and evil, and teenagers..and secrecy. But how did Jerry know what rape was? He was only nine. And why was he so afraid?
It was when we passed McDonough's two-family house from where my pretty cousin and her three little kids had just moved that we heard the first scream. It wasn't just the extra high pitch, or the intensity of that unforgettable wail...it was the DURRRAAATTIIOOONNNNNNNNNNN of it. You stopped short, you caught your breath, you moved as if to pull your finger from the electric socket it had just encountered. You had ingested pure fright.
"AAAGGGGHHHHHHRRRRRRRRRRRRAAAAAAHHHHHH!" There it was again! Like a July night prelude to a Cat-fight...animal-like, but unfortunately all too human..that subset of human sounds that most of us spend a lot of our life running from...the sound of a soul in anguish.
We reached the honeysuckle vine on the track fence that we had sipped from that morning, but nobody was lookin' for sweets now..."What is a rape? Why do teenagers joke about it sometimes?"
Details began to come into our focus. Cops...AND Firemen...A stalled train...half swallowed up by the tunnel... Did she get hit by the train? And then came the detail I remember most clearly of all. Mrs. Dowe, a still youthful woman in her thirties and the mother of six, RUNNING from the scene, both hands covering her face and her eyes. Tears were streaming down, heart-breaking sobs bursting out. It was an act of great beauty in the midst of the unknown tragedy. I had never seen a mother run before...I had never realized how deeply they could love...
"I DON'T WANNA DIIIIEEEEE! I DON'T WAANTTA DIIIEEEEEEEEE...! I DON'T WANNA DIEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE..!"
The voice was the only reality. It was all around you, like your nylon clothes had burst into flame. There was no escaping the agony, the SINCERITY of it. I know that sound now because I've been there. It was a SOUL looking at the other side who wasn't ready to go...who didn't like what was waiting for him.
"GET THOSE KIDS OUTTA HERE NOW!" barked a cop, whose professional anger-mask couldn't hide the fatherly nightmare he was praying would never occur to one of his brood. The smaller ones were glad to be led away, but my restless development gave me enough authority to slide past the shepherding officer, and over to the doorway of Kush's Tailor Shop for a better view.
"What the heck is a rape? Is it always like this? Why would teenagers joke about it sometimes?"
Then my ears were opened and the details from the crowd began to trickle in.
"It's not a girl...it's a boy...he's 14... (will this happen to me when I'm 14?) ...He was hit! No, not hit...the electricity...something with the electricity..!"
The screams continued. The plea had become a prayerful sob of agony...I remember thinking it was almost embarrassing in its self-centeredness... "Oh God, I don't want to die..."
The firemen and the cops were at the bottom of the thirty-foot embankment, just on the edge of the tunnel, next to the slumbering whale of a train, struggling carefully with some reality that we strained to understand...They had a sheet, and they were bringing it up the hill, one guy on each side, holding an upright...HUMAN...in it..
And then I saw him. And really I saw myself. Only a glimpse. But a glimpse that is very easy to remove from my memory file and post on my message board. A boy my size, my color hair, my skinny build, covered in streaks of blood, a shredded white tee-shirt burned to his ribs. Ripped shorts, singed hair, and a writhing agony that only those with a systemic neuropathy can imagine. "Help me...!" He pleaded and demanded at the same time...
And then he was gone. We were shaken. The crowd slowly disbanded, but after we relived it a couple of times, our young and resilient psyches soon readjusted to everything's alright lie that we survived by. I'm sure we completed that slap-ball game by the end of the evening. At that age, you don't have the experience to discriminate ordinary from extraordinary. That slide into third to avoid the tag and the train incident are equally valued when they are processed and only time determines when each file will be reopened.
Rumor was that the victim's name was Lenny Wolfe, lived down toward the Midwood section, a bit of a rapscallion, like any healthy boy of the time, and had hopped a freight for a joy ride and climbed to the top in order to avoid detection. Apparently while under the tunnel, he somehow touched a live wire (600 volts somebody said), and was lucky to survive. I ran into a street-crossing cop a couple of years later who said he worked with delinquent and troubled kids and had seen Lenny (still in a hospital), and mimicked the way Lenny struggled to walk. I'm not sure the cop was telling the truth, it had the ring of "Let's scare the kids to death, so they don't try any crap," but it may have been true.
Several years later, another boy, better connected to my crowd, reached over his head to throw a snowball from the top of a freight, and encountered the same live wire. He was sent flying into a snowbank, profoundly damaged. His recovery included several amputations, and I'm told he survives to this day, with heroic endurance in the state of Maine.
The neighborhood is gone. The maples have all but one been cut down. Children of a new immigration inhabit the old houses. Beautiful people from Jamaica, Trinidad, and Barbados. They are good neighbors to my mother, who, at 86, joins the maple as one of two remaining survivors of a time that lives on only in fading 8mm movies and a thousand fading memories. There are a thousand stories from that now mythic neighborhood that could have been told. But this one survives, at least in my mind. Is there a reason? I have my own search for the answer to that question. Good luck in the quest for yours.