For kids on the Lower East Side, the neighborhood sometimes resembled a frontier town in the Old West. We didn’t have sheriffs – there were few helicopter parents. Informal codes guided us: Don’t hit girls. Pick on someone your own size. Mind your own business. Nobody like a tattletale.
And we sure had outlaws…but sometimes they wore white hats.
Like when my brother, Vinnie, at 10, caught the eye of Billy Gorilla, a local up and coming sociopath. The Gorilla was a big 16 year old, built like a fireplug with a greasy black DA and a thick black unibrow across his simian forehead. He was too pure a bully to torment little kids for their lunch money. He did it for the sheer sport.
Like most animals, The Gorilla lived by a routine: wait for Vinnie to leave the CYO, play ‘keep away” with his little gym bag for a while, then repeatedly hit him over the head with it yelling “Pistol whip! Pistol whip!” for the amusement of his room-temperature-IQ stooges.
And like in a Western, the locals scattered, or stared into their YooHoos, and were thankful they weren’t the target this time.
Took it like a man
Vinnie bore it stoically. His growth spurt and martial arts training came later. His winning personality was useless against a thug with the empathy of a “No Ball Playing” sign. (After rainstorms, Billy rode his prized bike at top speed into the puddles near all the bus stops on First Avenue.) Vinnie tidied himself up and hid his tears before he came home. No self-respecting boy went crying to mommy. Besides, parents said laughingly useless things like “Just tell him to stop.” Or “Can’t you come home another way?” or the absolute worst, “Tell him you’ll tell your mother” – the Code violation that bought you a lifetime pass to “Losertown.”
One day, though, Vinnie came home, his eyes still red and swollen, when our oldest brother, Salvatore was around. Since our dad worked nights, Sal declared himself the unofficial family helicopter parent. The kind you saw in Apocalypse Now.
Big Brother and the Holding (a baseball bat) Company
Sal was an old-school hoodlum, a tall, gangly guy with thick black eyeglasses that he carefully removed before he beat the shit out of anyone who called him “Foureyes.” His way with words and a zip gun earned him the position of War Counselor for “The Enchanted Tots,” a local gang reputed to be the farm team for a brutal uptown gang called “the Enchanters.” Part diplomat and part strategist, War Counselors arranged turf wars and peace treaties with other gangs. Sal organized fights with the Dragons and the Purple Gang, the Chinglaling Manhattans of Avenue C and the Ukies north of 7th Street. His peace treaty with the Sportsmen on Avenue D (the local Black gang) earned him an honorary membership. He had a leather jacket, a motorcycle, and an arsenal of lead pipes, bats, switchblades and zip guns stashed in the bathroom under the clawfoot tub. He was the coolest, toughest, and most streetwise guy we knew.
And his Code was “nobody bullies my kid brother.”
Sal washed Vinnie’s face and took him for a walk to gather a posse: tattooed Snake, who looked like a circus act; Nails, the weapons expert (he favored baseball bats with a 10 penny nail hammered through), and Blackie, who defied categorization. They were thugs, but even the ones without kid brothers had standards, especially Blackie, a wiry, pockmarked malcontent voted “most likely to go on a rampage,” in junior high. Blackie was unapologetically feral. He shit in doorways on the street (no one dared say anything) and probably slept in a cage, and even he was incensed. The Gorilla had violated their street Code: You don’t pick on little kids. Especially a Tot’s family member.
Sal told Nails to leave the bat at home. A beatdown would draw Heshy the cop away from his seat at the bar near the corner; Sal wanted just enough manpower for a compelling show of force to make the point.
He led them to Third Street and asked Vinnie to point out the Gorilla. Most bystanders found something urgent to do somewhere else. Moms in upper windows called their kids home. Onlookers were told to shut up and mind their own business. The four horsemen of the Lower East Side – Revenge, Petit Larceny, Disturbing the Peace, and All of the Above – had arrived to deal rough justice.
The smarter guys in The Gorilla’s crew took off with the subtle efficiency their parents used to escape Cossacks, Communists, Padrones and Nazis. Only two members were left when Sal approached The Gorilla, sitting on a stoop, and said, ‘I want to talk to you. In the hallway.”
Now, on the Lower East Side, unless you were auditioning for a doo wop group, an invitation to step into the hallway was a very bad sign. It was like a suggestion from a mobster to step into the backroom with Rocco and Moose to discuss your spotty loan payment schedule.
The last two guys on the stoop got up follow the Gorilla, but Blackie blocked them. Besides his utterly uncivilized habits, his toughness was whispered about in schoolyards and playgrounds ever since the last guy to challenge him suddenly “moved away” with no forwarding address. All Blackie had to say was ‘You know who I am…right?”
They sat back down.
In the hallway, Sal told The Gorilla that if he bothered his kid brother again he’d shove Billy’s precious bicycle so far up his ass, the handlebars would come out of his mouth. Vinnie later said that Sal slowly and carefully enunciated the word “bicycle,” packing a megaton of ball-withering scorn into the word as only a guy with a real motorcycle could.
What made Billy turn pale, though, was when Sal leaned in for emphasis, nodded towards Blackie, glaring at him just outside the hallway, and whispered, “And they’ll never find you.”
After that, Billy and Vinnie stayed on opposite sides of Third Street. Vinnie got a growth spurt and learned martial arts, so any problems Vinnie had after that, he could handle. Billy learned a lesson, but since he was a moron, it was the wrong one: he stayed away from kids with big brothers. Everybody’s parents, like the sleepy sheriff or the judge far away beyond Indian country, were once again none the wiser.
For the moment.
But don’t get me started about that.
But enough about me! What’s your story of victory over a bully? Let us know in the comments!
Image: Dan Sarita for New York Natives