Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Last Legion?

(Excerpted from SUPERSTAR: Life and Times of an Underground Rock and Wrestling Icon)

           Actually my drinking started a tad early, and I was taking advantage of my privileges in attending Manny’s social functions to indulge myself. He held office in the American Legion, its elite 40/8 society, and the Veteran Boxers’ Association. My Mom used to accompany him at first but grew to loathe most of the bottom-feeding social climbers who attended regularly. She implored him to quit but he would not. What my Mom could not understand was that he had been a public figure most of his life and could not forsake the limelight. She hit the bottle pretty hard around that time, but I would not place the entire blame at Manny’s feet. It was a lifelong challenge for her which she never entirely overcame until a series of events left her forever bedridden in 1992.

            He was a great public speaker and a diligent secretary, which secured his position as adjutant in all three organizations for life. They gave him the master of ceremonies spot at almost all of their functions, and he relished the attention. I think one problem may have been that Manny would have one too many drinks with his friends, then come home and act ignorant towards us. The truth was, he wasn’t much of a drinker, nowhere near as tolerant as Mom. They would go out and he would get polluted while she was still feeling fine. She would retaliate by getting shitfaced before an important event, and she would embarrass us no end. And so it went.

            The American Legion’s Gowanus Memorial Post was a sociological neighborhood phenomenon.  During the 60’s it was a powerhouse. They had parades during the springtime, annual dinners during the summer, and gave out Christmas baskets to needy families during the holidays. We loved going to the functions and took great joy in our father being prominent in the organization. The most fun was after the parades when they would rent out a Church hall and have a huge catered luncheon. We would see all the grownups in the neighborhood fellowshipping and letting their hair down, and it was quite a sight for us grade schoolers.

            The Legionnaires always said that they hoped that the organization would die of attrition in that there would be no more wars. Unfortunately, there was Korea, then Vietnam, but the Gowanus post was not quite ready for the new batch of vets joining the fold. There were a few young guys just back from Vietnam who signed up and were hoping to bring a breath of fresh air to the post. The older WWII vets from the ‘hood were not quite ready for that, so they got their wish as the post finally closed its doors at the end of the century.

            It seems that one can trace most of their bad habits back to their elders, which is why I stress that the parent should always lead by example. Manny would let me accompany him to the post to drop off his correspondence or pick up stationery, and invariably we would walk in on a poker game in process. John Lagana was a wannabe wiseguy who generally ran the games, and he would swear a blue streak from beginning to end. There was always a lot of green on the table, so they definitely weren’t playing penny poker. At that tender age, I whined to Manny that the language hurt my ears. Manny kind of blew it off, stating it was the guys’ night out, or words to that effect. When I think of the extraordinarily foul vocabulary I developed over the years, I would have to say that my subconscious may have registered the fact that this was how real men talked around each other.

(To be continued...)

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Hunting and Pecking?

(Excerpted from SUPERSTAR: Life and Times of an Underground Rock and Wrestling Icon)

The ones who really got away were the twins, Laura and Terri La Rocca. They were friends of Lea’s and followed me around like groupies around that time, but they were skinny dorks so I never paid them much mind. One time, another girl named Andrea who was chasing after me beat them up, and they quit coming around. I played hockey with their brother for a time but lost sight of them. It wasn’t until years later when I was with Luna that I came across Laura on Wyckoff Street. Let me tell you, she was a stunner! She kinda looked down her nose at Luna, and, of course, I never saw her again.

            I could probably go on for half this book about those I’ve loved and lost, but what it boils down to is, had I gotten married, bought a home and had a family, I would have never been able to do the things that this story is all about. They say family is often a hostage to fortune, and in most cases, it certainly has been. Benny Rock was the first casualty, his two girls putting him out of the music business. Of course, it’s impossible to compare the value of a family to that of life accomplishments, it’s all apples and oranges. There has been many a day when I think of what might have been, having children, but when you finish reading this tale, you may understand the tradeoff from my viewpoint.

            Anyway, the rite of passage into puberty had an enormous physical effect on me. Suddenly I went from a 98-pound weakling into a growing 120-pound boy, and there was a lot of shit I was no longer taking from different people in the ‘hood. I also found myself able to run faster and for longer distances than I could before. I got myself a black three-speed bike, and began developing my legs by riding around all day during summer vacation. I also began taking some of the neighborhood girls for long rides as they sat on the crossbar. What was really crazy about that was that I never tried putting moves on any of them. I was just enjoying the company and the exercise, and it all made me faster and stronger than ever.

            Right about that time I started messing with Manny’s typewriter, and I started spending more and more time translating my fantasies into print rather than acting them out with my toy soldiers. My first work was “Enemy Ace”, a terribly-written novella about an ex-Nazi pilot turned CIA agent. After that I wrote a full-length novel about the fellow, a Fritz Von Hammermeister (!) which I recall being rather good. I followed that up with a futuristic novel about a reactionary takeover of the government which resulted in World War III and an American defeat.

            What happened next was pretty funny, though a sad reflection of my early relationship with Manny. I sent in a coupon for a home course in creative writing, and a school rep came out for an interview. Mom recalls Manny spending the entire interview bragging to the man about his accomplishments, as if none of it had anything to do with me!  Actually, I would find this to be a common trait among writers. When James Berry, a sci-fi writer who rented an apartment from the Yodels, began giving me tips on the writing business, I could not force myself to read the first chapter of his newly-published manuscript. Alternately, he read another story of mine, “Angie and the Jets”, and gave me some contact numbers, but did nothing to help beyond that. To their credit, Mom and Al Catraz were two of my most avid readers, as were Debbie Lara and Terri Thunders. Manny said he would read one of my books when it got published; as it turned out, I had “Tiara” printed just before he went to his grave.

            We had a unique relationship which evolved along a rocky road though eventually ripening with age. Manny had no reliable frame of reference when it came to fathering and raising a family. His Dad was lord and master, his Mom a young girl trying to adjust to a new culture with four boys to raise, his relatives all caught in similar predicaments. He found out early in life that the common denominator on the streets was violence and that he could make his mark with his fists, but to his credit he focused on developing his mind.

            He was a paradox in many ways. Mom used to confide in me that she was smarter than he was, and I think she was referring to common sense. He was extremely articulate and set my course towards an English degree by referring me to the dictionary every time I had a question about a word. Yet he would call someone out (at least in his middle age) at the drop of a hat rather than use his extensive diplomatic skills during an argument. He loved me as a son but maintained a distance from me until I was in my late teens. He did little to encourage my athletic career and was strict about alcohol abuse, but we did not become close until I was old enough to drink at the bar with him. At that point, I was able to get him to open up and find out who he really was.
(To be continued...)

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Figueroa Days?

(Excerpted from SUPERSTAR: Life and Times of an Underground Rock and Wrestling Icon)

               I would have to say that it was a turning point in my life. It was a serious wreck at the crossroads between fantasy and reality, and made me consider the fact that trying to bridge the gap could be a dangerous thing, Nonetheless, I would spend the rest of my life creating illusions that challenged others to think outside the box, to transcend the restrictions that society imposed on their self-perception and potential in life. I would take every kid in the neighborhood that could pick up a hockey stick, carry a football or throw a punch and turn them into a player, no matter what their ability level. I have little doubt that almost every kid in our universe can look back and remember his day in the sun as an athlete on Butler Street.

Things continued the same way with both the Spoiler and the Ducky Boys. When I christened my living room the Surrealistic Death in ’72, I told Alma that it was going to be a haven for every musician, music lover, social reject and substance abuser in the neighborhood. As it turned out, it was an accurate prophecy on my part. We got people from all walks of life to stop by at one point or other, and no one was turned out without reason. Everyone got along in that small apartment, and when I knocked the wall down to turn the two small rooms into a bigger one, it made for more the merrier.  

This is not to say that people were on the Love Boat when they came into our inner circle. I was a notorious ribber all the way up until the Ducky Boys, and even then Zing and I gave the younger fellows hell after a few drinks. Most of it was in fun, and two of my prime targets, Richie Aceto and Danny O’Connor, used to laugh their butts off at my insults. Some fellows, like Louie Cazucci and Al Catraz, didn’t take the insults well, and we eventually laid off the thin-skinned types rather than have them leave the group.

The Yodels were big-time ribbers, but more often than not their ribs got vicious and sometimes led to fights. When they got together with the Butler Aces, people like Dilapidated Joe were reduced to tears. Most of the on-premises ribs at the Yodels home was fairly well controlled by their Mom Ginny, but what she did not see on the street was of no concern. For a time, the Yodels home was the prototype for the Surrealistic Death. When Nick left home, they declared open house, and everyone in the neighborhood hung out there. I had some of my most memorable times there, but when John turned against me I never went back.
The neighborhood continued to change as people moved out and new families moved in. The Figueroas proved to have just as much of an impact on my world as the Rock family would have nearly a decade later. Jesus Figueroa was a little kid, a couple of years younger, who had more street-smarts than most of the Butler Aces. He and I made friends on Day One after he had just moved next door that Spring of ’67 and was brandishing a set of boxing gloves, inviting me over to spar. Holding tight to my precarious position on the neighborhood food chain, I was able to bully him in short order. Afterwards he became a diversion from the tumultuous camaraderie of the Yodels, the psychodrama of the Reyes boys and the prepube playground with Mark.
It was always funny to see how political things got between siblings from different families. Jesus would taunt the Yodels, particularly Harold, mercilessly. Harold would start to make a move against Jesus, who ran straight to his big brother Ernie for backup. This would force Harold to run to Bobby, and the two older brothers would sort things out quite amicably. I saw this scenario replay a couple of years later when Paulie Yodels ran afoul of Izzy Galvan, who gave him a thumping. This brought a bemused Israel to a meetup with John and Harold, Israel without a clue as to why he was being involved.
            Jesus’ Dad, Guillermo, was the janitor of the Cobble Hill Theatre on the corner, and he would let us in at night to watch movies. I also got a kick out of hanging with Jesus because he was so mischievous. He would watch and wait until pedestrians flicked their cigarettes into the gutter, then eagerly spring out and retrieve the butts to toke on. Once, on New Year’s Day, some psychopath had killed two German Shepherds and dumped their carcasses on the corner of Butler and Smith, having cut the heads off one of them. Jesus put the head in a bucket and toted it up to Butler and Court, dumping it on the corner where it caused quite an outcry along the middle-class community. Another time we came across a sleeping drunk playing a radio, and Jesus tested him by turning off the radio, to which he did not respond. Jesus snuck off with the radio, and we took it to Greenwich Village and sold it for about ten bucks. We had quite a time for two underage kids coming into that kind of money. The most I’d ever gotten for an allowance, even as a teenager, was five bucks! 
            Jesus had three cute sisters who taught us all about the birds and bees. Migdalia was a beautiful girl with an hourglass figure and a lovely face. Her sisters Miriam and Yolanda were big girls, though at that age we didn’t give a damn. Actually, as you’ll see later, I had a bit to do with BBW’s in later years, so what goes around comes around. Anyway, instead of hiding in doorways playing hide and seek, we were now necking at every opportunity. Mark’s cousin Myrna got in on the act, though no one ever got to play with Migdalia. She was the oldest, and she had a boyfriend named Morocho who would’ve handed our asses to us for trespassing. Kenny, Georgie and I were the beneficiaries of this rite of passage as the Yodels were not quite up to such things at that point in time.
            John and I used to talk a great deal about the girls at school, though we never had the guts to do a thing about it. Of all the girls, Angela Vacirca and Juana Lugo were truly stunners, though both pretty slow on the scholastic side. Angela had a cousin named Angelo who was a vicious bastard, so no one came onto her. John had a thing for Juana, and though he got quite friendly with her, he never broached the subject of a date. I hung out with a couple of girls, Joann Mulhan and Jeanette DeArce, and things didn’t go too far as I was as dorky as they were. When I saw them years later in the ‘hood, I was astounded as to how they had developed into knockouts, but it was well before my day as a ladies’ man so that was that.
(To be comtinued...)

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Man From SLEDCART?

(Excerpted from SUPERSTAR: Life and Times of an Underground Rock and Wrestling Icon)

The internecine rivalries continued throughout that interval, and it was hard to keep track of who were friends and enemies without a scorecard. One week it would be the Reyeses against the Yodels, the next it was John and I against Harold and Kenny. A particularly amusing scenario occurred when the Reyes boys ran afoul of Bobby Yodels, the second-oldest of the brothers. Physically he was the smallest of the Yodels, something which frustrated him to no end. He made up for this with a glib-tongued con artistry which gave way to violent rage when provoked. On this particular evening, a verbal exchange led to the Reyes boys whipping Bobby with their garrison belts. Bobby proceeded over to the trusty old hellhole across the street and brought back a length of timber, at which point Lydia’s new beau Nelson rushed to intercede. Bobby continued his charge, sending one and all running for their lives.

SLEDCART was the first time my fantasy world ended on a crash course with stark reality. Kenny, Georgie and I had been smitten by The Man From UNCLE, an espionage TV series following hot on the heels of our beloved James Bond flicks. I decided that we were going to form an anti-terror organization when we grew up, with me as Director and the Reyes boys as my top agents. I came up with the acronym, which stood for Supreme Law Enforcement and Defense against Crime and Regional Terrorism. Not bad for a kid with a head stuffed with fantasies.

As fate would have it, the Butler Aces had broken into an insurance office in the vacant buildings across the street, resulting in a neighborhood visit by detectives from the 76th Precinct (which had relocated to Union Street). They came across Kenny and Georgie, and shortly afterward I found myself breathless in becoming involved in a criminal investigation. We invited the detectives to my home and brought them to my room with little ado, as my parents were out drinking. I was intent on using the occasion to get revenge on Robert Tal and Kevin Mahr, but Kenny and Georgie began spewing names like a fizzing bottle of pop. Before I knew it, he had the names of half the Aces, with Kevin and Edward atop the list. Sure enough, when the cops left the house, they walked right into Kevin, and the Butler Aces were on the road to extinction after that.

Tal and Mahr were two of the peripheral figures in the Aces’ hierarchy. Tal was an ugly bastard who resembled Alfred E. Neuman from Mad Magazine. Mahr wasn’t much better looking, a mean character who never smiled. They would cajole me into hanging out with them, then use me for target practice by spitting on me. After reducing me to tears, they would apologize and convince me to tag along until the next gobbing session materialized.

Tal made a brief appearance in Ducky Boy history over a decade later when I spotted him on Butler Street and we began talking music. He told me he was studying flamenco guitar and was working part-time for RCA as a studio tech. I brought him by the house to hear “Year Zero” and he said he thought he could make a connection for us. I accompanied him to Midtown one afternoon, and we were in and out of a few buildings as he made phone calls to set appointments. He kept telling me that his contact was out of the office, and finally I gave up.  After a while I realized he was calling his drug connections and planning to use Big Turk as backup. Regardless, he continued to drop in now and again. The last time he did so, a can of tuna fish I had on the kitchen table disappeared. Class always shines through regardless of time or place, I suppose.
Going back to yesteryear, the day after the detectives’ visit, the Butler Aces were on the street in force and came as a lynch mob to where the Reyes-Nieves clan sat on the steps next door. Kenny and Georgie pled innocent, leaving me holding the bag, with my parents out drinking again. The word on the street was that I was going to have my prepube nuts cracked, and I was in mortal terror until Mom got wind of it.
Bear in mind that, with her Irish blood and Texas heritage, when she was tipsy she was ten feet tall and bulletproof (something that would vex me up until I left home). She roared out of the house one evening as the Aces were congregating on the street and swore a blue streak that, if I was touched, she would ‘hang [the offender] by the balls’. She took offense to one poor bastard named Matthew, who lived elsewhere, and began hurling bricks from the demolition area across the street at him. This pretty well took the steam out of the Aces, and getting even with me was now on the back burner. There were a few running jokes about Mom, but all were careful not to let anything get back to Manny, who spent his early evenings after dinner during the week smoking Luckies and reading the paper while sitting at the front window. He still had a legendary neighborhood rep, was in fine shape and was never in a cheery mood. In their wildest dreams, they might have overcome Mom, but Manny…nobody needed that in their lives.
I felt badly about how things went with the O’Connors after that. They were identified as the ringleaders and probably got slapped on the wrists at best, but things began falling apart for them from then on. Edward hated my guts, even when his baby brother Danny started hanging out with my crowd after the Aces disbanded. Kevin started using drugs and lost most of his prestige in the ‘hood as a result. We got back on good terms though one time he went into a drunken tirade on how he and the Aces would have stomped my crotch in back then. I let it go; in time I saw less and less of him.  The last time I saw him was on Wall Street. I was dressed in a suit and tie and he was in jeans, probably as a messenger, and his face was full of resentment. I didn’t even try to greet him; some things are better left alone. If any of the O’Connors read this, all I can say is, it wasn’t me.