Panicking, I immediately took off my shirt, grabbed Patricia, and held the shirt against her chin to stop the bleeding. I looked at the large gash in her chin and almost passed out myself. Together, we ran toward the benches where our families sat talking. What felt like minutes later, I was holding the lobby door open as the ambulance drivers rushed into the elevator and up to the twelfth floor where Patricia was waiting to get her stitches. Before long, as I waited in the hallway outside the C,’s family apartment, I realized the sense of humor the C. brothers normally had was gone. Now only anger filled their eyes, and those eyes pointed straight in my direction. They chased me from the twelfth floor all the way down to the first floor, running all the way down the stairs and screaming about how they were going to kick my backside for what I had done to Patricia. Luckily for me, I made it into my apartment only steps away from being devoured. For the rest of my life, Patricia never let me forget that day. Whenever I would see her, she would always point to the lifetime scar left on her chin from that day, and being such a forgiving person, she would just smile.
Sarah was the girl I would snuggle next to in the school theater when we would watch documentaries on the big screen Friday mornings during the weekly assembly. After we became good friends, Sarah let me in on one of her very dark private secrets: she was terrified of fire. I consoled her and even held her hand, assuring her no fire would come to the theater while we watched the documentaries.
I didn’t think much of it at the time, but as I was telling my brother Billy about her little secret, he had a much different view other than holding her hand and consoling her. Sarah lived in the 2140 building across from our building, facing the three mountains. I didn’t know what extortion was then, but I was about to find out. I was told to follow him because “We are about to make some money.” I didn’t ask questions but just followed Billy over to 2140 as we stood in the grass below Sarah’s fourth-floor apartment window.
Billy yelled at the top of his lungs for Sarah to come to the window, and after about five minutes of loud screaming, she raised the window and stuck out her head. Billy said, “Bring any money you can find in your house and throw it out the window to me.” Her answer was a nervous “NO.”
Billy shouted back, “Sarah, don’t test me!” But she still insisted, “NO.” Billy then whispered to me, on his cue, to run toward the other side of the building where Sarah would not be able to see me. He then said in a serious voice, “Sarah, unless you throw money out of the window, we will burn down your house.” Sarah was now in a panic but refused to throw money out of the window. Billy whispered for me to run to the other side of the building out of sight. Billy then looked in my direction and shouted, “Light it up!”
Crying hysterically, Sarah then shouted, “Okay! Okay!” She disappeared into her window and minutes later she began throwing change down to us. This extortion became a monthly ritual until she moved out of the projects shortly afterward, and our “cash cow” quickly disappeared.
One day when we were sitting on the benches outside the building with the C. family, I ventured off to the park for some mischief with Patricia C. who was a few years younger than me. As we entered the park, our choice of recreation turned out to be the seesaws. I sat on one end of the seesaw, and Patricia, with a excited smile on her face, sat on the other end.
After a few minutes of this up-and-down activity, I thought I would tease and scare her. So when it was my turn to touch the ground again, I held her up in the air, laughing as I kept my weight anchored to the ground. Listening to her laughter turn into cries because I would not bring her down, I continued to laugh as she begged me to lower her end of the seesaw. “Are you really sure you want to come down?” I asked. “Yes! Please let me down!” she cried as her eyes were swelling with tears pouring down from her cheeks.
So without any understanding of the severe consequences that were about to happen, I just said, “Okay,” and with one motion stood up, which quickly released her weight to the inevitable pull of gravity. She came screaming down to the ground, smashing her face into the metal handle of the seesaw. Her chin split wide open, and blood was splattering everywhere …
We were abruptly interrupted when Dad’s car pulled into a parking space on Seward Avenue. Dad yelled our names, and in unison, we bolted toward the car. From the trunk of his car, he pulled out wooden bow and arrows and handed a set to each of us. The arrows had rubber tips to prevent injury, but we removed them in order to inflict more pain and damage to the small rodents and birds that we imagined ourselves hunting down.
Like a warrior, my brother, Tommy, pulled back his bow as far as possible and released his arrow. I nonchalantly turned toward him just in time to see the arrow headed straight for my face. I tried to jump out of the way with no success. Suddenly, SPLAT! My right eye once again took the brunt, only this time from an arrow. The stars I saw at that moment were too numerous to count, and once again, I ran home screaming and crying in agony, with an apprehensive trail of onlookers following right behind me into our apartment.
I had one thought: “How long will it be before those workers leave so I can jump from this window ledge, track through the mud, and get to that wet cement?” Then as quickly as possible, I would dig both of my palms face down into the cement, leaving my imprint.
However, on this particular day, I was too quick, and not realizing the cement had been poured only moments before, I slid both of my hands into the deep cement, and the momentum carried my body forward as both knees, then my chest, elbows and stomach landed flat into the pool of wet cement. When I stood up, my whole body was covered in cement; I could feel wet cement dripping from my hair onto my face.
I turned, and to my horror, watching from the kitchen window was Mom. She screamed, “Don’t move! Stay right where you are!” Mom jumped from the kitchen window, and within minutes, she was stripping me down to my underwear. She then had me embarrassingly walk into the building, wearing only my underwear.
“Who is this strange woman?” I thought as my heart was beating and beating at a frightening pace. I didn’t know this strange woman accompanied by a doubly strange-looking man who had just jolted me high into the air. I struggled, tugging to get away from him. After a minute, I managed to slip both my arms out from my jacket.
Then clawing myself away, I hurled from his arms, tumbled to the floor, leaving my jacket hanging over his shoulder and halfway down his chest. I took off running full speed down the hall to our apartment, scurrying straight into our back bedroom. Then I slid right under my bed, panting and sweating as I listened bewildered to what sounded like a most joyous occasion inside the living room.
Only later did I discover the mystery woman was my Mom’s sister and her husband, who had come to visit because Mom was pregnant with my soon-to-arrive sister, Peggy.
Only months later, I watched in confusion and with tears dripping down my cheeks as two men dressed in white coats strapped my mom’s hands together. Echoes bolted through my little body with every scream that screeched from Mom’s mouth in protest as she was involuntarily being dragged down the hall. Mom was committed to the psychiatric ward of Jacobi Hospital because of her drinking problem. Dad became an on-and-off again single parent with eight children because Mom would now spend weeks and frequently months in the psychiatricward.
One day, I was sitting in the last bedroom at the end of the long hallway in our five-bedroom apartment, which was the largest apartment in the building. Besides being the largest apartment, we also had two bathrooms; the other apartments had only one. In years to come, my friends envied our two bathroom luxury. Straining my eardrums from my bedroom down the hall, I could hear Dad’s words as he greeted a stranger at the front door. The stranger was a woman who Dad immediately invited into our apartment, and they continued to chat as they both headed in the direction of my room. Instinctively, I knew that Dad was scheming something.
I started to tremble in fear of the unknown and the inevitable that I knew was coming. As Dad came into my bedroom, I was in full-blown, out-of-control rage as I jumped up and down on the bed, screaming and hollering. After a few strong whacks to my behind, my tantrum immediately stopped. Dad introduced me to the lady with him. “Johnny, this is Anna.” Anna was a social worker from the city who would help care for us while Dad was at work. I began where I left off with my tantrum, screaming and yelling at the top of my lungs. But it was vital for Dad to get to his job being the sole provider for eight children, so he walked right out the door. I just crouched up on my bed sobbing in tears.