|A Novel By Max Rabinowitz|
|I had first met Steve while on Ward Eleven. He was the same age as I, Jewish, and also thought just about he same way as I did. We got along from the first meeting. There was only one really big difference between us: Steve was rich and I was poor.
Steve had never wanted very much in his life. He was an only son. Steve's father was in the lingerie business and his mother ran a store that sold these items. They weren't rich in the Rockefeller sense, sort of upper middle-class, but to me that was rich. I think it was this polarity that brought Steve and me together. I was always hustling for a buck and Steve usually had bucks. I never could get any from him, no matter what scheme I tried, but together we certainly made out in getting more dollars in our pockets.
I don't think that I'll ever know why Steve came to the hospital. He didn't know why himself, nor did he ever make any effort to find out.
Steve had grown up in a refined home and he had that undeniable something that people call class. He knew how to dress with style; even as a kid, and he had manners that made my fumbling attempts seem cloddish. The only thing that I had to offer to the friendship was my knowledge of how to have fun without money. He had never known what it was like to be without, so, he knew nothing whatsoever about cheating, stealing, con games, or hustling. It wasn't that he didn't want to do any of those things, but simply that he had never had any need to. However, in a relatively short time, with lessons from me, Steve could hustle with the best. Even then he never did it out of necessity, as I did, but rather for the fun of it. Later on he learned to out-think and out-plot me. His style, his speech and his manners were perfect for conning people, and he taught me a great deal about those manners and that speaking ability. In return I gave him the basics behind many of the hustles and confidence games.
Steve's parents were good people. I don't know exactly what they thought of me, but whenever I was around them they treated me as well as they did their son, and certainly better than my own parents treated me. I received more love from his parents in the short time that I was with them than I was ever to receive from my own parents in all the years of my life.
Sometimes Steve's parents would take me to their home on the weekends when my own parents couldn't be bothered. They'd put Steve and me in their own bedroom and take Steve's room for themselves, sacrificing their twin beds for the single one in Steve's room. They also saw to it that Steve and I had plenty of spending money though the money didn't prevent us from committing crimes when the notion stuck us. I don't think that Steve's parents ever knew that he was criminally bent as I was, though I am sure the realized the kind of boy their son had taken up with.
I don't think that there was anything two friends could do together that Steve and I didn't do in the ensuing years. We lived, ate and slept in the same house. We went on dates together and even exchanged girls at times. We walked the streets of the city for hours at a time and I showed him that life was more beautiful when you were walking than when you were riding in a car or bus. He never took a long walk before he had met me, but it was my regular method of travel. We went to movies, clubs, bars, amusement parks, restaurants, plays, drive-ins, parks, stores, zoos, coffeehouses, and ghettos. We saw people, places and things all over the city. We traveled the subway system, every line and every stop in the city, just for the hell of it. Once we walked from New Jersey to New York. On the way we stopped in the middle of the George Washington Bridge. We shook hands across the divider that marked the border between the two states, just so that we could make a dumb statement like, "I was in New York and shook hands with you while you were in New Jersey."
We exchanged clothing, fantasies and dreams. We were closer than brothers during those years. I saved his life once when someone pulled a knife on him, and he, in turn, saved mine when I almost got hit by a truck. In the hospital we were inseparable and everyone knew it was folly to start with one of us because the other would immediately jump into the fray.
As the years passed we grew apart, saw each other rarely, but the old magic was there whenever we would get together. Things weren't always the same after a long separation because so much had happened in between, but we always found some common ground.
On Wards Five and Six I met a lot of people I was to meet again later on in life, as I toured the various jails and prisons. Those same faces showed up again and again. When I went to Sing-Sing, there was Buchanan whom I had known in the children's unit an again in K Building. When I went to Green Haven there was Harry whom I knew years before and who was serving fifteen to thirty years for robbery. When I got to Attica, there was John the Dummy, serving fifteen years for robbery and assault. Faces, faces, faces. . . changed and yet unchanging, bringing back to mind the house of horrors. I saw one man whom I hadn't seen for over ten years and it was just as if we had never gone anywhere or done anything in the interval. I was bigger and I had more lines in my face while he, too, had seen the wars, but still we were basically the same. Sometimes it hurt when I saw the face of a man who I thought for sure was going to make it, but the feeling never lasted very long. Why should they be any different than me? And if I had to be in prison, why not them? We were all cooked in the same pot.
Take John The Dummy for example. I first met him while in the children's unit, but he didn't stay long and was transferred to the adult side of the hospital. He was only fourteen years old. He was a deaf-mute and extremely violent, even as a child. We used to tease John unmercifully, by jumping on him and holding him down. He'd get very frustrated because he couldn't yell at us to get off and finally he would explode. When John got mad he was really funny because he would make those strange faces and even stranger noises. If we didn't hold him down very firmly he would throw us off and then proceed to beat the shit out of the first guy that he could catch. John wasn't one hundred percent mute because he could make sounds if he was mad enough. Dr. Masti explained to us the reason why he could not talk. She said it was because he was deaf and had never heard anyone talking. According to her all kids learned to talk by listening to people around them and imitate the sounds that they heard. Because John couldn't hear he couldn't imitate any sounds.
When we learned this, I went about teaching him how to talk. It took many days of concentrated effort before John managed to say his first words - "Mother Fucker." The look on Doctor Masti's face when he said it to her was worth all the effort on my part. It certainly was!
John was vicious, known to attack a man with very little, if any, provocation. He was very strong and extremely quick with his hands. I lost track of him in 1984 and I thought that I would never see him again.
Three years later I met "The Dummy" once more. He had grown over six feet and was solidly muscled. He could say a few words, but still had some difficulty speaking. He had also had an operation that partially restored his hearing ability. When I first saw him I didn't recognize him, until I heard those two words, Mother Fucker, and then I realized who it was, John, like myself, had spent a lot of time learning karate and judo, but unlike me, John become an expert. He was a deadly man who was capable of destroying anyone foolish enough to confront him. He once hit me accidentally and, even though he pulled back at the last instant, he knocked me over two tables and blackened both my eyes. I heard through the grapevine once that he got into a fight with three prison guards and in only a few seconds all three were stretch out on the floor. I guess I always knew that John would be one of those men who spent their lives going in and out of prisons. When I met John this second time he had just been sentenced to fifteen years for armed robbery and assault.
Another man on the wards was N.C.M. We always used the initials after someone gave him the nickname from a phrase a doctor had once used when describing him non compos mentis. It meant that he wasn't too bright between the ears and it described him perfectly. He got along with everyone by the simple expedient of being so stupid no one wanted to bother with him. Why fight or pick on a guy that never did anything back? It spoiled all the fun. N.C.M. was one of the only men I ever met in that hospital who was returned to normal by treatments there. There were so few that each stands out vividly from all the rest. The last thing he said to me before going out the door was, "Fooled you too, huh?" It took a while before it dawned on me that N.C.M.'s stupidity was only an act. He was as smart as any one of us, maybe smarter. He had bull-shitted us for two years thus sparing himself the usual fighting and beatings. I've often wondered how he was able to sustain that façade for such a long time, especially in light of the fact that we were living in such close quarters, and the only answer I could come up with was one - he was scared to death of us. He had a right to be ... I was scared myself. We all were.
Then there was Tombstone. He was a big, light-skinned black man who had been kicked out of the Marines and labeled as undesirable because of his natural instinct for violence. I thought it weird that the Marines didn't want a naturally violent guy. Then again, if I were in charge of the Marines, I wouldn't want Tombstone either. He was as mad as a hatter yet he could control his madness and that's what made him so dangerous. I made extra sure that Tombstone and I became good friends.
Leader was another character; one of the finest artists I have seen anywhere. Leader could take a ballpoint pen and draw a picture that was practically indistinguishable from a photograph. There was nothing he couldn't draw. Many of us would pay him cigarettes to draw girls, naked, of course, but he had one big hang-up and that usually spoiled the drawings. He would draw the most beautiful girls and then he'd do stupid things to the drawings, like maggots crawling out of their breasts or little crab-like things with pitchforks in the claws running around the vaginal area. He had some weird thing about sex and it always showed up whenever he drew pictures of women. It was sad.
Leader eventually got out of the hospital because of his talent, but I don't think he was ever cured of his sex hang-up because on the day he left he gave me this drawing of a beautiful girl. She had a ripped-open belly and thousands of tiny worms, ants, roaches, and other bugs crawling out of the wound. Leader sure was batty.
One good thing about Wards Five and Six were that they were extremely clean. They were kept that way because of the pride of the patients. None of them would tolerate any filth and as a result the wards were a showcase for K Building. Everyone wore clean clothing too, and, if a man didn't have clean clothes, others would give him some of their own to wear. Out of our own monies we bought a record player and a fabulous collection of records to go with it. We also bought a television set, a tape recorder and other recreation equipment. Everyone chipped in to get something for the wards. We were proud of wards and did everything we could to see that they were in the best possible shape. We policed them ourselves and would brook no interference with our activities by the attendants. We achieved that by purchasing a pool table and letting the attendants use it.
A lot of our money came, of course, from theft. We would organize raiding parties to other sections of the hospital and steal the money from patients, attendants, nurses, and doctors. Anyone we thought might have a buck was fair game. Some of our money came from the sale of stolen goods, but not much because it was difficult to find buyers for the property. We also made money by getting our girl friends to sell themselves to visitors and attendants at cut-rate prices. These girls, female patients from other parts of the hospital, didn't mind and we usually split the proceeds with them right down the middle. Whenever we set up a visitor with one of the girls we always made sure that at least one of us was in the immediate vicinity, just in case the guy got some strange ideas.
We never robbed any of the tricks because we didn't want the word to get around and spoil a good thing. We charged whatever we thought we could get, depending on the girl, usually two or three dollars. A girl named Chris, who was Tombstone's steady girl, once got twenty bucks from some idiot visitor, but that was very unusual. We made the money on volume as there were literally hundreds of visitors who got their jollies by fucking what they thought was a deranged woman.
We rarely committed assaults on anyone because there was no need to. The reputation of the Violent & Criminal Center was enough to scare damned near anyone we confronted, and we made sure everyone knew who we were by buying sweaters with the worlds "Violent & Criminal Center" sewed on the back of them. Those sweaters cost us fifteen dollars apiece, but they were worth it. We were a gang to be reckoned with.
One time ten of us ventured off the hospital grounds to see a movie in Jamaica, about five miles away.
There was John The Dummy, Tombstone, Steve, Korea, Iron Man, Chink, Squeeky, Billy-Joe, Young Blood, and myself. That made four white guys; me, Steve, Billy-Joe, and Squeaky; and five black guys; John The Dummy, Tombstone, Iron Man, Young Blood, and Korea. Chink was Puerto Rican and the joker in the deck. We called him Chink because his skin had a yellowish cast to it and he looked Chinese. A group like ours wasn't usually seen roaming the streets of New York City at that time because the city was teeming with juvenile gangs who each had a special territory. There were gang names like Young Lords, Chaplains, Corsairs, Golden Guineas, and others.
In Jamaica, the main street gangs were called the Mau Mau Chaplains and the Corsair Lords. Each gang comprised about five hundred members, including girls, and was well respected by the other gangs in the city. Everyone knew it wasn't such a smart idea to enter their turf while wearing colors, club jackets or sweaters. It was a good way to get wasted or beat into a bloody mess. So no one went through Jamaica wearing colors unless they were stupid or crazy. We qualified for the latter.
All ten of us knew, but we didn't care because we were determined to see a movie and only a jerk would think our sweaters were colors, even though they did have the words Violent & Criminal Center on them.
We were walking down Jamaica Avenue, a main shopping street, when we were spotted by two girl members of the Corsair Lords. Those girls were called "Debs," a diminutive of debutante, but they were in no way debutantes and were some of the roughest females in New York City. Debs were used for two reasons, sex and they also came in handy during a rumble because when the cops showed a guy could stash the knife or zip-gun on them. The cops always searched the guys, but the girls could walk away without a frisk and so avoided getting busted for weapons possessions.
When the girls saw us they hurried around the corner of 165th Street. I told Billy-Joe about them leaving in such a hurry. He just shut his eyes and shrugged. I guess he must have thought I was paranoid or something. I dropped back a few feet and spoke to Tombstone and Iron Man. They knew I wasn't paranoid and called a halt to our march. It was time for some serious talking. We'd never reach that movie in time to avoid trouble and, even if we did, there'd still be trouble when we left the theater. The ten of us stood there, thinking hard, I don't believe any of us was scared. The only thing that bothered us was we didn't know how many of the Corsair Lords were going to show up. If the odds were only two or three to one we were safe and could probably hold our own against them, but if a hundred guys showed up we were going to be in deep trouble.
Apparently the report given to the Corsair Lords from the girls was a light one because in about five minutes around thirty guys and twenty or so debs showed up. There were no bats, chains or knives in evidence and I figured that they didn't think weapons were necessary. It looked like a parade, thirty guys walking in step followed by twenty laughing girls.
The guys had on dark blue sweaters with their names embroidered on the left side of their chests. On the backs of those sweaters was Corsair Lords, L.A.M.F. The initials stood for Like A Mother Fucker. If you had the letters L.A.M.F. attached to your club colors it meant that you were extra rough and really looking for trouble. We didn't need any initials to let us know that . . . .
Most of the guys also had on short-brimmed black felt hats with red feathers stuck into the sweatbands. This was also part of their club colors and it was also a signal that the Corsair Lords were on their way to a rumble.
I didn't have much courage, but I was big on strategy and I told everyone to stand in a circle so that the Corsair Lords couldn't swarm in from behind. Steve and Billy-Joe didn't like the idea because neither one of them was inclined to fight. They thought we could talk our way out of it, but the rest of us knew we would be lucky to get back to the hospital in one piece. Talking wasn't going to do anyone any good. It was fighting time!
The girls in the rear spread out and sat on stoops, cars and litter baskets. I couldn't hear individual conversations, but I guessed they were discussing the relative merits of their fighters and how long it would take them to stomp us into the ground.
The Corsair Lords spread out across the sidewalk and started toward us in a slow, ambling walk. Some of them walked with a hopping motion every time their right foot would touch the sidewalk. This was called either bopping or Jitterbugging and was supposed to be real cool. I thought it made the bopper look like a jackass.
By then my fear had fled and I felt that good ol' rush of adrenalin, and my stomach tightened like I had to take a piss. I always got that way just before a fight. I didn't know if any of the others felt as I did, but we looked as ready as we were ever going to be. Chink, the nut, was readier than the rest of us because suddenly he gave out a wild yell and ran right at the Corsairs.
There went my beautiful strategy. We all started yelling and running behind Chink. I piled into a small black guy and knocked him over, then turned and drove my fist into the face of an even bigger black guy. The Corsair Lords were all black guys, but their debs were a mixture of black, Spanish and white.
I lost sight of a lot of the action in the heat of the fight, but I did mange to see some, between getting smashed in the face, falling down and jumping up.
Chink, of course, reached them first and he didn't slow down one step as he sailed into them. He leaped at the first guy he came to and drove his right hand into the guy's mouth, but he wasn't very big and it only rocked the guy back for a moment. In a minute Chink went down under a hail of fists.
For someone that didn't want to fight, Billy-Joe sure acted strange. He grabbed a bald-headed guy by the neck and started to choke the life out of him before he, too, went down.
Steve didn't last long either. No sooner than he reached the swirling crowd he went down after someone connected with a kick between his legs. That's enough to put an elephant down for the count.
I also saw Squeaky, Young Blood and Korea go down with about ten guys stomping them.
Things were looking bad for us, but there was one thing that nobody took into account - me, because I was too busy getting my brains beat out and the Corsair Lords because they didn't know John The Dummy, Iron Man and Tombstone were truly insane and subject to fits.
The fight hadn't lasted longer than two minutes when I fell to the ground for the last time. I saw a dozen shoes coming down at my face and there wasn't anything left to do but cover up and hope they didn't kill me. I didn't get to see what happened next but later on I managed to piece together the missing parts and learn everything that went on.
Iron Man caught a fist in the middle of a punch. He grabbed one of the Corsairs and picked him up over his head, then he threw the guy halfway across the street. He grabbed another one and cracked his arm, almost like breaking a twig.
John apparently caught his fit at the same time. With what seemed to be no effort at all he shattered someones jaw and blood spurted through the smashed lips. He kicked out and broke another guy's leg. With both arms and both legs churning, John sailed into the crowd that was stomping me.
But Tombstone was the meanest because he was already trained by the Marine Corps to fight dirty and he was naturally violent. Because he could control his fit he was doubly dangerous and when he felt it coming on he just went with it.
You could actually hear the sound of ribs snapping as Tombstone's rock-hard fists went into action, even above all the yelling and screaming. He had some funny way of kicking called Savate and could kick a guy in the face without losing his balance at all. His right foot zoomed upwards and caught Corsair right in the eye. The Corsair fell as if he had been hit with a baseball bat. In almost the same instant, Tombstone kicked another guy in the side of the face and he too fell. Then Tombstone flattened his hands out and chopped away at the crowd around him. There was no yelling like you hear in karate exhibitions, just a silent grunting deep within Tombstone's chest. At least six Corsair Lords hit the cement before they broke and took off down the street with their debs hot on their heels. I tried to pull Tombstone off one guy he was mauling, with little success, but the sounds of a police siren in the distance snapped everyone back to normal. It was time to get away from there and in a hurry. As we ran I looked back and saw three of the debs trying to hustle away the few Corsairs who were still on the sidewalk. It didn't look as though they would make it. Those Corsairs were hurt bad.
We must have looked awful running down the street like that. Every one of us was cut or bleeding or bruised. Steve hobbled because of the pain in his groin. Korea and Squeaky weren't moving too well, either. Tombstone had his arm around Chink and was helping him. John was doing the same for Young Blood. I don't know what it was that kept me going, unless it was fear, because I was in bad shape myself. It wasn't fear of the police, but fear that the Corsair Lords would be back with reinforcements.
It took us about twenty minutes to walk to Jamaica Avenue from the hospital and another fifteen to get to where the fight began, but I don't think it took longer than ten minutes to make the return trip. Even with our injuries, we made good speed.
When we reached the hospital grounds we stopped at a washroom behind the baseball field to clean up before going back to K Building. It was apparent that we couldn't enter K Building in the condition we were in. Our sweaters were ripped and so was the rest of our clothing. I had a deep gash on the top of my head and a black eye that was almost swollen shut. Everyone else was in more or less the same condition, but Chink was hurt the worst. He had a deep cut over his right eye and a smaller one on his chin. His leg was swollen too and when we pulled his pants off we noticed that his calf was twice the size of the other one. There wasn't a doctor among us, but we all knew what a broken leg looked like when we saw one. I wondered how the hell Chink had managed to keep up with us. His leg was in bad shape.
We cleaned up as best we could, but there was no way to conceal totally the fact that something bad happened. Chink's leg was the cap on the whole thing. We had to get it set for him and that meant we would have to tell someone how it happened. There was also the possibility that witnesses to the fight would mention to the police the Corsair Lords and the Violent and Criminal Center guys. We were stuck.
The consequences were severe and we all wound up in a seclusion room for three weeks apiece. Chink's leg never healed right and for as long as I knew him he walked around with a limp. Our only consolation was that we had gotten away alive and had given a good account of ourselves.