Still image from the 1960 film version of West Side Story (credit unknown)
Mickey Z. — World News Trust
December 14, 2020
Part of growing up as a heavily conditioned, lower-middle-class male in New York City was fighting. Like it or not, it loomed over all of our actions and interactions. I’ve lost track of how many times this manifested in mass pugilism but to follow are three stories about how easy a minor altercation can transform into an all-out rumble.
When I was in the eighth grade at St. Patrick’s grammar school, there was a girl named Elizabeth in my class. Within the realm of early teenage geography, she was mostly known for being Greek by ethnicity and for having long, oily hair. For this, my crew would joke that she “dwells in grease.” Needless to say, Elizabeth was not thrilled with our undeniable but cruel cleverness and this would eventually come mighty close to starting a school-on-school war.
One afternoon, while roaming with my three closest friends (Capo, Buse, and Boch), we did something ill-advised by leaving our turf. Our adventure took us to an unfamiliar block and who should we see but Elizabeth. She was sitting on her stoop, physically entwined with her boyfriend — a tough-looking Latino, bigger and older than us. Clearly, she was not the shrinking violet we assumed her to be. Elizabeth saw us and whispered something to her man. After we had passed, he caught up to us.
Long story short: He firmly warned us to leave his girl alone. To emphasize his point, he produced a knife big enough to make Crocodile Dundee blush. We wisely remained calm, claiming we meant nothing by teasing Elizabeth and promising to stop doing so. This seemed to appease Elizabeth’s boyfriend (EB) but we were certainly not gonna let this slide so casually.
Once we had walked about 20 steps from him, we turned around and called him every name in the book. EB took off after us but we were too fast for him. Within a half-hour, we had forgotten the whole thing. The next day at school, we got a rude reminder.
It was lunchtime. This means my three cohorts were eating lunch in the cafeteria. As for me, I went home for lunch as usual. As I walked back to school, I was met by a 6th grader warning me to be careful. It turns out EB was a ninth-grader at 204, the local junior high (he surely must have been left back at least once). He had gathered a TON of his classmates to walk to St. Pat’s to find us and get revenge.
Thinking quickly, I asked the kid to run to Long Island City High School — which was across the street from St. Pat’s at that time. I told him to get word to the older crew who would not be pleased that dudes from 204 were trespassing. After that, I entered St. Pat’s schoolyard the back way and found Capo, Buse, and Boch. We slipped into the building and up to class.
On a normal day, we didn’t pay much attention to our teachers. This particular day, we literally just stared out the window as the 204 crew grew in size across the street — with EB in the midst of things. Elizabeth was enjoying our discomfort as the clock moved closer to the final bell. However, her face dropped when she saw us suddenly laughing and high-fiving.
Our high school elders had come through. A handful of them appeared on our side of the street and they met us by the door when school let out. We were still outnumbered, but the older crew (including Ratt, mentioned below) all had serious reputations. They surrounded us and the 204 students moved out of their way. The plan was for them to walk us home — one by one. We were no more than a block away from St. Pat’s when the cops arrived to disperse the crowd anyway. Bullet dodged, we somehow managed to enhance our reputation despite none of us ever uttering an unkind word to Elizabeth again.
Still image from the 1979 film, The Warriors (credit unknown)
Back in those days, my friends and I weren’t easy to categorize. We were athlete-delinquents and sporting events often provided the venue to display both sides of the hyphen. Predictably, when a rival softball team came to our turf to play one of our teams, there was always the potential for trouble.
Case in point: The older guys (16-and-under league; we were still in 14-and-under) had a home game against a team from Sunnyside. The visitors brought along some supporters and one of them took to taunting our pitcher, a guy we called Ratt.
Ratt kept warning — almost begging — the guy to stop. Ratt had a notorious temper and a well-earned reputation for mayhem so he prudently wanted to end things before they progressed. The guy would not relent.
We all watched Ratt take a wooden bat and swing it at his nemesis. The guy put up his arms to protect himself and the bat made contact with his left forearm. In a flash, you could see the guy’s bone sticking through the skin. A melee ensued but not many blows were thrown. The guys from Sunnyside were more focused on getting their friend to a hospital.
Ratt was the hero again but when we learned there would be a game the following week in Sunnyside’s Skillman Park, everyone figured we’d have a full-blown rumble on our hands.
My friends and I were psyched. No one would drive us to Skillman Park, so we walked it. When we finally got there, several dozen punks were milling around but we had missed the main event. Ratt arrived and almost immediately some guy tapped him on the shoulder. Ratt turned and got punched right in the face. He recovered and fought back but the cops were already there to bust him and his attacker.
(The local residents had called the cops in advance, as soon as they saw that many long-haired troublemakers in one spot. Needless to say, the softball game was called off.)
We walked around, trying to look tough until we decided to leave. To our glee, we caught a ride with four of the older (late teens) crowd: Gary, Big Mike, and a few others. They jammed us into a car with them — with us sitting on their laps. These guys were legends in our area. Gary wasn’t the toughest guy around but he was a leader and the endless source of dramatic moments. Known as Big Pri (he had two younger brothers), he once smashed his fist through a window just because he saw someone dancing with “his” girl at a church dance. Big Mike was known, simply, as the best fighter in our insular universe and I never saw anyone come close to proving that to be wrong. We lived to impress these guys.
That night, on our way back from Skillman, I remarked that we were cruising in the toughest car around and this amused everyone. My punk friends and I yelled out the windows, challenging everyone we saw. I can still recall the delusional feeling of omnipotence and security. The elders of our clan were (allegedly) looking after us and we felt untouchable.
Still image from the 1983 film, The Outsiders (credit unknown)
Not long after the above events, my parents moved us to a “nicer” neighborhood. Wise decision but this did not eliminate the chances for the occasion rumble or three. Masculinity knows no geographical boundaries. Anyway, one such moment occurred just before I turned 18.
My friend Angelo was dating a girl named Gina. A second generation Italian, Angelo was about a year younger than me. I’m not certain how old Gina was. Probably 15 or 16. She was petite, feisty, and loved to dance. In fact, she inspired the usually unfashionable Angelo to dress not unlike Travolta in Saturday Night Fever.
Prior to this arrangement, Gina had been seeing Doug, a guy from another neighborhood. Of course, men and boys from different locations fighting over “ownership” of women and girls is an essential part of the masculinity paradigm.
Anyway, a large crew of us used to regularly hang out in Gina's basement. It was not only spacious but her mother and stepfather were also frighteningly lenient in terms of what they allowed us to do under their roof. I’ll leave that part to your imagination.
One night, I was hanging out in the basement with a couple of friends, but Angelo and Gina were elsewhere. Suddenly, Angelo burst in with the big news that Gina's ex-boyfriend had decided to pay her a visit. He was cruising around in his Mustang with a male friend and when they encountered Angelo and Gina, violent threats ensued.
Gina ran upstairs to her room, but Angelo came to me for help because, well… I was somebody you’d want on your side in such situations. Angelo and I quickly found Doug and his friend. We tossed rocks and batteries at their car until they sped away. Word spread quickly and soon we had about 10 other guys milling around on Gina's block. When nothing happened for about a half-hour, I guess we were pretty satisfied with ourselves and thus collectively let our guard down a bit. That's when the counterattack happened.
About six or seven carloads of guys came screeching up to the corner and everyone on our side took off — everyone, that is, except me, Angelo, and his younger brother, Pasquale. Why didn’t I do the wise thing and run?
I had a vague sense of loyalty to Angelo and Pasquale (they lived across the street from me) so when they stuck around to fight, I kinda sorta felt like I had to stay with them. There was that and there was also the not insignificant issue of reputation. Who knows how fast ideas and concepts bounced around my brain in those two to three seconds, but I somehow settled on being vastly outnumbered by about two dozen angry dudes rather than risk being called a coward (or worse).
So, I stood my ground and when two or three guys tried to pounce on Pasquale, I pulled them away. Miraculously, the invading gang didn’t start pummeling us. In the moment, I was way too busy making sure no one snuck up on me from behind to bother analyzing this strange choice but looking back, I’m guessing it was an odd blend of two factors:
Fear: Sure, they had us at a major disadvantage but they were in a strange neighborhood and once a fight begins, well, anything can happen. We all knew this and deep down inside, we were probably all too nervous to start something that could only end ugly.
Foolishness: Instead of beating the shit out of us and getting back to the safety of their “turf,” these dopes opted to first humiliate us with pathetic taunts and threats. They had clearly seen far too many movies and their feeble attempts at flair were laughable. In fact, when Doug sprung out of his Mustang, he did so in such a hurry that he left it in drive and the car rolled right into a garbage can. Pasquale and I stifled a laugh as we noticed the small dent.
Humiliated, Doug circled us and played the taunting game. “You like to throw things at cars, huh?” Shit like that. Big mistake. What these morons hadn’t counted on was Gina telling her step-dad, Pete, about the fracas. Pete liked us (especially Angelo) so, being a macho, blue-collar kind of dude, he didn't take kindly to a bunch of outsiders messing with us when we were just defending “our” territory.
Also informed of the situation was a guy named Timmy. He dated Rita, the girl who lived upstairs from Gina. Timmy was maybe four or five years older than us and had a reputation around my way. (He ended up drowning at Rockaway Beach a year or so later but that night, he was there when it counted.)
Pete and Timmy come out and started shoving punks out of the way until they reach the epicenter of the stand-off. Timmy slapped a bottle out of one punk's hands and scowled: "What are you gonna do with that?” The dude had no answer. We were still outnumbered about 25 to 5, but he backed down. If you’ve ever been in such a situation, you know that something big had just shifted.
Pete was maybe in his early 40s, not big but he carried himself like a brawler. He picked out the biggest guy in the batch, slammed him up against a car, and got in his face. “Who wants to fight? Who wants to come to my block and fight?”
“My” block. As I said, ownership is a crucial, essential part of manhood. I understood this down to my bones and at the time, Pete’s challenge seemed right and proper to me. Timmy stood with his back to Pete and warned the others to not interfere. None of them tested him.
You could feel the confidence draining from Doug and his boys. Me, Angelo, and Pasquale — eager to impress our elders — suddenly started staring them down and even pushing them. At that point, Pete looked around at how many guys were surrounding him. Oh-so-slowly, he opened his flannel shirt to reveal a gun tucked into his belt. With a sinister whisper surely learned from an overdose of Clint Eastwood, Pete sneered: “Which one of you tough guys is first?”
Confession: I was in my teenage glory. When you’re someone of my position at the time, you dream of such moments. I can guarantee that there wasn’t a guy amongst us who hadn’t cheered when something like this happened in a movie.
Doug and his now-demoralized band had seen those movies, too, so they fulfilled their predetermined role. They backed away towards their cars with Timmy shoving anyone he deemed as not moving quickly enough.
When Doug’s crew was gone, Pete winked at us, rubbed Angelo's head, and went back inside as we cooly yelled "thanks" after him. I say “cooly” because you never wanna let on that until Pete and his gun showed up, we were scared shitless and out of options.
As the friends who bolted began to reappear, we repeated the story, over and over — each time embellishing it a bit to make ourselves look even more badass. In just one hour, me, Angelo, and Pasquale had earned the ultimate respect. “Pete's gun” became part of local lore.
You’d think I would’ve learned something valuable after coming within inches of being sent to the hospital yet again but, alas, conditioning runs mighty deep. It’d eventually take me years to even begin peeling away the layers and decades to make any worthwhile progress.
Ironic postscript: Shortly after the near-death incident described above, Gina broke up with Angelo and made a play for yours truly. However, I was too well-trained in the manhood game back then to ever “steal” a friend’s girl.
Mickey Z. can be found here. He is also the founder of Helping Homeless Women - NYC, offering direct relief to women on the streets of New York City. To help him grow this project, CLICK HERE and make a donation right now. And please spread the word!