MY BEST FRIEND
When I was a kid growing up in the Bronx my best friend was Eddie. He was so much a part of my life that I would tell my parents and my sister and brother each evening at supper what Eddie had done and what he had said during the day. So detailed and so intense were these stories of our daily adventures and Eddie’s leading role in them that my father began to call my friend Eddie Sez’; primarily because of the wisdom I believed Eddie possessed about all thing “Kid”.
He came from a family of six children, four boys and two girls. In my family we were three, two boys, and one girl. Of course we had parents. My father was a letter carrier, once known as a mailman, and my mother was a House Wife, once a profession, now not.
Eddie and the rest of his family lived in a ground floor apartment in the front of our apartment house. It was a six story walk up, built in an age, somewhere around 1920, when anything less than ten floors was thought unnecessary to require an elevator. Eddie’s apartment facing the front looked out on the street, Bailey Avenue, which, when I was a child, was the longest and broadest street in the civilized world, cobblestones paving its length and breadth, and trolley tracks bisecting it. Perhaps as many as twenty times a day, cars would whiz by bound outward to the world. And in the evening, cars would line the street at great intervals. Some of them were even locked and their windows were rolled up.
On the other side of the street, looking west to the edge of the world, a plateau spread in both directions for dozens of yards before falling off down to the tracks of the Grand Central railroad, whose Northern Division ran north to the pole for all I knew, and filled the air with the sound and smoke of “industry” and “commerce”, from its long freight trains and huge black belching engines. We kids all loved playing down in the railroad yard, walking along the tracks, and on top of the third rail; throwing the stones used as ballast at rats, cats and birds and at the long lumbering freight cars on the trains moving in and out of the city almost every day. Eddie could throw a stone further than most of the kids I hung around with. But, he stayed away from the third rail stuff.
That was because Eddie’s father who we learned was named Barney, or, sometimes, “Star”, used to work for that railroad until, in the legendary past, he was injured jumping from a locomotive to the ground at the end of a long day. Eddie told us he hit the third rail. The injury resulted in a weakness and palsy which was with him for the rest of his life; a life he spent at the window of his living room with a pitcher of beer to hand staring out at the world going by. He never stopped his shaking hands unless he was taking a mouthful of beer. All the kids in the neighborhood came to know him as “Shaky”.
Frail and bent, Shaky would walk from his house to the corner tavern each morning, The Kingsbridge Tavern, owned by Angie, a little man whose head barely cleared the level of the bar when he stood behind ready to pour; and once there, Shaky H., for that was his name, would buy himself a quart container of beer from the tap. He may have been Angie’s first customer every day. And, firmly and steadily clutching the newly poured container to himself, Shaky would walk home, enter his apartment and take up his seat. Once or twice more each day he would repeat this appointed round in all kinds of weather, faithful to the work.
Eddie’s mother was a tall and quiet woman. I don’t think I ever knew her given name. She was always Mrs. H., and is still when I think of her. All of the women were known that way, by their married names. They were Mrs. Lastname, even when we were grown. And the men were Mister. And, except that my father used Eddie’s father’s name and unless I had heard him using it in his conversations with my mother, I would never have known Barney “Star” H.’s full name. Mrs. H., whom I cannot remember seeing outside the house, would sometimes lean out of her kitchen window and exchange the news of the day with some of the other mothers who might come outside with toddlers and children not yet in school. The street was our playground, the curbstones our toilets, because when tiny, going back upstairs, three, four or five flights of them, was not only difficult but hazardous. Anything could happen.
We lived on the same side of the house as Eddie, in the back. Our windows faced a wooden fence, erected we kids thought, by someone who hated kids. Because beyond that fence was a vacant lot full of weeds and wild flowers, rocks and stones and sand. Like any vacant space to a bunch of kids, it was a perfect place to play. And since it was a playground, the only one at all in the neighborhood, the fence never stayed up for too long a time.
Every day in all kinds of weather this area, which came to be known simply as The Lot, was the venue for all sorts of games; from a form of baseball, played with regular balls and bats all the way to wads of newspaper or clods of earth as balls and tree branches, sticks and hollow cardboard tubes if nothing else was handy, as bats, to the kind of ordered chaos that is known by all the kids I’ve ever known as, simply, Play. There were names, of course, and rules, boundaries, sides and positions. There was everything the world above us required for the danger and drudgery of “work”! When playing with the girls, one of whose games to play was called House, boys were always “going to work”. This involved leaving the girls and going away…somewhere.
We also played war. We even had a navy of sorts in the form of two large rocks in The Lot, way over in deep left field. One, named K-880, could be a submarine, a battleship, a troop carrier, a swift destroyer or anything one wished it to be, and sometimes more than one type of vessel. Very rarely, it was a tank. The other one, named Flat Rock, was always an aircraft carrier…or a place to sit and eat lunch between games.
On the other side of The Lot, at the crest of a small slope, was Heath Avenue. That was where The Heathies lived. They were ancient enemies. One was born hating the Heathies, though not as much as one hated The Crescents, all of whom were savages and probably cannibals. War against The Crescents, who lived near the firehouse a few blocks away, had always been going on since first the earth was cool enough to walk on.
I learned, as I grew older that the Heathies and Crescents were called such because they lived on Heath Avenue and on Albany Crescent. And, I went to school with several of them.
I don’t remember when we actually met, Eddie and I, and became friends, but I am pretty sure it took place when we were both very young fellows, perhaps toddlers. So, it can be said with some truth that we knew each other in fact before we were really grown to consciousness. Eddie, when I was so very young, before school began, was a part of my life; as much I suppose as my brother and sister, my parents and certainly more than the other relatives I saw, none of whom lived near enough to walk to for a visit. And, I grew up when walking was the primary means of locomotion in the city for folks like us; walking or the bus or trolley.
Eddie was older than me by almost a year, and taller, better looking and leaner. He was also more naturally athletic, excelling at the games we played like baseball, football, stickball, and basketball, in the playground the city built when we got older. Until that time came, though, we had other games; games of our own invention like Running Through and Best Faller and Tarzan. These we played while forming our skill and talent for more complicated games with rules and boundaries and positions. Rules, by the way, were great occasions for arguments which sometimes lasted longer than the game itself, and often led to simply tossing the game aside in favor of something more active than yelling.
Running Through was a version of football. When there weren’t enough kids to field two decent sized teams, we would play Running Through; a game where one guy with the football would try to run through, around, over, or dig under, all the rest of us without losing the ball or breaking anything. We all took turns running through. And, it had the advantage of having no rules.
Best Faller was another game, a war game. We played that game by attacking a “machine gun” nest occupied by The Japs or Nazis, or both. Everyone rotated through the nest and killed the attacking GI’s usually running downhill at breakneck speed (literally). The best faller in each attack got to attack again with the next group while the others, eliminated, sat on the sidelines and screamed. There were no real winners. It was simply a game where we all got dirty, and tired, and yelled while thinking about war and glory, glory and war. Danny Valuzzi was always a gunner. He was the only guy with a real toy rifle. The rest of us had broomsticks which were also spears, or stickball bats.
The city’s playground and a public school, PS 122, ended our games of Tarzan. They filled in the lot we used for it. And that was because it was a good twenty feet lower than the surrounding terrain. Tarzan was played on swings of rope, dumb waiter ropes we had taken from the dumb waiters and tied to branches on the trees reaching out over the depressed ground that was Tarzan’s, a watery tangle of weeds, garter snakes, mosquitoes and salamanders, mud and most forms of urban debris. We would swing out over this primeval mess and see how far we could go and safely fall into the muddy mess below; without drowning or breaking something.
We also hunted for snakes and salamanders in the good weather, bringing them home to live in the bathtub or kitchen sink…for a while.
Eddie was good at all the games with certain exceptions. He didn’t like to play the kind of things we played across the street in Tarzan’s. I also don’t remember much his presence in the hikes we took, walking up the railroad tracks to Van Cortlandt Park a couple of miles away and hunting for snakes and squirrels and frogs and other stuff that really interested kids. Snake hunting was fun, but hunting squirrels with stones we had taken from the railroad was the best fun. I got pretty good at knocking a squirrel of a branch high in a tree.
But, I had to be careful to empty my pockets before entering the home. My mother, if she found stones in them would know that I had been out, and probably far away, hunting some small animal with my friends, and, of course, walking on the railroad tracks where I could get killed at any moment. I never gave that much thought, though. Kids, before the age of ten or twelve probably don’t give anything much thought. At least we didn’t. We just did, or didn’t do what came to mind; and when we were finished with that, we did something else.
As I said, Eddie was a good athlete, an excellent pitcher, with a good fastball and a mean curve, whether throwing an old tennis ball, a “spaldeen” during stickball games, or even basketball when we played, under the watchful eye of the “Parkie”, the guy who handed out equipment and kept the brooms and stuff in the Parkie’s House just inside the entrance to the playground.
The Parkie also ordered us off the swings, basketball backboards, slides, wire fences and other stuff we shouldn’t be climbing on or jumping off; though he could only do that when the park was open.
We were growing older and becoming bolder; doing risky and dangerous things. For instance, we went swimming in the Harlem and Hudson rivers; at that time little more than open sewers. Mothers warned us not to go swimming in those places because if we did we would surely get Polio and die or drown. And so, we developed the habit of opening a fire hydrant and taking a cleansing bath before going home. Of course, there were times when no amount of water would remove the brackish smell, and we got a beating.
I never saw Eddie in the water, anywhere. He never swam in the Harlem, or the Hudson river; never took the bus with a bunch of us to Orchard Beach in the summer, so we could get a layer or two of skin burned off, or swam in Charlie’s Hole, little more than a mud puddle in Vanny, our name for Van Cortlandt Park.
But I gave it no thought. He was my “best friend”, not my only friend. And then something happened.
One day, it was just Eddie and me. We were playing in the Foundies, an old construction site on our block that consisted of the crumbling remains of an apartment house that never got further than the basement. My mother would have killed me if she knew I was there. The previous summer I’d cracked my skull open falling from one of the walls, and the year before that, I’d nearly burned my big toe off playing with some railroad flares that Danny McGrath, an older kid, had and was sharing with me to celebrate July 4th.
Anyway, Eddie and I were doing something when we were joined by a “little kid”. Little Kids were the ones “coming up”, the next generation, the rookies, anywhere from three to five years younger than us. This was one of them, some boy from another apartment house on the block who wanted to play with us. Eddie knew him and suggested we play “war” and he would be our prisoner. Now, this usually meant that the prisoner had to do whatever we told them and try to escape. And here things started to go bad, really scary bad. The kid did “escape” and Eddie chased him down, brought him back to the “prison” and dumped him on the ground. Then he told the kid to take off all his clothes so he couldn’t escape again. The kid started to cry, and Eddie just got mad at him, took off his shirt and pants and threw them over a wall. The kid stood there in his shoes and underpants and cried.
Eddie had never gotten mad, never lost his temper, never went ballistic. I was the one who did that.
I was getting scared, too, because my friend was really angry with this kid, who was wailing. “Let’s get out of here,” I said, because we were going to get in trouble. And, getting in trouble was as bad as things could be when you were about ten years old. Eddie listened to me and decided to leave but warned the kid not to tell anyone. Then we left.
Of course, it took the kid about ten minutes to get himself back together and tell his mother what and who. Not too much longer after that my father found me out in front of our house and dragged me inside, where he took off everything I had on and beat me until he got too tired to swing the razor strap. He didn’t speak to me for a few weeks after that. My mother dragged me over to the kid’s house by my hair and made me apologize to him and his parents. Then she dragged me back home and threw me into the bathroom where I would probably have stayed for a week or two if we had another bathroom in the house.
It was not the worst thing I have ever done, but it is the thing I remember most vividly.
I didn’t see Eddie for a while. As a matter of fact, I was forbidden from hanging around with him. That too passed, and Eddie and I re-joined the kids, picking up where we had left off.
We were getting older, and noticing more. One of the things we were noticing was the presence of girls. They had, of course been there all along, with doll carriages, and jumping ropes and other stuff. But, up until recently we had considered them merely obstacles, things like stray cats to be run off. Now, we didn’t mind them so much at all. They were nice to look at, and, sometimes, even fun to talk to.
There was no pairing off quite yet. But when it came, and come it did a year or so later, my friend Eddie was among the first chosen. He was, I suppose, what could be called an “Alpha Male”. And, the girl who picked him was every bit his match. Her name was Barbara. They stayed a “couple” for several years, I think; so much so that even some of the mothers began to expect they would marry some day.
It was not to be, though. And, it had to have been Eddie’s fault. As he grew older, and entered his teens he began to change, as did we all. But there was a difference, I think, sitting now a million years away from the places and events. Eddie did not seem to want to be the kind of kid the rest of us were, do the kind of things we did, nor play, any more, the games we played. We saw less of him. And that began at around the time of our very short and losing war with our implacable enemy The Crescents.
Who can remember the reason most wars have started? Do they need a reason, after all? All I knew is that we were going to fight the Crescents, a big, dangerous tribe of tough guys. On the day of the fight, which took place in a lot at the end of our block, they sent their best, about thirty fierce and “plug-ugly” guys whose knuckles dragged and weapons clanked. We managed to muster eight guys, and the only “weapon” we had was a paddle ball paddle, like a thin plywood racquet ball paddle, only flimsier.
We were destroyed. Eddie took no part in the combat. And the only reason he gave me when I asked him was that he didn’t want to get dirty.
I’ve never been able to figure that out.
When high school came, Eddie went off to De Witt Clinton, a city school, and most of us went to one or another of the five or six thousand Catholic High Schools in the city.
We saw each other from time to time, and we spoke from time to time, but there was less in common than there had been; and I never could tell why it was so. The legal age for drinking at that time in New York was 18, and with my friends I took full advantage of it. As a matter of fact, we had been taking advantage for several years; training for the “big event” so to speak, in the same way kids have been doing it since forever I guess. Eddie never did. He played elsewhere at another game, a game I never learned.
It must have been in my senior year, waiting for graduation, when I ran into Eddie early one morning. The sun wasn’t long up and I was headed home from Toolan’s, a bar, one of a half million in the neighborhood. I ran into him just outside the door to our apartment; he leaving and me coming in. We smiled and spoke briefly. He had left school, he said, at the beginning of the year, and was looking for work somewhere. I don’t remember what he said he was looking to do. And, then we continued on our separate ways.
A few months earlier one or two of the fellows I hung around with had told me about a party they were going to. It was at an apartment in another neighborhood, Washington Heights, a few miles south of us across the river in Manhattan. It might as well have been in Lapland. I stayed home. But, afterwards they told me I had missed a great time. The girls at the party were unlike any of the girls we knew. And, Eddie was there, they told me. He was especially there with one of the girls.
I saw him only once more after that story about the girl with whom he was at the party; the girl I later learned was carrying his child. He looked sad, and older, much older. I don’t remember what we said, what we talked about. I just remember that it was the last time I saw him, already an old man. I wish I could, but I don’t remember our last conversation, or where he went when we parted.
He just drifted away.
The last thing I heard about my best friend Eddie was that he was working as a porter and utility man in an apartment house in Washington Heights, a neighborhood in Manhattan, and had married the woman he had gotten pregnant.
That was more than 60 years ago.