Sunday, May 30, 2021

On Memorial Day 2021


Ernie Palmieri: I Hear You Singing In the Wire

Ernie Palmieri sat by the radiators in Sister Mary Malachy’s haunted classroom. I sat a few rows away in the dead zone in the back of the crowded room, reserved for misfits and troublemakers. Tall, with startling green eyes and coal black hair, Palmieri was no wiseguy. Quiet, easygoing, seemingly marking time, even in elementary school. He lived up Carroll Street toward Fifth Avenue; I lived down by the Gowanus Canal. He had two sisters, maybe twins, with that olive complexion you see in medieval frescoes and southern Italian farmsteads. He mostly avoided the nun’s wrath (see waltzed stiffly with the rest of us in our overblown Christmas production to Verdi’s “La Donna e mobile” in the parish recreation center. My cousin JuJu and his thugs jeered and hooted in the darkened auditorium. And then Ernie was gone.
We were just 14-years-old.
I went to an all-boys Catholic high school in Park Slope. Wore ill-fitting jackets and ties every day. Endured more years of beating and bullying, this time by Christian Brothers. Learned things.
Ernie would have gone to Manual Training (now John Jay H.S). on Seventh Avenue. I don’t know if he graduated. Walking home from school, I’d see him behind the counter at Ben’s Pork Store, a salumeria on Fifth Ave near Carroll Street. The place was fragrant with Parmigiana Reggiano, marinating mushrooms, prosciutto, salamis and wheels of civiletta sausage, tastes and smells that intoxicate me to this day. Ernie is his white butchers apron, always smiling, sneaking me a hunk of soppresatta I couldn't afford.
I went to Brooklyn College. He and an older brother, Julio planned to open their own butcher shop in Bay Ridge. I had no idea who I was or what I wanted to do with my life. I remember being achingly lonely as the umbilical that bound me to the Gowanus began to rupture. War was on the horizon. We were 18-years old.
Ernie met a girl, Mary Lou Lobianco, planned to marry. When the call-ups began in earnest in 1965, I, native-born, couldn’t think of enough ways to avoid Vietnam. Ernie Palmieri, an American by choice, enlisted. After basic training, Ernie was assigned to the Army’s 71st Helicopter Assault Company, jockeying thin-skinned UH-1 Huey choppers into very bad places, inserting and extracting grunts, pulling out the wounded and dead.
I didn’t know any of this.Most people I knew didn't care. I was teaching English to mechanics at Automotive High in Williamsburg, a very different Williamsburg from today. I found my father’s records in the school basement. He’d made it past second year,then left to fight in the Pacific. On Carroll Street, we listened to doo-wop music, the Four Seasons, Young Rascals, Sinatra like the wise guys in the Capri Club. I was late coming to the Beatles and Stones but I remember, of all things, a country song about the war, not mocking or bitter, but devastating in its power to pierce me like a dagger and capture longing and loss of war:
“... Galveston, oh, Galveston,
I still hear your sea waves crashin’,
while I watch the cannons flashin'.
I clean my gun, and dream of Galveston.
...Is she waiting there for me,
On the beach where we used to run?I
I'd never run on a beach with a girl, but there was another song seemingly about a telephone lineman in Kansas. I understood that guy better than I knew myself.
I became a reporter. The war ended, but another was beginning. Out of concern, guilt or a need to make amends, the working class kid who missed the working class war, I began covering Vietnam veterans. I wrote the first story on women vets, skilled nurses, kids themselves, who tended the horribly wounded and comforted the dying—for Newsweek. One of these women, Lola McGourty, is still my friend 35 years later. I wrote a book, “Uneasy Warriors” about Vietnam’s Green Berets, JFKs own soldiers, elevated as heroes and then cast down in defeat. I went to Hanoi to visit an American vet who'd returned to assist children damaged by Agent Orange and the aftereffects of the conflict. I was there a month and found a new generation of Vietnamese. The posters in Hanoi now depicted B-52s dropping long strings of Coca-Cola, but the war was a distant memory. The young Vietnamese wanted iPhones and flat screens.
In Washington, D.C., I found Ernie Palmieri at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. He was waiting there for me on Panel 13E, Line 23. (see Ernie was killed on December 8th 1967, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, on a rescue mission extracting soldiers who’d come under attack near Cu Chi, the site of a massive underground tunnel complex built by the Viet Cong that is now a major tourist destination in Vietnam. The bullet may have been fired by a sniper in a schoolhouse the choppers spared because there were kids playing outside the building.
Ernie’s parents, Rocco and Maria, were waiting at Penn Station to claim his body when it arrived from Delaware by train. If they were anything like my parents, a trip into Manhattan in the middle of the night, in itself would have been daunting. Specialist 4th Class Ernest Palmieri, the smiling kid who sat by the whistling radiators in Our Lady of Peace school, who made his First Communion in a white suit with me, who attended mass every Sunday—attendance was mandatory--is buried in Long Island National Cemetery.
The story doesn’t end there. On August 16, 2008, U.S. Army UH-1 helicopter (tail number 65-10068), Ernie’s chopper, arrived in tiny Mineral Wells, Texas where it was mounted on a steel pillar as one of the city’s National Vietnam War Museum exhibits. Four men from Ernie’s unit, the 71st Assault Helicopter Company, old men themselves, showed up to honor him. The museum provided free hot dogs for the first 500 attendees.
Even this was nearly a decade in the past. And yet, yesterday, when the media mentioned the death of Glenn Campbell, and inevitably began playing the haunting strains of Galveston and Wichita Lineman, Ernie came alive again, as I knew him so long ago, as I never knew myself, and the loss was such I thought my heart would burst with a grief that lain dormant for fifty years.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

My Cousin Richie Part I

I fly up for a family wedding held in one of the glittery Bensonhurst halls Italian-Americans love. Think "Kubla Khan" (“That sunny dome! Those caves of ice!”). Big band; Brobdignagian feast followed by “Venetian Hour,” preceded by “Cocktail Hour,” topped off by a flaming post-midnight breakfast. My sister-in-law has a tuxedo for four-year-old Thomas and a personal stylist to do 12-year-old Gaby’s hair. Having been married by a justice of the peace with a “Here Comes Da Judge” sign on his desk, I marvel at all the splendor. Unknown to me, the groom  had quit the job I’d gotten him at Newsweek and was now a bookie. Unknown to his Armani-clad bosses—seated at their own gangster table near the kiddie table—he was a crazed gambler.
When I step out of my limo, all my female cousins are screaming, “He’s coming!!”
“He’s starring in a new movie with Robert DeNiro!”
“Who is?”
“Cousin Richie! Richie Castellano!”
That’s odd. Richard Castellano, who played the portly “Clemenza” in The Godfather (“Leave the gun; take the cannoli”), had died 10-years before. At that moment, one of the shrieking teenagers thrust a glossy headshot at me. Sure enough, the cutline proclaimed “Richard Castellano,” but the broken-nosed visage smiling at me was my cousin Richie, “Richie Mel.” Everyone knew that.
One of the last times I’d seen Richie, I was living on Fifth Street (above 8th Avenue to connoisseurs of Park Slope). Teaching English at Automotive High School in Williamsburg. That morning, I was unlocking my car when I heard a hoarse shout.
“Cuz! You gotta help me!”
I looked up. “Hey Richie. What’s up?”
“Cuz! I’m begging ya!”
Everyone in Brooklyn shouted. All day, all the time, as if they really were players fretting and strutting on some invisible stage. The rest of us were scenery for them to chew.
“What’s wrong?”
“Cuz, they say I robbed a gas station!”
“I’m innocent. I swear to my mother! They saying I shot a guy…with a shotgun!”
“Get outta here!”
“Fuckin’ cops! You know how they lie!”
I did know. Ten years before, I'd made the mistake of getting drunk on Tango, bottled rutgut vodka and orange.  I was swept up in a dragnet--there had been a street gang murder that night--and dragged into the 78th precinct where a two cops took turns beating me for hours hoping for a confession. They were disappointed when the real killer was caught and marched in. By way of apology, an Irish cop walked me outside, punched me in the stomach and threw me down the concrete steps.
Richie paused as if to find his mark. “Cuz, you’re an educated guy. You went to college. I’m stupid! You gotta help me. I know I did some things, but I’m innocent this time. I got a wife…”
He choked back a sob.
“Maybe…maybe you could talk to Uncle Sonny.” (Our uncle, Sal Giordano, was an NYPD detective so straight he was known in the neighborhood as “Elliot Ness.”)
“Uncle Sonny knows people.”
“I could call him.”
I knew Uncle Sonny's first impulse would be to strangle Richie. For years, he and his wayward brothers—“JuJu,” “Jimmy Psycho,” and “Popeye Anthony”—had been the bane of Sonny's existence. (Another brother, despite his nickname, "Alibi Ike," somehow went on to lead a blameless life, serving in the Air Force, building a successful career, supporting a loving wife and family.)
“Maybe you can write a letter to the prosecutor," Richie added. "I was thinking the Bishop too. You know my sister Carol works in Our Lady of Peace rectory. She cooks for the priests…Cuz, I’m really scared.”
“What’s his name?”
"The bishop!"
“Fuck I know.”
I’d always felt Richie and his brothers—all smart, engaging, personable guys--were a photographic negative of my family. Or victims of some mysterious curse. The curse of growing up by the Gowanus Canal. Three of my brothers had graduated from college; none of us had ever been in trouble (all this would change). I felt guilty; I’d committed the sin of hard work and ambition.
“I’m fucking innocent!” he sobbed.
“Come on. It’s okay." I gave him a pretend hug. "Nothing’s going to happen. I promise. When I get home from work, come by. We’ll eat. I’ll help you. Ok?"
This was the Vietnam War era; the Watergate era; the Berrigan Brothers…injustice, civil rights
“You mean it Cuz?”
“Sure…But I gotta get to work now.”
“No problem. I don’t want to bother you. I know you’re a busy guy. Responsibilites.”
As I was tossing my briefcase—stuffed with papers I’d spent half the night marking--into my green Karmann Ghia, Richie called out again.
I sighed and stood up. The tears were gone. He was grinning. I stared as he pulled a greasy wad of bills from his pants’ pocket. Hundreds of dollars. He fanned it in front of my face.
“Cuz,” he said. “But I got the money!”
He couldn’t resist. He had to let me know he thought I was an idiot.
Part II
Part III

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Election Night on the Gowanus


An Election Night bonfire, built over Carroll Street’s cobblestones was a tradition predating the black-clad Italian women simmering tomato sauce on Sunday mornings or i pazzi, the crazies wandering our streets. It had very American feel to it, Bull Moose Party…Boss Tweed…Salem’s witches. We teenagers raided Chitty’s fruit store for orange crates and wooden bushel baskets, then Cambie’s Trucking, pulling splintery wooden pallets from the bays of tractor trailers. We went door-to-door begging fragrant wine barrels from homemade wine presses,..cracked linoleum and unwanted furniture. As the frenzy built, we’d literally pull wooden cellar doors off their hinges
At 13, I'm not sure I knew the name of the President. Not until Kennedy. I knew the mayor—a pie factory on Fourth Avenue, bore his name—Wagner. Buy damaged pies for a nickel and smash them, sticky lemon and pineapple, in each other’s faces. The name Rockefeller, was so alien it might have been a petroglyph.  Across the East River, Manhattan glimmered, unreachable, insubstantial. 
Wise guys Jerry Lang, Honey Christiano and Jackie Carr, abetted us, winking as we dragged busted folding chairs and card tables from the Glory Social and Capri Clubs on Third Avenue. They were, in all things, irresponsible. Perfect negative role model for lost boys bucking societal restraints.
No one cared about voting. My father would announce as if he’d unearthed a kernel of infinite wisdom—“No matter who wins, I gotta go to work in the morning.”
We competed against kids from President and Union Streets, and the alien territories across the Gowanus, for the biggest, most out-of-control blaze. Preempting us, the Fire Department, sent raiding parties to haul away our hidden stores of planks and beams. They were met with barrages of eggs and rotten fruit
If they caught you, these, burly Irishmen from Bay Ridge and Flatbush, They' d beat the shit of you. At dusk on Election Night, we emerged like crazed rats from hallways, cellars and alleys, lugging wood, stacks of newspapers and plastic gallons of gas, turpentine, paint. Darting, whirling, like Max from Where the Wild Things Are.Americo Guzzi, hammered the outsized brass nut on the fire hydrant, deforming and disabling it. The pile, grew three stories high and 40 feet across No one seemed to register that almost all the houses on Carroll Street were made of wood,sheathed in tarpaper and flammable shingles.
By 9:00 P.M., alarms were sounding everywhere. Sirens blared, fire trucks careened around corners. On the fire escapes younger kids readied volleys of eggs. Honey, 46-years-old, tossed a wooden torch—wrapped with rags soaked in gasoline—onto the pile. It exploded, turning night into day. I felt the combustion’s blast. A wave of intense heat sucked the air out of my lungs.
Holy shit!”
Half-blinded by smoke, gasping, grinning, I  watched Jeannie Wilcox, Amy Gallo, my cousin Clementine, cute girls in pink lipstick, leather jackets, tight jeans, as they stood transfixed. The heat washed over them, sensual. They ignored me.
All the telephone wires on the street were melting and burning. Embers were floating delicately over tar paper roofs.
“Where the hell is the Fire Department?”  Someone roared, the spell broken.
When they arrived, there was no water pressure in the pipes. I stood up, let fly with my last egg.
“Grab that little bastid!”
 I ducked and ran into the alley next to Honey’s house, a big guy in a yellow rubber suit closing fast. I cut, slipped, and rammed my head into the edge cinderblock wall. I've still got the "V" cut into my head

Monday, October 14, 2019

For Vincenzo Coppola on Columbus Day.

My grandfather, Vincenzo Coppola, is long deceased. I’m named for him.
Growing up, I remembered Vincenzo as the guy who cost us our inheritance. Vincenzo was a fruit peddler. His wife, Anna, my grandmother, was a very astute businesswoman. Within 20 years of arriving in New York, she and her sister, known only as LA ZIA, “THE AUNT,” opened a dress shop, a grocery; they owned houses, a small apartment building, and a "palazzo" in Pagani, south of Naples, our hometown.
Anna, died in her forties, before I was born. As the story goes, THE AUNT, homely as a witch in a fairy tale, decided Vincenzo, a handsome, strapping man, should now marry her. He balked and the bad blood flowed across the generations.
After World War II, the Aunt sent Vincenzo to Italy to collect the rent on the property that had been accruing for a decade.
He sailed off and didn’t return for a year.
He arrived back in Brooklyn flat broke. The Aunt, who legally controlled everything, not only stripped Vincenzo, of his portion of the business, but kicked my father and his four sisters out of her will. We wound up living in a $35 a month apartment above a bar.
When The Aunt passed away, her assets went to a distant cousin, MARIUCHELLE who’d been brought over from Italy as a servant.
My whole life, I walked past OUR apartment building cussing my grandfather for blowing my inheritance.
In May 1981, I was part of a Newsweek team dispatched to Rome to cover the attempted assassination of John Paul II, the Polish Pope. I was in Italy for month. As it turned out, my Aunt Tessie, my father’s older sister, was visiting Rome as well. Tessie was fluent in Italian and had stayed in contact with our family.
“Why don’t we visit,” I suggested.
That Sunday morning, I rented a car and we drove south 135 miles to PAGANI. We spent an afternoon with our Italian relatives. An amazing experience The eldest of them was a medical doctor who lived with her husband, a French teacher named Aeneas Falcone in an apartment that might have been grand 100 years earlier. A living room wall split by an earthquake went unrepaired. I suspect there wasn't much demand for French in a town whose name translates as 'the Pagans." They showed us an old book with an illustration of our family tree. The branches ended abruptly with my grandparents’ immigration early in the 20th century.
I filled in the blanks.
Of course, there followed the Sunday afternoon feast. The pasta and braciole, sausage, roast chicken and stuffed artichokes, remarkably like the dinners I’d eaten my whole life on Sunday afternoons. These were people of modest means and I’m certain they spent a good part of their weekly budget on this dinner.
I can’t speak Italian, but the emotions that flowed were clear as a crystal stream:
That morning, I didn’t know these folk even existed except as half-remembered names from my childhood. And now we’re embracing and laughing and trying to make each other understood. Word had spread that we were in town. Cousin after cousin, distant relatives, family friends, showed up carrying boxes of pastry, bottles of wine and baskets of fruit.
Remember, I carry Vincenzo Coppola’s name.
At one point, a man in his forties came up and embraced me. He had tears in his eyes. “I was a little boy and I needed an operation," he said as Tessie translated. “And your grandfather paid for it. He saved my life.”
And then a woman told me Vincenzo gave her the money to open a beauty salon. And another whose tuition he’d paid….and another. He literally bought the food that kept these people from starving.
Yes, Vincenzo had spent the Aunt’s money---on good works. On his family, who were far needier than their American counterparts.
I never got to thank Vincenzo.
He died, as many old men in Brooklyn do, of a heart attack while shoveling snow. He was in his eighties. My memory of him remains a big, cranky old man who seemed to enjoy pinching my cheeks until I cried.
But that was not him.
Not at all.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Where Have You Gone Melvin Maldonado?

The double doors swing open like the gaping mouth at the entrance to Steeplechase Park and I’m swept into a maelstrom of shouts, shrieks, bells, buzzers, kids flirting, teasing, threatening, senses assaulted by a kaleidoscope of adolescent fashion and tropical perfume infiltrated by the smell of reheating beef patties, greasy fries, and sour milk. Students are racing up the down staircases, overwhelming hall monitors waving frantically and ineffectually as Mumbai traffic cops. Enrico Fermi Junior High School, Bushwick, Brooklyn, early 1970s. This Bushwick is not the hipster hive it is today. It’s raw, rough, in “transition.” A few years later, a few blocks away on Knickerbocker Avenue, mob boss Carmine Galante is assassinated after a leisurely lunch and cigar on the patio of his fave restaurant.

I head, crisp new NYC teacher’s license in my tan briefcase, for the principal’s office, uncomfortable in my new green suit bought “on time” with my mother’s Abraham & Straus card. I’m the first in my extended family to aspire to such a position, and Gloria, my mother, is so proud. But even in Brooklyn, my ‘dese and dose’ Gowanus accent gives folks pause. I want to do well. I want to connect with students, inspire them as books and reading inspired me. “Gladly would he learn and gladly teach,” is my mantra. Instead of the principal, I meet the dean, like many of these guys, a short, bull-necked Phys Ed teacher who thinks a Chaucer goes under a coffee cup. He flicks at my paperwork with his thumb, looks me over—I’m a big guy, 6’ 1”, 200 lbs.—and grunts, “You start after lunch.”

“I...I guess.” 

Substitutes face other faculty members’ worst day every day. We do this for about $5 an hour, less the price of subway fare and a cafeteria lunch. The administrators know this, the teacher mysteriously laid low by a 24-hour virus—who happens to be facing five English-as-a-Second Language classes in a row—knows it, and the kids, be they Albanian hell raisers, vatos locos from Aguadilla or wiseguy wannabees from Bensonhurst—surely know it.

I don’t know it.

This will be a recurring theme in my life: eager but unprepared; broke but already blowing my $40 day’s pay. I make my way down to the cafeteria. Teachers in wide ties and plaid cardigan sweaters sit off to one side like freaks in a carnival sideshow, many working on the baked fish special. Too nervous to eat, I push a cup of green Jello around with a plastic spoon.. After lunch, the dean appears and escorts me to a third floor classroom. Like the Red Sea parting before Moses, students scramble out of his way, shrugging off jeans jackets decorated with forbidden gang colors, snatching fedoras, watch caps and Afro picks off their heads

“Is there a lesson plan?” I ask as we stand outside the door. 

In a perfect world, teachers are supposed to prepare a detailed road map for substitutes to follow, thus ensuring continuity of learning. He looks at me as if I’m speaking Chinese.

“Let’s see what we got here.”

He opens the door. A classroom full of shouting 14-year-olds falls silent as a refectory in a Trappist monastery.

“Melvin, get to your seat,” the dean says. “NOW!”

Melvin is a character, a recurring nightmare I’ll meet again and again in my five years in the New York City public school system. This particular Melvin is short, skinny, loud, hyperactive, top of the line ADD candidate in today’s schools. In a very few minutes, Melvin (why are so many Puerto Ricans named Melvin?) will do his best get me fired—and possibly imprisoned.

The intercom crackles. The dean, needed elsewhere, vanishes. I have 45 minutes to fill on this first day of the rest of my professional life. A wall of sound, maddening, unstoppable, assaults my ears. My “teaching materials” consist of a few dozen raggedy copies of Junior Scholastic magazine, the crossword puzzles filled in, pages torn or covered in crude drawings and misspelled obscenities. I pass them out. The kids groan and toss them in the air. The seating plan is useless—I don’t know anyone but Melvin and he’s back chattering away in Spanish to a girl bursting out of her clothes in full post-pubescent flower.

I decide to write a few vocabulary words on the “blackboard”—this is Brooklyn before the great cultural awakening —and run a drill. The words come from an endless list—English and Latin—I was forced to memorize in Catholic schools where the halls were silent as the Callixtus catacomb. I’m reaching for a piece of chalk when first spitball hits me in the back of my head; others zip past, sticking and then dripping down to the board like snail smears. This accompanied by a chorus of giggles and shrieks of “Oh snap!” I know if I turn around, Melvin and the other perpetrators will appear as innocent as Raphael’s angels, but the odd thing is I find this hilarious funny, like watching a character on “Happy Days,” or “Welcome Back Kotter.” I’m trapped in the funhouse of my own sense of humor.

“Please copy these words into your notebooks,” I say projecting gravitas.

A dozen students, mostly girls in the front row, set to work. I risk turning my back to the snipers and add a few more words. My plan is to “elicit”—an important word in pedagogy—definitions from the students, discuss and refine. This, I’ve been told in otherwise useless education class, is how real learning takes place. I sit down at the desk, flip through the red plastic folder of Delaney cards (a system of miniature individualized index cards used to tracl attendance, etc.) looking for this bastard Melvin’s last name.  Amazingly, the noise subsides for a few minutes.

And suddenly, it builds into a devastating chorus of panicked shouts.

“Melvin!   Melvin!  Melvin!” 

I look up. Students are out of their seats screaming and pointing.


I jump up. One of the unscreened classroom windows—it seems wide as a barn door—is open.

“He fell out the window? Jumped? On my first day! I haven’t even filled out my paperwork. What do I do?”

Nothing. I’m paralyzed.

Another round of screams, this echoing from down the hall. I imagine Melvin in his thin red turtleneck and grey and black checked pants smeared on the concrete three stories below. I see tonight’s tabloid headlines, “Teacher Dawdles Student Falls To Death.”

Gloria reads the Daily News and Mirror.

 A pounding on the classroom door. I stagger over. A teacher I remember eating baked fish in the cafeteria staring at me wordlessly. Melvin’s left ear is pinched between his thumb and forefinger, high and hard enough so that the boy—grinning (!)—is standing on his tiptoes. While my back was turned, Melvin apparently decided to climb out the window as a joke and inched backwards, his sneakers barely gripping the tiny ledge, 50 feet to the next classroom, where he was spotted and hauled in like a mackerel.

The bell rings and my students vanish, Melvin skipping down the hall not a care in the world.

 I’ve got another class in five minutes.

Somehow, I survive the semester at Enrico Fermi. In winter for fun, our students form a firing squad across narrow Starr Street and pound their hapless teachers with snowballs as we exit the building. One day, another substitute, John McDonagh, and I have had enough of the daily gauntlet. We fire back and sure enough, I bloody one particularly annoying kid’s nose with a chunk of ice. I’m called into the principal’s office for a disciplinary hearing.  By then, Melvin and his hermanos recognize my blue Alfa Romeo and fearing reprisals, I’m forced to park farther and farther away from the building. I’m up to ten blocks when I hear of an opening for an English teacher in a leafy junior high in solidly middleclass Bensonhurst, a position as rare and unlikely as a white whale.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Wounds That Will Not Heal

 "I was 13 when I wrote “A Battered War Helmet.” My assignment was to bring an inanimate object to life and create a backstory. Sister Mary Malachy called it “a personified autobiography,” a phrase from a world far beyond the Gowanus Canal. I spent afternoons working on it on the scarred kitchen table of our three-room apartment above a candy store on Third Avenue and Carroll Street, ignoring the squeals of my kid brothers, the blare of the Mouseketeers on Channel 7, and praying I’d be spared one of my father’s violent squalls when he got home from work. I wrote in ballpoint, on loose-leaf paper, inspired by a John Wayne movie, "Sands of Iwo Jima" that had moved me. I’d polished it so many times I choked up when I read it.
I handed it in to Sister Mary Malachy and awaited her response.
And waited some more.
Waiting defined school life in those days. Hours ticking slowly from the first bell to lunch hour, the rosary recited aloud each morning, me trying to remember its confounding “mysteries,” waiting on long lines in the school yard hoping just to brush Jean's arm as we made our way back into the building, the interminable church services—extended on Catholic holidays—where attendance was taken on Sundays; vast expanses of time, veritable deserts to a thirsting young boy, extending from January to the release of summer in late June.
At 13, I still believed in the cascading prayers we recited each morning, in the “... forgiveness of sins…the resurrection of the body… life everlasting…” Miracles, martyrs, saints and torment. But part of me longed, in the words of a Nelson Eddy song Gloria sang to me when I was a little boy to be a “stout-hearted man.” A stand-up guy.
From my assigned seat in the back of the class with the dunces—Ernie, Pasqual Viscardi, Anthony Fishy—I waited for Malachy to appear lugging her brass-buckled black leather schoolbag, eager for the telltale bulge of marked papers. One morning, there it was. Time crawled… catechism…math…rote vocabulary drills, the rosary. It was almost lunchtime when Malachy reached into the bag and pulled out a sheaf of papers. I smirked at the chicken pox smear that was somebody else’s essay.
“I have your papers,” she began. “Some students worked hard and turned in excellent papers. “The rest of you, the vulgarians,” she looked up balefully, “handed in stuff and nonsense. You know who you are.”
I sat on the edge of my seat as she handed out the “A” papers. “Cireno, Cucciaro…. D’Alessio, Dilorenzo…”
What about Coppo...?
“Mancuso, Mulia, Victor.” Then the “B's” and “C’s. “Di Pippo, Garrison, Henry, Palermo, Perez, Sessa, Wilcox.”
By the time Malachy got to the wise guys, troublemakers and losers, “….Bacotti, Benevento, Bashinelli, Paulino, Prosciutto, Romano, Viscardi…” I knew something was very wrong.
She handed Ernie Palmieri his paper with a nod of approval. Tall, dark, green-eyed, already an industrious guy, he'd emigrated from Italy with his parents, brothers and sisters. He was working in a pork store, a salumeria, on Fifth Ave. between Carroll and President Streets where the fragrance of Parmigiano Reggiano, olives and cheese and parsley sausage wafted out onto the sidewalk
Palmieri, who sat next to me by the radiators, grinned, waggled his hand, pinching thumb and forefinger together as if to say, “This American stuff, no problem!”
This American stuff: Ernie would die in Vietnam in 1967.
It hit me. Best for last! Malachy was saving the best paper, my “Battered War Helmet” for the finale, the piece de resistance had I known the phrase.
“Coppola, up here.”
“Yes Sister.”
I bolted out of my seat, Sgt. Stryker charging up Mount Suribachi. All her slights, insults and cruelty instantly forgotten.
She was standing alongside her oak desk, holding my story, the fluorescent light glinting off her rimless glasses rendering her pale eyes opaque. Grinning, I held my hand out, half-turning to face the class, so I never saw it coming. A sweeping right hand that knocked me against the blackboard. Then, the billowing sleeves of her brown habit flying, she pounced on me with a flurry of slaps I was too stunned to parry. To my shame, tears sprung from my eyes in front of the class. In front of Jean.
“This!” she roared to my stunned classmates, “is what happens to plagiarists!”
I didn't even know the word.
I was 13 when I wrote that first story. I never wrote another until I was 28.
That year, Malachy encouraged Salvatore Mulia, Dominick D’Alessio, Rosalie, Dilorenzo and a handful of other students to apply to Catholic high schools, institutions that had the power by some marvelous alchemy to lift wayward, working class students onto the path to success. For me, Malachy predicted I’d make “headlines,”not the scholarly, scientific, philanthropic or humanitarian recognition that teachers hope for in promising students, but screaming, 3-inch, Richard Speck-style headlines that appeared in the Daily News.
I studied, trekking up to the public library on 6th Avenue in leafy Park Slope to sit surrounded by goofballs in black framed eyeglasses and homosexuals whose fluttering eyebrows and nods signaled availability. I tried to read. I didn’t know what to read so I also read all the paperbacks on the rack at the newsstand at Fourth Ave. and Union Street, convinced sci-fi, bodice-rippers and tales of murderous Mau-Mau were literature. I read milk containers, matchbook covers, comics, whatever floated in front of me.
You earned admission to a Catholic high school by taking the “Cooperative Test,” a kind of Roman Catholic SAT that measured language, reasoning and math skills. You marked your top five choices on the application, and depending on your scores, you’d be accepted, rejected or dumped onto a waiting list. Making three schools was notable, four outstanding. I didn’t know anyone who’d made five.
Failing had consequences. Manual Training, the local high school, prepped students for “manual” labor. Since renamed John Jay, it was infested by gangbangers and thugs. In Gowanus, Manual was the fast track to Riker’s Island and I was a legacy student. My cousin JuJu had pushed a piano out the window of the music room while passing through; his brothers, Jimmy Psycho, Popeye Anthony and Richie Mell, were outrageous miscreants, even for the blackboard jungle era.
Catholic high schools were transformative places: St. Francis Prep remade strapping Irish boys--their immigrant fathers worked as subway sandhogs into Notre Dame football linemen; Power Memorial’s coach Lou Donahue’s casual racism helped transform Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor into Muslim superstar Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Bishop Loughlin was incubating Rudy Giuliani whose father had been sent to Sing Sing for armed robbery; La Salle, a Jesuit military academy in the heart of Manhattan, educated future Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Its “7th Ave. Subway Commandos” would fatten the rolls in Vietnam. St. Augustine, a diocesan school whose tuition was underwritten by the Brooklyn parishes produced New York Governor Hugh Carey. The schools, staffed by often brutal monks, literally pounded the gifted poor into teachers, doctors, lawyers and stockbrokers, and left a trail of scarred and broken kids in their wake.
I took the Cooperative Test on a Saturday, needle-sharp No. 2 pencils in hand, careful to keep my answers to the multiple choice questions within the little circles. The waiting began. Over the next six weeks, I’d race home for lunch where Gloria would serve her three school-age sons pork and beans and fried eggs, sopped up with Italian bread delivered to our door at 15 cents a loaf.
“Ma, the mailman come?”
“Any mail?”
“You sure?”
“Mom, it’s important.”
Our mailman, a black guy nicknamed “Brownie,” dwelt within the magic circle of the neighborhood. No one, not the most desperate junkie dared mess with him. Brownie was perfectly tailored for our neighborhood: he managed NOT to deliver overdue rent, car payments, subpoenas and IRS notices—marking them “Return to Sender.” At Christmas, he’d reap his rewards.
The morning arrived. Word spread that the Cooperative Test results were in. I raced home dodging the lisping patrol boy who worked the corner of Third Ave. and Carroll Street, dodging trucks and tractor trailers. I ducked down the three concrete steps to our basement apartment, shouldered the hollow plywood front door like Sam Huff, sent the red ribbon of sleigh bells we used as a doorbell, jangling.
Gloria was standing there, a sheaf of business letters in her hand. There were five—St. Augustine, Brooklyn Prep, Xaverian, Saint Leonard’s and St. Francis Prep, typed and sealed in starch-white envelopes
I mumbled a prayer and tore them open.
Five schools. I’d made five schools!
I stumbled back outside. Gloria put her arms around me. “I’m so proud!” She was 38-years-old and loved her sons more than life. “Your father called this morning. He’s telling all the men in the gang.” I looked down. Tommy and Joey were clinging to my legs. We spun round on the sidewalk.
“Five schools."
Fat Rosie lumbered across Carroll Street her flowered mu-mu billowing like an Arab dhow. Rosie spent her mornings sitting under an awning with her name emblazoned on it crocheting hats; her afternoon’s taking numbers from the Puerto Rican factory workers in Industry City. Emo, her boyfriend, a man with a serious gambling problem, had just been found hanging on a meat hook in Bensonhurst. Rosie insisted she didn’t want anything but his stuffed animal as a remembrance. Turned out she believed Emo had hidden $50,000 hidden inside. Rosie kissed me, smearing white lipstick on my cheek. She took my hand, stuck a $10 bill into my palm. “
Glad somebody in this neighborhood ain’t a fucking moron!”
Across the street, Ernie was standing next to Uncle Honey.
“How did you do?” I asked.
“Made St. Leonard’s!”
“You gotta watch them fag priests!” said Honey. “How’d you do?”
“I made…five.”
Honey peeled two twenties off a roll of bills, handed them to us. "Congratulations. Yous two’ll get an education. Yous won’t have to break your ass every day like me.”
Ernie pumped his closed fist three times as if masturbating. Honey laughed, amused at his own bullshit. He pretend slapped both of us.
“Get the fuck out of here.”
The line of students wavered outside the convent on Whitwell Place. Malachy was eating lunch on the convent’s brick porch, congratulating her eighth-graders as they came by. We joined the line. Sal was already on the porch. Behind him were Kathleen Victor and Dominick D’Alessio.
“I bet you did good.” Jean Wilcox appeared alongside me. She was tall as I was with blue eyes and wavy brown hair. I noticed the top two buttons of her uniform blouse were undone.
“Made all five schools!” Ernie blurted.
“Wow!” said Jean “That’s great”
I blushed.
“Give him a kiss!” Ernie chortled.
And she did. In front of the line of students, she put her hand gently around my neck and pulled me close.
“You know you're not like the rest of us,” she whispered.
I had never kissed, never touched a girl, never known the perfume of an adolescent female. I stood there, experiencing and trying to remember at the same time. The freckled Henry twins, Carolyn and Carol Ann, whistled. Malachy looked up and frowned. I stepped onto the porch where Sal, Rosalie Dilorenzo and D’Alessio, stood alongside the bulky, red-faced nun like courtiers.
She was eating baked fish, boiled potatoes and slices of a purple-red vegetable I hadn’t seen before. Beets.
“Ernest, for your poor mother’s sake,” Malachy said, “I hope some Christian school was willing to take on the burden of your education”
“St. Leonard’s did!” said Ernie.
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Will wonders never cease.”
It would be a short-lived miracle. Ernie was thrown out of St. Leonard’s a year later for vandalizing a subway car. A pompadoured, 260 lb. 15-year-old wearing a distinctive green and yellow St. Leonard’s jacket was not hard to remember.
Malachy turned to me. I caught a whiff of her, pissy and sour beneath the starched brown habit, her breath rank with onions and boiled fish.
“Kathleen Victor, Mr. Mulia and Rosalie Dilorenzo were accepted by four high schools. Aren’t you proud of them? Do you see the rewards hard work can bring?”
Sal grinned, clasping his hands above his head like a prize fighter.
“I made five,” I said. “St. Augustine too. I’m gonna go there.”
Startled, Sal hesitated, then walked up, put his right hand behind my neck, shoved me affectionately. “All right!” he said.
“Good job Vinny.” This from Kathleen Victor, not one of Malachy’s pets.
I had a little speech prepared, thanking Malachy for being my teacher…that she was “tough but fair….” I opened my mouth. The nun put down her fork, shot a glance at Jean Wilcox and the Henry twins standing at the edge of the porch.
“You don’t deserve it Coppola,” she said. “I know you for the sneak and the cheat that you are.”
I flinched. This was worse than the beating she’d given me for my story.
“Sister!” Kathleen gasped.
I stood there, staring down at the table. A fly made its way across the checkered tablecloth.
“Excuse me.”
I turned. Jean stood at the top of the porch steps. I brushed past her, tripped on the steps, caught myself and began running, daring my ravaged heart to explode. Block after block I ran, past the old powerhouse, the junkyard with its barrels of toxic chemicals, slowing only when I crossed the Third Street Bridge over Gowanus Canal.
By then I was in another neighborhood.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019


On the Gowanus, birdsong or the rhythmic shhhtik of a lawn sprinkler are alien things. At night, I listen for the low groan of foghorns in the harbor, watch shadows cast by the headlights of passing trucks dance across the ceiling, trace the occasional red flash of onrushing ambulances and firetrucks, and the relentless clanking of an invisible behemoth echoing across our backyards: the overhead crane in Golten’s Yard lifting marine boilers and diesel engines the size of freight cars.
Golten’s Yard runs like a spine from Third Avenue to the Gowanus, ribbed by our row houses on one side and Golten Marine, a WWII-era ship repair operation on the other. An artifact of a Brooklyn peopled by Scandinavian and German immigrants that existed before my Italian great grandfather and his seven sons arrived on the canal, in my mind, the beginning of time.
Scattered everywhere are the rusting hulks of ship engines and superstructures looming like disembodied dinosaurs over my head, fantastical machines with steel hatches, tunnels and ladders running in all directions. There are propulsion and navigation panels with needle dials and brass levers out of Jules Verne. Electrical transformers, acres of pipes, spools of wire, overturned barrels filled with glittering crystals and industrial chemicals. Cardboard boxes stuffed with trash, and sometimes unspeakable things.
On the Gowanus, there is one playground, on Degraw Street, but its kiddie pool is clogged with trash, rotting benches, overrun by nodding junkies. Prospect Park might as well be Jurassic Park and Red Hook Pool the Amazon.. I live in a world lifted—families, priests, culture, traditions and animosities intact--from the small towns and villages south of Naples and deposited on the banks of a poisoned waterway; it’s a cynical, riotous, often hilarious, place, three generations of families and their unruly kids, priests, and gangsters spilling all over each other. There are ghosts everywhere, and the feeling that momentous events, vague history and restless spirits hover just beyond my ken in this rundown, forgotten corner of motherless Brooklyn. The feeling that I live in a tribal village separate from the rest of NYC place among kindred people—alive to this day—transforms the poverty, violence, decay and dysfunction around me into savage joy.
I have no idea that in the 17th century, ingenious Dutch settlers built dikes and millponds on a pristine salt water estuary across the East River from Wall Street; no idea that George Washington clashed with the British the 18th century—his men fighting and dying in the ancient farmhouse on Fourth Avenue and Third Street where I play softball on a field glittering with broken glass. No idea that a rapacious19th Century railroad baron carved the Gowanus estuary, renowned for its oysters, into a bustling commercial waterway lined by gasworks, factories, coal yards, docks and slaughterhouses, the beginning of monumental pollution that defines Gowanus to this day.
No playgrounds, but I have Golten’s Yard, a Coney Island of danger and mischief big as a football field, admissible through a hole in the fence in Honey’s backyard. After school, on weekends, in summers, we disappear, dozens of us, like Alice through the looking glass, into a world where there are no adults, no rules, no cops, certainly no safety net. A three room shack on Third Avenue becomes a fort we assault and defend with homemade slingshots firing extruded rubber pellets that litter the ground, and then rocks and bolts, until bleeding and exhausted we collapse to the ground. We climb and crawl over the machines searching for swag neighborhood junkies—my cousin JuJu among them—steal from the freight depots and trucking companies alongside the canal. We unearth a box of expensive leather handbags—Gloria’s Mothers’ Day present—before the mariuoli (thieves) can return to fence it. Another day, we haul off an enormously heavy Carrier air conditioning unit, purely for the joy of pissing them off. And one time, we discover a bloody fetus wrapped in a towel, the handiwork of the neighborhood abortionist, dumped among the trash. (…/fly-fishing-on-gowanu… )
We do this over and over until one morning the FBI corners us standing astounded before a 15-foot tower of cases of Del Monte pineapple juice. Hunting an interstate ring of hijackers, they bag a raggedy crew of a 15-year-olds. A kick in the ass and we’re gone.
A day comes when Golten Marine shuts down. The overhead crane that haunted my childhood goes silent. A single watchman—in my mind a German—is left behind to look after the premises, a gray, wooden structure, 50 yards long, walls lined with hundreds of small pane glass windows, so many it takes months to break them all. Sometimes, after school, I slip into the yard alone, climb a pile of scrap metal and spend 20 minutes sailing rocks through windows, working my way, like Clem Labine, up, down, sideways. I don’t know why I do this. Other boys are playing baseball, studying, taking piano lessons, walking girls home from school. I smash windows. Sure enough, the “German” strikes back, hooking up a scratchy recording—machine gun fire, bombs bursting, shouts and screams—to the foundry’s powerful PA system and blasts me off the mound.
It works once. When the watchman quits, packs of teens from other neighborhoods descend on Golten’s smashing, trashing, wilding. I spend days systematically driving a v-shaped steel beam—balanced on a horizontal cement-filled barrel—along the the bottom of a masonry wall; When the structure collapses I barely avoid being crushed. Someone else ties a thick braided ship’s line to the bottom of overhead crane and soon boys are leaping from the catwalk and sailing 20 feet above the rubble-covered concrete floor on the super swing…until it breaks. Ernesto Benevento, Sal and I are the first to reach the abandoned laboratory finding row upon row of gleaming beakers, test tubes, pipettes, sulfuric and hydrochloric acid, every kind of chemical in brown glass bottles. We grab what we can and stash it in the back of an abandoned truck for “experiments.” A few days later, I’m run over by a yellow taxi as I’m darting across Flatbush Avenue (near today’s Barclays Center) and have my knee smashed and my front teeth knocked out. I was trying to buy a WWII-vintage gas mask at an Army & Navy store;because I want to conduct my “research” safely. When I recover, we head straight to our “lab,” now illuminated by a kerosene lantern, and begin randomly mixing chemicals. Soon, the Pyrex beaker is glowing a hellish yellow and fulminating liquid spilling over the sides. My gas mask doesn’t work. I stagger out of the truck, gagging, vomiting, nearly asphyxiated.
The next Saturday morning, the three of us make our way down into Golten’s basement once again hunting for junkies’ swag. The power is out, so we roll newspapers into makeshift torches. Our torches burn brightly, illumination enough to show us we’re standing ankle deep in shit from the shattered toilets.
“Screw this!” I toss my torch seconds before it sets my sleeve on fire and head up the stairs. It’s lunchtime.
Half-an-hour later, I’m sitting in the kitchen eating a salami sandwich leaking Gulden’s mustard. I hear sirens in the distance. They grow louder and louder crescendoing in a deafening scream. Firetrucks racing along Third Avenue, past Carroll, then, silence.
Stomach churning, I get up from the table, walk to the front door, pull it open and look outside. A crowd is already gathered on the corner, the air pungent with acrid black smoke.
Golten’s, a block-long structure, is ablaze. Flames soar 100 feet in the air. Firemen, the same men I hit with eggs at our Election Night bonfire, are racing frantically to hook up hoses, break through the front door, into a cascading Niagara of fire to search for workers trapped inside.
I’ve burned down Golten’s Yard.