Looking out my third floor window when I was a kid was like peering down at some Felini-esque circus on acid. No surrealist painter could ever reach the heights of bizarreness that I witnessed. Nor can the deftest poet match the subtleties of wonder, strange pleasures and absurdities that existed in East Harlem during my peak years of impressionability. I can’t say anyone else ever looked twice, but for me it was better than cartoons and impacted me more than anything I ever saw on TV. It was Heaven and Hell rolled in a wad of Bazooka bubble gum. With comic.
I lived in a two bedroom walk up on 118th street between First and Pleasant Avenue in East Harlem, New York City. With two parents, four sisters, a dog and a gaggle of imaginary friends in my head, sometimes I needed to peer out to wider and more open spaces. Inevitably I would discover even more characters to add to the pantheon of my wackadoo six year old imagination.
Boobie Coolie. Door Locker. Charlie Ding Ding. Bar Beasley. The Red Headed Hunchback. Babaif Zoom. Rhyming Ralph. Window Window. To this day they seem interchangeable. The apostles of Pleasant. Related. Some imaginary. Some very real. All unique. And strangely, all very normal. It is not until I reflect back do I get the vibes of oddness.
Bar Beasly was the chimney of a building across the yards. My sister still argues it was the TV antenna. Trust me, Donna, it was the chimney. I know what my own frigging friend looked like. Door Locker was- well – a door across the street and was neighbors with Window Window. Babaif Zoom’s origin is vague- although he did live on the Ferris wheel in Palisades Amusement park. I recall a little figure my sister made from colorful wire and a ghost of a memory tells me that was the original Babaif. Maybe.
By far, the most interesting characters were the real ones my imagination could never create but only ponder. Boobie Coolie made model cars and, I understand, quite adeptly. I have never seen one of the finished trophies of his hobby but often he would point to parked cars on Pleasant Avenue and announce “I made that car last week.” I imagined great secret rooms – like showrooms for Stewart Little, where thousands of plastic vehicles were on display. I have seen not a one.
He to this day wears his hair in a pompadour with Elvis-like sideburns. In the summer you can see him in his Hawaiian shirts and powder blue polyester shorts with matching paten leather shoes and thick framed, matching sunglasses. He seems to have imagined himself a veteran of East Harlem- a victim of misunderstanding. A sad loner. A soldier of a war of mockery. He may be right. When riding on the First Avenue bus with him on various occasions, he would cry out “Hit the Beach!” as we came closer to our neighborhood.
Charlie Ding Ding strutted down the street like Foghorn Leghorn complete with a thinning plume of hair that bobbed with each heavy step like a rooster’s comb. Baggy shorts and a ginnieT-shirt were his typical costume – he was a victim of the heroin days in East Harlem. The story was that he still had a bullet lodged in his head. I remember this lump on the right side of his skull but whether or not it was a slug fired in anger I have no clue. Myth and reality and its effects on memory is a tricky thing. His mother used to run a candy store on Pleasant Avenue and was our next door neighbor when we moved.
This atmosphere of eccentrics, lost souls, misfits and sociopaths profoundly affected me and inevitably my writing that began when I was five years old.
When you grew up in Harlem, especially in the 1970s as I did, you saw things from your window the folks of Pahrump probably have not. An exploding car, a riot, numerous bullet ridden and stabbed bodies, James Caan, the snot lady, fireworks (that would embarrass the Grucci’s), a sniper, Al Pacino, my Aunt Dee Dee, a live turkey, flare guns, dynamite, rockets, junkies, block parties, UFOs (Parhumpians probably have me here), lemonade stands and piles of clean laundry that were minutes earlier neatly piled on my mother’s dresser.
A window is a like a video camera that gets wired and filtered through your own software of wants and perceptions. A window is not just the square architectural feature on your building. It’s portable. It floats in front of our heads like a cartoon bubble of an arcade game avatar and is with us every step me take in life. Every time we trip or jump a pothole. Everything we watch, witness and gawk at is recorded and filed away. My own personal secretary was not a frigid court stenographer, however. He’s more like an old Irish beer maker, tale-telling in a pub. Or a psychedelic journeyman keeping a diary amongst the Elves. It’s how great mythologies are born. Hyper memorized truths. Colorized a touch. Romanticized some. The cream of the memory rising to the top like a good head and the darker bits settling on the bottom of the glass to be dealt with (or ignored) later.
I collect minutia the way some people collect episodes of old TV shows. I am a habitual reminiscer. There was a lot to collect in my old neighborhood and being blessed (or cursed) with an imagination that never stopped, it was all good stuff to trip on.
East Harlem, in the 70s, was a mix of blue collar Italians and Puerto Ricans (as the neighborhood took a downturn many of the Italians turned chicken-shit and moved to the white bread suburbs. Most regretted it later.) The Washburn wire factory that sat along the FDR drive employed much of the neighborhood. I think the first word I learned to read was W-A-S-H-B-U-R-N, whose giant sign spanned a walkway a block away at the end of 118th street between Pleasant and the Drive. I was fascinated by its huge, yellow brick smokestack and dreamed of one day climbing it. I never did and to my sadness it was demolished in the 80s.
Like any neighborhood of any major city where the economics are on the low end of the spectrum, there was a constant criminal element. Whether it was the Italian heroin dealers of the 60s and 70s or the Hispanic crack dealers of the 80s, that shadow of potential violence always hung over the neighborhood like the chance of showers on a hot August afternoon. The impact of that is tremendous, especially on kids. It effected where you walked (and didn’t). It honed and sharpened that human instinct for danger. A shout would often be ignored- but a certain kind of shout – a certain pitch of the human voice- meant trouble and your ears would perk up, your eyes widen and you would twist your body so you could run for cover at a moments notice. Firecrackers were firecrackers. Random. Spastic. Bada babababab badaba!. Gun shots were cold and regular. A nasty heartbeat, BAM. BAM. BAM. The latter had one message- get the hell inside! I heard that warning all too often.
Most humor in my neighborhood was black humor. Again, it is the nature of that combination of violence and finance. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. A guy that flips off his bike and gets hit by a car is tragic. A guy that lands on his ass and survives is hysterically funny. It is all about that fine line of between death and survival. If you were lucky enough to escape the Reaper you can glance back at the shrouded bastard and laugh.If we are products of our surroundings, it’s no wonder I am a misfit amongst misfits. Imagination is surely a double bladed sword. Story telling ability is a steady date with paranoia. They love to slow dance. Was my imagination created or nurtured by the orgy of characters I was born into? Whatever the answer, the mark on my psyche is indelible. And for that I must be grateful.