The PS 52-school yard was completely enclosed with a ten-foot-high chain link fence topped off with barbed wire. Why the barbed wire, I’ll never know. The building and its grounds were a lot worse than some of our present-day work-release facilities. Aside from all that, it was one of the better places to play a good softball game. If we won the game, seven or eight of us would try to go home a little richer. With our game winnings in hand, we would go into the far corner of the schoolyard and shoot penny to nickel craps.
I would imagine I was about fifteen or sixteen at the time. Some old biddy who was being her nosey self called the police to report the gambling activity. Either this harmless activity during the war years must have been unpatriotic, or perhaps the real New York gangsters were all in the armed services. And sure enough, this old-time paddy wagon backed up to the gate blocking our only exit. Some of my teammates scattered and climbed over the barbed wire fence. I was completely dumbfounded, and just obeyed the man in blue as I stepped into the wagon.
We were shipped to the old jail and courthouse downtown called the Tombs. It was appropriately named. The desk sergeant had us escorted through a very distasteful tour. He wanted us to see what kind of weird, loathsome, and repugnant individuals we could become if we kept up this kind of activity. He must have had some teenage kids, for after this little excursion of the facilities and occupants of this filthy old jail he made sure we had carfare and told us to go home.
“And I never wanna’ see you boys again.”
We would be good for the rest of that softball season. The next year brought short memories, and the typical teenager philosophy…”It won’t happen to us again.” This time we weren’t so lucky. First it was a Sunday, and secondly, it was late in the afternoon. The arresting officers put us in the wagon and said we had to appear in night court. I gave instructions to one of my friends who was outside the fence gate. “Call my mom and tell her we are having dinner at your house, then we’re going to the movies.” He would add some other elaboration as to why I couldn’t call myself, and hopefully he would be convincing.
‘They put us in a holding cell in the Tombs. I had to buy my own dinner—a liverwurst sandwich on white bread—and no drink. This took all my money save a nickel for the carfare home. There were about five or six of us. The night court started at 7 p.m. I walked in front of the judge like a guilty convict marching up the steps to the gallows. I was the only kid who was still in school. The rest of the Jesse James game were either unemployed workers or school dropouts. I stood with my head hung low and my eyes focused on my untied sneaker laces as the judge asked our names, addresses and what we did. When I answered that I was in school, he asked me where. Then I got the lecture about how ashamed of myself I should be. With bowed head, I said “yes, sir,” and I vividly remember his compassionate effort to keep my record clean. He asked the arresting patrolman if he had actually seen me with the dice or any money in my hands. I now believe a prearranged standard answer was “no, sir,” at which time the judge declared, “Case dismissed. You can go home, son.” The rest were not so lucky and got fined and recorded. I beat it out of there and was home by ten o’clock.
“How as the movie?”——-”Just okay.” ——”What did you see?”
I usually knew all the movies that were playing and gave a reasonable answer.
“What was it about?”
I mumbled and fumbled, and I think Mom knew there was something other than the movies, but she let it ride. She sensed I was kind of distressed but saw that I did come home in one piece and looked reasonably well. I guess I tried her endurance and patience enough to add more gray hairs to her crowning glory. My nose has been clean ever since.
It might sound to you like I fell into bad company. In reality, I don’t think that was true. We just had the desire to be adventurous and grow up to be somewhat like our predecessors. If we were just bad, I imagine we never knew we were.
Bruce Zimmerman was born and raised in New York City during the depression years. After graduating from the University of Rhode Island, he served in the Korean War. In 1957 he and his family moved to Tampa, where he started his own construction company that remains in existence. Bruce began taking OLLI writing classes with “Writing your Life Story” and is a current member of the Imaginative Writing “crew.”
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