I can’t even reveal the location of this incident as I did in ‘3rd & 14th’. I’ll just say that unsupervised children on the street in the nyc will encounter trouble and learn from it if they survive. By the time I was eight years old I was hip. Still, an unguarded moment found me one day as a friend and I explored a tenement backyard.
The classic tenement yard has nothing but a square of grass. A holdover from times past, the small lawn was for drying laundry. A gated passage went from the street between buildings and opened onto this yard. We’d jumped across this passage before, five stories up, trying to find a way into the yard strewn with interesting-looking junk. The original high brick walls that separated the yards of a block of tenements were intact here and they made the place a canyon with one way in or out. On that day we tried the gate and found it unlocked. Better yet, in the yard we found an old pram that had been partially converted into a rig you could ride in! Coincidentally that is exactly what we would have done with a pram if we’d got hold of one.
As we worked to defeat the chain that attached our new go-kart to a pole I looked around at the unguarded passage behind us to see three boys standing there in line-abreast, blocking it completely, older, larger and looking at us. We’d made a huge mistake and now we were at a terrible disadvantage. The way out was through them. There was nothing left to do but go all in.
Presumably the go-kart was theirs. For me there was no doubt that they were about to bring retribution upon us for interfering with it. I stood up and started talking. I remember that I issued a friendly-sounding greeting and talked about nothing to distract them as I closed the distance between us. My friend, smaller and usually fretul, was up, moving with me, screening my left side.
Still talking as the distance to the wall of bigger boys closed to zero, I opened our improvised attack with a grab to the center kid and a punch to the rightmost one. Nothing went as planned. I grabbed only air because the center kid fell back out of reach and my strong right punch was a windmill, landing across the neck of the tall right side boy. My friend took on the boy to the left.
I was instantly grabbed by the boy I’d hit and was pushed hard. I stumbled into the way of the fight to my left. Still trying to grab something I got a handful of shirt from somebody there. Without a handle on my kid I could only watch as a fist formed in front of me. It landed on my neck with a sickening splash sound and I saw greek letters.
Somehow my right hand got hold of the back of my kid’s collar and I pulled hard because that was all I could do. The effect was to throw everyone off balance, including the two grappling on my left. The four of us drifted right. The action had degenerated into a shoving match but that was fine with me for now. I did not want to be hit again and my kid had no shot while he was off balance and facing the wrong way.
We moved toward a decrepit wrought iron railing around a one-story drop to a basement window well. The crumbling metal was sculpted by rust into curls and sharp-looking prominences. I threw the big kid at it, at the same time pulling down the kid on the right, breaking his hold on my friend. Regaining my balance, I saw that we were clear. We walked toward the street past the middle guy who just stood there, then broke into a run. My guy stayed where I put him, sort of doubled over the railing that had crumpled slightly but failed to give way. We reached the street and made it to the avenue. I glanced back as we turned the corner and I saw no sign of pursuit, no angry boys bursting out of the passage.
Nevertheless we kept running, carrying out practiced evasive measures. We crossed the avenue, running through traffic, turned down the next street against the direction of traffic to foil vehicular pursuit (police are no threat when they are in their cars), did the same at the next avenue, kept going a couple of blocks, turned again and got off the street. Fear gave way to elation. Despite being trapped and outnumbered, we had come through. We relaxed and started thinking about the pram. The pole it was chained to was part of a clothesline. Maybe it would come out of the ground.
With difficulty we let some time go by then made our way back by a different route. I always believed we let a couple of hours elapse but the surprise we found belies that memory. In kid time it could have been less. Our careful approach saved us. From an avenue and a half away we observed men at the alley’s mouth. Over the objections of my associate we moved in for a closer look. We saw no blue uniforms, after all. No boys either. Still hundreds of feet away, we moved from cover to cover while maintaining the appearance of walking casually down the street. There were a couple of cars double-parked there. Unusual.
Then a uniformed cop emerged from the alley. We froze. He was collegial with the men, who wore ties. Detectives! I’d seen them before in ones or twos near the precinct but there were at least four here. My friend was hissing at me for us to retreat. Police on foot were a threat. He was panicking. It was difficult for him to maintain any discipline as we faded away and once we were around a corner he wanted to run.
I did not confide my sneaking fear that for one reason or another we’d been underestimating the police and they might make a real effort to catch us. Those kids had been… clean. You never knew. They might have belonged to someone who was someone, always a danger in ny.
I avoided that street for years afterward and I stayed away from the precinct for good measure, even though both were only a couple of blocks from home. I have relived the fearful moment of realizing we were trapped every day. I began carrying weapons.