By Luis Cotto Vasallo, USA/Mexico (Published in Issue 13)
I was either 13 or 14 years of age when I figured out that the majority of the New York City holidays were actually Jewish holidays. Little did I know that most teachers were of Jewish ancestry. Initially I could not differentiate between a Miss Greenberg and Miss Smith. To me all white teachers were just that, “white teachers.” Funny how later on in my high school life it did make a difference to me whom I was taught by. As I matured in the New York City Public School system I preferred the more patient and concerned counsels of Jewish teachers. It seemed as if Jewish teachers were more parenting, more caring concerned about what subjects I took and what plans I had for my future.
Now back to my more mischievous days when all white folks were dumped into one kettle. It was Holy Friday; Christendom’s Easter weekend had started and the Israelite’s Passover had also begun. The only Friday of the year we actually ate fish at home. All the other Fridays didn’t mean much to my family after all we were not Catholics we were Protestants, what better way to protest. Catholics believed that if you ate meat on Fridays it was the same as eating the flesh of Christ. Protestants would counter why are you guys so holy only one day of the week?
Thinking about what the hell we were going to do that day, [in our regular and naughty way of thinking], we decided to check out the train tracks. An area some two stores lower than the road above where ordinary daily traffic would travel. The engineers must of drilled for years carving out enough lanes for 4 trains to run. Some times we would find ®Spalding balls on the railroad tracks because kids were too afraid to go down and get them. They would fall there, between the tracks from homeruns or foul balls hit while playing stickball on the above tarmac.
About 5 blocks from our hangout hub were these train tracks that carried commuters and from the upper West Side of Manhattan to 125th Street in Harlem. This was the last stop in the Bronx. It would also connected with other tracks that would end up on Long Island. We “accidentally stumbled upon a loaded Conrail freight wagon that was packed with goods to be transported throughout the metropolitan area. In one of the carts we came upon cases upon cases of sweet ®Manichevist Wine.
Removing the cases from a stacked freight car was a problem considering that each case contained 12 bottles. We returned to the neighborhood and started borrowing hand trucks from grocers promising them part of the bounty. We became suspicious, however, due to the unusual sight of four 14-year-olds carrying 4 wine cartons each after 3 trips to the train yard and back to our block. About 7 other youths known to us would ask us as we moved back and forth with our merchandise, “wha sha gat dare”? “Nutting,” we would respond, but after one more trip they decided to see for themselves what the whole ruckus was about. Obviously, since this merchandise, according to us, did not belong to anyone we were forced to share it with most observers in order to keep a lid on the heist.
We had already taken approximately 48 crates, and as mentioned earlier each one had 12 bottles. As more people became aware of the incident more volunteered themselves to removing whatever was left on the freight car. Finally we could no longer claim the wine for ourselves and it was up for grabs. Needless to say many bottles were dropped and the smell of sweet red wine was all over the place. My friends and I figured we had enough, a little while longer and even the cops will start arresting people then start taking their share.
All of our boxes were stored in the basement apartment we rented monthly from the superintendent. A case handed over to him would insure that not only he protected our stock but it would also serve as month’s payment on the rent. We restricted the wine to our clubhouse only.
None of our gang members were allowed to be with a bottle in the street as a necessary precautionary measure. For the next week or so we remained in the basement apartment not coming out unless we really had to and that would of course include going to our prospective houses. Remember we were 14 years of age and did not want the cops on our tails asking questions about the break-in at the train yard, much less that we had a basement flat. Luckily, in our neighborhood people would not share any information with the fuzz, [cops].
Arrest were made, we heard, when greedy folks returned to take more wine after the police had placed guards in the train yard. The temptation of being able to have free bottles of wine for drinking and selling was just too much. Every merchant, that we had promised a case, was responsible for coming to our basement and getting his own box, we did not deliver.
Needless to say, we had a very enjoyable Easter weekend, we got plastered, and although that was not the way most churches would have wanted us to observe it, we felt just fine. Our neighborhood was flooded with wine for a few weeks to come. Even those criminals who knew about the heist did not mind. It was cheaper to buy wine in the grocery stores than it was in the Liquor Store.
As I had mentioned earlier, the whole neighborhood was flooded with cheap red wine for the holidays and most of it was given away. It was not the first time that the Clairmont Boys were involved in something that benefited the whole vicinity. My mom always disapproving but flexible would try to instill in me values I could not understand. Other times smaller gangs would benefit from stuff left alone like loafs of bread by the ®Wonder Bread man, everybody had at least one loaf in their homes. I don’t even want to start talking about the Thanksgiving turkey caper.
I don’t mean to exaggerate or to let you think that our parents indulged or condoned our behavior. It just appeared as if some small way whenever someone got away with an act that benefited the entire area we held him or her in our hearts in high esteem. A small token of relief caused by an act of defiance against the system that so over powering oppressed so many. A power that would not allow you, an ordinary, working class, blue collar stiff and, everyday modern serf prosper. This way of thinking, “they have everything, we have nothing,” allowed for the flexibility needed to cope with stealing or taking anything that is not yours. It was almost like saying they owe us, we are taking what is rightfully ours, knowing very well that that was not the case.
As in most poverty stricken areas stealing, borrowing as we called it, came to be an easy method of obtaining what one wanted. At times when working was possible, the meager salary earned would never amount to much. We simply justified our “releasing ones property from the owner’s possession” as a process of keeping up with the Jones’s. Another way of putting it, alleviating the owner of a tiresome burden.
This was when our teachers played an important role in our lives. They actually served as role models because in trying emulate them we would adopt foreign behavioral patterns that at times put us at odds with our own peers. For instance, when reading became an excellent substitute for a past time we were called nerds, or bookworms. The secret of such a substitute technique was for the teacher to properly select that book that would interest you to even try to read it, no easy goal.
When the book fever hit some of us, it really changed our lives. It permitted permanent fixtures in the Bronx to become nomads of the mind. It challenged the “you’ll never amount to nothing” stigma to “you can do it if you try.” This key opened a universe of questions that naturally wanted answers that could only be obtained in libraries. It developed a respect for teachers of all backgrounds because of their sensitivity to our lives.
Unsung heroes in the educational area are totally responsible for the progress many inner-city kids have made. Reaching a level of competency and responsibility that could have only been obtained because someone dared to care.
Luis is a poet, photographer and man of the world. A good friend of The Ofi Press, Luis co-hosts the Ofi Press poetry nights each month. You can read examples of his poetry in The Ofi Press Poetry archive.