by Ed Friedman
Despite the fact that I was a week away from being married I was what we used to call carefree. It was 1971 and I was twenty-two. A very young twenty-two. I was about to marry my second serious girlfriend and the only woman I’d ever slept with. All of this seemed right. It was 1971 in the East Bronx and getting married young was what we did. It was what we did when we weren’t drinking, playing cards, gambling with bookmakers, going to the track or playing ball. For most of us marriage would be a blip in our lives. With the exception of having to go to a “job” (no one in my crowd ever used the word “career”) life would go on as it had. Not much would change except that sex was a given and only those most desperate to flaunt their vows would continue to visit the prostitutes on Simpson Street.
It was clear to me that I would be deviating from this pattern. I was too analytical and introspective to continue this extended adolescence. I spent too much time thinking about the feelings of my young wife to be. I started taking night courses at a community college. None of this was revealed to my friends as I continued to act as if my life was completely untethered. I knew that in a week’s time I would be different-I would be married and with that vow I would make a seismic shift to a more responsible life. Until then I would live as though a switch would come on the moment I said “I do”.
It’s with that complete confidence in how my life would go forward that I sat in the back seat of Ralph DiNardo’s fathers Ford with five other young men without a serious thought among them. All of them taking for granted that they would live forever, a bottle of vodka mixed with Tropicana fueling their invincibility. The local bars being populated by old men who were veteran drinkers and listeners of Frank Sinatra, we preferred the Ford as a lounge on wheels where we could turn up the Three Dog Night, or The Temptations.
The car is parked right at the entrance to Waterbury Park. The park is on a square block surrounded by a fence. The entrance opens up to handball courts, a large baseball field, and beyond the field a childrens playground. Ringing the park are neatly kept one family homes either attached or semi-attached. It’s a working class neighborhood made up largely of second generation Italian-Americans who took great pride at leaving East Harlem apartments for their own homes in the Bronx. It was the kind of place you could always feel safe. That feeling of safety in your own park is probably why I don’t notice the three cars pull up in front, behind and next to the Ford. I watch this parade of young men spring out of the cars like clowns emerging from a Volkswagon on an old TV commercial. I’m not putting together whats going on and trying to look in all directions when I feel a metal cylinder pressed hard against my head through the open window.
The cylinder is the barrel of a gun being held by someone telling me to“Get the fuck outta the car”. I turn my head and all I see is the barrel. I’m aware that my friends are all facing the same threats. Mystified by the attack we’re told that one of their group was jumped and was told that “the guys who did it hang out at Waterbury Park”. We all exit the car and are thrown against the fence to face our attackers most of whom have baseball bats. A few others have knives. Although its not at my head anymore I can’t take my eyes off the gun. We’re all silent. It’s a strange amalgam of being too scared to say anything and to proud to beg for your life. Theres something about being up against the fence, facing those weapons that reminds me of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre where gangsters dressed as police executed a large number of rival gangsters. And now I’m thinking I’m going to die a week before my wedding. I can no longer look at the gun because I’m afraid somehow if I look at the gun it will go off. We’re being cursed at and our manhood insulted but nobody is shooting or stabbing yet. We’re trapped however and it occurs to me that this could end peacefully or with one flinch we could be dead. Finally Stevie, who five minutes before was playing air guitar in the front seat, figures out how he can protest our innocence without looking weak. He offers an explanation to the leader of the group, but with a bit too much attitude. The leader’s bat connects with Stevie’s head. The gang looks at us. We all know if we make one move its all over. We’re still. The leader indicates that they’ve had their satisfaction. The three cars fill up and leave. Thankfully, Stevie’s not really hurt. There was a time when retaliation would have been just moments away. But as we collected ourselves and realized how close we came to being a tragic headline, there was a palpable awareness of the lifting of our assumed invincibility. It was the beginning of the end.
Ed Friedman is a Bronx-born theatre director, playwright and arts administrator. His short plays including Let No Man Tear Asunder, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, Two Ships, The Jury Will Disregard, It’s Time, and Can I Help You? have been produced throughout the New York area.