Tuesday, June 19, 2018

by Elan Barnehama

In September of 1969 the NY Mets were in second place, the Vietnam War was raging out of control, and Blind Faith released their self-titled album with a naked girl on the cover.  And I was walking along 67th Ave, across Queens Boulevard, past 108th St, on my way to my first day of high school.

In History, the teacher put me in the first row next to this kid who also had those old-school, Coke-bottle-bottom glasses.  Turns out that Henry was even younger than me. Henry was young because he skipped 8th grade. I pretty much just started kindergarten early and moved on from there.  That made Henry officially smart and it made me, well, just young. Being the youngest kid in a grade lost its appeal the moment girls started liking older guys.

When the Miracle Mets’ won the World Series, some of the summer’s optimism generated by the Apollo 11 moon landing and Woodstock returned.  But then Lieutenant Calley was charged with killing 109 civilians at My Lai, the Chicago Eight went on trial for being annoying, and all around us sides were being taken, lines were being drawn, stakes were being raised. 

We stopped cutting our hair, started going to protests, and looked to rock and roll for meaning.  When the baseball coach told Jimmy to cut his hair or get cut from the team, Jimmy proclaimed the situation a mockery and walked off the field.

I started hanging out at the schoolyard with Henry and Jimmy and Ritchie and Sam and Freddy and others.  Freddy never played ball at all.  Freddy could talk though.  And Freddy could drive.  He was the first one of us to get a car, even though he was not the first to get a license.

One evening, sweaty and tired from basketball, we walked by a Chinese Restaurant down by Queens Blvd and Yellowstone.  The door past the main entrance was open revealing a tiny bar and a table filled with complimentary appetizers.  With no bartender in sight, we ducked inside and began stuffing ourselves.   The bartender entered and we tried to act natural and ordered beers.  Instead of laughing and tossing us out, he set us up with a row of drafts.  The drinking age back then was 18.  But we were 14.

In those pre-cellular, pre-digital, pre social-anything days, that tiny bar became our information hub.  It’s where we gathered before heading out and Eddie could always tell you where each of us were.  And on more than one occasion, we accepted a ride home from Eddie when walking was going to be an issue.

Nixon’s draft lottery was introduced that December and while we were too young, it threw a shadow over everything.  For the guys who “won’ the lottery, their lives were changed instantly.  It seemed that the more we learned in school, the more confusing the world looked.

I’d always been an outsider, a first generation, oddly named, child of Holocaust era parents who mixed three languages into most conversations, with thick accents that I never noticed.  I’d had my name mispronounced so many times I was no longer sure how to say it.

I’d gotten used to being an outsider, hanging out on the margins.    But Jimmy and Henry and Sam and Ritchie and the others, they were not outsiders and they didn’t care that I was.  Jimmy maintained that our bond came from not having brothers.  But only Jimmy and Henry didn’t have brothers. What none of us had, were brothers-in-arms, blood-brothers.  Calling someone your brother was a thing back then, but for us, it was about family.  All families begin with strangers and we had formed our own.  Together, triumphs were made sweeter, and defeats were softened.

Over the years, we gathered often.  If one of us called a Boys’ Night Out, we answered.  If someone called an Emergency Boys’ Night Out, we dropped everything.  If you weren’t sure of the rules, you saw Jimmy.  But first, you showed up.

And showing up turns out to be almost everything.  May not be the only thing, but it’s a big thing. Among the group, there have been some stints in rehab, some surgeries, one death by overdose, another after a short and one sided battle with pancreatic cancer, and one original was banished for betraying the trust. 

That trust does not come from our history; our history comes from that trust.  There’s no formula or prescription for why it works, but the result is outstanding and we all keep showing up.



Peppe Esposito's work, plays on the identification, with the image of the gunman
and raises a question about the legal acts that we do really