Three blocks west of the playground was Joe's first school, Hancock Elementary, just up the alley from his house. The school was built into a down-slope, so the recess yard in front of the school was a flat pad of concrete below street level. And a pathway, like a little bridge, led from the street to the school's main door. In that recess yard, the boys used to play a kind of baseball -- but with no bat: you'd just whack the ball with your hand and run like hell to first base, which was a basement doorway. Joe was the only boy who could smack the ball over the bridge. He had long arms and big hands he could swing like a hammer. That was his main distinction at Hancock. That and penmanship. One of the teachers, Mrs. Lieboldt, made her kids do every exercise in the workbook -- perfect round O's, straight lines crossing T's...then she gave out fancy certificates: "For acquired excellence in practical BUSINESS WRITING by study and practice from The Zaner Method of Arm Movement Writing. (The Zaner-Bloser Co., Columbus, Ohio)." It was the only school honor Joe ever won. (But everybody got one, even Niggy Marino -- and Niggy got thrown out of all his schools. Even the Ethan Allen School for tough kids, they threw him out.)
Joe's second school, two blocks east, was Francisco Junior High. Nobody made him do anything there. Joe and Frank Venezia used to sit in class like a couple of dummies -- they never kept up on the reading. The other kids gave all the answers. They just seemed smarter. Actually, Joe wasn't stupid. But he never wanted to open his mouth, say something wrong, and look stupid. That came from home. In the flat on Taylor Street, they talked Sicilian. Everybody laughed at Joe's lousy Sicilian. (Even his little brother, Dommie, made fun of him.) And shame was what Joe couldn't stand. He was a blusher. (That embarrassed him, too.) So, he just grew silent. His sisters talked about him behind his back: they thought he was "slow."...Anyway, Joe didn't have to talk at school. None of the teachers made him talk. They just moved him on, year after year. It was like no one even knew he was there.
Joe knew well enough to get along in his world. He knew how to strip the copper wire from dilapidated buildings and the lead from around the pipes. He could sell that stuff for four cents a pound any day. Of course, the way Joe was, he wanted six cents. There was a junk dealer who came up Columbus -- used to stop at the corner of the open field where the boys played hardball. They called it the Horses' Lot because the Golden State Dairy turned its horses loose there, afternoons and weekends, when they weren't out with the milk wagons. Where Columbus Avenue cut off the Horses' Lot (in left center field), there was a wall of billboards. That's where the junk man stopped to rest his horse. They called him Blue Wagon. "Four cent f'coppa..." Blue Wagon would say. Joe would mutter to his friends: "C'mon, Jew 'im down." (Of course, he meant Jew him up -- but that didn't sound right.) Sometimes, they could keep Blue arguing long enough to steal something off the back of his cart. Next day, they'd sell it back to him. Niggy Marino figured out how to wrap all the guys' wire together around a cobblestone -- and sell the whole bundle as copper.
Niggy was a leader. He could fight better than anyone -- and did: he had a bout almost every day. He'd take care of all the other guys' fights, too. Niggy led the raids when the grape trucks would rumble in. All the papas made wine in their basements, and the grapes arrived in big, rattling farm trucks -- tons at a time. When the trucks geared down for the hill in North Beach, Niggy would climb on the back, or he'd get Frank Venezia to run the truck down (Frank could run like a deer), and they'd throw grapes off to everybody else. Niggy had another trick when the pie truck showed up at the grocery. The driver knew the Dago kids would try to steal his pies. So he'd park where he could see his truck's back door while he was in the store. Niggy would saunter over to the truck, pull the back door open, take out a pie, and stand there, cool as an ice chip. Sure enough, here comes the pie man out of the grocery, screamin' bloody murder, and Niggy would take off. When he got around the corner with the pie man in pursuit, all the rest of the boys would step up to the truck and walk away with fifteen pies. They'd eat till they were sick and sell the rest, twenty-five cents apiece.
Copyright © 2000 by Richard Ben Cramer
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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