Notes of a Footnote – Part Two – South With The Italians & Other Stops – 6 – Dirty Waters
In my youth the street-lore of the Lower West Side (not to be confused in this instance with Greenwich Village) related that the last serious Irish/Italian war across Seventh Avenue took place during the summer of 1953. At that time the stretch of Seventh Avenue south from Greenwich Avenue to the Varick Street extension constituted the rough boundary between the predominantly Irish neighbourhood to the northwest and the largely Italian section to the southeast. I was unaware of these hostilities as I spent that summer at Goat Hill Farm summer camp near Woodstock in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains dodging copperheads (and the occasional timber rattler) while running through the woods at hare & hounds, climbing trees, playing softball and hopscotch, trying to shoot chicken hawks with a .22 rifle, catching (one) sunfish in the Hudson River near Saugerties, swimming in a pool at a bend of the Sawkill River known as The Big Deep and otherwise assuaging my unspoken passion for Lesley James. (The following summer – fickle youth – I transferred my affections to a dark-haired would-be ballet dancer named Susan Troy. I even thought of taking up ballet myself.)
After the final altercation, which apparently involved between 50 and 100 youths the Irish and Italians declared a truce and informally decided to more or less unite in beating up on the Puerto Ricans.
An important congregating point of the new amity – the U.N. or Geneva of the neighbourhood – was the soda fountain/luncheonette known universally as Dirty Waters. It was one of those hangouts socially necessary for those too young to frequent bars. They ranged from small, stygian storefronts – really candy stores with seats – such as the one on Prince Street mentioned earlier, and another that I used on Bedford Street near Chumley’s, the name of which – if it had one – I forget, to larger, lighter ones like Connie’s on Thompson Street between Prince and Spring Streets and Pepe’s, also on Thompson just north of Canal Street. Dirty Waters was easily the most commodious. It took up the ground floor of a building on Bleecker Street, just east of Seventh Avenue, facing the foot of Jones Street and next door to the famous and still-extant John’s (“No Slices”) Pizzeria. (The photograph of Bob Dylan and Suze Rotolo on the cover of the Freewheelin’ … L.P. would have been taken from about this vantage point.) The establishment’s proper name was The Village Confectionery and it was operated by a couple named Al and Ann (surname forgotten, if ever known) who, unsurprisingly, hated their enterprise’s common sobriquet. This had been coined by an airy lad named Eddie Kech, who would become one of my best friends in the neighbourhood. The story was that he and two friends had gone into the place for the first time and the man behind the counter – presumably Al – had wiped the marble top with a cloth that Eddie noticed had come straight out of a sink full of dirty dishwater. As in the case of the Fulton Fish Market restaurant proprietor Louis Morino – as related by Joseph Mitchell in his story Up in the Old Hotel – when he remonstrated with customers who called his establishment Sloppy Louie’s, Al’s and Ann’s objection to Dirty Waters guaranteed that it would never be called anything else. In any case, The Village Confectionery was a bit of a mouthful. As one kid said: “What? You gonna tell somebody you’ll meet them down The Village Confectionery? Forget it!”
Dirty Waters was entered through a doorway one step up from sidewalk level, with its soda fountain/lunch counter to the left and several sets of tables and chairs to the right. For the neighbourhood kids the heart of the place was a room divided from the front by a wooden archway and holding half-a-dozen booths with tables seating six each. Standing under the middle of the archway was the one object absolutely vital to any teenage hangout: the jukebox.
I began hanging out in Dirty Waters regularly in the early autumn of 1957 when I had turned fifteen, a period coinciding with the heyday of doo-wop, which, more than any other, was our music. With the Dirty Waters [Seeburg? Wurlitzer?] jukebox you got six plays for a quarter and my idea of being at ease in Zion was sitting in one of the back booths with a toasted bacon & cheese sandwich and a cherry coke, listening to Over the Mountain by Johnnie & Joe.
Not that I ever felt totally at ease in Dirty Waters or anywhere else.
As augured by that 1948 Election Day political debate in the Greenwich Street loading bay I was always a bit of an oddity to the neighbourhood kids. Firstly, I attended neither a public nor a parochial school. As to my parents, while Joe had grown up in a similarly mainly Irish working class neighbourhood in Chicago, in his own professional life he had almost always, in respect of his social relation to the means of production, been middle-class. Particularly in his drinking days Joe mixed fairly easily with the Lower West Side working stiffs and their women in places like Sally O’Toole’s I(O)deal Bar & Grill, the International Bar (known as the Green Front) at the corner of Greenwich and Perry Streets and other local saloons but his general level of culture, left-wing political views and acquaintance among the more arty-bohemian Village types set him apart. These were the people meant when the rougher Cookie Bar clientele reached the stage in their drinking when they would mutter about going over and beating up all the pinko-faggots in the White Horse. And Anne, while almost always on friendly terms with local people was signally not of the neighbourhood. I, of course, hung out a lot with the neighbourhood kids, played ball and hockey with them and, by the time I was in my early teens I was no longer openly abused or bullied by the Eleventh Street toughs. But even later, when my Dirty Waters period began I was still a bit strange. I went to a funny school – not for much longer, but no one knew that then. It was rumoured that I’d read a book or two that was neither compulsory school fare, Peyton Place, nor by Harold Robbins. Also my accent – at least then – lacked the hard cadences of either the Hudson Street Irish or South Village Italian intonations. Most suspicious of all, I seemed to lack the ingrained prejudices and bigotries that were an intrinsic part of both Irish and Italian neighbourhood culture. A good deal of the music on the hangout jukeboxes, particularly the doo-wop was by black artists, and some black athletes were admired but they were still coons and niggers to the Irish and melanzanes [pronounced ‘mull-an-yans’] to the Italians.
And then there was the “queer” question. Even as a more than usually innocent youth I was aware of Greenwich Village’s notoriety as a resort of homosexuals. There was even a popular – although almost certainly apocryphal – theory that the term gay derived from Gay Street; the short doglegged former stable mews connecting Christopher Street and Waverly Place. It was a local myth that couples (in whatever combination) could spoon in some Gay Street doorways without being visible from either end of the short street. I tried it – with a girl, my inclinations having always been in that direction – and it wasn’t true. It was the Village’s reputation as a haven for homosexuals that prompted the neighbourhood people – the Irish especially – when asked by outsiders where they came from, to always say, the Lower West Side, not Greenwich Village. One day not long after I started hanging out in Dirty Waters I was tested on the idea that my general difference from the neighbourhood norm might indicate that I was “that way”.
Tommy Gallagher lived on Barrow Street opposite the Greenwich House community centre. Although resident just on the Italian side of the border he was as Irish as his name suggests. He was a year or two older than I was, had a head of coarse reddish blonde hair, a slightly acne-pocked complexion and a reputation as a very hard nut. The conversation having gone in that direction – and there being no girls present – he asked me if I’d ever got laid. Naturally, I lied. The experience, in fact, was a year or so away, I having up to then, however unwillingly, “guarded my purity”. “Did you come in her,” he asked. Not altogether knowing what he meant (I had up to that time neither ever masturbated nor had a wet dream), I said, “No.” “Did you piss in her?” This seemed even more bizarre – especially to one who had been a bed-wetter up to the age of ten – and I again said, “No.” Tommy then told me that some nights some of the guys would go over to the Houston Street playground and ‘make out’ and did I want to go with them next time. My reaction was again similar to that of Holden Caulfield on waking up to find his former English teacher stroking his head, but I suppressed my panic at the very idea and said, “No, I don’t think I wanna do that.” Tommy looked me dead in the eye, saying: “It’s a good thing you said that, ‘cause if you’da gone you woulda needed to wear make up for a week after.”
I should say, I suppose, that the only time in my life, Greenwich Village childhood and youth notwithstanding, I have ever been propositioned by another male did not occur in the Village. It came totally unexpectedly from one of my fellow Section 329 New York Ranger hockey fans. He offered me a lift in a taxi after a game one night and, taking me by the hand, offered me money to let him fellate me. I immediately said I’d just remembered I had to do something in Midtown before I went home and got out of the taxi in the middle of Forty-second Street. The man – I seem to remember his name was Eddie – tried to apologize and I just said to forget it. I can’t recall if I ever saw him again at the Garden but if I did the episode was never mentioned.
The question of my sexuality (such as it then was) having been settled, I began to integrate more fully into the Dirty Waters milieu. My final acceptance came in the form of an invitation from one of the girls to attend a party/dance at the Piedmont, an Italian social club on the second floor of a building a few doors south on the opposite side of Bleecker Street. I remember very little about that evening, or what the occasion was – probably the girl’s birthday – but it gave me the first inkling of something that I would feel more strongly over the next couple of years. This was the realization that, generally speaking, there was nothing in the world as beautiful as sixteen year old Italian girls. Although there were few if any redheads among the Italians, I was still much more into the darker types as opposed to the blondes. And the twin apprehension was growing that the Irish neighbourhood girls of a similar age tended to lag behind their sisters of the warm South in physical, social and sartorial development. I should say immediately that in the three years, roughly between the ages of fifteen and eighteen, when my social life revolved around the South Village neighbourhood I never once had an Italian girl friend. I danced with many, kidded around with many but, with one fleeting exception, I never even kissed one.
There may have been several reasons for this beyond my ill-concealed shyness, notable lack of glamour and general gaucherie. One was the rarity of social integration. Almost all the girls I did become involved with were ones I’d gone to school with or who went to similar kinds of schools. The Italian neighbourhood girls went almost exclusively to single-sex parochial schools like Mother Cabrini’s. And, Dirty Waters apart, the only two places I frequented where there was much social mingling of the sexes were the Moricini Boys’ club on Sullivan Street, and the weekly Saturday night dances in the Church Hall of St. Anthony of Padua. The entrance to the Church Hall was on Thompson Street at the east end of the church, just south of Houston Street. I am told that at one time there were stables immediately across the street where horses were kept that pulled the market push carts characteristic of Italian neighbourhoods up and down the streets. These stables were gone by the time I frequented the Thompson Street area. What I do remember clearly was the plaster statue of St. Sebastian – complete with protruding arrows – that stood just inside the Church Hall entrance
It was at the Moricini that I became the subject of a bit of would-be matchmaking in the summer of 1958. Every year during that season a bus outing up the Hudson River to Bear Mountain was organized from the club. A week or two before the trip a couple of my basketball playing friends took me aside and suggested that I ask a girl named Francine to go with me for the day. She was then (for an Italian adolescent female), a thin, dark-haired, not unattractive girl, apparently as awkward socially as I was, and regarded, I guessed, by her friends as rather a wallflower. I did ask her and we had a pleasant day wandering in the woods of the State Park, picnicking with the rest of the gang and talking on generally neutral topics and, although we remained friendly back in the neighbourhood thereafter, there was no chemistry. I have been told recently that “Frannie” was the sister of a guy known as Patsy “Devil” and was an excellent dancer even though shy. And that she had a good heart.
There was also, as well as my general apartness from the neighbourhood norm, the fact that I was Irish. As with the parents of the Jewish girls at Elisabeth Irwin in their view of Jeff Albert, there were South Village girls I knew who said their fathers would kill them for going out with an Irish boy. The irony of this hit me quite hard with the one Italian girl I really did fall for. Her name was Jenna and she lived off Bleecker Street – like Tommy Gallagher – a couple of blocks on the wrong (i.e. Irish) side of the Seventh Avenue frontier. She was, to my eyes, a classic Italian beauty: dark, a softer faced Gina or Sophia, and with a fine young bod that didn’t quit. My friend Eddie Kech, who was regarded as an expert in affairs of the heart, having recently had his broken by splitting up with a girl named Lynn, advised me: “Be around. Be nice. Be funny. Make her like you.” I tried my best and one evening when we happened to be alone – I think I was walking her home from Dirty Waters – I was about to ask her if she’d go to the movies with me. Before I could get the invitation out she asked me if I’d do something for her. When I asked what she said she wanted me to tell a boy named Billy Walsh that she liked him. Really liked him. Billy, as it happened, was a fairly good friend of mine who lived on the block of Twelfth Street between West Fourth Street and Abingdon Square. He was a personable lad, curly haired and lightly freckled: a real Mick to look at. He was also something of a wild child, known to do crazy things and said to often get stoned on Cosonal, a patent cough medicine with a high codeine content. Definitely not relishing this reverse John Alden situation, I said to Jenna that I didn’t think I could really do what she was asking. When asked why – looking, I’m sure, as puppyish as I felt – I said I thought she knew why. She just said, “Oh…” She may have been sorry for my embarrassment and hurt feelings but if she was she kept the sorrow well concealed.
But it had been basketball more than girls that brought me to the Moricini Boys’ Club playground. The local heroes at this time were the South Village guys who had formed the core of the St. Anne’s High School team that dominated Catholic High School Athletic Association basketball in early-mid ‘50s New York. These players included York Larese, who went on to an NCAA championship with North Carolina, and was drafted by the Philadelphia Warriors contemporaneously with Wilt Chamberlain, although he didn’t ultimately make it in the NBA. Probably the best pound-for-pound player among them was Rocco “Rocky” Barase, who had gone on to play for a junior college in the Midwest but had dropped out and returned to the Village. He was about 22 when I knew him and he seemed content with being a playground star. Another of the group was Billy “Cub” Cammeratta who taught me the finer points of cutting to the basket. “If you just stand there waiting for me to pass to you, you’re gonna wait a long time.” Billy lived in the same building on Thompson Street as my friend Dennis Bagarozzi (Denny Baggs of whom much more later) and was given his nickname after his older brother who was known as Teddy “Bear”. One evening he came home with some very tall friends who the neighbours subsequently learned were members of the New York Knickerbockers. A fourth player was Lou Grande, who, indirectly, showed me what real basketball was all about. I was playing against him on the outdoor court at the Moricini and we were attempting to box each other out under the basket. The boxing out was a lot more physical than I’d been used to, but I didn’t mind that so much as when I leapt for a rebound and felt the waistband of my pants slip down around my hips. This technique of surreptitiously holding your opponent’s shorts so as to inhibit his jumping was an old trick, but this was the first time I’d encountered it. Such things were not even acknowledged to exist, never mind practiced, in the pure, sportsmanlike atmosphere of Barney Boston’s gym at Elisabeth Irwin, and such cheating and gamesmanship as I’d experienced previously were more along the less subtle lines of Bobby De Niro’s football-tackle approach. I got inured to it. I had to.
My teenage basketball career had a dying fall after I left the Lions Club juniors and when I failed to get a place on the St. Anthony’s Intermediate Catholic Youth Organization team. This had nothing to do with ability, but was down to pure ethnic discrimination. Many of my friends from the Moricini Boys’ Club had played, or would play, for St. Anthony’s and some of them encouraged me to try out for the 1959-’60 season. After the first workout we all lined up to give our names to the team manager. Father A.L., O.F.M., as well as being P.P., also took an avid interest in the young men of his parish and their sporting activities; too avid for the comfort of some. There was a famous incident when one bright spark threw wintergreen on the genitals of another lad while he was under the showers. Father A. rushed in with a towel, saying he would rub it off. This offer was hurriedly refused and the St. Anthony’s sportsmen continued to be very leery when Father A. was in the locker room. Having taken down the names of those in front of me – guys like Johnny Pianoforte, Artie Barretta, John Volpe and so on – Father A. asked me my name. He knew my face from the Saturday night dances in the Church Hall (during which he would prowl among the couples during slow dances with a flashlight to make sure they weren’t doing The Fish) but when I said Patrick Carroll, he immediately glowered and said: “You’re not from this parish. You can only play for your own parish.” This, according to C.Y.O. regulations, was true. However the rules also said that if someone’s own parish didn’t have a team in a given sport, he was free to play for another. My parish, in strict geographic terms was St. Veronica’s, although I had never in my life set foot in its church on Christopher Street. There then followed a rigmarole about what I would have to do to prove that I was qualified to play for St. Anthony’s, during which it became obvious to me, and to everyone else who was listening, that Father A. did not under any circumstances want a Mick playing for his team. In my time around the South Village I had been on the receiving end of a good deal of street ranking from my Italian friends, typified by jokes like: “Why is an Irishman like a banana? ‘Cause he’s born green, lives yellow and dies rotten.” But I had never actually been conscious of being actively discriminated against on ethnic grounds. The fact that this bigotry was coming from a priest was not calculated to alienate me from my father’s steely anti-clericalism.
As my athletic activities waned I spent more time in other hangouts around the South Village. One was the Atomic Bowl, a small lunch counter joint in the same block of Sullivan Street between West Third and Bleecker Streets as the Moricini. This place also featured a good jukebox. Evidence that my musical tastes were maturing came when I began to mix the doo wop with more sophisticated numbers like Frank Sinatra’s version of Violets for Your Furs. There was an alley alongside the Atomic Bowl where people went who wanted to buy fireworks from the low-level Mafia soldiers who dealt them in the weeks leading up to the Fourth of July. I had bought some myself with friends from E.I. when I was still in 7th or 8th grade and before I started hanging out in the Sullivan Street neighbourhood regularly. On the night of the Fourth the racket guys would use their leftover stock to put on a fireworks display along the Houston Street side of St. Anthony’s. Also, each year, around Christmas, the wide sidewalk in front of this north elevation of the church would hold a life-sized Nativity scene extending the whole block. Every year, almost without fail, somebody would steal the Baby Jesus.
Further toward the Bleecker Street end of the block was the Bella Napoli. This was a storefront club/café owned by Vincent “Chin” Gigante who was then in his early days as a leading local racket guy. His Cosa Nostra career was to receive a set back when he botched the whacking of top don, Frank Costello. The contract for this hit had apparently been ordered by Vito Genovese, although by one account an East Side consiglieri, Anthony Strollo, aka Tony Bender, was also involved. Chin had been waiting in a taxi outside Costello’s Central Park West apartment building and when Costello entered and walked through the foyer toward the elevators, Chin got out of the taxi, came to the entrance door and instead of just getting on with his business, reportedly said loudly, “This is for you, Frank.” The distraction caused Costello to turn his head and Chin’s shot, instead of going straight into his target’s skull merely knocked off his fedora and grazed the back of his head. At the subsequent trial Costello – who had known Chin for years – swore he had never seen him before in his life.
The Bella Napoli had a short counter to the left as one entered with a Magnetta machine – imported from Italy – for making coffee and a cold box for soft drinks. There were six or eight tables where people played cards. Although never much of a card player I learned to play gin rummy there, although I drew the line at pinochle, which I thought – and still think – is a game strictly for crazy people. I was told that on some Saturday nights there would be high stakes games of bankers & brokers and ‘ziganetta’. Bankers & brokers is a straightforward money changing game that involves simply cutting a deck into as many stacks as there are players, the high bottom card taking the pot. ‘Ziganetta’, more favoured by the racket guys, is an Italian card game played with the deck face up. There were occasionally celebrity nights when out-of-town mobsters like Pittsburgh capo Russ Buffalino would come to play. On these occasions the stakes were very high indeed.
I saw Chin Gigante occasionally when he visited the Bella Napoli. He was then what would now be called morbidly obese and, unlike most of the Mafia types, wore his hair in a crew cut and his clothes tended to flap around him in the breeze; not a dapper don. The thing I remember most about his appearance was the square of gauze he wore covering his throat and secured by thin tapes around his neck. The purpose of this seemed to be to soak up his profuse perspiration. Long after I left not only the South Village but also the U.S., Chin apparently became head of the New York Genovese crime family. In later years he was purported to be mentally disturbed and would be seen wandering the Village streets in a bathrobe and mumbling to himself. The Feds were convinced that this was an act but it took them years to prove it.
Another pastime indulged in on the sidewalk outside the Bella Napoli was the Italian finger game called morė that involves first holding one’s hand behind one’s back and then throwing the hand out with a certain number of fingers extended. The trick is to call out your guess as to how many fingers your opponent will throw out. The game was often played in bars for drinks and was sometimes also known as ‘boss & underboss’. Variations on this game are numerous. In my local pub in Cornwall one, called ‘spoof’, is played using cards. Oddly, the acknowledged master of the game in my time was not one of the old Italian men but a middle-aged black wino who lived in the Mills Hotel which was then a five-storey flop house around the corner on Bleecker Street. Part of the ground floor and basement of the Thompson Street corner of the Mills Hotel building was taken up by the Village Gate nightclub.
Individuals I remember from this period include Ronnie Galli, whose father was a local bookie. There was Angelo Basile whose family ran a bakery next door to Googie’s Bar. Angelo was the bass singer in a doo wop quartet called The Impalas after the Chevrolet car model of that name. Other members of the group were Eddie Kech, first tenor; Denny Baggs, second tenor; and Tommy Buneo, baritone. Although they never recorded the group won many competitions and sang at dances and other events in the neighbourhood and elsewhere. They had to give up their name when another group called The Impalas recorded the song I Went All the Way Home. Then aged fourteen and fifteen, the pissed-off boys said: “Those bastards stole our name!”
Another Sullivan Street habitué was Dennis Annino. He was slim, sharp and very street-wise. Dennis had a summer job emptying jukeboxes and cigarette machines for Tommy Ryan. For many years in the Village when one bought cigarettes from a machine they came with a book of matches saying Tryan Cigarette Company. This outfit was run by Tommy Ryan, a Mafia underboss who, contrary to the impression given by this name, was not Irish, his real name being Tomas Eboli. I bumped into Dennis in Leroy Park one day in June 1970 when I’d come to visit New York for the first time since going to Ireland five years earlier. As we watched a softball game and talked about our days around Sullivan Street, he suddenly said to me: “You know, Paddy, you turned out to be right, what you used to say about a lot of things in those days.”
This was at the height of the Vietnam War and in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement and the Kennedy and Martin Luther King assassinations. Most of the neighbourhood people had always been vaguely aware that, even in my most conformist neighbourhood guy period, I had never really been sympathetic to the prevalent racism. From the time I quit school and the period in the early-mid ‘60s when I drifted back down to the Village from Midtown I had not seen much of my old Commerce friend Major Wiley, although we were always glad to see each other on the odd occasions when we did meet. I didn’t then realize the extent to which Major had been on the receiving end of the neighbourhood bigotry. Some of the grief related to his being obviously of the bohemian Village – one of what the locals called the “bohawks” – but most had to do with his being black and not particularly inclined to apologize for being black. There were two other black men prominent in the Village whose pride – and often-outright arrogance – incensed many of the South Village Italians. One was Ronnie “Mau Mau” Jackson who was consciously political and a forerunner of the Black Power movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s. The other was “King” or “Big” Brown. He was a majestically handsome 6’5” former heavyweight boxer who usually held court in the Washington Square fountain and would be seen strutting through the Village streets in nothing but short-shorts, sandals and an African skullcap, often with two white women on each arm. Everything about him drove the Sullivan and Thompson Street locals nuts. This simmering resentment finally led to the big fight between Brown and Gazzute. Gazzute was a tall, strongly built street level enforcer for the local racket guys. He had a bad complexion and his hair gleamed with unguents. His two close associates were Louie the Animal, another burly strong arm operative, and an often-droll character called Huntz (after Huntz Hall of the Bowery Boys movies). I don’t think he was actively mob-connected but seemed to be kept around by the other two for old acquaintance sake and for comic relief. The fight was an arranged affair and designated to be what in New York street gang parlance was called “a fair one”; that is to say mano a mano with no weapons. It took place in Washington Square and, word having gone out, a sizable crowd came to witness the contest, the fountain forming a natural amphitheatre. In the event, the business was short-lived. Brown’s first shot split open the left side of Gazzute’s face from eyebrow to chin and the fight was effectively over
During a visit to New York some years ago I was talking in the Lion’s Head with a man named Nick Pinto, a sometime bar-owner who had grown up on Sullivan Street. When Gazzute’s name was mentioned, among those of various characters we had both known in the old days, Nick told me that some years previously Gazzute’s body had been found in the desert outside Las Vegas with several bullet holes in his head.
Another resort of mine was the bowling alley in the basement of a warehouse on the north side of West Third Street between Sullivan and Thompson Streets. This was a modest, six lane affair run by two men who were relations – one by marriage – of Denny Baggs. My bowling companions there were Eddie Kech, Artie Barretta, George Garbarino, Bobby Paladino and others mentioned earlier. Occasionally I would work for the brothers as a pin-boy. The alley featured what were known as semi-automatic pin-spotters. These consisted of a triangular frame with slots for the ten pins. As the pins fell the pin-boy cleared any left on the alley after the bowler’s first ball, returned the ball and, after the spare ball, reloaded the pins into the frame, stepped on a lever that raised the pin-spikes above the alley floor and pulled a cord that lowered the pins onto the spikes leaving a new set-up. For this labour the pin-boy received seventeen cents a line (out of the fifty cents a line charged by the house) plus any tips the bowler(s) might offer after their game. The proprietors had another, larger alley in Port Washington, Long Island. During the spring and summer of 1959 I was employed as pin-boy-cum-relief manager of this place. I would take the LIRR to Port Washington every afternoon after school, eat a cheeseburger in a nearby luncheonette and open the alley in time for six o’clock. Business was always pretty slack and I rarely had to set up more than two alleys. Occasionally Eddie Kech would come out with me but we often spent whole evenings with no custom at all. I was also briefly employed by one of the brothers who had a sideline as a Fuller Brush salesman. I would deliver orders to various work places in the neighbourhood of a redolently aromatic tobacco store on East Thirty-first Street that acted as a base for the sales work.
The last of my regular (non-drinking) South Village neighbourhood hangouts was the Golden Pizza on the east side of MacDougal Street, just north of Bleecker. (There was another Golden Pizza on Carmine Street but I rarely went there.) The MacDougal Street outlet had a large window that opened on the sidewalk inside of which was a griddle filled with Italian sausages, green peppers and onions in various stages of being cooked. Against the wall to left of this were the pizza ovens, and opposite these was a counter with chromium stools. A shelf-counter ran along the right hand wall with more stools. There were a few tables in the back and several wall-mounted jukeboxes. I didn’t then care much for pizza but I did like a sausage sandwich now and again. These – either the sweet sausage or the hot, with peppers and onions – were often eaten out on the sidewalk. We were careful eaters, holding the sandwich in a paper napkin out over the street, not wanting to get any grease on the Banlon or short-sleeved white-on-white shirts we wore during warm weather. The Golden Pizza’s main cook was an Italian immigrant named Mario who the neighbourhood guys described as “just off the boat”, and whose amatory bragging was gross even by local post-adolescent standards. The primary pastime of most of the guys who hung out on the sidewalk outside the Golden Pizza was to say, “Hello, Sweetheart,” fairly indiscriminately to any (non-neighbourhood) girls who happened to pass by. Most of these were tourists with an admixture of the more exotic bohemian women who the tourists had come to rubberneck. I vividly remember my erstwhile fellow E.I.-ite, the late Mary Travers, passing one Saturday night with her arm around the neck of a young man a good six inches shorter than she was. A particular subsection of the girls, predominantly Jewish, who came every weekend to sample the Village nightlife were called Bronx Bagel Babies and it was not unheard of for a neighbourhood guy to get lucky with one who, finding the beatnik types under-whelming, would go for what has become known as ‘a bit of rough’.
Less welcome weekend visitors were the Jersey guys. In those days the drinking age in New York was eighteen, while in New Jersey one had to be 21 to get served. Consequently Jersey eighteen-to-20 year-olds would come over to Manhattan generally and Greenwich Village particularly to get steamed. In addition to the Jersey boys, sometimes a group of Jersey girls would come over the George Washington Bridge and – like the odd Bronx Bagel Baby – would link up with neighbourhood guys. The results were fairly regular street and bar fights between the locals and the visitors from across the Hudson River. On one famous occasion, just in front of Googie’s Bar, a neighbourhood guy known as Joe Muscles (the older brother of a Leroy gym basketball friend of mine nicknamed Dapper Dan) emptied a six-shot .38 into a car holding five New Jersey guys. The incident was most notable for the fact that Joe didn’t manage to hit anybody in the car.
When I turned eighteen in June 1960 I began to spend even more time in the Village bars than I had before. Previously to that, like many of my contemporaries, I had a fake draft card and could usually get served, especially in very dark places like the “55” on Christopher Street and Julius’s on Tenth Street. The one place where this subterfuge was unnecessary was Milady’s on the corner of Prince and Thompson Streets. This joint was mob-owned, people were occasionally whacked on the sidewalk outside and, generally speaking, if you could reach the bar you could get served. I was over eighteen when I had my most memorable (not for good reasons) experience in Milady’s. It was in the early hours of New Years Day 1961. Four of us were sitting in a booth. We were all very well-dressed for New Years Eve but along about two-thirty in the morning we ran out of money and began to surreptitiously refill our glasses from a bottle of Seagram’s 7 that had been bought earlier. The second time we did this we were caught in the act by Alphonse the bartender. He came over and glared down, saying, ”If this wasn’t New Years youse woulda caught what a beatin’. Now get the fuck outta here and don’t let me see you for a month!”
I can’t say my pre-legal drinking was anything excessive by neighbourhood standards. I can recall only two occasions where I more or less disgraced myself. One night I was hanging out on the concrete bleacher steps in Leroy Park with Dennis Hanlon and a few others. Dennis was trying to overcome my chronic inability to carry a tune in harmonizing Sunday Kind of Love and we were drinking cherry brandy. At fifteen it didn’t take much of this disgusting drink to make me ill. But the most (again for negative reasons) memorable occasion of my underage-imbibing career occurred on my sixteenth birthday. My birthday falls on the date of the Feast Day of St. Anthony of Padua. Every year there was a street festival in honour of the Saint. The Feast took up the entire two blocks of Sullivan Street south from Houston to Spring Street and lasted for two weeks, ending on the Sunday after the Saint’s Feast Day. It was not as big as the East Side’s Feast of San Gennaro on and around Mulberry Street, but it seemed big enough, and it was regarded by the South Village people as our Feast. I began the evening in the Genoa Bar, then in the middle of the block on the north side of Houston Street between MacDougal and Sullivan Street. I’d had two or three 7&7s (a neophyte drinkers’ concoction of Seagram’s 7 rye and 7-Up) before crossing the street to the Feast. I remember seeing Father A. standing on the steps of the church and noticing that he wore chinos underneath his Franciscan habit. I stopped and bought a bag of zeppole, the deep-fried balls of dough one ate covered with confectioners’ sugar. I can’t recall if it was that year or another when Chin Gigante’s brother, Ralph – another local bookie – pushed a Jerseyite’s head into a zeppole hot oil frying vat after the visitor had made a crude pass at one of his nieces. On my way down toward the bandstand between Prince and Spring Streets where we tended to congregate I stopped and chanced a few dimes on a wheel of fortune stand. Unfortunately (as it transpired) I won a straw-wrapped bottle of chianti. Over the course of the next few hours I drank about half the bottle and interspersed that with a half-dozen bottles of beer. I woke up at two o’clock in the morning on a stone bench under an advertising billboard on Sixth Avenue near Charlton Street with puke all over my brand new Stetson Italiano wingtips from Siegal Bros., and I never wanted to put anything in my mouth for the rest of my life.
I was never as hardened a toper as some of my friends, notably Eddie Kech. Eddie’s drinking modus in his mid-teens was to drink until he got sick and then go back and drink some more. Consequently he developed a preternatural capacity for alcohol but was never seen to be visibly jangled. Eddie, although culturally more Italian than the Italians, was, in fact, half-German, his father having come from the Yorkville area of the East Eighties, traditionally a German immigrant enclave. Eddie was a year or so older than I was and had been at Commerce a few years before I arrived. It was Eddie who told me the story of the time the Fordham Baldies tried to take over the school. The Baldies were a predominantly Irish gang of skinhead hooligans from the Fordham section of the Bronx who were remnants of the home grown fascist followers of Father Charles E. Caughlin, the radio priest whose Depression era movement for “Social Justice” ultimately degenerated into the crudest forms of anti-Semitic and anti-black racism. The Baldies activities included organized attempts to take over and trash various inner-city public high schools with significant numbers of black students. Their results were mixed. It was said that when they attacked Chelsea Vocational on Clarkson Street (said by some to be the model for The Blackboard Jungle) there were so few “pupils” in the school – most being off playing hookey – it was hardly worth the bother. The attempt on Charles Evans Hughes High School on West Eighteenth Street (previously called Textile and widely known after the change of name as “Charlie’s School”) was similarly abortive. But the affair at Commerce was quite dramatic. According to Eddie (and no tale of his lost in the telling) he arrived to find a machete in the locker he shared with another boy. When the Baldies, of whom there were several dozen, arrived they formed up in front of the Sixty-sixth Street entrance to the school. This consisted of a set of steps leading to six double doors, behind which were another short set of steps up to a landing where there was a table where pupils who were late to school received passes. Inside the school students wandered at will while the whole of the staff were crowded into the auditorium situated between the Sixty-fifth and Sixty-sixth Street buildings. The Baldies were taken aback when one of the doors opened and a slight, darkish Hispanic stepped out alone. The leader of Baldies called out, “Hey, nigger, we come to take over your school!” It is unclear whether the Baldies knew who the figure facing them was. In fact, he was known as Diablo and he was the President (not to be confused with the War Lord) of the Sportsmen street gang. The Sportsmen in their heyday had about 3,000 members throughout the city, divided roughly into local and racial sub-gangs. In the mid-‘50s on the wall beside the One Hundred Twenty-sixth Street stage door of the Apollo Theater the name Diablo was painted in five-foot high letters. Addressing the Baldie leader, Diablo opened his coat to reveal two guns and two knives and said, “First you gotta get past me.” At this point the six doors opened revealing six black youths, each with his hand inside his coat. “Then you gotta get past them.” The doors were then opened wide. “And then you got to get past that.” That, the Baldies could see, was a manned machine gun mounted on the late pass table. This weapon, it was said, had been sent home piece by piece by a former Sportsman while serving in the Army. After a minute’s consideration the Baldie leader said, “OK, nigger, a fair one, just you and me.” Diablo then disembarrassed himself of his weapons and came down the steps. When they were face to face and the Baldie raised his hands to fight. Diablo dropped him with a single karate chop to the neck at which point the sound of police sirens began to grow louder and the entertainment came to an end.
Eddie’s scholastic career, like mine, ended early and when I first knew him he had a job as a bicycle delivery boy for Balducci’s. This was long before Balducci’s moved to the premises on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Ninth Street and entered its present incarnation as a high-end delicatessen and all-round gourmet’s delight. It was then a neighbourhood fruit and vegetable store across Sixth Avenue on the short block south of Christopher Street. Eddie’s wage was 22 cents an hour. He lived then in a building on Charles Street in the block between West Fourth Street and Seventh Avenue South. He was of average height, had a bit of a paunch, dark hair and a round face with the signs of mild acne that were almost universal among us in our mid-teens. Eddie was noticeably hip, even among contemporaries few of whom lacked street smarts. He was a good singer – first tenor, recall, with The Impalas. I particularly remember him in a spurt of even higher than usual spirits singing Lewis Lymon & The Teenchords hit I’m So Happy outside the Golden Pizza, hands, with fingers snapping, swinging from side to side and executing a deft crossover-back-hop dance step. He was occasionally given to darker moods when brooding on his broken romance with Lynn; then he would be seen sitting alone in the back of Dirty Waters or other hangouts listening to the jukebox playing The Mello Kings’ Tonight, Tonight , which had been ‘their’ song.
Eventually Eddie (along with George Garbarino) joined the Navy. In those days, when the Selective Service System was still in effect, men were liable to be drafted for two years active service and four years in the reserves. However, if you enlisted in one of the Armed Forces before your eighteenth birthday you were discharged from active service the day before your 21st birthday and were then required to serve only two years reserve duty thus having, in theory, only five years and a day of military obligation. In the event, Eddie joined, I think, when he was seventeen years and nine months old. He didn’t, in fact, take advantage of the short service as he re-upped and had a ten-year career in the U.S. Navy. Having trained as a sonar operator, when he returned to civilian life with a Navy pension, aged 28, he became a television repairman. During his time in the Navy Eddie had a tattoo done of a skull with a dagger through it which he would affectionately call Lynn when he was high. The last time I saw Eddie was during the June 1970 visit to New York mentioned earlier. One evening I met up with Eddie – then newly out of the Navy -, Denny Baggs and a guy named Bobby Turino, whom I had known in the past, although he had never been a particular crony of mine. He had joined the NYPD not long before I left for Ireland but was no longer a cop by the time of the reunion. We all met one night in the Lion’s Head and spent the evening drinking and cutting up old touches. True to his previous drinking exploits, Eddie drank double Metaxas with Heinekin chasers, a tipple he had taken to following his relatively recent divorce. In a re-enactment of our younger days, we even finished the night going for a meal in Chinatown, eating moo goo gai pan in Number 33 at three o’clock in the morning. As in the old days, we never referred to the Mott Street restaurants by name but always by number.
During the chat with Nick Pinto mentioned earlier, he told me that Eddie had moved to Miami where he was the caretaker of an apartment building.
As I’ve said, the best of my South Village Italian friends was Dennis Bagarozzi. Denny Baggs – so known, as his father before him had always been Joe Baggs – lived on Thompson Street a few doors south of West Third Street. He was undoubtedly the toughest – no, make that the hardest – kid on the block. He was never anything of a delinquent, juvenile or otherwise, but he had rather a short fuse and was always up for any trouble that might eventuate around the neighbourhood. He and I were almost exactly the same age – he was older by three days – and both of our parents were named Anne and Joe. We became increasingly friendly in our late teens. Denny was one of those people who found it difficult to go anywhere without company. He would almost invariably ask whoever was handy to “Walk me round the block, I gotta get something for my mother,” or wherever it happened to be he wanted to go for whatever reason. I was always happy to oblige, having inherited my father’s predilection for taking long city walks. The slightly volatile temper aside, Denny was pretty cool: sharp without being foppish and having generally what in Regency England would have been called a “good address”. His case of the almost universal acne was a bit more acute than average but he tended to it with meticulous routine. On one or two occasions I watched him as he washed his face thoroughly, rinsed, always with cold water to close the pores, and applied some class of patent astringent.
Apart from our peregrinations around the neighbourhood, other activities we shared – often in company with others like Eddie Kech and George Gaprbarino (aka Georgie Gabbs) were outing to dances at places like the Manhattan Center and the Webster Hall and occasional forays to visit the East Side guys who hung out in the Alto Knights’ Social Club – called “The ‘A’s – on Mulberry Street and Frankie Brown’s on Hester Street. The routine with the dances was that you bought tickets at $5.00 a pop, brought your own liquor and then, at the dance, bought what was called a “set-up” that included a tray, glasses, ice and water, costing – if I remember correctly, about $3.00. I don’t recall that a great deal of actual dancing was done at these affairs – at least not by me. They were mainly occasions to drink, schmooz and pass remarks about the girls we weren’t dancing with. One incident that sticks in my mind from one of these dances took place in the men’s room of the Manhattan Center, which was a ballroom attached to the New Yorker Hotel on Eighth Avenue between Thirty-third and Thirty-fourth Streets. I was having a piss when I was approach by a guy from the South Village neighbourhood named Frankie M. Frankie, I’d been told, was a would-be mafioso but he reportedly had a drug habit that made the local racket guys figure him to be not-very-promising as a recruit for the mob. Whatever his frustrations in that direction, he certainly dressed the part. On that night he was wearing a tailor-made pale grey silk suit, a custom monogrammed white-on-white shirt from Al Kaplan, a satin tie, black wing-tips from Siegal Bros., a Dobbs fedora (brim turned up all the way around) and a fawn vicuna overcoat that must have cost $600. All in all, the guy had at least a grand on his back. I was wearing a $65 suit from Barney’s Boys’ Town that might have been my graduation suit if I’d ever graduated from anywhere. Frankie’s first words, after the usual “Hello, howareya, whaddaya say” were, ”Ey, Paddy, can ya lend me two dollars?”
It was during our occasional visits to the Mulberry Street neighbourhood that I would again encounter Bobby De Niro, who by that time was as well-integrated in the East Side Italian street milieu as I had become further west. One thing we never spoke about when meeting was our mutual days at Elisabeth Irwin. Not that education was despised. One of Bobby’s acquaintances was a very cool character called Mikey Black (true surname, I’ve since been told, Michael Corriero) who was enrolled at St. John’s University in Brooklyn. One year when we went over for the East Side’s Feast of San Gennaro we watched Mikey’s team win the gallon of what the West Side Irish called “guinea red” by successfully climbing the greased pole. One evening when visiting we were amused to hear the story of Mikey’s first day on campus as told by one of his friends: “Mikey’s walkin’ to his first class when one of these upperclassman guys asks him ‘where’s his beanie and what fraternity he’s gonna join.’ Mikey tells him he ain’t wearin’ any beanie and he don’t give a fuck about fraternities. So the guy gets nasty and tells Mikey, “You’re a freshman, you gotta wear a beanie.” Mikey drops the guy with one shot, boom! Now everybody hip wants to hang out with Mikey and his friends and fuck the fraternity guys.” I’ve since been told that Michael Corriero subsequently became a Justice of the New York State Supreme Court.
When I first knew him Denny Baggs was (along with Mikey Black) attending Power Memorial, a fairly prestigious Catholic high school on the Upper West Side, located a few blocks south of Commerce. He graduated in 1960 and went to work for a shipping firm on lower Broadway near Battery Park. Over the next couple of years we saw a good deal of each other, although less after I moved uptown. Even after that we would sometimes meet, often in Googie’s Bar. Denny being, again, a good singer, some nights were passed with him vocalizing along with the jukebox while I mimed playing cocktail lounge piano on Googie’s ornate wooden bar-top: kind of karaoke but classier.
An occasion I remember vividly was the Christmas Day of 1961 spent in Denny’s house. My parents (still separated at the time) and I had had dinner together on Christmas Eve in the restaurant of the Earle Hotel on Washington Square. After the meal I repaired uptown to the Markwell Bar on Forty-ninth Street – one of my main Midtown hangouts – and wound up spending the night in somebody’s apartment in Queens. As per the invitation, I arrived at Denny’s house at about 10:30 Christmas morning. The J&B scotch was already flowing and Denny’s father had a gallon jug of the “guinea red” on his shoulder dispensing it freely to family and friends. I remember Denny’s grandmother in classic Italian widow’s black. She had lived in the U.S. for fifty years but still spoke only rudimentary English. When we sat down to eat there was antipasto, salad, bowls of chicken broth and risotto with lots of Italian bread. My appetite, all things considered, was pretty good, and I wolfed the soup down, as I did the lasagne that followed. I was feeling replete, to say the least, when I realized that what had gone before were merely the starters; the main course of veal parmigiana – to say nothing of the fruit, nuts and spumoni – that was yet to come. I managed enough to be polite, but I struggled.
One day during the following summer I met Denny on Sullivan Street and when, after the usual “Hello, howareya?” horizontal handshake, he said to me: “’Ey, Pat Carroll, you know what I’m doin’ in September?” “What’s that?” I said. “I’m goin’ to college. Whaddaya think of that!” And sure enough he quit the shipping firm and entered N.Y.U. that autumn. The next time I visited his house he showed me a stack of psychiatric social work textbooks. When we met again on my first visit back from Ireland he was an established practitioner working with disturbed youngsters. He has since enjoyed a successful and prestigious career as an influential author, consultant and lecturer in his field. Contemporaneous with Dennis at N.Y.U. were the previously mentioned John Volpe who eventually took a PhD in economics and an East Side kid named Martin Scorsese who, I’m told, has later achieved a measure of notoriety as a film director.
Some years ago I received a letter from Dennis – postmarked: Manhattan, Kansas – written not long after he had received his own PhD. It was couched in rather stilted academic-ese but after bringing me up to date with his the family and professional activities, it closed: “Doctor Denny Baggs! Can you believe that!?” Prior to a more recent correspondence begun two or three years ago, the last communication I’d had from him came to me in Somerset about fifteen years ago from Watkinsville, Georgia. It also contained the expected professional and family news: his son, Dennis Jr., was about to receive his PhD. – “Two Doctor Denny Baggs!” – and a daughter who was shortly to begin university in London. He also said he was working on his blues guitar a la B.B. King, Robert Johnson and Eric Clapton but that his partners were urging him not to give up the day job.
These crazy South Village wops! You don’t know what they’re gonna do next!
Note: As may be gathered from the above account I have in the composition of this chapter of Notes of a Footnote been hugely indebted to my old friend, Dr. Dennis Anthony Bagarozzi PhD. He has most kindly read earlier drafts of the MS and offered many suggestions, as well as filling in various lacunae and correcting some of my faulty recollections. I hope we may have an opportunity to meet again – not necessarily in the old neighbourhood – before either of us goes under the wire.