People, places and things…in our neighborhood, they all change at one time or another.
Folks come and go in Windsor Terrace.
Some move away and unfortunately some pass away.
Stores open, stores close.
New business opens, old ones go under.
Out-of-towners purchase the brownstones for sale.
Wine shops open, espresso is now sipped on sidewalk cafes.
Brick oven pizza, top-notch restaurants, five hundred-dollar baby strollers glide across ninth avenue and stay at home dads are out in full force.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the old-timers that hang out on the corners reminiscing. (They still hang out, right?)
My friends, these are the tales from the streets of Windsor Terrace.
The streets where I once roamed.
Eighth, ninth and tenth avenues where I played stickball, whiffle ball, drank booze and listened to music on the street corners.
Windsor Place, 16th street, Howard Place and Fuller.
Streets where I knew everyone.
When the residents saw me coming I could just hear them, “Oh no, here comes the dysfunctional, red-headed kid from up on the avenue…”
Some people in the neighborhood liked me, some didn’t…I didn’t care. I still don’t.
I was a lost kid trying to find my way. Searching for guidance. Trying to read the map; the map for a young child to find his way and become a productive teenager. (Does such a map exist?)
I was without a plan. No blueprint in sight.
When I write, I begin to cry. But to be fair, I also smile at some of the shit I went through. The bottom line, I had no fuckin’ clue.
Funny thing is I thought I was the only kid in the neighborhood going through tough times. As a teenager I had no idea my best friends and many kids before me were going through the same shit; some had it worse. Life at home was awful. We all have a story to tell. We all stood in front of a disgruntled parent at one time or another wondering if we were going to get smacked in the face. As kids, we were defenseless.
I often think about all the people I grew up with and more and more I think of the people who came before me. I think of the junkies sleeping in the streets; the drunks staggering along ninth avenue at four a.m. and the tough guys who scared the shit out of me. I think of the older guys who I looked up to but never told them. I think of the parents of my friends that were always there for them and I think of the parents that were absent in their kids lives.
My memory goes back to the mid-70’s.
We have readers that go as far back as the 50’s.
And of course we have the readers that hung out on Hippie Hill from the 60’s.
There were teens from the neighborhood way before me that went through the same shit as we did. A period of time where I was unaware of; The days of such street gangs like “The Jokers“, “The Tigers” and the “South Brooklyn Boys.” One person in particular is Bengie Powers. With the help of the Internet, I researched and found some material. Our very own, Pat Fenton, an amazing writer has also been a huge help; Pat has written some powerful material on the neighborhood from back in the day.
Here’s an article from Blaine Harden of the New York Times from back in 1999.
Patrick Fenton, then a gangly Irish kid with a pompadour and now a part-time writer and full-time court clerk at the State Supreme Court in Queens, remembered a drunken fight not so much for the punches as for its ending. ”We both threw up,” Mr. Fenton said.
Robert (Bengie) Powers, a former drug dealer and a former heroin addict and now an addiction counselor, said he never once won a fight unless three or four of ”you guys held somebody down and I could beat them.”
There is also a book coming out real soon on Bengie’s life. I am looking forward to reading it. A book on Bengie’s life will be out at the end of this month. It’s called “Bobby’s Book.” Pat is writing a piece about it for the Irish Echo, which I’m sure will be top-notch. Fenton’s a great story-teller and certified neighborhood historian.
Bruce Davidson published a photography book, “Brooklyn Gang” a book with many photos including Junior Rice.
The saddest story behind Mr. Davidson’s photographs is that of Howard (Junior) Rice and Cathy O’Neal, the gang couple whose cool and beauty were without compare. No one had the heart to tell their story on Saturday.
Junior was the Romeo of the street gang. He wore sunglasses everywhere and carried a copy of Allen Ginsberg’s ”Howl” in his back pocket. He had the pick of girls on Eighth Avenue and his pick was Cathy, a 13-year-old blond he thought looked like Brigitte Bardot.
Cathy, in the most famous of Mr. Davidson’s gang photographs, fusses with her long golden hair in the mirror of a Coney Island cigarette machine. She loved Junior and he loved her. Mr. Davidson photographed them embracing while lying on the sand underneath the Boardwalk. She became pregnant with his child before she was 15.
Mr. Rice, who is now 57 but whose Brooklyn friends still call him Junior, remembers that everything went wrong after Cathy became pregnant. ”We went to a judge and got permission to get married, which my parents weren’t happy about,” Mr. Rice said in an earlier interview. ”Our daughter passed away after 15 months, and I went into a self-destructive mode and so did she. We got divorced. There was a lot of shame.”
Mr. Rice said he took street fighting to ”the extreme,” using bats, chains and knives. ”I used to go out there and fight and I didn’t know what I was fighting about,” Mr. Rice said. He said he became a drug dealer, selling hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of heroin, and the ”profits went up my arm.” He had several failed marriages and is now divorced and unemployed.
Ms. O’Neal committed suicide years later with a shotgun.