by Jacob Margolies
Junior was a large, pudgy, olive-skinned boy. He was also a bully. In my prepubescent world, he was the twelve year old who walked up to the ten year old at the bus stop and punched him in the face. Sometimes he’d also take your bus pass. He only got mine once.
With the help of his friends, Junior spent a considerable amount of time inflicting humiliation and hurt on the younger children who wandered through the concrete pathways of the Village View Houses that ran from 2nd to 6th Street along First Avenue and east over to Avenue A. If you didn’t have a big brother or a scary father, you were a target.
Although he was a sadist, Junior wasn’t particularly tough or brave. He and his buddies were terrified of the kids who would wander over from the half burned out blocks east of Avenue A to play ball in the P.S. 63 schoolyard on 3rd Street. In fact, Junior and his gang of Village View white kids steered clear of that schoolyard entirely.
I lived in a building adjacent to P.S. 63, and our 12th floor apartment looked down on its basketball courts. In the early 1970s the school’s playgrounds belonged to children from the island of Puerto Rico. Spanish predominated, and a vulgar street patois—maricon, culo, puta—was a common language. White kids and black kids were tolerated and integrated into the ball games, but everyone understood the hierarchy of the place.
We were all scared of the neighborhood street gangs. The most fearsome was the Dynamite Brothers, a group of teenagers who would make periodic appearances on the block. They were fond of flashing their knives and nunchuks, and from a safe distance we would watch their theatrical face-offs with the Royal Javelins. The gangs had flamboyant uniforms. Sleeveless denim jackets were worn open at the chest. The Dynamite Brothers had their name emblazoned on the back, spelled out in large yellow felt letters arranged in a circle. Inside the circle was a white skull. Some of them had their outfits adorned with metal bolts and patches.
Unlike Junior and his little tribe, the Dynamite Brothers rarely paid attention to me and my friends. One of them, a kid named Armando, called me Shorty and would on occasion give me a dollar to go to the bodega to buy him a soda and bag of potato chips. Even as a ten-year-old, I realized that some of the bigger kids in that playground would be dead or in jail before too long.
Around the time we all became teenagers, I realized that nobody bullied me anymore. I was not a different person, but things had changed. The streets were the same, but everything was better for me. I felt safe. Or at least safer. Over a two year period, I had grown several inches and so had most of my friends.
Sometimes when playing basketball in the little Village View playground, I would see a gloomy looking Junior playing cards with his friends on one of the wood-slatted green benches just behind the court. His baby face looked sad and tired and puffy, and after a while I hardly thought about him. Junior was no more noteworthy than the playground’s large flagpole with its fluttering American flag or the 21-story Village View beige brick tower just to the east.
My twin brother Peter, who was shorter and quieter than me, wasn’t as lucky. During his junior high school years, he and Junior waited at the same bus stop every morning. One day when Junior started smacking Peter around, older teenagers intervened in his defense. Junior was embarrassed and ashamed. “I am going to get you,” he told my brother. A few days later a group of boys jumped Peter on 4th Street. They held him down while each one got in his shots. Junior was the ringleader.
Despite this dramatic and unhappy event, things returned to a shaky equilibrium after a few days. Just like before, I didn’t pay too much attention to Junior. From time-to-time, I would see him on his green bench dealing out his playing cards or slinking into his apartment building. Every now and then, Junior would act out. After being called “a stupid n—–er,” a good friend of mine, a black kid, told me that he beat up Junior and put him in the hospital. But I didn’t actually see this, and it may or may not have been true. Shortly thereafter, there was a period of several months when I didn’t see Junior at all.
After school one day that winter, I was with my brother when we ran into our friend Vinny, an oversized and precocious 15-year old. Standing six feet four and weighing 240 pounds, he already looked like a young adult. Besides the usual boyish interests in drugs, and pornography, Vinny had some unusual passions. His twin gods were Karl Marx and Johannes Sebastian Bach. In fact, young Vinny had been known to ride the subway with his boom box blasting “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.” My brother was peculiar in sharing our friend’s musical enthusiasms.
It was Vinny who told us the big news. Junior was dead. Killed in a car crash. “This is the best thing that’s ever happened on this block,” he announced. Since his mother didn’t get home until the evening, Vinny invited us up to his apartment to spend the rest of the afternoon.
“Aren’t you happy Junior’s dead? You must be really happy,” Vinny said to Peter after we settled down in his living room.
“No. He was a human being. He had a mother. Probably,” Peter said.
“Don’t you hope he suffered a slow painful death?” Vinny asked.
“I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy,” my brother said.
“He was your worst enemy. It’s a good thing he’s gone,” Vinny said.
The two of them continued their consideration of this moral philosophical question for some time, and their conversation became increasingly animated. I could see both sides, but wouldn’t have minded if they talked about something else.
“Can we listen to something other than the Brandenburg Concertos?” I eventually asked.
“No,” Vinny told me, blowing marijuana smoke in my face, before returning to the matter of Junior, “Like Marx wrote, ‘There’s no real change without blood and violence.’”
He left the room and, after a couple of minutes, returned with a big hunting knife and a set of brass knuckles.
“This is what you should have used on that bastard. You should have punched him in the head and then stabbed him in the heart and watched him bleed. You’d have felt good afterwards,” Vinny told my brother.
By now, my brother was getting really angry. “I am not happy Junior is dead and I did not want to kill him,” he yelled at Vinny.
My brother had a temper, and with the weapons on the table I was beginning to worry that this argument could take a bad turn. Looking to distract the two of them, I got up and went to the turntable and flipped over the record that was playing. The three of us, realizing we had reached a delicate moment, listened to the music without talking until the album ended.
“OK. You’re not happy he’s dead. I understand. But don’t you think that the world is a better place without Junior in it?” Vinny finally said.
“Yes,” Peter conceded. “I would agree with that.”
“So that’s all settled then. We can talk about something else,” I said, as the rhythmic crackle of static from the needle jumping back on the end of the record repeated again and again.
Jacob Margolies is a journalist in the New York Bureau of The Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest newspaper. In addition to his work for The Yomiuri, he’s recently had non-fiction pieces published in Full Grown People, The Summerset Review, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, and Project Syndicate. Vol. 1 Brooklyn published his story “Gallery Scenes” in its Sunday Stories series.