Authors: Pete Hamill
But as I watched the truck pull away, I began to cry. I wanted those skates back. And then felt as if I were a traitor, a regular Benedict Arnold. I stopped crying. I walked around the block. A cold wind was blowing off the harbor. I went home and lay down on my bed and started to read a
comic to restore my sense of patriotism. Yes: I had made a sacrifice. But it was worth it. Somehow, my skates would help beat Hitler and the Japs. Then my mother came in and asked me what was the matter.
Nothing, I lied.
Come on, something’s the matter.
Nothing’s the matter.
I was quiet for a moment and then I whispered: I gave my skates to the scrap metal drive.
Mother of God.
She looked upset and I said, I’m sorry, Mommy.
Oh, she said, this damned war.
Then she went into the kitchen and started cooking in silence. But that wasn’t the end of it.
An hour later, my father came home drunk. We sat down to eat dinner. And he learned about the skates.
What? he said.
You gave away your
I didn’t give them away, I said. I gave them to the scrap metal drive, you know, the war effort.
And he reached over and slapped my face.
My head seemed to explode. I went off the chair and got up and ran into the other room, my face stinging, my ear ringing.
my mother shouted. For the love of
he’s only a boy!
Tommy was crying, and that set off Kathleen.
I had to
for those goddamned skates! my father shouted. And he gave them
Billy, he’s a
He wanted to help with the war! He meant nothing bad, he —
I covered my head with a pillow. I didn’t want to hear any more of it. I was full of shame, a real idjit. My father had worked at Arma all night and paid for the skates and I gave them away. Skates I loved. The first real pair of skates I ever had. An idjit, an idjit.
Then my brother Tommy was beside me. He put a hand on my head.
Don’t cry, Peter. Please don’t cry.
I took a deep breath and stopped. My face was still stinging.
Come on, Tommy whispered. We’ll go in the Little Room and read comics.
And so we did.
N THOSE FIRST YEARS
at 378, the roof became our backyard. It was directly above our heads, reached by a flight of stairs. A small tarpapered building sheltered the staircase, rising off the roof itself like a second house with its own skylight. When we first moved to 378, there was a wooden deck running the length of the roof, with structures like goalposts at each end and clotheslines strung between them. On sweltering August afternoons, nothing was more pleasurable than walking in shorts through the cold wet wash. But in winter, the clothes froze and if you hit them you would hurt your hands; when it was that cold, my mother hung clothes on a line in the kitchen.
From the roof of the little house above the stairs, we could see forever. In one direction, facing the harbor, we saw the hills of Staten Island and the distant smudge of New Jersey and the Narrows opening out to the Atlantic. The harbor traffic never stopped; every day, ships moved out through the Narrows, going to the war, while others arrived in lines as steady as the trolley cars on Seventh Avenue. To the right, we could see the towers of the Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Williamsburg bridges, the giant building ways of the Navy Yard, the Empire State Building and the Chrysler. We could not see the piers where the
lay in water and mud.
The New York sky was crowded with birds then, and I would stare at some brave and lonesome hawk as he caught an air current and careened away, heading for the skyline until he vanished, and I would have dreams that night about flying: magically possessed of the secret powers of my heroes, weightless and strong, high above Brooklyn, soaring to the towers of Manhattan.
One afternoon on that little roof, as I lay reading in the sun, there was a deep churning sound in the distance, growing steadily louder. My brother Tommy suddenly burst through the door below me, looking at the empty sky. I reached down and pulled him up. Then, above us, came a flight of B-17s. Ten of them, twenty, then more and more,
and we were frozen, suddenly jumping, as the sky darkened with airplanes, the two of us yelling without words, trying to roar with them, waving triumphant fists at the Flying Fortresses as they flew over us, heading for the Narrows, heading out over the Atlantic, going to get Hitler.
When my father woke up, we started telling him about the airplanes, the words coming in a rush, and he told us that out at Arma, they made bombsights for those Flying Fortresses. We got very excited. This was war information. The Red Skull would kill us to know this; he would kidnap my father and threaten to drop him into a pool of sharks if he didn’t give him the plans to the bombsight.
anyone, he said, going in to shave. Remember, he said: Loose lips sink ships.
Loose lips sink ships.
That was one of the mantras of the war. I was sure that loose lips had sunk the
But that night, I didn’t want to talk about the
I wanted to tell everyone about the bombsights, and how my father might be a cripple, he might not be a soldier, he might be a drunk, he might be
a crippled Irish drunk,
but he was helping beat Hitler too! He was doing it every night, going out to Arma, out there in Bush Terminal, and making bombsights that would help our men blow up Nazi shipyards and Nazi bases and Nazi tanks. And I remember thinking, up on the roof one day, that maybe that’s why he was a drunk. Maybe it was very hard to carry that secret around, to have that inside him, knowing that he could be captured. Maybe he thought that if he was drunk he wouldn’t be able to talk. His loose lips would not sink ships.
Yeah, I thought. Maybe that was it.
When I left our cramped rooms for the roof, I always felt free. The sky was limitless, the turmoil of the street far below. The tenements and their roofs were all connected and I explored every inch of that open terrain: roofs with white or black pebbles, others with plain tar paper, some with clotheslines, others with rough planked decks where people sat on summer evenings. There were metal chimneys on some rooftops, brick on others; the buildings without hot water had no chimneys at all. A few tenements were higher than the rest, and between several of them there were air shafts.
One air shaft was wider, deeper, more foreboding than the others. I sometimes stared into it, holding tightly to the ledge beside it, and could barely see the black distant bottom, which was a rubble of broken bottles, rusting cans, old clothes. I dropped a pebble down the shaft; it took a long time to hit bottom. Tommy and I called the shaft the Bottomless Pit.
Then one afternoon, I was on the roof with Tommy and two kids, Billy Rossiter and Billy Delaney. We wandered to the edge of the Bottomless Pit. Rossiter, tall and skinny, suddenly pushed me, then grabbed me before I could fall, and laughed at the fear on my face. My heart thumped.
I dare you to jump across, Rossiter said.
Nah, I said, still full of fear.
I can do it, Delaney said.
What for? I said.
A dare is a dare, he said.
Then he backed up the width of one rooftop, took a deep breath, started to run, leaped, and hit the ledge on the far side of the Bottomless Pit. He didn’t make it! He was holding on to the edge, dangling, grunting, the darkness below him. Rossiter looked frightened, and then he and I and Tommy were scrambling around to the other side to save Delaney from falling.
But he held on and pulled himself up over the ledge without our help and rolled over on his back. He laughed at us.
Okay, he said, now it’s your turn.
Rossiter smiled thinly. He had made the dare. Billy Delaney had accepted it. Now Rossiter had to do it. That was only fair.
He backed up, the way the shorter Delaney had, a wan look on his face. He shook his hands loosely and then started to run on his long thin legs. He jumped. And landed cleanly on his feet on the other side. He laughed like a loon, jumped up and down, raised clenched fists to the sky.
Now it was my turn. Tommy was too small. I had to be the last to leap across the Bottomless Pit.
Tommy whispered, Let’s go home, Pete. Come on …
I remembered my shame after Brother Foppiano made me cry. I imagined Rossiter and Delaney laughing at me down on the street, telling all the other kids. I had to do it. Maybe I would die, but I had no choice. A dare was a dare.
I backed up the way the others had, not looking at them, not looking at the air shaft. I imagined Robin Hood leaping across the parapets of castles. I saw Gene Autry on his horse Champion, jumping across canyons. Then in my mind my father was on that roof. At my age. With two legs. He would do it. I must do it. Even if I fell to my death in the Bottomless Pit.
I ran in a burst, my legs pumping, head down, came to the lip of the shaft, closed my eyes and made a roaring sound as I jumped.
I hit the other side and rolled. When I opened my eyes, I saw the sky. And Tommy’s face. He looked terrified.
I got up and hugged him and then Rossiter and Delaney were there, laughing and excited. Rossiter said, That was
wasn’t it? Whatta ya say we do it again?
No, I said, let’s get something to drink.
We turned away from the Bottomless Pit and went down to Sanew’s to share an icy bottle of Mission Bell grape soda.
On hot summer days, we went to the roof in bathing suits. So did other people on the endless expanse of rooftops that we later called Tar Beach. One humid August afternoon I was alone on the roof and saw Billy Rossiter’s sister in a bathing suit, lying out on the rooftop. His sister was much older than Billy, maybe twenty, and she lay there alone, not knowing she was being watched. She lathered suntan oil on her bright pink body, rubbed some on the tops of her breasts, then lay back with her eyes closed and her abundant black hair spilling onto a large white towel. I didn’t know why but that made me feel funny. I turned away and went down to the street. I did not tell my mother about this.
Projecting upward from the edge of the roof, out over Seventh Avenue, was a sloping tin canopy, its peak two feet higher than the roof itself. It must have been designed to dress up the building from the avenue side and to keep kids like us from falling to our deaths. Sometimes I’d lie back against the canopy, watching the clouds form horses or lions against the sky. Other times, I’d lie with my head over the canopy’s edge, staring down at the life of the street, or into the apartments across the avenue. When winter ended, people laid pillows on the windowsills and watched the street for entertainment. Usually, the watchers were women, looking for their children or their husbands or any signs of danger. My father never gazed out the windows, but neither did my mother. She was always too busy.
But on the top floor above Rattigan’s, there was an entire family of Syrians who took their places in the windows, all day long: a grandmother, a mother, a middle-aged son, three daughters. They watched everything and talked back and forth from window to window. My mother called them the Gapers Club.
On our roof, with just my head showing over the edge of the canopy, I’d gape at the Gapers Club, trying to make them nervous. Once I even succeeded. Fixed in my stare, the grandmother heaved herself inside. And that afternoon, down on the avenue, the mother complained to my mother that I was a Peeping Tom. I didn’t know what this meant when she told me about it at dinner. Did it have something to do with brother Tommy?
A Peeping Tom is someone who looks at women in their homes, she said carefully.
But the Gapers Club looks at us
I said. Even at night sometimes.
A Peeping Tom, my father said, wants to see women take off their clothes.
That scared me; I didn’t mention looking at Billy Rossiter’s sister. I couldn’t be a Peeping Tom. After all, I couldn’t see into her
Anyway, my father said, a Peeping Tom’s worse than a masher.
A potato masher?
No, no, he said. It’s different.
Billy, my mother said, you’re confusing him.
Well, he’s got to learn, sooner or later.
I said, Is Tommy a Peeping Tom?
My father laughed and said, I’ve got to go to work.
I looked at my mother. She was laughing too.
of heavy rain, I sat inside the roof door, watching little rivers carve their way through the glistening black pebbles to the drain that emptied into the backyards. Sometimes the water flowed in torrents. The rain came in driving gray sheets off the harbor. And I felt safe and sheltered, like Bomba the Jungle Boy in a cave in the jungle.
I found my first Bomba book in a dingy little store on Sixth Avenue near Tenth Street. The store sold old comics and loose cigarettes (two cents each, two for three cents, just like the pretzels in Sanew’s). But on a shelf I saw a book called
Bomba the Jungle Boy at the Moving Mountain.
The ocher cover showed a line drawing of a boy wearing an animal skin that went over his right shoulder. He was holding a bow in his left hand, while a mysterious animal — either a monkey or a small jaguar — peered from the jungle. The book cost six cents. I had a nickel in my hand. I asked the old man at the door if he could trust me for the penny.
Are you kiddin’? he said. Dat’s a
I went home and told my mother about the Bomba book and she gave me a milk bottle and told me to bring it to Roulston’s and get the deposit. I took the bottle to the grocer, was given two cents, and ran to Sixth Avenue, my heart pounding with fear that someone else might buy the Bomba book.
It was still there. I paid my six cents, held it in my hand, smelled the paper. I hurried home and went to the roof. The first sentence reached out and grabbed me: “As silently as a panther, Bomba climbed the great dolado tree, the giant of the forest. …” I soon learned that Bomba was about fourteen and lived in a cabin deep in the jungles of the Amazon, wearing the skin of Geluk the Puma, armed only with a machete and a bow and arrows. With him was a white-haired old naturalist named Cody Casson, who gave Bomba some education but was evasive about the boy’s origins. The old man was frail and had lost most of his senses in an accident; he was really in the care of the boy.