Authors: Harry; Mazer
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Cave Under the City
For my brother, my father, and my son
Ask me something. There's nothing I don't know about this city. I've lived here all my life. You want to go to Brooklyn? You want to go downtown? You want to go to the Roxy? Yankee Stadium? Ebbets Field? The New York Coliseum? You want to go to the Bronx Zoo? It's the biggest zoo in the world. I practically live there.
Where do I live? The Coops. No, not the chicken coops. It's really the Workers Co-operative Colony. Two whole blocks of apartment houses. We live in the first block, in apartment Wâ42. That means we live in section W, on the fourth floor, apartment 2. Every section has a different letter. The Chrissmans live across the hall in Wâ41. They've got two boys like we do. Murray and Max Chrissman. Max is way older than I am, but Murray is sort of my friend. Mostly we have our own friends, but on rainy days we horse around a lot on the stairs, and in the downstairs hall that leads to sections X and Y. There's a section Z, too.
Once Murray and I were just fooling around, dueling with a couple of kitchen knives, and I stuck a knife in Murray's back. That sounds worse than it was. Of course it's easy for me to talk. It wasn't my back. But I didn't really stab him, not all the way in. I just sort of stabbed him. You know how you do, acting like you're going to go right through, but holding back all the time. Somehow the tip of the knife got a little bit of blood on it.
I got scared though. He kept trying to see his back. “It's nothing,” I said. “I just scratched you.” He ran into his apartment, and I just stood there waiting for his mother to come out and murder me.
My mother doesn't like Mrs. Chrissman because she's always after me or my brother for one thing or another. But then my mother doesn't like any woman who doesn't go to work or isn't active outside the house. She says Mrs. Chrissman isn't an interesting person to talk to. My mother should have heard Mrs. Chrissman that day. She would have learned a couple of new words for sure.
After that, whenever Murray saw me he used to brag, “That's Tolley Holtz, the kid who stabbed me in the back.”
He made me sound a lot tougher than I am. With my own friends I'm pretty relaxed, but we're not a gang. I hate gangs. Once a gang came down from Barker Avenue to our neighborhood, carrying banana stalks and looking for a fight. I yelled to Bubber to get in the house. He got away, but they grabbed me. I was pushed, they tripped me, and I went down. I was on my back in the gutter and they were standing over me swinging these banana stalks. Bubber yelled, “Leave my brother alone.” He charged right in on them. It was like David and Goliath. He was a peanut; they could have murdered us, but instead they started laughing and we got away.
My gang, four of us, more or less, hang around together. We're not a sports gang. We're sure not a hitting gang. More a talking gang, because that's what we do best. We talk about everything. We talk about sports and politics, the New York Yankees and Lou Gehrig, and what President Roosevelt is doing about the Depression. We talk about music and about the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby. The Lindbergh case is in the paper every day.
The police have arrested Bruno Hauptmann, an unemployed housepainter from the Bronx. They say he did it. Hauptmann is a painter, like my father. Lindbergh is a flying aceâso who are they going to believe? The police traced a ladder they found leaning against the Lindbergh house in New Jersey. They say Hauptmann went up to the second floor and took the baby, but left the ladder. That's pretty stupid.
“I hope they make him fry,” George said, smacking his lips. “
like an omelet.”
Chick was laughing like a hyena. The only thing he cares about is his music. He plays the clarinet.
“How would you like to fry?” I said to George. “You know what it feels like?” Anything George says, I disagree with.
“Just turn me over easy.”
“You'd make a good cannibal,” Irv said. “What if the guy's innocent? My father said they're framing a poor workingman.”
“What frame-up? What are you talking about?” George's father is a cop. One of his uncles is a detective. “The cops don't frame people up. They get evidence, hard facts. What do you know?”
“Do you know what you're talking about?” Irv said. “You open your mouth and hot air comes out. Do you know anything about the labor movement in this country? The class struggle? Did you ever hear of Sacco and Vanzetti?”
“That's a lot of commie crap.”
That's pretty typical of us. We play handball, too, and we throw a football around. We're okay, but we're not the best. When they're choosing sides for stickball, Murray Chrissman is the first one picked. He's the best hitter in the Coops. He hit a ball once from one end of Britton Street to the other. I'm no hitter at all. I throw the ball pretty good, but I can't hit.
I know I could be a better hitter if I didn't have to think about my brother all the time. My mother works, and I have to keep an eye out for Bubber after school and make sure he gets home all right. In school they call him Robert, but everywhere else he's Bubber. Bubby â¦ Bubele. Baby, that's what it means. He's sure a baby around my mother. The minute she sits down, he's on her lap. My father says it's because she left him when he was six months old to go back to work. But my mother had to do it because my father wasn't working much. He still doesn't work much.
My father's a housepainter, and he also hangs wallpaper and does floors. But hardly anyone wants their houses painted anymore because there's no money. My father plays cards a lot with his painter buddies. My father's not the only one out of work. They're calling it hard times. Irv's father says it's the worst depression this country has ever had. He hasn't worked for two years. George's father is working. Cops always have a job. Chick doesn't have a father. His mother makes women's hats.
Every day, on my way to school or after school, I see men on the street or in the park, sleeping on newspapers, or down by the railroad tracks past the river. If you're smart, you don't go down there alone. I think a lot about living outdoors. Sometimes I think we could live in a cave by Orchard Beach, and have a fire and fish off the rocks, but mostly I think we're lucky my mother has a job.
My mother works in a dress factory down around 135th Street. I've been there lots of times. It's over a row of stores, a big loft with a lot of women, and men, too, cutting and pressing and working at sewing machines. My mother wanted to take my father up there and teach him how to be an operator on dresses, but he said it wasn't work for a man. I wouldn't want to work there, either. The place is full of thread and dust. It's pieceworkâevery piece has a priceâso you have to work fast. My mother is one of the fastest workers.
My mother worries about Bubber a lot. She doesn't worry about me. Bubber doesn't do too good in school. He can't read and he's not learning. The minute the teacher stops standing over him, he's looking out the window or walking around. I'm supposed to help him because I'm older and I'm good in school. My mother can't do it because she works and she has the house and her English isn't that good.
I tell Bubber a word ten times, and then when he comes to it in the book it's always: “What's that word, Tolley? Tell me again.”
“Was,” he repeats. Big smile. He's got a nice smile. That's the trouble. He could be mayor of New York with that smile. “I know it,” he says.
“Then why'd you ask me?”
“I just forgot.”
But the next time he sees the word he forgets it again or says it backward. “Saw,” he says, instead of “was.” My brother's not dumb. He's good in arithmetic. Sometimes I think he does it just to keep me sitting there. I stay with him till I can't stand it anymore, then I bop him one. He runs and tells on me, and I'm the one who gets the dirty looks and has to hear how hard my mother works and I'm the oldest and she's getting no help from me at all.
Why does Bubber have to do everything I do? Why does he follow me around? Play my games? I have to tell him wait, wait. You'll get a turn. But he can't wait. He has no patience for anything. He gets the ball and he does something crazy, runs away with it. If I grab it from him, he tries to bite me. Then he disappears.
I'm supposed to find him. “Where's your brother?” That's what I hear all the time. “Where's Bubby? You're supposed to be taking care of him. Where'd you leave him?”
Bubber is scared of the cellars, and he's too little to open the doors to the roofs. He likes to sit under the hall stairs, or between the rocks in the empty lots across the street. If he's not there I look by the candy store. After that, if he isn't on the street, I don't know where to look. I start to get scared. He could walk off with anyone. Somebody puts out their hand, he'll walk away with them. He's that kind of kid, cute, with curly hair and a big smile. It could be another kidnapping story. Another Lindbergh-baby case.
Once I went looking for my brother and I couldn't find him anywhere. He wasn't by the rocks or on the street or by the candy store. I didn't know where to look anymore, and I didn't dare go home without him. I looked for him all the way up Allerton Avenue, past the elevated train tracks and the closed-up summer movie house, which is just like a regular theater, with seats and a screen, except there's no roof.
I went past a vegetable and fruit stand where the man was singing out to the people walking by. “I got onions big as apples and apples like grapefruits and grapefruits like honeydew melons. I got tomatoes, potatoes â¦” It was the kind of place my brother would like, but he wasn't there. There was a delicatessen nearby with long cheeses hanging in the window, and strings of mushrooms and garlic, and sacks of nuts in the doorway and candies in silver papers. Bubber wasn't there either.