Stay Gold: The Great Suburban Gang War of 1975
[I think I might have broken a personal record for length here. If you get through this, more power to you. And thank you]
Friday night, the daughter and friends went to a school play in the next district over. After the play, they went bowling with the kids from the other school.
You what? You went bowling with the Mepham kids?
Uhh..yea? Is there a problem with that?
Well it's just that in my day...
Oh, god. Please don't.
I told her the story, anyhow.
I don't know how or why the rivalry started. I was born into it. By the time I was eleven or so, I knew that the kids from North Bellmore were bad, bad children and I should never associate with them. I heard this not from my parents, who remained completely unaware of the rivalry, but from the older siblings of my peers, who regaled us with stories of a rivalry so intense that I often imagined it would escalate into a bloody battle that would make headline news around the world. We're talking Sharks and Jets. Crips and Bloods. Yankees and Red Sox.
During the school months, the battle between towns was nearly dormant. Sure, we made fun of their school, their football team, their mascot, their heritage, their mothers. We made up songs about them and carved nasty rumors about them into telephone poles. They, in turn, did the same to us.
Our towns were separated by a two lane main road. The north side of the road was East Meadow. The south side, North Bellmore. We often straddled the yellow line that cut North Jerusalem Road in half, just for the shits and giggles of being in two towns at once. Hey, this was the suburbs, 1970's. Entertainment was not easy to find.
On the south side of that road was a 7-11. Unlike today, where there's a 7-11 on practically every block, there was just a lone store back then. And we had to cross into North Bellmore to patronize it. Sure, we had Carl's candy store. And Murray's. But Carl didn't have the array of candy that 7-11 did. And Murray had a vicious German shepherd in his store that left teeth marks in the candy. Besides, 7-11 was huge in comparison to the mom and pop stores. The huger the store, the harder it was to watch over. Which meant more opportunity for five-finger discounts.
Every once in a while, we would run into some Bellmore kids in the 7-11, especially during the summer when Slurpees were at a premium. Dirty looks would be exchanged. Stares would be met with icier stares. There might be a silent stand off. Someone might utter a whispered insult. There would be no scuffle, no yelling, no fisticuffs. Just a chilled silence coupled with the affected stares of middle class kids who weren't sure how to get a rivalry past the insult stage and into gang war territory. Or maybe we just liked it the way it was.
Things finally came to a head in the summer of '75. It started in June at, of course, 7-11, when I ran into Sissy Smith* at the Slurpee machine. Sissy was the youngest in a family of five kids. She was the only girl. Her brothers had a reputation for being tough, mean and criminally insane. When we talked of the North Bellmore kids, we talked of the Smiths. They were the ringleaders of every near-fight that almost took place. It was said that the oldest boy, Steven, was in jail, and that the three younger boys had all seen the inside of the juvie hall. They were legend. Sissy herself was two years younger and about three inches shorter than me. I wasn't exactly a giant, so Sissy's small stature (this was the first time I was up that close to her) surprised me. I had heard so much about this rough-and-tumble girl; I knew some older sisters of friends that were terrified of her. It was all in her demeanor and her voice. Sissy carried herself as if she were six feet tall and made of body armor. Her voice was thick, raspy and deep and you may think that would sound funny coming out of a tiny eleven year old, but Sissy, with her dark, short-cropped hair and permanently scowling mouth knew how to work that voice so that when she spoke to you, she was indeed six feet tall and made of body armor.
I'm not sure of the exact sequence of events that occurred that June afternoon. I just know that it involved me, several of the boys I was with and a perceived slight towards Sissy and it culminated with the lot of us running out of 7-11 as if being chased by fire. We crossed the two lanes without looking both ways and only looked back at the store when we had safely made onto our side of the street. Sissy and two of her brothers were standing outside the store, emitting a string of curse words I had previously only heard uttered by large, hairy men at fire department picnics. A sense of doom fell over me. I had this vision of my entire summer ruined, months of relentless heat that would not be washed away with Slurpees. I was never venturing into North Bellmore again.
Word of the clash traveled quickly. An non-existant exchange of words by the Slurpee machine was run through the machinations of teenage rumors. It became warped, stretched out, magnified and distorted until that one small instance became the shout heard 'round the towns. War was declared. It was going to be a long, hot summer.
Perhaps we were the product of suburban boredom. Or perhaps we had all read The Outsiders one too many times. Either way, we had quietly assumed the role of gang. We were no longer a group of friends, a gathering of kids, not even a clique. We were a gang. And we were going to have a gang fight. No, not just a gang fight. A rumble.
Now that we were tough gang members, we had to act it. We roamed the streets at night in packs, looking menacing and furious. We said mean things about cops. We loitered where it clearly stated NO LOITERING. We played handball against the wall that had NO BALL PLAYING spray painted across its surface. We went into the school yard after sundown. We were bad.
Two of the Smith boys met with a few of our older gang members to iron out the details of our rumble. At first, it was going to take place the first Saturday in July, but a few people couldn't make it because their families would be on vacation that week. It was moved to the following Thursday, but that was nixed because too many kids were going to summer school and had early curfews during the week. Finally, after much haggling and checking of family calendars, it was decided that we would rumble the second Saturday in August.
As the summer days went by, we busied ourselves by playing Kick the Can, swimming and practicing our loitering skills. We talked about the rumble only when a safe distance away from family members, especially younger siblings. When talk turned to weapons, I got nervous. I knew what happened to Dally in The Outsiders. Which one of my friends would be the one to die? Which one would have to choke out the words stay gold, Ponyboy? I was all ready to get melodramatic and put a stop this tragedy waiting to happen. . Scenes from West Side Story ran through my mind but in some odd way I thought it would be really cool to break out into song while one of my teenage friends lay in a pool of blood while his brokenhearted girlfriend from the other side of the tracks looked on and oh, the heartbreak! The drama! Then leaf subsides to leaf/So Eden sank to grief/So dawn goes down today/Nothing gold can stay.
Ed slapped me across the head. Hello? You paying attention? I snapped out of my dramatic reverie. They were asking if I could steal a lead pipe from my father's work yard. Sure, sure. No problem. Lead pipe. I never gave it another thought. I knew even then, despite my warped musical fantasies, that this rumble was never going to happen. We were chicken shit. All of us. We were middle class, whiter than white, suburban kids looking for some excitement. The excitement, of course, was in the talking about it, not in the doing. Who needs that anti-climax? The summer would just sail by if we spent every night getting worked up about hiding lead pipes in the sump. The anticipation of this would see us through right through August.
The day of the big rumble finally arrived. We met at the playground early that morning to map out our battle plan. But Ed showed up with a bag full of fireworks that he found in the bushes behind his garage (probably stashed there and forgotten by his older brother) and we spent most of the morning trying to light them off. They were all duds, made impotent by days of rain. The abject disappointment of not being able to scare the neighbors with early morning firecrackers put a damper on our spirit. We kicked some rocks around, played a game of handball and headed to my house for an early afternoon swim, forgetting all about our gang plan. Our plans wouldn't have mattered, anyhow. We were the little kids of the gang. Tag alongs. Hangers on. The real meat of the gang, the high school kids, had a last minute meeting scheduled with the Smith boys. While we were playing Marco Polo and eating PB&Js provided by my mother, they were hammering out rules for the rumble.
Finally, darkness descended and we - the younger members - met in front of Ed's house as planned. I had forgotten the lead pipe, maybe on purpose, but no one asked about it, anyhow. We walked as one towards the sump. Our hearts were racing, our adrenaline pumping, our fear meter ramped up just a bit because, for all our posturing about being rough and tough gang members, we were scared shitless. Still, I couldn't help but grin a little bit as I quietly hummed "Tonight" on our way to the sump.
We arrived at the sump expecting to see a crowd of people climbing through the hole in the fence. But there was no one. No Bellmore kids in sight. No one but Ed, sitting on the curb drinking a soda. Apparently, the fight was off. Again. The Bellmore kids wanted to change the venue to their sump. Our guys wanted it here. They almost decided on a neutral site in Levittown, but no one felt like walking all the way over there. So the fight was off. Again. Disappointed but slightly relieved, we headed back to my house and played Kick the Can until our curfews were up.
Two weeks later, the big end of summer event arrived. The local church fair, with its Ferris wheel and zeppoles and gambling tables, signified the coming of another school year and the end of our lazy days. It was as if the fair put a spell over everything; for five days we'd swim in the epitome of summer, riding the Tilt-a-Whirl, scooping fresh lemon ice out of a cup, begging the grownups to let us into the gambling tent. The noise from the fair could be heard blocks away; I spent many summer nights listening out my window to the DJ spinning Creedence Clearwater Revival songs, the MC calling out the names of raffle winners and the calliope music of the children's rides until 11pm, when everything would go suddenly silent and dark. And when the Sunday night session ended and the fair went dark not for the night, but for the year, the spell would be broken and mothers across town would wake up with the urge to go back to school shopping.
This particular August I was 13 (a week away from 14), and finally allowed to stay until the fair closed. No more listening from room. I watched the MC hand out prizes and danced to the Doobie Brothers and ate so many zeppoles I could feel the yeast expanding in my stomach. I watched as Ed, after sneaking three cups of beer from the ever running keg, shoved an entire sno-cone into his mouth and then proceeded to puke every color of the rainbow in the football field behind the church.
It was about 10:30 on the last night of the fair when I ran into Sissy Smith. I had exactly one quarter left out of my meager allowance and I knew what I wanted. A pickle. Not just any pickle, but one of those half-sour, half-crunchy pickles that had been sitting in a barrels of garlicky, salty pickle juice for days on end. The kind of pickle you could only get at the farmer's market, except during fair days, when the farmer's market guy brought his pickle barrels to us. My mouth watered just thinking about. And now the only thing standing between me and that half-sour was the mean, potty-mouthed, vicious Sissy Smith. Except she wasn't looking so mean. Her usual scowl was gone and she seemed to be frowning. The fact that she was apparently sad didn't bother me at all; it was like all air had been sucked out of Sissy's bully balloon. I felt empowered by her obvious sadness. I could go get my pickle without fear. When I got closer to the pickle guy, I could hear him telling Sissy that the pickles were a quarter, take it or leave it, her shiny dime was of no use to him. His voice had the edge of someone whose patience had run thin; by the time the fair ended all the vendors sounded that way. I approached the counter. Sissy looked me up and down. I ignored her, dug the quarter out of my pocket.
Give me your quarter.
Her raspy voice didn't have quite the roar in it that it did that day in 7-11.
I said give it to me.
I want a pickle.She frowned.
So do I.
She pouted, then. And I remembered that she was only eleven. Practically a baby. She looked tired and a little bit dirty and I recalled my father telling me about the Smith family and how the parents were hardly every home and the kids would just run amok with no supervision or rules, and that's why they got into so much trouble. In that moment I saw an eleven year old little kid who was way too young to take part in psuedo gang fights and smoke cigarettes and sneak beers and stay out this late by herself, and I felt instantly bad for her. I handed the pickle guy my quarter.
A half-sour, please. Cut in half?
He cut it in half, fat ways, and smiled at me as he wrapped each half in plastic deli wrap. I handed half to Sissy.
We spent the next half hour in the side alley of the church lot, leaning against the convent wall, eating our pickle and listening to the workers dismantle the rides. Summer was over. So was my stint in the local junior high; I'd be going to the Catholic high school come September. I knew that my days of hanging out with Ed and the gang were pretty much over. And when Gina and Lori, who had been looking for me, finally found me and I was giggling at some joke Sissy just told me and they didn't gasp or recoil in horror, but sat down and Gina took out her Marlboros and handed one to Sissy, I knew the rivalry was pretty much over, too.
When I finished telling the daughter the story, she laughed.
A pickle? You ended a gang rivalry with a pickle?
Well, we weren't really gangs. And it wasn't really a rivalry.
Times sure have changed, huh?
Yes, they sure have. When I was....
I mean, a quarter for a pickle? That would be like...a dollar now.
Is that all you got out of that story?
No..no, it was good story mom. Really.
I started to walk out of her room.
I turn around. She smiles at me and says, Stay gold, Ponyboy!
Funny. Very funny. I bet some day she's telling her own kid a similar story. Or not. Kids are much different these days. But I'm going to hide the lead pipes, just in case.
*Last name changed to something less conspicous than the real thing. But it really was nicely alliterative