Trouble began for me late summer of 1965 when some of the gang's black socks tough guys came out for football. My good buddies started hanging with the bad boys, led by Tony, a.k.a. the Boss. I didn't like him, and he wasn't fond of me. I wore white socks and penny loafers, played sports, and took high school seriously. The Boss donned a pork pie hat (his crown), black socks, and proclaimed himself the leader of the hoods, coolest of the cool.
"To Shankweiler's Drive-in movie theater," the Boss commanded, and his followers responded as though he wielded real power over them. Nobody took Tony seriously, except for Tony. His face lit up when the boys addressed him as "the Boss."
I admit I laughed my ass off when we went to Shankweiler's that night. Half of us hid in car trunks to sneak past the ticket lady, then we ran around the lot, shaking cars, pissing people off. One night, we repositioned people's lawn ornaments, and on another we painted our nicknames on the Eighth Avenue bridge, all harmless pranks.
At first, I participated, but with time, I became a critical observer and started to draw the line at stealing street signs, trashing houses, and bullying fellow classmates. I still went along, reluctantly, misguided by the belief I could protect my friends with reason and keep us out of trouble.
"We're on a slippery slope," I warned. They didn't listen, and the Boss began treating me with contempt for trying to interfere with his fun. I'd already been caught fleeing a party at the beginning of the semester. Lucky the guy giving the party vouched for me, or I'd have been inn real trouble. I was looking at a ride in the back of a cop car to the station. The gang's signature play was to crash a party and eat everything, not just what was out for the guests, but everything.
* * *
The Boss stood on his favorite soap box, the trunk of Greg's car, a '57 Chevy Belair, convertible, top-down, parked in the back lot of the shopping mall where the troops reconnoitered on Saturday nights to plan the evening's activity.
"Steve Carson's parents are away for the weekend. He's throwing a little get-together for some of his friends. Funny, he didn't invite us," the Boss announced. Greg lounged in the driver's seat his hands resting on the steering wheel. He wore black socks, a black tee-shirt, sleeves rolled up, and tight, black cotton chino pants. He chauffeured the Boss and acted as the boss' protector. At six foot two inches, and 220 pounds, he was formidable. Lenny sat shotgun. His gaze was distant, head bent forward, mouth turned down.
"Are you listening?" Greg poked Lenny to get his attention. "The Boss wants us to crash Carson's party. I think Kate will be there."
Lenny picked his head up. "She won't see me. I have nothing to live for. She dumped me." He placed his head in his hands, eyes moist. Lenny pulled the sweatshirt hood over his head and hid his face.
"Think of something else to do. Leave Steve alone," I shouted. I knew what Tony had in mind, another crash and trash. The Boss' face turned red, eyes narrowed as he tried to identify who it was that dared defy him. He found me in the crowd and glared.
"Let's make this a real party," the Boss continued as he turned his hateful stare away from me. Enough said, he stepped down and waved his arm to signal it was time to depart. We mounted our vehicles, formed our usual caravan, and proceeded to the party.
Steve blocked us at the door, but the hoard quickly overwhelmed him. Always hungry, some headed to the kitchen and systematically began to consume everything in sight. Steve protested to no avail. Our gang, twenty in number, wasted no time trashing the place and harassing the guests. The aroma of fried eggs and bacon filled the air. Wrappers and empty boxes of cereal, crackers, milk cartons, and cookies littered the floor, a frenzy of feasting on anything edible. Steve didn't deserve this, and I didn't want to be a part of it, especially given my recent history. I stepped from the sideline, no longer willing to just observe, and tried to stop them. When I couldn't, I turned to Tony and confronted him.
"The guys are out of control, again. It's time to go."
"You go. I'm not leaving until the boys finish cooking the steaks they found in the fridge. Should be delicious."
"Steve called the police," I said.
"He wouldn't dare." The Boss shoved me hard and made a fist. I stepped into his space and knocked the pork pie hat off his head. He was nowhere near the shape I was in. I longed for the opportunity to fight him. He started it; I'd finish it. Greg, always close by, grabbed me from behind pinning my arms at my sides. The Boss cocked his arm ready to take a swing at me.
"Boss, what do you want me to do with this scumbag?" Greg said.
"Help him find the exit. Get this piece of shit out of my face." The Boss sneered and relaxed his hands.
"You guys having a problem?" Pat, a defensive end from the football team, asked. He stood equal in size to Greg. As Pat approached, Greg let me go.
"Joe is just leaving," the Boss said as we faced off nose to nose. I tensed my muscles about to strike but hesitated. I thought, better to leave by way of the front door, walk away, rather than have cops catch me running out the back door, again.
"Okay, I'm going." I slowly backed away from Tony. "I can walk home. Pat, you should leave, too. The cops will be here soon."
I left via the front door as the officers arrived. A policeman grabbed my arm as I passed. "Where do you think you're going?" the officer said. "Let's go back inside and check out what's happening."
"Police!" The cop shouted as he banged on the front door. Steve answered the knock, told them that he reported the disturbance, and invited the policemen to enter. As the two officers walked into the foyer, the party crashers ran out the back door, vanishing into the darkness. One of the cops pursued them, to no avail. The whole crew escaped.
Still holding my arm, the other policeman confronted Steve, "Was this one of the troublemakers?"
I prepared myself for the ride to the police station and the anticipated call to my mother. Steve bit his lower lip and stared at me. He started to speak then paused. "No. I invited him."
The officer glanced at me sideways, let go of my arm, and gave me a pass. The cops took a statement from Steve then left. I couldn't believe my luck, relieved. Steve could have turned me in.
"Thanks Steve. I didn't deserve that. Sorry for the mess we made. Can I help you clean up?"
"Just leave. You and your friends have caused enough damage. Don't forget to shut the door on your way out."
The house reeked of grilled cheese, burnt toast, and the broiled steaks, well done by the time Steve took them out of the broiler. Steve issued a sigh of relief. The house wasn't on fire, but the gang managed to consume all the food in the pantry and fridge, dirtied every dish, and somehow used every utensil.
Many of the invited guests departed with the Boss' company, but some still stood in the living room sorting through 45 rpm records as they listened to the Beach Boys, Help Me Rhonda. I headed for the front door and left Steve, standing, bewildered, ankle-deep in trash in the kitchen.
I closed the door behind me, as instructed, and descended the steps. Kate sat on the top step. I recognized her from English class. As I stepped around her, I nodded my head. "Isn't it a beautiful night?" I said in a soft apologetic voice.
"It would've been a lot nicer if you and your friends hadn't shown up. You're lucky Steve didn't turn you in to the police. I don't understand, Joe. You're not like those jerks. Why do you hang out with them?"
"I guess I like my football buddies more than I dislike Tony and his hoods. I don't like Tony; he takes up more space on this earth than he deserves. I was hoping to keep my friends out of trouble if I went along tonight. Aren't you and Lenny dating?"
"Lenny and me?" Kate said, her voice strained. "Being around him makes me sad. He's creepy. I danced with him at a Friday Night dance, once. We went on a date. Huge mistake. He tells everyone I'm his girl. I keep turning him down for dates. He chases away any boy who approaches me. Is that why you all showed up here tonight?"
"I wouldn't be surprised if that was a part of it. I didn't think things would get so crazy." I walked down the steps and stood in front of Kate. "So, you and Lenny aren't a thing?"
"I told him I didn't want to go out with him. Pathetic would be a more appropriate description of our relationship. He follows me around and won't let me be. He told me he loves me and can't live without me. We hardly know each other."
"I've been friends with Lenny since kindergarten. We walked to school together every day. He and I drifted apart after tenth grade. I still think he's a good guy, even if he began wearing black socks. He quit the football team, cuts class, and started hanging with the gang. He's had it rough. His parents split a few months ago. He's become a lost soul." I paused. "Who brought you here tonight?"
"I came with Matt, you know him. Greg threatened to beat him up and made him leave. They told him I was Lenny's girl. I refused to be with Lenny, and now, it doesn't look like I'm going anywhere."
"You could call your parents."
"If I did that, my father would go after Lenny. If I didn't tell him the truth, he'd go after Matt for leaving me here. I don't want to involve my parents."
The cops sat in their cruiser for a time before moving on. Once their car pulled away, the Boss and company came out of the bushes and from behind trees up and down the block and got into their cars. Greg, the Boss, and Lenny retreated to Greg's car. Lenny rode shotgun, again, while the Boss made himself comfortable stretched out across the entire back seat. As they passed Kate and me, Lenny saw us talking. He popped up, leaned in our direction, his mouth fell open.
Pat, in his mother's 1963 Ford Galaxie, followed Greg. "Need a ride to Scotty's burger stand, that's where we're headed," Pat called to me.
I waved him on. Kate and I were alone.
"It's not that late. Looks like everyone is gone. In place of other transportation, as you can see, I have none. If you don't mind walking, I can escort you home. You don't live too far from here. Do you?"
"Not far. Let me say goodbye to Steve and thank him for having me. I'll be right back." Kate got up and went back into the house. I smiled. The evening became brighter.
Kate emerged from the house. Her short blond hair bobbed as she walked down the steps. She wore loafers, a knee-length skirt, a fitted blouse, and a more cheerful expression on her face.
"I live a few blocks from here. The sky's clear, the moon's bright, a pleasant night for a walk. I love the smoky scent of burning leaves this time of year," Kate said.
We started down the street. At the corner, we turned north.
"You didn't fully answer my question about why you hang out with those guys."
"I don't know. Some are teammates from football, like Pat. They are like brothers to me. Then the Boss entered the scene. Most everyone thinks the Boss is funny."
"Did you find it funny when Steve ran through the house wringing his hands, wondering what you all were going to do next?"
"Well, it was kind of entertaining watching people eat all the food in the pantry." I turned to Kate seeking some sign of approval, perhaps a smile. Finding none, I continued. "I didn't enjoy what they did to Steve."
Kate and I walked on in the warm, damp, early fall evening air freshened by a gentle breeze. Little traffic coursed the streets as the tenth hour waned.
"My house is down this block," Kate said.
"What time do you have to be home?"
"Eleven. I'll make it home by then."
We reached the walkway to her house, and I stopped. "Should I walk you to the door, or will it be better for me to leave you here, so you don't have to explain how you left for the party with Matt and returned with me?"
"You can walk me to the door."
"What are you going to tell your parents about tonight?" I asked.
Kate peeked over her shoulder, as she entered her house, narrowed her eyes, and smiled.
"I think I'll tell them that I met a nice guy at the party." As she closed the door she added, "See you in English class."
I spun around and started for home, my stride, loose and comfortable. A car turned into Kate's street and headed toward me. I slowed my pace as I stepped to the sidewalk. With the vehicle less than half a block away, it moved to the curb and stopped. Three figures emerged and began to walk toward me.
"Joe, we've been looking for you," the Boss said, his voice menacing with an edge. "We checked out Scotty's and you weren't there, so we figured we'd find you here."
I stepped back into the street and waited as they approached trying to judge their intent. "You guys here to give me a ride home?" I called back, having no intention of riding anywhere with them.
"The only ride you're going to take is on this!" the Boss held something up above his head. I couldn't see what it was until light reflected off the blade. Were they serious? They drew closer, the Boss whispered to Greg who disappeared behind a parked car.
The Boss handed Lenny the knife.
"What's up with you guys?" I modulated my voice to sound calm, but became vigilant, my movements more deliberate. I stepped away from Greg's side of the street fearing he would try to trap me from behind.
"You're what's up, Joe. You're the problem, we're here to fix it. Right, Lenny?" As they approached me, I was less alarmed by the Boss' swagger, than I was by Lenny's silence. He followed the Boss like a robot. The two kept moving toward me. I tensed my muscles and prepared to fight or run. I tried to read their faces, but it was too dark.
Glimpses of movement appeared in the shadows on my left. Greg remained hidden by the parked cars and trees that lined the sidewalk but tread clumsily, rustling the dead leaves piled in the gutter, revealing his location. The Boss and Lenny stopped. Sweat ran down my face. I wiped it from my eyes with my sleeve. My brain screamed, run. Pride kept my feet still. I didn't want to look like a coward.
"Lenny, if you've got a problem with me, we can talk. We've always been friends. We go way back."
Lenny signaled to the Boss who shook his head and said, "You were friends, past tense. Talking time is over, Lenny. Joe is stealing Kate from you."
When Tony said that I realized the problem was with me and Tony. Lenny was just the Boss' tool.
A car turned into the street behind us. Light fell on my back as my shadow stretched out in front of me. I stepped to my right. Lenny and the Boss moved left. The beam found Greg as he ducked out of sight behind a tree. The vehicle drew closer. Lenny and the Boss held up their hands to shield their eyes. As the car passed, I slid under the parked car beside me and scooted between the front wheels. The odor of engine grease filled my nostrils.
"Where'd he go?!" Greg shouted as he came out from hiding. He jumped up and down trying to peer over the cars.
My eyes were riveted on Greg's feet. When he moved to the back of the car, I pulled myself from under the front and crouched low sticking to the shadows.
"Greg, what's going on? He couldn't have gotten away. I didn't see him run. He's got to be here. Check under the cars," the Boss commanded.
"It's dark under here. I don't see a damn thing." Greg said.
I studied the street from my vantage point. No one stood in my narrow line of sight. Keeping below the hood, I squat-walked car to car toward Lenny and the Boss, avoided the leaves by the curb, before slipping under one, so I could spy on my pursuers.
"He must still be here, Boss," Greg called, poking a stick under each car as he made his way up the street.
It wouldn't be long before Greg jabbed me. I gripped the front bumper and pulled myself out. I got to my feet and peered over the hood, then, walked boldly into the middle of the street to call their bluff. Leaves and dirt shed from my clothes as I moved.
"Okay, here I am. Can we talk this thing out?"
The Boss wore a snide smile. Lenny didn't answer. He held the knife at his side. Greg stopped prodding with his stick and stayed in place.
"Lenny, look at me," I said. More headlights appeared in the distance behind me. Lenny hid the weapon behind his back. Engines rumbled. I glanced over my shoulder and moved off the street to the right. Lenny mirrored my movement and waited. The approaching vehicles stopped.
"Yo, Joe, need any help?" I recognized Pat's voice but didn't turn as I kept my eyes glued to Lenny. "I think things are under control here, Pat," I called back, only half believing what I said, but happy he was here.
House lights went on, doors opened, and curious neighbors popped out. Someone shouted, "I'm calling the police."
Kate must have heard the commotion. She threw open her front door and ran into the street. Pat caught her before she reached us.
"What are you doing, Lenny? Go away. Leave Joe alone. I don't want you near ..." Kate stopped speaking abruptly and froze when she saw the knife.
"Nobody's going to get hurt," I said, trying to reassure myself.
Lenny and I stood under a lamppost, illuminated like two boxers at center ring. Lenny's shoulders sagged. He held his left hand in a fist, and his right hand, white-knuckled, wrapped around the knife's hilt. I circled toward Lenny's unarmed side. Lenny didn't react. The spectators watched, stunned into silence, hesitant to intervene. Time slowed.
"Come on Lenny, stick him! Come on. Do it already!" the Boss shouted. His lips curled upward in a snarl.
My eyes narrowed; brow furrowed, as I glanced at the Boss. Lenny turned to me and for the first time, our eyes met. He appeared confused, his mouth drawn, eyes unfocused.
"Lenny, you don't want to do this. We've always been friends. We can talk about this." I said.
Lenny looked up. With slow measured steps, I walked toward him, my arms raised in a defensive posture prepared to fend off the blade.
"Come on Lenny, put the knife down."
Lenny took a deep breath. His body shuddered. He turned his eyes to Kate, who responded by turning her back to him.
"Come on, Lenny, look at me, come on."
Lenny looked at Kate again. She pinched her lips, her face flushed with fear and anger. She held her breath. Lenny waved his weapon. I moved closer, my brow knotted, eyes focused, hands ready. Lenny breathed rapidly, and I could smell alcohol on his breath. He stepped back and placed the razor-sharp blade against his neck.
"I have no life, I'm a loser," Lenny mumbled his eyes still unfocused.
"No!" I shouted and reached for his hand. He jerked away from me and stumbled. The knife slid across his neck. A splat of blood filled the air as he fell to the ground. Blood soaked his shirt and pooled on the street next to him. I put my hand on the wound to stem the flow.
"Call an ambulance!" I shouted. Heat rushed to my face, adrenalin coursing through my veins. I looked down and saw the splatter of blood on my clothes. "Hang on, Lenny."
His face slackened, his gaze distant, fading.
Kate screamed. The onlookers gasped. A police siren sounded in the distance, and flashing lights appeared as a patrol car turned into the street blocked by the Boss' entourage and my friends.
I kept my hand on Lenny's neck until the cops reached us. He was still alive when the ambulance arrived.
* * *
By the time the officers made it to Lenny, Greg and the Boss were gone. The medics took over, loaded Lenny into the ambulance, and drove away, siren blaring. The neighbor who called in the complaint reported what happened. The police took names, dismissed the crowd, and returned to their cruiser. They reported to dispatch.
The Boss and his lackey didn't get far. Operating a car with an open bottle of booze, causing a disturbance, and leaving the scene, you'd think they would have been in serious shit. But Greg's father knew a judge, and both got off with slaps on the wrist. Greg's parents suspended his driving privilege for a month. I finally got to ride in the back of a police car that night, but once the cops sorted out the whole story, they let me go. In fact, they credited me with saving Lenny's life.
After his initial stay in the hospital, Lenny's doctors transferred him to a psychiatric facility to work on his issues. He had quite a few. Depression, the manic-depressive type, ran in the family. I visited him daily throughout his hospitalization. Lenny and I are still friends. Neither of us ended up with Kate.
The jocks and hoods stopped hanging out together, and the Boss put away his hat. In the spring of his senior year, Greg died in a car accident, wrapped his 1957 Chevy around a tree. He had an alcohol level of over 3.0 according to the autopsy report. By the way, after high school, Tony, no longer known as the Boss, got involved in local politics working behind the scenes. I believe he has expressed federal aspirations.