I'm the whirling dervish of Queens, spinning around and around, arms flapping, my father's boxing gloves like cinder blocks strapped to my seven-year-old hands. With a single left hook, Tommy O'Reilly, my best friend, has just knocked me blind. But the goddamn gloves are so heavy, I can't even lift them, so, unable to punch or see, I start flapping and spinning, gaining speed as I go, praying the added centrifugal force will do the trick—and if science fails me, at least I'll look so nuts that maybe he won't try again.
The ring is our front yard, a splotch of grass split in half by a cement path and hemmed by a short and shabby chain-link fence that surrounds both of our houses: mine looks exactly like a single-wide trailer, but it's actually a converted former boat shed that sits in front of Tommy's proper two-story Colonial. The whole setup is like some modern-day feudal arrangement, except instead of a lord and lady, there's the O'Reillys. And instead of it being medieval Europe, it's Broad Channel, Queens, 1987.
I live in the shed with my father—I am a first-grader, he is a cop, and we are the serfs. For the past five years my dad has lived in the O'Reillys' old boat shed because it was the first place in his hometown he could find, and afford, after my parents' divorce.
I spend every other weekend there with him, and we have a routine. We share the pullout couch, and after he falls asleep, I crawl out from the crook of his back to the end of the bed and turn up the heat on our electric blanket. In the morning he tells me not to do it again.
Because there is nowhere to go when we get out of bed, we don't. Instead, first thing in the morning he turns his tube socks into puppets called Filbert and Albert, who are mute and whose only shtick is fighting and making up. My dad can keep them going for close to an hour.
Eventually we have our breakfast and go to Mass, and then I spend the rest of the day playing with Tommy O'Reilly. Every so often "playing" just means trying to punch each other in the face.
Broad Channel is a bread crumb of an island between Howard Beach and Rockaway, with a single through street, Cross Bay Boulevard, and cross streets that dead-end at the water. Far off in the distance you can see Manhattan, its familiar miniature metal geometry in a strange frame of fog and reeds.
We've got no supermarket, high school, pharmacy, or library. Almost everything is on the other side of the bridges at either end of our town. For better or worse, we are 2,500-odd people adrift in Jamaica Bay, untethered from the rest of the world. Really. No poetics intended—despite being in Queens, Broad Channel isn't even connected to the New York City sewage lines. Instead, we have septic tanks. Even our shit can't escape.
Most people here are Irish Catholic, so we do have more than our share of bars and a church, St. Virgilius. My dad was an altar boy there and has been a devout Catholic ever since. In fact, becoming a cop was his second-choice career. His first was to be a priest. He even went into the seminary, fervently hoping God would call him. As it turns out, He didn't. My dad left with no hard feelings and soon afterward discovered that, while he wasn't cut out for bringing God's love to the masses, he was just great at throwing them in jail. He became a warrant-squad cop, which is basically a bounty hunter for the NYPD.
In addition to our bars and church, Broad Channel has two corner stores, one owned by Mr. and Mrs. Kroog and the other owned by Kim. We call them Kroogs' and Kim's, which may or may not be the actual names of the stores.
I love Kroogs' because, together with the typical candy and chips, the store also sells all the old '50s-era toys: jacks, yo-yos, and those paddles with a rubber ball attached by string—the kinds of toys kids never have a hard time getting their dads to buy.
Kim is a friend of ours and the sum total of Broad Channel's ethnic diversity. Since I turned seven, my dad has been letting me walk the three blocks from our house to Kim's, alone, to get us our snacks: Yankee Doodles for him and a twenty-five-cent bag of BBQ potato chips for me. But Dad tells me I have to walk up Cross Bay to get there, not along the more desolate Shad Creek Road, where we live. The one time he caught me taking the unapproved route, I was grounded. (In our little house, which has only one room, that meant being banished to the couch.)
That particular time I sat there mouthing, "I hate you. I hate you. I hate you."
Finally, Dad yelled, "Stop that, will ya?!"
"I'm calling the police!" I said, naturally.
He cracked up, then looked me dead in the eye and said, "I AM the police."
My jaw dropped. Sure, I knew he was a cop, but in that moment, I really believed he was all cops, like some sci-fi supreme omniscient cloned being. I sat in stunned silence for the remainder of my banishment.
Beyond our bars, church, and corner stores, Broad Channel also boasts not one but two veterans' halls. But if you had called either of them "the veterans' hall," I wouldn't have known what you meant. To me they're "the VFW," which is nothing more than a place you go for a party. And no matter whose party it is or what it's for, there will be aluminum trays of Swedish meatballs and baked ziti, giant plastic tubs of potato and macaroni salads, bowls of potato chips, and cans of beer. And music playing from a boom box. The smaller of the two VFWs is an arm's length from our little house, and by 9:00 p.m. on a Friday or Saturday, without fail, Bruce Springsteen's "Bobby Jean" comes blaring through our walls. But you never complain about the Boss.
Broad Channel has boats, too—lots of old rickety ones and a handful of sleek, fast ones. And whether you have a boat to moor or not, most waterfront houses have long wooden docks extending from their back door into the bay. On summer days we kids spend hours fishing off the docks or swimming in the bay or tumbling down the dunes. But this is not that kind of day. Today, instead of doing any of those lovely things, we are boxing ourselves blind.
Unable to stave Tommy off, in addition to my spinning and flapping I start to scream, "I can't see! I can't seeeee!!" And then I hear his feet come to a stop. Jimmy and Richie O'Reilly, his brother and cousin, are our only spectators. Up until this point they have been chanting, "Fight! Fight! Fight!" But even they go quiet. Then Richie, who is the Peanuts character Linus come to life, leans in to me and asks, "Ya okay, Tara?"
I stop spinning and scream, "I'm blind, goddamnit!!!"
. . .
Around the time Tommy punched me in the face, the stretch limousine on its way to pick me up at my little house would have just exited the Belt Parkway. As I started my flapping and spinning, it would have been cruising down Cross Bay through the Italian stronghold of Howard Beach. I imagine a couple of guys in sweat suits and white leather slip-on Keds peering over their cigars at the limo, wondering, "Who's gettin' married?" Or, "Prom already?" But they probably weren't thinking, "Betcha that limo is going to pick up the Channel Rat Clancy girl who just got her lights knocked out on her front lawn."
Either way, after passing Gold's Gym, Vincent's Clam Bar, and Russo's on the Bay, perhaps at the very moment I screamed "I'm blind, goddamnit," that limo would have been nearing the last major landmark you hit before the bridge to Broad Channel, the Big Bow Wow.
There's a chance, if the limo wasn't coming to get me, that Dad and I would have gone there that night. As always, we'd have slid into one of the Bow Wow's burnt-orange Formica booths and scarfed down their famous hot roast beef sandwiches before the bread got too soggy and fell apart in our fingers. Afterward, we'd go into their arcade to play skee-ball. As usual, my father would dance around on his tiptoes like Fred Flintstone before flamboyantly drawing back his arm and firing a ball up the lane. But there wasn't gonna be any skee-ball showdowns or steaming sandwiches today.
As the limousine climbed over the bridge to Broad Channel, the driver might have the A train chugging along on his left, crossing its own bridge toward the end of the line. To his right would stretch the wide expanse of Jamaica Bay, toy-size boats bobbing amid swirls of marsh in front of the very distant tail end of Manhattan—snapshot perfection for all of three seconds.
When you reach Broad Channel, there is nothing on either side but green for a mile-long stretch on Cross Bay—the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, a national park and bird sanctuary. As you drive past, you might see a wild turkey or a birder with binoculars or an enormous osprey with a fish dangling from its beak flying inches above the windshield of some guy's Oldsmobile. More typically, though, you don't see any people or rare birds—just a pleasant, mile-long patch of woods, immediately followed by toilets.
Rows and rows of blue plastic porta-potties mark the end of the beautiful national park and the start of our town. It's the headquarters of the Call-A-Head Corporation, our most profitable locally owned business. And, after seeing the porta-potties themselves, you come upon a sign with their motto: call-a-head, we're number 1 at picking up number 2!
After that genius bit of marketing, there are just rows of homes—a mix of battered clapboard shanties and sprawling, bay-windowed beauties. Ours is on Shad Creek Road, a slanted little street just past a lot filled with abandoned cars, among them my dad's rusted, long-dead, yellow '74 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia.
Our home is by far the smallest in town, and when the driver pulls up out front, the house and the limo aren't much different in size.
. . .
Tommy, Jimmy, and Richie stand in silence, staring at their sneakers, as my dad waves two fingers in front of my face. My eyes follow them until he unfurrows his brow and says, "You're just fine now, Scooter." But right before he walks away, he looks down. Cupping one of my gloved hands in his, he shakes his head. "No wonder! Jesus, next time you kids wanna box, we'll getcha kids' gloves—them things are for practice, sixteen ounces apiece, ya mopes!"
We all shrug. And after a half-second pause, Tommy says, "So, you wanna go play in the lot?" I smile and take off running for the gate. But I never make it. Halfway there I see the limo and stop dead. Jimmy, Richie, and Tommy pile up behind me. "Damn, Tara, it's already time?" someone says to my back. I drop my arms to my sides and manage a slow, disappointed nod.
Looking behind me, I see my dad standing in the doorway of our house with my duffel bag. He gives me a hug, "You have fun, Scooter, okay?"
"I wanna stay."
"I know, kiddo. It'll be all right."
The driver opens the door for me, and I climb in.
Out the right window my dad waves, and out the left Tommy, Jimmy, and Richie scale the chain-link fence of the lot.
When I twist the mental radio-tuner dial of my memory as far back as it'll go, I get staticky snippets of my parents and me from my earliest days, but that sweet, crystal-clear reception actually first comes in on the time I spent with my grandparents. In other words, as best as I can remember, life begins for me in a tiny ad hoc geriatric Italian village on 251st Street in Bellerose, Queens.
With both my mom and dad working double-time after their divorce, starting at age three I spent the weekdays in the care of my grandma, Rosalie Riccobono, who lived, of course, with my grandpa, Bruno "Ricky" Riccobono, who in turn shared a two-family house with my great-aunt, Mary Zacchio, that just happened to be next door to the homes of two other Italian American septuagenarian couples, Tina and Lenny Curranci, and Anna and Joe Paradise. And though I was with my parents on weeknights and weekends, bouncing between their vastly different worlds, my most vivid early memories are born in this four-hundred-meter stretch of street, in these three abutting houses, with these seven elderly Italians.
In my mind, the scene plays like one continuous Steadicam shot tracking me as I weave my way through side doors to kitchens, down hallways to living rooms, from one house to the next, to the next, casting off hellos left and right, like Henry Hill in the Copacabana in Goodfellas. That shot begins when a sharply dressed Ray Liotta hands the keys of his Caddy to the valet on a bustling Manhattan street outside the club and then makes his way inside with the beautiful Lorraine Bracco on his arm. My scene begins with my mother's beat-up blue Oldsmobile screeching to a halt in front of The Geriatrics of 251st Street compound and me, age five, hopping out in a pair of jeans with the knees torn out and an Incredible Hulk backpack.
At the time, 1985, Mom and I still live in the house my parents once shared, ten minutes away in Rosedale, Queens, but she drops me at Grandma's every morning before heading to work. I was in kindergarten at PS 133 in Bellerose, but on days like this one, when I was off from school, I wasted no time in starting my rounds.
Right after Mom peels out, I leap up Grandma's stoop steps two at a time, yank open the screen door, and head into the kitchen to find my grandpa on his way out to work. In his late fifties, after thirty years of driving a truck for Linens of the Week, he got a job at the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. And now, at seventy, he still works five days a week, taking great pride in stuffing his barrel chest and thick legs into a perpetually too-tight, brown polyester suit. With his round belly, big bulbous nose, and deep, genuine happiness, Grandpa is as close to Buddha as an Italian-born, Brooklyn-bred, truck-driver-turned-life-insurance-salesman has ever been. When I appear, he is standing at the kitchen sink, displaying his typical toothy grin between blissful gulps of his infamously disgusting breakfast concoction: hunks of rock-hard, stale Italian bread jammed into the bottom of this one particular red-rimmed, white enamel pot, then topped with a couple of cups of sweet, milky coffee and cooked until the whole mess could be eaten with a spoon like porridge. He calls it zuppe (soup), which just makes it sound worse, and of his six children and eighteen grandchildren, only he and I don't find it repulsive. "Morning, Shrimpy!" he says, putting the last spoonful into my mouth before planting a drive-by kiss on my forehead as we head our separate ways.