This is the sixth pre-publication draft in my series of pieces (many of them memoir) about Buffalo, my hometown, that will be released in 2013. If you liked this, you can find the others in my blog archives.
In summer, the railroad field at the end of my street bursted its rusty seams with green. This was especially true as the 1970s progressed. If 1973 marked the year when Big Steel pulled out of Buffalo, it also marked the year when the railroad traffic in my neighborhood began to slow to a trickle. The railroad company lost interest in policing their land, or in any kind of upkeep.
My eyes saw the place differently than when I was younger. The frozen pond that many of us learned hockey on when we were all a foot shorter, didn’t seem quite so big to me anymore. We no longer played army, collecting and stashing away as many rusty old railroad spikes as we could find in our forts. Now when we went back in the fields, it was to drink and to drug.
It was a green, humid early evening and the sun was getting low. We were right in the middle of one of those years later on in the ’70s when Donna Summer and the Bee Gees were all the rage. An out-of-town pickup truck rolled down Hartwell Road, and we watched it in our tee shirts and cutoff jeans. We weren’t many, and truth be told, we weren’t all that tough. But that pickup truck made my blood boil.
My brother and I weren’t talking much in those days. Earlier that year we had a hell of a fight over, of all things, a hair brush. It belonged to him, but my band had a gig at a local high school and I couldn’t find my own brush. So I took his. The next day, I learned that even though I had two years on him, he lifted more weights than me. My kid brother pushed me all over the house.
The hairbrush was just an excuse for us to fight. What had started as an intense but probably not-so-abnormal sibling rivalry had turned ugly two or three years earlier, when our parents split up. Each one chose a son to testify as a witness against the other. I guess we were young and easy to manipulate.
Everyone in the neighborhood knew we had it in for each other.
When that pickup truck came down the street, I was sitting on the stoop of the house directly across the street from the house I shared with my mom and brother. Mom was inside doing the dinner dishes while I sat with neighbors across the street, drinking Genny Cream Ales. I was the youngest person among the five of us. Polish Dennis and Maryann, the married couple who lived across from us, supplied the beer. Bob and Deb, the couple who lived in mom’s upstairs flat, were out with us, too. Bob grew dope back in those railroad fields; I smoked it with him at least once. As I recall, it was of dubious quality.
I didn’t know where my brother was. I never did, unless I could see him.
We were talking about stuff neighbors talk about. We were probably gossiping about the Marine who’d come back from Vietnam and bought the house next door to mom, and the smoking-hot eighteen year old wench who, for some reason, was living with him. I wanted her. Every guy on the street did. She was so good looking it was stupid. And her Marine was so wierd…
… whatever we were talking about, the conversation stopped when the pickup truck pulled into the vicinity of mom’s narrow driveway. It missed the driveway by a lot. Mostly, it was on mom’s small front lawn. The lawn mom took some pride in. The lawn I’d cut since I was eight or nine years old.
“Holy shit, man!” Bob yelled at the pickup truck. “What the -”
Then we watched as the truck seemed to purposely back up back toward the street on a path that took it completely onto mom’s lawn. I was up out of my lawn chair.
“Son of a bitch!” I yelled. “Who do you think you are!”
“Shut up!” the driver yelled back at me through the open driver’s side window. Except he added more words to his “shut up;” not the kind of words you’d hear in Sunday School.
“That’s my mother’s lawn!”
“Well, what are you gonna do about it, son?”
Son? The guy was wrinkled and sixtyish. I was twenty, and ripped. The incident wherein my brother, several months earlier, had pushed me all over the house on account of his hair brush, had convinced me to make serious acquaintence with the weight room. I was a workout fiend and a runner at this phase of my life. And this wrinkled old man had the nerve to trash my mother’s lawn and then ask me what am I gonna do about it. Son.
I shot out toward the middle of the street. Instead of driving away, the man smiled and opened the door. Perfect.
Then the man’s son got out of the truck on the passenger side. And the man’s wife. I guessed that was their relationship, anyway. All three of them talked and dressed like the Beverly Hillbillies.
I noticed that my neighbors were a bit reluctant to leave their beers and lawn chairs and join me in the street for the showdown.
I walked right up to the old man who had been driving. I forget exactly what I said, but after you delete the expletives it came down to something like “You’ve got five seconds to get back in the truck or your life will end right here.”
The guy’s son walked up and tried to stick his chest out at me, but he was a bit scrawny.
“Ooh,” the young scarecrow said, pointing at the words and the helmet on my tee-shirt. “Buff’lo Bills. Think you’re tough like the Buff’lo Bills, huh?”
If I wasn’t so pissed off at them for disrespecting my mom’s property, I would have split a gut laughing at him.
By this time, mild-mannered Polish Dennis, and Bob from upstairs, had joined me in the street. Only one person I’ve ever met in my life has reminded me more of Gilligan from the old TV show “Gilligan’s Island” than Bob. And that was Bob when he was really, really stoned.
Bob’s contribution to the conversation came next. “Ooh,” he said. “West Virginia license plates.” Then he squealed like a pig on cosmic mushrooms.
So I wasn’t sure how helpful my neighbors were going to be.
I sized up the this family of three, wondering if one punch would incapacitate the old man. I was figuring that the gap-toothed, battleworn-looking woman might be a bigger challenge than her scrawny son, when His Scrawniness Himself got a bright idea.
“Daddy, whaddya say we mess him up real good?”
Daddy got a big smile on his face and turned to his son. “Do you want to?”
“I’ll get our sticks, Daddy. They’re in the truck.”
A moment of fright shot through me, but it came out in words of bravado. “You better have guns in that truck,” I said, “or your whole family is gonna die tonight.”
Instantly, the scrawny kid had two cue sticks and he tossed one to his dad.
They started swinging. My neighbors started screaming. I mean my guy neighbors, not the wives, started screaming.
I didn’t care. To that point in my life, people had come at me with baseball bats and kitchen knives. I’d had my head in vice grips from mafioso wannabes. And I had to live in the same house with my brother and his murderous anger. I was ready for some old geyser from West Virginia and his chicken-chested son, cue sticks or not.
I was fending off swinging sticks with my forearms, hoping that if I put some oomph into my parries I could knock the sticks out of their hands. It was actually a pretty even match. This went on for maybe thirty seconds. Neither father nor son managed to hit me except on my arms. I was gaining confidence when I heard one of my neighbors yell, “Joe!”
A big moving blur filled my peripheral vision and suddenly the old man, who was directly in front of me, was blindsided by a tackler who took him down at full speed. Then, my brother was on top of him, inflicting punishment.
I turned my attention to the scrawn-meister. He immediately dropped his cue stick and began running away down the street, in the opposite direction from the overgrown railroad field.
“He’ll never get away from Dave,” Bob said.
“Dave and Joe both fighting on the same side,” said Polish Dennis. “Amazing.”
“Well?” one of the neighbor wives said to me. “Aren’t you gonna chase him?” She pointed at the scrawny West Virginian, who had about a two-house head start. I tore off after him.
I knew I’d catch him; I was a better runner than I was a fighter. It wasn’t long before he could hear me right on his tail. He dropped to the ground. He was crying.
“Don’t hurt me! Please! Don’t hurt me!”
What was I supposed to do? The neighbors a hundred yards down the street wanted to see a good show, and I wanted to give it to them. But the kid was crapping in his pants with fear.
“Get up, asshole,” I said, not waiting for him to get up. When he made himself dead weight so it would be hard for me to lift him off the ground, I pulled him up by the hair.
Now we were face-to-face. I had him by the wrist. Tears were streaming down his eyes.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Please don’t hurt me.” The kid was gasping, hyperventilating, pathetic.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” I said. We’re gonna walk back, you and your family are going to get in the truck, and then you’re gonna drive away and you’re never gonna come back on this street again. Got it?”
“Yes sir. Just please, please don’t hurt me,” he managed to whine between heaving in breaths for all he was worth.
As we approached the scene of the fracas, all the neighbors were restraining my brother from doing further damage to the old man, who sat on the pavement with a dazed look on his face complaining that his knee might be busted while his wife cried over him. As we got closer and Scrawn Man could see the peril his father was in, he cried out again. “Please let us go! Please don’t hurt us!”
“If you don’t want to get hurt, don’t drive over people’s lawns,” I said to the poor kid as we returned.
“We’re not from here,” he said. “We drove up here today to have some fun. We just figgered we’d drive down some streets, and see what we could see.”
“Get in the truck!” I yelled when we were back in front of Mom’s house. It was time for me to put on that show, so I punched the kid really hard, but in the arm so I wouldn’t really damage him. Even still, he staggered back against the side of the truck.
All three of them were in the truck, whimpering. I got in the last word. “Don’t you ever come back here! Understand!”
My brother kicked the side of the truck really hard for emphasis as it began to roll down the street toward wherever it came from. Maybe he really didn’t kick it, but that’s the way I’ve chosen to remember what happened that night. I am clear about this: As I watched the conquered invaders in retreat, I realized that if they paid attention to their rear view mirror they would see a striking orange-and-purple sunset over the verdant old railroad field at the end of the street where I grew up.