BENGIE'S STORY

In 1959, Bengie was a member of a Brooklyn boy gang which Bruce Davidson, then 25, photographed over several months. Forty years later Bengie saw Davidson's pictures, and the memories of his childhood came flooding back. This is his story
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FOR THE most part, we never had anybody that took any interest in us. Many adults didn't like us. We were a street gang and we sort of protected our turf - you know, our candy store, our park side, with the girls and that kind of thing.

This was our block. I mean we owned the block. Nobody could tell us what to do or how to do it. There was us guys, who were 15, 16, and there was the older guys. There was a lot of them and there was a lot of us, and nobody could come on the block or bother us. It was a very safe place to be, on the corner of 17th Street and 8th Avenue. I used to worry about who was going to come after me if I walked past 9th Street. We always worried, because then we were out of our little turf. This was the block. This was where the big Jokers were. This was where we little Jokers were.

We always played stickball. We used to call it "Off the Point". The point was a piece of slate that was sticking out of the factory, and we would hit the ball off that, and the sewers were the bases and the sidewalk was another base. Some people yelled at us, most didn't. Nobody's car would get dented or banged up. We watched over the block. It was a great time. I always felt safe on the block.

When we had fights among ourselves, we were allowed to make somebody give up, like grab them in the choke hold, but we weren't allowed to kick or punch anybody in the face. I was probably all of about 100lb, five three or four, and I was a very tough cat. You'd stay on the ground sometimes for an hour with somebody holding you. I was one of the guys that just didn't give up. If one of the bigger guys - I don't mean the older ones, I mean one of the bigger guys in the crew - would pick on somebody else, then four or five of us kind of went up on him and told him, "Knock it off. We're a crew and we don't fight with each other."

Petey was like my best friend. We hung out a lot together. He had a bandage on his head from a fight that we had in the park. He got stitches and they shaved his hair - that black curly hair - he was buggin' out! We sold fireworks out of his basement when we were 14, 15 and made lots of money - thousands of dollars. I was like the salesman. I was good at it.

We weren't into heroin at the time. We were drinking beer, smoking pot, maybe popping a pill here and there. Johnny and Jimmie were some of the older Jokers, but they watched over us. Later, Jimmie's whole family, all six of them - Charlie, Aggie, Katie, Jimmie, the mother, and the father - died, wiped out, from drugs. It's amazing because at this particular time, if you see Jimmie, he's like the Fonz, like James Dean-handsome. He was good-looking, he had the women, and he was always working on cars.

The older guys hung out in the bar directly across from the candy store. When they had their dice and card games - especially the dice, because they used us to roll the dice - they paid us a buck as they won so we would make money. That's how we learnt to gamble, throw dice, and play cards on the corner. The older guys used to buy beer for us in the stores when we were 15. If we said we wanted a case of beer, they'd say, "No, we'll get you just a six-pack." And naturally, we got a six-pack from this guy and a six-pack from that guy.

MOSTLY, we used to save up money until Friday night because then there were dances in Prospect Park and we all needed a couple of cans of beer to get a little bit high, to go up there and talk to the girls and dance. The bandstand would be up on 11th Street and 9th Avenue. On one side of the park was South Brooklyn and on the other was the Jokers. We used to look at each other from across the field - 9th Street was theirs and 11th Street was ours, and nobody walked around unless they wanted to get their ass kicked. The guys would dance with the girls to see who danced the best. It was who dressed the best on Friday night, which guys were dancing, and who was making the most noise. At the end of the dance, a fight always managed to break out somewhere. Naturally, some of our girls liked their guys and some of our guys liked their girls. It was like a contest.

I liked a girl from south Brooklyn. It was pretty dangerous because I used to have to take her home into their territory. I had to act like I wasn't afraid. I remember being terrorised, and them catching me a couple of times and my getting beat up. And I remember going back and getting a couple of them. So when I walked Pat home, I'd be in the doorway on 8th Street and when I got out I'd say, "Naw, don't worry, I'll be all right." And I couldn't wait till I got from 9th Street to 10th Street to 11th Street to 12th Street. And as I walked those blocks into my territory, I felt myself breathing easier. And as I turned around and I didn't see nobody behind ... Whew! made it. It was such an intense thing to do, walk into the neighbourhood with the girl and then tell everybody, "Pat's my girlfriend, she's from South Brooklyn."

We were all Catholic school kids. Some of us got thrown out, but it didn't stop our families. We still had to go to Mass on Sunday. And the statue with the Christ on the cross and the Blessed Mother, every time we passed that, no matter what, we would bless ourselves. This was our church; this was our parish. It was hard being in Catholic school when I was a kid. The nuns were tough; the brothers were tough. I didn't like it at all. They would hit you, and they didn't teach you nothing. They took you up in front of the class, and they'd punch you out. I got thrown out of Catholic school when I was 11 and grammar school when I was 15. I never learnt how to read or write till I got clean when I was 40 years old. So I always had this resentment about the teachers and the nuns. Like why didn't they know? Why didn't they help me? Why did they put me in the back of the class? I was a little wise-guy, which is the truth. Since the day I walked into school, I wanted to walk out.

But the church means a lot. My family were alcoholics, no education, very, very poor, and we used to get money from the church to eat. I never thought anything of myself. If you said something about me, I had to fight you. And there were many times that people said things about me that hurt my feelings, but I didn't know how to do anything but either curse at you or fight.

HELEN'S Candy Store on the corner of 17th Street was really like our home away from home. Helen was like our mother. And nobody would bother Helen because of Bobby, her son, one of the bigger guys. (Later, he was shot seven times - dead.) Nobody ever disrespected her.

All the information you wanted during the day was there. You went in, "What's happening?" That's what you'd say, "What's happening?" The big guys used to think they owned the store, but Helen always favoured us because we were the younger guys. She'd make us our egg creams, lime rickeys, ice-cream, and give us the penny candies, the comic books, and let us hang out all the time. Helen was always fighting with us about putting Superman, Batman, and all the stuff back on the shelves. "Put them back. You're reading it, you're not going to buy it, put it back."

The funny part is I never knew how to read, but I would look through things pretending I did. Everything I did was like a fake. You can imagine hanging out with guys that all knew how to read and write, and would say to me, "Look at the comic book. Look what it says here." And not being able to fucking know! It was very painful. So I would always put on moods that said, don't bother me. I would say, "I'm not interested in that. Fuck that, get it out of here, don't fucking bother me." I never let anybody know. After 40 years, some of the people who used to hang out in the store found out that I never knew how to read or write.

I hated myself. And a lot of what I did when I was 15, 16, 17, 18 was on like a suicide mission, even up to being a drug addict. When Bruce would take a picture of me, I would never fake it. Sometimes I caught him with the camera and I would just say fuck it. What am I going to do, smile? I wanted to tell people how sad I was.

Helen used to get crazy because some of the guys would carve their names on the Coca-Cola machine. Petey always had a thing about putting his name everywhere. Helen's son Bobby punched him, got him in the phone booth and beat the shit out of him, saying, "Well, who put it there?" And Petey would go, "I don't know, I don't know!"

We never stole anything from Helen. We had tabs in the store saying like who owed $1.55. For that amount, you wound up with a couple of sodas and ice-creams, maybe a frappe or a sundae. We would hang out for hours, wondering what to do, where to go, waitin' for the phone to ring, whose girlfriend was gonna call.

Junior was the Don Juan of the neighbourhood. He was a really good-looking guy, very, very handsome. He was the book reader, read everything, walked around with a copy of Ginsberg's Howl in his back pocket. He was the Romeo of the group. Lefty had all the girls too. We always wondered why the girls liked him. We never thought he was good-looking, but all the girls loved him. It was amazing.

JUNIOR was the first one to get tattoos. He's got the tattoo of the doll on his back. That's the one I got on my legs. We both got it at the same time. Junior with his snakes, and the hearts, and the cobras. We were always rolling our sleeves up. It was like a badge. It meant something.

I was very shy with the girls, but when I was 16 I had two girlfriends at the same time. Because one could stay out later than the other, I would take one home and then go out with the other one. That was like the thing at the time, to have a couple of girlfriends.

Cathy was beautiful like Brigitte Bardot. We used to call her the shaggy dog. I remember Cathy living up 20th Street, in a rooming-house with her mother. Cathy would always come out immaculate. When Cathy was like 13, 14 years old, she was the hottest thing you ever saw in your life. Everybody turned their eyes looking at Cathy. We were glad to have her hanging out with us. None of us ever felt that we could be with her, except for Junior. She loved Junior. Cathy always was there, but outside. She was beautiful. And then, some years ago, she put a shotgun in her mouth and blew her head off.

At night we would go under somebody's window that we didn't like and hang out there. We wouldn't make noise where we knew we were going to get in trouble, like Petey's mother would be yelling at us out the window, "What are youse doing here?" Sometimes they'd even throw water out the window at us - "We're going to call the cops!" - 'cause we used to play cards until two, three, or four in the morning. We would play Brisk or Casino in teams. Me and Petey were a team, and we never had any other partners for years. We knew all our hand signals, all the little moves for cheating: touch my hand, hit my eye, a cough, which means you had the king, trump, ace.

Down the block from the candy store was the grammar school. The teachers let us play basketball and have dances. There were the little 45 records like "At the Hop" and we would dance the Lindy. We used Vaseline petroleum jelly to make our hair stick like iron in a pompadour. We combed our hair constantly, wore sunglasses, and all thought we were Marlon Brando. We had a lot of parties. Somebody would say, "I'm going into the army," so we'd have a party for them, then at the end of the night, "Bullshit! I ain't goin' into no army."

We did a lot of drinking and sleeping overnight in Prospect Park. The cops with their bats would push us along, tell us to move. We were very defiant. If we moved, we moved 10ft. Then they had to tell us to move another 10ft. We'd kind of like move around in a circle and come back to where we originally started. The cops were mean at that time, but then we weren't the best of kids either. One of the younger guys, at 17, was killed standing on the swing, fell off on to the back of his head, went to the hospital, and died. He was the first guy in the gang to die.

Another place we drank was "the hole" on 18th Street. It was 3ft wide and 30ft long. There was a bar that we used to spin around on, that was like our "high bar". We'd all do tricks and flips on this thing. We would meet and drink here before the park dance. This was the spot. Lefty always used to make faces when he drank. He would drink and spit.

MIKE'S Tattoo Shop down in Coney Island was famous. Lefty and me wound up the first two times getting the same tattoo. He got "Lefty" with stars around it. I got "Bobby" with stars around it. They said, "Get your name." So I said, "No, I don't really want my name." And then when he put it on I hated it forever.

It's a shame the way Lefty died. He was a pretty tough guy in the gang and then he went to jail for about a year. He came out and he just lost it. He wasn't the same guy. Something happened and nobody knew what. He was getting beat up in the neighbourhood. This never happened before. We were telling people, "Leave him alone, man." We protected him a bit, but he caught a couple of bad beatings and lost his reputation. He ate a lot of pills one night and never woke up. His mother found him dead, OD'd in bed at 19. He was the first in the group to die from a drug overdose.

Underneath the boardwalk in Coney Island we used to hang out with the beers, the smoking, the fighting, and the sleeping. We'd come down on a Friday and sometimes we d stay till Monday, down on the beach, me, Lefty, Junior. The girls would stay too. Some would go home and come back in two hours, "I just got to go home and I can sneak back out." We had a lot of fights with the Coney Island Gents and others, but it was hard running underneath there because you could hit your head on the concrete.

Beautiful Cathy was there, always with her honey, Junior. I don't think Cathy ever wore a bathing suit on the beach. She was always dressed in her nicely ironed clothes, and her hair and make-up was something. She had hair down to her ass. It was very sad to see her die. It was very sad to see her because she was so sad. She was always sad, always fixing her hair.

In the years after Bruce Davidson took his pictures, Bengie became a drugs dealer and then a homeless addict. Fifteen years ago he gave up drugs, ran the New York marathon and became a counsellor to other addicts - he has counselled several other members of the Jokers gang.

Interview with Bengie by Emily Haas, extracted from `Bruce Davidson: Brooklyn Gang', Twin Palms Publishers, PO Box 10229, Santa Fe, New Mexico 87504 or www.twinpalms.com

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