By Alex Berger
I am considered a fine, upright citizen. I contribute to charities, cheerfully pay my income tax on time, help elderly people cross the street and never forget Gloria’s birthday. But I have a confession to make. I was actually once a wild and crazy kid.
Looking at me today, nobody would guess that I led a wicked life as a child. Yes, I was a smoker, a drinker, a gambler and a gang member — in other words, a real juvenile delinquent. I walked up down escalators, left my shoelaces untied, drank my milk in a dirty glass and committed other antisocial behaviors. I couldn’t help myself.
My evil personality was not caused by peer pressure, temptation or the excuse that everyone else was doing it. I was just a rotten punk. Where I came from, both sides of the tracks were the wrong side.
For years I pondered my past. The nightmare continued. On one dark and dreary night, an image appeared in my dream. No, silly, it wasn’t Michael Jackson. The specter strongly resembled a composite of Condoleeza Rice and Roz, my editor.
The figure leaned over me and gently whispered in my ear, “Alex, it is time for a complete catharsis. Fess up, come clean, reveal to the world what you once were. It would make you a better person today.”
Why, I questioned, would that ghost appear before me after so many years? I have a theory. Larry, my older brother, wrote a short story about me and e-mailed it to all eight of my siblings. In a humorous manner, he described a day, long since gone, that rekindled a better-to-be-forgotten memory.
At the age of 10 I was an impressionable moviegoer. I watched many pictures with tough guy Humphrey Bogart, suave Paul Henreid and dancer Fred Astaire, and all three smoked cigarette after cigarette on the big screen. To me, a cigarette dangling from their lips was a sign of distinct elegance.
So whenever I had a penny in my pocket I wouldn’t buy candy; instead, I would run over to Hoch’s candy store and purchase, for the penny, one loose cigarette from his opened pack. A pack of cigarettes cost 15 cents then. I would smoke it in the privacy of my backyard.
One afternoon, while I was in the backyard puffing on a cigarette, Larry, who was taking a shortcut to the next building, caught me. I expected a scolding from him. And horrors of horrors, he was sure to tell my father, a fate worse than death. I pleaded with Larry not to squeal (note my tough-guy language). It worked.
Instead of scolding me, Larry congratulated me. He said that I was well on my way to becoming a man; however, if I wanted to be a real man, I must smoke cigars. If I did, he would not tell my father. I smiled at the agreement and Larry promptly went off to “Little Italy,” the Italian neighborhood a short distance from our home, to buy a cigar.
In a flash, Larry returned holding a “Stinker,” a dark brown, bent, wrinkled cigar that resembled a piece of rope. He said that this cigar was special. It had been dipped in olive oil to give it body.
Larry then stuck the skinny cigar in my mouth and lit it. I frowned at the harsh taste, huffing and puffing many times before I was able to pull smoke out of the end. The stench it created would have made grown men cry. I struggled, smoking half of it and bragged, “See, I’ve done it.”
“No, you haven’t, “ Larry answered. “You must finish it all.”
I inhaled deeply, and the world apparently toppled on me. My knees buckled, my eyes began to tear and I turned green. All the food, candy and ice cream I had eaten that day came to the fore like a spewing volcano.
I dropped to the ground, groggy and disoriented. Larry carried me up to my room and put me to bed. It took two days for me to recover. I never smoked a cigarette again.
Then there was that New Year’s Eve when I was 14. It was 7 p.m. and my friend “Tony Kootch” had a bottle of whiskey he said was a gift. We proceeded to drink in a darkened hallway. Someone saw us and told my father. He came to get me and, need I say more, I never drank whiskey again.
Another time, as a junior high school student, I admired one of my classmates (I shall call him Bruce) who was a bookie. He gave his classmates 8-1 odds if they could pick three random baseball players who, cumulatively, would get six hits during the day’s baseball games. I was wide-eyed as he emptied his pockets daily to count his winnings. I wanted to become a bookie also.
It wasn’t long before Bruce got suspended from school and handed his “business” over to me. I carried on and began to come home with pockets full of coins. I knew my honest parents would never approve of my gambling so I hid my winnings under the bed; however, I wasn’t satisfied. I wanted a bigger challenge.
I was an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan and my team was coming to Ebbets Field to play the Dodgers. The Cardinals were sure to win. So, I borrowed money from many of my friends who insisted on interest and payback the following day.
With loads of money, I went to the pool hall on Delancey Street and bet everything I had on that game. You guessed it. The Cardinals lost. Since I didn’t have the money to pay back the loans, I was on the run for days. Yes, I never gambled again.
At the age of 17, I belonged to a social club nicknamed the “Geronimos,” after the famed Indian chief. A gang from Orchard Street challenged us to a street rumble — no guns or knives but sticks and fists. We agreed and prepared for battle.
I stole my sister’s silk stocking and filled it with rocks (strictly for show and not for a weapon). As the battle began, I confronted Johnny, the leader of the Orchard Street gang. While I was swinging my rock-filled stocking around to scare him, he bopped me over the head with a stick. (Look, see my scar.) I never participated in a gang-war again.
So, there you have it. You now know all about my checkered past. I learned the hard way that following a straight and narrow path is the only way to go. Psst — I told Gloria that I made up most of these stories, so readers, please don’t tell her that they are true.
Reach columnist Alex Berger by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 140.