Philadelphia, PA – Spring – 1976
I was hanging with my buddy, Michael. We were kindred spirits. Neither good at sports, both had bad skin and bad teeth. But where I had terrible pimples all over my face, chest, and back, Mike had full-blown acne. Which is worse. My skin would eventually clear up once I exited puberty in a couple of years, but acne-scarred his face. The classic pockmarks that seem unfair for a kid to have to live with just for being a teenager. Mike also had buck teeth, but for whatever reason his parents never got his teeth fixed. I never understood why. I don’t remember his older brother or sister ever having buck teeth. Why not fix the one kid who needed a little help? But, not my business.
Mike and I had become close over the years. Just two peas in a pod trying to navigate our way through our young lives. When he was punished his dad beat him with his belt. My father never did that, he just used his hands. But there was one time he made me pull down my pants and took off his belt. He laid the leather against the back of my legs and said, “Do you feel that? Because that’s what you’re going to get the next time you do what you did.”My dad never did fulfill that promise. It was an empty threat. I get his frustration. I brought nothing to the table as a kid. I was bright and simply bored with school and had no interest in learning all the nonsense they were feeding me in that institution. I could somehow see through to who they all really were. Just like when my dad told me that if I didn’t straighten up and fly right he was going to send me off to military school. That sounds terrifying to a young boy, but I learned from an older kid that it was way too expensive to send your kid there. So, I knew his threats were hollow.
But can you imagine in your adult life how that sort of behavior towards a child or anyone for that matter would be acceptable? Violence and the threat of violence. Being terrorized by the very person who loved you and took very good care of you. If the father is violent, you normally would run to the mother, but she could be violent as well. There’s nowhere to go and no one to tell. You’re a prisoner in your own home. It was terrifying.
“Why are you crying? I’ll give you something to cry for.”
“I’ll beat you within an inch of your life.” He would say.
Where does that come from? What made him that way? I can’t even imagine getting that angry with anyone. Especially not my own child. It’s inconceivable to me.
Michael’s father was a decorated policeman. He worked highway patrol and rode a cool motorcycle in the thrill show and everything. He was a tough Irish cop who knew only the bad side of Philly during the Rizzo administration in the 70s.
Michael and I both agreed that we wished when our dads were hitting us when we misbehaved that they would accidentally injure us. Then we’d have to go to the hospital and they’d be sad and maybe never do it again. But that never happened.
Mike told me that his dad would knock his older brother around for whatever misdeed he’d recently committed, and he in turn would take it out on him. He said he was so frustrated after a beating he would go over and kick his dog, Greta because he had nowhere to channel his rage. He told me he would always cry after that and hold her begging his loyal canine’s forgiveness. Praying the cycle of violence wouldn’t continue anymore.
I remember my mom telling me she stopped hitting me because I had gotten so big it hurt her hand too much to give me a good thump. My dad probably stopped hitting me around 14. He would turn to use his words to hurt me after that. He was great at that. Words are far more cutting than any blade you can ever wield.
But, I digress.
He and I were sitting on the curb at the corner of Newtown and Passmore Street. We were just taking a break from our adventures to smoke a cigarette. We were a couple of punks, but all kids smoked back then. Cigarettes were still beloved in the 60s and 70s despite the obvious health warnings from the Surgeon General.
Michael was sitting there counting his dollars to see how much he had on him, in case he wanted to buy some candy or a soda. I was holding one of the bills and we were looking at it. We were trying to figure out what all of the weird symbols on the bill meant. Why the unfinished pyramid with the eye over it? Why does money have reference to God on it?
With my cigarette, I burned the corner of the bill just for badness. I think it was just to see if you could burn money. Michael snatched it from me and put it out. It was just the corner and I told him it was still good and that I was sorry. I was just fooling around. He stuck it back in his pocket and off we went.
I told him I had to get ready to go to the orthodontist later. He told me he’d walk up there with me. This was nice because then you had somebody to talk to on the long walk there and we could check out different surroundings. If you’ve been reading these stories, we all loved going on little journeys to see new things. The orthodontist’s office was miles away, but like I said… if you’ve got the time.
Michael sat patiently in the waiting room, while Dr. Beiler performed his medieval deviltry on my teeth.
When I was finished, I picked up my next appointment card from the front desk and we left to head home. As we walked South on Castor avenue, a shaggy-looking dude approached us. He wasn’t threatening or anything. He just looked like a drug addict or something. I sort of slid past him, but he caught Michael. I thought Mike was right behind me, but the guy had Michael close to a wall and was speaking intently to him. The whole incident didn’t last longer than a minute or two, and Michael soon stepped away from him and joined me a few feet away.
“Do you know that guy, Mike?”
“What did he want?”
“Did you give him any?”
“Yea. I was scared so I gave him what I had and he walked away.”
See? You didn’t think this story was going this way, did you? You thought it was going to be about a bunch of buck teeth and humiliation.
We chalked it up to just a weird guy bothering us and talked about it on the way home. Neither of us was injured in any way so we were just happy to be away from him.
But when we got back to our neighborhood, Michael and I went into his house and told his father who was sitting at the dinner table drinking a cup of coffee. We gave him a full account of what had occurred earlier on Castor Avenue.
He immediately gathered both of us and put us in the backseat of his car. We both sat in silence glancing back and forth at each other.
When we got up to Castor Avenue, Mike’s dad drove up and down the street looking for the guy. He flagged down a police car and identified himself. He must have conveyed the story to him because within a few minutes there were more cops suddenly appearing in the area.
Michael and I sat quietly in the car for what seemed like forever but it was probably only a half hour. Mike’s dad came back to the car and parked, and asked us to get out. There was a paddy wagon that had pulled up behind us. Mike’s dad took us to the back of the paddy wagon where the doors were open so we could see who was inside.
It was the guy who had taken Mike’s money! He was handcuffed and looking out at us.
Mike’s dad spoke. “Is this the guy?”
We both nodded yes.
“Is this the money he took from you?”
“I think so…. no wait. It is. Look! The corner of that bill is burned. I burned it earlier today down on Passmore street.”
“Umm… a cigarette?”
“I don’t like that you boys are smoking, or that you damaged US currency, but you just gave us the proof we need to lock this guy up. Thanks guys. Now get back in the car. Both of you.”
We both climbed into the backseat of his father’s green Chevy Caprice.
“Do you think we’re in trouble?”
“No, Mike. We’re innocent. We didn’t do anything wrong.”
We peeked out the back window of the car and could see through the windshield, past the cage, and into the back of the paddy wagon.
Out of nowhere, the bad guy started bouncing around inside the back of the van like he was having some sort of seizure. The wagon was literally shaking from his violent movements.
Mike’s dad got back in the car and we drove off. He looked angry and his face was red. He wanted to stop at the station to let the precinct know what had happened. We had a couple of questions for Michael’s father on the way there.
“What was going on with that guy in the back of the paddy wagon?”
“It looked like he was bouncing around back there.”
“I bounced him around.”
When we arrived at the station, we saw the other police officers unloading the perp from the van. He was handcuffed as they walked him into the precinct. His face was looking pretty beat up. We went inside with Mike’s dad. One of the cops there spoke with him.
“This is the guy they called in about. He’s been trouble in that neighborhood. What happened to him?”
All of the officers just smiled and went about processing the guy. We left and Mike’s dad drove us home.
About a month later we all had to go to court and identify this guy as the man who frightened and robbed my friend. It was a short process and I was glad the whole mess was over. But it was nice to get a day off from school.
It wasn’t right what happened that day. Not to Michael or to the guy that mugged him. But that’s how it was back then. It showed the violence in his father. But, you never know what that feeling is like until you’re a parent. I understand. I mean… if anybody ever did anything bad to my daughter, I wouldn’t mind a little time alone with the guy.
But in the end, we’re all equal. We’ll all depart this place and leave little behind but our children and our memories.
But looking back… Michael Mitchell was my very best, and enduring friend in Lawndale growing up.
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