Issue 151, Summer 1999
Context is everything. Dress me up and see. I’m a carnival barker, an auctioneer, a downtown performance artist, a speaker in tongues, a senator drunk on filibuster. My mouth won’t quit, though mostly I whisper or subvocalize like I’m reading aloud, my Adam’s apple bobbing, jaw muscle beating like a miniature heart under my cheek, the noise suppressed, the words escaping silently, mere ghosts of themselves, husks empty of breath and tone. In this diminished form the words rush out of the cornucopia of my brain to course over the surface of the world, tickling reality like fingers on piano keys. Caressing, nudging. They’re an invisible army on a peacekeeping mission, a peaceable horde. They mean no harm. They placate, interpret, massage. Everywhere they’re smoothing down imperfections, putting hairs in place, putting ducks in a row, replacing divots. Counting and polishing the silver. Patting old ladies gently on the behind, eliciting a giggle. Only—here’s the rub—when they find.too much perfection, when the surface is already buffed smooth, the ducks already orderly, the old ladies complacent, then my little army rebels, breaks into the stores. Reality needs a prick here and there, the carpet needs a flaw. My words begin plucking at threads nervously, seeking purchase, a weak point, a vulnerable ear. That’s when it comes, the urge to shout in the church, the nursery, the crowded movie house. It’s an itch at first. Inconsequential. But that itch is soon a torrent behind a straining dam. Noah’s flood. That itch is my whole life. Here it comes now. Cover your ears. Build an ark. I’ve got Tourette’s.
“Eat me!” I scream.
I grew up in the library of St. Vincent’s Home for Boys in downtown Brooklyn, on a street which serves as the off-ramp to the Brooklyn Bridge. There the Home faced eight lanes of traffic, lined by Brooklyn’s central sorting annex for the post office, a building that hummed and blinked all through the night, its gates groaning open to admit trucks bearing mountains of those mysterious items called letters; by the Burton Trade School for Automechanics, where hardened students attempting to set their lives dully straight spilled out twice a day for sandwich-and-beer breaks, overwhelming the cramped bodega next door; by a granite bust of Lafayette, indicating his point of entry into the Battle of Brooklyn; by a car lot surrounded by a high fence topped with wide curls of barbed wire and wind-whipped fluorescent flags, and by a red-brick Quaker meetinghouse that had presumably been there when the rest was farmland. In short, this jumble of stuff at the clotted entrance to the ancient, battered borough was officially Nowhere, a place strenuously ignored in passing through to Somewhere Else. Until rescued by Frank Minna I lived, as I said, in the library.
I set out to read every book in that tomblike library, every miserable dead donation ever indexed and forgotten there-a mark of my profound fear and boredom at St. Vincent’s as well as an early sign of my Tourettic compulsions for counting, processing and inspection. Huddled there in the windowsill, turning dry pages and watching dust motes pinball through beams of sunlight, I sought signs of my odd dawning self in Theodore Dreiser, Kenneth Roberts, J.B. Priestley and back issues of Popular Mechanics and failed, couldn’t find the language of myself. I was closer on Saturday mornings-Daffy Duck especially gave me something, if I could bear to imagine growing up a dynamited, beak-shattered duck. Art Carney on The Honeymooners gave me something too, in the way he jerked his neck, when we were allowed to stay up to see him. But it was Minna who brought me the language, Minna and Court Street that let me speak.
We four were selected because we were the four white boys at St. Vincent’s. I was surely undersold goods, a twitcher and nosepicker retrieved from the library instead of the schoolyard, probably a retard, certainly a regrettable, inferior offering.
Mr. Kassel was a teacher who knew Frank Minna from the neighborhood, and his invitation to Minna to borrow us for the afternoon was a first glimpse of the halo of favors and favoritism that extended around Minna-"knowing somebody”
as a life condition. Minna was our exact reverse, we who knew no one and benefited nothing from it when we did.
Minna had asked for white boys to suit his clients’ presumed prejudice-and his own certain ones. But he didn’t show any particular tenderness that first day, a sweltering August weekday afternoon after classes, streets like black chewing gum, slow-creeping cars like badly projected science-class slides in the haze. Though he seemed a man to us, Minna was probably twenty-five. He was gangly except for a tiny potbelly in his pocket-T, and his hair was combed into a smooth pompadour, a Brooklyn hairstyle that stood outside time, projecting from some distant Frank Sinatra past. He opened the rear of his dented, graffitied van and told us to get inside, then slammed and padlocked the doors without explanation, without asking our names.
We four gaped at one another, giddy and astonished at this escape, not knowing what it meant, not really needing to know. The others, Tony, Gilbert and Danny, were willing to be grouped with me, to pretend I fit with them, if that was what it took to be plucked up by the outside world and seated in the dark on a dirty steel truckbed vibrating its way to somewhere that wasn’t St. Vincent’s. Of course I was vibrating too, vibrating before Minna rounded us up, vibrating inside always and straining to keep it from showing.
I didn’t kiss the other three boys, but I wanted to. Instead I made a kissing, chirping sound, like a bird’s peep, over and over: “Chrip, chrip, chrip.”
Tony told me to shut the fuck up, but his heart wasn’t in it, not this day, in the midst of life’s unfolding mystery. For Tony, especially, this was his destiny coming to find him. He saw more in Minna from the first because he’d prepared himself to see it. Tony Vermonte was famous at St. Vincent’s for the confidence he exuded, confidence that a mistake had been made, that he didn’t belong in the Home. He was Italian, better than the rest of us, who didn’t know what we were. His father was either a mobster or a cop-Tony saw no contradiqion in this, so we didn’t either. The Italians would return for him, in one guise or another, and that was what he’d taken Minna for.
Tony was famous for other things as well. He had lived outside the Home and then come back. A Quaker family had taken Tony in, intending to give him a permanent home.
He’d announced his contempt even as he packed his clothes: They weren’t Italian. Still, he lived with them for a few months. They installed him at Brooklyn Friends, a private school a few blocks away, and on his way home most days he’d come and hang on the St. Vincent’s fence and tell stories of the private-school girls he’d felt up and sometimes penetrated, the faggy private-school boys who swam and played soccer but were easily humiliated in fistfights. Then one day his foster parents found prodigious Tony in bed with one girl too many: their own sixteen-year-old daughter. Or so the story went; there was only one source. Anyway, he was reinstalled at St. Vincent’s, where he fell easily into his old routine of beating up and befriending me on alternating afternoons.
Gilbert Coney was Tony’s right hand, a stocky boy just passing for tough—he would have beamed at you for calling him a thug. But he was tolerant of me, and we had a couple of secrets. On a Home for Boys visit to the Museum of Natural History, Gilbert and I had split from the group and returned to the room dominated by an enormous plastic blue whale suspended from the ceiling, which had been the focus of the official visit. But underneath the whale was a gallery of murky dioramas of undersea life, lit so you had to press close to the glass to find the wonders tucked deep in the corners. In one a sperm whale fought a giant squid. In another a killer whale pierced a floor of ice. Gilbert and I wandered hypnotized, and when a class of third graders was led away we found we had the giant hall to ourselves. Gilbert showed me his discovery: a small brass door beside the penguin diorama had been left unlocked. When he opened it we saw that it led both behind and into the penguin scene.
“Get in, Lionel,” said Gilbert.
If I’d not wanted to, it would have been bullying, but I wanted to desperately. Every minute the hall remained empty was precious. The lip of the doorway was knee-high. I clambered in and opened the flap in the ocean-blue painted boards that made the side wall of the diorama, then slipped into the picture. The ocean floor was a smooth bowl of painted plaster. I scooted down the grade on my bended knees, looking out at a flabbergasted Gilbert on the other side of the glass. Swimming penguins were mounted on rods extending straight from the far wall, and others were suspended in the plastic waves of ocean surface that now made a low ceiling over my head. I caressed the nearest penguin, one mounted low, shown diving in pursuit of a fish, patted its head, stroked its gullet as though helping it swallow a dry pill. Gilbert guffawed, thinking I was performing comedy for him, when in fact I’d been overwhelmed by a tender, touchy impulse toward the stiff, poignant penguin. Now it became imperative that I touch all the penguins, or all I could, anyway-some were inaccessible to me, on the other side of the barrier of the ocean’s surface, standing on ice floes. Shuffling on my knees I made the rounds, affectionately tagging each swimming bird before I made my escape back through the brass door. Gilbert was impressed, I could tell. I was now a kid who’d do anything, do crazy things. He was right and wrong, of course-once I’d touched the first penguin I had no choice.
Somehow this led to a series of confidences. I was crazy but also easily intimidated, which made me Gilbert’s idea of a safe repository for his crazy feelings. Gilbert was a precocious masturbator, and looking for some triangulation between his own experiments and schoolyard lore. Did I do it? How often? One hand or two? Close my eyes? Ever rub against the mattress? I took his inquiries seriously, but I didn’t really have the information he needed, not yet. My stupidity made Gilbert grouchy at first, and he spent a week or two glowering to let me know what galactic measures of pain awaited if I ratted him out. Then he came back, more urgent than ever. Try it and I’ll watch, he said. It’s not so hard. I obeyed, as I had in the museum, but the results weren’t as good. I couldn’t treat myself with the tenderness I’d lavished on the penguins, at least not in front of Gilbert. He became grouchy again, and after two or three go-arounds the subject was permanently dropped.
Tourette’s teaches you what people will ignore and forget, teaches you to see the mechanism people employ to tuck away the incongruous, the disruptive-it teaches you because you’re the one lobbing the incongruous and disruptive their way. Once I sat on a bus a few rows ahead of a man with a belching tic-long, groaning, almost vomitous-sounding noises, the kind a fifth grader learns to make by swallowing a bellyful of air, then forgets by high school when charming girls becomes more vital than freaking them out. This man’s compulsion was terribly specific: he sat at the back of the bus, and only when every head faced forward did he give out with his digestive simulacra. Then, every sixth or seventh time, he’d mix in a messy farting sound. He was a miserable-looking black man in his sixties. Despite the peek-a-boo brilliance of his timing, it was clear to anyone he was the source, and so the other riders coughed reprovingly, quit giving him the satisfaction of looking. Of course, our not glancing back freed him to run together great uninterrupted phrases of his ripest noise. To all but me he was just an antisocial jerk fishing for attention. But I saw that it was unmistakably a compulsion, a tic—Tourette’s—and I knew those other passengers would barely recall it a few minutes after stepping off to their destinations.
Despite how that maniacal croaking filled the auditorium of the bus, the concertgoers were plainly engaged in the task of forgetting the music. Consensual reality is both fragile and elastic, and it heals like the skin of a bubble. The belching man ruptured it so quickly and completely that I could watch the wound instantly seal.
Similarly, I doubt the other boys directly recalled my bouts of kissing. That tic was too much for us all. Nine months or so after touching the penguins I had begun to overflow with reaching, tapping, grabbing and kissing urges. Those compulsions emerged first, while language was still trapped like a roiling ocean under a calm floe of ice, the way I’d been trapped in the underwater half of the penguin display. I’d begun reaching for door frames, kneeling to grab at skittering loosened sneaker laces ( a recent fashion among the toughest boys at St. Vincent’s, unfortunately for me), incessantly tapping the metal-pipe legs of the schoolroom desks and chairs and, worst, grabbing and kissing my fellow boys. I grew terrified of myself then and burrowed deeper into the library, but I was forced out for classes or meals. Then it would happen. I’d lunge at someone and kiss their cheek or neck or forehead, whatever I hit. After, compulsion expelled, I could try to explain, defend myself or flee. I kissed Greg Toon and Edwin Torres, whose eyes I’d never dared meet. I kissed Leshawn Montrose, who’d broken Mr. Voccaro’s arm with a chair. I kissed Tony Vermonte and Gilbert Coney and tried to kiss Danny Fanti. I kissed my own counterparts, other invisible boys working the margins at St. Vincent’s. “It’s a game!” I’d say, pleadingly. “It’s a game.” Since the most inexplicable things in our lives were games, with their ancient embedded rituals, British Bulldog, Ringolevio and Scully, it seemed possible I might persuade them this was another one, the Kissing Game.Just as important, I might persuade myself.
“It’s a game,” I’d say desperately, as tears of pain ran down my face. Leshawn Montrose cracked my head against a porcelain water fountain; Greg Toon and Edwin Torres generously only shucked me off onto the floor. Tony Vermonte twisted my arm behind my back and forced me against a wall. “It’s a game,” I breathed. He released me and shook his head, full of contempt and pity. Danny Fantl saw my move coming and faked me out, then vanished down a stairwell. Gilbert stood and glared, deeply unnerved due to our private history.
“A game,” I reassured him.
Meantime beneath that frozen shell a sea of language was reaching full boil. It became harder and harder not to notice that when a television pitchman said to last the rest of a lifetime my brain went to rest the lust of a loaftomb, that when I heard “Alfred Hitchcock” I silently replied “Altered Houseclock,” that when I sat reading Booth Tarkington in the library, my throat and jaw worked behind my clenched lips, desperately fitting the syllables of the prose to the rhythms of “Rapper’s Delight,” which was then playing every fifteen or twenty minutes out on the yard.
I found other outlets, other obsessions. The pale thirteen year old Mr. Kassel pulled out of the library and offered to Minna was prone to floor-tapping, whistling, tongue clicking, rapid head turns and wall stroking, anything but the direct utterances for which my Tourette’s brain most yearned. Language bubbled inside me now but it felt too dangerous to let out. Speech was intention, and I couldn’t let anyone else or myself know how intentional my craziness felt. Pratfalls, antics, those were accidental lunacy, and so forgivable. Practically speaking, it was one thing to stroke Leshawn Montrose’s arm, or even to kiss him, another entirely to walk up and call him Shefawn Mongoose or Fuckyou Moonprose. So, though I collected words, treasured them like a drooling sadistic captor, melting them down, filing off their edges, before release I translated them into physical performance, manic choreography.
My body was an overwound watch spring, one which could easily drive a vast factory mechanism like the one in Modern Times, which we watched that year in the basement of the Brooklyn Public Library on Fourth Avenue. I took Chaplin as a model: obviously blazing with aggression, he’d managed to keep his trap shut and so had skirted danger and been regarded as cute. I needn’t exactly strain for a motto: silence, golden, get it? Got it. Hone your timing instead, burnish those physical routines, your idiot wall stroking and lace chasing, until they’re funny in a flickering black and white way, until your enemies don policemen’s caps and begin tripping over themselves, until doe-eyed women swoon. So I kept my tongue wound in my teeth, ignored the pulsing in my cheek, the throbbing in my gullet, persistently swallowed language back like vomit. It burned as hotly.
We rode a mile or two before Minna’s van halted, engine guttering to a stop. Then he let us out of the back and we found ourselves in a gated warehouse yard under the shadow of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, in a ruined industrial zone. Minna led us to a large truck, a detached twelve-wheel trailer with no cab in evidence, then rolled up the back to reveal a load of identical cardboard crates, a hundred, two hundred, maybe more.
“Couple you boys get up inside,” said Minna distractedly.
Tony and Danny had the guile to immediately leap into the truck, where they could work shaded from the sun. “You’re just gonna run this stuff inside, that’s all. Hand shit off, move it up to the front of the truck, get it in. Straight shot, you got it?” He pointed to the warehouse. We all nodded, and I peeped. It went unnoticed.
Minna opened the big panel doors of the warehouse and showed us where to set the crates. We started quickly, then wilted in the heat. Tony and Danny massed the crates at the lip of the truck while Gilbert and I made the first dozen runs, then the older boys ceded their advantage and began to help us drag them across the blazing yard. Minna never touched a crate; he spent the whole time in the office of the warehouse, a cluttered room full of desks, file cabinets, tacked-up notes and pornographic calendars and a stacked tower of orange traffic cones, visible to us through an interior window, smoking cigarettes and jawing on the telephone, apparently not listening for replies. Every time I glanced through the window his mouth was moving, but the door was closed, and he was inaudible behind the glass. At some point another man appeared, from where I wasn’t sure, and stood in the yard wiping his forehead as though he were the one laboring.
Minna came out, the two stepped inside the office, the other man disappeared. We moved the last of the crates inside, Minna rolled the gate of the truck and locked the warehouse, pointed us back to his van, but paused before shutting us into the back.
“Hot day, huh?” he said, looking at us directly for what might have been the first time.
Bathed in sweat, we nodded, afraid to speak.
“You monkeys thirsty? Because personally I’m dying out here.”
Minna drove us to Smith Street, a few blocks from St.
Vincent’s, and pulled over in front of a bodega, then bought us pop-top cans of Miller, and sat with us in the back of the van, drinking. It was my first beer.
“Names,” said Minna, pointing at Tony, our obvious leader. We said our first names, starting with Tony. Minna didn’t offer his own, only drained his beer and nodded. I began tapping the truck panel beside me.
Physical exertion over, astonishment at our deliverance from St.. Vincent’s receding, my symptoms found their opening again.
“You probably ought to know, Lionel’s a freak,” said Tony, his voice vibrant with self-regard. He jerked his thumb in my direction.
“Yeah, well, you’ re all freaks, if you don’t mind me pointing it out,” said Minna. “No parents—or am I mixed up?”
“Finish your beer,” said Minna, tossing his can past us, into the back of the van.
And that was the end of our first job for Frank Minna.
But Minna rounded us up again the next week, brought us to that same desolate yard, and this time he was friendlier.
The task was identical, almost to the number of boxes, and we performed it in the same trepidatious silence. I felt a violent hatred burning off Tony in my and Gilbert’s direction, as though he thought we were in the process of screwing up his Italian rescue. Danny was exempt and oblivious. Still, we’d begun to function as a team-demanding physical work contained its own truths, and we explored them despite ourselves.
Over beers Minna said, “You like this work?”
One of us said sure.
“You know what you’ re doing?” Minna grinned at us, waiting. The question was confusing. “You know what kind of work this is?”
“What, moving boxes?” said Tony.
“Right, moving. Moving work. That’s what you call it when you work for me. Here, look.” He stood to get into his pocket, pulled out a roll of twenties and a small stack of white cards.
He stared at the roll for a minute, then peeled off four twenties and handed one to each of us. It was my first twenty dollars.
Then he offered us each a card. It read: L & L Movers. Gerard & Frank Minna. And a phone number.
“You’re Gerard or Frank?” said Tony.
“Minna, Frank.” Like Bond, James. He ran his hand through his hair. “So you’re a moving company, get it? Doing moving work.” This seemed a very important point: that we call it moving. I couldn’t imagine what else to call it.
“Who’s Gerard?” said Tony. Gilbert and I, even Danny, watched Minna carefully. Tony was questioning him on behalf of us all.
“Older or younger?”
Tony thought for a minute. “Who’s L & L?”
“Just the name, L & L. Two Ls. Name of the company.”
“Yeah, but what’s it mean?”
“What do you need it to mean, Fruitloop-Living Loud? Loving Ladies? Laughing at you Losers?”
“What, it doesn’t mean anything?” said Tony.
“I didn’t say that, did I?”
“Least Lonely,” I suggested.
“There you go,” said Minna, waving his can of beer at me.
“L & L Movers, Least Lonely.”
Tony, Danny and Gilbert all stared at me, uncertain how I’d gained this freshet of approval.
“Liking Lionel,” I heard myself say.
“Minna, that’s an Italian name?” said Tony. This was on his own behalf, obviously. It was time to get to the point.
The rest of us could all go fuck ourselves.
“What are you, the census?” said Minna. “Cub reporter? What’s your full name, Jimmy Olsen?”
“Lois Lane,” I said.
“Tony Vermonte,” said Tony, ignoring me.
“Vermont-ee,” repeated Minna. “That’s what, like a New England thing, right? You a Red Sox fan?”
“Yankees,” said Tony, confused and defensive. The Yankees were champions now, the Red Sox their hapless, eternal victims, vanquished most recently by Bucky Dent’s famous home run. We’d all watched it on television.
“Luckylent,” I said, remembering. “Duckybent.”
Minna erupted with laughter. “Yeah, Ducky fucking Bent! That’s good. Don’t look now, it’s Ducky Bent.”
“Lexluthor,” I said, reaching out to touch Minna’s shoulder.
He only stared at my hand, didn’t move away. “Lunchylooper, Laughyluck-”
“All right, Loopy,” said Minna. “Enough already.”
“Loopylip-” I was desperate for a way to stop. My hand went on tapping Minna’s shoulder.
“Let it go,” said Minna, and now he returned my shoulder taps, once, hard. “Don’t tug the boat.”
To tugboat was to try Minna’s patience. Any time you pushed your luck, said too much, overstayed a welcome or overestimated the usefulness of a given method or approach you were guilty of having tugged the boat. Tugboating was most of all a dysfunction of wits and storytellers, and a universal one: anybody who thought themselves funny would likely tug a boat here or there. Knowing when a joke or verbal gambit was right at its limit, quitting before the boat had been tugged, that was art.
Years before the word Tourette’s was familiar to any of us; Minna had me diagnosed: Terminal Tugboater.
Distributing eighty dollars and those four business cards was all Minna had to do to instate the four of us as the junior staff of L & L Movers. Twenty dollars and a beer remained our usual pay. Minna would gather us sporadically, on a day’s notice, or no notice at all-the latter possibility became incentive, once we’d begun high school, for us to return to St.
Vincent’s directly after classes and lounge in the schoolyard, pretending not to listen for the distinctive grumble of his van’s motor. The jobs varied enormously. We’d load merchandise, like the cartons in the trailer, in and out of storefront basement grates all up and down Court Street, borderline shady activity that it seemed wholesalers ought to be handling themselves, transactions sealed with a shared cigar in the back of the shop. Or we’d bustle apartment loads of furniture in and out of brownstone walk-ups, legitimate moving jobs, where fretting couples worried we weren’t old or expert enough to handle their belongings-Minna would hush them, remind them of the cost of distractions: “The meter’s running.” We put sofas through third-story windows with a makeshift cinch and pulley, Tony and Minna on the roof, Gilbert and Danny in the window to receive, me on the ground with the guide ropes. A massive factory building under the Manhattan Bridge, owned by an important unseen friend of Minna’s, had been damaged in a fire, and we moved the inhabitants for free, as some sort of settlement or concession.
The terms were obscure, but Minna was terrifically urgent about it, seething at any delay—the only meter running now was Minna’s credibility with his friend-client. Once we emptied an entire electronics showroom into Minna’s truck, pulling unboxed stereos off shelves and out of window displays, disconnecting the wires from lit, blinking amplifiers, eventually even taking the phone off the desk-it would have seemed a sort of brazen burglary had Minna not been standing on the sidewalk in front, drinking beer and telling jokes with the man who’d unpadlocked the shop gates for us as we filed past with the goods. Everywhere Minna connived and cajoled and dropped names, winking at us to make us complicit, and everywhere Minna’s clients stared at us boys, some wondering if we’d palm a valuable when they weren’t looking, some trying to figure the angle, perhaps hoping to catch a hint of disloyalty, an edge over Minna they’d save for when they needed it. We palmed nothing, revealed no disloyalty. Instead we stared back, tried to make them flinch. And we listened, gathered information. Minna was teaching us, when he meant to and when he didn’t.
It changed us as a group. We developed a certain collective ego, a presence apart at the Home. We grew less embattled from within, more from without: non-white boys sensed in our privilege a hint of their future deprivations and punished us for it. Age had begun to heighten those distinctions anyway. So Tony, Gilbert, Danny and myself smoothed out our old antipathies and circled the wagons. We stuck up for one another, at the Home and at Sarah J. Hale, our local high school.
There at Sarah J. the St. Vincent’s Boys were disguised, blended with the larger population, a pretty rough crowd despite their presumably having parents and siblings and telephones and bedroom doors with locks and a thousand other unimaginable advantages. There we mixed with girls for the first time-what mixing was possible with the brutal, strapping black girls of Sarah J., gangs of whom laid afterschool ambushes for any white boy daring enough to have flirted, even made eye-contact, with one inside the building.
The girls were claimed by boyfriends too sophisticated to bother with school, who rode by for them at lunch hour in cars throbbing with amplified basslines and sometimes boasting bullet-riddled doors, and their only use for us was as a dartboard for throwing lit cigarette butts. Yes, relations between the sexes were strained at Sarah J., and I doubt any of us four, even Tony, so much as copped a feel from the girls we were schooled with there.
Minna’s Court Street was the old Brooklyn, a placid ageless surface alive underneath with talk, with deals and casual insults, a neighborhood political machine with pizzeria and butcher-shop bosses and unwritten rules everywhere. All was talk except for what mattered most, which were unspoken understandings. The barbershop, where he took us for identical haircuts that cost three dollars each, except even that fee was waived for Minna-no one had to wonder why the price of a haircut hadn’t gone up since 1966, nor why six old barbers were working out of the same ancient storefront; the barbershop was a retirement home, a social club and front for a backroom poker game. The barbers were taken care of because this was Brooklyn, where people looked out. Why would the prices go up, when nobody walked in who wasn’t part of this conspiracy, this trust?—though if you spoke of it you’d surely meet with confused denials, or laughter and a too-hard cuff on the cheek. Another exemplary mystery was the “arcade,” a giant storefront containing three pinball machines and six or seven video games, Asteroids, Frogger, Centipede, and a cashier who’d change dollars to quarters and accept hundred-dollar bills folded into lists of numbers, names of horses and football teams. The curb in front of the arcade was lined with Vespas. They sat without anything more than a bicycle lock for protection, a taunt to vandals. A block away, on Smith, they would have been stripped, but here they were pristine, a curbside showroom. It didn’t need explaining- this was Court Street. And Court Street, where it passed through Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill, was the only Brooklyn, really-north was Brooklyn Heights, secretly a part of Manhattan, south was the harbor, and the rest, everything east of the Gowanus Canal, apart from small outposts of civilization in Park Slope and Windsor Terrace, was an unspeakable barbarian tumult.
Sometimes he needed just one of us. He’d appear at the Home in his Impala instead of the van, request someone specific, then spirit them away to the bruised consternation of those left behind. Tony was in and out of Minna’s graces, his ambition and pride costing him as much as he won, but he was unmistakably our leader and Minna’s right hand. He wore his private errands with Minna like Purple Hearts, but refused to report on their content to the rest of us. Danny, athletic, silent and tall, became Minna’s greyhound, sent on private deliveries and rendezvous, and given early driving lessons in a vacant Red Hook lot, as though Minna were grooming him for work as an international spy, or Kato for a new Green Hornet. Gilbert, all bullish determination, was pegged for the grunt work, sitting in double-parked cars, repairing a load of ruptured cartons with strapping tape, and repainting the van, whose graffitied exterior some of Minna’s neighbors had apparently found objectionable. And I was an extra set of eyes and ears and opinions. Minna would drag me along to backrooms and offices and barbershop negotiations, then debrief me afterwards. What did I think of that guy? Shitting or not? A moron or retard? A shark or a mook? Minna encouraged me to have a take on everything, and to spit it out, as though he thought my verbal disgorgings were only commentary not yet anchored to subject matter. And he adored my echolalia. He thought I was doing impressions.
Needless to say, it wasn’t commentary and impressions, but my verbal Tourette’s flowering at last. Like Court Street, I seethed behind the scenes with language and conspiracies, inversions oflogic, sudden jerks and jabs of insult. Now Minna had begun to draw me out. With his encouragement I freed myself to ape the rhythm of his overheard dialogues, his complaints and endearments, his for-the-sake-of arguments.
And Minna loved my effect on his clients and associates, the way I’d unnerve them, disrupt some schmooze with an utterance, a head jerk, a husky “eatme!’ I was his special effect, a running joke embodied. They’d look up startled and he’d wave his hand knowingly, counting money, not even bothering to look at me. “Don’t mind him, he can’t help it,” he’d say. “Kid’s shot out of a cannon.” Or: “He likes to get a little nutty sometimes.” Then he’d wink at me, acknowledge our conspiracy. I was evidence of life’s unpredictability and rudeness and poignancy, a scale model of his own nutty heart. In this way Minna licensed my speech, and speech, it turned out, liberated me from the overflowing disaster of my Tourettic self, turned out to be the tic that satisfied where others didn’t, the scratch that briefly stilled the itch.
“You ever listen to yourself, Lionel?” Minna would say later, shaking his head. “You really are shot out of a fucking cannon.”
“Scott Out Of The Canyon! I don’t know why, I just—fuckitup!— I just can’t stop.”
“You’re a freak show, that’s why. Human freak show, and it’s free. Free to the public.”
“Freefreak!” I tapped his shoulder.
“That’s what I said: a free human freak show.”
“Makes you think you’re Italian?” said Minna one day, as we all rode together in his Impala.
“What do I look like to you?” said Tony.
“I was thinking maybe Greek,” said Minna. “I used to know this Greek guy went around knocking up the Italian girls down Union Street, until a couple their older brothers took him out under the bridge. You remind me of him, you know? Got that dusky tinge. I’d say half Greek. Or maybe Puerto Rican.”
“Probably know all your parents. We’re not talking the international jet set here-bunch of teen mothers, probably live in a five-mile radius, need to know the goddamn truth.”
We learned to negotiate the labyrinth of Minna’s weird prejudices blind, and blindly. Hippies, for instance, were dangerous and odd, also sort of sad in their utopian wrongness.
("Your parents must of been hippies,” he’d tell me.
“That’s why you came out the superfreak you are.") Homosexual men were harmless reminders of the impulse Minna was sure lurked in all of us-and “half a fag,” was more shameful than a whole one. Certain baseball players were half a fag.
So were most rock stars and anyone who’d been in the Armed Services but not in a war. The Arabic population of Atlantic Avenue was as unfathomable as the Indian tribes that had held our land before Columbus. “Classic” minorities-Irish, Jews, Poles, Italians, Greeks and Puerto Ricans were the clay of life itself, funny in their essence, while blacks and Asians of all types were soberly snubbed, unfunny. But bone-stupidity, mental illness and familial or sexual anxiety—these were the bolts of electricity that made the clay walk, the animating forces that rendered human life amusing. It was a form of racism, not respect, that restricted blacks and Asians from ever being stupid like a Mick or Polack. If you weren’t funny you didn’t quite exist. And it was usually better to be fully stupid, impotent, lazy, greedy or freakish than to seek to dodge your destiny, or layer it underneath pathetic guises of vanity or calm.
Though Gerard Minna’s name was printed on the business card, we met him only twice, and never on a moving job. The first time was Christmas day, at Minna’s mother’s apartment.
Carlotta Minna was an old stove. That was the Brooklyn term for it, according to Minna. She was a cook who worked in her own apartment, making plates of sauteed squid and stuffed peppers and jars of tripe soup which were purchased at her door by a constant parade of buyers, mostly neighborhood women with too much housework and single men, young or elderly, bocce players who’d take her plates to the park with them, racing bettors who’d eat her food standing up outside the OTB, butchers and contractors who’d sit on crates in the backs of their shops and wolf her cutlets, folding them with their fingers like waffles. She truly worked an old stove, too, a tiny enamel four-burner that was crusted with ancient sauces and on which three or four pots invariably bubbled. The whole kitchen glowed with heat like a kiln. Mrs. Minna herself seemed to have been baked, her whole face dark and furrowed like the edges of an overdone calzone. We never arrived without nudging aside some buyers from her door, nor without packing off with plateloads of food. When we were in her presence Minna bubbled himself, with talk, all directed at his mother, banking cheery insults off anyone else in the apartment, delivery boys, customers known and unknown, tasting everything she had cooking and making suggestions on every dish, poking and pinching every raw ingredient or ball of unfinished dough and also his mother herself, her earlobes and chin, wiping flour off her dark arms with his open hand. And she never once uttered a word.
That Christmas Minna had us all up to his mother’s to eat at her table, first nudging aside sauce-glazed stirring spoons and baby-food jars of spices to clear spots for our plates.
Minna stood at the stove, sampling her broth, and Mrs. Minna hovered over us as we devoured her meatballs, running her floury fingers over the backs of our chairs, then gently touching our heads, the napes of our necks. We pretended not to notice, ashamed to show that we drank in her nurturance as eagerly as her meat sauce. We splashed, gobbled, kneed one another under the table. Privately, I polished the handle of my spoon, quietly aping the motions of her fingers on my nape, and fought not to twist in my seat and jump at her.
All the while she went on caressing with hands that would have horrified us if we’d looked close.
Minna spotted her and said, “This is exciting for you, Ma? I got all of motherless Brooklyn up here for you. Merry Christmas.”
Minna’s mother only produced a sort of high, keening sigh.
We stuck to the food.
“Motherless Brooklyn,” repeated a voice we didn’t know.
It was Minna’s brother, Gerard. He’d come in without our noticing. A fleshier, taller Minna. His eyes and hair were as dark, his mouth as wry, lips deep-indented at the corners.
He wore a brown-and-tan leather coat, which he left buttoned, his hands pushed into the fake patch pockets.
“So this is your little moving company,” he said.
“Hey, Gerard,” said Minna.
“Christmas, Frank,” said Gerard Minna absently, not looking at his brother. Instead he was making short work of the four of us, his hard gaze snapping us each in two like bolt cutters on inferior padlocks. It didn’t take long before he was done with us forever-that was how it felt.
“Yeah, Christmas to you,” said Minna. “Where you been?”
“Upstate,” said Gerard.
“What, with Ralph and them?” I detected something new in Minna’s voice, a yearning, sycophantic strain.
“More or less.”
“What, just for the holidays you’re gonna go talkative on me? Between you and Ma it’s like the Cloisters up here.”
1UGBOATSYNDROME 203 “I brought you a present.” He handed Minna a white legal envelope, stuffed fat. Minna began to tear at the end, and Gerard said in a voice low and full of ancient sibling authority: “Put it away.”
Now we understood we’d all been staring. All except Mrs.
Minna, who was at her stove, piling together a cornucopic holiday plate for her older son.
“Make it to go, Mother.”
She moaned again, closed her eyes.
“I’ll be back,” said Gerard. He put his hands on her, much as Minna did. “I’ve got a few people to see today. I’ll be back tonight. Enjoy your little orphan party.”
He took the foil-wrapped plate and was gone.
Minna said: “What’re you staring at? Eat your food!” He stuffed the white envelope into his jacket. Then he cuffed us, the bulging gold ring on his middle finger clipping our crowns in the same place his mother had fondled.
One day in April, five months after that Christmas meal, Minna drove up with all his windows thoroughly smashed, the van transformed into a blinding crystalline sculpture, a mirrorball on wheels, reflecting the sun. It was plainly the work of a man with a hammer or crowbar and no fear of interruption. Minna appeared not to have noticed; he ferried us out to a job without mentioning it. On our way back to the Home, as we rumbled over the cobblestones of Hoyt Street, Tony nodded at the windshield, which sagged in its frame like a beaded curtain, and said: “So what happened?”
“What happened to what?” It was a Minna game, forcing us to be literal when we’d been trained by him to talk in glances, in three-corner shots.
“Somebody fucked up your van.”
Minna shrugged, excessively casual. “I parked it on that block of Pacific Street.”
We didn’t know what he was talking about.
“These guys around that block had this thing about how I was uglifying the neighborhood.” A few weeks after Gilbert’s paint job the van had been covered again with graffiti, vast ballooning font and an overlay of stringy tags. Something made Minna’s van a born target, the flat battered sides like a windowless subway car, a homely public surface crying for spray paint where private cars were inviolate. “They told me not to park it around there anymore.”
Minna lifted both hands from the wheel to gesture his indifference. We weren’t totally convinced.
“Someone’s sending a message,” said Tony.
“What’s that?” said Minna.
“I just said it’s a message,” said Tony.
“Yeah, but what are you trying to say?” said Minna.
“Fuckitmessage,” I suggested impulsively.
“You know what I mean,” said Tony defiantly, ignoring me.
“Yeah, maybe,” said Minna. “But put it in your own words.” I could feel his anger unfolding, smooth as a fresh deck of cards.
“Put it in your fuckitall!” I was like a toddler devising a tantrum to keep his parents from fighting.
But Minna wasn’t distractable. “Quiet, Freakshow,” he said, never taking his eyes from Tony. “Tell me what you said,” he told Tony again.
“Nothing,” said Tony. “Damn.” He was backpedaling.
Minna pulled the van to the curb at a fire hydrant on the corner of Bergen and Hoyt. Outside, a couple of black men sat on a stoop, drinking from a bag. They squinted at us.
“Tell me what you said,” Minna insisted.
He and Tony stared at one another, and the rest of us melted back. I swallowed away a few variations.
’’.Just, you know, somebody’s sending you a message.”
This clearly infuriated Minna. He and Tony suddenly spoke a private language in which message signified heavily. “You think you know a thing,” he said.
“All I’m saying is I can see what they did to your truck, Frank.” Tony scuffed his feet in the layer of tiny cubes of safety glass that had peeled away from the limp window and lay scattered on the floor of the van.
“That’s not all you said, Dickweed.”
Dickweed: it was different from any insult Minna had bestowed on us before. Bitter as it sounded—dickweed. Our little organization was losing its innocence, although I couldn’t have explained how or why.
“I can’t help what I see,” said Tony. “Somebody put a hit on your windows.”
“Think you’ re a regular little wise guy, don’t you?”
Tony stared at him.
“You want to be Scarface?”
Tony didn’t give his answer, but we knew what it was.
Scarface had opened a month before and Al Pacino was ascendant, a personal colossus astride Tony’s world, blocking out the sky.
“See, the thing about Scarface,” said Minna, “is before he got to be Scarface he was Scabface Nobody ever considers that. You have to want to be Scabface first.”
For a second I thought Minna was going to hit Tony, damage his face to make the point. Tony seemed to be waiting for it too. Then Minna’s fury leaked away.
“Out,” he said. He waved his hand, a Caesar gesturing to the heavens through the roof of his refitted postal van.
“What?” said Tony. “Right here?”
“Out,” he said again, equably. “Walk home, you muffin asses.”
We sat gaping, though his meaning was clear enough. We weren’t more than five or six blocks from the Home, anyway.
But we hadn’t been paid, hadn’t gone for beers or slices or a bag of hot, clingy zeppole. I could taste the disappointment- the flavor of powdered sugar’s absence. Tony slid open the door, dislodging more glass, and we obediently filed out of the van and onto the sidewalk, into the day’s glare, the suddenly formless afternoon.
Minna drove off, leaving us there to bob together awkwardly before the drinkers on the stoop. They shook their heads at us, stupid looking white boys a block from the projects. But we were in no danger there, nor were we dangerous ourselves. There was something so primally humiliating in our ejection that Hoyt Street itself seemed to ridicule us, the humble row of brownstones and sleeping bodegas. We were inexcusable to ourselves. Others clotted street corners, not us, not anymore. We rode with Minna. The effect was deliberate: Minna knew the value of the gift he’d withdrawn.
“Muffin ass,” I said forcefully, measuring the shape of the words in my mouth, auditioning them for tic-richness. Then I sneezed, induced by the sunlight.
Gilbert and Danny looked at me with disgust, Tony with something worse.
“Shut up,” he said. There was cold fury in his teeth-clenched smile.
“Tellmetodoit, muffinass,” I croaked.
“Be quiet now,” warned Tony. He plucked a piece of wood from the gutter and took a step towards me.
Gilbert and Danny drifted away from us warily. I would have followed them, but Tony had me cornered against a parked car. The men on the stoop stretched back on their elbows, slurped their malt liquor thoughtfully.
“Dickweed,” I said. I tried to mask it in another sneeze, which made something in my neck pop. I twitched and spoke again. “Dickyweed! Dicketywood!” I was trapped in a loop of self, stuck refining a verbal tic to free myself from its grip.
Certainly I didn’t mean to be defying Tony. Yet dickweed was the name Minna had called him, and I was throwing it in his face.
Tony held the stick he’d found, a discarded scrap of lattice with clumps of plaster stuck to it. I stared, anticipating my own pain like I’d anticipated Tony’s, at Minna’s hand, a minute before. Instead Tony moved close, stick at his side, and grabbed my collar.
“Open your mouth again,” he said.
I grabbed Tony back, my hands exploring the neck of his T-shirt, fingers running inside it like an anxious, fumbling lover. Then, struggling not to speak, I pursed my lips, jerked my head to the side and kissed his knuckles where they gripped my collar.
Gilbert and Danny had started up Hoyt Street in the direction of the Home. “C’mon, Tony,” said Gilbert, tilting his head. Tony ignored them. He scraped his stick in the gutter and came up with a smear of dog shit, mustard-yellow and pungent.
“Open,” he said.
Gilbert and Danny slinked away, heads bowed. The street was brightly, absurdly empty. Nobody but the men on the stoop, impassive witnesses. I jerked my head as Tony jabbed with his stick, and he only managed to paint my cheek. I could smell it though, powdered sugar’s opposite, married to my face.
“Eat me!” I shouted. Falling back against the car behind me, I turned my head again and again, twitching away, enshrining the moment in ticceography. The stain followed me, adamant, on fire.
Our witnesses crinkled their paper bags, offered ruminative sighs.
Tony dropped his stick and turned away. He’d disgusted himself, couldn’t meet my eye. About to speak, he thought better of it, instead jogged to catch Gilbert and Danny as they shrugged away up Hoyt Street, leaving the scene.
We didn’t see Minna again until five weeks later, Sunday morning at the Home’s yard, late May. He had his brother Gerard with him; it was the second time we’d laid eyes on him.
None of us had seen Frank in the intervening weeks, though I know the others, like myself, had each wandered down Court Street, nosed at a few of his usual haunts, the barbershop, the arcade. He wasn’t in them. It meant nothing, it meant everything. He might never reappear, but if he turned up and didn’t speak of it we wouldn’t think twice. We didn’t speak of it to one another, but a pensiveness hung over us, tinged with orphan’s melancholy, our resignation to permanent injury. A part of each of us still stood astonished on the corner of Hoyt and Bergen, where we’d been ejected from Minna’s van.
A horn honked, the Impala’s, not the van’s. Then the brothers got out and came to the cyclone fence and waited for us to gather. Tony and Danny were playing basketball, Gilbert ardently picking his nose on the sidelines. That’s how I picture it, anyway. I wasn’t in the yard when they drove up. Gilbert had to come inside and pull me out of the library, to which I’d mostly retreated since Tony’s attack. I was wedged into a windowsill seat when Gilbert found me, immersed in a novel by Allen Drury.
Frank and Gerard were dressed too warmly for that morning, Frank in his bomber jacket, Gerard in his patchwork leather coat. The back seat of the Impala was loaded with shopping bags packed with what looked like Frank’s clothes and a pair of old leather suitcases. They stood at the fence, Frank bouncing nervously on his toes, Gerard hanging on the mesh, fingers dangling through, doing nothing to conceal his impatience with his brother, an impatience shading into disgust.
Frank smirked, raised his eyebrows, shook his head. Danny held his basketball between forearm and hip; Minna nodded at it, mimed a set shot, dropped his hand at the wrist and made a delicate o with his mouth to signify the swish that would result.
Then, idiotically, he bounced a pretend pass to Gerard.
His brother didn’t seem to notice. Minna shook his head, then wheeled, aimed two trigger fingers through the fence, and grit his teeth for rat-tat-tat, a little imaginary schoolyard massacre. We could only gape. It was as though somebody had taken Minna’s voice away. And Minna was his voice—didn’t he know? His eyes said yes, he did. They looked panicked, like they’d been caged in the body of a mime.
Gerard gazed off emptily into the yard, ignoring the show.
Minna made a few more faces, wincing, chuckling silently, shaking off some invisible annoyance by twitching his cheek.
I fought to keep from mirroring him.
Then he cleared his throat. “I’m, ah, going out of town for a while,” he said at last.
We waited for more. Minna just nodded and squinted and grinned his close-mouthed grin at us as though he were acknowledging applause.
“Upstate?” said Tony.
Minna coughed in his fist. “Oh yeah. Place my brother goes. He thinks we ought to get a little country air.”
“When are you coming back?” said Tony.
“Ah, coming back,” said Minna. “You got an unknown there, Scarface. Unknown factors.”
We must have gaped at him, because he added, “I wouldn’t wait under water, if that’s what you had in mind.”
We were in our second year of high school. Till now I’d counted my future in afternoons, but with Minna leaving, a door of years swung open. And Minna wouldn’t be there to tell us what to think of Minna’s not being there, to give it a name.
“All right, Frank,” said Gerard, turning his back to the fence. “Motherless Brooklyn appreciates your support. I think we better get on the road.”
“My brother’s in a hurry,” said Frank. “He’s seeing ghosts everywhere.”
“Yeah, I’m looking right at one,” said Gerard, though in fact he wasn’t looking at anyone, only the car.
Minna tilted his head at us, at his brother, to say you know.
Then he pulled a book out of his pocket, a small paperback.
I don’t think I’d ever seen a book in his hands before. “Here,”
he said to me. He dropped it on the pavement and nudged it under the fence with the toe of his shoe. “Take a look,”
he said. “Turns out you’re not the only freak in the show.”
I picked it up. Understanding Tourette ’s Syndrome was the title. It was first time I’d seen the words.
“Meaning to get that to you,” he said. “But I’ve been sort of busy.”
I reached for him through the fence and tapped his shoulder, once, twice, let my hand fall, then raised it again and let fly a staccato burst of Tourettic caresses.
“Eatme, Minnaweed,” I said under my breath.
“You’re a laugh and a half, Freakshow,” said Minna, his face completely grim.
“Great,” said Gerard, taking Minna by the arm. “Let’s get out of here.”
Tony had been searching every day after school, I suspect.
It was three days later that he found it and led us others there, to the edge of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway at the end of Baltic. The van was diminished, sagged to its rims, tires melted. The explosion had cleared the windows of their crumbled panes of safety glass, which now lay in a spilled penumbra of grains on the sidewalk and street, together with flakes of traumatized paint and smudges of ash, a photographic map of force. The panels of the truck were layered, graffiti still evident in bone-white outline, all else, Gilbert’s shoddy coat of enamel and the manufacturer’s ancient green, now chalky black, and delicate like sunburned skin. It was like an X ray of the van that had been before.
We circled it, strangely reverent, afraid to touch, and then I ran away, toward Court Street, before anything could come out of my mouth.