The A & P Syndrome
My stories, immortal in the SCR Archives as long as my server survives, are fictional, although true incidents do occur and real people are sometimes involved. However, the saying that truth can be stranger than fiction inspires me to tell true stories, beginning with
A & P - I.
We were kids, about eleven or twelve, Fernando F. and I, way back then in Brooklyn. We lived on a dead-end street, East 22nd Street to be exact, in Flatbush. It was probably lower middle class then, although I thought it was the cat’s meow. I’ve often thought about going back some day, which isn’t easy because I live in Argentina now and I'm aware of Thomas Wolfe's dictum: You can't go home again. I checked it out in Goggle Earth though and the apartment houses are still there, three on one side and four on the other, and at the end of the dead-end the traffic circle still enables cars to turn around without fender-bending. The Protestant church on the corner is gone, replaced by an ugly looking apartment building. Most churches in Brooklyn when I was a kid were R.C., and lots of synagogues. Now Google shows a plethora of Baptist churches, which surprised me, for I always thought Baptists were uniquely southern.
What made East 22nd Street unique – and still does, though to a lesser degree, is the “arcade” – a covered pedestrian passageway from East 22nd to Flatbush Avenue, almost as wide as a street. It was designed so residents could walk directly to the main drag without having to go around the block via Ditmas Avenue. I see now from my electronic birds-eye view that it’s been reduced in width from passageway to pathway, probably in order to squeeze in another store.
A permanent fixture of the neighborhood was Tiny the cop. We called him Tiny because he was, naturally, a giant. Those days cops walked their beats and had correspondingly smaller beer guts. East 22nd Street wasn’t on his path, but Flatbush Avenue was, so whenever a resident of the block wanted a cop, usually to chase kids, they called Tiny. I think he had a walkie-talkie. He’d come lumbering through the arcade, never smiling, a man of few soft words. “You kids’re makin’ too much noise. Now beat it.” We ran. You see, we respected him. And we knew he meant, but didn’t have to say, “And I don’t want to have to come back here again – at least not today.” Some old farts liked to call the police and complain about kids making too much noise playing stickball. And the cops actually responded. What the hell, they didn’t have much else to do.
I had direct run-ins with Tiny twice, both times together with Fernando F. Fernando and his family were from Puerto Rico and they were the first Puerto Ricans I or anyone else on the block had ever seen. He and his homosexual older brother Hector (“gay” hadn’t yet been invented) and his two sisters spoke English as well as the rest of us, his father spoke it with a heavy accent and his mother not at all; at least I never heard her speak English.
The first encounter involved, well, frankly, shoplifting. Fernando and I liked to wander the A & P aisles and lift chewing gum and candy, never anything more valuable. (Does A & P still exist? According to Google it does, but they have no stores in New York City now. They were the first chain super markets and used to be ubiquitous.) The first time we stole something we were shivering in our sneakers, the second time we were much less nervous and after that we were cool professionals – ripe to be caught. The manager and the clerk who spotted us dragged us into a back storage room and called Tiny. Although on foot, he never seemed to take more than ten minutes to arrive. The manager showed him the contents of our pockets: three Milky Ways and a package of Spearmint gum. Tiny asked us our names. When Fernando answered, he asked, “Portarican?” “Yes sir”, Fernando said. “My father’s gonna kill me.”
“Do you think they’ll have to do time, officer?” the manager asked Tiny with a straight face.
Tiny frowned. He seemed to take up as much room as the rest of us combined. “Probly, if I take ‘em in,” he said. “But since this is their first offence, maybe we can let ‘em off wit a warning.” That’s the kind of cop Tiny was – and the warning worked. I never stole anything again in my life.
A & P - II
About a year later, on a cold snowy evening approaching Christmas, Fernando and I climbed onto the A & P roof to watch the crowds of shoppers pass by under us on Flatbush Avenue. It was one of our favorite pastimes. We’d shimmy up a drain pipe on the 22nd Street side and walk across the roof to Flatbush Avenue from where we could watch all the unsuspecting pedestrians and traffic. When it was snowing we liked to drop soft snowballs on people passing by under us. The disadvantage was that we were unable to see their astonished faces when they looked up to see where the snow had come from. We waited to see if it was a hit or a miss, and if the former we ducked back down behind the parapet and giggled our brains out. When we dared look down again we’d see the victim walking off shaking his or her head. Women were more fun somehow. I don’t know why so please don’t try to psychoanalyze me.
Fernando had just scored a hit when we saw Tiny striding down the avenue in our direction. We ducked back down and waited till he should have passed, then decided it was time to get off that roof. Besides, we were shivering from the cold. We walked back to the 22nd Street side of the roof and knelt preparing to shimmy down the drainpipe, when: Freeze! Hands up! Tiny hadn’t passed by. Instead he’d turned into the arcade and emerged right below us. He stood there like a gray, snow-covered ghost with his pistol pointed at us. Still kneeling, we stuck our hands up as close to the sky as possible. “Stand up!” he shouted. We stood. Silence. Tiny put his gun away and told us to get the hell down. We obeyed and stood in front of him with our eyes on the ground.
“What was youse doin’ up there? Tiny asked.
“Playin’ ” I said, giving the stock answer.
“Waddaya mean playin’? At nine o’clock at night in the snow on the A & P roof?"
“We wasn’t doin’ nuthin,” I insisted, my voice quavering. “Just watchin’ the people go by.”
Tiny shook his head and pressed something on his walky-talky. “Just some kids, Sarge, no problem,” he said, or something like that. I don’t remember the exact words, but I do remember my relief. “You kids live here?” he asked. I don’t know if he recognized us. Probably not. It had been a whole year, we had grown and Tiny must have seen thousands of kids doing what they shouldn’t have been doing during that interval. I confirmed that we did indeed live on East 22nd Street, so Tiny marched us off towards our respective apartment buildings, Fernando’s first because it was the closest.
Tiny pressed Fernando’s bell on the second floor. A moment later his mother opened the door, glanced down at us, then up at Tiny, higher than the top of the door frame.
“Good evening, ma’am,” Tiny began, hat in hand, but got no farther. Fernando’s mother screamed, “Alfonso!” or whatever Fernando’s father’s name was, and ran into the living room. The father came to the door wide-eyed with his thick Latin moustache bristling. “Good evening, sir,” Tiny began again. “We got a call that some men were on the A & P roof tryin’ to break in, so I went through the arcade and…”
“Yes, sank you, sir,” Alfonso said. He grabbed Fernando by the shoulder and dragged him into the apartment screaming something at him in Spanish. He repeated his "sank yous" at Tiny and closed the door. As we walked away we heard a cacophony of hysterical screams coming from the apartment behind us. Tiny put his hat back on and mumbled that he hadn’t said we were trying to break in, only that someone called and said that.
My mother opened our door on the third floor of our apartment across the street. Her eyes went to mine first, then up at Tiny. “Good evening, ma’am,” Tiny said, and this time he was able to get his whole speech out, including, “…so please make sure your kid here don’t go up on the roof no more, ‘cause they coulda got kilt if I didn’t see they was only kids.”
“Yes, of course officer,” my mother said as I slunk by her into the apartment. “Thank you very much.”
Oh by the way, ma’am,” Tiny said as he was about to leave, “I don’t think the other kid’s folks understood real good. They’s Portaricans, ya know.”
“I’ll explain it to them, officer,” my mother said. She closed the door and glared at me. Luckily, my father was away on business.
“Fernando’s father’s gonna kill him, we could hear him beatin’ his brains out,” I said, more to distract her attention from me than out of concern for my compañero.
“That’s what I ought to do to you,” she said, but I knew she wasn’t serious. She sighed. “I’ll call them.”
“They probably won’t understand you on the phone, unless you get one of the sisters, and they can’t convince Fernando’s old man of nuthin’”
She sighed again, louder this time, put on her coat and went for the door. I followed. “You stay here,” she commanded. “Go to bed.”
I didn’t go to bed of course. I paced around the apartment, which wasn’t very big, but it had two bedrooms, so I had one to myself, which opened onto the fire escape where I spent many summer evenings shooting the bull with the Jewish kid, Floyd M., who lived a flight below us. I remember telling him once that he better convert to Catholicism if he didn’t want to go to hell. He just laughed.
When my mother came home a half hour later I asked her, “What happened?”
“I thought I told you to go to bed.” But she didn’t seem angry anymore, so I understood it as a throw-away question.
“What happened, Ma?”
“I’m gonna make tea. Sit down and I’ll tell you while it’s brewing.” She put the kettle on in slow motion without saying a word. She had a flair for drama. Finally she sat down at the kitchen table. “That Mr. F. is a brute, I could hear him beating poor Fernando when his mother let me in, but he’s polite, so when she told him they had a guest he came to the kitchen. Mrs. F. asked me if I would like something to drink and I said yes, just to keep them there. She took a bottle of red wine from the fridge and poured us each a glass. I told Mr. F. to sit down, I wanted to talk to him. He was all flushed from beating that poor boy…” She paused for effect.
“Yeah. Go on, Ma.”
“I explained to him that you two weren’t trying to break into the A & P, that you were only playing.” Her eyes narrowed. “What were you doing up there anyway?”
“Playin’ Ma, it’s the truth.”
She believed me because she wanted to. “Well, anyway,” she went on, “I told Mr. F. that he had to stop beating Fernando, that he didn’t do anything bad. You know, I can hardly understand him when he talks, but he understands all right, he even translated for his wife. I don’t know why she doesn’t speak English. How long have they been here?”
I shrugged. I didn’t know why either, but I guessed it was because she never got outside the house except to shop, and all their friends, if they had any, were Puerto Ricans too.
“I asked Mr. F. if he understood me, and he said yes. I asked him if he was going to beat Fernando any more. If he said yes, I was gonna tell him that I’d call the police, but I didn’t have to because he said no. And you know what?”
“He had tears in his eyes, like he was sorry or something.”
“I don’t think he was sorry,” I offered.
“I don’t know.”
“Go to bed.”
Fernando and I usually walked to school together. The first to emerge on the street waited for the other. I didn’t expect Fernando to be there the next morning, imagining him in bed swathed in bandages. But he was there waiting for me. I examined his face closely but didn’t see any wounds. Probably they were on his body.
“Did you get beat bad last night,” I asked him as we headed towards school, P.S. 152, over on Bedford Road.
“Waddaya mean, nah? You was screaming like a madman.”
Fernando looked at me and smiled. He had beautiful white teeth. “I put a pillow over my ass.”
“You mean your old man beat a pillow?”
“I put a blanket over it, but he knew it was there.” I had stopped walking. “What’s the matter?” Fernando asked me.
“Why’d your father want to beat a fuckin’ pillow?”
“He didn’t want to hurt me, but he gotta go through the motions,” he said, and shrugged. “It’s a portarican thing. Let’s move, man, or we gonna be late.”
A & P - III
We moved from East 22nd Street in Flatbush to Avenue P in Flatlands when I was fourteen. Our house was still only one block from Flatbush Avenue though. At that age most kids do not like change, and I was no exception. I never transferred from Erasmus Hall to Madison High, which was closer to my new home, nor did I abandon my old friends, since I had no new ones in Flatlands. That changed of course, but it took time. Down the street from where we lived was St. Thomas Aquinas elementary school with its outdoor basketball court. I hadn’t played much basketball till then, simply because there was no court close to East 22nd Street. We played mostly stickball and football. Now in my new neighborhood I soon realized that life was basketball. Every Saturday they came and played either half-court with three-man teams or sometimes full-court with five-man teams. I watched from outside the fence, not wanting to make a fool of myself. (I should mention that Flatlands at that time was almost completely Irish-American Catholic, with a smattering of German and Italian names. No Jews, Blacks, Latinos or other indications of ethnic variety, as opposed to Flatbush, were everything was represented.)
I started going to the schoolyard alone on weekday afternoons when no one was there in order to practice shooting, dribbling, jumping - all the things one needed to be a respectable basketball player. Finally when I thought I was ready I walked into the schoolyard one Saturday morning and leaned against the wall smoking and watching the action until someone asked if I wanted to play. I nodded, crushed out the cig and took my first steps towards integration in the new neighborhood. I wasn’t a star, far from it, but I could be counted on not to lose the ball, to pass frequently and even to score some points occasionally.
The years passed and I graduated from the basketball court to bar-hopping. I had just brought my girlfriend home after the movies on a Saturday night and stopped in “The Leader” for a couple of beers. I think it must have been the summer of the year I finished high school, so I was still seventeen. Bartenders weren’t very concerned about underage drinkers; they paid the mafia for protection and that included protection from inspectors. My best friend Warren S. (for Smith) was already there. Probably we had arranged to meet, but I can’t affirm that that was the case; it could just as well have been a coincidence.
We sat there guzzling beer and shooting the shit (an antiquated expression, probably) until closing time, three a.m. The crowd had thinned out by then and Warren and I and two other guys were the only ones left to be pushed out. Warren and I were outside on a deserted Flatbush Avenue a few doors from the bar finishing our conversation when the other two guys approached and one of them called me an asshole, or some such insult, I don’t remember exactly. His name was Charlie H. (I found out later) and he had a reputation as a tough guy, had quit school and worked in the A & P, but I had never exchanged two words with him – not even one. I did know the other guy, Timmy R., a little, but only casually. So why Charlie should suddenly call me an asshole, or whatever, I had no idea. But my honor was a stake, enforced by the considerable amounts of beer I’d consumed. “What’d you say?”
“You hoid me,” and he added several similar pejorative expletives. “So watcha do about it?”
“Come on, Frankie”, Warren whispered to me, “let’s go.”
But Charlie had gotten closer by then and pushed me on the chest. “So you wanna fight?” I said.
“Yeah, if you got the balls.”
“Hold me coat, Wa,” I told my pal. I needed room to sting like a wasp and dance like a butterfly as I’d often seen Mohammed Ali do on TV. Timmy R. held Charlie’s coat. I danced around Charlie for about ten seconds, when he got tired of it and connected with a hard right (or left) over my eye. I went down like the drunken clown I was and my head would have bounced on the sidewalk if Warren hadn’t caught me. On my way down I had spun around and the lit neon sign of the Flatlands branch of the A & P flashed before my blurred vision.
The next day I had a beautiful shiner to accompany my hangover. My parents asked me what happened and I told the truth, that I’d gotten into a fight. My dad said, “I hope the other guy looks worse than you.” I smiled. “He don’t look too good,” although I hadn’t touched Charlie.
Warren, who later became a lawyer and was good at finding things out, explained Charlie’s motive. I had stolen his pal’s (Timmy R’s) girlfriend. “What,” I said, “Pat B. was Timmy R’s girlfriend? I didn’t even know that.”
“Well now you know. Timmy wanted to get even, but since he’s a wimp [like me?] and can’t fight his way out of a paper bag, he got his pal Charlie to do it for him.”
I never entered any A & P again. A & P I, II and III inspired me to believe that it was bad karma, and I was determind that there would be no A & P IV. When my mother sent me shopping I’d go three blocks out of my way to avoid it. Years later, when I no longer lived in the neighborhood and returned to visit my parents, my mother said, on various occasions, “Your old friend Charlie H. sends his regards. He’s so nice. Whenever I go to the A & P – where he’s assistant manager – he asks: How’s Frankie, give him my best.” I never told her that Charlie H. was the guy who gave me the black eye.
I read later that the A & P (which stands for "Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company" by the way) was accused of selling cheap when they opened a neighborhood supermarket in order to drive out the smaller merchants, then raising the prices again. It enabled them to undercut most of the market and grow unchecked. This led to the passing of several anti-predatory pricing laws by Congress, which may be the reason they’re no longer in Brooklyn. Though it could also be because they didn’t want to pay the Mafia for protection. Whatever the reason, I'm glad.
Frank Thomas Smith