A Palisades Adventure
By Bob Grand
He was a beanpole. Six foot two, a hundred forty pounds. Johnny had light-blue eyes, a thin face and crooked front teeth. When he smiled, his upper gums showed. Johnny had a crescent-shaped scar on the bridge of his straight thin nose; it was a visible reminder of a time in Taft’s dustbowl when he’d gotten too close to Tommy D when Tommy was swinging a baseball bat, and the bat clipped him.
Johnny was two years older than me, four years older than my best friend Josh. He was a rare Protestant in a Jewish neighborhood. His parents were divorced, which was unusual in our neighborhood in the early fifties. He lived on the top floor of the apartment building next to mine with his father, his brother Miltie, and his grandmother, Mrs. F, a short, frail woman in her mid-eighties. She was blind in one eye, and one of her eyeglass lenses was frosted and bound with clear tape to hold it in place.
The family acquired a gray and white alley cat one day when old Mrs. F went into the hallway to throw out a bag of garbage. When she opened the dumbwaiter door, this scared little kitten was on the platform. The cat walked right into her outstretched arms, and it was love at first sight. The kitten grew up to be the scrawny runt she named Blinkie.
Whenever anyone came into the apartment the cat would arch its back and hiss and spit. Blinkie did his business in the bathtub. He spent most of his time on the kitchen windowsill. The window was five stories.The cat’s favorite victim was Josh, whom Blinkie used to terrorize by jumping out of hiding and clawing at him. There were a lot of times that Josh and I wanted to nudge Blinkie off the windowsill. One of us probably would have done it if Johnny hadn’t been our friend.
The Family F’s neighbor, Mrs. Schoenstein, was a friend of Johnny’s grandmother. One June day she came into their apartment and complained that her dinner was missing. She’d broiled a chicken and put it out on the windowsill to cool off. When she went back to get it, the chicken wasn’t there. Mrs. Schoenstein was convinced that a hobo had taken the chicken.
Johnny didn’t say a word, but he doubted that a hobo would scale a five-story apartment building or climb down ten feet from a roof façade to steal a chicken. Johnny went up to the roof and found Blinkie hunched over a pile of chicken bones, licking his chops. Johnny never told Mrs.Schoenstein about Blinkie and the chicken.
Johnny had spent some childhood summers with cousins in Nova Scotia. They’d taught him to fish and to set crab and lobster traps. He passed some of those lessons on to Josh and me. Most city kids never got a chance to learn about things like that. We considered ourselves pretty lucky. Johnny was always going on some outdoor trip; fishing or crabbing or hiking. He knew the names of trees and flowers, and was better than anyone in the neighborhood at catching butterflies or capturing fireflies in glass jars. As a result, we dubbed him “Nature Boy,” after a popular Nat “King” Cole song of that name.
On a late afternoon in May, he decided it was time for us to learn about setting crab traps. Johnny was fourteen, Josh ten, and I was twelve. We set out for New Jersey on foot. It was a six mile hike that took us about two hours. We were weighed down by flashlights, official army issue canteens (from the Army and Navy store on 170th Street) filled with water, penknives, three burlap bags, three metal crab cages, and some rope.
Johnny had a pair of rubber hip boots tied together and slung across and We walked across the George Washington Bridge, and then turned north for about a mile to reach the cliffs of the Palisades. We carefully climbed down the steep natural staircase of jagged rocks that led from the roadway to the bank of the Hudson River. We reached the riverbank a little past six in the evening. The shoreline glistened with small moist round rocks set in wet slimy sand. Seagulls circled above waiting to dive and scoop up any fish that might break the water’s plane.
“Okay,” said Johnny. “Everything’s perfect. The tide’s ready to go He showed us how to tie the rope to the crab cages and set their springs. Josh and I worked on the cages while Johnny put on his hip boots and waded into the water to secure the other ends of the ropes to moorings that were about five feet out in the river. We dropped the cages into the At about ten o’clock my toes began to get wet. I moved back a couple of feet. Josh and Johnny were standing at the base of the cliff, about twenty feet behind me. Johnny was smoking a Lucky. I could make out two orange dots of light. That meant Josh was smoking, too.
Judging by the odor the wind carried toward me, it was one of his asthma cigarettes. He had a hacking non-stop cough, and I knew that the damp, freezing wind was affecting him. But Josh was too stubborn to admit to any I took a few steps back to get away from the advancing water. My socks were wet and my feet were freezing.
“I’ll be damned if I’m going to say anything,” I thought.
A minute later, although I hadn’t moved again, the water was up to “I’ll be damned if I’m going to say anything,” I silently reiterated, and took a few more steps back. Within five minutes I was ankle deep in water “Hey, Johnny! I think the tide’s coming in!”
They both ran over from the cliffside.
“Shit,” Johnny said. “The moorings are under water.”
The ends of the ropes that Johnny had tied to the moorings were under ten to fifteen feet of water.
“What do we do now,” I asked.
“We wait,” Johnny said.
“Until the tide goes back out.”
“When will that be?”
“Probably about one o’clock. By then we’ll have some crabs. High tides are the best times to catch them.”
By a quarter past one, the tide had receded enough for Johnny to wade out to the moorings and pull the traps in. They were filled with blue claw crabs. About thirty of them.
“Okay,” Johnny said, “put them into the bags.”
“No way I’m touching those things,” I said.
Johnny picked up a crab and told Josh to shine a flashlight on it.
“Hold it like this and it’s helpless. There’s no way it can do anything.”
“No touchee, no crabee,” Josh said.
“Then you carry the ropes,” Johnny said.
Once the crabs had been loaded into the bags, we started climbing up the cliff. It was much more difficult going up than it had been coming down. Josh and Johnny were each lugging a burlap bag full of crabs behind them. The bags kept swinging against the rocks. The wet ropes were in my burlap bag. It was so heavy that I lost one step for every two I gained. A cold wind plastered my wet clinging clothes to my body and caused my hands and feet to grow numb. My teeth were chattering.
I looked at Johnny when we’d finally reached the top. His teeth were chattering, too. Then I looked toward Josh. His teeth weren’t chattering. They were clenched. He was shivering so much that his whole body was shaking. I figured that was only because he couldn’t clench his whole body. Josh was a pretty stubborn guy. It was a genetic trait.
When we got up to the road it was past 2:30. It took us about an hour to struggle across the bridge. Every time Josh or Johnny took a step, the burlap bags banged against their legs and a pair of crab claws pinched at them. When we finally reached the New York side of the bridge there was a bus.
”Let’s take the bus,” I said.
“No, we walk,” Josh said, through tightly clenched teeth.
“We take the bus,” Johnny said.
Johnny got on the bus first. He tripped on the second step and fell flat on his face. He got up slowly, chuckling away his embarrassment. Once they realized he was all right, the ten or so people on the bus, including the driver, began to laugh. No one laughed harder than Josh and I. We knew Johnny’s history. If there was going to be a mishap within a mile of him, he was almost certain to be involved in it. Johnny had always been an accident waiting to happen.
We paid our ten-cent fares and walked down the aisle to the long padded bench at the rear of the bus. We were all exhausted, and fell asleep the moment we flopped down on the bench.
We were jolted awake when the bus driver slammed on the brakes. Josh and I lurched forward. We were able to brace ourselves by holding onto the seatbacks in front of us. But Johnny flew off the bench and down the aisle, careening off the sides of seats, until he came to a stop about halfway toward the front of the bus. He lay sprawled on his back in the aisle. His long legs were sticking straight up in the air, and his arms were thrashing about to find something to grab for support. He struggled for a minute or so before he was able to right himself and get up off the floor.
A seam on his burlap bag had split. Crabs were crawling all around.
They were in the aisle, crossing the aisle, and under the seats. The poor creatures were running for their lives. Most of the people on the bus were standing on their seats. Some of the women were screaming.
“Get those crabs off this bus,” the driver shouted. A smile almost Josh and Johnny ran up and down the aisle corralling the crabs and stuffing them on top of the ropes in my burlap bag. When they’d succeeded in capturing all the crabs, we got off the bus. It was past four in the morning. Luckily we were only three or four blocks from the neighborhood.
As we turned right from 170th Street onto Sheridan Avenue, thirty-five or forty people were milling around in the street. Two police cars were there. I later found out that my mother had summoned them. We’d been reported missing, and a search party had been sent out to find us.
Someone shouted, “There they are!” People started pointing in our direction. Suddenly there was a herd of people running down the hill
Josh’s father, Burch, sprinted out of his apartment with a belt in his hand and started chasing Josh around the street. Josh kept ducking and dodging him, which only made Burch angrier. Josh ducked and dodged one time too many. He ran smack into his brother. Rube picked him up by his shirtfront and held him for Burch. Josh was suspended in mid-air, his feet still moving. Burch came over and grabbed Josh by the collar. He boxed his ear and dragged him across the street toward their apartment.
Josh’s mother was holding the door open. He stumbled going up the stairs, and Burch whacked him across the ass with his belt. Josh tumbled into the foyer, and Rube closed the door behind them.
Johnny’s father, Mr. F, grabbed Johnny’s hair and started pulling him toward their building. Johnny’s grandmother grabbed Mr. F’s arm and tried to free it from Johnny’s head. Mr. F’s arm swung around, and he knocked the old lady’s glasses off. She got down on her knees in the middle of the street and felt around for them. Johnny was struggling to get away from his father. Mr. F, turning around in an attempt to restrain Johnny, accidentally stepped on the old lady’s glasses. She got up and grabbed his arm again.
My mother was crying. She tugged at my arm and urged me into our building. Within moments I was in my apartment wrapped in a blanket and sipping hot chocolate. It took about fifteen minutes for my mother’s hysteria to subside. My father had slept through everything.
“I don’t want you ever going with that wild one again.”
“But, Mom, he’s my friend.”
“He’s crazy,” she said.
About Bob Grand:
Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/Welcome2TheBronx/
Facebook Group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/Welcome2TheBronx/