Summer vacation had just started, the morning was bright and warm, and I was loose on the streets of Utica. I didn’t have any plans. I wasn’t going anywhere. Just being out of the house was enough. My mother, stepfather, younger brother and sister and I lived in a crummy apartment on a street the name of which I no longer remember. There were too many of them; too many shithole apartments in too many shitty neighborhoods. We moved a lot, sometimes at night so we’d have a head start on the landlord or the cops, but always within Utica or Rome. After a while, all these places sort of blended into one.
My stepfather worked when he could and got drunk when he couldn’t. He wasn’t such a bad guy when he was sober. Get a few drinks in him, though, and I turned into a punching bag. Afterwards, he’d be weepy. He would hug me and breathe liquor fumes in my face and tell me that it was for my own good. He was making a man out of me, just like his father had done for him. Other times, his drunk would be a happy one and he’d keep the whole house up all night singing and dancing. Fifteen years later, when I read “My Papa’s Waltz” and Ham on Rye for the first time, I knew Roethke and Bukowski had lived every word they wrote.
Bad as he was, my mother was worse. She flew into blind rages over the smallest of things. Punching, kicking, choking, slapping, scratching were standard. Then there were the times when she threw me down a flight of stairs, held my head underwater in the toilet bowl, beat my head against the wall or picked me up by the ears and shook me until blood ran down the sides of my neck. Mom never showed remorse or offered tearful justifications. Whatever she did, I was to blame. And when they weren’t beating or berating me, they fought each other.
So this particular morning, my mother sent me outside and told me not to come back until lunch time. It was a relief to be wandering the streets alone. I might run into some kids I knew from school, but I hadn’t been around the neighborhood long enough to make any friends. My only real friend was a kid named Chris who lived down the street from my Grandma Johnson’s place in Herkimer, about fifteen miles away.
I had a quarter burning a hole in my pocket. There were little mom-and-pop stores every few blocks, and I walked way beyond my usual boundary before stopping at one to buy a Popsicle and some penny candy. I even got some change back. I went outside, gobbling up the Popsicle before it could melt and then hitting the candy.
Back to wandering. I don’t remember how much time passed, but I walked in a circle and eventually ended up at another corner store not far from home. This was the place my mother usually sent me on errands when she needed a quart of milk or some crackers or Spic ‘n’ Span (a psychotic welfare case she may have been, but my mom always kept our apartment clean). I had a few cents left, so I went inside.
The first thing to catch my eye was a tall wire spinner full of comic books. I loved comics and still do. My favorites back then were Batman, Justice League of America, Detective Comics, Richie Rich, Casper and Wendy, Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four and I bought them whenever I had enough money. But I zoomed in on an issue of The Incredible Hulk that morning. I had heard of the Hulk, had probably seen him as a guest star in one of the other Marvel titles I sometimes read, but had never picked up one of his comics.
I opened it and began reading. I don’t remember which issue it was, or even what the story was about. What struck me at the time was the character of Bruce Banner. Here was an adult—skinny, weak, harassed—who when pushed too far turned into this rampaging expression of his anger and frustration. It scared and fascinated me at the same time. I felt like Banner: hounded and beaten but too weak to fight back. What would it be like to unleash my rage, to punish my stepfather and make him go away forever, to make my mother act the way a mother should?
I had to have that comic book.
But it cost twenty-five cents and I only had about eight cents left. It didn’t matter. I had to have the comic. I needed it more than anything else in the world. I looked around. There were no other customers in the store. The owner stood behind the counter, reading a newspaper. He didn’t seem to notice me.
I’d never stolen anything before. How tough could it be to swipe one comic book? There was the door. Right there, just a few feet away. I could be halfway home before the guy even noticed I’d left. Easy. Nothing to it.
Keeping the comic open and pretending that I was still reading it, I walked toward the door. It was a perfect plan. If the owner stopped me, I could act innocent, make like I was so absorbed in the story that I just didn’t realize I’d gone outside. Man, was I crafty.
I opened the screen door with my foot and stepped onto the porch. So far, so good. I walked down the steps, still holding the comic up in front of my face, staying cool even though I wanted to run. The screen door banged open just as I was about to turn and go down the alley.
“Where the hell you think you’re going, you little shit?”
I didn’t run. I looked around like I had no idea how I’d ended up here. The guy grabbed the comic out of my hands. He didn’t wait for my explanation and I knew then that he’d already heard every bullshit story a little kid could dream up. I stood there trying not to cry. If he made me give him our phone number so he could call my parents, I was dead. Every beating I’d ever had up until that day would seem like a joke compared to what I’d get.
“How old are you?”
“Want to get locked up in reform school until you’re eighteen?”
“Then don’t you ever come back to my store again,” he said. “I see you in here, I’ll call the cops and they’ll put you away for ten years.”
He turned around and went back inside. I was so relieved, I started crying anyway. Ten years for stealing a twenty-five cent comic book was bullshit, but what did I know? The guy wanted to scare me and it worked. I cried all the way home. Then I dried my eyes and went to sit on the stump in the backyard we shared with the other tenants until it was time to go in for lunch. What my mom didn’t know wouldn’t hurt me.
As it turned out, I hadn’t caught that much of a break when the guy let me go. My mother liked sending me on little errands to that store because it near our apartment and she had a good idea of how much money she needed to give me. But I couldn’t show my face there anymore.
The only other place close enough was a chain grocery store. It was three or four blocks farther away, and the prices were a little cheaper. That meant my errands took longer and I was coming home with more money than there should be in my pocket. All I could do was keep the extra coins and try to come up with a story about what took me so long. Sure, I now had more money for candy and comics, but guilt and worry raised the cost.
Things went on like this for the rest of the summer, until we moved again. That move took us to second-floor apartment right across the street from Roosevelt Elementary School. I remember the place well because it was to be the last time the six of us moved anywhere together. My youngest brother was born while we lived there. The fights got worse.
By the spring of ’77, my mother was dead by her own hand and we kids were split up between my stepfather (the two youngest, who were his) and Grandma Johnson. She gave us a good home. Herkimer was far from the worst place to be a kid in the seventies. I tried to avoid trouble, but it never had a hard time finding me.