For displaced, misplaced, and nostalgic ex-Bronxites

The Body in The Bronx River


by Lou Cubello

T

he dark green water of The Bronx River was as smooth as glass. The surface was only brokenby the occasional tiny whirlpool, caused by the swift moving current. The boys were standing just inside the tunnel. The river was deep at this spot, deeper than any other spot the boys had ever seen before. The water was clear enough so that with the help of the strong afternoon sun, shining in, the boys could focus through the glare, and almost see the river bottom. They were able to make out the shadowy shapes of boulders, bottles and even the frame of an old discarded bicycle. Then the boys’ attention was suddenly drawn to a shadowy figure floating just a few feet below the surface of the water.

“Holy cow, is that what I think it is?” asked one.

“Jesus, I think you’re right. Come on, let’s get the hell outa here.”

A day is only twenty-four hours long but when you are eleven or twelve the day seems longer. In the summer, you are free to play, free to explore, and free to stretch the boundaries. On those long summer days, you were free to dream, and free to take chances. There was so much to do and so much to learn. The teacher was the world around you. Your entire world was the neighborhood you lived in. That neighborhood was in The Bronx.

The summer of 1966 officially started as soon as the final school bell rang and the two friends and students were free. It was a glorious June day, as the last day of school always was. One boy attended the Immaculate Conception School on Gun Hill Road; the other attended P.S. 41 on Olinville Avenue. You never stopped learning when you left the classroom, for the boys had two classrooms. The other one was in the streets of the Bronx. In that classroom, you applied your common sense. You did not want to fail there.

All through the spring, the boys had been perfecting their skills at the games they could play with a spaldeen. Louie’s best sport was handball, while Kevin was best at stickball. He could make a spaldeen bend like a Sandy Koufax curve ball. Now that school was out, the boys could spend their days playing off-the-stoop, stickball, slap-ball, off-the wall and so on. However, while they played these games, they came face to face with life, the rules of the streets, something that could not be taught in a classroom.

The boys lived in the Gun Hill Projects in the northeast Bronx and played in Magenta Park. They had met two summers before, and had a good friendship, competitive at times, as friendships usually are at that age. The boys enjoyed the music of the Beatles. Once they found an abandoned car on Holland Avenue, and played in it for hours. They pretended they were John and Ringo, trying to escape a throng of screaming teenaged girls. They often went to each other’s homes and played Beatle albums on the record player. They would sing along. Louie wanted to be a drummer like Ringo. He had invented a drum set, from a folding metal snack tray. Kevin played a wicked broom guitar. They learned a lot from the lyrics and music of Lennon and McCartney. The boys had other things in common too. They had both lost their fathers at an early age. They never talked about that; they didn’t have to, it was understood.

Their mothers had to work all day. Louie and Kevin had strict rules to follow, since they did not have direct parental supervision all day long, but back then, nobody did. You didn’t need it. The other parents, the maintenance men in the projects, and the parkie in the playground all kept an eye on you. God forbid if one of these people gave your mother a bad report. The bells from the Immaculate Conception Church told you when it was time for lunch and when it was time to go home for dinner. You could hear the bells no matter where you were in the neighborhood. You learned to run very fast if you were too far from home when the bell sounded. Being on time was a rule they had to obey.

Kevin had a bigger family than Louie. He had two older brothers and a younger one. Kevin’s sister had already moved out on her own. Louie only had an older sister. There was always music playing in Kevin’s house. Whenever Louie called for Kevin, he could hear music coming from every bedroom, opera from one, the Rolling Stones blaring from another, and Kevin would sleep through all of this.

One of the rules the boys had to follow, but never did, was to stay away from Bronx Park. The park was a few blocks away from the projects, and you had to cross Bronx Boulevard to get there, and it was the turf of the Duckies from Webster Avenue. But that was not the reason why mothers wanted their kids to stay out of the park. In fact, whenever the boys asked if they could play down in Bronx Park, they never got a clear and convincing answer as to why not. There was a rumor. The boys often heard about somebody named Chester the Molester being in Bronx Park. He would get you. The boys didn’t really understand what that meant. Therefore, they spent their days mostly in Magenta Park, which was the playground across the street from the projects.

Magenta Park had a sandbox that was really the litter box for all the neighborhood cats. It had a park house, where Dominick the parkie stayed when he wasn’t out placing a bet with the local bookie. Dominick kept the park clean. The house had the coldest water fountain anywhere. It had a pool, monkey bars, big swings and baby swings, and benches. There were handball courts and basketball hoops. Best of all was the stoop the kids used for playing off-the-stoop. First base was the corner of the sandbox, second base was the yellow numbers painted on the ground for the hop-scotch game, and third base was the corner of the fence enclosing the baby swings. In the morning, the first few kids out played single-double-triple or home run derby. They used these home runs to build up their home run stats. Every kid kept a careful account of his achievements. Your home run count was an essential factor in getting picked for a real game. A home run was recorded when the ball flew over the fence and into the pool. It wasn’t really a pool but the fenced enclosure of the sprinklers, which were called “the showers”. Sprinklers was too wimpy a word for rough and tough Bronx boys. God only knows you didn’t want to be considered a wimp, because when it came time for choosing up sides, you wanted to be picked. Finally when enough kids came out, a real game was played. Kevin and Louie’s age group were essentially the last to play off-the-stoop, for the times they were a-changing.

The day usually started early. Louie was out by nine o’clock. If Kevin wasn’t out within five minutes, Louie would call for him. He would take the elevator up to the fourth floor, and ring the bell. Kevin’s mother would come to the door and say, “Kevin is still sleeping dear, try back in a little while.” Fifteen minutes went by. “He’s still sleeping dear come back later.” Kevin liked to sleep. Finally, his mother would tell Louie to go wake him up. Once the boys were together, the day’s sporting activities would begin for real. It usually started with a few games of off–the-stoop in the morning, followed by stickball, and then finally, if the courts were empty, handball in the afternoon. Playing handball, and the handball courts, were the dividing line between adolescence and becoming a teenager. The main reason for this was girls. Handball was a game the girls could play too. You played off-the-stoop mostly in the playground, but there was also another off-the-stoop field in the projects, with an entirely different group of kids. Of course, you were not allowed to play ball on the projects’ grounds, so someone always had to be the lookout for the cops or the maintenance men. If you were caught playing ball or riding your bike in the projects, they took you to the Housing Office, and you were fined 50 cents on your rent. There were also many other infractions.

Gun Hill Projects had plenty of kids of all ages. There were over 750 apartments in six buildings, surrounded by lawns, trees, and benches. All the kids knew each other. They were all friends in one way or another. Each corner of the projects had it’s own unique group of kids. You had your bullies and you had your mamma’s boys. Belonging to a group was very important. You didn’t want to be associated with the “bums” nor did you want to be associated with the “cream puffs.” Friendships were simple back then, but also very complex in some ways. Diplomacy and political correctness were not the order of the day. It was truly survival of the fittest. You had your unfortunates like Roy, Lester and Michael. Nobody wanted to be friends with them and you never considered their feelings because tomorrow, it could be your turn to be picked on. There was one kid who thought he was Superman. He even had the costume. He would rip off his clothes in the playground bathroom and jump out as Superman. You stayed away from kids like that. Richie was the neighborhood bully. You could never pass through the projects or go to the after school center at P.S. 41 without Richie punching you on the arm. You had best friends like Kevin and Louie, and then you had your larger group of friends. This was your gang. Each group had its own niche and its own pecking order within the neighborhood. The projects had a good mix of race, nationality and religion. The turbulent times of the 1960’s did cause some tensions and distrust for some people, but for the most part, all the kids played with each other. We didn’t really understand what all the hate we saw on T.V. was about.

That summer the city provided two college students to work as counselors in the playground. Magenta Park was like a summer camp. The counselors gave out games such as checkers and chess, and knock-hockey. The girl was cute, so all the boys had a crush on her. I think her name was Pat. They also taught the children how to weave baskets and make key chains. Then there was Mario, one of the many characters and odd balls in the neighborhood. Mario was a grown man. He had no teeth and was deaf. He didn’t have a job. He used to roll his own cigarettes. He came to the playground almost every day and read his paper. Then he taught the kids how to play checkers and chess. He was harmless. Most of the kids thought Mario was faking his disability. Kevin and Louie tried many times to prove this theory. The boys were good kids, but they were no angels. They would egg each other on to do things they otherwise would have never done alone. In this way, they broke many of the rules set down by their mothers. They often took that long walk down Rosewood Avenue past the Bond Bread Factory, past the house with the barking, snarling dog and into Bronx Park. Luckily, they never did run into Chester.

Even with all the activities in the neighborhood that summer, those long summer days did get boring. You had the older and younger kids to contend with. The world did not belong to Kevin and Louie, even if it did feel that way. The older guys called themselves the Playboys and the girls were known as the Playgirls. They were a semi-notorious street gang, or so they wanted to be thought of. The Playboys and Girls dressed in white denim jeans and jackets. Their style was a leftover from the fifties, and straight out of West Side Story. They thought they were so cool. They would hang out in the handball courts. They wrote their cool names on the handball court walls, Johnny Cool, Patty Looney, Patty Al, Echo, and Sophie. The Playboys would spend their days tormenting the younger kids, playing handball, smoking cigarettes, drinking beer and taking drugs. This was the mid-sixties, and drugs were starting to make their way into the tranquil life of the projects.

Johnny Cool always wore a black leather jacket, even on the hottest days. Sophie was a real piece of work. She had a mouth on her that could make a trucker blush. She also looked the part. She had a bad reputation too. She was probably no older than sixteen, but she looked much older and used. With the backing of Playboys, she was the main tormentor. When the Playboys and Girls played handball they would often lose the ball over the fence and into someone’s backyard. Sophie would come over and borrow your spaldeen permanently. That was usually the end of any game the younger kids were playing. The Victory Day Care Center, located in the Projects, would also bring the kids over to the playground.on a daily basis. Kevin’s younger brother was part of this group. That usually postponed any off-the-stoop game that was in progress.

One of the most popular TV shows of 1966 was Dragnet. Friday and Malloy always talked about the dangers of drugs. Therefore, Kevin and Louie knew that drugs were bad. Officer Joe Friday would usually end the show by saying, “to sum it up in two words, drugs kill”. With the example set by the Playboys, and with Joe Friday’s words, the boys knew that drugs could kill. Worse yet, drugs might turn you into a freakin’ idiot like Sophie or Johnny Cool.

It was a particularly hot and humid day, a typical New York City steamer. Nobody felt like playing any kind of ball that day. Even the Playboys had not made an appearance in the playground. The boys were just sitting around on the ground under the basketball hoop in the shade, trying to think of something to do.

“Let’s go over to Evander Field and throw rocks!”

That idea was shot down.

“Let’s climb the wall into the monastery and play army!”

No takers for that idea either. All of a sudden, the light bulb went on

“Let’s go to the tunnel, down Bronx Park”.

The other boys quickly turned down that idea too; but then Kevin looked at Louie and he said, “O.K.”. Kevin and Louie took turns drinking from the coldest water fountain in the world, but not before pushing each other out of the way to see who would drink first. Even on a day like today the water was ice cold. The boys departed the confines of the neighborhood and its rules for the dangers and excitement of the forbidden, Bronx Park. By deciding to go to Bronx Park, the boys were not only passing the time of day, they were making a statement to the others. We are not afraid to take chances; we are going to spread our wings and fly. Going out of your immediate neighborhood always had its consequences. You were passing through someone else’s turf. You didn’t know which wise guy you were going to run into. A possible confrontation was always part of the excitement.

The weather was hot and sticky. The sky was hazy, and there wasn’t a breeze to be found. The cicadas were beginning to make their periodic mournful cry. The boys headed down Magenta Street. Richie was hanging out with some girls in the P.S. 41 schoolyard. He didn’t see the boys pass by. They made a right on Barker Avenue and entered Bronx Park near Gun Hill Road. There was a slight hill here and Kevin and Louie walked down to the river near the Gun Hill Road overpass. This was an interesting place to start the adventure. There was a concrete and brick structure in the middle of the river., the remains of the pedestal where the Bronx River Soldier used to stand.. The boys never knew what it was. They thought that maybe it was the ruins of a footbridge to the other side. From there, they walked along the river, finding a couple of sticks along the way. They used the sticks like machetes to clear the tall weeds from their path. The sticks could also be used to intimidate any would-be intruder on their adventure, but it never came to that. The sticks were good for just poking around. They headed for the tunnel. The riverbank formed a steep incline between the river and path above. When they reached the place where the river turned, they climbed up to the path that would take them into the tunnel.

The tunnel was a dark and mysterious place. The tunnel was there to allow The Bronx River and the path to pass under The Bronx River Parkway above. The boys never dared to enter the tunnel too far; in fact they had only gone as far as the middle where there were steps that led up to Bronx Boulevard. The Bronx River was deep under the tunnel. It had rained earlier in the week so the water was deeper than usual. The light from the opening above shone into the river revealing objects in the cloudy murky water. When it rained hard, the river usually overflowed its banks leaving a layer of dirt and sand on the path. The path was crisscrossed with water rat tracks, another reason why the boys felt a little uneasy about walking through the tunnel. They would lean against the railing separating the path from the river and look over to the other side, hoping to see a rat run across the mud. One time the river was full of big fish. Yes, the Bronx River supported life, even though it smelled so bad.

On this day, the boys dared each other to walk all the way through the tunnel. They were both curious to know what was on the other side. While entering the tunnel, the boys saw a balled-up nylon stocking on the ground in the weeds against the wall of the tunnel. They thought that maybe it was full of money. When they unraveled it, they found a syringe. Immediately, they thought of the Playboys, Dragnet, and drugs. They wrapped the package up as best they could, and threw it back in the weeds. They were scared that some one would know that they had found it. They were scared that whoever left his “works” there would soon be back to claim it. But this did not scare them enough to forget the reason why they were there in the first place. Their mission for the day was to walk all the way through the tunnel. The find only heightened their excitement. They proceeded ever so cautiously. What they would soon see would make them run all they way home, faster than they ever did before. Even the church bells from Immaculate never made them run as fast. Inch by inch they walked down the path, trying to scare each other with every step of the way. “There goes a rat!” one would say. “Did you hear that?” would reply the other. Finally they made it to the other side. It was no big deal, just more of the path with tall weeds on either sides and more dirt and sand washed up by the Bronx River. The path curved out of sight, so they didn’t go any further. They had had enough bravery for one day.

The boys stopped at the other end of the tunnel and looked into the deep water of the Bronx River. The water was moving swiftly and the light from above cast shadows into the river. The more they looked into the river, the more objects they saw. They were both looking at something deep in the water. Its cloudy form was becoming clearer and clearer. It was an arm, with long gnarly fingers extending from an outstretched hand. It was covered with algae, and the current was making it wave back and forth, back and forth. Kevin and Louie were scared shitless. They had discovered a dead body in the Bronx River. Their imaginations were running wild. They reasoned that the person who left the needle behind had killed somebody and had thrown the body into the river.

They ran up the hill past P.S. 41. Richie yelled at them to stop or he’d kick their ass. They didn’t stop. They barely heard him say anything. Kevin and Louie didn’t stop at the playground to tell their friends what they had found either. They had a civic duty to report a murder. They didn’t know what else to do, so they went directly to the Housing Office. They told the clerk what they had found. The clerk immediately sent the boys over to the Housing Police Office in front of Kevin’s building. They sat down in two straight-back chairs in front of Officer Jiminez’s desk and recounted their story. Officer Jiminez was known to all the kids as “Tony The Pony”, but nobody called him that to his face. As the boys talked, their story grew legs. They told Tony The Pony about the needle wrapped in a bloody stocking; about how a pack of rats was waiting near the body; about how they had heard noises and running in the tunnel, how the hand came out of the water and then sank back in again, how the body couldn’t float to the surface because it was tangled up in the weeds. Officer Tony couldn’t leave his important post guarding the projects so he called the regular police.

The green and white police car from the 47th precinct arrived shortly, double- parked on Magenta Street near the entrance to the projects, and two patrolmen walked in. All the mothers watched and wondered as Officer Tony escorted Kevin and Louie and the two policemen up the path to the waiting squad car. The police car was parked facing the wrong direction on Magenta Street. It made a sharp U-turn and headed toward White Plains Road. They boys felt proud of what they were doing. All their friends were watching and wondering from across the street. Then reality set in. There on the short stretch of sidewalk between White Plains Road and the entrance to the projects was Kevin’s mother. She was returning from shopping, pulling a full shopping cart. She stopped dead in her tracks, as the police car drove by with her son inside. Kevin waved to her as the police car sped away.

The police car raced down Magenta Street hill. It passed P.S. 41. Richie, the bully, was still in front of the school and watched as the police car went down the street in the wrong direction. Magenta Street was a one-way street going uphill. The police car jumped the curb and entered Bronx Park. Kevin and Louie thought, “How cool is this?” The police car was driving on the grass, leaving a cloud of dust behind it. The car drove right up to the entrance of the tunnel and came to a stop. The cops got out of the car, with their flashlights in hand, and asked the boys to show them the spot were they had found the balled-up nylon stocking. Then the boys led them to the spot were they found the body. The boys looked on as the policemen pointed their flashlights on the exact spot in the water. All the boys could see was branches and algae, waving in the current. But the police didn’t stop there. One of them walked back to the squad car and got out a long pole with a hook on the end from the trunk. The other cop stayed behind and asked the boys some more questions. When the other cop returned, he stuck the long pole into the water. He gave the pole a hard tug. Out of the river came a big tree limb with branches, covered in Bronx River slop. The officer with the pole said to the boys, “This is your body? Stay out of the park from now on, O.K.?”

The ride back to the projects was not as urgent, nor was it as exciting as the ride there. Kevin’s mother was sitting on the benches in front of the building waiting for her son’s return. By then she already knew the story. The policemen had radioed ahead the news. Two dumb kids with vivid imaginations had found a branch in the Bronx River. The crowd of mothers was gone. Louie and Kevin’s friends could be seen laughing in front of the playground. The boys were not laughing. Kevin knew he was going to be in big trouble for going down to Bronx Park. Louie was going to be in big trouble too, as soon as his mother got home and heard the news. Kevin went upstairs with his mother. Louie walked home to his building and waited for his mother to come home. All evening long he waited for the phone to ring. The call would ground him for at least a week, if not for the rest of the summer. The phone call never came.

The boys were humiliated by the whole event, but on the other hand, they were thrilled by the adventure. They would have to put up with all the jokes and teasing from the other boys. They had to take it. It was part of the process, the rules of the street. They had made a foolish mistake. They were some place where they shouldn’t have been, and they were foolish enough to tell the whole world about it. They were so dumb they mistook a branch for a body. All the other boys knew that their movements around the neighborhood would be watched more closely now, for the next few days at least. It was Kevin and Louie’s fault. They had blown everybody’s cover.

Kevin was out early the next day, as was Louie. Louie wondered why Kevin’s mother never called his. He wondered why Kevin wasn’t punished, but never questioned it. He figured that even though they were someplace where they shouldn’t have been and saw a body that wasn’t really there, they had done the right thing; they reported it. They didn’t hide their transgression. Perhaps Kevin’s mother felt the same way. The humiliation was punishment enough. Maybe she figured they had learned another important lesson in life. They had broken the rules, but were honest, even though that honesty jumped up and bit them on the butt.

The next time Kevin asked his mother if he could go down to Bronx Park she said, “Yes, but leave your imagination at home.”

Photographs by David W. Haas, Courtesy of the Westchester County Archives




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