April 15, 2023
“When you’re a Jet you’re a Jet all the way!” “I like to be in America, O.K. by me in America, Everything free in America.” “A boy like that will give you sorrow, you’ll meet another boy tomorrow.” “We ain’t no delinquents, we’re misunderstood, deep down inside us there is good!” “Say it loud and there’s music playing, say it soft and it’s almost like praying.”
When West Side Story opened on Broadway in 1957, you had another whole bunch of songs to sing. When the movie came out in 1961 we were able to sing along with you.
West Side Story is a musical loosely based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and it builds to the same tragic ending. In the play and movie, the protagonists were the Jets and Sharks, an American and a Puerto Rican game fighting over the same urban territory and some of the same girls.
At Franklin K. Lane High School in the 1980s, we had our own real life version of West Side Story, but without the music. Our battles were between local Puerto Rican and Dominican young men and their fights were usually over young women. On weekends there would be fighting in the neighborhood and on Mondays the fights spilled over into the Lane building.
The teenage Puerto Rican boys were considered American, they usually had a little more cash and maybe a car, and they went after the Dominican girls. The Dominican girls liked the attention from them and dismissed the Dominicans boys as too green, to old school, like their fathers. At a dance or party, someone would say something to someone else, someone would respond, and a fight would break out. And then came Monday.
I had a Dominican girl in my senior advanced United States history class who was an excellent student and had already been offered a scholarship to Barnard. One Monday morning she came to class without her hoop earrings and her faced covered with Vaseline. At the end of class I told her she had to go to the Dean’s Office with me. She didn’t want to go, but she finally agreed.
After we got there and sat down, the Dean, her English teacher, and I asked her when the fight was going to take place. She pleaded ignorance, didn’t know anything about it. We asked why she wasn’t wearing earrings and why her face was covered with Vaseline, things girls did in preparation for fights so their earlobes wouldn’t get ripped and their faces badly scratched. The young woman still denied knowing anything.
We made it clear that she was going to stay in the Dean’s Office for the rest of the school day and miss the fight. Many of those kids were destined for trouble. She was going to Barnard.
I don’t know what happened to her. But I am sure she made something out of her life.
There have been a number of revivals of West Side Story and a new movie version. They were always great. It’s just that in real life the street fighting was not so terrific. Kids got hurt. Dreams were quashed.
Hard copies of these typed letters were discovered in an old camp trunk in the basement storage facility of one of the few buildings that remain standing in this Brooklyn neighborhood. The building is quite decrepit and is scheduled for demolition. The letters were found in November 2048 by a teenager who believes they were written by his great-grandfather. The letters are addressed to Mendel, the letter writer’s father, who appears to have been dead for at least six years when his son, whose name we are unsure of, started to write him. The son appears very agitated in some of the letters. With permission from the family, we are publishing them on the date they were written, only 28 years later.