Mendel Letters 40: Street Fighting Boy
July 31, 2021
There was a time when I was a kid that I got into a lot of fights. I’m not sure why, but thinking back, when mommy got sick and then died I must have been angry a lot with a short trigger. My fighting days probably spanned from the time I was eight until the time I was twelve. I don’t remember getting into fights in the same way once I was in junior high school.
Many of the fights were mostly bluffing, pushing, and ritual display with lots of dissing your opponent, nobody really wanted to throw a punch or roll on the floor in the street. If it came to punching, pretty early I figured out a fighter’s trick, a quick punch to the nose. If you could cause a nose bleed the other kid usually wanted to stop fighting.
There were “honor fights,” which I know sounds stupid. I was a big kid so I would have to fight a big kid from another class in our grade on the street outside PS 104 to see who was tougher, probably because we were prodded into it by other kids in the two classes.
Once I got into it with a much bigger kid and I quickly realized it was a mistake. I ran down the Jesup Avenue hill toward your luncheonette on the corner and he ran after me. You heard the shouting and came outside. He protested that I had started the fight, I probably had, and then left. My guess is that you knew I was getting into fights, but didn’t know what to do about it.
Another time my younger brother had some issues with a kid who was bigger and stronger than he was and he came to get me. The other kid was my size and we ended up wrestling each other to the ground. After a bit I said “Uncle.” Uncle meant you gave up. Neither of us suffered any bruises. My brother demanded to know why I surrendered when I was winning. I explained I could beat that kid, but then I would have to fight his older brother and I couldn’t beat him, and anyway we played ball together and we were friends.
In the neighborhood there was always tension between the Irish and Jewish kids. Many of them went to Sacred Heart Catholic School and we went to PS 104, the local public school, and then to Hebrew School, so we didn’t mix or know each other very well. Once two guys from an Irish group up the street on Jesup Avenue tried to grab my bicycle, but I was able to peddle away. There may have been class antagonism as well. The Jewish families didn’t have much, but the Irish families who remained in Highbridge after the Jews moved into the neighborhood post-World War II had even less.
There was one Irish family that had two kids about my age and I frequently fought with those kids. They lived in a basement apartment, which was part of the neighborhood class divide.
One day when I was eleven I was strutting around in my new Little League uniform and the boy, about a year younger than me, spritz me with a water pistol. I grabbed it and smashed it on the ground. He ran and a few minutes later, his sister, who was a year older than me came running up to me screaming and then started swinging. I punched her back, I think I hit her in the chest; she was stunned, started crying and ran away. I anticipated another sibling would come, but a few minutes later their father arrived and pushed me down and threatened me. When my father came home from work he called the police. An officer came and calmed everyone down. After that we kept away from each other and never fought again.
During the summer between 6th and 7th grade, I went to a Jewish “Y” Day Camp. The YMHA was on the Concourse and McClellan in the Bronx, just south of 167th Street. We met at the “Y” every morning and traveled by school bus to the Henry Kaufmann campgrounds in Pearl River, New York, about 20 miles outside of the city.
There was this kid and he and I who didn’t get along. While we were on the bus, I think he said something about my mother, a pretty common form of dissing someone. I remember jumping over the back of a seat and pummeling him. Counselors pulled me off of him and I was screaming, “My mother is dead.”
Once in Macombs Junior High School 82 I calmed down and wasn’t fighting anymore. I am over seventy and I don’t think I have had a fistfight with anyone since that time on the camp bus.
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.
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