New Year’s Eve, 1959. It was a mild winter evening in Brooklyn that year. A good night to be in Times Square…not that we were there. We locals always thought Times Square was for tourists.
Billy and I were walking the Coney Island boardwalk. Next year – 1960 – we would both turn 18, old enough for a driver’s license in New York City; this would be our last walking-around year.
John Kennedy was going to be President. I grew up under Ike, and it seemed strange at first that he wasn’t going to be President anymore. When Pius XII died the year before, it also struck me as odd that we were going to have a new Pope. Pius was the only Pope I’d ever known. I was burying the first of my childhood illusions. Nothing lasts forever.
Billy and I were best of friends. We were from the day we met; we had a lot in common. We went to the same school. We were the same age. We liked the same things.
And we were both poor; standing on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder.
We lived around the corner from each other – I was on Bay 53rd street and Billy on Bay 54th. Brooklyn old-timers will know those streets. They were directly across from Phil Pepper’s watermelon stand on Cropsey Avenue – dumpy little dirt “streets” that ended at the baseball fields. We each lived in a tiny little shoe box of a “bungalow” with two other siblings. Billy and I were the oldest in our respective families. I had two younger brothers and Billy had a younger sister and brother. Neither of us had our own room.
My family lived in a two-bedroom house. My brothers shared a tiny room with bunk beds and I slept in the living room on a Castro Convertible sofa (“Comfort, beauty and style!”).
Same with Billy.
My father was a hod carrier – an unskilled laborer at a construction site. Mostly he wheeled cement to brick layers who troweled it on for the next course of brick. Papa had an eighth grade education and epilepsy, but he kept a roof over our heads and food on our table all of our lives. He worked himself to death at 56.
Billy’s dad worked at Davidson Pipe in Brooklyn on the night shift – for a few extra bucks. He hated the job, but it was all he knew and he too had a wife and three kids.
There was no money for college. And no such thing as student loans.
We had both graduated high school the previous May. I got a job in the mail room of what is now Citibank. I was making $52 a week delivering the mail around the bank at 20 Exchange Place. I had a white-collar job! I had to wear a suit, white shirt and tie everyday to perform this important function. Billy was working in the neighborhood, at a job too nondescript for description – but it was enough to net him a buck or two.
So on that New Year’s eve, sipping from our shared pint of Southern Comfort, Billy and I strolled the short distance from our homes to Coney Island. Nothing was going on at home, we had no dates, and we couldn’t go to sleep so long as someone was watching television in the living room. They would, of course, be watching Guy Lombardo. It was a beautiful night, and for us perhaps an omen of the good things to come. We were seventeen, young and strong and the whole world was open to us.
After a couple of dozen clams at Nathan’s, it was up to the boardwalk. It was nearly empty of people. We walked and talked – next year we would get cars! Next New Year we would be able to drive. Freedom! Independence! Of course we would have to register for the draft. What kind of car will you be looking for? Convertible? Chevy? Ford? Who’s that girl I saw you with? How’s your cousin Ginny? I think she’s cute.
I was thinking of going to college. Or trying to go. I was already tired of opening mail. City University was free if you could get in – it wasn’t open enrollment. I told Billy I was going to try the night school first. Billy thought that was a good idea, but not for him. Billy had other dreams. Besides, no one from the Bay streets ever went to college.
We were drunk and full of hope that New Year’s eve. Growing up, girls, cars, booze, college, jobs and a new President. We would get out of our dirt streets.
I left Bay 53rd street for good in November 1963, when I joined the Army. I had been going to night school at City University, but I was 21 and still living at home. The Army was the only way for me to move away from dependency on my parents and be on my own. Billy came to my going away party the night before I left for Ft. Dix. We shook hands and said our grown-up farewells. We weren’t kids anymore.
Three days into my Army enlistment President Kennedy was gunned down.
I finished college, married and raised two fine daughters. I never went back to live in Brooklyn. Billy married, but never left Bay 54th street. He never left those dirt streets. Though we could rarely see each other due to time and distance, we remained friends all our days; until suddenly he was gone. He died a relatively young man, in his forties, of heart disease and diabetes; unable to afford basic health care.
Before I left New Jersey for my current residence in Florida, I went back to Bay 53rd street with my eldest daughter for one last look.
Both my old house and Billy’s are covered by the parking lot of a big box store. Part of our lives, the places we dreamed our dreams, buried along with Billy.
Others will walk in Coney Island this New Year’s eve, especially if its an unseasonably warm evening.
Drink a toast to Billy.
My best friend forever.