Friday, July 29, 2022

People-ing in Harlem.

The world spinning off its axis is nothing new. When it was doing so about one-hundred years ago, I heard a story. It popped once again into my head as I was taking the twenty-miles-per-hour Amtrak train into Manhattan from my rickety cottage on the Gingham Coast.

Back then when I was told the story--life was maybe every bit as frightening as it is today. We might look at the 70s with rose-colored Oculus VR glasses, but in fact, the Soviets had 10,000 nuclear warheads aimed at the United States. And we had 10,000 aimed at them. 

Virtually every town with a public library and a post office had their designated nuke. Richard Nixon was brazenly subverting the Constitution. The National Guard killed four students on a college campus. And one-thousand young boys were being killed each week in Vietnam. Not to mention rampant drugs and street crime as the rule, not the exception.

My best friend back then, when we were 14 or 15, told me the story. It had been told to him by his father, who was a New York City police officer when New York City was one of the most dangerous places on earth.

"My father arrested these guys," my friend Fred told me, "for 'people-ing.'"

We were likely at school and playing basketball or stoop ball as Fred told me the story. Telling a story when you're doing something else is one of the sublime pleasures of civilization. You're not speeding your way through the tale. Sentences might be coming your way every thirty seconds or so, between jump shots and rebounds.

I'd guess that's the way stories were told many millennia ago, when tired men and women sat on the stumps of felled trees, gazed at the stars, poked at the communal fire and listened to blind Homer singing of Agamenom placating the gods by slitting his daughter Iphigenia's soft, white trachea and hoping for a favoring wind.

"People-ing?" I stupided.

"People-ing," Fred said. "My father told me about two guys on 125th Street in Harlem, in one of the offices on the second floor of those old storefronts. Those old buildings, six stories high, 95-percent abandoned."

"Yeah," I added for no ostensible reason but to show I was tracking.

"They stuck a dollar bill to a fishing hook, a big hook. Then lowered the hook by fishing rod to just seven or eight feet above sidewalk level."

Fred took another shot and swished it. He was an all-county small forward. He got his own rebound and swished it again--a little backward flip like Dr. J.

"People would see the dollar and leap up to grab it."

"They didn't question why?"

"No. Would you? They just saw it and leapt for it. If the guys with the fishing poles timed it right, they'd yank the dollar away and rip open someone's palm with the hook."

"Nice," I added.

"Not that different from the mischief you and I would do, if our mean-streaks were better developed. My father had to run them in. They were probably released in under an hour."

After that, we shot some more baskets or we washed up and ran to class. But though it's been about fifty years, I never quite forgot the tale.

Especially since I've spent forty of the last fifty years in advertising. Where it seems so many companies, so many politicians, so many so-called friends, dangle promises in front of you then yank them away at the last moment.

Maybe this is the way of the world.

If you're lucky, nothing more than your hand is cut open.

No comments: