New York was such a huge place—the concrete canyon of it. The buildings were all so tall. I just assumed all cities are like that. Well, they aren’t!
In the fifties, you couldn’t walk by another guy without staring at him and him staring at you the whole time—it was a “I’m more of a man and tougher than you” thing. That’s with you for the rest of your life. A sense of humor is a sense of perspective—it’s a way of gauging what’s important and what’s less important.
I had to get into fights all the time, because we were at the cusp of Spanish Harlem and they didn’t like a crew-cut white kid. They were always chasing me, stealing my wallet. I was sent to the grocery store on Second Avenue by my mother on a Saturday, and these two Spanish kids were walking behind me, and in front of me was a little kid, smaller than me, and he kept punching me in the face the whole way to the grocery store. I came back from the grocery store with a bloody nose, and my mother sent me back for something else! And there they were again. And when we got to the corner, I’d had it. I just took the little kid out, and of course the other two, the big ones, jumped me. I really had a hold on one of them, like a headlock, and the other one yelled, “Hey! No fair! You’re choking him!” No fair, he said. What do you mean, no fair? You guys have been kicking the crap out of me! They had these rules. One of those guys stabbed me in the back three times when I was running away. I still have these knife-wound scars.
I remember discovering that you could just pick up a brick around one of those trees along the sidewalk and get on top of a car while they’re chasing you. Boy, did that stop everybody. I might have twenty of them chasing me, but nobody would want to be hit with a brick. And I got really good at roller-skating—we’d roller-skate down Park Avenue, all the way down to Grand Central. I must have known every alleyway, every possible place you could either hide or cause trouble from up in the Nineties to Grand Central. It was a joy to be a naughty boy in New York!