It was a vicious arena, gladiator combat conducted with tongues.
To survive on a Brooklyn street corner you needed you needed to be quick on the verbal draw. It was easy, always on the defensive, one’s metaphysical position was always one of a crouch or coil.
Words were employed as shields and battle-axes, knives and grenades.
And those slow on the take, the “easy” prey, wound up verbally maimed and slaughtered, their self-esteem in tatters.
It was excellent training for a writer, for a storyteller. Not always great for one’s psyche and self-worth, but it did give your skin an opportunity to thicken. Sensitivities were flayed mercilessly, as dialogue like a whirlwind of razors flew around our heads. We talked shit, and lots of it. Silence was un-golden to us, an enemy that might expose our weaknesses.
Go fuck yer mother, was a familial epithet, a barbed strain of affection.
Being referred to as a piece of shit, a retard, a pussy, a faggot, were common phrases in our lexicon, it was the same as saying, pal, friend, chum, buddy, brother.
When I look back on that street corner now, I do so with the affection and appreciation that is born of spatial remove and time-distance. It was a breeding ground, an incubator for stories and storytelling, for performance and a feel for dialogue and timing. And my ability to handle put-downs and criticisms was also born on that street corner. There’s nothing that anyone can say to me that P.J. or Kenny or Petey-Kid didn’t already say, and with slashing vigor. These kids could wound you, pour salt in the wound, and hit you off with a Band-Aid all in one fell verbal swoop.
Hanging out on a street corner, engaged in see-saw battles, furious back and forths, circular rants, helped me. It helped me immeasurably as a storyteller and as a writer, maybe even as a human being. And I learned so much about timing, about the lightning-pulse and beat of comedy, about when to push it and when to pull back, about exercising control over one’s material.
The street corner was the stage for some of the greatest acts and monologues I ever saw and heard, performances that went unrecorded and disappeared into thin air, except I have taken it upon myself, as someone who loves to draw from the secret history of thin air, to pay tribute to these ghosts through the written and spoken word. And so give thanks to the street corner on 64th St and 18th Avenue, and name names—P.J., Kenny, Anthony, Johnny Jaw, Joe G., Petey-Kid, Mike Cheech, and all the others—for no one who finds a piece of themselves, or their spirit, reflected in a story is ever truly forgotten.