February 2000
s m u g
by Todd Levin


Wild in the Streets

I think the single greatest joy of my adult life has to be my volunteer work with the Boys Club of America. On the third Wednesday of each month, I host an after-school "fireside chat" at the Spanish Harlem BCA center on Tony Orlando Boulevard. At these fireside chats I have the complete attention of anywhere between two and seven impoverished and desperate inner-city kids with whom I have license to speak frankly about the issues that plague their daily existence. These kids, who spend their childhoods never knowing when they might get caught in the crossfire of a gang slaying or stuck in the revolving door of the United States prison system, have at least one precious guarantee in their lives: once a month, for 45 minutes, they know that from the tattered carpet swatches that provide only marginal relief from the ungiving concrete floor on which they're gathered they can look up and, perched exactly 34 inches above the head of the tallest child (as is stated in my contract) in an Aeron adjustable work chair (voted "Design of the Decade" by Business Week), they can stare into my warm, reassuring visage. And when these kids look up, they see more than just another wealthy, tanned Caucasian adult in a smoking jacket and Cole Haan loafers; they see a friend.

From the summer of 1992, when I began my fireside chat program, I insisted on avoiding any discussion of myself or my personal struggles. Aside from sharing photographs of me and co-investors John Laroquette and Jerry Lee (the scene-stealing German Shepherd star of K-9 and K-911) at the ribbon-cutting for Planet Hollywood Warsaw, or relating a particularly fantastic or perverse sexual encounter -- things you simply can't keep to yourself -- I believed it was best to speak as a caring authority and not a self-absorbed survivor. Last month all of that changed. During some straight advice about when to and when not to raise up when you spot the 5-0, Gilberto, a moon-faced 9 year-old with a corrective shoe and a criminal record longer than his left leg, inquired about a large tattoo arcing over my midriff that bears the legend, "Kosher Death Squad". (It was warm and, probably owing to poor judgment, I was wearing a crocheted halter top.) I could have lied to him. I could have insisted it was birthmark. But how do you lie to kid who's already limped his way through two armed robberies and one count of impersonating an officer of the law? I did the responsible thing: I rested my Caffe Verona on the head of Arcadio the Foolish (a fireside chat regular since 1995 and a child who honestly needed prescription medicine more than compassionate guidance but whose delightfully flat head has been nothing less than a blessing for me over the years), braced myself, and slowly told the rapt youngsters about my life as a member of the B'Nai Brith Boyz.

Let me first say (although this hardly erases the crime) that I never advanced beyond low-level thug, avoiding the brutality, danger and community service responsibilities of higher-ranking street gang kingpins. And I had no intention of ever mixing with such an extreme group of teenagers in the first place. I was just another mixed-up kid whose mother wanted him to have more Jewish friends. But nothing could have prepared me for the paradise -- lavish Bar Mitzvahs, head of the line for kosher lunches in the school cafeteria -- or the horror -- the tight-fitting gang varsity jackets mended by one member's uncle -- that were the unshakable baggage of being one of the B'Nai Brith Boyz


There were 12 of us in the beginning and the first thing new inductees had to do was memorize everyone else's gang name, a trick that was rendered facile by the fact that each BBB gang member was already required to wear a skull cap embroidered with his name. After 'memorizing' your brothers' names you were given your own gang name - mine was "Stab", given to me because that was already my actual middle name and therefore easy to remember - and your first assignment as a BBB. The assignments varied in risk and humiliation, and it was generally agreed that the favored members were treated with deference when assignments were distributed. For instance, another inductee, Yudel, was instructed to solve a pretty rudimentary algebra problem. He nonetheless cracked under the pressure and was never heard from again. Others would be asked to scan a Borges poem. Or complete a Mad Lib. I was asked to run full speed into a cow's ass.

After that it was pure gravy. Besides the uniforms and tattoos and a couple of Chinese fire drills, being a BBB wasn't particularly exhilarating or intimidating. We ate out a lot, attended comic book conventions, and generally acted sullen. There were beatings, yes. But it was mostly us being relentlessly thrashed by nearly every street gang in three counties, and once by the Voorheesville High School chapter of the Future Homemakers of America. (The FHA beating was particularly difficult, as it occurred on Tub'shevat, a holiday we always associated with our fearsome power and infamy.)

Like all things from my youth, my association with BBB proved fleeting. Disregard for society's laws (stealing individual grapes from the local supermarket's produce section) and reckless endangerment (wearing our saddle shoes loosely tied, as was the style in those days) became stale ideas as I prepared for my college entrance exams. And, in very much the same way Alex and the droogs eventually grow out of their ultra-violent youths, or a child outgrows his 'Little Slugger' windbreaker, I eventually outgrew the juvenile hooliganism of the B'Nai Brith Boyz


But to this day, I still celebrate that youth in my head, just as I warn others against choosing the life I dared. And, even in adulthood, as I read about rampant gang brutality across the globe, I find myself becoming nostalgic for my days as a thug. In fact, I still attend the BBB's annual bake sale. (each Tub'shevat, not coincidentally) Most of the original members are gone, but some of their extended family remains, collecting money for 50-50 raffles or shaking down senior citizens. And although I keep my distance I do miss the original 12 BBB and I've miraculously managed to keep all their names forever etched in the dust of my memory: Avraham, Schmuel, DeeDee, Moishe, Benyamin, Sneezy, Blitzen, Dr. Octopus, The Amazing Weatherbee, Hairless Omar, Schmuel 2, and the guy who needed oral surgery.

Every time I look into the eyes of the kids at the Boys Club, I see those guys from the BBB (although I have to adjust and imagine guys who are much more pale and sickly, many of them with asthma inhalers on a piece of twine around their necks). They're long gone to me but I suppose they're also very much with me. I'm sure we'll all meet again. I just hope heaven has a deli. *




back to the junk drawer

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