Sleepers by Lorenzo Carcaterra Page B

Book: Sleepers by Lorenzo Carcaterra Read Free Book Online
Authors: Lorenzo Carcaterra
uninhibited moments of pretend play that we were allowed the luxury of childhood. Faced by outsiders, we had to be tough, acting olderthan our years. In our homes we had to be wary, never knowing when the next violent moment would come. But when we were alone we could be who we really were—kids.
    We never pictured ourselves, as adults, living far from Hell’s Kitchen. Our lives were plotted out at birth. We would try to finish high school, fall in love with a local girl, get a workingman’s job, and move into a railroad apartment at a reasonable rent. We didn’t see it as confining, but rather as a dramatic step in the right direction. Our fathers were men with sinful pasts and criminal records. We would not be.
    I loved my parents. I respected King Benny. But my friends meant more to me than any adult. They were my lifeblood and my strength. Our simple dreams were nourished by a common soil.
    We thought we would know each other forever.

    “I T’S SIMPLE ,” M ICHAEL said.
    “You always say it’s simple,” Tommy said. “Then we get there and it ain’t so simple.”
    “It’s a new store,” Michael explained. “Nobody knows us. We walk in, take what we need, and walk out.”
    “What do they have?” John demanded to know.
    “At least fifty different titles,” Michael said.
“Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman
, you name it. Just waiting for us.”
    “How many work the store?” I asked.
    “Two, usually,” Michael said. “Never more than three.”
    “Afternoon’s the best time.”
    “You sure?”
    “Follow the plan,” Michael said, looking at us. “It’ll work if we just follow the plan.”

    My friends and I were thieves who stole more for fun than profit. We took what we felt we needed but could not afford to buy. We never went to our parents for money, never borrowed from anyone, and never walked into a situation armed.
    We hit candy stores for their comic books, toy stores for games, supermarkets for gum. And we were good at it. The few times we were caught, we either talked, fought, or cried our way out of trouble. We knew that
was going to send a kid to jail for rounding out a
Classics Illustrated
    We kept our escapades from our parents. Though most of them were involved in small-time scams of their own, none would have been pleased to know their children were chasing fast on their heels. Still, Thou shalt not steal carried little weight in Hell’s Kitchen. The neighborhood was a training ground for young criminals and had been throughout most of its history.
    At the turn of the century, child thieves were called street sparrows. Many were orphaned, all were desperate. Bands of pickpockets roamed the streets, looking for a
carrying a week’s pay in his wallet. A few of the children were even brazen enough to hire themselves out as assassins, willing to kill for fees as low as three dollars. If captured, no matter how large or small their crimes, punishment was severe. The New York State prison system had little patience for street hoodlums of any age, and often sentenced them to long stretches in upstate hellholes. The children of the streets accepted the sentences, powerless to do otherwise. If they survived their time behind bars, they came out deadlier than when they entered, schooled by older lawbreakers. If one happened to die while in custody, he became just another name on a crowded blotter.
    The Russell Sage Foundation was formed in the early 1900s to study the living conditions of the children of Hell’s Kitchen and determine if those conditions led tocrime. After months surrounded by squalor and rampant despair, the social workers walked away with a hardened view. In one report, cited in Richard O’Connor’s excellent 1958 history of the neighborhood, the plight of a Hell’s Kitchen child was summed up in this manner: “The district is a spider’s web. Of those who come to it, few ever leave. Now and then a boy is taken to the country or a

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