Jesus and the $20 Bill

I called him Jesus, because that was how it was spelled, but I am sure the correct way to say his name was hay-zus. I was only 8 years old, and didn’t know any better. He was Puerto Rican like many of the children in Brownsville, New York in 1957. The others were all black, except for my brother and me who I think were the only two white children in all of Brownsville. I guess that gave us some sort of status, or at least made us easy targets.

We lived on Bristol Street. Those who are old enough will remember the lyrics….”kids in Bristol are as sharp as a crystal, when they do the Bristol stomp”.

It was a wonderful neighborhood, if you thrived on murder and poverty, and the year we spent living there was torturous, fearful, and bizarre. My mother was married to a man named Al, and he liked to drink himself right out of a job, so we would move often and when it all bottomed out, there we were, in Brownsville. It was the same year the Brooklyn Dodgers announced they were moving to Los Angeles. Since they didn’t plan to take me with them, I was left to learn a bit about the streets, and I made one friend that I remember. Jesus was kind enough to never correct me while I called him by his anglicized name.

I believe Jesus was in my class, although I don’t know that for a fact. I only remember two kids in that class and got to know them in an intimate way. There was one black kid who was the class bully, and would pretty much push the rest of us around and get in our faces. One day I had had enough and we had a terrific fight which ended with me having that kid in a headlock while I punched her skull repeatedly. Yes, her. Her name was Shirley and after I gave her a small pounding she left me alone. But I was soon to discover that the life of the new champion brings with it certain pressures and expectations, and it wasn’t but a week later that a kid named Carlos found me outside of school and he I engaged in a very one sided boxing match. I didn’t know how to box. He did. After my pummeling I remember running home and looking at myself in the mirror. Like an overmatched prizefighter my entire face was swollen and there was more than one part of me oozing blood. Carlos, I realize now, did me a great favor, as I was, and remain, more a lover than a fighter, and it would have been hell to have to defend my lightweight title on a regular basis. Shortly thereafter my uncle, a former Golden Gloves boxer, taught me how to fight and the lessons that he and Carlos taught me have served to keep me safe for the rest of my fighting days.

Much of my spare time was spent making what we called zip guns. Jesus was part of this group and he showed me how to make my very own weapon. Zip guns today are crudely fashioned weapons that shoot real bullets. The kids I hung out with weren’t that sophisticated so our junior zip guns were more basic and made with rubber bands and wood. I don’t recall how they worked exactly but I do know they shot broken pieces of roofing shingle (readily abundant as the neighborhood was in a perpetual state of decay) and were very effective in ripping into flesh.

Another favorite activity was robbing parking meters. This was a very simple process as the lock boxes were all broken, and all one had to do was insert a popsicle stick into the slot where a dime would ordinarily be deposited and it would then push the last dime into the lock box which, since it was broken, could be opened by hand, thus allowing thieves, young and old, the occasional dime. This dime was enough for a soda, or two pickles pulled from a large pungent wooden pickle keg. It could buy a kid an ice cream on a hot day, and was enough for entry into the local movie theater that cost ten cents, but required you to bring your own soap box to sit on, as there were no seats. I remember feeling so guilty about my first heist that I ran home and buried that dime in the dirt in front of our apartment building. I suspect it is still there, waiting to be dug up. To be sure, you won’t find me returning to look for it.

When Jesus called me to say he took a $20 bill out of his mother’s purse I hurried to meet him at a subway stop where we boarded a train for a better shopping district. I don’t know for certain what a 1957 $20 bill would be worth today,  but it was a lot of money back then and Jesus was generous with his stolen loot and we ate a fine lunch and eventually found our way to a toy store where we took our time and shopped for the perfect toy. I ended up with a wooden ten inch model of a human that bent at the joints, and gave me more joy than you might imagine.

Jesus caught hell from his mother who I’m sure was a single parent working hard for every penny. I wish I could remember if I suffered any consequences for my eager partnership but I do not. Chances are I got away with it, and I suspect my mother never found out about my shopping trip and never even noticed my favorite toy.

We moved from that hell hole a year later and landed, briefly, in a much softer place. Life with mom ended in 1961 when she couldn’t care for us any longer and my brother and I  went to live with our father, and his wife. There I experienced athletics, girls, and a degree of comfort never felt before. Still, it is a fact that children are unable to understand how a parent can be toxic for them, and I missed my mother terribly. That feeling of loss became a permanent part of who I am, and I don’t have to reach far into my soul to feel it all over again.

Jesus, if you are alive and might by some great coincidence ever read this, I say to you thanks for a great adventure, and next time I’m buying.

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78 thoughts on “Jesus and the $20 Bill

  1. Jesus is just alright with me man! What a great story. You should go deeper with this. You could write an interesting and compelling book on your life as a child. I would read it 🙂
    That was a huge amount of money that he stole back then..wow!

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  2. Very interesting story Mike, life can be hard sometimes and at the same time gives you joyful moments that stay engraved in your memory forever. 🙂

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  3. Oh Mike – how I love this story. I just met a man named Jesus the other day and he had such a precious soul that he exposed so clearly to everyone. Maybe people born with that name realize something pretty profound. And you know I am not talking about anything exclusive.
    On another note, Mara and I one time decided to ask strangers in Gibson for spare change. It was amazing how much we got. We did make the mistake of sharing this our moms who perhaps would have prefered we took from them instead.

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  4. Read every letter, very good reading! So interesting, the individual experiences we all have that indeed make us who are. I like to tell people we are the product of our life’s experiences…

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    • At my age I have come to terms with who my mother was, and who she was not. I really appreciate that you took the time to read it and comment. Thank you.

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  5. I have been writing a lot about my own growing up and what I have picked up along the way and although our backgrounds are very different I think our stories come from the same ‘place’ ,and it’s on that level that I can relate – it’s a good story that gave me pause.

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  6. This is such a great story! My dad is an artist and had one of those wooden dolls. He gave it to me when I went to the UW and while majoring in art where I promptly twisted it too much and it fell apart. Dang!
    It sounds like you have a wealth of stories to tell! Thanks for sharing this one~

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  7. Wonderful story Mike. I had to laugh at you beating Shirley up! What a tough way to grow up. You write so well – there must be a book in there. More please!

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    • There is more, memoirs on my blog.Thanks Jude. Never get on me about Shirley. I did a heroic thing shutting her up. She was a bully.
      Nice comment though. Thanks Jude 🙂

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    • I need to write more often, I just don’t like writing about me, necessarily. Other things I can’t spin in the same way. I do real good haiku….
      Sweet Alex Autin
      would say some really nice things
      I think I love her

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      • See what I mean?! Yes, you should write more! I personally don’t ‘get’ haiku, or most poetry really. (I can be pretty dense about some things.) But see how easily it comes to you? And see how easily you make me smile? : )

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  8. I too enjoyed your story, Mike. I particularly liked the voice – a sort of forties film noir macho meets Denis the Menace yet still unmistakably the person of little Mike: one minute full of laid back, understated bravado, egging himself on to survival, the next an endearingly frank boy. Bravo.

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    • Wow. I had no idea. Really. I guess I have a style that I haven’t really thought about and nobody has ever said anything like that before. Great comment. Intelligent and insightful. I guess that since I go way the hell back that a 40’s film noir narrative would be something I heard frequently growing up. Hmmm. Very cool. Who knew!

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  9. This is one helluva story, Mike. You write so well. How did I miss that? I knew you were clever and a photographer, but a storyteller? I am thoroughly impressed. You’re good too. Write some more. Apparently, you are a bottomless well of talent. And, to think, there are folks on here who want to do this for a living, and ere you are just rolling it out like a superb carpet. WOW.

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    • That is high praise coming from you George. Sometimes I can spin out a story, especially if it is one that needs to get out of me. I will try to write some more as time goes on. There are others on my blog.
      Thank you so much. The sweet taste of validation.

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  10. I love that story. It reminded me of Laurie Lee’s “Cider With Rosie” in a way even though he lived in rural England and you were in New York. if you are not au fait with it, it is an all time great English classic – much loved and treasured. Please let us know if you ever find out what happened to Jesus.

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  11. Mike H: thank you for posting this on your blog! It was an amazing read. Mike, the writer: thank you for sharing something so true, and memorable, and full of feeling with us. Early in my reading I thought this was my favorite part, “It was the same year the Brooklyn Dodgers announced they were moving to Los Angeles. Since they didn’t plan to take me with them….” I loved the humor of it and the longing, well, that really resonated with me. Then I got to the story’s end. It touched me deeply as I, too, have a very toxic parent. I have not yet had enough time to come to terms with most of it. Your writing then moved me to tears. Thank you for helping me to know I’m not alone as I feel terribly, soul-crushingly alone in this. I know Mike said you should write more about this and you said it would be too difficult, but I agree with my Mike. I think it would make an amazing book. I know I would definitely read it. I’m reminded of a brilliant, difficult, but mind-blowing memoir that I highly recommend to everyone: “The Glass Castle: A Memoir” by Jeannette Walls. It’s brutal and unflinching, but achieves something that cannot be put into mere descriptive words. Thank you again for sharing your story.

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    • Thank you so much for this heartfelt comment. You are not alone, trust me. There q are other stories in me that want to come out and they always start in my head and they they just spill onto the computer ( I almost said paper.)
      It is always helpful to process your pain with a professional. I did, and more than once. Thanks for the tip on the memoir and please know how much you words and encouragement mean to me. Stay in touch. Be my friend.

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      • Thank you. Your kind and heartfelt words mean so much to me! My professional is on maternity leave, but I am always processing that pain myself when I’m able. The next few months will be very up and down for me being a good stay in touch person…plus, I have multiple chronic illnesses trying to hold me down/back, yet I’d still love to be your friend! 🙂 How would you best like to connect? FB? I need to bookmark your blog….

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  12. I saved this on my work email for nearly a month after I received it from TBA’s blog I’m subscribed to, and I’M SO GLAD I DID!! You do have a way with words. I too have struggled with my own “childhood” issues and totally get this.
    You do have a way with words and i L-O-V-E your sense of humor. You and MH always crack me up. 🙂

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