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.

© 2013 Michael Fiveson

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135 thoughts on “Jesus and the $20 Bill

  1. What a wonderful post Mike. You have a gift for the written word and your story is certainly one of survival, resilience and love. My heart aches just thinking about you leaving your mother. All the best to you! Robyn

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  2. Mike, you do indeed have a gift for the written word, you have written of love in tough times, as well as survival. Great tribute to a childhood friend. You don’t just take great photographs.. 🙂

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  3. Congratulations, Mike. You write so very well. I am happy that WP noticed. 🙂 Fifteen minutes of fame and no cash… Life is like that. I love hearing about the little boy who was almost lost. I don’t require a kidney, but I would like more of that wonderful little boy’s story. 🙂

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    • Thanks Andy. I do have other memoirs, but short of me acting out, fully, and doing time in prison, there is not enough material for a book. That is a good thing.

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  4. I have said many times that I thought my childhood and early teen years were average, but I learned years ago that I in fact, had an exceptional childhood. I was safe, cared for, fed, and loved. Thanks for sharing this painful part of your life, Mike.
    Congratulations on Freshly Pressed … so well deserved

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  5. This is Jesus, and I want to eat at Antoine’s in Paris. Just kidding.

    Seriously, though, what you are writing is finely observed, honestly remembered, and of great value. Lovely, man. As you know, I’m writing similar remembered stories on my blog, so you might check it out, especially, “Why Don’t You Get Lost.”

    BTW, if you’re interested in what things were going for in 1957, check out this page: http://www.gti.net/mocolib1/prices/1957.html. It shows what things cost.

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    • $78 for a television was not cheap. I guess that is why not every household owned one. Your comment cracked me up. If you were Jesus and you wanted to eat in Paris I would ask you to enjoy yourself and send me a postcard. I’ll now traipse over to your blog….

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  6. i remember the pickle jars. I taught at that time in Bed Sty at a junior high school. Across the street was a food place that had pig’s feet and knuckles. The pickle barrel was in the front and kids would buy those juicy pickles and eat them in class. The whole classroom would smell of pickle juice early in the morning. I remember the food place was on the dirty side of sanitary. You would have to use napkins to wipe yourself from getting germs when you left the establishment. Big Joe was our assigned cop and he would take weapons from the students? who came armed. Gravity knifes were plentiful and there was an occasional zip gun or two. I see that both of us have survived being dipped into the wasteland. Great post. It brought up many memories, none of them pleasant.

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    • Hi Barry. Always nice to get some validation and if you remember the pickle kegs and zip guns, than no one can call me a lunatic. Mike Tyson is from Brownsville, but was produced after me. Sweetheart that he is. I love “dipped into the wasteland.” I’m still coated in reality. And so are you, eh. Thanks for the comment, my friend.

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  7. Quite wonderfully written! Your piece on stealing and loss and growing up brings fuzzy images of my own childhood to mind. But I think you said it perfectly, beyond all the external, you’re better for those strange moments, intangible lessons from a child’s perspective. You’re able to turn it all back around, to pay it forward. Thanks.

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  8. Beautifully written post, I could picture it in my mind as I read, I almost see it like a coming of age movie like Stand By Me or that old show the Wonder Years, where the narrator tells stories of his youth through his now grown up perspective. Very vivid, I enjoyed it, I’m going to enjoy reading more from you! Congrats on getting the FP, it brought you to my attention!

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    • Yes, making new friends for sure. As a followup to this story I have one called “Almost” which is a sequel of sorts. It is located under memoirs.
      Thanks for the read and the comment. I liked the Wonder Years. He was a cute kid. I also loved Stand By Me.

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  9. Great writing! A tale from childhood is always amusing to read. The idea of zip gun sounds interesting.
    I liked the narration particularly. You have vividly created images from your memories.

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  10. Wonderful story, tales of our childhoods always seem to touch so many people. They are so easy to relate to. Good job. I will be following from now on, you hooked me. thanks

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      • LOL. Either way, you can write about it!! And wouldn’t it be a hoot if Jesus showed up?! Stranger things have happened….My blog is memoir also… but you are a much better writer than I am!!!! Enjoy the day!

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    • Yeah, that was a different Jesus, but I am VERY open to a script.
      ‘Me and Jesus, down with that zip gun’
      Hey, thanks for the read and the comment. Much appreciated.

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  11. Mike… great post! In my Brooklyn neighborhood zip guns shot bullets.

    Do the names Chaplins, Bishops, Bucaneers or Jolly Stompers ring a bell?

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    • Not the 8 yr old version of zip guns, at least not in 1957. Since I was just 8 I don’t think my exposure was sufficient to remember whichever gangs were ruling the roost. Jolly Stompers, lol. Bishops actually do ring a vague bell. Mickey was my nickname and most of my family called me that, back in the day. Yo, Bitsko, thanks for the read and the comment. You be Mickey b.

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    • Hi Lori. Yes I was freshly pressed but you really deserve to be. I think your blog is nothing short of remarkable. I would like to write more, even if it’s just haiku. I do have a story in my head, eventually it will spill out.
      Thank you my dear friend. And that face!

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      • I was FP a long time ago… just once, and it was a thrill. Of course it was Daisy deer’s story that got recognition… and she continues to be what draws the most attention!

        I appreciate your friendship so much, Mike. My face? What about your new photo? That’s just damned sexy!

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  12. such an interesting post, thanks for sharing your memories. A sharp contrast to my own childhood on a rural farm, we all find our way along life’s path in different settings.

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  13. Wow – that is a really visceral story!
    I read once that who we are as children – up to our teenage years – lives with us for the rest of our lives … our fears, anxieties, hurts etc. The stories we write rather prove that.
    Thanks for pointing me to this story. It was very powerful.

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    • Well thank you very much. Yes, for a fact that stuff stays with us forever. I was just yesterday discussing with my wife the extent to which I am the same child I used to be. We evolve, we grow, we live and succeed, but success is relative, and some experience limits us.

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  14. Holy cow Mike I could feel so much in this story, and now I know why you can relate to that lonely-based pain of being separated from your mother as a child. I have to give you kudos too for having that load in your heart and still making your way to helping other kids for as long as you did.
    As a mother now, I can’t even imagine how messed up I would have to be, to leave him for any time. I guess it sort of helps me to understand what bad shape my mom was in then, and how hard she had to work to come back to us so completely. I count myself one of the lucky ones in this for sure.
    As everyone has said, you’ve told your own heartbreaking tale so beautifully.
    Robyn

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    • When that story got freshly pressed I had many lookers and lot’s of comments. Now, I have to steer someone to read it and they still won’t. It defines me in a much larger way than any photo will. So thanks Robyn, it means much to me and now you know who I am at my core. And who wouldn’t like that. I sure do.

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  15. Bravo! I love your writing style. Straight-forward and sparse, with a touch of poetry. I’m tempted to push work aside today so I can sit and read everything you’ve ever written. Please don’t stop telling your stories.

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    • What a lovely thing to say. I think perhaps we have a similar writing style as you too are straight forward, with no punches pulled. I started reading your book last night. It will join another I am reading and since I am slow reader, I’ll be with both for a spell.
      Thank you. These are always my favorite comments because at my core I think of myself as a writer who takes photos.

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      • A literary agent told me she liked that about my writing style – clean, straight-forward. It went a long way to boost my confidence.

        Glad to hear you’re reading my book. I would appreciate it (if you feel inclined) if you would mind writing a review on Amazon after you finish. It would mean a lot to me.

        I am also a writer who takes photos, and paints when the stars are aligned just right 🙂

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      • I find that when I read something that requires me to re-read paragraphs that are not easily absorbed, I get distracted and am not always up to doing that work.
        I will certainly write a review for you. It would be my pleasure.

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