Little Baby Caesar; The Early Crime Years

Go find yourself a boyfriend with a paper route.

When my Dad came back from seeing me for the first time in the hospital nursery, my mom asked what he thought.  His response was, “He looks like Edgar G. Robinson.”  True fact.  My mom said that it wasn’t what a new mother wanted to hear.  But today, we all agree, that I did, and that my dad saw something there.  There’s been some affinity alright.  I always liked Edgar G. Robinson better than J. Edgar Hoover.  Hands down.

As a kid I always rooted for the villain.  They always looked cooler, dressed better, and probably got laid more than the heroes.  I used to watch re-run episodes of Roy Rogers, with my buddy Dean.  I would be secretly rooting against Roy.  Not like I wanted him to get shot or anything, but maybe disarmed and tied up to a Saguaro cactus for Dale to rescue.  I’ve never told anyone this.  Maybe I should have saved it for my fifth step, but hey, too fucking late now.  It’s typed on the screen.  For all to see.

Coyote versus Roadrunner, same thing.  I wanted Acme’s products to work as intended.  Just once.  I pretty much liked Batman, but still wanted the big magnifying glass to burn through the rope and drop his ass into the pool of sharks.  The way I saw it, he wouldn’t be in that jam if he had slept with Catwoman and joined her criminal enterprise.  You turn that stuff down (especially the Julie Newmar version) and you don’t expect to be looking back on it and bumming hard?  I didn’t know back then that he was gay, and what the whole Robin, his young ward thing meant.  Now it all makes sense, but back then I thought there was something seriously wrong with him.

I’d watch old gangster films mesmerized.  I so wanted to have a scarred and cratered face, so I could poke a toothpick out of it.  I’d wear a black fedora and say things like, “It’s time to take a ride, Greasy Mike,” while keeping one hand menacingly in my pocket.  I wanted to shoot pool, grab loot, chase leg, break leg, take shots, dodge shots, skip town, make bail, shake down, rough up, take down, and come up,

I wanted to shoot up a rival’s speak-easy with a Tommy gun from a screeching car, even though I didn’t  know what a speak-easy was.  While other kids wanted to hit a home run to win the World Series, I wanted to make wise-cracks about the detective’s girlfriend while enduring a rubber truncheon interrogation.

My moral compass tended to point South.  Even way back then.

On on a flight back to California from New York, they played the movie, Dillinger.  It was the original, with Warren Oates.  I was so impressed, I decided I wanted to get serious about becoming a criminal.  I actually took an oath.

Years later, I found an entry in a little notebook I made days after I saw the film.  It said “Today I dedicate myself to a life of crime.”  It was signed, in cursive, to prove I really meant it.  “Oh shit,” I thought, “How binding an oath is this?  Can The Masters of Fate hold a nine-year-old to this kind of document?”

Let me tell you, they sure the fuck can.

The first thing I remember stealing was a balsa wood glider.  I loved those things, but they were always breaking on me.  I was never given an allowance and had to pay for my good times off the grandparent’s birthday dole.  Try stretching $30 dollars to last all year, even in 1970 dollars.  It could be done, but things were tight.  Never enough for candy, comics, soda, and toy guns.  Never enough to keep up the lifestyle.  Stealing seemed like a solution.

I carefully scoped the TG& Y and saw where all the clerks were.  I was looking intently at a bag of plastic soldiers I was holding, when I pretended to drop them.  I ducked down, pulled the glider off the rack and slid it up the sleeve of my jacket, picked up the bag of plastic soldiers and continued to act like I was debating the purchase.  Really going for an Oscar, the ponder, the tsk-tsk, the shrug of the shoulders, the aw-shucks of the fist, and then a very obvious putting them back.

So fucking slick.  I walked out holding my mom’s hand with the glider up the same sleeve.  I was covered solid.  The walk out the store was a total rush.  Not getting my 15 cents, goddamn TG & Y.  Who’s the sucker now?

The glider quickly broke, but I wasn’t pissed this time.  No big deal.  I’ll just pop on down to the five and dime and pick up another one, with my five-finger discount.  Ha-ha.  Get it?  Five finger discount?  Because I’m taking it with my hand, for free.

Getting stuff for free really is the best, isn’t it?  I understand these corporations hiding money all over the place from the tax man.  It must be like stealing a glider times 1.2 billion. It’s got a be a rush, and if it is, let me tell you there’s a good chance it’s going to be habit-forming.  Especially if you’ve gotten away with it before.  I know after I hijacked my first balsa wood plane, I resented having to pay 15 cents for one ever again, even when I had enough money.

So I get it.  I understand the corporate mind-set.  Like I said, my moral compass always dipped South.

Know where a guy can score a hot cinnamon toothpick around here?

My first arrest was in 8th grade.  I had been shoplifting for a while, but just as a hobbyist.  A cap gun, some Odd Rod stickers and bubble gum, the little plastic hot dog rings in that used to come in between Oscar Meyer wieners.  Just small time stuff.  One day, after reading a biography of Lucky Luciano from the Camarillo Public Library.  I decided to expand my empire.  In junior high some friends were already making money from boosting beef jerky and cinnamon toothpicks then selling them to the other school kids.  Okay, they had that market cornered, and I didn’t have the firepower to muscle in on their racket.

I had to find something else the kids wanted and were willing to pay retail for.  Cigarettes, beer, nudie magazines and racy paperbacks like The Happy Hooker and The Sensuous Women, rolling papers, No-Doz, condoms, huffing solvents, knives, chewing tobacco, road flares and corncob pipes to smoke Commercial-grade dirt weed.  I would open up a one-stop juvenile delinquency shop.

I got together a crew.  I recruited some buddies from my M.G.M. English class.  My friends Danny and Jimmy were also mentally-gifted bad boys, each a criminal genius in his own right.  It didn’t need any arm-twisting.  There were no bosses.  Each man was an equal partner in The Corporation.  Capital would be divided accordingly.  We would skulk  through Newbury’s, Sav-on Drugs, Builder’s Emporium, and Lucky’s grocery stores for inventory.  We were all working together the day the heat came down.

We had made a pretty good haul that afternoon, and we could have called it quits, but I had to make one more pass at the dirty magazines they kept in the rack behind the cashier’s counter.  The store employees were watching by then.  I got collared by a skinny assistant manager.  He grabbed me by the jacket and the Playboy magazine came flying out.  It landed open on the sidewalk, on a pictorial section that made it clear to every bystander just what kind of magazine this little boy was trying to steal.

I remember looking down and seeing  a huge pair of airbrushed boobs.  Holy Toledo.  Get a load of those.

I didn’t stay transfixed for too long as I was now engaged in wrestling away from some flunky assistant manager.  I started swinging.  He was trying to drag me down to the ground but I kept punching.  I was getting some clear shots into his ribs, windmilling desperately like a cornered tier snitch, but they weren’t having enough effect.  I should’ve taken P.E. more seriously.

I looked up at Danny and Jimmy who were on their bikes looking on in shock.  “Help me!”  I called to them.  They were backing up, shaking their heads.  They looked apologetic.  They rode off.  I never blamed them.  I was a goner.  A bigger guy, the actual manager came out, and they dragged me into the store and into a back room. They shook down all the swag on me.

And what telling swag it was.  This wasn’t some little boy trying to steal a balsa wood glider.  This was a pusher and a porn peddler.  By God, he’s a …a…walking one-stop juvenile delinquency shop!  They called the cops.  My friend Tom’s dad walked by and saw me sitting on the floor behind the counter, sized it up the situation and shook his head.  That felt bad.  The interesting fact is that his son, my friend Tom, would become a lawyer and help me beat my first felony rap many years later.  Ah, the tapestry of life!

Both managers kept me in the back room until the cops came.  A cop finally showed up.  After blubbering like a little bitch, I managed to pull myself together for the hand-cuffed perp walk to the police car.  I was sort of hoping that a girl like Michele Ripley would see it.  She’d see me and know what a tough hood I was, someone she knew better than to get involved with, but just couldn’t help herself.  Because I was all hard, and stuff, and had seen it all.

She’d beat her Keds across the parking lot and beg the cop to let me go.

“Kid,” I’d tell her, “Trust me, you don’t want to get mixed up with the likes of me.”

“But I think with enough of my wholesome love, I could turn you around!”

“See, that’s just it,” I’d break it to her,”Wholesome love is a great start, but it’s just a start, see?  I think you catch my drift.”

The cop would lower my head into the car.  I’d stop and turn at her.

“Look Tootsie Pop, go back to your Honor Roll, Flag Team and toy horse collection.  There’s no future here.”

The cop would close the door, and I’d see a tear forming in her eye.

“I could learn to be naughty!” she’d shout as the squad car pulled out of the parking lot.

I’d nod.  Sure sure, kid.  That’s what they all say.

My mom and dad were totally pissed when they had to pick me up from the police station.

I thought I’d lay low for a while until things cooled off, but I quickly got busted for smoking a lid of  ‘mirsh in a corn cob pipe with Danny in the drainage ditch by my house.  For my fairly strict Lithuanian immigrant parents this was crisis of unimaginable proportions.  What will our community think of us?   What kind of parents could raise such a hooligan?  Such a larcenous villian…and now a drug addict!

The belt came out of the closet.  I could hear the buckle clink down the hall, then my bedroom door opened.  It was time for my ass cheeks to ride the lightning.

After that, I was put on a really short leash with my folks.  Lithuanian lock-down is serious.  My American friends didn’t understand.  My parents lived in D.P. camps during the war. They knew how set up a detention camp.  Under their close supervision, and the persuasive influence of my father’s belt, I reformed a bit.  Compass went magnetic North for a while.  Goofus went Gallant.  My grades got better.  I became a pretty good kid who went back to playing with gliders, but now and then, soaking them in gasoline.  If I was going to do anything bad again, I would just make sure to never get caught.

Then I started high school and began my journey of adolescent angst.  I discovered the magic of mixing alcohol with weed, and the occasional pills discovered in medicine cabinets.  Somehow,  just the right mix removed all traces of angst, fear, pain and self-hatred.  Took me to The Zone.

Trying to stay in The Zone required certain lifestyle adaptations and a host of new acquaintances, wayward pilgrims also seeking The Zone.  The ever elusive, if not mythical, Zone.  The needle spun straight down, and stayed that way for a long time.

My last perp walk was filmed by a news crew.  I had made the big time, and it looked like I was going to go away for a nice bit of it, too.  I hoped Michele Ripley didn’t see it on TV.  That would have sucked.  I had pulled myself together for the walk out of the apartment, but I had just finished crying.  Like a baby.


St. Joseph’s Hospital gangster for life.



I’ve always been a ladies’ man.  By that I mean, an easy mark, a sucker, a chump.   A chump-love-sucker.  Women have been able to manipulate me with the ease of a Mexican-made marionette.  From the sandbox to the strip clubs, these puppet mistresses would pull my strings, and I would be made to dance a jig or kiss my own ass.  It wasn’t always under duress.  I often complied voluntarily.  Stockholm Syndrome?  Perhaps.  I sure wanted to impress my captors.

In 1968, New York City was full of women.  Even as a young gremlin, I noticed their strange power over my happiness.  I was crushed when my kindergarten teacher, Miss Corchran, got married.  I attended the wedding, and sullenly watched some greasy Jerry Lewis type in horn rims take her away from me.  After the ceremony, I waited in line to kiss the bride, in my case, goodbye forever.  I walked to the train with my mom.  What was this feeling that made me want to pile my head through subway tile?  Will it ever go away?  Must all love die at the end of a stake?  Thank God, I didn’t know the truth.  No six-year-old deserves that.

For weeks afterwards, I moped around in a funk.  My Mom dragged me around the neighborhood while she did her shopping.  Every woman I saw at the A&P, or at the butcher’s shop, looked like a cheap replacement.  They were certainly do-able, but not Miss Corchran.  (I refused to refer to her by her married name, Mrs. Dipshit.)  I had resigned myself to a life alone.  I’d be one of those old guys at the Y.M.C.A. who eats catfood heated up on hot plate.  I didn’t know such a thing as hookers existed back then, but I’m sure it would’ve given me some solace.

I went through a period of one relationship after another.  There was Catwoman, Morticia Addams, Ginger, the black lady on Sesame Street.  I was trying to fill a hole.  There were a few babysitters here and there, but when you know they’re only there for the money, it leaves you hollow.  I treated them all like meaningless distractions, but today I can see I learned something from each one, especially the Sesame Street woman.

It was during this futile whirlwind of grasping that Dina showed up.  She was much older than me, maybe almost ten.  I was seven and a half and ready to spin the wheel again on this crazy game called Love.  Dina was exotic and intriguing.  She was Puerto Rican, which alone was a potent brew, but it was the long black hair and dark eyes that really killed me.  I found myself having trouble talking when she would show up on our street with her friends, and not just because I was a tongue-thruster, as the speech therapist at school had diagnosed.

They would come over from across Jamaica Avenue to play handball against the television repair shop wall two blocks from my house.  Their neighborhood was so poor it didn’t have any walls.  Dina had nice brown legs and didn’t wear socks with her sneakers.  I also remember that her Keds were so worn that her big toes started to peek through.  Seeing all that made me feel weird, but a good weird.

I would try to get her attention by riding by on my bike as fast as I could.  When she saw what little value I put on my life and safety, she would inexplicably be drawn to my self-destructive nature like a moth to a flame.  Together we would set ourselves on fire, and burn until there was nothing left.  Then we would get married and move to Long Island.

One day, while I was turned to see if she was watching, I ran into someone’s hanging laundry and was literally clothes-lined right off the bike.  A very cartoon moment, but to my young ego, more tragic than any Greek play.  Dina saw what happened and started to run over, but I quickly hopped up, embarrassed.  I got on my bike and disappeared.  I went up to my room and sat praying for an early death.  Typical me.  The only thing missing was a motel room stocked with beer, and some woman rolling  joints with a GPS cuffed around her ankle.

I decided my easiest in would be making friends with her younger brother, Tino.  He was a violent enough spaz to have something in common with.  I went over one afternoon and showed him how to burn stuff with a magnifying glass.  From that point on, he would have taken a bullet for me.  He was my pal.

We were smashing rolls of paper caps between bricks, when Dina came up and invited me to a house party at her place.  Oh shit.  She might as well have invited me to spend a week-end with her in Vegas.  The party was Saturday, and she said there was going to be a go-go dance contest with prizes.  I couldn’t believe it.  I had been practicing my go-go dance moves on the veranda of our house for some time now.  How fortuitously events were unfolding.

There used to be a kid’s show, Wonderama, with Bob McAllister.  It featured various games in which kids would compete for prizes.  They also had a go-go contest that I had set my sights on.  I used to play 45s of the Beatles and The Monkees, and practice dancing, on the off-chance that I might someday wind up on the show.  I had developed some secret new moves, and they were devastating.  Now I had a venue to showcase my efforts, and win the prize I had in mind.

I agreed to come to her party.  It was a golden opportunity to unleash my mating dance upon this Latin gypsy.  She would see this white boy’s dancing could match the torrid heat generated by her own hot-blooded rhythm.  I just had to get permission from my mom.

On the day of the party, Dina showed up with two of her younger sisters and Tino.  We crossed Jamaica into a more tired part of town.  The party wasn’t much.  Dina’s family was really poor.  There were no decorations and the place smelled like diapers.  Her mom had her hair in curlers with a scarf over them, and a cigarette hanging from the corner of her mouth, but she smiled a lot, and tried to make it fun for us.

We did have cake, blew soap bubbles, and took turns throwing a balsa wood glider around in the street, but I wasn’t really present.  I was thinking about the contest.  Don’t try too hard or you’ll look wooden.  Just let it happen to you, and then happen right back.  Let it loose, then rein it slowly back in.  Don’t be afraid to smolder.

Her mom handed out popsicles and we ate them on the porch.  I sized up my competition.

It looked formidable.  Lots of Latinos and a few black kids.  They didn’t need to practice.  There were a few Irish and another Lithuanian.  I wasn’t worried about them.  I doubted there would be another sleeper hidden in this crowd.  Finally, Dina’s mom called us in to listen to records.  Here we go.  Time to burn it down.

She put on a record and all us kids started dancing.  Dina joined us and made her way over to me.  Okay, okay, don’t floor the pedal too early.  Steady old boy.  I kept to my basic moves, a Hully Gully here, a Shimmy there, a Shoulder Roll Full of Soul.  Just journeyman stuff.   Nothing too crazy, yet.  Dina was dancing along, but in a happy, innocent, jumpy way.  It wasn’t the way I had imagined.  Hmmm.

Finally, her mom announced the contest.  She would point at kids to come up to the front of the room to dance solo.  Afterwards, we would pick the winner with our applause.   That seemed like some pretty arbitrary judging, but I reminded myself that this wasn’t about winning the contest.   It was about Dina and I getting married and moving to Long Island.

Most of the dancers were pretty good.  The poor have always made good dancers.  It doesn’t cost anything to dance around.  I got the nod from her mom and stepped up.

The song was “These Boots are Made for Walking,” by Nancy Sinatra.  I started out with a strutting stroll but quickly shifted gears into my own creations: The Manic Monkey, The White Tornado, Jump and Flap, Jump and Flap with Karate Chops, Army Guy Covered in Napalm, and my version of The Zombie, which was based on the drunk renter that lived at my grandparents’ house.  The other kids were getting into it.  They were laughing and clapping, cheering me on.  I had them wrapped, now it was time to wring them dry, and make Dina’s toes pop right through her Keds.  Watch out now.

I finished with what I considered my signature move.  It was supposed to be me pretending to do the limbo, but I realize now that it looked like I was trying to hump the sky.  Anyway, it brought down the house.  I remember looking out and seeing these older black girls scream.  Dina had her hand over her mouth, no doubt stunned by the sublime measure of my art.  Tino wound up  joining in, then everybody else.  We were all bent back and bumping it.  Mrs. Rivera was doubled over.

I won.

They had to improvise a first prize.  It turned out to be a mangy stray neighborhood cat, but I took it.  Hell yeah.  Afterwards, everyone shook my hand, and girls were giggling and talking about me.  Double hell yeah.  I was talking to the two older girls when Dina tapped me on the shoulder.

“Whenever you want, I can walk home with you.”

“Sure Dina, but hold on, I’m talking right now.  As soon as I’m done. ”

“Okay, I’ll be over by the soda.”

“Be right there,” I turned back to the girls, “As I was saying, I go to PS 66 and my teacher is Mrs. Ammonds.  I like to play Army, ride my bike, and light things on fire.”

After the party, Dina walked me back to my house.  When she reached out and held my hand, I thought I would pass out.   I had been a line monitor and had held plenty of girls’ hands before, but this felt different.  It was extra sweaty.  Tino carried my trophy.  I tried to step extra slow, to make it last.  When we got to my front door, she let go off my hand.

“You’re a good dancer.”


We stood there for a while.  It was awkward.  I didn’t know how to take it to the next level, or if it was even the right time.

“I have to go pee,” I announced, scrunching the crotch of my pants.

“Okay bye,” she waved.  Her brother handed me the cat, and I went inside.

Holy shit, what a party!  I dropped the cat on the floor and ran to the bathroom.  My mom came out of the kitchen.  I knew the new pet wasn’t going to go over well.

“It’s my prize, Ma!” I yelled over my peeing.  “For dancing at Dina’s party!”

Dancing like a molten motherfucker.  A sky-humping love pumper.  I earned that pussy cat.  “Please Mom, can we keep it?”

No dice.  She took it outside and let it go.  That was okay.  I wasn’t interested in cats so much anymore, or even Catwoman for that matter.  I had just been given my first dose of a drug that would nearly kill me quicker than the drinking.

Trying to impress women wouldn’t have been so dangerous if I had stuck to dancing  go-go, but over the years I had expanded my catalogue.  It included stuff that I thought was impressive, but only caused concern.  If I couldn’t impress them, I’d settle for worrying them sick.  It seemed easier.  It turned out to be a good way of wearing out some pretty big hearts, and put me on the fast track to eating cat food alone.  That had to change.

I still get clotheslined off my bike now and then.  I’m just not pedaling as fast when I hit, and I’ve learned how to roll when I fall.  I’d like to think I’ve learned something since seven and a half.  I eat more vegetables and don’t play with matches.  I drink a lot less too.  I still dance like a molten motherfucker though.  Hell yeah.  Make you want to move to Long Island, baby.