New York City is my “home town,” so I have to admit a bias, borne of knowledge gained through years and sometimes pain. When I was growing up here, it was a safe place. I don’t know if my family ever kept the front door locked, but I doubt it. Crime was something we read about in the Daily News, “New York’s Picture Newspaper!” We might have been afraid of the Russians, having been taught to “duck and cover” since kindergarten, but there wasn’t much else to scare us. We had Palladin. Hell, we were Palladin. Palladin stood for right, and right always won.
Well, there was a nut case with an unfathomable rage who the tabloids called “The Mad Bomber.” He had a habit of leaving pipe bombs around town, most of which didn’t work. Let’s just say that he didn’t have the viscous skill of the Unabomber, okay? Even if the bomb was workable, the Mad Bomber always calling the police or the newspapers before the real ones could go off. I don’t think he ever hurt anyone, but he must have scared to hell out of every parent in New York. “If you see a pipe,” every mother told her sons and daughters, “don’t touch it!” It wasn’t until years after he was caught that a kid could go into a plumbing supply store without crapping his pants.
My neighborhood ran exactly one city block from one end to the other. It was tough, sturdy, blue collar, fun and the only thing dangerous abuot it was crossing the street without looking both ways. Lots of men (never women) on my block had rifles or side-by-side twelve-gauges tucked away in the backs of their closets. The Second World War was not a distant memory then, and men knew about guns. Some of the guys hunted in New Jersey or Pennsylvania, back in a time when the deer population was in decline.
None of the men I knew ever practiced. Most of the combat vets could shoot like Buffalo Bill, and they enjoyed their venison dinners. I expect that’s because the guys who fought at Guadalcanal or Bastogne had learned to make every bullet count, or they would not have returned. The men who never learned the manly art of killing another human being in combat – guys who were in the rear with the gear – also never knew the taste of deer meat at their tables.
I learned to handle a rifle in the shooting galleries at Coney Island, firing .22 shorts at distances of, what, maybe fifteen feet? That sounds easy, but all the sights had been skillfully bent. Yes, carnival hucksters will do that. Anyone who used the sights had no chance of winning anything. That was my first brush with point shooting, and I mastered it. I won a lot kewpie dolls and cheap trinkets, all market Made in Japan.
My father had been a combat engineer, and even though he’d spent most of his military time building roads and clearing mines, he could shoot the nuts off a squirrel at a hundred yards. He taught me about real guns with sights that actually worked. Later, I lifted my game with a Nylon 66 that Dad bought me when I was twelve. It was completely reliable and dead-nuts accurate.
A couple of years later, I shot a High Standard .22 pistol in competition. I had 20/10 vision and could castrate a mosquito in flight. Shooting was a sport, and it was fun. Just fun. But self defense? Nah. Self defense meant joining up with a gang. Well, we called ourselves a gang, but we weren’t more than bunch of city guys who would kick anyone’s ass who messed with a bro. As always, there was strength in numbers. Still is.
My 20/10 eyes saw the dark side of guns a couple of years later. A drunk and abusive husband was shot and killed with his own rifle. The man was in the process of pounding the crap out of his wife and son for the upty-umpth time. I guess the poor woman decided that fifteen years of black eyes and bloody urine was enough and shot the man. Her son, my friend since first grade, administered the coup de grace.
Nobody blamed him. Nobody blamed her. The investigation lasted seconds and no charges were filed. Still, it was a sobering thought, a scary thought, that a kid like us could kill. Not just kill anyone, but his own dad. There are a lot of ways for childhood to end, many of them bad, but I think that what my friend went through had to be the worst way of all.
I spoke to my old friend not very long ago. He’s a writer of some repute now. He seems fine, but I’d guess that his bullet changed many lives and left many terrible wounds that will never heal.
The City started to change for the worse in the seventies, that miserable slum of a decade. Led down the rabbit hole by a string of inept mayors with names like O’Dwyer, Impellitieri, Beame and Lindsay, not to mention the later and ineffably incompetent David Dinkens, New York descended into political and financial chaos. There was chaos on the streets, too. Remember the Son of Sam?
He wasn’t just a crazy kook in a three piece suit like the Mad Bomber. No, David Berkowitz was a homicidal maniac who gloried in snuffing out young lives with a Charter Arms .44 Bulldog. He wrote about New York being an open sewer, and he was right. An open sewer was exactly where the Son of Sam belonged. An angel of death had found his métier.
It was crime that ruled the sidewalks of New York, not cops. In its worst year, there were almost three thousand murders in New York. Three thousand! The very notion that more Americans were killed in one year in New York City than have died in Afghanistan is an insult to everything New York supposedly is about. By then, my home town had become a very dangerous and disquieting place.
Not quite Beirut, but not close to resembling the city that I was born in. I hardly recognized it. Everything was deteriorating. The Knapp Commission and an honest cop named Persico finally revealed just a few of the reasons why our city was being beaten down. Nobody was guarding the walls. The city was crumbling from within.
Give credit where credit is due. Giuliani reversed the trend, and in a city where incremental change requires a thousand committee meetings and the consent of hundreds of petty ward healers, he did it by starting small. It was his greatest accomplishment. He took the “Squeegee Men” off the street.
The Squeegee Men were not a hip-hop dance group. They did not record “Who Let the Dogs Out,” which by itself would have been ample grounds for impaling them on burning bamboos stakes. No, the Squeegies were indigents and homeless men – we called them bums – who would descend en masse, perhaps five or ten at time, upon any car stopped anywhere for any reason. Squeegees in hand, they’d snap wipers into their upright position, spray windshields with some kind of fluid –I never asked what it was and never wanted to know – and offer to clean car windows for tips.
If the driver demurred, the Squeegees might walk away without saying a word, or perhaps they’d venture an opinion or two about the driver’s lineage. The car would slowly drive away with its wipers sticking up like the antennae of a cockroach. That was fitting, since la cucaracha was the Official Insect of New York prior to the return of the bedbug. A lot of people would be afraid to say no to the Squeegee Men, and nobody got out of their cars to fix their wipers with the Squeegees hovering around.
I never had a beef with a Squeegee Man. In fact, one of them almost broke my heart. I waved him off and he said, “please, mister, I’ll do a good job” with such fierce sincerity that I could not doubt the truth of it. I figured that someone who was so down on his luck that he was begging to do menial work needed a helping hand. I relented, he did as good a job as he said he would, and I tipped him properly. We were both the better for it. Tourists, however, were scared.
Giuliani told the cops to get rid of the Squeegee Men and they did. The police couldn’t get rid of the street muggers, the hookers and the drug dealers, but the Squeegees were easy pickings. New York’s windshields were filthy again, Squeegee Men went back to petty thievery for a living, but the streets seemed safer.
Finally, to the issue at hand. New York City hates guns, which have been demonized to the point that the relationship betwixt man and gun in the Big Apple is irreparably torn asunder. Worse, New York City hates people who don’t hate guns. I know that I will get some grief for that declaration, but this has been my home town for 63 years and I know it to be true, and unless you’ve been a New Yorker for as long, you don’t know jack about the Apple.
People who own so much as a Ruger 10-22 are looked down upon as wackos, sickos or hillbilly wannabees. Expensive Berettas over-and-unders are okay, as long as they’re used for trap and skeet and are nicely engraved. But forget handguns. New Yorkers hold to the belief that black people own handguns. Hispanics too. Handguns are for bodega owners in Harlem where “they” only kill each other.
Okay, celebrities own handguns, as do cops and Mafiosi. Outside of those select few Caucasians, white people simply do not shoot handguns. Sorry, but there it is. Yes, I’m stating unequivocally that New York, one of the most educated and sophisticated cities on earth, suffers from cultural bigotry. Talk to any New Yorker about racial affairs, and you will hear “I’m not prejudiced, but …” It’s the nastiest three letter word in the English language, that “but.” Think of “I love you, but …”
Have you ever heard that? I have. The word “but” really means that every thought after that word is true, and every word before it is bullshit. When I hear the word “but,” the little lawyer hairs on the back of my neck stand up like stalks of corn at harvest time.
Back to guns. Even if New York comes to its senses and realizes that it, too, is bound by the Second Amendment, guns can’t catch on here. Not won’t. Can’t. For one thing, there’s no place to shoot. There’s only one range in Manhattan, a nice little place in the Flatiron District with a handful of shooting lanes to serve a couple of million people. When a shooting range has fewer lanes that the local porn multiplex has screens, you know you ain’t in gun country no more, bubba.
The second thing is that New York is a city of rules. There are eight million people in the city, and twenty million rules. No one except an agoraphobic can go through an entire day in this city without being a rule-breaker. Cross the street in the middle of the block and you’ve broken a rule. Smoke a cigarette within 25 feet of any one of five hundred buildings and you’ve broken a rule. Scratch your ass with your left hand at noon and you’ve broken three rules.
Some of the rules are written down in something called the New York Code, Regulations and Rules, a set of books with as many volumes as the Encyclopedia Britannica. And that’s just where the rules begin. There are so many rules that there’s a rule for figuring out the rules. I shit you not.
Rules are written by lawyers, and let’s face facts – New York is the home to this country’s best lawyers, any one of whom is capable of befuddling the entire populace, and New York’s got about fifty thousand of ‘em. Fortunately, breaking most of the rules won’t land you in the Riker’s Island Home for the Temporarily Incarcerated. But break one rule dealing with guns, any rule, and it will be a shit-storm in a pigpen for you, my friend. That’s New York.
Call me a cockeyed optimist. I believe that some day in our golden future, New York City will have gun laws that are sane and constitutional. Not long after that, pigs will fly.
Next, Las Vegas.