Community Greens

People of all colors discussing evergreen ideas.

Growing Up Morrisania: Zip Gun

Butch, the neighborhood bad boy, was my older brother’s best friend. They were alike in stature and remarkably strong and muscled for young kids. They shared a rich chocolate brown complexion and perfectly smooth skin and smiles that would win over they most disbelieving soul. Even with these traits in common I couldn’t understand why they were such fast friends. I was sure Butch pulled the wings off flies and tortured small animals. He rebelled against everything especially anything sane. It goes without saying, Butch was the local gang leader.

My older brother was King Of The Monkey Bars. He was just about king of anything he wanted. Well, everything but my younger brother and I. He was a boy scout, had a paper route, bagged at the local grocery store, played trumpet in the school band, flew rockets and rubber-banded airplanes . . . Yes, really, he was that kind of kid. But he wasn’t dad. Hell, he wasn’t even the oldest child. My sister was 5 years older but that seemed so distant. But with 2 younger brothers, mom, raising her 4 children as a single parent, always insisted he take the male, head-of-household lead and set an example for us. He did always.

He and Butch were the toughest and would play the roughest games and win. When no one else would jump the gap between the tenement buildings, he and Butch would. When an errant ball got stuck between the narrow space between buildings, usually full several feet deep with garbage and broken bottles, he or Butch would climb in an get it. All of these things happened starting with a dare that someone else do it and when no one stepped up either Butch or my brother would. On the rare occasions someone else would try. That usually ended with someone getting stuck or hurt.

The two of them would have “thick as thieves” conversations and I was sure they were planning to take over the world. No one ever interrupted them. You simply waited until they stopped talking and acknowledged you. They never argued. I don’t remember them raising their voices to one another. There was a sync between them that was undeniable.

One morning Butch stopped by our basement apartment on Franklin Avenue. He lived across the street in a basement apartment with his 2 cop older brothers and their mom. My brother stepped outside and closed the door behind him as they talked in the hall. My younger brother and had seen Butch come down the stairs with something in his hands and return empty handed so bursting with curiosity we ran to the door that opened into the kitchen and waited at the table. My brother returned with something wrapped in a small white towel.

Looking at us sharply, he said, “come with me” and led us through the hallway to the backyard that connected several of the tenement buildings and faced the back of the tenements on Clinton Avenue. He told us to sit on the low wall that separated the buildings from the backyard parapet and he placed a parcel where we could see it clearly. He unwrapped the oddest contraption I had ever seen and very cooly stated, “this is a zip gun”. Our eyes widened in amazement as we had heard of zip guns but we had never seen one. It was a piece of wood with a door bolt fastened on top and a wad of rubber bands somehow secured to the front and attached behind the bolt. There was a short piece of pipe somehow secured between the bolt and the front of the gun.

There were bullets in the folds of the cloth and he took one and loaded it inside the bolt. Pointing away from us and at the wall of a nearby building, he put the rubber bands behind the bolt and, with effort, pulled it back and secured it in its station. Admonishing us to watch the wall, he pointed, flicked the bolt and immediately after a pop we saw a chip of brick fall from the wall. Our mouths’ fell open. My older brother looked around before saying, “follow me”. We went to the wall where the chip had popped out and as my younger brother and I fingered the mark with amazement, my older brother pushed through the broken bottles and trash until he found it: a spent bullet. He held it between his thumb and forefinger for my younger brother and I to see but he didn’t let us touch it before he put it into his pocket.

Without speaking he turned back towards our building’s back door and nervously silent, we followed him directly into the bedroom where we each had one drawer in the dresser. He had rewrapped the zip gun as we walked and now told us to sit on the foot of Mom’s bed, where we could get a good look of him putting it away. He tucked it under his striped shirts at the end and turned towards us after closing the drawer. He looked at us imposingly and said, “Don’t touch it”. “Go play in front of the house”. We didn’t want to play. We wanted to ask questions. We wanted to touch the zip gun. We went outside to play.

Several days later Butch knocked on the door. He waited in the hall while my brother went into the bedroom and returned with the towel wrapped zip gun. He handed it over in the hallway and my younger brother and I saw Butch tuck it into his pants and zip his jacket as he went up the stairs. We never discussed this. It just happened.

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