RONNIE RITA & ME
On my 50 cc Honda, a newly minted 1965 toy of a motorcycle, Glenn Quenzer and I, we are, after an evening of dipping into the folk music scene at the Gilded Cage in downtown Philadelphia, returning to Mayfair in the Great North-East. We’ve been pushing the envelope of loyalty to our hood and boyhood pals recently and have been hanging out with strangers: older kids, college girls wearing leotards, Ben Franklin-eyed men sporting goatees, elbow patches and berets, dilettantes quoting Rimbaud, and folkies singing Woody Guthrie. I’d developed a serious interest in the writings of Bob Dylan and had found the Gilded Cage in my search for poetry. Operated by Esther & Ed Halprin, the coffeehouse with backroom stage is ground zero for folk music and Bohemian pursuits in Philly. The first cover charge of my life I pay here.
Glenn and I, we are still card carrying members of our teenage gang, “The Wall,” our gang’s moniker, a result of the location where we congregate: on and aside the low retaining wall in front of a large house on Walker Street at Hartel. It seemed there was a strange attraction between the girls of Holmesburg and the guys from Mayfair, and the stone wall served as a maypole of sorts, a touchstone for adolescent hearts to swing around and voices to harmonize a cappella in front of.
Now because my interest in the poetry of folk music and Glenn’s interest in playing guitar and singing on stage are outside the common interests (mostly drinking and fist-fighting) of others in The Wall, Glenn and I have mostly kept our growing passions, our interest in the arts, to ourselves. This Friday, we have opted out of going with the rest of The Wall to a major dance at the Concord Roller Rink, a somewhat serious sin of omission, as you never know if there’d be trouble for someone of the Wall, given the events of my life the last three weeks, as my mouth and Glenn’s fists have always been part of The Wall’s arsenal. Should there be trouble, as often there is, we are surely to be missed.
Heading east, hoping to rendezvous with Fiddles and Ebberly and Bauers and Dubuc and the girls when the dance lets out, we are cruising in and out of the electric buses and automobile traffic on Frankford Avenue. Debbie Marion in her customized 1964 and 1/2 powder-blue convertible Mustang recognizes me and my wheels and honks and waves as she revs her 210 horsepower, 289 cubic inch V-8 engine at the Robbins Avenue light. Part of me has always hankered for Debbie, because, after all, her tail bumper sports a sticker that reads BEATMEUCANEATME.
Always the devotee of ice cream and custard, and knowing Glenn still has a few bucks left from his Grandfather’s stash, I downshift into the parking lot of Gino’s just west of Levick Street. The frozen treats here, they ain’t Breyers - they ain’t even Dolly Madison - but I got to say I crave sometimes the vanilla chocolate double swirl soft serve custard Gino’s serves. Glenn when he’s flush seems to go for the burgers and fries, which are outside my budget.
So we are standing at the walk up window enjoying, as always, the look and presence of unfamiliar people and places - for as I like to say, Who knows where love hides? - when a familiar and exceedingly unwelcome face appears, the face of my nemesis: Ronnie Ryan. He’s behind me in line tapping on my shoulder and he’s accompanied by his Bridesburg posse, some eight or nine thugs none of whom are smaller than me. I say “Unwelcome” because last month alone I was beaten pretty badly by Ronnie Ryan twice. First in Wildwood New Jersey and then in Wissinoming Park. All because the very woman I am hoping to rendezvous with after the dance lets out in an hour or so, Rita Romero, has been making out with both me and Ronnie, double dipping one might say, while, when alone together, professing to be going steady with each of us. Naturally, the seventeen-year honor code of 1965 dictates that we fight each other anytime we meet. Easy for Ronnie to subscribe to (at six two and 220 pounds) but not so easy for me (at five eight and 160 pounds). Not to mention, in all the fights I’ve ever had, I’ve never ever won.
The Wildwood deal went down brutally and foolishly after we’d encountered each other on the boardwalk in front of the Starlight Ballroom. Believe you me I was not keen on fighting Ronnie Ryan given his hulking size and cocky smirking glowering, but I had no choice if I was going to maintain my honor among my fellow gang friends with whom I had hitchhiked ninety miles to be here. Because fighting on the boardwalk would surely lead to being arrested, Ronnie and I decided to take our fight away from the eye of the police who maintained a heavy presence amongst the boardwalk throngs. We left our friends, his and mine, to trash talk each other and we headed west up Oak Avenue in search of a secluded spot to fight. The whole time we are strutting and posturing, I am wondering at the depth of my foolish pride for I know in my heart there’s no way I can win. Hell I’ll be lucky to get out of this with all my teeth. All I can hope for is a miracle or a lucky lucky lucky punch.
So into the dark side yard of a small summer cottage we go. Oddly we are surrounded by big beautiful full bloom roses on the perimeter of the yard. Hundreds of them. They will serve incongruously as the ropes of our ring. Not waiting for an imaginary bell to ring, I throw the first half dozen punches the instant he turns to face me. And I connect with enough force to raise a welt on his left eye, and my Saint Joe’s Preparatory Jesuit High School ring has cut his flesh and drawn a little blood below his right eye. I keep throwing punches most of which he blocks by crossing his arms in front of his face. I go for his mid section hoping for that miracle but I am already tiring after punching furiously and dancing to avoid his grasping me. Ronnie seems not to really have any boxing skills and simply appears intent on wrestling me to the ground. With all my remaining strength I throw a wild left hook and connect with the side of his head, but the Cyclopes that is Ronnie just keeps advancing. And then I’m done for as he gets his arms around me, trips me with a foot behind and smashes me to the ground. Soon he’s got my arms pinned with his knees and my body with his ass. His fists are now free to pound me, my face, at will. The full moon in the midnight sky behind his head forms an ironic halo, given the demon I consider him to be. His first punch lands not quite squarely on my mouth as, in utter panic, I squirm with all my strength beneath him, causing him to lose his balance atop me slightly, a result of which my eyetooth fang rips the flesh above his index knuckle. As he raises fist to deliver a second blow, his blood drips in my eye. He spits at me and just as he’s about to deliver what portends to be a knockout, the miracle I had not time to pray for happens. The yard lights come on and a tiny little woman with a voice as big as she is small let’s us know: “I’ve already called the cops. They’re on their way. Get the hell out of my yard.”
And off of me Ronnie Ryan flies, and before you know it, we’re both on our way back to the boardwalk as fast as our feet will carry us, Ronnie on one side of Oak Avenue and me on the other. Honor’s one thing; cops are another. When we get to the Starlight our friends surround us. From the look of things, Ronnie with his one shut eye, bloody cheek and hand, it looks as if I’ve won, although both Ronnie and I are aware of who was about to see stars. Surprised my teeth are still intact, I can’t believe what I say next. “Hey, asshole, this ain’t over yet. I want you Tuesday night. In Wissinoming Park. Nine o’clock. And then we’ll see who’s going steady with Rita.”
Now what prompted me to ask for another potential beating, I’ll never know. The only possible thing I could come up with is my belief in miracles. And my belief in love. But belief in miracles, like belief in hope, is not a strategy.
The next morning I hitchhike back to Philadelphia. Rita calls to tell me that she can’t believe that I actually fought Ronnie Ryan. That he looks so bad with a serious black eye and stitches on his cheekbone and knuckles. That she’s torn up about her mixed emotions. She goes so far as to confess to me in a whisper, whereas she and I have engaged in some pretty orgasmic petting, that she’s totally and especially confused because she’s “‘gone all the way’ with Ronnie (only once)” and she’s not sure she can still see me, even though she swears she’ll “always love me!”
And I’ve already scheduled another fight, a fight I’m destined to lose again, for there won’t be no little old lady turning on her lights in a rose garden.
Tuesday night arrives and I’m with my pals, The Wall. Ronnie Ryan arrives with his Bridesburg gang. There must be close to thirty of us milling around in the middle of the park. My honor, Rita’s honor, and Ronnie’s honor are on the line. Sad I am to know that winning the fight does not mean that I’ll be winning Rita. It would seem her woman’s heart is in the corner where sex lay. That she’d fucked him not me had taken me by surprise as the naïve seventeen-year old Irish Catholic in me had not seriously considered going that far, yet.
And then it’s me and Cyclopes. In the middle of a park. Fighting because we have to. Again, I land the first few punches, again damaging Ronnie’s eye, but alas Ronnie Ryan is intent on wrestling me to the ground. And soon he’s again got me pinned. Kaboom! And I literally see stars as I wonder is this what a concussion is? Kaboom again! And then, honor be damned, I concede. “You win, I give in, I give up!” To which he replies, “You ain’t nearly had enough.”
And then as he draws back his fist to slam again my exposed defenseless face, he is lifted (literally) up into the air with a picture perfect uppercut delivered by one of my posse, Bobby Brennan, who says, “Eddie said he’s had enough.” And then all hell breaks lose as The Wall and Bridesburg begin to rumble. Everybody’s swinging except Ronnie who appears to be walking about in a Cyclopes nightmare. One eye again puffed shut, the other staring blankly. And then it’s the sound of sirens followed by the sight of paddy wagons at the west end of the park. Everyone skedaddles and retreats into the Wissinoming neighborhood night including the befuddled Ronnie who is guided to a car by two of his buds. No one gets arrested. Twice now I’ve been saved from serious damage by the intervention of others.
And now here we go again as Ronnie Ryan stares me down. Outside a Frankford Avenue fast food joint that serves frozen custard! Both his eyes seem to be working. The stitches are gone. His balled up fists in the neon light are the size of cantaloupes.
The artist in me has already started cutting ties to my neighborhood gang, but now I am wishing all my pals were here, because my only friend, Glenn, well, he literally has a broken arm. We step out of the queue and I confer with him. I ask him quietly if he can drive my Honda with one hand. He nods in the affirmative and I slip the key to it into his arm sling. “Be ready;” I tell him, “I’ll be back.”
I approach Ronnie and his gang who are now clustered in between their cars.
“So what’s up?” I ask. “Do we have to fight again?”
And he responds, “No point in that. I’ll just kick your ass again. I want the motherfucker who hit me from behind.”
“That’s not what happened. It was a fair one we were having and when I said I’d had enough you should have been happy and quit. Instead you did not relent, wanting to hurt me some more, and my pal just put an end to it. His name’s Bobby Brennan. Lincoln High’s star fullback. If you want to know what he looks like, his picture’s in The Evening Bulletin. And if you’re looking for him, we hang at The Mayfair Bowling Alley. Come on by sometime. Believe me, Bobby Brennan won’t mind ringing your chimes again, seeing as you don’t obey the code of what’s a fair-one. When someone concedes, it’s over.”
I sense that Ronnie’s about to change his mind and go ballistic, so to get out of fighting him again, I peremptorily offer out the tallest of his pals. “Hey, how about you and me, asshole, across the street. Just you and me in the alley. You’ve come for blood. Let’s spill some. Yours.”
So here I go again. Fighting for a chick who’s fucked my enemy. Fighting for an honor code that I’ve abandoned. This skinny motherfucker I’m about to fight is so tall I’m not even sure I can even reach his face, so I put everything I got into body blows. My third punch knocks the wind out of him, and to the concrete on his knees he falls. I can’t believe I’ve actually won a fight! “Had enough, I ask? Man, come on, this is crazy. We don’t even know a thing about each other and here we are. Why?” And then his breath returns and he’s up on his legs and digging in a dumpster from which he retrieves a rather hefty piece of serious lumber out of which appears to protrude some bent and gnarly nails. He swings wildly at my head and when I duck he smashes the two by six into the brick wall behind me. So forceful is his swing, the stud snaps upon impact with the wall. His torque propels him to spin and I hit him with a roundhouse in the back of his ribs. He falls to the ground wailing.
“What the fuck, you don’t even know me and you might have killed me with those nails had you not missed. You’re fucking crazy man.” And I kick him in the head with all the arch and power of a forty-yard field goal attempt, as this has long since ceased to be a fair one. He rolls on his side holding his cracked ribs and I race back across Frankford Avenue just as Glenn wheels out of Gino’s parking lot. I hop on back and down the Avenue we fly. To the dance, where for the last time I am stood up by Rita who does not show for our rendezvous.
Well, after Ronnie Ryan gathered up his pal with the cracked ribs, they headed for the Mayfair Bowling Alley looking for Bobby Brennan and me. But as I said, The Wall was partying at the Concord Roller Rink where Jerry Blavit was hosting a dance. Upon arrival at the blowing alley the people Ronnie and his pals encounter are not The Wall, rather they are a somewhat older group of nineteen and twenty year old badass boys who occupied the inside of the bowling alley. Most are future cops and many have already been to Vietnam and back. The Wall deferred to them always and reverently and amongst ourselves we referred to them as “The Men.” Ronnie and his pals were unaware there were two groups of boys who hung at the bowling alley. So when they walked inside
as if they owned the place, demanding to know where Bobby and Eddie were, they were met with the fury of The Men who had no idea at all who Bobby and me were. The Men only knew we were from the hood and Ronnie and his pals weren’t. When the melee was over, Ronnie had two serious black eyes this time and I do believe even his Bridesburg pals were done with looking for me and Bobby and done with defending Ronnie’s and/or Rita’s honor.
Next morning I call Rita to put an end to my misery. “I give up,” I tell her. “Please, don’t ever say we’re going to meet again. After the dance, after school, or after you fuck Ronnie.” Her crying into the phone puts an end to my tirade. It’s the last time we speak for close to fifty years.
But in the end both Ronnie and I, we both won something for all our machismo foolishness. Ronnie went on to marry the beautiful two-timing Rita, and I went on to enhance my teenage reputation as one crazy and fearless motherfucker. A reputation of which I was and am still quite proud, for it’s an honor to live as such in the memory of boyhood pals.