As kids growing up in our neighborhood, we did some pretty stupid, mean-spirited things that should have gotten our asses roundly kicked. Even if it was by association – I can recall not raising my voice in dissent in a lot of situations that were clearly wrong. As I type this, took a quick channel-surf on the TV. Lo and behold, the 1963 British version of Lord of the Flies was on Fox Movie Channel. Good timing!
What comes to mind most is Soytz. There were three grown brothers in my neighborhood, all with houses on my block. Frank, Joe and Eddie. I mentioned Frank earlier as the lawn-mowing king of the neighborhood: a good guy. Frank also had an infamous eye for junk, which he’d store in this cavernous two-story concrete bunker in his backyard. If he was out driving and saw a pile of dirt by the side of the road with a few bricks in it, he’d pull over, retrieve the bricks, throw them in the back of his pick-up, drive home and put them in the bunker. By the time he passed on, he had a two-story junkyard that his wife had to hire a garbage truck to dispose of. None of it made any sense.
Joe lived down the block. He was famous for being a war hero in World War II. The local paper once re-ran his story – that somewhere in the South Pacific, he and a severely wounded buddy had been isolated from their troop in the jungle. So, he heaved the guy over his shoulder and walked him through miles of enemy territory before re-connecting with the troop. An amazing feat – can’t recall the medal he won, but it was impressive. He was also known as “Hammer Man” in the neighborhood, for once going off his nut and attacking another guy at the polling office (i.e., the firehouse) with a hammer during a particularly heated election. Despite this, and an odd way about him, I can’t recall him ever being rude or unkind to me.
Across from the school, Eddie lived with his wife and son. Picture the father in the animated series of King of the Hill – this was a lot like Eddie, with a burr-head haircut. As with Frank and Joe, I don’t recall anything particularly mean-spirited or wrong about Eddie. Baseballs would constantly be hit into his yard when we played in summer, so I imagine there might have been a few altercations, probably over kids dawdling or messing with his property rather than just retrieving the ball. Since our family’s house was on the other side of the schoolyard, this happened with our yard, too, and was much worse as we had a dog called Duffy, a mutt whom we unfortunately trained halfway in terms of fetching balls. He’d fetch them, but never give them back, so you had to chase after him for minutes on end, and at that point, usually have no luck prying the ball from his jaws as he snarled. He wasn’t a mean dog – we simply made the error of not training him properly on this.
The difference between Eddie’s and our family? We were kids in the neighborhood, thus a connection to the other kids, so we were spared any sort of antagonism, since were one of them. Eddie’s son went to Vietnam, was older, and out of the loop age-wise with the kids of the 70s. I’ve noticed with kids that they can’t comprehend adults who don’t have kids, or kids their age. That seems like a very important connection. Without it, adults seem vaguely menacing, strange, not worthy of respect, to be watched. I can sense this vibe, living in this neighborhood in Queens. And it says a lot more about how dumb and tribal kids are than it does about the childless adult.
That’s the key difference, because kids, wherever they live, form their own little insular world, with its own rules, completely divorced from the adult world, and it usually holds sway in places like playgrounds. In this way, kids think they “rule” a certain neighborhood: it’s theirs because they live there. And, of course, they don’t quite grasp that they’re children, not able to support themselves, totally dependent on their parents to survive. I suspect there’s a hard-to-classify resentment in that, so when kids see a free shot to take at adults, whether it’s something as mild as cocking off or vandalizing property, they’ll take it. As kids are often prone to wandering around in groups, that gravitation towards bad behavior is hard to ignore, too.
I mention all this, because I think it gives good background towards the ongoing negative treatment that was meted out towards Eddie, who didn’t deserve one ounce of it. As noted, Eddie would often be brusque with kids who dawdled in his yard when a ball was hit into it. As an adult now, I can see it’s very easy to be brusque with kids, because they’ll often have openly antagonistic stances with adults who aren’t their parents.
Eddie got the nickname Soytz in a strange way. One summer day, while Eddie was doing something like washing his car in a pair of shorts, a mildly retarded kid in the neighborhood with a speech impediment said: “Look, there goes Eddie in his soytz.” He meant “Eddie in his shorts.” For some reason, the word “soytz” blew everybody’s mind. At the time, the Elton John song “Bennie and the Jets” was a huge hit. “Eddie and his Soytz” fit the rhyming scheme. So, all summer, kids were singing, “E-e-e-e-e-ddie in his soytzzzzzz.” The name stuck, although it was senseless and indicative of nothing but a kid with a speech impediment making a stray comment, and how well the mispronounced word fit in with a hit song of the day.
I’m not sure if this is a national trend, but back there we had a thing called Mischief Night: the night before Halloween. And the concept was for kids to go around raising mischief, before receiving goodies on Halloween night. In actuality, mischief night would unofficially begin in mid-October and culminate in one night of insanity on October 30th. Our two big things to do were to apply bar and shaving soap to the side windows of cars (if you did the front and/or back, you were a real asshole), and to pelt the windows of houses with corn. Since we grew up around farms, and corn was just hitting its stride in late September, we’d make clandestine forays into farmers' fields to steal ears of corn for mischief night – which would often result in us getting shot at, generally by farmers with shotguns, using buckshot shells. This was all tremendously exciting to us kids, gave us a real sense of danger. Once we had the corn, we then had to shuck the kernels from the cob and store them in paper bags for Mischief Night. Generally, we’d soap windows up to that point, not wanting to deplete our corn supply by the 30th.
I realize how strange all this sounds, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it still goes on some places (although no longer back home – simply less kids around, and some thread was lost in the 90s with customs like this). Everybody got soaped and corned back then – even our own families’ houses. It was tradition. I guess in the grand scheme of vandalism, it wasn’t that horrendous either – hit the windows with a few sprays from a garden hose and a sponge, and the soap was gone. (To judge by the permanently acid- and scratch-stained windows on subway cars, I’d wager city kids are much bigger assholes with this sort of vandalism.)
For whatever reason, probably associated with him constantly chasing assholic kids from his yard, Soytz got pounded every October. By Mischief Night, he’d simply leave town with his wife and son so that his trailer would be empty. We all knew not to hit his house for Halloween, because he wasn’t in the mood and wouldn’t have answered the door at that point. In the weeks leading up to it, every night there would be kids soaping his windows and corning his house. With his trailer, the roof and sides were metal, so the corn must have sounded like machine-gun fire. I remember some of the wackier troublemakers in the neighborhood openly taunting him and his wife on the street. I also remember his wife coming out and pleading, “Why are you doing this to us?” And all us little assholes laughing at her. I can’t believe neighbors didn’t phone the police more often on this. It would be literally a pack of 20 or so kids openly screaming in front of a house, pelting it with corn, and doing silly shit like running up to the trailer and pounding on the windows. It was open harassment and terroristic threats – just awful shit that shouldn't have been tolerated by the community in any way.
This went on for years. It’s to Eddie’s credit that he never went off his nut and shot a kid, or even beat one up, as it would have been well-deserved. Why Eddie? I guess because he had the audacity to yell at a few kids who were in dire need of life-threatening ass-kickings, never got them, and went on to patchy lives of drugs and low-level crime.
How much did I go along with this? Enough to feel guilty and embarrassed all these years later for playing any part in it. I got as far as being a part of the mob and throwing corn a handful of times – but I wouldn’t go on his property or soap his windows. My parents warned me not to be part of the mob stuff in mid-October – they understood we were going to go out on Mischief Night and do the usual stuff. But they understood that harassing Eddie wasn’t cool and made no sense. If I’d had a real set of balls, I’d have told the kids they were totally wrong for singling out this person for such rotten, abusive behavior, but such is peer pressure, and I quietly assented to this.
Soytz wasn’t the only one; there were other old people who got the same sort of abuse. And the pattern was always the same: if you in any way reprimanded a kid publicly, it was open season on you. Granted, some of those people were loony old cranks, but some weren’t. I remember the paper boy who walked through the neighborhood being physically attacked a few times by various nuts in our gang. Why? Because it was cool to yell out “paper boy” in a loud, sarcastic drawl, and watch him get pissed off in return when he knew he was being made fun of.
In short, kids are fucked up, we were certainly no different, and I regret profoundly wrong situations like what happened with Eddie. I can see that when you leave kids to their own devices, it’s the law of the jungle, there is no higher authority at work, no innate desire to be good and righteous. Kids have to be taught those sort of things, and I guess when not being taught that, and amongst themselves, they sometimes resort to the worst possible behaviors they can come up with. Some people might classify that as rebellion, but I view it more clearly as some sort of acceptable mental illness that doesn’t serve as any sort of healthy outlet, or do anyone any sort of recognizable good. How much a kid chooses to indulge in that insanity is probably going to be a mark of what kind of person he turns out to be.
Eddie’s gone now, as are his brothers. I think his wife is still in that trailer, with their son, who looks after her. I guess if there were still packs of teenage rejects wandering around, this would be somehow strange and worthy of unwarranted abuse. It’s strange for me to go back there and physically see these people and places, realizing all is relatively normal now, as opposed to the sort of insanity that went on far too many times back in the 70s. I’m still wondering what’s happened in our world, as true in the 70s as it is now (probably more true), that kids are given such free reign to get away with stuff like this that would land your average adult in jail and make him the pariah of a community.