On February 24, 1967, Albert De Salvo, the self-confessed “Boston Strangler,” escapes from the Bridgewater State Hospital in Bridgewater, Mass., setting off the most intensive manhunt in criminal history. Police comb through the state, as well as north to Vermont and south to Connecticut.
I am certain that De Salvo has made his way to New York, specifically Brooklyn, where I live. I am certain that he has made his way to our apartment building across the street from the Cyclone roller coaster ride at Coney Island. I am certain that he is hiding in the basement laundry room, behind a set of dryers, ready to strangle again. I am certain that my photo will end up on the front page of the New York Daily News, last year’s doofus fifth-grade class picture that my mother ordered in triplicate wallet size, with the tabloid headline, Sixth Grader, Slain. And underneath, a smaller headline, Body Found in Dryer.
I confide my fears of murder and mayhem to my older brother.
“The Boston Strangler only strangles old ladies,” he says in that are you a moron or what? tone. “Besides,” he reasons, “why would Albert De Salvo wanna come to Brooklyn?” and he says Brooklyn like it’s the last place (except for the Bronx) that De Salvo would want to be caught in with his hands around someone’s neck, as though he’d be lowering his murderous standards.
Albert De Salvo is apprehended less than twenty-four hours later in a Boston suburb, two hundred miles from our laundry room.
But, still, I wonder. What if De Salvo escapes again? What if he is luckier this time? What if, what if, what if…
I tell you this because I think it’s important to understand what happened at age twelve and the events that preceded it. That back in the 1960s, the word “anxiety” wasn’t commonly tossed around like it is today. Back then the word for this type of behavior was “nervous.”
I was a nervous child. Case in point:
I am five years old and it is the first day of kindergarten. We have pictures from that day. There I am in my new white shirt with pressed gray trousers and red bow-tie with matching suspenders. There I am shaking hands with my father in front of our apartment building in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. There I am shaking hands with my older brother in front of P.S. 16. There I am hugging my mother goodbye. Oh, look, there I am crying and throwing up in Miss Lily Regenbogen’s classroom. We don’t have any pictures of that. I throw up on everything. On my Crayola crayons, the paint easel, and the other kids. We don’t have any pictures of that, either. I do not want to stay at P.S.16. I want to go home.
My behavior is the family disgrace, a scandal. The Yiddish word is shonda. Wise men and women from far away lands descend upon our home to study this child who cries and vomits and will not go to school. They make tsk tsk noises with their mouths. “The poor parents,” they whisper. “What they must be going through.” Like I’m dead and they’re paying their respects. Aunts, uncles, first cousins, second cousins, first and second cousins once removed, they come from all over the city; from Canarsie to Bensonhurst, Forest Hills to Far Rockaway, they travel by crosstown buses and elevated trains. And they, too, are baffled.
It is October, and I have not spent one full day in kindergarten. My mother and I have a routine. She walks me to school every morning and then walks home. Two very long blocks each way along Bedford Avenue. In our living room she watches Jack LaLanne’s exercise program on a fourteen inch black and white television set and does deep knee bends and grabs a folding chair for support. The phone rings. It is the school. “Come pick up your son,” they say. And my mother walks the two long blocks back to school and drags me home.
“Why are you doing this?” she asks, as if vomiting on my classmates is something I have planned since the age of three. “Do you see any of the other mothers picking up their children? Well, do you? Do you know how much time I spend walking back and forth to that school? Well, do you? I could’ve walked to China and back by now. The Board of Education should give me my own office, that’s how much time I’ve spent at that school,” my mother declares.
At the end of October the Board of Education gives my mother her own office near my kindergarten classroom. We have a new routine. Each morning my mother deposits me at Miss Regenbogen’s classroom door and walks down the hallway to her office with a small metal desk and chair. There she will read Modern Romance magazine until Miss Regenbogen gently opens the door with a look that says, “It’s time.”
My mother and father do not know what to do with me. They hug, kiss, plead, bargain, yell, scream, and even lock me outside of our apartment until I agree to stay in school, but my mother says, “Let him in, someone will call the police,” so my father unlocks the door and lets me inside.
I spend part of the school day with Miss Maresko, the high-strung school psychologist who thinks she is Dr. Joyce Brothers and wears her hair in a bun held together by two pencils and moves through the halls like she is on amphetamines.
Miss Maresko sits on a chair with a pad and pencil and scribbles while I play with toys. I line up a group of toy soldiers, and she scribbles. I build a log cabin, and she scribbles. I throw a doll across the room and its head accidentally breaks off, and she scribbles for fifteen minutes. She tries to convince my parents that they have a bad marriage and that I am the result of that bad marriage, and my father says, “Lady, you need a psychiatrist,” so Miss Maresko pulls out her notepad and starts scribbling, and my mother cries and grabs her stomach and says, “I think I have an ulcer.”
Miss Regenbogen calls me her “little bluebird” because of my blue eyes. I love Lily Regenbogen, and she will become a lifelong friend until her death two decades later, but, of course, I do not know this at the time. When I am sick she makes me little care packages of drawing paper and crayons that my older brother is supposed to pick up at the end of the school day, but he forgets and my parents make him traipse the two blocks back to school to pick up the crayons and coloring paper, which he dumps on my lap.
“Here’s your crayons, little bluebird,” he hisses, and the way he says little bluebird is a lot different than they way Miss Regenbogen says it.
My older brother is in the fifth grade. He and his teacher, Miss Calendar, do not like each other. He is not her little bluebird. He is her little troublemaker. My brother composes a song in honor of Miss Calendar and sings it to the class when she leaves the room for a moment:
I’m a Chiquita banana and I’ve come to say,
Would you like to kill your teacher in a pleasant way?
Peel a banana, and put it on the floor,
And you’ll see your teacher go flying out the door.
Miss Calendar returns and stands behind him. She does not appreciate the music and lyrics. My parents are called to school for a conference, and even I know that a conference is something bad. My parents have clocked more time at P.S.16 than some of the actual students. They have one child who will not stay in school and another whom the school secretly hopes will transfer out of the district.
One November morning my mother reads Modern Romance cover-to-cover. Miss Regenbogen never knocks on the door with the look that says, “It’s time.” I stay in school, and my mother surrenders her office with the metal desk. And all is good in the world.
Oh, sure, there are a few hiccups along the way. Like second grade, when I demanded not to be seen on stage during our class play. (“Where shall I put him?” my bewildered teacher asked my exasperated parents. “New Jersey?” offered my father). And staying up late Saturday night, reading the weekly “Justice Story,” a staple of the weekend edition of the Daily News during the 1960s that chronicled brutal, often unsolved crimes, did nothing to assuage my imagined fears.
Television crime was fake – and boring. Real life tales of mayhem simultaneously mesmerized and terrified me. Lurid accounts detailing Richard Speck’s rampage of eight Chicago student nurses and vivacious Queens housewife Alice Crimmins pleading for the safe return of her two children, stolen out of the window of their first floor apartment, had me throwing furtive glances at my own bedroom window – even though we lived on the tenth floor. All of which led up to De Salvo’s 24-hour furlough.
Decades later, my mother asked me about that time in my life, the “kindergarten years” that had become folklore in our family history. “What was it?” she asked. “The crying, the screaming, the yelling, the throwing up. Why didn’t you want to go to school?”
I honestly didn’t know.
So I consulted a therapist with a background in child development.
How, I asked, can two brothers, four years apart, raised in the same household, in the same apartment with the same parents, with no major changes or traumas in their lives, how could two brothers react so diversely to their surroundings?
She cut through a lot of psychological jargon and got to the point
“Wiring,” she explained. “It’s how you’re wired.”
So I began to think a lot about my wiring. I read somewhere that by the age of five or so, our personality is formed. That the child we are in kindergarten is the adult we will become. I don’t quite know how to respond to this, because I’d like to think that I’ve turned into fairly well-adjusted adult. And I don’t consider myself a fearful person, just cautious. Actually, I prefer the term “street-smart” (it’s cooler to say that and explain it as a result of having been raised in Brooklyn).
But it’s true. Buried beneath our adult façade, we really are who we were, on so many levels, at the age of five. And I’m okay with that. Because if there’s one trait that I have carried with me from quivering childhood through adolescent angst to stable (somewhat) adulthood, it’s empathy. That deep rooted innate sense of being attuned to other people’s feelings and emotions, an attribute I believe is shared by generations of other “nervous” or “overly sensitive” kids who cried on the way to school and at “sleep-away camp,” wet the bed, got carsick on long road trips, dreaded school plays and hid under the covers after watching “Chiller Theater.”
Several years after my kindergarten debacle I received a gift from Lily Regenbogen. We had invited her to my Bar-Mitzvah, but she was older by then, too fragile to travel to the Long Island suburbs. It was a coffee table book, a history of Jerusalem. “To Robert,” she wrote in the first page inscription, “the greatest challenge of my teaching career.”
We lost touch after that, and I regret that Lily Regenbogen never saw the person I became. For there’s something to be said about a Brooklyn kindergarten teacher, nearing retirement, who patiently packed Crayola crayon care packages and diligently took a five-year-old by the hand and calmly walked him down the school corridor hall to his mother’s “holding cell” to wait out a fear-induced tantrum.
She understood his wiring.[boxer set=”weinberger”]