A Newark Tale (A True Story)

by Alfred Sonny Piccoli


I am stirred by memories of 1959 when I met a neighborhood boy from Newark NJ named Jim Dolan. He was a quiet, intelligent kid who had a natural, internal strength that I admired. We were both only 9 years old but still had many things in common. Poverty and no positive male role models in our lives were at the foundation of our friendship.

Jim and I lived in the rough, problematic Archbishop Walsh Housing projects in North Newark, New Jersey on public welfare. The melting pot makeup of the projects consisted of ethnically diverse families, all struggling to make the best of their circumstances. I made an earnest effort and succeeded in getting along well with most of the kids in my age group. The vast majority of any fights the neighborhood kids had were disputes based on their actions and not because of the color of their skin. We were all equal, in terms that we were kids navigating growing up poor in the crowded public housing projects in Newark, NJ.

The eight-story high project buildings, built of brick and cold steel were constructed on Grafton Avenue, down the street from Broadway, one of the main avenue and business districts of Newark. A dozen buildings were spread out parallel along with the McCarter Highway close to the polluted, dangerous Passaic River. I lived in apartment 8-A in building 7, and Jim lived directly across the street in Building 6. Instinctively, our means of coping was to embark on mischievous explorations of our surroundings. Although we didn't expect at the time, Newark would provide plenty of opportunities for unique, exciting adventures. Along the way, we gradually gained more confidence and grew stronger.

The railroad tracks nearby the projects provided a starting passageway where we walked along for miles while wondering where it eventually would lead us. We found plenty of closed factory yards where we would play. Once in an unoccupied construction site, we figured out how to start and operate a bulldozer well enough to move mounds of dirt. Another time we came upon a closed ice cream parlor on McCarter Highway and climbed through a loose window. Jim and I were feasting on ice cream until we heard the sound of a screeching car drive-up. An angry man tried catching us as we quickly scrambled out the window and barely escaped into a high weeded area.

One day Jim and I decided to run away from home with no intention of ever returning. We planned to traverse a railroad trestle over the Passaic River, onward through Kearny, and from there only God knew. We were 12 years old, with no money, food, or water. But the sun was up high and so was our enthusiasm. By nightfall, we were cold, hungry, and exhausted. We agreed it was a good idea to hitch-hike back home and try again another day.

Jim hated school, and was chronically truant from Broadway Elementary School, enough so that he was classified, “Incorrigible.” I was resigned to attend school mainly because I enjoyed playing dodge-ball in gym class and reading. A few blocks away from our buildings on Oraton Street was a huge vacant wooded lot notoriously known as Boot-Hill. It provided an excellent hideout for Jim and me to play hooky from school occasionally. One afternoon I was there picking and eating mulberries when a Truant Officer sneaked up from behind and grabbed me. I was embarrassed when he brought me to my teacher as my classmates stared at me because my face was stained purple from the mulberries. Boot-Hill also was utilized by car thieves where they stripped and abandoned the vehicles. A neighborhood kid was nicknamed Robert the Firebug because he made a hobby out of lighting the abandoned cars on fire, leaving only their charred remains.

Jim’s dysfunctional home life, habitual truancy, and overall juvenile delinquency resulted in him being remanded to a reform school in Jamesburg, NJ. Shortly later, I received news from his older brother that Jim somehow escaped and then hitch-hiked a ride from a guy headed to Newark. Unfortunately, he did not realize the driver’s destination was Newark, Ohio. There he was captured and returned to Jamesburg. Many months later when Jim eventually returned home, we had a good laugh when I teased him that it was a good thing he didn't take another wrong turn during his great escape otherwise he might have wound-up in Alcatraz.

One summer day Jim and I were learning how to swim at a spot near McCarter Highway in Newark where the 2nd River emptied into the Passaic River. We named the spot as “The 13” because its depth was thought to be 13 feet deep. We practiced swimming out a few feet and then returning safely back to shore. Unexpectedly, a group of kids emerged from the woods lead by a loudmouth bully named Dickey Tolliver. He was a braggart who was enabled to do so only because he was protected by several older brothers. We braced for inevitable trouble, but even though we were outnumbered, we weren’t intimidated. Although Jim wasn’t tall, he was often called Big Jim because he was a very tough and fearless fighter. We sat at the shoreline as Dickey tried to show off by swimming out far. Immediately he began yelling for help. Dickey’s friends did not know how to swim so they couldn’t be of assistance. Jim and I just watched in stone-silence as he repeatedly sank and resurfaced screaming. We made no effort to save him because we weren't strong swimmers and weren't willing to risk losing our own lives in a failed attempt to save him. Then suddenly, out of nowhere a young man came running, jumped in, and saved Dickey. A humiliated Dickey humbly asked us to never tell anyone he almost drowned. I thought, yeah sure I'll let the phony tough guy stay hidden in his shame. A few years later, Dickey survived another brush with death. During a drug deal that went bad someone cut his throat from ear to ear.

One day Jim and I were in the Elliot Street School playground on Summer Avenue when we were presented with a challenge. Some kid suggested a dare to see who would pull away first after a lit cigarette was placed between our two arms that were pressed together. I should have known better than to accept this challenge with the one person on Earth that would never give in and pull away. The pain was bad enough after several minutes, but I was concerned that a burnt hole was continuing to grow in size in our arms. I knew that before Jim would pull away our arms would melt off so I pulled away. From that day forward, our long-lasting scarred arms made Jim and I feel like we were “blood-brothers.”

When Jim and I were 15 years old we worked for no pay at The Pony-Track on Franklin Avenue in North Newark. The general area was known as the Silver-Lake district. To this day, I am still trying to find where the lake that has the silver in it is located. At The Pony Track, Jim and I earned spending money from tips that parents would give us for safeguarding their children while riding the ponies around a track. As I walked the ponies, I enjoyed listening to the latest hits songs like Sherry sung by Frankie Valli of The Four Seasons that was played on the outdoor sound system. I was amazed knowing that Frankie Valli lived right down the street on Franklin Avenue in the Steven Crane Village apartments. Across the street was Harry's, a men's clothing store where I bought a Fedora white straw hat with a black band and a pearl stick pin. I looked like what we would call a Nicky Newarker wearing it with my white Ginny t-shirt. A nice treat was the apple turnovers and coffee we bought at Kielbs Bakery that was also located right down the street on Franklin Avenue. On the corner of Heller Parkway was Ed's Dinner where we bought french-fries in brown bags that we poured on mustard and vinegar. A Burger King is now on that spot.

At The Pony Track, were three beautiful German Shepherd guard dogs, Ester, Ginger, and Queenie that were documented descendants from Rin Tin Tin the dog from the TV show. And pity the fool thief who made the mistake of trying to enter the premises illegally. I loved feeding and taking care of all the animals at The Pony Track. Eventually, I worked my way up becoming the Lead-man. Because I had acquired a key to the barn, Jim was easily convinced of returning one night to ride the ponies. Our plan entailed me telling my mother I was going to sleep at Jim’s house, and Jim telling his mother that he was going to sleep at my house. Two other kids, Ricky Lee Booth and Ronnie Massenburg joined us at around midnight. I saddled up Goldie, Jim selected Sparky, Ricky mounted up on Span and Ronnie chose Buster as we set out for the moonlight ride of our lifetimes. We felt like the Jessie James gang as we galloped all through Belleville Park & Branchbrook Park in Newark until dawn. How we didn't get caught during this daring escapade is beyond belief. However soon afterward, rumors spread faster than a horse can trot of our adventure. Of course, we denied all the allegations. From then on Al Annuzzi, the owner of The Pony-Track, always referred to Jim or me as being one of those damn Midnight Riders.

The exciting safe-haven where a lot of kids were drawn to hang out was on the corners of Broadway and Grafton Avenue. I remember whenever I was about to leave home my concerned mother would always ask, “Sonny where are you going?” And I always would simply say, “Mom don't worry I'm going be up on Broadway. It seemed like the singing group The Drifters, had our neighborhood in mind when they sang their 1963 hit song, On Broadway with the lyrics, “they say there's always magic in the air - on Broadway,” On the corner of Broadway and Grafton Avenue was the Grafton Bar where the owner Big Daddy was King. I wasn't old enough to legally drink, but he always treated me in a friendly manner letting me hang out outside without ever hassling me. Next door was a small eatery called Gary's Hot Dogs that served Italian hot dogs with peppers & onions deep-fried in oil. The owner was a nice guy who let us kids come inside out of the cold in the winter to hang out around the pinball machine that we enjoyed playing. There was a large vacant lot around back where we would play blackjack for nickels and dimes. In the lot was a strip of rented garages. Whenever a garage became vacant, we quickly moved into it making it one of our clubhouses. We had a lot of fun parties in the garages even during the cold winter months when we would burn wood in large metal garbage cans to keep us warm.

When Jim turned 17 years old, he bought a small, used Honda motorcycle. Girls were now at the top of our priority list. One day my younger brother Johnny, Jim, and I wanted to visit 3 pretty girls from Clifton, but we had no means of getting there. Jim’s solution was that he would drive all three of us on his motorcycle. So off we went on his motorcycle down Grafton Avenue to McCarter Highway, and onto Rt. 3 to Clifton with Jim, Johnny, and I, clinging onto each other for dear life. On our return trip on Rt. 3 the motorcycle inexplicably stopped running. We gave Jim a push as he rode it down the incline of the highway while trying to get it started by popping the clutch. Johnny and I eventually caught up with Jim and noticed a rolled newspaper on fire sticking out of the gas tank that Jim had intentionally lit. Fearing it was about to explode, we quickly ran from it. Down the highway about a half-mile, a truck driver stopped to ask us about the burning motorcycle. We denied knowing anything about it but took the opportunity to request a ride. Thankfully, he agreed to give us a lift. Jim later explained that he lit his motorcycle on fire because he had no money to fix the motor, and so he didn't want it anymore.

In July of 1967, all hell broke out all around me. African Americans clashed with Newark Police officers in what has become infamously known, as the Newark Riots. Chants of black power echoed while snipers fired shots from abandoned buildings. Bricks and bottles were being thrown, as looting and fires were destroying Newark. National Guardsmen and NJ State Troopers battled with people for control of the city for two weeks. When the smoke cleared, it was reported that there were 26 people killed, 750 people injured, and over one thousand jailed. Ten million dollars in property damage resulted too. Thankfully, the area around Broadway and Grafton Avenue were for the most part peaceful. One night during the apex of the riots, I foolishly drove my 1955 Chevy packed with other kids down Broadway to check out the riots in the area around downtown Newark. When we reached the intersection where the Colonnade apartment buildings are located, I heard popping sounds of gunfire close-by and the scattering of sniper bullets ricocheting off of the street. I felt a jolt of fear go through my body. Quickly I turned my car back around onto Broad Street. As I approached the end of dimly lighted Broad Street, where the wrought iron fencing of the ominous Mt. Pleasant Cemetery is located there were several Guardsmen with rifles drawn pointing at my car. I thought that cemetery was one place I didn't want to wind up in so I frantically instructed my passengers not to raise their hands or make any sudden movements. As I drove up slowly and came to a stop, rifles were pointed all around us. An angry National Guardsman loudly gave me some free harsh advice in a colorful language where I should and should not drive next.

One early evening towards the end of August 1967 I was hanging out with Jim and another kid named Harpo on Broadway in front of a nightspot named the Camel Club. I will never forget watching a long, black limousine park at the curb and two women wearing shinning black high heels step out from the rear doors. Then suddenly to my utter amazement, as if in a dream, there stood Muhammad Ali the heavyweight champion of the world. To be honest, my immediate reaction was fear. I had known that Muhammad Ali had changed his name and converted to the Nation of Islam. My limited understanding of the Black Muslims at that time was based upon the media’s portrayal of them as being a religious sect that advocated segregation because they did not like white people. I also knew that Ali had just been stripped of his boxing license and was forced to relinquish his heavyweight champion title status because he refused to be inducted and serve in the U.S. Armed Forces based upon religious beliefs. Consequently, he was sentenced to five years in prison that June in 1967 but remained free pending an appeal. These thoughts raced through my mind as he approached me. I felt insignificant in his presence. I was sure he would walk right by us three white kids as if we did not even exist. As Ali came closer, I felt dwarfed. I was a skinny kid at 5’10, while he appeared incredibly big and strong. Muhammad Ali was at the height of his boxing skills. Although he was stripped of his championship heavyweight belt, he was still as he had once proclaimed to be, “the Duke of the World.” Somehow, I spontaneously shouted out the words, “Hi Champ.” He smiled as he looked at me and asked, “what are you kids doing out here?” I replied by explaining that we didn’t have anywhere really to go and didn’t have much to do. Then in a bold move, I struck a pose by raising my hands in a boxing stance and saying jokingly, “But one day I might want to become a fighter.” In a flash, Ali’s left arm stretched outward landing a palming grip on the top of my head as if it was a basketball. I immediately yelled, “I give up.” We all laughed. I told him I was sorry to hear about all the mess he was going through. Ali then proceeded to explain to us how in life there are times when you have to stand up for what you believe, even if there are negative consequences. Ali with piercing eyes looked at me and said, “Don’t ever back down from a fight that you know is something worth fighting for even if you may not win it. Because in your heart and soul you know you did the right thing and that is something you can never lose.”

One night Jim had a conflict with a man over a young woman that culminated in a high-speed car chase all through Newark with Jim eventually smashing head-on into an oak tree. The following morning, I stood with a slightly injured Jim viewing the mangled wreck, believing it was a miracle he somehow survived. Jim’s escalating reckless behavior prompted us to have numerous discussions that revealed his lack of passion for life. Many times he confided to me that he felt living his life wasn’t something he wanted to do. And no matter what I said or did was able to change the way he felt.

In 1968, I met controversial Northward Councilman Tony Imperiale while he was on vigilante patrol. He was well known for sometimes carrying a baseball bat in public as a means of intimidation. One Saturday afternoon, I was hanging out on Summer Avenue in the vicinity of Our Lady of Good Counsel Church, the North End Branch Public Library, and Elliot Street School with a group of other teenagers playing my acoustic guitar. Tony Imperiale drove-up demanding the kid with the guitar to come over to his caravan of cars. His hostile manner of interrogation as to why I was on the street made me fear for my safety. I was not breaking any laws and believed I had the freedom to be on a street close by my church, public library, and a school playground near where I lived without being harassed by anyone. However, I figured it would be best at this time to keep my beliefs about freedom in America to myself. Instead, I chose to charm him and his cronies by playing them a Doo-Wop song on my guitar before Tony Imperiale decided to, “let me go.”

When Jim and I were 18 years old the Vietnam War was in a full, raging frenzy. I was acutely aware that I could be drafted and sent to the jungles of Vietnam to “fight the spread of Communism.” I believed this unpopular war made no sense and was a big mistake. I also held a strong conviction to live my life without ever killing anyone. Nevertheless, my brother Johnny and Jim hoping to escape from their problems decided to enlist into the US Navy. I wasn’t too keen on the idea. But since I was classified as 1-A by the Draft Board anyway, I went with them to the recruitment station in The Federal Building, downtown Newark. The Navy recruiter “guaranteed” we would remain together throughout boot-camp in the “buddy system.”
So on April 28, 1969, Jim, Johnny, and I enlisted into the US Navy, bound for Great Lakes, Illinois. Funny thing is I never found my boot-camp experience at the Great Lakes to be “great.” Immediately upon our arrival the three of us were separated into different companies, despite my feeble protests. I felt cheated that the US Navy reneged on our “buddy system” agreement. Jim's attitude, as we said goodbye, was that it was now every man for himself.

Ten weeks dragged by before Jim and I got together on a one-day “liberty” pass. In Chicago, we got so drunk that I nearly had to carry Jim back to his barracks. When I got back to my barracks I was completely overwhelmed, crying uncontrollably because I knew I would never see Jim again. After Jim completed boot-camp he was assigned aboard the USS Oriskany and headed for the coast of Vietnam. Not long after his arrival, Jim was placed in the brig for noncompliance with minor Navy regulations. I received information that Jim was being escorted on deck in handcuffs when somehow, he went overboard! The ship was traveling too fast to turn around in time to save him. Jim’s body was never found! Questions remain. Was it possible that Jim accidentally slipped and fell over the guardrails? Was Jim pushed? Or did Jim deliberately jump overboard succeeding in his ultimate escape? All I am sure of is that I will always miss him.

When I returned from the Navy landing in Newark Airport, I was so glad to be back that when I stepped off the plane I bent down, thanked God, and kissed the ground. I began college at Essex County College in Newark before earning a degree in Psychology from Kean College of New Jersey in Union NJ, formally known as Newark State College. One of the most unbelievable surprises of my life is when I became an Essex County NJ Juvenile Probation Officer in a career that lasted for over 25 years. Now I am a senior citizen living in the future contemplating, why is it that my brother Johnny, and I are still alive when almost everyone else we knew from our old Newark neighborhood has passed onto the final frontier. Certainly, I have been a bit lucky. I also know being confident and strong in the face of adversity because I became street smart from growing up in Newark has helped me get out of numerous jams throughout my life. I've always believed you can take me out of Newark, but you can't take the Newark out of me. But more than anything else I have survived because of my passion for life with never giving up unwavering perseverance being the best that I can be, as best expressed in The Drifters song On Broadway when they sang, “And I won't quit till I'm a star on Broadway.”



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