Davy and my little brother Frankie were never apart. They sat next to each other in school, they hung out together during recess. They played on the same Little League team. And they fished together every Saturday morning in the Nepperhan Creek.
I doubt they caught much. The stream near the former carpet mill was the Yonkers equivalent of Love Canal—or the River Styx. It made the Gowanus look like the Seine. The Nepperhan’s banks were always covered with dead fish and slimy trash. It was, admittedly, very interesting and unusual trash: half of a bra, or a dead dog with its head twisted completely backward, or an immense water rat with two tails, or a canvas bag (stamped U.S. Department of Agriculture: Top Secret) filled with shredder paper.
The creek’s water was never blue or clear or brown, or whatever color a creek’s water is supposed to be. I’ve seen it yellow, and I’ve seen it bright pink. I’ve seen it colored deep blue, and I’ve seen swirls of color, like the smears on an artist’s palette, floating on the water. There was always fizzling foam coating the rocks in the water and along the banks, and the odor was always nauseating.
There probably were few fish in the creek, and certainly no fish fit for human consumption, but Frankie and Davy went there at least once every weekend, with one fishing pole, a can full of nightcrawlers they had dug up at nearby Oakland Cemetery, and a small paper bag filled with sinkers and red-and-white bobbers.
* * *
Frankie and Davy were very different.
“Opposites attract,” I heard my mother say one time as she watched the two boys head off one Saturday morning. “You’d never think they’d be friends, would you?”
There were very different indeed. Frankie was tall and slender, and he had dark, curly hair, a big smile, and a self-assured manner and sincerity. Davy was short, with a dumpy-looking plumpness. He had wavy brown hair that never seemed to grow in thick—even when he was ten years old, maybe because he had a high forehead, he looked like he had a receding hairline. Davy had a lumpy face and a pasty complexion. And he didn’t have what you would describe as a smile; you’d more accurately call it a smirk, which might have been why most people suspected he was a wise guy, a troublemaker, a bad seed, a bad influence, a rotten apple, up to no good, a kid who would never make anything of himself.
Davy lived with his grandfather Sam in a tiny apartment about halfway up the hill of Vineyard Avenue, a few blocks from our house and a few blocks from the Nepperhan Creek. It was a very strange neighborhood. Most of the people who lived there were poor and ill-schooled, and it was known for its extraordinary collection of people who were, as my mother put it, “not all there,” or, as my father described them, “the slobbering masses.” Babies born to families on Vineyard Avenue died young—or lived, but were, as my mother described it, “mentally slow.” Scrawny dogs who were the pets of families on Vineyard Avenue had large red tumors hanging from their bellies and roamed the streets and caught haggard cats and poked their snouts through decomposing trash. Loud music blared out of dirty and dark apartments, often mingled with the sounds of screams and shouts you could hear even when the soot-caked windows were shut.
Vineyard Avenue and its side streets, like Moquette Row, were always very dark. This was partly because at least half of the street lights were always broken at any one time—how they broke I don’t know—and this perpetual darkness was also because, or so I have come to believe, there was something evil about the place itself.
I think, now that I know what I know about the Nepperhan Creek, which passed just a few blocks away from the Vineyard Avenue neighborhood, that the toxic chemicals in the stream probably had something to do with all of this.
But I also recall something about that place—a gloomy weight to the darkness, a dark look in people’s eyes—that had nothing to do with chemicals. Something toxic and vile ran through the blood of those people, bubbling and oozing in their genetic stream, and it left a black stain on their souls. Something made it inevitable that the Sam and Davy would live on Vineyard Avenue.
* * *
Davy and my brother Frankie were close friends until sometime in the early 1970s, when Davy was in his early teens and my brother was on the cusp of adolescence.
Two things happened.
My grandmother and grandfather lived in a small apartment in the Park Hill section. They had no back yard. When my parents moved to a house with a small back yard, my grandfather’s agrarian past in Italy came to bear, and he showed up at our house one morning in early April with a shovel, a spade, a hoe, bags of soil, and ten trays of tomato-plant seedlings, with four plants in each tray, forty tomato plants total.
Davy and Frankie Jr. happened to be there when my grandfather arrived. I don’t know if they were just bored, or if they really wanted to help dig and plant and get their hands dirty, but they set to work helping my grandfather. By the end of the day, a weed-covered area had become a garden with four neat rows, ten plants in each row, each tomato seedling tied carefully to a small wooden stake.
Frankie and Davy were out in the garden every day. They pulled weeds. They watered the plants. They made sure the stakes were stuck firmly into the ground. They even plucked off tomato hornworms with their bare hands, dropping the caterpillars into a Maxwell House can half-filled with kerosene.
“Davy is certainly enthusiastic about our garden,” my mother said one night in August. She was sitting at the kitchen table, figuring the bills. “Look at him work!”
I went over to the kitchen window and saw Davy working in the garden, toiling in the light of a half-moon on a cloudless night. The tomato plants had grown extraordinarily tall; some of them were even taller than me. I attributed this to my grandfather’s experience as a boy in Italy, where his own father and grandfather had grown tomatoes; he had apparently learned well the trick of growing tall, green, healthy plants with unblemished, deep red, juicy tomatoes. The amazing thing to me was that my grandfather used no fertilizer and no insect-killing chemicals; he said water, soil and air were all he needed to grow tomatoes.
Through late summer and well into September we picked bushels and bushels of tomatoes. After an early frost, in early October, the few remaining tomatoes turned black and rotten, and the plants began to shrivel, so my mother went out to the garden one afternoon to pull out the plants.
That’s when she found them. Under each tomato plant, tangled in the hairy roots, was the half-decomposed carcass of a dead rat.
That’s what Davy had been doing in the garden at night—carefully digging up each small plant, placing a dead rat in the hole, then putting back each plant, patting the soil firmly around the bottom of each, and finally tying each plant again to its stake.
My mother screamed when she found the first rat. But she said she didn’t ‘‘get the creeps’’ until ‘‘I found the other rats, dozens of disgusting rats’’ under the other plants. She knew the rats didn’t get there by themselves, and she knew my grandfather hadn’t put them there, so she confronted Frankie and Davy.
“He just stood there with the damned smirk on his face,” my mother told my father that night. “He admitted it. He admitted putting the rats there. He said he thought they would be good fertilizer! He said the Indians used to put dead fish under the corn plants for fertilizer, but he said they never catch any fish in the creek.
“Frank, we ate those tomatoes! We ate tomatoes fertilized by goddamn water rats!”
And so my mother told my brother that he could no longer be friends with Davy. She told Davy to stay away from Frankie Jr. and to stay away from our house. For a few weeks, Davy stood down at the corner, just standing there for hours, maybe hoping Frankie would sneak out, but then he finally gave up and went away. He never came near our house again—at least we never saw him.
But one day, next spring, my grandfather and Frankie went out to the yard to start working on the garden again.
They found a dead rat on the ground, right near the tool shed, but my grandfather said it had either been killed by a cat (its body was torn apart and chewed up) or else my mother had just missed it when she pulling out the tomato plants the previous fall.
* * *
Davy’s grandfather died in their apartment on Vineyard Avenue. There was an article about it in the Yonkers Herald:
BOY LIVED WITH DEAD GRANDFATHER FOR TEN DAYS
Sam was 82 when he died. According to the article, Sam died in his sleep and Davy didn’t realize that his grandfather was dead. He told the police: “I thought he was asleep.”
But the police obviously thought it was very odd that the boy didn’t realize something was wrong when his grandfather was still sleeping after two days, after three days, after ten days had passed, when a man named Flanagan came by to collect the month’s rent, noticed an odor that he recognized as the odor of death, and called the police. Two officers broke into the apartment and found Sam dead in his bed.
“He had been dead for at least a week, according to the coroner’s office,” the news article said. “His grandson will be placed at the Leake and Watts Orphan Asylum in south Yonkers, according to a spokesman for the city Board of Welfare.”
What the article didn’t report, because no one knew this, was that Davy was inadvertently responsible for Sam’s death. An autopsy wasn’t done, because Sam was an old man, so it was assumed he had died of natural causes.
Even if an autopsy had been conducted, I don’t think the scientific techniques available at the time would have determined the fact that Sam’s water service had been cut off two weeks before for non-payment of the bill, so he had gone along with Davy’s suggestion that the waters of the Nepperhan Creek would be safe to drink as long as the water was boiled first.
Davy had brought home a gallon jug filled with the brown, smelly water, and boiled it on the stove; dirt and sludge and assorted detritus sank to the bottom of the pot; the water itself was actually clear and Sam thought it looked safe to drink, but the chemicals and other pollutants still lurked in the water, in which also swam the bacteria which cause bubonic plague, which is spread by rats—and the Nepperhan Creek, as we have learned, was full of rats.
But Sam did not die of bubonic plague. The night before his death he had eaten some spoiled limburger cheese, which reacted chemically with the Nepperhan Creek water and the substances in it, and Sam died of what could best be described as something like drowning, as his stomach gurgled and backed up and the watery mixture of soft, rotten cheese and rancid water gushed up from his stomach and up to his throat, and spilled over into his lungs, and the odor that landlord Flanagan smelled was not specifically the scent of death. It was the scent of death mingled with the smell of rancid, regurgitated limburger cheese.
There was no funeral service, but my grandfather went to the Ashburton Funeral Home and paid $300 to make sure his old friend Sam was properly prepared for the grave and paid another $440 for a small one-grave plot with a simple marker at Oakland Cemetery. My mother, father, brother and I went with my grandfather to the cemetery on the day of the burial. Davy Berkowitz wasn’t there, although I wondered if he might be somewhere hiding, slinking behind the moss-coated gravestones or slouching around the cold stone crypts or sneaking through the thick woods of the old burial ground.