A Slum Boy’s Story

The six-year-old boy slipped while climbing from an old salvaged lifeboat to an open deck crab boat. Both moored to one of the floating docks at the Greene Street Boat Club at the foot of Greene Street in the Gammontown neighborhood of Jersey City. He couldn’t swim and no matter how hard he tried he couldn’t reach the top of the seaweed slick hull of either boat. The bowlines were stretched tight and just out of reach. The frightened boy struggled. Each time he reached up, his head sank below the water’s surface. A strange thing happened. His entire innocent, pitifully short life flashed across the bright screen of his mind and his panic faded.

As suddenly as his fall into the water, a large hand broke the surface of the water and jerked the little boy by the back of his brother’s hand-me-down tee shirt and swung him onto the dock. As soon as his bottom hit the dock he was up and running and didn’t stop until he was a block away. He sat in the sun between a chain link fence and a railway boxcar. After three hours he returned home completely dry and no dirtier than usual after a day playing at the docks.

It was different with Bobo.

Bobo was a tiny runt. I liked Bobo. Probably because his father ran a grocery store and we could always persuade Bobo to steal some potatoes which we most of the time burned to a crisp in a fire we would start on one of the vacant lots burning wood shipping crates. The best potatoes had a burnt crust from the wood embers in which they were buried. We flavored the steaming inside with salt that Bobo stole along with the potatoes. Bobo always wanted to hang around with us but he was a lot smaller than me, or “Lodgu” (They called “Lodgu” Walter in school), or Dennis or Felix. But whenever he could steal some potatoes from his father’s grocery store he was welcome. Bobo always blamed me for killing his dog. He and I had found a rusty old kitchen knife and we spent most of a day practicing knife throws against an old wood fence in his back yard. Overnight someone shoved that knife into the dog. Bobo was sure that I had sneaked in and murdered his dog. Nothing I ever said could change his mind. But we still played together.

Bobo lived on Warren Street in a flat above their grocery store and we lived on Greene Street just around the block. Our favorite playground was “under the docks”, partially collapsed piers used in the nineteenth century by barges hauling coal for a now nonexistent iron foundry. Emptying into the Hudson River, the inlet itself was called “The Foundry” which source was the end of the sewer line, which carried away the waste after all of us in the Gammontown area flushed our toilets. The water would slowly drift in and out with the tides and the surface was a salt and pepper texture of human wastes and used condoms. (We called them rubbers) A hundred yards down, the flow was increased by the addition of chemical waste products from the Colgate Palmolive Peet factory.

Later most of that factory burnt to the ground. After the fire was out, they hauled hundreds of dump truck loads of soap and other products that were unsaleable because the firemen tried to put the fire out with water from “The Foundry”. No one would buy polution stained soap or hand lotion. But we kids climbed the dump trucks and threw the cases onto the street, our Mama’s would use that stuff, after all, it didn’t cost anything. One day Bobo disappeared and by nightfall the entire neighborhood watched from the banks of “The Foundry”. My little brother Joe and I stood quietly beside Mama and Pop as two rowboats drifted across the water, each in it’s own lantern light and firemen tossed the body hooks fishing for poor Bobo because that was the last place anyone had seen him. It was about 8:00 PM, they had been fishing for Bobo’s body four hours when someone hooked something. They dragged Bobo’s body out of the slime. He was probably playing among the many rowboats docked at the Greene Street Boat Club, slipped, knocked himself out, falling into the water and only nine years old when they dragged him up out of the slimy mud on the bottom. We didn’t know at the time that Bobo’s death was a sacrifice. It was rewarded three month’s later by the actions of a man made watchful of the neighborhood kids playing around the docks because he had stood along with us on the banks of The Foundry on that fateful night of Bobo’s death. It was he who had seen my brother Joe fall in to the water, reached down and gave little Joe back his life. We never baked potatoes after Bobo drowned.

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