FRESH YARN presents:

West Side Story
By Claudia Lonow

There are times when two completely different parts of one's life come together in unexpected ways, causing chaos and destruction. This happened to me in junior high, when the show business world I'd grown up in collided with my membership in a gang.

I spent ages three to eleven in an artsy-fartsy Greenwich Village cocoon. My parents were struggling actors who struggled more often than they acted. Their friends were a ragtag bunch of misfits whose ill-advised efforts at artistic immortality were comically futile, and, the fact that they didn't know that only made them sadder…yet funnier, too. For instance, my mother's best friend and fellow Improv troupe member constantly changed her name, going from Eva to Kay to Tanya to Joyce, in the hopes that just the right moniker would stand out and lead to her big break. These changes would be announced as if they were important decisions that would alter her destiny. Her destiny of nameless obscurity, it turned out.

My stepfather's best friend was Paul Crossgroven. Although Paul looked like a young Carol O'Connor, he never achieved the slightest amount of success. And the most striking thing I can say about him, besides the fact that his son tried to molest me, is he had once tasted his own shit. Or so my mother claimed, one windy day as we walked down Houston Street. I asked her why he did that, and she replied that he'd been overcome by curiosity. Not knowing what to make of such overwhelming inquisitiveness, I hugged myself in my uncomfortable snowsuit and thought, "How dark and glamorous."

I loved my showbiz childhood, surrounded by out-of-work thespians practicing their improv skits in my living room, asking me to call out suggestions of professions and locations. "Two plumbers on the Autobahn!" I'd shout out, as I cooked up a can of macaroni and cheese for my supper. My parents' life was a whirl of singing lessons, diction practice, method acting, primal scream exercises, and braless girls who didn't shave their armpits crying over their latest boyfriend problems in our teeny weeny kitchen.

But that all changed when I turned twelve and had to go to junior high school. See, the junior high in our district, IS 70, was not in Greenwich Village. It was, instead, in a bad neighborhood on 17th street in between 8th and 9th Avenues. I knew it was bad because in the winter the tenants of the decrepit brownstones across the street from the school put their milk on their fire escapes to keep it cold because they couldn't afford refrigerators. I don't know what they did in the summer. Drink their milk faster perhaps? The point is, the liberal, middle class Jewesses I'd grown up with and I were suddenly surrounded by black girls who, for whatever reason, hated us, and voiced their collective desire to kick our asses quite frequently.

I first realized these girls detested me, and had the skills to let me know it, after an altercation I got into with a black girl who was named Linda Dykke. I don't know if Linda was a dyke, but she did have quite the unflattering hairstyle and a not-great complexion. This isn't to say that all African-American lesbians have bad hair and skin, but Linda did and it wasn't my fault.

One day, I was in P.E., which I had already dubbed the bane of my existence…even though I hadn't existed that long and had so many more existential banes ahead of me. The Physical Education program at I.S. 70 was so effective at bringing about the greatest possible humiliation to a girl going through puberty, it's hard to believe it wasn't designed for that purpose. The ill-fitting uniforms, the unflattering fluorescent lighting of the gymnasium, the full-length funhouse-like mirrors in the locker rooms. Not to mention the expectation that we, a bunch of twelve-year-old girls who didn't know each other, would take off our clothes and shower together when pubic hair, breasts and blood could shoot out of us, Carrie-like, at any time.

It was during P.E. that I happened to walk by Linda Dykke. Previous to the incident, I'd been under the impression that Linda Dykke and I were friends, if your definition of friend is that she never threatened to beat me up, or even call me "Honky" except for once and that was only in play. In any case as I walked past her, I said, "Hi Linda," and waved. Linda immediately got upset. "You put your hand too close to my face," she said. I don't remember what I said next because she did one of those black girl high school pushing you things. "You put yo' hand too close to my face, bitch." Needless to say, things went downhill from there.

I got out of the Linda Dykke situation, ironically, through the intervention of a mutual mulatto acquaintance named DiDi. But my friends and I still knew that we needed help and protection if we were to survive the mean hallways of I.S. 70. So me, Kathy, Karen, Nina, Johanna, and a girl we called "Kate the Whore," joined a white gang of Irish and Italian boys called the Go Club. Where they were going, we were never sure. The leader was Piggy, an attractive psychopath who gave me the nickname "Crapaport" -- a clever play on my real last name of Rapaport. Oh, Piggy. What a wit! His second in command was Mex. Mex and I dated for a single party. We spent the whole time in a dark room making out. He nibbled at my neck so compulsively I worried he would disconnect my head. I wouldn't let him finger fuck me, so he dumped me the next day. The gang did have one black guy in it named Ulysses that we called "Black Ulysses," without a trace of irony. The gang contained other ancillary members, many of whom were, like myself, in the theatre department. Chief among those was a boy I liked named Jeffrey.

Both Jeffrey and I were in the Go Club, but also in our junior high production of Gypsy. This was my first attempt to follow in my parents' acting footsteps. I was playing Dainty June, a humiliating role that required me to sing and dance with a girl dressed like a cow. The girl in the cow suit hated me, and whispered invectives at me through her snout. Jeffrey was in the chorus. I did everything I could to get next to him during rehearsal, in the hopes he'd ask me to the Junior Prom. But he never really noticed me. Or perhaps he did and the whole song I did with the angry cow put him off. After opening night, there was a party at the school. Per usual, Jeffrey didn't pay any attention to me.

Eventually, he and a bunch of the guys left the party to find some fun. They drank, smoked pot. They got really fucked up. They started kicking metal garbage cans down the street. A man coming home from the grocery store stopped and told them to cool it. They laughed and swatted the groceries out of his arms. The man, a black belt in karate, moved to defend himself. Jeffrey took out a switchblade from his back pocket. The man, confident that he was more than capable of protecting himself against a thirteen-year-old boy, reached for Jeffrey's arm. But Jeffrey surprised him and lunged. Blade met skin and blade won. The man clutched his belly, surprised. Jeffrey screamed, "Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god!" as the man crumpled to the floor, helpless. It was West Side Story come to life. All singing, all dancing, all stabbing.

The next day I heard the story from my parents. Turns out the man with the groceries that Jeffrey killed was Paul Crossgroven, my stepfather's best friend from acting class. The best man at my mother and stepfather's wedding. The overly-curious shit taster. I couldn't believe it. The boy I'd wanted to go to the Junior Prom with had stabbed my stepfather's best friend. I was one degree away from violent painful death. I felt like I'd killed him myself.

Several months later, Jeffrey called me. I don't know how he got my number. Because he was a minor and Paul had a black belt, Jeffrey had beaten the rap on self-defense. He had been moved to a special school...for murderers, I guess...and was going to a therapist. He told me he was sorry, and asked if we could get together. But as cute as he was, I just couldn't fathom dating a killer. I said no. That was the end of me and Jeffrey, not to mention me and the Go Club. After I left I.S. 70, I went to the High School of Music and Art, and started taking acting classes, thus replacing the Go Club with a new gang of boys who had loud, nasally singing voices, and who all grew up to be homosexuals.

The thing that haunts me even now is this: Paul Crossgroven didn't deserve to die. He was a nobody, and all his dreams, fears, aspirations, and failures were ended in one blazingly stupid action taken by a thoughtless child. But then again, do any of us deserve to die? I mean, what the hell do we do to deserve death besides live? Not that we really deserve to live, either. But once we're dead, does it matter how long we lived, or if we ever achieved our goals? Does anybody care? If they do, there's nothing we can do about it anyway. We're dead. It's over.

For Paul Crossgroven, this moment here, with me telling you this story about him and how he died, is the most fame he'll probably ever achieve. I hope if he can read this, he's taking a well-deserved bow.


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