THE LONESOME DEATH OF “LOUIE THE FAG”
The car exploded, tires squealing, off the light at 6th Street and Third Avenue, racing parallel to the Gowanus Canal, flying over the bridge and past the light at Third Street, already accelerating past 50 mph. Most likely a supercar, a 396 Chevelle SS or Pontiac GTO—make and model blurred by velocity and the deafening roar of wide-open headers echoing off factory walls.
The driver, most likely escaped from the grimy Puerto Rican tenements on the far side of Hamilton Avenue, and doubtless animated—as I was—by poverty and rage and otherness, was racing toward the Williamsburg Bank, a phallic 37-story tombstone looming over South Brooklyn, its clock ticking our lives away. Approaching Carroll Street, he would have been oblivious to the teeming sidewalks and crowded street corners shimmering in the heat, the little girls skipping rope on the cracked sidewalks. Certainly unaware of Louie the Fag who’d climbed wearily up the steps of the Union Street subway station, shrugged into a thin, black cotton jacket, and was walking along Fourth Avenue to President Street.
In the 1960s, ours was a community still trailing roots and tendrils plucked from the desolate triangle of crumbling villages southwest of Naples and deposited like weeds along the Gowanus’s pestilent banks: Nocera, Tramonti, Scafati, Pagani, Eboli, a place so forlorn, legend has it, that Christ the Redeemer was stopped in his tracks. Castellammare di Stabia was Al Capone’s ancestral home, but Capone, despite the Chicago pedigree, was born in Brooklyn, at 38 Garfield Place, two blocks from my house. For some reason I’m very proud of this fact and the bullet holes in the doorway of a long-shuttered bar on 4th Avenue where Frank (“Frankie Shots”) Abbatemarco was…shot.
My Coppola and Falcone grandparents immigrated from Pagani; Al Pagano ran the local hardware store, keeping nails in wooden barrels sold by the pennyweight. Thirty-five first cousins live within three blocks of my house. The Giordanos, my mother’s family, serve Sunday dinner—spaghetti, meatballs, sausage, braciole, veal Parmigiana, the whole red sauce parade—on a long table on the sidewalk at the corner of Nevins and Carroll. I can practically ask the driver of an idling car to pass me a meatball. Homemade wine, sweetened with peaches, was provided courtesy of old man Stuto for $3.00 a gallon.
After half-a-century in Brooklyn, the old extended families—Russo, Persico, Giordano, Lauro, Stuto, Barbella, Montemarano, Manzo, were so intertwined and intermarried as to be indistinguishable, a community bound by blood, ethnicity, organized crime and distrust of anyone—priest, policeman, politician—beyond the canal banks, a magic circle, often irrational and ultraviolent, but tender and intensely protective of its own. Three certifiable psychotics, and two horribly inbred brothers—creatures from the canal’s black lagoon—wandered the streets with the suffix “-pazzo” (crazy) pinned like donkey tails, to their names. “Dent in the Head,” was another; cruel, by today’s standards, but a hilarious descriptor in dialect Italian. Mrs. Mahoney, my grandfather’s tenant, outraged the black-clad widows making Tuesday novenas by “cursing God” in a thick brogue. Another woman heard the tap-tap-tapping of “niggers on the roof.” Our lone Native American (“Sonny the Indian”) with a brooding, obsidian stare longed to be part of the Colombo crime family. He hurt his chances by getting drunk on Saturday nights and wrecking their Capri Club headquarters, but was rehabilitated after enduring days of torture by Joe Gallo’s rival faction. No one thought of institutionalizing them. These were our crazies: sons, daughters, brothers, mothers, woven, however dysfunctionally, into the fabric of our lives. Psychiatrically speaking. we were ahead of the curve.
Louie the Fag was 10 years older than I and wore his salt and pepper hair cut short, Caesar-style. I sported a greasy pompadour. Louie worked a dead-end job in a department store on Fulton Street. He was gay, though the word didn’t yet exist. Not swishy, not a “fairy” as defined in those days. Two drag queens, Sarah and Sally, lisping and predatory hairdressers, filled that bill. Another, “Butchie the Fag,” was captain of the patrol boys at Our Lady of Peace Elementary School. He had a flaming red streak in his hair. When I taunted him, Butchie beat the shit out of me in front of the Capri Club, in full view of half-a-dozen laughing wiseguys. Ten years later I learn my own brother is gay/
Louie was teased—who wasn’t?—not tormented. I read books so I was “Vinny the Boob.” A sociopath gangbanger from Fifth Avenue was “Vinny the Loon.” “Jimmy the Morgue” who worked the night shift at Kings County Hospital was an alleged necrophiliac. “Apples” McIntosh chopped people up.
Louie ate hero sandwiches with us in Otto’s candy store, played pinochle, brisk (briscola) and gin rummy with the guys, drove with us to Coney Island on summer nights for Nathan’s hot dogs. I never caught a sexual vibe from him, though I was certainly not privy to the inner man. He lived with his mother, had nieces and nephews, was Jerry Castaldo’s, aka “Alibi Ike,” best friend. Louie was from the neighborhood. That, more than sexual orientation, defined him. It sounds naïve, but Louie was liberated long before the 1969 Stonewall riots, and dwelt, however uncomfortably, inside the magic circle.
The machine, thundering past First Street was now something monstrous, a reanimated thing from a Stephen King novel, over-revving engine snarling, exhaust thundering, front end leaping as the driver, hunched over the metalflake steering wheel, shifted into fourth gear. Buffalo Manzo, grilling Italian sausages on a steel drum cut in half, would have looked up as the wave of sound engulfed him. Dean Martin, blasting from the juke box on the sidewalk outside the Capri Club, was drowned out. The gamblers gathered around a parked car strained to hear the Aqueduct results. On Carroll Street, the light in front of Tony’s Barber Shop gleamed green. By then, Louie would have reached Romanelli’s Funeral Home at the corner of President and Third Avenue. He might have glanced up at the newly installed stop light at the intersection.
If I sound naïve talking about tolerance in such a macho culture, I’m not. My younger brother Thomas, handsome as a movie star, dreamed of being an actor. To this day, his photograph stops young women in their tracks when they visit my house. Gay, he contracted AIDS in 1982, manifested as Kaposis Sarcoma, a terribly disfiguring and invasive skin cancer. He returned to Carroll Street to die. He was 28. My mother fed and bathed and comforted him for a year. My father, a very tough dockworker, drove him to Sloan-Kettering Memorial Hospital three times a week for an alpha interferon infusion. When love and prayer could not sustain him, Thomas had to be moved from Carroll Street to the Mother Cabrini Hospice on East 19th Street in Manhattan. I remember it was the morning the Vietnam Memorial was dedicated in lower Manhattan. I remember Thomas a week from a terrible death, telling me to make sure to give the EMTs a great tip.
I remember buying his grave while he still lived.
As we waited for that final ambulance, my mother, Gloria, noticed a dozen neighborhood women, gathered outside our house. “Those bitches,” she sobbed, “won’t let my son die in peace.”
At this point, my father was helpless, crippled by emphysema. I, the Ivy League grad, bolted out the front door to pound these women to pulp. When I reached the sidewalk, there they were—Phyllis Hubela, Josie and Rosie Stuto, Millie Pepe, Margaret Barbella, Carmella Persico, half a dozen others.
All of them sobbing.
All rushing to embrace me.
In 2015, on a Sunday morning, you might spot a solitary helmeted biker wending his way from Carroll Gardens, across the 125-year old Carroll Street Bridge (operated by a complex pulley and rail mechanism, the oldest functioning “retractile” bridge in the U.S.) up deserted Carroll Street, past Monte’s Venetian Room and Our Lady of Peace Church (my father’s among the names inscribed on the World War II Memorial), across Fourth Avenue and up into Park Slope.
In the 1970s, the neighborhood was teeming. Sunday mornings, the smell of simmering tomato sauce wafting from every house. Women—my mother Gloria first and foremost in high heels and tight dresses—and school kids glumly making their way to church where attendance was taken by a brutal Franciscan named Sister Mary Malachy. On Easter Sundays, dozens of potted lilies appeared on the concrete sidewalk in front of the Capri Club, to be purchased and carried to the Green-Wood or Holy Cross cemeteries. For me, the line between the living and the dead is thin as gossamer. My grandmother, Anna Coppola, existed only as a name on a tombstone. I would meet her decades later when I taught at the school my father dropped out of, her spidery signature buried in a long-forgotten file in the basement of Automotive High School in Williamsburg. In the records, Italians are not listed as “White.”
When Louie reached the corner of President and Third that fatal Saturday afternoon, I was halfway down President leaning against a car outside Otto’s Candy Store joking with my friend Peter L. and the guys. My three brothers no doubt scattered in the schoolyards and empty lots canal-side that were our playgrounds. Gloria would have finished her grocery shopping at Spinner’s supermarket on “the Avenue.” That was Fifth Avenue before the stretch between Flatbush and Third Street came to resemble Dresden 1945. The street has come back yet again, now bustling with hipsters, wine bars and upscale trattorias like Al Di La.
My father, a longshoreman like most neighborhood men, was working overtime at the Black Diamond Lines pier in Red Hook. Women, young and old, were sitting outside their houses on vinyl and chrome kitchen chairs, some rocking baby carriages, others knitting the sequined hats commissioned by an enterprising wholesaler named Jennie Pentangelo from Nevins Street. Teenage girls—corpse-white lipstick was the style and it drove me wild—were sitting in halters and tight shorts on the stoops, listening to AM radio and discussing boys other than me. Young kids darted between parked cars, teasing and punching and hurling idiotic insults at one another. Some with the faces of Botticelli angels:
“Hey Mister, can you help me cross the fucking street?” I remember one calling out to me,
Unlike the sepulchral streets above 6th Avenue, noise a was constant on Third Ave: bellowing tractor-trailers making their way to Atlantic Avenue from the piers; the B-37 bus, squealing brakes and diesel fumes, fatalistic Puerto Rican kids hitching on the back bumpers, clinging by their fingernails, exhaust fumes blowing in their faces; the Four Seasons shrieking “Rag Doll” from Johnny Di Mucci’s yellow Electra 225 convertible; black gangbangers with do-rags and lye-based straighteners plastering their heads blasting soul music from eggplant-colored Caddies; the singsong Italian of Angioletti the fruit peddler; Con Edison trucks hauling groaning spools of cable (chopped my cousin JuJu’s fingers right off when he hitched a ride); the loudmouths and “handicappers” on the corner shouting and cursing over losing bets, trying to avoid the all-seeing eye of the bookie we called “The Goose.”
The driver was doing at least 100 mph when he passed the Glory Social Club, roughly 150 feet-per-second. If the light on President Street had blinked red he didn’t see it, couldn’t react, or jammed the gas petal to the floor and ran right-fucking through it. At that instant, Louie had one second to live. I imagine him stepping off the curb, maybe spotting his mom walking up President Street, the hint of a smile forming on his lips. Parked cars blinding him to approaching death.
Perhaps he was thinking of nothing at all.
Half-a-block away, I heard thunder echoing off the cars lined bumper-to-bumper along Third Ave, a roar, a snarl and then a sickening sound like no other. Years later, when an old man in pajamas jumped out the 20th floor window of a Brooklyn Heights hotel and landed 10 feet in front of me, I heard someone describe the impact as “a watermelon thrown off a tall ladder onto a marble slab.” I whirled toward the sound—we all did—and saw a figure soaring, soaring over the arm of the light pole as cleanly as a kicked field goal. But for that sound, it could have been a straw man, old jeans and a stuffed shirt made during the World Series and hung from lampposts to deride the Yankees.
The car never even slowed. It blew past Union Street and was gone. When I reached the corner, 20 people were already gathered in a wobbly circle, and more coming. The body was slumped face-down. A viscous corona leaking around the skull, black chinos half-pulled down from the impact, the obscenity of death. A minute went by, seemed like an hour; no one dared approach the lonely lifeless thing on the asphalt. No one wanted to claim it for their own. Then women began shrieking out names.
“Oh Jesus! It’s Louie!”
I stepped closer. Closer still. Peter Lauro, who’d die way too young, seized my arm in his iron grip. His face was all wrong.
“Come on,” he said. “Let’s get the fuck out of here.”
I couldn’t finish. Thick salt and pepper hair…black cotton jacket…the scuffed work shoes, the blood. My father. I pulled away, ran the short block to Carroll Street, turned right, heart pounding, dodged cars, burst through our unlocked door, the ribbon of Christmas bells that served as our doorbell jangling.
She was gone. I jerked open the closet door and began tearing through coats and jackets and blouses. My father’s black jacket was missing. Shouting, I ran in and out of neighbors’ houses, up and down creaking staircases. No answer, no Gloria, no one home.
Sobbing, I walked slowly back to President Street. I had to keep my brothers away. A siren wailed in the distance. I burst through the magic circle, now a bulwark against the outside world. It was deathly quiet.
Louie’s mother was kneeling by his side.
Attempting to shield him, she turned his head.
Vince Coppola grew up on the infamous Gowanus Canal in the 1960s. He taught at Automotive H.S. in Brooklyn, graduated from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, spent 10 years as a Newsweek reporter, but always returned to his Italian-American roots. Among other works, he wrote an acclaimed biography of the impoverished Sicilian immigrant, Anthony Alaimo, a bomber pilot who took part in the Great Escape of WWll and went on to become a respected federal district court judge in Georgia.. “Ernie Palmieri” is one of a series of unpublished remembrances of Coppola’s Brooklyn life.