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Nick Chiarkas shares, “Life Lessons from the Neighborhood”

Nick Chiarkas is the author of Weepers and Nunzio’s Way. You can find out more about him on his website www.nickchiarkas.com, or by clicking here, see his last post here, and buy his books here.

On October 7, 2022, I was the guest on House of Mystery (NBC) with Alan Warren. Among other topics, we discussed the primary inspiration for my novels Nunzio’s Way and Weepers. I had to think about it for a while since each of my books can stand independently, but they are part of the Weepers Series. So, what was my primary inspirational thread? It was wanting to show that when I was growing up, even though life was hard and dangerous, there was still love and cohesion between families, friends, and neighbors.

I grew up in the Al Smith housing projects in the Two Bridges neighborhood on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. It was late afternoon on a sunny day in 1957. I was 13 years old and reading on a bench in the small concrete playground near my building. I was sitting on the bench-back with my feet, in PF canvas high-top sneakers, on the bench seat. That was cool. I was alone reading a Little Lulu comic book. Sylvester Green, tall, tough, and 16 years old, walked into the playground.

He asked, “Whatcha readin’, Nicky?”

“Little Lulu.”

“Lemme hold your comic book.”

“No.”

I had to say “no,” or I would be a punk. I put up a bit of a fight, but Sylvester knocked me over the back of the bench into brittle and painful bushes that grew in the projects. He took my comic book and left. I got up and looked around; nobody saw what had happened. Good. I dusted myself off, wiped some blood off my face with my sleeve, and went home.

My mother met me at the door when I got to our apartment. She asked me where my comic book was.

“Ah, I must’ve left –”

She said, “Zitto cetriolo.” Which means “shut up, cucumber” in Italian. Why cucumber? I have no idea. “I saw that boy, Sylvester, take your comic book.”

“It’s no big deal, Ma; I –”

“No big deal? Andiamo.”

You guessed it, Andiamo means let’s go. She grabbed my arm, and off we went to Sylvester’s building. This was not good news for little Nicky, but I was counting on Sylvester being out somewhere, enjoying my comic book. As I said, it was a lovely day, and it wasn’t supper time or anything—no chance he would be home.

My mother knocked on Sylvester’s apartment door. Sylvester’s mother opened the door. “Marie, can I help you?”

“Stella, your son took my son’s comic book.”

“Sylvester, give Nicky back his comic book,” Stella shouted over her shoulder.

Let me point out she did not give Sylvester a chance to lie to her; she just told him what to do. Sylvester came to the door, handed me my Little Lulu comic book, and looked at me in a way that made it clear tomorrow would be a bad day for me since we went to the same school. My eyes and body language tried to explain to him that I didn’t say anything. My mom just saw what had happened. No use.

My mother thanked Mrs. Green. Mrs. Green thanked my mother. That was the end of it…except for me the next day.

When I think about that story, I realize that no police were involved. No one was hurt. The mothers took care of everything going on. Families knew families. Officers were rarely called for anything. The benches were usually lined with women and some out-of-work men. They all watched over the neighborhood. This was the inspirational string of the family and neighbors coming together to solve problems that tie my two novels together. And when they couldn’t handle something, they knew who to go to: Nunzio’s Sabino.

Despite the poverty, we (the kids growing up on those streets) felt loved and valued. Not just by our family but by our neighbors, not by the greater society, but by our neighborhood. The older women and men told us stories and shared life lessons. Lessons like: Don’t be a bully; Do what’s right even if you catch a beating; Be polite (please, thank you, hold a door); Share; Help; Don’t self-pity; Accept responsibility; Don’t be a sore loser; if you win don’t brag; Read at the Public Library; Be a stand-up guy. Mostly, I learned that it is not about what you get for what you do but what you become by doing it.

Nick Chiarkas is a Blackbird Writer, a Wisconsin Writers Association Board Member, and the author of nine traditionally published books: two award-winning novels, Weepers and Nunzio’s Way, and seven nonfiction books. He grew up in the Al Smith housing projects on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. When he was in the fourth grade, his mother was told by the principal of PS-1 that “Nick was unlikely ever to complete high school, so you must steer him toward a simple and secure vocation.” Instead, Nick became a writer, with a few stops along the way: a U.S. Army Paratrooper, a New York City Police Officer, Deputy Chief Counsel to the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, Deputy Chief Counsel for the President’s Commission on Organized Crime; Chief Counsel for the USATBCB; and the Director of the Wisconsin State Public Defender Agency. On the way, he picked up a Doctorate from Columbia University, a Law Degree from Temple University, and was a Pickett Fellow at Harvard. How many mothers are told that their children are hopeless? How many kids with potential surrender to despair? That’s why Nick wrote Weepers and Nunzio’s Way — for them.

Nick Chiarkas

Nick Chiarkas is the author of the (multi)award-winning novel WEEPERS. You can find out more about her on his website, nickchiarkas.com.

This Post Has 27 Comments

  1. Anne Louise Bannon
    Anne Louise Bannon

    It’s a good thing when parents are around. It’s so hard on kids when they aren’t.

    1. Nicholas Chiarkas
      Nicholas Chiarkas

      So true, Anne.

    1. Nicholas Chiarkas
      Nicholas Chiarkas

      Thank you, Margaret.

  2. GP Gottlieb
    GP Gottlieb

    Glad Little Nicky got to grow up, become a journalist, and write banging mysteries!

    1. Nicholas Chiarkas
      Nicholas Chiarkas

      Wow, thanks, GP…I think I grew up 🙂

  3. Christine DeSmet
    Christine DeSmet

    Beautiful post and memories filled with powerful wisdom.

    1. Nicholas Chiarkas
      Nicholas Chiarkas

      Ah, thanks, Christine, my dear friend and mentor.

  4. Sharon Lynn
    Sharon Lynn

    I love the picture of the kids! Thanks for sharing, Nick!

    1. Nicholas Chiarkas
      Nicholas Chiarkas

      Thanks, Sharon. My gang. I’m in the middle pretending to be cool.

  5. Avatar
    saralynrichard

    Your experiences provide a lot of material for your stories, Nick, and a lot of inspiration for others.

    1. Nicholas Chiarkas
      Nicholas Chiarkas

      Ah, thank you so much, Sarà, I appreciate that.

  6. Sherrill M Joseph
    Sherrill M Joseph

    It always breaks my heart when I hear adults, especially educators, say that a child won’t amount to anything. I’m glad you and your mother didn’t listen. Thanks for sharing a piece of your childhood.

    1. Nicholas Chiarkas
      Nicholas Chiarkas

      Thank you, Sherrill, I agree with you.

  7. Carl Vonderau
    Carl Vonderau

    I got a real feel for the neighborhood. What life lessons you must have learned.

  8. Nicholas Chiarkas
    Nicholas Chiarkas

    Thanks, Carl, I loved listening to the stories of the older folks sitting on the benches…it was a different time.

  9. Sheila Lowe
    Sheila Lowe

    Culture (“Life”) has certainly changed a lot since then. Not always for the better. Thanks for sharing your story.

    1. Nicholas Chiarkas
      Nicholas Chiarkas

      Thanks, Sheila, I agree, the change has not always been better.

  10. Nicholas Chiarkas
    Nicholas Chiarkas

    Thank you, Laurie, I appreciate your kind words.

  11. Nicholas Chiarkas
    Nicholas Chiarkas

    John, my brother, you know me so well. Thanks again for your kind interview, dear friend.

  12. Tracey S. Phillips
    Tracey S. Phillips

    Nick, I love your stories! I love how you bring family into the picture. And I love how you help others rise above the hurt and hate. Thank you for your books. And Thanks for being a Blackbird Member.

  13. Nicholas Chiarkas
    Nicholas Chiarkas

    Ah, thank you, Tracey; it is a true honor being a member of the Blackbird Flock, my dear friend.

  14. Avatar
    John and Mary Nordlie

    Nick, our awesome friend – there is nothing that you cannot accomplish and always do it very well. So happy to have you in our life – your stories are thought provoking and memorable. The pictures open all our eyes to growing up in NYC. We are so proud of you.

  15. Nicholas Chiarkas
    Nicholas Chiarkas

    Thank you, Mary, my dear friend, and John, please continue to recover smoothly, brother.

  16. Avatar
    Donald J. Rebovich

    Nick:
    You probably don’t remember me, but I was one of your students when you were a college professor in New Jersey. It is certainly understandable if you “blocked me out” because I was a pain in the neck in your classes. Sort of a class clown. I recently got around to reading Nunzio’s Way and just want to say that not only did I think it was wonderful, but it reminded me that you were probably the greatest influence in my life in pursuing a career in criminal justice education. I wound up working in the adminiistration of a state attorney general’s office, teaching at a university and dedicating my career to the control of fraud and crimes against the environment. Your story about being told by an adult that one might not amount to anything hit home for me, because I had the same experience. And sometimes, it takes one person to take one out of that mindset to help one realize one’s true potential. To me, that person was you. Thank you, Professor Chiarkis.

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