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?”
“Lemme hold your comic book.”
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.