The Angels of 286 E. 2nd Street

In 1984 there were real life angels living at 286 E. 2nd Street in New York City’s Lower East Side. I know there were angels living there for a fact because even though I’m not an angel, I lived there too.  And the people in this building helped save my life, in large part, by helping me decide to continue taking part in it. You don’t get more angel than that.

I was held up at gunpoint early one August morning on a Brooklyn street in 1984 and shot in the head at point blank range. The bullet, along with some bone fragments to keep it company, remains lodged in my brain. Knowing the wound can abscess at any time and, if it does, possibly end my life, is a full plate’s worth of reality to digest.

While it was the 84th Precinct of the New York City Police Department and the doctors and nurses in Long Island College Hospital that saved my life. It was the angels of 286 East Second Street that helped me decide to keep it, and then, live it.

My dictionary, New Oxford American English, defines the noun, angel, as “a spiritual being believed to act as an attendant, agent, or messenger of God, conventionally represented in human form with wings and a long robe.” 

This definition perfectly describes the angels of 286, though being from the New York City’s Lower East Side, they didn’t need any wings – or robes, for that matter. It would have cramped their style, come to think of it.

I moved into 286 in the early 1980s. It was there I met, for the first time, Dane Arnold, Hart Faber, Joshua Holland, Zeke Kisling, Arthur May, Kenneth Mencher, Dominique Nadel, Dorrill Semper, Kathy Semper, Thomas Weatherly. 

Every single one of them, honest, compassionate, loving, strong. In truth, they are, every single one of them, some of the most extraordinary individuals I’ve ever known. 

Each one of the exemplified that singular wisdom of Henry David Thoreau by allowing themselves to be themselves.

“I learned this, at least, by my experience: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” 

GET THAT NIGGER!

This is an excerpt from the memoir. In a day when too many are still addicted to violence, it seems real violence, like that in this chapter, ought to make your gut churn.

It is 1981 and I am walking down Court Street in Brooklyn with a friend of mine named Charlie. We hear angry voices behind us yelling and screaming. We turn and see a young black man running his heart out down the center of Court Street. He is coming towards us and maybe 20 angry young white male teenagers are chasing him. The young black man who looks to be in his twenties runs past us, his face lit wild with terror.

Voices scream, “Get that fucking nigger! Get that nigger!”

I tell Charlie get to the other side of the street, lets stay with this.

We are running on either side of the angry crowd of young whites now, watching what happens. Some are carrying sticks, pieces of two-by-four. One carries a piece of rebar about the length of a baseball bat. I am hoping the young black man gets away.

He doesn’t.

They catch him and the angry young white boy with the rebar slams it across the back of the young black man. He crumbles to the ground. He tries to get up but another angry young white breaks a piece of wood across his back. The young black man now wobbles upwards, but he is downed again when a bottle smashes across his head. There is blood everywhere now. He is on the ground screaming.

“Please God don’t kill me! Please God! Please God! I have a wife and children! Please God! Please God don’t let them kill me!”

I lock eyes with Charlie and motion for him to call the police. I move fast into the crowd, reaching the young black man through a barrage of kicks and punches. There is a pause in the violence, a sudden quiet, the angry mob not knowing what to make of me. I pull the young black man up into my arms and hold him against a parked car so it shields him on one side. I shield him on the other.

We are surrounded by anger and hatred, the white teens reach past me to punch him and I push him down out of their reach. They are the clean cut Italian boys from the neighborhood, I am the long haired one with an earring and beard. I know I am a look they are not used to, a look they are wary of. Ignorance is not bliss. Sometimes its an ally. One boy reaches in and I drive my hand into his throat, pushing him back into other boys and glare as viciously as I know how. I know they must think I am willing to kill one of them.

Again some surge forward and try to reach past me and punch him. When this happens, I push the young black man back into a crouch , keeping him out of reach and firing hard vicious words like bullets back into the the pack of angry white teens. A pack that is now nothing more than a single rage-filled being: seething, pulsing, breathing as one, dripping with hate.

I say, “The fuck you doing? You really want to kill him? You want to go to jail for him? You want to die tonight?”

One reaches in again and again I drive my hand into a throat. Our eyes meet. I know if this mob explodes into us I will have to damage or kill someone quickly. Suddenly a big Italian man joins me in protecting the young black man. He is older than all of us, huge and burly and powerful, no nonsense. His presence nearly stills the mob completely. Later I find out he is one of the powers in the neighborhood and deeply respected by all.

Police units arrive and take the bleeding terrified young man to the hospital. I thank the big Italian man. He says, “Hey, I hear him say he got a wife and kids. That’s all I gotta hear. The man’s got family.”

The police say they are taking the young black man to Long Island College Hospital. The police are from the 84th Precinct, the same precinct that will save my life three years later.
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AFTER TRAUMA, REMEMBER THE BASICS

Life happens to us whether we like it or not. All of it, including trauma, and the numerous experiences that fall under the umbrella of trauma: accidents, acts of violence, the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, home, friendship, the onset of disease or disability. The list goes on.


There are no magic answers to managing trauma other than to give yourself permission to go through the experience and seek the kind of support, not that you need, but that you deserve. There is something else too. Remember the basics.


When I say remember the basics, I mean exactly that. Do your best to remember to bathe or shower. Don’t forget to wash your hair, brush your teeth, wash your clothes, change your clothes. If you’re having a hard time finding your appetite, try to eat some healthy foods. If you find you can’t stop eating, again, healthy foods. Your body deserves as much respect as your heart, mind and soul. Remember to keep clean sheets on the bed. If you are prescribed medicine, remember to take it. See if you can tidy up your living area from time to time. If you find yourself struggling with these things, try and let someone know. I don’t for a second think you need help or need support, I think you damn well deserve it. We all do when life takes a hard run at us.


If you are struggling with the basics it does not mean there is something wrong with you. It does not mean you are flawed person or, for that matter, a weak person. It means that you are a human being and there are times life dishes out experiences that still our regular life patterns and knock us down. No matter how difficult and grueling the experience of being one can be from time to time, being a human being is a good thing. It may not always feel that way, but I believe it always is that way.


Allow yourself your humanity. When you remember the basics, even if you can only manage some of them, you are remember to take care of yourself in a very real way. Taking care of the basics forces us to remember ourselves, and tend to ourselves. And that, I promise you, is a healthy thing – and a healing thing. Remembering the basics is you taking care of you. And if there is anyone you deserve support from – it is you.



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