Inspiration: To draw, create or write. It comes in many forms.
One can draw inspiration from a sight, a sound or from a blog post written by a friend.
This story comes from the latter.
My good friend Chris recently penned a coming-of-age story about his first brush with mortality (someone else’s) in the summer of 1977 in New York City.
That was an incredible summer that included a very long heat wave in an economically struggling city that endured a major blackout while also gripped by a serial killer who took his murderous orders from a neighbor’s dog.
Oh, and the Yankees won a World Series in dramatic fashion later in the year.
An image that Chris described vividly was his first close look at a dead person not in a casket or at a traditional wake or funeral.
That image was my muse as it brought back a memory of my first dead body — actually two dead bodies.
My encounter happened in the spring of 1976.
I was in sixth grade, attending a public school that I started halfway through the year after returning from one of my parent’s long stays in Argentina.
It was a bright spring morning and I entered the schoolyard.
The three-story L-shaped school building was along the right side. Along the left ran a side street adjacent to the Cross Bronx Expressway, a hellish portion of Interstate 95.
Separating the students from the street was a 12-foot chain link fence. Put razor wire across the top and the school would be indistinguishable from a detention center or jail.
The top grade at P.S. 36 was the sixth, so we were the oldest — the top of the food chain.
As I entered the yard, I immediately saw that it was empty of runners and chasers of any age.
Uh-oh. Was I late?!
Nope, there they were, all piled up against the fence at the corner of the yard looking out at the side street.
The whole area was abuzz.
“Can you see it?!”
“Is it bleeding?!”
But I couldn’t get close enough to see anything. All the teachers who were normally inside the fence were outside of it, some telling the kids to calm down and get away from the fence and talking to each other, gesturing to a parked car.
From our angle, the car was just far enough up the street that we could make out some shapes in the front seat and not much more.
The teachers were moving in front of our line of sight to block a clear view. But what we knew from all the whispering and buzzing was that there was a dead body in the car.
The school yard rear delimiter ended past the school building.
It had the same chain link fence, and at that moment, most of the school had climbed up a large portion of it.
To the right was another fence and a back gate. A teacher typically was posted at the front and this rear gate to ensure that any child that passed through it would not attempt to leave.
It was unguarded. And now my friend Jaimie and I quickly devised a plot.
He lived in a house adjacent to that rear fence. He had come in the back gate, hooked up with me and another kid and gave us the rundown of what he had seen.
From his home window, he could not see much and his mom had shooed him out their back door and into the school gate before he could get a closer look.
But now he told us that we could go out that gate, in his house’s back gate, down the alley along the side of his house and get right up to the front and take a look.
We were like mini ninjas. We ran out the back silently. We ran through the back of his house and into the alley.
Somehow I was in front and ran right up to the passenger door of the car.
Like a comedy, my two partners in crime probably banged into my back when I stopped short. I don’t remember.
But what I do remember vividly was the open window and the view into the front of the car.
Two dead bodies, extremely bloody from the holes in the sides of their heads and bodies.
One was slumped over the steering wheel; the other had its head back in the passenger seat.
That image freeze framed in my mind forever.
I can’t recall any other details of the car or bodies, just that there was a lot of blood.
We then heard a yell directed at us, and just as comically, we stumble-ran back through Jaimie’s house alley and back into the school yard.
I can pinpoint that it occurred on a Friday because I remember trying to find something about it in the newspaper the next day. There was a small paragraph in the crime blotter. Two unidentified men were found shot to death in a parked car, and very little else.
I can’t say that the event shocked or scarred me.
Anytime I see “Goodfellas” I am reminded of it.
Recently I introduced my kids to the movie and afterward I retold this story to my kids.
They were more fascinated with my story than the movie.
We sat at my computer and I brought up my old school on Google Maps and switched to satellite view. Very little had changed structurally and I could point to all the landmarks in my story.
The only difference is a storefront now exists in front of Jaimie’s house, where the teachers were all milling around that day.
As I looked at the street view image I could still picture that car with its dead driver and passenger.
Oddly, this is my only memory of sixth grade at P.S. 36.
Editor’s note from Chris Mele:
Here’s a plot twist: It turns out that before Silvio and I knew each other, we had both had some experience of this very same caper.