Wednesday, May 7, 2008


A noisy crowd had gathered. Lots of guys, young and old, from the neighborhood, had shown up. Even a few adults and some excited teen-age girls were there, watching the two boys dancing and swinging their closed fists in front of their faces. And when the two threw their quick jabs and roundhouse punches, the hot sweat from their bodies splattered the crowd. Irish John, the taller of the two, had a reddish bruise over his left eye and Alley-boy’s lips were puffy and purple. On the sidelines we yelled for our guy and the others cheered for theirs. The two fought hard that summer day.

There was really no reason for the fight except these two were defending their “nationalities”. “Hey, kid, what’s your nationality?” they used to ask. Trying hard to fit in, I would quickly yell out “American”. Nah! The Irish kids would say “you’re a dago, a spaghetti-bender.”

It was hot that August day in ‘46 and most of us wore rolled up handkerchiefs around our necks to catch the sweat. At three o’clock the sun was at its brightest and hottest. That was our High Noon!

The fight had been arranged at the high school a few days before and everyone knew it was to take place on Saturday, approximately at three in the afternoon, at the school yard on Union Street. At that time this was a mixed neighborhood but still mostly Irish territory. Our side was coming from down Union Street, below Fifth Avenue. Although “the public” was invited, it was understood there was to be no weapons or “jumping in” by either side. Strictly no knives or zip guns. The rules were understood by participants and spectators alike: bare knuckles and bare to the waist, no hitting below the belt, and fight until one or the other gives up. The two pugilists were both high school seniors from Manual High on Seventh Avenue: Irish John, their best, and Alley-boy, our great Italian hope.

There were many small battles and tiny skirmishes fought between the Irish and the Italians in those days. And curiously, these were never fought in Ireland or Italy but in the inner-cities of the good ole U.S. of A. Those of us who’ve been around a while and who grew up in the Northeast in the Thirties and Forties remember those times.

At one point, one neighborhood adult tried to step in and stop the fight when Irish John’s eye was closed shut, but the crowd, yelling for blood, wouldn’t let it happen. “Go get’m, John!” the Irish yelled. “Kill the wop!” “In the la panza, we shouted back, in the belly!

The Irish and the Italians are great friends today; many of them have inter-married and have offspring that are half-Irish half-Italian. Red-headed freckle-faced kids have vowels at the end of their names, and dark-haired, brown-eyed Latins go by Murphy, Kelly and O’Brien. Italian Americans drink green beer and celebrate St. Patrick’s Day along side the Irish. And many Irish go to Mulberry Street and party at the San Gennaro festa.

The sweat was pouring down the hollow of their backs. They looked tired and had a problem keeping their hands up in front of there faces. Alley-boy’s lips were not only huge but cut and red from the blood. Still the crowd yelled for more. Our side was starting to worry.

The Irish had come to America many decades earlier and had to battle the Anglo mainstream for approval. They were in the process of winning acceptance when the Italians began crowding them and it was now the Italians turn to sit on the bottom rung of the ladder.

When the cops from the 78th finally came by in their black and whites, the crowd scattered in different directions, yet the fighters, unaware of the police, kept slugging until they were finally pulled apart.

On that hot August day in that Brooklyn school yard neither side declared a victory - neither Irish nor Italian. Anyway, it was a long time ago and as they say, it’s all ancient history now. Except for the old-timers, who remembers anyway?

Not saying a word, we walked Alley-boy down the block to Fifth Avenue. The Irish kids walked up toward Seventh.

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