Tuesday, October 19, 2004


Here's a little piece about a gangster and a guy named DiAngelo:

My son and I are riding back to Prospect Place in Brooklyn on the Friday night L train. Across from us is this tough looking guy sitting on the plastic subway bench. He’s totally engrossed in a book, so I can get a really good look at him without being rude.

I’m a country boy from Michigan, so being this close to what the media portrays as a ‘Gangster’ is pretty cool. He’s only a couple of feet away. What's a guy like that doing reading a book, anyway?

Gangsters don't read books, I think to myself.

His wavy black hair is waxed down on his head real snug, flat and shiny and the length of it is tied down in back. The black tee shirt he’s wearing reveals nasty looking tattoos on each thick arm. Each of the fingers holding the book has a tattoo on it. One little finger has been half cut off. And, there are a couple of scars on his brown face, the one on his upper lip pulls it up in a white line snarl.

This man is one rough character, I can see. He looks Puerto Rican and around 40 years old. If he were pissed at me, I’d be scared. I don't want him to see me checking him out so closely.

But, there’s his young son leaning on him. The Brooklyn subway lolling him softly into his Dad as I let the sight of them sink in and wonder: Son, has brown skin and black hair, too…but downy soft. He tries, but can’t get his Dad’s attention. They’ve both got on calf length, baggy jeans.

Finally, Dad leans forward over the book to better concentrate. And, son relaxes in behind him falling into a safe snooze.

If I were growing up in Crown Heights, I’d want a dad just like this one, because nobody’d mess with me. He gets up to leave when we do.

As we leave the train I catch the title of the book he’s been studying so hard: Nikos Kazantzakis’s “Japan/China: a journal of two voyages to the Far East”. And, I’m kind of dazzled.

That night, I surf up Kazantzakis. And, to give you an idea what this apparent gangster on the train was studying so hard, dig this:

“Kazantzakis is one of the most important Greek writers, poets and philosophers of the 20th century. He was more a philosopher than a writer, was deeply influenced by the writings of Nietzsche and Bergson, and the philosophies of Christianity, Marxism and Buddhism. In his work, he attempted to synthesize these different world views. Kazantzakis believed, it is our responsibility to seek out and work with the most vibrant ideological movement that enables life's élan to ascend.”

"life's élan", I really dig that.

And, here’s this gangster/tough guy who is well into his book.

And, I get an idea of how our senses fool us. And, scold myself.

The next day I’m on Prospect Place helping my son move some of his stuff to his studio in DUMBO; and, my eyes meet those of a passer-by. He’s a handsome, young, black man pushing a stroller with a little baby in it. I am warned to not be too mid-west friendly on Prospect Place, because there are real Gangsters there. Unable to restrain myself, I smile at him and ask about his baby.

Surprising me, he stops to chat. I learn that he was born on Prospect Place and grew up here, and his parents were too. His name’s DiAngelo, and he says it was a great place to grow up.

The next block is closed off for a Block Party and as we chat, we are looking at it. Kids of all ages are flying around on their bikes, smoke curling up from throw-a-way grills smack dab in the center of the street, grannies lazing there in lawn chairs. DiAngelo points out his 8 year old son carelessly riding his bike back and forth across the street, having a festive time. Tells me it feels good to see it.

DiAngelo recalls his own block parties, “It was like we finally owned the streets and nobody wanted to hurt you.” He grew up with gangsters. Dressed him self up like them to survive. And, acted like them, too. Did some petty shit, but got by. He met his wife on these same rough streets.

I learn that DiAngelo did four years in the Army, then put in 17 with UPS as a driver; and, is now fully retired. He and his wife worked it all out as kids here in the ghetto: he’d put in 21 years, retire, then she’d go to work and he could raise the kids. He’s a robust 38 and real pleased with life. Kicked back in his beloved ‘Hood’, money coming in, paying rent based on a lease written in 1900 something (!).

I suggest DiAngelo is living better than friends I have in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. And, that gangster on the subway is a better man than I.

“Nothing is as it appears to be.”, claimed Alice in “The Looking Glass”.