Thanks to Billy!
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by Ron Cruger
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I was only six years old when Billy Schoenbrun came to our house in the Bronx. Billy was a year older than me and different than I was. My aunt Anita had brought Billy to our house along with her son, Carl. Billy was her nephew. My cousin Carl was three years younger than me, so I looked upon him as a baby. Billy, on the other hand, seemed much older than me. Billy was adventurous – I wasn’t.
I don’t think I ever went anyplace without my mother or father. My mother walked me to the school at the end of our block five days a week. On weekends I played in the street in front of our house.
It was 1940 and our street had been designated as a “Play Street” by the New York City Police Department. The cops had put up standards in the middle of our street, on both ends of the block. I had never walked past either of the Police signs. Never in my whole, short life. I had never even thought about life past our block.
Then Billy Schoenbrun came to our house.
After playing with my Lincoln Logs on the living room floor for half an hour Billy whispered to me, “Let’s go outside.” Normally, without Billy, I would have asked my mother or father if it would be okay for me to go outside, but Billy just pushed me on the back and said, “C’mon, let’s go play outside.”
I followed Billy as he pulled the front door open. He jumped down the stairs on the stoop two at a time and he started walking down Faile Street. I had to run to catch up with him as he walked past the vacant lot on our left and the apartments on the right. I remember my father telling my mother that there were mostly Puerto Ricans living in those apartments.
I felt excited as I ran after Billy. He was walking fast, past the “Play Street” sign and into the intersection that I had never crossed. We crossed the street together and found ourselves walking on the cracked sidewalks lining the vacant lots. There were no buildings from where we were walking all the way down to the East River. Nothing but empty, weed-filled lots surrounding us. I had never ventured this far. My life was expanding.
We were alone, blocks from my home. We had reached the sands of the East River. We walked down to the water and dipped our fingers in the polluted waters. Horseshoe crabs scattered in front of us. Junk and trash on the sands rose and fell, pushed by the constant eddies of the river.
I was filled with this new excitement. I was experiencing a new kind of life – for the first time. I followed Billy wherever he went. If he kicked a can I ran after it and kicked it, if he picked up a piece of driftwood and threw it in the river I picked up a piece and threw it too.
Billy was confident and fearless. He could probably handle anything, I thought.
We walked without talking to each other. We just walked and did any simple thing we felt like doing. We had been gone for over an hour.
We could see Riker’s Island. We sat down on the rocky soil and watched airplanes take off and land at La Guardia Airport. In the distance, off to our right, we could see the tall smoke stacks of the Consolidated Edison plant.
At least an hour and a half had passed and I had never even thought about what my mother or father would say. I was experiencing a feeling that would be an important part of all the days of my life.
This was the first time I had been free to experience and experiment. This was freedom. It was a seminal time for me. I felt as though Billy lived this way every day. He was brave, I was not.
Eventually we walked back to my house – slowly. I saw the lots differently now. The apartments where the Puerto Ricans lived were now dangerous and exciting – filled with mystery. I didn’t even know what a Puerto Rican was, but in my mind they had become perilous and threatening. The empty lots, filled with blowing papers, trash and weeds were now fields for me to explore.
We reached my stoop and slowly took the steps to the front door. My mother greeted me with a hug, then held my hand and guided me to the living room, where Billy slowly walked to his Aunt Anita, who said, “Billy, where have you been, you little rascal.”
“We just walked down the block.”
My mother looked me in the eye and ran her fingers through my hair and then kissed me on my cheek.
I looked at my mother and saw something in the expression on her face. It was as though she understood what had just happened to me. She tilted her head and gave me a warm smile.
To this day I still search for the feeling I had with Billy Schoenbrun. I was alive and free. I had torn my bonds. I could do anything. I was tied to no one, to nothing.
Everything could be an adventure from this day forward. I could be anyplace and deal with it. I could survive.
Everything in my life was those vacant lots. Everything was the East River. Everything was walking past the “Play Street” signs.
I only saw Billy Schoenbrun three more times in my life. The last time was when he was twenty five years old. We never discussed that magical day in my life. I never thanked him for helping to form my life. I never brought up that he had taught me about adventure, peril, risk and independence.
I’ve thought about those two hours I spent with Billy many times.
I’ve come to the conclusion that those two hours changed me more than any other two hours in my life.
I had heard that Billy died a few years ago. He was an accountant, married, had two sons and was loved by family and friends.