Teen Gangs and Outdoor Play

by Ruth Horowitz

          Before the existence of Torsney/Lodati Playground, a vacant tract of land stretched from 43rd Street to I’m not sure where along Skillman Avenue.  There was nothing on it but sandy dirt, scrub bushes, and a fence along the back to keep us from straying onto the LIRR railroad tracks.  Open to everybody, kids were drawn to play here.   In those days, kids outdoors playing together was routine, and there was always adventure in the air.  That was a sign of the times.

 

          While my brother was organizing 44th Street kids for a go at Hide and Seek, or playing street hockey on 39th Avenue or stickball down at the garages, I’d be skipping rope, bouncing my ball to “A my name is Alice” or chatting on the stoop across the street with my older friend Janet Kaback.   I was never a comfortable group member, and not a kid who played sports either.  I spent summers at the seashore in Hampton Bays and camping on Lake George with my family, and was growing up into a nature-lover loner kind of person.  

 

          When I was maybe 12 years old, I’d wander off behind the 43rd Street sandlot into a wooded hillock above the LIRR railroad yard, where alone with my thoughts, I’d slap my hip and pretend-gallop on my imaginary horse along the pathways that snaked through this relatively secluded spot.  The trees were short, and the woods less than dense, but the place was as exciting as any wilderness to me.  These secret forays made me feel adventurous and independent, and I revelled in those feelings. 

 

          As it happened at the time, there was a spate of rumors about gangs of youth in New York City roaming the streets doing nefarious things. I was particularly concerned that one such gang, the Fordham Baldies, would come to the neighborhood and cut my long hair off.  Since that was their modus operandi, at least as it was rumored, my girlfriends and I were duly worried.  Not enough, however, to keep me from my woods.

 

          One day, lost in thought as I traveled my usual woodsy route, I looked up to find I had galloped directly into the lair of a group of teenage boys seated in a circle.  All of us caught off guard, my focus shifted abruptly, and my heart began to pound.  One boy stood and came towards me.  Taking hold of my forearms, he introduced himself as Mickey Savage, leader of the gang, and asked my name.  Ventriloquist-like, his lips barely open, he called, “Ruthie, Ruthie,” in a small high pitch, then said, “Ruthie, I think your mother’s calling you.”   Several times he repeated this charade, and then he let me go.  I never told anyone, and I did not go back. 

Ruth currently enjoys the woods of Nova Scotia where she and her husband have homesteaded (without horses) for the past 45 years.