Located on the northern side of the Long Island Expressway in Elmhurst, Queens, is LeFrak City.
LeFrak City—better known as just "LeFrak"—is a sprawling housing development, which was built in the '60s and '70s for working-class people and for those who couldn't afford to live in Manhattan.
When I was very young, my mom would sometimes drive me to Lefrak because my pediatrician had his practice there. My mom didn't like going to LeFrak—hated it, in fact—but this pediatrician, Dr. Resmovits, was apparently very good.
My mom and I lived in Forest Hills. Forest Hills is located on the southern side of the Long Island Expressway—across from LeFrak—and under no circumstances was I allowed to travel to LeFrak alone.
Actually, the only place I was officially allowed to be without adult supervision at that time in my life was the schoolyard across the street from my apartment building. Anything outside the schoolyard's fences was strictly verboten. And, again, forget about LeFrak. Not only was it about two miles away, but it was also said to be dangerous.
One day, as I was playing in the schoolyard with my good friend Everett, a kid named Bret came along. Bret was one year older than Everett and me, and Bret . . . he had something of a reputation.
Bret was known to be a tough kid, a kid who hung out with older kids, who didn't have much fear, someone you wanted on your side and definitely not against you. Bret had a charisma about him, and, honestly, he seemed like some doorway to another world, one that was mysterious and dangerous.
Anyway, on this particular day that we ran into Bret, he told us that he was about to go to LeFrak to meet up with some of his "boys," or friends. He asked us if we wanted to come along.
I was torn. On the one hand, I wanted to go. After all, here was an opportunity to spend time with Bret, to get him to like me, to build goodwill and an alliance with him. On the other hand, I was not allowed to go to LeFrak City. I wasn't even allowed to leave the schoolyard!
Being a kid, I told Bret I would go. I remember my decision seemed to please him, and it wasn't before long that he, Everett, and I set out for LeFrak on foot.
But my mom had done a good job, apparently, because on the way there, I began to have a crisis of conscience. Not only that, I kept wondering to myself who exactly were we going to meet. Growing up in Forest Hills, we had often been told that LeFrak was not a nice place, home to gangs and crime. I imagined something terrible happening to me, and my fear was increasing with every block closer to the highway.
In fact, my fear became such that a few hundred yards before the pedestrian overpass leading to LeFrak, I stopped in my tracks.
"I can't go," I announced to the group.
"Why the hell not?" Bret said.
Though we were hanging out with Bret—which would make you think that he liked us—he was volatile; this was already known.
"I just can't go," I said. "I have to be home." I looked at Everett for help. He said he thought I should just go home, then. But Bret was less forgiving.
"Nah, he ain't going anywhere," he said.
"But I have to," I said.
"Nah, you ain't pussy’n out; you're coming," Bret said. All three of us were standing at the street corner, again with that pedestrian overpass just in sight.
"I would if I could, but I can't," I told Bret.
Apparently, those were the wrong words, and I've never forgotton his reply:
"You would if you could but you are."
And then I started crying.
I didn't cry waterfalls, but I did start to cry. I told Everett and Bret that I actually wanted to go because I had a really bad stomach ache. But we all knew that I was lying. I guess it was my luck day because Bret ultimately released me from my obligation.
The next day at school, I was very curious to know from Everett what had happened in LeFrak. Did he see gangs? Was it dangerous?
Everett said that it wasn't at all. He said that he and Bret had just looked for Bret's friends. When they couldn't find them, they went home.