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Excerpts From My To Do List
By Carl Capotorto

The house my family moved into in 1972, the year I turned 13, was a hundred-year old mock Victorian perched on a rocky plot high atop a winding set of stone steps. Ramshackle and slate-colored, the house gave the impression of being the biggest rock on a great big rock pile. It was the only house on a block dense with buildings. Buildings pressed up against it on all sides.

We had been living until then, all six of us, my three sisters, my parents and me, in a one-bedroom, fourth-floor walk-up apartment on Olinville Avenue in the Bronx, just one block away from this house, right behind where Boston and White Plains Roads come together, maybe twenty yards away from the elevated tracks of the number 2 train at the Pelham Parkway station. Oh that train. Every twelve minutes a thundering racket that could loosen your dentalwork. Right outside the window. For thirteen years.

We were elated to move out of the apartment and into this house with all these rooms. There were like ten of them, plus an attic and a basement, a big staircase, a porch, a (tiny) yard - windows! And we were now a full block further away from the el. That mighty roar was but a distant purr from here. Heavenly.

Things were looking up in our little corner of the Bronx.

Until one Saturday afternoon when I was on my way out of the house and my father called me over and said six words to me which I didn't realize at the time would seal my fate for the rest of my teenage years, on into young adulthood and indeed, I'm afraid, the rest of my life. He said:

"Bub, gimme a hand with this."

He'd never called me "Bub" before. So that wasn't a good sign. Plus the task he wanted help with was unreasonably heavy. I don't remember the details. Maybe he was ripping a radiator out of the wall or tearing a window out of its socket or chopping up a chunk of the floor. Whatever it was, it was hateful and ended up taking all day.

I soon realized that my father was planning to gut the entire house, while we were living in it, down to the bare beams, down to the bones -- gut it completely -- and then build it back up again. Inch by inch, room by room. All ten rooms. All three floors. And what mighty team of laborers would he harness for this Herculean task? Himself. And "Bub."

From then on, every spare moment of my young life was spent in an utterly bottomless pit of hard labor. I'd come home from school and this would be my To Do list:


And that was just on weekdays. On weekends we'd do the really heavy work. Like ripping out, rerouting and re-installing, for example, plumbing and electrical lines; ripping out and replacing wall beams and floor beams and roofing and siding; ripping down old ceilings and hoisting up new ones; and of course endlessly drywalling and spackling and sanding and priming and painting.

It was a violent assault on this poor old house, producing a constant cascade of rubble and debris that streamed out of the doors and windows and amassed itself into great piles all around the little property, some of it buried in trenches dug by Bub but most of it just piled up in -- piles. Piles and piles and piles. And these piles, my father would sometimes decide, had to be moved. For reasons unknown, I would be instructed to relocate, by hand, a pile of rubble from one side of the house to the other.

Which may ring a bell if you've ever seen the play or movie Bent. Except that Bent takes place in a Nazi concentration camp in Poland. And I was in the middle of my childhood in the Bronx.

I think in Bent, actually, it's rock piles that the prisoners are forced to move back and forth, not mounds of demolished plaster. Of the two, rocks are easier to handle. I can say this with some authority because one day my father came home with a giant screen he'd built at work and announced to my middle sister and me that the property around our house was too rocky. We were to sift the entire contents of the back and side yards through this industrial-strength screen, separating the rocks from the soil and collecting them into a sky-high pile. When we finally finished -- and after Bub had gotten a good workout moving the resulting rock pile from here to there around the property - guess what happened? It rained. And we were knee deep in mud. The solution? Put them back. Dig the rocks back into the soil. A new twist for Martin Sherman, author of Bent, should he wish to write a sequel.

On that rare occasion when I'd get the courage to ask if I could do a normal teenage activity like go to the beach or the zoo or a game or whatever, my father would say, "Not on my time, Bub." And all my time was his time. Right from the beginning, right from when we first moved into the house.

That's how I missed so many Bar Mitzvahs. And I loved a Bar Mitzvah. It was like a wedding but for kids. The really fancy ones were at, like, Leonard's of Great Neck or Terrace on the Park in Flushing (it revolves). They'd serve you exotic treats like stuffed derma or chopped liver with sliced egg and there would be a live band and floral centerpieces and matchbooks with your friend's name on it embossed in gold. "Eric" in gold script on a satin matchbook. I loved it. "Dad, it's Barry Lessoff's Bar Mitzvah this Saturday. He sent me an invitation and --" "Not on my time, Bub." Not on my time.

Eventually I started to formulate a plan of my own. My plan was to kill my father. There are many opportunities to do so when you're involved in this kind of work. But there was a downside: I would forever be branded as the guy who killed his father.

So I hung in there. Years passed. Eventually I came up with Plan B. Which was to revisit Plan A. But again I opted out of patricide.

Finally I decided to take a job at McDonald's. Because work was something my father respected. I could say at 5:00 on a Saturday afternoon, "Dad I gotta get ready for work," and he'd begrudgingly let me go. A job was my ticket out.

This was a rough McDonald's, on Fordham Road off the Grand Concourse, just down from the old Alexander's. There had been a killing there a couple of weeks before I started. The place was being robbed after hours. The employees were marched into the walk-in freezer at gunpoint and locked inside. The assistant manager was made to lay face down behind the counter and shot in the back of the head. This was just a couple of weeks before I started working there. Same shift -- Saturday night closing.

I hoped this wouldn't happen again. But it was a risk I was willing to take.

My manager was a guy named Curtis Sliwa, who would go on to found the Guardian Angels (a cult-like New York City-based paramilitary protection organization) and later become a right-wing radio talk show host. He had gone to McDonald's Hamburger Institute, had a degree in Hamburgerology and was a very ambitious manager. After the place closed at midnight, he'd strip off his shirt, throw a set of nunchucks around his skinny little neck (he was our protection against the bad men with guns) and set us to work cleaning parts of that store that weren't even in the manual. Ray Kroc didn't even know about some parts of that place we were scrubbing down. It was sweaty, nasty backbreaking work for little pay … and I loved it. Loved it!


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