We had a gang that started in high school. We called ourselves the Italian Dukes. We were so fuckin' broke, we had six jackets and maybe 30 guys.
The Italian Dukes, Little Italy
PHOTOS BY ROE ETHRIDGE
INTERVIEWS BY BEN WHITE
All clothes model’s own
We had a gang that started in high school. We called ourselves the Italian Dukes. We were so fuckin’ broke, we had six jackets and maybe 30 guys. So every day somebody else would wear the jackets at school. We went to Seward Park High School, and it was mostly Jews. They were all afraid of us. We didn’t even have to do anything. It got to a point where a gang called the Fordham Baldies—who were like the biggest Italian gang in the Bronx—heard about us and came down and made us a brother club. They were like, “Who’s the president?” and a couple of guys went over, and we had this truce. They talked about it, shook hands, and then we were brother clubs. If anything happened to one of us, we had all of these guys. So from being 30 guys with six jackets, we became a thousand just by hooking up with them. It also made us brother clubs with the Redwings, who were in East Harlem. They were a big crew—white gang, mostly Italian.
We’d hang out in the park at night. All the gangs were there: The Sportsmen, that was a big black gang, pretty tough guys, and the Dragons, that was the Puerto Rican gang. They heard that the Italian Dukes were brother gangs with the Fordham Baldies, so if you were walking around with an Italian Dukes jacket, they didn’t fuck with you. And I tell you, it was a great fuckin’ scam.
Nobody would fuck with us. Italians were Italians in those days. No matter where you went, even the toughest gangs—fuckin’ Puerto Ricans, blacks, whatever—they wouldn’t fuck with us. Our gang was the wiseguys, you know what I mean? And nobody could fuck with that.
It was a sanctuary, this rectangle here. Houston Street down to Canal, and Bowery over to Lafayette. Little Italy was strictly Italian. There was one Irish kid, I think, and one black kid. His father was a building super. He wanted to hang out so bad that he let us call him Snowball.
They had another Italian neighborhood, down on Cherry Street and Madison that was just the same as ours. If we had a problem between us, we’d all go meet over at City Hall and wear different color bandanas so people knew where you were from. The two toughest guys would fight it out, and that was how it worked. You weren’t even allowed to kick the guy once he was down. Two friends of mine once had to fight at Coney Island because that’s where the argument happened. They fought on the handball court with no shoes on. And I tell you, that was a fuckin’ fight. At the end they looked like gladiators.
You had to have respect. For everybody—especially our people but even for strangers, what we called Merigans, like “Amerigans”—we had respect for all of them. We didn’t shake nobody down or hurt nobody. In fact, we protected people. We protected women. If two women came into a bar, they never paid for a drink and nobody even went over to talk to them.
Before the pill, you mostly just had blowjobs. That was it. From the Jewish girls mostly, not from Catholic girls—not when I was a kid. Now all girls think giving a blowjob is nothing. They had some young girls on like Oprah or something who said that. They were like, “Oh, it’s not bad. If you don’t do it, you’re not part of the crew.”
But back then, if you had a girlfriend, if you were getting laid, you were the king of the mountain. When the pill came, everything changed. Before that, date rape was the usual. I mean, I could have been arrested for date rape a million times. Any girl that wasn’t a virgin, if you went out with her you couldn’t let her get away, because there weren’t many around. There was hookers too—hookers is what we mostly fucked. I lost my virginity at like 14. Me and a couple friends of mine went to a hooker. I gave her two bucks and I came in about two seconds, then went home and jerked off ten times thinking about it.
Oh yeah, and if you went down on a girl then, you couldn’t walk around the neighborhood afterward. I swear to God. I mean, I know I never did it.
I was a heroin addict from the age of maybe 13 to 17, but not like a falling-down addict. I snorted it, sometimes I shot it, but not often. I would buy it from Italian guys over on Avenue D, but not guys that we actually knew. That was like Jersey to me, Avenue D.
There were opium dens down in Chinatown. We ran out of a restaurant without paying one time, ran down into this building, and they had like catacombs. They still have them down there, these buildings where the cellars have all these different rooms. I was trying to find my way out, and I went into this room and there was an opium den. All these people laying down on cots and shit, with these pipes, and one guy tending them. That freaked me out. I didn’t do that. Only Chinese guys did opium. But down in Chinatown, you could buy a tin of cocaine snuff for 25 cents. I think snuff is much worse than cocaine. I’ve snorted a lot of cocaine in my fuckin’ life, but these guys I know who used to do snuff, their noses used to fuckin’ bleed. It’s much harsher than coke. It’s cheaper than coke, and you get whacked on it. You get high.
Anyway, we weren’t vicious kids. We were just crooks, you know what I mean? You lived in an apartment with four rooms and four people, and it was so close that you really lived in the street because you had to get out of the house. And then when you’re like 13 or 14, you start to hang out a little bit and the older guys start to notice you and start to talk to you and before you knew it you’d been groomed into what they were.
There were some crazy kids, though. Anybody who had a “Boy” after their name—Johnny Boy, Frankie Boy—they were always in trouble, cause they were always trying to prove they were a man. This guy Frankie Boy was my best friend because he was really tough and I wasn’t. Me and him got along because there was no competition and we really loved each other. He died in a tragic fuckin’ condition. He got hit in the head with a two-by-four, and it numbed him. It made his brain all fucked-up. He lived like that for a long time. He used to shake when he walked and shit like that. His mind was OK, but he’d be talking and he’d start laughing cause he couldn’t help it. His laugh reflex got fucked-up.
It was a black guy who did it to him, in a fight over a girl. They were on the highway, and the guy said something out the window to his girl, and they went back and forth, then finally pulled off the highway up by Bryant Park. I think Frankie got the best of him, and they got back in the cars, and Frankie chased him. Then they got out of the cars a second time and the guy ran away and Frankie ran after him. He was so fuckin’ mad he didn’t pay attention, and the guy went around the corner and when Frankie came after him, he was waiting, and hit him with a two-by-four—wham—right across the head.
The RailRoad Boys, East New York/Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn
Track jacket by Ben Sherman
I was 13 or 14 when I started. We hung around Aberdeen Park. In the back of the park there was a cemetery, and in the cemetery there was a hill. Underneath the hill, there were the train tracks. It’s where the old freight trains used to run out of Long Island City. We did most of our dirty business on the railroad tracks, so we got the name The Railroad Boys.
That was when the neighborhood was mostly German, Irish, and Italian. It was a gangster neighborhood. Murder Inc. came out of that neighborhood. John Gotti, too. When I was growing up, stealing old ladies’ pocketbooks was the big thing. I remember the older guys coming around and passing the word that if any white kid in the neighborhood stole an old lady’s pocketbook, they would have their hands and legs broken. That wasn’t allowed in that neighborhood because that old lady may be some big shot gangster’s relative.
We had colors—blue sweaters. They had high collars, buttoned down, and on the back you had “RR.” But we didn’t really go out of our way too much with the sweaters and the costumes. Everybody knew who we were. We were trying to hide, actually, because the NYPD Youth Squad was always down here, asking us questions like who was who, and who was our leader.
There were no drugs then. That was right before the Kennedy assassination. After the Kennedy assassination, somebody opened up the door and let the drugs in. Our big thing was buying cough medicine. At that time you could buy the Robitussin AC, with codeine. If you drank that, it was like... forget about it. You were whacked out of your face. Also, we used to have a lot of gay guys come around and they’d get us a couple pills, some marijuana, and bullets for our zip guns. There was a guy called the Baron and a guy called Bob the Queer, and they’d get us whatever we wanted. They loved us, you know, because they were fags and they loved young kids. They’d hang around. I guess some guys, you know, went with them. I never did, but I know there were guys in the gang that did.
Mostly we drank wine. We were big wine drinkers. We’d drink Night Train. It was like 50 cents a bottle. Or we’d buy a 40-ounce bottle of Budweiser, a quart of Ballantine, sit up on the hill and drink that.
On a warm Saturday night, we’d all be up on the hill. A lot of the guys would be with their girlfriends. We’d cut a hole in the fence, go in the cemetery, and have make-out sessions. If you looked down the hill toward Evergreen Avenue, there was a schoolyard, and that’s where all the black kids used to hang out. Their gang was the Comanchero Chaplains. We could see them from the hill. We’d look down on them and they’d look up at us. Sometimes we’d say, “Come on up. You wanna have a game of football?” or sometimes we’d say, “F youse, we’re gonna come down and kick your asses.” When we were drinking, we’d scream down at them, “Hey, you fuckin’ black bastards!” We’d say something racial, you know? And that would touch it off right away, because they’d start yelling back at us, and before you knew it, we’d be running down on the railroad tracks, they’d be running up. There would be 20 or 25 of them and 20 or 25 of us. We’d have sticks, bats, clubs, and bottles, and we’d just beat the heck out of each other until the cops came or until we got tired of it. A lot of times, people would come back all beat up and bruised. In them days, it was no big thing. You went home, you needed a couple of stitches, you know, you went to the neighborhood drugstore, you got butterfly stitches. That was a typical night.
But you gotta remember one thing: When we were kids, we didn’t have to kill anybody. I mean, we liked to have a good old-fashioned fight and beat the hell outta each other, but we never had no intentions of, “Let’s go down there and kill a few of ’em.” We all lived in the same neighborhood—that was another reason why we weren’t out to kill each other. The parents always got along, and we always respected their parents and they respected our parents. Everyone had a little more respect in them days. Like if we were walking down the street and we saw one of the Spanish guys with his girlfriend, we wouldn’t beat him up. We would let him go because he was with his girl. Or if he was with his mother, we wouldn’t say nothing to him. If he was alone, he got his ass kicked. It worked the same way for us when we were in their neighborhood.
One summer, we got into it with the Spanish gang. They were called the Flaming Satans. The Spanish guys were different. When we’d fight with the black guys, it was more or less hit and run. But when we’d fight the Spanish guys, they’d stand there. I’ll be honest with you, the Spanish guys had a little more guts than the black guys. We’d see them coming, walking up Bushwick Avenue in a line of like 20 abreast. So we’d form a line, walk right down and stop. All of a sudden we’d start hitting each other. They were knife-happy. When they started with the knives, we started with the zip guns.
To make a zip gun you buy a cap gun. You stick a car antenna in it and file down the part that you cock back—the hammer. Then you tie the hammer up with rubber bands, pull it back, and let it go. The force would cause the rubber band to shoot a .22 bullet. We used to wrap the gun up with a lot of tape, because those things had a tendency to blow up in your hands. They weren’t very accurate, either. We’d fire at a guy standing three feet away, and we’d miss. But it made a big noise and a flash of light. It would scare people. But that didn’t last too long once they got used to it. Plus, if you had a leather jacket on and I shot you, chances are the bullet wouldn’t even go through the jacket. They weren’t really that strong of a weapon.
One of our guys got stabbed 20 times by the Flaming Satans. They punctured his lung and he almost died. About a month later, when he got out of the hospital, they invaded us again. This time we were up on the roofs throwing things down on them: Bricks, bottles, cans… you could kill somebody if you hit ’em with a garbage can of rocks from 50 feet up. But still, they found the same guy who got stabbed before. He was out on the street. They cornered him, stabbed him three times, and shot him in the ass.
That was the year when it started getting real serious. Life magazine ran a big story on us. Then of course the cops picked up on it, and it got to be really tough. We were in the papers more than the president. Finally the Youth Squad—the special police squad they set up just to deal with the gang problem—got involved. They made us have a big meeting in Junior High School 73. Us, the Chaplains, and the Spanish guys all got together and they gave us an ultimatum: Either we made peace or we were gonna start going to jail.
In the 60s, the Puerto Ricans and blacks were coming in like there was no tomorrow. One of us would move out of a place, and ten families would move in. Over the course of one or two summers, they outnumbered us. We went down one night, had a fight with them, and I’ll never forget it: We chased them all the way down Evergreen Avenue, and all of a sudden about 60 or 70 of them came out of a house. There were like 20 of us. That’s when we started realizing that we had lost the numbers. It wasn’t too hard to see the handwriting on the wall.
A lot of the guys started moving out of the neighborhood or going off to Vietnam. Little by little the white gang broke up. We had nobody left, so we said, “What’s the use in fighting?” We got to the point where we got older, we had girlfriends, we started getting cars, and we left the neighborhood. We were able to do that, whereas the newcomers weren’t. So they kept the neighborhood. From time to time, we’d bump into them and they’d make fun of us like, “Hey, we got your park. We got your neighborhood.” And we’d turn around and say, “Yeah, yeah, you got so much. You won. Big deal.”
The RailRoad Boys, East New York/Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn
Jeans by Levi’s
We went to Our Lady of Lourdes Grammar School on Aberdeen Street. On the next block, one block past Bushwick Avenue, was Aberdeen Park. We went up there and basically we started hanging out and we became the Railroad Boys. The gang was started around 1955 by the older guys. I joined around 1960, when I was 13. We had a lot of guys in the gang—sometimes we had 40, sometimes we had 60, sometimes we had 100. It was a crazy neighborhood. A lot of shit went on. We quit school at 16, and we went up to the park, we drank wine, and we ran up and down the street beating each other up. A lot of guys got hurt, and a couple a guys got hurt really bad. We had no real guns, just the ones that we made, which were a joke. It really wasn’t a good way to come up, but that’s just the way the neighborhood was. You lived in the neighborhood, you joined a gang. That was it. When you left your house you had to worry about somebody grabbing you and kicking your ass. You usually carried a knife, something to protect you.
I lived on Fulton and Rockaway, which was home to another crew, the Fulton and Rockaway Boys. There were a bunch of white gangs fighting each other. Then, you know, the blacks started coming in and naturally there was tension and we banded together. They banded together too, and that’s the way it went. It was an opportunistic thing.
I got stabbed in the head one day with an umbrella. Wasn’t too much of a fight. There were six of them and two of us. I got my head split open with a piano leg one night too. Wrong place, wrong time. You’re walking down the street, you see somebody that you don’t like, who isn’t in your gang. He might have been black, he might have been Puerto Rican, and then that was it, the shit started. If we caught someone, we gave ’em a beating.
We didn’t have rules or initiations. There would be a fight set up, and we told you to be there at seven o’clock. You showed up at the park at seven and we walked down Bushwick Avenue and we’d do what we had to do. In the back of the park there were freight trains that ran underneath and there was one tunnel that was closed off due to an explosion. A couple times, we’d take somebody down there and leave ’em, maybe tied up, and he had to get out by himself. But that was once in a while, you know? There were no real initiations. You came, you hung out, you drank a bottle of wine, you went crazy like everybody else. That’s the bottom line. It was just fighting all the time. You know what beer muscles are, right? Once you drink a couple gallons of that wine, you’re ready to go. We went for the cheap wine. After a few of them you could do anything. Take on the world.
One time we were having a fight and we had a couple of guys up on a roof. This guy Georgie Grout, he had a car antenna and he threw it down and this guy must have been, I dunno, 40 feet away? It went right through his forearm. You just couldn’t believe it. It was just a lucky shot and it went right through this guy’s arm. This was from a roof maybe four stories up.
You could also take a chimney apart—grab a couple bricks and throw those. We had a riot on Fulton Street one time, and that’s what we did. We ran up there, disassembled a few chimneys, and took some bricks and some bottles. We went to the roof above this nightclub and when they started coming out, we just rained bottles and bricks down on their heads. This was on Fulton and Rockaway, a half block from my house. I got locked up with another friend of mine. We spent a couple nights in jail. We were the two stupid guys that got caught. Everybody else ran.
When you got caught doing something, they handcuffed you, took you down to the precinct, beat the shit outta ya’, then took the information down. What they had at that time was called the Youth Squad. It was a bunch of detectives whose primary job was to try and keep tabs on the gangs and see what was going on. They gave you your JD card, which means juvenile delinquent, so that was the label you carried, you know what I mean? Then you were on file. But like I said, yeah, the cops beat your ass. By today’s standards, there would have been a lot more lawsuits. But that’s the way they did it in those days. Did it help? Sometimes. And sometimes it didn’t.
There were real gangsters around too. They ran books, they stole, they shylocked money… They ran the neighborhood, whatever they did. These are the people that we grew up with. You see it firsthand, and it’s all bullshit really. Big car, big wallet, and next thing you know they’re doing fifty years in jail. Or you find them in a car, dead. That’s the way the neighborhood was. That was East New York.
I went into the service in ’66. A lot of my buddies went in. The ones that didn’t go in are the ones that died along the way. Overdosed, stuff like that. Heroin was a big thing in the 60s. It took a lot of people out. Eventually, if you hung out in that neighborhood you tried pills or pot, or whatever other crap came into town. So a lot of guys OD’d. Lot of guys went to jail. I only see a couple guys from the neighborhood now. The rest of them are scattered to the wind.
The Majestics, Williamsburg, Brooklyn
Jeans by Levi’s
The Majestics started in the early 70s. It didn’t begin as a crime thing. It started as a dance club, and as things happened in the club—arguments and fights—it became a gang.
You could see how things escalated. First, five guys would go into a club and do a dance routine. Then another five would do another dance routine, and it became like a fucking dance-off. If you made someone look bad, they’d wanna retaliate. Next thing you knew, you’d be fighting. And then it got built up even more. The next time you went to the club, they’d be there and it would be like, “Oh, we had a fight with these guys last time. We gotta watch our back.” You’d bring a girl with you so she could hold the gun.
Eventually everybody said, “We’re not going to dance no more. Now we’re going to wear these denim jackets with patches on them.” And then all of a sudden, you’d find yourself claiming a piece of Brooklyn as your fuckin’ real estate. Everything was about turf. This was way before anybody was selling drugs. It was just: “This is your part of Brooklyn, this is my part of Brooklyn.” It got to the point where you couldn’t walk outside of a radius of five or ten blocks. Our turf was Lee Avenue and Lynch Street.
In Williamsburg, where we were, it was the Majestics, the Dukes, the Unknown Bikers, South 9 Bikers, Spanish Kings, Devil Rebels, Dirty Ones, and a bunch more. Not every club was friendly. Basically, the Dirty Ones was the only gang that was friendly with us. They were a very big club. At our peak, we were only about 100 strong, but the Dirty Ones had chapters in Bay Ridge and the Bronx. Unknown Bikers were just big in Williamsburg, South 9 Bikers the same. All of us went to school together. In that neighborhood, if you weren’t in a gang, you just went to school and you were fine, but if you were in a gang your chances of survival were 50/50. Your chances of going to jail were even worse.
If you walked by somebody’s block, they would chase you, shoot at you, and beat you down if they caught you. The rivalry was like what you see in movies and worse, because gangs back then, the people they hung out with meant more to them than their family. They were with them most of the day.
I’d get up, go to my friend’s house at eight in the morning, and knock on his door. Wake him up, hustle. Hustle to get money for breakfast, eat, get high. Walk all the way back to where we live, just to get high, then hustle again to get lunch. Our drug of choice then was heroin. We weren’t selling, we were just using. I never shot up. I always sniffed. One of my friends who I wanted to get high with said, “You wanna get high, you gotta watch this.” And he shot up and he said, “I’m doing this so you can see what I do,” and I said, “I don’t want nothing to do with that.” And I never did it. I was satisfied with sniffing.
Robbing and stealing wasn’t a big thing. People hustled their money. Mostly it was breaking into factories in Brooklyn. Factories close up at night, you break in, get what you want, and sell it. We’d break into cars, stuff like that. We were never really into robbing people. A car can sit on the street two or three days today. Back then, if a car sat for a day, we’d strip it. We spent a night one time stripping a whole car completely down to the chassis. We had everything sold by sunrise. We had a buyer for every piece—not even from garages. We sold it right on the street.
During the day we’d just be hanging out, walking the streets of Brooklyn, meeting people, going to parties. Then we’d be getting high all night till the sun came up, going to the beach, listening to music. We would hang out in these abandoned buildings that we had electricity running into. Later on we had a clubhouse where we’d hang out all the time. It was all music and sex and everybody getting high. Before we started getting high on dope, we were sniffing glue. That was the big thing. After that it was acid—Purple Haze. We’d get high and go into the city.
42nd Street was like Mecca, where all the gangs would hang out on Friday night. If the cops wanted to see who was who, they just had to look there on Friday and Saturday night because everybody wore their patches, all dressed up down to their boots. Any gear you could put on, no matter how hot or cold it was, you went to 42nd and wore your colors proudly. The biggest place we would go was the Starship. It was on 42nd between Eighth and Ninth in the back of a parking lot. Not many fights broke out there. 42nd Street was like a neutral area, unless you ran into clubs from different boroughs. The Brooklyn clubs were OK, but the clubs from the Bronx and Queens—the Savage Skulls, the Nomads—they could cause some problems. We’d get harassed by the cops all the time, but then again, that was a time when if you had a fight on the street, the cops would grab you, kick you in the ass, and send you on your way like, “Get outta here. Go home.”
Nowadays, everybody’s got a gun or a knife. Nobody fights to hurt anymore. Everybody fights to kill. Everybody wants to make a name for themselves, a reputation. Back then you just hung out with the right people. That’s all you needed, was to have on the back of your jacket: “The Majestics.”
We had like one pistol, and that was for everybody, because every now and then you had a confrontation that would require it. It was something for show. You know, you pull it out or you just display it, and people say, “OK, we’re not gonna mess around.” Most of the time when you would shoot, you did it not to hurt somebody, but to scare them. You’d fire a round in the air, and they’d say, “Oh shit, they’re shooting,” and they’d run.
Violence back then, if you put it on a scale, I’d say it was about a seven. If you were out to get a guy, you wanted to put him in the hospital. You wanted to teach him a lesson. Sometimes people got hit by cars. You push a guy up against a wall with a car, just push him till he hits the wall. That happened a lot. It was also common for someone to be walking down the street, and a car would stop, and a bunch of guys would jump out and beat on him. Because if you were in the wrong place at the wrong time, you took an ass whupping. There was nothing you could do about it. It was because of who you were. Everybody knew who was who.
The bond between people who were in gangs was amazing. For instance, my friend Dusty got stabbed, and he came back from the Bronx really late, and I hung out with him the whole night at the hospital. He got stitched up, and we hung out and got high afterward. When we were done I carried him up four flights of stairs on my shoulders to his house, stoned out of my head. Because we were like brothers. To this day, we still hang out, and we’d do anything for each other. You know, if somebody needed to get high, you made sure they got high; if someone got locked up, you make sure when they got out, you threw a party.
But as things started to change and people started with the drugs, making money off of it, a lot of violence erupted. It wasn’t about, “This is where we’re hanging out,” anymore. It became, “This is where we’re selling drugs.” People were having shootouts left and right. Some people were robbing other gangs for their drugs. They said, “Why should I buy drugs to sell when I can steal his and sell them?” It happened all the time. I saw a lot of people get killed and a lot of people go to jail. The gangs started separating. People started making money on their own and they forgot about their buddies. Heroin was the drug of choice. Coke was popular when it first came out, but heroin was the drug of choice because it was a better high. It made more money. It was easier to sell. I lived down the block from an armory, and there was a sergeant who would come every morning and buy seven bags of dope. That’s how popular heroin was.
Right now, the Majestics is a motorcycle club. All those clubs that were fighting back then hang out together now. We buried each other’s brothers too much. So we all hang out now, go to parties, things like that. I don’t want to glorify it, because for today’s youth there’s nothing to glorify in gangs, but back then it was what we did to survive. I buried three of my brothers because of being in gangs and being involved in drugs and living in the ghetto. If you want to talk about family members alone, I’ve lost five. I go to a funeral now and I don’t even cry. I don’t have any emotions anymore.
The Majestics, Williamsburg, Brooklyn
Sweater by United Bamboo, jeans by Levi’s
Everything started out with sweaters. From the sweaters we went to a shirt, and from the shirt we finally got to patches. There was always some guy who got beat up and they took the sweater and we had to go find out who took it and get it back. We started saying, “Why don’t we make patches?” And finally we did.
It was like one big family. We all got along. We never had problems against each other, because we grew up in the same neighborhood. We went to the same school and we were all young. My brother Alex started wearing patches when he was hanging out with this other club, the Dirty Ones. Then he became the President of the Majestics. When he died, my brother Carlos took over. And then he died.
We had a clubhouse. We were always there. Rainy days, we’d be inside watching TV. It was an abandoned building. We had the apartment on the first floor and even the old guys from the neighborhood would come in and play cards and dominoes. Some of the cops knew us too.
Yeah, it was nice. Actually, I wish I could go back a couple years. We had fun. The 70s was real nice. In the summer we were always out there, like 15 or 20 of us, sitting on the steps in summer, drinking beer, and bullshitting.
Problem-wise, you know, we had a few here and there. Ducking from shootouts and things like that. We didn’t mess with the people from the neighborhood. If anything, we’d protect them. I knew so many people that everybody would open their doors for me. People from the neighborhood never called the cops on us because we were never troublemakers. That was our block, so we had to protect everybody from other people who would come in and mess up the block. We never went crazy in our neighborhood, and whoever did, they would hear about it from us the next day. The last thing we wanted was heat on the block. Because then you can’t be in your own neighborhood carrying a pistol.
I had a very bad temper back then. I didn’t take no shit from nobody. If I had to stick you, I would stick you. I used to walk around with a gun every day. I carried a .25, then later a 9 mm. I was always aware. I never let anybody get close to me or walk behind me. One time, something had happened so I went looking for this guy to get him. I saw him on the corner at South 10th and Bedford, and I started shooting. I think I shot two or three times with my .25 before it jammed. He didn’t see where I was shooting from, so I ran like two or three cars up and hid under the last one. I think I was under that car for half an hour, until I heard my guys yelling my name.
When we were on Lee Avenue there was this black guy. He was from the Marcy Projects and he would always come down with a gun. This guy was always strapped. Every time he came by the block there was a shootout, so everybody was always aware when he was passing by. Everybody kept their eyes open. I heard that he was like that because his mother was killed. She used to be a dispatcher for a car service. There was a shootout and it so happens that she was working at that time, and she got killed. So this guy started going off with everybody. Nobody ever bothered to call the cops, because everybody wanted to just take care of him. He must have had a vest, cause let me tell you, this guy had fucking balls. He was invincible. I used to hide sometimes on the corner and wait for him, just hoping to get him. But I never did. I think he got arrested. That was the end of him.
I never robbed anybody. It feels bad. Somebody else could come and rob your mother and you wouldn’t like it. But I stole. I used to steal a lot from factories. Every Friday and Saturday night I would go to factories on Bedford Avenue, Wythe Avenue, and Flushing Avenue. I would go anywhere Jews worked because on Fridays, they can’t put on the light, the air conditioning, nothing. That was my opportunity. I would break into the sweater factory, the clothes factory, the pillow factory… I even broke into a coffin factory one day. I got in, it was dark, and then when I put on the light all I saw was coffins, so I ran out. But yeah, I broke into every factory. That’s how I used to get my money. I also had a guy who used to bring me cars for parts. Or somebody would tell me, “Listen, I got a van, brand new, and I wanna collect insurance.” So he would tell me where he parked it. The guys and I would go and take it and strip the parts off and he’d get his insurance.
I got locked up in ’80 and came out in ’83. At that point, all everybody wanted to do was sell drugs. That’s where the money was. My brothers were making money selling drugs but I didn’t want to get into it. I was already scared by being in jail. Lots of guys were fucking up, but all I wanted was to have our club, and for everybody to have bikes and go places together and ride. That’s all I ever wanted to do. I always used to buy magazines just to check out the bikes. I’m 46 now and I’m still with this thing. Now, everybody else has a bike. Me and my brother are probably the only ones that don’t have a bike.
South 9th Bikers, Williamsburg, Brooklyn
Army jacket by Lois Jeans
I started hanging out with the Unknown Bikers around 1975, and I became one in 1976. I went over to the South 9th Bikers in early 1980, the same year I went to jail. We were all hanging out together already, the Unknowns and the South 9s. It was just that I started hanging out over here more than over at the other side.
I got into the gangs very, very early. Like 12 or 13. By the time I started with the Unknowns, I already had a little reputation. I was from one side of the Southside, and the Unknowns were from the other side. A lot of them I met through fighting with them. We just got along. That’s when we were first coming up. Me and a few other guys started making a lot of noise, you know, fighting all these other gangs.
The South 9th Bikers’ turf was around Broadway, from like where the BQE starts at Havemeyer to what was called Jew Town, where the Hasidics start. The Unknowns used to be from Union to Rodney, Metropolitan to like South 4th. The Dukes were on Roebling and South 3rd, over to South 1st. Then you had the Satan’s Souls for a while, who were on South 5th and Hoover. Then you had all these other little clubs in between. You had the Dirty Ones up by Graham Avenue. There’s still a lot of people around. You go to parties and see a lot of the same faces.
We used to look up to the Hell’s Angels back then. We used to make choppers with four- and six-poles—extensions, you know? And we used to ride over to East 3rd in Manhattan, to the Hell’s Angels, and visit with them and whatnot. We had a building on the Southside that we painted up with “Free Sonny Barger.” He was the Hell’s Angels’ national president who was locked up at the time. So our style of dress and everything was like them. That’s how the whole biker thing came about first. We were trying to imitate them.
We were fighting with everybody. We came into a lot of weapons at an early time. One guy’s father was a hunter, and he went on vacation. The son made it seem like it was a burglary, and we made off with all his weapons. Some shotguns, a .30-06, a .30-30. The father ended up getting most of them back after people started getting arrested with them, because he came home and reported them stolen. Back then, gang-wise, there weren’t too many guns used. Mostly a lot of chains, bats, and knives. Eventually, though, it got to where you were lucky to get within a block of each other. Everybody else had to shoot, because we already were.
We were always armed. It was nothing to have like three or four shootouts a day. It was like a game. I remember cars coming by and shooting at the guys, then we would jump in the car and go after them. We’d be going across the Williamsburg Bridge, shooting at them, them shooting at us. To Manhattan, then back across the bridge, and once we got to Brooklyn they would just split off to their side and we’d keep driving to our side, like it was nothing.
Naturally, there were a lot of shot-up people. I would say, three out of every five shootouts, somebody would get hit. There’s a lot of people walking around messed up to this day, and a lot of people dead. I caught a few. The only time I ever went to the hospital was the first time I got shot, because I didn’t know what to expect. After that I knew it was nothing serious, so I never bothered to go to the hospital. Like one time, I saw it was clear through so I just patched it up, and forgot about it. Or if you get hit with a shotgun, forget it. If it ain’t from close range, you just have to wait for the pellets to come out later. I guess I was lucky. I wasn’t hit too often.
What was so funny was that a lot of the people were intermingled, family-wise. This guy’s sister might be living with that guy’s brother, or you might have a kid with that guy’s sister. Like I remember coming home and having my sister-in-law crying, and I would walk in the house and make believe I didn’t know why. “Why you crying?” “You know why—you shot my brother.” It was crazy.
Back in those days, we always had a clubhouse. What used to happen was, we’d hang out at someone’s apartment, but then they’d move out. So we’d take the apartment over. The landlord wasn’t going to come and tell us we couldn’t do it—we’d kick his fuckin’ ass. After a while, if he called the police, then we would be angry at him. He couldn’t show up to collect his rent. But it isn’t like we were setting out to take over the building.
There was one place on South 9th where the landlord—he was a Hasidic—saw that as long as we were in the building, none of the tenants complained about the addicts burglarizing them or people shooting up in the hallways or on the roof or anything like that. So after a while, he would make an apartment available to us. With us in the building, there was security. He didn’t have to worry about his building getting messed up, because we wouldn’t allow that. So it worked both ways. In September 1979 or ’80, there was a big fire. I ran up and down the fire escape, taking a lot of the tenants out. So that kind of shit won over a lot of the tenants. You come running through the building with the cops after you and you could run into any door. It was a two-way thing. They didn’t have to worry about getting robbed or nothing on the block. It’s even like that now. Clubs may be doing their dirt, but the people on the block ain’t bitching because they do good for the block. They help people out.
We never really had any problem with the Hasidics. Back in the early days, we used to have a habit of snatching their hats. We used to convert it to our style, with bandanas and patches and everything. The problem with that was, if you snatched one of their hats in the wrong neighborhood, you’d have a hell of a chase. If they caught you, you were going to get an ass whuppin’. They weren’t pussies. Hell no. They yell one word in Yiddish, and everybody comes out the woodwork.
It was a handful of us that really made most of the noise. I turned out to be one of them, and it cost me a lot. I wound up doing like 13 years and change in jail. I got convicted for a gang-related manslaughter. I got arrested October 1980, came home December 1993.
It was two carloads of the fellas, just headed toward the block, coming from Greenpoint. Just passing through. We were at war with two clubs called the Dukes and the Arabian Knights. Someone happened to see two of the guys from the Arabian Knights so we pulled over. When everything was done, there was one of them dead from a gunshot and a knife wound. Me and another Unknown Biker were convicted for it. But I wasn’t there, I just wound up getting accused of it. At that time I was doing a lot of harm to the Dukes, and the cops figured, let’s get him off the streets.
When I did get arrested, my little brother—may he rest in peace—he was involved. They had me in the bullpen with him when the witnesses came. They looked at both of us, and I was a little relieved because I said to myself, well, they really was there, so I’m gonna walk. But they looked at us and they said, “It was Alicat” So it was Alicat. They gave my brother a summons, and I stood in jail for a decade and change. Even the cops told my mother one time they knew I didn’t have nothing to do with it. They knew it was my kid brother, but all the witnesses were saying it was me. So that’s how it happened. My kid brother ended up dying. He got killed a few years later. In fact, all three people who were involved in the murder ended up dying within three years of it. All of them met violent deaths.
East Harlem, South Bronx
Shirt by American Apparel
I was first in a gang when I lived in East Harlem. I joined the gang so I could go out with a guy. They weren’t allowed to date outside girls. It had to be girls who were in that particular gang. I was 12 or 13. They became my brothers and sisters. Most of us came from broken homes, or parents that had two jobs or alcohol and drug problems. But there were some of us who had everything a kid could have. So there wasn’t one particular reason.
From Spanish Harlem, we moved to the South Bronx. The Hunts Point area is the poorest place you can be. It doesn’t get any worse than that. That was when the Bronx was burning. When I stepped off the train, I saw all these abandoned buildings, and every night there were the sirens of the fire trucks, and people being displaced, crying, no place to go. You lived in one building, and the buildings to your left and right were abandoned, because they were gutted out by fires. It looked like an epidemic had destroyed the place. And the drugs? Forget about it—everywhere you went, every corner, the drugs were there. You could find it in the grocery store if you wanted it bad enough. People were sniffing glue, so the bodegas began to sell glue because it was so popular. Prostitution was everywhere too. The apartments were filled with rats and roaches, we had no heat or hot water half the time, pipes were falling down, ceilings were leaking. This was our life. Who was I supposed to hang out with? It wasn’t like the guy on the corner was a doctor, the one across the street was a lawyer. It was where I was going to end up, whether I wanted to or not.
When I was in Spanish Harlem, the guys in gangs wore silk jackets with their name on the front and the club name on the back. When I moved to the Bronx, I saw guys with long hair, cut sleeves, kneepads, and motorcycle boots. They didn’t look like they bathed. I was like, “What the hell is this?” Then, slowly but surely, I started to gravitate towards them. Once again, I wanted to go out with someone who was in that gang. My mentality wasn’t, “I have to join that gang.” It was, “I like the guy, the guy likes me.” Before you knew it, I married the president of the gang. I was with him for 24 years, so I was a real part of it. But here’s the thing: I was never a member of that gang. I never wore colors. But I lived in the streets with them. I lived in abandoned buildings with them. I left my mother’s house when I was 14. I’m 50 now, and I haven’t been back. My children’s father—we had five children together—he and I slept in abandoned cars and buildings, what we called clubhouses. After a while, I realized that they—not just them, other clubs too—were being paid by the landlords to burn the buildings for the insurance. So it was an epidemic, but an economic type of epidemic.
I remember my first encounter with a drive-by. I was maybe 16. We were sitting on the corner of Longwood, drinking beer, and this particular club came by and started shooting. The bullets were just whizzing by my ear. So I ran down the block, and there’s a restaurant there, still exists to this day, and I went into the restaurant because I knew the owner. I told him to open the garbage can, one of those big silver ones, and I went in there, and I told him to put everything on top of me and put the lid on. I stayed in there for what seemed like three hours, but it was probably 15 minutes.
I personally didn’t believe in jumping people. I never jumped anybody. But there were girls where I had to kick their ass. Sometimes after I got done kicking her ass, one of my girlfriends would come and, you know, kick her ass some more. It could be that she had sex with one of the girls’ guys, it could be that she was just wanting to have sex with one of the girls’ guys, or she could have just been from another club.
I also had to fight some of the guys in the club. They didn’t like me too much. I think that had a lot to do with the fact that I wasn’t a member. I never wore “Property of.” In the gang, the girls used to have to wear “Property of” on their jackets. I never believed in that, so I never did it. So I think a lot of it had to do with that. They thought I had control over their leader.
I carried guns for them if we had to go to a rumble or something because at the time the police wouldn’t check the girls. In fact, sometimes the girls would rumble with other clubs without the guys knowing. I remember a particular time when a group of us girls had a rumble with a gang called the Seven Immortals. We rumbled with their guys, and that started a war between the clubs.
We were coming down Freeman Street to the club, and they started calling us out. They said, “You’re not supposed to be on our block. You have to flip your colors.” They started getting nasty. And a lot of these girls from these clubs, let me tell you, a lot of them could have been better fighters than Ali’s daughter. I mean, these girls could fight. They had a lotta heart. And they wouldn’t flip colors. That means turn your jacket around or take it off. So the guys said, “If you don’t do it, we’re gonna strip you.” And that’s where the war began.
Stripping you means taking your jacket by force. And of course, you don’t let nobody take your colors. In fact, you don’t turn around for anybody either. If somebody says, “Oh, let me see your colors, turn around,” it’s not something you do. If you want to see somebody’s colors, you walk around the back and look at them. Colors are more respected than your whole family. It’s something you die for, like a flag. Today, that’s what the gangs call it—the Bloods, the Crips, all of them, they call it flagging: “I die for my flag.”
It was about territory. This is my hood. You don’t fly your colors in my hood unless you’re in one of my brother clubs. If you had war with somebody, then you could walk around their block wearing your colors, trying to be funny. You’d be saying, “I don’t give a shit who you are,” calling the club out.
Back then, I’d get up in the morning, 7:30 or so, go stand on the corner by the train station, and ask for quarters. I’d be there for a few hours. I could make up to $20. With that money I’d buy wine and cigarettes. Then I’d go into this one restaurant, talk to the guy I knew there, find out if there was any food from breakfast left—99 percent of the time there was—and he’d pack it up and give it to me. The guys in the restaurants were cool with us, and in return, we took care of them. We made sure nobody messed with them. But it wasn’t like they asked us to. It was the fact that they were so cool with us. We were like, “Nah, don’t fuck with them.”
So I’d go back to the club, feed myself, feed my man and whoever else was there. We’d drink wine—we’re talking now maybe one o’clock in the afternoon. We’d eat, drink wine, hang out, bullshit, discuss what we were going to do that day, whether we were going to go visit another club or if there was going to be some kind of party. That was a typical day.
You have every type of person in every club. It’s like a family, or the police department, or the priesthood. You have your murderers, your rapists, your thieves. You have it all. Who the hell knows what’s in your brain? If you’re in my club, I take you at face value.