I was eleven when ‘West Side Story’ hit the silver screen. I did not know it, but I was growing up smack in the middle of a melting pot. In the early 1960’s my South Bronx neighborhood consisted mostly of Irish and Italian Catholics but we had a fair share of Finnish, German and Swedish Lutherans. They stuck together like a herd of moose. On the nicer neighborhood streets, a wealth of Jews lived in newer buildings and employed a smattering of Blacks as ‘supers’ and janitors.
So, when Ernesto Delgado moved into a nearby building, he was more of an oddity than a threat. Ernesto was the first live Puerto Rican I had ever seen. Living a block away in the Bronx meant he was in a different crowd than mine. We never called it a gang, because all we really did was hang out together and make sure kids from other crowds didn’t pick on or bully one of us. On my street alone, there were a dozen small apartment buildings with about twenty kids in each one. With so many youngsters running around, a firm rule voiced by our parents was to “Stay on the block so I can see you.” This edict was strictly enforced—the busybodies, yentas, and our mothers could look out a window and see exactly who was doing what. Some of the older women would place a pillow or cushion on their windowsill or fire escape and watch the street all day and into the night. If we stepped out of line, our mom might get a phone call and we’d be in for it.
Ernesto became friends with Jimmy Stanton, a kid I knew from school. They lived in the same building two blocks from me. Jimmy introduced me to Ernesto. And, even though they were in the 164th Street crowd and I was in the 162nd street crowd, we all became friends. We loved to play baseball and we were Yankee fans.
During the summer my parents would let me leave the block on Saturdays to play baseball on one of the fields near Yankee Stadium. There were six grass diamonds outside the famous ballpark and we always mustered up enough neighborhood players for a game. In the mornings before I left, Mom would make cheese and mustard sandwiches, wrap them in wax paper and put them in a small brown paper bag. When I got thirsty, the public water fountain at the park was the best water in the world. With everyone using it, the water was always nice and cool.
On those summer days we’d play ball from eight in the morning until late afternoon. Sometimes on a hot Saturday after a game, we’d head a few blocks over to the to the Harlem River where some of the guys would dive off an abandoned dock for a swim. I never went in. A few years earlier my mom had laid down the law about going in the river. As an eight year old, I had ventured to the river with some friends, collected blue crabs at low tide and brought them home. I got a beating and to this day, although more than a half century has disappeared, I can still hear her words, “Young man, don’t you ever go in that river again.”
Well, that Saturday at the river we built a raft from pieces of scrap wood and broken pallets. It floated. Most of the guys jumped into the river and started to play, “King of the Raft.” Ernesto was holding onto a corner of the raft as the current started to drag it towards deeper waters. Jimmy was “King.” I stood on the dock having as much fun watching, as they were having pushing each other on and off the raft. Ernesto managed to climb onto the raft. Jimmy pushed him off the raft. Caught up in the moment, with everyone hollering, splashing, and trying to dethrone Jimmy, no one noticed Ernesto sinking.
The cops took us in, and questioned us individually. I was twelve at the time. For the next three days parents, police and just about the whole neighborhood gathered at the river. My mother was standing with Ernesto’s mom when a police boat dragging the river found the body. As her son was being pulled from the river Mrs. Delgado let out the most horrific scream I had ever heard. I couldn’t even look at her.
No one was blamed for Ernesto’s drowning, but something ate away at my soul. Jimmy Stanton and I stayed friends but we both grew up drinking a lot. One night in a bar when we were in our twenties Jimmy told me he knew Ernesto couldn’t swim. I asked him, “If you knew, why’d you push him off?” He looked at me, started crying and said, “I don’t know. I swear to God, I just don’t know.”