There were four of them standing in the park near our school—Public School 5—on the upper west side of Manhattan that winter day in 1935. I was six years old; they were eight, or maybe nine. They spotted me, exchanged glances, and began moving toward me, the new kid, the scrawny, nervous guy they might have some fun with. I turned and ran as fast as I could. Running from trouble was my only defense in those days. I ran 20 blocks north, up St. Nicholas Avenue to our apartment on 160 Street.
“You’re home early,” Mother said, looking up from her sewing. I was panting. “What happened?” she asked. I didn’t usually keep things from her; she had a way of guessing, anyhow. But there are some things you just can’t tell your mother. She probably wouldn’t understand anyway. “Nothing,” I said, going into my room and shutting the door.
I was proud of my dad, who was chief chef on the President’s car, the best dining car on the New York Central line. But it kept him away from home a lot, and there was nobody around to teach me how to handle bullies.
Mother didn’t press me about what had gone wrong at school when I finally came out of my room. She did tell me, though, not to worry, because she was “all prayed up.” Whatever was happening, she said, I would be all right. But she didn’t know who was waiting for me at school.
Next morning, I dragged my feet walking to P.S. 5. Two blocks from school, there they were, all four boys, lying in wait for me on a street corner. Luckily they hadn’t seen me. I turned and ran, circling several blocks to reach school by a back way. Inside the building I was safe.
The day after that I wasn’t so lucky. The boys spotted me and gave chase. At last I outran them. The following morning, and for days thereafter, I got up early and mapped a zigzag route to school. South on St. Nicholas, backtrack on Convent Avenue, south again . . . a different map each day.
For two weeks I evaded the bullies. Even so, I knew my strategy wouldn’t work forever. One day I’d turn a corner and there they’d be, all of them bigger than I was, itching to beat me up. Each morning I dreaded the walk to school, and each afternoon I dreaded the journey home. Reminding myself that Mother was “all prayed up” didn’t help.
Then one morning it happened. I ran down St. Nicholas Avenue, and turned west according to that day’s planned route. There they were. Heading straight toward me.
Perhaps they hadn’t seen me. The street at that point plunged down a steep hill and the boys were at the bottom, maybe 30 feet away. As I turned to make my escape I glanced over my shoulder. The boys had seen me! They’d broken into a run, coming up the hill toward me.
I ducked through an iron gate into a dark service area between two apartment buildings, looking for a place to hide. At the end of the alley and to my right were red brick walls. To my left was a steep drop-off with no guard rail where the hill had been dug away to make a sunken service area for the next apartment. I raced to the edge. Maybe I could jump! But it was many times my height. The fall could kill me.
What was going on? Something was happening to the four boys and to me as well. An incredible quietness settled over me—as if I were safe at home in my own room with my drawings, or a book.
I looked around. Why had the boys released me? A movement caught my attention, in the shadows off to my right. A man in a heavy winter coat was walking toward us, approaching slowly through the dimly lit alley. Where had he come from? Behind him was the dead end. There were no doors or places to hide, just solid brick walls.
The man reached my side and stopped. I looked up, but I could not see his face in the shadows. He was about my father’s size, big! “All right, boys,” he said, “that’s enough.”
The boys drew back. They watched in silence as the man took me by the hand and led me toward the iron gate, out onto the sidewalk and up the hill toward St. Nicholas Avenue. Near my house, he let my hand drop and walked in the opposite direction. I’d forgotten to look up to see his face.
For the rest of my time at P.S. 5 I never again had trouble with those boys. If I met one of them in the hallway or on the playground, we passed each other without a word. It was as though there was a secret bond between us, as happens with people who have glimpsed another world.
Soon afterward I was transferred to a different school. There were bullies in the new school too, of course—there are bullies everywhere in life. But they never bothered me. Because after that day in the alley I was different. There was a confidence about me.
I never did tell Mother about the four boys at P.S. 5 or the mysterious man who saved me, although I suspect that if I had, she’d have put the rescue down to the natural result of being “all prayed up.”
Sixty-five years later, I’m glad I didn’t see the face of my protector. Liking to draw, I would have fixed his features in my memory and spent my life looking for him.
Instead, a strange thing has taken place again and again. I look around in a crowd—especially in an awkward or threatening situation—and wonder who of all the people I see may be a guardian in the shadows.