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Local Legends | A Place in the Sky

Williamsburg BridgePhilip Kalantzis Cope

October 25, 1903. Up until about 4 p.m. on that listless Sunday, the only topic of interest had been the weather. The first chill of autumn had fallen, and everyone strolling the Brooklyn shore that day sought out their own little place in the sun.

But suddenly all complacency ended when a flash-mob of children burst on the scene. In a split-second they were all over the place, incited by none other than one of their own, a street urchin calling from the foot of the docks. He yodeled a series of “melodious yelps,” the eternal high sign, common to all kids, that something was up. And so, crazy with delight, laughing and screaming, the little ones invaded the East River piers.

This extraordinary commotion drew the attention of hundreds. They pressed forward, en masse, to behold what had amazed their children that hour: the sight of two people, a young lady and her escort, ascending one of the cables of the Williamsburg Bridge.

It was a full two months before the bridge was to open. The giant span was still festooned with the catwalks the crew had used to tighten the wires. One of these contrivances is what beckoned the dare-devils to steal aboard. But what a treacherous route to heaven it was — nothing but slats, 20 inches wide. A few unlucky workers had already fallen from these catwalks. Would the young woman and this man soon join them in death?
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The Kid with the Silver Gun

Illustration by Tim Milk

Some time last year, I was in line at a smoke-stand to play lotto when the man ahead of me suddenly turned from the cashier and said: “Hey, do you remember me?”

I looked him up and down. A typical neighborhood guy, a deli and bodega guy, about sixty or so. “He doesn’t remember,” he laughed to his friend behind the counter. “Well, I remember you! A long time ago you used to buy cigarettes from me. On 14th Street! Remember?”

I squinted. I drew a blank. “You don’t remember? I can’t believe it. Surely you remember that day!”

That day?

“Not even that one day? Oh my goodness! That day! You were held up that day. Right there in my store! By the kid with the silver gun!”

It all came rushing back to me: a spring day, 1981. This guy had just sold me a pack of Camels when an audacious young voice arose from my side: “Hey mister, you got any money?”

I looked down to see this boy, not quite thirteen years old, with a face so angelic it belonged on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. “Well, not today,” I told him, “Sorry.”

The boy smirked. “No problem. I got money. Wanna see?” He then pulled from his pocket a whopping stack of fifties. He fanned them in my face so I could glory in his wealth. I had heard that drug dealers were making mules out of kids, but not until now did I make the connection.

“Wanna know how I got it?” he asked. Read more…

Local Legends | The Monkey Thief

The MonkeyThief Photo illustration by Tim Milk

Today The Local begins a recurring feature in which East Village historian Tim Milk takes a look at some neighborhood legends.

The spate of apartment break-ins that has gripped the East Village lately prompts me, by dint of experience, to say what I know by instinct is true: that we have been lulled into a collective stupor, and have become dizzy with the misconception that New York is safe.

Now, wait, let’s look at the term and what we expect of it. Safe is what we always want to feel, outside of our homes as well as in – calm and assured that we dwell in a world free of danger. But let me make one thing clear: I know my history, and I’ve been around the block. New York has always had crime. Our homes are always at risk.

Take the case, for example, of the Master Monkey Thief of the East Village.

When I first came here in 1979, urban myth had it that the police were hopelessly baffled by a series of burglaries. Back in those days, most people had these steel window gates that retracted accordion-style in a diamond-shaped pattern. The protection they offered, compared to modern gates, was minimal. The space between diamonds was perhaps eight inches, big enough to allow some nefarious stranger’s arm to reach inside. Horrors! They were also easily twisted apart by strong guys with crowbars. But as long as those old rattling gates held fast, the evil was kept outside.
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