Ricky Glasses was so named for the giant coke-bottle spectacles that covered most of his face. The first time I saw him he was leaning against the wall of an SRO (Single Room Occupancy Hotel) around the corner from where I live on East 32nd Street. At first glance, he appeared to be scrawny, even runty, but he’s one of the toughest guys I ever met in New York City.
Experts say that when we come in contact with new people, our minds form first impressions in seven-tenths of a second. I believe this. Maybe on the streets, where life or death judgments have to be processed rapidly, that amount of time is even shorter. I also presume that, in prison, the time necessary to make split-second judgments must be even further reduced to help a person decide – fight or flight!
After an initial glance at the man I would come to know as Ricky Glasses, my mind’s seven-tenths synapse hollered, “Give that guy a wide berth!”
Manhattan, although colossal in overall scale, is in actuality probably the world’s biggest conglomeration of small towns. Every few blocks contain a micro community where even the slightest changes don’t go unnoticed. I live in the Murray Hill section of Manhattan. Murray Hill is a neighborhood in midtown defined by East 34th Street to the south, East 40th Street to the north, Madison Avenue to the west and Third Avenue to the east. Now it’s a safe, vibrant neighborhood, but this was not always the case. Back in the ’80s, it was a nasty and dangerous area. In place of well-dressed young professionals walking to and from their office jobs or to the trendy bars, restaurants, and gyms that currently line Third Avenue, the streets back then were infested with prostitutes, pimps, drug dealers, drunks and muggers.
A few vestiges of that dark and seedy time remain. Many people don’t notice, but sandwiched between quaint restaurants, blaring widescreen sports bars and chain restaurants, banks and mega-drugstores are a few surviving SROs. These are places where the “untouchables” of American society, men and women, can still find a home in this otherwise great and wealthy city, where, as of late, buildings built for billionaires are sprouting up faster than tulips at springtime.
I feel fortunate that, for some odd reason and at least for the time being, there is a stretch of old Murray Hill between East 32nd and East 33rd along Third Avenue that has remained unchanged. There’s a shoe repair shop, an owner-operated delicatessen, a two-chair barbershop, a family operated liquor store, and in the middle of it all is the relic SRO.
Like many of the SRO’s residents, Ricky was an ex-con and from one of the harshest upstate New York penitentiaries. At the time our paths crossed, he looked gaunt and undernourished. He had just been out for a year after serving an 18-year stint for art theft, five of which he served in solitary confinement (aka “the hole”). The original sentence was 12 years, but he got an extra six tacked on, mostly for fighting. As a little guy, I’m sure he was doing what he could to survive and, ironically, in prison, size doesn’t always matter. In many cases it’s the “little guys” who are the most dangerous, not the bulked up muscle-heads covered with menacing jailhouse tattoos. The great equalizers in the joint come in the form of jagged pieces of metal, sharpened toothbrushes, eye-gouging fingers and flesh-tearing teeth.
Retaliation was what kept adding time to Ricky’s sentence, and what led to his eventual five-year stint in the hole. Knowing it was an “eat or be eaten” world, Ricky never lost a fight. There are still lots of big guys walking around in the prison yard with ugly scars as evidence of his self-protective tactics.
I noticed a few other things as I began to pass the steely looking character leaning against the wall in front of the dingy old walkup SRO on Third Avenue. He stood apart from the other residents, congregated in front of the solid steel entrance door. He seemed completely disinterested in their idle banter and kept himself away from the haze of co-mingled smoke and the circular passing of bottles in crumpled brown paper bags. He also seemed to care less about the bleach blond prostitute, another regular SRO resident, who was popular with the other male residents despite her worn-out, beaten-down appearance. He never seemed hung-over or zonked out like the rest. He was hard, mean and angry.
The other instantly observable feature about this guy was his pair of oversized, thick-as-coke-bottle eyeglasses. They had no style, whatsoever. They magnified his eyeballs to almost cartoonish proportions. It was creepy to feel those big eyes on me as I skulked by him.
It took some time for me to adjust to this slight but dangerous-seeming wall-leaner I passed a few times each day. When he wasn’t just gazing ahead with those magnified eyes, he was puffing away on hand-rolled cigarettes or rolling them with a little device, taking raw tobacco out of a plastic pouch with a picture of an Indian in full headdress printed in black. He was undeniably a strange sight, but what isn’t somewhat unusual or different around here? We all simply adjust to the differences until we become comfortable with the diversity of this amazing city.
While all of these city observations were filling my head on this miniature corner of the city, something way bigger and far more ominous was brewing hundreds of miles offshore, far out in the Atlantic Ocean. Hurricane Sandy, a first-time-in-200-years superstorm, was headed with full fury toward New York City. The moon was full and the tides were high. Manhattan’s residents and shop owners were closing their doors and shutters and heading for higher ground outside of the granite island between the great rivers, bay and ocean. The residents of the SRO seemed unaffected. Anyway, where would they go? The storm was still a few days out at sea, but it was not looking good.
My studio apartment on East 32nd Street is on the ground floor. I hear a lot of city noises and I’ve gotten used to them over the years. The word was that all neighborhoods south of 34th street were in great danger of flooding if the worst-case scenario were to occur: an unprecedented storm surge, causing the East and Hudson rivers to crest and actually converge over downtown Manhattan. Add to that the immensity of a colossal up-swelling from the Long Island Sound and the Atlantic Ocean’s possibilities of raw power and it was beginning to feel like this could be the start of a Hollywood disaster movie. I began to worry, and I started stacking papers and valuables as high up on shelves and countertops as possible in my small studio apartment.
Going back and forth to the hardware store and other places, I passed the SRO more often than usual. The same-old behavior of the regulars out front seemed at odds with the rest of Murray Hill, which was abuzz with pre-storm activity: people scurrying about buying milk, eggs, bottled water, batteries and duct tape. It was the rush that always leads to the classic television news broadcast pictures of the empty grocery store shelves.
In my haste, I guess I forgot that I was afraid of that curious, tough-looking character, so this time as I passed him I blurted out, “Hey, how you doin’?”
Much to my surprise, he perked up and came away from the wall to meet me halfway on the sidewalk. “Not bad. How you doin’?” he said gruffly.
“I’m getting ready for the storm,” I said hurriedly.
He grimaced, revealing a full set of false teeth. He dragged on his craggy smoke, inhaling deeply, more for a nicotine fix than for pleasure.
He spoke with a heavy Brooklyn accent. “Storm. Storm – what the fuck – all these people running around like chickens with der heads cut off. Dey don’t know shit. Dis ain’t nuthin’ – I ain’t scared a no storm. Big fucking deal.”
He looked tough and he sure talked tough, but for some reason I was no longer afraid of him.
“You’re a calm dude,” I said, looking closer into his enlarged eyeballs.
“Ha – gimme a break. Where I come from this storm shit ain’t nuthin’.”
“Where do you come from?”
“You don’t want to know.” He turned his head away and took a deep drag; then he spit.
“By the way, I’m Ricky. They call me Ricky Glasses – get it?”
“Ahhhhyeahh – I get it. I’m Mike. Nice to meet you Ricky, or I mean…Glasses.”
“You got it – either one – I answer to both, plus worse. Ahhhh Haaaa Haaaa Ahhhhhh!” He paused and added, “You look like you got your hands full. I ain’t doin’ nuthin’ right now. You need any help? Heavy liftin’, shit like that…?”
“Well I’m not…”
“You don’t gotta pay me or nuthin’, but if you want I could use some tobacco – that’s all.”
“Well, actually, my place is on the ground floor just around the corner and if this thing hits like they say it might down here, all my stuff’ll get ruined, so I could use some muscle to help me lift the heavy things. The last thing I need is to screw up my back. You know what I mean?”
“I got a back like a bull. You got a deal! Ova dere is where they got the lowest price on my favorite tobacco. The Indian.”
Did I just get scammed into buying this guy tobacco? And then I’m going to let him into my apartment? Am I nuts? Oh well, too late now.
As advertised, Ricky Glasses or Ricky or just Glasses had a damn strong back for a little guy. He was just plain strong. He worked his ass off for that newsstand store tobacco.
Whenever I tried to pitch in, he’d say, “Don’t worry, I got it!” He took care of everything. I was impressed.
When the work was all done, the late October sky had turned charcoal gray with storm clouds blowing in off the ocean from the east like giant freight trains. I looked up as the clouds shrouded and dwarfed the spires of the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings. Sandy was hurtling toward us. As fierce winds howled through the canyons of the city, the first droplets of rain began to fall, foreshadowing an approaching peril. Having seen Ricky’s sinewy but frail-looking frame as he lifted and strained, I wondered about his eating habits. He chose tobacco over food earlier in the day. I wondered if he was starving.
“Let me buy you dinner,” I said. “We should eat something before we have to hunker down. Whaddaya say?”
“Great, let’s get a burger at the Lexington Diner.” We headed off.
Despite his rough and battered exterior, Glasses was quiet and well-mannered in the diner’s booth. I did the ordering. He asked the waiter to put two slices of lemon in his ice water. He told me that lemons are very good for the body. “In lockup, they fill us up on bread and potatoes, so you got to get vitamins wherever you can. Lemons are very good for you.”
“Oh, I see.”
He ate ravenously. He was famished. He thanked me and I said, “No worries.”
With no place else to go, we sat and drank coffee. There was no doubt at this time from the TV report overhead and the worsening conditions outside, that Manhattan was going to get pounded by Sandy. But the prospect of an actual flood and the uniting of seas and rivers still seemed in the realm of fantasy. How could it possibly happen?
Ricky apologized for not talking very much while we were eating. He said that in prison, during meal times, the inmates were not allowed to talk, at least not in some of the maximum-security facilities he’d been in, and he remarked that old habits die hard. But after the plates were cleared away and it was just cups of hot fresh coffee before us, he perked up and became talkative. I had learned a few years ago to not be overly inquisitive about street people or gangster types. If they wanted to say something, they would. One time, on the corner of East 32nd and Third, I asked the wrong question to the wrong person at the wrong time, and ended up running away from a pissed-off thug with a knife in his hand. There are signs posted all over the city letting people know where to park, which way to turn, etc. The laws of the jungle of any city, though not so obvious, must be learned over time.
As Ricky sipped his coffee, he started to talk. He didn’t have much use for the other residents of the SRO and had something bad to say about each of them. Most of them were ex-cons like himself, but to his way of thinking, their crimes were despicable, whereas his former profession as a thief was victimless, took skill, and had a certain honor to it in the hierarchy of the criminal world – especially in organized crime, which he claimed he had been with for most of his life. Ricky was less than 100% Italian, his father being Sicilian and his mother Irish. He resented that he was never inducted into the inner circle of a crime family and had to settle for being an associate, forced to kick up an extra-large portion of his hard work to the bosses for whom he had little respect.
From what I could gather, Glasses was a hard-as-nails lone wolf with not much regard for anyone or anything, a genuine tough guy. The one thing he seemed exceedingly proud about was that he had taken the fall for an art theft pinch and didn’t rat on any of his partners or bosses, never giving them up the entire 18 years. I couldn’t imagine five days of just sitting in my comfy studio apartment, let alone five years in a windowless jail cell.
He could take anything. So it seemed to me.
I kept looking out the window at the worsening weather, but Glasses still seemed unaffected. Having pegged him as pure Brooklyn gangster, pure New York City hard guy and ex-con, I was thrown off by his comment that bad storms and even floods don’t worry him because he was born and raised in the mountains of Kentucky where rivers frequently crest over.
“I thought you were from Brooklyn,” I said.
“I am, but my father had me when he was on the lam from the Feds. He was a made-man and a Capo in the Mob and was hiding out in Kentucky for years. That’s where he met my mother and they had me. Eventually, they caught up with him and he got life without parole. Before he went away, he shipped me back to Brooklyn and paid some of the boys in his crew to take care of me. So you see, I know all about the outdoors and survival.”
“Oh – I see. That’s amazing,” I said encouragingly. Then I looked around. “It’s starting to look pretty bad out there – windy as hell – maybe we should start heading back?” I didn’t want to push my luck with Mr. Glasses. He seemed to become tense as he started to name names of other gangsters I recalled from the news. He kept complaining about how they “fucked him over” while he was in jail and never came to visit him or took care of his family or provided him with a way to make a living when he got out. In his words they had “closed the books” on him. He resented that, and I think he was just about to tell me who he intended to take care of and how he planned to do it, when I stood up to leave. I figured that I might be the only person in the entire world that Ricky might not have a major or violent problem with at this time, and I’d be wise to keep it that way by getting out of there.
We said goodbye at the corner. It was pouring now and the gale had picked up. City debris was blowing everywhere. As Ricky rounded the corner, he called out, “Don’t worry, I know how to take care of things. If it gets bad you know where to find me. I’m on the fifth floor.”
Then he was gone. I assumed he went back to his room at the SRO with enough tobacco to last through the storm.
My neighborhood is called Murray Hill because a Quaker merchant named Robert Murray (1721-1786) acquired the land with the intention of farming it. Due to the steep mounds of glacial till typical of Manhattan Island’s still unmodified natural terrain, the soil and topography were unsuitable for farming. Today, if you walk from the East River toward the West Side, you will find that there is a significant incline at 34th Street. At high tide, you can practically reach down and touch the surface current from the East River Esplanade. In other words, when there is a heavy rainfall, all the water from the top of Murray Hill around Park and Madison Avenues cascades down Third, Second and First Avenues, going across or under the FDR drive and then into the East River. My apartment is near Third Avenue at the bottom of Murray Hill, close to the East River. This constitutes a perfect corner of convergence for rising water under the kind of extreme conditions the city was expecting from Hurricane Sandy.
All of that is exactly what happened. As I watched the tempest on television, water gushed into the basement of my building, until the combined slurry of water from the rivers and ocean and bays that surround Manhattan began to rise up through the floor and into my apartment.
In 1750, Robert Murray knew what he was doing. Not only did he see that farmland on Murray Hill could wash away, he was also smart enough to build his mansion on high ground, away from the water’s edge, to protect it from torrential rains.
As I watched the ultimate reality TV show – my neighborhood getting flooded, in real time – I began to formulate an escape plan for myself before it was too late. I called some friends who lived uptown and made arrangements to ride this thing out on their couch. As soon as I had packed a bag, the electricity and heat in my building went out.
As I walked uptown, I noticed that the power was still on in the SRO. I glanced up to the fifth floor and felt glad that Ricky Glasses was probably okay. He had a full stomach and enough tobacco to last him through the night and into the next day.
The storm was indeed epic, and a few days turned into a few weeks of no power south of 34th Street, and I lived like a nomad at several friend’s places. I was grateful for the couch, and for the warmth, food and companionship. As disrupting as it may have been, mine was not such a bad situation compared to being in solitary confinement for five years like Ricky Glasses. How the hell did that tough bastard survive that? His pre-storm stories at the Lexington Diner helped me get though my ordeal.
Eventually, the power was restored and it was possible to return home. But my apartment, like many others in the lower part of the city, was trashed. I desperately needed some help cleaning it up. Black mold was now the city residents’ worst enemy.
I went over to the SRO, and sure enough Ricky Glasses was out there smoking his “Indian brand” cigarettes, leaning against the wall with those bugged-out eyes. He was eager to help me again in exchange for tobacco and burgers. I did the shoveling and Glasses did the heavy lifting, hauling soaked junk out to the dumpster. His strength continued to amaze me.
As I stuck my arm deep inside a closet to clear out several pairs of soggy shoes and God knows what else, my fingers touched fur– and then the fur moved.
“A rat!” I hollered.
Shit, I had just touched a big possibly rabid rat! I panicked all over the place, but Ricky remained calm. He strolled over, gently opened the door, knelt down in the muck and, without hesitation, began to strip away the debris.
“Mike! Look – it’s not a rat.”
“Then what the hell is it Ricky? It just moved. I felt it!”
“Really, it’s not a rat. It’s a raccoon. It’s a baby raccoon.”
“You must be kidding me Ricky, a baby raccoon in Manhattan! What’s going on here?”
“Yeah well I don’t know how he got here but he’s scared – and probably hungry too. Poor little fella.”
“Let’s get him out Ricky – he might have rabies.”
“No – No – he just a baby, and I can tell he’s not sick.”
“How did he get here? This isn’t the county or upstate.”
“Mike, didn’t you know that that are hundreds of raccoons living in the city, in the parks, like Central Park and Riverside? I used to live on 195th Street in Washington Heights and I saw them all the time near Fort Tyron Park. His den probably got flooded, the surge carried him and he found his way in here. Look, he’s frightened – he’s still shaking like a leaf.”
“Can you get him out? I hear these things can be vicious.”
“Mike, remember I told you I was born and raised in Kentucky until I was eight. I learned all about animals. He’s just scared. We’ve got to leave him there until he’s ready to walk out on his own. If I try to grab him he’ll bite.”
“So we just stay here with him?”
“Yeah – I’ll open the window and make a little bridge with this board; when he’s ready he’ll go on his own, trust me.”
“Is it a boy or a girl?”
“I can’t tell, but we should give it a name.”
“Yeah, every living thing should have a name.”
“Then call it Little Ricky,” I suggested.
“No, anyway we can’t give it a boy’s name because we don’t know if it’s a boy or a girl, right?”
I could hardly believe my ears. Here is this gangster, convict, thief who hates just about everybody and everything, worrying about what to name a baby raccoon.
“Let’s name it ‘Sam’ as in Samantha or Samuel.”
“Good idea, Ricky.” I was impressed. Ricky was proving to be very clever.
“Now we have to feed it.”
“What do raccoons like to eat?”
“In Kentucky we would give them canned tuna fish. They love tuna. Sam is probably thirsty too.”
Sam is thirsty! I could hardly believe the scene. But it was real and not a dream, or at least I believed it was not a dream.
“Okay, Ricky, you go look for a bowl in that mess by the sink. Meantime I’ll go across the street to the market to get some bottled water and a can of tuna fish for Baby Sam.”
“Good idea, Mike. Oh and do you think you could pick me up some Indian tobacco too? Mike?”
“Sure, Ricky, no problem. I’ll be right back.”
When I returned Ricky had somehow managed to find a dry blue blanket in my water-logged apartment and Sam was snuggled up on it, fast asleep. Ricky was sitting on an upended milk crate talking to the baby raccoon in a soothing voice as if it were a child. I gave Ricky the shopping bag. He opened up the tuna with his all-purpose Swiss Army style knife and placed it near Baby Sam and then filled a bowl with fresh water.
All my furniture, carpeting, files and clothes were ruined. Ricky dragged all the heavy water-soaked stuff out to the dumpster. Sam stayed in the closet and eventually ate the tuna and drank some water while continuing to burrow into the blue blanket. Thankfully, he (or she) had stopped shaking.
Ricky and I rigged up a makeshift table and salvaged a few folding chairs out of the dumpster that others in my building had discarded. For three days we dumped, scrubbed, removed mold and repainted walls and ceiling. During breaks we sat at our spot to drink coffee, eat sandwiches and keep an eye on Sam.
We had become like a little family.
On the third morning Ricky was waiting for me at the front door. I turned the key and we entered. I had coffee and doughnuts and a fresh bag of Indian tobacco for Ricky as well as a can of tuna for Sam.
When we went to the closet to see our little raccoon buddy, the blanket was bare except for an empty tuna can nestled in an indentation where Sam’s small furry body had been. Ricky had been right. When Sam was ready, he walked across the wooden bridge that Ricky constructed and went back out into the city to live a raccoon life.
Ricky Glasses and I took our usual seats in front of the makeshift table. I laid out the coffee and the box of donuts as Ricky rolled a cigarette in his gadget.
I think we both felt a bit lonely now that Sam was gone.
Even within the strongest hurricanes like Sandy, and the toughest men like Ricky Glasses, there is a fine flame of tenderness that can never be completely extinguished.
Two months later, Ricky Glasses got caught shoplifting and, since he was still on parole, they put him back in the slammer for six more years. I was surprised but not shocked. He clearly was having a rough time on “the outside,” and bad as prison might be, it was familiar and thus, in a strange way that isn’t always easy for us to understand, the comfortable choice—and the reason so many longtime ex-convicts find their way back in.
The friendship and family feeling that developed so quickly between Ricky and me still surprises me. Ricky and Sam helped me get through Hurricane Sandy, and I will be forever grateful.