We called it Emerald’s Cave.
But it wasn’t a cave at all, but a mile long length of sewer pipe that sucked up the brook we played on and dragged its water down to the river.
And the only green came from those places where the water splashed high onto the concrete walls and left green residue.
The name came from an old street gang that hung out there, and which we had to sneak around for several years if we wanted to go in or out.
The brook ran from under hump of the parkway, along the boundary between the DPW and
and turned finally along the highway to make its way back to the foot of Public
School No. 11 where it went underground, and when we could, so did we. Curry Park
The challenge wasn’t just to hang out at the mouth of the pipe – which was large enough for any of my uncles to walk through – but to go in as deep as possible, and if brave enough to come out the other side where it spilled into the river more than a mile away.
Most kids never ventured beyond the first curve in the pipe, the point where they could no longer see the lighted mouth as a tiny circle behind them, but only the slight glow of it against the curved wet walls. Far enough in, even that glow faded into pure dark that only the bravest could stand for long.
We had both “natural” and kid-made markers by which we measured our advance. A rusting shopping cart, a large log, a dented metal drum, even a particularly large pile of rocks signified depths about which we could brag.
Some kids well before us marked their progress in spay paint, leaving initials on the sides of the walls like great explorers of the past, and by whom we later measurer ourselves, even though we rarely knew who actually had left the marks.
The dark was only part of the challenge. Heavy rain or snow or even a rise in the river sometimes made the passage from start to end impossible.
And things lived in there, dark things we only partly imagined, that moved when we moved, and whose eyes we sometimes caught glimpse of when our flashlight turned a certain way. These usually avoided us. But a misplace foot and a splash in the water sometimes resulted in a bite of something, a turtle or a snake, or any of the numerous rats of various sizes we knew existed there.
But these were nothing compared to the gangs that laid claim to the tunnel as their turf. Early on, when I first started going there with Dave and others, The Emeralds, Irish tough guys from South Paterson, collected at the mouth of the tunnel, seeing it not as a challenge, but as a place to smoke or drink or make out with girls.
They hated us hanging around, and threw stones at us when they saw us looking on.
We got in from time to time, but always feared that we would find them waiting at the mouth when we came out, and since most of us were still too young and inexperienced to actually make the whole trip through, we sometimes had to hide just around the bend in the twilight until The Emeralds moved on.
Eventually, they moved on completely, growing too old for hand outs like this. But that’s when the real struggle began. Punk kids from the local high school decided to take over the place just at a point when we were moving in. If anything, this gang with their leather jackets and switchblades hated us even more than the Emeralds did – perhaps because by that time we were closer in age to them, and they saw us more as a rival gang than a mere annoyance. When they caught one of us there, they beat him up as a warning to the rest of us as to what would happen if we came back.
It didn’t stop us – especially me.
I refused to let them deny us, even though I was as scared of getting beat as any of the others, even Dave. And so I egged them all on to keep sneaking back, and more than once, we had to wait it out when the gang arrived after we did, listening to the echoes of their false bravado as they boasted about stealing this car or beating up some poor fool at school. They often talked about the gang fights they had with the black gangs from
It was hard for any of us to keep from snickering since we knew just how full
of shit they were. No white gang from this side of Crooks
Avenue ever took on a black gang from the other
side. A few South Paterson gangs like the Emeralds might have, but then they
generally got toughened up by going to East Side, while these fools went to an
all while high school with a lot of security.
Then one day all that changed. Maybe one of them heard me snicker and decided to come and find me.
Unlike the Emeralds, this gang routinely came deeper into the tunnel where they did things they didn’t want anybody to see, drunks and drinking, and things with girls. They were not scared of the dark, and mostly carried flashlights while we relied primarily on blue-tipped wooden matches.
They came, grabbed me and Dave and another kid before we could slip too deep in the tunnel and dragged us outside, hitting Dave so hard in the stomach, it bent him over. They tried to hit me, but I moved to one side, slipping out of the grasp of the kid who held me. So they flicked out their knives, and flashed them before my face, telling me the next time they catch any of us, they’ll cut us up instead.
They let us go, and we went, scared as hell, because we knew these kids meant it.
They weren’t afraid of us.
Dave wanted to stay away, but I wouldn’t let him, and made him come back with me, not into the cave, but near enough so that we could see when the gang was there, and when the went inside, and when they did, I pulled the blue tipped matches out of one pocket, and a batch of cherry bombs out of the other.
Dave yelled, “No,” but I lit the first one and threw it into the mouth of the cave.
I heard them scream inside. The echoes must have been horrible. I lit another and threw that one in, too, and then after that went off, I climbed down to the mouth of the tunnel and yelled inside.
“I got lots more and I’m going to use them.”
Someone yelled back about killing me for this, but that got lost when third cherry bomb went off, after that all I heard was the slap of feet and the gang screaming at each other, but I didn’t stop. I lit one after the other until I ran out. By that time, the echoes of their running feet were faint.
Dave looked at me like I was crazy.
Maybe I was.
I told him it was time to go home.
I never did go back after that. Not because I was afraid, but more like I didn't need to, like with the Emeralds I had better things to do.