Solitary was the worst; the claustrophobia was what really got to him, concrete walls closing in, dank air and no natural light for that long month. He described slowly losing his mind in that dark space, banging his fists into the wall, then his head, before surrendering to the dark end of another road. The hardened loaf of bread was his daily ration, he used it as his pillow. Slugging the Lieutenant may not have been such a good idea but it felt good at the time and the guy had gotten a little pushy. The military prison was just one more stop for Ray on his idiosyncratic journey to personal freedom, rebellion, and loss.
There were perhaps too many encounters with law enforcement in his early years. My uncle never fully explained what he was doing up in Harlem on a hot summer day in 1940, a tough working-class white guy, son of Polish immigrants, being hauled out of his old Ford by a group of angry cops, who after beating the shit out of him accused him of shooting a cop. It’s true that two colt semi-automatic pistols were found in his glove compartment, Ray insisted the weapons accompanied his recent expedition to the woods of Pennsylvania to shoot at rabid dog packs for the two dollars per pair of dog-ears that were paid by the local municipality. The Daily News gave the story of his arrest second-page coverage, leaving out the dogs; the accompanying photo froze in time the cops, the guns, and Ray, embarrassing the family.
Eventually he got off. Ray’s reach into Brooklyn’s neighborhoods went deep enough so a local bookie could bail him out; by the sheer force of personality, the working-class kid was able to rope in the assistance of the local state senator to plead his case in court.
For Ray, his encounters with the law didn’t spring from some internal meanness, it was more of a happy-go-lucky resistance to something. Early in life, he developed a love for the open road. Driving an old car long distances to some vague uncertain place was pure and purposeful.
For some, recalling happy times of family and hearth made for contentment in middle age. Ray most enjoyed recalling his exploits on the road, hitchhiking across the American West while being pursued by military and civil authorities displeased with his sudden departure from his appointed military base in Panama during the Second World War. Ray seemed to look at this reckless action as an opportunity to see if he could carry it off. It was never clear how he managed to carry himself successfully over the long distances, a Pfc on the run, hastily departing a foreign country, landing stateside, followed by a string of prison stays in the West. He counted seven prisons and seven prison escapes, not counting his unrelated eastern experiences. His recaptures became part of the game he had with the law.
A California prison became for Ray another opportunity to see exactly what he could do. He described the breakout as being pretty routine. The prologue for his prison departures in the West ran from taking bets from fellow prisoners that he could get beyond the prison walls, beating up a surly and abusive guard, and bullshitting an unfortunate guard gullible enough to drive him through the front gates. In a prison farm in California he walked under the machine gun tower and cut through the fence, on a ten-dollar bet.
Outside the prison gates his hitchhiking adventures could begin. He loved recalling sleeping in concealed spaces in local forests and in open fields off of country roads. During one escapade he made it to somewhere in Utah before being picked up and deposited in another prison, this time with tighter security and watchful guards—not too watchful however, since Ray found a way around it all and once again was on the road happily hitchhiking across western vistas, sleeping with nature, and content.
The authorities came in pursuit of him. Federal Bureau of Investigation Officers, seeking to ambush him or looking for clues as to his whereabouts, invaded my grandparents’ apartment, aggressively entering by the fire escape. They ripped through the humble contents of my grandparents’ home, overturning furniture and destroying what simple things they managed to accumulate since immigrating to the new world. Meanwhile Ray slept in a field somewhere in Colorado.
Bad luck finally caught up with Ray, and there would be no more mistakes. Ray went to Leavenworth, and no one, at least of his acquaintance, got out of Leavenworth. But Ray had accomplished part of his goal at least. For a time a simple guy from Brooklyn beat the military, and the blast of freedom had felt like a new morning’s fresh breeze.
Of course he drank to spectacular excess, and that became part of the legend. This got him into some serious trouble from time to time. The DT’s in a rehab facility was a miserable experience. But mostly the drinking fueled the heightened atmosphere Ray always brought with him to any social setting. From youthful skinniness emerged an impressive bulk; he became known as Fat Ray in Brooklyn neighborhoods and beyond. He was always a people’s comedian, he told the jokes that everyone roared along with and kept every social scene hopping with anticipation of what Fat Ray would do or say next. Women and men gathered around him in for a guaranteed party.
He had measured out his wayward military career by the number of authority figures he could piss off and in some cases win over. Play the odds, take the risk, you win some you lose some. While the world of the early 1940’s seethed through the catastrophe of World War 2, Ray took his position along the front lines of gaming the system. His extensive service in the military prisons of the Panama jungle would be interrupted by episodes of innovation in the contested Panama Canal Zone.
The large-scale drinking and crapshooting events that Ray organized eventually enabled him to blossom into his role as a founding father of the most popular whorehouse in the jungle nearest the base. Some senior officers were appalled. Typically the most appalled were like the captain whose service revolver Ray yanked from his holster and fired into the ceiling, just to test the officer’s mettle. Of course test it it did, with fourteen days in solitary.
More typically, the whorehouse drew from a wide range of constituents which included captains and lieutenants. Ray would remember this as a form of a new Eden, officers turning a blind eye or admitting being beaten, the marijuana smoke permeating the premises, enveloping the outside jungle during hours of operation, and the laudanum he consumed with excessive zeal made him believe he was lord of the Panamanian coast, at least for a time. Inevitably, there came the rapprochement, the tumbling down the stairs that the brass would kick him down again and again.
As Ray emerged from his time as prodigal war hero, the more structured lifestyles of ordinary life threatened. His career of choice was the construction business. He certainly had an array of necessary skills in this area; he could build with the best of them and remarkably had an impressive work ethic. Getting him to the starting line was to drive many to distraction and grief, but once he crossed the line, sweaty and sustained labor became a source of pride for him and a spectacle to behold. Ray could summon up stories of construction prowess on a multitude of job sites throughout New York City. He seemed to have worked on every construction site in the city. He knew of course that his role was small and ultimately forgettable, but he was proud and that while he was here, he was going to let you know that he in fact had been here.
Long drives in Ray’s old Fords were always small adventures. Simple drives down the Brooklyn Queens Expressway in the 1950s and 1960 became rollicking events on wheels. The BQE at that time certainly had its traffic but, unlike today, the road had space, enough space to make a driver and passengers feel like there was room for them and for Ray this meant expanding his social position while on the road. Ray would drive fairly slow, at least for him during these moments, past the scenes of the then-working docks of Brooklyn glide up to a nearby car traveling at the 35-mile-an-hour posted speed and engage the occupants in his own brand of repartee. He was loud enough to break through the noise of the road; many slowed their speed just to join the party: he was too funny and outrageous not to. If they were pretty young women, he had them all thoroughly engaged and laughing out loud to the antics and jokes of a middle aged guy, in the height of summer, wearing a white tea shirt with sleeves rolled up to his shoulders and blasting 1950s rock and roll out of his car radio. Even the BQE buzzed with life.
Family events during the 1950s, and 1960s could be staid affairs, until the great storm of Ray arrived to sweep everyone away on his mad-clown wave. Everybody laughed, everyone felt more alive, the air itself become electrified, until Ray did or said something too outrageous and explosive, leaving behind family expressions of outrage and demands that Ray vacate the premises, immediately. He always joked that his sister, my mother, would throw him out the front door and he would sneak back through the back door. He fully admitted that my mother often helped financially support and provide a place of refuge for her wandering brother during the self-inflicted turbulence that would follow in his wake. Ray did refer to many people he encountered and family members as “the straights.” He loved everyone in the family dearly, he was always there, front and center in times of family need, but he knew a distinction was needed in defining himself.
Ray’s rule was work six months, drop out, spend six months on the road. Return to a grateful and expectant boss on the construction crew. The rule however didn’t always work out, at least not as far as the construction boss was concerned. Ray’s immense drive while actually working made him a good bet for hire, but inevitably his lust for wandering had to meet the road one more time, leaving a red-faced boss swearing to never again hire the guy.
The industry eventually blackballed him from all future work. Family loans and a bed to sleep in were again provided by my mother, carrying him over another swiftly moving stream. Bleak days were followed by salvation of sorts, a serious sit-down with a family friend, a boss in the industry, and the blacklist went away.
The tree-lined residential block in Queens that I grew up on sprawled out as a long stretch of cramped single-family homes filled beyond capacity with families groaning under the weight of the post war baby boom. During his visits to our family, kids poured out of every household running, screaming with delight as Ray slowly bought whatever was his latest cool car to a full stop in front of our house, surrounded by the full onslaught of the post war baby boom in NYC’s outer boroughs.
Years later as I entered my 20’s, Ray and I embarked on a cross-country car trip that started the way many things started with Ray, casually, with “Hey kid wanna take a trip”? Riding though the eastern states, mid-west and western states and on to California bought the expected misadventures and the exuberant color and grandeur of the land and cities along the way. At this time in the mid 1970’s, six-dollar-a-night motels provided acceptable squalor and three-dollar bottles of tequila purchased from an old Spanish man outside a seventeenth century Spanish mission in Tumacacori Arizona were still possible.
The freedom of the open road was intoxicating but it was the flinging open of the many doors to Ray’s story telling that fueled the way ahead. The story became the thing, Ray held court in the states we passed through, down city streets, through sand storms in western deserts and over treacherous mountain passes, the story of his life went on. He was funny and profane for sure but he was making a larger point, he was setting his marker, he had been here, few in the end would notice, but the biggest noise possible would be heard, the straights would be put on notice.
Ray’s health problems at this time prohibited his drinking. That meant of course that drinking would be prodigious on this trip. We would come upon a bar, the kind where two strangers walking in strained the necks of the drinkers inside, carefully keeping a close eye on the two strangers who didn’t belong. Ray would immediately hit the right notes, working the room, a conductor leading the roughneck orchestra and a few moments in, the ragged roadhouse crew would be singing his tune. They would fall right in to his jokes, the stories, the sheer presence and traveling circus of Ray’s good time. They didn’t know who this guy was but they knew he had arrived.
In a rugged rural area somewhere near the Arizona/California border a shabby and broken-down old roadhouse presented itself seemingly out of a sandy mirage as we excited a long stretch of desert. As the sun sank low, the old wooden door opened into a dark and dingy scene of the roadhouse crowd, local cowboys, Native Americans and Mexican Americans boozing at day’s end. The proprietor, an older Caucasian man, topped off with a white cowboy hat and red flannel shirt finished with a black bolo tie, hunched over his bar and noted our arrival.
Our entrance immediately quieted down the cacophony inside but Ray’s joke about the priest and the hooker got the sign of approval of the proprietor. The patrons soon gathered around and Ray was off and running as master of desert ceremonies. The proprietor, an old navy man, had a story of his own. He had been as he put it “old Rich Nixon’s commanding officer” during “the last great war” as he characterized WW2 and he emphasized that he didn’t mean the Vietnam War then being lost. It seems that during their heroic war years, “Rich Nixon” had been “the best fucking poker player in the United States Navy.” The party went late, the drinks were prodigious; drunk and hazy, the problem of where to land for the night came up. Rich Nixon’s boss had the solution, as the patrons stumbled their way out the old door into the desert night the proprietor offered us two rooms outback. Sounded good.
If the roadhouse was a decrepit piece of desert architecture, at least it didn’t smell like the two rooms offered for the night. We were too drunk to protest, too tired to care, but that smell, not exactly like something springing from nature, but impossible to have come from the imagination of man.
An unexpected pre-dawn wakeup came with the belligerent crowing of a few roosters congregating outside our bedroom windows, immediately dispatching us away from the moldy oasis headlong towards the next miles of road and into the higher altitudes of nearby hills. Snaking our way down winding roads that eased themselves at the edge of the country, facing out towards the Pacific, Ray and I felt lifted up by the airy effervescence of the Big Sur Region. Henry Miller came up, I was about to instruct my uncle on the books of Miller but Ray, who was not much of a reader, he preferred constant movement in the world, had in his early years read some Miller and connected with his nonconformist lifestyle and Miller’s start in life in Ray’s old neighborhood stomping ground of Williamsburg and Greenpoint.
At a later visit to an art museum in San Francisco, a cluster of Rodin’s bronze masterpieces caught my eye. Ray incorrectly assumed I thought he might have no interest or insight into this work. Ray never went further than grammar school, his writing skills were at best primitive, having only rarely been sprung from the detention that school authorities thought was the progressive education technique that worked best on working class immigrant kids and that kept him from attending classes. Somewhat defensively and eager to make a point, he began discussing this work from the eye of a guy who had spent his life in construction, who appreciated how things were made, how materials were used and what made them beautiful.
We eventually split on the road. Ray’s health problems required a fast drive back to NY for medical treatment and I bailed out in Colorado. The final morning together, Ray as usual was up before dawn while I slept in a sleeping bag on the floor of our six-dollar-a-night motel. Ray bent down as he was leaving and told me to “have a good trip and all that shit” and patted me on the head. For a moment I was a four-year-old.
Ray lived for another seven years, surprisingly long given his lifestyle. He died at age 60.
Tom Bura is a retired environmental planner whose wanderlust currently takes him on long walks through the five boroughs of the city, immersing himself in the teeming ethnic and cultural life of the city’s neighborhoods.