I was born in East Harlem in 1953. Until about 1960, Italian East Harlem was one of the Naked City’s worst ghettos and the Bellis (pronounced “bellies”) family one of the poorest families in it ... We had nothing when I was a kid, no things, nothing. Like countless other poor kids, I spent endless hours fantasizing about how life would be when I was rich and famous, in my case as the star centerfielder for the New York Yankees. I didn’t believe I had any useful skills ... and I had the grades to prove it.
Every other tenement house in our neighborhood was a burned-out ruin, and if you were fortunate enugh to live in a tenement that wasn’t even smoke-damaged, you can bet the building was in some other advanced state of disrepair. We lived – my mother, father, older brother, sister, and I – in a rundown apartment on East 119th Street. The small, airless rooms strung along a narrow hall like boxcars in a rail yard, baking in summer, freezing in winter.
In 1955, my mother, Emma Anita Lemorrocco, developed multiple sclerosis, just 12 years into their marriage and two years after I was born. Up until she got sick, she and my father had lived in the north Bronx for 10 years, and even had a convertible car. But after her disease set in, my parents fell into poverty and had to go back to East Harlem. There were no treatments; she would just get sicker and sicker until she died, as she did 18 years later. For nearly two decades, the chaos in my family was complete: hour-to-hour, day-to-day, year in, year out.
I became a serious student of human behavior. Extreme as the neighborhood characters were, they have much more in common with the rest of humanity than you might think: habits, quirks, troubles, aspirations, delusions. In dealing with them effectively I learned many things including to be patient and keep my trap shit when I had a secret to keep or knew nothing useful, to be humble and inquisitive enough to ask for help and advice when I needed it, and how o direct a conversation to my benefit. Confronting chaos at every turn, I came to understand that I needed to know as much about a situation as I possibly could before I made any move ....
Let’s be clear about one thing up front: I’ve never done any jail time! My moral compass was forged in the heat of the everyday necessity to “eat without stealing.” That’s what we called it in our apartment.