As we played, screams came from the apartment building across the street. We had heard those screams before. A woman, barefoot, dressed only in a slip and hair a mess, ran towards the playground. She had a young boy with glasses in tow. She entered the playground and begged the adults for help and a dime to call the police. Her Bluto like husband was not far behind. Wearing a filthy, ripped undershirt with holes in it, pants that hung below his fat gut, and shoeless, he screamed obscenities at the meek woman and child. He was bald and unshaven and his appearance shocked us. Our father was a meticulous dresser who changed his clothes several times a day. Dad had his thick black hair cut weekly; there was never a hair out of place. He had a heavy beard and so he shaved twice daily, no five o’clock shadow for him. He had beautiful blue eyes and everyone said he looked like Tyrone Power. He was meticulously groomed and I sometimes thought Dad was grooming away the dirt and smell of smoke, fires, and death. The contrast was so shocking; we had never seen anything like it.
“Don’t give that bitch any money” the bruiser shouted. No one moved. Then Mom’s eyes flashed, her fighting Irish rose, and she stood ten feet taller than her 5’4” height. She walked calmly to the sobbing woman, opened her purse, and said, “Here’s a dime—call the cops.” The brutish husband threatened our mom again. “Don’t give her any money.” Mom pretended not to hear the 250 lb., 6’4” beast, and cajoled, “Here’s some more money, take it, take some more. Take as much as you need.” Barb and I had drawn closer to Mom and watched with fear and admiration. The Babies whimpered a little, they later remembered that they thought the bad man might hit Mom. We reassured them that everything would be ok.
The bruiser’s victim started to inch towards the playground exit to call the police, when her brute husband rand ahead to the gate, shut it and locked everyone in. He barricaded our escape with his fat stomach and fists. “You’re not going anywhere” he bellowed. Helen strode right up to the metal gate and confronted Bluto. “Open this gate—now!” she ordered. The fat creep was taken aback, and then he swore again and punched the gate with his huge fists. Mom never flinched. “I know who you are—I know your record—Schaeffer.” She spat the man’s name at him like it was an epithet.
Mom lived by a set of complex rules, a combination of Catholicism and the mores and morals of the 20s, 30s, and 40s. This gave her an exaggerated sense of justice. I always thought she really believed those Frank Capra movies where the little guy won. She held her family to much higher standards than she held the rest of the world. She was well-known to be a soft touch for anyone with a sob story and we never knew how much money she had given to people in need.
Her devout Catholicism taught her kindness to strangers, but this was no stranger—this was a wife beater and a bully. “Open this gate, you yellow bellied drunk. How dare you treat your wife and child this way? Shame on you, you chicken.” The brute looked a bit bewildered, and swore at my mother again. Then she hit him with, “I am going to tell my husband, Jack Solick about this, Schaeffer.”
Suddenly, the evil giant turned white and his belligerence collapsed. My mother turned on her heels and marched back to comfort the crying woman and her little boy. The brute was on my mother’s heels. At first we thought he might assault her, but when she turned around, he fell on his knees, pleading, “Don’t tell Jack Solick, lady, please, it will mean my job. I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” Mom fired back, “Don’t you apologize to me, apologize to them.” She pointed at his wife and son.
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