The Killer Instinct

We went to Rat Island to kill, but it was not rats we were after.  I was ten years old, as was my companion John.  The island lay in the Bronx River just north of the Botanical Gardens in the vast and verdant Bronx Park.  It was accessed by a fallen tree trunk and held a dangerous allure.  How it got its name we did not know.  It wasn’t an official name but was known to all the boys in the neighborhood, whispered like a ghost story in the night. Some said the rats were the size of fat cats and could bite your feet off.

In those days, the park was wild and the Botanical Gardens, bordered by Twin Lakes on its north side, was not fenced in, and on our regular jaunts through it, we would encounter packs of other boys, many older, some being progenitors of The Ducky Boys gang of Irish kids from the adjoining parish of Our Lady of Refuge, from whom we would have to flee.  We were after thrills and the frisson that comes with fear. It’s Good to Be ... Tennant, Dominic Bnonn Best Price: $10.25 Buy New $14.99 (as of 09:43 UTC - Details)

On the momentous day I speak of, when heading to Rat Island, we carried our rods.  We were Bronx boys and even in those days we learned to protect ourselves.  I did kill that day, and this tale is my confession, for like then, I still feel guilty.  But I was also proud since it felt like a passage into manhood.

We traversed the meandering river slowly, not because the tree trunk was wobbly, but because of the fear of the fat cat rats.  We might have to protect ourselves and were very wary, like soldiers creeping up on a hidden enemy.  But all we first found on the island were a few beer bottles and cigarette butts.

When the fat cat struck, I was shocked.  I yanked him hard and he flew into the air and landed in the river’s edge on the side where the current ran fast.  When I pulled him toward me, I was appalled by his ugliness and his sad eyes and old man appearance, his whiskers that extended like wire bristles.  He was still alive but I wanted a trophy, so I let him die at my feet.

My sisters and mother were revolted when I brought the big catfish into the house, so I brought it to the yard to show my father when he got home from work.  But as I waited, I felt quite guilty for the poor creature, so I prepared to bury him with dignity and dug a small hole in the side yard and found two popsicle sticks in the garbage from which I constructed a cross.  My father arrived in time for the funeral and seemed bemused by it all.  I buried my victim, erected the cross in the dirt over him, and said a prayer.

John and I were just kids and thought we knew what we were seeking, but as I later learned from Thoreau, “Many men go fishing all their lives without knowing it is not fish they are after.”  But what is it?

In the next few years, I did little fishing, just once a year in the Esopus Creek at Edgewater Farm in the Catskills where we vacationed for a week in the summer. There I would go alone in the very early morning while everyone slept and I could watch the mist rise over the flowing water and never kill a fish, just feel being at peace with God and nature.  The killer had become a dreamer.  But not entirely.

I then turned all my attention to basketball.  Hoops became my obsession from the 6th grade on.  It seemed clear to me then that I was after self-disciplined excellence and something else I couldn’t name, but here too a strange killer instinct was necessary.  Catching the catfish with a homemade rod seemed like an accident, just as later that year I was devastated when my six year-old cousin accidentally shot and killed his eight year-old brother with a rifle that was hidden under a bed in a neighbor’s home in Woodlawn where they were visiting with their mother. It was a year of death.

The schoolyard where the hoop action was happening was up the hill on the next block, P.S. 56.  The sound of a dribbling ball became my music, the staccato rhythm that I danced to.  To this day, when I hear some kid dribbling a ball, all my senses are aroused and I want to jump in and steal the ball.  I was a boy in a basketball bubble practicing a turn-around jump shot and a killer dribble that would leave my defender on his knees at my mercy. I Will Teach You to Be... Sethi, Ramit Best Price: $4.64 Buy New $9.78 (as of 09:43 UTC - Details)

That schoolyard court became my second home, the place where I turned dreams into reality.  It was pure fun, although pure is probably not the right word.  For I was manically motivated to dominate the court.  Rushing to the schoolyard after school and on Saturday mornings to be the first there, to command the court, to compete with the older guys and beat their asses. In the following years, traveling around the city’s best basketball neighborhoods to play and make my mark. The endless hours in gyms, dribbling in the basement. The search for perfection.  The adrenaline rush, the thrill, the joy of the perfect pass, the sweet swish of the net from a shot you had practiced a thousand times, the passes left and right behind my back like Bob Cousy.  From the age of eleven until twenty-three, basketball was central to my life and identity.  It was my passion.  It brought me a full college basketball scholarship to Iona College, a Division I program.

I have heard it said that many men play basketball or golf or fish their entire lives without knowing it is not baskets or birdies or fish they are after.  But what is it?

But that is another story, one that involves my hunting fat cat rats of a different sort.

Reprinted with the author’s permission.