Part II from Escaping-Brewerytown
The moment of truth came down to one question: “Who else was with you?”
I looked to the floor and didn’t answer until the head of a juvenile aid panel from Philadelphia Family Court asked me to speak up.
I dare not raise my eyes. I had to “come clean” and admit my fault. But, I was uncertain whether I should involve someone else. So many thoughts went through me. Be the good altar boy who wanted to be a priest, and tell of all six who entered the property, going from floor to floor to get to the roof and back.
We were looking at the charge of burglary, entering property of another without permission to commit a crime therein. “Breaking and entering” is another term used, but we actually broke nothing and simply climbed through a window of a 4-story building three blocks from my Brewerytown, North Philadelphia, home to retrieve half balls hit onto the roof.
Tell them, I thought. You know who was there. They caught you and two of your friends. But they wanted the others. Those kids were older, at least two years your senior at age 13. You’re the youngest. Don’t be the dumbest.
Do the right thing!
Other voices spoke to me, however. Came from James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart and the “tough” guys in the movies I admired. They played the hoods, the gangsters, the “bad guys” who I looked up to, who knew what to do. (Never “rat out” a friend.)
Give up the names of others in this “criminal conspiracy?” Trespassing in order to remove hundreds of halfies that blanketed the roof top structure. That’s what we did, and I admit it.
Hell, half of the halfies were no good. They were split or had melted from years in the hot sun. Others were caked with tar that must have “bled” during the really hot days.
“Who else was with you, Michael Contos?” asked the woman again. She was the head of the panel and sat in the middle, flanked by two others at a long table facing me and the other boys who sat directly across the room from them. Our parents (my mother) appeared in Court and sat behind us.
“I don’t know,” I said. I t was a heartfelt answer. And I felt it was right. Until Dave (not his real name) named my best friend, Johnny Keller, as one of those not caught. J then named another, Billy McLaughlin, the good Irish kid who lived around the corner near 30th and Stiles streets.
Not sure if it was the right thing to do, but I felt safe. The panel had no reason to think I knew either one of those named. But, there was a report of three kids, not two, that escaped from a gun-toting elderly security guard who rounded up us miscreants. The juvenile aid chair would settle for nothing less than all co-conspirators.
She asked again. “Who else was with you?” Confident with my deception, I spoke louder, putting an innocent plea in my voice, “I don’t know, I told you.”
Dave gave the same answer, but with less conviction, refusing to, or being unable to, make eye contact with the panel. And then they got to Joey (also not a real name).
“Johnny Contos,” he said, naming my older brother.
Silence followed. I felt her, more than I actually saw her, as the juvenile official directed her gaze toward me. She caught me. Caught me in a lie.
“You don’t know you’re own brother?” the woman said with a touch of pity . . . and . . . what I would later describe as pure disdain.
The state declined to bring charges against us. It was the right thing to do. Don’t know if I did the “right thing” back then. Hate to say it, but even after all the years and the so-called wisdom I was supposed to gain with age, I’d probably do the same thing again.
May not have been the “right” thing to do. But, It was right thing for me.