Joseph and the Fish Sandwich

“The Gowanus Houses were continually raided by Fort Greene gangs bent on violence and destruction.”

– Brooklyn Rumble page 193

It’s only one sentence from one paragraph in the middle of a book.  You can be forgiven for moving quickly onto the rest of the book, maybe without thinking about it too much.  This page will pause for a moment to see that the background behind that one sentence has it’s own very interesting history.

Joseph “Mickey” Lewis, a teenager who lived in Gowanus in the late 1950s was tortured with heavy acne, was 5’11” tall, weighed 140 pounds and had brown eyes. Joseph was born on July 2, 1941.  He said he didn’t belong to a gang and I believe him too.  He was a loner, didn’t have a best friend, and when he hung out with someone it was mostly with one of his brothers.

Even though Joseph wasn’t in a gang, he had his run-ins with the law.  His first encounter was on February 25, 1955, when he and another teen were caught with a hammer which they used to try to break into a store.  He was 13 years old.

Joseph Lewis

Joseph “Micky” Lewis

He managed to stay out of trouble – or depending on how you look at it, too smart to get caught – for two and a half years.  On August 7, 1957, he came to the attention of the Juvenile Aid Bureau, an organization that helped kids with minor crimes to be routed away from the court system.  Joseph had been involved in a fight in a local park.  He said that he and some friends were attacked by a gang of Spanish teenagers and they had fought back.  The report doesn’t say who these Spanish teenagers were, but I can make a reasonable guess as to who they were.

Joseph lived in Gowanus; his building was 417 Baltic Avenue which was the Gowanus Projects.  Sometimes he would live with his grandma at 277 Halsey Street.  This reason for living with his grandma was because he was always getting into trouble with the teenagers who lived on Baltic Street.  Joseph had a reputation in the neighborhood for being a ladies man and would talk to any girl he met.  This was the cause of the continuous fights that he had with other youths in the Gowanus Projects.  Joseph didn’t seem to have much insight into why he would talk to every girl he met causing fights with their boyfriends, saying, “I just walk right into it I guess.”

Maybe Joseph picked up his interest in ladies from his father who ran around with women cheating on his wife which caused their breakup when Joseph was six years old (his father was also an alcoholic and his face bore the scars of many street and barroom fights).

With this knowledge of Joseph’s penchant for the ladies, my guess is that the Spanish youths were either Apaches from the neighborhood or war parties from the Mau Maus, a gang that had sprung up in the Fort Greene Projects in the spring of 1957 and were brother clubs with the Fort Greene Chaplains.

Joseph was in a bad position.  Not only did he have a run-in with these Spanish youths, but the Fort Greene Chaplains would often raid the Gowanus Projects to fight against the Soviet Lords, a black gang.  In the course of my research for Brooklyn Rumble, I discovered that the Mau Maus would also travel to Gowanus to fight against the Soviet Lords, sometimes with the Fort Greene Chaplains.  Joseph was black, so it was very likely that outsiders like the Mau Maus and Fort Greene Chaplains would have mistook him for the enemy.  If Joseph was a child of the streets and merely hung out with the Soviet Lords – even if it wasn’t as an official member – for all intents and purposes he was a Soviet Lord.  I’m reminded of the adage, “You are who you hang out with.”  In fact, it appears this was the case.  A report about Joseph written in October 1959, reveals more information about these raids:

“Although not denying formerly being a member of any gang, the defendant as well as his mother claims that the Gowanus Project was continually being raided by gangs of the Fort Greene Project and the Presidents of the former project ban (sic) together in an informal grouping to repulse these attacks, the defendant has had a number of altercations in this manner.”

In addition to the altercations mentioned in the above quote, Joseph sustained serious injuries in other fights:

  • He had a three-inch scar by his left eye, which happened from a fight he had with the boyfriend of a girl he was talking to in front of the Gowanus Projects.  Joseph was beaten up and kicked under the eye.
  • He had another two-inch scar on the center of his forehead which was the result of a fight in front of 417 Baltic Avenue (in the projects) when he was beaten up in a gang fight, kicked in the head and stabbed in his back on the right hand side.  This required hospitalization.
  • Joseph had another stab wound on the left side that happened in January 1958 in a fight on the corner of Tompkins and Greene Avenues in the heart of Bed-Stuy.  In this attack, his left lung was punctured and it had to be collapsed at the Jewish Hospital.

It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, that this atmosphere of violence and  over-hanging cloud of fear about when the next marauders from Fort Greene would show up made Joseph a nervous boy.  He was a constant nail-biter and smoked half a pack of cigarettes a day, which jumped to as much as two packs a day when he got nervous.  Joseph said he got nervous whenever he saw someone fighting or if anyone yelled at him.  When he got nervous or shaky, he would also drink wine by himself (he denied using drugs and an inspection of his arms backed up his claim).

After Joseph’s stabbing in January 1958 (the one that punctured his lung) he began  carrying a weapon with him wherever he went for protection.  A few months later, on April 25, 1958, Joseph was visiting his cousin in Manhattan.  On the corner of West 107th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, his cousin got in a fight at a bar.  Joseph was standing on the street when it happened.  Joseph said that a dozen men ganged up on his cousin and several of them advanced on him at which point he pulled out a kitchen knife with an 8-inch blade.

Joseph was charged with the Unlawful Carrying and Possession of a Weapon.  His new habit of carrying a weapon could have saved him in the bar fight with his cousin, but it only gave him more trouble.  He was placed on probation on September 8, 1958.  His supervising probation officer said that Joseph was “doing fairly good,” but why he would say this I don’t know because the record showed that Joseph reported “quite irregularly.”

On October 1, 1959, while on probation, he was arrested again.

One block away from Joseph’s home on the corner of Bergen and Hoyt Streets was a little restaurant owned by Vincente Conde.  He called it the El Ponceon Restaurant and the official address was 140 Bergen Street.  Occasionally Vincent’s brother-in-law Felix would help at the restaurant and that’s what he was doing on the evening of September 30-October 1, 1959 when he relieved Vincente behind the counter while Vincente was in a back room.

At 1:00 a.m. on October 1, Joseph entered the restaurant, hung around for a bit and then used a telephone booth to make a call.  Then he left.

At 1:30 a.m., Joseph returned, peered in the window and apparently satisfying himself that it was only Felix at the counter, came in and sat down.  He asked Felix for change of a quarter and when he got it, went to the telephone booth and made another phone call.

After he finished his phone call, Joseph ordered a sandwich and paid for it.

Everything seemed to be going fine, a simple transaction between a hungry customer and the person manning the counter.  But then things went sideways.  When he finished eating his sandwich, Joseph pulled out a gun, pointed it at Felix and ordered him to give him the 75 cents that was owed to him.

Indignant or frightened – or both – Felix denied that he owed Joseph any money.  Joseph explained that he had ordered the sandwich from a woman in the store for 25 cents, had given her a dollar, but did not get his change.  Joseph kept insisting that he would have to shoot Felix if he didn’t get his change.  Finally Felix gave in and gave Joseph 75 cents.   Receiving his change, Joseph left the restaurant.

140 Bergen Street Circa 1939-1941

140 Bergen Street Circa 1939-1941

The moment Joseph left, Felix dashed to the telephone booth to call the police.  Seeing this, Joseph re-entered the restaurant and warned Felix “not to do anything foolish.”  Then he walked out again.

This time Felix called out to Vincent in the back.  He came out and instead of using the telephone booth, went across the street to call the police from there.

Patrolman William Christie of the 82nd Precinct, badge #14450 picked up the call and when given the description of Joseph, he leaped into action.  He found Joseph a short distance from the restaurant, waiting at a bus stop on the corner of Nevins and Bergen Streets.

Bergen and Nevins Bus Stop Where Joseph was Arrested

Bergen and Nevins bus stop where Joseph was arrested.  The bus stop is still there.

Joseph didn’t resist the arrest and when Patrolman Christie frisked him, he recovered the 75 cents from Joseph’s pocket.  Joseph’s gun was also retrieved, but there was a wrinkle.  The gun was a toy!  Joseph had robbed the El Ponceon Restaurant with a toy pistol.

When Joseph was arrested Patrolman Christie saw that he was drunk.  Because of this, Joseph’s memory of what happened was fuzzy.  He admitted that he had been drinking and remembered going into the restaurant.  He had ordered a fish sandwich from a woman who was behind the counter, putting a $1 bill on the counter to pay and then leaving to make a phone call.

When Joseph returned from making his phone call, the woman was gone and now Felix was behind the counter.  But his fish sandwich wasn’t ready.  So Joseph re-ordered his sandwich.  When it was ready, Felix asked for 25 cents, the cost of the sandwich.

Thinking he had already given the woman at the counter the dollar bill, Joseph told Felix that he had already paid for the sandwich.  An argument between the two ensued.

Joseph remembered pulling out the gun, demanding his 75 cents in change, leaving the store and being apprehended at the bus stop.  Earlier that afternoon, Joseph had been playing with some children in front of his home in the Gowanus Projects at 417 Baltic Avenue.  One of the kids he was playing with owned the gun, but when his parents called him in, Joseph had been left with the toy pistol.  He kept the gun in his pocket and planned to later return it to his young friend.

Joseph’s mother confirmed that her son had called that night and told her that he was in a restaurant and was planning on spending the night at dear old dad’s house.  He wanted permission for this (which he received) and when he was caught at the bus stop, he was on his way to his father’s house.

But one part of Joseph’s story didn’t make sense.

Vincente said that the only woman who worked at the restaurant was his wife and that her shift ended at 8:00 p.m.  So when Joseph said he paid the woman, he was mistaken.  The alcohol had his mind all twisted up.  Joseph denied that he returned back to the store after robbing the 75 cents and warning Felix not to do anything foolish.

Joseph might have been a honey badger with his 75 cents, but to his credit, when it came to the rest of the money in the till, he made no play for it or attempt to rob it.  Maybe that’s why the owner of the restaurant had no feelings in the matter and left it up to the court about what to do with Joseph.

Joseph was charged with 2nd degree assault and on January 6, 1960 was sentenced to a maximum of 5 years in a reformatory.  He began serving his sentence in Elmira on January 19, 1960 and after being there for a few months, was transferred to Woodbourne on March 17, 1960.  His time at Woodbourne was uneventful and Joseph proved to be an industrious worker.  He was on the paint detail which was good because he had some experience painting with his father before he was incarcerated.

Joseph wrote seven letters to his mother, received 16 from her and wrote one to his father but didn’t get a reply.  He had six visits from his mother and one from his brothers.  On July 7, 1961 he was paroled to the care of his mother.

From the day of his arrest to the end of his time at Woodbourne, Joseph served 20 months for stealing 75 cents with the two pistol.  Or to look at it another way, he served roughly one week for every cent that he stole.

If Joseph hadn’t been caught for this robbery, I never would have been able to use the information from his case file as a source for that one sentence in Brooklyn Rumble about marauding gangs from Fort Greene going into Gowanus.

And now you know the rest of the story.