was one of the people life uses and crumples without ever noticing, like the
mustard-stained napkins left to flutter in the wind in front of her hot dog
stand. She entered a hospital for a gallbladder operation and came out with a
lifelong addiction to Pantopon, a pharmaceutical derivative of opium. She left
the boardwalk for a job in a candy factory, mangled one of her hands in a
machine and was laid off. At 55, back on the boardwalk, she was setting up
wooden milk bottles for 16-year-olds to knock over with hard balls, getting her
fingers crushed when she didn't pull them away quickly enough.
own pain so monopolized her that she had little time for her daughter's.
"Go bang your head on the wall," she told Rena when the child's stomach
ached. Once, abandoned by her only brother when he was supposed to take her to
the 1939 World's Fair, she banged her head on a wall until it bled.
She looked for
homes elsewhere, spending her days with friends on the boardwalk or with Milo
the Mule Face Boy, the freak with the deformed jaw who always sang Let Me Call
You Sweetheart to her; or Albert Alberta, the hermaphrodite; or the Pinheads, a
family of little people with pointed heads and squeaky voices. "The
Pinheads were my favorites," she says. "So sweet and kind to me. They
weren't normal, but they all stuck together, and I'd never seen that
before." She joined the Jehovah's Witnesses for two days, and then her
father yanked her out by the hair.
From age seven
she was working at any odd job she could find—peeling potatoes for french fries
at a concession stand, stitching names on souvenir hats, barking "Park
here, buddy," at car lots, selling confetti or ice water to people at the
amusement park. She and some friends formed the Captain Marvel Club. Wearing
red towels as capes and gold crepe paper around their heads, they would sneak
up on perverts and winos who would hide beneath the boardwalk and stare through
the cracks up women's dresses, then flash their Captain Marvel cards and chase
When Luna Park,
one of the amusement centers at Coney Island, was destroyed by fire, Rena (now
nicknamed Rusty after a mutt who lived down the block) and her friends formed
another club that met daily amid the rats and stagnant puddles in the
underground tunnel of a defunct ride called the Catacombs. One day she decided
to kill herself with a rat-poison sandwich, stopping only when a girlfriend
threatened to feed whatever was left to Rusty's dog. Later, when her dog died
and a girl stepped on its grave. Rusty punched the girl's teeth out. She
attached ropes to the charred beams of the park and swung from one burned-out
building to the next. Everything became a dare, a test of strength.
Rusty. She had come into adolescence among carnival-goers who sneered at the
deformed, con men who preyed on the vulnerable, a family that scoffed at the
soft. "Be more ladylike," people admonished her, but the only lady she
knew well was the crumpled woman amid the fluttering napkins at the hot dog
stand. The world had worked out a formula before she had arrived—to be female
and to be Jewish was to be weak.
Her hero was her
brother, Charles, who spent hours squeezing hand grips and doing push-ups and
then admiring his body in the mirror. He didn't take any guff from anybody. He
joined the Marines and became a New York housing cop after catching
hand-grenade shrapnel in his knee in the Middle East. Rusty began to use her
brother's exercising gadgets and was becoming broader and stronger than the
other girls. She wore his combat boots and Marine jacket to school and strapped
his bayonet, painted with Mercurochrome to look bloodstained, on her leg
beneath her pants. She became the leader of the Apaches, a gang of girls who
tied back their hair, wore black pegged pants and black-and-chartreuse satin
jackets and smeared their skin with Vaseline to prepare for street fights.
Once, when her gang chickened out of a brawl against an all-black girls' gang,
Rusty took them on herself, held her own until the cops broke it up and then
beat up her Apaches for bailing out. She kept coming home in bandages and
stitches and casts. If the gash was deep enough, her mother became frightened
and laid comforting hands on her—and that made any wound worth the pain.
She wanted to
lift weights at the YMCA but was told no women were allowed. She felt herself
drifting between two harbors, unable to dock at either, resented by the girls
in dresses and ribbons for rejecting them and by the boys for trying to force
herself upon them. Now it was too late to turn back; she had left no markers to
show the path home. She plunged on, pumping bus-stop signs, concrete bases and
all, trying to rip apart telephone books, living for the moments when the boys
picked her first in playground games and weak children asked her to walk them
home for protection. If someone showed her kindness, she became his or her
bodyguard for life.
now came from being the hunter, the protector, not the soother or nurturer. She
got a 12-stitch knife wound on her wrist while preventing an armed robbery in a
restaurant. She jumped in between a sailor and a soldier brawling at a hotel
dance and was pitched off a balcony, suffering a badly sprained back that still
pains her today.
She didn't enjoy
dating men because they wanted her to be weak. Then one night, when she was 18,
she made a midnight dash to Elkton, Md. and married a man on impulse, returning
to Brooklyn to live in a rented apartment. He spent what little money they had
on liquor, never even tipping his hat to the neighbors.