SI Vault
Gary Smith
March 24, 1986
She started life as Rena Glickman, and today Brooklyn's Rusty Kanokogi is the queen of judo
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March 24, 1986

Rumbling With Rusty

She started life as Rena Glickman, and today Brooklyn's Rusty Kanokogi is the queen of judo

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Kanokogi's mother 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.

Mrs. Glickman's 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 them away.

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.

Weakness troubled 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.

Her self-worth 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.

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