Today marked the close of the Universal Sadness Issue, and we’re leaving you with one last scorched nugget of heart-rending ruination. It’s the tale of one Patty Pirro. He’s an on-and-off homeless man who’s lived in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn since birth. The guy oozes sorrow from every pore, and unlike a large portion of NYC’s homeless population, Patty is not mentally disturbed or unable to look for work. He’s just had a shitty go of it is all. We know that sounds a little naïve, but after hearing every last detail of his exponentially increasing downward spiral over the past two decades, there’s really no other way to put it. We’ve compressed his life story down to about 2,000 words, which is a little unfair. Still, it’s enough space to get into regular beatings from his father, a dead girlfriend, a stint at Rikers Island for attempted murder, a few bouts of homelessness, and more despondency than you will ever experience in your entire life. Keep reading if you want to put your own problems into perspective.
When you’re born you don’t know what life is. You open up your eyes and see people’s faces but you don’t know their names until you get older. Then you find out what they’re all about, what type of people they really are. That’s what it was like with my father. When I was a little kid he would come home drunk and I would watch him beat my mother, but I didn’t know what was happening. Once I grew up I understood what he really was—an alcoholic.
Early on in school I used to get my ass kicked a lot. Then I’d come home, my dad would see me, and he’d get me in the corner to teach me a lesson. Every time I went out in the street I had to fight or I’d get a beating upstairs. That went on for years until one day I just got sick of it. I fought back and put some guy in the hospital. They arrested me so I called my father: “Dad, I’m in jail.” “Good. Stay there.” Click. That’s when I knew I’d become bad, just like him. When I got out I started drinking.
As I got older it became harder. I came back home and things were even worse. He was still beating my mom and me all the time. Around my 18th birthday I saw him smacking her around and had enough. He said, “What are you a tough guy now?” And I answered, “Yeah… you taught me to be a monster and now I am one.” So we went out into the yard to have a fistfight, but all the neighbors—his friends—tried to stop us. He left, didn’t come back for a week, and my mom sent me to my Uncle Charlie’s. It was totally different. Uncle Charlie was like a different type of father. He’d sit me down and teach me things. And he was in the United States Air Force—three tours of Korea, four tours of Vietnam. His whole family was in the military. So I decided I’d try the marines, but they didn’t accept me because I’ve been deaf in my right ear since I was born.
I came home again and my father gave me a choice: either go back to school or work. I chose to the job. I got lots of jobs—I worked construction, I worked for a plumber, I worked in the garment district, I worked in the fashion industry. Life was pretty good. I’d go out with my friend John Santiago—may he rest in peace. I took him to the Funhouse one time but he didn’t like it so he said, “We’re going to a rock club. It’s called Max’s Kansas City.” The people in there were pretty nice and we’d go every week. We started going out with these two girls who were there all the time. Around the Fourth of July we had a barbeque. It was great. But something happened later that night. My friend had disappeared and his girlfriend came to my house really late. She said, “John’s dead. He’s on the ground in the park with a needle in his arm.” He was my best friend. We grew up together. Then it was his brother, Fish. He got drunk on the beach, went to the bathroom, stuck a needle in his arm, went in the water, and drowned.
About a year later I met this girl who worked with my mom at a Christmas party. Her name was Ilene. She was pretty and had blond hair. She was really nice, and we started going out. Everything was great—I had a job and a girlfriend. We made plans to get married and were saving money. But one day she got sick. We found out that she had brain cancer. When I saw her in the hospital she was bald with Xs where they were going to operate. She didn’t make it. She died during surgery. That’s when things took a turn for the worse.
One day shortly after Ilene died I came home from work and noticed a commotion down the street by my house. There was an ambulance and a bunch of people standing around. I ran into two of my friends and they tried to get me to come have a couple of beers with them, but I wouldn’t have it. I wanted to get home and take a shower and give my mother some rent money. When I walked up to my house one of my neighbors said, “Patty, the landlord and his son and his son-in-law beat up your mother and your neighbor Amy.” They had been trying to get us out for months because they wanted to sell the building, so when my mom wouldn’t let them inside they kicked down the door. Mom had a black eye and a swollen jaw. That was it. I saw the son down the street so I ran over and beat the living shit out of him. He was out cold. We stopped traffic. Then I got the son-in-law. He was getting into his car to get away, so I grabbed him and put his head through one of the windows. People were grabbing me and trying to stop me but I just pushed them away and went to the TV-repair shop that the landlord owned. I knew he was in there and got through one door, two doors, but the third was steel and I couldn’t kick it down. I went outside and caught him trying to sneak around the back out of the corner of my eye. I grabbed that motherfucker and put him through the storefront window. I was going to kill him, but next thing you know someone grabbed me from behind. So I turned around and swung without thinking. It was a cop. Then the rest of the cops took their nightsticks out and started hitting me. That was the worse thing I ever did.
They sent me to Riker’s Island for attempted murder. The landlord was in intensive care, I broke almost every bone in the son’s body, and the son-in-law had to get 40-something stitches in his head. They told me if the landlord died I would be going up the river. Luckily, he didn’t. It was my first offense so they took it easy on me. I asked the judge, “Your honor, if someone beat up your mother, what would you do? It says ‘In God We Trust’ above your head. What would you do?” I was in prison for seven months before they let me out on parole and gave me six months probation. I was good and didn’t get in trouble again.
Around this time my father was getting sick. He had lung cancer so they sent him to the hospital. At the time, I didn’t really bother with him—we didn’t talk or anything. My mom would beg me to go see my father, but I’d ask her after what he’s done to you and me why should I see him? Every day she’d go to the hospital and tell me he wanted to see me. So I finally said OK and went to visit. When I got there he was in bed with all these tubes sticking out of him. He had this thing around his mouth, he could hardly talk. He gave me a letter. It said, “I’m sorry for what I have done to you and Mom. Please forgive me.” I told him it was too late, turned around, and walked out. Three days later he died.
My mother passed away a few years later in ’96. She had a heart attack. So I was living in their old place with a dog I bought—Blackie. I was a stone-setter’s helper at the cemetery, making $375 a week. The landlord started raising the rent and there were things I couldn’t afford. I had to cut the phone off, then the gas, and eventually I asked my cousin in Howard Beach to take care of Blackie because I couldn’t even afford him. I’d go and visit them on the weekends. Then my boss at the cemetery retired and gave the business to his son, but the son wanted no part of it so he sold it. I couldn’t find another job, eventually ran out of money, and my landlord tried to throw me out and took me to court. But the judge said that he couldn’t evict me until the lease was up in six months. So I spent some time on the streets sleeping in trailers and cars for about three months until a friend ran into me and offered to let me live with him. Things got a little better. I got a new job at a deli and was able to afford rent for the room for a while. But then, after about two years, I lost my job again because I asked my boss for a vacation and he said no. We got into an argument and he fired me. My friend kicked me out and I was back on the street again.
Four or five months later this guy who would always see me on the street came up to me and asked if I wanted a job as a custodian at this place EPNER Technologies. They make stuff for NASA. So I took it, but the only problem was I still had no place to stay. When my shop steward found out he arranged for me to live with his aunt in the projects. She was a nurse and never really home. It was pretty nice. Then something happened. The place was unionized but I couldn’t get into the union because I had no identification or social security card. One day my boss came in and said, “Patty. I can’t pay you anymore until you get into the union. You have to go get ID and a card to get in.” The next morning I went down the DMV and stood in line for five hours. When I got to the front they told me I needed two forms of ID to get my non-driver’s license. I didn’t even have a birth certificate so it took me almost two weeks of going to hospitals and churches and other places to get what I needed. Once I submitted my forms they told me it would be another three weeks before I got my Social. That meant I was out of luck and all of my money was gone. The lady I was living with asked me to leave and, again, I had to sleep outside.
It was the middle of winter and depression took hold of me. I found a shoelace, and every day I was in the streets I tied another knot. When I reached the end I was going to hang myself with it. I got to 19 knots—another three or so and it would’ve been the end. But I got my papers just in time and went back to work even though I was still in the street for a little longer. I found another place and things are going OK now, but who knows where I’ll be in a few months. I’m 47 years old and getting tired of this life. All I’ve ever wanted is a wife and kids and to work every day, but it might be too late for me now. I don’t know if there is a God, but if he exists I don’t understand him. He gave life to everybody, but the way he gave it… it’s just backward. We have wars that we shouldn’t have and people dying every day for what? What’s the reason? You can’t blame the world, you have to blame the people who are in it. The only way I’ll find out if there’s a God is when I’m dead. They say there’s a heaven and hell—I think we’re living in hell. They say in heaven, you go up and rest in peace. We don’t know that till we get there.
PATTY PIRRO AS TOLD TO ROCCO CASTORO