Text © Robert Barry Francos/FFanzeen, 2010
Photos from RBF archive
I was in second grade when Robert Dobies and his family moved into our apartment building in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. He was just a few years older than me.
Robert was part of a five-member household: his mother was Madeline, and her spouse was Joe, who became quick friends of my parents, so we saw them often. His sister, Julie Ann, was my age, and joined my class at PS 128 from second through sixth grade. Their father, the Dobies elder, was no longer around, and Robert’s youngest brother, Larry, was sired by Joe.
Joe had a bad limp. Shortly after moving in, as a pedestrian he was hit by a car at the intersection of Cropsey Avenue and Bay Parkway in Brooklyn, never an easy corner to maneuver. Unfortunately, he was taken to Coney Island Hospital, then known for not being a good place for emergencies, and they bungled up his leg, which led to the hobble. I have no memory if they sued or not. As recreational drugs were coming to the forefront of social consciousness about that time in the mid-‘60s, my mother used the occasion to scare me off mind-altering substances. She said that if Joe had been taking drugs, then whatever painkiller they gave him would not work because his body would be used to it. That definitely scared me, and perhaps it even worked on some subconscious level, because even my many years in the punk movement have been relatively drug free.
I remember the very first time I went up to the fourth (top) floor with my mom and met them all. Struck by Julie Ann, seven-year-old me said to my mom on the way back down to the second floor, “When I get older, I’m going to marry her.” My mom had a big, hearty and instant laugh, which echoed through the hallways. As I got to know Julie Ann in class, I quickly learned that we would never revolve around the same circles, and that she was way out of my league. While I was the small, nerdy, skinny kid, she was someone who would attract the jocks and the movers-and-shakers; my infatuation did not last very long at all.
[Madeline on the right, my mom on the left at RBF and Julie Ann's Junior High School Graduation]
Their apartment was where I first had home-made lasagna, scungili, and many other Italian dishes. While Robert and Julie Ann’s dad was not Italian, Madeline and Joe certainly were.
Larry was the one I would hang out with for a while, though my parents thought I was too old to do so, but we had a fun time, and even went sightseeing to the Statue of Liberty one day. As Larry got older, and years after we went our separate ways, he started getting interested in becoming a forest ranger, something I believe he actually accomplished, if I remember what my dad said correctly.
Robert was also a stunning youth, with a tussle of blond hair and a pair of dimples that made the girl’s hearts melt. Often he would be out in front of the building washing his car in his tee-shirt, and the reason I remember this is because that was how he always did it, even in the coldest weather. I’d be freezing in my under-heated apartment, and he would be outside in the wintry air with a bucket of water and a sponge. Just looking at him doing this activity was enough to make me feel even colder.
The apartment building we all shared was built around a courtyard – essentially a four-story well – in which sounds would echo and vibrate. For example, there was a family that lived directly above us, the Migliaccios, who had a daughter named Felicia that was younger than me. Living across the courtyard was the mother’s sister, who had a daughter the same age as Felicia named Loretta. It was common early on Sunday morning to hear the following conversation (or similar) screamed across the courtyard, in the thickest of Brooklynese accents:
Hey, Felicia, whatcha wearin’ t’church?!
I’m wearin’ my red dress!
Y’can’t wear y’red dress! I’m wearin’ my turquoise dress. We’h gonna clash!
I said I’m wearin’ my red dress! Too bad!!
You wear y’red dress an’ I’m gonna rip y’face off!
You jus’ try it, Loretta, an’ I’ll beat the crap outta ya!
My point is, sound would bounce off the walls and become louder than it started, which in those shrill days, was blasting enough.
[Joe and another neighor at one of our parties]
One day, while his family was on vacation and Robert was left alone, he decided to go out for the weekend with his friends, girlfriend, or whatever. As he got ready, he played some 45, which everyone who had a window to the courtyard – including my bedroom – had to hear as well.
Leaving the spindle up, which meant the record would play again, he thoughtlessly walked out the door while Gilbert O’Sullivan’s whiney and nasal “Alone Again, Naturally” was on repeat cycle… for 48 hours. Yep, he left on Friday night and we all listened to the song blaring and echoing throughout the yard continuously until he returned Sunday late afternoon, before the family arrived. I still hate this song.
About a year later, in a similar situation, he once again walked out the door for the weekend, but this time with Michael Jackson’s insipid “Got to Be There” on rotation. While never a Jackson fan, next to “Ben,” this was his worst song, as he screeched “To be theeeeeere in the moooOOOooorrrrning…” It was like a needle in my ear.
This time, though, the situation would be different. There is no way I was going to listen to that howling for two days straight. Here is what I did:
Just after midnight, I grabbed a flashlight and went down to the basement (hey daddy-o, I don’t wanna go down to the basement!). It was before powerboxes, when everyone still used fuses, so when one blew, you had to replace it. The fuse boxes for the apartment building were in this dark, nasty room, with a number of boxes, and each one containing a few apartments’ worth of fuses, each one marked with the door number painted next to it.
[Julie Ann and RBF flinch at the sun before their Junior High graduation]
I found Robert’s fuse and in the space between songs as the needle lifted, I twisted it out, leaving glorious silence. Now, I had some choices on what to do with it. I figured, if I just loosened it, he’d probably think that it was naturally wobbly, and the noise could return on another occasion. If I actually took the fuse, the first thought would probably be that someone took it because theirs blew and did not have a replacement, again leading to future episodes of continuous bad music.
Instead, I took out the fuse and put it on the bottom of the box, so it would be obvious that someone had pulled it out and then left it there for him (as his family was away, he would be the one to find it). Upon returning two days later, his apartment had no electricity for nearly two days, and all the food in their fridge, enough to feed five people – over $100 worth in those day’s prices – had gone bad. From what I learned later, he got in a lot of trouble for it from Madeline and Joe, and the apartment had an unpleasant odor for a while.
He never tried to do that again.
After the three kids eventually moved out as they became of age. Eventually, Madeline left Joe and moved out, which he also did shortly after, leaving the apartment vacant for the next tenants. Except for running into Joe (and his new girlfriend) one day at a diner with my dad in the early ‘80s, I never heard from or saw any of them again.
There was never any resentment held by me against Robert Dobies, though I do think that act was at the very least heartless, and the very most cruel. Robert, if you Google yourself and find this, just know that I wish you and your whole family well. It would be great to hear from you.