The Day the Vietnam Vet on the Fourth Floor Flipped Out

The view up a tenement stairwell similar to the stairwell described in this story. (Photo by Jack Szwergold; Taken October 7, 2018)

This all happened sometime in the the mid-1980s. Not too sure I remember if the building went co-op and the new owners (aka: Overseas Investment Corp.) were in charge yet since the building was still in decent shape and new people were moving in every now and then. It was a healthy, normal flow of a lower class rental economy.

I don’t ever remember who lived on the 4th floor of the building before he moved in, but I do remember when he moved in. Mainly because he was Hispanic, had a big cookie duster of a mustache and had kinda a curly, almost-Afro-ish hair style. Not exactly like Oates of Hall and Oates but close enough.

I was a kid — and he was obviously a full-grown adult — so I had limited contact with him at best in day-to-day building life. But he seemed friendly whenever and wherever I saw him. Whether it was outside in front of the building, downstairs at the mailboxes, passing each other on the staircase or even waiting for a slice of pizza around the corner at Rocco’s, no matter when and when I saw him, he was generally a cool adult.

Then one weekend he just flipped out.

Like most every weekend when I was a pre-ten kid, I was putzing around and playing around in my room when suddenly I heard some random shouting coming from somewhere in the building. Which initially was no big deal since someone was always seemed to be shouting somewhere in the building — or near the building — at any given moment on most any day. Like the elevated train outside the window, you just learned how to block it out to get through the day.

But within a few minutes, the shouting started to become louder and louder and soon enough the dull sounds of random objects hitting floors and walls could be heard as well.

My dad ran into in my room to look out the window and try to figure out what was happening.

“What is happening?” my dad said to me as he peered out. My mom showed up in the hallway and added another, “What is happening?” to the mix.

Utterly nobody knew what was happening other than it was happening.

Soon enough there was a slight pause in the shouting and noise and you could hear the cracking thud of a wooden window frame being flung open. The quiet pause soon passed and was replaced with the sounds of even louder shouting and the noise of literal household bric-a-brac being flung out the window.

“Oh!” my dad exclaimed as he backed away from the window. I moved closer to the window crouched down and looked up and there I saw the commotion unfold in front of my eyes: It was a like a scene out of a cartoon with tons of forks, knives, cups and other random household crap just being tossed — seemingly endlessly — out the window.

My dad and mom opened the front door to hear what they could hear. But I wanted to see what I could see, so I ran into the hallway and looked up the building’s stairwell. I could hear the same mix of shouting and noise but in an oddly more muffled yet more amplified away. I headed up the staircase to the 3rd floor and to my sister’s apartment and to check out the view from her kitchen. While the view was slightly different, the shouting, the fighting and the stuff flying out the window part of it all was still the same didn’t seem to end.

Then suddenly I heard someone shout something about the police, so I ran downstairs and waited in the hallway near my apartment.

Soon enough you could hear the marching sound of a small army of cops coming up the staircase. It had to be about 4 to 5 of them. One of them was clearly the guy in charge since he was tall, had white hair and wore aviator sunglasses that were just slightly tinted. When he got to our floor he took one look of me standing in the hallway wearing just socks, turns and sternly says, “Put on some shoes!!!” and then — without missing a beat — heads up the stairs to the fourth floor.

A short while later you could hear the police banging on the door of the guy’s apartment, heading inside, the sounds of conflict stopping and then — after a few minutes — the sound of the police and the guy quietly coming down the staircase. He was handcuffed, but calm and quiet as the police officers led him down the stairs.

Following close behind was his wife or girlfriend — I was a kid so I had no idea what their relationship status was — slowly sobbing he way down the stairs with them. Her face red and tears were running down her cheeks.

She didn’t seem battered, bruised, or otherwise maligned but but she was clearly shaken up by it all. As she headed down the stairs, I headed into the apartment, put on some sneakers like the cop told me to and headed downstairs as well.

The scene in front of the building was more frantic in it’s own calm way than it usually was: A small crowd of neighborhood Yentas and others gathered to watch the police officers and EMS workers do whatever they were doing. The most notable thing was that most of the yentas who would typically just be sitting around all day were standing up to see what they could see.

From my vantage point behind them all I saw the guy from the fourth floor being led into an ambulance. He seemed disconnected but calm; clearly disheveled and sweaty but outside of the thousand mile stare he just seem like he needed a nap and a shower to clear him up. The police were getting back into their cars and the small cadre of Yentas — who were still all standing up to see what was happening — slowly sat down and went back to being Yentas from a more comfortable position.

I hung around and overheard bits and pieces of this and that. Since most of the Yentas were properly gossiping in the holy gossip language of Yiddish, I had no clue what they were saying.

As I meandered around the front of the building I saw my dad and Johnny — the super of the building — talking to each other in the lobby of the building as they headed outside. My dad was carrying a folding chair and so was my mom who was trailing a bit behind him on the staircase.

Johnny looked at me and smirked a “What can you do?” kinda smile. Things were weird because while people were gossiping and making a fuss, nobody seemed to be being too judgmental about the guy.

Johnny said something about the guy being a Vietnam war veteran and how the guy apparently had similar flip-outs in the past. It seemed like the guy’s Vietnam veteran status exonerated him from the judgement of the building Yentas, Johnny and others.

A few weeks passed and I was coming home from something — school, the beach, the library, window shopping or generally putzing about the neighborhood — when I saw the guy from the fourth floor standing in front of the building talking to a group of neighborhood people that included Johnny and my dad.

I walked closer, looked at him and he seemed calmer, cooler and a bit cleaned up. From what I could gather he was just let out of the hospital and just got back home. I assume he was at Coney Island Hospital since that was just a few blocks down Ocean Parkway, but who knew.

He was clearly sad and crying a bit and was saying “I’m sorry…” to Johnny and others. Never saw a man crying and being honest like that in public before that day.

I went back upstairs to my apartment and soon enough my dad followed. He asked me if I wanted anything to eat and said yes. No idea what he made for me to eat that day. But I do remember him saying that it was sad the guy was a Vietnam War veteran and snapped like that.

An acute perception does not make you crazy. However, sometimes it drives you crazy.

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Jack Szwergold

Jack Szwergold

An acute perception does not make you crazy. However, sometimes it drives you crazy.

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