My First Stroll Through Eternity
By Stephen Paul Trimboli
Michael Jackman, editor
If I could sharpen the edge of my index finger “just so” and pick and scrape, slowly and deliberately, through this level of existence or universe or reality, or whatever you might call it, if I could peel back this skin and reach through the heavens, beyond the galaxies, through a universe of universes … at the end we would find tightly pulled green felt and the background music of wheels and bells and whirrs and clicks, because beneath it all, it’s just a casino.
We are lucky and not so lucky, until, in the end, we run out of luck, which is just another kind of luck, anyway.
That’s pretty much everything there is to know about anything in life that isn’t a job, a wish, a dream, or a con.
Jan. 22, 1962—the day the casino opened for the first time in my life—I was an eight-year-old latch-key kid in his first year (third grade, second semester) in St. Edmund’s Catholic School, located on Avenue T and East 19th Street in the Sheepshead Bay area of Brooklyn.
We had lived on East Ninth Street, and I had been a happy second grade student at PS 153, a mere two blocks from our home at the time. But since our move to East 17th Street, it seemed a good idea to incorporate me into the same school where my two older brothers were enrolled.
I clearly recall bragging to these same brothers, who both recently spent time in the hospital—one with nephritis and the other had a kidney removed—that, “I never went to the hospital, nyah-nyah,” so you know where this story is going.
I also remember voicing loud and steady displeasure at having to go to the Catholic school that, a year earlier, I went to every horrifying Wednesday afternoon for “religious instruction,” so I could receive my First Holy Communion—boot camp in the army of the church.
For the uninformed: First, when you’re born, you’re baptized, spiritually locked in, followed by “confirmation” at age twelve, when you become a full-fledged soldier in the Army of Christ. (Militarism, early and often.)
I wonder what I was thinking after leaving the house, following the lettuce-tomato-and-mayonnaise sandwich I had for lunch that day. Maybe I was pining for Anita, now unattainable and unknowable, five blocks away at PS 153, where I went since kindergarten, my memory receding in her curly-haired brain and heart.
The truth is, I can’t remember what distracted me. But, whatever it was, when I reached the corner of Avenue T at East 17th Street to cross, the screech of a car’s brakes caused me to look left and brace myself, because I was about to meet a 1953 Chevrolet with the left side of my four-foot-plus frame.
I remember bending at the knees to lower my center of gravity. That idea either came from a Popeye cartoon or it’s instinctive.
Impact and flight are two pieces of irretrievable information from that day, but my life’s data recorder reconnected almost immediately. The sky above me came into view, then, turning to my left or right, I came to understand I was lying horizontally in a vertical world. I felt the pavement beneath me.
I saw people in, what decades later, I would refer to as, “perpendicularity.” When you’re not ready for it, it could be confusing.
Climbing to my feet and standing, I searched for the book I was carrying.
Walking over to where it lay, I heard a woman scream, “He’s bleeding! … HE’S BLEEDING!”
I focused on picking up the book, then realized I was in the middle of Avenue T on the south side of 17th Street, though I was sure I was on the north side when I stepped off the curb.
I must’ve crossed the street for something, but it didn’t matter.
A crowd was gathering around the woman, who I realized was now directly in front of me on the far corner of the avenue I must have been trying to cross. Everything was all so confusing.
“HE’S BLEEDING!” she cried, pointing at me.
“I’m OK. I have to go to school,” though I wasn’t sure who I was directing these words toward.
I felt no pain, something I would learn was common with head trauma. At the moment, I was floating comfortably in the shock bubble, because my muted senses were unalarmed, but it sure looked like I was getting a lot of attention.
There were people on both corners and in the street in front of me.
Glancing behind me and to my left, the Chevrolet was stopped and the driver stared at me from his open window.
All traffic was stopped and more people were appearing in my view, but no one came near me.
Everyone looked worried and confused, and I’m sure they were talking, but their voices were garbled, like we were all underwater except for the, “HE’S BLEEDING!” lady.
“I'm OK. I have to go to school,” I repeated out loud. Maybe these were the only words I knew now.
The 61st Precinct was located one long and two short blocks away, on Avenue U and East 15th Street.
I bet before that woman appeared on the corner and began to scream, “He’s bleeding!” she made a call to the police station. This is years before 911. Think rotary telephones and black-and-white TV.
Yeah, I know, another planet.
The green-white-and-black police car, with the single, cherry-light flashing on top, arrived almost immediately, no doubt due to its proximity to the station. I remember the cop in the passenger side of the car climbing out, taking off his winter police coat.
Approaching me, he asked, “Are you OK?”
“I have to go to school,” I said, and began to walk in the direction of St. Edmund’s and away from the “He’s bleeding!” woman—who probably saved my life.
The cop followed with this: “Kid, I really think you need to go to the hospital,” and before I knew it, he was simultaneously wrapping one of the heavy coat sleeves around my head with his left arm while corralling, lifting, and holding me against his chest with his right arm, carrying me to the now-open rear passenger-side door.
I struggled, all the while repeating, “I have to go to school.”
Tears hadn’t found their way out of me until my hand discovered that the dark blue coat sleeve wrapped around my head was soaked with blood. That’s when I knew I wasn’t going back to school that day.
The struggling ended and I began to go away, right then and there.
The cop was talking to me, maybe to keep me awake.
The only thing I remember after the police car was rolling somewhere on a gurney, though at that point in my life, I didn’t know what a gurney was.
I don’t know if I knew what irony was either, or thought about the verbal taunt at my brothers, but I was about to experience “hospital time,” if I was lucky.
I stared straight up, the ceiling tiles and fluorescent fixtures passing above me, then for a moment saw the faces of my parents appear at my right, but the wheels kept moving me forward.
Apparently, there was no time for small talk.
I can still recall their faces as I passed them, but can’t put words to their expressions. There are still no words.
Then I remember a mask being placed over my nose and mouth and a calm voice telling me, “Now, count backwards from … ” but never got the number.
I’m pretty sure I was beyond numbers. The math and odds being played were happening in the here and now, the back then and the where we are going.
Three days later, my mother told me I was in Coney Island Hospital and was in a bad accident with a car and a big part of my skull was gone, so I shouldn’t touch my head even if it’s itchy.
She said more motherly things, too, and the thought of these make me emotional even now, a half-century later.
A mother’s link to her child is … just that.
I would never know or understand how devastating this could be.
I am just a man.
A short time later, a mustachioed, bowtie-wearing Black man stood before me with a clipboard in his hand.
Unable to speak for the first week or so, I was doing a lot of listening. My brains were pretty scrambled. I had to re-learn to do things like speaking, walking, and reading (which took a little longer).
“The young have extraordinary recuperative powers,” Dr. Thomas Matthew said to me in those first days, as he looked in and around my eyes and ears and mostly the very soft, stitched-together area above my left ear, as my mother looked on.
His main concern was swelling or infection, I would be told later.
He had a kind, reassuring manner, smile, and that bowtie.
Up to this point in my life, the only Black people I experienced were farmhands, migrant workers, and the truck drivers who would shuttle me to and from Washington Market (now Tribeca) and my grandparents’ farm in South Jersey.
Race was not an issue to an eight-year-old, but the doctor would be a powerful *asterisk* in my mind.
It was probably one of the nurses who was the first to tell me how lucky I was to be alive because he was there that day.
“Good thing the number-two neurosurgeon in the United States was walking the halls that day,” may have been her words.
That Dr. Matthew was there when I was rushed into the hospital was the blindest luck I could imagine.
In the second grade, I read the “The Jackie Robinson Story.”
To me, Dr. Matthew was the Jackie Robinson of doctors.
I was released from the hospital after a month, returning to school briefly, wearing a skullcap, feeling very self-conscious and freakish, and every week had to take the subway to Manhattan with my mother to see Dr. Matthew at his office on Park Avenue.
In one of these meetings, he told me that it was a six-hour operation to pick out all the pieces of my skull that got mixed in with my brains, and how important it was that he got all the pieces out, because there would most certainly be problems if he didn’t.
He told me that, with severe damage to the skull, some people become paralyzed or vegetables, if not dead, “but look at you!” he said, no doubt proud of his work, for which I am forever grateful.
We had these conversations, which were like comprehension tests, where he listened to my speech and behavior and then “looked at me.”
We’d leave the confines of his office and go into the examination room, where he’d isolate that soft-skulled portion of my head and be there for a while, tinkering.
I’d imagine him watching my brain work, as if it actually did something you can see, like the Anacin commercials of bygone days.
After a few weeks, he told me about the next operation, and how he was going to put a metal plate over the hole in my head, and, “it’s going to be happening soon, so, every day, eat everything on your plate, because we want you strong and healthy for this, OK?”
“OK,” I said.
And that’s what he did at Lefferts General Hospital the weekend that welterweight boxer Emile Griffith knocked the brains out of Benny “Kid” Paret in Madison Square Garden, meaning it happened about two months after the accident.
I remember reading the story in the New York Mirror the day of my surgery.
I imagined that Emile Griffith’s fists were as powerful as a Chevrolet.
I remember this because of Paret’s head injury and death because of it.
I also remember the other patient in the room.
When he saw my name, either on my wrist or the clipboard at the foot of the bed, he asked me what my father’s name was. When I told him, he said that he was in the Navy with him in World War ll.
The next morning, he went in for surgery and never came back.
These two things made me nervous.
Later that day, the “team” arrived, and off I went to get a metal plate sewn over the hole in my head.
When they put the mask over my mouth and said, “Now, count backwards from one hundred, ninety-nine, ninety-eight, … ” my last thought was, “Oh, that’s the number,” maybe.
The operation was a success, and, a few days later, I was home.
In my first post-op examination, Dr. Matthew told me there were six layers of one-hundred eighteen stitches holding me together.
That’s a lot of sewing.
He also told me that everything looked great and that I was a miracle.
My speech, balance, and reflexes were fine and I was just going to get better and better.
After the stitches were taken out, my visits to see him dropped from weekly to monthly, and, by the end of 1962, I was no longer under his care.
The last time I was in his office, he told me, “You’re as good as new, Stephen. You can do anything you want. Don’t be afraid to do anything. You can even play football.”
That, I thought, would be the end of our relationship, but the fates rejoined us, at least on paper, in 1967, when two IRS agents came to the door and asked to speak to my parents.
It was early evening.
My mother and father spoke to the two men in the kitchen and were told they were investigating Dr. Matthew’s tax filings for the years 1961, 1962, and 1963.
They were building a case against him for tax evasion, and were here to see if we had our billing records with the doctor. Of course, the answer was yes, because of the lawsuit the accident spawned.
As my mother walked to the hutch in the dining room where these records were stored, I followed her and asked if it was right to do this, considering he saved my life.
“Mom, do we have to really do this? Can we at least find out?”
She had the gray, metal strongbox that held these papers in her hand and rested it on the dining room table. Putting her hand on my shoulder, she turned me around and we walked back into the kitchen.
“My son wants to know if we HAVE to give you this information. You know, Dr. Matthew saved his life, and to do this, he feels, is an act of betrayal, and, frankly, I agree with him.”
One of the agents replied, “We understand your feelings and know this might be difficult. At the moment, this is an investigation, and we have a lot more people to interview so, no, you aren’t required to give this to us, but in the event we do proceed in a case against him and require this information, we’ll return with a subpoena and you’ll be required to hand it over,” his eyes turned to me, “fair?”
“OK,” I answered.
“You were a pretty lucky guy,” he said.
“Yeah, I know,” I said, and awkwardly pointed at my skull above my left ear, long ago covered by my lengthening hair, saying, “he put a plate in my head.”
That was all I had.
They closed their briefcases, got up, and left.
In late 1969, Dr. Matthew was convicted of failing to report his income for the years explained in the indictment, and in late November was sent to a federal lockup in Danbury, Connecticut, for a six-month sentence. But in January 1970, Richard Milhous Nixon, in his first major act of executive clemency, pardoned him on the grounds that he did not enrich himself with the money he was supposed to have given to the government, rather, he organized a nonprofit called N.E.G.R.O. (National Economic Growth and Reconstruction Organization) and invested it in establishing small-business opportunities in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn.
Nixon had known and admired Dr. Matthew since 1966, when he was introduced to him by Pat Buchanan while practicing law in New York, and even mentioned him in speeches as an example of Black capitalism when running for the presidency in 1968.
Consequently, the capitalist-activist was considered an asset in terms of helping get a percentage of the Black vote in the coming presidential election in 1972.
This was when Republicans still courted minorities and understood that there was value in social programs.
Nixon would be considered a progressive compared to the current Republican Party.
Pat Buchanan has gone so far to the right, he’s lost his talking-head airtime on the networks and cable news except for occasional spots on Fox and the scarier talk radio hosts. I would also venture to guess that he doesn’t frequent many soul food restaurants.
Months after the January 1970 pardon, Dr. Matthew hatched a plan to go on a quixotic adventure.
He held the idea that the only thing separating some welfare recipients, addicts, alcoholics, and prostitutes from the mainstream of American life was rehabilitation and a job. Dignity.
In July, 1970 after filing papers with the Department of the Interior and the National Park Service, he alerted the press that a group of Black men and women, himself among them, were boating out to seize Ellis Island, and did so, for a period of two weeks.
It was a publicity stunt aimed at talking about his plan.
His group drummed up enough support to get the states of New York and New Jersey to allow them to return and set up a therapeutic community of people who would rehabilitate the grounds, work in concessions bankrolled by the state and federal government, and live in a community located away from the tourist area.
For a host of reasons, it didn’t work.
By that winter, the project was falling apart due to health and plumbing issues, dispirited addicts and drunks, as well as the feds’ decision to pull the island’s restoration funds.
The science of rehabilitation was in its infancy, and it proved out badly in this attempt.
In the following two years, the same unraveling began to happen with his small businesses, and he had to perform patchwork financial surgeries to keep things afloat.
In February of 1971, my oldest brother and his wife rushed to Brooklyn Hospital to have a baby.
The following day, I went to the hospital to visit.
After spending time with my sister-in-law and newborn niece, as I was leaving, I saw the hospital directory, that formal window with names, mounted in typeface, of the officers and administrators of the hospital.
The name “Dr. Thomas Matthew” leapt out at me. This made it necessary to go to the office.
I was an 18-year-old high school senior with long hair.
Upon entering, I approached the receptionist and said, “Excuse me, but I noticed the name of Dr. Thomas Matthew in the directory outside, and I’d like to know if that’s Dr. Matthew, the neurosurgeon.”
The woman smiled and said, “Why, yes.”
“This might sound strange but, in 1962, he saved my life in Coney Island Hospital. Is there a chance I could see him?”
“Well, he is in his office. Let me call and see if he’s busy.”
She said something like “a young man is here to see you if you have a moment” kind of thing, and I was directed to a frosted glass door. I knocked cautiously and heard his voice beckon me in.
No sooner did I open the door, than I heard, “Stephen! Look at you! You’re still here!” and he welcomed me in.
He remembered me like I was there last month.
The conversation was nothing earth-changing. It was standard life questions, with me telling him about becoming an uncle last night and that I just saw the baby, that kind of stuff.
I asked no Dr. Matthew-history questions and felt no desire to discuss his pardon.
All I had was an overwhelming desire to thank him again for being in the hall that day in 1962—and I did.
I floated to the dream-level, where time does backflips while lighting a cigarette with one hand, using a sulfur-tipped match.
I wonder now, if this was the “when”—the moment in my life where I understood and accepted I’d never remain anchored to this planet in my lifetime, not that I was very attached to it to begin with.
The flood of thoughts overtook me as I sat across from him that day.
A few years later, I would read about another series of legal and financial misfortunes, things that would, for all intents and purposes, ruin him. He was indicted and convicted of a battery of SBA and Medicaid crimes, though he insisted he was the victim of character assassination.
This was happening as Watergate was closing in on the Nixon Administration, and I imagine that Democratic investigations were exacting many a political pound of flesh at that time.
Dr. Thomas Matthew may have been as bad a businessman as he was brilliant as a surgeon.
He came from a financial environment where it was common to borrow from Peter to pay Paul, no doubt—something I’ve done time again in my own personal business dealings, and, yes, I’m probably as bad a financial administrator as they come.
Dr. Matthew was naive and foolish, maybe, but not crooked. (Especially with those bowties.)
That yoke was for the president.
In the realm of the casino, Nixon’s snake eyes took out more than Dean, Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Mitchell.
It reached the guy who had been a jackpot on my table, on the green felt that lies beneath it all.
Born in Brooklyn, artist and writer Stephen Paul Trimboli was the owner of arts and music venue Goodbye Blue Monday, located in the Bushwick borough of Brooklyn and, previous to that, Manhattan’s legendary Scrap Bar from 1984 to 1995 (in the early days of hair metal and MTV). Trimboli passed away at age 68 on December 21, 2021 in Detroit, Michigan, where he had lived for several years. He was a beloved friend, staff member, and collaborator at Trinosophes, which publishes this journal.