The day I spent with the .44 Caliber Killer and didn’t know it.
The bicentennial celebrations were happening all around us. The Red-White-And-Blue could be seen on every street corner and every store front. 1976 was a great time to be in New York as ships on the Hudson River of all shapes and sizes were draped with American flags. Many of the tall ships riding the East River were open to visitors, and tens of thousands pushed into the Seaport for a look, so many that police had to close it. Despite being in the mood for a year-long party the city itself was rife with garbage and crime.
A financial crisis had left the town staggering on the edge of bankruptcy, with painful cuts in everything from library hours to subway service. Only months before, President Gerald Ford had flatly refused to come to the city’s financial rescue. There was considerable doubt that New York could even afford to join the rest of the nation in celebrating America’s 200th birthday.
Turning 18 years old was a lot different in 1976 then in the present time. If you weren’t going to college you were getting a job or going into the Army. My Father, a steam-fitter for Local 638, believed in getting a trade or a skill where you could actually put your hands on something and complete at the end of a long day. He wasn’t opposed to continuing education he just didn’t know much about it. The last thing he wanted was a lazy son, the eldest of three with two sisters watching every move I made. There was no way I was going to lead my siblings into laziness. There was one thing about my father that he could promise you, a stern look was your warning and if he picked up his massive arms to wag his finger it was usually followed by a slap to the head. This was the way it was in the 1970’s. Oh and by the way, my Mother had no say in the matter but would once in awhile lend a gentile reminder to my Father to clean up his language if he started to get out of hand.
My 18th Birthday was a week after my Highschool graduation and I was greeted by my Dad slapping my leg telling me to move over so he could sit.
“Hey! Buddy!”he declared
I mumbled something.
“Get-up!” my Dad ordered.
I slowly took off my covers and tried to block the sun from the window to look at him. I sat-up on my elbows. My Dad had a folded newspaper with job listings. He pointed with his pipe-fitter index finger which had been hardened and mangled during years of tough labor.
“See this? The Post Office is hiring in the Bronx. Short bus ride and your there. Go down there and look presentable. When I get home I expect that you have a job! See ya later.”
He got up abruptly and gave me a look that only I knew what it meant. I had to come home with that job or I wasn’t to come home. My Dad was tough but I knew he loved me. I knew he loved all of us. He didn’t show it much but the holidays and the occasional trip to the beach he was much more relaxed. He loved my Mother too and they loved each other. When he would have a couple of glasses of wine or beer he would dance with her to Connie Frances or Nat King Cole in the living room. Those were special times. I think he hugged me twice mostly a tap on the shoulder if I brought home good grades or helped my sisters with fixing their bikes or toys. He expected me to act like a man at all times and be kind to my sisters and Mother. Always.
The early morning sun began to peak over the apartment buildings outside our house in Yonkers, New York. We were mostly an italian neighborhood with very little racial diversity in the immediate area. The city bus was our best friend because it was cheap and you could get anywhere in New York. Once you were near the city and the other boroughs we had our famous subway system to take you all over. My Mom liked taking a taxi to most places especially to her sister’s house in Brooklyn. My Dad drove the only car we owned and nobody even asked to borrow it. We were lucky to have a home with a short driveway and a one car garage at 21 Rose Hill Terrace. A nice brick house with a small basement where my Dad would smoke his cigars as my Mom didn’t want him smoking upstairs near the kitchen. One of the rare times my Mom set the rules. This was also a time when people smoked in the home so this designated area was unusual.
The bus stop was steps away from our house so I didn’t need to go far. My Dad’s voice of “looking presentable” was replaying in my head over and over again. I certainly didn’t want to disappoint him. The 1970’s hair styles were very different from when my Dad grew-up and he wasn’t crazy about the bushy style that allowed us to express ourselves as teenagers. I wet it down and parted it to the side and put on a clean shirt and pants as instructed.
The idea of working in a Post Office certainly didn’t excite me but I wasn’t sure where life was going to take me at 18 years old so it didn’t bother me too much. Contributing to the household income was an important life-lesson that my parents drummed into my head since I could walk. It wasn’t the money but it was the responsibility. My Dad made a very good living but worked hard for it and he wanted me to do the same. $3 dollars a week paid to my Mother would be the arrangement or I could look for another place to live. Most of my friends did and lived everywhere from their friends basement or in their beat-up used car. A few went into the army and one friend moved to California to be an actor. As I stated earlier, turning 18 in 1976 was much different than today.
The Ad in the paper indicated that the Bronx Branch of the Post Office was looking for a Mail Sorter? I never thought much about how our mail got into our mail box but I would assume someone had to sort it at some point. Sounded easy and it would satisfy my Dad so I put on the best face I could. The Bus Line I took from my house had many neighborhood folks I grew up with. Mr. Caminitti lived across the street and was a beat cop in the Bronx around Yankee Stadium. He was on his way to covering his shift and was happy to see me.
“Hey Kid where ya off to”? He asked
“My Dad told me about a job in the Bronx Post Office”. Showing him the newspaper.
“Oh yeah! I know the Post Master there. Go see Richie Travis. He’ll take care of ya. Tell em’ Vinnie the cop is your neighbor.” He happily reported.
“Sure thing Mr. Caminitti. Thank you!” I responded
The Bus pulled up a block away from the Bronx Post Office and landed at the front of a Corner Candy Store.
In big faded red letters the store read “CANDY” on one side and “FOUNTAIN SODAS” on the other side. You couldn’t miss it. There was a new thing called the New York State Lottery that was just beginning. People were lined up outside to purchase their first tickets. The Newspaper had been promoting the sweepstakes and drumming up the hype of a million dollar prize.
I remember my Dad talking about the first lottery in New York. He was not amused by it. He felt that taking a chance to win millions of dollars was a waste of time. My Mom on the other hand got together with her sisters and stood on line for their chance. They made a day out of it.
The candy store was dimly lit and I stopped in to buy a pack of juicy fruit gum and push through the lottery crowd. I grabbed a news paper to make sure the Ad was still in there for the Post Office position. Maybe part of me was hoping it wasn’t. However, this would mean that I would have to find something else in it’s place. I noticed a large man in front of the Newspaper rack with thinning bushy hair sort of thumbing threw and reading the headlines back and front. He was standing in front of the person I had to pay. You could see the store owner (also the cashier) getting irritated with the man reading his paper and not paying for it. I
“C’mon Mac. Pay for the paper or get out!”. The Owner yelled.
The portly man seemed unphased by the stern warning. He continued for a moment staring at one part of the newspaper then suddenly came out of his trance. He fiddled through his pockets for change and slapped fifteen cents on the counter. The owner snatched it away and leered at the patron. The portly man turned around and continued to read the paper on his way out and through the line of lottery hopefuls. I paid for my gum and scurried out. I could see the same portly man ahead of me reading the paper as he was walking forward and turned into the post office. For a moment my heart dropped. He worked for the post office but why would that concern me? It shouldn’t. He was just a strange guy buying a newspaper. I followed his lead to see if the entrance he used was somewhere I could enter as well? However, it appeared for workers only as he swung open a steel door and it shut behind him with the sound of a guillotine. The front entrance is where I headed into and it was a tiny lobby for customers to buy stamps and send packages.
When I got to the counter a tall thin man looked in my direction waiting for me to speak.
“Hi. I am here to see Mr. Travis?”
“What for”? The man barked
“I am here about the mail job. I was told to see Mr. Travis.” I responded.
“He doesn’t handle jobs. Take a seat. Someone will be out”.
The man shouted for someone as he leaned back from the area in which he was standing. I took a seat next a woman holding a package. I could visualize Mr. Caminitti talking to my Father about seeing Mr. Travis way before I got home. That would be the first question my Dad would ask. Hopefully Mr. Caminitti’s shift would outlast me getting home to report the days events. When a neighbor vouched for you it was a big deal. The neighbors would tell your parents everything they saw you do or that they did for you. It was like a “watch group” that extended from your parents to all the neighbors. Especially the mothers who the majority were home all day and did not work outside the home. You had to make sure your story lined up with theirs or you would be in big trouble. The fact that Mr. Travis didn’t come out to greet me would be about another dozen questions added onto the 45 my Father was already going to ask me when I got home. Somehow it would be my fault that I wasn’t convincing enough to have Mr. Travis come out to personally assist me. It could be exhausting.
Soon after I sat next to the woman holding a package, the counter person (Mr. Kline) motioned to a short portly man emerging from the back doorway. This was the same short portly man I saw in the candy store and the same one I saw enter the post office in the rear entrance. He first looked at Mr. Kline and then followed his index finger pointing to me. Without a smile or a word of greeting the chubby man nodded his head slightly. I put out my hand to shake his and he barley lifted his right hand to acknowledge my attempt to shake his. It was soft and clammy his hand and had no grip. Nor did he look directly at me. I introduced myself and he stated in a barley audible voice; “David”. David turned around and I assumed I was to follow him through the doorway. I pointed to David and looked at Mr. Kline to verify I was to follow the strange man? Mr. Kline shook his head yes with an authoritative verbal; “Yup”.
We walked through a short hallway that opened up to a huge warehouse size room with rows of mail slots and sounds of grinding machines. We walked down a steel squeaky stairway to the floor where everyone had their backs to us. All you could see were hands and arms moving up and and down the mail slots throwing envelopes in all the different cubby holes. Others were pushing canvas bags of mail with black lettering stating which state they were coming from. It was very mechanical even through it was human driven. They all looked like ants running their colony.
“David” walked to the fourth set of mail slots and took his position on the far left. He put his hand up for me to stand on the far right. He opened a canvas bag of mail behind him and threw a bunch in an empty bin next to me.
“we sort by zip code. Anything not legible you throw on the counter. All the cubby holes have zip code ranges.” he stated with a heavy brooklyn accent.
“Excuse me. David?”
He looked up at me.
“Do I have the job?”
“Depends on how you do”. He responded in a low voice
I was expecting a formal interview but I guess they wanted to know if I could catch onto the job and make that the determining factor? David didn’t explain much and didn’t make any small conversation. I grabbed my first few envelopes and began sorting. I quickly caught on to this mindless process and my thoughts began to drift. Do I really want to do this for the rest of my life? I chucked to myself and shook my head “no”. However, for today it was just getting the job and having my Dad off my back until I decided the rest of my life.
Gazing down to David’s shoes they were large and resembled a pair that Frankenstein would wear. Nothing was getting through to those feet. He had a pack of cigarettes that were stuffed in his top pocket with a few bent over the top. He didn’t seemed the type to worry about broken or bent cigarettes. He was going to smoke them regardless. Marlboro of course.
David had this strange default-smile. He looked as if he knew something you didn’t and was getting over on you. But his bland personality did not match the wry grin. He would quickly be expressionless when trying to communicate with him. His face appeared welcoming but his body language was closed off and aloof. As stated earlier he had a weak clammy handshake which supported his lack of confidence. He was the very definition of the phrase;
“I don’t know how to take him?”.
Never did I feel threatened by him or in danger if left alone. He was awkwardly mild-mannered. “Odd” is a better word.
“Break Time”! David shouted.
Berkowitz threw the last few envelopes into a slot in front of him and scooted quickly toward a steel door leading to outside where I had seen him earlier entering. I followed but didn’t know if I should? He swung the door open wide enough for me to exit with him as he stuffed his chubby hands into his shirt pocket to take out more cigarettes. Never looking at me David began to rant as if we had had this conversation already?
….Subway tunnels echo the heart of the devil which is fueled by greed. In Japan the subway is free. (takes a long drag on the cigarette). I walk or take a cab. I refuse to take part in the politicians grand plan to master the human race in New York. We’re just sitting on a group of islands.
I tried to ask a question but he spoke over me as if I was not there to share my thoughts. All I kept thinking was this is the type of person my Dad would hate. He didn’t like complainers or conspiracy theorist's. He believed in working hard to keep society moving. Live within the laws of the state and God. Outside of that my Father had no time.
As he sucked down the last of his cigarette, I threw my half one to the ground not wanting to stay behind. Stepping quickly as the tip was still illuminating, a plume of smoke escaped from beneath my shoe as a last ditched effort to stay alive. David moved fast for a chubby guy once he was on a mission. Otherwise it seemed as if he lived life in slow motion.
Whipping the steal door wide so it would stay open for me to run in, he headed back to the massive sort-station. We went into a small area of vending machines where he stuffed the coffee machine with .15 cents for his fifth cup of the day. Others were in the same area and would casually say “hello” to each other but not to David. He looked down with one hand in his pocket waiting for the watery coffee to come streaming out. This was a time when you could smoke inside as well as outside. I think he wanted to go outside to smoke so he could deliver his sermon to me. One that I think everyone had heard a million times and would now avoid eye contact with him in fear of hearing it again.
As we arrived back at the sorting stations he bellowed to me;
What? I replied.
“You start Monday. See Kathleen on the way out. She will process your paperwork.” David ordered.
The few envelopes I was holding I placed on the edge of the counter in front of me. I was sort of frozen for a moment and still didn’t know if I should leave. He gave me no indication that it was o.k. to stay so off I walked toward the front office. I pictured my Dad saying to me;
“Did you shake his hand”?
David was not big on social graces but I felt guilty and went back to shake his hand. All that was there was his pack of cigarettes. I looked around but did not see him. I ripped a piece of scrap paper and wrote on it;
That was the last time I saw David Berkowitz up close until the his face was plastered on every newspaper as the
44 Caliber Killer.
THURSDAY, AUGUST 11, 1977
I awoke to the kitchen radio stuck on News Radio 88 (New York) with the volume being a little louder than normal. My bedroom door was slightly open and I had made my way to the hallroom bathroom which was located at the top of the stairs on the second floor. The kitchen was below the stairs to the living room where often a whaff of my Mom’s spaghetti sauce and meatballs would greet me on Sunday mornings. This was a loud news report that the “44 caliber killer” had been caught and arrested the day before. I could hear my Mother gasping and putting the dial louder and talking to our neighbor as she peered in the open kitchen window.
My eyes were still half closed as I looked into the bathroom window trying to make myself presentable for another day of work. The news report and interviews with relieved citizens was loud and clear. Plugging in the hair dryer I practically dropped it on the counter when I heard a name I recognized. I put down the dryer and walked out of the bathroom and to the top of the stairs to listen. There it was again;
I went down a few stairs to peer into the kitchen and to get closer to the radio report that I almost didn’t want to know if it was the same person who I had been along side at the Mail Distribution Center in the Bronx that first day. I had seen David from a distance after my interview occasionally and then not for a couple of weeks leading up to the news report.
“Ma”, I called out.
The radio was so loud she didn’t hear me at first.
“What sweetheart?” she replied
“Did they say David Berkowitz?”
“Yes they did. Why?”
I sank down onto one of the steps barley feeling my legs and just staring.
“David Berkowitz from Yonkers?”
“I think so. Why?”
I whispered to myself; “Oh my god”.
The bus trip into work was so surreal. Everyone had newspapers flapped open with David’s real face and composite sketch of what they thought “The son of Sam” would have looked like all starring in my direction. That “wry” smile peered from one of the photographs taken with him in handcuffs and gave me such a cold chill through my veins. How could this mild mannered goof-ball be the “Son of Sam”? Don’t get me wrong, he was weird like I had stated earlier but he barely squeezed my hand to shake it let alone the thought of him squeezing a trigger?. The candy store next to the Bronx Post Office had lines out the door but to buy a newspaper and not a lottery ticket this day. You could hear employees gasping in disbelief. I had been working there for 2 months and became friendly enough with some of the guys and as they passed me they said;
“Can you believe it? BERKOWITZ!”
“No! I can’t!” I responded