Sammy Hodes was a kid from the wrong side of the tracks, except there were no tracks, just streets with Bronx names leading down the hill from uber Bronx Riverdale to real Bronx Kingsbridge.
His face never seemed washed. His fingernails were never clean. You could imagine him stealing hubcaps from moving cars. Or swiping and selling exam answers when he wasn’t playing hookey. But you could also see him stepping in for a kid who was being picked on in the schoolyard by some outsized bully who had seen too many Schwarzenegger films and mistook his size for toughness.
Sammy was small but so, I am told, are nuclear bombs.
Sam was smart. Rumor had it his IQ tested in the 170s. I wouldn’t be surprised. The cover is no guarantee of the book.
There were two kinds of guys in the world: those who were tough and those who talked and acted like it. It didn’t need explaining to us that you could never tell just by looking.
They could be big, they could be small. They could be thin, with no meat. (Think of the skinny looking baseball players who could hit the ball a mile, who never set foot in a gym. It’s how you were put together. (Clemente, DiMaggio? The only weights they lifted were their 35-ounce bats. Mickey Mantle never lifted anything heavier than a Martini, and he hit a ball 650 feet.)
Sammy was Version One. It’s not just that he could give a punch (which, believe me, he could), he could take them. That’s one secret of tough guys. You can’t hurt them, but they can hurt you.
At our school, Sammy and guys like him came from down the hill. From Riverdale to Kingsbridge is just a few blocks but a world away
Their clothes were never new, they lived in pre-war brown brick buildings that did not have the balconies that were de-rigeur in the newer, 20+ story red brick slabs where the rest of us lived up on the hill. It’s where we kept barbecues but never used them—the barbecues or the balconies.
Their buildings felt like history: snapshots of the 40’s. All black and white. Ours felt like today, or in this case, the ‘60s. Kodachrome.
Sammy was an outsider out of preference as much as anything. He was more skeptical, cynical than anyone we knew, as if he had already seen his future, and wasn’t thrilled. It filled him with low expectations, something unknown to us. We were the expectation generation. He was short, compact, with a hint of bow-leggedness, a little Cro-Magnon maybe. He was always alert. His eyes missed nothing. His compactness gave him power. His intensity packed a punch. And he had two other advantages that surprised much bigger guys; he was fearless and, as I said, didn’t feel or didn’t mind the pain.
He was a little mad too, dangerous to be around. He would stand in a corner on the pedestrian bridge over the highway when you were going to school in the morning and, smiling, suddenly whack you in the shoulder as you passed because he didn’t like the look of you. Or because it was Tuesday.
“Why did you do that?” you said when the pain finally allowed. He had a knack for finding the bone. Your shoulder ached for a week.
Sam knew he was different, would always be, and that there was nothing to be done about it.
We got birthday presents and parties and overly loud and proud parents, he did not.
We got new bikes and baseball gloves, he did not.
We would all go to college, even Louie Wexler. It was assumed. It was a given. Sam, almost certainly, would not.
Our OK lives were to some extent presented to us on a middle-class platter, like the barbeques and the balconies. Sam never given anything. He would have to invent his life.
Now CUT to 4 decades later. I am walking across Madison Avenue at 77th and out of The Mark, that opulent but somehow not blingy hotel where the restaurant is “by” Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and is one of the best hotels if not the best hotel in the city, steps Mr Sam Hodes. He is somewhat changed but it was still him. Inside the Brioni suit and hard polished Lobb shoes, equally polished fingernails and $250 shades, it’s still him. The slightly bowed legs, the heavy-lidded, eyes that miss nothing, definitely still him.
On his arm and somewhat taller is a blond, perfectly coiffed and dressed—sheathed I should say—in black silk, and looking fully the part, curves and all. She would have been at home on the arm of George Clooney. Your eye had no choice but to turn and follow the sway. And of course she knew it.
Before I could figure out what to say and how to say it, they slipped into one of those nice long black cars with darkened windows, the door already opened, him before her. Cars that are waiting for people like them outside of New York hotels like The Mark.
Later I read Sam had discovered finance years before, hedge funds to be specific. He had his own fund and quickly surprised everyone because he knew what he was doing and had no nerves. From what I hear it’s a rough, tough, kill-or-be-killed business. And Sam was a killer.
But if anyone had bothered to ask I would have told them: Sam was a tough guy.