Many of the names and some of the descriptions in this blog have been changed to protect the guilty.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Garbage Gang

My involvement with a “gang” in high school almost cost me my life one night.

Sixteen Acres: our suburban oasis in a crime-ridden city. God’s little acres. Pleasantville. No gang activity here, right?

Wrong. The Acres has a long gang history. In the late 1960s and early 1970s there was the infamous Circle Gang, which hung out on benches inside a circular mound around an oak tree (pictured below) behind the Sixteen Acres Branch Library.

Photo: the benches and the circular mound around the tree are long gone: the city bulldozed the earthen berm to dissuade the gang from hanging out there.

The Circle Gang became known in the Springfield newspapers in 1970, when a brouhaha erupted after James A. Coleman, a physics professor at American International College, wrote The Circle, a book about his experiences trying to reform members of this rowdy group.

At the time, people were outraged by Coleman’s nonfiction account, which detailed the gang’s brawling, drug use, vandalism, and penchant for breaking into houses and stealing cars at the Eastfield Mall. Matty Ryan, the District Attorney, denounced the book in a letter to the editor of the Springfield Union newspaper.

Coleman insisted that the furor over his book began when his own daughter took a copy of The Circle to school one day and showed to a classmate, whose father was a police officer. After that, the Springfield Police tried to have the book banned from bookstore and drug store shelves, and The Circle disappeared for a while, only to come back when the publicity surrounding the controversy fueled its demand. Then Ryan complained that it was being sold “under the counter” and that the practice should cease immediately.

“The book is really NOT being sold ‘under’ the counter anywhere,” wrote Coleman in a rebuttal letter to the editor. “Copies for sale are, however, placed on top of the counter next to cash registers in most places in order to be under the watchful eyes of sales clerks.” It seems that more than a few teenagers, afflicted with a severe case of “light-fingeredness,” according to Coleman, were stealing The Circle.

Coleman also took Ryan to task for admitting that he didn’t actually read the entire book—just a couple of excerpts: “Isn’t it the duty of every district attorney to keep informed of crime and the conditions which produce it, especially in his own district, anyway?” he wrote. “Furthermore, if Mr. Ryan is half the man I think he is, he will want to apologize to me for his emotional outburst against the book and damning it so viciously without ever having read it.”

The Circle Gang was the Acres’ most legendary gang, but it wasn’t the only one. In the mid- 1970s there was the Rail Gang, a odd mishmash of kids from the Boston Road side of Sixteen Acres, as well as from the Colonial Estates Apartments.They partied in the woods next to the guardrail at the end of Blanche Street, right next to the North Branch Parkway.

Photo: The Rail Gang frequented the area behind the guardrail that divides Blanche Street and the North Branch Parkway.

There was also a group on Mallowhill Road, and a gang in the neighborhood behind the Eastfield Mall.

While we’re talking about the gangs of the early 1970s, let’s not forget The Treetops (Yes, that was the name of the gang!) from the Treetop Avenue area off Allen Street. One of the Treetops’ former members gained some notoriety 20 years later when he pistol-whipped his drug dealer to death after a coke deal went sour in a West Springfield motel. The trouble started when the drug dealer pulled a gun, and the former Treetop, who had been a Golden Gloves boxer, wrestled it away. Fueled by anger, along with a day-long binge of smoking crack at various houses and drinking at the Gaslight Lounge, he went ballistic, using the gun’s handle like a hammer on the guy’s head.

There were also gangs whose home bases were restaurants, including one at McDonald’s on Boston Road, and at Treats sandwich shop on the corner of Wilbraham Road and Breckwood Boulevard. The latter, a gigantic crew called The Clan, is also immortalized in the book The Circle, and one of its former members is featured in another blog entry.

To this day, The Clan guys are amused by the “fame” of the Circle Gang, whom they called “rinky-dink” at the time. The Clan considered the Circle Gang the wannabes of the older gang in Sixteen Acres Center, a group that didn’t have a name, although The Clan called them the “Motleys” because “they were such a motley crew,” says one former Clan member. The Motleys are referred to as the “Big Acres” in Coleman’s book.

One day, however, in 1969, all three gangs formed an unlikely alliance. The Clan, The Circle, and the “Motleys” all teamed up to fight the Orchard Gang in a historic “rumble” (yes, a Sixties term indeed), a gang war that was a year in the making. Coleman wrote about this fight in his book, but he changed the setting to Indian Orchard (it actually took place in The Acres), and he listed The Orchard as the winner, even though in reality it was outnumbered and lost the battle badly. This literary license was not taken well by the Circle Gang back then. Read The Circle, Part 2, as well as The Circle, Part 3, and an account of the tragic death of one of its members.

But I digress. When I write about the “gangs” of the Sixties and Seventies, these groups weren’t really like the “gangs” of today. No guns. No drive-by shootings. They simply partied, got in beefs once in a while—some of them serious—but mostly they just hung out.

“Gang is a Relative Term, I Guess

You know, I’m kind of jealous. Why didn’t I join a “gang” back in the Seventies? Then I could say I am a “former gang member.” But no, I wasn't in a gang. True, we had our hangouts, just like the Sixteen Acres gangs. My friends and I from Maebeth Street gathered at The Pothole, our underground party “fort” in the woods next to the pond known as Putnam’s Puddle. And, later on, we hung out in front of The Gully on Fairlawn Street, across from Creswell Street. This wooded area was party central for kids in the immediate neighborhood.

And for a while we called ourselves the Maebeth Womblies. Why? The origin of that name is quite obscure. If I’m not mistaken, I believe it was in honor of a troublesome bit character in the Fat Albert cartoon series on Saturday mornings. Wombly (pictured below), with his smoking habit and bad attitude, was a bad influence on Fat Albert’s friends, and because of this, a couple of us idolized him for a short time.

Wombly puffing away.

Wombly blows a smoke ring in Fat Albert’s face after getting a stern lecture from him on the evils of smoking.

But the Womblies were no street gang, that’s for sure. That just wasn’t our scene, man. I was gang-free in my teenage years.

Wait a second. I stand corrected. How could I forget? For a brief time, when I was 17, I was in… the Garbage Gang. Oh. My. God. The Garbage Gang. Now THAT was pretty fucking weird.

Some days, when I reminisce about my misspent youth, I know I’m lucky to be alive. All right, it wasn’t a totally misspent youth. I wasn’t an angel. I wasn’t a criminal. I guess I vacillated somewhere in between. I was on the right track—decent grades, college-bound, etc. But sometimes I went off the rails on a crazy train.

Take for instance, the Garbage Gang. No, this short-lived pastime didn’t involve beating people up. We weren’t a real gang. We just took our energy out on…trash barrels, which didn’t fight back.

Harmless fun, right? I don’t know. If it weren’t for incredibly good luck one night, I very well could have been killed.

Let me explain. The Garbage Gang consisted of three guys from the Acres: me, Ray Vadnais, and Dave O’Brien; and a couple of guys from Pine Point: Tim Anderson from Rosewell Street and Eric LoPresti from Almira Street.

We were bored. We were boozed up. Therefore, we ceremoniously emptied people’s garbage barrels of their contents on trash nights. This phase didn’t last long—we went on our garbage missions on perhaps half a dozen nights at the most. It’s hard to remember.

But some things I can recall perfectly: the carnage we created when the Garbage Gang got going. Because we didn’t just knock the barrels over. We sent ’em fucking flying.

When we were driving around aimlessly, we had certain code phrases that set things into motion. Someone would say either “time to take out the trash” or “Hulk smash!” and the brakes were quickly applied. Here comes the “insanitation squad,” man!

Picture, if you will, a car coming down the street, screeching to a halt, and five guys piling out in military fashion—a vandalizing SWAT team, if you will, going about our business seriously, attacking those trash cans. The barrels were sent sailing through the air and onto yards, into the street, and, on occasion, onto parked cars.

These weren't today’s plastic Springfield barrels. They were metal containers, and they made a shitload of noise when they landed. So, needless to say, a completely quiet street in Sixteen Acres, Forest Park, or East Forest Park would suddenly explode in a barrel-smashing, glass-breaking cacophony for 10 deafening seconds, which was followed by the sound of four car doors slamming and tires burning rubber. What a racket! In case you’ve ever wondered what Judgment Day will sound like, this is it. Clang! Bang! Crash! Smash! Crunch! I’m running out of onomotopaeic words. It sounded like 10 bulls in a china shop… a 10-car pileup…a fireworks factory explosion...two locomotives hitting head-on. Yes, the five trash men of the apocalypse sure made a lot of noise.

Now, picture the aftermath. (WE tried to, anyway, and that’s what REALLY got us laughing.) Of course, we weren’t there, amid the trash-strewn street and yard—we were long gone— but it’s not difficult to imagine the scene: a few moments of silence, then lights being turned on and doors opening as residents surveyed the carnage in shocked and disgusted disbelief.

Why did we do this? We thought it was hilarious. We knew it was incredibly juvenile. Idiotic. But uproariously runny.

We Were Young Once…and Drunk

I mean, come on. Attacking innocent trash cans? Who the fuck would get their jollies out of doing this? Well, don’t condemn it until you’ve tried it. I challenge you stop your car one trash night, grab a full garbage bag out of someone's trash can, spin around a couple of times as if you’re in an Olympic hammer throwing event, and then heave a it into a tree, knowing full well someone will have to climb up that tree—or a ladder— and get that bag down. I further challenge you NOT laugh your ass off after this inexplicable act. Come on. Do the math: four garbage barrels, minus garbage, divided by garbage all over the lawn and street . . . equals hilarity. Keeping a straight face after a trashing is a mathematical impossibility. How could you NOT break out into a screaming fit of laughter as you’re driving away?

I’m not offering this explanation as a justification for our actions. “Because it made us laugh” is no excuse. But I guess that’s why we did it. Because it cracked us the fuck up.

I wrote it before, and I’ll write it again: who says there was nothing to do growing up in Springfield?


One summer night we had not one but TWO cars for our garbage onslaught. Dave O’Brien and I walked up to Pizza Palace in Sixteen Acres Center. After buying a couple of slices from the grumpy Greek guys, in the parking lot we ran into Ray Vadnais and Tim Anderson, both of whom had their cars. I got into Ray’s car, a crappy Chevy Chevelle, Dave got into Tim’s black Dodge Dart, and we drove over to Pine Point to pick up Eric LoPresti.

The Garbage Gang was ready, and we were in good form that night. With precision we made three trash stops in East Forest Park. We were quick. We were efficient. We trashed people’s trash, and then we were gone in a flash. We created pandemonium and we were never caught. But then we got sloppy.

During our third trashing of the night, on a street off Surrey Road in East Forest Park, we were doing our thing, whipping trash barrels around with total abandon, but this time one of the “victims” charged out his front door after Ray, so Ray jumped back into his car. At that point, there was no way I could get back to Ray’s car, because he was driving away. The guy, after giving chase for a few steps at Ray’s disappearing car, turned to Tim Anderson’s Dart. And so did I. This dude was determined to catch me, but I managed to jump into the back seat, barely escaping his grasp, and I and shut the door in the fucker’s face. As we drove away, the guy crouched down and zeroed in on us, evidently trying to read the license plate number, but thankfully Tim knew enough about vandalism to keep his headlights off (keeping the license plate dark) while we did our dirty deeds (done dirt cheap).

Whew! That was a close one!

Ray drove down Surrey Road, took a right on Island Pond Road, and all four of us followed him in Tim’s car. Why wasn’t he slowing down? We were far, far from the scene of the crime. He across the bridge over Watershops Pond, and took a right on Alden Street.

Jeez, Ray was driving fast. Ridiculously fast. As he rounded the big curve on Alden Street, with Watershops Pond on the right, his car started skidding. Which was no big deal, I thought, because I had done this kind of thing before—you just turn into the skid and slow down. But Ray, cranking the wheel in an attempt to straighten out the Chevelle, overcompensated and started fishtailing.

Photo: the curve on Alden Street. A word of caution: DO NOT drive on this section of the road too fast.

We looked on in disbelief—as if we were watching a movie—to see his car cross over to the other side of the road, hit the curb, and flip over.

Just like that. Wow, I thought, it doesn’t take much for a car to overturn. Now what the fuck were we going to do? Was Ray hurt? Dead? Tim pulled over, and we all jumped out of the car.

Ray couldn’t open his door, because the car was pretty smashed up, so he crawled out the driver’s side window. Well, he seemed like he was in good condition, except for a scratch on his arm. Wow. Unbelievable. Unscathed. The car, however, was on its roof, engine still running, as we debated what to do.

We tried, in a half-baked attempt, to overturn the car to its right side. No dice. It just rocked like a boat. I’m sure we could have done it if we counted to three and put all our strength into one simultaneous push, but we decided against it, because the odor of gasoline became strong, and we didn’t want ot set off a spark. “All right, I gotta car jack,” announced Tim. “We’ll jack it up on its side and tip it back over.”

“No,” said Dave. “That could cause a spark too. Look, we’ll say the car was stolen. Let’s get outta here.”

“What?” said Ray.

“Trust me,” said Dave. “YOU WERE NOT DRIVING THIS CAR. Do you wannna get busted for driving to endanger? Drunk driving? You already got a million tickets. You want your insurance to go through the roof?”


“Let’s go, then!”

Before I fled, I looked at the passenger side’s roof, which was partially caved in. And then it hit me: that was right where I was sitting at the beginning of our garbage run. That’s where I was SUPPOSED TO BE sitting, before that fucker came out of his house! If were still there, I would have received head injuries for sure. I WOULD HAVE BEEN A DEAD MAN. LOOK AT HOW CAVED IN THE ROOF IS ON THAT SIDE! Christ almighty. It was a miracle. Now, I said to myself, let’s get the fuck outta here.

It was dark. It was late. No witnesses. Unfortunately, we were leaving a car on its roof on a blind curve. It was possible that a car could hit it. However, we just took off without thinking about the danger it posed. Shame on us. But that’s what we did.

We piled into Tim’s Dart and left Ray’s Chevelle, on its roof, with the engine running and gasoline stinking to high hell. We took a right on Wilbraham Road and planned our strategy, which consisted of us dropping off Ray at AM/PM Mini Mart at the corner of Wilbraham Road and Breckwood Boulevard.

“Just go in, buy some shit, go out and then run back in and tell the guy your car just got ripped off, and ask him to call the cops,” said Dave. “We're gonna take off, they don't know how you got here."

It did seem like a reasonable plan. Thank God we happened to be driving in two different cars—that fact alone was the ingredient that set in place the logistics of THE BIG LIE. This story was, after all, perfectly believable: he left the keys in the car, he went in the store for munchies, some bastard took the car out for a joyride, flipped it, and took off. Ray’s T-shirt sleeve adequately covered his only injury: a scratch. So, we just dropped Ray off at AM/PM, just a half-mile from his house, and wished him luck.

The Interrogation

Well, there were several problems with Ray’s story, as he and I soon found out. The next day, I was walking over to his house, and there was a cop car in the driveway! I kept strolling and made my way over to Dave’s house on Catalpa Terrace, and since he lived right behind Ray, Dave and I cut through his backyard to check out how Ray was making out, but we stopped in our tracks behind the bushes separating the yards when we saw Ray being questioned by the cop on his back steps! His mother must have been working.

Remember the old Springfield police cruisers (above), just like the cop cars in Adam-12? You didn't want to see one of these Ford LTDs when you were partying. And you certainly didn't want to see one in your friend's driveway.

Dave and I snuck into his next-door neighbor’s yard, and, using their huge bushes as a cover, tiptoed—that’s right, just like Shaggy and Scooby Doo sneaking through a haunted house—right up to within 10 feet of the interrogation. It was a cop that had pulled Ray over a few times for his insane driving. We squatted and listened to the grilling.

Cop: “Why did you leave your car running when you went into the store?”

Ray: “I told you. Because I had a hard time starting it. It was a piece of shit. It was running pretty rough. I didn’t want to have to start it again.”

Cop: “Okay. Fair enough. But I found your wallet on the front seat. You went in the store without your wallet?

Ray: “I had a five dollar bill in my pocket. I was just gonna get some food. How was I gonna know somebody would jump in my car and steal it?”

Cop: “You left your car running. You left your wallet on the seat—in SPRINGFIELD.”

Ray: “Yep.”

Cop: “Mr. Vadnais, I don’t believe you. I think you flipped the car.”

Ray: “Well, I didn’t.”

Cop: “The officer who responded to your call that night took some notes. I’m going to read them. Shortly after you reported your car, ahem, stolen, Officer Rourke informed you that your car might have already been involved in an accident, and you said, quote, ‘Good! I hope the asshole got killed.’”

“Jesus Christ,” I whispered to Dave. “What a stupid thing to say.”

“Shut up!” whispered Dave.

Ray: “Well, what do you expect me to say?”

Cop: “You weren’t concerned at all about the condition of your car?”

Ray: “Well, it was a piece of shit.”

Cop: “Not the least bit concerned that—”

Ray: “Look I was pissed at the guy for stealing it. What was I supposed to say?”

Cop: “Mr. Vadnais, I don’t believe you.”

Ray: “This is fucking incredible. My car gets ripped off and totaled, and I get accused.”

Cop: “Your keys in the car. Your car unlocked. In fact, your car is RUNNING for anybody to steal. Your wallet on the front seat for anybody to grab. I don’t believe you.”

Ray: “You think I was in that fucking accident? How come I’m not dead? That car was fucking fucked up!”

Cop: “You will watch your language, Mr. Vadnais.”

Ray: “And how did I get all the way to AM/PM Mini Mart? Swim across Watershops Pond?”

Cop: “I think you got a ride. Who gave you a ride?”

Ray: “All right. You got me. I swam across the pond, and then I dried off on the two-mile jog down Wilbraham Road. Jesus.”

Cop: “It’s more like a mile. You could have walked it in 20 minutes, or jogged it in 10.”

Ray: “All the way to the store? You gotta be kiddin’!”

Cop: “I’ll be back, and I’m going to talk to your mother, wise-ass.”

Ray: “You do that. Treat me like a criminal.”

Our Newest Gang: the Blabbermouth Boys
Well, we lucked out. No one had driven by us when we were dicking around on Alden Street staring at the car wondering what to do. For that matter, no one rounded the dark curve and smashed right into Ray’s overturned car. And the police didn’t connect Ray—or us—to the trashing of the trash barrels. Moreover, if there were any witnesses who saw us drop Ray off at the convenience store, the police didn’t interview them.

And the cop never came back to talk to Ray’s mom. I’m not sure she—or the insurance company—totally bought the stolen car story, but there was no fallout. We had all sworn ourselves to secrecy. On the night of the accident I told my brother not to tell a soul. But, of course, all of us undoubtedly told our siblings, and, like the Faberge shampoo commercial, they told two friends, and they told two friends, and so on.

By the time I returned to Cathedral High School in September for my senior year, everybody knew about it.

“Did you hear about Vadnais flipping his car this summer?” a friend asked me on the first day of school.

“Really?” I asked. “Who told you that?”

“Ray Vadnais,” he said.

Fucking IDIOT, I thought. Ray’s big mouth is going to get us nailed on this thing yet.

But we got away with it. I relate this story to you now, because I’m pretty sure the statute of limitations has run out on both malicious vandalism of trash barrels and auto insurance fraud.

Ray the Charismatic Evandalist
Boy, Ray sure loved vandalism. And he drove even more like a madman after the accident, tearing through the streets of Springfield and throwing his car into the lower gears on turns so he could spin the wheels and burn rubber. A one-man wrecking crew. The funny thing was that he used to pull the saintly Eddie Haskell act whenever my mother was around: “How are you doing today, Mrs. Shaughnessy?” he asked. “Would you like some help putting away those groceries?” God, it made me want to puke. When I got in arguments with my mother, on several occasions she actually asked me, “Why can’t you be nice, like that Vadnais boy?”

Once, after she said this, I stormed out of the house, grabbed my basketball out of the garage, and walked up to the Glickman School to shoot some hoops on an outdoor court. After a while, Ray and Dave O’Brien showed up and we started playing basketball—but not for long. Ray suddenly picked up a rock and fired it through a school window, and the janitor chased us into the woods. Oh, that nice Vadnais boy. Why I can’t be more like him?

We did some other vandalism—some really insane shit that will never be detailed in print (maybe in a deathbed confession…maybe), but we started to slow down during my senior year.

Ray was still a hellion, but we had pretty much chilled out on the whole Garbage Gang thing after the car-flipping incident. We did have a brief revival, when Ray would get a mischievous look in his eye and run down the occasional mailbox, so I guess our appetite for destruction wasn’t fully satiated. However, we seemed to be through with the trash tossing.

We were much more interested in meeting women (surprise, surprise). So we followed the droves of Springfield kids who headed down to the bars in Enfield, CT, where the drinking age was 18: the Dial Tone (affectionately known as the Dial-a-Fight), Shaker Park (a biker favorite), and the 190, (pronounced “one-ninety”), which everyone mistakenly called the I-90 (“eye-ninety),” even though the bar was off of 190 and nowhere near Interstate 90. (What a bunch of idiots we were.)

Did I miss the Garbage Gang? At times, when I drove by barrel after barrel on trash nights, yes, I did miss it. I was jonesin’ for some trash hauling, and in my withdrawal hallucinations, the barrels taunted me. “You can’t touch us now, you pussy,” they said. “You don’t have your goddamn Garbage Gang with you!” Oh, did I long for the glorious past, when every trash night was Halloween night for us.

One night Ray and I were heading out of the 190 around a half-hour before closing time, with no prospects of getting laid, and he looked at me and said, “So, time to take out the trash?”

“Huh?” I responded.

“You know. Garbage Gang.”

“Hulk smash?” I asked.

“Hulk smash,” he answered.

Okay, folks. In an effort to make this blog more interactive, inquiring minds want to know. Do you want to see a Part 2 of The Garbage Gang? To be sure, it's quite a ridiculous subject for one post, never mind TWO!

Then again, in a city that back in the day had such ridiculous gang names as the Treetops, Whop City (North End), and the Johnny Appleseed Gang (Appleseed Park-Lower Forest Park), I guess there might be room for a Garbage Gang.

So if the audience demands it, sure enough, the story will continue. Just vote with your fingers by posting a comment below.

Well? We're WAITING! Part 2 or no Part 2? Post a comment!