All we knew about Herbie was that he lived somewhere near our school, he wasn't like us "regular" kids, and he owned a top.
It was one of the old-fashioned ones, the kind made of brightly painted wood fitted with a metal tip. It had a string that Herbie patiently wrapped around its cone-shaped body and held onto as he sent it whizzing through the air onto the sidewalk, where -- if it landed just right -- it would spin, and spin, and spin.
During the day, Herbie couldn't get into the schoolyard to be with the "regular" kids because it was locked up. But the tall chain link gate stood open before school, and sometimes he would manage to slip in, only to have some teacher shoo him out the instant she spotted his twisted body and happy face.
It was obvious that Herbie made the teachers nervous. And in a vague, though-the-pores sort of way, I understood why.
You see, Herbie made me nervous too.
He was older than the kids at PS 16, the grade school I attended on Staten Island in New York City, but he wasn't any taller than us because he walked in an awkward twisted crouch that made him about as tall as a fourth- or fifth-grader.
Of all the things Herbie loved, the one he loved best was putting his arm around your shoulders and saying, "You, me, fren."
Something about those words, maybe the longing in his voice, or maybe the desperation in his eyes, made me very nervous.
I know now that no one should ever be that lonely, but all I knew then was that something was wrong and it made me nervous.
Sadly, it was unsafe to be too friendly with Herbie. There were six or seven big kids -- we called them the Dead Enders after some kids in a gangster movie -- who decided that being friendly with Herbie was "stupid." If they saw you being nice to him, you paid for it -- in lumps and bruises earned after school.
The lumps and bruises didn't hurt half as much as seeing the look in Herbie's eyes if you tried to avoid him, so there were eight or 10 of us who accepted lumps and bruises as just another part of a life we didn't much understand anyway.
Besides, there was no way you could turn your back on Herbie, not if you ever looked out a classroom window and saw him hanging there on the tall chain link fence all day, waiting hopefully for some class to have recess so he could just look at other kids.
Anyway, the Dead Enders couldn't be around all the time, so in the morning before school, or in the afternoon after school, or whenever we felt really brave, we spent time watching Herbie spin his top.
You see, after putting his arm around someone's shoulders and calling him "fren," having the kids watch him spin his top was Herbie's greatest thrill in life.
And you should have seen him. He was good at it!
We used to watch silently as Herbie slowly and patiently wound that string around and around his top with gnarled and twisted fingers. Whatever his illness was, it made him slow and clumsy, and he really had to struggle, poor guy.
But when he got it done he would look at us and grin, and I don't think I have ever seen a happier face.
Then he would talk to us, smiling and pointing as he showed us the tightly wound string. We didn't understand too much of what he said, but we did our part. We smiled back.
The smiles were genuine.
Then, with the string all wound up came the big moment.
Herbie would suddenly stop talking. His eyes would grow large and bright. He would hold one twisted arm out with the top tightly gripped in twisted fingers that rightfully shouldn't have been able to grip anything. His arm would draw back, back, back. Strain would show on his almost skeletal face ...
And then ...
If the top hit the cement just right, which it almost always did because Herbie was very good, it would do a little dance, skittering across the sidewalk, bouncing up and down, and making a buzzing sound with its pointed metal tip.
And then it would settle down into a tight spin. And Herbie would cheer it on. And we would watch and cheer too. And as the top spun, it would also do a slow, sideways-leaning curl, turning lazily around and around like someone twisting his neck in circles in the morning to get the kinks out of it.
And then, after what seemed a long time, it would at last flop over on its side and roll around as Herbie chased it down and prepared to wind up his string and do it all over again.
He never tired of it.
We did, but we stuck it out as long as we could.
One day I came out of school and saw some kids over by the storm drain on the corner. I started over that way to see what was going on, but I recognized two of the Dead Enders in the crowd and decided the best place for me was somewhere else.
But then I spotted a friend and decided that if he was safe over there, I would be too. So I wandered over to have a look.
I could not believe my eyes.
There, down in the nine-foot0deep storm drain, just visible through the grating below the curb were five of the Dead Enders.
They were hanging onto each other's hands, and arms, and legs, and belts, and everything else they could find to grab, forming a human ladder down to the filthy black water.
Just as I came up and got a closer look at what was going on, a shout came out of the sewer.
"He got it! He got it!" the second lowest guy on the human chain yelled. "He grabbed it before it went down."
"Grabbed what?" I wondered.
Slowly, painfully, the five Dead Enders unwound themselves and squeezed through the narrow opening--no easy trick, there must have been some bruised ribs in that bunch. Then the bottom guy in the chain, all covered with filthy black goop but smiling from ear to ear, walked over to Herbie, who I hadn't noticed before.
The Dead Ender wiped off the thing he had in his hand on his shirt and handed it to Herbie.
It was Herbie's top.
Yeah, tough guys!
Until it came to something that really mattered.