By Brad Meltzer
We stood at the top of the stairs for what felt like an hour. Pacing. Watching. Craning our necks to see if he’d really do it.
“There’s no way,” one of us murmured.
“He’s gotta be nuts,” another said.
But John Chiarmonte, with his wild curly hair and his toothy grin of invulnerability, was determined to prove us wrong. When it comes to physical consequences, ten-year-olds never sweat a possible injury. It’s like someone once said: You don’t worry about falling out of a tree until they teach you about gravity in school.
In our case, we didn’t know gravity. We knew John Chiarmonte. And for better or worse, he was about to jump down an entire flight of stairs. We were there to cheer him on.
“Youcandoit,” I shouted.
His cousin, John Lucchese, patted him on the back. Anything to get him to go.
John Chiarmonte took another look down the long flight of stairs that led down to his basement. There had to be twenty to twenty-five steps in all—but more importantly, there wasn’t a lot of running room for the wind-up, so if he planned to clear them all, it’d have to be a huge jump. The only problem was, if he jumped too high, he’d smack his head into the ceiling that covered the lower half of the staircase. To even the odds, we gave him one advantage—at the base of the stairs, we dragged a thin, old, ratty mattress that we found in the back of the basement. Evel Knievel had his tire pits; the Fonz had Arnold’s Chicken stand; John Chiarmonte had his mattress.
“Youcandoit,” I repeated.
He nodded. It was gonna have to be a low and fast leap. A solid leap, because as we all knew, John’s stairs weren’t carpeted. Like most basement stairs back then, they were lined with metal treads on the edge of each step.
It seemed so easy when it started: one of us jumped down the last two steps of the staircase, another jumped from the third to the bottom, then the fourth…
Now, John Chiarmonte stood at the top, and a thin, damp mattress waited for him at the bottom. Removing his glasses, he was ready to go. He was really going to do it. He had to do it—that was the only way to win the title—”Craziest Kid in the World.”
To be honest, I’m not sure how the game actually started. Like the best childhood games, we were always playing it—the title changing hands from competition to competition. During it, you couldn’t blame your glove or your racket. In fact, the only thing this game required was guts, the possibility for glory, and at least one witness. It’s wasn’t crazy unless someone saw it.
And while I’m not sure when the game started, I do know when it peaked. Fourth grade, Brooklyn, 1980. Back then, we were too young for fashion (though we did love the fact that Lee Rosenberg used to wear Lee jeans), and too old to completely ignore the girls. As a result, every school day focused on two things:
1) impressing the ladies with witty repartee in their slam books; and
And I’m not talking cafeteria lunch. In fourth grade, in Brooklyn, if you had a note from your parents, you were allowed to leave the school grounds for lunch. It was a big deal. No supervision—the first step to adulthood.
After fifteen minutes of swapping sandwiches and trying to figure out how I was going to get Kenny Merrill to trade me his Snack-Pack chocolate pudding, we usually made our way to the local corner store. A quick collection of change put some Bubble Yum in our pockets and left us well-armed for a quick game of punchball. That was on a normal day. A sunny day. But this day—this was a rainy day.
When it rained at P.S. 206, the schoolyard’s drainage system always clogged, creating a huge puddle that formed in the right field of our punchball court. So even though the rain had let up, the puddle was still there—a taunting obstacle to every one of us waiting to play ball, but a perfect setting for another round of “Craziest Kid in the World.”
For reasons that can never be explained, a group of us made our way to examine the lake-like puddle. Maybe we wanted to see how deep it was; maybe we were just fascinated by how big it was. Either way, with fifteen minutes remaining for lunch, a small crowd of fourth-grade boys was standing on the edge of the puddle. Within seconds, we were daring each other to step toward the middle. That’s all it took. A group of us alone. No supervision. A clear obstacle. The game was on.
As always, John Chiarmonte was one of the first. After his gold medal in the Leap-Down-His-Stairs competition, he had nothing to prove. Yet as we knew from Muhammad Ali, you can’t quiet a champion.
Seconds after someone took off his shoes and tube socks and ran along the edge of the puddle, John Chiarmonte stormed straight through the center—the conquering hero high-stepping his way to victory. His legs were soaked and his sneakers were sponges. Naturally, we cheered our heads off.
It was a great moment, a hysterical moment—but it wasn’t destined to last.
Refusing to be outdone and demanding to be the Craziest Kid in the World, Lee Rosenberg stepped forward and walked calmly into the center of the murky maw. Our mouths dropped open. He wasn’t usually a player. Just seeing him out there… It wasn’t like he was breaking the rules; there were no rules—the field was everywhere, everyone a possible player—but usually, we stuck to our scripted roles. When the game started, I knew my place: I was an instigator. And Lee, he was usually a spectator. But now, with a few minutes left for lunch, Lee Rosenberg was a player. A major player.
I still see him strolling out into the middle of the puddle. The water came up to the calves of his dark jeans. His feet were lost. Watching our expressions, and knowing he had us, he raised his arms in a giant V for Victory. Then, to make sure John Chiarmonte got the message, he put the cherry on top. In one quick movement, he sat down, smack in the center of the puddle—fully dressed and patting the water like a kid in a kiddie pool. With his legs straight in front of him, Lee just sat there. All we could see were the tips of his sneakers and the vanity tag of his Lee jeans.
Within seconds, we went nuts—screaming, shouting, and, no doubt, trying to egg the next player on. Lee had taken the title; you couldn’t go back to class that soaked. So who would dare top this?
Ronnie. The new kid.
Whenever a new kid moved to school, he always seemed to be the shy, quiet type. Indeed, when I moved from Brooklyn to Florida three years later, I stayed quiet for the first month—sitting in the corner, taking the lay of the land. Ronnie, however, was a kid who was clearly popular in whatever school he came from. And when he moved to our school, he wasn’t going to take it sitting down—much less, sitting down in a puddle.
We all knew that Ronnie was anxious to prove himself. He made a few moves that said he might be in it for the next round. But when the five minute bell sounded through the schoolyard, we all knew time was running out.
Thanks to Lee, the crowd had grown—a four-foot mob now surrounded the puddle. So for the new kid, it was now or never. The title was his to take, but it had to be something no one could top. Indeed, that was how the game was always played. As the time ticked down, the one-upmanship got exponential. The dares got wilder. It was like throwing the Hail Mary of insanity. If you wanted to be Craziest Kid in the World, you had to take a chance.
And so, as we all looked on, Ronnie ran over to the metal grate that covered the main drain in the concrete and slid his fingers through the metal bars. With a quick tug, he pulled the grate off. We were chocolate pudding in his hands. And in one triumphant splash, Ronnie stuck his entire head into the filthy muck of the backed-up sewer.
The crowd, as expected, went wild.
But when he pulled his head out…after shaking off the water like a wet dog and rubbing the dirt from his face…Ronnie realized that the crowd had suddenly gone silent. The cheers had stopped. Our eyes were wide with terror.
“What?” Ronnie asked, even though he was starting to feel the answer.
It was getting harder for him to see. As he wiped off his face, his eyes were almost completely swollen shut. They looked like two puffed-up red grapes. Whatever was in that sewer…something was clearly wrong.
At that moment, the late bell sounded. The entire mob took off—rats on our sinking ship. Later, they’d all be able to say they didn’t want to be late for class.
“What do I do?” Ronnie shouted to the three of us who remained. His hands were shaking; he was on the verge of tears.
“Go home,” we decided. “You gotta get your mom.” The solution to every fourth-grade problem.
He turned around and ran—hysterical and as fast as he could—out the back gate of the schoolyard.
Even at ten years-old, there’s a fine line between crazy and stupid, and as the rest of us ran back to class, we knew we crossed it. As long as Ronnie kept his head in that sewer, he was a hero. When he pulled it out…”Craziest Kid in the World” was over.
When we got back to class, the teacher, as always, took afternoon attendance. Slowly, she checked us off. John C. John L. Brad M.
“Where’s Ronnie?” she asked.
The class was silent. All you could hear was the dripping from Lee’s Lees.
“He went home,” I called out. “He got sick.”
In many ways, it ended the same way it started. We never said we were finished playing Craziest Kid in the World. But like the best games in life—one day, you just stop playing them.
* * *
Today, John Chiarmonte is a DJ for Flashdancers, an X-rated strip club in New York City. Brad Meltzer writes novels, including The Tenth Justice and Dead Even. No one knows where Ronnie is.
© Brad Meltzer