Bengie seems to have made it

Bengie is the name of the leader of the Jokers, a South Brooklyn street gang of the 50's immortalized in the photographs of Bruce Davidson. In "The City" section today the NYTimes has more than a full page of Tom Vanderbilt's text, with photographs from Davidson, devoted to Davidson's career. [Click onto "Slide Show: The Picture Man" and go to the third photograph for a heart-stopping image of Bengie, but don't miss the others.]

The Lost World of a Street Gang

In his 1959 series "Brooklyn Gang," published originally in Esquire with a text by Norman Mailer, and in 1998 as a book, Mr. Davidson entered the lives of a South Brooklyn street gang called the Jokers whose usual haunt was a local candy store.

"They had had a rumble that was written up in the newspaper, and I went out and offered to take photographs of their wounds, in color," he said. He stayed on. "They had a youth board worker with them, and I had a tendency to come when I knew he wasn't going to be around." Mr. Davidson was 25 at the time, living in a one-room walkup in Greenwich Village.

"I had a kitchen/darkroom combination with a red light in my refrigerator," he said. "I had a mattress on the floor, no girlfriend, and lived like a monk."

The photographs today portray a lost world of stickball and boardwalks, of Vaseline hair and rolled sleeves, Kent Filters and Karl Droge Big Squeeze Ices, basement dances and Susie the Elephant Skin Girl at Coney Island. The atmosphere was tight and intense, filled with flinty looks and an almost accidental glamour, where tattoos were more a fierce indoctrination than a calculated lifestyle choice.

As with his other projects, Mr. Davidson needed entry, and he got it in the form of the gang leader, known as Bengie.

"He was kind of a brilliant visual guy," Mr. Davidson said. "He took me to this roof, and I remember thinking, 'This kid's going to throw me off the roof and then rob me,' but he's pointing down at the stickball game and saying, 'Get that,' and saying: 'Oh, there's the Statue of Liberty. You can see it through all these television antennas.' "

The images of that summer have an eternal quality to them, as if the gang might still be drinking beer in paper cups on the beach, but the Jokers' world was already beginning to change. Heroin was making an entrance; one gang member died from an overdose at 19.

A few years ago, Bengie got in touch with Mr. Davidson.

"I went out with him to the old neighborhood," the photographer said. The candy store where the gang used to hang out was gone. "He took me for a cafe latte." The neighborhood had changed, and so had the Jokers; Bengie is now a drug counselor, and Mr. Davidson's wife is writing a book about his life.

In the apartment, Ms. Davidson pointed to a photo of Bengie back then, glaring out from a wall, standing beneath a thermometer that says "Have a Pepsi." "You can see the frustration," she said. "He's so angry. He looked right out at Bruce, and the thermometer behind him seems to be registering his anger, rage and depression."

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Published on January 19, 2003 4:45 PM.

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