The mid-1970's was a bizarre - and not especially pleasant - time to be a teenager growing up in Levittown.
Even putting aside the teacher's strike of '78 which left the community bitterly divided for some years thereafter, the breakdown of student discipline, declining academic standards, and general malaise and moral ambiguity of the times, the zeitgeist was one of disquieting strangeness.
Drugs, vandalism, and bullying were starting to become a more noticeable a problem and the only comic relief in my school was from the antics of two teachers: a corpulent Maoist and ex-Catholic nun and a fellow whose self-assigned aristocratic moniker (he called others "bourgeois") became his nom de plume on highly controversial screeds scotch-taped to the lunchroom wall.
When a new principal, Dr. Frank Fusco, appeared in my senior year and was rumored to be a strict disciplinarian, his first day was greeted with a score of wannabe-hippi student protesters holding "Fusco Must Go!" placards.
Summertime was always my respite, my return to sanity playing LAC baseball, bowling a the North Levittown Lanes, swimming in the local pool, or entomologizing in the Old Motor (as surviving segments of the Vanderbilt Motor Parkway were called). The summer of '77, however, proved to be the weirdest one in our history.
On summer days filled with the shrill of cicadas and the smell of barbeque's, tranquil and tree-lined Levittown seemed light-years away from the anarchy that engulfed New York in the 1970's; the chaos artfully depicted in Spike Lee's The Summer of Sam. Race riots, blackouts, garbage strikes, business failures, rising taxes, and crime all brought many "second wavers" - those who moved out to the suburbs after the post-War boom - to Levittown.
The Son of Sam scare, because it spilled into suburban Queens and suggested to Nassau residents that the Leave it to Beaver days were over, illustrated the degree of separation by which everyone and everything is interconnected and there's no retreat into a quiet residential street from the turmoil of the modern world.
In the 1980's and 90's, I worked with four people who knew David Berkowitz personally. A key detective on the Omega Task Force, as the Son of Sam manhunt was dubbed, was Joe Coffey who lived a few blocks away from my house in Levittown and I coached LAC baseball with his son's team of eight year-old's. Coffey's colorful career - including taking on mob boss John Gotti and guarding President Reagan - is detailed in his 1992 book The Coffey Files.
My wife's great grandfather was the elderly Judge Curso who presided over Berkowitz arraignment and she once had a chance encounter with the outspoken Neysa Moskowitz, the mother of Son of Sam's last victim. I know a professional dancer who used to hang out at Elephas Discotheque on Northern Blvd. in Queens where the whole Saturday Night Fever scene electrified the dance floor. Just outside the door, Son of Sam struck on June 26, 1977, wounding Judy Placido and Sal Lupo.
The suburbanite's in Levittown could not but be riveted by the case. Son of Sam was in the thoughts and conversations of everyone that summer in Levittown's pools, bowling lanes, ball fields, and block parties; accompanied by endless theories about who he was and when he'd strike again. Indeed, on the evening of July 13, 1977, for example, a massive electrical blackout enveloped New York City just as I had finished my Eggplant Parmesan dinner at Domenico's Restaurant on the Turnpike - fueling speculations that he'd strike that night in the darkness.
A fortnight later, as the anniversary of his first murder approached, anxiety arose for he had, in a taunting letter, hinted at marking the occasion with a haunting "what will you have for July 29th?" The Son of Sam story sold newspapers and became the obsession of editors and columnists but none more so than Jimmy Breslin at The New York Daily News. While Levittown families left many things behind them in their diaspora to the suburbs, the King of Tabloids and its popular heavy-drinking wordsmith, known with great affection as the Count of Queens Blvd. came along with them.
Son of Sam was captured late on the evening of August 10th and appeared the next morning on TV in the now-famous "perp walk" - a moment in the "where were you and what were you doing when you first heard..." genre. The madman who terrorized the world's largest city with his allusions to monsters, demons, cults, and satanic barking dogs - no less than his .44 revolver - turned out to be a chubby, indistinguishable postal employee with an infantile grin and friends I met at the Levittown Public Library that morning found that innocent-looking character as perplexing and disquieting as the actual murder spree.
If suburban Levittown was the 20th Century's embodiment of the Victorian bourgeois domestic ideal, as historians like Barbara Kelly have written, than Son of Sam with his macabre and lurid missives was our generation's Jack the Ripper.
Want to learn more about the history of Levittown and the surrounding communities? Visit www.levittownhistoricalsociety.org