His Brother’s Keeper: A Ramones Tour of Queens


The next stop was a vacant lot overgrown with shrubs. It had been Joey’s second Forest Hills childhood home. An older woman walking by complained that it was a neighborhood eyesore.

“The next owner will probably turn it into that,” Mr. Leigh said, pointing across the street to an elaborate home he called a McMansion.

Forest Hills High School is down the street. All the original Ramones attended, and they bonded over their outsider status. (Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel are also alumni.)

“I think three people liked the Stooges in the whole area, and everybody else was violently against them,” Dee Dee had recalled in the documentary “End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones,” referring to their punk-rock contemporaries. “So if you liked the Stooges, you had to be friends with each other.”

Mr. Leigh approached a teenager who was speaking with a friend outside the school.

“You know the Ramones?” he asked.

Photo

The film “It’s Alive,” capturing a 1977 performance by the Ramones in London, is part of the Queens Museum exhibition on the band.

Credit
Willie Davis for The New York Times

“I actually do,” the boy, Krystian Paultre, 14, replied. “My father likes them. Are you a Ramone?”

The most consequential location from the band’s Forest Hills days might be a few blocks away, however, in and around the Birchwood Towers complex, where Joey lived; Tommy, Dee Dee and Johnny resided within a block radius.

The band members experienced the neighborhood as young men, slipping into the sort of truancy that inspired their group’s attitude and image. Although they would develop dislike for one another in their fame, they couldn’t wander far without running into one another here in their early 20s.

Mr. Leigh was hesitant to visit the Bel Air building, one of the three Birchwood towers, where he and Joey spent their late teenage years. “I can’t go in there,” he said. “It’s fancy-looking now. That’s not Ramones.” But curiosity overwhelmed him. We left a written message for the tenant of Apartment 22F.

The tenant, Steven Krieger, revealed later by phone that he was a 42-year-old math teacher at Forest Hills High School. He was elated to learn of his apartment’s past. He said that the apartment offered a grand view of Manhattan and that he could imagine a young Joey entranced by the pull of the emerald city.

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Mary Salem, 85, and Mr. Leigh in Forest Hills. Mother to one of the neighborhood crowd, she’s lived in the area for years and remembered the four Ramones well.

Credit
Willie Davis for The New York Times

The band’s primitive rehearsal space was not far away, in the basement of Art Garden, the gallery and frame shop run by Charlotte Lesher, Joey and Mr. Leigh’s mother. She would become known as Mama Ramone.

The shop is now a cramped law firm that specializes in bankruptcy. Eleanor Pelcyger, 59, sat alone at a desk, surrounded by towers of paperwork and files. She scanned Mr. Leigh’s appearance.

“Let me guess,” she said, fatigued. “You want to know if the band rehearsed here?”

“I was here,” Mr. Leigh replied.

“Oh, my God,” she said.

Ms. Pelcyger said the office received punk-rock pilgrims often. “They don’t care what it looks like,” she said. “They just want to reminisce.”

Mr. Leigh was disappointed to find that the doors leading to the basement had been covered with shag rug. But he closed his eyes and stood over them. “I remember opening this door and getting hit by the smell and sound of the Ramones.”

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Ramones concert posters throughout the years at the Queens Museum show.

Credit
Willie Davis for The New York Times

He suggested that there was something ironically punk, perhaps, in the current business name, simply the Law Office. “The minimalism continues,” he said. “Three words. Three chords.”

Mr. Leigh had visited another part of early Ramones lore a little while before: the Ramp, a plain walkway leading to the roof of a garage in the Thorneycroft apartment complex, just up the way from Birchwood.

It was a hot spot for misbehavior. Boys in ripped jeans and jackets would sit along the ramp’s banister, smoking, sniffing and drinking.

“It was a line of kids doing all kinds of pills of whatever new drug was around,” Mr. Leigh said. “We also played stickball.”

He remembered a violent incident one afternoon in the early ’70s.

“I was hanging with Johnny at the ramp, and Tommy Gordon had been learning karate,” he said, referring to a local boy. “Johnny said, ‘That’s not going to help you in a real fight.’ Tommy said he was crazy. ‘What do you mean I’m crazy?’” Johnny said.

Johnny, Mr. Leigh continued, slapped the boy. “What now?” He slapped him again. The boy’s father saw the incident.

“Tommy’s dad starts walking up the ramp,” Mr. Leigh said. “‘What are you doing to my son?’ Then Johnny slapped Tommy’s dad, too.”

While Mr. Leigh described the youthful indiscretions of the Ramp, an elderly woman pushing a folding shopping cart called out from below.

“I’m Ricky’s mother!” she said.

“Ms. Salem?” he called back.

Mary Salem, 85, wore a fur coat and was heading to the supermarket to buy chicken cutlets for dinner. Mother to one of the neighborhood crowd, she’s lived in the area for years and remembered the four Ramones well. She was surprised to hear that some in the neighborhood had forgotten them.

“That’s strange,” she said. “I’m 85, and I still think of them very fondly.”

“They started the whole rock ’n’ roll era, and I think they were great,” she said. “They didn’t intimidate me. They were good boys. They were sweethearts.”

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