It took Joe Sorrentino a couple of convictions, a few degrees and one rude awakening to move from the scary side of the judge's bench to the safe side.
Sitting in a restaurant, Judge Sorrentino, somber in a three-piece, dark suit and sipping water, was talking about his wild boyhood as a Brooklyn street kid and his new life as a municipal court judge pro-tem in Los Angeles with a $160,000 home.
"I used to scheme, steal, rip people off, talk as tough as I could, and now I discuss lawns with my next-door I discuss lawns with my next-door neighbor, and now I have to worry about people ripping me off."
He could have been Al Pacino only bigger, 5 feet 10 and 180 pounds. He looked the law, if not Harvard Law School.
His skin was dark from the California sun, his eyes blue - "possibly a throwback from the early invaders from the north," he said. His face was clean and scars but his nose had been banged around a bit from his days as a Golden Gloves boxer.
His big, strong hand gestured while he was talking - mannerism s steeped in the tradition of the colorful Italian hand-speak. The hands were covered with small scars."Twenty-one," he said, "all from the streets.
"We had a lot of gang wars when we were kids. Other gangs would invade our 'turf' or we would go mess up a dance, or it could be a fight over a girl. But we used our fists - we didn't go for the weapon."
Sorrentino was a tough ghetto thug from the Ft. Hamilton section of Brooklyn. A burglar, wise guy, shop-lifter, cop fighter, street brawler and a better-than-average boxer in the Police Athletic League.
"I always wanted to be a good boxer, I used to use one of my sister's old dolls for a punching bag. I worked out everywhere, always punching out, sometimes for the fun of it and more times in anger, I guess."
He called himself "a real malafgouda." (One who botches everything he touches.)
His first big scuffle with the police happened in 1954, when four hoods from another gang came into his gang's territory looking for Sorrentino's pal because of a remark the pal made to a girl. The visitor sneak punched Joe's pal and Sorrentino and a couple buddies stepped in. Sorrentino threw one punch, the invader hit the street with a thud, the police came and everyone ran.
The front page of the Brooklyn Eagle the next morning read: "TEENSGER INJURED IN STREET BRAWL. A 17-year-old Grady Vocation H.S. senior lay in critical condition in Coney Island Hospital."
Sorrentino ran to the Bowery where he hid out among the winos and junkies for several days. He was 16 years old.
"I was ashamed. It was for my family first," he said, "but ot knock another guy out was different. I had chills and cramps. To kill a 17-year-old boy was completely different.I could feel what it would mean for him to die." And he got on his knees and prayed.
Tired of life on the Bowery, he went back home and turned himself in and was sent for detention to the Raymond Street Jail, where his neighbors were murderers, rapists, arsonists, addicts and youthful offenders.
"My moods ranged wildy. I felt sorry for myself. I cried.I would hum a song, remember a movie. The meals were nothing to look forward to. A lot of liverwurst, mashed turnips, and stale bread baked by the inmates on Rikers Island.
"I saw straight men become perverted, tough masculine guys turn homosexual, and I worried about it happening to me."
The incarceration, which lasted several days, made him think that there must be a better life. He punched the bed and begged to anyone who would listen for another chance.
Relatives and neighbors raised bail to get Sorrentino out. In court, the judge declared him a "youthful offender" and gave him two yeas' probation. He got his chance and didn't take it.
For two years he worked at odd jobs, being fired, laid off or just quitting in disgust. It was always back to the corner to pick up a dollar here or there. And then it was another fight, another kid in a coma, and he escaped it all by joining the Marines when he was 18.
In the Marines he was thrown into a cell twice and finally released on the grounds of unfitness.
His parents had moved from the old neighborhood, but he went back each night. One night when he missed his bus he walked to a local high school to an athletic field.
A sign announced that night school was beginning soon. There was a light in the office. He thought about his life: His brother was now a detective, he was tired of the corner and "Marty" life. Twenty years old, he wasn't tough anymore, and the kids were tougher.
He remembered a friend who changed Sorrentino's mind - a construction worker he knew only as only as Davey who taught him, "No matter how endowed with talent a person is, if he didn't use his potential he could spend the rest of his life doing brute labor." Another friend, Timmie Kelly, was now in his second year at St. John's College and Joe had the feeling he was being left out.
Three years later he graduated from that high school, Erasmus, where he went every evening after hoisting steel all day. Then his life veered upwards as consistently as it had plummetted to the gutter.
His grades were good enough to get him into and graduate from the University of California at Santa Barbara, magna cum laude. He reenlisted in the Marines to change his discharge to honorable and, at 29, was valedictorian of his Harvard Law graduating class.
Now he's Judge Sorrentino, a referee in juvenile and municipal court. The judge is married now with a son, Joe Jr., and has traveled through 49 states visiting courts and institutions for lectures and seminars. Now Sorrentino looks at the young offenders, views them as more dangerous and doesn't have much hope.
"There is a new breed of juvenile delinquent roaming our streets today. Back in the '50s we were tagged 'JDs' for gang rumbles, vandalism, stealing hubcaps and drinking.
"There were a few zip guns but if you killed someone, others shied away from you in juveinile hall and any kid who came before a judge always felt some sort of guilt or shame.
"Not so today; too many of the 14 and 15-year-old murderers who come before me and cold, reckless individuals, who think it's a 'macho' thing to kill."
"I was helped, and I try to get out in the community regularly to work with kids in reformatories. There should be job training, placement; integrate the family into a program.
"Thirty cases a day come before my bench. There is no time to deal with them, they just have to be locked up."
"Today," Sorrentino said, "the kids know how the system works. Recently a 14-year-old girl who had run away from home and became a prostitute was approached by her mother in my courtroom.
"When her mother asked where she had been, she said 'Speak to my lawyer.'"
The streets have changed, and so has the judge.