Keith “Rocky” Pratt, the organizer of the Connecticut chapters of the citizen patrol group Guardian Angels, didn’t live by the book growing up. After running away from home at 15, he played an active role in the New York graffiti culture of the ’70s, lived on the street for six years and trained as a carpenter before finally finding a home with the Angels. WEEKEND heard Rocky’s story in the Angels’ New Haven headquarters on Elm Street just as he was leaving for his rounds.
Q. How’d you get the name Rocky?
A. There was a fight many years ago, probably around 1980, where Vito Antuofermo [a former world middleweight boxing champion] was fighting an African-American gentleman. I was in a hall watching the fight with a bunch of guys, and one of the guys came up to me and pushed me. We started wrestling, and it almost turned into a real fight. Everybody started screaming “Rocky! Rocky!” because the movie had just come out, and I thought it was hilarious. So from that day on, because that was in my neighborhood, the name just stuck.
Q. Where was your neighborhood?
A. Well, my dad was going to Brown in Providence, R.I., and he and my mom broke up. So we moved to Madison, Wis., and my mother continued her education at the University of Wisconsin. From there, we lived in California, where she went to the University of California Berkeley, and then finally in New York. That all took place before I was 7.
Q. So what was New York like for a 7-year-old?
A. It was a culture shock. I was in Flushing, Queens — 136th Street — and the difference was that Madison is a college town, but outside is cow town. In your wildest dreams, you don’t imagine living in a court with 300 to 400 people: congestion, traffic jams, hostility. California was pretty laid back because it was the ’60s: Haight-Ashbury, Fillmore West, Janis Joplin, free concerts in Golden Gate Park; my mom was a hippy. We used to hang out with Emmett Grogan and the Diggers [a community art and activism group] — unbelievable stuff. And then you end up in Queens. You develop a thick skin.
Q. What was school like for you growing up?
A. Moving too much, I wasn’t grounded. Because each time, [I] had to get started again. I don’t think I adjusted fast enough, so I ended up falling behind and not really liking it. So I think by the middle of my junior high school years, I was just a wayward youth. I would wander a lot, I wouldn’t pay attention in class. You know, typical stuff: I wasn’t stupid, I just lost interest.
Q. So what were you interested in?
A. Yeah, I was a bomber. I got into graffiti cliques. I was cutting school, hanging out with a fast crowd. [But] we weren’t really into drugs. I mean, everybody drank a little beer, and smoked a little pot or whatever because we were 13, 14 years old. But our main thing was to make a name for ourselves. If you live in an urban environment, making a name for yourself is important when you’re a kid. You want to be known for something. When you walk by, you want people to say, “Oh that’s ET1,” even though I wasn’t that great.
Q. Was that your tag?
A. Yeah, ET1.
Q. So how long were you into bombing?
A. Five years.
Q. Were you any good?
A. I was a legend in my own mind. I [was known for] a few things: Me and my buddy Jesus 2, we did a burner. That’s top-to-bottom, a whole side of a train car, all colors, with your names, and sometimes … little stories. So we did the first top-to-bottom car at the start of the season, right before the spring. It’s really cold in the train yards, and you literally have to break in [and] make this home-made ladder so you can climb up to the train since there are no platforms. We were the first ones that year.
Q. What did you do after the five years of truancy?
A. When I was 15 I ran away, so I had a lot of freedom.
Q. Why’d you do it?
A. It’s kind of weird because my family has a good background. For most runaways, their families aren’t that bad. It’s just that period in your life when you’re evolving, your hormones are racing and you’re trying to assert yourself as a young man or young woman. You’re misunderstood. A lot of parents can’t deal with that, and I just felt left out. And the guys I was hanging out with seemed like more of a family, so I went with them. I ran away in January, which is stupid. I should have waited for the spring or the summer.
Q. Did you stay in New York?
A. Yeah, in Queens. There was virtually no security in the safer neighborhoods; it wasn’t like today. So you [could] get inside a building and sleep on a staircase, weasel your way into a poor box and steal some coats or some blankets. A lot of the boiler rooms were unlocked, so I was able to go literally under the boiler because they’re huge and they’ll keep you pretty warm. You learn that from other kids who have run away.
Q. What was the runaway community like?
A. There were three or four of us at all times, and depending on who would get locked up or end up having to live somewhere temporarily, [that number] would go up or down. But it was different. My stepfather was a syndicated sports reporter at the time, so I don’t come from a bad environment. I went to the Jewish Federation of Camps every summer: typical Jewish family. And when I ran away, I didn’t tell anybody I was Jewish. I pretended to be Irish or whatever [they wanted] me to be.
Q. How long were you a runaway?
A. Until I was almost 21. I bounced around between juvenile facilities.
Q. And when you weren’t in facilities?
A. Some shelters aren’t that bad, but we chose to do it a little differently. We made basements [into] clubhouses. One of the parents worked in a beauty parlor, and the owner allowed us to live in the basement. That was our crash pad, man: hotplate, a little refrigerator. You learn how to survive, take birdbaths in the diner in the morning, take care of your clothes. You do what you gotta do.
Q. What happened when you turned 21?
A. I was a resident counselor [at a youth shelter]. I learned responsibility, discipline and I did quite well. They enrolled me in a program called CETA, the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act — it was for ex-offenders, since I had been incarcerated before when I was a juvenile. In CETA, you get a job, the state funds it, you get the training and get paid, so I did [maintenance] right there in the shelter. I always had a gift with tools, but now I learned with direction. [Today] I’m a finish carpenter and a cabinetmaker.
Q. What did you do after your CETA training?
A. By the time I was 21, I was a super in a building in Hell’s Kitchen. I had lived there before, and a couple of my buddies were in a little clique in Manhattan. You know, a little gang. They were going up to the Bronx like once a week. One day I decided to tag along, and it [turned out they had joined] the Guardian Angels.
We’re just a bunch of guys going out there helping citizens. There were over 1,000 Guardian Angels in New York City at the time, and I had close to 100 guys in my patrol.
Q. How did you rise through the ranks so quickly?
A. It wasn’t that quick. I joined in October 1980, and I just went on and trained in a patrol like I was supposed to for about three months. But after three months, I decided that I really liked it a lot, and there were guys living at the headquarters which was Curtis’ [Sliwa, the founder of the Guardian Angels] apartment in the Bronx, and I said, “I’d like to do this all the time. Can I be a 24-hour Guardian Angel?” They said sure.
Q. Was work at the headquarters different?
A. Working at the headquarters, I learned a lot faster. One of the guys … decided he wanted to move to the West Coast and bring the Guardian Angels out there. I used to hang out with him, and he told Curtis that I’d be a perfect patrol leader. Then he promoted me. From that point on, I gradually did more and more. I ran the headquarters when Curtis was out of town. I did a lot of interesting things in the group: I developed the first chapter that graduated [with a Guardian Angels certification]. That was a big honor.
Q. How do your experiences as a youth affect your work with the Guardian Angels now?
A. Well, I’m street smart. Guys look at me like a middle-aged whatever. And I’m like, “Dude, you don’t even know. I know exactly what’s going on here.” It’s an advantage that I have. I listen to my gut. You get that feeling, that pang that “maybe I shouldn’t be here right now,” so you move out. And sure enough, your gut was telling you the right thing.
Q. In all your time with the Guardian Angels, what is the most dangerous situation you’ve ever been in?
A. There have been a lot of them. One time we were on patrol, and we had 10 guys in a train. On this patrol, a guy pulled a knife on one of my guys, so he took his beret off and waved it, which means “code red, respond immediately.” So we did, but you don’t charge the guy with the knife. Everybody takes a door around him so we have the guy surrounded. We look at this guy and say, “Dude, we’re not letting you leave this train. You pulled a knife on us. That’s at least attempted assault.”
In order to [take charge], I faced him. Somebody distracted him from behind, and as soon as he turned his head, I cold-cocked him. He went straight down, and my guys took the knife away and threw it on the tracks. Then we tossed him off the train. It wasn’t worth the arrest, but he’ll never screw with a Guardian Angel again.