He opened the door and saw Basilio Bousa, 24, one of his next-door neighbors, standing on the other side of the vestibule’s heavy iron gate. Josh unlocked the gate. Then he slipped his two feet into its lowest rung and grabbed hold of each side with his hands so that his weight would pull open the gate. Basilio didn’t move or speak. Josh stepped out from behind the gate, into the open.
And then, he couldn’t see. He didn’t know why. He felt around with his hands, grasping for the walls. He forced his eyes open and glimpsed the wood paneling in the vestibule. It was the last thing he ever saw.
I was seven years old at the time and lived four blocks away, on St. Johns Place. My mother came into the kitchen that day or the next, her hands shaking. “Wendell,” she said, “whenever you answer the door, never go out to the gate until you know who is there. Always look through the window of the inside door. Because you know what happened? This little boy on President Street answered the door, and this crazy man poured acid on his head.”
She took me to our front gate and made me practice. I thought, Why would anyone do that to a kid? The newspaper provided no clues, just a brief article: “Boy, 4, Is Hurt by Acid Thrower.” For me, it was like a particularly chilling fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm. Until the day my mother sold the house, when I was nearly 40, I followed her advice from long ago: If the doorbell rang when I happened to be visiting, I hung back, just a little, as I answered it.
The attack on Josh Miele was the most notorious crime of my childhood, and in the end, it destroyed two families. We didn’t know the Mieles, but I always wanted to know why the attack had occurred and what had happened afterward: Had the families held it together? I wanted to know what had become of the “crazy man” and who he was. But most of all, I wanted to know what had become of that little boy.
Jean Miele, Josh’s father, bought the narrow little house on President Street in 1965. The brownstones looked much as they do today, although their facades were worn, and many hid rooming houses within. The day the Mieles moved in, Jean immediately unpacked a shotgun, which he left sitting on his front stoop for all to see. He and Isabella had a son, also Jean, and a daughter, Julia. Josh was born in 1969.
Felipe and Clara Bousa moved from Cuba to President Street with their son Basilio in 1955. The Mieles and the Bousas went out to dinner together. Carmen, the Bousas’ daughter, babysat the Miele children. “When his mother brought Josh home from the hospital, I thought he was the most beautiful baby I’d ever seen,” Carmen told me after I reached her by phone recently.
But there were problems with Basilio. Carmen said her mother had detected something amiss with Basilio when he was one. She said that her parents had tried to get him help. As a young man, he used drugs heavily, was thrown out of Brooklyn College, and started working at the family’s bodega on Seventh Avenue.
For reasons unknown to everyone, Basilio became fixated on the Mieles. He broke one of their windows and later tossed a flaming bottle into their backyard, prompting a call to the police and an arrest.
He was released. He joined the Army but was absent without leave in October 1973. This is when he went to the bodega and bought a soda-acid fire extinguisher. He opened it, poured the sulfuric acid into a container, walked over to 851 President Street, and rang the bell.