Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Those Fabulous Fifties

If I had to pick a decade to spend the rest of my life in, it would be the 1950s. I know what you're thinking, another old coot looking for his lost youth, but it's more than that. Life in America was different then. Americans were different too. There was optimism in the air. People still believed the Horatio Alger stories where the main character, Ragged Dick, (hey, I didn't name him) overcame poverty by working hard and leading an exemplary life, eventually gaining wealth and honor. Those stories may have been exaggerated some, but Americans generally felt that if they got an education, paid their dues, and worked hard, they would succeed. And they did for the most part without welfare, food stamps or government handouts.


Family roles were clearly defined. The men went to work and the women stayed home, kept house and cared for the kids. This model of the American family served the country well for a hundred years. And in case we needed examples to show us the way, we had "Father Knows Best", "The Ozzie and Harriet Show" and "The Donna Reed Show" as templates for what a family should be. Mothers rarely worked, kids didn't go to school until kindergarten, and when they got home, Mom was waiting with milk and cookies to help with homework. There were no nannies to care for the children; that was Mom's job. On weekends, Dad puttered around the house or took the kids out to learn how to ride a bike or hit a baseball.


The United States was the envy of the world. Our economy was strong, jobs were plentiful, and anything 'American' was soon being copied by the rest of the world. Literature, art, entertainment, commerce, science and medicine were reaching new heights. American might was respected and feared all over the globe. If we went to war, our young men were ready to defend their country. They understood that our way of life was only as safe as our military might made it. There were no anti-war protests, women were not setting their bras on fire, school administrators maintained order and discipline without drugging our kids with Ritilin, and cops were given a wide berth if you knew what was good for you.


Technology had not yet become an addiction for our citizens. People spoke face-to-face or, if you were lucky enough to have one, on the big black telephone sitting in the living room. Kids played outside instead of sticking their faces in a computer or video game. The pressure for material things did not drive our existence. Clothes and toys got handed down without shame, cars and appliances got fixed instead of junked, we had one TV and we gathered around to watch as a family rather than hiding in our rooms and surfing the net, easy prey to perverts who prowl the chat rooms looking for vulnerable kids with something missing in their lives.


If you got sick, the doctor came to the house and healed you for five dollars. There were no massive HMOs with their forms in triplicate, or money-hungry doctors looking to put another Cadillac in their garages. We didn't use heroin, crack or cocaine; I think Cherechol cough syrup was the strongest drug I ever took. Hypertension and clinical depression were not epidemic, there was no AIDS and psychiatrists needed second jobs to make a living. We ate what we enjoyed, and strangely enough, all those beans, lentils and greens we ate because that was all we could afford turned out to be the secret to good health. We didn't know what cholesterol was and ate ice cream and cannolis without guilt.


I know there were problems. Race relations were horrible. We still went to war. Women and minorities battled the glass ceiling. But are we that much better off now? Race relations seem worse than ever, only now we have added guns to the mix. We are at war today with an unseen enemy who will not meet us on the battlefield but instead kills us by flying planes into buildings and strapping bombs to their children. The basic family unit is under attack. Unemployment and the entitlement mentality are rampant. Divorce and child abuse are at all time highs. Our leaders are in office, not because of their ability to govern, but because they can make pretty speeches. Our own citizens and countries around the world are losing confidence in America. People live in fear of the unknown.

Honestly, you can keep your 60 years of progress and drop me back into the middle of 1955. I'll be just fine, thanks.


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Saturday, April 25, 2015

Stoop, The Sequel

Last September I wrote a brief post called: "The Stoop" View . It doesn't begin to cover what part this architectural appendage played in the lives of people growing up in Brooklyn during the 1950s. For those not familiar with the term, a "stoop" is simply a set of steps leading up to a residential entrance....whether it was just a few steps or a full flight, it was still called a stoop. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, "stoop" is derived from a Dutch word (stoep) meaning "front porch." The word came to America through New Amsterdam and the Hudson Valley, and has spread from there, most commonly used in the Northeast United States. (There, now you know.....one more thing you can stop wondering about.)

The stoop was a place where people from the neighborhood congregated to socialize. Most houses on my old block had stoops, but some were better than others. My friend Tommy Dowd's stoop on the corner of Somers Street and Rockaway Avenue was primo, and that's where we hung out. (If I could tack on the time we spent on those steps to the end of my life, I would edge out Methuselah!) The stoop was home to young and old alike; every block had an old man who minded every body's business... they called him "The Mayor of (your street name here.) Invariably, the Mayor ruled his kingdom from his lofty perch atop a stoop. Some important things to look for when selecting the best stoops:

1) Location, location, location. One reason for sitting on the stoop was to see the comings and goings in the neighborhood. This required a stoop with a lot of pedestrian traffic, preferably one near an intersection where you could see the main street and the cross street. A bus or subway stop in the vicinity was a plus because you saw people returning from work or school. A real bonus was if your stoop was near food stores; in Italian neighborhoods, Salumerias (Italian delis), bakeries and fruit stores were veritable bee hives of activity.



2) Construction. Some stoops were unsuitable vantage places. Higher stoops were better than lower ones simply because you could see more. Also, some had landings at the top of the stoop with nice, flat brick railings that were perfect for sitting; these were the "box seats" in stoopville, and very hard to come by. Because of their comfort, they were popular spots on a summer evening where people would sit waiting for the Bungalow Bar Ice Cream truck to come by after dinner. A well-built stoop was also perfect for stoop-ball, a game played with a Spaldeen that required real skill to hit the point of the step for extra scoring points.

3) Owner tolerance. I like the joke about an Italian's idea of a vacation....sitting on someone else's stoop. That's exactly what we did. Well-constructed stoops in good locations were not enough; you also required a home owner who would tolerate groups of teens lounging on their stoop every day for hours on end. If you were lucky, one of your friends lived in such a house, making it less likely (but not a sure thing) that the home owner wouldn't chase you away. Most parents were happy to know their kid was sitting just outside the door, and would cut you some slack if you cleaned up your soda bottles and cigarette butts.

As people walked by the stoop, there would be exchanges with the stoop sitters. "Hey moron, your Yankees lost today, this is the Dodgers year." The reply: "How many World Series the Dodgers been to, pinhead." “Who wants to walk me to Ariola’s for pastry?” After receiving negative replies: “Drop dead you flatleaving bastards”. Or: "Hey Sal, when you gonna pay me the two bucks I loaned you?" The reply: "What are you, the Dime Savings Bank? I'll pay you Sunday." Of course there was a lot of girl watching going on too. Those were the days when girls walked around in pairs, wearing tight pedal-pusher pants, satin jackets, tight sweaters with those Madonna "bullet bras" underneath, and of course the obligatory kerchief covering up rows and rows of hair curlers.

There were two girls who cruised all the stoops in the neighborhood "being seen." Their names were Terry (from Rockaway Avenue) and Rosemarie (from Hull Street). They were two Italian beauties who knew they were hot. We would melt when they passed by and yell idiotic things like "marry me, beautiful" in the pathetic hope they would glance in our direction. No chance. Their noses stayed in the air, as if a bunch of losers yelling "marry me, beautiful" wasn't inducement enough for any red-blooded American girl to run across the street and throw her arms around us. We called them "stuck-up" because they never responded to our smooth, Cary Grant-like advances.

In Brooklyn, in the wonderful 1950s when the world was young, "The Stoop" was our vantage point on the world. Now we have Starbucks. (See "Sorry, I Don't Speak Starbucks" View)

(Originally posted 5/25/09)


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Monday, March 2, 2015

My World Is Changing


I’m starting to feel obsolete. I’ve already given up trying to keep pace with all the new technology changes; I readily concede that my brain is not up for that. What distresses me is the fading of smaller things, things that have been around all my life. The world is beginning to look less and less familiar. I know it's a generational passing of the torch, but it saddens me a little that young people can't appreciate the things I did. I like to watch Jeopardy on television. If you can tolerate the know-it-all attitude of Alex Trebek, the show offers a good test of one’s general knowledge. I’ve noticed that many of the bright younger contestants often have trouble answering questions that involve knowledge of events that took place prior to 1980. Those are the questions in my wheelhouse, but I fear the things I care about are becoming more obscure with each passing year.

Here’s an example. I love pop music from the 1930s to the 1960s… composers like Cole Porter, George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer… the geniuses who created the Great American Songbook of standards played around the world. Their music spawned legendary artists like Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Nat King Cole, Rosemary Clooney, Peggy Lee, Dean Martin, Doris Day, and the big bands of Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, Les Brown and so many others. On one recent Jeopardy show, they asked a set of younger contestants a question about one of the greatest pop standards in America’s musical lexicon, and three  faces just went blank. They can tell you on which ass cheek Mick Jagger sports a butterfly tattoo, but they don’t know Cole Porter from a hole in the ground. My world is disappearing.
 
As a kid, when I went into the public library on Saratoga Avenue in Brooklyn, I was immediately comforted by the familiar sight and smell of books, thousands of them. The keys to unlocking all the knowledge between the covers of these books could be found in the card catalog, neatly and logically categorized, and all stored in those sturdy wooden file cabinets. Archived material was to be found on the microfilm library, accessible by loading clumsy reels of film onto a viewing machine the size of a 1952 Buick. Today in the public libraries there are no microfilm machines, no card catalogs, and most surprising of all, hardly any books. There are rows and rows of computers used by technically savvy kids who download books onto their PDAs. And there is no smell. My world is disappearing.

The playground was a second home to kids of the Fifties. Our parents had no fear of allowing us, at a very young age, to walk the ten blocks or so to Callahan and Kelly Park to spend the day climbing the monkey bars, standing up and leg-pumping the swings to their maximum height, sitting on our shirts as we flew down the hot metal slides, or jumping off the see-saw when your unsuspecting friend was high up in the air. Maybe we’d play some handball, shuffleboard, shoot hoops or run through the kiddie sprinklers fully clothed to cool off. Today I see playgrounds that look like giant Leggo sets… bright-colored ladders, tubes, and plastic castles. WTF,  Children “play” under the unrelenting supervision of helicopter parents (always hovering), nannies, and for all I know, armed security guards. Organized play dates have taken the place of spontaneous "play'. My world is disappearing.

I grew up around diners. There is no better meal anywhere than a good diner breakfast. Diners were not only for breakfast but the place of choice when we wrapped up a late night of carousing. What better way to settle a stomach full of "highballs" than to pile on a greasy burger, French fries and onion rings. (God I wish I could eat like that now.) These oases were open 24-7 to satisfy all your homicidal food fantasies. (Side note: There are no real diners in the entire southwestern United States, but I digress.) Diner menus today feature such crap as egg beaters (nothing beats real eggs), sliced tomatoes instead of well-done home fries, whole wheat pancakes, turkey burgers, and tofu salads. (When they run out of tofu, they substitute Styrofoam and the dumb yuppies don’t even notice.) My  world is disappearing.

Progress is inevitable, even beneficial for the most part, but it’s not always easy to see things that have been a part of your life slipping away. Maybe we hold on so hard for fear that we will be next to fade into the sunset. Cest la vis. Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow something familiar will be gone, hopefully not us.


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Friday, February 27, 2015

The Easter Squirrel

With Palm Sunday and Easter around the corner, I’m reminded of things about these holidays that connect me to my childhood. 

In my old neighborhood, Palm Sunday was kind of the warm-up act for Easter. In church they handed out palm to commemorate Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem and how the people there lay down small palm branches in his path. Somehow the religious symbolism of the palm leaves got lost in our church. Old Italian women dressed in regulation black dresses jockeyed for aisle seats where they could grab as much palm as possible before passing the remaining few scraggly strands down the pew. Most of them had no earthly use for it, but that didn’t matter as long as they got more than anyone else. Every Italian-American home had palm crosses hanging somewhere until Labor Day. 

The week before Easter Sunday is a holy time. On Holy Thursday we visited different churches. It was customary for churches to cover up all the religious statues during Lent. It looked as if they were getting ready to move. One thing I remember is my mother dragging me to Klein’s Department Store in Union Square to shop for my Easter suit and good shoes. Families dressed up for Easter Sunday back then, including one year when nearly every guy in church wore charcoal grey and pink, as if by Papal Decree. Being a thrifty woman, my mom always bought clothes that were a "little big" for me so I could grow into them. Sixty years later, I still haven't grown into my Confirmation suit.

In ancient times eggs were dyed for spring festivals. In medieval Europe, beautifully decorated eggs were given as gifts. Carl Faberge, the world-famous goldsmith and jeweler to the Tsars of Russia, created some fabulous eggs that today are renown for their beauty. We continue this tradition today at Easter. Those old egg decorating kits never changed: small swatches of dye to color the water, and those little transfer decals of chicks and bunnies that invariably shredded when you tried to apply them. These colored eggs were also used to make a braided Easter bread that I think was called Pane di Pasqua. Nobody in my family ate it so I had the whole loaf to myself, thank you.

I recall too, certain movies being shown around Easter like Irving Berlin's "Easter Parade", with Fred Astaire and Judy Garland; The Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston, Yul Brenner, and the horribly miscast Edward G. Robinson snarling at the downtrodden Jewish people: "Where's your Moses now?!" And "The Greatest Story Ever Told" with Max Von Sydow as Jesus. My wife says she used go see a silent version of "King of Kings" every Easter season at the Plaza Theater in Brooklyn. Her parochial school gave the kids a five-cent coupon that reduced the price of admission to twenty cents. Finally, for some bizarre reason, Channel 9 in NYC always showed that sacred Easter classic, "King Kong."

I connect certain foods, especially treats, to the season of Easter. Yellow marshmallow chicks, milk-chocolate bunnies and of course jelly beans (blacks are my favorite). My aunts would make Easter pies, struffoli (honey balls) pizza grana, ricotta pie and of course the lamb-shaped cake. My poor mother tried to keep candy in the house for her Easter guests, but had to find ingenious places to hide it. I could sniff out a piece of chocolate like a pig sniffs out truffles. I remember once hitting pay dirt when I tracked down a solid chocolate bunny concealed in an innocent basket of folded laundry. My mother went nuts when she went to retrieve it on Easter Sunday only to find that its ears had mysteriously gone missing, and it looked more like the Easter Squirrel.

Funny how the memory works. Short-term memory (did I put on underwear this morning?) tends to weaken, but long-term memory somehow remains strong, as if to keep you mentally connected to who you are and where you came from. I’m very thankful for this.



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Monday, February 2, 2015

Time Out

Friends: I am taking some time off from writing Spaldeen Dreams to recharge. I have been putting these memories down since 2008, and it has been a joy for me. I hope the people who read the blog have enjoyed it; I know I enjoy reading their comments. Until I resume writing, I encourage those who may be new to reading Spaldeen Dreams to take a look at some older posts just by scrolling down clicking on the date index below. Thanks for your encouragement, and, God willing, I'll be back with some new material soon.

Jim Pantaleno

Friday, October 31, 2014

Trick or Treat II

Seeing the little kiddies come to the door dressed in their store-bought Halloween costumes brought a smile to my face. They travel in adult-supervised groups not quite understanding why, despite past admonitions from Mom and Dad, they are being encouraged to take candy from strangers. The younger ones have to be nudged forward by their ever-vigilant parents who accompany the kids on their "Trick or Treat" rounds. Nearby, police squad cars and ambulances full of EMTs are on standby in case one of the tiny Supermans or Ragedy Anns become frightened after timidly ringing the doorbell and having someone they don't know answer.

Things have changed a lot since I was a kid, oh so many years ago. First of all, costumes were for rich kids and sissies. We wore old clothes and blacked our faces with burnt cork for Halloween. There was a practical reason for this since the custom of the time was to fill old socks with flour and mercilessly pound each other until we looked like the ghosts of Christmas past. Also, marking each other with colored chalk, egg throwing and shaving cream pies in the face were popular Halloween activities in the neighborhood.

In those days, trick or treat really meant something. Anybody who was mean enough to begrudge us a piece of candy was very likely to have a stick stuck in their doorbell so it rang continuously. Egging or toilet-papering their house or car was another consequence. A few years ago a group of cute kids came to our door and recited the requisite "Trick or Treat". I jokingly said "trick" and they looked at me with confused faces. Of course I forked over the candy, but not before bemoaning the fact that these unimaginative children were taking all the terror out of Halloween.

My friends and I would have thought we had died and gone to heaven to be able to trick or treat in a neighborhood like ours. Kindly people wait with sack-sized treats and are happy to reward you when you come to their door. The surprising thing is we hardly get any visitors on Halloween. Maybe a few tots who do it more for their parents' gratification than their own; the older kids can't be bothered. The few who do ring the bell are dressed in street clothes and look so bored you want too invite them in to play some video games to restore their spirits.

I can remember like it was yesterday coming home after a night of trick or treating. No parents escorted us; no police cars hovered nearby to protect us; nobody warned us against lunatics who put razor blades into apples and gave them out as treats....we just roamed the streets in our homemade costumes ringing bells and hoping for the best. Candy was never plentiful in our house, not for any nutritional reasons, but anytime my poor mother tried to keep some around, I would search it out and devour it, pretty much like I do today. Opening that shopping bag and gorging ourselves on Mary Janes, Baby Ruths, Three Musketeers Bars, Marshmallow Twists, and even that crappy Candy Corn that makes its appearance around Halloween was the reward for a hard night's work.

As I get older, the mind slips. I can't remember things I meant to do; I ask my wife the same questions over and over; peoples' names and faces escape me. But there must be a place in the mind where treasured memories are stored. A place where things that were so important at some point in your life are kept like carefully wrapped antiques, to be brought out and enjoyed over and over again. Halloween nights in Brooklyn in the 1950s occupy an honored place in that vault.

(Originally published 10-31-09)


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Monday, October 20, 2014

The House I Lived In

When I was about two years old we moved from the apartment over Bilello's Bakery on Pacific Street in Brooklyn to our new home at 77A Somers Street (pictured left). This was the first house my parents owned, and the one where I spent my childhood. It was an all brick row house, not elegant enough to be called a brownstone, but a substantial structure nonetheless. There were three floors and a cellar. We occupied two floors: the first, also referred to as the "parlor" floor, and the second, where our bedrooms were located. The third floor was a rental apartment where my cousin Pete and his wife Leah lived. There was an inside staircase that led from the first to the second and continued up to the third floor. There was also an outside stoop with brick stairs that provided access to the third floor apartment from outside the house. 

The entry to the house was up a couple of steps from the sidewalk. On the right as you entered the front door, there was a storage area under the stoop where my father kept things like snow shovels, sleds and also where I stored my Shelby bike. If you turned left you went down a hallway that ended at the kitchen. By today's standards the kitchen was primitive. The stove and refrigerator were born in the Truman administration, although later on we got a new washing machine but no dryer.  We had an efficient dishwasher named Mom. The only bathroom in the house was off the kitchen. It had a stall shower but no tub, maybe the reason why to this day I prefer showers to baths. Beyond the kitchen was an unheated pantry room with an old coal stove that led to the back yard. It was Mom's hiding place for treats like cookies and candy meant only for "company."

Off the kitchen was the parlor/living room; we ate at a Formica table in the kitchen. A little alcove separated the two rooms. It contained a set of built-in drawers and also a shelf where the old black rotary phone sat. It was a "Hyacinth" exchange, but I no longer remember the phone number. The living room featured a sofa, Archie Bunker style chair, a "hi-fi" record player and our RCA 17" black and white TV. There was also a fake fire place where we hung our Christmas stockings. (As a kid, I always wondered how Santa came down from the chimney since there was no opening.) Our Christmas tree weighed down with ornaments and electrical hazard bubbling lights graced the living room, encircled by my Marx electric trains and the plastic model buildings, bridges and tunnels that made up the town the train passed through.

Upstairs on the second floor were three "railroad" bedrooms (one following another in a chain). The master bedroom where my parents slept was at the rear of the house overlooking the back yard. My sister's room was next to theirs, and at the front of the house, looking out on Somers Street was the room where I slept. I can remember on hot summer nights turning my bed around so that my head was practically out the open window. Separating the rooms were sliding pocket doors that rolled into the walls. I woke up to the sun shining in my window, and in all the years we lived there, I never remember getting downstairs ahead of my mother. She had the coffee pot on and made a number of trips up the stairs trying to wake my father, who always needed "just another five minutes".

The cellar was my sanctuary and hideaway. On cold or rainy days I would spend hours down there playing cowboy, with my own horse that my Aunt Anna had fashioned out of an old narrow table. She sewed on an upholstered saddle and made a horse's head out of an old rug. I would tear off strips of newspaper and stick them in the crevices of the limestone cellar walls as if they were dynamite fuses. I'd light the fuses and then make a leaping mount onto my horse. (This activity may help explain the higher-than-normal pitch of my voice today.) The cellar was also where I would make my street scooters out of old fruit crates and roller skates. My father wasn't really a handy guy, and his tools were not much further advanced than those used by the Pilgrims, but I managed. 

My memories of this house are warm and vivid. Safe in the confines of its walls with my mother, father and sister, and surrounded by aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents and friends, I cannot imagine a happier childhood. I am still tied by my heartstrings to that house, that time and that place. I will be forever grateful for having the good luck to be raised there.

(Originally posted 7/14/11)

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Monday, September 1, 2014

Radio City Music Hall

Back in the Fifties the entertainment scene was much different than today. Sixty-inch wall-mounted plasma TVs, movies recorded on DVDs and downloading tunes to your I-pod were just dreams in the minds of pimply-faced geniuses growing up with no friends. Our main source of entertainment was the movies. Neighborhood theaters were packed with patrons sitting in the darkness mesmerized by the latest Hollywood blockbuster. Movies were also a great place to cool off before air-conditioning in homes was popular. Guys took their girls to the movies so they could sit in the balcony and make out. You could even collect a set of bad dishes a piece at a time on dish nights. But the holy grail of movie theaters, the place everybody in the country wanted to go, was located in Manhattan on Sixth Avenue and 50th Street, the incomparable Radio City Music Hall.

The famous Samuel L. Rothafel, widely known as Roxy, opened the Radio City Music Hall on December 27, 1932. It started out as a stage theater, but due to poor returns they turned it into a movie theater on Jan 11, 1933. They believed that the time for the stage format show had passed and now the Depression-era public were more interested in movies. They did, however, keep the Roxyettes as a holiday “gift” to the audience before movie screenings. To remove the connection to Samuel Rothafel, they renamed the dance troupe to the Rockettes. A world famous precision dance troupe with a rich history of skill and dedication to their craft, the Rockettes were granted in 1979 a permanent home in their very own show, The Radio City Christmas Spectacular.

The Radio City Music Hall's stunning design was by architect Edward Durrell Stone and interior designer Donald Deskey in the Art Deco style. Over the years, Radio City became worn and ill-equipped for the quality of performance that modern audiences expect, and in the late '70s it was on the verge of demolition. However, that catastrophe was narrowly averted when the famed venue was granted landmark status. In 1999, architect Hugh Hardy supervised a painstaking seven-month $70 million restoration that put Radio City back on the map for New York audiences. All areas of the hall were improved with this restoration, from the legendary marquee to the ceilings, thus restoring Radio City Music Hall to its former glory.

Although this grand theater was not very far from home in Brooklyn, we didn't get there that often. We would usually go during the holidays when they featured their Christmas Spectacular, a first run movie accompanied by a performance by the Rockettes and a stage show that concluded with an on-stage story of the birth of Christ, complete with imaginative sets, lavish costumes and live animals. We were used to the neighborhood Colonial Theater with gum under every seat, so for us Radio City looked like a cathedral. The only movie I remember seeing there was "White Christmas" with Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen. Mom was a huge Bing fan and kept shushing us as we fidgeted in our seats.

We would follow the Music Hall show with a stop at some inexpensive, kid-friendly restaurant like the Automat. Mom would give us each a handful of nickles so we could pick our food, deposit the coins, and open the little glass doors to retrieve our food. For me the food was incidental. The novelty of dropping nickles in a slot and getting food in return was almost too thrilling to bear. My favorites were franks and beans or macaroni and cheese; for dessert it would be Jello or coconut cream pie; and to drink, chocolate milk or, in wintertime, hot chocolate out of a lion's head dispenser. We went home full and happy after these trips, and even a ride on the crowded subway couldn't dampen our spirits.

One thing I remember clearly is that my parents behaved differently toward us and each other on these little outings. Scoldings were minimized, the purse strings were loosened, and there was a lot of laughing and smiling. I don't think I ever appreciated how hard my Mom and dad worked to support us, and didn't realize how much these breaks from the routine must have meant to them. I'm glad Radio City was there to provide some special memories of family time spent together.



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Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Old Crank

Life changes you. I used to be a lot more fun, but now I’m a cranky old man, just like the ones who used to yell at us when we were kids, and who we taunted in return by ringing their doorbells and running like hell. Sometimes, we might even wedge in a small stick to hold the bell button down so that it rang continuously. We never knew what made these old farts so mean, only that they wouldn’t let us come into their yards to retrieve the balls that someone hit in there during a friendly stickball game. There was one real hard case…a nasty, Irish ex-cop…he would take the ball and puncture it with an ice pick before tossing it back with a sneer.

At some point this guy became such an object of hatred that we decided he needed to be taught a lesson. One of the old man’s passions was raising pigeons. This was a big hobby in Brooklyn for reasons I could never understand. Pigeons to me are like flying rats, but many people kept pigeon coops on their roofs. A cousin on my father’s side had a roomful of trophies he’d won racing pigeons. Personally I found this cousin to be loud and obnoxious, but he became a different man around his birds.

Anyhow our vindictive little brains worked overtime trying to hatch a plot to hit this old crank where it would really hurt…by doing something to his precious pigeons. We thought about poisoning them, but in the end that was ruled out as too drastic. Instead we decided to try to get to the roof where the coops were kept and let the birds out. The job was delegated to an older guy I'll call Joey. Joey was in his late teens, but not quite right in the head; mentally he acted about eight years old. We knew he would do anything we asked of him to win our approval. Kids can be really mean when they put their minds to it.

We waited until our victim left the house to shop. Getting to the roof was no problem. We just sent Joey up onto my roof and waved him down the row of attached houses until he reached the crank’s roof half-way down the block. The coops were closed but not locked. Joey opened one and started waving his arms around to get the birds to fly out. They just stared at him showing no inclination to move. Poor Joey stared down at us not knowing what to do. Meanwhile the lookout we had posted yelled out that the birds’ owner had just turned the corner with his groceries and was heading home!

We motioned excitedly to Joey to get out of there, but the poor soul thought we were urging him to work harder,so he just stood there waving energetically as the confused pigeons looked on. It was like the scene in the movie “Rear Window” when Grace Kelly had crossed the courtyard and was in villain Raymond Burr’s apartment searching for evidence that he had killed his wife. Just then Burr returns home and is mounting the stairs to the apartment while Jimmy Stewart in the apartment across the way is frantically trying to warn Grace of the danger. We were scared like only kids can be, not knowing what the crank would do to Joey if he ever caught him.

Luckily Joey got tired of trying to free the birds and soon came back down. We were disappointed that our little revenge plot didn’t work out, but also very relieved that Eddie’s guardian angel was on duty that day. We stayed clear of the crank’s house for a while after that. Maybe a year later the old man died. I can't say many tears were shed in our crowd. Looking back, I can only wonder (and sympathize a little) what life had done to this man to make him so mean. It kind of sneaks up on you, and before you know it, POW, you're a crank. (Kids should be ringing my bell and running any time now.)

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LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Do Your Legs Work At All?

Jerry Seinfeld once commented about the 'people mover conveyors' found at some airports and how folks are content to just allow the mechanism to carry them to their destination. "Do your legs work at all", he wondered. That pretty much sums up how disinclined people are to walk anywhere nowadays. They drive everywhere, no matter how close, to get what they need. Furthermore, they will park in handicapped spaces to avoid walking an extra 50 yards from the regular parking spaces. They will get back in the car and drive to another store in the same strip mall rather than walk the short distance. This unwillingness to walk anywhere is one of the reasons for the alarming obesity trend in this country. 

As kids, we walked everywhere. The walk to school every day was maybe 15 minutes; the playground the same. We ran errands for our parents that involved walking to neighborhood stores anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes from home. Longer walks were not uncommon, for example, Highland Park was in Jamaica, maybe a 30 minute walk from home. They had the best baseball fields with real grass and base paths, so we carried our bats and gloves to Jamaica, played a nine-inning game, and then walked home again. The two neighborhood movie theaters were maybe 15 and 20 minute walks from home. There were certainly trains and buses that ran to these destinations, but the nickel fare would also buy any candy bar on the shelf, so we walked.

One of the benefits of walking the neighborhood was that you got to know people. I could start on Rockaway Avenue and walk down Somers Street and tell you who lived in every house all the way down to Stone Avenue. People would greet you as you walked by....How's your mother; don't let me see you again with a cigarette in that mouth; can you go to Louie's and get me a Daily Mirror? These were the exchanges between you and the folks sitting out on their front stoops. Walking also taught you the local streets and how to get around. You knew which block that cute girl lived on, and sometimes walked by just on the chance she'd glance your way. You also knew which blocks it was best to avoid after dark.

In my mind's eye, I can still walk the route to school and church; we must have walked to Callahan and Kelly Park a thousand times to visit the playground, play handball against the wall, or sit on the benches and smoke cigarettes lifted from our fathers' packs. I can see all the mom and pop stores along Pitkin Avenue, our modest shopping mecca. My Dad worked there in the A.S. Beck shoe store and I would sometimes pass and wave hello. There was little turnover in those stores; they stayed in the family for generations. We got to know the proprietors, not because we always shopped there but because on our walks we would see them proudly sweeping the street in front of their stores. 

I know people who go on vacation and spend all their time at the hotel pool. I am so glad we are still in the habit of walking. When we visit new cities, we are hardly checked into the hotel before we hit the streets for a walk around town. Thankfully our legs do still work and we are happy to have them take us where we want to go.


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Monday, August 11, 2014

Who Needs Rodeo Drive

Rodeo Drive, the renowned shopping mecca in Beverly Hills has nothing on Brooklyn's Pitkin Avenue in the 1950s. Between Rockaway and Saratoga Avenues along Pitkin stood retail shops, restaurants and theaters...it was the place to shop, eat and be entertained. I remember lots of shoe stores like Thom McCan, Florshiem, and A.S. Beck where my father worked part time. It was always a treat to visit dad at the shoe store. There was a salesgirl named Lilly who always made a big fuss over me. As the rednecks say, "she smelled as purty as the inside of my mamma's purse".


There were many men's clothing shops including Moe Ginsberg and Abe Stark. As a promotion, Abe put up a sign at Ebbets Field, home of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Any batter who hit the sign won a free suit of clothes. Back in the day when baseball players earned less than the Gross National Product of Nicaragua, that was a significant perk. I also recall a men's shop, I think it was called Jack Diamond, next to the Pitkin Theater that was the place to shop for the very latest fashions.

A popular Pitkin Avenue destination was Woolworth's or the "five and ten" as we called it. The store had a unique smell, and sold everything from clothes, housewares, toys, beauty products...they even had a snack counter which, as I consider it, is probably where the unique smell came from.






Then there was the Chinese Restaurant, the Wuhan Tea Garden, at Pitkin and Saratoga Avenues, which is the only restaurant I can ever remember going to as a kid. We would get on the Rockaway Avenue trolley, get off at Pitkin Avenue, and meet my father for "Chow Mein". In retrospect, the place was a dump, but at the time, eating out anywhere was a treat.







For entertainment we had the Loew's Pitkin. This was a typical old movie house, not as opulent as the Paramount or the Fox theaters in downtown Brooklyn, but compared to the featureless, cinder-block multiplexes of today, it looked like the La Scala opera house. Big screen, carpeted staircase, crystal chandeliers, and plush velvet seats.



Pushcart food vendors were common along the avenue selling wonderful treats like candy apples, knishes, shaved ices flavored with sweet syrups and a concoction called a Charlotte Russe, the Brooklyn version of a classic French dessert. It consisted of a round piece of sponge cake topped with gobs of whipped cream and a cherry. It was served in a cardboard container that you ate it out of. To me, it always looked better than it tasted.

Thinking back, these seem like such simple things, but they were the stuff of my childhood. It never ceases to amaze me that the Internet contains so many images and recollections of this time and these places. (You didn't think I actually remembered the name of the Wuhan Tea Garden, did you?)

I'm glad others remembered for me.



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LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association


Originally published 10/20/08