Thursday, November 27, 2008

"To the Moon, Alice"

Arguably the best portrayal on television of what life was like in Brooklyn during the fifties can be seen on reruns of Jackie Gleason's old show: "The Honeymooners." Jackie was raised in Brooklyn on Chauncey Street around the corner from the Colonial Theater where as kids we spent our Saturdays (see 10/13/08 post: Saturday at the Movies). He was in my mother's junior high school class at P.S. 73 on MacDougal Street, where I attended summer camp (see 11/7/08 post: Summer in the City). Jackie had a realistic view of life back then, but he also understood that his character, Ralph Kramden, had dreams. Outlandish as they were, these dreams are what kept him striving (and us laughing) as he hatched his schemes for a better life.

Some of the early episodes were so-so, but the show hit its stride around season four, when almost every episode was a gem. The shows are as funny today as when they originally ran, a testament to Gleason and his writers' genius. (For more on this classic series, go to
The Honeymooners.) It's hard to pick favorite episodes, so I picked out favorite punch lines that any real fan of the show will recognize. All of the episodes mentioned below are from that magical fourth season in 1955-56:

Episode 86: Better Living Through TV: Ralph chases another get-rich quick scheme and ropes in poor Norton. They decide to sell a multi-purpose kitchen utensil and, to drum up business, go on TV with a commercial starring Ralph and Ed. While rehearsing the commercial extolling the virtues of the product, Ralph is his usual blustering self, telling Norton how to act and to follow his lead. Naturally, when they go live on-camera, Norton is flawless while Ralph turns into a stuttering zombie. Watching him break out in flop sweat and bumble through the commercial ("It can core a apple") is not only funny, but it strikes a note of recognition for anyone who ever had to deliver that big presentation or speak in public for the first time.

Episode 88: Brother Ralph: Ralph is laid off, and Alice decides to take a job as a secretary, but has to tell her boss that Ralph is her brother since companies usually don't hire married women. House-husband Ralph is not thrilled when Alice's boss turns out to be a handsome hunk named Tony. Ralph insists that any overtime be done at home where he can chaperone. The show is funny enough, but for me the biggest laugh came early in the show when Ralph comes home dejected from work after making a suggestion on the job about improving bus route efficiency. Norton sets up the punch line by saying something like: "Wow, that's great Ralphie boy, I bet they'll be able to cut back on bus drivers now." Ralph glares at him and answers with disgust: "I was the first to go."

Episode 89: Hello Mom: Ralph has an argument with Alice's mother after she gives away the plot to a mystery play they were going to see. He regrets the mean things he said and takes Ed Norton's suggestion to make a tape recorded apology. After starting well enough, Ralph veers off course and starts criticizing his Mother-in-Law for being a busybody and screams into the recorder: "You're a blabbermouth... you heard me, a blaaaaabbermouth." Norton stops him and reminds Ralph that this is supposed to be an apology. Ralph calms down and makes a second tape containing a lovely apology. Problem solved? Of course not; Norton mails the Mother-in-Law the original "blabbermouth" tape by mistake, and Ralph must, once again, dig himself out of trouble.

Episode 97: The $99,000 Answer: Ralph goes on a quiz show with the category of Popular Songs He rents a piano, and with Norton as his pianist, practices all week from a stack of sheet music. Before playing any song for Ralph to guess, Norton first plays 8 bars of "Swanee River" as a warm up exercise, a habit that drives Ralph nuts. Despite Norton's annoying habit, by the end of the week Ralph's knowledge of pop music is encyclopedic, and he truly believes he will make it all the way to the $99,000 answer. Once on the show, the very first song they play for Ralph to guess is...."Swanee River." Ralph freezes up and can't guess the song, but watching his "humuna-humuna" panic stall as he tries to recall the name of the song is Gleason at his best.

Episode 112: Unconventional Behavior: Ralph and Ed are forced to take their wives, Alice and Trixie, to the annual Raccoon convention. The wives get separated from the guys on the train platform and Ralph and Ed wind up traveling together in a sleeping berth. While demonstrating some sure-fire gags to use at the convention, Ed accidentally handcuffs himself to Ralph, Of course Ed can't find the key to the cuffs, and tries the magic word (boompff) that the man who sold him the cuffs used to open them. After a few "boompffs" it's clear they are not going to get them open and will have to sleep as best they can in the upper and lower berths. Ed fusses and fidgets in bed, to Ralph's growing annoyance, and then asks: "Hey Ralph, do you mind if I smoke?" Ralph disdainful answer, dripping with scorn: "I don't care if you burn."

Episode 115: Alice and the Blond: The Kramdens and Nortons visit the Wedemeyers, Ralph's co-worker Bert and his dizzy but very glamorous blond wife, Rita. Ralph and Ed practically trip over each other lighting Rita's cigarettes, sliding out her chair and doing anything else they can for her. Alice and Trixie believe their husbands are neglecting them, and cut the evening short, but not before some great lines got delivered. Rita is telling the group how she and Bert have pet names for each other based on some physical characteristic of theirs, and asks the wives if they do likewise. "Oh sure," Alice says brightly, turning to Ralph, "Isn't that right Tubby."

Lucky for me, a lot of the guys I work with are old Honeymooners fans. Sometimes on a slow day, one of them will shout out a set-up line for a classic zinger from the show, for example: Ralph: "Alice, don't you realize that if I'm elected Grand High Exalted Mystic Ruler of the Raccoon Lodge, you and I get free burial at the Raccoon Cemetery in Bismarck, North Dakota?" Alice: "Gee Ralph, I'm so excited, I don't know whether to live or die."

They tried a remake of the show with Cedric the Entertainer and an all black cast in 2005. It was a mistake, beyond remaking "High Noon" with Pee Wee Herman in the Gary Cooper role. Thanks to New Year's Day marathons and Honeymooners DVDs, I can watch the original shows well into my senility.


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

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

"I Got Your Blog, Right Here"

In Brooklyn, we spoke a variation of English that was all our own. I'm not talking about the way Brooklynites pronounce words ("toidy toid and toid" for thirty third and third). The accents attributed to us by people who don't know better are either exaggerated or just plain wrong. This is not so much about our pronunciation as it is the expressions we used. Some of these colorful expressions have crept into the mainstream language thanks to shows like The Sopranos. For example, "Agita", Italian for heartburn or general stress, as in "This guy is giving me agita", or "Gumare" From the Italian "comare", which means "second mother" or slang to denote a mistress.

There were many more obscure phrases that we used every day that are nearly lost to history. Here are some:

Johnny Pump : A term for a fire hydrant. According to the Brooklyn Historical Society, it was because the firemen of the late 1800's were called "Johnnies". In the summer we would turn on the Johnny Pump and hit the streets in our bathing suits. A tin can was used to direct the gushing stream of water into some poor motorist's open window, of course after assuring the gullible driver that he could pass unmolested.

Hindoo: A do-over during a game. It also refers to a funny bounce in handball. If the ball hits where the wall meets the ground, and bounces back in a slow high arc, that ball was a "hindoo" and not to be played, thus leading to a do-over. No clue as to the origin of this term, but my guess knowing street kids is that it was derogatory.

Not for nuttin' or with all due respect: These phrases invariably preceded some harsh truth or unpleasant message that the speaker was about to unload on the listener, for example, "Not for nuttin' but your brother's an asshole." And I mean that with all due respect.

For all intensive purposes: A Brooklynization of the phrase "For all intents and purposes." Usually used by a "Norm Crosby" type trying to sound smart, but who regularly mangled everyday words or expressions. More examples: "He died from an overdose of wedlock"; "He's a wolf in cheap clothing"; "I might just fade into Bolivian."

Flatleaver : Someone who breaks a previously made plan or date when something better comes up. May be used as a noun, verb or adjective as in: "She is such a flatleaver (n)! Last week she was supposed to go with me, but she never showed up. I can't believe that she flatleaved (v) me, that flatleaving (a) bitch!"

"Right here!": Insulting phrase uttered while grabbing one's crotch. A fully expanded sentence might be: "Hey, I got your cannolis, (grab crotch) Right Here!" A variation uses the phrase: "(Any word) This!" For example, if you were arguing and someone said: "I looked it up in the dictionary", the response using this variation would be: "Dictionary This" with a hard emphasis on THIS. (Crotch grab also mandatory.)

And More:

"Hey, was your father a glazier?!?": Said to someone who's blocking your view

Loosie : Candy stores in Brooklyn would often sell you a single cigarette from an open pack

Sliding Pond: A regular playground slide. (Named "sliding ponds" because they reminded people of how they used to slide on the ice of ponds before playground slides were invented sometime in the 19th century.

Scash-a-bang: A beat up old car on its last legs

Keep Chicky: To keep an open eye (keep guard) while something mischievous is being done.

Skeeve : To totally dislike something or be disgusted by it. "I skeeve that" or "I'm skeeved by him". A gross person can also be called a "skeeve" or a "skevoose".

Fins (Or Finsies): To say "fins" is little like saying "not it". To say it during a game means that you can't be touched, or it grants you temporary immunity.

Lemon Ice: All flavors of ice are called lemon ice. A cherry flavored ice is a "cherry lemon ice".

Tar Beach: The roof of an apartment building when used in the summer for sunbathing.

If you're interested in reading more about neighborhood "tawk", try this wonderful website: Brooklynisms.

Its funny how overhearing one of these expressions (and you don't hear them often) can turn you into a time traveler, standing on the corner, age 12, and hollering out: "Hey Vinny, I got your eggplant, Right Here!"


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

Sunday, November 23, 2008

I Shot an Arrow Into the Air.....

I smile when I hear about parents making "play dates" for their kids as if playing was something that had to be planned in advance. As kids, unless we were eating, sleeping or doing homework, we were playing. Whether it was by ourselves, or we were lucky enough to have someone to play with, we played.

On nice days, the options were endless. If you were alone, you could ride your bike, play stoop ball (with a Spaldeen of course), practice flipping baseball cards, or if you were feeling cruel, use a magnifying glass to torment insects. If there were other kids around, some kind of game would be organized, not by the parents who seem to be involved in everything their kids do these days, but by the kids. We decided what to play, chose up sides, shared equipment, and if a dispute arose, we settled the matter using time-tested neighborhood methods like eeney-meeney-miney-moe or showing "odds or evens" fingers.

On rainy days the challenge was greater. Typical activities might include reading comics (see 10/14/08 post: Ten Cent Fantasy), setting up mock battles with your toy cowboys and Indians or soldiers (yes, plenty of violent imagery here, and for you environmentalists, they were made of good old lead). Making great things with an Erector set was another constructive pastime, but I didn't have the really good set with all the extra parts and the small motor for powering whatever you built, like a windmill or Ferris wheel.

Feeling bored one day, I decided to set up an indoor archery range. (If life was a video, there would have been a "freeze frame" here and the narrator's voice would cut in and say: "Bad idea Jim.") I had a bow and arrows, but to have the target far away enough for a decent shot, I had to open the doors to three adjoining rooms to get the distance I needed. Needless to say I did this upstairs out of view of my unsuspecting mother. I had a cardboard box full of newspaper on which I had drawn a target, and placed at the far end of my parents' bedroom. Crossing through the hallway and into the farthest corner of my bedroom, I took my archer's stance and let my first arrow fly.

My aim was off a little and the arrow embedded deeply into one of the drawers of my parents' wooden dresser. Again, if this was a video with a sound track, the Dragnet theme would play: "Dum de dum dum." I knew I was dead, and contrived to cover my tracks. I filled the hole with quick-drying wood putty, and since it did not match the mahogany color of the dresser, used a brown crayon to remedy the problem. Now who would ever know anything had happened! My parents weren't stupid people (this could be argued given that they produced a child who came up with the idea of indoor archery) but amazingly nothing was ever said about the matter. I guess compared to my nearly burning the house down on another occasion (see 10/20/08 post), this episode was classified under "acceptable losses."

We played with imagination, passion, and most of all a sense of fun. It seems to me that today, every play activity needs to have a purpose. Parents anxiously scan the description of the toy they are about to buy to see what "cognitive skills" will be enhanced in their child from playing with it. Toys are recalled every day because they are not "child safe". Oh my God, are they too loud, too sharp, flame retardant, free from lead paint, made from nontoxic materials, have no small parts that can be swallowed.....what the hell's left!

Guess what Mom and Dad: your kid could decide to brain his brother with that "child safe" toy at any time and there's nothing you can do to prevent it. Here's an idea...unclench a little. Let your kids have some fun. Take reasonable precautions, but don't try to insulate them from every possible harm that can come to them...its just not possible, and if you you keep trying, you'll turn them into little neurotics just like you.

This is Doctor Jim, signing off.


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

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

I'm Still Here Lord

My father never owned a car, so I learned to drive at a storefront auto school on Pitkin Avenue. The school car was a 1957 powder blue and white Dodge sedan. It measured just under a city block long, and required a team of four with walkie-talkies to parallel park. My lesson was supposed to last 30 minutes, but my instructor, a nice enough guy, was going through a nasty divorce and he needed a shoulder to cry on. While he verbally abused his soon to be ex-wife, we went for long drives into Long Island, sometimes for as long as two hours. I don't know how he squared the long lessons with the school, but I got a lot of much needed practice.

I easily passed my driver's test and soon had my license. Trouble is I had no car. Enter "Tony Boots", my father. (See 9/26/08 post.) My father had no license, but I convinced him that if he went halves with me on a new car, he could get free lessons from me and all the practice time he wanted. He bought it, bless his heart. We decided on a brand new 1961 Chevy Impala, black with a red and white leather interior. It cost us all of $2200; you can't get a decent radio for that these days.

I soon learned that teaching my father to drive would not be easy. His attitude was: "How hard can it be if you can do it". Unfortunately Dad had no aptitude for driving, and refused to take any direction from me. We used to drive around areas like Canarsie and Flatlands, which at that time were quite open and traffic-free. If you go to those neighborhoods today, at a time when it's really quiet, you can still hear the ghostly screams of pedestrians as they dove out of my Father's path.

In spite of my urging that he needed more practice, Dad made an appointment for his road test. I went with him, and on his return, asked him how it went. "It's in the bag" was his reply. (I later learned that he had slipped the road test administrator five bucks, and assumed this would compensate for any people he had killed in the course of taking the test.) Sadly he failed, never got his license, but good sport that he was, kept up his half of the car payments.

I loved this car. I washed and waxed it incessantly. I had moon disc hub caps that one of my co-workers, Charlie, got for me. When I asked him where he got them, he gave me that same look that Michael Corleone gave Kay, his wife, when he said: "Don't ask me about my business, Kay". I would ride around the neighborhood with the windows down and the radio playing. I wasn't a big drag racer, but that never kept me from gunning the engine at a stop light if any girls were watching. It was, as they say today, a sweet ride. Sadly, it almost proved to be my undoing. (If my kids are reading this, please stop here.)

Five friends and I used to rent a bungalow in Lake Ronkonkoma. The landlady was a sweet old thing named Mrs. Fabris. She needed the rent and was smart enough to stay away during our weekend parties, unlike the Suffolk Police who regularly responded to noise complaints. We used to frequent a local bar and dance club to meet girls and do the Twist, the dance craze of the day. Drinks at the bar were expensive, so we usually got a "head start" at the bungalow and then drove over. I know, not one of my prouder moments, but drinking and driving was taken less seriously in the fifties than it is today. The bar wasn't far and we always made it there and back with no problems.

One night, in my new car, I was following a friend who knew some back roads to the bar. He was travelling too fast for the unlit roads we were on, and at one point he swerved into a turn and narrowly missed entering some woods. I was a bit behind him and swerved too, but not in time to avoid the woods. I hit a tree with enough force to knock it down, but being sufficiently "relaxed" from the drinks I'd had, I just bounced off the steering wheel without a scratch. Not the same could be said for the car; my sweet ride was totaled. Unfazed, I left the car to spend the night with the tree while I Twisted into the wee hours.

In the cold light of morning, I shook the cobwebs out and formulated my plan for breaking the bad news to my folks. When I got home and saw my parents, I would feign an injury hoping that their concern for me would overshadow their annoyance about the car. I made up a "George Costanza" story about sustaining a shoulder injury after being cut off by a bunch of wild teenagers and forced off the road. I'm not proud of the stupid thing I did, or lying to my parents about it, but on the plus side, the plan worked like a charm. My mother fussed over me, the insurance company paid to have the car repaired, and we all lived happily ever after.

Looking back on some of the incredibly dumb things I did in my youth, I have come to believe that God has kept me here for some purpose. Maybe it was marrying my wonderful wife and bringing three exceptional children into the world, or maybe my reason for being has yet to be made clear. At any rate I'm still here, and Lord, if there's something you need me to do, I'm your guy.


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

Monday, November 17, 2008

Neighborhood Characters: "G-Man"

Back in 1972, in an NFL playoff game, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw attempted a pass late in the game to overcome a slim Oakland Raiders lead. The ball was deflected by an Oakland defender right into the hands of Pittsburgh running back Franco Harris, who ran it in for the winning score. The play has come to be known as the "Immaculate Reception". When I was about fifteen years old, I had an Immaculate Reception of my own. But I'm getting ahead of myself; let me first introduce you to the title character of this post.

G-Man, as he was known to all, (for what reason I do not know) was a local prodigy. He didn't play the violin, or do "Rainman" type feats of mathematics, he had a skill that was far more admired in my neighborhood; he played softball like nobody you ever saw. For those of you unfamiliar with the game, softball is played exactly like baseball, except that a larger ball is used, and the pitcher throws underhand instead of overhand like they do in baseball. Most respectable softball players would only play with a ball known as a "Clincher" which came in a green and yellow box and cost around sixty cents.

G-Man was probably around 10 years my senior, and made his living, as I recall, as a city bus driver. Like the mild-mannered man and reporter, Clark Kent, he was not especially impressive in his day job, but on summer evenings when he stepped on to the ball field, G-Man could leap tall buildings in a single bound! He was taller than average, not especially powerful, but he hit, fielded, and threw a softball better than anyone I ever knew. He played with the older guys at Callahan-Kelly park on Truxton Street on ball fields that had lights for night games, a rarity in those days. They played "money games" meaning every guy kicked in a buck or two, and the winners took all. The caliber of play was quite good, and the games usually drew an audience, including me and my friends, who idolized G-Man and his team mates.

Now I will say here, with as much modesty as I can muster, that I was a good ballplayer in my day. At the time, I played varsity baseball for my high school, Brooklyn Tech, but I wasn't ever good enough to play in G-Man's games; the guys were just much bigger and stronger, and I could only hope that one day my time to join them would come. One night, as one of their games was about to begin, their center-fielder Willy (who lived on my block) had not yet shown up. Another neighbor of mine, a cop named Eddie, knew I could play, and out of desperation, Eddie told me I would be playing center, but only until Willy showed up. (Nobody knew at the time that Willy was sick and would never make it.)

I was nervous, but I grabbed my glove and ran out to center field. Normally, I wanted the ball to be hit to me because I had the cockiness of youth and believed that I could get to anything catchable. Tonight I prayed that they would hit to anywhere but center field. About half the game passed uneventfully. I didn't embarrass myself, I even got a hit during one of my at-bats. Late in the game, one of the other team's better hitters drilled a high drive to center field. It was hit so well that I knew it would be well over my head, so I just turned my back and started running, hoping to retrieve the ball and maybe hold the guy to a double.

I could run like hell in those days, and looking over my shoulder in full stride trying to locate the flight of the ball, I saw it floating just over my head. The next few seconds felt like slow motion. I stuck my glove out as far as my arm could reach, and the Clincher smacked right into the pocket. Having the instincts of an outfielder, since that was my position the whole time I played baseball, I spun around and threw the ball to the shortstop who, in turn threw it to the second baseman to double-up the runner from second who had broken for home thinking the ball was at least a triple. This double-play ended the inning, and as I ran in off the field, my older team mates pounded my back and patted my behind in congratulations. G-Man, who was pitching for us, didn't engage in those kinds of excessive celebrations. He had already walked off the field headed for the dugout since he was first to bat in our half of the inning.

I was sitting on our bench, still shaking and not believing how my Guardian Angel had somehow guided my steps until I was under that ball to make the catch. As G-Man walked past me on his way to the batter's box, he said: "Nice catch kid". That's all he said. It couldn't have mattered more to my 15-year old ego than if I had made that play in Yankee Stadium to win game 7 of the World Series in front of 60,000 screaming fans. Praise from G-Man was high praise indeed. And that is the story of my "Immaculate Reception".

Memory is a funny thing. My wife is always after me to take my Ginko-Biloba so I can find my house at the end of the day. It's different with childhood memories. There must be a special place in the brain where they remain fresh and clear and vibrant, kind of like Shangri-La, the place described in James Hilton's wonderful novel, "Lost Horizon", where the inhabitants hardly age. I can remember what I was wearing that night (grey chinos, a white t-shirt, and black and white Keds sneakers), I can replay in my mind that slow-motion sequence of events leading up to "the catch", and even recall that my neighbor Eddie the cop bought me an ice-cold cream soda to reward me for having a good game.

Ironically, I can't remember whether we won or lost the game. That's more like me. Now where did I put my car keys?

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

Monday, November 10, 2008

Cary Grant, Look Away!

I've made a couple of references to how we dressed in the fifties; I'd like to elaborate. It was common in the early fifties for young boys to wear knee-length corduroy knickers with long socks underneath. We all looked like those "Mister, can you spare a dime" newsboys who hung out on every street corner after the depression. After I got my first pair of long pants, I always wondered where the "whish-whish" sound was when I walked. Corduroy pants make that sound from the friction of the legs rubbing together. It could have been a great source of clean energy if they ever figured out how to harness it.

I wore long pants to school, probably starting around third grade. Having attended a parochial school, our fashion choices were limited; dark slacks, white shirt and blue tie made up our uniform. Eight variation. Public schools today would be wise to consider adopting the wearing of uniforms. Nobody feels deprived if they are not sporting the latest overpriced crap, although I must confess to some confusion on this point. You would think that being "poor" might keep your kids from wearing what the kids who are better off wear. Not so; the poor kids have the same hundred dollar sneakers as the rich kids....the ones that I can't afford. Nice to know my tax dollars are being well spent.

Like other periods in history, we had our fashion fads in the fifties. In the early fifties we caught the end of the "zoot suit" craze. Extra long jackets, pegged pants (narrow at the bottom) with white stitching down the sides of the legs, and wide-brimmed fedora hats marked you as a cool cat. As if this outfit wasn't outlandish enough, the suits came in some toxic colors, and the effect was accessorized with a long key chain and pointy toed shoes. I think jazz musicians may have originated the look, and it had a fair run. I get the feeling that one day somebody looked at himself in a mirror and said: "What the f**k!"

Fashion seems to change not by degrees, but drastically. The next fad I remember are bell-bottomed pants, the polar opposite of pegged pants. Bell bottoms were worn by sailors, and I guess some designer who had a thing for sailors, convinced the rest of us to wear them too. They started out modestly enough, with only a slight flare at the cuff to distinguish them from regular trousers, but became more extreme as time passed. Soon, the "bell" at the bottom was so wide that people could barely walk without tripping. Fortunately, the bell soon tolled for these babies.

Sticking with the pants theme, we can't leave out clam diggers. I loved these pants; there, I said it. They were originally meant as beach wear, but soon were being worn everywhere in the summer months. Clam diggers were white, knee-length cotton pants, like the Capri pants that women wear today. With clam diggers, one usually wore a long-sleeve polo shirt in pastel colors or stripes. It's hard to imagine street guys walking around in these outfits. If you saw us hanging out on the corner, you might have thought you'd stumbled in to auditions for "La Cage aux Folle".

One final fashion memory; for whatever reason, one year (guessing late fifties) the colors pink and black (or charcoal grey) became insanely popular with guys. Again, I can't square in my mind how guys who would beat you to within an inch of your life if you ever cast aspersions on their manhood, could fall in love with the color pink. I can see the picture so clearly: Easter Sunday, in the days when people dressed for church, almost every guy in church was wearing a charcoal grey or black suit, bright pink shirt, and a pink and black tie. It looked like some bizarre gathering of gay Klan members!

Men's dress has come down a peg since the fifties. Sweatsuits, t-shirts and flip-flops are the uniform of the day. The biggest hit has been in business dress. For most of my 40-year working career, I wore suits and ties. By the eighties, short-sleeve shirts became OK in the summer, and by the nineties, "business casual" had made its debut. It started out well enough, with neat slacks and golf-type shirts, but quickly degenerated. We had to send a guy home to change out of his "S**t Happens" t-shirt. Cary Grant, if you're up there, look away.


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

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Your Momma's So Fat.....

After leaving the army at age 19 (see previous post) I still had no idea what to do with my life. I had a high school education and not much ambition. Banks were hiring, and I landed a clerical job with Banker's Trust Company, a big player in those days. I worked in the Stock Transfer Department recording transactions for stock brokers of shares they bought and sold the previous day. This was before computers, so every buy and sell order was written by hand into big ledger books, and "balanced" using hand-cranked adding machines. On the technology ladder, we were one rung above Bob Cratchit.

Our work area was filled with rows of nondescript grey desks and chairs. My co-workers were all young men of my age who were glad for the $52-a-week starting salary. One perk of working at a bank was that all employees received free checking accounts. The idea of paying for things with a piece of paper was not a financial concept I grasped completely. Some of the bad checks I wrote are still bouncing around out there to this day.

Anyhow, the work was excruciatingly boring, but we found ways to liven up our day. One was to have a contest among the guys to see who could record the most transactions in an 8-hour day. We each did basically the same work, so the playing field was pretty level. This will give you some idea of the work ethic we had then compared to today. Can you imagine someone standing up at the weekly brainstorming session and announcing: "Let's have a contest to see who can work hardest for no extra pay!" Too many kids today feel that if they get to work less than 30 minutes late, their day is done.

Another pastime was insulting one another. (Today these exchanges are referred to as "snaps.") We sat in two long rows of desks that faced a center aisle. Someone would get the ball rolling by saying something terrible about someone else's mother, that person would respond, somebody else would chime in, and we would be off and running. Example: Your momma's so fat,when she walked in front of the TV, I missed 3 commercials. Retort: "Oh yeah, your momma's so fat, when she hauls ass, she has to make two trips. And so it went; nobody got mad, we all knew it was just a way to get through the day.

Usually, to save money, we ate lunch in the bank cafeteria, but every Friday we went to the White Rose bar on Lexington Avenue. They fed you a decent hot meal, and steins of beer were cheap enough to get a nice buzz on before returning to the world of high finance. There was also a great place called Johnny's Bar on 46th Street off Third avenue where we went after work. I drank bourbon in those days, and once the bartenders got to know us, they poured doubles. They also bought back every third round, so you can imagine how happy we were by the time "last call" was announced. Luckily we traveled home by subway. Once in a while I would doze off, pass my stop and wake up staring out the windows at the rides at Rockaway Beach.

Bankers Trust had a vacation-style lodge called Baker Camp that was for the exclusive use of employees. We booked it like a hotel at ridiculously low, bank-subsidized rates. It was rustic with bunk-beds, but all we needed it for was a place to drink and play poker. There was a lovely lake for swimming and boats you could rent, but our group usually slept most of the day and came alive at night. As I write about it today, it sounds like we were a bunch of degenerate "yutes", but drinking was a big part of the social scene in the fifties. Today, beer and wine are the popular drinks, but then it was the hard stuff. Don Rickles has a great line in his book about this: "Back in the fifties, everybody drank rye and ginger, or as it's known today, diabetes."

I made some strong friendships at the bank. We were all in the same boat, worked and socialized together, went to each other's weddings, and eventually went our separate ways. I'm glad I had those guys in my life.


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

Saturday, November 8, 2008

You're in the Army Now

In 1960, having an A-1 draft status, I decided to make a preemptive strike and join the Army Reserves. The obligation was for 6 months of full-time active duty, followed by 3.5 years of active reserve duty (weekly meetings and two-week summer camps), and 4 years of inactive reserve duty (no meetings or summer camps, but you were eligible to be called up in the event of war. Now 8 years sounds like a lot, but with the world in turmoil and war likely to break out any time, the Reserves sounded like a better deal than the risk of being drafted into four years of full-time military service.

I went down to the enlistment center, took a bunch of tests, and was assigned to the 256th Station Hospital Unit; they were going to make a medical corpsman out of me. These are the guys we saw on shows like "Mash" running around the battlefield patching up wounded soldiers while enemy bullets whizzed overhead. To this day I thank God that I was never required to perform this duty. What I didn't know at the time was that my assignment to this unit was a great bit of luck in my fledgling military career.

The place for our unit's reserve meetings was an armory on Christopher Street down in New York City's Greenwich Village. We met on Tuesday evenings, and all spruced up in my soldier suit, I made the long walk from the subway to the armory. The Village in those days had not yet become respectable, and wildly flamboyant gays clustered on every street corner trying to hustle dates. It was like running the gauntlet. I have to say that at 18 years old, hard and trim in my army togs, I made quite a dashing figure, and if I was inclined in that direction, my dance card would have been filled.

I was called to serve my six months of active duty starting at Fort Dix, New Jersey. This meant 8 weeks of basic training there, followed by assignment to another military post for advanced training. I survived basic training at the hands of drill sergeants right out of the movie "Deliverance", and (here's where the luck kicked in) was assigned to Fort Sam Houston near San Antonio, Texas for my army medic training. Fort Sam turned out to be like Club Med. Because of the brutal summer heat in Texas, training was frequently cancelled. This meant we got to spend the day lounging around the pool working on our tans.

On weekends, passes were almost always granted unless we pulled KP (Kitchen Police) and had to work in the Mess Hall (Dining Room). I had hooked up with three buddies, Sidney, a gift shop owner from Atlanta, Melvin, a pharmacist from Syracuse, and Eddie,(occupation unknown) from Philly. Sidney, who could have body-doubled for Woody Allen, had money and a white Pontiac Bonneville convertible. On a typical weekend, we would book two rooms at a Great Western motel just outside of town. I remember thinking as we sat by the pool sipping cold beers and listening to Frank Sinatra's "Autumn in New York" playing on the outdoor speakers: "This is the Army?!"

Sometimes we would slip across the Mexican Border to Nuevo Laredo, or if wanted to splurge, drive all the way to Monterrey. We had some amazing times, but one scary experience sticks out in my mind. In an unsavory part of Nuevo Laredo (actually the whole town was unsavory) we stopped for a beer in a bar with an upstairs brothel. (Having seen the horrid army training films on the dangers of social diseases, we had no intentions of going upstairs in that little Petri dish.) (As an aside, my favorite anti-VD military training film title is: "When You "Do It" with HER, You're "Doing It" with HITLER!)

To continue, while drinking at the bar, we noticed a group of Mexicans at a rear table looking us over. Now you may think I'm making this next part up, but it's true. This was 1961 in a backward border town, and all the Mexicans were wearing six-guns and full ammunition belts. I thought I heard one of them mutter: "Badges, we don't need no stinking badges". They angrily gestured at us, and to my mind seemed to be trying to decide where to dispose of our bodies. Luckily we were in uniform, and this may have discouraged their murderous impulses. Needless to say, we vamoosed.

I'll never forget the look of surprise on my parents' faces when they met me at the airport after my six months service was up. I stepped off that plane looking tanned and fit, much to their relief. It was the first time I had ever been away from home, and they were happy to have me back. You can sneer about my "Club Med" stint in the military, but all I know is that from May to September, 1961, San Antonio never once came under enemy attack.

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