Tuesday, November 4, 2008

"Excuse Me, But Aren't You Robert Wagner"

Straddling Brooklyn and Queens, Highland Park is situated on a high, grassy plateau with commanding views of nearby East New York, Woodhaven, and the Rockaways. The park was a recreational haven for kids in my neighborhood, and included football fields, baseball fields, tennis courts, boccie courts, and (in the winter) a frozen pond for skating. The park is home to "The Dawn of Glory" World War I monument by sculptor Pietro Montana (dedicated 1925). It also featured Ridgewood Reservoir, which was made obsolete by expansion of the city's Catskill and Delaware water systems.

The park was not that close to home, so we usually walked the 30 minutes or so that it took to get there. Sadly, kids today don't walk 30 minutes anywhere; first they're too lazy, and second, their parents wouldn't dream of letting them. As a boy, Highland Park was where we played a lot of our CYO (Catholic Youth Organization) baseball games. (The other field was the Parade Grounds in better known Prospect Park.) There were two large fields with mesh fence backstops, real base paths, pitcher's mounds, and grass in the infield. There was a long, narrow hump of land running across the outfield, and you had to be careful when you were going back for a fly ball not to get your feet tangled up when you reached the upward incline of the hump.

After the game we would enjoy an orange drink sold at a park concession near the entrance. I say orange because that's what the sign said. The concessionaire's recipe for the drink was one orange to ten gallons of water! It was ice cold though, and only cost a dime.

Not far from Highland Park along Jamaica Avenue was Cypress pool. To us this was the equivalent of the Beverly Hills Country Club. We were used to swimming in places like Betsy Head Pool or Red Hook pool, which were nice enough, but because of the mixed racial clientele, gang fights were not uncommon. Cypress pool was classy, with lion's-head fountains and lockers for your stuff. The key, on an elastic band, was always worn around your ankle. They originally had three diving boards at twenty, ten, and three feet in height. Jumping off the twenty-foot board (it looked like a hundred feet from up there) was a rite of passage for us. They later took down this board to discourage idiots like us. (If you look at the picture left, you can see the elevated Cypress Hills train station from where you could look into the beautiful, aqua-blue pool.)

As a teenager, on a recommendation from my Aunt Mary, I got a summer job at a deli on Jamaica Avenue (near Miller Avenue) delivering groceries in a big wagon. Carmine, the toothless old man who ran the store and his daughter (who was a dead ringer for Aida Turturro, the actress who played Janice Soprano) were very nice to me. At the end of the week, the old man gave me a big bad of cold cuts and fruit to take home to my mother, a very generous gesture. A lot of deliveries were "up the hill" to Highland Boulevard where the rich folks lived. Like rich folks everywhere, they were notoriously cheap. After lugging a wagon load of groceries up a steep hill in the summer heat, they would slip me a dime. (Gee, now I can pay for my sister's operation.) Once an older woman asked me in and gave me a glass of cold lemonade along with a ten dollar tip. I confess it crossed my mind that she thought it was a one-dollar bill, but like a good Catholic boy, I took the money and ran.

When I got older and took up tennis (to be more like sophisticated heartthrob actor Robert Wagner) my friend Joe and I made good use of the park's clay tennis courts. There were about ten of them and playing time was cheap to book. We started playing as another desperate scheme to meet girls, but we actually got pretty good and soon learned to enjoy the game for itself. Sometimes I wish I had stayed with it instead of tormenting myself by playing golf.

Highland Park was a beautiful spot. Its manicured ball fields were a far cry from the neighborhood vacant lots littered with rocks and glass in which we usually played. It didn't have the cache of Manhattan's Central Park, nor was it as big and famous as Brooklyn's Prospect Park, but it was ours. The crack of a bat, churning your legs as fast as they could go, and sliding into home with the winning run...hey, it could have happened.


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

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