Friday, February 20, 2009

Play Ball!

The nature of play has changed since I grew up. The very idea of play time to me always meant that kids were free to do what they enjoyed, even if it had no learning purpose, or seemed just plain silly. If we wanted to spin around in circles to see what it was like to feel dizzy and fall down, that was OK. We were playing! When your mother fed you breakfast and chased you out of the house, you were on your own. Nobody set up play dates for you, drove you to and from play, or supervised your every waking moment.

A major play activity for us, when weather permitted, was baseball or some variation thereof (stickball, punch ball, triangle). Baseball was king in my neighborhood, and everybody played. Other sports were kind of just coming into their own, but baseball was the national pastime and dominated our play schedule. We played in vacant lots where you had to pick the rocks and broken glass off the base paths before the game started. Usually pieces of wood or cardboard served as bases. Sometimes we got to play on cement playgrounds, and if we really hit the jackpot , on real grass and clay fields in Highland Park.

One nice thing about baseball is that it helped bridge the generations. Most of our fathers were baseball fans, and it was common for baseball to be a topic of discussion at the dinner table. Fathers played catch with sons to introduce them to the game. We could listen together to games on the radio ( or when TV entered our lives, watch them). Usually, being loyal sons, we rooted for the same teams as our fathers. If we got really lucky, our fathers would take us to see an occasional game; we had three local teams in New York then, the Dodgers, Yankees and Giants. My Dad and I were Yankee fans, so I endured the insults of most of my friends who were die hard Dodger fans. I was not popular around World Series time when the Dodger season was either over or they were about to get beaten again by the hated Yankees.

Most kids had some equipment such as gloves, balls and bats, and this was readily shared with kids who had none. It was common for a kid to leave his glove in the field when his team came in to bat so that the kid on the other team who played his position could use the same glove. If it wasn’t for tape, most of our equipment would have been in the trash. Balls, bats, and sometimes even gloves and sneakers were held together with adhesive or electrical tape. If we were lucky enough to get a new glove, we broke it in by soaking the pocket with linseed oil, putting in a baseball to shape the pocket, and wrapping the glove with rubber bands to sit for a few days. We had no uniforms, no coaches and no parents fighting with each other in the bleachers…come to think of it, no bleachers! All we had was a childlike passion for baseball.

We threw ourselves into the game with abandon. We chose up sides, settled disputes, and learned about fair play and how to practice it street style. Often we played until it was too dark to see the ball. Even when we weren’t playing, we talked baseball. We could recite the starting lineups of all three New York teams, we knew the current batting averages of the players on the team we rooted for, we even flipped and traded baseball picture cards. As I got older, I played CYO baseball for my grammar school team, and later varsity ball in high school.

Today, I’m lucky if I can watch an inning or two of my once beloved Yankees. The game just isn’t the same. Players have no team loyalty; they are hired guns playing for the highest bidder. The designated hitter rule changed the game for the worse. The final straw is the cheating; “icons” of the game like Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Alex Rodriguez needed their pharmacists to help them excel. In the process, they tainted themselves and the game of baseball. Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio?


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

Monday, February 16, 2009

Moolah, Then and Now

If you make a salary of $50,000 a year, it sounds like you're doing OK, until you realize that the purchasing power of that money is far less than it used to be. If you're lucky, your salary keeps pace with inflation. We think of inflation as an abstract economic phenomenon, but it is really an economic pain in the ass! Let's look at what stuff cost back in the 1950's compared to what it cost today.

A pair of U.S. Keds sneakers cost around $8.00 in 1955 compared to $350.00 for the pair of 2009 Nikes pictured. By the way, the online store where I check the price was sold out of this particular model. Those Keds withstood everything we could throw at them during a hard summer's play. Unless these Nikes can give me the power of flight, they ain't getting my hard-earned money.
Percentage cost increase since 1955: 4275%.

How about a trip to the movies. For a weekend movie in the fifties, where by the way you saw two features, not one, the price was twenty-five cents. The same ticket today in NYC costs $12.00, and you get to sit in a crappy, freezing-cold, multi-plex theater instead of the magnificent movie theaters with the plush velvet seats.
Percentage cost increase since 1955: 4700%.

Want to talk gasoline prices? In 1955, regular gas sold for 23 cents a gallon. This past summer it reached $4.00. I remember pulling up to the pump and asking for $2 worth of gas. Politicians rant about cheaper energy every time oil prices rise. The good folks at OPEC, not being fools, temporarily drop oil prices and we fall right back into line like sheep. The result of this sad farce:
Percentage cost increase since 1955: 1639%.

That Chevy you put gasoline into cost $1,900 in 1957 compared to $27,000 today. The car was made mainly of steel and chrome, not fiberglass and plastic. Repairs to the engine were simple enough to tackle without a diagnostic computer, and it seated six comfortably. I had a new '61 Impala, but for the record, you won't find a cooler car than the '57 Chevy.
Percentage cost increase since 1957: 1321%.

You look a little shaky, have a cigarette. If it was still 1955 you could buy a pack for 24 cents. Last time I looked, Camels go for around $7.50 a pack. State governments found that taxing cigarettes was a great way to raise revenue. They could take the moral high road and claim it was for health reasons, but in reality, they just wanted the money. Smoking is not only hazardous to your health, but to your wallet.
Percentage increase since 1955: 3025%.

Let's go back to the house for a double Jack Daniels on the rocks. By the way, If you bought your house in 1955, you paid $22,000. In 2008 (in a declining real estate market) the average price of an American home was $244,000. In New York City it is higher. Not a bad place to invest your money if you bought in 1955. (I won't tell you how much your property taxes, or for that matter, Jack Daniels, went up!)
Percentage increase since !955: 1009%.

Suddenly that $50,000 a year doesn't look too hot. Interestingly, from what I can find, that number is about the average family income in the United States today compared to $4,680 in 1955. That means family incomes in America have risen 968% over this period, far less than the steep increases in many of the things we buy.

When I was around 12 years old, I found out that a cousin of mine made $10,000 a year, and I was in awe of him. If only I could ever make that much money, I would live like a king! Well I'm happy to report that my dream income was attained and considerably surpassed, but sadly, ten-grand doesn't go very far these days. Welcome to the new millennium where $250,000 is the new $10,000.


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

Monday, February 9, 2009

Anybody Know Any Hussies?

I have always loved words, even as a kid. Certain words so familiar to us back in the fifties are largely gone from our language today. Somehow they lost their cache, and can only be heard in old, black and white movies. They are still perfectly good words that stand ready to serve whenever called upon, but sadly they grow dusty on the scrapheap waiting in vain for somebody to utter them. Let's give them a chance to shine again, if only in this humble forum.

The word "homeless" has a negative connotation; we think of people who try to clean our windshields, or who sit near the subway entrance with a cardboard sign asking for money. I don't mean to be insensitive here, or to denigrate homeless people, not at all. I'm talking semantics. In the fifties we didn't have "homeless" people, we had tramps or hobos. Those words had a different, more romantic connotation. We think of the audacious tramp "borrowing" an apple pie that was cooling on a window sill, or the hobo riding the rails from town to town, subject to no one and totally his own man. The great Roger Williams song "King of the Road" captures exactly what I mean: "I'm a man of means by no means, king of the road!"

When you hear the word "housedress" (also called a smock or housecoat) you probably picture a frumpy, unexciting woman stuck in a humdrum existence while life passes her by. I don't know how this perfectly good word fell out of favor, because it describes exactly the thing it represents. Webster's definition: "A dress with simple lines that is suitable for housework and is made usually of a washable fabric". Maybe the women's liberation movement, at one of their 1960's meetings, passed a resolution banishing the term because it was too closely tied to the term "housework". The role of women was changing, and alas, the "housedress" was thrown in the fire with all those burning bras.

When was the last time someone said: "Now you stop that tomfoolery this instant! I heard this all the time from my teachers in grammar school but never had a clue what it meant. I certainly got the gist of the meaning since it was usually accompanied by a cuff behind the ear, (this was in the days before Time Outs). The literal meaning, as provided again by Webster is "playful or foolish behavior." There are other words and phrases that mean the same thing, but they don't have the same "ring" as tomfoolery. It's fun to say, but for maximum effect you have to separate the word into its component syllables and punch the middle syllable indignantly as follows: tom-FOOL-ery! Certainly a most satisfying word to chastise some beastly child who dares engage in playful behavior.

If you're a fan of old movies like I am, you have undoubtedly heard Jean Harlow or Barbara Stanwyck read a line like: Say, you're swell, or Gee, that's swell! I think there was an Actors Equity union rule that every movie script from 1928 to 1948, had to contain the word swell. Everything and everybody was swell; and it was always used in a positive context. Interestingly, Webster defines swell as: "1) to expand in size; 2) a: to become filled with pride and arrogance b: to behave or speak in a pompous, blustering, or self-important manner c: to play the swell" Considering these definitions, how did swell ever come to mean "good"? These are the things that keep me awake at night.

In the 1950's, a man who made passes at women was referred to as a "masher". The word originated in England, and I love the Oxford English Dictionary definition: “a fop of affected manners and exaggerated style of dress who frequented music-halls and fashionable promenades and who posed as a ‘lady-killer”. (World Wide Words: Masher) . The word was coined in the 1870's when relations between the sexes were very different than now. I can't think of a modern equivalent, probably because it's just as likely today that it would be the woman making the pass. Would we call her a "mashette"?

Actually we did have a word in the fifties to describe a "fast" woman; we called her a hussy. Some words are so perfect that they conjure up the exact thing they stand for, even if we don't know the meaning. If I pointed to a painted lady in tight dress and high heels and called her a hussy, you would understand just what I meant. According to Webster, a hussy is "a lewd or brazen woman". Its origins are interesting (Take Our Word For It) in that it started out simply to mean a housewife, but later took on more negative connotations. I like the word hussy and hope to be able to use it soon, if only I could meet some!

I collect old words. They served us well for many years and shouldn't be just thrown away. If you have any old words you're no longer using, please send them to me.


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

Friday, February 6, 2009

Yankee Doodle Dandy, Almost

Unlike Yankee Doodle, I was born on the fifth of July...not exactly dandy, but close. Maybe that's why as a kid I always enjoyed the Fourth of July and all the excitement it brought to our neighborhood. As I got older, and started worrying about sky rockets carelessly shot off and setting my house on fire, my enthusiasm for the holiday diminished. As a ten-year old though, I couldn't wait for those Roman Candles to light up the sky over our Brooklyn rooftops.

About the third week in June, the anticipation began to build. You would hear a stray firecracker go off here and there, ignited by someone who simply couldn't wait. As the Fourth drew near, the frequency of the explosions increased, as fireworks began to make their way up from the factories down South where they were legal, to New York City where they were not. Every year the same shady guys set up shop, selling fireworks out of their garages or car trunks. The cops pretty much looked the other way, after all, this was New York City where selling fireworks was way down in the crime pecking order.

As kids we started off with harmless "sparklers" that our parents bought us. When we were old enough to buy our own, we graduated to cherry bombs, “ashcans” (a smaller version of the M-80), bottle rockets, Roman candles, and packs of fireworks we called “inch-and-a-halfs” because of their length. I think one of the reasons the police left us alone back in the fifties is that that we were not nearly as indiscriminate with our fireworks as people later became. We couldn't afford to be. We didn’t just light them off; every cherry bomb detonation was planned like a Spielberg action sequence. We either set it under a tin can to see how high we could blow it, or put it inside a piece of fruit or some old crank’s mailbox to get some entertainment for our buck. We were so thrifty that if a fire cracker didn't explode, we would break it in half, ignite the powder until it sparked, and then step on it to hear it explode! Waste not, want not.

As years passed and people became more affluent, they got crazy and the Fourth of July became plain dangerous. I remember older men setting up trash pails in the middle of the street, starting bonfires in them, and then just standing around throwing hundreds of dollars worth of fireworks into the fire. Where's the fun in that! Neighborhood blocks became like war zones and you couldn't drive in the streets. Every year it seemed there was a story in the papers about some brain-addled Guido, emboldened by 14 beers, who would try to hold an M-80 in his hand until the last possible second. His nickname today...stumpy. It got so bad that the cops could no longer ignore it. Street patrols grew frequent, and if you did not heed the warnings, they confiscated your fireworks and took you to jail.

Because of these morons, Fourth of July celebrations have become pretty tame in New York City neighborhoods. Police now respond to complaint calls, and you run a real risk if you want to set off fireworks in the street. The nature of the holiday was changing; neighborhood fireworks were a thing of the past, to be replaced by elaborate, pyrotechnic displays put on by professionals like the Grucci family, and held in public venues, like the one sponsored by Macy's near the Brooklyn Bridge. They are spectacular sights to behold, with beautiful, multi-colored plumes of fire lighting up the sky. They are especially enjoyable when accompanied by patriotic John Philip Sousa marches playing in the background.

As an adult, I can understand the need to limit access to fireworks, especially to young people. I also freely admit to enjoying the Grucci family shows that have now become a staple of Fourth of July celebrations. What I'll probably never feel again though is the exhilaration of lighting the fuse of that cherry bomb sitting under an empty tomato can, and then running like hell, taking cover behind the parked green Chevy, and peeping out to see how high the can would fly. Farewell sweet youth.


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

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Somebody Died? Let's Eat!

Continuing the neighborhood tour, just outside our immediate neighborhood, there were a number of other places worth mentioning. They pop into my head for no particular reason except that they were a part of my childhood.

A short walk down Rockaway Avenue and a right turn on Eastern Parkway led to the "Eastern Parkway Roller Skating Rink". The place was not fancy by modern standards, but you could rent a pair of 4-wheel shoe skates and glide around the wooden floor to organ music with your date. They had a snack bar that served toxic hot dogs and drinks. I loved skating with street skates, the kind that rattled your teeth when you skated on the rough sidewalks! It was nice change of pace going round on wooden-wheeled shoe skates (no skate-key needed) on a smooth, level surface.

The Good Shepherd Home for girls was on Rockaway and Atlantic Avenues. This massive brick complex, surrounded by a brick wall with hunks of glass cemented on top to discourage getting in or out, was the source of much speculation and rumor. The boys from local churches were called upon to act as altar boys to serve Masses held within the walls. As you might expect from boys with raging hormones and fertile imaginations, stories began to circulate about wild sex orgies behind those walls, with priests, nuns, the resident "wayward" girls, and a few lucky altar boys who were invited to participate. (I knew I should have been an altar boy instead of a choir boy!)

On the corner of Pennsylvania and Atlantic Avenues stood the East New York Savings Bank. The bank was chartered in 1868, and the building is there to this day. This was the quintessential neighborhood bank, solid, conservative, yet friendly. In the days before ATMs, the bank had live Tellers, mostly local young women, who knew customers by name and were happy to get a job so close to home. You could open a "Christmas Club" into which you deposited as little as a dollar a week, and then at the end of the year you would have a whopping $52 to blow on Christmas gifts! Obviously a buck went a lot further back then.

If you ever got the urge for their famous "sliders" (so called because of the ease with which they left your system after eating them) there was the "White Castle" hamburger joint on Atlantic Avenue and Highland Place. This was the sight of my arrest as a suspect in a drive-by shooting. (View 10/3/08 post "The Lords of Flatbush"). To this day I get a yen for these little, paper-thin belly bombs about once a year. At the time I grew up, I think they cost like ten cents each, and we would order a bag full complete with greasy fries. It gives me comfort to know they are still with me today, comfortably nestled in the walls of my arteries!

After attending a funeral at Molinari's Funeral Home on Pacific Street and Eastern Parkway, we always headed for Carlucci's Restaurant down the block. As a kid, I think back on our visits to Carlucci's as a "bad news-good news" situation. The bad news is that usually someone had to die for us to go there, but the good news is that we didn't get to eat out restaurants much so you take what you can get. There's a time for grieving and a time for eating. The place was plain, but the food was good and plentiful, and served by the always gracious Carlucci family.

And speaking of eating, our neighborhood was the home of Sportsman's Cafe on Fulton Street, to my mind makers of the best pizza I ever ate. Their pie was unique...they made it square, Sicialian style, but crispy, not thick and doughy. If the guy from Zagat's ever rated this place, it would get minus four stars. In front was a typical dingy bar, and in the back, covered by checkered plastic table cloths, were some tables where diners could sit and eat. It was no palace, but I would trade a steak dinner at Peter Luger's for a Sportsman's pie any time. The place holds a special place in my heart because my favorite cousin Pete Caruso worked in the kitchen part time.

I enjoy reading my daughter Laura's blog "The Whinery" (see link above) because she sometimes writes of her childhood, and I'm curious to know what she remembers about growing up. We are all a combination of our genetic makeup and our environment; I honestly believe that a big part of my own personality was shaped on the streets of East New York, and I will be forever grateful for having the good fortune to grow up in that special place.


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

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Shepherds of the Flock

Our neighborhood church (est. in 1872) was Our Lady of Lourdes on Aberdeen Street and Broadway in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. It was a large, magnificent place to worship; a real old-fashioned church with marble columns, a huge altar, giant stained-glass windows and a Gothic looking choir loft from which we choir boys had a bird's eye view of the splendor and ritual that was the Catholic mass. The feature that stands out most sharply my mind was in the back of the church...a recreation of the grotto in France where Bernadette of Lourdes had a vision of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Built and dedicated in 1904, it was a dramatic and inspirational place, with a statue of Mary in the side of a mountain cave hewn out of rock.

Churches today have difficulty recruiting priests; if it wasn't for India, the rectories would be empty. Not so back in the fifties when religious vocations were high. Most parishes had a staff of priests who (like the Yankee and Dodger lineups) never changed. Each parish the size of Lourdes had at least 4-5 full-time priests in residence, and a full schedule of Sunday masses. I don't recall the priests as clearly as I do the Franciscan Brothers who taught in the schools, simply because we spent so much time with the Brothers and only saw the priests on Sundays. Here are the ones I remember; maybe my friend and old schoolmate Joe D. will chip in anything he may recall from those bygone days 50-60 years ago.

Father Schaefer is the priest I remember best, probably because he was so young compared to the other priests on staff, and because of the incident I will describe. He was a handsome, strapping, red-headed Irishman who looked more like a union organizer than a priest. He took an interest in the kids in the parish, and the girls followed him around like wide-eyed groupies. He also supervised the "confraternity" dances held in the school basement. One night rumor had it that one of the local gangs was planning to crash the dance. Father Schaefer rounded up some of the bigger eighth graders and told us to stand behind him at the top of the stairs that led to the church basement. When the gang showed up, he stepped up and told them they were welcome to stay if they behaved, but if they wanted trouble, he would give it to them. Just like they were following a script, they turned and left, (thank God because I was scared to death. He was Gary Cooper in High Noon, and the punks knew they had met their match.

Father Gonzalez is next, a Hispanic priest with a round face and shy smile who spoke very little English. He was a very popular priest on Saturday afternoons when we kids would dutifully go to confession. Why so popular you ask? Was he an understanding and sympathetic confessor who left you feeling truly forgiven for your sins? Really, you're not from Brooklyn, are you? Father Gonzalez had the longest line outside his confessional because of his difficulty understanding English. Whether your sin was premeditated murder or impure thoughts, Father doled out the same penance, three Our Fathers and three Hail Marys, the best forgiveness deal in town!

Father Lacy was a dark, good looking man with black hair flecked with gray. He was short in stature, but solid and well-built like a running back. At first glance, his visage was stern. He had a five-o-clock shadow worse than Nixon's, and it gave him a slightly sinister look. When he smiled though, it lit up his face and made your misgivings go away. He also relished the ritual of walking around the church blessing the congregation with holy water...he would look you straight in the eye and douse you. I didn't know him well, but recall he always wore the floor length cassock and large crucifix that was the habit of the Fathers of Mercy.

Father McCormick (I believe he was the parish pastor but I'm not sure) was the poster boy for an Irish-Catholic priest. He was tall and slightly overweight, with a pale face topped by wispy white hair. I don't know why I remember this, but to me his mind always seemed to be elsewhere on the few occasions I spoke with him. I couldn't swear to it but I think he was at my confirmation ceremony, and looked nervous in the presence of his boss, Archbishop Molloy, probably fearing (not unreasonably) that one of us would embarrass him somehow.

I know Catholic priests have taken a beating in the past 20 years, as ugly charges of sexual abuse have erupted in the headlines. I find that sad because it taints the real sacrifices made by the vast majority of priests who selflessly dedicated their lives to our spiritual well being. This is how I prefer to remember the priests of Our Lady of Lourdes.


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