Friday, May 15, 2009

Rites of Passage

Growing up in Brooklyn during the 1950s had its rites of passage. They were different than today to be sure because the world was different. International terrorism was way off in the future, women and minorities were just starting to demand their rights, and the electronic age had yet to descend on an unsuspecting mankind. The view of life from the streets of East New York was decidedly local. Our world was bounded by the streets that defined our neighborhood: Atlantic Avenue to the South, Bushwick Avenue to the North, Pennsylvania Avenue to the East, and Saratoga Avenue to the West. It was a real mix of Irish, Italians, and Germans who had first come over in the great European immigration around the turn of the century, with a few African Americans and Hispanics mixed in.

I guess one of the first steps toward growing up in the neighborhood was the changeover from tricycles to "two-wheelers" as we called them. I have already described how my Dad taught me to ride a two-wheeler. (See 3/29/09 post: "Tony Boots, Chapter II" View) I used to ride a unique looking tricycle that was longer than a standard tricycle with a step on the back that easily carried a standing passenger. It was powder blue and cream colored, with handle bars that were much larger than normal. This thing was a tank! I loved riding it, but my friends were stepping up to bigger bikes and it would be unthinkable for me to lag behind.

Another ritual was lighting up your first cigarette. I get a kick out of the way smokers are demonized these days. They have to skulk into dark alleys for a few puffs knowing full well that they are the scourge of decent society. In the 50s, smoking was still cool. All the movie stars, business moguls, athletes, anybody who wanted to look sophisticated was a smoker. I was probably around 11 or 12 when I had my first cigarette. By then my father had switched from unfiltered Lucky Strikes to L&Ms, which were the initials of tobacco manufacturer Liggett & Meyers. Pop used to keep his butts as he called them in his suit jacket pocket, so it was an easy matter to snitch one. We would go to Callahan-Kelly park near the handball courts to light up. I remember feeling a little woozy, but dared not show it in front of my friends. At first we just puffed, not yet having mastered the deadly trick of inhaling. I smoked for about 15 years, and stopped when my daughter Laura was born. Thanks Laura.

A big step toward manhood involved scaling the fence behind Spinners, a small supermarket on Fulton Street. Spinners loading dock was in the rear of the store on my block, Somers Street, and was protected by a fifteen foot wrought iron fence. The fence was a formidable affair, anchored on either side to solid brick columns the same height as the fence, and topped by "Stalag 17" quality barbed wire. During our stickball or punchball games, our pink Spaldeen balls would fly over the fence. The iron fence had sharp points at the top and was clearly unclimbable. The only way to retrieve the balls was to climb one of the brick towers, throw a jacket over the barbed wire, and gingerly step over and down the other side. This was a feat greatly admired by kids on my block. I made the climb many times, and owing to my extreme caution, was able to get out with everything I went in with.

Cypress Pool was a shimmering oasis just below the Cypress Hills elevated train station on the Jamaica line. For kids used to swimming in public pools like Betsy Head and Red Hook, this was "movin' on up". Cypress Pool charged 25 cents to keep the riff-raff out. They had three diving boards, a two foot, ten foot and twenty foot. Until you dove off the twenty-foot board, you were nothing in the eyes of my crowd. You'd never know it by looking at how timid I've become, but back then no challenge went unanswered. As I climbed that ladder for the first time, waving to the guys below, I felt cocky. When I reached the top platform, second thoughts crept in, but of course I couldn't punk out with everyone looking. I executed a swan dive that saw me enter the water, not vertically, but almost horizontally! Fortunately my friends did not award style points, so I passed the test, with the only consequence being a slightly higher voice for the next half hour or so.

The next rite of passage is one of which I'm not proud. We hung out in Louie's Candy Store under the el on Fulton Street across from the Sportsman's Cafe. Louie and his wife Esther were good to us, letting us sit for hours nursing an egg cream or cherry coke while we played the baseball Home Run machine in back of the store. Some of the kids would dare each other to steal candy from the racks in front of the store. Having never met a dare I didn't like, I accepted. The gang's M.O. was to get Louie to the back of the store while the thief did his dirty work. I'm ashamed to say I pulled many candy jobs at Louie's. I got an adrenaline rush eating the chocolate covered jelly rolls or marshmallow twists I boosted. I wish I could make restitution, but poor trusting Louie is long gone.

I've talked before about how the mind can see clearly events that happened so long ago, while struggling to remember the name of someone you met last week. It's almost as if I can transport myself back to the time when the things I've written about happened. To Richie, Phil, Johnny, Vinny, Lefty, Joe and Tommy...thanks for the dares and for being such a big part of my life.


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


The Whiner said...

Well thank God I came along to break you of at least one of your bad habits. I do assume by this point in life you've given up petty thet. ;)

Jim Pantaleno said...

Your mother has taken over as the family thief. We now have the world's largest stash of hotel soap, shampoo and pens.

The Whiner said...

Oh yes I forgot about that. I think that's a Grandpa Salamo gene....likely to display increased dominance with age.