Saturday, June 20, 2009

Sisters and Brothers

I've written here about my parents, my block in Brooklyn, my schools, some neighborhood characters and places, even holidays and how we celebrated them in our family. One topic I haven't reminisced about is my younger siblings, Cathy, my sister and Anthony, my brother.

Cathy is about two years younger than i. We share a lot of childhood memories since we are fairly close in age. We got along reasonably well for sister and brother; I'm sure there were times I teased her, but she is too good-natured to hold it against me. Cathy attended the same school as I, Our Lady of Lourdes, only we didn't see each other that much since she sat on the girls' side of the building while I sat with the boys. Back then she pal'd around with three other girls her age who all lived within a few houses of each other. There was Pamela (see"Neighborhood Characters: The Gildersleeves" View), Loretta, and Phyllis (see "Neighborhood Character: Sal Bordenga" View) and when you saw one, the others were usually nearby. I remember her jumping rope with her friends and chanting the ditties girls used to keep time while jumping: " 'A' my name is Anna and my husband's name is Al, we come from Alabama and we sell apples".

Cathy was a pretty, popular kid, and also an excellent student. She loved to laugh and to this day has a smile that can make your day. She graduated from William Maxwell Vocational High School and went on to a successful career as an executive secretary with J.P. Morgan. In those days secretaries took dictation in shorthand and typed on manual typewriters as big as Buicks. When Cathy started her career, secretaries were invaluable to key executives ; there are very few secretaries around today since everyone types their own e-mails and answers their own phones. My sister is a thoughtful, caring person who always sends exactly the right greeting card for every occasion. Now retired, Cathy lives in Brooklyn with her pets, a couple of dogs and an ever-changing parade of cats.

My brother Anthony came along later. He is 11 years younger than I, and the baby of the family. Being so much older, I didn't spend much time with my brother growing up. By the time he was only seven years old, I was already in the Army. Around then my parents moved from East New York to the wilds of Richmond Hill in Queens, so his childhood in the suburbs was different from mine. Anthony is the musician in the family, playing guitar to this day. He is a devoted Beatles fan and still attends the annual vigil of John Lennon's birthday held on October 9th every year in the area of Central Park designated as Strawberry Fields. Married to Doctor Michele Seitz in St. Patrick's Cathedral, they live in Lynbrook, NY with their three beautiful daughters, Elizabeth, Margaret and Kaitlyn.

Tony graduated from my old High School, Brooklyn Tech, but by this time it had become co-ed, again, a very different experience from mine. He graduated from Queens College, got a Masters in School Psychology from Pace University, and a Doctorate in the same discipline from Fordham University. He is the resident school psychologist at John Glenn High School in East Northport, N.Y. and has a private practice specializing in helping troubled teens. Dr. Anthony Pantaleno - Psychologist - Home Dr. Pantaleno was named 2007 NYS School Psychologist of the Year by the New York State Association of School Psychologists and the 2008 Psychologist of the Year by the Suffolk County Psychological Association. I am very proud of my brother's professional accomplishments, but prouder still of his being a good husband, father and brother.

I'm glad I wasn't an only child. Having a sister and a brother was good in a lot of ways, not the least of which was having other kids in the house to distract my parents' attention. It's hard to believe so many years have passed since we were kids. I don't see my sister and brother as much as I'd like, but we still love and care about each other, and when we do get together it's always fun.


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Monday, June 15, 2009

Is That Meatballs I Smell?

I think I was probably sixteen years old before I figured out that not everybody awoke on Sunday mornings to the smell of frying meatballs. If you were Italian and living in Brooklyn, Sunday was “gravy” day. For non-Italians, gravy is not the brown stuff you put on your turkey, but the rich, red gravy made from fresh tomatoes, tomato puree, and spices, bubbling on the stove and filled with meatballs, sausages, braccioles, and pork. 

The wonderful scene from the movie "Fatso" showing Dom DeLuise dipping the heel of a loaf of Italian bread in gravy and Parmesan cheese while his poor cousin Sal lay in repose in the living room lovingly portrays just how comforting gravy can be to Italians. With all due respect (as the wiseguys say) , no cuisine anywhere can compare to Italy’s, period. We thought cholesterol was what they put in swimming pools to keep the water clean. Our celebrations for holidays, birthdays, baptisms, Communions, Confirmations and any other reason we could think of revolved around eating and drinking wine, as they do to this day.

An Italian holiday meal typically consisted of soup, antipasto, and maybe a lasagna or manicotti with all the aforementioned meats on the side. (Full yet?) Then came a turkey or a pot roast with all the trimmings. We would take a break, like a boxer between rounds, while fruit, roasted chestnuts, and assorted nuts were served. Then, after regaining consciousness, we would tuck into dessert which might include Italian pastry, cheesecake, pignoli cookies, blackout cake from Ebinger's Bakery and assorted homemade pies. After a pause to play poker for pennies, the chocolates and liquers would come out. Even had it been invented back then, Lipitor wouldn't have stood a chance.

There were no supermarkets in an Italian neighborhood. There were bakeries, salumerias, fish stores and fruit stores. The man behind the counter knew you by name, and added up your purchases with a pencil on the side of a brown paper bag.
Our extended family was concentrated in a small area of Brooklyn. We saw our aunts, uncles and cousins all the time. When my Aunt Mary moved to Suffolk County, Long Island in the early sixties, it was like she moved to Australia. How would we get there? Did we need passports? Cars were scarce; when we did go, we usually piled into one car...every adult lap held an excited cousin looking out the windows on the wonders of the Belt Parkway. We looked like that circus car full of clowns.

The old neighborhoods are changed now, but any kid who grew up Italian in Brooklyn will tell you they wouldn't have it any other way. My uncle Nick used to say that there are two kinds of people, Italians and those who wish they were. A little chauvanistic maybe, but Italians believe it in their hearts.


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

Friday, June 5, 2009

Coney Island - Land of Enchantment

If you know that the object pictured is an old admission ticket from Coney Island's Steeplechase Park, then you are indeed a lucky (and old) person my friend. Steeplechase on the boardwalk at Coney Island was the nation's first "pay one price" theme park. They had a big rotating barrel that you had to walk through to get into the park. If you walked straight through you fell down, you had to walk sideways and inch your way to the end.

The park was a favorite stop after spending a day at the Coney Island or Brighton beaches. Just shake the sand out of your sneakers and hit the rides.The park featured rides like the Panama slide, the giant ferris wheel and of course, the park's namesake ride, the mechanical Steeplechace Race Horses. I seem to recall as you exited the ride, there was a clown with an air hose and air vents in the floor, all intended to blow air up the girls' skirts. Good fun, and sorry ambulance chasers, nobody sued for sexual harassment.

Then, I think just outside the Steeplechase Park grounds, was the Parachute Jump, bought by Edward Tilyou from the 1939 New York World's Fair. The ride was opened for the 1941 season. It stood 262 feet at its tallest point and had twelve chutes, each with a seat that held two passengers. The Parachute Jump was purchased in 1940 from a retired naval officer who originally had it built to train real-life paratroopers for service.

We rode the Brighton elevated train to Coney Island. I still remember the straw seats, and the little enclosed compartment near the conductor's station on the train that every kid make a bee line for because of its exclusive and private location. It was like a first class compartment on the Orient Express.

Always an option was a stop at "Nathan's Famous" for a mandatory hot dog, some french fries in a cup, and maybe even Chow Mein on a bun. (I know, it sounds disgusting but it was good.) Nathan’s Famous was founded by a Polish immigrant, Nathan Handwerker, and his is truly an authentic “only in America story.” He started his business in 1916 with a small hot dog stand in Coney Island, New York. He sold hot dogs that were manufactured based on a recipe developed by his wife, Ida. In the over 90 years that have passed since opening day, Nathan’s has gained worldwide recognition with over 360 million hot dogs sold annually in all fifty states, but none will ever taste as good as the originals. I think it was the salt air.

Sadly, Steeplechase, our generation's Disneyworld, closed in 1964 after a general decline in the neighborhood. I always wondered why Coney Island remained undeveloped over the years. They are now planning a series of residential condos for the area, which I guess is good for the Brooklyn economy, but the real essence of this magical place will be lost. Maybe on a quiet summer night, if they listen carefully, the condo residents will be able to hear the ghostly squeals of delight from the millions of visitors to Steeplechase Park who left a piece of their childhood behind.



Thursday, June 4, 2009

Saturday at the Movies

Today's multiplex theaters are terrible places to watch movies. They are cold, cement boxes with overbearing Dolby sound and zero architectural interest. The expansive, gilded theaters of the forties and fifties had style. Big screen, velvet seats, and tiers of mezzanines and balconies. Radio City Music Hall in New York is one of the last remaining Grand Dames of this genre; sad to say we will never see their like again .

As a child, going to the movies was an all day affair. We arrived at the Colonial Theater on Broadway and Chauncey Street (Jackie Gleason's old block) around 11 a.m. prepared for a full day of entertainment. Popcorn would never sustain us...we carried pepper and egg "sangwiches" in oily brown bags. After paying the 14 cent admission price, we found our seats. As we got older, we always tried to sneak over to the "adult" seats, but the usher or "Matron" as she was called then invariably shooed us back to the kids' section. The Saturday viewing lineup usually started with the Movietone News. This was a black and white newsreel that trumpeted the events of the day. It featured the familiar voice of Lowell Thomas. Also covered was sports, with the great Bill Stern.

Then came the cartoons....21 of them to be exact. Don't ask me where they came up with 21; all I know is that if you were in the audience of the Colonial Theater on Saturday, you were seeing 21 cartoons. Sometimes they would end the cartoon-fest with a sing-along, where the audience followed the bouncing ball as it skipped across the lyrics to the song on the screen. By now the "sangwiches" were gone and a trip to the candy counter was needed.

Next came a movie "serial"which was an action-adventure film that was shown in chapters. Each week a new chapter would be screened, with a cliff-hanging ending that left you gasping for more. Some of the serials I remember are Buster Crabbe in "Flash Gordon" (a futuristic space travel theme with special effects that were comical); and Gene Autry in The "Thunder Riders" (a bunch of kids who resembled the Dead End kids out West).

Wait, wasn't there a movie? Oh yeah, there were two movies, a main feature and what was called a "B" feature. The main feature probably lasted no more than 90 minutes, and the B picture even less. They told their stories with no nonsense, and on budgets that wouldn't cover the director's massages on one of today's drawn-out epics.

Forgive me if I use the word "magical" again in this blog, but a day at the movies was magical to us. Classics like Bambi, Song of the South, High Noon, From Here to Eternity and so many others kept us mesmerized in our seats. And don't forget, Monday was free dish night.


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"Who Is God"

I went to a Communion party this past Sunday, and it took me back to when I received my First Holy Communion. Yes, that's me in the white suit with short pants that we were required to wear. I'm guessing I was in the second grade at the time. We prepared to receive Communion by learning our Baltimore Catechism. Miss Ruffalo asked us the questions and we recited the answers like the little soldiers of Christ we aspired to be. Q. Who made you? A. God made me. Q. Who is God? A. God is the Supreme Being who knows all things. Q. Why did God make you? A. God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him on earth and in Heaven." Short, snappy doubts, no deep thoughts, we punched out those answers like Marine recruits responding to the Drill Sargent.

We learned about Baptism and original sin, we knew how to recite the sacraments of the church and the ten commandments, and we understood that Penance or going to confession was the telling of our sins to a priest to have them forgiven. I'm not sure what sins a second-grader could have worth confessing. We also learned that there were mortal sins and venial sins. The dividing line here was not always that clear. Was having impure thoughts a mortal or venial sin? (This was a big one for me because I had a lot of them.) I also never knew the meaning of the word "covet" so the 9th and 10th commandments were kind of a mystery to me. I figured if they were so low down on the commandment list, breaking them would only be a venial sin.

In the 1950s Catholic churches were full. Going to confession on a Saturday afternoon could mean 30 minutes of waiting on line for your turn to come clean. The "confessional box" as it was called was shrouded in mystery for second graders. A tiny room with curtains on either side of a central cubicle where the priest sat, separated from the penitents by screened-in darkness. "Bless me father for I have sinned; it has been one week since my last confession" was the traditional way to start. You would then tick off your sins and the priest would assign you some prayers for a penance. You felt light-hearted when you left knowing that if you got hit by a bus as you stepped off the curb, you were in a "state of grace" and headed straight for Heaven. They stopped calling it Penance some years ago, it's now the sacrament of "Reconciliation". I guess that sounds more "sinner friendly."

They told us kids what to do and what not to do when going up to the altar to receive our very first Communion. No talking, keep your hands clasped in a prayerful attitude, and kneel at the altar rail when your turn came. This was in the day when Communion was received on the tongue only, not in the hand as most people take it today. If we dared touch the blessed host with our hand, a hovering nun would have chopped it off. They also told us NEVER to touch the host with our tongue, just let the wafer dissolve in the mouth. Communion wafers were paper thin and dry; they tended to stick to the roof of your mouth. A couple of times when this happened, I broke out in a sweat thinking: touching the communion wafer with your tongue...mortal or venial sin?

Finally the big day arrived. The new communicants sat in church with their families proudly filling the pews behind the seated children..boys on the right in their little white suits and girls on the left in their junior bridal gowns complete with veils. Sister Bonneventura sounded her froggie clicker twice, the signal for all to rise and file up to the altar. First Communion was a big deal in our parish and the church was decked out with beautiful flowers donated by local florists trying to buy their ticket to Heaven. For pomp and circumstance, nothing beats the Catholic church when they put their minds to celebrating. Centuries-old rituals conducted by a posse of priests in full regalia, celestial organ and choir music, and the smell of burning incense to top it all off.

If you were lucky, your parents had a few relatives over to the house afterward for coffee and cake. You waited with great anticipation the Communion cards you would receive from grandparents, aunts and uncles. You did your best to feign interest in looking at the cards and reading what they said, when all along you were frantically searching for the five-dollar bills you prayed were in them. Today some parents hire fancy halls and throw catered Communion parties for their kids that cost ten times what my wedding did. We were content with a cake from Mrs. Maxwell's bakery and anything that came in those envelopes.


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

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

"Official Space Helmet On, Captain Video!"

To this day I get excited waiting for the mailman. I have no doubt that this feeling of anticipation goes back to the days when, as a kid, I would periodically send away for some gadget or other that one of my radio or TV heroes was urging every fan to get. It usually involved sending in cereal box tops or labels from a sponsor's product. I can't explain to you the fevered excitement that could overcome a ten year old awaiting one of these giveaways to arrive in the mail. The fact that I still remember them nearly sixty tears later will give you some idea what they meant to me. When you spied that bulging envelope or small box with your name on it, suddenly all was right with the world.

There was a classic Honeymooners episode when Ed Norton drove Ralph Kramden crazy watching "Captain Video and His Video Rangers". The Captain had a teen aged sidekick who was called The Video Ranger and that's what legions of fans came to be called. I'm proud to say I was a Video Ranger! By far the greatest premium offered by Captain Video was a space helmet exactly like the one worn by the Captain himself. It cost a dollar, and it was worth it. A red dome-shaped headpiece was attached to a white plastic piece that encircled the head, and had black earphone-like bulges on the sides. It featured a curved, clear plastic visor, which could be raised for lounging around the Spaceport or lowered for blastoffs. Joining the Video Rangers earned you the coveted membership card which, once you signed your name, bound you to abide by the Code of the Rangers. (If only Bernie Madoff had been a Video Ranger we wouldn't be in this fix!)

The Lone Ranger is one of my all-time heroes. In 1954, I sent away for a Dell two-comic promotional series distributed by Cheerios that told about the origin of the Lone Ranger, how he was saved by his future friend and partner Tonto, why he wears a mask and why he uses silver bullets. I loved the Lone Ranger because he was so unassuming. He always thundered out of town on his magnificent horse Silver before anyone could acclaim his latest good deed. Who can forget the great intro to his TV show: "A fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust, and a hearty Hi-Yo, Silver! Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear. The Lone Ranger rides again!" I recently checked the price of old Lone Ranger comics on e-bay; sorry Kemo Sabe, no can do.

The original comic strip "Little Orphan Annie" was hugely popular as was the radio show sponsored by Ovaltine. At the end of each radio program, listeners received a secret message that could only be decoded by sending away for the Secret Compartment Decoder Badge. In the 1983 movie "A Christmas Story," little Ralphie finally received his long-awaited Orphan Annie decoder badge in the mail. When he rushed into the bathroom to decode the day's secret message, he was disgusted to find out that it said, "Be Sure To Drink Your Ovaltine." It was funny, to be sure. But it wasn't accurate. Annie's secret messages, which appeared several times each week, were brief previews of what would happen in tomorrow's exciting adventure. That movie was like a time capsule of life in the 1950s, and every time I watch, I love it. I was Ralphie, right down to the burning desire to own a Red Ryder B-B gun.

The radio show "Tom Corbett, Space Cadet" followed the adventures of Tom and his two sidekick cadets at the Space Academy as they train to become members of the elite Solar Guard. Kellogg's PEP sponsored a giveaway in the promotion of the show for Tom Corbett Space Cadet goggles on the back of PEP cereal boxes. Many times the actors would step out of the shows action to shamelessly proclaim the merits of PEP cereals, even using the Space Academy as a backdrop to plug the giveaways associated with the cereal. The goggles were used in the space lab and to keep down the glare from the radar deck, whatever the hell that was. Of course I had to have them. It took me a while doing errands and taking back soda deposit bottles to save the 35 cents that the goggles cost. When they finally arrived, I tore open the envelope, and looking back I can only describe my reaction using the words of a Peggy Lee song: "Is That All There Is?

Comic strips in the newspapers were popular in the 1950s. A favorite of mine was Dick Tracy by Chester Gould. Featured in the Tracy strip were Dick's partner with the unlikely name of Sam Catchem, Tess Trueheart, Tracy's girlfriend, and great villains like Pruneface and Flattop. Tracy was one of the first cops to rely on forensic science and advanced gadgets to help track the bad guy down. An example is his great two-way wrist radio, a radical communications concept in its day. Soon ads for the wrist radio appeared proclaiming: "You've seen it in the comics, now you can have one for your very own." Despite my pleas that I would die without a two-way wrist radio, when she heard about the $3.98 price, my mother decided to risk my dying rather than fork over what to her was probably a couple of days worth of grocery money. I checked dice, although a comic book describing the origin of the two-way wrist radio was selling for $299. Thanks a lot Mom.

It takes a lot to impress a kid today. They grow up surrounded by technology, and take it all in stride. How can one communicate to them the thrill we felt as kids at being given the chance to own a secret decoder badge! They would give you that "You poor old man" look that, by the way, I seem to be getting with increasing frequency lately. But I'll bet you dollars to doughnuts (gee, coffee and a doughnut would be nice now) that the fleeting excitement they feel for their latest picture-taking cell phone doesn't come close what we felt in the 1950s on receiving that bulging envelope in the mail.


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

Monday, June 1, 2009

Hey Carmine, Throw Me a Capicola"

Before we were so consumed with outdoing one another, weddings were much more modest affairs. Back in the fifties, Brooklyn Italians were famous for throwing "football weddings". I'm not sure where the term originated, but at these weddings, the food was simple fare, mostly cold-cut sandwiches wrapped in wax paper. Each table would have a pile of sandwiches, and if you didn't find something you liked, it was common to holler across the room: "Hey Carmine, throw me a capicola", at which point Carmine would comply and sail the sandwich through the air to whoever requested it. At the height of the meal, the scene would resemble a football game with flying salami or ham and cheese sandwiches.

These affairs were typically held in a hall rented out by organizations like the American Legion or the Kiwanis Club. There was a polished wood dance floor surrounded by folding tables and chairs. Kids were usually invited to weddings since it didn't cost $500 per guest. A big thrill for us kids was to get a running start and to slide as far as we could across the polished floor. You would be hard-pressed to find a margarita-dispensing fountain at these functions, but there was plenty of beer in pitchers, and at high-class affairs, a bottle of scotch or rye on each table. Music was provided by local talent; the band almost always included an accordion.

As the evening progressed and the level in the scotch and rye bottles diminished, the fun would begin in earnest. There was an uncle in every family whose hobby it was to get blotto at weddings and disgrace himself, usually winding up driving the porcelain bus in the men's room. Men began to dance, not with their wives, but with each other. My father "Tony Boots" had a routine that never varied; he would tie his jacket around his waist like a hula skirt, and then swish a cloth napkin back and forth across his derriere in what was probably the worst imitation of a strip tease ever. Bonus laughs might be had if one of the kids sliding across the dance floor collided with Tony in mid-swish.

Toward the end of the evening, the bride and groom would make their rounds of the tables to collect the "busta", an Italian term for wedding envelope. Usually it was cash or, for the more upwardly mobile pisanos, a check. (Some seasoned wedding-goers would not seal the gift envelope until they were satisfied that the party was worth the twenty bucks they put in. If the event was not up to their expectations, then ten bucks would discretely be removed. This is another New York money as a wedding gift. In other parts of the country, people give punch bowls, 3-D pictures of horses, or re-gifted gravy boats. I think the Italians got it right...keep the crap and show me the money every time.

People today might be horrified to hear how these weddings went, but you know what, they'd be wrong. We had wonderful times at these football weddings and it didn't require you to mortgage your house to pay for one. Given the choice between today's extravaganzas and the simple parties in the American Legion halls, I can only say: "Hey Carmine, throw me a capicola".


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