Sometimes I'll hear the words to an old song or see an image that immediately transports me back in time. For instance, the sound of the Flamingos singing "I Only Have Eyes for You" (The Flamingos – I Only Have Eyes for You) finds me as a shy teen standing on the dance floor of our local church-sponsored confraternity dances trying to work up the nerve to ask a girl across the floor to dance with me. I had to make the most of the slow dances because I never learned to do the swing or Latin dances until later in life, so my opportunities were limited. What if she said no...was there a longer, sadder walk in life than the one back to your smirking friends after getting shot down. It was an art trying to improve your chances of success, maybe with a tentative smile or encouraging eye contact, but there were still risks. I can feel the back of my neck getting hot just thinking about it.
Once in a while I'll see footage from an old Dodger or Yankee game that takes me back to Grim's Tavern. Bob Grim was signed as an amateur free agent by the NY Yankees in 1948. His Major League debut was on April 18, 1954 for the Yankees. He wore uniform number 55 during his entire time on the team. He won 20 games (the first Yankee rookie to win 20 since 1910) and lost only 6 that year, with a 3.26 ERA, and was voted American League Rookie of the Year. Grim opened a bar, which as I recall was on Broadway in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. His father ran the place and was friends with the father of Tommy Dowd, a pal of mine. This connection got us into the cool, dark interior of the bar for Cokes, and once in a while we got to see Bob Grim, later in his career, serving up 15-cent beers to the neighborhood philosophers.
I'll be driving on the Belt Parkway from Brooklyn to Long Island passing familiar landmarks, and suddenly it's 1953 and I'm in Uncle Nick's car with my cousins pressed in around me in the back seat. We're heading out to Alley Pond Park in Hempstead (a major trip for us then) for a picnic Italian style. For most people, picnics mean hot dogs, hamburgers, potato salad and corn on the cob. For us, it being Sunday and us being Italian, that meant lasagna, meatballs, sausages and braccioles and THEN hamburgers and hot dogs. Picnics were special because it got kids and adults outdoors together for group games, a rare chance to play softball, horseshoes and of course bocci. While it was meant to be play, some of the men were very competitive and it wasn't long into a spirited, noisy game of bocci before the ruler came out to see who had rolled his ball closest to the "baleen".
Smells too, trigger memories. Whenever I go to a street fair and get a whiff of the frying zeppoles, it reminds me not only of the great street feasts that were held in the neighborhood, but of Christmas Eve at Grandma Camardi's. We were probably one of the few Italian families that did not do the traditional seven fish dinner on Christmas Eve. Instead, Grandma and her daughters baked homemade pizzas and fried up a batch of zeppoles sprinkled with powdered sugar. For the latter they rigged up on the stovetop a metal basin filled with sizzling hot oil into which they allowed the children to form their own zeppoles out of stretchy dough and drop the donut-shape d delicacies into the hot oil. This is not an activity you will find on the "Fun Things for Kids to Do at Christmas" list, but we never lost anybody.
Growing up I never thought of my childhood as remarkable, in fact it seemed quite ordinary to me. We played the games kids had always played, visited Coney Island, relished a trip to the Horn and Hardart Automat, and spent a lot of time with our families and extended families. We got through school, found a job, got married and had kids...that was the template for life and we pretty much followed it. Off in the future were lurking such issues as the struggles for women's equality, equal rights for minorities, gay rights, scandals in the Catholic church, the omnipresent welfare state, Woodstock, civil disobedience, Viet Nam and Islamic fundamentalist terrorism. In light of how uncomplicated my childhood seems in the rear-view mirror, I have decided in many ways that it was remarkable and one I almost wish I could guarantee for my children's children.