Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Apples and Oranges

In Spaldeen Dreams I've tried to capture the flavor of growing up in Brooklyn during the 1950s. I can easily recall my life on Somers Street, the things we did, the people we knew, and the dreams we had. What I've found hard though is to put these memories into words that will give the reader a chance to know what that time and place were really like. The difficulty arises because of all that has happened in the world in those intervening years. I can relate things as I remember them, but the context of life then is so vastly changed from life as we know it now that anyone reading these recollections is understandably at a disadvantage. I can go on about how the ballpoint pen revolutionized writing for those who only knew fountain pens, but younger readers might wonder: What's a fountain pen?

Looking at those times from the vantage point of life in 2010 is almost like taking a ride on that great Disney attraction, the "Carousel of Progress". We all smiled at how quaint life in America was at the turn of the 20th Century, but for those in their twenties and thirties now, that's how life in 1950 must look to them. Not only technology has made great leaps forward since the Fifties, but the way people think has changed. Women, Catholics, Jews, African Americans, and most other minorities, including first-generation immigrants, were definitely years away from earning the rights that were routinely accorded to white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants. We were all just struggling to fit in, sacrificing one generation for the benefit of the next. Most of us dreamed surprisingly small.

HBO ran a wonderful biographical piece on the great heavyweight boxer Joe Louis. Joe Louis Barrow was born on May 13, 1914. His father, "Mun Barrow," was a cotton picker from Alabama and his family fought with poverty for most of his childhood. His family moved to Detroit in 1924, at which point Joe first became involved in boxing. Ten years after his arrival in Detroit, Louis won the Golden Gloves as a light heavyweight. Following this win, Louis turned professional and won twelve contests within the first year. Most boxing promoters wanted no part of black boxers after Jack Johnson, a former black champion, angered white fans with his in-your-face lifestyle. I mention Joe Louis because of the jubilant reaction African Americans had to his rise to greatness. Joe gave them a reason to be proud; never in their small dreams could they imagine a black man having such an impact on America.

In Fifties America most of us looked for small victories. A high school diploma was considered worth something, and usually enough to get you a decent job. Very few people bought showroom-new cars; that didn't come until much later in life. People were content with reliable transportation that would make it to Long Island and back on weekend outings. I don't remember going out to dinner in a real restaurant until my late teens. We would sometimes eat out, but at strictly local places like the Chinese Restaurant on Pitkin Avenue that my Dad sensitively referred to as "The Chinks". We wore our clothes until they didn't fit, and then passed them on to younger cousins. Even the poorest families maintained small savings accounts, usually a "Christmas Club" run by the local banks where you faithfully deposited two dollars a week so you would have money to buy presents when the holidays rolled around.

It's hard to imagine such a lifestyle today. A high school diploma from most public schools is worth squat; everybody goes to college in 2010, whether they have the brains or not. I see people of modest means driving $50,000 cars and living in $500,000 homes. Saving money for a rainy day is a dying habit, especially after the financial meltdown that swallowed billions in investments. Despite the so-called hard economic times we are in now, all the restaurants I go to are pretty full, not just on weekends but during the week as well. I see folks shopping for new clothes, not because they need them, but maybe they're feeling a little low and a new blouse or tie gives them a lift. Buying using credit cards, a practice that was unknown in the Fifties, is commonplace. People live way beyond their means, max out every card anyone will send them, and then just blithely declare bankruptcy.

I'm afraid that unless I can invent a time machine, I'll never be able to adequately convey what life in Brooklyn was like for us sixty years ago. How can I make you understand what the introduction of television meant to us when you can now remotely call your cable box from your cell phone and program it to record a show you want to watch later? Could you ever appreciate the excitement we felt when Jiffy Pop hit the shelves and we would watch mesmerized as that big aluminum ball filled with delicious hot popcorn that you ate right out of the container? And can you, with your laptop computer and I-pod, relate to Fifties boys and girls at home helping cartoon character Winky-Dink out of a jam by drawing whatever Winky needed (rope, ladder, bridge, etc.) on the TV screen? (This was done with the aid of a Winky-Dink Kit which was sold by mail for fifty cents.) Our frames of reference are just so different.

No friends, my childhood was Spaldeens and yours was Sega Genesis. Given the choice, as primitive as it might seem to you, I'll take mine every time.


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

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