Monday, February 21, 2011

The Halls of Montezuma

The "Marine Hymn" is the official hymn of the United States Marine Corps and the oldest fight song in the U.S. military. The opening bars of the hymn include the phrase: 'Halls of Montezuma', which refers to the Battle of Chapultepec during the Mexican-American War, where a force of Marines stormed Chapultepec Castle. Why the history lesson? Well as a kid, the phrase had a different meaning for me because of my Brooklyn frame of reference. I remember thinking that wherever Montezuma was, it must have been one hell of an apartment building if they wrote an entire song just about the halls.

Apartment buildings dotted Brooklyn neighborhoods like our own little Chapultepec Castles. They were interspersed with residential row houses, now called by the fancier term 'brownstones' since real estate prices went up. These 4-6 story structures ranged from funky functional to surprisingly elegant, and housed the huddled masses that flocked to places like Brooklyn during the immigration wave of the early twentieth century. Each building had several apartments on a floor, and tenants in adjoining units got to know each other a lot better than they cared to. The lobbies always smelled of cabbage, a testament to the culinary tastes of the residents.

Hallways of apartment buildings were used for a surprising number of activities. On rainy days there was usually a bunch of kids sitting on the marble entrance steps playing Brisk, a card game imported from Italy. We learned some of the finer points of the game from the old Italian men who played on the park benches on sunny days, like how to silently communicate with your partner. This was a form of cheating to be sure, but a vital advantage in a game where knowing your partner's hand gave you a decided advantage. Sometimes the older neighborhood guys would get up a crap game under the stairs that let to the basement. If the games got loud or vulgar, the building super would usually chase us out into the street.

Many a Brooklyn kid had his first cigarette in the back hallway of an apartment building. We didn't dare risk being seen smoking in the street since we knew the neighborhood women would send silent messages on their 'jungle drums' over the rooftops and back to our parents, and we would pay dearly for our folly. We would snitch unfiltered cigarettes like Luckies, Chesterfields or Camels from the packs in our fathers' pockets and light up like big shots. Those were the days when smoking was in vogue, and 'inhaling' was a rite of passage. Incredibly, actors, sports figures, and even doctors promoted the relaxing benefits of cigarettes.

Another more romantic activity was stealing your first kiss. If you lived in a private row house, there was always a watchful parent at the window, waiting for you, a worthless hoodlum in their eyes, to bring their daughters home from a date. This was definitely a mood killer. If you were lucky enough to be dating a girl who lived in an apartment building, you had more leeway since the entrance wasn't always visible from her apartment. You planned your move carefully, always carrying a pack of Juicy Fruit gum to cover up the smell of Chesterfields on your breath. At the right moment you moved in, trying to anticipate which way she might angle her head to avoid the awkward 'nose bump'. You also prayed that some nosy neighbor wouldn't be taking the dog for a walk during your big 'Tyrone Power' moment.

Over the years, New York City took the idea of the apartment building in a horribly wrong direction when it started constructing 'housing projects', huge complexes with hundreds of dwelling units. Adopting the 'bigger is better' theory, they moved from small buildings where everybody knew and looked out for their neighbors to over sized, impersonal brick monstrosities that became breeding grounds for crime and helped to doom so many city neighborhoods. (By the way, I must confess that I didn't really think that the Halls of Montezuma were in an apartment building, but it did provide a nifty title for this blog.)


Children's Craniofacial Association

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Go Deep, Dago

Gone are the days when kids just went out the door and played. The world is a different place than it was in Brooklyn in the fifties. Creeps hunt children on the streets even in the best of neighborhoods. Parents have become so protective of their kids that they monitor their every move. "OK, we have a play date with Tommy at 3:15 this afternoon. I'll drive you to his house, walk you to the door, and pick you up at exactly 5:30. Make sure to call me on your cell phone every half hour to let me know you're OK." Maybe an exaggeration, but only a slight one.

We had so much more freedom as kids. Mom (who was still home to look after us and not working two jobs so the family could drive a BMW) would send us out after school to play; when we saw our fathers coming home from work we knew it was time to go home. On non-school days we were on the street by 8 am and played until the lamppost came on. Maybe we would rush in at noon for a hurried peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but then it was back out on the street. Having so much time for ourselves we invented games to play. I have described some of these in past posts so I won't repeat myself. Suffice to say that we were rarely bored.

Just as there is a caste system in India, there were class divisions among street kids. Though we sported no colored dots on our foreheads to mark our status, there was a definite, unspoken pecking order.Every few years you moved up with your age mates to another league so to speak. At the park you got to play on the better ball fields. You were picked earlier when sides were chosen for a game. There was some overlap in the groups based pretty much on your ability, for instance, a 12-year old kid with talent sometimes got invited to play with the 15-year olds and was given a chance to prove himself. If he delivered he became a regular part of the older group's player pool. This was quite a feat in our kid jumping from AA ball straight to the majors.

Maybe the biggest leap came when you were invited to play with the "men"... groups in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. In Brooklyn, you didn't stop playing ball just because you were out of your teens. Anyone who grew up on the streets will remember married men out in the street playing stickball in their pizza-man undershirts. One of the defining moments of my youth came from making the most of such a rare opportunity. One cold day we tagged along with the men on the block to Highland Park where they held regular touch football games. They tolerated us just so they had someone to run for sodas and cigarettes after the game.

We usually hung out on the sidelines watching the men, all pretty good athletes, go at each other. During the game a guy named Anthony DiBiase (called Dukie because everybody had a nickname) went down with a twisted ankle. The quarterback on one of the teams, an Italian-hating Irish cop named Eddie Braden, pointed to me and said: "Hey kid, fill in for Dukie." It wasn't a question but a command. I was around 15 at the time and pitted against bigger guys who were not above throwing a forearm into your puss before they "touched" you to stop the play.

I was on fire that day. Being much smaller and faster, it was easy to get open. Eddie kept finding me on short passes, long passes, any ball he threw up I pulled in. After the game, which we won handily, Eddie called me over and said in front of the men: "This kid has the best hands of any little dago I ever played with." He signalled for one of my friends to come over and ordered him to go buy sodas for the both of us. I felt ten feet tall at that moment; lower caste kids rarely got praise from the Alpha dog. I was proud not just for myself, but for struggling little dagos everywhere.


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

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Saved by the Books

I have written in an earlier post about my local Public Library branch on Saratoga Avenue and Macon Street in Brooklyn (View "At the "Liberry"). When I think about how people's reading habits have changed today, I'm reminded of what an important part this old building played in my life when I was young. Before there were electronic Kindles, Nooks and i-Books, there were neighborhood libraries with dusty shelves, shushing librarians, and the most wonderful array of books any boy could hope for. Those books had some years on them, and gave off a pleasantly musty smell that is missing from modern-day libraries.

My local library branch in Staten Island features lots of computers, books on CDs, and online books you can download to your MP-3 player, but has very few actual books on its shelves. Where are the card catalogs in the wooden drawers that held the keys to adventure, romance, literature, history and biographies? What happened to the quiet place I remember where people whispered out of respect to those who were reading or studying? My library has turned into a noise-filled place where people feel free to eat, drink, and converse in loud voices using the worst street language, while indifferent librarians go about their business as if it was none of their affair.

Honestly, as a kid, I could have gone either way. My Catholic school education pulled me toward the angels, but the influence of our rough and tumble neighborhood tried to nudge me in the other direction. I led a sort of double life, trying my best to excel in the classroom because I honestly loved learning, while at the same time maintaining my street creds by running with the guys and doing some stupid things I now regret. Among the most positive influences for good in my conflicted young life were my parents and teachers of course, but right after them I would rank the local library and the doors it opened for me.

I almost had to sneak down there for fear someone would find out and put out the word that I was a "bookworm", the worst thing one Brooklyn kid could call another. My parents were not readers so there were very few books in our house. I think the grade readers we read aloud in school were the first books to excite my curiosity. In the upper grades we were assigned book reports on classics like The Red Badge of Courage and Tom Sawyer. A lot of kids took the "Classic Comics" shortcut, but I pored over these books from cover to cover marveling at how the authors could spin such compelling tales. Soon I began to read for fun, a habit that stayed with me, and which inspired a love affair with words that continues to this day.

I'm a little sad that the library I knew as a boy is pretty much gone. Probably fifty years from now, today's kids will be moaning about how they miss their electronic books and laptop computers. By then publishers will be downloading books right to the chip imbedded in the brains of all newborns. You'll just have to think about what book you want to read, and presto, the software in your head will disgorge it. I understand that you can't stop progress, hell even I enjoy listening to books on CD in my car, but I think back to that building on Saratoga Avenue, and see myself sitting there in my black leather jacket and motorcycle boots engrossed in a book about a boy my age; I see the Civil War through his eyes and try to imagine what it must have been like. Maybe that magical sense of wonder only happens for the young.


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