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

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