Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Spin the Bottle

Boys of the Algonquin Indian Tribe of Quebec were brought to a secluded area, often caged, and then given an intoxicating medicine known as wysoccan, an extremely dangerous hallucinogen that is said to be 100 times more powerful than LSD. The intention of the ritual was to force any memories of being a child out of the boy’s mind. Unfortunately some boys also suffer memory loss to the extent that they lose memory of their family, their identity, and even the ability to speak. Some boys who still remembered events from their childhood after returning to the village were then taken back and given a second dose, and forced to attempt to cheat death a second time.  In Brooklyn, we also had our rites of passage, but they were far more civilized.

Maybe the first baby step to manhood was crossing the street alone. As a boy, if you wanted to get to the other side of the street, you tugged on the sleeve of some total stranger and said these words: "Mister, can you cross me?" If your parents were easygoing, they might let an older kid cross you. At some point your parents gave you permission to cross alone, admonishing you to always look both ways. You acted like you were grateful, not having the heart to tell them that you had already been crossing solo for the past two years. Being short of toys, we would play a game to see who could let a passing car get closest to his body. Sometimes we would slap the back fender and fall down as if the driver had struck us. When the poor trembling sap got out of the car, we would tear off howling with laughter. As I said, no toys. 

Another step to manhood involved a feat so dangerous, that in looking back, I shudder to think how stupid we were to try it. The elevated train ran along Fulton Street on its journey out to Jamaica, Queens. I've written before about how we would squeeze through the bars at the unattended end of platform to save the nickel fare. Another way of getting a free ride usually followed a "dare". Accomplishing this feat marked you as fitting material for tribal leadership...if you lived. There was a metal canopy over the stairs leading up to the elevated train station. We would boost ourselves onto this canopy and, like a cat burglar, walk up to where the canopy met the roof of the platform, maybe 40 feet above the street. Scrambling up another level onto the roof, we would carefully lower ourselves down to the platform and wait for the train. As you risked life and limb, your friends would stand down in the street heckling to see if you chickened out. If you made it they called you crazy, an epithet we wore like a badge of honor.

A tougher test had to do with something that we as boys had avoided like the plague up to now...girls. Maybe around fifth or sixth grade, boys come to the realization that those soft, sissy beings that couldn't hit a ball or make a death-defying climb had other things going for them. Suddenly we were acting all goofy around them, desperately wanting their attention and approval for reasons that were as yet unclear to us. Of course this was the first step in the great mating dance between men and women, a dance whose outcome is preordained, but the testosterone raging in our blood prevented us from seeing the end-game. We had feelings and stirrings we didn't understand; we just knew that we wanted these girls to like us, and would violate every rule in the Boys Handbook to get a smile or (rapture) a giggle. 

Having no instruction manual on "Getting to First Base", we would have been helpless had it not been for a game called "Spin the Bottle." The game was played at birthday parties in someone's finished basement that had been decorated with balloons and crepe paper streamers. Boys and girls would gather in a circle, and an empty soda bottle would be spun in the middle of the circle. When the bottle stopped spinning, the boy and girl closest to where the neck and base of the bottle pointed had to go into the next room and kiss. The duration and passion of the kiss usually depended on the girl; the guys were more afraid of this encounter than climbing up to the train platform. "The Kiss" ranged from a chaste peck on the cheek to a gum-swapping grope fest that caused blood to flow to places it had never been before.

We were really innocent in the 1950s and in some ways grew up very slowly compared to how quickly kids mature today. Guys stumbled and lurched into manhood, guided only by the tales told by the older boys on the block. Schools wouldn't dare talk about things like s-e-x, and our parents certainly had no stomach for that conversation. Somehow we figured it out though, due in no small part to Spin the Bottle, a game invented by an unsung, social networking genius.


Children's Craniofacial Association

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Pull of Nostalgia

At least once a week I get an e-mail asking me if I remember the “good old days” when gas was 25 cents a gallon and The Platters were at the top of the music charts. I enjoyed these nostalgia fests when I first started receiving them, but after a while they all start looking the same. Why this obsession with looking back? Do we really miss the things these e-mails talk about or is it our youth we miss ? It’s probably the latter. Folks my age re-live their younger days by circulating these little time capsules that take them back to a time when their mornings didn’t start by opening a little pill box with S-M-T-W-T-F-S printed on top to remind them what day it was.

The older we get and the less we can do, the more we long for the days when we could run full speed for blocks, jump those fences in a single bound, and eat like we were going to the electric chair in the morning without gaining a single pound. Life was in front of us instead of in the rear view mirror. There was high school, maybe college, then a job, marriage, kids, and waaaay off in the future, something called old age. The face in the mirror was free of wrinkles and liver spots and covered with a mop of hair. There was a spring in the step and more than enough energy for whatever needed doing. Sometimes I feel like Rip Van Winkle, waking up after being asleep all those years and finding a world far different from the one I knew.

How did that boy frolicking in the gushing cold spray of the “Johnny pump” become the old geezer who takes 30 minutes just to straighten up in the morning? When did the kid who could hit a pink Spaldeen two sewers and race around the bases in the street turn into the sedentary wreck who drifts from computer to TV room to refrigerator in an endless cycle for 12 hours a day? Where is the carefree lad who could sleep like the dead for 12 hours regardless of what was going on around him? Did he metamorphose into a tossing, turning wretch who dozes fitfully for two hours at a time, always debating about whether to get up to go to the bathroom again?

Age is a funny thing. When we’re young we can’t wait to get older. We get so tired of hearing the words: “No, you’re not old enough.” When can I cross the street alone? When can I light up a cigarette in public? When can I get my license? When will I be old enough?? Well guess what bunky…that’s no longer a problem. Now it’s: What was his name again? What doctor am I seeing today? Can somebody read this menu to me? We get so caught up in life that we don’t always realize how quickly it’s passing by. Suddenly our children are over 40. We can’t eat dinner after 6pm. A day on the golf course is followed by a morning in a hot tub. Now we hear a variation on the words that so frustrated us as kids: “No, you’re too old.” 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy to still be here and grateful that modern medicine has progressed so far. Conditions that would have spelled ‘toe tag’ 30 years ago are now treatable, allowing life to be mercifully prolonged. We won’t be twisting the night away like in our Chubby Checker days, but we do get to answer the bell every day and do as much as our creaky frames and feeble brains will allow. I can remember (barely) when my body would do anything I asked of it. At this stage of my life, if the good Lord granted me three wishes they would be: 1) good health for my family; 2) the next six Powerball numbers; and finally, 3) a week back in my 18-year old body. I want to remember what strength and stamina were like. I want to remember life without medications and a good night's sleep. Hell, I’d settle for remembering where I left my car keys!


Children's Craniofacial Association

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A Raisin in the Sun

It's 1958 and I'm heading to the beach. This is not a kiddy trip to the beach with mommy telling you when to eat, when to go in the water, when to get off the rides...no no, this is an unescorted, guys only, maybe-we'll-meet-some-hot-Jewish-girls trip to the beach. I can't wait to smell that first blast of salty ocean air as we step onto the elevated subway platform at Brighton Beach. My preparations have been flawless, like James Bond packing his tux and custom-made silencer for an encounter with Goldfinger. The objective of the trip is to meet girls, and that required equipment, cover stories and of course false papers so you could prove you were 18. The latter also made it easier to prove you were who you said you were when when you lied about being Jewish. It rarely came to this, but a good beach gigolo never takes chances.

We never carried a bag of any kind since, for some reason known only to testosterone-charged teen-aged boys, this was considered "faggy." Everything we needed would be carried in a manly, rolled-up beach towel. Bathing suit (check); long, tapered comb (check); bottle of Wildroot Creme Oil to slick back my D.A. hairstyle after coming out of the water (check); Coppertone suntan lotion (check); tiny transistor radio that, if you were lucky, got one station under ideal weather conditions (check); and if you were feeling extra lucky, a pack of Juicy Fruit gum to take care of that salami breath. Lunch was a problem. We hated carrying bag lunches onto the beach because it just didn't look cool. Would James Dean whip a pepper and egg sandwich out of an oil-stained brown paper bag? But neither did we have the money to buy lunch on the boardwalk, so the compromise was to take lunch from home and eat it on the subway.

Once at our destination (Brighton Beach, Bay 5 where the hot Jewish girls hung out) we rolled out out the beach towel, stepped out of out clothes, and revealed our rippling muscles to the world. OK, maybe they didn't ripple but they did twitch a little. After fiddling with the radio dial until we got something that wasn't static, we then covered ourselves in suntan oil and lay out on that towel like a Cajun Crusted Tilapia until we were done on one side. Burn, flip over and repeat...you could literally smell your skin cooking in that broiling sun. This insane activity was deemed "healthful" in the horribly misinformed 50s, and today I have to listen to my dermatologist lecture me every time I visit. You were happy to hear the approach of the Good Humor man so you could buy a fifteen- cent Humorette (orange or lime creamsicle) to cool off.

At some point we would go on scouting trips to visit the blankets in our search area for young ladies who might be interested in having some company. The search area was the distance you could walk on the burning hot sand without squealing like a girl for relief. A highly prized skill that might expand your search zone was the ability to step on the corners of people's beach blankets as you threaded your way through the minefield of people eating sandy baloney sandwiches washed down with jugs of Kool-Aid. We would use our cheesy but battle-tested pick-up lines like: "Hey Johnny, I think I'm in love" or,  “I’m having a terrible day, and it always makes me happy to see a beautiful girl smile." Nobody was more surprised than us when one of these terrible lines actually worked.

For the record, those rumors about hot Jewish girls proved to be totally unfounded. They were no hotter than the average Christian girl, but that urban myth spread around the high school locker room like wild fire, unfairly elevating our pathetic hopes. We spent many fruitless days searching for girls who "looked Jewish." I've since learned that there is a sure-fire way to tell, but I found out too late to improve our scoring odds. You ask them what they plan to make for dinner and if the answer is "reservations", bingo, hello Shiela. I once took a Jewish girl home to meet my mother. Mom was  Italian and a firm believer in the sentiment expressed in that song from West Side Story, "Stick to Your Own Kind". She was polite to my date, but she looked threateningly at me with Luca Brasi eyes.

Now, thanks to all my reckless sunbathing on the beaches of Brooklyn, I had to have some sun damage spots removed from the top of my bald head. If it was up to my doctor, with her SPF85 sunblock and wide brimmed hats, I'd go out on the golf course looking like Miss Marple. I never did find that hot Jewish girl, but I did manage to trick a pretty special Italian girl into marrying me. Mom was so proud.


Children's Craniofacial Association

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

My Many Mothers

Mother's Day is coming up, and it got me thinking of my own Mom of course, but also of the other "Moms" who were part of my childhood. In 1950's Brooklyn, the neighborhood was a collection of melting pot families with different ethnicities, races and religions. The one thing many of those families had in common was a strong, loving mother who held the whole shebang together. These remarkable women were the glue of our society. They quietly ruled the house, but usually allowed their husbands to believe they were in charge. The men were grateful for this concession, but deep down knew to whom they reported. Not content to raise only their own children, these women extended their motherly influence to any child who happened to cross their threshold. I was fortunate enough to have regular guidance from a number of auxiliary neighborhood moms.

Tommy Dowd was a good friend and playmate, even though he was about five years older than me. He was a diabetic and small for his size, and that may have explained how he became part of our crowd. Tom's mom Lillian was a lady in the best sense of that word. Her husband worked as a banker and enjoyed a few beers in the evening at Grimm's Bar. I think Lillian just got lonesome sometimes, and would invite the unwashed urchins lounging on her stoop to come in for tea, that's right, tea!  Being English, tea was a familiar ritual to her, and we would sit around her dining room table drinking tea from China cups and eating cinnamon toast or Lorna Doone cookies. Lillian made conversation by asking about our families and how things were going in school. It was an incongruous scene to be sure, but seemed perfectly natural at the time. I'm sure any bit of polish I may have acquired in childhood rubbed off from the genteel Lillian.

Angie Bilello was another surrogate mom who lived across the street from my grandparents on Hull Street. She was the mother of my friend Rich...all sweetness and light unless she thought you were up to something, at which point she would turn into Sgt. Joe Friday and start firing questions designed to break through your pathetic tissue of lies. Angie was a selfless Italian wife and mother who cared not only for her family, but also for a blind brother who lived with them; she did this without complaint. I felt at home in her kitchen because there was always something good to eat. I know my memory can't be right on this, but it seems to me that Angie was always frying veal cutlets! Ah, the smell. This was in the day when you could buy veal cutlets without needing a co-signer for a loan. We ate this Italian heroin like snacks before dinner, sitting at the formica kitchen table with Angie smilingly looking on.

Agnes Bordenga was the Myrna Loy of Somers Street. While the less glamorous mothers wore the mandatory flowered house dress, Agnes dressed up. She was a very attractive woman married to Sal, the coolest guy on the block. I would look for excuses to run errands for Agnes just to be around her. She smoked (something every other mother on the block frowned upon) had a wonderful sense of gaiety just like Myrna Loy. Agnes always treated me kindly despite the really obvious crush I had on her. When their daughter Phyllis (my sister's friend) got older, Agnes and Sal hosted annual New Year's Eve parties, probably just to keep Phyllis home where they could keep an eye on her. They invited the teenage boys from the neighborhood, and allowed us to smoke and even have a glass of beer. This might sound terrible, but we never abused their hospitality; it made us feel so grown up.

There was no escaping the mother's network in 1950's Brooklyn. Each of the women who took it upon themselves to watch over the neighborhood children not only helped them stay out of trouble, but in their own way added to the development of their character. Things are a bit different now. Neighborhoods are different and people look at the world through lenses of fear and suspicion, sadly, not without cause. Lillian's invitations to tea would be reported to Child Welfare; Angie's steady diet of fried veal cutlets would be condemned as unhealthy; and Agnes would be hauled off to jail for permitting teens to smoke and drink in her home. My mother was one of a kind and irreplaceable to me, but in raising me she had some help from the great ladies I mentioned and others I didn't. Happy Mother's Day, Frances.


Children's Craniofacial Association