Thursday, January 27, 2011

It All Started at the Brooklyn Palace

I just came across a lovely piece of family history, a copy of the invitation to my parents' wedding. This document means a lot to me because it recalls to mind those people who were so special to me. "Mr. and Mrs. Pasquale Camardi and Mrs. Lucia Pantaleno request the honor of your presence at the marriage of their children Frances to Anthony." I got a funny feeling reading the words that pretty much set my life in motion. The date was set as Sunday, September 29, 1940. The world (and soon America too) was embroiled in World War II, but the Camardis and Pantalenos were throwing a party to help give the family something happy to think about for a while.

I can only imagine the excitement in the two households. Pretty and vivacious Frances, next to youngest of four children, lived at 2402 Dean Street in Brooklyn at the time of the wedding. The bride's address appeared on the invitation for some strange reason. Anna and Mary, Frances' sisters, must have been hovering around the bride to be, making last minute adjustments to her gown and telling her everything would be all right. Pasquale and Caterina, his wife, were probably nervous and hoping the day would go off without a hitch. Italians are very conscious about impressing the rest of the family on occasions like weddings, and I'm sure Grandpa dug deep wanting the best for his baby girl.

At Anthony's house things were probably noisy. My Dad's family tended to converse like they were speaking over the sound of a jet engine. Grandma Lucy may have been trying one last time to convince her son that Frances wasn't the right girl for him. She disliked my mother and didn't care who knew it. Dad's sister Mary, who sadly died before I got to know her, would have been trying to keep her large brood, mostly boys, from fighting with each other while her husband Nick sat outside on the stoop calmly smoking his trademark DiNoboli cigar. Dad's older brother Joe and his wife Mae would be having a couple of boilermakers before the wedding. Usually after the third drink they took off the gloves and the fight was on.

The reception was to start at 7 pm in a local place called the Brooklyn Palace, on Rockaway Avenue between Somers and Hull Streets. We lived around the corner from there when I was a kid and I don't remember this place at all; it must have closed by the time I was born. The affair would most likely have horrified wedding planners of today. I'm imagining a wooden dance floor surrounded by tables covered with trays of sandwiches...ham, salami and cappicola. There would have been pitchers of cold beer, and each table would have a bottle of rye or scotch along with mixers like ginger ale and club sodas for making "highballs", the popular drink of the day. Coffee would have been accompanied by a big tray cream puffs to supplement the wedding cake.

When I think of the elaborate, obscenely expensive weddings thrown today, I can't help but smile when I think of Fran and Tony's little affair. The music would have been supplied by local boys who had day jobs so they could make a living. All night Italian songs would have been interspersed with pop hits of the day. Good people who worked hard for their families threw their cares to the wind and jumped up laughing when the Tarantella was struck up. Kids, after having slipped a little vino at the table mixed with cream soda, would get a running start and then slide across the polished wooden floor between the dancers.

Just reading that wedding invitation conjured up all these images in my head and made for a few very warm, pleasant moments on a snowy winter day.


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

Monday, January 24, 2011

Calling All Cards

Today was freezing cold, so after our morning walk at the mall (very exciting) we came home to our warm house to stay. Usually when my wife and I are home at the same time, we fall back on a routine that seems to work for us. We have things we do together like eat, do crossword puzzles and watch TV, and things we do separately. It's a nice balance and helps keep us from tripping over each other. When the weather is so extreme it's an additional challenge since neither of us can do any of the outdoor activities we enjoy like messing around in the garden. On days like this I look for projects. Today I decided to start sorting out the baseball cards my sons collected during the 1980s and 1990s.

We have shoe boxes full of these cards made mostly by Topps. Some of the sets are boxed, that is, ordered by us from the manufacturer in complete sets for a given year. We have 5 of these along with hundreds of loose cards for 1980-1981 that I have sorted by team. We also have quite a few football and hockey cards, but these don't have the caché of baseball cards. It occurred to me that since they are just taking up space on my shelves, and my sons show no interest in them, I thought I would find out if any were valuable and give them the option of making some cash, something I know they are interested in. My timing is not great since baseball card collecting and values have fallen off in recent years.

The hobby peaked around the mid-90s when card values were at their highest. A number of factors helped kill card collecting: the 1994-95 baseball strike hurt the sport and the card industry; too many manufacturers flooded the market to compete with Topps, the company that once enjoyed a monopoly in the business...this created confusion in the market about card values; kids preferred to play video games rather than collect cards; the hobby became a big business as prices soared...people didn't just collect their favorite players for the fun of it but rather for their monetary value. Card shows sprang up where not only baseball cards were traded, but the shows were frequented by players past and present who cashed in on collector interest in cards. For a price they would sign your card, thereby starting the abominable practice of autograph selling.

Today packs of cards sell for anywhere from $1 to $10 dollars. They were a dime at the candy store when I was a kid. You got 10 cards and a piece of bubble gum as stiff as linoleum. The gum combined with the cardboard cards to emit a wonderful, mystical smell that any guy over 60 will recognize immediately. We flipped the cards as I described in a past blog. (View You Threw Out What???) We also did deals to acquire players we really wanted. We had no way of knowing what players were in the packs we bought, and finding a Mickey Mantle, Duke Snyder or Willie Mays was pretty much hit or miss. I once gave 200 assorted cards in trade for a Mickey Mantle.

I kept my card collection in cigar boxes and shoe boxes, sorted out by function. I had "nobody" cards I used just for flipping or trading since I could afford to lose them. I had cards I would not flip or trade for anything. I also had cards that were valuable, but since I already had them, I would use them for high-powered trades. These cards were our kid currency. We treasured them, looked at them until they got dog-eared, and never thought for a minute about their monetary value. Collectors today so highly prize these cards that they keep them encased in plastic and almost never look at them. Doesn't sound like much fun to me, but then the older vintage cards sell for serious dough. A 1909 Honus Wagner recently sold at auction for a record $2.3 million.

As I sifted through my sons' cards, ball players names long forgotten flashed before my eyes. I even thought I got a familiar whiff of bubble gum coming off these 30-year old cards. After all my work I'll probably find out the collection isn't worth what I paid for the special boxes to store it in. No matter, it was worth the effort to give me a chance to think back on a hobby that gave me so much pleasure as a kid. And I stayed out of my wife's way.


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

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Mick

He came out of Commerce, Oklahoma in 1951, this shy, blond, strapping hick of a boy who would soon lay claim to the job then held by my idol, the legendary Joe DiMaggio of the New York Yankees. The Yanks, already blessed with an embarrassment of riches player-wise, got Mickey Mantle for the price of a train ticket to their Spring training camp. When you think of the signing bonuses paid to players today of far less ability, you wonder how much Mickey could have commanded if he was more savvy. Having already made a name for himself on the ball fields of Oklahoma, Mick was known for his two great abilities, normally mutually exclusive abilities in mere mortals: his blinding running speed and his home run power from either side of the plate.

After two years in the minors, Mantle burst on the scene in a Spring training game while the Yankees were on a west-coast swing through California, ironically Joe DiMaggio's home state. That day he hit two home runs over 500 feet, tripled with the bases loaded, and beat out an infield single that would have been an out for anyone else. Four hits and nine RBI's...not a bad day for the kid who would soon make Yankee fans forget Joe D. Mickey was a wild-throwing shortstop when he came to the Yankees. Casey Stengel, the great Yankee manager, drafted Tommy Henrich, a pretty fair outfielder himself, to teach Mantle how to play center field. A few weeks into the regular season, Mantle threw out a runner on third base who wandered too far off the bag after a routine outfield fly, thus completing the rare 9-6 double play. "I think my work here is done" said Henrich.

Mantle came up at a time when the aging, aching DiMaggio was on his last legs. Joe D. resented the new kid a bit, and made no bones about it. I learned later in life that DiMaggio had a dark side, but as a kid he could do no wrong in my eyes. I didn't think there was a ball player alive who could step into the Yankee Clipper's spikes, but Mickey soon proved me wrong. His talents were prodigious, impressing even the veteran Yankee players for whom winning was a habit. They had never seen the likes of Mantle, and gathered around the batting cage like little kids to watch him launch balls over the wall. Branch Rickey, the man who would later bring Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodger organization, was a part owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1951. He sent a joking telegram to Yankee owner Del Webb asking him to name his price for Mantle. Webb wired back: "Ralph Kiner and half a million dollars."

There is no point in rehashing Mickey Mantle's stats with the Yankees; they are well known in baseball lore. Still, fans in bars everywhere argue how much better he could have been had he not been forced to play in debilitating pain for much of his career after catching a spike in one of the outfield drains in Yankee Stadium. Such an injury would probably have ended the playing days of ordinary men, but Mantle was far from ordinary. He slowed a bit, but continued to put up numbers that helped carry the Yankees to ten pennants and seven World Series crowns during his years with the team. People came to Yankee Stadium to see Mickey play, period. Whether he was flying from first to third on a base hit, running down a hard liner to right-center, or blasting baseballs into the stratosphere, Mickey rarely disappointed.

Later in his life The Mick showed a dark side that fueled a dozen tell-all books about him. His off-the-field exploits with teammate hell raisers Billy Martin and Whitey Ford were well documented on sports pages everywhere. Soon Mickey led the league in chasing women and trashing bars, but at the time all that mattered was what you did on the field. Maybe Mick got too many passes from fans and writers alike. Had he been held more accountable for his behavior he might be alive today. After becoming 'Sports Director' for an Atlantic City casino in 1983, and later owning a bar of his own in Manhattan, Mantle's ongoing battles with booze eventually caused his death from alcohol-related liver cancer.

Shortly before he died in August 1995, Mantle, now no more than a husk of a man, delivered a handwritten speech on national television. Mantle thanked fans for their cards and flowers, and urged youngsters to avoid the temptations faced by athletes. "To all my little teammates out there, please don't do drugs and alcohol," Mantle urged. "God only gave us one body. Take care of it." We don't want to remember our idols with feet of clay, and so I will remember Mickey as the muscular, boyish farm boy who roared out of Commerce, Oklahoma and set the baseball world on its ear. That 100-watt grin that lit up the room, the rippling muscles developed not in a gym but working in the oil fields, and those gimpy, heavily taped legs that carried his body around the bases after smacking another tape-measure home run...those are the things that will stay with me. The Mick may have been a flawed hero, but he was our hero.


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

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?

As kids we sometimes talked about what we would become when we grew to adulthood. Most of us had no clue. It's amazing when you think about it that such an important decision was given so little thought. We all knew we had to go to high school, but after that, who knew? Few families in the neighborhood could afford college for their children. Most were counting the days until kids living at home could get jobs and start helping out with the expenses. Girls with no special calling thought about being secretaries or working as telephone operators. For the guys it was either a laborer or an office job. We did have some cops, firemen, teachers and nurses, but most of us just drifted into any job we could get.

Today, high schools have counsellors and college recruiters to help seniors decide on a career. When I went to high school, if you saw the guidance counsellor, it usually meant you were in trouble. I attended Brooklyn Tech, considered a very good school then and now. The first two years of study were general academics, but starting in junior year, students selected a tailored course of study to prepare them either for college or a job. Some of the specialized tracks included Electrical, Chemical, Mechanical, Structural and Architectural. I picked Industrial Design because I loved to draw and I was good at it. Unfortunately not enough juniors chose that track and so Tech did not offer it that year. I wound up in the Aeronautical track, God knows why, and I hated it. I was turned off to school and scraped through my remaining high school years.

My first job out of high school was for Bankers Trust Company on 46th Street in Manhattan. The pay was a fast $52 bucks a week, but they gave every employee a free checking account. I thought I died and went to heaven. The part about a checking account that did not sink into my teenage brain was the need to actually have money in the account before writing the checks. I think some of the checks I wrote back then are still bouncing. The job was boring but I met a bunch of guys that became good friends. We could be found most Friday nights in Johnny's Bar across the street blowing off the pressures of the week and trying to impress girls; we rarely succeeded.

Thanks to a tip from a neighborhood friend, I applied for a job with the Standard Register Company based in Dayton, Ohio. They sold business forms and equipment, and had an opening for a forms designer. The drawing skills I had honed at Brooklyn Tech came in very handy, and I got the job. I later went into sales and worked out of their office in Roslyn, Long Island. I recently received a call from a co-worker of mine at Standard Register named Mike Giorgio. He says he was just calling around to try to locate some old friends and wants to have a drink. I liked Mike and will join him for a drink...I'm just suspicious that he's got some pyramid scheme going and is looking for victims. That's me, glass half empty.

I soon realized that the jobs I was working were dead end, and with a nudge from my wife, started evening college classes. Eventually I got a Masters Degree in Business Administration from Bernard Baruch College back in the days when you needed more than just a pulse to graduate. I had a very satisfying career with Con Edison, and have worked as a part-time consultant for them since I retired ten years ago. I sometimes wonder what turn my life would have taken if I had completed the Industrial Design study track back at Brooklyn Tech. We like to think we have control over our lives, but more often than not, some chance event alters our fate and there is no going back. All in all, no complaints.


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