Thursday, June 23, 2011

July 4th, Brooklyn Style

As the Fourth of July approaches, people prepare to attend spectacular fireworks displays sponsored by such business giants as Macy's or the local town government. These shows are carried out by professional pyrotechnists like the Grucci family of New York, a five-generation, family-owned and operated company on Long Island New York who give 300 elaborately programmed, computer-aided fireworks performances annually all around the world. It wasn't always so. Back in 1950s Brooklyn, fireworks for the Fourth were more of a hands-on affair or, if you'll forgive the pun, hands off if you were careless.

The excitement started mounting maybe in mid-June when that first cherry bomb detonation on the block signalled the arrival of a new illegal fireworks season. I was never quite sure where the fireworks came from, but there were "guys" who, year in and year out could be relied upon to sell fireworks out of their hallway or car trunk. All we knew was that they drove "down south" where fireworks were (and still are) legal, bought a supply of the most popular stuff, and then resold it at a profit in the neighborhood. This was Capitalism pure and simple. The transactions were very clandestine, although back then the cops were a lot more tolerant than today, after all, they were kids once too.

My friends and I would take the wrinkled dollar bills we had saved up and search out the shady characters who peddled this stuff. Once you told them who sent you, like in the old speakeasy days, you were accepted. No thought was given by these bums about the dangers of selling explosives to underage customers. If you had the cash, out came the stash. Cherry bombs, ash cans or M-80s, Roman candles, bottle rockets, pinwheels, firecrackers in packs of twenty and, for the feint of heart, ladyfingers and sparklers. When the big day came, we usually waited until dark to set off our explosions. We didn't just blow them up at random either; they were too expensive to squander. No, we staged elaborate scenes for maximum effect.
Maybe an ashcan (equivalent to about one-quarter stick of dynamite) would be inserted into a ripe watermelon stolen off Steve's horse-drawn cart. (Steve was a junk man in winter and changed hats to sell day-old produce at bargain prices in summer. I doubt he ever hosed out the wagon between career changes.) Sometimes we would roll cherry bombs under cars and run like hell when the owners gave chase. Every year one of us, with no hope of ever becoming a Mensa member, would man-up and hold something dangerous in his hand until the fuse had almost burned down to the powder, just like this kid.  Amazingly, no one was ever seriously hurt, although once, during a Roman Candle fight, "Fankie"s hair caught on fire. We called him Fankie because although his name was Frankie, he couldn't pronounce his Rs. One instant nickname, coming up.

Fireworks were a common way to celebrate Independence Day in most New York City neighborhoods. The cops had murderers to catch and weren't very interested in busting kids for illegal fireworks, as long as you kept it sane. At some point that last proviso was forgotten, but it wasn't us kids who screwed it up, but Neanderthal adults. They would light a fire in a big, cast iron garbage pail out in the street and just sit there lobbing in all sorts of fireworks, hour after hour. Some of these would be blown out of the pail and explode on someone's stoop or front yard. The poster boy for dangerous, over-the-top fireworks displays was John Gotti. Every year the Teflon Don would sponsor such an event in the Howard Beach community. At first the cops left it alone, but as Gotti became more notorious, they shut him down on Mayor Rudy Giuliani's orders.

For me fireworks on the Fourth of July were a part of growing up . They are less commonly seen in New York City neighborhoods these days because of a zero-tolerance crackdown by police. I guess that makes some sense, but I'm glad for the thrills we got from setting off fireworks as kids. To us it was mostly harmless fun (Brooklyn style) and I'm happy to report all fingers and toes are intact.


Children's Craniofacial Association

Friday, June 10, 2011

Thanks Brooklyn

In writing this little blog, it’s been a challenge trying to convey what growing up in 1950s Brooklyn was like for those who didn’t live it. It must have been the same for my parents trying to get me to understand what it was like going through the Great Depression of the 1930s; there’s no frame of reference. Every decade has its own feeling I guess. For me, I wouldn’t choose any other time or place to spend my childhood. After WWII and the Korean War, America was poised for one of the greatest periods of technological and economic prosperity ever seen in the world.

Of course none of this mattered to a ten-year old on the streets of Brooklyn. For me the world was bounded by Bushwick Avenue, Pennsylvania Avenue, Pitkin Avenue and Howard Avenue. This small section of Brooklyn called East New York contained everything I needed to be happy. Along with a group of friends whose sense of adventure and curiosity matched my own, we tackled life head-on, making mistakes and learning as we went. Between 1948 and 1958, I was never bored. We had our seasonal activities that came and went as regularly as the seasons themselves.

Spring ushered in baseball season, pea shooter, carpet gun and water pistol wars, card games on the stoop and building homemade scooters from empty wooden fruit crates and recycled roller skates. Summer meant swimming at local beaches and pools, marbles and stickball games, and on those long summer evenings, playing Ring-a-levio and Johnny-on-the-pony until dark. Fall brought basketball and football in the park, roller hockey using a roll of electrical tape for a puck, and long bike trips far beyond the familiar boundaries of the neighborhood. In winter came sleigh riding, building snow forts, collecting and trading comic books, and of course setting fire to a big pile of discarded Christmas trees.

There was always something going on, and if by chance there wasn’t, all I had to do was ring a couple of doorbells. In the age before telephones or television, it didn’t take much to amuse us. If somebody had a pocket knife, a yo-yo or a spinning top, we were good for hours. We weren’t above mischief either. A cranky neighbor who refused to let us retrieve a ball from his yard might find four flat tires on his car. Maybe one of the group would get hold of a couple of cigarettes, a can of beer, some fireworks or even a girlie magazine and the game was on. We would find a deserted hallway, post a lookout, and plunge into the abyss. We sinned knowing that at the end of the week we could confess to Father Gonzalez, secure in the knowledge that he spoke little English and would always absolve us with the customary three Our Fathers and three Hail Marys.

I believe that growing up in the low-tech ‘50s stimulated kids to be active. Everything was hands-on; we explored and experimented rather than sitting back passively waiting to be entertained. This was especially true when school was out for the summer and we had maybe 12 hours to fill. Our mothers didn’t want to see us except for meals, so street games became our Nintendo. We ran wherever we went, so obesity was not a problem. We ate what was put in front of us. I don’t remember a single kid with a peanut allergy. Differences were settled in kid fashion by kid rules, usually without fighting but not always. Parents parented and didn’t overdose hyperactive kids with Ritalin when a smack to the back of the head was a lot cheaper and more effective.

I wonder what kind of a person I would become if I was born today? I am far from perfect, but I can’t help believe that the kind of childhood I was lucky enough to have helped instill in me positive values like hard work, continuous learning, thrift, and appreciation of family. My faults are my own, but my virtues I owe to the streets of 1950s Brooklyn.


Children's Craniofacial Association

Monday, June 6, 2011

Deja Vu All Over Again

I love the quote from the inimitable Yogi Berra: "It's like deja vu all over again." That's the feeling I had yesterday as we sat at the 9:00 am Spanish-language Mass at St. Rose of Lima church in Meriden, Connecticut. This is a lovely church in a small town in Connecticut filled with Mexican immigrants, but it could have been Our Lady of Loreto church in 1950s Brooklyn filled with Italian immigrants; the similarities were remarkable.

The entrance procession took a while. It was led by a group of middle-aged Mexican ladies, all seemingly under four feet tall, who were members of the St. Rose of Lima women's sodality. Dressed in red and black, they marched up the aisle, the veiled tops of their heads barely visible through the standing crowd, as they proudly carried their sodality's banners and sang the entrance hymn, in Spanish of course. Their lined, sunburned faces spoke of hard lives, but their faith gave them an inner glow as they basked in the attentions of their friends and family. In Our Lady of Loreto church 60 years ago, the scene would have been exactly the same except that the Italian women would have belonged to the Our Lady of Mount Carmel sodality and their uniforms would have been black and brown. My Aunt Anna was a ranking member of the Daughters of Mount Carmel.. Her manner was normally subservient, but when she marched up that aisle at the head of the sodality, she assumed an air of command that completely transformed her.

Father Jack began the mass in what I assume was fluent Spanish. He is a big man with a shaved head who looks more like a Russian hit man than a man of God, but the congregation's affection for him seems clear and vice-versa. Father Jack moves confidently through the liturgy attended by Mexican altar servers, lectors and singers who look like Munchkins alongside his towering presence. At Loreto, our counterpart to Father Jack was Monsignor Baretta, a small but no less imposing figure who presided over the church in its heyday. The Monsignor could be charming when he had to be, but I think it was his nature to be wary and cunning like a Sicilian Mafiosi. Like all Catholic priests, both men did what they had to do to keep their church vibrant...not always easy in poor neighborhoods where families had all they could do to put food on the table.

In both churches, the presence of families worshiping together was a common denominator, not something we see all that much, at least in our regular Staten Island church...people wearing their Sunday best to Mass... women in dresses, men in jackets and ties, and children scrubbed to within an inch of their lives. I was wearing shorts, and I'm sure the phrase "disrespectful gringo" was uttered more than once. The sense of family was reinforced when it came time to exchange a sign of peace. This took about five minutes as people wandered around the church greeting family and friends. The music was fabulous...a cross between Gregorian Chant and Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. I half expected a Conga line going up to Communion.

At the end of the service, nobody bolted for the door to be first out to the parking lot. Like at Our Lady of Loreto, congregants of St. Rose stayed in their pews until the last bars of the closing hymn. After Mass they mingled, catching up in small groups with goings-on and laughing like they had not a care in the world. Not only Father Jack, but all the ushers, gathered at the rear of the church to greet parishioners and visitors alike. It was interesting watching the mostly Caucasian members of the parish arriving for the next Mass. They seemed to wait inside their cars until all the smiling Mexicans departed, lest they be touched by their joy. African-Americans and Hispanics, in my limited experience, are more joyous in their religious services than up tight white people. My wife and I speak no Spanish, yet we felt like an integral part of that Mass because of the simple faith and celebratory mood of the people.

When you really think about it, twenty-first century Mexican-Americans are not very different from 1950s Italian-Americans. Both groups work hard to make things better for the next generation; education and religion are important parts of their lives; and family trumps everything else. So to the good people of St. Rose, thank you for making us feel welcome and for your reminder that worshiping God does not have to be all gloom and doom. 


Children's Craniofacial Association