Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Circle Closes

One of the pleasures of childhood was having my family around. I lived with my parents and siblings, but I also lived  with my extended family: grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins...there were even Godparents and assorted close friends who, in Italian-American circles, were awarded the honorary title of aunt or uncle. In 1950 I could take a street map of the East New York section of Brooklyn, draw a circle around a two mile radius of our house, and anybody I cared about would have lived inside that circle. Families tended to band together for mutual support. We regularly ate in each other's houses, watched each other's kids, and attended each other's weddings and funerals. Holidays were always spent together...noisy affairs with lined up tables, mis-matched chairs, borrowed dishes and home made wine that the adults gave to the kids, but not before mixing with soda to avoid brain damage.

We were closest with my mother's family; my father's family were all yellers, and when they visited, I ran and hid. Down the block on Somers Street lived my Aunt Anna and Uncle Jim, with their children Frank, Cathy, Anna Marie and Pat. Not far away Aunt Mary and Uncle Nick lived on Fulton Street with their kids, Millie, Nick and Sal. Grandma and Grandpa Camardi and their son Michael lived around the corner on Hull Street. We saw a lot of each other because it was common for even the youngest kids to walk everywhere unescorted. I could be away from home all day and never miss a meal. Aunt Anna lived to feed people. You were never in her house for ten minutes without a meal being placed before you. Historical Note: In exchange for having to put up with Italian men, God gave Italian women the gift of being able to create a delicious meal, virtually out of nothing.

Aunt Mary and Uncle Nick were the family entrepreneurs and worked hard in their quest for riches. Aunt Mary was a gifted seamstress and started up a couple of clothes-making businesses; Uncle Nick was a sweet guy who took his orders from her and cheerfully carried them out. They lived in a second-floor apartment whose windows were about ten feet from the elevated train that ran on Fulton Street. When the trains passed, some furniture in the room actually moved from the vibration. Their son Nick as a boy would sit for hours and bang his head against the back of a club chair. Today they would diagnose him with some disorder like A.D.D., but in fact it was just a phase he was going through. Nick grew up to be a fine husband and father. Their family moved to Selden, Long Island in the early 1960s when there were still buffalo roaming the plains.

Grandpa Pasquale owned a hat blocking and shoe shine store on Rockaway Avenue. On my visits there he would always find some busy work for me to do as an excuse to slip me a dime. I would usually blow it on an ice cold Mission pineapple soda from the red ice chest in front of Louie's Candy Store a few doors away from Grandpa's shop. I took Grandpa's success for granted back then without thinking how hard he had worked to achieve it. He came to America in 1912 with nothing but a dream and an immigrant's work ethic. After many years of struggling, he owned not only his own business, but his and Grandma Caterina's house. As their grandson, I can state with pride that their extraordinary qualities live on in my children.

Today I'd need a 3,000 mile circle to include our family. We are scattered coast to coast and "get together" only on Facebook and e-mail. About five years ago cousin Anna Marie hosted a reunion in New Jersey to which a surprising number of family members came. We had people in their 80s and children under one. It was so good to see them all in person, but the best thing for me was watching cousins who had never met catching up and laughing together, just like we did at all those family dinners. It was as if the circle had been closed.


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Monday, September 26, 2011

*** Spaldeen Dreams # 200 ***

Almost exactly three years ago, inspired by a new friend  from my old neighborhood, I began writing Spaldeen Dreams. I wanted my kids and their kids to have some idea what it was like growing up in Brooklyn when I was young. I think most of us, as we get older, regret not having talked more with our parents and grandparents about their lives before we arrived...I know I do. While it's true that my grandparents spoke little English, if I could have learned some Italian, maybe there would be more stories to tell. I have no excuse for not asking more questions of my parents, except maybe laziness and the arrogance of youth in thinking they had nothing to tell me.

Although I have tried to set down my stories honestly, there may be times when my imagination has filled in the gaps in my memory. If so, it was unintentional.  Sometimes I am dead certain that something is so only to find out it's not. I think we don't want to admit to ourselves that we are starting to forget details; the implications of that are too ominous. Luckily, the ability to do online research to capture information and images of the 1950s helps compensate for aging gray cells. Also working in my favor is the tendency for long term memory to be better than short term. I sometimes see an image or hear a song associated with my childhood, and the memories of the far away past come flooding back.

I have written mostly about small, everyday events as seen through the eyes of a 10-year old. The street games we played (mostly invented for want of money); what school was like and some of the teachers who made a difference;  the magic of radio and its influence on our lives; the movies and TV shows that entertained us; neighborhood characters; family holidays, picnics, and just eating together around the table every evening; my parents, grandparents and other family members; the mistakes I regret and the breaks that lifted me from the streets; my good fortune in marrying the patient and loving partner who helps me be a better person; and my children and granddaughter whose lives, if nothing else, justify my time on earth.

In the days before widespread literacy, family oral histories were a common way to pass along traditions. As more people learned to read and write, these stories and bits of family history began to be documented in family Bibles, annotated family trees, and even photographs. The other day we were looking at old 8mm home movies from 40-50 years ago. My kids are lucky to be able to see themselves as children growing up, as well as images of their "young" parents and others they barely remember. This connects them to those who came before in a very special way. Technology is helping too, with websites like the Ellis Island records archive, the U.S. Census Bureau online, and genealogy researchers like Ancestry.com; I was able to find out so much about my family using these resources.

I loved growing up in 1950s Brooklyn. The world was full of promise and America was leading the way. Things are different now, scarier. I want my little blog to preserve that simple time before cell phones, the Internet, I-pods, plasma TVs, microwave ovens and terrorists. Maybe this is my way of reaching back through the years to recapture lost youth. For whatever reason, I'll continue to write as long as I have something to say. I want to thank my wife for her ongoing help, and those other angels who have encouraged me along the way.


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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Say Cheese

Considering how far the technology has advanced for cameras, they can't seem to replicate the warmth and feel of old studio photographs. I think some of my favorite images are the early tintypes that began appearing around the time of the Civil War. We've all seen the poignant photographs of soldiers posing proudly in the uniforms of their regiments. These portraits were usually taken before they went off to battle, and for many families, are all that remain of loved ones lost in battle. There is an intimacy in these pictures that somehow makes you feel that you know the subject. You would think them crude by today's digital photography standards, and incapable of stirring such feeling, but they do. The black and white likenesses that should seem stark and cold produce the exact opposite effect.

As photographic equipment improved in the twentieth century, it became common for families to visit neighborhood studios to have portraits taken for milestone events like First Communions, Confirmations, graduations and weddings. Studios sprang up in every neighborhood to accommodate the demand. They kept various props and backdrops to lend drama and visual appeal to the portraits they took. There were standard poses that didn't vary much; if you look at Communion pictures from the 1950s, they almost always featured Greek columns and prayer books with Rosary Beads draped over the book as if to remove all doubt that this was indeed a holy kid! The theme was repeated for Confirmation; why waste perfectly good prayer books and Rosary Beads.

Weddings were another event that required portraits. Often today, photographers don't have studios; instead they take pictures at the reception venues which are far more picturesque than in days of old. In the Fifties, the wedding party usually made a trip to the studio for pictures. It wasn't essential to have a photographer at the wedding. Who needed candid shots of capicola and provolone sandwiches being tossed from table to table. Most wedding pictures were posed portraits that, like Communion photos, had a sameness about them. The bride and groom, with their attendants, would always take a group shot. Then there was the mandatory pose of the bride with her wedding train spread out on the floor. My mother's lovely wedding day picture illustrates this perfectly.

Portrait prices were surprisingly affordable and even poor families were usually able to commemorate big occasions with portraits. Our photographer was Herbert Studios on Fulton Street. I can still clearly remember the man who took the pictures for so many years. He was whip thin, with a pencil mustache, and dressed like Fred Astaire in pleated slacks worn high, an open necked shirt, and for artistic effect, an ascot. Really, an ascot. I remember him applying makeup to cover the scrape on my knee that would not have shown up well in my short-pants Communion portrait. These studio portraits are part of every Fifties family's memorabilia and had the same warm and intimate qualities of the old tintypes.

I am very happy that some of these great old family photos survive. Many were lost little by little as the memories of one generation were passed down to the next. Looking at them is like traveling back in time. The faces and the places speak of who you are and where you came from. While it is still common for families to commemorate milestones in pictures, they are usually taken at some franchised mall outlet in glorious digital color that, to me, convey no warmth, no mood, no feeling. We are finally getting around to converting hours of Super 8 family movies to a DVD so that our children and grandchildren can see what they looked like growing up. It's not a Lincoln Studios portrait, but it will have to do.


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Thursday, September 15, 2011

Tony's Career

My dad “Tony Boots” worked hard all his life, but never had what you might call a career. As a kid I knew he had a job because he was always rushing out of the house late for work. He never ate breakfast that I know of. To save precious seconds in the morning, Dad would put his socks in his suit jacket pocket and put them on when he got to work. Tony was a familiar sight to our neighbors as he ran down Somers Street toward Rockaway Avenue to catch the bus that would take him to Pitkin Avenue and the A.S. Beck shoe store where he worked. It’s funny, if you looked at him decked out in a suit and tie you would think he worked in a bank or an office environment of some kind. In the 1950s, people dressed for work, even shoe store clerks.

As expenses in our household rose, including the tuition my parents paid for my sister, brother and I to attend Catholic school, Dad's income was no longer enough. He took a better paying job in the mail room of the accounting firm of Haskins and Sells. The morning commute became even more challenging now that Tony had to travel into “the city”. He seemed to like the job, even though by today’s standards it might seem almost demeaning for a grown man to work as a mail room clerk. It was different back then. Public assistance was less readily available, and even if it was, most self-respecting men would die before going on the dole to help support their families. The entitlement mentality that prevails today was still years off, so in addition to his new job, Tony worked weekends at the shoe store to help make ends meet.

Dad’s next job was for a company that made casket linings. I believe he worked in the office, since physical work was anathema to him. One year when I was in high school he asked me if I wanted to work the summer in their shipping department. I readily agreed since I needed the money to support my growing social life. The job involved unloading heavy bolts of satin or velvet cloth that were used to line the interiors of the mahogany taxis that transported people to the afterlife. I was a pretty strong kid, and prided myself on being able to carry a bolt of cloth on each shoulder. That is until my supervisor, a older man named George (with one arm mind you), elbowed me aside and hefted three bolts on each shoulder!

It was fun to spend time with my father at his work place. I would stop in at the shoe store once in a while and he seemed glad to see me. He was well liked by his co-workers because of his fun nature, quick with a joke and always up for a beer (or four) at the end of the day. Later in life Tony decided he needed to join the ranks of American stockholders and make some of that "easy" money he heard his bosses talking about. Despite my mother’s protests, he invested in some stocks that promptly plummeted in value. I think brokers would call him asking what stocks he was buying so they would know to sell. He had the same kind of luck with real estate, buying as a neighborhood was peaking, and selling after it had bottomed out. Dad was always a bit of a dreamer in the Ralph Kramden mold. That big score was always just around the corner.

After my father died in 1982 of lung cancer brought on by a lifetime of smoking, it took me a while to realize how much I missed him. Never one for father-son chats, Dad offered advice when he thought I needed it, but otherwise let me be. I sometimes wish I had asked him more about his life as a young man and what his family was like, but sadly that conversation never took place. His generation didn’t go in much for sharing feelings; they were too busy surviving the Great Depression and supporting their families. He wasn't formally educated, not successful by ordinary definitions, but he was there for us. I know he and Mom sacrificed so that we could get an education and have a shot at a better life. My main regret is that he never got to see how well his grandchildren turned out. I know how proud would have been.




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Monday, September 12, 2011

Yaaa, We're Going to the Cemetery

The title of this piece should give you some idea how little I got out as a kid. From birth to age 13, my world was bounded by Atlantic Avenue, Bushwick Avenue, Eastern Parkway, and Saratoga Avenue...pretty much to school and back home. On weekends and summers we had a bit more freedom and would head for the wilds of Highland Park in Jamaica, ride to Crossbay Boulevard on our bikes, or spend a glorious day at Coney Island or Rockaway Beach. This provincial existence was broken up only by rare trips to places we didn't normally go. One of them was the cemetery.

My father's family was buried in Holy Cross Cemetery located in the East Flatbush section of Brooklyn. Founded in 1849, Holy Cross occupied a large, park-like plot of land dotted with shade trees, grassy hills, and of course, burial plots. Some of the better known residents there include the great Brooklyn Dodger first baseman, Gil Hodges; the larger than life gambler, Diamond Jim Brady, and the infamous bank robber, Willie Sutton. We used the entrance on Tilden Avenue, an impressive structure that set the mood for the seriousness of purpose for visitors. Usually my father and my Uncle Joe would make this pilgrimage once a year to visit their mother Lucy, sister Mary who died tragically young, and other family members.

After the brothers braced themselves with a few shots of Fleishman's Rye (which doubles as a handy disinfectant) and beer chasers, the three of us would pile into Uncle Joe's two-tone green 1953 Chevy Bel Air and the adventure began. I sat glued to the window as we drove down Eastern Parkway, past Prospect Park and finally into Flatbush. In the Fifties, Flatbush was almost country-like, and inhabited by mostly Jewish families living in neat, one-family houses. Lawns were new to me and I remember thinking these people must be rich to live like this. When we arrived, it took a few minutes of wrong turns, muttered curses, and fevered searching for the name of the person at the end of the row of tombstones that marked the place where our family lay.

Our plots were in a remote corner of the cemetery, and there were few other visitors around when we paid our respects. After a quick prayer, I would be allowed to roam while my father and uncle spruced up the grave site. There were water spigots scattered around the property so that people could water the flowers they left on the graves of loved ones. I would amuse myself by finding an empty container, filling it with water, and then emptying it on the bushes planted on the nearby graves. I read the names and dates on the headstones and wondered why some people lived so long while others died so young. It seemed unfair. When I got older, the men would give their backs a break and permit me to plant whatever it was they had picked up at the florist's outside the cemetery gate. 

I always felt at peace in the cemetery. In the middle of bustling Brooklyn was this quiet oasis with trees and pathways winding between the headstones. Surprisingly, no noise intruded to disturb the sleeping residents. In their conversation in the car, my father and his brother complained about making these visits, but once they knelt down to pray, I could see a change come over them. Maybe they were thinking of their own mortality and how soon they would be resting under these stately oaks. The ride home was usually quieter than the ride there.


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Sunday, September 4, 2011

Coney Is Back!

It's no secret that Coney Island is bound up with my childhood. In the dark days before Disneyworld, Coney Island was our fantasy world. Even Mom needed some relief from having us underfoot all summer, and when she couldn't take it any more, off we went. Going to the beach wasn't simply a matter of jumping in the car and arriving seaside in 30 minutes. This was an all-day outing that took planning, logistics and courage. We rode the subway carrying our beach blankets, towels, pails and shovels, and of course the brown bags dripping oil from the peppers and eggs or Italian tuna sandwiches. There was also a gallon thermos jug full of grape Kool-Aid that could be filled to the brim for about four cents.

We took the A train to Franklin Avenue. People would snap our pictures as we got off the subway because they didn't see many white people in that neighborhood. We walked up the steps to the elevated Coney Island train that actually had woven straw seats. You can only imagine my mother, and usually one of my aunts, trying to keep tabs on this caravan of kids and baggage. The ride was above ground and we all ran for window seats so we would have a good view of the exotic landscape that was just a twenty-minute drive from home, but seemed to us like another world. We shifted uncomfortably in our straw seats as the bathing suits we wore under our clothes chaffed in the non-air-conditioned cars. At last the tang of salt air told us we were there.

We ran down the train steps, with the slower adults trying to keep up and screaming at us to stay together. The pull of the ocean and the sounds of crashing waves drew us up the narrow streets that led to the glorious boardwalk. We then slogged through the cool sand under the boardwalk, giggling past the young couples groping each other to the sounds of their new fangled transistor radios. Finally, we hit the sun-splashed beach and broke into a run as the sand turned hot under our feet. Mom would splurge for the fifty cent umbrella rental fee so that the younger kids in the troupe could have a shady place to take their mid-day nap. They slathered us up with Coppertone and turned us loose, hoping not to see us for a few hours.

After a day of diving into the waves, burying each other in the wet sand near the water, and chasing after the Good Humor man who sold ice cream on the beach, we should have been exhausted, but we knew the day was not yet over. After our bathing suits dried, we got dressed and headed across the boardwalk to the Steeplechase Park amusement area. We usually stopped first at one of the custard stands for the best pistachio or banana soft ice cream I've ever had. We were then free to tour the rides in the park. An admission entitled you to so many rides, and they would punch your round ticket for each ride you went on. The Panama Slide, the Airplane Swings, The Wild Mouse and of course the Steeplechase horses that circled the park on a track. It was a ten-year old's heaven on earth.

We recently visited the Coney Island Aquarium. Unfortunately, it was "Screaming Kids Get in Free" day and we didn't hang around for long. We took a stroll on the boardwalk down to Nathan's for lunch. I was most pleasantly surprised to see the beach and the amusement area thriving. After years of hard times, they have cleaned things up and it looked very much like it did when I was a boy. The Cyclone and the Wonder Wheel are still there, and if you squint really hard, it's 1952 again...your vision and hearing are perfect, nothing hurts, and you can leap tall buildings in a single bound. But back to reality; now where is that sun block, and I can't find my eye drops again.


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