Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thanksgiving Rerun

Here's an old blog I'm rerunning for the Thanksgiving holiday:

Thanksgiving is a time when we, like the Pilgrims who started this holiday in 1621, take time out to give thanks for all we have been given. Somehow, what with all the parades, football games, and eating as if we were going to the electric chair at dawn, the "thanking" part tends to get overlooked. Oh sure, we're thankful for our families and friends, good health, living in a great country like the United States...all the big blessings that come to mind, but what about the small things? They deserve our gratitude too. And so, hoping to set a good example and maybe start a trend, I decided to list the top ten small things in life that I'm thankful for:

10. That Rosie O'Donnell is a lesbian so that no guy has to sleep with her.
9. Living in a country where any sound bite in a suit can grow up to be President.
8. Being named "Sexiest Man Alive" by Geezer Magazine.
7. Thanks to organ transplants, we can now have someone else's heart attack.
6. The market's down, but I can still watch Law and Order reruns three times a day.
5. Adam Sandler movies are now available on DVD.
4. There was no "Godfather IV".
3. Our sacred American tradition that allows any pinhead to vote.
2. That Barbra Streisand never had a "wardrobe malfunction."
1. As per the Darwin Awards, some idiots are eventually weeded out of the gene pool.

I am also thankful for all those Macy's parades we took the kids to back in the day. We must have gone for twenty straight years. There we stood outside the Dakota Apartments, huddled against the cold while waiting to see such B-list celebrities as the lip-synching Osmond Family, Eartha Kitt at age 85 on a respirator, and the guy who does Bette Midler's dry cleaning. I got up at 5 am for this? The real parade attraction was the balloons. I don't know how they maneuvered those mammoth things down Central Park West, with the swirling crosswinds on every corner, but it was always a treat to see. The crowd would start buzzing when a particular favorite was still blocks away: "Here comes Snoopy, here comes Snoopy."

The parade was fun when we first started going. People were reasonably polite and respected the fact that those in front had got there early to have a good view. In later years, the Yuppie scum showed up, arriving late with their Starbucks coffee and spoiled-rotten kids. They would push their brats to the curb with no regard for who was in front of them. One year we saw a bunch of them standing on the hood and roof of some poor shlub's car to get a better view. When we hollered at them to get off, they looked at us like we were crazy. To paraphrase an old joke: "What's the tragedy when a bus load of Yuppies goes off the cliff." Answer: "Two empty seats."

Holidays are a special time. They remind us that being with family and celebrating our traditions are what make the day so uniquely American. In that spirit, I wish you and your family a very Happy Thanksgiving.


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

Saturday, November 19, 2011

If I Had a Hammer

I still do some consulting for my old company, Con Edison. Con Ed employs a lot of people who do demanding, physical work to keep their electric, gas and steam systems working. The company is very safety conscious, and is continually looking for ways to reduce accidents. Interestingly, a high percentage of accidents involves the use of hand tools. This seems strange given all the more dangerous power tools in use. One possible reason for this is that so many of the young people being hired today have little experience using simple hand tools like hammers, wrenches, pliers and screwdrivers. Also, they have little curiosity about how mechanical things work. As kids, we learned early on that because our families could not afford to buy us new toys, we often made our own or repaired broken ones.

Learning to use tools became a necessity for us. I don't think my father ever bought a tool in his life. The few tools he had were scrounged from wherever he could get them and kept in an old shoebox. Every tool had tape wrapped around the handles.  They were chipped, nicked and dented, but we managed. I still have one of his beat-up screwdrivers to this day. My dad Tony was the least handy guy I ever met; he would usually sweet talk our neighbor Frank into doing any real repairs around the house while he talked and drank beer. I think the first time I walked into a Sears hardware department and saw real tools, I was awe struck.

Every kid on my block could hand make a scooter or a carpet gun from scratch. We made wooden bows from tree limbs and fashioned crooked arrows to play Robin Hood. Bicycle repairs were done almost daily since all of us rode second-hand bikes. My first bike was a hand-me-down from my cousin Joan. It would have been humiliating for a guy to ride a girl's bike so I made a crossbar out of wood, and shaped and painted it light blue to match the color of the bike. Problem solved. If we got flat tires, every kid knew how to remove the inner tube from the tire, patch it and remount it on the wheel. Roller skates, sleds, red wagons...we could fix them. We built our own roller hockey goals that we set up over the manhole covers in the street for our very own hockey rinks. The point is that sheer necessity helped us acquire basic hand tool skills that are so lacking today.

One store-bought toy on every Fifties kid's Christmas list for those lucky enough to have parents who could afford it was an Erector Set. For those unfamiliar with it, the Erector Set was a collection of variously shaped metal pieces and the nuts and bolts to assemble different projects like a Ferris wheel or tow truck. The set came with detailed instructions that taught kids how to build things by following a plan. Lincoln Logs were another construction toy that encouraged kids to use their hands. There were kits to build radios, model planes and rockets, even chemistry sets that temporarily deprived some careless boys of their eyebrows. There were no video games, electronic toys, or from the Fifties were hands-on! 

I have a friend who as a kid salvaged a used lawnmower engine and some old washing machine belts to turn his two-wheeler into a motor bike. By his teen years he was rebuilding car engines for hot rods. Kids built go carts, carpet guns, tree houses (using salvaged lumber)  and improvised ramps for jumping bikes. Necessity really was the mother of invention. It stands to reason that if you never swung a hammer as a kid, you have a good chance of showing up in your employer's accident statistics as an adult.


Children's Craniofacial Association

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Pleasure Island

Fredrick Law Olmstead is known as one of the premier landscape architects and park designers in the world, with Central Park in New York City being the jewel in his crown. A lesser-known Olmstead gem is Prospect Park in Brooklyn, a place that featured prominently in the childhood of so many kids including me. If Central Park was the elegant centerpiece of Manhattan, surrounded by multi-million dollar properties, high-end retail stores and horse-drawn carriages, Prospect Park was the "people's" park. Not to minimize the beauty or grandeur of Prospect Park, but it just seemed more like a neighborhood place than a world renown tourist attraction. Its playgrounds, ball fields, zoo, lake, serene walkways and carousel drew old and young alike to its shady embrace.

My wife was lucky enough to live within walking distance of the park and was a frequent visitor. I wasn't so lucky and had to either take the subway or ride my bike to get there, but it was always worth the trip. One of my favorite attractions was the zoo, not large like the Bronx Zoo, but we got to see exotic animals up close and personal. This was in the days before showcasing animals in more natural settings became popular; sadly, most of them were caged. Even as a kid I sensed there was something wrong with locking up magnificent beasts like tigers, bears and elephants in tiny enclosures for people to gawk at. One exception to this practice was the seal pool. Surrounded by an iron fence, this pool featured space where the seals could swim freely, and concrete platforms where they sunbathed. I loved watching them, and on hot days, wished I could join them.

The ball fields were located on the Parade Grounds. I assume at one time the spot was used for parades, but all I remember is the well-tended baseball diamonds that were used only by organized baseball leagues. The neighborhood ball fields we used were overgrown, strewn with broken bottles and debris and playing on them often produced injuries. The Prospect Park fields were fenced in, carefully mown and raked, and had precisely painted foul lines with real bases. Stepping onto those fields made you feel like a ballplayer. I played varsity baseball for Brooklyn Technical High School, and also in PAL and American Legion leagues, so I had the privilege to play there. Local residents would congregate and watch the games, making it seem even more special.

Another big draw was the lake. Stocked with catfish, the lake was one of the few places a kid could fish without a boat or a lot of equipment. We would use bamboo poles with a bobber that would dip under the water when we got a bite. Pieces of bread or corn kernels served as bait and worked very well. What kid can forget the thrill of landing that first fish. We usually threw them back to be caught another day. The Parks Department also rented row boats and paddle boats for the more adventurous. My father took me out once; it may have been the only time I saw Tony Boots get into a boat. Swimming was prohibited since there were no lifeguards, but that didn't stop many kids from splashing around on a summer day.

No trip to the park would be complete without riding the carousel. You could hear the calliope music filling the air as you approached the enclosed pavilion that housed the ride. Soon you saw the whirling horses, lions and tigers and your step quickened, racing ahead of your parents to get on line to buy your tickets. The exquisitely carved and garishly painted carousel animals were works of art. Some of them moved up and down while they circled, while some remained stationary; no self-respecting boy would ever mount a stationery horse, or worse still, sit in one of the tame bench seats that were clearly designed for grandpas. Spinning around on your steed while waving to your mom, who was hollering at you to NOT reach out for the brass rings, was every boy's idea of pure pleasure.

There were few green spaces in Brooklyn near where I grew up, so you can only imagine the anticipation with which we viewed a trip to Prospect Park. For us, it looked like Pleasure Island must have looked to Pinocchio, but without the consequences that bad boys faced. I am grateful that men like Fredrick Law Olmstead understood the importance of such spaces to city folk, and used their consideriable talents to build them for us.


Children's Craniofacial Association 

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Mayor of Union Street

I think one of the reasons I enjoy traveling to Italy so much, apart from the obvious beauty of the place, is that I feel very comfortable around Italians. The men and women I saw on my trips look just like the ones from my old Brooklyn neighborhood. I am not referring to the younger Italians who live in the cities, who look so slim and elegant in their fashionable clothes, but rather the older, country people who inhabit the streets of every small town in Italy. Their brown faces, mended sweaters and the way they gesture with their hands when they talk is so familiar to me.

In my old neighborhood, every block had an old Italian man the residents referred to as "the Mayor" who sat out on his stoop 16 hours a day observing. Among his most important duties were to keep any balls we kids hit into his vicinity, yell profanities in Italian at any kid who was fast enough to retrieve a ball before the Mayor could scoop it up, and rat out any kid who did something bad to the kid's parents. The Mayor was under contract to DiNoboli to smoke only their smelly cigars. The stubs of unfinished cigars would be stashed in the mailbox to be smoked another day. The Mayor's uniform was a simple one: gray cardigan sweater over a white shirt, worn trousers held up with suspenders or a safety pin, scruffy slippers and sometimes an old cap.

Neighbors called the Mayor Zio Nicola or Zio Antonio or some other Italian name, Zio being a term of respect in Italian that translates as uncle. He acknowledged their greetings but rarely smiled unless the greeter happened to be an Italian woman. Then the Mayor became the soul of chivalry, tipping his hat if he was wearing one and exchanging pleasantries in Italian...a regular Marcello Mastroianni. One of the Mayor's favorite pastimes was playing briscola, an Italian card game that involved communicating the contents of your hand to your partner without the other players catching on. Apparently the rules called for wild gesticulating and much cursing. Home made Italian liqueur was frequently served to fuel the debate.

The old Italian women on my street were fixtures too, with their black dresses and grey hair in buns. They rarely went indoors for fear that the other Italian women would talk about them. We used to make money running errands so they wouldn't have to leave their posts on the stoop. In the summer they loved the shaved ices with flavored syrup that were sold off a push cart. Since it would be undignified for them to negotiate this transaction in person, they would give us the money, usually wrapped in an old lace handkerchief, and we would do the deed. Our reward was a few pennies, or if they were feeling generous, they would treat us to an ice and then pump us for gossip about what was going on in our families.

These were displaced people who came to America from Italy and tried to fit in. Many insisted their children learn American ways and they encouraged this by never speaking of their lives in Italy or conversing in their native tongue except among themselves. Their children and grandchildren were poorer for this. My wife's grandfather, Vincenzo Salamo, was the Mayor of Union Street in Park Slope. He would take in all the neighbors' empty trash cans and pick up paper bus transfers which were good for a free ride back then and hand them out magnaminously to people on the block. 

In Italy I saw people in small towns sitting in small groups and talking animatedly. If I closed my eyes I could have been standing on Rockaway Avenue or Fulton Street listening to a spirited debate as to whether Naples or Sicily was the superior birthplace. Viva Italia!     


Children's Craniofacial Association

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Neighborhood Character - Fat Sally

Fat Sally was aptly named. He weighed around 300 lbs. and looked at exercise in any form the way you would look at something unpleasant on the bottom of your shoe. Sal also had what used to called a "club foot" and wore an over sized corrective shoe. Completing the picture were hooded eyes and a full head of oily curls that made him look like a slightly dishonest angel. In fact, Sally was slightly dishonest. He fancied himself a "wise guy" but didn't really get into any heavy stuff. He took numbers, but so did every candy store owner in the neighborhood. He was also our illegal fireworks supplier, and did a brisk business selling cherry bombs and ash cans out of his car trunk on July 4th.

Fat Sally's criminal career started early. When we were kids we all played an Italian card game called "brisk". Sally began to organize these games in exchange for skimming a dime from every winning pot. In exchange for this fee, he would bring you (for a small charge) ice cold sodas from the corner grocery store or Italian ices from Roma's pastry shop on Fulton Street. He would also keep an eye out for the cops who actually patrolled a beat back in those days. They were like the mailman; we saw them every day and they knew every kid on the block. They were not above giving you a love tap with their nightsticks if they thought you needed an attitude adjustment.

As he got older, Sally moved on to taking bets on the numbers and also sporting events. As I said, there was plenty of competition in the neighborhood, especially from our local barber who made a lot more money as a bookie than he ever did cutting hair. Fat Sally might have been risking a broken kneecap since the barber was connected to real mob guys, except that he had one big thing going for him...his brother crazy Louie. Here was a serious sociopath. Louie started out as the kid who would eat a bug on a dare. He was violent and totally unpredictable, and even in a neighborhood full of tough street kids, we all gave crazy Louie a wide berth.

Louie, despite his psychopathic tendencies, had a soft side. He served as an altar boy at Mass and at times, seemed deeply religious. How he reconciled these feelings with his penchant for throwing garbage pails through store windows or beating the crap out of people who looked the wrong way at him, I'll never know. Louie was also very protective of his little brother. Knowing this, Fat Sally felt free to act like a total jerk. He would knowingly taunt people, confident that Louie would step in if things got out of hand. Unfortunately, Sal pushed his luck a little too far.

There was a sad character in our neighborhood we called "Eddie Goose". Eddie was like the Lenny character in John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men"...brutally strong but gentle as a baby. He was probably schizophrenic, and in the cruel world of kids, that meant teasing and worse. He usually tolerated our taunts, but one day Fat Sally just wouldn't let up. Knowing his big brother was close by, he began hitting Eddie Goose, first on the head, and when Eddie covered up, then in the stomach. Something snapped in Eddie's brain and he turned into The Hulk. Once aroused, his strength kicked in and he quickly put the cowardly Sal on the ground. Crazy Louie stepped in and it turned out to be the worst mistake he ever made. When Eddie was done with him, to quote the great Jim Croce song, he looked like a jigsaw puzzle with a couple of pieces gone.

 In a perfect world, all the Fat Sallys and Crazy Louies would eventually meet their Eddie Goose and get what was coming to them. The world is far from perfect however, although on one day in the 1950s, under the el on Fulton Street in Brooklyn, Karma was king and it was good to see justice done.


Children's Craniofacial Association