Thursday, January 26, 2012

You Can Never Go Home Again

Moving from the East New York section of Brooklyn to the Ozone Park section of Queens, approximately six miles, was a lot more traumatic than the distance might indicate. Geographically, socially and culturally, Brooklyn and Queens were as different as London and Paris. I was in my late teens when my father decided to sell our house on Somers Street (making sure it had already lost most of its value) and relocate the family to a nicer neighborhood. We moved to a small home on 109th Street off 107th Avenue. That we were just a short walk to Aqueduct Racetrack may have had some influence on my father's decision in this matter. "Tony Boots", you may remember, had a penchant for slow horses and investment stocks that were about to collapse.

I was already familiar with the new neighborhood, having spent the last year of high school at John Adams H.S. just down the block from our new house. Since we were still living in Brooklyn, I had to take the 'A' train to my new school. I would get off at the elevated Liberty Avenue - 104th Street stop and walk the few blocks to John Adams. Compared to my old High School, Brooklyn Tech, a huge, squat, inner-city brick building that housed 6,000 boys and no girls, John Adams looked like Beverly Hills High. The campus, off Rockaway Boulevard, looked park-like, with its grassy lawns and tree-lined entryway. The building itself was in the architectural style known as 'Public School Ugly', but they had something that made it beautiful to me...girls!

I knew a few students who attended Adams; they had already made the move from our old block to the suburban streets of Queens. This helped some, but I still felt like an outsider since by senior year all the cliques had been formed and transfer students were eyed suspiciously. I had played varsity baseball at Tech, but never thought of trying out for the John Adams team. I was bitter about being booted out of Tech (entirely my fault) and not really anxious to start over again in a new school. I was down on school in general; I just wanted to get my diploma and get out. It didn't help that I adopted the sulky persona of a rebel who didn't quite fit in with the preppy types at Adams. See link below for details.  
 The Preppies vs. the Hoods

The new neighborhood was so different from where I had grown up. The streets were lined on both sides with neat, single-family houses fronted by postage stamp-sized lawns. There was also a shared driveway leading to garages at the rear of the yard. It was this shared driveway that drove my poor mother nuts. The neighbors we shared it with were low-lifes, commonly known in Italian as 'cavones' or cafones...rude, ill-mannered peasants. They had a dog that pooped all over the driveway, and no amount of pleading by Mom could get them to control their mutt. Dad was not a confrontational man, and so we endured the mounds. This situation figured prominently in the family's decision to move back to Brooklyn at a time when everyone else was moving out, another of Dad's bad real estate calls. 

Also, unlike our old block where every kind of store imaginable was a short walk away, Queens was different. Most people used their cars to run errands. My Dad never got his driver's license, so it was left to Mom to get around as best she could, taking buses and trains when necessary to do her shopping. Dad left for work every day, but Mom felt cut off, not just because she couldn't walk to get what she needed, but her friends were gone. The women she met on the street and talked to every day weren't there for her. She felt alone and isolated, but not being a complainer, I don't think my father ever fully understood how she detested that house and how badly she wanted to leave it.

Thomas Wolfe is remembered for the quote: "You can never go home again.' That's because 'home' is not so much a place as it is a place in time. Only a few years after we left Somers Street in Brooklyn, it ceased to be what it had been for us...the place where we grew up and where our hearts were. I once made the mistake of driving down my old street to see the house where I spent my childhood. It was a mistake. I barely recognized the old place. The stores were all gone. Tacky aluminum siding covered the elegant brick row houses. No kids played in the street. It was truly a sad experience. Lucky for me, despite Wolfe's assertion, I can go home again, if only in my mind.


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


Sunday, January 22, 2012

Open Sesame

Partly because I'm running out of new topics, and partly because I have more to say on an old one, this blog is about a magic carpet ride that only cost a dime: the comic book. In the dark days before television, computers and video games, kids had few options outside their own imaginations, to help them fantasize. I'm not saying that was a bad thing, quite the contrary, a fertile imagination can open the door to new worlds for young and curious minds. Maybe that's why comic books were so popular with children of my generation. They gave us new doors and new worlds to peek behind, allowing our imaginations to do the rest.

If you didn't grow up loving comic books, as I did, it will be hard for you to understand what they meant to me. The first level of appreciation came from my physical senses. The candy stores where they were sold displayed comic books arranged neatly on shelves so that the titles could be read. They had glossy, brilliantly illustrated covers that shouted their titles: Archie and Veronica, Little Lulu, Red Ryder, Superman, Batman, Lash Larue, Donald Duck...all familiar characters to comic lovers. We stood mesmerized, shiny dime clutched in sweaty palms, eyeballing the new arrivals to see which would come home with us. It took a while.

Once we got our treasure home, the sense of smell kicked in. Nothing smelled like a newly opened comic book. Whether it was the paper, the ink or both, we inhaled that smell like older guys who experience the rapture of that first new car smell. Maybe there a connection. Since new comics were always read in private, we could enjoy the smell without people looking funny at us. Once a new comic had been read, it was as if something went out of it. It sat there begging to be read again, but it wasn't the same comic anymore. The only analogy that comes to mind is from the great Dom DeLouise movie 'Fatso" when he asks Candy Azzara if she's a virgin and she replies: 'almost.'

Other than stimulating the senses, comics took you away. They made you laugh, sucked you into great adventures, and generally stretched the limits of 'the possible.' We knew they weren't real, but for fifteen minutes or so, we allowed ourselves to go along. We shook our heads at Uncle Scrooge's miserly ways, marveled at Lash Larue's skill with a bullwhip, and worried ourselves sick as Superman unwittingly exposed himself to Lex Luthor's kryptonite trap. Today, preserving comics in plastic sleeves and hoarding them as collectibles is in fashion. We put them to better use, sitting on the stoop and trading them among ourselves to get comics you wanted to read, but not badly enough to part with a dime.

Comics were also the gateway to miracle products that would change your life. Charles Atlas invented the dynamic tension system to help build up muscles on skinny guys so they wouldn't get sand kicked in their faces at the beach while their girlfriends laughed. How about the pet monkey that was almost human and, for the paltry price of $18.99, would be mailed to you from the Animal Farm in Miami, live delivery guaranteed. All boys, if they had two dollars, would send away for the amazing X-ray vision glasses that allowed you to see through anything. The leer on the face of the kid wearing them in the ad told us all we needed to know.

They still sell comics today, but they can't compete with Wii or X-Box for kids' attention. For me, that shoe box full of comics under my bed was my 'open sesame' to escape the streets of Brooklyn for a little while. Here's my first blog on comics in case you missed it.
Ten Cent Fantasy


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

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Don't Throw That Away!

I can still hear my mother say, on those rare occasions when there was food still on my plate, 'Don't throw that away.' In our house, nothing edible ever went to waste. Italian mothers were in the forefront of the recycling movement. Stale bread with a little parsley and garlic powder added became bread crumbs, soon to make a comeback as the coating on fried veal cutlets. Leftover vegetables of any kind found their way into dinner omelets, a nice dish in the days of meatless Fridays. My father-in-law, Ray, used to talk about local bakeries making something called Washington Cake by crumbling together old, stale cakes, moistening the mixture, and selling it at a reduced price. The link below references something called Washington Pie that sounds similar.
Interestingly enough, some of the most delicious dishes I ever ate came from salvaged food. The most amazing homemade soups often started out as poultry carcasses.  Stale Italian bread cut into large cubes, toasted and served with cooked escarole will take the chill out of any winter day. And if there are any leftovers from that dish, the escarole can be mixed with garlic cloves, olive oil and calamata olives and baked in a pie. Someone told me that their grandmother used leftover Sunday spaghetti to bake into a pie. Never had it but it sure sounds good. Linda's Spaghetti Pie Recipe - - 254585  My mother-in-law, Belle, was known to make a sandwich out of anything on its last legs.

The culture of poverty raises culinary creativity to new heights. In the nineteenth century, Italy, like other countries, consisted of the haves and the have nots. The aristocratic haves dined lavishly on food and wine grown mainly by the have nots. Poor peasants could not afford to eat meat or even some of the more commonly available vegetables. They relied on fish and eggs for protein, and found ways to make some less expensive vegetables edible. The more adventurous ones took the parts of animals that nobody else wanted and put them to use. Dishes like tripe, now served in trendy restaurants, were born from the desperation of poor people to feed their families. One of my Aunt Anna's specialties was a dish called Sanguinaccio, a chocolate pudding made with pig's blood as a thickener. I'm surprised Jello never latched on to that one. 

Dandelions are a nuisance to gardeners. Italians took the yellow flowers, battered and fried them, and viola, a tasty appetizer. Lambs' heads, lambs' heads for God's sake, are cooked, brains, eyes and all, and served on a big platter. Don't believe's the recipe for this traditional Italian Easter dish. Buon appetito. Capuzzelle di Agnello (Lamb's Head) Maybe Old Buttercup is slowing down, not able to pull that plow as easily as he used to. Does Giuseppi send him to the glue factory? Not on your life...into the pot! We ate some salami made with horse meat in Venice, and it was quite delicious. If salami's not your thang, how about a nice horse stew. horse meat recipes - The Italian Taste

In old Italy, and in old Brooklyn for that matter, being poor didn't equate to being a victim, dependent on the government for everything. You found a way, and that process made you stronger. You didn't whine about it, join in protest marches, or vote only for politicians who promised you a free lunch. You tightened your belt, made the best of what you had, and worked hard so your kids would have more. We as a people are losing that willingness to fight our way out of poverty, and do what it takes to better ourselves. That, my friends, does not bode well for the future.


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

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Funnies

As a kid I was a big fan of the Sunday comics in the newspaper. Many of them like Dick Tracy, Gasoline Alley and Blondie are still around. Looking at them today, they seem to belong to another age and I can't believe they still run them. My father read the New York Journal-American during the week, but on weekends for some reason, he switched to the Daily News. I remember waiting for him to come home from church with the fat Sunday edition of the News under his arm. Before television was part of our lives, the comics section of the newspaper was so popular that New York's Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia used to read them aloud on the radio to kids glued to their Emerson consoles.

For adventure, The Phantom was my guy. He lived in the Skull Cave with a trained wolf and rode a big white horse names Hero. Created in 1938 by Lee Falk (who also gave us another fav of mine called Mandrake the Magician) the Phantom does not have any supernatural powers but instead relies on his strength, intelligence and fearsome reputation of being an immortal ghost to defeat his foes. The Phantom is the 21st in a line of crime fighters that originated in 1536, when the father of British sailor Christopher Walker was killed during a pirate attack. Swearing an oath to fight evil on the skull of his father's murderer, Christopher started the legacy of the Phantom that would be passed from father to son. Cool.

When Charles Schulz sold his first comic strip to the United Feature Syndicate in 1950, it was the Syndicate that changed the name from Li'l Folks to Peanuts - a name that Schulz himself never liked. Hard to believe but Charlie Brown and company have been around for over 60 years. Unlike some of the older strips, Peanuts to me is as funny today as in was back then. The characters are timeless as are Schulz's observations about life. The thing that really put Peanuts over the top for me was the drawings. In a few simple panels, we saw Lucy, Snoopy, Peppermint Patty and all the gang teach us that the world can be cruel. Just as you are about to kick that football through the goalposts, someone just might pull it away.

Dick Tracy, a hard-hitting, fast-shooting and intelligent cop created by Chester Gould made its debut on October 4, 1931. The strip was so popular that it appeared on the front page of most newspaper comics sections. Gould did his best to keep up with the latest in crime fighting techniques; while Tracy's cases often ended in a shootout, he also used new technology and advanced gadgetry like the two-way wrist radio to track down the bad guy. The strip also introduced famous Tracy villains like Pruneface, Mumbles and hitman Flattop Jones. Aided by his partner Sam Ketchum and his sweetheart Tess Trueheart, Dick Tracy was the hero of every law-abiding American boy.

Finally, don't ask me why, I loved Popeye. He first appeared in the daily King Features comic strip Thimble Theatre on January 17, 1929.  The strip was created by Pete Segar and revolved around the main characters: Olive Oyl, Popeye's skinny girlfriend, Bluto, Popeye's  muscle-headed nemesis, and Popeye's pal Wimpy who would always promise to "...give you a quarter on Tuesday for a hamburger today." The plots were predictable: Olive Oyl flirting with Bluto, panicking when he took her up on it, and Popeye saving the day after eating a can of spinach for strength. Popeye ate spinach in order to encourage children to eat more vegetables; that sure as hell didn't work for me.

It seems like a million years ago when I sat at our kitchen table in Brooklyn, bowl of Cheerios and cup of coffee in front of me, (I didn't have a cigarette with my coffee until I was 12)  reading these great old comic strips. The world was simpler then, but life goes on. "Winter must be cold for those with no warm memories." ~From the movie An Affair to Remember


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

Friday, January 6, 2012

My Kingdom for a Horse

When I was a kid, cowboys were king. It's only natural that a few of them became my heroes. The Lone Ranger, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy and Lash Larue were high on my list. They tore across the plains, ten-gallon hats jammed tight on their heads as their faithful steeds easily overtook the poor nags the bad guys always rode. When I reached my teens, it's only natural that my admiration for cowboys and their legendary horses like Silver, Trigger and Champ would cause me to forget my Brooklyn street upbringing and lead me to believe I could actually ride a horse.
My first equestrian adventure came in the wild western part of Forest Park in Queens where they had riding stables for many years. My friends and I must have been so bored one cold winter day that we decided horseback riding was a good idea. The poor horses they kept there were as tired and tame as any horses could be. They knew they would never be running in the Kentucky Derby, and had traded in their horsey dreams to carry city kids on their backs all day in exchange for a bag of oats and a place to sleep. We mounted up and rode single file into the woods. The horses knew the trail and the stable guy with us just said to give them their heads...they knew when to run and when to slow down.

We did OK for a while and I thought I was getting the hang of it. The stable guy had not given us much instruction in how to ride, so I just kind of bounced around in the saddle trying to look like I had done this before. All the while I was thinking, how the hell did anybody in the old west ever get anywhere on horseback. We reached a little valley in the park where all the horses stopped in unison for a break, just like union carpenters at coffee time. When it was time to start again, our stable hand said that we were about to ride up a steep hill, and that we really had to plant our heels in the horses' flanks to get them moving.

Now my mother didn't raise no fool, and kicking a thousand pound animal hard didn't seem like a good idea. My friends complied however and their horses were soon galloping up the hill. I gave my steed an apologetic kick and he didn't move. "Harder" stable guy said. I kicked harder and still nothing. "God damn it, kick the f**king horse" said our helpful guide. This time, embarrassed by now that my friends were nearly to the top of the hill, I whomped him good. (Did I mention before that it was a cold winter day, because that fact is about to grow in importance in this story.)

The poor horse took off up the hill like he had been shot, with me holding on for dear life. Just like nobody told me how to stop the first time I ever went skiing, nobody told me how to stop a horse in a full, furious gallop. As we raced to the top of the hill, the rest of the group was waiting with a look in their eyes that said: Is he going to stop? Now, in all-out panic mode, I did what I thought Hopalong would do and pulled back hard on the reins. The horse reared up (this is where the winter day comes into play) and slipped on a patch of ice at the top of the hill. Luckily horses don't have seat belts because I was thrown clear as the horse wound up flat on his ass.

By the grace of God, only my dignity was bruised that day, but from that point forward in my life, the closest I ever got to a horse was in the winner's circle at the track on those rare occasions when my horse won. I now smile knowingly when I hear that great Willie Nelson country song: " "Mama, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys."


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

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Go Fly a Kite

The cost of amusing kids has gone through the roof. Most are now into electronic or video games that run around forty bucks on average to buy, not to mention the "box" these games are played on. The cost is not measured in money alone; the real price we pay for kids' addiction to these games is that they rarely play outdoors any more. They become isolated from social interaction with other kids and spend way too many hours playing these games, the worst of which are violent and can desensitize a child to unacceptable behavior. Other games draw kids into fantasy adventures to the point where they develop unhealthy obsessions and blur the line between make-believe and reality.

Fifties kids in Brooklyn never saw forty dollar toys. Sure we had fantasy heroes like Flash Gordon and The Lone Ranger, but when play time was over, we hung up our ray guns and cowboy hats and played baseball, football, punch ball, stick ball and stoop ball. On any given day, we could entertain ourselves for under twenty-five cents. Pea shooters, spinning tops, yo-yos, pitching pennies...all activities that fell within this modest budget. One of my favorite 25-cent toys was a paper kite. We would buy them in Sam's or Louie's candy store for fifteen cents, and add two rolls of string for a nickel each. No kid would settle for flying his kite only as high as one roll would allow; we tied two rolls together to really get that baby up there.

The kites were brightly colored and came rolled around two balsa-wood sticks that needed to be assembled to form the cross-shaped frame of the kite. It took a bit of skill to get the kite together without tearing it. We learned little tricks to keep the kite from breaking apart while being buffeted by the winds at higher altitudes. One such trick was to tie the sticks that formed the frame together with a short piece of string at the point where they crossed. This strengthened the kite and gave it greater stability when aloft. We also experimented with different types of kite tails, an essential addition for ease of flying. Many a mother never learned that her missing pillow case had been torn into strips and was dangling at the end of a kite.

We preferred to fly our kites in places like Highland Park where there were no electrical wires to complicate safe landings. There were also different ways to rig the kite so that it could perform aerial maneuvers. Sometimes we would let two competing kites battle it out in the sky. One enterprising kid tried the James Bond-like trick of tying his fathers old double-edged razor blades to his kite's tail in the hope that it would shred his opponent's kite. (He probably grew up to work in government.) His shabby tactics backfired when he sustained a bad cut after absentmindedly grabbing his kite by the tail as he reeled it in for a landing.

And so for a measly quarter, we got practice assembling things with our hands, learned kite-building innovations (no matter how despicable) that would give us a competitive edge, and got all the fresh air and exercise we could stand. Take that, Nintendo.


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