Thursday, March 22, 2012

Up on the Roof

"When this old world starts getting me down
And people are just too much for me to face. 
I climb way up to the top of the stairs, 
And all my cares just drift right into space."

So sang The Drifters in 1962, and in so doing let the world know what every Brooklyn kid already knew: high above the streets it's another world up on the roof. Our family, like many in Brooklyn, lived in a brick, row house with a tiny back yard. I played a lot in my back yard where there really wasn't that much to do, but my imagination made up the difference. I thought I had found my ideal hideaway until one day my father asked me to help with some work he was doing on the roof of our house. I was surprised for two reasons: 1) my father wasn't the handiest guy around; and 2) he had never asked for my help to do anything.

Tony Boots had decided to re-tar the roof, a smelly, messy business. There were sheets of tar paper and five-gallon drums of sticky black tar that had to be applied with a long, broom-like brush. Dad had trouble getting me to focus on the work because I had never been on our roof before and I was mesmerized by the view. When he took a beer or smoke break, which was often, I would go to the edge of the roof, holler out to my friends, and then duck out of sight while they tried to locate the sound of my voice. I also lobbed small pebbles at them to add to their irritation. My father finally got tired of keeping me from falling, and released me from my roofer's apprenticeship. This was the beginning of my fascination with life up on the roof.

"On the roof, it's peaceful as can be.
And there the world below can't bother me.
Uh oh, up on the roof."

Getting to our roof was impossible; the ladder that led up to the trap door entrance was in the top floor apartment of my house which was occupied by our tenants and cousins, the Carusos. Instead, I would hang out on the apartment house roof where my pal Johnny lived. Access was through a regular door, and open to anyone with the stamina to climb the stairs. Since all the building roofs on the block were adjoining, we could travel the length of the block without setting foot on the sidewalk below. The rooftops were a treasure trove of lost, pink Spaldeen balls hit up there during stickball games in the street. They were a great place to play hide-and-seek too because of the many chimneys and clotheslines up there to hide behind.

In Brooklyn they used to refer to the roof as "tar beach" because people without the time or carfare to go to Coney Island would spread out a blanket on the tar-covered roof to sunbathe. Seeking to avoid contact with the hot, sticky tar, we would "borrow" the beach chairs that people stowed in their hallways because there was no room for them in the small apartments, and take them up to the roof. It was our penthouse club where we drank ice-cold Mission sodas while playing cards and passing around frayed girlie magazines. Urban living doesn't really afford much privacy to kids living in cramped spaced, so the roof became our sanctuary, a private place away from the prying eyes of adults.

"When I come home feelin' tired and beat
I go up where the air is fresh and sweet (up on the roof)
I get away from the hustling crowd
And all that rat-race noise down in the street (up on the roof)
On the roof, the only place I know
Where you just have to wish to make it so
Let's go, up on the roof (up on the roof)"

When you're poor you draw on your wits to create some semblance of the things you can't afford. The old joke about an Italian's idea of a vacation is  sitting on someone else's stoop is funny, but also not so far from the truth.


Children's Craniofacial Association

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Italian Rockies

They refer to the Catskill Mountains as the Jewish Alps. If that's true, then the Poconos must be the Italian Rockies. As Italian families became more affluent, and there was money for vacations, many made a bee line to nearby Pennsylvania and the welcoming Pocono Mountains. Not only did they travel there just for a week or two in the summer, but many bought affordable vacation homes in the developments that sprouted in the Sixties and Seventies. These cottages, advertised exotically as "A-frame chalets", were an easy drive from New York or New Jersey. There were attractions even in winter like skiing and snow-mobiling that gave families with kids something to do year-round.

A week in the Poconos was one of the first real family vacations we could afford. We stayed in places that were so rustic they didn't even have names. We referred to them simply as "the brown cabin" or "the white house". The amenities were minimal; maybe a lake or pool to swim in, but that was pretty much it. We would hit all the local attractions like Tobyanna Beach, Dorney Park, the ratty petting zoo, the drive-in movie and miniature golf course. We brought board games to play at night. We ate out, but nothing fancy...maybe a Pizza Hut, the Pioneer Diner, or if we were feeling flush, Bradley's Restaurant. These were vacations on a budget, but the kids seemed to enjoy them.  

Later we graduated to more upscale places where you didn't have to bring your own bedding. One of our neighbors bought a vacation place in Lake Naomi and we would rent it for a week. For us, this was heaven on earth, and we went often. Not only was the house roomy and comfortable, but there was a private beach and a nice swim club with a pool. The garage was stocked with bikes and we always had time to ride with the kids around the tree-lined development. The living room had couches, a TV set and a cozy fire place. We could save some money by cooking breakfast in, and making sandwiches to bring to the beach. Looking back, these vacations seem pathetic compared to the ones we were later able to afford, but in some ways they were the nicest.

We also used to visit the area around Lancaster, Pa. a lot. It was fun to see the quaint Amish buggies riding along the streets side-by-side with the hurrying cars. The Host Town Inn was our hotel of choice on these trips. Compared to the places we stayed in the Poconos, this was like the Waldorf. They had their own restaurant, and I remember the waitresses being nice enough to help amuse the kids while we ate dinner. The Dutch Wonderland Amusement Park was a big attraction in Lancaster...kind of a poor man's Disneyland. We ate family style in the Good and Plenty Restaurant. We also stayed at Willow Valley, a lovely place that had only one liquor allowed. One New Year's Eve we had to smuggle our wine into the rooms like college kids on Spring Break.

I'm surprised sometimes when the kids don't recall things I think they should from their childhood, but happily these vacations do seem to elicit fond memories. I smile when they start to reminisce about the places we stayed, and tease each other about the dumb things that went on between them. These were special times for our family and I'm glad they are not forgotten.


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Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Leprechaun Connection

With St. Patrick's Day around the corner, it got me thinking about the Irish. Some Italian-Americans resent the Irish because of the way they treated immigrants from Italy when they first settled in America. I can't say whether the Irish had any real animosity for Italians, or just viewed them as a threat to their livelihood. The jockeying that goes on to this day when a new wave of immigrants arrives in America is as old as the country itself. New arrivals tend to work for less money in an effort to put down roots and make a living. Just as the Irish were pushed down by English and German immigrants, so the Italians were repressed by the Irish. Usually, over time, each new wave is assimilated, and tensions decrease.

I may be looking at my past through a rose-colored rear view mirror, but I don't recall those feelings of ill will between me and my Irish friends in the neighborhood. Maybe I missed the friction by a generation, but I don't recall my parents harboring such feelings either. My Dad hung out at a place called Grim's Bar under the el on Broadway. The place was owned by the father of New York Yankee pitcher Bob Grim, and had a predominantly Irish clientele. Dad loved his couple of beers after work, and telling his stale jokes to anyone who would listen, even if they were Irishmen. Some of my best friends were Irish, and I always felt welcome in their homes. Our ball games were completely democratic and free of prejudice; if you could play, it didn't matter what your last name was.

Several good people of Irish descent had an influence on my life. One of my closest pals was Richie Bryan. We were in the same class at school, and played on all the same sports teams. Richie's father John was the coach of our baseball team, sponsored by Our Lady of Lourdes. Mr. Bryan not only knew baseball, but he knew kids too. More than once he would pull one of us aside and offer non-baseball advice. He would not tolerate poor sportsmanship or 'hotdogging' on the field, and any kid who tested him on this warmed the bench for a game or two. I don't know what John Bryan did for a living, but he always dressed in a suit, tie and fedora hat, except for our games. He was one of those men who never set out to influence anybody, but by his example, never failed to do so.

I've written before about Lillian Dowd, mother of my friend Tommy, but it seems appropriate to mention her again in this Irish-themed blog. The Dowds lived down the street near the corner of Rockaway Avenue. Because their corner stoop offered a great view of the bustling intersection, we would often sit there and watch the people go by. Sitting on stoops was a major activity in 1950s Brooklyn. Anyhow, most of the women on our block were housewives who dressed in those hideous flowered smocks or house dresses. Not Lillian. She always wore nice dress and heels, and smelled of dusting powder. She would frequently ask us to come in and have tea with raisin bread toast. She would make pleasant conversation at her dining room table, covered with an Irish lace tablecloth, She talked to us as if we were adults. Her genteel influence helped smooth out our rough edges, almost like a female Professor Henry Higgins tutoring a bunch of male Liza Doolittles. 

Finally, there was Father John Schaefer, one of our parish priests. It's safe to say that 12-year old boys are not exactly comfortable in the presence of priests. We were afraid they'd learn our voices and that our anonymity in the confessional would be blown. The priests in our church were nice enough, but never really made an effort to reach out. Father Schaefer was different. Maybe it was because he was younger, and his boyhood days were not that far behind him. Whatever the reason, he seemed to care about us. He was heavily involved in running the school dances held in the church basement, and I once saw him stare down a group of punks from outside the neighborhood who had come looking for trouble. They backed down seeing the resolve in Father Schaefer's eyes. That man did more to keep young boys coming to church than all the other priests combined. 

I'm grateful to my Irish friends and all the people who helped influence me for the better. If I could offer a word of advice to young people growing up, it would be to keep your eyes and ears open to such positive influences. God knows there are people who can put you on the wrong path if you let them. Don't shut anybody out of your life because of prejudice; they might be the ones who provide your life-changing moment. Happy St. Patrick's Day to all good Irish people..


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Sunday, March 4, 2012

War is Hell

When I wake in the morning, it takes me a few minutes to mentally catalog the aches and pains I'm feeling. I'm reminded of my younger days when nothing hurt except maybe my head from a hangover. From childhood I was an active, athletic kid. When I joined the U.S. Army reserve at age 18, I was still in great shape. Along with my buddy Joe (Lefty) Fierro from Hull Street, I got sent to Fort Dix in New Jersey for basic training. The minute we arrived the brainwashing began. The main objective of military training is to condition young soldiers to obey orders without question. First they dehumanize you by herding you together while some redneck Sargent screams that for the next 8 weeks, your ass is his. 

They shear your hair like a sheep and send you through a series of lines to pick up your uniforms and other gear such as backpacks, canteens and mess kits. By the time you stuff everything into a giant duffel bag and get assigned to a bunk bed, you're beginning to wonder if this was such a great idea...thrown together with a bunch of strangers and at the mercy of Drill Sargents who, every time they appear you expect to hear the banjo music from Deliverance. The Corporal in charge of our barracks is a tall, skinny Southerner named Lance Livesay. (He later becomes a great protector of mine after tasting the pepperoni my mother used to send in her care packages.) It was like I removed a thorn from his paw and he left me alone while he tortured non-pepperoni owners.

For seven weeks they pushed us. Daily close order drill, calisthenics in the hot sun, rifle practice at the firing range, twenty-mile night hikes with full back packs in the rain...I was in pretty good shape when I joined up, but after all this I was lean and mean with a 33 inch waist; I could take anything they threw at me. Some of the older, more out-of-shape guys didn't have it so easy. Most of them had joined the reserves to avoid the draft, thinking it would be an easier gig. Wrong. Basic training was the same grind for everybody, whether reservist or regular army. Unlike joining a gym where you can go or not at will, basic training is not optional. 

The whole time we went through our training, the rednecks kept threatening us with the 'final exam' we would have to pass at the end of our 8 weeks. They painted a nightmare picture of the physical trials they would put us through, and then dropped the ultimate threat: those who failed would be 'recycled' or doomed to repeat the 8 weeks of basic training instead of going on to their next assignments. This hung over our heads like a black cloud. Who could stand to do this again without jumping off a building! Some guys who struggled with the physical challenges of the training spent many a sleepless night until the fateful day finally came. We were broken up into small groups and put through a series of obstacles to test our readiness.

The first scary stop was to put on our gas masks and run into a building where a tear gas canister was exploded. We then had to remove our masks and scream out our names and army serial numbers before we were allowed to put the masks back on and exit the building. Next, while carrying our rifles,  we had to get down on our bellies and shimmy under a canopy of barbed wire that was maybe 18 inches above our heads. To make this little game even more fun, they fired live ammunition over our heads to simulate combat conditions! And on it went...scaling a 30 foot wall with full backpacks, attacking straw-filled sacks with fixed bayonets, swinging on a rope across open began to wonder if war could be that much worse. 

The relief we all felt was immense when we found out we had passed. Even the guys who failed were allowed to try again until they did what was required, so that whole recycle business turned out to be an empty threat to motivate us. I must confess looking back that as harrowing as it was, I think all young men could benefit from a year in the military, if for no other reason than as an incentive to stay in school or learn a useful trade. 


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Thursday, March 1, 2012

Uncle Pete

When I was a kid we lived at 77A Somers Street in Brooklyn. The house was typical for the neighborhood; three stories, a basement and back yard. Our family lived on the first two floors. The "parlor" floor had a kitchen, large living room, a walk-in pantry and bathroom, while the second floor consisted of three railroad-style bedrooms separated by sliding pocket doors. On the third floor was a rental apartment that was occupied by my father's nephew Pete, who I always called Uncle Pete. He was the son of my father's sister Mary, who died at a young age. Lea was Pete's pretty wife, and they had a son, Peter, who lived with them. They also had a daughter, Mary Ellen, who I'm not sure was born to them while they lived with us, or whether she came later after they moved to Ozone Park in Queens.

Uncle Pete came from the large Caruso family that lived a few blocks away on Dean Street. He was the youngest of five brothers including Mike, Johnny, Mario and Jimmy, He also had two sisters, Lucy and Angie. Pete's sisters were two sweethearts who I remember very fondly. His brothers (except for Mike who was quiet and institutionalized for a time), were loud and scary. They drank more than they should, and every time one of them visited, there was usually a squabble. I don't know how he managed it growing up in that house with those brothers, but Uncle Pete turned out to have the sweetest disposition; there was always a smile on his face. He served in the Navy, and after the war got a job as a cook in Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn where his brothers also worked.

I saw a lot of Uncle Pete because he lived right above us. He was always willing to have a catch with me on the sidewalk in front of our house. He also encouraged me to draw. We would sit at my kitchen table and he would sketch pictures of some of the Navy ships on which he served. He was easy to talk to, and not being all that much older than me, felt more like an older brother than an Uncle. His wife Lea had blond hair and movie star good looks. She always had time for me and would ask how things were going at school. I think she might have been my first boyhood crush. Their son Peter was a happy, roly-poly baby who was the apple of their eye. I was sad when Pete and his family moved into their own home because we didn't see as much of them afterward.

After a time, Pete moved his family to Arizona. He had a job opportunity out there, and by then Ozone Park was already changing in terms of the character of the neighborhood. Knowing how much Pete loved his family, I'm sure their safety was a consideration in his decision. For a family of Brooklyn Italians to move to Ozone Park was already a big deal; you can imagine how the move to Arizona must have felt. Ironically, Pete's son Peter, by then a grown young man, was killed tragically in a motorcycle accident not long after the move. His death must have devastated their family, but somehow they picked up the pieces and kept going.

Some years ago, I took a trip to the Grand Canyon with my two sons, and thought I'd pay Uncle Pete a visit. A mutual friend who used to live next door to us on Somers Street had also moved to Arizona, and he arranged for all of us to meet at Pete's daughter's home. I was a little apprehensive when we arrived since it had been so many years that we had seen each other. When we walked in, I saw that familiar smile on Uncle Pete's face and the years just fell away. He gave me a big bear hug and we had a good cry. We went out to dinner, and all night Pete peppered my sons with questions as if he knew he had only one night to learn all he could about them. Lea was as pretty as ever, and we met Mary Ellen's husband and sons.

I found out not too long ago that Uncle Pete had to be placed in a nursing home to be treated for Alzheimer's disease. I'm sure this is very hard on his family, but I hope that somewhere deep down inside him, he recalls drawing with me at the kitchen table, and that this memory brings that familiar and beautiful smile to his face.


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