Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Miss Frankie

She was in her mid-thirties with powdered skin, cotton-candy blond hair worn like Barbara Stanwick's in "Double Indemnity", and pouty red lips. She wore flowered dresses, tinted eye glasses and always smelled so nice. She was Miss Frankie, our grammar school art teacher. During the 1950s at Our Lady of Lourdes school, Miss Frankie did her best to light the fire of artistic passion in a collection of rag-tag kids from the streets of Brooklyn. Each child paid the princely sum of 21 cents a week to cover the salaries of Miss Frankie, and our far less glamorous music teacher, Miss Hessian. The fee also helped pay for afternoon movies every Monday shown in the church basement...such classics as "Francis the Talking Mule" with Donald O'Connor, and the adventure serial "The Thunder Riders" with cowboy Gene Autry.

As I recall we had art class on Tuesdays. Miss Frankie would breeze in with an armful of rolled-up paper that she would tack up and proceed to show us, step-by-step, how to draw a vase full of flowers or some other innocuous still life. She would begin the drawing, and then wander around the room to see how her pupils were progressing. Miss Frankie was not overly tolerant of deviations in style or technique; she wanted you to copy what she had drawn, exactly as she had drawn it. She would correct your drawing to make it look like hers, thus stifling any ideas of artistic interpretation. Picasso or Monet would have grown up to become plumbers if they had Miss Frankie as their first art teacher.

I could always draw pretty well, and easily reproduced the line drawing for the day in the style approved by Miss Frankie. Because of this she would usually glide by my desk and simply nod, saying: "Very good James" before moving on to the next student. When she didn't like what she saw, Miss Frankie would bend down over the drawing, her lovely scent filling the air, and proceed to modify the offending artist's rendition so it looked more like hers. I was in love with Miss Frankie, and wanted so much for her face to be near mine as she corrected my work. Because of this, I was not above setting aside my artistic integrity and intentionally tanking a drawing just to get the benefit of Miss Frankie's suggestions.

Art class was a welcome break for our regular teachers since they got a brief respite from the 45 or so kids they were charged with enlightening each day. That may sound like a lot compared to today's classes of 20-25, but remember, this was a Catholic school where discipline was king. Unruly children were never a problem for long. One trip to the Principal's office where Brother Justinian awaited (Darth Vader was modeled after him) was usually enough to take the starch out of any kid who put a toe over the line. As a result, teachers could concentrate on teaching, and the results bore out the effort required to maintain decorum in the classroom.

We all wore school uniforms so there were no fashionistas to set themselves above other kids. Your hygiene was always subject to inspection, and there was no reluctance to send notes home suggesting more frequent shampoos or finger nail cleaning. During a class, if the Principal or any other teacher entered the room, we would all stand and say in unison: "Good morning Brother Justinian." Kids so respected teachers that we stood in the rain fighting to carry a teachers books or shield them with our umbrellas. We tried hard to get picked for menial jobs like washing the blackboards or packing textbooks away at the end of the school year. Older boys were allowed to go grocery shopping in Bohack's for the food used by the brothers and nuns who lived on the church grounds.

But I digress...back to my muse, Miss Frankie. I never knew whether "Frankie" was her first or last name, but despite the rather narrow artistic boundaries she set, I owe her a debt for instilling in me an interest in art. This was nurtured by a Brooklyn Tech high school teacher, whose name is gone from my memory. This woman encouraged me to try for a career in commercial art, but unfortunately my days at Brooklyn Tech came to an end soon after some bad decisions I made caused me and the school to part company. Teaching should be one of the noblest professions anyone can choose because of the potential to influence and shape young lives. Sadly, the bureaucrats have turned teachers into civil servants, thereby severely limiting their ability to inspire. To all the teachers who rise above the system and give their all every day, we should say thank you.

"A good teacher is like a candle - it consumes itself to light the way for others."  ~Author Unknown

(Originally published 8/22/2011)


Children's Craniofacial Association

Monday, April 28, 2014

The Stoop

Technically, a “stoop” is a set of stone or brick steps that leads to the upper entrances of the two or three storey row houses that were so typical in the Brooklyn of my youth, but it was so much more to us. It was the place where people sat on hot summer nights in the days before air-conditioning. Kids were allowed to stay out late in the summer playing great games like hide and seek, Johnny-on-the-pony, red light-green light and ring-a-levio. God help you if you didn’t come running when your mother hollered for you.

Neighborhood families gathered on their stoops to gossip about the news of the day. (I love the old joke about an Italian’s idea of a summer vacation: sitting on someone else’s stoop.) The stoop was where we played stoop ball with the versatile “Spaldeen” high-bounce ball. You could play by yourself or against other kids. The stoop was where you sat reading comics while waiting for the ice cream man…in my neighborhood it was “Bungalow Bar”. Their truck is pictured at left, and just looking at it, I still get a craving for my favorite ice cream bar.…toasted coconut.

I'm not sure if stoop-sitting was a New York City phenomenon, but I don't get a sense that people around the country did it. New York's crowded neighborhoods favored multi-storied row houses to maximize space for residential dwellings, and since people needed a way to reach apartments on upper floors, the stoop was just a natural way to do that. There were short stoops of just a few steps to reach first floor apartments, and longer versions of maybe 15 steps like ours on Somers Street. Stoops were natural perches for the many sets of eyes that watched the neighborhood. If you did something wrong in the street, the news of your indiscretion would reach home before you did.

Television was just getting off the ground in the 1950s, and few people in poor neighborhoods had phones. People would get messages at the corner candy store and an enterprising kid would deliver them to the house for a small tip. General news traveled from stoop to stoop...who won a hundred bucks in the Irish Sweepstakes, who was having a fling with the insurance man when he came around to collect the 25 cent premium on her husband's policy, and who had kissed who while playing spin-the-bottle at Joanne DiFazio's birthday party. Stoop sitters would greet neighbors as they walked down the street after returning from work. A few pleasantries were exchanged about Grandma's health, the changing character of the block, little Nicky's upcoming Confirmation...small stuff, but friendly.

The idea of a neighborhood has changed much from when I was a kid in Brooklyn. While it still refers to a geographical place, at also used to mean a community where people knew and looked out for each other. And the stoop was the vantage point from where we looked on the world, but knew our hearts would always belong to that special place where we grew up.

(Originally published 8/14/2008)



Sunday, April 27, 2014

Louie's Candy Store

If you grew up in the fifties, you probably spent a lot of time hanging around the local candy store. Every block or two had a candy store on the corner. Our candy store was Louie’s on Fulton Street under the el (translation: elevated train). These neighborhood institutions were places where people came in to buy candy, place a bet on the daily number with the local bookie, make a phone call (in the days when not everyone had a phone) or even buy a replacement tube for your television set, after using the tube testing machine to see which one was burned out. (Yes, I am that old.) There must have been a school of some kind where future candy store owners trained, because they all looked and acted the same...non-descript and cranky

Before refrigeration was so commonplace, candy stores kept their bottled sodas in a red ice chest like the one pictured. Soda that had been sitting in this box for a couple of days would cause an instant “brain freeze” when the first frosty gulp hit the back of your throat. I can still taste it. Besides Cokes, Pepsis and Seven-Ups there was the Mission brand line of flavors....pineapple, cream, sasparilla, lemon-lime and fruit punch. All sodas cost a dime and there were no diet sodas...not invented yet. The first one I remember is Tab.

Penny candies were kept behind a sliding glass counter and included peanut-shaped smarshmallows, wax lips, licorice pipes, Mary Janes and those colored sugar dots on the long paper strip. Before water was fluoridated, every kid had a mouth full of cavities. The better candies were kept on the counter where Louie could keep an eye on them. If we were broke, we were not above liberating a Three Musketeers, Clark Bar, Snickers or Chunky Bar. A while back I sent a friend who loves Chunkys a box of them to surprise him. They were about half the size we remembered and just didn't taste the same.

Louie also sold ice cream...either by the pint which was hand packed into a cardboard container, or such specialty items as Mello-Rolls (a cylinder-shaped ice cream you put in a specially shaped cone, and even Dixie Cups, small containers of ice cream with pictures of celebrities in the lids. We traded these among ourselves. (This was way before video games.) We all had a crush on Flo, the older woman (probably in her thirties) who worked behind the counter. Flo was always nicely dressed, wore "fallen woman" make-up, and sensing our schoolboy crushes on her, strung us along to break the monotony of making egg creams all day.

Louie's had a soda fountain where we bought ice cream sodas, lime rickeys, and of course egg creams. Interestingly, this delicious soda fountain drink contains neither egg nor cream, just Fox’s u-bet syrup, seltzer and a splash of milk. (If the candy store guy ever tries to serve it to you in one of those cone-shaped paper cups instead of a real glass, just turn around and run.) Louie's also served amazing sundaes and ice cream sodas, two scoops.
Louie and his wife slaved in the candy store day and night to put their son through medical school. After he became a doctor, the son stopped coming to the store because he felt embarrassed by his parents.

One of life's cruel ironies in the old neighborhood.

(Originally published August 25, 2008)

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

Steve the Junkman

A few doors down from my house on Somers Street in Brooklyn lived Steve the Junkman. That's what everyone called him; his profession became part of his identity. In a time when people still actually fixed things instead of throwing them away, Steve collected junk and gave it new life. He was good with his hands and sold his second-hand creations at bargain prices. He would have a field day if he lived today. I see the perfectly good things that people throw away and think of Steve.

In the summer, Steve put the junk business on hold and moved into the more exotic fruit business. His horse-drawn wagon (after a good cleaning I hope) became a travelling fruit store, and he meandered around the neighborhood announcing his presence by ringing a cowbell. Steve bought his fruit from the local stores probably a day before it became inedible, and tried peddling it before it imploded. His skin was wrinkled and mahogany colored from hours of sitting in the sun making his rounds, I'm almost certain Steve had a wife, but in all the years we lived near him, I can't recall ever seeing her. Maybe he kept her in the cellar like Mrs. Bates.

Steve was a wild-looking guy with a shock of white hair and very crabby, so mostly us kids steered clear of him. He or his horse (depending on how good your aim was) were often targets of a winter snowball... maybe that's why he was nasty to us. Anyhow, as he motioned me toward him one day, you can understand my reluctance to obey. He gave me a smile (I could tell because his tooth was showing) and I slowly approached as my boyish caution turned to curiosity. He reached down and picked up a handful of oats that had spilled from his horse's feedbag. Handing them to me, he instructed me to plant them in my back yard, water them, and watch what happened.

Normally, I probably would have just taken and thrown them away when Steve wasn't looking. This day must have been an awfully slow day for be because I actually planted the oats in our back yard. Maybe I could grow a horse! Imagine my delight when a couple of weeks passed and the planted oats produced beautiful green grass. No agricultural college graduate ever felt closer to the land than I did that day. The next day I thanked Steve for my lesson in Farming 101. He gave me a wink and a toothless grin.

Steve had a married daughter living with him whose husband was away serving in Korea. On another slow day in the neighborhood, we were going through people's garbage pails. (Talk about a new low...going through a junk man's trash.) One of my friends came across a packet of love letters written to Steve's daughter by her soldier-boy husband. He must have been extremely horny over there because these letters contained the most intimate and lurid details about their love life. I realize today what a terrible thing we did, but back then, to a bunch of pre-teen boys, this was like finding gold. 

Steve's daughter was a rather plain-looking girl who would not get a second look walking down the street. After those letters made the rounds though, she never lacked for an all-too-willing kid to carry her groceries home. Wherever you are Steve's daughter, I apologize for this unbelievable intrusion into your personal life.

(Originally published 9/24/08)


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

Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Dream Bike

As a boy in Brooklyn, you knew you had arrived when you rode a Schwinn bike (left). In the Fifties, this was a kid's two-wheeled equivalent of a Corvette. It was red, black and gold, with tons of chrome. Kids would fasten playing cards with a clothespin to the bike's frame so that they hit the spokes as the wheels turned, making a loud noise that was supposed to sound like a motorcycle….too cool for words. We also attached streamers to the handle bars, extra lights and chrome crossbars to really pimp that ride.

Most of us couldn’t afford the dream bike. I learned to ride on an old girl’s bike handed down from my cousin Joan. Training wheels hadn’t been invented yet, and your skinned shins were the badge of honor of a kid learning to ride a two-wheeler. I can remember my father "Tony Boots" teaching me to ride...I don't think he rode himself, but we would go to the playground and he would run alongside me in his ever present suit, tie and snappy fedora, usually with a Lucky Strike in his mouth. In reality, I was happy to have any bike at all since money was tight and we could never afford anything close to the Schwinn dream bike. Then Fate intervened.

There was an old TV show called “Junior Champions”, hosted by the great broadcaster, Marty Glickman. Glickman was a member of the 1936 U.S. Olympic team in Berlin, He and teammate Sam Stoller, two American Jews, were replaced, however, the day before they were scheduled to compete in the 4x100m relay. By Glickman’s own account, the last-minute switch was a straightforward case of anti-Semitism. Avery Brundage, chairman of the United States Olympic Committee, was an enthusiastic supporter of Hitler’s regime and denied that the Nazis followed anti-Semitic policies. Marty was justifiably bitter about missing his chance at competing.

Anyhow, I was lucky enough to be chosen to represent my day camp, PS 73, on Marty's show, and competed in a contest to see who could shoot and hit the most layups in one minute. I won, and with a hard cast on my broken left arm. (Thank you, thank you very much.) The winner's prize was a Shelby bike (above left). Now Shelby was to Schwinn what Timex was to Rolex, but what the hell, I had a brand new bike. Except for my pal Johnny, who rode a Schwinn thanks to his father who ran the local barber shop and neighborhood bookie joint, I had the best bike in the neighborhood. Sweet.

PS I now ride a new Schwinn bike, but it's like running into an old girlfriend after 50 years....just not the same. 

(Originally published on 9/23/2008)


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