Saturday, May 31, 2014

Coney Island Memories

One of my fondest memories of childhood was a trip to the beach. If you were from Brooklyn, Coney Island or Brighton Beach were the seaside destinations of choice since they were accessible by train. Rockaway Beach in Queens was also an option, but traveling there from Brooklyn by public transportation involved visas and passing through customs. Besides, Queens was a strange, exotic borough where they had trees and other suspicious things. Even to get to Coney we had to take two trains, the "A" train from our Rockaway Avenue Station to Franklin Avenue, and then upstairs to the elevated Franklin shuttle all the way to the end of the line.
At the time, this train had straw-covered seats, something that could never last with today's vandalism-prone riders. 

As you approached Coney Island, you smelled the ocean through the open train windows. Then the fabulous parachute jump loomed in the background and hooray, you were there. As your mother dragged you by the hand for the short walk to the beach, the sights, sounds and smells overwhelmed you. Coney Island along the boardwalk and streets was a riot of rides, snack stands, freak shows and carnival games. The original Nathan's sold hot dogs that had a juicy snap when you bit into them, crispy, crinkle-cut french fries in a paper cup, and the unlikely but delicious treat, chow-mein on a bun. Nathan's is still there, and despite years of decline, Coney Island is on the rise again.

Getting from the boardwalk to the spot on the beach where you wanted to set up your blanket involved a Brooklyn maneuver I call the "Blanket Walk". The sand was burning hot, so you tried to surreptitiously step on the blankets and towels of the people you passed along the way. I can remember the poor ice cream guy who walked around all day in the hot sand carrying a box of dry ice and hollering: "Get Your Good Humor and "Humorettes". We always brought lunch and a jug full of Kool Aid to save money. If they ever found one of those old brown bags soaked in oil from our pepper and egg sandwiches, they would have to call out a Hazmat team for disposal.

Late afternoon at the beach was a nice time for things like looking for seashells and making sand castles. The crowds thinned out and sometimes you got to sit in the lifeguard's chair. Usually around 5 pm we would head up to the boardwalk for a visit to Steeplechase Park (see 10/6/08 post). Steeplechase was a fabulous place that sadly is gone today, but anybody who was lucky enough to visit will never forget such rides in and around the park as the Steeplechase Horses, the Panama Slide, the Parachute Jump, the Wonder Wheel and of course, one of America's last great wooden roller coasters, the Cyclone. This was also our time to get the great soft custard they dispensed from machines on the boardwalk in vanilla, chocolate, or my favorites, pistachio and banana.

The train trip home was a long one, with a damp bathing suit, sand in your sneakers and a sun burn that would have to be dealt with in the morning. But it was all worth it...Coney Island is a place out of our carefree youth, and when we think back to the good times we had there, (in spite of the medicine bottles lined up on the counter), we are young again if only for a little while.


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Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Penny Serenade

One of the small thrills of childhood was finding a penny in the street. It's hard to understand this in today's inflationary times where pocket change hardly buys anything, much less the lowly penny. Pennies are left on counters in the "take one, put one" cup as if it has become a nuisance to even carry them. I know few people who would bother to stoop down to pick one up. This certainly wasn't the case in the 1950s when I grew up. Cans were just coming into their own as containers for beer and soda, and glass bottles were still very much around. These were "kid currency" because of the deposit they could be returned for; two cents for small bottles and five cents for large. Cha-ching!

Pennies still had value in the Fifties. There were glass cases with sliding doors in the candy stores that contained 20 or 30 different candies you could buy for a penny. Mary Janes, licorice sticks, wax lips, tiny wax bottles filled with sweet syrup, bubble gum, Tootsie Rolls, Smarties, the paper strips covered with colored sugar dots, caramels, spearmint leaves and those orange, peanut-shaped marshmallows. We would stand there with a few pennies clutched in our hand trying to make a selection as if we were buying a new car, while the long-suffering store owner waited patiently to ring up his big sale.

Vending machines took pennies for gumballs, those little two-packs of Chicklets, peanuts and pistachio nuts. You could get your weight and fortune at the drugstore scale for a penny. Candy stores and delis sold "loosies" (individual cigarettes) for one penny each. You could slake your thirst at the soda fountain with a glass of "two cents plain" (seltzer). We pitched pennies against a wall to pass the time, and I remember playing penny poker after holiday dinners with my aunts, uncles and cousins. There were penny arcades where a 50 cent bankroll could get you through the afternoon.

The thing about growing up in those days, when money was always tight and pennies were precious, is that it leaves an imprint. I had a good career and we are comfortable financially, but I still look for bargains. I love breakfast and dinner specials; I can't remember the last time I made a significant purchase without waiting for it to go on sale; I confess to buying overpriced Starbucks coffee, but then I reuse the cups at home, as if to atone for my extravagance. This little "Penny Serenade" is really a tribute to the lost art of thrift. 

I dislike people who are cheap. I can spend money with the best of them, as the smoke coming off my American Express card will attest, but deep inside is still a kid trying to get the most for his five-cent deposit.



Friday, May 23, 2014

Army Days - Part 2

I touched on my less than spectacular military career in Army Days - Part 1. Basic training passed pretty quickly. In the Army there is always something going on, even if it's only polishing shoes and brass buckles. We spent hours cleaning the barracks and surrounding grounds. The purpose of this 8 week period is to get soldiers used to one thing only, obeying orders, no matter how illogical they may seem. I guess if we were ever in the heat of battle, there was no room for debate; if the Lieutenant said "Take that hill" you jumped out of your foxhole and ran toward the hill. Thank God I was never called upon to go into combat. It must be a horrific experience. Toward the end of our training, we were all tired and needed a break.

Come July 4th weekend, our unit was detailed to march that Saturday in a parade down in Wildwood, New Jersey. This wasn't quite as good as getting a weekend pass, but it was better than hanging around the base. The day started out rainy, so we wore our Army raincoats over our uniforms. Luckily the sun came out before we set off, and we were able to leave our raincoats on the bus before marching in the ninety degree heat. The order of march for the parade was set, with military units from surrounding bases sending contingents of sailors, airmen, and marines to march with us soldiers. Our unit was just ahead of the Army Marching Band, and everyone was grousing; not only were we marching in full dress uniforms in this miserable heat, but we had to be subjected to hours of John Philip Sousa marches!

As we set off the people pressed forward to watch us go by. The Army Band struck up: "When the Caissons Go Rolling Along". Suddenly there were faces smiling out on us, little kids were running down the sidewalks waving their tiny American flags, and veterans of past wars were holding their hats or their hands over their hearts. It was a scene right out of a Norman Rockwell painting. In an instant, the soldiers all around me stood up straighter and stepped out a little livelier. The grousing stopped because we all had lumps in out throats. Forgotten were the 20-mile night marches with full backpacks, the hours spent shining shoes and polishing brass buckles, even the mean-spirited Sergeants who forced screw-ups to clean latrines with their tooth brushes...we were soldiers in the United States Army, at that moment feeling honored and privileged to be serving our country.

After the parade, our officers gave us permission to stay in town for the rest of the day as long as we returned in time to catch the bus back to the base. Wildwood is a small, sleepy town in the winter, but back then in the summer time, it becomes party central. Being young men with a great fondness for alcohol, we did our best to deplete the town's supply. We made the bus just in time to collapse asleep in the hard seats. Upon arrival at Fort Dix, we grabbed our raincoats and left the bus. It had started to drizzle so I put the raincoat on to protect my uniform. I soon noticed soldiers throwing snappy salutes my way. I saluted back being too groggy to wonder why they were saluting a lowly buck private. It was then that I glanced down and saw the shiny silver bars on my lapels; I had taken my Lieutenant's raincoat by mistake, and it was his insignia of rank drawing all the salutes. I enjoyed my fifteen minutes of fame, but hurriedly rushed to the orderly room to explain the error before I wound up in the brig for impersonating an officer.

Military service was good for me. It helped me to learn how to get along on my own, and how to be part of a team where each person did his share for the success of all. I think a year of national service of some sort should be mandatory for young people, even before entering college. There is a lot of good work to be done, and it is a small price to pay for living in the greatest country in the world.


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Thursday, May 22, 2014

Army Days - Part 1

When I graduated high school at the age of 17, I had no plans to enter college and no clue what to do with my life. The war in Viet Nam was just heating up, and the military draft was still very much in place for healthy young men. Having a serious aversion to bullets, I decided on a preemptive strike and joined the U.S. Army Reserves. At the time it seemed like the safest alternative to being drafted. So, in May 1960, two months shy of my eighteenth birthday, my father "Tony Boots" walked me to the subway station. My dad had never given me the "birds and bees" talk. As I shook hands with him before descending the steps, he pressed two condoms into my palm and asked: "Do you know what these are for?" I dumbly nodded yes, and he walked away slowly, mentally crossing off another item on his parenting "to do" list.

When they tested me at the recruitment center, as they do all new recruits, they determined that my M.O.S. (Military Occupational Specialty) was Medic. My friend Lefty was assigned an M.O.S. of Cook. Having grown up in an Italian household on Hull Street eating his mother Dolly's cooking was his main qualification for this assignment. Lefty and I left for Fort Dix, New Jersey, and although we would later be assigned to North Carolina and Texas respectively to pursue advanced training in our different M.O.S.'s, I was glad he would be with me for eight weeks of basic training. Contrary to all the guys who bitch about Army basic training, I loved it. I was seventeen years old and just too dumb to know any better. I was in great shape with a 33 inch waist and an athlete's body. They gave us free clothes, guns to play with, and all the food you could eat, so I just did what I was told and went with the program.

The older guys in my company, including Lefty, complained constantly about how dumb the Army was and adopted an air of superiority over the regular Army staff who were training us. Even at seventeen, I sensed the folly of this attitude; it only made the redneck Sergeants want to torment us more. One Corporal in particular made it clear that as a Louisiana boy, he had no use for smart-aleck Northerners, especially Eye-tal-ians as he sneeringly pronounced it. This guy was tall and skinny and as mean as they get. He went out of his way to make our lives a living hell, and in the Army, someone with one stripe more than you is your lord and master. I did my best to stay out of his way, but I came in for my share of crap. Only a bit of serendipity saved me from eight whole weeks of pain.

I think it was Irving Berlin who wrote a song called: "Send a Salami to Your Boy in the Army", and that's exactly what my mother used to do. Every week she sent me a box of goodies from home, and always included a pepperoni. One Saturday afternoon we were off duty and, since I had no weekend pass to leave the base, I was moping around the barracks. I had the pepperoni out and was snacking when this Corporal walked over: "Whatcha eatin' Panalena" (Southern for Pantaleno). I told him and offered him some. He was amazed that something Eye-tal-ian could taste so good. Said it reminded him of the Andouille sausages they ate back home. 

We finished the pepperoni together and a strange bond was formed. In conversation he turned out to be a decent guy who was as homesick as the rest of us. I was golden from that day forward. Every once in a while he would ask" "Hey Panalena, got any of that pepperona", and of course, like some drug pusher in a back alley, I had.


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Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Gildersleeves

The Gildersleeves lived next door to us in Brooklyn, and always seemed a bit out of place. They were of English descent, (already an anomaly on my block) and they could have come from central casting as the prototypical English family. The family included parents Bob and Helen, their children, Robert and Pamela, and two spinster aunts...we called them Aunt Lou and Aunt Jo.Bob was the image of a proper Brit....very distinguished looking, tall, slim, a thin mustache, rimless glasses, and always dressed like a banker. In fact, he did work in a bank. Helen could have doubled for Jane Wyatt from the old "Father Knows Best" TV show. She was pretty, vivacious, nicely dressed, and I had a huge crush on her.

Robert was the older child. He was pale, thin and wore glasses. He was teased mercilessly by the other kids on the block, and didn't join in the street games we always played. If there was no one else around, I would play with him, (magnanimous, huh) mainly because he was allowed to carry every boy's dream... a pocket knife. We played a game called Mumbly Peg. Each boy in turn would hold the knife in his palm and then quickly jerk his hand and flip the knife to make it stick in the dirt. You scored points according to where the knife landed. Pamela was a pretty tomboy who was a good friend of my sister's. Unlike her frail brother, she could out run and out climb most boys on the block.

The two prize characters in the family were Aunt Lou and Aunt Jo. They could have stepped out of the cast of Tennessee Williams "The Glass Menagerie". Always beautifully dressed and powdered, they exuded refinement. Occasionally, they would invite me into the house (after locking up the silver) and offer me a piece of fruit or candy. I imagine they felt some sense of "noblesse oblige" to those in the neighborhood like me who were lower born than they. I tried to be polite (their appearance demanded nothing less) but honestly I couldn't wait to bolt out the door. In my own urchin way, I felt somehow unworthy to be in their presence. I thought of them years later, while watching the wonderful movie, "My Fair Lady"; naturally I identified strongly with Liza Doolittle.

The spinster sisters had a "Gentleman Caller" whose name was "Mr. Pape", and that's how we always addressed him. He too was regal in bearing and impeccably dressed in a three-piece pinstripe suit, white shite and silk tie. He would unfailingly tip his homburg hat whenever he greeted you. Mr. Pape drove an immaculately kept car that looked something like the one pictured at left. Most weekends he would drive up and take Aunt Lou and Aunt Jo for drives. As incongruous as this scene may sound for a blue-collar Brooklyn neighborhood, it was just accepted.

The Gildersleeves were part of the varied ethnic and racial fabric of East New York, Brooklyn in the fifties. We had diversity, but weren't sanctimonious or self-congratulatory about it. We were all neighbors just trying to get by.

(Originally published October 4, 2008)


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Monday, May 12, 2014

Barbecued Lasagna

In my family, going on a picnic was no casual affair. The invasion of Normandy required less planning than an Italian family picnic. It began by deciding where to go. At first it was Alley Pond park, on the Queens border; just a short ride from Brooklyn. In later years, after some of the family moved to Long Island, it was Belmont State park in Suffolk County, an eternity away. Did they speak English in this place? Could we ever find our way home? To quote Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz: "Toto, I've got a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore".

For some reason we usually made these excursions on Sundays. In today's traffic one can learn to speak a foreign language while traveling from Brooklyn to Long Island on a Sunday, but in the Fifties, it wasn't that bad yet. There was traffic though, and to keep our caravan of cars together, we employed the "white hanky" gambit. The lead car (Uncle Nick more often than not) would tie a white handkerchief to the "aerial" (we never called them antennas) so that every trailing car could see the white hanky and follow, even in traffic. Of course, the white hanky was used by other caravans too, a fact that clearly diminished its effectiveness.

Once at the park, the next step was picnic table selection. Sometimes a family member would go early and try to save a group of tables, but in New York picnic grounds, where tables were scarce, this could lead to a trip to the Emergency Room. The next step was to fetch the water for the pasta. (Pasta you say, at a barbecue! Hey, we were Italian and it was Sunday. There is no wiggle room here.) The water would take a long time to boil on the outdoor stoves, so we usually arrived very early. Sometimes we would bring a pan of cooked Lasagna that only had to be heated and eaten. (We usually had a barbecue after our pasta and meatballs, out of respect for the local customs).

While dinner was cooking we had the games. Softball, if we could keep the men out of their nap chairs and get to the field early enough. Maybe a row on the lake, which was always a treat. Then there was the great Italian game of boccie, or sometimes a set of horseshoes would be produced. One of the reasons these games were such fun is that the adults participated along with the kids. We got to see their more playful sides, but make no mistake, the rules were enforced. Cousin Jimmy was very competitive, and he liked to win. That meant every close call in boccie brought out the ruler for a measurement! It also involved a lot of screaming, but of course, being Italians, we didn't notice.

Later in the day, the men would usually get their naps, and the women and children would play cards. In the days before "Game Boy" and text messaging, playing cards was a popular pastime that today is greatly underrated as a social activity. The espresso coffee and Italian pastry came last. The Lagonigros, Bivonas, and Pantalenos were the core families for "Operation Picnic" but often family friends would tag along. As a testament to how much fun was had, we have some wonderful old black and white photos taken with our trusty Kodak "Brownie Camera". Sadly many more photos were lost. (Not our family pictured at left, but that's pretty much how we looked.)

I think we took these family outings for granted because we all lived within blocks of each other and the logistics were so simple. Now our family is scattered all over. A few years back, Cousin Bill and his family hosted a family reunion picnic in New Jersey, and it was a huge success. Cousins who rarely got to see each other had a chance to connect and catch up. It reminded me of just how lucky we were back then to have our family so concentrated in a small geographic area. We grew up with our cousins, aunts and uncles and saw them often. Today we have the memories, and keep in touch by e-mail. Not the same.

(Originally published 11/1/2008.)


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Thursday, May 8, 2014

Saint Frances

All Italian men, at some point in their lives, will utter these words: "My mother was a saint". Well in my case, it was true. Born in Camden, N.J., mom moved to Brooklyn as a girl and lived with her parents, Pasquale and Caterina Camardi. She had two wonderful sisters, Mary and Anna, and a younger brother Mike. Fran was quiet, patient, (a quality which my father and I often put to the test) had a good sense of humor, and a way of getting you to do what she knew was best for you. She was an exceptional cook and a gifted homemaker who could rub two nickels together and come up with a quarter. As you can see, Fran had movie-star good looks. She looks like the picture that came with your wallet. But her true beauty was inside.

My father's widowed mother Lucy lived with us. God forgive me for saying this, but she was not a nice woman. My mother treated her like her own mother, but in spite of this, grandma Lucy complained behind mom's back to anyone who would listen about how ill-treated she was. Anyone who knew Fran knew this was a lie, but mom never defended herself. I feel some bizarre obligation to set the record straight after all these years. Frances had a gift for finding the good in people. This may sound cliche, but I never heard her say an unkind word about anybody. She was no pushover though, she could wield every Italian mother's weapon of choice, the dreaded "wooden spoon", when we stepped over the line. She hated spending money on herself, and relied on gifts to replenish her wardrobe. If my sister Cathy, my brother Anthony or I ever really needed anything, she had a secret stash that made it possible for us to get it.

Thrifty as she was, Mom was delighted when "Green Stamps" made their appearance. Merchants would give green stamps when you made purchases. You pasted them in a book like the ones at left, and when you had collected enough stamps, you redeemed them for merchandise. There was a redemption center on Rockaway Avenue, and my mother made many a happy trip. Too many kids today come from homes where both parents are forced to work. I'm glad I wasn't one of them. I knew that whatever "terrible" thing might befall me in the world outside, my mother would be home waiting for me to help make it right. She didn't baby us, but we knew she would be there when we needed her.

I wish I had the qualities I remember in my mother. Knowing how lacking I was, when it came time to think about getting married, I wanted a girl as good as my mother. Lucky for me, I found one.

I miss you Mom, but I am so glad for the time we had together.

(Originally published October 2, 2008.)


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Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Neighborhood Tour Now Departing

Brooklyn of the 1950's, like today, was a collection of neighborhoods. When people asked where you were from, you never said Brooklyn, but rather Flatbush, Brighton, Brownsville, or my neighborhood, East New York. There was a certain character associated with each neighborhood; often they were divided along ethnic or racial lines. Flatbush was heavily Jewish, Bedford Stuyvesant was "colored" (the accepted term for African-Americans in those days), Bay Ridge was Irish and German, and East New York was largely working-class Italian, with some Irish and English left over from earlier immigration waves, and a few African-Americans and Spanish mixed in. During the 1960's, as whites in large numbers moved to the suburbs, and blacks began moving in, racial tensions grew, and sadly, violence became too commonplace. But that is a subject for a more serious post; let me take you on a little tour of the old neighborhood as I remember it.

I lived on Somers Street, between Rockaway and Stone Avenues. In the days before the big box stores drove all the little guys out of business, every neighborhood had its local merchants who knew you on sight. For us the main strip of local stores was along Rockaway Avenue between MacDougal Street and Pacific Street. Further down Rockaway Avenue there was a main source of shopping along Pitkin Avenue that we reached by trolley car.
But for everyday needs, we shopped in the neighborhood. Here are some of the establishments that stick out in my memory.

Spinner's Super Market - On Fulton Street just off Rockaway Avenue, Spinner's was a forerunner of the modern day super market. Bigger than a deli, but nowhere near the acre-sized places like Stop and Shop that I get lost in today. The men who worked in the store were fixtures, like the counters and the lights...they never had an employee turnover problem. Many kids in the neighborhood started their working careers as "bag boys" in Spinner's. One of the head cashiers, whose name was Blackie, taught them how to efficiently pack a brown paper bag with groceries so that it could be carried without tearing. No price scanners existed then; most small purchases were totaled up manually in pencil on the side of the brown bag.

Cactus Pool Room - On the floor above Spinner's was the Cactus Pool Room. Unlike today's unisex pool parlors with multi-colored felt-top tables and espresso bars, Cactus was a man's place. (Okay, it was a dive.) Dark, smoky, dirty, and filled with characters your mother always warned you about. Money games could always be had with the local sharks who carried their own custom-made pool cues. It was a haven for mobster wanna-be's, although I'm sure there were some genuine bad asses who frequented the place. As kids we hung around the entrance hoping to score a dime tip for running errands like buying cigarettes or beer. In those days there were no age restrictions on kids buying stuff like that; if you had the money they sold it to you.

Benny the Barber - There were two barber shops on Rockaway Avenue, Pete's where you could place a bet while getting a haircut or shave, and Benny's, a block down. I went to Benny's, mainly because he had a stack of comics that kids could read while waiting. I remember the place as having three chairs, but I don't recall any barber other than the owner, Benny. On the counter was a glass container filled with blue fluid and combs that I guess were being disinfected or something. There was a line of bottles containing hair creams and shaving lotions. I loved the feel of the hot shaving lather on the back of my neck at the end of every haircut. Benny was very democratic; everybody, man and boy, got the same exact haircut, period.

Crachi's Pharmacy - On the corner of Hull and Rockaway was a drug store run by my godfather, Gaspar Crachi and his brothers. They had a second store further down on Rockaway around Dean Street. In those days drug stores were kind of creepy places. There were bottles of colored fluid in beaker-like containers behind the counter, I guess to convey the impression that the pharmacist was some kind of chemical-mixing genius. The wide variety of over-the-counter drugs and convenience items didn't exist back then; the place was dingy looking and had an antiseptic smell. My godfather retired to Northport in Long Island, and became a minor celebrity/eccentric who displayed his charming paintings at the local library.

Our bread store was Bilello's, on Rockaway between Somers and Hull Streets. The bread was baked on Pacific Street, near the house I was born in, but it was sold in the store. They had a beautiful array of different kinds of bread, all so good that you were lucky to get the bag home without breaking off the heel and eating in enroute. I think the man behind the counter's name was Mike, a stocky guy who walked with a limp. They also sold Italian cookies there. My mother could never get me to eat escarole or spinach until she came up with the devious trick of hollowing out half a loaf of Bilello's bread and stuffing it with the hated greens. It is a treat I enjoy to this day,

I try to recall those times as best I can so that my children might come to know what my life was like in the days when I was young, oh so many years ago. I find it difficult to describe exactly the forces that shaped us, mainly our families and our neighborhood. We never consciously thought about these things, in fact as I look back, we probably just took them for granted. I like to think that the reason I can remember so much of my childhood is because it was such a happy time for me. I wouldn't trade it for anything.

(Originally published 1/28/09)


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Sunday, May 4, 2014

Chalk Dust Angels

I've written a few posts about grammar school, and something of the Franciscan Brothers who taught us from fifth to eighth grades, but I want to say a few words about the women who taught us in the younger grades. There was no kindergarten when I went to school in The Middle Ages; having been born in July, I was one of the younger kids in the class when, at age 5, I entered first grade in September, 1947. Today I might have been held back because of the "trauma" of being in class with more mature five-year olds. Luckily, they didn't worry about psycho-babble like this in those days; my mother just hitched up the buckboard and took me off to school.

Our Lady of Lourdes was typical of parochial schools in Brooklyn. The classrooms looked pretty much alike, with orderly rows of old-style wooden desks that had holes cut out for ink wells in the top. The little bench seats folded down, and there was a small shelf underneath the desk for storing books not in use. The learning environment could be described as very regimented and very disciplined, but man did it work. In a match between a bright, 1950 eighth-grader from Lourdes versus a high school senior from almost any New York City graduating class of 2009, my money would be on the kid from Lourdes.

But I digress. In first grade we had Miss Langin, a tough, spinsterish woman who took a bunch of scared five-year olds and drilled us like Marines in reading, penmanship and math. She ran that classroom like a benevolent tyrant, only without the benevolence. Her favorite expression when a kid put a toe over the line was: "That'll do", only she drawled it in such a way that none of us knew what the hell she was saying. My last memory of Miss Langin was of her funeral. They paraded us kids through the gloom of the dark funeral home, and there she lay, looking serene in a beautiful, pale blue dress that surely came from the funeral director since she possessed nothing that pretty. (That'll do, James.)

For the first six months of second grade we had the lovely Miss Ruffalo, daughter of Dr. Ruffalo and a pleasant change from Miss Langin. She was dark and pretty, and treated us like humans. We all responded by falling madly in love with her. Imagine our horror when we returned from Christmas break to find out she was having a baby, and there would be someone to replace her! We were crestfallen; who could take Miss Ruffalo's place. When we met her replacement, Miss Theiss, we were dumbstruck. She was a cool, shimmering, Grace Kelly look alike with a smile that turned you to mush. We were like the kids in that episode of the "Our Gang" comedies when they feared that their new teacher, Miss Crabtree, would turn out to be an ogre until they saw her. Needless to say, we quickly recovered and instantly forgot old Miss Whatshername.

Third grade...back to boot camp. After six months with the heavenly Miss Theiss, we ran smack into Tug Boat Annieotherwise known as Miss Wall. She was a lean, mean fighting machine who was not afraid to rule with an iron fist. By the way, that's not a metaphor; she literally had an iron fist! If you needed to stand for a while in the dark coat closet because you didn't know the capital of North Dakota, she would grab you by the hair of your sideburns and lead you there. (This technique was later picked by the Nazis and used effectively in interrogations of Allied prisoners.) If you did something really bad, say like making the rude underarm noise I described in my last post, she would stand you in front of the blackboard, grab your two jug ears, and pound your head against the board. Crude but effective; kids studied like never before to avoid getting left back for another year with the Iron Maiden.

Finally, there was Miss Baumann in fourth grade. We simply adored her, not because she was beautiful (she was not), but because she somehow had the God-given power to tame the little beasts that we were without ever lifting a finger. We wanted her approval in the worst way and would do anything, even study, to get it! We would line up in the pouring rain outside her house down the street from the school, hoping, praying, that our umbrella would be the one she chose to walk under! If she asked you to clap the erasers and wash the blackboards, you were in ecstasy. If I had to make a guess as to what mysterious power she had over us, I would say it was her incredible serenity. She never raised her voice, and she had this Mona Lisa smile that, when she turned it on you, made you feel like you were the best person the world had ever produced.

These wonderful women, working for less than a living wage, dedicated their lives to educating street urchins. Whether they hit, hollered, smiled, cajoled or charmed, they somehow knocked and ironed the rough edges off us until we were fit to be among civilized people. I never appreciated how much they did for me until I realized that the seeds of learning they sowed would continue to flourish throughout my life. I thank them, and tip my hat to teachers everywhere.

(Originally published March 13, 2009)

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Saturday, May 3, 2014

Where Have You Gone, Joe DiMaggio

My father was a New York Yankee fan and, from the time he took me to see my first game at Yankee Stadium, I have been too. We walked up the Stadium ramp in the outfield into the bright sunshine. The view that greeted us is still burned into my memory.... emerald green grass, azure blue sky, and there, standing in center field shagging fly balls, was the Yankee Clipper, Joe DiMaggio. Joltin' Joe was in the twilight of his career, but he was my hero.

DiMaggio has been criticized by some as being cool and aloof...not like his more fan friendly teammates Phil Rizzuto or Yogi Berra. So what. Joe played baseball like nobody before or since. His accomplishments speak for themselves: the 56-game hitting streak, the only player in baseball history to be selected for the All-Star Game in every season he played, and his seemingly effortless ability in every aspect of the game: hitting, fielding and base running.

I think the thing that impressed me most as a kid, even more than his physical skills, was the quiet, modest way Joe went about his business. So many of today's athletes are overpaid, substance-abusing, self-promoting jerks who have a couple of good years and think they are God's gift to baseball. Their behavior is embarrassing, and in any baseball clubhouses of the fifties, would have earned them a team beating. The idea of standing at home plate admiring a home run shot would have horrified DiMaggio. Hot dogging was never his was nobody's style in the fifties! Guys like Joe, Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays let their deeds on the field speak for them.

According to her autobiography, Marilyn Monroe did not want to meet DiMaggio, fearing he was a stereotypical jock. Both were at different points in their lives: the just-retired Joe wanted to settle down; Marilyn's career was taking off. Their marriage in San Francisco in 1954 captivated the nation. The match ended in divorce 274 days after the wedding. I never quite understood Joe's fatal attraction to Marilyn. Her physical attributes were obvious even to my twelve-year old eyes, but they just seemed worlds apart as a couple. Poor Marilyn died tragically in 1962 after a sad life including a fling with President John F. Kennedy.

"What's that you say, Mrs. Robinson? Joltin' Joe has left and gone away?" On March 8. 1999, after a debilitating battle with lung cancer, Joe DiMaggio died. The following is taken from his obituary:

"Joe DiMaggio, the fabled slugger and center fielder of the New York Yankees whose superlative play on the baseball field enshrined him in the hearts of sports fans everywhere and made him a universal symbol of athletic grace and excellence, died today at his home in Hollywood, Fla . There was a majesty in his swing, and a self-assured confidence in style and conduct that was uniquely Joe DiMaggio's. In the eye of his public, he was more than a sports hero. He was among the most cherished icons of popular culture."

So long Joe, I feel truly privileged to have seen you play. It was worth all the taunting I got growing up a Yankee fan in Brooklyn.

(Originally published July, 2008)


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