Friday, October 31, 2014

Trick or Treat II

Seeing the little kiddies come to the door dressed in their store-bought Halloween costumes brought a smile to my face. They travel in adult-supervised groups not quite understanding why, despite past admonitions from Mom and Dad, they are being encouraged to take candy from strangers. The younger ones have to be nudged forward by their ever-vigilant parents who accompany the kids on their "Trick or Treat" rounds. Nearby, police squad cars and ambulances full of EMTs are on standby in case one of the tiny Supermans or Ragedy Anns become frightened after timidly ringing the doorbell and having someone they don't know answer.

Things have changed a lot since I was a kid, oh so many years ago. First of all, costumes were for rich kids and sissies. We wore old clothes and blacked our faces with burnt cork for Halloween. There was a practical reason for this since the custom of the time was to fill old socks with flour and mercilessly pound each other until we looked like the ghosts of Christmas past. Also, marking each other with colored chalk, egg throwing and shaving cream pies in the face were popular Halloween activities in the neighborhood.

In those days, trick or treat really meant something. Anybody who was mean enough to begrudge us a piece of candy was very likely to have a stick stuck in their doorbell so it rang continuously. Egging or toilet-papering their house or car was another consequence. A few years ago a group of cute kids came to our door and recited the requisite "Trick or Treat". I jokingly said "trick" and they looked at me with confused faces. Of course I forked over the candy, but not before bemoaning the fact that these unimaginative children were taking all the terror out of Halloween.

My friends and I would have thought we had died and gone to heaven to be able to trick or treat in a neighborhood like ours. Kindly people wait with sack-sized treats and are happy to reward you when you come to their door. The surprising thing is we hardly get any visitors on Halloween. Maybe a few tots who do it more for their parents' gratification than their own; the older kids can't be bothered. The few who do ring the bell are dressed in street clothes and look so bored you want too invite them in to play some video games to restore their spirits.

I can remember like it was yesterday coming home after a night of trick or treating. No parents escorted us; no police cars hovered nearby to protect us; nobody warned us against lunatics who put razor blades into apples and gave them out as treats....we just roamed the streets in our homemade costumes ringing bells and hoping for the best. Candy was never plentiful in our house, not for any nutritional reasons, but anytime my poor mother tried to keep some around, I would search it out and devour it, pretty much like I do today. Opening that shopping bag and gorging ourselves on Mary Janes, Baby Ruths, Three Musketeers Bars, Marshmallow Twists, and even that crappy Candy Corn that makes its appearance around Halloween was the reward for a hard night's work.

As I get older, the mind slips. I can't remember things I meant to do; I ask my wife the same questions over and over; peoples' names and faces escape me. But there must be a place in the mind where treasured memories are stored. A place where things that were so important at some point in your life are kept like carefully wrapped antiques, to be brought out and enjoyed over and over again. Halloween nights in Brooklyn in the 1950s occupy an honored place in that vault.

(Originally published 10-31-09)


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

Monday, October 20, 2014

The House I Lived In

When I was about two years old we moved from the apartment over Bilello's Bakery on Pacific Street in Brooklyn to our new home at 77A Somers Street (pictured left). This was the first house my parents owned, and the one where I spent my childhood. It was an all brick row house, not elegant enough to be called a brownstone, but a substantial structure nonetheless. There were three floors and a cellar. We occupied two floors: the first, also referred to as the "parlor" floor, and the second, where our bedrooms were located. The third floor was a rental apartment where my cousin Pete and his wife Leah lived. There was an inside staircase that led from the first to the second and continued up to the third floor. There was also an outside stoop with brick stairs that provided access to the third floor apartment from outside the house. 

The entry to the house was up a couple of steps from the sidewalk. On the right as you entered the front door, there was a storage area under the stoop where my father kept things like snow shovels, sleds and also where I stored my Shelby bike. If you turned left you went down a hallway that ended at the kitchen. By today's standards the kitchen was primitive. The stove and refrigerator were born in the Truman administration, although later on we got a new washing machine but no dryer.  We had an efficient dishwasher named Mom. The only bathroom in the house was off the kitchen. It had a stall shower but no tub, maybe the reason why to this day I prefer showers to baths. Beyond the kitchen was an unheated pantry room with an old coal stove that led to the back yard. It was Mom's hiding place for treats like cookies and candy meant only for "company."

Off the kitchen was the parlor/living room; we ate at a Formica table in the kitchen. A little alcove separated the two rooms. It contained a set of built-in drawers and also a shelf where the old black rotary phone sat. It was a "Hyacinth" exchange, but I no longer remember the phone number. The living room featured a sofa, Archie Bunker style chair, a "hi-fi" record player and our RCA 17" black and white TV. There was also a fake fire place where we hung our Christmas stockings. (As a kid, I always wondered how Santa came down from the chimney since there was no opening.) Our Christmas tree weighed down with ornaments and electrical hazard bubbling lights graced the living room, encircled by my Marx electric trains and the plastic model buildings, bridges and tunnels that made up the town the train passed through.

Upstairs on the second floor were three "railroad" bedrooms (one following another in a chain). The master bedroom where my parents slept was at the rear of the house overlooking the back yard. My sister's room was next to theirs, and at the front of the house, looking out on Somers Street was the room where I slept. I can remember on hot summer nights turning my bed around so that my head was practically out the open window. Separating the rooms were sliding pocket doors that rolled into the walls. I woke up to the sun shining in my window, and in all the years we lived there, I never remember getting downstairs ahead of my mother. She had the coffee pot on and made a number of trips up the stairs trying to wake my father, who always needed "just another five minutes".

The cellar was my sanctuary and hideaway. On cold or rainy days I would spend hours down there playing cowboy, with my own horse that my Aunt Anna had fashioned out of an old narrow table. She sewed on an upholstered saddle and made a horse's head out of an old rug. I would tear off strips of newspaper and stick them in the crevices of the limestone cellar walls as if they were dynamite fuses. I'd light the fuses and then make a leaping mount onto my horse. (This activity may help explain the higher-than-normal pitch of my voice today.) The cellar was also where I would make my street scooters out of old fruit crates and roller skates. My father wasn't really a handy guy, and his tools were not much further advanced than those used by the Pilgrims, but I managed. 

My memories of this house are warm and vivid. Safe in the confines of its walls with my mother, father and sister, and surrounded by aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents and friends, I cannot imagine a happier childhood. I am still tied by my heartstrings to that house, that time and that place. I will be forever grateful for having the good luck to be raised there.

(Originally posted 7/14/11)


Children's Craniofacial Association