Po Boy Views
Boys of Summer
Once Upon a Time
By the time Big Red’s tuberculosis was in remission, I was four years old. Doctors had relieved her of one of her lungs stemming from the infection that she had inherited from her first husband (deceased: same malady), and she had recently taken up smoking Pall Mall unfiltered cigarettes. Go figure.
Red went to regularly scheduled check ups at the free hospital in our town ( Bellvue Hospital, New York City) and being that babysitting in the daytime had yet to be invented, I was taken along. As a ritual Red would meet up with other women that she had been patients with and over coffee at a nearby diner they would shoot the breeze before appointment time.
At my young age, (and long before and after) I had ants in my pants, mischief in my soul and to keep me still and quiet, Big Red did what mothers have done from time immemorial, she got me something to divert my attention, something to put in my mouth.
While she and her cohorts commiserated over coffee and toast, she had delivered to petite moi, by waitress express, an English muffin and a cup of cocoa. Like my elders, I dunked my buttered toast in my hot beverage
We lived in five rooms on the tenth floor of the Elliot Housing Projects on Twenty-seventh Street and Tenth Avenue; my father and mother and my two older sisters and me. When I was five years old my kid brother was born; later there would be a younger sister along, but that had to wait for the third husband whom we referred to simply as ‘The Greek’.
Whether it was my propensity for trouble or the world around us, life was only frenzied at best; the rest of the time it was pure madness. Had I know at the time how un-natural a chaotic life was, I might have found it a bit odd that everything that could go awry around me, in fact, did. Feuds were commonplace among the extended family members and neighbors, tempers flared, violence erupted and grudges were kept and nurtured like a sour dough bread starter. Passions were exhibited in high drama and decibels exceeding out and out armed conflict.
We were a rough lot, children as well as adults, in those days; women formed cliques and alliances, the men were just back from killing other men in a World War and had short tempers; children played games in the streets both competitive and cruel. Teenagers formed gangs and warred with eachother for territory carved out in blocks and half blocks. Rock and Roll was born and whipped youngsters into dancing frenzies. Teenage girls wore their skirts above their knees or became ‘dungaree dolls’ and encouraged the raging hormones of their boyfriends past, present and future. For recreation the adults would while away evenings in bars drinking hard alcohol and amusing themselves as best they could. Anyone that couldn’t or wouldn’t conform to accepted social mores was considered a weirdo, a communist or a homosexual.
Sophistication was not a recognized concept except in movies; my life consisted of movie stars and people like us.
Kids my age never fit anywhere, we were always too young or too old. I don’t know how it happened but there was a between age of us that never, and even to this day, ever fit in. The older kids were jaded at an early age and the younger ones were born cynics. We were naive and malleable.
Neighborhoods had identities and residential areas were for the rich; anyone that had more money than the welfare checks that served as lifeline to us was rich. Living in the projects put us in the upper echelon of the surrounding areas of the dirt poor in New York City in the forties and fifties. My elders all had first hand knowledge of the Great Depression. We all brimmed over with attitude.
The seasons for me were separated into kite, tops, marbles, beach, stickball, school and snowball. When we were bored we pitched pennies, played cards or listened to the radio. There were group games with names like Red Rover, Ring-a-levio and Rattlesnake as well as the more commonplace Tag or Hide-and Seek. We shot bottle caps into designated spaces chalked on the sidewalk, girls played jacks or jumped ropes, boys built scooters from skates and wooden soft drink cases and shot homemade carpet-guns, we'd bounce Spalding balls to songs. Skates could be adjusted with a ‘skate key’ to fit all and we collected and flipped baseball cards. We threw old shoe heels into hop-scotch squares and in the summer we ‘borrowed’ monkey wrenches and turned on fire hydrants to cool off. There was a public swimming pool on Twenty-eighth St, where I almost drowned once or twice. After Christmas we burned trees in the street. There was grass at Central Park and an ice skating rink, rumor had it, but we had to wait until we were bigger to see for ourselves.
We were ignorant of world affairs, national affairs or any other kind of affairs. We didn’t know what went on on television because only two families in the building had one. One friend confided in me in later years that she didn’t know that she was Jewish until she was ten because she thought that the world was made up of either Yankees or Dodgers.
We rode buses and subways where we put pennies in Chiclet machines, we ate Sabrette hot dogs and drank Nedick’s orange drinks or Mission sodas. We spent our pittances on knishes or chestnuts from carts or penny candies. I sold newspapers in bars on Eighth Avenue when I was twelve and turned over the money to Big Red. I hitched rides on the backs of trucks and caught belts regularly for infractions both real and imagined.
For any dinner that we had there was always multiple shops to visit. The young shopper (me) needed to know their way around the green grocer, the meat market, the fish-monger’s and the delicatessen. We all ran errands for our elders cigarettes, beers, racing forms. When you grew up you could boss the kids around and rightfully so; what did they know?
People of my age now consider that a simpler time. Phones had rotary dials, manuscripts were written on typewriters and kids were old enough to smoke when they could pay for their own cigarettes.
Big Red outlived her three husbands and around me the kids that I knew are getting older and older. Nobody remembers anything any more. But I remember; I remember a small boy sitting in a booth surrounded by women and the epifanic taste of a buttered English muffin being dunked into steaming hot cocoa.