I finally gave in, but only after insisting that they had to ride the subway to get the full flavor. They reluctantly acquiesced. We hopped, or were shoved, onto the Lexington Avenue line for our extraordinary journey. Up, up we clattered and clacked. When we reached Yankee Stadium nostalgia set in, and I remembered my Dad taking me to Yankee games (in the bleachers, of course) in the days of Ruth, Gehrig, Lazzeri, and other greats. Oddly, neither Dad nor I was a Yankee fan. My older, wiser brother, Mycroft, was the family elitist! Across from the Stadium there was Macombs Dam Park where I scored a brilliant touchdown before a roaring crowd of eight. The roar actually came from the Stadium where Army was playing Notre Dame, but I still take full credit for the noise.
After carefully instructing my guests about the old neighborhood we alit at Jerome Avenue and 183rd Street. Ethnicity has changed as it has in many cities across the country. We became an instant minority, and were delighted that the residents received us so warmly. Most of the old stores on 183rd Street were gone – the candy store of sainted memory, the bakery (yum), and the tailor shop run by the parents of future National Basketball Hall-of-Famer Dolph Schayes. As we strolled past the buildings where my young pals once lived my memories rose again.
We just couldn’t have a Gang when the kids were all named Leon, Herbie, Sheldon, Jerry, Myron and Monte. The best we could do was to create a Club. In those days, without drugs, weapons or even decent Gang names, we played stickball, basketball, and touch football. Baseball was confined to a “field” (i.e., dump) covered with rocks and tin cans. Our bats were nailed together, and the baseballs were covered with black tape. Later, we progressed to tackle football on real fields. That was great until Dad said, “If you want to keep playing, you’ll have to pay your own doctor bills.” End of a promising career. In winter, after it snowed, our Flexible Flyers hurtled down the street as terrified mothers bellowed to look out for cars. Someone or something looked after us kids since none were killed or badly hurt.
We had three kinds of violence, excluding the occasional parental spanking, of course. One was the meaningless fistfight that usually arose because of something serious such as the relative merits of Joe DiMaggio, Pete Reiser and Ted Williams. Reiser was the great phenomenon of the ’41 Dodgers, until he ran into a concrete wall in St. Louis, followed by a bad shoulder injury in the army.
Another was on Halloween when kids chalked the ends of thin boards and swatted other kids. We also used powdered chalk to fill up old socks. They were great for banging those other kids and covering them in chalk dust. Today, all that would result in criminal charges and more income for lawyers. (Full disclosure: I graduated from an accredited law school and am an active member of the Florida Bar.) Since we were largely uneducated in the ways of real life we did not know anything about “Trick Or Treat” until college, or even post-graduate days. The final violence was when the “big” kids from another neighborhood came around to beat us up because we were different. That’s when we called our protectors – Fat Al and Big Dan. They would terrify anyone.
Now we found the six-story apartment house on Buchanan Place, where we lived for so many years, still standing. We could see that there’s an air conditioner in my parents’ room. “Tar Beach” our rooftop where we sunbathed on beach chairs is probably still the same, smoldering above our top floor apartment that was like a furnace in the summer.
There were about six kids playing in the street when we arrived. They were “different,” as we had been so long ago. Their difference was color; ours was religion. They were puzzled by our appearing apparently from nowhere, but adorable when we asked if they would like to be in some pictures with us. When my wife told them I had lived there a long time ago they simply did not believe her.
We passed the empty lot where I had my one and only real fist fight. The rock that marks the spot of my greatest triumph, when I knocked down my worthy opponent with a single misdirected blow is still intact. It’s probably a monument to my gallantry. My son was enraptured by this entire testament to his origins…I think. My friends believed about fifty-six percent, but I was entirely truthful, so help me.
We paused at my elementary school – beloved P.S. 91. Grammar schools in New York were all numbered. No names, please. Then I was overwhelmed with memories of my Dad and Mom.
I did not appreciate it at the time, but Dad was the family hero. At home or away elsewhere from his tiny butcher shop, he was angelic. In the shop he ruled with an iron fist. My brother, who spent many hours working there, and I as a delivery boy, later on got to know both Dads. In the shop we scraped the butcher block, swept the sawdust-covered floor, and did sundry tasks. One day, Dad taught me to use the cash register, and deposit money in the bank, four or five doors away. My mother was horrified at this delegation of authority to such a young twerp. It worked out just fine.
It was away from the shop that I learned about rectitude and principle from Dad. Aside from patiently listening to a nine-year-old explain why he liked Batman more than Superman, Dad explained and demonstrated more life lessons than I can repeat easily. One day, he and I were walking to an uncle’s apartment. On the way, I edged out from the sidewalk and onto the curb. Dad asked me why I was wandering. I explained that the “big” kids who came by to beat us up went to the church we were passing. With that Dad said, “C’mon with me son.” He took my hand, and into the church we went. It was cool, peaceful, and pleasant. It was Sunday, and there was a service ending. We sat quietly until it was over, and left. As we resumed walking, Dad said, “Don’t confuse what kids, or even grownups, do, with a church. You saw how nice and kind the people in the church were. If the kids act like bullies it’s because they don’t listen in church.” That was my first real lesson in understanding and acceptance.
I learned much later that my Dad tried to enlist in the Marines when World War I broke out, but was rejected, and was also turned down by the Navy. He finally was in the Army and, at the time of World War II, he once told me he wished he could serve.
Once I found a twenty dollar bill in a snow bank on my way to school. I took it to the police station, and a desk sergeant assured me that they would keep it for six months and return it to me if no one claimed it. After school I told Mom all about it. It’s easy to guess what happened next: “Just wait until I tell your father what you have done. Twenty dollars doesn’t grow on trees!” (Note: she was right about the trees.) When Dad came home she told him. I feared the worst. Instead, Dad said, “Rose, we have an honest son. He did the right thing and I’m proud of him.” Six months later, to the day, Mom and I returned to the police station, and the duty sergeant produced an envelope with my twenty dollars.
When I was released from the army, I spent about ten days lying around watching my Dodgers on a 13-inch TV screen. I heard Mom talking in the kitchen, but I was the only other living, breathing human being in the small apartment. What I heard was one-sided. Maybe she was on the phone? I quietly approached the kitchen and listened. “The boy is home from the army for a week and he doesn’t have a job,” she said. I peeked around the corner and heard: “Is this what he went to law school for?” In today’s code, OMG! She was talking to the refrigerator and the clock! A few weeks later, I went to Washington, D.C., and actually got a job.
Finally, on our journey to The Bronx, we found what had been my Dad’s little butcher shop at 11 ½ West Burnside Avenue. Fortunately, I remembered the address because it’s now a Korean nail salon! We entered, and tried to explain that it had once been… no luck. The poor ladies did not know what to make of us. We finally gave up, stepped outside, took a few pictures, climbed the steps to the train, and went our merry way.
From that little shop my folks persevered through the Great Depression and sent two kids through college, grad school, and law school. Thanks, both of you. Dad, thank you for teaching me so much. I don’t think I ever could have accomplished what you did.