I grew up surrounded by yammering neighbors who spilled their business into the streets. Roach motels in our tenement apartment always had waiting lists. The municipal mania of New York City was a blast that all started in 1954 when I was born.
Cheap entertainment venues in my Astoria neighborhood were spread thin. Scouting was for theLong Islandand upstate kids, not us city brats. Spend the night outdoors and sing around the campfire? Not on your life. All the action was on the front stoop outside aging brick apartment buildings. Girls played hopscotch. Boys flipped baseball cards. Neighborhood women relaxed on folding chairs under the only tree on the block, smoked cigarettes, and gossiped about everyone within a 10 block radius. Men were more elusive. If they shuffled outside in their house slippers, the old guys shared war stories. Almost all were WW II veterans except my dad. He didn’t heed the call to go ‘over there’ because his parents died young. Dad raised his younger brother Nicky.
We were a rowdy bunch but violence was as foreign to us as fine French cuisine. Reading books, spending an afternoon at an art museum, or taking in the ballet stretched beyond our working class values. The term ‘at-risk’ hadn’t yet been coined. With little else to do, we kicked cans around the back alleys connecting our row of dilapidated buildings and played stickball in the courtyards. The first time Franny belted a home run through Chickie Lady’s living room window the frantic old woman, whose real name was Alice Huckermeyer, shooed us away with a broom. Repairs cost Franny’s parents a bundle. By the next morning, our rag-tag team returned with stern warnings to bunt the ball instead of swinging away.
Monster, red light/green light, tag and hide-n-seek were popular games for us too. Climbing the brick walls separating the court yards amused us unless someone cracked a tooth or broke an arm. After a minor mishap, mothers urged us to stay off the walls. We never did. Our simple escapades were too much fun. I scaled the wall in just two tries.
No doubt a dozen big-mouthed children irked some neighbors, especially during the summer when the chattering ran day and night. With few public parks around and no access to summer camp we claimed the alleys and courtyards as our own. We never saw ourselves as pesky, particularly to people without children.
Fun and frolicking was disrupted when the drainage pipes clogged, spilling raw sewage into the courtyards. While the repairmen pumped out the stinky mess and mopped up the human waste, we kids had nowhere to play.
Instead of pouting, we hopped on our bikes for merry mischief. Crime was rare so no one owned locks. Not a single bike was ever ripped off. We pedaled up and down the block, probably knocking pedestrians off course. We didn’t think about others but no one was mowed down either. Now and then we shrugged off our parents and wandered away from the neighborhood not to use drugs or rough up old people, but to watch rats swim in the murky waters of the East River, about twenty minutes away. We were easy to please.
Women were housewives then. Tidying up tiny apartments only took up so much time so to prevent boredom the ladies became addicted to soap operas and game shows. After lunch they snacked on coffee and cake and blabbered about the latest melodrama or game show hunk on the tube. Life seemed simple back then.
Owning a washing machine was a sign of upward mobility. Cramped kitchens however just wouldn’t allow a dryer. Clotheslines were strung between the buildings to hang out the clothes. Mother Nature took care of the rest. Unless neighbors had an attitude, sharing the lines was common. Not everyone had phones so women gabbed while hanging out wash. Everyone knew intimate details about each other’s lives because of the laundry.
Winter time posed unique problems for the laundry ladies. Clothes froze on the line. I remember blue jeans turning into rock-like material and standing straight up. Heat from the radiator collapsed them into resembling real pants once again.
No mother dared hang out wash when the sewers backed up. Clothes might pick up the rancid smell of poop. If someone’s hand slipped when bringing in the clothes, a clean white shirt could sail into crappy water. Clogged pipes were a problem for more than just us kids.
A family of slobs once lived on the second floor. Mrs. M hung out the wash in the spring and by the time they moved out, a year later, the wash, including Mr. M’s boxer shorts and white socks, lay in tatters on the line. The family also left behind a house full of cockroaches that had reproduced exponentially.
Men worked in factories that crisscrossed New York City. Blue collar jobs were plentiful. My father worked in a printing plant. Only Frank Sr., Franny’s father, didn’t have a job. A disabled WW II vet, Frank was mostly deaf. As long as the weather cooperated, he sat on a lawn chair in front of his apartment building reading sports magazine and smoking cigarettes. Everyone loved Frank.
Families struggled on one income. Welfare was considered shameful. If a family qualified for benefits, no one dared pay for groceries with food stamps. What would the neighbors think? Even the churches rarely had food pantries. The neighbors would’ve been too embarrassed to ask for help. The worn down community had stubborn pride.
Our landlord, Mr. Dickstein, drove in from Long Island on the first of the month to collect rent from tenants in his shabby buildings, none of which had elevators to reach the top floors. Otherwise, we never saw him. If a tenant was late, he squeezed them until they paid or he threatened immediate eviction. At the time, tenant protection laws were feeble. My mother always paid on time and in cash. We ate Vienna Sausages or Spam but she kept Mr. Dickstein off our backs.
Building services like extermination were scarce. We had creepy crawlers because of the dumbwaiter, our trash disposal method. The dumbwaiter was a shaky, three-tiered wooden pulley in the hallway where tenants placed their trash. We were supposed to roll it down to the basement where presumably the superintendent, bleary-eyed Mr. Cavanaugh, when he wasn’t drunk, removed it daily and stuffed it into garbage cans in the alley. When stinky bags of open garbage sat on the dumbwaiter for days, naturally it attracted roaches and vermin. The little creatures found their way into our apartments and Mr. Cavanaugh usually found his way to the Red Door Inn, the tavern around the corner, for a brew.
During the winter, heat barely hissed out of the radiators. We bundled up at night. For relief from the oven like heat in summer, tenants sat on their fire escapes. The old buildings were not wired for air-conditioning. Fans merely circulated hot stuffy air.
We couldn’t always afford a trip to Rockaway Beach so we slathered our bodies with sun tan lotion and hiked up the four flights to tar beach, a city term for sunning on the roof. It wasn’t as much fun as a day at the shore with cool breezes skimming off the ocean or eating hot dogs on the boardwalk but it was just as effective in getting a tan.
Despite hardships families slapped on fresh coats of paint in their apartments every year. They covered their floors with new Linoleum. Every month they washed the windows. For an added touch, they shopped for new curtains and bedspreads in the discount stores. Those dinky buildings with rattling pipes were all they could afford.
Some families had it hard. Charlie W was the only kid in his family, a rarity in our community. Almost everybody had at least one sibling, usually more. Charlie was raised by his dad Oscar. His mother Georgette died when he was just a boy. She smoked herself to death.
Brian K, also an only child, might’ve been taken into foster care in today’s world. His father died when he was young. So shaken by her husband’s loss his mother sank into a deep, prolonged depression. She rarely left the house. I’m not sure how they got by. Brian basically raised himself. No one in those days sought mental health care, including his mother. That would’ve invited community scorn.
In spite of leaky plumbing, crooked ceilings and flecks of paint hanging off the walls, nothing stopped the neighbors from their devotion to church and kicking in money to the collection plate. Every Sunday hordes of families flocked to St. Joseph’s for one of about a dozen Masses. Overflow crowds sat in the balcony.
I dreaded Sunday. My mother dressed me like a doll in frilly dresses with crinoline slips that made my butt itch. I would rather have played stickball or tag in the alleys. Sitting through a service said in Latin bored me, especially during the summer. The church lacked air-conditioning. On hot and humid days I was miserable.
I almost stashed enough away for a pack of baseball cards, which came with a generous serving of bubble gum. I only needed another dime so I kept the quarter my Mother gave me that was intended for the collection basket. When we got home, she noticed the shiny coin slip out of my pocket.
“That was for God,” she said.
“I didn’t think he’d mind,” I said. “I was good this week. I needed money for a pack of baseball cards.”
“Girls shouldn’t play with baseball cards.”
“What’s the big deal? I’m only having fun.”
After whacking my hand, she took back the quarter. I waited until next week’s allowance to buy my next pack of baseball cards.
Catholic women and girls were supposed to wear a hat or veil upon entering a church. Why, I was never sure. Men didn’t have to abide by the same rule. My brother would’ve looked dorky in a veil. I was out with my Dad one afternoon and he said, “Let’s go to church. I want to pray for Uncle Nicky.” Dad’s only brother had lung cancer.
He glanced at my bare head and said, “What’ll I do about you?”
“I’ll wait outside. I don’t want God to be mad at us.”
Dad whipped out his handkerchief.
I frowned. “I don’t want that on my head. It’s got boogers on it.”
“Be quiet and let’s go inside.
I sat squirming next to Dad, with his dirty handkerchief on my head, wondering my disease I might catch.
Lots of families used our neighborhood as a stepping stone to better days. When their parents socked away enough money, they bought nice houses on Long Island, with picket fences and two-car garages. Sometimes they adopted pets. Kids had yards to play in, pools to swim in. Families always said they’d come back to visit. They never did. My parents couldn’t afford the suburbs and I sometimes felt let down. I resented sleeping on the living room couch and eating canned food.
I hung out with freckle-faced John, Franny’s younger brother. All seven kids were squished into a hell hole of an apartment that always smelled like bad egg salad. John and his three brothers shared one room. Once, I caught lice from his older sister Sally Ann. She had her own room and invited me to play. I always avoided Sally Ann. John could’ve spread lice too since he lived in the same apartment but I liked John better. His sister Sally wanted to share her dolls and I hated dolls. I scaled walls and threw strikes in ball games. What did I need dolls for?
Harriet, John’s mother, had one killer set of pipes. I swear you could hear her bellowing blocks away at Mueller’s Deli. I asked John if she smacked them around. No, he said, but she never shut up either. Maybe raising five kids on Frank’s disability was a problem. Years later, Harriet took a job in Radio City, which women rarely did in those days. I guess she had no other choice.
Ranting and raving ran in Harriet’s family. Her sister Anna and family lived upstairs. Harriet and Anna hissed at each other like feral cats. Anna’s son, Jerry, however, played with us. I think he was embarrassed by the tiffs between his mother and aunt. Anna’s husband Dick stayed away from everyone. War could erupt between the two sisters at any time. When it did, they often dragged their battle into the street for all the neighbors to hear. A soap opera played out in front of my window. My mother tried closing the blinds but I wanted to catch the action. This was better than General Hospital.
Not to be undone by Harriet and Anna, Sadie, their older sister who lived in the same building, also threw herself into the family fray. She bickered with Harriet but sided with Anna. That pissed off Harriet. The producers of the show, Family Feud, should’ve come to my neighborhood.
One day, Anna and Harriet would grin and smile like they cared. The next day they’d be ready to poke each other’s eyes out. Sadie egged them on. I’m surprised no one ever called the police. Those women were on fire.
The final blow came one day when I was about ten. I don’t remember what punctured Harriet’s tire but she blew up. Harriet and Anna yelled, hollered and screamed for over an hour. Fortunately, Sadie wasn’t home. A new tenant threw water on the sizzling sisters. Finally, there was calm. Two days later, Anna, her husband, and son moved toSheepsheadBayinBrooklyn. The families never spoke again.
John and I remained friends for years. We rarely talked about his tempestuous mother Harriet or the rest of his extended family. Their wild ways embarrassed him. Mostly we took walks, played cards and talked about our dreams to throw off the suffocating blanket of small minds that buried us.
For all its hysteria, the neighborhood had its own beat. Tony’s, a narrow, dimly lit candy store with a cheap vinyl counter, stools, and three telephone booths in the rear, was my favorite hangout. Among Tony’s offerings were a flimsy magazine rack with the daily papers, gobs of candy, the latest baseball cards, ice cream that Tony scooped on crunchy cones or filled in sundae dishes, chintzy plastic toys, rubber balls, and of course cigarettes. Whenever I had an extra nickel, I filled my face with sweet treats. Among my top picks were 2 cent pretzels, chocolate egg creams, and bubble gum. I chewed so much gum my parents must’ve forked over a lot of money to keep my teeth intact. I was high on sugar for years.
Healthy diets were unheard of back then. My closest connection to fruit was cherry Kool-Aid and watermelon flavored Life Savers. If it wasn’t soda, pizza, White Castle burgers, hot dogs, cheese doodles, cookies, candy, donuts, Twinkies, Ring Dings, ice cream and a long line of other cavity causing nauseating sweets, why bother? I rarely missed the Mister Softee truck when it cruised down our block. Only the lack of the modern technology kept us slender. We spent hours outside at play, despite frigid winters and steamy summers.
I attended Catholic schools because of my mother. She thought my brother and I would grow up to be prim and proper if we added religion to our education. At that age, we didn’t argue. We obeyed. If I led a decent life God would reward me when I died. I didn’t need to join the convent or whip out the rosary every day.
In high school, however, I became a slacker. My mother said college was only for boys. I’d only get married so paying for my education would be a waste. Why should I succeed in high school? In fact, I flunked religion during junior year. That didn’t go over well. As tears rolled down my mothers face, she said, “What am I paying for a Catholic education when you failed religion?”
I said, “I wanted to attend Bryant High School, but you said no.” Besides, what’s the worry? I’m not going to college. Who cares if I failed religion?
She did and so did the principal. I couldn’t graduate unless I passed. I stopped horsing around and eventually scraped by religion with a D.
As a teen my mother said I was old enough to meet my Catholic commitment to attend Sunday Mass with my friends. So each Sunday morning I dressed up but detoured to the Modern Age Diner. There, my friend Pat and I ate bacon and eggs while chatting and reading the New York Daily News. I kept up my ritual until a neighbor and her sister visiting fromMichiganhad breakfast at the Modern Age one Sunday. She mentioned to my mother that she saw me and Pat. My mother was furious so I fibbed. I told her we had gone to the earlier service and had breakfast afterwards. Did she believe me? I’m not sure. I didn’t go back to church but I stopped having breakfast at the Modern Age after that. Nosy neighbor ruined my Sunday specialty.
Reality crashed through my insular world and brought me face to face with a few searing truths. Maybe it was time to grow up. My mother sent me to a nearby grocer for milk and bread. Always, it seemed, we needed milk and white bread.
Waiting on line, I noticed the cashier, a balding man named Ziggy, had a string of faded numbers etched on his arm. Polite and soft-spoken, Ziggy had the saddest eyes. Maybe he had no children or pets at home? That’s why he seemed lost.
I asked Ziggy about the numbers on his arm. What did they mean?
“I got them in a concentration camp during the war,” Ziggy said, ringing up my container of milk.
“What’s that?” I asked. I was probably 9 years old. I don’t really remember.
“It’s a long story,” he said, avoiding my stare. “The 1940s wasn’t a good time in Europe for Jews. Many people were killed.”
Ziggy glanced at the customers behind me.
“Come back some other time and I’ll tell you.”
My fourth grade teacher, a stone-faced nun who looked like she ate roaches, was mum about concentration camps. She offered no credible explanation when I asked what they were. So I went back to Ziggy and he told me as much as a nine-year old could understand about human extermination camps. I wondered why my church let this mass killing happen. The nuns and priests taught me that God was all loving. Why didn’t he save the Jews?
A married couple, Andy and Betty, moved into the crumbling apartment building on the corner. Unlike the rest of us, they were older and had no children. Everyone had children. Andy stayed home because of a severely malformed right hand and a debilitating heart condition. His wife worked in an office.
Andy perked up around us kids. If we played in the alleys, he stared at us behind dark glasses. If we had an impromptu game of stickball, he was right there, watching every move. Without a job maybe he was bored. Why meddle with us kids? None of the other adults did. He seemed harmless so I shrugged off my concerns.
One day, we were chasing each other through the alleys in a furious game of tag. Inside a small dark tunnel connecting two courtyards, a hand grabbed me. My heart pounded. I looked up and it was Andy. He started groping me. I felt yucky. Ready to scream Andy cupped his good hand over my mouth. He pressed his sweaty body against me. Only the sound of Franny’s voice made him let go. I kicked him in the shin and ran away. Franny must’ve seen my ashen face and asked if I was OK. I was still shaking. Why didn’t I say anything? No one would believe me. Andy was a respected member of the Catholic Church. What would I sound like if I accused a heart patient of molestation?
Andy’s disgusting lewd stares continued for the next few years. Whenever I saw him, I ran the other way. Once, when no one was around, I spit at him. I picked up dog poop and left it on his windshield. He never caught me alone in the alleys again. I always looked over my shoulder for the dirty old man named Andy.
No one in my community used disparaging ethnic names, including the ‘n’ word. At home, at church, and in school, we learned respect. Yet that didn’t mean we welcomed minorities either. If someone with dark skin walked around looking for an apartment that sent the neighbors sailing off their chairs. Integration was fine, just not inAstoria.
A Cuban couple slipped into our building in the mid 1960s. That caused a major uproar. No one talked to the Cubans. I don’t remember much about them except they played cards late at night and cooked fried bananas that smelled sweet. The Cubans had a big lab mix named Blackie. I loved animals and the Cubans always let me play with Blackie when we met on the street. The Cubans invited me into their apartment to eat beans and rice and to play with Blackie but my mother refused.
The religion thing came back to me yet again. I thought God loved all his children. Why not the Cubans? When the Cubans said they were leaving, no one wished them farewell except me. I missed them and their goofy dog Blackie.
Growing up inNew York City made me paranoid and suspicious. I never fell for a scam and I still won’t. You want me to give you money? For what? Go to hell.
After high school, I branched out and immersed myself inNew York’s ethnically diverse, rich culture. I took advantage of the city’s museums, parks, libraries, and other enriching activities. I pounded the pavement inCentral Parkand used jogging as a way to quit smoking. I met dozens of friends through the New York Road Runners Club, some of whom I still see today. I stayed slender while having fun.
New Yorkmade me brash, outrageous, and bold. I loved growing up in the city that never slept. In 1989 I moved away but New York City will always be home. I love you New York.