January 7, 1976   no responses

 

It was a cold, late afternoon on January 7, 1976 as I headed out in my heavy dark blue Navy Pea Coat to the D Train from Park Slope, Brooklyn to get standing room only tickets for that evening’s performance of “Fidelio” at the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center.

As I walked onto the Lincoln Center Plaza, the fountain sprayed a frosty glow and the Chagall’s looked like Marc had just finished them with his box of Crayolas.   The usual bunch was already on queue for the standing room tickets: opera queens, Juilliard boys (and girls), Saul Bellow Upper West Side characters, senior citizens, and me.  This night was my lucky night since they still had student seats left.  I got to sit in a real seat in the orchestra; House Left at the extreme end the row -

Seat R35.

After I got my ticket I strolled next door to the Library of the Performing Arts to hang out till the 8pm curtain. I had come here many times since 1967 when I was a student at Cathedral College on West 87th Street and West End Avenue. If I sat at a certain LP listening station, I could watch who went in and out of the Men’s Room while I listened to the latest original cast recordings – how perfect!

At 7:45pm I went to my seat so I could read my program. The great Boris Aronson had designed the sets and the young John Mauceri of later Hollywood Bowl fame was conducting.  Of course, I knew the plot of Beethoven’s “Fidelio” – about Leonore, loving wife disguised as a prison guard named “Fidelio””(the Faithful One), who rescues her husband Florestan from death in a political prison.

I settled in with my coat folded neatly over my lap. I could never understand people who put their coats on the back of their seats and then sit on them! – so uncomfortable and lumpy and wrinkling. Then the magic moment came that never failed to excite me. The Swarovski Crystal Chandeliers, a gift from Austria, rose slowly up, up and up to the golden ceiling of the Met.  The house darkened.

It was then I noticed I was seated next to an attractive older gentlemen dressed in suit and ascot with his coat folded on his lap too. I tried to glance discreetly sideways but he caught me looking.

The overtures began.  Leonore, disguised as a gentleman, began to sing in the beautiful quartet  – Mir ist so wunderbar (“A wondrous feeling fills me”).  It was then I felt the pants leg of the ascoted gentleman brush up against mine. I stared straight ahead and concentrated on the music. As he shifted in his seat, his shoe slid up along mine and then withdrew. I stirred in my seat. Since the electrical gap was now broken I decided to close it and move my leg close to his. Contact was made as a surge of electricity pulsed, almost in complicity with the surging quartet.   The current ebbed and flowed to the end of Act One.

I swiftly flew up the aisle at intermission for a breath of fresh air on the Grand Tier Balcony. Mein herz was pounding.  I didn’t know what to do, but knew I had to do something. As I walked back downstairs I saw my gentleman standing up against the Enzo Pinza Water Fountain holding one of those silly white cone cups people pretentiously use to drink from the fountain to prevent their lips from touching the spigot. I jauntily walked up and bent over and took a mouthful direct from the bubbler. He was standing next to me now. As I wiped a bit of water dripping down my mouth, I stammered out  “Tony” to his slightly British cadenced response of  “Alfred.” He surreptitiously gave me torn piece of his program with a phone number that I guess he had hastily written.

 

Suddenly a woman approached. He said to me “This is my wife Lynn” and to her “This is my friend Tony.”  Like a grand dame she said “Good Evening Antony” and stared right through my mask of embarrassment. I was saved by the bell so to speak, as the usher struck the end of intermission chimes. I quickly excused myself as I waited for them to go back to their seats first.  I took my seat at the last moment as house lights were almost dark.  I looked furtively over – funny I didn’t notice whom he was sitting next to during Act One.

The young  John Mauceri climbed onto the podium and started Act Two. Florestan is alone in his cell, deep inside the dungeons. He sings first of his trust in God, then has a vision of Leonore coming to save him:

Gott! Welch Dunkel hier!

God! What darkness here!

 In our darkness the switch was pulled once again and the current flowed. Our ritual continued till the famous off-stage trumpet call announced the arrival of the minister. The horn stirringly rang out as a hand moved under his cashmere coat and across my overlapping dark blue one. His palm ever so slowly and gently moved over my thigh to its desired end.

O Gott, o welch ein Augenblick!
O unaussprechlich süßes Glück!

Oh God what joy at last!

Oh what a moment unsurpassed!

Mauceri was impassioned leading the orchestra in the interpolated Leonore Overture #3. My gentlemen caller was stirring as well. Then came the great chorale finale ultimo. The gates opened and the prisoners came up into the light in joyous exhalation of freedom and love.

There was a standing ovation, torn program confetti streaming from the “heavens” and four curtain calls. Since I was on the aisle, I left before the last applause died out and the house lights came up. I grabbed a quick drink of water at the Pinza Fountain before I floated onto the plaza like Cher in “Moonstruck” but without Nicholas Cage on my arm.

The D Train came right away.  Seated in my orange plastic subway seat, I felt like Cinderella as my coach arched up over the city and across the Manhattan Bridge – A Lovely Night.  The walk from the subway station to my apartment on Garfield Place was exhilarating. I got into bed and read the entire “Fidelio” program from cover to cover. The night was long and cold.

The next day I woke up feeling like Scarlet O’Hara the morning after Rhett carried her up the dark blood red staircase. Having waited anxiously till 11 am, I finally got up the nerve to dial the number on the scrap of paper that I had looked at so many times during the night. It rang a few times till it connected. “Hi, this is T-t-t-t.”… I was stuck – T-t-t-ony.

Silence…

Then a female voice said sharply and knowingly  “Antony, don’t ever call this number again, ever.”

Click…

I recoiled and dropped the phone, the scrap of program still in my hand. The winter sky darkened a bit and I felt like the other Christine pulling off the mask off the Phantom revealing the horror underneath – a hideous laughing grin. I sat down on my coat on the sofa which I had jauntily thrown there the night before. Reaching under into my coat breast pocket, I took out my ticket stub – Row R35 – and tore it up as the glittering Swarovski Chandeliers came crashing down around my head. I went to my window and stood there motionless like Garbo in Queen Christina, silently staring into the horizon.

 December 24, 1967   no responses

                                                               

Part One
“Cantique de Noel”
or
“O Holy Night”

And it came to pass in those days when John V. Lindsay was mayor of New York, the city was in crisis, and war was raging in the East that Anthony went up from Manhattan to the Hudson Highlands – it being Anthony’s first Christmas Eve at home after being away at Cathedral College, a preparatory seminary on the Upper West Side. The journey took two hours, leaving neon and grit and passing unto mountains and malls.  Anthony’s mother met him at the little, tawdry bus station, in the abandoned and violent city of Newburgh that tumbled down Broadway to the Hudson River. Their flight passed houses festively lit in blue and white, under stop lights of red and green, past a Dickensian spectral cemetery on the right, a vast field of hay opposite, finally sharp left turn down a country lane, and right onto tar and gravel street to their home in the town of New Windsor, New York – December 24th, 1967.

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It was slightly snowing as my mother pulled into the macadam driveway, arriving at our two story Cape Cod house. Even before I had dropped my bag and taken my winter coat off, my mother demanded that I decorate the front door for Christmas. “What would the neighbors say” (actually our next door neighbor lived in a trailer so who could cast stones?). I kept my winter coat on, went down the cellar steps and dug around in semi-darkness to retrieve some decorations. I pulled out three strings of big GE colored bulbs, the ones with little ridges on them giving them a depth of color that warmed your hands on this cold night. I ran them around the frame of the front door and the two side windows, making sure it was all balanced, the colors were in sequence and all the bulbs worked (if one went out, they all did).  I stood back, plugged them in and admired how nice they looked, like a small Ginger Bread House complete with a witch inside. I unplugged them and made my way back to the basement, hung my wet coat on the clothesline and went upstairs.

Mom had elaborately decorated all the downstairs rooms. In the parlor, much to my disappointment, we had an artificial Christmas tree. My mother was afraid of fire ever since her baby sister caught on fire years ago and died of severe burns.  So I sprayed the fake tree with pine aerosol to give it an ersatz scent. Fragile glass ornaments that we had collected over the years were hung with care and lots of aluminum tinsel were tidily draped on the bright, shiny twisted and stunted green, plastic branches -  having been packed, repacked and crammed to many times into its brown carton box.

On top of the TV set was a manger we had bought at Woolworth’s. It had a complete set of figures made out of some hard mysterious chalk material – The Holy Family, shepherds, angels, sheep, cows, camel, and donkey. The Magi: Melchior, Caspar and the Negro King, Balthasar were placed on the side lamp table as we moved them at it closer to January 6th.  Fake garland wound its way down the staircase banister along with Christmas Cards taped all around the big living room hanging wall mirror. In the bathroom was a knit Santa Hat toilet-paper roll cozy. The kitchen was filled with slightly melted waxen elves accented by my mother’s handmade holly & ivy handmade potholders and dish towels. The dining room table was covered in a 1950′s style white linen tablecloth embroidered with brilliant red poinsettias. A big Check Slovakian cut crystal bowl of fruit and nuts sat in the center set off by two matching candles sticks. We never lit the candles. A sprig of fake mistletoe hung in the foyer by the dirty beige wall telephone. Mr. R. H. Macy would have been proud.

Preparations started in the late afternoon for the traditional Italian Christmas Eve dinner of “Seven Fishes.” First came the spaghetti with white clam sauce. My mother sort of cheated on this dish using a can of Progresso clam sauce as the base to which she added fresh clams. I had to open a dozen clams using a screwdriver and hammer. I never got the hang of shucking. I resorted to smashing the shells open with a hammer which splintered shards into the clam milk. It took me a long time to strain the shards out. My other job was to clean the shrimp. I spread newspapers over the kitchen table and pulled off the outer shell carapace and violently tugged off the legs. I then used a small paring knife to devein the shrimp removing that ugly black line that ran the length of their little pink bodies. Like Susan Sarandon in the movie “Atlantic City,” I cut lemons wedges and slowly wiped the fishy smell off of my hands.

The celebration officially started as soon as it was dark. I dramatically snapped on the outdoor lights that I had hung that afternoon and put the Baby Jesus in the crèche. We drank Crowley’s artificial eggnog spiked with some rum as we watched the evening news on TV. Dinner was served later than usual, at 8pm. Christmas Eve diner was at the kitchen table – Spaghetti with White Clam Sauce, Shrimp Creole, fried shrimp and sautéed flounder with Tartar Sauce accompanied by baby peas and broccoli. Not quite seven fishes but we counted seven mouthfuls to reach the magic number. No dessert tonight except for cookies we still left on a plate by the tree. We quickly cleaned up, wiping dishes and scrubbing pots. It was getting late. I grabbed a Christmas cookie from the Santa dish as I sprang up the staircase and put on my suit and tie to get ready for Midnight Mass. My father, brother and sister went to bed and I turned off all the inside lights and warmed up the car.

Midnight Mass at our Italian parish of the Church of the Sacred Heart was as dramatic as any verismo opera – pomp, pageant, incense and music. We would have to get there by 11pm to get a good seat. The church was in semi-darkness as the choir serenaded us a Capella with a ceremony of carols. Everyone was in their holiday finery, ladies in brightly colored dresses and men in jacket and newly gifted Christmas ties. Ushers in tuxedoes sat these scions of Italian Immigrants filling every row of pews to their fullest capacity. Our ancestors would not recognize this new modern church built in 1964. The old church was built by hand by its Italian parish’s stone masons, carpenters and electricians. In their honor the old steeple bell was hung high in the new metal Louise Nevelson like croft. We all waited in anticipation to greet our new pastor, Monsignor Salvatore Cantatore who started in September. We all still mourned the passing of Msgr. Salvatore Celauro. I guess you had to be a Salvatore to be prelate at Sacred Heart. Just before twelve all the lights of the church were extinguished.

Then at the stroke of midnight, the main gold doors of the church were thrown open and a wintry blast blew through the darkness.  A solemn procession proceeded down the center aisle. First came three altar boys attired in special red cassocks and white lace surplices – one altar boy carried a large gold crucifix, flanked by the other two carrying candles, now the only light in the entire church, symbolic of the solstice, the year’s shortest day when light starts to return.  Another altar boy swung his thurbile in lusty arcs, sanctifying the way for the entrance of our new pastor as celebrant. He slowly walked down the aisle, dimly lit by the two beeswax lit tapers.  Just behind him, followed Father Leo and Father Lombardo, our two assistant priests acting as deacon and sub deacon for the High Holy Mass. They ambled like two penguins loaded down with ornate stiff heavy silk Sicilian chasubles embroidered with gold and silver threading. At last came the youngest, most angelic altar boy carrying a statue of the Baby Jesus on a silver tufted pillow.

The procession continued past the main altar, turned right and stopped in front of the side “Mary Chapel” We all stood in silence nary a cough, only the quiet shuffling of our wet boots on the terrazzo floor. Then our pastor dramatically turned around facing the congregation and choir and loudly intoned in Latin: “GLORIA IN EXCELIS DEO…!” The organ blasted out, the choir lustily sang, “ET IN TERRA PAX HOMINIBUS BONAE VOLANTATIS,” the old steeple bell pealed wildly and one altar boy almost sprained his wrist clamorously ringing his brass hand bells. And suddenly all of lights of the church were turned on, revealing  an elaborate Neapolitan crèche with hundreds of carved Nativity figures, gamboling over the country side, crossing a river with working waterfall on their way to the stable in Bethlehem. The choir continued as Msgr. Cantatore took the Baby Jesus off the pillow, raised it high in the air and gently placed it in the crib between Mary and Joseph. The Christ Child was born bringing light and grace back to the troubled world.

The procession went back to the Main Altar to start the holy service, Msgr. Cantatore chanting the Kyrie.  He made his name sake proud, Cantatore meaning singer in Italian or Cantor in Hebrew.  However his-a English wa-ssa nota so good but at the end of his holiday sermon he made it perfectly clear that he was expecting big bucks in the collection basket. The ushers walked down the aisles in military precision extending their sliding extension pole baskets to reach the center of each pew. Those who had money made a great show of putting in 10 or 20 dollar bills so everyone could see. The rest of us furtively tossed our one and five dollar bills in or made sure our coins silently fell to the bottom of the basket.

As it neared communion time, my mother and I knew what was coming next as we looked at each other with anxious hidden glee for the soprano, La Diva, Concetta Malavoce to sing her big solo. We daren’t look back over our shoulders up to the choir loft to see this zaftig woman, crammed into her old peacock blue bridesmaids dress. With grand expression and sour notes she imagined herself to be great Italian opera star, Maria Callas.  Every year during communion she would try to sing the famous French carol, “Cantique de Noel or O Holy Night.” My mother and I sometimes unsuccessfully couldn’t control our giggles when she began, “O Holy Night! The stars are brightly shining. It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth.” We knew this was leading to the famous High C at the end. “Long lay the world in sin and error pining. Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.” She just couldn’t quite reach that difficult high note but if you looked back up at her you think she was at La Scala with all of her claque applauding widely. “A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices. For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.”

Her aria continued as I got on the long line for Holy Communion. I followed behind Mrs. Peluso who was wearing (draped over her shoulders, not hiding her décolletage) a red fox stole with long bristly hairs electrically charged from the cold. As I got near the alter rail, Concetta closed in on “Fall on your Knees! Oh, hear the angel voices!” It was like being on the front car of the Cyclone as Concetta voice rose higher, inching up to the perilous top as she screamed out and the roller coaster descended. ‘Oh night divine, Oh night when Christ was born”  I piously knelt down at the altar rail trying not to listen as she edged up closer to a bel canto precipice. Father Lombardo solemnly placed the wafer on my tongue – “Body of Christ” I murmured “Amen.” The wafer stuck to the roof of my mouth.  I started back to my seat trying to manipulate the wafer off with no success.  Then La Diva rang out that top sour note. “Oh Night, Oh Night, Oh Night Divine”!

The wax in my ears moved, my eyes winced, I choked trying to stifle a giant guffaw when the wafer spit out of my mouth out and landed on the back of Mrs. Peluso’s fox stole sticking to the red fur. I quickly sacrilegiously plucked the wafer off the stole that had stuck to the red hairs of the fur. I put the host back in my mouth now tasting of musk and Jesus. Keeping my head down, I almost missed my pew. I knelt down and my mother gave me a nudge and it was mighty hard not to laugh. The choir sang the famous Italian carol, “Tu scendi dalle stele” during the second collection. The sub deacon and deacon cleaned and put the chalices in the tabernacle and opened up the missal to the final page. Father Leo held up the book, as our pastor turned around to face the congregation and intoned. “The Mas is ended. Go in Peace!” Mom and I rang out, “Thanks be to God!” and thanking God we didn’t have to hear Concetta Malavoce till Easter!

 

       Part 2
“Fall on Your Knees”

And it came to pass, that the congregation departed the church with haste.  But some went to the front of the church and found both Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in the manger. And they adored. And when they saw it, they made known concerning the saying which was spoken to them about this child. And outside, a bright star and moon shone in the heavens.

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On the steps of the church everybody was joyously wishing each other “Buon Natale.”  Msgr. Cantatore was smiley widely, the collection must have been a good take. All the ladies were fawning over him and their husbands preened and lit cigars or cigarillos. It was then, like a star in the East shining down on the Christ Child, I spotted Marc Burnett looking like the Apollo Belvedere. I hadn’t seen Marc since we performed in the parish passion play the previous Easter where he played Jesus and I played Judas and we both played with each other between Stations of the Cross. I left my mother who was smoking a Kent and went over to give Marc a seasonal warm hug and say hello to his Mom, Mrs. Burnett. She said she was leaving with her mother to spend the evening there. I never met Mr. Burnett since they were scandalously divorced.  Marc quickly asked if I wanted to come over to his place for some hot chocolate. Of course, I glowed! I gingerly asked my mother if I could go to Marc’s house for a while. He would drive me home later. She stomped on her Kent, giving me a sly knowing look and gave me a passive/aggressive “yes” to go. A mother always knows….

Marc lived in a large house in Balmville, one of the more upscale neighborhoods surrounding Newburgh. The night had turned frigid as we hopped into his mother’s car and turned on the radio. The sky was overcast with clouds and now nary a star, so it was quite dark out as we made our way through the back roads. Pretending to change one of the stations, I slid a bit closer to Marc (this was the days before seatbelts). My thigh lightly touched his as we chatted and caught up on our freshmen college semester, mine in New York, his in Boston. I laid my hand lightly on his thigh. There was static in the air. He placed his on mine, steering with one hand.

Like Little Ride Riding Hood’s Grandmother’s house, Marc’s Tudor Style home glowed with red Christmas lights as we pulled up into the long driveway. In the frosty air, our breath almost seemed tangible as we jumped out of the car, ran to the front door, kicked off our boots and tumbled into the warm living room. A giant Christmas tree cast a magical rainbow of hues all across the room and our faces. We stood in front of the tree for a long time as I stared at the tree and the colors washing over Marc’s handsome face. He caught me staring and our eyes met. He quickly suggested we go downstairs to the finished basement where he had a small pipe organ installed. He was a consummate musician and played me some pieces by Handel and Bach. I sat on a lime green bean bag with my eyes closed listening in fascination, enraptured by the full sound of the organ, its waves of music washing over me, penetrating my soul. I felt like Christine listening to Lon Chaney play in “The Phantom of the Opera.” However before I could “unmask” him, Marc ended a Bach Passacaglia with a flourish, stood up, bowed and suggested we make hot chocolate and go to his room. I applauded madly.

We made the hot chocolate in silence, as I hoped this was only the prelude to our evening’s theme and variations. With steaming mugs warming our hands, we went upstairs and entered his bedroom. He said he needed to take a shower as he closed the bathroom door behind him. I turned off the lights and the clouds must have disbursed for now the whiteness of the new snow and the light of the moon cast a silver shadow across his bed.  I walked over to his little twin bed, took off my jacket and tie, opened the top button of my white shirt and loosened my belt. I lay on the bed facing the bathroom door, imagining Marc getting undressed. I turned on the table radio on the night stand and found a Christmas station. I heard the sudden rush of the shower. I could hear my heart beat as I smelled the shower’s iron rust smell of the hard well water that began to mix in with the pungent scent of his Irish Spring Soap. The windows of the room began steam up with fog as the room grew hotter. The only light was from the radio dial. The shower stopped.

After what I thought was an eternity, the door opened slowly and there stood Marc wearing only fern green towel tied around his waist. With the bathroom light reflecting behind him off the medicine cabinet mirror, Marc looked like the Resurrected Christ I remembered from the spring passion play. The deep green pile contrasted so well against his rosy white ivory skin set off by his fiery red bush that rose just above edge of the bath towel. On the radio, Jim Nabors was singing “O Holy Night” as Marc stood over me. There was no room in the inn in this little twin bed.  I stood up and we held each other without speaking a word. I heard Nabors’ sing “Fall on your knees”.  He did.…

C’est l’heure solennelle
Ou l’Homme Dieu descendit jusqu’a nous
Pour effacer la tache originelle
Et de Son Pere arreter le courroux”.

Oh Night Divine!

Afterwards, we had fallen asleep so close to each like two sleeping puppies. Waking up I looked at the clock radio and realized it was almost 6:30 am. Like Cinderella, I had to be home by 7 am for the opening of the Christmas presents. I almost fell over putting on my clothes. My prince and I ran out to the car in the cold dawn. Marc warmed up the engine as I hastily scraped the ice from the front windows. As we drove back to my house the snow began to fall and I thought of the final famous sentence from the short story I had just read in English Literature class, ”The Dead” by James Joyce..

“His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

It didn’t take long to get to my house in New Windsor since the roads were empty on this Christmas morning. We held hands the whole short ride home. I wished we could have drove to New York City to my little dorm room on W. 86th Street and be together all Christmas Day. Marc turned off the car lights as we turned the corner onto Cross Street. It was still dark on this silent night but Mom had left the Christmas lights on. I adventurously leaned over took my angel’s face in my hands and kissed him oh so gently and oh so sweet. I calmly got out without saying a word, but I turned back and gave him a long look. “Buon Natale!” I almost slipped on the ice in the driveway.

I slowly opened the front door of our house, glided upstairs and put on my flannel pajamas without waking my Dad, brother and sister. I ran back downstairs and since I was famished wolfed down all the Santa cookies that had been left out the night before. I pulled out my LP copy of the “Messiah”conducted by Eugene Ormandy with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.  I silently opened the lid of the stereo, put on LP #3 and turned up the volume all the way. The “Halleluiah” chorus blared out throughout the house. I plugged on the lights of the Christmas tree and put the Baby Jesus in the manger.

I heard a couple of th-thumps from the upstairs bedrooms as Karen and Michael came running down. Mom in her floral nightgown came out of the downstairs bedroom, while my Dad shuffled down the staircase from the upstairs bedroom he shared with me and my brother. My father donned a Santa hat and we dove into the mountain of gifts, as he handed them to us one at a time. We opened them up in wild abandon with gift wrap and ribbon strewn all around us – toys, perfumes, pants, coats, scarves, sweaters, shirts, and ties. I collected up the bows for next year.

Oooh! We all feigned great delight at a pair of gloves my brother received from Aunt Laura. Oooh! Karen got a scarf and I got a key case from her. My mother liked the Jean Nate Bath Oil I gave her and dad loved his flannel shirt. My Mom got me the original cast album of The Apple Tree which was the second Broadway Show I had seen that fall. Of course, I had asked for this, so it wasn’t a surprise. As I was reading the liner notes, I was struggling to remove a piece of cookie stuck in my teeth. Try as I may I couldn’t get my tongue around it to dislodge it. Finally ungracefully, I poked my finger into the crevice and out came a small cookie chunk with a mysterious red threadlike strand. AHA! I chuckled as I flicked the hair on the Christmas tree and swallowed the cookie. Our dog Marigold jumped up and began licking me all. I think she smelled the Irish Spring Soap.

Everybody went to their rooms to get dressed for our Christmas luncheon of Baked Ham served in the dining room; there would be dessert. I took the “Messiah” off the player and put on “The Apple Tree.” All alone in the living room, I sat under the tree and listened to the overture and openings songs of the musical based on the short story, The Diary of Adam and Eve by Mark Twain. The tree glowed, I half suspected it to grow like in” The Nutcracker”.

The parlor was still empty. The snow started faintly falling as I swooned a little looking out the window. Then came Eve’s plaintive song to Adam wondering what made her love him after spending a life time in and out of Eden. The beautiful Barbara Harris sang the song with great love and melancholy. Her performance in all three of the short stories that made up “The Apple Tree” would haunt me forever. I hummed along to myself and mouthed the words. I daren’t sing them out loud lest someone walk in and see me crying. Listening intently to the lyrics, I thought of the night, the cold, the Christmas lights, the Baby Jesus, even imagining Concetta singing “O Holy Night” in perfect pitch, my aunt who died long ago in Brooklyn, the gifts, the red fox fur, of The Magi and of my Marc-

“What makes me love him?
It’s quite beyond me,
It must be something
I can’t define.
Unless it’s merely
That he’s masculine
And that he’s mine.”

New Year’s came and went and on January 6th, the Epiphany, the lights came down from the front door and put back in the basement, the Christmas tree was dismantled and crammed back into that brown carton and the little figures of the manger were carefully wrapped in tissue paper and put in a shoebox till next year. The next day my mother drove me to the bus station and I went back to seminary. I didn’t see Marc again till fifteen years later when in 1981 perchance I ran into him at a play in Boston. The play was called “Fools”.

 September 10, 1959   no responses

I was fortunate to grow up in the 1950’s, the last great flowering of the American Songbook. My musical tastes were formed by viewing the many television variety shows like Lawrence Welk and the Bell Telephone Hour as well to listening to Broadway show albums. My Uncle Joey on the Polish side of the family exposed me to the glory of Gershwin and Kern, the lush melodies of operetta and the songs of movie musicals. Curiously I discovered classical music all on my own. I have a great knowledge of classical music that I learned from reading the liner notes of records, over and over. It was my Uncle Joe who bought the first Hi-Fi that I would sit and listen in front of, transfixed like Nipper, the RCA dog.

Here are few some songs that changed my life growing up through adolescence before the Beatles and rock and roll took over the airwaves:

“Only Make Believe” (from Show Boat)  -My mother would sing this song a lot. Did she think her love was only that? Indeed Show Boat has become a great influence on me as I identified with Julie LaVerne, the tragic chanteuse. I think my Uncle Joe and my mother saw the 1949 revival on Broadway so it was played a lot. “Old Man River” too of course.

“If I Loved You” (from Carousel)  – Another favorite of my mom, always tentative love. I still sob at the ending when Billy Bigelow says, “I loved you Julie, know that I loved you.”

“Rhapsody in Blue” – One of the first LP’s I bought at Merkels, a butcher that for some reason had a weekly record promotion.

“On the Street Where You Live” (from My Fair Lady) – Another LP but a lesson learned. I bought this at Woolworths for 99 cents. It was not the original cast recording as I soon discovered when I brought it home and played it.

“The Beer Barrel Polka” and the “Too  Fat Polka” – music to eat golumpki and kielbasie by.

“Volare” – My Italian uncle taught me this song on his guitar and I would sing it at family gatherings. OH OH!

“Shine on Harvest Moon” – This is the song that I sang in the fifth grade at my parochial school talent show. From then on, I was nicknamed “Shine On” by the lady who would sell meatball heroes for 25 cents at the deli next door.

“The Merry Widow Waltz”  (from Lehar’s operetta) – I hummed this often and danced around the living room.

“The Drinking Song” and the “Serenade” (from the Student Prince) – Mario Lanza’s voice in the movie sent chills down my spine.

“Cry” sung by Johnnie Ray – “If your sweetheart sends a letter of goodbye.  It’s no secret you’ll feel better if you cry …” a closeted homosexual paean sung by one to one.

“Come on-a My House” sung by Rosemary Clooney. The theme of inviting someone in with fruits and nice things to eat, but with the hidden offering of sexual favors.

“Some Enchanted Evening” (from South Pacific) – My favorite song of all. I would hum  this to myself as I stood alone in Julius’ looking for that stranger. I finally met him and his name is Gary.

 February 20, 1958   no responses

I am a stutterer.

Like an alcoholic, the admission of stuttering is the definition of the condition. When I was a boy I lived in fear of speaking. I stuttered, albeit not severely but still I stuttered. There are many theories as to why one stutters – physical, emotional, traumatic and there are many treatments but none conclusive.

My first memory of stuttering is in the second grade at St. Thomas Aquinas School in Brooklyn when Sister Rose called my mother in to tell her of my problem. I had no idea I had one and in a very typical way, the naming of the problem made it a bigger problem! Now everyone would be watching and listening to everything I said, including me which of course, made it worst. Sister Rose offered no solutions but my mother did: “You should go out and play more instead staying inside listening to your stupid records over and over again”, “think before you speak”, “Enunciate” and the big one – “slow down!”  I still that get one!

I could deduce that my speech impediment was caused by family unrest and soap opera drama. Who knows or is it just genetic? I noticed a British patrician stammer pattern on my mother’s side of the family but we were not to the manor born. “The rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain.”  I never got it …
However, stuttering or not, I was the class clown, making wiseass comments from my strategically placed desk in the back of the classroom. Eventually my teacher would find me out and would punish me by making me stand in the front corner of the classroom facing the wall with a very colorful dunce cap on my head. Little did Sister Mary Joseph know that she had put me in the limelight, on center stage in costume to try out my wisecracks to a captive audience. All I needed was bells to be the class court jester like Danny Kaye n the movie. This was a role I could play and not be me.

I was desperate for attention from anyone, no matter the inappropriate situation. And it isn’t it ironic that I used language as my method. You may not know this, but usually stuttering disappears when a person sings or acts. There are many famous celebrities who stutter: James Earl Jones, Marilyn Monroe, Mel Tillis and Carly Simon.

Also we stutterers are clever people: we develop many tricks to hide our torture to get around full guttural stops. We learn esoteric words (see my above use of albeit) or we use synonyms “Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall was fa-fa-fa-fantastic”, when I meant to say fabulous. Fantastic works as a substitution but if you know Judy you know she was fa-fa-fa-bulous! Syntax comes in handy too so we can twist the sentence around in myriad ways. My studying of Latin came in handy – omnia vincet amor – “All conquers love”.
In 1958 we moved to Newburgh, New York where I attended Sacred Heart Parochial School. Still stuttering, I decided in the fifth grade to enter the parish talent show to show everyone that when I sang, I didn’t stammer. I picked “Shine on Harvest Moon” to sing because I loved the song on my “Sing along with Mitch” album that I played over and over. On the day before I asked and rehearsed with the church organist, Mrs. O’Brien who accompanied me on an old upright no-so-in-tune piano.

So there I was on a cold Sunday afternoon, standing on the stage at Gallo Hall in the basement of Sacred Heart School. Out in the dark were friends and family and another hundred people. I nodded to Mrs. O’Brien to start. I was petrified and I sang standing very still, “Shine on, Shine on Harvest Moon up in the sky. I Ain’t had no loving since January, February, June or July.”

I got through the first part when I saw my mother’s face in the audience. I thought she was gonna run down the center aisle yelling “sing out Louise!”   So I finished up with more bravado. Polite applause. Not my mother screaming out “that’s my boy, that’s my little Anthony,” like from the last scene in The Music Man.  I bowed and quickly went off stage till the conclusion of the talent show. At the end, there was a grand bow of all the performers including my friend Peter who had played “Lady of Spain” on his accordion; Shaking it at the end to great applause.  He won! (The bitch)
The two people I wanted to impress the most were in the audience; my mother and my teacher, Sister Mary Joseph. I ran down the center stage three little steps to my mother. “How’d I do ma?” How did I do?” “Anthony, it was nice. But you just stood there, like a clump and why didn’t you sing, “For Me and My Gal” like on the Mitch Miller album that you play over and over?”  “Thanks ma.” I looked all over for Sister Mary Joseph but she already left. I waited till class on Monday to get a response but she said nothing.

No one got that I did not stutter.

I am a stutterer.

However on the next day, Monday morning back at school I decided to treat myself to lunch with the quarter that my father gave me when I got home from the talent show. He couldn’t go because of his Parkinson’s but he asked me all about it.

During lunch hour, I went next door to the little Italian deli that was popular with all of us school kids. I ordered a small meatball hero.  I slid my quarter into the nice Italian lady, Mrs. Costanzo’s hand. She reached out over the counter, grasped my hand in hers and looked right into my eyes smiling saying to me, “Baby you sang so nice yesterday”. She then reached backed to Mr. Costanza and handed me the larger 35 cents sub. “Shine on, Anthony, shine on!” Holding back my tears, I barely got out, “Oh thank you so much Mrs. Costanza, oh thank you so much.” … I didn’t stutter. She called me “Shine On” till I graduated three years later.

So thus began my life journey in the arts to find a voice, to find a love and not to be known as the stuttering Porky Pig but maybe the sexy actor, Sal Mineo or the dynamic and articulate director Elia Kazan.

But  back then who would have known there was a secret entrepreneur inside me that with the help of all you and especially Gary that I am now here speaking in front of you today, somewhat fluent, still not slow but feeling very successful and loved. “The rain in Spain, stays mainly on the plain.” I think I finally got it!

But what I actually didn’t’ get until I wrote this story was hat Mrs. Costanza for all that time wasn’t calling me Shine On.  She was telling me  to “Shine On!” “Shine On!’

So I  think it’s time after fifty eight years, it’s time to “Shine On” and sing “Shine on Harvest  Moon” again in front of my family.

But I ain’t doing it alone! So please help me out and sing along with Tony.  Somewhere Mrs. Costanza shines on and Mom,  we’re singing,” For Me and My Gal” too.

Sing along with Tony:

Oh, Shine on, shine on, harvest moon

Up in the sky;

I ain’t had no lovin’

Since January, February, June or July.

Snow time ain’t no time to stay

Outdoors and spoon;

Shine on, shine on, harvest moon,

or me and my gal.

The bells are ringing for me and my gal
The birds are singing for me and my gal

Everybody’s been knowing to a wedding they’re going
And for weeks they’ve been sewing, every Susie and Sal

They’re congregating for me and my gal
The Parson’s waiting for me and my gal

And sometime I’m goin’ to build a little home for two
For three or four or more
In Loveland for me and my gal

 January 1, 1958   no responses

On Beaumont Avenue in the Bronx in my Nona’s dark tenement parlor sat a rose pink convertible loveseat. The diminutive but massive piece of furniture was upholstered in a flamingo, shiny hard fabric with interwoven silver threads. It was boxy in shape with two large armrests. I could set my plate of pastina with melted butter on one side and my glass of milk with Bosco on the other. It was manufactured by the popular New York City based, Castro Convertible Company and featured a “feather lift” mechanism.

In the 1950’s, you couldn’t escape their commercials on the local channels that catered to the NYC’s lower middle class, all of whom had limited living space after the war. It was the perfect answer to a family living in cramped quarters.Bernard Castro, the founder, filmed his 6 year old daughter Bernadette with his 16mm camera. She daintily demonstrated how easy it was to open –“so easy a child could do it”. An Italian looking young girl dressed in a white nightgown would lift, snap and drop. “You just take it and pop it straight up.” As if my magic, the “Castro Convertible Girl” with her little pinky, would gently slide it up, out and over. When it was time for bed, I became the ten year old “Castro Convertible Boy” and would emulate little Bernadette, gracefully flipping open the bed. Sometimes I would close and open it several times as I sang the jingle:

“Who was the first to conquer space?
It’s incontrovertible!
That the first to conquer living space
Is Castro Convertible!”

During the day and before bedtime, Nonna would preside from her mauve throne munching tiny brown salted nuts as she watched a wrestling match on the Dumont or listened to Carlo Buti on The Italian Hour on the Philco. Sometimes I would sit next to Nonna, fitting so snuggly close that I could smell her black dress redolent of camphor balls as she crocheted lace doilies and antimacassars. But at night, the pink Castro convertible was mine. I loved my couch set with its harshly wrinkled white cotton sheets that I somehow never wet even though I did that often in my own bed at home. My little twin bed sat directly in front of the TV so I often fell asleep watching over and over again, “La Strada” and ‘The Tales of Hoffman” on The Million Dollar Movie as the “Star Spangled Banner” played and the sign off signals appeared. The gray dull glow encircled my dreams until finally Nonna would stomp in from her bedroom and snap it off in a huff saying “Who do you think I am?  Con –the- Edison!”

In the 1960’s, I often spent weekends alone with my Dad and Nonna. My father would first drop off my mother with my brother and sister in Brooklyn to spend the weekend at my other grandmother’s house. I would wander the Arthur Avenue neighborhood by myself stopping in at the church for some holy water, visiting chickens at the live poultry market and tasting samples at the numerous grocery stores. I would go shopping with my Aunt Mary at the stalls at the Retail Market and witness her interrogations and negotiations with the butchers, produce vendors and dry good merchants. I sometimes tagged along with my Cousin Viola (who looked a lot like Bernadette Castro), when she went to her CYO meetings in the Mt. Carmel Catholic School basement.

I explored the nearby Bronx Zoo countless times, especially the Monkey House, where my mother joked that I was born. I used a special “Elephant” shaped key that you stuck into a box in front of a cage to get the story on the animals pacing back and forth inside. I knew the place inside and out. I even ventured on my own to Freedomland, an amusement park, making multiple bus and train connections to get there way off in Pelham Bay. At Freedomland, I would mail letters to myself via the Pony Express Office from Little Old New York to San Francisco while watching the drama of firemen putting out the great fire of Chicago. Exhausted from my journeys, I would flop into my little bed and watch Perry Mason and Sea Hunt with my Aunt Mary who would often stop down from her place directly over Nonna’s.

One big weekend my uncle Carmelo, my father’s older brother whom he had not seen in 30 years, moved to America with his entire family from Sicily. They were staying with Nonna before moving on to Chicago. My cousin Vito was my age and spoke no English but somehow we communicated as I showed him around. We sort of looked alike and all of the neighbors thought we were brothers. We shared many Saturday nights in my bed giggling as we watched Sonny Fox and I couldn’t help notice his pee-pee was different than mine. Let’s just say it was European.

In the 1970’s, Nonna decided to finally to move in with my Aunt Mary who had moved away to Queens several years earlier. “Titzie” and Viola had purchased a brick mother/daughter house in Woodside. Nonna was always welcome to live with them but she refused to move from her beloved neighborhood. Besides she was a very proud and fiercely independent Italian matriarch, widowed now for 50 years. However, the area was changing and she was no spring chicken anymore. So, when I told grandma I was moving into my first apartment (after just recently getting my MFA) she offered me to take whatever I wanted from her place. She was moving to Queens. It was the excuse of helping me which would save face, the precious “bella figura”. Nonna had always been so good to me, me being the first grandson and little prince. When I was in graduate school, she had even bought me my first car, a brown Toyota Corolla for $2,450.

So with my friends, I packed up the entire contents of her home including a beautiful art deco wall mirror and bedroom set, the Dumont TV, the Philco Radio Console, five and dime store dishes, sheets, towels, pots and pans, an old toothbrush and an old pair of flesh colored pantaloon panties. Huffing and puffing, it took four of us to move the Castro Convertible sofa to the van, It had a bad center of gravity making it difficult to maneuver. Like Tony in “Saturday Night Fever”, I crossed the Brooklyn Bridge “in reverse” to Park Slope. It was a hot July afternoon and we sweated lugging the sofa up to my new 4th floor walk up on Garfield Place. We had to force it around several tight corners, stopping on each landing. It almost broke the banister we wedged it in so tight.

This is the only picture I have of the sofa. It is a morning after shot taken in my Park Slope apartment alcove but it has many clues. If you look closely you can see Carnevale decorations hanging from the ceiling. I still have part of my “Close Encounters of Third Kind” alien costume on with makeup. You can see a votive light on the radiator on the right that I had lit for the previous evenings afterglow romantic encounter of the first kind. Note the empty wine cups on the Phico TV and the green knit cap. It belongs to a leprechaun sleeping exhausted in my bed across the way.

 

I set it with pride of place in the triple exposure bay window alcove overlooking Seventh Avenue. You could see the Statue of Liberty from it, far out in the bay. I often read the Sunday Times there, resting a mug of coffee on one arm and the crossword on the other. It was also a perfect place to seduce an unsuspecting date. I would suggest sitting there for the view, get us wine and then sit down right next to him so close. Eventually an arm went around his shoulders and soon thereafter I was demonstrating the sofa’s “feather lift” mechanism.

The couch saw many parties, hosted numerous trysts and slept overnight guests of my roommates, Loretta and Fran. If that couch could talk! I swore one night it opened up by itself because in the morning it was magically agape. We all swore no one of us had touched the bed but there it was, open as silent witness to god knows what drunken revelry. The morning after one wild Carnevale party we discovered a guest had thrown up all over it. There he was asleep, not on the sofa, but propped up behind its backside. Since he was from India, we called him the “Bombay Bomber.”

Right before the 80’s began, I moved to the Upper West Side of Manhattan into an L shaped studio of my very own on West 83rd Street. Fran had already moved out and Loretta had gotten married so the place in the Slope was just too big for me. Once again my friends helped me move.

Down the stairs went Nonna’s huge art deco mirror, Dumont TV and Philco phonograph console. The double bed with Nonna’s yellow chenille bedspread went too. It didn’t dawn on me till a few years later that it was the very bed I was conceived on back in 1947. If my parents only knew what had happened on it since! When it came time to move the Castro sofa out, we got it down to the third landing and once again, it got stuck around that tight bend. This time however try as we may, we couldn’t get it around the corner. So with much sadness we hauled it back up and put it back in the alcove. I was going to leave it behind for the next tenant.

Before we pulled away, I ran upstairs, and like Madame Ranevskaya in Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard, I took one last walk around. It was broom clean and ready for the newcomers. But there in the sunlit bay window sat my now faded pink Castro Convertible Sofa. I sadly approached it and with a flick of my wrist, I lifted it up and popped it open. I lay down on it and looked up at the water rust stained ceiling. Like spotting the likeness of the Virgin Mary in a tree bark with my eyes half closed from squinting from the sun streaming in from west, I imagined seeing in those stains  the faces of Nonna, Viola, Vito, Aunt Mary, Fran, Loretta, monkeys,  myriad lovers and the “Bombay Bomber.”

I jumped up startled when I heard my best friend, Michael yelling my name up from the street. I must have gone out like a light for a minute or two.  I sighed, looking down at the pink convertible and like the angelic Bernadette, the “Castro Boy” closed the sofa for the last time with one last effortless, graceful motion.

Who conquers space with fine design?

Who saves you money all the time?

Who’s tops in the convertible line?

Castro Convertible!

 

Carnevale 1978

Me as the Alien, Loretta as the White Rock Girl and Bill Donavan the 6 foot Leprechaun

 December 3, 1957   no responses

At this time of year, my mother had all of her Christmas shopping done. This triumph of planning was complete actually by Labor Day.  Back in the 1950’s my mothers strategy was based on the Layaway Plan and Christmas Club Payments.

Before credit cards there was layaway, a way to purchase an item without without paying the entire cost at once. However, rather than taking the item home and then repaying the debt on a regular schedule, my mother did not receive the item until it was completely paid for. There was typically a fee associated with a layaway purchase, since the store must “lay” the item “away” in storage until the payments are completed. In the event my mom did not pay the amount due, the item would be returned to stock and any payments would be forfeited.

My mom typically bought our clothes on this plan. She would drag me to the store in August to try on winter snow suits and sweaters. They were “layed away” until December till they magically appeared under our Christmas Tree. Gee, how did Santa know which store to go to to retrieve my coat?

The other plan was payments to a Christmas Club. Right after the holiday, my mother went to the bank and opened up a few accounts in different denominations. You got a payment book filled with dated coupons that you gave to the bank teller with your money. I was forced to open one for $20 and pay into it out of my allowance so I could buy gifts for the family. I made my weekly payments of 50 cents till I would receive a check in November. There was no interest on the account but the bank did give you some free cheap gift like a calendar or plastic Santa or snow globe.

So in December of 1957 being 9 years old I went by myself with $10 to Kresge’s on  Fifth Avenue in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn. Kresge’s was a typical 5&10 cent store with displays of items piled in heaps on long counters.

I bought a floral lace handkerchief set for my grandmother and a brown handkerchief/tie combo for my Dad. Mom got a set of note cards with nature scenes. But Uncle Joey got a  LP of “Rhapsody in Blue” that  I bought for 99 cents in Merkels across the street from Kresge’s. Merkels was a Brooklyn chain of meat markets.  You would order  your meats from the butcher who would prepare to your order. Then he handed you a piece of paper with the amount on it that you brought to a cashier who sat in a little white booth. You paid in cash as she stamped it “paid.” You then went back to the butcher dressed in white apron and retrieved your brown paper wrapped parcel that was clammily cold to the touch and had that sour freshly cut meat smell.. Merkels went out of business a few later for supposedly selling horse meat.

On Christmas Day I proudly gave out my presents.  I would wait breathlessly as they opened their clumsily wrapped parcels. I watched as they may or may not have feigned wonder and joy at my simple gifts. I opened up my presents and smiled knowingly as I pulled out a red plaid woolen snow suit .

 November 25, 1957   one response

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Ragamuffins

 On Thanksgiving morning, when I was a young lad growing up in Brooklyn, I would dress up as a hobo and go begging. No I wasn’t poor…

Children would dress up on Thanksgiving morning, in raggedy clothing and blacken their faces with a burnt piece of cork to resemble hobos. We would go from house to house yelling, “Anythin’ f’ Thanksgiv’n?” and if we were lucky, we would be rewarded with coins, or piece of candy or (ugh) a piece of fruit.

This custom practiced mostly in Brooklyn was called “Ragamuffin Day. It resembled trick and treating on Halloween. Ragamuffin parades, harkened back to European traditions, and gave a chance for the poorer immigrants of New York City  to march through the streets in extravagant costumes, begging for change. Popular myth would have it that the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade originated in a similar fashion when its immigrant store employees wished to celebrate their newfound American-ness with a European-style parade. Of course, the idea really came from store executives.

On this Thanksgiving morning in 1957, I made the rounds around the block in black face, old dirty clothes and my father’s crumbled gray fedora. I rang the vestibule door bells and yelled out, “Anythin’ f’ Thanksgiv’n’?”  I knew exactly which bells to ring so I could accumulate the biggest stash of goodies and be home by 11 am; an A&P paper shopping bag bulging with Snicker, Milky Way and Charleston Chew candy bars. I threw all the apples away in the corner trash basket. I ate three full sized nickel candy bars so I didn’t have to listen to my mother yell at me to save room for the big afternoon feast. “Your eyes are bigger than your head!”

“You’re late!” My mother yelled as I threw my tatter all’s on the floor, ran to the bathroom and quickly wiped the burnt charcoal and chocolate from my face. I put on my good Easter Suit, snapped on a satin silk tie and secured it in place with a fake gold tie clip. We were all going to my Polish grandma’s house in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn for Thanksgiving dinner.

At noon, Dad led us to our DeSoto as we walked down the stoop steps of our brownstone. We were all dressed up, looking like a family of ducks following their mother. I precariously carried two boxes of the holiday pies while holding, my brother Michael’s hand and Mom struggled with my bundled up, crying baby sister, Karen. Mom sidled across the front seat and Michael and I took the back as I placed the pies boxes between us, marking my territory. My father, one hand on the wheel and one hand fiddling with the radio dials zoomed across the Gowanus Expressway to the Belt Parkway to the Fort Hamilton Parkway Exit.

At this exit, before they built the Verrazano Bridge, there was an actual decaying dark brick fort out in the Narrows Bay built for an impending British attack in 1812 which never happened.  Off of Fourth Avenue, in Fort Hamilton Park, a huge black cannon with very large cannon balls still stood silent watch over the harbor. A left at St. Patrick’s Church at Fourth Avenue took us to grandma’s house at 345 96th Street.

Easter 1955

Fort Hamilton

My grandmother lived on a quiet street lined with London Plane trees. These are the kind of trees that drop big puffy seed balls in the spring and whose bark you can easily peels off in sheets which I did.  Wide enamel cherry red painted slippery steps led up to the front door of a two family attached two story dwelling. The door to the right was Mr. Russo’s, the Italian landlord who lived on the first floor. Grandma did not get along with the Russo’s; so they were to be avoided at all costs. Actually Grandma didn’t like anybody, a true Krotki trait.

I pressed the doorbell on the left repeatedly. It was a doorbell that rang out clear like the knife sharpener man’s bell; it would make Quasimodo proud. My Uncle Joey flew down the steps yelling “Stop ringing the bell!” Its lucky Grandma was hard of hearing.  He peeked through the curtained glass panes of the front door, making sure it was us – we could be burglars, you know. He let us in. Even from all the way downstairs, a wafting warm aroma of roasted turkey swept over us and up to the wintery sunlit skylight. Another  steep set of narrow steps got you up to the second floor vestibule where there was always a small aluminum trash can. A swinging door led directly ahead into the kitchen while a French Door with white lace behind the glass panels led off right into the dining room.  Since this was a holiday, we were allowed to use the French Door.

Everyone was already there: Uncle Joey the youngest of the seven siblings; my bitter Aunt Laura with her Italian husband, Uncle Cy, a Frank Sinatra looking Lothario; their always taciturn son Glenn;  my bachelor Uncle Eddie who along with my favorite Uncle Joey lived at home with my grandmother; my divorced heavy set but baby-faced Uncle Larry still bereaved over the desertion of his wife, taking their son (my cousin) with her to Florida and my barrel chested Uncle Phil, the oldest, also bereft of wife and child (and another lost cousin).  They were all drinking Whiskey and Rye over cloudy ice cubes, washed down with good old cold Brooklyn Rheingold beer. They were feeling no pain.

s house

Grandma’s House

My deeply religious grandmother Josephine (who my mother was named after) wore a gray and pink housedress with turquoise floral apron over it that she had both bought at Mays Department Store on Fulton Street in Downtown Brooklyn. She always wore her hair in a tightly coiled bun held together with big black hairpins, looking like an older Irene Dunne in “I Remember Mama.”  She went to mass at St. Patricks’ every morning and a large Infant of Prague statue loomed on her bedroom dresser. She changed the baby Jesus’s attire to match the liturgical calendar.  Like the savory cabbages glumkies she always made, grandma would run sweet and sour. Sometimes giving me some “car fare”(a quarter or two) or making a sharp remark in Polish if I did something she didn’t approve of (like picking my nose without a handkerchief).

I put the light green Ebingers boxes of pies tied with brown twine on the huge buffet in the dining room. Baby Karen was deposited on Grandma’s double bed in a nest of winter coats looking like the Infant of Prague on its side. Michael tore around the apartment playing airplane till my Grandmother gave him a whack to stop which provoked lots of his crocodile tears. It was perfectly accepted for a relative to discipline a child.  “A child should be seen and not heard.”

I then went directly to my Uncle’s Joeys’ Hi-Fi Player that I was enthralled and obsessed with. It played such bright clean sound on long playing records not like my primitive portable 45 rpm player. I poured through all the albums that I knew by heart: Show Boat, Sing Along with Mitch, and Piano Rags by Joanne Castle. I gingerly took out two black disks, being careful not to get my finger prints on the grooves. I blew off some errant dust and put two LP’s on the changer: Lester Lanin’s At the Tiffany Ball followed Jackie Gleason’s Music for Lovers Only.  “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” segued into a lively Twelfth Street Stomp. I raised the volume. My mother yelled out to shut “that shit” off since dinner was ready.  I made it louder for a second before I abruptly lifted the needle off in spite.

We all proceeded to the formal dining room which was only used at Christmas and Easter. The table was set with a white damask linen tablecloth and an ecru crotchet lace overlay; the best china was laid out. Uncle Joey had wiped each one of them with a damp dish cloth after taking them from the dusty big China closet with glass doors that stuck and never did quite close. Uncle Joey had also polished the silverware the week before They were stored in a mahogany box lined in lush hunter green felt that looked like Alexander Hamilton’s case for dueling pistols. Mogen David wine gleamed dark blood red in the clear silver lead crystal goblets. The sliced White Mountain Bread from Ebingers was set out on a cloisonné tray that ‘Ole Blue Eyes,” Uncle CY had gotten from his stint in Korea. The White Mountain bread left powdery blotches all over my suit that I tried to wipe off with water which made more of a mess – like dirty sleet after a city snow storm. My grandmother frowned.

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Ebingers

Everybody knew where to sit by instinct. We all stood behind our chairs till Grandma finally took off her apron and sat down.  Thanksgiving was the only time we said “Grace”. But before my eldest Uncle Phil could start, my father yelled out “Grace Kelly” and we all laughed. Uncle Phil started over in earnest tone, “Bless us O Lord for these thy gifts which we are about to receive from thy bounty through Christ Our Lord.” “Amen!”, we all yelled out like the start of a baseball game.

The first skirmish of courses started – soup plates were passed in military precision to   Grandma who ladled out her Duck Soup from a huge Liberty Blue Staffordshire soup tureen. She had prepared the soup days before – a Polish Catholic version of Jewish Chicken Soup but much darker and thicker almost nut brown with great chunks of carrots and celery congealed to Carolina Rice. You had to lick the spoon after the initial slurp, to savor the savory reduction, coating an unusually large soup spoon.

At the last slurp,  Aunt Laura, Uncle Joey and Mom cleared the soup plates in an assembly line from dining room, to kitchen to sink. Uncle Joey then brought in the behemoth sized turkey. He walked the platter slowly around the table showing it off like a rabbi with the Torah on the High Holy Days. With great pomp it was placed before Uncle Larry who took out a gigantic ivory handled knife and pronged fork that he got from Japan. As he had been an army chef in Hawaii during WWII he carved with expertise and histrionic brio. The Arnold’s stuffing oozed out of the bursting sewn up cavity of the bird. Grandma got the “Pope’s Nose”; the legs went pride of place to the eldest uncles, Uncle Joey and Aunt Laura snagged the burnt wings and Ma and I grabbed the white meat.

In military parade review, out marched the platters – a bounty of side dishes all from my uncle’s fruit and vegetable store in Sunset Park: a mountain high bowl of steaming buttery mashed potatoes (it was my job to mash them and I always bruised my hand in exuberance) – a tray of  cold cranberry jelly mold (Aunt Laura had cut her finger when the using the crusty old can opener, opening both ends of the tin, pushing the quivering shape out)  – tangy thyme laced parsnips and creamy rutabagas with pearl onions – roasted sweet potatoes (or where they yams?) layered over with charred mini marshmallows – boiled-to-death string beans with almond slivers – gray-green garlicky Brussel sprouts and finally earthy pungent buttons of mushroom caps stuffed with bread crumbs that my Mother had made.  Half the dishes circled clockwise, the other half counter. We passed around a precariously filled-to-the-brim boat of turkey gravy which we slathered over everything, spreading out over the entire plate like the Johnstown flood.  We filled our thick water glasses with ice cold Key Food Golden Apple Cider poured from a glass gallon jug with a little side handle that I always got my thumb stuck into.glenn5

Cousin Glenn

Silence descended like the truce at the WWI trenches on Christmas Eve. We devoured the meal in less than a half an hour. There was a collective groan of satiety when my Uncle Larry gave a big sigh and rose up to toast Grandma and saying it was the “moistest” turkey she had ever made (he said this every year). We all clapped as she looked over her family like a stony, silent Indian chief. My fey Uncle Joey went to the Hi-Fi and put on record of the famous band leader, Art Mooney. The needle plunked down on “I’m looking over a four leaf clover” and we all sang along even my quiet Cousin Glenn,  “that I over looked before. One leaf is sunshine; the second is rain, third is the roses that grow in the lane. No need explaining, the one remaining is somebody I adore. I’m looking over a four-leaf clover that I overlooked before.” My brother and I fought over the wish bone. I won.

When the song was over, like revelry, everyone rose from their turkey tryptophan stupor. Uncles Phil and Eddy put on their over coats and left quickly racing down the steps to go the Jolly Pigeons Bar & Grill to pick up some other kind of Thanksgiving bird. They would not stay out late: Uncle Phil had to be at Hunts Point at 3am to buy wholesale for their fruit and vegetable market and Uncle Eddy had to open up the store. Uncle Larry kissed Grandma on the cheek saying “Night Mama” as he left in sweet sadness. My father went to the parlor opened the top of his pants, stuck his hand under his belt, laid his head back and the couch and fell asleep.  Uncle Cy joined him in the parlor watching the Rose Bowl on TV.

With all the men gone or asleep the cleaning up was left to the females; scraping, rinsing and washing the dishes as I helped to transfer  the food to smaller bowls, sealed with Saran Wrap.  Grandma never gave us any leftovers. They were always kept for the return of her beloved prodigal sons. Art Mooney and his Orchestra continued on the Hi-Fi with “If I knew you were coming Id’ve baked a cake, baked a cake, baked a cake. If I knew you were coming Id’ve baked a cake.” Uncle Joey would sing out the refrain: “Howdya do, Howdya do, Howdya do?” and we all joined in.  Michael sat on the kitchen floor, getting in our way, coloring in his Mighty Mouse book. Grandma like a retired general, went to the front sun room, sat in her rocking chair, eyes closed, praying the rosary, davening and murmuring like a Tibetan monk, asking forgiveness and mercy for her wayward family.

The tablecloth now looked like a tapestry camouflage of mottled brown gravy stains; sanguine cranberry Rorschach blots, a barrage of bread crumbs and gangrenous vegetable smudges. Aunt Laura laid a smaller yellow art deco cloth over it all, hiding the battlefield. Uncle Joey put the trash out in that ever present garbage can on the other side of the kitchen door. Silence descended.

The whistling teapot startled us with its load hissing noise and signaled it was time for dessert. Dessert was a ladies delicacy. Hot boiling water was poured from teapot into dainty teacups with a tea bag of A&P “Our Own Brand” tea. There was a little string attached to the bag that I liked to keep dunking and dunking till Grandma gave me rap. She would pour the hot, hot tea from her cup onto the saucer and blew across the top to cool it down before sipping. Grandma used Carnation Evaporated Milk in her tea, a vestige of the Great Depression and WWII rationing. Like weary veterans we sat around the now empty vast dining room table with the faint cheers of the Rose Bowl filling the quiet background. It was in a way a most holy and serious rite.

On the table lay the pies, pumpkin and pecan displayed on crystal cake stands, mixed hard shelled nuts in a pewter bowl and fruit in a large cornucopia Italianate painted bowl.  Aunt Laura served Uncle Cy still watching the game, a piece of each pie topped with a dollop of freshly made whip cream. I made a mess cracking open the walnut shells and making them into little soldier helmets on my finger. With little dessert forks, we took tiny nibbles of the pies, groaning as we took our last bites. Grandma opened up a bottle of her favorite liqueur, Cherry Herring Brandy. She gave me sip from a rose colored etched with gold cordial glass. It tasted like Smith Brothers cherry cough syrup. No one ever touched the fruit.

Baby Karen crying from the bedroom, signaled the festivities were over. In a quiet armistice, the table was quickly cleared and everything put back where it belonged in its stasis of everyday living.   Hugs all around and nary a kiss was espied on the cold Polish border of our family mores.

It was dark out now. It was same feeling of amazement I always got when I went to a wintery movie matinee, entering in the bright clear afternoon sunlight but coming out into darkness. We all slept on the way home as Dad somehow stayed awake, driving. He opened up his side window so the chilly night air whooshed back to my seat and rushed through my hair. I then rolled mine down too and stuck my head out pretending I was a train engineer. “Close that window,” my mom snapped.” You’ll catch cold of the baby!” Michael woke up as we slowed down and went up the steep incline of Park Slope’s 10th Street.  There was parking on the right side of the street right so Dad didn’t have to get up early the next morning to move the car to the other side.

Karen was quickly laid down in her blonde wood crib. The rest of us got into our pajamas. My mother made dad a sandwich and he gave me a bite. We sat down to watch The Wizard of Oz on CBS, channel 2. Of course it was in black and white. It wasn’t till my Uncle Joey took me the following month to the Sander’s Movie Theatre off of Prospect Park that I realized that when Dorothy opened the door she stepped into the glorious lollipop Technicolor Land of OZ.

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“There’s no place like home”

After it was over, we all went to sleep. I said my prayers and went to bed. I was hungry again so I reached under the bed where I hid my Ragamuffin Day goodie bag and pulled out an O’Henry bar.  As I was eating, I noticed some charcoal under my fingernails, left over from the morning so I licked it off with some of the chocolate from the O’Henry. I chuckled, “Anythin’ f’ Thanksgiv’n’?

I couldn’t sleep. Something was troubling me. Maybe it was my parent’s conversation I overheard the other day. They were talking in whispers. I caught fragments of words – moving – upstate – house.  I didn’t know it then but like a movie, they were changing the scenery of my life. The following year we would move upstate to Newburgh, NY to a real house. My life would in a way be like Dorothy’s story but only backwards. I was now living in my beloved OZ, a New York City of vibrant neon lights, magnificent bridges, roaring subway trains and  crazy characters. I would soon be dropped down the following year into to the drab, gray, dull suburban black and white existence of the suburbs, a Kansas where everybody looked like everybody else, acted the same, got around in cars and there was no Ragamuffin Parade.

The outside street light cast a cool white light into the bedroom. Snow flakes flittered against the window pane. An ambulance car siren wailed in the distance and I swore I heard the clanging of a Brooklyn trolley car way off from Flatbush Avenue.  My father  started snoring until my mother gave him a quick jab. Sweet sister Karen gurgled, and my brother gently rolled over on his side, facing away from me. With all of my family gathered around me, I still I felt so alone in my bed in a vastness of tumbled sheets. I hummed  “I’m looking over a four leaf clover.”  Maybe there would be four leaf clovers in Newburgh; I looked up to the ceiling with its rusty water stains and mottled light and pulled the covers up to my chin, and like Dorothy I started to whisper to myself over and over:  “There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home, there’s no place like, there’s no place, there’s no, ……. .”

 

 July 27, 1956   no responses

As you might have guessed, I intend to gather all of these segments into book form. Actually I had the intention to write my life story way back in college. How pretentious! So here is what I wrote in 1972. It was meant to be the first chapter. It is pretty much the way I wrote it with just some minor tweaks. 

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Pistachio Nuts! Yes, Pistachio Nuts, the red ones, the kind that the color gets all over your hands and mouth. That’s where it all began – those blasted nuts, a glass milk bottle and a boy.

Bill was possibly an eight-grader, tall, lean and blonde and our Irish landlady’s son – practically an adult – someone to look up to. I was a young Sal Mineo tintype with short brown hair, slight widow’s peak and a tiny nose (little knowing it would bloom five years later to a classic Roman schnoz!).

So it happened in Brooklyn. If you blindfolded me and dropped me in any part of Brooklyn, I would instantly know it was Brooklyn. Like Tchaikovsky; I hear two notes of his and I know it’s his music. In this case it’s Brooklyn. I don’t what it is – ladies in kerchiefs and pants, men in green work clothes, grubby kids or is it the church on every corner that makes Brooklyn the City of Churches? I don’t know.

My first childhood memory – correction – my first sexual childhood memory occurred one fine spring day. My mother was pregnant, again. I already had a brother so what next? Bill and I were playing on the stoop in front of our Park Slope brownstone (stoop is Dutch term for the stairs leading up to the front door).

We were playing with our little green plastic toy soldiers (which taste great too if you nibble on them). I was “America” and he was “Japan”, the mysterious east. I would fling my spitballs at his troops and defend our honor. But he had a secret weapon – napalm. He would take out a book of matches and throw fireballs and burn my soldiers, searing them with his flame until they became an ugly blob of green melted plastic. How could America withstand the attack of Japan?

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As I said, the time was spring and my pregnant mother, whose acute smell due to her late term, whiffed my burning soldiers from the open window up to our third parlor floor. She leaned out the window and screamed:

“Anthony what the hell are you two doing?
What’s that awful smell? Playing with matches again?
Do you want to burn the Goddamn house down?
I have enough to worry about without having to worry about you!
You should know better! What are you doing?”

“We are just playing with our s-s-s-s…, I tried to get out.

“Shit, you can’t even talk, can’t you do anything right?” my mother announced to the entire neighborhood.

“Soldiers!” I cursed back.

But I had them all fooled. I stuttered on purpose. Well that’s how it began. Mommy and Daddy never noticed anything I did – not my drawing, my homework, my writing, nothing. But when I did something wrong – WOW I was the center of attention. They would yell, hit me and even fight over me. So I began to count on all the bother and fuss to get attention. But, but, but my plan didn’t work out so well. Before I pretended to stutter, now it happened beyond my control. My mouth had gone Frankenstein on me. I couldn’t do anything right.
Meanwhile, Bill and I put our soldiers away. Japan was impotent without her flame. I was gonna go upstairs and watch “The Howdy Doody Show”. It was time, 4:00pm. However Bill said he wanted to show me something. He gave me some more of his pistachio nuts and led me up the fourth floor landing under the roof.

We sat down. It was dark but some light came through the dirty skylight, enough to see what was around me – some empty milk and Coke bottles and Bill in his blue dungarees. “What’s’ up?” I naively said. Bill smiled. He pulled down his zipper. Three metallic rips that sounded like the roar of a locomotive whizzing down the tracks. He pulled out his “thing” and held it. I continued eating pistachio nuts. He reached to my mouth and took a wet, saliva-covered empty shell. He placed it on the head of his penis. It looked like a little soldier with a red helmet – “The House of the Rising Sun”. He looked into my eyes and I knew what I had to do – the same. I don’t know why, like follow-the-leader. I fumbled with my dungaree buttons. I struggled to get mine out. I thought I lost it until I felt a sharp pain as it grazed over the rough teeth of the zipper. As last it whimpered out. Bill placed a helmet on mine. Both stood at attention like a standoff. Then we touched them, bowing the heads as if starting an elaborate duel. We parried and thrust. My pistachio nut fell off in the heat of battle and it left a red stain on the tip. My penis looked like a little matchstick.

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Bill then grabbed a milk bottle and slowly guided the head of his penis into it as it grew and engorged, making the entry difficult. “Pheasant under glass,” he joked as he spit and put some of his saliva on the bottle rim. The mouth of the bottle moved back and forth over his skin. He never took his eyes off of me as it glided in and out. All of a sudden he sighed and something happened which I couldn’t understand. If by magic, a milky cream appeared in the bottle as he pulled it off. He motioned me to try. I attempted to perform the same trick. I picked up another milk bottle and my little “thing” easily slid in. He told me to look into his eyes, as he tried to kiss me. I moved mine back and forth following Bill’s instructions carefully. But then  I broke my stare to look down to see how I was doing and how big I had grown. I gasped in disgust when I saw a roach at the bottom of the bottle. I tried to yank my thing out but it was stuck. Billy was laughing. I pulled hard till it finally came out, with the sound of a Tupperware lid – POP. I was wincing as I stared down on my red stained penis. Now I was scarred for life I thought.

I jumped up and ran down two flights to my apartment, leaving Bill who was sitting Indian-style in the dark hallway. I skidded past my mother to the bathroom and slammed the door. I scrubbed and scrubbed trying to get the red pistachio stains off my little weenie. It was like the stigmata on the statue of St. Francis that I used to kneel in front of at church. I rubbed it so raw that it began to hurt so I put some of my mother’s Nivea cream on it. As I came out of the bathroom my mother crinkled her nose and said: “Anthony have you been playing with my lotions again?” “No Ma!” as I plopped myself down in front of our Philco television.

“The Howdy Doody Show” was just over. As I changed the channel, I noticed my fingers were still stained red from the pistachio nuts. Emulating Bill, I moved closer to the TV and squatted Indian-style. I folded my hands underneath my legs to hide them from my all-seeing Argos Eyed of a mother. Suddenly The William Tell Overture rang out! I tried concentrating on the show but I kept remembering my afternoon skirmish and  couldn’t stop thinking of Bill and his legerdemain. The music blared out again as the half-hour Western concluded. My heart was beating in fear and delight and as fast as I licked the last lurid red remnants of the Pistachio nuts. I knew I was stained with original sin forever as those final galloping notes of the famous war horse overture rang out and a voice announced:

Who was that masked man?”
A fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust, and a hearty ‘Hi-yo Silver!’
The Lone Ranger!

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 June 1, 1956   no responses

When I think of June I think of graduations. I always remember a teacher telling me that graduation does not mean an “end” of learning but a process to the next level. From the Latin, gradus meaning step or walk. So it means you are onto the next step of aspiration. Every June we should celebrate how far we have “graduated” from the previous year. So what are your grades for 2006?

When I was in grammar school the year was subdivided into A & B. If you notice on my second grade picture from St. Thomas Aquinas it says “2B”. This meant it was during the January – June part of the year. And yes, you would either graduate or be “left back” from 2A to 2B.  Can you find me in the picture? (hint: I was the class clown!)

 January 20, 1956  Tags:  no responses

In the beginning, I was very much my father’s son. He was a self-made man; born in Sicily and arriving in New York City when he was only seven years old. He never completed high school but became the foreman of a successful factory and the right hand idea man of the owner, Mr. Chamberlain.  He was as Italian as he was an American as he was a New Yorker. He was the guy the ladies swirled around at a party, he was the guy you asked where to go on the town, and he was the guy you asked for help when you needed a hand. He was Tony, the guy who was my father when I was growing up in Brooklyn; I was Anthony his son, and when I grew up I would become like my Dad and be called Tony.

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Daddy would often take me after mass on Sunday mornings to ride the rides at Coney Island while Mom stayed home with my brother and prepared a traditional Italian dinner that we always ate at one p.m. We were both still dressed in our Sunday suits but with our jackets carelessly flung across the back seat of his big black shiny sedan. I used to sit in the front warm vinyl seat close next to him, watching how he maneuvered the car, turning the big steering wheel with his muscled arms that bulged through the rolled-up sleeves of his crisply pressed white shirt.  It was a short ride from our brownstone in Park Slope, but every excursion was an adventure with Dad as he listened to the radio and gave me his commentary on the politics of the day or the status of the Dodgers playing at Ebbets Field the previous night. He would flick his cigarette out the little side window and some of the ashes would blow on my face, which made me feel like Casey Jones, the engineer

My favorite ride, “Spook-A-Rama,” always managed to creep me out with its Grand Guignol tableaux.  Of course my father didn’t help by adding his own grotesque noises in the dark as he startled me with a sudden poke in the ribs. He once took me up on the Parachute Drop, and as if I wasn’t scared enough he began to rock the carriage just as we were about to be released for our quick, rapid decent. He laughed all the way down as I held on to him for my life with my eyes closed to the very bone-rattling end. My second favorite ride was the train that circled a huge parking lot. I again pretended I was the engineer, my head sticking out over the side, the wind blowing though my hair, and when we came back into the station, my dad pulled me out of the train car and landed me on the ground with a good-natured thump and chortle.  He always bought me a hot dog at Nathans as he downed a dozen clams-on-the-half-shell. He made a big deal about us not telling my mother, who was home cooking. It was our little secret between us two guys. When we got home we made it through Mom’s manicotti, but we started to slow down with conspiratorial glee at the Leg of Lamb with roasted potatoes and string beans. My mom, who should have worked for the FBI, of course, knew everything as she meaningfully smiled as I helped her clear the dishes. We never had dessert until an hour or so later and besides my father never ate dessert. I made tea for mom and cut here a piece of Ebinger’s blackout cake. As she was blowing over the saucer to cool the tea down, she called me over to feel the slight kicking in her stomach of my new baby brother or sister. It was weird.

 

 

My Dad

One Saturday afternoon, The Avon Theatre on 9th Street was showing a double bill of the old Universal films: Dracula and Frankenstein. I loved horror movies but had never seen Frankenstein. My Dad was working that afternoon at Cel-U-Dex, his factory in downtown Brooklyn next to the Manhattan Bridge so he couldn’t take me to the movies. I asked my Mom if I could go, and after a moment’s hesitation, she gave me a quarter out of the coffee tin and told me to enjoy myself, be careful and not get the butter popcorn all over my new dungarees.

I bounded down the three landings of our tenement and out the door onto 10th Street into an overcast afternoon. I traced my usual trail that I took to go to school at St. Thomas Aquinas, past the drugstore on the corner of Sixth Avenue and down the steep slope of 9th Street past the dry cleaners, the YMCA, and the huge RKO Keith’s Prospect Theatre. The Avon Theater, next to the post office and Duffy’s Funeral Parlor, was a very small place showing second run movies. I got to the theatre just as it started to rain.

We were made to sit in the children’s section, where a matron dressed in white like a nurse would patrol up and down the aisles with a flashlight, shining it into our eyes if there was any talking.  I hated the kid’s section that was in the back of the theatre, so I snuck closer into the adult area and sat in an empty dark row, then sunk down low so the psycho nurse/matron/woman in white would not see me.  I caught the last half hour of Dracula, which wasn’t scary at all; it was actually kind of silly with its silent movie style school of acting.

After some cartoons, the lights dimmed again and Frankenstein began. From the very beginning I knew this movie was going to scare me in its plausibility of modern science creating a creature that turns into a monster beyond human control. I sank lower and lower into my seat as the laboratory scene started with its crackling sparks shooting from dipole to dipole, whizzing lights, ultra violet rays, and the sound of a raging electrical storm outside the castle. The cadaver was on the lab table and up and up it went into the open ceiling to meet the lightning bolts and crashing thunder that would spark life into the dead body.  The table descended back to its starting place as Dr. Frankenstein threw off the white sheets, revealing a huge lumbering body with the monster’s face still wrapped in gauze. Suddenly the oversized hand of the creature reached up grasping for life as Victor yelled out deliriously, “It’s alive! It’s alive!”  I cowered in anticipation of seeing his face revealed.

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The Monster

And then a few scenes later, it happened.  The laboratory door opened and the hulking monster loomed in the massive oak doorway with its back to us. Slowly the creature turned with its massive, strong arms slightly akimbo, jutting out of its sleeves of his too short torn black jacket.  Suddenly the camera zoomed in on the three quick close-up shots on the dead expressionless face with its dull gray eyes and grimacing smile. When the creature groaned a piercing, death rattling GRRRR I jumped up, spilling my butter popcorn all over my lap as my theatre seat cushion made a big bang springing upright. That brought the matron storming down the aisle, chasing me as I ran past her to the brightly lit lobby and then out into a rainstorm.

Breathlessly I ran up 9th Street, crossing against the light at Fifth Avenue, careering from an auto turning left, stopping for a breath under the marquee of the RKO with its blinking yellow light bulbs that cast a deathly pall all over my face. As I dashed right onto Sixth Avenue I thought about how I was going to tell my mother why I had left the double feature early.  So I ducked into the vestibule of the Ladies’ Entrance of Murphy’s Bar & Grill, which was right next to our vestibule since we lived above the bar. I was shivering as I waited for time to go by.

I must have waited a half hour when my mother coming down to check the afternoon mail and bring out the garbage, saw me huddling in the darkness. “What are you doing there? Is the movie over already?”  I blurted out that I ran out because I got scared. “Oh silly boy, oh you silly boy, you should have just come up stairs. I don’t know why you go to those stupid movies, they scare you so.”  I silently walked up stairs in shame behind my waddling mother, her hand on the rail to steady her lest she fall.

 

Tea and Sympathy

Mom toweled dried my hair and got me some dry clothes, then went back to getting dinner ready for us. Since my little bed was in the same front room of our brownstone across from my parent’s big double bed, I locked myself in our only bathroom to change. I was taking a bit longer than usual, which made my all-knowing mother yell out: “Whaddya doing in there? Stop playing with yourself!” I quickly pulled up my pants and nonchalantly sauntered over to the couch and watched some TV. It was late fall, it had gotten dark at 6:30 pm and Dad was still not home for dinner.  Mom looked worried as I sat in guilty silence watching King Kong for the 5th time on Million Dollar Movie on Channel 9. “How many times you gonna watch that monkey movie? You want to have nightmares again?” Mom seemed anxious, so during the commercial I sat down next to her at the kitchen table and held her hand. After this unguarded moment, she shooed me away back to the couch. It was now 8pm and Dad was still not home. and he couldn’t call home since we didn’t have a telephone at that time and made all our calls from the corner Candy Store Telephone Booth.   I could hear the steady rain rapping against our backyard facing windows.

From the hallway, I heard heavy, hard stumbling steps; keys fumbling. The door slowly opened and there was my father with his back to me as he turned around jerkily struggling to take his coat off. The sleeves seemed torn. “Tony where the hell, were you? I‘ve had dinner ready since 5pm. I was so worried…My God what happened?”  My father stood there still, lumbering, towering over me as I looked up from the coach. “Josie, I was in a small car accident. I’m not hurt.” “Thank god you’re alive” my mother cried as she rushed to him and helped him take off his thoroughly soaked coat.

My father sank down on the floral print covered club chair and covered his face with his dirty, bruised hands and uttered a long, low sigh. He looked up at me, waving his hands for me to come over and sit on his knee. I was strangely hesitant to come over, but I gradually got on his lap and buried my head on his shoulder. He held me in his arms without saying a word. Mom came over and put a gauze bandage on a small gash on his forehead. “Dinner is ready.”

 

Dad’s Sedan

The following week, Dad took me to visit Nona grandmother, for Sunday dinner. My Italian grandmother lived in the Belmont Section of the Bronx. We drove over the Brooklyn Bridge, up the East Side Highway to the Major Deegan Expressway, down Fordham Road to Beaumont Avenue. Mom stayed home with my brother Michael, as she was getting big.  I didn’t know how I felt a about having a new stranger come into the family especially if it was girl.

I kept sneaking a look at Dad to see if he was alright, his bandage slowly flapping a bit in the wind.  He seemed ok but his face was strangely still. We ate upstairs at my Aunt Mary’s who made her famous meatballs with ziti slathered in a thick blood-brown tomato sauce. Uncle Nick always added 7-Up to his glass of CK Brand jug red wine and would give me indulgent sips. This was followed by a big bowl of braciole, loin lamb chops with lemon wedges, broccoli rabe and salad with a very tart wine vinegar dressing. Dad and I had stopped into Artuso’s beforehand, so we had cannoli for dessert while he went into parlor to watch the Giants playing at nearby Polo Grounds. Uncle Nick gave me a taste of his anisette laced strong black espresso, which gave me a curious buzz.

All of a sudden my father, closing the belt of his pants which he had unloosened after dinner, jumped  up and said in his best wise guy accent, “Anthony, let’s blow this joint!” Quick kisses all around as we raced down the stairs to the car. But instead of continuing across Fordham Road, he made a sudden left turn onto The Grand Concourse, saw an open spot across from Krum’s Candy Store and glided the auto into a tight space.  We dashed out of the car and he pulled me along the crowded street and up to a kiosk under the marquee of the grand, Loews Paradise Theatre.

 

“One Adult, One Child” and we were in. And wow what a place it was; an overwhelming, spectacular movie palace making the Avon Theatre look like our little TV set. Through big bronze doors you entered the three story lobby with a sweeping grand staircase and real goldfish splashing in the fountain. A beautiful young man dressed as smartly as any Roxy usher led us to our seats in this 4,000 seat Mecca. Inside was an Italian 16th century baroque garden fantasy with cypress trees, stuffed birds, and classical statues and busts lining the walls. The safety curtain was painted with a gated Venetian garden scene, which continued the garden effect around the auditorium when it was lowered.

 

Loews Paradise Today

“I know you like scary movies, you’re gonna love this one.”  I began sinking in my seat when the theatre organ stopped playing, the lights dimmed, and the curtain opened to reveal the title of the movie, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Set in California, Bennell, a local doctor, finds a rash of patients accusing their loved ones of being  impostors. He soon discovers that the townspeople are in fact being replaced by perfect physical duplicates, simulations grown from giant plantlike pods. As the movie neared its climax, I turned away from the screen. I looked up to the ceiling of the Loews Paradise where stars shone through a dark blue night sky with gossamer clouds wafting from left to right. It was like heaven up there, but hell here below as I could still hear the soundtrack as I watched the horror movie about human beings being taken over by aliens, transforming them into zombie like creatures with cold emotions and no feelings. I looked at my father to my right and shuddered. The final scene really jolted me as the hero screamed to people who don’t believe him – “Doctor, will you tell these fools I am not crazy? Listen to me, Please Listen to me. There not human! They already here! They are here! You’re next!”

 

Before the house lights could come up, my Dad, realizing it was getting late, grabbed my hand as we ran up the aisle almost knocking down the usher who was guarding the door and flashing his torch light in our faces. Outside, up on top of Loews Paradise, the clock with St. George was slaying the dragon and chiming six o’clock. It was raining yet again, so we scurried to the car. My dad sped down the Concourse, past the Cross Bronx Expressway and Mt. Eden Parkway as we left the Bronx behind us on our way home to Brooklyn. I nodded off in the car and I could feed my dad’s hand on mine as he drove down the East River Drive, with his other hand jauntily on the steering wheel. My Dad seemed like himself again.  I was shivering since he liked to drive with the window open and the radio blaring. He must have been cold too since I could feel his hand trembling and shaking on top of mine.

Mom had Sunday night sandwiches for us. I went to bed at the usual 8:00 pm and quickly fell into a fitful sleep. In the middle of the night I woke up with a start with the words of the movie re-playing in my head – “Listen to me. There not human! They already here! They are here! You’re next!”  My brother Michael was still asleep next to me. In the darkness I peered across the room at my father and mother lying side in their bed by side on their backs like two peas in a pod – Mom with her swollen belly covered by the chenille, Dad lying on top of the covers, his hand moving with a small sudden tremor, perhaps from a night chill. I got up and covered him up a bit with the white top sheet when he gave a short snort that made me run back to bed.

 

Mom, Dad and me

 

I woke up late  on Monday morning and things were as usual: Mom quietly making me cereal, Dad already off to work, me playing a bit with my baby brother before I headed off to school; Sister Rose making me sit in the corner for being the class clown, after school a Lime Ricky at the candy store , hide and go seek with my neighbors Joey and Petey, homework in front of the TV,  Dad coming home, dinner with all of us around the table, dessert with Mom, bed with my brother Michael hogging the blankets – an ordinary day, all in all, as if nothing had changed …

The following month I had a new baby sister and the following year we moved from Brooklyn to Newburgh, New York.

Note: 

My father always said that the car accident triggered his Parkinson’s. He was a strong willed and determined kind of guy, who would not permit the disease to slow him down.  In 1959 to early 1960’s he underwent three experimental operations to control his tremors and shaking.  After those unsuccessful attempts, my father took up his own regimen and continued to work at Cel-U-Dex till the late 1970’s.  He died in 1983.

 

(To be continued)