November 19, 1963   no responses

 

NFA

Some evenings from November to November I think back to my sophomore year, social studies class in high school at Newburgh Free Academy  – NFA. Mr. Cushman was a wonderful teacher. He was a suede patches on the elbows, pipe-smoking kind of guy.

Once a week he made us all read a paragraph from our textbooks. He would start down one row and go down and up the other till the entire class read a selection. As a stutterer this was death by slow torture. When it got to me, I would sweat and stammer and stall and hardly get the words out.  I wanted to disappear when it got to me. And I figured out a way to do just that.

As the dominoes were falling and the reading crept inexorably closer for my turn, I raised my hand to be excused to go to the bathroom. “Yes, Mr. Napoli? “ “May I please be excused, Mr. Cushman?”  He would hand me a wooden pass that allowed me to go out into the hallways. This gnarled block of wood was sticky and had so many names carved on it. It looked like scrimshaw. Off I went to the Boys Room and I timed by return so the reading would have passed over me and on to the next row. WHEW.

Well there’s a legal limit as to how many times Mr. Cushman would permit me to “go”. I suspected he amusingly and sympathetically knew my ploy and he began to change up the patterns to trick me up and perhaps to ease up the tension of the inexorable countdown. In short, I was simply not in a congenial spot for getting away with this too much longer. I figured out if I spent more time in the bathroom the odds of being called upon to speak would be less.

So on one Friday afternoon I made my judgment call and left with my pass to freedom. As I sat in the stall (stalling so to speak), I looked at all of the writings on the partition. “See Sally for a good time – Joey’s mother wears army boots – I love Amy – The Nap is queer.” The last entry made my heart stand still. I tried to erase the magic marker entry with spit and toilet paper. It was indelible. When I was done, my fingers tips were blackened. I washed my hands but there were no paper towels. It still looked like I had been fingerprinted for a heinous crime. After a long, long anxious time I went back out into the hallway and to class.

The room and halls were empty.

All the classrooms where empty. It felt like that movie where the guy wakes up after taking too many sleeping pills and discovers the city is abandoned due to a nuclear bomb threat or by an invasion of aliens. I forget which.

I wandered down a corridor and turned a corner past the auditorium and the glass shelf full of trophies won by our football team, the NFA Goldbacks.  There was one jock way down at the other end of the empty hall taking his cleats out of his locker.  I approached the Senior cautiously.  “Wh-wh-where is everybody?  What ha-happened?” I sputtered. “Didn’t you hear, dummy? The President was shot.” The jock banged his metal locker door shut.  The wooden pass dropped to the terrazzo floor.

I walked all the way home that afternoon, November 22, 1963.

 

“Don’t let it be forgot

That once there was a spot

For one brief shining moment

That was known as Camelot”

 September 10, 1963   no responses

 

 

Boys of Summer

1963

1963 was the last idyllic summer of my youth before I turned 16 and got my working papers. Do you still get working papers today? I had to go to a doctor and “cough” to get approval.

I got up at 8am after my parents left for the factory. I had my chores to do: clean the house which meant dusting the furniture, vacuuming every day and scrubbing the toilet with Tidy-Bowl. One day I combined Tidy-Bowl with bleach and was almost asphyxiated by the vapors!

At noon I made lunch for my brother and sister. I had to watch the Match Game and I Love Lucy till 1pm. If I didn’t have to mow the lawn, I would get out our patio lounge chair with multi-color plastic webbing and laze in the shade of our back yard with my heavy plastic transistor radio close by (the kind that the batteries always leakded through with acrid grey yuck). As I drifted in and out of napping while reading James A. Michener’s, exotic novel Caravans, I dreamt of the two Arab boys from the novel, dressed in white briefs dancing languidly in the woods next to me

At 4pm it was time for the Broadway Hour on our local AM radio. They played an entire cast album within the hour and this is how I got to be a Show Tune queen. That summer they started a contest where they played a song and you called in if you knew which musical it came from. Well I was the big winner. I would sit by the phone have six digits dialed on our rotary phone and as soon as I heard the first note of the song I dialed that last digit and got through.

“Is it “Young and Foolish” from the 1955 musical Plain and Fancy starring Barbara Cooke?”  I won a case of Fresca, fried clam lunch at the Dairy Barn, a hot-wax car wash, and two tickets to a local summer stock production of Barefoot in the Park at the Cecilwood Theatre.  I was winning so much that the finally had to make a rule you could only win once a month. But that did not stop me. I had my brother and sister call in for me!

At 5pm the lazy hazy afternoon ended as I set the table and waited for Mom to prepare dinner. Of course I washed the dishes afterwards and brought out the garbage.

 September 3, 1962   no responses

Christmas is right around the corner!

Wow, where did the summer go?

Mums are in and summer is out.

You better not get D’s again in conduct on your report card this year.

Don’t’ worry, Indian summer is coming and it will be hot again.

The beach is better after Labor Day.

The summer doesn’t end on Labor Day.

Boy, did she gain weight over the summer.

When are the Jewish Holidays?

I love the talent section of Miss America.

Is Bert Parks the MC again this year?

How much did Jerry Lewis raise on the telethon?

Are those his real tears?

I bought you a lunch box last year. How did u break the thermos?

I am not making a turkey for Thanksgiving.

We’re eating out this Christmas.

 January 26, 1962   no responses

Hey Culligan Man! by pjryan.

My mother tried all different brands of detergents but she couldn’t get a good head of suds in the laundry. When we lived in Brooklyn, Tide was the soap of choice. Once in a while she used Duz if it came with a dish towel in it. But up in Newburgh, the washing machine agitator swirled back and forth in dark gray waters with nary a bubble. My mother was distraught, all the whites were coming out gray and the colors were less than bright. She tried Lux, Borax, Surf and Oxidol to no avail. What was a mother to do?

Our water supply came from a well and a pump in our basement. We were used to the pristine purity of NYC water that travelled all the way from the Catskills in underground aqueducts and out of our faucets – not this infernal metallic country water pumped up from hell. My Dad finally figured out that we had hard water. You can’t get a bubble out of hard water. You couldn’t even get lather up from a good bar of soap when you showered.

Then one day I heard a commercial on the local radio station – “Hey Culligan Man!” The Culligan Water filter system would make everything all right. The water would be soft and sweet and my Moms’ wash the envy of any Chinese laundry or French Cleaners.

Mom had me call up and make an appointment for the water softener to be installed. It involved a complicated hookup in the basement before the water reached the hot water tank. I scheduled a visit for a cold Lincoln’s Birthday on February 12th when the holiday was celebrated on the actual birth date and not watered down into President’s Day sharing it with Washington. My parents still had to work since the factory had an order to get out but I was off from school. About 11 o’clock in the morning, a small van pulled up into our driveway and out came a man in a spiffy gray uniform, The Culligan Man! I opened up our front doror and waved him to go back around the house to basement. He trundled along with a propane like tank on his hand truck. I met him at the back door.

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Our basement was dark, humid and unfinished in gray cinder blocks with a dusty concrete floor and dimly lit by a 60 watt naked light bulb bobbing unadorned from the ceiling. Two laundry lines stretched from one end to the other with wet clothes hanging to dry like veils in a harem. I let him in. As the tank bounced over the ridge in the doorway, he caught me staring at him as he struggled to get it up and over. “Hi I’m Jim, you’re Culligan Man.”  He was an attractive guy probably 40 or so, husky with his gray trousers bunching up nicely. He took off his Eisenhower cut jacket to reveal a barrel chest under his white shirt with bow tie. He kept his cap on with a sporty tilt. I brought over a chair from our summer kitchen table set and sat close by to watch him install the tank. Michael and Karen were out playing in the snow so we were alone.

He worked steadily explaining to me step by step all the advantages of the soft water system. He turned off all the water. He cut a section of the pipe, expanding the joint, screwed on a casing and looked back to see me watching. Over the next 20 minutes our eyes often met as he worked and explained to me:

“At Culligan, we understand how important water is to you, your family, and your home. Which is why when you trust Culligan with your water needs, we promise to deliver one thing: better water, pure and simple”

Slowly, meticulously he assembled the unit; lifting and straining to get the pipe to fit into the tank and make a perfect seal. Suddenly turning around to reach up to an overhead connection, he lost his balance a bit as I grabbed him by the waist to hold him in place. We stood there for a moment till I quickly grabbed a towel off the line popping off the clothes pins in my haste to cover my embarrassment.

With a little few little grunts he wiped his brow with a clean rag and cleaned up any mess he had made. “OK it’s ready to go! Why don’t you help me turn it on?” He stood back to admire his work and gestured to proceed. I put my hand on the bright new shiny copper valve he has just installed. It was tight and wouldn’t budge. He put his hand over mine and we both turned it slowly till it moved.  WHOOSH – and a CLANG CLANG . We could hear the water whisking through the pipes into the tank and back out and up and around and up into the house above..

He smiled at a job well done as he gathered up his tools. Putting on his jacket, he asked me to come over to sign off on the job. He held a metal like box and I pressed hard as I signed my name through the carbons. He pulled a lever and out came three copies, white, yellow and pink. I got the yellow slip. His signature, James Mac Donald floated above mine. With a tip of his cap, wink and a smile, he grabbed his hand truck and off he went. I locked the basement door and I ran upstairs. I stood by the living room window, slyly watching through the curtains as he got into his van and drove away.

 

From my pocket I pulled out the now soiled rag I had surreptitiously took while Mr. MacDonald wasn’t looking and  held it to my nose to smell his sweat. With a sigh, I went over to my stereo and put on “Naughty Marietta” from my Readers Digest Collection of Great Operettas. I got undressed and took a shower to test the system.  I sang along “Napoli, Napoli, Na-a-apoli” to the Italian Street Song as I stepped into the tub.  I brought the rag in with me and used it as my washcloth. When “Ah Sweet Mystery of Life” came on, miraculously a rich lather sprang from my bar of Dial soap and I slavered it all over my body in rich luxuriousness. A hot steady spray cascaded from the spigot as the Prell worked up in my hair into a white icing. My body was sleek like an otter as I soaped myself up using his rag.

 “All the longing, seeking, striving, waiting, yearning

The burning hopes, the joy and idle tears that fall

AHHH…”

 The bathroom window fogged up as the room clouded with steam. Anna Moffo and Peter Palmer sang out and reached a melodious peak – “For it is love alone that rules forevermore!”  I almost slipped when I got lost in the moment. I bent over to pick up the dropped bar of soap and the rag that I had dropped now brighlty white, clean from the suds swirling around my feet. Yes, the water was now so soft but I was now so hard. 

“Hey Culliagan Man!”

 January 2, 1962   no responses

It was a stormy afternoon in late October “What are you two doing up there?” my mother yelled up from the bottom of the stairs as Joey was getting close. Too late! As I pulled off to answer her, Joey shot over and past my face and it all landed on my yellow chenille bedspread. I hurriedly yelled back, “Nothing Ma, we’re listening to records.” Whew! I wiped the mess up with my jockey shorts and quickly hoisted them back up. While buckling my jeans, I jumped on the bed, sat on the stain, and pretended to read the LP liner notes on the back of the cast album of No Strings, a musical about an illicit interracial romance. I turned up the volume on Diahann Carroll singing “Loads of Lovely Love.”

Joey was my stocky Italian neighbor who lived around the corner and was a year behind me at Sacred Heart Grammar School. His sister, Celeste was in my class and we called her “Celeste the Chest,” because even in the 8th grade she had big bosoms that the school uniform only accentuated. They were so big that she self consciously walked with her arms folded under them to keep them hidden and aloft. However she was the brightest in the class, the teacher’s pet and was often asked to be the monitor when Sister Vincent left the room. She got back at my tauntings by ratting me out on my class clown shenanigans when Sister returned.

Joey came from a typical large Italian family complete with an ancient toothless Sibyl-like grandmother living in the extra bedroom. They became my surrogate family and Joey’s mom often asked me to have supper with them – I always eagerly accepted. In time I became a pest. I would doggedly hang around, sort of sad sacked, begging to be invited over. No one was ever invited to eat at our house since my Dad had Parkinson’s disease and all visitors were forbidden. So as a typical child I sought love where I could find it at Joey’s dinner table and in Joey’s burly lap.

So on that rainy afternoon, I had invited Joey up to my bedroom to listen to records. We sat on the bed next to each other as I commented on Richard Rodger’s clever idea not to use strings in the instrumentation of his show, No Strings. My hand lay idly next to his soccer thigh as my finger gently stroked the outer seam of his jeans. He did not pull away as we both stared ahead listening to Richard Kiley sing “The most entrancing sight of all is yet for me to see…” My finger tracked a path to his inner seam and traveled north to the bunched-up juncture where the seams gathered at his crouch. Slowly I maneuvered up and flicked the copper slider open on his zipper as I pulled it down over the shiny teeth while they made a nice metallic purr. Joey was wearing box shorts so the jack quickly jumped out of the box. “No Strings, No Strings…” It didn’t take long, but long enough for my mother to get suspicious of why we were being so quiet in my room. “What are you two doing up there?”

Joey jumped up and ran down the stairs, saying good bye to my mother and slamming the screen door behind him as he ran out into the autumn storm. I was still shaking in fear of almost being caught. Side One was over and I flipped the black vinyl disc to Side Two. Diahann CarrolI sang softly to me, “And the dearest love in all the world is waiting somewhere for me…” I quickly took off my BVD’s and with some spittle cleaned up the chenille. But what to do?  I put them back on and walked nonchalantly downstairs to the bathroom. Then I washed the drawers in the sink using the golden bar of Dial soap, and I wrung and wrung every drop I could to get them dry as possible. I put them back on. During dinner I could still feel the clammy bottom of my underwear wedging up and moistening up the green vinyl seats on dinette chair. Pretending to clean up some crumbs, I used my Marcel paper napkin to dry off the chair as I got up to clear the table and wash the dinner dishes.  It wasn’t till Bonanza was over that they were fully dried.

At 10 pm I went upstairs to bed. As I pulled down the covers on my side of our double bed I noticed a small translucent stain on the pillowcase. I quickly jumped, in, pulled the covers over my head and waited for midnight.  Quietly I slipped out of my bed and silently removed the offending pillow case. The house was eerily still, with just the whirr of the fan blowing hot air up through the vent in the bedroom floor grate from the basement’s fiery furnace two floors below. I reached the top of the stairs and slowly descended step by step like a somnambulist, being careful not to slip on the carpeted treads. I was wearing my socks, so I almost skidded on the last one as I grabbed onto the varnished banister to keep from falling but still landing on my butt.

I reached the bathroom and in the darkness turned on the faucets, trying to balance a warm flow of a slow steady stream so as not to make a splashing noise while the water hit the enameled basin. I held the pillow case in my hands, gingerly fingering from the outer edge until the tip of my forefinger reached the dry parchment-like spot. I moved the cloth back and forth under the cleansing stream, gently rubbing with my thumbs like a priest cleaning an ablution cloth after communion. Using a towel that hung on the rack jutting out from the Sears & Roebuck pink plastic bathroom tiles, I pressed out the stain and my afternoon sins.

 

As I was starting to return upstairs, from the dark cavern of the downstairs bedroom my mother moaned out, “Anthony, what’s all that noise? It’s after midnight.” I quickly replied: “I had to go the bathroom, Ma. Go back to sleep.”  “Good, I warned you next time you’ll have to wash your own damn sheets if you pee in that bed again,” she sniped.

I was so nervous, I tripped again on the steps going back up, knocking an arts and crafts picture I made of a Pixie that now appeared to be leering down on me in judgment. I cursed my mother underneath my breath for fouling up my afternoon plans with Joey. I  put the pillow case on the grate and let the hot air blow through the thin worn out fabric. I waited for the next cycle of hot air to start blowing up again to warm up the chilly room and cover my footsteps  as I put the case back on the pillow and flipped it over so the almost dry spot was on the bottom.

My father was snoring lightly in the next bed and I had to push my brother Michael over in our bed to make room for me. I stared up at the attic ceiling and watched the shadows, menacingly dance made by the trees buffeted by the still continuing storm. It was past the witching hour as I drifted off to sleep, dreaming of demonic pixies, Sears & Roebuck catalogue men in their underwear, cackling witches, Celeste tethered like a balloon in the Macy*s Thanksgiving Day Parade  and Joey sleeping across the woods… “waiting somewhere for me”.

The storm subsided. I woke up the next morning with an angelic smile on my face as I hummed  the song, “Joey – Joey Joey, – Joey – Joey Joe” from the Frank Loesser musical, The Most Happy Fella. I stretched my arms luxuriously back behind my head in bed and kicked off the covers. I figured out when we would meet again at Bingo!   But oh, there was another damned spot on the sheets…

   no responses

 The Game

Bingo was every Saturday night. It was held in Gallo Hall in the basement of Sacred Heart School (named after Father John Gallo, the pastor and founder of our Italian parish in 1912). It was a necessary evil for raising money for our elementary school. The Catholic tradition of Bingo goes back to the Gospel story of the Roman centurions throwing dice to win the robe of Jesus during his crucifixion.  Of course gambling is a curse.  Look what happened to Richard Burton in the movie, The Robe and of course in real life – he won and lost Elizabeth Taylor twice. He got his revenge though in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf by killing off their imaginary son.

Interestingly none of our parishioners attended Bingo. The puritanical Protestant non-denominational “white trash” of Newburgh made the Bingo rounds each week at the various Catholic Church basements. There were only a few Blacks in attendance sprinkled around the Whites like jimmies on a vanilla ice cream cone. It was a strange brew of witches in multi-colored kerchiefs hiding their toilet paper-sized pink hair curlers just put in at the beauty parlor in preparation for the next day Sunday services at their heathen places of worship. Each sorceress with a jungle red lipstick stained cigarette dangling from her lips set up altars of talismans and good luck charms. An impish troll-like demon was seemingly the god of the games. These devotees purchased multiple cards for each round; this is how the church made its money. Every lady had at least 20 cards spread out before them in precise military line up. Armed with a red ink pad, their eagle-like eyes ran up and down each card, like an Italian customs official stamping out with an authoritative thud the appropriate numeral, hoping to win and shout out – Bingo!

Nicotine primordial, gray clouds hovered on the ceiling of Gallo Hall; eventually it got so bad, the parish had a special charcoal filter machine put in to suck the gaseous vapors out.  The Bingo Caller was always a male, dressed in Eisenhower Era sack suit and narrow black rep tie. He presided like a high priest behind a long cafeteria lunch table set up on the stage which would be re-set the next morning for the overflow adult attendees from the 9 a.m. Sunday’s Children’s Mass held in our church across the street. The seventy five numbered ping pong-like balls would whirl and whoosh and careen around in a clear Lucite box propelled by hot air blast sounding like my mother’s Sunbeam hairdryer. After pressing a foot lever on the floor, one ball would be sucked out of the box, up a clear vacuum tube and placed in a tray that looked like a huge Tupperware deviled egg holder. The device lit up the number on a marquee for all to see the number called. You won by completing a line up or down, or across or diagonally.  This was the basic play for the first cash prize. The second prize for a higher amount was the Round Robin filling the outside square all around the card. The third and last was Full Card. The Maenads of Dionysius would then rip up cards with a frenzy and buy a whole new set – more money for us indigent Italian poor orphan babies

 

Groans of laughter, salacious mooing and hissing would accompany each pull of a bingo ball.  They were a fanatical and superstitious bunch outdoing the Pentecostals in speaking in tongues.  They would scream out the most vulgar comments at each bingo call. Each one had a ritualistic mantra:

G-1     Baker’s Bun!

I-23    Thee and me!

N-4     Knock on the Door!

G-28  Over weight!

O-54  Clean the floor!

Whenever 69 Either way up!  was called the banshees would go wild. It wasn’t for a few years later that I knew what that particular salacious chant was all about. In between calls there was a code of silence, deadly serious stuff, more serious than the transubstantiation.

Onan – According to the Old Testament, after Godhad killed Onan’s older brother Er, Judah asked Onan to have sex with Tamar , Er’s widow, so that the offspring could be declared Er’s heir. Onan had sex with Tamar, but performed coitus interruptus each time, spilling his “seed” on the ground, so that there would not be any offspring which he could not claim as his own. The passage states that this displeased God, who killed him.

 

http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_UOCWpIvl9Yw/SSIA451RGuI/AAAAAAAABR4/PdrSYosnYEU/s400/Troll.jpg

Jackpot!

Joey’s mother was in charge of the kitchen at Bingo, selling food to the famished harridans which provided additional income. She arrived in late afternoon to start the making of the coffee in a huge industrial chrome coffee maker that looked like something out of The Bride of Frankenstein. She also hovered over boiling and steaming cauldrons of Pepto Bimsol-bright Hot Dogs. Joey helped his mother every Saturday night so I not too altruistically volunteered. We helped her unpack the frankfurter rolls, jelly doughnuts and cinnamon buns dropped off by Luna Bakery.  We stocked the restaurant sized refrigerator with gallons of milk delivered by Crowley Dairy up the block.

Once the games started, Joey and I would roam up and down the aisles of Gallo Hall pushing a metal hospital cart with a small urn of coffee on it, a metal bowl filled with tepid water where the frankfurters sloshed around, and a turquoise blue, Melamine tray of mixed baked goods. I wore a white apron with deep pockets containing lots of coins to make change for each transaction. It was like feeding red meat to hungry lions at the zoo and tossing fish at seals at the aquarium. They were a voracious lot. The women would accost me and grab me and make all sorts of remarks and predictions. It was all in good fun and I gave their sexual banter right back to them!

Hey cutie, is the coffee hot as you?  – “Hotter!”

Put lots of cream in sugar. – “All you want, Maame!”

Nice buns!  - “Cream filled.”

What ya hidin’ under that apron, sweetie? – “Me to know and you to find out!”

Got any Italian sausage for Momma?  – “Sweet or Hot?”

Naughty boy, you need to be spanked.  - “Don’t ya know it!

You’re gonna be a star, someday baby.” – “The Greatest!”

They loved tipping me and putting the money down into my pants pocket as I was sla

thering their hot dog with neon bright looking yellow mustard. “This is for you honey, don’t tell your mother.”

 

Sacred Heart School Kitchen

(not much has changed!)

 

Joey and I were done when we ran out of food. We counted up our tips to compare but I always lied to him since I got a lot more.  It took his mother awhile to clean up the kitchen, so we had an hour or so to hang out… I suggested to Joey we go explore until it was time to leave.  The back stairs led directly up to the main floor classrooms. All of the lights were turned off, it was exciting to see the school so dark and spooky, and the only sounds were the Bingo and catcalls echoing up from below. We went down the green and gray checkered linoleum tile hallway till we stumbled into the Kindergarten Room. The mercury vapor street light coming through the venetian blinds cast a weird bluish-green light that made us look like vampires and cast sharp shadows onto the black chalk board from the trees from the garden facing Route 9W outside.

We prowled around the room like Zombies, flipping through a dog-eared Highlights magazine; squeezing a stray broken stuffed animal that yelped out a tiny cry and we silently tossed a red and blue ball back and forth till I finally sank it with a flourish into the toy chest. We looked through the drawers of the teacher’s desk hoping to find money but only to find crayons, colored tissue and construction paper. There was a set of alphabet blocks on the shelf under the blackboard so we put them on the desk and tried to make up words like automobile, vegetable and biology. I scrambled the blocks once more and I playfully spelled out: DICK and JANE.

From the Gallo Hall below we heard cackling-

B-62 Turn the Screw!

I slid into one of the tiny child kindergarten desks, barely fitting in so my legs splayed out in front of me like Goldilocks in Baby Bear’s chair. I motioned Joey to sidle into the desk next to me. We both stared at the blocks watching the shadows play on the blackboard behind it.  Slowly using my leg locked onto one of the feet of his desk, I pulled him closer to me. The desk made a dull moaning noise as the hard rubber coasters groaned across the floor, leaving a black trail on the linoleum. I reached over and undid his pants. I leaned over to the desk and re-arranged the blocks, making new words as we continued reciprocally in tandem:

COME DICK.

COME AND SEE.

Our desks got closer, metal to metal; the cuff of my dungarees got stuck between the two wood writing desk tops. The orgasmic cries from the weird Bingo sisters of the Bacchus were getting closer now.

I-43 Down on your knees!

The blocks seemed to move on their own like an Ouija Board spelling out our fate:.

COME, COME.

COME AND SEE.

Even though breathing heavily and almost in unison, we made not a sound.

N-54 Clean the floor!

Our ears pricked up like nervous deer in the woods, alert to any hunter who may discoverer us.

G-64   Red Raw!

 

COME AND SEE SPOT.

 

O-69   My God!

From Gallo Hall, an orgasmic cry rose up…

BINGO!

 

I could tell from the excited voice that one of my ladies that I waited on had won the final big cash jackpot of the night.  Joey’s leg spasmodically hit the desk and the blocks fell off crashing loudly onto the hard linoleum floor as he shot out across the darkness onto the blackboard.

“Hey Joey! You guys up there? It’s time to go home.” Startled, I got up, almost tripping on my pants legs, pulling the cuff from under the desk, ripping them, as I grabbed a handkerchief out of my back pocket, stumbling over to erase the stain off the chalk board. Being a gentleman, I offered my handkerchief to Joey. He ran downstairs and I quickly started to follow, putting the blocks away. As I was bending over, I noticed my black pocket comb had fallen out of my pants. I parted my hair and put it back in my pocket with my soiled handkerchief folded around it.

Before leaving, I breathlessly ran over and congratulated Miss Lucy, the winner and she gave me a dollar tip out of her haul. Joey’s mother drove us home. I almost banged into the garbage cans as I made my way to the little patch of woods behind our backyard. The wind seemed to make the trees move towards me and reach out like an old Disney cartoon as I buried my handkerchief with the rest of my secret stash.

I used the basement entrance and went up to the bathroom. I closed the door first and then turned on the light.  As I was washing my hands I looked up into the mirror and saw a curious stiff cowlick that I must have gotten when I quickly combed my hair. I rubbed it out with a towel. I panicked. Had anyone seen it? I pulled my flannel pajamas off the hook on the back of the door and started to change.

I went up to bed in shame but also with a strange feeling of elation, like the lady who won the final game of Bingo. I had a hard time falling asleep, but once I did I had terrible dreams of being torn apart by the Bingo Women, like Sebastian Venerable from the movie Suddenly Last Summer that I had just seen where Elisabeth Taylor wore a skin tight pure white bathing suit revealing her heaving chest as she screamed in abject horror as Katharine Hepburn cackled.

I woke up the next morning. My brother and father had already gotten up and were downstairs. “Anthony, it’s time for mass, you better hurry up and get dressed and get your ass down here!” my mother lovingly yelled up.  I tossed off my blanket. There down below was a white chalk stain I must have gotten after I cleaned off the blackboard and used my handkerchief to wipe off. It looked like K2 with a snowy peak. Suddenly I remembered a catechism lesson one of the nuns used to explain Original Sin. “Your soul is like a glass milk bottle. When you are pure you can see right through it – clean. But when you commit a mortal sin, the bottle clouds up, leaving a film that is hard to cleanse away like putrid rancid milk.”

I was going to Hell.  I spit on it and rubbed and rubbed till the stain came off – Absolvo Te.

I ran to the closet, put on my Sunday suit, Chinese laundered starched white shirt, tie and shined shoes, skidded down the staircase, slammed the front door behind me and jumped into our pink and gray Rambler. My mother in a huff handed me my collection envelope and off we went to the 9am Children’s Mass. When they passed the basket, guiltily I also threw in the dollar that Miss Lucy had slowly stuck in my front pocket.

I continued to volunteer for many more Saturday nights, got to know the Bingo Ladies very well and looked forward to seeing them. Joey and I graduated from Kindergarten to the 1st Grade classroom to 4th Grade, 6th Grade, right up to the 8th Grade!  I always had a clean handkerchief….

BINGO!

 

 October 29, 1961   no responses

Spring 1961-

I was lying on my bed listening to the original cast recording of the Sound of Music with Mary Martin (before Julie got her hands on it). It was a fold out LP and like holding white gold in my hands; I read the liner notes over and over.

 “Anthony! Come here, I need you!” my mother yelled up from the bottom of the stairs like Don Ameche yelling for Watson in the 1939 movie, The Story of Alexander Graham Bell. “You have to go to the drugstore NOW!”

My mother furtively gave me a folded note and a five-dollar bill and instructed me to give both directly into the hands of our neighbored druggist. She was in an anxious state of mind as I made a quick pit stop to our only bathroom. I noticed once again, the mysterious reappearance of a weird flesh-toned belt-like contraption hanging over the bathroom towel rack. And sensing something was odd by the way Mom instructed me to secretly pass the note to the druggist, I quickly got going on my two-mile trek.

The playing cards on my bicycle wheels never made such a clatter as I whizzed away like Miss Gulch in “The Wizard of Oz”. I was afraid the clothespins would pop off as I sped along Route 94 to the Windsor Pharmacy.

It was like “High Noon” as I entered the drugstore and peered down the long, long florescent lighted aisle to the counter. “Do not forsake me, O my darlin,” I hummed to myself as I pretended to weigh myself on the pennyweight machine, 151 lbs. I carefully unfolded the note. It was in code –

                                                          1bx Kotex Super

The five-dollar bill dropped to the floor. As I bent over to pick up the money, I saw Mr. Cassetti, our druggist, behind the counter. He was wearing a white doctors silky top, the kind with three buttons up by the shoulders. The buttons were open and a shock of black hair spilled out. “Ben Casey, Ben Casey” – I whispered to myself, as I approached not a little unexcited, peering at his patch of chest.

I handed him the note as I pretended to peruse the assortment of gum on the counter, picking up a pack of Sen-sen (“Oh we got trouble”). He fondled the pens in his white shirt pocket, read the note and gave a little knowing smile and looked right into my eyes.   I imagined I heard him murmur “Man, woman, birth, death, infinity.” “Be right back,” is what he actually said.

After a few minutes, he handed me a package wrapped neatly in brown paper and tied up with string not unlike the shirts I used to pick up for my father from the Chinese laundry except harder and stiff.  “Thank you, Mr. Cassetti, can I have this gum too?” I held out my hand and it brushed against mine as I counted out the change that he returned. I ran out quickly.

My mother was waiting on the steps outside of our house, puffing a Kent Menthol. “What took you so long?” she snapped, grabbing the package out of my hand and disappearing into the bathroom. I somehow knew not to ask what was in the box.

I put my bike back in the basement, raced upstairs and flung myself on my bed. Chewing Sen-sen, I dropped the needle back down on The Sound of Music.  On the palm of my hand, I traced the symbol for man that Dr. Zorba drew on the blackboard that always opened Ben Casey. “My day in the hills has come to an end I know…but deep in the dark green shadow are voices that urge me to…” And then the urge took me over…

“Alleluia, Alleluia!”  The nuns were chanting as I woke up sweetly exhausted and flush, a short while later. It was dark now, and I thought I heard a distant thunder, as Maria sang: “Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens; Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens; Brown paper packages tied up with strings; These are a few of my favorite things.”

 June 2, 1960   no responses

My mother threw the hard half-gallon brick of Crowley’s Neapolitan ice cream onto the kitchen linoleum floor. “Come on, we’re leaving.”

We were still in our Sunday clothes finishing up our 1pm dinner after attending Mass. I quickly grabbed my jacket and helped my younger brother and sister into their sweaters. My father sat quietly in the living room watching the Yankees on channel 11. My Mom grabbed her hat and purse and stormed out before us. We walked two blocks to the corner of Jay Street and Route 94 and waited for the 1:45pm bus from Cornwall to take us to downtown Newburgh.  I thought we were going to catch an afternoon matinee at the Ritz Theatre.

“Son of a bitch, this time we’re not going back. This is it.  I have had enough,” screamed my mother at the cars whirring by as we stood on the side of the highway. I knew then we were not going to the movies to see 2:30 pm showing of “Pollyanna.”

“I have to make my own fucking Mother’s Day dinner. He doesn’t lift a goddamn finger. Your father lies on his ass and just pretends to be sick.”

My father had Parkinson’s disease.

“But Ma, I made you a nice card and bought you a present. Didn’t you like the Jean Natè?”

 “You’re no big help either… My life is over. I ‘m married to a dead man. Not anymore. I am out of here. You can go back if you want to, little man. You’re just like him anyway. “

“No Mommy I will stay with you.”

The bus pulled up and my Mom paid our 30 cents each; Michael and Karen rode free.  She calmed down on the bus but still smoldered as she looked out of the window for the short ride into town.

The bus passed over the crumbling stone bridge on Mill Street with the old paper factory still underneath beside a dried up stream…  passed some service stations and rusty auto shops…passed the only Jewish synagogue before making  a right turn onto the very wide expanse of  Newburgh’s Broadway.  Down the broad way past the Ritz and Broadway Theatres, the Texas Weiner Shop, Sears & Roebuck, The Hotel Newburgh and the Woolworths. Left and farther down to the old business district, the department store with the only elevator in the Hudson River Valley, down to the bus terminal at the ferry station to Beacon.

We got off at the last stop on Water Street on the river in front of  a sign that said “Newburgh Best All American City 1950 ” That sign would soon be a lie and better entitled in the 1960’s  – “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.” George Washington may have disbanded his troops nearby but the welfare scandal, the “Battle of Newburgh,” was just to begin for all the nation to see as documented on NBC’s White Paper Series.

My mother was unusually quiet now as we got on the ferry, the warm breezes of the river blowing over us. Looking high up and across the river, I could see the abandoned funicular up to the very top of Mount Beacon so named for its Revolutionary War beacon fires to warn of approaching British troops.  I wish I had a warning system at home to signal my mother’s tirades.

My brother and sister held tightly to my hands as my mother smoked a Kent Light up on the top deck. There were never any warnings of her outbursts and attacks at home.  They would flare up like Mount Vesuvius. The battle lines were drawn and as children we could find ourselves on either side of the skirmish. “Who do you want to go with, me or your father when we break up?” was often the war cry to recruit us to their side.

There was no Charon to guide us across the river to the sad city of Beacon, already a forlorn, once industrial river town. We walked up the steep Ferry Street to Main. Either the weather had turned warmer or our hike up the hill had all made us thirsty. My mother gave me some change to go to a corner German Deli. I plunged my hand deep into the icy waters of the Coca Cola chest to retrieve 4 small Cokes. We walked over to Memorial Park and sat on the beat up benches in the shade. Karen and Michael played on the swings.

My mother was crying now softly. I tried to hold her hand but she brushed it away. She was quiet for an hour. The ashes of despair were settling as we sat on that silent hill.  I am sure she was now realizing she had left home but had nowhere to go but back. She looked like the Trojan Women, overlooking a sacked city, realizing slavery or death were the only two choices allowed to her.  She handed me a dime and sighed with resignation, “Go call your father.” We sipped our cokes as I watched some “negro” teen aged boys play softball on the nearby field.

Dad arrived one hour later and picked us up. We didn’t’ get out of the car on the ferry. The bridge would soon be built bypassing the two cities, abandoning the downtowns to outlying malls. My father drove slowly and carefully home as the radio played Percy Faith’s hit version of “Theme from a Summer Place” on Newburgh’s AM station, WGNY.

There’s a summer place

Where it may rain or storm

Yet I’m safe and warm
For within that summer place

Your arms reach out to me
And my heart is free from all care
For it knows there are no gloomy skies

When seen through the eyes
Of those who are blessed with love

As we passed the Dairy Isle my Dad made an abrupt u-turn back into its gravel parking lot.

“What kind of sundae do you want, Jo?” my Dad asked my mother – “Hot Fudge Sundae with Vanilla Ice Cream.”

-Détente-

“Anthony, get your mother some ice cream.”

My Dad gave me two dollars out of his allowance that my mother weekly doled out to him. I got Karen and Michael a vanilla cone each with chocolate sprinkles; a swirl with rainbow sprinkles for me. I bought my Dad a dish of vanilla since he couldn’t hold a cone in his shaking hand. We finished our ice cream before heading home. My mother gave the signal it was time  to leave by handing me her fudge smeared napkin to toss in the trash.

 I could see the grease stains on our black top driveway as we arrived home. Hand over hand, my father turned the big steering over and guided and glided our car over the spots and hid them from view.  My mother went ahead as my Dad shuffled in behind her. We all went to our rooms to change out of our clothes and put on everyday ones.

As I entered the kitchen, I almost stepped on the blob of vanilla, chocolate and strawberry ice cream that has spread out from its container. I mopped up the mess and ran hot water in the sink over the carton on to melt the rest before I could toss it into the garbage can.  I loved making it swirl round and round like the water circling down and around in the drain form the movie “Psycho.”

Since it was Sunday night, I carried the two big metal garbage cans from the back yard to the front so the Town sanitation truck could pick them up Monday morning. My Mom fixed Dad a sandwich from the leftovers. At 8pm, we all gathered around our RCA television console set to watch the Ed Sullivan Show on Channel 2 – like we did every Sunday.

 January 1, 1960   no responses

(My first directors chair)

I called a colleague of mine at 9:00pm on a “school night”. As we were chatting, I heard his 4-year olds playing in the background. So bluntly I blurted out: “Shouldn’t they be in bed by now?”  The reply was: “They aren’t sleepy yet!”

When I was a child of their age we were in bed at 8pm no matter what.  I had to be 10 years old to stay up till 9pm. This caused me great pain and petulance since lots of my favorite TV shows started at that time.

After being sent up be upstairs to my room, I would sneak down the staircase ever so slowly and peer over the banister to snatch glimpses of the show I so wanted to watch. I must have looked like a turtle’s head darting in and out of its shell since I had to avoid my mother’s Medusa glare. It was she who laid down the neo-Nazi martial law curfew of 9:00pm. If father looked up, he would always give me a secret, conspiratorial grin.

When I reached 12 I stayed up till 10:00pm and at high school it was extended to eleven. This was great since my patents went to bed at 10. I had a whole hour to myself to watch whatever I wanted – like the discussion on transvestites on the David Susskind Show or falling in love with Ryan O’Neal on Peyton Place or admiring how well the pants fit on Robert Conrad on Wild Wild West.

My RCA TV set was lucky to receive the local NYC station of Channel Nine, WOR even up in Newburgh, NY sixty miles away from OZ. Million Dollar Movie would show the same film twice every night at 7 & 9pm and multiple times all day Saturday and Sunday. “Tara’s Theme” from Gone with the Wind would swell up and King Kong would hold a clacker board with the title. In the 1950’s, movie studios didn’t want their films shown on TV, but the defunct catalogue of films from RKO Studio were shown on channel 9. I am not lying when I say I saw, 20 times each: King Kong, Citizen Kane, Mighty Joe Young, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Cat People and all the musicals of Fred and Ginger.

Also Million Dollar Movie showed a great many foreign films of post war Europe. I grew up on Italian neorealism and sometimes I could not tell the difference between the streets and characters of the Bronx/Brooklyn from the streets and denizens of Rome/Naples as depicted in De Sica’s The Bicycle Thieves and Shoeshine or Rossellini’s Roma, Open City or Paisano.

I was also watching badly dubbed English versions of La Strada, Nights of Cabiria, Virgin Spring and Wild Strawberries. Here was a 12-year boy grappling with the existentialism of Fellini and the nihilism of Bergman. They would later become staples my college days art house viewing circuit and were a great influence as I strove to be a theatrical director.

The Technicolor psychosexual films of Michael Powell shaped my sexuality. My angst of dealing with my homosexuality was mirrored in their lurid, luscious ripe colors, Freudian subtexts and over the top melodramatic acting. I was the prim mother superior of Deborah Kerr, or the nun who had jungle red lips living in the Himalayas in his Black Narcissus. I was the tenor, Robert Roundsville, as the dashing anti-hero in the Tales of Hoffman; rowing my gondola in the canals of Venice singing the Barcarolle. And I was young Wendy Hiller, a determined girl looking for love in “I Know Where I’m Going” -  (not!)

And then there was the iconic Red Shoes  (based on the fairy tale by closeted author, Hans Christian Andersen) that inspired many a dancer and gay boy cf. A Chorus Line. The Red Shoes was the tragic story of a ballerina torn between her young lover and her career; both ruled over by a mad man who loved them both.Yes everything was not “beautiful at the ballet.” I identified not with Victoria Page, the ballerina, but the Diaghilev-like manic ruthless impresario, Boris Lermontov.

After so many viewings, I could re-encact the final scenes of the Red Shoes by sweeping open the the bathroom shower curtains and stepping out with my wet hair wildy tossed back and weepingly shouting out as Boris on stage announces Victoria’s death: “I am sorry to tell you that Miss Page is unable to dance tonight nor indeed any other night!”

Gliding into the living room, I slipped off my slippers and held them in my hand, close to the floor and cried: “Never the less, we’ve decided to present The Red Shoes. It is the ballet that made her name and whose name she made. We present it because we think she would have wished it so.” Then I danced them magically around the parlor as if Victoria Page, the dead ballerina was still in those shoes and she was in me.

It would be many years later before I could finally say to my lover, “Julian, darling, take off the Red Shoes.”

To be continued…

Note:  Film director Martin Scorsese cites Million Dollar Movie as a great influence on him. By the way our families both emigrated from the same small town, Ciminna in Sicily.

 October 7, 1959   no responses

Mario Lanza

It was already 7:15 am when my mother yelled up “Rise and shine! Rise and shine!” imitating Gertrude Lawrence as Amanda Wingfield in the film version of The Glass Menagerie. I jumped quickly out of the bed almost tipping over my filled-to-the-brim, blue plastic pee pot. I had gotten through the night without wetting the bed again. I gingerly carried the pot down the steep stair case to the bathroom and emptied it into the toilet bowl, only splashing a few yellow drops on the gray linoleum floor tiles, making a Pollack-like design. I grabbed a face cloth and cleaned my face, ears and arms pits; we only bathed once a week on Saturday night.  I brushed my teeth with Ipana toothpaste humming “Brusha Brusha Brusha” like Bucky Beaver on the TV commercial, which made foam drip down my chin making me look like a rabid dog – GRRR.

After drinking a big glass of orange juice, wolfing down a big bowl of Rice Krispies topped with a mound of sugar, I ran back upstairs and put on my school uniform of blue pants, crisp white shirt and woolen knit school tie with a big embroidered SHS on it. I began my daily chores. My mother, like Joan Crawford, was obsessive about order and cleanliness – “What if someone was to visit? Make sure you have clean underwear on! What if you are hit by a bus?”  -  No one ever visited, saw my underwear, and no one I know was ever hit by a bus!

I started by making the upstairs beds, washing and drying the breakfast dishes, vacuuming the living & dining rooms and dusting all the furniture. On Wednesdays I had to take all the doilies off from under the lamps on the end tables – not just dust around them. The hot air heating system always left a white Pompeian coating of gray ash every night. It was almost 8:00am as I ran out to the corner making the school bus just in time.

Wednesday was “released time” day which meant we got out early so the heathen public school kids could come to Sacred Heart School to get religious instruction. Our day always began by standing next to our desks to recite the Pledge of Allegiance to a flag on a wooden dowel hanging precariously over the blackboard, and a saying a short prayer to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. You could tell the time of day by the regimen of the lessons: history, math, geography, art, and religion etc. taught by our very strict sixth grade teacher, Sister Thomas James. Towards the end of the morning we were studying the Baltimore Catechism in preparation for our Confirmations in June. Around 11am I raised my hand to be “excused” to go to the bathroom. The OJ was taking its toll.  I often asked to be “excused” since I had a problem holding it in and was often emphatically, sadistically denied since I was the class clown. Sr. Thomas was getting her revenge. As the pressure grew, I began moving my legs back and forth and crossing them to keep it in.

After an in-depth graphic description of how the Indians tortured St. Isaac Jogues by pulling out his finger nails one by one, I raised my hand again and made an urgent plea. “No, Mr. Smarty Pants. You can wait till school is over.” Of course my classmates all laughed at me so I made an ugly face behind Sister’s back which made the class laugh even louder. She spun around and gave me such a glare that I thought she caused the fire house siren to wail out, but it was only the noon siren – 45 minutes to go. Could I last?

We all jumped and sat up straight when our principal Sister Vincent rapped with her gold wedding band on the on the glass pane on our classroom. She called Sr. Thomas James out into the hallway and whispered something to her, both of them standing still like penguins guarding their eggs in an Arctic storm. I could see tears in their eyes – the Pope must be dead, I thought. Sister Thomas closed the door and she slowly turned to us and said “Dear children, I have very sad news, Mario Lanza is dead. He had a heart attack in Rome; he was only 38 years old.”  Our whole class made a collective sigh. A few of the girls grabbed their lace handkerchiefs as I pulled out my pocket one. We all knelt down next to our desks and said a prayer for him.

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In our Italian parish of Sacred Heart, Mario Lanza was a god, an idol, our hero. He was the most famous tenor in the world, a working class Italian American who made good and became a handsome romantic Hollywood movie star. The nuns all had a crush on him and I had most of his albums. I had a crush on him too ever since my mother had taken me to the Ritz Theatre to see the MGM musical, The Great Caruso. When my parents went out shopping and I was all alone, I would shut off the lights in my bedroom, put on one of his albums, lay on my bed  in the dark, and become enveloped in his warm, bell toned voice. I believed he was singing just to me.

Deep in my heart dear, I have a dream of you…

The bell of our church started to peal slowly like it did when there was a funeral and I couldn’t hold it any longer as it slowly ebbed down the sides of my dark navy blue gabardine pants; trying to release it a little bit at time so no one would notice. I kept staring straight ahead, listening intently to every word Sister said when BRRRINGG, the school bell rang. It was finally 12:45pm and we were “released” for the day.

I ran to the Boy’s Room, went to a stall, sat down and poured out a steady stream – WHEW! The left side of my pants leg was soaked right down to the cuff. If my mother found out she would throw a fit and hit me. “It’s your own fault you wet the bed, you’re too lazy to control yourself!”  I pulled my pants back up when I realized this was my lucky day. I could take a later bus home from the Polish Parish of St. Francis and hang out in Newburgh for awhile and air out my pants till they dried. Maybe I could get away with it if it didn’t smell so bad. I waited for everyone to leave before I headed over to Broadway, the main street of Newburgh. I would go to the public library to listen to some Mario Lanza records before catching that later bus.

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Broadway

We had just moved from the City, leaving all our relatives and my friends behind.  Newburgh was sixty miles north of New York and it was once voted “All American City “with its many tree-lined streets and High Victorian style homes. I was walking bow-legged in time to the funereal tolling bell so the breeze could pass through my pants and dry them out. I often sang when I walked; turning the corner onto Broadway I began to sing one of Mario’s hit songs from the movie, The Student Prince. Actually only Mario’s voice was heard in the film since he had gotten too heavy and unreliable from drink to be in it.

 

Be my love for no one else can end this yearning;

This need that you and you alone create…

My first stop was Schwartz’s Department Store to see if any new Broadway original cast albums had come out. I already had this season’s Gypsy and The Sound of Music, and I was waiting for my pre-order of Fiorello to come in. I checked out soundtracks but continued empty-handed down the steep wide avenue past South William Street and the Jewish Section.  I sauntered along Broadway, window gazing in a lost lonely reverie, singing lustily now.

Just fill my arms, the way you fill my dreams.

The dreams that you inspire with every sweet desire…

I stopped mid-song embarrassed when an elderly Jewish lady came out of a haberdashery shop. I pretended to look at some Ladies lingerie in the shop window. Humming now, I picked up my pace to the Broadway Theatre where the tear jerker, Imitation of Life starring Lana Turner was showing. Who wouldn’t cry at the final scene when the light skinned daughter who passed for white cries out and flings herself on the coffin of her dead colored mother? “I am telling you, it’s my Mama! Please Mama!  Mama! I didn’t mean it!  Mama, do you hear me? I’m sorry Mama. I killed my mother!  I’m sorry Mama! I did love you!”

Feeling hungry I went next door to Texas Wieners and sat at the counter where I ordered a hot dog smothered with sauerkraut and onions and a cherry coke. I spun round and round on the red vinyl covered stool, pressing the crease down my pants with my thumb and forefinger. The hot dogs weren’t as good as at Pete’s up by Sacred Heart but they were pretty tasty when they put their special sauce on. I was trying to squeeze some yellow mustard from a dirty plastic container when an old Negro man came in and sat down next to me. I was so startled; this was the first time I had seen a black man close up. I spun around a bit too quickly and a bright yellow blob of mustard shot on my pants along with a big glob of the Texas Weiner special reddish sauce. I smiled nonchalantly as I reached over and pulled a paper napkin from the metal holder. I only made things worse by smearing the mess into the fabric of my trousers.

The Negro gentleman ordered as he was reading the Newburgh News aloud to himself. “It’s a damn shame, damn shame, so young, only 38,” sharing the news of Mario Lanza’s death with waitress behind the counter who pulled out her white doily handkerchief from her white uniform and dabbed her eyes. “What a voice” I stammered out as the man glanced over and continued reading from the sports page. I gobbled down the frank, gave a quick smile back to the man, and walked out using my schoolbag as camouflage to hide the stain.  I glanced back for one more look at him when I banged my nose on the door and made a quick exit.

I bobbed into Sears & Roebuck to check out the new stereos, stuck my nose in the lobby of the Hotel Newburgh where Mrs. Dickey who worked with my father stayed, and loitered in front of the Ritz Theatre where the The Gene Krupa Story was playing. I lingered over the lobby cards that showed Sal Mineo playing the drums. I noticed a few empty storefronts now on Broadway, and since this busy section was sort of deserted, I continued singing.

Be my love and with your kisses set my burning

One kiss is all that I need to seal my fate…

Mount Beacon loomed across the Hudson as I tuned left onto Grand Street, past the YMCA and Irish Parish of St. Patrick’s to Newburgh Free Library. The Library was a Victorian Gingerbread fantasy and the interior looked like the movie set of The Music Man, complete with metal spiral staircase up to the wrap-around-balcony where Professor Harold Hill could have sung “Marion the Librarian.”  I threw my jacket and school bag down on the seat next to the turntable to save myself a spot. I looked up the catalogue number for LP of The Student Prince with Mario Lanza and found the disc, put on a pair of headsets, and started to listen. I closed my eyes and in my mind I was a student studying at Heidelberg, as I started to sway my hand and pretend I was hoisting a stein of beer.

Drink! Drink! Drink!
To eyes that are bright as stars when they’re shining on me!
Drink! Drink! Drink!
To lips that are red and sweet as the fruit on the tree!

Miss Smith, the librarian, tapped me on the shoulder, startling me and whispered to stop humming along. The jolt made me kick the base of the record player and it skipped ahead to the famous “Serenade.” Prince Karl with his fellow students sings to his beloved Kathi, under the tavern girl’s window. I discreetly wiped a tear from my eye, just in case anyone saw me. I looked at my Timex and realized I was late for the afternoon bus home. I quickly put the LP carefully back in its sleeve, holding the edges by my fingertips and checked it out and ran out the door. Miss Smith sighed as she stamped the return card with her date stamp, commiserating with me on our tragic loss.

 

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It was a quick walk up the bluff to St. Francis on Benkard Avenue. I barely caught the bus so I had to sit on an aisle seat next to a fat Slavic girl munching like a beaver on pretzel logs. I kept my school bag on my lap to hide the rosy sauerkraut stain which was now redolent of a faint smell of uric acid.

The bus dropped me off on Rte. 94 and I walked with dread the two blocks back to our Cape Cod house. My mother was already home from the factory, preparing dinner when I rushed in. “Hey Ma, don’t be mad but I spilled sauerkraut on my pants so I am gonna put them in the hamper.” I demurely went to the bathroom, pulled off my slacks buried them deep in the hamper under some other dirty clothes, then ran upstairs in my BVD’s to my bedroom.  I threw on my dungarees, started to read the liner notes of The Student Prince and flopped on the chenille bedspread, escaping my mother’s wrath.  Or so I thought-

“Prince Charles, come down here now! So you think you can fool me, Little Man!”

I was caught. My mother only called me Prince Charles when she was extremely mad at me which was often (Prince Charles was born 4 days before me and she and  Queen Elizabeth came to term at the same time). My mother’s outbursts would rise up like a tsunami swift, high and sudden. I bolted down the stairs almost tripping on the last tread and knocking the Pixie off the wall.

“I told you on Wednesdays, you had to take the doilies off when you dusted! Look at this!”

With a flourish she lifted up the lamp and snapped up the doily. There underneath was a perfect palimpsest of the doily outlined by the dust.

“A pig lives better than this!”

“M-M-Mama…”I started to explain to her about Sr. Thomas not letting me be excused but I couldn’t get the words out fast enough.

“Spit it out!”

“Mama, I didn’t mean it!  Mama, do you hear me? I’m sorry Mama. I was late for the bus. It won’t happen again, I’m sorry Mama!”

“I say you are sorry, go up to your room and go to bed; no dinner for you, lazy ass.”

With a spring in my step I ran up stairs, shut the sliding vinyl panel door and almost laughed as I jumped on the bed – a bravura performance. – I never stuttered onstage.  I got away with the peeing in my pants. I took an imaginary bow in front of the dresser mirror like in the ending of All About Eve. I finished my homework and went back to the liner notes on the LP, thinking about the handsome Edmund Purdom who played the Prince lip-synching to Lanza.  Damn I thought, I should have bought the soundtrack to The Gene Krupa Story at Schwartz’s so I could fantasize over Sal Mineo in his big drum solo with the Glen Miller Orchestra, playing “Cherokee” in a wild frenzy. “Do you hear that Ma? They approve!”

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Sal Mineo

 

I got out a new pair of pants and set out my clothes for the morning. Downstairs dinner was over and the evening was settling in as my parents started to watch TV. The news was filled with the untimely death of Mario Lanza. My brother had fallen asleep next to me when I went over to my little phonograph and put on my copy of The Student Prince. It was dark out now. I moved the player next to my side of the bed and just barely turned up the volume so only I could hear it. In the distance the opening theme music of Wagon Train wafted up from the living room. I put the needle down on Track 6 to listen to Mario Lanza sing the famous “Serenade.”

Over head the moon is beaming

 White as blossoms on the bough

Nothing is heard but the song of a bird

Filling all the air with dreaming

The TV was turned off. My mother went to bed downstairs and my father got into his bed next to mine. His eyes told me it was alright to keep the music playing. He gently snored. It was a sad day for me.  Mario Lanza had died and I had wet my pants. I started to drift in and out of sleep listening to Mario’s golden voice serenade me.

Could I hear this song forever
Calling to my heart anew, my Darling
While I drift along forever

Lost in a dream of you 

I gave a loud burp caused by the afternoon hot dog. My thoughts strayed back to the day; therere was something strange about my walk down Broadway in Newburgh, the “All American City.” It was late now so I gave the matter no more thought. * The house was still. The needle of the record reached the end of the album and it must have been clicking over and over for a long time before I woke up and shut it off but I still heard Mario. 

I hear your voice in the wind that stirs the willows
I see your face in the stars that shine above
(Hold me closer, tonight we love)

The willows bending, the stars that shine

The chamber pot was underneath the bed. I strained but there was nothing. I was hungry but instead of sneaking to the kitchen I got back into bed.  It was safe up here, downstairs, my pants and my sins were buried in the bathroom hamper. Mario’s voice lingered in my dreams.

The shore lights blending, they’re yours and mine
Drifting along, in my heart there’s a song

And the song in my heart will not fade

Oh, hear my serenade, my moonlight serenade

“Rise and Shine! Rise and Shine!”  I didn’t wet the bed that night.  I got quickly dressed in my clean pair of pants, white shirt and tie. I skipped the OJ, removed all the doilies, dusted all around them and caught the bus on time. The school day went by fast –

# 63 Is original sin the only kind of sin?

Original sin is not the only kind of sin; there is another kind, called actual sin, which we ourselves commit.

#64 What is actual sin?

Actual sin is any willful thought, desire, word, action, or omission forbidden by the law of God.

 

On the way home, I gazed out the school bus window; Newburgh looked the same. When I got home I rode my old Schwinn bicycle to the dry cleaners and dropped off the laundry. On the way back, coasting on my bike down a long, long hill, I raised my hands in the air, singing all the way… 

Overhead, the moon is beaming

White as blossoms on the bough

Nothing is heard but the song of a bird

Filling all the air with dreaming

Could this beauty last forever?

I would ask for nothing more, believe me

Let this night but live forever

Forever and ever more

(click for video of Serenade)

 

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Newburgh, New York

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“In the early 1960s, Newbugh fell into urban squalor  and soical unrest like most small American cities. The city’s response to the economic decline was an ambitious urban renewal. The city’s historic waterfront area, an area composed of several square blocks which included numerous historically significant buildings, was completely  demolished. A grand complex that was planned for the urban renewal area was never built. To this s day, the blocks which slope down to the river remain open, grassy slopes, offering sweeping views of the Hudson but generating no property taxes for the city. In the early 1960s, city manager Joseph Mitchell and the council attracted nationwide attention and the admiration of political conservatives when they attempted to require welfare recipients to pick up their payments at police headquarters. Mitchell later announced a program aimed largely at blacks on welfare, who many in the community blamed for its economic problems. After opposition by both state and federal officials, the program created a national controversy and never went into effect.”