You know, we always called each other goodfellas. Like you said to, uh, somebody, "You're gonna like this guy.
He's all right. He's a goodfella. He's one of us." You understand? We were goodfellas. (Henry Hill in Goodfellas)
I’ll never forget the first time I watched Martin Scorsese’s 1990 film Goodfellas, starring Robert De Niro and Ray Liotta. The opening scenes sucked the breath right out of me. I gulped and gazed at a past that seemed awfully familiar. For the first time in my life I understood what the overused phrase “there but for the grace of God” meant.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Being the youngest member of the 93rd Street Gang, I had fewer financial resources than my peers. What am I saying? I had no peers. Everyone was older than I. They received allowances; I received none. Some of them had jobs; I didn’t. When other Gang members took their turn at treating for egg creams or ice cream sodas at the corner store, or even Italian ices from Teddy Bear the Ice Cream Man, I hardly ever could join in.
Finally, in junior high, I got my first job: delivering Canarsie’s weekly newspaper, the Courier. The pay was meager—three cents profit per delivery—but I had a route of about sixty that I’d inherited from an older kid at church, so it wasn’t too bad, especially when tips often doubled or tripled my profits. It still wasn’t much, but every so often, with a little help from Mom and Pop, I got to treat the Gang to a cheap confection.
Things changed dramatically when I inherited Billy Walker’s job at a drugstore on Rockaway Parkway. It was owned and operated by a guy named Morrie. About six years earlier, Morrie hired Grace Church kid Tommy Norris as his clerk. Tommy worked there for three years, and then Morrie hired Billy, from the Gang and the Church, to take Tommy’s place. Billy worked there for two years, got a better paying offer from a construction company, and passed the job to me. It was one of the best jobs imaginable for a bright but naive young man.
At first my work consisted mostly of keeping the shelves neat, which was easy because we only had three aisles of non-prescription products. Once or twice a week I unpacked orders from our wholesale suppliers: Towns & James (T & J), from nearby East Flatbush, and another Brooklyn wholesaler whose name I can’t recall. After stocking the shelves I’d toss the empty boxes down the basement steps which were under a steel door built into the sidewalk in front of the store. It was one of those heavy doors you had to brace with a crossbar to keep it from bashing you on the head. Stepping over the crossbar was tricky, but the alternative—a brain injury—would have been worse.
The basement was my quiet place. Every few days I’d go down there, momentarily forgetting my fear of rodents, and methodically break up boxes and stack the cardboard. Every couple of months, the stack would disappear. I never knew where it went or who collected it. That wasn’t part of my job.
We also kept expired prescription drugs on shelves along the basement wall. I suppose Morrie kept records of them, as no doubt required by law, but my job was simply to put the partially full bottles on the shelf and leave them there. Like the cardboard, every once in a while they’d disappear, and I’d fill the space up again. This precipitated my brief foray into drug use and dealing.
We accumulated a lot of expired bottles of barbiturates and amphetamines on those shelves, some only weeks past their expiration date. It seemed like a waste. I knew barbiturates were dangerous, so I avoided them; but what harm could a Dexamyl do? Being on the cross-country team, I figured a little pick-me-up before practice—but never before a meet—might help. It didn’t. I’d slip a Dexie into my mouth with some water just before changing into my running gear, but the effects never seemed to be enough to make me faster, more alert, or able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. I stopped taking them after three or four practices. Still, my teammates and other Canarsie High kids thought they were wonder drugs, so what could I do?
My career as a drug dealer lasted less than a month. First of all, my supply was severely limited. We only had a few bottles of dextroamphetamines in the basement. I wasn’t above selling expired stuff, but there was no way I was going to steal stuff out of the prescription drawers. Also, I didn’t want to take too many out of each bottle because I knew someone somewhere might be keeping a record. Judging by the fact that I was never caught, I may have assumed too much.
Fact is, I didn’t really like being a drug dealer. The money wasn’t great. How much does one charge for expired pharmaceuticals? Probably a lot more than I did. I was the bargain basement of drug dealers. Also, I never felt quite right about what I was doing. I saved every drug dealing dollar I made, maybe fifty or sixty, and eventually put them all in an envelope and gave them to a poor woman to whom I’d often deliver legitimate prescriptions. Like my gambling winnings, I felt guilty keeping them.
Once Morrie learned that I was trustworthy—well, given the previous stories, maybe trustworthy isn't the right word—he gave me two of my most important duties: filling prescriptions and fetching supper.
Getting Morrie’s supper was fun and sometimes profitable. Most of the time my boss packed his supper, which he heated on a hotplate in the back. Microwaves were a few years away. A couple of days a week, however, Morrie sent me for a sandwich. Sometimes he was generous enough to buy me one too. My favorites were the veal parmigiana from Armando’s, with an aroma that could not be held in by aluminum foil and called to me all the way back to the store; and ham salad from a non-Kosher deli. I never gave too much thought to why Morrie, a Jew, would eat ham salad; I just joined him. To this day, when people consider ham salad to be a paté made of chopped ham with bits of pickle floating in it, I cringe. Morrie and I ate a perfect blend of diced ham and mayo on a bed of lettuce. For years, after Easter’s traditional ham dinner, I’d beg Sandy to dice some leftover ham and make that kind of ham salad for me.
Supper with Morrie was awesome. Morrie was a firm believer in adding milk to soda. Root beer, with its inherent smoothness, seemed a natural for milk. Dr. Pepper and milk worked surprisingly well together. I started to draw the line when my boss insisted I add milk to a Coke. Some things just aren’t done! But the boss is the boss, so I tried it. I survived, but I never looked forward to those suppers. Even Armando’s veal parmigiana had trouble overcoming that taste. Nevertheless, Morrie and I bonded over those quiet suppers. I earned more of his trust.
That trust was shown in another part of the supper routine. Morrie generally ate around the time we made our daily bank deposit. He would open the register, count the till, and remove most of it. Then he’d prepare a deposit slip and put the wad of bills with it in a zippered pouch. My instructions were to walk to the bank, make the deposit, and stop by the deli or Armando’s for our meal. Each time I’d carefully tuck the pouch under my shirt and inside my pants so as not to arouse eyes bent on mugging.
One day, upon my return with our supper, and an empty bank pouch, Morrie seemed very quiet. We ate our dinner in silence, and then I settled into my end-of-the-day closing routine. Finally, before we locked the doors and went home, Morrie told me what had happened. While I was gone with the day’s profits, two guys came in and robbed the store. Morrie’s silence was part shock and part wanting to be a calming presence when he told me.
My first reaction was to laugh.
“They robbed the register? How much was in it? Fifty bucks? And here I was carrying hundreds in my pants right down the street.”
My second reaction was to wonder why Morrie hadn’t somehow signaled the fire station across the street. He always said he’d trust the firefighters over the police to help out if there were trouble at the store. But there were no firefighters. That provoked my third reaction. Why were there no cops? Could they have come and gone so quickly? I didn’t think I’d been gone that long. Was Morrie going to give a statement at the 69th Precinct later that night? Why didn’t the cops want to talk to me? I never asked those questions. I only connected the theft and the lack of investigation years later. My naiveté knew no bounds.
After a few months of quality service on my part, and some safe transport of sandwiches, cans of soda, and pouches of cash, I was ready for what would become the most important part of my job: filling prescriptions. This was another time when a more worldly-wise employee might have wondered why he, a high school kid, was filling prescriptions and the guy with the Pharmacy degree was sitting in the back room talking on the phone to some guy named Joey or visiting with regulars like Mooch and Curly, who never bought more than a candy bar but often tossed me a buck. I didn’t wonder, I just learned how to read physicians’ scribbles, count pills, measure powders for emulsions, and make a little extra profit by gently scratching the word “sample” off pills donated to Morrie by his brother, a physician, so we could sell them at full retail.
Filling prescriptions was great. I started teaching myself Pharmacy. I’d read the trade magazines that came monthly to the store. That’s where I learned about the latest wonder drugs and how they’re marketed. One time, we got a prescription for a drug Morrie had never heard of. He was about to call his brother when I said, “I know what that is. It’s manufactured by so-and-so for patients with such-and-such. I read about it in last month’s Journal.” I showed Morrie the article, he called our wholesaler, and within an hour I’d ridden my bike to T & J and back so we could fill the prescription. After that, I gave serious thought to becoming a pharmacist; so much so that when a recruiter from Columbia University School of Pharmacy came to Canarsie High to talk with the two kids who worked at drug stores—me and Mike, who worked at GlenRock Drugs—I was mildly interested. Then I realized I’d have to take more chemistry, which I hated, and decided on Bible college.
The question remains, why was a high school kid doing the work of a degreed pharmacist? You may have guessed already. Morrie had another job. I’m not really sure what Morrie’s other job was. I’ll just describe it and let you put a label on it.
Morrie spent a lot of his time on the telephone. People, all men actually, would come to talk with him while I was sweeping the store, stocking shelves, or filling prescriptions. Then he’d get on the phone and talk about things like “who looks good in the third at Aqueduct?” or how much money to put on the number three horse at Yonkers. It was while working for Morrie that I learned words like “perfecta” and “trifecta,” things I’m sure I would have missed in pharmacy school.
I did, however, get to do a few other things with those guys. By my senior year in high school I had my driver’s license. For some reason, they often needed a driver. I was pretty sure they had cars and wondered why they didn’t drive themselves, but I never mentioned it to Morrie. I’d just take the guys wherever they wanted to go: home from the drugstore, to and from girlfriends’ houses, that kind of stuff.
My favorite driving chore was when one or two of them would ask me to take them to Yonkers Raceway, just north of the city. The “trotters” ran there, the horses that pull their jockeys in those little cart-like seats. The guys liked to bet on, and watch, the trotters run. Since alcohol was heavily involved in these excursions, they needed a designated driver, and that would be me.
We’d drive up to Yonkers, I’d drop them off at the entrance, and whoever owned the Lincoln, Cadillac, or Chrysler would toss me the keys and a fifty and tell me, “Enjoy yourself, kid. Get a nice steak. Come back at 11:30.” I’d skip the steak, get a couple of slices of pizza, and read a book for a couple of hours. It was a great way to pocket about $45 at the end of an evening.
Guys like Morrie’s friends lived all over Canarsie in the sixties. Years later my dad told me that’s why the neighborhood always felt so safe. No petty criminals would mess with the locals. You never knew whose house you might be breaking into and what might happen if you got caught. Personally, I never gave it a thought. I just knew we walked the streets at all hours; there was virtually no crime, except occasionally when a neighbor would wash up on the shore of Jamaica Bay with a bullet in his head.
Maybe I did give it one thought. I had a friend whose dad was a garbage man. Not a city garbage man, but one of those men with a garbage truck that had someone’s name on the side. They called it “private sanitation.” Every year or so, this kid’s dad would go to the Oldsmobile dealer and drive home in a brand new Olds 98, their snazziest vehicle, kind of a middle class Cadillac. I always wondered how he could do that on a garbage man’s salary. But I never asked.
Work at the drugstore, plus my side job as a driver, put me in an exciting new financial position. I was able to buy my own car and also to travel by air to visit Billy Walker at college in Florida and to visit Clair in Buffalo. When the Grace Church youth group took their annual excursion to Rye Beach Playland, I could pay my own way and treat some of the other kids to snacks. I was riding high that last summer before Bible college.
Years later I talked to Pop about my youthful exploits as an amateur pharmacist. He explained some things to me about the neighborhood we called home. I won’t go into details. You can probably guess them if you’ve seen any gangster movies in the past fifty years. Private sanitation was a “Family” business. The funeral homes with their elaborate Italianate sculptures and owners who spent thousands on Christmas displays we kids drooled over, they were “Family” too. We were a “Family” neighborhood; safe, sound, and sometimes deadly.
“Phil,” my dad added, “You know Uncle Tom [Mom’s cousin] married a Gambino, right?”
The first time I watched Goodfellas I gulped. Now you know why.
Hospitality was something we Baisleys learned early and often, as you’ll see in the next episode of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.
I think my favorite band of the mid-60s was the Dave Clark Five. I admired Denis Payton, their tenor sax player. Scott, Sal, and I even tried to duplicate the Dave Clark sound (as well as the Beatles). Scott played guitar, I played sax along with a bass guitar plugged into a tape recorder for an amp, and Sal played drums fashioned from a set of hassock covers. We weren’t quite ready to be featured on Cousin Brucie’s radio show.
In the latter part of the 1960s, AM radio was still king. My favorite station, WABC, played your basic Top 40 hits, which included the Beatles, great but far from the earth-shakers they were a couple of years earlier. Other musical styles forced their way onto the charts, bands like Steppenwolf and the Stones, and folk duo Simon and Garfunkel; but bubble gum music (à la 1910 Fruitgum Company and Ohio Express), essential pop from Tommy James and the Shondells and Gary Puckett and the Union Gap; and future Muzak staples like MacArthur Park (Richard Harris), Love Is Blue (Paul Mauriat and his orchestra), and This Guy’s in Love with You (Herb Alpert) dominated the AM airwaves.
Then, one afternoon, Scott came over. His face shone like Moses coming down from Mount Sinai; maybe not literally, but Scott had visibly been in the presence of something holy. He burst through the back door and said,
“Do you have an FM radio?”
“Beats me. Why?”
“WABC has an FM station, and they play stuff nobody plays on AM. It’s like underground stuff. I can’t explain it. You’ve gotta hear it.”
I told Scott that Pop had a little box on top of the hi-fi, and it may have been some kind of radio that hooked into the record player. No one ever used it, but we could check it out.
“Oh my God,” Scott exclaimed, momentarily forgetting the Second Commandment, “Your dad has an FM receiver!”
We turned it on, and switched the hi-fi to “on” without putting a disk on the turntable. And then we listened.
“Oh my God,” I uttered under my breath, momentarily forgetting there even was a Second Commandment.
I was hearing Cream’s White Room for the first time. I might as well have been standing at the Grace Church altar for the first time, waiting for the Spirit to fill me. And filled I was.
For the next two years I planned my day around that FM receiver. I exulted in the protest songs of Joan Baez and Country Joe and the Fish. I laughed at the tongue-in-cheek rock of Frank Zappa and folk of Tom Paxton. And then I heard a style of music that totally, in 1968 vernacular, blew my mind.
A twangy guitar and plunky piano introduced a song about someone who “pulled into Nazareth,” feeling “‘bout half-past dead.” What was that? The vocals were spectacular, but they weren’t quite right. Voices in harmony but not in synch. Instruments sounding like they came from somewhere deep in the woods. I didn't like the sound, but I loved the sound. I wanted more. By this time, I had my own stereo, a portable with speakers you could detach from the turntable and separate from each other by about twelve feet. I’d sit dead center between them and feel the music shift from side to side. I asked Pop to find Music from Big Pink by a band called The Band.
“That’s what I asked,” said Pop with more than a hint of exasperation. This was becoming an Abbott and Costello routine.
“The Band. That’s the name of the group. And the album is Music from Big Pink.”
“I know it’s a stupid name, Pop, but that’s the record’s name. Please get it for me. I’ll pay you back. Oh, if they don’t have it, I’ll just wait. Don’t surprise me with something else. Please.”
Pop arrived home that night with a square, flat package. He said,
“I asked the guy at Sam Goody about Big Pink. He didn’t know what I was talking about. But he checked the catalog, and he came back with this.”
And there it was. No Buggs. No embarrassment. I had my own copy of the Holy Scripture of underground radio.
I have to admit the first few notes of the first song, Tears of Rage, put me off a bit. It was more backwoods-y than I had expected. But by the time I reached their cover of the country classic Long Black Veil, The Band had secured a permanent place as my favorite band. A year later, Scott and I saw them live at the Felt Forum in Manhattan. Tom Rush opened for them in that intimate little space deep within the confines of Madison Square Garden. I know heaven exists because Scott and I spent an evening there.
The following spring, Scott and I made plans to attend a music festival being planned for upstate, something called Woodstock. We could afford the tickets for three days, and we figured we could sleep in the car and buy food on site. What a plan!
Mom said, “Ask Pop.”
Pop said, “No.”
I’m sure the same conversation, with slight Yiddish overtones, took place at Scott’s house. We never got to Woodstock. Four hundred thousand other kids, including a friend or two from P.S.114 days, did get there and scattered around Max Yasgur's farm in lower upstate New York. Of course, if you counted all the people my age who say they were there, the number by now has reached into the millions.
Scott and I made it to a lesser rock event a year later: the New York Pop Festival on Randall's Island. Nobody talks about that one, but it happened. You can Google it. I think even the bands that showed up (and many didn't) now claim they weren’t there that weekend in July 1970.
Some of the same headliners from Woodstock were there. John B. Sebastian, formerly of the Lovin' Spoonful, kicked things off. Steppenwolf was there—John Kay wearing the tightest leather pants I'd ever seen—as were Grand Funk Railroad, Jethro Tull, and some others. Van Morrison was slated to be there, but I don't think he showed.
It was supposed to be three days of music, like Woodstock, but in a more secure environment than a pig farm. The festival was held in Downing Stadium, a decrepit concrete arena where semi-pro football teams played and city-wide track meets were held. The stadium sits on Randall's Island, smack dab in the middle of the East River in the shadow of the Triborough Bridge. Instead of 400,000 hippies in a muddy field, we were 25,000 mixed up New York kids on a football field or on the concrete seats.
The New York Pop Festival of 1970, before it was erased from people's memories, somehow acquired the sub-title "ill-fated." Seems some radical groups like the Black Panthers and the Students for a Democratic Society, among others, were promised mic time. They just took it upon themselves to decide when and how much of that time to self-promote. As political groups jockeyed for space on the stage (and in front of those mics), some of the bands did their own fighting. Jimi Hendrix's people almost pushed Jethro Tull's roadies off the stage because Hendrix wanted to follow Steppenwolf the first night. After the concert promoters and security people broke up the fight, Hendrix decided that only he would choose when he would play. (Well, he might've been a bit of a diva, but he was one of the absolute greatest guitarists ever.)
Eventually, by late Friday night, the first night of the festival, everyone had played or preached or fought except The Jimi Hendrix Experience. We knew he was there, but he just wasn't playing. We sat around waiting, sometimes napping, as Friday evolved into Saturday. It was sort of fun. Scott and I sort of slept on the 30-yard line. And I sort of got to see a rather pretty girl's breasts through a semitransparent red blouse. (There's a first time for everything, they say.) Finally, damp and tired, Scott and I moved into the concrete bleachers, still hoping Hendrix would play.
Sometime after 4:00 a.m., while most of us were sleeping, smoking weed, or having sex, Jimi Hendrix took the stage. He played through a set that included Purple Haze, All Along the Watchtower, and Hey Joe. He played a lot longer than the original one-hour time allotment.
None of us cared that it was now almost morning. We were mesmerized by the master guitarist's music and his antics. Creating semi-melodic feedback by playing his Fender Stratocaster directly into the speakers, using his teeth as a pick, striking chords then swinging the Strat round and round his neck while the chords swung round and round the concrete walls of Downing Stadium before flying off into the night.
Then it happened. The notes I'd been dreaming of all night began their ascent into the now graying sky.
At Woodstock, Hendrix had stunned the crowds with his hyper-feedbacked rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner. He hadn't played it much since, but we hoped he might play it on Randall's Island. Then again, maybe not. Rumors were spreading that he was tired of the song. But there it was—Ta ta dum dum dum dummmmmmmmmmaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhwwwwwwwaaaaahhhhhwqwwaaaahhhhwaaaah-CRASH--The Star-Spangled Banner replete with rockets’ red glare and bombs bursting in air, all from one left-handed Strat.
Somewhere in the middle of the anthem, the first rays of sunlight peeked over the stadium wall and shone right on Scott and me. We thought we'd gone to heaven. (Who could have known then that in two months to the day that's where Jimi would wind up?) As the sun came up, Hendrix's final power chords were still reverberating through the ancient arena. Nobody moved. Nobody even cheered. Twenty-five thousand people were silenced by the wizardry of Jimi Hendrix in perfect tune with the fireball rising in the east.
It was heaven. It was life.
Why did my jaw drop the first time I watched Goodfellas? Find out in the next episode of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.
The Beatles changed everything, and they did it by being only slightly different from everything else. Along with covering a lot of earlier rock & roll tunes, like the Isley Brothers’ Twist and Shout and Chuck Berry’s Roll Over Beethoven, they created their own style of fifties music with songs like I Saw Her Standing There. They sang a show tune on their first American LP--Till There Was You from The Music Man—and then wrote songs like If I Fell and And I Love Her, which could have been in any Broadway musical of the sixties.
Beatles’ vocals could be raw, as heard in their cover of Carl Perkins’ Honey Don’t, but it was their sweet harmonies that, I believe, aided their acceptance by the parents who bought their kids Beatles records. The Fab Four’s early U.S. hits, I Wanna Hold Your Hand and She Loves You, exhibited some of the tight two-part harmonies for which the Everly Brothers were known. In an era where harmony was the stuff of clean cut quartets like the Four Freshmen and the Ames Brothers, and of course duos like the Everlys, it didn’t hurt that Paul and John complemented each other’s vocals so well.
The Beatles didn’t just revolutionize music by subtly altering the norm. They changed cultural perceptions. Their worldview was somewhat reminiscent of the “Beat” culture of the 1950s, but they behaved more like the clean cut kids next door than like the beatnik caricature incarnate in TV’s Maynard G. Krebs. Sure their hair was longish and floppier than most young men’s, but it wasn’t wild or dirty. As a result, John, Paul, George, and Ringo seemed safe.
I didn’t join the Beatles bandwagon in the winter of 1964, like so many of my peers. I was still playing Little Deuce Coupe regularly on Pop’s hi-fi. As “Beatlemania” entered the American vernacular, with the Liverpudlians’ first U.S. tour in January, I was not even a fan, which brings me back to my sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Wilson.
Mrs. Wilson was an institution at P.S.114. Judy’s mom studied under her, as did many other moms and dads in the neighborhood. The stories passed down from one generation to the next served either to terrify the new classes, which was generally the case, or make certain students determined to make her life hell. I was one of the latter.
For some reason, maybe my being a “top dog” sixth grader, I would not kowtow to Mrs. Wilson’s demands. I learned from my older friends in the 93rd Street Gang that her first name was Jenny and that she hated the slanderous nickname she’d had for years: Jungle Jenny. From then on I chose to let that slur slip from my lips as often as possible and as close to her earshot as I could safely get without being identified. Word got out that I hated her, even though I felt toward her like I did about most people: since they didn’t care about me, I didn’t care about them.
Shortly after the New Year began, Mrs. Wilson assigned my class to write a satirical essay, something to poke fun at current events. Being in the middle of a Cold War with Russia that threatened to end civilization as we knew it, only a year following the assassination of President Kennedy, and at a time when people were starting to hear about a tiny land somewhere in Southeast Asia called Vietnam, poking fun at current events took a lot of chutzpah for a teacher, even one as venerable as Jungle Jenny. I decided to take her up on it and write a seriously funny essay.
What would I write about? I asked the second funniest man I knew, after Uncle Freddy: Pop. He said we should see what was in the newspapers. We checked the Daily News. There on the front page was a photo of four nicely-suited and tied, albeit mop-haired, young Englishmen getting off a Pan Am jet right down the road at the newly-renamed John F. Kennedy International Airport.
“Who are they?” Pop asked.
“It’s that English band, the Beatles.”
Pop stared at the newspaper for a minute, quickly scanned the article, and said, “You should write about them. They look funny.”
And I did. With a little help from… Pop, I composed a two-page essay giving my take on the craziness that was Beatlemania. I exaggerated a bit, which good satire does even in sixth grade.
I was proud of my essay, and I hoped Mrs. Wilson would be too. I waited anxiously for the papers to be graded and returned.
The day she returned our satires, Jungle Jenny called me to her desk.
“I want you to read your paper aloud today. It made me laugh.”
And then she handed me an A+.
Something changed in me that day. I began trying a little harder in class, and I stopped giving Jungle Jenny so much trouble.
A few weeks later, Mrs. Wilson wasn’t in class. Mr. Shore, the assistant principal, came into our class to introduce a sub; and he told us that Mrs. Wilson’s husband had died, and she would be taking some time off. She was gone a week, maybe two. When she returned she called each of the thirty some-odd students in my class up to her desk. When it was my turn, she reached into her bag and brought out an emerald tie tack.
“This belonged to Mr. Wilson. He wore it often. Philip, I know he would want you to wear it too.”
And that made my conversion complete. I thanked Mrs. Wilson two ways. First, by saying the traditional ‘aw shucks’ kind of “Thank you,” and then by never calling her Jungle Jenny again, no matter how near or far away she was.
When I entered seventh grade I became a permanent part of the 93rd Street Gang. I started using profanity for the first time in my life. The desire to keep my old friends from P.S.114 while fitting in with the gang created the conflict within me that I’ve described previously. And my collection of 45s grew, along with a newfound love for the Beatles.
Don’t get me wrong. I liked their music in and of itself, but Aunt Barb’s neighbor, Faith, liked them too; and during my junior high years there was nothing that made a Beatles song more enjoyable than listening to it with Faith in her parents’ living room. We sang a lot of songs together those years. I even became one of the millions of members of the “official” Beatles Fan Club.
My first favorite Beatles song was She Loves You. I was disappointed to find it did not appear on my first Beatles LP, the Capitol Records U.S. release called Meet the Beatles. That album did have I Wanna Hold Your Hand, everyone else’s favorite, but not mine.
Meet the Beatles created the first of a few ripples in the otherwise tight relationship between Pop and me. I’m not sure if his disdain for the Lads had something to do with his being part of a less popular American quartet or whether he just didn’t “dig” the new music of the British Invasion. And I’m even less sure about his motive for a purchase that embarrassed me even more than him.
After days of begging, I finally got Pop to agree to bring a copy of Meet the Beatles home from Manhattan. (I bought 45s at my local music store with money earned delivering the Canarsie Courier. Large purchases like LPs required parental financing.) When he arrived home from work on the long-awaited day, Pop had an odd look on his face. To this day I don’t know if it was mischief or desperation; but he said he couldn’t find the album I wanted, so he got me something “just as good.”
I opened the plain brown wrapper, all the purchase really deserved. I practically gagged. There in all its counterfeit glory was an album called The Beetle Beat by a band called The Buggs. The album featured covers of I Wanna Hold Your Hand and She Loves You, along with other England-inspired songs representative of the “Original Liverpool Sound.” To make the ruse complete, the record claimed to have been “Recorded in England.” I wanted to crawl into a hole and never come out. I hated my father for that moment. And I was embarrassed to be his son.
Summoning up more grace than the evening warranted, I thanked Pop; but I told him I still wanted Meet the Beatles. A few days later, when no one was around, I played the Buggs’ record. Well, they didn’t sing badly, they just weren’t real. Turns out their sound wasn’t Liverpool either. The album was recorded in the band’s homeland of New Jersey.
Eventually, thanks to Pop’s clearer thinking, and my ability to buy the occasional album with my own money, I obtained a respectable collection of the Fab Four’s American releases. Some of them were even Christmas presents. December 25th 1965 found—wonder of wonders--Rubber Soul under our tree. And I spent my first Christmas as a high schooler back in Aunt Midge’s guest room, with Uncle Paul’s new stereo record player, listening to my copy of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
That was 1967. My musical world exploded again less than a year later when my friend from up the street, Scott Robins, introduced me to FM radio.
FM, or “underground,” radio changed my life forever. You’ll read more about it in Episode Thirty-three of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.
Harry Chapin describes the obsession of a certain Dayton, Ohio, drycleaner in his song, Mr. Tanner. Of Tanner, a popular singer at local venues, Chapin said, “Music was his life.”
I know how the fictional Mr. Tanner felt. While my life has been filled with religion and its commensurate guilt, with love and its share of heartbreak, and with friends and acquaintances I will never forget, mostly my life has been made up of music. Some people say their life should have a soundtrack; perhaps mine had a score.
The first movement began offstage sometime in the 1930s when my dad, his brother-in-law Hank, and two other young men from Grace Church formed the Grace Gospelaires. From then almost until his dying day Pop was singing. Hymns, gospel choruses, opera, standards, and showtunes filled his repertoire. He sang in the shower, in the kitchen, and while cutting the grass. I’m sure, along with Mom’s sweet alto voice, Pop’s tenor glided into my ears as soon as they were formed. It wasn’t long until I caught the tune bug.
I learned the children’s choruses we all sang at Grace Church in the fifties: Jesus Loves Me, Jesus Loves the Little Children, Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam. The Sunbeam song never made much sense to me. I never saw a sunbeam. I drew sunbeams coming from every sun in my watercolor and Crayola masterpieces, but they beamed in my imagination. Maybe not even my own imagination. I think sunbeams are drawn from a collective child-consciousness. That’s why they all emanate so perfectly from every sun, whether the child uses purple crayons, yellow finger paints, or pink watercolors. But no one really sees them, and who would ever want to be one—pressed for all time on a sheet of white paper.
I sang along with the other kids in Sunday school, but my love of singing really began when I started memorizing songs my brother listened to late at night on his little Philco table radio.
The first song I recall hearing on that radio was Fats Domino’s version of Blueberry Hill. Something about the way Fats articulated every one of the first four words so succinctly: I. Found. My. Thrill. I can still hear it clearly after sixty-plus years. I remember Buddy Holly’s Peggy Sue too, but only because his staccato Sue-uh-oo grated on my preschool ears.
By the time I entered P.S.114, I’d developed a taste for Top 40 music and began adding to my repertoire. The first song I sang in public was Burl Ives’ A Little Bitty Tear. I was sitting in the rocking chair at Grandma and Gramps’s house on East 94th Street on a Saturday night. I don’t know why, but I felt like singing; so I did:
A little bitty tear let me down
Spoiled my act as a clown
I had it made up not to make a frown
But a little bitty tear let me down
Why did I learn that song? How melancholy must an elementary school kid be to want to sing about a guy whose true love is walking out the door and he’s trying to hold it all together? I was a hopeless romantic before I knew those words went together.
After taking requests for Little Bitty Tear Saturday after Saturday for a few months, I finally learned another song: Crying in the Rain by the Everly Brothers. Can we identify a theme here?
Grandma’s rocking chair evoked emotions throughout my childhood. From the exuberance of a preschooler bouncing up and down while singing the Mickey Mouse Club theme to the gut-wrenching tween singing about raindrops mingled with tears, that rocker summoned my deepest feelings and expressed them through music.
I guess my feelings during my preteen years were feelings of loneliness, maybe a fear of abandonment by someone who loved me. I did, after all, admit to having no friends, only acquaintances. Why did I claim that? I had Judy and Kurt. I had Scott. Was I so afraid I’d lose them that I couldn’t bear to call them friends?
Looking back to my earliest years, and then through high school, I can convince myself I had few deep relationships. But the wonder of social media has returned some of those “acquaintances” to my life. They tell another side of the story. So many times in recent years a face I haven’t seen since Canarsie days shows up in social media and mentions the impact I had on their lives. Apparently more people knew me than I realized. I wonder how things might have turned out had I believed in the love I was receiving every day. Maybe I’d have spent less time in the rain.
Along with listening to the radio, which brought about dramatic changes in me during my last two years in high school, I also listened to records. It began in Uncle Freddy and Aunt Barb’s basement.
Uncle Freddy’s collection of 78 rpm albums was small but legendary. It featured hits by Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians, Gene Autry, and Arthur Godfrey. My favorites were the songs by Spike Jones and his City Slickers. I loved their parodies so much that Uncle Freddy actually gave the box of 78s to me when they moved to Florida. The whole Gang would come over to hear and laugh at Jones’ tongue-in-cheek takes on Cocktails for Two, My Old Flame, and the William Tell Overture, aka the Feitlebaum song. That was the song about a horse race featuring such memorable lines as “it’s cabbage by a head” and “banana is coming up to the bunch.” Eventually the long shot, Feitlebaum, proves victorious. It’s a comedy classic. I still have Uncle Freddy’s copy.
I began accumulating my personal record collection some years before Uncle Freddy’s gracious gift. My first LP was Let’s All Sing with the Chipmunks. I was thrilled when I discovered it under the tree on Christmas 1959. I received the second Chipmunk album for my eighth birthday. The next Christmas I added Around the World with the Chipmunks. Judy, Kurt, and I learned all the songs. Our favorite was the one about the Japanese banana. Spoiler alert: according to the song, no such fruit exists.
My friends outgrew the Chipmunks by the end of the school year. I stopped playing the albums, but the songs sang in my head for...well, I guess Japanese Banana still sings up there from time to time.
Although the Chipmunks dominated my LP collection into the 60s, I had already started accumulating my 45s. 45 rpm records revolutionized the music industry. Whereas 78s were made of brittle shellac and easily broken, vinyl 45s were durable enough for teenagers to play at parties where they might not be as careful with them as their parents were with 78s. They were also cheap and smaller than any other record.
My first 45 was my favorite song, the aforementioned Crying in the Rain. I still have that record too. Then, in 1963, I discovered The Beach Boys. I can’t say I liked their music on its own merit, at least not at first; but I listened to The Beach Boys and begged my father to buy me the 45 with Shut Down on one side and 409 on the other. Pop was my main source of records before I could afford my own. If I was lucky, he’d stop at Sam Goody after work and grab the one I wanted. Why Shut Down? The most basic reason of all for an eleven year old boy: everybody else had it. Maybe they did and maybe they didn’t, but soon enough I did.
That Christmas I became a true Beach Boys fan. I asked for, and received from Santa, the Little Deuce Coupe album.
I have to admit I did not put Little Deuce Coupe at the top of my list due to its title song—I’d never heard it before obtaining the album. I requested it because Shut Down was on it. I might have been a bit obsessed with that song. Maybe it had something to do with my being an avid model maker, and that was the era when Big Daddy Roth’s Outlaw model car kits by Revell were popular. I made the “Rat Fink” and the “Mr. Gasser” cars among others. So, even if I had no aspiration to road or track, I was into car stuff; and Shut Down, along with 409 and Jan and Dean’s Little Old Lady from Pasadena and Dead Man’s Curve, were car stuff to the max.
I opened my Little Deuce Coupe vinyl on Christmas morning, and I took it with me to Aunt Midge and Uncle Paul’s in Lynbrook, where the Baisley clan was having its annual gift exchange. I knew Uncle Paul had a decent hi-fi, and he might let me play some Beach Boys in the guest room with the door closed to keep the rock & roll from corrupting the Christians. That’s where I discovered there was more to the Boys than cars and surfing.
Three songs from the Little Deuce Coupe album grabbed and held my attention. The first was Spirit of America. That song was, indeed, a car song, but it was a tribute to Craig Breedlove who, for a while held the coveted Land Speed Record (LSR). The Spirit of America was one of his record-setting vehicles.
But that’s not what grabbed me; it was the melancholy tune. The song evoked in me a memory of a sad article I’d read in the Reader’s Digest a year or two earlier. (I’ve always had an uncanny memory for magazine and newspaper articles from the near and distance past.) This article was about the tragic LSR attempt by Athol Graham.
Athol Graham was a Salt Lake City native who dreamed of conquering the Speed Record at the historic Bonneville Salt Flats of Utah. With ample skill and determination, but not an adequate vehicle for the attempt, Graham’s car crashed at 300mph, killing its driver. It was one of the saddest stories I’d read up to that point in my life. The way The Beach Boys sang that emotive tune by Brian Wilson brought all the pathos of Athol Graham back to my memory.
A second song on the album continued the “tragic young man” theme. It seems The Beach Boys recorded their own take on Bobby Troup’s song about star-crossed lovers, Their Hearts Were Full of Spring. The Boys rewrote the lyrics as a tribute to James Dean, calling it A Young Man Is Gone. The song just about made me cry, even though up to that point I’d never even heard of James Dean or how he died. Now I live maybe an hour from Dean’s hometown and burial site. Heck, he was, and now I am, a Quaker, of all coincidences. But the song about a young man gone too soon became like a portent to me of an early demise. I often told people I didn’t think I’d live past 30.
Finally, Little Deuce Coupe included a song that made me look at an old enemy in a new way. That enemy was school.
By this time I was in sixth grade—top of the heap at P.S.114–I was a hallway Guard, although still rail skinny and non-athletic. But school was a place I mostly dreaded, the best part being the walk home with Blaise and George, or a visit to Mark’s house. Classes I could do without; and I was more than ready to depart the old brick school on Remsen Avenue forever. And then The Beach Boys gave me a reason to love the place.
According to rock & roll lore, and Wikipedia, Brian Wilson and Mike Love wrote Be True to Your School as a tribute to Hawthorne High School, Wilson’s alma mater.
Be true to your school
Just like you are to your girl
I never had a girl, but I planned to be absolutely true if I ever did have one. But a school? Man, school was where I was bullied, outrun, outplayed, and even outdone in grades—slightly—by other kids. Be true? Well, if The Beach Boys, who knew about things like cars and girls and surfing, said it, then it must be good advice. I decided, on that Christmas afternoon in 1963, that I’d give P.S.114 my best shot, and my whole heart, for my remaining semester as a student.
And I did. As a matter of fact, I even won the heart of my teacher, the meanest one ever to walk P.S.114’s hallowed halls, with an essay about the next musical turn in my life: the Beatles.
In the mid-1960s, four Liverpool musicians led the “British invasion” of America. I fell in line with Sgt. Pepper and marched with the Beatles through my early teen years. You’ll read about it in the next episode of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.
My initial date being a fiasco, I decided to avoid the practice most of my adolescent life. Still, there was something about hanging out with some members of the opposite sex that I just liked. I could confide anything in them. I knew they cared and they knew I cared. There’s romance in that, yet without romance.
That’s the way it was with Faith, too.
Faith lived next door to Aunt Barb and Uncle Freddy on Ocean Avenue in Lynbrook, Long Island. Her bedroom was on the second floor of her house, exactly parallel to mine, which was on the first floor of Aunt Barb’s. We got to know each other shortly after Faith’s family moved in. From then on I still loved Aunt Barb and laughed loudly at Uncle Freddy, but I found a friend in Faith while tolerating Adam, her little brother.
Faith was beautiful, quick-witted, and Japanese, which to 12-year-old me meant she was exotic. We spent almost every minute together the three or four times each year I’d visit my aunt and uncle. On countless nights, Faith and I opened our windows and talked until all hours as if there were not a story, and about 15 feet of lawn, between us.
We, and Adam, and some other kids, would walk to a nearby park to play on the swings and self-propelled merry-go-round. (What do they call those things?) We’d walk to Zinetti’s for ice cream sodas when we had the money. One day, Faith’s family took me to Rockaway Beach to spend the day at their restaurant. My first thought was, Japanese! Exotic! It was actually just a hamburger joint, a lot like the one in Bob’s Burgers, but it was fun hanging out on the boardwalk all day with Faith and Adam.
My second date occurred the afternoon Faith said, “It’s hot today. Let’s go to the movies and see Bye-Bye Birdie. It’s my favorite movie ever!” And away we went; oddly, with no Adam in tow.
The World of Henry Orient, an adorable lesser-known Peter Sellers movie led off the double feature. Then Bye-Bye Birdie proved to be a lot of fun. The rest of that week Faith and I practiced the dance moves.
My only two dates in junior high school, and so different. Was it my crush on Gail that ruined the library date? Was it my crushless, lustless I-think-you-are-beautiful-but-more-amazing-as-a-friend feelings toward Faith that made a movie merely the jumping off point for lots of laughs? Damned if I’ll ever know.
I wish I could arrange a reunion with Faith. I bet we’d break a bone or two trying to dance to Birdie. That’ll never happen. Working at a friend’s family’s Carvel store one night in 1969 someone showed me a newspaper obituary. “Didn’t you used to know a girl from Lynbrook named Faith? Shit! She walked in front of a train.”
I don’t know why she did that, but I hope she’s still dancing.
I didn’t go on another date for five years, and, at the time, I didn’t feel I was missing anything. All the other guys and girls were getting their hearts broken. Not me. I did have a part in some relationships, however. Once I started writing songs and poems, guys would ask me to come up with just the right words or verse to impress their girlfriends. Cyrano incarnate! Still I remained dateless.
There was one other time in junior high when I almost made a connection with a girl. Of course it didn’t work out. I thought at the time it was because I was shy; maybe I was just clueless.
Because the names Baisley and Blank are so close alphabetically, I often sat next to Joyce in class, especially in homeroom two years running. Joyce Blank was very pretty in a wabi sabi way. All her imperfections made for a very attractive package, which, of course, meant she was too good for me. Or so I thought.
One day in eighth grade homeroom, I saw a hand slip a note into my desk. Odd, no one had slipped me a note since fourth grade, so long ago. I read it.
“Do you LIKE me?”
The hand and the note were from Joyce. Did I like her? Well, I’d dreamed for two years that we might have an actual conversation. Did I like her? Okay, she wasn’t Gail, but I’d messed that up beyond repair. Did I like her? Yes, I think I did, which is why I panicked.
What if she was only asking because she thought I actually liked her and she wanted to be sure before she told me to bug off? What if she was just trying to relieve the boredom of homeroom? The thought that she might be revealing a liking of me—skinny, ugly me—never crossed my mind.
At best, I might have said something like, “You’re okay.” At worst I might have ignored her for the rest of the year and my life. I honestly don’t remember, but don’t expect to find her in these pages again. Maybe I was more clueless than shy.
My adolescence continued to pass undisturbed by girls. I graduated from Isaac Bildersee Junior High School in 1967 and moved on to the recently-constructed Canarsie High School. There I kept admiring attractive girls from afar, and helping other guys win their hearts, but I remained outside the dating crowd. That all changed one night in the summer of 1968.
The summer before my sophomore year of high school, Billy Walker helped me get a “real job”; he recommended me to Morrie, the co-owner of a local drug store. I started high school somewhat gainfully employed.
I walked the eight and a half blocks to work most days, and occasionally rode my bicycle. Generally working from 4:00-8:00, closing, I always enjoyed the walks home through the streetlight-illuminated Canarsie streets.
During the summer, I’d plan my walks for when some of my favorite church ladies were on their porches or in their tiny gardens out back. Weird, huh? A fifteen year old “gang” member hanging out with little old ladies. But I liked them. They treated me like an adult, fed me all sorts of good stuff, and they told me stories of when they were fifteen, back before “the War,” which we all knew didn’t mean Vietnam.
Helen Van Houten lived on East 94th Street a few blocks south of my grandmother. Inside Grace Church she was a tiger, enforcing her strict code of behavior on us kids. At home in her backyard, the summer sun dwindling after my shift at the drug store, Helen was a pussycat. She was sweet, kind, and a great conversationalist. A lot of my walks home included a stop at Helen’s.
One night, as I let myself through Helen’s gate and made my way to the glow of the Coleman lantern she kept on a wrought iron table out back, I noticed two shadows in the lamplight. Helen had company. She welcomed me and mentioned to her guest that I was the one she had told her about.
Helen’s company turned out to be Clair, a nice-looking girl a year older than I. Turns out Clair’s dad had been pastor of Grace Church for a few years in the 1950s. As a matter of fact, I was born the day Clair’s family moved into the Grace Church parsonage. Clair’s family had kept in touch with Helen over the years, and Clair had come from Buffalo to visit.
Sweet, dangerous Helen had known all along that Clair and I might hit it off. After a little small talk, Helen excused herself and told us not to stay out too late.
We stayed up until Helen had to come back out and tell us to call it quits. The next night and the next night it was the same. I can’t recall a single thing we talked about. I only remember every topic was fascinating. I’d never experienced anything like that before, not even with Judy. And then she was gone.
Clair and I promised to write each other. Well, you know how kids are when they think they might like each other. Most of the time, the letters are never written, and certainly never sent. We wrote ‘em and we sent ‘em at least once a week. Even our letters sounded like conversation around a Coleman lantern. God, it was an awesome feeling.
The week at Helen’s was in June. By July I was ready for a Grand Gesture.
Heading into my junior year at Canarsie High I was alone again. This time, however, I had a… What did I have? Did I love Clair? I never even hinted that to her. I don’t know what emotions she might have felt toward me, but that didn’t matter. We both enjoyed each other’s company whether in person or on paper. So maybe she wasn’t my girlfriend, but she was mine.
Flush with cash from the drug store and a heart way bigger than my brain I came up with the ultimate means of showing Clair just how important she had become to me. But it would require some secrecy, stupidity, and a ride to the airport.
The stupidity I had in spades. For the airport ride I needed a guy with some knowledge of air travel. Billy Walker had read up on flying, and he had heard there was such a thing as student discounts by air carriers. He said all you had to do was present some identification at a ticket agency, fill out an application, and in a week or so you’d have a student ID for air travel. It worked!
Soon, armed with my wad of cash, Billy’s knowledge of all things aeronautical, and enough gas to get us to and from Kennedy Airport, off we went to purchase a ticket for Buffalo. Yes, Buffalo. The Grand Gesture was to be an unannounced visit to Clair. Now for the secrecy.
Billy swore he’d never tell anyone, and he didn’t. The airline’s customer service person sold me a window seat, LaGuardia to Buffalo, cash, no questions asked. Why LaGuardia? I knew that airport was near Shea Stadium, which had a subway stop. I could walk from the subway to the airport, I figured.
Ticket purchased, partner in crime safely silenced, I waited until the appointed day of departure. Did I have a detailed plan in mind? Alas, no. I didn’t even know the location of the town where Clair lived, other than it was somewhere east of Buffalo. I just assumed I’d find it.
I’d been in training for this mission for over a year, taking longer and longer walks out to the Island. My brother had done the same walks while in high school and after returning from the Marines. I tried to outdo him, one time walking all the way to East Meadow, a distance of 22 miles.
For the Grand Gesture, I’d be walking from the Buffalo International Airport all the way to a place called Elma, somewhere east of someplace. I imagined it to be about 15 miles. I was ready.
The big day arrived. I acted completely normal, which should have tipped Mom off that I was up to something. I had my ticket and a couple of changes of clothes in a small duffel bag. I’d even used Pop’s AAA Travel Guide for New York to book a room that night at the Holiday Inn. You didn’t need a credit card back then. My word as a gentleman was good enough since I’d be paying cash. Mom was home, and, being a Friday, Pop was at his office. With any luck, I’d be checked into the hotel before they even missed me.
I made the plane on time, although the walk from the subway station to the airport was longer than I anticipated, and closed my eyes for a nap during the short flight. When I arrived in Buffalo, it was still early. Just time enough to get to the hotel before Pop got home and Mom wondered why I wasn’t at the dinner table.
I found the Holiday Inn on the little map in the AAA Guide. Not knowing I could have called for a free shuttle ride, I walked the mile or so to the hotel and checked in without a problem. Then I unpacked my duffle and went to the bathroom.
It was perfect, the trip so far and even the bathroom. There was a phone in it. I’m not kidding you. There was a freakin’ phone on the wall of the bathroom. Perfect. I sat down and dialed my home number. I had my story down pat.
“Mom, could I talk to Pop for a minute?”
“Where are you? You sound like long distance.”
“Yeah, Mom. That’s what I want to talk to Pop about.”
“Hey, Pop! Hey! I got a chance to see the Buffalo Bills practice tomorrow. Can I go?"
Man, I was smooth. I had it all planned out.
“No, Pop. In Buffalo. That’s where I am.”
“I flew up to visit Clair. Figure I’d take in football practice tomorrow. It’s on the way to Clair’s house. Then I’ll get there midafternoon.”
My smoothness was intoxicating.
“No, Pop, they don’t know I’m coming.”
“Get back home on the next flight!” yelled Pop uncharacteristically.
I said I would and then hung up the phone and flushed.
A few minutes later Pop called back. He’d called Clair’s parents. They thought I was nuts, but they said I might as well not waste the trip. If I walked there the next day, they’d let me spend one night at their house, and they’d take me to the airport after church on Sunday.
And that’s pretty much how it went. Clair’s folks were cordial to me the whole weekend. She and I took some nice walks together on the country roads. We sat out in their backyard until someone said it was late—just like at Helen’s. And that was the real purpose of my trip. I had to experience that kind of conversation again. I’m a sucker for genuine conversation, mostly with women, but guys are okay too. I’m lucky to have a wife I never tire of talking to any time of day or night.
As for Clair, it wasn’t love. It was never love. But it was something.
Three summers later, Clair was back at Helen’s, studying for her second year nursing exams. I’d just finished my freshman year at Lancaster Bible College. After a tentative start, we picked up right where we left off in Helen’s backyard—talking. We actually went on a date that time, to Shea Stadium to see the Mets. I drove. No need for the subway.
Returning after the ballgame, I walked Clair into Helen’s backyard. We talked, as usual. She said my trip to Buffalo three years earlier almost blew it for me with her dad, but she convinced him I was an okay guy. Thanks, Clair.
When Helen called her in, Clair walked me along the side of the house toward the car. She grabbed my arm, turned me toward her and kissed me. Then I kissed her, I mean really kissed her. I’d only ever kissed one girl before, and that was just a peck. This was a kiss. And then she pushed me away delicately.
“You know,” Clair said, “We’ll probably never see each other again.”
She was wrong.
Music was life to kids growing up in Brooklyn in the 60s. To describe it will take the next three episodes of Tales of a Canarsie Boy. Next up: Blueberry Hill to Little Deuce Coupe.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.
I’m a romantic. I believe in Grand Gestures to win the hearts of fair maidens. I cry at some point during every play I see. I’ve seen Wicked in London and Chicago and tear up every time Elphaba rises from the trap door to rejoin Fiero.
Unrequited love was my specialty. Harry Chapin wrote the words that fully encompass my early life in the song Paint a Picture of Yourself (Michael).
You’re happiest when you’re chasing clouds
With a halfway broken heart.
It’s easy to maintain a broken heart when you are shy around the opposite sex; heck, when you’re shy around people in general. I could never speak comfortably with the girls in my classes at P.S.114. I was never one to pass little “I like you, do you like me” notes to the cute Italian girl just one seat over. As I got older, I wrote those notes, more sophisticated versions, for my guy friends to pass to their girls. Love poems and the occasional love song flew from my Bic on command, but always for someone else, not me.
There was one girl I never had trouble talking to: Judy Phillips, who lived directly across the street from me in an upstairs apartment. Judy could run like the wind, which I admired. She was smart in every subject and skipped a grade in school, making her only one year older than I, but two grades ahead. And she looked a lot like Mary Tyler Moore, which made her totally unattainable. But she was my friend; next to Kurt, my best friend.
Judy was a hereditary member of the 93rd Street Gang owing to her brother having been a member a few years earlier. All the guys had crushes on her. Eventually, sometime in high school, she became Billy Walker’s girl. High school romances usually don’t last. Friendships do.
I really don’t know how I got to be close friends with the cutest girl in the neighborhood, but I’ll hazard some guesses.
First was the fact that Judy, Kurt, and I lived less than 300 feet from one another. Other gang members lived farther away, some more than two blocks. That’s a continent by Brooklyn standards.
Second, we all went to Grace Church. While it is true that Judy’s best friend, her “BFF” in this century, was Susan who lived right next door, Susan was Catholic. Sometimes you just couldn’t hang out with them. Maybe they were fasting or something. Besides, telephones were for calling best friends. Kitchen tables, living room floors, and back steps were for hanging out with the guys. Judy, Kurt, and I were “the guys.”
I have to admit, I liked best the days when Kurt didn’t show up on the stoop and it was just Judy and me. I wasn’t nervous around her, like I was with other girls. I felt free to talk about the things that really mattered to me because they seemed to matter to her too. Like my stuffed animal collection. They were real to me, and Judy didn’t make fun of me for it, unlike the other gang members.
I did admire Judy, though, long after the crush wore off. She was a reader, and so was I. I remember one day when I was over at her house and she was so excited about a story she had just read about Harry Houdini. It was in some kind of kids’ anthology. She let me borrow the book that night. I’d never borrowed a book before except from the Canarsie Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, so Judy was the first non-librarian to lend me a book. For that I will always love her. But the crush ended long ago.
I almost had a date with Judy once. Not a romantic date; this was in college and any thoughts of romance with Judy were long gone. We just thought it might be fun since, at the time, we were living only 60 miles apart; she in Philadelphia and I in Lancaster.
At the end of each school year, Lancaster Bible College held their Spring Semi-formal. It was like a high school prom (which I never attended, of course) without dancing and with gowns and tuxes not required but almost always worn. My freshman year I was dating no one around the time to be getting a date for the Semi, so I thought it might be fun to visit with an old friend and invited Judy. She readily accepted, also thinking it would be fun to catch up over a fancy country club dinner.
As the event neared, I actually was thinking it might be nice to have a real date with Judy, although I truly expected nothing to come if it but laughs. A few weeks before the big night, Judy called me. I knew something was up. She told me she had liked this guy on her campus, John Ward, for some time and had long hoped he would ask her out. Guess what? He did! John invited Judy to her college’s spring fling, and, of course, she said yes. And, of course, the two events were on the same night.
When we finished our conversation I felt a little sad. I’d lost my date for the Semi. But I felt a lot happier than sad. Why? Because my friend was happy, and that made it all right. Every once in a while I still talk on the phone with Mrs. Judy Ward.
Eventually, I developed another crush, and this led to the worst date and the best reunion ever.
I began playing woodwind instruments in fifth grade when P.S.114 offered group music lessons after school one or two days a week. I thought the bassoon with its rich brown color and deep reedy sound would be perfect for me. Like the new recruit with a background in catering is always assigned to the motor pool, I was assigned to the clarinet.
I took to the clarinet with surprising ease and soon began private woodwind lessons with a teacher who envisioned for me a stellar career as a musician. I was good, but I was so shy that every solo was an exercise in terror.
After two years of clarinet I was ready for a challenge, which came in the form of a tenor saxophone. I picked it up quickly and was soon playing solos in band, orchestra, and jazz ensemble. I didn’t love any of it.
I did, however, love Gail, the first chair flutist in band and orchestra. She was the absolute cutest girl I’d ever seen; maybe, and there are those who might debate this, even cuter than Judy.
Short, like Judy, Gail had what looked to be the softest, silkiest dark brown hair I’d ever seen. I admired it almost daily from behind her in orchestra and band.
I crushed hard on Gail, and, of course, I kept my feelings hidden deep inside me. But there comes a time when even a timid seventh grade boy has to lay his heart on the line. I asked Gail to go on a study date with me to the most romantic place I could think of: the Main Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza.
I’m a reader; always have been. I tested off the charts in Language Arts while I was still in fourth grade. To me, all libraries were special, and the legendary Main Branch was the ultimate exotic location. What better place to spend a day with Gail.
Wonder of wonders, Gail said yes. Gail said yes!
With my impeccable sense of timing, I made the date for the day after Thanksgiving, a day off from school. Oh my God, I’d have Gail all to myself for a whole day. I couldn’t believe it.
I couldn’t believe it. Like I could never believe I was good enough for those solos in orchestra, I absolutely refused to believe I had anything to offer the cutest girl in seventh grade. When the big day came, I showed up, I went through with it, but I froze just the same.
I think Pop took me to pick Gail up at her house. Then he dropped us off at the bus stop for our ride to the library. While waiting for the bus, I thought I’d be debonair and pick up a truly adult piece of literature to read on the trip: The Sporting News, that venerable weekly newspaper covering every American sport in season and out of season. That day I read it cover to cover while Gail waited for me to make conversation.
She waited through the bus ride to Grand Army Plaza. She waited for conversation about anything other than our school project while at the library. Then she waited all the way home to Canarsie while I sat reading my paper in silence. In my defense, I was awed by Gail and totally terrified I’d screw up the date. I screwed up the date. Gail and I remained one riser away in band and orchestra right through high school, but we never spoke another word to each other.
Until the Internet. Until social media. Until Facebook.
Facebook made people do crazy things in the early 2000s. One of those things was allowing a group of fun-loving but not A-list grown-up kids who had known each other at P.S.114 to reacquaint. Slowly, over a period of two years, I reconnected with old friends and acquaintances. I started talking with a couple of them about an upcoming trip to New York to speak at a conference and to visit my brother. Maybe a few of us could get together. Next thing you know, I got a friend request from Gail.
I made my trip to New York, had a fun dinner with three other old friends, plus Gail, and we set a date and potential location for a reunion the following spring. Canarsie High never has reunions because with 1,500 kids in a graduating class you hardly knew anyone, let alone wanted to visit with them ten or twenty years later.
Undaunted, our little group of event planners booked a restaurant for a champagne brunch. We invited everyone we knew and thought might like to be there. During the intervening months, Gail and I chatted a few times via Facebook Messenger. She told me about her husband, from whom she was separated, and I told her a little about my recent divorce. This time I listened carefully without my head in a newspaper.
The big morning came and we gathered at the restaurant. A couple of dozen P.S.114 grads enjoyed reminiscing over Bloody Marys and mimosas. Then the call came that brunch would be served. Gail, who had been visiting with long lost girlfriends across the room, stepped beside me. “May I sit with you?” she said. And finally, face to face, we talked.
More about love…or something like it, in the next episode of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.
You can’t grow up in a big city, any big city, without playing in the street. It’s not that playgrounds didn’t exist, it’s just that a) they’re never close enough to actually go to regularly, and b) every story about an abducted kid includes the phrase “last seen headed toward the park.” So into the comparatively safe streets of metropolitan areas go kids after every school day and all summer long.
Street games fell into three distinct categories. There were team sports like punchball and touch football; roller skating, where half the fun was sitting on the curb talking with your friends about the latest Top 40 chart; and the running and hiding games like freeze tag, iron tag, hide and seek, and ringolevio.
Team sports seem to have produced the most conflict, perhaps because they relied on the highest degree of participant integrity. First, there was the trust issue. On any given summer day, one of us was bound to have a cousin or friend from off the block join us. Every member of the opposing team had to trust the outsider wasn’t a ringer.
Second, and most obvious, ball games produced controversies based on split-second bits of action. Was she safe or out? Was the receiver in bounds or did his right big toe catch just a hint of the curb? Since we never had referees or umpires, decisions in such cases were reached by consensus, at best; argument, usually; or fistfight, at worst.
Just as every rule has an exception, so did our tradition of never having referees. The glaring exception was the 93rd Street Football Championship, also known as ‘The Day Scott, Sal, and Phil Turned Pro.’
The sports world turned upside down on January 15, 1967 when the National Football League, represented by its venerable champion, the Green Bay Packers, deigned to play the upstart American Football League, in the form of the Kansas City Chiefs, at a neutral site, the Los Angeles Coliseum. The Packers won handily, confirming what was in the mind of most pro football fans, that the AFL was no real competition for the NFL.
Joe Namath and his New York Jets would change those minds just two years later. However, the fall of 1967 witnessed Canarsie’s own championship right in the middle of East 93rd Street, when Scott, Sal, and I took on three kids from another block in an officially timed and refereed winner-take-all, pole-to-pole touch football game.
We’d never played a game like that before. Our games generally ended only when we got tired of playing, when the score got too lopsided, or when an unwinnable argument ensued after a close play. Timed quarters weren’t part of our routine. Refs weren’t either, but one of our neighbors sensed this was an important competition and offered to observe in order to prevent any game-ending conflict.
Having Sal on our team was not necessarily an advantage for Scott and me. He was chunky, clumsy, and slow. Still, he played every game we could think of, even though he was usually the last player chosen. But Scott and I were a well-oiled machine. He knew just how to catch my stubby-fingered spirals, and our Mississippi counting was always perfectly in sync. In spite of Sal, we had this game.
Street football games had a unique format, although they featured the two-hand simultaneous touch tackles common to touch football everywhere. The field, however, was the distance between two telephone poles. No lines were drawn on the pavement, so each team received four downs in which to navigate the entire field. If you failed to score in three plays, you were given the choice of “goin’ or throwin’.” Goin’ meant using fourth down for another attempt at the end zone. Throwin’ was the equivalent of a punt. Actual kicking was forbidden due to the chance of a broken window or dented car hood. You got six points for a touchdown. No extra point conversions allowed. Touchdowns had to be definitive or else an argument would end the game.
It was a closer contest than we thought it would be. The visitors, whose names I don’t recall, scored first and kept us out of the end zone for an uncomfortably long period of time. Finally, near the end of the first half, the Phil-to-Scott connection kicked in. Our favorite play would have Scott running full speed for three Mississippis, faking a turn toward me, and then running to the end of the nearest car and expecting an almost indefensible pass over the hood or trunk. Two or three of those put us in scoring position. On the next play, Sal snapped the ball and instead of blocking just ran the three steps into the end zone, turned, and caught my pass dead in his chest. Tie score!
In the second half we took the lead and, although it wasn’t a rout, our victory was never in jeopardy. When the referee called, “Time,” we led by two touchdowns. The three 93rd Street boys were champions. And then we were more.
After the game, our referee/timekeeper/spectator made an announcement to the winning team.
“Guys, I’m really impressed with the way you worked together to beat the other team. I want to give you something to celebrate your victory. My wife and I are getting ready to sell a few of our things, and I’d like to give you each something.”
He disappeared down the block while we stood around with puzzled faces. A few minutes later he returned with a box of household items and declared that, since I was quarterback, I should get first pick. I looked the box over and then chose a wall clock. It was kind of sixties modern. In later years I’d see that same design in a few other houses across America.
Scott and Sal made their choices, and the guy was gone. We looked at each other and grinned.
“You know what this means, right,” said Scott.
“We’re professional football players,” I replied.
“What do you mean?” Sal asked, always a step behind the rest of us.
“We played a game and got paid,” Scott explained.
“We’re pros.” I said. And I’ve never thought any different.
That clock hung on our living room wall, mostly covering an oily stain in the wallpaper, until the day Mom and Pop moved to Pennsylvania. I think it finally died sometime after Sandy and I hung it in our first home.
The 93rd Street Gang wasn’t really into sports, but the other kids in the neighborhood made up for their lack of interest. Scott, Sal, and I; sometimes Freddie Lombardo, who lived next door to Sal; and sometimes Robbie Renaldo, from a nearby block; played everything in almost every season. But winters, except for snowball fights and sledding down Suicide Hill next to Grace Church, were for hockey.
We didn’t play ice hockey on East 93rd Street, and street hockey with roller skates and a little blue ball wasn’t yet a thing; but we were passionate about “push-pull/twist-twist hockey”: those games with the little hockey players on metal rods. For two years in the late sixties, the living room at 1304 rivaled Madison Square Garden for hockey excitement.
Back then the National Hockey League consisted of only six teams, about twenty players each. We reproduced it by choosing teams and memorizing every player in the league. We changed lines and defenses, we called penalties, and we kept stats. Every game featured two players and an announcer/referee. The announcer was a non-playing league member. We were all so good at that, any one of us could have walked right into a radio or TV studio and applied for a play-by-play job.
Since there were six teams, but only five players (Scott, Sal, Robbie, my brother, and me), and since I owned the game, I got to play for two teams, the New York Rangers and the Toronto Maple Leafs. Every time I visit a Tim Horton’s coffee shop I can't help thinking, “That guy was one of my defensemen.”
Although Scott was a formidable representative of the Montreal Canadiens, and John no slouch with the Boston Bruins, both seasons ended in a playoff between the Rangers and the Maple Leafs. I always chose the Leafs, and the person with the next-best W-L record took over for my Rangers. I think the Leafs won Season One and the Rangers pulled an upset at the end of Season Two.
The Baisleys and the Robinses adored hockey, the real life kind we watched on television and in person at minor league Long Island Ducks games in Commack Arena. It was this love that led to one of my most memorable sporting conflicts. It wasn’t a close call on a penalty, though. This would be a conflict between church and skate.
It began innocently enough with Scott and I securing tickets to a Saturday afternoon Rangers game. While tickets in the sixties cost considerably less than today, they were still pricey to high school kids. But every once in a while you splurge. We enjoyed the game from our nosebleed seats in what was then the “New” Madison Square Garden, near Pop’s office on Eighth Avenue.
Down in Philly there was a new arena too: the Spectrum. Someone must have skimped somewhere in its construction because, after only a few months, part of the arena’s roof blew off in a storm. Philly’s new NHL team, the Flyers, were forced to play their next home game at a different location. They worked out a deal to play that game, against the Oakland Seals, at Madison Square Garden.
How does one fill the seats at a sporting event between two expansion teams no one cares about in a venue that is home to neither of those teams? The solution was announced during the second period of Saturday’s Ranger game. Anyone with a ticket to that game, could get into the Sunday Flyers game for free on a first come, first served, basis.
Free professional hockey! But there was a catch. The Rangers were playing the Chicago Blackhawks at the Garden on Sunday night. That meant the Flyers game had to be played on Sunday morning. Therein lay the conflict; for me to go with Scott to the hockey game, I’d have to miss church.
Missing church was something a Baisley didn’t do. My great-grandfather’s name was on a stained-glass window in the sanctuary. Combined with my parents’ status at Grace, the only way their son was missing Sunday school and morning worship was for illness; and it better be serious illness like chicken pox or measles.
I did miss one Sunday one time. That was when I had to go to the bathroom right before the service started, and I was a little late making my way from the men’s room, which was in the Sunday school department, to the sanctuary. Billy Knudsen was hanging back as well.
“Let’s skip,” he tempted.
I’d never even thought of that before. But it was summer. The choir wasn’t singing, so Mom and Pop would be sitting hand-in-hand toward the front on the right side. The Grace Church members of the 93rd Street Gang always sat in the back, right side. Mom and Pop would never notice if I just weren’t there. I could sneak in at the end while everyone was shaking hands, and who would be the wiser?
“You coming?” my tempter implored.
“Sure.” And off we went through the Sunday school doors. We were headed for adventure.
Adventure found us three blocks away in a vacant lot on the corner of Avenue L and East 91st Street. Vacant lots were rare, but not unheard of in 1960s Canarsie, but one so close to a major shopping area was a bit unusual. Even more unusual was the mustachioed gentleman who stopped Billy and me as we walked by.
“You guys wanna make a dollar?” he asked.
Remember, this was mid-twentieth century Canarsie, not twenty-first century anywhere. We didn’t feel threatened. Heck, it’s not like we were going to the park. It was just a vacant lot, a little weedy but otherwise bright, cheery, and very public. And a dollar apiece was big money to junior high kids.
“Sure!” we both exclaimed.
The man asked us to walk through the lot picking up any trash we saw. He said something about wanting to clean it up for a potential buyer. He then handed us a couple of cardboard boxes and we were off. We figured it would take about half an hour, leaving us plenty of time to reappear at the church in time for the end-of-service handshaking.
Things went pretty well at first. We picked up some old newspapers, a bunch of candy wrappers, and a few tin cans. Then we hit the macaroni salad. There must have been twenty pounds of the creamy white substance hidden among the weeds. It didn’t smell bad enough to be that old, which was encouraging; but neither of us wanted to pick it up in our bare hands. A stroke of pure luck had us stumble across a bent old serving spoon about then. God was smiling at the little church-skippers.
After scooping up the last of the noodles and boxing the remaining trash, with just enough time to race back to Grace Church, we found the lot owner. Hands out, expecting two crisp one dollar bills, we each heard two quarters plop into them. A dollar. Split two ways. Disappointment turned to practicality: one chocolate ice cream soda, one egg cream, and a pack of Juicy Fruit. Per person. Not a bad morning’s work.
Billy and I weren’t caught that day, but the guilt kept me from ever wanting to skip church again, until the Flyer game. How could I not go to a free NHL game? What to do, what to do?
For once, in a rare instance of not overthinking, I chose to be totally honest with my parents. Okay, I hedged a bit. I told Pop first. Being a hockey fan, he might understand better than Mom, who was only a church fan.
The conflict between church and skate came to a head that evening, but it didn’t last long. The overarching principles were clear from the start of negotiations. We were evangelical Christians, descended from Huguenots who fled France in the face of persecution. Christians went to church on Sunday; it was simple as that. But those old Huguenots were Baisleys—Beselles originally—and Baisleys value two things along with their religion: hockey and thrift.
By a score of two to one, free hockey beat church. Scott and I went to our hockey game and, during the process, ran into NHL superstars Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita, who were playing in the evening game against the Rangers. I still have the photo of Hull signing my ticket stub from the previous day's game. I’ll always respect my dad’s religion for the tolerance he showed me that day. Maybe he’d learned a bit from his persecuted Huguenot ancestors.
I’m a romantic. I believe in Grand Gestures to win the hearts of fair maidens. You’ll hear about some doozies in the next episode of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.
I hated school, didn’t you? When did a day in school ever come close to being as much fun as a day not in school?
Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t a bad student. I was a very good student, well-read, almost as well-mathed, and exceptional at things like sewing and music. I simply didn’t like being told what to do for six hours a day plus a couple hours of godawful homework.
I liked learning. I liked the challenge of gaining new skills. I even sort of liked being around other people, at least until they made me want to tuck into a shell like a turtle. It was just that school was the one place my inadequacies were proven every damn day with every damn assignment.
During my years as a student, I never used profanity, except in seventh grade. That was the year my brother returned from the Marines. It was also the year I was trying to be like my ninth grade Gangmates. With John’s tutoring, and the Gang's encouragement, I learned to speak the lingua profana.
After seventh grade I rarely, if ever, swore, not even under my breath. I felt no need to. My history of foul language can be summed up in words I’ve often told my seminary students: “I never drank until I went to seminary, and I never swore until I became a seminary professor.”
But that was now; this is then, and back then I wanted to like school, but school was where I could never be as good as I needed to be for the world that held me in judgment and for myself, who was my toughest judge. Classroom presentations, such as book reports, terrified me. I’d read a book in just a few days. If a teacher would have sat down with me over a Yoo-Hoo and asked me about the book, I’d have gladly discussed it for hours. But to write a book report the way I thought the teacher wanted it, well, that was impossible to my public school self. It would never be as good as it needed to be.
I struggled with written assignments all the way through college. Due to my failure to turn in assignments, I got Ds in English Composition and English Grammar, even though the professor recommended me to write for the school newspaper.
Let’s face it, I was a paradox. And I knew what that word meant and how to spell it by fourth grade. By seventh grade I was ready for bigger and better things: cheating and general mischief.
Tests never bothered me. I had a lot of general knowledge, I read a lot of books of all genres, and I knew intuitively how testing worked. But I was always a little reticent to trust those things. So I began perfecting the art of cheating.
I never looked to someone else’s paper for answers to a test. I never outright claimed someone else’s work as my own, except once in fifth grade before I understood the concept of plagiarism. My specialty was the “cheat sheet,” and I created some of the best.
The most obvious way to cheat on a test was to write the possible answers on body parts. This worked particularly well for math or science formulas that you just couldn’t remember, or important dates and people for a history exam; but I never stooped so low as to get ink all over myself.
I wrote the names, dates, formulas, what have you on small pieces of paper in very fine print. Those papers were custom-designed to fit in inconspicuous places. I wore ties a lot on test days. Cheat sheets fit well in ties, and, if you use a heavier weight paper, they are easily and quickly retracted.
I hid cheat sheets everywhere: on the edges of books in my desk, in shirt sleeves and pockets, anywhere they were in my view but not the teacher’s. My all-time favorite hiding place was a stroke of genius. The night before the test, I painstakingly wrote, in minuscule print on a piece of paper about a half-inch by five inches, everything I thought I might need to know. Then I carefully rolled and inserted the paper into the clear chamber of a Bic Stic pen.
What was the secret? You’ve guessed it by now, I’m sure. The more intricate the means of cheating; the more you learn in the process. All those hours spent writing the information on tiny slips of paper cemented that data in my brain. I never actually used any of the cheat sheets I created, and I doubt any of my disciples did either. I knew they wouldn’t. That’s why I knew they could be entrusted with the secret.
Along with cheating, or really not cheating, I was also guilty of some general mischief. I was not—repeat, not—a troublemaker in junior high. If there was a troublemaker at Bildersee J.H.S., it was the school’s namesake.
Isaac Bildersee was a Brooklyn school administrator in the first half of the twentieth century. He sparked controversy when, in December 1947, he tried to remove all religious symbolism from Christmas and Hanukkah celebrations in Brooklyn public school classrooms. His plan lasted about two days when the school superintendent put the decision to celebrate religiously in the hands of each school’s principal.
At Bildersee J.H.S., I pretty much kept to myself with a few rare exceptions.
I only cut school one day in three years, during my last semester. I did it to try and experience what other kids were doing. I was miserable and actually snuck back into Bildersee in the afternoon.
My life at Isaac Bildersee was boring and pretty well regulated by my internal sense of regimentation. For example, I ate the same thing for lunch just about every day during eighth and ninth grade: two salted bagels, from the bagel shop on the corner, and a chocolate milkshake from the Carvel down the street. Every day. Middle initial “C” for clockwork.
I went a little crazy in eighth grade though. I think it started when I found out I’d have Mr. Balter for Science a second year. Mr. Balter was a legend at Bildersee even though he was a fairly young man. He cut no one any slack with assignments or homework. His tests came with high expectations, and he didn’t mind failing students in the least. I think I got a B in seventh grade and was struggling a bit in eighth grade. I needed a diversion.
Science classrooms in the 1960s had all wooden desks, unlike the modern wood and steel desks in the other classrooms. They were heavy and clunky, and still they were screwed to the floor, to prevent their being stolen by marauding desknappers.
Seeing the screws in the floor one particularly boring day gave me an idea. What would happen if…
I set to work after school that day. Earlier in the year I had come into possession of an extra copy of the eighth grade English book. I also knew where Pop kept his single-edge razor blades. They were a match made in thirteen-year-old heaven.
First, I carefully cut through each page of the English book, a neat rectangle large enough to hold what I needed. Then I realized the pages needed support, so I taped sections of them together, not tightly, just enough to make them stable but still looking booklike when closed. It worked! I filled the hollowed-out book with Pop’s multi-tip screwdriver and a small adjustable wrench. I was ready for Science class.
The next day I tucked my alternative English book into my book bag and headed to Bildersee. I sat in one of the back corners of Mr. Balter’s class, with no one behind me, which fit well with my plan.
During Balter’s typically thrilling (to him) class, I used my stash of tools to quietly undo every screw and remove every nut, along with some of non-essential supporting bolts. The sturdy wooden desk stood, upheld by gravity alone.
When the bell rang, I gently slid my chair out from under the desk. Nothing was disturbed. Nothing looked amiss. As I exited the room, the next class entered. Two of the boys came in already engaged in an altercation. By the time they reached their seats near the back of the classroom, the verbal sparring had escalated into shoving. Out of the corner of my eye I watched the final push. I turned into the hallway and heard the crash of falling plywood. Smiling broadly as I made my way to the next class, I thought I heard Balter scream, “Baisley!” But I may have been mistaken.
The next period, from my seat in Algebra II, I watched as two custodians carried the desk, legs folded on top like the arms of a body in repose, down the hallway. Their heads solemnly bowed, the men gave the desk a proper transport to the room in which it would be reconstructed. I beamed.
Isaac Bildersee died just six weeks before I was born in 1952. Too bad. I think I might have liked him.
Growing up in a religious household has its drawbacks, as you’ll see in The Conflict Between Church and Skate, next week’s episode of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.
Someone once said, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Hillary Clinton also said it, but she never claimed the maxim as her own. It may be an old African proverb. It has certainly been restated in many different ways over the centuries.
Oddly, when Ms. Clinton first said it, a lot of people got their feathers ruffled; something about her denigrating parents, I think. I suspect Clinton’s naysayers have never lived in a village, or ever had to parent someone else’s child, or maybe were never children themselves.
I’ve visited the kind of villages in Africa that originate proverbs like the one about raising children. In them, for better or worse, children are community property. They play in public spaces, but many of those spaces are public simply because children play there. Somewhere there exists a title to that space, and it’s in some grown-up’s name; but kids share it as if it belonged only to them, all of them.
I grew up in a village. True, it was part of a Zip Code of nearly 100,000 people, which was part of a Borough of four million in a city of eight million. But the extended block on which the Baisleys lived was a village; we kids, the 93rd Street Gang and the other kids who lived there but weren’t lucky enough to be in the Gang, were community property.
This sense of community parenting showed itself in small ways and in big ways. Like most city neighborhoods of the 1950s and 60s, kids roamed Canarsie streets freely. The first one out in the morning, at least on Saturdays and in the summer, would run to the next one’s house and see if they were up yet. Typically, on those mornings or late afternoons during the school year, you’d hear the cry, “Can Joey (or Kurt or Judy) come out and play?” Usually they could unless they’d been recently grounded for misbehavior.
Play dates were still in their inventor’s mind. Our parents never made appointments for us except for pediatricians and dentists, and those were things we hated. Play was spontaneous, wherever and whenever kids happened to be.
Where parents got involved, usually, was once the children settled into someone’s house. Then it was, “My house, my rules.” No one ever had qualms about disciplining someone else’s child for misbehavior. Believe me, we feared other parents way more than we feared our own.
For me, community parenting was most effective at mealtimes. True, most times the command from Mom was, “Be home for dinner.” That meant 5:50 p.m., when Pop got home from his office. Sometimes, however, an invitation from a mother, such as Mrs. Robins, superseded Mom’s command.
Lucille and Ken Robins were Scott’s parents. Scott was Jewish and, therefore, not part of the Gang. But he lived on the block and he was my friend, at times my best friend. It was with him that I made the daily trek home from Isaac Bildersee JHS every day. You know, the ones that were ten miles uphill. Okay, they were ten and a half blocks, and only the half was a long block, but it was far for a kid.
Those walks home seemed longer when you had to go to the bathroom. I always had to go to the bathroom after school. Public school restrooms were for a) smoking, b) dealing in contraband, or c) getting beat up. I avoided them as if my life depended on it, which I believed it did. So Scott and I would walk those blocks as fast as possible, talking all the way to keep our minds off our bladders.
Thanks to Mrs. Robins, I had the joy of Jewish mothering. While I was in her home, I followed her rules. No flopping onto furniture. No entering rooms other than the living room, kitchen, or bathroom. And take your shoes off before entering. Never had a problem with Mrs. Robins’ rules, not even the one about eating everything on your plate.
I was a picky eater at home, according to Mom. I liked to keep my meat, potatoes, and vegetables separated: meat not touching potatoes and vegetables not touching the plate. I might have suffered through green beans. I especially liked them raw as I’d walk through the grocery store with Mom. She’d always tell the clerk how many I’d eaten so they could estimate the cost of goods devoured. I liked corn, but that’s not really a vegetable, is it? Same thing with tomatoes. Every other green or veggie-like thing was against my principles. Except in Mrs. Robins’ domain.
Scott’s mom could get me to eat anything. Broccoli? Yes, ma’am, I like broccoli. Cauliflower? Sure thing! Brussels sprouts? Well, I don’t really like them, but why not? Eventually, mothers talking the way they do, Mom found out what I was eating. My life changed that day.
For the few years we lived in Oregon in the late 1990s, my first wife, Sandy, got to be that kind of mother. Though not rigidly at 5:50, most nights we all ate together, she and I and our children, Stephen and Kellyn. That was such an oddity in 90s suburbia that our kids’ friends used to wrangle invitations to dinner just to eat with a whole family. Sometimes we’d play silly games at the table. They’d laugh and laugh and then report back to their parent or parents, who’d stare in disbelief that such relics existed.
The Baisleys, the Robinses, the Sullivans, the Bongiovannis, we were all relics. But we ate our vegetables—together.
There were exceptions to the rule about Canarsie parents not getting involved in their children’s play. The parents of the 93rd Street Gang were the exceptions. They not only got involved, three or four times each summer our parents actually created memorable events on our behalf.
The biggest parent-initiated Gang event remains embedded in my mind even after half a century. I can’t remember any amusement park trip that beats the day Susan’s dad took us to Steeplechase. We needed at least one other driver, so Uncle Nat drove too. (I’m not sure whose uncle he was. Just like Pop being Uncle Artie all over Canarsie, so Nat was everybody’s Uncle Nat.)
Steeplechase Park was at Coney Island, but it wasn’t Coney Island. Coney Island was the Boardwalk, the Wonder Wheel, Nathan’s, and salt water taffy. Steeplechase was rides, not a lot of them, but they were super cool because, except for the Parachute Jump and part of the park’s eponymous Steeplechase ride, they were indoors. Not until I visited the Mall of America as a middle-aged man did I again experience such a place.
For photos and more information about the history of Steeplechase Park, see this article in Carousel History. https://carouselhistory.com/ny-steeplechase-park-coney-island/
We started the day with the Steeplechase, a horse race ride. Six or eight kids could ride at one time. It was a genuine race. We contorted ourselves into the most aerodynamic postures. We did anything and everything to get the horses, side by side in their predetermined course, to go faster to win the race. I suspect, and maybe always suspected, that each race’s winner was preordained, like some Calvinist lottery. But who cares? Finishing second that day felt like the crowning achievement of my life.
Next up was the big Slide that ended in a spiral that gradually spit you out. It was wood, like everything at Steeplechase; smooth, slick, dark brown wood. They gave us burlap bags on which to make the descent. We were warned not to dare let any fleshy part of our body touch the wooden surface on the way down. You could burn off a finger that way. Properly chastised, we slid. Fast. Hot. And in maybe five seconds it was over and each of us, in turn, rolled off our burlap. For a short ride, no one felt cheated.
We rode other rides that day. The Himalaya I remember slightly. The Fun House I only recall because Billy Knudsen led us in singing a song with the repeated line, “Sweet marijuana” as we progressed through its various chambers. One of the rides placed you and three others in a low car that sped so quickly on a round course that all the riders ended up pressed into a single human blob. I don’t remember what it was called.
During the day, we wandered outside Steeplechase as well. Some of us rode Coney Island’s three great wooden roller coasters, the Thunderbolt, the Tornado, and the awe-inspiring Cyclone. The truly brave souls dared the Parachute Jump that soared above Steeplechase. It pulled you high into the air and then dropped you a ways before yanking your body back up and then letting it down slowly from a dizzying height. I wasn’t one of those souls. No one rode Coney’s famous Wonder Wheel. Perhaps it seemed too tame for the Gang.
There was nothing tame about the ride I have replayed in my mind over and over through the years. I know I did it—twice. I just can’t grasp the complexity of its design. That great feat of engineering was the Bobsled.
Steeplechase’s Bobsled doesn’t exist anymore, like the park itself, and I’ve never seen another. No twenty-first century insurance company would dare underwrite it.
The ride, which consisted of two to four people packed into a bobsled-like car, starts on a track similar to a roller coaster. The track guides the car to an incline and then pulls it upward, again like a traditional roller coaster. Just past the crest of that incline the ride changed from traditional to bizarre. The track ended and the now-free car sped through a twisty-turny course with high semi-tubular walls. The riders, if working together, could create a little extra excitement by leaning into the curves, forcing the car higher up the wall. Next to being stared at by a mother elephant with babies to protect, and no fences to protect me, the Bobsled ride was the most thrilling experience of my life.
The Gang piled happily into Mr. Sullivan’s and Uncle Nat’s cars at the end of the day. Although many of the Gang had been to Steeplechase before, and would go again with their parents and younger siblings, nothing could match the fun of that day we spent riding the rides together.
Other parents added their unique forms of entertainment to the Gang’s repertoire of experiences. Billy Knudsen’s dad owned a boat. I’m not talking rowboat here; a lot of dad’s or uncles had those. Mr. Knudsen’s was a cabin cruiser with a swimming deck in the stern. We earned our sunburns the day he took us out in the bay.
Mom and Pop couldn’t afford a cabin cruiser or a trip to Steeplechase, but what they lacked in quality they more than made up in quantity.
During the summer months, a community band gave weekly concerts in the park behind the school administration building in Valley Stream, Long Island. The audience would bring folding lawn chairs and place them on a big macadam square in front of the spacious bandstand. Other spectators spread blankets on the grass around the pavement.
Mom and Pop loved what they called The Concert. They made it out to Valley Stream as often as they could, and most of those times they filled the station wagon with members of the 93rd Street Gang.
Gang members weren’t really thrilled about the style of music. It was mostly stuff for old people, thirty and up. We did, occasionally, join in the sing-alongs. That was where the band played the kind of songs our parents sang around Grandma’s piano on Saturday nights, things like By the Light of the Silvery Moon with sound effects, and everyone was supposed to sing along. And they did. That’s why the generation raised on the Beatles and the Stones can still sing Let Me Call You Sweetheart.
We never sat with Mom and Pop at the Concerts. We’d walk to the outer edge of the park and sit on or by the bridge that crossed a little creek. It was darker there, for making out if you had a significant other. You could hear the music, if you wished to listen, but it was quiet enough for conversation. I loved Tuesday nights in Valley Stream and the laughter and, yes, singing on the trip home: seven kids and two parents. That’s not helicopter parenting, unless the chopper is a Huey that drops you off, let’s you do your job, and returns to get you out of trouble. I appreciated the Gang’s moms and dads for thinking of us without trying to become us or curtailing our kidlike ways.
The closest thing to neighborhood parenting I’ve experienced in the past quarter century occurred when the church we were attending in Newberg, Oregon, decided to start its own youth group. This was a big deal because during the five years of its existence, its youth remained part of the founding church’s youth group. By now the church had grown to well over 150 people in each of two Sunday services in its rented building.
The kids themselves, most of them anyway, were clamoring for their own group. The pastor, wisely, called a meeting of all interested kids along with their parents. From its very beginning, this group was to be a collaboration between kids and parents.
We all learned a lot at that first meeting. For starters, we learned there were too many kids for just one group. We also learned that high school kids have different needs and expectations than middle school kids. We made a decision to meet again soon in two groups, but that both youth group design teams would include kids and parents.
My son, Stephen, was a founding member of the senior high group, and I was a founding parent. Once the group got going, the kids generally planned the meetings and chose the events. We parents were there for support and occasional guidance, but not to run the show. Still, the kids liked having us around. I enjoyed the friendships forged with church members I hadn’t met before.
The two youth groups were so successful that within a few months the church hired a youth pastor to oversee them. He did not run the senior high group; the kids did. His daughter was in the group, but when he showed up it was as her father, not as the boss.
A lot of trust developed in those teenagers; trust in each other and trust in their parents and the other parents. We had a lot of fun doing things together, like our improv nights based on the Whose Line Is It, Anyway comedy show popular on TV. In the more serious moments, the high school kids felt free to ask real questions about faith and life. The group even founded a puppet ministry for the church’s children, complete with puppeteers, musicians, and sound and light techs, all under eighteen.
As they neared the end of Stephen’s final year with the group, I learned that neighborhood parenting was still alive and well if we allow it to be.
One spring evening before graduation, the high school kids met in one of their homes. It was the night where they would celebrate the five group members who were graduating. At one point in the meeting, each graduate was asked to take a seat in the middle of a circle of all the kids and whichever parents were there. Each graduate was to share their dreams, hopes, and concerns for their immediate future, and the group would listen, giving words of affirmation and support.
Stephen’s turn in the center arrived, and he sat in the chair. Then he spoke to directly to me.
“Dad, I’m going to say some things that you don’t know about. Mom knows, but you don’t. So I’d like you to leave the room. I’ll tell you eventually, just not tonight. Okay?”
What was he going to say? How did Sandy know it and not me? I thought I knew my son, and he’d been keeping secrets? How dare he tell other kids’ parents and not want to tell me? How dare he ask me to leave the room?
But he did. And I did. Sometimes your best parenting is done by someone else’s parents. I hear it takes a village.
I hated school; I’ll admit it. I’ll also admit I had some fun in the hallowed halls of P.S.114, Isaac Bildersee Junior High and Canarsie High School. You’ll read/hear about it in the next episode of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.
I dearly loved the kids I spent most of my early life with: the 93rd Street Gang. We were not your typical New York City street gang except in a few very select ways. We always left the block in a group. Even though on only one occasion do I recall ever being threatened by a group outside our neighborhood, and that was just hyped-up bluster, we preferred not to leave the hallowed macadam and concrete of East 93rd Street, between Flatlands Avenue and Avenue L. And we really only hung out between Avenues J and K. In other words, we lived on stoops belonging to the Kriegels, the Phillipses, the Sullivans, and, rarely due to Isaac, in my backyard. That backyard part changed dramatically after Pop built his screened-in patio.
I always looked up to my dad as an athlete and a man of faith, but I never really saw him as a carpenter until he got the idea to use the east wall of an old shed to create an elaborate lean-to that featured three sides made of wood-framed storm windows in the winter and wood-framed screens in the summer. It was a work of genius.
I never knew from where Pop got the idea for the screened-in patio, maybe from a magazine. I suspect the plans were drawn by one of Pop’s three engineer brothers-in-law. But Pop built it, with very little outside help. It was a true work of art, as well as a work of Art.
The roof was sturdy enough to hold three or four kids playing on it. The windows were secure enough to withstand a couple of serious hurricanes. The patio even extended enough past the old shed to allow a storage area to be built that provided an off-season home to the screens and windows. Genius.
More than all those things, the screened-in patio gave the Gang a refuge from the weather when it was inclement and from Isaac all the time. The patio was enjoyed on summer nights by the Gang, on Sunday afternoons by family and Mom and Pop’s friends, and on Sunday nights after church by the kids from Grace. We held our “carouses” there when we weren’t carousing at the parsonage.
Being denied almost every worldly pleasure our non-Grace friends enjoyed, the one thing we got was an after-church gathering—a carouse—about once a month, where we could really just be normal kids. Okay, we couldn’t swear, and at the parsonage we couldn’t even listen to Top 40 music. But the silly icebreakers, the serious talks, and the snacks were worth it. Add the Beatles and the Stones to the mix, at least in the screened-in patio, and it was almost heaven for kids who thought heaven was only for them.
No, we were not your everyday street gang. Add the Catholics to us Grace kids and we were something else, but something good. So we never left our friendly confines except as a group. And we would stand up for each other against any outsiders, no matter how hard we fought among ourselves. Those are gang-like things, right?
There were some less-than-gang-related activities, however. Somehow, Billy Knudsen got hold of a Super 8 movie camera and the Gang became filmmakers.
The Soupy Sales Show was hip enough to attract guests like Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland. It featured pies in the face—Soupy’s trademark—as well as sketches kids laughed at but only grown-ups understood. The Gang loved Soupy, none more than me.
I bought every piece of Soupy Sales merchandise I could get my parents to spring for. I had a big Soupy button I wore to church proudly. But the piéce de résistance was my oversized “official” Soupy bow tie, bright red with white polka dots. I actually wore it to school one time, but the teachers made me take it off: too distracting. Not too long ago, I think I saw it in a box somewhere. I’ll have to look again.
As much as I loved Soupy Sales, he and his show provided me with two of the greatest disappointments of my young life. The first was all on Soupy himself. The second I’m sure he had little to do with.
One year, during the successful run of his New York television show, Soupy was forced by the network to work on New Year’s Day. He was not happy, so he decided to do something outlandish, but not intentionally bad, on his show that day. Because Soupy regularly broke down the “fourth wall,” he spoke directly to his viewers; that is, the predominantly little kids who tuned in every day, even on New Year’s. Soupy simply instructed his young fans to go into their parents’ bedrooms (assuming they were sleeping off New Year's Eve), remove the green, wrinkly papers from their purses and wallets, and send them to him at the address shown on their TV screens. He really didn’t mean it seriously, or so we who believed in him believed.
Soupy may not have taken himself seriously, but his little fans certainly did. Within days the network was deluged with hand-printed envelopes containing cash. Soupy announced on air that all monies received would be donated directly to charity. A very embarrassed WNEW wanted to suspend Soupy, but a groundswell of fan support—presumably his young adult and teen fan base—held the network in check.
I was in-between, maybe 13 or 14. I knew Soupy was kidding, and it didn’t bother me at first. Then I heard about little kids, who trusted their idol, stealing money from their parents’ rooms. It didn't feel right. He should’ve known better. I didn’t know then why he did it. Maybe it would have mattered. I don’t know. I was just disappointed in my pie-faced Soupy.
If idols are false gods, that would have made Soupy Sales my false god. But the Real (if you’re so inclined to believe) One bestowed on me an even greater disappointment that year.
Have you ever wanted something so strongly you started to believe you deserved it? And then the more you wanted it you almost felt it was already yours? That’s how I felt about the full-scale rideable replica of a nineteenth century high-wheel bicycle that was first prize in a contest held by one of Soupy’s sponsors. All I had to do was enter, or write a short essay, which would have made me even more confident, aspiring reporter that I was.
I sent in the requisite box top, index card, essay, whatever and, like Ralphie in A Christmas Story, waited for my prize. I dreamed about that bike. I truly expected to win that contest. Why? Because I had prayed about it.
I prayed about it every day before, during, and after The Soupy Sales Show. I imagined myself seated over that giant front wheel high above the kids with their 26” Raleighs and Schwinns. I knew the bicycle was mine.
The contest ended. I waited to receive news of when the high-wheel was coming, or at least a congratulatory letter telling me where to pick it up. Nothing.
It was God’s fault.
Dammit! I’d prayed as hard as anyone ever prayed for anything. Okay, maybe not as hard as Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, but God didn’t answer his prayer either.
Something died in me the day I realized the high-wheeled bicycle wasn’t coming. No, I didn’t lose my faith, but I was severely disappointed in a God I thought would do anything for me. You might call that being dis-illusioned; that is, having my illusions about God removed. To a thirteen year-old it just plain sucked.
After Soupy Sales there was Batman, who was big everywhere. The 93rd Street Gang had to capitalize on that, and this time we had a plan.
Setting up our Batman movie took days, maybe even a week. We had starring roles to cast, which went to Eddie Gentile (Batman) and Billy Knudsen (Robin). Our movie would include all the male villains from the TV show that we could think of: the Joker, the Riddler, the Penguin, even a one-episode minor bad guy called False Face, who always wore a mask and a black turtleneck with his trademark FF on the chest. We needed the lowest rung on the Gang’s ladder for that role: me. Still, there must have been an unspoken lower rung. In spite of Cat Woman’s popularity on TV, and with two talented female Gang members available—Judy and Susan—we stuck with an all-male cast.
Casting cameo roles, so vital to our movie, took a bit of inspiration. We needed someone older, but not ancient, to play Commissioner Gordon. Since my brother was still living at home, he seemed the perfect choice. His military bearing gave him the right look for a street-wise career cop. Since I had the only house and yard big enough to pass for the Wayne mansion, the role of Alfred fell to Pop. With utmost dignity he followed the script to the letter and brought Bruce Wayne the batphone when the call came from the commissioner. Pop was an awesome Alfred: so dignified, so proper, with a little twinkle in his eye.
The plot, as in all our films, was tentative. Still, the plan called for a bank robbery, a police chase, and a major fight scene. It could never happen today. But in 1966, the necessary events actually transpired, with a little luck.
First, we needed a bank robbery. Well, Canarsie had a lot of banks, but which one would allow a half dozen teenagers with a camera to film a robbery? The first one we asked, it turns out. Try that in the 21st century. We were given permission to film the bad guys entering the bank in costume and then leaving the bank with bags of loot, which we provided. No customers were in any way put out by the filming.
Second, we needed a police chase. We planned to ask or beg a police officer to chase us on foot, but as we stood around the bank setting up the shoot, two NYPD vehicles happened to pass by. Our camera operator was johnny-on-the-spot and captured the whole scene, which was spliced into the film to make it look like the cops were chasing us. It was perfect.
The scenes where Commissioner Gordon called Batman and where Alfred delivered the batphone went off perfectly. Our remaining challenge was getting the superheroes into Police Headquarters. It only took a little persuasion from our cameraman, the only one of us not dressed in a ridiculous costume. He simply walked up to the Desk Sergeant of our local police precinct, explained what we were doing, and received permission to film Batman and Robin running into and out of the police station. It was as easy as robbing a bank.
The battle royale between the heroes and villains took place in the dunes of Seaview Park by Jamaica Bay. Some films are known for their elaborately choreographed fight scenes, such as those in John Wayne movies like McLintock. Ours was just an excuse to roll around in the sand. Barely waiting for a stage punch, we dove into the dunes; we rolled down them, somersaulted down them, and sometimes fell down them for no apparent reason. Eventually, all us villains were incapacitated and justice prevailed.
Today, our effort would have been posted to YouTube, and maybe someone would notice and next thing you know we’d be pseudo celebrities. In 1966, when the movie premiered in Eddie’s basement, and then went on the road to a few more basements and dens, we were genuine celebrities, stars of the highest magnitude, at least on the block. At least in the neighborhood. And that’s where it really counted.
Someone once said, “It takes a village to raise a child.” That is no less true in Brooklyn than in Zimbabwe. Read about neighborhood parenting in the next episode of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.
Warning: adult themes and content.
The other day, Jen asked me about the first time I ‘did it.’ There is something intrinsically sexual in that question. No one, when watching a plumber replace a section of pipe, says, “so, when was the first time you did it?” in reference to the plumbing project at hand. No student, while watching me teach, ever asked me, “when did you first do it” expecting a story about my initial appearance in front of a class. When people speak of ‘doing it’ for the first time, it is always sex.
And why not? We are curious about sex from the moment we first realize there are parts to our bodies. Babies touch those parts on themselves. Little children show those parts to their friends, and ask to see theirs, out of curiosity. With the same sense of wonder those children terrify mom or dad (oh, please let it be mom) with the question, “Where did I come from?” Peoria will seldom suffice for an answer. In every species of animal, I suspect, curiosity about sex comes with being alive.
When Jen asked when I first ‘did it,’ I steeled myself against revealing the one thing I had never told anyone; not her, not my ex, not even my brother—no one. Even as I write this I wonder how I will share it with my readers, mostly family, and my editor, an almost total stranger. Answering Jen’s question in person was somewhat cathartic; I’m not sure how it will work out in writing. Here goes.
My mother never uttered those terrible words, “You’ll go blind.” Ever. Fact is, neither Mom nor Pop ever initiated the traditional adolescent conversation about the proverbial birds and bees. I do, however, recall a time when I was about twelve that my father came into my room as I was putting on my pajamas. Very apologetically he asked if he could examine my... He didn’t finish the sentence, just pointed “down there.” I acquiesced, he looked, and then he pronounced me “normal.” I was glad to hear that, although I wasn’t quite sure what “normal” signified.
Some weeks later, I felt anything but normal. I awoke feeling really weird and pulled my pajama pants down to reveal a penis the color of an uncooked shrimp; you know, translucent and veiny. I was terrified. What was happening? Was it going to fall off?
I was also too mortified to tell anyone, especially Pop, who had so recently declared me normal. But, even in this most uncomfortable situation, turns out I was normal. Hindsight and a cooler head lead me to believe I had merely observed my first personal erection.
I processed normally into puberty, not really identifying the condition with my own body but experiencing its joys and challenges vicariously through the older guys in the 93rd Street Gang. They were my instructors, my mentors, and my heroes. Through the two Billies plus Jerry and Toody and Kurt, I received top-notch sex education.
I learned about the basepaths of sex, first through home. However, the church taught me to take every pitch, hoping, at best, for a walk. I learned names and nicknames and euphemisms for every body part remotely related to procreation or pleasure. I got them confused and really didn’t learn even the basics until I read a great little how-to book in Bible college, called, deceptively, Sex Is Not Sinful?. In his vain attempt to keep me from having premarital relations, the author armed me with all I needed to be dangerous.
Wait! I don’t want to reach the climax of this chapter too soon. Let’s backtrack. One aspect of my education began long before college. It was unexpected, pleasurable, and, of course, completely normal (although I didn’t know it at the time), which brings me to the Sunday New York Times.
We had a full weekly subscription to the New York Daily News, the wonderful rag that bordered on tabloid but contained enough hard news and erudite commentary to be a legitimate news source. Pop took the Sunday New York Times because he loved a challenge, and the greatest challenge he could think of was the legendary New York Times Sunday Double Crostic, his favorite puzzle. I cared only about the comics, of which the News had a dozen pages and the Times had none. Up until I was thirteen, I felt cheated by the Times because of that. What was the point of a ten-pound newspaper if it didn’t have Terry and the Pirates or Blondie?
Somewhere in my fourteenth year I discovered the value of the Sunday Times.
In lieu of comics, the Sunday Times had a most impressive magazine; a colorful section of local news and ads filled with photographs: the rotogravure. I suppose it contained well-written prose, though perhaps not as well-written as that within the Book Review section—another whole magazine—but, like any pubescent boy stumbling upon a Playboy magazine, the prose was not the main attraction. For me it was the fashion ads. New York fashion ads in the 1960s were filled with the latest creations by Pierre Cardin, Mary Quant, and my personal favorite, André Courrèges. And the models who wore them in the photos wore them perfectly. My God those models were beautiful. They were all the inspiration I needed to do it for that historic “first time.”
One Sunday morning, I was sitting in the living room perusing the Times magazine while waiting for Mom and Pop to get ready so we could all walk to Grace Church. I was fully dressed for the service. It must have been winter because I was wearing corduroy pants in a kind of green khaki color. They were ugly and way too loose-fitting. Funny the things you remember.
I had been admiring the models in the ads from afar when I turned the page and was stopped cold by the cutest little black dress and its inhabitant. I can’t ever recall seeing someone so absolutely stunning. With no other recourse available, I took matters into my own hand. Corduroys on, I touched a part of me that was suddenly larger and firmer than it had been a minute ago. Then I slid it eastward just a bit. Then westward. Yes, I remember. The chair was red and it faced north.
Within seconds the woman in the little black dress had transported me into a bliss I had never known. Eastward, westward a few more times and I could hold it in no longer—literally. Something for which I had neither name nor explanation gushed from deep within me and smack into the corduroys.
At first I thought I’d peed myself. Then I realized there would have been a spreading stain if I had. No, this felt different.
I repaired to the bathroom to assess the damage. We never went to another room in my house; we always repaired to them for some reason. So I repaired to the bath. There I discovered a gel-like substance clinging to the front of the crotch inside my pants. It cleaned up with remarkable ease, but the water I used to get out the small stain was going to take a few minutes to dry. I prayed my parents would be late for Sunday school as usual. They were. Now I had to live with my secret.
I didn’t live with the secret for long. That is, I kept it as a secret for a long time, but I didn’t live too long before I “did it” again. It was probably the following Sunday, but I was better prepared.
This time I waited until afternoon for what I hoped would happen to happen. And I took precautions. I excused myself from watching whatever sporting event was being televised, which separated me from Pop’s potential discovery. Mom was always busy with something on Sunday afternoons, so I excused myself from her as well. Then, with the comics and magazine from the Daily News, and the rotogravure from the Times, under my arm, I repaired to the upstairs bedroom to “read” for a while.
I got a lot of reading done on Sunday afternoons for the next couple of years. Funny thing was, the upstairs room, the only room up there not part of Isaac’s domain, was Mom and Pop’s bedroom. They never let on what I’m sure they knew after a few weeks. And they never found the stash of fashion ads that was growing under their wardrobe. Or maybe they did and didn’t know how to confront me, figuring it was only normal.
Eventually, my secret came out in a most embarrassing manner, and yet tempered by Pop’s gentle ways.
One afternoon I was lying on the bed in my room—ground floor, front of the house. I might have been reading From Russia with Love, having recently discovered Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. They were incredibly stimulating even without pictures. I got so worked up by the vivid sexual images—the Fleming phrase “long, slow love in a narrow berth” still gives me tingles—that I forgot my location. I didn’t even hear Pop open the gate and walk past my window.
A little while later, Pop called me for dinner. He sat on the edge of my bed and very matter-of-factly said, “I saw you in the window a few minutes ago. There’s nothing wrong with what you were doing, but if I could see you, then somebody else might. Keep the shades down in the future, please.”
And that was that. In one short paragraph Pop dismantled the entire fundamentalist anti-masturbation narrative and saved me future embarrassment. He was my new hero.
Of course, we all have that other first time. Guys generally make it up. We don’t all run around like feral cats making meaningless conquest after meaningless conquest. Okay, most don’t, and the rest lie about it. But there’s always a first time.
I didn’t date much, hardly at all in high school. I was cadaverously skinny, unshakably self-defined ugly, and painfully shy. I had crushes I wouldn’t dare talk to, and lovers so secret they never knew. Then I hit Bible college.
Bible colleges exist to bring couples together by forcing them apart. You’d think folks who take the forbidden fruit story literally would learn a lesson from it. Nope. They continually forbid, or severely restrict, dating, while simultaneously telling 18-22 year-olds they need to find God’s one perfect choice for a mate. It’s a recipe for broken hearts, unsafe sex, lightning—if not shotgun—weddings, and bewildering divorces. Been there. Done that. Later chapter.
But there’s always a first time.
Yes, I was in college, but I had been in an on-again off-again relationship since my junior year in high school. I lived in Pennsylvania. She lived far away in another state. The whole thing was doomed from the start, and it was beautiful.
Meanwhile, after seeing each other occasionally and writing a lot of real snail mail letters, we spent a few days together at my parents’ house. The first night there we went out for hot fudge sundaes. They were like foreplay for her. I’ll never understand that, but it was also beautiful.
What happened when we got home was somewhat less than beautiful. With runners at all the bases we—I think it was we; she seemed to know what she was doing, I sure didn’t—tried for a grand slam. And like a walk-off home run, it was quick and it ended the game. Okay, the game went on a couple more innings, but it only got a little better. Then it was over. She went home. We never wrote again. We both married other people.
Harry Chapin wrote a song called Manhood just four years after that week at Mom and Pop’s home in Pennsylvania. One line sums up my first, second, and third times:
Manhood means that you should
Get someone else
I hope somewhere along the way I took that to heart. There’s always a first time.
Who’s your favorite Batman? Christian Bale? Ben Affleck? Michael Keaton? Adam West? Mine is Eddie Gentile. You’ll see why in the next episode of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.
The last episode ended with a story of how I, in an act of pure elation, broke my big toe watching the New York Mets win a baseball game in 1966. That was just the first of my toe mishaps.
My second broken toe was a true athletic injury, but much less interesting than my first and third. During soccer practice one fall day at Lancaster Bible College I attempted to kick a ball at the exact moment a scrimmage opponent slide tackled the ball. My foot slammed into his hip, breaking the middle toe. Just your basic soccer injury. I rested the remainder of that day and returned to practice the next, my toes taped together.
My third athletic injury, and third broken toe, may go down in the annals of sports as the world’s first somnambulant volleyball mishap.
Sandy and I were living outside Greenfield, Indiana, at the time, where I pastored a Quaker meeting. (A Quaker meeting is almost exactly like a church, but don’t tell Quakers that.) One night I had an incredibly exciting dream wherein I was playing volleyball in a gym with hardwood floors. In an attempt to defend against an opponent’s spike, I dove for the ball. Although the gym was brightly lit, in the instant before I hit the floor I realized everything had gone dark. For one split second I grasped reality. Then I felt the impact as my body landed on the hardwood, but not in a gym.
I had dove out of bed, landing hard. As usual, a toe got the worst of it. This was my middle toe again, but on the opposite foot from the old soccer injury. Hurt like hell though.
Volleyball, the wide awake kind, was one of the things Grace Church’s Men’s Fellowship group did regularly. We didn’t have our own gym, but a church in Lynbrook did, and three or four church men’s groups played there. The games were fun and very competitive. But there was no swearing at muffed digs, blocked spikes, or bad calls. Christians, at least “real” fundamentalist Christians like us, never swore—ever.
Men’s Fellowship also featured ping-pong and shuffleboard. Grace Church had two tables for the former and numbered tiles built into the fellowship hall floor for the latter. Pop was a pretty good ping-pong player, but Turner Kidd was the champ.
Turner, Babe Kidd’s brother, was almost unbeatable. When, as a high school sophomore, I was old enough to join the Fellowship, Turner made my ping-pong education his priority. He could put topspin, sidespin, backspin, and sometimes combinations of two spins on the ball.
At first, playing against Turner brought me embarrassment and the laughter of the older men. But I didn’t give up. Over the three years I was in Men’s Fellowship I learned so much about ping-pong. By the time I left for Bible college I could beat all the other men regularly and, occasionally, Turner himself.
The most fun times at Men’s Fellowship weren’t the games during meetings. And they certainly weren’t Pastor Watt’s Bible studies, although he did make them interesting enough to appeal to my Jewish friends who tagged along on Friday nights for the ping-pong and coffee. The most fun thing we did was going to minor league hockey games a couple of times each winter.
In the 1960s, Long Island didn’t have an NHL team. This was before the Islanders. Manhattan had the New York Rangers, and they were our heroes, but we couldn’t afford tickets to see them; and anyway, the subway was for baseball, not hockey.
What Long Island did have was the Long Island Ducks, the living breathing incarnation of the old sports joke, “I went to a fight, and a hockey game broke out.”
The Ducks played at Commack Arena, a pint-sized venue in Suffolk County. It was a free-wheeling arena where kids could wander unsupervised all the way around the ice rink, being careful not to get in the way of the Zamboni. The games were free-wheeling as well. The skill level was minor league, but the desire was
I only remember one Long Island Duck. I don’t know if any ever made it to the NHL or even to higher minor leagues. But the teams they fielded during the 60s, led by the incomparable John Brophy, were a kid’s dream.
According to Wikipedia, during Brophy’s playing career he amassed more penalty minutes than any other player in Eastern Hockey League history. He didn’t seem to be especially large—the enforcer type—he simply had a perpetual chip on his shoulder. If an opponent wronged him or a Duck teammate, Brophy skated in, grabbed the enemy’s shirt, and tried to yank it over his head while pummeling his body. We loved Brophy. Eventually, in a long minor and major league coaching career, our hero garnered over a thousand victories, second highest of any pro hockey coach.
When I was very young, even before I appreciated Brophy’s fists, I think I still loved hockey. It was the Zamboni. The magical way it turned a rough skate-gouged surface into frozen glass was captivating. And when Billy Knudsen and I waited for it to clear the ice, standing in hushed silence in the tunnel behind one of the goals, we knew we were about to glimpse Behemoth, the monster described in the Book of Job. Everything seems bigger when you’re a little kid. Not Zambonis. They were, are, and always will be the giant machines that make indoor ice hockey possible.
If baseball was our field of dreams and hockey our magical playground, then football was the spectator sport that was both unattainable and close.
We played football in the street. We watched college football twice a year; on New Year's Day, when almost all the “big games” were played, and on the last Saturday of the regular season, when the Cadets of West Point played the Midshipmen of Annapolis in the Army-Navy Game. We always rooted for Navy because of John’s service as a Marine. Our passion, however—mine, my family’s, my neighborhood’s—was the National Football League, even though we never saw a game in person.
The New York Giants were one of the earliest teams to enter the NFL, and they were our team. Pop would tell stories of the great Sam Huff, Frank Gifford, and Y.A. Tittle. I still have a little plastic football the great quarterback Tittle autographed for Pop when he appeared at a convention in Pop’s building on Eighth Avenue.
As I was growing up, the Giants were “rebuilding,” which is a polite way of saying they stunk. Every once in a while, there’d be a glimmer of hope, like when Tucker Frederickson and Ernie Koy teamed up in the backfield, or when it appeared that Homer Jones might be the fastest wide receiver in the League. When they acquired Fran Tarkenton from the Vikings I thought they might finally have a great quarterback again. Well, the “Scrambler” was great, but the Giants overall were not.
When the American Football League came along, we added the Jets to our favorite teams. They stunk too, for a while. Then “Broadway Joe” Namath hit town and lit a spark that resulted in the Jets beating Baltimore in Super Bowl III.
Secretly, I loved the Minnesota Vikings. In our electric football games, I always called my team the Vikings. Scott even gave me a hand-painted set of electric football players in purple uniforms so I could actually “own” the Vikes.
My not-so-secret love of the Vikings extended to fantasy. I often daydreamed about being a Viking flanker back. I’d wear number 25 and line up in the backfield between Fran Tarkenton (who was back with the Vikings after a short time with the Giants) and my hero, wide receiver Paul Flatley, #85.
Flatley and I were the Vikings’ one-two offensive punch in my dreams. We could outrun or outmaneuver every defensive back in the League, giving Tarkenton two targets for the inevitable touchdown pass.
While pro football filled our dreams and street football filled our afternoons, the NFL was unattainable due to ticket prices we couldn’t afford and the fact that they played on Sundays. One didn’t miss church, or leave the service early, to watch big guys crash into each other on a grass rectangle. It just wasn’t done. Even the argument that born-again Christians like Fran Tarkenton played on Sunday, didn’t sway my parents. So NFL games were out of reach, but not the players.
One winter day in junior high, Scott came over with a treasure he’d just received in the mail. It was the official—you knew it was really official because it didn’t say it was official—public relations book for the National Football League, and it was called The NFL and You. It gave the previous year’s stats for every team, contained some great photos, and included the mailing address and phone number for every NFL team.
“You know what we can do with this information?” Scott exclaimed. “We can write to the players. Maybe they’ll write back.”
It sounds absurd now, in the days of autographs for a fee, that at one time pro football players were accessible, even wanted to interact personally with their fans; but back in the 60s, multi-million dollar contracts and layer after layer of lawyers, accountants, and other hangers-on did not separate sports idols from their fans. Having an NFL player for a pen pal didn’t seem far-fetched.
That’s pretty much the way it was for pro footballers in those days. You had your Jim Brown, who was utterly unapproachable, but other superstars like the Packers’ Paul Horning, Jim Taylor, and Bart Starr wrote back.
And then there was Gale Sayers.
Sayers’ rookie season with the Chicago Bears established his greatness even before he amassed Hall of Fame stats and became even more famous as a character in the 60s tearjerker Brian’s Song, a film about the illness and death of Sayers’ teammate, Brian Piccolo.
I didn’t get a manila envelope from Sayers, just a white #10 envelope with a 3x5” B&W photo wrapped in a sheet of paper. On that paper, Sayers had written the most beautiful words of gratitude I’d ever seen. He was genuinely impressed that I’d take the time to hand write a letter to a rookie football player. He signed the letter and the little picture.
I was so enamored with Sayers’ response, I wrote back to him. Unfortunately, figuring he’d forget what he’d written to me, I included his letter to me with my letter to him. I never heard from him again. I still have the original autographed picture, though; and it’s me, not him, I’ve never forgiven.
I finally got to a pro football game in the early nineties: the Steelers versus the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City. It was fun being there with my son, Stephen, and some editor friends. By then, however, the idea of meeting a player before a game, or getting a free, personally-signed photo, was a relic of bygone days. But sometimes miracles happen.
A few years ago I was sitting on a stool in the bar of my favorite Richmond, Indiana restaurant. I go there mostly to read and enjoy a Jack on the rocks and a nice Italian dinner. I pretty much keep to myself, but on this particular night there was a hockey game on TV. You know how Baisleys can’t resist a hockey game.
The white-haired gentleman beside me struck up a conversation, remarking that he didn’t grow up with hockey but had learned to love the sport. I told him about my lifelong love of the game. I probably told him one or two of these same stories.
He said, “I got into hockey when I was coaching football at Northwestern. My wife and I went to a lot of the home games. I really enjoy it.”
Then he angled toward me on his barstool.
“Sorry. I never got your name.”
“Phil Baisley.” I replied.
He grasped my hand.
“I’m Paul Flatley.”
And once again I was a kid standing in a stadium parking lot shaking hands with his hero.
Some things, ya’ just don’t talk about when you’re a thirteen-year-old boy. You wait until you’re too old to care, as you’ll hear in next week’s episode of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.
Inevitably, when people find out I’m from New York, someone will ask, “Are you a Yankees or a Mets fan?” I can honestly answer that I’ve been both.
My earliest recollection of Major League Baseball is the 1960 season. Being undersized and often picked on, I became a Yankees fan because they personified winning, something with which I’d had little experience. I was an avid baseball card collector, and I knew the face and position of every Yankee. I can almost reconstruct a typical lineup without the aid of Google.
I can’t remember who led off, so let’s try a process of elimination. Tony Kubek batted second and played shortstop. Mickey Mantle was in center, batting third. Roger Maris batted cleanup and played right field. The next year he would break Babe Ruth’s single season home run record, albeit with an eight game longer season.
Moose Skowron played first and batted fifth. Yogi Berra and Elston Howard rotated behind the plate. They both may have batted sixth or seventh. Clete Boyer held down third base and probably batted seventh. Bobby Richardson, always stellar at second but never much of a hitter, batted eighth, before pitchers like Whitey Ford, Ralph Terry, and Luis Arroyo. That leaves Héctor López playing left field and batting first.
That’s the way I remember the team. I may be wrong, but as true baseball fans always say, “You can look it up.”
The 1960 season was a heartbreaker for the Yankees. They did fine during the regular season, clinching the American League Pennant early in September. It was the World Series that brought the pain. That was where Bill Mazeroski became the unlikely batting hero who won it for the Pirates with a walkoff home run in Game 7. I cried.
The next year the Yankees had essentially the same team. This was before free agency, and players stuck around—or were held captive by owners—year after year. The Bronx Bombers won the Pennant handily and defeated the Reds in the series. They were my team. And then they weren’t.
Kubek was gone in ‘62, replaced by a guy with the godawful name of Tom Tresh. I hated that name, and I missed my shortstop. Then Joe Pepitone started playing first. I could not imagine life without the Moose at first. The Yankees were losing my allegiance.
The 1963 season was special for Pop. That year, although my former heroes, the Yankees, won the AL Pennant, they lost the series four straight to the Dodgers. Pop finally forgave the Dodgers—almost—for moving from Brooklyn when they beat the despised Yankees. I remember listening to one of the games on the radio in a Jahn’s ice cream parlor.
Pop had loved the Dodgers all his life. They were his “Bums.” During their greatest seasons they would still manage to lose the NL Pennant to the Giants or the Series to the Yankees. But it didn’t matter in the long run. The Dodgers were the Dodgers. There was always next year. They were Pop’s team. They were never really my team.
My team was created the year I gave up on the Yankees, 1962. They were the New York Mets, who lost more games their first year than any team ever in a single season. I fell in love with them. Who wouldn’t love a team with players’ nicknames like “Iron Hands” and “Doctor Strangeglove”? They were so bad they were wonderful. They were the “Amazin’ Mets” long before they won the 1969 World Series.
Every child remembers their first trip to a Big League stadium. Mine was to see the 1963 Old Timers Game that was played before the June 23rd Mets game at the ancient Polo Grounds in Manhattan, where the team played their home games before Shea Stadium. Pop took me there to see his old heroes from the Brooklyn Dodgers. Old time Yankees and Giants played in that abbreviated game too. Later the Mets lost. I really didn’t care. I was in another world from the moment we went through the turnstiles.
There’s a moment in the movie The Wizard of Oz when everything changes from black and white to the primary colors of Munchkinland and the greens of the Emerald City. The Polo Grounds was my Oz. Emerging from the entry tunnel was like seeing color for the first time. Never, no matter how Pop tried with his side of the yard, had I seen grass so green. It glowed. The baselines were whiter than the freshly done laundry in TV commercials.
Pop and I settled in to watch batting practice. Then the old-timers were introduced. Some of them went clear back to the 1930s. Sal Maglie, Dodger nemesis when he played for the Giants, received a cheer. A lot of the players I’d never heard of, but they were warmly welcomed back to New York. And then the crowd hushed as Roy Campanella, the Dodgers’ legendary catcher, was wheeled to home plate. Five years earlier, Campy broke his neck when his car skidded on an icy Long Island road. He’d been in a wheelchair ever since. The crowd—Dodger, Giant, and Yankee fans— roared their admiration for the future Hall of Famer.
What I most remember about that day, after Campy’s appearance, was the smell of Major League Baseball. First, you had cigarette and cigar smoke, pungent and biting. To that you added beer, yeasty and sour. Then there was the scent of aftershave and cologne on faces of the predominantly male spectators. To this day, when someone wearing Old Spice passes by, my nose goes back to that day at the Polo Grounds and dozens of games at Shea Stadium.
If you want to understand how special Shea Stadium was to New Yorkers, watch the documentary Last Play at Shea. For me and my best friend, Scott, it was home away from home during my junior high years.
My favorite photo from the players’ lot featured then player-coach Yogi Berra. Yogi was a legend for his unique way with words, like the way he described a popular restaurant, “Nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded.” He was pretty frugal too. While other players drove into the lot in Monte Carlos and Cadillacs, I got a great picture of Yogi behind the wheel of his 1965 Chevy Corvair.
We soon learned a Shea kids' secret. If you want to actually meet the players, you needed to wait before the game at the entrance to the Diamond Club. There the players walked in, having deposited their cars at a less conspicuous location than the players’ lot.
We never waited after a game to talk with players. In the mid-sixties, the Amazins were still losing most of their games, and no one wants to talk to kids after a loss. So we’d intercept our heroes before the game, and with great success. I have autographs and wonderful photos of Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Jerry Grote and other Mets greats. Imagine if we’d been able to take selfies back then.
The games themselves were often less than memorable; still, I bought a scorecard every time and meticulously charted every play. Pop taught me the art of scoring a game, and I believed his was the only right way to do it. Mr. Robins taught Scott the same technique. Some years later, when a bunch of us Bible college kids went to a Phillies game, I discovered there was at least one other way. It seemed Pennsylvania people filled in the box completely when a run scored. Pop and I merely completed our little diamond shape within the box.
When I wasn’t at Shea with Scott for a day game, or in the box seats with Pop for a night game, I was often perched in front of our TV watching Ralph Kiner and Lindsey Nelson call the game for WOR-TV. A Sunday afternoon game in 1966, watched with John and Pop on our old Crosley, led to my first of three “athletic injuries.”
The 1966 Mets weren’t as bad as in previous years, but they were still one of the worst teams in the league. And yet we loved them. We loved Ed Kranepool’s consistency at first base. We loved Ron Hunt’s ability to turn the double play. Above all, the Baisleys loved right fielder Ron Swoboda, even though he never lived up to the potential the team saw in him.
That Sunday afternoon the Mets had battled back from a deficit. In the bottom of the ninth, they were down by only a run with a man on base. One of my favorite players, utility infielder Chuck Hiller came to the plate. He took the first pitch for a strike. Then, from the quiet of his easy chair, Pop’s voice rang out,
“Watch him pole one.”
Hiller was a man of few home runs, more of a scrappy singles hitter. Good bat in a clutch situation like he was in, but only because he’d likely not strike out or hit into a double play. He might even hit a double and bring the tying run home.
“Watch him pole one.”
With Pop’s words still hanging in the air, the next pitch came at Hiller.
Crack! The ball sped from Hiller’s bat toward the outfield. And it kept going. As it cleared the fence I leaped from where I’d been sitting on the floor, totally elated.
I came down directly on my right big toe, breaking the bone and damaging the nail. The next day, Dr. Scalise to a look at it and said the bone would heal okay on its own. However, I needed to have the ingrown toenail removed a year later. It was worth it.
Read more about athletic injuries and their connection to my love for ice hockey and football in the next episode of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.
Jim Scalia collected pennies; no, not in a Hoarders sense. Jim had painstakingly amassed one of almost every penny produced in U.S. Mints from 1909 until 1964. He’d been collecting Lincoln pennies for about two years, placing each one carefully in its proper slot in a blue numismatist’s book. By the time I’d gotten to know Jim he lacked only the illusive 1955S, the rare 1909S and 1910S, and the ultimate prize, the 1909SVDB, which contained the initials of its engraver, Victor D. Brenner.
I remember the day Jim first showed me his collection. I think we were playing The Man from U.N.C.L.E. at his house. This was long before the age of cosplay. We just thought it was cool to dress in suits and pretend we were secret agents. I went for the black turtleneck look of Illya Kuryakin, and Jim went for the white shirt and tie of Napoleon Solo. Dark sport jackets for both of us.
Some months later, Jim and I, still dressed as secret agents, joined the thirty other members of Mr. Remais’ Social Studies class in canvassing door-to-door throughout Canarsie for signatures on a petition to “Save the Wyckoff House.” The Wyckoff House was the oldest continually occupied Dutch house in the Five Boroughs, but it was in an advanced state of disrepair. Mr. Remais thought a class of 12 and 13 year-olds could save it. And we believed him.
Jim and I had never heard of the Wyckoff House up until then, even though it was alleged to be located at the northwest edge of Canarsie, so we had to check it out. One day after school we set out from Jim’s house, in full Man from U.N.C.L.E. regalia, and trekked toward the location described by our teacher. We crept stealthily through a heavily-weeded area that looked like it might be hiding the old Dutch homestead. Just when we began feeling hopelessly lost, we entered a clearing and discovered a not-quite-overgrown drive. Creeping along the edge of the drive, but still under weedy cover, we made our way to the house itself. It was indeed occupied, but we’d seen enough and had no desire to meet any occupants who would live in such squalor. We returned to Jim’s house determined to get our petition signed and restore the house to its 17th century glory.
Many days of canvassing followed, along with a letter-writing campaign to Brooklyn Borough President Emmanuel Cellar and Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr. Then we waited.
It was during this seemingly endless wait that Jim showed me his penny collection. I was impressed. That night at supper, I told Mom and Pop about it.
“Didn’t (insert some obscure relative’s name here) have something like that, Art?” asked Mom.
“I think so,” said Pop.
“Where is it?” I inquired.
“Have you looked in your dresser?” Mom answered.
My dresser? The suggestion baffled me. Why would I look in my dresser for something I didn’t even know existed? Why look in my dresser for anything? Mom washed and put away my clothes. She knew my sense of color coordination well enough to lay my clothes out before waking me each morning. God help the world if I dressed myself. I did try once in sixth grade. I put on a giant red and white polka dot Soupy Sales bow tie over a brown and lime green striped polo shirt. “Never again” Mom huffed. I rarely looked inside my dresser anymore.
After supper, I went to my room to check my dresser. Yikes! There were more clothes in there than I thought I had. I gained new respect for Mom’s choices when I saw all the potential mismatches she contended with every day. But underneath each drawer’s layer of socks and underwear and polo shirts lay buried treasure.
In one drawer generations of wallets lay interred. Some bore the marks of hard wear, maybe by a grandfather or great-uncle. Others were pristine. They were even more likely to have come from an ancestor—a dead one. Brrr. Why my dresser?
The wallet drawer eventually yielded what is now a prized possession: an early 1950s era Brooklyn Dodger wallet. It was cheaply made, for kids not grandparents, but it was, and is still, beautiful. That wallet now lives in my current dresser drawer, under my hiking socks, waiting to be discovered by another generation.
Beneath the neatly-folded t-shirts in the bottom drawer, next to the box containing leftover ration books from WWII, I discovered the penny books, two of them. One held Lincoln cents from 1909-1940 and the other from 1941-1959. When I asked Mom and Pop whose they were, something I figured they’d know since the collection ended so recently, they shrugged, “Who knows?”
That’s the way it was at my house. Things—antiques and cheap trinkets—appeared out of nowhere.
I carefully opened the first book. Very few spots were vacant. At that time I didn’t know the value of the coins to which I previously referred, so I called Jim Scalia.
“Hey!” I said. “I found an old penny collection. Want to check it out?”
Jim said, “Maybe later. What’s it got?”
“Almost everything,” I answered.
“Does it have a 1909SVDB?”
“No, that space is blank. But it’s got everything else.”
“Shit! I’ll be right over!”
Jim arrived in about 20 minutes, not dressed as a Man from U.N.C.L.E. He looked over the coin books. Indeed, the only pennies missing between 1909 and 1962 were the 9SVDB and the 1955S, although the 1910S was too worn to have been of much value.
Jim asked for a magnifying glass and, of course, Mom offered him a choice of modern or antique. He kept examining the 1909S and saying, “Shit.” He finally told me it was in at least very good (VG) condition and was worth $30-45. That’s in 1964 dollars. Not bad for a penny. He said a few of the others, like the 1911S, were worth a few bucks too.
Jim and I stayed friends throughout junior high, going our separate ways sometime in high school. He never found his 1909SVDB. The Wyckoff House children’s campaign succeeded, and the house was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1967. I still have the letter from Emmanuel Cellar congratulating me on a job well done. I visited there a few years back, but not dressed as Illya Kuryakin. Guy Ritchie directed a movie version of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. in 2015, but it wasn’t as cool as the original TV series. I kept my penny collection until the early 80s. I sold it when I learned a pastor friend needed some help with a mission project. It brought about $90, mostly from the 1909S.
New Yorkers love their sports teams. The Baisleys were no different, as you’ll discover in next week’s episode of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.
Cars were an important part of life at Grace Church. Maybe it was because we “had a guy.” That guy was Ted Rowland. Ted owned a Ford dealership on Long Island. That’s why everyone in church drove a Ford. I don’t know if church members got better deals, or if Ted had just convinced them they were getting better deals. Either way, East 92nd Street, as it ran past Grace Church, sported a lot of Fords on Sunday mornings.
Pop’s first car was a 1936 Ford, a Tudor. Tudor was Ford’s fancy way of telling potential customers it had two doors. The four door version was called—and I’m not making this up—the Fordor.
Pop’s second car, a 1953 Ford, also a two-door, began my family’s often awkward and sometimes wonderful relationship with automobiles.
On a sunny late summer afternoon in 1960, before my brother entered and dropped out of City College to join the Marines, he was hanging out with Karl Kriegel on his stoop. I was in the house, probably being babysat by Isaac in his apartment. I heard the thud; John saw it all.
Mom had to run an errand, most likely a short trip to the drug store with one of the church ladies. After backing out of our driveway, the one on Isaac’s side of the yard, she slowly maneuvered the Ford across the street in order to face south. She wasn’t moving too quickly, John observed, but she backed up with a strong sense of purpose. When her right rear fender gently edged along the telephone pole, much the way the Titanic edged along the iceberg, she panicked and accelerated in reverse. Somehow, the other fender wedged itself against a fire hydrant, what old-time Canarsians called a “johnny pump” (although I don’t know why). That was the thud I heard.
Isaac and I ran down the stairs and out the rarely-used front door to assess the damage. John and Karl stayed on the stoop a few doors down just taking it all in. It was quite a scene.
Isaac took command as only an ancient mariner could do. He told Mom to put the car in first gear and slowly pull forward. Nothing. The car wouldn’t budge. Isaac switched places with Mom. Still no movement, just spinning wheels in the grassy strip between the sidewalk and the curb. Isaac gave up trying to save the fenders and went for the ultimate weapon: his crowbar. John and Karl continued watching.
Isaac quickly returned with the crowbar. He instructed Mom to put the car in gear and try once again to pull forward slowly as he, as gently as possible, wedged the crowbar between the fender and the phone pole. Nothing about the process was gentle. He rammed the crowbar with the heel of his hand and then with his knee, gaining a little more purchase. Swearing quietly so Mom wouldn’t hear, he repeated the process. On his third attempt the Ford broke free, metal screaming against metal (the crowbar) and squealing against wood (the pole) as Mom not so gently drove away from her predicament.
After the excitement died down, John and Karl leapt from their perch and walked to our backyard, where the ‘53 Ford lay mangled. John grabbed a tape measure from Pop’s tool box and proceeded to measure the rear section of the car. Then he and Karl crossed the street and measured the distance between the telephone pole and the fire hydrant. Measure once, shake your head; measure twice, keep shaking that head.
Finally, John looked at Karl and said, head still shaking, “I don’t know how she did it, but she did it.”
Mom was a fairly new driver back then, but her skills never did improve much. She never wrecked a car again, but she came close a few times. Fortunately, she never drove fast enough to do any damage.
Mom always used her meager driving skills on behalf of others. Whenever a little old lady from Grace Church or a neighbor down the street needed a lift to the supermarket or the doctor or the drug store, they’d call Mom, and she never failed them. When it came to driving, Mom had the greatest of all abilities: availability.
The Ford was repairable, but Pop decided it was time to replace it. He’d bought it used and figured he’d reached a level of success in life where a new car was both acceptable and affordable. The 1960 model year was just beginning, and Ted Rowland’s showroom was calling Pop to Long Island.
Pop returned to Brooklyn with the receipt for his down payment on a brand new Ford Fairlane—the straight Fairlane not the fancier, and more expensive, Fairlane 500. Uncle Freddy drove a Fairlane 500, from Ted Rowland, of course, but he worked for New York Bell—the Phone Company—and Pop was merely a civil servant. So, basic Fairlane it was for the Baisleys.
Not only was the Fairlane Pop’s first new car, it was his first car with four—count ‘em, four—doors. No more waiting in the rain for people to climb into the back before settling comfortably into the front seat. Four doors! Two decades of driving a car with only two doors may explain why Pop had trouble getting used to four doors.
A few days later, after the good folks at Ted Rowland Ford had properly given Pop his money’s worth of “dealer prep,” he drove the gleaming white behemoth through the chain link gate on Isaac’s side of the yard to its new home.
As John piled up A’s at Brooklyn Tech, Pop beamed with pride as the owner of a showroom-fresh 1960 Ford. He wasn’t beaming long before he went his first round against his ultimate nemesis, the gate. I blame those back doors, not Pop’s driving.
One fall day, Pop took a personal day off from his job with the Labor Department to run an errand. It had to have been very important because he planned on driving. That was a rare event, Pop driving through Brooklyn streets. Or maybe he just wanted to cruise in his Fairlane.
John usually took the bus and subway to school, but this day Pop was home and asked if John would like a ride. I know it sounds hokey, but I strongly suspect John answered something like, “That’d be swell, Dad,” or some such fifties-ism.
After they, and Mom, got into the car, and Pop started it up, John volunteered to run to the end of the driveway and open the gate. He’d done things like that before, back when Baisley vehicles only came with two doors. Things had changed, however.
John jumped out of the back seat, enjoying the ease of springing through the right rear door. He opened the gate and then crossed to Pop’s side of the driveway to wait for the Fairlane to back up. To this day he doesn’t know why he left the right rear door open or why he didn’t wait on that side of the driveway. He just did it.
John never saw the door he’d left open. Pop never looked to the side. He just backed up with his turned head toward the rear window.
The low speed crash came and went quickly, but the shock remained for days. “John, why did you leave the door open?” No answer would suffice. The Fairlane’s pristine beauty was no more. It was a sad day in Baisley automotive history, but not the saddest. That day occurred the following spring.
It was morning, that much I remember. It had to be a weekend because Pop never drove the Fairlane on weekdays. Weekdays were what public transportation was for. So it had to be Saturday. Not Sunday, of course. We walked to church on Sunday, strolling as a family around Avenue K and up East 92nd Street if we had the time, running individually through the vacant lot just north of us if we were late. We were always late.
Yes, Saturday morning wins by elimination. Pop needed to go somewhere, but first he walked to the gate and opened it. Then he opened the right rear door and placed something on the back seat. I hope it was an important something, but I don’t remember.
I never heard the crash, I only heard the wailing. Grown men don’t cry, or so goes a popular early 60s notion. Pop cried. He moaned. He wailed! We could hear him as he walked from the driveway. His words pierced my soul,
“I can understand once—once—but twice? Not twice.”
The words staggered out in sobs. Pop had knocked off the same door that had been replaced only a few months earlier. The cries were because this time he had no one with whom to be angry, no one to blame.
I blame the second set of doors. It was too much for a man of almost fifty to get used to.
I think Pop blamed the Ford Motor Company. He never owned another Ford product. After driving the curséd Fairlane until 1963, he bought the first of his station wagons: a Chevy Belair. The gang loved it. Next came a ‘67 Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser, the wagon with the wraparound sunroof. After that a Dodge and a Plymouth. He was done with Fords.
When I was growing up, the legal driving age in New York was 18, but if you took Driver’s Education you could get your license at 17. The trick was, hardly any city schools offered Driver’s Ed in their regular curriculum. Some held the classes during the summer, but you had to pay for it. So it was that I came to learn the art of driving at a high school clear across Brooklyn, one to which I commuted every morning for two weeks during the summer before my seventeenth birthday.
I learned quickly, even earning the right to drive myself home a couple of times, with the instructor as passenger. After the course, I practiced my skills with Pop at my side; he was a firm but gentle complement to the professional instructor. One fall day in 1969, I passed my driving test.
I loved driving Pop’s ‘69 Dodge Coronet wagon. It had Chrysler’s small block workhorse, the 318ci V8. The car could leave rubber at any corner. Pop was proud of that. So was I. I can still feel the slight head jerk when I gunned the engine and popped the brake. Sweetness.
Still, a high school senior needs his own car even in a city where most people use public transportation. Thanks to my inheritance from good ol’ Uncle Charlie, I had enough money to shop for something reasonably nice. Pop found it for me, a 1964 Ford Galaxie 500: dual exhausts, four barrel carburetor, and a 352ci engine. Nice. And four doors; the family curse.
My first car had to have a name, and it was duly christened “Atsama Car” (say it fast with a Brooklyn accent and you’ll understand) by the Canarsie High track team. Affectionately known as “Atsama,” the Galaxie took my buddies and me everywhere. Most of the time I was a safe, considerate, and courteous driver. Occasionally I was not.
One of Atsama’s talents was driving in circles; but don’t worry, he was always legally on the road. At the southern tip of Rockaway Parkway, where you entered or exited the Belt Parkway, there was a big traffic circle with a half-acre of grass in the middle. The idea was for drivers to gently transition from one road to another. Such devices go by names like “roundabout” and “rotary” in other parts of the country.
While such circles are meant to be traversed only a quarter to three-quarters of the way around, one day, while driving Little Morty and Big Mike to Long Island, I decided it might be fun do go the full 360. And then 720. What the heck, 1080! Only Big Mike’s pleas about cops coming broke the cycle, and off we drove to Long Beach.
Long Beach was our Dreamland. There awaited the fiercest chili, the biggest hot dogs, the fattest fries, and—and this is the “dream” part—the most beautiful girls just waiting for us to give them a ride in Atsama. After countless cruises up and down Long Beach Road, hours spent lounging in the Nathan’s parking lot, and many vain attempts at not looking desperate, for one brief, shining moment a couple of girls took us up on the offer of a ride home. We may have imagined a romantic interlude, but neither Morty nor Mike nor I were adept at such things. We gave the girls exactly what they wanted: a safe ride home.
Casanovas we were not, but we did know, and were friends with, lots of girls. One of those friends, Karen Gordon, initiated me into the family curse.
I liked Karen. I thought she was cute, funny, and smart. Those are criteria I still adhere to. Jen, my wife, is cute, funny, and smart; and I like her too.
One spring afternoon during our senior year at Canarsie High, Little Morty, Big Mike, Karen, and I were driving in Atsama and had to stop on Rockaway Parkway near the subway station for Karen to run an errand. We were lucky to find a parking space right near the bank she had to visit.
Being a fairly new driver in New York City, I was anxious to show off my parallel parking skills. Not all New Yorkers drive, but those who do can parallel park the asses off any other drivers in the USA. I truly believe that.
Atsama and I pulled up partway beside the car in front of the vacant space. I turned my head all the way around, like a ventriloquist's dummy, and deftly backed into the space. Then I pulled forward to bring Atsama to a full parallel with the curb. All that was left was to back the Galaxie into a perfect center between the cars in front and behind me. Karen, apparently, didn’t understand the value of a perfectly parallel, perfectly centered automobile.
As I began backing up, Karen thrust the right rear—yep, the accurséd right rear—door open. Thud! Rip! Atsama’s door tore almost all the way free from its hinges.
“Karen! What are you doing?” I shouted.
“I didn’t know you were going to back up,” she replied.
And that was the end of the argument. What was done was done, and neither Atsama nor I were going to let a broken door interfere with a friendship.
Karen apologized to Atsama; we all tied the door shut with some clothesline rope, and drove off after Karen ran her errand. She assured me she’d fix the door.
A few days later, Karen appeared at my house with the right rear door of a yellow ‘64 Ford Galaxie. Little Morty, our car expert, attached it to Atsama, and he was whole again. Except Atsama was a deep metallic blue. The door was a matte yellow. What to do, what to do.
Had I been an adult, or maybe just someone other than who I am, I would have taken the car to Earl Scheib for a cheap paint job. Not me. I bought a bottle of Ford deep metallic blue paint and a couple of brushes. For the rest of the school year, my friends, classmates, and track teammates painted their signatures on Atsama’s new door. It was better than a yearbook.
In August, I drove Atsama onto the campus of Lancaster Bible College for the first time. He and I immediately felt the judging eyes of the faculty, upper class students, and their bland, sedate automobiles. Tough. Atsama’s named fenders and signed door, in gleaming blue and flat yellow, had more character than the lot of them.
A few months later they opened a new shopping mall on the outskirts of Lancaster. “Park City” they called it. Some college buddies and I decided to check it out one day after class. Entering the highway, Atsama’s accelerator pedal stuck. He sped helplessly along as the speedometer reached 100. Brakes wouldn’t stop him. Finally, not knowing any better, I turned off the engine, out of which came a weird clunking sound.
Safely on the shoulder of the highway, we got out of the car. A bright brown liquid flowed freely out of the underside of Atsama’s engine. We had him towed to a family friend’s barn where we attempted, over the next six months, to replace the blown engine, that beautiful old 352. We never got it right. I don’t know if the farmer who inherited Atsama ever got him running again. Sometimes I still miss the great blue beast.
Cosplay is big these days, with Comic Con and other –Cons drawing thousands. Cosplay just might have had its beginning with some junior high kids from Canarsie, as you’ll see in next week’s episode of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.
I read the words “jelly glass” and “sugar sandwich” the other day, in someone else’s memoir. The writer was describing being poor in Houston in the 1950s. That took me back to my own childhood experiences with jelly glasses and sugar sandwiches.
In Canarsie, we drank out of jelly glasses at our regular meals. Jelly glasses were the jars jelly came in, usually decorated with scenes from Howdy Doody, Yogi Bear, or other cultural icons. You bought the jelly, and the jar was free. A lot of people on East 93rd Street drank out of jelly glasses.
We also ate “bread ‘n sugar.” It was a real treat when Mom would take a slice of bread, coat it with a thin layer of butter, pour some sugar on it, and cut it into four pieces with the crusts off. Wow! Every once in a while we’d have “bread ‘n honey.” It was the same basic treat but with honey instead of sugar. And Mom didn’t cut it up, so the honey wouldn’t ooze everywhere. I loved bread ‘n honey. I thought that meant we were living like kings.
Maybe we were living like kings; we owned a palace free and clear, with two yards if you count Isaac’s half. You could stand at the front fence and look back to the tree line that separated our property from the House of the Rising Sun’s parking lot, and you’d think you were looking across Jamaica Bay.
I remember the first time I heard Richard Harris sing Jimmy Webb’s The Yard Went On Forever.
There was a frying pan
And she would cook their dreams while
they were dreaming
And later she would send them out to play
And the yard went on forever
That was our house. That was 1304. We were rich!
But we ate Spam sandwiches. We enjoyed sardines right out of the can. Dessert was a drop of honey on lightly-buttered white bread. And the yard went on forever.
Food was a cultural expression in Canarsie. You could walk around on Thursday afternoon and the smell of baking lasagna seeped into your nostrils. On Fridays half of East 93rd Street smelled like the Fulton Fish Market. The scent of gefilte fish and other Jewish delicacies completed the olfactory world tour. On the Parkway and other major streets, fresh-baked bagels and bialys competed with pizza and veal parmesan sandwiches for nose space.
At our WASPish house it was more like pot roast, baked chicken, and pork chops. We’d have steak every once in a while, but it never tasted as good as at the Flame. I think it was the cut of beef. Mom pounded and pounded the meat, but it was never quite to submission. Still, it was steak, which not all our neighbors could afford.
We ate our dinner every weekday evening at 6:00. That was ten minutes after Pop arrived home from his office in Manhattan. I don’t recall Pop demanding that dinner be served precisely the same time each evening, but that’s when he got there and that’s when Mom had the food ready. Saturday was different. We ate around the same time, but in the summer Pop might cook on the grill outside. In other seasons he’d make pancakes or waffles on Saturday nights. Since we’d often go to Grandma and Gramps’s house after church on Sunday, Mom pretty much had weekends off.
We ate on blue-green melmac plates using stainless flatware. We drank out of jelly jars and white glass coffee cups. In the summer, Mom brought out the “deer” glasses for iced tea. They were tall green glasses with white images of deer on them. I’ve drank a lot of iced tea over the years, but none tasted as good as the stuff in the deer glasses. They had their own coasters too; pale blue lids that proclaimed the cottage cheese they originally packaged. I’m not sure Mom ever really bought a drinking glass.
As did many Canarsie women, Mom had inherited a set of china and a box of silverware from her mother. It came out at Thanksgiving, at Easter, and on whatever Sundays we didn’t go to Grandma's. It didn’t mean we or my grandparents were rich. It’s just what people had in those days. My brother inherited the silverware. I got the china, which I’ve since passed along to my daughter. People don’t have much use for china and silver anymore.
We ate at home a lot more than my family does now, but that doesn’t mean we never went out. Sometimes on Sunday, half the church would pack into Lum’s Chinese restaurant. Occasionally, Pop would spring for a trip to Wetson’s or Farrell’s for hamburgers. I went to P.S.114 with one of the Farrells, so that made it more cool. The biggest treats, however, were White Castle and Sears.
No one ever believed White Castle’s claim that what’s in their tiny burgers is 100% beef. It doesn’t taste like beef; it tastes like, well, it tastes like White Castle. I find nothing inherently wrong with that. It’s a good taste; for me a down home taste.
New York kids, and probably those in Chicago and St. Louis and Indianapolis, made White Castles a rite of passage. When you could down a dozen at one sitting, you entered manhood. Keeping them down was not required.
Lunch at Sears was an even bigger treat than White Castle, at least for me. Our nearest Sears Roebuck—they went by the full name back then—sold hot dogs cooked on stainless steel rollers. They came out perfectly brown all the way around, and they were fully cooked inside without being hot enough to burn a young mouth. In short, they tasted exactly like a hot dog is supposed to taste.
Only one thing could make a Sears hot dog better; and Sears, which sold just about everything, had that one thing: a giant keg of Hires root beer. No flavors ever blended as well as a Sears hot dog, yellow mustard, and Hires root beer from an artificial wooden keg.
School lunches fell far below the status of “treat.” For one thing, I was the proverbial “picky” eater. Mom learned the hard way that it was best just to pack the same thing in my Roy Rogers lunch box every day. (I’d stopped eating school-cooked lunches after the hat-in-the-soup incident.) One year I ate nothing but peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. For two whole years I ate only liverwurst sandwiches. How could anyone be considered a picky eater if he ate liverwurst?
While in elementary school at P.S.114, there was one break from the lunches Mom packed for me. Occasionally, I’d have to walk to Grandma’s for lunch. Perhaps Mom had someone to drive to the doctor or supermarket that day, and she didn’t have time to pack the liverwurst. On those days, Grandma was the backup. Bologna sandwiches were her usual fare; or sometimes tuna fish. They were always paired with a little dish of mandarin oranges. I didn’t know they had a technical name. I just thought they tasted oddly sweeter than the oranges I got in my stocking at Christmas time. I still have weird feelings about them, at least the ones that come in the cans like Grandma used to open.
New York City has a well-deserved reputation for being a center of world cuisine. Each neighborhood has its own culinary niche. There’s Chinatown, Little Italy, Hell’s Kitchen. Okay, you may not find diabolical dishes there, but I’m sure you’ll find some great places to eat. My brother’s neighborhood in Queens features some of the best Caribbean food north of Montego Bay. The aromas emanating from each neighborhood reflect the best of its cooking. If you had walked down any of the major thoroughfares of Canarsie in the 1960, you’d have encountered two distinct scents: bagels and pizza.
You can’t find real bagels in the refrigerated displays at the supermarket. As much as I love my favorite bagel shop in Richmond, Indiana, what they serve there is not what they sell at any bagel bakery in Brooklyn.
New York bagels are boiled before baking, the texture taking on the chewy-crispy consistency for which they are known. If topped at all it’s with the simplest of ingredients: salt, poppy or sesame seeds, or onion. You eat them with schmear—cream cheese for purists, and maybe with lox and capers if you’re really hungry. I love my Indiana bagels, don’t get me wrong; but if I ordered a sun-dried tomato, Asiago cheese, or pumpkin spice bagel in Canarsie I’d be laughed all the way to Gowanus.
Salt bagels were my standard fare. Every day during eighth and ninth grade I ordered two salt bagels from the shop across Flatlands Avenue from Bildersee Junior High, and I washed them down with a chocolate shake from the Carvel next door. Never tired of that combo. I’d eat it again in a minute, perhaps with only one salt bagel to go with my shake. I’m not that skinny kid anymore.
I have similar feelings about “real” pizza. You can get real Chicago pizza at a Chicagoland pizza place. I will never begrudge Chicago that distinction. But the only other real pizza in America is found in New York City and in a few places in Philly.
Again, I don’t want you to think I avoid other-than-NY pizza. We have a small chain in eastern Indiana called Pizza King. They serve a somewhat overpriced but delicious pie topped with a spicy tomato sauce, just the right amount of cheese, and some great toppings. It tastes wonderful, but it’s not real pizza.
It’s the crust. American pizza chains have tried everything to make their crusts more palatable. They add garlic. They stuff their crust with cheese. I’m sure somewhere there’s a pretzel crust pizza. But without the gimmicks their crusts are tasteless. New York pizza crust tastes like… it tastes like pizza crust. It has a flavor. If your sauce or toppings don’t make it from one edge to the other you don’t complain because those last bites of pure crust are more than edible. You can still taste pizza in them.
Armando’s was also the scene of a quintessential New York parking space theft on the day some years ago when I took my kids to their dad’s old haunt. I needed to go east on a business trip when Stephen and Kellyn were still young enough to care where Dad grew up, so I flew them to New York with me.
We found Armando’s to be exactly as I’d left it 25 years earlier. Armando still owned the place. Everything was as delicious as I’d described so many times to my family. As we were getting ready to leave, a white Chevy was preparing to exit its parking space right in front of the restaurant. What happened next is pure NYC.
As the Chevy got ready to edge into Parkway traffic, a silver Toyota stopped to let it out and to claim its prized space. The Toyota exercised uncommon patience as the Chevy slowly pulled away from the curb. The red Mazda Miata behind the Toyota was not so patient. When the Chevy was gone and the Toyota pulled next to the car in front of the open space, preparatory to executing a perfect parallel park, the little Miata jumped the curb—the sound of undercarriage grating against the concrete—dashed across the sidewalk, and dove headfirst into the unoccupied space.
The Toyota jammed on its brakes. Words and fingers were exchanged, and then the silver sedan sped up the Parkway, most likely planning its revenge against the next little red sports car it came upon. Stephen and Kellyn just stood there taking it all in. I beamed, never so proud to be their dad, or a New Yorker.
The Baisleys’ automobile of choice was the humble Ford. From Pop’s 1936 coupe to my 1964 Galaxie, we were a Ford family. Sometimes that spelled trouble, as you’ll see in next week’s episode of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.
Believe it or not, the best things that happened at Christmas when I grew into my teen years were not the ribbon candy or the expensive gifts. Rather, they were Pop’s poetry and Mom’s hospitality.
My dad was quite a poet, not always original in terms of rhythm and rhyme—he wrote a lot of parodies, often based on A Visit from Saint Nicholas or The Raven—but people loved to hear him read. His greatest work he saved for me, every Christmas from the time I was thirteen until a few years after Sandy and I got married.
When you’re thirteen, it’s hard to get excited about Christmas. Yes, the gifts get more expensive, mostly electronics, and that’s kind of nice. But the magic is gone. No Santa Claus. You’re not even young enough to fake believing in him anymore. And with the passing of Santa, Christmas becomes just a glorified birthday; only it’s Jesus’, not yours. You just get the presents.
Pop decided to create some magic of his own at Christmas. He started hiding my gifts, and Mom’s too. Now hiding Christmas presents was nothing new. Mom and Pop always hid my gifts because they knew my curiosity and greed would lead me to hunt for them. Oddly, one Christmas my hunting paid off.
I was probably ten at the time. The “Magic 8 Ball,” which had been around for maybe a decade, was having a resurgence in popularity thanks to heavy advertising. Of course, Kurt, Judy, and I all had to have it. And, in the course of my pre-Christmas searching, I located the prophetic sphere behind some undershirts in Pop’s wardrobe. It wasn’t a major gift. Little more than a stocking stuffer. But I knew I could fake suitable happiness at receiving it.
Christmas Day came that year with its usual array of presents under the tree, but no 8 Ball. Curious. Maybe they bought it for one of my aunts to give me. That afternoon we went to Aunt Midge’s for the extended family gift exchange, but no one presented me with the little black and white oracle.
Back home at the end of the day, I decided drastic measures must be taken. I didn’t want to appear before my friends without a Magic 8 Ball. I needed a completely believable ruse to get Mom and Pop to produce the present without my giving away that I’d been hunting for it (and found it).
“Gee,” I mused for all to hear, “I was hoping I’d get that Magic 8 Ball for Christmas. It‘d have been fun to fool around with.” And then I busied myself getting ready for bed.
Out of the corner of my watchful eye I saw Mom give a little look to Pop. Then Pop went up to their bedroom. He came down a minute or two later exclaiming, “Hey, Phil! You’d never believe what I found just lying around.”
And he handed me the 8 Ball.
“I guess it must’ve fallen out of Santa’s bag,” Pop added.
I thought I’d better humor him. “Yeah. I’m sure glad it turned up.”
A few years later the need to humor my parents about Santa Claus was gone, and Pop’s poems began. Each little masterpiece contained two clues within its verse: a clue to the item’s identity and a clue to its location. This was way better than a jolly old elf in a red suit.
I wasn’t allowed to look for the gift until I’d figured out what it was. That was pretty easy for things I’d asked for, like a stereo receiver or a new set of speakers. It was harder for a pair of slippers. But it made for a fun Christmas for a kid who had almost outgrown the holiday.
The other family tradition that began when I was a teenager concerned decorating the tree. It started the night John and Lorraine got engaged and continued into my college years. The tradition was basically this: I could invite a reasonable number of my friends over to decorate the Christmas tree with the Baisley family.
I wonder if allowing me to have friends over for decorating was to help Mom and Pop get over John’s moving away for good. By Christmas of ‘67, John and Lorraine were living about a mile away from 1304 E 93rd Street, too far to return just to hang ornaments on a five foot tree. Anyway, it was time for them to start their own family traditions.
Our new tradition began with having Judy and Kurt over. They were like family anyway. The difference was, as much as we had played together, we rarely worked together. And this was like work: placing dozens of antique glass balls strategically on the boughs of a pine tree in a way that Mom would approve.
Mom liked the balls arranged in order from largest to smallest as they went up the tree. The shortest boughs, the ones at the top, were for her favorites: two glittery birds and a pink glass pine cone. Each year she ascended a step stool to place those herself, in just the proper spots.
The rest of the tree we all were allowed to decorate, within reason and under Mom’s watchful eye. All the while, Chet Atkins strummed Song from Moulin Rouge, and Perry Como sang about turtle doves, drummers drumming, and a partridge in a pear tree. My friends and I strung tinsel, one or two strands at a time, and then hung ornaments that went back a generation or two in Mom’s family.
Kurt and Judy were our first decorating guests, but they weren’t the last. The next year it was Scott. Scott was Jewish, but he was about my best friend at the time; and he’d never decorated a Christmas tree. As much as I valued his soul and wanted it “for the Kingdom,” as we said, what I really valued was his companionship, and that meant joining me in a very special family ritual.
Scott came over to decorate the tree and have a snack with my family. He even told Mom and Pop how some Jews erected “Hanukkah bushes” in lieu of Christmas trees. No conversions that night, but a lot of love was shared. If love, as the Bible says, “covers a multitude of sins,” then 1304 East 93rd Street was a house of salvation for all who entered regardless of their theology or lack of it.
In 1969 the house got a little crowded. First I invited my track teammate and best-friend-in-progress Morty Epstein. Being Jewish, like Scott, Christmas was a bit of a mystery to him. Like all New York Jews, he got the part about Santa and shopping, but the religious significance of Christmas was as unfamiliar to him as the Hanukkah miracle was to Christians.
Judy was home from college and didn’t have a special person to share that holiday with, and I’d missed her; so I invited her over to decorate the tree. The other invitee was Cheryl Lopez. I don’t know when or how I developed a crush on Cheryl, or how, in spite of it (maybe because of it) we became friends, but I know that I wanted her to experience a Baisley Christmas. I invited her to join Judy and Morty at my house for tree decorating night. We had a blast.
Pop was at his best that night. We laughed so hard. I enjoyed Morty’s company so much that I forgot he was there for the express purpose of being evangelized. Isn’t that what Jews were for? Judy didn’t know Morty before that, and she enjoyed watching him experience Christmas for the first time.
The thing I remember most, however, was Cheryl’s arrival at about 7:30 in the evening. Morty had arrived much earlier. He might’ve come for dinner. Judy came over after her family had eaten. When Cheryl arrived she hugged Judy and then she hugged me. Matter of factly, like it was just the way we’d always greeted each other. I’d never been hugged by a girl before that, not even Judy. I felt warm, secure; not like part of a great love affair but like I was someone as special to her as she was to me: no strings of any kind attached.
Cheryl and I continued to hang out when spring returned. I left for college the following August. By the time Christmas came around again, Cheryl was no longer part of the Grace youth group, even though she was still a high school senior.
The following year, when I was home from Bible college for the holidays, Helene Weintraub joined the tree decorating tradition. She was a senior at Canarsie High and used to date one of my track teammates. She decorated her first Christmas tree with Morty and the Baisleys that year while Perry Como crooned and Chet Atkins strummed and picked.
Como and Atkins accompanied our last Christmas in Canarsie as well: 1971. Morty, who by that time had converted to Christianity, made his third holiday appearance that year. I don’t remember much else. I finally got the dating thing figured out in college, and my mind was in New Jersey with the freshman girl I’d be spending part of Christmas break with. Holidays were never the same after that. I guess we all grow up sometime.
Hardly anyone remembers Perry Como these days, but I still think he did the best ever rendition of The Twelve Days of Christmas. A couple of years ago I downloaded Chet Atkins’ From Nashville with Love album. Good music, but I don’t play Moulin Rouge for Christmas anymore. Just the other day I Googled “ribbon candy.” The same company still makes it, and you can order it online. I wonder what Morty is doing.
Even though I was the proverbial “picky eater,” food played an important part in my growing up, as you’ll hear in next week’s episode of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.
Every time I hear the 50s classic, Song from Moulin Rouge, I think of Christmas. I can’t help it. A version of the song, expertly strummed by country guitar virtuoso Chet Atkins, played on Pop’s hi-fi the night John and Lorraine got engaged and on every Christmas tree decorating night until we moved from Canarsie.
John never dated in high school, at least as far as I knew. He always had his head in a book. John was so studious he owned—and read—the Great Books of the Western World: Fielding, Swift, Gibbon. He even read The Canterbury Tales without waiting for it to be assigned in English class! Who would date a guy like that anyway?
When he returned from the Marines he was more rugged and a little less bookish, and his days of formal education were behind him. He finally developed an interest in girls. First there was Gabrielle, who lived in the apartment below the Kriegels. She was cute, and our parents got along well. Of course, they were members of our church. That was the primary criterion for dating a Baisley.
At Grace Church we learned the importance of dating good Christian girls. Were a boy from Grace to have a relationship with a Jewish girl, or even—God forbid!—a Catholic girl, they would be reminded of the scriptural admonition, “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers.” Girls like that would corrupt our pure Christian faith, perhaps leading us into idolatry. Keep away! Nevertheless, the Catholic girls in the Gang, and the Jewish girls I’d occasionally hang out with, were always welcomed by Mom and Pop. Still, they’d have preferred John and I date fundamentalist Protestant girls.
I don’t know why John and Gabby broke up, but a year or so later John began talking a lot about someone named Lorraine. Her family was on the periphery of Grace Church, probably members but not regular attenders. If Lorraine had attended regularly you might still not have noticed. She was very quiet and shy.
John was in love within a few dates, and he picked just before Christmas of 1966 to pop the proverbial question. Employing a flair for the romantic I never suspected, John invited Lorraine to our house to help decorate the Christmas tree. Having friends over for tree decorating night became a tradition after that, but never again resulted in a wedding.
I thought Mom and Pop put up the tree too late each year. Even in the 1960s most people had their homes decorated shortly after Thanksgiving. Stockings hung by fake chimneys long before they’d be filled on Christmas Eve, but not at our house. Some years we didn’t even put the tree up until the night before Christmas, and never more than a few days before. That came from a very old tradition of leaving the tree up at least until Twelfth Night and sometimes until mid-January. The holidays came late to the Baisley household, but they hung on with a vengeance.
By 1966 John had left rock & roll behind and taken to the country sounds of WJRZ, Radio 97 out of New Jersey. Hank Williams was gone, but the other Hanks—Locklin and Snow—were big, as were Buck Owens, Loretta Lynn, and Kitty Wells. Chet Atkins was one of John’s favorites and his easy style caught on at our house, so much so that Pop went out and bought the guitarist's From Nashville with Love album for his own record collection that fall. When Lorraine came over to decorate our tree, Pop was playing that album.
I didn’t know it at the time, but John had revealed his romantic scheme to Mom and Pop a few days earlier. The plan was to be decorating the tree and have Lorraine hang an ornament on a branch from which an engagement ring already dangled. To give the lovebirds a little privacy, Mom said she’d come up with a reason to excuse the rest of the family for a while. Sure enough, while unpacking the ornaments, our old glass star came up broken.
“Art,” Mom called, “We’re going to have to go to Kenney’s to buy a new star for the tree. Phil, you’ll come too.”
At fourteen, I didn’t really want to spend much time shopping with my parents. Neither did I relish watching my brother and his girlfriend make goo-goo eyes at each other. I, wisely, decided to go to Kenney’s Department Store before Mom had to find a way to force me there.
Kenney’s was only two blocks away, and I knew from walking by a few days earlier that they had plenty of Christmas stars. It should have been a quick trip, but they decided Kenney’s might not have a good selection, so we ended up at the Times Square Store a few miles away.
An hour later we returned to 1304 and found John and Lorraine beaming brighter than the tree lights. Lorraine showed us what she’d found in the Christmas tree, and we stopped for a congratulatory toast of ginger ale. They were married at Grace Church the following September.
Christmases were memorable at our house long before there were diamonds in the tree. For one thing, that was when the ribbon candy appeared.
Ribbon candy is an extremely sweet confection that actually looks like ribbons of color. I could Google the intricacies of how the candy is made, but I prefer the mystery. It tasted like peppermint and spearmint and root beer and lime, and it visited our house every December. That’s all I care to know.
I never liked ribbon candy all that much. Even as a child I was developing taste buds geared more to sour and spicy than sweet. But ribbon candy meant Christmas, and Christmas meant gifts and days off from school and times when church actually felt good. Christmas without ribbon candy just wasn’t Christmas.
They say confession is good for the soul, so I’ll confess it was the presents, especially the toys, that meant the most to me on my first fourteen Christmases. Mom and Pop spent way too much on my toys. I know that now. And I think I know how they paid for some of it. It has to do with the evolution of Baisley Christmas trees.
When I was small
And Christmas trees were tall
So sang The Bee Gees in their 1969 song, First of May. We all go through the realization that as we get bigger, the things that used to look large seem to grow smaller. That’s just an illusion. It’s we who were growing; the objects remained the same. Except at our house. As I grew taller, our Christmas trees really did get smaller.
When I was very young, Mom and Pop would take me shopping for our Christmas tree. We’d always go at night after Pop got home from work. The string of incandescent bulbs over each row of trees on the lot gave a magical look to the place. And the scent of pine filled the cold night air.
We always bought our tree early in December. Pop wanted to go to the lot before the selection was picked over. He would hold out trees for Mom and I to agree on. We never looked for the “perfect” tree because we knew such a thing didn’t exist. Instead, we looked for one big enough to fill the space from floor to ceiling—about eight feet—and between the refrigerator and the telephone table.
In those days we lived primarily in the dining room. The kitchen was tiny, and there was no room for the fridge. There was space in the corner for a table and two chairs. Mom and Pop ate breakfast there together. When I got up, after they were finished, I ate breakfast there as well. The fridge sat right outside the kitchen doorway—there was no door—separated from our living/dining area by a plastic, trellis-like room divider. Eventually, when Mom and Pop moved their bedroom upstairs, the living room moved to their old bedroom, and the all-purpose home of the fridge became our single-purpose dining room. The fridge still looked funny sitting in the corner behind its plastic wall.
I had some great Christmases in that room. After an almost sleepless night, I’d wake my parents, who’d been sleeping in the room between mine and the living/dining room. Five a.m. was the usual time. They’d escort me to the tree. Presents were never wrapped; I always assumed Santa saw no purpose in wrapping gifts that would be immediately unwrapped. It was always stuff I’d seen in the Sears Christmas catalog, such as a World War II battle set with hundreds of soldiers and tanks and scenery. One year I got a Civil War battle set with spiked fences on which many blue and gray bodies I impaled.
From then on, including the famous engagement ring Christmas, we would celebrate the holidays under--rather than beside--the tree. The brick-like skirting even provided a hiding place for less-valued gifts like socks and underwear.
A few years ago I was reminiscing with Jen about those wonderful Christmases beneath the tree.
“How tall were those trees?” she asked.
“Oh,” I said, “The table stood about three feet, so I guess the trees were about five feet.”
And then it hit me. The height of our trees diminished in proportion to the price of my Christmas presents. Mom and Pop didn’t have enough money to buy an extravagant tree and extravagant gifts, so they focused on me. Ungrateful me, I never realized it let alone thanked them for it.
Christmas has always meant more than toys and gifts. It’s traditions and family and friends. You’ll hear more in Part Two of Ribbon Candy Christmases in the next episode of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.
Brigade Camp was a terrifying experience, but it wasn’t the only one in my young life as a solo traveler. Somehow, even the most benign of sleepaway trips had a way of scaring me. Maybe it was Mom and Pop’s way of toughening me up. That certainly could apply the summer I visited Aunt Elsie and Uncle Robbie.
Uncle Robbie was my grandfather’s brother. He and Aunt Elsie had one son, Robert, who was married to Billie, with whom he had three children: Rodney, Ruth Ann, and Ronald. They all lived close to one another somewhere north of Poughkeepsie. I remember that because when I was very young, Poughkeepsie was my dream of an oasis.
Every summer, the Baisley clan would descend on Uncle Willie’s house near Saugerties for a family reunion. Uncle Willie was another of my grandfather's brothers. On the same property, his son, Clint, was building a house. Year after year, reunion after reunion, it never seemed closer to finished.
I loved our family reunions. Mom and Pop and I, and John when he was home on leave, would get up early on that Saturday morning. Mom would pack some picnic food, Pop and I would toss our baseball gloves in the trunk, and off we’d go. I’d quickly fall back to sleep.
Waking up was the best thing ever, because I’d wake up in Poughkeepsie, the halfway point. We would always stop at the same roadside restaurant for breakfast. For me that meant pancakes. Yum! And there was more. That restaurant had a little rack filled with cheap toys, plastic soldiers, water pistols, and the like. I rarely got toys that weren’t birthday or Christmas gifts, except from Aunt Barb, but on reunion day Mom and Pop always let me pick out one item from the rack. Being a parent myself now, I realize that toy was a small price to pay for keeping me quiet the rest of the way to Uncle Willie’s.
A lot of adults I didn’t know showed up at those reunions, and some kids I really didn’t care to know. I had some male cousins who made fun of me for being small and not very good at sports. But my female cousins, who were more plentiful and closer to my age, made it all worthwhile.
Most years, Lois, Ellen, and Doreen would be there. They were the daughters of Pop’s brother, Jim, and his wife, Catherine. I admired Lois, a couple of years my senior. She was cute, smart, and never used the fact that she was bigger than I to her advantage. Ellen was my age, but I still preferred Lois’ company. Doreen was just a little kid. They lived in Lynbrook, Long Island, right upstairs from Pop’s sister, Lil, and her husband, Pick. Uncle Pick’s real name was William Lattimer Kidd, but he was Pick until he retired and moved to Florida. There Lil and Pick recreated themselves as Lillian and Bill.
I saw Lois, Ellen, and Doreen most Saturday nights at Grandma's, so being with them at the reunion wasn’t a special treat. Being with Pam and Susan, Cousin Clint’s daughters, definitely was.
I had a crush on second cousin Pam from the moment I first met her. I think I was eight and she was ten. Each year, as we hung out together on Cousin Clint’s swing set, it seemed we had more in common. Mostly it was music. I’ll never forget the afternoon we belted out Diane Renay’s Navy Blue and then laughed and laughed. Neither Pam nor Susan ever judged me for being short or skinny. I always looked forward to family reunions because of that.
One year, family reunion held an additional component. I was not going back to Brooklyn in the evening. Instead, that year I was going to spend a week with Aunt Elsie and Uncle Robbie at their home outside Clinton Corners. They’d be heading into the city the next weekend and would drop me off at home.
Aunt Elsie and Uncle Robbie lived in a remodeled gas station at the side of a state highway. The abandoned pump island still dominated their driveway. It was an unusual home that had fascinated me on my previous visits. Of course, none of those visits involved spending the night. But the chance to play with Ruth Ann and Ronald, who lived down the road, was worth it.
Days at Aunt Elsie and Uncle Robbie’s were kind of fun. They kept me busy with chores, board games, and jigsaw puzzles. Aunt Elsie was a decent cook, and the fresh-from-the-garden quality even made vegetables taste good. Nights, however, were a different story.
Whoever had turned the old gas station into living space had neglected one important feature, a bathroom. Yes, the house had indoor plumbing. Running water gushed from a kitchen sink, and another sink occupied a corner of the dining room. But the toilet was in a tiny shack about thirty yards from the back door.
What slithered, crept, or skulked through that thirty yards in the daylight seemed harmless. Chipmunks, garter snakes; they seemed friendly enough. One evening a strange odor filled the house. That, I was told, was a skunk that had probably been frightened by a dog.
I’d heard about skunks and even seen pictures in my Golden Nature Guide to American Mammals. And I was afraid of them. They looked sneaky, and I worried that an encounter with one would embed their stench forever in my skin. One time, just to terrify me, Karl and Max Kriegel hung a giant poster of a skunk in a room in their house. They threw me in there with it and I screamed.
Once I knew that skunks visited Aunt Elsie’s backyard, my need for a midnight pee intensified. Every night I waited as long as I could until finally I had no choice but to put on my slippers, grab my flashlight, and face the unknown. It was awful.
At least Robert and Billie had a bathroom in their trailer. In later years their house would have been called a mobile home, but in the 60s it was a trailer. I got to spend a night there midweek in my stay upstate.
I liked my cousins. Rodney was older than me and a bit of a bully. He never let me forget who was bigger and stronger. I tolerated him, knowing that we had enough in common, like a love for pocket knives and bike riding, to keep our relations friendly.
Ruth Ann was a bit of a tomboy, and I loved her for that. Maybe a year younger than I, she loved to play in the dirt with toy trucks or plastic soldiers. She and I, along with Ronald, made an intricate highway system using an old butter knife to scrape out roads in the dirt of their driveway. Rodney threatened to destroy our work, but he didn’t. It lasted through both of my days at the trailer.
I thought my week at Aunt Elsie and Uncle Robbie’s would rival the terror of Brigade Camp, but it didn’t. Except for the threat of a skunk and the taunts of Cousin Rodney, it was a pretty good week.
No weeks matched the ones I spent at Aunt Barb and Uncle Freddy’s for sheer joy. Listening to Uncle Freddy’s 78s and playing with Aunt Barb’s plastic clothespins were great fun when I was very young, but once they moved to Lynbrook, and I approached my teen years, the times spent on Ocean Avenue were some of my fondest memories. Many of those memories centered on Faith, who lived next door.
Faith played a key role in my one and only night of terror in Lynbrook. It was a Friday night, and I had just turned eleven. Faith had invited me over to listen to records and watch our favorite TV show, The Twilight Zone. I loved that show. I’ve always enjoyed a good short story, and that’s really what The Twilight Zone consisted of. That night, one of the series’ best known episodes premiered: Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.
William Shatner starred in the episode as a traveler on a plane who sees some kind of gremlin messing with the wing. Neither his seat mate nor the flight attendant can see it since it disappears every time someone besides Shatner looks out the window. Just when Shatner, and the viewers, think the creature is gone, the passenger looks out the window again and there it is, full face looking in.
I practically jumped off Faith’s sofa. I’d never been so scared of anything in my life, not skunks or rats or bullies. Faith was scared too, and her parents said I could stay there a little longer until I felt safe enough to walk next door to Aunt Barb’s.
I never did feel quite safe enough, but after a while I called Aunt Barb, explained the Twilight Zone episode, and asked if she would put all the lights on in the back of the house and meet me at the back door as I ran full speed from Faith’s yard to hers.
I made it safely to Aunt Barb’s house, nestled fearfully in the guest room bed, and dreamed, of course, of the creature. The next morning I asked Aunt Barb for some crayons and a length of white paper tablecloth. I faced my fears head on by drawing my best rendering of that airborne monster. It never bothered me again. I wish I could say the same about William Shatner.
What were the holidays (Christmas or Hanukkah or other big days) like at your house? For the Baisleys, that was when the ribbon candy appeared, as you’ll see in next week’s episode of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.
Once I’d succeeded in at least grazing the archery bullseye, I began feeling a little more confident at Brigade Camp; that is, when I wasn’t near the two scariest places at the campground: the playground and the lake.
I liked playgrounds. They were familiar and mostly friendly back in the city. Oh, a friend might send you into a butt dive on the see-saw, but it was all in good fun. I had no fun in the playground at camp. First, there were no monkey bars, which were my favorite piece of playground equipment. Second, the playground was surrounded by fields of some sort, and out of those fields came mice, dozens of them every evening during free time. (Free time wasn’t really free. You had to be on the playground for half an hour after supper.) Mice terrified me. It was the tails, I think. The thought of having my feet on the ground with a mouse nearby, ready to run up my pants leg drove me to the presumed safety of the swings. Safety, ha! The swings turned out to be the most dangerous place at camp.
We heard all about the swings from kids who’d been at Brigade Camp before. They were taller than most swings, which was fine with me. Anything to keep my feet from the mice. They were not, however, tall enough to keep the counselors from giving little kids a push strong enough to send them over the top.
I’m sure you’ve heard of “over the top,” where the swing and passenger loop the crossbar. We’d heard about such things back in Canarsie, but even preteens dismissed those tales as urban legends. But this was rural, not urban, New York. And we were at a Christian camp where people only told true stories. Then there was the evidence for all first-time campers to see. At the end of one of the lines of swings, chains a knotted mass of steel, a solitary swing hung in the breeze far over our heads. The rumors were true!
I loved swinging, and I had to be on the BC swings to keep away from the infernal rodents; but every day I survived camp brought me closer to the moment a counselor would sneak up behind, grab my swing, and push me into a deadly loop.
It happened on Thursday, the week almost completed. I’d come off a reasonably good day at camp. I’d hit the target more than once at archery. I’d avoided both swimming and drowning in the lake. I’d even made an impressive defensive play on the soccer field during Team Sports hour, earning at least a little respect from my bigger, stronger peers.
I was feeling pretty good about myself as I began pumping my feet to swing higher. I never saw the counselor sneak up behind me. I only heard his snarling, sadistic voice,
“Need a push?”
The words, no thank you, stuck in my throat. It was too late to protest. He grasped my swing in his vice-like grip and pulled it back. Then, having gained the attention of every camper on the playground, he gave me a mighty push.
I swung higher than I’d ever imagined, but no more than an inch or two above the horizon as viewed between my shaking feet. As I descended I heard the laughter of every experienced camper and every counselor. I’d been duped. No one ever went over the top. I laughed along with the others, wondering deep inside what other lies I’d been told at a Christian camp.
By far the scariest part of Brigade Camp was the lake. I wasn’t afraid of the water. I’d been raised around water. Uncle Freddy had a bungalow right on the bay shore in Oakdale, Long Island. I loved that place, although jellyfish and horseshoe crabs worried me. I spent a lot of time in boats as a child. Water didn’t faze me. Swimming did. More accurately, the fear of everyone learning that I, an almost eleven year old, could not swim totally unnerved me.
Every day at camp included a water activity. As with skill building, you had to choose one. Refusing to admit Beginner Swimming was the correct choice, I had to decide between Intermediate Swimming, Advanced Swimming, and Diving. Concluding, after far too little deliberation, that Diving would be the least embarrassing to a non-swimmer, I chose it. The rhyming similarity between “diving” and “dying” escaped me. I would be a diver.
Logic indicates that diving and swimming are closely related. At Brigade Camp the relationship would be thus: the diver walks to the end of the dock, where the water is deep, dives in and—here’s the key point I’d missed—swims to the shore or to the ladder on the side of the dock.
I can’t say for sure that I never thought of the swimming part. I just figured I was joining the group to learn how best to get into the water. That’s all I would be evaluated on in the eyes of the instructors. Getting out of the lake was my responsibility. I wouldn’t be judged for it, so it didn’t matter how I did it. My primary means would be to dive in and then hold my breath while I simply walked underwater to the shallows. I kept the idea of rescue by lifeguard as my backup plan.
I never did learn to dive, or swim for that matter. The first day we lined up to be tested on our swimming ability. I positioned myself at the back of the line, and we ran out of time. I would be tested on Tuesday.
On Tuesday, just before Water Sports, I got violently ill. Stomach cramps, intestinal distress, the works. No swim test for me. I spent the afternoon at the infirmary and in my dorm.
On Wednesday I felt better and went to diving class hoping they’d forgotten that I hadn’t been swim tested. I learned the basic elements of going headfirst into a body of water, and then I joined a line of boys prepared to give it a try.
As my turn to dive approached, one of the counselors called to me, “Philip, did you ever pass your swimming test?”
I couldn’t lie. “No,” I said quietly.
“Then maybe you’d better come over here and take the test.”
I told him I couldn’t take the test because I couldn’t swim. He asked how I expected to dive if I couldn’t swim. I told him getting out of the water was my problem. I was only in class to learn ways of getting in. He spent the next two days trying to teach me to swim. He failed.
Rail-thin kids don’t float, which makes swimming very difficult. Eventually, I had to swim. The moment came when, as a young adult counselor at a Christian camp, I wanted to swim in the pool. I’d seen enough people swim to understand the basics. It was simply a matter of adding water. That day I walked to the deep end, recalled my one and only diving lesson, dove in and somehow made it to the ladder. It worked!
Brigade Camp was a terrifying experience, but it wasn’t the only one in my young life as a solo traveler. Somehow, even the most benign of sleepaway trips had a way of scaring me, as you’ll discover in the next episode of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.
An important rite of passage for American children is their first time away from home without their parents. Maybe it’s a weekend with the grandparents. Maybe it’s a three-day trip to a Disney park as a guest of their best friend’s family. My first trip away from home by myself mirrored that of many of my neighbors: summer camp. Everyone went there, boys, girls, everyone; and they seemed to enjoy it. I’d hear my friends talk about swimming and boating and campfires at some exotic Catskills location, and, of course, I wanted to try it.
My opportunity finally came in the form of the Christian Service Brigade. Christian Service Brigade was the fundamentalist Christian’s Boy Scouts. We learned things en route to rewards, kind of like merit badges. Along with tying knots, those things included Bible verses and basic doctrines of the Church. We played games in Grace Church’s fellowship hall during the winter, and we did outdoorsy things in the spring and fall.
Like Boy Scouts with their Cub Scouts, Brigade had its younger version, the Stockade. Stockade was for kids twelve and under. I was part of the “under.” My late year birthday kept me in Stockade even when other kids in my school grade were promoted to Brigade. This kept alive my jealousy of the Brigade guys longer than most of my fellow Stockaders.
We had every right to be jealous of the Brigadiers; they did the fun stuff. Our games were tame, like kickball; theirs were wild, uninhibited, like dog piling, where everyone jumps on top of one kid and a splendid time is had by all.
Indelibly etched into my brain is the winter night I felt the most childish, the farthest separated from the Brigadiers, who included some of my own 93rd Street Gang members. We Stockaders were in the balcony of the fellowship hall, probably having a Bible study. All of a sudden a commotion sent sounds of unparalleled excitement from the floor below. Before we had a chance to crowd the railing to see what had happened, an adult leader rushed in to shepherd us out of the balcony. Blinded by our confinement in a little lobby, we could only imagine the thrill of what was happening beyond the double doors.
Soon the details began filtering out to us. It was more awesome than we’d imagined. Big Nick had broken his arm. This was too much. Can you imagine what kind of fun the Brigadiers must have been having for Big Nick to break an arm? We never had that kind of fun in Stockade. Jealousy ruled the Stockade that night and for weeks afterward.
During my year in Stockade we heard a lot about Brigade Camp. It sounded like a cross between those Catskills camps my friends went to every summer and Marine boot camp. I begged my parents to send me once I found out that Billy Knudsen was going too; and, although he was ahead of me in school, he was close to my age chronologically, and he was still in Stockade like me. I’d be in camp with my hero from the 93rd Street Gang. Oh happy day!
The week of Brigade Camp finally arrived, and Mom and Pop drove me there. It was somewhere Upstate, probably the Protestant side of the Catskills. Billy and his parents arrived about the same time, and together we went to register. That’s when things started to unravel.
By virtue of his being older than I, Billy ended up in a different cabin. My one link to East 93rd Street—home—was broken. I was on my own among seven strangers, one of whom was our counselor, who was indeed stranger than most. He had this perpetually faraway look in his eyes. By midweek, rumors were flying about his use of chemical additives. None proved to be factual, but that hardly mattered to us campers.
Mom and Pop had warned me about homesickness, so I anticipated a certain longing for my own bed and my stuffed animals. (Stockaders weren't expected to need stuffed animals.) What they didn’t warn me about was having to pee in the middle of a cold, dark Upstate night. And that first night I had the urge.
The thought of venturing into the black void between my cabin and the toilet/shower complex terrified me. Least of all were the skunks and bears I might encounter on the way. My greatest fear was that I might meet another boy on the way to relieve himself. I had a kind of performance anxiety about peeing in public. If I had to pee next to another kid, well, I might as well wait until morning. That night I did.
The next night I could not hold it in no matter how hard I tried. I slipped quietly out of my bunk, secured a pair of flip-flops to my feet, and opened the cabin door to a frigid Upstate night.
The distance from my cabin to the shower/toilet house was maybe 50 yards. It seemed like a mile. Every step brought a new sound: the chirp of a cricket, the patter of rodent feet, the whoosh of a breeze through tree branches. My nose hairs stood on end anticipating the dreaded scent of a skunk.
Just short of an eternity later I reached the toilet. Praise the Lord, no other campers were there. Oh my God! No other campers were there! I stood alone at the urinal.
I had to go, but to do so meant making myself totally vulnerable for at least a minute. If a bear stuck his head in the door, I couldn’t run. If another boy entered the building, I would be completely out in the open. Every second burned with agony.
Finally I finished and made my way back to the cabin. My warm sleeping bag felt so good after the cold night air: the cold night air that was already making me need to pee again. Nights at camp were horrible.
Days at camp weren’t much better.
Day One started out with great promise. After a breakfast of cereal and milk—eggs might have been on the menu, but I didn’t eat eggs at the time—the Activities Director helped us sort ourselves into interest groups for our major week-long skill building activity. Since some of the choices included boating (swimming proficiency, which I lacked, required) and air riflery (Mom made me promise not to try it), I opted for horsemanship. I loved horses. As a backup I picked something a short, skinny, non-swimmer could do, or so I thought: archery. I got my second choice.
What could be more equal to my experience than archery? I’d watched Errol Flynn in Robin Hood six times in one week on the Million Dollar Movie on WOR-TV. I loved the television series, Ivanhoe. And every time I heard the story of Custer at the Little Bighorn, I couldn’t help but admire the skill of the Sioux warriors. Yep, it would be archery for me.
I learned a lot that week. At our first session with the archery instructors I learned a new song. Each of the skill building groups had a theme song. Ours, sung to The Caissons Go Rolling Along, was The Archers of Good Ol’ BC. BC referred to Brigade Camp not some prehistoric ancestors. I memorized the song overnight because they told us there’d be a test the next day.
There wasn’t. There was, however, more to learn: bow and arrow safety.
If you had asked me, prior to my joining the Archers of good ol’ BC, what bow and arrow safety was all about, I would have naively responded that one should not point a loaded bow at someone.
At Brigade Camp I learned about the safety equipment we were issued. First, I had to slide some kind of leather band up the arm that held the bow. This was to protect my arm from the arrow passing by and from getting thwacked by the bow. Then I had to put a little leather Band-Aid-like device on my string hand fingers to protect them from something. After a few practice attempts at putting on the safety equipment, I was ready to load and aim my first arrow. But that would come tomorrow.
Wednesday activity time arrived—finally—and we, the Archers of good ol’ BC, were ready to shoot. The targets seemed close enough for our amateur status, although we were sure we could hit them from much farther away. I joined the line that stretched opposite a row of concentric circle bullseyes, donned my safety gear, received the long-awaited bow and quiver of arrows from the counselor, and prepared to fire. That’s when I realized I was not as suited for archery as I’d imagined.
Pulling back the string, with an arrow on the bow, required a lot more strength than my skinny arms were used to mustering. I tried my best, grunting a little, until the string was as far back as I could get it. Then I released the arrow. About halfway to the target it dropped to the ground.
My learning curve that day included the concept of trajectory. Lacking the arm strength to pull the string tighter, I had to find an alternate route to the target. The counselor suggested I aim higher and let gravity do the rest. With renewed confidence I set arrow to bow and tried again. This time the arrow hit the ground only a few feet short of the target. Gravity worked, but a little too well.
Determination drove me to one more attempt before the end of activity time that day. This time I would use my new friend, trajectory, to its fullest potential. I aimed high, and yet I kept one eye on the bullseye. Summoning strength I didn’t know I had, I pulled back the string and then let go. Thwack! The string cracked in my ear, and the arrow was on its way. A second later its silver tip struck, bullseye! Then it bounced harmlessly to the ground. My best, my absolute best shot still did not possess the velocity to pierce the target, but at least I knew I’d hit dead center.
My archery improved slightly during the remaining two days of Brigade Camp, and that part became my favorite time of the day. Meals weren’t too bad either. I liked the way we called the watered down Kool-Aid, “bug juice.” Still, terror lurked in two locations on the camp’s acreage: the playground and the lake.
You'll read more about the playground and the lake in the next episode of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.
I wasn’t raised color blind. I knew there were people with different skin tones. Okay, I was pasty white. Everybody had a different skin tone than I. But I knew that black people lived in the Projects down by Jamaica Bay. White folks lived there too, I was recently surprised to learn, including the man who one day would be CEO of Starbucks. I did know one black family who lived in a predominantly Jewish part of Canarsie. For a year in junior high their son and I palled around, hanging out in one another’s homes. I think his parents had moved there from Jamaica or someplace.
The 93rd Street Gang were as racist as anyone else in the 60s, and the names we called each other—names we’d never use today—reflected that. If you were black… well, we’d have used a word beginning with N. If you were Puerto Rican you were a spic. Toody Marciano and Jerry Lombardi were wops. One day, gang members Billy Walker (mom from Puerto Rico), Susan Sullivan (Irish), and Toody were walking side by side ahead of the rest of us. Soon those in the rear, me included, started chanting, “Spicmickwop” over and over. Kids are cruel, but we loved each other.
We didn’t really know many black kids. The Alcantaras were dark-skinned, but they were Puerto Rican, like Billy Walker. If a black family had moved into the new houses put up in the vacant lot next door to my house, instead of the Romanos (wops), and had kids our age, they’d have probably gotten into the gang just like Mary Romano did.
The biggest difference I saw between blacks and whites in Canarsie was economic. Blacks lived in the Projects. The apartments were smaller than the half-houses my friends lived in. It wasn’t the ghetto Elvis sang about, the Projects, but it wasn’t like my neighborhood either.
In the winter of 1961 I learned there were worse places to be black than Canarsie.
John graduated from Brooklyn Tech in 1960. After three days as a chemical engineering major at City College of New York, he left academia for good and joined the U.S. Marines, heading to Parris Island, South Carolina for boot camp.
Boot camp was everything one might expect. Not long ago, when prepping for a role in the play, A Few Good Men, I asked John what boot camp was like in the Marines. He said, “Did you ever see the movie Full Metal Jacket? That’s what it was like.”
Mom, Pop, their friends Madelyn and Mervin, and I went to South Carolina for John’s graduation. Road trips always meant a crowd for my family. I guess if a car wasn’t full it wasn’t worth wasting the gas. After Parris Island we headed for Daytona Beach, Florida.
Before long we were in the Deep South. In 1961. Somewhere on US 501 I had to go to the bathroom, probably when Pop stopped for gas, maybe sooner. We pulled into a gas station, and I jumped out of the 1960 Ford Fairlane. I ran to pee and stopped cold.
Before me stood the doors to two men’s rooms: one was pristine, white, shiny; the other had peeling paint over rotting gray wood. Mine, at least I hoped it was mine, said MEN. The other said COLORED. Weird, I thought.
After ridding myself of the last bit of fluid, I needed to replenish. I looked for a water fountain and found two. Again, the clean porcelain of one—unmarked—contrasted with the brown and green stained bowl of the other, marked COLORED. Enjoying my privilege, I drank from the nice one.
That night, in a motel with a Magic Fingers vibrating bed (25 cents), I asked Pop about the water fountains. I’d like to say he told me how wrong they, and the bathrooms, were; but I just can’t remember. I know they bothered him. I also suspect they didn’t surprise him. I’m sure he knew life was like that only 600 miles from Canarsie. Was it like that in Canarsie? I don’t remember, which may mean it was.
But maybe there was hope, at least in little bits.
All the kids at Grace Church called Pop “Uncle Artie.” It wasn’t that special. “Uncle” and “Aunt” were terms of respect used by children of all their elders at Grace.
I remember one Saturday when Mom and Pop and I were shopping at the Bohack supermarket on Avenue K, about where what used to be Canarsie High School sits now. We neared the checkout when a little black kid came running full tilt down the produce aisle. It was Curtis, whose family occasionally attended Grace Church.
“Uncle Artie! Uncle Artie,” Curtis joyously shouted for all to hear as he jumped full body into my father’s arms. White folks’ eyes fastened on Pop from all over the store. Pop didn’t put Curtis on the sawdust-lined floor until he’d given him the biggest hug ever.
I wish it were all so simple.
Did you go to summer camp when you were a kid? I’ll share my camp experience in next week’s episode of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.
In the early 1960s, men were men and, as the saying goes, “women were glad of it.” John Wayne was hitting his stride, and Rock Hudson was a ruggedly closeted heartthrob. Although men ruled their homes, as in the Cleaver household in Leave it to Beaver and the Stone household in the Donna Reed Show, the “man as tough guy” image was often overshadowed by the “man as vulnerable hero” (Jimmy Stewart), as a debonair ladies’ man (David Niven), and as a suave secret agent (Sean Connery as James Bond). Villains, usually played by Lee Marvin or Edward G. Robinson, were exaggerated masculine images, but they were bad guys and often looked like nothing more than childish bullies on the screen. Fuzzy was tougher by a mile.
I was jealous of the tough guys, but I don’t think I ever really wanted to be one. Not that I liked being the skinny weakling, but I learned early on that strength isn’t always measured by the size of one’s biceps. In other words, I knew what a “real man” was. Of course, the lesson reached me through the medium of television.
The first male role model I recall was Chuck Connors’ character in The Rifleman: Lucas McCain. It’s funny, as I write this I am sitting at my favorite bar intermittently reading Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir, Fun Home. On a page where the child Alison is oblivious to her father’s attraction for young men, there appears on a TV screen some scenes from The Rifleman. Somehow a book about coming to grips with one’s sexuality—and one’s father’s—fits in a chapter about real men.
Lucas McCain was a real man, and not because he carried his eponymous weapon. The lessons I gleaned from McCain, the ones he taught his son (played by Johnny Crawford, a kid whose looks I was jealous of), were about helping those less fortunate, obtaining justice for those denied, and choosing delayed (over instant) gratification. Lucas McCain had the coolest gun, but he tried not to use it. To use your primary weapon outside of absolute necessity is to abuse it. I don’t think McCain ever said that, but he could have.
Guns were an integral part of play for the boys in my neighborhood. We’d choose sides—good guys versus bad guys—and divvy up the arsenal of toy revolvers, automatics, and rifles. Sometimes as many as eight or ten guys would join the battle. But when I was by myself I played with plastic soldiers.
Three nights later, while kids and parents were still talking about Combat!, ABC also rolled out a quieter, more introspective war series: The Gallant Men. It featured a squad of G.I.s fighting their way through Italy in 1943.
The Gallant Men was an unusual war show in that one of the main characters was a war correspondent. I don’t remember whether the man was a pacifist or not. At that time I had no clue what that word meant. But I never saw him carry a gun, only a pencil and a pad or a typewriter. What courage, I thought. What determination. To get the story out to the world. To put the truth above your own safety. That’s what I wanted to do. Most kids’ first “when I grow up” job was firefighter or veterinarian or baseball player. Mine was war correspondent. I found a copy of Ernie Pyle’s Brave Men in, of all places, my brother’s library. I wanted to bring stories back from a war I didn’t even know existed at the time. I took it so far that when playing The Game of Life I’d desperately want to land on the spot that made one a journalist. That dream ended after a two-year stint as gossip columnist, under a pen name, for my college newspaper.
The Gallant Men lasted only one year. Nobody watched it. When I’d tell the gang about the latest episode they’d get on me about watching a sissified version of a war show. Judgment reached a new low when I, as much a war lover as anyone, was chastised for choosing the wrong WWII TV series. I guess real men were watching Combat!.
Hollywood’s role models changed over the years, but my one constant image of a real man was my dad.
Pop was never that tall, barely topping out at 5’10”, although he shrank considerably in the waning years of his life. He was more wiry than muscular, though he managed to play a little semi-pro football in his young adulthood. We never had a gun in our house, but Pop was reputed to be a crack shot with a .22 when hunting rats on Pumpkin Patch, a sandbar off the coast of Canarsie Pier. In other words, he did traditionally manly things, but he did them in his own non-traditional ways.
Pop was a bundle of contradictions. He was a fiscal conservative, a political moderate, and a staunch union man, all the while voting straight ticket Republican his whole life. Actually, that wasn’t too much of a stretch. Pop lived in an era whose Republican stars—Eisenhower, Nixon, Rockefeller, even Barry Goldwater—would be vilified as flaming liberals by today’s GOP standards.
Pop was no liberal, but he was no party’s fool either. The same could be said of his religion. In the jargon of his day, Pop was a fundamentalist. That meant he adhered to certain doctrines such as biblical inerrancy, the virgin birth of Jesus Christ, Jesus’ death on behalf of humanity, and Jesus’ physical resurrection and eventual return. Other than avoiding habits like drinking and smoking, Pop’s fundamentalism didn’t meddle much in people’s lives.
Still, the fundamentalism of Pop’s day did give rise to contemporary evangelicalism, even though evangelicals in the 1950s were considered by fundamentalists to be only slightly right of the worst of the liberals. Again, Pop’s personal expression of faith did not toe the party line.
One “Pop story” stands out in my memory as an example of that faith. It happened on a Sunday afternoon when Pop said, after a service at Grace Church, “Don’t put your play clothes on after dinner. We’re going out again.” (No matter that I was probably fifteen by then, whatever I changed into after church was always “play clothes.”)
Whenever Pop spoke like that, I knew an adventure was in store. Pop’s adventures could be pretty unusual. Like the time on a family vacation somewhere in New England when we visited a waterfall. Pop noticed a series of rocks jutting out to the middle of the river just above the falls.
“Phil, do you think you can climb out there?”
“Sure thing, Pop!”
With a twelve-year-old’s bravado, I risked life and limb maneuvering myself to a precarious perch above the raging waters. I even hung on with my feet alone, raising my hands triumphantly as Pop got out his camera...which he turned to the shore as he yelled, “Hey Fran! Look what your son is doing!” He wanted to capture Mom’s terrified reaction.
This day’s adventure, beginning right after Sunday dinner, surprised me more than most. We dashed to the Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser and headed toward the Belt Parkway. Pretty soon we were in a section of Queens I’d only seen before in passing. We never stopped there. At least I’d never stopped there.
Exiting the parkway and winding through city streets until we ended up back near the Belt, we pulled up to a white clapboard-sided church. Pop parked the Olds, and we walked toward the front door.
“What church is this?” I asked.
“I know some people who go here,” Pop answered. “They asked me to serve on an ordination council. Today that young man is going to be ordained as a minister.”
I didn’t recognize the name on the announcement board in front of the building. It wasn’t a Baptist Church, like the ones on the Island we played volleyball against. It wasn’t another Independent Fundamental Church like Grace. It was a Church of Christ or something.
The name wasn’t the only thing that was different. Once inside the door, staring at row after row of maple-stained pews, I noticed that Pop and I were the only two white faces in the building.
“You know these people?”
“Well, some of them. We go way back. I sing here sometimes. They wanted an impartial layperson to serve on the council, so they asked me. That’s why I was away some evenings last month.”
Stunned, I sat beside Pop through the solemn service that was punctuated by outbursts of “Amen” and “Well” and “Yes, yes” along with loud, joyful, definitely not Grace Church-style, singing.
“Who is Pop?” I wondered as we drove quietly back to Canarsie. There was no easy answer. But over the years I grew to respect and admire the quiet strength, courage, and contradictions that were the real man I knew as Pop.
The visit to that church in Queens wasn’t my first lesson in black and white, as you’ll see in next week’s episode of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.
I don’t know what you think of when you hear the word “gang” in a New York City context. There are a few possibilities. You could be thinking of the Leonardo DiCaprio and Daniel Day-Lewis movie, Gangs of New York. That movie contained elements of truth about New York in the decades leading up to the American Civil War, but it didn’t have much to do with my experience. Around the time the Five Points gangs were duking it out in lower Manhattan, my great-great grandparents were helping establish Grace Church in Brooklyn.
You could be thinking of Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall, and their cronies, who populated the “Dead End Kids” and “Bowery Boys” movies. They epitomized the ideal of street-wise youth with hearts of gold hidden just beneath their rough exterior. Street-wise we were, I suppose. After all, most of us survived well into adulthood. But our hearts clung mostly to our sleeves rather than below a tough-guy image.
That leaves the Sharks and the Jets of West Side Story. Those gangs carried switchblades, tire chains, and zip guns. People died in that play. People also sang and danced—a lot. Except for the tire chains and zip guns, that was our incarnation of the 93rd Street Gang. Toody Marciano showed us a switchblade once, but I think he was scared to carry it; something to do with it springing to life in his front pocket. We all understood—no switchblades. So, without weapons of street war, the 93rd Street Gang followed the lead of the Sharks and the Jets: we broke into song at the drop of a hat.
Music dominated our lives. Why wouldn’t it? From Fats Domino and Buddy Holly to the Everly Brothers, Dion, and Little Richard to the Beach Boys, the Beatles, and the Stones; we lived in what is arguably the best musical epoch in history. And then there was Broadway.
As far as I know, no member of the 93rd Gang saw a real live Broadway show during our collective childhood, but that didn’t matter. Show tunes topped the music charts in the 1950s. I didn't know it at the time, but the songs Pop sang around the house—when not practicing gospel tunes—songs like Surrey with the Fringe on Top and Some Enchanted Evening were straight from Broadway.
I remember falling in love with show tunes when Isaac Bildersee Junior High’s orchestra first played excerpts from Fiddler on the Roof. I was in ecstasy and not just because I had a crush on a flute player. Until then I didn’t know music could bring out the emotions of a story better than words alone. I was hooked.
The rest of the gang, being one or two years older than I, had known about this magic for a while. I remember the fierce competition between Billy Knudsen and Eddie Gentile over who could do the best Anthony Newley impression. I never joined in, being too timid for solos even in the gang, but I loved it. Today I often listen to the On Broadway channel on Sirius XM radio. No longer inhibited, with gusto I join Newley in belting What Kind of Fool Am I?. Billy went on to a long career in some giant corporation. Eddie made it into show business as a performer, choreographer, and teacher. And what kind of fool am I? I make occasional appearances in community theater musicals, sing in a folk duo, and write songs about dragons, Tiffany boxes, and a house in Canarsie that’s no longer there.
My house was an anomaly in a Brooklyn neighborhood in the 1960s. My junior high friends called it a museum. I used to give tours of the attic and cellar. Yes, we had a cellar. It in no way resembled the basements most houses sit on.
You reached the cellar by descending a rickety wooden stairway. No one ever took the time to install a light switch at the top of the stairs, so you used a flashlight to get to one of the pull chains on the bulbs that illuminated most of the cellar. Boxes and barrels lined the walls, and in the center of it all was an oil furnace. It smelled like, well, I guess the smell was oil. One time it smelled worse. Apparently the burner malfunctioned and the old contraption began emitting carbon monoxide. Mom was the first to smell it when she returned from driving one of the church ladies to a hairdresser appointment. Like most women of her era, before turning to a professional to deal with the potentially deadly problem, she called her husband. Eventually, even before I got home from school, a repair man came and fixed the furnace. Pop, as usual, was the hero.
Near the furnace stood my favorite piece of cellar furniture, the wringer washer. For Mom, wash days were weekly events, each one consuming eight hours of loading, unloading, and wringing. This repetition led to hanging the wet clothes on a washline that stretched from the back corner of the house to a pulley high on a wooden utility-like pole in the backyard. Shirts, socks, and underwear flapped in the breeze some twenty feet above the ground, for all to see.
I loved washdays in the summer when school was out. Perhaps my fondest memory of all was lying just inside the backdoor while Mom hung laundry on a sunny afternoon. I lay there with my head on a red pillow that was shaped like a horse. I think it actually was a horse when I was a preschooler. It was shaped for riding if the rider was a toddler. For a schoolkid it worked as a pillow. As the sun beat down on my skinny frame, I felt so warm, bathed in its radiance and Mom’s love. I suspect heaven has a backdoor; not for letting people in or out, but just for lying around on a stuffed horse and basking in light.
The attic at 1304 was reached by ascending a steep stairway. Treasures awaited. Pirate chests filled with old clothes stood side-by side. Ancient lithographs of forgotten Baisleys lined up, each covered with a piece of white sheet or pillowcase. A dozen oil lamps filled the base of an old end table. Flatirons like soldiers at attention defended the area under the front window. A vacuum cleaner from the 1930s watched over a commode chair (yes, a chair with a toilet in it, the pot discreetly veiled by a flowered curtain). My friends loved that part of the tour best.
I had to change some numbers around for rhyme and rhythm purposes, but you’ll figure it out. If you listen carefully toward the end of the third verse, you just might hear the 93rd Street gang.
PART OF MY HEART
Words and music by Philip C. Baisley © 2012 Baisltunes (ASCAP)
(inspired by William Trevor’s short story The Piano Tuner’s Wıves)
There were doilies on the tables on both sides of the sofa
And a stain deep in the paper near the clock upon the wall
If you listened you could hear the mice gnawing on the plaster
Somewhere in the space between my bedroom and the hall
Every Christmas Eve there was a tree, it reached as high as heaven
And oatmeal raisin cookies for when Santa came to call
Each wear spot on the carpet, every finger-painted doorknob
Just the way we left them, in my mind I see them all
But thirteen-ten North Ninth Street can’t be Googled, can’t be plotted
By any satellite or GPS found anywhere
It’s just a few apartments, thirteen-two –eight –twelve and twenty
But somewhere in the middle part of my heart’s still beating there
They said, “You can’t go home again,” I guess they really meant it
When someone takes a bulldozer and buries memories
But I still hear the Ninth Street Gang singin’ Sherry Baby
And I still smell the sweet perfume of the evergreens
But thirteen-ten North Ninth Street can’t be Googled, can’t be plotted
By any satellite or GPS found anywhere
It’s just a few apartments, thirteen-two –eight –twelve and twenty
But somewhere in the middle part of my heart’s still beating there
No ghost can haunt a place when there’s no place a ghost can haunt
No self-respecting spectre would appear
There’s not a speck of dust to mark the place I spent my childhood
There’s just a part of my heart I left there
And thirteen-ten North Ninth Street can’t be Googled, can’t be plotted
By any satellite or GPS found anywhere
It’s just a few apartments, thirteen-two –eight –twelve and twenty
But somewhere in the middle part of my heart’s still beating there
What does the term “real man” mean to you? You’ll meet my role model of a real man in the next episode of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.
Every day at P.S.114 carried with it a fair amount of dread for this undersized, underweight, fourth-grader, but a certain day in the late winter of 1962 raised my terror to previously unimagined heights. It started with an innocuous bulletin board posting a week or so earlier.
SIGN UP HERE
I knew I was not cut out for baseball. My hand-eye coordination was unfit for the complexity of hitting a fastball. The delicate, stubby fingers I inherited from my mother didn’t help me at all in the field. They didn’t reach halfway into a glove’s fingers. Softball wasn’t a better option. By whose definition was “soft” applicable to those balls? Still I had aspirations of being like the other guys, so I wanted to be a ballplayer of some sort. Wiffle would do, right?
I signed the sheet, took home the requisite permission slip for Mom to sign—relieving the Board of Education of responsibly in the event of my death—and waited for the league meeting to take place. The wait provided its own kind of anguish.
The league meeting was the place where the teacher in charge of after school activities would create teams to compete for the Wiffleball Trophy. I was no stranger to team creation, a special kind of heartache for kids like me.
Most of the time, teams on the street and in the schoolyard were chosen by the big, strong natural leaders among the kids. Schoolyard team captains picked me last every time except when they didn’t pick me at all. When that happened, the teacher would assign me to an unlucky team. I hoped the wiffleball league would see me assigned to a team, resulting in their disappointment, rather than having team captains make the choices, resulting in my disappointment.
I was lucky—for a moment—that afternoon. The teacher came to the meeting with team rosters already decided. Atop each team’s roster was the name of an older student who would be their captain. My name, beginning with a B, sat directly beneath that of my new captain, Fuzzy Porcaro. I wanted to run home to Mom’s lap. I almost puked. I wondered if a nine-year-old facing certain death should have a will. Please, God, not Fuzzy.
Every school has its bullies. There’s a pecking order. You have the kids who are quick to take advantage of any shortcomings they observe in other kids. If you are too short or too tall, too slim or a bit overweight, wear braces or last year’s clothes, or have the slightest inkling of sensitivity toward criticism, you are fair game for these bullies. They, in turn, are the prey of bigger bullies.
Bigger bullies are the ones who not only harass us little kids, usually extorting from us milk money or homework production, but they include regular bullies in their threats. But even these bullies have their ultimate bully. At P.S. 114 it was Fuzzy.
Fuzzy was perpetually in sixth grade. Rumor had it he was in his twenties. I suspect he was maybe 13, having been held back a grade or two. He certainly was big enough to have been a teenager.
Fuzzy never smiled. His coal black eyes could penetrate steel, and he was rumored to have put dozens of kids in the hospital. Of course, no one knew who those kids were. We did know, however, that life was a lot easier when Fuzzy wasn’t around. For the duration of wiffleball season, or until he chose to terminate me, I would be Fuzzy’s teammate.
Wiffleball league games were played in the school basement, where I would always be reminded of one of my most embarrassing moments. That basement consisted of two cavernous rooms separated by a long hallway. At one end of the hallway sat the music room, and at the other end the cafeteria and lunchroom.
Public schools in the early sixties served lunches prepared on site mostly from scratch. The food may not have tasted much better than it does now, but I think it was healthier. We even had homemade soup, and that was my downfall.
During the winter of second grade, Mom made me wear a tweed coat with matching cap. My God, it felt ugly even then, but I never questioned wearing it, even in the chilly basement lunchroom of P.S.114. One day, as I was ladling vegetable soup from the big pot at the beginning of the line, the unthinkable happened; my tweed cap leapt from my head and into the soup.
I took in the scene as if it were an out-of-body experience. I saw a small boy staring into a steaming pot; in the pot swam diced carrots, sliced green beans, and a speckled cap whose shades of brown and gray had already begun to turn red from the broth. The hat bobbed. The boy’s eyes began to blur. The hat he hated became the object of his fiercest love. How he longed for it to be back on his head. And then he cried. He wailed. This brought the lunch lady to investigate.
With her bare hand, the lunch lady reached into the cauldron, risking certain second-degree burns, and retrieved the cap, bits of potato still clinging to its brim. She handed it to the boy.
That is when it hit me that this was real. I held the dripping cap while the entire lunchroom laughed at me. Then, sobbing violently, I ran to the boys’ room, soaked the cap with water, dried it as best I could with industrial brown paper towels, and placed it on my head. Returning to the lunchroom, still with tears glistening my eyes, I asked the lunch lady to help me get some soup.
For some reason, after the laughter died down, nobody made a special effort to make fun of me. I guess no words could top the image in everyone’s brain, especially mine.
In that same basement, the masking tape outline of home plate was near the kitchen. The bases intermingled with the pillars that supported the superstructure of P.S.114. The far wall of the dining area formed the outfield fence, except for the hallway leading to the music room. That hallway was the only place a guaranteed home run was possible; once a well-struck wiffleball reached that point, nothing remained to stop its progress.
Now that I’d been assigned to Fuzzy’s team, the pressure to perform, under penalty of death, overwhelmed me and took away any chance I might have had at being a successful ballplayer. I showed up for the first game paler than usual, a little sick to my stomach, and prepared for the worst.
On the bright side, my team was amazing. Fuzzy was a thoroughly capable leader. He drew up each game’s lineup according to our batting ability. I secured the bottom of the lineup card, and never once did I disappoint; no hits were expected and none were achieved. I think I walked once and scored a run, becoming a solid asterisk in the record books.
Fuzzy also positioned us defensively according to our ability, himself being the pitcher and everyone holding down the position that best suited their catching and throwing skills. Each game found me in the one spot where I could do the least amount of harm: guarding the hallway in deep left field. Generally, if a ball got that far, the fielder’s only responsibilities included stopping it from rolling down the hall and throwing it to someone else who might throw it home for a miraculous play at the plate.
Thanks to Fuzzy’s all-around athleticism, our team only lost one game, tying us for first place and forcing a playoff for the league championship. Thanks to Fuzzy’s managerial skills, I never had the opportunity to contribute to or detract from the team. Thanks to good fortune, only one ball ever got near me. I stopped it with my foot, nervously picked it up, and threw it about 20 feet to the real left fielder.
The playoff started well, with my team—that is, Fuzzy’s team—taking a big early lead. The other team whittled away at that lead until we were barely hanging on by two runs going into the bottom of the last inning. Fuzzy got a couple of outs, but our opponents got a couple of hits. Then the unthinkable happened.
The next batter slammed the first pitch to deep left field. No one in the league had ever hit a ball that far on the fly, let alone a line drive. Fuzzy spun around to watch the carnage and, probably, to plot his revenge. I barely saw the white sphere coming. I stuck up my right hand, the one on which I’d have a glove if we were playing real baseball, not wiffleball.
Holes. Wiffle balls have holes. Lots of them. Holes make wiffle balls dance in the air, the basic challenge of the game.
My middle finger moved toward its destiny as the line drive raced at it. I could hear the expletives gushing from Fuzzy’s lips. I couldn’t see the broad smiles on the faces of the other team. I couldn’t even see the ball as it hit that stubby finger—and stuck fast, finger firmly embedded in a hole.
Game over. Fuzzy’s team wins by two. League champions, 1962.
Fuzzy, the meanest, toughest kid in P.S.114, ran toward me, his eyes glistening. He scooped up my diminutive body and he—not the team, he--carried me to the school kitchen for the award ceremony. That would have been great enough, but then he did more. As we walked out of P.S.114 into the late afternoon sun, he said,
“Do you need a ride home?”
“I can walk.”
“The hell you will,” Fuzzy answered.
He set me on the handlebars of his big black Schwinn and rode me home like I was the hero in my own parade. From then on, Fuzzy and I were... no, not friends, but acquaintances; no longer predator and prey.
My Fuzzy parade changed my life. No one messed with me anymore, just in case Fuzzy was watching. Later that year Fuzzy finally passed sixth grade and presumably went on to junior high. I never saw him again. The next year, with a confidence I’d never known before, I volunteered as a school patrol guard, assigned to protect littler kids from bullies. In sixth grade I was promoted to main entrance guard. Before locked doors with buzzers, before metal detectors and resource officers, P.S.114 had me and Robert Singleton, a fellow sixth grader, keeping uninvited guests out of the hallowed halls. Thank you, Fuzzy.
P.S.114’s main entrance in 2019
When you think of a New York City street gang what comes to mind? West Side Story’s Sharks and Jets? The Bowery Boys? The Dead End Kids? You’ll hear more about the 93rd Street Gang in next week’s episode of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.