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 beginnings 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.
In an era where “tall, dark, and handsome” dominated the TV and movie screens, and the classrooms of P.S.114 as far as I could tell, I had that losing trifecta of short, pale, and skinny, which equaled ugly. I truly believed that. Sometimes I still do.
Short was easy to measure. Whenever my class lined up I was third, alphabetically and by height. Jon Abrams was first. He was shorter than I, but he had dark, wavy hair and a voice as big as Ethel Merman’s. I think we were in a third grade assembly program when Jon first sang He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands. Teachers swooned. I decided never to sing again; I’d heard the best.
Star light star bright,
Send me a Bassowitz milky white.
In that one verse the gang managed to critique both my complexion and my choice of friends outside the gang. You see, the gang featured an uneasy truce between Catholics and Protestants; English, Irish, Germans, and Italians. They even welcomed Puerto Ricans from time to time. But Jews were forbidden. Even befriending the people who comprised almost half our neighborhood would get you in trouble, and a sarcastic nickname.
The gang began calling me Bassowitz after word got out that I was spending time after school with Mark, from the part of Canarsie west of Remsen Avenue, and with Scott, from just up the street. Both kids had descended from Eastern European Jews and had been touched by the Holocaust. They were my friends neither because of nor in spite of their being Jewish. We simply liked doing the same things, and we laughed at each other’s jokes. Even today, if you do those things I will be your friend 'til death do us part.
Grace Church taught us that God had called the Jews to be his Chosen People. They were special. To a church steeped in dispensational theology, reading regularly the Scofield Reference Bible, and believing that one day Christ would rule and reign in Jerusalem, we should have been thrilled to be friends of Jews. As a religious group, we weren’t. I don’t know why. I only know it hurt when my very first friends could not accept my new friends.
Judgment goes many ways, I soon learned. At the same time as I was being judged by the gang for befriending Jews, I was joining with the gang in condemning Jews to hell. To be fair, I didn’t single Jews out. I believed everyone was going to hell except for people who prayed the “sinner’s prayer” and asked Jesus into their heart. Jews just happened to be born with the disadvantage of claiming him as one of their own but not having him claim them as his own. It seemed to make sense back then.
Mom and Pop were the exceptions. Mark, Scott, Jon, all were welcome at their house. Sure, they wanted Jews to accept Jesus as their Messiah, but they never pushed, never threatened hellfire and damnation. Their method of evangelism was love and hospitality, and leave it for God to judge.
I’m not sure the Protestants and Catholics who comprised the 93rd Street Gang really hated the Jews all that much; they were just less tolerant of them. The gang reserved their greatest hatred for each other. This was before Vatican II offered the possibility of mutual salvation through the church, whether or not you followed the authority of the Pope.
In the pre-Vatican II gang, we members of Grace Church knew beyond all doubt that the kids from Holy Family Church were hell-bent idolaters who confessed their sins to a priest instead of directly to God. The Irish and Italian members of Holy Family knew beyond all doubt that the kids from Grace were “outside the Church,” and that was enough to warrant eternal damnation without even the option of Purgatory. “Prots” and “Cats” we jeered at each other. But we didn’t jeer much. Insults were only hurled when we had nothing else to do, and that was rare. Usually, we were too busy playing punchball in the street, stoopball on Kurt, Judy, or Susan’s stoop, or ring-o-leevio after dark. Only on those days when someone would ask, “What’d’ya wanna do?” and heard the response, “I dunno. What’d’you wanna do?” would arguments ensue. Then all stops were pulled, and our customary religious tolerance gave way to holy war. 'Damn Cats!' 'Damn Prots!' Insults often accelerated until one side or the other unleashed a phrase beginning with “Your mother...” Eventually we dropped the descriptions or definitions of each other’s parentage and gave the verbal shorthand, “Yuh muthuh!” That ended it, and we tolerated our differences again. Except for Jews. The gang never tolerated Jews. I did, and paid for it until I realized, perhaps irrationally, that if the Jews were God’s Chosen People, and I was being called a Jew, then that put me in pretty good company. From then on I wore the nickname Bassowitz proudly. Except sometimes late at night when I didn’t.
Short and pale I couldn’t change. My third defining characteristic, skinniness, I tried and tried to overcome, but it didn’t work. I looked and felt like the 98-pound weakling the cool guys kicked sand at in ads for somebody’s bodybuilding program, but I’d have had to gain some weight to reach 98 pounds. With twig-like arms and spindly legs, short delicate fingers, and a perpetual crew cut, I prepared myself for failure every day. Seldom was the effort fruitless, especially when bullies showed their menacing faces.
Bullies. The mere word strikes terror in our hearts. You’ll hear the story of the biggest, baddest bully P.S.114 ever knew in next week’s episode of Tales of a Canaries Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.
Some people are named by their parents after some great person or family hero. I was named by my brother after no one in particular.
John wanted me to be named Philip Charles. I don’t know why. And I don’t understand why Mom and Pop would allow a ten-year-old to name their baby. What were they thinking? It was 1952. My brother listened to the radio—a lot. He could have chosen Amos or Andy or Lamont or Hopalong, which would have been cool. No, he lobbied for Philip. Was it because a Philip was married to Queen Elizabeth of England? Maybe. Perhaps he thought his new baby brother was a princely fellow. That would explain my middle name being Charles, another princely name. I hated both names. I liked Rick, as in Nelson, but, being a newborn, I was overruled.
John Thomas and Philip Charles, the Baisley brothers, never really knew each other until the early 1990s when I lived in Springfield, Ohio, and John often had to fly from New York to Columbus for training on his employer’s new automated systems. By then he was in his late forties and I in my late thirties. It was time for a friendship.
Prior to 1990, it wasn’t that we disliked each other; we just had nothing in common. For a while we shared a bed, but John topped six feet and 180 pounds in eighth grade. If he’d have rolled onto me I’d have been a goner.
Mom said that one night I rolled onto John. She said I looked so sweet camped up there on his hip. The way John tells it, it was all he could do to keep from throwing me across the room. He restrained himself because he feared he might break something. A lamp or a knickknack, perhaps; I was expendable.
When John got home in 1964, a new TV show premiered that captivated viewers with its quirky humor: The Addams Family. Because of his impressive height and slim muscular build, I began calling my brother Lurch. Acknowledging one of my primary my physical characteristics as a junior high boy, he called me Stench. He also called me Bumble, an affectionate term for bum. It was true brotherly love, the kind the ancient Greeks extolled.
I loved my brother as he did me, each in our own pre- and post-adolescent way. Thanks to television—again—I found a way to demonstrate my affection.
In September 1966, CBS premiered Mission Impossible and I entered ninth grade at Isaac Bildersee Junior High School 68. Mission Impossible had the best opening sequence ever. Mr. Briggs, later Mr. Phelps, would receive the IMF team’s instructions via a reel-to-reel tape that would “self-destruct in five seconds.” It was classic.
At that time, John would sometimes work second shift at the Phone Company. (Back then there was only one “phone company.”) He’d come home about 1:00 a.m. and try not to wake me. It was probably sometime in February when I decided to surprise him.
Today, my son—heck, my grandson—could program into their phone better special effects than I used that night. But this was 1967, and I was a nerd but not a geek, and electronically challenged. I controlled my elaborate plot with extension cords and a four-switch box taken from Pop’s Christmastime Lionel Train layout.
Pop’s train layout took up half my room growing up. During December I’d have to crawl across John’s bed to get to mine. There was so little walking space.
We had a freight train and a passenger train with lighted Pullman cars. They ran in parallel and sometimes intersecting ovals through and around Plasticville, USA. Pop built roads through the town for miniature cars to drive on.
Pop’s sense of humor was odd to say the least, spawning my own, or so folks say. Plasticville had an intersection with a yellow caution sign before it that read, “Stop ahead.” One year Pop found a plastic doll’s head in a trash can on his way home from work. Forever after that head spend the Advent season in the middle of the Plasticville intersection reminding drivers to Stop! A head!
That February, I dug the switch box out of the train layout boxes and used it to power my plan. First I employed my reel-to-reel to record the opening of the latest episode of Mission Impossible. Then I dismantled a lamp so that only the wiring, socket, and bulb remained.
On the night I chose, while John was at work, I hid the tape recorder and the light bulb in his closet, leaving the sliding door open just enough for him to be able to hear the instructions and see the flash as the tape self-destructed. Using extension cords, I ran the wires from the closet, under both our beds to the far side of mine where it couldn’t be seen. I plugged the cords into the switch box and tucked it under my covers. Then I waited. Shortly before 1:00 a.m. John entered the room. “Good evening, Mister Briggs...”
I couldn’t see John’s face, but I imagined surprise. Then, precisely five seconds after the message ended, a bright flash and a whoosh sound as the tape destructed. This was followed by the highest compliment I’d received from John in all my fifteen years. “That was pretty good, Bumble.” Life was wonderful.
Thanks to my brother’s foresight in naming me, life got even better a few years later when I wanted to buy my first car. I was trying to figure out how to come up with the $800 I needed for a 1964 Ford Galaxie. Pop agree to pay half, but I was still several hundred dollars short. That’s when I learned the financial secret of my name.
It seems that somewhere in my family tree lived a man named Charlie, a great-uncle or something. He was so impressed that Mom and Pop named their secondborn, Philip Charles, after him that he left me some money in his will. For 17 years it had been earning interest in a savings account. Some of it went to buy that Galaxie, and the rest purchased furniture for my first apartment five years later.
Thanks, big brother, for choosing my name. That was pretty good, Lurch.
In an era where “tall, dark, and handsome” dominated the TV and movie screens, I was short, pale, and…well, life wasn’t easy. We’ll delve deeper into that next week in Episode Nine of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.
Grandma had no TV when John was little, just a piano. And John had the 93rd Street Gang.
Due to our age difference, I can’t tell you the names of all the 93rd Street Gang members of John’s era. Some things never change, however, so certain surnames kept repeating. Judy’s brother, Rob, was part of the gang as were Kurt’s brothers, Max and Karl, whom I idolized.
Max and Karl Kriegel built Canarsie’s most spectacular luge run, and they recreated it multiple years. Of course, all this occurred in those ancient times when New York City received two dozen feet of snow every winter, schools never closed, and we all trudged a mile uphill (both ways) to get to class.
Only two other times in my life have I felt the sheer exhilaration and absolute terror of sliding helplessly over a snow-packed hill. One was as a young adult in his first and last attempt at downhill skiing. That winter night, a few members of the church I attended in my early twenties decided to go skiing. They had experience; I had enthusiasm. After mastering the bunny slope in just two attempts, I felt ready for the next level.
On the lower slope I knew slow side-to-side skiing and a deft snowplow move could get me safely down the hill. How much trouble could I get into when descending only slightly farther at a mildly steeper angle? Not much, unless the falling temperature created an icy lane on either side of the hill, which it did.
About halfway down the hill I wanted to slow my descent and widened my path. Turning left I entered the icy patch and began an uncontrolled downhill slide reminiscent of Franz Klammer, when he was maybe three years old. No, the great Klammer probably skied better at three than I did at twenty-three.
Realizing I was going to die, I began jettisoning any and all sharp objects. First I tossed my poles, not wanting to be impaled by them. I forgot they might be helpful in regaining my side-to-side safety route. My gloves came off with them.
Then I decided my legs stood less chance of breaking were they detached from their long, flat, knifelike extensions. I kicked one off, learning immediately that one does not snow ski on one foot as easily as on water skis. (As I write this, I realize that kicking off a snow ski is next to impossible, so this part of the story may be inaccurate. I do, however, distinctly recall losing one ski somewhere on the way down.) Risking what I thought might be only one, not two, broken legs, I executed a picture perfect hook slide into third base. If baseball was played on one ski on the side of a hill, and I’d been a skilled base runner, it might have looked better than it did. Who am I kidding? I looked like a terrified beginner bailing out halfway down the easy slope.
Sliding to a stop, with one ski and all body parts still attached, I stood up. Thankfully, it was closing time. As the last skiers passed me, I walked up the slope collecting my ski, gloves, poles, everything but my dignity. That still lies somewhere in York County, Pennsylvania.
My other hill of horror was also in Pennsylvania, at a Grace Church youth retreat during winter break my sophomore year of high school. The church camp sat high on a hill near Geigertown. The road to it meandered upward through the woods and, oddly like the Kriegels’ sled run, featured two 90-degree curves. Sledding down it involved first a right and then a left. The right, if missed, would leave you in an open field where you’d eventually come to a stop. The left, farther down the slope, entered a drive bordered by a stone wall and a drop off of unknown depth.
The three days of winter youth retreat came after a significant snowfall in eastern Pennsylvania. Of course the snowplow left a ramp of snow against the stone wall alongside the drive. Of course we sledded at night when the curves were scarier. Of course, the first time down the hill, I and everyone else negotiated the curves to perfection. Of course, I wanted to go again, attempting more speed. Of course, I took the first turn with aplomb and readied myself for the second. Of course, I missed it.
In the dark I failed to turn my Flexible Flyer in time. I hit the snow-ramp leading to the stone wall and launched helplessly into the night. I’d always heard in situations like that, with death a distinct possibility, one’s whole life passes before one’s eyes. I think mine did, and I remember thinking, “what a boring life I’ve lived.” After the autobiography had finished, I was still in the air, and only a second or two had passed. Then I learned the mysterious drop off was only about two feet. I hit hard on my belly and then stopped. It was over. I’d survived. All that was left was picking up the sled, tossing it over the wall, and climbing back. Once I’d revealed the secret of the wall, everybody found a way of missing that curve.
Max and Karl’s 93rd Street sled run was that terrifying to a seven year-old. I tried it once. Want to know a secret? I’m glad the big kids of the 93rd Street Gang wouldn’t let us on their hill. I didn’t really want to do it again.
What’s the worst possible thing a sibling could do to you? Next week, read about what my big brother, John, did to me in Episode Eight of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.
My elementary school years revolved around the church, my stuffed animals, P.S.114, and a group of kids known collectively as the 93rd Street Gang. The eyes of judgment still followed me, sometimes obviously and sometimes subtly, except in Animaland.
Animaland was the mythical universe inhabited by me, my extensive collection of stuffed animals, other animals I’d never met, and, occasionally, my friend, Kurt. Kurt only had a couple of stuffed animals. Come to think of it, he might have had none. He was two years older than I and had probably outgrown them. Either way, Kurt and I lived in the state of Human People, a mere Rhode Island in comparison to the rest of Animaland.
Kurt was blind, almost from birth. I think it was the result of his premature birth being mishandled by the hospital. That wasn’t uncommon in the early 50s. Kurt also played the piano, had been interviewed by the Daily News, and even got his picture in the paper with Rosemary Clooney or Mary Healy or some such celebrity.
To me, Kurt’s greatest accomplishment was his daily sprint to my house from his home down the block. It was a marvel to behold, Kurt dashing out his front door, bounding down his steps, negotiating the two 90-degree turns to the sidewalk, and then racing the 75 or so yards to my front gate. He knew just where to stop and turn to enter the Baisley side of the yard at 1304.
Kurt would come over and we’d enter Animaland—the non-human states, interacting with the populace. Terriers Dot and her older brother, Spot, were my favorite residents. Oddly, their parents were Fido, the loved-to-furless Scottie who had been my brother’s first stuffed animal, and Hunter, a large red retriever.
I think for a while that Catsa was president of Animaland. He might have been a cousin of Dot and Spot. I no longer remember. He seemed very presidential, however, once he changed his name officially from Kitty Cuddles to Catsa.
One of Kurt and my favorite activities in Animaland was to loop a string over a nail in the top molding of the closet-under-the-stairs, run it through holes poked in a Quaker Oats cylinder (my first exposure to Quakerism), and make a pulley elevator to carry the smaller animals to the spectacular view from the top of the closet.
I loved my stuffed animals, keeping many of them long after other kids had tossed theirs in the trash. I still have Dot and Fido, and Dot still has the charm necklace I made for her when she was just a puppy.
Once I reached the too-old-for-stuffed-animals age, I faced some persecution for keeping them. Things came to a head one day when I was in the fifth grade and the rest of the gang was in seventh. Judy and Kurt, my closest friends, and I were sitting on my back doorstep, planning another summer day, when other kids from the Gang showed up, noticed Dot sitting on the milk box, grabbed her, and tossed her over the back fence into the weed-infested, vermin-packed parking lot of the House of the Rising Sun, our name for the abandoned tavern on the next block.
In its former incarnation, the House of the Rising Son was called the Old Road Inn. It had been named for the original street that ran past Grace Church: the Old Road. It was a classic roadhouse from when Canarsie was a farming community, replete with a bar, some rooms upstairs, and a reputation that grew long after its doors and windows were boarded up.
Over time, the boards rotted or were forcibly removed, allowing access to kids from the neighborhood. I remember the first time I entered the House through a broken basement window. I followed Billy Knudsen, the bravest member of the 93rd Street Gang. Searching the cellar with a flashlight, Billy came upon a mummified corpse, all black and in several arm- and leg- and head-sized pieces. We ran, escaping through the broken window with our lives, if not our honor, intact.
Some weeks later, after a few rounds of dare and double-dare, we went back to drag the mummy’s limbs into daylight. The arms and legs turned out to be old ductwork wrapped in black tape. The head was a cast iron pot.
That was a few years after the Gang had tossed Dot to her fate, and while the prospect of never finding Dot in that overgrown lot terrified me, I was more startled by the reaction of my best friends. They laughed. That hurt. Later, after the other guys left, Judy jumped the fence and retrieved Dot. It’s hard to be friends with the cool kids and the nerdy runt of the gang at the same time. Judy walked that line with her usual grace and charm, and I’ll always love her for that.
My most memorable time with Judy and Kurt occurred about two years earlier, during Easter Week, and no stuffed animals were involved.
In the 1960s, Spring Break was still called Easter Week in the New York City school system. Jewish kids still got off for part of Passover. Catholic kids got Good Friday off. Protestant kids got squat. Our only holiday was Brooklyn Day, in June, when Protestant churches like Grace held their annual Sunday school picnic. They say the decline in Sunday school attendance started in the 1960s. I know the date, well, not the specific year, but it began when Grace Church rented only two buses rather than three to take everyone to Belmont Lake State Park on the Island for the Sunday school picnic. Sunday school never recovered.
The best week ever, Easter Break 1962, began on a Monday, April 23rd. Easter came late that year, so the weather was true spring, late spring even. And the sun shone every day.
In those days, one of the New York TV channels showed movies on weekday afternoons, the same movie every day for a week. If you missed part of it on Monday, you could watch it again on Tuesday or Wednesday. That week, the movie was a 1944 Abbott and Costello film called In Society, which also starred Marion Hutton (Betty Hutton’s sister) as Elsie Hammerdingle, a cab driver. She was adorable. As funny as the movie was, I think the best part was that name: Elsie Hammerdingle, a classic comedy moniker.
About the same time, the Grace Church choir sang a John W. Peterson Easter cantata that included a song with an antiphonal section that echoed the words of the crowd demanding Jesus’ death. It went,
Every Peterson Easter cantata had a song like that. We, the kids who sat in the pews while our parents sang, felt obligated to identify with the mob shouting for Jesus’ execution. We were that bad. Of course, if we hadn’t been bad enough to kill him we couldn’t have been bad enough to be saved. Talk about a vicious cycle.
The chant, “Crucify him!” contains four syllables. The name Hammerdingle also contains four syllables. With schools being closed, kids watching afternoon TV, a week of mild days, and young minds bent on crucifixion, it was inevitable that the two would meet. They did, thanks to an old but sturdy wooden ironing board.
Looking back, I cannot remember where the ironing board came from. Did Judy find it in the vacant lot next door to 1304? Did Kurt’s brothers unearth it in their basement? Did I find it in the woodpile? Or did someone dump it at the House of the Rising Sun? No matter, we combined it with an old round fence post to create the nucleus of the best week ever.
Kurt, Judy, and I hung out every beautiful day that week, usually in my yard but sometimes on Judy’s stoop or on Kurt’s house’s fortress-like entrance. By Tuesday, we were still replaying the cantata in our minds and the ironing board and fence post had connected.
We discovered that if you laid the fence post on the ground, and the ironing board across it at a 90° angle, you ended up with a teeter-totter, one you could stand up on. If both teeter-totterers worked together, with a little creative tottering you could bounce each other in the air, maybe a good six inches. It felt like flying.
Those brief flights (of fancy) needed music to accompany them, and, since we were antiphonally bouncing we needed antiphonal singing. Where had we heard that recently? Oh yeah! Judy would jump and spring Kurt into the air singing “Crucify him!” Kurt would deftly land and reply, “Crucify him!” The antiphony continued until the last tottering “Kill him.” John W. Peterson would have been so proud.
That was fun, but by Wednesday we’d all seen In Society, and my schoolboy crush on Marion Hutton was in full swing. By the time we gathered for our afternoon tottering, I was ready for a new verse. As I launched Judy I sang “Hammerdingle” in my best Grace Church choir alto. Judy responded, “Hammerdingle.” Kurt joined in from alongside right through the final “Hammerding.” Judy and I fell off the ironing board in laughter, and Kurt joined us rolling in the warm grass. It was Canarsie. It was 1962. And it was heaven.
We teeter-tottered into the weekend, and then school began again. The choir sang regular songs. Someone put the fence post and the ironing board in the woodpile. The next year, during Easter week, Kurt, Judy, and I got out our old contraption, anticipating the second coming of the best week ever. We were each a little bigger, a little heavier. On the first bounce the old board cracked. Some things are never meant to be duplicated.
A few years later, another stuffed animal and another gracious human created an event that maybe didn’t change my life but gave me a reference point to which I have returned often in the years since.
That year, on Flag Day, Grace Church’s Christian Service Brigade (a fundamentalist version of the Boy Scouts invented to keep us holier than the Catholics, Jews, and—God help us—Lutherans in the regular Scouts) toured Floyd Bennett Field, a World War II era Naval Air Station that offered tours of the base and its airplanes.
I rode on the field trip with a guy named Babe. His real name was John Calhoun, I think, but everyone called him Babe. I didn’t really know him. He wasn’t a Brigade leader or a Sunday school teacher or anything like that. He just attended church sometimes. My parents knew him.
Babe drove me and a couple of other kids to Floyd Bennett. He chaperoned us on the tour and accompanied us to the post-tour gift shop. The other Brigade kids shopped for model airplanes, toy guns, and other boy stuff. I looked longingly at a little blue stuffed Scottie dog wearing a red plaid tam o’ shanter. Then Babe saw me. I was prepared to be utterly embarrassed when Babe asked, “Is that what you want? ‘Cause if it is I’ll buy it for you.” And he did.
Both the Scottie and Babe are long gone. I’m sure they run into each other often, though, in Animaland. It’s a big place.
People of every age recall a time when a snowstorm, or series of snowstorms, left their neighborhood covered with more snow than ever before. Enjoy some snow stories right here in next week’s episode of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.
Looking back over the first decade of my life might cause a reader to believe I was of all people most miserable. Was I really that weighed down by judging eyes? Did I constantly feel guilty about something? Well, yes and no. My neighborhood in Canarsie was about 45% Jewish, 45% Catholic (mostly Italian, but also some Irish and Puerto Rican), and the rest Protestant: mainline, fundamentalist, and Pentecostal varieties. That equals a lot of guilt, but I doubt I felt more guilt than my Catholic neighbors.
I know for sure I felt less guilt than Ralphie across the street. He was Italian. One year, probably during Lent, which we fundamentalist Protestants avoided religiously, Ralphie got hold of a couple of two-by-fours and some plywood. Using his dad’s hammer and some nails, he fashioned a cross just about his size. The workmanship was not bad for a kid of eight or nine.
Ralphie took his cross door to door asking those who answered if they would nail him to it. He carried the hammer as well, and even some nails. Ralphie thought of everything. I’m not sure whose mom talked him out of it. It could have been Mrs. Sullivan, whose Catholicism was devout but didn’t extend to severe masochism. It could’ve been mine, who believed Catholics were going to hell anyway. I know neither I nor any other members of the 93rd Street Gang tried to talk him out of it. We just wanted to watch what happened.
We Protestants weren’t supposed to feel guilty—something about Martin Luther and justification by faith—but we did anyway because we were constantly reminded we were “only sinners saved by grace,” emphasis on the “only.” I never questioned how we could be justified and guilty at the same time. Of course, I never questioned how Clark Kent could be Superman at the same time either. Theology is best left to someone other than preteens.
I never understood why the Jewish kids in the neighborhood felt guilty. Their religion seemed so much more laid back than mine. Good religious Jews went to temple, or they didn’t. Drinking and smoking were personal choices, not evidence of deep personal failure or worse: backsliding. Still, my Jewish friends talked about feeling guilty a lot. Could it have been the level of blame we Christians placed upon them for killing Jesus, as if an oppressed people could have exerted such political pressure on their oppressors? Were they ashamed of having extra holidays or missing out on the joy of ham? I wonder whether some held survivor’s guilt inherited from every grandfather or great-aunt who escaped Eastern Europe in the 1930s and shared basement apartments with memories of those who were left behind. I never asked.
Jewish holidays brought all the kids together in Canarsie’s public schools. Sure we had Christmas off, but that was like winter break. Easter week was like spring break. But Jewish holidays were real holidays. Jewish kids got off school, and, since half the class was out, the rest of us basically got the day off.
And then came Hanukkah. Practicality dictated that New York City Schools couldn’t shut down for a week at Christmas and a week before that for Hanukkah, so everyone went to school and partied.
P.S.114, where I attended first through sixth grade, had the best Hanukkah parties. We ate lots of candy, listened to the Jewish kids talk about getting eight days of presents, and we played with dreidels. Kids in Jewish nursery rhymes claim to make these little square tops out of clay. At P.S.114 they were made of plastic. By means of the Hebrew letters on the four sides, two things occurred: you learned some of the Hebrew alphabet and you could gamble for candy.
P.S.114 in 2019
The Yiddish word for the candy we gambled for at Hanukkah parties is “gelt.” I think it comes from the gold candy coins given out for the holiday. Gelt brought out the gambler I never knew was in me. Every Hanukkah I’d wait for the dreidels to come out in our classrooms. Spin and take seemed to be my middle name, making my Jewish friends jealous. By the time those eight sacred days (and eight crazy nights) were over, I had a candy stash that would make the annual box of Louis Sherry Christmas Sunday school chocolates from Grace Church seem paltry and sad. I don’t know if I ever earned the title “mensch” from my schoolmates, but I was sure one lucky goy.
Years later, I parlayed my dreidel experience into Saturday night poker games at Jonathan’s house. I don’t remember who played there regularly, I only know I was the sole Gentile and that none of us ever had a date on Saturday nights, or Fridays either. Poker was our social contract.
I was generally as lucky at poker as I’d been at dreidel. Most times I’d walk home from Canarsie’s west-of-Remsen side in the wee hours of Sunday morning, my pockets bulging with pennies, nickels, and a dime or two. Along the way I’d stop at a stranger’s doorstep and tuck my winnings under the mat. I couldn’t keep it. I’d feel guilty.
Next episode: take a trip with me to the wonderful place known as "Animaland."
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.
Isaac was—literally—the man upstairs. He was a distant relative of Mom’s who lived in the upper story of our formerly-one-family farmhouse. Yes, I grew up in a farmhouse in Brooklyn. We had a barn where Isaac parked his car, a chicken coop without chickens, a woodpile but no fireplace, and two grape arbors. One summer Pop even plowed up the backyard and planted row after row of sweet corn. It tasted good with lots of butter and salt.
Isaac ruled his side of the yard with a rod of iron. With the exception of Mom and Pop being allowed to drive through his gate, across his concrete “apron,” and into our garage—next to his barn—we, mostly meaning my brother and I, were not to set foot in Isaac’s half-yard.
Isaac wasn’t too crazy about kids playing in our side of the yard either. He’d complain to Mom about our ball games in the backyard (when there wasn’t corn) and our war games against the evil alien bush that possessed our front yard. We were too noisy. I ask you, how can one not be noisy when trying to rescue your best friend from the grasp of a crazed shrub from Planet X?
And then there was the street. Streets in Canarsie were our playgrounds. You could get mugged in a park, but the streets were safe for playing touch football, punchball, and roller hockey. Isaac, however, laid claim to the part of East 93rd Street that ran past our house. I couldn’t count the times Isaac would open his bedroom window, stick half his body through it, and swear at us for playing too loudly. We loved it. When you’re twelve there’s nothing more satisfying than getting a guy in his seventies all riled up.
While we neighborhood kids might have given Isaac valid reasons for hating us, his animosity toward my parents went deeper. I recently learned why, and at the same time learned just how poor my family was during my childhood.
Mom’s mom was a housekeeper. She worked for a Mrs. Matthews who owned the property at 1304 East 93rd Street. When World War II came along, my recently married mom and dad moved to Albany and took my grandmother with them. As often as possible they would return to Brooklyn with my toddling brother to check on Mrs. Matthews. While in Albany, Grandma died. After the war, Pop’s job in Albany ended and they wanted to move back downstate.
For a while Mom, Pop, and John lived in an apartment so small you could touch both walls at the same time. By1952, when Mom was pregnant with me, larger quarters were needed.
The downstairs at 1304 was vacant, and out of respect for Grandma, Mrs. Matthews let the Baisleys live there at greatly reduced rent. The owner, her brother Charlie, and her nephew Isaac, remained in the five rooms upstairs.
Over time, Charlie got sick, and Mom served as his primary caregiver until he died. She did the same for Mrs. Matthews, preparing meals and generally looking after her and Isaac. Eventually, Mrs. Matthews died as well. Isaac, for whom Mom had also cooked and cleaned, looked forward to inheriting the entire house and raising the rent, effectively forcing Mom and Pop out.
Mrs. Matthews had other plans. Mom and Grandma, who had served her so long and so well, received their unexpected reward. Mrs. Matthews left the property to Mom, but there was one stipulation: the Isaac clause.
So, if I ever needed to know the wrath of the man upstairs, all I needed to do was shout or hit a ball or trespass onto his side of the yard. In the Bible, one of the words for sin has to do with overstepping a boundary: forgive us our trespasses. To trespass against Isaac brought immediate judgment from the man upstairs.
While I lived in constant fear of Isaac’s wrath, at least he was someone a kid could get away from. More difficult was living in the shadow of the man downstairs—my dad. Don’t get me wrong, John Arthur Baisley II might have been the best father who ever lived, but he was also a very public churchman.
Pop served on Grace Church’s “Official Board.” Yes, that’s really what they called it. They weren’t elders or deacons, Ministry and Oversight, or Session. They were a board and they governed officially: the Official Board. Sometimes Pop chaired the board, and sometimes he served as vice-chair or secretary. I can’t recall him ever not sitting on the board although I remember him on many nights coming home late from a meeting wishing he had never seen the inside of a church.
Along with his board membership, Pop taught one of the adult Sunday school classes and sang in the choir. He also sang first tenor in a gospel quartet, the Grace Gospelaires, a ministry he truly enjoyed for 30 years. Hitting those high notes in The Happy Jubilee made him somewhat of a legend among local believers. The Gospelaires sang at churches throughout the greater New York area. Once a month they led the Monday night service at the Bowery Mission in Manhattan.
I remember how excited I was, as a boy of maybe thirteen, when Pop invited me to ride along to the Bowery with the quartet. This was the big time. This wasn’t just singing background for a chalk artist on the Island (meaning Long Island, pronounced lawng-GUY-lind), this was the City!
That night I sat in the front row as the Gospelaires performed their set. I was so proud when Pop sang his solo, Frederick Lehman’s The Love of God. I turned in my seat to look at the group of men who’d wandered in off the street for a warm seat and a hot meal. A few slept soundly. A couple more joked between themselves. No one seemed to care that my dad was pouring out his heart on their behalf. On the ride home I asked Pop if he ever got upset about that. “They’re not the only ones we’re singing for,” he replied.
Pop was a public Christian. He seldom received pay for his ministry, but he was well known for his music and comedy, often accepting requests to emcee local wedding receptions. I grew up as the “little Baisley boy.” Believe me, when the little Baisley boy went to the altar at Rally Day, everybody knew it.
My life changed almost overnight. I recall feeling more accountable for my behavior, like I wasn’t being cut the amount of slack I’d known before. I felt a hundred pair of eyes watching me every minute. You’ve got to remember that to the best of my knowledge my only sins were disobeying my parents and briefly stealing one bubble gum. Suddenly I was a “born again” Christian and the bar reached new heights.
Maybe it was just a feeling. Maybe not. A few years later I was a preteen trying to live up to my calling. A younger boy whose family occasionally attended our church was running rampant through the sanctuary after a Sunday service, during a fellowship dinner or some such event. I tried to get him to stop, but he ran past me, knocked something over, and yelled for his mommy. Mommy ran in, looked over the situation, glared at me and pulled her boy away. “Stay away from him,” she warned her little angel of me, “He doesn’t know the Lord.”
And there I was, back at square one. Being the little Baisley boy couldn’t save me. Praying a prayer with an evangelist at Rally Day might have had some effect on my eternal destiny, but I lived in Canarsie. The streets had recently been repaved but not with gold. If I really didn’t know the Lord, and at least one adult in Grace Church believed I didn’t, then who was I? Not long after, the Animals recorded their cover of the Nina Simone song, Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood. From the moment I first heard it on WABC radio, probably spun by Cousin Brucie Morrow, I had my life’s theme song.
Next episode: how growing up surrounded by Jewish and Catholic neighbors heightened my sense of guilt but taught me to appreciate "gelt."
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.
For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.
For the wages of sin is death.
It is appointed unto men once to die; and after that, the judgment.
Pastor Watt’s words landed heavily on my ears, but that’s not what scared me. It was his eyes. As he preached words straight from the King James Bible, his eyes dug a channel to my soul. I was a sinner. I was condemned. I was born in sin and destined for hell if I didn’t repent. Of course, I had no clue what repentance was. I was five years old.
I was born just past midnight on a Thursday in 1952. I didn’t go to church that Sunday or the next. On the third Sunday, when Mom was fully recovered from giving birth to her second son, I went to church.
Back then the church had a longer name: Grace Methodist Protestant Church. It was part of a small denomination (Methodist Protestant) that in 1939 was absorbed into the Methodist Church (now the United Methodist Church). Some Methodist Protestant leaders walked out of the convention that produced the merger. They felt that Methodism was becoming too liberal in its theology. Clifford Kidd did not walk out.
Kidd reasoned that, since the Methodist denomination owned the church buildings, any church that tried to break away would be left without a place to gather. He in fact believed the Methodist Church was becoming liberal, but he did not want Grace to lose its building. Once he had secured from the Methodist Church the right to retain their building, Kidd led Grace out of Methodism once and for all. From then on, Grace had the generic-sounding name, Grace Protestant Church; Grace for short.
Grace’s pastors were drawn from the ranks of independent Baptists, as independent Methodist churches like Grace were few and far between. This led to minor internal controversies like what to do about baptism and how and when to celebrate Communion. My introduction to Quaker beliefs probably came when Pop told me one day, “The only baptism that really counts is being baptized by the Spirit,” a very Quakerly concept.
“Pop” was John Arthur Baisley, Jr., my dad. I’m not sure whether my brother, John, had been calling him by that name during the ten years before I was born, or whether “Pop” was a shortened version of “Poppo,” the father’s nickname on The Patty Duke Show, which was a favorite of mine as a preteen. Either way, we called him Pop, and Caroline Frances Armstrong Baisley was “Mom.”
I can’t recall ever feeling the love from above when we sang that song. It was the Father looking down that captivated and terrified me. Years later, as a high school junior protesting the Vietnam War, I hung a print of James Montgomery Flagg’s famous “Uncle Sam Wants You” recruiting poster on my bedroom wall. No matter where you stood or sat in my room, Uncle’s finger was aimed at you. I figured Father’s gaze was the same.
The thing is, I believed I deserved it. My only transgressions were occasionally disobeying my parents (a practical interpretation of the fifth commandment written, no doubt, by the parent of a middle schooler) and stealing a one-penny Bazooka bubble gum from the corner store, which I returned almost immediately. But like the apostle Paul, I believed I was the “chief of sinners.”
Being an accomplished sinner at age five, I was more than ready to be born again, saved, washed in the blood, and every other redemptive verb in the Christian fundamentalist dictionary, and my church was more than willing to accommodate me. Being unwilling to waste even one chance to bring a worm such as I to the throne of grace, we regularly had altar calls in the aforementioned Opening Exercises. I held out for a while, clinging to my sinfulness. Then my church pulled out their secret weapon: Rally Day, Sunday school on crack with a children’s evangelist dealing. I’ll paraphrase a story my mother told me about my first experience of salvation.
I was almost five when Rally Day featured a chalk artist. Chalk art was very popular in evangelical churches of that era. My dad even spent some time as a songleader/soloist for one of these artists. To this day they fascinate me with their art; drawing one picture and then revealing a second under black light.
Five-year-old me watched the gospel story unfold under black light. When three crosses mysteriously appeared on the hill, I saw my terrible self, nailed there with Jesus. When the artist called for anyone who wanted to ask Jesus into their heart to come to the altar for prayer, I couldn’t wait any longer. I prayed the sinner’s prayer and my life gloriously passed from darkness to light. So my mother said, and she summarized it on a page in a little blue-bound New Testament the church gave me to commemorate the big day. I remember nothing of it. It must have been exciting for my family and my church, though.
If walking the proverbial sawdust trail (it was scarlet carpet as I recall) saved me from the judgment of God, it also put me squarely in the center of judgment from everyone else in church. That’s what happens when you become a public Christian. I went through my early years ever aware of God’s judging eyes looking down on me. Being saved, this might have been a source of comfort to me. I can’t say it was; it was more like, “Jesus loves me, this I suspect, but still I’d better eat my vegetables.”
It was hard for me not to be in the public eye. My mom taught Sunday school, sang alto in the choir, and was active in the WCTU, a temperance organization that featured “white ribbon babies.” I was one of those little ones whose wrist was circled with a white ribbon as a sign of Mom and Pop’s pledge that liquor would never touch my lips as long as I lived in their care. It almost worked, too. My only taste of alcohol until my early twenties was a tiny sip of rye from a bottle found in the pantry of the man who lived upstairs.
Some people call God “the man upstairs.” That reveals more about their theology than about God. First, it places the Creator squarely in the camp of one small part of creation, the male of the human species. Second, it emphasizes one of the least attractive qualities of that being, the annoying tendency to want to dominate others, especially the female of the species. I never needed a god like that; I had Isaac.
More about "the man upstairs" next episode.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.
I am a product of the 1950s. I came of age in the 1960s, went to college in the 1970s, and never moved back. I like to tell people that Brooklyn is a great place to be from; and it is. You can’t grow up in Brooklyn, or any of the Five Boroughs, without acquiring a raft of stories.
Every New York City kid can recite a list of famous people they went to school with; even though, in most cases, classes were so huge you hardly knew any of them. Every New York City kid has a tale involving pizza or do-wop or stickball or subways or knowing someone whose second cousin once almost saw a Mob hit. You’ll read my tales in the pages to come.
I am also a product of American fundamentalism. These days the word fundamentalism is synonymous with ignorance, hatred, and absolute closed-mindedness. Another synonym is evangelicalism. Let me say at the outset that things were not always so.
There was a time when fundamentalists were known for their academic prowess, although their theology was conservative. Evangelicals, those we now think of as backward, backwoods neo-Nazis, were derided by fundamentalists for being too liberal. And Billy Graham, that poster boy for American conservatism, was considered to be far left of the Christian center.
While the ninety essays by biblical scholars of various Protestant denominations spoke to many nuances of scripture interpretation, they soon were digested down to five foundational beliefs. The scholars and their California benefactors understood these to be the truths on which the Christian religion was established. Although the wording may appear different, based upon whose recollection one reads, I will list them as I remember them from Theology 101 in Bible college. They are 1) the verbal inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible; meaning, the Bible is literally true except where it is obviously metaphorical, such as Jesus’ parables, 2) the virgin birth of Jesus Christ, 3) the substitutionary atonement of Christ (hooboy, I didn’t realize how theologically weird this might sound to the average reader); that is, Jesus died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins, 4) Jesus’ physical resurrection from the dead; in other words, he didn’t fake it, he arose, and 5) Christ’s bodily return, which means he'll be back someday à la Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Those are five theological statements. They were proposed and believed by men with degrees from schools like Yale and Princeton. They can be used to judge other people’s theology, but they say nothing about the things presently associated with fundamentalism; such as reproductive rights, discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community, trickle-down economics, and the Second Amendment.
Mom and Pop were devout fundamentalists until the day they died. They never smoked or drank alcohol; they told me drinking or smoking was my choice to make. They prayed for my Jewish friends to believe in Jesus as their Messiah, but they never gave those friends an ultimatum; nor did they ever cease to welcome anyone of any religion, race, culture or expression of sexuality into their home. To Mom and Pop, to do such a thing would have meant denial of the very fundamentals on which their faith rested.
They had a lot to say regarding my state of spirituality, however. They wanted me to be “saved” at an early age. To be saved meant that I made a conscious choice to “accept Jesus Christ as my personal Saviour.” (Yes, we used the King James Version spelling in our house.) You will read in the next chapter just what that choice meant to a kid like me. They wanted me to live a “Christ-like” life, but they left the how-to of that life up to me. They were good parents; a little too Leave It to Beaver maybe, but good.
You still find Mom and Pop’s brand of fundamentalism today in the quiet corners of American religion. It’s the kind that says, “I don’t understand why you two gals want to marry each other instead of some nice boys, but I’ll bake you the best darn wedding cake you ever dreamed of.”
Mom hardly ever baked, but if she had, yeah, she’d have said that.
Welcome to my world.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.
I’m sure a dictionary definition somewhere explains that memoirs are supposed to be factual, and this one is. But it tells stories I lived going back sixty years, and while they’re all true, they may not have actually happened as I remember them. I, like every other memoirist except the ones who live in dictionaries, have a very selective memory. There are a lot of really funny and poignant stories you won’t read here simply because I’ve forgotten them.
The stories you will read here are flavored by my memory, which means they may be slightly distorted by age, sentimentality, and maybe even the desire not to be quite as candid as I intended. I don’t mean to mislead anyone. These pages will reflect the first two decades of my life according to my best recollection of them.
Perhaps the best example of the way ancient stories don’t get retold exactly the way they happened comes from a social media conversation between myself and Todd Nahins, one of my best friends in junior high school and dearest friends ever. It happened after he read the first couple of chapters you will soon read yourself.
Todd remarked, “You may not remember, but when you and I were in high school we had a discussion on my being saved. It went something like this:
Phil: We need to talk.
Todd: About what?
Phil: What I have to tell you is something you need to accept once I tell you.
Todd: Maybe don’t tell me.
Phil: I have to.
Phil: If I tell you and you don’t accept it, you will burn in hell.
Todd: That makes no sense.
Phil: Those are the rules.
Todd: What if I live a good life, give to charities, and never do anything wrong?
Phil: I can get you purgatory.
Todd: Can we talk about something else?
Phil: I’m dating your former girlfriend, Linda.
Todd: Now who’s in hell?”
I said, “Todd, that’s not the way I remember it.”
To which Todd replied, “Sounds pretty close to me.”
And maybe it is.
You might wonder where my connections are to earth-shattering events such as the day JFK was shot, the Miracle Mets, Super Bowl III, and the moon landing. I wondered that myself as I read and reread the manuscript. I finally reached this conclusion: as big as these events were—and believe me, the 1969 World Series was so big we were given class time in front of TVs we only thought could be tuned to the education station—they did not affect kids the way sledding down a snowy hill or working up the courage to ask a girl out on a date did.
I remember the tears in Mrs. Watson’s eyes when she told her sixth grade class that the president had been shot, but I was touched in a deeper way when she gave the class mementos of her recently deceased husband. I watched the moon landing, but I was more in awe of knowing that a girl I admired was watching it at the same time on the other end of a telephone line.
So this is my story. It’s true, although not always accurate. It’s complete, but it has a lot of gaps. It’s mine, but I hope you may see a bit of yourself in it as well.
A Word about Names
I endeavor to be as accurate as possible in writing about friends, family, and neighbors gone by. For that reason, I contacted as many folks as possible from my past. Almost all I could locate graciously gave me permission to use their real names, and for that I am grateful. Those I could not locate, and most of those who have passed on, were given different names. Immediate as well as extended family names have been unchanged, as well as most of the locales described. Within the text I will make no mention of which names have been changed and which have not.
Episode Two Preview
Episode Two will delve into the religious milieu in which I was raised: mid-century Protestant fundamentalism. Sounds stifling, judgmental, and boring, doesn’t it? Well. It was and it wasn’t. Tune in next week and find out.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.