Tales of a Canarsie Boy, Episode Thirty: Love, or Something Like It, Part 2—The Grandest Gesture
My initial date being a fiasco, I decided to avoid the practice most of my adolescent life. Still, there was something about hanging out with some members of the opposite sex that I just liked. I could confide anything in them. I knew they cared and they knew I cared. There’s romance in that, yet without romance.
That’s the way it was with Faith, too.
Faith lived next door to Aunt Barb and Uncle Freddy on Ocean Avenue in Lynbrook, Long Island. Her bedroom was on the second floor of her house, exactly parallel to mine, which was on the first floor of Aunt Barb’s. We got to know each other shortly after Faith’s family moved in. From then on I still loved Aunt Barb and laughed loudly at Uncle Freddy, but I found a friend in Faith while tolerating Adam, her little brother.
Faith was beautiful, quick-witted, and Japanese, which to 12-year-old me meant she was exotic. We spent almost every minute together the three or four times each year I’d visit my aunt and uncle. On countless nights, Faith and I opened our windows and talked until all hours as if there were not a story, and about 15 feet of lawn, between us.
We, and Adam, and some other kids, would walk to a nearby park to play on the swings and self-propelled merry-go-round. (What do they call those things?) We’d walk to Zinetti’s for ice cream sodas when we had the money. One day, Faith’s family took me to Rockaway Beach to spend the day at their restaurant. My first thought was, Japanese! Exotic! It was actually just a hamburger joint, a lot like the one in Bob’s Burgers, but it was fun hanging out on the boardwalk all day with Faith and Adam.
My second date occurred the afternoon Faith said, “It’s hot today. Let’s go to the movies and see Bye-Bye Birdie. It’s my favorite movie ever!” And away we went; oddly, with no Adam in tow.
The World of Henry Orient, an adorable lesser-known Peter Sellers movie led off the double feature. Then Bye-Bye Birdie proved to be a lot of fun. The rest of that week Faith and I practiced the dance moves.
My only two dates in junior high school, and so different. Was it my crush on Gail that ruined the library date? Was it my crushless, lustless I-think-you-are-beautiful-but-more-amazing-as-a-friend feelings toward Faith that made a movie merely the jumping off point for lots of laughs? Damned if I’ll ever know.
I wish I could arrange a reunion with Faith. I bet we’d break a bone or two trying to dance to Birdie. That’ll never happen. Working at a friend’s family’s Carvel store one night in 1969 someone showed me a newspaper obituary. “Didn’t you used to know a girl from Lynbrook named Faith? Shit! She walked in front of a train.”
I don’t know why she did that, but I hope she’s still dancing.
I didn’t go on another date for five years, and, at the time, I didn’t feel I was missing anything. All the other guys and girls were getting their hearts broken. Not me. I did have a part in some relationships, however. Once I started writing songs and poems, guys would ask me to come up with just the right words or verse to impress their girlfriends. Cyrano incarnate! Still I remained dateless.
There was one other time in junior high when I almost made a connection with a girl. Of course it didn’t work out. I thought at the time it was because I was shy; maybe I was just clueless.
Because the names Baisley and Blank are so close alphabetically, I often sat next to Joyce in class, especially in homeroom two years running. Joyce Blank was very pretty in a wabi sabi way. All her imperfections made for a very attractive package, which, of course, meant she was too good for me. Or so I thought.
One day in eighth grade homeroom, I saw a hand slip a note into my desk. Odd, no one had slipped me a note since fourth grade, so long ago. I read it.
“Do you LIKE me?”
The hand and the note were from Joyce. Did I like her? Well, I’d dreamed for two years that we might have an actual conversation. Did I like her? Okay, she wasn’t Gail, but I’d messed that up beyond repair. Did I like her? Yes, I think I did, which is why I panicked.
What if she was only asking because she thought I actually liked her and she wanted to be sure before she told me to bug off? What if she was just trying to relieve the boredom of homeroom? The thought that she might be revealing a liking of me—skinny, ugly me—never crossed my mind.
At best, I might have said something like, “You’re okay.” At worst I might have ignored her for the rest of the year and my life. I honestly don’t remember, but don’t expect to find her in these pages again. Maybe I was more clueless than shy.
My adolescence continued to pass undisturbed by girls. I graduated from Isaac Bildersee Junior High School in 1967 and moved on to the recently-constructed Canarsie High School. There I kept admiring attractive girls from afar, and helping other guys win their hearts, but I remained outside the dating crowd. That all changed one night in the summer of 1968.
The summer before my sophomore year of high school, Billy Walker helped me get a “real job”; he recommended me to Morrie, the co-owner of a local drug store. I started high school somewhat gainfully employed.
I walked the eight and a half blocks to work most days, and occasionally rode my bicycle. Generally working from 4:00-8:00, closing, I always enjoyed the walks home through the streetlight-illuminated Canarsie streets.
During the summer, I’d plan my walks for when some of my favorite church ladies were on their porches or in their tiny gardens out back. Weird, huh? A fifteen year old “gang” member hanging out with little old ladies. But I liked them. They treated me like an adult, fed me all sorts of good stuff, and they told me stories of when they were fifteen, back before “the War,” which we all knew didn’t mean Vietnam.
Helen Van Houten lived on East 94th Street a few blocks south of my grandmother. Inside Grace Church she was a tiger, enforcing her strict code of behavior on us kids. At home in her backyard, the summer sun dwindling after my shift at the drug store, Helen was a pussycat. She was sweet, kind, and a great conversationalist. A lot of my walks home included a stop at Helen’s.
One night, as I let myself through Helen’s gate and made my way to the glow of the Coleman lantern she kept on a wrought iron table out back, I noticed two shadows in the lamplight. Helen had company. She welcomed me and mentioned to her guest that I was the one she had told her about.
Helen’s company turned out to be Clair, a nice-looking girl a year older than I. Turns out Clair’s dad had been pastor of Grace Church for a few years in the 1950s. As a matter of fact, I was born the day Clair’s family moved into the Grace Church parsonage. Clair’s family had kept in touch with Helen over the years, and Clair had come from Buffalo to visit.
Sweet, dangerous Helen had known all along that Clair and I might hit it off. After a little small talk, Helen excused herself and told us not to stay out too late.
We stayed up until Helen had to come back out and tell us to call it quits. The next night and the next night it was the same. I can’t recall a single thing we talked about. I only remember every topic was fascinating. I’d never experienced anything like that before, not even with Judy. And then she was gone.
Clair and I promised to write each other. Well, you know how kids are when they think they might like each other. Most of the time, the letters are never written, and certainly never sent. We wrote ‘em and we sent ‘em at least once a week. Even our letters sounded like conversation around a Coleman lantern. God, it was an awesome feeling.
The week at Helen’s was in June. By July I was ready for a Grand Gesture.
Heading into my junior year at Canarsie High I was alone again. This time, however, I had a… What did I have? Did I love Clair? I never even hinted that to her. I don’t know what emotions she might have felt toward me, but that didn’t matter. We both enjoyed each other’s company whether in person or on paper. So maybe she wasn’t my girlfriend, but she was mine.
Flush with cash from the drug store and a heart way bigger than my brain I came up with the ultimate means of showing Clair just how important she had become to me. But it would require some secrecy, stupidity, and a ride to the airport.
The stupidity I had in spades. For the airport ride I needed a guy with some knowledge of air travel. Billy Walker had read up on flying, and he had heard there was such a thing as student discounts by air carriers. He said all you had to do was present some identification at a ticket agency, fill out an application, and in a week or so you’d have a student ID for air travel. It worked!
Soon, armed with my wad of cash, Billy’s knowledge of all things aeronautical, and enough gas to get us to and from Kennedy Airport, off we went to purchase a ticket for Buffalo. Yes, Buffalo. The Grand Gesture was to be an unannounced visit to Clair. Now for the secrecy.
Billy swore he’d never tell anyone, and he didn’t. The airline’s customer service person sold me a window seat, LaGuardia to Buffalo, cash, no questions asked. Why LaGuardia? I knew that airport was near Shea Stadium, which had a subway stop. I could walk from the subway to the airport, I figured.
Ticket purchased, partner in crime safely silenced, I waited until the appointed day of departure. Did I have a detailed plan in mind? Alas, no. I didn’t even know the location of the town where Clair lived, other than it was somewhere east of Buffalo. I just assumed I’d find it.
I’d been in training for this mission for over a year, taking longer and longer walks out to the Island. My brother had done the same walks while in high school and after returning from the Marines. I tried to outdo him, one time walking all the way to East Meadow, a distance of 22 miles.
For the Grand Gesture, I’d be walking from the Buffalo International Airport all the way to a place called Elma, somewhere east of someplace. I imagined it to be about 15 miles. I was ready.
The big day arrived. I acted completely normal, which should have tipped Mom off that I was up to something. I had my ticket and a couple of changes of clothes in a small duffel bag. I’d even used Pop’s AAA Travel Guide for New York to book a room that night at the Holiday Inn. You didn’t need a credit card back then. My word as a gentleman was good enough since I’d be paying cash. Mom was home, and, being a Friday, Pop was at his office. With any luck, I’d be checked into the hotel before they even missed me.
I made the plane on time, although the walk from the subway station to the airport was longer than I anticipated, and closed my eyes for a nap during the short flight. When I arrived in Buffalo, it was still early. Just time enough to get to the hotel before Pop got home and Mom wondered why I wasn’t at the dinner table.
I found the Holiday Inn on the little map in the AAA Guide. Not knowing I could have called for a free shuttle ride, I walked the mile or so to the hotel and checked in without a problem. Then I unpacked my duffle and went to the bathroom.
It was perfect, the trip so far and even the bathroom. There was a phone in it. I’m not kidding you. There was a freakin’ phone on the wall of the bathroom. Perfect. I sat down and dialed my home number. I had my story down pat.
“Mom, could I talk to Pop for a minute?”
“Where are you? You sound like long distance.”
“Yeah, Mom. That’s what I want to talk to Pop about.”
“Hey, Pop! Hey! I got a chance to see the Buffalo Bills practice tomorrow. Can I go?"
Man, I was smooth. I had it all planned out.
“No, Pop. In Buffalo. That’s where I am.”
“I flew up to visit Clair. Figure I’d take in football practice tomorrow. It’s on the way to Clair’s house. Then I’ll get there midafternoon.”
My smoothness was intoxicating.
“No, Pop, they don’t know I’m coming.”
“Get back home on the next flight!” yelled Pop uncharacteristically.
I said I would and then hung up the phone and flushed.
A few minutes later Pop called back. He’d called Clair’s parents. They thought I was nuts, but they said I might as well not waste the trip. If I walked there the next day, they’d let me spend one night at their house, and they’d take me to the airport after church on Sunday.
And that’s pretty much how it went. Clair’s folks were cordial to me the whole weekend. She and I took some nice walks together on the country roads. We sat out in their backyard until someone said it was late—just like at Helen’s. And that was the real purpose of my trip. I had to experience that kind of conversation again. I’m a sucker for genuine conversation, mostly with women, but guys are okay too. I’m lucky to have a wife I never tire of talking to any time of day or night.
As for Clair, it wasn’t love. It was never love. But it was something.
Three summers later, Clair was back at Helen’s, studying for her second year nursing exams. I’d just finished my freshman year at Lancaster Bible College. After a tentative start, we picked up right where we left off in Helen’s backyard—talking. We actually went on a date that time, to Shea Stadium to see the Mets. I drove. No need for the subway.
Returning after the ballgame, I walked Clair into Helen’s backyard. We talked, as usual. She said my trip to Buffalo three years earlier almost blew it for me with her dad, but she convinced him I was an okay guy. Thanks, Clair.
When Helen called her in, Clair walked me along the side of the house toward the car. She grabbed my arm, turned me toward her and kissed me. Then I kissed her, I mean really kissed her. I’d only ever kissed one girl before, and that was just a peck. This was a kiss. And then she pushed me away delicately.
“You know,” Clair said, “We’ll probably never see each other again.”
She was wrong.
Music was life to kids growing up in Brooklyn in the 60s. To describe it will take the next three episodes of Tales of a Canarsie Boy. Next up: Blueberry Hill to Little Deuce Coupe.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.