An Early Life Autobiography
Table of Contents
This book is dedicated to my mom and dad, Blanche and Gennaro Servedio. It is
an ongoing project which started approximately 1 year ago, early 1993, as a result
of going to a writing workshop on story telling, specifically about one's life.
Having been blessed with fairly strong memory banks, the workshop set off an
explosion of memories which I felt had to be written down and be preserved for
posterity. One memory led into another, using a specific technique in the
workshop, known as "mind mapping", and out poured voluminous remembrances
of people, incidents, feelings, joys and hurts of my past, right down to pre-verbal
As stated, this is an ongoing project, which serves a number of personal goals.
One; it is a journalling work, which has been of therapeutic value by helping me to
get in touch with early life feelings and by feeling the thread of consciousness that
represents me through these memories (there were times while writing where I felt
that I was back as a young child, reliving firsthand the incidents that I was writing
about). Secondly, it has given birth to a form of creative writing which was aching
to be released from my fingers (writing software is creative, but it's not the same!).
And thirdly, it has given me a deeper feeling of love for my parents and for all
those whom I've included in this book.
This is simply the first installment of perhaps a never ending project. I tried to
focus on the pre-kindergarten years, as these memories are the most faint and in
threat of being lost forever. So this entire booklet is of memories of the years
1954-1958 or 1959, with a few exceptions. It also provides background
information on my personal and extended families and geography.
This is an early draft, containing few edits, so forgive me if the wording is crude at
times. I'd like to ask any reader that can help correct of make fuller any of the
subjects discussed in this book, please contact me!
I was born on September 14th, 1954 at 4:50PM in Jamaica, NY, in a hospital that no longer
exists, Memorial Hospital of Queens, not far from my first home in St. Albans, a part of that wonderful county of New York City called Queens (counterpart to it's more famous neighbor, Kings County, a.k.a. Brooklyn). I don't know much about my birth, of course, except that it was a fairly long labor for my mother, as I was her first child. But it was the fifties, and perhaps I wasn't so sure if I wanted to come out in such a repressed and bizarre period! I also did "time" in an incubator, as I was a small one indeed, registering 5 pounds, 4 ounces on the baby scale. The earliest picture I can remember of myself was one of my mother holding me on the hospital steps before entering my parents' 1949 olive green Plymouth. I looked so small and red and defenseless! A part of me feels somewhat shamed for being so vulnerable and "childish" - I don't know where that comes from, perhaps some competitive thing with my folks. But it is such a wonder that such a tiny little baby has grown up to be me, a full size living adult!
The Joy of "Phil"
It was an arduous task, apparently, for my parents to name me. I wonder if there were baby
name books back then, and why they were so unprepared (my mom was expecting a girl). I remember names such as Joseph and Larry being bantered about - Joseph was my grandfather, my father's dad, who died exactly a month before I was born, and Larry, rather Lawrence, was my dad's choice. Yecch!, especially for a nice Italian boy like me! Well, it was my Aunt Julia who suggested the name Philip, and that was what my parents agreed upon, with a middle name of Joseph to honor my recently departed grandfather. The name Philip is so close to me, such a part of me that it IS me, but there have been times when I have objectively looked at the name Phil with a slight sense of deep regret. The name Phil can have a very ordinary aire about it, like someone on your bowling team, an ordinary guy with sub-standard mental abilities (who can forget that zany detective, Phil Moskowitz, in Woody Allen's first major movie "What's Up Tiger Lilly"). The ordinary goof ball. On the other hand, Philip can connote regal qualities, someone who barely touches the earth, while floating in a sea of royal dignity and arrogance, afraid of getting one's clothes 'soiled' by mingling with the commoners, such as Prince
Philip, or Philip the Great. In either case, Phil was a bit embarrassing, 'cause I ain't neither of those two models that I conjured up in my spare time. But it is a name that I love dearly. When someone says 'fill the tub' or 'dental fillings', I am apt to jump up and wonder," who called my name? Someone wants to talk to ME?" And to meet another Phil in the world left me with both afeeling of betrayal and camaraderie; betrayed for someone having 'stolen' my name, but also one who has something very dear, very much in common with me. At the risk of sounding cliché, I never met a Phil I didn't like - in fact, I root for all Phil's in the world, may they live well and prosper! Even the doctor who delivered me was a Phil, Dr. Philip Aronson, a round man with a bald head, meticulous in his ways, especially when it came to fill out forms (there's the 'fill' word again!). My mom was annoyed by him for some reason, but since he was a Phil, all is forgiven. Perhaps I may be the only one who remembers Bubba Phillips, an outfielder for the Cubs/Tigers. I loved to hear the word 'Phillips' called out on the radio by one of the
Yankee announcers. It thrilled me as a kid, made me feel validated, important, respected, that the Phil word was Philling the airwaves. Even the word Phyllis was of numinous proportions - a girl version of Phil. I had a cousin (by marriage to my cousin Vinny - wait, ain't that a movie?) named Phyllis and I wondered if she was "in", in on the Phil cult, Phil consciousness, Phil's world, Phildom. But since she was a girl, I wasn't sure, but I liked Phyllis none the same. She's in the club!
I've tried very hard to evoke early memories. From age three on, it's fairly easy, but before that, memories are not necessarily the same, I believe, since I believe that the brain function that stores these memories perhaps doesn't work in the same way that it does as soon as we hit a certain age. I can remember feelings, fuzzy visions of my parents' house in St. Albans. I can remember being in a high chair, eating this raw egg and sugar concoction that my mother used to feed me. I definitely remember how much I liked it, being loaded with sugar! My folks had a jumper mechanism that attached to a door frame that I remember being in, bouncing around, having a grand old time before that quantum leap to the fully operational two legged world. The earliest memory conjures up a scene in a doctors office, laying naked on my tummy, and getting a shot in the butt, then crying like hell! My earliest indignity! That memory is purely functional, in the sense that there wasn't an I fully there yet, but simply a collage of sensations without an interpreter to them.
Early memories have been aided by a mountain of slide photographs of myself as a baby - a roll of film every two weeks it seems! My first this, my first that, it has all been recorded for posterity in living Kodachrome 35MM color! My mom told me that I was a good baby, but I cried a lot at night, I'm sure much to the chagrin of both my parents, especially my dad, who is very sensitive around his sleeping habits. I'm sure I was a test for him! During this time, I've heard, there was a lot of controversy over how exactly to raise children - many of the old school norms were being questioned and analyzed by the new high priests of science, the doctors and psychologists. Some said to attend to babies when they cried, and others said that rushing to a crying baby taught it a response to stimulus, that crying would be rewarded with attention and love, and this would set a dangerous precedent for the ever- learning child. So I guess my parents sided a bit on the latter theory, but were taught a painful lesson one hot August night in 1955. My crib was in their bedroom, and I was crying myself to sleep, as usual. But this night was different - I didn't fall asleep but kept crying. Not ones to give in, my folks let me cry until they began to suspect something was wrong. When they came into the bedroom and turned on the light, they had the shock of their lives. The room was swarming with mosquitoes! There was a mosquito epidemic in New York at that time, and someone left the window open. Needless to say, I was a human pin cushion for those mosquitoes, who were having a feast on my tender newborn blood. So, in between the feelings of horror and guilt, my parents swatted and swatted until their arms got tired, till the wee hours of the morning, until all the mosquitoes were gone. What complicated matters was that I was slightly allergic to mosquito bites, and I swelled up like a baby balloon. I must have looked pretty funny, but I'm sure both mom and dad must have felt awful for not coming into my room sooner, in addition to the general feeling of hurt of seeing one's child in pain. To this day, I still have a tenuous relationship with mosquitoes.
I still have some vague memories of the early toys that I had, some kind of tough guy doll, the warming plate that attached to my crib, my yellow rubber ducky, some kind of mobile on my crib and playpen. Playpens - prisons for infants, serving time behind bars. I was doing time in a really nice wooden pen with little blocks and wooden balls built right into the playpen that I would spin and spin as fast as I could. Already the boy in me was coming out, seeing how fast I could spin those pieces of playpen hardware.
I wasn't nursed, as, of course, this was the fifties, and it was better living through chemistry' time, boys and girls! Certainly the folks at the local pharmaceutical corporation could do one better than mother's milk, and it was certainly less embarrassing than exposing one's breast!
I was baptized on Halloween of 1954 - somehow it seems significant, but I don't know why.
Our First House: 185-02 Baisley Blvd.
My folks and I (along with my sister to be) lived in a rather unusual situation for the first seven
years of my life. We lived in St. Albans, a crowded village in the midst of the massive suburban sprawl
of the New York city boroughs. It was just south of Jamaica in Queens, where the big Macy's store was
and the big train station, along with my grandparents on my mom's side). St. Albans was, from what I
can remember, a small village with a fairly small main street, Farmers Blvd. I wonder when the last
farmer was growing anything in Queen - it must have been a long, long time ago! I always remember
one shoe store on the corner, Ganscap Shoes, for some odd reason. There was a big cobblestone hill that
one comes down from a neighboring, larger village intersecting Farmers Blvd. and continuing down this
road led right to my parents' place, 185-02 Baisley Blvd. Now, the funny situation was that it just wasn't
my parents' place, because they occupied a flat in the corner building which housed the St. Albans Fuel
Oil Company, the "family" business. On the first floor, the office for the company was in the corner
room of Baisley Blvd. and Mohawk St.(?), and my grandmother's living area took up the rest of the
first floor. The stairs to our place were right between the office and my grandmother's living room,
stairs that I would become intimately close to at about 4 years of age. Even more peculiar was that the
house was right across the street from elevated train tracks, elevated by a large mound of dirt, about one
story high. A bridge allowed traffic to pass under Baisley Blvd. to a neighboring town that held a lot of
army barracks. Probably being so close to those trains is partly due to my intense love affair with trains
as a child, as I was lulled to sleep often by the long island railroad passing within 50 feet of my
St. Catherine of Sienna Church
But the most unusual aspect of all relative to our living situation was our neighbors - the
Catholic Church. You see, the family property was situated on a small corner of a huge block that
housed St. Catheerines of Sienna Church, parking lot, rectory, school and schoolyard
. I felt deprived that I really didn't have any neighbors, but
I did look forward to going to school, watching the children run around in the playground which was
adjacent to our backyard. It was a kind of funky backyard, mostly concrete patches adorned by patches
of weeds in every crack. There was a concrete wall that met the schoolyard in the back that was
probably 6 feet high, but as a child, it seemed huge. On top of that was an incredibly high chain link
fence - it must have been 20 feet high. Was it to keep the kids in or me out? I guess it was to prevent
balls of various kinds from entering into the neighbor's yard and thus lawsuits from entering the office
of the monsignor. When I was a little older, I remember watching movies of prisoner of war camps,
which also had huge fences, but never made the connection. This fence, I remember ran around the
entire perimeter of this very large schoolyard. I had a lot of fun in that backyard, imagining playmates,
enemies at war. Being mostly concrete, I couldn't get too dirty, which was wonderful for mom, but I'm
sure I must have come in with a lot of bloody elbows and knees. We had a variety of swing sets and
pools in the yard as I and my sister grew older.
Trucks, Trucks, Trucks
Just to the right of the backyard, separated from the house by a long driveway was a really large
garage that housed the trucks for the family business, three 20 foot tank trucks as well as Uncle Rocky's
service truck, which was a forerunner to the current 'van'. The trucks, when parked in the garage, looked
like huge dinosaurs resting at night for the next days forage into the concrete urban jungle. They seemed
three stories high! I loved trucks second only to trains. One of my all-time cherished toys was a tanker
truck that (I think) my dad got me from some promotion at a Texaco service station. It was fire engine
red with a cab and tanker - the family trucks weren't as cool as this, as they were not the big rig trucks -
and was sturdy enough to put all my little body weight on it and make believe I was riding it. I loved
that toy, and it lasted a long time. There was one disturbing thing about it, though. I knew it was a
Texaco truck, and the family trucks were Mobil Oil trucks - this was an existential inconsistency that I
couldn't reconcile - why couldn't it have said Mobil? Why? Then it would have been really perfect! But
no, Texaco, the competition - was I already selling out at such a young age by playing with a
competitor's truck? Did my parents have no shame to give this to me? Why couldn't Mobil sell cool
trucks? Were they just some deadhead outfit? Though I never uttered a single word over this question of
priorities that plagued my young mind, I never forgot it, banishing it to the realm of the subconscious,
knowing every man has his price, while I spent hours ruining the linoleum finish of the kitchen floor
with that wonderful, wonderful truck.
The Backyard and Assorted Buildings
I wasn't really allowed to play in the garage, but when my dad went in there, so did I. They had some kind of oil machine that I LOVED, It was hooked to this 55 gallon barrel of oil, I think, and it had a pump on it, just like the one on Laredo, the TV show. It had a wooden knob at the end of the handle, but instead of pumping water, out came this greenish, orangish gooey fluid that was really thick and flowed so slowly and smoothly. I just loved the sensation of watching the oil come out of the spigot into this large can. I'm sure I must have overflowed that can more than once, because I went to that oil pump every chance I could! And the smell was fabulous! In fact, the whole garage smelled of various kinds of oil and gas fumes. I loved it! I was a petrochemical junkie before I hit kindergarten. The odor would make my eyes tear just a little, but not enough to be painful, and, weird as it may sound, it made me want to swallow my tongue. It felt erotic, sensual in a kid's way, such wonderful sensation. It MUST have gotten me high, there's no other explanation!!
To the left of the backyard was another set of smaller garages and workrooms. There were two
garage bays that held cars that belonged to God knows who, and the left most bay was a workroom
where I spent many wonderful days male bonding with my dad. There was pretty much a whole
machine shop in there, and my earliest carpentry skills were forged in that workshop. I remember
building a doghouse with my dad ('course he did most of the hard stuff) and I was really proud of it. My
first wooden creation. But my first disappointment also, as the family dog, Sandy, was too big for our
little doghouse. It never entered my mind you had to build things TO SCALE!!
But that workroom, was men's world - no ladies allowed, even mom! When I was in there with the rest of the boys (mostly my uncles and their friends) the knot with mother was temporarily untied. One needed no mother in men's' world, where there was beer and cigarettes and 5 o'clock shadows and cursing and talking sports and dirty jokes that I never understood. Oh, my mom could come in and visit, to check on me, and bring some food, but basically, for ladies, the visa expired in a matter of seconds. I learned what it meant to be a man in that workroom, helping (I hope) my dad, sawing little bits of wood, hammering in REAL nails, not some kid's crap from Woolworth's, but REAL nails into REAL wood with a REAL hammer. OK, so it was a ballpeen hammer, the only one around that I could lift - it was a legitimate part of men's' world and I USED it! And so what if it was a small miter saw - it was REAL and you could cut off your hand if you were such a careful and skilled young carpenter as myself. I had important work to do there, and well, I think I did a damn good job. There were some wonderful times there being around men, listening and learning silently, picking up cues, learning the language, discovering right from wrong, cool from bogus, manly from womanly. And what was the major lessons learned there, learned by psychic osmosis, you might say? That while men were big and scary, and loved to break shit and fart, they were CREATIVE BEINGS, capable of creating beautiful works of art that were even functional in our home. It is a lesson that is so deep, it is embedded not in my mind, but in the body, and was fuel for my own desire to be creative.
The most creative one of all was my dad. He was really handy, and was really into being a high
quality carpenter. He built a lot of things in that workroom. Then I remember that he bought either raw
or used bedroom furniture for me, and spray painted it with this really neat spray gun (which he still
has!) and a portable air compressor. It was the neatest stuff - it sprayed multicolored speckles onto the
gray background of the wood. My dad was like a pressurized Jackson Pollack. Such neat stuff - specks
of black, white, gray, red and blue, I think. Another thing that was really cool was reupholstering some
furniture that he bought used. I actually went with him on the "buy" to some black Christian Church in
Jamaica. He must have seen these pieces of furniture lying in the bottom of the stairs in front of the
church while he was working. Well, the deal was struck with some tall black man, I think, and we took
it home and I helped disassemble the furniture - that's easy stuff for a kid, a slam dunk, destruction! I
think my mom went out and bought these big rolls of mint green naughahyde (imitation leather - it was
REAL BIG back in the fifties), and WE stapled the naughahyde to the wooden chassis of the love seat
and easy chair and screwed the legs back on. I tell you, it's not easy working a staple gun as a pre-
kindergartner - I had to use both hands and a lot of body weight to get that staple to come out!!
Dad's Plant Hangers
But the major piece of beauty that my dad created was a set of wooden plant hangars that were
placed in the living room of our house. Plant hangars may sound very ordinary and dull, but these
designs were far from it. I think he found the designs in Popular Mechanics - they were real
architectural plans which I though were SO COOL!! I immediately fell in love with architectural plans,
and never forgot it (hey, I did go to design school!). These hangars were some futuristic oval and curved
structures with odd bevels and angles. They were something else. This project I had to stand back and
watch. My dad put a lot of work into these pieces - buying special hardwood, using a band saw for the
cuts, filling the pores with wood filler (which, by the way, had a most excellent smell, second only to
fuel oil), sanding and sanding and sanding, then spraying black and clear lacquer for the finishing
touches. They were so incredible you could see yourself in the finish, and I was as proud as if I did them
myself. I think I made a pest of myself when he was making them, only for the reason that it was
interesting and fascinating watching the whole process of creativity in front of one's little eyes.
The Heavenly Garden
Just to the left of the workshop garage was "the front yard", which actually wasn't the front, but
on the side of the house, adjacent to a huge parking lot for the church on the other end of the block. No
problem parking in this section of the city! The yard was a heavenly place - an island of green, lush
beauty in the midst of all of the concrete and asphalt. My grandmother oversaw the work on this yard,
which had an incredible weedless, sod green lawn, pear trees, flowers, bushes, flowering trees and a
stone bird bath right smack in the middle. I used to go in the yard and play in the back right hand
portion where it met the back of the workshop. It was dark and shady there, full of lots of real clean dirt
that I could dig up and play with. I remember the day that they installed the sprinkler system - well, it
was more like a week, digging up the lawn to lay the water pipes, installing the water pump, etc. I felt
bad that they had to dig up the lawn to install it, but it recovered in no time. I used to love to watch it
water the lawn, and wished that I could turn it on. I wasn't allowed to play very much in this garden,
since it was my grandmother's pride and joy, and I might have tore it up.
The SparkPlug Incident
I used to help my dad cut the lawn with my own lawnmower. He had one of the upright gasoline powered mowers, the ones that had the circular blades in the front. I was told to never, ever go near those blades, which was fine by me, since they sounded so menacing when it was turned on. But once my curiosity got the best of me. There was this engine that just stood out in the open, no hood to hide it like a car. I used to watch my dad do something with the spark plug to turn it off, and I thought that was real cool. So I tried it once, when my father stepped away from the mower for a second. I gingerly came up from the back of the mower, making sure that I wouldn't get anywhere near the blade, and proudly placed my finger on the spark plug and YOWW!!! A jolt of electricity shot through my arm up to my head and down to the bottom of my feet. It knocked me back about a foot. The lawnmower sputtered for a second, as my finger, for a moment was part of the electrical circuitry, and not being as good a conductor as, let's say copper wire, almost shut the mower off. This all happened in a split second and after the shock was over, I immediately started crying. All this got the attention of my dad, who was real mad! He sort of picked me up sideways as I was balling my eyes out and took me up to my mom, who gave me first aid for my bruised finger and ego. I never touched another lawnmower again, until I had to, some 12 or so years later!!
I remember after my grandmother died, no one really had the time to put all that much energy
into the garden, and I remember that it lost much of its beauty over the years, which made me sad.
Other Early Life Memories
Some memories are so far distant that I can only remember bits and pieces, sounds, feelings, but
not much visually, which is quite different from ordinary memory for myself and perhaps most other
people. One particular incident occurred on my third birthday. Someone bought me a cowboy outfit,
complete with hat, guns and holster, the whole bit. So, of course, they dressed me up to parade me in
front of the relatives. I think I was at my house, and everyone was in the living room. Well, I came in
taking big steps, like I was some gunslinger. But the reaction I got was certainly not fear or respect like
a real gunslinger. People were howling with laughter as I entered the room, because for every step I
took, the my gunbelt would slowly slip down my three year old hips lower and lower, until they were
around my ankles, giving the impression of someone's pants falling down. Well, cute and funny, all at
once, was more than most of my audience could handle. I think I remember my grandmother howling
the hardest with laughter, but I DIDN'T THINK IT WAS FUNNY! AT ALL! But hey, I was getting all
of the attention, and that's always great for a little kid. I do remember my mom tying the holsters to my
legs with pieces of rawhide strips connected to the holster. Wearing the whole thing made me feel very
uncomfortable, and I wondered if real gunslingers felt the same way. They sure seemed ok with this
getup in the movies and on TV!
Wanted: Dead or Alive
Another situation that got me a lot of laughs was when my parents and I and another man, possibly one of dad's friends or uncles, were riding back to our house in my dad's black 1954 Ford. Cars were real big and real neat back then. Anyway, it must have been sometime near an election, because I noticed a lot of signs on telephone poles with pictures of people on them with some writing. Now, my only experience with such a thing was the world of television, particularly the show Larame, on my grandmother's television. In the west, if you have your picture posted on a pole or a tree it could mean only one thing - you were the bad guy, the criminal, the outlaws. So I made the connection that maybe all these people were outlaws also, but this was real life in the 50's and I wasn't so sure. So I ask my dad,"Hey dad, are all those people on the telephone poles - are they outlaws?" Everyone in the car starting laughing, which really confused me, especially when my dad said,"well, in a way, they are!" So what's so funny about that? About ten years later, when I learned about politicians, and the basic insincerity of adults, I finally got the joke. Out of the mouth of babes come the wisest sayings, eh?
Bedroom Stories In the Apartment
Our apartment was above the family business, as I've said before. It was a fairly small flat, but for a little kid, it was really big, full of hiding places and lots of different rooms to play with. When I was old enough to have my own bed, my parents put an extension on the house. But this was a little different than what one normally thinks of as an extension. This was a second floor extension without a first floor - essentially, slapping a rectangle onto the side of the house, underneath an overhang, above the stairs leading to the basement. I remember seeing pictures of it being built, but I don't know when it happened, because I have no memory of the construction. All I do remember was that one day I had my own bed, in my own room, right next to my parents. This was definitely a scary proposition, since I had a great fear of the dark, and though I was only 10 feet from my parents bed, it felt like I was alone in the dark, away from the comforts of my parents bedroom. The bed also felt really big, as I was only three years old, not all that large myself. I remember one really bad nightmare, where this dog was barking in front of me, a really mean dog, and...and it reached up and bit my balls! Yewouchh!! I could feel the pain through my groin right in the dream (I don't know, maybe I was sleeping in a funny position). Anyway I woke up and called for my mom, who came in and was trying to hush me down. It was reassuring for her to come to me, but she seemed overly invested in not having my dad wake up. He could be quite nasty if you woke him up out of his sleep. But I was in definite emotion, if not physical, pain after this horrid dream, and I wanted some comfort. So we struck up a deal right there. We would switch beds! So I crawled into my folks bed, and she got in mine. But it didn't take too long to feel that I got the raw end of the deal here. My dad's weight sort of had me rolling down to his side of the bed, which was really weird - and the last thing I wanted to do was bump into him and wake him up. He was sleeping on his side, and I noticed he was huge, like the great wall of dad, this huge back that was inhaling and exhaling and SNORING!! It was loud and not at all comforting. I was never that close to him snoring and he sounded like a monster, which would have scared me, but I was fairly certain he was my dad - but not totally certain. I remember this whole new situation was really complicated and not at all conducive to sleep. So I lay there on my back for a long while, listening to my dad snore and watching the moving lights on the bedroom ceiling from the passing cars on the street below and hearing the occasional train going by, for a long, long time before I finally got to sleep.
My mom's favorite story of my early childhood was of that time when I first had my own room.
One night, I came out of my room before my parents went to bed, came up to them and said,"I'm awl
awone, what am I gunna do?" We're talking major league cute here!
Damn, Was I Cute!
I have to boast that I was most definitely a cute baby. Well, after early infancy, that is. I looked like a small red sausage right after birth, with tiny little features. But as I grew, I became a very chubby little infant. I had a big square head, and was oh, so fat! So I was appropriately named "Butterball", as in the turkey. That ol' infant formula must have been chock full of growth hormones and calories! As I grew, I became a most charming blond haired, blue eyed baby, which may not be so unusual, but since both my folks have southern Italian heritage, it makes you wonder where these genes came from! My father used to joke about the Swedish milkman. I was dressed in all sorts of cute outfits, as my mother had a passion for sewing. They still have pictures of me in their home from my toddler years, dressed in sailor outfits, bowties, suits, jackets, and silly looking baseball type hats with short brims (all they needed was a little propeller on top!). I looked more like an nice young Aryan boy than a product of two Italian-Americans. I was in the mold of this Northern European body type until puberty. Perhaps it was an indication of a past life as a German or an Englishman, or the power of recessive genes, who knows? In any case, my blue eyes have always been with me. In looking at some of my old pictures, I did notice some dark circles under my eyes as little as three years of age, which indicates whatever intestinal troubles I may have go back a long, long way. I also vividly remember a certain look on my face in a number of my baby pictures, It was a look of confusion, alienation, a look that said,"What the hell am I doing here?" Perhaps it is an ordinary adjustment to bodily life that all babies go through, or some pre- condition to a sense of alienation that I felt later in life. All in all, though, I was cute as hell, a natural for the photograph, which my father produced in generous amounts.
My mom used to sing to me, looking into my eyes:
She sang this song so much, I was able to memorize it by the time I was four years old. I think it
was from the Lennon sisters. She says I was a happy baby, except for the crying during the wee hours in
the morning. But I do know it was a love affair of most deep affection, judging from the pictures of her
holding me. I can't believe I was that small! Where do the years go? I am older now than they were
when those pictures were taken.
Mom and Dad: Sexual Beings?
Speaking of my mom and dad, judging from the photographs that I've seen, they looked like a
hot couple. There's one right after they were married, where they both looked young and juicy and the
whole picture reeked of young lust and hormones. Though it was the fifties, a time of most repressive
proportions compared to the latter decades, the theme of sexuality always seemed to enter the
photographs of my parents. I have one picture of my mom posing in a bathing suit at Bear Mountain or
beach in a "suggestive" pin-up girl pose which I call "That's not a hot-looking babe, that's my mom!"
Other pictures show her in other pin-up styles, one hand on hip, the other in the hair kind of thing. One
picture of my dad that I recently found shows him double dating with a woman before my mom's time.
My dad had this evil look in his eye, and a kind of male adolescent smirk of mischieviousness, as if to
say,"Maybe I'll get lucky later tonight, folks!"
So it was always there. Hey, I was conceived some cold winter night in January or February of 1954.
I do have faint memories of being in the crib, which was situated in a corner of the bedroom, farther from the street, closest to the kitchen. I remember having a mobile in there, and remember vividly nights when I dreamt. In the mind of such a young child, the division between apparent "reality" and the dream world was not so clearly defined, so I remember going in and out of these realms with no labels or translations of the experiences that I had. Each one was real and vivid as the other. It seems that as a child, life is somewhat dreamlike until the point when the brain matures and the ego is formed, so the lines between dreaming, imagining and three dimensional waking life are not so necessarily defined.
Though I don't remember it, there were lots of games my parents played with me. One of the
most sickeningly cutest was "roundball". It went like this:
I also have vivid memories of being woken up in the middle of the night to go to pee on the
toilet. Both my parents would come and wake me up and place me on the potty extension that fit over
the regular toilet bowl. Out of the drug of sleep, I could faintly see and feel them with me, giving me
their undivided attention for my late night kidney tap. It was one of the most comforting things that I
felt as a child - having both giants of parents holding me and watching me as I pee, making sure that I
would stay up straight and not fall back asleep on the toilet. The feeling of being held by my dad,
hoisted in the air to great heights, then be gently placed on his chest as he walked, head resting on his
huge shoulder, was one of total safety. I would feel very, very secure as they lay me back into my bed...
My Worst Nightmare
Another vivid nightmare from my newly acquired bedroom was one that I remember in striking detail to this day. The psychologist Carl Jung talks about some dreams being "big" dreams and this definitely was one of them. It seems so profound and such a statement to this day, of my personal psyche and personal shadow:
I am working in a bank. I have a desk on a landing of a semi-circular staircase.
The landing is halfway down to a closed door at the bottom of the stairs. I am
tremendously frightened by what is behind the door, which may be open just a crack to
show the darkness behind it. At my desk, I am examining an ant with a flashlight - I can
see myself doing this task. I get up from my desk to the main floor. The bank is long and
thin, and on the other side of where the staircase meets the main floor is a row of teller
windows. While coming up the stairs, I look towards the front doors of the bank. I can
see a man talking to a rather fat woman outside on the sidewalk with the traffic going by
behind them in the bright sunlight. When I arrive at the top of the stairs, I look in front of
me right into the teller window. The reflection of me in the window reveals this giant
spider, with three black body sections, very similar to a snowman. It has legs coming out
of all sections. I am frightened by this image and I bend down to see if the image will go
away. As I bend down, the spider goes down with me, and as I rise up again, it comes up
with me, paralleling my movements. I do this a number of times with the same result. I
get so frightened that I back up and fall down the stairways towards the door. The
momentum of my fall carries right into the room behind the door that I was so afraid of. I
stand up in the dark room and see Felix The Cat staring at me with a look of scolding or
disapproval on his face, arms folded. To the left of Felix is me, doing the same thing,
nodding in agreement with Felix. This frightens me so much that I wake up.
Our First (and Only) Apartment
The apartment was a normal one for the times. There was my parents bedroom with a very heavy maple furniture lacquered black at the edges - they still have it to this day, which is a testament to the quality of the product. There were two night stands, a long, low dresser with a large mirror for my mom, and a tall armoire for my dads clothing.
Next to my parents bedroom was my bedroom, with the sprayed furniture that I talked about previously. My first headboard was this soft cushy thing that the furniture was matched to, that I enjoyed punching, since it would bounce back just like a punching bag. I don't remember much else in my room. It had one window overlooking the garages and the playground of St. Catherines.
The bathroom was right next to the bedroom, just down the hall. It had a fifties kind of sink. Don't remember much about the bathtub at all. I remember learning to brush my teeth there, and the time my father enclosed the area below the sink for extra storage. Before that, it simply had iron legs that went to the floor. I have a picture of myself, my sister and my dad all brushing our teeth in the bathroom. I used to love to talk to my dad in the bathroom while he was shaving. First he used a razor, I think, then an electric razor. I wondered why he would puff out his cheeks when he shaved, if it made it better or something. I asked him a lot of times if I could shave, and he said no mostly, or that I had to wait till I got older. But I couldn't possibly think of a time when I would be an adult male, shaving whiskers off of my face. One time he finally relented and let me put the electric razor to my face. It was a square job, a Remington, which he always swore by - daily I would watch the ritual of him pulling the box out of the medicine cabinet, plugging it into the wall, and go through the process of becoming lighter and less mean looking.
Well, when I put the shaver to my face with both hands it was YOW! time! It both tickle and pinched my sensitive pre-kindergarten skin. Was shaving that painful, that dangerous a task? Obviously, there was more to it then what met the eye. In any case, I never asked him to shave again. He had a similar ritual for cleaning the razor, opening up the heads and pushing this really small brush through, then at the very end, blowing through the heads, and giving a slight tap to the heads to get all of the whiskers out. I used to play with the razor when he left the box underneath the sink. It smelt greasy, like unwashed hair. I felt that the little brush was part of kids world being so small, so I would clean his razor also when I got a chance. I believe I got his old electric razor when he got a new one, but this memory is really vague...
Just past the bathroom was the doorway to the kitchen, the site of the famous baby swing that both my sister and I used for while. Unfortunately, I do remember an incident where her swing came undone and the whole thing, including my sister, came crashing to the ground. The kitchen sink was the site of many a baby photo for me, as this was the site of my first baby bath, and second, and third and fourth... Above the sink was a window that overlooked the backyard, so my mom could keep an eye on me when I was playing outside. There were, however, places where I could go in that backyard, where she couldn't see me, places where I could have some real dangerous FUN! To the right of the sink was the stove. Stoves are not something of interest, but I do remember the time where I was playing in the living room and heard this huge, I mean really huge explosion, in the kitchen. It sound like a bomb going off, like on TV, only this time it was real!! I run into the kitchen to find that one of the smaller stove doors was blown clear off!! It seems that there was a compartment for storage or something in that stove, and someone (not naming any names, mom or dad!) left a can of spray insecticide or oven cleaner in the compartment. My mother must have been baking something, and the temperature must have reached critical mass, and BOOM, explosion. It was really cool and exciting for me, topping off an otherwise dull day of playing with the same old toys and the same TV shows. I thought maybe we should call the fire department, and I think my mom also said it, which was really exciting to know that the sound of the fire engines would be coming straight to our house. We were gonna be famous now!! Really important stuff is happening in our house, like a real explosion and stuff. I don't remember if the firemen did come over, but some people came up from downstairs, and they all figured out what had happened. I remember my mom saying to the effect of God, what if Philip was playing in the kitchen - what a horrid thing to think. I felt her concern and love for me, and felt secure in her thinking of me. I also felt a little annoyed, like the stupid kid would have gotten hurt, you know? Hey, I can take care of myself, ok? But I do have to confess that the explosion shook me up quite a bit, something very extraordinary upsetting the secure rhythm of my life, something big and dangerous and threatening to my existence. An unconscious thought runs through one's brain, no matter how big or small, that throws light on the illusion of one's supposedly secure little existence. If it could happen then, it could happen anytime - I was never really safe was I? It was almost too much for me to handle, and I felt a little shaky - something so big and uncontrollable occurring right under our noses, right in our home! This is supposed to be safe territory for a kid like me, wasn't it? I guess not. Well, they bought a new door, forgot the whole incident, and learned something about heat and pressurized cans in the process.
Another incident with the stove, a little more homey than an explosion, was that there was a space between the cabinet top and the stove, as well as space underneath the stove, where things would fall or get stuck, such as small toys of mine! My mom and I were watching TV, and there was this show on about household tips. This man was demonstrating how to build a long hook thing out of coat hangars and assorted household items. So I watched my mom build this contraption and retrieve all sorts of stuff from the stove's perimeters, and we both were excited and proud. I never understood why they took that show off the air, it was so useful!
The kitchen table was this gray Formica rectangle with specks of darker gray embedded in the
finish. This specky kind of look must have been real big back in those days. The table was real, real
smooth, good for sliding toys to the other side, and right off, of course. But it did have some real sharp
edges that met up with my forehead a number of times. I don't remember much of meal time, but one of
the most interesting things that every happened on the table was when my sister was born. Back then, it
was thought that formula milk was superior to breast milk, or some kind of silly notion about the
hazards of breast milk. In any case, there was this incredible ritual over making the baby's formula. The
word formula really stuck in my four year old mind, knowing that it was something mathematical or
scientific. And judging from the amount of equipment that it took to make baby's formula, it sure
looked like some very complicated scientific experiment was going on right on our kitchen table. It
looked like beakers and flasks and Bunsen burners and sterilized bottles and powder and water. And the
measurements had to be so precise, or the whole damn thing would blow up in our faces! I remember
sticking my nose and butting in whenever they made formula. And getting told to back off many times.
I mean, it was so interesting! But I think it tasted like crap! Why didn't they just use the milk in the
refrigerator, for Pete's sake?
The Living Room, Mel Allen, and "Bezbul"
The living room was quintessential fifties. I remember an old green couch with dark green trim
all around with a brown single chair, which was my dad's "daddy" chair. One window overlooked the
wonderful garden that I spoke about and two other windows, opposite from the door leading from the
kitchen, overlooked Baisley Blvd. My memories are full of the sights and sounds of all sorts of cars
passing by those windows. Not to mention the St. Catherines Marching band practicing in the
parking lot just past the garden. But the central item of the living room, like most living rooms in
America, was the electronic god and baby sitter, the almighty television set. Now, I don't remember if
we went through a couple of televisions in the time in that house, but I remember a console TV and a
large portable. The classic rabbit-ear antennae was perched on top of the set. It had some kind of dial
that one could turn, similar to the TV dial, which I heartily enjoyed changing, even though it didn't
seem to do much, except change the quality of the picture a bit. I spent many an hour in front of that
TV. One of my favorite memories was when I was sick with the measles or the flu. My mom let me stay
on the couch to watch TV, and gave me an earplug to listen to the sound of the television. This, I
thought, was real high-tech and cool, to hear the sound of the TV and nobody else could hear. I used to
watch baseball with my dad, even though at a very young, pre-kindergarten age, I had no idea what was
going on. But I liked it because he liked it, and it seemed to me to be a manly thing to do. Like I said
before, I loved to hear anyone named Philip in baseball. Yankee baseball. That's when the Yankees were
really great! I couldn't wait for the Yankees to hit a home run, because that's when Mel Allen would
shout,"going, going gone!" Well, this became a playful joke between me and my dad. He would come
over and tickle me and yell going, going gone. I wanted him to do that again and again, to the point of
nausea. I loved to laugh and be tickled, and this moment, a Yankee home run, was a highlight for me.
The commercials on the Yankee games are forever etched into my brain. Ballantine beer sponsored
Yankee baseball for years on TV, and it's ad I will never forget:
Then later with the Mets, it was Rheingold beer:
Outside of the weekend event of watching baseball on TV, my main drug of choice was the cartoon. The old Farmer Gray cartoons didn't have any voices, only this music that sounded like it was written in the twenties or something. Even at a young age, I noticed short cuts in the production of the cartoon - like when it rained cats and dogs, the same cat and dog would come down, evenly spaced in time from the previous one. So what if they were cheaply done - I loved them, and it kept me from wrecking the house. Merry Melodies were, of course, the cream of the crop - Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Elmer Fudd, Chip and Dale. Disney cartoons just didn't do what these guys did for me, but don't get me wrong, I am an American, and I did like Mickey Mouse and Goofy and Pluto. Donald Duck was a bit irritating to me - that raspy voice, and you just couldn't make out what he was saying.
All of the Merry Melodies characters went through an evolution of size, shape, voice and behavior. The early Daffy Duck was really daffy, I mean, he was nuts, insane, out of his mind. He would yell, "who, who, who who..." while bouncing on water with his head and then his feet over and over, into the sunset. Something a kid could really look up to and serve as a manic role model. I sure wished I could do that, just like Daffy Duck, but even as a young child, I knew that there were some limits based on the law of physics. Later on, Daffy lost the Jerry Lewis shtick to become a mean, self- centered jerk who always had his come-uppance by the end of the cartoon, often through the devious plans of Bugs Bunny.
And how many people know that Elmer Fudd started out as a large, fat boy scout type? It seemed that this type of character wouldn't work, and soon he became the lovable dimwit with the speech impediment that we all loved to watch get creamed by Bugs Bunny.
I'd have to say that Bugs Bunny was my favorite of all. He was so cool under pressure. He always won. He always got the girl. He always had the last say, the last laugh, the last punch, much to the dismay of notable villains such as Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, Yosemite Sam, and a host of lesser known bullies and jerks, who obviously didn't know who they were up against. Cross Bugs Bunny, and you're deadmeat, pal. When Bugs would utter those immortal word,"Of course, you know, this means war!", you knew it was the beginning of the end for his adversary. I looked up to Bugs Bunny, because he was, perhaps unwittingly, the bearer of good against evil, stupidity, jerks, idiots, bullies, nasty people, obnoxious dingbats (remember the girl scout with the raspy voice?), and any other reprehensible character that the writers could come up with. He was the model of confidence, grace, strategic planning and implementation, cunning, wittiness, a master of hallucination and illusion. Monsters of every type would be thrown against Bugs and in the end they were like putty in his hands. He was the James Bond of the cartoon world. Oh, how I wished I could be just like Bugs, outwitting everything that was threatening and fearful in my little life!
There were many other characters in 'toon town that I enjoyed, mostly the Merry Melody bunch. I was never all that hip on the Disney gang, except for Goofy and Pluto. Mickey seemed like too much of a star, and Donald Duck was sooooo annoying, with that asinine voice. Anyway, I was usually at my grandma's house on Sunday night when Disney was on, and it just wasn't my cup of tea.
One cartoon that was on in my early life that I really, really loved was a Saturday morning show starring Crusader Rabbit and Rags the Tiger. Very few people know about this show, but it really won me over. The narrator had this really silk, loving voice that was so calming and reassuring to my hyperactive little being, that it was like a meditation for me, even if Crusader and Rags were in trouble. They lived and fought in a place called Gallahad Glen, and the evil villain was a tall, thin, man with sharp features in a turn of the century gentlemen's outfit named Dudley Nightshade. He was very similar to Snidely Whiplash, another famous Saturday morning villain, but Dudley's style was less expressive, but just as evil in his thoughts and deeds. One show I remember was about a batch of remedies called Burpo Fizzo that he conned many residents of Gallahad Glen with.
Other friends in the cartoon and kids world, ever etched into my unconscious included: Rocky
and Bullwinkle, UnderDog, Felix The Cat & Pow-wow The Indian Boy, Grimm's Fairy Tales, Magilla
Gorilla, Augie Doggie and Doggy Daddy, Huckelberry Hound, QuickDraw McGraw and Baba Looey,
Silvester the Cat & Tweedie Pie, Porky Pig, Chip and Dale, Road Runner, Richocet Rabbit, Speedy
Gonzalez, The Jetsons, The Flintstones, Mighty Mouse, Winchell-Mahoney Time. Fractured Flickers,
My Favorite Kid Shows
Every town has a number of children shows that win children's' hearts and minds. In New York, there were a number of them: the Sandy Becker Show, the Merry Mailman, Romper Room, Sonny Fox's Lets Have Fun, Soupy Sales, Bozo the Clown, and The Chuck McCann Show ( who play-acted all the comic book characters when the NY Daily News went on strike). My main TV station was Channel 5, WNEW, with the occasional WOR, channel 9, which had Million Dollar Movie, and WPIX, channel 11, which had Yankee baseball and a number of cartoons. Both Sandy Becker and Soupy Sales were on Channel 5. I learned at a very early age to turn on and operate the TV. My mom would try to make sure that I didn't break the station dial by turning it too rapidly or often. This was, of course, before the days of remote control, but this was training for that all-male sport, channel-flipping. But most often, I didn't find anything interesting on the major networks, only my beloved Channel 5.
I think, besides cartoons, my earliest fancy was for the Sandy Becker Show on Sunday and Let's Have Fun on Saturday morning. Let's Have Fun always started with two older boys, often boy scouts in front of two treasure chests and two very, very large piles of keys. The object of this show-long game in the background was to be the first one to open the treasure chest before the show was over. Let me tell you, that treasure chest was loaded with toys of all sorts. Only in my wildest dreams could I imagine winning that many toys all at once. So the show would start with these two boys feverishly shoving keys into the locked treasure chest in front of them, then Sonny Fox would come on, announce the boys names and explain that if either of them opened the treasure chest during the show, the show would stop on the spot to flood the winner with toy prizes in unimaginable quantities. This was the big one, the Oscar, the Million Dollar Lottery of kids contests. Very often, both boys would go through the entire show without finding that one, that one tiny little key that would lead to toy wonderland. But when a kid did find the key, a loud howling alarm would sound right on the show, and Sonny would stop everything to congratulate the kid for his perseverance (we're talking millions of keys here!), and then to start the toy parade for this most fortunate of small beings. A lot of the toys, when I first would watch the show, were a bit too old for me, like baseball pitchback nets and chemistry sets and hiking stuff, but did I care? NO! I would have given anything to be a winner of that contest. Besides, I could grow into all the toys that were too old for me.
Most of the Sonny Fox show was gag contests between two groups of kids, or some magician or someone really amazing, like the guy who could remember the names of all the kids on the show, and there were a lot of them. One time he had on a basketball match between two teams of boxer dogs, each team with a different color set of shorts. I don't know if the shorts were for the dogs, or for us to distinguish between the teams, or to hide their genitals, I don't know. The dogs would bounce a balloon off their noses into a basket at each end of the court. It looked real stupid, even for young kid like me. The action was very heated, and the dogs were getting almost vicious by the time the game was over. Some of the dogs lost their shorts. After the game was over, Sonny picked up one of the shorts off the basketball court and snickered,"Who ever said basketball wasn't a tough sport?" All of the show's crew started laughing, which was really neat to hear. As a young child, I was able to pick up on the humor, a breakthrough in the humorous technique of "understatement".
Sandy Becker, on the other hand, was the polar opposite of the gregarious and tongue-in-cheek Sonny Fox. Sandy's was quiet, reserved, and his entertainment was more creative and relaxed. He brought forth a number of unusual characters, such as an extremely elderly mannequin in a chair named Mr. Doorschock, who's only moving part was his jaw, and would mostly utter unrecognizable (at least to me) phrases. He was actually a bit scary, I remember, a little too out there. He dressed as another character, probably his most famous, Hambone, which had a very popular song to go along which went something like,"Hambone, hambone, have you heard...". It's hard to describe his outfit - it looked a little like some band leader, John Philip Sousa type, with these really strange thick glasses. I was so young watching his show that it often was way beyond me. The thing, in retrospect, seemed a bit of esoteric humor, that somehow, in some way, captured children's' attention, well, at least mine. He had another character named Que Lastima, who was this sleazy Latino director/producer who hit the skids. He may have been lampooning someone real, perhaps Ricky Riccardo, but it was and is beyond me. Que Lastima produced, directed, wrote, acted and starred in the his show, so all of the credits at the end of his segment said Que Lastima! It was funny to me! One of Sandy's major talents was that of puppeteering. He had these very unusual marionette puppets that had really large and ugly faces but weren't really that scary. The highlight of his show was to put on "A Christmas Carol" with his puppets, which wasn't as good as Mr. Magoo's but had its own charm. Whatever happened to Sandy Becker? Did he hit the skids like Que Lastima? Or did he go onto something greater? I never heard of him since!
I rarely watched Bozo the Clown, just wasn't into it, but did take interest when one girl in my
first grade class, Linda Bach(?), got onto the show. I remember seeing her sitting in the audience. Bozo
had his own cartoon featuring himself, with his sidekick Jimmy the ringleader. It was a pretty dumb
show, from what I remember. Of course, the Bozo show is most famous for the one little kid who
said,"Shove it, clown" to Bozo, right on the air. I don't know if it really happened, but just the thought
of it, even now, is hilarious!!
Soupy Sales, however, was the best of all the shows. White Fang, Black Tooth, Pies in the face,
Philo Kvetch, funny songs, put downs, his show was great, and something that kept my interest as I got
older and understood some of the more adult jokes. To put it mildly, many of the jokes on the show
were way above my little head, especially when you can hear Soupy's stage crew snickering and
laughing at his jokes. As a kid, even tough you may not understand the joke, if adults are laughing, you
kinda pick up on the vibe and be entertained anyhow. Soupy's show was such a mixture of a lot of gags,
jokes, guests, neat characters and movie quips. It may have been an hour, I just don't remember. The
pies in the face were the best. What red-blooded American boy cannot relate to food fights! Adults
playing with their food - it WAS ok!! I think I asked my dad if I could hit him in the face with a pie
once, but he declined. I would have loved to hit someone, anyone with a pie. Soupy brought pie
throwing to an art form - the straight-to-the-face, to both ears from behind, on top of the head, or
moving a body part into a stationery pie - there are countless other varieties that could be created with a
little imagination. I guess that I have to say that I was a little disappointed when my father told me it
was just shaving cream, but it was still a whole lot of fun. I had a preference for Black Tooth over
White Fang - Black Tooth was definitely the masculine side, whereas White Fang had kind of an
effeminate voice that I associated with girls and sissies. Both of them were very, very tall - their straight
arm reaching out parallel to the floor to caress or punch Soupy's face. They both however, were pie
throwers per-excellence! Pookie was also an interesting character - he was this really tiny lion, a hand
puppet, but he had a kind of low-life street-smart vibe that kept Soupy (real name: Milton Hines) off
guard. Pooky would sing these really funny joke songs, my favorite being:
Soupy would have the Saying of the Day on the board near Pookie's stage. Often funny, and more often, over my head. Soupy thought they were real funny, anyhow, which was good enough for me. He would finish by saying, "Now, what do we mean by that - yeah, what do we mean by that?"
Soupy would also have guest that would come to his door that we would never see - they would always substitute some funny scene from a movie as a shot of his guest, like a fat man, or a bunch of bathing beauties, or something from an old 1920's comedy movie. This was also very surprising and a real gas, no matter how old I was. The song "Happy Days Are Here Again" was big with this part of the show.
In later years, Soupy would do the Soupy Shuffle, which became an overnight sensation. It was
a real easy dance step to learn, and I practiced quite diligently to get it just right, while singing the
Soupy Shuffle song:
Soupy also in later years, probably for a ratings boost, began a detective serial on his show
called "Philo Kvetch" I was both honored and annoyed that the word Philo was nervously close to the
word Philip, since Philo was a definite bumbling fool in the genre of Inspector Clouseau, et al. The evil
villain was The Mask, a tall imposing figure with a dark mask, Darth Vader's great-great grandfather.
His henchman was this swarthy, unctuous character named Onions Oregano, who had the worst bad
breath in the world from chewing on too many raw onions. He could knock you over with an exhale,
and almost did in Philo a number of times. I don't remember many episodes, but they were both funny
and very thrilling, certainly capturing my attention. It was great satire, as I remember, and apparently
Philo was actually named after a Russian spy or something. I don't know what evil the Mask was up to,
and how Philo tracked him down, but in the final, thrill-packed episode, Philo kills Onions Oregano and
captures The Mask and removes his mask, and who is behind this most evil of masks, but , but Nikita
Kruschev!! Some guy who looked exactly like Kruschev played the Mask for this last episode (I thought
he looked a little fatter!). It was really funny and shocking, even for a little kid.
Soupy's Famous TV Blunder
About when I was six years old, I tuned to Channel Five to catch the next episode of Soupy
Sales, when, lo' and behold, it was no longer on, without any warning! There was Fred XX with his
dumb bowtie hosting a cartoon hour. What happened? How could they? How dare they? What a
betrayal, what an offense! Then a week later his show was back on like nothing happened. I forgot all
about it till years later I found out what happened. On one show Soupy looked right into that camera
and told his huge kid audience,"Now kids, why don't go right into your dad's wallet, take out all the
green stuff there, and mail it to me!" Well, apparently that's what a lot of kids did, and he got into a
LOT of trouble for that, like getting his show thrown off the air for a while. Something really funny
about the guilelessness and honesty of children coming back to hit Soupy right in the face! His show
was children's humor at it's very best.
Back To The Apartment
There was this really neat lamp that my father used as a reading lamp over his chair. It was a floor standing lamp, and it had a circular shade made out of some very strange, stiff material. It had dark green or brown lacing on the top and bottom and some kind of print. I loved to sit in his chair - it smelled like him and made me feel important to sit in the "father's chair". I remember him sitting there, reading the evening newspaper. There was an aura of relaxation about him as he sat there, reading the paper, waiting for dinner or digesting his meal. Most of the time I was off playing, but sometimes I would disturb him, wishing for him to play with me. Sometimes it was ok, and sometimes it was the forbidden zone.
Outside the living room was a long hall which also contained the stairs to the first floor, and a
hallway closet or attic door. I used to love to play in the hall. I had a lot of toy cars, my favorite being
this red-metal Dusenberg. I would park all my cars in-between the railing posts of the stairwell and play
with the cars on the slick linoleum floor there. Most of my toys, I believe were kept in my wooden toy-
chest at the end of my bed(?), which I had gotten for Christmas when I was three or four. I loved my
toy-chest - a closet for kids. It was very full, and often I had a hard time closing it. I remember the top
breaking eventually. There was some design on the top, something to do with Davey Crockett, like it
was a money or weapons chest for the old west. That was a definite favorite present. Having a toy chest
represented the first adult forms of choice for me - the choice of what to play with - I could lift up my
toy chest lid, look over the miasma of toys waiting for playtime (most of which I have forgotten about),
and select, at my whim and discretion, what shall be my plaything that day. There was a sense of power,
the power of choice, which was not a given in my young life, and one that was sheer enjoyment.
A few other toys stand out in my mind for my pre-kindergarten years. One was this two story mechanics garage, made of sheet metal, yellow in colors, with all sorts of little do-dads that went along as props. There were little cars that went in and out of this garage. But the neatest feature of this garage was the elevator - I could bring cars from one floor to another. I was really fascinated and taken by it. I don't remember if it was electric or mechanical, but I really loved it. Another toy, which I think was for my third birthday or Christmas, was Gaylord the dog, which, I believe, is still around to this day (maybe I should pick one up!). Gaylord was this wooden basset hound with real sad eyes and floppy ears. He had these wooden legs that would go up and down, like the drive bars on the wheels of a locomotive, when you pulled him. It would go click, click, click as it was being pulled around, which I am sure was very annoying to adults, but I really loved pulling him around all over the house. I think he had this metal spring tail with a ball on the end. Gaylord went to my sister when she got old enough. But he was really enjoyable.
Another toy of delightful memory was water rockets, which I got for my 5th birthday. These were clear plastic rockets that looked like fat V2 rockets which would be inserted into a plastic mechanism that was similar in shape and function to a bicycle pump, and locked into place. Then you would pump up the rocket with air pressure till you couldn't do it anymore, and then...release the lock, and it would go shooting high up in the air, leaving a trail of de-pressurizing water and mist behind, just loads of fun! There was an art to pumping it up real fast and shooting it off before it de pressurized. Dud firings would just leave you all soaked. I think someone besides my parents got me this toy, I don't know why, but it didn't seem like something they wanted me to play with. Actually, I had to have my dad show me how to use it at first, and can remember begging him to go outside with me and play with it. Finally, he did, and we had fun launching rockets in the grassy side yard. He could get it to go REAL high, and it was more fun to have him do the pumping. But, of course, he soon tired of that and made me do the work. Hey, nothing wrong in having your own personal toy slave! I would fill the rockets from the outside faucet and have loads of fun shooting them up. I think one time I shot it sideways or 45 to the sky and it hit the house, for which I promptly got yelled at. But I already had an excuse in hand, saying that it slipped out of my hand that time. I don't think I was allowed to play with this often, since I would be completely soaked from playing this, wasted water, and there was always the threat of a broken window from a rocket that went off course. I also parked it on the roof of the garage a few times, I think.
Another big hit for me was the rocking horse for my 4th(?) Christmas. It was a deluxe model, and I rode that thing like a bucking bronco! I'm sure that there are lots of pictures of me in one ridiculous cowboy suit or another. I remember showing off to a lot of adults at one party. It was real sturdy, since I was always interested in pushing toys to their limits, and it could take all the punishment I could give it. I do remember getting a finger caught in one of the spring which hurt like all hell! I still remember in my body the feeling of rocking just a little too far forwards where I was almost defying gravity or about to get thrown forward right off the horse, and do the exact same backwards. There was such a neat feeling in my gut when I did that, a real kid's high without a doubt. However, I do remember going so far forward one time that I lifted the base up off the ground from the power of the momentum that I had built up. THAT was a bit scary. But nonetheless, I would do it just enough to make the horse move on the floor, so I would get the feeling of really going somewhere in my stationary horse. It took a lot of work to get just the right momentum, not too much, not too little, to make it move on the floor - it was truly a highly sensitive art that not everyone could do. But for a highly skilled bronco like myself, it was no problem! And it left good scuff marks too!
Of course, I was in on the craze of the 50's: the hula hoop. I started out small, with those cheap
plastic jobs, with the few pebbles inside so it would make this really neat sound as it twirled around
one's waist. I soon graduated to a top of the line hula hoop, an aluminum hoop, a quasi-professional
model. It took a while to get the hang of it, but I believed I learned my craft to the point of being able to
spin that hoop around for a good while. I was, of course, nowhere in the league of the fanatical hula-
hoopers, who would spin for days on end, trying to break some world record. Being somewhat small, I
was a great amusement for the adults with my hula-hoop.
My Early Love Affair With Trains
But most of all, the greatest gifts were the trains. Model trains. What words could describe the wonderment, the joy that a young boy feels hitting that transformer level forward for the first time, powering those trains around the track. My fascination with trains, which was probably some pre- pubescent fascination with power and strength, began at a very, very early age, as we lived across the street from train tracks. I would watch the trains come rolling into the nearby station picking up and letting off passengers with such wonderment. And this was nothing compared to my grandma's house in Jamaica, just a short hop from the huge Jamaica railroad yards. She had three, count 'em, three levels of train tracks at the end of the dead-end street where she lived. And these were not just some measly Long Island Railroad trains that came by my house, but huge freight trains just getting started or coming into the yard after a long trek. I watched in amazement as these huge, long train of cars would let out this huge bang, that would echo from car to car, as the car couplers would smash together or pull to maximum length as the cars were pushed or pulled by the engines. The bottom levels were for freight, and the top levels were for passenger cars. I waited for years in hopes that I would see all three levels have trains on them in front of that little dead-end street, and one day it did - railroad heaven! You could bury me right there and then, it didn't get much better than this in railroad world. What a racket, though, and it never occurred to me that this noise could keep someone awake at night. I certainly never had a problem with it. A big treat in later years was to ride the LIRR from Hicksville into NYC through Jamaica station, and go right past my grandmother's house and that dead-end street on the same level that I once watched in wonderment years before. It was a fleeting joy as my grandmother's house below swept by in the train window...
My first set of toy trains, I think, were a set of HO model trains. These were small trains, not like the ones that I thought were really cool. There was one TV show, perhaps a Christmas show, that would show a train set go round and round its layout, and would keep me fascinated for hours. The HO model trains were ok, and even though they weren't exactly what I wanted, they were great to play with. What a feeling to lay your hand down on that transformer, watching a moving piece of machinery speed up or slow down to your every whim! Not only was it a quantum leap in a child's capacity to wield power over moving objects, it was, for me, the initiation into the world of electrical machinery. Real electricity, the stuff that rain through those wires, out those sockets that mom and dad warned me about, was the fundamental driving force of those model trains. I remember hooking up the leads of the transformer to the one special piece of track that connected to the wire. It made me feel really important and technical, like some electrical technician, twisting those little wires and wrapping it around the transformer terminal screws. The HO trains weren't the best, and eventually they showed their wear and tear. The HO trains were definitely not enough of a fix to keep this little train freak satisfied. I thought and breathed trains. Once, when I was in a candy store with my dad, I noticed that there were such things as train magazines. This was incredible! I think he bought me one, which just made my fascination with trains explode to higher and higher levels. So many different types of engines and freight and passenger cars and cabooses! Engines really captured my imagination - these powerful but benign monsters on rail. Steam, diesel, electric, take your pick! One of the greatest early life gifts was when I was about four years old, when I was down with the measles or mumps, or some awful disease. I was laying on my grandmother's couch watching TV when my parents came home from some evening outing. They had a gift in their hands, well, actually many gifts - 24 train magazines! It was beyond my wildest imagination. I relished each and every one of them. What a gift! I was so enthralled - if I couldn't own every model train in the world, at least I could read about them and (mostly) look at the pictures. It took a long time just to go through every one of them. But the joy of such a present remains a very fond memory.
Along with real trains, one of my favorite TV shows was "Casey Jones", who (I think) was
played by the skipper on Gilligan's Island. I don't remember anything about the show, except that Casey
Jones was the engineer of a great big steam locomotive named the "Cannonball Express" that saved the
West or something like that. The show was a bit above my head, but I loved to watch the locomotive go
down the track. The jingle of the show was a catchy tune that remains with me, in parts, to this day:
I don't know for sure what attracts little (and big) boys to instruments of control and power such as locomotives, sports cars, rockets, jets, dinosaurs and monsters, but I am sure that it is tied so closely with the male psyche that has been pre-occupied for millennia with power, competitiveness, bravery and strength. Others have postulated that such large and fierce organic and metal beings are a child's projection of their parents and adults, to whom, as a child, must appear, huge and menacing, being so large relative to a tiny child's body. Locomotives for me were exciting not only because they were powerful and could run over just about anything on the tracks, but they had direction and blazed a trail into unknown territory, such as the wild, wild west. It triggered in me not only the typical male fascination with power and thrust, but it also meant movement and going forward, exploration and excitement, the archetypal Horatio Alger thing. And in addition, locomotives and trains were technical machinery that were fascinating in their complexity - they were man made and capable of being understood and controlled by mans' technical abilities. This was an opportunity that dinosaurs and monsters could never offer, representing the more uncontrolled aspects of one's little (or big) psyche. Control and power were a sure fire attraction for me!
When I used to go out with my dad on the truck, my all-time favorite place to deliver oil was a house that had a huge, and I mean huge model railroad layout in their basement. In fact, there didn't seem to be much room for anything else in the basement - it took up most of the floor space. I think that there was an adjoining room that was partitioned with windows, much like a railroad yard office, where the transformer was housed. And this was no wimpy HO transformer - it was humongous! It looked so big to me that I think it could have been used for real trains. Well, this layout was incredible! There was a real big mountain that the trains ran through and a town where it could stop, with an enormous amount of track all over the place. It looked so complicated and neat, laid out on slabs of plywood held up by saw horses. I was enthralled with it. I don't think that they ever turned it on while I was there, since my dad was just delivering oil, but I could imagine what it was like. I think I once saw a real long train there stopped on the tracks. Of course, I knew that we couldn't go back there everyday, but not knowing how often people get oil delivered, I bet I asked my dad a lot of times about when are we going back to the house with the trains.
To my surprise, and I don't know if it was a Christmas present or not, I received a set of trains that were REAL model railroad trains, not those tiny HO jobbies, when I was a little older. They may have been my grandmother's trains or some uncle's, but it came with an already laid out table and houses and stuff that you could assemble and place on the landscape of these green plywood slabs full of tiny sharp green pebbles. I remember one particular structure, made of plastic, that was really modern looking - it may have been a train station or a gas station or hamburger joint, but it had these modern looking stools that you plugged into the holes and was made of very bright colors that really stood out. I don't remember playing with it much, but I'm sure that I did. I think it was setup in the basement of my grandmother's house.
There was a small theme park on the South shore of Long Island that my parents took me to one year. It's probably not there anymore and I certainly can't remember the name, but it had this ride, this one ride that I went on over and over again. It was like a small train or car that one could peddle, but it went faster than the overall sum of the energy that one put into it. I kept going round and round the tracks. When it was over, I asked to go on the ride again, and they seemed ok with it. Hey, it kept me quiet! It probably bored the hell out of them to watch me on this ride over and over again, but I was surely enjoying myself. It was a feeling of power that really took me, alone in a semi-mechanical moving vehicle that I had some control over. This was before I could ride a two wheeler, of course.
Over the years, the obsession with trains dwindle, but it wasn't trains in and of themselves that
fascinated me, but possibly the technology that they represented. They soon were replaced by Tom
Childhood and Emotions
What was my emotional state back then, in the pre-kindergarten years?. I was a lonely kid, since I didn't know how to sort out my feelings at that time. So much was going on inside of me, most of which could be labeled confusion and wonder, two opposites of the same coin of not-knowing. I was motivated by a sense to find out what was right and do that, most of the time. I was rewarded in pleasing my parents, but also pleasing my ever growing curiosity. So much of what children do in the name of misbehavior is simple curiosity about things, finding limits, pushing the envelope, trying to understand physical, social, environmental, familial, and religious laws that would make life feel better and less confusing. It's all so innocent, but I was scolded for my own curiosity - you just can't draw on the walls to find out how your artistic skills are on walls, or how the color blue would look on my toy chest (which I did color very nicely). There is a push, a motivation to KNOW, to learn that is insatiable in a child, and I still have that thirst. And it is still a motivation in me today, based on childish or childlike need for survival and protection, to build whatever visible or invisible fences necessary to protect one's tender vulnerability. I still am learning how to be, to be smarter and slicker, to make it in the world and in whatever situation confronts me. It is a burden and an "automatic" motivation from my depths. My parents, of course, were primary teachers, but so was television. I learned about the world through television, more than what my parents could ever teach me. In one sense, TV was the first message that my parents were fallible, limited, not the Gods that they first seemed to be. They didn't have all the information or all the answers, or even all the questions! But even as a child, there was such a strong urge to save face, survive, be respected and validated - never let'em see you cry, though I did often. I vacillated from feeling like I did not want to show any vulnerability to feeling very needy. I don't know if this was a result of budding manhood, or the unconscious lesson of not showing one's feeling (so as to not rock the boat), so prevalent at that time. It seemed that the whole theme of the fifties was to get the nice life that was denied one in the depression filled 30's and the war torn 40's. But such a price was paid for that nice suburban life we all carved out for ourselves. To this day such a theme burns bright in me, to not rock the boat and never let'em see your vulnerability. Such a price we've all paid.
My days, most of the time, were filled with wonder and creativity. Such creation goes on in a
child's life, from drawing scratches on a piece of paper to sand castles to making war scenes with toy
soldiers. My mom would always exclaim how wonderful mine and my friends imaginations were.
The Family Business
My father's father started the business a long time ago, so my dad says. First he was in the ice business, then coal, then fuel oil. It's nice to see someone keeping pace with the time. I wonder if he anticipated the changing business and technological climate or was forced into changing. Anyway, my grandmother ran the business, the St. Albans Fuel Oil Co., apparently until she died in 1961(?). It was run out of the family home in that funny little corner or the block overshadowed by St. Catherines Church, the corners of Mohawk(?) and Baisley Blvd. They had two or three fuel oil delivery trucks, and I think that my Uncle Tony, my mom's brother, would sometimes work on the trucks. I loved the garage that house those big old trucks, along with my uncle Rocky's small service truck. It's hard to describe his truck, which is of a type or model that they don't make any more, but it was like the predecessor to the van or pickup truck. The garage smelled like oil and all sorts of greasy equipment and tools in there, including the most wonderful oil dispensing manual pump that I liked to pump. That greenish blackish ooze coming out of the nozzle into the pan - it was so neat, and I could do it! I think once I overloaded the filling can and spilled it on the floor, which was probably the last time I ever got to play with it. I may have talked about it before, but the SMELL of the garage was intoxicating, perhaps literally so to a young boys lungs. There were so many fumes in that garage sometimes that it would make my eyes wince and it would make me want to swallow my tongue. Strange as that may sound, that's the reaction it caused - I wanted to put my tongue down my throat.
After my grandmother died, she was replaced by my aunt Lou, who was my uncle Rocky's wife.
They needed someone to organize and run the business in the absence of my grandmother. Apparently
this led to a grab for power or some kind of conflict with the brothers - my dad, my uncle Leo and my
uncle Rocky. My dad and my uncle Leo delivered fuel oil, and my uncle Rocky fixed oil burners and
such. It seemed like a really messy job. Both my uncle Leo and uncle Rocky were not too happy having
me run around the office, and they apparently were slightly harsh or even nasty to me, which, according
to my mom, led her to be very protective of me, which really delights me to this day! She wasn't going
to let those guys push around her little boy. Alright mom, stand up to those bullies!! Of course, a
hyperactive, curious and inquisitive child running around - I must have been a real pain in the ass to
them, but so what!
Riding on The Truck With My Dad
I started very, very young going out with my dad on the "truck", his oil delivery truck. Now, a truck driver that delivers oil is a whole different kind of animal than one who drives the big rigs across the country. Both are blue collar, but there is definitely a more urban quality to the delivery men like my dad, than the kind of guys you find in truck stop on I-80 across the country. But, I did grow up riding on trucks, up until kindergarten and possibly then some. Robert Bly, in his book,"Iron John", talks about how men today don't have the kind of contact with their father like in the past. To be with one's father during work hours creates an "organic" transmission that is extremely important for a young boy. Fortunately, I was one young boy who did have that kind of contact, to know what my dad did during all parts of the day, and know fairly well, most of the facets of his occupation. The women's movement, knowing the importance of connecting to one's parent, be it mother or father, created a special day this year when daughters would go to the workplace of their parent or both parents, as a form of connection, understanding and empowerment for little girls. I thought it was a great idea. How many young children know what daddy or mommy do during the day?
I did start out riding with my dad very young, so young that I don't even have a memory about it. I'm told I was about three years old, possibly four when I first went out riding. The truck didn't really have a passenger seat per se, but a secondary gas tank protruded into the cab and upon it was a thick black leather seat cushion. I'm told that they strapped me in for my first ride. I can't remember how often I went out with him, but it was quite often. I got to see many, many different places, neighborhoods and towns in Queens, Brooklyn and Nassau county. One of my favorite places was South Conduit Blvd., which abutted Idewild/JFK Airport. I loved to watch the planes land and take off. I would strain my head to look over the exhaust barriers that lined the fences near the highway. There were so many trucks and commercial vehicles to capture my curiosity. I also enjoyed spots where I could see the Manhattan skyline from Queens or Brooklyn - it was so impressive, and still is! We would play games in the truck, such as guess the make of the car, or the type of house. In one game, I would make a face that would imitate the front of the car. For example, I would make an elongated-O out of my lips to imitate that funny grill work on the front of an Edsel, or smile widely, showing off all my teeth to imitate the large grill work of a Chevy Biscayne or some models of Ford cars. Often, when I would ask one of my incessant question that should be obvious to anyone over 10 years of age, my father would yell in a very loud voice,"Right as rain, Dumbrowski!", and squeeze my left thigh, right where it tickled. I would laugh hysterically, and would want him to do it over and over again. Sometimes he would do it without any warning, which would also scare the shit out of me, but I loved it.
As time went on and I got a little older, I would have small chores to do. At first I would get out of the truck, very carefully, since it was very high off the ground (it was like climbing a tree to get into the truck). I felt very old and manly just driving in a truck, so high off the ground, looking down into the cars below. What a field day for the truck drivers of later days when mini-skirts came into fashion - such good shots from that vantage point! Every place we stopped my dad would get out of the truck and open up the back (or was it the side of the truck), which revealed all sorts of meters and mechanical pumping devices. It looked real technical and really cool. I especially liked the device that he would stick the bill of lading into and get out a bill for the customer. After opening the large door that enclosed the meters and setting up for the delivery, he would open a small side door on the right hand side that would house the oil hose. Putting on a pair of thick silvery rubber gloves, he would grab the nozzle, place it over his shoulder and manually pull the hose out of its housing. He looked like a beast of burden sometimes or the Myth of Sisyphus, pulling out the hose just to roll it back in again. So my job was to find the cap leading to the oil tank on a house. Now there are a number of types of caps, mind you. Some were above ground, sticking out of a pipe that was protruding out of the foundation of the house. Most of the time they were on the side of the house, sometimes right in the driveway, others on the side opposite the driveway. A few were in the back. It always required a bit of detective work to find the damn thing! That was one of my jobs, to run around the house and find the oil cap! My dad gave me a set of gloves to wear, which was real cool, and I had the opportunity to go and take off the cap. (Loved those gloves. They were greasy on the outside, sweaty on the inside, and made me feel very adult to wear them). Most of the time I couldn't unscrew the cap, but every once in a while one was so loose that I could unscrew it, which made me feel very proud. The most common type was a round cap with a hexagonal filange on it, that would take a special wrench that only my dad would have. Most often he could unscrew the cap with his hands, but sometimes it was on so tight that it would require him to use the wrench. My favorite type of tank opening, which was my dad's least favorite was the one that was built right into concrete or dirt, flush to the ground. It was the most difficult to find, and the most frustrating for my dad. After finally searching for it, he had to scrape the crap out of the X like divot in the cap, and then use this wrench that looked similar to a lugnut wrench to unscrew the cap. Often I noticed that dirt would fall into the hole. Sometimes he would measure the amount of oil left in the tank. On the truck, he had a measuring stick, black with white marks on it, that would unfold to ten or twenty feet, that he would lower into the opening to the tank. I could soon figure out by just the sound of the stick hitting the bottom of the tank how much oil was left in there. I enjoyed looking at the stick after he pulled it out, like I was some oil engineer or something. Loved the smell, too!
We drove through and delivered oil in some of the poorest neighborhoods and in some of the nicest neighborhoods. I remember going to some very fine homes in Garden City and Malverne, and at other times going into very poor neighborhoods in Queens and Brooklyn. For the most part, it was just a blur to me of new and exciting adventures. I marveled that no two days were the same - we'd go to different places every time I went out on the truck. Going into the peoples' houses was also quite an adventure to me. People thought it was really cute that I would accompany my father at work, and at times was treated to cookies and milk, and possibly a tip or two came my way, but I can't remember. Very often, my father would have to go into the peoples' basements and startup their oil burner from a time of inactivity. I did notice that black peoples' houses did smell funny, or at least very different than white people's houses very often. It must be the kind of foods that they were cooking - something I figured out when I was delivering furniture in my twenties. But just about everybody's basement smelled real funny - dank, sometimes fumes of oil, sometimes the dry smell of drying clothes in the dryer. The boiler room was almost always the dirtiest part of the house, and very often the oil burner was in a very inconvenient location, making it difficult for my father to work on. There were all sorts of different sizes and shapes of oil burners, from huge old yellow monstrosities that looked like they were packed in asbestos or some kind of flaky material, to the sharper looking, rectangular models covered with green sheet metal. My father's job was to bleed the oil burner, turning a valve open with an Allen wrench, bleeding all of the air out of the pipes until a steady stream of oil came through, which he would capture in a Maxwell house coffee can. It was a messy job, but I enjoyed exploring peoples' basements. Of course, sometimes there were wonderful surprises, such as the house with the giant toy train setup that took almost the entire floorspace of the basement, which I have already spoken about. Probably saw a dead rat or two, but can't remember. Peoples' pets were sometimes a pleasure and sometimes a dangerous nuisance, in the case of a vicious watch dog. Nothing ever bad happened while I was with my dad, but he was attacked years later by a dog bounding for his throat. Tough job! One incident that I thought was really cool was when my father noticed a truck that had broken down on the side of the road. He stopped to give the driver, who was black, a lift to the nearest garage. I thought that this was a very graceful gesture on his part, and somehow symbolized an unconscious bond between all truck drivers, regardless of race, color, creed, etc., etc. I remember having to move over to the middle of the cab and getting whacked with the stick shift!
I believe my career as a truck driver assistant lasted until we moved out to Hicksville when I was
six years old. I did accompany my dad on a few emergency runs at night from Hicksville (he was on
call sometimes for emergency oil delivery service, and something he despised). He'd drive back into
work cursing all the way until the job was done. So it wasn't as fun and exciting as my early career.
Looking back, I believe that the time spent with my dad at work was of great benefit for a number of
reasons. First of all, it formed that "organic" bond with my dad in a way that few young boys get to
experience at this time. I also got to see the world, and a lot of it, at a very young age, and those
impressions last with me till this day. I was introduced to the world of men and business at a very young
age, and learned about working in a silent way. It makes me feel that my childhood was special and an
invaluable learning experience.
My Grandmother (My Father's Mother)
Most of my memories of my grandmother were of her yelling at me. She was fat with very white hair,
thick, ugly shoes and glasses. Two things that stood out in her house. One was this portable air
conditioner. It rolled on four caster-wheels and was very light weight. It was amazing to me that a
machine could make cold air! I remember enjoying opening up the console area of the air-conditioner
and changing the setting, and, of course, getting yelled at for doing so. It was so neat how they would
hide the control buttons behind this panel that looked just like the rest of the outside, but these little
lines in the plastic gave it away. But it piqued my techno-curiosity at that young age. The other machine
of cutting edgeness was one of the first generation of color TV's ever made, with remote control! It was
about a 13 inch screen, I think, maybe larger, but it seemed very small in comparison to the console box
of genuine simulated blonde ash wood. It was amazing to see the few shows, like Laramie, in living
color. And who could forget the peacock! The remote control looked like a huge cigarette hardpack
with color buttons on top. A real treat for youngsters, indeed. Why, you could just sit in your chairs and
flip all 7 channels! (2,4,5,7,9,11, and 13, but nobody really watched channel 13, right?) Grandma seem
to have a yen for cutting edge technology. Not much more I can remember about her, just mostly that
she wasn't very nice to me. Oh, she did make a good spaghetti with olives and sauce, just like my mom
and Aunt Julia.
Tumbling Down The Stairs
Three major incidents stick out in my mind. One was a tumble down the flight of stairs to the
first floor at age 4. My folks always had a wooden gate at the top of the stairs locked. It was a really
neat gadget, this lock. It was spring loaded and I think I had a fascination with them to test my strength
in trying to open them up. They are of a type that I've never seen since (more kid proof devices
probably have been developed since, I guess). Well, either I managed to open the gate at the top of the
stairs, or it wasn't properly locked one day. I don't remember how my long fall down the stairs started -
whether I walked straight down, or tripped or whatever. I do remember sitting at the top and going
down one flight at a time on my butt - this seemed safe. Perhaps I was trying this technique when, all of
a sudden I heard this loud tumbling noise and found myself rolling head over heels down the stairs.
They were a fairly long and steep flight of stairs, and it probably seemed like an eternity before I hit
bottom. But I can faintly remember the feeling of going over my head, and this gnawing feeling of
something is really wrong in this situation - "this is really bad!". I do remember making contact with a
step on the corner of my forehead somewhere down the long, long stairway, and that really hurt. Over
and over I went till I came to the bottom of the stairs, landing right on my butt! I looked over into the
office and saw three men standing, looking at me, a policeman, my Uncle Tony and someone else. We
stared at each other in this long, pregnant pause of silence that seemed to last for a long time, even
though it was in actuality no more than a second. Then I started crying really badly. My uncle Tony
(probably the most experienced father in the group) rushed over and picked me up. I remember crying
on his shoulder as he brought me up the stairs to my anxiety ridden mom. I probably got the ice
wrapped in a washcloth treatment for my forehead (an eye also, I think), or perhaps the frozen
hamburger treatment. In any case, I survived and was a whole lot more careful around those big, bad
stairs from then on. I think I was actually proud of my fall afterwards, especially when my dad came
home and was told about it, feeling kind of cool that I did it and survived - hell, I didn't see any of the
adults tumble down flights of stairs and live! I think he gently scolded me, but it was of no import - the
psychic damage of free fall was far worse than any "you gotta be careful" lecture!
The Suicide on the Tracks
Another major incident in my young childhood was an incident of murder or suicide on the train
tracks near my house. It occurred near the station which could be seen from just one or two windows of
my house. It was a real big deal - got television coverage and everything, and I remember feeling very,
very excited that something that I was close to a real, live important event was occurring in the world
presently. I didn't really understand the significance of death, murder or suicide, but I did know that an
awful thing happened to somebody. I can remember seeing the police in rain gear - it was raining hard
that day - bending over on the track. I even thought I saw blood on their hands. Maybe the person was
run over by the train and they were picking up pieces of the bloody body. Cool!! Maybe I just imagined
the blood and gore, but seeing those policemen in the rain, pushing back their rainhoods when they bent
over, sticks with me to this day. I remember my grandmother being very interested in the incident also.
Somebody from the office, one of the brothers, went over for a closer look, but I wasn't allowed to go. I
think I remember my parents talking about how children see death, and made me feel somewhat special.
The Bathroom From Hell
One of the most nightmarish incidents of my early life was getting locked in the bathroom on the
first floor, next to the office. It was a gray tiled room with a shower, I think, and a small sink. I think
that I was told not to play or use the bathroom often, but I wasn't one to listen or take orders readily. I
was motivated by curiosity and challenge, boldly going where I never went before. It must have been a
fun place for me. I was reminded not to lock the bathroom door, since they didn't think I could figure
out the lock. So one fine, sunny day I went into the bathroom to use the toilet, and on the way in,
without hesitation, quickly turned the small deadbolt lock on the door. It was an action that occurred so
quickly, so spontaneously, that it just seemed to happen of its own accord, like it was fate or something,
or perhaps, the spirit moved me to do it. In looking back, some of the incidents that caused me physical
or mental anguish seemed to happen before I could stop them, like they had a life of their own, in a
speed of their own, as if life was a movie that moved just a bit quicker than normal to ensnare me in its
devious trap. This seemed like one of those incidents. I did my duty, and realized that I didn't know how
to unlock the door. Feelings of fright, panic and claustrophobia engulfed me quickly. I grabbed the
handle on the door and twisted, but it didn't open. I was trapped and scared! I felt out of control - scared
because of the situation and scared because I did something wrong that would draw attention to me -
even at the tender age of four, the loss of face is an issue of importance. I began to scream and cry, in
holy terror - I just wanted out of there and I swear I'll never go back in this bathroom from hell ever
again!! People started coming to the door to help me - my grandmother, some man, but it was of no use
- a deadbolt lock just cannot be outdone from the outside. Then they started yelling advice to me from
behind the door - "turn the little knob, turn the little knob!!" I was just crying and scared, with my pants
around my ankles. So the folks outside had an idea - they could try to get through the little bathroom
window and rescue me, but this was difficult, as there was the stairs to the cellar just below the window.
But somehow, my Uncle Rocky, all 5 foot 4 of him, managed to get his face in the window. I looked up
at him, struggling to stay up near the window, telling me to turn the little knob, turn the little knob. He
actually looked pathetic, groaning to get his head up to the window - it's almost comical now, but I bet
he was pretty pissed off at that point. At this point, having so much adult energy being focused upon me
freaked me out even more, as if there was something of even more horrendous import than my own
terrifying situation - as if to say, if the grownups are getting worried, it must really be bad! Well, I don't
know how long I was in that bathroom, but not long after my Uncle Rocky's impassioned plea from the
window, an amazing insight flashed into my early development mind - if I turn the knob in the opposite
direction that locked the door, it just might, it, it just might work! So I just went over and turned the
knob and unlocked the door. It was so amazingly simple - how could I not figure it out. As soon as I
unlocked the door, everyone breathed a sigh of relief and by this time my mom was there. The whole
schizoid energy of the incident sort of dissipated, and I was saved, safe - the whole world was back!
Incarcerated no more! Freedom! I guess I ran to her, and the ugly incident was over!
Going To My First Baseball Game With My Dad
This particular section perhaps should be in its own book, since it is such a reverent, sacred and holy occasion - a joyful ritual of young malehood that every boy goes through at one time or another - his first ballgame. Now I don't think I was more than 4 years old when my father decided to take me to the ballgame with his brother-in-law Joe(?) and his son Steve(?), who was about nine or ten at the time. I was really too young to even feel the full ramification of this most special of events, on par with circumcision or holy communion. The only baseball that I knew about was in watching Yankee baseball on WPIX with Mel Allen, Red Barber and Jerry Coleman or on the radio. I don't even think I fully understood how the game worked, but my dad wanted to take me out to the ballgame, and even more unusual, a night game! I did figure out that home runs were really, really cool, as Mel would do his going, going gone routine and my dad would get all happy and stuff, and would come over and tickle me when it happened. Of course, like any little kid, I would want constant repetition of a comforting event like getting tickled, so I would await in tense anticipation on every pitch for a Yankee home run, only to be disappointed about 90% of the time. Fortunately for me, there were lots of sluggers on the late '50s Yankees, so there were plenty of going, going gones. Red Barber, on the other hand, would make a home run sound like he was filling out a 1040 form - so matter of fact, no excitement. Get rid of the bum, let's have Mel!
I remember leaving in the daylight just after dinner, riding in the backseat in this car full of "men". I think it was in my dad's 1954 Black four-door Ford sedan with the real big angel hood ornament. We parked in this real huge parking lot, and walked a real, real long distance to get to the ballpark. Seeing majestic Yankee stadium is like going to Mecca or discovering a new continent - a breathtaking site, a building so huge and white, with people streaming into its every orifice from every direction. There was one really, really neat street that was situated underneath the train tracks that had a bunch of souvenir stores. This of course, got me really, really excited, and I'm sure I went hyper over the possibility of a baseball souvenir. But my dad probably said,"I'll buy you something inside the ballpark." There were all sorts of weird shaped people out there also, selling stuff, which I would later learn, were scalpers, the baseball underground!
Going into Yankee stadium was an amazing event for a youngster, cause there were all sorts of stuff to buy, eat, smell, and the experience is total, complete. People shuffling up these ramps, like nothing I've ever seen before. Little did I know that we had grandstand seats, so it was a long journey, I suppose, for my little legs. Walking in the huge bowels of the stadium, past vendors of hot dogs, souvenirs, beer, and whatever, there would be these holes, aisles, that people would use to get into the stadium. My first glimpse of the stadium from this vantage point was one of amazement. This stadium is huge! It was overwhelmingly large, the biggest enclosed space that I've ever seen! The other side of the stadium was, like, a mile away! I could hear organ music faintly in the background, and a hum of activity and talk of the ever filling crowd. Guys were on the field, which I would later learn, taking batting practice. And the grass! The biggest field of green that I've ever seen! It wasn't like this on TV at all (since of course, it was a black and white TV). Such overwhelming sensation. I couldn't get to the next opening to see what this cavernous stadium would look like from another vantage point.
Our seats were about the fifth row up in the grandstands, almost directly behind home plate. Man, was it steep! You could trip and fall right to the lower level and get killed! I bet my father really kept close watch on me, 'cause it was a long way down. Some guy with a funny mitt came and cleaned off our seats, later know to be an "usher". He would get money for doing this, too. These guys who did this all looked really old and weather-beaten, funny old men.
I don't really remember much of the game at all, since it was probably about my bedtime when it got going. The lights were blinding, like it was daylight. But most of all, I remember the vendors coming around yelling some kind of unrecognizable phrase, but somehow people understood what these guys were saying. It was some really neat ritual - the guy would put down his box, pass or throw his item, such as crackerjacks, ice cream or hot dogs to someone, and then he would pass the money to the hawker down the line. It was really impressive to me, and seemed like something really special to be able to buy something from these guys. I do believe that I was more interested in the roving concessions than the ball game, and I probably asked my dad to buy me something from every vendor that night. He probably didn't, but I KNOW for sure that he bought all of us some peanuts in these little bags, which I'll explain later. Yankee hot-dogs were the best in the world. I don't know what it was - perhaps the feeling of being in the ball park, or maybe the constant steaming in the little box that the concessionaire would carry around, or the grease from the ones cooked on the grill at the concession, rolling over incessantly on those stainless steel rods - whatever it was, they were incredible! Maybe it was the poor hygienic conditions, real manly stuff, who knows? The quality may have went down over the years, but everyone knew that Yankee stadium hot dogs in the 50's and 60's were the best, bar none.
In baseball, perhaps in all of life for a boy, one of the most precious of free gifts was an errant foul ball from one of the players during a game. I noticed many a foul ball that night go into the stands being fought for by desperate fans with outstretched hands. I couldn't imagine in my wildest dreams of coming close to getting a foul ball - a REAL ball from a REAL ball game!! That would be too much, like owning a piece of history or something. But amazingly, lady luck smiled on us that game, like no other game that I've attended since. It was late in the game and the Yankees were at bat. The first baseman at that time was a guy named Moose Skowron, and he was at bat. The stands were so steep that it seemed like you were looking right down at the batter. Looking at Moose in the batter's, box, I saw him foul off a pitch - a foul back, as they say. But this ordinary foul back had destiny written on it for me. I saw this spheroid leave the bat of Moose and make a bee-line RIGHT AT ME. It seemed like time slowed down or something, as if something in me recognized that this was an extraordinary moment in time in my young life, and wanted to savor every moment. Or, perhaps, this is what the mind and body do when it senses the danger of a 90 mile an hour baseball approaching your head. In any case, I could see the ball get larger and larger as it approached me in those lengthy microseconds of baseball reality. As it got closer to me, I saw that it was just a little to the right and above my head. Watching this movie in slow motion, I slowly turned my head to see a hand reach up, my father's hand, trying to make contact with the baseball. His timing was perfect - the ball hit him square in the palm of his left hand - the left hand that was holding the bag of peanuts he was munching on. The ball hit the bag in his hand and exploded, sending peanuts in every direction. And to my great disappointment, I watched the ball bounced right out of his in the opposite direction. THEN, everything went back into normal motion. I watched the flight of the baseball that was almost ours head down to the lower decks below. My father, in a sigh of anger and disgust, yelled,"Damn peanuts!" and threw down the bag. It was over - the big chance that I could never even hope for was gone. My dream was shattered - the dream of my dad handing me the baseball. But in its place was the thrill for the moment, one small moment, of being the center of the baseball universe, going for that elusive prize of the free foul ball, for which some fans would disregard bodily harm in search. Not to mention the fact that maybe we got on television! Maybe mom saw us, maybe the whole world saw the exploding bag of peanuts. I also have to admit that I was impressed by my dad's reaction time - I was too young and inexperienced in baseball mechanics to get my arm up there in time. But just as well, as my dad's hand took quite a shot.
I don't remember much after that dance with baseball destiny. I do know that we left before the
game was over, as I was getting either cranky or sleepy. I remember my cousin Steve(?), who was a lot
older than me, was really pissed off that we had to leave early and wasn't too happy about my going. I
think I felt a little guilty about it, but then I was only four years old! I think I asked my mom if she saw
us on TV when the foul ball came back, not understanding that it's nearly impossible to see someone in
a crowd of 30,000 people. But I felt really important. Yankee destiny and my destiny crossed paths for
one small moment.
My First Hurt From a Stranger
One of the first harsh lessons of life I got at about the age of three or four. My mom had a friend
named Mary, who was "Aunt" Mary, just like my "Aunt" Yolanda. It wasn't until a number of years
later that I caught on that these people were not blood relations at all (I felt lied to - what's going on
here?). Anyway, I was going to Mary's son's birthday party, which was taking place in their backyard.
They lived in Deer Park, a long way from Queens, out on Long Island. I remember the ride out there
vividly for some reason, getting off the highway into some very rural (at that time) suburban
development. It seemed so different than the asphalt and concrete world I was used to in Queens - I felt
the natural world more fully out there, and it was a much different feeling, I remember. In any case, I
was walking around the party, staying close to my mom since I didn't know anyone at the party. In fact,
I felt like an outsider, since most of the children were just a bit older than me, by at least two years
(which of course, at the age of four is quite a big difference). So during the party, my mom comes up to
my Aunt Mary, who had her son (?) next to her. I had a party instrument in my mouth, the ones that are
all wrapped up and extend as you blow in it, and I wanted to join in the fun. So I made a small attempt
to communicate with this boy by blowing in the party pooper. I was a bit reticent, not sure how to
approach him, so my energy behind it wasn't strong. But the little bastard comes back and shoves his
hand into my face, flattening out the party pooper. I was shocked - I didn't expect such a violent and
aggressive reaction - I couldn't say anything but stare at him, with probably a very hurt look on my face.
I didn't know how to react, but later on I think I would have liked to smash a party pooper in his face. I
can distinctly remember the feeling of shock and the whirling of my brain, trying to make sense out of
what happened. I was much too young emotionally to understand what motivates people to hurt others
intentionally, so I simply was left perplexed and hurt, and wondered why he did such a thing to me. I
could expect anger and hurt from adults, but kids too? My mom and Aunt Mary quickly separated us, so
that it wouldn't escalate into anything uglier. But it remains in my mind to this day as the first lesson of
shadow side of human emotions, the "dark male" so to speak, the nasty, aggressive, competitive, cruel
and vicious side that we all have and try to keep in check as social animals. It was like my whole being
was saying, why, Why? Even as an adult, as I see the violence in this world, a very naive part of me
may still ask why?, but it is simply part of the mechanism of the human psyche that we are all dealing
with. I must say that I was fortunate to get this lesson in a fairly benign way, relative to some of the
stories that I've heard. But the pain, no matter how small an incident, is still an awful feeling, and an
energy that tears away at our youthful exuberance, basic sense of trust and positive idealism. Not to get
too hung up on the cruelty of life is vital to our psychic survival, as some people can drown in pain and
cynicism. So this was the start of the lesson for me, one of the shocks that served as a valuable tool for
worldly survival. In retrospect, I could thank him for slapping me out of my fog, and giving my ego the
soil to strengthen my self defenses, so vital for worldly survival, but I would still like to kick his little
ass all over the backyard!
The Macy's Incident
Another shock in early life was the all too common event of spontaneous and premature
separation from the parent or parents, namely getting lost in the department store. It happened one day
in Macy's in downtown Jamaica, Queens (how did it ever get the name Jamaica - it is NOTHING like a
Caribbean Island!). My mom was doing the usual shopping "thang", which bored me to tears. Being the
vital, slightly manic type, a boring event, like mom shopping for ladies' stuff, would make me want to
wander and roam, even though I was careful not to wander too far away. Macy's wasn't as bad as, let's
say, the Singer Sewing Center, with nothing but sewing machines, fabrics and pattern magazines -
absolutely, positively NOTHING to get excited about or curious about for a energetic little boy - even to
this day the idea of being stuck in one of those store makes me nauseous. Macy's offered at least the
possibility of something interesting, like the toy department, or the cafeteria. My mom was probably in
the lady's wear department, and I probably didn't want to be there. So somehow I wandered away. I
didn't go too far, but I remember turning around to look for my mom, and NOTHING looked familiar.
It seemed like a different part of the store, with all sorts of strange and ghastly adults looking down at
me. I was immediately freaked out and scared. I walked hither and yonder and couldn't find her. The
fear was building inside of me - no mother, lost in this big, bad world, argghhhh!! Fortunately, it didn't
last too long, as my mom sensed that I wasn't around, and I wasn't all that far away to begin with. When
I saw her, the fear subsided, and all was well with the world again - I have a mommy again! I remember
trying to act cool, like it didn't bother me too much, but my mom could see it on my face. She said in a
mocking kind of way,"you were a little scared, weren't you?" Who me, scared? Naah. But it was true - it
felt awful not to have her around. I probably stuck to her like glue for the rest of the day. I remember
walking with her into the elevators, and asking who were all those people in those paintings above the
elevators. She probably told my dad when he got home, which pissed me off and embarrassed me. One
is never too young to lose face.
I Should be Embarrassed But I'm Too Young
Another embarrassing incident in my young life happened in one of those cheap discount stores.
It was located on Hillside Ave, across from Bohack's supermarket, not far from my Aunt Julia's house.
It was selling women's clothing really cheap, and my mom smelled a bargain. Of course, it was
boredom city for me, so I was snooping around the store. The back of the store looked real messy with
all sorts of boxes and junk furniture around. Something for my little mind to get into. There was another
woman in the store shopping, but she disappeared somewhere in the back. So I walked to the back of the
store and noticed a funny looking white booth with louvered doors, which were open. When I got to the
point where I was facing this little booth, there was this woman in her underwear. Now, I know that this
was supposed to be an embarrassing and shameful thing to be caught in your underwear (at least that's
what they told me!), but apparently this woman didn't see me (I have a knack of being real quiet and
sneaky when I want to). I looked at her - she was in her 50's, with thick rhinestone glasses, kind of
chubby. Her underwear was real strange, big panties or a girdle and she had the hughest boobs, covered
by this massive looking brassiere, like those Madonna snowcones. I think I blushed immediately and
kept walking to the back of the store so she wouldn't see me. It really got me pumped up - such as
embarrassing situation to be in, and one in which I somehow could get in trouble. Staring at ladies in
their underwear wasn't pleasant at all, at least one's that looked like her. In the back of the store, I
realized that I would have to walk past the dressing booth again to get back to the front door near my
mom. My mind was racing with, possible solutions - maybe she'll be done and get out of there without
seeing me, maybe she'll close the damn door to the booth. I waited and waited, but she didn't come out.
So I walked back to the front of the store, hoping that she wouldn't see me. I kept my head straight
ahead, but my eyes failed me - I had to take a peek while I was going by. It's not everyday you catch a
lady in her underwear, and it was such unusual stuff. But this time I think she did see me, and this made
me really nervous. I heard of the word "peeping Tom" in cartoons, and maybe they were going to arrest
me for being a peeping Tom. But I didn't mean it - I was just checking out the back of the store - she
could have closed her dressing room door - I didn't see nothing anyway - excuses and alibis flooded my
little mind. Fortunately, soon my mom was ready to go, and I noticed that the lady was out of the
dressing room. Man, I didn't want to be in the same hemisphere with her - I just wanted outa there. So
finally we did, and went to another store. I'm free, not going to get in trouble for this one! But wait a
minute there she is! When we were coming out of the second store, she passed right by us, in her black
stretch pants and juglike boobs. God, another close call! Nothing ever came from it, and I never told
anybody about it until this story. But I realized that in my Catholic, guilt ridden mind, inner punishment
and shame can turn an accidental and spontaneous incident into sheer, living hell.
Grandma and Grandpa (Villaran)
In this 50's and 60's the extended tribe known as the Villarans were a tight knit group. They came together on just about every conceivable holiday to someone's house, but the big events were held at my mother's parents' house in Jamaica. I don't know of any occasion when my father's family came together, except at my grandmother's funeral. Since they were all boys save for Aunt Katherine, probably the tendency to gather was not as strong.
But the Villaran clan had a strong impetus to gather. Grandma's and grandpa's house, which is still owned, as far as I know, by my uncle Sal, is a big old structure just one block south of Hillside Avenue in Jamaica, by 173rd St. We used to come down the street from the highway and see the Regency Theater all lit up with it shlocky and glitzy marquis. I believe it was once a movie theater that was renovated in the early 60's into a reception hall for weddings and parties. Sometimes we'd catch a party coming in, people all dressed up in tuxedos and gowns, stepping in and out of limousines. It was very attractive to me, and reeked of money. The theater was always a landmark to find grandmas house.
The house itself was on the corner of a street that paralleled Hillside Ave, 93rd Ave, and 173rd St., which was the location of the Regency Theater. 173rd St. dead-ended into a 2 tiered set of railroad tracks that fed into the large Jamaica station. So there was never any problem parking on that dead end block, which was mostly gravel. Perhaps there was a street there at one time, but it seem to dissolve into broken asphalt and rock from years of neglect from NYC. Like a lot of houses in Queens, it was a tall, thin structure. It had some really ugly brown shingles on it for years until they finally one year had it redone to a multi-colored tar shingling that will probably last into the 24th century. For most of the years that I visited that house, I can remember it being under construction. My uncle Sal, who was the last single child of the family, stilled lived there and worked on the kitchen and front porch. The first job he did was to remove the front porch, thus creating an enlarged living room (who would want to sit on a porch that overlooked that street, ugh!). That porch was really cold, I remember, a place where grandpa would store his gallon wine bottles - this thick, nasty burgundy red wine that looked like it could dissolve the paint off of cars. The other big job, that took what seemed like a decade to finish was remodeling of the back porch and kitchen. The place stayed in drywall seemingly for years, which was still an improvement over that ugly blue Formica wall paneling (he finally got it done in the 70's, I think when I was all grown up and off to college).
Grandma and grandpa had a pet Pomeranian dog named Teddy that quickly replaced when the previous Pomeranian, which was, I think, named Beauty. The curious thing about the dogs was that it had its urinal in the kitchen in the form of a laid out Il Progresso newspaper on the kitchen floor. I thought this was odd, even as a kid. Dogs pissing on the floor? Right next to the water bowl. Well, the place never smelled (at least of dog urine), so it was ok. Mostly the house smelled of cooked meat for the spaghetti sauce and the thick putrid stench of Chesterfield cigarettes that grandpa would take one puff of and leave burning in the ashtray until it put itself out. Amazing that he didn't burn the house down. But I hated that (and all) cigarette smell - it burned my eyes. I mean, these were nasty cigarettes - no filter, high in tar and nicotine, real lung killers. But since he didn't smoke them, he never really had too many lung problems. He actually was a victim of his own second hand smoke, a sort of first-hand, second-hand smoke victim. Anyway, the dogs were never any fun to play with - they were way too small and frightened of us wild and manic kids.
Their house seemed like a grandparents' house, full of anachronistic furniture and such. The living room furniture was larger and old, real solid, good for jumping on and taking a beating from little kids, and there were plenty of those around! Their house either smelled dank and musty or full of wonderful Italian cooking odors. But generally speaking, it smelled like an old person's house, used, greasy, but not the smell of death or anything unpleasant like that. But it did have its characteristic odor which I remember to this day. My favorite piece of furniture was a manually driven sewing machine in the dining room. It was a beautiful piece of furniture in itself, and seemed to somehow match the magnificent old dining room set. The machine had a large, wrought iron pedal that would drive the needle, and I used to enjoy getting the pedal going real fast with my hands and watching the pulleys and levers spin rapidly. Once however, I did get my fingers caught in the pulley system, which hurt like hell and left a greasy mark on my hand, but I managed not to cry and keep the secret away from my parents. Obviously, it would have been off limits to me then on if I was found out!
I remember this old pukey looking linoleum floor running from the dining room into the front hallway and upstairs in the second floor hall that seems to grow in cracks and openings as the years went on. It looked ugly then, and I can't imagine it looking anything but ugly even when it was brand new. In the front hall was this nice old oak coat rack that I thought was really cool and the phone on some kind of metal desk, the kind of metal that was used as grates on radiator covers back then, only thicker. The upstairs bathroom felt old and funky also - there were always cigarette butts floating in the toilet, which was a gross site to look at, and all of the reading material was in Italian. I bet grandpa spent a lot of time reading on the toilet. I can only guess, because I don't think I ever saw them go to the bathroom in all the years I knew them. But the most fascinating piece of furniture was this puzzle that, I assume, my uncle Sal put together of this Indian woman. Perhaps it Pocahontas, but in any case, she was real cute and womanly, with a great figure and big breasts. She was looking straight at you wherever you stood in relation to the picture. I wondered why there was a jigsaw puzzle of an Indian woman on the wall, but I guess it was some kind of accomplishment, and besides, it was a very haunting picture, especially in the poorly lit hallway, with that one very high and small stained glass window, save for the foyer door. The upstairs bedrooms were fairly Spartan, especially my uncle Sal's room. It reminds me of a room in a boarding house - an ashtray, a funky old radio and very old bedspread on a saggy bed. It perhaps was an appropriate statement about the quality of his life. Even as a kid, I could see his bewilderment and suffering.
I think I got up to the attic once or twice, and can remember only that it was filled with articles
that smacked of the old world, Italy, or times long past. There were pictures in he grandparents bedroom
from years past. Whenever I saw a picture of them, it always blew my mind - I could never ever
imagine them young or as children, just grandma and grandpa. One room was of particular interest, my
Uncle Sal's hobby room. His big hobby was electronics, particularly radio and possibly TV, repair. The
room was filled with manuals, broken radios, vacuum tubes and soldering guns. It was a tinkerer's
delight and it certainly fascinated me. I remember him trying to explain some things to me, but I was
way too young to understand. I just hoped that someday that I too would have a room where I could
tinker and play, and now, writing this story on my desk which houses 2 computers, 1 monitor, 2
keyboards, 1 modem, 1 A/B switch and two mice, I realize that I have my own playroom. I just tinker
with software instead of hardware!
The Mystery of Grandma and Grandpa
Both Grandma and Grandpa were a bit enigmatic to me, since they couldn't speak English, so I could never really directly communicate with them verbally. As a matter of fact, Grandma couldn't even read, although my aunts did teach her to dial a phone by teaching her the numbers on the phone dial. They didn't understand English at all - once I called my mom, who was at my grandmothers house at the time, and my grandfather answered the phone. It told him I was Philip, and he grunted the equivalent of "who?" in Italian, and I repeated it a couple of times before I realized that I should try Felipe. That did the trick. He reminded me at times of the old Indian in the beginning of "Little Big Man", where Dustin Hoffman is made up as a 100 year old Indian. The lines on the face, the squint of his eyes, and how the hand would tremble as it lifted this filterless cigarette up to his mouth all was a reflection of how I saw grandpa those days. He was a bit frightening to me, to be perfectly honest. Since he was somewhat unapproachable, he could never be understood and figured out by my young mind. And there was always the talk of his temper and how he ruled the family with an iron fist which was altogether scary. So I was always cautious with him physically and emotionally - kept my distance, 'cause he could blow at anytime! But when he did blow, the times I saw him get angry, it wasn't as scary to me as I thought it would be, since, first of all, he was yelling in Italian, so I couldn't get the gist of his venom, and secondly, he was old and losing vitality, so his spell didn't have the gut that I bet he had in older times. But it did cast a spell on all the aunts and uncles, who turned into little kids in front of my eyes. It was my first clue in life that children remain children to their parents, no matter what the age is. Grandpa also had this scratchy old red mustache, which I have inherited, and I certainly didn't like to kiss him goodnight when we left for home. He would kiss me on the cheek and I would react, pull back, because his bristly mustache would feel so sharp on my tender young skin. He thought it was funny and would smile, which seemed to be a rarity, adding to the enigma. One of the visions that stay with me is of him playing pinochle with the uncles in his, and I mean HIS chair, the closest chair to the kitchen, slapping down some cards on the table with his trembly hands, while his Chesterfield burned brightly in the ashtray. Grandpa always blessed the food during big meals, until Uncle Louie took over the task.
Grandpa, Salvatore Villaran, was a tailor by trade, and he had a sewing room up in the attic of their house. He had some great suits, I remember. My mom told me lots of stories about his trade, most of which I have forgotten. Grandma and grandpa came over in 1911, I think separately. My mom tells me that he was one of the few passengers who didn't get seasick on the voyage over to America, heartily slopping down the soup while most of the other passenger were doing the Ralph thing (vomiting) over the rail. I am told he was a big Mussolini fan, and was really upset when Mussolini was killed by his countrymen. I think he called them traitors, and probably felt his entire life, that Benito Mussolini was right. He was a stubborn man, ol' grandpa. My favorite old wives tale about grandpa was his comments about the unusual weather patterns in the 1960s: "It's the astronauts, the astronauts! There messing up space!" Considering all the space junk up there, perhaps he has a point. I still tell that story to people (he also had some choice words about nuclear fallout from testing of the 50's). Weren't people so silly and superstitious back then, compared to how smart and together we are today? (sic).
My grandma had a lot of old wives tales, and I bet she was psychic (aren't all old women just a bit psychic?!). One time, when one of the aunts was pregnant, she got out a sewing needle and dangled it over the pregnant woman's' wrist by a piece of thread. I can't remember exactly, but if it swung circularly, it meant a girl, and if it swung back and forth it was a boy. That is in addition to the old wives tale that a belly mostly in front meant a boy and to the side meant a girl, or was it the other way around? Grandma had her moments of brilliance. The two that I can remember from my mom's stories was when she arrived in NYC from the warmth of Naples, Italy, she had never seen natural snow or ice before. Apparently it was cold outside, and the sidewalks were partly frozen. She couldn't possibly understand why they put glass on the sidewalk in America. She also got a bit freaky during the passing of Halley's comet, thinking that the world was going to end.
My vision of grandma, Maria Concetta Villaran, is either of standing over the stove, twirling a
spoon in the large pot of cooking spaghetti, or sitting down in one of those funky 50's kitchen chairs,
hair in a bun, and rolled up stocking around the ankles over slippers. I couldn't believe the length of her
hair, when one day we walked in while one of the aunts was combing her hair - it was almost down to
her lower back - long, slightly gray and very straight. It was amazing that all that hair was always
wrapped in that tight little bun on top of her head. Grandma was more approachable, even though the
same communication gap existed. She seemed to pick up on English at times. She was definitely more
talkative of the two, and seemed to have a fairly high-pitched voice. She was small, and I could see her
posture get worse over the years. But she was a damn good cook, like every Italian mother that I've ever
met. My favorite dish was her raviolis, and spaghetti with roast beef sauce, a great tasting brown gravy
that I have, to my and my wife's culinary delight, recently reproduced using turkey gravy from
Thanksgiving. I was "Phillie" to her. One time, I remember I peed in my pants as a very young child,
and I was forced to wear one of her "bloomers". It made me sick, even as a very young boy of 3 or 4 to
wear some woman's underwear. They were silky and yucky. It was really traumatic. Grandma made it to
100 years of age, a feat that I am proud of, knowing that I am in part a member of her gene pool.
Grandpa lived till he was 84 years of age, despite the Chesterfields and greasy Italian food. Based on
my observation of grandma and grandpa, here's my idea for longevity: Have lots of kids, so that you
have a lot of detoxifying morning sickness, and eat lots of garlic, and plenty of foul tasting red wine.
That alone will do it. Another reason for grandma's longevity was my uncle Sal's arranged marriage to a
woman when he was fifty. It was a setup between our family and another family in Brooklyn (yes,
Virginia, arranged marriages still happen!). The wife moved in and apparently she and grandma had her
differences. A number of us believed she lived a long time just to spite this woman. So another method
for longevity is to spite someone from an inheritance.
...To Grandmother's House We Go
We went to grandma's and grandpa's house religiously for years. I remember the car ride,
sometimes sitting in a car seat, then in the backseat, often falling asleep and being carried to bed when
we got home. It was lot longer journey when we moved to Hicksville when I was 6 years of age.
Sunday evenings and Wednesday afternoons were reserved for visits to grandmas. Everyone on Sunday
night would bring pastry or make cake for ritual of dessert and coffee before we all broke up. For the
most part, I hated going there Sunday nights, and even more so on Wednesday. My mom went there by
herself on Wednesday to visit grandma, along with me, and eventually my little sister. There were only
a few interesting things about their house, and you couldn't run into the woods, since this was the big
city, and a fairly nasty, crime ridden place. The front street was really dangerous, and the street leading
from the Regency Theater was a dark ominous street, with huge trees that prevented most of the
sunlight streetlights from reaching the sidewalk and filled with the new immigrant 'villain', Puerto
Ricans. My mom said that she was attacked on the street one day while walking home - some man
grabbed her or her purse, but she got away and yelled back at him when she was a safe distance away.
Fortunately, the side street was a dead end. It made an excellent location for stickball, and there were
many games that went on there, organized by the local kids, mostly by two boys who lived very close to
the railroad tracks, Bobbie and Richie. They were both baseball fanatics, and were very good. Richie
was a little older, thin with slightly reddish hair. Bobby was closer to my age, with brown hair and a all
American boy face. I got to play with them at times, and always hoped that they would be around,
especially on Wednesday afternoon, to relieve me of my boredom. Had some fun playing hide and seek
with them, blowing off firecrackers, and other assorted semi-criminal acts. I used to love to watch the
trains go by. The lower level, handled the freight cars being loaded into the Jamaica yards, and the top
level was primarily for the commuter Long Island railroad, which, in my teenage years, I would ride
and see the house as the train whizzed by. My parents told me never, ever to go on the tracks, and told
me horror stories of the evil "third rail", which could fry a man in a matter of seconds. It downright
scared the pants off me, and I never, ever went near the tracks...until, of course, I got old enough and
when Bobbie and Richie showed me the hole in the fence. I remember climbing up the hill to the lower
level train tracks, but I don't think it had a third rail. Nevertheless, I didn't wander on the tracks too
long, afraid that the LIRR police, if there was such a thing back then, would nab me for loitering. The
one time we spent a long time up there breaking bottles on the tracks Bobbie and Richies' mother caught
them up there, and that was the end of fun for that day. The whole neighborhood around there was
generally creepy and morose, and playing with Bobbie and Richie was the only relief from the
oppressing feeling that Queens can generate. That is until they finally turned on me when I was six,
which I'll explain later.
Sunday Night Gatherings
Sunday night gathering was for all of the aunts and uncles, my uncle Joe not included, since he lived so far away on Long Island. My aunt Julia, Dede (Louise) and my mom were the regulars, and my Aunt Rosie less so, since neither she or my uncle Louie could drive, and had to use the LIRR. My Uncle Tony would show often, and my uncle Gene less so. As soon as we would get there, the uncles would gather in the dining room for the weekly game of pinochle. They would hardly say a word, mentally developing pinochle strategies in their minds, then start slapping down cards like it was the most intense war battle ever waged. Some would raise their arms real high and slap the cards down so that the cards make a smacking noise when it hit the table. This was usually reserved for a very special hand that snowed the opponents or sent their team over the top - some agreed upon score that would be the "winning" score, like 150 or 300. Others would use the fling method, twirling the cards from the hand, so they spun around in circles till they hit the table. "Making meld" and "reneging" were the big pinochle terms that I can remember. Until my brain developed, I couldn't figure out what the hell they were doing, or what was so damn important to hold their concentration so intently. It was like the goddamn war room at the Pentagon, I swear the energy seemed that intense. Obviously there was no room for some vital, curious and manic kid like me to hang around. Besides I was always a bit scared of grandpa. Every once in a while, one of the aunts would come in and get orders for cokes and drinks, which would break the concentration and intense vibe. After a hand was dealt, that would be the only time they would talk and break into conversation and laughter, but it never made any sense to me, since it was mostly "pinochlese". This was definitely "men's' world" and a place where I learned a number of subconscious clues about men's' behavior and human interaction.
On the other hand, the aunts were a hotbed of conversation and activity, and I mean hotbed. They could talk till the cows came home, whenever that was. It was equally intense in the kitchen where the aunts gathered, and a form of warfare all its own. The war consisted of who could talk the loudest so as to get the floor and be heard over the din. Getting the floor and being allowed to speak only lasted for a few micro-seconds, until someone had a rebuttal or confirmation and the whole process of verbal competition would happen again. This would go on all night, and it was so noisy in there at times, it would even drain a vital little kid like me, so that my only recourse would be to go to the living room, where it was quiet, but not too quiet, like where the uncles were. I never liked the energy of the aunts when they got together, it was all too intense. When I got older, my sister would agree with me, proving that I wasn't alone and crazy, and we would just leave. Often they were talking about their husbands in the next room. I would always have, and still do, an ear for gossip, enjoying whatever nasty tidbit that was going on in their lives. But for the most part it was idle chitter-chatter, and a meaningless ritual, like the pinochle game.
Sunday nights were boring because there was nothing interesting on TV for the most part. I
hated Bonanza, and never really liked the Wonderful World of Disney - it seemed a bit too all American
and cutsey propaganda to me, even as a little kid. That left me with no other recourse than the Ed
Sullivan show. I loved Topo Gigo, the cute little rat, and Bill "Jose Jiminez" Dana, along with the
infinite number of spinning dish and acrobatic acts. I got to see some great comedians on that show:
Alan King, George Carlin, Jackie ?, Norm Crosby, Jackie Mason, George Burns, Rich Little, et al. And
of course, the famous Beatle's episode, complete with the insane teenage girls in the audience, along
with the Rolling Stones, the Animals, and a host of others I can't remember. I always enjoyed the
families remarks of disgust over the rock and roll acts, like "they're wearing sweatshirts on the show!"
But once Ed Sullivan was over, on came Sunday night at the Movies, and rarely was that interesting to
me. So I couldn't wait to get the hell out of there. Finally the pinochle game would get over, and
everyone would sit around for cake and coffee, neither of which I really liked (except for blueberry pie).
It was always wonderful to get out of there and go home!
Special Events at Grandma's House
However, in those days, some of the special events were great and very exciting, such as
Christmas Eve, Christmas, and New Years Eve. Just about everyone would show up, even uncle Joe and
Gene, and sometimes distant relative like, Azzie, Uzzie and Uncle Al. It was a wild party then, with tons
of cousins to play with like Alfred, Philip and Joe. Uncle Joe would come with his usual arrangement of
movie equipment. He had these bright, blindly lights, on a hand held rack of 3 or 4 huge 150 watt bulbs
that hurt my eyes even to think about it today. One particular moment that stands out was a time when
some of the uncles and old cousins, like my cousin Vinny (long before the movie), were banging on the
ceiling of the living room from upstairs, saying that it was Santa Claus. It sounded kind of bogus to me,
at 4 years of age, but I couldn't really be sure! Another time was when a bunch of the uncles were
banging pots and pans together - I think it must have been one of the more raucous New Years Eve
celebration that the family had - I stayed up till 2AM as a young child, kind of buzzed on the wild adult
energy. We all, of course, watch guy Lombardo and his band on TV - it seemed that New Years Eve
was synonymous with Guy, and all of his guests that were big in the thirties, such as Nelson Eddy and
Helen Something. We used to play a game of "count the drunk people in the ballroom". The dropping
of the ball was incredibly exciting (as opposed to all of the comments about all the sleazy people who
would inhabit Times Square, and how they would never go to such a crazy place), and going around
kissing everybody made me feel grown up. The best toy I saw was my cousin Cathy's toy that resembled
one of those pinball games that had a bunch of tiny toys and things in plastic bubbles, and you had to
maneuver a robot arm to pick up a toy. I thought that was the coolest toy - a toy that picked up smaller
toys inside it. As the years went on, the crowds for these events got smaller and smaller, but the
memories of the times in the 50s and early 60s were one of a large happy family coming together to celebrate.
My Sister Patricia As An Infant
I really can't remember at all my mom being pregnant, as I was only three years old for the most
part. She was born exactly a month after my fourth birthday, on October 14th, 1958. My mom was
wearing long bangs for her hair at that time, which apparently was her style when she was pregnant with
me. In any case, I think I either stayed over my Aunt Julia's house or my father's mother took care of me
for the days when my mom was in the hospital( apparently the second time around was easier for my
mom than when I came into the world). When my folks came back from the hospital, they came back
with this tiny red little creature that I could not relate to at all! She looked nothing like the rest of us,
since she was only an infant, and of course she required almost constant attention from my mother,
except when she was sleeping, which seemed to be a good part of the time. She did nothing but drink
milk, sleep and poop this greenish-orangish goo in her diaper. Man, I couldn't figure it out! There is one
photo of me leaning over her crib, fascinated with this new member of our family, sticking my tongue
out at her, hoping for some kind of response, which there was none, of course. In any case, I was truly
amazed and confounded by the whole thing of infancy and growth. I don't remember feelings of
jealousy, but I'm sure they were aroused, since she took so much time and energy from my mother. The
clearest memories of my baby sister was one where she was rocking in a baby seat that was hung from a
doorway. She would rock and kick and it would send her flying upwards, as it was spring loaded, I
think. However, once it broke and fell and she cried like hell.
The Loneliness of the Only Kid on the Block
A concurrent theme that began to emerge in my pre-kindergarten life was one of loneliness. The
kind of location that my parent's house was situated in, on a somewhat major street, the only house on
an island of Catholic Church property (we inhabited one small corner of a large block owned by St.
Catherine of Sienna parish) didn't bode well for other young boys to just come over and play. So I was
alone a lot of the time, getting under my grandmothers skin, and driving my mom crazy. Because of all
this alone time, I developed a fairly large and creative imaginary world. I played a lot with my cars and
building blocks. I used to park all of my little cars between the posts of the stairs leading down to the
first floor business and play games such as that. My parents bought me a set of building blocks, little
white ones no more than an inch long, that resembled cinder blocks. I used to build large buildings and
have hours of fun building all sorts of structures with those blocks, that I have not seen since (perhaps
they were the predecessors to Leggos). I made up imaginary friends in my head, and imaginary enemies,
kid sized enemies that I would beat up in my active imagination. Sometimes two boys were invited
over, Tommy and Dickey, who lived nearby, but they were a bit older than me. One had a brown
covering over the one eyeglass of his glasses, and I never did find out the reason for that patch - lazy
eye, perhaps? In any case, Tommy and Dickey were very infrequent playmates for me, and I didn't see
them nearly as much as I needed or wanted to. As I spoke about previously, the kids around grandma
Villaran's house, mostly Bobbie and Richie, were islands of friendship in my somewhat lonely early
life. I played a lot in the yard between the two garages, and cornered off by a huge concrete wall and
chain link fence that housed the schoolyard of St. Catherines Catholic School. There was lots to
investigate back there, except for the time that I saw two fairly large rats go scurrying into a hole in that
wall, which quickly dampened my appetite for play. But I had a fake car that was powered by pushing
on its two pedals in which I could ride around the large yard and driveways. But I was caged in, with
few hopes for visitors. The adults, such as Mrs. Chiefo, the crossing guard, Anna the cleaning lady, the
local cop, and my uncles were no consolation for me. And I didn't see any of the kids I met in my
kindergarten class, which is probably fortunate, since I am sure that many of them are now serving time
in one prison or another, or are possibly dead from gunshot wounds. Even at that tender young age, I
could see some of these kids were going to be real trouble in the coming years. So, the feelings of
loneliness persisted. I needed more friends.
It's a Dog's Life
What I really wished for a was a great dog, a big ol' mutt that I could horse around with and
have loads of fun playing with. But there was already a dog on the property, Sandy. She (or he?) was
my grandmother's dog, a kind of watch dog. She was old and not very friendly at all - she didn't care for
my playful, boyish energy. In fact, one time, while she was eating out of her dish, I began petting her.
She started to growl and I unfortunately kept petting her, not understanding the signal she was giving
me. She then promptly snapped at me, almost biting my hand, but enough to back me off and send me
crying. She could have bitten me very badly, but she was just sending me a message. I was warned
about her temperament around food, and learned the lesson the hard way. In any case, she was not to be
the great dog friend that I wanted for so badly. One time, my father found a puppy while on a delivery
run. It was a small, beige cocker spaniel, who was so delightful to me. But, alas, it couldn't stay with us,
because of Sandy, who was getting jealous and was possibly a danger to this puppy. I was heartbroken!
Kindergarten broke up the loneliness, but one incident, when Bobbie and Richie began teasing me on
Wednesday at grandma Villaran, really sent me to the bottom. I was making some comment about
Superman's cape, and Bobby and Richie were trying to paraphrase me,"Superman's cake?" They kept it
up for so long that I got fed up and went back inside. But going back home, I cried for a long time. I
remember sitting at the kitchen table, crying over the fun that they had at my expense, pleading for a
dog, over and over again. I don't know if it was coincidence or some signal to my parents that this was
not the place to have a family, but it wasn't long after that incident that my parents began to look at
homes to buy out in Nassau county.
The Exploding Pool Incident
Like many households, we enjoyed various watersports, and my parents gave me the gifts of swimming
pools well into my adolescence. The first one was one of those big, one piece plastic jobs that were
good for infants and toddlers. I remember the water was freezing cold, and having fights with my folks
over how soon I could go in it after they filled it up. They wanted the sun to warm it a bit, but I didn't
want any part of the waiting game. So I froze my little butt off, but it was ok. There was some nasty hot
summers in NYC back then. I finally graduated to a REAL swimming pool, complete with aluminum
structure and a plastic liner, about 2 and 1/2 foot deep by 12 feet in diameter. This was a real pool and a
real joy. I learned to hold my breath and go underwater and do flips and create whirlpools and do dives
and all sorts of fun water games. Of course I had to be supervised, but it was easy work for an adult. We
had an old step stool that we would put up against the side of the pool. I used that pool quite a bit and
would play until my lips turned blue and my teeth chattered. Waiting an hour after lunch was an
unbearable burden (what's this cramps stuff, anyhow?). My mom would sometimes join me, holding my
baby sister in her arm, and admonishing me not to splash either of them. Though I can't remember, I am
absolutely positive that order was disobeyed! As summer went on, I began to begin practicing for a
future spot on the Olympic diving team, learning the swan dive and the belly flop. My mom would tell
me to cut down on the dives, as she didn't know if the pool could stand the power of my 40lb belly
flops. Well, one day, I got up on that step ladder, leaped high into the air and came down with a force in
the midst of the pool. But this time something was different - I heard this huge noise, like a small
explosion, and the water seemed to be churning extra heavy. I looked up to find that the pool exploded!
The little pool could not handle the stress of my dive, which caused the liner to burst. Water rushed out
in every direction into the yard. I thought I was in some serious trouble. Water flowed downhill, past the
truck garage, and down the driveway onto Mohawk Ave(?), taking all kinds of things with it. I looked
over to my mom and viewed such a pathetic sight: There she was, sitting on top of a blue pool liner with
her legs straight out, holding my little sister in her arms, with nothing but a trickle of water left. It
looked absolutely hilarious, save for the possibility of getting yelled at big time here. She was mad, I
think, but no punishment was meted out, except for the fact that there was no pool any longer. They said
that is wasn't a very strong pool to begin with, and was bound to happen. Phew. Fortunately, it was
towards the end of the summer.
Early Life Vacations: Santa's Village, Freedomland, Storytown, Catskill Game Farm
There were a number of standard vacation places in the Northeast for family fun, for those of use who didn't have the good fortune to live near Disneyland. Some were very far away, in the Poconos and upper New York State, above Albany. Freedomland, which was based on Long Island, didn't last that long - I think the site was used for the 1964 Worlds Fair and now Shea Stadium. These places were magical arenas for children, whole parks built simply to delight us children. The first park that we went to was Santa's Village. This was way north of us, in "upstate" New York (upstate: Anything above Yonkers). The first time that we went, I don't even remember a thing, as I was only three years old. But my mom told me that we stayed in some cabin and it was freezing cold, and a pretty rough night for all three of us. The next time we went, I was old enough to enjoy it. I remember most this really amazing north pole, a vertical column of ice in the middle of this little plaza. I was totally fascinated by this thing, unaware of modern refrigeration techniques. How could it stay icy in the summertime? It totally confounded and amazed me. It was real ice alright, it felt real good to touch it in the hot midday sun. Another remembrance was feeding the small animals at the petting zoo. There were ducks and geese and goats and fawns and other assorted tame animals that were starving, it seemed. I remember feeding this small fawn, and was amazed by its strength - I could barely keep the bottle in my hands due to the intense sucking and nursing by that little animal. My first inclination of the power of beasts. I don't remember much else, except for some rides that I went on, as well as standing next to the 7 dwarfs and having my picture taken. I was about the same size as Doc.
I believe that I was taken to the Bronx Zoo early in life, but simply don't remember much at all. I do remember the elephants however. You could feed them directly, which is very surprising to me now, since they could have been given any old crap from the tourists. But I remember having a bag of peanuts in my hand, poised to feed these huge creatures (who happened to have one leg tied to a very large chain) peanuts one-by-one. However, the elephant had other ideas. As soon as I got within reach of his (or her) trunk, the elephant sucked that bag right out of my hands with the force of inhalation from his trunk, and left some elephant goo or snot all over one of my hands. It ruined what was to be, in my mind, a very tender and loving feeding episode, one where I would have the control because I had all the peanuts. Wrong! I think that I also had a fascination with the seals, but the memory is vague.
I know that Freedomland and Storytown were theme parks in the mold of Disneyworld, but
simply can't remember all that much about them. Maybe they just didn't push any buttons for me. I do
remember leaving Freedomland, however, in the heat of Flushing, Queens, for some reason. I think that
was the moment I was told that it was being torn down, which was a traumatic thing to ponder for a
The Circus: Two Trips
I believe that I was taken twice to the circus, once with my mom, and another time with my cousin Carol, who's approximately 12 years older than me. This circus wasn't any rinky dink show passing through town, but THE Ringling Brothers-Barnum and Bailey Circus, held in the old Madison Square Garden in NYC. Two things really stood out for me, besides all the junk that I ate; one was these lights that were like tiny flashlights attached to a small plastic rope. Kids would spin the light by the rope and I remember thousands of these little spinning lights all over Madison Square Garden, and the other was the guy being shot out of a cannon. This cannon was the biggest thing that I ever saw, mounted on top of a large truck. I was in awe of this huge weapon of destruction that would shoot this courageous (or foolish) man across the length of the floor below. It went off with a loud boom, plenty of smoke, and out came this man flying through the air in this perfect arc, landing safely in the net across the building. The flying man was somewhat anti-climatic after the boom of the cannon, but fun nonetheless. The clowns were fun - I remember about six really big clowns getting out of this tiny Volkswagen like auto, which blew my little mind. I'm sure that there were trapeze artists, lion tamers and dancing bears, but I can't remember.
One distinct memory was of stopping in a luncheonette with my mom after the show at night. We ordered hot chocolate. I got a cup and saucer, just like real grownup, and some extremely hot and intense cup of chocolate with a pile of whip cream on top. The chocolate scalded the shit out of my tongue and the roof of my mouth, but there was something really cozy nonetheless about having hot chocolate on a cold winter night in Manhattan with my mom, amidst the crowds and the noise. It was like a bubble of fun amidst the tempo of NYC.
The time when Carol took me to the circus was very confusing. I don't know where my mom
and dad were at the time. I do remember her leaving me to get some food, and taking a long, long time
to get back. I was getting completely freaked out by her absence, as she was my only connection to
anything familiar, and she was gone. Lost at the circus, yikes! I looked around at one point to see her
standing behind the top row, trying to figure out where her seat was. Relief!
And I mean Major meals, those get togethers with the extended family that tax both the nerves and the belly, with more food than even a bottomless pit like myself could stand. Major meals occurred on Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years Eve and Easter, with a July 4th picnic thrown in. Thanksgiving was just your normal American meal with turkey, gravy, and 'all the fixings', so there is little to say about it. But Christmas and Easter meals really show what a large Italian family is made of - too much food. These were extensive productions, taking days to prepare for and organize. Usually the aunts would rotate in serving as the host site, taking the heat of grandma to accommodate a room full of starving Italians, but in my early life, she participated as well, and I do remember her food as being the greasiest and most 'Italian' (it would be impossible to explain what most Italian means, take my word for it).
The meal began usually around 2:30 to 3:00PM in the afternoon, and would end around 7PM. The guest would arrive and, if it was happening at our house, they would throw all their smelly coats on my bed, which I never appreciated. One of the parties involved would have 'pastry duty' - a special function that takes years to perfect: the selection of the pastries, from the local Italian Bakery, such as Vesuvio's on Hillside Ave (I never liked Italian pastries, so it didn't make much of a difference to me). All of the adults, excluding my father, who never drank, would have a small toast before dinner, with some kind of liqueur, such as Bailey's Irish Cream or Blackberry Brandy. When everyone was seated, a period of grace would take place. Early in my life, I would get stuck at the 'kids' table, which I hated, but since this was a big Italian family (and Catholic, if you know what I mean), it made logistic sense. Grandpa, when he was alive, did the honors of saying a blessing, muttering something in Italian and dipping something in wine, such as a palm leaf at Easter dinner, and then spraying everyone with drips of wine. It seemed important, but my mind was preoccupied with the upcoming tasks of ingesting as much food as I could. After grandpa died, my Uncle Louie took over the honors of blessing the meal. I don't know why he was chosen, as he wasn't the oldest male and he never struck me as the priestly type! In any case, once the toast was done, it was time to eat. Finally!! The meal would consist of approximately 6 courses, spaced over a period of 4 hours or so to prevent bellies from bursting. They are, in order of appearance:
1. The AntiPasto. AntiPasto in Italian means 'before the pasta arrives', a lavish appetizer that I certainly wouldn't mind making a meal in itself. God knows I've tried. Now, there are two types of antipasto in the Villaran family, Christmas AntiPasta and Easter antipasto, each with special significance that always escaped, but I didn't care. Christmas antipasto, a.k.a. 'wet' AntiPasta, was a family creation, with the credits going to grandpa Villaran. It included assorted marinated vegetables, black and green olives, artichoke hearts, marinated roasted red peppers and anchovies in an olive oil base. It was cold and most delicious, a delicate balance of vinegary sharp, bitter and salty tastes. Being a favorite of mine, as soon as I got smart enough, I tried to position myself around the table so as to get the first dibs on the antipasto bowl being passed around - at stake was the always scarce artichoke hearts and red pepper. Mom would always keep a keen eye on me, so that I wouldn't make a pig of myself or take all of the artichokes before it went around to everyone. It was classic survival strategy on my part: 'to the victor go the spoils, unless your mom catches you'. The antipasto was served with generous portions of Italian bread which was meant for soaking up the delicious but greasy sauce. It took years for me to appreciate the anchovies, which did add a subtle but important taste to the dish, as well as a years supply of salt. I tried to save room for the rest of the meal, but it was a difficult proposition for a hungry young man like myself.
Easter antipasto, unlike Christmas antipasto, was a 'dry' appetizer, and much more of a standard antipasto that you could get at a restaurant. It consisted of platters of assorted meats, such as pepperoni, cheeses and vegetables. Olives, provolone cheese celery and this licorice-like vegetable (celeriac, arrugala?) was in abundance. It wasn't very special to me, but I did love the provolone cheese! 2) The Main Course: For the most part, we're talking Lasagna, that delicious blend of layered meat, noodles, cheese and sauce. As soon as the antipasto plates were collected, the lasagna started arriving, by the aunt lasagna-dish brigade. The top noodle, which was slightly crispy, was always highly prized. Depending upon how it was cooked, it could come out a little dry or a little wet and juicy. In either case, it was fine by me. My only complaint was that the meat was sausage, which I didn't like all that much, especially when I became a vegetarian as an adult. One portion was usually enough, but occasionally I would rally and go for seconds, which always was risky, since there were plenty more courses to come before the caloric deluge was over.
For a change, sometimes one of the aunts would make ravioli instead of lasagna. Raviolis always take a second seat to lasagna, but I would never pass it up. I always felt lighter after a ravioli dinner than a lasagna dinner, for obvious reasons, like a lot less cheese and grease. One rare occasion offered manicottis (pronounced 'maniguts' for a perfect Italian accent. The expression of the word 'maniccottis', by the way, is an excellent way to differentiate a New York Jew from a New York Italian - the Jew always says the 'i' at the end of the word, while the Italian drops it.
3) Chicken with mushrooms: This was a simple roasted chicken in perhaps a wine sauce served with a generous amount of canned mushrooms. I never like chicken after a huge round of lasagna, preferring to gorge myself in the mounds of mushroom soaking in enough chicken fat to prevent an entire nation from catching a cold. Mushrooms were and are a favorite for me. The chicken never tasted good to me.
4) Salad: This was a simple, white person's idea of a salad: a heap of iceberg lettuce with mealy looking tomatoes. Traditional olive oil and wine vinegar was served with it, mostly on the side. Another course that I always passed up as a young child.
5) Figs and Fruit: After a short period of time, dried figs and bowls of nuts and fruit would arrive. The fruit was most often, delicious apples, pears and grapes. The dried figs were sweet and chewy. The red grapes were a favorite despite the seeds.
6) Dessert and Coffee: This was when the pastry would arrive, after about an hour's break from the previous course, and signaled the beginning of the end of this day of culinary delights and generous overeating. Sometimes one of the aunts would bake a cake, but for the most part, I was never interested in pastries and such, especially with such a load of lasagna still working its way through the intestinal tract.
There were other, smaller feasts, for the lesser holidays when only some of the family gathered.
For Christmas eve, for example, my Aunt Rosie would make this cold cod-fish dish with olive oil and
lemon, which was quite delicious, even though, being rarely exposed to fish, I expected not to like it.
Then there were times of eggplant parmesan - my mom makes the best I've ever tasted, and I've tried it
in just about every Italian restaurant that I've been to.
During the mammoths feast, the aunts, uncles, and kids would separate into their respective
corners between the latter courses and after dinner. As the years went by, the uncles took to taking naps
whenever possible, while the aunts just talked and talked. We kids would end up running around,
blowing off all that energy accumulated from the huge meal. But the fondest memory of all was to hear
my mom cleaning up in the basement after the feast while I slowly went to sleep.
My Favorite Childhood Foods
Since I am on the subject of foods, a number of childhood goodies stick out in my mind. Bosco, egg creams, the bubble gum in baseball cards, Yankee hot dogs, bazooka bubble gum, yoo-hoo, Campbell's Cream of Mushroom, Tomato, and Chicken Noodle soups , Swanson's TV dinners, turkey heroes, pink snow cones, cream soda, Kentucky fried chicken, barbecued spare ribs, Monday night chicken soup, bracioli, meatballs, MacDonald hamburgers, candy corn, Mr. Softee banana boats, grandma's pasta with brown (roast beef) sauce, Mrs. Paul's Fish Sticks, Pop Tarts, Thomas' English Muffins, honeydew, breakfasts of sausage and eggs on vacation, ANYTHING in an Italian deli (especially the cold pasta salad!), blueberry pie, Pez, hot chocolate, Sizzler steaks, raisinettes, spaghetti with olives, candied apples, cold eggplant parmesan, tuna with mayo. lettuce, tomatoes on toast, Beefaroni, watermelon, ice cream sodas, Drakes Devil Dogs and Ring-Dings, Chicken Delight, Hostess Fruit Pies, English Muffin Pizzas, Chicken A La King, Wetsons Burgers, powdered candy in a straw, barbecued chicken breasts, cotton candy, spam(!), Campbell's Chunky Soup, Cinnamon Dentyne Gum, Halloween Candy-Wax Harmonicas, salty pretzels, Zorn's sandwiches, tootsie rolls, roast beef with mayo on white bread, Old Man Adam's Sour gum, ricotta cheese and tomato sauce over pasta, barbecued rolled up pork sausages with toothpicks, toasted marshmallows, creamsicles, dots on a paper, butterscotch candies, MacDonald French Fries, vanilla ice cream, licorice strings, chicken pot pie, parmesan cheese in any form, hot lasagna noodles, rigatoni, ham with pineapples, scrambled eggs, chicken croquettes, melon ball salad, strawberries in orange juice, Rice-a-Roni, Chef-Boyardee, MacDonalds Milk Shakes, Pizza D'Amore Sicilian slices (15 cents!), applesauce, provolone cheese slices, eggplant parmesan heroes wrapped in aluminum foil, Thanksgiving Turkey stuffing, chocolate covered cherries, Chun-king Chicken Chow Mein with the crispy noodles in the top can, Sweet Tarts, Barbecued Flavored Potato Chips, Underwood Deviled Ham, Del-Monte Fruit Cocktail (especially the cherry!), and much, much more.
Foods I didn't like as a young child included Loin of Pork, Swedish meatballs, coffee, coke,
beer, wine (the beer and wine were courtesy of my Uncle Louie - did you ever notice that in every
extended family there's always one uncle who tries to give kids beer? Well, my Uncle Louie was the
designated polluter of youthful innocence in our family).
Other Noted Early Shopping Adventures with Mom
I remember the usual and the unusual shopping outings with my mom. We would go to the supermarket, Al the butcher, millinery stores (ugh!), Bohacks, Macy's and assorted stores in downtown Jamaica. Downtown Jamaica was really bizarre to me, as it had its railroad tracks right above the street! This made the whole downtown commercial area very dark and spooky, even in midday. And when the roar of the elevated train (known simply as the "El") roared by, it frightened me, because it was so loud.
My early shopping adventure found me in the first two cars that my parents owned while I was alive, the black 1953 Ford and the 1958 Chevy Biscayne. The '53 Ford was big and black, and seemed to be built like a tank. It had a really cool hood ornament, some kind of angel, I think. It had these black and brown bench seats which were getting quite worn by the time we sold it. The Biscayne, on the other hand, was a much more modern looking car, but not as roomy. It was metallic brown or tan, a color that I have never seen since, and had that outrageous front grill that made it look like it was grinning its teeth all the time. It also had lights in front, which I thought was cool. The main feature of both cars was the distinctive lack of power steering, which gave my mom all sorts of problems trying to park and get in and out of tight spaces. She struggled so, and I believe she needed help once to get out of a tight parking spot.
The first few years had me strapped into the child seat on the front bench of the car. It was fun to have my own steering wheel. I remember watching my mom turn corner, hand going over hand, until the turn was complete. I used to try to mimic the action of the hands on my own little steering wheel, to give some kind of authentication to my driving skills - I had more dignity than the usual kid who would spin the kid steering wheel incessantly - if you can't do it right, go take a taxi! Anyway, I would drive with my mom, occasionally toot the little horn that I had. When I would first get into the car, sometimes I would jump in the driver's seat and try to turn the real steering wheel, and understood that it was a tough thing to turn that wheel. I would also get the lecture to never, ever touch the stick shift, as my mom feared I would set the car rolling down the street with me driving (this sort of thing happens somewhere in America at least once a year, some kid driving a car).
My main duty, from the command of mom, was to help her find a parking spot, an arduous task
anywhere in NYC. Especially prime were the spots that didn't have a parking meters, which were
everywhere in Queens. So I would be riding shotgun in my child seat, trying to find choice spots for us
to park while my mom would circle the blocks. When I did find one, I'd exclaim,"There's a fot without a
meter!", a cute phrase that my mom has told numerous time, probably much to my embarrassment over
my early life speech impediment.
The Sight of My First Dead Body
During one of our shopping adventures in Jamaica, we came out of a store to see a crowd of people on a side street. As we approached the crowd, crossing the street, we both saw a person lying on the sidewalk, face up, with a sheet over the entire body. Being three or four, I was already exposed to enough TV violence to know what a dead body was. Cool! It didn't shock me or anything - just like a normal New Yorker would act upon seeing some gruesome sight - just another crazy event in NYC, happens all the time! The most unusual thing about this incident was the argument that I got into with my mother over the gender of the dead body. She said it was a man, while I insisted it was a woman, even though one of the arms was exposed and it was distinctively hairy. After seeing the arm, I figured I might be wrong, but didn't want to give my mom the satisfaction of being right. I guess I was establishing my own ego at the time, and it was a kind of empowering thing to argue with her over something (besides her disciplining of me). In any case, here I was, the hardened street vet from NYC before I reached kindergarten. As they say, in NYC 14 is 21.