Wednesday, December 12, 2007


On summer evenings the old men in their undershirts would gather on the sidewalk on dining room chairs and talk about whatever came into their heads. They would light up their Italian stogies and chat away in their dialect, using their hands and eyes for emphasis. If it started to drizzle, they’d cover their heads with pages of the Daily News and continue talking until the rain stopped. Sometimes they argued and the discussions were loud. Sometimes they just sat there not making a sound. When the light faded they came in.

LaGuardia was the mayor back then, a short feisty guy who wore a white ten gallon hat too big for his body. We called him the Little Flower because his name was actually Fiorello. On Sunday mornings he read us the comics in his funny voice over the radio. We were sometimes embarrassed by him but we were glad he was one of us. At that time, DiMaggio was playing for the Yankees, and Dolph Camilli was at Ebbets Field for the Dodgers. They too were paisans. On Saturdays we imitated them while playing stickball on Union Street. During the week though we played handball against the brothers at the St. Francis school yard. They were mostly Irish.

Back then men and women wore hats – the men donned fedoras, and on the job they wore caps with visors. Women covered their heads with hats that sometimes involved feathers and veils. The hat I wore was a brown leather cap with long ears on the sides. I pretended to be an airline pilot like Lucky Lindy. Back then a “lady” didn’t wear pants, and young boys, including me, frequently wore knickers. For those who don’t know,
knickers were pants that ended just over the knees and barely covered knee-high stockings. I hated them because my stockings would sag and I’d always be pulling them up. I got to wear long pants only after leaving
elementary school.

In those days, in the late thirties and forties, commerce and industry came knocking at our doors. Bottles of milk and cream were delivered to our house early in the morning by a noisy milkman. Butter and eggs too if you liked. Every few days, a Dugan’s man, dressed in a white uniform brought crumb cakes and jelly doughnuts. Even bottles of seltzer water were delivered to our door.

There were no super markets back then, except for maybe a small A&P or a Bohack’s. Also, there were no mega-stores, no WalMarts and certainly no Costcos. Instead there were small mom & pop stores throughout the borough. In our neighborhood there was a tailor shop, a German delicatessen, a drug store, and of course, a candy store. Up the block there was a fancy ice cream parlor and an undertaker.

Back then almost everyone had a radio, a small table model or a floor
console if one could afford it. As kids, we listened to Uncle Don, the Lone Ranger and the Tom Mix Ralston Straightshooters. I saved the Ralston
cereal boxtops and sent away for the Tom Mix ring and the compass in case I’d ever get lost in Prospect Park. We also listened to Gangbusters and Mr. District Attorney. The adults listened to the LuxRadio Theater, “Lux Presents Hollywood”, Bob Hope’s Pepsodent Show, the Jack Benny Show, (“Oh, Dennis”), Allen’s Alley and Fibber McGee and Molly. There were others like The Great Gildersleeve, the Inner Sanctum, “with Raymond, your host”, the Whistler and Suspense. On the lighter side, we listened to the Amos and Andy show, never realizing it was really two white guys in blackface. The radio also gave us our music. Songs that played on the Hit Parade stayed with us for quite a while.

The radio was also popular with the older Italians in the neighborhood. My grandparents listened to an Italian comedy program called the Pasquale C.O.D. show, probably on station WOV. I sometimes listened and because I understood a little Italian I laughed along with them. Grandma also
listened intently to the sad Italian soap operas that came on during the week. I remember the announcer doing the macaroni commercials, telling his listeners to save the valuable LaRosa macaroni coupons.

On Saturdays we went to “the show”, the movies, which at that time were all in black and white. My favorite movie house was the Carlton on
Flatbush Avenue near Seventh. We also went to the Plaza across the street
where we tried sneaking in but the usher usually caught us every time. The Plaza was kind of a seedy place. Whenever the projectionist had a problem, which was often, and the screen went blank, we yelled and clapped in unison until the movie came back on. The usher would run down the aisles shining his flashlight to see where the noise was coming from. He never once caught us.

At the Plaza, we would watch a double feature, cartoons, newsreels, a
weekly chapter and maybe a short subject, all for about a quarter for kids
and thirty-five for adults. Sometimes we looked up at the screen for four solid hours and walked out after a familiar scene came on and one of us said, “this is where we came in”. Sometimes you’d go in on a bright sunny morning and come back out on a gray rainy afternoon. One time I went to a morning show and hours later I walked along Seventh avenue in snow that was knee deep. The blizzard of ‘47 had begun while I had my eyes glued to the screen.

The Plaza showed a lot of westerns starring Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, Red Ryder and Roy Rogers. There were comedies with the Marx Brothers and Abbott and Costello but our favorites were the monster movies. Three of the best were Frankenstein, Dracula and the Wolfman. We always felt sorry for Frankenstein and the Wolfman but we hated and always booed Count Dracula.

At the Carlton the big stars at that time were Clark Gable, William Powell and Myrna Loy, Alice Faye and Judy Garland. We watched Betty Grable, Don Ameche and Edward Everett Horton go down to Argentina to watch Carmen Miranda balance all that fruit on her head. Also, Sonja Henie danced on ice while John Payne chased after her. Errol Flynn along with Randolph Scott and John Wayne fought the Indians. Tough Guys like Cagney, Bogart and Edward G. were there too but my favorite down-and-outer was John Garfield. Somehow he was always doomed from the start. There he was, he and Lana Turner, kissing on the sly at the Carlton Theater on Flatbush Avenue. Back then the war was on and we learned about sacrifice from Bogie. We watched as the engines fired up and we all said goodbye to Ilsa as she boarded that plane to Lisbon with that other guy. I remember the lump in my throat. We were thrilled when Bogie finally shot the arrogant German.

In those days, there were trolley cars, old red ones that clanged up and down Union Street, and ran on tracks over cobble stones. On Seventh
Avenue there were newer green and silver cars that went all the way along
Flatbush Avenue to the Manhattan Bridge and back.

In our neighborhood, there were also horse and wagons, especially on Saturday mornings when they came delivering fruits and vegetables. The vendors were always friendly and loved chanting their wares for the housewives to hear. Usually the horses left a few of their calling cards on the street.

1 comment:

J.STEEL said...