I'm at work on Church Street in the Post Office building, its ten o'clock at night. I'm making art for a friend's birthday card and needed to use the paper cutter. My whole life I've been afraid of that device.
I went to Kindergarten at P.S. 77 on 85th Street and First Avenue. In the spring of 1960, Eisenhower was a lame duck President and the presidential campaign was kicking off. Because of Kennedy's Catholic thing, there was a buzz in my papal favorable neighborhood about the election. Everybody's parents were taking strong sides; so of course, you did too ~ just repeating whatever you heard. I was for Kennedy, and John Cupo, a five year old, staunch Republican, was for Nixon. John and I had big mouths and we fought over anything. One day, he hit me, I hit him, but the teacher, Mrs. Brown, only saw my punch. She punished me by putting me under her desk in front of the classroom.
I was pretty angry about this and when I heard Cupo laughing at me I started yelling at him from under the desk. This led to little kicks in my ass from Mrs. Brown. She leaned under the desk and told me, "If you ever expect to get out of there, be quiet for the rest of the morning." I said, "OK."
Five minutes later, I heard Cupo and at least two other guys laughing, I assumed at me, and I went a little crazy, yelling, "stupid, fat head, dummy," and other five yr old insults.
By this point, Mrs. Brown was working my ass with her foot like a bass drum. I was immune, Cupo got my goat. I kept it up.
That's when, Mrs. Brown leaned over and said, "Thomas, say one more thing, and I'll put your arm in the paper cutter and slice it off."
Started LaSalle Academy high school in September 1968. Any morning I forgot my tie (often) and needed to get my back-up-shitty-tie in my locker on my neck before Brother Michael or a snitch saw me in front of the school, I'd spy which of the two entrances Brother Michael was closest to and work my way around the cars to the other entrance and shoot in there up to the 4th floor.
I remember my first day at school, September 1968, I split a locker with Kenneth Ropiak. To our right the locker belonged to a senior with a buzz crew-cut, he wore his school sweater every day (I smelled his armpits five feet away) on that first day he opened his locker and there was a Nixon for President poster, in my head, WTF. The guy looked like he hung out with Eddie Haskel and picked on Theodore Cleaver every day unless parents or teachers were looking.
Between our freshman and sophomore year, the summer of 1969 deeply changed our look and the point of view for most of us and our teachers, too.
Al's entry in my yearbook
There were six homeroom classes for each of the four years at the time I went to LaSalle, our graduation total was 212)The coolest guy in our homeroom class was Albert Gomez. A world class anarchist. Sat there as cool as James Bond while instigating three alarm mischief fires on Beyrer, Ernie Kovacs, Cullinan and Gully. To name a few. Gomez never ever got caught. Didn't smirk at you when you were getting slapped or punched. Held his poker face. Getting the thing started was all Gomez needed.
Really pissing Dad off... after four years at LaSalle, my I.D. entering Hunter College in September 1972.
In the La Salle Academy 1972 yearbook, John Egan, a serious and thoughtful friend, (John was part of the relay team that set the national high school record for the 440 in 1971 at Franklin Field) wrote the note below:
Tom, Well, Teddy, I hope I meet you in 94, in case I don't I'll meet you in 95. Seriously, I hope that you'll harness your comic self and always make others happy, while still staying yourself and use your creative writing." John ~ 1972
John It took me 31 years to harness my creative part and write my first story at 49. Your words of inspiration never left my head. They hid under a cloud of doubt and self-imposed responsibilities. Today, I take the yearbook out now and then and when I read your note I hear one word, "faith," Thank you, John. Tom ~ 2017
Carl Schurz Park, Saturday morning, Charlie's Second Snow Day. Charlie finds the ball and runs away, and runs away, and runs away, until no one is chasing her. Pleased and annoyed at the same time, "OOOOOOOOO" Charlie bays for a partner, but alas, the game is done.
In the locker room, Charlie's attention is on Steve Spagnuolo, The New York Football Giants Defensive Coach, as he diagrams various blitz options. Coach Spags relys on Charlie's fine ears and rock solid intuition.
Dad used to hunt. He didn't golf, so hunting was another made up reason to get out of the house. He never struck me as the hunting type, but once or twice a year, he'd be off upstate for a long weekend. It was a Yorkville man thing in the 1950s and 1960s.
As he was walking out the door in his Elmer Fudd hat with his rifle, Mom told him," If you shoot something, I want you to think about Bambi's mother lying in the woods bleeding to death, and she's thinking about her poor baby left with that heartless bastard father."
Dad's face did tricks when Mom said that. I never seen such complicated movement from Dad's mouth, eyes, cheeks, and eyebrows. He looked heartbroken, sad, angry, confused and through it all still came back to the look, like he wanted to kill Mom.
Well, one time he gets home from hunting, and he ain't talking. I give him a good look over, and I can see he's not playing mum because he's hungover, something's on his mind. He sits in his chair, and Mom starts pressing him.
"What the hell's a matter with you?"
For a long time, he says nothing, but Mom keeps at him, and he tears up. Up to then, I only saw Dad cry over movies. "I watched it die," he said.
"What?" "I shot a rabbit, then I watched it die." "You son of a bitch." "The poor thing was in pain, I'm never hunt again." "You bet your ass."
And that was that. While Mom and Dad were talking, I began to think about Thumper. Dad loved Thumper, he drew him and Bambi for Rory & me all the time. Dad shot Thumper. I had nothing to to say.
The next day it snowed heavy, I asked, "Dad, since you're not going to hunt anymore can I use your pigskin gloves?"
Dad gave me one of his "you're out of your mind" looks, he loved those yellow gloves, had them since 1952, then, he thought it over and said, "OK."
I flew over to Central Park with Rory and the McNamara brothers. We worked the hill on 79th Street until we were soaked to the bone. When the chills got us, we dragged our sleighs back home. Mom wouldn't let us in the house until we took off everything but our drawers in the hallway. I was hoping to go back up to the park that night, so I needed to get everything dried quick. I wrapped my dungarees and long johns around the steam pole and put my socks, sweatshirt and dad's pigskin gloves on the radiator. An hour later, I went to check on everything. My dungarees and long johns were almost dried, then, I went to the radiator. The socks were fine, but Dad's gloves looked like shrunken voodoo heads. The fingers were blackened and curled up like they wanted to take a nap, for forever. They were half their normal size. Resembled beef jerky.
Before I could say I lost them, Dad came in the house and saw me looking them over. I tried to palm them down my underwear. They were too hot. He walked up to me and took one of the gloves out of my hand. Dad didn't hit, but sometimes I wished he did, rather than deal with his leaning in, verbal assaults. I could see he was about to rip into me and I rushed to say, "Dad I'm really sorry, I didn't mean it, and you're not going hunting anymore, right?"
His face switched over, he was thinking about the bunny. He held the glove up, looked at it once, gave it back to me and walked away.
New Years Eve 1985 ~ I present Captain Gerard Murphy with his Xmas gift. Add Nephew Eddie Ekis and you have serious trouble before the clock struck twelve. There were no reported injuries but several people at the party seemed to be crying but if you looked closely at their faces and body language you realized they were having laughing fits.
My primary focus in grammar school was scheming ways to get out of class. At the start of seventh grade, I weighed my options. The parish claimed it needed money all the time. It ran fifty/fifty clubs, cake sales, bingo, casino nights, you name it. The low earner on the ledger was the religious article store in the rear of the church beneath the school. The store sold crucifixes, religious statues, bibles, catechisms, etc. The store was a flop. Kids never went in. The woman who worked there, Mrs. Hutzpacker, was mostly deaf, six feet tall, looked like Boris Karloff and scared the heck out us. She’d come up to your face and yell, “I CAN’T HEAR YOU, SPEAK UP”, whether you said anything or not. It was unsettling.
The store’s sluggish business gave me reason to approach my teacher, Sister Mercedes.
“Sister, you know the religious article store is going down the tube?”
She gave me a funny look, but I kept talking.
“If kids won’t go to the store, let’s bring the store to the kids. I’ll go to each classroom on Friday selling religious articles and do my best to separate weekend money from each kid’s pocket.”
I watched the nun’s expression.
Her lips pulled to one side of her face and her eyes narrowed bringing her bushy brows together as one. Her “mmmmm,” and chin stroking finger meant I had a pilot program. She knew I had years of business experience selling milk and toast during morning recess. Besides, the priests and nuns were unified on only one thing: anything other than illegal drug sales was a legitimate way to raise money for St. Stephen’s parish.
I started slow, selling a few catechisms and rosary beads. The first two weeks, I made a measly six dollars for the parish. I worried I might have to go back to class – then my clarion called. Joe Skrapits approached me in the classroom.
“Hey Pryor, do you have a St. Anthony statue for sale?”
“My father’s always losing things and cursing around the house. Mom says she’s had it and she’s leaving all of us unless Dad stops his ranting and raving. Mom’s a great cook, Dad can’t cook, and I love to eat. St. Anthony is the patron saint for finding lost articles, stupid.”
Normally, I would’ve been hurt by the insult. Not that time. I replied, “Thank you Joe, I’ll fill your order next Friday.”
I grabbed my milk box and ran out of the classroom. I discovered my secret weapon – the Catholic Church’s roster of saints – a lineup more powerful than the 1961 New York Yankees. Oh yes, Joe Skrapits would get his St. Anthony statue next Friday, and I’d spend my week researching everyone’s birthday. Each day of the year, the Catholic Church celebrates a martyr or a pious saint. My plan was to storm my way into the heart of every kid and get them to purchase a statue of the saint who shared their special day.
I didn’t stop with birthdays. Every profession has a patron saint. I sold three Michael the Archangel statues to kids whose dads were cops. Attila Krupinzca bought a St. Vincent Ferrer statue for his grandfather, a plumber. I sold a St. Julian to Marianne Stranklee whose uncle was in a Hungarian circus. St. Julian is the patron saint for jugglers. Gaza Zak had four cats, a parakeet and a turtle. Gaza purchased a Saint Francis of Assisi. I told Gaza, “Unlike Doctor Doolittle, St. Francis really did talk to the animals.”
Freddy “Straight to Hell” Smith was always getting into trouble with the nuns, his parents, with everybody. He also had a wicked neck twitch. I palmed a St. Jude Thaddeus and slipped it to Freddy.
“Here Freddy, put this in your pocket and keep it there.”
“Just do it. Trust me.”
I didn’t have to the heart to tell Freddy that St. Jude is the patron saint for hopeless cases.
With the sudden burst in sales, I needed to expand my operation. Sister Mercedes, now functioning as my business manager, borrowed a metal two-shelved cart from “Mom,” the school lunch lady. I circled the steel steed, knelt on one knee and said, “I dub thee, The Holy Cart.”
Traveling the school’s halls, I reminded everyone to save their pennies till Friday, when the Holy Cart rolled into town with gifts and notions for every occasion. I assured my fellow altar boys that the Holy Ghost loved making sales calls with me.
“Each Friday he leaves his perch on the side of the altar to fly alongside the Holy Cart on its rounds. We’re a liturgical team!”
My colleagues made circles around the sides of their heads while whistling.
Father Edward, our Monsignor, heard about my venture and decided we’d have a talk.
“Thomas, you need to promote the Church when you visit the classrooms. Say things to get the children excited about religion.”
I gave this some thought. From the library, I borrowed a thick book titled, “The Lives and Deaths of 1000 Saints.” Great stuff. Gory murders, disembowelments, stone crushings, more methods for dying violently then I ever imagined. It was a quick read.
Armed with this knowledge, I developed a routine for my Holy Cart visits. Every week, I brought three “Fun Facts about the Saints” with me. I’d try to mix it up, one famous saint, one obscure saint and a third saint who had an extremely bad day.
Sometimes, I’d pick a bizarre one.
I described the saint to the class, “Wulfstan was smitten by a fair young lady at a village dance. To distract himself from the impure thoughts running through his head, Wulfstan threw himself into a nearby thicket of thorn bushes. He stayed there till the impure thoughts painfully passed away. God was so impressed by the saint’s efforts, that he prevented Wulfstan from ever having those feelings again.”
I closed the book with a slap and said, “Isn’t that great kids?”
All ears were perked up for this one. Sister Mercedes seemed edgy during the telling.
My best seller was a plastic statue of Mother Mary in an alcove appearing to the faithful. The alcove was a miniature missile silo with two pieces meeting in the front like a curtain. You slid the pieces apart to reveal Mary inside a grotto with open arms standing on a rock. The problem with the item was the manufacturer made the alcove before he made the Mary statue. The alcove was long and thin. Mary was an afterthought. The only way to fit Mary in there was make her long and thin – real long and catwalk thin.
The quirky product tested my sales skill. First time I looked it over; I didn’t know what to say. I recovered and stepped up to the front of the class.
“Folks, I have something special for you today. Something the Church has hidden for years, but now proudly presents to you for the first time.”
I turned away from the kids, picked up the item and spun back to the class opening the alcove doors.
“I give you Skinny Mary, Pre-Pregnancy Mary, the Mary with a twinkle in her eye and a song in her heart.”
I opened, closed and re-opened the alcove doors.
“The Mary who plays ‘Peek-a-boo.”
The class took a deep breath in, and then exploded. Based on normal nun behavior, I expected to be wrestled to the ground like a presidential assassin. It didn’t happen. Sister Mercedes stood to the side of the class covering her mouth but not enough to completely remove the evidence she was laughing.
As a kid, there are rare blue moons when the stars align and everything falls in place despite your best efforts to blow the bridge up, and you with it. If you’re a kid and reading this, save those memories and bank them. When you grow up and stuff happens to you all the time, you can use your recollection as a balm. It doesn’t always work, but a well oiled memory can sometimes ease the pain.
The Nun whacked me. A moment before this St. Stephen of Hungary 4th grade photo was snapped Sister Adrianne slugged me off the top of my forehead with her open hand. See my face? It's still red. (Second row, last on the right).
I think she was telling me, I should have had a V-8. The good news? She hit Pierre, too. That's why he has a rosy puss on his face. (Top row, second from the left).
Why'd she hit us? We were fighting over who'd sit next to Barbara O'Shea, the prettiest girl in our zip code (second row, fourth from the right).
Pierre had me in a full-nelson wrestling hold and I was biting his stomach. We worked our way to the top of the bleachers where we were lining up for our class picture. We thought the bleachers kept going, but after the fourth row, we stepped into thin air. No fifth row. We hugged and fell to the wooden floor. The nun ran around the bleachers and picked us up like a hockey referee breaks up a fight. After wringing us out, she gave us a look of enormous disgust and said, "I'll have none of your shenanigans." She slapped Pierre, then tried to hit me. I ducked. That's when I got the pop off the forehead.
I've always found it oddly exciting to duck and avoid that first shot. After you acquire "getting hit experience," you know the second shot's going to be a harder, more accurate blow, but you can't resist the instinct to duck the first one.
Pierre was banished to the top row, far away from Barbara. To torture me, the Nun put me in the same row as Barbara but three seats away sitting next to Mary Toth. To move the knife around, Sister Adrianne placed the best-looking guy in the class; Jean Paul Piccolo, to Barbara's left. Look at Jean Paul, new to our country from Milan, Italy, right next to Barbara. The dummy isn't even sitting heinie to heinie ~ there's no contact ~ Jean Paul's giving her space! I'd have made sure our apples were nestled together, cheek to cheek.
He was so cute it made me sick. Even Paul McCartney would look ugly sitting next to him. The final twist of the blade, everyone called him "John Paul." Not only named after a Beatle, he was named after two Beatles!
It was April 1964. My marks were up, but things looked grim.
“Barbara, Kronks!” I said turning to mom's youngest sister working the stroller and me down the long York Avenue stoop. It was June 1958, Barbara was 19, I was four. Barbara loved me better than a sandwich loaded with mayo, but she had a second reason for taking us gallivanting: Teen boys loved teen girls pushing carriages. I was bait. To get Barbara’s attention the guys had to go through me, and these were rough nice guys on the corner of 87thStreet and York Avenue. In Kronk’s Soda Fountain shop, I’d get pretzels and egg creams on the cuff while the boys tried to impress Barbara. “Please don’t tell your mother, Tommy,” Barbara begged on the way home. Later, Mom asked, “Why aren’t you eating your hamburger? It’s your favorite!” “I don’t know,” I lied, not wanting to drop a dime on Barbara. Mom looked at my bloated belly and called her parents. “Mom, put Barbara on the phone... a moment later… What the hell did I tell you about loading him up with crap right before dinner?”
But it didn’t matter; Mom let Barbara walk me over to Kronk’s anytime she liked. Mom needed the break. My younger brother, Rory and I were unified on only one thing, torturing adults. No relative would babysit the two of us together in their own house. Anytime, Mom needed to go out and she couldn’t find a willing babysitter to come to us, she had to work the phone to get two separate relatives to take us in.
The other reason I loved Kronk’s was the music. Not only the jukebox, the teen boys sang fantastic acappella and gave me dimes for the jukebox. I was already a connoisseur of fine music thanks to my first 45 single, “I Told the Witch Doctor.” Its harmony knocked me out, and so did the Yorkville Melodies. One of the groups founding members, Denny Ferado, told me, “In 1954, Jimmy Whalen, Billy Auger and I were sitting on a stoop on 87th Street between 1st & York Avenue. Paddy Dougherty came down the street singing the Harptones, “Sunday Kind of Love,” and we all started singing along. Later, Whalen and I started a new group with Mike Smith, Ronnie & Jay O’Neil. Bobby Failla taught us a lot. Stan Zizka sang amazing, between Stan and Bobby that’s how the Yorkville Melodies learned to sing. We practiced in every hallway in the neighborhood until we got chased. We used the tunnel under the 87th Street bridge inside CarlSchurz Park as our personal recording studio.”
That was the Upper East Side as the 1950s’ turned into the 1960s’. Every few blocks you’d hear doo-woping, and it started on 87th Street. I’d have an easier time explaining the full begetting in the Book of Genesis than accurately describing doo-wop band mergers. Briefly, in 1960, Stan Zizka left the Yorkville Melodies to join a group that became the Del-Satins, and musical history set in quickly. In 1961, the Del-Satins backing Dion, added “hape, hape, bum da-haity, haity, hape" to “Runaround Sue,” and drove it to number one. Unfortunately the Del-Satins received little credit for their enormous contributions to this hit and “Donna Prima Donna,” Lovers Who Wander,” Ruby Baby,” and “The Wanderer,” a teenage anthem.
Few years back, I received an email from one of my childhood heroes, Clay Cole. Clay read my Yorkville stories on-line and deeply identified with the characters since he lived across from John Jay Pool when he hosted the highlight of my week “The Clay Cole Show,” on Channel 11 Saturday nights in the early 60s. The show was a cavalcade of rock stars and the Del-Satins were regulars. All Yorkville guys.