Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Alfred & The Fourth Grade

My friend, Denny Ferado, wrote the rich story below. It takes place in Yorkville 1951, War, 86th RKO, 4th Grade and complex life lessons.

Alfred & the Fourth Grade

By Dennis John Ferado

Jan 4, 1951 New York Times headline: “SEOUL ABANDONED TO RED ARMIES; CITY AFIRE”

April 11, 1951 New York Times headline: “TRUMAN RELIEVES MACARTHUR OF ALL HIS POSTS”

This year would see the New York Baseball Giants sign, Willie Mays. The team would go 98-59; finish 1st in the National League and Bobby Thompson would hit “The Shot Heard Round the World.” The New York Football Giants would go 9-2-1 finishing 2nd in the NFL American Division behind the passing of Chuckin’ Charlie Conerly, the receiving of Kyle Rote and the rushing of fullback, Eddie Price, who gained 990 yards. The United Nations relocated from its first home in Flushing Meadows, Queens to the East Side of Manhattan. A ride on the subway or the 3rd Avenue El cost ten cents.

Jim Jim, Ronnie and I had gone to the movies to see The African Queen starring Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart. Ronnie, Jay and I saw Detective Story, together starring Kirk Douglas. About eight of us filled an aisle to see A Streetcar Named Desire, with Brando and Vivian Leigh. A shed load of us sat together and watched The Thing in the balcony of the RKO 86th Street Theater. We munched on candy and when the door slowly opened and the creature shoved its arm out all fifteen of us screamed in unison.

Johnnie Ray brought a whole new sound to our ears with his recording of CRY which became a massive hit. Hank Williams and his Drifting Cowboys hit the Country charts thrice that year with COLD COLD HEART, HEY, GOOD LOOKIN’ and YOUR CHEATIN’ HEART. Lefty Frizzell did it with I LOVE YOU A THOUSAND WAYS. Tony Bennett sang BECAUSE OF YOU right up to #1 as did Rosemary Clooney with COME ON-A MY HOUSE. Nat King Cole hit with TOO YOUNG, Les Paul and Mary Ford’s HOW HIGH THE MOON stayed at #1 for nine weeks Meanwhile sneaking up the Rhythm & Blues charts were Billy Ward and The Domino’s, SIXTY-MINUTE MAN (stayed on the R&B charts for 14 weeks then crossed over to the pop charts) and THE GLORY OF LOVE by The Five Keys. John Lee Hooker had his first hit with I’M IN THE MOOD and Elmore James recorded DUST MY BROOM. The pieces of the puzzle that became Rock & Roll were beginning to fall into place.

On TV we watched I Love Lucy, Molly Goldberg, The Jack Benny Show, The Colgate Comedy Hour with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis and Milton Berle’s Texaco Star Theater and we watched them all on 13” screens.

When I was in the 4th grade Yorkville teemed with children and on hot summer nights stoops filled with unwinding and sharing neighbors. There was chronic pumping and fluidity of life that roared through the streets and through my veins.

By the time WW II came to an end, on through the fifties, the country was rebounding and flexing its muscles. Service men were getting married, buying homes on Long Island, building families and businesses. The mood was intensely patriotic and the attitude of the country was “We can do anything.” And we almost could.

I sat near the back of the classroom and Geraldine Kavanagh (she had beautiful, brick-red-hair worn in long pigtails) sat directly in front of me. All day long I’d be dodging and ducking Geraldine’s pigtails. She was bright and bouncy and was consistently flagging down the nun on nearly every question asked of the class. This combination would have me bobbing and weaving about most of the day in defense of catching a pig-tail across the cheek

The best happened when she would suddenly turn smartly because someone had called her name or a loud noise happened on 87th Street to make us all jump and turn our heads toward the windows, I would receive a good swipe across the mouth. It always happened when I least expected it and it used to drive me crazy. Every so often though, when I was in deep study concentration, Geraldine would be called on to stand and her braids would fly out of my hands like two butterflies fluttering off to freedom. Unconsciously, I had been gently holding on to them. To this day I don’t know if I hung onto Geraldine’s pigtails for protection against being lashed repeatedly or if I just liked the feel of them in my hands.

One remorseful day I dipped about two inches of the ends of those long lovely pigtails into the blue ink bottle on my desk. I thought it was cute and couldn’t understand why it nearly brought Geraldine, to tears--that’s how bright I was--a candle in a cavern. Her mother got very angry with me having to cut off over two inches of her daughter’s newly acquired blue hair. Mrs. Kavanagh came to school and spoke to our teacher and then crossed 87th Street to my house and spoke to my mother. I heard it from everyone. I had hurt Geraldine through sheer thoughtlessness and there was nothing I could do to make it up to her. Everyone, including myself, was disgusted with me except, Geraldine. She made it a point that we were still friends--she forgave me--and we stayed friends for years until we no longer ran into one another.

That same year a new boy, Alfred, entered our 4th grade class. He was a couple of years older than I was, spoke broken English but understood it very well and had several prominent scars on his face. Sister sat him near the front of the classroom.

For all I know it was because we had too much repressed energy when we were released from our classrooms that made us crazy. As soon as we turned the 87th Street corner on our way towards 88th street (out of sight of all nuns & priests) we’d start pushing one another around. By mid-term we were getting pretty good at it.

There was a plumbing supply company on the east side of 1st Avenue, just a few doors north of Glazer’s Bakery past Stanley’s Sea Food store and just before Weinstein’s Hardware, Tony Moresco’s Fruit & Vegetable Stand, Weiss’ Delicatessen and Hughe’s Bar on the corner of 88th and 1st Avenue.

One afternoon, Ronnie, Jim Jim, Billy Coulihan, Tommy Kilcullen and I were at it in force: banging, shoving, tripping until (by chance) three of us caught Jim Jim at the same time. He was lifted off his feet, jetted backwards, legs and arms stretched out in front of him (he had been hit in his mid-section and was losing wind via billowing cheeks) right through the giant plate glass window of the plumbing supply company. It’s hard to believe but he survived with only a few scratches, that in itself was a miracle. The plate-glass window reached down to about six inches above the sidewalk and behind the glass merchandise sold in the store was displayed. If you looked at these items you had to look down since all of them were nearly level with the sidewalk with a slight incline toward the inside of the store. There was a curled up garden hose, a bag of cement mix, a kitchen sink, several different sized flanges, a shovel, a snake for cleaning out a stuffed up toilet and a toilet bowl without a seat on it which Jim Jim landed in--rear end first. This was just as big a miracle to us. He struggled but couldn’t budge himself and began screaming:

“I’m stuck! Help me! Hurry up. GET ME OUUUUUT!” We all reached in and grabbed a piece of him and yanked him out of the bowl, then flew like bullets fired from a machine gun. We were too shocked to laugh (at first) and too scared that we were going to get caught and our parents would have to pay for the broken window. Never once did we think that Jim Jim could have been decapitated. To our shock and joy no one ever called or tried to stop us on the street or chased after us. We never heard a word about it from anyone. I don’t know why or how but, that day, we were blessed. Obviously, we used York Avenue, back and forth to school, the remainder of the school year.

My mom would take in any kid she discovered was living on the street which was not unheard of back then. She could not tolerate it if a child had no one to confide in or nowhere to sleep. Anyone of my friends who might need a shoulder, a hot meal or a bed to sleep in, mom would be there for them. She’d say:

“Don’t worry honey; you can sleep in Dennis’ bed for a few nights.” Whenever I came home I could never imagine who might be sleeping in my bed. There was always someone staying at our place for a spell. I might find Jim Jim, Paddy, or Jackie. (If it happened to be one of my friends staying over I’d make them sleep on the floor.) If it was a strange kid, a lost soul, mom had stumbled upon who needed some kindness and someone to talk to, well. She’d tell me their sad story and what could I say but:

“Okay mom, let ‘um sleep.”

Ronnie and I spent many years of our youth in collaboration with each other as good friends. We never fought with one another and shared many of life’s experiences.

I was never closer to anyone through those years than the guys I grew up with. We were friends who shared everything and tried everything at least once. Ronnie and Jay, the brothers, were always more levelheaded than most of us. Sometimes a bit too reserved but always leery and very quick on the uptake.

Ronnie always knew exactly what was happening; and he and Jay had more independence in their characters than all of us put together. If it wasn’t for Ronnie and Jay Jay we, as a crowd, would have got ourselves into more trouble than we had. Not that they ever preached, they’d just say, I’m out.” If Ronnie was “out” we’d usually take time to think it over and try to talk him into it--sometimes it worked. If Jay was out we generally wouldn’t do the deed. Jay was the oldest and traditionally the wisest. However, when I was with Paddy or Jim Jim I never knew what was going to happen. They habitually didn’t think about consequences they just did what they wanted to do, no warning. Before I could blink I was in the center of a happening. Still, there were times and certain incidents that will always bind Ronnie and myself.

To get back to, Alfred, the new kid in class my mom had met his aunt through Saint Joseph’s Church. Alfred was a boy who had recently come to the US from Malta to live with his aunt and uncle. He loved this country, loved our neighborhood and loved being in the 4th grade with Ronnie and myself. He lived with his relatives in the red brick building on Second Avenue at the northwest corner of 88th Street above AMATO’S ICE CO.

Alfred had a heart as big as Central Park and a smile that made you inquisitive. But that sincere and beautiful heart had already failed him several times. My mom had given Ronnie and me specific instructions to be nice to him, befriend him and not to let anyone bully or take advantage of him. This proved to be quite easy since Alfred was a happy guy and liked everyone; he hit it off with all the kids in our class. With his choppy English and his remarkable sense of humor and understanding of American jokes he was more intelligent in the ways of life than any of us at that time. Alfred and his family had been in the midst of the bombing of Malta by the Germans during WW II, hence the scars that covered his entire body. He was the only member of his immediate family to survive. His brothers, sisters and parents were all killed around him when a bomb fell on their home.

It was only a few months before Alfred was in Lenox Hill Hospital with heart problems. One sunny autumn Sunday Ronnie and I got all gussied up and took a nice walk over to Lenox Hill Hospital to visit our buddy. We discovered, quickly, how painful it was to see him in his weakened condition. Although lying in his hospital bed joking about school and other trivia--to keep his visitors’ minds off the obvious--there was an undeniable sense of foreboding in his character. All of his natural joy was gone and in place of it there was a little old man who had given up on life. I know that Ronnie felt the same way I did when we walked out of the hospital that Sunday. There wasn’t much to say to one another and we didn’t, barely a word for an hour or so. We walked around Yorkville trying to out distance hospital sounds and cleanse our lungs of hospital odors.

Who do I pity after all these years? I pity myself. I do. Alfred had wise eyes and I never got to see them sparkle again or listen to his stories about his home in Malta. I don’t know if visiting our friend had anything to do with it but after that day and all through our youth, I can’t recall Ronnie ever going into another hospital to see anyone again--he just would not do it. After he married and had a family all that, most likely, changed. After all these years, Ronnie and I have rarely spoken about it but, I know, neither of us will ever forget Alfred.

1 comment:

babypalms said...

Nice story Denny. Yours was the hospital and mine was day after day visiting that lovely facility if Brooklyn with my mother to visit Paddy.