Thursday, June 30, 2011

Yorkville's Rooftop Fireworks Wars

My friend, Bill Chefalas, told me a tale about Yorkville kids celebrating the 4th of July in the 1940s & 1950s. I’d like to share it with you. Here’s Bill’s story:

Yorkville's 4th of July Rooftop Fireworks Wars

In the late 40’s to early 50’s, I was part of the Yorkville “gang” on our block that prepared an arsenal of customized fireworks, months in advance of the 4th. Many of us would take the First Avenue bus uptown to a mom and pop candy store, at 117th St. and 1st Ave., next to Patsy’s Pizzeria, where the backroom was piled high to the ceiling with every type of fireworks imaginable—M-80’s, Cherry Bombs, Roman Candles, Torpedoes, Sky Rockets, Aerial Bombs, Ash Cans, 100-Pack-Inch-and-a-Half’s, Bottle Rockets, Sparklers, and what we called, a “Punk,” which was a slow-burning, long-lasting stick that was used to light fuses. It was like going into a gold mine in the heart of New York’s East Harlem. We bought them all—bags full. This venture was in anticipation for the rooftop fireworks wars that were to come. It was obvious that mom and pop had to somehow, pay off the cops, considering the amount of traffic in and out of their store—they couldn’t possibly sell that much candy.

For weeks, we prepared our ammunition. The most popular (and dangerous, now that I think of it) was to make a “Splashcan,” which was to take an Ash Can—a little smaller and lighter than an M-80, but still powerful—and tape it to a Sparkler about halfway down (more about it’s use later). Next in line, was to take a one-pound bag of flour and insert an M-80 inside, with just the fuse showing. We made at least a hundred of these.


The War

On my block--81st St., between 1st and 2nd--our 4th of July “War,” can be described as a pyrotechnic rooftop battle between kids that lived on the north side of the street (my side) and kids that lived on the south side of the street, our “enemies”--and there were lots of them (The distance from one side to the other was maybe, 70-feet, or so, and the four-story tenement rooftops were about the same height—well within throwing distance). If you were lucky to live in a five or six-story building, you had a height advantage, which made it harder for the lower buildings to throw their stuff up and over. I don’t recall any other blocks in the neighborhood doing this sort of crazy thing.

Our battle dress code was to wear something as close to black as possible, so that we could not be seen against the dark background of the tar roofs. Every detail was carefully planned.

Finally, it was 9pm, the entire city started to resonate with explosive sound and night-sky color, as we very quietly walked up four flights of stairs with our arsenal, and out onto the roof, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible to our “enemies” on the opposite roofs—who were in reality, our friends. Twenty to thirty kids on each side. The view of the city was spectacular.

The Punks were lit and the battle slowly ensued. The youngest kids were the “Punkers,” and their assignment was to run around the roof tops and hold the lighted punks for the rest of us to light and throw the fireworks. One of the youngest kids was assigned as a “Chickie.” He would hang over the edge of the roof to see if any cops were coming up the block. If their were, he would yell, “Chickie,” and we would stop the war until they were gone. The cops were so busy with what was going on in the neighborhood streets, that they paid no attention to the rooftops. The whole city was erupting. This was WAR!

First, the 15-shot, Roman Candles were lit and pointed towards our rooftop enemies. You could see them dodging the shots, as we were to theirs. Meanwhile, other types of fireworks were set off, and it gradually became a noise and light show up there. What about the Sparkler with the Ash Can taped to it, you ask? For many years, it was common to throw a lit Sparkler across to the other roof, and they would in turn, throw it back over. This year, we devised a new gimmick—the “Spashcan.” In the dark, it was hard to see the Ash Can taped to the Sparkler. So, we would light the sparkler and wait just until the fuse lit on Ash Can, and then throw it over. Their surprise was what unmistakably looked like a Sparkler, actually exploded! What’s this, an exploding Sparkler? From then on, no one dared to pick up any Sparkler and toss it back. But, the stealthiest and must potent of all, was a fuseless, impact firework called a Torpedo—a small grey ball about the size of a Jaw Breaker, filled with aluminum powder and a few pieces of aquarium gravel. The inside of the Torpedo was lined with a rough sandpaper surface, and when it hit after you threw it, the gravel would hit against the inside, causing a spark, thereby, igniting the powder—cleaver design. Boom! This was particularly dangerous because if you threw it high and hard enough, it would explode on contact, even on top of a person’s head—which I must confess, I once unintentionally did. (These were banned in the U.S. in the late 50’s).

The fuses on the bags of flour were lit and tossed high in the air above the street, exploding into a shower of white flour. The street became coated in this powder, and cars, not knowing what the white powder was, didn’t dare to drive through. A white Christmas in July.



The next day, the street and cars that remained were covered with a field of paper debris and white flour. We returned to our many summer street games, trips to John Jay pool, and the East Side Settlement House, always thinking of what we could conger up for next year’s “war.” It amazes me, that for all the years we did this not one of us got hurt or set a building on fire. DUMB luck, I guess.

Have a great 4th, Yorkville!

Bill Chefalas

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Someone Left The Cake Out In the Rain ~ 1968

June, 1968: Mom and Dad played pinochle up Nan's on York Avenue with Pauline & Charlie Hannah following St. Stephen of Hungary's eighth grade graduation in the church.

Nan had a bandanna around her neck to catch sweat and drank chilled ginger ale. “Cut the shit, cut the cards.” Nan said to Dad who was farting around.

A miserably hot day, Rory wore my grad cap, then we ran out to put the fire hydrant on at the corner of 83rd Street and 1st Avenue.
Mickey Mantle hit a homer against the Angels. George Chapman had sunburn on his back from Rockaway Beach. Unknowingly, I slapped George's back after Mantle's homer. Apology not accepted.
Someone left the cake out in the rain. I don’t think that I can take it. ‘cause it took too long to bake it. And I’ll never have that recipe again. Oh, no!
"MacArthur's Park," was on the radio and Rory bought a pound of Oreos with the 45 cents he clipped off Dad's dresser. Afterwards we all sat on 403’s stoop and Herb Alpert crooned “This Guy’s In Love with You.”
We considered these songs nuclear weapons for attracting girls.
Here are the top 40 records from that June 1968 day.
  1. This Guy's In Love With You - Herb Alpert
  2. The Horse - Cliff Nobles and Co.
  3. MacArthurPark- Richard Harris
  4. Yummy Yummy Yummy - Ohio Express
  5. Look Of Love - Sergio Mendes
  6. Mony Mony - Tommy James & The Shondells
  7. Angel Of The Morning - Merilee Rush and the Turnabouts
  8. Think - Aretha Franklin
  9. Here Comes The Judge - Shorty Long
  10. Reach Out Of The Darkness - Friend And Lover
  11. Jumpin Jack Flash - Rolling Stones
  12. Mrs. Robinson - Simon And Garfunkel
  13. Grazing In The Grass - Hugh Masekela
  14. Licking Stick-Licking Stick - James Brown
  15. Lady Willpower - Gary Puckett and the Union Gap
  16. I Love You – People
  17. Tip-Toe Thru' The Tulips With Me - Tiny Tim
  18. Indian Lake – Cowsills
  19. Stoned Soul Picnic - 5th Dimension
  20. I Could Never Love Another (After Loving You) – Temptations
  21. How'd We Ever Get This Way - Andy Kim
  22. She's A Heartbreaker - Gene Pitney
  23. Ain't Nothing Like The Real Thing - Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell
  24. Good The Bad And The Ugly - Hugo Montenegro
  25. (You Keep Me) Hangin On - Joe Simon
  26. Choo Choo Train - Box Tops
  27. Beautiful Morning – Rascals
  28. Tighten Up - Archie Bell & The Drells
  29. DW Washburn – Monkees
  30. Never Give You Up - Jerry Butler
  31. Man Without Love - Engelbert Humperdinck
  32. Yester Love - Smokey Robinson & The Miracles
  33. Folsom Prison Blues - Johnny Cash
  34. Sky Pilot - Eric Burdon & The Animals
  35. Like To Get To Know You - Spanky And Our Gang
  36. Pictures Of Matchstick Men - Status Quo
  37. Hurdy Gurdy Man – Donovan
  38. Master Jack - Four Jacks And A Jill
  39. Time For Living – Association
  40. Face It Girl It's Over - Nancy Wilson

Monday, June 27, 2011

Yorkville Swimming Options in 1960

End of June, I spy a newly filled pool. My heart, a tom-tom drum.
Water! Water! Water!
Nothing was more important between late June and Labor Day. City pools were essential, they gave great comfort, but I wanted lakes, I wanted beaches and I needed adults with transportation for each. My conniving was bottomless. Mom could page a calendar in February and start sweating freely when she got to June, July, August. Dad welcomed heat like an old friend, in the Navy he slept under a steam pipe for two years. He needed persuasion. Mom was always hot, but she had psoriasis all over and hated the beach, but tolerated lakes. Dad loved body surfing and could be conned into a beach trip but only if the temperature was headed over 90. I’d watch the weather praying for a heat wave so we could get to Rockaway Beach by bus, or if some relative felt sorry for Rory and me they’d take us to Davies or Sparkle Lake.
In short, I craved hot days as a kid; I craved 90 degrees, because that’s what I needed to motivate an adult to leave the island of Manhattan and take us on a water trip. On hot mornings I'd closed the windows of our air-conditionless apartment praying the stuffy heat would drive my parents to the land of impaired judgment where decisions were loose and sloppy. My track record in this area was iffy but I won my share of bouts. I remember the beach and lakes with the kind of affection usually associated with first loves.
On my bike ride today, I passed Asser Levy Pool which is ready for action. Though John Jay was blocks away in Yorkville we used to bike down to Asser on 23rd Street for a change of pace. Here are some pix from today's ride.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Purple Rain Falls On Losers Lounge Tribute to Prince

Last night, The Losers Lounge paid tribute to Prince at Joe's Pub in the East Village. A terrific show with the usual suspects treating the sold-out crowd to a non-stop Prince lovefest. Nut jobs need not apply, no short supply last night starting with Michael Cerveris, Nick Danger & Tammy Faye. Cerveris, the Tony Award winning actor brought his stage outfit directly from the asylum costume party. He brought his own purple rain tucked away in a plant sprayer that he showered everyone in reach with including the band. Joe McGinty & The Kustard Kings closed the show with "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man." A good time was had by all.

Four more Losers Lounge Prince shows at Joe's Pub. Two tonight, two tomorrow.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Summer's Potential Raced My Heart

“Get your shoes on, get your brother, and let’s go,” Mom said losing steam, “If we’re lucky, we’ll sneak in before the Gospel.”

No adult lecture could dampen my mood. I was invincible. It was the Summer Solstice – June 21, 1964 – Sunset 8:42 p.m. – confirmed through consultation with my Reader’s Digest Farmer Almanac calendar. Liberated from fourth grade two days before, this was the first of an endless string of Sundays where the looming gloom of Monday faded away. On Sunday during the school year, I’d carry a nagging dread of the next day through all my activities. Summer empowers Sunday.

Nine o’clock mass at St. Stephen’s was always a sellout. Avoiding the brow beating ushers, we tried slipping into a crowded pew in the back of the church. My brother, Rory, led, I followed, then Mom. Mom pushed me, I pushed Rory, he pushed a holy-roller lady and she said, “Well, I never!”

On the altar, Father Dudley stopped his prayer, dropped his raised arms to his side, turned his head slowly, and gave Mom a dirty look.

I flipped my head toward Rory and mouthed the words, “What are you gonna to do?”

Mom mouthed back, “Thanks a lot.”

(read the rest of "Summer's Potential Raced My Heart" in my current Our Town column.) If you like the tale, please leave a comment.


Next "City Stories: Stoops to Nuts" storytelling show is Tuesday @ July 12th @ 6pm @ Cornelia Street Cafe. Please come down to hear terrific talent (Barbara Aliprantis, Jake Goldman, Thomas Pryor, Francesca Rizzo, Tricia Scotti & Coree Spencer) tell and sing stories about Summer in the City.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Chrysler Building From Two Vantage Points

Last night, I attended an event at 42nd Street & Fifth Avenue. A great spot to view the Chrysler Building. I also photographed it a few days ago on a gray day. Some pictures below.

The event I attended: We Are Booming created by Ann Fry is a project committed to changing the conversation about aging. The topic attracts me. I consider myself in the bottom of the sixth inning with three more ahead and I'm pulling for extra innings. We Are Booming presses folks to consider giving something back before you exit. In my home, I'm surrounded by my Dad, Mom & brother's art. For that, I'm blessed. They are always with me, and inspire me to do the same with whatever I do best. I'm working on it. I believe in karma, I believe the love you give comes right back to you. One of my greatest gifts was having all four grandparents until I was 10, and they lived literally around the block and two blocks away. I saw them every day, and I loved their stories, I loved their generation and those slight and huge differences in ways they grew up versus how my parents grew up, I soaked their memories up.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Rocket Summer: Solstice In the Manhattan Sky

The Manhattan sky is magical the week of the Summer Solstice. The setting sun suspends in the air hitting clouds with strange light like no other time of the year. It reminds me of the sky's description in The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury. Look up tonight and over the next few days, you're in for a treat. Pictures below are Upper Eastside (camera) and Astor Place (cell phone, camera battery died). I tie the solstice to the end of school and "Don't Worry Baby," to the beginning of summer.

Monday, June 20, 2011

June 20, 1957: Yorkville Move-In Day

June 20, 1957, on Rory’s first birthday we moved into #4R at 517 East 83rd Street. Mom let Rory and me run straight into the apartment before my aunts and uncles brought the furniture up. I dragged my brother by his arm.


At the window was a fire escape with a nest of baby pigeons. Rory squealed and I felt the same way. Rory said his newly learned word, “Wow!”

“Mom, got to see it, birds, lots of them!” I yelled over my shoulder.

Mom came over in three strides, gave Dad a look and said, “Bob, stay here. I’m taking Tommy and Rory for ice cream.”

On the stairs, we passed Aunt Barbara and Aunt Joan carrying our kitchen table. When we returned from the store Rory and I ran to the window. No birds.

I asked Dad, “Where they go?”

“Their mom taught them to fly and they took off.”

I said nothing but knew something fishy happened. I had a good cry, Rory saw me, and he started crying too. Rory didn’t know why he was crying; he just liked to cry when I cried.

When the furniture was in and the move was over the adults started cracking beers. The next thing I knew a group of friends and extra relatives showed up. Allie Cobert, Uncle Mickey and Uncle Lenny put on Dad’s white dress shirts and made bow ties out of the ladies kerchiefs and begin singing, “Sweet Adeline.” After the singing sung out, Dad played records on his RCA Victrola. Bored, I retreated to the bathroom. I sat on the toilet bowl and did some target practice with my water gun. Out the window into the air shaft, a few quick shots off mom’s bra drying on the towel rack, then up at the naked light bulb on the ceiling. That was fun. The more I shot it, the more it sizzled. I could see smoke coming off it. I kept going.


The bulb exploded, the door flew open and a half dozen people were in the bathroom with me before I could hop off the bowl. Mom was on top of me pretty good but Barbara and Joan extracted me before Mom could figure out what to do with me.

The next day, Barbara came over the apartment to see how we were settling in. She sat in the kitchen drinking coffee with Mom. When Mom wasn’t paying attention, Barbara went to the back window by the fire escape and opened it. Then she sat back down like nothing happened.

Within a few minutes we heard birds, “Tweet, tweet, tweet.” Then it stopped. Two minutes later, “Tweet, Tweet, tweet.”

Mom moaned and said, "Oh, Christ, they’re back.”

I smiled. Then a big gruff voice said, “Fire Inspector, Fire Inspector!”

Mom popped out of her chair. In came Joan in my red fire hat with a big grin on her face.

Joan had gone to the roof and came down to the fourth floor fire escape waiting for Barbara to open the window to let her in. It was not the first, or last time someone came into our Yorkville apartment using something other than the front door.


Happy Birthday, Rory!


Thursday, June 16, 2011

Stoops to Nuts Served at Cornelia Street Cafe

Storytelling unfurled Tuesday night at Cornelia Street Cafe at the monthly “City Stories: Stoops to Nuts" show.

June 14th being Flag Day, Nicholas Zaharakos proved he’s as “American as Spinach Pie,” with a story about his Greek born father's ingenuity securing a well balanced meal under surveillance. Nicole Ferraro nominated her grandmother as the woman most likely to get you out of the supermarket with a full cart of stuff, most of your money still in your wallet, and a package of frozen chicken cutlets slid inside your raincoat. Don Piper & Edward Rogers sung of the city’s forgotten souls, isolation and the redemptive pleasure of connecting with friends in the neighborhood. Francesca Rizzo’s yarn let it be known that she holds the international record for dating coincidence and that her mother’s strength is not picking out puppies. Thomas Pryor told a cautionary tale for the kids out there about “Murder by Dusting.”

The place was packed with friends, fans, and the entire 4th grade from St. Stephen of Hungary. Led by Sister Adrianne and two chaperones, the kids had a ball and their ears only had to be covered for a few moments during one story. They returned to school immediately after the show in their Wayback Bus.

Thank you, Nicole, Don, Edward, Francesca & Nicholas for a great show. Thank you, Steve & Tiffany for keeping the customers satisfied. Angelo & Robin, thank you for letting us play in your sandbox. Barbara Aliprantis, thank you, for letting me hold your curating candle.

Carrying on a fourteen year old tradition, storytelling is alive and well at Cornelia Street Cafe on the second Tuesday of each month. Our next, “City Stories: Stoops to Nuts,” storytelling show is July 12th at 6pm at the Cafe.

All photos on this page were taken by Danielle Samantha Marks, except for the sidewalk shot taken by Thomas Pryor.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Saint Stephen's Class Trip to Cornelia Street Cafe

Sister Adrianne trying to come up with a "fun but educational" class trip has decided to take her Saint Stephen of Hungary's 4th grade to Cornelia Street Cafe tonight to see the "City Stories: Stoops to Nuts" storytelling show.

Mister Varga will drive the kids down on the school bus and Mrs. Otis and Mrs. Varga have volunteered as chaperones. All students bringing their 4th grade report cards showing a 90 average get in free, all others pay $7 with one free Mission soda or adult drink if you sport facial hair.

Sister Adrianne picked a winner. It's a great show with terrific tellers and songsmiths including Nicole Ferraro, Don Piper, Francesca Rizzo, Edward Rogers & Nicholas Zaharakos. Tommy Pryor will host the show then immediately return to his seat on the bus for the trip back to the school or suffer Sister Adrianne's consequences.

Tonight: City Stories: Stoops to Nuts @ Cornelia Street Cafe @ 6pm

Located at 29 Cornelia Street (between Bleecker & West 4th Street, just west of 6th Avenue).

ps don't forget today is Flag Day!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Gully's Guppies Graduate LaSalle Academy: June 12, 1972

39 years ago tonight, 208 seniors graduated LaSalle Academy at the Seaman's Institute in Chelsea. Thanks to Patrick Cullinan's photography, below are a few black & white pictures of the event. For me June 12, 1972 carried additional significance because my parents had not seen each other in over two years. Forced to be in the same space for the first time they took photos with me. After the ceremony and the picture taking, they talked in the back and my father approached me and told me they were going to dinner. I had mixed feelings.

406, our class, was known as Gully's Guppies. We were in a constant state of possibly having us asses kicked by the other five freshman classes. We loved every minute of it and welcomed the insults. The nickname was a tribute to Brother James Anthony Gully a man we all loved, a great teacher.

Gully's Guppies broke up during a teacher's coup that transferred several students in the middle of our sophmore year. The class of 1972 co-mingled well, fights were infrequent. We shared a common love for school sports & music and shared an intense curiousity for the world exploding and expanding right outside the doors of 44 East 2nd Street, LaSalle Academy, our school in the East Village.


I absolutely, positively, you bet, should've failed Geometry at LaSalle in June 1970 and spent my 16th summer in a hot 2nd Street classroom exploring my corollaries. My teacher, Patrick Cullinan, recognized the astronomical odds against me going to Cooper Union, and let me slide. Thank you, cool Pat, the summer of 1970 was a keeper.