Back In 1953
Dennis John Ferado
There is a section of Manhattan that was once known as Yorkville and is now usually referred to as the Upper East Side. Unless of course you were born in Yorkville then it will always be “Yorkville” no matter what new and future maps may show. It was an experience that will always be part of my life.
There were several different age groups who occupied the four corners of York Avenue and 87th Street when I was growing up during the 1950’s. They were totally immersed in holding up the four buildings that made up that square. Actually we never had a corner to call our own; we borrowed them for awhile when the older guys weren’t around, so we’d shuffle from one to the other. Still, those memories rise to the surface every so often and I would not want to change a thing from back then in 1953.
Allen Ginsberg moved to the East Village; Jack Kerouac, Norman Mailer and William Burroughs arrived soon after and the “Beat Generation” was under way.
The New York Yankees signed, Elston Howard, their first Negro ballplayer.
Tony Bennett gave birth to his third million seller with Rags to Riches. Rhythm-and-blues singer Ruth Brown had her second million seller with Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean. Clyde McPhatter formed The Drifters and they released their first smash hit single, Money Honey and the Orioles, Crying in the Chapel reached the top of the charts. The House of Wax, From Here to Eternity, The Big Heat, The Wild One and Shane were the new movies we just had to see.
March--The Beer Tree
One night in March we had a quart of beer and five of us were passing it around down in Carl Schurz Park. We were standing on the bridge (overpass) some sitting on the wall, above the tunnel (in which we used to harmonize) that crossed the bridge at 87th Street. Alongside of us there was a powerful tree with several strong, thick branches. This night we all agreed that it looked a lonely tree, it looked hungry for company. I think it was Jim Jim who pointed to the tree and said:
“Did you hear that?” She said, ‘Come on up. I can hold all you guys.’”
We were amazed at how we all fitted so well and with good separation between us. There was no bending of the big branches, not a creak or a squeak and, seemingly, we were not much of a burden to it. I guess we were still a bit undersized to be too much of a strain. Unknowingly we had stumbled upon, what would become known as “Our Beer Tree,” because that night we sat in it and passed around a bottle of beer. For the next two years there were nights we’d go to the park climb up our tree and sit there for hours chatting and singing and when someone walked past we’d stop talking and, most times, we wouldn’t be noticed. When we were spied by passersby, to our amazement, they paid no attention to us--they ignored us. I think every time that happened we were secretly insulted. Maybe they thought it was a tree that grew kids--a kid tree. Why not? Anything was possible.
Our beer tree became a clubhouse, of sorts, for us and we loved it since it gave us our ever sought after but ever elusive privacy. We never harmed it in any way or carved our initials into it or knowingly broke off a small budding leaf. Like a country boy has a special tree that he loves and thinks of as his own, we city kids had found one that we could share.
April 5th Easter Sunday--Working for ‘The Greek.’
Tommy, Paddy, Jim Jim, Ray and I went to work, just for one day, for Dano’s florist on 86th Street between 1st and 2nd Avenues on Easter Sunday--every florist’s most hard-pressed day. We delivered flowers from 8:00 AM until 7:00 PM. We rode subways, busses and the Third Avenue El up to the complicated Bronx out to industrial Queens, over to exotic Brooklyn and all around Manhattan. We had experiences that kept us hysterical for weeks after with the retelling and restructuring of each of our stories. When we finally finished our long day’s work we were all wired up. I think we made between 8 and 12 dollars apiece. Dano paid us nothing, we worked for tips. By the end of the day, we had stashed some flowers and plants in my parents’ basement, the ones we couldn’t get anyone to accept or sign for. Since we felt the florist was unfair with us we took all the left over flowers and plants and sold them on the corner of 86th Street and York Avenue, one block away from the florist. We made another eighteen dollars to toss into the pot. We always did things that way, it didn’t matter who had what, we always divided it up evenly. We were rich the day that followed Easter Sunday, I called it “Blessed Monday,”--I ran straight up 86th Street to Helfer’s records and blew it all on a stack of 45’s.
For years after I somehow avoided passing in front of Dano’s Florist and I only lived two blocks away. I’d walk on the uptown side of 86th Street with my head turned opposite his store. I can only imagine how many calls Dano received about customers not getting their deliveries. Forty-five years later I was walking out of the Gracie Square Post Office on East 85 Street, I turned east toward 1st Avenue and had to do a quick little cha cha to avoid crashing into someone. I looked up and I was staring into Dano’s eyes. I saw there a faint, yet discombobulated, recognition in those eyes that quickly segued into uncertainty. At first I thought he was going to call a cop on me. Abruptly he continued walking on. I knew at once it was my paranoid Yorkville disposition kicking in--forty-five years after the fact.
My parents grew up during the depression and learned how to survive under the most dire and desperate conditions. In 1931 they had been married for a few weeks and were sleeping on the floor because they could not afford a mattress. Nevertheless my father promised my mother he’d get them a mattress to sleep on, somehow, before the day was over. My father had a job delivering large metal cans of milk to grocery stores in a horse-drawn open wagon. It barely paid the rent and kept them from starving. All that day they had been walking up and down the east side avenues and through the side streets of Yorkville. They were exhausted and were coming home walking east between 5th and Madison Avenues on 74th Street when two young men walked out of a building struggling with a mattress. They saw my parents staring and one of them said: “Mother’s gone and burned a cigarette hole in it and father wants it gone. It’s a perfectly good mattress and we’d hate to see it wasted.” My parents carried that mattress on their backs up Madison to 90th Street then east to their basement apartment between 1st and 2nd Avenues. When they were in their apartment sitting at the table they both broke down in tears. They were tough from the times they had gone through and sensitive to the needs of others because they had been there themselves. Their story is a tale of wonder as are most of the Yorkville families of that day. Mom learned how to survive and help raise her two younger sisters. Their father drank and thought nothing of smacking anyone of them around, and verbally abusing them daily.
My parents were both wonderful New York characters who had gone to great lengths to give us kids the things that we needed in life. That they certainly did and how thankful I am to have had them both in my life. I say this to help understand the following.
May: Stealing Begonias
Pop steered our big black Chrysler as it rolled stealthily north along the curb at 66th Street and York Avenue slowly coming to a full stop. We were in front of a large wrought iron gate that was part of the Rockefeller Institute. Behind the gate there were two concentric circles of flowers sitting atop a circular grassy knoll. Mom sat in the front passenger seat and Jim Jim, Paddy and I were in the back seat. Pop kept the motor idling. Mom reached over her seat and handed me and Jim a little garden spade and a burlap bag for our contraband. To Paddy was given two empty shoe boxes and a child’s sand shovel. Mom spoke through a blue cloud of cigarette smoke:
“Now listen to me you guys. Be careful sliding under that gate. I want you in and out of there in 2 minutes. Jim Jim you get 3 geranium plants from the outside ring of flowers, see them?” Jim nodded. “Dennis, you go inside the circle and get three begonia plants. And leave whatever soil clings to the roots, you two--don’t shake it off. Paddy-me-boy, fill up your boxes with earth. Forget about the plants, just get soil, okay?” She smiled at him and continued: “Now”, to the three of us, she said, “two minutes flat. Do you hear me?” I said:
“You know there’s a watchman just beyond the hill?”
“Don’t worry. If he sees you, your father will talk to him. Be careful boys and Dennis don’t bang your head on the gate.” She knew, better than anyone, about my tendency to collect knots on my head. Paddy was smiling when he said:
“Come on Den Den, it’ll be fun. Jim Jim said:
“Lets get Mom’s garden.” Pop chimed in with:
“Not a better wheel man in New York City. I greased the sides of the car today with Crisco in case we’re in a chase. I’ll keep the motor running for you guys. Now let’s get your mother’s begonias and get the hell out of here.”
Under the giant gate the three of us went a-slithering with our bags, boxes and tools. We did not get caught and the plants looked beautiful in mom’s garden. A few years after that the Rockefeller Institute constructed a large round building called The Conference Dome which now sits on the exact spot where the circle of geraniums and begonias once grew.
July: A Memorable Day at Pelham Bay
One stifling Saturday morning about 10 of us met in 89th Street between 1st and York Avenues. A friend’s parents were janitors for three buildings on the block and the basements were loaded with paraphernalia which we used to build a giant raft. We decided we would build it out of six used rubber truck tires and several eight foot wooden planks. We hammered and lashed the boards and tires together and carried the assemblage on our shoulders up 86th Street to Lexington Avenue and the Pelham Bay Subway line. I don’t know how we did it; the 10 of us could barely lift it. We struggled and wobbled down the double staircase on the northeast corner of 86th and Lexington Avenue with people diving out of our way. Before paying our fares a train pulled in and it was then we noticed that our creation was much too large to fit through the subway car’s doors. A bleak delirium swept over us before we came to our senses. We could work this out. Blessed with an abundance of brilliance, we rested for spell, discussed the situation, then rallied. We lugged the beast back up the steps and dismantled it right on 86th Street. Then we carried the planks and rolled the tires back down the steps, paid our fares, and boarded the train that carried us up to Pelham Bay.
When we reached our destination we lugged everything down to the water and reassembled our monster. (We should have thought of this before we put it together back at 89th Street). We pushed it into the bay and jumped on it. Perhaps if we had used inner tubes and not heavy hollow truck tires, it might have been sea-worthy, might have floated for a bit. Of course it sank immediately. The remainder of the day we spent diving and jumping off an abandoned train bridge and harmonizing beneath it for the echo; we were given rides on two separate occasions by a cruising motor boat and by a small family yacht passing under the bridge because they liked our singing. In spite of our failure to imitate Huck Finn on a raft it was a memorable day at Pelham Bay.
August: In Central Park
We played hardball in Central Park and no one wanted to be the catcher. Paddy wanted it, got it and refused to wear a mask or any protection while crouching behind home plate. Ronnie and I watched him for a while, then Ronnie said: “He’s a quarter short of a buck.” I nodded in agreement. Eventually Paddy would wear the equipment because, Jiggs, Jim Jim’s uncle, our baseball coach, forced him to.
We also played a type of softball which is called lob ball. In lob ball there is no fast pitching, the pitcher lobs the ball across the plate. He could put “stuff” on the ball but it was done by lobbing it. This day while we were still warming up before our game there was two Puerto Rican teams on the field next to us having a serious game of softball. The pitching was fast and furious. Standing side by side Jim Jim and I watched in awe as the ball crossed home plate in a blur. Suddenly from behind us, close to our ears, we heard a gentle and distinctly familiar British voice say: “I beg your pardon, gentleman.” We turned at the same time and standing right between us was tall, dignified, dapperly Mr. Boris Karloff. He spoke softly and his face was just inches away from ours. Jim Jim and I stared as he continued, “There is something that has me baffled. Perhaps you would be kind enough to enlighten me? Jim Jim said:
“Of course, Mr. Karloff. How can we help you?” And in his most charming and animated Boris Karloff voice asked: “Why is it those Porrrr-tree-can chaps throw the ball so swwwwiftly?” He went on to tell us he was just out for a stroll in the park. One thing about growing up in Manhattan, you never knew who you might be brushing shoulders with at any moment or in any place.
We would frequent the Asphalt mall at 90th Street near the East River Drive where we could sit in shadows against that strange cement building, watch the cars passing, do some singing and no one would ever bother us. Except the cops. If they drove by and spotted us we’d have to move. I don’t know why because we weren’t disturbing anyone and we were far enough away from all buildings for anyone to hear us even if we were singing because of the noise from the cars on the drive. Flip and Riley drove around in their car and hated everyone, Tom the foot-cop wanted to shoot one of us--preferably me--and Big Red would always pick out one of us to smack across face every time he ran into us. We’d go into the back of hallways and try to keep our voices down so as not to get chased. After a few minutes we’d, unconsciously, begin to get louder or burst into song. If one of the tenants came into the hallway, it was all over and we’d have to leave immediately. It seemed as though we were always looking for a place of seclusion. Then someone would mention our tree.
October’s Apple Pies
I can’t recall where we went apple-picking, but we picked 4 bushels. It was somewhere in Upstate New York or in Connecticut. Just Mom, Dad, my sister Margie and myself. When we got home my mother gave away 2 bushels between our neighbors. The next day she set her mind to baking apple pies so she had my sister and me peeling apples all day and we did it without whining. As soon as the pies started going into the oven I called Ronnie and told him my mother was on a pie baking binge, did he want some hot apple pie? I met him and we walked around the block giving the pies time to cook, then headed to my house. As soon as we turned into 88th street the aroma of cinnamon and baking apples hit us. We ran into my apartment, the place was laminated in mesmerizing odors sending Ronnie and myself into a swoon.
We were robots, soup spoons in hand (the pies were too juicy to eat with a fork) and drool on our lips. We waited for what seemed a decade, it was taking so long and we were growing older by the second. When the first two pies came out we almost drowned ourselves in them. With burning lips and tongues aflame we devoured a third pie between us. My mother made ten pies--she just couldn’t stop making them until almost all the apples were gone. Ronnie and I rolled out of my house onto 88th Street, went to Mark’s candy store and got two sodas. We walked back to my house sat on the stoop, talked about how great mom and the apple pies were, had two swallows of our sodas then we both ran to the curb and threw up.
November. Our tree was nearly leafless now with the slightest bit of camouflage left. The entire summer, fall and several chilly winter nights found us in our tree whispering and softly harmonizing. In our perch we could see Gracie Mansion, a mere sixty yards away, where Mayor Wagner presided, the mansion all aglow and shinning brightly. On certain nights we’d watch the big limousines pull up and unload the rich and famous draped in furs and tuxedos gathering for fancy dinners. We’d sit in our tree and watch. Sometimes a shifting breeze would bear the scent of a perfumed lady guest over to our tree. We’d fill our lungs deeply and smile at one another.
We could see the stars flickering above us and hear the hooting of the tug boat fog horns as they plied their tankers up and down the East River. I had often wondered as we nested in our tree: could it possibly get any better than this? Back in 1953.
Dennis John Ferado