Dennis John Ferado
During the 1950’s I purchased albums to store my 45-rpm records in. On the sleeves of the albums the records slid into, I’d jot down what was going on in my life at the time. Not a diary but a collection of notes. Much of what I scribbled down is in Sumerian but I managed to decipher some and translated it. The notes are in ITALICS and I call them “Snippets.”
Snippet One: Mon. December 30th, 1955--Bought Rock Around the Clock today.
Great films that year: The Bad Seed, Bus Stop, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Moby Dick, Somebody Up There Likes Me (Paul Newman’s performance cannot be overpraised) Lust for Life and most importantly for us kids at the time was Blackboard Jungle. A book and film that burst on the scene and rocked the nation. The first film to use an R&R song for its soundtrack, ROCK AROUND THE CLOCK by Bill Haley and The Comets. Newspapers ran photos and TV stations showed kids dancing in the aisles in movie houses across the country. The movie was so authentic I thought they had filmed it in my school, Haaren High. It was actually filmed at El Segundo High in California and it redefined the Education Process in Postwar America; in London it caused riots in theaters wherever it showed.
Snippet Two: January 2nd, 1956--Got a letter from Paddy today. Been away a few months now. Checked himself into Lexington, Kentucky hoping to get his soul back from the devil--he’s trying. We’ve been winning almost all of our basketball games with the other schools. Last week we beat LaSalle, next week we play Saint Mary’s, I think their school is somewhere in Brooklyn--that in itself is a shaky situation.
Snippet Three--January 10th, another letter from Paddy. Said don’t write anymore he’ll be home around the end of January. Says he can’t wait to come home and he’s doing great. No problems and that’s good to hear, if he’s telling me the truth.
Snippet Four--January 18th, St. JOE’S SENIORS WIN THE 1956 BASKETBALL CHAMPIONSHIP. I can’t believe it WE WON medals and Father Heidi got a trophy. This is great; my brother says the last time St Joe’s won a basketball championship was in 1947--when he was on the team. Ain’t that something????
Our team consisted of: Jackie Dunleavy, Ronnie and Jay O’Neill, Freddie Bernardi, Jim Jim, Tommy Dowd, and sometimes Paddy. We had such a good team (we won a lot of games) that, usually, everyone got to play.
Snippet Five: Jan. 20--Paddy came home today. I bought the Valentines’, LILLY MAE BELLE. Ronnie and I are on the relay track team at Haaren High. Ronnie is a step or two faster than I am, the colored kid’s a bit faster than Ron and a small Puerto Rican guy (whose legs move so quick they go out in front of him and he keeps taking tumbles) is the fastest. We got a pretty fast team.
For the following two months Paddy and I tried to sing LILY MAE BELLE like the Everly Brothers. We finally realized we were not the Everly Brothers and gave it up.
Snippet Six: February--Alan Freed, The Apollo, The Brooklyn Paramount GO MAN GO. What a show last night. Really, cool man. You’re the best, Alan Freed. Wild and
Crazy, GO-MAN-GO. ROOOOOOCK ANNNNND ROOOOOOOOOLLLLLLL
Jim Jim, Paddy, Billy and I (the original Melodies) had gone to Alan Freed’s R&R Shows at the Apollo Theater and The Brooklyn Paramount. Once inside the Apollo we shuffled along with the crushing crowd until we got four seats together. Directly behind us were two pretty girls with a short heavy man, in his 40’s, who sat between them and had his arms around them both. He wore a grubby Graham Cracker-brown suit with gray pencil stripes and a white shirt, the neck area wet from sweat. His shirt had a long pointed collar with turned-up ends that looked like two elephant tusks. The top button of his shirt was opened and his silk, hand-painted yellow, green and orange tie with the hula dancer, had several old food stains scattered about. He pulled the girls closer and they were rubbing their cheeks to his. What is the meaning of this, I wondered. The four of us had our heads turned gaping at them. The man’s lips began to work around the short, unlit, cigar wedged in the corner of his mouth, and he inquired:
“What are you kids gawking at? These girls are too old for you little punks they’re 18 and 19. You wouldn’t know where to begin. Now turn around boys the side show’s over and the main event is about to begin.” Then the Cleftones’ song YOU, BABY YOU came pouring from the speakers. The place went insane, everybody up clapping and dancing in the aisles. The gigantic red velvet curtain began to open as the song ended. The music came up and Jo Ann “The Blonde Bombshell” Campbell was the first act. The next thing I remember was Screamin’ Jay Hawkins swinging out across the stage on a long rope shouting: “I PUT A SPELL ON YOU” I thought I’d die. While everyone sang along with Hawkins, Paddy and I danced with hula tie’s girls.
Snippet Seven: Late February--I may never speak to Bobby F. again.
We hung out in Chico’s, a Puerto Rican Luncheonette, on 3rd. Avenue between 94th and 95th Streets during the mornings. The afternoons found us up Richie P’s house listening to Carl Perkins singing BLUE SUEDE SHOES and Elvis doing HEARTBREAK HOTEL. Taking turns dancing all day with Richie’s older sister until school was out. At nights we’d go to Max’s on 94th and Lexington Avenue for sodas. A few of the guys carried some kind of a weapon because we were so close to 96th St. where the Puerto Rican gang the Comanche Dragons were sometimes seen in groups.
Bobby F., Jim Jim, Johnny Gasper, and I were standing outside of Chico’s one night when Gasper decided he had to relieve himself, in the shadows, against the side of the building. Just then, Flip and Riley (two of the toughest cops in Yorkville) pulled up in their patrol car. Flip shouted: “Move it, Assholes!” For some unknown reason to all of us, Bobby pulled out a German Lugar and pointed it at their car. For a moment the cops stared at Bobby, with mouths wide open. Time and movement stopped, it felt like we had all--including the cops--just entered the Twilight Zone. We were standing in a black and white crime photo with Bobby pointing a gun at the cops--a Weegee (Arthur Fellig) photograph. Suddenly he tossed the gun down and it landed on top of the iron cellar door leading to Chico’s basement, then he reached for the sky. The gun bounced and skidded making a clamorous tossed-gun-on-iron-cellar-noise. None of us knew that gun existed; Bobby had never mentioned it to any one. Luckily, I never carried a weapon. Well, the cops flew out of the car and charged us. They began to go to work with their billy clubs on the backs of our arms and legs--and that was just the beginning. There was no firing pin in the Lugar and Bobby told us afterwards that he carried it in case he was attacked or if the “Dragons” ever had him backed into a corner. Of course that didn’t matter and the police cannot be condemned for acting accordingly; they had a German Lugar pointed in their faces. The gun was a souvenir of Bobby’s father’s from WW II. Bobby was never able to tell us why he pulled the gun out but I know, we were all very lucky we didn’t die that night.
Five more cop cars appeared with blaring sirens and flashing lights toting two cops per car. They stood us up from our now fetal positions, threw us against the wall, searched us and found a long, thin paratrooper knife inside the lining of Jim Jim’s coat sleeve and a Bowie knife on Gasper tucked down his spine column inside his belt. We were cuffed, tossed into four separate cars and taken up to the station house on 104th Street in Spanish-Harlem. We were, literally, kicked up the steps and into the 23rd Precinct that night. They lined us up and each one of us had our own cop, and the smacking began. Then we were put into a holding cage while they called our parents. I was fourteen and while sitting in that cell worrying about what would happen after my parents arrived I began to read the names carved into the wall and several of them rang a bell. There was one large very familiar name above all the others: “Ace K,” (Tommy Kilcullen) my classmate from St. Joe’s.
Snippet Eight: March 16th--Mom says she expects brother George and his buddies to stop by tomorrow for some food after the parade. Tells me that my friends should come by earlier so it doesn’t get too crowded. We always come early anyway.
March 17--The year’s biggest and wildest celebration in Yorkville was, and still is, St. Patrick’s Day, and for us it always started at my house. The day started early in the morning, my mother making tons of ham and cabbage and Irish potatoes. By noon there’d be Ronnie, Billy, Mike, Paddy, Jim Jim, Jay Jay, Tommy and myself sitting down to a meal. Every year we all spent Paddy’s Day together, it was an important holiday for all of us. After we ate Mom would pin her cousin Joan’s real shamrocks on us, sent every year from Limerick, Ireland in the outer cellophane casings from cigarette packs and taped closed, to help keep fresh, then placed in a small box for the long trip to America. Then we would head over to 5th Avenue. We were there for one purpose only, to meet the girls that march in the parade. Since it ended at 5th Avenue and 86th Street we got to talk to them first. As they came marching down 86th looking for boys there we were. Forget New Year’s Eve, Paddy’s Day in Yorkville is too insane for words.
Snippet Nine: March 28 --Paddy, Billy, Jim and I joined the Vanguards football team from 3rd Ave. in the 90‘s. Jim Jim and I bought blue suede shoes. I met a girl, Gloria, who lives on Lexington Avenue between 100th and 101st Streets. 96th Street is fine but its another world around 101st St. Jim walks 20 yards behind us when I take Gloria home at nights. I keep telling him not to but he does.
There were still Irish families sprinkled around 100th & 101st Streets and many throughout the upper 90’s where it was still safe to walk but by 101st St. things could get dangerous. The “Dragons” would never bother anyone who lived in the area. Our crowd all lived below 96th St. which we referred to as the 96th Parallel and it had to be protected at any cost. How stupid were we? But it was serious in those days.
Unbeknownst to us the “Dragons” got to know the three of us and one night seven of them stopped Jim and I on Third Avenue and 96th Street returning from taking Gloria home. They had clubs and knives and we thought it was all over as we backed up to the wall of the nearest building and were encircled by the seven. They thought Jim Jim was very cool and a good friend for walking me to my girlfriends every night, told us that we were both crazy for going up there. They said that they wouldn’t bother us as long as we were in and out of there quietly and minded our own business.
“If not ...you will both get cut up. Very bad. Comprende, Paddy boys?” We were known to them collectively as “The Paddy Boys,” as in Saint Patrick. We understood that this was a generous gesture on their part and we were so thrilled that all we could mumble was “Thanks a lot, man.” They weren’t that bad after all.
Snippet Ten--July 25th. Took a trip up 86th St. to Helfer’s Records today and picked up CHURCH BELLS MAY RING by the Willows, LOVE IS STRANGE by Mickey & Sylvia and I’LL BE FOREVER LOVIN’ YOU by the El Dorados.
Helfer’s records had their own private booths where you could go in with several records and listen to them over a headset before you bought one. They had a speaker outside their door and the latest tunes blared out and filled 86th St. between 3rd and Lexington Avenue with music. Some nights we’d hang outside for hours talking and grabbing something to eat at Horn and Hardart’s just a few doors away. Christmas time music was sweet with all the shoppers rushing to and fro. There was the Linden Bar where we could go in anytime get a cone of French fries and fill up a plate with cole slaw, pickled tomatoes and beets--a meal!
Snippet Eleven--July 27th--Gang fight last night. I hope I never live through another night like that. Hundreds of kids from Yorkville met on corners from 60th Street and 1st. Avenue up to 96th Street and Lexington Avenue. We met two guys who lived on 60th Street off 1st. Ave. also heading over to Central Park to fight the West Side Saxons. Jim Jim told me today he thinks he’s going crazy. Ace was killed last night.
We were all heading to the park to fight even though no one knew why. If you were a teenager living in Yorkville and hanging out on the streets at nights, you had to be there. We started out from my house on 87th Street, myself, Paddy, Billy and Jim Jim. On nearly every corner more kids joined us as we walked along. At the park’s entrance by 85th St and 5th Avenue there had to be over 100 of us. Inside the park we met other groups of Yorkville kids and we grew to hundreds, all of whom had no idea what we were doing. Where were the cops when needed? Soon we split into smaller groups and roamed. Ten of us wound up on Bow Bridge looking at the city around us. We could hear fighting off in the distance and didn’t know what to do. I remember Kenny Cope said, sing something first, then we’ll go and fight.
In soft unison, while looking over our shoulders, we began, “Love is a Many Splendid Thing” by the Four Aces. We sang, “Da, da, da, da, da, da, LOVE...” when bullets began pinging off the balustrade of the bridge. Someone shouted: “AMBUSH!” Before we could move someone fell to the ground with a scream, two guys jumped off the bridge into Rowboat Lake and swam off and three others scattered. We picked up our casualty (he was from the 60’s or 70‘s, and I can’t remember his name if I ever knew it) and we ran off. We ran with him until we exited the park at East 79th Street.
He was shot in the fleshy part of the outside of his right thigh below his hip. He didn’t bleed much but Jim ripped off his own shirt and made a tourniquet around the kid’s upper leg. We took him to the Emergency Room at Lenox Hill hospital, sat him on a bench, told a nurse he had been shot and ran out. We did not go back to the park but walked towards 87th Street. Sirens were now blaring all over; it was a crazy night with groups of kids’ running back and forth through the streets. No one knew what to do, the entire neighborhood was electrified. Something else was going on besides the fight. A group of kids ran past us as it they were being chased. When we got to 1st Avenue and 87th Street two girls from the 90’s approached us in tears and told us that Ace had been killed. An accident along the East River Drive that had nothing to do with the gang fight, except that weapons were about because of it. He had pressured a friend into tossing him a loaded shotgun and it went off as he caught it. Shameful, pathetic and sad. Those were the times and it was happening in many big cities across America.
Snippet Twelve--Sept. 2nd: Gasper committed a crime and was sent to the Manhattan Psychiatric Center on Ward’s Island for the criminally unbalanced. Jim Jim checked himself into Bellevue because he thinks he’s a having a breakdown?
Snippet Thirteen--Sept. 6th: Found out that once you check into Bellevue they’ve got you. They sent Jim to Rockland State Mental Hospital for six months.
Every Sunday Jim’s mom and I would take a bus upstate and visit him. We’d spend a couple of hours then take the bus back to NYC. Time seemed to drag when suddenly winter was in the air and snow outside the bus window.
Snippet Fourteen--December 24--Midnight. I have to write this down. We are all here (mom, dad, Margie and myself) celebrating Christmas and opening presents when the doorbell rings and it’s Jim Jim. He busted out of the hospital and came by for Christmas. He paid off one of the male nurses who gave him a key for one of the linen rooms and he used sheets to climb down two stories and make his way the fifteen miles back to Yorkville to our house. I got a job with ‘Jan-Syl’ on 89th and York delivering meat for their butcher, Nick. Store’s named after the two owner’s wives, Janice & Sylvia. Tomorrow, Christmas Day, Mom & Dad celebrate their 24th Anniversary. That’s cool.
Snippet Fifteen--HEADLINES! December 30, 1956--”GIANTS DOMINATE BEARS on frozen New York turf and win the National Football Championship, 47 to 7 in second sneaker game.” WHAT A DEFENSE! I CAN’T BELIEVE IT. Pop is going crazy, Giants are champs! HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!.
Rockland Center and Ward’s Island were dungeons of horror and control. They kept patients drugged and incoherent. I wonder if things have changed by now.
Snippet Sixteen--January 6th,1957--Jim Jim is still at our house. I think his mom is getting things cleared up for him and he’ll probably go back home soon.
During that summer when Jim Jim, Gloria and I would arrive at Gloria’s house she and I would sit on the steps at the end of the long hallway and talk. Jim Jim, who sang lead in our singing group, could imitate Tony Williams of the Platters to perfection, would sit on the two steps up front in the vestibule and serenade us. He’d sing: ONLY YOU by The Platters, SINCERELY by The Moonglows, WHY DON’T YOU WRITE ME by The Jacks and he especially charmed us with the Penguins EARTH ANGEL.”
Sometimes we look back and realize we are the bitter and the sweet finality of how we’ve responded to everything that has happened to us. Eventually we come to understand that it’s not always the things we’ve done that are an embarrassment or downright shameful but the things that we failed to do or to say to someone at the time. How could I have known that certain specific moments in time would be put to canvas, as if by the hand of a master, and placed in memory for keepsake. Paintings exhibited on one’s gallery wall of a lifetime. Images to be cherished with growing fondness as each year passes by.
Copyright 2012 ~ Dennis John Ferado
|Denny (top left) in Robert Frank's photo inside Exile on Main Street album|
Book Event & Pizza Party
Friday, October 5th
6:30pm to 8:30pm
1607 York Avenue (on s/w corner of 85th St.}
Open Bar: Well Drinks, Beer and Wine
All fans of "Yorkville: Stoops to Nuts" are welcome!