If you need incentive, please read the memoir's introduction below.
"I Hate the Dallas Cowboys ~ tales of a scrappy New York boyhood"
This book was born in the early 1960s, on my family’s roof in Yorkville on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Back then, on certain hot nights after dinner, Dad would grab every extension cord in our apartment, dash to the roof two floors above, pass the cords down to me as I leaned out the backyard window, and then come down and plug it all in. My brother, Rory, and I would gather chairs, comics and drawing materials. Dad would lug up our portable TV, beer, iced tea, a spaghetti pot filled with ice, our two Flintstone drinking glasses and Mom’s favorite standing lamp.
Once settled on the roof, we’d watch the fading sunlight slip down the bricks on the tall buildings on East End Avenue. Soon, dusk would become dark and the only light would come from the lamp next to my father, who would draw. Talking with Dad in the shadows of the neighborhood, surrounded by the silhouettes of water towers, I felt the past transform into a film. I asked about everything: his youth, my grandparents’ youths, his friends, Yorkville. His long, detailed answers were saturated with colorful stories.
Many other members of my family were splendid tellers of tales, too, especially Dad’s mother, Nan Rode, who lived around the corner. At 5 years old, I’d run around the block to her building, rush up the stairs and into her living room, and then drag her red leather hassock into the kitchen. I’d take off the top and there, nestled inside, were all of Nan’s family photos. She was always exasperated with me because I liked to yap and Nan liked to get the show on the road. But I’d force her to tell me everything she knew about every photo, from the earliest one-- a 1906 shot of her mother pregnant with Nan, at the family fruit stand on 75th Street and Avenue A – right down to the latest picture. Merging my family’s photographs with their stories built a cinematic record of the neighborhood in my mind with clear voices, characters and places.
I also learned to love storytelling from Jean Shepherd. I’d listen to his conspiratorial delivery on late night radio – we were in cahoots! – and he would take me on wild journeys that I could never imagine would end safely but always did. I spent countless hours hearing outlandish tales from TV’s Sandy Becker and Chuck McCann, too. McCann was out of his mind, and his show harmonized beautifully with Becker’s wild characters, songs, puppets, trivia, and cartoons.
I cherished Shepherd, Becker and McCann even more because their eccentricities mirrored those of my own loving but screwball clan:
There was Dad, a terrific artist, amateur photographer, and charmer with a temper and a touchiness that made him able to see someone give him the finger through a wall. His anger and talent stewed together in the same pot, and it was hard to tell which would be served next. Mom, nicknamed “Uncle Mommy,” would hamstring Dad any chance she could, and he deserved it. You’ll read about Mom’s dark side in “Murder by Dusting,” but you’ll also see her unconditional crazy love throughout the book.
Of course, I have conventional sweet family memories. My Mom’s mother, Helen Ryan, would serve me tea with Carnation Evaporated Milk; her father, Lennie, was the best hand-holder of all my adult minders and he loved the job. But the bizarre outscored the normal in my family. Pop Ryan set up impenetrable border crossings in his apartment between those rooms that had air-conditioning and those that didn’t; once you were in the Arctic Zone, you could not emigrate for any reason. Dad’s stepfather, Pop Rode, had a three-part musical snore, and Rory and I would compose songs around it, aided by a toy piano. As for Rory himself, he wandered off so relentlessly as a toddler that my Aunt Barbara and Aunt Joan once had to tie him to a picnic bench at Orchard Beach.
I am a lucky storyteller because wacky families make for good tales. But the stories are not just about my family. They’re also about Yorkville, in part because my family has broad roots in the neighborhood. My two sets of grandparents lived in railroad flats half a block and two blocks away from us (we called both couples Nan and Pop), and my godmother, Joan, was three blocks away. With this close-knit geography, Rory and I would travel from family house to family house taking advantage of our kinfolk’s open door policy.
Our local origins were deep. Mom’s family called East Harlem starting in the 1880s and they moved to Yorkville in 1942. Nan Rode’s family has been in Yorkville since 1896; her brother played alongside actor Jimmy Cagney on the Yorkville Nut Club, a successful turn-of-the-century sandlot baseball team. Nan was a Democratic district leader, and no fewer than three mayors and one governor -- Wagner, Koch, Dinkins and Mario Cuomo -- called her “The First Lady of Yorkville.” She knew everyone in the district and meant that as a kid, I was doomed to be good. Everything I did got back to her.
My stories are also about Yorkville because, in the 1960s and 1970s, and unlike today, childhood happened as much in the streets and shops as it did in your home. A whole host of colorful characters loomed large in local kids’ lives back then. To name a few, there was Herman the German, the barber who gave us our dreaded crew cuts; the grumpy Mr. Moylan, who never threw our Spaldeens back when they sailed through his open window; and Joe, the sole employee of Spotless Cleaners, who was my biggest “catch” mentor besides Dad.
My Hat Trick
What was this working-class urban neighborhood like for a kid? It was TV’s The Wonder Years, except we had subways. Here’s a scene to give a sense of that time in that place.
A dime was the going-rate donation to a kid in the mid-1960s, but I typically reached for the stars and asked all my adult relatives for a quarter. It was the running joke in all the households. But once in a blue moon I’d get three of them to say, "Yes," and when they did I had movie money -- 75 cents for the Loews or the RKO. Then I would go see a new film by my lonesome, running all the way up 86th Street where the theaters were.
The heart of Yorkville thumped away under 86th Street, between First and Lexington Avenues. Between those points were the pleasure domes of my childhood. The movie houses, Cushman's Bakery, the Heidelberg Restaurant, Berlin Bar, Merit Farm, Papaya King, Ideal Restaurant, and the butcher shops, Karl Ehmer and Schaller & Weber. Prexy's offered “The Hamburger With a College Education” and Salamander Shoe Store lured kids in with a free air-filled balloon on a straightened metal hanger (they were too cheap to buy helium). I learned to gamble at Woolworth's, where you could win a Jumbo Banana Split for just a penny, and I ate countless crocks of mac and cheese at Horn & Hardart, the legendary automat.
My family has played, shopped, fought and gallivanted along 86th Street for the past hundred years.
The WPA Guide to New York City, first published in 1939 and reprinted in 1992, says Yorkville runs from 59th Street north to 96th Street, and from the East River west to Lexington Avenue. This does not coincide with my three generations’ worth of knowledge of the neighborhood. My family would swear that Yorkville’s southern border was in the low 70s and that its western edge included Central Park. Rich people may have lived in the fancy houses west of Lexington Avenue, but Central Park was ours.
The Guide continues: “Popularly synonymous with the German quarter, Yorkville in reality is a much more inclusive section.” True. There were the Irish, such as my boyhood friends Paddy McNamara and Steve Murphy, and Hungarians, like my classmate Attila Krupincza, and Jews, and Italians, and more. Yorkville was very inclusive. The characters in my yarns range from my teachers, the Sisters of Divine Charity, to Freddie Hammer, the neighborhood junkie. The mothers mostly stayed at home; the fathers worked as cops, sanitation men and salesmen (my dad sold freight space for the Barber Lines shipping company).
I grew up in the New York City of open hydrants, stickball, nickel Devil Dogs, and nuns who slugged you for humming baseball beer jingles in class. My father took me to saloons, we stayed all day, and no one thought it was strange. My mother called the stroller “the family car.” We didn’t have a real one.
This book is essentially true, both in the events and people described, with these exceptions: A very few names, dates and locations were changed to protect privacy, and to give narrative shape; a few characters and events are composites and some timelines were expanded or compressed. Some dialogue is reconstructed. Of course, I have been faithful to my memory, but memory can play tricks. Still, this collection of stories describes the emotional truth of my experience of growing up absurd in Yorkville.
The book has 53 linked stories and related photographs. A sample photo album: a shot of my mother with her finger up her nose, giving my father the business for annoying her peace; a 1935 police department snapshot of my grandfather; and sweet pictures of Rory and me swimming in Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain. In other words, family life, but with an urban edge.
Mostly, these tales are about my youth, my first 18 years, and so it is about everything that kids are – rambunctious, goofy, sensitive, dumb – and it dwells on their big themes: parents and school, sports and romance, food and music. Here are a few trailers from my home movies:
· In a standoff with a nun who demanded I finish my lunch, I sculpt the detested white beans on my plate into a crucifix. It was my bid for mercy.
· At Yankee Stadium in 1961, a friend of my dad who was a former minor league ballplayer hoists me over the bullpen fence to greet the star reliever, Luis Arroyo. I am agog. I’m on sacred ground. In 1972, I return to the Yankee bullpen.
· In retaliation for her sons’ piggish ways, Mom executes Jerry Mahoney, our beloved dummy. She then becomes a sneaky serial killer of our other toys in a quest for order and space.
· In a friend’s basement, my buddies and I furnish a teenage make-out lair we called the Leopard Lounge. The centerpiece: a castoff couch we had whisked from curbside just as the garbage truck was bearing down.
You probably get the picture, but come sit on the stoop with me for just one more. It’s early June 1964. There’s a manhole cover in the middle of the street and it is about to explode and soar three stories into the air. Down below, lovingly parked and polished, is Pete Palermo’s cherished Thunderbird convertible, with its candy-striped seats and its vulnerable canvas top. The manhole cover starts to descend.