Saturday, March 31, 2012

Touchstone Palaces of My Youth

Touchstone palaces of my youth: old Yankee Stadium, the original movie houses up 86th Street and in distant third place various churches. Something holy happened to me in each of these temples. Churches are still here, but don’t hold my attention anymore. Old Yankee Stadium was buried under the horrible renovation after the 1973 season. The RKO and Loew’s theatres on East 86th Street were chopped up shortly after the 1960s. 

Yesterday, I took a trip on the PATH train to the classic Loew’s Jersey Theatre at Journal Square. This beauty opened in 1929 same year my Dad was born. It has 3100 seats, same size as the old 86th Street RKO.  Secret, don’t tell anybody: the Yorkville RKO’s Lounge downstairs under the lobby was huge with lots of comfy furniture, a giant black table and several paintings. Matching its size, the urinals in the men’s room were mammoth. Top of one came up to my eight year old head. When we played hide and seek in the RKO after watching the movie twice we’d sometimes hide in the urinals.

The urinals are not over-sized at the Loew’s Jersey but everything else about it made me feel like an explorer breaking through the bush and finding an ancient city.  From outside the theatre you barely get a sense of the majesty beyond the gold doors. All the luxurious decorations inside are there to help suspend your disbelief for a few hours and transport you to another world.  Last night, I went to the land of the “Dude.” The film was “The Big Lebowski.” I felt safe knowing “the Dude abides.”  By the way, before the film we were entertained by an organ that rose from the orchestra pit. This was a blow my mind bonus since the Yorkville theatres had no live music when I was a boy.  You had to go to Radio City for that. Visit the Loew's Jersey if you can, it will not disappoint.

Thank you, Eric Vetter, for turning me on to this treasure, I had a blast last night.

Below are pictures from Loew’s Jersey Theatre and a link to a hundred other photographs.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Happy Birthday, Joannie Baloney

Joan Heuer, the funniest person I've ever met, was born today in 1935 in East Harlem.

She moved to Yorkville with the Ryan family in 1944. Joannie was my godmother and my Mom's middle sister, her younger sister, Barbara is in pictures above along with one of Uncle Mommy below at Joannie's daughter, Christine's christening. Also a picture of chubbsy-ubsy Joannie at Coney Island in 1945.

Best Joannie story... my Uncle Lennie comes home from the Navy in 1945. Joannie, ten years old, lazes around the house while everyone else goes to work or goes to school. She's alone. She's playing hookey. Joannie takes Lennie dress
whites out and puts them on.

The pants drag by half a foot, so she rolls them up and pins them. Does the same thing with the arms, but doesn't need much there because Lenny is skinny and Joan ain't. Then she gets my grandfather's ancient fishing pole out, empties a tin of Carnation Evaporated Milk into the sink, takes the top off the can, and shes ready to go. Got the pole and the can for the worms. She gets Lennie's sailor hat, double steps the stoop and jumps onto the street. She's dressed this way not to sneak around , she wants people to see her so she turns up 86th Street off York Avenue and gallivants, pole over her shoulder like a continental soldier, whistling while she strolls.

She makes it up to Horn and Hardarts getting all the attention she expected, when walking right at her with his face down in a newspaper is my grandfather. She don't see him because she's making lots of eye contact with people to her left and right. Joannie collides with her father, they make quick eye contact, Joannie takes off running towards Lexington, my grandfather's in pursuit but his strengths are sitting and complaining. Joan runs around the corner and down to 222 East 85 St and hides out with Uncle Jimmy for a half hour. From the stoop, he gives her the signal the coast is clear and Joan comes out of the hall, kisses Jimmy on the cheek and runs over to the Central Park with a loaf of stale bread in case she don't find any worms. She got back in time to wait for my grandmother to get off the bus after work. In the house, she hid behind her mother in the kitchen while her father circled the two of them, yelling, threatening, pointing but ultimately running out of steam.

I miss you, Joan.


Saturday, March 24, 2012

Shine On, Uncle Mommy

Paying tribute to Uncle Mommy, Patricia Pryor, today would have been her 82th birthday. When Mom was my age she made Dad drive her to Eisenhower Park in Long Island early on a Sunday morning to be at the finish line of my first and only half marathon. When I came in she met me with a hug, kiss, flowers and a quart of orange juice that she encouraged me to drink straight from the carton (Dad hated that). 

Mom gave me many nicknames, Tee, Klutz, Cow Cow Boogie, but the sweetest and my favorite, she called me “her little mouse.” I love cheese and she said I gnawed toast with my teeth instead of biting and chewing it. (I did, to make it last longer).
Below, is a charcoal drawing of Mom by Dad when she was 31 years old in 1961. (I remember the night Dad did it on 83rd Street. Dad kept telling Mom to stop moving). Also below, a few photos of Patty or Pat, the names were interchangeable. Everybody loved her, and Pat's coffee cup for 40 years along with the hot chocolate cup she gave to me, Tom, her little mouse.

I am lucky, I have a film of my parents going in and out St. Stephen’s on their wedding day in September 1952.  For the first time in about 10 years, I watched it the other day three times and had a good cry.

I’m grateful to have had people in my life that I miss all the time. She’s gone 14 years, but I’ll never stop thinking about and loving with my whole heart my Uncle Mommy.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Rory said, "I'm Going to NoName Stories @ Word Up Tonight"

My middle name is Rory, my brother's name was Rory. Mom loved Dad, sometimes. If you read the story below, you'll get it.

If someone says hello to me I flinch and duck. My nerves are shot, today is my birthday.

I'm telling a story tonight at NoName Stories @ WordUp Bookstore @ 7pm in Washington Heights. I'm spilling the beans.

I wrote the story below at a kitchen table on Mom's birthday in 2006.  It's a clear view inside my family's Yorkville apartment.  Bob and Patty loved us, but they were out of their minds.

Rory was previously published in Mr. Beller's Neighborhood, the coolest NYC literary journal out there. Check it out. Thank you, Tom Beller,  Patrick Gallagher, Jean Paul Cataviela & Connor Gaudet for your generosity and support.

March 1954. In a Woodside apartment overlooking the # 7 El and the Long Island Railroad, two express trains crisscrossed, one rattling over the other.
“I need food!” Patty pleaded, rubbing her big belly in the kitchen.
“There’s plenty of food,” Bob answered, playing with the bunny ears on top of the living room TV.
“YOU’RE A LIAR!” Patty opened the refrigerator and eyed the contents for the fifth time in five minutes.
“There’s no food-food, only junk. I want bread, I want bacon, I want Hellman’s mayonnaise!”
Disregarding her request, Bob shook the ice in the spaghetti pot chilling his six bottles of Rheingold. Wiping his hands on a dish towel, he definitely heard Patty’s next statement: “Get off your bony ass and get me food!”
Bob ignored this, too. It was ‘Friday Night at the Fights,” he’d just settled in – first round, first beer. Desiring perfect comfort, Bob moved a hassock over to put his feet up. While doing this, Bob missed the left hook that sent one of the boxers to the canvas with a thud. Unfortunately, Bob’s man was down. So was Bob, $20. After the stiff was counted out, the telecast went to a commercial. Disappointed, but now available for chores, Bob wrapped his arm around his extremely pregnant wife’s head.
She pushed him away, “Get off. You know I hate anyone touching my head.”
Bob bent over, kissed Patty’s cheek and asked her softly, “What do you need, Hon?”
Patty reeled off five items, aimed her lips up and kissed Bob on the mouth.
Back from the store, Bob put his beers in the fridge, washed the pot and put water on for spaghetti. Grabbing a black frying pan, he made two bacon sandwiches with extra mayo on Silvercup bread. After serving Patty both sandwiches, he took a beer and joined her at the kitchen table.
“So, we’re decided on baby names, right? Marc Anthony if he’s a boy, and Alison Leigh if she’s a girl.”
Bob smiled. Patty did not.
“You’re so full of shit. The girl’s name is fine. When you name the boy Marc Anthony, be sure you walk carefully over my dead body; because that’s the only way that stupid guinea name will ever appear on my son’s birth certificate.”
Bob’s expression fell.
“Oh cut the crap and get that stupid puss off your face.”
“So what name do you want?”
“Rory,” she said.
“R-O-R-Y, Rory.”
“Like Calhoun, the movie cowboy?”
“Yes, it’s an old Gaelic name meaning Red King.”
“Red? Our hair is black. It’s a girly name – you’re guaranteeing he’ll get the shit kicked out of him.”
It grew quiet. The only sound in the room was Patty’s low hum. She loved bacon.
Fracturing the silence, Bob said, “It’ll be Rory when Brooklyn wins the World Series.”
“I’ll alert the press.”
Bob, “Give me an alternative.”
“Nope,” Patty said, in between bites.
“Then I’ll give you one: Thomas.”
“That’s inspired.” Patty pointed her sandwich at Bob. “I thought we agreed, no fathers’ names?”
“It’s my brother’s name, too.”
“You mean we’re going to name him after Stone Face?”
“That’s my compromise. You’ll get to name the next baby.”
Patty swallowed a large bite of mayo, with a little bit of bacon and bread attached to it. She chewed slowly, wiped her mouth and said, “OK.”
March 20th, Patty gave birth to an eight-pound boy. When the nurse let Bob into the recovery room and he saw Patty cradling the baby, he started to cry. 
“Oh stop your blabbering and give me a kiss.”
“How do you feel?”
“Not too swift,” Patty said, wiping sweat from her brow.
Bob, lightly rubbing the baby’s dark hair, asked, “How’s Tommy?”
“Doctor said he’s fine. Isn’t he beautiful?”
Bob picked up the wrinkled, red-faced boy. He thought the baby’s head looked like a grapefruit. A gorgeous grapefruit. Bob held the baby for a long time, then returned him to Patty.
“I have to fill out the birth certificate. I was thinking about Robert as a middle name,” Bob said.
“No,” she answered.
“Why not?”
“You picked the first name. I pick the middle name.”
“No, no, no, you get to name the next baby.”
            “No, I get to name the next baby’s first name, and you get to name the next baby’s second name.”
“But…” Bob spoke uselessly.
“No buts.” Patty closed the discussion. “Tommy’s middle name is Rory.”
That night, Bob temporarily parked his anger, and hailed a cab to his old Manhattan neighborhood. He celebrated his first son by dancing on the bar in Loftus Tavern on 85th Street and York Avenue. A month later, the boy was christened, Thomas Rory. When the priest repeated the boy’s second name, Bob rolled his eyes.
Thanksgiving, 1955, Bob and Patty told their families they were expecting again. Throughout the pregnancy, Patty kept Bob in the dark. He begged for clues and whined for hints. Late in the term, Bob tried to bribe Patty by hiding candy bars around the apartment, promising to reveal the locations only if she told him the name. Patty never cracked. Bob prayed for a girl.
June 20th, Patty gave birth to a perfect boy. Bob dropped Tommy off with his grandmother and went directly to the hospital. The room was dimly lit; the baby was sleeping in Patty’s arms. She gave Bob a weak wave. He went over to kiss the mother and son. Patty gently held Bob’s arm, keeping him close. She tilted her head, signaling him to lean in so she could whisper something. Bob pressed his ear to Patty’s dry lips.
“Rory, his name is Rory,” she said precisely.
Bob backed away. “That’s nuts – we’ve already got a Rory.”
“Shush! Middle names don’t count. You promised.”
Bob knew he’d been had. In desperation, he blurted, “His middle name is Robert.”
“Who cares?” she said.
Patty settled back into bed, gave Bob a sly smile and squeezed her Rory tight.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Essence of St. Patrick's Day

Third Ave El 1900

The essence of St. Paddy’s to me has always been to celebrate our ancestors. Not just the Irish but anyone from elsewhere in the world who courageously or otherwise came to this country, worked hard, took care of what they had, and improved it for their children. 

How I best observe St. Patrick’s Day is walking around the city and renewing my love for New York.

Thinking of my Irish grandfather, Thomas Pryor, born on the 3rd floor of a walkup at 50th Street and Third Avenue in 1900. First four years of his life, dirty steam engines roared past his family’s front windows facing the Third Avenue El (the tracks were electrified in 1904). 

Imagining my Italian great-grandfather, Antonino Cuccia, making red wine in the cellar of 1403 York Avenue since the fruit stand at 1405 wasn’t enough to support the family of five. Nan told me he was embarrassed he couldn’t learn English so he always had a puss on his face.

As my family strolls through my head, the buildings I see, the points, the locations, the way the lights hit the brick, drive me giddy to distraction. I’m in awe. I walk around and consider my daughter at my age seeing many of these places years from now, maybe with her children and these buildings, these spots still delight, reminding her where we and all this comes from and she fondly recalls her ancestors and their work. 

Here are pictures from yesterday’s walkabout and three songs links in the photos captioned:

"Hail, Hail, Rock N' Roll," "Time Tangled Up," & "Waiting For The Man."
14th St & 7th Ave Fire Escape Party

Hail, Hail, Rock N' Roll!

Broadway on left, %th Ave on right ~ Bottom of Flatiron

St. George shuts up Big Mouth


Hugh O'Neill Building

Time Tangled Up

Waiting For The Man

If only the city still had more corners such as this one

Old Hospital, Mental Ward, Military Prison & Pepsi Cola

looking towards Hoboken

Washington Street final blast of sunlight

Charles Street

Charles Street

Hudson St on left, 12th St on right

12th Street