Thursday, June 21, 2018

June 21, 1964 ~ A Perfect Day

“Do you wait till you’re done?”
        “Yes.” I said.
        “I mean, do you wait till you’re sure you’re finished?” Mom dug in.
        “I really do.”
        “Obviously, you don’t.” Mom said wagging a finger at the stream meandering down my left pants leg.
        “It fools me.”
        “Well, why don’t you fool it back?  Make believe you are putting it away then leave it out and see what happens?”
        “For how long?”
        Losing steam, mom said, “Get your shoes on, get your brother and let’s go.  If we’re lucky we’ll sneak in before the gospel.  I hate getting the dirty look off the priest.”
        Mom had a lot of rules about peeing including, “Lift the seat, wipe the seat, put the seat down.”  She forced Dad to schedule target practice.
       “Bob, I want you to work with them on their marksmanship.  It’s starting to smell like we have a cat.”

        No adult lecture could break the spell.  My mood soared.  I was invincible.  It was the longest day of the year, June 21st, Sunset 8:42pm - confirmed through consultation with my Reader’s Digest Farmer’s Almanac calendar.  I was liberated from fourth grade two days earlier.  This was the first of an endless string of Sundays where the looming gloom of Monday faded away.  On Sunday during the school year, you carry a nagging dread of the next day through all your activities.   Summer empowers Sunday.  
       Nine o’clock Mass was always a sellout.  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 loudly, “Well, I never.” 
        On the altar, Father Benedict Dudley stopped his Latin chant, brought his raised arms down to his side, turned his head slow like a cow monitoring a passing car and gave mom a dirty look.  Mom tried to bite me with her eyes. 
        I flipped my head towards Rory and mimed, “What are you going to do?”  
        Mom mimed back, “Thanks a lot.”
        After Mass, I ran home to put on my sneakers, shorts and tee shirt.  It was 10am and there was only eleven hours left of daylight and so much to do.  First thing, I had to finish making Dad’s Father’s Day card.  Dad slept in on Sunday, so I had time.  I cut a Joe DiMaggio photo out of Life Magazine from “The Yankee Clipper’s” rookie year 1937.   Joe had a wide gapped tooth smile and his bat was slung lazily over his shoulder.  From the same magazine, I ripped out a photo of a young Frank Sinatra singing directly to a bunch of squealing girls at the Paramount Theatre.  I placed Dad’s two favorite guys next to each other on the front of the card and pasted dialogue bubbles over the heads. 

        DiMaggio said, “Dear Bob, your sonny boy said you’re the Best Dad in the World, so I’m going to go five-for-five today and smack two homers into the left field bleachers for you.  Happy Fathers Dad, love, Jolting Joe DiMaggio #5.”
        Sinatra said, “Hey Pal, your son, Tommy, thinks you’re his Night and Day.  Happy Pappy’s Day!  Ding a Ling Ding, love, Francis Albert.”
        I wrote dad a poem inside the card.  It was kind of personal, so it’s just between Dad & me.   When I finished, I went to his bedroom and left it on mom’s pillow.
        Job done, I flew down the stairs to the street.  Surveying the block from the stoop, I saw groups of kids and had several options.  The hot sun baked each side of the street.  I needed fuel.  My first stop would be Joe’s Candy Store.        
        The Candy store was lit by two chintzy light bulbs.  One must’ve been from Joe’s refrigerator and the other from his aquarium. He pulled the window shades down to cool the space.   His ceiling fan had TB and hardly moved.  Cheap and mean, Joe was on Con Edison’s Watch list.
“Hi Joe,” I said.
        He grunted at me.  This was progress.  He usually ignored customers unless they were paying for something or he was throwing them out.  I delivered newspapers for Joe, but this had no impact on his feelings for me once I slipped back into being just another annoying kid wasting time in his store.
        I looked through the sports magazines and comics for new stuff.  Nothing.
        “Hey Joe, were there any deliveries this week?”
        He spoke to me.  I was honored.  He had unique grunts that meant different things and he rarely used language with a kid.  When he did, he got right to the point.
        “Put the comic back.”
        “Where you found it.”
        “Touch the candy, you buy it.”
        “Stop spinning on the stool.”
        “No, I don’t have a bathroom.”
        “Get out.”
        I was thirsty.  Since Joe was being Joe, I decided to take my soda business elsewhere.
        “Bye Joe.”  I said, just so I could get my goodbye grunt.
        Two stores down was Parkers Grocery store.  Murray Parker wore a girl catching Elmer Fudd leather hunting hat with ear flaps year round over his extremely bald head.  His giant movie star black eyeglass frames added the ideal accessory.
        “Hi Murray.”
        “Hey Tommy.”   Murray was helping a customer and I noticed sweat rolling down his chipmunk cheeks.
        The customer was Mrs. Huthansel, a gigantic pain in the ass.  All the store owners hated her and called her Sour Puss.  So did I.  She never gave me a tip when I delivered her newspaper.
        Mrs. Huthansel was buying cold cuts.  Murray was at the slicer.  I watched from the back of the store while weighing my soda selection.
        “Murray make sure the cheese is paper thin.” Sour Puss said this three times.
        After the third time, Murray delicately held up two fingers holding a slice of air and asked, “Is this thin enough?”

        Mrs. Huthansel ignored him and played with the fruit.  She squeezed every piece then threw it back.  I saw Murray mumbling.  I needed to cheer him up.
        Murray had a long counter that ran from the front, to the back of the store.  The sodas were in the back, so I was able to stand to Murray’s side of the counter so Mrs. Huthansel couldn’t see me, but Murray could.  Every pair of shorts I owned had a hole around the crotch area.   I carefully pulled my ball sac around my underwear band and pulled the sac through the hole in my shorts.  I waited till Murray shut off the slicer.  
        I yelled, “Hey Murray want to see me blow my balloon up?”
        When I had his full attention, I squeezed my nut through the hole in my shorts.  The deflated sad sac blew up like a birthday bubble.  Murray started choking.  He stepped back so he could lean against the cash register and tried to recover.  Each time he thought he was ok; he’d look back at me.  When he did, I’d do it again.  His hat and glasses were crooked and he began to cry.  I was so proud.
        “Murray are you ok? Are you ok?”  Mrs. Huthansel thought he was having an epileptic fit.  It was time for me to leave.  I went to front of the store and left 12 cents on the counter for the Mission cream soda in and waved goodbye to Murray.  
        Back on my block there were several games going on.  I worked my way down the street and joined the ones that moved me.  First, I played a little Ace, King, Queen, then I jumped into Off the Point - two games played with a Spauldeen.  A high bouncing reject tennis ball.  You tested the quality of a spauldeen by dropping it from shoulder height.  The higher it bounced back, the better the ball.  Joe was the neighborhood’s premier spauldeen seller.  The balls sat in a tall wire barrel near the register.  Kids were always trying to sneak one in their pockets so Joe kept a close eye on the bin.  Spauldeen selection was serious business.  From a kid’s point of view they were expensive.  The one you picked must have superior bounce and last through a wide variety of games.  During a test you developed an immunity to being shoo-ed.  Joe became a genuine conversationalist when you conducted a test. 
        “Pick a ball and get out of here.”  Joe said.
        “That’s what I’m trying to do.”  I said.
        “They’re all good.” He grabbed one and squeezed it.  “See.”  He almost smiled.  This frightened me.
        “Yes,” I said.  “But one of them is better than all the others.”
        He studied me.  The relentless bouncing was murdering him.  I was driving him crazy.
        “You just tried that one.”
        “Not true, I have a system.   I repeat no ball.”
        “I repeat, pick a friggin ball now.”
        I had him on the ropes - he said a curse word.  I found the ball and left a quarter on the counter.  “Bye Joe.”
        Around noon, most of the fathers on the street began showing up on the front stoops.  Normally many of them would’ve headed straight for the bars - especially, on a hot Sunday afternoon.  It was Father’s Day, and that wouldn’t be right.  They stood on top of the stoops surveying the block.  The older boys were in the street playing stickball.  Most mothers had their front windows wide open looking for a breeze.

        I heard Dean Martin’s voice floating in the air,
If I had it in my power,
I’d arrange for every girl to have your charm.
Then every minute, every hour,
Every boy would find what I found in your arms.
Everybody loves somebody sometimes.
        Looking up, I saw a few moms draped over their window sills singing along with Dino.  The dads began congregated around the older boys’ home plate.  A manhole at the southern end of the street. 
        “You play like girls.” One dad said
        “We could beat you while we were sleeping.” Said another.
        “Prove it old men.” A teenager taunted back.
        One insult led to another until it was agreed - there’d be a game.  My Dad sitting on our stoop was amusing himself listening to the mêlée.
        He yelled down to the group.  “Let’s make it interesting.  The dads will take the little guys on our team.”
        The teenagers sneered, but the young guys got into the game.  I never played in a competitive game along side my Dad.  Just catch and pitch it to each other.  This was my first time and I couldn’t stop grinning.
        Stickball wasn’t an easy game.  The bat, a broomstick, was only an inch or two across.  The field included the sidewalk, the cars, the building walls and all the fire escapes.  Everything was in play.  There was a bona fide talent to being able to follow a bouncing ball down a web of landings, window sills and stairs till you hopefully caught the egg in your cupped hands.  The ball was light and you needed to finesse its capture.
Paddy McNamara’s father, a Lieutenant in the local Police Precinct, just happened to have a parade sawhorse in the basement of his building that he dragged out for special occasions.   To officially start the game, Mr. Mac plopped the sawhorse in the middle of 83rd Street where it met East End Avenue, shutting off car traffic for the rest of the day.  Mr. Mac theatrically tipped his cap to acknowledge the round of applause from the mothers in the nose bleed seats.  His manner reminded me of Jimmy Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy.

        My Uncle Mickey and my dad’s friend Allie were on our team.  Both of them, comedians and good players.  Allie dove into a row of garbage cans to catch a line drive.        All the cans rolled over, the garbage piled out and Allie came up holding the ball.   
        Mickey went over, held Allie’s arm straight up, examined Allie’s wrist and said, “And it’s still ticking!”
        “I’m not a watch, Doc.” Allie replied and threw the ball back to me. 
        Mickey playing the outfield waited for a ball to make its way down a building’s worth of fire escapes. 
        Staring up, he said, “Round and round it goes, where it stops nobody knows.”
        Bouncing off the last fire escape the ball eased into Mickey’s hands.
        During the fifth inning, a few people started yelling and pointing up towards a building.  There was a guy running up a fire escape with a portable TV under his arm. It was our neighborhood junkie, Freddie Hammer.  He was being chased by Mr. Muller who I assumed came home unexpectedly while Freddie was helping himself to the TV.  Freddie had a lead but looked like he was getting winded.  I didn’t like Mr. Muller and was pulling for Freddie. “Come on Freddie, you can do it.  Get to the roof, get to the roof.”  With Freddie in the lead, he, the TV & Mr. Muller disappeared over the roof. 
        The game couldn’t have turned out better. We played three!  We won the first one.  The teenagers won the second one, then we played the rubber match.  Dad had three hits in the third game and pitched great.  I didn’t make any errors in the field and got on base once, scoring when Dad knocked me home on a tremendous two sewer shot.  We won the game 3-2.  The teens begged for a best of five, but the dads told them to go get wet.  They did. 
        The heat was brutal.  We were all sweaty and exhausted.  Mr. Mac went into his basement again and came out with a giant wrench.   He walked over to the fire hydrant and one, two, three the street was flooded.  Steam rose off the asphalt and the air filled with a cooling mist.  My skin goose-bumped.  The rush of the water drowned out most other noises.  I cautiously protected my transistor radio.  I put the radio to my ear to get the baseball scores.  I normally would’ve listened to the Yankee game only, but the Phillie pitcher, Jim Bunning, had faced fifteen batters up, fifteen batters down.  He was perfect through five.  I screamed out the news, “Mets are being no-hitted!”
        Like my heart needed another reason to beat outside my chest.   My brother held my radio while I dove head first on top of a wall of water flying down the middle of the street.  The water exploded out of the hydrant so it didn’t have a chance to spread across the whole street bed.  It moved syrup thick giving you an opportunity to ride a cushioned wave if you hit it perfect.  On the other hand, if you missed the wave, say the pressure on the hydrant let up a bit, it’d be just you in flight and the wet asphalt coming at you very fast with your landing gear already down.  This option provided no happy ending - cuts, bruises, torn clothing, or worst case, an unplanned visit to Lenox Hill’s Emergency Room.  My dive was half assed.  The German judge gave a five.
        It slipped my mind that Dad was watching the action.  He never officially approved playing in the hydrant and he absolutely never joined us when we did.  He knew the cops would always shut us down; he didn’t like cops and knew he’d get in an argument with one of them one way or another.  That day was different.  Everyone had a hall pass thanks to Mr. Mac, and he turned the darn thing on.  Rory gave the radio back to me and left his feet for a beautiful ride down the rapids.  Rory was graceful and less clumsy than me. 
        I went back to the game and heard the Met announcer, Lindsey Nelson, “At the end of six and half innings it’s the Phillies 6 and the Mets nothing.  Bunning’s retired 21 straight batters.”
        Oh my god, this could be the first one since Larsen’s in 1956, I thought.  I made like the Town Pryor and screamed, “He’s perfect through seven.” 
        By this time, even the Met fans were into it and there were so many radios on, the sound of the game was beginning to match the sound of the open hydrant.  I turned to the hydrant and saw Dad took over directing the water.   My Dad, he who always told me what to do, when to do it, how to do it countless times each day, was squatting behind the hydrant in a catcher’s position.  He reached his arms around the fire plug giving it a big hug.  With his fists together, he came up under the jet of water and began to lift the spray up in the air like a fireboat.  Higher and higher he sent it up to a second story fire escape.  His eyes were opened wide with joy and he laughed hard.  Dad left the arch of water up there for a few minutes till he realized he knocked over Mrs. Trusits’ flower pots sitting outside her window.  I watched his face carefully. 
        It said, “Oh, oh.” He was ten years old.  When he brought the spray back to the street bed, I took a running start and hit the sky.
        “Good slide, Tommy.” I heard Dad say over the noise.
        As word got round the Mets were down to their last batter in the ninth inning, someone turned the pressure off the hydrant.  All you could hear was Lindsey Nelson’s voice on the radio, “What a day for Bunning he has 2 hits and 2 RBIs on top of this incredible pitching performance.   He’s retired 26 straight Mets.   To the plate steps pinch-hitter John Stephenson.  Mets are down to their last out.  The 32,000 fans are on their feet.  They know they’re watching history.  Here’s the pitch - Stephenson takes a called first strike.  The crowd is clapping as Bunning rubs the ball and gets ready to deliver – the windup, the pitch, Strike two!  He’s one pitch away, one pitch away! Bunning circles the mound and returns to the pitching rubber.  The catcher, Gus Triandos gives him the signal, Bunning draws a big breath, and here comes the windup and the pitch - Stephenson swings, Strike three!  He did it!  Perfect game!  The Phillies are mobbing Bunning, slapping him, hugging him, and putting him up on their shoulders.  On only 90 pitches, Jim Bunning’s made history with the first regular season perfect game in 42 years and the first one overall since Don Larsen tossed one in the 1956 World Series.  What an amazing Father’s Day gift this is for Bunning on Father’s Day 1964.”
        All the Yankee fans in the street went bananas, all the Met fans sulked.  This lasted less than a minute before my Dad turned the hydrant back on.  I don’t know who brought it up first, but no one had eaten all day.  It was past four o’clock and it seemed everyone’s stomach woke up at the same time. 
        Barbecue?” Dad said loudly. 
        Everyone who had a car parked on the block had a barbecue in their car’s trunk.  Two fathers took them out.   During the game, when Allie knocked over the garbage cans, folks picked them up but didn’t bother to stick them back in their enclosure behind the gate off the sidewalk.  A couple of men moved the garbage cans completely away from the enclosure next to the stoop, swept the area and put the two barbecue stands inside the enclosure.  They called it a M.A.S.H. kitchen.  With the fires set up it was time to deal with Sunday’s meat problem. 

        All the German butchers were closed.  The men set the kids off to the store to buy franks and buns but it was impossible to have a real barbecue without hamburgers. 
        Mrs. Walsh watching the action from her fourth floor window said, “I was making meat loaf for dinner, but you can have it.  All my kids and my knucklehead husband are down there with you.  Joey, come up and get the meat.” 

        And that was that.  The meat drive was a success.  Two more mothers donated meat loaf chuck chop and a couple of mothers donated their roasts that became shish-kebobs.   Vegetables and baked beans followed.  By the time we finished eating it was past 8pm and the light was sinking over the Metropolitan museum up on Fifth Avenue.  We sat on the stoop singing along with Peter & Gordon:
Please lock me away
And don't allow the day
Here inside, where I hide with my loneliness
I don't care what they say, I won't stay
In a world without love  
        As time passed, the only thing that changed was there was no daylight, the street lights came on, everyone was still in the street including the moms once we started eating. We were all together - and the Yankees won a doubleheader against the White Sox in Chicago.
        “Let’s take this party to the Old Timers.”  The voice came out of the dark and was met by several others all in agreement.  The crowd moved as one around the corner to the Old Timers Tavern that sat in the storefront next to my dad’s mom’s apartment house.  I knew from listening to Dad, that in 35 years my grandmother never stepped into the bar and he considered it a safe haven from chore requests.
   I ran into the bar, dropped a dime in the jukebox and played the fastest song I knew:
Hey pretty baby!  You can't sit down.
A don't you hear the drummer thumpin’  You can't sit down.
You gotta shake it like a crazy.  You can't sit down.
Because the band is sayin' something.  You can't sit down.
And everybody is a jumpin'  You can't sit down.
You gotta slop, bop, flip flop, hip hop all around.
You can’t sit down, you can’t sit down.

        As people passed through the tavern’s door they began to shake something.  Maybe it was their hips, some it was their leg, and some just put a finger in the air and shook it back and forth.  But everybody who came through the door reacted to the song.  Meanwhile, the regulars on the barstools thought we were all nuts and kept drinking their short beers.  The place had a big dance floor in the back.  All the kids and many of the mothers headed for the back while the Dads joined the regulars.
        We took over the old fashioned shuffleboard and rotated between that game and making dizzy circles on the buffed dance floor when a song moved us.  One that made us bop was:
I'm broken-hearted now
Since we have parted now
My mind wanders now and then
Remember then, then, then, then, then
Remember, Re-mem-mem, Re-mem-mem-mem-ber

        Well past midnight, Rory fell asleep across two chairs.  A piece of a candy bar was sticking out of his mouth.  Dad removed the Milky Way and carried Rory over his shoulder up the stairs to Nan’s second floor apartment next door.  By the time Dad came back, I was punchy and lying on the floor watching the fan spin.  Dad picked me up like the sailor’s bag in the Old Spice commercial.  Upstairs, he put me to bed next to Rory who was sawing wood. 
“How about that Bunning, Dad?”
“Perfect, Tommy.”
“Happy Father’s Day.” I said.
He smiled & kissed my forehead and I don’t remember another thing.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

A Lost Hope Remembered

54 years ago, my father took this photo of RFK with my grandmother, Ann Pryor Rode, on the right smiling looking down at me, 10 years old, in the crowd at his rally for NY Senator on the s/w corner of 78 St. & First Avenue in 1964. My grandmother, Yorkville's Democratic District Leader, worked hard for Bobby in his 1964 senator run and again in 1968 in his campaign for President. In 1967, RFK sent Nan a congratulatory letter signing it, "Bob." Tomorrow's a sad day for our fractured country marking what might have been.