Recent Writings

November 19, 2013

Living With Meg Ryan

 

It all started when my wife and I were waiting in the dermatologist’s office.  We both go to the same dermatologist, a petite Jewish lady from France who loves to gouge off any blemishes she comes across in skin exams.  “Mais oui, we have to cut that out!”

I was thumbing through People magazine (that was the only magazine in her waiting room not written in French), when I came across a story about Meg Ryan and how she has avoided the celebrity limelight.  My wife was looking over my shoulder because she doesn’t remember her high school French either and she suddenly cried out:

 

“That’s the haircut I want!”

 

She pointed to a photo of Meg Ryan, obviously caught by a paparazzi on the streets of Manhattan on the way to school with her daughter.  It was a short, layered cut and very cute.  But what haircut would not look cute on Meg Ryan?  Meg Ryan is the epitome of cute and and can make the strands of a mop look cute. 

“Tear that picture out of the magazine,” my wife said.

 

She wanted a photo of the haircut to show her hairdresser so  she wouldn’t have to describe it.  I was totally aghast.  I am by no means a paragon of morality, but to rip out a page from a magazine in a doctor’s office violates my code of ethics, especially since there were other patients in the waiting room observing us closely.  Imagine if our dermatologist found out that we were secretly vandalizing her magazines.  She would punish us by gouging out every freckle and discoloration she found.  I refused to rip out the photo of Meg Ryan and her cute haircut.

 

Fast forward to a day later and a NJ hair salon.  I’m sitting on the most uncomfortable seat ever made waiting for my wife’s haircut to be over.  Luckily for my wife she didn’t need a photo of Meg Ryan’s haircut because apparently all NJ hair stylists know exactly what Meg Ryan’s hair looks like. It must be a common patron request: “I want to look like Meg Ryan please.”

 

I hadn’t been in women’s hair salon for a very long time.  It’s not an appropriate place for men, especially for exceptionally virile men like me.  Being of a certain age, however,  I am sensitive enough to sense that a man’s presence in a woman’s hair salon is a violation of the unwritten code that separates a woman’s world from a men’s world. It’s understandable that a woman wants to present herself to the world as a fait accompli and not as a product of endless hours at hair salons, nail salons, and cosmetic surgeons.  Having a man sitting there watching the facade being constructed and reconstructed  bit by painful bit is embarrassing.

 

Anyway, I somehow dozed off in the very uncomfortable seat, and when I awoke, Meg Ryan herself was standing above me asking me how she looked.  I mean it wasn’t really Meg Ryan.  It was my wife with a Meg Ryan haircut that made her look exactly like Meg Ryan. 

 

“Wow!” I said. “You look like Meg Ryan!”

 

I really was flustered.  On the drive home, I almost got into an accident because Meg Ryan was looking in the mirror fixing her hair and not giving me instructions on how to drive the car. When we got home I knew immediately what I had to do.

I informed my wife that I also needed a haircut.  I got into the car and drove straight to my barber, a Polish guy who usually gives the same haircut to everybody.  

 

“Leon, you have to help me.  I need a haircut that makes me look like either Tom Hanks or Billy Crystal.”

 

He mumbled a few words in Polish, which I’m sure were curses and then went to work.  He charged me an arm and leg, but when he was done I looked exactly like Tom Hanks in “You’ve Got Mail.”  

 

My First Doctor

 

My first memory may have been sometime during my third year of life when my tonsils were removed.  Traumatic events seem to leave the deepest impressions on the mind.  I remember two things about the tonsils event: being left behind by my parents in a crib in a hospital and getting to eat ice cream in front of the TV when I got home.

 

The first doctor I had was a German woman with an accent named Dr. Weil.  Her basement office was on Kissena Blvd., just north of the PS 201 park.  I always found it intriguing that you could sit in her waiting room and watch people’s legs as they passed on the street above.  She had a great collection of reading material for kids, including Highlight Magazine, with connect the dots exercises and mazes.  I distinctly remember a magazine that featured pictures of galaxies, maybe Scientific America, that spurred my interest in space and the universe.

 

What I didn’t like was being called into her examining room.  The biggest fear was getting a needle.  Before you even got the needle, you’d be sitting in the waiting room listening to the pathetic screams of kids getting their vaccinations.  You knew your turn was coming.  I remember the doctor had little step ladder so kids could climb on to the examining table.  She’d roll down the white exam paper, which had the same consistency as the butcher paper used to wrap lamp chops in.  Then she’d pull your clothes off and start pressing and probing, drumming on your abdomen like it was a bongo.  My first stirrings of sexuality was on that exam table with that female doctor, but I won’t go into that right now.

As most kids of that era, I had the common communicable diseases: flu, measles, German measles, mumps, and chicken pox.  I was vaccinated against diphtheria, small pox, polio, and whooping cough.  I remember being sick a lot when I was a kid, which was confirmed when I look back at my grade school report cards and see as many as twenty absences a year.  I enjoyed being sick because I got to stay home from school.  I would rejoice when my mother, who was a pushover, would feel my forehead, take my temperature, and announce that I had a fever.  Of course, it wasn’t fun when I was very sick.  I knew I was very sick when just before I dozing off I would get an almost electric sensation of a huge ball of pins and needles revolving and pulsating somewhere just outside my body.  I guess it was a symptom of delirium, but I don’t know anyone else who ever had the exact same sensation. 

 

Maybe because my mother was a world-class worrier, I became somewhat of a hypochondriac. Today I have five doctors: a general practitioner, who just pled guilty to taking bribe from a medical lab, a urologist, whose favorite thing is doing prostate biopsies, a dermatologist, who, through excess precaution, regularly removes healthy tissue from my skin, a cardiologist, who never bothers calling me back about my echocardiogram results, and a dentist, who wants desperately to fill in the gaps in my mouth with implants.  My small body keeps five physicians and their families well provided for. 

Like any good hypochondriac, every twinge I feel is symptomatic of serious disease.  If I wasn’t married to a nurse who manages to allay my fears on a daily basis, I would have died of anxiety a while ago.  Ironically, my most serious illness was completely asymptomatic, until I fainted in the snow a few years ago.  The doctors discovered I was born with two instead of the normal three flaps on my aortic valve and I ended up having a pig’s valve put in its place.  The amazing thing is that I had no anxiety about getting open-heart surgery.  In fact, I felt euphoric that my hypochondria was finally justified.  It’s like the old joke about what a hypochondriac had written on his tombstone: “I told you I was sick!”

 

The Downside of Hypochondria

 

I think that hypochondriacs, like me, have this magical belief that they can anticipate and somehow prevent disease by worrying about it.  One of my worst fears is getting prostate cancer, probably because my uncle and my father-in-law died from it.  And so far my anxiety about prostate cancer has magically warded it off.

 

But I went through a very scary period of time a year ago when I thought I definitely had cancer.  I get my PSA checked every six months or so, as recommended by urologists, and last November the number suddenly doubled.  A sudden increase in the PSA number is a flag.  At the same time, I was experiencing back pain, so I naturally thought that the cancer had already spread from my prostate to my back.  I read on the internet that PSA can go up for a variety of reasons, including sexual activity, which I knew wasn’t the cause, so I sought out a urologist.

I went to one of best hospitals in NYC, where they give excellent treatment for both prostate cancer and hypochondria.  The urologist, who is an expert in robotic prostate surgery, said that it would be a good idea to do a biopsy of my prostate.  Now I’m picturing the doctor with a robot resembling the one with the fishbowl head in Lost in Space yelling operating instructions out to my urologist, “Danger Dr. Rajiv, danger!”

It turns out that my imaginings were not far from the truth.  A prostate biopsy is performed by loading a spring-triggered device through your rectum that shoots needles into different quadrants of your prostate to extract sample tissues.  Nothing about this procedure is pleasant.

First, you have to lay sideways on a table on your side and pull your pants down, exposing your backside.  I was in that position for about hour because I had to wait for an antibiotic they gave me to take effect.  Meanwhile, half the nurses in the hospital were coming in and out the room getting a free show.  Finally, the doctor came in, administered an anal anesthetic, and explained that all I would feel is a bit of pressure every time he shot each needle into my prostate.   He explained that he would yell, “Shoot,” every time he pulled the trigger, so that I could prepare myself.  By this time sweat was pouring off my body.

It turned out that there was very little pain.  It felt like getting hit with the those hand darts we used to shoot at each other when we were kids, except with the suction cups removed and aimed into your ass.  He shot 24 needles and it was done.  He gave me more antibiotics, said that there might be a little bleeding in the urine for a couple of days, and sent me home.

That’s when the worst part started, the anxiety about the results of the biopsy.  Christmas was coming up and the results would be delayed because of the holiday.  To make matters worse, the bleeding wouldn’t stop.  I won’t go into graphic detail, but peeing blood is not a good way to spend the Christmas holiday.  On Christmas Eve, a week after the biopsy, I was still peeing blood, and I got worried.

 

We were having Christmas Eve dinner with my son and his girlfriend, when I suddenly got up from the table and said that I needed to call my doctor, that I might have to go to the emergency room.  I was sure that my urologist would answer my call because he was Hindu and not Catholic, but the answering service said that a different doctor was on call.  When the covering doctor called back, I explained to him that the bleeding hadn’t let up for week.  He was totally unconcerned.  He told me not to worry and not to go to the emergency room.  My wife, who had been a nurse for over thirty years, had told me the same thing five minutes earlier, but I felt better when the doctor said it. 

It was picture-perfect Christmas Eve.  Snow was falling lightly outside.  Christmas carols were playing on the stereo.  My wife had cooked her famous standing rib roast with mash potatoes stuffed back into their skins.  And there I was spoiling the whole thing with my hypochondria.  

 

But my son ended up saving the night.  We had purchased little gifts for each other and we began exchanging them after dinner.  My son’s gift to me was a little chalk board that you write a message on and place on your door knob, like if you were sleeping and did not want to be disturbed.  He took a piece of chalk, scribbled something on the chalk board, and showed it to me.  It said, “8 PM, urine clear.”

I never laughed so hard and so long in my life.  My wife and his girlfriend laughed even harder.  None of could stop laughing then or whenever we though about it later in the evening.  

 

And my superstition about preventing disease through excess worry held up.  The results of the biopsy turned out to be negative and my PSA mysteriously reverted back to what it had always been.

 

My Sex Education

 

I probably shouldn’t be discussing this personal stuff on social media, but what the hell?  The only thing that turns me on anymore is getting a lot of “Likes” on Facebook.

 

I think that this generation is much more comfortable with sex than my generation, but I have only anecdotal evidence to support that theory.  I never thought that sex was dirty, until I found out what it was.  I was very naive.  I never went through the oral, anal and phallic stages that Freud talks about.  Instead, I went straight from birth into the latency stage and stayed there until I was 16. 

 

How did I find out what sex was?  It’s not like today, where they teach you about sex early on in school and for the rest of your life the subject is as boring as arithmetic.  I definitely didn’t learn it from my parents.  I can’t remember a single time my father sat me down to explain the facts of life.  Instead, he took me to Aqueduct Racetrack and taught me how to handicap.

I learned all about sex the way most of the kids from my generation learned about it- on the street.  In my case, I was hanging out in my court in Pomonok and a friend who was my age came up to me one day and asked if I knew how babies were born.  

 

I never bought the stork story because I never saw a single stork flying over our housing project.  I saw a lot of pigeons.  If he told me that pigeons delivered babies to mommies and daddies in Italian Ice cups, I might have believed him.

Then he proceeded to show me how babies were born.  He didn’t use words, probably because he thought they were too dirty, but instead he made a curious gesture using his hands. With his left hand he made a circle with his thumb and middle finger and then he extended the forefinger of his right hand and began thrusting it in and out of the circle.  He stood their thrusting his finger in and out the circle with a big leering smile on his face.

 

I had no idea what he was trying to communicate.  I thought that maybe babies are somehow created using exotic hand gestures.  Then he said the magic word that made the pantomime clearer to me: “wanger.” I knew what a wanger was, since I had one and had been called one many times, but I still wasn’t sure where the wanger was supped to go in order to produce the child.  The only orifice I was familiar on the female body was the belly button.  So for a while I thought that babies were produced through some interaction between a guy’s wanger and a girl’s navel. 

Later that day, the revelation somehow came to me, and was later confirmed through other street-wise communications.  It was hard for me to believe, but  eventually I came to accept that all human beings came about throughout that bizarre method.

 

My Parents in the Housing Project

 

My parents, along with me, their one year old, moved into the Pomonok housing project in 1952, soon after it was built on the grounds of a golf course in Queens.  And there they stayed until they died, sixty years later. 

 

Pomonok changed considerably over those sixty years.  Today, outwardly, it probably looks better than it ever did.  There are lots of old maples and oak trees and well-maintained lawns.  When I was living there the grass was always worn away because hordes of us baby-boomers ignored the signs and played on the grass until the maintenance men or housing cops chased us off.

But if you look closely, which I had ample opportunity to do during my visits to my parents, you see the deterioration.  Today the front door to each building is locked and, if you don’t have a key, you have to be buzzed in through an intercom system.  So obviously crime is a big concern.  When I grew up there, the front doors didn’t lock, and, in fact, most people kept their apartment doors unlocked as well.  We had a neighbor on our floor who never even knocked when she came in.  She’d just open our door as if our apartment was extension of hers and shout out my mother’s name to announce her presence.  My father always walked around the house in his boxer shorts, but obviously that didn’t bother my neighbor.

 

For a long time, I couldn’t get a key to the building’s front door, so I had to use the intercom when I came to visit.  This caused many problems.  The intercom was wired into the telephone line and since my mother was almost deaf, she couldn’t hear the phone ringing.  Then the land lines in the building began to break down, so the intercom became useless.  We would get in touch with the phone company and they would tell us that for a variety of reasons they couldn’t fix the lines in the building.  Sometimes the technician would come and the door to the basement, where the all the lines were located, would be locked.  Sometimes they would come and manage to get in, but then leave because the basement was filled with roaches and mice.  Eventually, they told us that the mice had eaten away at the insulation on the phone lines so they had to be replaced.  I complained to the phone company, the housing authority, and even wrote to CBS news, but it was no use.  Eventually, I purchased a cell phone for my mother and got a key to the building.

 

Another problem was the elevator.  My parents lived on the fourth floor and needed the elevator.  Neither of them were in any shape to climb up or even down the stairs.  My mother had macular degeneration and was legally blind and my father could hardly walk in the last few years of his life. When the elevators broke down, which was pretty often, they were stuck in the apartment.  One time, when the elevator wasn’t functioning, my mother had a medical emergency and the fire department had to come and carry her down the stairs to the ambulance.

 

You would think that my parents would eventually get fed up with the conditions in the project, but they were too set in their ways to move.  My mother was especially stubborn.  I think she got pleasure out of tormenting the housing authority.  She’d spend hours on the phone with them complaining and demanding service.  One time I went over to visit and the smoke alarm was beeping because the battery power was low.  So I replaced the battery.  When my mother saw what I saw doing, she started screaming.

 

“What are you doing?  Put the old battery back in!  The maintenance men are supposed to come and change the battery.  It’s their job. Put the old battery back in!”

 

I tried to argue with her, but it was no use. She just screamed louder.  I put the old battery back in and we had to listen to the constant beeping during my entire visit.  

 

At times, she would relent, and ask me to look into an assisted living place.  I found a nice place in Jersey near me, but she didn’t want to move there because it would be too far for my sister, who still lived in Queens.  Not only was my sister my parents’ primary care giver, but my mother and sister were very close emotionally.  At that point, my father was already losing his memory, so he didn’t care where he lived.   After my father died, I tried to get my mother into an assisted living place in Queens, five minutes from my sister, but she didn’t want to pay down her savings and start receiving Medicaid, which is the only way she could afford it.

I think the real reason was that she didn’t want to give up her privacy and autonomy.  She didn’t like the idea of having to eat her meals in a communal dining area.  She wasn’t into sitting around and gossiping with a bunch of old yentas.  She wanted no part of adjusting to an unfamiliar setting. I actually had the cash down payment in my hand and ready to hand over when she changed her mind.  After that, I gave up trying to get her out of Pomonok.

They both managed to live to the age of 87, my father dying five years before my mother.  They would fight constantly.  My mother needed the air conditioner on high because she would suffer bouts of heat prostration.  My father liked the apartment like a sauna.  She would stay in her room and turn the air on high and my father would sleep in the living room with the windows wide open. 

One hot summer day, I came over and the windows in the living room were closed and the air conditioner was on.  My father said that my mother snuck in the living room during the middle of the night and put his air conditioner on because she was trying to kill him by giving him pneumonia.  He asked me to turn it off and open the windows.  So I go to open the windows and sitting outside on the window ledge is a squirrel.  

 

“There’s a squirrel out there,” I said.  “If I open the window, he might try to get it.”

 

“Oh don’t worry,” he said, “She wants to make sure her babies are okay.  Look in that pot.”

 

I looked down into a potted plant they kept by the window and there they were, a litter of pink squirrel babies squirming around.  Apparently, for months a squirrel had been going in and out of the apartment through the living room window using their potted plant as a nest.

 

My Father’s Wheels

 

Our family never had a car when I was growing up.  We had to take buses and subways everywhere, which never bothered me because I didn’t know the difference.  Occasionally, on weekends, one of my uncles who moved out to Long Island would drive into the city, pick all five of us up, drive us back out to Long Island, drive us back to the city, and drive home again.  Four long trips to see their brother or sister and get to show off their suburban paradise.  

 

I loved those trips in a car and couldn’t wait until I could get one, which I finally managed to do when I was 19.  I was the first one in my family to own and drive a car, the cost of which I split with a friend so we could drive cross-country that summer.  The car, an Olds Delta 88 that overheated every few miles, never made it back from the trip because I ran it into the back of a camper in Utah.

My father, when he was nearing the age of 70 and long retired, decided he needed a car.  He got his license and a huge gold-colored Buick LeSabre from his brother-in-law.  My father was about 5’ 4” and you could barely see him behind the wheel of a car the size of small boat.  Luckily, he never got into any serious accidents in the Buick, but he had lots of fender-benders, bumping up against parked cars and fire hydrants.  Once he pulled out of a parking space without looking (he didn’t believe in blind spots) and clipped a city bus.

I drove with him once in the car and vowed never to do it again.  He would miss stop signs and traffic signals and float around the road as if there were no other cars around.  He was constantly being honked at.  When he took me on the expressway and his huge car picked up momentum, I was certain that we would die and take some innocent person with us.

 

It took us a long time to convince my father that it was too dangerous for him to drive anymore.  He would call me up and complain that the car wouldn’t start and I would say “good.” So he had it towed and got it fixed.  Even his doctor told him to stop driving, but he wouldn’t listen.  Finally, something happened that he wouldn’t tell anyone about, and he decided not to drive again.

 

At that point, he started using Access-A-Ride to get around.  The problem with Access-A-Ride is that you have to be ready when come around to pick you up.  If you’re not there, they leave without you.  This happened to him many times.  My father insisted on going to the veteran’s hospital in St. Albans, Queens instead of seeing a doctor close to him, so he would call up Access-A-Ride.  They’d never show up or he would be abandoned at the hospital after his appointment.  After I retired, I was able to drive in from Jersey to take him to the veteran’s hospital. 

Then my father got the idea of getting a motorized wheelchair, a power chair. It took him a long time because he had to fight it out with the insurance company who wouldn’t pay the entire cost of the chair.  But somehow he managed to get a completely free power chair worth over three thousand dollars. The main reason he wanted the power chair was to go to Atlantic City to play blackjack.  It was a long trek to where the bus to AC picked up passengers and he was getting too weak to walk that far.  He would get on his power chair and ride over treacherous streets for over a mile to go pick up the bus.  On his last trip to AC, he was so desperate to recoup his loses at the blackjack table that he missed the return trip to Queens and had to get on a different bus that left him off somewhere in Manhattan at two in the morning.  

 

 

My father’s last set of wheels wasn’t a car, bus or power chair, but a wheel chair.  He was became too uncoordinated and forgetful to even be able to use the power chair.  I took him to his doctor’s appointments in his wheel chair.  If would take him a long time just to get from the wheel chair into the car.  Once he was securely strapped into the car, he would have to ask me every five minutes where we were going.  Here was the first person in his family to attend college, a former math teacher, a thoroughbred handicapper, a writer of angry editorials and poetry who couldn’t remember  from one minute to the next where we were going.

 

Childhood Games

 

t’s a very common trap for people to over-romanticize their childhood.  I have memories of many humiliating and frightful events that stick with me to this day.  But I prefer to talk about how young children, in their curiosity, daring, and imagination, find mystery and adventure  in everyday things.

Frankly, I can’t imagine a more fertile environment for a child’s imagination than a NYC housing project.  You would think that all the cookie-cutter apartment buildings, with the same red brick façades and the same apartment layouts, would stultify the imagination.  Nothing is further from the truth.  There is an innate buccaneer lurking in mind of every child who seeks treasure everywhere.

 

Take the hallway outside your apartment, for example. It is an acoustic delight.  There is no better place in the world, including Carnegie Hall, to shout at the top of your lungs.  The echo around the bare brick walls magnifies a child’s voice to Olympic proportions. For some reason, however, the echo of blood-curdling screams is not appreciated by the occupants of the other three apartments on your floor. 

 

Neither do they appreciate the games you play.  My favorite hallway game was baseball.  I took one of my mother’s magazines and rolled it up so it looked like a conical bat.  Then I scotch-taped it to retain its shape.  I took old newspapers and rolled them up into a paper ball, compressing it as much as I could.  I used more scotch-tape to keep the newspaper ball from fraying. (My father used to steal a lot of scotch-tape from work so we never worried about it running out.) The result was a serviceable ball and bat, just the right dimensions for a game of hallway baseball.

 

My biggest problem was getting my two younger sisters to participate.  This was an ongoing problem in my childhood.  My sisters preferred playing house with dolls rather than hallway baseball.  I would sometimes reluctantly play house with them, but it would bore me so much that I had to enhance the game by calling forth some kind of natural disaster, such as a tornado or hurricane.  Even when they consigned me to being the radio in the pretend house, I would announce that a nuclear war had begun.

 

When I was able to convince my sisters to play hallway baseball, it usually ended in disaster.  One of the problems was that the hallway floor was extremely slippery. You had to plan your slide into second base, which was the door of Apartment C, all the way from Apartment B.  If you misjudged your speed and momentum, you headed up slamming violently into the door of Apartment C.  The occupant of Apartment C would then come out of her apartment and start screaming at us.  She would threaten to tell our parents.  Sometimes she would confiscate my paper ball, which I had worked so hard to create.  My sisters would immediately escape back into  our apartment, secretly glad that the game was over, leaving me to take the brunt of our neighbor’s tirade.

 

On stormy days, when it was too wet to play outside, we sometimes played airplane. This game would be played at the living room window while the rain drops lashed against it.  Our apartment was the cabin of the plane and we could sense the movement of the plane by its resistance to the driving drops outside.  Of course, in line with the sexual stereotyping of the era, I was the pilot and my two younger sisters were the stewardesses.  As with any good fiction, there was always a crisis to overcome.  At the height of the rain storm, the engines of the plane failed.  The stewardesses cried.  The passengers had to be comforted.  Yet, somehow the pilot was always able to land the plane safely.   

 

Mysteries of Pomonok

 

Why do certain places have an aura of danger or mystery for kids?  In the Pomonok housing project where I grew up, the stairwells, basement, roof, and elevator fascinated and sometimes frightened me.

There were two separate stairwells in the seven-floor apartment buildings.  One stairwell led to the front entrance of the building and the other to basement in the back of the building.  One of the two also led to the roof, but I can’t remember which one.  The stairwells were excellent for playing hide and seek because you always had a choice of two routes.  If you were hiding and heard your pursuer’s footsteps coming up one stairwell, you could exit at any floor, run down the hallway, and enter the other stairwell to escape.   But the stairwell was a scary place if you were alone.  I was always afraid that the boogie man might be lurking just out of sight on one of the landings.  I had nightmares about that.

 

Even scarier was the basement.  All it was really was a long, dim and musty-smelling corridor that ran the length of the apartment building.  However, along one side of the corridor were various locked rooms.  The one room the tenants had access to was the storage room in which people stored bicycles, cribs, carriages, and old furniture, all the stuff that they didn’t have room for in their tiny apartments.  It really wasn’t very secure since everybody had keys to it, but I don’t remember anything ever being stolen from there. 

One other room I remember was the incinerator room.  I don’t remember ever seeing what was inside, but I knew that’s where the tenants’ garbage ended up.  In each hallway, next to the elevator, was a small heavy door that opened into a chute.  You’d pull down the door, dump your brown paper garbage bag into the chute, and listen to it hit bottom.  Then you’d let the chute door slam and it would make a very loud reverberating sound in the hallway.  On designated days, they would burn all the garbage in the incinerator room and you’d see plumes of dark smoke rising from the Pomonok chimneys.  The smoky air would burn your eyes on your walk to school and ashes would descend like snow.  In the winter, when you saw the ash falling, you’d be hoping it was snow so that school might be cancelled.

It was in one service room or another that the maintenance men would hide, waiting to jump out and scare the hell out of you.  They all wore dark blue work uniforms and carried lots of keys and tools on their belts.  I don’t remember any one of them being at all friendly.  They were grim and authoritative, and if they caught you where you weren’t supposed to be, they would report you to your parents.  Apparently, the basement was one place you weren’t supposed to be.  Whenever I was caught down there, I ran back up the stars as fast as I could so that I couldn’t be identified.

 

The maintenance men had a huge underground headquarters in the building across from mine.  I dreaded having to go down there, but when our fuses blew out, my father sent me there to get new fuses.  Confronting one bogie man in the basement was bad enough, but having to explain yourself to a whole pack of menacing bogie men in their underground lair was really scary.

 

One of the worst places to get caught by a maintenance man was the roof.  Nobody was allowed on the roof, but occasionally it was necessary to go up there.  We played a game in the court with a rubber ball, Spalding or Pennsy Pinkie being the best quality, in which the object was to throw the ball way up high and hit the space between the seventh floor windows and the roof.  If you hit the window, the game would end because whoever lived there would open it and yell and we’d all scatter. If you threw the ball too high it would end up on the roof.  Then you’d have to take the stairwell that led to the roof and retrieve the ball.  Sometmes the door to the roof would be locked, but, for some reason, it usually wasn’t.

 

I actually dreaded having to go out on to the roof.  There was fear of getting caught, of course, but even worse was the fear of being up so high.  I am pretty much afraid of heights and I knew the fall from 70 feet would most likely kill me.  The roof was covered with tiny pebbles and once you got out there, your footsteps would make an ominous crunching sound as you walked around looking for your ball.  I never dared to go to the edge, which was surrounded by a three or four foot high brick wall, and look straight down, but you could see far into the distance at the Queens College campus, Kissena Park, Shea Stadium, and planes landing at LaGuardia Airport.  One bonus of having the courage to go up to the roof was finding other rubber balls that kids never bothered to retrieve.

 

The elevator probably had the deepest effect on me when I was a kid.  I always imagined that the elevator was much larger than it actually is, but that’s the case with most things you remember from your childhood.  The Pomonok elevators are only slightly larger than a coffin and cannot be used by anyone with claustrophobia. There were seven round black buttons with worn white numerals for each floor, an emergency switch that resembles an electric light fixture, and a red button that sounded an alarm like an alarm clock and could be heard throughout the entire building.  Kids pressed that alarm or fun so often that nobody paid to it anymore.

 

To me the elevator was a source of both wonder and horror. It was magical how the doors would slowly roll shut on their own.  It was fascinating looking out of the little rectangular window on the door and watching floors go by or getting a glimpse of the greasy mechanisms recessed into the shaft walls.  But on occasion, the elevator would malfunction in very disturbing ways.  For example, instead of stopping at the floor you wanted, it would stop a foot above or below that floor.  The door was not supposed to open if the elevator didn’t stop level with the landing, but for some reason it did open, or you were able to push it open.  You had to then step up or down to get out.  Sometimes the elevator stopped between floors and then would continue on after you pressed the button again.  For many years I had a repeating nightmare that the elevator would not stop where I wanted to get off.  It would keep rising and rising, past the top floor, all the way to the roof and beyond.

 

Sports in Pomonok

 

It was the baby boom generation after WW II and there were always enough kids around for a pick up game of baseball, football, or punch ball.  But my favorite game was stoop ball. Stoop ball was one of the great street games of all time. Best played with the Pennsy Pinky, the liveliest and most costly rubber ball of the 50s and 60s, better even than the Spaldeen.

Best played one on one, before anyone else was out to play that day. All you needed was a “batter”, who was actually a thrower, and a “fielder”. You threw the ball against the stoop as hard you could and the fielder had to catch it.  A grounder or pop fly caught cleanly was an out (we usually played two outs an inning instead of three). A hard hit grounder that got past the fielder was a single. A grounder or pop fly that was dropped by the fielder was also a single.

The real beauty of the game was getting an extra base hit. To do this you had to hit the point of the stoop. The Pennsy Pinky would go flying over the fielder’s head and land beyond a designated spot – maybe four cement slabs for a double, six for a triple, and eight for a homerun. What a skill, to be able to hit that point more than anyone else! What a feeling watching that ball sail way over the fielder’s head.  I was too small to be any good at basketball and not really strong enough to hit a softball very far, but I was one of the best stoop ball players in my court.  

My father was a good handball player, nimble and strong. In the 1950s, we would get up early every Sunday morning and he would take me to the park for hours to watch him play handball. Then we’d go back to the apartment and he would make salmon pancakes (salami and eggs were reserved for Saturday mornings). Nothing in the world tasted better than chopped canned salmon, mixed with an egg and matzoh meal, and deep fried in oil. I could easily eat six of them with orange juice and buttered pumpernickel bread.

Sometime during the 1960s, my father switched over to playing paddle ball, which became much more popular than handball in my neighborhood. Paddle ball, not to be confused with racquetball, is played exactly like handball except you use a wooden paddle instead of your hand. Even the little black handball is used, but the handball would break frequently because of the force of the paddle. Today, there are still paddle ball die-hards, but the sport’s popularity is limited to only a few neighborhoods around NYC. 

I loved to play paddle ball and, during my twenties and early thirties, I was a really good player. I was fast and played great defense, but when I was “on”, I could also hit killer shots at will. A killer shot is when you hit the base of the cement wall and the ball doesn’t bounce back. It just dies and rolls along the ground. It was as satisfying as hitting the point of the stoop in stoop ball.

On the eight handball courts at the park, we also played stickball. We’d draw a rectangle on the wall, knee high to chest high, and you had pitch the ball into that box for a strike. At first, we used broom handles as bats, but later on, the candy stores would sell “official” stickball bats with black tape for grip. I was a good pitcher because I perfected a slow side arm curve ball that was difficult to hit fair. Rubber balls were easy to curve because they were soft and you could put lots of spin on them. But it was an expensive game because you inevitably lost lots of balls when they were fouled into the street and rolled into the sewers.

In the fall and winter months, we played tackle football, without equipment. We played wherever there was a large swath of grass in the housing project, but the maintenance men and police kept chasing us off the grass. Someone would yell “coppers”, and we’d scatter into nearby hiding places and then continue the game after the cops passed by. As we got older and heavier, we continued to play without equipment, but then someone always broke an arm or collarbone. We finally stopped at some point and switched to touch football. I enjoyed tackle much more because I was better at it. I wasn’t fast or tall enough to be good at touch, but I was a short, strong full back in tackle and could advance the ball with two or three guys hanging on my back.

One memorable football game we played was against an organized team called the “Undertakers” from another neighborhood near a cemetery. They were in an official league, had equipment and organized plays, and a group of linemen that averaged well over two hundred pounds. But we could not back down when they challenged us to a game. In order to play them, we had to borrow extra helmets from them. “Undertakers “was an appropriate name for their team. “Sadists” would have been better. They got their pleasure from jumping on and crushing their opponents after the plays were over.

We had no chance against these guys. When our quarterback went down with a broken collarbone and everyone else refused to play that position, I volunteered. We were losing 48-0 at the time and it would have been too humiliating to forfeit the game, so I took the ball. I had very little success. Then on one play, I told the fastest guy on the team to just do a fly pattern. I snapped the ball and with all these huge linemen barreling down on me I threw the ball as far as I could. Somehow, the ball was caught and run in for a touchdown. We ended up losing 48-7, but I was never so proud.

 

Driving Miss Peggy

 

My wife is a wonderful person – intelligent, loving, and attractive.  But having her sit next to me while driving the car can be a challenge.  

 

I’m of the mind that the person who is driving the car and has the burden of responsibility for all passengers in his vehicle and, therefore, should be treated like an airline pilot.  Climate control and background music should be maintained in accordance with the driver’s preferences.  My dear wife doesn’t believe in that policy.

 

The first thing she does when getting into the passenger seat is adjust every knob and vent on the dashboard.  I prefer driving with the window open, so when she gets in the car she closes all the windows.  She doesn’t like the breeze messing up her hair.  Her compromise is to turn on the fan, open all the vents, and aim the vents in my direction.  I don’t like ventilated air.  I like air from an open window.  I like hearing street noises and pretending I’m riding a motorcycle. 

 

The next thing she does is switch the station on the radio from the game I want to listen to.  She likes to listen to exotic forms of folk music from far corners of the globe played on instruments that sound like car horns.  I’m constantly turning my head to see whose honking at me.  I like that kind of music sometimes too, but not when the Met game is on.

 

Then, when I’m finally settling into the mood of the music, she turns the volume way down.  The usual reason she turns the volume down is because she senses some dangerous situation has arisen on the road and she doesn’t want me to be distracted.  For example, some elderly person might be crossing the street two blocks ahead and she is afraid that I don’t see the person.  Or somebody has gotten into their vehicle in their driveway and intends to back out at some point.  So she turns the volume down and like any good co-pilot warns me about the impending disaster.

 

The other reason she turns the volume on the radio down is that she has something important to tell me that has nothing do with road safety.  It may be related to some news item she read about or to some decision that she has made on a family issue.  In any case, whatever she has to tell me is much more distracting than anything I might possibly encounter in traffic.  To avoid losing attention on my task at hand, I have to regretfully tune my dear wife out.  I realize that anything she has to say is of monumental importance, but I, like many men, are not good at multitasking, so to avoid an accident, I simply nod my head and say “uh huh” whenever I sense an important point is being communicated.  In response to direct questions posed to test whether I’m paying attention, I immediately answer, “You’re right.” 

 

Those of you who remember the 1960s comedy series “Get Smart” are familiar with the Cone of Silence that descended from the ceiling when discussions of a top secret nature were being discussed.  If someone invented a Cone of Silence that would descend over my wife while I was driving, I’d be very grateful.

 

The worst thing about driving with my wife, and I’m sure many men would commiserate, is her ongoing commentary about my driving.  The commentary is both verbal and non-verbal.  The verbal messages are usually “Slow Down”, “You can’t make that light”, or the generic “Watch out!”  The non-verbal messages are how she always grabs the hand-grip when I turn corners or come to a stop.  If I put a signal on to change lanes, she immediately cranes her neck to see if there is someone in our blind spot.  

 

What baffles me is that she lets me drive at all. I would be perfectly content letting her drive.  I have a much more fatalistic attitude towards life and death so I ignore all danger when I’m in the passenger seat.  That’s not to say that my wife is not a good driver. She’s a very safe driver.  But for some reason she prefers to put her life in my unsteady hands.

Jewel Avenue Shopping Center 1957

May 19, 2013

Early 70s Pomonok Friends

January 24, 2013

1953 Kissena Blvd Between 72nd Road and Aguilar Avenue

January 20, 2013

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In Memoriam 2012

December 31, 2012

Hallelujah

December 23, 2012
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Shopping Center Jewel and Parsons

December 20, 2012
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Violence Begets Violence

December 18, 2012
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Twenty Angels

December 18, 2012
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When Will It End?

December 15, 2012
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