Tag Archives: The Bronx

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In the constellation of stars who died in 2016, the one that I was heartsick over the most was Carrie Fisher.

When I first saw her in “Star Wars,” the special effects and droids got more of my 12-year-old’s attention than her signature character, Leia Organa, the blaster-toting, tough-talking, take-charge princess.

By the time “The Empire Strikes Back” came out in 1980, the romantic tension between her character and Han Solo got my notice. And when “Return of the Jedi” premiered and I was 18, well, let’s just say that her appearance in that golden bikini left a lasting impression.

But as I got older, the appeal of her roles in the “Star Wars” franchise took a backseat to her plainspoken and brutally honest conversations about her struggles with mental illness and addiction.

I was horrified the first time I read about Fisher going into rehab.

The image of my beloved baby-faced star was shattered, replaced with an upsetting notion of an unstable celebrity who was following the familiar Hollywood path of drugs and booze.

Over time though, I came to appreciate — and admire — her willingness to forthrightly discuss her experiences and her treatment for bipolar disorder.

“I am mentally ill. I can say that,” Fisher said. “I am not ashamed of that. I survived that, I’m still surviving it, but bring it on. Better me than you.”

She was a role model for so many people, me included.

Fisher – among others — inspired me to seek help for my depression. If Carrie Fisher could tackle these issues head-on and in public, what was stopping me?

Fisher’s death also struck me forcefully because she reminded me of my late fiancée, Carla, who had battled her own addictions.

Fisher was open (some called it over-sharing) about her stints in rehab. Carla was similarly open and channeled her experiences into helping others in recovery.

Fisher was a high-profile inspiration for others. Carla was also a source of inspiration but on a grassroots level. I saw this repeatedly as she connected with people individually and offered to give them a boost.

When Carla was fired as a domestic-abuse counselor, her enraged clients broke into the office in the dead of night to find her home phone number. Carla saw it as a victory because the women felt empowered and took control.

Fisher and Carla also had an ability to poke fun at – and sometimes even celebrate – themselves at their worst moments.

Some of Carla’s stories were funny, like the time she was drunk behind the wheel and rear-ended a police car, and some were terrifying, like when she was confronted by a guy who pointed a gun at her and her friend and demanded their drug stash.

Russell Crowe recalled a moment with Fisher in 2000. On Twitter he wrote that she grabbed his butt and said “You would have loved me when I was on Xanax.”

An appreciation of Fisher that appeared in The New York Times noted there were better ways to honor her than rewatching “Star Wars.”

“Read her books,” wrote Lawrence Downes. “They are works where misery and brilliance commingle with wit, the creations of an actual person who had many layers and is worth getting to know, as opposed to Princess Leia, who has none and is not.”

I agree but I think there is an even better way to honor her memory:

Don’t judge them if they have a mental illness or are now or have been an addict.

Offer to help in what ways you can.

Carrie – and Carla — would approve.

Related links:

An Open Letter of Apology to Carrie Fisher

 

 

Cutting It Close With Sal the Barber

As a kid, I’d watch my dad put the can of Barbasol under hot water and then squeeze off a little golf ball-sized foam and spread it on his face.

He’d always dab me on the nose with it.

Then he would take out his razor, the kind in which he had to add the blade. Our apartment bathroom had a slot for disposing of the used blades. I never figured out where that hole went.

Dad also had one of those electric hair cutting kits.

Every couple of months, my brothers and I would sit in the living room for our haircuts with a smock around us. It was nothing fancy, just crew cuts for us all.

That high-pitched buzzing of the little gray electric razor seemed to make everyone’s hair stand upright and dad would just whisk it away.

I was 4 but my eldest brother was 14 at the time. Then we’d pose for a photo. I still have one of the four of us with freshly cut crew cuts.

hair-cut

There came a time when dad stopped cutting our hair and we’d all walk over to the Korvette’s shopping center for haircuts. There was one barber, “crossed-eyed Joe,” who would be in charge of cutting our hair.

Getting a haircut from my dad was actually preferable at this point. The only added feature was getting a lollipop.

As a teen, I’d go to the local barber shop. I found this one gem on Olmstead Avenue that had dollar haircuts on Wednesdays.

It was a small shop with three barbers.

On Saturday, the line would be out the door because the shop had half-priced haircuts. Men would stand on line for an hour, go in and sit down for another hour and get to read the paper or magazines before they were up for their shave and cut.

One of the barbers was Sal. He was a thin fellow with a big bushy mustache.

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All you would hear is the clickety-click of scissors from the three barbers. I’d thought you could probably make a barbershop song from the noise.

I continued to go to Sal every couple of months until college. During college, my friends went to a stylist on Castle Hill Avenue. I went to her a few times but I’m guessing that my friends went for the ambiance: a well-endowed woman.

I just wanted a good haircut.

I only get my haircut every four to six months, so I’ll have it cut short and let it grow. The longest I’ve let my hair grow was five years and then I had it dyed and put in a ponytail to donate to Locks of Love.

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Somewhere in that time, Sal’s barbershop closed. The landlord wanted too much rent and it was just Sal. He used to be the only barber on the block, but within a few years there were more than seven salons on three blocks.

I caught up with Sal about six years ago at a candy store that had been remade into a salon that mostly catered to women’s hair braiding and waxing.

I saw a sign that read “Sal the Barber is here.”  Finally, I found him.

I’ve continued to see him since.

He still has a following, albeit no Twitter feed. Check out Sal Monday through Saturday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

A haircut will run you eight bucks.

Now that’s a bargain.

sal-1

Liver: It’s What’s (Ick!) for Dinner

As a kid there was always one day a month that mom served us liver.

My dad loved it with onions.

I preferred mine back at the store — in the frozen food aisle.

During the ‘60s and early ‘70s we lived in the Castle Hill housing projects in the Bronx.

Pretty much all of your friends lived in your building. Living in the projects was pretty cool  because when I was told we were having liver, I could just say, “Oh I forgot to tell you mom, Michael downstairs invited me to dinner.”

Michael didn’t yet know it yet, but I would ask him when I would get to school.

And as it would turn out, he was having liver too.

So by school lunchtime, Michael and about three other prospects were all having liver.

Like me, they were trying to escape to another house.

I always had an ace in the hole, Robert, my best friend.

I probably ate at his house nearly every day. Like Rich’s mom, Mrs. R. always had people over. Robert had an older brother and sister around the same age as my older brothers.

Robert’s mom was a great Italian cook and even taught my mom how to make stuffed shells and lasagna.

My mom wondered why I’d always eat there and Mrs. R said that it was because of the sauce, pasta and cheese.

I loved that as they always had salad, pasta, fresh rolls and something with lots of mozzarella on it.

So on this liver-for-dinner day, I cornered Robert right after lunch and asked if I could eat at his house.

I had eaten there most nights anyway and this was a real emergency.

He said sure, that it shouldn’t be a problem. I asked if he knew what his mom was cooking and he said, “Yep, fegato alla veneziana.”

It sounded delicious as it rolled off his tongue with his Italian accent.

I got to Robert’s after telling my mom how I was invited downstairs for dinner.

I walked into their apartment. I recall smelling garlic and hot rolls and my mouth was already watering.

Robert’s older brother and sister were having dinner away at their friends’ houses this evening, so there was plenty for me.

I started with the salad and then the pasta. The main course was served to the table family style and when the lid came off, the smell overpowered me.

And then it dawned on me as I looked toward Robert, who was laughing: Fegato alla veneziana was liver and onions.

Well at least there was hot rolls with mozzarella.

More pasta, please!

liver

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A Bronx Ghost Story

We have discussed horror movies and shows on About Men Radio but I have a real ghost story to tell that occurred right under my roof.

I was probably about 12 to 13 years old and living in The Bronx.

My parents had a two-family house that was shared with my grandparents.  The house had two owners before us, the first of which owned an Italian restaurant nearby.

The story goes like this:

My grandmother was sleeping and woke up in the middle of the night and it felt like someone was watching her.

She opened her eyes and in the darkness there was a figure of a man standing beside her bed.

This did not scare her since she was a believer in spirits and all that supernatural stuff.

If this happened to me, I would have ran out of the house screaming!

My grandma was cool though and felt this spirit was not threatening and she eventually fell back to sleep.

These nighttime visits continued to happen periodically.

She noticed it was a man in a dark suit and he wore a hat. He would just stand there and look down at her as she lay in bed.

She told my mom and my uncle about these visits.  She wasn’t scared but was getting tired of being awakened in the middle of the night.

My uncle had a friend who was a medium, actually a “Santero,” a priest of Santeria, a Caribbean spiritual religion.

He came to the house and felt a presence as soon as he walked in the house.

It wasn’t malevolent but possibly a lost spirit that had not moved on.

He went though the house and lit candles and said numerous prayers.

He spoke out loud to the spirit and comforted him and told him that his time on earth was over and he should move on and rest in peace.

It worked!

My grandmother stopped being disturbed by her nocturnal visitor, and she was able to get a full night’s sleep again.

Some years later, our neighbor’s daughter passed by with a friend who grew up in our house, family of the first owners, and they asked her about my grandparent’s apartment and if she knew if anyone had died there.

You know what her response was:  She said her uncle had died there and that was his bedroom.  Shit! The chills went through me when I heard this.

We asked about him wearing a hat and yes he typically wore one like most other men back in that time.

Crazy stuff, ghosts, Santeria, and I guess you can say an exorcism, right under my nose in The Bronx.

Boo!

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Dancing as Lunchtime Therapy in a Bronx School

This story is about a song, a New York City public school, an energy-releasing lunchtime activity, and a unique policy by school officials that kept the peace during some rough times.

Growing up in the Bronx during the 70s was a rough adventure for most city kids. Gangs, violence and an economic downturn made it a hotbed of insecurity for the people who were struggling to make ends meet.

During 1976-78 I attended JHS 125, Henry Hudson Junior High, in the Bronx.

The neighborhood was a racially mixed group of working-class families, and I witnessed many in-school and after-school fights and beat downs.

I had my share of conflicts myself, especially with my personal nemesis, a kid named Kevin, who constantly picked on me and caused me grief almost every day.

During one lunch period, my backpack disappeared and I found it in the trash with all the discarded food.

I was so mad. And who was standing right there laughing? Kevin, of course.

I lost my mind and went at him. We were wrestling on the floor when we were pulled apart by the teachers and sent to cool off.

No principal’s office, no suspensions — they just broke it up and told us to stop. This happened so often it’s all they could do.

Nowadays things are different and we would probably have been detained by a school resource officer.

What did administrators do to diffuse the volatile dispositions during lunch periods?

They let us dance!

I am unsure if this was suggested by students, but a phonograph and speaker were provided, and kids brought in their favorite records.

I personally did the “Robot” thing made popular by Michael Jackson and the song “Dancing Machine” to the “Theme from SWAT.”

Then there was the track that only the best dancers were allowed to take the floor and set the place on fire as we all watched and cheered them on.

“The Mexican” was a progressive rock anthem recorded at Abbey Roads Studio by the British Band “Babe Ruth” back in 1972.

It’s driving drumbeat and funky bass and rhythm were perfect for the freestyle dancing that was being born at this time, as it was on its way to be one of the most influential songs of what was to become hip-hop.

The energy that was released by kids dancing to this tune and all of the spectators cheering them on was amazing.

We forgot about our conflicts and struggles and enjoyed being together and free during this short time during our lunch period.

Little did we know that we were witnessing and participating in the birth of the musical and cultural revolution of hip-hop.

“The Mexican” was one of the songs that was covered multiple times and used in so many songs that influenced that generation and the next.

Along with Kraftwerk’s “Trans Europe Express” and The Incredible Bongo Band’s “Bongo Rock” and “Apache,” these songs influenced and shaped the hip-hop music and culture.

Of course older songs from years before influenced the breaks and the beats of these tunes, and I do not want to misrepresent or disrespect the original artists who came up with these riffs.

“The Mexican” and the other songs represent how some kids of the Bronx during the late 70s at a school on Pugsley Avenue honed their freestyle moves during lunch periods and blew off steam instead of fighting each other.

Looking back, I wonder if the administration that allowed this really understood or realized the importance this activity had for the sanity and sense of freedom for these kids.

I know I still listen to “The Mexican” today and think back to this time as the beginning of an exciting and influential period in music and dance that is still with me today.

 

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Oh Rats! A Subway Stare-Down That I Lost

What creature would roam underground, scurrying from point to point through an intricate network of tunnels — dank, dirty and dingy — tirelessly trudging in claustrophobic surroundings?

I know them as New Yorkers. And they rule the subways.

For a long time I was one of them. Today I fondly think back of my days underground — and over ground when on the El — from the safety and sunshine of Florida.

But there is another New York inhabitant that is the true ruler of the subway, especially its tunnels.

This New Yorker has many cousins in fields, landfills and building basements and is an abomination born of the darkest of crevices – The Subway Rat!

This monstrosity is no ordinary rat. Its above-ground cousin shares similar disgusting traits, such as its almost cat-like size, hideous teeth and fur and voracious appetite. Did I mention it’s as big as a freaking cat?!

The New York Subway Rat has all those traits and exponentially raises it a few degrees.

Many New Yorkers never get to see one of these monsters.

They are the fortunate ones.

I am a New Yorker who faced one and lived to tell the tail…um…tale.

My commute back in the late ’80s was on the No. 6 train from Parkchester in the Bronx to the Garment District near Seventh Avenue. (No self-respecting New Yorker ever called it Fashion Avenue.) But the No. 6 doesn’t go to Seventh Avenue in the Garment District.

I would get off at the 42nd Street Station and then take the Shuttle to the West Side.

I would always go to the first car, not because I wanted to watch the passage through the tunnels from the front door, though I often did.

My principal reason for taking that spot was logistical.

The 42nd Street Station back then had a supervisors’ booth that had long been abandoned.

But the structure was still there and at the mouth of the tunnel, it jutted into the platform forming an inverted “U” from the front tunnel entrance. To either side of the “U” there was a narrow walkway that went right up to the tunnel’s mouth.

Since this walkway was always empty, no one would stand there to wait for the train and I could exit from the first car onto the platform without bumping into anyone waiting to come in.

It saved me a few milliseconds, and if you know a New Yorker’s morning commute, every fraction of a second mattered.

For months I exited the car without ever looking. Until one day…

Sniffing around this secluded platform, at the height of morning rush hour, just inches away from where I was about to plant my first step was a Subway Rat.

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He was this big: I am holding my hands out at least three feet apart!

I froze mid-step.

Average rodents will typically scurry away when confronted by a human. But this is Subterraneous Verminus Rodentus we are talking about here.

This — this thing — stopped sniffing the ground, swiveled and stood on its freaking hind legs!

image

I was still frozen mid-step, and five cars away there was probably a conductor watching this exchange and wondering who would win, and more important how quickly, because he needed to get the train moving and close the freaking doors!

This New York Subway Rat knew who was boss. He was!

After a brief stare-down, it lowered itself and slowly, deliberately, walked to the tunnel and out of sight.

I exited the train, turned left and got the hell out of there.

I lived to tell the tale. But often I wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t froze and if I had quickly used my soccer skills to kick that bigger-than-a-football-size vermin into the subway car before the doors closed.

Oh the pandemonium that would have created!

But I’m certain the rat would have landed on its feet, killed some passengers and slowly walked off the train and into its subterranean realm.

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“The Warriors” Hit Close to Home Growing Up in the Bronx

Clink, clink, clink, clink. “Warriors come out and playyyyy.”

This iconic line I will never forget from the 1979 movie “The Warriors.”

I was 15 years old when it hit theaters.

I was not able to see it during its original run as it was rated R and my parents would not take me, especially after the crazy events surrounding the screening of the movie were reported.

The local news was full of reports of violence and people being harassed by groups of youths that had seen the movie and left the theater all riled up and getting themselves into trouble.

What the hell was going on in this film? What was it all about?

The plot in a nutshell was that a prominent gang leader brings all the gangs in New York City together for a meeting in the Bronx to rally them to work together to take over the city.

During his rousing speech he is shot dead, and the Warriors are falsely blamed. The Warriors are a gang from Coney Island in Brooklyn, and now they must fight their way to their home turf as all the gangs are now out to get them.

It was not until 1980 that I finally watched the film in my living room on WHT, a rinky-dink pay-TV service that broadcast movies over UHF, a poor-man’s HBO that we had prior to our Bronx neighborhood being wired for cable.

My good friend and future AMR brother Silvio La Frossia watched the movie with me, and wow! What an impression it made on both of us! You can read his own recollections of the film over at The Mass Invasion.

The Warriors ruled. These guys were likeable, had great chemistry, were ethnically mixed, and of course, had cool leather vests as their uniform.

They were wrongfully accused of shooting Cyrus, the leader of the Gramercy Riffs, and they were the underdogs, having to fight their way through all the other gangs.

Who could ask for more to identify with these characters?

Although the movie played out like a comic book and seemed so much like fantasy, it probably was not far from the truth.

There were hundreds of gangs portrayed in this film, and at that time there were probably similar numbers of real gangs in New York City.

gang8b-2-web

I personally remember the Savage Skulls and the Black Spades in the neighborhoods I grew up in.

The gangs were real and caused a great deal of trouble and violence all around the city during the 1970s. My older brother was at that ripe age and he admitted to being actively recruited. Thankfully, he avoided making that commitment.

If being in a gang didn’t kill him, my Mom surely would have if he got involved in one.

The turf wars were real, but a lot of it had to do with protecting what was theirs.

The economic downturn of the ’70s had a lot to do with this. The police were non-existent and did not protect many of these neighborhoods, or maybe they were afraid to go into these areas.

The police in the movie had minimal impact on the outcome of the movie; they were faceless and ultimately inconsequential as the gangs took justice into their own hands at the end of the movie as the Warriors were exonerated and the Rogues paid for their misdeeds.

“The Warriors” was so much more than a movie; it was a history lesson that showed us what was really going on around us.

Silvio and I recognized that and to this day still hold that movie at a higher level than most movies we have seen. That movie rang true with us and continues to influence us in how we viewed the era when that movie was released.

The Warriors. The Cyclone. The Wonder Wheel. New York City icons forever.

Summer Movies and Memorable Flicks With Friends

It is summertime, which means it’s time for popcorn flicks and blockbuster entertainment.

When I look back, it is amazing how many times my friends and I shared bonding moments built around watching movies.

We can recall not only the movie, but where we watched it, scenes  and how we reacted to it.

The movies we have seen together run the gamut, from comedies to thrillers to horror to adult.

The first R-rated ones I saw were “Animal House” and a double-feature of “Kentucky Fried Movie” and “Groove Tube.”

If I recall correctly, we had Pedro’s older brother come with us as our “guardian” since we were 16 and worried about the Loew’s American in the Bronx enforcing the MPAA age restriction.

There are those movies that endure (“Airplane!” of course being one of them) and there are those dogs of a movie that are best forgotten.

But half the fun of recalling some of those godawful flicks is the chance for my friends to break my chops that it was MY idea to go see them.

Two that come to mind: “Squeeze Play,” a pseudo sex romp brought to you by the high-caliber Troma Films company, and “Vice Squad,” a violent, dark film with few redeeming qualities.

But for memorable movie watching — as in like impossible to erase the imprint for your brain — the first-place trophy goes to AMR crew member Rich Rodriguez who a few years ago brought to the man cave “Requiem for a Dream” and “Human Centipede.”

We were crowded into a small room to watch “Requiem,” of which I knew nothing. It was an incredible movie about addiction but so dark and heavy that I needed a drink when it was over.

It is one of those movies, like “Schindler’s List” or “Saving Private Ryan” that you are glad you have seen but cannot imagine ever watching a second time.

And then, as if that did not harsh our mellow enough, Rich popped in the DVD for “Human Centipede,” which was so vile and disgusting and repulsive that we demanded we watch it on fast-forward! (For an idea of how bad it was, consider that its sequel was banned in Britain!)

On a more uplifting note, there was the time we gathered at Pedro’s to watch “Ted,” the story of the raunchy, foul-mouthed stuffed teddy bear who comes to life.

At points we were laughing so hard and loud that we had to stop the movie and replay scenes because we were missing dialogue. That was a good time!

The crowning glory of movie-going moments, though, belongs to troublemaker Pedro following our viewing of “Return of the Jedi.”

We caught an early showing of the much-anticipated third installment of the “Star Wars” trilogy.

We exited the theater and there was a line literally down the block for movie-goers waiting to get in.

So what does Pedro do?

Like the inmates in the Jimmy Cagney prison cafeteria scene where word is relayed that “Ma’s dead,” Pedro delivers a major spoiler by announcing up and down the line of those waiting for tickets: “Darth Vader dies! Darth Vader dies!”

It was a wonder that Darth Vader was not the only one who died that night!

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“Jaws” 40 Years Later Is Just as Spectacular

On June 20, 1975, movie entertainment changed forever.

I was 11 years old when “Jaws” was released, and my mom, a faithful moviegoer, took my friend and I to the Capri Theater on Fordham Road in the Bronx to see the movie everyone was talking about.

The theater was packed and it was like riding a rollercoaster, with the crowd screaming and shouting as we watched the masterpiece of cinema that Spielberg had created.

The one scene that to this day has still freaked me out was when Ben Gardener’s head popped out of the hole in the boat and surely made Hooper crap his wet suit. (Oops! Spoiler alert!)

We left the theater energized and spread the word that this was the movie to see.

Little did I know that 40 years later I would be sitting in a theater and watching this movie, now my personal all-time favorite film, with two of my kids and another packed theater of enthusiastic fans, enjoying every memorable line, the great performances, and of course, Bruce the shark.

This was not the first time my kids watched “Jaws.”

I made the mistake of showing them the movie on DVD when they were much too young and surely traumatized them. They all slept in my bed that night. Luckily we are not frequent beach goers.

I wonder why?

Over the years I drove everyone in my house crazy, watching “Jaws” every time it was on TV, during Shark Week and “Jaws” marathons. Always hated when I missed the original and got stuck watching “Jaws 2” or the even worse, “Jaws 3.”  I don’t think I ever saw “Jaws: The Revenge.”

One night I drove my daughter out of the room because I kept rewinding the movie playing the “That’s some bad hat Harry” scene, and laughing each time.

The movie is filled with classic quotable lines like this.

My favorite scene and line is when Brody is complaining about chumming and the shark rises up out of the water and shows itself for the first time, totally shocking him, and he goes to Quint and says “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

So many gems like Ellen Brody’s “Wanna get drunk and fool around?” and, of course, Brody’s “Smile, you son of a bitch!”

During this 40th anniversary screening, the theater was packed again and we had to sit in the second row.

Some ladies next to me also saw the movie in 1975, and we were shocked during the scene when the two kids were pretending to be a shark in the water with the cardboard fin.

The lifeguard was standing blowing his whistle and the camera angle was from below and you could see right up his shorts. I had to turn my face away, but boy those ladies next to me got a big kick out of it.

They exclaimed “I didn’t see that in 1975!” I had to laugh out loud!

The crowd had a fun time, laughed at the classic lines and cheered at the end.

We all clapped during the credits,which my kids thought was strange.

A great nostalgic evening was had by all, and maybe some newbies discovered something special.

I am looking forward to the 50th anniversary and reserving my tickets now.

 

Corporal Punishment and Catholic Schools

On a recent visit to see my parents, the conversation turned to stories of how they enforced discipline with their three children.

Being the oldest, naturally, I was subjected to the worst of it.

Spatulas. Belts. Shoes.

They were all weapons of ass destruction.

They were used when I was being mouthy or disrespectful, which as I recall, was often.

But as much as my parents were enforcers of discipline, they were no match for the nuns, Christian brothers and lay teachers who made up the staff of the Catholic schools of my youth.

I recall my second-grade teacher who had “the lightning rod,” a steel ruler that was as thick as it was inflexible.

Another teacher used to grind his school ring into your skull.

I attended an all-boys Catholic high school in the Bronx where faculty members were liberal in doling out punishment and enforcing discipline.

For freshman algebra, I had Brother Tin, a Christian brother who stood about 4-foot nothing.

But his stature belied his speed.

Brother Tin

I don’t recall why, but one day a classmate, Mike Wasilewski,  who stood about 6-foot-2, got in trouble and was called to the front of the classroom.

In his heavily accented English, Brother Tin said: “Wasilewski, take off your glasses.”

I never saw Brother Tin’s hands even leave his sides but I vividly recall Wasilewski’s  head recoiling from the sharp, loud smack he took across his face.

But perhaps the most memorable story came on an afternoon while we waited outside a locked classroom and were gathered in the hallway.

This one student, Mike, was recounting a story to a buddy and it was laced with F bombs.

“F bomb this and F bomb that…”

Unfortunately for him, he did not realize that the office of our assistant principal, Ron Patnosh, was scant feet away.

Patnosh

And his door was open. And he was inside. Listening.

The next thing I knew Patnosh materialized as if he were an apparition.

“Where do you think you are?! Do you think you are out on the streets?! How dare you talk that way!”

As he shouted at the F bomber, each sentence was punctuated with a loud smack across the kid’s kisser.

I just stood there doe-eyed like Buckwheat from the Little Rascals.

All of this reminds me of the story of the incorrigible kid whose dad is going nuts dealing with his son’s misbehavior at school.

At public school, the kid is a disaster academically and routinely gets suspended.

The dad tries to enroll his son in a private school but the results are the same.

In desperation, the dad decides to send his son to Catholic school.

Lo and behold, the kid straightens up, discipline complaints from teachers disappear and his grades soar.

One night the dad sits the son down and asks: “After all of the trouble and anguish you put me through, why now did you decide to behave in school?”

The son replied: “Dad, I walked in the classroom and took one look at that guy nailed on the cross, and I knew they meant business!”

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Riding the Rails: All Aboard!

Germany summer 2011 143

The  older I get, the more I have come to appreciate the phrase “boys and their toys.”

It is an allusion — not always flattering — to men’s affinity for things mechanical or on wheels.

I never really inhabited that territory.

Cars? Meh.

Boats? Nah.

But short line railroads? Now you’re talking!

I can recall as a kid going to Old McDonald’s Farm in Connecticut and Catskill Game Farm in New York and riding their mini railroads and being enchanted. Or bringing my sons to the Bergen County Zoo in New Jersey and riding the rail it has there.

And as an adult, I’ve enjoyed the trips along the Delaware & Ulster Railroad and the Adirondack Scenic Railroad.

So I was captivated to see in The New York Times a story headlined “Riding the Rails in the Bronx.

The story explored this group that wants to put small open-air cars on tracks that are abandoned or seldom used.

When I posted a link to the story on Facebook, I called out the About Men Radio posse and suggested we should do this.

“Would so get our own car,” I wrote, “drinking, smoking, cussing, cellphones all permitted, and ride the wide open rails!”

My suggestion was met with immediate enthusiasm from the AMR crew.

Why?

Boys and their toys.

I mean, c’mon, the idea of riding in one of these old work rail cars, called a speeder, along the open rails of the Bronx?!

Suh-weeeet!

We could outfit it with a couch, a boom box to play 80s tunes and a wet bar! It would be a man cave on rails!

Before you ask “Does your train of thought have a caboose?” let me tell you why such personalized rail cars like these excite me: Because they do exist and I’ve ridden one!

I have cousins in Germany, some of whom live in Langeness, one of 10 halligs in the world. A hallig is an island without dikes that floods almost completely.

When the floods come, these hills become islands. The roads are impassable and they have to wait for the waters to recede.

One hundred year-round residents populate Langeness, which is made up of 18 big hills where the homes and farm buildings are perched.

You can take a ferry to reach the hallig but the most fascinating form of transit is a motorized rail car called a lorrie.

Think of a lorrie as a shed with bench seats that can seat six and that you can put on railroad tracks.

The lorrie line, which is three miles long, crosses land and sea and each inhabitant on the hallig has their own.

On the lorrie line, there are no radios, no track signals and no control tower.

For a kid who grew up on the No. 6 Lexington Avenue subway line, riding the lorrie was an immense treat.

It reminds me very much of what these rail enthusiasts hope to achieve in the Bronx. To which, all I can say is: Good luck to them and all aboard!

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Arcade Games Get A Second Life at Barcade

Barcade in Manhattan is home to a very special place that combines two of the best pastimes imaginable: Enjoying an adult beverage and playing vintage video arcade games from the days of my youth.

This is a magical place that transported me back more than 30 years to a time before Wii, online gaming, Xbox and all manner of other sophisticated game systems.

The premise of video arcade games was simple: You stood in front of a machine the size of a refrigerator with a screen, a set of buttons and, depending on the game, a joystick.

I try to explain this concept to my sons and they look at me the same way they do when I speak of black-and-white television, rotary dial phones and hard copy encyclopedias.

I was struck by a sense of nostalgia in seeing some of my old (OK, very old) favorites like Donkey Kong, Asteroids and, of course, Pac-Man.

For myself and members of the About Men Radio posse, it was a daily after-school ritual: Go to the five-and-dime store in the Bronx on Castle Hill Avenue called Kress.

Some of us were players and some of us were watchers.

A knot of kids would collect around the machine as if we were metal and it was a gigantic magnet.

Players would wedge a quarter atop the buttons or line them up on the screen, upright, as a way of holding their place in line.

Hard to believe this was the way it was done.  But this was organized on the honor system and each player waited for his turn, which could take a while depending on how advanced the current player was.

Another odd memory: Players would put their lit cigarettes (yes, this was long before indoor smoking bans) either atop the machine’s “roofs” or rest them against the buttons, where they would create small burn streaks on the machine’s dashboard.

The arcade games were in few places, mostly what we would refer to as “candy stores,” which were a combination of newsstand, cigar shop and/or ice cream parlor, complete with counter and swivel stools.

Back in the day, the mother lode of these machines, as measured by quality and diversity, was only to be found in Times Square.

So every once in a while, the fellas and I would trek down on a Saturday morning with rolls of quarters to play games we could not find in our Bronx neighborhood.

Of course, later as we got older, we would trek to the then far-seedier Times Square with quarters for other nefarious purposes in mind, resulting in one particularly memorable and hilarious field trip that I have written about in a previous blog post.

The occasion for the visit to the Barcade was to see old work colleagues, including April Hunt,  who I wrote about in a previous blog post. (She is a die-hard, champion Ms. Pac-Man player.)

I turned my attention to some old-time favorites, such as Asteroids and even a Star Wars game. Sure, the graphics and sound effects were clunky and dated compared with today’s almost-holographic games, but that is part of their charm.

But just like old times, I died inglorious deaths pretty quickly on the first rounds of almost every game l played.

With these old arcade games, it pays to have fast fingers.

Unfortunately, for me, I’m all thumbs.

A Calling to Help Foster Children Started at a Playground

I recently was in the supermarket and ran into someone who said, “Hey, you look familiar. Haven’t we met before?”

Perhaps I look like a lot of different people. (I hate to think about that if I’m ever called in for a lineup.)

The person and I determined that it was 25 years ago when I worked in a park in the Bronx as a recreation director.

She said that I was one of the few who seemed to really help the kids. Her son is in his 20s now.

Some parents used us as free daycare. They’d drop their children off at 8:30 a.m. in front of the park and pick them up at 6 p.m. after work.

Many of the children didn’t have a lunch bag nor money to buy food, so a few of us would always make sure that we brought a few extra slices of pizza.

I never wanted to see youngsters go hungry.

The recreation job was busy during the summer months while we had daily activities.

During the school year it got less hectic. We had mostly seniors until 3 p.m., when the school-age children would come to the parks.

It was during one of those less hectic days I met a woman who had two children, Anthony and Jonathan.

Anthony was about 10 years old and I introduced him to some of the other youngsters his own age.

Jonathan was a few years younger but would try and keep up with his older brother.

Jonathan had trouble hearing and would turn his head to the left and try and figure out what someone was saying. I told his mother about this and she said that she would take him to the agency doctor.

I learned that Anthony and Jonathan were foster care kids and this was my first experience with foster children. Their foster parent gave me her contact along with the agency that the boys were with.

One time Jonathan was at the top of the jungle gym and fell. His foster parent was there in the park when it happened and Jonathan was rushed to the hospital.

He came back the next day with a cast on his arm and wanted to play on the jungle gym, but I taught him how to play checkers instead. Jonathan became quite the checker player and played in the summer tourney and won first place.

He was awarded a trophy for the accomplishment and a few months later he and his brother went back to his mother.

The foster parent had other boys afterwards but there was always a special place in her heart for Anthony and Jonathan.

A few weeks later, I was reading “Catholic New York” and there was a call for foster care caseworkers.

I answered the call and have been helping children achieve permanency ever since.

I’ve had my share of Jonathans during my work and will probably regale you with some stories again.

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I’m Drivin’ in My Car…And Getting Into Trouble!

One night in 1985 while out with my AMR brothers cruising around, we almost all checked out.

An annual Italian heritage block event was held in our neighborhood in the east Bronx.

As was our custom, we would pile into a car and head out. This time it was my car and Zerega Avenue was our destination for the evening.

My car was really my Dad’s car and to call it a land yacht was to downplay its enormity. It was a 1976 Ford LTD. It was truly a land cruise ship. Piling into it was not a problem for just the four of us that night, Pedro, John, Rich and me.

The car was not a beater, but it had seen better days. Most of the dings, scratches and disrepair were courtesy of a teenage me that learned to drive in it and used it more than Dad did by that time.

On that fateful night, it had a burnt out headlight. Being young and broke I did not see the urgency in repairing or replacing parts immediately.

So off we went, with John riding shotgun and Pedro and Rich in the back seat.

We cruised the night a bit and headed in the direction of the festival. I can’t recall if any of us really wanted to attend the festival. We were just planning on cruising, cutting up and having fun.

Traffic was not heavy but we saw police officers directing traffic on the principal roads. I turned down a side street and, approaching a corner on the dark road, I saw a single flashlight motioning forward like an airport runway crewman.

But as my great white land ship got closer to the light, it started to motion to the curb that I should pull over.

I immediately remembered the busted headlight. Damn.

And that I had forgotten my wallet. Double damn!

I pulled to the side and a very young police officer came to my window. He asked me for my license and registration and with the same breath before I could reply to his first request he informed me that I had a headlight out.

From the corner of my eye, I saw his partner, equally young, flashlight in hand, approach the passenger side.

I told the officer that I was driving my Dad’s car and I forgot my wallet. But I did have the registration in the glove compartment, which I pointed to and was about to slowly reach all the way over to retrieve.

And here is where it all could have ended.

John lunged for the glove compartment, simply thinking that he was doing me a solid and getting my documents for me.

The cops didn’t see the nobility of the gesture as they each took a step back and trembling hands went to their holsters. Luckily, John fumbled the turn knob and I was able to calmly push him back in his seat.

I’m not certain what kept me moving calmly that night other than instinctively knowing that one does not make quick movements in the presence of officers on a dark side road in the Bronx.

After pulling out the registration and insurance card, the officer asked me to give him my name and spell it.

He returned the cards to me. His hand — and mine — were less than steady.

I guess he was satisfied that the spelling of my last name matched the one on the registration card. Thank the heavens my name wasn’t simply Smith.

He gave me a warning to drive home, get the headlight fixed and to not forget my wallet in the future. Yes, sir!

I pulled away slowly and started to drive away. Then a steady barrage of smacks and blows, intermingled with chopped unfinished sentences, started to rain down on the back of John’s head coming from the back seat.

“You dumb…” Smack!

“You never lunge when…” Bang!

“You almost got us…” Pow!

All of it was coming from Pedro. Rich didn’t say much the rest of the trip.

Thinking back on it, and without making light of recent events, we got off easy. I can only imagine that the young officers were just as frightened as we were. And we were extremely fortunate the glove box did not open, allowing John to reach in.

The officers stayed level-headed and did not draw, but all the circumstances in the event—four youths with no ID in a large car that is not theirs — could have led to calling in the sidewalk chalk outline artist that night.

I’m grateful that it turned out OK for us. And I don’t think I have ever again forgotten my wallet!

Hush Puppies Are Up!

I remember when my cousin worked at Kentucky Fried Chicken to earn money while in college.

His mom would make him come through a different entrance to the house because he reeked so badly.

I remember thinking: “Ewwwwww! Gross!”

Yeah, well thou without stench, cast the first chicken thigh into the fryer.

Fast-forward and it’s my senior year in high school and I’m desperately looking for a job. A classmate was working at Arthur Treacher’s Fish & Chips.

Through him, I got a job working as a fry cook and a bus boy.

Neither job was especially attractive. But since misery loves company, I got my buddy Pedro a job there.

Pairing us up to work was maybe not the smartest thing the managers ever did.

One night I was showing Pedro how to “recycle” the oil.  At closing, we would trot out this rectangular metal gadget. We would open up a spigot, the oil would pour into the machine’s reservoir, and then it would filter the grit and we would direct the recycled oil back into the fryer.

I had Pedro laughing so hard about some tomfoolery during this operation that, when the oil splashed, it landed on his tongue because his mouth was wide open while laughing.

Did I mention the oil was still hot?

Being fry cook was bad (your hair was matted with oil, your pores filled with batter and you stank) but being clean-up person was worse.

Mopping and cleaning tables was not so bad. But woe unto you if you worked a Sunday night and had to bring garbage to the curb for pick-up the next day.

There was a room – yes, literally a room – filled floor to ceiling with a week’s worth of rotting restaurant garbage. The farther you had to reach into the room to retrieve the garbage, the worse it got. There were roaches in there the size of pigeons and they were just as obnoxious.

Somehow I got promoted to manager of the restaurant on Bartow Avenue in the Bronx, a not-particularly great neighborhood.

How not particularly great was it?

The first night I showed up for work, my assistant manager, Javier (a short, funny Puerto Rican dude with a fro, dead-caterpillar mustache and a fuzzy goatee) pointed to pockmarks in the large steel-door freezers.

“You see these?” he asked. “These are from bullets.”

I lasted maybe nine months. All in all, I look back on my time there as a worthwhile growth experience that helped prepare me for work challenges later in life.

By the way, do you want chips with that?

Photo courtesy of http://kathythompson.wordpress.com