Riding

I have written about summer camp but not specifically about horseback riding.  It was sensational.  Each morning the bus picked me up on West 83rd Street and took me to the “wilds” of Yonkers in the Silver Birch Ranch Day Camp.  The “wilds” being high on a hill above the Tuckahoe Road exit number 6 on the NYS thruway.

Being a West Side kid I knew about the riders in Central Park and the Claremont Stables.  But Silver Birch was different.

The corral wasn’t very big.  It was on two levels, well sort of, with a little trail up some not so big rocks that led from the lower to the upper flat area.  The lower area was where you would typically find the horses tied up to the wooden post and rail fence and Jerry, the riding counselor, perched.

We all wore cowboy boots, those of us who helped out.  The campers were encouraged to wear at least hard sole shoes.  We wore western snap button shirts and jeans, just like Jerry.  His girlfriend was Gail, the best looking counselor in the camp, of course.

We taught campers how to bridle and saddle the horses.  We were a small operation. We let them ride around the flat upper part of the corral and then we taught them how to brush down the animals.

The older kids got to go out on the trails that left the upper camp area which surrounded the upper corral.  This was mostly a walking ride with Jerry in the front and one of us, the counselors-in-training (CIT), bringing up the rear.  For the better riders the trail ride included an area where they were encouraged to run their horses.

Credit Colin Lloyd on Unsplash.com

And then there was the time the horse fell on me.  While Jerry sat on the fence around the upper part of the corral I took one of the horses to ride in loops.  Forgetting that the animal was slightly lame on the left I was making left turns until….over we went.  I got untangled as the horse got back on his hooves and Jerry looked down at me and said, “Is the horse all right?”

Sally and Milt, who owned the camp, used to tell us about the time when they rode on the NYS Thruway while it was a dirt route under construction to become the highway we all know.

They were great folks.  Sally was a nurse.  She seemed to be the person running the day to day operation.  Milt, if I recall correctly was a doctor.  We didn’t see him every day.  They had  a daughter, Garth Allison, who was several years younger than me.  She had a crush on me and I thought she was very pretty and I was very flattered.  They had a gorgeous Irish Setter named Maverick.  He was friends with us all.

Sally gathered the CITs together in the office one day and we talked about pimples.  She was very firm in her belief that most if not all of us had skin which was adversely impacted by milk.  I stopped drinking milk and stopped getting any pimples.

I stayed with family on the camp grounds for to weeks one summer while my parents were away.  My mother was in Europe with her best friend, Florence, and dad was in California working.  It was fun being with Sally and Milt, Garth and Maverick.

In my last year as a CIT, I had visions of Jerry moving on and me taking over.  Instead, sadly, Sally and Milt sold the camp to a developer.  Now when you look up from the Thruway around the Tuckahoe Road exit you see houses.  What a loss!  I really loved it there in the wilds of Yonkers.

Acne (no photos please)

I was one of the lucky ones.  My pimples were few and far between.  Others were tortured by their skin eruptions.  And, as we know children, particularly teens, can be very cruel.

But it wasn’t just acne that resulted in exclusion from the group that went to most of the parties, sat at lunch together or just hung out.  There were those considered “ugly” or “fat” or just plain peculiar.

I don’t think I was cruel but I participated in the exclusion.  I remember a girl who was known to have a crush on me in 7th grade.  I paid her little attention because she was not attractive or socially adept.  I’ve wondered, often, how she grew up and what I might have missed.

When we played post office or spin the bottle there was always someone you didn’t want to be with in that darkened room or to whom you did not wish the bottle to point.  You kissed or made out anyway.

And we were segregationists.  I don’t remember any of my fellow elementary classmates of color being included in activities outside of school.  In fact I remember no social inclusion at all until college and there it was unusual.  

In high school, because it was all boys, there was little socializing outside of the 15th Street building except at football games and the Hunter and Julia Richman school dances.  At the latter I didn’t participate much and don’t recall anything inter-racial. 

For me, I don’t believe the separations were conscious until the civil rights movement exploded on college campus’. My era saw the birth of Black studies curricula.  In those days to be liberal meant not to notice the color of people.  Today it is rightfully different.

My co-chair of the President’s Commission on Drug Use at CCNY was a Black woman, I don’t think I noticed.  And my sociology mentor was a Black man, this I noticed, probably because I first encountered Dr. Walter C. Bailey in a class called “minority groups,” where he made a big effort to educate the previously insulated White kids about racism in life’s daily encounters, language and history.  He was successful in creating change in me.

Looking back at college I can recall the battle between Greek life and House Plan life.  Fraternities were very ethnic, Houses, less so.  I was in House Plan but even here I remember separation by race and religion. 

I can say that I am sorry it was generally like that and that I was like that.  Even if the segregation was unconscious or unintentional, we all could have gained from knowing each other better.

My adult life has been less separatist, mostly because of work.  But looking back, because most of my socializing was based around the synagogue, it too was isolating.  

I try to recognize opportunities today but I still encounter myself seeing stereotypes.  And when I look at the world around me, I see that so much has not changed from the days on West 83rd Street.

Brands

There was Hellmann’s and Skippy and Savarin, Wheaties and Wonder.  So many brands that I was raised on.  Today I use two of these four and don’t think I would consider else wise.  I don’t brew coffee like my father did, so no Savirin.  I don’t eat much white bread, so no Wonder.

There were non-consumables too like Castro Convertibles opened by the little Castro girl.  So many things that shaped our consumption habits.

Most of the advertising I was exposed to was on television and most of that on Saturday morning and after homework was done during the week.

I don’t remember what Hoppy pushed or Sky King, Superman, Cisco, or even The Mickey Mouse Club.  Most of the commercials, too are long gone from my memory.  I have a friend who can still sing the Buster Brown jingle.

Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash

Streaming today, using services like freevee, that has commercials, is just repetitive junk mail delivered on the screen.

The brands I recall from the neighborhood were shoes.  Bostonian on the northwest corner of 83rd and Broadway and Florsheim on the southwest corner.  Woolworths on the northeast corner of 79th and Broadway wasn’t a brand but it sure was a presence.

There was also Horn and Hardart known to me for its nickel slots in the automat rather than its famous coffee.  Schrafft’s, famous for its ice cream was a ubiquitous restaurant chain as well as present locally on Broadway near 82nd.

Rexall drug stores seemed to be everywhere.  I don’t remember the name of the big drug store on the west side of Broadway near 81st Street, Beck Drug maybe?  I just recall that it had everything.

There were other chains as well but not as everywhere as the burger places I’ve learned to ignore.

What do you remember about shopping between 79th and 86th on Broadway?

ONE HUNDRED

WordPress informs that the next essay (this one) will be my 100th posted to LeavingWest83rdStreet.  What to write for the 100th essay is a serious question. The first 99 have brought me friends, old and new.  They have brought me great joy.  They have brought memories to my consciousness that might otherwise have been lost.  They have made me think in greater depth about friends and particularly about my family. 

The boy who grew up on West 83rd Street passed through many things.  The group of boys who lived in 222, supplemented frequently by neighborhood friends (hi Jon) shared many experiences and many people.

There were the children of a dentist, a lawyer, a writer (that was me).  The other parental professions are lost to the ages, if they were ever known.

I find myself drowning in all this, unable to pick one soul or one untold story that merits this placement.

So, I do nothing new except send a message.

To my faithful readers, Thank You.

Benches

A friend of sixty years recently shared a photo with me.  The picture of nine ladies and one gentleman sitting on a bench on a Broadway island was interesting and understood but not memorable, except for one thing.  The couple on the left end were Black people.  Surprised the heck out of me.  It wasn’t memorable because I don’t recall any groups that large sitting on the 83rd Street version of this bench.

I have since learned that the photo was taken about twenty-five years after my first memories of this phenomenon (older people sitting on the benches) when they would have been all white people.

Thank you www.dougschwabphotography.com

The islands and their benches I remember well, but not “elderly” ladies sitting in groups.  My friend explained that this group might well have just come from tea and english muffins at the Metro diner on Broadway.  The photo places this bench on 90th Street; the New Yorker theater is in the background.  We can’t make out the movie title on the marquee so it is hard to date the photo but having found the photographer I now know it to be circa 1981.

Places for tea near West 83rd Street included Schrafft’s and The Tip Toe Inn.  I remember the former as cavernous, the few times I ventured in with aunts or the grandmas of friends.  I remember white tablecloths and napkins and waiters in uniform.  Truly a different time.

There were other notable restaurants in the surrounding blocks:  The Hungarian Rendezvous and Ho Sai Guy being the ones we attended.  Most of the storefronts on Broadway were retail stores like Bostonian Shoes, Levy Brothers, Radio Clinic, RK Boutique, the driving school, Rappaports, David’s, Florsheim Shoes, and so many more. These small businesses thrived in those days. Many were passed from generation to generation.

I could walk into most of these businesses, with or without parents, and be greeted with a smile and called by my name.

Today is so different. So many “small” businesses are big and keep you anonymous.  I try not to go back to those.  But, admittedly, today I shop in places where I expect to be “lost in the crowd,” like Amazon.

The island on 83rd Street was a school crossing and was often guarded by a police officer. The only one I recall was Sam.  He was a giant of a man.

If we crossed at 82nd Street instead of 83rd we walked on the north side facing Plymouth.  It was a lady’s shop so I never went there; the windows were often of great interest to young boys.

The islands are still there, still have benches and are no doubt populated.  They look nothing like the islands on Park Avenue; richly planted on a seasonal basis.  But they are part of the West Side’s character.

WINTER COMES TO WEST 83RD STREET

We were quite a group.  And in all seasons except winter we played street games with significant frequency.  In the winter, well, it was different.

There were those mountains of snow that appeared across Broadway near 84th street at the bus stop.  Incredible.  They were taller than a city bus.  built there by city snow plows, they were white for a day, maybe two, and then slowly grew gray and soon to black unless of course there was new snow or a surprise melt.

Climbing those hills was something for us city kids. It was like being in Riverside Park without the walk.  

The game was king of the hill.  The danger was not completely lost on us; there was always the possibility of rolling off into traffic.  We were snowball makers of course and the thrill of nailing the back of a bus, the side of a truck or one of the gang from the top of the mountain was, to say the least, exciting.

In those days drivers were less dangerous it would be 15 or 20 years before kids would have to worry about being shot by an angry driver.  We got yelled at, and occasionally cursed, but never more than that.  

I don’t remember ever being chased by a cop!

Even with the snow ball fights on our block, usually from behind the parked cars, we never assaulted Engine Company 56 as it roared down West 83rd Street headed for the intersection with Broadway, two or three firemen on the back step, hanging on.  That would have been sacrilegious and because my dad was a buff and he and I hung out in the firehouse, everybody knew the danger to those guys on that back step.

We never had to push a shovel.  Living in an apartment building was sweet in many ways.  Having a super and a handyman and doormen meant many things including clean sidewalks.  In those days merchants cleaned their sidewalks without prompting, pushing the snow from the building line into the gutter between the cars, and sometimes under the cars.

I never took up skiing but we were all sled riders; sometimes in the street but mostly in Riverside Park where we joined dozens of other children from the neighborhood.

Suburban living in my 30s meant shoveling a significant driveway, front and side walkways.  Luckily my wife love to shovel. She still does.  And there were times the kids helped or just joyously played around us.

Now, snow is pretty but it interferes with my getting around.  That comes with age.

THE Library

When I was at Stuyvesant one of my favorite places on the planet was the 42nd Street Branch of the New York Public Library.  I went most Sundays.  I got on the 104 bus on the west side of Broadway between 83rd and 84th Streets and headed south toward 42nd Street and Broadway and finally turning left eventually getting off at 5th Avenue, across the avenue from the library.

It was a glorious place with the huge lions out front and the cavernous lobby.  

The research room (on three I believe) was adults only EXCEPT for students of the specialized high schools, like Stuyvesant.  Gaining entrance was a privilege I cherished.  

Photo of Rose Reading Room by John Angel on Unsplash

In the anteroom one found librarians if you needed help and rows and rows of card catalogues.  They smelled so good and led me to the treasures of the collection.  

Beyond the catalogue room was the Rose Reading Room, actually two reading rooms.  Their walls were lined with bound journals and more.  In the center space, between the reading rooms, were the pneumatic tubes that sent requests to the stacks and the dumbwaiters that brought books and periodicals up from the nether reaches.

It had all started in the card catalogue where I learned the letters and numbers that identified the library holding I was looking for; usually more than one at a time these were applied to multiple call slips that would be handed in at that center section and a call number assigned to my request.

Then you waited, watching the lighted number board avidly waiting to spy your number which meant a message or your books from below.

It was one thing I wished for that I never got to do, see the stacks.  I imagined high ceiling and rows and rows of bookcases in perfect order. And a lot of dust and a very special smell.

I did my homework and my research in those reading rooms right through college.  Although CCNY had the Morris Raphael Cohen Library I preferred the amazing 42nd Street Branch.

Much has changed since the time I used this wonderful resource.  When I went looking for something a few years ago I found that the card catalogues were no more, replaced by machines.  But there were still those helpful research librarians to guide me to what I wanted. 

Lady Heroes

When I was growing up they were called heroines, there were also actresses.  The division of the sexes was clear and accepted.  Today as you know they are all actors and heroes.

I recently wrote about my heroes the Kennedy brothers, Malcolm X and Dr. King.  This drove me to look around my memories for heroines of my childhood.  It was a difficult search.

When you google heroines of the 1950s you get actresses.  If you push harder you get Mamie Eisenhower and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Wonder Woman appeared in the comics during the war years. The comics then brought us Supergirl in 1959.  Batgirl doesn’t appear until the ‘60s.  That decade also brought us Jackie.  She was not universally a hero but neither were the aforementioned first ladies.  I don’t recall ever being taught about these women.

I will say that the women outside of my family whom I admired most were my teachers: Mrs. Miller at PS9, Miss DiPiero at JHS44. Others too, but those two were standouts.

There were no female Rabbis, like my daughter-in-law, for me to idolize, like I idolized my childhood rabbi.

I was already past my teens when Bella Abzug and Shirley Chisholm took formidable roles in politics.  They were not formative for me but they were avidly cheered on.

Why wasn’t I for example, taught about the scientist, Heddy Lamar or civil rights lawyer, Constance Baker Motley? (Look her up)

So as a boy I had no female heroes to idolize like the men remembered and idolized by many.  This is a clear defining matter.  

Today my grandson can idolize RBG (who he will hear about from his mother) or Michelle Obama or so many others.  Some things have changed, maybe not enough, but they’ve changed.

Those Men

The ‘60s were a turbulent time in America.  We were threatened with annihilation, there was an intolerable war, crime was rising, rioting was significant and commonplace  and our heroes were being murdered.  I lived at 222 throughout this decade with both my parents alive.  These events changed us all.

I own a book produced by Life Magazine entitled “The Day Kennedy Died.”  I skimmed the Warren Commission report and I wonder what is in the documents that have been held back from us for more than fifty years.

The Kennedy brothers, Dr. King and Malcolm X all suffered sudden violent deaths brought to us by radio, television and print media.  We were tortured by the tragic losses, the violence, the conspiracy theories and the future which had become so bleak.

When President Kennedy was assassinated I was in high school, literally.  I learned of his death on the subway.  He was a hero in our house and the loss was felt for a long time.  The weekend of his funeral, my dad, worked programming the music for the ABC network.  We all watched in great sadness as John Jr. saluted his father’s casket and the riderless horse with boots backward in the stirrups passed.

I remember the bloody dress of “Jackie.”  So many loved her youthful approach to the formalities of being the First Lady as well as her beauty.  We, like her and John Jr. and Caroline would never be the same.  

Watching LBJ being sworn in did not make us feel safer.

In my house, where there was a connection to the Strategic Air Command (a friend of Dad’s) we learned that all our bombers were in the air that night lest the Soviet Union tried to take advantage of a country in mourning.

Over the following days we saw the pictures of his head’s sudden jerking, of his wife holding in, of a secret service agent climbing the bumper too late.

We watched the murder of his alleged killer.

We were not numbed enough to take in stride the murders of Bobby, Martin and Malcolm.  The use of their first names was, and remains common. It is not disrespectful.  It demonstrates an everlasting personal connection.

When I recently picked up the book from Life, just holding it brought tears to my eyes, all these years later.

When we took our kids to Arlington National Cemetery and visited President Kennedy’s  grave it was not the end of the trip.  As we walked up to his brother Bobby’s burial place, marked by a simple white cross on an otherwise empty green hillside, I told my children that if they wanted to understand their father they should look to the words and deeds and hopes of these two men; and the hopes of a nation and its young people.

Things That Linger

Do you ever wonder what helped make you who you are today?  I’ve been thinking about things that I brought to adulthood from West 83rd Street.  There’s a lot.  Who I am today grew out of that boy, teen, young adult. I am sort of all over the place in these thoughts.

The first thing that comes to mind about the street is the firehouse a block away between Amsterdam and Columbus and the fire alarm box we passed while walking there.  Box 1138.  So much of my dedication to community comes from watching these men (at that time there were no women) slide down the brass pole, step into their boots, put on their rubber coats and leather helmets, and jump on the back step of 56 Engine to ride into the unknown to serve my neighbors and me. 

Not only did I learn service but I began to understand that there are different levels of bravery and they should all be respected.  Dad never served in the armed forces because he had only one eye but he served in the Civil Defense and he served the FDNY through the Third Alarm Association and through his movie making.

I started early as a safety squad lieutenant helping younger children cross broadway and as library squad captain in sixth grade.  I also served as president of a synagogue youth group (this was probably more fun than service).

The firemen gave as part of their job and Dad gave both professionally and voluntarily.  I gravitated toward leadership positions.

In our group of boys living in 222 I don’t think there was a leader.  We were an informal group of buddies who played together in the street and in each other’s apartments. 

Did I become and Auxiliary Police Officer because, in part, of these examples?  I am sure.

Did I become active in the school district on Long Island in which we raised our family because of these examples?  I am sure of this too.

My civic minded approach to life surely arose from the examples set on West 83rd Street.

Besides learning the way around firehouse and a fire engine my time in the dispatchers’ office in Central Park demonstrated a slightly broader understanding of the differences among men.  Often the dispatchers were firemen on light duty, men with temporary disabilities doing the same job as full time dispatchers.  There was also Russ, he was the only African American fire department member I ever met.  But, at least on the surface, he was treated no differently than other dispatchers.

Russ, like Helen, was significant in my life as was the song from my father’s un-produced musical “Wonderful Three Horse Hitch” entitled “We Don’t Care” that talks about race and religion in the world of firefighting; we don’t care if you’re black or brown, we don’t care whether you worship beneath cross or star.  These were defining words – what my father believed and what I learned.

I brought much more with me from West 83rd Street; perhaps for a future post.