Number Fifty

Fifty years ago I was 19.  On fiftieth street there was a penny arcade with a pool hall downstairs.  Fifty dollars was a lot of money when I was growing up.  Yes, this is my 50th blog post to Leaving West 83rd Street.  Whether you read at www.leavingwest83rdstreet.com or on the facebook page by the same name or when I post them on my facebook page, twitter or linkedin, THANK YOU for coming this far on my journey back in time. 

This post was something of a struggle to get started.  I’ve decided on metamorphosis and time which happened to be the theme of the 1970 CCNY senior yearbook for which I took many photographs of timepieces around the city.  I wanted to be part of the work that year because 1970 was supposed to be my graduation year but like so many others I was late getting out.

The theme applies to this blog post by being word pictures of the change of places near West 83rd Street over time.

You may recall that dad was a fire buff and that we spent many, many hours at the firehouse, built in 1888, which still stands between Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues.  When we hung out there it was the home of Engine Company 56.  As the FDNY changed, so did “56”.  It changed into Squad 6.  No longer a pumper it was extra firefighters who arrived with different and less equipment.  Today it houses Engine Company 74.

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While “56” was still active there was a delicatessen with a counter in the corner of 222 West 83rd Street.  One night it had a fire and went out of business.  The fire was labeled suspicious.  The fire site was never a deli again although many years later there stood a new delicatessen several doors south of the corner, where the Radio Clinic had offered radios, TVs, Stereos, and all sorts of things for the home.  Among the friends we had there were Charlie and Ray.

East of 222 on the south side of west 83rd street stood the Holy Trinity School which  is now the Manhattan Children’s Museum.  No more will local children play on the street to be tortured by the big kids coming out of that building.  And no more will we look into the rear of the school to watch the Sisters rap the knuckles of miscreants in their classes.

On the west side of Broadway from 82nd to 83rd were a number of stores.  Plymouth, for ladies lingerie, occupied the corner and Schrafft’s restaurant (2285 Broadway) at street level nearby and lest we forget the ballet school upstairs (opened in 1956) and Florsheim shoes on the southwest corner of 83rd.  

Schrafft's, Broadway and 82nd St., New York City. Exterior from right

Plymouth is gone.  Schrafft’s first became the Red Apple Supermarket and later Barnes and Noble.  The ballet school which occupied the second floor is now also Barnes and Noble;  it was fun to watch the girls dance in the big windows that overlooked the avenue.  Florsheim grew into Harry’s and is still there.

On the northwest corner of 83rd and Broadway stood Bostonian Shoes, that’s where we shopped. I remember that Shoe stores had the great smell of leather in those days.

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I’m 2nd from the left and Jon Katz and his mom are on the left.  Thanks for the photo with Bostonian behind us, Jon.

On the east side of Broadway stood a three story building, the Loew’s 83rd Street and several small storefronts were found while moving north from the corner.  That’s all gone now replaced by a high rise apartment building. In my day that corner building housed unknown businesses.  It was also the building you had to hit with the spaldine to get a triple or homer in stoop ball.

The small office building was also the site of a sad revelation about neighbors.  A troubled young man once stood on the roof threatening to jump.  Below, people were shouting “jump, jump”.  The fire department set up a net and eventually wrestled him from the edge.  (I witnessed all this from my 9th floor window.)  When they brought him downstairs, to my horror, people were screaming at him “why didn’t you jump?”

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Thanks Cinema Treasures for this photo

The first storefront north of the theater entrance was the driving school and tax preparation business. When I learned to drive it was Paul’s business and a woman named Helen did the tax preparation.

The theater, in my childhood, had a matron in a white dress with a flashlight who monitored the children’s section.  It was 25 cents and then fifty for us to see double features.  There was also the annual sojourn to see The Ten Commandments; the first movie I saw with an intermission.  There is now a Loew’s 84th.

Some of these changes occurred more than 50 years ago, others more recently.  222 is more expensive to live in but it is still filled with homes.  The metamorphosis of West 83rd Street and its environs no doubt continues.  

U2

I was 11, in 1960, when Francis Gary Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union in his U-2 spy plane.  In my eyes he was an American cold war hero. Like today, in other matters, Captain Powers had his detractors.  He was called a traitor and many other names. He would not be released, in a trade, until 1962.

I was in 6th grade at the time and completed what for me was a huge project on Capt. Powers for Mrs. Miller.  I remember it as quite elaborate.  What we might call a “paper” today was assembled from colored construction paper, pages torn out of Newsweek or Time Magazine (Life was oversized and too big), and three hole notebook paper.  The article pages and notebook pages were carefully affixed with glue when one sided and stapled along one edge if two sided.  I was very proud of my work.

U2

This was the time of shelter drills. The Soviets might attack at any time.  We had to be prepared. Under our desks or out in the hallway away from windows we sheltered.  These drills have never been forgotten, the fear faded but not until long after times began to change.  I wonder how long my grandchildren will remember sheltering from domestic shooters.

1960 was also the year of the shoe banging incident when Communist Party Chairman Nikita Khruschev of the USSR removed his shoe and banged it on the desk at the United Nations General Assembly.  This was very undiplomatic behavior, only five months after the capture of Francis Gary Powers and indicative of the state of world affairs.

These were bad times.  It would be two years later in October 1962 that the Cuban Missile Crisis erupted.  I was 13 in 9th grade at JHS 44 and we were all following events at home and in social studies.  Soviet missiles 90 miles from Florida were unacceptable and President Kennedy took us to what we were sure was the brink of nuclear war when he faced off with the same Nikita Khruschev and forced the removal of the missiles.  These were not only  bad time but frightening times.

It was decades later that I learned that much of what we had been taught about the USSR was as false as what they had been taught about us.  We were minor players in the cold war and indoctrinated by the propaganda on both sides by our governments.  The big lie was a tool of both sides, like the big lie was used in the 1930s and is being used now.

What To Be?

When I was growing up everybody wanted to be something.  My earliest recollections are of wanting to be a fireman.  I even said it aloud in the film my father made for the fire department, FDNY.  It changed many times over the years.  I often look back and think that life happened to me rather than me controlling much.  

I did not however want to become dentist even though there were some pleasant things that might have been designed to push me in that direction or not discourage to me.

My father’s friend and my mother’s boss, Dr. A., was a pedodontist; and apparently an important one because he was once president of the American Society in his profession.

Because of him, while others played with GIJOE which my dad objected to, I played with chalk molars and real dental instruments.  I never filled the cavities I made but I do recall digging in the chalk.

Unfortunately, I got my mother’s teeth.  Dad smoked and drank to excess and had all his teeth.  Mom had the same habits and eventually no teeth.  I had a mouth full of cavities and tremendous amounts of dental work (still do).

I had the honor during a children’s dentistry week to appear in the World Telegram and Sun with Dr. A.  I treasured my celebrity for many years.

One of the structures at the World’s Fair was the Singer Bowl (yup, as in sewing machines).  The children’s dental society held an event there that featured an icon of the times, Soupy Sales.  I got to meet Soupy because of my relationship with the society’s  president.

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You may recall the Thanksgiving Day brunch on Central Park West, this was also a benefit of the world of dentistry my family was attached to.

I worked in the “pedo” department at the NYU College of Dentistry sitting right outside Dr. A’s office, he was “pedo’ chair, while I was in college.  I was collecting and processing data for a children’s dentistry research project with the affiliated Bellevue Hospital.

With all these “encouragements” I never entertained dentistry as part of my future.  I also never thought of becoming a writer like my dad, or a lawyer as was once suggested by the director of campus security at CCNY.  I fell into sociology and social science research as a result of my love and admiration for Walter C. Bailey my professor and mentor.  After his retirement I sat at his desk for my first real job at the New York State Narcotic Addiction Control Commission located then at 61st Street and Broadway which was happily within walking distance of West 83rd Street.

Coffee Pot

I’ve been writing now for several years to bring to myself and others the memories of a West Side childhood in the 1950s and 60s.  I think there is certainly no more odiferous memory than the aluminum coffee pot perking on the stove every morning.

The pot on the stove was part of every morning that my dad was home.  If he was away on business everything was timed differently.  He drank only Savarin brand, in the red can.  The aroma when a new can was opened is one of those smells I can conjure, well sort of.

The coffee grounds were scooped into the basket which sat on the upright and then covered and placed in the pot which had already been filled with tap water.  The little glass bubble in the center of the lid placed on the pot came quickly to life and the kitchen filled with coffee, coffee, coffee.

Dad drank his black.  I remember a heavy white ceramic mug.

COFFEEPOT

The stove it sat on had four burners and five knobs.  This was the stove that had removed my sister’s eyebrows when she turned on the gas and then lit the match to stick in the little hole.  Those were the days when you applied butter to a burn.

For many many years the kitchen floor was linoleum but after a significant flood from the washing machine which stood as the centerpiece in the kitchen my mother determined the concrete floor should be painted a brick red and left otherwise uncovered.  I know that I broke more than one glass on that hard surface.

No, there was no dryer.  Well, except for the wooden contraption that was suspended from the ceiling and lowered by pulley.  Clothes which had been spun in the washer were hung from this wooden frame and dried on their own.  The rope broke more than once in my life.  One of the many things the building’s handyman was able to fix.

Outside the kitchen was the dining room.  The wallpaper was a bright red on the wall made of plywood that had been used to divide the space into dining room and dad’s study.  The floor here, like the living room and hallways was parquet.  In fact, the floors throughout the apartment were wood.

One of the other unsafe things about apartment 9E was that all the exits, that were not windows, were on one end of the apartment.  There was a backdoor in the kitchen, a front door next to the kitchen and a fire tower door in the hallway leading to the front door.  That fire tower was a nice touch.  An enclosed stairwell that ended in the lobby by the building’s front door provided safe exit if you could get to it.  If there had ever been a fire in the living room, the only exits would have been windows at the very edge of the extension of fire department ladders.  

My dad, the fire buff had thought about the extension ladder limits but apparently not about egress or maybe the 100 foot ladders of the FDNY made the exiting problem less important.  

We were never tested with a fire of any consequence in our building!

The Mugging

I left West 83rd Street many times before I was married, but always briefly.  Summer Camp, short stay on West 78th Street.  Never far, never long.

College was one of those times too.  I am a NYC educated boy:  PS9, JHS44, Stuyvesant HS, CCNY, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.  From kindergarten through graduate school I never really left.  In fact I lived on West 83rd Street through all those years except for that time on 78th Street.

The City College years created many memories.  Some memories are unpleasant, some very New York of the time (1966-1971), others very pleasant.

The scary moments I remember most clearly were not during anti-war demonstrations, not the burning of the Aronow auditorium on CCNY’s south campus, not the resignation of Buell G. Gallagher, CCNY president and one of my personal heroes.  One of the scariest moments was the mugging.

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I don’t know why we were walking east on 125th Street to turn north and go to school.  I do know that there were two us, although I do not remember who he was.  (Maybe he’s a reader who will identify himself, maybe not.)  What I do remember is that there were six of them and two of us, that we were separated and I was shoved to the floor in a tenement hallway and that there was a small child watching.  

I remember that they demanded my wallet and that I gave it up.  They took the money out and when I asked for the wallet back, it was actually returned to me.  And then they were gone.

A frightening event;  I can’t see their faces.  I know there were six. And that small child quietly watching, like he had seen it before, with a blank look in that dirty stinking hallway.

We recovered and went to school. I’m pretty sure to tell our war story.  Not proudly, mind you, just another event in city life.

Parades and More

I think I grew up in a period of New York history that was filled with parades.  There was Thanksgiving Day, Columbus Day, Veterans’ Day, and Memorial Day;  there were parades for winning teams and other heroes, like astronauts, as well.  These were celebrations. Some of them were glorious.

I remember going down to Riverside Drive to watch the parade to the Soldiers and Sailors Monument.  For those of you who don’t know, it was built as a memorial to those who died in defense of the Union in the Civil War.  Located on 89th and Riverside Drive, overlooking the Hudson River, it stands today as always.  Originally known as Decoration Day this became Memorial Day with time, and came to honor all who gave their lives in defense of our country.

soldiers-and-sailors

This is different from Veterans’ Day, celebrated on 11/11 to mark the end of world war I on November 11th, 1918.  Over the years I have occasionally attended this parade to honor those who served in the armed forces of our nation both in my family and not.

Columbus Day has a parade.  I don’t know when it began to focus itself as an Italian heritage parade but that certainly brings less controversy in these days of questioning.

Thanksgiving is filled with parade memories.  Starting in the neighborhood with the balloon inflation outside the Museum of Natural History on 77th street and heading down Central Park West and then down to Macy’s (the proud long-term parade sponsor) this was the highlight of the parade year for children.

I have vivid memories of balloons and marching bands and santa followed by the sanitation men (they were all men in those days); it was quite a mess to clean up.  

The balloon memories are vivid because mom’s boss had a colleague who had an apartment on the third floor of a Central Park West building at which was annually held a brunch/lunch event.  While the moms talked and managed the food and the dads watched Thanksgiving football, we all hung out the windows and watched the balloons fly by our noses.  This was a dream come true, year after year.

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The other very West Side Thanksgiving memory occurred in the dining room of a brownstone between Columbus Avenue and Central Park West a few doors west of Rodeph Sholom.  Assembled here was a truly American grouping that included among others a part Cherokee woman, a Presbyterian minister, a children’s social worker, the family to whom the house belonged made up of a New Yorker and an Oklahoman, and, among others, me.  

I baked a challah to add my Jewish touch.  It was carefully home-made dough, twisted into an 18-24 inch loaf covered in egg wash, of which I was very proud every year (the recipe came from The Jewish Catalogue and served me well in other settings as well).

The prayers at this table were ecumenical and the love and warmth of friends and family was evident thru the meal.  I still miss Joe and Cynthia, and Mommy Rae and Chuck and Dick and the rest of the family.

I’ve made new memories too.  For almost 20 years my family has joined other volunteers on Thanksgiving Day serving with Yes!Solutions on 125th Street.  The servers come in all sizes, shapes, ages, ethnic and religious origins, orientations and colors.  We join together to relive, again and again, the true American story – welcoming everyone to the table to share in our bounty.

School Choice

I am a city boy; born and bred in Manhattan and schooled publicly, I could not be anything else.  I believe that early on I was expected to attend one of New York City’s exceptional high schools.  

My sister went first, leaving PS9 for Hunter.

Me, I had a decision to make in the ’62-’63 school year, Stuyvesant or Bronx Science?  All boys or co-ed?   The test was the same, as it still is.  I chose Stuyvesant; not because of its academic excellence but because it was all boys.  I knew then that if I went to Bronx Science and there were girls in my classes I would not pay attention.  I think that was pretty insightful for one so young.

My three years at Stuyvesant were many things.  

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My social life in high school was incredible.  I believe this to be true because I had to work for it.  While Hunter girls were our cheerleaders and we had dances with the girls from Julia Richmond, it was hanging out after school with students of the Franklin School that yielded relationships.

The “brat” did reappear in high school.  I was too small to play football but made friends with team members.  This gave little me the protection I needed to do stupid and one time dangerous things to lower classmen.  This was the downside of the all boys school.

During the transit strike of 1965 when Michael Quinn was calling him Mayor Lindsley we had to find our way to school.  83rd Street and Broadway to 15th Street and First Avenue was not going to be easy.  But I had a friend, football player, a little older, drove a mustang convertible.  All I had to do was get to the East Side and Billy picked me.

High School was filled with adventures and things of which today I am not proud.  Most of the latter were because of the crazy culture of an all boys school and the difficulties between classes (seniors, juniors…) 

There was the riot over a football game with DeWitt Clinton in which I took part.  That occurred on the day JFK was murdered.  A day never to be forgotten.

There was paying with pennies in the cafeteria to force the principal to let us go to the 1964 World’s Fair.

There was tripping younger students in the hall and being disrespectful to the young French teacher that resulted in her running from the classroom.

There was graduating 507th in a class of 715 with an 87 average.  It was a tough place to make the grade.

Who knows if I would have done better in the Bronx Science environment where I would be trying to impress the girls instead of the guys?