Walking in the Emerald City

When you grow up in New York City, anything can happen. *Opinions expressed by others in these tales are not neccessarily my own.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The Second Street Social Club

Once upon a time, trolleys ran through the neighborhood, passengers carrying home brown sacks of fresh bread, discreetly rolling up a wayward stocking, tipping a hat to a pretty girl just off from her job at the elevator factory. The elevator factory, with its rough red bricks and proud green sign, supplied many people to the trolley, morning shift, dinner shift, night shift.

Some odd years latter, the trolley tracks were buried under layers of thick tar, the proud green sign fading into the background when the Second Street Social Club moved in where steel machines larger than life once stood.

If you aren’t aware, a social club is an interesting thing for a neighborhood. It is nothing like Lions or even the Knights of Columbus. Perhaps a bit similar to the Masons, although members of Second Street would have dismissed them as “Crazy sons of bitches,” perhaps distantly related to Satanists or the Russian mafia.

When too young to understand, I sometime went there with my father. A small room in front held a couple of offices. At the back of the innermost was a door, and I was never allowed through it. I liked going to the club, as there were always presents. Handfuls of dime-machine toys in their snappy plastic bubbles, sticky penny candy, nickels and dimes. When I got older, I would someone go there on errands, such as picking up illegal fireworks and delivering them to the police station for the officers’ kids and filling orders for mint cigarettes.

Over the years, I caught glimpses of that huge room behind the door, and goods moved in and out. Besides fireworks and cigarettes, there were slot machines, toy juke boxes, signed baseball bats, and more.

Some of the denizens included Uncle Louie, the neighborhood bookie, and Moses, who did in fact look like Charlton Heston in full white beard. Big John was in charge. A sense of dreaded anticipation fell over our house one week in the late summer when Big John and my father had a falling out. I didn’t understand it much, but our normally loud household fell quiet. One day the following week, my father was sporting an airbrushed t-shirt he bought at a local feast. It featured two fists in an embrace of friendship and their two names, Butch and Big John. My father came home that night with take-out Chinese food and a bag full of swedish fish.

Today, the elevator factory turned social club, is home to a trendy french bistro.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Blood on the Highway

Through the solid concrete and gray-brown brick of an industrial area runs a highway, an expressway. Rushing into the verve of Manhattan or escaping to quiet manicured lawns in Long Island, stoic commuters make their way back and forth, back and forth over this expanse of dull, hard efficiency. The Long Island Expressway. The LIE.

On the nearby Pulaski bridge to Greenpoint, “Wagon Wheels over Indian Trails,” someone neatly stenciled. This is ironic. I don’t imagine the Iroquois Indians would have invaded nature with a steel and stucco structure simply to get across the water. But the saying is quaint and reflects the personality of the neighborhood bridge. “Come with me, I’ll simply take you to Brooklyn and back. I’m just a natural extension of progress.”

The LIE, by comparison, would have none of that nonsense. It shouts, “I am efficient. I am necessary. I am the modern world. You’ll take me whether you like it or not.” Solid and useful, it is also known by locals as the great parking lot, especially during rush hour.

The occupy yourself while sitting in traffic, you can play the normal expressway games: guessing the car-length progress of trash on the expressway that is travelling faster than you are, or tapping the bumper in front of you just softly enough to annoy the forward driver, but not hard enough to cause him to leap out at you with a baseball bat.

Living almost under the ell, we had our own LIE games. You have to understand that we knew nothing about the endless parade of toys that passes through many modern American homes. Still we were blessed. We had the basics: a ball, a doll, a jump rope, some jacks, a toy car, a big wheel, pop tops and bottle caps, pebbles, found chunks of old plaster for chalk, traffic light poles, metal fences, window ledges and bridges.

One of our bridge games was “Blood on the highway.”

Blood on the highway was usually played near time to Halloween, when the best fake blood could be bought for a few dimes from the candy store. Thick and almost florescent, the gel oozed out in a wavy line from the small plastic tube. It’s snaky red wetness put us in awe of modern technology. Fake blood was the stuff of the the 20th century. A hundred years ago, kids must have just used ketchup.

Blood in tow, a group of us would find the dark spot under the ell where the steel service ladder began. We would reckless climb, banging away at the bumpy steps, sliding our hands along the sharpness of the paint flaking off of the handrail. Near the top, we were careful to stay out of sight until we were all assembled and ready to find a good spot on the shoulder of the expressway.

Pulling off the caps of the tubes, the conservative among us blended small dots of the blood at the corners of our mouths. But, Diego could go through three tubes for his hands alone. If his mother was distracted that day, Diego would go into her room and crawl under her bed. Bringing out the sturdy metal medicine box , he would commandeer long strips of sterile gauze to simulate a head wound. He was committed. And that is why he usually got to play the victim.

The victim would lay down on the shoulder and pretend to be near death. His screaming moans would be punctuated by rippling coughs brought on by the lead exhaust fumes of the cars passing by. This only added to the effect. For the rest of us, we waved our scabby, blood-dotted arms and shouted. The goal was to get someone to stop and call an ambulance.

“Help us! He was hit by a car!”

“Help, help, he’s dying!”

“Don’t you people care?!?”

“Hey, our friend is bleeding!”

“Help!”

In the two or three years that we played “blood on the highway,” I still don’t know which is more poignant. That we never got hit by a passing car. Or, that no passing car ever stopped.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

The Knife Murderer in Apartment 2C

The summertime in NYC brought plenty of long days riding bikes, climbing stoplight poles and hanging from fire-escapes and waiting for the ice cream man. The fall brought school, trick or treating in vinyl wonder woman or skeleton costumes that had a slit in the mouth of the mask just right for sticking one’s tongue through and tormenting parents. We also liked to torment other people, which brought us, one fall night, to the knife murderer in 2C.

He held the knife high as he crossed the frosted window. Across the dark courtyard, we could see him. A large man, bobbing and swaying, seemingly held upright by the fumes of Mad Dog 40/40 alone. Mean and disturbed, he yelled that was going to end the bad kids for once and for all. “People are taxpayers and they have some right to quiet,” my father always said.

“Quiet!” the man in 2C bellowed, and the sound bounced and reverberated through the stonework of five flights of stairs. Despite the closed window, the sound carried through and across the square courtyard below.

At the opposite window, on the other side of the building, we were huddled, Rosanna and I, sure we would be dead by diner time. I traced the lace-like triangles embedded in the glass. How many days before I die? I counted. One triangle, two triangles, three...”

“Is he coming this way?” Rosanna whispered.

Three. I had three days left. Well, at least I would get out of this, unless of course the knife murderer took us somewhere to torture us first.

Rosanna dug her fingers into my arm. They were chubby and strong, and smelled like fried plantains. My arm felt as though the knife murderer snuck up behind me and got me. “Let go!” I said as I peeked my head up beyond the black ledge of the window to see if we had been spotted. A layer of soot dusted my fingertips. I wiped it on my cheeks, and it became war paint. Silently, and for once, Rosanna followed my example.

“He’s heading down the courtyard stairs! Run!” I whispered with a fierceness that came partly from fear and partly from the pride at being the one in charge for a change. We started back down the hard stone steps to the first floor. If we could make it to the superintendent’s apartment...CREEEAAAK, the courtyard door was opening! Quickly we ran back up the stairs and headed to the third floor. “Let’s go up to the roof,” Rosanna said, realizing, I suppose, that she had lost charge of the situation. I had to distract her, quickly while I had the chance. Maybe I should tell her I was going to die in three days, unless today counted, then it would really be more like two and a half.

“Are you kidding?” I replied. “What will we do if the roof is locked, jump?” We heard heavy footsteps on the stairs. “I don’t bounce.”

Rosanna started up the stairs, pounding the gray stone and shuffling at the same time. It reminded me of those people on the Lawrence Welk show who tap danced on sand, if the people were suddenly turned into dancing hippos.

“Okay, nice knowing you,” I told her. “I’ll light a candle for you.” I ran to Mrs. Toco’s apartment and banged loudly. Rosanna shrugged and then joined me at the door. There must have been some weird planet spirit through Queens that day.

“Open Up! Open Up! He is going to kill us.” We could hear the drunken moans echoing through the landing just below us.

Mrs. Toco opened the door but wouldn’t let us in. “What kind of game is this? You kids better stop knocking on doors.”

“But Mrs. Toco, there is a man with a knife after us!”

“No, go away. Go play wolf somewhere else.”

And what we were sure was our last hope of survival closed in our faces with the percussion of the heavy steel door and the timbal of the seventeen locks being put into place. We banged some more. “You kids cut it out or I’ll call your parents.” Yes, please, that would be good.

“No recept from kidsh anymore,” roared from below. I imagined I saw the glint of light play off of the knife and onto the stairway wall. It glinted patterns into the the tile so fascinating, I almost stayed where I was.

“Where are yoush?!?”

“Oh God, run!” I said. At least, I thought, he would probably get Rosanna first, She was slower.

“Don’t take the Lord in vain,” Rosanna said. I pulled her arm, hard. “Oh mi Dios,” Rosanna said.

We ran up to the next floor and panted on the landing. We looked around. The dumb waiter. We could climb in and hide. It was painted shut. We went up one more floor. “Now you want to go to the roof.” Rosanna said. She was annoying. I hoped he did get her first.

There was only one more floor left. The knife murderer in 2C pounded up the stairs as we ran. Now on the fifth and last floor, there was one last boom and then silence.

We waited.

I wondered who would take care of my cat.
I picked at a hole in my pants.

Rosanna sucked her teeth.

I counted the black tiles on the floor in a straight line from one 5H to 5I.

We waited some more.

A low growl started up from below.

And then, it happened!

I snuck down a few steps and peeked over the banister. There, sprawled across three steps and the landing was the knife murderer. His body was bent in the shape of a lowercase “m.” His mouth was open, and the yellow teeth oozed spittle onto a wet sausage lip.

“The coast is clear,” I said.

“What if he is faking?” Rosanna asked.

“Then you can go first.”

“Very funny, ha ha. That was so funny, I forgot to laugh.”

“Fine, I’ll go, but don’t be too far behind, or he may miss me and get you.”

We stepped around turned for home, just like that. The fact that we were going make the channel news was a relief but also a disappointment. I’d like to say that we never ever again knocked on apartment doors, but hey, I still had a date with destiny in three days.

As Rosanna’s mother served us a snack of toast and mayonnaise, her father came home and complained to his wife that there was another drunk on the other side of the building, and how terrible for working families to see this. “You stay away from there,” Mrs. Lamirez told us and we nodded solemnly.

“El futuro se considera en pequeños ojos,” Mr. Lamirez said. The future is determined by little eyes. Seeing a drunk on the stair could ruin us forever.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Of Singers and Saints

Post removed by author

Monday, January 30, 2006

Greenpoint Part I

When my mother wanted to go shopping, to pick up some clothespins, or a bra, or maybe make me get a trim at the Cinderella beauty shop, she would ask my father to take us to Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Greenpoint was the equivalent of downtown, if such a thing exists in New York City. We lived surrounded by old elevator and zipper factories, soot still laying like black blankets over the old signs that proclaimed, “Coke is Best.” A quick trip over the Pulaski Bridge, barely a blink at the wonders of Manhattan laying just outside of the passenger side window, and we were in retail heaven. Picture Alice Cramden shopping for stockings or mice traps, and you wouldn’t be far off.

Past the metal rumblings of the bridge, we turned onto Manhattan Avenue. “Damn pollocks,” my father would say. “Not one of them can cross a street worth a damn.” Halfway up the block, this statement about life was a reliable and comfortable consistency. A criticism aimed outside of the car. Life as he knew it was compartmentalized into certain facts. The Polish didn’t have streets where they came from and couldn’t cross them. The Chinese made tasty food and sent their kids to NYU. Blacks were all right, but God forbid you ever marry one. If you did marry a Chinese, you would have pretty children. The Irish were not to be trusted, but at least most of them were Catholic. “Roman Catholic,” he said. “So you see the superiority.” We were Guineas or Guinea Wops, although we didn’t call ourselves that. I think we made tasty food, too, but I’m not sure.

Once parked my father took off to the OTB, the Off-Track Betting office. A stark single-window space that was filled with smoke, unwashed men and discarded betting slips. My mother and I would head to George’s, the working class version of a quaint country store without the quaint or the country. Merchandise was thrown this way and that under some complicated system that only the regulars understood. Where is the Breck Shampoo? Try halfway down the aisle between the chinese checkers and the duct tape.

One day, I saw the most amazing site just hanging there behind the counter. The black finish was so deep and smooth, it could have been made of licorish. As it moved back and forth, the diamonds just danced in the dim light of bare bulbs and imitation tiffany lamps. It’s eyes, well it’s eyes mimicked my own wide-eyed fascination. I thought I never did see anything as beautiful in my life as that jeweled cat clock. I had to have it.



To BE Continued