Davey Crockett lunchbox . . . dints and dents.
We lived in the Navy
Yard neighborhood of Brooklyn, in a four-story, green and white family
house, with a row of trees all looking back at us from across a narrow
street. In the summer, the leaves hid the park. But my ear always heard
the park, regardless of the season. Even in winter, on the coldest and
darkest of afternoons, with the windows closed, noises from the park
found their way into my house. I knew when Jimmy, the park laborer,
slammed the big gate shut, calling it another day. I could detect the
rattling of chain links, followed by a “thump,” as some
kid hopped and landed on the other side of the small fence. I grew familiar
with the complaining of Keds sneakers when players made sharp cuts on
the courts, hoping to save a ball from getting past them so that they
didn’t lose a point. So the outside sounds mixed with the inside
ones, and I lived in two places at once.
I was born and came to this house two years after the Second World War.
They told me it happened during a blizzard near Christmas time. I don’t
recall. For the first six years, I only recall flinching my face. “Will
ya stop ya flinchin’, Johnny! You’re gonna get soap in your
eyes,” Ma said. She called it a sponge bath, but I didn’t
see anything spongy or soft about it. Sponges felt like friendly things
which you could squeeze and play with, and would pop back to life, and
wouldn’t cause you pain. From the kitchen sink, with the brown
soap by the faucet, she hurled a nasty, rough rag at me. She called
it a washrag; and by the time she finished, my face blossomed red. When
Ma’s face got meaner and meaner looking, and more and more of
the soapy slaps delivered themselves against me, I tried to get words
out but my lips moved in different directions. But by the time I regained
feeling in my lips, the Irish uprising subsided, and Ma had already
gone back to her counter.
One particular morning, getting ready to go to kindergarten, I endured
the usual rag rampage, seated on top of the chrome kitchen table, across
from the sink. The voice on the radio said Eisenhower and Stevenson
were running, and I briefly wondered how fast they were, why the race
took so long, and where was this city called Washington. But as I passed
through periods of darkness then light, wetness then air, I pondered
over a matter of grave importance. The night before, I had watched my
favorite TV show, Davey Crockett. The episode ended with scenes from
the next week’s show, and it tossed inside me. They showed Davey
and the other Americans in a place called the Alamo. One particular
shot focused on Davey in a small room, swinging his rifle, Betsy, at
hundreds of Mexican soldiers swarming, all trying to smash their way
inside. The Mexicans looked like they were all related, so that Davey
kept killing the same guy, over and over again. Each one of them had
a black mustache, a tall hat, and a belt of ammunition around the shoulder.
And when the announcer bellowed the name of their general, “Santa
Anna,” my palms slid forward on the armrests. What a nasty name,
and they didn’t even bother to show what he looked like. It was
just “Santa Anna”—certainly a dark, wicked face, holed
up in a tent somewhere, with boots propped on the table, drinking wine
and spitting tobacco juice in the dirt. I didn’t even know whether
he had one name or two for it flowed powerfully, invincibly. Maybe,
I hoped, by the time the next week arrived, more Americans would join
Davey in the fight. I resisted thinking the worst.
Paul’s Report Card . . . numbers and letters in fountain
. . . faded signatures of approval and a trail of “promoted”
and the Bridge of Sorrows
Academy, my grammar school, stood three blocks from my house. Considering
the sideshow entrapments along the way, it made for a difficult daily
journey. Even before reaching the first corner, I forced myself to tune
out the park’s handball courts where the possibility of a rip
in my school pants outweighed the enjoyment of an early morning game.
On the corner, I met my uniformed schoolmates conducting multi-colored
top fights. Red ones bumped green ones and then bumped the nefarious-looking
black top, as all of them spun and glided effortlessly on silver points,
back and forth on the street tar. When they were thrown and released
correctly, the tops gave off a consistent, peaceful, almost noiseless
hum, emitting a promise to defy the physical laws and to spin eternally.
In unpredictable directions, they traveled across the smooth black tar,
miraculously, like miniature Christs walking on water. Kids, holding
strings in their hands, cheered on their favorites; but they eventually
moaned, as their exhausted tops faltered and slid out from the pack.
On the avenue, Sadie’s store window lured me to inspect for any
new candies and two-penny trinkets I should purchase. The ultimate marketer,
the plumpish old lady was somehow privy to the newest upcoming kid fads.
Sadie’s pulled at me; but I kept to the path. Once I crossed to
the next corner however, the aroma of Anselmo’s Kent Avenue Bakery
beckoned me—like Delilah did Sampson—to slow down, to come
closer, to get a better whiff of the new morning rolls, or simply to
gawk and salivate from my desire for pastries topped with whipped cream
mountains. And I was tempted again. Very close to the entrance of St.
Paul’s, I met the congregation of baseball card flippers gambling
on their talents to land closest to the stoop wall, hoping to get a
“leaner” against it. Victorious, they stuffed their back
pockets with winnings so that they walked happily bulging and lopsided
for the rest of the day.
In spite of these various street amusements and diversions, I arrived
every day for eight years in time for the first whistle. I merged into
the other kids, all outfitted in their official uniforms for learning.
The boys wore newly pressed, blue pants, shiny from wear; their white
shirts with enough starch in them so they could live on their own; and
their mandatory blue ties, with the letters “S P S” emblazed
in yellow. The girls fashioned blue skirts and vests, white blouses,
and brown and white saddle shoes. Depending on moods that day, their
mothers either braided, or clipped, or left their daughters’ hair
to flow freely. Together the hundreds of us made an ocean of blue and
white swirls to the eye, which parted and then quickly swallowed each
new entrant passing through the gate.
tin bracelet . . . from Okinawa . . . inscribed “To Dolly,
In the fall, Saturdays
meant football in the neighborhood. Saturday mornings, my friends and
I played touch football at the park up on Franklin Avenue. Generally
by around nine-thirty—after finishing off some hot chocolate and
bagels and reluctantly warming up our bodies—someone shouted,
“Let’s get a game goin’,” and we gathered around
and formed teams. The unofficially approved attire consisted of a long-sleeve
baseball shirt topped by a hole-ridden sweatshirt, cut off at the elbows.
When the temperature dropped, we added woolen skullcaps to the uniform.
I especially enjoyed playing with the older, high school guys because
then I got to smell Tony Bosso’s aftershave when we huddled up
for a play. Inside a circle of reddened faces, with Tony’s breath
puffing out instructions about screen plays and post patterns, his enticing
scent reached across the cold air and thrilled my nostrils like nothing
else in the neighborhood—except perhaps Anselmo’s Bakery.
After every play I darted to Tony’s side, trying to maximize my
whiffs until we again broke the huddle. In time, I even finagled my
way to play halfback, behind Tony, so that I continued my olfactory
addiction as he barked out signals. And if we faced the river breeze,
it heightened my pleasure. It took me years to find out the name of
that sweet fragrance, since you just didn’t exchange views with
older kids about matters such as cologne.
In the afternoons, most of the time
Da and I watched college football on television with Cokes, a bag of
potato chips, and big heroes from King Stan’s. While we relaxed
on the couch, I’d ask him questions—between plays or at
halftime—about things that popped into my head: What did he do
on the docks? Where did Grandpa come from? Did he ever see Babe Ruth
play? Where did he meet Ma? Although Da generally didn’t go in
much for elaboration, sometimes I got good answers. One afternoon, when
we somehow got on the subject of beds, Da recalled how, growing up with
seven brothers and sisters, he switched to a different bed every night.
“Johnny, it was like traveling and being at home at the same time,”
Da said to me with faraway eyes. He told me, too, about Grandpa’s
homemade wine that burned all the way down his throat, and how he had
to drink a glass a day, to stay healthy—much to the amusement
of his older brothers. Sometimes, he escaped the wine by getting lost
in the park for as long as he could; but Grandpa or one of his brothers
eventually found him. But once, when I asked Da where the end of the
world was, he gave me only a two-word answer : “The cemetery.”
I couldn’t figure that one out, and eventually stored it away
in my mind along with other imponderables I had collected, such as:
How could God always be? And, can you really see nothing? Such enigmas
transfixed me, usually at night in my bed, and my mind raced in circles
until sleep won out.
I waited all week for Saturdays.
Ho playing cards . . . red smears on the edges.
Looming on the corner
of Park Avenue and Taaffe Place, a little more than forty years ago,
stood the shadowy, sinister figure of Buddy Brushane, the bully of all
bullies. He personified everything evil, a devil-child, with a nasty
scowl upon his face that never surrendered into a smile, never suggested
anything other than a very ugly view of his world. This arch villain
of North Brooklyn roamed our neighborhood looking for trouble like a
crazed Nordic warrior sought out battles. Shopkeepers watched his every
move. If they let their guard down, they would soon be minus some candy
or rubber balls, or even one of those expensive stickball bats displayed
in the showcase. Fat Ralphie—owner of the neighborhood’s
best candy store and purveyor of fine cherry cokes, egg creams, and
especially delicious chocolate sundaes—never let Buddy out of
his sight. While Ralphie, the most completely round person I had ever
seen, dug deep down into the container with his hairy arm to scoop the
perfect ice cream ball, he did so blindly—since his eyes stuck
glued to Buddy’s fingers, lingering dangerously close to the penny
candy trays. Preoccupation with the villain led to Ralphie’s reputation
for serving up inordinately large sundaes as he just kept scooping and
watching, and scooping some more. And on especially hot and sticky summer
nights, Ralphie scooped ice cream, followed Buddy’s hands, and
sweated. Beads of sweat, one at a time, would glisten on the wrinkles
of Ralphie’s forehead, stay for a moment or two, and then descend
and join in as a new ingredient to the ice cream sundae. They always
made our sundaes taste better and Ralphie never charged extra for them.
This peculiar construction of ice cream sundaes endured as the single
advantage Buddy brought to our block.