Sisters—Part Three

[This is the conclusion of a story about my sisters, Justine and Veronica, in the 1950s and early 1960s.]

Upon graduation in 1958, Justine was not expected—make that not allowed—to go to college. Girls in those days and of our class and ethnicity (both the Irish and Italian sides) were not destined for college. They were genetically programmed to get a job right out of high school and work at it until they met their future husband. After the nuptials, they would quit work to take care of household duties and bear children.

Justine did not appreciate this genetic blueprint and made her feelings known. I sat through many essentially one-sided debates on the college issue.

Justine argued something like this:

“I want to go to college and I have a right to go. Dad went to college, why not me? I’m good enough in school that I can get a scholarship. Then I can find a way to pay my other expenses. I’ll pick a college in the city so I can live at home to save money. When I graduate I can get a better job and earn more money with a college degree than with a high school diploma. And I can certainly meet better boys in college than in the neighborhood.”

With this she rested her case. The prosecuting attorney rose in rebuttal.

“College isn’t for girls. While you’re living under my roof, you don’t have a right to do anything that I don’t say you can do.”

My mother was the prosecuting attorney, by the way. Aunt Lucy, Aunt Margie, Aunt Kathryn, and probably every other woman my mother knew except Eleanor Roosevelt (whom she didn’t really know all that well) would have been happy to serve as expert witnesses.

Case closed. Justine’s future was determined.

###

Justine had no choice but to seek employment right out of high school, except for a short detour to pick up the additional equipment that would make her employable. Aunt Margie suggested a good secretarial school in the area where Justine could pick up skills comparable to those that Roni had already acquired through the curriculum at her commercial high school.

Defeated, Justine did as told, spending a summer learning to type and take shorthand and then gaining employment at a company in Manhattan named Agrico, which dealt in farm equipment and supplies.

She earned decent money but continued to live at home. This meant that she had to turn over her entire paycheck to our mom and live on an allowance. This was ungodly galling, and Justine thought that she might circumvent the policy by using tactics similar to those employed by my dad. On payday, he was sure to make a stop at Ryan’s Bar before coming home; this was his way of getting at least one good evening’s use of his own money. Justine was no drinker, but she did like clothes; her Ryan’s was Macy’s. This led to the incident of the pretty white blouse.

Fed up with my mother’s parsimony, Justine decided after nearly a year of feudal serfdom to seize some of her money for herself. One day she stopped at Macy’s on the way home and bought a plain but pretty white blouse—a fashion update—to wear to work.

My mother sniffed out the Macy’s bag instantly and confronted Justine.

“What’s that in the bag?”

“What? Oh, nothing. Just something I picked up for work.”

“Let’s see it.”

“No. No, mom. It’s just a little something. It will be good for my work.”

“Show me.”

“Look, you can see inside. It’s just a blouse. For work. Just a pretty white blouse.”

“You don’t need that. You have plenty of blouses.”

“Yes, but this one’s pretty. You know, for work.”

“Who are you trying to impress? Is it that Mr. McKee? Why do you need a fancy blouse?”

“It’s not fancy. It’s just pretty. And what has Mr. McKee got to do with anything?”

“That’s what I want to know. Take it out of the bag and let me see it.”

“Here. Here it is. See? It’s just a pretty little blouse. It’s white. For work.”

“How much did you pay for it? Give it to me.”

“No. You don’t have any right to take it. It’s mine. I bought it with my own money.”

“You don’t have any money. The money you earn is my money for supporting you in this house. Now give me the blouse and the receipt.”

“No. No, please, mom. It didn’t cost much. And it’s just for work, not to go dancing or anything.”

“So you go dancing with Mr. McKee? He’s married you know. You shouldn’t encourage him.”

“Oh mom. It’s not like that. He just likes me. He’s nice. We don’t go dancing or anything. He just likes to talk to me. And anyway, the blouse is just for me. For work. I paid for it.”

“Give me the bag. With the receipt.”

At this point, my mother grabbed the Macy’s bag. Justine held on tight until she had to give it up. My mother took the blouse out of the bag and held it up for inspection. She looked at the price tag.

“Fifteen dollars? You spent fifteen dollars on a blouse? I could have bought a week’s groceries on that. I’m going to return this blouse as soon as I can get downtown.”

Justine’s face showed fear and, to be sure, loathing. She lunged for the blouse and got a fistful of it. The two of them tussled for possession like the two mothers in Solomon’s court. There was a ripping sound.

My mother reacted first. “There. Now you’ve torn it. How am I supposed to return it now? I’ll have to put it away.”

She took the damaged blouse, bundled it up inside its bag, and stuffed it into the lower drawer of the sideboard in the dining room, with the spare tablecloths and napkins.

Horrified, Justine broke down as thoroughly and miserably as I ever saw her do. I pitied her. I stood silently at the foot of the dining room table, seeing my mother in a new light.

A scene from the long past came to me—the pencil case incident. But now I realized that my mother had switched sides. Instead of being my sister’s fearless protector she had become just another Sister Felicia Jerome. I felt ashamed and sorry for Justine.

Roni had a similar reaction, but I saw that her pity was alloyed with a malevolent force field clearly directed at my mom. I thought of this moment later when I noticed that Roni managed to use her own money to buy a record player, for which she encountered no fallout. That was Roni: She just did things and dared anyone to question her. I got the idea that mom would never tear any of Roni’s clothes in half.

The blouse remained in the sideboard drawer. For all I know, it is there still.

Justine continued to work for Mr. McKee until she met a local boy at the St. Mark’s Tuesday night dances. They hit it off right away and within a couple of years they married and Justine moved as far away as she could.

Sisters—Part Two

[This is the second of three parts of a story about my sisters, Justine and Veronica, in the 1950s and early 1960s.]

To me, Roni was the closer of my sisters—closer in age and availability. Justine, six years older, was more distant, more involved in her own stuff, and too mature to be much of a companion. Roni was different. She played with me and fought with me and talked with me often. Consequently, I liked her better. On the other side of the coin, she was the sister I kicked down the stairs.

Much later, in the two-year period between Justine’s wedding and her own, 20-year-old Roni and 16-year-old I became even closer. We went to the movies and the beach together, and I accompanied her to the classroom part of her driver training course a subway ride away. Sometimes we listened to the little blue and white Decca record player she had brought home one day after work, in flagrant violation of house rules against spending her salary on anything at all not approved by my mother. I guess one day she just snapped, having become unbearably frustrated after looking one time too many at the non-functioning turntable in the massive, vintage 1930 radio-phonograph console in the living room, which my parents knew would never work again but refused to replace, insisting they would someday get it fixed.

Roni was also very cool—and utterly noncompetitive—about her standing relative to Justine’s at school. Justine was something of a legend in St. Mark’s elementary school. She was highly intelligent and the nuns knew it and gossiped about it. She set some kind of IQ standard. When it came my turn to work my way through the Catholic school system, one of my early teachers crystallized the challenge I faced: “Oh, you’re Justine Murphy’s brother. She was a very good student.” The clear implication was that if I tried I could maybe be a respectable second best.

This mattered to me. Roni had probably heard the same thing, but for some reason having to do with gender or birth order, I guess, it never affected her. She was content to find her own way, make her own friends, and toil at the level of accomplishment with which she was comfortable. This was a good level, but not the highest level. Justine was all high 90s, Roni was typically low 90s.

In the early grades, I didn’t know from 90s, but unlike Roni I wanted to be as respected as Justine. I formed the intention of accomplishing that task, but it was initially hard to tell if I was succeeding. In the early years of schooling under the nuns of St. Mark’s, there was no perceptible, formal system of measurement by which to differentiate gradations of intelligence. There were no numerical or letter grades in first or second grade, just animal stamps, holy cards, and check marks. The teachers in those grades were probably covertly frustrated with and peeved by early signs of developmental lag in some of their charges, but they resolutely showed nothing in grades one and two to distinguish between the smart kids and the dumb kids. Virtually the sole divider that I noticed pertained to urination: Kids who peed in the classroom were held in noticeably lower esteem than those who did not.

I did not. But then, of course, neither had Justine or Roni.

###

Justine was smart, as the nuns observed, but fragile. She was painfully shy, to the point that she could barely look another person in the eye. She was also sensitive to the sun, with the result that she was constantly squinting, which brought a worried, wrinkled look to her face. She was in no way the comparatively outgoing, social type that Roni was, and consequently had few tight friends. And most notably, she was no good under pressure.

Take the nun I will call Sister Felicia Jerome, Justine’s fifth grade teacher. Sister Felicia Jerome had a reputation, well deserved, of being strict and demanding—not so much in academics (Justine’s strength) as in neatness and orderliness. In particular, Sister Felicia Jerome resented the law of gravity: She hated it when kids dropped things. She made it a policy that any dropped articles, including pencils and paper, would be confiscated, to be returned, if she wished, after class.

This of course was a virtual mandate to Justine to drop things. She lost pencils, pens, erasers, notebooks, bobby pins (Sister Felicia Jerome could hear them drop halfway across a crowded schoolyard), sheets of paper, rulers, what have you. Every day Justine would come home bereft of some essential article of learning and my mother would have to replace it.

The pencil case was the last straw. Every kid was required to have a pencil case. You could have a Lone Ranger pencil case, a Betty and Veronica pencil case, a plain pencil case—as long as you had a pencil case. The pencil case held, naturally, pencils, but also pens, erasers, compasses, protractors, and a rash of other accoutrements of fine schooling. One day Justine dropped her case and Sister Felicia Jerome took it from her. Justine went home that day in tears.

My mother had a strong reaction. She could replace the odd pencil or pen, especially since my dad could easily purloin writing implements and paper through his job at the New York City Board of Education, but a pencil case held a king’s ransom of expensive items. It was costly itself, and compasses and protractors were also pricey. The thought of replacing a fully loaded pencil case lit my mother’s fuse.

With me in tow (I was too young to leave behind and Justine too distraught to babysit), she marched straight to the school and managed to find Sister Felicia Jerome at her desk, probably brushing up on torture techniques of the Middle Ages. My mother parked me in the hallway outside the classroom door and stormed Sister Felicia Jerome’s desk. Mom was steely-eyed, righteous, and more dominant of voice than even a nun. I listened as she absolutely cowed Sister Felicia Jerome.

I of course had no intention of missing the visuals, and so I moved from the hallway to the doorway. The good nun made futile attempts to argue her case but my mother rode roughshod over her protests. All discussion ended as mom demanded to know where the pencil case could be found (a closet in the corner of the room); then she retrieved it and departed without another word. She left Sister Felicia Jerome dumbstruck.

I would like to say she also left her contrite and made a new nun of her, but I have no evidence for either claim. All I know is that Justine was involved in no more incidents of brutality. And by the time I got to fifth grade, Sister Felicia Jerome was no longer at St. Mark’s, having probably been reassigned to Quantico to train marines.

###

Justine’s shyness was a social barrier but she was in no way a misfit. She was mostly a typical American girl of the 1950s: She was aware of and responded to fads, followed the stars in fan magazines, enjoyed American Bandstand and other popular TV shows, tried to style her hair in a Hollywood way with newly invented Toni home permanent kits (bad idea), did her best to hide her acne, and even attended the Tuesday night dances in the St. Mark’s auditorium—in other words she wasn’t just withdrawn and hyper-bright.

Justine had friends but they were not the alpha girls. She admired many boys but they pretty much ignored her. Her dances and romances on Tuesday nights were virtual, never actual. She was not sexually advanced; that was for the Italian girls. She didn’t know how to flirt.

Roni knew how to flirt. She attracted boys through her good looks, outgoing personality, and sense of humor. Her school grades weren’t threatening and she was easy to talk to. The result was that Roni had an easier time than Justine in the lab experiment that is grades six through eight. This doesn’t mean that she had what you would call boyfriends in grade school or did anything as socially avant garde as go steady, but she was at least in the mix.

As for disciplinary matters, Roni glided through grade school without attracting any particular Sisterly attention. She had no pencil case incidents, no detentions, but also no scholarly or good conduct awards. Of all the Irish girls in her class, she probably earned the fewest holy cards for pious or devotional acts. She attended mass on Sundays and, with the rest of the school, on First Fridays. She didn’t talk too much or too loudly at those events.

She attended the Tuesday night dances, and actually danced with some of the boys. There were no blots on her report cards, but no stars either. And when it came time to graduate in 1956, she followed the predestined route allotted to girls of her apparent qualities—the one that led to the commercial high school, St. Joseph’s, rather than the academic high school, St. Brendan’s, that Justine attended.

Compared to Roni, Justine also accepted a great deal more fatherly attention during the early years of high school. After dinner, my father would sit with Justine at the dining room table that served as the homework zone for all of us. He had an astounding memory. Justine was forced to struggle with French (evidently a more academic language than the Spanish that was Roni’s lot in her commercial school) and my dad remembered far more than I would have guessed. I particularly remember him helping Justine through a laborious translation, bit by bit on successive nights throughout the school year, of Blanche Neige (Snow White). I was amazed as I sat doing my third grade math at two things: that my dad was fluent in French and that French people had Snow White too.

He not only did French homework with her but also, if I am remembering it right, Latin, algebra, English, social studies, and everything else but P.E. I was impressed, but when my time came six years later to take the same subjects, I let it be known that I preferred to do my homework by myself. My dad was disappointed but I had a statement to make.

The other service he rendered her (and later me) was to adjust his workday so that he could take her to high school. She was the nervous type, admittedly, but it seemed excessive even to the young me that he did this two years straight, considering that St. Brendan’s was one express stop away on the subway and he took her not just to the station but all the way to the school door. When my time came, he took me to the school door for two days; for the rest of my freshman year (and never later) he went only as far as Times Square, where our paths diverged. I don’t remember if he decided to do it this way or if I made the choice, but I suspect it was the latter.

Justine’s high school career was uneventful. She did quite well at St. Brendan’s and had several close friends. She joined the French Club and dreamed of going to Montreal or even France with her classmates, but never did. Her consolation was a class trip to Washington, D.C., in senior year, which excited her as much as Paris would have done. She was bright enough to enjoy learning and to crave more when she finished high school.

This was not to be.

[To be concluded]

Sisters—Part One

I retain in the spacious shame department of my long-term memory the image of my sister Roni’s rear end growing steadily smaller as she slides and stumbles headfirst down the basement stairs. Roni’s dive was no accident: I pushed her. I should mention that I was probably five at this time, and Roni nine.

It all started with the Pepsi bottles.

My mother, who had virtually despotic control of the household finances, kept everyone in the family, my father included, on a tight, nonnegotiable budget. One line item was Pepsi Cola. My two older sisters and I loved Pepsi, and my mother would accommodate our craving by purchasing one six-pack for the three of us. The rule was that she would not replace the six-pack until six empty bottles had been returned to the cardboard carrier, which was kept on the first step of the stairs leading to the basement.

The mathematically correct ration was of course two bottles each; our young morality made this apportionment as inviolable as the water distribution system on a lifeboat. The minute the sixth bottle hit the carton, and not a second before, we could petition my mother for another six-pack.

It was well established that I liked Pepsi most among the three Murphy children and, developmentally, had the least self-control. My sisters knew this. At the time of the stairway incident, they were also old enough to have considerably more freedom than I. They could, for example, leave the house unaccompanied to walk to and from school. This meant that they could, at least theoretically, obtain a soft drink from a local soda fountain. There was just such an establishment on the corner of 18th Street and Avenue Z, which is to say one block from our house and less than that from the schoolyard. Therefore, were they so inclined and so flush with cash as to put a nickel together (or even half a nickel, if they were willing to share with another girl), they could procure a perfectly satisfactory carbonated beverage without having to invade their home ration.

For this reason or some other, it was frequently the case that there remained in the cardboard bottle carrier one untouched bottle after I had polished off my two Pepsis. I suspected Justine of engineering this situation intentionally because it resembled a tactic she often used when we all had ice cream cones. She would slowly, slowly lick her scoop of ice cream while Roni and I applied a vigorous tongue to ours or even, in my case, bit off fairly large chunks. The result was that Justine was still working on her cone long after we had finished ours. With great kindness, she would moan and sigh with pleasure as she ran her tongue over her cone, somehow managing to scrape it so fine as to diminish the total surface depth one micron at a time.

So, as I say, if there was to be a Pepsi laggard in the house, nine times out of ten it would be Justine. This time it was Roni.

She held steady at one Pepsi for the better part of a week. I would check every morning and a few times during the day, and I would invariably find five down and one to go. Finally, I resorted to a tactic that was not in the code of the Pepsi bottles: I asked her if she was ever going to finish her last bottle and, if not, could I maybe have it.

Instead of saying either yes or no, she surprised me. “Oh, do I still have a bottle left? Let’s go count them.” We went to the top of the basement stairs, and she knelt and bent over—way over—to achieve a physical, hands-on count of the bottles: “One, two, three, four, five empties, and one full one still to go. I had no idea,” she said. “I’ll just have to enjoy that last one in a couple of days. Sorry, Eddie.”

I was old enough to process irony. I snapped. Without conscious intent, my knee moved forward squarely to meet her bottom and then simply continued moving. So did Roni. She went down those stairs soundlessly, as far as I can recall, and reached the bottom with great speed. That’s when she started crying.

I ran straight out the front door. I am ashamed to say that I didn’t even pause to run downstairs and check her condition; I suppose I could claim that her crying reassured me that she had suffered nothing fatal and made it unnecessary to examine her further, but that would be a lie. I didn’t think of that or anything that had Roni at its center; I thought only of me.

I had never done anything of this magnitude before. I knew I would be in trouble, but I didn’t know how much. I didn’t run away; I merely nailed myself to a cross and hung around on the sidewalk in front of the house.

After some time my sister Justine came out and delivered the preliminary verdict: “Mom says you should just stay out here and wait until Dad comes home.” She wouldn’t even answer me when I asked if Roni was all right. All she did was give me a look such as his jury probably later gave Ted Bundy after convicting him of multiple murders in 1980. “Just stay here,” was all she would give me.

When my unwitting father finally arrived, I greeted him shyly and with evident guilt, but I wasn’t clever enough to put my side of the story on the record first. In truth, there was no my side of the story. I let him go into the house without saying why I was outside. Several minutes later he came out and told me in an eerily flat voice, “You’re in serious trouble. Roni will get better, but I had to call the police.” Just then a siren sounded a couple of blocks away.

Of course he hadn’t called the police, but I was convinced he had. It turned out that Roni was shaken up but perfectly fine (well, maybe a slight scrape or two) and my Brooklyn-savvy dad had played the odds about the siren, winning by coincidence. When the siren died down without spilling a team of armed officers onto 19th Street, I began to catch on. My father forced a stern look onto his face and told me to go inside, apologize to Roni, and put myself to bed.

I was relieved, having spent the time outside the house in a fantasy land of punishment, prohibitions, and lost futures. Dread of pain occupied a significant portion of my mind, but the worst of my torments was embarrassment. I thought about all the people on the block who didn’t consider me a ruffian. I pictured the people at mass who admired my hymn singing. I thought about how I would enter school in just a few months with a bad reputation, never have friends, grow up lonely. I begged God for another chance. I think I even offered to give up Pepsi for the rest of my life if only, if only.

Years later, when I became a father, I recalled this incident and the way my parents handled it. The flagellation I self-administered while stewing on the sidewalk, greeting passersby and trying to look normal while convinced that a lurid GUILTY sign hovered over my head like a tarnished halo, was far harsher than any punishment my parents could have doled out. It seems impossible, but no one can nail you to a cross better than you can.

And it worked. I never kicked anyone down a staircase again.

###

If you are the youngest of three children and you are a boy, it is arguable whether having two older sisters or two older brothers is the more advantageous position (we will ignore the case of having a mixed pair). The common wisdom is that having older brothers is better, at least in Darwinian terms, because it makes you tougher, more competitive, more fit. The thinking is that you will be improving yourself as you strive to keep up with your brothers in sports and physical games and have to defend yourself when the games drift toward physical or psychic abuse. With older sisters, there is usually no sense of endangerment, and hence no forced muscular or psychic development; instead, the suspicion is that you will be coddled, treated perhaps as a little dress-up doll—sissified.

On the whole, I think it was good that I had older sisters. I don’t remember being coddled, and I am certain there weren’t any dress-up situations. It may have been a developmental disadvantage that my sisters were stereotypically feminine when it came to physical activities, because I am and always have been completely hopeless at sports, but both of them were clever and appreciated intelligence, offering a fertile environment for my style of humor and my verbal predilections. Another advantage of older sisters is that I never had to wear hand-me-downs. I also got my own room.

My sisters pretty much went their way and I went mine. They were close to each other, sharing a room at home, while I had my own small room adjacent to theirs and directly above the kitchen. My room was near enough that I could hear them talking as I drifted off to sleep, and their companionship in the dark hours seemed sometimes enviable, but I was mostly happy to have my own little enclave where I could think my thoughts and hum my hums without interruption.

My sisters were just fine as siblings go, although I always—always—felt different from them in ways other than the obvious. For one thing, they didn’t seem to like leaving the house, preferring to remain indoors on weekends in their pajamas and bathrobes well into the afternoon, while I couldn’t wait to jump into my dungarees, as we called them then, and slam the door behind me.

For another thing, they never hung out with the neighborhood kids, while I was an enthusiastic member of a group of boys and girls from the block who spent summers on the street running, playing red-light-green-light, roller skating, flirting through a game called “Truth, Dare, Consequence, Promise, or Repeat,” and engaging in long bouts of a New York game called Ringolevio—which was a bit like tag, but subtler and more complex. (Ringolevio is to tag as chess is to checkers.) To this day my personality and even my appearance remain quite distinct from my sisters’ (who in both respects resemble my father), and I have long harbored a secret suspicion that there might have been a milkman in my mother’s life.

My sisters were four and six years older than I, and thus a bit out of range for playing and companionship purposes, which may have helped to nurture my more solitary side when I was at home. As soon as my Uncle Marty and his family moved out of our basement in 1952, I moved in. My parents made the basement a kind of large storage area for all sorts of things, including my toys, comic books, and baseball cards. When I wasn’t outside playing with my friends, I was in the basement reading, imagining, shooting, making marble runs, counting my play money, and daydreaming.

[To be continued]

The Italians in the Basement—Part Four

[This is the fourth and final part of a story about the time during 1951-52 when the Grimaldis—my Uncle Marty, Aunt Kathryn, and cousin Geraldine—lived in the basement of my parents’ house in Brooklyn.]

Uncle Marty drew from his Italian heritage an encyclopedia of tools and their names. His manual dexterity exceeded my dad’s by at least two orders of magnitude, and he loved fixing, building, and bettering things. Whenever he had a free weekend, he would search through the house with my father for projects to take on. If I was lucky I could accompany them on their quest. It was while searching for just such a project that my dad revealed, in a closet in my parents’ bedroom that I had never even noticed before, a ladder to the roof. Because I was with them at the time, Uncle Marty invited me to come along to the rooftop, and my father agreed.

I don’t know what Dad and Marty were seeking that day, but when I stepped out onto the roof I was transported. I had never felt so full of light, so free of gravity, not even in the Statue of Liberty. I felt myself rising out of my body and hovering above my neighborhood. Dropping abruptly to my knees on the asphalt roof with a thrilling sense of vertigo, I crawled to the roof edge and got a God’s-eye-view of my street: the elder Mr. Crafa next door with his constant lawnmower; dapper Mr. Bruno, on his way home up the street to his wife and his two boys, who were on the way to becoming my friends; even Mrs. Welch on the stoop of the three-story apartment house next door, holding and cooing over one of the many stray cats she had taken in over the past couple of months.

In fact, my scope was now virtually infinite: Because 19th Street consisted of an unbroken series of row houses, every roof touched every other roof. I could have walked from Avenue Z nearly all the way to Avenue Y, and on a lazy summer day a couple of years thence, I did so. On this day, I closed my eyes and imagined such a walk. The people in the houses beneath my shoes would have no idea that someone—a boy—was walking on their heads. What sublime power, what ecstasy!

That day I was Newton receiving the gift of godly knowledge, or Francis of Assisi on his first levitation. That rooftop was a mind- and soul-changer that I owe to Marty’s enthusiasm for repair projects and adventure, and to his generosity toward a quiet five-year-old nephew. It was only one of a catalog of ways that Uncle Marty’s tenure in our basement affected my life.

###

The Catholic Church, singularly adept at hyperfine analysis and minute categorization, recognizes seven formal virtues. Four of these (prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance) are called moral virtues. A person can earn the moral virtues through deep study, hard work, and vigilance. Anyone with sufficient motivation and commitment can develop the moral virtues.

But the Church also recognizes three theological virtues—faith, hope, and charity—so called because they have to be divinely infused into a person, not gained through an act of will or devotion. The theological virtues are in essence born, not made; you can’t go out and buy them, even with coins of piety. The soul can possess them only by God’s generosity. A person with them can be said truly to possess grace.

Uncle Marty stocked my young soul with a wealth of lessons that I learned chiefly by observation. I learned about driving nails cleanly, sawing across the grain, using the knuckles and hands as measuring tools, and many other practical things. I learned that a car ride could be an adventure and that, if you had nice things, you should share them. I learned never to be gloomy, always to see the good in people, no matter how raggedy or unusual the exterior, and to be quicker to laugh at yourself than at others.

The most important lessons he offered were the subtlest, and were delivered by actions rather than lessons. I don’t know about the moral virtues, since I’m sure he could be as imprudent, unjust, weak, and intemperate as anyone. But in his unfailing good cheer, confidence, and kindness, he incarnated the theological virtues that all the teachings of the nuns and priests who would come later could deliver only as abstractions. Marty’s pedagogy was corporeal. Looking back I see that he was faith, hope, and charity in the flesh, and I can only wonder that the grace of God so quietly resided in this humble man, and feel lucky that I had the chance to experience it.

The Italians in the Basement—Part Three

[This is the third of four parts of a story about the time during 1951-52 when the Grimaldis—my Uncle Marty, Aunt Kathryn, and cousin Geraldine—lived in the basement of my parents’ house in Brooklyn.]

Gerry was four years older than I, about the same age as my sister Roni. When her family first moved into our house, Gerry must have sniffed the air and instantly sensed a threat. She immediately formed a cynical entente with my sisters, reinforced by gender and age, and made me—the baby of the family, the boy—the object of relentless torment. I felt her hostility but was too young to do much about it. Except, of course, encourage her mother to fawn on me.

Gerry was a talented tormentor. She would pick on me relentlessly. If she knew a clever card trick, she would show it to my sisters and me. Then, when we all begged her to tell us how she did it, she would eventually tell my sisters, but when it came my turn, blandly inform me that “a good magician never reveals her tricks.” If she had a juicy bit of gossip, a joke, or a funny story, she would openly exclude me from her audience, banishing me with clever sayings like, “Go tell your mother she wants you” or “Why don’t you make like the wind and blow?”

Once she showed us a pencil drawing that she had done. It was a portrait of a girl in profile, and it was pretty good. The only odd thing was that the girl had two distinct swellings placed symmetrically on her torso: one in the front of her chest, which I knew was right, and another equally prominent in the same region of her back, which was something I had never seen before. So I asked her.

“Gerry, what’s that bump?”

“You mean this one,” she said, pointing to the breasts.

“No,” I said, “I know what that one is. What’s this one?”

“Oh, look at him. He knows what tits are. Not bad for a baby. How did you find out about those, Baby Eddie?”

“Everybody knows about those,” I stammered. “They’re real, you know. Girls have them.”

“Your sisters don’t,” she said.

“Uh, well, I guess not. But they will. You have them and our mothers have them.”

“You little sneak. You’ve been looking at things you’re not supposed to look at. You’re no angel after all—you’re a bad boy. Eddie is a peeper. Eddie is a peeper.

“Go away, you little peeper, before I tell your mother.”

Completely flustered, I slunk away. What a stinker, I thought.

Stinker was a pretty good stab at what Gerry was, given the developmental limitations of my vocabulary. She did things just like this all the time, making me the odd kid out on every occasion when it was just the four of us together. I finally gave up on her and went outside or to another room when she was around, although with all those Grimaldis in the house, there weren’t many vacant spaces at any given time.

###

Gerry’s problem could not have been that she was mistreated or starved for parental love. In fact, she was an only child who was treated extraordinarily well. In at least one area she was more catered to than we were: She had more toys and other good things than my sisters and I put together.

Let’s take one example. After her family’s TV, her best possession, in my view, was a fully articulated Howdy Doody puppet, dressed in cowboy gear, with more movable joints than a Chinese gymnast. Howdy was controlled by a ship’s rigging of strings and handles; if you worked at it you could probably make Howdy dance better than Fred Astaire.

Gerry never came close to mastering the strings, working at them and their paddles for no more than twenty minutes before giving up permanently. Devoid of patience and manual coordination, she missed Howdy’s potential, leaving him on day one a pile of wooden limbs and fishing line in the corner of her room.

Howdy Doody wasn’t a toy my ultra-frugal parents would ever buy. But every time I saw him or thought of him, I wished they had. I was of just the sort of patient and meticulous disposition to work out how to make him move—and unlike Gerry I was probably literate enough, even at age five, to work through the instruction booklet and illustrative pictures that came with him.

But she never gave me a chance. She kept him in her room and, undoubtedly noticing my envy, told me never even to think about touching him.

Gerry’s real problem, I realize now, was that she was a girl in an Italian household. For all the joy Italian girls may give their parents when they arrive, the blessing is necessarily mixed because, in a world populated by their natural predators (i.e., Italian boys), girls bring the onus of eternal parental vigilance. Boys, in contrast, cause no commensurate worries. For Aunt Kathryn, I clearly represented the son she never had, and Gerry knew it.

[To be continued]

The Italians in the Basement—Part Two

[This is the second of four parts of a story about the time during 1951-52 when the Grimaldis—my Uncle Marty, Aunt Kathryn, and cousin Geraldine—lived in the basement of my parents’ house in Brooklyn.]

Uncle Marty had one quirk that was insanely galling to my father. Once a week, he would come up from the basement, which had only a sink and toilet, walk through the living room, and go upstairs to our bathroom to take a shower. We would hear the water running and, sometimes, Marty himself crooning a popular tune or a sloppy Italian amore song. He was an emotive bather.

Marty’s baritone was not the thing that bothered my father. What really got to him was that, for all the Saturdays Marty indulged his shower habit, he never remembered to tuck the curtain inside the tub. While the rest of us were tuning in to his musical performances, my father must have been listening for the distinctive sound of water hitting the bathroom floor. The minute Marty went downstairs to his basement lair, my dad would speed upstairs and angrily mop the sodden bathroom floor. His colorful vocal stylings, which were also audible in the living room, involved neither pop tunes nor amore.

Of course, my dad, being Irish, never voiced his complaint directly to Marty; instead he griped about it to himself, tubside, and to the larger audience of his family sotto voce when he returned to the living room red-faced from his exertions. Marty’s tub manners chewed on my dad’s innards as long as the Grimaldis occupied our basement.

###

Marty was invariably cheerful and energetic, creative and enthusiastic; in daily life, he was a jet with a visible contrail. Even my father, who was irked by some of his habits, respected Marty’s Italianate manual abilities, which complemented my dad’s less tactile Hibernian leanings (which he probably would have called brains). And he liked—everyone liked—Marty’s affable nature and sense of humor. Marty was always good for a funny story—often a story in which he himself played the role of butt—or a joke he had heard, and he bore a bone-deep resemblance to Ray Bolger, the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, who also had the comic gift.

My father seemed especially bemused by jobless Marty’s utter lack of concern at a time when most people, with less reason, harbored a Sears Catalog of fears: not making ends meet, commies, a new Depression, atom bombs, polio, and gangsters, among others. Not Marty. I remember one time, after some interaction with Marty that I don’t recall, my father saying something to my mother that I processed even then as deeply portentous. His complete utterance, a florid compound sentence that I understood but imperfectly at the time, nevertheless stuck word-for-word in my mind. My dad, recovering from his encounter with Marty, shook his head slowly, exhaled, and commented, with both exasperation and admiration, “Marty could walk out the door and see the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse grazing their horses on the lawn, and he’d offer them a pail of water.”

###

Aunt Kathryn was a large Avon Lady obviously addicted to her products. She applied cosmetics with a heavy hand to every square inch of her body. She always smelled of perfume, which was not unpleasant, and cigarettes, which was, and wore rouge and bright red lipstick. Her physical expressiveness significantly exceeded the combined passion level of the entire Murphy household.

Kathryn was loud, flashy, painted, fragrant, and colorful, and when she came upstairs to visit us, she left lipstick stains on absolutely everything in the house. Her lipstick-stained cigarette butts adorned every one of the ten or so ashtrays that my mother strategically placed in every location where Kathryn might be tempted to alight.

Now, the presence of stained cigarette butts in ashtrays is one thing, but Kathryn managed to smear lipstick on just about all of our possessions, including objects that you would think were physically inaccessible. My mother once found and held out for inspection a decidedly Kathrynesque stain high up on a curtain in the living room; Kathryn would have had to have stood on a chair and jumped to plant it there. In the end, my mother gave up on asking Kathryn to be careful and shrewdly put out the red Christmas napkins when the Grimaldis came upstairs to visit instead of the white ones that she used for other guests.

Uncle Marty and Aunt Kathryn were comfortable with children: They loved me and my sisters and we loved them back. Kathryn’s natural exuberance led her to hug and kiss me frequently; when she did, I put up with the smell of cigarettes, which overpowered even the cosmetics, because I liked her and because every hug made my loathsome cousin Gerry jealous.

[To be continued]

The Italians in the Basement—Part One

As a devout Catholic, I grew up with the concept of grace. I heard the words “the grace of God” or “God’s grace” almost daily, and Mary, the Blessed Mother, was famously “full of grace.” Beyond God and Mary, the quality itself was loosely attributed to a handful of the more pious saints, but it was notoriously hard to define. Now I know that grace is a real human characteristic, but rare. You might expect to find it among the professionally devotional, but of all the nuns and priests who extolled it ardently and incessantly in my youth, only one—the young and virile Father Lahey—came close, and he had the Greek version, properly called charisma.

It turns out that grace itself can actually be right next to you and—because it most often seems to come in unlikely shapes—can take you by surprise. It took me a while to realize that my Uncle Marty had grace, and he himself would have scoffed at the notion. Perhaps that is an essential component of grace: If you have it, you don’t know it. You certainly never claim it.

###

It is to Uncle Marty that I owe my first car ride, which happened to be to the Statue of Liberty. The Grimaldis—Uncle Marty, Aunt Kathryn (my mother’s younger sister), and cousin Geraldine—were living at the time—summer 1951 to fall 1952—in our basement. The car ride was a gift from Marty to our decidedly carless family (my father had owned a car back in the 1920s, drove it sparingly, wrecked it somewhere upstate, and left it unrepaired by the side of the road—never to buy another).

On the appointed day, the three Grimaldis, my dad and mom, my sisters (Justine and Veronica), and I all piled into Marty’s venerable Plymouth. This was a large gray car with two full-size rows of seats and an additional rear-facing rumble seat. Roni and I, as the two youngest, were assigned to this odd seat until my cousin Gerry figured out that we enjoyed it. On the return trip, she and Justine joined Roni in the rumble seat, while I had to sit in the regular back seat with my mom and dad.

Because my family didn’t have one, merely to be in a car was exciting. Marty drove expertly, but fast—too fast for the parents, perfectly for the kids. Watching my neighborhood and the rest of Brooklyn recede rapidly backwards was a thrill. And the best part was yet to come: the parking garage in lower Manhattan. This was a six-story structure with a long spiral ramp to the parking levels. The garage was nearly empty but Marty chose to park on the top level to give us extra spiraling time. He knew just how much gas to give the Plymouth to make the ascent and descent as heart-stopping as possible. Everyone but Marty screamed with terror as the vehicle screeched its way up and, later, down the long ramp.

###

The Grimaldis were living with us because Marty had been laid off after the war from a longstanding job at the Brooklyn Naval Yard. Other men might have garnished this apparent defeat with a loss of self-respect, but not Marty. He wasn’t pleased about it, sure, but neither was he deeply concerned. He was confident that prosperity was just around the corner, and just by being Marty and available, he got along.

For all of the year or so that he lived in our basement, Marty didn’t really have a job. Still, he somehow managed to have many things that we didn’t have, such as the Plymouth, a big console radio and record player that—unlike ours—actually worked, and a TV. He cheerfully shared these with us. Being a kind man, he probably didn’t notice that his only child, my cousin Gerry, resented sharing anything with me, but I did. On nights when my family was invited downstairs to watch Martin & Lewis or Uncle Miltie, Gerry routinely informed me that I couldn’t fit with her and my sisters on the sofa, which could easily, in fact, have accommodated all of us plus the infield of the Brooklyn Dodgers. I gave in, and no one was aware of her exclusionary policy except me; they all assumed that I liked sitting on the hard, linoleum floor.

Marty didn’t really look for work, confident that it would come if it wanted to. And just often enough, it did. One day, for instance, he came home with a large bag of gumballs. He told us that he just happened to be walking down the street that morning when a man with a trunkful of gumballs asked Marty if he could help distribute them.

Marty’s assignment was to fill the gum machines at every stop on the Brighton Beach subway line, uptown and downtown, and then return to the Sheepshead Bay stop, where the man was parked, by 4 PM. This he did, and diligently. When he returned at the end of the day holding a bag diminished by maybe half, the man happily assured him that the number of gumballs he’d gotten rid of was plenty, and not only paid him what he owed but told him to keep the rest of the bag for his kids. Which is why Marty came home a double hero. I’m sure Aunt Kathryn appreciated the money, but gumballs were the favored currency among kids.

[To be continued]

Fool of God

As I poke through my past like a rock collector, I sometimes encounter episodes lying face-down that I am reluctant to turn over. Among these are moments of utter, helpless, mystifying foolishness. Such moments are embarrassing, and yet it is at such moments, I believe, that the presence of God is felt, however obliquely, in the human soul. The intentional human hand slackens for a moment, as at a Ouija board, and the Maker forces his way through.

I am not thinking of the times of trivial foolishness that one lives through for comic relief. I have had my share of pratfalls and spilt drinks, of bumped heads, failed jokes, and malapropisms; these do not reach the level of divine foolishness.

I am trying here to describe moments when a breath of wind with roughly the numinous force of the Burning Bush inspires an action of radiant idiocy. We who inhale this wind become fools, for God’s sake.

We are all familiar with the character of the divine fool in medieval plays and stories, a God-inspirited being who stands outside the self and lives a life of ridicule and wonder, a creature to whom none of the norms of human commerce apply. Such fools serve a societal purpose, positioned as they are outside the circle and affording through vacant eyes a glimpse of what rages beyond. These ardent beings are touched in some way, and we know it instinctively. Joan of Arc is the most vivid example of such a fool: fiery life, fiery death.

But it is not the Joan of Arcs, with their political agendas and vast deeds, that interest me: My sights are set smaller. My suspicion is that each life, no matter how ordinary, harbors moments of divine foolishness, incidents that make sense only when viewed in an entirely different light and measured against the calculus of the blessings they bestow on those who witness them. I know that I have participated in more than a few such moments, and I have no pretensions to uniqueness.

Let me tell you about one of them.

It was an early March day in St. Mark’s school, third grade, 1955. Sister Mary Dominic was making a series of announcements before dismissing us for the day. One of the announcements was of interest. We were to come to class the next day wearing not our school uniforms, which for the boys were dark brown slacks, tan shirts, and green knitted ties that made large ugly knots, and for the girls green jumpers over white blouses with green ribbon ties; instead we were to wear our St. Patrick’s Day costumes. This was welcome news. By March my school uniform was ratty: I could use a change. Besides, the St. Patrick’s Day costumes for our class were neat that year and I thought I looked particularly good in mine.

St. Patrick’s Day was the third-most-important day in the nuns’ calendar, after Good Friday and Christmas. Many families in the parish—located in the Sheepshead Bay part of Brooklyn—were of Irish descent, and every year the Church sponsored a St. Patrick’s Day Pageant, or “Irish Night” as it was more simply called. All eight grades of the school took part, each with a presentation organized around a patriotic or nostalgic theme. In addition, parents who had talent or thwarted ambitions created comedy skits, dance numbers, or song routines that they would perform. The parents also built the sets, decorated the gymnasium, and sold the tickets, for this was an important fundraiser.

The nuns of St. Mark’s were in charge of conceptualizing, writing, and directing the children’s skits for Irish Night. Immense importance attached to this responsibility. Each class had to be rigorously practiced until it could perform its routine with devotion, radiance, and precision. Only age-appropriate blunders were tolerated, and only if they warmed up the audience.

It never occurred to me to wonder what anxieties Irish Night must have caused the nuns who were without performance talent, which was not after all the primary job requirement. They had to muddle through somehow, relying I suppose on their colleagues in the convent to be script doctors and consultants. Some managed by falling back on their true, non-theatrical talents. I remember one sister whose strengths were decidedly on the martial side of human affairs. Her class’s number that year looked like a lusty march on the Reichstag instead of the Easter Parade it purported to be.

Costuming was an important part of the children’s presentation, compensating entirely in some classes for lack of talent and inspiration. In my third-grade class the skit was a medley of songs on the Yankee Doodle Dandy theme. Parents had been made to rent or sew Uncle Sam costumes for their sons and some sort of frilly crinoline things with pantaloons and parasols for their daughters. Parents lacking financial or tailoring resources could sign their kids up for background roles that could be played in drab, simple costumes.

The flashy costumes were the ones we were to come to school in the next day, a Tuesday: for me, red and white striped pants, a blue cutaway coat, white shirt, red vest and striped bow tie, and a cardboard stars-and-stripes top hat. It made good sense to me that Sr. Mary Dominic might want to see us in our costumes before even the dress rehearsal on Friday afternoon, because it was vital that we get everything just right.

That night my mother ironed my Uncle Sam costume and hung it on my bedroom door. I slept poorly, knowing it was there. Next morning she helped me get into it: It was a bit tricky to button up. We discussed makeup. It had been announced at school that all performers—boys and girls—would wear rouge and lipstick for the show this year, which made us boys laugh and punch one another, but Sr. Mary Dominic explained that all actors wore such makeup so that their facial features could be seen through the bright footlights. My mother and I decided against the makeup this time, however, since there was no question of footlights.

As I walked to school in my costume, the first sign of trouble was Bernie Kennedy. He was standing on the corner waiting to cross and he was in his plain old school uniform. No Uncle Sam.

My first reaction was empathy, since he might very well be in violation of a classroom command.

“Hey Bernie,” I said. “Where’s your costume?”

“Uhh, what costume?” he asked.

“This one. You know, Uncle Sam.”

“I think it’s at home, Eddie. In my closet.”

“Why is it there?”

“My mom put it there. I’ll put it on for dress rehearsal.”

I began to have misgivings. Bernie was one of the smart kids in class, not the sort who would miss a direct order from a nun.

Didn’t you hear Sister saying we should wear our costumes today?”

He looked at me for a second or two. “No,” he said.

There was a gap in the traffic. We crossed the street.

As we neared the schoolyard, my steps became increasingly diffident. Soon I could see that I was the only Uncle Sam in the area. It was nearly 9 a.m., too late to turn back. It would take too long to get dressed again, and I couldn’t dream of being late for class, not even if the price of promptness was the humiliation of an Uncle Sam costume. I had no choice but to continue. As I walked I tried to be mindful of the brave saints who had faced similar walks, with martyrdom at the end. I made an effort to step proudly.

I knew I had heard the order to dress up. I could clearly remember it. But where had that distinct, authoritative voice come from? Then, as I reached the high cyclone fence that surrounded the schoolyard, I had the answer, both to that question and to my current dilemma. The voice I had heard the day before had undoubtedly been of divine origin. I had to have faith.

I let the divine wind that had spoken to me before speak through me now. I knew it was still in the general vicinity, so I simply abandoned myself to it and to its power. It was like the falling backward game at parties. I let myself go. And I felt myself moving forward with purpose and grace.

St. Mark’s in 1955 was a bustling school, filled to the brim with postwar Catholic offspring. There were 52 children in my class, 3-B, and the same in 3-A. In each of the eight grades that St. Mark’s served, there were about the same numbers: two classes of around 50 children. Allowing for ten percent absenteeism, the number of children on the schoolyard that day was approximately 720. Seven hundred nineteen of them, in the dull browns, tans, and evergreens of the school uniform, gradually came to a silent stop.

Among them was something new: a blinding, glittering, divinely inspired pinwheel of a boy, dressed in a blue and red and white Uncle Sam costume, holding his top hat with one hand and spinning wildly to make the tails on his coat fan far out behind him.

Shelter—Part Three

[This is the third and final part of a three-part story about the years immediately following World War II as I experienced them as a very young boy in Brooklyn.]

For my mother, too, the war of the 1940s continued in the early 1950s. Like most mothers in the neighborhood, she stayed home and did the housework while my father worked a subway ride away. Inside the house, she dusted and vacuumed, listened to the radio, bought from the milkman and bread man, dealt with the Fuller Brush salesman, and watched over me as I played on the living room rug. Sometimes, when she found time, she read stories to me from a thick red book of fairy tales and legends or just talked to me about anything that came into her mind or mine.

One thing that came into my mind one fall day added yet another item to my growing stock of fears. My mother and I had just returned from the funeral of a neighbor. He was a man whom she had known well enough to chat with whenever he passed by, and so she felt obligated to attend his funeral. After we returned home and she had settled into her favorite living room chair, I gradually formed the question that had been materializing all morning.

 “Why do people die?” Having undoubtedly heard the question twice before from my sisters, she responded promptly, “Because God wants them to live with him in heaven.”

The conversation proceeded along scripted lines: “Does God want you and Dad?” “Yes, but only after a long, long time.” Pause. “Does God want me?” “No, Eddie. Not yet.”

This answer was not as reassuring as it was meant to be. It left me with the clear understanding that I was certainly going to die. The slanted sunlight made parallelograms on the living room rug, revealing dust motes floating in the still air as I worried that God might make up his mind about me pretty soon. Apparently the jury is still out.

###

My mother’s life was dominated by economics; she must have dreamt of rationing and scarcity. I would go with her to the butcher’s shop on Sheepshead Bay Road and watch as she alternately flirted and haggled with the butcher to induce him to be generous with her meat ration.

I also remember her taking my sisters and me on a trip, no doubt undertaken for the sake of economy, to a grim poultry operation on 12th Street, which was several blocks outside the main Sheepshead Bay shopping area, past the neighborhood where our local Black population lived. The destination was a dirt-floored establishment—more farm than shop—that offered live chickens for sale.

The chickens were held in wooden crates until purchased. The floor smelled of what must have been offal and blood, and the atmosphere was raucous with prescient chickens. My mother dealt directly with a man in a smeared apron. She selected the chicken she wanted and the man took it, upside down and flapping, to the next room. After a few seconds of frantic noise, the man returned with a headless chicken, which he threw into a vat of hot water and then put it into a machine that spun the chicken and somehow removed most of its feathers. Then he wrapped the chicken and gave it to my mom. This trip horrified me and my sisters, and we must have made our feelings obvious, for we never took it again.

###

When rationing was over, my mother switched from the local shops, where she had free rein to use her bargaining skills, to the larger A&P, where prices and portions were formalized and the shopping experience sanitized. Since she often shopped during the week, when my sisters were in school, many of these outings were mom-and-me trips. For both of us this was an enjoyable weekly routine.

The way my mom did the shopping, the A&P was filled with excitement. She showed me how to shop properly and economically—judging the ripeness of a cantaloupe by squeezing it and sniffing its button, or picking appropriately ripe bananas by squeezing (she was a big squeezer) and observing the color of the peel, especially the veins where the sections joined. She had a specialized technique for every fruit and vegetable, which essentially boiled down to using as many senses as appropriate (especially the sense of touch) for each item.

Throughout the store, she demonstrated the economical art of selection. Often, even after squeezing and looking over every fruit and vegetable in the produce department, she would accost Tony the Produce Man and have him get her the “fresh items from the back.” Similarly, she would send Rudy the Butcher on a quest for cuts of meat better than the ones in the showcase.

Tony the Produce Man was just a functionary who performed his produce management task with a good nature, but with Rudy the Butcher, a handsome young German, my mother enjoyed a weekly flirtation. She would often send him back two or three times to find even better pieces of meat or to grind the hamburger one more time. In every case, he complied with a knowing smile, a humorous remark, and often a wink. They were both the happier for the interaction.

In the impersonal parts of the market where prepackaged goods were shelved, my mother would shake the cans of soup to pick the one with the most solids, palpate and shake the cereal boxes to find the fullest one, look through every package of bacon to find the one with the least fat, hold up the milk and soda to find the bottles with the least amount of fresh air between cap and liquid, and search every shelf for the goods that had an old price instead of the current one. I quickly learned to be her accomplice, shaking, palpating, staring, and comparing relentlessly. Sadly, these practices remained with me into young adulthood.

###

She supplemented store-bought food with whatever she could obtain in other ways. Sheepshead Bay was home to a large fleet of fishing boats and we occasionally went to the docks on Friday afternoons to bargain with the fishermen for a piece of cod at a good price. Her primary motivation was that such fish was unrationed, unregulated, and cheaper than in the stores, but it was also fresher and much better tasting. An added benefit was the bazaarlike feel of the scene, with its unshaved, muscular fishermen shouting flirtatiously to her as she cheerfully shouted back, demanding better fish at lower prices. We would probably have done this more often if my father had liked fish more and mistrusted Italian fishermen less.

Mom had a green thumb and when she decided to start a small garden in the back yard, it produced an abundance of tomatoes, zucchini, and greens, which we ate often. She swapped her extra vegetables for apples and peaches grown by Mr. Crafa, our next-door neighbor, a man blessed in horticulture.

###

My mom’s economies were not confined to groceries. She knew the secret of making clothing last forever. Like the rest of our block, she was not too proud to take hand-me-downs from a circle of neighbors and relatives who had children a year or two older than one or another of us kids. My sisters, who were as clothing-aware as I was not, had to make do with garments that were maybe once in fashion and definitely cut for a different body. As for newly purchased clothes, my mother had a habit that I thought odd even then: She would never release for use any newly bought article of clothing until it had done time in the drawer, unwrapped, for at least a month. Maybe she always bought a larger size than needed and wanted to wait for us to grow into it. Or maybe this was simply an artificial way to make her purchases last longer.

If you looked into my mother’s past, you would find the reasons for her skill at making do with little. For one thing, she was the tenth child of an Italian immigrant mother and first-generation-American father (the final number of children was fourteen). Strictly by the rule of primogeniture, her food was scant and clothing well-used. It must have been entirely natural to transfer these economies to her own family.

For another thing, she had experienced the force of the Depression as a young woman and was accustomed to making every penny go impossibly far. She was young during both the fun years of the Roaring Twenties and the grim years of the Depression. The lesson was clear: Fun is transitory and must ultimately be paid in the coin of grimness.

###

All in all, despite the tangible ghost of war and want, mine was by no means a mean childhood. I never, ever felt poor. I never had any sense at the time that I was a member of the struggling half of the middle class. I had what I needed: a family, friends, things to play with, a church to go to, and later when I was old enough, a school right across the street.

But I was wary.

Shelter—Part Two

[This is the second part of a three-part story about the years immediately following World War II as I experienced them as a very young boy in Brooklyn.]

My father’s fear of a Russian invasion was not entirely idiosyncratic. The world that I was born into in 1946 was uneasy. Life had already proved to be tenuous and full of peril, and the end of the war had brought no more than an inchoate yearning for peace, not the real deal. Everything in my early experience suggested that we were not so much “postwar” as “at war,” for Brooklyn steadfastly maintained a war footing through the late 1940s and 1950s.

Uniformed men were a not uncommon sight on our streets, as were men bearing wounds from the war. My earliest memories include the drone of air raid sirens and the buzz of warplanes. My evening sky featured searchlights crossing and recrossing the deepening blue. We civilians had to be as alert as active-duty GIs. On one of our neighborhood walks, my father and I stopped to watch a group of men on the American Legion lawn cleaning with pungent cloths and tamping rods a World War I artillery piece, readying even this antique weapon for sudden need.

Inside their houses, parents readily assumed the role of defenders, bulwarks for their children against a treacherous world—guardians, not the parental companions that their children would insist on becoming in a couple of decades. Children were worried about, not doted on. The catered-to life of the baby boomer, now legendary, was as yet unachieved.

My job in those early years was to inhale and interpret the strange world around me. I listened as my parents and their friends swapped worries about bombs, communists, spies, fallout, missiles. The homes on my block were fortresses against diffuse, vague enemies.

And not all enemies were geopolitical.

###

For one thing, doors and windows were locked at night to discourage kidnappers, rather than foreign spies. Kidnappers were very much in the news, and they were known to favor children exactly like us. The words Lindbergh Baby, first uttered in 1932 when Charles Lindbergh, Jr., was abducted, were still on parents’ tongues in 1950. I didn’t know for sure what a Lindbergh Baby was, but I knew I could easily become one at any moment.

But even the Lindbergh Baby had to yield to the most tangible fear that permeated our lives. This was polio, which, as everyone knew, kids could get from muddy water and dirty hands. Polio in those pre-Salk days was in the air. There were radio programs about it, newspaper photos of crowded polio wards, stories about every unsuccessful attempt—and there were dozens—to cure it.

I personalized my fear of polio by conjuring up a mysterious specter named Grandma Goblin; she was one of my bedtime terrors until my sister Justine informed me that she wasn’t a she at all, nor an enemy, but a good thing—some sort of experimental cure, actually named gamma globulin, which offered hope, but not in the end success, in the polio battle. Grandma Goblin evaporated, but not her foe.

Right on my street, there were at least three polio houses with kids bearing signs of the disease: steel-braced limbs, crooked spines and jaws, curled hands, crutches. Polio was real and ubiquitous. You couldn’t get away from it even in comic books. My sisters once brought home from school a Catholic comic book called Treasure Chest, which featured at that time a polio-stricken character who was forever encased in an iron lung. Like most of the content of that magazine, this brave boy was supposed to make Catholic children meditate on mortality and courage. It didn’t work for me; my imaginings never went beyond the picture of that cruel contraption.

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Polio was certainly the most prominent of our fears, but it wasn’t alone. I absorbed fear with my morning Cheerios as voices of threat dominated the radio stations that my parents favored. No matter what they were announcing, radio men of the time spoke with urgent voices. In the evening, programming switched to fictional broadcasts that thrived on peril, such as The Shadow, who lurked as a barely seen hedge against an unsafe world; The Inner Sanctum, whose creaky door suggested terrors behind our own bedroom doors; and Boston Blackie, the private eye who was a friend to those who needed a friend and an enemy to those who made him an enemy.

The Sunday papers were stuck in the war that had just ended. They featured an array of fighting heroes like Smilin’ Jack, Terry & the Pirates, Steve Canyon, and Buz Sawyer. Colorful cartoon panels showed bullet-ridden warplanes trailing dark smoke as they plunged to earth, and periscope’s-eye views of torpedo trails heading ineluctably toward Allied ships. I was too young to read the words, but their artists were Leonardos of terror.

My favorite strip was Dick Tracy, one of the most graphically thrilling and exploitive of all strips. Chester Gould, the writer, was a gifted serialist addicted to colorful villains. I shivered at Pruneface, Mumbles, Tonsils, and especially Flattop. These villains put Tracy into panel after panel of terrifying predicaments from which there was no conceivable escape. Gould liked cliffhangers, routinely sentencing me to weeks of suspense until Tracy finally cheated death through resourcefulness and determination.

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Real life in the neighborhood was as terrifying as the reported and imagined life. My sisters—especially Justine—were kind enough to warn me of the many nasty things that existed right around the corner, including an actual, documented Boogie Man who haunted a narrow alleyway off Sheepshead Bay Road. This creature had reportedly moved menacingly toward a friend of one of Justine’s classmates, who had to run off screaming to prevent him—just barely—from nabbing her. My other sister, Roni, was a fan of a feature in the Sunday New York News called “The Justice Story,” which summarized the commission, investigation, and resolution of lurid and violent murders. She took to reading sections of these stories aloud to Justine and me, her voice growing steadily more gruesome as she read.

Then there was Avenue X, a street exactly two blocks away whose name foreshadowed its mysteries. Avenue X was said to harbor a gang of juvenile delinquents who wore rolled-up dungarees and smoked. These miscreants lay in wait for unsuspecting nice kids, such as those from Avenue Z. When one of us wandered into their web, I was told, the Avenue X thugs would do things that my sisters were too decent to report in detail.

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