Superman, World’s Greatest Superheroes, and all related characters & elements © DC Comics
Click on image to enlarge
Today would have been my dad’s 92nd birthday. I thought a good way to remember him would be to present some of his own memories, written for a creative writing class he took in 1991 – 1992 at the Hebrew Educational Society, after his retirement from the Bank of New York.
Morty, Martinis, and Mortality: A Shellfish Tale
Nearly sixty years ago a new boy moved onto the block. He was about a year younger than I and somewhat smaller. He wanted to be one of the bunch. So I beat him up.
He hung around with us, learned how to roll cigarettes from a pack of Bugler and Zig-Zag papers. Years later, when something more potent was rolled into Zig-Zags, I became some kind of hero when I showed the next generation how to roll anything into those papers.
Not too much longer after he joined us, Morty grew to be much larger than I was. So he beat me up.
With that out of the way, we became the best of friends. The conversations we had! How far does the universe go? How many suns are there in it? What is god? This was the 1930s, before television, when it seemed like these sorts of thoughts were brand new, before this sort of knowledge was available to everybody.
Time went by and, unable to get a job, Morty joined the Navy. We corresponded once in a while, and then the war broke out in 1941. It was nearly five years before Morty came back home.
“Sid,” he said to me, “there’s a big world out there. People do all sorts of things, eat things you wouldn’t imagine.”
So we drove down to Lundy’s, a seafood restaurant in Sheepshead Bay where he ordered a dozen clams. I took one look at them and shook my head. “Shut you eyes and open your mouth,” he ordered. I did. They were delicious and I was hooked.
Right next to Lundy’s Clam Bar was Lundy’s Bar. Several times a week we go to either one or the other. Gin martinis were the drink for me. The bartender would give us a dish of olives on the side.
That was living.
But we never drank and ate oysters or clams together. Popular belief back then had it that mixing raw shellfish with alcohol could give you acute indigestion that could kill you.
One night after I don’t know how many gin martinis, one of us decided that a few clams couldn’t possibly kill us. We decided to go next door to the clam bar to try. The girls who were with us got hysterical, while the other fellows in the group cheered us on.
Several platters of raw clams later we were being driven home, drunken heroes.
I wonder if we were the first ones to ever try that deadly combination. I choose to believe we were, brave volunteers risking our lives for science.
The Animals of East 89th Street
Ours was a very friendly block. During the hot, summer nights, we all sat outside until late at night, gathered in groups, telling stories and laughing until all hours. Sometimes, a young child would toddle out of one of the two family houses, having woken up and in need of attention. The older children took care of themselves.
At the time, I was in retail sales and, on my late days, I would get home after ten p.m., make myself a drink, and join the fun. The first person to spot me would be Marlene, who would shout out, “Here comes a highball with Sidney behind it.” The rest of them just drank soda or iced tea. Sissies!
After his wife died, Ben’s son had given him a Collie puppy to keep him company. That dog thought he was a person. If the door wasn’t locked, she could turn the front doorknob with her mouth and let herself out. One evening, Ben didn’t want to be bothered with the dog so he left her in the house. She waited for him a few hours, growing more impatient and annoyed, until she finally opened the door, and came up behind Ben and bit him on the leg.
Another couple had a little yellow mutt named Taffy, which they kept in the house whenever she went into heat. Across the street lived a humungous German Shepherd named Homey. He was the dog king of East 89th Street and, catching wind of Taffy’s scent, he quickly dispatched the several other contenders who had come sniffing after her and dove right through the screen window to possess his lady love. But Taffy was twelve or fifteen pounds, while Homey was the size of a Shetland pony, and though she was willing and he tried every which way he could, their love remained an unconsummated exercise in futility.
Taffy’s owners also had a cat which loved cars. If anyone left their car window open, the cat would jump in. If he couldn’t find an open window, he would settle himself on the roof or hood. It wasn’t unusual for a car to leave East 89th Street, only to circle around a few minutes later to toss the cat out the window.
The poor puss came to a sad end. Her owners were growing marijuana under lights in their apartment and, like all cats, this one liked to eat plants. Tabby O.D.’ed one day, but died very happy. It was said she looked liked the Cheshire Cat with a big smile on her face.
Eventually, Homey grew old and was challenged by Tippy, the guardian of Pete’s Auto Body Shop, around the corner on Ditmas Avenue. Tippy was a huge junkyard mongrel and, one day, Homey chased the younger dog off the block but made the mistake of following him into the brickyard across the street where a whole pack of wild dogs were waiting to ambush him. The pack chewed him up something fierce. Homey survived but, after that, rarely moved from the safety of his own front stoop.
That block had a sound of its own during the full moon, when all the junkyard dogs from Rockaway Parkway to Ralph Avenue would howl, a wild, heavenly chorus.
A Nickel or a Kiss?
When my oldest son was about four years old, I was involved in the plastic toy business. We did contract work for most of the large molding companies in the area. To say that my boys had toys enough to make any child (except mine) happy would be an understatement.
At the time we lived on Buffalo Avenue in Brooklyn, a block I had been raised on since I was ten or eleven years old. Around the corner, on St. John’s Place, was the candy store, owned by Flemmy, the archetypical old candy store owner. He wore a dirty apron over old clothes and schlepped around on bad feet over the saw dust covered floor. Flemmy’s opened at the crack of dawn to sell newspapers to the work bound commuters and stayed open late at night to catch the last few pennies for cigarettes and candy and the late night editions of the papers. The walls of the candy store were hung with cards of novelties and objects of no use to anyone but of infinite allure to all.
There was a small showcase against the rear wall that contained more novelties and toys, and an old fashion folding door telephone booth.
When I was a boy, before people had telephones of their own in their homes, the candy store phone was like the neighborhood message center. We used to hang around Flemmy’s waiting to take messages over the phone and run them over to whoever the call was for. The standard tip for this was 5¢ and, on a good day, you could make enough for a pack of Camels and an egg cream.
One of the best phone customers was Mrs. Scheiner. She wasn’t young and she wasn’t very pretty, but it seems she dispensed a service which was much in demand and received a lot of calls from men making appointments for that service.
Once, when it was my turn to answer the phone, I ran up to her apartment and delivered the message. She never had men up to her apartment, so she would come down nicely dressed, carrying her overnight bag, return the call in Flemmy’s phone booth, and then get on the trolley or hail a cab. But first she would ask who had come up to get her.
“Me,” I said.
“Do you want a nickel or a kiss?” she asked.
I quickly covered my mouth and said, “Gimme the nickel!”
Years later, after I’m married and had three children, I was in the candy store with Alan, my oldest, buying him one of Flemmy’s famous egg creams. He sees a toy in the showcase that he wants, but I tell him he can’t have it. “You have a ton of toys upstairs. You don’t need another one.”
He insists and starts to cry pitifully, but I stay firm.
While this was going on, Mrs. Scheiner had come into the candy store. By this time, she has retired from her previous trade, gotten married, and is respected by all the neighborhood.
She watches poor sobbing and deprived Alan for a few moments and then, with a look of disgust, opens her purse and slaps a dollar bill down onto the counter. Walking out, she says, “There, you cheap son of a bitch…now buy the poor kid a toy!”