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Court of Appeal

Posted February 23rd, 2011 at 08:37 AM by chas

“It takes a village to raise a child.”
--Hillary Clinton

I spent my elementary school years in Bayside, Queens, in the late Fifties/early Sixties. The attached “garden apartments” meant one family at ground level, and one above it. They formed a semicircular “court,” which was my Old Neighborhood. Across the street was P.S. 205, Alexander Graham Bell School. On the weekends when not attending, we’d play in the schoolyard, or just bat a rubber Pensie Pinky against its stout walls in a pick up handball game. The men had lower middle class jobs like truck driver, taxi driver, or office worker. But we were a tight Jewish community. If Mom and Dad were both out, a neighborhood mom would be in charge. Then you could go looking for her if you needed band aides because you fell off your bike. But if you got into trouble, she’d be looking for you!

Older kids usually had the playground’s official ball field areas, so we played softball between two rows of attached garages, using chalked bases, and occasionally knocking out a window (sudden game end—Run For It!) With the local girls, we’d play outside games. There was the group hide and seek of Ring-a-Levio, played in teams over the entire City block, and the game show like contest Truth, Dare, Electric Chair, Private or Repeat (choose one on your turn; Electric Chair was when you’d be at the bottom of a pile of everyone else sitting on you for a short time and get squashed). This was played on someone’s stoop, or one of the two green park benches set in concrete at the bottom of The Court. Or we’d chalk a Scully board on the asphalt somewhere, and shoot metal bottle caps with nasty serrated edges which would slowly take off the skin off your shooting forefinger. On The Hill which bordered a large driveway, we’d go sledding in the winter, but dig foxholes for games or Army in the summer and spring—which made each succeeding year more challenging for sledding! Here are the guys I grew up with, in order of coolness:

Robby the Leader: He wrestled us all to be made ‘the leader.’ Which meant almost nothing, but he had to be it. Maybe because his mother was a Negro. I didn’t figure that out at the time; to us she was just Liz, another mom, and come to think of it, the prettiest one in The Court.

Paul Sports: He seemed to have an easy life, because he was good at baseball. I went to his bar mitzvah, the huge formal Jewish coming of age party some got at thirteen years of age. He got angry, but he never stayed that way.

David the Catholic: He was from Outside the Court, around the corner. I didn’t know what a Catholic was, except that it wasn’t Jewish. Nor did it matter. We drew up ‘control panels’ on paper of jet planes, spaceships, or other adventure vehicles, and flew them together. You can laugh, but he ended up as an officer on nuclear submarines! I still have some of his ‘ring hand’ toy soldiers in my Civil War collection. His mom was an Arab Christian named Maria.

Bennett: Real name, Alan. One day I called him ‘Bennett’ in third grade, and Mrs. Lazarus (her real name, and too good to pass up) looked at me with a ‘What will these kids come up with next?’ look and asked: “Bennett? Who’s Bennett?” Ever after he was ‘Bennett’ in school too. I have no idea what that name meant. Middle name?

Mattie the Stutterer: He was always comically angry, because he couldn’t get his words out right. Then again, why did he stutter? You didn’t want him to get mad at you. But we accepted him totally, so he usually didn’t, or not more than any other kid one at another.

Chas Sometimes: That was me. As in sometimes I’d come out and play, but sometimes I’d rather be off by myself reading, or even playing with my little sister! Sometimes I’d have another friend who wasn’t part of the neighborhood group visiting. Sometimes I’d be seeing Cousin Jim, who was over for a visit.

Andy Absent: He was often busy playing with the girls. Go figure. A gentle and artistic guy, who liked to gossip, but never fought physically. I think you know where I’m going here. But a member of the gang in full standing when he wanted to be, because he lived with us in The Court.

Sales trucks would drive around the block, ringing bells to signal their presence. Good Humor, Pete’s and the soft servers Tasty Freeze or Carvel sold ice cream. In the earlier days, there were also holdovers from an earlier era, like the Scissors Sharpener, who’d put an edge on any kind of blade. A few even brought carnival rides, like the Whip, with cars that flew around the ends of the central chain at a high speed, which you waited for in between in anticipation, or the one which was two tiers of stepped seats facing each other that rocked back and forth, higher and higher with each swing back and forth, with only the most courageous sitting in the highest seats. At Kiddie City, the local amusement park and arcade, you could get on really scary rides that the even the Astronauts said they were afraid to get onto! Or just play lots of Skee-ball, and shooting galleries like the old Coney Island Boardwalk amusements that my paternal grandfather took me to once or twice. In either you earned prize tickets that could be redeemed at the end of your arcade visit.

A few blocks away was the shopping center, where you found stores like The Five and Ten (Lambston’s) where you could get a toy for prices well within your allowance of about fifty cents a week. In The Candy Store on the corner, you had to make all your important decisions over how to spend your money on all the latest comic books on racks (ten and later twelve cents each) and candy bars for a dime, or bubble gun a penny a piece, with its own mini Bazooka Comic folded up inside the wrapper. These might include a half a dozen different colored gelatinous Chuckles, Bit O’ Honey with nuts in the taffy like substance, a big thick chocolate Chunky square, a chewy Baby Ruth, or the nut encrusted caramel of a Payday! Then there was Bonomo’s Turkish Taffy, in various flavors, which really did take a very long time to eat.Also besides a chain grocery store was Hamburger Express, where a real electric train brought your order on its flat car platters if it was your birthday.

Things were expensive back then. The neighborhood almost revolted when Digi’s Pizza Parlor raised its prices for a slice—from ten to fifteen cents each! Outrageous; we wouldn’t pay it. Some families held out for two days. On the weekend our folks dropped the four of us (Me, Cousin Jim and our sisters) off in a further shopping center at The Fresh Meadows Movie Theater in the afternoon to see an all star cast in The Longest Day--after a newsreel, a travelogue, perhaps a Disney or Looney Tunes cartoon, and finally Coming Attractions; all for fifty cents a person. My mom also took us to live children’s theatre once in a while that was held in one of the venerable older movie palaces that had once held vaudeville shows. These showed off now faded but still fancy lush décor, with fake palace facades climbing up the sides, and a starry sky portrayed on the ceiling.

In the more exotic Jahn’s Ice Cream Parlor, my Dad took everyone for my birthday one year, ore burgers and giant ice cream dish sundae combos with exotic names you could hardly finish yourself. I picked up the newest Tom Swift, Jr. adventure book, a Hardy Boys, and a Tom Corbett Space Cadet that year, a Skill Drive, a TV quiz show themed ‘home version’ box game like Concentration (hosted by Hugh Downs), Video Village (hosted by Monty Hall), or maybe a Risk, Combat!, or Sorry and other good stuff. Considering that my birthday was the day before Christmas (which we celebrated at our house) when we also got presents, my parents were pretty good to me, huh? What a haul!

Of course, I’d still try to wake my parents up early on Christmas morning. Mom would let Dad sleep another half hour while she diverted us with our stocking presents (in a real nylon stocking, which was pretty long). Small gifts and an orange apiece at the very bottom for my sister and myself, which kept us busy for another ten minutes trying to get them unpeeled. Then Dad would get up, turn on Christmas music on the radio, and we’d do the tree thing, taking turns with our presents, saving the bows for Mom’s next year wrappings. Playtime followed, with the new toys until breakfast in bathrobes and pajamas. That afternoon we’d be over at Cousin Jim’s house in Queens Village, another section of that borough, where we’d have a big formal roast beef dinner with Yorkshire Pudding, and exchange—what else—even more presents. It was a neighborhood where whatever else was going on in the world, you as a kid were safe. Here I received the only sports trophy I ever got in my life, from the from the Mid Queens Boys Club bowling league. Everyone in the League got one. The competitive players just got bigger ones.
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