The Sidewalks of New York
“Hey Jerry, get your mother off the field, we’re playing a game!”
“Cut it out Joey, Don’t talk about my mother like that. Did I ever say anything about your mother?”
“Mom, would you please get off the field, we’re playing a game. I’ll have the milk and cookies after the game.”
Mom left preaching her usual sermon.
“The game. The game. All day long you play the game. If you did your homework like Walter does, instead of punching a ball in the street I wouldn’t have to see a teacher every week.”
It was a warm June afternoon. The boys retired to their headquarters, their meeting place, their dugout for ball games, a parked car’s running board. Eddie broke the silence.
“I heard that Bill Dickey can tell where a foul pop-up is going to go once it leaves the batter’s bat.”
“You heard. You heard. You’re always hearing things Eddie. The FBI could use you.”
“No Marty. He’s too stupid.”
The running board’s hard rubber embossed strips began to squeeze into Eddie’s rear.
Eddie stood up rubbing his rear end.
“Let’s sit on to the curb near the fire hydrant, my ass is killing me.”
Marty wasn’t happy with this suggestion.
“Dogs piss on the hydrant. I’m staying.”
“Holy shit! Wow! Look up in the sky! Wha’, … What is that thing?” trembled Marty as he edged closer to Eddie.
“Get offa’ me dummy. How should I know?”
The boys squeezed closer together. Shoulders pressed against shoulders, knees coupled with trembling knees, their mouths were agape. They were stunned. The bright summer sky was eclipsed by the sinister appearance of a huge oval object. Seabnry Place was blanketed under a giant shadow. It was an airship that seemed to be suspended by strings like a marionette.
“Why wasn’t it moving like the airplanes that pass by every day? I don’t like this. I’m gettin’ outta’ here,” shouted Joey.
Jerry, although startled was as anxious as the rest. He had seen the Hindreberg in the newsreels, but who expected it to hang over Seabury Place? On its rudder was a black swastika in a circular white field and encased in a red square. This assured Jerry it was the Hindenberg.
Could it have come here all the way from Germany? Were there Nazis inside? What would they do to us after they land? Where is it going to land?
Eddie, shaken with fright sputtered,
“I’m going upstairs.”
Marty, who was just as anxious as Joey, put on an air of bravado,
“Oh, scardy-cat is going upstairs to his mommy.”
With that, Joey said he too was going upstairs to ask his mother if she knew anything about the Hindenburg.
“How would she know?” asked Joey. “You don’t buy a newspaper.”
“We don’t buy one either,” replied Eddie. “Mr. Suslow gives it to my father after he finishes it.”
“Oh yeah. I’ll bet he doesn’t know that the Hindenburg flew over Seabury Place today.”
“When he comes home, I’ll ask him.”
The running board summit was adjourned. Rapidly beating hearts and wobbly legs stumbled for home.
Jerry opened the door to his apartment to find his mom stuffing a chicken skin’s neck to make derma.
“Mom, did you see the Hindenberg fly over Seabury Place this afternoon?”
“How can I see anything when our kitchen window shows me Mrs. Koletsky’s kitchen? Wait until Pa or Izzy come home.”
Izzy was Pa’s bachelor brother. He moved into the apartment and became a barnacle for zero dollars a month, food and laundry included.
Pa soon dragged himself into the apartment and Izzy soon followed. Jerry ran to tell him about the Hindenburg.
“What? A swastika?” he said. “Nazis? How could it be?”
He approached Jerry’s brother, “Harold, did you see it?”
“I didn’t see it. I was in the apartment doing my homework.”
Izzy joined in,
“What Hindenburg? Wasn’t he a German general? What was he doing here in the Bronx?”
“Yes,” Pa said sarcastically. “He came here to draft you for the German army.”
After dinner the family gathered around their small, Gothic Emerson table radio. It was Thursday, May 6, 1938. An excited Gabriel Heatter delivered a special report. The Hindenburg drifted slowly over New York City. At 7:45 PM, upon approaching its mooring at Lakehurst, New Jersey, it exploded killing 35 of the 97 people aboard. A member of the ground crew was also killed.
The excitement wore off in a couple of days and the boys returned to their street.
They were ten-years-olds. They haven’t as yet graduated from punchball to stickball. But that’s OK, the field is smaller and the cops didn’t grab the sticks.
What did ten-year-olds do after school? The smarter ones did their homework. Fun was the name of the boy’s game.
Jerry, the unelected leader of the group suggested,
“How about roasting some mickies tonight? I’ll meet you after supper and we’ll go to Jennings Street Market. Me and Joey will get the potatoes, Eddie and Marty will get the wooden boxes.”
“Great idea. But what if we get caught?”
“Get caught? How many times did we get caught, Marty? Boy, are you a fink.”
“I’m not afraid, I just think the mickies are dirty when we take them out of the fire.”
“Eddie, did you ever get sick from a mickie?”
“No, and they’re really good.’”
After dinner the boys met outside Nick the shoemaker’s store. Together they walked the three blocks to Jennings Street Market. Jerry lifted the nailed-down canvas cover of Miller’s stand.
“Uh-oh, watch it Jerry, that man on the corner. He looks like a detective.”
“Detective my ass. That’s Mr. Feingold, my neighbor from the second floor.”
Eddie slipped his hand under the cover and removed four potatoes. He joined Jerry for their three-block walk to the corner of Seabury Place. In the distance they could see Joey and Marty struggling with four wooden fruit boxes.
The boxes were stacked. To be used for kindling, Marty was about to crush a Jewish newspaper.
“Stop!” said Eddie. ” You can’t burn that. It’s a sin to burn a Jewish newspaper!”
“Who said so?”
“My grandfather, and he should know. He goes to shul (synagogue) every Saturday.”
“My father doesn’t go to shul added Jerry, so I’ll burn it.”
When the wooden boxes began a slow burn, Eddie threw in the four potatoes.
“They only become mickies when their skins are a crusty black,” advised Jerry.
Now a mass of flames danced above the potatoes. The boxes were in a glowing blaze, and then began to collapse.
“Hey guys, shouted Jerry. “It’s Hitler’s house!”
A roar of “Yay!” bounced off the bedroom windowpanes of Seabury Place.
In about ten minutes, an anxious Marty asked,
“Are the mickies ready, Jerry?”
“Yeah, but how do we get them out of the fire?”
“I brought a fork.”
“OK, but don’t burn your hands.”
With the mickies wrapped in the remaining newspaper, the four sat on the curb dining on their stolen dessert.
“Eddie, what are you doing this Saturday? We’re going to Brighton Beach.”
“Brighton Beach? It’s so far. By the time you get there, you’re ready to go home. The last time I went there I was sunburned so bad, my mom took me to Bronx Hospital.”
“So, where are you going this Saturday, Joey?
“I’m going with my brother to Crotona Park pool.”
“Nah, my father says people piss in the water there.”
“So, don’t you think people piss in the ocean at Brighton Beach?”
“Crotona pool is like a bathtub compared to the ocean.”
Games continued on the asphalt street of Seabury Place. Punchball was passé. The boys graduated to stickball. A mop stick was a poor excuse for a broomstick for stickball. But who had a corn-fibered broom? Abe saw a broom tilted on a second floor fire escape.
“It’s Mrs. Stein’s broom,” said Marty.
“She doesn’t need it, we do,” replied Abe.
“How do you know she doesn’t need it?” asked Joey.
“I was in her apartment yesterday telling her she had a phone call at the candy store. Her floors dirtied my sneakers.”
It was agreed that we needed the broom more than Mrs. Stein, but who was going to climb the fire escape?
“Abe, when you’re in the playground, you climb like a monkey. You get it.”
“Hey! It’s in front of the building. Everyone could see me. I’m not going.”
“Then we’ll have to use a mop stick.”
“Maybe we could ask the big-fellas if they could loan us a stick?”
“I don’t see any of the big-fellas.”
The boys retired to Mrs. Baretz’s bench outside her candy store on Boston Road considering their next event.
“Let’s put a penny on the Boston Road trolley track and see what happens.”
“OK Jerry, put your penny on the trolley track and we’ll see what happens.”
“It isn’t worth it to me. I could buy a Hooten square of chocolate for the penny.”
“Then shut up about putting a penny on the track.”
June was coming to a close. No more math tests, spelling tests, fountain pens and inkblots.
In spite of Jerry’s mom, games continued on the sidewalks and gutters of New York.
Fifth grade began with thin spellers, thick math books and a thicker reader. Mr. Klein distributed mending tissue (precursor to Scotch Tape) to students who received books with torn pages. Blank paper was at a premium at this time spelling tests were written on sheets of paper that were cut in half.
World War II was about to take place in Europe. It was 1938, the Great Depression was still depressing the population. Great Britain and France agreed to Germany’s demands. Germany seized the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia, and then they occupied Austria. The United States remained neutral but Congress increased expenditures for the Army and the Navy.
In spite of President Roosevelt’s calming Fireside Chats, the population was anxious. Public schools in New York city issued plastic ID tags to the students. Mr. Strauss, Jerry’s and Eddie’s 6th grade teacher gave then permission to collect paper for the defense effort. They left school after the morning session and went door to door in the neighborhood collecting newspapers and magazines.
“Hey Jerry, what the heck have newspapers got to do with the defense effort?”
“I don’t know, but it gets us out of school in the afternoons. So don’t ask questions.”
When Jerry and Eddie filled up a cardboard box, they carried it back to school near the end of the session.
September 1939 was the final term for the boys at P.S. 61. It was also the final term for the Polish population. Nazi Germany invaded Poland on September 1. Everyone in the neighborhood was apprehensive about the families they had left in Eastern Europe.
All of these political events played a minor role for the eleven-year boys. They were on the trail to a new adventure. That path ended at Hermann Ridder Junior High School.