I have taken a few days to review the bug incident and have come to the conclusion that there is not a good reason to hide the details regarding the conditions of my upbringing. Memories of the apartment's roach infestation forced me to reconsider benefits I have to-date ignored or denied. The early 70’s in New York may have been wild and liberating for adults high on disco fever or the ‘soul train' but it was an entirely different story for this latched-key kid without brother or sister. My lonely walks home from school measured only ten blocks or a half a mile, but often they felt ten times as much. As a single parent, mom worked hard at juggling her nine-to-five job and several other after hour ones as well. She climbed unimaginable mountains. In addition to winning a reputable position at a Madison Avenue Ad firm, she cleaned hi-rise apartments on Park Avenue, babysat for four families and even repaired rare Persian rugs (clear throat) in her spare-time. I guess in someway the trades she learned during war eventually paid-off. She did the best she could and spent the extra hard-earned cash to help compensate for the the familial aspects of our life that were absent. How could I resent her not being at the gate everyday at three o'clock, to meet me in front of the school's entrance? How could I dishonor her for not having a nanny to pick me up, like so many of the other kids? How could I blame her for not saving me from the brats and the bullies? How could I judge her for leaving France and raising me amongst the slimy worms of that rotten 'Big Apple'? After all, her love for me was unquestionably demonstrated in so many ways, not to mention she often took me horseback riding.
Our retreats to Staten Island may as well have been two day passes to Eden. With gushing relief, glee and gratitude almost every weekend we would escape the city’s constraints, its unrelenting din and our barely habitable, rent controlled, apartment building. Although I had love and deep compassion for my mother, as much as a ten year old could, I was determined to forever keep our home a shameful secret and burry my lonesome worries in the sweat and tears on my pillow. It was a place that no friend of mine, especially Timothy Colleran, would ever get to see or know about. Timmy was a scrawny, Tom Sawyer of sorts. A lanky blonde-haired hoot, trickster and occasional penny thief to boot. He lived a couple blocks away and sat right across from me in grade school. He showed me how to play cards, break into construction sites and even spit. Nobody hurled a 'loggie' farther than Tim. Today, I am glad to say, that I was no match for this particular talent that he so proudly shared. Lucky for us both, he kept things prim and proper when we served mass together. As altar boys we could plan on pocketing at least five bucks for a wedding and usually double that for a funeral. Each. I always found that backwards but didn't give it too much thought. Back then, not counting the bonus chewing gum, that amounted to at least a couple cones of pistachio and a cold root beer to wash down an oily slice of pepperoni. So, let’s just say that I learned to wear the angelic gown and carry that not so light brass candle holder with a grin. As Sister Mildred said, I was no cherub. Hey, at least it wasn't me who intentionally forgot to ring the bell on time as Father O'Reilly was left standing with arms outstretched on the altar while offering up the holy eucharist. Never will I forget the looks we got.
It was something similar to the utter startle and surprised feeling us New Yorkers had when the city blacked out that steamy summer evening in ’77. Star Wars was still the big talk of the town but I assure you on that dark night Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker escaped everyones' minds. Fortunately and unsurprisingly my mother was prepared. She had plenty of candles and batteries. Under the bathtub she had the canned food and reserves of beverage, you would imagine a former refugee would. We had everything we needed to shed enough light and dim the fright of a city in terror. We had each other.
A couple of hours after the big electric melt down, over the fire, police and ambulance sirens, we could hear a boy’s voice hollering from outback. The racket continued until my mom eventually went over to the window, unlocked the three bolt and peered down into what was commonly referred to as 'rat alley'. It was Timmy and Victor, another school buddy of mine, who were causing all the ruckus. Like crazed clowns they were chasing cats and taking batting practice on junk furniture, rusted rubble and overstuffed trashed cans. Same old same old but with everyone already on edge, who needed the circus to come to town? Mom wasn't the only curious nose at the sill, however, she was the only one who dared to raise the window, lean outside and demand an explanation. "Who is there!? What's going on!?" she demanded. With the spot of her flashlight on the alley, the clamor immediately ceased. The two froze like captured enemy being drilled by a leader in the French Resistance. The roar stopped. All I heard was a mousey voice squeal these exact words, “Oh hi. Is Eric home? We’re gonna go looting and were just wondering if your son could come with us?” Well, needless to say, she closed and locked the window, politely. Yep, mom made an impression. Still Timmy had the mouth of a vicious hyena, especially for street talk. So, I made sure to keep our friendship outside our apartment. In fact whenever a buddy invited me over, i just declined. This way they would never expect me to do the same. But most New Yorkers are like that. Gossip spreads quick like mustard on pastrami. Like on a mouthful of bubble gum our neighborhood loved to chew on local news. In someways, looking back now, I managed to successfully shield the realities of this place, this childhood experience, even from my inner self. That sprawling two room apartment, with a bathroom, kitchen and rear windows that looked through the steps of a steal fire escape, across the tiny alley and directly onto the black painted brick side of another rent controlled tenement, was not exactly a 'room with a view'. It was, however, a place that encouraged the imagination to grow, deeper than it perhaps normally would have. Patience, perseverance and appreciation were also learned there. Not to mention prayer. The space was straightforward. The layout resembled a freight train, one car behind the other. So yes, it was sprawling, but only for the roaches who had virtually a free-for-all. They would crawl on the walls, from behind the radiators, in the forest green shag carpet and sometimes even parachute from the hot ceiling light above my mother's bed. Oddly, with the freaky frequent feeling of being surrounded, I found some degree of normalcy by recognizing that I was not alone, that I got to share this claustrophobic, alien experience with not only my neighbors but the bugs as well.
Demographically, our block's breakdown went roughly something like this: a tablespoon of French; a teaspoon of Puerto Ricans, a pinch of Greek and Italians; a bucket full of Irish and undoubtedly a shipload of insects. So naturally the neighborhood looked and smelled, how should I say, culturally integrated. On the corner we had the obligatory Italian restaurant. Unfortunately, it wasn't a pizzeria. This was the fancy kind with wine glasses, table clothes and clean menus. Of course my mom and I never went in but my nose sure did enjoy walking by on my way back from school. At the other end of the block was a pub called Flanagan's. In the evenings you could hear it and in the daytime you would smell it, not just on Saint Patrick's Day either. Ahh, growing up with Guinness. That silky oatmeal stout and its rich perfume somehow not only made the air smell better but mixed rather nicely with Georgies' Gyros from across the street. Back on my side, at the other end, was this whole in the wall candy store directly adjacent to the front door of where we lived. For the owner, that place was a gold mine. For most kids, it was simply sugar heaven. PEZ, Bazooka, Jaw breakers, Pop Rocks and Baseball trading cards... what more could a kid want? For the pubescent teens, however, it was a popular place to kick back on parked cars, guzzle soda pop and shoot the summertime breeze. And when things got a little dull, there was always perky Susan Macky to stir things up. She lived a floor above ours, with her, let us say easily excitable Irish parents and six year older, super-shy brother Billy. Let me tell you, her 'make-out' skills would have impressed even the Fonz. Oh yeah, she made a lot of friends under the cover of the front door to our building. Needless to say it was always awkward to get by. I guess you could have called her a high school slut or maybe just a really big fan of that hit TV show Happy Days. Whichever, she had the local parents appalled and the youngsters, including yours truly, curiously peeking.
All in all everybody got along. The rooftops that shared our drying laundry and American dreams also symbolized our common bond. We were not only connected geographically and structurally, we were also tied emotionally, by that often uncomfortable and unruly string called life. Together we were surviving, learning to make the best of who we were and the cramped conditions we somehow found ourselves in. The stories of how and why we all got there of course varied and some were much more colorful than others. Still, that didn't matter much because like the zoo of roaches, flies, ants and water-bugs from uncollected street garbage, the present was right smack in our face every single day. Manhattan, that was the city I knew. The Mount Everest of senses. The world capitol of the here and now. If you dwelled too much in the past or got lost too often daydreaming about a rosier existence, you were marked as either a traitor or an outlaw.
To be continued-