Crossing the Cultural Divide (or Woe to Him Who Peaks in 5th Grade)
by Rob Fried
Sunnyside, as far as I was aware, was made up of two kinds of people: Irish Catholics and Jews. I thought of Protestants as a rare species, imported from down South, or somewhere equally remote. For most of my childhood, the only Protestant I knew was Zella Ratliff, our Nanny, who hailed from Virginia and had come up North during WWII with her husband, Reece, who worked at the Bulova watch factory. But the Ratliffs didn’t really live in Sunnyside—our Sunnyside. They lived in a small dark apartment in Woodside, across Queens Boulevard. Only Jews and Irish Catholics lived on our side of the Boulevard, as far as I knew.
We Jewish kids mostly got along okay with the Catholic kids, except for the few who would bully us (see Richard Fried’s article about being punched in the nose). As far as I knew, we never bullied them. We would play punchball in the school yard in elementary school, where the phrase “Four-a-Cat!” would ring out at recess time (referring to the fact that four people at a time were “up at the plate” and would remain playing until they were put out by a fielder, who would then take his place), and we would race to be one of the four, or to take one of the infield positions, or else have to wait in the outfield to catch the pink rubber punchball in order to be included.
After school, while the Jewish kids did their homework, the Catholic boys played street hockey on roller skates. They could manoeuver amazingly well, darting between the parked cars and ripping up and down the street, hockey sticks flying. Once I saw a boy get slammed in the mouth with a puck off another kid’s stick. He nonchalantly spit out a broken tooth and went right on playing. Tough!
When we weren’t doing homework, and it was still light, we’d play tag in the alleyway between the Sunnyside Gardens semi-detached homes and the apartment building that fronted on Skillman Avenue. From a fourth floor apartment overlooking the alley, a window would open up and a gray-faced, gray-haired woman would stick her head out and yell, “Stop making noise! My husband is sick! Go where you belong!” And we would respond with a chorus of, “Old Witch, Couldn’t sew a stitch, Picked up a penny and thought she was rich!” We could afford to be so brazen because she looked too feeble to be able to walk down three flights of stairs to chase us.
As we grew up into pre-teenage, I began to notice a distinct difference between the Irish kids and the Jewish kids, especially when it came to how boys and girls got on. For the Jewish boys, girls were almost like our sisters. We would casually socialize with them, more camaraderie than flirtation. We’d be invited to someone’s finished basement, to chat, munch on cokes and potato chips and sometimes dance to a phonograph, but all the while acting like kids from a Kibbutz where, reportedly, young people had to leave the community to find mates, since everyone on the Kibbutz was like family. It all seemed incredibly unromantic.
I was a keen enough observer to notice that among the Irish kids, there was real fire in the boy-girl interactions, a high level of sexual tension that was palpable, even to a casual onlooker. Forbidden fruit never seemed sweeter. I realized that this was something I longed for, and I felt it lacking among our friendly Jewish heterosexual get-togethers.
But during elementary school, these distinctions hadn’t yet made their impression on me. I lived too much in my own imagination to care much about the popularity pecking order. It felt fine to be neither picked on nor looked up to, and I stayed on the periphery of the various cliques.
However, in fifth grade, I had had my shot. Our teacher decided we would all learn “social dancing.” The girls were hot for it, but none of the boys seemed interested. My mom, however, had been a dance teacher before her marriage—not social dancing but more like Isadora Duncan-style. But, no matter, she knew a thing or two about dancing and offered to teach me the fox-trop and the rhumba. I quickly caught on and—BINGO!—I shot right to the top of the popularity charts! The two prettiest girls in the class were Carol Landi and Ruth Grindlinger (Italian Catholic and German Catholic, respectively), and both wanted to dance with me. Ruth showed a classmate her diary in which she described me in terms that, in the next sixty-plus years, I have never again ascended to. I was her “Dreamboat.” But Carole Landi was something else again. Outstandingly pretty, with freckles on her nose and a great smile. I was convinced I was in love with her.
But there was a problem. So was my younger brother, Marc. He was only in fourth grade, but he was quite good-looking. Some of the fourth and fifth grade girls decided to have some fun by pairing up Marc with Carole, and even planned a “Mock Marriage” for them. But I wanted to be the groom. So I convinced Marc that it would be too embarrassing for him to go along with the wedding plans. In a memorable phone conversation that I can still distinctly remember, I called up Carole and suggested, after we both hinted around at it, that since Marc was no longer really interested, I should be the substitute. She readily agreed, and the ceremony was planned. (I never claimed to be my brother’s keeper.)
On the appointed Saturday afternoon, Carole Landi showed up at our house with Ruth Grindlinger and some of our friends, including Bobby Silverman, my chum. Carole was arrayed in her mother’s wedding dress from Italy, white silk with lace. She looked dazzling. It was clear by then that we had a “crush” on each other, symbolized by her whispering to me that, after the ceremony, we would make sure to sit across the circle from each other when we played “Spin the Bottle” (in our version, the two people at opposite ends of the bottle when it stopped spinning would be obliged to kiss). I could hardly wait.
A mere two years earlier, in Third Grade, I had been subjected to a humiliating rejection. I had fixed my sights on tall, stately, Ellen Schlessinger. I was so besotted with her that, when my parents came back from a vacation together and were picking up us kids from a friend’s home in New Rochelle, and they told us that there was a surprise waiting for us at home, I was half-convinced that Ellen Schlessinger would be there, waiting for me.
All we got were some fireworks, then legal in Virginia but banned in New York. Anyway, I soon learned that Ellen lived in a tall apartment building on 44th Street, between Skillman Avenue and Queens Boulevard, and one day, after school, I decided to make my move. I should have realized that there was little chance Ellen would welcome my amorous endeavor, but I was bold or foolish enough to believe that I could make something happen.
I carefully selected a sports jacket, handed down from my rich cousin Jeffrey, put a few coins in my pocket, and headed off, as it were, to chercher la femme. First I stopped at Three-Finger Joe’s candy store on Skillman Ave and bought a small hoard of “bride price” items: some bubble-gum, tootsie rolls, and a five-pack of Nickle Nips, sweet colored water encased in small wax bottles. These I thrust into my pockets and continued on my quest.
Arriving at Ellen’s apartment building, I entered the vestibule and found the name “Schlessinger” listed on the bell tableau in Apartment 4-D. One couldn’t enter the inner lobby without being buzzed in. I rang her bell and waited. Finally, the buzzer rang, but I hadn’t quite figured out that you had to open the inner door while the buzzer was still buzzing. So I had to do it all again. I can’t quite remember, in all this, if I had to announce myself through the primitive intercom, but if that were true, I must have said something to enable a positive buzz.
This time, I proudly entered the lobby and started up the stairway. I had gotten perhaps halfway up when Ellen herself came prancing down the stairs, her pretty nose in the air. To my eyes, she floated like a fairy princess, but a princess, alas, who evidently had no intent to consort with a commoner like me. As she started to pass me by on the landing, I quickly dug my hands into my pockets and displayed my gifts on my open palms. I was only able to mumble a quick, “Do you want these?” before she said, sprightly, “No thanks” and continued floating downstairs. I glumly followed her, like a spurned peasant.
As we exited her building, she in front, me shuffling behind, a tall, well-dressed gentleman was approaching the door. “Oh, Ellen,” he said. “I see you have a new boyfriend.”
“Hardly,” was her brusque reply. That one word, “hardly,” is forever branded on my soul’s membrane. As I shambled on home, I managed to chew through the five-pack of Nickle-Nips and, once there, gave the rest of my candy to my brothers, whose surprise at my sudden generosity effectively shielded me from any embarrassing questions.
But, back to my Mock Marriage. It was a great and glorious day. I think I have a picture of it somewhere. I was perched on top of the 5th grade world (I wasn’t aware that I had already peaked). Now that I was conjoined with Carole Landi, my troubles began by my having no idea what to do next. Already the budding, brooding, romantic intellectual, I was totally incapable of small talk, of schmoozing with Carole or her friends about classroom gossip or Perry Como, or TV shows. I was a bit too young to offer to take her to the movies, and we had nothing like the “play dates” kids have today. So what was I to do?
Nothing, as it turned out. I remained totally in love with Carole Landi and equally incapable of acting on my feelings. So, over the weeks and months, we drifted apart. And early the following school year, in sixth grade, my friend Bobby Silverman came by to set things straight. I was sitting on the hood of a car, I remember, and as he stood with his foot on the bumper, he intoned, “Let’s face it, Fried. You’re through!” He was right, of course.
Rob and Carole get married
Rob and Carole with their wedding guests
Bryant High School Graduation
Rob with younger brother Marc