The Joys and Perils of Independent Life
by Richard Fried
These days, parents seem to feel the need to keep tabs on their children well into high school, and often even into the college years. In city, town, and countryside, it's rare to see a young child walking along the street alone. But in Sunnyside, we did it all the time and I don't remember anyone being afraid of abductions or other bad things happening. In fact, on weekends we were told to get out of the house and play, admonished only to come back by dinner time. We rode our bikes and tricycles on the sidewalks, and when we were a little older, in the streets. We played with our friends and neighbors in the alleyways, on the stoops and in the streets while someone watched for cars. We played stickball, stoop ball, and other adaptations of baseball, all with a pink rubber ball marked “Spaulding,” but always called a “spaldene.” Of course, needless to say, there wasn’t much to do inside except read, play board games, or practice the piano, with no transistor radios, computers, or TV (our neighbors, the Abramsons, were the first on the block to get a set, and all the kids piled in at 4:45 each afternoon to watch Gabby Hayes, a 15 minute cowboy show, sponsored by Quaker puffed wheat (“shot from guns”) and Howdy Doody at 5.
At the age of five or six, when I wanted to visit my friend Bobby, whose parents owned a laundry and dry cleaning establishment on Skillman Avenue between 46th and 45th Street, I would walk to the corner of Skillman and 46th and ask any lady to cross me. She would take my hand, wait for the light to turn green, accompany me across the street and off I'd go. It’s what we all did. Imagine anyone doing that today!
Bobby lived in a small apartment building on 46th street just a little south of Skillman Avenue. One time when I went to visit him, we must have had a race to see who could make it up to his fifth story apartment first, he racing up the stairs while I took the elevator, which was still quite an exciting thing for me. However, when I got in the elevator the super was there, a grizzly white-haired man who looked intimidating and spoke almost no English. To my horror, instead of going up to the fifth floor, the elevator went down to the basement. When the doors opened he pointed me out. I thought I had arrived in hell. It was dark. There were big cans of ashes everywhere and I had no idea where I was. The doors closed, the super was gone and I was alone. Bursting with tears, I followed the narrow twisting passageway, and after what seemed like hours, eventually came out into the light and back out onto the street. I wonder if Bobby ever knew what happened to me that day.
My earliest recollection of the joys and tribulations of childhood independence came when I was four. Part of my daily routine was to load my dolls and stuffed animals into a toy baby carriage and take it clumpety clump down the stairs for a walk. Zella, my nanny, would say to herself every day, "one of these days he's going to come back crying." And sure enough, as I walked up 47th street along the sidewalk one morning, joyfully taking my charges for their morning constitutional, two big boys came past and teased me. I turned around and as I mounted the stairs crying, Zella could hear, above my sobs, “THEY LAUGHED AT ME!" That was the last time I ever took my doll carriage out, the end of androgynous innocence.
In those days my best friend and playmate was my cousin Lisa Ariel, who lived on 44th Street, also between Skillman and 39th Avenue. She was next-door neighbors to our dear friend Sandy Naishtat, who lived with his parents and two brothers Elliot and Robert. By five or six I was able to go by myself to visit them. By going through the alleyways, it was easy to get from 47th to 44th, and crossing 46th and 45th Street mid block was not a challenge. However, in those days there were some interesting characters living in our neighborhood. There were two ladies who must have lived on 46th Street, close to Skillman Avenue. I remember them intimidating the children by claiming that the block belonged to them and they could determine who is allowed to walk there or not. My friends talked right back to them but I was much too timid to be openly defiant to an adult.
Far worse indeed was an elderly man who must have had some unusual neuro-psychiatric disorder which manifested in a very peculiar and frightening gait. He would take two or three shuffling sort of steps, and after the third would jerk his head around over his right shoulder. This was how he walked. Always. One-two-three, then look back over the shoulder. I was terrified of him, as I suspect all the other children were, although I never remember him ever saying anything or making a threatening gesture.
I recall vividly one day walking through the alley between 46th and 45th Street, on my way to visit Lisa on a Saturday morning when it happened, what I had always dreaded. Entering the alley from the other side was the man. I would have to either turn around and run, or somehow pass him in that very narrow alleyway. To be honest, I can't actually remember what I did. But the fear of passing him at such close quarters was so great that I must have turned and run. The sight of that man will probably continue to give me nightmares as long as I live. And curiously, in the 45 years since I entered medical school, I've never encountered any syndrome reminiscent of that man’s.
Zella used to bring me to and from PS 150 in Kindergarten and perhaps first grade, but by second grade, we all walked on our own. Sometimes I got a ride to the corner of 41st and Skillman with my father, who drove to his dental office in Stuyvesant Town in Manhattan every day, with his regular passengers, Lichtigman, B. Hoffman Miller, Bill Vladeck, and my uncle Isadore. I leave it to my brother Robby to relate a humorous incident involving the ride-sharing. Often on the walk back after school I’d pass a whole klatch of young mothers with their baby carriages, just hanging out in a court between 45th and 46th Streets. I vividly remember a new boy who arrived in our class from Hungary in 1956, a refugee from the brief revolution which was so quickly quashed by the Russians. He spoke no English, but of course the boys taught him all the bad words.
One Saturday morning when I was in fourth grade, Lisa's mother Paula gave us money to buy a few things at Golden's Superette, on the corner of Skillman and 46th street, across the avenue from Benowitz candy store. Incidentally, Benowitz had sold out to Kleinman and Strom years before we moved to Sunnyside, but for us, it was always Benowitz. George must have been loading some boxes up from the store cellar because the heavy metal doors which usually lay flat along the sidewalk were open, standing vertical about 2 feet high with a metal rod to keep them propped up. As we exited the store with our purchases, Lisa went first and I turned toward the door to close it with my right hand. As I backed up a few more steps, my heels hit the steel doors and over I flew headfirst down into the basement. The steps being very steep, I fortunately missed them entirely, landing directly on the concrete floor 8 or 10 feet below. Lisa watched all this happening in a split-second with a scream. Due to some remarkable atheistic Providence, I managed to flip mid air and land on all fours on the concrete floor below. A little stunned but fully conscious, I climbed up the steep stairs and with a slight pain in my right ankle was able to walk home, accompanied of course by Lisa. The apparent discrepancy between the description of the fall and my minor ankle sprain made it difficult at first for me to convince my family what had really happened. Even when I returned to school a day or two later, I didn’t have a cast to brandish, and so my show-and-tell story was sadly met with some indifference. My recollection is that when my mother approached George Golden about the accident on the following day, he seemed more concerned about a lawsuit then about my health, although he was generally a sweet man.
Never mind; I guess In a way we kind of got back at him years later. I was about 14 and hanging out with some friends on our bicycles on the south side of Skillman Avenue between 44th and 45th Streets. There must have been construction going on, perhaps connected with the Catholic Church, because I remember a high chain link fence behind us. There were four of us hanging around, one leg on the ground and one leg over the bicycle, when a local rock, whom I recognized as one of the guys who hung out in front of Benowitz, came around the corner. I later found out his name was Johnny Durante. He was followed by an entourage of five or six kids who were tailing him. Apparently he was looking for an opportunity to show off how tough he was in front of his friends and he went to each of us, one by one, insulting us and trying to lure us into a fight. For some reason, perhaps because I probably looked scared, (although I'm sure my friends were too) he seemed to focus his sights on me. At one point he drew out a razor blade box cutter, (later made famous by the 9/11 hijackers,) and threatened to leave me with a scar from ear to ear.
This went on for about 15 minutes, during which time I refused to fight and tried to avoid much eye contact. Suddenly he hauled back and socked me in the teeth. Perhaps because I was precariously balanced half on my bicycle, I immediately fell over backwards with a gushing nose but teeth intact. I do remember that one of his cohorts took a handkerchief from his pocket, and as Durante and the rest of the gang walked off disgusted at my unwillingness to fight him like a man, tried to staunch the bleeding from my nose. A little gesture of nobility. Of course my friends ran to my aid and walked me back to my house, reassuring me that they were just about to jump in and fight back. I knew of course it wasn't true, but then I would've done (or not done) the same.
My mother was furious. We called the police and filed a report. But on the following day she found out that Durante worked, yes, at Golden's Superette. She was a tall woman and could raise herself up to an imposing presence, more I suspect from maternal instincts than physical prowess. As she walked into the store the next day, she saw Durante out of the corner of her eye, kneeling on the floor stamping prices on some canned goods. She turned to George at the cash register in the front of the store and announced in a very loud voice, "I want to speak to the THUG that hit my son." George, unaware of course, gestured towards Durante, who was sort of trapped in the aisle. With arms akimbo, my mother stared him down and said in a very loud voice, "You needn't worry, I won't lay a finger on you. We went through the proper channels this time and you'll be hearing from the police. But if you ever lay hands on him again, I won't wait for the police. I'll tear you apart limb by limb!" At that, she stalked out, leaving a very bewildered George at the cash register. Apparently, Durante left work shortly thereafter and never came back to collect his paycheck.
Epilogue: Durante spent the night in a holding cell at the county jail. The charge of assault with a deadly weapon was reduced to simple assault and he got a suspended sentence. His mother came over to us at the hearing and thanked us, hoping that this would straighten her troubled son out.
For the next two or three years it was not infrequent that I needed to pass him and his friends as they hung out on the street, sometimes on the low retaining wall of the court on 47th Street just in from Skillman Avenue. He would fix me with an icy stare, but never touched me again. To this day, I suspect my mother's threat may have carried more weight in his mind than the penal system…Good luck to you, Johnny Durante. I wish you well wherever you may be today.