For displaced, misplaced, and nostalgic ex-Brooklynites
The Dating Game
he words sounded cool like I wanted them to. In Jack's Barber shop on Washington Avenue, right next door to the Liffey Bar and Grill, everyone wanted to be on top of their game. In the past, my father had cut my hair in our apartment kitchen next to the ceramic table with its red trim and pull-out section - a staple in almost all kitchens in Brooklyn in the early 1950's. My dad used a well-oiled hand clipper and I can still hear the steady click of the rotors as he lopped off clumps of hair to get a "neat look," as he put it. I was reduced to staring forlornly at a clock which my father had won at a Bohack raffle some years before that sat high on the wall, ticking off the long minutes of the unpleasant chore.
My mother was one of polio's many victims a few years before so my father did all the household chores for which he earned the adulation of my aunts' on my mothers side. "Will you look at that Martin with a vacuum in his hand? Isn't our Bridie the lucky one?"
But now I had my Eagle route money, and getting a hair cut at Jack's was one of the first things I invested in. I was becoming intensely self-conscious in the brooding way that boys do when they begin to actually care about what others might think of them. I did not yet associate any of my feelings with the idea of growing up; that was beyond me. I was simply trying to move with the flow of things.
A "Detroit" featured a crew cut top with swept back sides. I had absolutely no chance of getting such a thing in my kitchen.
Jack himself was a well known fixture in the neighborhood, being a brother-in-law of Gil Hodges, a major deity in our neck of the woods. Gil's autographed picture, a full-posed, black-and-white frame with his classic stance, compact in its imagery of latent power, was prominently displayed in the front window. Just about everyone was an ardent Dodger fan in that area of Hilltop Park, adjacent to Prospect Park, where we often played and where we could hear the roar of the crowd from nearby Ebbets Field. Even as I was beginning to change and care how I looked, the Dodgers were still a potent force, and players like Gil Hodges loomed large in my criteria of what was important.
It was here I first noticed that a trip to the barber included an entry into a world of conversation and banter that was a distinct style of such venues at that time. No one was in a rush as they sat patiently with their Daily News in their hands, or more importantly, having something witty to say, to be picked up by a customer who might chortle or even by Jack himself. Everyone was a participant, Jack laughing at a quick line, nodding his head in agreement as he moved about a smiling customer.
I found this part of my visit intimidating, fully aware that there was nothing in my repertoire that would be of the slightest interest to anyone there. This was part of the adult world I would have to get used to, I thought, as I sat and waited my turn, my head bowed in a newspaper, deeply troubled about everything, with a case of acne creeping in and taking over. There suddenly seemed to be many such trials. Maybe the Detroit would help.
A little later, my mother was looking into our livingroom mirror which hung above the Philco radio and which, despite having been replaced as a fixture by the new television set in the far corner, still kept its presence with its deep mahogany veneer and trim buttons, saying as she preened, "Well, I just saw that Marilyn Kirwin up on St. John's Place coming home from mass and isn't she the beauty."
She threw this into the air, knowing that I would not pay attention to anything she would say directly to me. She went on, seeing more at a glance than Marilyn herself ever would. My mother had a keen eye for things physical, having learned a lot in her daily exercises to fight off the ravages of polio, an effort at which she succeeded. She was no doubt correct in her estimation of Marilyn, but her message was lost on me.
I sensed that my mother was pushing me to the high ground, suggesting that perhaps I should get on with it, evoking only a deep frown from me as I moved to another room. I saw this as a time of hovering between two worlds, only one of which I was totally comfortable with. My focus was still on street games and impressing those I hung out with. Girls and all that came with them were starting to interest me, I could see that, even as they still spent their time in a separate existence.
The girls had their own groups too, but now they whispered and laughed in tight clusters, sizing things up, and they hovered closer to us as we chatted near the corner. Unlike most of the boys, I sensed correctly that the girls were more eager to get into the fray, seeing in those pre-adolescent years a time of preparation and of anticipation for what was to come. They knew.
My introduction to this new world came as did most things then, through the intervention of my friend Jim Cunningham who lived up the block from me and who was an important year older. For the first sixteen years of our lives there were few days when we were not together. He, perhaps by being the oldest of eight children, was the leader of our group and I gladly followed.
A Sunday in the fall could be endless in its quiet repose, so Jim suggested that we see "The Land of the Pharaohs" with Jack Hawkins, who, despite his English accent, was, as always, convincing as the Pharaoh. It was playing at the Fox theater. A number of us went and the movie house was crowded; we were not alone in being bored on this late October afternoon.
Two girls, whom I had certainly not noticed, were casually sitting in front of us. The movie was getting interesting as the dead Pharaoh was being entombed, and his former treacherous queen, along with the Pharaoh's mute cohorts, were filing in with the casket into the crypt, sealing their doom. I was alive to the drama on the screen.
Suddenly, Jim nudged me and said, "Let's put a move on those girls." He looked at me knowingly, figuring no doubt that I had thought of the same thing.
I simply stared at Jim for a moment in rapt disbelief. What I didn't know at this moment in time was important. Jim had that one year edge and was awash in testosterone. That year's difference had never mattered before. With a spasm of apprehension, I thought, "what interest could Jim have in bothering these two girls," who seemed as engrossed as we in the drama before us.
"Why would anyone, particularly my pal Jim," I further thought, "at this moment, with the blocks ready to descend on the unwitting queen, want to talk to these girls at all much less, ‘put a move on them'?'' The phrase ‘put a move on them' clearly implied that such a tactic was possible, that I was capable of bringing some latent charm into my cajoling that could interest anyone, much less these two girls whose only connection to me in this darkened theater was that they were in front of us. Angst crept in with the same assuredness as it did when I walked down a long Sterling Place to Dr. Ruder's office to have one of my twenty-two cavities filled.
As Jim was in charge of such situations, I climbed over clumsily and sat next to the girl on the left who simply looked at me slightly and then wisely turned her attention to the screen. I too stared into the deep space of this vast theater in a vacuum of self imposed tension. Jim began talking away, seemingly comfortable with the new arrangement. I remained in the "penalty box," identifying with the screaming queen who had realized her dire fate.
"Thank God," I thought, "that the movie was almost over and good enough to hold our attention." After it was over I simply left, having as little to say as the queen's mute cohorts.
The Fox Theater itself was located in what had once been considered a thriving downtown area of Flatbush Avenue. However now, in the midst of a fading October sunlight with a light breeze pushing along debris along the sidewalk, one could only see pawn shops, working class bars, and second hand stores all of which were grim reminders of the Depression which put a halt to the economic optimism of city planners.
We did not see that condition even as it was in front of us; we felt that we were "downtown" and therefore grown up a bit, moving away from the local scene.
When we were outside in the atmosphere that always prevails when one comes out into the sunshine from a darkened theater, Jim asked eagerly, "Hey Tom, did you get her number?"
"Her number, why should I get her number?" I answered with more courage than I felt.
"So we could go on a double date," Jim replied.
There it was. A double date. Like Archie Andrews and Jughead Jones.
The thought filled me with futility. Jim was losing it, falling apart right before my eyes. I thought, "What would he do next, suggest dinner?"
What Jim did do was change his environment. He began hanging out on the other side of Prospect Park near Third Street with another crowd. This was a group who like us were also affected by the Park itself, parochial schools, and a first-generation mentality. Somehow though, that neighborhood had more adult influences, among them Representative Hugh Carey, who through his association with the Knights of Columbus, caused them to have a brighter picture of their future. The "Third Street guys," as we called them, were more conservative in their style and put the sneakers away early, and called each other by their last names.
Many of this group carried off that preppy look, long before the expression became a familiar euphemism. While we went to Herman's Ice Cream Parlor and drank malteds, they went to the more sedate Newman's on Seventh Avenue and ate English Muffins and drank tea. They wore suits and ties routinely and did not appear to mind that at all. Jim appeared to be right at home and maintained his position in both crowds.
In the very beginning of this entry I went with Jim but soon we separated, Jim eventually meeting his wife Lorraine through this decision, while I stayed with my more familiar and welcome surroundings.
I was uncomfortable trying to fit where I did not belong even as I liked everyone I met. Even in returning back to the fold from my venture with Jim, I did not feel firmly entrenched anywhere, but nevertheless suspected that it would eventually come together. I was not without hope.
One of my problems was that I felt I did not know anything. With Jim entrenched with Third Street, I was with my old crowd, nursing my anxiety.
Sometime later, we went to a movie and stopped for slices of Pizza at Angelo's Restaurant on Flatbush Avenue when I noticed a patron eating a dish I had never seen before.
"Hey Franny," I said to Franny Ardolino, who was the only one of Italian extract with us that day, "What's that guy eating over there?"
"You gotta be kidding, Tommy," said Franny, "Everyone knows that's lasagna."
Lasagna! I had heard of the word, thinking that it sounded like Mario Lanza, a popular tenor of the day, and it looked delicious. It was also a far cry from English Muffins and tea but at least I knew what that was.
The very next night I came back to Angelo's on my own and pointed to lasagna on the menu and had my first Italian meal. (I do not count the Chef Boyardee specials which made their way to the ceramic table in my home on Friday nights as being Italian. ) I loved it and hoped that all my new experiences would be as rewarding. At least initially, that was not to be.
In late spring, on a school boat ride, I met a girl who lived in Flatbush who surprised me with the eagerness with which she agreed to go out with me.
"Where do you want to go?" asked Carol when I called her.
"How about Chinese food?" I blurted.
I hung up the phone and wondered why I had suggested Chinese food. I had never as much as tasted Chinese food in my life, but her neighborhood abounded in those little restaurants which conjured up in me - I suppose - an image of the exotic. I figured I needed all the help I could get.
It was still daylight when we sat down for dinner and we were the only ones in the restaurant. From the beginning, Carol was right at home, confidently chatting away. I had exhausted most of my conversational ammunition at this point and was happy to hear her idle talk. Carol was wearing one of those bullet-proof bras that girls wore then and I had a hard time not looking at her chest. Carol meant business.
The menu was a problem but I recognized chow mein as a staple and went with it, figuring a billion Chinese couldn't be wrong. I was feeling more confident by the minute, way ahead of my friend Joe Welsh, who took his first dinner date to Tad's. Tad's with its dollar nineteen cents steaks.
When the food came it was served on one of those silver trays, and assorted dishes were laid out randomly, and it all looked a little unwieldy for a moment but, having only a twinge of doubt as to my choice, I began to dig in.
"Tom," said Carol, with one of those looks given to a person who just sneezed on themself and doesn't know that they have left a little residue, "you're supposed to take the food off of the tray onto your plate, like I'm doing."
I of course was eating with considerable enthusiasm directly from the silver tray. I did have a moment to think and wasted it with my smug reply, "I know that. I happen to like it that way."
Suddenly I felt like I was in the tomb with the Pharaoh. Carol must now suspect she's dining with a jerk, I thought. The bullet-proof bra with its sharp points seemed like visions of sugar plums, fading from view. I looked forlornly at the rice just sitting there, like evidence, steaming, almost crying out that it's supposed to be the base with the Chow Mein placed on top; it was obvious now. There was no recovery. I had no idea what to do with the rice. I continued to gape.
Nevertheless, Carol and I went on a few more dates and I could sense that she felt we were becoming a couple, which quite frankly, I did not care for at all. The key to the matter, I thought, was to listen to the sage advice of George Washington and avoid entangling alliances.
Later that summer Carol casually asked, "Oh Tom, by the way, what are you wearing tonight?"
I knew right away why she asked. I had noticed that Carol's friend Barbara and her placid boyfriend, who seemed determined to "settle down," whatever that meant, were beginning to wear the same color clothes. They were becoming a team. This was the first of a series of steps that had him lock-stepped into an engagement and all that followed. Time for an escape hatch, I thought. I did know that much, which was quite a lot when you think about it.
There were many others like Barbara's mate, eager to press simple relationships into forged unions, moving into the future with what they shared even as that world would soon disappear.
I was more of a late bloomer, one who still doesn't talk to the barber, but who did enjoy the road I took until I too ended up with someone who had shared that old world as well as our new one.