My Life in 1940's Brooklyn
We all make zillions of decisions over our lifespan, most are inconsequential. In these pages attention is focused on consequential decisions that I made which shaped my life’s journey. You will learn that my decision to scream to my sister, “run to the police station” as I attempted to disarm my mother was consequential. Had I made a different decision (or no decision), it is likely that this book would not have been written. Decisions have consequences... every decision.
Throughout my life, as I approached a ‘fork in the road’, I thought about my decision-and tried to anticipate the likely implications. This strategic decision making behavior reflects a personality of internal control on Rotter’s Locus of Control continuum.
My earliest memory of my father was when my brother, Artie, and were on a bus somewhere between Brooklyn and Pennsylvania. It was 1940. The bus stopped, and people stood up to leave. Looking at me, my father said, “Let’s go, shake a leg”. Artie walked in front of me; Dad was behind me. We followed the people getting off the bus. When I got to the front, a man in a uniform lifted me up, and set me on the ground. Dad looked at me and yelled, “What are you doing?” Artie answered, “Dad, he’s doing what you told him to do. He’s shaking his legs”. We probably went inside to a bathroom. I must have wondered where Mom was. Later I would learn that she was in a mental hospital. I woke up in a strange house. It was 1202 Mine Street, located in Old Forge, PA.
There were a lot of people living in the house. Artie and I could not understand what they were saying in a foreign language. All of a sudden, Dad was gone! In the 1940 photo, Artie and I appear to be well dressed and well fed, though I cannot recall any details of our stay at the house. Children can be seen watching us from a distance. (see photo)
Back to Brooklyn
At about age three, I ended up back at our home at 293 Oakland Street, in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn. Mom and Dad were there. The building was five stories tall, with two families living on each level. All the apartments (railroad-flats), and all the buildings (tenements) were the same. In October 1941, Loretta was born.
Dad worked on the docks. World War II was raging. Dad would often have to work ‘around the clock’, as he told Mom. Sometimes he would be gone for two or three days.
It was a scary time. There were frequent air raid drills called ‘black outs’. I had to wear a dog tag on a chain around my neck. Once, an air raid warden banged on our door, entered, and yelled at my father to never have a light on when the air raid sirens were sounding. Mom explained to Artie and me that with no lights on, a Japanese pilot would not be able to see any target. Dad always sat at the kitchen table, reading the newspaper or listening to his radio, smoking his Camel cigarettes, and drinking beer.
Mom and Dad Fight
Mom would tell Dad to come home right after work. Often, he didn’t, and when he would come home, Mom would often tell him that she smelled whiskey on his breath. Sometimes, there would be a fight. He would give her some money from his wallet, and she would yell that it wasn’t enough to pay the rent and to buy food. Dad would throw a few more bills at Mom, grab his jacket, and leave. Once she threw a heavy iron at him as he slammed the door shut, and it broke the glass top of the door. The wire mesh inside the glass held it together. Mom asked the landlord, Mr. Yourga, to fix it, but he never did. Sometimes the police would come down the hallway yelling, “Police! Police! Trouble”! They knew to come to our door, apartment 1-A. I was glad when they came to end the fighting, but they never could. They would always say, “No more fighting. If the problem continues, go to family court,” and hand Mom a card. She never went to court.
Once during a fight, Dad broke off the bottom of his beer bottle and went at Mom. I ran behind him and kicked the bottle as hard as I could. Blood came out of the tear in my sneaker, and the fighting stopped. I’m reminded of that fight when I see the scar it left on my foot.
Dad did other things that bothered me. Once I went down the wooden steps into the cellar. When I got to the bottom, I could see Dad kneeling on the floor doing something with our kittens. Artie and I had waited a long time for our mother cat to have her kittens. As I walked closer, I could see that Dad had tied all the kittens around a brick, and was lowering them into a pail of water. I could hardly believe my eyes. He yelled at me, “Get the hell out of here!”
At times, he did good things. One day, I went down to the cellar, and saw Dad up on a ladder doing something with our electric meter. He showed me how to open the glass cover on the meter, and to press a penny in a certain spot inside the box. When we went upstairs, we had electricity in our apartment!
Mr. and Mrs. Frayer lived next door to us in apartment 1-B. Sometimes, Mrs. Frayer would come over, and talk to Mom about the noise and the fighting. She would also ask Mom to pray for her son, Jimmy, who was in the army. One day I was sitting on the front stoop when two soldiers came up the steps. They walked down the hallway. Then I heard screaming. The Frayers’ only child, Jimmy, had been killed in the war. The death of their son changed the Frayers’ lives. Mr. Frayer would get drunk, and fall down in the hallway. I had never seen him like that before. After he died, Mrs. Frayer moved out of their apartment, and into an apartment on nearby on India Street.
When Dad went to work, Artie and I would walk up to the India Street subway station at the end of the day. We would wait, as the subway trains came in, to see if we spotted him in the crowd. For some strange reason, when Dad didn’t come home from work, Mom would beat us. Once she hit Artie so hard, blood came out of his ear. Loretta was always spared from these beatings. [Flash Forward to 1976: Years later, I asked Mom why she beat me and Artie so much when we were children. She explained that she thought that if we screamed loud enough, “your father would hear us and come home”!]
Ready for School
Dad walked me to my first day of school at St. Anthony of Padua School. I never did find out why we had been sent to a Catholic school. Never in my life had I seen my mother or father in a church—not even once! When we got close to the school, Dad said, “Don’t take any guff. If you have to fight, go for the nose. When he sees his blood, he’ll stop fighting.” He told Brother Irenaeus that I was “as smart as a whip”.
The boys at the school were taught by Franciscan Brothers. They were very strict. The girls, were taught by the Sisters of St. Joseph, and were kept in an entirely separate part of the large building. We were instructed to never set foot in that section. I did, however, and got caught by the principal. I pretended that I had gotten lost in the hallways. We went to confession every Saturday, and received the Holy Eucharist on Sunday. This was obligatory for all students. The Mass was always said in Latin. I was involved in religion seven days a week… for eight years!
The Fighting Irish
I got into my first fight in first grade. I don’t remember what Patrick Burkrey and I fought about, or who started it. Maybe I thought he was “giving me guff ”. I do remember how it ended, with Fat Pat on top of me, banging me into the cobblestone street. In second grade, I started a fight with Richard Eaton. It didn’t last long. He threw me all over the place. Brother Brian marched us into the building where he gave us a good beating with a wooden paddle. In fourth grade, a kid grabbed the white sailor hat off my head, and threw it to another kid. Soon there were about five kids involved. Every time I ran to grab my hat, it would be thrown to another kid. My hat was getting dirty, so I waited until the smallest kid, Edmund Orlowski, caught my hat. Then I pounced on him, punching him until he let go of my hat, and I fell on top of him on the curb. Brother Alexis blew a single whistle, which meant that we were to march into the school. I left Edmund lying on the curb.
Brother Alexis had not noticed him. Later, the Principal, Brother Irenaeus, came into my classroom, walked me into his office, closed the door, and asked, “were you fighting with Edmund?” I said that he had my hat. The Brother said, “That’s not what I asked”, as he struck me in the face repeatedly. When my nose started bleeding, he stopped, and told me to return to his office at the end of the school day.
Edmund had been taken to the hospital. He had a broken ankle. I was ordered to visit him at his home every day with a gift until he returned to school. It was a long time before he could walk to school, but I brought him a different comic book every day. All the kids traded comics with each other, so I kept getting new comics for Edmund. Finally, he was able to walk, but he always walked with a limp after that.
Franciscan Brothers wore black, hooded habits (robes) which went from the top of their heads down to their black shoes. They had white ropes fastened around their waists. They carried a string of large black rosary beads in a pocket, which they would touch and say prayers with repeatedly, as they walked up and down the sidewalk n front of the school. I remember wondering, if it was normal for Brothers to never get married and have children.
The Brothers were advocates of corporal punishment. At times, it was both abusive and unwarranted. For example, in sixth grade, we were dutifully lined up in the street waiting for Brother Cipriani to blow the whistle which was our signal to begin walking into the building. However, he stepped off the sidewalk, walked straight to me and without saying a word, he struck me in the face with such force that it knocked me backwards into the student behind me. I asked the kid, ”Why did he hit me?” He whispered, “You had your hands in your pockets?”
Once in religion class, I asked, “How long is eternity?” Brother Cipriani began his answer by asking me what the circumference of planet earth was. “Thousands of miles”, I replied. He told me to picture in my mind, a steel ball the size of the earth. Then he told me to picture a white dove flying down, sweeping its wing on the surface of the steel earth, and flying back into the sky. One year later the dove returned, and again swept its wing on the earth’s surface. Each year, the bird’s wing would rub against it, and a very tiny bit of the steel globe was removed by the friction of the bird’s wing rubbing against the steel globe. The bird continued returning once a year. When the solid steel ball of the earth is worn down to the size of a metal BB, that would be the end of the first day of eternity. I must have been speechless! But I knew that it could not be true.
Later, I asked Brother Alexis, “What is the quickest way to get into heaven?” He said that if you died in service to the Lord, as soon as your heart stopped beating, your soul would be in heaven. I didn’t believe some of this, though I did think about becoming a missionary and getting killed in Africa. I thought that I’d get right into heaven, and not take the chance of dying with a mortal sin on my soul, and burning in hell for eternity.
I remember one day a Brother asked me if I would run an errand for him after school. I said yes, and after school I walked across the street to the Brothers’ house. Brother Alexis came to the door, gave me money and a list of food items to buy. When I returned with the groceries, he gave me a few coins, and invited me to come down inside for a brief visit. I could see that the Brothers were not wearing their habits. They were wearing regular clothes, and some were walking around in their underwear. Feeling uncomfortable, I declined. I was pretty sure that they knew that I lived in a fatherless home.
Mom’s Gone…. Dad’s Gone
Aunt Mary was Mom’s younger sister. Sometimes she would travel by subway from Queens to visit us. She and Mom would sit at the kitchen table, smoke cigarettes, and talk about “L”, which was short for Lawrence, my father. One morning, Aunt Mary and Uncle Walter surprised us by showing up at our apartment. Unk explained that he had been ‘drafted’. Then off he went carrying a duffel bag. Aunt Mary started crying, so Mom thought it would be a good idea to keep themselves busy with work. As they were washing the large kitchen window, they broke it. Mom wrapped a towel around Aunt Mary’s arm, which was bleeding. Aunt Mary said that it meant “bad luck”, but Mom said that was only for broken mirrors. Later they sat at the table and smoked. Mom filled two glasses with wine. Aunt Mary said it tasted bitter. Mom said, “Drink it, and you’ll feel better”. Hours later, I was in the bathtub. Mom had left the bathroom door open to keep an eye on me. Then the kitchen door opened, and Unk walked in. He said that the army didn’t want him because he had failed an examination. He was completely blind in one eye. He had forgotten about it because it had happened years ago, when he was a child cracking coal. A shard of coal pierced his eyeball.
Once, Aunt Mary came to our apartment, and asked Mom if she could take me and Artie swimming. Mom said, “Okay, but they don’t have bathing suits”. We had never been swimming before. Mom told me that I could use my regular short pants as a bathing suit, and Aunt Mary said, “Let’s make a bathing suit for Artie with some cloth”. I watched as Mom cut a pattern out, and Aunt Mary began sewing. Presto! We were ready to go. Mom had to stay home with baby, Loretta. Aunt Mary took us to the Coney Island Beach. We had fun running in the deep sand and into the water. Artie looked funny when he came out of the water in his homemade bathing suit. We both got very sunburned.