The Fresh Air Kid
That clock you see in the Lost Weekend — the one Ray Milland looks up at when he’s standing in front of the closed pawn shop is located at 1501 Third Ave., four streets from where I lived.
Ray Milland as Don Birnam, a writer, was trying to hock his typewriter for a drink. He didn’t realize all the pawn shops were closed for Yom Kipper. Tragic stuff. That movie still has a nightmarish, punch-in-the-gut feel to it. That clock is still there — minus the pawn-balls that sat on top — and continues to be looked upon by the down and out, and the just plain late-for-somethings. The pawn shop is long gone, but the clock is still at work.
Pawn shops were common-place when I was growing up. I know my mom was familiar with them. Money was always in short supply with that many kids, but I don’t remember ever feeling the pinch. I don’t think you every really appreciate your parents’s struggle until you look back and marvel at how they were able to do it at all. My wife and I raised one son and that was enough for us. Makes me laugh. Twelve kids in a four room railroad flat was both a logistics nightmare and a hell of a blessing. I don’t ever remember hating it. Except that last time I returned home from York, Pennsylania.
I was a Fresh Air Fund kid from 1960 to 1963. For two weeks in the summer and one week during Christmas break, I was put on a train bound for York, PA to stay with the Paul family. At the age of six I must have looked like the littlest refugee. Sitting on my tiny suitcase at Pennsylvania Station, Fresh Air Fund tags hanging around my neck. There would be many tears and a lot of frantic skirt clinging before Mom handed me over to the chaperone. Then she’d make a quick exit, after a strategic block from my aforementioned keeper.
After calming down I can remember taking in the station for the first time. It was magnificent. Cathedral like. And when the sunlight came streaming through its steel and glass ceiling, it made me feel downright spiritual. As though angels might appear at any moment. More like God’s house than an actual church; overseeing the comings and goings of his creations. Of course I didn’t have those exact words floating around in my wee head at the time, but that’s the feeling it left me with. I miss it terribly. It would be demolished in 1963 to make way for Madison Square Garden. A much-needed venue for a city like New York. I only wish they could have built it elsewhere. There’s still a Pennsylvania railroad below the Garden, but it’s now just a plain old uninspiring mess of a train station. No good things have ever been said about it.
I don’t remember much about the train ride to York, except for the scenery as we made our way through New Jersey, and into Pennsylvania. Cows and cornfields were what I remember. What the hell have they gotten me into, was the feeling. I was soon to find out some three plus hours later when I left the train and was handed over to the wonderful Mrs. Bette Paul.
Her wonderfulness wouldn’t make itself apparent until I got over being scared and angry about being torn away from family and friends. I wasn’t scared and angry for long. The first thing I can remember was Mrs. Paul looking at my shoes. I don’t remember them myself, but she wasn't impressed. I soon found myself in a Buster Brown shoe store, being fitted for another pair. Then it was off to her home in York.
Mrs. Paul was a divorced mother of three. The eldest were her daughters Kitty and Patty. The youngest was her son Chad: actual name Richard Chadwick Paul. And like me, Chad was six years old.
One of the first things that impressed me about the house was that everyone had their own bedroom. Mrs. Paul, Kitty and Chad on the second floor and Patty in the finished attic. Damn nice digs.
Chad’s room had a little back porch, and the house had a bathroom four times the size of the closet we called a bathroom back home. With a toilet that had the tank right behind where you sat. Not a wooden box, with a chain-pull, up near the ceiling.
I remember getting ready for bed that first night and being told my things were laid out for me on the bed. As I recall, Chad slept on a cot, and I slept in his bed.
My things laid out for me? What ever was she talking about? When I got up to the bedroom there was a fresh pair of neatly pressed pajamas, and a folded towel waiting for me on the bed. We did have pajamas and towels back home, but Mom never made a fuss with the presentation. More like: Pajamas! Bed! Now!
The summer days in York were filled with bike riding, drive-in movies, day camp, nights spent catching fire flies, and swimming in the local pool, among other things. And that first kiss from a girl named Libby stays with me. I’m not so sure about the Christmas break activities, but it was all fun and good. I didn’t mind going back for more.
York, Pa. was where I was first turned on to the West Side Story soundtrack. I remember it being played a lot by one of Chad’s sisters. That was my city they were singing in. How could anyone listening to that album not be cool, was my thinking. I’ve been listening to it ever since.
I know Mrs. Paul was somehow involved with the church and that Chad’s dad was a doctor, as was his grandfather. The image I have of the elder Dr. Paul is of him standing before his bathroom mirror shaving. He was dressed in his T-shirt, and his suspenders, not yet hooked to his shoulders, were hanging lifeless at his side. What impressed me was his use of an old fashioned straight razor, which he sharpened on a leather razor strop that was attached to the wall or sink. It’s a vivid memory; like I had stepped back in time. It could easily have been 1860. It’s one of those haunting memories that pop into my head without notice. Just dropping by for a visit, Rich. Good to see you, says the doctor. Same to you, Dr. Paul. Hope to see you soon.
Most of my siblings have had a taste of the Fresh Air Fund, as well. Some experiences were good, and some not so good. It was all pot luck. And it gave us all a break from those sweltering New York City summers.
I did not return to York in 1964 or anytime after, and I can’t remember the reason. What I do remember is Chad calling me at home in the summer of ’64. He and his family were coming to the New York to visit the World’s Fair that was being held in Flushing, Queens. He wanted to know if they could come see where I lived, and possibly come to the World’s Fair with them.
I panicked. I didn’t have a house like theirs. It didn’t have the things they had. And for the first time I can remember I felt embarrassed by my living conditions. I don’t know what I told him, but I’m sure it was an obvious lie.
The thing I dread most was not saying, Yes, of course you can come visit. Let them see that the other-half can turn out good and decent kids, as well; despite not having much. The other thing that bothers me is that I believe they knew that already. Which is probably why I liked being with them so much. It was me who had the problem, not them. It’s haunted me ever since.
I’m sure I’d get more details in these memory pieces by emailing and telephone those involved, but I’d rather believe that things happened the way I remember them. Especially since the memories were all good ones.
Photo courtesy of Wiki Commons: