A Queen's Story
What’s troubles me while writing these memory pieces is why my family moved around so much.
In 1966 we left Manhattan for good, moving to an apartment in Flushing. In 1967 we moved to a house Maspeth, and in 1968 we moved to a home in Elmhurst. All located in the borough of Queens. That was a lot of moving for a family of six.
In 1966 my younger brothers were six and eleven, my older sister fourteen, and I was twelve. I don’t recall having any family meetings to discuss these moves; like the ones you might see in Peaky Blinders.
Son, get the Bushmills an’ six glasses, I got somethin’ to discuss wit the whole lot of ya.
Pack up yer knickers an’ say goodbye to yer ol’ life. Discussion over. Now, hurry up an’ drink yer bloody whiskey. Landlord’s bringin’ da coppers in at six.
I’m not knocking Queens. It’s a fine borough, and it houses the home of my favorite losing baseball team, the New York Mets. One borough north is the Bronx, home to one of the winningest teams in baseball history, the New York Yankees. My dad had to know this going in. Did he make this move to a losing borough to strengthen my character? To make me more appreciative of the down and out? Or was it plain spite because of my recent love affair with Frankie Valli. Was Frankie’s falsetto really such a burden on Dad’s blood pressure? Or was it my insistence on singing along in a similar falsetto for which I was not properly trained? For whatever reason, I was stuck with a losing team who continue to break my heart. But I’m loyal. And as tempting as it is to abandon ship and hoist a Yankee banner on a ship that doesn’t sink at the end of every season, I’ll continue to go down with my crew in Flushing. An, oh so, appropriate location name for a team such as mine. Maybe my folks did know what they were doing. Keep the boy humble. At least they didn’t name me Sue.
It bothers me that I still have no recollection of the circumstances causing us to move like a den of thieves needing to stay one step ahead of the heat. My family had been a part of the Yorkville fabric since the thirties. Twelve children were raised in that railroad flat. Ten boys. Two girls. A lot of laughs and drama were had there. My grandmother lived two flights down. It was a good, long run.
I wonder if all that moving had anything to do with me running away after that first move to Flushing when I was twelve. Let’s annoy the boy and keep moving. That'll keep him on his toes. Teach him to run away on us like that. It was the worst runaway plan ever. I didn’t take a thing with me. Not so much as a peanut butter sandwich. I simply decided one day not to come home from school, and, instead, took the subway to my old neighborhood in Yorkville. Who would think of looking for me there?
Just about everyone, as it turned out.
There was an entire network of women who spent a good deal of their day hanging out tenement windows – smoking cigarettes and fanning them selves in the summer heat – and keeping an eye on the neighborhood. You couldn’t so much as pull a girl’s ponytail without it being relayed from one window to the next until it reached the headquarters of the hair-puller‘s mother eight buildings away.
I was a sitting duck. But I did mange to elude them for one night by ducking into a building with a kid I knew from the neighborhood. He had run away, too. We had this idea we’d spend the night on the roof, looking up at the stars and trash-talking parents.
It was October. By nightfall the temperature had dropped into the forties. No hat, no gloves, no blanket, no brains. Just two disgruntled boys looking for some clarity.
My dad whips me with a strap, was his story. I hate him. He comes home drunk and gets out the belt if he’s told I’ve been bad. And my mom lets him do it.
My feet are getting cold, was all I could think of. I couldn’t come up with a single horror story that didn’t sound made up. So I didn’t. We decided then to get out of the cold and talk Bond movies and girl crushes. We sat up, and half-slept, on the stairs. Two twelve-year-olds huddled at the foot of the roof’s door wishing they were back in their beds.
After our night on the stairs I can’t remember what we did the following morning. What I do remember was my eldest brother Michael coming down the street. I was standing outside the building where I spent the night, pretending not to notice. I let him nab me and drag my sorry ass home.
The truth was I missed what I left behind in Yorkville. Catholic school, for all it’s faults, was the only home I knew. My friends were the same friends I’d had since kindergarten. That I’d suddenly find myself in an Up the Downstair Case public school was just a jolt to the system socially. I went from the strict regiment of thick-rulered nuns, to utter chaos. It was like stepping into Times Square on New Year’s Eve after spending your life in a monastary. I then made a habit of playing hookie every chance I got; finally quit school at the age of fifteen.
It took a long while to get the sound of those swishing nuns, parading up and down the classroom, out of my head.
This was fifty-three years ago and it's only recently that I realize the anguish my mother must have suffered thinking about a twelve-year-old son who didn’t come home, who didn’t bother to call. I’d have hung me out to dry if I were them. But I don’t recall Mom dealing with me after I returned home. That sort of thing was left to Dad.
You ever do it again, son, they’ll be no guarantee we’ll be here when you come crawling back for forgiveness. Now drink yer whiskey and get to bed. We’ve all had a trying night. And by all that I hold holy, son, I love ya, but if ya ever do it again I’ll hunt ya down and feed ya ta the pigs what are starving out in yonder pen.
Okay. What my dad really said was: You ever do that again I’ll beat the living’ bejeezus out of ya.
He got right to the point. It was highly effective.
My dad was a handsome hulk of a man. A truck driver. I’ve witnessed him carry appliances such as washers and refrigerators on his back up flights of stairs. He was boiler-maker tough, but a softy at heart. I don’t ever recall him striking me. That was mom’s job. When we were younger there were three of us to a bed, raising hell long after bed-time. When yelling didn’t work Mom would grab anything she could get her hands on — newspaper, broom, fly swatter — and give us a couple of good whacks. Her favorite, and most handy weapon, was one of her bedroom slippers. It wasn’t so much what she used, it was the power behind it. There was no Mommy Dearest stuff here. Just mom trying to keep her sanity. She had her first child at seventeen and the last child at forty. A long haul
Mom and Dad were the heart and soul of our lives, and I miss them dearly. Both are long gone, but wander about in my head at the random moments I’ve given up on things.
No matter how common I thought my childhood had been, I believe we’ve all got a good story in there somewhere. It’s all in the telling and what we’re willing put into it. These rambling remembrances have opened a floodgate of material. For good or bad, better or worse, I expect I'll have more to say on the subject.
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