It never occurred to me that Norman would chicken out and become a stool pigeon. He was aggressive, a good athlete, a gambler, (for baseball cards and streetcar transfers), a veteran explorer of our neighborhood and Crotona Park. He was a very persuasive talker, a take-over guy and besides, he loved banana and mustard sandwiches. It was his idea that we organize a trip to the Floyd Bennett Airport. When he squealed to his mother about our plans we labeled him…But that will come with this story.
We were nine years old that bright, summer morning in 1933, when Norman told us about an airport “just on the other side of Crotona Park.” (When I was older, I learned that it was about thirty miles south of my home, on an island off the coast of southern Queens.) There were five of us in the group and the other four had just finished playing “off the bench.” This game is played with a “Spaldeen,” a pink, soft rubber ball that is thrown against the slatted wooden back of a concrete bench that stands on the park side of Fulton Avenue.
Our neighborhood consisted of one ‘block,’ from 174thstreet to 175th , the park on one side; on the other was a row of ten, 5-story buildings, with four apartments on a floor. (The average family had 3-6 children.) We were luckier than most ‘blocks’ that had 5 story tenements on both sides.
“Off the bench:” There are two players to a side and on the fielding team one player stands in the street and the other on the opposite sidewalk. (In the early 1930’s there was hardly any motor traffic or parked cars on Fulton Ave.) You scored when the thrown ball rebounded off a slat and bounced in the gutter or on the opposite sidewalk. One base for every bounce, four bounces, a home run. Since I was one of the worst players on the block I was not picked in the first choosing of sides.
The game had been long and exciting and it finished in great style when Norman hit a home run, an uncatchable smash which reached the building on the other side of the street and fell into the cellar. I cheered this magnificent shot and then announced that it was my turn to pick. I would choose the best player from the losing side to be my partner. Not to be.
Norman announced in his super-confident voice that there would be no more games since we would all go to Floyd Bennett Airport. “I know it is just on the other side of the park. We can walk there.” I was angry for not getting my pick and I argued loudly with him but as usual, his decision was final; there would be no more “off the bench” that morning. .
There were four of us sitting on the bench and Norman stood facing us. His spiel was seductive and easily led us to agree to going to the airport. I suggested that we take along sandwiches. This idea was happily and immediately accepted. We agreed to take sandwiches from home, telling our mothers that we wanted to have a picnic lunch in the park. The five of us dispersed homeward to prepare for this great adventure: Norman, Tevie, (Herby), Lobo, (Natie), Putzie, (Paulie), and myself, Itchy, (Irving.) I had never questioned the fact that Norman was the only one without a nickname
Flinging open the door of my house, I rushed into the kitchen, finding my mother busy preparing lunch. I breathlessly told her about our idea of having a picnic in the park and she bought it without any questions. I told her that Tevie, Lobo, Putzie and Norman were my picnic companions and they were bringing sandwiches, and I wanted to bring them too. Momma sliced four thick slabs of seeded rye bread and heavily spread butter on them. She made two jumbo sandwiches filling them with a “feinkuchen,” (omelet.) She put them in a brown paper bag and handing it to me she said, “Don’t go too far in the park.”
There were four of us waiting by the bench for Norman. He was late. We were eager to get going and as time went by I volunteered to go to his home to find out when he was coming. I ran up the double set of steps of the courtyard of Norman’s building, (the only building on the block with a courtyard,) and standing under his kitchen window I shouted up to him. His head popped out of the kitchen window, as if he had been waiting for me. He had a big bulge in his cheek and he was chewing slowly. In his right hand he was holding a banana and mustard sandwich. He told me to come up. I did.
He was waiting for me by his open apartment door and motioned for me to come in. We stood in the all of his apartment and he whispered to me, “You don’t know what happened. Somehow my mother guessed we were going to the airport and now I have to stay home. What lousy luck.”
She called from the kitchen, asking us to come in. When I walked in she bent down and gently pinched my cheek, saying, “I love your rosy cheeks and your freckles, Itchy.” She offered to make me a banana and mustard sandwich as she had for Norman; I backed up a bit and politely refused.
Norman supported his mother saying, “My mother is right. It’s no good to go past the Indian Lake. If you ask me, you don’t know what’s on the other side.” I mumbled, “It ain’t so far,” and ran out of the apartment. When I came out into the courtyard and was skipping down the upper set of steps Norman shouted behind me, “You can’t miss it. It’s just on the other side of the Indian Lake.”
The four of us entered the park, heading in the direction of Indian Lake and hopefully, the airport, on the other side. The park is about a mile wide and we were no more than half way across when we were attracted by the cheering noises of a large crowd coming from the city stadium. Putzie suggested that we detour there because “They have baseball games with uniforms and even umpires, guys in black suits.” Putzie was the best athlete on the block and his recommendation was quickly accepted. He led the way, running quickly and easily, with Lobo right behind him. Tevie and I were struggling to keep up.
There was a baseball game in progress and the players wore uniforms; this was the first time I had ever seen uniformed play. There were two men dressed in black suits, wearing small, black, peaked caps, and I easily identified them as the umpires. The contest was between two semi-professional teams, one from a west side neighborhood of the Bronx and the other from our east side. (The west side of the Bronx was the “rich” side and the East side was the “poor” side. Of course we immediately picked sides and lustily cheered the “East Bronxers.”
Putzie was the only one who had seen a major league game, the New York Yankees, the “Bronx Bombers,” at the Yankee Stadium in the west Bronx.. We knew about the Yankees from the radio broadcasts that I sometimes heard in the candy store, when the older fellows asked Mr. Nathan, the owner, to put on the game. Some of my bubble-gum tickets had pictures of Yankee players.
It was fascinating to see my first real baseball game, in a stadium, a small one, but still with a laid-out playing field. All the previous games I had seen were sandlot games. The stands were full and the noisy, enthusiastic crowd roared its approval at anything the home team did. The first base and third base foul lines were lined with children sitting on the ground. We found seats on the foul line just past third base and we settled comfortably onto the dry, dusty earth. The Indian Lake and Floyd Bennett airport were forgotten. After fifteen minutes of joyful spectating, something happened to make us continue with our original mission.
A grounder, hit just foul, down the third base line would have hit Putzie in the head but he ducked in time, avoiding a disaster. This near-accident prompted the umpires to clear both foul lines. We had to move behind the home plate wire-screen where the people and children obstructed the view of the game. Tevie, the oldest of our group, reminded us of our original destination by pointing in the direction of Indian Lake. “What about it, guys? Do we stay or go? Which is it?”
After a brief discussion, Lobo, the natural leader of our group, quietly resolved our conflict. Firmly, clearly, he said, “The airport. That’s where we’re going, right?” We were on our way. A few minutes later we found ourselves standing on the top of a hill, the Indian Lake below us, and beyond that, Boston Road and Claremont Parkway. The lake seemed so big and deep and there were rowboats. (That there was no airport seen, we didn’t even think about at that time.)
I had been to the lake the first time, the year before, with my siblings. We accompanied Zaydeh (my maternal grandfather) to the lakeside, so that he could “throw away his sins.” Just prior to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, Zaydeh, the president of our Fulton Avenue schul, (synagogue) led the male congregants pond-side, for the ritual dumping of their sins into the water. Afterwards, the men stood around talking, gossiping, mingling with hundreds of other sin-throwing worshipers from other schuls in the area.
While my Zaydeh was chatting, my brother Sid and I explored the lake. We walked to the end of the lake where the rowboats were tied up and heedless of the danger we tried to climb into one. The park attendant responsible for the boats gruffly growled at us, “Scram, you snotnoses before I kick your asses for you.” We ran back to the safety zone of Zaydeh’s area.
There was a roundish, six-foot high boulder adjacent to the lake, more than twice my height. This was the Indian Rock, with a brass embedded dedication plaque in its side, and little steps carved in its side, leading to its top. Sid was the first one up and for a few moments he wouldn’t let me climb to the top, shouting, “I am the King of the hill.” This brought a sharp rebuke from Zaydeh, who told my brother not to disturb the seriousness of the situation. It also allowed me to make it to the top.
Sitting peacefully on top of the Indian Rock, we talked about the western movies that we sometimes went to Saturday afternoons at the Deluxe movie, or the Fenway, both within walking distance from our home. Based on the good-guy, bad-guy movies, it was easy to project the Indian Rock into a fort.
Suddenly, coming out of my reverie, I realized that I was famished and the powerful odor coming from my butter-stained, brown bag enhanced my appetite. I took out one of the sandwiches, waved it around, saying, “Listen, guys, let’s eat something and then we’ll be ready to charge down the hill to the lake. What do you say?” There was a brief moment of hesitation but when Tevie took out one of his sandwiches and bit deeply into it, that was the signal for all of us to sit down to eat.
We ate quickly, except for Tevie. We were up and around, restlessly waiting for him to finish, anxious to make the charge down the hill to Lake and its besieged fort, the Indian rock. Even before Tevie took his last bite we began to run down the hill. Putzie was in the lead, with Lobo behind him and I was just one step ahead of Tevie. Suddenly I noticed a dollar bill lying on the side of the asphalt path and I stopped running, transfixed by what I had discovered.
I called out, “Hey, look. There’s a buck on the ground.” Before I could pick it up Tevie had scooped it up, saying loudly, “It’s mine. I found it. No aikies.” According to street law if he said this before anyone could say “Halfie no aikes,” then he didn’t have to share his find. I said, “It ain’t fair, no. I saw it first. C’mon Tevie, be fair.” He refused, repeating, “No aikies.” I doubled the loudness of my demand but he refused, finding a new excuse, sing-songing, “Finders keepers, losers weepers.”
Lobo mediated the dispute by convincing Tevie that the four of us should share the dollar; I accepted the compromise. The usually gentle Tevie grumbled his acceptance of Lobo’s wise decision. We forgot the airport, we forgot the lake, forgot the Indian rock. Instead we headed in the direction of the street on the other side of the park. There were stores there and we agreed that we would go to a candy story where each one of us could buy to his heart’s delight, what he wanted with his twenty five cents.
Just before we left the park we saw a man with a pony, selling rides for a nickel each. Without a word we made a new decision about what to do with the money. For the next hour we were living in the wonderful world of the Wild West. Each of us had five, rip-roaring, bronco-busting rides on the docile pony. It was like in the movies where my favorite cowboy, Buzz Barton, always got the bad guy; the only kiss at the end of the movie was to his horse. Then he rode off at the end, into the sinking sun, the lone rider.
When our money ran out we stood around for a few minutes watching other children have pony rides. Then Putzie brought us out of our western fantasy life by shouting, “The last one to the Indian Rock is a rotten egg.” I was the rotten egg, since I got a late start and even Tevie beat me.
While the other three were climbing onto the rock, playing “Cowboys and Indians” I took off my sneakers and socks and sat on the paving-stone lake rim. I dangled my feet into the cool water and by sliding slightly forward, I could just reach the muddy bottom. The soft sliminess of the silted bottom was pleasantly sensuous as I moved my feet in and out of it. The muddy waters coming up to the surface fascinated me.
I was shocked to hear a park attendant shouting at me, as he ambled in direction. I hastily withdrew from the water and gathering up my sneakers and socks I ran part of the way up the hill. He stopped and pointed his long arm accusingly at me and gruffly yelled at me, “What do you want to do? Get yourself drowned or something?” I retreated a little further up the hill. With a grunt of disapproval and a dismissing wave of his hand, he moved off.
Resocked and reshod, I joined my friends by the rock. They were playing “Cowboys and Indians.” Lobo and Putzie were on top, “in the fort,” and Tevie had been unsuccessfully storming it. I joined him and the both of us were unsuccessful in getting to the top. I complained loudly that it wasn’t fair so we switched. Tevie and I were the brave defenders of the fort and Putzie and Lobo were the Indians. Somehow, they succeeded in getting to the top.
I didn’t care because we were having a great time. After a while we got tired of the game and we began to play tag. When we tired of that game we walked to the end of the lake (that was about fifty yards wide and 25 across,) where the rowboats were moored. We watched two couples take out two boats. We discussed the possibility of getting a rowboat but realized that we couldn’t, because we had no accompanying adult and we had no money.
We moved to a new part of the lake and began to skip flat stones across the surface, competing to see who could get the most bounces. It was Putzie, of course. We watched a man fishing with a thin string and a u-shaped pin for a hook. He had a ball of dough at his feet and he pinched off a piece, finger-rolled it into a little bait-ball and put it on the end of his improvised hook. Then he threw it into the water.
Four times he pulled his line out of the water without the bait on it. Then it happened. The fifth time the line jerked in the water. He pulled gently on it and then more strongly. With a swift motion he pulled his hook out of the water and wiggling desperately on it was a two inch fish. He plucked the fish off his hook and put it into a glass jar, half-filled with lake water. I watched the little darter in his glass jail, feeling sorry for it.
Somehow, watching the trapped fish reminded me of Norman and I reminded the group that we never got to the airport. The rest of the group was just as surprised as I was that we had forgotten about it. We were hungry and it was too late in the day to go on. We decided to make the trip on another day. Lobo looked towards home, saying that it was late in the day and it was time to start back. Without waiting for the others I took off, shouting, “The last one up the hill is a rotten egg.” This time Tevie was the rotten egg.
The return trip was quick and uneventful. When we got to Fulton Avenue we saw a crowd of people standing in front of the new buildings. My mother and father were there, along with my two brothers and sister. In the same worried cluster were Putzie’s parents, Tevie’s mother and father and Lobo’s mother and oldest sister My heart began pounding and I had trouble breathing. I knew I was going to be punished.
I felt worse when Norman came running towards us, shouting, “You guys are in trouble. You’re going to get it. What took you so long? Did you get to the airport? Everyone has been going crazy looking for you.” Before anyone could answer he told us what happened. His mother told my mother and she had contacted the other three mothers. Putzie’s older brother was sent to look for us around Indian Lake but we were at the stadium at the time. Later in the day, as the anxiety increased, Tevie’s father and my father, both out of work at the time, went to look for us. We were probably wild-westing it with our pony at the furthest reaches of the park, and when they returned without us the rumor spread that we had been kidnapped.
My mother tearfully embraced me, kissed me repeatedly and thanked God for bringing me home safely. Then with a serious look and a stern command, she ordered me to go “upstairs.” My father’s red-faced angry looks made me fearful that I was going to get a beating. He had never beaten me before although he had spoken of it, occasionally reached for his belt, or gave me a stern look. That was enough to scare me into behaving.
When I was upstairs, sitting in the kitchen, hungry and apprehensive, my mother came in alone. She gave me something to eat which I was unable to enjoy because I didn’t know what form the punishment would take. Hanging on the wall above the table was the Lukshen Strop, (the noodle strap), the cat-o-nine tails, and looking at it made me shiver fearfully.
My mother decided to use her own instrument of punishment and I was momentarily relieved that it wasn’t going to be a whipping. She began her tongue lashing, constantly repeating in a quiet, tense voice, “How could you be such a bad boy. You’ll kill me. After all the sacrifices I made for you children.” I remembered that when I was a few years younger she had done the same thing when I was a “bad boy.” She talked and talked until I cried hysterically for her to stop.
I cried long, I cried hard. I promised again and again that I would never again do anything like that. That ended the first round. Then she started guilt-whipping me again about making her suffer, about shortening her life, and I cried and repented, and then repented and cried. Finally, I was sent to bed with a full stomach, loaded with remorse, promises to be good and heavily burdened with guilt.
The following day when the guys met, we decided that Norman had tattle-taled; one of the others called him a stool pigeon. From that moment he became Stooley. He finally had a nickname like the rest of us.
Originally published on 03/21/2001