There was nothing all that unusual about where I grew up.
But there was something special about it.
Goddamn Henry took my cigarettes again.
It’s a sad state of affairs when a kid comes home from eight grueling hours of grammar school, sticks his hand behind the radiator in the front hall of his building, and doesn’t find the pack of Marlboros he hid there the night before.
Henry moved into our basement in the fall of 1960 and quickly discovered that I hid my cigarettes behind the front-hall radiator, which – since it never produced any heat – was entirely useless except as a hiding place. And not even that as it turned out, since Henry stole Marlboros as fast as I could put them there. He was a very inconvenient squatter.
(At one point I hid them in the single drawer assigned to me but Mom found them and threatened to out me to the old man, so I went back to taking my chances with Henry.)
He was an extremely clever squatter as well. There was a whole stretch of time, for example, that Henry retained his subterranean home despite the padlock someone put on the basement door. What Henry lacked in social graces, he made up in ingenuity.
Besides Henry, the other distinguishing feature of our front hall was the Stairway to Nowhere – a long ascension of steps that led to the ominous darkness of the second floor. Red-E-Kilowatt, the Con Ed mascot, was not eating well off our landlord.
What really sticks over time about 169’s front hall, though, is not outsourcing cigarettes to Henry or ascending to the Heart of Darkness on the second floor. It’s the glob of chocolate that appeared on the stairway’s first-floor metal railing during the winter of 1964.
In the winter of 1965, the glob was still there.
Mr. Clean wasn’t eating well off our landlord either.
You won’t find 169 East 89th Street in Manhattan anymore.
It’s gone – swallowed up by 167, some fancy-schmancy co-op that needed elbow room. But in its day (roughly 1890-1990, for those of you keeping score at home), 169 stood proud, if not tall, on 89th Street – a thoroughly average five-story walkup with little to recommend it except its rent-controlled status.
Inside, 169 was dingy, creaky and crowded. Outside, its red brick exterior was covered with cream-colored paint that had flaked so badly, the building looked like chipped beef on toast. Oddly enough, that was the one bad meal Mom never inflicted on us.
Even she would’ve told you that as a cook, she was an excellent stenographer. Most of the food Mom served us was water-based, so much so that I began to think our name should be Boyle.
Boiled pork tenderloin, boiled potatoes, boiled carrots: The hat trick of yuck. And that was just Wednesday night.
In our occasionally happy household, the kids ate dinner at seven; Mom ate dinner whenever the old man got home. He worked for American Airlines – first as a maintenance supervisor, then as a purchasing agent, negotiating deals for rebuilt fuel injectors or reconditioned environmental systems.
Eventually he left American Airlines and went to a company that sold retread airplane tires. They’d take bald airplane tires and improbably glue new treads onto them. I was only about 10 years old at the time, but even I could have told him retreads on airplane tires wouldn’t fly.
And they didn’t, so the old man soon needed a new job. Instead of going out and finding gainful employment, however, he decided to start his own company – a period immortalized in family lore as the Baloney Years.
I remember the day the old man told us he was going off on his own and needed a name for his new business. I was in the back seat of the 1957 Rambler American he had won a few years earlier at some corporate Christmas Eve party that apparently held more appeal than his wife and five kids at home.
That night he called around 1 a.m. to give Mom the good news about the car.
“It’s Christmas Eve,” she yelled into the phone. “Why the hell aren’t you home?”
Christmas Carroll Sidebar
As far back as I can remember, Mom and I would go out on Christmas Eve afternoon to buy our tree. We’d walk up 3rd Ave and down Lex to check out the sidewalk tree vendors, looking for the best of a bad lot of leftovers . By then, of course, Christmas trees were half price, which was the whole point. Given that our apartment was so small, it was just as well the trees were invariably scrawny.
As Mom berated the old man for skipping Christmas Eve at home, his five kids – all thinking the same thing – stayed in bed, pretending to be asleep. When we woke up Christmas morning, Mr. Lucky was in the living room, unshaven and decidedly worse for the wear. Needless to say, that did not qualify as the Best Christmas Ever at 169.
(Then again, it was nowhere near as bad as The Night of the Long Knife, but that’s a story for another time.)
Anyway, the old man – bereft of any corporate connection – now needed a name for his new business,
“How about Honest John’s,” I offered.
Inconveniently, the old man went by Jack.
He wound up naming his company Adroit Industries.
Maladroit was more like it, as we discovered across the years.
* * * * * * *
My folks moved into 169 in 1946, right after they got married. The five-story building had ten apartments, two per floor. They were all railroad flats, with three rooms running in a straight line from front to back. The door to our apartment opened onto the middle room, making for some extremely abrupt entrances.
Our place was on the third floor. In my 17 years at 169 I don’t think I went to the fourth or fifth floor more than twice – roughly the same number of times I went to Brooklyn. Neither place, I should say, made a lasting impression.
The only people in the building my family really knew were our next-door neighbors, the Kings: Margie and Mr. King (that’s what everyone called him, including Margie), along with their daughters Kathleen and Julie.
Oh yes – we also knew the long-suffering Mrs. Witte, who lived directly below us. Over the years I personally had to make about a hundred trips downstairs to apologize for the Carroll kids being the Thundering Herd of Germantown, as the neighborhood was known at the time.
(Also residing at 169: Herr & Frau Seiler, on the first floor. One year, after we built a snowman in the small patch of space back of 169, Frau Seiler promptly went out with a hose and melted it – my first encounter with schadenfreude, but certainly not my last.)
Our family qualified for the neighborhood – barely – because Mom was part German on her mother’s side (that would be Nana, late of the Hell’s Kitchen Gebauers). The old man, whose parents both came from Ireland, used to delight in telling me that I had a German sense of humor and an Irish sense of work. He was, as usual, half right.
169 stood just west of Third Ave., where the el ran until it was torn down in the mid-’50s. The day the el came down was like when the Wizard of Oz goes from black-and-white to color: Minus the el’s snaggle-toothed overbite on Third Ave., you could see all the way down 89th to the East River – not that I wanted to go anywhere near the river back then. Second Ave. was plenty far for me.
I would only venture even that far for one reason: to play stickball at the Ruppert Brewery. It consisted of – stick(ball) with me here – twin eight-story red-brick windowless one-block-square buildings on either side of 91st Street between Third and Second. We’d play wall-to-wall stickball there – the pitcher on one sidewalk, the batter on the opposite one.
Ground balls that got past you were singles. Balls that hit the wall behind you and landed in the street were doubles. Balls that hit the wall behind you and landed on the opposite sidewalk were triples. And balls that hit both walls and went uncaught were homers.
Twosomes lined up every ten feet down the block – each absorbed in a separate struggle, each a Sandy Koufax vs. a Mickey Mantle.
Since 169 happened to be downwind of the Ruppert Brewery, our apartment smelled of malt and hops all year ‘round. The front door opened up into the living room, which contained a fold-out sofa, a black-and-white television set that my Uncle Buster built, a fold-out dining room table, and a refrigerator.
To the left were a tiny kitchen and bathroom; to the right of the dining/sleeping/living room was a long hall with two chests of drawers and a set of bunk beds. Beyond that was the front room, which held another set of bunk beds and two twin beds.
By 1959 there were eight of us living in the apartment – except when the old man was on the road, which was a lot. Then the place felt more spacious.
Especially to me, since I turned out to be the first son the old man never had. (see: Cat v. Dog for further details). My folks being Irish-Catholic, of course, were zoned for a large family, so new-and-improved kids arrived sporadically (partly because the old man was a traveling salesman, partly because the rhythm method of birth control actually works on occasion).
The final tally: Diane in 1946, her Irish twin Nancy in 1947, yours truly in 1949, Robert (a.k.a. the Golden Boy) in 1953, Jimmy in 1957, and – surprise! – Terence in 1959, just as Mom was turning 40. Terence came home from the hospital several weeks before she did.
Our rent at the time was $54 a month, which seemed fitting since the apartment was about 54 feet in length. It added up to roughly 600 square feet total.
Carroll, party of eight, occupied that B.F. Skinner experiment until the summer of 1966.
East Side, West Side
The Carrolls were largely a West Side clan; the old man was the only one who migrated across Central Park to the East Side. The rest of his family lived in the West 60s – some in apartment buildings like ours, some in the projects.
His parents lived on the top floor of a decrepit brownstone on West 65th. As a kid all I really knew about my grandfather Poppa was that he had the largest collection of paperback books I’d ever seen (mostly westerns, especially by Louis L’Amour) and that he liked to sit in the park across the street from his bank, in case there was a run on it. If too many people in Poppa’s estimation went inside, he’d also go in and withdraw all his money.
Apparently, he never quite got past 1929.
All I remember about my grandmother Momma was that she cooked a mean pot roast. The Carrolls weren’t exactly oral historians.
The old man had two brothers – Sonny and Dan. Improbably, all three of them married women named Agnes. So that was confusing.
To clarify things, the wives were assigned compound names: Dan’s Agnes, Sonny’s Agnes, Jackie’s Agnes.
The one I knew best:
Quick primer on the Irish Naming System:
Sonny was called that because he was the first-born. Mary, who came next, was called Cissie. Although Sonny was sometimes addressed as Jim, I never heard Cissie called Mary.
I also never saw Cissie eat anything – she seemed to subsist entirely on Pall Malls and Rheingold beer.
Looking back, I’ve got to think that Cissie got totally robbed in all those Miss Rheingold faceoffs of the 1950s.
Addendum to the Irish Naming System:
If the first-born was a girl, the boy who followed was called Brother, as was my cousin Domenic Valenzano Jr., the son of my aunt Josephine and Domenic Valenzano Sr. – which was a rumpus all its own, having an Irish gal marry an Italian guy who drove a New York City bus for a living. But eventually most everyone got over it.
West Side Sidebar
When I was – I dunno – twelve, my mom would send me over to the west 60s on Saturdays to clean Nana’s place, where she lived with her sister Lillian. It was a railroad flat, much like ours, except with way less clutter. I’d vacuum the front rooms, scrub the kitchen floor, and clean the bathroom – same stuff I did at 89th street.
Once I was done, Nana would invariably offer me a hearty snack of tea and toast which was, like, what the hell, Nana – I’m twelve, not seventy-something. Regardless, I’d eat the toast (with margarine, of course, the low-price spread) but just make slurping noises with the tea.
Anyway, on the way home I would take the 86th Street crosstown bus, which was the route my Uncle Domenic drove. He was a big personality – loud, gregarious, always fun to be around (at least for me – I can’t vouch for Brother).
If I was lucky, I caught Domenic’s bus. I’d sit behind him, right under this sign.
“You can’t talk to the bus driver,” Domenic would tell me. “But the bus driver can talk to you.” He would then rattle on while the bus rattled through Central Park.
Domenic was easily my favorite uncle.
Back to the naming thing.
The best name ever belonged to my godfather: Boyfriend Johnny Cullen.
I would walk to school and think, man, what would you have to do to earn the nickname Boyfriend Johnny?
Whatever that was, I never did it. My being called Boyfriend Johnny Carroll was about as likely as Adlai Stevenson being called Mr. President.
That’s because in my younger days I was, to put it mildly, out of synch with the fairer sex. Never mind attracting them – I once got beaten up by a redheaded girl next door whose name I don’t recall for obvious psychological reasons. The incident was, I must say, a personal and chromosomal low point.
Regardless, I made a brief stab at restoring my self-respect soon after, when the pugilistic preteen had business with my mother for some reason and yelled up to our window, “Hey – Carroll’s muthah!” I looked at her scornfully and said, “That’s Mrs. Carroll, you moron.”
She glared and stepped toward me.
I bolted into 169 and took the stairs two at a time.
* * * * * *
Sundays, after Mass, the clan would repair to McGirr’s Bar & Grill on the West Side to prime the pump for the serious drinking to come.
One time I was sitting at the bar with the old man and assorted relatives and took a big chug of his beer when he wasn’t looking. About three seconds later I was off the barstool and getting a close-up look at the black and white tiles on the barroom floor. Understandably, the old man was seriously upset – not that I’d cracked my head on the floor, but that 1) he had to spring for another beer and 2) the West Side Carrolls were razzing him pretty good.
Eventually we would all drift over to Momma and Poppa’s place in the early days and later Josephine and Domenic’s.
There would be some large piece of roasted meat, potatoes in various states of mashedness, creamed corn and – blessedly – slices of Sealtest Neapolitan ice cream (one-third chocolate, one-third vanilla, one third strawberry).
Then the kids were told to go play in traffic so the adults could play poker – mostly five-card draw, day baseball (two cards down, four up, one down; threes and nines wild; four gets an extra card), and night baseball (seven cards down; threes and nines wild; four gets an extra card).
Except I didn’t go out all that much, partly because Josephine and Domenic’s place was in a West Side housing project where all the buildings looked the same, so I was never sure I could find my way back.
Mostly I stayed behind, though, because I was Cissie’s good luck charm. She would periodically rub my head, win the hand, and give me a quarter – which would buy me a pack of Marlboros that Henry could subsequently steal.
Regardless, it drove the old man crazy, and that was good enough for me.
Go Ask Alice
I didn’t really know Mom’s family.
I knew Nana, of course, from being Soapy the Cleaning Boy, although she never talked to me much – just pointed. And I have no recollection of Joe or Mary, the latter of whom according to family lore either a) committed suicide or b) was murdered by I don’t know who but maybe [checks notes] her husband.
I did know Bill and his wife Lillian a little bit, and saw Pat (who was in the Navy) a few times when he came through town.
Then there was John the Missing, the black sheep of the family who from an early age was a no-goodnik, known for shenanigans like leaving limburger cheese behind a radiator at school. Oh, yes – and spending almost two decades in federal prison for [checks notes] armed robbery.
I remember him visiting once and buying me a toy, thereby becoming my favorite uncle du jour. Mom was quick to remind me that I was not named after that John.
But Alice . . . man, Alice was special.
She and her husband Andy Morton lived in rural Bethel, Connecticut with their kids Billy, Tommy, and Joyce (pronounced Jerce).
To a kid from 89th and 3rd, Bethel might as well have been the Australian Outback, a totally foreign – and scary – landscape. Billy and Tommy, who fished and hunted and generally knew their way around wooded areas, would delight in making my visits as uncomfortable as possible.
For one thing, whenever I arrived they’d start serenading me with a former Top Ten hit by the Ad Libs.
Ooh-wah, ooh-wah, cool-cool kitty
Tell us about the boy from New York City
Ooh-wah, ooh-wah, come on kitty (oh, yeah)
Tell us about the boy from New York City
So eventually I started hanging out in Alice’s kitchen, which resulted in multiple benefits.
• For one thing, Alice showed me how to prepare ingredients for baking cookies, lessons that played a pivotal role in my subsequent 45 years of making cookies, which always paled by comparison with hers. Alice made the world’s best oatmeal/nut/raisin cookies, known for decades around the Carroll household as A Meal or A Snack.
• When I was 12, given that Mom had recently added Terence to the Carroll clan, Alice taught me how to iron a shirt, figuring that no one else would be doing that for me in the foreseeable future.
• Best of all, somewhere along the line Alice introduced me to Campbell’s Roulette.
Not surprisingly, cans of soup whose labels had fallen off were cheaper than their labeled brethren. So Alice bought the former, and you never knew what you’d get.
Before she can-opened the soup, we’d guess which one it might be. Almost always I would guess Pepper Pot (#65 on the Campbell’s Hit Parade), hoping that I would be wrong, as I so often was back then.
Sadly, I so often wasn’t wrong in Campbell’s Roulette. But it was totally fun to play.
• Oh yeah, and when I was 10 Alice gave me my first pair of blue jeans. They were hand-me-downs from Billy but who cared.
Alice was tough, street-smart, funny, and – to all of us kids – unfailingly kind. She didn’t have the easiest life either physically or fiscally, but she was rarely anything but upbeat and a joy to be around.
After Andy died, Alice became – to our great fortune – a fixture among the Connecticut Carrolls, always a welcome presence at holidays and special occasions.
Alice was – no contest – the best aunt ever.
In Hot Water
Some boys dream of being a super hero when they grow up.
I just wanted to be a super.
As far as I could tell, a building superintendent was the most powerful man in the universe. He had all the keys; he controlled the heat; he controlled the hot water. When part of the bathroom ceiling caved in, the super was the one who’d bring up a piece of sheet metal stamped with Fleurs-de-Lis and install it that very day – or the very next day – or the very next week, as in our case. That was his power.
Beyond the Fleur-de-Lis section of the ceiling, our bathroom’s other French touch was the absence of a shower. The four-legged bathtub had instead a red rubber hose with a showerhead attached to the faucet. Of course I had no idea at the time that the set-up was charmingly continental; I just thought it was annoying.
Not as annoying, though, as Mom’s system for bath recycling, the result of chronic deficiencies in the availability of hot water.
Diane, Nancy and I – in sequence – would use the first wave of bathwater, after which Mom would drain the tub and run a new bath for Robert, Jimmy and Terence. Three was clearly the unlucky number in bath roulette. I led the disloyal opposition to the system and would’ve recruited Terence to the cause except he was only a year old.
The bathtub was also the venue for one of the most unfortunate incidents of my youthage. One night I came home from some nocturnal activity (Boy Scouts or basketball at P.S. 6 or the pretense of one of them – who knows) and – how to put this? – really had to go to the bathroom. The ground rules at the time were that only Mom and the old man got exclusive use of the bathroom. For the rest of us, it was as modest a free-for-all as we could manage.
Consequently I burst into the apartment – asked “who’s in the bathroom?” – was told Nancy – opened the door – and walked in.
Nancy was indeed in the bathroom, taking a bath. For reasons still unknown to me, she stood up and screamed.
Now anyone can tell you, if you’re in the tub and you have a problem with someone seeing you there, the last thing you want to do is stand up.
Regardless, I started backing out until I bumped into – not him – the old man. He spun me around and smacked me in the head.
“Don’t ever do that again.”
“What’d I do?”
“Don’t ever walk in on your sister like that. She’s a woman now.”
“When did that happen?”
“Don’t get smart with me.”
“I’m serious – when did that happen? She wasn’t a woman yesterday.”
“Well she is today. And don’t you forget it.”
The next smack was apparently an exclamation point.
169 Bathroom Sidebar
Outside the bathroom window was a rusted fire escape and a clothesline that stretched across the alley in back to the rear of a building on 90th Street.
We used it all year ‘round. In winter I’d reel in the clothes and they’d be frozen in shape – shirts, underwear, pants. I would carefully lean the clothes against the bathroom radiator until they dried and curled to the floor.
From an early age I was Master of the Clothesline. One day I said to Mom, “Why do I always have to hang the clothes out. Shouldn’t the girls be doing that?”
“I’d never send the girls out there,” she replied solemnly. “That fire escape’s not safe.”
Let Sleeping Kids Lie
Sleeping arrangements at 169 were almost as complicated as bathroom logistics.
It started as soon as my folks moved in. Family lore has it that when Diane was born in 1946, 1) the old man wanted to name her Mary Christmas Carroll, and 2) she slept in a drawer upon arriving home from the hospital, which explained why she was so short.
Both stories, obviously, would benefit from some documentation.
Then again, bed assignments were certainly flexible as the Carroll clan expanded. For a period of time I slept on a chair bed – who even knew that was a thing – that sat only a couple of inches off the floor, which was where I wound up an average of three times a night. Like the three-knockdown rule in boxing, the last time I stayed on the floor.
By the time we reached full capacity at 169, the setup went like this: a foldout couch in the living/dining/whatever room; bunk beds in the long hall for Diane and Nancy; bunk beds (Jimmy/Terry) and two twin beds in the front room. The latter were where things got complicated.
For a while Bobby and I (upgraded from the chair bed!) slept in the twin beds, and the folks took the foldout couch. But eventually they got tired of sleeping on a crummy mattress and wanted to switch things up. One problem: they went to bed later than Bobby and I did. Their solution: the Midnight Shuffle.
When they were ready for bed they would wake me and Bobby up and point us toward the living room, where we’d reinstall ourselves on the foldout couch. I dimly recall one stretch where I refused to wake up and the old man would carry me out to the couch.
Rest assured, that arrangement didn’t last long.
That’s How the Car Rolls
Kids weren’t the only thing at 169 that had to be moved on a regular basis. There was also the car – when we had one.
New York has long had a system of alternate-side-of-the-street parking: You can park on either side of the crosstown streets until street-sweeping day, when you have to move your car. (Back when I lived at 169, we were still in the “Curb Your Dog” era – you didn’t have to pick up after your pooch, just couldn’t leave its poop on the sidewalk.)
Curbing your car was a more complicated – and strategic – enterprise. For instance, a spot on Wednesday that was “good till Tuesday” would be worth shedding blood for.
Which might actually come to pass in some instances, such as when a spot would open up in front of 169 – on the “good” side – and the old man would march me out to the curb.
“Stand here while I get the car.”
That could take anywhere from five minutes to an hour, depending on whether the old man actually remembered where he had last parked the car (more on that to come).
Meanwhile, I’m holding down the fort in front of 169. And then a car would come slowly up the street and pull to a stop in front of me.
Car inches slowly toward me.
I don’t move.
The driver sticks his head out the window and yells, “Hey – kid – move.”
“What – you’re paralyzed? Get out of the way.”
“Unh-uh. I’m saving this spot for the old man.”
“I don’t know. I’m saving the spot.”
The car inches toward me again.
“Don’t make me run you over, kid.”
“Go ahead, run me over. If the old man gets here and you have the spot, I’m dead anyway.”
Eventually the old man would arrive and settle the standoff.
Then there was the automotive version of Where’s Waldo? – those Mornings After the Night Before when the kids were dispatched to “find the car,” aided only by foggy directives such as “It’s somewhere between 79th and 96th, but definitely on the East Side.” The old man and we kids would fan out and eventually track the car down, always parked at a 30˚ angle to the sidewalk.
Some days it was better when we didn’t have a car.
Go Play in Traffic
I didn’t just live on 89th street. I lived on 89th street.
It was my daily playground. Stickball, street football, off-the-point – all of them took place somewhere on 89th between Lexington and Third. Getting out of the apartment for any reason at all was Job One for most of my youth.
I even foolishly joined the Boy Scouts around age 12, which led to two tragic results: 1) my folks wasted a bundle of money on Boy Scout paraphernalia – uniform, backpack, canteen, etc. – which I never used enough to even break in, and 2) I had to go on a mandatory camping trip to earn a merit badge, which resulted in a weekend at Bear Mountain during which I tossed an aluminum-foil-covered hamburger onto a fire and counted the minutes until I could return to civilization.
P.S. I actually got a cooking badge for that.
Stickball got me into the street on a regular basis. The equipment was economical: A bubblegum-pink rubber Spaldeen (sorry, a Pennsy Pinkie would not do, thank you very much) and a sawed-off broom handle – unless, like Jimmy Schnell up the block, you could afford a store-bought stickball bat.
The field was three sewers long – batter at one, infielder at the next, outfielder at the third. There were all kinds of stickball variations – from employing a pitcher to having a batter run the bases (in which designated cars would serve as first and third) – but we (Jimmy Schnell, Austin Randall, and Richard Randall) played automatic: The batter either tossed the ball up in the air or bounced the ball off the street to hit it.
(I experimented with both, never quite mastered either.)
Hits depended on where the ball landed. Grounder past infielder – single. Line drive past infielder – double. Liner past outfielder – triple. Fly ball over outfielder – three sewers!!! – home run.
The worst result was a roofed ball, in which case we’d have to somehow get into an apartment building and hope the door to the roof wasn’t locked. If it was, the batter had to spring for a new Spaldeen.
(One horticultural note: Back in the ‘60s, the tree canopy on 89th was nowhere near what’s depicted above. I’m not sure you can even play stickball there anymore.)
Over all, I was a decent stickball player, but there was one thing I brought to the game that was truly special: I’m probably the only New York kid ever who could play stickball and do laundry at the same time.
You think multi-tasking is new? Feh – I had it down to a science 50 years ago.
Whenever our washing machine broke down – which was often – Mom would have me outsource the wash to the laundromat conveniently located directly across the street.
And conveniently parallel to our stickball home sewer.
So I’d load the wash and we’d play a bit and then I’d call a Tumble Dry Timeout and put the clothes in a dryer and we’d play a bit more and then I’d call a Fluff ‘n’ Fold Timeout and then we’d finish both enterprises.
Laundry always came in first.
The best of 89th street for me, though, was my personal off-the-point ballfield.
At the corner of 89th and Third was a fire hydrant, which meant the parking space was always open. Behind the fire hydrant was the red brick side wall of a storefront on Third with a little ledge at the bottom, maybe 2” x 2″, which provided a perfect solitary urban playground.
I spent endless hours across from that wall throwing a Spaldeen at the ledge and fielding whatever came back – sometimes a grounder, sometimes a line drive, sometimes a fly ball that ricocheted off the wall behind me. It wasn’t the easiest – or safest – playing field: There were always cars coming across Third or turning left off Third, producing a sort of stop-and-go rhythm to the action. But that was all part of the game.
The best thing about it was the singleness I found there. It was pretty much the only place I ever got to be alone with myself.
Summer in New York Can Be a Beach
The great gift of my youth was the Jersey Shore. The Carroll Clan spent summers there roughly from the mid-‘50s to the mid-‘60s.
I can’t even imagine how much trouble I would’ve found if we’d stayed in the city those ten summers.
In a sweet symmetry, the East Side Carrolls occupied a five-room bungalow (with two porches that doubled as bedrooms) on the Sea Bright side of the Shrewsbury River, while the West Side Carrolls occupied bungalows across the river on the Highlands side.
It was a lot quicker walking across the Highlands Bridge in the summer than navigating Central Park the rest of the year.
(About half the kids I knew at the beach regularly jumped off that bridge into the water below – usually off the second section from the left. I was part of the other half.)
There was a watery symmetry to our summers as well. On one side we had the Shrewsbury River, on the other the Atlantic Ocean (our bungalow colony is at upper right; Sandlass Beach Club at center).
It seemed like it was always high tide somewhere during those summers.
(Then again, sometimes it was high tide everywhere – like during Hurricane Donna in 1960, when the tide rose 10 feet and the river met the ocean and dumped three feet of water across the bungalow colony.)
Our bungalow had several amenities we lacked at 169. First was an all-night bed for each of us (mine was on the screened-in back porch). Second was an actual shower – although located alongside the bungalow and featuring water only (which invoked daily the plaintive query, “Do I have to take a soap shower?”).
Other things I remember from those summers:
• I had a wicked crush on Sarita Gaido.
• Diane had a wicked crush on Billy Cunningham.
• Bobby had a crush on every girl in sight.
• Everyone had a crush on Marty Palsik (including Marty Palsik), who owned a white power boat with twin Mercury 100s and a white 1957 Thunderbird hardtop convertible, both of which could fly.
• The white whale of maritime vessels, though, was the monster yacht that one of the DiDomenico brothers used to park in the middle of the Shrewsbury River from time to time. The old man always talked about going into business with Arthur/Dom/whoever, while Mom was like, you are not working for a bunch of mobbed-up guys, and I was like, I don’t care if they’re Frank Nitti – just get me on that boat.
Never did happen.
• Nancy was widely rumored to be the daughter of the guy who walked through the bungalow colony every morning selling donuts and cupcakes, crying “Dugan – Baker!”
• Jimmy became known for wandering around on a daily basis foraging for food – especially bacon.
• Terence was just a baby.
• Mom always signed us up for swimming lessons at 7 am, just to get us out of the bungalow.
From an oral history with Henry Sandlass, grandson of the original owner of Sandlass Beach Club.
And then all the children at the beach club were in the swim program and you were taught to swim in the river. There was no swimming pool and so our instructor, who was there for many years when I was growing [up], Mr. Cartmen (spelling unknown), he never went, I never saw him step foot in the water other than at the rivers edge with a clipboard. And he had everyone by age group. And we had lessons twice a week and we had races and ribbons at the end of the year and medals and that sort of thing. And he taught everyone how to swim holding a clipboard with a whistle and never set a foot in the water and great swimmers came out with that clipboard.
Not to get technical about it, but his name was Mr. Carton. Regardless, my great swimmer certificate:
• Whenever the ocean waves were up, I would finagle a surf mat from someone not using it (they charged at the Beach Club) and ride them until my chest was raw.
• There was a wooden raft in the river in front of the Beach Club, and kids would congregate there to jump off the diving board and splash around.
One day I dove off and circled back underwater toward the raft’s ladder. Except I miscalculated and cut my head open on the bottom of the ladder’s handrail.
Which required stitches in my head for a third time. The first was years before when Diane and I were playing on one of the beds at 169 and she (inadvertently, I ultimately decided to believe) cracked my head against the wall – resulting in Mom, wearing a coat over her nightgown, carrying me bleeding through the Upper East Side to Lenox Hill Hospital’s emergency room.
The second time I don’t remember.
After the raft incident, the old man called me bowling ball (three holes in my head – get it?) for the next six months.
• Those summers in Jersey saved my life.
* * * * * * *
In early June we’d schlep a bunch of stuff from 169 to the beach. In late August we’d schlep it back.
Returning from Jersey one summer, Bobby was bringing stuff into the hall and leaving it for me to drag up the stairs. On one of his trips into the hallway I grabbed his arm.
“Hey, how come I’m the one climbing all the stairs? Why don’t you carry some of this junk up?”
“I don’t have to. I’m helping Dad.”
“You little fuck.”
Bobby bolted out the door and I made another trip upstairs. As I carried something or other into the front room, I heard the old man through the open window.
“He called you a what?”
The little fuck.
I put down whatever I was carrying and poked my head out the window, but couldn’t see the old man. As I backed up, I bumped into something hard.
“What did you call your brother?”
Geez, he was quick for an old guy.
“I called him a little freak.”
“That’s not what he said.”
I looked the old man right in the belt and retreated toward the open window.
“Stay away from me or I’ll jump.”
The old man grinned as he slowly approached me.
“Go ahead. Either way, you’re dead.”
The expected elaboration ensued.
The World’s Oldest Living Altar Boy
I went to grammar school at St. Ignatius Loyola (84th and Park), the Kim Kardashian of Manhattan houses of worship. It was manned by Jesuits but run by the ironically named Sisters of Charity. They were so tough, they even had men’s names: Sr. Martin, Sr. Terrence, Sr. (God help me) John.
A lot of my religious activity as a youth happened at St. Iggy’s, from relentless Stations of the Cross to annual costume dramas.
But my real parish life happened at the relatively modest Church of St. Thomas More (89th and Madison), where I sang in the choir until they found someone who could actually carry a tune to replace me, and where I served as an altar boy for somewhat longer. It always seemed to me that St. Thomas More was for worship, while St. Ignatius was for spectacle.
St. Thomas More (or Less) Flashback
The bride and groom walked toward the limo, rice clinging to their hair the way they clung to each other. I stood on the steps of St. Thomas More in my cassock and surplice, watching the couple head off without rendering the normal altar boy gratuity to Tony Dealey and me. I walked up to the limo and stuck my head in the window.
“Good riddance, you jerk,” I said to the groom. The bride gasped. “I hope you enjoy your life with this cheapskate,” I told her. As I walked away Tony came up and handed me a five-dollar bill. “He gave our tip to me,” Tony said. I shrugged and pocketed the five.
I didn’t get called for weddings much after that.
Beyond that unfortunate transaction, there were two landmark incidents in my young life that took place at St. Thomas More.
The first was the aforementioned Night of the Long Knife.
When I was – I dunno, 11? – the old man knee-walked into 169 at an ungodly hour one night and for some reason (maybe her having to ride herd on six kids seven days a week) Mom went Chernobyl, grabbed the biggest knife in the kitchen, and had a Come-to-Jesus moment with the old man, threatening to either a) leave and stick him with the no-longer-sleeping six kids, or b) just stick him.
Which sobered him up just a little bit.
That’s where I came in. Mom told me to walk the old man up to St. Thomas More to “Take the Pledge,” a semi-sectarian promise that he would stop drinking.
So the two of us teetered up 89th to the Rectory, rang the bell, went inside, and . . . whatever.
It worked for a while, until it didn’t.
What lasted longer was my second landmark incident at St. Thomas More: A four-year stretch of indentured servitude as an altar boy there.
When I was in eighth grade, I took special entrance exams to get into Regis High (the best Catholic high school in the city) and Bronx Science (the best public high school in the city). I fanned on the Regis test but got into Bronx Science. So I was all set.
Except I wasn’t.
“You are not going to a public high school,” Mom said. “You’ll go to a Catholic school.”
“Fine,” I said. “I’ll go to Cardinal Hayes.”
Cardinal Hayes, in the Bronx, was at the time was the academic equivalent of a Ford factory.
“You most certainly will not go to Cardinal Hayes with all your hoodlum friends,” Mom said. “You’ll go to Fordham Prep, like Jimmy Schnell.”
Jimmy Schnell lived up the block and was at one and the same time my best friend and worst enemy – the latter because he was the standard-issue Good Boy, which is to say everything I was not. But that was beside the point at that point.
(Jimmy’s widowed mother Grace, I need to add here, treated me as a second son and was one of the finest women I’ve ever known.)
“I’ll never go to Fordham Prep,” I smart-talked Mom. “You don’t have anywhere near $400 a year to send me there.”
“Watch me,” she said.
And with that she frog-marched me up to St. Thomas More, got an audience with the big dog, Bishop Furlong, and asked for his help so that I would turn out to be more like Jimmy Schnell than myself. They struck a deal: He’d pony up the $400 annual tuition and I’d work it off as an altar boy. Mom, knowing a bargain when she saw one, quickly said yes.
And just like that, I was sold into liturgical service for the next four years.
By the time I was 17, the cassock (long black thing) was way too short for me, and the surplice (short white thing) looked like something Britney Spears would wear on tour.
Not a pretty sight.
The only thing that saved me from becoming an 18-year-old altar boy was my folks’ timely move to Connecticut in the summer of 1966. The old man had worked at Hamilton Standard in Windsor Locks for a year and a half, going up Monday morning (praise God!) and coming back Friday night. Mom finally told him either to move the family up there or stop coming home weekends.
Two months later, after a decade of pretend house-hunting – Sunday jaunts to New Jersey and Long Island that gave the kids false hope we might actually escape 169 – they bought a place (forever thereafter known as The Big House) in Windsor, seven miles outside Hartford. I immediately announced that there was no chance – after clawing my way to the middle of the pack at Fordham Prep – I was going to spend my senior year as the new kid at Hick High in Connecticut.
I promptly arranged with our cousin Barbara to move into her overstuffed (with three girls) apartment on 86th Street for my last year at the Prep.
Mom said, you should live so long.
Shortly thereafter, I was informed that I’d be living in the Bronx with Uncle Buster and Aunt Evvie – childhood friends of Mom and the old man, although not actually related to us. They lived – along with their two kids and assorted adult brothers and sisters – in a two-family brick house near Misericordia Hospital, which I should have taken as an omen.
Regardless, I was no longer in St. Thomas More’s parish, and no longer the World’s Oldest Living Altar Boy.
Say it with me:
And with that and a wave of the hand, I headed Bronx-ward to enjoy my carefree final year of high school. Little did I know the whole thing would turn out to be Six Flags over Fordham Prep.
But that’s a story for another time.