Halloween Past and Present

Halloween has come and gone. Since we were out of town, I didn’t have to buy candy, so I dodged a bullet. Leftover candy is irresistible. Even if I bought things I didn’t like… wait, who am I kidding? There isn’t much candy I don’t like. I did miss getting to see the little ones dressed up as mice or rabbits or bumble bees or whatever adorable costume they and their parents devised. But, it isn’t the same without little ones of my own.

So many memories of Halloweens past….

When our children were growing up, we decorated (to be more precise, Gary decorated). Gary usually picked a theme and he would create elaborate scenes. One year he got dry ice and set up a witch’s cauldron. He made a giant spider using black Hefty bags and wire hangers, painted tennis balls red for the eyes, and set it up on the lawn. The next year he made a giant spider web. That spider and web were re-used year after year until they fell apart. His decorations were clearly homemade, and there was a charm in that. Without our kids to amuse with his creations, Gary doesn’t bother anymore. I don’t blame him. I loved that he did it for all those years. The only decorating we still do is carving pumpkins – and this year we didn’t even do that.

In the past, we stocked up on candy for the many, many, many trick-or-treaters who rang our doorbell in our suburban subdivision that was perfect for scoring a huge haul. Every year I would buy at least 10 bags of candy and then Gary would pick up more on his way home from work – God forbid we should run out!

Gary, Leah, Dan and I each carved a pumpkin; we lit them with votive candles and put them on the front porch. Gary would roast the seeds and enjoy them during the week that followed. Leah and Dan had homemade costumes, too – again courtesy of Gary who could do wonders with a box. I think Dan’s favorite was his ATM machine with the bag for the candy attached inside from the slot where you could make a deposit. That box still sits in his bedroom closet. Leah’s favorite was dressing as a chewable grape Tylenol. Gary turned to his trusty cardboard boxes to make the pill and I supplied a Halloween-themed turtleneck. That one is likely in landfill somewhere.

 

Unfortunately, due to recurrent ear infections both kids were quite familiar with those little purple (but tasty) pills. Lucky for them, though, they were never sidelined for Halloween – I believe each was able to trick-or-treat every year until they decided they were too old for it. That was not the case for me.

 

Halloween was a totally different experience for me growing up in Canarsie in the late 1960s. My children waited until it was getting dark to go out. We had to be finished by the time it was dark. We rushed home from school, changed into costumes and out we went. It was not safe to be out after dark – not just on Halloween, but any day of the year.

I don’t recall ever carving a pumpkin. We may have had some decorations – perhaps paper cut-outs of witches or ghosts that hung on the front door.

My Canarsie neighborhood was good for trick-or-treating. The blocks were short, the houses were close together. Each time you climbed the front stairs, there were two doorbells to ring. None of that mattered, though, if I was sick. Somehow October was a cursed month for me, and it remained so well into adulthood. Invariably I had an ear infection and fever. Okay, not every year, I did get to go trick or treating sometimes, but it happened often enough that it became a thing.

On those occasions when I wasn’t able to go, I would dress up in my costume (most often as a princess), sit on the steps of our foyer and wait for the doorbell to ring. Since my grandfather worked in a bakery, he brought home giant cookies for us to give, but those were for friends and children we knew. Everyone else got a small candy bar.  One time an older boy who I didn’t know saw the array of cookies and he stepped into the hallway and grabbed a couple as I yelled, “Those aren’t for you!” He made off with them, there was nothing I could do. I was so upset I went in and told my mom I didn’t want to hand out the candy any more. I don’t know why that rattled me so much – some combination of feeling powerless and disappointment in humanity. That was just who I was, even as a seven-year old.

On the years when I had to sit out trick-or-treating, my brother Mark would carry a second bag for me. I’m sure that roused suspicions and may have earned him some unwelcome comments, but he did it anyway. I had a paradoxical relationship with Mark. On the one hand, I spent almost my entire childhood dreading his teasing, his caustic jabbing at me. “Your shoes look like canoes!” (a comment about my big feet) “You were adopted!” A barrage of remarks that would get under my skin immediately.

Mom or Dad would have to separate us multiple times a day.

“Don’t even look at him!”

“Go to your room and close the door!”

Mom still wonders how we all survived it.

On the other hand, though, he went trick or treating for me. Mark was often my protector. It was fine for him to harass me, but not for other kids in the neighborhood. If I tripped and fell over a cracked sidewalk, he would stamp on the offending slab as if to punish it for hurting me. And, for all the teasing, we would do stuff together. Our older brother Steven couldn’t stand our squabbling and preferred solitary activities or being outside with friends. That left Mark and I to watch wrestling or baseball or F Troop on TV, that is when we weren’t banished to our separate rooms.

Another Halloween has come and gone. On to the next holiday, stirring up more memories.

A Remembrance

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We didn’t see my paternal grandparents that often when I was growing up, especially compared to my maternal ones. Of course, it would be difficult to do that since we were basically living with Nana and Zada, while Grandma and Grandpa lived on the other side of Brooklyn. They didn’t drive and Canarsie was very inconvenient to get to by public transportation, so it was up to my Dad to drive us to visit. Dad had a strained relationship with them, but my mother believed that family connections needed to be nurtured. It was at her insistence that we visited them once a month.

They lived in an apartment on Prospect Park West. The huge park by the same name was right across the street from their building. We didn’t often venture into the park. On those few occasions when we did, we found the ground littered with shards of beer bottles, cracked pavement and only one working swing. Instead we amused ourselves inside, sitting next to the window counting cars by color or model, or watching TV. Grandma worried that we’d hurt ourselves on the marble coffee table in the living room so fooling around was kept to a minimum.

Grandpa sat in a club chair in the living room, reading the Forward (the Yiddish language daily newspaper) and smoking a cigar. He wore glasses and a hearing aid; even with that he didn’t hear very well. He didn’t initiate much conversation, but it was clear from his smile that he was delighted to see us. Grandpa was mostly bald and maintained a carefully groomed moustache, and overall appearance. Between his accent and manner, he offered a stark contrast to Zada. Zada was a storyteller and bon vivant. Zada was comfortable chatting with his grandchildren (or other visitors, for that matter) wearing only his boxer shorts and sleeveless t-shirt, sitting at the kitchen table having a meal in that state of undress. On the occasions that we slept over at Grandma and Grandpa’s, Grandpa wore pajamas and a robe. I suspect he did that every night, even when he didn’t have guests. Grandpa was buttoned up in all respects.

The apartment on Prospect Park West had two bedrooms – one for my grandparents and one that used to be shared by my aunts. Dad, I think, slept in the living room or maybe on a cot in the dining room. I noted that, like I Love Lucy and The Dick Van Dyke Show, Grandma and Grandpa had twin beds separated by a nightstand. Another contrast to Nana and Zada and my parents, each of whom shared a large single bed.

Grandma wasn’t particularly known for her cooking, but we certainly didn’t go hungry. She had some specialties notably blintzes – rolled crepes filled with cheese or berries. She particularly enjoyed watching my brother Mark eat them with great gusto.

Grandma had a sharp mind. She could add numbers quickly in her head without resorting to pencil and paper, a skill I saw put to use any time we went shopping. She also had a good sense of humor, quick with a quip and a hearty laugh. My brothers and I spent a couple of New Year’s Eves with her and Grandpa. Guy Lombardo and his orchestra were on television ringing in the new year. The highlight of the night was Grandma dancing the twist. It was so incongruous: Grandma was short and stout, she had no waist to speak of and an ample chest, but there she was doing this ‘modern’ dance. She was actually barely moving. We all dissolved in laughter. We would beg her to do it again. And she would.

Revisiting the Blackout of 1977

Note: This is an updated, edited version of an earlier blog post. I thought it was a timely subject.

This past Saturday, as it did 42 years ago to the day, the lights went out in Manhattan. I appreciated watching my Twitter feed showing the good Samaritans who were directing traffic while I was 200 miles away in my air-conditioned home. When it happened in 1977, it struck all five boroughs, and I was in Brooklyn for the summer after my freshman year at college.

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photo credit:  New York Daily News, July 13, 1977

In 1977 the power went out in the middle of a Met game at Shea Stadium. Do you know who was at bat when the lights went out?*[see below for the answer]  I didn’t until I did a bit of research to refresh my memory about the events.

I wasn’t at Shea that night. I was in the shower in my house in Canarsie when everything went dark.

I have vivid memories of that evening. Home from college for the summer, working temp jobs in the city during the day, that particular evening, I was home alone. My parents were visiting my grandparents in Florida. I have no idea where my brothers were – but I know they weren’t around. Uncle Terry and Aunt Barbara were living in the upstairs apartment in Canarsie, and they were keeping an eye on me while my parents were away (I was 17 years old). That particular evening they were visiting friends in Rockland County and weren’t home yet.

It had been a hot, humid day and the commute home was steamy. Air conditioning in subway cars was iffy at best. I couldn’t decide which I needed more: food or a shower. I decided on food first. Then I went to rinse off.

It was unnerving to be plunged into darkness while I was in the shower. I shook off visions of Psycho and climbed out of the tub, slowly, carefully. Once I opened the bathroom door, there was enough ambient light to find my way to my bedroom just across the hall. It was about 9:30 pm, but not fully dark since it was still early in the summer. I dressed quickly so I could check outside to see if my neighbors had power.

I went out on the front porch and saw that all the houses and street lights were dark. I went back inside and found a flashlight. The phone rang. It was Aunt Barbara telling me that they were on their way home. I was grateful for that. I was also relieved that the phone was working. I felt a bit less isolated. I spent much of the next hour on the phone talking to a friend, Ron, as I was doing regularly that summer. Though I knew him since elementary school, our relationship was changing as the summer progressed. I was nervous and excited about our burgeoning romance.

Fortunately, things were quiet on our block. The same could not be said for other parts of the city, though I didn’t know that at the time. It was probably a blessing that I couldn’t find a transistor radio.

Eventually my aunt and uncle got back and the three of us sat on the porch for a while, trying to find relief from the heat in the scant breeze. After a while we gave up, went inside and tried to get some sleep.

When I woke in the morning, the power still wasn’t on. That meant I couldn’t go to work! I was able to make a plan to go to the beach with Ron. I had my parent’s car, since they had flown down to Florida. It was a 1972 Impala, a behemoth that was like driving an ocean liner. The car was so big I had a difficult time maneuvering it.

A couple of weeks earlier I went on an outing in the Impala with my friend, Merle. I drove first to Kings Plaza, a huge mall in Brooklyn, where Merle got out of the car to help me negotiate the parking garage ramps which seemed entirely too small for the mammoth car. Then we went to Island Park to visit our college friends, Alison and Dianne. We were like Lucy and Ethel on that trip, Merle trying to give me directions from the handwritten notes I had taken over the phone from Dianne, while I tried to stay calm in the usual traffic on the Belt and Sunrise Highway. Growing up in a one-car family, I didn’t drive often. Merle and I made it to Island Park and back to Canarsie unscathed– my only mishap was in bumping a garbage can while making a U-turn. We were exhausted from laughing so hard.

Despite my driving deficiencies, Ron and I made it to the beach in the Rockaways. It was late morning and the heat was already oppressive. There was a lot of traffic on the Belt Parkway for a Thursday after rush hour. We weren’t the only ones with the idea of getting an extra beach day in during the workweek. It was one of those summer days that define hazy, hot and humid.

Listening to the car radio, we heard about the looting and violence of the night before. This was in stark contrast to the blackout of 1965 when New Yorkers were helpful and law-abiding. This time some people took advantage of the power outage to smash windows and break into stores and generally commit mayhem, especially in downtown Brooklyn. Over 3500 people were arrested. Electronics equipment stores were targeted by looters. There has been speculation that the 1977 blackout gave a boost hip hop. Having gotten ahold of turntables, speakers and other equipment, lots of DJs emerged from the lawlessness.

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The city, which still had not recovered from being on the brink of bankruptcy, had a reduced and demoralized police department. It was also the ‘Summer of Sam.’ It wasn’t just the heat and humidity that hung in the air that left us feeling unsettled. The threat of a serial killer was another ingredient in an already roiling pot.

It was a time of transition for me. Although objectively the atmosphere in Canarsie was more fraught than in my years as a child and adolescent, paradoxically, I was not as anxious. I had more friends and was embarking on my first romantic relationship. I had a long way to go to quell my insecurities, a work still in progress, but I was headed in a healthier direction.

 

*Lenny Randle. If anyone knew this, you win a prize J

Medical School Begins

One challenge in writing this blog is that it is disjointed. I’ve jumped around quite a bit, while still trying to follow some threads in a coherent way. I appreciate you readers taking the journey with me. Hopefully it hasn’t been too confusing!

In preparing to write this piece, I reread a bunch of posts to remind myself what I had covered. I don’t want to repeat myself, but I also want to make sure that each essay stands on its own. Please feel free to comment or message me if you have questions or if I’ve lost you! I welcome the feedback.

I’ve written about the ‘tense conversation’ (read here) Gary and I had about his applying to medical school. With all that went into the application, and all the pressure he felt, medical school presented quite a test – to Gary, to me and to our relationship.

Gary sailed through high school with minimal effort. He needed only a bit more energy to get through college. He began medical school not knowing how smart he was and without well-developed study skills. I think to some degree he had ‘impostor syndrome,’ he didn’t know if he belonged or deserved to be there.

Plus, he had his father’s hopes and dreams (and money for tuition!) riding on his success. Not too much pressure! Fortunately, Gary rose to the challenge. He not only met it, but he excelled. He set a brutal work pace for himself to achieve it.

As I wrote previously, Gary and I drove a U-Haul from Queens to Pittsburgh in August of 1982. We parked the truck in front of Ruskin Hall in Oakland, the neighborhood which the University of Pittsburgh occupies, and got the keys and went up to the apartment.

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Ruskin Hall – photo from University of Pittsburgh website

Gary and his parents had traveled to Pittsburgh earlier in the summer to select the apartment, this was my first time seeing it. I was pleasantly surprised, and a bit overwhelmed. Tears welled as I looked at the high ceilings, huge windows, hardwood floors and spacious bedroom and living room. It reminded me of an upper west side of New York City pre-war apartment and I hadn’t expected something so nice. I couldn’t believe this was going to be Gary and my first home together. I wasn’t actually moving in with him at that point, I was going to join him later, but I knew it would be ours. I wanted to get at least six months in my new job before moving on, and Gary needed to get acclimated to medical school on his own. I knew I would be joining him in the not too distant future and I had no expectation that we would have such a nice apartment.

We moved the furniture in, which wasn’t much, but he had the essentials. We went to the nearest mall and bought some other items, including a phone. One of those new-fangled portable models that we plugged in and didn’t think anything more of it. After finding a grocery store and stocking the pantry and refrigerator with things he could easily prepare, I took a cab to the airport and flew home. I was sad to say goodbye, but fortunately airfare from New York to Pittsburgh was $29, thanks to PeopleExpress and US Air. We planned that I would visit once a month. We also planned to talk on the phone every few days and set our first phone date for  Tuesday evening at 8:00, two days from then.

I went back to work on that Monday and pined for Gary. I couldn’t wait to talk to him. The appointed hour couldn’t come fast enough. At 7:59 on Tuesday evening, I picked up the phone in Canarsie and dialed Gary’s new number in Pittsburgh. The phone rang and rang. I counted 20 times. I hung up and dialed again and let it ring another 20 times. I was worried (was something wrong? Was he sick?). I was angry (how could he forget that we had a phone date?) I was confused (what should I do? There was no one to call to check on him). I kept trying. Eventually, he answered and he had a story to tell.

Gary was in the apartment, waiting for my call, keeping himself busy by refinishing a wooden desk that he had brought from home. He heard a chirping sound. Perplexed, he walked around the apartment trying to locate the source. It was a persistent, annoying sound and he wanted it to stop. He determined that it was coming from the smoke detector (also a new-fangled device in those days). He took the step ladder and tried to reach it to disconnect it (the downside of those high ceilings). No luck. The sound stopped, but then resumed. He got the broom and took the stick and pummeled the smoke detector. It fell to the floor, but the sound began again. It finally dawned on him that it wasn’t the smoke detector, but rather it was the new telephone. In the two days that he had been in the apartment it hadn’t rung once, so he had no idea what it sounded like. We were all used to the sound of the classic bell that our phones at home used when they jingled. This phone sounded more like a bird tweeting in a high pitched insistent tone. Meanwhile, back in Canarsie, I was in a panic. I was ready to be furious, until I heard his story. Then we started laughing. Though he had mangled the smoke detector, he was fine and would have the sound of that phone chirping imprinted on his brain forever.

It was a minor but amusing misunderstanding. We managed to communicate more successfully through that first semester. Gary wrote me a letter every day (I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that he writes the kids an email every day). I was a faithful correspondent, too. And, we had no further problems with the telephone. That isn’t to say that we didn’t have our struggles during his four years of med school, but more on that next time.

Neighborhoods and Change

When I was in graduate school I lived on 80thand Columbus Avenue in Manhattan. It was 1980. It was my first exposure to gentrification. I hadn’t heard the term before, but it was taking place before my eyes as the block transformed brownstone by brownstone. Drug addicts, homeless and working class people were displaced by wealthier folks. Mom and Pop stores were shuttered and boutiques and trendy restaurants moved in. I wondered where the displaced people went, but I can’t say I was sad about the changes. Slowly but surely the neighborhood felt safer, I could walk comfortably on more blocks. Though the ice cream from the new Haagen Dazs shop may have been expensive, it sure was delicious.

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The Upper West Side today.  Photo credit: Chang W. Lee/The New York Time

Some lamented the changes, either because of the injustice to those of lesser means or because of the loss of authenticity (everything new, shiny and expensive was phony) or both. I certainly understood the former. The gap between the haves and the havenots was growing steadily, it was and is unfair. But, longing for the days when New York City was gritty and dirty, was bizarre to me. I didn’t enjoy being afraid. I was unsettled by the strung-out junkies hanging out on the stoops of those brownstones. That era, the 70s and 80s, when the city nearly went bankrupt, and the lack of support showed in crumbling buildings and overflowing garbage, is not romantic to me. (The website Gothamist ran a series of side-by-side photos of Central Park, showing the condition of the park back in the day. Take a look.)

More recently I had reason to think about the changes in the last decades in New York City when Leah and I did the Five Boro Bike Tour (which I wrote about here). We cycled through Greenpoint and Williamsburg in Brooklyn. Those two neighborhoods were off limits in the 70s and 80s, I wouldn’t have considered visiting either area, much less ride a bicycle through them. We rode past art galleries and craft beer breweries. Much like the gentrification of the Upper West Side, these areas in Brooklyn were now home to a wealthier professional class.

I thought about how change happens in neighborhoods and how complicated it all is, and whether the changes were, on balance, positive. I did a bit of research, including reading a book, The World in Brooklyn: Gentrification, Immigration and Ethnic Politics in a Global City (2012), edited by Judith DeSena and Timothy Shortell. The book is comprised of 16 scholarly essays, including one entitled, Revising Canarsie. (Note: I believe that the title was meant to be Revisiting Canarsie, not revising, because the premise of the piece was to take a look at the neighborhood and compare it to an earlier examination by Jonathan Rieder, entitled Canarsie: Jews and Italians of Brooklyn Against Liberalism(1985), a book I also read and found very insightful.)

The book, The World in Brooklyn, in general, makes the case that gentrification is a bad thing for the poor, immigrant communities. It paints a picture of an invading force that disempowers the current residents. While I believe there is truth in that picture, I think it oversimplifies things. The books presents the ‘gentry’ as one, monolithic thing – as if it is a homogenous group of rich, white people. The book doesn’t take into account that when demographics are changing, it is a two-way street. There can be hostility and an unwillingness to work with newcomers that make true integration across economic classes (not just racial differences) impossible to achieve.

I may be particularly sensitive to this issue of integrating across economic classes because of an experience I had when we moved into our suburban neighborhood, which was a new development (new, developing neighborhood). As may be the case in many suburban neighborhoods, there was a range of economic circumstances. There were those who were barely able to make ends meet to live there, and there were those for whom it was very comfortable, and, of course, families in between. Though Gary and I were in the more comfortable range, we thought of ourselves as more modest people since we had grown up in middle class families. Leah, our daughter became friends with a girl down the block and they often played at the friend’s house. We became friendly with the parents and made numerous overtures to invite them over. We were politely rebuffed. Over time, and as a result of a number of comments that were made, I came to believe that the mom made certain assumptions about us. Since Gary was (and is) a doctor, we were Jewish, we were from downstate originally, the mom, in particular, was not comfortable socializing with us. Maybe I was wrong, perhaps she just didn’t like us, but I think there was something else at work. As Gary and I became more comfortable economically, I became more aware of how that can create awkwardness, even when trying to be sensitive. It is something that is difficult to talk about. We never did get beyond neighborly friendliness and eventually they moved. The experience, and others like it, made me more aware of economic factors that can create social barriers.

My experience growing up in Canarsie offers another perspective on neighborhood relationships in the midst of change. Canarsie’s story of change is not one of gentrification, it would appear to be just the opposite. I have written before about my experience in 1972 with the boycott of schools because of the plan to bus black students from East New York into predominantly white Canarsie schools (here). There was some white flight in response, but the neighborhood remained fairly stable for a number of years (my parents left in 1989 when they retired from teaching). In 1990 Canarsie was less than 20% black; in 2000 it was 60% black (and I use ‘black’ because many of the new residents were immigrants from the Caribbean who may or may not have identified as African-American). By 2010 the neighborhood was over 80% black. Though the racial composition changed, the fact was that the economic status remained stable. The new residents weren’t poor and they weren’t uneducated.

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Typical block in Canarsie – Photo Credit: Anthony Lanzilote

The Caribbean immigrants who made Canarsie their home were looking for the same things that Jews and Italians were looking for years before. According to a New York Times article:

‘A house to the Caribbean man is something very important,” Samuel E. Palmer was saying. ”He has to have a house, as opposed to an apartment. Whatever happens, the house comes first, so you can have a family and your friends can meet there. So, when I came here, the desire also was to achieve this house, this houseness.”

Canarsie had what many Caribbean immigrants wanted: single-family homes with backyards for barbecuing and growing roses or tomatoes, decent schools, affordable prices, quiet streets, proximity to family. They were loyal to Brooklyn; they had no interest in Queens or Long Island. As Mr. Palmer put it, if you move, you have to build all over again: friends, neighbors, all that.

Canarsie is teeming with new and newly revitalized civic associations these days, many of them headed by newcomers like Mr. Brazela and Mr. Duncan, lobbying and agitating for improved street lighting, road repairs, better drainage.”

THE CENSUS — A Region of Enclaves: Canarsie, Brooklyn; ‘For Sale’ Signs Greet Newcomers – NYT, June 18, 2001

The essay on Canarsie in the book that I cited above, supported this anecdotal account with  research-based findings. It is sad that it wasn’t possible for the community to truly integrate. The exodus of white families accelerated in 1991 when there were three bias incidents (against black families/businesses), including the fire-bombing of a real estate agency that was court ordered to show homes in Canarsie to blacks and Hispanic buyers. The neighborhood became homogenous again – now it is over 90% black.

In reading and thinking about the issues raised by changing neighborhoods, I think there are some commonalities. Problems seem to start with assumptions made based on stereotypes or ignorance or both. And, there aren’t mechanisms to get beyond those assumptions. We have no language to talk to each other about these issues. One of the essays in the World in Brooklyn analogizes different segments of a community living together to ‘parallel playing,’ like toddlers who might play with a set of blocks at the same time, building their own structures, but not interacting. This seems like an apt description. There is some learning about each other as groups coexist, but not true integration. Of course, there are exceptions, some individuals have successfully broken down barriers, but it doesn’t seem to translate to whole communities. The question is, how do we integrate across race, economic status, religion? What have we learned from our past experiences that can help us? How can we do better?

Forgiveness

Note: I wrote a post previously that included portions of this story (here). I wanted to write about it in a different way, explore it further. 

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In front of my house in 1966 

I met Mindy before we even moved to Canarsie. I was a month shy of my fifth birthday. In the twilight of a warm August evening in 1964, we drove across Brooklyn to see our new home. After we got out of the car, my mom took my hand and led me up the stairs of the next door neighbor’s house, and rang the doorbell. A woman answered. “Hi, let me get Mindy,” she greeted us in a husky voice. “Mindy!” she yelled, “Come down and meet our new neighbors!” Apparently, Mom had, on a previous trip, introduced herself and our visit was expected.

I stood on my tiptoes to see over the solid part of the screen door. In the dim light, I could make out the shape of a girl, who looked to be about my age and size, coming down the stairs. We waved at each other. The screen door opened and our moms talked while we looked at each other.

Mindy was olive-complected and skinny. Her almond-shaped brown eyes didn’t line up exactly right – neither did mine.  In the coming years, we would share the experience of wearing an eye patch to correct muscle weakness.  We bonded over being neighborhood outcasts.  We also enjoyed pretending, making up elaborate games involving playing school or imagining we were pirates.

Since only a narrow alley separated our houses, we would talk from our respective windows. We had a lot in common – we each had a brother named Mark (her’s spelled it Marc) who we complained about. Our mothers were teachers. We each shared our houses with extended family. Her aunt, uncle and two cousins lived in the downstairs apartment of their house, while my grandparents and two uncles lived upstairs from us. We were both sports fans. As we got older we talked incessantly about our beloved Knicks. We obsessed about our crushes on particular players (me on Dave DeBusschere, her on Henry Bibby).

There were some important differences. Her mother was a screamer. I could hear her yelling at Mindy, even calling her names, from inside my house. Though my dad was the one with the temper in our family, he never resorted to name-calling.

Her mother would come home from work and lay down to rest, insisting on quiet in the house, before she made dinner. Mindy and I would do anything to avoid disturbing her. Mrs. Schiff’s anger was a thing to behold. If we couldn’t play outside because of the weather, we used my bedroom or basement. I was rarely invited to her house.

Mindy was my best friend. That is until my friendship with Susan blossomed at the end of third grade. Susan and I were in the same class; Mindy was never in ours.  Things got complicated because Susan and Mindy weren’t friends.

One day, Mindy and I were deep into pretending that the narrow strip of dirt and grass between our two houses was a ship.  I was the captain; she was the first mate.  We were busy battling pirates when Marguerite, Johnny, Susan and Mike showed up. “You stupid, skinny idiot,” they taunted.  I was relieved – they weren’t jeering me.  I stood silent.

Not only was I silent while the taunts rained down on Mindy – after a while I joined in.  I knew it was wrong, even in the moment.  But, it was too tempting; it was exhilarating to be part of the powerful.

Mindy and I didn’t speak for months. I would lay in my bed staring out my window, looking at her house only a few feet away, feeling guilty and ashamed. I couldn’t stand it. I went to my mother and told her what happened and asked what I should do. She said there was only one thing to do, apologize.

“But what if she doesn’t accept my apology?”

“She may not, but you have to do it. You’ll feel better, even if she doesn’t.”

I couldn’t bring myself to do it immediately, but I knew she was right. After a few days, I got my courage up.

I spotted her in front of her house, getting ready to get on her bicycle. I called to her, “Mindy! I’m sorry,” I blurted it out. She turned to look at me, warily. I came down my steps and approached her, continuing, “Can we be friends again? I promise never to do anything like that again.” She gave me a small smile and said, “It’s okay with me, but we need to talk to my mother.” “Okay, whatever you want,” I said, relieved, though the thought of facing Mrs. Schiff made my stomach turn over.

At a pre-arranged time, I rang her doorbell and Mindy answered.  She ushered me up the stairs.  Their apartment was the mirror image of my grandparent’s place next door.  Her mother was seated at the kitchen table, taking a break from making dinner.  I told her I apologized and it would never happen again.  She told me, in her sand-papery smoker’s voice, in no uncertain terms that I couldn’t bully Mindy and I couldn’t treat her like a second fiddle, or else I’d be in trouble.  “You can’t play with Mindy only when no one else is available,” she warned. She nodded toward the pot of boiling water on the stove.

Maybe I imagined that she gestured to the boiling water – but I believe she actually did. In my memory she said, “I will boil YOU in that pot if you mistreat her!” Whether she uttered those words or not, I clearly got the message. Almost 50 years later Mindy and I are still friends. I learned my lesson.

 

 

 

 

Sturm und Drang

Are you afraid I’m going to steal your lunch?” he asked.

I was hunched over the table in the cafeteria of my junior high school when some guy, who I didn’t know, asked me that question. My left arm encircled a Tupperware containing a small chef’s salad, while I shoveled a forkful of lettuce in my mouth with my right hand.

“No,” I mumbled.

I could see how it would look like I was afraid of that, given my posture. But, actually, I was trying to hide what I was eating. I was trying to keep to the Weight Watcher program I had begun six months earlier. Most kids didn’t bring salad to school. I wished I was eating one of those moon pies – a chocolate marshmallow confection of gooey goodness that they sold at school – but none of that for me.

I was humiliated by his question, though I didn’t think he meant to be cruel. He sounded more curious and bemused as he asked it. Still I was relieved that he moved on and left me alone. I continued eating, but tried to look less protective of my salad.

Junior high school was a challenging time. I was still recovering from the death of Nana a year and a half before. I was trying to find my way in my second year at a new school where I knew very few of the other students. The vast majority of my elementary school classmates were zoned for a different junior high. I made it through 7thgrade and now it was the beginning of 9th(I skipped 8thgrade as part of a New York City program that compressed junior high into two years instead of three) and while I was beginning to make some friends, it still wasn’t easy. (I wrote about one aspect of my junior high school experience, the boycott of schools caused by the busing plan in this blog post)

Making matters worse was the fact that I had matured early. I was fully developed which made me self-conscious. I also had menstrual problems. My period was very irregular and when I got it, after missing it for several months, it was terrible. It would last for two weeks, with cramps, and I bled profusely. My situation wasn’t as bad as my mom’s in that when she was that age she would pass out when she got her period. She told me that she had a friend assigned to keep an eye on her when she was in junior high school. Though she shared that story, I didn’t feel like I could talk to her about my concerns. I wasn’t passing out, and the thought of someone being assigned to me was completely unacceptable. My goal was to fly as far under the radar as possible. At 13, if I could have blended into the woodwork at school, I would have been happier.

It was 1972 and they didn’t have the feminine products available today – sanitary napkins were bulky and didn’t come with a wrapper in which to dispose of it (you had to wrap it in toilet paper). If memory serves correctly, the girls’ bathrooms in school didn’t have waste receptacles in the stalls either, just a garbage pail by the sinks. All of which meant that it was nearly impossible to be discreet about having my period. I needed to carry a purse (something I didn’t ordinarily do), and I would have to take that purse with me to the bathroom. Even on an ordinary day, the idea of using the bathroom was an anathema to me, I tried to avoid it. I didn’t want to be marked, I didn’t want anyone to know about my bodily functions. I don’t know why I felt ashamed, but I did. I thought other girls, if they even got their period, didn’t have the issues I had, and I didn’t have the nerve to broach the subject with anyone. So, I suffered in silence and muddled my way through, hoping not to embarrass myself by staining my clothes (which sadly did happen on more than one occasion).

Eventually, I had an episode of cramps that were so bad, I had to tell my mom. She made an appointment for me to see her gynecologist. I remember Dr. Holland asking me a series of questions before examining me. Mom was not in the room with me for that part. He asked me if I had had intercourse. Surprised by the question, I answered no (I was still only 13!). He asked me if I was sexually active. I didn’t understand the difference between the first and second question, so I told him no, again. A nurse stayed in the room for the physical exam, which wasn’t that traumatic. Fortunately, he found nothing wrong. He made some suggestions to treat the cramps if they were painful in the future and that was that.

Though I continued to struggle with my menstrual cycle, not everything was bleak during my junior high school years. Eventually I connected with a few girls. Toward the end of 9thgrade, a couple of us made a plan to leave school for lunch, a daring idea. Geri and Lisa came up with the notion of sneaking out –  everyone had to eat in the cafeteria, no one was allowed to leave for lunch (maybe they were afraid we wouldn’t come back!). We decided we would go to Lisa’s house, where no one was home, since it was only a couple of blocks from school. We would make sure to get back in time for our next class.

The big day arrived and we successfully escaped. We were feeling triumphant and excited as we hurried to Lisa’s house. As we were walking down Avenue K, we heard a car horn and some hooting and hollering. We all turned to look. At first, I didn’t know what I was seeing. I saw flesh pressed up against the rear window. They were butt cheeks! We started shrieking and running. We were afraid the car would follow us. We got to Lisa’s house – we were laughing and terrified at the same time. One of the girls knew that it was called being ‘mooned.’ I had never heard of that. We took it as some kind of sign that we shouldn’t have snuck out. I didn’t leave school for lunch for the remainder of the year. I don’t think any of us did.

I ended my junior high school career on a high note. I was given an award – the Ben Ramer Memorial Award – for outstanding female athlete. When they told me about it, that I would receive it at the graduation ceremony, I was incredulous. The thing was there were no opportunities for girls to participate in sports, other than gym. There were no teams. We did the Presidential Fitness Program and we had physical education, but that was the extent of it. I couldn’t imagine how they determined I should get the award. I felt undeserving, but proud, nonetheless.

Mom and I went shopping for a graduation dress and found one that I felt pretty good wearing, which was saying a lot for me. Graduation day was humid with intermittent showers, which perfect for my hair! It curled just the way I wanted it to, the humidity calmed the frizz. I wore white platform heels and managed to walk across the stage without stumbling. After all of the Sturm und Drang of my junior high school years, things were looking up. I looked forward to a new beginning in high school.