Lightning in a Jar: Signing Yearbooks

Lightning in a Jar: Signing Yearbooks

This is how it all went down.

I went to the prom, wearing a pink chiffon dress that my mother had made for the occasion. It had puffy sleeves and an empire waist, and it made me feel like a princess. George arrived on time to pick me up, wearing a white jacket, tie and jeans. He led me to his car, opened the passenger door and as I took my seat, I felt a sense of dread that just wouldn’t quit. A few minutes later, we were at the school, where the prom was being held. Continue reading

A Queens Childhood 101

Now that I have 200 posts under my belt, I thought Id kick off something new. Which is why, today Im debuting an occasional series on a childhood in Queens. Any resemblance to my childhood is strictly more than coincidental.

My mother in front of our home, Feb. 1962.

Then, after you read the first installment, please check out my latest piece for the Huffington Post, because, if you ask me, there’s got to be a better way to elect a POTUS (for those not in the know, that means, President of the United States).

And, I think I’ve found it! You’ll find my essay in the comedy section by clicking here: We Need an Election Dance-off.”

Part 1: The Street Where I Lived

Hands down, the best part about living in Queens was being a kid there. And, yes. I know what you’re thinking. Queens? Why Queens?

I realize it’s not as shi shi as, say, Manhattan’s Upper East Side. But, when you’re a kid who doesn’t know any better, who tends to look on the bright side of just about everything, and who comes from a family that is trying to find its place in a new country, Queens was badass.

First, there’s the neighborhood. We lived in what must have been the toilet bowl of Queens, otherwise known as, Flushing. (Really, what kind of a name is Flushing?) On either side of the street, was a long row of brownstones, that looked like a series of shoe boxes stacked horizontally and then glued together, making us all very close neighbors, indeed. No one had air conditioning, so in the summer, when it was sweltering, sticky hot, and our windows were wide open, if anyone on the block lit a cigarette, we’d all know. It would waft through all our homes. On the flip side, when Mrs. Moskowitz, who lived six doors down, made her famous noodle kugel, I could tell whether she’d added apples to her recipe, just by the scent that made it through my bedroom window. I could even tell when it was out of the oven and ready for eating.

Our three-story, three-bedroom brownstone was second from the end, on the north side of the street. You could tell which one was ours just by looking at all the roses we had in our front yard, along the fence. Pretty miniature roses in white and pink. Caddy-corner from where we lived was an apartment complex with a small playground, to which I could run over and play. It had monkey bars, a see saw, and swings. In fact, that’s where I got the first bump on my head, when I fell off the swing and landed on the hard cement below.

Public transportation, whether the bus or the subway, was spitting distance from our home, as was anything else a kid could need. To get to the A&P supermarket, all I need do was walk two blocks to Main Street and turn right. I loved going there, because when you bought your groceries, they’d give you S&H Green Stamps, which you could exchange for valuable goods, including toys! Once you’d collected enough, that is.

If you crossed the street and headed north on Main Street, you’d hit the bakery, and eventually, the movie theater and the public library, which was in the same building as the Queens Savings Bank. The S&H Green Stamp processing center was also down that way, and the candy store was south, on Union Turnpike. Once, when I was running up the hill toward Union Turnpike, with my brother, Ralphie, I spotted a quarter on the pavement. Do you have any idea how much candy you could get with 25 cents? Well, my brother and I went to town on that quarter, buying a couple of bars of Hershey’s chocolate, a Chunky, and a set of wax bottles filled with brightly-colored, sugary sweet liquids that would leave a film of pink dew on your teeth. Cavity city!

I couldn’t have planned my neighborhood better. Even the Five and Dime was nearby. No one had to drive us anywhere. We had our legs and could run like the wind, as they said in the ads for Ked’s Sneakers. And, as far as I was concerned, some of the other places around the neighborhood, like the hardware store, the deli, the shoe repair shop, and the church, were necessary, but boring. Being a kid meant I didn’t have to give a hoot about those.

My parents came to Queens from Venezuela. They must have taken one look at the elevated trains, the grimy subways, the nonstop traffic on the Triborough Bridge, and decided they wanted in. Which is why, they settled in Queens. There were eight of us living in our brownstone, including my father, who was enrolled in a university in the city. I was glad of this, because it meant he was rarely around. When he was at home, he often had a temper so bad, it scared me. Like Ricky Ricardo, when he’d yell at Lucy in Spanish. That was my father. Only ten times worse, especially when he had his belt in his hand, at the ready. You wouldn’t want to be within a five-mile radius when he brought that out.

There was my mother, who was studying to get her cosmetology license, but soon became the first beauty school dropout I ever knew. Yet, while she was attending, I got all the free haircuts I could want and then some. I was her guinea pig, which explains why my hair was always uneven and short. Oh, and by the way, I hate pixie cuts.

I had four brothers who all slept in the room next to mine, their twin beds lined up in a row, leaving no space for anything else in that room. You’d have to crawl over the beds to get from one end to the other, and anything they owned, including clothing, had to be stored under their beds or in the closet.

Meanwhile, I only had to share my room with Carmen, who had come to live with us before I was born. She was 17 at the time. Carmen would take care of us while my mother traveled to Caracas, and believe me, my mother was gone a lot. So much so, that I took to calling Carmen, “Mommy.” She was pretty and energetic, made a mean melted Velveeta sandwich. Best of all, she’d shoot baskets with my brothers, and play Chutes and Ladders with me.

Yes, Queens was a kids’ paradise. We had the run of the neighborhood, and a bevy of kids around to play. We were young and full of adventure. And for eight years, this was the only home I knew. It didn’t matter that we were the only Latino family in our Jewish neighborhood. This was my block in Queens.

Welcome to my neighborhood! Now, what was your neighborhood like?

The Uptown Express

When I was a kid growing up in Queens, we spent many weekends trekking into the city, and for us, there was only one way to get there:  the New York City subway system. We’d take the E or the F train to mid-town Manhattan. Once there, we became creatures of habit.

First, we’d go to Radio City Music Hall, where we’d take in the latest Doris Day flick, followed by a spectacular show, featuring the world-famous New York City Rockettes. Then, lunch at our favorite automat, the Horn & Hardart, where individual servings of Salisbury steak, macaroni and cheese, and warm apple pie were neatly displayed behind glass cubicles. You’d insert a few nickels in the coin-operated slot next to the food item of your choice. The door would unlock, and–voilà!–a fresh, tasty dish, piping hot from the oven, was yours for the taking.

“His Master’s Voice” was RCA’s trademark, depicting this real dog, Nipper, listening to his owner’s voice on a phonograph.

After our meal, we’d cross the street to the RCA building, where you could see a life-size version of the RCA dog, proudly listening to his “master’s voice.” How I loved that terrier and so wanted one of my own.

Sometimes, we’d stop by the Time-Life building, too, to view the photo exhibit in the lobby area.  During the holidays, we were sure to visit Rockefeller Center and gaze upon the breathtaking Christmas tree, all decked out in dazzling lights that reflected upon the skaters below. Then, there were times when we’d take the uptown express to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I loved our trips to the city. Whenever we went, no matter where we’d go, these were magical times, indeed.

Taking the subway was the only way to go. If you ask me, it was the fastest way to maneuver through the city. I was fascinated by the long, pitch-black tunnels that stretched from one end of the city to the other, crisscrossing it (see map), in a mad-dash attempt to keep New Yorkers, moving.  I took comfort in the whoosh of the express train as it sped through each station. The rattle and clatter as it swayed side to side, and the lights that would turn off at random moments, leaving passengers in utter darkness.  It was enough to stir the imagination of any wide-eyed child. It was more than enough to inspire me to write this poem about the subway of my youth.

Laughter From the Uptown Express

We boarded the Uptown Express,

Mother, Older Brother and me,

On a clear afternoon in November.

The train heaved from the station,

Mother sighed, closed her eyes,

Brother tugged at his red bow tie,

While I pressed my face against the window,

Scummy from a thousand rides before.

Darkness swallowed us as the subway

Plunged ahead, grinding a path through the

Blackness, mad maze,

Screeching like nine monsters prowling

  In the night,

Racing like hungry rats down a crooked track,

Fingers curled tightly around the seat’s edge.

The lights flickered off inside when the train,

Rocked and reeled down a curve,

Shaking furiously till Brother fell against me,

And the door between cars flew–

OPEN!

Brother grabbed my arm as a lone woman,

In the doorway’s shadow swayed on flaming stilettos,

Elegantly wearing the glint of an emerald snake on her brow,

While the train howled down through the tunnel.

Moving toward Brother and me,

Frenzy spinning about her head like

Moths caught in a spark,

One thin arm reached above us as we cringed

In anticipation and—OH the lights came on!

The woman saw me shiver and Brother squirm

In his scarlet bow tie,

Her painted lips shaped a wild, cunning laugh,

Like purple goblins dancing maniacally in the wind.

The train slowed,

Grinding to its knees while Mother stretched

From a deep, somber sleep,

Glancing at Older Brother and me,

Meekly sitting beside her,

She took my hand and adjusted Brother’s crimson tie,

 Swiftly leading us off the train,

The door shut tightly behind us,

And as we reached the stairs on the platform above,

I could still hear the laughter from the Uptown Express.