Not the Beatles

Not the Beatles

John, Paul, George and Ringo? Try Michael, Davy, Peter and Micky instead. Think Junior Varsity Beatles. The Beatles 2.0. I’m talking about The Monkees, the imaginary boy band/actors created by Hollywood central casting in an attempt to cash in on the sensation created by the Beatles. (I’m not joking about the central casting angle: Stephen Stills, the brilliant musician who as a member of Crosby Stills & Nash recorded some of the classic albums of the ‘70s, auditioned for the group/TV show, but was rejected as not “cute” enough. So instead they cast Peter Tork, with the goofy smile and room temperature IQ.) Continue reading

A Queens Childhood 101

Now that I have 200 posts under my belt, I thought I’d kick off something new. Which is why, today I’m 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?

Spanish Spoken Here

I entered the New York public school system in 1960, and from the get go, I began my education facing an obstacle, one that I was completely unaware I had. That is, until second grade, when I heard my teacher, Mrs. Green, bring it to my mother’s attention. It seems I was having trouble understanding the lessons and I wasn’t speaking up in class.

Mrs. Green smiled politely as she said this, but then turned decidedly serious. Carefully enunciating her words, she asked my mother whether English was ever spoken in our home.  I cringed. Why was Mrs. Green asking?  Was it my mother’s heavy Spanish accent that was giving us away? I had hoped no one would notice, so it was crushing to suddenly realize our secret was out.

Still, I couldn’t understand why it mattered what language was spoken in our home.  What did it have to do with my ability—or lack of it—to learn? Yes, my parents spoke only Spanish, but I thought my father’s English was quite respectable. He seemed comfortable speaking it outside our home and did so often. If you ask me, he spoke it with a charm reminiscent of Ricky Ricardo in I Love Lucy and we all knew how well Little Ricky had turned out.

Mrs. Green's Second Grade Class, 1962. I'm in the second row, second from the left.

Though my mother was another matter. She understood English, but went out of her way to avoid speaking it.  Which was kind of a relief to me, as it was mortifying to hear her struggle for the right words.

And here we were admitting the obvious to Mrs. Green, that we lived a double life. English in the outside world, and Spanish at home. Seemed perfectly natural to me. Which made it hard to understand why it was an issue now.

Although, I did recall Mrs. Green once giving us an assignment to write about shops in our neighborhood and I had to write about a delicatessen. Delicatessen? I had no idea what that was, and rather than ask, I just made something up: “The delicatessen is a fine place to shop for delicate things, especially when you’re not in any hurry.” Of course, had I asked, I would have discovered that delicatessens served cold cuts, pickles and the like, and that some people just referred to them as a “deli.”  So maybe that’s why Mrs. Green wrote in my report card,

Language Arts Reading: Monica is reading at first grade level. Monica does not contribute much to class discussions. I am trying to get her to speak more freely. It would help her language skills if she used the public library.

My mother started dropping me off at the library every Saturday morning. I’d make the most of these visits, enjoying story time in the children’s section, then browsing the shelves where I discovered Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren, Encyclopedia Brown by Donald J. Sobel, and Homer Price by Robert McCloskey. It became a thrill to be in the library, with my own library card, which made me feel very grown up.

Written Expression: Monica has difficulty in expressing her thoughts in sentences. She has learned to use a capital at the beginning of a sentence and a period at the end.

Given how much I love writing, it’s tough for me to imagine I once found it hard to express myself through the written word, and that I was stymied by the proper use of punctuation. Yet, I do remember the sense of doom I’d feel when Mrs. Green gave us writing assignments. My mind would blank and I’d keep my torment to myself. Anything, than have to admit that I was at a loss for words.

I struggled a lot in second grade and there were times I really felt I’d never be more than just average. Knowing that I had a language barrier to overcome didn’t make it any easier, but it did give me new determination.  Thanks to my teacher’s report card, I learned that the key for me was to read and read often, and I’ll always be grateful that Mrs. Green suggested I use the library. For it was through my library visits that I became a passionate reader.  So much so, that in the last report card of the school year, Mrs. Green wrote, “Monica is now reading at second grade level.”

Finally! And in the nick of time, too. For third grade was just a summer away.