FRESH YARN presents:
From My To Do List
The house my family moved into in 1972, the year I turned 13, was a hundred-year old mock Victorian perched on a rocky plot high atop a winding set of stone steps. Ramshackle and slate-colored, the house gave the impression of being the biggest rock on a great big rock pile. It was the only house on a block dense with buildings. Buildings pressed up against it on all sides.
We had been living until then, all six of us, my three sisters, my parents and me, in a one-bedroom, fourth-floor walk-up apartment on Olinville Avenue in the Bronx, just one block away from this house, right behind where Boston and White Plains Roads come together, maybe twenty yards away from the elevated tracks of the number 2 train at the Pelham Parkway station. Oh that train. Every twelve minutes a thundering racket that could loosen your dentalwork. Right outside the window. For thirteen years.
We were elated to move out of the apartment and into this house with all these rooms. There were like ten of them, plus an attic and a basement, a big staircase, a porch, a (tiny) yard - windows! And we were now a full block further away from the el. That mighty roar was but a distant purr from here. Heavenly.
Things were looking up in our little corner of the Bronx.
Until one Saturday afternoon when I was on my way out of the house and my father called me over and said six words to me which I didn't realize at the time would seal my fate for the rest of my teenage years, on into young adulthood and indeed, I'm afraid, the rest of my life. He said:
gimme a hand with this."
He'd never called me "Bub" before. So that wasn't a good sign. Plus the task he wanted help with was unreasonably heavy. I don't remember the details. Maybe he was ripping a radiator out of the wall or tearing a window out of its socket or chopping up a chunk of the floor. Whatever it was, it was hateful and ended up taking all day.
I soon realized that my father was planning to gut the entire house, while we were living in it, down to the bare beams, down to the bones -- gut it completely -- and then build it back up again. Inch by inch, room by room. All ten rooms. All three floors. And what mighty team of laborers would he harness for this Herculean task? Himself. And "Bub."
From then on, every spare moment of my young life was spent in an utterly bottomless pit of hard labor. I'd come home from school and this would be my To Do list:
And that was just on weekdays. On weekends we'd do the really heavy work. Like ripping out, rerouting and re-installing, for example, plumbing and electrical lines; ripping out and replacing wall beams and floor beams and roofing and siding; ripping down old ceilings and hoisting up new ones; and of course endlessly drywalling and spackling and sanding and priming and painting.
It was a violent assault on this poor old house, producing a constant cascade of rubble and debris that streamed out of the doors and windows and amassed itself into great piles all around the little property, some of it buried in trenches dug by Bub but most of it just piled up in -- piles. Piles and piles and piles. And these piles, my father would sometimes decide, had to be moved. For reasons unknown, I would be instructed to relocate, by hand, a pile of rubble from one side of the house to the other.
Which may ring a bell if you've ever seen the play or movie Bent. Except that Bent takes place in a Nazi concentration camp in Poland. And I was in the middle of my childhood in the Bronx.
I think in Bent, actually, it's rock piles that the prisoners are forced to move back and forth, not mounds of demolished plaster. Of the two, rocks are easier to handle. I can say this with some authority because one day my father came home with a giant screen he'd built at work and announced to my middle sister and me that the property around our house was too rocky. We were to sift the entire contents of the back and side yards through this industrial-strength screen, separating the rocks from the soil and collecting them into a sky-high pile. When we finally finished -- and after Bub had gotten a good workout moving the resulting rock pile from here to there around the property - guess what happened? It rained. And we were knee deep in mud. The solution? Put them back. Dig the rocks back into the soil. A new twist for Martin Sherman, author of Bent, should he wish to write a sequel.
On that rare occasion when I'd get the courage to ask if I could do a normal teenage activity like go to the beach or the zoo or a game or whatever, my father would say, "Not on my time, Bub." And all my time was his time. Right from the beginning, right from when we first moved into the house.
That's how I missed so many Bar Mitzvahs. And I loved a Bar Mitzvah. It was like a wedding but for kids. The really fancy ones were at, like, Leonard's of Great Neck or Terrace on the Park in Flushing (it revolves). They'd serve you exotic treats like stuffed derma or chopped liver with sliced egg and there would be a live band and floral centerpieces and matchbooks with your friend's name on it embossed in gold. "Eric" in gold script on a satin matchbook. I loved it. "Dad, it's Barry Lessoff's Bar Mitzvah this Saturday. He sent me an invitation and --" "Not on my time, Bub." Not on my time.
Eventually I started to formulate a plan of my own. My plan was to kill my father. There are many opportunities to do so when you're involved in this kind of work. But there was a downside: I would forever be branded as the guy who killed his father.
So I hung in there. Years passed. Eventually I came up with Plan B. Which was to revisit Plan A. But again I opted out of patricide.
Finally I decided to take a job at McDonald's. Because work was something my father respected. I could say at 5:00 on a Saturday afternoon, "Dad I gotta get ready for work," and he'd begrudgingly let me go. A job was my ticket out.
This was a rough McDonald's, on Fordham Road off the Grand Concourse, just down from the old Alexander's. There had been a killing there a couple of weeks before I started. The place was being robbed after hours. The employees were marched into the walk-in freezer at gunpoint and locked inside. The assistant manager was made to lay face down behind the counter and shot in the back of the head. This was just a couple of weeks before I started working there. Same shift -- Saturday night closing.
I hoped this wouldn't happen again. But it was a risk I was willing to take.
My manager was a guy named Curtis Sliwa, who would go on to found the Guardian Angels (a cult-like New York City-based paramilitary protection organization) and later become a right-wing radio talk show host. He had gone to McDonald's Hamburger Institute, had a degree in Hamburgerology and was a very ambitious manager. After the place closed at midnight, he'd strip off his shirt, throw a set of nunchucks around his skinny little neck (he was our protection against the bad men with guns) and set us to work cleaning parts of that store that weren't even in the manual. Ray Kroc didn't even know about some parts of that place we were scrubbing down. It was sweaty, nasty backbreaking work for little pay and I loved it. Loved it!
My shift would end at about 3 o'clock in the morning and I'd wait alone on the street for a bus that usually never came. I'd often end up walking home, a good three miles or so. There were all the usual dangers of the street at that hour but there was also, for a while, a new and terrifying danger: The killer who called himself Son of Sam, who received commands to kill from his dog and whose sickening diatribes and drawings were published daily in The Daily News. His first victims were kids I knew, Valentina Suriani and her boyfriend Alex. He was stalking these very streets. I'd think of him and quicken my step. As long as there was some light on the street I felt okay. But those dark stretches past the Bronx Zoo and the creepy tunnels leading to the great juncture where Fordham Road becomes Pelham Parkway -- those were terrifying.
Still, I was willing to risk it all for guaranteed time out of that house, so desperate was I to escape the incessant drumbeat of hard labor.
My mother, my poor mother, would sometimes look at me all covered from head to toe in plaster dust and soot, streaked with sweat and misery, and say, "Carl, this is your penance. You'll only have to do this once in your life. You'll never have to do this again." I'm not sure what she meant now that I really think about it, but the words used to give me solace. And I learned to take solace where I could get it. Which was usually at the kitchen table. My mother was rarely actually sitting there - she'd be toiling in a spiral all around it - but a bevy of neighborhood ladies would often gather and were very sympathetic.
My favorite was a woman named Ann Lazerta. She once saw me walk by the table fresh from a hellish scene of demolition, coated and caked with dust and grit, and said, "Ooh Carl honey, that's no good. That's no good for your lungs. Drink a glass of milk, it'll clean them out." It sounded good at the time. I drank the milk. Of course, if it had gone through my lungs I would have drowned. But Ann believed in milk. Scotch and milk, actually. That was her drink. "Because the ulcer." But that's a whole other story. Ann loved stories. Here's a story she liked to tell -- it would change slightly depending on the day but it always went pretty much like this:
"So, I got up about 7. I made my coffee, you know. And I drank it. And then I says, let me take a shower. So I took a shower. And while I was in there I says, I'm gonna wash my panties. So I washed my panties. And I hung 'em up to dry, just on the shower rod, you know. And then I came outta the shower and I says, let me get dressed. So I got dressed --"
And on it would go from there, her story. Every moment of her day, each tiny detail. For hours. And she'd be dolled up for it, too, her dyed red hair shellacked into an indestructible coif, resplendent in a velour maxi lounging gown and jewel-encrusted slippers. She had little mincing steps, like a Geisha only Sicilian. She lived just across the street so we could see her heading over. My mother, my poor mother, dreaded those visits and she'd panic as Ann approached. "Oh God she's coming over again, I can't take it tonight, I really can't! I'd rather put my eyes out with a poker! I'd rather set my hair on fire! I'm gonna put a bullet in my head!" Ding-dong. "Oh hi, Ann. Come on in. You want a drink?"
My mother was used to waiting on her since Ann was a holdover from the days when my family owned and operated a pizza shop. I won't write about that here because I've said enough already. Plus it isn't funny.
But since it's come up let me say quickly that Cappi's Pizza and Sangweech Shoppe, where the motto was "We Don't Spel Good, Just Cook Nice," was right under the el. The path of the train was directly over our heads. Which was a problem. Still the place might have been a success had my father been a little more focused and just a tad more welcoming of the few customers who happened to venture in.
I mean, the first thing you saw when you walked through the front door was a 10-foot hand painted list of rules. At the top it said THIS IS NOT A BASKETBALL COURT! And then: NO RUNNING! NO PUSHING! NO SHOUTING! NO YELLING! NO FIGHTING! NO CURSING! NO GRABBING! NO SHOVING! NO STROLLERS! NO BICYCLES! NO ROLLER SKATES! NO SPECIAL ORDERS! NO EXTRA CHEESE! NO SLICES AT THE TABLE!! This last rule caused no end of drama. NO SLICES AT THE TABLE!! The shop was divided into two sections. One half was a typical pizza counter. The other was a dining room with little Formica tables and travel posters of Italy on the walls. Here you could order all kinds of obscure Italian delicacies, like capozelle, which is the stuffed, baked head of a goat; sanguinuccio, a bucket of animal blood that they boil and sweeten and churn into a nauseating mock-chocolate pudding; zuppa di trippa, the lining of a cow's stomach stewed in tomato sauce; and other such delights. (My mother, my poor mother, was in charge of the kitchen.)
These two halves, the pizza counter and the dining room, were completely separate domains in my father's mind. So if a family of three comes in for dinner, say, and Mom orders the eggplant parmagiana and Dad'll have the shrimp oreganata and little Junior just wants a slice of pizza, guess what? NO SLICES AT THE TABLE!! Junior's going to have to be forcibly separated from his family, sent outside to enter the pizza area through a separate door and made to stand at the counter and eat his slice alone. The only thing missing was a dunce cap. The parents, of course, would object. And my father Cappi, ever the people-pleaser, would throw them out. He'd argue for a minute or two and then pull a full-throttle Ralph Kramden. "OUT! Get out!!' The poor people just wanted a little dinner. Word spread. The dining room remained empty.
To fill it, my father had the bright idea of offering to throw pizza birthday parties. So a poor, unknowing parent would book the place for a Saturday afternoon and load in ten or twenty screeching eight year-olds. Long before the first pizza was served (full pies at the table were acceptable, by the way, just no slices) Cappi would be throwing the entire party into the street. Again with the Ralph Kramden: "OUT! ALL OF YOU! GET OUUUT!" My own tenth birthday party ended this way when Johnny Appelbaum starting popping balloons with a plastic fork. "THAT'S IT! PARTY'S OVER! OUT! OUUUUT!"
Thank god we had a few regulars, like the Saturday night crew that Ann Lazerta had been part of.
They'd feast and party themselves silly. It was Ann and her husband Little; Ann's sister Tessie and her husband Big; Rosie and a guy named Lenny X (they were married too only not to each other); a short morbidly obese guy, I forget his name, maybe Vin or Vic, who was missing an ear but had a big plastic one he'd plug in there for formal occasions; and a couple of other characters who'd come and go. They, to me, were the height of glamour. The women were all in sequins and diamonds and they smoked cigarettes and had raspy voices and husky laughs. The men wore shiny suits and chunky pinky rings and reeked of pomade and cologne. Most of them were "connected." Numbers-runners, fencers, that kind of thing. Furs and jewels and electronics would "fall off the truck" into their hands. My father was repeatedly offered "in." It would have made his life dramatically easier. All he had to do was say yes. But he wouldn't go near it. He had a powerful -- and immutable -- sense of right and wrong. And what they were doing was wrong. Period.
Also wrong was our local movie theater, The Globe. Soon after Cappi's opened for business (in 1965 or so) it became a porno house. Its first offering was I Am Curious (Yellow). This enraged my father and he began a neighborhood campaign to shut them down. This very quickly expanded into a broader crusade against pornography and before long he'd established The Committee to Control Obscenity by Constitutional Means. I still have the letterhead. The address? Cappi's. Yes, Cappi's Pizza & Sangweech Shoppe was the national headquarters of The Committee to Control Obscenity by Constitutional Means.
When he wasn't flying up to Albany in his heavily-backfiring lime green Cadillac (circa 1952, sold to him by Squeegee the bread man for fifty bucks) to lobby members of Congress to add anti-obscenity provisions to the US Constitution, Cappi was proselytizing from behind the pizza counter. "How do you feel about pornography?" he'd ask every adult male customer. This being the sixties, most of them felt it was a matter of free speech, which really got his goat. "Oh yeah? Is THIS free speech?!" And he'd flash a picture of, like, a nun in a barnyard with her habit hiked over her head being mounted by a farm animal. (He kept a store of particularly egregious porn samples in a box under the counter for exactly this purpose.) "Or THIS?!" And it would be, like, a super close-up of some way-dilated bodily orifice being violated by an oversized household object, like a vacuum cleaner hose or a decorative vase.
Of course, the people would be horrified. They'd politely explain that while these images weren't their cup of tea, they didn't have to see them if they didn't want to (unless of course they were ordering a slice of pizza at Cappi's) and therefore the images had a right to exist. This kind of bleeding heart liberal attitude really enraged Cappi and he'd have no choice but to toss them out. "Well guess what? I don't serve perverts here. Now get owwwwt!" Another potential customer tossed out on his ass. I'd say one of three potential customers of Cappi's Pizza & Sangweech Shoppe was tossed into the street before even getting to place an order. We hung on this way for about 5 years or so and then, mercifully, Cappi's was sold.
A couple of years after selling the pizza shop is when my parents bought the house. Which brings me back to where I started.
died in 1998. He was 76 years old. The house was mostly done by then but
had fallen into bad disrepair. I helped my mother hire a contractor who
brought in a team of laborers and they accomplished in two or three weeks
more than Cappi and Bub could have done in a year. It was cathartic. Nothing
gave me greater joy than to walk around the place and see it filled with
other people working on that house!
Hmmm. I don't remember writing that one.
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