1. THE CITY
New York City was a wonderful place to grow up in during the fifties and sixties. The different neighborhoods were like little communities and with a little imagination it became a concrete Disneyland.
Games like Johnny on the Pony, ringelevio, moonshine, hot beans and butter, manhunt, kick the can, off the point, king, punchball and stickball were played out on the Street all day long. In the summer we would turn on the pump (fire hydrant), put a hollowed-out beer can over it to direct the water spray and have our own waterfall.
The stickball games were usually weekend events, where a pitcher would pitch the Spaulding ball on one hop to the batter. Two sewers would be home plate and second base, with first and third base marked off halfway between them. A “3-sewer man” was the best hitter. The Bronx paid homage to the game by renaming an Avenue “Stickball Blvd.”
Scully was another game that was played in neighborhood’s around the city, but wasn’t too popular in ours. Johnny on the Pony was my favorite game…one kid would put his back against the wall and the rest of his team, usually about 5 or 6 more, would bend over facing him and hold on to each other. The same amount of the other team would line up across the Street, run as fast as they could and jump as far up the “pony”, closest to the kid with his back on the wall. You wanted to get the heaviest kids on your team because the idea is to cave in the “pony” (the kids on the bottom).
“Buck, Buck, all the horses are up” is the chant we’d yell when all of us were up. If the kids on the bottom didn’t cave in, they’d get a chance to get to jump on the top team by guessing the amount of kids on the team. If they were wrong, or caved in, they’d stay on the bottom. We called the punishment for losing “moonshine”, which was throwing the Spaulding ball as hard as you could at one of the losing team bent over leaning against the wall.
The girls played potsy and hopscotch.
The Manhattan neighborhood I grew up in was bordered by 23rd Street to the south, 30th Street to the north and went from 1st to 3rd Avenues. I lived on 29th Street, between 1st and 2nd Avenue.
Twenty-Ninth Street was the epicenter of the neighborhood. The reason was Our Lady of the Scapular school, Carmelite church and Madison Square Boys Club were all on that block. Our Lady of the Scapular school (often called Carmelite) was taught by the Sisters of Mercy. Sometimes I thought that name was an oxymoron….during lunch recess one afternoon, I just walked out of Gus Gillis’s candy store, located in the storefront of my building, with two round pieces of red licorice you could buy for a penny called “wheels.” A female classmate, Jane King, was taunting me so I threw one of the wheels at her (I ate the other one) and hit her in the noggin.
She started crying and the principal, Sister Mary Mathias, saw her, came running over and asked what happened. Through tears, she pointed at me and said, “he hit me with a wheel!” The Sister of Mercy ran over and showed me none, slappin’ the shit outta’ me and screaming, “you hit her with a wheel!” Yeah, while coverin’ up like Muhammad Ali doin’ the “rope a’ dope”, I was trying to tell her, “not a car wheel, a piece a’ candy!” She wasn’t hearing it.
In the late fifties and early sixties they knocked down the tenements from 30th to 33rd Streets between 1st and 2nd Avenues which were across the Street from three brownstones used as the Madison Square Boys Club from 1920 thru 1940.
The new building for Madison Square Boys Club at 301 East 29th Street was dedicated on April 29, 1940. I don’t know if the club got its name from Madison Square Garden, but the first Madison Square Garden was in our neighborhood. It was then called the Great Hippodrome and took up the entire block between 26th and 27th Streets, between Fourth and Madison Avenues.
P.T. Barnum, who ran Barnum and Bailey’s circus, leased it. William Vanderbilt, who owned the property, took it over and called it “Madison Square Garden,” naming it after the park across the Street. As early as 1901, the Boys Club was operating out of a room in the Madison Square Church House at 30th Street and 3rd Avenue. In 1917 the Boys Club moved to larger quarters and officially was named the “Madison Square Boys Club.”
Demolishing those tenements and digging up three blocks of ground for the foundation of a new housing development, called “Kips Bay Plaza,” left a huge excavation hole the length of those blocks. The builders encircled the excavation with an eight-foot-high wooden fence, not nearly enough security to keep some East Side kids out. After a steady rain the excavation filled with water so when we peered over the fence and seen the "lake", to us it looked like Atlantis. We jumped down and built rafts out of any discarded wood we could find to ride the rivers of urban renewal.
Another one of our favorite pastimes was running through the morgue at nearby Bellevue Hospital at 30th Street and 1st Avenue. You could see the dead bodies through the glass doors on the front of the drawers where the bodies were stored, but sometimes, when we were feeling brave, we’d pull out the whole drawer.
One night, we either saw, or imagined seeing, some movement on one of the bodies. This brought all the “goil” out of us and sent us screaming outta’ dere.
Recently reading an informative and nostalgic book about the history of Madison Square Boys Club by Irving Harris called “Madison Square Memoir,” I found out that our crew wasn’t the first to engage in this foolishness. Jackie Weiner writes: along with his friends, “Bunny” Catalano, Frankie Mills and Jerry Murphy, they’d slip into the basement morgue and pull out the drawers with the recently delivered dead bodies.
They decided to play a prank on some of the younger kids in the neighborhood. Jackie asked them if they had the balls to go with them on the “morgue run.” Thinking they would look like “chickens” to the older guys if they didn’t go, they agreed.
On the night of the run, Jackie told them to wait outside so he and his friends could make sure the coast was clear. Once inside, Jackie’s friend, Frankie, got in an empty drawer, laid down flat and covered himself up. Jackie then brought in the younger kids and showed them the drawers with the covered bodies in them. He then took them to the drawer with Frankie in it. Jackie opened the drawer; Frankie popped straight up and let out a piercing scream. The kids let out a louder scream and ran, maintaining the pitch. Jackie and his friends ran after them but couldn’t catch up and didn’t see them for days afterwards. I guess you could say the morbid the merrier!
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