Sunday, October 7, 2012



My first eleven years were spent living with my mother, father, and siblings in a two-bedroom apartment in a set of five-story buildings abutting the George Washington Bridge on Riverside Drive, near the northern end of Manhattan Island. By the time I was nine, three of my four younger siblings had come along: Nick in 1948, Diana, in 1949, and Cliff in 1951. Chris was born much later, in 1959.

The neighborhood was almost exclusively Catholic, while I was Protestant, a “left-footer,” out of step. Their school, All Hallows, was parochial; mine, Hunter College Elementary School, was nondenominational.

Although I participated in all the kids’ games, I was viewed as different. “The way he talks makes me feel funny” was how one contemporary explained this to my mother. At age nine or ten I beat up one of my main antagonists and had much less trouble thereafter. I was thin, wiry. The local tailor had been asked to take in a hand-me-down jacket so it would fit me, and he replied that if he took it in any more, there wouldn’t be a jacket.

It was around 1950. We played a lot of hide-and-seek, urban type. The buildings were five stories high, without elevators. I liked to hide in the dumbwaiters, large, open wooden boxes attached to a rope on pulleys at the top of the shaft. You could bring your groceries upstairs or your trash downstairs with these devices. Each apartment had a door that opened onto this shaft, so the residents could put in or take out objects. I would get into the box at the cellar level, then pull on the rope enough to pull myself above the lowest opening. Hard for kids to find me, a good thing—but the smells were unpleasant.

We played cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians, war, sword fights (sticks, rolled-up newspapers). Advanced weaponry included linoleum guns, sticks with a nail at the front end, a long rubber band, and small (one-inch) squares of cut-up linoleum to put in the stretched rubber band before releasing it toward your foe.

Televisions were rare. We did have many radio programs that included my favorite heroes: The Lone Ranger (cue up Rossini’s “William Tell Overture”); Tom Mix; Roy Rogers, his horse, Trigger, and his significant other, Dale Evans; Gene Autry; The Shadow (“Able to cloud men’s minds so they cannot see him. Who knows? The Shadow knows.”); the Green Lantern; Sgt. Preston of the Yukon; the Green Hornet (cue up Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee”) and his trusty sidekick Kato (Japanese?); Detective Johnny Dollar (who organized his story around his expense account vouchers). Babysitting my younger siblings—at that point I had a sister and two brothers; went fine during the hours these shows were on, but later in the evening radio became quite boring.

Much of my social life was with the Fort Washington Collegiate Church, one of four Dutch Reformed churches in the city. Our minister, Rev. Daniel Poling, lost a brother in World War II. The brother, Clarke, had given his lifejacket to another soldier when their boat had been on the verge of sinking. Rev. Poling had a son who was stricken with cerebral palsy—pitifully, severely. The father’s faith must have been tested. He became a leading figure in the Dutch Reformed Church of America. I collected a slew of perfect or near-perfect attendance pins for Sunday school and can still quote Scripture, often on either side of an issue. Members of scout troops associated with the church, we were theoretical wilderness experts but went almost nowhere.

Whether it was with scouts or just as a small pack of urban urchins, we crossed the George Washington Bridge one day to collect wildlife samples from the wilds of New Jersey. I proudly brought back a jar of active tiny swimmers, misidentifying them as tiny tadpoles. Mom had me flush them down the toilet: they were mosquito larvae.

Hardly any girls to speak of at church. Certainly none we spoke to. I would have made an exception for blond and lovely Pamela Knight. Alas.

Decades later, when I stopped by the Riverside Drive apartments, I was amazed at how much smaller everything looked than I remembered it. Perhaps we measure things in part by their ratios to our own dimensions, such as height.

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