There are particular benchmarks in all of our lives that propel us forward another mile on the journey of life. These benchmarks come most rapidly as babies, then toddlers and onto children. We walk, we talk, we reason, and then we learn nuance and manipulation. Just about the nuance and manipulation stage we become teenagers.
I was fortunate to have a partner in crime accompany me through my teenage rites of passage. Susan was my best friend, bbf in today’s lingo, from the time I was twelve years old until I was almost eighteen.
We went through eight years of elementary school together but didn’t become friends until about the seventh grade. In Catholic School you did first through eight in the same school. I won’t tell you the size of each class taught by one Sister of Charity. You won’t believe me.
Susan and I smoked our first cigarettes together, kissed our first boys and compared notes regarding these activities. Talking boys and records was how we spent half of our time when not actually pursuing boys. We would exchange record albums for Christmas and Birthdays. I envied the apartment where Susan lived with her Mom, Dad and brother. It smelled like perfume to me. Our apartment, where I lived with my Mother, Grandmother and sister, always smelled like cooking. Some might think that is a good thing, but I was mortified by it.
Susan and I were pretty daring and fool hardy. A lot of the things we did, and places we went had a better than fifty percent chance of putting us in dangerous situations. Luck or angels must have been with us every step of the way. I’ll let you in on some of our milder activities.
One game we were fond of playing was called “This and That” and it was played in Pete’s hallway, because no one ever bothered us there. Pete was the janitor and I don’t think anyone ever knew where he was during the day, but he wasn’t maintaining the building, that’s for sure.
A few boys and girls would huddle in the first floor hallway and ask the question, This or That. The point of the game was “This” you can kiss Joey for three minutes, or “That” you had to run up to the fifth floor and back down in three minutes. Naturally no matter what the That was we always picked the This. It was a great way to see how each of the boys kissed and you were always hoping you got the guy you really wanted. I guess it was an advanced version of spin the bottle. Looking back this was a really innocent game. In those exciting years, 13 or 14 years of age, it never went beyond kissing for me.
Another pass time was hanging out in Mike’s Candy Store on a hun fifteenth Street. The candy store was located right next to the elementary school, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, which was right next to the church. Mike had a running card game in the back, took book, sold shots of whiskey, and oh yeah sold candy and soda. He also had a great jukebox. All the latest 45s. A nickel each or six for a quarter. Every day, when we weren’t kissing the boys, Susan and I danced from 3:30 to 5:30. There were other people who danced as well but we were the primary Lindy dancers. This was just before it became popular to dance without touching each other. I bet you could burn 5000 calories dancing the Lindy for two hours. Although that wasn’t a concern when I was fourteen.
We could dance fast Lindys for two hours straight without even breathing hard. In those years everybody could dance and did. People didn’t go to gyms, we danced. This was nothing for kids who had to run up and down five and six flights of stairs every time you wanted something from your home and you were already in the street. Sometimes one of the guys you liked would play a slow dance, “The closer you are”, “In the still of the night”, “Tonight, tonight”, “Earth Angel”, and you would get to dance close to the guy who took your breath away.
The boys had nicknames like, Johnny Ashcan, Joey Fleabags, Fritzie, The Greek, Ronnie Black, Lefty, Allyboy, and I wish I could remember more. In retrospect we really were the Italian version of Muggsy McGuiness and the East Side Kids only this was the early 60s as opposed to the 30s. And we were on the upper East Side not the lower.
Just thought I’d bring you back to East Harlem for a bit. “You can take the girl out of Harlem, but you can’t get the Harlem outta the girl!”