We lived in a six floor walk up with a black tar flat roof covered in sheets of tar paper just above our heads. In the summer time the apartment was sweltering. All the top floor apartments were hotter in the summer and colder in the winter. There was no real exchange of air. Windows were on the west side of our apartment facing the alley between the buildings, and in my parents bedroom the windows faced north. No cross ventilation at all to give any relief. In order to create some kind of cooling the neighbors all tried to cooperate. Front doors were left open all day to capture a little bit of breeze. The scant breeze came in the south-facing front windows of one neighbors’ apartment, through the hall, and out the north windows of another apartment. Four apartments opened onto a common hall. People actually got annoyed if someone closed their own front door.
There was also a big window facing the alley on each landing of the stairs, however almost no air came through them. The window weights were broken on many. On those windows you needed two adults to push them open and someone to wedge a stick in the opening. We lived this way for five or so months out of each year. Since we were on the top floor rarely did anyone who wasn’t living with or visiting one of the four families go up to the sixth floor. In some ways we were better off than people who lived on the lower floors. Next stop the roof! Our midnight patio.
Family privacy was sacrificed for the privilege of breathing. Therefore people became pretty good friends. We were only eight feet away from each other’s home almost all the time. All day kids hung out in the hallway playing or sitting on the steps. Children walked in and out of each others apartments without invitation if they were young enough, and often ate with whose ever apartment they were in. Can’t let the baby see something and not have a taste was and is the mantra of most Mothers.
Because of these circumstances my Mother and Jenny across the hall became fast friends. Jenny was older than Mom, but it didn’t matter. They chatted and gossiped over coffee at each other’s kitchen table every weekday afternoon. Jenny’s youngest daughter, Theresa, was seven years older than I and once in a while she would take me to the Cosmo. The Cosmo being a movie house on 116th Street between Third and Lexington. It was a pretty small theatre with no balcony that I can remember. Everyone sat in the orchestra. That also made it easier to run up and down the aisles during slow parts of the show and before the matron yelled at you.
This one day Theresa offered to drag me along with her to the movies. I was so excited. Hanging out with the older girl made me feel important and grown up. I was about eight years old. Little did I know that I was the beard; she had made a date to meet her boyfriend, Vinny, in the movie house. I was her cover. How could she misbehave with me along?
I’ll never forget what main feature was run that day, ‘The Blob‘, with Steve McQueen as the lead teenager who saved the town. Two movies, one being the main feature, newsreels and about six cartoons was the usual presentation at all movie houses and that is what we got. Going to the movies was a five to six-hour event. When you left the Cosmo you stopped at the small food stand next door and bought a potato knish to eat on the walk home. Their counter faced the sidewalk. You didn’t even have to go inside to make your purchase. I can still smell and taste those knishes. Yum.
This day we went to the movies, which was pretty empty. Theresa sat beside me until Vinny showed up. As soon as he came I was told that she would sit in the row behind me, next to him, and I would be just fine. Well this was a double feature horror flick and I had to close my eyes through a lot of it. Theresa and Vinny, true to her word, sat right behind me. But instead of watching the movie they were making out hot and heavy. I didn’t much care because they bought me popcorn and to her credit Theresa would lean over the seat every once in a while and ask if I was ok. The only problem was they were having such a good time I sat through two viewings of the Blob plus the other sci-fi, newsreels and cartoons. I could probably still recite some of the dialogue for you.
We were at the movies about eight hours all toll and my mother was a wreck when we got home. She wanted to know why we were gone so long. Theresa never asked me to lie and I didn’t. I told my Mom and hers that we sat through the main feature twice. Even at eight years old I knew to cover my friends. Still they were a bit suspicious, but I never admitted a thing. I think this was the last time Theresa was permitted to take me to the movies.
This is only one of my movie adventures – those that occurred when I was older were somewhat different.