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Memoir Part 2: The little gay boy


Some people think of The Bronx as a crime-ridden, dangerous and decrepit place—possibly this is the result of movies like Fort Apache, The Bronx (1981) and Wolfen (1981), which portrayed the Bronx as a dystopic nightmare of werewolves living in gutted apartment buildings, slurking around at night to tear people apart.

But The Bronx was a great place when I was a kid. The Grand Concourse was an attractively wide boulevard, modeled after the Champs-Elysée, with a flower- and tree-lined median. Sidewalks were studded with deciduous trees: red maple, honey locust, red and white oak, birch, sycamore. Across the street from 760 was Franz Siegel Park, 16 acres of rolling meadows, thickets, ball fields, flowering bushes and trees, fountains and winding pathways meandering beneath stone arches. George Washington is said to have used the granite cliffs facing west to keep an eye on British troops camped by the Harlem River. To a little boy, the park was a wonderland, a place to escape the pavements, laze on the grass on hot summer days, play touch football, or pretend to be a famous archeologist or explorer. Facing the Grand Concourse were wooden benches where in the afternoon, moms and grandmas sat and gossiped, rocking baby strollers and smoking cigarettes.

And how many kids there were! It was not called a “Baby Boom” for nothing. The millions of dads who had been away at war, or who worked in war industries on the home front, reproduced like rabbits once the war was over. Unemployment was low; everybody had a job, not always a great one, but it paid the bills. Things were cheap, and there was no inflation. My middle-class parents even had a small summer bungalow in a charming little town in New Jersey called White Meadow Lake. America was at peace. The New York City public schools (my mom taught junior high school in Spanish Harlem) were the best in America. In 760 alone there must have been 20 kids my age. On the surrounding blocks were additional thousands. Friendship was easy to come by for a young Jewish kid in The Bronx in the 1950s.

Memories persist. I mentioned the Yankees. In those days baseball players were not the multi-multi millionaires they are today. Most of the Yankees lived, during the baseball season, in a hotel, the Concourse Plaza, three blocks up from 760 Grand Concourse. On any given day, you’d see them walking around, doing their thing like anybody else: Mickey Mantle waiting for the light to cross 161st Street, Whitey Ford in line at the G&R Bakery, Don Larson buying groceries at the A&P. Many of us kids were autograph hounds. I had a little album signed by all the great Yankees of the decade. My parents threw it out during my first semester away at college, a treachery for which I never quite forgave them.

Memories: riding our bikes to the George Washington Bridge and onto the span itself, spitting into the Hudson River far below. Stickball games, played on hard pavement, with our moms’ sawed-off broomsticks for bats, and the little orange balls we called “Spaldeens” because they were manufactured by the Spalding Company. Those balls cost 25 cents apiece. We lost a lot of them; a foul would invariably stray into the Grand Concourse, where collision with a car would send it careening. We were little criminals: it was a lot cheaper to steal a Spaldeen from Feldman’s variety store than to buy a new one. Mrs. Feldman, Mr. Feldman’s childless wife with her hawk’s eyes and hatred of us urchins, knew we stole. There was nothing she could do about it except glare.

Next to Feldman’s was Dave Buch’s butcher shop. Dave was my father’s best friend and pinochle buddy, a handsome, dark-haired man with a mustache. He and his wife, Elsie—the beauty of 760, blonde and buxom–lived next door, in apartment 6L to our 6M. They had two kids: Barry, who was my sister’s age, six years older than me, and Ellen, my age. Ellen was my best friend when we were little. We would hide behind a sofa and pretend to kiss, or drink milk sweetened with Nestlé’s Quik chocolate powder as we sprawled on the sofa watching T.V. shows like Gunsmoke or Medic. The latter, starring Richard Boone as Dr. Styner (a Jew?), was about a doctor who, every week, had to diagnose a new disease. When I began showing weekly symptoms of leukemia, multiple sclerosis and plague, my parents forbade me to watch it anymore.

Down 156th Street from Dave’s was the grocery store. Next to that was Fox’s tailor shop, a place I had no reason to frequent, except once, when old man Fox fitted my bar mitzvah suit. At the bottom of 156th Street was Sheridan Avenue, named after the Union Civil War general, Phil Sheridan. (Many Bronx streets were named after Union Civil War generals.) Across Sheridan Avenue was the vast, third-of-a-mile-wide railroad junction where all the trains came and went into and out of New York. Known today as the Oak Point Yard, it’s the second largest railroad yard in New York. Trains rumbled throughout the day and night. Having lived with that racket since birth, I didn’t even hear it anymore, but once, one of my cousins stayed the night with us and couldn’t sleep.

Our public school was about a mile away from 760. We kids would gather every morning throughout the school year and file into the yellow school buses which dutifully delivered us to P.S. 35, built in 1898 and even sixty-five years ago falling apart. But our teachers were remarkable; I still remember many of their names (Mrs. Streng, Mrs. Sabatini, Mr. Cooper with his halitosis). I got a fantastic education, and adored learning. That love of education, of acquiring knowledge and discovering new things, also is part of my Jewish heritage. I did well enough to be selected as the smartest kid in my grade level by the teachers every year through fifth grade, in an annual competition that couldn’t possibly happen nowadays, when no child is permitted to feel inferior. That halcyon period ended in sixth grade, when a new Jewish kid, Harold, moved into the neighborhood. He was a lot smarter than me, and grabbed the prize that year. I was pissed. Turns out I’m competitive.

When we weren’t in school, we thrived on sports. I mean the boys: girls didn’t do sports in the 1950s, they played with dolls. Stickball and touch football were our standbys, depending on the season. On cold winter Saturdays and Sundays, even when it snowed, I couldn’t wait to round up the guys for football in Franz Siegel Park. I’d be on the phone by 7:30 in the morning: “Hey, let’s play ball.” Those were some of the high points of my childhood. I loved my friends, loved being with them, loved playing ball with them, loved joking and laughing with them. In retrospect, I can see that this enormous affection for my male friends might have been an early expression of my sexual orientation. But, of course, in the mid-1950s, I had no way of knowing about that, nor did any of the other little queer boys of America. That didn’t start to change for another 20 years.

I mean, look: there was no such thing as homosexuality back then, not in the middle class Jewish neighborhoods of The Bronx. I guess our fathers might have known something about it, especially those who had been in the Army. But no one talked about it. If you’re a little kid, how can you know about something that doesn’t officially exist?

Still, kids do pick stuff up on the streets. I think in some inchoate way we had an inkling. There was this guy who lived on the next block. He was slightly-built, about 30, and even we kids who lived in dungarees and T-shirts could tell he was “a fancy dresser” from his long white scarf and pleated trousers. He was said (by whom, I can’t remember) to be something called “an interior decorator,” and we’d often see him, sashaying (an accurate description) down the street walking his two giant Afghan hounds—beautiful dogs, but who the hell had Afghan hounds in The Bronx? Somehow, we “knew,” without knowing, that he was different, and it had to do with “sex,” which was this mysteriously secret world the older boys inhabited and we did not. I would watch as he passed; it was like looking at a strange life form, not exactly alien, but exotic; and in a way I couldn’t put my finger on, there was recognition: I think I know what’s up with that. But that’s as far as it went.

My best friend, whom I still know albeit only through Facebook, was a kid I’ll call Jonathan. He was the supreme athlete of the neighborhood, a slugger who could hit a home run, snag a high fly ball, grab a football out of the clouds and run like a deer for the touchdown. Jonathan was wiry and cute, with red hair and tortoise-shell glasses and a taut, muscular body. I was in love with him from a very early age. I have memories of us playing on the bed, out of sight of our parents, when we were only five or six, and me getting a hard-on. (I doubt if Jonathan felt the same way; he was entirely straight.) During those same years, I’d visit Grandma Rose, and she would let me play in her bedroom. I’d rifle through her costume jewelry, trying on necklaces, brooches, tiaras. Grandma had a dowry chest, an exquisite old Russian trunk she’d brought with her from the old country, filled with the most beautiful silk bolts of every rainbow color. I loved to wrap myself in them, wearing the jewelry, imagining myself a Russian princess. How could no one have known about this odd little boy? How could no one have explained anything to me? But those were the times.

  1. Paul Stark says:

    Thanks so much Steve. Really enjoying reading this and reminiscing about the 1950’s and 760. I still think it was a very special place and time.

  2. I’m so glad you like. I write this stuff and publish it, not knowing if anyone knows or cares. Be well, stay safe, old friend!

  3. Paul Stark says:

    Thanks Steve. I really enjoy reading this and reminiscing about 760 and the 1950’s. I still think it was a very special place and time.

  4. Paula Fins says:

    Such warm memories of days past. They truly were special. I’m so glad I grew up in those times. As Paul Simon put it: Preserve your memories; they’re all that’s left you.

  5. Thanks, Steve. A lovely read.
    At the same time, it brings back sad memories of a dear friend who killed himself, because he was gay, and in the mid/late 60’s that was not “ok”.
    Glad you made it through.

  6. Oh, Betsy, I’m so sorry. Let’s hope those evil days are gone forever.

  7. Gary Cowan says:

    Terrific, evocative memories of your childhood.
    It me to get to work on my own before they fade forever.

    Stay healthy and safe in these crazy, unimaginable times.

  8. Thank you so much Gary. Someday when this is over you and I will get together and drink some good wine! Be well, my friend.

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