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Growing up in The Bronx

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One thing I’ll say for the 1950s, it was a great time to be a kid in The Bronx.

They were days of hundreds of friends, schools that actually educated us, and sports of every kind, for every season. They were safe days, when our parents didn’t have to worry about their children getting shot or molested. They were days when people stayed put where they lived—they didn’t move in and out of neighborhoods, even in rental neighborhoods like The Bronx, as they do today—so that the neighborhoods had continuity and a feeling of family, and gave us children a sense of belonging and permanence. You knew your neighbors and generally liked them; you knew the proprietors of the shops–butcher, grocery, drug, laundry; they weren’t sterile outposts of chains, but folks who lived in your building.

We kids felt safe, even though we didn’t put it that way; there was literally nothing to threaten us. We could play in the park at night, ride our bikes across town to the George Washington Bridge, take the subway, roam the streets, sing a capella on streetcorners, go to Yankees games, explore the piers and warehouses along the Harlem River, pitch pennies on the sidewalks, go to each other’s birthday parties, take the bus up to the Bronx Zoo, shop at Alexander’s for a new shirt, walk over to 161st Street for a haircut, hang out at Yankee Stadium for autographs, and never, ever feel threatened; we took security for granted, because there was no reason not to.

Which is not to say everything was hunky dory. As I’ve mentioned, my ever-increasing sense of being “gay” (which was not a word we were familiar with) was becoming more difficult for me to deal with every day. My parents, who were not the most affectionate people, either with others or with themselves, did little to help or nourish my soul, although they certainly kept my body healthy. My sister, six years older, had it in for me, and was a constant torment. My father, Jack’s, depression and anger made him an increasingly distant figure, to be avoided as much as possible. All of these things detracted from what we would nowadays call my “quality of life.”

Still, my elementary school and junior high school years—1951 through 1959—were exceptionally peaceful and happy. The phrase “the Eisenhower years” is often an epithet, but the reverse side of the coin meant an era of tranquillity and normalcy.

Now, I realize that things often look rosier in retrospect than they did at the time. The 1950s were very unequal in America. Neighborhoods were segregated, especially in The Bronx; Black and Puerto Rican people lived across the tracks, in shabby apartment buildings in what we derisively (echoing our parents) called the slums, and it was common for Jews to refer to “Negroes” as schvartzes, a derogatory Yiddish word. Puerto Ricans weren’t viewed quite as negatively, but the adults let us kids know that we were lucky they didn’t overrun our neighborhood. (I have to mention here that my mother taught at a Junior High School in Spanish Harlem, and it was fairly ordinary for her to tell me how much she liked her Puerto Rican students. “I wish you were as respectful to me as they are,” she’d say.)

As for gay people, well, they were completely invisible. I suppose the men knew about them, especially those who had served in the armed forces, but they never talked about them, and I can’t remember a single usage of “fag” or “faggot,” although my father used to say, of odd people and things, that they were “queer as a three-dollar bill.” Grandma Rose, my father’s mother, who lived in our building, was a huge fan of Liberace, and when I would watch his T.V. show with her, in her tiny, antique-filled apartment on the second floor, there was something in him I dimly recognized, or thought I did, something that thrilled me—and that I knew was in me, too. But, of course, it couldn’t be named, or even acknowledged. And when the interior decorator who lived down the block—a thin, effeminate fellow with well-tailored clothes—walked his two Afghan Hounds, I would watch as he passed, seeing or sensing something, the same something I saw in Liberace.

But rather than make me sad, these tantalizing glimpses of something made me curious, and excited, because I knew that whatever was inside of those men, which I was picking up on, was also something that lay in my future. And it lay there interestingly. It was something to look forward to. If I could have expressed that feeling in words, it might have been, “I know that that lies ahead for me. And what an interesting time that will be when it comes out.”

Meanwhile, life was just too busy to overdwell on such thoughts. I loved my public school, P.S. 35. I was a smart boy, a diligent student, and did well in my subjects, frequently winning prizes. My parents never told me they were proud of me (in retrospect, it might have been nice if they had), but I knew they had to be. I had more friends than I could count. This was the Baby Boom, mind you, and all those Bronx Jews who had come home from the war were producing children like General Motors produced cars. Amazingly, we had no cliques. There were no jocks or goths, no stoners or geeks; we didn’t separate the smart kids from the slower ones, or the good-looking ones from the homely. We were all different, of course, in our own ways, but the similarities made us more alike than not: the same age, the same religion, the same socio-economic class of our parents. We listened to the same milquetoast pop music on the radio: Sh-Boom by the Crew-Cuts, Hey There by Rosemary Clooney, Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White by Perez Prado, and a rolicking little number, Rock Around the Clock, by Bill Haley & His Comets, that got our feet tapping, a precursor of the harder-edged rock and roll that was emerging.

When I was ten, Elvis Presley made his first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. I can remember, even now, nearly 65 years later, how exciting it was. Even my mother, who professed not to like “that kind of music” (her favorite music was Guy Lombardo), was glued to our old Admiral T.V. set, in the room we called the foyer. (My mom’s best friend next door, Elsie, who had pretensions of glamor, pronounced hers “foy-ay.” We just called ours “foy-er.)” Elvis was incredibly sexy; here was something I clearly needed to know more about. I liked the element of danger that reeked from his body, and I resented that the T.V. wouldn’t show him below the waist.

Television was the Public Commons of America, the shared space that brought us all together across the vastness of the continent. It was that period they call “T.V.’s Golden Age,” and we Baby Boomers were the first generation in history to grow up in front of it, literally. Even today, the names of my favorite programs, their stars, the way they looked, are easy for me to recall. Howdy Doody—which my cousins and I once went on, live, and sat in the Peanut Gallery…Kukla, Fran and Ollie…Andy’s Gang, hosted by the weird, hoarse-throated Andy Divine, with pervy Midnight the Cat…the Ernie Kovacs show, surely one of the strangest shows in history…Our Miss Brooks (I had a huge crush on Mr. Boynton)…and, of course, I Love Lucy. My best friend, Ellen (Elsie and Dave’s daughter) and I would watch Medic together, drinking chocolate milk made with Nestlé’s Qwik, and when I hypochondriacally began coming down with every disease of the week (including brain cancer), my parents wouldn’t let me see it anymore. I still have, somewhere, I photograph I took with our first Polaroid camera of JFK, on the Admiral T.V., addressing the nation about the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Our sports were street sports, those of our inner-city fathers, who probably learned them from their fathers. In warm, dry weather, stickball, using broomstick handles to bat those little pink Spaulding balls a mile. When the weather turned cool and cold, it was touch football, in the big meadow of Franz Siegel Park, even into December, when hoarfrost whitened the grass. My father, a big sports fan, was lead umpire in our local Little League. Despite my love for amateur sports with my friends, I detested Little League, perhaps because Jack made me do it; I didn’t get a single hit in four years, and nearly every ball hit to right field sailed over my head or through my legs.

I liked girls all right; I’ve always had girl friends with whom I was close, and still do. I’ve mentioned my neighbor, Ellen, but there many others, from the building, from the neighborhood, and from P.S. 35. And, of course, my three Heimoff cousins, Maxine, Ellen and Rona. But it was my male friends whom I adored. My idea of perfect happiness was just to be allowed to hang out with them, doing whatever, having fun, laughing, telling dirty jokes, tossing a ball around. My best friends from the building, all Jewish (and of course I had lots of friends from elsewhere in the neighborhood), were Irwin (whose father worked in a hat factory in the Garment District), Paul (an early crush; his mom was divorced), Ricky (I never did know what his father did, but he was one of my father’s gin rummy buddies), Howie (whose speech impediment didn’t matter at all to us), Donald, who was kind of slow-witted, and Stevie, from the second floor. Then there was Bobby. As soon as I realized what “fags” were, at the age of 12, I knew that Bobby was one. He was so strange, but in a lovely, sweet way. He never played sports, but one summer, he taught the rest of us how to play mah jong and canasta. We all liked him; today, I fear, he would be bullied. Last I heard of Bobby, twenty years ago, he was a school teacher, and living with his mother.

Stevie was the only friend I quarreled with. A lot. I don’t know what it was that set our teeth on edge, but we were constantly bickering. When we were nine, we wrote up “a Constitution” so that we could legislate our quarrels, instead of having screaming matches or, worse, physical altercations. (“Uh, Stevie, you’re in violation of Article 2, Section 3.” “You’re crazy.”) I think this testifies both to how much respect we had for the Law—this seems to be common among Jewish people–and how loathe we were to resort to violence. In fact, in all my youth, I had only one fight—and that was with an Italian Catholic kid from down the block. We were goaded into a brawl by the other boys. It was fifteen minutes of hard scrambling on the sidewalk, but in the end, the result was deemed a draw. At least, I hadn’t lost. When it was over, we shook hands, and never fought again.

I miss those days, I really do. I miss having a million friends, the easy camaraderie among boys. The other day, by chance, on YouTube I came across the famous scene from The Deerhunter, where all the guys are singing “You’re Just Too Good to be True” in that divey bar in Pennsylvania coal country. I put it up on Facebook, just to share, and someone wrote that it was a “homoerotic” scene. I don’t think it was. It was just a scene—beautifully written and acted, with that fantastic song—of men who loved each other, some of whom were about to go off to war. There’s nothing homo about that. But who am I to say? Was my love for my little friends the queer in me? But they loved each other, too, and they all were straight. The human soul, as I’ve been learning all my life, is a curious thing, basically incomprehensible. But love—that, we all understand.

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