The Alley

Let us re-visit West 12th Street one more time, probably not the last. As you should know by now we grew up in a classic railroad flat building in the West Village; it wasn’t quite a brownstone, just a very nice normal building for its time. The apartments were long and narrow and are bound by the street on one side, adjacent buildings on either side and at the back, a very large dark alleyway. Clotheslines hung from every window; a pulley allowed you to bring back in your dry laundry after having let it flap in the sooty New York air. No one at the time owned a dryer; I am sure a few of our neighbors didn’t know what one was; there were Laundromats but for the most part, as generations did before them, wash was done by hand and then put out to dry, hanging over the alleyway and raining on the cats.

Oh did I mention the cats? These were not your cute little kittens that loved to chase yarn. These were huge, hairy, ferocious creatures pissed off at the world, but secure in their alley domain. No one, not even the Janitor who lived on the first floor and whose job it was to take care of the building dared to go into the alleyway for fear of being torn to shreds by the gang of cats that lived there.

Of course, they were hard to spot; you heard them mostly, howling at the sky, fighting each other with abandon, living on the garbage that people would toss out the windows. I remember looking down into that abyss, me, of course, being an animal lover, anxious to see them. But the bottom was dark, I could hardly see anything save a flash of grey fur as it darted from garbage can to abandoned tire. Who knew how many there were. No one was going to find out.

And I am sure by now, you see a potential problem. Every now and then whether due to clumsiness or a faulty clothespin, a piece of wash would fall, plummeting into the darkness with a giant splat, accompanied by the angry howls of the cats it almost hit. Those pieces of laundry were collateral damage; lost forever. I remember hearing Mom calmly say one day as a pair of BVDs slipped through her hands:

“Oh well, I’ll have to go to John’s Bargain Store tomorrow to replace that one”.

The idea of going down to retrieve something as expendable as a pair of tidy whities was unheard of. All of us had strict instructions from Dad to never venture into the alley, and this coming from a decorated Marine; even he drew the line at maniacal felines you couldn’t see.

Every once in a while Mom would suggest a foray into enemy territory.

“Ton, I think I will go down and get your handkerchief; it’s one of your favorites”.

And Dad, always the pragmatist would respond logically:

“Favorites? It’s a handkerchief for Christsakes; I’ll make one of my others my favorite. “

And so it went.


Until one day when somehow, my favorite one-piece pajamas with the cute yellow Duckies on them took the dive. I watched (I was always by Mom’s side when she was putting out the wash), as my beloved pajamas sank into the primordial darkness, and I started to cry. Well, that was enough for Mom; she wasn’t going to just let her little boy cry at the loss of his favorite pajamas just on account of a bunch of mangy cats. Luckily Dad was at work. Mom turned to me and Don who was in the room behind us and said:

“I’m going down”

No hero in any Western sounded as determined and we knew she would do it, even as we protested and reminded her of Dad’s edict. I think it backfired however as we were stunned into silence by what she said next:

“We’ll all go together”.

Don and I looked at each other. “All”? As in us?? Go down there?? Just the three of us against twenty or thirty of the toughest cats this side of the Bronx Zoo??!!

Don looked pale; I started to whimper.

“Sush,” she said, “It will be alright….just don’t tell your father”.

With that, she marched out of the room, went to the closet and brought out her favorite broom. Good thinking I thought. I raced back to my bedroom, determined not to be a coward and let her go alone. I grabbed the only thing I had that resembled a weapon, my plastic Wiffle Ball Bat. When we reassembled in the hallway, Don was there, as I knew he would be, but strangely he had chosen as his weapon his Pitchers glove. I wasn’t sure what he was going to do with that, maybe use it as a shield in case one of the monsters lunged at us, but I like him, put my faith in the Gods of Baseball and decided he knew what he was doing. Off we went.

Once we opened the door to the alley, we realized it wasn’t dark at all at least when you were in it; it only looked dark from up above. It was light enough that we could clearly see the wet lump that was my pajamas and the ten or twelve gargantuan cats that sat, lay and walked around it. When we entered the alley, all eyes turned our way; these guys were sharp. They watched us warily, ready for anything, though I am not sure they were ready for a grown woman and two boys wielding a broom, a Wiffle Ball bat and a baseball glove. One, in particular, looked at us like we were the crazy ones, not him for living in a garbage-strewn alley. Another yellowish one let out a mighty growl and I was immediately ready to retreat; I mean there were other pajamas in the world right? But Mom would have none of it. She slowly advanced taking the lead, Don and I flanking her. Don held his mitt out in front of him like it was some sort of Talisman to ward off Evil. I held my bat at my shoulder as if I were in the On Deck Circle waiting for my chance at the plate. Mom, the only one with any real sense, slowly waved the broom back and forth, low to the ground. She did it calmly and without any aggression and for a few minutes the cats just followed the languid movement of the broom and seemed content to do so.

Maybe this would work after all, I thought to myself. Who knew Mom was a cat-whisperer?

We moved closer to the wad of pajamas, Mom totally keeping her cool, me beginning to get a little nervous as the deeper we went into the alley, the cats did what all intelligent warriors do, and they spanned out to outflank us!! Damn these guys were good!! Patton himself couldn’t have done it better.

So after a few minutes, we are now surrounded by the cats, but still making steady progress towards my Ducky pajamas. Don kept the mitt in front of him, and I thought he would have been better served with a Catcher’s Mitt instead of a Pitcher’s glove but what the Heck, the Talisman was working so far.

I heard Mom quietly, soothingly say:

“Nice Kitties…there you are…arent you pretty….you’re so pretty you are….nice Kitty Cats”.

Damn, she spoke their language too!!

Then suddenly she shouted, startling us and the cats:

“Donnie…run…get the pajamas!”

He didn’t hesitate; glove out in front of him to ward off any flying attacks Don ran to the pile and grabbed it, still soaking. The cats hissed and crouched down, tails puffed out; now they were pissed.

Don wasted no time in getting back to us and then Mom was her cool calm self again.

“Ok now boys, just back up slowly; don’t make them angry.”

Make them angry??! I think we had crossed that line about twenty minutes ago, but Mom had done great up to now, so we just did as she said; the only sounds were the hissing of the cats, the shuffling of our feet and the drip drip drip from the wet load Don carried.

We made it back to the door, Mom kept guard with her trusty broom; I went in first, then Don, and she brought up the rear slamming the door just as one of the cats jumped at us in attack. And if he had timed himself a little better, there would have been quite the battle between fur and straw. But thankfully we were back inside, and they were outside, and we had rescued my pajamas.

When we got back upstairs Mom reminded us:

“Not a word to your father, you hear me?!”

Tell Dad we both thought – are you nuts??!! He would do the job the cats couldn’t and kill us all!!

That night when Dad got home and we were sitting around the dining room table eating supper, he asked his usual:
“So what did you do today? Anything exciting?”
Don choked on his pasta, I stared down at my plate and Mom, as cool as ever said:

“Oh nothing much, the boys and I just took a walk”.

Well if that’s what she wanted to call it. To me, we had fought the Little Big Horn and won this time. And after that when I would look down into the darkness of the alley and hear the cats, I felt a sense of pride. We had done what no one in the neighborhood would dare to do. We took on the mighty Ferals of West Twelfth Street and lived to tell about it.

Just not to Dad.



A New York Kind of Mom

As we celebrate Mothers Day, I found myself doing what many of us are probably doing; reflecting back on “Memories of Mom”.

I hope that many of you still have your Moms with you. Our Mom has been gone for over thirty-five years now, which is hard for me to believe. She passed away at a  young age after a long and courageous battle with cancer. However, my reflections today were not of the morbid kind, as they focused on her life and vitality.

As my title states, Mom was a New York City girl through and through. Born into a
large Italian family, ( 4 brothers, 3 sisters) she embraced and thrived in New York’s vibrant life.

It is my understanding that in her early years, she was quite the “tomboy”, able to hang with the guys in many sports, including Tennis and Baseball. There was plenty of evidence of her athleticism as I grew up. Mom was the one that taught me how to throw and catch a ball. That is by no means a reflection on Dad, in that many times, Dad was working three jobs to keep us afloat. He just didn’t have the time. Mom very effectively took this role upon herself. I remember tossing a baseball with Mom when I was probably no more than eleven or so. It was pretty humbling to have a mother that had a stronger arm than I did!

She also taught me how to play tennis. Many a time her powerful forehand literally knocked the racket from my hand. I remember her in her white shorts and top encouraging me to “try again”. Oh, by the way… while I was in sneakers, she would be playing wearing freakin’ flip- flops!

Oh, and how she loved to walk around that City! We walked everywhere! From our apartment on west 12 street, ( later west 17 street) there were very few places she considered out of range for a good, fast walk. Washington Square Park to Bleeker Street. Christopher street to Times Square, we walked. Mind you, my very early memories are of her pushing a stroller with my little Brother (Rob) bundled securely in. I never was able to keep up with her. Her strong, long stride had me practically running to keep up. As long as she had her health, this was an aspect of her, and Dad, for that matter, that never changed. A walk was a workout.

Like Dad, Mom liked to “dress-up”. Looking her best when she left the house was important to her. Coupled with Dads passion for being dressed nicely, they made a pretty damned good looking couple when going out. As I have mentioned in other posts, there was never an abundance of money floating around in our family, and to this day, it amazes me how elegant and dapper they looked while wearing very inexpensive clothing! “Going out” for them was anything from a walk in Greenwich Village after Church to going to the local Pizza place. Whenever Mom left the apartment, she looked as though she was going “somewhere”.

How she loved the holidays!!  Cooking and preparing and planning. How she was able to cook for, feed and seat the entire family in our one bathroom, three and a half room apartment still baffle me. The damned kitchen wasn’t even big enough to hold more than three people at a time… yet, she managed to cook for 12 on Christmas Eve.

She did have a few funny quirks that I remember well. When we lived on west 12 street she, on occasion, would make liver and onions for dinner. I hated liver and onions… I despised liver and onions. Yet, somehow Mom was under the impression that I liked them. So, when she cooked it for dinner (many times) I would always be clearly distressed. Inevitably, she would give me that very concerned, sincere look that Rob and I came to know so well and ask:

“Donny, what’s wrong….? Don’t you want to eat??”
Me: “No thank you… I don’t feel hungry “
Mom: “But… I made them because you like them!”

I never, ever figured out where she got the notion that I liked them, but this was the same scenario over and over!

I really wouldn’t be surprised if it was Rob who told her to make liver and onions because I liked them so much… wouldn’t put it past him.

Then there was her legendary inability to get the name of any Hollywood star correct. She would totally abort the name to the point that none of us had any clue whom she was speaking of. Please see Post titled “Frondo Frone” to get a close look at this hilarious idiosyncrasy.

Ok, final memory of Mom that gave Dad, Rob and I many laughs.

Mom was never anywhere near being a drinker. Perhaps a sip or two of a glass of wine here or there, but that was basically it. When Rob and I reached the age, we would enjoy having a drink or two with Dad, especially around a holiday or family event. Rob was basically a Bourbon guy, Dad was a Scotch guy and I could enjoy either. We would always try to get Mom to have one with us, or to just take a taste. Being the trooper that she was, she at times offered to take a sip of Dads scotch. Her face contorted into hideous expressions and one would think we had just given her Drano to drink. She would gag and cough and wave the drink away.

One year, after going through the hopeless ritual of trying to get her to taste or have one, she said something to the effect of;

“That tastes horrible!!! Maybe I would like it if it tasted more “fruity”. Rob looked at me, I looked at Rob and we both looked at Dad.

He smiled: “you want something fruity, something fruity coming right up!”
Now, dad always kept a decent supply of fruit juices in the apartment, so all he did was mix a concoction of whiskey and juice on ice and brought it to Mom. She looked at it suspiciously as he handed it to her and we watched with bated breath. She carefully took the first sip and swallowed. No hideous expression. She smacked her lips a few times and then said:

“That’s not bad… it’s fruity!!”

She took forever to drink it, but then actually asked for another! We looked in amazement at each other as dad hurried to the kitchen to mix another.
The really hilarious part was that after the first one, which was very weak, Mom almost immediately started slurring her words and an odd, glassy look came to her usually very bright and vibrant eyes.

As she took her first sip of drink number two, all she could mumble and slur was;
“Good….fruity… nice fruity”

Within minutes she was asleep in her chair. We looked at each other and broke into hysterical laughter.

From that time on…. especially after Mom passed away, whenever we would have a cocktail together, one of us would inevitably hold their glass in the air and say:
“Fruity! It’s good”

Then we would toast a pretty damned good mom who loved her family beyond anything in this world.


grandma8 (2)

February 1976- These are the voyages…

February 1976

The Commodore Hotel, New York City

Site of the third annual Star Trek Convention.

Guess who was there?

Mike and I that’s who. Now, this was before we took up our skiing careers; at this time we were college mates and shared a deep love for the original Star Trek – William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy…you (hopefully) know the crew. This was also long before ComicCon (or whatever its called) or any other such event; at the time it was considered an abnormality- to gather like fans together to spend some hard earned money to go to a hotel and watch episodes of the show we had already seen a thousand times before, to sit and listen to the stars of the show share some anecdotes about the sets and shows, and yes to dress up like the characters on it. Now that is where Mike and I drew the line – no way were we going to don a pair of plastic pointed ears and wander around a hotel in the middle of Manhattan. But we did love the show and thought it would be a hoot to go to one of the conventions, and we turned out to be right. It was a grand outpouring of love and geekiness, of strange desire and embarrassing admission, of abandonment and pride. But there were those plastic ears.   Lots of them.

As we walked down the grand hallway into the suite of rooms the action was taking place in, Mike’s ever-present camera at the ready, we found ourselves in a crowd of Klingons, Romulans, Vulcans and more and though we had a rough time stifling laughter at times, those around us were taking the thing very seriously. It is a tribute to the show that it was so;  it wasn’t just a television show to these people, it was a religion; a promise for a better and humane future, and thing to aspire to, to be a living part of. And since it was a relatively new event, the old fatigue hadn’t set in yet, the cynicism that will always sprout from a genuinely pure idea given enough time. Put simply it was before some years later, after attending one too many of the things, William Shatner, exasperated, had to explain to the crowd it was just a TV show and maybe these kids should get a life.

It was before that.

In 1976 it was like Woodstock man, a total mind-blowing trip into an alien world of true believers; those of the body, to quote one episode.

So we collect our blue plastic bags at the Registration table (with of course Spock and Kirk’s visages imprinted in black) and proceed into the entertainment. As with all conventions, there is the main hall where hundreds were milling about looking at the boards that told us what was happening in each individual ballroom; re-runs of the episodes were being shown non-stop in one, another had the Collectors tables where you could purchase said plastic ears, or a fake phaser or plastic model of the Enterprise, one was a lounge where unfortunately the strongest thing you could get was coffee (given my surroundings I thought at the time they should be selling LSD and Quaaludes along with small bottles of Jack but alas no).

And one important room was the auditorium where we could sit and wait patiently for George Takai or Michelle Nichols to take the stage and regale us with stories of past glory. The biggest draws, of course, were Shatner and Nimoy though James Doohan (Scotty)  and Deforest Kelly (Bones) had huge crowds as well. So for a few hours, we sat, watched, listened, laughed and enjoyed the show.

Now one thing to understand about Mike and me is we always have huge expectations of things; we imagine how we would have done something. We critiqued the way the projectors for the episodes were way worse than watching the re-runs on television (WPIX in New York I think it was), and how the stories the stars told were pretty formulaic –(on subsequent visits to future shows we realized they were telling the same stories, with the same jokes in the same exact places- clearly everything was scripted, and amazingly though we were far from the only ones to go to more than one of these conventions, the crowds laughed at the same jokes as if hearing them for the first time the power of fandom). So you can imagine after a few hours of sitting there listening and watching, sipping tepid coffee out of Styrofoam cups, we got antsy.

So what do we do? Well, we go exploring, don’t we?

Now in memory, the whole deal was going on one floor of the hotel, but somehow we must have thought there was more to see, so we opened a stairwell door and started to climb. Now we also must have looked somehow official as no one stopped us to question just where it was we thought we were going. And if they had asked we would have honestly replied: “We have no idea”.

Well the floor upstairs was a flurry of activity but it somehow looked different than the main floor below; no plastic ears, no fans of any sort; just serious people walking to and fro seemingly in a dither. Not knowing what to do, or why this was at all as interesting as where we had been, we stood for a moment near the stairwell, Mike’s camera hanging off his shoulder, me trying to look like I belonged. And we must have because suddenly a guy walks up to us and says:

“Ok Mr. Shatner and Mr. Nimoy will be coming out shortly – you escort them down the stairs to the main floor – Security will meet you at the stairwell door, and take it from there.


We stood in stunned silence. Obviously, the guy thought we were with the hotel. And with a side glance at each other, we weren’t about to correct him.

“Got it,” Mike says seriously, his face somehow stern and all business. I just nodded. And of course, we were as excited as shit! Escort Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock?! Hell yea. Mike had on his bemused WTF look, slightly flushed, confident in the serendipity of life. I whispered to him:

“Now remember…no genuflecting”  which got a stifled laugh. How the hell do these things happen to us I remember thinking, but like my friend, I knew about that gift horse and looking at the mouth of it. As in all things in life, the secret is just rolling with what is happening around you.

We still stood awkwardly by the door to the stairwell and I started to get paranoid (now there’s a surprise!) when I saw a woman in a business suit, glance at us and start talking to the guy who had spoken to us. Damn! Maybe she didn’t buy our story; but it wasn’t even our story, we just walked into the place; they were the ones making the assumptions; we just weren’t correcting them.  I thought she was going to be a problem but at that moment, Shatner and Nimoy walked into the room. The guy who spoke to us gestured at us.

“These guys will escort you downstairs…our people will take it from there”.

Both nodded amicably and glanced in our direction. I smiled stupidly; Mike kept his stern all-business look on – how the hell can he do that, I remember thinking? !! I had to remind myself not to act like the fan I was, and start babbling about how my favorite episode was Return to Tomorrow, and I loved Robert Brown as a guest star, and what about the movie??!! And on and on.

No! I screamed at myself silently. You are here to do a job! Well….kinda.

Both men walked over to us and stood in front of us expectantly.

“Um… the door?” Captain Kirk said.

Ah yes… the door! That thing that opens and lets you go somewhere else!…yes oh yes…the Door!! Of course the door.

Mike was way ahead of me and opened the door to the stairway and was cool enough to hold up his hand to stop their advance. He would lead the way; I would bring up the rear. He was really into his role of Hotel Security Man.

And so there we went; Mike in front, William Shatner behind him, Leonard Nimoy behind Shatner, and me bringing up the rear, trying not to trip and fall into them.

And the whole way, we didn’t say a word; we were professionals after all. It wasn’t until we got to the bottom floor and it was once again time to use that thing called a door and give them over to the Production people that I said quietly:

“We really enjoy and appreciate your work”

That earned a smile from both, a little bow from Nimoy and the offer of a handshake, which we weren’t about to turn down. And then Mike opened the door, and they walked out into the ballroom and their new guardians.

And that was it. All of it. A simple case of mistaken identity and a quiet walk down a stairwell. Besides the fact that I wouldn’t wash that hand ever again, it was all nothing much right?

Except it wasn’t – not to us.  To us, it was one of the greatest bits of pure chance and luck we would ever know. We were not worthy.

Eventually, we re-joined the crowds as civilians and attended the presentation in one of the ballrooms where the crowd was introduced to Shatner and Nimoy; we sat in the back so as not to be recognized (fat chance) and watched the proceedings as fans- ones without plastic ears. Though I am sure Mike was thinking the same thing I was….” that’s Leonard and Bill up there….good friends of ours…..”

At one point, while taking questions, one young girl was invited to the stage to meet the stars in person. She walked up nervously and smiled shyly as they tried to make her comfortable and answer her questions. Someone in the row in front of us said to their companion:

“How cool is that? –she gets to go on stage with them!”

And it was cool for sure, but let’s be real;  it wasn’t escorting William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy down a stairwell level of cool. No, that day broke the cool meter.

We enjoyed the rest of the convention; discussed if anyone would believe us; decided they wouldn’t so told no-one.

No one had to know.

It was enough that we did.

Live Long and Prosper.



First Fishing Trip

We were City kids, pure and simple. Our exposure to the “great outdoors” was pretty limited to the cobblestone streets of the inner city. We were very blessed to have Lake Hopatcong as a summer haven for many of our younger years, but, while Hopatcong was a far and welcome cry from the steamy city streets, it could not be considered the great outdoors. We were city kids and any exposure to the “great outdoors “, usually brought about some less than stellar results. ( see Rob’s post about cross country skiing as  an example)

My adventure revolved around an ill-fated fishing trip. Not Gilligan’s Island “ill-fated”, but ill-fated nevertheless.  All the other kids that lived in the neighborhood were also “city kids”, Rob and I were by no means in the minority. When we went out to play, it was on concrete, surrounded by concrete. The rare exceptions were the times we went to Washington Square Park to play (where there were actual trees and even some grass), but overall, we were all the same, city kids.

All except one. His name was Artie and I’ll leave his last name out of this. Artie was from New York, but he was from “Upstate New York”, a whole different world than the City. Upstate NY is beautiful country with rolling hills, green valleys, deep lakes, and wonderful wildlife. Though in the same State, another world. Artie had moved to the city because of his dad’s job and he was a country boy at heart. He knew how to hunt and fish and farm and many other things we only saw on television. Artie was a big tough kid, and no one messed with him. If they teased him about being a country boy, they always regretted it. Even the Jane Street Gang kept clear of Artie. For some strange reason, Artie liked me, as well as another guy I called a friend, Billy F. The three of us developed an unlikely friendship. Two city kids and the kid from the country. (As a side note, Arties’ toughness was not limited to his childhood years. Many, many years later I found out he went on the become a  member of the NYPD and was actually involved in a few shootouts. )

Back to childhood; Artie always talked about hunting and fishing and hiking and told Billy and me how much fun we would have if we would only try it. Hunting was out of the question, but fishing? That sounded like fun. So, when we told Artie we were interested he enthusiastically began setting up a fishing day at his Uncles lake house in Newburgh, NY. He had all the equipment necessary; fishing poles, life vests, rowboat, etc. all we had to do was go.

Getting permission from the parents was a bit of a challenge. I remember Dads’ first question:

“Fishing? What the Hell do you know about fishing…???”

Me: “Nothing, but Artie will show us what to do.”

Dad: “You live a block away from the Fulton Fish market? Why do want to go and catch fish?”

Me: “because it will be fun…!”

Dad; “who else is going?”

Me: “Ummm… Billy F”

Dad: “oh Jesus!!!”

This went on a while and the only reason Dad acquiesced is because he liked Artie. He liked his toughness and he probably hoped that some of that toughness would wear off on me. Stay tuned.

So! Off we went to Newburgh NY for a day of manly fishing! We caught a very early train out of the city and were at Arties’ uncle’s house early in the morning. Artie gave each of us a fishing pole to use for the day and I remember Billy and me giving him a blank stare.

“You have no idea how to use this, do you?”, he asked.

We responded with a simple, “Nope.”

With great patience, Artie tried to explain the workings and techniques of lake fishing versus Ocean fishing. We listened with very dumb expressions on our faces. Billy asked some good questions, or so I thought.

“Why go through all this trouble with a pole and everything, Trying to get the fish to come to you? Why don’t you just put a net out there or shoot them? (city kid) I thought it was a reasonable question, but the look of horror on Artie’s face led me to believe otherwise.

He, somewhat less patiently, explained that nets would not be sporting and would take all the adventure out of it. And shooting fish??? That was absurd!! And besides we were going to eat the fish, and shooting them would destroy them and be cruel.

“Wait…. we were going to eat the fish??”

“Of course!!” Yelled Artie ( I think he was beginning to regret the whole idea) “why else go fishing if you are not going to eat the fish!!! We will gut them, clean them and fry them.”

Billy and I looked at each other.

“Wait… what? ……. gut them? Clean them?…… what?”


Me, thinking: “The Fulton Fish market is sounding pretty good right now…”

So, after Artie regained his composure, we pushed off from shore in his Uncles rowboat and off we went.

It was a beautiful morning and the lake was smooth and glassy as Artie effortlessly rowed us to a spot that he said: “ the fish usually are”.

Billy and I again looked at each other and wordlessly asked each other;

“It’s a huge freakin lake… aren’t the fish everywhere?”

Under the circumstances, we thought better of asking Artie so we just shrugged and enjoyed the ride. Soon, we found ourselves in a pretty little cove where Artie was confident that “the fishing would be good”. He stooped rowing and we drifted lazily as he said; “ ok, time to bait our lines”.

Blank stares from Billy and me.

Artie, now showing some signs of serious stress;

“We have to bait our hooks, so the fish will come to our lines!!”

Me: “hooks? we catch the fish on hooks?”


I think his right eye had begun to twitch.

What happened next happened pretty quickly. He threw us each a brown bag from inside the cooler that he had brought on the boat.
“Now, “ he said, “ bait your hooks and I’ll help you cast….”

Again we shrugged and reached into the bags. My reaction was first as I felt the slimy, withering worms that were inside.

Me: “Oh Hell! What is in there???”

Billy let out a small girl-like scream as his hand found the earthworms.

Artie looked at us in disbelief.


I complied, or so I thought,  and put one of the fat, slimy worms on my hook, not realizing I was supposed to put the hook THROUGH the worm. It quickly fell off the hook into the bottom of the rowboat.

The look on Artie’s face was almost maniacal.


Billy, watching this whole exchange determined that he would make Artie proud and do it correctly. He reached in to bag and visibly shuddered when his had came into contact with the mass of worms. He stayed strong, however, and withdrew a nice plump one. With a look of dread on his face, he then placed the hook through the worm. His reaction was immediate. He began to gag uncontrollably as Artie looked on with horror.


I never finished the sentence before Billy vomited rather profusely all over the seat.
I, not thinking at all, with only the desire to get away from what was happening as my goal, jumped to my feet! Not smart in a rowboat.

I’ll never forget how wide Arties’ eyes got as the boat capsized.
Into the lake we went; worms, fishing poles, life jackets, vomit, and the sodas we had brought for refreshment.

Thankfully, no one was hurt and we were able to get to shore, get the rowboat uprighted and start our short “row” back to the point where we had embarked.

Fishing poles, soda, bait worms were all a loss, and, of course, we were soaked. The wind had picked up making us quite cold as well. Artie rowed like a man possessed; not looking at nor saying a word to Billy or me. I can only imagine what was going through his mind. When we arrived back at shore, we dried off as best we could before getting the train back to the city and the Fulton Fish Market where all the fish are already cleaned.

I don’t believe Artie spoke to Billy or me for the rest of the school year.
Go figure.



The Golf Shoe

So let us go back to Hopatcong one more time; another summer long ago. Mom’s sister, our Aunt Filomena (I have written about her before) lived with us until she got married to who would become our Uncle Jim (there will probably be a post dedicated to him sometime in the future). So when we went to spend the summer at the house in Lake Hopatcong, Fil would come as well. She did have a job at the Post Office (where she would meet Jim) so she couldn’t stay the entire time, but she did spend her vacation days there.

And those summers were as we have both stated quite idyllic; everything a kid from the city could ask for.

Now, Aunt Fil was a golfer; had her own set of clubs and all, and would enjoy going to a nearby range to hit some balls, when she wasn’t playing tennis with Mom.

Ok, so you see I am setting the stage here…..

Add to that simple fact the other custom we had of taking long nature walks through the woods, down to the lake, and over the open fields that surrounded us, this being way before many houses were built there.

Ok, get it so far? Simple right? But wait…now add this: Aunt Fil for some reason gave Don a pair of her old golf shoes, as she wore a man’s shoe and had purchased a new pair for the season.

A golf shoe.

You know the ones with the cleats? And I am not talking about a pair of golf shoes you would purchase today, with those nice soft rubber cleats on the soles. No, back in the early sixties, these things had metal cleats, much like you would find on football shoes at the time.

So now put it all together:  Don wearing an old pair of golfing shoes with cleats, and us taking long walks through the countryside. What could go wrong right?

The day comes. Mom, Aunt Fil, Don and I set out on one of our long hikes after breakfast. It is a beautiful summer day in late July, the sun is shining, the air feels warm on your skin, all is as it should be. We set out first through the nearby field, make our way into the woods, come out at the lake, then backtrack and head for home. All the while Don wearing his “new” golf shoes. Now why he decided to wear those shoes instead of his usual sneakers, well that was anyone’s guess, but you know, you get something new, you want to wear it (even if it is used). And indeed when walking on the blacktop or the macadam roads, those cleats did make a pretty cool sound so I understood. I was probably a little jealous truth be told.

On with the story: so remember it is late July; summertime; naturally there are quite a few insects of all kinds around, both the flying and the crawling kind, and the kind that did both. We would always be swatting at them as they flew around our heads and tried to crawl up our legs. At the time, all cool boys were heavy users of hair tonics, the greasier the better so we could try to look like one of our favorite characters on TV, usually a spy like Napoleon Solo, who definitely used something on his hair because it hardly moved even while he was having a fight with a member of Thrush. Brylcreem or Vitalis was the preferred products for up and coming wannabe spies like us. And those flying bugs just loved the stuff as well for some reason, so we would be swatting and flailing our arms for most all the time we were on these walks; God forbid we would re-think coming out with slick greasy hair. One had to look cool you know.

The point is we were used to be buzzed and dive bombed by flying insects, some of them bees and wasps. But this one time, as we were heading back to the house, it just seemed there was an inordinate amount of the little buggers, and especially bees. It wasn’t too much of a concern at first, as they usually got the hint when they came into contact with your hand. But not this time. This time they kept coming, constantly circling our heads, attempting to land on us anywhere they could. What the heck was going on?

Mom and Aunt Fil started to get a little concerned; the house was in view, and they decided we should pick up the pace a bit. For a little kid like me, that meant running to keep up with those with longer legs, but everyone was double-timing it by this point, baffled and a little scared by what was happening; so very unusual.

We had reached the house, Don was leading the way; the front stairs awaited; Hopefully, they wouldn’t follow us inside! Then a piercing scream from Mom:  “Donneeee!!” I didn’t know what was wrong! Had she gotten stung?! Don from his expression didn’t know what was happening either. Then Aunt Fil: “Oh My God!”

What?! What?! What was wrong?

And then I saw it. I saw what Mom had seen first, and Fil had seen a moment later. There on the bottom of one of Don’s golf shoes was a huge bees nest, held firmly in place by those metal cleats. No wonder the poor things were following us! We had their home for God Sakes, and we were taking it with us, and probably doing irreparable damage with each step.

Don still didn’t get it. Then almost in unison, Mom, Fil and I shout: “Your shoe! Your shoe!”

A moment of hesitation, a slightly bewildered look, and then slowly Don looked down. And saw it. And then did what most people would; he ran, taking the damn thing with him; he couldn’t outrun the bees because he was taking them along for the ride!

Aunt Fil: “The shoe –take it off – throw it – throw it!!”

Don stopped running; saw there was no other way, shut his eyes, reached down and yanked the shoe off his foot, a cloud of activity swirling around it the whole time. Miraculously he didn’t get stung and he made good use of that powerful throwing arm of his and he hauled off and sent the shoe and its nest shooting through the air into the nearby woods.

The bees followed their home. Hopefully, with a little hard work, they could rebuild. Imagine their horror when they were just minding their own business this fine summer day, and this huge fanged creature comes and impales their nest!

Don hopped up the stairs, Aunt Fil suppressed a smile, and Mom shook her head:

“You had to wear those shoes huh? Just had to wear them today??”

Of course, he did.

It’s the kind of thing you do when you are in the memory making business.


My very failed attempt to learn French…

Moving from Jr. High School to High School was a big step for me for many reasons. Reason number one was that I would actually have to travel a bit to get to school. A subway ride from 14 st in Manhattan to the Grand Concourse in the Bronx was now necessary. While it was usually about a 45-minute trip, one could never be certain with the Subway system, so allowing plenty of time to arrive at school on time was important.
Up to this point in my somewhat young life, I had been able to simply walk to school from our apartment, a luxury I found out that I took very much for granted.

Secondly, the level of discipline increased significantly. Catholic Jr. High was bad enough, but the standard had just gone way higher. Hell, my high school actually had a “Dean of Discipline” and he relished the role. You can read more about this phase of my education in previous posts about my High School years at Cardinal Hayes.

The “big step” I want to talk about today is an academic one; the requirement that I study foreign languages. One language, Latin, was required because of Hayes being a very traditional Catholic school. Much of the Catholic Mass was still conducted in Latin back in the day, so we had to be very familiar with it for our duties at Church and perhaps even for our future roles as Christian Brothers or Priests. The other language we had to take was elective. I had the choice of taking Spanish, German or French.

Now, remember, I only knew one language… that was New York street language. It involved a significant amount of “shrugging “, facial and hand expressions, and grunts. Perfect communication mechanisms. I think some Italian families never uttered real words to each other.

So, now, despite not being a master of the English language and absolutely clueless in Latin, I had to pick another one. The smart bet would have been Spanish. Many of the kids I knew were either Puerto Rican or Cuban and they spoke Spanish fluently. Despite not understanding it, I heard the language regularly. I could have picked up a lot from them. Spanish was the smart bet. So, I chose French. I still have no idea why. I probably saw some cool guy in a fabulous suit, with a hot girl by his side speaking it in a James Bond movie, who knows?

I liked the way the language sounded; romantic, poetic, sexy and musical. I assure you, my attempts to learn this classical language were aberrations to what I just described.
I knew I was in trouble the first day I walked into the classroom and was greeted by a suave, blue-eyed Christian Brother: Brother Marseille’.

Yep, Brother Marseille’. He didn’t just know French, he was French. With a huge smile, he greeted us as we entered the room:

“Bonjour! Mes merveilleux garçons! Bonjour! “( good morning my wonderful boys! Good morning!)

Me and a couple of others;

“What did he just call us?”

(Clearly, Brother Marseille’ had way too much class and sophistication for the South Bronx.)

Me and a few others:

“He called us Marvo arsons… what the hell does that mean?”

“I don’t know, but he was smiling, so it must be good” ( followed by numerous shrugs, head shakes, and grunts)

……and so it began.

Brother Marseille’ made it clear on our first day that he felt the best way to teach French was to allow no English in the classroom. From now on everything would be in French. We would learn by context and association.

“What? “Followed by more shrugs, etc.

Bottom line, I was lost from day one and never recovered.

He would attempt to teach us by having easy to follow conversations with us. He would pick one guy and begin the conversation. After a full half year, here is an example of a “conversation” with me.

Please try to visualize this taking place in French. ( Brother Marseille’s French was obviously impeccable.)

Brother Marseille’: “Good morning, Mr.Ortolano!”

Me: Good morning ( so far so good)

Brother Marseille’: “how are you today?”

Me: “I am well “(on a serious roll)

Brother Marseille’( smiling now) “where is the library?”

Me: ( after major hesitation) “I am cold”.

Brother Marseille’( raised eyebrow) “No, No… Where. Is. The. Library.”

Me: ( shoulder shrug) “I am hungry”.

Brother Marseille: ( perplexed, raised voice) “Mr. Ortolano! Listen, Please! Never mind the library. Where do you live?”

Me: ( grunting) “I have a new coat”

Brother Marseille’ ( ready to shoot me or himself) “ No! Mr. Ortolano! No. Please sit down!

Me going to open window as that is what I thought he told me to do.
…… and so it went.

During most classes, I just sat there trying to be as inconspicuous as possible… hoping he never called on me for conversation time. I swear I noticed him look in my direction at times. His eyes appeared to glaze over for a moment before he quickly looked away and called on someone else.

Many of the guys actually did pretty well learning the language. Then there were the rest of us who looked longingly out the window, thinking about Yankee Stadium just a short distance away. We would exchange glances during class and  our facial and body language said all that needed to be said:

“You have any idea what he said?”
“Not a clue”
“This sucks”
“I know!”
“How much longer?”
“This sucks”
“So do the Red Sox!”

All that communicated without uttering a word… why the hell do I need another language??

-où est la bibliothèque

-j’ai un nouveau manteau



“Enter of Your Own Free Will”

Following last week’s theme of our love of literature, I thought I would devote this week’s post to my all time favorite……………….

It is still the scariest book I have ever read, and I read a lot of books.  That is saying something as it was written in 1897. It gave birth to an icon, a legend, a goldmine of adaptations, movies, television shows, plays, songs, and parodies.  Like another creation of almost the same time, one who smoked a pipe and a wore a deerstalker hat, and re-invented logic itself, it defined and commented on a culture, a country, and a people. It probed deep into some dark places of the sub-conscious that not a lot of people were comfortable going to, especially in the nineteenth century.   It was based on a real person in a real castle, and it put an obscure land into the popular imagination. And it gave birth to the greatest bogey-man of them all. It is, of course, Dracula by Bram Stoker, a work of pure genius.

I read it first as a young child. It scared me then. It scares me now. But I have never stopped going back for more.

It is fascinating in that the entire narrative is structured through the individual journal entries and letters of the characters. Jonathan  Harker writes in his journal ; his wife, Mina keeps one herself and writes letters to her dear friend Lucy Westenra, who writes back; Lord Holmwood, Quincy Morris, and Dr. Seward are friends and correspond to each other, and then, of course, there is Van Helsing who also gets his turn at relating the mysterious events that unfold. The Count may be the only one who doesn’t get a chapter, excepting perhaps the doomed Renfield, but the Count doesn’t need one; his presence, his malignancy holds sway over the entire story.

As Harker, a young barrister travels to Castle Dracula to present papers relating to the Count’s recent purchase of a property in central London,  he travels through a foreign countryside steeped in superstition and legend. He being a modern man of business doesn’t hold much account to stories of The Evil Eye and the Un-Dead, but rest assured, he is soon convinced otherwise.

Meanwhile, the good people back in London wait, unknowingly for the arrival of the Count.

It is a book filled with delicious sounding names:  The Borgo Pass, Bukovina, and Bistritz. Even the food and drink sound mysterious;  Tokai, the regional brandy, and Impletata, a dish made with eggplant and forcemeat (I have made it without the forcemeat – whatever the heck that is, and it is wonderful).

It is a book filled with images that sear themselves onto your brain: a coach pulled by horses that seem to breathe fire, the castle itself (“Enter freely of your own will”), the sound of the children of the night, wolves at the Count’s beck and call (“what beautiful music they make),  strange sparkling lights that transform into three voluptuous and hungry women, a gypsy pleading for the return of her child who has gone missing, in the castle’s courtyard, its fate a repast for said women, a mirror with no reflection, a empty ship arriving in London harbor with only the captain strapped to the steering wheel, a lone wolf jumping off that ship right before it is boarded by the people ashore (guess who?); the Boofer Lady, moving silently through a darkened graveyard, easily slipping between the cracks of a vaults locked door, a sea of rats emerging from dust itself.

On it goes, one image after another, all wonderfully brought to life by the master, Mr. Stoker.

It, of course, was written in Victorian England, and the concept of a powerful man being able to have his way with a beautiful woman wasn’t exactly a commonly exhibited occurrence in literature (though there are exceptions), but to make the man a non-man, the epitome of Evil, well that really shook up the populace.  It was said Stoker was insane; how could a healthy normal man imagine such scenes of debauchery and lust? Well anyone who has read about the underside of Victorian England knows debauchery was an everyday kind of thing, but it wasn’t spoken of in good company and Lord knows the Queen would not have approved (see how she reacted to the real-life activities of one Jack the Ripper).  But Stoker’s story touched a nerve, some very interesting and erotic nerves, and word quickly spread. Though it was not what we would call a best seller, it would become one in later years, and really got some attention when Hollywood took a shot at it. And they have been making Dracula movies ever since.

Above all it is an adventure story, shrouded in horror, but with a sound foundation in what makes any good rousing yarn (think Raiders of the Lost Ark, etc.). It is a story of friendship, of loyalty, of duty, of perseverance, and a belief in a righteous God. And it has some pretty riveting action sequences.  It is pretty much everything in my book, the near perfect novel if such a thing exists. I read it once a year, every October and each time it reveals yet a new layer of literary beauty. And every year as I read it before going to bed, it fills my imagination with seductive specters of the unknown; and truth be told on not a few occasions it has given me some A1 nightmares!

It is that scary.

But it is lyrical as well. Just listen to the music these words make:

“No man knows till he experiences it, what it is like to feel his own life-blood drawn away into the woman he loves.”-Dr. Seward

But my very feelings changed to repulsion and terror when I saw the whole man slowly emerge from the window, and begin to crawl down the castle wall over that dreadful abyss, face down, with his cloak spreading out around him like great wings.” –Jonathan Harker

Friendship is a priceless gift, that cannot be bought or sold, but its value is far greater than a mountain made of gold. For gold is cold and lifeless, it can neither see nor hear. And in time of trouble it is powerless to cheer. It has no ears to listen, no heart to understand, it cannot bring you comfort or reach out a helping hand. So when you ask God for a gift, be thankful if he sends, not diamonds, pearls, or riches, but the love of real true friends. Thank you my friends for being in my life!”-Mina Harker

I could go on, but I won’t. What I will do is to implore you to read this most special of books. You will not regret it.

Nightmares and all.


Our Cousin Chris, The Red Badge of Courage and Sherlock Holmes

In my last entry, I filled you in as to how Rob and I looked up to and almost idolized our cousin Chris. If Chris was “into something”, well, we wanted to be into it as well. That last entry dealt with music, this one will deal with books.

As a kid, I enjoyed reading, but my scope was pretty limited to the books that I read or had read to me at school. It was Chris, and also his mom, our Aunt Ruthie, who opened up a whole new world for me.
It was “The Hardy” boys series of books that really hooked me on reading. It was Chris and his mom who introduced me to these books and once introduced, I was in all the way. I loved to read the “lastest” mystery and discover how the resilient “Hardy Boys” would unravel it. I found all their adventures terribly exciting and I couldn’t wait until the next one was released. It was this series of books that developed my love for the “feel” of a book. Everything from the tantalizing artwork on the cover (always depicting my heroes in some dire straits), to the turning of the thick paper pages. These factors created in me a desire to hold a book. I’m still that way; the aroma, feel and thickness of a book is what I crave. I’m not much for reading books online.

I digress. It was also Chris and his mom who introduced me to the timeless “Red Badge of Courage”, by Stephen Crane. I was enthralled with this book and I believe it contributed greatly to the fascination I developed for the American Civil War. A fascination that has remained with me throughout my entire life, and it all started with a book. Rob also developed the same fascination for the Civil War, but I’m not sure he traced his back to a book, or to the wonderful television series that aired for far too short a period of time, “The Americans”.

I read the Red Badge twice, in back to back readings, after I was given my first copy as a gift from Aunt Ruthie. The book had a profound effect on me and it goes down as one of my all-time favorites.

It was also Chris who convinced me to read the long historical work: “The Oregon Trail.” Again, I was fascinated and amazed at this very detailed, and first-hand account, of the westward migration in the United States. The author, Francis Parkman, recounts the glory, pain and amazing adventure involved in his 2000 mile journey in 1846. I couldn’t put it down, but if Chris had not read it first, I probably never would have. What a shame that would have been.

Then there was Sherlock Holmes, the legendary genius Private Investigator created by Sir Arthur Conon Doyle. Again, it was Chris who first became enamored with the many exploits of the famous detective, and as always, I wanted to follow suit. How happy I am that I did. I wanted to read every story I could get my hands on. Doyle wrote four novels and 56 Short Stories about the cases of Sherlock Holmes and they were brilliant and wonderfully written. The first case I read was the iconic “Hound of the Baskervilles”. I found it absolutely intriguing and could not put it down. Once read, I was hooked. I’m going to assume everyone has read this novel. If you have not, please do and meet the real Sherlock Holmes, not some Hollywood adaptation of the original character. While some of the movies and television adaptations have not been bad, they do not come close to doing the Doyle creation justice. If you want to “see” Holmes and his faithful sidekick Dr. Watson, I would suggest you somehow get your hands on a series of films produced between 1939 and 1946. These films were adaptations of Doyle’s works. The character of Holmes was played by the English actor, Basil Rathbone. Watson was played by Nigel Bruce. In my humble opinion, these two come very close to capturing the original characters created by Doyle in print.

Anyway, one Christmas, Aunt Ruthie ( of course) gave me a book that was a compilation of most of the Sherlock Holmes adventures. The book was extremely thick with very small print and I loved it! I wish I know what happened to it over the years because it would sure look good on my shelf! I savored each word of every story and felt myself “ present” as Holmes was performing his incredible deductions. It is hard for me to say that I have one favorite Holmes adventure, but if asked to choose, I would have to say it is The Adventure of the Speckled Band, one of the few “locked room “ mysteries in the collection. I hope you have read it. If not, do yourself a favor.

I became a pretty big fan of all mystery novels with Authors such as Christie, Van Dine, Stout, McDonald and many others taking me to unknown places and baffling circumstances, but it was Doyle and Homes who set the table…. and it was Chris who made the introduction. For that, I will forever grateful.

“Elementary, Watson….. Elementary.”


Mrs. Peel – You’re Needed.

The last post by the Big D got me thinking about my childhood crushes; the ones separate from my classmates as it seemed I had a crush on any and all girls in my school. Thinking back to the many actresses that populated the television shows and movies I watched, there were quite a few to choose from.  There was, of course, Patty Duke who had a hugely popular show imaginatively called The Patty Duke Show –her father was played by the reliable William Shallert. Then, of course, there was Stephanie Powers, the sleek Girl From Uncle. There was Eartha Kitt, Catwoman on the Batman series, Claudia Cardinale from the beloved Once Upon a Time in the West was stunningly beautiful. Ursella Andress from Dr. No – well nothing needs to be said there; her first appearance in that movie is legendary.  Barbara Eden (that outfit!!) of I Dream of Jeanie, and of course, both Dawn Wells, Maryann and Tina Louise, Ginger both from Gilligan’s Island made the list.

But to me, they all pale when put beside the most beautiful woman I have ever seen, and I mean to this day. Now she is a Dame of the Realm, back then she was Emma Peel of the brilliant British spy show, The Avengers (1961-1964). I speak of course of Diana Rigg, who is still going strong though she looks a bit different on Game of Thrones than she did in The Avengers.

Now, of course, there was more to that role than just her beauty; it was a groundbreaking part for a woman on television. She was a lead in a very successful show, an equal in all ways to her debonair partner John Steed played by dear Patrick MacNee.  The character established an entire line of mod, pop style, and couture. The style of the clothes she wore quickly became an industry sensation; making it into the department stores, it sold effortlessly. But Emma Peel was more than just looks; she was intelligent, seductive, and athletic. Plus she could kick ass. She threw around bad guys on that show like Namath threw touchdown passes, with style, grit, and deadly accuracy.  She was the total package.

I fell in love with her and have never stopped loving her. As kids will, when they fall, they fall hard. And I did. After seeing her for the first time, she became my Irene Adler (see A Scandal in Bohemia). There were countless others as I list above but there was only one Emma Peel.

I would religiously watch each week as she and Steed dispatched madmen, megalomaniacs, thugs, traitors, crazy scientists, and even deranged cats (not to mention man-eating plants!). If you have seen the show, you know of what I speak; if you haven’t you are, well…..let’s just say missing out on some great TV. And each time I watched, my eyes would glaze over, my heartbeat would increase, and I would start to sweat. If that wasn’t true love, I don’t know what was.

I followed her career and saw her live on Broadway in The Misanthrope (waited at the stage door but no luck) and Medea (won a Tony for that one); saw her marry George Lazenby on the screen  and become the one and only wife of James Bond (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), saw her in countless other movies (one opposite Vincent Price –Theatre of Blood), saw her star in another short-lived television show; saw her nominated for a Golden Globe (The Hospital), numerous Prime Time Emmys, saw her do Shakespeare, regional theatre and saw  her back in Game of Thrones until she met her doom in that epic episode.

On top of all that, in 1994 she was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II for her contributions to British theater and television.

A brilliant career. A wonderful actress; a powerful force of nature…….and through it all, to me…..she is always my beloved Emma.  I saw a photo of her once with Oliver Reed, an actor who could be great when he tried but didn’t try very often; they were dating at the time, and I felt something uneasy…….it took me a few moments to realize it was a combination of jealousy and protectiveness. You can do better than that I told her photo, but she stayed smiling in it, so I guess she didn’t hear me.  That’s the way it goes with love….or obsession; hard to distinguish sometimes.

As a joke, Les and I used to each have a list of people we found extraordinarily attractive. We agreed that if by some stroke of phenomenal luck we would have the chance of being with one of those people, permission granted! All bets were off – it’s been nice, be seeing you!!

Diana Rigg was and is first on my list. No joke.

We play with our needs, don’t we? Hard day, Mr. Daniels and Mr. Beam have the solution? Want to hear the epitome of perfection? Listen to Frank; Hankering for a laugh? Let Stan and Ollie, Bud and Lou or Seinfeld take care of that; Comfort? Re-read a favorite book (Sherlock anyone?) or cozy up to a purring kitty;  A dose of coolness perhaps? Well, Harry Callahan or Mr. Bond will do…..but when I want to fall in love again…when I want to feel young again, and marvel at incomparable beauty and style, I have only to fire up the DVD player (old school), pop in The Avengers, sit back and there she is ….done deal.

I am a happy man.

Mrs. Peel, you are indeed needed.