7 Eleven

In life, as I have mentioned, you make decisions that at the time seem logical, and sound, only to find out that they were really poor, misguided ones. As I also know I mentioned, one of the stupidest I have ever made was to leave New York City in the mid-’80s. That was a biggie; New York is like some sort of gelatinous mass that closes up after you and never lets you back in – it is like you were never there; it does fine without you.

But that wasn’t the first time I made that stupid mistake; oh no, I had done that years before in 1978, after graduating college. Proving that you can be stupid many times over in a relatively short period of time, instead of continuing my education, going for another degree that would ensure a prosperous career, I chose to seek out a new beginning (number 215 if anyone’s counting). I was lazy, not wanting any student debt (I had a scholarship to Fordham) so took my brother up on his offer to go live with him in Virginia and see if life was better there. He, his wife and two adorable children were living in Colonial Heights. So off I went on Amtrak, leaving a sobbing Mother and a baffled Father behind.

Don was working for Pepsi at the time, and through his connections was able to get me a job interview with the Southland Corporation, with the intent of getting into the Manager Training program. Now if you don’t recognize the name Southland, you certainly will recognize what the company ran – the very popular (at the time), 7 Eleven convenience stores. But while management positions were certainly available, one of the practices of the company was to bring everyone up through the ranks. Yes, that meant working in an actual 7 Eleven. And yes, that also meant wearing one of those ridiculous paper orange and white hats, and the equally stupid orange and white jacket that all employees wore. I started to feel my first doubts.

But I went to training classes and learned the business; everyone was very friendly and helpful and seemed pleased to have me there; I even made some friends. In time I graduated from 7 Eleven University and was ready to be assigned to a store.

The one they chose for me was in Dinwiddie County, which at the time was in the middle of nowhere, so I had to get a used car (a whole other story there for another time) to drive the miles from the house to the store. And better and better, after shadowing employees for a week or two, I was given the midnight to 8 AM shift, as most of the stores were open twenty-four hours.

Hey, I wanted something different right? A new life?? Well, this was about as different as you could get from Greenwich Village and my job selling ballet shoes to Broadway performers at Capezio’s.

When I do stupid, I do stupid.

But it was Virginia, cradle of the Civil War which I was an avid student of, and I was spending time with my brother which was good…..but that orange and white hat…..Geez.

Each store had a video camera that scanned the store floor, back and forth, back and forth continuously all day and night, its images broadcasted to a monitor in a back room no one paid any attention to. As I stood behind the counter, ringing up Big Gulps and overcooked hot dogs, I would watch it, counting how many seconds it took to be back looking at me. After a couple of days of study, I had it down pretty well: after it left the cashier station, it took almost a minute and ten seconds before it came back my way. So I used that information to my advantage. I was the only one in the store (who else would they give that shift to except the new guy?), so when that camera swerved and I was safely out of viewing range, I would grab a pack of Funny Bones from the nearby rack, tear it open and shove both cakes in my mouth!! I didn’t have much money (what a surprise!) so couldn’t afford meals of my own, so those minutes were precious. I got so good I could take down two packs in my allotted time, and of course, there was always the kneel down to tie your shoelace routine.

The place was poorly run; the Manager didn’t ever think about how he kept running out of Drakes Cakes with no cash to show for their disappearance! Maybe he considered it just the cost of doing business, and he knew everyone had their own favorite treat to devour when they weren’t on camera.

The store also had a couple of gas pumps out front and for the time, a new system of ordering gas where when the customer drove up; the employee inside would hit a button on a console and ask how much of what kind of gas they wanted. The customer would then hit a button on a little black box attached to a nearby pole and respond; the employee would then release the gas to the appropriate pump. Like I said at the time downright revolutionary!!

But being in the middle of nowhere, and it being a new system, people sometimes got confused. Like the time an older fellow got out of his used beat up pick up truck and squinted into the glare of the overhead lights. I hit my button and asked:

“Can I help you? What kind of gas and how much please?”

Well that poor old feller was a bit startled by hearing a voice come out of a gas pump, and not noticing the little black box with the “Speak” button on it, he picked up the nozzle from one of the tanks, turned it to his face and started talking back into it!!

I tried a few times to correct him while stifling my laughter:

“No sir, not there… please don’t point that at your face…sir overhead…the box with the button…sir please.”

I wasn’t in New York anymore, that was for sure.

But there were highlights…besides the free Funny Bones, there were lots of pretty girls intrigued with a good looking guy (well I was then) from the big city…I played that up big and it worked every time! And I got a lot of reading done during my shift as the population of Dinwiddie County wasn’t huge, so the store didn’t get a lot of traffic at night; maybe a State Trooper looking for a cup of coffee, or some guy coming home from shift work who needed a stale ham sandwich.

And then there was the beer. You see the 7 Elevens there sold beer. There was a huge refrigerator case filled with six packs of Bud and Miller (the preferred beer of the region), but you see it was illegal to sell beer in the state of Virginia after Midnight, so we had these big chains with padlocks, that we would run through the fridge door handles so that no one could open them. I had the keys to the locks. What could go wrong right?

The first time I worked the night shift alone, the manager showed me where he kept a shotgun under the cashier counter.

“Anyone tries breaking into the beer, this’ll stop them”

He must have noticed my wide eyes and look of disbelief.

“You ever fire one of these before?” he asked.

I shook my head; no I hadn’t.

“You ever fire anything?”

Another shake of my head. He started to look disgusted.

“Ya mean to tell me you never been hunting?”

This time I spoke up:

“I don’t believe in killing innocent defense-less animals”

Well, that about did it. He just shook his head, but to his credit, he continued with his lesson.

“Well this is loaded; you just pick it up, cock it and pull the trigger.”

He shook his head again as he left, probably hoping I would accidentally blow my sissy head off. But the thought of shooting someone to defend some six packs of Miller seemed insane to me. I mean really, a Miller?? Maybe a Gaffel Kolsch…..

Well, you knew it had to happen right? One night not too long after, I was busy eating my Funny Bones and sipping my Big Gulp when around 2 AM two guys came in, a bit unsteady on their feet and head straight for the beer case. Damn, I thought, here we go. Immediately I hit the call button under the counter which signaled the closest State Police car that there might be a problem at the store. The two guys were trying to open the door to the beer, and not getting the idea of the chains rattling every time they did. They both started cursing, finally realizing the door wasn’t opening. They weren’t going to get in without the keys to the locks. And I had the keys. And a shotgun. Their attention finally turned to me in my bright Orange and White outfit.

“Hey you, we want some beer man.”

In my official 7-Eleven voice I answered:

“Sorry Guys; we stop selling at Midnight; State Law.”

“What the fuck you mean you stop selling beer??”

Lord; another genius.

“It’s the law,” I said “Sorry”.

They looked at each other, and the second guy just shrugged. Good I thought, just go would you, and where was that State cop??

But of course Genius starts walking towards me.

“You got the keys?”

When in doubt, lie.

“What me? No way! You think they would give me the keys to the beer? Only the manager has them.”

And at that moment I wish he did. Number Two starts for the door, but Genius isn’t about to leave and I guess I couldn’t blame him – I could have used a cold one right about then myself.

“You’re lying,” Genius said and I started to get afraid.

“You think they would leave the keys with a peon like me?”

Keep working it, I told myself but I think I confused him with peon.

“I don’t care what you are, gimme the goddamn keys!”

Looking back on it, I was amazed I didn’t just open the beer case myself and share a few with these guys. But no, I was a loyal employee of the Southland Corporation. I just shook my head –was that the sound of a car pulling up in the driveway? Genius started for the counter again, now thoroughly pissed off, besides being shit-faced.

“You guys just go,” I said, “I don’t want any trouble here.”

I dropped my hand below the counter.

“Whatcha going do? Shoot me? Yer too Chicken Shit!”

Well, I sure had to agree with him there but somehow managed to say:

“Maybe”

And that at least stopped him for a moment. I actually did put my hand on the shotgun but that was as far as I was going to go but I hoped he didn’t know that.

“Well, maybe I’ll shoot you.” Genius said.

Now that put a different light on the situation; didn’t think he might have a gun too! And as I had never used a firearm before I knew who would be on the losing end of a shootout.

And then I heard the bells that jingled when the front door opened.

“Any problem here boys?”

The Trooper must have been six two at least; his right hand rested on his oversized holster. Genius smiled a sloppy grin, said:

“No sir, just having a friendly talk is all”

The Trooper looked my way, saw a frightened kid from the city, and answered:

“Well, that’s nice that is. Let’s just keep it friendly – you boys here to buy something?”

Number Two, visibly shaken piped up:

“Pack of smokes.”

“Well, why don’t you just do that and be on your way?”

Clearly, even Genius didn’t want to take on a State cop; a scared kid behind the counter yea, but a State cop, no way.

And that was the end of it; no real harm done except to my dreams of a new life in Virginia. You can imagine my career at Southland didn’t advance much further. As a matter of fact, I didn’t last another two weeks. I turned in my paper hat and orange smock and never looked back.

There were no 7-Elevens in Manhattan at the time, but later in the mid-eighties, I went into one in Pennsylvania. The young guy behind the counter must have wondered why I was smiling so much as I made my purchase. The place was the same, overhead cameras and all; the same stupid uniform, the same Big Gulps, the same overcooked hot dogs. But that wasn’t why I was smiling; before leaving I noticed the display rack of snacks on the counter, and while there were plenty of Ring-Dings, Hostess Cupcakes, and cookies, there was only one Funny Bone package left on the shelf.

When I got back into the car, Leslie asked why I was smiling, after all, I had just gone to buy some ice at the local 7-Eleven.

She didn’t realize for a few moments, I had taken a trip back in time.

-Rob

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Chemistry Fail

When I attended H.S in New York, Chemistry was a required class in the Catholic School System. Why this was “required” remains a mystery to me. In my day to day life, I don’t believe I have used Chemistry once since graduating High School a hundred years ago. I realize that I drink H2O and that’s about as far as my Chemistry class has taken me. Yet, for some reason, the Archdiocese of New York felt this should be a required course. So, in my Sophomore year, I found myself sitting in Mr. Carrs’ Classroom. Mr. Carr was one of the few teachers at Cardinal Hays HS who was not clergy. I didn’t fear him as much as I feared the guys in the white collars and black robes. I found myself identifying more with him. This was probably a mistake, in that, minus the white color and black robe, he was as tough and strict as any of the other Christian Brothers and Priests that taught us. My hope of identifying with him faded within the first week of class. He didn’t smile much and lived and breathed Chemistry. It was clearly his passion and I suppose he didn’t quite understand why others (me) were not quite as passionate.

I was lost from day one. If you thought I had a hard time with French, ( go back and read my blog about that disaster), you should have seen me in Chemistry class. Other than water and oxygen, ( impressive, eh?) I couldn’t grasp any of countless chemical symbols. H, He, Li, Be, Ne, Na, Mg…… on and on they went. I couldn’t even remember all the State symbols in the country and they wanted to know the symbols for a million different Chemicals? Why?? So that one day in the future, when I found myself at an important cocktail party, I could confidently walk up to a pretty girl and impress her by asking if she would like me to tell her the chemical symbol of Magnesium??? If I really wanted to knock her off her feet I could tell her that In addition to the letters for the element itself, I could add subscripts for ionization or oxidation state or other atomic detail. Talk about being a winning one-liner!

Needless to say, I didn’t do very well in this class. When not asking myself; “ Why am I here?” , I found myself staring out the classroom window at the Grand Concourse… knowing that in walking distance was Yankee Stadium! The ticket taker at the Stadium never once asked me if I could tell him the chemical symbol of Magnesium.

The Lab was always touted as the “ fun part” of Chemistry class. This was when one would get “hands on” experience with actual chemicals. Along with a Lab partner, you would mix various elements and witness the results, as well as observe the properties of the elements.

Everyone had a lab partner. Mine was a nice kid I will call Ed. Ed was one of those fascinated with Chemistry and he loved the class. All except the part about having me as his lab partner. I honestly believe he was fearful that I would accidentally blow him up or burn all his skin off. When we walked up to our lab table he invariably said something to the effect of;

“Don’t touch anything unless you ask me first, ok? For God’s sake .. put your gloves on!”

Ed was a very nice guy to put up with me and to be as patient as he was, but, when I met him he was about sixteen years old… when we completed our Chemistry year together, he was around thirty-two. Go figure. I may have been the cause of his PTSD.

It will not surprise you to hear that I failed the course miserably and thus was required to attend Summer School. This was a big deal for our family because I had single handily messed up a good portion of our summer. Instead of being with Mom and my brother in Lake Hopatcong, I would have to stay in the hot, nasty city with Dad while I completed my summer school program. I would miss being with Mom and Rob and they would miss me. ( Actually, I never asked Rob if he missed me at all…. that would be interesting to know.)

All this made Dad very unhappy and that was never a good thing. First, he was very angry that I had failed. He was totally convinced that “I had not put my mind to it” and that I was more interested in playing ball than in passing this class. Of course, he was right. Secondly, he was mad because I was messing up the summer, and again, he was right.

When one failed a class at Cardinal Hayes, a meeting with the parent and teacher was required, with the student present. Dad was determined to be the parent at this meeting and that did not bode well for me. This was unusual, in that Mom usually handled all this kind of school “stuff” because of Dads brutal work schedule. Him giving up an evening of rest to accompany me to the Bronx to visit with a teacher was not a good sign.

Rob kept telling me that “I was dead” and there “was no hope”. ( maybe he didn’t miss me?)

Dad was silent for most of the long subway ride to the school. His silence was another “not so great” sign. The one thing that was positive was when dad realized he would be meeting with a lay teacher rather than a Brother or Priest. We were old school Italian and the Brothers and Priests were viewed with a revenant awe. Dad would never really express his thoughts and feelings to clergy, but to a lay teacher? He was loaded for bear. ( Dad put some of the blame for my failure on the teacher because I had told him I didn’t understand a thing the teacher was saying. Dad was planning on letting him know this in no uncertain terms) .

Needless to say, I was pretty nervous when we arrived at the school that warm June evening. Subway rides in the heat were no fun, and we were both sweaty and uncomfortable when we got there.

We walked down the now empty halls to Mr. Carrs’ office in silence and waited in the outside office to be called. A large, empty school building has an ominous feel to it, and that was certainly what the whole situation felt like to me, Ominous.

We had not been waiting long when Mr. Carr appeared and politely asked us to come in. I began to get up and Dad put his right hand on my shoulder and pushed me back in the seat.

“You stay here… I want to talk to him alone first….”

Oh crap. My brother’s words rang in my mind. I was dead.

After what seemed like an eternity, Dad emerged from the office. He looked calm and not at all mad.

I wondered what the hell had happened, but I dared not say a word.

“Come on”, Dad said, we’re going home”.

He must have seen the confusion in my eyes because he simply said… “outside”.

We emerged unto the Grand Concourse exactly one hour after we arrived and I had no clue what had taken place. I ventured a curious glance at dad and I’ll never forget his words:

“ I just spent a half hour talking to your teacher. I didn’t understand a damned thing he was saying either. No wonder you failed ….do good in summer school.”
That was it. No other word was ever spoken about my failure, no other threat, no warnings, nothing. That was it. On the way home, we enjoyed an Italian Ice and talked about how crappy the Mets were playing.

Epilogue:
I aced summer school

-Don

Image-11 (1)

 

Zippy

In a recent post, Don spoke of the extraordinary magical power of Summer. And indeed for us, those two months each year we spent at Lake Hopatcong were special. We were more care-free there than our lives in the city allowed for; there was a timeless fuzziness to it all, like a dream of what life could be but most of the time wasn’t. Even the kids we played with seemed to exist only there and only then. We never talked to them about our lives back in the city, and they never talked about what they did the other ten months of the year when they weren’t playing baseball in the sunshine with us. Our other lives ceased to exist, and only our time together mattered. I often thought when we left at the end of each season, all of them: Fat Ray, Skinny Ray, Georgie, Phillip, Joey, Crazy Mike, would just disappear into the woods and wait for us to return next year.

But not every moment was one of contentment. There were nights when the very woods we had played in that afternoon, looked foreboding; and the lake, any lake, looks different when the sun is gone from the sky. And there were those damned ghost stories always being told by Don and Chris, directly intended to send a little kid like me running for his Mom. I remember when Famous Monsters of Filmland, a very popular magazine devoted to the (mostly) Universal classic monster movies, had for one edition on it’s cover the lead character (played by a very young Oliver Reed) in “The Curse of the Werewolf”, which was based on the 1935 classic “Werewolf of London”. Anyway that face on that magazine cover frightened the crap out of me, so of course, I would find it under my covers when I went to bed or waiting for me at the breakfast table, thanks to Don’s big brother sense of humor. So all was not a feeling of security and bliss, but the only time I can remember when I faced a real threat, it was not from a Werewolf hiding in the woods across the road or the mad dog that my brother and cousin swore lived up the block and whose favorite snack was young boys. No, it was from a real-life teenage kid; a bully.

Zippy.

Far down Squire Road where it intersected with Durban Avenue was a whole other world, and though we walked through it almost every day we didn’t know anyone who lived there. One day walking back from the lake with Mom and Don, I saw a newcomer to the area; a teenager riding a new fancy bike. He had slicked back hair, Elvis-style, tight jeans, a cigarette tucked behind his ear, and a switchblade sticking out of his shiny pointed boots. He looked tough at least to a six-year-old kid. He just sat there atop his bike and watched us as we walked past and up the road to our house. Mom was talking and probably didn’t even notice him; Don glanced his way but that was all. But I kept my eye on him; there was something unfriendly about his stare.

Nervous suddenly, I started to sing out loud:

“Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-ay
My, oh, my, what a wonderful day
Plenty of sunshine headin’ my way
Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-ay!”

It was a song from a Disney movie I had seen on television recently. Don and Mom looked at me questioningly, but Mom just smiled, and Don shook his head, convinced of his little brother’s nuttiness. The rest of the walk was uneventful but I was glad to get back home. I would not be venturing out alone to Durban Avenue any time soon, I thought to myself (as if anyone would allow me to anyway). I had made up my mind; I didn’t like that new kid down the block.

Well, it turns out I didn’t have to venture down the road to see that scary guy again. The very next day as I was sitting on the stairs waiting for Don and Mom to come down, he rode that big shiny bicycle right over to me.

I was immediately afraid and thought of running up the wooden steps to the porch.

“Hey kid,” he said.

I put on my best “who me?” expression but realized it wouldn’t work as I was the only kid around.

“Who you calling Zippy?”

Huh? What? Calling Zippy? Who called anyone Zippy? And then I remembered the song I sang while walking by him; the song I sang because I didn’t like the way he was looking at me, and I wanted to sing something happy. Did he think it was about him?

“What?” it was all I could think of to say; what was I going to do, ask if he had ever seen the Disney movie Song of the South? Clearly, he hadn’t.

“I don’t like being called Zippy”

Ok well, that was fair enough.

“I didn’t call you anything”

“Don’t get wise you little punk; I’ll kick your ass”

Ok so I was still afraid, but I have to admit that last line got me mad, even though I knew given the differences in our ages and sizes, he sure could kick my ass if he wanted to.

So I said what all little brothers say when threatened:

“I’ve got a big brother, and he can kick your ass!”

Now I had done it; nothing like volunteering someone else to do battle for you.

“You think your big brother can take me?” he asked with a sneer.

Oh well, I thought, may as well go all the way; in for a dime, in for a dollar – of course, it was Don’s dollar, but I replied:

“My big brother can take anyone!”

I could envision Don’s gaping mouth and wide eyes if he could hear his little brother volunteer him for battle. But hey that’s what big brothers were for right? I could see Zippy (hey he named himself didn’t he?) didn’t like my answer; he was full of himself, that much was evident, and as a newcomer to the neighborhood, he probably wanted to make his mark, as pathetic as that sounded.

“Well you tell your brother I will meet him this Friday night down by the swamp at seven o’clock. I’ll kick his ass first and then kick yours!”

Well, I couldn’t let that be the last word, could I? I shouted back:

“My brother asleep is tougher than you!!”

Well, it sounded good at the time. Zippy spat and rode off. I stood there thinking ok now how are you going to tell Don.

“What did he want?” Don’s voice made me jump; I hadn’t realized he had come down the stairs and joined me in the road.

“I think mostly to beat me up. He thinks I was making fun of him the other day.”

Don looked at me.

“Beat you up?! He’s five times your size. Where does he get off saying something like that?”

“He’s a jerk, just forget about him.” I thought a little reverse psychology was in order.

“The Hell I am going to forget about him,” he said, his eyes squinting at the receding figure.

“Don’t tell Dad” I said. Hell, getting beat up is one thing; if Dad heard what Zippy had said to me, they wouldn’t find his body for years!

“No, you’re right- we’ll handle this ourselves,” Don said.

Ok, deep breath; it’s now or never.

“He said he wanted to meet on Friday; I kind of told him I had a big brother that was tougher than him.”

Don said nothing for a moment, surely knowing what I would have said, what any kid would say.

“Where, when?”

I told him. He simply nodded.

As you can imagine the upcoming event was the talk of our little group of friends (after of course I blabbed all about it to them the next day). The excitement grew.

Georgie: “Wow a showdown huh?”

Fat Ray: “He looks tough that kid”

Skinny Ray: “Don can take him”

Phillip: “I don’t know; did you see his hair?”

Crazy Mikey: “What the hell does his hair have to do with anything!?”

Joey: “That punk!”

Phillip: “I thought Rob was the punk.”

Joey: “Stupid! Rob’s our friend; Zippy’s the punk – haven’t you been listening to anything?”

Phillip: “Oh yeah right”

Georgie: “And he smokes.”

Skinny Ray: “So do you.”

Georgie: “If you rat me out, so help me….!”

Crazy Mikey: “Would you all stop being so stupid?!”

Coming from Crazy Mike, that was quite the question. I stood there saying nothing, glad Don wasn’t around. Friday loomed.

It was a beautiful evening that Friday. Don and I stood at the edge of a field that bordered the swamp on one side and the woods on the other. Our backs were to the woods, as we looked down Squire Road.

“Maybe he won’t come,” I said.

Don was staring into the distance.

“He’ll come” He answered. “As a matter of fact, that looks like him now.”

And sure enough, a figure on a bike was approaching. In a few minutes he was in front of us, hair slicked back, as usual, wearing those tight pants and a starched blue shirt, and shiny pointed boots. The expected cigarette sat on his right ear, and he smelled of Vitalis. My throat had gone dry and my stomach turned over.

“You the punks brother?” Zippy asked, motioning to me with his chin as he dismounted the bike. Don remained silent, staring at him; finally said:

“No…..I am Roberts brother.”

Jesus, I thought, how could he come up with a cool line like that at a time like this? Zippy looked momentarily confused, not being the brightest bulb in the box. In a moment his brow cleared, as he understood. He took a step forward.

“You think you can take me?” Zippy asked with a nasty smile.

“Guess you are going to find out,” Don answered calmly. Where did he come up with these lines!??

Don stepped forward as well; they were just feet apart. I started to look for a nearby rock. I was small but there was no way this guy was going to hurt my brother. But Don didn’t seem concerned at all.

It was then that I saw Zippy’s gaze shift to the woods behind us, a scowl crossing his face.

“Too chicken to face me alone huh?” he said.

What was he talking about? Then I turned and saw our friends, Phillip, Georgie, Skinny Ray, Fat Ray, Joey and Crazy Mike emerging from the darkness of the woods to stand behind us. Don turned once quickly, smiled at them, then turned back to Zippy.

“Just some friends. They won’t interfere.” He said.

“Yea right.” Zippy responded, his face looked flush and one of those fancy boots was suddenly tapping a nervous beat.

“I invited them here,” Don said, “to watch the fun.”

Well, that did it. Zippy must have been thinking what the hell did I get myself into? Don’s expression never changed, none of our friends said a word, just stood staring. Zippy didn’t look so cool anymore, he started to look like a scared kid in a situation that was getting out of hand; not at all the way he had envisioned the meeting. I started to feel tears of pride and gratitude well up in my eyes. To be completely honest I don’t know to this day if our friends showed up to help or just to watch a good fight, but at that moment I didn’t care, and it didn’t matter.

“I didn’t mean anything by it.” Zippy even sounded different now. No one answered.

“What I said…..to the pun…..to your brother” he stammered.

Don just stared. Zippy got back on his bike.

“I’m going now and you better not try to stop me!”

His face was blotched and teary now, and I knew as I watched him ride away, we wouldn’t be seeing too much of old Zippy anymore. Only then did I see Don’s shoulders relax. The gang behind us, being the goofs they were, started hooting and hollering after the figure in the distance.

“Oh, Zipppppy! Zippity Do Dah Darlin’”

“Woo Hoo Zippy Doo- where ya running off too so soon?”

“Zip Sweetheart…..oh Zip….”

Then they broke into hysterical laughter. All I could feel was relief. Don walked over to shake hands and pat the backs of our friends, and I thought at that moment, these were better friends than I had ever realized. When Don walked back over, I looked at him and said:

“umm….thank you.’

He smiled, mussed my hair, said:

“Piece of cake.”

Turning back to the group, he called:

“Ok guys, enough light for one more game!”

All of them ran off to get their gloves and bats, and in a few moments, we were all carefree kids again, playing the game we loved. I saw the first few bats dart from the trees as the sun called it a day; the sounds of our little band of brothers playing ball echoed into the encroaching darkness, and this time I didn’t feel afraid.

With friends like these…….with a brother like that…….

Life was good.

-Rob

Saturday Morning

Saturday morning cartoons, a bowl of cereal … and my biggest concern? What cartoon was coming on next? I miss those days.

The simple joys of a child. It’s sad that most of us forget what it was like. That sense of well being, safety and peace. Never thinking far beyond the next 30-minute segment of cartoons.

This particular memory takes me back to a time before my brother was even on the scene or perhaps just a newborn baby. We were living in the West 12 street apartment and it’s Saturday morning. Oh, how I loved Saturday mornings! No getting dressed to attend Kindergarten, no fear, and anxiety about being left at school without Mom to protect me from the kids who took great pleasure in teasing and bullying. No schedule to keep, no worries about my stomach rebelling because of my anxiety, resulting in what Mom called “tummy issues”. Hell, I didn’t even have to get dressed! I could stay in my comfy pajamas until the afternoon when I would accompany Mom to the store or just to run errands. What a feeling of safety and peace it was.

I would get up early, way before Mom, as she also took advantage of the “day off” to catch up on some sleep. Dad had probably worked well into the night on Friday, so he also was doing some much needed “catch-up”.

Down “the hall” I would come into the small kitchen. The very first thing that I would do was rummage around for a big bowl. The sound of my rummaging would bring Mom out of her bedroom to get me all set up. She would ask what cereal I would like. I remember being a “Rice Krispies kid”. Dad was a Coco Puffs guy and Rob, I believe, was one of the “Captain Crunch Kids”. It really didn’t matter to us what cereal was in the house, as under normal conditions there was only one box at a time for budgetary reasons. It was cereal and it was Saturday morning… that’s what mattered.

After getting my big bowl all set up, I followed Mom down the hall to the living room where our small black and white television stood. She set me up on the floor in front of the Television with a nice little tray for my cereal. She then found the right channel ( there were only 5 to choose from back in the day) and headed back to bed for a bit more of that needed rest. As she left the room she always warned me not to “sit too close to the Television “. One of the countless Italian superstitions that we grew up with was that if we sat too close to the television, we would go blind. Later in my adolescent years, I found out I would go blind for other reasons, but that’s another story.

Anyway, warnings given, mom was off to bed leaving me, my bowl of cereal and my cartoons. Heaven.

My favorites were always the characters from the famed “Looney Tunes”; Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Sylvester the Cat and my number one guy, Bugs Bunny. I ate my cereal, laughed at their antics and relished the peace and security of “being home”….. mom and dad only one room away. On good days, I might even sneak in a second bowl. This wonderful ritual would last the full morning until mom and dad arose to begin the day. For me, it made little difference what that day had in store, nothing would surpass my morning hours with my cartoons and cereal and security.

Of course, life is life, and we grow up and the pressures of the world take over and we often lose sight of the simplest and, often times, most inexpensive things.

I’m writing this on a Saturday morning and in my mind, I’m in that living room. Light flannel pajamas embrace me. Mom, Dad and my newborn brother asleep just a room away. A heaping bowl of Rice Krispies on my tray, and Bug Bunny asking, “What’s up Doc?”

I don’t know Bugs…. but, I miss you… I miss those mornings…

-Don

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The Night of the Charles Street Ice Capades

I thought it would be appropriate, as we celebrate Dads this weekend to share yet another memory of the Old Man (I can hear him asking indignantly-Who you calling old?!).

This one I call “The Night of the Charles Street Ice Capades”

Dad was a sweet hearted guy; that wasn’t always apparent, his good nature not always on display, but he was the guy they made up that statement about, you know the one that goes “He would give you the shirt off his back”. It was literal with him; I saw him do exactly that, well it was a jacket, not a shirt, but he took it off his back and gave it to someone who needed it more than he did. He was that kind of guy.

He was a poor man who considered himself rich in the things that mattered; an uneducated man who could teach a politician or a preacher a thing or two. He knew how to lead a proper fulfilled life; he had his family, his music, his beloved bungalow in Jersey, and he appreciated them all.

So having established his good character, I will say sometimes he was generous to a fault as you will see.

When our Uncle Santino died, Dad being Dad went out of his way to be as helpful to his widow Aunt Mildred as he could be. He walked the mile or so to her apartment on Charles Street countless times to help her with household chores, take her to appointments, help her shop, you name it.

So it was no surprise when one very cold winter night, when he received a call from her, that we saw him getting ready to leave the warm coziness of the apartment and venture out on the icy streets.

“What this time?” Mom asked.

“It’s the ice,” he said, “ she parked the car at the garage and needs help walking to her apartment building”.

Now I should mention here two very salient points. Years before Mildred and San were in a horrific auto accident, and as a result, she had metal pins in various places in her hips and walked with a cane, so the request made some sense; she couldn’t afford to slip and fall and break anything else. The second point is that she wasn’t what you would call svelte. Stout, yes, large, yes again, really fat, well you get my point. Still, at the time I thought it was really good of Dad to put himself out like he did, but you know, it was Dad (better man than me by far).

He asked if I wanted to go with him, and despite the cold, it was yet another time to be with him and I didn’t turn it down. We met her at the garage a block away from her apartment building. The sidewalks were sheets of ice and I could understand her concern; heck I was concerned for myself and Dad too! But we were doing good, taking it slowly, and eventually arrived at her stoop. But you know, life like football, is a game of inches. And there were a few too many inches that night to the first step. Yup – she started to slip on the ice and Dad made a grab for her, but even his formidable strength could not beat three hundred pounds of dead weight and gravity combined.

She continued to fall now with Dad in tow, his feet slipping helplessly on the ice. In a moment –Slam! Both of them went down with a thud that shook the neighborhood.

They hit the ground, Mildred flailing her arms, resembling something washed up on the beach. Dad had fallen on top of her and was frantically trying to get off of her and regain his footing as well as his dignity. But he was failing at both. Mildred was kicking her legs furiously which caused her to rotate on the ice, kicking out Dad’s legs every time he tried to stand. She had a hold of his arms as well now and showed no signs of letting go. She was clearly in panic mode.

I, of course, was totally useless, too weak to help, too convulsed with laughter to hear Dad calling out:

“Mildred – would you let go?!! Let me get up!!”

Then turning his attention to me he went into the name game.

“DonRobDonRobDonRob!!”

Anytime he got excited, he confused our names and would start calling both in the hope of eventually getting it right.

“Rob,” I said meekly.

For that, I got the flash of steel in the eyes, and the famous clenched jaw.

“Get over here” he growled. You didn’t ignore a Dad growl.

I stepped forward, careful on the ice, grabbed a street lamp with one hand and extended my other in a feeble attempt at providing assistance. Mildred was still doing the Curly Shuffle, each rotation knocking Dad down to his knees again. He reached for my hand but couldn’t make it.

And then a half-drunken voice from a passer-by:

“Hey Pal – Get a room why don’t ya?”

That did it. Whatever frustration or humiliation he had suffered up to then, was replaced by pure anger. That wisecrack drove him into Warp Drive.

“Why you stupid Motherfuc…”

“Tony- Get me up!!” Mildred pleading.

“I am trying to for Christsakes!” He was yelling now “Stop moving in goddamn circles!!”

“DonRobDonRobDonRob!!!!”

I took another step and BAM! Down I went. I may have been useless but I wasn’t stupid. I was down and I was staying down. I figured it was safer to crawl my way over.

It was slow going and I was staring at the grime of the icy street when finally I heard voices, friendly ones:

“Hold on – coming to help…”

“Here, take my hand, let me help you..”

Two guys, good Samaritans, came to the rescue and helped Dad, Mildred and eventually I get up. And Thank God they did. If it weren’t for them, Dad and Mildred would still be locked in that unholy embrace going around and around in some weird kind of carnal entropy.

Later at home as Dad was relating what happened to Mom (who was trying her best not to giggle at the image of it all), he just kept saying over and over:

“Dead weight; she was dead weight- I just couldn’t get her up….dead weight….just too much dead weight”.

It must have really bugged him. I mean the man fought his way through the bloody Pacific, fighting at Guadalcanal for God Sake – but he met his match on an icy patch of pavement in Greenwich Village on a cold dark night, trying yet again to do a good deed.

The Gods can be cruel.

This one should have probably remained in the ‘Best Left Forgotten” file, but you know me.

I couldn’t resist.

-Rob

 

Summer of Acceptance

The month of June harbors many different emotions for me. First, it’s my birth month making me another year older. That emotion alone, especially getting well into the “September of My Years” is probably a blog post in itself.

Second, this is when school ended for the summer in the New York City school system. I realize that most kids celebrate with great exuberance at the end of the School year. I say most because we would be sadly blind to forget the kids that will no longer be fed breakfast or lunch when school ends or the kids that will no longer have a place to go to escape an abusive situation at home. I think it’s important that we not forget those children that found “refuge from the storm” in the hallways and classrooms of the School.

Thankfully, by the grace of God, Rob and I were not in that situation and the end of the School year came with great joy and excitement. For me, much of that joy was based upon my anticipation of being “accepted” over the next few months.

As you are probably well aware of from other blog posts, I did not have many friends as a kid. I was the one who was made fun of and ridiculed. I was left out of most group activities. I suppose using today’s vernacular, I was bullied for most of my childhood years. My brother was unquestionably my best, and for a majority of the time, my only friend… and that was with a six-year age difference. I was never very good at sports and was “that kid” who was consistently picked last when teams were being chosen. The team that picked last was stuck with me and they were always “kind” enough to make me well aware of that fact. As in other writings, I don’t say these things to solicit sympathy or pity… it just helps put “my story” into perspective. I don’t even know if I harbor ill feelings towards the other kids. I certainly did back then, but not so much now. After all, this was inner-city New York “back in the day.” One was expected to be tough and streetwise and independent. I was none of those things. The insecurities that were born then still plague me many ways today. Psychological counseling was probably needed, but the one time I went, I lied to the counselor about everything, making it totally ineffective.

BUT (don’t you love that simple three letter word? It conveys hope).. but summers were different. I left the school that I dreaded attending every day for a seemingly endless summer of acceptance and validation. (two whole months!) Anyone else remember how long summer seemed to last? I left the hot steamy streets of New York as well as the kids that picked on me behind. Somehow, our amazing Dad, working three jobs to afford it, was able to get us a small bungalow in New Jersey where we could spend the summer. Dad and Mom understood the importance of getting us away from the “mean streets” even if just for a short time.

Rob and I called Lake Hopatcong, New Jersey, the “country “. I know many will laugh at that thought, but to us, it was. Trees, a lake, bugs, clean air…. the country.

It was this country that offered me acceptance. There were not very many other kids living near our bungalow, but Rob and I made friends with most of them. It was a strange lot. Most, like us, were just there for the summer. One or two actually lived there. Some were older, some were younger. Some were bat-shit crazy, some were introverts. Some had good family lives, others not so much. Counting Robert and me, there were no more than eight or nine of us at time. It was an odd bunch for sure. But (there’s that word again ) we all accepted each other. This may have been out of necessity as, after all, these were the only kids around, but who cared? We simply accepted each other and played together pretty much every day of every week during those precious summers. Back in The City, where I was always picked last, in the country I was often picked first. I was actually considered one of the “good” ball players! Some of that may have been because I was one of the “older” kids, but again, who cared? No one was ever left out. No one was picked on and made fun of. The one time that I remember some “big kid” from another area of the lake trying to bully us and scare us, we stuck together. Frightened, but frightened together. (perhaps Rob will share that story in another post one day)

We started at sun up and went until well after sundown. Playing ball, playing soldier, playing hide and seek, exploring the vanishing marsh, dodging swooping bats in the twilight hours, catching grasshoppers, and trying to frighten each other to death with scary stories… our days… and our summers, seemed endless.

So, as school came to a close in June, this is what I looked forward to with great anticipation. Shortly, we would be on the road to New Jersey in Dads old Desoto.

For two months I would no longer be “that kid”…. the last one picked… the “mommas boy who could not fight; I would simply be Don…. accepted as that. The good and the bad. Robert would be Robert, Phillip would be Phillip, Crazy Mike would be Crazy Mike, Ray would be little Ray, but Big Ray would be Big Ray… Bobbie would be Bobbie, etc.

As the Desoto left the Lincoln tunnel and entered New Jersey, I felt my whole demeanor change. I felt accepted.

…. and Summer was endless, right?

-Don

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The Night of the Folding Chairs.

As we have mentioned numerous times in this blog, our family hosted Christmas Eve dinner; others took Christmas Day, New Years Eve, New Years Day and Easter. Christmas Eve, however, was ours.

As we have also mentioned numerous times, we lived in a relatively small apartment when we moved away from Twelfth Street to the projects in Chelsea. So to host one of these holiday dinners for the extended family required a lot more chairs than we had, or for that matter could store in the space we had.

Enter the magical Folding Chair; savior to many a family. We at the time had grey metal ones with one piece of miserable padding in the center of the seat. They gave no semblance of comfort, they were utilitarian and nothing more. I still have two in the basement, though Leslie is always trying to throw them away as the junk they probably are to most people who would see them. But I can’t do it; as uncomfortable as they were, they are forever a memory of those wonderful Christmas Eves. That memory is a potent one (come to think of it I should check to make sure they are still down there!)

Anyway back to the story. We had had these poor excuses for chairs for as far back as I can remember and would haul them out of the closet every year. Finally one year Dad sprang for some new wooden nicely padded chairs that slid open easily and actually felt like you were supposed to sit on them. Christmas Eve got classier, and they were a big hit the first time we used them. Dad was very proud of his purchase.

Now each family as you can imagine would drag along their folding chair contribution to whichever other family was hosting a holiday meal. We brought chairs to Aunt Fil and Uncle Jim, Mary and Dick brought chairs to us; you get the idea.

One year it was Aunt Mildred who was hosting the extended family at her apartment on Charles Street and she asked that we bring some folding chairs. She asked the same of Mary and Dick. Well, of course, Dad’s first inclination was to bring the miserable old metal chairs rather than his nice new wooden ones. That was just Dad. Mom, of course, wouldn’t hear of it; we would take the new ones. Dad somehow agreed.

And the wheels were set in motion.

We all gather at Aunt Mildred’s apartment and though she wasn’t much of a cook, all of us enjoyed the event and our time together. Now here is a key element in what was to follow: the folding chairs that Mary and Dick brought looked a lot like the ones Dad had bought, though of course, he thought his were far superior. Whatever. So the dinner is done, coats are gathered, goodbyes are said, and we all grab folding chairs to bring down to the street to be put into our respective cars. Under the dim light of a street lamp, Dick and Dad divided up the chairs, placed them in the trunks of the cars and we all drove home.

It wasn’t until the next morning, a Sunday, that the drama began.

Don and I were sleeping in as all sane people should do on a Sunday, but I was awakened by the sound of Dad’s raised voice:

“I’m telling you, these are not our chairs!”

Silence at first, and then the ever suffering voice of Mom calmly responding:

“Tony what do you mean they aren’t our chairs- they are right there.”

“I know these are chairs, thank you very much, what I am saying is these are not the same chairs we took to Mildred’s…..we took the good ones!”

A beat.

“The good ones?!” Mom asked with that tone that said she knew where this conversation was going.

“Yes, the good ones- the ones I bought”.

A sigh from Mom.

“Ton – they look the same to me”.

“Well they’re not – we got the wrong ones by mistake – Dick has the good ones!”

More sane silence.

“Tony, they’re folding chairs for God’s Sake – who cares which ones we have as long as they work!”

Now strange silence from Dad. Then finally:

“That’s it – I am going to call him!”

“You will do no such thing!”

“But he has the good ones!”

“Tony – do you realize we are talking about folding chairs – who cares?”

“I care” Dad’s voice really raised now, enough to wake Don.

“Well get over it!” Mom trumped his volume; a rarity.

Then there was total silence. I was thinking about spending the rest of the day in bed; this wasn’t going to be a good day in the Ortolano household! Don looked over at me with a questioning look; I just shrugged.

“Babe” Dad tried again, but was immediately cut off.

“Tony!”

Silence, then the muted sound of Dad shuffling off to the bathroom, the door slamming shut.

That you would think, was the end of the story right? Except it wasn’t; obsessions do not have expiration dates, fixations know no time limits.

So as you can guess, the next time we went to Mary and Dick’s for a holiday or visit, Dick brought out the folding chairs. Dad’s folding chairs, the good ones, or so he thought. Dad sat at the table, eyeing them, slightly shaking his head and muttering. Then the eyes started, looking from the chairs to Mom, trying to get her attention. He looked at Mom, he looked at the chairs. Cue the eyebrows; up and down, up and down, the clearing of the throat, the fake cough, he employed them all in the attempt to get Mom to look at the chairs.

She, of course, knew what he was doing and she chose to ignore him; leaning in to listen more intently to whoever was talking. This, of course, infuriated Dad even more which resulted in more strange sounds coming from his clenched mouth.

That scene would play itself endlessly at family gatherings for years to come.

It was the stuff of legend, and after a while, Don and I would look forward to the next time folding chairs were required; the performances never disappointed.

And for weeks after those events when Don and I lay in our respective beds in the darkness, listening to Mom and Dad talk softly in the next room as they always did, every so often out of nowhere we would hear Mom raise her voice:

“Would you forget about the stupid chairs!!”

As I finally fell asleep I was sure of one thing in the world:

He never would.

And he never did.

 

-Rob

Return to “The Alley.”

Just last week Rob posted an entry entitled “The Alley”. That piece brought back some memories for me that had become lost in the clouds of time; I had not thought about that alley in the back of our apartment on West 12th Street in many, many years. If you have not read Rob’s recollections on that Alley, please do. You will find it fun and entertaining.

As he mentioned in his post, the alley in question ran along the backside of our apartment building. On the other side of the alley, facing our building, were other apartment buildings. My entry today will focus on the apartment building across the alley. The back of that building facing the back of our building.

As was pointed out by Rob, these apartments were long and narrow, fondly called railroad apartments. One would enter the front door and face a long, narrow hallway with rooms off to the left side of the hall. (Another fun entry to read is one entitled “The Hall”)

The very first room that one encountered on the left when entering the front door was my childhood bedroom. This recollection travels back a good distance in time to when I was about seven years old. Rob was less than a year old.

If you have been following Cobblestone Dreams for any length of time whatsoever, you know that I was afraid of my own shadow for most of my childhood. Having my bedroom at the end of that long, and what I considered, scary hallway didn’t help matters at all. Most nights found me hunkered down under all the covers I could muster.

The night in question was a hot, humid summer night in New York. We, like many others, did not have air conditioning. That was still very much considered a luxury. I am speaking of window units, not central air, which was pretty much unheard of in these city apartments. We had a fan or two, but they were designated for the living area for the entire family. Windows were kept open as much as possible to allow for what Dad called a “cross breeze”. Bedrooms were simply hot and uncomfortable.

Such was this night. I have no recollection of the exact time but am pretty certain it was late. I was in bed trying to fall asleep. Keeping safe under layers of covers was out of the question in such uncomfortable heat. Muffled sounds of the late night city made their way through the open window in my bedroom. The distance between the rear of our building and the back of the building behind us was not that long. The alley was very long but fairly narrow. Obviously, we were not the only folks who had our windows open. Most of the other apartments in surrounding buildings did as well, creating a wide and distinct symphony of sounds. Window fans humming, muffled voices from other apartments, the static sound of distant radios and televisions, the occasional late night cry of a baby and of course, the “conversations” of the feral cats Rob spoke of.

At about the same moment that I finally convinced myself that these blended sounds were actually comforting, I heard the very loud sound of two adult men.
From here on, my recollection is a combination of my first-hand account and Dads second-hand account which he relayed to us countless times in the future.

So, I hear two loud voices coming somewhere from the building behind us. The voices were angry and I took notice. Dad took notice as well. He came down the hall and appeared in my room sounding concerned. He told me to get out of bed and go to the living room with Mom. This hero didn’t have to be told twice. Before he could finish his sentence, I was racing down the hall to moms protective arms. From this point, Dads account takes over. Apparently, he had heard the voices as well from the kitchen where he was making himself and mom late night cup of coffee…. a strange tradition they shared for as long as I can remember.

While I was cringing in fear (from what, I had no idea) in moms arms, dad was on the phone with the police department. He told them that he had clearly heard one man threaten the other in an apartment behind our building. The man had quite loudly told the other he was going to kill him, and the argument was escalating quickly, so they had better get a squad car or two over here pronto.

In what seemed like just a few minutes I heard sirens and the sound of cars squealing to a stop in front of our apartment. There was a loud knock on our door and dad went to answer it. Later we found out that he had gone outside with the arriving police to point out where the voices were coming from that had prompted his call.

It seemed as though he was gone forever, especially to a frightened seven-year-old. Mom kept telling me it was going to be all right and not to be afraid. That never worked with me… it still doesn’t. To this day when someone says “ everything is going to be alright..”, I worry more.

After dad had pointed out the apartment where the threatening voices were coming from, the cops took over and did their thing.

It was only well after the fact that I learned what actually went down that night.
The cops went to the apartment in question and demanded entry, which was readily granted by the two young men in the apartment. Yes, there had been loud and threatening words spoken between them. However, they were just being rehearsed by the two men for a potential acting gig. They were both young actors trying to get a start in the vibrant New York scene. Their story quickly checked out with the police and calm was restored to West 12 Street.

Dad loved retelling the story over the years because, in hindsight, it was pretty damned humorous. More so, because Dad was always pretty impressed with the fact that he had called the cops on Jack Klugman and Burt Reynolds. The two unknown and broke actors who shared an apartment behind ours, across “The Alley”.

Don.

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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.

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.

-Rob