The memory I share today goes quite far back into my childhood. It takes me back to the apartment that I remember as our “first home”…. The apartment on 290 West 12th Street. This was a time when my brother was still only about 2-3 years old, so we had not as yet become the full-time playmates we would become for each other for another few years.
As I have mentioned in previous entries, I had basically no friends to speak of as a kid (thus my excitement and anticipation in having a little brother arrive.) There were, however, moments when I somehow managed to find someone I could call a friend. One such friend was James L. He lived in the apartment right next to us on the third floor. We were very different in many way, yet, in others, very similar. My family was old school Italian. James’ family was old school Irish. At this time and place in New York, neighborhoods were very much identified by ethnicity. There was the Italian neighborhood, the Irish, The Puerto Ricin, The Cuban, The Black, etc. Normally, one group would gladly stay away from the other’s turf. Kind of a code of honor, in an odd kind of way. Our neighborhood was not as finely defined as most. We were primarily Irish, but close enough to “Little Italy” to have an interesting mix. We even had a good sampling of Puerto Rican and Cubans in the area. Nevertheless, the Irish and Italians had a fragile truce going on around West 12th Street. We just left the other group alone, so while not being unheard of, it was just a little odd that somehow James and I became friends. We did have a lot in common: Both families staunch, unwavering Catholics. Both families were first and second generation immigrants who went thorough Ellis Island and assimilated into the melting pot that was New York City. Both families strongly believed that if it was not “from New York”, it didn’t count. (I believe I thought one needed a Passport to get to New Jersey.) In addition to these other common denominators, both families attended the same small Catholic Church, Saint Bernard’s on West 14 Street. The Church itself was the same interesting mix of Italian and Irish Priests. Father Santullian and Father O’Reilly……. You get the picture.
Anyway, I met James, of all places, on the fire escape outside of our third floor window. If you are not familiar with fire escapes, please see the photo posted with this entry. Most, if not all, apartments of normal size had these iconic pieces of construction on the face of the building. Their purpose was, as stated, to provide a way to escape the apartment building in the horrible event of a fire. Very practical and effective in design, they offered tenants a series of interlocking ladders that could be utilized in making a quick exit from a burning building. In addition to their stated purpose, they also offered a wonderful way for kids, and sometimes adults, in the building to enjoy a beautiful Spring evening, or to somehow endure the blistering heat that built up in the non-air-conditioned apartments. It was on one on one such spring evening that I met James. I was sitting outside the window on the fire escape with Mom protectively close at hand. There had been a few cases of children falling from these fire escapes if they began to play too rambunctious. Mom would have none of that. She made sure I basically sat in one place and did not move around much. She divided her time evenly between watching my baby brother in the apartment and me on the fire escape.
James emerged from the window next door and took a seat overlooking 12th street. He looked over and said “Hi”… I said nothing. I was extremely shy and introverted as a child and had a hard time connecting with grown-ups or kids. James looked oddly at me and asked my mom, “is he ok?”… Mom told him I was fine but shy and that my name was Donald. “Hi , Ronald”, said James. Mom corrected him, but he continued to call me Ronald. I think as long as I knew him, I answered to Ronald. Mom and James continued on in conversation, with Mom finding out his name, what school he went to, what Church he attended. Mom decided that she liked “the Irish kid” from next door and encouraged me to talk to him and maybe even play with him. Slowly I managed the courage to talk to him, and eventually, he would come out on the fire escape, knock on our window and ask Mom if “Ronald” could come out and play.
By this time, I was more than happy to do so…. I had a friend. Our time was spent talking about TV shows, reliving what happened during the school day and inventing stupid make-believe games. We spent hours on that fire escape.
It was here that the Window Picnic was born. James had a very kind, generous Uncle living with him and his mom. His name was Uncle Patty. (yep, Irish all the way). Uncle Patty clearly loved his nephew and did a lot of nice things for him. Uncle Patty became the benefactor of our Window picnics. Simply stated, he gave James and me money to go to the store and buy candy, cookies and soda, all of which we happily brought out onto the fire escape to consume: The Window Picnic had arrived!
How I loved to see James emerge from his window with a handful of bills and proclaim: ‘Window Picnic!!” I would run down the long hall in our apartment, pass our parents sitting in the kitchen while shouting: Uncle Patty is giving us a Window Picnic!! They always gave a bit of a disapproving look. In hindsight I know it was because they didn’t like Uncle Patty always funding these adventures, but as money was extremely tight, they didn’t have much of a choice. They certainly didn’t want to stop us from having the fun.
I would meet James outside of our respective apartments and down unto west 12th street we would run. To Gus’ Grocery store for soda and cookies and to Jack Slavens’ corner store for candy. We would return home with our treasure and out unto the fire escape we would go.
There, munching on our goodies, we would talk and watch the hot sun set to the west. We talked about what we would be when we grew up. (I never became a cowboy), and I doubt if James became a private detective, but we could dream. Are not kids supposed to dream? We loved watching the Mounted Police heading back after a day’s work ( see Robs post about that). We loved enjoying whatever small breeze we were blessed with. We loved the open windows leading back into the safety of our home….but most of all we loved the fire escape and our Window Picnics. Thank you Uncle Patty.