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Archive for April, 2007

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When I was about three or four years old, my father would take me with him on occasional Saturday morning visits to three bachelor friends who shared an apartment that must have been fairly close to where we lived.  Their names were Charlie Vennen, “Red” Brown and Neil Newton. Charlie was very big, about 6 foot four and muscular. I don’t remember Red’s appearance but Neil was about the same stature as my father who was 5-7.

I think my father’s association with these three dated to his first job in New York, driving an instrument truck for Consolidated Edison.  One thing I remember from my father’s description of that job was that the company put governors on the engines to try to keep the drivers from going too fast and damaging the instruments.  The drivers soon developed a way of thwarting the company by driving to the top of a very long hill, then accelerating as fast as they could down the hill, depressing the clutch, coasting for a while to gain speed and then popping the clutch, which would break the governor.

There were two very tall young women associated with this bunch, the Coin sisters. One of them, Helen, married one of the guys later on, I think it was Charlie.  I don’t clearly remember what happened with the other sister or her name, but I believe she married Red. Later, Neil went to work building the Empire State Building. He fell deeply in love, married and became a widower when his wife died in childbirth. He had a complete breakdown which took years to recover from.

The shared apartment was operated like a miniature frat house.  The guys were much given to pulling practical jokes. One that I remember:  there was a prissy old maid living on the floor above them in their apartment building.  One day as she was coming up the stairs returning from shopping the two bigger guys, Charlie and Red, dragged Neil out of the shower naked, soaking wet, with suds in his hair and threw him out into the hallway.  Another example of their high-class humor occurred when a young couple who had just gotten married was moving in. The moving men had removed the door to their apartment in order to be able to get some of the larger pieces of furniture through the doorway.  These guys stole the door and hid it, I think in the basement.  That night, the young couple, presumably on their wedding night, sat up all night long staring at the empty doorway.

On one morning visit, the guys were still lounging around in their underwear and bathrobes. We went into the kitchen and because of my small size I was able to see under the chairs. One of them had been rigged up with a half dozen or so large dry cells.  In those days large dry cells were something like eight to 10 inches long and 1 1/2 to 2 inches in diameter with screw post terminals with nuts for clamping down wires. The three of them tried various ruses to get my father to sit on their homemade electric chair, occupying the other chairs and so forth.  For some reason, my father didn’t sit on the chair that they wanted him to.  I don’t think he was aware of what was underneath the chair so it was just coincidence.  After trying various other things, they finally got fed up, and the two bigger men grabbed my father and physically lifted him up with the intention of plunking him down on the chair.

This was one case where the executioner probably suffered more than the condemned.  I made a heroic effort to save my father’s life by wrapping my arms around Charlie’s bare leg and biting as hard as I could.  He let out a yell, let go of his side of my father, who then tumbled sideways onto the chair, hitting his head and neck on the back. Charlie then pried me off his leg.  I had bitten hard enough to leave marks and draw a couple of drops of blood. My father was not seriously hurt, and everybody had a good laugh, except me, because of the unexpected turn of events. Oh, and the chair didn’t work anyhow.

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In 1951 my first wife and I took a cold water flat at the foot of MacDougal Street just after it crosses Prince and as it is about to merge with 6th Ave coming in at an angle. Our flat faced the front, the 6th Ave side, on which there was a small paved triangle formed by the three streets, containing a few benches and a half dozen saplings.  The building in question was just below the points of the arrows in the two images but that is not the building that we were living in. It has been replaced by one of those white brick atrocities that looks awful lot like a public toilet to me.  The building we were in was probably a hundred years old or more when we moved in and was made of sun-dried brick from upstate New York. As you can see from the satellite shot, the saplings have grown into considerable trees.

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We thought of our location as the south end of Greenwich Village but nowadays it would be the north end of SoHo, being just one block south of Houston. The neighborhood was pure Italian (except for us). On August nights, when it was too hot to sleep, this little triangle would fill up with old men from the neighborhood who would sit there all night long re-fighting the Risorgimento: “yada yada yada Garibaldi”, “yada yada yada Mazzini”, “yada yada yada Cavour.”

Our flat, which was on the third floor, consisted of two rooms, a kitchen and the main room plus a toilet.  The kitchen contained an ordinary gas stove, with two kerosene burners attached to the side which provided the general space heating, a hot water heater and a deep sink, which served all sorts of purposes for us including being a bathtub. There were two entrances to the apartment, one in the kitchen that faced down the hallway and the other into the main room, which was sealed shut, so the entrance to the apartment was the kitchen door. There were old-fashioned transoms over both doors and the one in the kitchen was often left open to provide ventilation. This doorway looked down the hall to the doorway at the rear flat, at the head of the stairs, which was occupied by the Savarese family.

All of the other occupants of the building were old-time Neapolitan socialists who had fled Mussolini around 1933. Mama Savarese had had a heart attack a few years earlier and never left the little flat.  On weekends, huge boxes of produce would appear in front of her door, having been delivered by local merchants, and several of her children and their children would converge for happy, noisy family gatherings. Despite her limited arena Mama’s scope was wide and she ruled with an iron hand. Every evening Papa would tiptoe up the stairs and very quietly open and close the door and two minutes later we could hear her haranguing him. I’ll have another tale about him and his sons at some later time.

One afternoon there was a loud thumping (knocking is much too tame a word) at our kitchen door. I opened to see two nuns, one short and stocky the other tall and lean, peering over the shoulder of the shorter one. The short one, sounding rather like a Marine DI asked “Are you Catholic?” Intimidated by the tone, I actually apologized, “No, I’m sorry, I’m not”. They both studied my face for a couple of seconds and decided I was telling the truth.

They then proceeded to the Savarese’s flat and “knocked” on their door: whumpa, whumpa, whumpa (I am always reminded of the scene in Ivanhoe where the Black Knight bangs on the castle gate with his full armored fore-arm).
Mama Savarese: “What do you want?”
Short nun: “Are you Catholic?”
Mama: “No, I’m-a no Catholic”.
Pause
Short nun, suspiciously: “Are you sure you’re not a Catholic?”
Mama: “Yes, I’m-a sure!”
Tall nun, in a sing-song tone such as you would use with a child: “Sister doesn’t believe you.”
Mama: “I don’t care I’m-a no Catholic.
Short nun, pushing her luck: “Do you believe in God?”
Mama: “I believe in-a God, I no believe in-a priests, I no believe in-a Church, I no believe in-a Pope…”
As Mama continued to rage and rant, I heard four heavily shod feet drumming retreat down the stairs.

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