Things I Was Thankful for in the 1970’s

As a young girl growing up in Queens, perhaps I wasn’t as introspective and reflective on Thanksgiving as I could have been, but these are the things I remember being thankful for.

  1. A mood ring that turned any color other than black or brown.
  2. The opportunity to own a pair of earth shoes despite my mother’s repeated reminder that they were the ugliest shoes on earth (although I think Crocs now hold that distinction).
  3. Clean tube socks
  4. Instant Pants
  5. The few times I still had my Pinky ball at the end of the day.
  6. A television set that showed a clear picture without having to stand on one leg with your arms crossed while holding the rabbit ears.
  7. The demise of the eight-track tape.
  8. Alexander’s record department.
  9. Crossing Queens Boulevard without getting killed.
  10. Finding enough money on dad’s night table to buy a Mr. Softee cone.

Today, I think much more about how thankful I am for having such great family and friends, but I’m thankful for all my wonderful 1970’s memories as well.


Hanukkah and the Festival of Fright

Sorry gameWhen I was four years old, I believed in Santa Claus. My Jewish parents weren’t quite sure how to handle this, and during our very early years, they begrudgingly indulged us in the myth of Santa Claus to the best of their abilities. On Christmas morning, my brothers and I would awaken to a modest circle of gifts in the living room. We tore off the wrapping paper with glee, only to find some strange practical gifts inside the pretty paper and bow. I received a slip to wear under my dresses and I remember my mother exclaiming, “Wow, how did Santa know you needed a new slip?” Even at four years old, I realized a slip was a strange Christmas present for an old man with a beard to bring you. My brothers both received plaid lunchboxes, because Santa obviously knew this is what they needed as well. We also got a paint set with the kind of paint that is as hard as a rock, needs water to make it at all functional, and cracks into tiny pieces after one use. After receiving our questionable gifts, we figured out Santa was a sham, decided Christmas was overrated, and slowly accepted our fate as Jews.

From that year on, Christmas was out and Hanukkah was the only holiday we celebrated in December (well, until 2013 when we got a new holiday, Thanksgivingukkah). At the same time, my parents stopped buying us gifts and instead started giving us money. Each year we would get a check for five or ten dollars which we were told we could “keep” in mom’s bank account. By age ten, my oldest brother realized that my mother was earning interest on all our Hanukkah money and wanted to stage a coup to regain what might have been as much as a few dollars in interest.

My mother insisted on having an authentic candle menorah, rather than an electric one, but she had a tremendous fear of fire. I was at least twelve years old before my mother let me light the candles without her shaking hand holding mine. Each night of Hanukkah, she would sit white knuckled by the candles until they burned out, clutching the glass of water that was always kept by the menorah in case of fire. By the eighth night of Hanukkah she was an emotional wreck, and it took her until the new year to recover.

We tried to embrace the festivities of Hanukkah, but after three spins of the dreidel and the 5th piece of gelt (Yiddish for kosher chocolate that doesn’t even come close to Ghirardelli), we lost the Hanukkah spirit and went to check out the menorah to see if any major pieces of furniture or family members had caught fire yet.

By the time I was in grade school, I realized that my Catholic friends were having all the fun with their tree trimming parties. My friends with non-religious families seemed to always have a tree as well, and even all the Jews on the block had Christmas trees.  These Jews ended up with the best deal of all, as they celebrated both Hanukkah and Christmas. If Kwanzaa had been a popular holiday in Queens back then, I’m sure they would have celebrated that as well. In addition to celebrating both holidays, the Jewish kids I knew had roped their parents into Hanukkah’s “one gift for each night of Hanukkah rule”; a ploy I was sure was made up by Jews in the 1970’s in an effort to compete with Christmas and make Hanukkah seem like a more important holiday than it really was. I tried to “keep up with the Joneses” (or in my case the Levy’s) by cashing my $5 or $10 check at Bank of Mom and purchasing gifts for myself which I would then tell my friends had been purchased by my parents who seemed to have a sixth sense for knowing what I wanted. I gave up on the idea of trying to purchase eight gifts, because even in 1973 there was little you could buy once you divided $5 by eight.

I’m making up for all the Hanukkah gelt and guilt big time now with my own children. We now celebrate Hanukkah, Christmas (with a tree), as well as both of their birthdays during the month of December. Following the festivities and the obscene assortment of gifts (I have never given my kids money as a gift), I remind my kids not to ask me for so much as a stick of gum until at least August. Some years we light the menorah; others we don’t. But I’ve never had an electric menorah, and yes, now it’s my turn to sit white knuckled by the fire.

Law and Lawlessness in the 70’s

It amazes me that in the late 60’s and early 70’s, many common sense laws did not exist in New York City which Queens is part of. When I was five years old, my father decided it was time for me to have some weekly chores. The main chore was buying him cigarettes. Back in 1968, no one batted an eye when a five-year old marched into a store and requested a carton of Kent…with matches! No one asked for ID, called your parents, or thought entrusting a five-year old with enough matches to set a town on fire was an issue. If you were lucky, you would leave the store with not only the cigarettes and matches, but a free piece of Bazooka gum to thank you for your business.

Not only was there no seat belt law back then, but few cars and no school buses even had seat belts. Babies riding in cars were routinely put on adult laps, often in the front seat where that adult could be seen loosely holding the baby with one hand and puffing away on a cigarette with the other. We didn’t have a family car and instead risked our lives riding the New York City subways, but that’s a whole other story. But speaking of subways and lawlessness, many were covered in grafitti for as long as I could remember, until the MTA and government officials finally figured out a way to curtail that (in the 1990’s) and scratchiti became the new trend in defacing public property.

There was no pooper-scooper law and dogs rarely even made it to the nearest tree, fire hydrant, or grassy area. No one in their right mind would have considered carrying a plastic bag to clean up after their dog and they were viewed as “so considerate” if they even tried to guide their dog towards the less traveled areas of the town. As much as I tried to hone my skills in “poop sighting”, it was considered a miracle if you made it through a whole day without stepping in dog shit. After a big snowfall, making a snowball was like Russian roulette since you never knew what might be in that snowball besides snow. Even though poop spottings have dwindled significantly over the past few decades, I am still programmed to always look down and when I do see the occasional pile, I have been known to alert all those in my presence to save them from their misstep.

Equally surprising, there didn’t seem to be any laws about how old a child needed to be before it was considered safe for them to be left alone. I know people who were home alone during their early grade school years. I also became a latchkey kid once I turned ten and my afternoon care was turned over to my older brothers who were sometimes home, sometimes not and when we were all home together, there was usually some sort of fight that only occasionally drew blood. Being a latchkey kid might also explain some of the mischief I got into with my friends alone in an unsupervised house like putting toothpaste on our eyelids just to see what would happen (note to impressionable readers; do not try this at home; it really, really hurts) or eating a full cup of sugar because someone dared me to.

Not only were we left home alone, but adults often assumed we were way more responsible and prepared for adult tasks than we were. When I got a little bit older, my mom would ask me to preheat the oven around 5:45 pm so it would be at the right temperature by 6 pm when she arrived home to start dinner.  The chore in itself seems appropriate until I explain the complexity of the family oven. This 1950’s gas wall oven had a pilot way in the back which basically required you to stick your head in the oven with a lit match to ignite the pilot. I guess if a problem had occurred, at least mom would be home within 15 minutes to deal with it.

Perhaps things weren’t all that bad, as I survived all the possible problems that could have ensued from so many opportunities to play with fire without wearing a seat belt. Luckily, I have emerged unscathed and with clean shoes, free of dog shit, to boot.

Plastic Slipcovers and Other Dysfunctional Household Items

plastic-slipcovers-150x150My mother had a penchant for plastic slipcovers and she put them on everything in the living room, including the lampshades. Plastic slipccovers made their debut in the mid 50’s and managed to haunt my family well into the next two decades. The concept of furniture being comfortable was obviously lost on mom. For her, preservation was the key and screw the family. In addition to being uncomfortable, the plastic made strange sounds when you sat on it and was sticky in the summer time. Once June rolled around and we broke out our shorts and lost our tights, getting up off the couch felt like ripping off a Band-Aid. During the summer months, we needed an on-call medic just to treat the burn marks and wounds generated from the plastic. We moved on from the plastic slipcovers some time in the mid 70’s when they began to lose their “avant garde” appeal, but the backs of our legs never forgot.

Another dysfunctional piece of furniture in our house was the piano…a baby grand piano. It’s not like we had a music room, a great room, a family room, or even a mud room. We lived in an apartment; there was one central room, the living room. It wouldn’t have been so bad if someone in the family actually played piano, but none of us did. When I asked my father years later why we had a baby grand piano, yet none of us ever took piano lessons, his response was, “no one ever asked to.” In lieu of any musical talent in the family, we created our own use for the piano; mainly as a repository for the mail, loose change, and an occasional apple core. Years later, mom sold that piano “for a song” and it took us over six months to figure out a new place to dump all our stuff.

Aside from the furniture issues, my mom just had a lot of things in general that were never allowed to be used for their intended purpose. These tchotchkes, (Yiddish word for crap) included a Wedgewood ashtray that never had a cigarette butt in it and an accompanying Wedgewood cigarette lighter that never had lighter fluid in it. She had candlesticks without candles, a soup tourinne that never held an ounce of soup, vases that never held flowers, and a candy dish that never had any candy it it. All of these “treasures” were stored in a breakfront in the living room and treated as if they were of museum quality; occasionally the things in the breakfront were dusted, but that was the extent of their contact with the real world.

In addition, she had a bowl with fake fruit in it (because as you already know, real fruit was rationed in my house). The bowl included plastic grapes. One day on a dare, Cha-Cha picked one of the fake grapes to see if my mom would notice when she came home. We rearranged the fake fruit bowl to cover up the deed, but when mom walked in, she took one look at that bowl (which was halfway across the room) and said, “Who picked a grape?” Lesson learned; don’t underestimate the power of mom and her tchotchkes.

In addition to the dysfunctional household items, mom had a slew of overly functional crap that she purchased for a single specific task, not realizing that we probably had some other item lying around the house that would be equally effective. She had a rubber ring that looked like a frisbee with the center cut out that we wore around our heads when we washed our hair to avoid getting soap in our eyes (perhaps she should have told us to just close our eyes), a plastic thing that looked like a coaster that made sure no water escaped from the sink when you washed things in it (couldn’t we just close the drain?), a contraption for removing the tops of strawberries (wouldn’t a knife have worked as well?), an egg slicer (see previous comment), a special knife that was only to be used for cutting a half a grapefruit into sections (what?), and a special jar opener thingy (wasn’t her hand good enough?) Our kitchen drawers were so filled with these useless gadgets that you’d often be hard-pressed to find a fork, but you could always find the watermelon pit-picker-outer.

Years later, when mom decided to downsize a bit and sell some of her tchotchkes, I had visions of putting all this stuff on e-Bay and creating listings like “in mint condition” or ” “30-year old serving plate; never been used.” I thought mom might end up with a few Benjamins from someone who saw this as vintage; a collector’s item. Nope. It was crap then and it’s crap now. The only tchotchke that fetched any decent money was mom’s Rainy Day Hummel. I never quite figured out the appeal of those things. They didn’t even have a functional purpose that we could choose to ignore. They truly were “just for show.” And what’s the point of that? 


Hairstyles of the Not So Rich and Famous

According to my father, the only memory he has of me as a child is my mother trying to comb my hair and me screaming. This is only a partial exaggeration. Hair care products in the late 60’s and 70’s left a lot to be desired. My mother made finding a hair care product that would make combing out my hair easier a part-time job. She researched all the products and finally thought she was on to something when she found a product called Hair So New. It came in a pretty pink bottle that no little girl could resist, nor could a big girl whose nerves were shot from fights with her daughter over combing her hair. She was wooed by the product’s promise that she could just spray something in my hair and the knots would comb right out.  The reality was that a lot of mothers probably got suckered into buying this crap which was probably no more than water and fragrance. The screaming continued.

The 70’s were a time that I refer to as BC…before conditioner, when girls with curly, frizzy hair like mine had few options for wearing their hair down. To make matters worse, my hair was red at the time and all my big hair needed was a red nose and clown shoes to make the look complete. At least back in those days, having red hair in itself was not considered a bad thing, unlike today when “Kick a Ginger Day” has become an annual event. I was the only red head in my class and people who didn’t know me just called me red. Today my hair color is a cross between Clairol’s Chlorine Infused Yellow, Loreal’s Sun Damage Supreme, and Old Fart Gray, but at least I don’t have to worry about being kicked by all those ginger haters.

To keep my hair in check during those early years, mom would select a hair style that gathered up as much hair as possible and hid it somewhere. In kindergarten and first grade this meant a botox inspired back ponytail and in second grade mom branched out to two side by side ponytails that balanced out the missing teeth on both sides of my mouth.

Mom nearly had a stroke every year the night before school picture day when she would scramble to create a hair style that wouldn’t result in conversations from me years later along the lines of “You let me leave the house looking like that???” The night before picture day, mom set my hair in big plastic curlers and let me sit underneath her fancy hairdryer for an hour or two. When I could no longer stand the itchy, burning feeling that was part and parcel to scorching your hair for 90 minutes, mom would take out the curlers and see what she had baked. I still had curls; they were just much bigger and harder to manage but most of the frizz was gone. Mom would encourage me to sleep lightly on my head and not move around too much (what?) so my hair wouldn’t be a mess in the morning. By 8am the next morning, some of the frizz usually creeped back in and mom felt defeated.

By the fifth grade, mom convinced me to cut my hair short into a sort of bob. The look was not a great one for me to begin with, but what made matters worse was that I had bangs. Girls with curls should not have bangs because the bangs curl in all different directions and make you look like you had to cut your hair that way because you accidentally got chewing gum stuck in it the day before.

In seventh grade everyone was watching Charlie’s Angels and all the girls wanted to have hair like Farrah Fawcett. We girls studied the semen stained poster of Farrah in the red bathing suit that hung in every 13 year old boy’s  room and waited for the big day when we could go down to Natural Identity Hair Salon and get our new doo. Mine lasted 45 minutes and then turned into a mass of curls and frizz. Shortly after, I ended up with a pixie haircut which made me look more like Charlie’s underling Bosley than Farrah.

During high school, I tried to grow my hair out again, with varying degrees of success. My hair never really grew down but rather out, kind of like a poofy triangle. But I decided that this Jewfro was the lesser of two evils and kept it that way for a few years.

In the early 80’s, I was given a new lease on life when hair conditioner became an easy to find and affordable hair care product. Gone were the days of hair that was as wide as I was tall and I finally made peace with my arch enemy, the comb. Years later, hair conditioner was joined by its soul mate, hair gel and I finally started having a semi frizz-free life.


Kindergarten Confidential: What Really Went on in the Classroom in the 60’s?

Unlike many of today’s kindergarten students who often spend a full day in school, are assigned nightly homework, and finish the year having read the complete works of William Shakespeare, kindergarten students in the late 1960’s were allowed to be dumb and immature for just one more year before the realities of reading, writing, and arithmetic set in.  School was a half-day and the expectations were pretty low. Yet even without the academic pressures, kindergarten back then still carried its own set of challenges.

My kindergarten teachers were Miss Poyer and Mrs. Pentel or maybe it was Mrs. Poyer and Miss Pentel; I just remember one was a Mrs. and one was a Miss. Going to school for the first time was quite daunting, particularly because the number of students in the class was outrageous. In my memory, there were 50 kids in the class and that was when 10 of them were out sick. While I know the class was not that large, I’m pretty sure there were more kids in the class than what you’d typically see in a kindergarten class today. Perhaps they figured, “What’s the difference; it’s not like we’re teaching them anything,” but even at five, I suspected there were some serious funding issues at the Board of Education.

The classroom was welcoming and exciting. It had a section with dolls and carriages and a kitchen with a play toaster. There was a huge block area as well. While technically you could play where you wanted, the girls always ended up in the kitchen and the boys always ended up at the blocks. If there had been a pretend flat screen TV showing a football game and a few fake beer cans alongside the blocks, we girls in the kitchen with the babies would have had an even more realistic view of how the lives we were pretending to have would actually play out. There was also a piano and an area where the kids would sit for song time and story time. The trick was to get a spot on the floor as far away as possible from the kid who smelled like farts. That was stressful and I was not always successful in this endeavor, yet it proved to be a valuable lesson that has come in handy throughout my life.

The teachers were given enormous license with what they did in the classroom since they weren’t really accountable for teaching us anything other than not to spit at each other. They came up with some strange activities that even a complacent mother of any other generation would have questioned. There was a boy and a girl in the class who were best friends and attached at the hip and the teachers decided we should have an in-class wedding for them. Another one of their hair-brained ideas was to stage a kindergarten production of Carmen, because an opera about immorality, lawlessness, and tragic death is absolutely appropriate for a kindergarten audience.

The highlight of the morning for many, was snack time. Snack was always milk and cookies. No fruit, yogurt cups, or cheese sticks here; just good old fashioned sugar and preservatives. Surely this was something I could handle. After all, my family dinners had prepared me for milk and cookie time for several years already. But something happened to me every day during snack time. I would get sick. The milk they served in school came in those little single serving cartons and they always smelled sour. After a few sips, I’d be tossing my cookies, frequently into the teacher’s lap. Each day I would return home and tell my mother I didn’t want to drink the milk at school anymore. But I always left out the part about throwing up. So when I asked her if I could stop drinking the milk, my three ring ding mother all of a sudden became health conscious and told me I needed to drink the milk because it was good for me. Several days and dry cleaning bills later, the teachers sent me home with a note saying, “Please don’t give Barbara any more milk money.” Problem solved.

The mothers were each assigned certain days they were responsible for supplying the cookies for snack time. Whenever it was my turn, my mom always bought Chips Ahoy. It was a fine selection, but I didn’t understand why she never threw in a box of Oreos or Mallomars. But I kept my mouth shut because I feared that the alternative to Chips Ahoy might be “really bad cookies” and no five year old could endure the bullying that could come from that.

Clothing selection was another cause for kindergarten stress. In the late 1960’s all the girls wore dresses to school. This was what was considered appropriate back then. But the dresses were incredibly short and very impractical for sitting on the floor during music or story time in the mandatory legs crossed “Indian style” position or when running and climbing in the yard. The first frost was a blessing because it meant you could finally wear tights and stop flashing your underwear at everyone. I often reminisce about those clothes, which I affectionately refer to as “the little hooker collection.”

In addition to the dresses being short, many of my dresses were monogrammed. I’m not sure why my mother was so into this. Was she afraid I might get lost and did she take comfort in the fact that if I did, someone would be able to identify me by my initials and return me to my rightful owner? Did she purchase the dresses thinking they were bath towels or his and her bathrobes? Did she need to monogram my clothes to tell me apart from my brothers? This is still a mystery to me. Years later, I got her back for all the monogrammed clothing. When I took the name Safani, my initials became BS and mom was done purchasing anything with my initials on it…ever.

Probably the biggest conundrum for mom and a great source of stress on school days was what to do with my hair. When I woke up in the morning, my hair was generally a hot mess and there was little time to do anything about it. Mom’s go-to hairstyle for me was the ponytail. But she pulled the hair back on my head so tightly that my face resembled Kenny Rogers after a botched Botox procedure… definitely not my best look.

Even birthdays were stressful in kindergarten. The events leading up to the celebration were wonderful. It was one of the few times a year that you could go to the Jay-Dee bakery and select cupcakes that didn’t have a shelf-life of 3,000 years. You could pick cupcakes with pink icing for the girls and blue icing for the boys. And everyone would be extra nice to you on that day because it was your birthday and you had free food and it wasn’t a Chips Ahoy cookie. The birthday child was allowed to select a helper to assist in the cupcake distribution process. But I had two really good friends and didn’t know who to pick. I struggled with the decision for a few seconds, then realized that both these kids had already had their in-class birthday celebrations, so I was at no risk of being de-selected for future cupcake distribution duties because by the time their next birthday rolled around, we would be in first grade and in-class birthdays would no longer be any fun. So I picked one of them and lived with my decision.

Despite all these challenges, I managed to muddle my way through kindergarten and into the big leagues of first grade. My mind began to expand, but my tight ponytail and short dress never did.




Blue Lips, Goose Bumps, and Guy Bumps: Memories From the Park City Pool Club

As the days of school wound down in June, every kid in the neighborhood would gear up for a visit to the closest thing the neighborhood had to real suburban living…The Park City Pool Club. The pool club was owned and operated by a management company that owned several apartment buildings in the Park City portfolio. Practically everyone I knew during grade school lived in a Park City building and many lived in the management company’s “crown jewel,” Park City Estates, a mega-apartment complex with five high-rise buildings that at the time could have rivaled anything Donald Trump built. While the club was designed for residents of those buildings, people from neighboring buildings could join and the kids of Saxon Hall were well represented at Park City pool, simply known by the locals as “the pool.”

The pool was situated about two stories above ground and was surrounded by other Park City buildings. From 10 am until 3 pm, the sun reflected off the “so hot you could fry an egg on it” concrete floor surrounding the pool and from 3 pm on, the surrounding buildings created a wind tunnel effect; a perfect storm that would send all the cabana umbrellas and chaise lounge mats flying.

In addition to making money from memberships, the pool generated revenue by renting cabanas and daily lounge chairs. The sunning area was stocked with wooden lounge chairs with thick wheels that resembled Fred Flintstone’s car and were just as difficult to roll. The lounges offered another opportunity to enjoy yet another splinter or two in the ass and they were unbearable to lie on unless you purchased the comfy plastic mat to place over them. Or unless you were ten years old and didn’t have the two bucks to purchase the cushion. And besides, it’s not like we spent that much time out of the water anyway.

The only thing that kept us out of the water was food. Everyone’s mother would warn them that if they ate food, they had to wait 40 minutes before going back in the pool; otherwise they would get a wicked cramp and drown. This nonsense had reached urban legend proportions and someone always had a ridiculous story about some kid who ate a raisin, jumped in the water seconds afterwards, and died. But no one wanted to “test the waters” so to speak. We all waited the 40 minutes.

While we did have suntan lotion back then, there was no such thing as Sunblock 2, 4, 6, 15, and 30. The choices were suntan lotion or baby oil and both were a poor choice for someone like me who had a skin tone that resembled Elmer’s Glue. I was taught to always wear sunblock, but I might as well have been lathering my skin with mayonnaise because no matter how much I used, I left the pool every time resembling the tomato that would have gone so well with the mayonnaise. Cha-Cha on the other hand, had beautiful Mediterranean skin. She’d put on some Hawaiian Tropic and proclaim, “Come on sun; tan me wild” and it would. She also brought lemons to the pool and squeezed the juice in her hair in hopes of lightening it while sun bathing. It worked and none of the boys seemed to be deterred by all the lemon pits in her hair.

And speaking of boys, my recollection of boys in bathing suits is that they all wore the same one; a blue Speedo with a white stripe down the side. No one wore long trunks or board shorts; occasionally a boy would show up in jean shorts as a make-shift bathing suit, but every other boy was stuck with that Speedo which called way too much attention to their pre-pubescent junk and probably kept them in therapy for decades afterwards.

The pool itself was a 40′ X 80′ deep blue paradise for a kid. There was also a kiddie pool for non-swimmers, but there was no greater motivation for learning how to swim than being able to avoid this outdoor urinal. The main pool started at 3 feet and was over 9 feet at its deepest point. There was a spiral sliding pond where kids would line up to show off their latest dare devil stunts….going down the slide head  first, lying on your back, legs over the sides, sideways, sliding down standing, groups of kids linked together like a train sliding together…You name it. With the exception of hurling your body off the top of the slide and on to the concrete, everything seemed fair game and the lifeguards didn’t blow the whistle nearly as much as they should have.

There was a similar scene by the diving boards. The pool had two boards in the 9 ft. area that were parallel to each other and you could get away with doing almost anything off the diving boards. One board was very low and very bouncy. We would see how much splash we could make by jumping high and getting the board to touch the water. The other board was higher with less give but it was better for more complicated dives. Some kids could do back dives, flips, double flips, half gainers, cutaways, and hand stand dives. Others stuck to cannonballs and when they were feeling particularly adventurous they attempted one leg cannonballs (while holding their nose). I could do a decent jack knife. I finally learned how to do a flip after a full summer of landing on my face and my stomach and realizing there were perhaps safer ways of impressing the boy I was trying to gain attention from. You know the one…he wore a blue Speedo.

When I wasn’t busy attempting flips and smashing my face into the water, I was perfecting my regular dives. We would take turns diving and giving each person a critique with a verbal instant replay…too much splash, toes not pointed, legs bent, crooked. Our critiques were brutal, but honest and they made us better divers.

When we wanted to mix things up a bit, we’d concoct new ideas for doing something stupid and dangerous off the board. Someone came up with the ingenious idea of having a diver stand on each of the two boards and then dive towards each other; one going under and one going over the other. We did this when the lifeguard known for being more interested in his tan than kid’s safety was on duty. Another stunt was the double bounce. In the double bounce, two people stood on the same board and the person in the back mirrored their steps towards the edge of the board. When the diver took their bounce, their shadow would bounce as well, giving them twice the momentum and sending them flying through the air. When the timing was right, the double bounce was awesome. When your shadow messed up, you ended up with a bad dive, wise cracks from your friends, and usually a trip over to the narcissistic lifeguard for a Band-Aid.

The end of the pool with the diving boards never had any sun. Ever. The lines for the diving board were long, especially in the late afternoon. But nobody cared. You would stand shivering, plotting your next dive, giving commentary on others, and laughing with blue lips, goose bumps, and boy bumps.

Foods Mom Wouldn’t Let Us Eat

At first glance, one might guess this is a story about growing up eating a lot of wholesome, unprocessed food. “Perhaps they had their own vegetable garden,” you might be thinking or “Maybe Barb’s mom was some sort of animal activist who forbade red meat or pelted eggs at woman wearing furs coats. No, not at all. We were the family that only cared about dessert, and nutrition didn’t seem high on anyone’s list of priorities. Yet, my mom had a lot of rules about foods she wouldn’t buy. There was no rhyme or reason to the list; it was the equivalent of telling someone, “It’s fine by me if you down a can of lighter fluid, but for heaven’s sake, please don’t swallow paint thinner.”  Here were some of the rules we lived by.

  1. Boxed cakes were fine, but cake mixes were not.
  2. TV dinners were regular fare, but Kraft Macaroni & Cheese never once sat on our shelf.
  3. Deviled ham was ok, but the line was drawn at Spam.
  4. Hershey’s syrup could be used for chocolate milk, but Nestle’s Quik was banned.

See a pattern here? Of course you don’t. This list makes no sense. In addition, instant hot chocolate was never, ever an option (this is one of the few things mom insisted on making from scratch), Cheese Whiz was considered the same thing as cheese, and grape gum was never under any circumstances, allowed in the house (my mother couldn’t stand the smell of it and each and every time I sneaked it in, she sniffed it out like a police dog and forced me to confiscate it immediately). Both my parents considered yogurt vile and neither of them was willing to “spend good money” on it. I never even tasted yogurt until I went to college. They felt the same way about cottage cheese, but I think I was allowed to eat this once or twice sometime after I reached puberty.

In addition to the bizarre packaged foods rules, mom had some strange rules when it came to fruit. When she went to the supermarket to do the weekly shopping, she would buy five apples or five oranges, etc. Each person in the family of five got one piece of whatever fruit she bought…for the week. There was no limit on cookies, but fruit was rationed. Perhaps fruit was expensive, so she didn’t buy much, but in addition to there being very little fruit, trying to barter for or exchange fruit with your siblings was highly frowned upon. If mom caught you in a corner trying to bribe your brother for an extra apple, you were told to break it up and move along. Strangely, there was no such rule for bananas. Mom would buy a bunch and you could eat whatever you could get your hands on. Go figure.

Mom’s fruit distribution system became much more complex in the summer time when she was more likely to buy cherries or grapes. Each week she would take the fruit and divide it into equal amounts and place it in bowls with little slips of paper with our names on it. This actually worked to my advantage, as I would create my version of the fruit shell game, eating cherries from my brothers’ bowls and then switching around the name tags.

Perhaps I have my mother to thank for my love of fruit. But I may have swung a bit to another extreme. Whenever I buy fruit, it’s hard for me not to eat it all in one sitting. A pound of cherries can be gone in a heartbeat and I will frequently eat several apples, peaches, or whatever else is in season in one day. I still feel liberated and just a wee bit naughty eating that second piece. But there is one fruit I never want seconds of. You guessed it…bananas.

Blood, Sweat, and Tears: A Day on the Playground in the 1970’s

Saxon Hall playgroundMy apartment building had its own playground. Unfortunately, the playground was a mess. It was nearly impossible to sit on a bench without getting a splinter in your finger or your cheek (you know the cheek I’m talking about) and there was frequently broken glass on the ground. The swings were routinely vandalized and it would be months (if not years) before they were replaced. The sliding ponds were full of rust and possibly a breeding ground for tetanus, and the see-saws disappeared early on in my childhood and only made one short-lived comeback. There was a stairway at the entrance of the park leading down to the building’s underground garage but the door was always blocked with litter and empty beer cans. Yet this playground was one of the highlights of my childhood.

In the summer months, every night after dinner, every kid in the building would congregate in that park. There were no phone calls, emails, or texts. It was an unwritten rule; show up around 6:30 pm if you want to be part of the fun. The main game was tag, and with a dozen or more kids to play with, the game was pretty exciting. We’d start with the standard “eeny, meeny, miny moe” to determine who was “it” which was a job in itself since at least 24 feet wearing Converse sneakers had to be tapped endlessly while reciting the rhyme. In our minds, there was no way around this, and we attempted to move through the selection process as quickly as possible. It’s amazing we could actually run in our Converse sneakers since it was like running on a piece of cardboard with a shoelace wrapped around it, but that’s all there was back then and no one seemed to ever sit out a game because of shin splints, so I guess they served their purpose. We played tag non-stop until the street lights went on and you could barely see your opponent. The only kids who left early were the European ones who to our endless fascination didn’t eat dinner until 7:30 pm. They had to leave, scoff down foods no one could pronounce, and try to get back to the playground before dark.

While tag was the most popular game we played, there were others. Wolf was a game where the person who was “it” was the wolf and all the kids on base were the chickens. Each kid had to decide on a color that would represent their “eggs” and share their choice with the other chickens so there were no repeats. The wolf would ask if the chickens had any eggs of a certain color and when your color was called, you had to run and try to get back to base before the wolf tagged you. If you succeeded, you got to pick a new color for your eggs; if you were caught, you became the new wolf. The game was fun while we were young and just knew our primary colors, but kids started “aging out” of the game and selecting colors that were impossible for the younger kids to guess, like magenta, lime-green, and the always dubious “rainbow colored” eggs. It was time to move on.

Another popular game was Red Rover. In this game, the kids divided into two teams and created a human wall by linking hands together. The teams would take turns chanting “Red Rover, Red Rover, we call (insert name here) over.” That kid would have to run and charge through the human wall, hoping to find the weakest link and break through. If he was successful, he returned to his team. If not, he was captured and became part of the other team. This game was so painful that it terrified everyone, yet it was more terrifying to say you didn’t want to play. So we just grinned and beared it, and hoped that the kid carrying the extra 20 pounds didn’t sever an artery or take off a limb as he body slammed our clasped hands.

Red Light Green Light was a gentler game, but not without its own set of problems. In this game, the person who was “it” turned his back to his opponents and chanted “red light green light one, two, three” while his opponents had to run off base and stop and freeze once the phrase was recited and “it” turned around to face the runners. The goal was to tag “it” while his back was turned and then run back to base without being caught. But, if “it” finished the phrase and turned around and you were not frozen in place, you had to go back to base and start over. The problem with this game was that there was an enormous amount of subjectivity and you never knew for sure if “it” really saw you move or was just pissed off because you didn’t give him the five cents he needed earlier in the day to have enough money for a Hershey bar. Tempers always flared during this time and kids would decide whose side to take in the argument and become their playground lawyer. The game deteriorated quickly, which is why we probably ended up resorting to playing Red Rover.

From time to time we would bring our big pink hula hoops to the playground for hula hooping competitions where we would see who could gyrate the longest without dropping their hoop. My brother Stuart would bring down our Monopoly money and offer to take bets from the other children as if we were thoroughbred race horses. My main competitor was my friend Eileen. She was younger, faster, and had better rhythm than me overall. She won every time. Yet my loyal friend, Harlan, always bet on me. He lost millions in Monopoly money, but preserved his friendship with me. Wise man.

During the school year, kids went to the school park which was considered a step up from the Saxon Hall park. The school park was fairly new and had a free-spirited, late 1960’s “feeling groovy” feel to it. There was a pink structure that vaguely resembled an octopus, a climbing apparatus that looked like a spaceship, and another thing to climb on that looked like a camel with two humps. People claimed that the park was designed by some up-and-coming artist, but I think the park resembled the tortured images of some poor guy on a bad LSD trip. The only things in the park that looked like what they were supposed to be were the monkey bars. There were three monkey bars shaped like an arch; small, medium, and large. The large one was at least five feet high and kids would routinely try to walk upright over the entire length of the monkey bar without falling. The developer of the playground thought about spurring a child’s imagination by creating structures with nebulous identities, but he never once thought about safety.  Like many parks in the 70s’s, there was no protective padding below the monkey bars or any of the other structures and we proudly showed off our cuts, bruises, and gashes after our foot slid through the bar and we toppled onto the concrete five feet below.

Similarly, the word helmet only appeared in our vocabulary when we were discussing astronauts; surely there was no place for this equipment while riding a bike or roller skating. Likewise for elbow and knee pads. We were playground warriors in our bad sneakers and splintered asses. And we liked it that way just fine.

Dessert Anyone?

chocolate cakeIn  my home growing up, the family meal rarely revolved around stimulating dinner conversation or even the meal itself. In all of our minds, the main purpose of dinner was dessert. You could serve my father an old shoe basted in tar and he wouldn’t say a word. But if there was no dessert, he’d hit the roof. My two brothers and I each had designated days of the week for picking up groceries and one item that was always on the list was dessert. Being the shopper of the day was in some ways a coveted position because it meant you had the power to select the family dessert. My brother Jeffrey and I always went into a funk on the days our older brother Stuart got to pick the dessert because he always picked the Entenmann’s cake with the yellow frosting and coconut. Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against Entenmann’s; it made an appearance in our household so frequently that it should have been the fourth child. But that particular cake…ugggh! Stuart also frequently selected butter pecan ice cream, another dessert Jeffrey and I hated.

Jeffrey, being the clever one that he was, often selected the Entenmann’s six-pack cupcake assortment with two white and four chocolate cupcakes (I never understood why it wasn’t three and three). He picked this dessert for a reason. There were five people in my family and six cupcakes. Jeffrey would wolf down one cupcake and then go for the second. When we screamed bloody murder that he had already had his cupcake he would reply, “No, I already ate the EXTRA cupcake; now I am going to eat mine.”

On the days I got to pick dessert, I usually opted for the Entenmann’s chocolate cake with the chocolate frosting. I mean, really, is there any other acceptable choice? In my world, there is a social hierarchy for desserts and anything chocolate tops the list.

My father was so desperate to make sure there was always dessert on hand for him that he started buying what the family called “really bad cookies.” Really bad cookies were the equivalent of a generic version of Oreos. The cookie part tasted like cardboard and the filling tasted like sand. He viewed this as some sort of insurance policy; protection that if someone neglected to get dessert or finished whatever other treats were in the house, there would always be something sweet to dunk in the cup of coffee he drank every evening following dinner, But dad was sorely mistaken. We frequently gritted our teeth and held our noses and ate those cookies too, well before dinnertime,  so he was sometimes left with nothing.

When I was about nine or ten years old, a new pie shop opened in the neighborhood called Four & Twenty Pies. They made fruit pies and cream pies that were so high in fat content, they should have included the same warning label you see on a pack of cigarettes. The pies were packed in neon orange cardboard boxes with a repeating geometric hexagon pattern resembling pies. Mom had to pass this pie shop on the way home from work and she started buying one or sometimes two at least once a week. But after a steady diet of lemon meringue, graham cracker pie with pudding, and a peach or apple pie here and there, dad’s weight began to balloon to close to 200 pounds. Mom quickly put the kabosh on the Four & Twenty Pies routine and put dad on a strict diet. The pie store closed about a year later (probably due to a lack of business from us) but it really was the best thing that could have happened. If we had continued down the slippery slope of pie-eating gluttony, a neighbor would surely have found us all dead with remains of blueberry and whipped cream on our faces.

Dessert wasn’t limited to dinner. When mom packed us school lunches there was always a dessert, usually a Drake’s or Hostess cake like a Ring Ding, Twinkie, or a Yodel. Judging from the majority’s reaction to coconut, mom knew better than to throw a Snowball in there. Mom was pretty predictable; there was always only one dessert in the lunchbox. One day I opened my lunchbox and found three Ring Dings in it. I thought I’d hit the mother lode. Obviously, mom was preoccupied or under a lot of stress the day she made this monumental mistake. She was probably obsessing about her job or an important family matter and just wasn’t paying close attention to where she was putting each of those Ring Dings. But did I care? Hell, no; I had three Ring Dings and my brothers had none.

Growing up, my kids never had a Ring Ding or a Yodel. My father thought this was appalling and considered reporting me to child protection services. He was determined to put my kids on a path of processed confections and my parents’ house quickly became the place with all the good stuff.

Dad didn’t live to witness the Twinkie debacle and if he had, he would have been gravely concerned. And while I no longer eat Twinkies myself, I gave my dad a silent high-five when they were bailed out of bankruptcy. Dessert may have made dinner fun, but the love of the people surrounding me at those dinners didn’t hurt either.