Ten Questions I’ve Always Wanted to Ask the Brady Bunch

In the early to mid-seventies, one of the most talked about television shows among kids was The Brady Bunch. In many children’s eyes, this family was perfect and was the yardstick we used to judge our own families. Unfortunately, our own families never measured up to this one, and we had to face the cold, harsh reality that our families sucked and we would never get to live in a house with a cool staircase, a big yard, and live-in help. Yet despite the huge abyss that we believed separated our modest lives in Queens from anything Brady-like, I had my questions about that bunch. Here are just a few.

  1. If Mike Brady was such a great architect, why did they live in a house where six kids where holed up in two rooms? Couldn’t he get creative? Put up a wall or build an addition the the house or something? Didn’t he watch HGTV and know how to make this space work? Did Alice really need to live in or should that room have gone to another kid?
  2. Did Mr. and Mrs. Brady read any studies published about the issues of being a middle child? If they had, is it possible that Peter Brady would not have acted out, seeking attention by signing a contract to appear on VH1’s Surreal World?
  3. What was up with Carol Brady’s hair. Wasn’t there a better way to grow out your hair after a pixie cut? Wasn’t Vidal Sassoon on the set?
  4. What kind of health insurance did the Bradys’ have? Neither of the parents complained about the doctors’ bills when Peter (middle child!) accidentally hit Marcia in the nose with that football. They must have had a damn good plan.
  5. Why was it that the Bradys’ didn’t have any diverse friends that were say, African American, Asian, Muslim, or Jewish, but they were paling around with a midget? (Cousin Oliver, final season)
  6. Why didn’t anyone suggest speech therapy for Cindy’s lisp?
  7. Did Sam the butcher sometimes stay over in Alice’s room?
  8. How did a family of eight survive with just one TV? (I only remember seeing one in the den).
  9. What happened to Carol Brady’s first husband? Was he dead? Were they divorced? Did he have life insurance? Pay alimony? Didn’t the girls ever think about him? Couldn’t they have included a flashback episode?
  10. Did Jan really need all that hair? Hasn’t she ever heard of Locks of Love?

These questions usually played over and over in my head during the show’s Friday night 8 pm time slot, but by 8:30, it was time for The Partridge Family, which brought up a whole host of new questions including, where was their dad, was Tracy so musically inept that all she could play was the tambourine, and why the hell didn’t they fire that stylist who dressed them all in pre-Seinfeld puffy shirts? 


Everybody Loves Jeffrey

Jeffrey and BarbieHaving an older brother has its pluses and minuses and for the most part I adored my brother Jeffrey. When we were young, I mimicked everything he did and when we were teenagers, I sought his advice on everything from academics to music to boys. 

But into many people’s lives, a bit of sibling rivalry must fall, and I was no exception. Things always came easy for my brother. He was a straight-A student and all the teachers loved him, particularly the ones who couldn’t stand me.

He always seemed to be getting some award at school named after some dead teacher. He received so many of these I started wondering if someone was “offing” teachers just to have another reason to give my brother another recognition for his talents.

In the sixth grade, he was awarded a dictionary with his name engraved on it for being the best all-around student. For years, that dictionary sat like a tschoke in the living room and if anyone ever had to look up a word, that dictionary was the only available resource to do so.  My mom still uses it, even though I keep reminding her that Wikipedia and Google are fine substitutes and much more reputable than a dictionary published in the 70’s, because as you all know, everything published on the Internet is true.  It’s no use though, because if she needs to know how to spell a word like esquamulose or learn the meaning of  smaragdine, she is headed to that dictionary.

In addition to constantly being showered with some award, Jeffrey was always selected to attend a special something or other. He was picked to attend a special experimental school for two years and spend a summer at some special international camp. This was years before Saturday Night Live’s Dana Carvey created the Church Lady character and coined the phrase, “well isn’t that spe-cial” but I was probably secretly mouthing something similar while Jeffrey got all this “spe-cial” attention.

His academic wins continued throughout high school, when he was “crowned” Boy Arista Leader and given some sort of power trip role among the other school brainiacs. My mother bought him a special suit for the induction ceremony that looked a lot like a Catholic school uniform, an odd choice for a proud Jewish mother.

In addition to being really smart, Jeffrey was really lucky. This became evident every year at the annual Purim Carnival hosted by Temple Isaiah in Queens. At the event, kids got to participate in carnival-like games such as throwing darts at balloons and playing ring toss. They won cheap prizes, mainly the type of stuff that breaks before you get home or is broken on purpose by your mother because it makes an annoying sound. But every year, there was a contest where kids tried to guess how many forks or M&M’s or jelly beans were in a huge jar. The kid who came closest to the correct amount won a decent prize like a big box of lollipops. My brother seemed to win this contest every year we attended the Purim Carnival. I wonder if he can count cards too.

Even the way Jeffrey dressed made him stand out as special. When he wasn’t wearing his Arista boy leader suit, he selected a style of dress that was quite different than his peers. Most guys were wearing jeans and concert tee shirts, but Jeffrey went for a different look that was a cross between Alex Keaton in Family Ties and Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever. He happened upon a men’s clothing store in the Queens Center Mall that sold these silk/polyester blend shirts and he would pair these with polyester dress pants. He kept a few of the top buttons of the shirt open despite his lack of chest hair and he even donned a gold chain. He always wore shoes, never sneakers or even boots. When the shirts got wrinkled (wait, I thought that wasn’t supposed to happen with polyester?) he would iron the cuffs and collar and put a sweater over it to hide any imperfections with the rest of the shirt.

As jealous as I could sometimes get over the things that came my brother’s way, I don’t think I ever got mad at him. Maybe that’s because he always shared his Purim booty, but probably because deep down I was really proud to have him as my brother.

Fourth Grade and the Beginnings of My Checkered Past

MomNERDFourth grade was a year of change and an end of innocence. Watergate was in full swing, the US was in a recession, and Cher was appearing regularly on television half naked. I began my own experimentation and rebellion or sorts during this time period as well.

In fourth grade we had a spelling and math test every week on Friday. I breezed through math in third grade because the main thing we learned that year was multiplication which is all memorization…something I can actually do (well, until cell phones with auto dial were invented and my ability to memorize anything went out the window). But fourth grade math was division, which requires some degree of logical thinking, something I have none of.

Each week we were handed a piece of pale yellow paper and the teacher dictated the math questions we were to answer. She didn’t use mimeograph paper for math tests and while most kids continued to sniff the pale yellow paper hoping for a quick buzz, all we ever got was the faint smell of the storage closet where the paper was kept.

Since we were required to answer several math problems, the teacher instructed us on how to fold the paper to achieve the correct number of boxes to serve as a work space for each problem. If there were eight math problems I could handle the folding ritual, but on the weeks when there were 16 problems to solve, my paper often looked like a failed attempt at origami or a handmade accordion fan.

Once the paper was folded and the problems were dictated, I employed a new skill I had learned that year…cheating. My friend Gaby was always up for a dare, plus she was a much better math student than me, so who was I to argue? We blatantly surveyed each other’s papers, yet we were never caught. It seemed like an ingenious plan at the time, however, I left fourth grade lacking some basic math skills that were later uncovered by my sixth grade teacher who couldn’t stand to look at me. Note to friends: This is why you should never ask me to divide the check after a gathering with multiple people. Some people will end up kicking in $2 while you will be asked to pay $50.

Fourth grade was without a doubt the year I made the biggest fashion statement of my life. In fourth grade, I stopped wearing dresses to school and started wearing pants. In 1973, school-appropriate pants for girls were Danskins. The tween Danskin ensembles of the day were the equivalent of men’s polyester leisure suits for ten-year-old girls. My favorite outfit was a pair of green Danskin pants with an orange Danskin turtleneck. I wore a multi-colored, multi-patterned knit vest over this and put the finishing touches on the look by wearing two big ponytails tied together with orange yarn (mom’s idea). One week I wore this get-up on a Friday when we had our math and spelling test and I earned grades of 100 percent on both. I became convinced that the outfit had something to do with this and secretly planned to wear this each week on Friday in hopes of repeating the 100 percent test scores. It must have been pretty obvious, because the teacher actually sent a note home to my mother asking why I wore the same thing every Friday. I’m not sure if the teacher had picked up on my leanings towards obsessive compulsive disorder or she was just trying to throw a hint mom’s way that she should buy me some more clothes, but all I know is that since I outgrew that outfit in the fourth grade, the 100’s on my math tests have been few and far between.

In fourth grade we finally got to stop making the obligatory Mother’s Day gifts of the 70’s such as a pencil holder made out of an old soup can, glue, and dried macaroni and a jewelry case made out of an empty cigar box that no matter how much cologne you sprayed in it still smelled like a cigar box (sometimes a cigar is just a cigar). Our fourth grade teacher came up with the idea to create a cookbook for the moms for Mother’s Day. Each kid had to request a favorite recipe from their mom, but keep the project a secret.  The teacher copied all the recipes (wait a minute; no…she mimeographed them!) and each kid created a special cover for the book out of of some strange, exceptionally durable material that felt like wallpaper, (perhaps left over from the teacher’s home renovation project).

One of my favorite recipes from that book was from Harlan’s mom. The recipe was for orange Jello. “This is a recipe?” you might ask. But wait; in his mother’s recipe you add orange juice instead of water! Fancy, huh? I still remember the instructions: Empty box of jello into a bowl, add one cup orange juice, stir, refrigerate, serve. So simple and yet so 70’s. My mom contributed a recipe called Chicken Tarragon Champignons. I have no idea how to pronounce this, but I do remember the recipe called for so much butter it should have been served with a side of Lipitor. My mother still has this cookbook and it is not unusual for her to call me and tell me things like, “I made Patti’s mother’s ham steak with pineapple recipe yesterday for dinner.” Unfortunately, I think she has yet to try the orange Jello recipe.

After the cookbooks were delivered, the teacher arranged a day where each mom could cook the dish supplied in the cookbook and we could have a feast in the school cafeteria. It was a festive occasion, until a boy named Roger realized that the five bowls he had consumed of what he thought was chicken soup was actually an Asian-inspired dish made with whale meat. The event ended with the janitor mopping up the three or four bowls of soup that Roger puked back up.

When Roger wasn’t eating whale soup, he was often getting into fist fights with another boy in the class. This was one of the most exciting points of the day because Roger was the heart throb of many of the girls and we would all jump up and down on the desks screaming, “Go Roger, Go!” and watching a fellow classmate get pummeled until the teacher was able to peel the two apart. These fights left such an impression on me that each night after my father came home from work, I would reenact that day’s fight and insert a bleep sound for each time one boy had cursed at the other.

Many of my other memories of fourth grade have faded, but sometimes when I go to visit my mom, I take out that cookbook and if I breath into it really deeply, the memories come back along with the faint smell of mimeograph ink.


Got GPS? Don’t Bother Using it in Queens

When I was in the second grade, we had a homework assignment to study a map of our neighborhood, memorize the names of the streets, and learn their order. This sounds like a reasonable homework assignment, until one realizes that even a rocket scientist with a map, a compass, a weather vane, and GPS would have a hard time figuring out where the hell he was going in Queens.

Originally, what is now the borough of Queens was 60 separate villages. These villages became Queens which was incorporated into New York City in 1898. In an effort to unify the streets across all these villages, someone came up with what many consider to be the most convoluted grid system in the universe.

In Queens, avenues run east and west and streets run north and south. Avenues have consecutive numbers, but often there are additional parallel streets in between the avenues that need to be called something, so they have been assigned the same numbers and called roads or drives, in that order.

So if there was a street between 65th and 66th Avenues, it would be called 65th Road. If there was another one, it would be called 65th Drive. Sometimes there are roads and drives between the avenues, sometimes there is only a road. Sometimes the avenues run consecutively with nothing in between. A destination that you originally thought was ten blocks away might be more like 30.

The same concept is applied to streets. If there is an additional street that needs naming between the consecutively numbered streets, they are called places and lanes. In some cases, streets aren’t even in numerical order. For example, if I walk from 99th Street where I grew up over to the next street, I hit 102nd Street. What happened to 100th and 101st Street? It’s across an expressway, several zip codes away. Easy Peasey.

Curved roads that are not parallel with either the avenues or the streets have numbers and are called crescents, courts or terraces. Addresses are hyphenated. The number before the hyphen is the cross street, and the number after the hyphen is the position on the block. For example, 62-38 99th Street  is in the 38th position on 99th Street and has 62nd Avenue as the cross street. Note to native Queens residents. Don’t be impressed; I only recently learned all this from Wikipedia.

In some parts of the borough, there are stretches of named streets in between numbered ones, making this grid system pretty useless. These named streets were left over from the pre-grid days and retained by members of the community who thought the grid system was pretty lame. Several subway stations in the western part of Queens have retained the original street names, yet the corresponding street signs are numbers. Leave it to the MTA to mess with our heads by calling 46th Street Bliss Street Station and naming the stop at 33rd Street Rawson Street. The fancy schmancy section of Queens, Forest Hills Gardens, gave the finger to the grid system as well and retained their original names rather than numbers. Streets have names that follow the letters of the alphabet, something I can generally handle.

Below is a comparison of a map of a neighborhood in Queens versus one in Manhattan. Note the differences. For the Queens map, you can figure out where you are going by multiplying the distance by the square root of pi divided by 15, subtracting 2,982, and then adding 6.; this will get you to within 5 miles of your desired destination. To achieve the same task in Manhattan, all you have to be able to do is count.




 The system is so convoluted that I can ask my mother, a resident of Queens for close to 50 years, to name the street or avenue two blocks over from her apartment and she cannot answer with 100% confidence. 

As kids, we never said things like “meet me on the corner of 98th Street and 62nd Drive,” because no one knew where that was, even if it was just a block or two away. Instead we relied on landmarks as our meeting place and would say things like, “meet me in front of the drugstore; the one with the cashier with the 10 inch fingernails,” or “meet me under the Long Island Expressway at the place where my brother got mugged last week,” or  meet me in front of that store that sells all the smelly cheese.” The only two streets that were ever referenced were Queens Boulevard (because the Boulevard of Death deserves that respect) and Austin Street because that was the high school equivalent of 5th Avenue in Manhattan.

When I moved to Manhattan, decades ago, being able to find my way around was like a breath of fresh air. I still marvel at the fact that 85th Street comes after 84th Street and Second Avenue is east of Third Avenue. When I return to Queens I will need to surround myself with the few geographically clairvoyant people I know from the borough who seem to have tackled this grid thing and can safely get me from point A to point B.

Stuff That Was Important in the 70’s That Doesn’t Exist Anymore

There were several things I regularly encountered in the 70’s that were important components of my daily life. Many of them are gone now. Here are just a few.

  1. Photo booths. If you were feeling bored and silly, you could go to a store like Woolworth’s and for a quarter you could have a series of black and white pictures taken showing you and your friends doing something stupid. Note to readers born after 1995: this was the closest thing we had to Snapchat, but kids today are much smarter because they can make their Snapshot photos disappear in a matter of seconds. People like me end up with friends who find photo booth pictures in the back of their closet and post them on my Facebook page. Today it’s a lot harder to find a photo booth and when you do, it’s generally only used for passport pictures or as a source of nostalgic entertainment at Bar Mitzvahs and Sweet Sixteens.
  2. Foot X-rays. Up until 1970, mom would take us once a year to the Buster Brown shoe store for new school shoes. The excitement around this outing had nothing to do with getting new shoes and little to do with the free helium balloon you received after your visit. The highlight of the trip was getting a turn at the X-Ray shoe fitter machine. The machine allowed you to see all the bones in your feet while simultaneously getting a healthy dose of radiation. The machine was generally operated by a shoe salesman blowing cigarette smoke in your face while buffing a pair of new Mary Janes with some toxic shoe polish. Our foot x-ray days ended around 1970 when these machines were banned.
  3. Rotary phones. Dialing a number with a lot of 9’s in it was a bitch, you had to memorize important phone numbers in your head because there was no auto-dial, the long phone cords were always tangled, and if another caller was trying to get through while you were on the line, they were out of luck. If someone tried to call you with an important message and you weren’t home, you were screwed because there was no way to leave a message back then. But on the positive side, at least you always knew where the phone was because it was cemented to the wall. ,
  4. Arcade games. It used to be that you couldn’t walk into a candy store or newspaper shop without seeing a pinball machine, Pong, Asteroids, or PacMan. Today the only  place I ever see arcade games is at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens with a sign that says, “Do Not Touch.”
  5. Typewriters.  When I was a teenager, I got a typewriter before I went to college. It was considered essential. There was no such thing as a Royal Ultra Book or a Smith Corona Air. There was one weight of typewriter…heavy. Back then, copy and pasting meant copying someone else’s term paper, not moving text around on the computer screen. There was no spell-check which meant students required a lot of white-out, which for many, replaced the mimeograph paper we were all getting buzzed off of back in first grade.
  6. Records. Part of the fun of listening to music was going to the record store or Alexander’s and leafing through the album covers. The photos, artwork, or images on the covers were often just as exciting as the album itself. Back then, you couldn’t Google the lyrics to your favorite song, so it was always eye-opening when you purchased the album and realized you’d been singing the wrong lyrics.. After months of belting out Simon & Garfunkel’s Sound of Silence singing “silence like a casserole” I finally realized that the duo was singing “silence like a cancer grows.” I still like my version better.
  7. Toaster ovens. We didn’t have a toaster oven growing up, but I always thought we needed one because everyone else seemed to have one. Apparently no one thinks this anymore, since I never see them anymore, except in my mother’s house because she bought one after I moved out!
  8. Subway tokens. Long before NYC Metrocards, everyone had to carry around tokens that were usually stuffed all the way at the bottom of your pocket and covered with lint or used tissues when you finally fished them out of your jeans. Despite the inconvenience, I miss subway tokens and I have been known to oogle over the New York Transit Museum store’s kitchy, gaudy, noisy, subway token charm bracelet with genuine tokens from different decades. Note to close friends and family: this would make a great gift for me if you’ve missed Christmas or my birthday.
  9. Skate keys. Before there were roller blades, kids had skates with keys that were used to adjust the size. Every kid was told to wear their key around their neck so it wouldn’t get lost. By the time I got my first pair of skates, Super Skates were invented which were adjustable without a key but never really gave you a snug fit. Fortunately Super Skates prepared me for the dozens of uncomfortable, impractical shoes I would purchase for decades to come.
  10. Captain Crunch ice cream bars. This was the best ice cream bar on the planet. I thought it was pure genius to blend a breakfast cereal with ice cream. Was I the only one? How could these gems have ever disappeared? I am still scratching my head.
  11. Rectal thermometers. Who doesn’t remember the embarrassment and discomfort of having a rectal thermometer shoved up your ass? Today this is reserved for people who are unconscious or for whatever reason can’t seem to use a mouth or ear thermometer, but back in the 70’s if your mother suspected you had a fever, there was no escaping the rectal thermometer.
  12. Lollipops at the doctor’s office. Sometime between 1980 and 1990, offering lollipops at the doctor’s office fell out of vogue. Ever since my kids started going to the pediatrician’s office, I have tried my best not to roll my eyes at the end of the visit when they are offered stickers. Big whoop. If I’ve just been poked and prodded (and perhaps just had an encounter with a rectal thermometer), I expect some compensation in the form of candy; not a piece of paper with glue.
  13. TV antennas. Before high definition, we had rabbit ears and snow. TV antennas were used to help make the picture clearer or more stable, get rid of weird zig zag lines on the screen, and eliminate snow, a euphemism for no freaking picture at all. Adjusting the rabbit ears was never an exact science and required a great deal of creativity. Each member of the family would take turns moving the rabbit ears close together and far apart hoping our actions would result in a clearer picture. Getting the rabbit ears in the right position for a clear picture usually required certain sacrifices like holding the antenna in a certain position with one hand, eliminating sudden movements, or suppressing breathing.
  14. TV test patterns. Before television was 24/7 and five-hour marathons of Law & Order and Hoarders didn’t exist, people used to go to bed no later than 1:30 am, when television programming ended for the evening. After Johnny Carson and the late night movie, a picture of an American flag would come on and the national anthem would be played. After this, all you could watch on TV was a test pattern with colors or more snow.
  15. Anything with a dial. Before there were remotes, people were forced to get up off their asses and change the channel when they wanted to watch a different television show. The same was true of the radio when you wanted to change the station. My father actually invented the concept for the first remote which was essentially any child in the family who walked past the television while he was watching. He would point a finger at one of us and ask us to change the channel for him, never leaving his chair. We served his purpose and we never ran out of batteries.

Queens to English Dictionary

My first roommate in college was from Albany, NY. During summer vacations when I returned to Queens, we would chat on the phone. Come September she would admit to me that the second I was back in Queens, my Queens accent kicked in, my voice sped up to 50 miles an hour, and she couldn’t understand anything I said on those calls so she just “yessed” and “ah ha’d” me until I returned to college and could once again be understood by those outside the borough.

My guess is that she was not the only one to struggle with understanding people from the borough, so as a public service to my non-Queens readers, I have put together a little Queens to English translation guide.

A few things to know about a Queens accent: it is very nasal, it could take weeks to complete the sound of a word with a w in it, and r’s are optional. The further east you go in the borough, the more pronounced the accent becomes, until you hit Lawn Giland (Long Island) which is beyond the scope of this post. Some natives of Queens have gone on to have successful careers, like Cyndi Lauper, famous for such hits as True Culas and Tiwwwwme Afta Tiwwwwme.

Now, practice with me. Here are two typical Queens conversations. Try to read along. Then check the words in the English/Queens translation guide below.

I was bowww-na in Queens, New Yawwk whay-a it is against the laww-wa not to clean up af-ta ya dawwwg. I hey-ar from some goy-a der was a tiwwwwme when dawwwgs cud drink wodda and then piss whereva they wan-ed to but dose days are gawwwn, thank Gawwwd.

Wait until ya fatha gets home mista! The cula of ya baa-tam is gowen to be red by tomarra and faww weeks ta come.

Translation Guide:

part: pawwwt

water: wodda

guy: goy-a

born: bowww-na

dog: dawwwg

calf: caaavvv

going: gowen

there: der

bottom: baa-tam

whatever: whadeva

wherever: whereva

mother: mu-tha

father: faaa-tha

fog: fowwwg

your: ya

wanted: wan-ed

tomorrow: tomarra

law: laww-ah

thick: tdick

thought: thowwwt

color: cu-la

New York: New Yawwwwk

God: Gawwd

walk: wawwwwk

far: faaaa

for: faww

there: der

them: dem

those: dose

shirt: shwirt

whisper: whis-pa

word: wawwwd

hear: hey-a

like: liwwwk

time: tiwwwwme

love: luv

why: wuhy

right: whryte

going: gow-en

where: whay-a

after: af-ta

could: cud

mister: mista

wanted: wan-ed

would have: wood-a

Next time, we will examine what happens when you combine a Brooklyn-bred father who loved cawwwww-fee and cake with a mother from Pennsylvania who spelled out the family name, Lewine, L-E-DUBYA-I-N-E to whoever needed to know, which was pointless anyway, since everything with the family name printed on it always ended up misspelled as Levine.






Jalar The Everything Store

At the age ten, I got my first job walking a miniature white poodle that lived in a building nearby. My friend Laurie had the job first, but she would often invite me to walk the dog with her and later I was asked by the owner to walk the dog when Laurie wasn’t available. Since I knew there was no way in hell I was ever getting a dog, or any pet for that matter, (please don’t ask me about the fish we killed after just one week), I was very excited to get paid to walk a dog.  And back then, no one even expected you to clean up dog shit, so the job really was good, clean fun. I can’t remember if I earned 50 cents a walk or 50 cents a week, but I do remember putting the money to good use, mainly for buying Mr. Softee and maybe even my own cup of Chow Chow truck french fries once in a while. After that job, things went downhill, and I spent much of my early and late teen years in a series of  boring cashier jobs.

During my summer break, following my first year of college, I returned to Queens to make some money to help finance my second year of college. For most students this meant landing some crappy minimum wage job that required you to work for people who had that same crappy minimum wage job years before you and were now crappy managers. I found all that and more when I landed a cashier job at Jalar, the Everything Store.

Jalar the Everything Store was on the south side of Queen’s Boulevard. It was like a Woolworth’s or Five & Ten store, and it really did seem to have everything. Aisle one had assorted sundries like shampoo, hair dye, and deodorant. Aisle two had a large shopping cart perched precariously on a hook several feet above the ground and items in this aisle included housewares and things for the laundry. But perhaps the most interesting display was in aisle three which housed a toilet seat suspended from the ceiling. Luckily it was the soft foamy kind that became popular in the 70’s, so at least if it fell and someone was struck in the head with it, it wouldn’t be fatal and Jalar wouldn’t be held liable for murdering someone with a toilet seat.

The cigarettes, their most popular item, were kept at the front of the store, behind the counter. I had become a pro at quickly guessing and then dispensing a customer’s cigarette choice from earlier cashier jobs selling cigarettes to all the under-aged kids, pregnant women, and older adults sporting portable oxygen tanks. So by the time I got to Jalar, I already knew that the 18-year old boys smoked Marlboro (hard box only), young women with big hair smoked Parliments,  old women with blue hair smoked Kools, ladies with nice handbags and long fingernails smoked Virginia Slims, and men with leathery skin and mechanical voice boxes smoked Camels (unfiltered).

After cigarettes, probably the most widely sold item at Jalar was condoms. Men would typically buy their condoms along with other manly things like a screwdriver, a can of paint, a pair of work gloves, and nails. They would toss everything from their cart onto the counter as if the condoms were part of their shopping list or the list of “things I need to get done this weekend.”

When I first started working at Jalar, the condoms were kept at the counter with the cigarettes and the boxes were held together with rubber bands so they wouldn’t fall over or be easily stolen. The first time a customer asked me for a box of condoms, I grabbed a set of boxes in rubber bands, and charged him as if this was one box. Judging by the looks of this guy, I had easily sold him his lifetime supply of condoms for just 99 cents. This explains the huge smile he flashed me as he tipped his policeman’s cap and left the store.

There was a lot of theft at Jalar and the manager took matters into his own hands to manage this. Each time a shoplifter was caught, he would break out a Polaroid camera (note to readers born after 1990: this is the 1970’s equivalent of Instagram without the ability to adjust the color, making everyone look green) and force the thief to pose for a picture which he would hang up at the front counter with a sign that read, “People caught stealing from Jalar.” One shoplifter posed with a big smile on his face and underneath his photo read the inscription “second time!” You would think the picture taking would serve as some sort of deterrent, but after the one shoplifter claimed the “second time” title, every crook wanted to have their picture taken to steal the title of person caught stealing most frequently at Jalar. 

The manager lacked good judgment in other ways as well. He was having a very blatant affair with one of the other cashiers and when his wife came into the store (with their baby!) looking for him, we were supposed to act like we didn’t know where he was. I would usually use this time to reorganize the condoms, so I wouldn’t be seen and wouldn’t have to lie for him and this is probably when I realized that three condoms, not 300 were 99 cents.


See Dick Get High; First Grade Revisited

First grade was a time of academic and personal growth. It was the year I traded in my botox-inspired ponytail for shorter hair and barrettes, learned how to read, and learned how to add. Mastery of that last skill is somewhat questionable, as evidenced by my inability to balance my checkbook, but in any case, first grade was an exciting time.

My first grade teacher taught us how to read from a large book that was propped up on an easel at the front of the classroom and creatively named, “The Big Book”  This was before Sesame Street began airing on PBS and before today’s notion that children should be literate in-utero, so for most kids, this was their first exposure to learning to read.  Before going to school, I remember my mother reading to me on a haphazard basis from a book of fables, but when she got to the mind numbing and redundant story of Chicken Little where the names  Henny Penny, Cocky Locky, Ducky Lucky, Drakey Lakey, Goosey Loosey, Gander Lander, Turkey Lurkey and Foxy Loxy are repeated over and over again, she got fed up, taught me the meaning of the word etcetera, and decided to put her tax money to good use and let someone else take over any duties related to literacy.

In The Big Book, the characters had names like Dick and Jane and these kids went about their daily business exploring life through their phonetically-correct world. There was never a kid named Phoebe or Xavier or a story about a kid who came down with pneumonia or had tickets to see Phantom of the Opera, because if there had been, we would have all realized how much of a mind f*&k the English language was and we would have given up on learning it in two weeks. The Big Book focused on words that were easy to figure out like run, eat, and stop, but it was just a matter of time until we started scratching our heads and wondering who the prankster was who came up with words like laugh and thought and what idiot thought it was a good idea to create words like effect and affect which would continue to confuse us for decades to come.

When we weren’t reading The Big Book, we sometimes had worksheets that were printed on mimeograph paper. For those of you born after 1970, you don’t know what you were missing. The scent of the ink omitted from a single sheet of mimeograph paper was sweet and somewhat addictive and would give you a decent buzz. Mimeograph paper was basically a six-year-old’s version of LSD. The teachers were constantly telling the kids to stop sniffing their math worksheets, but to no avail. Years later, mimeograph machines were replaced with copy machines and many of the school’s students went on to harder drugs like Elmer’s  Glue and Aquanet hair spray. A few others entered MA, a 12-step program for those trying to break their mimeograph paper addiction.

By the time we were adequately high from the mimeograph paper, it was usually time for recess. In first grade we graduated from the baby park for the kindergarten kids to the big yard for grades one through six. During recess, we learned how to play a game called Rattlesnake in which 15-20 kids held hands and chanted R-A-T-T-L-E-S-N-A-K-E spells Rattlesnake while going under the arms of the first two kids on the line. By the end of the song, all the kids were linked in one huge twisted human chain and everyone would then sing R-A-T-T-L-E-S-N-A-K-E spells Rattlesnake once more while jumping up and down since no one could move an inch at this point. I’m not sure if I actually enjoyed this game, but at least it wasn’t Red Rover. On another occasion, the aides assigned to watch the first graders in the yard decided it would be fun to put on a Charlie Brown play during recess.  I thought this was a good idea until I was not cast for the obvious role, The Little Red Haired Girl, and at that point I decided Rattlesnake wasn’t such a bad game after all. 

During inclement weather, we had to spend recess in the auditorium where we were forced to sit in silence for 45 minutes while an aide with a Russian (or was it German?) accent screamed “Who’s talking???” anytime she heard a peep. On a few occasions, they would show some sort of film in the auditorium but this was before there were VCRs and DVDs or CDs and the pickings were slim. I remember once being shown a film about three kids who are walking through some woods alone and happen upon an abandoned refrigerator. One kid gets in and the others close the door. I’m not sure if the moral of the story was don’t get in a refrigerator and close the door or don’t trust your friends, but either way, it was a pretty creepy film to show kids in grade school. And besides, it’s not like there were any woods next to the apartment buildings we lived in, let alone abandoned refrigerators. I just couldn’t relate to the film. And if I really wanted to put myself in harms way, all I had to do was walk up to Queens Boulevard.

In the afternoons, following recess, we were often able to do more creative activities, like drawing. The eight-pack of Crayola Crayons mom purchased at the beginning of the school year paled in comparison to some of the other kids’ 64-packs (with a built in sharpener) and it was here that I realized the valuable lesson that not all things are equal, life isn’t always fair, and sometimes you have to improvise when drawing a cover for your Harold and the Purple Crayon book report when the closest thing to purple in your pathetic eight-pack of crayons is blue. These tough lessons prepared me well for the new challenges I would face in second grade when the work got harder, the teachers got stricter, and my eight-pack of crayons dwindled to four.