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.

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.

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.

Instant Pants

Instant PantsWhen I was in high school, the best place to get cool jeans in my neighborhood was called Instant Pants. It was a hole-in-the-wall store with shelves of pants that started on the floor and went all the way up to the ceiling. No matter how tall, short, fat, or thin you were, you could always find a pair of pants here. The employees  (over-the-hill hippees that looked like they had just come from a Vietnam War protest) would get an idea of your size, climb a precarious ladder to pull out a pair of the latest Sassoon’s, Calvin Klein’s, or Jordache’s, and voila…instant pants.

In the late 1970’s, jeans for girls were all about what was stitched on the back pocket. Guys might wear Levi’s Smith’s, Lee’s or Wrangler’s, but girls were all about what design was plastered on their butts. My friends and I would spend hours researching the latest designs…loops, zig-zags, rainbows, etc. to determine what we liked. We’d try on the jeans and nearly pull a muscle trying to see how that design looked on our ass from every conceivable angle. And of course we’d ask each other the ridiculous “How does my butt look in these?” question, ignoring any other indicators of poor fit including the ability to sit down in the jeans without ripping them in two. We often had to lie about how we thought the jeans looked on each other. Sure, part of the reason was to be nice. But the other (and more important) reason was to make sure that your friend didn’t get to take home the pair of jeans you were secretly lusting after. For some strange reason, it was perfectly fine for ten girls to show up with the exact same Christian Dior bag (no, I didn’t own one), but showing up with the same design on your ass was a good enough reason to try to transfer out of the school.

The other critical component of a pair of girl’s jeans in the 70’s was the bell. The bell had to be wide; wide enough so that the bottom tip of the pants leg touched the top of your clogs. Yes, this was the preferred shoe of choice until a few years later when bells were out, straight legs were in, and clogs were replaced with Candies, a high heeled clog so dangerous,  they should have come with their own plaster cast and set of crutches.

My mother’s favorite thing about Instant Pants was that they offered instant (and free!) alterations. At barely 5 feet tall, it wasn’t easy finding jeans that didn’t need alterations. Everything in the store looked like it was made for a professional basketball player…there was at least an extra two feet of material that they seemed to be able to cut and hem in a nano-second.

Instant Pants is long gone, but I continue to yearn for them on a regular basis. I’m still only 5 feet tall and I’m constantly on the prowl for petite jeans that don’t have to be shortened. Yes, I could go to a tailor and pay money to have this done, but the thrill of the instant alterations is hard to replace. So as an alternative, when the pants are too long I just buy a new pair of shoes with a heel high enough to compensate for the extra inches of fabric. My solution to the demise of Instant Pants is instant shoes which has become an expensive habit in itself.

It’s probably a good thing that we are no longer interested in the stitching on the back of our jeans. Calling attention to your ass in 1978 is a very different story than calling attention to that same ass in 2013.

How Did I Get Here?

Thirty years ago I moved from my hometown in Queens to an apartment on Manhattan’s upper west side. I remember the thrill of crossing the 59th Street Bridge to start my new life and I never looked back…for a very long time. But now friends and family are drawing me back and soon I’ll be making that journey across the bridge again to go back home. This blog is about my memories of growing up in Queens. The inspiration came from my daughter Maia, who has asked me to tell her my childhood stories regularly for as long as I can remember. Thank you Maia for helping me keep these memories alive and most of all for listening.