Jesus and the $20 Bill

I called him Jesus, because that was how it was spelled, but I am sure the correct way to say his name was hay-zus. I was only 8 years old, and didn’t know any better. He was Puerto Rican like many of the children in Brownsville, New York in 1957. The others were all black, except for my brother and me who I think were the only two white children in all of Brownsville. I guess that gave us some sort of status, or at least made us easy targets.

We lived on Bristol Street. Those who are old enough will remember the lyrics….”kids in Bristol are as sharp as a crystal, when they do the Bristol stomp”.

It was a wonderful neighborhood, if you thrived on murder and poverty, and the year we spent living there was torturous, fearful, and bizarre. My mother was married to a man named Al, and he liked to drink himself right out of a job, so we would move often and when it all bottomed out, there we were, in Brownsville. It was the same year the Brooklyn Dodgers announced they were moving to Los Angeles. Since they didn’t plan to take me with them, I was left to learn a bit about the streets, and I made one friend that I remember. Jesus was kind enough to never correct me while I called him by his anglicized name.

I believe Jesus was in my class, although I don’t know that for a fact. I only remember two kids in that class and got to know them in an intimate way. There was one black kid who was the class bully, and would pretty much push the rest of us around and get in our faces. One day I had had enough and we had a terrific fight which ended with me having that kid in a headlock while I punched her skull repeatedly. Yes, her. Her name was Shirley and after I gave her a small pounding she left me alone. But I was soon to discover that the life of the new champion brings with it certain pressures and expectations, and it wasn’t but a week later that a kid named Carlos found me outside of school and he I engaged in a very one sided boxing match. I didn’t know how to box. He did. After my pummeling I remember running home and looking at myself in the mirror. Like an overmatched prizefighter my entire face was swollen and there was more than one part of me oozing blood. Carlos, I realize now, did me a great favor, as I was, and remain, more a lover than a fighter, and it would have been hell to have to defend my lightweight title on a regular basis. Shortly thereafter my uncle, a former Golden Gloves boxer, taught me how to fight and the lessons that he and Carlos taught me have served to keep me safe for the rest of my fighting days.

Much of my spare time was spent making what we called zip guns. Jesus was part of this group and he showed me how to make my very own weapon. Zip guns today are crudely fashioned weapons that shoot real bullets. The kids I hung out with weren’t that sophisticated so our junior zip guns were more basic and made with rubber bands and wood. I don’t recall how they worked exactly but I do know they shot broken pieces of roofing shingle (readily abundant as the neighborhood was in a perpetual state of decay) and were very effective in ripping into flesh.

Another favorite activity was robbing parking meters. This was a very simple process as the lock boxes were all broken, and all one had to do was insert a popsicle stick into the slot where a dime would ordinarily be deposited and it would then push the last dime into the lock box which, since it was broken, could be opened by hand, thus allowing thieves, young and old, the occasional dime. This dime was enough for a soda, or two pickles pulled from a large pungent wooden pickle keg. It could buy a kid an ice cream on a hot day, and was enough for entry into the local movie theater that cost ten cents, but required you to bring your own soap box to sit on, as there were no seats. I remember feeling so guilty about my first heist that I ran home and buried that dime in the dirt in front of our apartment building. I suspect it is still there, waiting to be dug up. To be sure, you won’t find me returning to look for it.

When Jesus called me to say he took a $20 bill out of his mother’s purse I hurried to meet him at a subway stop where we boarded a train for a better shopping district. I don’t know for certain what a 1957 $20 bill would be worth today,  but it was a lot of money back then and Jesus was generous with his stolen loot and we ate a fine lunch and eventually found our way to a toy store where we took our time and shopped for the perfect toy. I ended up with a wooden ten inch model of a human that bent at the joints, and gave me more joy than you might imagine.

Jesus caught hell from his mother who I’m sure was a single parent working hard for every penny. I wish I could remember if I suffered any consequences for my eager partnership but I do not. Chances are I got away with it, and I suspect my mother never found out about my shopping trip and never even noticed my favorite toy.

We moved from that hell hole a year later and landed, briefly, in a much softer place. Life with mom ended in 1961 when she couldn’t care for us any longer and my brother and I went to live with our father, and his wife. There I experienced athletics, girls, and a degree of comfort never felt before. Still, it is a fact that children are unable to understand how a parent can be toxic for them, and I missed my mother terribly. That feeling of loss became a permanent part of who I am, and I don’t have to reach far into my soul to feel it all over again.

Jesus, if you are alive and might by some great coincidence ever read this, I say to you thanks for a great adventure, and next time I’m buying.

© 2013 Michael Fiveson

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Almost

My parents were both 17 when they married. They were not high school sweethearts and met randomly. By coincidence, they both had dropped out of school in the 9th grade, and were alike in many more ways. How long their marriage lasted is a point of some confusion for me, but it was no more than 6 years, and could well have been less. I have but 2 fleeting memories from that time and both are unpleasant. After they divorced my older brother and I continued to live with our mother and we moved frequently. Not many memories there either, but I do recall her ironing a sports patch on our shirts and asking me which team I favored. Living in New York in the early 50’s I could have been a Dodger, Giant, or a Yankee fan, and I chose a Yankee patch. I suppose my love of baseball started at that moment. I do know we continued to move frequently, and I also remember going to Yankee stadium a few times and it was overwhelming and joyous.

My mother became involved with a man named Al when I was in the second grade and we were living on Avenue C, close to Coney Island Ave in Brooklyn. He was a handsome man and soon enough they were married and I now had a step father who liked to drink. He wasn’t a mean drunk, more the disappearing kind.

Continuing a series of moves with my mother and now her alcoholic husband, we spent the next year living in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. This was the absolute bowels of New York in 1957, and as an eight year old I spent the year fighting for my life, stealing from broken parking meters, and learning all about the mean streets. Finally, although I do not remember the announcement, we were going to be moving to Long Island, as Al was sober enough to have landed a good job with an airline.

We moved into a nice home in Levittown, got a dog, and my love of baseball now included an opportunity to play on a real team. To prepare for this I would go play some ball with a friend named Skully who lived behind us and we would have full blown practice games where we would throw grounders, line drives, and pop ups in his yard. We also would announce each play and keep score. It was about as much fun as a 10 year old could have and I was developing skills that surprised and delighted me. We would also go to the neighborhood park and play pick up games where a bunch of kids would just spontaneously show up and play. There I discovered that I could hit even better than I could field, and soon I was going to have my first organized game on a little league team.

Life with mom included an unhealthy dose of low self esteem. I was overweight, a poor student, very shy, and had bad teeth and bad habits. But I was about to play ball and I remember so vividly the pride I felt when I first put on that little league uniform. It was a full uniform, much like professional athletes still wear today, and walking down the street in that jazzy looking outfit was one of the proudest days of my life. I walked with attitude, where none existed previously.  I couldn’t wait for the season to start.

Soon enough we were playing ball and my male coach actually was named Linda, which is as weird now as it was then. Whenever someone got a timely hit or made a good play they got a drink of some sort of homemade lime concoction. Not only was the drink fabulous, it was ice cold. Even though I was chubby and out of shape, I could hit a ball a country mile, and would do so frequently. I remember hitting one ball so far over everyone’s head that a normal kid could have run the bases twice, but I chugged hard and was somehow thrown out at the plate. I think it took me five minutes to round those bases before I was thrown out. Couch Linda was thrilled as there were guys on base who scored several minutes ahead of me and I was fed extra ice cold lime concoction. Oh man was that drink delicious. What a joy it was for my tender soul to discover something I was good at, and all I could think about was playing ball.

After a little more than a year in that nice house it all came crashing down. Al had lost his good job and we were going to be moving. Imagine that. I can’t tell you what my emotions were, because I do not remember them. I think that by that time I was so completely resigned to things ending, changing, and beginning again that I just sucked it up, crying only when nobody was looking.

We moved briefly to another house in Levittown but there was no money coming in and we ate a lot of rice mixed with hamburger and ketchup. There was a sad pall in that house. Nobody was happy and things felt tense and foreboding. I started the 6th grade in yet another school and by now was very withdrawn. I remember being in that class and never feeling comfortable, especially around girls. At a time when kids were just starting to connect with the opposite sex, all I wanted to do was hide. Right about the time I felt like I was going to completely disappear, we had some sort of family meeting and the bombshell was dropped…….my brother and I would soon be going to live with my father and his wife in their home, also on Long Island. Not only would this involve changing schools in mid year, but my whole life was about to change. You see, at just 11 years old, I loved my mother deeply, and had no concept of how deficient and toxic she was. The idea of going to live with my father and his mystery wife did not appeal to me, although he had stayed a steady part of our lives, picking us up on weekends and taking us to ball games and movies. I was not afraid of him; I was just completely overwhelmed by uncertainty and loss. It was a very deep loss, the kind that wrapped itself around every part of me and I could feel it from my head to my stomach but mostly in my heart, whatever was left of it. I was shattered and numb when I arrived at my father’s lovely home in a very nice neighborhood. He was a successful car salesman with the ability to be charming and conniving. He was also just 33 years old and had no parenting skills and a wife who did not want us in her home.

Initially Marcia made an effort to be kind, but the fact that I was overweight and really didn’t even know how to properly use a knife and fork soon became a bone of contention. In fact, everything was a bone of contention. I was punished for not cleaning my room correctly, I was punished for something I said, or didn’t say. I was always punished, and the next one was always in line. Usually these punishments were waiting for me after school and I began to have a very deep sense of dread that extended past my head and became physical. I would be walking home every day feeling genuine panic and nausea about what was waiting for me. My father just kind of went along with whatever Marcia said and I had nowhere to turn. Moreover, I was put on a very strict diet and while that might have been a good thing if administered with affection, in this case it was punitive and drastic. Essentially I was always hungry, anxious, and afraid.  One day when no one was home I went through Marcia’s dresser and found a box of chocolates. I almost ate the entire box and I caught bloody hell for that. While I was actually making some friends and liked the school I was in, I was not really allowed to play much, as I was always being grounded for this or that.

As the spring approached I found out that my 6th grade class had a baseball team and there would be tryouts. Now this of course was the most exciting news I could have heard, and by that time the forced diet had yielded some good results and I was quicker and taller and stronger than I was the last time I got to play ball. I still had my skill set and it is fair to say that the coach liked my game quite a bit and I was chosen to be the starting first baseman. Oh how I loved to play ball and now, at last, I was going to have another opportunity to be good at something. On the school team!

I was so happy that day after our last practice and our first game was going to be played in just a few days. All I could think about on the way home was how excited I was and that the coach was going to start me at first base. Life was not so bad after all. Then I opened the door and Marcia flew into a rage about me having practiced in my school pants, and how it was a terrible thing to do and she was going to take it up with my father. Later that evening I was informed of my punishment and was told that I could not play on that team. No recourse, no discussion, no chance of playing, ever. I had to quit and that would show me who the boss was and teach me a valuable lesson. I must have cried. There is no way I could not have pleaded forgiveness. But I don’t know that for a fact. I do not remember. I suppose I might have just looked at them both, tears running down my face, and said nothing.

Several days later I could see the team getting ready for their first game as I made my way to a home that didn’t feel anything like home. My mother and Al would come pick us up on weekends, just like my father used to. She would ask me if I had any money, and I would give her my allowance.

By the grace of the universe Marcia threw us all out two years later. She actually changed the locks on us, and my father found us an apartment in the same community so we could stay in the same school. He wasn’t around much and it was very lonely, but it was also without fear and was really the best deal I could have had at the time.

I played a lot of pick up baseball games throughout my teen years and I was an exceptional ball player, with an incredible stick. But I lacked the confidence to try out for my high school team and figured there was really no point. I was given no encouragement, and no parent would have been there to watch me play. Even though I continued to struggle emotionally, I loved those years in a beautiful community and always had lots of friends and became very good with girls. That community did become home. Still, the terror I felt walking to Marcia’s house every day is something I remember clearly, and that kind of emotional abuse may well be the worst thing you can do to a child. As part of that abuse, having to quit that team and feeling that loss so profoundly has remained with me all these years, and is palpable in the same way a broken heart might be.

© 2012 Michael Fiveson

Mister Softee

Thieves and socialists don’t make good businessmen. I learned this lesson, about myself, way back in 1966 at the tender age of seventeen.

My older brother was on his summer break from college, and it was my first summer in the last three that did not require me to attend summer school, so my father came up with the idea to put my brother and me in business. He believed that we could make money with a Mister Softee truck, selling ice cream to the hordes of children who would not be able to resist the obnoxious jingle, or the thought of sweet soft ice cream cooling them off, while running down their throats and faces.

The plan was simple enough. My dad would put up the necessary funds for us to rent the truck, and my brother and I would take turns driving our assigned route. We were taught how to mix the ice cream, run the register, nothing else, and off we went. Never mind that I had just received my driver’s license and that the truck was a beater with at least six inches of play in the steering wheel. Driving it was road roulette, and I don’t think I was legal to drive it at all.

As I weaved my way into the first neighborhood, I turned on the jingle from hell. Shrill and annoying, it was intended to make every dog in a five mile radius foam at the mouth. Children would then see the foam, think of ice cream, and hear the jingle. Most of them had money, and lines would form in anticipation of the gooey treat. I realized early on that I could not say no. There was one boy who looked to be about 6 who had large square freckles and curly hair. He never had enough money, but I couldn’t resist how cute he was so I would make him a cone or grab him something frozen. And it wasn’t just him. If a line formed I wanted everyone on that line to come away with something. I also liked to amuse myself by making contests. Who can tell me the Yankee score from last night? That kid got himself a free treat. How much is five times eight? Another cone. And while the cones were supposed to weigh so much, I didn’t give a shit and made them tall and proud. More than one set of eyes would get real big when I passed that monster through the window.

I became popular. Perhaps I was the softest Mister Softee of them all.  Maybe it was an early indication of a generous heart, and a socialist mind set. I looked forward to seeing the munchkin with too few nickels and square freckles. To celebrate those square freckles I gave him free round sprinkles. I also ate my fair share of ice cream, and every Friday I would end my shift by yanking a few handfuls of change, so I could play poker or take my girlfriend to a movie. I suspect my brother was as generous to himself. Maybe even more so.

Three weeks into this venture my father did the books and discovered that we had not made a dime. Or at least that is what he told us. Maybe the last handful of change was scooped by my father. I do know he informed us that the business was closed, not at all aware of the loss freckle boy would feel. I didn’t really care that it was done. I also did not realize at the time that I was still a boy, not much older than the kids I was selling to. As monotonous as it was, it was still better than summer school.

© 2013 Michael Fiveson

http://gothamist.com/2009/03/27/mister_softee_truck_jingle_driving.php

The Child Inside Me

the child inside me

playful, nervous, and uncertain

yearns

for the love

never received

back then

he marvels at things

like bridges

and trains

still needing play

the child inside me

struggles to connect

with all the grownups

who lost their light

as they grew taller

and

successful

and

responsible

and

boring

the child inside me

marvels at who I have become

gifted

in the use of

smoke and mirrors

with an iron will

to live

to love

those close

the child inside me

forever unfinished

is never

undone

Jesus and the $20 Bill

I called him Jesus, because that was how it was spelled, but I am sure the correct way to say his name was hay-zus. I was only 8 years old, and didn’t know any better. He was Puerto Rican like many of the children in Brownsville, New York in 1957. The others were all black, except for my brother and me who I think were the only two white children in all of Brownsville. I guess that gave us some sort of status, or at least made us easy targets.

We lived on Bristol Street. Those who are old enough will remember the lyrics….”kids in Bristol are as sharp as a crystal, when they do the Bristol stomp”.

It was a wonderful neighborhood, if you thrived on murder and poverty, and the year we spent living there was torturous, fearful, and bizarre. My mother was married to a man named Al, and he liked to drink himself right out of a job, so we would move often and when it all bottomed out, there we were, in Brownsville. It was the same year the Brooklyn Dodgers announced they were moving to Los Angeles. Since they didn’t plan to take me with them, I was left to learn a bit about the streets, and I made one friend that I remember. Jesus was kind enough to never correct me while I called him by his anglicized name.

I believe Jesus was in my class, although I don’t know that for a fact. I only remember two kids in that class and got to know them in an intimate way. There was one black kid who was the class bully, and would pretty much push the rest of us around and get in our faces. One day I had had enough and we had a terrific fight which ended with me having that kid in a headlock while I punched her skull repeatedly. Yes, her. Her name was Shirley and after I gave her a small pounding she left me alone. But I was soon to discover that the life of the new champion brings with it certain pressures and expectations, and it wasn’t but a week later that a kid named Carlos found me outside of school and he I engaged in a very one sided boxing match. I didn’t know how to box. He did. After my pummeling I remember running home and looking at myself in the mirror. Like an overmatched prizefighter my entire face was swollen and there was more than one part of me oozing blood. Carlos, I realize now, did me a great favor, as I was, and remain, more a lover than a fighter, and it would have been hell to have to defend my lightweight title on a regular basis. Shortly thereafter my uncle, a former Golden Gloves boxer, taught me how to fight and the lessons that he and Carlos taught me have served to keep me safe for the rest of my fighting days.

Much of my spare time was spent making what we called zip guns. Jesus was part of this group and he showed me how to make my very own weapon. Zip guns today are crudely fashioned weapons that shoot real bullets. The kids I hung out with weren’t that sophisticated so our junior zip guns were more basic and made with rubber bands and wood. I don’t recall how they worked exactly but I do know they shot broken pieces of roofing shingle (readily abundant as the neighborhood was in a perpetual state of decay) and were very effective in ripping into flesh.

Another favorite activity was robbing parking meters. This was a very simple process as the lock boxes were all broken, and all one had to do was insert a popsicle stick into the slot where a dime would ordinarily be deposited and it would then push the last dime into the lock box which, since it was broken, could be opened by hand, thus allowing thieves, young and old, the occasional dime. This dime was enough for a soda, or two pickles pulled from a large pungent wooden pickle keg. It could buy a kid an ice cream on a hot day, and was enough for entry into the local movie theater that cost ten cents, but required you to bring your own soap box to sit on, as there were no seats. I remember feeling so guilty about my first heist that I ran home and buried that dime in the dirt in front of our apartment building. I suspect it is still there, waiting to be dug up. To be sure, you won’t find me returning to look for it.

When Jesus called me to say he took a $20 bill out of his mother’s purse I hurried to meet him at a subway stop where we boarded a train for a better shopping district. I don’t know for certain what a 1957 $20 bill would be worth today,  but it was a lot of money back then and Jesus was generous with his stolen loot and we ate a fine lunch and eventually found our way to a toy store where we took our time and shopped for the perfect toy. I ended up with a wooden ten inch model of a human that bent at the joints, and gave me more joy than you might imagine.

Jesus caught hell from his mother who I’m sure was a single parent working hard for every penny. I wish I could remember if I suffered any consequences for my eager partnership but I do not. Chances are I got away with it, and I suspect my mother never found out about my shopping trip and never even noticed my favorite toy.

We moved from that hell hole a year later and landed, briefly, in a much softer place. Life with mom ended in 1961 when she couldn’t care for us any longer and my brother and I  went to live with our father, and his wife. There I experienced athletics, girls, and a degree of comfort never felt before. Still, it is a fact that children are unable to understand how a parent can be toxic for them, and I missed my mother terribly. That feeling of loss became a permanent part of who I am, and I don’t have to reach far into my soul to feel it all over again.

Jesus, if you are alive and might by some great coincidence ever read this, I say to you thanks for a great adventure, and next time I’m buying.