The following stories were submitted by readers in response to our "Early Memories" contest.
Winner: "Like a Bad Dream"
"Like a Bad Dream"
As I entered the cloak room and started to remove my jacket a classmate loudly yells, "Michael's in his underwear"! Much to my horror, I discovered that I had only put on an undershirt and then my jacket. I was devastated and immediately put my jacket back on and proceeded to cry. It took the teacher awhile to calm me down and urge me out of the cloak room and to my desk to participate.
For a small boy this was only a small twist of the classic "Dreaming that you are at school in your underwear". I still vividly remember the embarrassment even today.
Notable Mentions:"Finger Painting"
I vividly remember my first memory. I was probably about 12-15 MONTHS old. I was in my crib. I can remember the exact wallpaper pattern in my room- it was gray with big pink roses on it.
Well, apparently I was bored, and decided to take the "solid waste" (that's as delicately as I can put it) that was in my diaper, and I proceeded to smear it all over my crib and the gray wallpaper with the roses. I remember "coloring" the roses. Later on in life, my parents told me that rather than get mad, they just laughed and laughed and cleaned it up. This happened in 1954-55, at 1842 Bathgate Avenue in the Bronx, New York.
And THAT is my very earliest memory. You asked for it!
My earliest memory is of my grandmother lighting the Sabbath candles. We lived on Hooper St. in Williamburg, in what I called an "upstairs-downstairs" house. My parents and I were on the first floor; my grandparents, aunt and uncle lived on the second floor. I would go up to the top of the stairs late Friday afternoon to watch my grandmother light the candles, then turn to hug me and give me her blessing.
My grandmother died when I was three, so this is an early memory.
I remember waiting for our Mom to get a phone call on Sunday mornings. It was usually my pop telling her to take the kids to Palisades!! We would get there around noon, swim in the world's largest outdoor salt water pool. We would eat the best darned sub sandwiches and drink lemonade from that big yellow jug that always had bees buzzing around!
Early Out of Body Experience
Not much to tell although the irony has always amused me. My earliest memory is of our RCA TV being delivered and set up in the living room. It was probably 1952, which would make me 3 years old. The picture (pun intended) is very clear in my mind although the image is of me standing in front of this huge TV (remember, in those days a TV was a piece of furniture) even though it was not turned on.
I can see myself from the rear staring, just staring. Maybe it was an early out of body experience. Remember how in Close Encounters Richard Dreyfus sculptured his mashed potatoes and proclaimed, "this is important, this means something." It was sort of like that. The irony is that a) I have a lousy memory and b) I make my living writing advertising; mostly TV commercials. Why that moment in time has stuck in my mind when so many many many other moments have slipped silently away we'll just never know.
My parents were superindendants of our apartment building, and, as such, we lived in the basement apartment. For me, it was a great place. Five steps below street level, there was an interior corrridor leading to our apartment. The corridor contained various nooks and an assortment of "rooms" radiating from it. Among them, was my father's shop, some storage rooms, and the furnace room with adjacent coal bins. It was often a dark place and, with its stone walls, had a dungeon-like quality. It was also a great place for indoor fun and the occasional "house of horrors."
On several occasions my sister, Lois, and some of her friends would cleverly transform the basement corridor and rooms into a horror house for the entertainment of me and my friends as well as themselves. They would decorate the walls with sinister articles like skeletons, black cats, etc., hang stuff from the ceilings like homemade ghosts and bats, put on Halloween costumes and makeup, cover up the French-door windows to block out the light, and complete the mood with scary music and sounds. It was easy for me to gather enough interested friends together for the experience at a cost of one nickle per "ride". The vehicle on which we were transported through the horror house was a large dolly that my father used for hauling trash cans and ash cans. It was big enough to carry four large trash cans at a time, or four very anxiously seated children. Even I was kept unaware of the horrifying events we were to encounter, but I knew it would be worthwhile because of the time and energy Lois and her friends had put into it.
There was always an mixture of excitement and fear in anticipation of the first time through. When the big moment finally came, the first group of "victims" would take their places on the dolly, the dungeon door would creek open, a couple of Lois' friends would push us into the hallway, and the door would close behind us, leaving us momentarily in absolute darkness. Now, this alone was scary enough for some kids to wet their pants, start crying, or call for their mothers, but there was no turning back and we knew it. Once the door closed behind us we knew the only way out was on the other side of the dungeon, but first we would have to get there.
After what seemed like an eternity, scary music would start playing and the dolly would start rolling again. The only light came from very weak flashlights carried by the "drivers" and other friends of my sister who were laying in wait at strategic locations along the way. It was a ride filled with horrifying surprises. The drivers would shine their lights only intermittantly to ensure they were on course while briefly highlighting the occasional skeleton, mummy, or costumed teenager who would jump out of nowhere when you were most vulnerable. If we were lucky, Lassie would be there to bark, or Pamper would scurry across our path and add an element of realism to the charade. Menacing groans and blood-curdling screams were generously supplied, and you were never quite sure what grabbed your neck or brushed across your face, but you knew you didn't want to go back and find out. These fears would only be be heightened when, after spinning the dolly around in the dark a few times, the driver would announce she had lost her way and would have to go back! Everyone who wasn't crying or scared stiff and who knew the way was happy to offer guidance. It didn't really matter, though. We were doubling back to, da da da da, the furnace room!
The furnace room would be our last stop and the highlight of the ride. When we reached it, we were faced toward the furnace doors which were flung open, revealing a roaring fire. This was no Cub Scout campfire. It was in a large coal-fed furnace that was the only source of heat for the entire apartment building. The doors were probably six feet wide and the interior was at least ten feet square. We were told by our driver/tour guide that it contained the ashes of a thousand disobedient children. Before we could proceed, we had to choose between obedience to the dungeon dwellers or sacrifice by fire. Obedience was fine with everyone.
With that, we were whisked back through the maze of horror, reliving the ghosts and goblins, before emerging out the other end of the basement corridor into blinding reassuring sunlight. Only then were we able to look around and realize who had fun and who couldn't get out of there fast enough.
Word about the spook house always spread fast and, before you knew it, return customers and kids we didn't even know were eagerly lined up, nickles in hand. Sometimes the rides went on for hours and, as best I can recall, we never lost a paying customer.
For some reason still unknown to me, my childhood predawn hours often were punctuated by an urge to interrupt my father's sleep (always my father's, never my mother's) with a request for apricot juice. I don't remember particularly liking its thick, syrupy, almost chalky consistency or its too-sweet taste, but that was what I asked for. And my father, benevolent soul that he continues to be, indulged my thirst (or my need to connect with my parents in those dark, scary hours), and padded down to the kitchen, wearing only his Jockey briefs and T-shirt, to return with a small glass of nectar.
On one of my nightly journeys, I came into my parents' bedroom to find them awake and staring out their window in mixed horror/fascination. A car was abalze by the vacant lot, barely a half-block away. To this day, I still imagine I felt the heat of that small inferno-- visually, I was certainly and completely consumed. I was transfixed by the flames (they seemed to shoot SO high), the fact that it was a car (was anyone in it?), and its proximity to my house (would we all die if it exploded? Who would they try to save first-- me or my baby sister?).
From that day on, I made some mental connection between that car and another small source of fire-- those little, round balls that had the flame coming out of the top that were used the way we use blinking lights at construction sites... some unexplained pyrophobic response. My parents never had to give me the "Don't lay with matches" speech. One look at my face by the window that morning and they knew: that was one vice toward which I'd never aspire. And it also may be why I lost my taste for Heart's Apricot Nectar.
Ace, Mom, Sylviam and Sis lived with Nonna Lucia at 615 Pelham Parkway. A four story walkup with a generous-sized stoop downstairs, it was well kept and clean, and the hallways resounded with the happy clatter of children's feet and their lively chatter every day, as they scrambled downstairs to play or, during the week, to walk together to school.
Our apartment, which rented for 60 dollars a month, had 2 bedroom, a lovely entrance hallway with a glass door, a big living-room and of course, a kitchen which always seemed to be filled with the lovely Italian potpourri of Nonna Lucia's cooking. The totally tiled (black and white) bathroom in our humble little apartment was the typical old-fashioned bathroom -- a bathtub with feet, a sink on a large pedestal with Hot and Cold faucets and the ominpresent and very useful drain plug (with two faucets, you'd either freeze or burn your hand when you washed them).
It was this plug that Nonna used every day to make sure that sink held just the right temperature bathwater for me, baby Ace. Hold old was I?? I was tiny enough to fit comfortably into that sink, and although I don't remember any of the other baths she gave me in that sink, one bath stands out in my memory, which I hope I will never forget. And so I pass this memory on to you, so that you may remember it with me.
The water was warm, the day was warm but the bathroom, with all its black and white tiles, was cool. I was happily siting in the bathroom sink and Nonna was cooing as she was washing me. What a loving treat for a tiny little kid!! Nonna was teaching me to say the "Our Father" in Italian. I listened intently to what she was saying, wanting very much to please her. "Sanctificato Tuo Nome"....said Nonna in her lilting, sing-song voice. I concentrated on what she said, and heard myself, in my baby voice, repeating to her very carefully those beautiful words. I was delighted beyond words (what few I knew!) to hear Nonna's response -- a delighted "Coo" of approval!
Everything else about that bath in our humble Bronx sink, at least 50 years ago, has faded out of my memory. But the sounds of my happy baby's voice and my Nonna's delighted response will, I hope, remain with me forever.
I remember when I was about 4 or 5 my father and I would play cowboys and we would hide under my brothers' crib until my mother would walk by and then we would ambush her. I would sit on the arm of the big easy chair, and make believe that was my horse. I can also remember, just barely, drinking chcolate milk (Bosco only!) from a baby bottle, I guess I was just about 2 or so. The main thing I remember is that there are two types of people in the world---those who were born and bred in Brooklyn, and those who should wish they were.
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