Only my closest friends from back in the Good Old Days recall my amateur career as a minor musician and a major crooner.
When I was a child I sang as a way of traveling away from misery and toward hope. I remember one hot summer’s day back in the early 1950s.
I lived in a cramped – tight is perhaps a better word – house, in a small New Jersey seaside town. One of those places that began as a farming community, to the west of the Atlantic Ocean, in the 1920s, then grew with the “Boom,” that followed World War II. New Jersey was indeed, in those days, The Garden State.
My Garden State,
I’ll sing your praises evermore.
I want to live and die in dear old Jersey,
On the blue Atlantic shore.
I sang those lyrics while riding on a bus from Atlantic City to New York. A school class trip. I was in the third grade. Mrs. Henry called me up to the front of that bus and handed me the microphone. I never suffered the sin of humility, so I belted out the song in the sugar-sprung soprano tone of a young child’s innocent voice.
My star rose from there, then died as all stars must. I do not regret the flight.
Believe me, please, when I tell you that those glory days were not all about the oppression of women by way of girdles and forced kitchen labor. Nor did our reality feel like black-and-white, Eisenhower claustrophobia. Most of us – adults and children alike – envisioned the future as ours to create.
That dream may well have died an ignominious death, but its birth was all blue sky and orange sunrises.
My dad was a laborer. So it seemed were most men who were our neighbors. Dad’s parents, as well as my mother’s, came from the old country. They came to work, and work became their way of life.
My mother wore house dresses. She rose from bed before the sun appeared, cooked for Dad, me and my three brothers, washed clothes in a ringer machine (when I grew old enough, I helped by cranking the wet stuff through those ringers). Mother hung those clothes to dry – in spring and summer outside on the rope that ran on pulleys, in autumn and winter in the dark basement we called a cellar – then prepared coffee in a metal percolator, stained rich brown around its edges, on top of the stove.
Chores completed, the parade of visiting neighbors began. Neighbors, and one’s relationships with them, were a small town’s life’s blood. Of course, as a small boy I did not realize that our neighborhood would on a future day be named a microcosm of the American Melting Pot. Looking backward – a habit that as an old man with thoughts of mortality always on my mind, I much enjoy – I can now see the mix of nationalities and ethnic groups we were.
Facing my house, to its left side, lived Elvia Genoa (yes, I’ve changed names, not to protect anyone other than myself). Elvia was Jewish, although I didn’t know this. Neither did I comprehend what being Jewish might have meant. Elvia’s husband, Jackie, was Greek. My prejudiced Dad – Sicilian in the fullest sense — continually whispered warnings about how the Greeks would smile to your face while they “stabbed you in the back.”
But then so did, said my dad, the Calabrese and the Genoese carry hidden stilettos. And the typical Napolitano “had his nose in the air.”
The Sicilian people could be trusted. Of course. I’m proof of that dictum.
Still, Jackie Genoa ran his own business, which fact made him a king of sorts, and Jackie’s fine reputation made Elvia the neighborhood queen.
Jackie’s Tires was painted in bold letters across each side of his orange panel truck. (He purchased a new panel truck each September).
Jackie and Elvia had the avenue’s only in-ground swimming pool. An invitation to a summertime barbecue beside that pool lent a neighbor prestige. A member of the Royal Court.
Remember, please, that the Boom meant hard work that paid off in terms of upward mobility. The harder one worked, the higher one soared.
Years later, as a university undergraduate, I drove my old Ford Falcon down Ohio Avenue — beside the rusty, disused railroad tracks — into Atlantic City. To my left I noticed the faded gray sign that read Jackie Genoa’s Tires. That sign was perched atop a three-walled wooden shack, paint long gone to blue shadow. Through what would have been the fourth wall I could see piles and piles of old, bald tires (the type that back then required inflated tubes). Those piles held up what remained of the abandoned structure.
I asked my Dad what was what. Turns out that Jackie’s real business enterprise was that of a bookie, a numbers runner at the Atlantic City Racecourse (by then a disappeared arena).
Dad never made it big. He remained a laborer all his life. Never reached the rank of supervisor. Rejected time and time again for membership in any labor union.
Part of the reason for Dad’s “failure” was his refusal to run with the bookies and other smalltime Mafia “employees.” (Atlantic City really was the Mafia Capital of the northeast corridor. Johnnie Fontaine in the movie The Godfather was in reality Frank Sinatra. His “debt” involved an annual performance at the 500 Club in AC. Across from the Trailways Bus Station. Upstairs, above the showroom, was a house of ill repute, owned and operated by fat Nikki D’Amico.).
Back to our view of the front of my cramped house. To its right side lived Irma and Wilhelm Reichman. German farmers, direct from their old country. During the summer season, Mr. Reichman sat silent on his porch, apparently trying to cool off (no such thing as air conditioners for working stiffs in Our Town).
And I mean silent. I’d oftentimes walk by his house and wave to him. He never, to my recollection, waved back. One day I asked my mother if she could explain why Mr. Reichman never spoke. “People have their reasons,” was all she said.
Again, many years later, I came to understand that our German neighbors had fled Hitler and in the process lost their farmland. To compensate, however, Mr. Reichman turned half his backyard into a mini-farm, what we today would likely name an “organic” farm. Cow manure trucked in for fertilizer once a year. White powder (alkaline?) when the soil went fallow. Mr. Reichman raised the best tomatoes, melons, lettuce and corn in town. And he shared his bounty with us.
In a silent sort of way.
Mr. Reichman’s wife, Irma, owned a sweet gurgle of a voice. Her hair was tinted powder blue. Her housedresses sported quiet flower patterns. She wore aprons when she cooked. My favorite meal of hers was a bubbling pot of stewed tomatoes, generous dabs of butter melting on the top.
My mother considered that there existed only two kinds of food in the world, Italian and American. She frowned on American Food, so when Mrs. Reichman carried a pot of American Stewed Tomatoes to our house on a summer morning, I ate fast before she left for home again. Otherwise my mother would have tossed my treasure down the drain. Tomatoes’ only purpose in life, said Mother, was for making red gravy (not “tomato sauce”).
I’d like to believe that Irma Reichman knew what my mother thought of her cooking and so stayed at our house for a third cup of by then bitter percolated coffee, just so I could enjoy her recipe.
I could go on about the neighborhood. Maybe someday I will do so. Then again, maybe not. After all, this website of mine is all about abandoned dreams.
As well, I could – and probably should – return to edit this fractured article. Its phrasing and overall arrangement is far from my best in the field of amateur poetics.
But if I edit, then I’ll never publish anything here today.
And I’ve been struggling to write these past few months.
And anyway, I promised – in a roundabout way – to talk about my career as a musician and singer.
I remember that summer morning.
My mother’s life was a mental universe of confusion, and so I fell victim to her insanity. That’s life, and that part of my life exists in the past, although remnants will forever remain.
That morning, after chores were finished for the day, she slapped me hard across the right side of my face. I cannot remember my infraction. But I remember the burning sensation on my cheek, the needless shame and the redness of another bruise.
I walked slowly down our avenue. I headed toward Mrs. Santerian’s green-shingled house around the block, there to purchase a cardboard basket of her fresh-grown strawberries.
The heat inside my flesh became intensified by the heat of the summer sun.
I needed and wanted to weep, but instead I sang a song in the sugar-sprung soprano tone of a young child’s innocent voice.