Friday, September 15, 2006


In 1956 when I was 9 and my sister was 15 she started to have bad teeth problems. Her teeth started to rot and a terrible stench would emit from her mouth which fitted her personality perfectly. It was as if her festering, rotting teeth and smell was an outward sign of her inner self. She would be up all night screaming in pain, her chubby face swollen and streaked with tears. My mother would apply ice packs and shove aspirin down her throat, but I shed no tears for her. My mother’s much married cousin Ruthie, a pretty blonde blue eyed kleptomaniac and notorious shoplifter was once married to a dentist, a dapper man named Lou who it was whispered about in the family had ties to gangsters. Lou had his practice in the old Claridge Hotel on 44th st. in Times Square. The hotel had as a tenant for many years the huge Camel cigarette smoking man billboard which hung brightly on the side of the building that faced Times Square. So on most Saturdays during the spring and summer of 1956 we would get up early and me, my mother and mean girl would take the elevated subway near our apartment in Borough Park to the hotel where dapper Lou would yank, pull and somehow try to fix my sister’s lousy teeth. The Claridge Hotel like much of Times Square in the mid 50’s had seen better days, but for me it was exciting to enter a New York City Hotel, with its smells and busy bellboys and maids running here and there. Lou’s office was pretty high up and from one of the windows I could look down at the colorful teeming square and all those wonderful signs and movie theatres and although I couldn’t see the Camel man, I could see the smoke rings rising in the air. My mother and me would wait patiently in the waiting room, me looking at magazines, my mother smoking her Raleigh cigarettes and chatting up anyone who happened to be in the room with us. Since Lou’s practice was in Times Square many of his patients were in show biz. Now I use that term loosely, as most of them were down on their luck vaudevillians, 2nd rate bananas, aging showgirls and Joe Franklin regulars. In they would come with their stories about the good old days of The Ziegfeld Follies, Al Jolson and Major Bowles. I was transfixed. After the teeth my mother would take us to lunch usually to Hector’s Cafeteria which was around the corner. It was a spiffy 50’s looking place all Formica and marble with a long long gleaming aluminum counter to slide your trays on as you went down the line and picked out what you wanted to eat from the vast choices that were offered up. I used to love it when the man at the front of the restaurant would push something and out would fly a ticket with little prices all over it, which the server would punch when you made your food choices. They also had a free seltzer dispenser, which I thought was so great and much better than just plain water. My sister couldn’t eat much and better yet couldn’t talk much because of her teeth, but my mother and me sure digged in. Another restaurant I loved was the Maisel chain of eateries that were named after States. There were three located around Times Sq. and we would sometimes have lunch at the Californian or the Floridian. Each one was decorated with large sepia photo murals depicting cliché scenes of the state, and the menu of course featured food with cute names such as the Beverly Hills Berger, or the Floridian tuna salad. My favorite was their bacon and eggs that they served right in the frying pan, hot hot hot as it was brought to the table. My mom would light up a Raleigh and smile bright with pleasure seeing the happiness in my eyes as the waitress placed the steaming pan before me. This was a smile that I would see many times over the years, the smile that said “you are my favorite child, my beautiful boy.” I loved Times Square back then and I would walk from The Paramount to The Capitol dragging my mother and sometimes my sister along with me as I checked out all the theatres and what was showing. I loved the garish displays and wonderful signs & photos that were used to promote all the different films. I would love to see what would be the next attraction at the theatres as much as what was the current attraction and would register joy or disappointment if a coming film was not to my liking. By 1956 I had already seen several films in the movie palaces that lined the square, mostly with my uncle Natie. He took me to Radio City Music Hall for the first time where we saw “Friendly Persuasion” and to the Paramount to see “The Man Who Knew Too Much.” The biggest sign in Times Square was the one over the Astor and Victoria theatres and I couldn’t wait to see what the sign painters had come up with. I would stop and stare up at these huge pre pop art paintings with my eyes and mouth wide open. The place was teeming with movement and people and all the colorful lights and signs dazzled me, and undoubtly in some maybe obscure way influenced my art. Sometimes we would go to a movie. The movie tickets were usually freebees that someone had passed on to Lou who in turn passed them on to my mother. These were mostly for movies that I had no interest in seeing such as “Sign of The Pagan” which was playing at the Palace with 8 terrible acts of vaudeville. I wanted to go to Radio City or The Capitol to see Written On The Wind or “Baby Doll” at the Victoria which had a lurid big billboard painting that loomed over the theatre marquees and the square, but my mother wouldn’t pay the $2.00 ticket price these theatres wanted so we would wind up at the Palace. That these were “adult” movies never came into play with what my mother would allow me to see, as it was she who took me to see “The Bad Seed”, “I Want To Live”, “Anatomy Of A Murder” “Psycho” and many other so called “mature” movies. Howard could not believe that my mother would even let me see these films, let alone take me to see them as he was forbidden from even mentioning these movies in his house when his grandmother Molly was around, which was all the time, since she lived with them. We would then usually stop in at Woolworths or a Whelan’s where my mother would buy all sorts of junk mostly cosmetics and sometimes a souvenir for me to take back to Brooklyn. She would have to buy something for my sister also, because if she didn’t mean girl would throw a horrible temper tantrum on the subway going home, embarrassing my mother and me. These were usually fun days for me, but I knew the feeling would not last as I returned home to my tension filled childhood life.


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