Patty Poem (1970)
Patty McCormick sat next to me in biology 5.
Until that time I had only dreamt of this happening to me.
Mr. Kukri sees me looking under her skirt.
Please don’t tell my mother.
Keep this between you and me.
Into the hall Patty goes, now I see all that glitters is not gold.
Yes it’s true. Patty McCormick did sit next to me in Biology 5. It was my junior year at New Utrecht High School, and a rumor was going around the school that Patty McCormick was going to be living with her grandmother for a spell and would be enrolling at New Utrecht. To me this was big news. A real life celebrity and Oscar nominee to boot would be walking the halls of our high school. She was actually born in Brooklyn in 1945 and her real name was Patricia Ellen Russo. Her major role of course was as the child murderer Rhoda Penmark in “The Bad Seed” both in the stage version and the film. When the film came out in 1956 it played at the Astor Theatre on Broadway and I remember walking past the huge billboard with the lurid wonderful artwork looming over the square. I asked my mother what did bad seed mean and I wondered why was Nancy Kelly screaming and why did the little girl look so weird. I guess she told me, but also added that I was too young to see the movie. That was all I needed to hear because I didn’t stop pestering her until she finally gave in and took me to see it at our local neighborhood theatre on a Friday night which was her night off from working in my father’s luncheonette. The film troubled me, and of course gave me nightmares. “I told you you were too young to see this movie,” my mother said after I woke up screaming during the middle of the night. As a kid growing up in the 50’s my mother didn’t really forbid me from seeing any movie that I wanted to see. “He’s very mature for his age” she would say when her friends would question her for allowing me to see Psycho or Some Came Running or Anatomy of A Murder or Written On The Wind. These were adult films but my mother thought it was ok for me to see them, because basically she also wanted to see them. These were the juicy spicy films of the 50’s and they really got me curious and wet my appetite. I was not interested in cowboy or war movies or the sweet simple musicals of the time. When Psycho came out we went to The DeMille Theatre on Broadway and stood on a long line waiting to get in during the first week it played. I didn’t stop screaming for the whole film, and my mother didn’t stop laughing during the whole film. I mean what were we thinking; here I was barely yet 13 years old, watching a movie about a transvestite who killed his mother not to mention poor Janet Leigh. The posters for the film were really exciting to me, what was Janet Leigh doing in her bra, and why was Tony Perkins screaming, and why was John Gavin not wearing a shirt? I soon found out. So on that early fall day in 1962 as I sat day dreaming in my boring biology class, the teacher Mr. Kurke woke me from my trance by announcing that we had a new student today, and there standing next to him stood a somewhat disshelved chubby blonde girl. This is Patty Russo. Russo my ass. There stood Patty McCormick child serial killer and Oscar nominee. Soon she took the empty seat next to me, and from that moment on it was all I could do to stop from looking (some would say staring) at her. She was nice. All my friends were in awe of me that I was sitting next to her, and that she knew my name, and would say hello to me when we passed in the hall. She became the star of the school. Everything was going fast like a movie. Immediately she became a cheerleader, even though she was slightly overweight. “How the fuck did she make cheerleader squad.” My friend Miriam asked me practically every day or so it seemed. “Miriam she’s a movie star and an Oscar nominee that’s how” I shot back. I would defend Patty to my last dying breath if need be. But it turned out she didn’t need my help at all in maintaining her star status at the school. She also was dating the hero of the football team, and got the leading role in the school play that year. I thought she would make a darling Anne Frank. “Anne Frank was Jewish.” Miriam screamed out at me.” “Patty McCormick is blonde, Italian and fat and besides she’s a lousy actress.” Miriam would not let up. “I like Patty” I said as if we were close friends, when actually all we did was say hello to each other. Then suddenly Patty was gone. Her seat in Biology remained empty, the football star walked the hallways alone with his head down and Anne Frank had to be recast. Where was Patty everyone wanted to know. I had no idea what happened but finally we learned that she had returned to Hollywood to appear on the western series Rawhide with Clint Eastwood and that was that.
For the last several years I’ve been teaching a sculpture, assemblage and collage workshop at the United Federation of Teachers retirement program in downtown Brooklyn. This is for retired schoolteachers from the New York City public schools. My classes are on Thursday. Mornings, and I have a small group of devoted students who have taken my classes since I began teaching here. I got the job through my friend Howard, who was taking some classes there (line dancing, Yiddish for beginners, intermediate bridge and several others) and told me that I should apply. I sent my resume to the co-coordinator and was hired immediately over the phone. No interview no nothing. The pay is good, but since its only 2 hours a week, It is really not that much moola but I’m grateful for the extra bit of cash that this gig brings in. Every Thursday Morning I take the subway to downtown Brooklyn which has changed a lot since I was a boy. This was the main shopping center for us Brooklynites and me and my mother would go there quite often. Our first stop would be Mays, where my mother would shop and shop usually for a new girdle. When she died me and my sister found drawer after drawer full of girdles. It was like a museum of modern girdles. I would get bored of course as she shopped, but for some reason the department store had these old fashioned movie machines next to the elevators and escalators, where I would carefully drop in a nickel press my little face to the viewer and watch old time Mickey Mouse cartoons over and over while my mother shopped for her girdles. She never had to worry about me getting lost, or of me wandering away as I was a lover of movies even then and stayed glued to the machine for so long that I would have the outline of the viewer across the bridge of my nose and forehead. After Mays we would sometimes go to A&S which was the high class department store with its Art Deco elevators and fancy displays, but my favorite store was McCrory’s with its long lunch counter, and Woolworth’s like atmosphere. My mother didn’t like having lunch there as she thought it was “crummy” and preferred us eating at The Burger Bin where we would order up pizza burgers and fries. We would sit at the 50’s Formica counter and my mother would smoke her Raleigh cigarettes and drink her black coffee, yakking it up with the blowsy waitresses and whoever was sitting next to her. Occasionally my mother would take me to some of the old used bookstores that were off Fulton Street and would buy me original editions of The Hardy Boys and movie magazines from the 1940s. She also bought me a series of miniature books of the “classics” that I still have somewhere and no doubt my love of books came from these outings to the musty old bookstores that use to be everywhere in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Perhaps these tiny books influenced my love of small scale and maybe some day an art historian not even born yet will point out that one of Haber’s earliest influences in his making of small scale sculpture were the tiny little books that his mother bought for him one Summer day in 1957 in a bookstore in Downtown Brooklyn. Everything is mostly now gone from the Downtown Brooklyn of my childhood. The Four movie palaces, The Paramount, The Albee, The Fox and The Metropolitan are long gone. The Paramount building itself still stands and is now part of Long Island University, with its huge auditorium now the place where young men play basketball. My UFT students are much different from the students that I taught at the universities. They are all my age, some a little older, a few a little younger, and there is a comfortable ease at play in these classes that I would never allow in my college classes. What I love about these classes are the amazing works that the “students” produce. Many of them have no art training but that does not stop them from producing stunning works. My friend Howard has been taking my classes, and is one of the people who have no art training at all. But in spite of this he has been doing lovely and strong work that amazes me at times. The classes take place in the UFT offices which are very close to Brooklyn Heights, and after class I sometimes walk down Montague street and stop off at a used bookstore or walk down to the Promenade which has a magnificent view of lower Manhattan. I can imagine the horror that people saw and felt from it on September 11th. Brooklyn Heights is of course one of the loveliest of all Brooklyn neighborhoods and one of the most expensive. There used to be a gay bar on Montague street. I know this because one Spring evening in the early 80’s, after getting drunk at an awards reception in Manhattan where I was given a small grant, me and Tom found ourselves in it. The gay bar is no longer there and neither is Tom. The small grant that I got on that spring evening in 1982 is also long gone along with the Downtown Brooklyn of my youth.The pictures used in this post are Downtown Brooklyn in the 1950's and student work.