Memories of the East Bronx and Beyond
By Gil Gordon, Museum at Eldridge Street Docent
Junior High School 123 opened for business in September 1953. I was part of the first 7th-grade class. Our homeroom teacher was Ms. O’Grady. My best friends were Len and Mike. Since the school was new there weren’t enough chairs in our homeroom, so Len, Mike and I (Little Gilby, but not so little) sat three people on two chairs for a significant period of the year.
We reunited the next year in our 8th-grade Hebrew class. Ms. Berger was our homeroom and Hebrew teacher. Sydell, Rita. and Carol – “the girls” – were in the class, too. They had been in class with us the previous year but we had paid them little attention. By the end of the school year we began talking with them but it was still awkward for us to talk to girls. Sometime that year, Len put together our weekly Friday night poker game.
At school, we were talkative and noisy, a difficult bunch to control. Several teachers left the classroom because of an inability to control us. Others pleaded in the name of ethnic solidarity for us to change our behavior. We were setting a bad message and a bad image to the rest of society. In eighth grade, one of our teachers died suddenly, I believe his name was Mr. Kravitz. Another teacher told us we were partially responsible due to our bad behavior in class, a heavy burden to place on thirteen-year old children.
At the end of eighth grade, my best friends went to Shorehaven Beach Club. I went to a bungalow colony in the Catskills. When I returned, I could not wait to tell Len and Mike what a glorious time I had playing ball all day and going to Kutsher’s Country Club at night. They were kind enough to say my summer paled in comparison with theirs.
“How could that be?” I asked incredulously.
“We spent the summer with the girls.”
“What girls?” I replied.
You know. The girls.”
“What the heck are you talking about?”
“You know. Rita, Sydell and Carol.”
“What are you doing with them?” I asked a little jealously.
“We put our blankets next to theirs and we hung out and listened to the transistor radio. We went square dancing and formed our own square. You should have been here.” Yes, my summer days did dull in comparison to my friends, and I was forever jealous.
In September of 1955 we began ninth grade. (At that time, the New York City school system designated grades 7-9 as middle school.) Dwight Eisenhower was President, Averill Harriman was Governor, and Robert Wagner was Mayor. Willie, Mickey, and the Duke roamed center field for the three New York baseball teams: Yogi Berra and the Phil “Scooter” Rizzuto were baseball gods. At the movies we saw Marty, The King and I, and Friendly Persuasion. On television, we still laughed at Lucy and Ricky, but Phil Silvers captured our imagination. Gunsmoke began its 25-year run. Your Hit Parade was still on Saturday night but we began to question its relevancy and we ended Sunday night with What’s My Line.
We started listening to a new music played on WINS every night by a new guy in town, Alan Freed. In June 1955, the leading record sellers were Mitch Miller, Roger Williams, The McGuire Sisters, and Pat Boone. Things were changing, though. The Rock and Roll revolution was in its infancy and was just beginning to take over the Top 40. By June 1956 Rock and Roll had a “King.” That summer the leaders were Elvis, The Platters, Bill Haley and the Comets, and Little Richard and Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers
We were part of this world as we began our last year of junior high school in ninth grade. I do not remember much interaction with the girls in the class despite my friends’ summer of fun. That year we discovered the school gym. We played basketball every afternoon. Mike, Len and I were joined by Seymour Rappaport and Bobby Grossflam. Together we made up the starting five. Several others were on the team, too, including Norm Rittner and Stevie Rothbum. With the daily practice, we were not half bad. We entered the school tournament and won every game. Our chests puffed out with pride when the scores were announced every Monday morning on the loudspeaker.
Before the final game the girls asked if it was okay to come and cheer for us. We said yes happily. We lost. The defeat still hurts 60 plus years later. Soon afterwards, one of the girls came to us with a proposal. They suggested Friday night parties.
Our response: “You mean boy-girl parties?”
The girls: “Yes.”
“Just where are we going to have these parties?” we asked nervously.
“In one of our basements. It’s been cleared with our parents.”
We recovered our balance and probed further. “When will these parties happen?”
“But we play cards on Friday night,” was our natural response.
“Switch your game to Saturday night,” the girls answered.
We huddled. Then we said, “Okay.” One of us added shyly “But we don’t know how to dance.”
The girls had thought of that. They suggested we use Carols’ basement on Friday afternoons after basketball practice for dance lessons. So, we did, first clearing out the basement under the watchful eye of Carol and her mother.
During the winter of 1955-56 we used the basement for dance lessons. The number one record was “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White” by Perez Prado. The girls taught us the popular Latin dances of that time – the Cha-Cha-Cha, the Mambo, and Meringue. We ended each session with the Platters, The Penguins, and other Doo Wop songs. We did not need many lessons on how to do The Fish. Even we found the music easy to dance to.
The parties began in the spring of 1956. They rotated between Sydel and Carol’s basement and Rita’s apartment. No parent was present as I recall. They were so exciting and so innocent. We danced, played spin the bottle, and talked. One time we had a party in Norm’s apartment when a rock sailed through the window sending glass everywhere. No one was hurt. Norm believes and I concur that the rock thrower was a boy from our class. Someone was angry or jealous that they were not at the party. They had every right to be. They were the best parties we ever attended in our teenage and college years.
“Why not take the train into Manhattan” someone suggested one Saturday. We decided to meet at the Elder Avenue stop and off we went. It was the first time I was on the subway without an adult. We bought our tokens for a dime and got on the 6 train and transferred to the shuttle at 42nd Street. We looked up at the Ms. Rheingold Subway Contest placard above us. “Hey, that’s not right,” one of us said. The girls next to us were just as pretty.
We held hands or put our arms around each other’s shoulders, walking in midtown. We walked past the Roxy and Paramount Theatres, past the Camel advertisement with smoke coming out of Mickey Mantle’s mouth, past the Chesterfield ad with Willie Mays gazing down on us.
Did we stop at Nedicks for an Orange drink? Did we go to the Automat and put our nickels in the slot for food? I would like to believe so. We did go to the movies on a couple of those trips, including “Around the World in 80 Days” at the Rivoli. Those trips were magical. We were with the prettiest girls in New York, and everybody was looking at us. Midtown New York was the heart of our Emerald City.
On March 17 and 18 a blizzard blanketed New York. The city was paralyzed, buried under 17 inches of snow. On that Monday morning, the TV announcer uttered two of the best words any kid could hear: “Snow Day.” After lunch, my friend Mike trudged through the snow to my apartment and we both lugged our Flexible Flyers down Morrison Avenue along Westchester Avenue to Evergreen Avenue. We met up with the kids who lived on Evergreen Avenue. That was one of the better hills in the neighborhood.
Down the slope we went on our sleds. On one of these runs I landed at the bottom of the hill next to a girl about my age. We started talking. I had met Joyce. We talked while slowly walking up the hill and continued to talk for the rest of the afternoon. We discovered we shared the same birthday, born exactly a year apart: November 6, 1941 and November 6, 1942. Was it chance, or did someone have a plan?
Joyce gained admission to our little group and we became boyfriend and girlfriend. Too young to join us on our trips into Manhattan, she hung out with us on Evergreen Avenue. On one spring Sunday afternoon, Joyce and I decided to break from the group. I remember heading for a carnival that had set up shop on Metcalfe Avenue; she says we went to the library. No matter. Holding tightly to her hand is a memory that I hold dear to this day.
We paid little attention to world affairs, mainly wondering why we had to practice ducking under our desks. If an A Bomb ever landed in the Bronx the school would not survive and our wooden desks would not help us. That much we knew. Our fears only increased when in May of 1956 the United States exploded the world’s first hydrogen bomb.
Those years – the Eisenhower years – were a time of conformity and homogenization. And no group was less diverse then we were. The East Bronx was one of the four communities of so-called Second Jewish Settlement in New York. Fathers brought their young families here as soon as they could escape the poverty and squalor of the Lower East Side. My friends and I were from the same religion. Our families were all immigrants from Eastern Europe. The homogenization was typified by the Holiday Inns springing up all over the land bringing certitude to the car traveler on the interstate highway and McDonald’s bringing certainty to the palate while on the road.
Yet social change was occurring beyond our corner of the world. Air conditioning had a major impact on the country following World War II. Florida, Georgia, Texas, California and other sultry states became livable, and the post war GI generation was on the move. In October 1955, during the eighth grade, the Dodgers beat the mighty New York Yankees in the World Series. A book by a young Senator from Massachusetts titled “Profiles in Courage” became a bestseller. In late November, Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery Alabama. On December 1, 1955, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. arrived from Atlanta, Georgia to lead the Montgomery Bus Boycott which lasted for 381 days. More ominously, the United States began dribbling out foreign aid to a small country in South East Asia called South Vietnam.
All that, though, was far away from our lives. If you lived in the Bronx or Brooklyn your world was your neighborhood, your school, and most importantly your friends.