by Bob Schneider
1954 in The Naked City: You could lay down 15¢ for a subway token, take the AA or the CC to 49th Street, flash your G.O. card and pay just four bits for a side-balcony seat at an NBA doubleheader or a Rangers game; 15¢ was the going price for a slice of pizza or an order of fries—always fresh, never frozen; a quarter got you a frank, mustard-and-sauerkraut; a chocolate malted and a pair of pretzel rods would set you back 20¢, cherry lime rickeys were a dime, a 6-1/2 oz. Coke was 6¢ with a two-cent deposit (sodas were a nickel in subway vending machines); and who ate Hershey’s when you could get a Chunky, a Knickerbocker Bar or one of Hollander’s sublime full-sour pickles for the same price—5¢?
Although I lived in a tenement on Suffolk between Grand and Broome, and my family might be (generously) described as lower middle class, I always had enough gelt in my pocket to get anything I wanted—candy bars, cartoon marathons, comic books.
In 1954, the NBA introduced the 24-second shot clock, Roger Bannister ran the first sub-four-minute mile, and in the World Series that year (The Jints swept the Tribe), there was The Catch—the Say Hey Kid chasing down a blast off the bat of Vic Wertz in deep centerfield, snagging it over his shoulder, his back to the batter, cap flying as he spun round, firing the ball back to the infield—a mindboggler even when viewed on a twelve-inch DuMont console.
In Creature Feature news, Gog was a killer robot, Them were giant ants; The Creature from the Black Lagoon surfaced, carrying a damsel in distress, while Gojira roared out of Tokyo Bay to claim the title “King of Monsters.”
My favorite adult-type TV show, which I watched on my DuMont with the religious fervor appropriate for a kid starting the second grade in yeshiva (Jew parochial school), was I Led Three Lives, in which Herbert Philbrick (Richard Carlson) found commies lurking like zombies ’round every corner. I rooted for him all the way, because in 1954 I was also quite concerned with the Soviet threat to our way of life.
And even though it wouldn’t impact me in a big way for a bar mitzvah’s worth of years later, I would have been very upset, very gung-ho, had I known that in 1954 Vietnam had been partitioned North and South along the 17th parallel after the fall of Dien Bien Phu, which signaled the end of French colonial rule in Indochina; and that it was also the year in which the domino theory, the conceptual foundation for our tragic, mass-murderous, military intervention in Vietnam (and the cause of my Indochinese tzurris those many years later), was first floated.
I was a proud member of the tribe, and a bull-goose Zionist as well, and I surely would have been out-of-my-mind pissed had I understood the significance attached to the fact that Nasser had beaten back the Muslim Brotherhood and grabbed the reins of power in Egypt, or that Alfredo Stroessner had taken over Paraguay and made that country safe for Nazi war criminals including Mengele, Auschwitz’s Angel of Death.
But what I knew all too well was that in 1954, the father-mother (see Creation of the Humanoids, 1962) moved the mishpuchah from our edenic shtetl on Suffolk Street to Hell’s Kitchen, so that we might live above the store which made possible for us that day, and all other days, our daily babka. It was our own melting-pot Downton Abbey, and I was little Lord Rob-it. We even had a pair of tenants. There was an enclosed kiosk attached to the side of the building where a jovial ginger named Red, of course, shined shoes, and an extension at the rear of the building with a barber shop presided over by Lenny the Tonsorial Artiste, where I had my first experience with the joy and majesty that was the tittie magazine.
All we had done to get there that muggy summer morning was take the D to West 4th and there change for the A to 42nd Street. But the moment I stepped out of the Port Authority, with its cavalcade of belching buses, it seemed more like we had boarded a Stratosled with Flash Gordon, Dale Arden and Dr. Zarkov, and landed on the Planet Mongo.
The legendary Bosco Brother Butchers—where sixteen years later Peter Kubelka bought numerous haunches of lamb, schlepped them up to the Southern Tier, and cooked All Through the Night an unforgettable feast for a cadre of enthralled avant-garde film acolytes who had already been captivated by his masterwork Unsere Afrikareise (Our African Trip, 1966)—was first among a brace of butcher shops that dotted the nabe, unlike any I had ever experienced in the kosher precincts of the Lower East Side. These places overflowed with offal and other exotic cuts—chunks of fatback covered in crystallized salt, oxtails, whatever the hell they were; bloody pans overflowed with livers and kidneys and brains and sweetbreads from lambs, pigs, cows and calves. And hearts, hearts! They didn’t let anything go to waste. There were cows’ hooves and pig trotters; dead, furry rabbits hung from hooks by their little lucky feet, big floppy ears pointing straight down; outsized rounds of cheese hung right beside them. One had a pie slice cut out of it, had black flecks all through it. I asked my father what they were.
“Maggots, Rob-it, maggots. The Telainishe like maggots in their cheese, dey say it makes the cheese taste better.” (Many, many years later, I learned that the cheese was provolone, the specks were black peppercorns, and they were dee-lish.)
I subsequently learned that the Telainische were part of the Bad Element, which included anyone who wasn’t a member of the tribe, all of whom, in times of deep economic or military crisis, would show their true, genocidal colors and scapegoat the chosen people at the behest of some latter day Führer, whose coming they await with as much conviction as we do that of Moshiach (Messiah to you members of the Bad Element).
I had been programmed to never forget the six million from the time I was a zygote. Now I found myself living on Mongo among the Bad Element who were itching to add the nukes and me to the body count. I had no friends, nor did I have the prospect of any; I was a displaced person on an alien planet. Is it no wonder my survival instinct kicked in and I became determined to get the lay of the land I had been dropped into? And so I went exploring.
© 2013 Bob Schneider