Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Popsicle Stick by Jimmy Spinner

Jimmy Spinner is one of my closest friends
that grew up on East Fourth.
Although he's a lot younger than me,
something like six or seven years.
He always seemed to be older than his
age and pretty wise too.

Some real good stuff here from
a real son of Kensington.

The Popsicle Stick
An autobiographical short story
by Jimmy Spinner

As children we cling to the remnants of the popsicle well after the flavored ice is gone. We savor the traces left on the small wooden stick until those tiny splinters start to hurt our tongue and we are forced to move on.

I was always cursed or blessed, depending on how you look at it, with the writer's ability to recognize moments. Even as a little kid on East 4th Street in Brooklyn I could feel myself as the protagonist in some grandiose play. The soundtrack of my life playing in the background would more than likely be the 70's A.M. pop that the girls on my block were collecting as 45's.

The setting of this play was my block. That's what we called it "our block." That was our haven. The boundaries were simple East 4th Street between Beverly Road and Avenue C. As we rode our bikes up and down the block the feeling of safety that we had would dissipate as we moved towards either avenue. It was just a feeling but as you passed Dr. Langsam's house, the last private house on the block, something changed.
It might only be a matter of feet but all of a sudden it wasn't our block anymore.

What a great place to grow up. Our neighborhood was working class Irish and Italian so there was a ton of kids. Catholics you know. All we did was play, mostly sports, depending on the season. The big sports were stickball in the summer and roller hockey in the winter. We had some pretty good athletes, at least that's the way I remember it, and the competition was fierce. There was Tommy Brennan, a few years younger than most of us, our goalie. Jimmy Breyer, a tall drink of water and the only boy of seven kids, our token red head who went into a psychosomatic slump every summer during stickball season. James Yannone, also known as Bubba because he was our fat kid, if he argued vehemently with you and shook his head NO from side to side the fat would roll in waves. The best part of arguing with Bubba was if things got out of hand, his older sisters would show up and man were they gorgeous. We all had crushes on Rose and Joanne. Picture a cross between Marie Osmond and Annette Funicello. I also have to mention my next door neighbors, Big Pete Competello the smartest kid on our block. He was so smart they skipped him twice. He leaped from 2nd to 4th grade and from 6th to 8th! And his cousin, Little Pete Savino the toughest little left wing I ever met. Our houses were separated as were all of the houses on the block, by an alleyway about the width of a small car.

We were a tight knit group. We shared our secrets. We were practically inseparable. Which brings me to my Best Friend, John Tracy, nicknamed Tweety we were inseparable. Tweety was the fastest kid on our block. He was small, brown wavy hair, Mets t-shirt,cut-off jeans shorts. We did everything together. A game wasn't as much fun for either of us if we were not on the same team. We were so tight that our families became close. We vacationed together in the Poconos. Our father's coached our little league teams together. We went to our first Met game together. We were always eating or sleeping over each other's houses. Like a married couple that's been together for a while, people started to say that we even looked alike.

The routine was the same every summer day. We rushed to see who would be the first one "out." It was then that person's responsibility to ring everyone else's bell to get our whole gang out. We would then meet at the sewer in the middle of the street in front of Tommy Brennan's house that served as our home plate for stickball games. We would choose up teams and then play stickball until lunchtime. For lunch we'd beg a buck from our Mom and then grab our skateboards and skate up to Church Avenue, en masse to get a slice of Pizza and a Coke at Korner Pizzeria, still the best I have ever had. We'd probably wreak a little havoc in the stores on the avenue until we'd wear out our welcome.

We'd usually get chased back to the friendly confines of our block for some more stickball. The only time the routine changed was if we had a good old fashioned thunder storm. Then we would pitch baseball cards or play board games on somebody's porch until the rain let up.

Usually we would chase that little pink rubber ball and run the bases between those sewers until six o'clock or so as the dad's started to come home from work. Then it would be time for dinner so our game would break up.

Mr. Competello, the plumber, usually came home first and made Pete kiss him hello every night, which we all thought was weird. Then the remaining fathers would appear in rapid succession between 5 and 6 o'clock. Then East 4th Street was silent, all you could hear was the sound of evening traffic lolling slowly down our street.

After dinner we waited for the bells of the ice cream man.
We had two ice cream men in our neighborhood. We had the Good Humor man, Mr. Corporate America in his clean and pressed white uniform. Good Humor sent a different guy every year in his sparkling new truck and that didn't sit right with us, we'd only buy ice cream from the Good Humor man as a last resort. We did however buy a lot of ice cream from Morris, our grandfatherly figure in his beat up old ice cream truck, with its collage of stickers displaying that summer's wares. Morris was part of our neighborhood, he was as much a fixture as the church steeple. White haired, rail thin, Morris was the underdog and he tugged at our working class hearts.

It was the summer of '76, Elton John's "Daniel" was topping the charts and my friends and I were eating our ice cream on the stoop in front of my house when I had one of those Moments. I remember distinctly glancing down the line of my boyhood friends and thinking, "It's never going to be any better than this. How much fun do we have? No responsibility, playing games all day, eating ice cream. I hope this never changes but I know it's going to."

And things were about to change and I was an agent of that change.

Every morning during the school year, Tweety and I would walk up East 4th Street and trek the 6 long blocks in our school uniforms to Immaculate Heart of Mary School. The only place Tweety and I were separated was at school. For the 8 years of grammar school, we were tracked by "ability." The way we called it, I was in the smart class (8-1) and Tweety was in the middle class (8-2) .

With this tracking, I was with the kids from the "1" class from first grade to eighth grade. We became a pretty tight-knit group, Sully, Chrissy Ryan, Mark Bowen, Jean Ann Powers and Jimmy Quinlan. We gave Quinlan the nickname Quint, remember it was the 70’s and Jaws was the hot movie. Quint was one of my best buddies at school. He was sharp as a tack, a wise-ass extraordinaire and a real live wire. This kid invented ADHD before any of us had ever heard of the diagnosis. He was also the most popular with the girls at school. He had that upturned Kevin Bacon nose and the confidence that comes from knowing you're good looking. Needless to say Quint was a lot of fun to hang out with. He seemed to raise the level of excitement. Quint was from East Seventh Street, a world away from East Fourth Street when you’re a kid.

As we moved up in the grades however, our parents began to expand the territory in our neighborhood we were allowed to venture to on our own. By 7th grade, East Seventh Street had become a reasonable destination. As a result I had started spending time on East 7th Street with Quinlan.
The Quinlan's had a big house and a nice backyard, Jimmy's father was a Lt. in the NYC Police department so his family was pretty well-off by our neighborhood's standards. And by 7th grade Jimmy was already wearing Levi's and Pro-Keds while the rest of us were still buying our clothes at Sears. It was always fun and exciting to leave the friendly confines of East 4th Street and venture off to unknown worlds.

After spending the day with Quint and his friends, jumping off of garage roofs and stealing Milky Ways from the local news stand, I would walk the 4 or so blocks back to East 4th Street. I can still see the hurt look on my friends' faces when they interrupted whatever game they were in the middle of to ask,
"Spinner, where yah been?

There started to be an ebb and flow to this routine. Once or twice a week I would go to Quinlan's after school. As my horizon's expanded, I started to look at my East 4th Street friends differently. They seemed like little kids. Part of me liked that and part of me was embarrassed by that. Little kids play hide and seek and flip baseball cards, and I loved doing all of those things. Little kids also wear little kids clothes and rarely shower and don't really care what they look like which really wasn't a problem until I started hanging out with Quint. He started "coaching" me on what kind of clothes to wear and where to get my hair cut. "Spinner what are you a little kid? You're wearing Tough Skins and dirty t-shirts and reject sneakers? You're never gonna get any girls like that!" So I gave in to the peer pressure and begged my Mom to get me some Levi's and some "big kids" clothes.

Eventually, I invited Quint to my block. That's when everything changed. I can still picture it, we were in the middle of a stickball game and I could see him sauntering up the street. It was almost like the music changed in the background. All of a sudden I looked around at my friends and I was embarrassed, I tried to distance myself from them. He came up to home plate and said,
"Spinner, what are you doin'?"
"I'm playing stickball. What does it look like I'm doing?"
"Stickball? That's for little kids. Don't you have anything fun to do on this block?"

And that was it, I told my friends I was going to do something else. Tommy Brennan looked at me as if I had punched him in the stomach and said, "But we're in the middle of a game?" As we walked away Quint snickered, "You're hanging out with these little kids?"

I started to increase the time I spent with Quint. We dragged Tweety with us as he was still my best friend. After this, my boyhood friends started treating me differently and rightfully so. I can picture them all in their minds saying, "Oh sure Spinner you only hang out with us when your cool friends aren’t around."

Quint started to come around East 4th Street more often and eventually it was the three of us Quinlan, Tweety and Spinner. At some point Quint showed up with girls. And they were cute and pretty and they made us act different.

One of the girls was Cathy Cavanaugh, the prettiest girl in our school. She hung around with two other girls we knew from school, Carolyn Leaver, small petite, long straight brown hair down to her butt and Marie McKay, freckles and black hair. All three were cute and I started to realize it was a perceived danger/excitement that was bringing them around, there was a certain electricity in the air when the three of us were together. They liked us. They thought we were funny and laughed at our jokes.

And here's another of those Moments. Someone got the bright idea that we should play Hide-and-Seek. I remember thinking we're in 8th grade and we're going to play a kids game? But it was all Quint's idea to get us alone with the girls so we could "make out." I remember panicking and dragging Tweety and Quint away from the crowd and whispering, "I don't know what I'm doing, what if Carolyn wants to kiss me?" Quint and Tweety laughed and said in unison, "That's the whole idea." Eventually Quint said to me, "Don't worry about it Spinner just act like you know what you're doing and let her lead. She's probably kissed somebody already. You just kind of stick your tongue in there and swish it around a little bit. You'll be fine."

So we went back out to the front porch of my house. Somebody was chosen as "it" and counted out loud, "One-Two-Three…" We scattered to hide. Unbeknownst to me the girls and Quint had orchestrated where we would all hide. I wound up in the hedges along the side of Mrs. Brody's house with Carolyn Leaver. There we were giggling and out of breath, in very close quarters, with the sound of someone yelling, "Ready or Not here I come!" in the background. And that's the MOMENT. I remember thinking, "Here I am in one of the hiding spots from my childhood, playing Hide-and-Seek, and I'm about to kiss a GIRL!."

A few weeks later, I was standing at home plate, with the stickball bat in my hand, when my mother screamed, "Jimmy telephone!" from the front porch of my house a few doors away. I pulled the bat down and yelled, "Who is it Mah, we're in the middle of a game!" I heard her say, "I think it's Tweety," as I watched her apron fluttered back into the house. I put the bat down, amid the protests of my friends, and said I'd be right back. Running into the house I picked up the phone and said, "Hello." All I remember was Quint saying, "Spinner get your ass over here right now, we got beer." I asked how he got it or something stupid like that and he said, "Don't worry about it just get your ass over here now." So I hung up the phone, looked guiltily at my mom and walked out of the house. I walked right past the stickball court, "Spinner where are you going? We're in the middle of a game."
"I know." I said, "But I gotta go."

And here was another one of those Moments. I remember looking at my boyhood friends, stuck in their innocence and thinking, "I'm going to drink a beer. Am I allowed to do this? Should I just stay here? I'd rather be 10 years old like Tommy Brennan and not have to make these decisions right now." But I went. I knew if I didn't show up they'd call me a pussy and I'd probably miss a lot of fun. And I wanted to drink the beer. That's what the MEN in my neighborhood did, they worked hard and they drank beer. So at 14 years old I drank my first beer.

Things really started to reel out of control after that. I was torn in so many directions. I missed my friends from my block. I missed playing hide-and-seek. I wasn't ready to give up my baseball cards. But I enjoyed hanging with this cool crowd, even if it was tough. We did have a lot of fun, and we were hanging out with girls.

One night, late in the summer, Quint, Tweety, the girls and I we were hanging out on my stoop, eating ice cream. News of a liquor store hold-up and a shooting on Church Avenue traveled quickly up the block. Everyone ran the two blocks to the scene. There were cop cars and ambulances with lights flashing. The smell of blood and adrenaline was in the air. The crowd was full of the usual know-it-alls who were the first on the scene. Whispers of, "They shot the guy." "The old man who owned the liquor store shot a junkie as he was running down the block" "Shot him in the head." "He's dead." "How the hell did that old man hit him?"

We all stayed at the scene for a while, trying to get a peak at the victim. We were all drawn to the scene. We grew up in a rough neighborhood but this was big news no matter how you looked at it. Eventually, they took the victim away in an ambulance. The crowd started to disperse. All of us kids wound up in a circle around a pool of blood. It was huge, about the size of a manhole cover and it had been sitting a while so a skin had started to form on top. We just stood there staring at it. Quinlan, Tweety, Myself on one side of the circle and Big Pete, Little Pete, Bubba & company on the other side of the circle. We were all repulsed and drawn to it at the same time. We stood there saying nothing, or things like, "Oh man", or "Shit, I can't believe this happened." When all of a sudden, Tommy Brennan took his popsicle stick out of his mouth, gave the crowd a sly look, raised his hand slightly and tossed that stick into the middle of the coagulating pool of blood. I remember everyone turning away in unison. I can still see Tommy's smiling face, thinking he had done something really cool. And I remember looking at that popsicle stick and looking at Tommy and my friends from my block and realizing that we were different somehow. The fact that Me, Quint or Tweety would not have thrown that popsicle stick in that pool of blood seemed to mean something. As we turned to walk away these two groups of my friends went in opposite directions. And that seemed symbolic to me. Glancing over my shoulder as my boyhood friends headed back to my block I knew then that this choice I was making would effect the rest of my life…

Jimmy Spinner
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nguzman said...


Your friend Jimmy Spinner's got a way with words. He describes the tension between "school friends" and "neighborhood friends" that many of us dealt with in Kensington. Great storyteller!! Many familiar family names in his story. I went to school with Quint's sister Jeannie. I think I know Sully too. Good memories. Remember anyone from Ocean Parkway between Church & Beverly?

Anonymous said...

Was that the time Morans bar got robbed on east 10th st.? I remember that. I went to Brooklyn Tech with one of the Quinlans. Great stuff, great memories , Will