Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Cream Sam Summer Supporting Players...

Here are several excerpts revolving around the not inconsiderable cast of Cream Sam Summer in the fascinating neighborhood of Kingsbridge in the Bronx, 1978:

Ann Burke is a petite old widow who has been in the neighborhood forever. She is pleasant enough, I suppose, but there has always been something of the night about her—at least as far as I’m concerned. She reminds me a little too much of the Joker—Batman’s nemesis—with her trademark bright red lipstick, pasty complexion, and wavy, wig-like hairdo. A raspy voice, the consequence of both a phenomenal smoking and drinking habit, further enhances the woman’s peculiarity. On more than a few occasions, Mrs. Burke has been spotted stumbling home in the wee small hours of the morning.

This peculiar looking little man could be recognized the proverbial mile away. Always clad in neatly pressed white dress shirts, pleated black trousers, and perfectly shined shoes, he roams the area by day and often by night as well. Whenever I encounter him on the street, I valiantly endeavor not to stare at him, but am almost always unsuccessful. His local handle is “Hunchback,” or just plain “Hunch,” and he always notices my unwanted glances. In fact, he meets my stares with stares of his own. Actually, I think they would be better described as chilling glares, and I don’t enjoy being in their line of fire.

Red Kern, on the other hand, is a familiar face in this sliver of the Northwest Bronx. Just about everybody knows him. A notorious packrat, the concrete sidewalls of the family’s sloping front driveway are perpetually lined with his most recent street finds. He once amassed a diverse assortment of discarded glass containers—everything from beer and soda bottles to mayonnaise and cold cream jars. Red envisioned making “piggybanks” out of them someday. On another occasion, the man gathered together wood scraps of every conceivable shape and size that he plucked from neighbors’ garbage cans. He spoke often of his grand plans to build an extra room to the house—his room—in the driveway. Construction hasn’t begun.

When we were much younger, Richie Ragusa, “Johnny B” Bauer, and I christened Red “Cream Sam”—a sub-nickname of sorts to his more popularly known one. The three of us had gotten into the habit of parking our bicycles in his driveway during the warm months of summer. Red was always ready with a good yarn, opinion, or outlandish philosophical discourse on the meaning of life. He frequently spoke of the existence of these rare culinary delights—at least that’s what I think they were supposed to be—called “Cream Sams.” Red said time and again that we would just love these “Kingsbridge Caviars,” and he always promised to get us some real soon.

The Wheel is situated directly opposite the McDonald’s parking lot with a bird’s-eye view of the elevated subway tracks on Broadway, where the Number 1 train—the Seventh Avenue local—barrels back and forth day and night from here in the Northwest Bronx to lower Manhattan. We’ve christened the individual who owns the place the “Man-Lady,” because distinguishing the proprietor’s gender is not a slam-dunk. When all is said and done, though, the Man-Lady is the latter. She wears what I call “maintenance man pants,” stylish “Vince Lombardi glasses,” and has a considerable rear end that accentuates her sartorial tastes. The Man-Lady walks with a pronounced limp, too, which adds further color to her incomparable persona.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Kingsbridge: Character and Characters

Cream Sam Summer is a novel set in the Northwest Bronx neighborhood of Kingsbridge. The year is 1978, and I can personally attest to the fact that it was a great place to grow up in back then—an amalgam of urban grittiness and small town charm. The book’s narrator is a sixteen-year-old boy, which, not coincidentally, was my age in 1978. Permit me now to introduce you to a new work of fiction as well as a very real place in an intriguing snapshot in time.

For both young and old alike, there were many perks to living in Kingsbridge in the 1970s. Everything it seemed was at our fingertips. In an age before computers and iPhones, texts and tweets, we very literally lived in our neighborhood. We didn’t have the option of holing ourselves up inside with today’s advanced technological gizmos and instantaneous communication devices. When we came home from school, we promptly went outside to play, or whatever else we could find to do. Sometimes we settled for hanging out on our front stoops, or the grounds of our concrete backyards, and engaged in the lost art of conversation. The summers were especially memorable—incredibly active and a lot of fun, even if they were quite often uncomfortably hot and humid. Many families, including mine, miraculously survived without the luxury of air conditioning. We played the games that little people had played for generations in the big city, but had this sinking feeling that we were the last ones who would ever do so—and we were right.  

In 1978, Kingsbridge’s commercial hub, W231st Street leading down to Broadway and the elevated subway tracks of the Number 1 line—the El—accommodated a wide variety of stores from jewelers to druggists to shoemakers. Just about everything you needed could be found in the neighborhood. Whether you were in the market for a deli sandwich, women’s hosiery, or tropical fish for the apartment aquarium, a local shop had what you wanted. There was even a movie theater, bowling alley, and wintertime ice-skating rink in the area.

In those days gone by, merchants established genuine rapports with their customers and were an integral part of the neighborhood fabric. There was a strong sense of community in the environs of Kingsbridge—an inviolable bond that we were somehow all in it together. Despite the vast and varied personalities of the residents—good eggs and bad eggs—we shared common experiences like exploring the sprawling Van Cortlandt Park, enjoying a slice of the appetizingly greasy Sam’s Pizza, or attending Sunday Mass at St. John’s Church, which was uplifting to some and boring as all hell to others, particularly the younger set.

Kingsbridge was blessed, too, with a rather interesting topography. An exception to the “Bronx Rule of Flat,” it was hilly terrain with all kinds of nooks and crannies. The Hudson River was also nearby—on the shores of Riverdale, Kingsbridge’s more pedigreed neighbor to the west. The Harlem River Ship Canal—walking distance and just to the south—added further color to the landscape. Crossing the canal via the Broadway Bridge at W225th Street put Kingsbridge denizens in the Inwood section of the world’s most visited borough: Manhattan.

The neighborhood was remarkably accessible, too. Riders on the Number 1 subway line, which cut a swath through the heart of Kingsbridge, could be in mid-town Manhattan in forty-five minutes. Countless locals rode the rails to school and to work. Others hopped on ubiquitous area buses, which took them to wherever their hearts desired in the Bronx and parts of Manhattan as well.

It was indeed a fascinating time and place to be a kid: so much more civil, neighborly, and innocent than today, yet paradoxically feral and coarse as well. The local 50th police precinct logged its fair share of crimes in the 1970s. Burglaries and break-ins were routine, with the burglars hauling away TV sets and kitchen appliances in broad daylight. It’s hard to envision contemporary thieves making off with the Mr. Coffee, toaster oven, and vegetable chopper. Street muggings were also commonplace, so it paid to be eternally vigilant.

The Kingsbridge of 1978 had both character and characters—that cannot be denied. This compelling stage is where the myriad characters in Cream Sam Summer confront past ghosts and ponder their futures, too, because nothing stays the same—nothing at all. Not neighborhoods and not people.