Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Sinatra in Fort Lee--Part 2

Can you believe that I was expected to go to Kindergarten and give up the life I was making for myself? Who would mix drinks for the morning card players at the V.F.W.? Who would read the racing forms to the near-sighted World War I veterans? Who would advise Bunty what horse to bet on in the afternoon races? Who would feed coins into the payphone and dial the bookies to place the bets? Besides, when the horses hit, the boys filled my palm with closed-fist tributes—on a good afternoon I bet I had more money in my pocket than some of the men! Anyway, what did I need with school? I knew how to spell my name, and thanks to the horses I knew how to figure odds. And I’m sure no kid had a connection to Frank Sinatra, tenuous and twice removed though mine be!
 The only person who could get me out of this scrape with the German-engineered educational system was Uncle Joey. He was the one in the family who had the connections. I wanted to talk him into getting me one of those jobs that involved no work, but paid really well at one of the many construction sites in Fort Lee back then. I was five—old enough to have seen enough deals made and promises extracted by suit-wearing men on barstools and in back rooms to know how to get what I wanted. 
Uncle Joey knew the art of those deals—maybe he could ask Dolly to get Frank to intervene with my parents for me. I was sure of one thing: my mother could never refuse a request from Frank Sinatra. It was a really solid plan except for one thing. I had nothing of value to exchange for a favor so big, and in my fractured world where currency was not only measured in dollars, but in services performed -- when you had nothing to exchange you got nothing in return.
So, reluctantly, and with little illegal recourse, I readied myself for Kindergarten knowing that my happy days as a free-spirited waif were coming to an abrupt end. Grandma even took me to buy my first pair of school shoes at Schweitzer’s Department Store that sat directly across from Mr. Feiler’s Atlas Five and Dime on the southeast corner of Main Street. It was with a certain amount of sadness that I watched as Grandma exchanged her money for my new red tee-strap Buster Brown shoes with black rubber soles so thick I could have hauled used cars on them. It was then I knew that my life of adventure was dissolving and I hid behind the sale rack to conceal the bitter tears of my discontent. I was broken-hearted thinking about all the fun, adventures, and stories I’d be missing out on while forced to sit imprisoned in a classroom with 25 runny-nosed novices who knew nothing about life in the underbelly.
Once I had those red shoes in hand, I knew with great certainty that there was no way I was getting out of Kindergarten, so I looked at my situation the way most of the people who populated my first five years would look at it -- starting school meant that I was looking at a minimum12-year sentence with no chance of parole -- I should just take it on the chin like a man. I just hoped that I could stomach turning legit. I didn’t know it then, but I had nothing to worry about because the nuns took great pleasure in beating the legitimacy into me making me wish I was born a Jew.
However, those beatings made me realize one important thing-- most of the members of the mob were devout Catholics schooled by these very same nuns who, upon reflection, probably taught them everything they knew about throwing a good beating making these habit-wearing sisters perhaps the most menacing mob of all. After all, next to an outraged Italian mother, or an unpaid bookie, nobody could throw you a better beating than a pissed off nun.  Even Frank knew that!

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