Short stories and essays by Shaun Costello, as well as excerpts from manuscripts in progress.

Posts tagged “Forest Hills Gardens

WILD ABOUT HARRY…..The first reviews are in!

WILD ABOUT HARRY

A friend who knew him well remembers HARRY REEMS

by Shaun Costello

 Harry - Book Cover final version

 

The reviews are coming in:

Harry 4 B&W shots_edited-1

Porno World Explained

on July 13, 2015
Captures the essence of the City as Costello, a young man looking for work, lands a starring role in the most unexpected place! His story is as captivating as that of Harry Reems. I imagine this is how Hunter Thompson might have approached the subject!
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Birds of a Feather

 on July 5, 2015
Well-written and detailed stories about Reem’s life from Costello’s perspective, from their first meeting through the early days of pornographic films…There might not be any surprises here, but Costello’s enthusiasm and knowledge more than compensate for this historical biography about the road to a new kind of sexual freedom. People’s present reactions to pornographic images would be completely altered had it not been for these harbingers of sleaze. Even if I am more interested in its psychology — the dark side of the mind that creates or masturbates to FORCED ENTRY or WATERPOWER — this detailed history will take you on a ride to another time. And you can never go back again.
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Looking for the dirt!

on June 26, 2015
A fun and filthy read about fun and filthy guy, looking for the dirt and finding it: a story of drugs, smut, mafia, the rise to fame and coming down hard – and getting away and getting away with it. Recommended.
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A Touching Tribute by One Adult Industry Legend to Another

 By Geert Claeys on June 7, 2015

Format: Kindle Edition

My earliest memory of Golden Age hardcore he-man Harry Reems stems from somewhere back in the still budding Eighties. Our (Belgian) household was still a few years removed from acquiring its first VCR, mighty pricey back in the day, but the local video store would offer cumbersome play-only devices described as “movie boxes” (anyone else remember those contraptions ?) for an affordable weekend rental, throwing in a couple of complimentary tapes as part of the deal. As with any VHS renter, one of the flicks I picked was of an adult nature, in my case the 1974 carnal classic

Making a phone call on The Deuce could be hazardous to your health

Making a phone call on The Deuce could be hazardous to your health

Sometime Sweet Susan. So it came to pass that my mom (!!!) and I – aged about 15 or 16 at the time – sat down on a Saturday night to sample our first flavor of in-house intimate entertainment. Mom, God rest her weary soul, was a desperate housewife well before TV made the term fashionable, possessed of a tiger’s temperament trapped in the starting to sag shell of a stay at home spouse and mother of eleven, eight sons versus three daughters. The bloom of youth prematurely trampled by daily drudgery, Lord knows she could stand a salacious vicarious thrill to help her make it through the night. Turned out titular Susan, the pic’s perky protagonist, was a particularly troubled young lady with a split personality (the proverbial good girl/bad girl) in dire need of psychiatric support. Enter Harry Reems as the Good Doctor (I didn’t see Deep Throat until several years after) rushing in aid of our ailing heroine. I swear you could have heard both mom and me gasp at his first appearance. Although an amiable actor, certainly by adult standards (a frame of reference I was still unfamiliar with at the time), it was his look that did it for us. Yes, we really were that shallow ! A fine torso with magnificent muscle definition, yet light years removed from the pumped physique of the next decade’s gym bunnies, covered with a thick layer of fur as our favorite tell-tale trademark of virility. Mom liked ‘em hirsute and, then still unbeknownst to her, so did the youngest of her boys… The Sixties’ sexual

Fanny was a Puerto Rican stripper who taught young Herb everything he knew about sex

Fanny was a Puerto Rican stripper who taught young Herb everything he knew about sex

revolution had produced an unprecedented permissiveness on worldwide cinema screens by the time strapping young Herbert Streicher, a nice Jewish kid from Brooklyn, figured these newfangled fornication flicks were a great way to make ends meet while waiting for his big break in thespian territory. The ultimately short-lived “Porno Chic” phenomenon took sex films out of their storefront ghetto and moved them into fancy first run theaters. For a brief shining moment, it seemed as if carnal cinema had come of age and had permanently taken up residence in the major league to the approval of adventurous audiences everywhere. In such climate, illusory though it was to prove, it was not unthinkable for a struggling actor to seriously consider the option of taking it off and putting it in for pictorial posterity without a care as to how or whether this might affect his future chances. After all, he wasn’t doing anything that didn’t come naturally to most people. At worst, should fornication films prove but a fleeting fad, they would probably sink without a trace leaving no one the wiser, right ? Unfortunately for Herb, who had been trying on professional monikers with “Tim Long” the most persistent until “Harry Reems” finally stuck, an unassuming little XXX flick was to decide otherwise… Gerard Damiano’s groundbreaking Deep Throat and its legal hassles that were to kill off the legit careers of all involved, headed by Reems serving as primary scapegoat, have been extensively covered by Bailey and Barbato’s essential 2005 documentary Inside Deep Throat. Shaun Costello, a fellow performer from the industry’s infancy who would graduate to feature filmmaking while upholding an astonishing “Real World” front, was there at crucial junctures in Harry’s life. Now he lifts the veil on the man whose very image was to become synonymous with the prototypical Seventies porno stud : a lean mean fornicatin’ machine with the trademark

Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty were the first two Hollywood celebrities to come to Harry's aid.  Fund raisers were held in New York and Hollywood for the Harry Reems Legal Defense Fund

Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty were the first two Hollywood celebrities to come to Harry’s aid. Fund raisers were held in New York and Hollywood for the Harry Reems Legal Defense Fund

handlebar mustache. A close buddy and ally since their days in the trenches, Costello chronologically charts the rise and fall of the reluctant adult industry icon in an instantly ingratiating, flab-free style giving you the how’s and why’s without resorting to amateur analysis or purple prose. Which is not to say that he merely records the bad boy shenanigans he shared with his subject, as evidenced by an astonishingly astute account of an acid trip that reads like something akin to Beat poetry. Carnal cognoscenti are well aware that Reems starred in Costello’s fledgling filmmaking effort, the sexually explicit Vietnam vet on a rampage flick Forced Entry, and the exhaustive chapter on that film’s genesis alone provides enough reason to pick up a copy of the book. Already associated with congenially comedic capers through Throat and other farces of its ilk taking their cues from burlesque theater, the actor gave one of his most atypical performances as the deeply disturbed gas station attendant whose twisted views on morality

“I’m Marlene Willoughby. Catchy name, huh? It’s not my real name, of course. I’m Polish. You probably couldn’t even pronounce it.”

(punishing women for making themselves sexually available to all and sundry) blow up in his face when the tables are turned in deliciously ironic fashion. Although Reems was to subsequently feign shock at the movie’s heady mix of real sex and phoney violence in his 1975 autobiography Here Comes Harry Reems !, it remains one of his standout achievements, providing a strong glimpse of what might have been had mainstream movies embraced rather than rebuffed him. Costello chronicles Reems’s fall from grace in harrowing detail, deftly side-stepping sensationalism at every turn. The actor’s own words quoted from various credited sources paper over the periods when the longtime pals’ paths would diverge. Their fleeting reunion towards decade’s end, when Costello was on his way up with bigger budgets allowing for more ambitious endeavors (the “Warren Evans” era, for those in the know) and Reems was fighting an ever escalating alcohol addiction in order to cope with the mounting frustration over his erotic entrapment, yields one of the book’s most poignant passages guaranteed to break a reader’s heart. Had the author ended right there and then, he would have wound up with one hell of a cautionary tale. Thankfully, life rarely comes as cut ’n dried as your average Movie of the Week would have it and Harry Reems ultimately did have a “life after porn”, finding both God and true love as well as widespread acceptance by his small town community in the unexpectedly enlightened State of Utah. Of all the lavish illustrations, mostly candid movie stills and eye-popping poster art, one stands out in particular. It’s a teeny tiny snap shot of Harry and his wife Jeannie Sterrett at the Inside Deep Throat premiere. Even the usually unsentimental Costello goes on record to concede that this apparently unassuming lady did nothing less than save his life. Moving back to where I started from, my mom never wished ill on anybody, not anybody who didn’t deserve it anyway, certainly no past or present object of her cinematic affection, secret sex fantasies or whatever the case may have been. Knowing her as well as I did, I’ve got a pretty good hunch she would have been tickled pink to learn that this lovely hunk o’man who stirred her loins many decades ago finally found happiness and got to lead a good life before his untimely passing at the age of 65. Makes me kinda happy as well, truth be told… Dries Vermeulen a/k/a the former (and future ?) Dirty Movie Devotee temporarily trapped in Limbo

DEEP THROAT became such a box office phenomenon that the Religious Right came out in force to demonstrate across the country

DEEP THROAT became such a box office phenomenon that the Religious Right came out in force to demonstrate across the country

“Shaun Costello has written as beautiful a tribute as anyone could imagine. A fantastic evocation of a time, of a place and – most of all – of a friendship.”

by Julian Marsh on June 1, 2015

From The Erotic Film Society in London

For such a prolific director – at least 66 films between 1973 and 1984 – Shaun Costello remained one of the New York XXX scene’s best kept secrets for many years. One reason is the number of noms-de-porn he worked under. He made more than his fair share of films that are now recognized as classics but not always under the same name – he was ‘Kenneth Schwartz’ for FIONA ON FIRE but ‘Warren Evans’ for DRACULA EXOTICA, for example – and this prevented him from getting due recognition until relatively recently. For notorious roughies FORCED ENTRY and WATERPOWER, he was ‘Helmuth Richler’ but ‘Amanda Barton’ made the sensitive PASSIONS OF CAROL. At Avon Productions he was ‘Russ Carlson’ and for a while he was even ‘Oscar Tripe’; plus there were numerous uncredited one-day-wonders.

In ONLY THE BEST, published at the dawn of the video era, critic Jim Holliday indicated that one person was behind some of these pseudonyms; but pre-internet it was pretty much impossible for even dedicated pornologists to crack the Costello code.

A slushy night on

A slushy night on “The Deuce”

With the advent of the web, the IMDb and IAFD and dedicated discussion forums where smut-hounds could compare what they’d discovered, facts began to surface.

Then something occurred that every film historian dreams about; Shaun Costello himself joined the forums. He posted on IMDb. He corrected. He clarified…

And suddenly his incredible career came into sharp focus. Not just those 66 films that he helmed but around the same number of appearances from 1971 to ’89 – and that doesn’t include loops – plus at least 50 films he produced and a similar number of writing credits. It’s a wonder he ever found time to sleep.

On the evidence of WILD ABOUT HARRY, his by turns hilarious and moving memoir about his friendship with Harry Reems, during the pre-DEEP THROAT days of Big Apple hard-core, sleep was often the last thing on his mind. Whether he was editing into the early hours – the only way he could afford post-production facilities – or heroically carousing with his buddies – ‘the Three Musketeers of 42nd Street’ – those years in the late 60s and early 70s seem to have been one madcap adventure, where anything was possible.

A voracious film fan, from art-house masters to grindhouse smut, Shaun absorbed everything. He fell into the pornographic loops business by happy accident, just as they were on the borderline of becoming legal, or at least tolerated, in the adult bookstores of the Deuce.

Herb and Jamie. Gone now, but not forgotten.

Herb and Jamie. Gone now, but not forgotten.

And he was there when a handsome, young, legit actor – still known by his birth name, Herb Streicher – made his debut in an explicit 8mm film destined for ‘under the counter’ sales.

(Assumed names were cast aside faster than underwear: Herb wouldn’t settle on Harry Reems for a couple of years, after he’d tried on ‘Tim Long’ among other aliases.)

It wasn’t just the start of a professional relationship – Shaun cast Herb/Harry as a disturbed Vietnam Vet in FORCED ENTRY, his first feature as director – it was the beginning of a deep friendship.

And now Shaun has published this memoir of those heady days – and that double entendre is very much intended – as a tribute to his buddy, who passed away in March of this year. Anyone who knows the recipe for Automat Soup (a container of ketchup and hot water, if you’re asking – gourmets break some gratis crackers on top to simulate croutons) will probably already have a copy.

But what if you’re not a dedicated devotee of the Deuce and are wondering whether to purchase? Or what if you – horror – have to ask, ‘What’s the Deuce’? Well, let Mr Costello explain…

“The Deuce” at night.

‘The Times Square subway station, my portal to the neighborhood, was an intense assault on the senses. A sudden, almost overwhelming surge of smells and filth hit you as the train doors slid open to the rush of urine, and cotton candy, and damp humanity, and hot dogs on their revolving spits, and vomit, and baked goods like crumb cakes and bran muffins and pretzels, and the garlicky pungent scent of Gyros slowly rotating, and everything suddenly interrupted by someone chasing a pick-pocket through outstretched hands asking for dimes, and a tidal swarm of the disenfranchised huddled in groups, trying to stay warm. And this entire sensory phantasmagoria was musically scored by the overmodulated sound of Kool and the Gang wailing “Jungle Boogie” from the cheap speakers over the door to the subterranean record store. And then the cold again as you climbed the stairs to the street, and there it was, “The Deuce”.’ (from WILD ABOUT HARRY © 2015 Shaun Costello)

From this vivid evocation of arriving at 42nd Street, you should immediately have discerned that our guide to all this decadence has a very neat turn of phrase indeed, which he puts to fine effect throughout the book. It’s prose that encapsulates the sights, the sounds, the smells, the animal excitement of the city – and the only reason not to enjoy it is that it makes you break down and cry, lamenting the passing of such delightful debauchery. ‘Delightful debauchery’? Well, yes. Shaun Costello is aware of the oxymoron. On the one hand, he’s a cultured chap, dating a wealthy heiress. On the other, he’s working his way up the porn ladder. And he’s having fun all the way, along with his lifelong friend Jimmy and – of course – Harry, who is seemingly ever ready for an adventure.

Harry as a homocidal Vietnam Vet on a murder spree in FORCED ENTRY

Harry as a homocidal Vietnam Vet on a murder spree in FORCED ENTRY

Such as one hallucinogen-fuelled romp which takes them from Times Square to the East Side via various apartments whose inhabitants are woken at unearthly hours, before disgorging them on a pitch-and-putt golf course by the beach… all described with a panache that matches Hunter S Thompson’s knack for conveying altered reality.

When DEEP THROAT made Harry a porno chic superstar, his world suddenly became a round of press and promotion and personal appearances, followed equally swiftly by the traumas of the authorities’ attempts to prosecute him for merely appearing in the film. During this period, Shaun lost contact with his buddy, so he has to rely on the interviews that Harry made when he reappeared from anonymity (he’d become a real estate salesman in Colorado) in the wake of the documentary INSIDE DEEP THROAT, to describe what happened.

Initially I was worried that this could turn into a cut and paste job, but Costello has chosen and edited the quotes with great sensitivity. It’s rather like that moment in a jazz number, when the star soloist comes forward. We’ve enjoyed Shaun talking about his friend and now we get hear Harry’s own voice. And what a lovely voice it is, especially talking about his conversion to Christianity and the spiritual belief that saved him from alcoholism (with the aid of a 12 step programme). This sort of tale could so easily be preachy. And how often have former porners turned on the business, their former friends, their whole past life, when they found God?

But Harry – or Herb – was clearly such a sweet guy – and his story of salvation comes over as so genuine – that even if you don’t believe yourself, you can’t help but feel glad that he found that faith because it saved his life.

And then there’s a coda: a meeting years later; a final phone call. It’s deeply touching and heartfelt. Shaun Costello has written as beautiful a tribute as anyone could imagine.

Any quibbles? Just one. I was left ravenous for more of Shaun’s own autobiography. From his contributions to various forums, I know he has great tales to tell and that he tells them in an exceptionally entertaining manner. I hope that further memoirs will be forthcoming from this fine raconteur, drawing on about his raunchy history.

Harry on the golf course during his happy years in Utah.

Harry on the golf course during his happy years in Utah.

But that is not the aim of WILD ABOUT HARRY. It’s not a long book but it’s an intensely warm and wonderful one.  A fantastic evocation or a time, of a place and – most of all – of a friendship.

Julian Marsh

The Erotic Film Society

It gets wild, all right!

By Robin Bougie on June 1, 2015

Format: Kindle Edition

Very worthwhile look at the life and times of 1970s and 80s porn performer, Harry Reems by director Shaun Costello. If you’ve read any number of Shaun’s elaborate blog posts about his experiences working in adult films back in the day, you know that he’s got a flair for storytelling — crafting very readable tales from his memories of being in the XXX trenches. The man has lived some crazy stuff amongst some amazing personalities, and lived to tell the tale! Here, he focuses on his intimate run-ins, on-set adventures, and informed opinions with and about Mr Reems — the famous co-star of Linda Lovelace in DEEP THROAT. There are some good photos and such as well, but the real draw here is the text. The story about the making of the infamous “roughie” porno FORCED ENTRY alone is worth the price of admission. A real “must” for those who have an interest in vintage adult filmmaking, and for those who want to know more.

Praying for salvation in the land of smut.

Praying for salvation in the land of smut.

A MAJOR WOW!

By Jeff Eagle on June 1, 2015

Format: Kindle Edition

Shaun Costello’s story about Harry Reems had me at page one. Even if you didn’t know Harry you will feel as if you did. Shaun crafts a memoir that brings the Golden Age of adult films to an outrageous and hilarious story between two friends and the deliciously demented people they ran with. The stories are so well written you will feel as if you were there… or wish you were. It’s a great read about some great guys in a great era. You won’t be able to put it down.

THE FLEET'S IN....Sailors on shore leave head directly to

THE FLEET’S IN….Sailors on shore leave head directly to “The Deuce”

Great writing about a time and place almost forgotten by many!

 By Elizabeth Main on May 29, 2015

Format: Kindle Edition

I was so happy to come across this book, I loved it. A time and place that only the writer could bring to life the way he did. Completely held my interest with every word. I love the way the writer explained their relationship along with the character development. A real page turner, great fun summer read, could not put it down.

JOE'S FRIENDLY SERVICE...The location used for an early Harry Reems film FORCED ENTRY.

JOE’S FRIENDLY SERVICE…The location used for an early Harry Reems film FORCED ENTRY.

More reviews will be added as they appear on Amazon.

HERE IS A LINK TO THE BOOK’S AMAZON PAGE:

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00YG1DM1I

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HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO

HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO

 

by Shaun Costello

This guy in a uniform must be my father. Hey there, Dad.

This guy in a uniform must be my father. Hey there, Dad.

 

This story becomes Chapter One (following the prologue)

of the childhood memoir:

THE LAST TIME I SAW JESUS

Surviving God and Elvis in the Time of ‘Duck and Cover’

 

My newlywed parents, along with my Aunt Alice and Uncle Tommy, at The Stork Club, a few weeks before my father left for The Pacific during World War II

My newlywed parents, along with my Aunt Alice and Uncle Tommy, at The Stork Club, a few weeks before my father left for The Pacific during World War II

As a child, I had two adult male role models, neither of whom, as far as I know, experienced a single responsible moment in their lives; which goes a long way toward explaining why money has always been a mystery to me. There was my father – a pathological liar, degenerate gambler, alcoholic, chain smoker, and raconteur to the uninformed; who seemed involved in an endless struggle between his income and the image of himself he had created, with clumsy sleight-of-hand, as a buffer to prevent being discovered as the fraud he must have known in his heart he undoubtedly was.  

My father - a raconteur to the uninformed.

My father – a raconteur to the uninformed.

And then there was my Uncle Tommy, who staked his claim to my affections during the waning months of World War II, while my father was off serving in the Pacific, and then with the occupation forces after the Japanese surrender. Uncle Tommy was movie star handsome and a professional dancer, who parlayed this combination of useful traits, regardless of the fact that he was homosexual, into a lifetime of living off the gifts of generous and very wealthy women, whose ranks included Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton.

 

Uncle Tommy was movie star handsome.

Uncle Tommy was movie star handsome.

Quite understandably, my father resented my uncle, who lavished expensive gifts upon his favorite nephew, made his gift-laden visits to our family driving his Rolls Royce, and occasionally took us cruising on his yacht. My friends would gather outside our house as the trunk to Uncle Tommy’s Rolls would open like a cornucopia of generosity, the gifts flowing, while my father watched from our living room window, properly fortified with yet another VO Manhattan against the onslaught of familial competitiveness, a turf war he had no chance of winning. I thought Uncle Tommy was rich – the Rolls, the yacht, the custom tailored suits; but I’m willing to bet that, for all his lavish behavior, Uncle Tommy never had a bank account containing more than a hundred dollars. Neither my father nor my uncle spent any time planning for their futures. They couldn’t be bothered. They both lived in the smoke they had created around their respective ever-precious present. They had tricks up their sleeves. They did it with mirrors – an endless hocus-pocus.  They both died broke.

On the surface, my family seemed to be living out the post war, Robert Moses version of the American Dream – Father, mother, brother, sister, dog and station wagon; all ensconced  in the suburban subdivision of Green Acres, a delightfully park-like, child-friendly community, in Long Island’s Nassau County – about a forty minute car ride from midtown Manhattan.

Our house in Green Acres. I wanted to live there forever.

Our house in Green Acres. I wanted to live there forever.

We lived in a two story brick house that was identical to every fourth house in the community, Green Acres offering four designs to choose from. This meant that on Elderberry Lane, which had a total of fourteen houses, our house was repeated three or four times, pretty typical in post World War II cookie-cutter subdivisions. Sounds a bit like Baltimore, but, despite architectural similarities, people seemed to find their way to their own houses unaided, with the exception of my philandering father, who was often accused by my mother of spending just a bit too much time offering domestic assistance to neighboring housewives, which was the cause of many interruptions in our familial tranquility. Virtually all of the streets in Green Acres were cul-de-sacs, which meant no through-traffic, or paradise to a kid on a Schwinn. Sections of the community were separated by small parks, so that you could walk from one end to the other without crossing a single street, allowing our extremely eccentric Dachshund ‘Ronzoni’ to wander freely about the neighborhood, sometimes for days at a time.

And then there was Montauk. In the late 1930’s, some members of my mother’s family, siblings of mygrandmother, bought property in Montauk, which was then a small fishing village at the very Eastern tip of Long Island, about a hundred miles East of Manhattan. These were the Stephensons, the children of my great grandmother Kitty Lane, who married Edward Stephenson, whose photograph, for decades after his early demise, sporting a straw skimmer and handlebar mustache, adorned the wall of their family’s Bronx apartment.

My Great Great Grandfather Edward Stephenson. Looks like a rakish dog, doesn't he?

My Great Great Grandfather Edward Stephenson. Looks like a rakish dog, doesn’t he?

Little Shaun showing his penis to fish on the beach at Hither Hills, in Montauk

Little Shaun showing his penis to fish on the beach at Hither Hills, in Montauk

The Stephensons visit us in Green Acres. It was my Great Grandmother's 85th birthday. She's in the back next to little Shaun.

The Stephensons visit us in Green Acres. It was my Great Grandmother’s 85th birthday. She’s in the back next to little Shaun.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

They were blue collar, working class, depression era Irish, bringing to the table all the good and the bad that that combination of unfortunate circumstances might suggest. With the exception of Aunt Catherine, I found them to be likeable and exotic. They seemed to speak another language, pronouncing words differently than I had ever heard before. Oil was earl, as in, “I’ve got to put some motor earl in the car”, or, “Pick up some olive earl for salad.” They called Chinese food chinks, and pizza was ahbeetz. Their apartment in the Bronx was filled with strange and bewildering religious oddities, each room with a crucifix on the wall and framed pictures of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and various Saints. And there were glow-in-the-dark statues, mostly of Jesus that, if held next to a lamp for a minute or so, would glow a strange blue-green. On my Great Grandmother’s dresser was Statue of Jesus with little doors built into his chest which, when opened, revealed all his internal organs, like an illustration in a biology book. I had no idea why Jesus would want to share his internal organs with me, but examining the sacred innards was so wonderfully weird that it became my favorite source of amusement whenever we paid a visit.

My Aunt Catherine and Uncle Harold's wedding portrait. They don't make silver prints like this any more, It's truly beautiful.

My Aunt Catherine and Uncle Harold’s wedding portrait. They don’t make silver prints like this any more, It’s truly beautiful.

The oldest Stephenson was Edward Junior (Uncle Eddie) who, although his Montauk cottage sat directly across the .street from his younger sister Catherine, had, some time between the purchase of his building lot in the mid 1930’s, and the end of World War II, engaged in some dispute with his siblings, a result of which was eternal and mutual banishment. His sisters seldom spoke his name, and then only accompanied by a shaking head and mournful sigh – an Irish form of familial excommunication. As a small child I saw him once or twice, but was discouraged from crossing the dirt road that separated the warring parties.

The next in line was my Great Aunt Rose, a stout, determined woman, who lived far outside the code of conduct normally adhered to by her peers. Some time in the early 1920’s, Rose divorced her husband, and married Charlie Volk, a Jewish soda vendor with whom she had been carrying on a delightfully disgraceful affair for quite some time. Among depression era Irish, divorce was unthinkable. And marrying a Jew, well, the whole neighborhood probably grabbed their rosary beads and fell to their knees in a desperate attempt to prevent Bronx-bound lightening strikes. Rosie drank whiskey in bars, and enjoyed the company of men. Rosie got into bar fights that she usually finished. Rosie had some cojones.

Aunt Rose had some cojones.

Aunt Rose had some cojones.

Aunt Della married Clem who ate clams and dropped dead.

Aunt Della married Clem who ate clams and dropped dead.

Then came Aunt Della, a small, thin, mousy little woman, who, it was rumored, suffered a terrible bout of tuberculosis in her early twenties, which kept her chair-bound for most of her life, but didn’t seem to deter her chain smoking. Della married a man named Clem who, during prohibition, succumbed to a lethal combination of bad calms and bathtub gin. He walked out of the clam bar on City Island with a smile on his face, and was dead two hours later. There were whispers about Aunt Della that my young ears detected, but that my child’s brain could make little sense of. Something about a tubal pregnancy. A dead fetus inside Aunt Della. A shameful secret. Hair that kept growing. Different lengths were mentioned – three feet, five feet, ten feet – all inside Aunt Della. Until finally, she could hide her delicate dilemma no longer, and off to the hospital she went, to have her expanding Medusa surgically removed from her Catholic self. I assume it was the offspring of the deceased clam eater, but I guess we’ll never know.

My grandmother married notorious gambler and stage performer Black Jack Dowling.

My grandmother married notorious gambler and stage performer Black Jack Dowling.

Next was Anna (Nan), my Grandmother, who flew the coop at an early age, and married notorious gambler, and stage performer Black Jack Dowling. They started a Vaudeville act, had two kids (my Mother and Uncle Tommy), added them to the act, and called themselves the Dancing Dowlings. They played the Southern Vaudeville circuit for about ten years, before returning to New York City. Unlike the rest of her siblings, Nan lived in Manhattan for most of her adult life.

My Grandmother performing with her husband and my Grandfather Black Jack Dowling.

My Grandmother performing with her husband and my Grandfather Black Jack Dowling.

Last and probably least, was Aunt Catherine, the baby of the Stephenson clan. She bore a startling resemblance to Margaret Hamilton, who played the wicked witch in the Wizard of Oz. Catherine was married to Harold Hanley (Uncle Harold or sometimes Bootsiboo – don’t ask) who was a construction foreman, flounder fisherman, and pretty affable guy. How he put up with all those old biddies is anybody’s guess. Catherine was an unpleasant woman who couldn’t resist pinching my cheek, which really hurt. I hid from Aunt Catherine.

I hid from Aunt Catherine.

I hid from Aunt Catherine.

In the early days of World War II, Aunt Catherine and Uncle Harold built a tiny cottage on their Montauk property, and their presence seemed to draw other family members out to the end of Long Island. Uncle Tommy, who worked on the Tars and Spars Shows, out of the Brooklyn Coast Guard Barracks, began taking weekend passes, along with his Coast Guard pals, and heading out to Montauk, where he had befriended Otto and Mary Steinfeld, who owned the Montauket Hotel. After the war, Sonny Volk, Rosie’s son, who had lost a leg in the Battle of the Bulge, settled in Montauk, looking for business opportunities.

In January of 1946 my world, as I knew it, would change forever with the return of my father from Japan. Hail the conquering hero. He was resplendent in his army uniform, shiny Captain’s bars adorning the epaulets on his shoulders, and I’m sure a great fuss was made over him by everyone he knew, or was introduced to.  This would be the first time I laid eyes on my father, who was on a troop ship sailing to New Guinea when I was born. Up until then, having a father, in my little world, meant being told stories by my mother of her hero, off somewhere far away, fighting for America.

Hail the conquering hero.

Hail the conquering hero.

She would show me pictures and read me letters, and drag me to the record store where we would sit in a booth and record our voices on a disc that she would send off to somewhere in the far Pacific, to be listened to by her husband and his army pals. Personal recordings were extremely popular during the war, where many, like my father, could listen to the voices of their wives and sweethearts, and children they had yet to meet. I was two when I first met him, and I’m sure that his sudden presence in my life was bewildering, to say the least. He moved in to the small apartment I had shared with my mother, on Creston Avenue in the Bronx. My mother told me years later that she made my father wear his uniform after his return so she could show him off to everyone she knew. Take him down to the Club Fordham and flaunt her victorious soldier to the gang. He was a handsome guy, and I’m sure my mother’s pals were impressed by those shiny Captain’s bars on his shoulders.

A few years later, while snooping through his army trunk, which was one of my favorite forms of rainy day adventure, I came across his discharge papers. They were right there, along with his uniforms, and souvenirs of his years in the Pacific; a samurai sword, a blood-stained Japanese flag allegedly taken from the pockets of a dead enemy soldier, ivory Buddha statues, sea shells, photographs of naked women, and the various and sundry collected keepsakes of two years in a distant land. First Lieutenant Albert W. Costello was Honorably Discharged…………First Lieutenant. This would be my first brush with my father’s sleight-of-hand. He must have purchased Captain’s Bars at the PX, and somewhere between exiting the troop ship, and being enveloped into the welcoming arms of my mother, Lieutenant Costello became a Captain. I guess his army rank disappointed him, but more importantly, he thought it might disappoint others. I never mentioned my discovery, which I’m quite certain my mother was unaware of. The uniform finally went into mothballs, replaced by custom tailored suits, but the story of Al being a Captain in the war became his permanent legacy.

My sister's fifth birthday party. Outside our house in Green Acres.

My sister’s fifth birthday party. Outside our house in Green Acres.

It wasn’t until my family moved to Green Acres that we began our visits to Montauk. After the birth of my sister, my father, looking for more space for his growing family, and greener pastures for his fragile self-esteem, moved us from our tiny Bronx apartment to the town of Katonah, in the wilds of northern Westchester County, a two and a half hour commute by train to his office in mid-town Manhattan. He had rented a house on a lovely estate called Blue Spruce Farm, overlooking the Croton Reservoir. The property, owned by a mysterious man named Korhulse, was extensive – fields, woods, ponds, streams, barns containing horses, empty buildings in which to do make-believe and exploring – what a place to be a kid. The literally thousands of family photographs I inherited tell a story of countless visits by many of my father’s friends from the city, who made the trek north to our house in the country, to witness, first hand, the kind of life style Al Costello now enjoyed. But, after two years, the length of the commute, and the lure of participation in the American Dream’s reward of home ownership, overwhelmed my father, who decided to buy a house on Long Island. I was told quite abruptly, half way through kindergarten, and was uprooted, and dragged kicking and screaming to the enclave of Green Acres, a short commute to my father’s office, and the first home my family actually owned.

We now lived less than a hundred miles from the hamlet of Montauk, where family members owned houses, and others like my Uncle Tommy were now visiting fairly often. It didn’t take long before we began stuffing ourselves and our baggage in our Nash Rambler station wagon to make weekend trips east.

My father took to Montauk like a prodigal son.

My father took to Montauk like a prodigal son.

My father took to Montauk like the return of the prodigal son, although I’m not sure why. He wasn’t a fisherman, being a bit too squeamish to gut a freshly caught flounder.  Boating made him sea sick. He was prone to sun burn. Yet, according to all who witnessed Al Costello’s Montauk epiphany, the man just loved the place. Early attempts at staying with Aunt Catherine, Uncle Harold and all the old biddies in their tiny cottage were quickly exchanged for rooms in local hotels. There was Bill’s Inn on Fort Pond, and The Montauk Chalet in a place called Shepherd’s Neck, and finally  cottages in Hither Hills overlooking the ocean that were owned by a family named French. The Frenches were friends of my Uncle Tommy, who recommended we stay there.

The French family owned considerable property in an area of Montauk called Hither Hills, which sat directly above the ocean beaches and, many decades later, would become the most valuable real estate on the East Coast. Richard Nixon, who, while staying at Gurney’s Inn, an ocean front hotel in Hither Hills, wrote his acceptance speech for his nomination as the Republican candidate for President in 1968. Nixon was so taken with Hither Hills that, after his inauguration as President, he attempted to have the government purchase the property adjacent to Gurney’s Inn, with the intention of constructing the Nixon Summer White House. The Secret Service put the kibosh on Nixon’s plans because of security concerns, the property being too visibly accessible from the ocean.

My parents at one of the French's cottages in Hither Hills.

My parents at one of the French’s cottages in Hither Hills.

The familial competition between my father and uncle rekindled when the Frenches persuaded my Uncle Tommy to purchase ocean front property adjacent to their own. Uncle Tommy’s always-prosperous appearance deceived the Frenches into thinking he could afford it. Unable to actually buy the property, and unwilling to be found out as a mountebank and charlatan, my uncle somehow wrangled an option to purchase the land with a small down payment, which could only have come from one of his many dowager patrons.

Uncle Tommy at Ditch Plains in Montauk.

Uncle Tommy at Ditch Plains in Montauk.

No one but Uncle Tommy knew this, of course, everyone assuming that he was now the proud owner of some very expensive real estate. This was disturbing news to my father, who had recently purchased, on a G.I. mortgage, our house in Green Acres, and was almost certainly financially overextended. Not to outdone by his brother-in-law, and ignoring his financial reality, the ignoble Army Captain found himself a willing real estate agent, and began looking for a suitable site for the Costello family’s new summer house.

Within a year, Al Costello found himself making mortgage payments on our home in Green Acres, and our new summer house in Montauk. My father was now living way beyond his means, the two mortgages added to his ever-increasing gambling debts, and, unknown to the rest of us, was drowning in a whirlpool of fantasy-driven irresponsibility, robbing Peter to pay Paul, and struggling to somehow keep his head above water.

Our eccentric Daschound Ronzoni outside our house in Montauk. Uncle Tommy's Jaguar Mark IX in background.

Our eccentric Daschound Ronzoni outside our house in Montauk. Uncle Tommy’s Jaguar Mark IX in background.

Meanwhile, Uncle Tommy, unable to make any additional payments on his ocean front fiasco, lost his option to purchase the property. Somehow, no one found out about this real estate calamity, and his friends and family went right on thinking, for many years, that Thomas Dowling Esquire owned that ocean front property, a myth he enthusiastically encouraged. After all, in his custom tailored suits, driving his Jaguar Mark IX sedan, gifts lavished upon him by generous women, he certainly looked the part.

Our house in Montauk with our Nash Rambler Station Wagon exiting the driveway.

Our house in Montauk with our Nash Rambler Station Wagon exiting the driveway.

My mother, now ensconced in her Green Acres dream house, spending weekends splashing about on the beaches near her newly acquired summer home, was unaware of her husband’s financial difficulties, at least in the beginning. But financial pressures quickly eat away at marital stability, and within a short time my parents’ marriage became out and out warfare, my sister and I hiding under our beds during bouts of shouting, name calling, and dish throwing; the argument usually started by my father, who was by then stopping off for a few quick ones on his way home to face the family he now blamed for his dilemma. I remember one horrific incident, when my father came home quite late and obviously drunk, ignoring the dinner set on the dining room table, and staggering to his room where he collapsed in bed. My mother was so enraged that, for reasons known to her alone, she took all of the dishes off the table and smashed them against the living room wall which, by the time she had thrown her last projectile, was completely covered by dripping food, and broken fragments of china, a violent and terrifying image I can still recall vividly.

My sister Debbie and I in our Montauk living room

My sister Debbie and I in our Montauk living room

Our family was in jeopardy. Revealed to me many years later, my father uncharacteristically confessed his situation, even the gambling debts, to my mother. A change had to be made, and it had to be made quickly. One of the houses had to be sold, and my parents decided to sell our home in Green Acres, and hold on to, at least temporarily, the Montauk beach house. Leaving Green Acres was probably the most traumatic moment of my childhood, and I never really forgave my parents. It had been decided, certainly without consulting me, that we would pack up our belongings and move to an apartment in Forest Hills, which I was told was in the borough of Queens, a part of New York City.

My mother and Uncle Tommy. They danced at the Forest Hills Inn way back when.

My mother and Uncle Tommy. They danced at the Forest Hills Inn way back when.

 

My mother had spent time there as a teen, dancing with my uncle at the Forest Hills Inn. She said it was a wonderful neighborhood. There was a famous tennis club, and a beautiful Catholic school, just a short walk from our apartment. I was told I would love it. Both my parents assured me that life in Forest Hills would not be that big of a change. After all, we still had the house in Montauk. They considered it a solution. I considered it a betrayal. But, like all children in situations like this, I had little say in the matter. We were moving to a place called the Forest Hills Gardens, and that was that.

 

We were moving to a place called The Forest Hills Gardens, and that was that.

We were moving to a place called The Forest Hills Gardens, and that was that.

*

© 2014 Shaun Costello

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JACK’S CHRISTMAS BLAST

“Mommy, Santa’s asleep on the kitchen floor”
By Shaun Costello

EPSON scanner image

Christmas in the Forest Hills Gardens was my favorite time of year. A great deal of attention was paid by Gardens residents to make sure that the little hamlet was as adorable as was intended by the designers who created it. The

Station Square snow great

Gardens Corporation spent a hefty portion of its annual budget making sure that every lamp post, every pine and spruce, even the stop signs were appropriately adorned and decorated to say “Merry Christmas” to each and every passer by. There was a full scale Nativity Scene with a stable, and life size statues of the participants, as well as enormous stuffed sheep and goats. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, the older kids would rearrange the juxtaposition of the scene’s characters to suggest that the Magi were doing something unnatural

nATIVITY

with the sheep, but the following morning the Gardens Corporation’s handyman would put things right, and Yuletide spirit would resume, uninterrupted.
The houses were elaborately decorated with lights, and wreaths, and holly, with candles in the windows, and Santa’s sleds on the rooftops. There was a team of judges who traveled about the community, making notes on the quality of decorations, and a prize was awarded to the best dressed home on Christmas night right in the middle of Station Square, the epicenter of the community. There was a rumor, that the judges could be bribed with martinis, so the validity of the prize was in always in question.

Revelers

On Christmas Eve the grown ups had lots of parties, and the Gardens Corporation kept track of where they were so that a list of addresses could be given to the Gardens Carolers, who would sing their versions of “Silent Night”, and “We Three Kings of Orient Are”, at each and every gathering, after which they would be rewarded with drams of eggnog and cognac and thus fortified, move on to the next venue. The streets in the little hamlet were crowded with revelers, drinks in hand, arm in arm, singing and laughing, as they staggered from party to party, hell bent on the proper celebration of the birth of the Christ child. Enormous consumption of alcohol seemed to be an integral element in the festivities.

Carolers one
Each Christmas Eve the Gardens Corporation “conscripted” a group of Santa’s from among the Gardens’ teenage population. They were dressed in Santa outfits, given a list of addresses complete with the names of the children in residence, and a bag of gifts, one for each child on the list. This event was enormously popular with the children of the community, who got a visit from their very own Santa, who handed them a gift with their very own name on it. On this particular Christmas, my friend Bill Beggs’ older brother Jack was to take his first tour as Santa, and Bill’s friends, me included, went over to the Beggs’

Christmas Tree outdoors

house to give Jack pointers on his Santa performance, and tease him as much as he would allow. Jack Beggs was an unassuming, engaging, friendly kid and Bill’s friends all liked him. He was the only teenager in the community who treated us like humans.
There was a tradition at the Gardens Corporation office on every Christmas Eve, that involved giving each Santa a shot of brandy to ward off the cold, along with a Merry Christmas toast before the eager team of teenage Santa’s began their rounds of gift giving. Jack was fourteen, and had never had a shot of brandy before, but the fiery liquid was a welcome fortification against the cold, not to mention his nervousness at the possibility of giving the wrong presents to children whose names he might forget. Properly imbibed, Jack began his rounds.

Santa drunk with kids

Mr. and Mrs. Beggs were out doing the party circuit, so Bill answered the phone when it rang about two hours later. “Look Beggs, this is Al Relyea down at the Gardens office. I just got an angry phone call from Doctor Fallon. I guess you know that your son Jack is a Santa this year. Anyway, he evidently got his hands on a bottle of hooch, and got himself plastered. He passed out on Fallon’s kitchen floor and threw up all over the place. The Doc’s kids are hysterical, and he’s threatening to sue the Gardens Corporation for something called “loss of innocence”, unless we get young Jack out of his house right away. Say, how old is Jack now, fourteen? I guess he got an early start. Hair of the dog, eh John? Look Beggs, you’ve got to help me here. Go over and get your son out of there”. A stunned Bill Beggs, lowering his voice as far as it would go said, “Right away’, and hung up.

Santa drinking illustration great
Not knowing what to do, and realizing that if his parents found out, Jack would be on house arrest until his 65th birthday, Bill called me. Jack was simply too big for the two of us to handle, so we enlisted the help of the Bullock twins, and Chipps Page, who were delighted to be able to witness the sight of Jack in his Santa suit, unconscious on the Fallon’s kitchen floor, and they met us outside the Doctor’s house.
When we knocked on the Front door we were confronted with an angry Doctor Fallon, who challenged Bill with, ‘Where’s your father, mister?” We explained to the Doctor that Mr. and Mrs. Beggs were out, so the five of us would get Jack out of his house and take him home. Santa was still out cold on the kitchen floor, his beard all askew, and Mrs. Fallon was busy cleaning up the remains of the dinner that Mrs. Claus must had made for him before he began his trip from the North Pole, and that he had thrown up all over the Fallon’s floor. Jack was dead weight and it took all the strength we could muster to get him out of there and back home.

Drunk santa illustration great
Here’s what had happened. It seems that there’s one more tradition in the local Christmas lore that Jack was unaware of. Each time Santa makes a visit he is rewarded by the grateful family on which he has bestowed his gifts, usually in the form of what local grown ups referred to as a “blast”. This consisted of a strong eggnog, or a shot of Cognac. The Fallon’s were Jack’s tenth and last family, which meant that fourteen year old Jack Beggs, whose first taste of alcohol was the Christmas Toast earlier that evening at the Gardens office, had consumed five eggnogs and four Cognacs before he knocked, with great difficulty, on the Doctor’s door. He had somehow lost his

Man with beer in snow

hat, and was wearing his beard sideways as he staggered into the Fallon’s living room. Poor Jack was sick for a few days, and his parents actually did find out about his mischief, but drunkenness in the Forest Hills Gardens was a forgivable sin, not only condoned, but encouraged, even in children. Young Jack became a folk hero in the eyes of the local grown ups, who were sometimes referred to by their children as, the “unquenchables”. His father was greeted by friends with, “Chip off the old block, huh John?” His heroic performance had added stature to Jack’s reputation in the community, and I wondered how long it would be before his dad greeted him one evening with, “Hey son, how about a blast?”

Carolers 2

*
© 2010 Shaun Costello

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IN SHERMAN’S GARAGE

 

IN SHERMAN’S GARAGE

 She Looked So Peaceful

By Shaun Costello

 Excerpted from the manuscript of my childhood memoir:

THE LAST TIME I SAW JESUS

Surviving God and Elvis in the time of ‘Duck and Cover’

 

 The Kew Forest School was located right on the border between the Forest Hills Gardens, and Kew Gardens, the next community to the East. Their student body was made up of a pretty even smattering of Protestants and Jews, with a few recovering Catholics thrown in for good measure. It was a small, secular, private school, attended by students from all over the borough of Queens. My friend Jimmy went there, and the Bullock twins, the Baxter brothers, Jeff McGann, Frank Sperandeo, and several other kids I knew from the Gardens. It was the kind of institution that was completely outside my experience. There was no hitting, no statues with internal organs showing, no threats, no Sousa marches, no praying, no music room/punishment chamber, and no promise of the eternal agony of roasting in the fires of hell for the egregious crime of talking on line. I don’t think they even had a line. A very mysterious place.

Knowing their route home from school, I would sometimes intercept Stuart and Stephen Bullock, and the three of us would cruise the Gardens on our bikes for a while before winding up at their house for a snack. I liked the Bullocks. They were my size, had the same coloring, were totally unchallenging, and were even worse at sports than I was. Sometimes it was comforting to wallow in the company of compatible mediocrity. My friend Jimmy, on the other hand, who was a constant mental challenge, was good at everything. He was the best natural athlete I had ever seen, the best tennis player his age in the borough. The first time he ever picked up a basketball in his life I saw him make six shots in a row from the foul line. Six shots. It took me a year of daily practice before I even came close to that. He was just better than I was at everything, and probably always would be. He was my best friend, but sometimes I needed a short respite from constantly coming in second, and the Bullock twins were just what the Doctor ordered. The boys were funny, their parents were welcoming and friendly, and the whole after school experience at their house was pretty positive. When it was time for me to return home, we said our good-byes, and made plans for a repeat performance the next day.

It was about a five-minute bike ride from their house to mine, and riding a bicycle around the Gardens was one of the best things about living there. There was very little traffic, and after a while you got to know most of the residents, so that people would wave to you as you cruised by. After collecting waves from Mrs. Watson, and Doctor Kauer, I passed by Sherman Becker’s house, and there was old Sherm, sitting on a bench next to his garage. The word on Sherman Becker was that he was some kind of genius. He went to a special school in Manhattan for kids with extremely high IQ’s and, although a bit strange, he was a nice enough kid to be around. Sometimes in the middle of a sentence Sherman would drift off to some place far away, and just stare at nothing that was visible to anyone else. I never saw it, but kids told me than Sherman had seizures, where his whole body would shake, and he would fall on the floor and try to swallow his tongue. He had an illness called Epilepsy, and had to take medication that sometimes made him moody. “Hey Sherm”, I yelled, as I cruised by, but he didn’t seem to notice me, and I continued on down the street. After a few blocks I stopped. Something was wrong. Sherman looked like he was doing one of his, “staring into oblivion” routines, and if his parents weren’t home maybe it was dangerous, so I turned abound and headed back to his house.

He was sitting on the bench next to his garage, and just staring into space. I had seen him do this many times and, sooner or later, he would just snap out of it. I tried talking with him, but got no response. Sherman was somewhere far away, and I’m sure he had no idea that I was even there. It was at this point that I became aware of a noise. A humming, mechanical sound, like a car motor, but very quiet, like it was far away. But it wasn’t far away. It was in Sherm’s garage, and with the doors closed you could hardly hear it. The Sisters had shown us safety films at school about the dangers of running a car inside a garage. There was some kind of gas that put you to sleep, and you never woke up. So the logical thing seemed to be for me to open the garage doors and somehow turn the car off. I opened both of the large front doors, and the smoke inside was a silvery color, and had a gasoline smell. There was a small back door to the building so I ran around and opened it, thinking that the breeze would blow the poisonous fumes from the garage.

I stood there, waiting for the fumes to clear so that I could somehow shut the car off, when I saw it. There was something or someone in the car, behind the steering wheel. I froze. As the breeze blew the silver smoke past me I could see that it was a person. All I knew was that I had to turn the car off, so I covered my nose and mouth and ran for the front door on the driver’s side. I opened the door to reach for the keys when I came face to face with Mrs. Becker. I gasped and flew backwards, crashing into the garage wall. My lungs were expanding and contracting with such force that I could hear my breath over the din of the motor, and I could barely see through the tears. I was violently crying, not from sadness, but from shock and fear. I had to turn that car off, no matter what, so I opened the door again and reached across Mrs. Becker’s lap and fumbled with key, which was on the right of the steering column. Doing this bought my face inches from hers, and my whole body was trembling so violently that I couldn’t seem to turn the key. But then I did, and the motor stopped, and I was still only inches from Mrs. Becker, and I could hear myself gasping for air. I wanted to say something to her. Maybe she was only asleep. She looked so peaceful. But my mouth wouldn’t move. The words wouldn’t come. Maybe she would open her eyes, and stretch her arms the way people do when they wake up, and look down at me and invite me to dinner. But she didn’t. She didn’t move. I realized that Sherm was still outside so I backed slowly out of the garage, never taking my eyes off Mrs. Becker.

Sherm hadn’t moved a muscle. His mind was occupying another world altogether, either because be was steeped in the denial of this horrible event, or because that’s just what his mind sometimes did. There was no 911 back in the fifties. Emergencies were reported to the telephone operator, who then forwarded the information to the appropriate authorities, so I dialed “O”. When she answered I said that my name was Sherman Becker, told her the address, and that there had been a terrible accident, and I hung up. Outside I tried to communicate with Sherm, but had no success. He had no idea that I was there. I had done what I could do. I had tuned off the motor, and reported the tragedy, and the best thing for me to do was to get out of there before the police came. No one would ever know that I had been there. They would simply assume that Sherman turned off the car motor, called the operator, and then flipped out, which was pretty understandable under the circumstances. I just didn’t want to be involved in this.

I raced toward home as fast my legs could peddle, but after a while I came to a stop, dropped my bike, sat down on the curb and started sobbing, completely overwhelmed by the events of the past few minutes. Or was it longer? I had lost track of time. My lungs seemed near exploding, my breath gushing in and out, wheezing like an asthmatic gasping for air. I had seen dead people before on Wayne Baxter’s cadaver tour, but this was different. I knew Mrs. Becker. She had always been nice to me, and now she was dead. She wanted to be dead so she closed her garage doors, slid behind the wheel, turned on the motor, fell asleep, and then died, just like in the safety film we saw in school. But she didn’t look dead. Not like the translucent cadavers at the Fox Funeral Home. She looked like she was asleep. She looked so peaceful.

*

 © 2009 Shaun Costello

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WAKING THE DEAD

 WAKING THE DEAD

By Shaun Costello

This story is excerpted from my childhood memoir

THE LAST TIME I SAW JESUS

Surviving God and Elvis in the time of ‘Duck and Cover’

Promotion to the Fifth Grade at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs School produced no noticeable changes in my day-to-day life, other than having a new teacher, and being a year older. The school, the kids, and the neighborhood seemed to go on as before. I was sitting in a booth at the Sutton Hall Pharmacy, sipping cokes after school with Beth Neilsen, Soomi Esses, Kevin James, and that know-it-all weasel Richard O’Leary. I had no money so Beth generously offered to share her lemon coke with me. Beth was the smartest and prettiest girl in school and, for a reason totally beyond my comprehension, treated me like I was human. At this point in my little life puberty was still only a rumor. Boys and girls rarely socialized, and paid little attention to each other, but Beth was different. She always said hello when our paths crossed, and made small talk that I never attempted to avoid.

 Anyway, probably as punishment for sins of past lifetimes, the four of us sat there listening to O’Leary’s insufferable diatribe on traitors in America. It seemed that President Eisenhower was a card carrying member of the communist party. So was J. Edgar Hoover. O’Leary knew this to be a fact because his father told him, and his father was always right. Not only that, but Douglas Mac Arthur, the hero of the Philippines in WWII, was now living in Moscow teaching the Russians how to destroy America in WWIII, which would begin in the Fall of 1956. “Real Americans”, claimed O’Leary, “knew about this stuff”.

Just before I was ready to kill myself, I looked out the window and saw two kids being chased down the Street by an old man who was swinging his cane at them. They stopped, turned, and shot him with their Weegee water pistols, and the chase resumed. Finally the old man gave up and headed for the front door of the drug store. This was Mr. Nocky, the neighborhood lunatic. No one knew where he came from or where he lived. He was just there, and was often the victim of the cruelty of children. As he passed our booth I spoke up, “Hello Mr. Nocky”. He stopped, scanning the occupants of our booth. “Sasay, sasay, it’s not nice to fool Mr. Nocky’ he replied, as I knew he would. “Just saying hello Mr. Nocky”. “Well, that’s different then. Sasay, sasay, Mr. Nocky went to the Staunton Military Academy, in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Not everyone went to Staunton, but Mr. Nocky did. And Mr. Nocky always used a Trojan. There are many brands of rubbers, but science has proven Trojan to be the most effective”.  He wandered over to the counter mumbling, “Sasay, sasay” to himself, and by the time he took a stool his daily cup of tea was waiting for him.

Mr. Nocky’s interruption blessedly put the kibosh on O’Leary’s oration and, taking advantage of this event, the group happily disbanded. I lingered outside for a few minutes talking with Kevin James, who invited me to come over to his house the following Saturday, and then made my way home. The next day Kevin James was not in school. There was immediate speculation as to the cause of his absence. Mumps, measles, strep throat, flu, anything was possible. Grim and depressing as always, Vincent Averna was sure it was polio. Suddenly, Mother Superior appeared at the door to our classroom and the kids jumped to their feet chirping in unison, “Good morning Mother Superior”. She addressed the class. “Children, you’ve probably noticed that Mr. James is absent this morning. It is my sad duty to inform you that last night his father was called to God’s bosom”. The whispers began:

“What does that mean?”

“Dead”

“Dead?”

“Dead”

“Who?”

“Kevin’s dad, stupid”

“Kevin’s dad’s dead?”

“Duh”

“What did he die of?”

“How do I know?”

“What’s this bosom thing?”

‘That’s how nuns say people are dead”

“But what’s a bosom?”

“You’re pathetic”

Mother Superior continued, “On Thursday Sister Innocent will lead this entire class over to the funeral home, where Mr. James will lie in repose. You will say a rosary for the salvation of his immortal soul”. And she left.

So on Thursday afternoon, Sister Innocent marched her flock, all washed and dressed for the occasion, the nine or ten blocks to the Fox Funeral Home. The place was owned by the Baxter family whose sons, Noel and Wayne, I had gotten to know   playing basketball at the Community house. We were led into a large room with chairs arranged in rows facing the front where a large wooden casket sat on some kind of platform. The lid was open and, in the distance, you could see the pink, waxy looking face of Kevin’s dead father. Sister Innocent led the class in a rosary, after which we were to stand, in threes, at the side of the coffin, to view the body and pray that the soul of Mr. James would enjoy an eternity of happiness at the right side of God Almighty. Heaven was a very exclusive club. You had to be Catholic, and you had to be good, otherwise you spent eternity in an unpleasant alternative, roasting in the fires of hell. Protestants, Jews, Hindus, Moslems, Buddhists, regardless of their goodness, had no shot at salvation whatsoever, and were destined for the big barbecue. Heaven was a “Catholics only” venue. You had to be Protestant to be President, but you had to Catholic to rate heaven. Papal vengeance, I suppose.

When it was my turn to stand next to the coffin, I was totally spooked. I had never seen a dead guy before, and was both terrified and fascinated. His skin was waxy and translucent and, although I had no experience at viewing the deceased, I can honestly say that he looked very life-like. I wondered what would happen if he suddenly sat up and started talking. Sixty kids would probably pee in their pants. When our respects had been properly paid, Sister marched us all back to school, and we went home from there.

I stopped off at my friend Jimmy’s house to tell him about seeing the dead guy. It turned out that he had never seen one, but knew Wayne Baxter really well, and Wayne had once promised him that he would sneak him into the funeral home after hours and show him dead people. When confronted with his death-tour promise Baxter wanted a buck each for corpse viewing, which I thought was highway robbery, but Jimmy said he would lend me the dollar so we agreed. We rounded up Tommy Welstead and the Bullock twins, who agreed to the price, and the five of us were led by Wayne into the basement door of the funeral home.

The place was closed from five to seven so that the employees could eat dinner, so we were alone with the deceased. After walking us through all the viewing rooms, where waxy bodies were displayed in open coffins, Wayne took us downstairs where he said they did the dirty work. There was a large tiled room where three naked bodies were lying on metal tables. All were elderly, two men and one woman. Their eyes were closed, and their mouths were open, and they had rubber tubes sticking into holes in their skin. There was an overwhelming smell of chemicals, but the bodies themselves had no odor. Wayne told us that they were in the process of being embalmed, and that there wasn’t anything left inside them that could smell. Tommy Welstead started poking one of them with his finger, and Wayne shouted, “Hey, no touching”. Suddenly Stephen Bullock ran for the bathroom to puke his guts out. Wayne, still in tour guide mode, showed us the prep room, where bodies were put when they arrived, but before they were embalmed. The room was refrigerated and locked with a huge latch on the outside of the door, and smelled so badly that it didn’t seem like you could be in there more than thirty seconds without losing your lunch. Wayne told us that the bodies smelled awful before they were embalmed.

Our tour was now over and, out on the street, we parted company with Wayne. The five of us walked in silence for a few minutes before we realized that there were only four. Tommy was missing. Stephen suggested that he probably ran home to puke, and didn’t want any of us to know. It sounded reasonable and, along with Jimmy, I stopped by the Welstead house to tease him about throwing up, but his mother said she hadn’t seen him in a few hours. I suddenly had a terrible feeling that somehow we had left Tommy inside the funeral home. Mrs. Welstead let us use her phone, so Jimmy looked up Baxter in the directory, and got Wayne on the phone. He told him what had happened and Wayne agreed to meet us at the basement door to the funeral home right away. The three of us looked all over the place and there was no sign of Tommy. We wandered around the basement for a while and suddenly Wayne turned white as a sheet and said, “Oh Jesus, did we lock him in the prep room?” We approached the prep room door, the one with the huge latch that could only be opened from the outside. Wayne opened the enormous door, and there was Tommy Welstead, his skin all blue from the cold, and the whole front of his shirt covered with vomit, breathing heavily with his mouth wide open, and his eyes as big as quarters. He ran past us and out the basement door, leaving pukey footprints as he went. We looked inside the prep room, and most of the floor was covered with the last few meals that Tommy had eaten. What a mess. Wayne said we’d better clean this up before his father found it, and Jimmy turned to him and said, “You made five bucks. You clean it up”. So the two of us left our tour guide to clean up the mess. We didn’t talk much on the way home. Dead people. Very creepy.

 *

© 2007 Shaun Costello

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Toy Soldiers by Shaun Costello

 

 

 

TOY SOLDIERS

Surviving God, Elvis and Nazis in the time of Duck and Cover

by Shaun Costello

 

 

I grew up in the Forest Hills Gardens, a small, incestuous, semi-gated community in the New York borough of Queens, about a twenty five minute subway ride from midtown Manhattan. The community surrounded the West Side Tennis Club, which was for years the Mecca of country club tennis in America. The ancient and famous came to compete here, dressed in their “Tennis Whites” and blue blazers, and wielding their wooden racquets. Bill Tildon, Don Budge, Pancho Gonzales, Fred Perry, Tony Trabert, Jack Kramer, all came and conquered here. Then the Aussies arrived in the fifties; Lew Hoad, Ken Rosewall, Rod Laver, and Roy Emerson. Even the modern “Open” era began here with Chris Evert, Jimmy Conners, Bjorn Borg, and John McEnroe, all competing in the Great American Tennis Tournament right here at the West Side Tennis Club. But by then the sport, and consequently the tournament, had outgrown the venue, and moved to Flushing, just a few stops away on the Long Island Railroad, leaving the ghosts of a golden era to compete on the grass courts of a decaying facility.

By the Sixties “The Gardens” had become a tawdry shadow of its former self. Dutch Elm Disease had taken hundreds of magnificent trees, planted early in the century by the community’s designers, and slowly but surely, the Gardens Corporation was losing its hold on the local demographics, which, up until then, had been its trump card. The little hamlet had been created before the outbreak of WW I, based on the design of British suburban communities just outside London. A series of row houses, arranged in Lanes and Circles, where everyone knew their neighbors and could walk in safety amongst trees and gardens, greeting friends, and breathing the flower-scented air, without fear of bumping into undesirables like Jews, Negroes, or Communists. The Gardens, you see, was a deeded community, which meant that the Gardens Corporation held a kind of lien on each property, preventing resale to the aforementioned, or any other member of the wretched refuse who had accumulated enough money to buy into a community where they obviously did not belong.

The Gardens became a magnet for recently socially unacceptable socialites. Old money families with a scandal on their hands, or the nouveau riche, who the old money could not condone. These were the families that first populated the Gardens. If society didn’t want them, they would create their own society. If their darling debutantes were persona non grata at the Manhattan Cotillions, they would create their own Cotillion, right here in the Forest Hills Gardens.

The son of the Steel Baron who married the daughter of the Mafia Don lived right across the street from the Bank President whose career was cut short by the embezzling scandal. This is where they came to live, right here in the comfort and safety of the little Hamlet that existed under the threat of the race-lien, which prevented the horror of waking up one morning with a Jewish neighbor.

The best laid plans of mice and racists came crashing to its inevitable conclusion, a victim of its own self fulfilled destiny, when Ralph Bunche Jr. applied for membership at the West Side Tennis Club. Bunche, winner of the 1949 Nobel Peace Prize, and a career public servant and diplomat, who was an Undersecretary General at the United Nations, had been taking tennis lessons at the club. After a few weeks the club pro suggested that he apply for membership. After all, he was an educated, elegant man, not to mention a famous career diplomat, favored by Presidents, just the kind of man the club wanted. But appearances can be deceiving. Just before welcoming him to their bosom the club’s membership committee discovered, to their horror, that Ralph Bunche Jr. was something else again. Something they had been successful in avoiding since their charter, many years before. Ralph Bunche Jr. was black. His light skinned appearance and elegant demeanor had fooled the club pro, as well as members he had contact with. The unthinkable had happened. A colored man at the West Side. A world turned inside out. Of course, his membership was turned down.

When the news got out the scandal was global. Headlines around the world all said pretty much the same thing: NEGRO DIPLOMAT REJECTED BY RACIST AMERICAN CLUB. There were, of course, many variations of this headline, each one driving another nail into the coffin that housed the remains of a once perfect little community. A place where a man knew his neighbors. A place where a man could walk in safety. A place where a man could go to sleep at night without the fear of waking up with a next-door neighbor of questionable heritage.

This was the end of the Forest Hills Gardens as its inhabitants knew it to be, and the beginning of a new world of racial flux and forced cohabitation, where Addison Wainwright lived right across the street from Morris Weintraub, much to Mr. Wainwright’s chagrin, and there was nothing he could do about it, other than taking a stroll over to the West Side Tennis Club, ordering a dry martini in the Gentleman’s Lounge, and conversing with cronies about the good old days when things were as things should be, and how a little circling of the wagons can be a good thing, and raising his glass with his comrades to someone’s toast of, “Well, at least we kept that god damned nigger out of here.”

It was at this point that my family moved to the Gardens from Nassau County, Forest Hills being recommended to my father by a Jewish friend of his who worked with him in Manhattan’s garment center. Recommended as a nice place to live, and you could take the subway to work, something that appealed to my father who was tired of commuting by railroad from Long Island. So we moved right in and looked for the nearest Catholic school.

During the Fifties the citizens of the Gardens, like most Americans, were preoccupied with watching Mickey Mouse Club and Ed Sullivan, listening to Elvis, building bomb shelters, and staying alert to the possibility that their next door neighbor might be a Communist agent. Daily ‘Duck and Cover’ drills were all the rage in primary schools, kids prompted by the emergency bell, jumping under their desks, and covering their little faces with their hands, as though a wooden school desk could prevent them from being vaporized by thermo-nuclear holocaust. The idea was to remain alert. You just never knew when the Ruskies would drop the big one.

I guess it has always been the case that girls, driven by estrogen, have played with dolls, as some kind of subliminal rehearsal for their maternal futures, just as boys, driven by testosterone, have played at war; carefully honing their skills for their future roles as hunters, gatherers, warriors, conquerors, slaughterers, debauchers, soldiers, sailors, kings, and whatever other glorious, and sometimes dubious endeavors men have created for themselves. When I was a kid boys played at war with toy guns, sighting the enemy in their crosshairs, and making gunshot sounds with their mouths; while their victim, playing the part of the wounded Jap or Kraut soldier, made the most realistic “ooph” bullet-wound sound that he could muster, and fell to the ground, trembling in the throes of the of death-dance, until finally still, he was called to the bosom of the almighty.

The victorious GI might go through the personal belongings of his victim, finding out that his name was Klaus Dornhoffer, or Akira Sato, and that the dead soldier had a wife and three kids back home. He might even sit down and write them a letter.

 

Dear Mrs. Dornhoffer/Sato, This morning I had the dubious honor of shooting your husband, Klaus/Akira, and I regret having to tell you this, but war is war, and your husband died a hero’s death and did not suffer.

Your faithful enemy, Audie Murphy.

 

On a rainy day, when it was too wet for the ‘Battle of the Backyard’, boys created warfare in miniature. I had a wooden model of a frontier outpost, complete with watchtowers at the corners, and little metal soldiers to man them. It was called Fort Apache, and no firewater-gulping, scalp-snatching redskin would ever get past its walls alive. My friend Dolphy had a great model of Camelot, complete with jousting knights in armor, ready for swordplay, and the slaughter of evil-doers. The future was not ignored, as recreations of Flash Gordon’s struggle against the Planet Mongo’s Emperor Ming, and his terrifying “Death Ray”, were played out in basements and backyards across America. The imaginary carnage created by boys prepared them for the struggle ahead, as they were told, almost on a daily basis, that the Russians were planning to drop an atomic bomb right in their backyards, and they had better be ready. By the summer of 1956, the bellicose boys of the Forest Hills Gardens were ready for anything.

It was into this atmosphere of military playacting, where nine-year-old boys had secret identities as Lieutenants, Captains, Naval Commanders, Fighter Pilots, and Drill Sergeants that George Leggett, a lifetime Nazi, worshipper of Hitler, creator of The American Nazi Youth Bund, and holocaust enthusiast made his appearance. He was twenty three years old, and had sought out the most racist American community he could find, trolling for accomplices. Sitting in a booth at the Sutton Hall Pharmacy, sipping coffee and chain-smoking Camels, he would expound on his fascist philosophies to mesmerized groups of ten-year-olds. He didn’t talk down to us, regardless of our age. Sometimes he spoke like a grown-up, and sometimes like a kid, but he always treated us as equals, an unusual experience for boys our age.

His grandiose plans included the creation of training camps in rural areas, where the youth of America, kids just like us, would receive the proper indoctrination and training that would prepare them for their military participation in something called “The America-First Brigade” that, when fully financed and armed, would take over the government of The United States, creating a new and stronger America, unhindered by the influence of the Jew-devils. An America to be proud of. An America for Americans. He told us not to worry, that we would all have a place in this new America, and he turned to me:

“Son?”

“Yes?”

“Have you ever ridden in a tank?”

“No”

“Would you like to?”

“Sure”

“Well, you will son, you will. You see boys, here’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about. This young man has “Tank Commander” written all over him. What’s your name son?”

“Shaun, sir”

“Well Shaun, when we’re ready I’m going to give you the command of the ‘First American SS Panzer Division’. What do you think of that?”

“Wow”

So I was to be a Tank Commander. I had never done that before. I had been a lonely infantry soldier, manning his foxhole out on the perimeter. I had flown fighters for the “Flying Tigers”, out gunned and out manned by the Zeroes, defending Nanking against the Jap hordes. I had even smoked a peace pipe with Cochese, in an attempt to put an end to the war on the frontier. And now I would lead the First American SS Panzer Division in the Battle of Washington. How cool is that? Leggett told my friend Jimmy, “I can tell a fighter jock when I see one son, and you’re it”. He was giving Jimmy a Messerschmidt 109, with instructions to, “Take on the enemy wherever you find him”. So this new guy, George Leggett, would create games for us to play. He would lead us in fun battles against a make believe enemy. We would each have a military rank that would befit our station in his imaginary new nation. We might even get to go to summer camp, where we would learn the military techniques that would help us defend our neighborhood against the inevitable Soviet invasion. George Leggett would lead us in the best war games we had ever played. At least, that’s what we thought.

We were to refer to him as Commandant, and after a short while he seemed to know us all by name. We were instructed to tell our older brothers and their friends about his plans. They would be given important jobs in The New American Reich, and when the time came, provided with uniforms, weapons, tanks, planes, ships, and all the training necessary to learn how to use them. Leggett seemed to be using the younger kids as a conduit to the teenagers, who seemed to be his main target. The younger kids thought he was a crazy guy who would create games for them to play, but the teenagers of the Gardens saw him for what he was; a nigger hating, Jew bating fanatic, who was bent on creating a Nazi society right here in the USA. Leggett had heard the Forest Hills Gardens described as one of the most racially restricted communities in America, and came here assuming that he could sow the seeds of Nazism in its fertile, racist soil, and reap a rich harvest of accomplices, and financial donations. He was so lost in his zealous Nazi rapture that he had forgotten that the appeal of the National Socialist Party in Germany, back in the 1920’s, was to the unemployed, the disenfranchised, the hungry masses of a crumbling society. Hardly an accurate description of the citizenry of the Gardens, who were financially comfortable, and in some cases downright wealthy. George Leggett had made a major miscalculation.

Most of the population of the Forest Hills Gardens, who were taught right-from-wrong by parents who had long since circled their wagons, hated Jews as much as he did, but racism in America took on another form entirely, the subtlety of which Leggett could not comprehend. They owned the neighborhood, and controlled its demographics. They owned its clubs and organizations, and controlled their membership. Their war against the Jews was not a war of violence, it was a war of exclusion. They had created a closed society, and had no intention of allowing admission to anyone they deemed to be racially inferior. The Nazis were crude, vulgar gangsters whose idea of dealing with their enemies was genocide. The citizens of the Gardens simply denied them membership in their clubs. So George Leggett’s two-month recruitment drive, which he expected would provide his cause with a Brigade of swastika-wearing, goose-stepping, sig-heiling teenage studs, not to mention the financial donations of their wealthy, racist parents, yielded instead a small squad of ten-year-olds, who couldn’t wait to play tank commander, and fighter pilot. Not quite the Nordic supermen he anticipated leading in the overthrow of America.

I hadn’t seen the Commandant for a week or so when he appeared one evening involved in animated conversation with a group more receptive to his message. These were the teenage loser-morons who spent most of their time leaning against parked cars outside the Sutton Hall Pharmacy, smoking Lucky Strikes, and hoping to look tough. They were blue-collar kids, whose families lived in apartment buildings on the outer fringe of Forest Hills. Pissed off have-nots, who lived on the edge of an upscale community, whose kids enjoyed benefits they knew in their hearts they would never share. Angry kids from angry families, whose fathers probably beat their mothers and took their frustrations out on them, before  slipping into an alcoholic stupor, possibly the happiest moment of their day. There were always fights. They fought with each other constantly, and sometimes even picked fights with passers by. They were scary, angry kids, fascinating to watch, like a traffic accident happening right before your eyes. I was only nine, too little to bother with, so they paid no attention to me. Concealed by my age, I was able to get close enough to listen, and it never took long to hear that all the troubles with the world were caused by Niggers, Puerto Ricans, and Jews.  Leggett finally had an appropriate audience, who hung on his every hateful word, no matter how ridiculous. For the next few weeks the Commandant and his idiot teenage storm troopers could be seen marching around the neighborhood, spouting racial epithets, and promising the elimination of the Nigger and the Jew, not only from American society, but from existence on earth.

I was sitting in a booth with my friend Jimmy, sipping a coke at Sutton Hall when a few of Leggett’s teenage goons approached us. Jimmy’s family had moved to the Gardens from Brooklyn a few years earlier, and lived in a big Tudor house on Greenway South, one of the nicest streets in the community. His father was a famous photographer who took pictures of movie stars, and had emigrated from Austria before the Nazis took over in the Thirties. No one in the Gardens except me knew very much about his family, and I knew purely by accident. A year earlier I had learned his secret, and never said a word about it, even to him.

Jimmy spent as much time at my house as I did at his, and became well liked by both my parents. He was a funny, smart, engaging kid, with a total lack of pretension of any kind. He was smarter than I was, but I was more self-assured, so it was a workable trade-off. Beyond the chemistry, I’m not exactly sure what attracts one person to another, but Jimmy was more fun to be around than anyone I knew, and we spent endless hours engaged in the curiosity, exploration, and mischief that was the stuff of kids. On a Saturday afternoon, we were leaving my house for a bike adventure when we saw Irving Appleman, an old friend of my father’s, who had made the same journey as my dad, from the outer boroughs to the garment center, and lived across Queens Boulevard, in the Jewish section of Forest Hills, near the High School. He and my dad were sitting in the dining room having coffee and talking politics. Mr. Apppleman was a friendly, jovial man, who I had known all my life, and I was proud to show off my friend Jimmy to my father’s old pal. “Where you from Jimmy?”, asked Mr. Appleman. “Brooklyn. We moved here about a year ago.” “Yeah? Me Too. I like it better here though. You boys go have some fun.”

 A few hours later I returned home by myself, and was waylaid by my father and Mr. Appleman, who seemed still engaged in the same conversation about Stevenson’s chances against Eisenhower in the November election, but had moved their discussion to the living room. My father asked me to join them, a request so unusual that I knew something was up. “Your friend seems like a nice boy”, said Mr. Appleman. “What’s his family like?” “Oh, his dad’s a famous photographer. Takes pictures of movie stars. They live in a big house on Greenway South, and go to the Congregational Church. I went to a service there with him. Everybody was really friendly. They just sang a few songs, and the Pastor spoke about the importance of voting. Really different than Catholics.”

 “You know Shaun”, said Mr. Appleman, “I knew his family in Brooklyn. I knew his father pretty well. A talented man. A brilliant man. Did you know that your friend’s family was Jewish?”

“Oh no, Mr. Appleman, they’re Prostestants. I went to church with him.”

“You know son, a lot of Jews came to America before the war. They were scared stiff, believe me. Back in the Thirties Jews were rounded up in Europe and arrested, just for being Jews. Did you know that?” I shrugged it off. “Well, it’s true. They were arrested, and some of them were sent to camps, and some of them were murdered. Millions of people, murdered. So a lot of them escaped and came to America, but they didn’t know what to expect when they got here, so some of them changed their names to make them sound more American, and some of them even pretended they were Catholics or Protestants. They were scared that if people found out they were Jews that they would be sent to camps. They didn’t know that couldn’t happen here. These were frightened people, trying to protect their families. Would you like to know about Jimmy’s dad?”

 So Irving Appleman began the story of my friend’s father’s great odyssey; from Vienna, to Brooklyn, to the Forest Hills Gardens. In Vienna, back in the early thirties, Jimmy’s dad had made a name for himself as an up-and-coming photographer. He was a talented young man whose portraits were in demand. He wasn’t rich, but his career seemed promising, and life was good. By 1936 the mood in Vienna was changing. In Neighboring Germany Hitler had been made Chancellor, and Crystal Nacht was just around the corner. Nazi gangs roamed the streets of Vienna, breaking the windows of Jewish shops, and beating up the owners. The Nazis had gotten their fingers into the Austrian government, and Jews began disappearing in the night. As time went on the great fear among Austrian Jewry was their country being annexed by Germany. Should that happen not a Jew in Austria was safe from murder. Jimmy’s dad had lost friends and family to the camps, and was determined to get out of Austria while he still could. He had enough money saved to make the appropriate bribes, and in the Summer of 1938 he found himself safe at last, living in Brooklyn, and with a promising career as, “that talented young European photographer”.

He had added an extra “n” to his name to make it seem more Germanic than Jewish, and filled in “Lutheran” as his religion on the immigration form. His safety, and the safety of the family he planned to have, was more important than his Jewishness. He was determined that the horrors of Nazi Europe would never touch him again. When it came time to marry he chose the most goyishe looking woman he could find, an ivory skinned redhead, who belonged on the cover of a waspy magazine. During the War he managed to secure a position for himself as a middle-man merchant between the Army Signal Corps and the manufacturers of photographic chemicals. He made only a few cents on a gallon traded, but the volume was enormous, and this was how he made his fortune. By the early Fifties he was a rich man. He had become quite famous as a theatrical photographer, with an enormous studio on Times Square. He had a gorgeous wife, and three boys, and it was time to make the move from Brooklyn, but he had one last piece of slight-of-hand left to do in the charade he had created. One last brick to add to the wall so that no one would ever suspect his Jewish past. He would move his family to the most anti-semitic neighborhood he could find, and become a pillar of the community. He would not necessarily become an open Jew-hater, but he certainly wouldn’t let his children marry one. So he bought the big Tudor house on Greenway South, one of the nicest streets in the Forest Hills Gardens, joined the local Congregational Parish, and settled in to life in Fortress Goyim. He was finally safe. His family was finally safe. Safe from anti-Semitism. Safe from danger. Safe from hate. Right here in the nurturing little community that existed under the threat of the race lien, which prevented him from selling his house to a Jew.

No one said anything for a few minutes, before Irving Appleman added, “You know, he meant well. He was frightened. He wanted to protect his family from what he went through in Austria. But he did a bad thing. Your friend Jimmy is growing up in a Jew hating neighborhood. In order to make friends, to be accepted, he will start calling Jews kikes, and hebes, and Jew-boys, and how long will it be before he discovers that he himself is a kike, a hebe, a Jew-boy. That is, if he doesn’t already know, which is probably the case. Jimmy’s a smart boy. He has uncles in Brooklyn who go to Temple and observe the Holy Days. You think he doesn’t notice? He knows, believe me. And one day, probably soon this is all going to come to a terrible crisis, when he just can’t pretend anymore, and when that happens he’s going to need a friend. He’s going to need a friend just like you, Shaun. Are you going to be his friend?”

Leggett’s teenage goons were hovering over the table at Sutton Hall where Jimmy and I were sipping our cokes.

“Hey”(to Jimmy) I hear you’re gonna be a fighter pilot”

“Yeah, I guess”

“You Guess? You gonna be a fighter pilot, or what?”

“Sure”

“Your plane gonna have machine guns?”

“All fighter planes have machine guns”

“Your plane gonna have bombs?”

“What do you think?”

“You gonna bomb Jew-boys?”

(silence)

At this point I interrupted. “Look, we’ve got to head home. Lot’s of homework”.

“You shut up. I want any shit out of you I’ll squeeze your head. Hey, I asked you a question. You gonna fire-bomb hymie-town or what. You gonna burn those kike mother fuckers out? You gonna turn those hebes into charcoal or what? Hey, you’re starting to piss me off. I want an answer you little faggot. Do you hear me? Are you gonna kill Jews?” He was menacing now and Jimmy was frightened. “Answer me.”

“Yes” (almost a whisper)

“I can’t hear you.”

“Yes” (slightly louder)

“Speak like a man, you little homo.”

Jimmy looked up and screamed at him, “Yes. Yes. I’m going out and killing as many Jews as I can get my hands on. Does that make you happy?”

“Hey. That’s all I wanted to hear. Good boy.” And they turned and left.

Jimmy had tears in his eyes and his whole body was shaking. He put a quarter on the table and ran out. It was here. The moment Irving Appleman had predicted a year ago. Jimmy had taken all he was going to take. His father’s charade had caught up with him. He just couldn’t pretend anymore. I phoned him an hour later, but his mother said that he wasn’t feeling well, and hung up.

The greatest scandal the Gardens had ever seen, even greater than Ralph Bunche Jr’s denial of admission to the West Side Tennis Club, hit the papers the next morning. George Leggett, along with five of his loser-moron storm troopers had been arrested and remained in jail. They were charged with illegal weapons possession, attempted bank robbery, sedition, and the attempted overthrow of the government of the United States. Holy Moly, and right in my own neighborhood. The guy we thought wanted to play games with us had actually intended on committing violent crimes in order to finance his very real overthrow of America, and he had talked five of the loser-morons from the Sutton Hall Pharmacy into going along for the ride. He had promised them that they would take the proceeds from robbing several banks, and buy land upstate New York for a training camp, as well as weapons to train with. Nigger-splattering, Jew-killing weapons.  And now they were all in jail. Bill Schutz, Arnie Dietrich, kids I knew, and they were in jail, their names and photographs all over the newspapers. Reporters and photographers scoured the neighborhood, asking about Leggett’s conspiracy, hoping to find some dirt, and everybody had something to say; Lou the florist, Bill at the Sutton Hall soda fountain, Sal at the Pizza Prince, all spilling their guts to the reporters, hoping to get their names in the newspapers.

George Leggett, who had promised fighter planes to ten-year-olds, had actually meant it all along. He didn’t just want to play war with little kids, which is what we all thought. He wanted to declare war on America, and have our parents pay for it. And poor Jimmy, who had reached the limit of his make believe, playing out the farce created by his father’s fears, and had told morons that he intended on turning Jews into charcoal, was sitting at home in his room, not quite knowing how to maintain his sanity. It was time to have the conversation with my friend that I should have had a year ago. There had been a silent understanding between us. I’m certain that he had guessed that I knew his family’s past, but we never discussed it. He had recognized Irving Appleman that afternoon, a year ago, and surely knew that it was only a matter of time before I knew everything. It was time to tell him. To tell him that I’ve known all along. To tell him that I didn’t care that he was Jewish. To tell him that he meant more to me than anyone did. To tell him that he was my best friend, no matter what. To tell him that the truth behind his family’s great charade, born of his father’s paranoia, was a secret not worth keeping.

After a few weeks had passed, and the press coverage caused by George Leggett’s attempted overthrow of America began to fade, life in the Forest Hills Gardens seemed to return to normal. Lou at the florist shop was working overtime, pinning carnations on the lapels of the white dinner jackets worn by teenage boys, whose parents had rented them earlier in the day just for tonight’s festivities. All over the community, the formally attired young men of the Gardens, carrying little white boxes, each containing an orchid corsage, were knocking on the doors of the debutantes who were to be presented that evening at the first-ever Forest Hills Cotillion. Proud fathers, escorting their carefully gowned and coifed daughters, stood ready to present their little girls to local society. From the open windows of the ballroom at the Forest Hills Inn, the syrupy sound of the Lester Lanin Orchestra drifted across the little community, fading as it floated over the cherry blossoms in Station Square, until finally dissolving into the hubbub of street traffic at the Gardens’ edge. Around the Ballroom, nervous boys, mingling in twos and threes, could be seen practicing dance steps, before working up the courage to join the debutantes out on the floor. At the bar, the parents toasted their good fortune, to live in such a place. A place where everyone knew their neighbors, and could walk in safety amongst trees and gardens, greeting friends and breathing the flower-scented air, without fear of bumping into obvious undesirables – well, almost. And even though they no longer controlled the community’s demographics, on this night, here in the Ballroom at the Forest Hills Inn, as their darling debutantes danced the night away, there was not a single face of questionable heritage to be seen. Their wagons remained circled, at least for now.

Just across the Hamlet’s border, well beyond the sound of the Cotillion’s orchestra, those of the teenage loser-morons who were not presently under interrogation by the FBI, maintained their usual position, leaning against parked cars outside the Sutton Hall Pharmacy, smoking Lucky Strikes, and attempting to appear as menacing as possible. There was the usual pushing and shoving, threatening passers-by, and idiotic, hateful banter, until they became united by somebody’s cry of, “Hey, let’s go beat up some Jews.”

 

*

 

© Shaun Costello 2014

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