Growing Up In Greenwich Village,
Dodging Gangs and My 7th Birthday Party on the Roof
by Lee Sobel
Once upon a time I grew up in Greenwich Village and my parents were what I would call "semi-bohemian." They both had careers in the arts - my mom was an actress and my dad was in book publishing. We lived at the top floor of a four story brownstone building in the west village on Downing Street. My parents paid around $100 a month for a small two bedroom apartment and we lived there for ten years - I guess $100 was a lot of money back then because one year the landlord raised the rent by $25 and my father exclaimed, "That's it! We're moving!"
Because we lived on the top floor, the landlord gave my parents access to the roof. I have a lot of cool memories of that roof. This Italian kid a couple years older than me named Franco lived two buildings over on the fifth floor so when I stood on the roof and yelled out "Franco! Hey Franco!" he would open up his window and he'd be close to eye level with me and we'd yell back and forth to each other about God knows what. Usually Franco's dad would start yelling at him and they would both shout at each other in Italian - I can only guess it was something like "Get away from that window!" or something like that. So Franco would go back and forth between speaking to me in English and yelling back at his dad in Italian. On occasions when I would go over to Franco's apartment, I would gaze in awe at the trunk at the end of his bed that was loaded with "Sad Sack" comic books and others published by Harvey Comics. This must be where I got into "Richie Rich" which I devoured when I was a kid. Have you noticed how people, especially kids, have come in and out of your life and you've never see them again? Over 50 years later, Franco and I are still friends and yuk it up when we talk to each other about the time we threw little toy army men at each other from my roof to his window and back and how some fell near some lady sunbathing below us and we caught hell from the plumber Mr. Repetti whose office separated our two buildings. More on both Franco and getting in trouble for throwing stuff off that roof later.
This was the late sixties and as I said my parents were kind of on the cusp of being bohemian. My mother was in her thirties and her twenty-something younger brother Billy came to live in our tiny apartment for a while one year. He either just had lived on Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco or he did after he stayed with us, but he had a long beard, looked kind of like Jesus, ate health food and danced "the Boogaloo" as he called it to Jefferson Airplane records. My parents, by the way, were no slouches in the music department - my dad brought home every Beatles, Stones and other British invasion bands records when they came out.
I went to a private school called St. Luke's about ten or twelve blocks away from where we lived. All of the kids in my class had similar parents to mine -- kind of hip and fun and there was none of that pressure on kids to be perfect or whatever like I'm sure New York parents in the 80's probably were. The kids I grew up with were allowed to be kids and have a lot of freedom. In the sixties when I was little my parents would let me walk home from school by myself. One time on my street as I was almost home from school I heard a voice say "Psst, kid. Come here." I turned to look into the shadows of a darkened loading dock and two men staring at me. One of them motioned, "I'm not gonna hurt ya, kid. Come here." So I moved cautiously toward the men as though I was being pulled
magnetically and I'm not going to lie, I was scared shitless but at the same time very curious about what they wanted. Suddenly one of them pulled out a brand new teddy bear from behind his back and handed it to me. "Here ya go, kid." I probably mumbled "thank you" and got the hell out of there. One last memory of that teddy bear: when I was like seven or eight my dad asked me if I wanted to bring that bear to sleep away camp with me and I protested that the kids would make fun of me if I did. To my surprise, my dad packed the teddy bear in my trunk anyway -- I was deeply embarrassed and hid that thing in the trunk all summer.
Just because writers should give you a little more atmosphere I will tell you a bit more about my neighborhood. I earned my allowance of $2.50 every week by doing chores like buying my dad's newspaper at the candy story on Bleecker Street that was run by this gravel-voiced chain smoking lady wearing sunglasses who would yell bloody murder at you if you so much as picked up a comic book to look at. Bleecker Street was also home of Zito's Bakery where I would get my bread fanatic dad his rolls. That was the best bread in the world - unfortunately, Zito's is long gone. A place I loved to hang out in on Bleecker Street was the "House of Oldies" record store where the guy behind the counter had some kind of spasmodic blinking thing where he kept blinking and jerking his body a little every time he did it. I don't know that guy's name but he was the owner and even when the store moved a couple of blocks away many years ago, he was still there, yelling on the phone for his overdue orders or whatever he was yammering about. I did notice when he was older he stopped doing the blinking thing. Anyway, I found his spasms really fascinating when I was a kid.
Bleecker Street was also where the Catholic school Our Lady of Pompeii was located. Every night at 6pm you could hear them ringing the bells in the church across the village and I loved the sound of those bells. This school was full of delinquents who looked for wimpy kids like me to pick on. I remember once on my block some kid threw a can at me from across the street. It missed, but when I looked over, the kid yelled, "Yeah, keep walkin'," whatever that meant. I was worried about defending myself from these kids who were older, bigger and mean as hell, so I asked my dad to teach me how to fight. My dad was not a fighter so he was no help in that department. I decided I would stick to walking on busier streets when I came home
from school and be ready to run like hell when I needed to. That was fine because my memory is that I had to take a wicked piss every time I was coming home from school and I had to run up those four flights of stairs to my apartment to avoid pissing in my pants. I usually just made it. I'm not sure, but I think a little piss got out onto my pants once or twice. Memories are funny, right? Sometimes you wonder if they're real memories or if maybe you just dreamt it. So be it - I can live with a little piss in my pants once in a while.
One more quick story about the Italian kids in the neighborhood and I'll get off that before someone calls me a racist for pointing out that they were Italian. Well, they were. I'm going for truth here - why should I leave out that fact? Little Italy was adjacent to my neighborhood and there were tons of Italian families in the area. Unfortunately, there were also roving teenage
gangs of Italian kids -- hoodlums who would beat up on each other when there wasn't some spoiled little wimpy Half Jew who went to private school and summer camp every year like me.
From a young age, I loved softball and although I moved to the east village the summer I turned 11, I would come back to the neighborhood at ages 12 and 13 to play softball with my friends in the little concrete park at the corner of Houston Street and Sixth Avenue (also known as Avenue of the Americas but I don't know anybody that ever called it that). One time we were playing softball with some neighborhood kids when this teenage gang came along and were looking for trouble. I had organized my team and we were called The Bees -- other kids loved to razz us by yelling out "Bzzzz!" when we played a game. I had had my mom take a white tee-shirt and sew "The Bees" on the front and "Captain" and the number 2 on the back. So I guess the leader of the gang saw that I was the Captain of the team and thought beating me up seemed like a great idea. He was waiting around for his chance and then suddenly sprang out at me while I was playing shortstop. I knew what was going to happen so as he came toward me with his fists
swinging, I backed up and waved my huge first basemen's mitt to block his punches. (Yes I know it was weird that I played shortstop with a first baseman's glove but I loved that glove and it was big and came in handy when blocking punches.) Well, I accidentally hit the goon in the face with my mitt as he was coming toward me. He touched his mouth, saw it was bleeding and then tried to spit at me which I ducked away from. He stormed off with his hooligan friends and they left the park. A neighborhood kid told me that he'd be coming back and that if I valued my life, I should get the fuck out of there. The fuck out of there we got. End of that story.
My friend Franco, who I mentioned, also went to Our Lady of Pompeii. I guess his parents were poor. I mean, I don't know want to assume that but on the day of my seventh birthday party at my apartment, he called and asked me if he needed to bring a present to my party. I thought one had to do that, like it was an unwritten law or something, so I told him, yes he had to bring one. When I hung up the phone, my mom walked into the room and asked who I had just spoken to. "Franco," I told her. "What did he want?" she asked. "He wanted to know if he needed to bring a present," said I. "And what did you tell him?" my mother inquired. "I told him, yes, he needs to bring a present." My mother yelled at me, "No he doesn't! Call him right back and tell him that!" Embarrassed, I phoned Franco back and told him he didn't have to bring a present. He said, "It's okay. We have something for you." I remember he gave me a box of chocolates that I guess his parents had around their apartment. What a selfish little idiot I was, I guess. Or maybe I just innocently did believe one had to bring a present to a birthday party. I can't see into my seven year old mind so I'm not sure where I really stood on that issue.
We had a small apartment so the twenty or so kids that came to my birthday party went up on the roof with me in our bathing suits and my dad sprayed us down with a hose because it was summer time and it was hot. My mind boggles at the total lack of concern of safety because some kid could have fallen off that roof. But then, as I told you, only small plastic army men had fallen off that roof. Oh, wait, something else fell off that roof once. I had this friend at school named Flip. Flip was a bad boy. He'd come over to my apartment and break all my toys. Once when he was over after school one afternoon, we went up to my roof. There just happened to be a small pile of bricks laying there. Flip thought it would be a cool idea to drop some of these bricks off the back side of the building onto the landlord's patio. It did not seem to be a good idea to me but he dropped those bricks off the roof anyway. The good news is that no one was harmed but when my dad got home he went ballistic at hearing from the landlord what we dumb kids had done. Years later after I left St. Luke's school, I heard that Flip was expelled for smoking pot or selling pot or something like that. I've searched the internet to find out whatever happened to him and I can't find a trace of him so for all I know he could be dead or in prison or something. Hey, Flip, if you read this, get in touch - I'd love to know what you've been up to since the whole brick throwing thing.