the year of 1957 I was uprooted from an idyllic childhood in what
was just beginning to be called a “suburb” into a neighborhood that
city planners now call “light industrial.” It was like taking a
plant from the fertile loam of a nursery and transplanting it into
thick clay soil. It was Nietzschean in that if the experience didn’t
kill me, I would emerge stronger than my pampered contemporaries
in Biscayne Gardens.
My new environs came complete with a two-track railroad spur, an
eerie abandoned opened-air theater (circa 1928), a canal with manatees
and a castor-bean “forest.” For a ten year old boy, it was a paradise.
My father had bought a 1920s-era two story hotel with rooms above
and two storefronts below. Suddenly my “interface” with adults increased
from simply meeting teachers (and an occasional parent) to a Runyonesque
world of working-class men and societal castoffs. It was an unusual
world where ne’er-do-wells were often looked upon as “success stories.”
Among the scores of men that I met there were itinerant sign painters,
retired newspaper press room operators, milk men, ambulance drivers,
short-order cooks, concentration camp survivors, a Greek veteran
from WWI, a lone “beatnik”
from Coney Island (slightly ahead of his time) and a full-blooded
Indian from Oklahoma named “Chief.”
It would’ve been difficult to assemble such a motley collection
of humanity outside of a federal prison, but these were all honest
and moral men – which, if you think about it; goes a long way in
explaining their common poverty.
The “hotel” was directly across the street from a bottling plant
of Borden’s Dairy and tenants either got used to the cacophony of
150 trucks being loaded with bottled milk all night long, or else
they found other quarters. After hours of clinking and occasional
bottle crashes, about 5:00 AM, the open-door milk trucks with the
drivers perched on pedestal seats (or standing) would pour out of
the parking lot like the opening credits of Hill Street Blues.
The two storefronts of the pale yellow stucco building were both
occupied in 1957-58. One by “Ralph’s Italian Grocery,” which was
run by a “displaced” Italian woman named “Libby.” Ralph was her
war-disabled husband that we rarely saw. The other store was a television
repair shop run by a man named Criswell. He was a friendly guy with
me, but then again, I was the landlord’s son. Since Criswell was
always behind in both his work and rent, he felt obliged to open
his shop at night so that the other guests could watch television.
I think it gave him a sense of immunity against eviction.
Monday evenings (Gillette Fight Night), lawn chairs would be set
up facing the plate glass window and we would gaze at three or four
separate televisions screens. The reason for multiple screens was
to insure against sudden screen blackouts – or “crap-outs” as the
men called them. If you’re old enough to remember people watching
TV through the windows of furniture stores, it was something like
that – except our place looked as if the store had been looted by
an angry mob.
The odds of the televisions keeping their horizontal or vertical
holds throughout the show were low – after all, the sets were all
there to be repaired. Sound would come from televisions with blank
screens while pictures might come from naked picture tubes sitting
atop detached chassis with their eviscerated electronic “guts” draped
over the side.
My job was like a ball boy at a tennis match. From my stool in the
doorway, I followed the directions given to me by the viewers –
and went from TV to TV adjusting the controls. I felt like one of
those plate-spinners on the Ed Sullivan show. The men seemed to
enjoy seeing my frustration and I know there were times when I was
more interesting than the fights. Considering that the show was
free, the audience was pretty demanding.
The far-sighted members of the group (and the term is used literally)
kept moving their chairs further away from the window and I recall
one evening when a passing police car had to remind the offenders
that they were actually sitting in a lane of Second Avenue. The
traffic at that time was so light (in that part of town) that it
was an easy mistake to make. I do remember the cops (two to a car
back then) waiting until the round was over before moving on and
then returning later to learn who had won.
store was not unlike any small town grocery – down to the red Coca-Cola
buttons on either side of the white enamel sign that read Ralph’s
Italian Grocery. Young people today might not recognize the cashier’s
counter. First, there was no Plexiglas shield and the cash register
was one of those solid brass jobs that took three men to move. Libby’s
chair held two phone books to raise her to counter level.
Seven-Eleven stores (that were then just making their appearance
in the late fifties) reported bread, milk, eggs and beer as their
best-selling items. At Libby’s the most frequently sold items were
beer, razor blades, lighter flints, sen-sen, hair oil and plastic
combs. Liquid offerings included half pints of Old Grandad, Old
Crow, Four Roses or quarts of Italian Swiss Colony wine. Libby also
stocked a few bottles of Manichewitz for the occasional slumming
connoisseur or the wino who wanted to keep Kosher.
Of course soft
drinks were also hot-selling items and they were kept ice-cold in
actual chipped ice. (What a concept!) By the end of each business
day, the box mounted bottle openers would be overflowing with bottle
caps. Once a day at closing, Libby would sweep up and throw away
the bottle caps from the opener’s detachable base. The caps were
then thrown in back of a billboard that sat alongside the building.
This practice had evidently been going on for sometime because when
I found it, one could literally sink to ones knees in the morass
of caps. It was a quicksand of cork, cleft steel and chipped paint.
Monday Night Fights was the high point of the week for the tenants,
Saturday mornings was mine.
The late 50s was the era of Saturday Morning Movie Matinees all
over the country. Actually it was an unspoken national conspiracy
to allow husbands and wives to enjoy some time together without
the kids. Every theater had their own variation, but usually the
presentation was a double feature with up to ten cartoons and a
drawing for prizes the winner to be determined by his or
her ticket stub. The prizes were usually boring board games but
on occasion there would be something serious like a bicycle.
Even if the kids paid the full price of twenty-five cents
I didn’t understand how the theater made money. Concession prices,
unlike today, were rooted in reality and fair dealing. It was at
the Rosetta Theater that I learned the term "volume" was
more than a dial on a broken television.
One day I was shown an ad in the newspaper. I believe it was shown
to me by “Jerry” our one and only ex-con who was sort of the hotel’s
mascot. He was the “bad-boy” that they others weren’t. He had a
low mumble like Broderick Crawford on Highway Patrol. He pushed
the paper at me and pointed with a nicotine-stained finger. I'll
never forget his life-changing words. He said: “Here, kid, lookit
The ad stated that “selected” theaters would “honor” six Pepsi-Cola
bottle caps in lieu of the .25 cent admission. I immediately checked
to see if the Rosetta was one of the theaters and (hallelujah!)
it was. I figured that Pepsi was running short of bottle caps and
they were bending them back into shape to be reused. Or perhaps
the United States treasury had finally allowed bottle caps to be
used as currency. There I was – sitting on the mother lode of bottle
caps – a good many of them from Pepsi.
I immediately gathered up over a hundred bottle caps. Like countries
measure their future in oil reserves, I measured mine in bottle
caps. By my calculation, I could attend free matinees until I was
existence in a playmate-deficient part of town didn’t make it easy
to make friends. Outside of school, I rarely saw other kids other
than at the matinees and most of them were strangers.
The next Saturday, I cautiously approached the cashier’s booth,
half expecting a trap. The offer seemed too good to be true. I had
a quarter in my other hand just in case I had misunderstood the
The “woman” ticket-taker (who was actually about sixteen) didn’t
miss a beat. She took my six bottle caps as if they were nickels.
Now, if this idea was to catch fire and apply to other consumer
items, I could easily buy a car or a house with the Comstock lode
of bottle caps I had access to.
Having more than I needed, I passed a few out to other kids. I soon
became a ten-year old Diamond Jim Brady – treating a group of newfound
friends to free admission. I’d meet them on 79th Street and count
out six bottle caps to each one. I got smiles and thanks but after
we were in the theater, I wasn’t invited to sit with any of my new
“friends.” The group increased in size week by week and for awhile,
I was the prince of Little River. I could spot the gathered group
from a block away and as I approached, I would hear someone say
“There he is!” No one had bothered to ask my name.
The demand for caps grew more and more and I was having to dig deeper
into the Bottle Cap Swamp. Soon, the “woman” at the box office started
rejecting rusty caps. I think she suspected something was “up” and
I wasn’t really drinking all that Pepsi.
The pressure on me was growing each week and one Saturday I decided
to just quit. I took a detour and skirted the crowd, entering the
theater from the north. I could see my opportunistic friends waiting
for me on the corner while I smugly went inside. I saw a boy I knew
– one who paid his own admission (with cash). It felt pretty good.
I would’ve felt “unburdened” had I known the meaning of the word
was discontinued soon afterwards. I think my scam might have lowered
Pepsi stock or caused layoffs at the factory. But for a few brief
Saturdays, I learned that popularity comes with a price – and its
not always worth it. I also learned that it’s much better to sit
with one “old” friend who knows your name than to pay for the privilege
of not sitting with a lot strangers.
August 17, 2014 Column
© John Troesser
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