The little corner of Queens where I grew up was not overrun with public parks. There were two nice ones on the East River. Both were good sized parks, with paths and benches, and each had a baseball diamond. One, by far the nicer of the two, was well used. There were always people there, and when the school schedule allowed there were swarms of boys around looking to get into games of baseball or something. There was a nice children’s playground, and each day around sunset there would be people of all ages who had come to see the sun set over La Guardia Airport and Manhattan. I spent a lot of time there.
The other big park on the river was way off in a corner where it was hard to get to, and it was right next to a municipal waste-water treatment plant. It had a nice view of the Whitestone Bridge, which is beautiful, but usually it was empty. We used it mostly as a place for underage drinking in private.
There were also a couple of small parks around the middling areas of the town. Were there only two? If there was a third, I’ve forgotten it. One of these was on 115th Street, between 14th Avenue and 14th Road. It had very little to recommend it. There was no grass, and no view. There were benches, and playground equipment like swings and see-saws. It was surrounded by a chain-link fence, and I must say, it was not what anyone would call picturesque. Mothers could take their babies and small children there for some recreation, but it was usually empty. I am reminded of it now because another townie posted a recent picture of this park on Facebook.
While I was in late grammar school and early high school I spent quite a bit of time in that general area of town. I had many school friends down there, and it was only eight or ten blocks from my home. I always favored the lively boys to hang out with, and often we would be looking for some kind of trouble. That little park was right up the street from a deli that we liked. Howard’s Delicatessen, a family owned place. They’d been living in America, in this town, for over a century, but they still spoke German at home and had thick German accents. We could buy a nice deli sandwich for forty cents or so, and if we asked for it on rye bread the nice fellow behind the deli counter would say, “mit or mit out seeds?”
“Mit out,” we would blandly reply. The poor guy got furious every time.
Usually we did not have the money to buy sandwiches, or anything else for that matter. This led us to employ our trouble-making skills on occasion. One trick that we liked was to wait just around the corner for a soda truck to make a delivery. We would send out a scout who was a famously fast runner to grab a bottle of soda and run in a way that would cause the driver to chase him. Once he was half a block away he’d step on the gas and lose the guy. By the time the driver got back to the truck, we had all helped ourselves to a bottle of warm soda. Our friend would go around the block and meet us at that little park.
It wasn’t always as much fun as it seems. One day we were right down there on the corner in front of the store, there must have been eight or ten of us. We hadn’t done anything untoward, not yet anyway. A police car came down the street and stopped right in front of us. This was not an uncommon occurrence, and we all knew policemen, so we didn’t pay any attention. They probably want sandwiches, and look, it’s Whitey, so they want some beer as well. It got dramatic.
We were all familiar with Whitey. There was only ever one police car in town, and often Whitey was one of the two guys manning the car. He got out of the car, dressed as usual, with his tunic off, no hat, and his tie very loose around his neck. He was carrying his nightstick, which we were all familiar with. It was made of cherrywood, and the front had been drilled out and filled with lead. This was a typical set up for the NYPD at the time. Whitey’s also had a message carved into the handle. “Adios M.F.”
He approached us and told us to “get the fuck out of here,” which was a very common phrase to hear from the NYPD in those days. My friend Tommy, whose father was also a cop, said something besides the preferred, “yes, officer.” Oh, Tommy, God bless and keep you. Tommy has preceded me into the afterlife. He was a tall boy, with a good nature but full of piss and vinegar. He was not one to take expressions of authority easily. Without saying anything, Whitey poked him exactly in the solar plexus with the tip of the nightstick, and Tommy went down like a wet dishrag.
“Anybody else wanna crack wise?” said Whitey. There was only a mumbled response to that. We helped Tommy to his feet and retreated around the corner. We were probably thirteen at the time.
Maybe we went to the little park. There were benches to sit on, after all, and a water fountain or two.
My last clear memory of that little park is one day when we had nothing to do and were sitting around in the park killing time. Someone suggested a spitting contest for accuracy, and we thought that that was a great idea. We set a coin about ten feet in front of the bench, and the person who’s spit landed closest to the coin was the winner. We had had a lot of practice, so it was pretty close.
Those were interesting times. Most of our parents were comfortable, but none of them were rich. Many of them worked the Civil Service jobs like policeman or firefighter or garbage man, and many of them had more or less unskilled jobs in the many factories. At least half of our parents owned their houses, though, and they all had decent cars. Most of our parents were active in the church, one church or other, the moms anyway, and we had all been through the same Cub Scout packs and Little Leagues for baseball. We led a life that started out much like a Little Rascals episode and in our early teens we looked and acted a lot like the Dead-End Kids. Most of us turned out okay.
I commented on Facebook recently that we grew up in a town where we lived simultaneously in small town America and the heart of New York City, and it’s true. Our town was on the East River, and it was surrounded on three sides by water and one side by swamp. It was so isolated that it retained its small-town character well past the middle of the 20th Century. We had access to the subway though, so we could get to anyplace in the city before too long, and very inexpensively. That was College Point.
I guess that if you’ve got to grow up somewhere, you could have done worse than College Point. It wasn’t all bad.