Monday, July 30, 2018

The Little Park In College Point

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.


Unknown said...

Fred, as always, I enjoy your blogs that trace our history of growing up in the Point. I was just talking with my son yesterday about Chisolms and the great experience of growing up a block away from 134 acres of play space we had all to ourselves to do just about anything a young kid could want. I remember fondly when I was very young attending summer camps the parks dept put on there, with knock hockey tournaments, hula hoops competitions ( I remember Pat Hannafin winning one, she could shimmey). Listing things I remember doing there, baseball, football, basketball, drinking, making out with willing females, swimming, Johnny ride the pony, smoking, playing black jack with Gerry the “Parkie”, sledding, ice skating, skiing, gymnastics on the parallel and monkey bars, singing do wop, boating, the list grows in my mind. Friendships that still continue 60 years later with some, memories of others gone too soon with others, but never forgetting what a great childhood it was to grow up in the Park I called my second home. I wandered to the other parks from time to time or one of the school yards for a change but always made my way back to Chisolms. Still can’t call it MacNeil, although I think he is a worthy person to name a Park after. As an aside, I don’t feel places like parks should ever change names. Why change history? I was always upset when they changed the name of the little league fields and taking off the name Sandorf fields, named for a childhood friend, Jimmy Sandorf, who passed away when we were in our early teens. Just recently one of the fields was changed back, honoring my friend.. I digress.
Yes Whitey was not one of the good ones. I felt his baton only once a gentle but meaningless poke in the stomach. We were sitting on top of the picnic table in the park between basketball games at Chisolms and he walked in to just be Whitey. Claimed it was illegal to sit on top of the table, threatened us with JD ( Jeuvenille Delinquent) cards. Was there even such a thing?.
As I finish my thoughts, I remembered a few of my Park mates who have gone too soon in my opinion including our friend Tom Moore

Unknown said...

The little park don’t.
Included in the list are some of my Park legends gone too soon, many of whom met Whitey from time to time,
Joe Carahar, Bill Hannafin, Red Gillespie , Don Wick, Dennis McGowan, Bob Tucker, Mickey Devlin, Eric Winkler, Mike Wick, Jimmy Gragnito, Flip Boesfleish(sp), Frankie Graziano, Bill Kearney, Al Varialle, Chris Brest, etc. I misss the Point of my youth!

fred c said...

I've always wondered what happened to Joey Carahar. When we called for him we did it from fifty feet away from his house, the last row house on 116th Street. "Hey, Joey!" We were terrified of his parents. The last time I saw Red Gillespie we were both picking up teenage children at the bus stop where they were dropped off after jr. high school in Whitestone, 1984. I recognized him and said, "is that you, Red?" He was surprised, but remembered me after a minute. You mention Dennis McGowan, I wonder about him too. I don't think I remember anyone mentioning him until you did just now. Maybe it's not a happy story. Tommy was a wonderful friend to me, and he got me out of a few fights at Holy Cross and in town as well. When he came over and said, "what? you looking for a fight?" guys just put up their hands, palms forward, "no Tommy! I'm just playing!" I never saw him again after graduation. Did he go to Notre Dame? He was ambitious, not like me. All I wanted was to be invisible and make it through one day at a time without any trouble. Yeah, those were the days alright. Thanks, Lou, for the kind words. I really appreciate it.

fred c said...

Make that grammar school kids. Mine was a Kindergartner. We both also had teenagers at the time, but they made it home on their own.