JULY 1, 2018
As most of you know, I was born in New York City in 1934 and called it home until 1970. My first 7 years were spent in the north end of Hell’s Kitchen. The next 12 years were spent in an area that is known as Lincoln Center. The last 17 years of those were spent in Astoria, Queens. In effect, NYC was my home for the first 36 years of my life. This tale is the second of a 2-part article concerned with New York City during that 36 year time period.
I made a conscious decision to split the “When New York City was New York City” article into two timeframes: 1934-1953 and 1953-1970. The first part appeared in August 2017; it keyed on life in Hell’s Kitchen and naturally, the material was autobiographical.
Flash back to 1953 and the tale of this piece begins in Astoria, Queens – my new residence at that time. World War II is a thing of the past and a fleeting memory. The Great Depression is also a fleeting memory. Gone is the Office of Price Administration (OPA) and the accompanying rationing via coupons, and, to a lesser degree, tokens. Jobs abound. Good-paying jobs. Some really good-paying jobs. The worm had indeed turned. Our great nation is experiencing boom economic times along with superpower status due, in part, to a combination of democracy and capitalism. Perhaps even more important was the Marshall Plan, devised by General George C. Marshall. The World War II period had converted out nation into a manufacturing giant. But, the economic boom was about to come to a halt since there weren’t enough buyers of the goods and services we could produce. Enter the aforementioned Marshall’s plan of reviving the economies of Europe and Asia in order to develop markets for our goods and services. And, guess what? It brought prosperity beyond belief to our nation for nearly 40 years.
The 50s and 60s were understandably periods when it seemed that nothing could go wrong, everything was going right, and anything was possible; it was a special era. The relentless pressure of war and personal and economic sacrifices were now history. In a very real sense, it was a time of innocence. WWII was just a 2-letter Roman numeral. The Hamptons were still a rich Waspy family living on Park Avenue. Korea was also a thing of the past. The basketball point-shaving scandals didn’t apply to my friends who I have dubbed the Boys of Killeen’s. Jack Molinas was one of the few Greeks (I thought)–he was Jewish–who had gone bad. It almost was a reincarnation of the roaring 20s–everyday brought joy, excitement, laughs, new challenges, etc. It was also a time of great friendship, good times, perhaps excessive drinking, beautiful girls and great athletes. “Eddie My Love,” a haunting melody that is still with me, was the juke box favorite over several summers. There were other tunes during that period. In addition to “Eddie My Love,” there was “Sh-Boom” (Crew Cuts) and “Earth Angel” (the Penguins). Rock ‘n’ Roll had arrived. The song “You’ll Never Walk Alone” was also bothersome at the time since I found myself walking home alone every night. Likewise was the tune “You Belong to Me” (Jo Stafford), since there was no one I could claim belonged to me. Add this to my favorite tune from the late 1940s, Russ Morgan’s “So tired” (I’ll wait forever dear). But along came the Chordettes with “Mr. Sandman” who indeed did bring me a dream–a Bayside Queen named Mary Kathleen Tonry–and my lonesome nights were over. I fortunately disregarded Damon Runyon’s advice, “fall in love with an heiress if you must fall in love.”
Here are five of my memories of that era—memories that will never leave me. They center around Killeen’s Tavern, my basketball team, Rockaway Beach and (of course) my favorite.
- Killeen’s Tavern
Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, there was a small bar named Killeen’s Tavern on a side street in Astoria, New York. The tavern’s history dates back to about 1934 (the author’s birth year). It was owned by a burly Irishman. The whole place was no bigger than 30 ft. by 15 ft., half of it designed like a half-moon bar, and the other half consisting of a few tables, a juke box, a telephone booth, a toilet that was always clogged up, and a kitchen that didn’t work. Beer was 12 cents a glass, and a shot of rye was 45 cents. The local crowd had its colorful characters. Damon Runyon would have loved this place. There was “Buster” the late night singer who crooned Sweet Leylani, Lorraine the Dancer, “Cuz” the night bartender, “Oil Pan” Tom, the landlord Pete the Russian, Freddie “Spook” Stegman–the greatest sport birddog this side of the Mississippi, and dapper George Connelly–the Sunday bartender of 30 years who many believe James Cagney had copied his mannerisms from.
Then there was the day bartender–Pat Killeen himself. An impressive 6′ 1″ and burly 275-lb. man with a thick Irish brogue, who, when angry, would roll his black cigar from one end of his mouth to the other. Yes, he could intimidate if necessary. But he was a fair and open-minded individual, always with the best intentions at heart.
Who were the other inhabitants of the Tavern? Here are some of their names: Scratch, Buddy, Gaylord (the author), Big Dan, The Whale, Jimmy the Greek, Steve the Greek, Weegie, The Rat, Vince the Prince, The Grey Fox, The Scavenger, The Buff, The Snake, The Brat, Tuto, Tex, Superman, Buster, The Hawk, The Cool, The Phantom, The Bant, The Weedler, Big Fitz, Red, Joey Hot Dog, Sparksy, Dixie, Jake the Weightlifter (all 95 lbs. of him) Bugsy, Louie The Lob, Filthy Phil, Tony Guido, etc. The girls included Mary Gloves, Marie the Dancer … perhaps it be best to stop here.
The Boys of Killeen’s were the children of working-class parents who endured The Great Depression and survived the harsh times of that era. Although better off than their parents, the Boys of Killeen’s were a group that appreciated good times, and were not nearly as security-conscious as their parents. It was a group that ultimately went on to succeed in the workplace, no doubt influenced by their New York City and Killeen’s experiences.
- The legendary Killeen’s Tavern basketball team
I’ll pass here since most of the details appeared in my book, Basketball Coaching 101 (Amazon $18).
- Rockaway Beach
It was New York City’s beach of beaches during that era. It was a period when many referred to the Rockaway’s as the Irish Riviera; interestingly, Jimmy Breslin described it as “where wood rots and people waste.” There were numerous drinking establishments one block from the beach to accommodate the crowds. They included Murphy’s and Gilroy’s on 90th Street, the quartet of the Irish Circle, Rainbow Bar, Leitrim House and Mickey Carton’s Mayo House on 103rd Street (he played the accordion while his sister, Mary, sang). Ruthie Morrissey, regularly featured at the Mayo House, captured and touched so many hearts. The Mayo House was a favorite of the senior folk but it was Gildea’s–famous for drinking, dancing and fighting–that the younger set frequented most. Further west was McNulty’s and the White House on 109th Street and 110th Street, respectively. It was also a time I earnestly became interested in girls. At Gildea’s, I remember watching, with envy, the Savoy–a dance I never quite mastered. The 108 St basketball courts? I’ll pass again since numerous details and memories are available elsewhere. Did I mention my book, Basketball Coaching 101 (Amazon–$18)?
- The Queen
How many guys have married the girl of their dreams? Well, I did. We married in 1967 after a 3-year courtship. Mary recently celebrated her 51st anniversary. It was dinner with the entire family at the Limani restaurant in Roslyn (see attached photo).
- The Fabulous Copacabana
And, it was indeed fabulous. And, it was a time I was courting The Queen. Name the premier entertainers of that era, and The Queen and I saw them at the Copa. George Duganis was the maître d’ and a great table was always available. The best shows included Louie Prima, Don Rickles, Joe E. Lewis, Bobby Vinton, etc.
Of course, there was more: Belmont Park, Saratoga, Yonkers and Roosevelt Raceway, the Jewish Alps (the Catskills), bar-hopping, etc. Space precludes providing details.
I close this out with a comment from one of my readers on the first article: “I’ll always believe that our New York City was quite special. Somehow, I think you’d agree.” Amen!
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“The great hills of the South Country they stand along the sea; and it’s there, walking in the high woods, that I would wish to be, and the men that were boys when I was a boy walking along with me” (from The South Country: Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953).
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AUGUST 1: On Purely Chaste, Pristine, and Random Thoughts XXVII
SEPTEMBER 1: On the New York Racing Association III
OCTOBER 1 On the OHI Day III
NOVEMBER 1: On the 2018-19 Hofstra Men’s Basketball Team
DECEMBER 1: On Basketball Coaching 101 II