Thursday, June 9, 2016

Deprived Childhood

From a writer’s perspective I could say I was deprived of a deprived childhood. Beyond the usual knee scraps and psychic scars I never rafted down the Mississippi nor was I orphaned early, sent to a workhouse where I had to beg for more gruel, and survived as a street urchin.

I lived from age eight to twenty-one on a quiet street in a four-story walk-up, called Tudor Arms, on the border between Kew Gardens and Forest Hills in the borough of Queens. Around one corner was my father’s drug store and the other, a subway entrance which took me to Manhattan by express for a nickel in twenty minutes.

Forest Hills had neither forest nor hills. I suppose at one time there were woods but they were leveled for apartments along with the bumps in topography. We had one depression of sunken land we called the Toilet Bowl. It was perfect for sleigh riding if you could steer around the bushes. The bottom was about the size of a football field but an errant pass might bounce into the Grand Central Parkway.

Kew Gardens was named after the Botanical Gardens at Kew in London. Toward the end of the 19th century the town was settled when a cemetery was built with a railroad station to deposit mourners.

Eighty years later in 1964 Kew Gardens suddenly found its name associated with the notoriety of grief on several levels. A terrible murder took place. It was incorrectly reported by the N.Y. Times that while Kitty Genovese was being attacked on the grounds of her apartment house on-lookers failed to come to her aid or call for help. In spite of later stories to the contrary of neighbor’s response the original narrative stuck. It is known as bystander’s effect.

It’s ironic that those neighbors in her building live in infamy for what they allegedly failed to do…but actually did. It was the police who failed to respond assuming it was a domestic quarrel…as if that wasn’t sufficient reason.

I knew that address on Austin St. It wasn’t Tudor Arms but could have been. If William Maxwell lived there he might have written his small masterpiece, So Long, I’ll See You Tomorrow, about this shocking incident.

The idealized images we carry about childhood come into sharper focus when they are stained like a microscope slide. What was idyllic becomes more shaded. Bucolic Kew Gardens had its weeds.

My neighbor, Johnny Kassabian, had three years on me but we were close friends living in adjacent apartments. His family was the first to have television. He even gave me the key to his front door so I could watch TV when nobody was home. We shared a wall and also the memory of a fence when I was eleven years old.

That fence we often scaled to play touch football is remembered as the one I climbed with him when a knife he carried for some Boy Scout project entered his arm, severed a nerve and he lost use of three fingers. Whether we ran to my father’s pharmacy to stop the bleeding and dress the wound or made our way to Dr. Prausnitz whose office was on the same Austin St. as Ms. Genovese, I don’t recall. Maybe we did both.

We drifted apart as kids do. He went to Boys Tech. High School in Brooklyn to study drafting and engineering. Did that injury affect his life’s work? I don’t have an ending to this story. Kids don’t say goodbye. Only so long, see ya. We are both actors and bystanders in our own movie.

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