I wrote this piece several years ago when I was trying to explain to a friend who grew up in the country what it was like to grow up in the city, the “city” of course being New York. I don’t live there anymore, but “New Yorker” is the only identity I will ever have.
Sometimes when we write a personal story we start writing about one thing and then discover ourselves in a time and place we thought we had forgotten. There’s an old joke whose punchline is “Keep your hat on, Cowboy, we could end up miles from here”. This was one of those pieces.
In the sixties, when I was still in elementary school, retail businesses in the city stayed open later than they do now. Most stores closed at about 7:30 or 8:00. Drug stores, however, usually stayed open until at least 10:00. I remember summer nights when my friends, mostly Irish-Catholic kids from the apartment building up the street, and I would play on the sidewalk of Corona Avenue. For weeks on end, every night we would ride our bicycles on the sidewalk, up and down the block, up over the bridge that crossed the Long Island Railroad and then back all the way down Corona Avenue to Junction Boulevard where the name of the neighborhood changes from Elmhurst to Corona. Then, one night, one of the kids would come out with their roller skates instead of their bicycle and we would start roller-skating for a few weeks. Then we would switch back to bicycles.
Whenever we would pass in front of my father’s store on those nights, we could see a group of three or four men standing in the front by the plate-glass window, drinking coffee from the deli across the street, swapping stories. One guy was a short, fat bald guy who chewed a cigar and always had a newspaper of some kind folded up under his hairy arm. His name was Casey. He had a deep, gravelly voice and he liked to play the ponies. He drove a cream-colored Caddy that he parked in a no-parking zone across the street. I never knew for sure what he did for a living, but I’m sure it was at least partially legitimate.
One of the other men who hung out on those slow nights was a stocky second-generation Irishman with bushy eyebrows and a seemingly over-sized head. His name was Jimmy Breslin. He was the first famous writer I ever met. I was probably about eight or nine years old.
Breslin was a few years older than my father, about the same age as my mother’s older brother, who also knew him. He grew up in Queens and was a hometown hero. Before my Uncle Bill had gotten married, Breslin was one of his drinking buddies. One of their favorite hangouts was the Carousel Lounge, a mob joint on Queens Boulevard in Sunnyside.