I came into this world on a clear beautiful sunny Bronx day during the waning gibbous phase of the moon the same year as the American actor, screenwriter, producer, and playwright, Chazz Palminteri however for the record I am 5 months younger than he is. As we all know thanks to his movie and play, he grew up in the Belmont section of the Bronx, (Little Italy) while I was raised in the Concourse section of the Bronx, (Yankee Stadium). I could see the stadium from our bedroom window and hear the crowd roar after a hit or great play on the field. Night games the stadium shined in blinding brilliance like a magical castle but I’m getting too far ahead. Allow me to introduce myself, my name is Phillip Mendelowitz. The firstborn of the fourth son (A US Postal worker of immigrant parents) and a Hell’s Kitchen raised (with four brothers) stay-at-home mom. I guess I’ve always been a survivor.
By the time I was 6 years old I had already contracted Poliovirus at 2, survived and received one of the first shots of the vaccine, had my tonsils removed at the age of 5, hit by a car, also at 5, and then cracked my skull open, falling off a chair and hitting the corner of the wall just before I turned 6. All part of the learning and hardening process growing up in the Bronx and you thought the Spartans were cruel to their children. Luckily my doctor’s office was downstairs in the building lobby and he saw me often and through all of my medical emergencies for many years to come.
Even though dad served in the Navy during WWII it was my mom who took the reins and taught me self-defense and techniques of survival she learned growing up in one of the toughest sections in New York City during the depression. She was a short Rubenesque woman with great strength, determination, and endurance and was horrified when I overheard her girlfriend’s stories when they visited from the old neighborhood that she apparently developed a hollow leg when she was younger. Under her tutelage, I learned how to weaponize just about any common everyday item from house keys to jump ropes to fountain pens. We lived on the 5th floor of a 5 story walk-up in a one-bedroom one-bathroom apartment. Mom and Dad slept on the fold-out couch in the living room and my brother and I slept in the bedroom until Friday, which began dad’s days off and the sleeping arrangements reversed.
I believe my dad loved my mom very much but for as long as I can remember, over 40 years, he worked the graveyard shift. At first, he did it for the shift differential which was much needed to begin a family but after that, I think he just enjoyed it. The weekend sleeping arrangements worked because the only television, a black and white set, was in the living room so Saturday mornings began with The Modern Farmer. Yes, the USDA produced a program about farming. This young city boy loved watching it learning about the latest in pest control, crop rotation, and more. When a television station signed on in the early morning, it was loaded with a lot of Public Service shows and then ended after midnight with the Star-Spangled Banner. After Modern Farmer, my brother and I would scramble and get our breakfast together as now the wait was over and we could enjoy Farmer Brown, Mighty Mouse, and Heckle and Jekyll cartoons with a bowl or two of cereal until mom and dad emerged. Dad was paid every other Friday so the closer it got to that day meal options would become limited and maybe just a slice of toasted white bread and butter for breakfast and a slice of bread with mayo for lunch. I still remember those Friday mornings, long before we began attending school, mom would have us sit in a circle on the living-room floor and play, clap hands until daddy comes home, to take our minds off our grumbling stomachs, and then he did with his pay and breakfast.
As I had mentioned earlier before we lived in the Concourse section of the Bronx and it was nothing like living on the Grand Concourse itself. It was a large grand boulevard stretching for over 5 miles separating the east from the west and ran through the Bedford Park section, the Concourse, Highbridge, Fordham, Mott Haven, Norwood to the Tremont section. All lined with beautiful grandiose style buildings from art deco to art moderne with ornate designs, and colorful awnings, immaculate lobbies with elevators and doormen who opened doors and took in deliveries for the doctors, lawyers, dentists, bankers, and other professionals who lived there. Anchoring the Grand Concourse and 161st street uphill from Yankee Stadium was the Grand Concourse Plaza hotel. It was famous for being the place where Yankee players would come for treatment after a grueling night game. The famous Bronx courthouse is also there and was a backdrop for quite a while when watching a Yankee game on T.V.
Our building even though it was down the hill from the Grand Concourse, not as expensive, not as pretty still had all kinds of interesting residents. There was the cliche crabby old widow who hated the sounds of kids at play or anyone enjoying themselves. There were several incidents where our noise level from playing in the courtyard would trigger a water bath she’d toss out the window. As Yin and Yang would have it, across from our apartment on the fifth floor was another widow who had a dog and loved children and I spent much time there playing with her Weiner dog. She also introduced me to my first Christmas tree and the wonderful smell that filled her apartment. But at the end of the 5th floor over by the staircase was the “crazy lady apartment”. Something had happened there some time ago and we heard stories of bizarre behavior and were instructed several times that at no time ever were we to go near that apartment. It was never allowed on our trick or treat route, it was never allowed for selling raffle tickets, no contact of any kind was ever allowed at all.
My neighborhood was mainly a mix of Jewish and Italian families but most importantly, they were 99.9% Yankee fans. Both groups were very family-oriented which led to the formation of the Mother’s news network who monitored the routes to and from school as well as the neighborhood in general. If I dawdled too long on the way home from school I would get a gentle reminder from one of the members of the Mother’s network to move it along and get home. If I or friends I was with did something wrong on another block by the time I got home my mom was waiting for me and my side of the story. Mom also did all the disciplining as judge, jury, and executioner. On an occasional day, dad was enlisted who always excused his role by explaining he had to live with her and had to carry out the deed.
It was a different and innocent time. Most of us went to the same elementary school and we could walk home together every day for lunch, a hot bowl of Campbell’s vegetable soup, and a wonderbread sandwich of either peanut butter and jelly or bologna and lettuce and we were ready for the afternoon class. After a tough game of stickball, we’d swap our dirty juvenile jokes and discuss theories we had about how and where babies came from. My porn consisted of a movie ad carefully cut out of the Daily News movie section for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The ad was Elizabeth Taylor standing in a full slip. She was beautiful and I carefully kept it hidden in my underwear dresser drawer. I still have fond memories of hanging out on the tar roof where we watched the fourth of July fireworks launched from the barge on the East River, watched Sputnik fly over and waited for the world to end, listen to the crowd at Yankee Stadium and in the summer we’d roll out a towel and it became our beach.
I was a very active child with an extremely active imagination and curiosity which resulted in a continuing challenge for my parents. By today’s standards I probably would have been diagnosed with ADHD or some sort of hyperactivity but can you blame a child for being strange when his mother shops for him in the Husky section of the Department store? In first grade, the teacher took the pencil out of my left hand and placed it in my right and she would slap my left hand with a ruler. I told my mom and one day she was waiting for me after class. “Wait here, I going to speak to your teacher.” From what I could hear outside the classroom my Mom went all Hell’s kitchen on her and the teacher never touched me again, gave me evil looks but no more ruler to the hand.
Later on, my natural curiosity would bring me to conduct my first original experiment that would come to a crashing end in Mrs. Gantz’s second-grade class. My hypothesis was that with the proper care one could hatch a store-bought egg. So one late night I snuck an egg out of the fridge and nestled it deep in my shirt’s drawer and covered it to keep it warm overnight. That morning an ill-fated decision was made in haste and out of fear and may have been due to the lack of Frosted flakes cereal in the house and mom subbing cream of wheat, which she made with extra uneatable lumps. With low blood sugar, I panicked and was afraid she’d find the egg in my dresser so I made the decision to take it to school with me. I took my handkerchief, (clean one every day) wrapped the egg in it, and put it in my pants pocket. The day was going smooth, all most to smooth. Lunchtime was approaching and I thought I had this so much so I forgot about the egg when I began to sneeze, (In those days a gentleman sneezed into his handkerchief) and yanked the hanky out of my pocket so the egg went flying and hit Katherine O’Mally who sat in front of me right smack in the back of her head, shattered, and ran down the back of her neck. She screamed. You’d thought she had been shot. The class thought she was shot. Mrs. Gantz, a seasoned veteran teacher who didn’t even bat an eyelash with all the commotion, looked me straight in the eyes and with a stern face asked, was that your lunch? Did you think it was a hardboiled egg? I stood frozen, staring right back into her eyes, formulating an answer while Katherine was loudly crying from the back corner where the sink was as several of her friends were helping wash the egg off. Yes. Yes, Mrs. Gantz, I took the wrong egg.
By the third grade, I had really come into my own as my reputation as a class clown had grown tremendously. My poor younger brother had to deal with my legacy, but I had other pokers in the fire then and was very excited to learn the new kid in my class had also just moved into my building.. A new friend to hang out with, and play stickball and skully, but there was one slight problem. He had just arrived with his parents from Italy and he spoke as much English as I did Italian but somehow we managed to hit it off. He taught me about soccer and I taught him about baseball. He also introduced me to some exotic food dishes that consisted of animal parts I was not at all familiar with. When the science fair rolled around he made a small gum vending machine. You put a coin in and you got a piece of gum. Ms. Mahoney loved it as did the rest of the class and wanted him to do it again. So she asked the class if anyone spoke Italian? Me, no knowledge of Italian except the word capisce and one curse word immediately raised my hand. She was shocked and said, I didn’t know you spoke Italian. I walked up to the front of the classroom, smiled at him, and pointed to the money in his hand and then to the coin slot on the machine. He immediately understood, nodded, and did it again.
More to come