For displaced, misplaced, and nostalgic ex-Bronxites

The Secret of the Eye

by Ralph De Zago


rom the time I was four until I was fifteen, I lived at 140 Kearney Avenue, in the Throgg's Neck section of the Bronx. I then left for a couple of years, but moved back to "the Neck" when I was eighteen, finally leaving after graduating college at twenty-three.

The Kearney Avenue of my youth faced "the field" - then an open field bordered by Kearney, Schurz and Harding Avenues and Throgg's Neck Boulevard. A path from the corner of Kearney Avenue cut the field diagonally, ending at Harding Avenue and Throgg's Neck Boulevard. Today it's a more regimented area, a manicured baseball stadium rather than the unkempt area I remember, but it's still used, as it was then, for what was the national pastime. The modern updating has limited the field's use today to strictly baseball, while in times past we used it to fight our kid wars, play pom-pom pullaway and ring-a-levio and the host of other games kids create.

The bad thing about "the field" was that it was only two-diamonds large; four teams, but no more, could play on the field at a time. When four teams were playing, there was no room for other games. So what of the rest of the kids? Some played other games on some of the smaller, nearby fields. Some went into Silver Beach to fish, swim or play on the banks of the East River, or to the Silver Beach playground to shoot hoops.

And some resorted to stick ball against the high, granite walls of the Poor Claire Monastery. Why we called it a "monastery" is beyond me, for Poor Claire nuns, not monks, inhabited it. The monastery, situated on the high ground forming a ridge on Hollywood Avenue between Throgg's Neck Boulevard and East Tremont Avenue, commanded much of the landscape and oversaw the surrounding homes. Its tall green spire with cross atop was really quite picturesque, even more so when viewed while crossing either the Throgg's Neck or Whitestone bridges. I well remember the monastery bells chiming out the Angelus at noon, which also served to let the local parents know that their children would be coming home for lunch from St. Frances de Chantal School, which was across Throgg's Neck Boulevard from "the field", on Harding Avenue.

But it's the wall that's important to this story. Poor Claire nuns did not come out from behind the walls. Theirs was a life of meditation and prayer. They had some "out" nuns who ran their errands, but most of them were cloistered for life.

The main entrance to the monastery was on Hollywood Avenue, but this entrance bypassed the wall. The wall itself was only breached by a solitary steel door on the Schurz Avenue side, and it was this door that determined the choice spot on the wall the kids used as a backstop for stickball. I can honestly say that I never remember seeing that steel door ever opened, and I doubt anyone else in the neighborhood did either. So, we batted from the wall out towards Linden Avenue in Silver Beach, our backs to the granite - near, but not at the door. The kids knew they might need the services of the door, so they didn't stray too far from it.

Any Bronx kid will tell you that the standard ball for stickball was the "Spauldeen" ( the word taken from those rubber balls made by the Spalding Company.) Occasionally, we used tennis balls, but it wasn't the same. Sometimes, the Spauldeens would turn brown and get hard, and these flew better. And a properly hit ball would really fly.

Ninety-nine percent of the time, a batted ball would wind up somewhere other than over the wall. But on the odd occasion, a foul would arch backwards and soar over the wall. When this happened, the game would come to an abrupt end, and someone would be out a ball...that is, unless the nuns were out of the monastery on their grounds on the other side, and at least one of the kids knew the secret of "the eye."

Next to the door was a small, nearly invisible button which the smallest kids could reach only by getting on the shoulders of others. Once this button was pushed, there were two possible outcomes. Sometimes, nothing at all would happen, in which case the game ended and we'd all sullenly go home. But if there was magic in the air, a small peephole, which could be opened only from nun-side, would quietly open and "the eye" would appear. At this point, the kids, with due deference, would ask for their ball. "The eye" would then disappear, anonymous and silent, behind the peephole. A short time later, the kids would be treated to a barrage of balls sent flying over the wall, for the nuns would have no way of knowing which was the correct ball, and so they would send over any and all they could find.

Kids, being what they are, learn fast. After a while we realized that the nuns would throw over any balls they found, whether or not we lost one. All it took was for one of us to push the button, get "the eye" to see us, and then ask for the balls.

Boy, those nuns were nice to us, and no kids in our neighborhood who knew the secret of the eye were ever short on Spauldeens.

Nothing lasts forever, and the monastery is gone now, although most of the wall remains around the new building there. But those nuns sure made us kids happy!

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