The Stool-Pigeon and The Indian Lake
t never occurred to me that Norman would chicken out and become a stool pigeon. He wasaggressive, a good athlete, a gambler (for baseball cards and streetcar transfers), and a veteran explorer of our neighborhood and Crotona Park. He was a very persuasive talker, a take-over guy and besides, he loved banana and mustard sandwiches. It was his idea that we organize a trip to Floyd Bennett Airport.
We were nine years old that bright, summer morning when Norman told us about an airport "just on the other side of Crotona Park." There were five of us in the group and the other four had just finished playing "off the bench." This game was played with a Spaldeen, a pink, soft rubber ball which was thrown against the slatted wooden back of a bench that stood on the park side of Fulton Avenue. There were two players to a side, and on the fielding team one player stood in the street and the other on the opposite sidewalk. You scored when the ball rebounded off a slat and bounced in the gutter or on the opposite sidewalk. One base for every bounce, four bounces, a home run. Since I was one of the worst players on the block I was not picked in the first choosing of sides. The game had been long and exciting and it finished in great style when Norman hit a home run, an uncatchable smash that reached the building on the other side of the street and fell into the cellar. I cheered this magnificent shot and then announced that it was my turn to pick. I would choose the best player from the losing side to be my partner. Not to be. At this point Norman announced that we would go to Floyd Bennett Airport.
"I know it is just on the other side of the park. We can walk there."
I was angry for not getting my pick and I argued loudly with him. His decision was final; there would be no more "off the bench" that morning. There was nothing I could do about it.
As a child and adolescent, I had feelings of inferiority and sabotaged any natural ability I had. I was an overly-exuberant winner and a bad loser. Occasionally I struck out in punchball; in sandlot football I was afraid to tackle the ball-carrier’s head. In public school I was ashamed when I had to do the standing broad jump because much shorter kids than me out-distanced me. In fistfights I was afraid to hit my rival in the face, fearful that something terrible would happen. I almost never won.
There were four of us sitting on the bench and Norman stood facing us. His spiel was seductive and easily led us to agree to going to the airport. I suggested that we take along sandwiches. This idea was happily and immediately accepted. We agreed to take sandwiches from home, telling our mothers that we wanted to have a picnic lunch in the park. The five of us dispersed homeward to prepare for this great adventure: Norman, Tevie (Herbie), Lobo (Natie), Putzie (Paulie), and myself, Itchy (Irving). I had never questioned the fact that Norman was the only one without a nickname
Norman’s mother had come from England and spoke with an English accent. She wore flowered dresses all year round. She was very erect in her bearing, foreign looking, and when she walked, her ample bosom projected straight out as if clearing the way for her. Today we would call her regal. Behind her back the grownups never called her Rose, her given name, but called her Queenie. In common with the other mothers on the block, though, she was often shouting down messages to Norman through the kitchen window of their first floor apartment in the “new” buildings on Fulton Avenue.
His father was also different from all the fathers on the block. He was native born, much older than Rose, and everyone on the block, including his family, called him Mr. Feinberg. For years he suffered from a crippling arthritis and was confined to a wheelchair, unable to work. He smoked cigarettes using an ivory cigarette holder which he kept fixed between his teeth, blowing the smoke out of his nose. He was doing this years before we saw Franklin D. Roosevelt do it.
Finally, what made Norman's family so different from the rest of the families in our neighborhood was the fact that the Feinbergs had card games in their house almost every evening, as well as on weekend afternoons.
Flinging open the door of my house, I rushed into the kitchen, finding my mother busy preparing lunch. I breathlessly told her about our idea of having a picnic in the park and she bought it without any questions. I told her that Tevie, Lobo, Putzie and Norman were my picnic companions and they were bringing sandwiches also. My mother sliced four thick slabs of seeded rye bread and heavily spread butter on them. She made two jumbo sandwiches, filling them with a feinkuchen (omelet). She put them in a brown paper bag and, handing it to me, said, "Don't go too far in the park."
The four of us were waiting by the bench for Norman. He was late. We were eager to get going and as time went by I volunteered to go to his home. I ran up the double set of steps of the courtyard of Norman's building and, standing under his kitchen window, I shouted up to Norman. His head popped out of the kitchen window as if he had been waiting for me. He had a big bulge in his cheek and he was chewing slowly. In his right hand he was holding a banana and mustard sandwich. He told me to come up and I did. He was waiting for me by his open apartment door and motioned for me to come in. We stood in the hall of his apartment and he whispered to me, "You don't know what happened. Somehow my mother guessed we were going to the airport and now I have to stay home. What lousy luck."
His mom called from the kitchen, asking us to come in. When I walked in she bent down and gently pinched my cheek, saying, "I love your rosy cheeks." Then she said that "It is not wise to make a journey of such a great distance without an adult along."
Norman supported his mother saying, "My mother is right. It's no good to go past Indian Lake. If you ask me, you don't know what's on the other side."
I mumbled "It ain't so far," and ran out of the apartment.
When I came out into the courtyard and was skipping down the upper set of steps, Norman shouted behind me, "You can't miss it. It's just on the other side of the lake."
The four of us entered the park, heading in the direction of Indian Lake and the airport. The park was about a mile wide and we were no more than halfway across when we were attracted by the cheering noises of a large crowd, coming from a stadium in the park. Putzie suggested that we detour there because "They have baseball games with uniforms and even umpires, guys in black suits." Putzie was the best athlete on the block and his recommendation was quickly accepted. He led the way, running quickly and easily, with Lobo right behind him. Tevie and I were struggling to keep up.
There was a baseball game in progress and the players wore uniforms. This was the first time I had ever seen uniformed play. There were two men dressed in black suits, wearing small, black, peaked caps, and I recognized them as the umpires.
The contest was between two semi-professional teams, one from a west side neighborhood of the Bronx and the other from our east side area. Putzie was the only one who had seen a major league game, the Bronx Bombers at Yankee Stadium. We knew about the Yankees from the radio broadcasts which I sometimes had heard in the candy store, when the older fellows asked Mr. Nathan, the owner, to put on the game. Some of my bubble-gum tickets had pictures of Yankee players.
It was fascinating to see my first real baseball game in a stadium - a small one - but still with a laid-out playing field. All the previous games I had seen were sandlot games. The stands were full and the noisy, enthusiastic crowd roared its approval at anything the home team did. The foul lines were lined with children sitting on the ground. We found seats on the foul line just past third base and settled comfortably onto the dry, dusty earth. The Indian Lake and Floyd Bennett Airport were forgotten. After fifteen minutes of joyful spectating, something happened to make us continue with our original mission.
A grounder hit down the third base line would have hit Putzie in the head but he ducked in time, avoiding a disaster. This near-accident prompted the umpires to clear both foul lines. We had to move behind the home plate screen where our view of the game was obstructed by the people and children already there. Tevie, the oldest of our group, reminded us of our original destination by pointing in the direction of Indian Lake.
"What about it, guys? Do we stay or go? Which is it?"
After a brief discussion, Lobo, the natural leader of our group, quietly resolved our conflict. Firmly, clearly, he said, "The airport. That's where we're going, right?"
We were on our way. A few minutes on we found ourselves standing on the top of a hill, Indian Lake below us, and beyond that, Boston Road and Claremont Parkway. The lake seemed big and deep, and there were rowboats.
I had been to the lake for the first time the year before, with my siblings. We accompanied Zaydeh to the lakeside, so that he could "throw away his sins." Just prior to Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, Zaydeh, the president of our Fulton Avenue schul, led the male congregants pond-side for the ritual dumping of their sins into the water. Afterwards, the men stood around talking, gossiping, mingling with hundreds of worshipers from other schuls in the area. While my Zaydeh was chatting, my brother Sid and I explored the lake. We walked to the end of the lake where the rowboats were tied up and, heedless of the danger, we tried to climb into one. The park attendant responsible for the boats gruffly growled at us, "Scram, you snotnoses, before I kick your asses for you." We ran back to the safety of Zaydeh's area.
There was a huge boulder adjacent to the lake, about three times higher than I was. This was the Indian Rock, with a brass dedication plaque embedded in the rock and little steps carved in its side leading to its top. Sid was the first one up and for a few moments he wouldn't let me climb to the top, shouting, "I am the King of the hill." This brought a sharp rebuke from Zaydeh, telling him not to disturb the seriousness of the situation. It also allowed me to make it to the top. We briefly discussed the Indian Rock, relating it to the western movies that we sometimes went to saturday afternoons at the Deluxe, or the Fenway, on Washington Avenue. Based on the stereotypical, good-guy-bad-guy movies, it was easy to project the Indian Rock into a fort.
Suddenly I realized that I was famished and the powerful odor coming from my butter-stained, brown bag enhanced my appetite. I took out one of the sandwiches, waved it around, saying, "Listen, guys, let's eat something and then we'll be ready to charge down the hill. What do you say?"
There was a brief moment of hesitation but when Tevie took out one of his sandwiches and bit deeply into it, that was the signal for all of us to sit down to eat. We ate quickly, except for Tevie. We were up and around, restlessly waiting for him to finish, anxious to make the charge down the hill to the besieged fort, the Indian Rock. Even before Tevie took his last bite we began to run down the hill. Putzie was in the lead, with Lobo behind him, and I was just one step ahead of Tevie. Suddenly, I noticed a dollar bill lying on the side of the asphalt path and I stopped running, transfixed by what I had discovered.
I called out, "Hey, look. There's a buck on the ground."
Before I could pick it up Tevie had scooped it up, saying loudly, "It's mine. I found it. No aikies." According to street law, if he said this before anyone could say "Halfie no aikes," then he didn't have to share his find.
I said, "It ain't fair, no. I saw it first. C'mon Tevie, be fair."
He refused, repeating, "no aikies."
I doubled the loudness of my demand but he refused, finding a new excuse, sing-songing, "Finders keepers, losers weepers." Lobo mediated the dispute by convincing Tevie that the dollar should be shared by the four of us and I accepted the compromise. The usually gentle Tevie grumbled his acceptance of Lobo's wise decision. We forgot the airport, we forgot the lake, forgot the Indian Rock. Instead, we headed in the direction of the street on the other side of the park. There were stores there and we agreed that we would go to a candy story where each one of us could buy what he wanted with his twenty five cents.
Just before we left the park we saw a man with a pony, selling rides for a nickel each. Without a word being said we made a new decision about what to do with the money. For the next hour we were living in the wonderful world of the Wild West. Each of us had five, rip-roaring, bronco-busting rides on the docile pony. It was just like in the movies where my favorite cowboy, Buzz Barton, always got the bad guy and rode off at the end, the lone rider. When our money ran out, we stood around for a few minutes watching other children have pony rides. Then Putzie brought us out of our western reveries by shouting, "The last one to the Indian Rock is a rotten egg." I was the rotten egg, since I got a late start and even Tevie beat me.
While the other three were climbing onto the rock, playing Cowboys and Indians, I took off my sneakers and socks and sat on the paving-stone lake rim. I dangled my feet into the cool water and by sliding slightly forward, I could just reach the muddy bottom. The soft sliminess of the silted bottom was pleasantly sensuous as I moved my feet in and out of it. I was fascinated by the muddy waters coming up to the surface.
I was shocked to hear a park attendant shouting at me, as he ran in my direction. I hastily withdrew from the water and gathering up my sneakers and socks I ran part of the way up the hill. He stopped, breathing heavily, and pointed his long arm accusingly at me. He gruffly yelled at me, "What do you want to do? Get yourself drowned or something?" I retreated a little further up the hill. With a grunt of disapproval and a dismissing wave of his hand, he moved off.
Resocked and reshod, I joined my friends on the rock. They were still playing Cowboys and Indians. Lobo and Putzie were on top, in the fort, and Tevie had been unsuccessfully storming it. I joined him and the both of us were unsuccessful in getting to the top. I complained loudly that it wasn't fair, so we switched. Tevie and I were the brave defenders of the fort and Putzie and Lobo were the indians. Somehow, they succeeded in getting to the top.
I didn't care because we were having a great time. After a while we got tired of the game and we began to play tag. When we tired of that game we walked to the end of the lake where the rowboats were moored and we watched two couples take out two boats. We discussed the possibility of getting a rowboat but realized that we couldn't, because we had no accompanying adult and we had no money.
We moved to a new part of the lake and began to skip flat stones across the surface, competing to see who could get the most bounces. It was Putzie, of course. We watched a man fishing with a thin string and a u-shaped pin for a hook. He had a ball of dough at his feet and he pinched off a piece, finger-rolled it into a little bait-ball and put it on the end of his improvised hook. Then he threw it into the water. Four times he pulled his line out of the water without the bait on it. Then it happened. The fifth time the line jerked in the water. He pulled gently on it and then more strongly. With a swift motion he pulled his hook out of the water and wiggling desperately on it was a two inch fish. He plucked the fish off his hook and put it into a glass jar, half-filled with lake water. I watched the little darter in his glass jail, feeling sorry for it.
Somehow, watching the trapped fish reminded me of Norman and I reminded the group that we had never gotten to the airport. The rest of the group was just as surprised as I was that we had forgotten about it. We were hungry and it was too late in the day to go on. We decided to make the trip on another day. Lobo looked towards home, saying that it was late and time to start back. Without waiting for the others I took off, shouting, "the last one up the hill is a rotten egg." This time Tevie was the rotten egg.
The return trip was quick and uneventful. When we got to Fulton Avenue we saw a crowd of people standing in front of the new buildings. My mother and father were there, along with my two brothers and sister. In the same worried cluster were Putzie's parents, Tevie's mother and Lobo's mother and oldest sister. My heart began pounding and I had trouble breathing. I knew I was going to be punished.
I felt worse when Norman came running towards us, shouting, "You guys are in trouble. You’re going to get it. What took you so long? Did you get to the airport? Everyone has been going crazy looking for you."
Before anyone could answer he told us what happened. His mother told my mother and she had contacted the other three mothers. Putzie's older brother was sent to look for us around Indian Lake but we were at the stadium at the time. Later in the day, as their anxiety increased, Tevie's father and my father, both out of work at the time, went to look for us. We were probably wild-westing it with our pony at the furthest reaches of the park, and when they returned without us the rumor spread that we had been kidnapped. Panic on Fulton Avenue.
My mother tearfully embraced me, kissed me repeatedly and thanked God for bringing me home safely. Then with a serious look and a stern command, she ordered me to go "upstairs." My father's red-faced, angry looks made me fearful that I was going to get a beating. He had never beaten me before, although he had spoken of it, occasionally reached for his belt, or gave me a stern look. That was enough to scare me into behaving.
When I was upstairs, sitting in the kitchen, hungry and apprehensive, my mother came in alone. She gave me something to eat which I was unable to enjoy because I didn't know what form my punishment would take. Hanging on the wall above the table was the Lukshen Strop (the noodle strap), the cat-o-nine tails, and looking at it now made me shiver fearfully.
My mother decided to use her own instrument of punishment and I was momentarily relieved that it wasn't going to be a whipping. She talked and talked until I cried hysterically for her to stop. She began her tongue lashing, constantly repeating in a quiet, tense voice, "How could you be such a bad boy. You'll kill me. After all the sacrifices I made for you children." She used these sentences in various combinations, occasionally putting in fresh material such as, "You must be crazy to do what you did. That's what the car accident you had did to you. Don't you care what happens to me?"
I cried long, I cried hard. I promised again and again, and then again, that I would never again do anything like what I had done. That ended the first round.
Then she started guilt-whipping me again about making her suffer, about shortening her life, and I cried and repented, and then repented and cried. Finally, I was sent to bed full of remorse, promises to be good and loaded with guilt.
The following day when the guys met, we decided that Norman had tattle-taled. One of the others called him a stool-pigeon. From that moment he became Stooley. He finally had a nickname like the rest of us.
(NB: When I was older, I learned that Floyd Bennet Field was about thirty miles south of my home, on a remote peninsula off the coast of southern Brooklyn.)