The new Yankee baseball season marks the mental close of another hard winter. The daily temperature plummeted into the twenties, and stayed there until St. Paddy’s Day. There was not even the usual New York City “February Thaw” to melt the sooty old snow that lined our city’s sidewalks for months.
This new season lies ahead like a kid’s summer, full of promise and so much time—unlike the summers of adult life that flick by like a page on an iPad.
The Yankee home openers of my youth were always midweek day games against Detroit. The Opener was an event. The entire neighborhood would make plans to play hooky from work or school. We’d take the number four train down to 161st Street and run down the “el” stairs and down River Avenue to get on the ticket line for our non-reserved upper deck nosebleed seats.
Leader of the pack was Big Larry. Larry, our building superintendant so long ago, died late last year, at eighty-nine. He mumbled when he spoke: my name is Marty—he would call me “Moh.” I think back and remember him swabbing our hallways on Sunday mornings, his hair and white tee-shirt drenched with sweat. I remember the tattoos on his forearms, of faded blue-green anchors.
He was in the Pacific in the Big One, double-ya double-ya two. Sometimes, when we were lucky, he would take time out from his labors, open the door to his rent-free, basement apartment, take out the Japanese sword he “found” during his tour in the Pacific and let us do dangerous things with it. He turned a blind eye to our boisterous behavior when we took the sword outside, waved it over our heads like maniacs, screamed in made-up Japanese words, and scared the bejesus out of neighborhood dogs, little kids and old ladies wheeling their shopping carts home from Gristedes.
My dad had it tough in the European Theater but even he admits that the guys in the Pacific had it even tougher with malaria, booby traps and crazies charging at you, shrieking like banshees. Add Japanese Zeros, kamikazees—no thanks, I’d take The Bulge too, like my dad.
Big Larry’s kids were our best friends. His son, Lawrence, was my buddy. We called him Larry. His sister, Janet, was best friends with my sister. The baby of their family, Colleen, was the hapless tag-along.
Big Larry’s day job was on Forty-Eighth Street, Music Row. He repaired musical instruments. He got his son a full set of Ludwig drums, Johnny Cash style, that is, one piece at a time, “out the back door”—a mismatched set. Across the basement hall from their apartment was an empty stroller storage room. Big Larry would slip Lawrence the pass key and he and I played drums loudly, and badly, along with the radio.
I loved their apartment, and I was there at least as often as I was in my own joyless home, upstairs. There in Lawrence’s place, we played mindlessly, and dreamed of the larger world and of a time when we’d have it all. Money! Girls! Corvettes! We ate sandwiches on the Formica table without plates, we ate spaghetti until our stomachs burst—not boring old pot roast like my mom served us at our home.
We talked sports, we talked about the Yankees and, in time, we talked about girls. Ensconced in Lawrence’s bedroom, we’d worship the poster of Sophia Loren in Boy on a Dolphin, which he taped to the wall.
Time stretched before us and every spring Big Larry would take us all to the Big Ballpark in the Bronx. We were kings high up in the grandstand, surveying the subway, the Bronx County Courthouse, the Concourse Plaza Hotel (which wouldn’t let black ballplayer Elston Howard in, my father would always remind me). In our hands were pennants, pretzels and hot dogs. The grownups tossed back cups of Ballantine beer. We kids looked forward to the day when we, too, could call the beer guy and order a round.
Big Larry was hardly rich—he probably couldn’t afford to take a gang to the new Stadium these days—but he was always generous. Wherever that family went, I was invited along. Peach Lake, Jones Beach, Yankees opening day, I was always invited. I felt proud, and loved, when—finally one year—he knew I was finally strong enough to help push-start his cars, which were always fifty-dollar clunkers.
My friend Lawrence would shrink in shame as we pushed his dad’s bombs down Webb Avenue until we built up enough speed for Big Larry to pop the clutch and turn the ignition key. When the engine caught, plumes of thick black exhaust smoke spiraled up to the Bronx heavens.
Once underway, Big Larry would push the buttons of the radio until he found a song he could snap his fingers to. “Toe-tappers,” he’d call them. He’d lean back, and say to his wife, “Annie…light me up a Lucky.” Annie, my surrogate mother, would light up two in her mouth and pass one up front to her husband. Cool.
Annie passed away just weeks after Big Larry.
Big Larry always worked hard, and he knew how to enjoy his money, when he had it. He’d spend a fortune on Christmas presents for the kids. For Easter, they all had spiffy new outfits.
When their relatives came over, the party was on. Big Larry would play Eddie Albert or other popular country crooners on his hi-fi. Everyone would dance and dance, shouting and drinking until early in the morning. I marveled at the magic, as before my very eyes cases and cases of Rheingold would disappear over an afternoon and evening of good cheer.
The real magic, however, was how my sullen demeanor would brighten once I went down to their place, from my joyless, top floor apartment. No matter that it was a dark, dank basement flat. There, I’d join in the merriment with Big Larry, Annie, Lawrence, Janet, Colleen and the rest of their clan. We kids would watch the grownups dance and drink in a swirl of cigarette smoke and raucous laughter. One time, Lawrence’s Aunt Agnes got really drunk and, glass in hand, slowly bent to sit on her chair, only she missed it by a good two feet and ended up plopping down hard on the bare wood floor. We all laughed right along with her, because it was a holiday and we were having good mindless fun. Who cared if she laughed so hard she peed herself, right there on the bare wood floor—which made us all laugh even more.
The new Yankee season has begun. Winter is finally over. Just yesterday, I heard birds chirping across the street and I actually drove with the sunroof open. And, with the temperature finally moderating, I recalled how my mom would yell at me for tramping mud through our old top floor apartment after coming home from the ball fields in early spring. Lawrence’s mom, Annie? She never yelled. She’d just laugh at us, all caked in filth from head to toe, dripping with little kid sweat and grinning from our pleasant exertion. She’d smile, call us jerks, get a broom and a dust pan, ask us to leave our muddy sneakers out in the foyer. Together, we cleaned up our mess.
Goodbye, Big Larry. Goodbye, Annie. I miss you. Rest in peace.
This story is excerpted from my collection of short fiction, “Home Front” published by Sock Monkey Press http://sockmonkeypress.org/wp/?p=142