Friday, April 18, 2014

You, Me and 1973

On Tuesday, March 7th, 1989, I woke up, got ready, and went to school.  I was in the fifth grade and I had a very bad day at school, though little did I know at the time, this day was going to get much worse.  I’m sure I was distracted, preoccupied, distant, and that day was our trial Math Bee competition.  Fifth grade would be the one and only year in my entire school career that I did not make it into the Math Bee.  But that would be the least of my worries in a few hours.  I went home, to find my mother, oddly not at work and some other family members hanging around on a random Tuesday afternoon.


Right before Christmas in 2012, I had a few days to take off before the end of the year, and if I didn’t take them off, I’d lose my vacation time for good.  So while other people would probably utilize this time to go holiday shopping, I also took the train down to Manhattan’s 5th Avenue, avoiding retailers at all costs, and headed over to the main branch of the New York Public Library.  The big one, with the lions out front.  I had a lot of research to do, and fortunately for me, right before Christmas is not a popular time of year to go digging through rolls of microfilm.


On Tuesday, March 7th, 1989, I came home from school and learned that my dad had passed away.  This had happened very early in the morning, at the hospital.  But my brother and I were sent off to school anyway, for one last day of normalcy.


A few weeks before Christmas, 2012, I was in Bay Ridge having dinner with my mom after a dentist appointment.  I still go back to the Second Borough for my twice-annual visits to the dentist.  I should find a dentist closer to the Seventh Borough, but well, I like Dr. H so I make the trip.  My mom told me she found something at home, and pulled out a little card and gave it to me.  Just slightly larger than a credit card, and firmer than paper but not quite made of card stock, it was my dad’s press identification card from the Staten Island Register, a local paper in the Fifth Borough which had since gone out of circulation.  It was yellowing, but it was still in pretty good condition.  I had no idea when he worked for this paper, and I don’t remember him working for this paper when I was a kid so let’s say some time in the 60’s or early 70’s.  My dad’s name was typed on a dotted line, and below that it read “a Representative of the Organization and any Press Courtesies extended to him will be deeply appreciated”, signed by Joseph S-something, it was illegible, and the ID expired December 31st, 1973.  There was no photograph, nor magnetic strip.  Just a card with the newspaper’s name on it, and an address at 2100 Clove Road, no phone number.  It seemed to be a seriously unsophisticated form of identification.  The right side of the card was much more frayed and worn than the left, as if it had been in a wallet with an opening on the right side, getting handled more so on the right hand side than the left.  It was not laminated.  It was a piece of paper approaching 40 years old, if not older, and it was going to lead me on a hunt for information. 


My dad was not a journalist, at least not professionally.  Professionally he was kind of all over the place.  At some point he worked for the Associated Press, but I’m not sure in what capacity.  He worked for the City of New York managing programs for senior citizens, he worked for the City of New York as a substitute teacher, he even had his Taxi driver’s license at one time.  He was not a ‘company man’. 

My dad grew up in Brooklyn, the second of three children, went to Catholic school, including O.L.P.H. in Sunset Park, and later, would meet my mom through mutual friends.  He was in the Army Reserves during Vietnam, but a massive Post Office strike kept him stateside sorting mail for Uncle Sam.  I’m sure he was OK with that.  I don’t think he was keen on wartime violence, but I think he may have liked the structure and camaraderie of the Army.  It’s probably a lot like Catholic school, hierarchical and uniformed, only this one’s funded by the state.  I remember as a kid, we’d go for walks through a then low-securitied Fort Hamilton Army Base, just a few blocks from our apartment, at the base of the Verrazano Bridge.  I remember he seemed to have decent memories of the Army, even if he had nothing nice to say about Nixon.

Like most children of the sunset-era of the Brooklyn Dodgers, he was a huge Mets fan and we went to a good number of Mets games, back in the ‘80’s, when they’d actually win.  We’d play catch with our mitts, he also taught me how to play basketball (disaster).  We’d play board games a lot, we’d go to the park often, or ride bikes along Shore Road.  I feel he dragged my brother and I all over Manhattan at times, especially to the Met when my brother was in his ‘I love ancient Egypt’ phase, or to the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, or even the Statue of Liberty.  I’ve probably been to the Statue of Liberty more often than any other native New Yorker, or at least I’m willing to admit to that fact, anyway.  We seemed to go everywhere, but we never left the City, mostly because we didn’t have a car for most of those years.  Coney Island, Downtown Brooklyn, the Central Park Zoo, all accessible by subway.  The Staten Island Ferry was a free ride, or at least a really cheap thrill, a soda and a half-hour on the water on a nice day was all you needed.  Sometimes we’d just go for walks along Third Avenue, Bay Ridge’s main thoroughfare.  Get a slice of pizza, maybe an Italian Ice, or stop at the deli and get a small container of marinated mushrooms and eat them before you got home, mostly because they were so good, and also I think my mom was never a fan of mushrooms.  When the weather was bad, or summer days oppressively hot, we’d go to the movies or hit up my dad’s other favorite spot, the library.  Not the big one with the lions out front, but the local one with the children’s section and the free air conditioning. 

My dad was an avid reader.  He was also big into newspapers, news magazines and especially the Sunday New York Times.  I’d ‘read’ along too.  But the Sunday Times weighed a lot and had too much to say.  Sometimes we’d do the crosswords puzzles, and by we, I mean I’d get like <1% of the questions right.  Even if I got a question right, my horrible spelling ability was no match for those black and white grids.  Sometimes he’d buy me a math book, I mean an actual soft-covered work book with pages and pages of arithmetic questions.  I’d do my math puzzles and he’d do the NYT Crossword.  I always wondered if anyone else’s parents bought them math books for ‘fun’ or for ‘babysitting’ on Sunday afternoons.  I think other kids had toys. 


When my mom handed me this 40 year-old press pass, I had always been familiar with my dad’s love of reading, but I had no idea he was trying to get into the writing side of things as well.  We did have a dining room table full of typewriters, but I was never sure of what he was typing, or to whom he was writing, though I did pick up a bit of typewriter ribbon maintenance skills, now totally useless.

So I began my research where anyone in 2012 would begin, I Googled Staten Island Register, and Wikipedia had a small entry about the paper. According to Wiki, the Staten Island Register was owned by the Sclafani Family (that was the illegible S-last name on the press pass!) and founded in 1966.  It started as a weekly shopper, like the Pennysaver, and featured mostly advertisements.  It was a weekly paper, and came into its own about when the daily Staten Island Advance (SI’s local and still in print today) was reaching a saturation point among its readers, and getting overly politicized.  Wiki continues, that the Register would evolve to emphasize four themes: investigative journalism, comprehensive coverage, background and analysis, and political independence.  Unlike the Advance, which to this day endorses political candidates, the Register never endorsed a candidate, though it would report on all candidates, and stuck with an independent slant, reporting the hard news and covering local history as well.  Wiki writes that the paper was sold in 2002, and subsequently sold again in 2004, and ceased publication in December 2005.  There was no Register website to search for old articles, so I was off to the microfilm room of the New York Public Library’s main branch (the big one, with the lions).

Despite many a weary night spent waiting for the express bus to Bay Ridge in front of the Library’s main branch, and having walked past the library many times, I don’t think I had ever been inside that branch until December 2012.  I had no idea how to find anything, but it turned out to be quite easy.  All not-so recent editions of newspapers were on film in one area.  The librarian gave me a catalog of all newspapers on file, and there were several, local, national, international, English, non-English, wow.  I found the Staten Island Register in the catalog and then she asked me which year I’d like to see.  I had no idea, but since the press pass was valid through 1973, I asked for that year.  I hadn’t used a microfilm machine since maybe my second year of college, and when you are searching on film, there is no ‘control-F’ find function, nor a search window.  This was going to be old-school.    

The film started with the January 11th, 1973 issue, claiming the Register as ‘The Weekly Community Newspaper of Richmond County’ all for 10 cents ($4 for an annual subscription).  As I read through the issues, I got the flavor of the paper, local advertisements, Island-wide events for the community, coverage of some city-wide issues, coverage of some national issues, and at times, coverage of some issues that you may think would never impact an insulated, small-townish Fifth Borough.  All the while I’m being transported back in time, before my time, like I said, old-school. 

One of the first articles I came across was an editorial raising the issue of the double-fare transit system.  If you transferred from bus to subway you’d have to pay another fare, and Staten Islanders always had to transfer to get off the Island.  This made me laugh because the ‘One City One Fare’ situation wasn’t resolved until I was in high school, some 25 years later, with the advent of the Metrocard.  There were many farcical editorial cartoons featuring Richard Nixon.  I guess everyone *loved* him.  The weekly events calendar stated St. George Library would be showing a “Black America on Film” series, including footage of African American soldiers and the racism they faced in Vietnam, at the hands of their fellow soldiers.  I totally paraphrased that last sentence.  It was written with words we don’t really use today. 

There was a column each week called ‘Snoopin Round the Town’ which covered wedding announcements, military promotions and fashion styles.  There were home repair how-to columns.  Staten Island Savings Banks were offering 4 year CD’s paying in excess of 7%.  You could buy a Dodge Polara for $3700 or a Plymouth Duster for $2900 (with power steering!!).  New homes ‘on big lots’ were selling for $50-90K, an apartment would cost you $175-$250 a month in rent.  Classifieds were advertising for factory work paying up to (wait for it..) $4 an hour!  Local libraries were showing ‘The Red Balloon’ and ‘Deliverance’.  Weekly TV listings had their own page.  Walter Cronkite hosted the 7PM news on CBS, Channel 5 aired the ‘Andy Griffith Show’, other shows on air at the time included ‘I Dream of Jeanie’, ‘The Waltons’, ‘Beverly Hillbillies’, ‘Dragnet’, ‘The Brady Bunch’, ‘Coronation Street’, ‘The Odd Couple’, ‘I Love Lucy’ and ‘Gilligan’s Island’.  I’ve seen most of these shows, but probably all in repeats.  Adult Ed classes included auto repair for $25, conversational French for $14 and golf for $19 all at local high schools. 

Now and then I’d come across a meatier story, beyond the ups and downs of the New Dorp HS sports stats, or the police blotter, which actually didn’t have too much crime to report.  There was one investigative article about the manufacturing of the Saturday Night Special, a handgun which was actually manufactured in New York City at the time.  Apparently these guns were often stolen between the point of production and their point of delivery.  In 1971, 93 police officers were killed with (presumably stolen) handguns (nationwide).  This was twice the amount of police officers killed in 1968.  The 70’s and early 80’s were rough times in the city. I was old enough to know that first hand.

Other articles were definitely hallmarks of the era: Platform shoes, opening the NYC police exam to women, discrimination of women in the securities industry, Gloria Steinem speaks to the Ms. Club at Staten Island Community College, Nixon refuses to fund day care centers, the unpopularity of Blue Laws, the future of computers, the Rockefeller Drug Laws, how to clean your shag carpet, Watergate, Brezhnev to visit the US, the gasoline shortage, Open Enrollment at CUNY (the City University of New York system), the drunk-driving corridor created in Staten Island when NY raised its legal drinking age to 21, while NJ remained at 18,  and a ‘new fad’ called yoga.  While other articles seemed to cover issues we still face today:  finding jobs for returning veterans, teenage suicide, methadone clinics, 40 workers killed in a Bloomfield natural gas explosion (East Harlem just lost 8 last month in a gas explosion), land use and over-development of the South Shore, the rising costs of food, bridal shows, new car adverts and shoddy construction jobs.  Some things, they never change.

During all my scrolling and trolling through 1973, I had not yet found one article by my dad.  Maybe I picked the wrong year.  But then I got to June, and the paper was covering the primary for the race for NYC mayor, and also a somewhat controversial race for Borough President.  I thought this maybe my lucky year, as my dad had always been abreast of politics at all levels.  A guy named Robert Connor ran for BP as a Republican and then changed to the Democratic line.  This seemed to stir things up.  But the mayor’s race of 1973 was wide open, with John Lindsay not seeking a third term, there would be no incumbent.  So in typical NY fashion, half the city runs for mayor (as we just experienced last year).  Ok well nine guys were in the primary: Albert Blumenthal, Norman Oliver, Abraham Beame, Herman Badillo, John Marchi, Mario Biaggi, Sanford Garelik, Robert Wagner Jr., and Jesse Gray.  I smiled to myself because I recognized a few of these names as guys who seem to always be running for something locally.  The Register covered each candidate, and endorsed no one.  In November, Abe Beame would win the 1973 citywide race, becoming the 104th Mayor of New York City.  I finished the roll of film and my time travel back 39 years and found not one article written by Peter E. Hogan.  There were several short articles published each week that were uncredited.  Maybe he wrote one or a few of those, I'd never know.
           
On Friday, March 7th, 2014, the twenty-fifth anniversary of my dad’s passing came and went.  To mark the day I did absolutely nothing.  I called no one.  I made no Facebook post.  I didn’t even get this blog post out in a timely fashion.  I went to work.  I came home.  I didn’t go to church, having been there only two days earlier for Ash Wednesday.  I was fully aware and mindful of the date, as I am every year, but the milestone that was the quarter-century that had now passed was kind of rubbing things raw all over again.  I’m sure my family was aware of the date.  Not talking to each other on such an anniversary, I can only describe as an Irish style of communication.  It’s how we roll – gregarious and garrulous at times, stone-faced and stoic at others.    

If my dad were alive today, he’d probably still be riding the subway all over the city (now on a reduced-fare senior citizen metro card), reading the paper, getting a slice, getting a kick out of how much the city has changed, how much Brooklyn has changed, how much the world has changed, how much the world hasn’t changed, how much the Mets haven’t changed, how much his kids have changed, and I think he’d love being a granddad.  I truly believe he would have become a blogger, it requires no press pass, it’s relatively easy, it’s free and it doesn’t require any typewriter ribbon changing.  He could cover the Second Borough News, I’ve got Borough Number Seven covered. 

2 comments:

  1. Your dad was so smart and so silly. He always treated me as an adult when I was a kid. He once gave me a birthday card that said "Dick Nixon. Before he dicks you!" He was a quintessential New Yorker.

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