Neighborhood, The Bronx

An excerpt from Richard Monaco’s upcoming memoirs, No Time Like the Past

My worst childhood disease was falling in love once a year after I was nine. Two times if you count the actress Virginia Mayo. At 10, as mentioned, I was sick with jealousy over my best friend’s sister who was nicknamed “Sister.” Danny was to become one of my worst enemies in high school, but in those years I slept in his room at least three times a week when my father was on the 8-4 and 12-8 shifts.

The house of the Lord’s. “Ma” and “Pa” Lord, two brothers and three or four sisters – I can’t recall. The others blurred away compared to the exotic, raven-haired, milky, golden-skinned, soft- eyed, creamy-curved “Sister.” Her name was Yearline. She was a paler version of Halle Berry. I died a little every time I saw her and alone in a room with her for a moment, I’d sweat and babble.

Why did I dwell in the house of the Lords? Because we lived in a one- bedroom and I’d caught my parents making the beast with two backs a few times, putting a crimp in their game. As above, I had a vague idea he was hurting her because of the natural sounds; I’d sing myself to sleep (so they’d know I was awake) in an Oedipal semi-doze. Poor little Hamlet.

I slept upstairs with Granma, too, but they didn’t want to give her the idea sexual privacy was involved. Granma viewed sex the way Mary Baker Eddy looked at hypnotism. One of Mrs. Eddy’s writings which tickled me was entitled: “Ancient and Modern Necromancy alias Mesmerism and Hypnotism Denounced.” That was a knockout. Never forgot it.

The thing was that “Pa” Lord, my father’s then other best friend and fellow cop in the Four-Oh precinct, and his family hid a terrible secret by the standards of that time in America. They were “passin’ ” for white. The sad truth was that even within the family the repellent color standard applied. Danny had the hair and lips and swarthy tones. His older brother (nicknamed “Brother”) looked Italianish. The girls ranged from faintly Hispanic to the exotic, trans-human perfection of “Sister.”

Now, I was unaware of all this until The Old Man opened up and swore me to silence when I was about eleven. We all moved to Yonkers two years later, the Lords’ house built adjacent to ours. Cops then were known for special skills: my father was a first-class carpenter, Bob Lord an electrician, “Chubby” Lappin was a bricklayer, etc. That’s how the houses got built – also a little help from precinct friends. Anecdotes may follow.

So I lived with this family on 227 Street sometimes two or three days a week according to my father’s tours and often slept upstairs with grandmother and Aunt Helen for another two. That meant lots of soul food (then called “Southern” cooking) including the best baked beans and rice I’ve ever come across. It was served like a cake, baked with rice underneath, topped with wafer thin ham slices. Upstairs with Grandma, there was spam, boiled chicken and dumplings and Pease porridge. Amazing desserts, however.

Clearly  I  was  full  of  potentially  useful  information  but  pretty  innocent overall, like most  kids. My mother, because of the Sermon on the Mount, etc., saw all beings as absolutely equal (like her mother and sister) though most men ranked a little below women, dogs, and cats.

This was reflected in the secret and open messages in 50’s TV where men had to be directed by the wise spouse who stayed in the background, gently maneuvering the silly bowlers, dreamers, car-maniacs, drinkers, sex-driven and pompous “blowhards” into doing the right thing. The Honeymooners was the clear, classic case.

The Old Man bought a TV to watch the Joe Louis/Rocky Marciano fight. It was a Philco, blond wood with big dials and a strange frame around the screen. Radio was dying or, rather, transforming slowly into the domain of DJs as Rock and Roll grew like a snowball rolling down a mountain. No more radio dramas like Captain MidnightInner SanctumThe Lone RangerSuperman, etc.

My television shows were Flash GordonCaptain VideoKukla Fran and Ollie, and the very strange adventures of cowboy star  Gene Autry fighting underground  post-Atlantean  evildoers  and  their  super-science  from  his  base  at “Radio Ranch.” They rode horses when on the earth’s surface and resembled medieval knights. I’d memorize songs from Your Hit Parade (sung by “Snooky” Lanson and his friends) like “Hernando’s Hideaway” or “Shrimp Boats Are A’comin’.” Then shows like Broadway Open House starring one Jerry Lester (no relation to Vicki) or the Morey Amsterdam Show which established all the Tonight Show style TV that exists to this day.

My top show was based on a book I loved by the proto-neocon, Robert Heinlein: Space Cadet. I made my father take me to Macy’s when the stars appeared to meet their young public. When introduced to my hero, the sour note character, Roger Manning and Tom himself, I panicked and hid behind a counter. The same approach that was to prove so successful in my love life later.

In the 1950’s, when I was maybe eight they hid a Jewish communist friend of my father’s in our small apartment for a few days. One Henny Herman. He was wanted for excessive use of free speech or something. To Jim Monaco (AKA Vincenzo Genaro) the US Constitution was the Sermon on the Mount. Religion and politics mixed fine in my home. Dad sorely hated the “House Un-Americans,” their odious witch-hunting and their spiritual leader the repellant Joe McCarthy, the poster boy for all the sick, defamatory borderline personalities of the present ridiculous Right. I have similar feelings for the present Cribhouse of Representatives.

Growing up, I was really innocent of significant prejudice. I didn’t believe I was better because I was white and had nothing against the Irish kids since they didn’t come after me as often as the wops – not called Guidos in those days. Only had one scuffle with a son of Erin, a fellow SP, and it won us both big points in junior high (PS 113) because we were escorted down the main aisle of the auditorium to the well-named Assistant Principal, Mr. Ward, who did the serious discipline, both bloody, he with his braces hanging half off from a lucky and desperate kick after being floored by a right. My early taste of the social respect that comes from violence and rule-breaking. Some tough boys said we were “alright.” Not faggy. One even said I was a stand-up Jew.

But my friend Danny’s life was consumed by prejudice, and he couldn’t even talk about it. We were opposites in the eyes of our respective families. His father was a good, decent, trustworthy, honest man but a tyrant out of Dickens and really said “children should be quiet in front of their betters.” He hated the fact that Danny looked more “Negro” than the rest. I mean, imagine a cold, by-the-book cop father who concealed his background and constantly dreaded exposure and made his son and the two daughters who looked least Caucasian feel second-class.

No one seriously challenged Danny’s being a white kid because of the Southern Italians in the neighborhood, but his nappy hair drew attention, and he had more than one fight over the appellation “nigger lips.” Imagine the terrific repressed pain and rage. His self-esteem was beaten flat by the time he was a teenager.

Years later a black friend would tell me that at some big parties in Harlem, they’d stick a brown paper bag on the door which meant if you’re  darker  than  that  you’re  not  welcome.  Nothing less allowed than the secondary players in Amos and Andy. A black girl I spent a lot of time with some years ago pointed out that right into the 90s even films made by blacks still represented the light-skinned women as more moral and the darker as sinful as in the wonderful Eddie Murphy comedy Coming to America.

We were like brothers for years but we never acknowledged the family secret between us. He never knew I knew until the shoe of social disaster finally dropped when I was 14. And it made us enemies.

This was  when  his  older  brother,  Bobby,  a  Korean  War  vet, knocked-up and then married a pretty Italian girl who lived two houses from us in Yonkers on the green hill half-surrounded by acres of woods. He was curly- haired and looked like a handsome version of Chaz Palmieri. The shoe fell for almost 9 months and finally hit when everybody saw the offspring. The genes had bounced to the left and you had a beautiful baby along the lines of, say, Rhianna.

He’d told the girl he had “Indian” blood. That was true, of course, as far as it went. Hell  broke loose. Somehow it was resolved without bloodshed, and the disgrace was hushed up – except for gossip and so on. Lots of hushed meeting at our house, my father wearing his most serious look (like when cops brought me home) and mother with her far-seeing “what would Jesus say” expression.

But it took a special toll on Danny. He had few friends other than me and was a classic high school loner. The last moments of our friendship dissolved after seeing “The Cruel Sea” together, a Brit epic about WWII merchant marine convoys. We were walking home from the Bronxville Theater to our Yonkers hilltop when he accused me of “talking about him” and looking down on him.

I was stunned and hurt. I argued, but he was trying to start a fight. He didn’t even want one companion, I finally figured. Wanted his shot of misery straight. I get it, now. He warned he’d be “looking for me” and stumped off into the night, walking up Central Park Avenue which was then mostly woods, a few five-room  modular  houses  converted  to  stores,  some  scattered  bars,  random  bad restaurants and diners with the occasional shopping center built around an A&P.

He was tough and tortured, and I was emotionally blasted. His turning on me made me run from him the way I fled the butchered chicken on my aunt’s farm. I fought other people, but I couldn’t fight him. I looked like a coward. Emotionally, certainly.


 

Richard Monaco’s memoirs, No Time Like the Past will be released in late 2016.