It was sometime in the mid 1980’s. I was having dinner at Forlini’s Restaurant at 93 Baxter Street in downtown Manhattan with my good friend Rudy Riska, who was the Athletic Director of the Downtown Athletic Club, and was known as the King of the Heisman Trophy. I had grown up across the street from Forlini’s, in a tenement at 134 White Street, the corner of Baxter Street in the Sixth Ward, across the street from the city prison called the Tombs. Rudy had grown up on Madison Street, in the adjourning Fourth Ward, just a 10-minute walk away.
The Fourth and Sixth Ward people were friendly enemies, especially in sports. My first memory of the Fourth Ward was in 1958 when I went to play Little League baseball at Coleman Oval, under the Manhattan Bridge. By then the neighborhood had been completely transformed and tens of thousands of people had been thrown out of their homes by of the cruel law of Eminent Domain. This was done to make way for the construction of Al Smith low-income projects and the Chatham Green middle-income co-ops. The same thing had happened in the Sixth Ward, albeit on a smaller basis, to make way for the construction of Chatham Towers middle-income co-ops.
During dinner at Forlini’s, Rudy told me about the Fourth Ward of the 1940’s and early 1950’s. He mentioned streets that no longer existed; like Roosevelt Street and Oak Street, and parts of Williams Street. And he mentioned a Catholic church I never heard of named St. Joachim’s, which was on Roosevelt Street. Then Rudy started talking about the guys he grew up with.
“Do you remember Victor Star?” Rudy asked me.
No, I didn’t, but after reading the wonderful book “Between Two Bridges” by Victor Colaio (Victor Star), even though I never met the man, I know Victor Star very well (we even went to the same high school – Cardinal Hayes in the Bronx).
Both Victor and Rudy are about 10-12 years older than me. The Lower East Side they grew up in was slightly different than the Lower East Side I grew up in. Sure, we played stickball, stoopball, softball, hardball, basketball and football, like they did, but we had actual balls that we bought at a sporting goods store on Nassau Street, the name of which escapes me (Spiegels?). In Victor’s era, they bought pink Spaldeens, and the occasional Clincher softball, like we did, but their footballs were made of wrapped up newspaper and tape. Talk about roughing it. (I’m assuming they used real basketballs, because if the ball wasn’t perfectly round, how could they bounce it properly?)
Also, in Rudy and Victor’s era, television was a new invention; basically only bars had them to show sporting events like baseball and boxing. However, I don’t remember not having a TV set in my apartment, nor do I remember any of my friends not having TV sets in their apartments. But this was the mid to late 1950’s; not the mid to late 1940’s, when Rudy and Victor grew up.
In “Between Two Bridges,” Victor talks about spending many wondrous afternoons at the Venice Theatre, which was owned by a wonderful woman named Mazie, who let kids into the theater for free if they didn’t have the money. Mazie also gave money to the bums on the Bowery, so that they could buy something to eat, or most likely something to drink. I don’t remember the Venice Theater, but I do remember Mazie, but from the Chatham Theater on Chatham Square, under the Third Avenue El, which was knocked down when I was about 9 or 10 years old. However, the Chatham Theater remained there for many years.
In “Between Two Bridges,” Victor regales the reader with stories of how kids played ball in “The Lots,” a filthy strip of land under Manhattan Bridge. I don’t remember “The Lots,” but I do remember remember Coleman Oval, which was constructed on the former site of “The Lots.” This is where the Two Bridges Little League Baseball Association played their games. In fact in 1960, my Transfiguration Little League team beat Victor’s St. James Little League team for the Two Bridges Championship.
And then there were the nicknames, which almost everybody had.
Victor was Victor Star. My nickname in the Sixth Ward was Mooney; people still call me Mooney. Victor mentions childhood friends like Pete the Lash, who was built like a safe and wasn’t afraid to throw his weight around. After I moved to the Fourth Ward’s Knickerbocker Village in 1964, I met Pete the Lash, who was definitely an impressive physical specimen; only by the mid 70’s his brick-like body did have a bit of a beer belly. Even though Pete was basically a friendly, jovial guy, woe to those who got on the wrong side of Pete the Lash.
Victor mentions other nicknames names like Richie Igor, Nonnie, Paulie Knock Knock, Junior, Bunny, and Butch, all men whom I knew in later years. But I don’t recall Goo-Goo, Bobo the Hippo, Hammerhead, Paulie Batman, Georgie Egg, Bopo, or Bimbo. But I wish I did.
Growing up in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the 30’s through 60’s was a unique experience; an experience that no longer exist for the youngsters of New York City. In the Lower East Side, we grew up with people of all denominations and faiths. The Two Bridges Little Baseball League had teams from Transfiguration Church – almost exclusively Italians and Chinese. St James was mostly Irish with a few Italians. St. Joseph was mostly Italians with a few Irish. Mariners Temple’s team was Puerto Rican. Educational Alliance and LMRC were Jewish. And Sea and Land, sponsored by neighborhood people, were African-Americans. And there were Polish, Spanish kids from Spain, and Czechoslovakian kids sprinkled throughout the teams.
We didn’t have the time or energy to be racist or prejudiced. We all grew up together and we all respected each other. It was the only way to survive.
One thing that Victor points out in his book is very true. If you grew up on the Lower East Side, you grew balls; you had to. You had to fight almost every day, and if you didn’t; you got beat up almost every day. Bullies invariably picked on the weaker kids, or the ones who didn’t fight back. But if you did fight back, even if you caught a beating or two, the bullies moved on to easier pray.
It was just the law of the jungle.
The Lower East Side did produce mobsters of all nationalities. But it also produced doctors (Joe Fiorito), lawyers (Mathew J. Mari from the Fourth Ward is a prominent criminal attorney), politicians (Al Smith from James Street became Governor of New York and lost the Presidential Election in 1928), several judges ( Judge Piccariello), professional singers (Johnny Maestro, Luther Vandross), and professional athletes. Rudy Riska was one professional athlete from the Lower East Side (he played for the Triple A Yankees); his brother Steve was another (the Cincinnati Reds farm system). There was also a guy named Vinnie Head (I never knew his real name) from the Sixth Ward (NY Giants Farm system), and Charlie Vellotta, also from the Sixth Ward (Dodgers farm system). Charlie lived on the same floor with me at 134 White Street.
My next door neighbor at 134 White Street was Mikey Black; real name Michael Corriero (we shared a firescape, and Mikey used to frequently knock on my door because he forgot the key to his apartment and had to use my bedroom window to get onto the firescape to get into his apartment). Mikey, after being on the periphery of juvenile gangs when he was a teenager, became a lawyer, then a judge in New York State Juvenile Court System. He is now the Executive Director and Founder of the New York Center for Juvenile Justice.
Growing up on the Lower East Side in the mid Twentieth Century cannot be described any better than Victor Colaio does in “Between Two Bridges.” I highly recommend this book to all New Yorkers – no matter what age group. And if you come from other parts of the country, you can’t help but enjoy this brilliant book too. If people not from New York City can flock to watch a ridiculous program like “Mob Wives,” they should read a book that is true to life, not a stereotype of the worst possible people in the New York City area.
One more thing – if you don’t buy “Between Two Bridges,” I might have to send Pete the Lash to visit you.
And that can never be a very good thing.