We moved from the heart of brownstone Brooklyn to The Bronx three years ago, almost to the day.
Ok, Riverdale. But I grew up in The Bronx, not high atop the fortress here, but the Bronxy Bronx. I lived through what was -- and what's here now. And that's largely what I write about in my short stories. It's been a remarkable yo-yo of a transformation and I tried to explain this to my wife and grown son, who weren't buying any of it. As soon as he could, my son moved back to Brooklyn, home to so many other twenty-somethings.
Before we moved, I explained the thing about the Yankees to my wife. "It's serious up there," I said. "Everyone is into the Yankees -- really into them." She rolled her eyes. She wasn't buying.
That is, until we walked the streets here and saw everyone, everything, decked out in full Yankees regalia. Men, women, boys, girls, infants, dogs -- all wearing Yankee apparel of some sort. Even now, with the team sliding towards an abyss as deep and wide as the unlamented Horace Clarke Era, the Yankees mean a lot to this area, and -- truth be told -- to MLB. It goes beyond the TV money, because the MLB is awash in cash and a new parity has come to baseball. I mean, look at KC. Look at Pittsburgh.
Push aside the A-Rod/Biogenesis mishegas for a moment and think of the Yankees through the eyes of the prototypical little kid. For the kid, summertime is Yankee time and so full of promise. And, for little kids, summers have so much time--unlike the summers of adult life that flick by like a page on an iPad.
The little kid of today takes his cues from his elders, as we did. For me, back in the day, the leader of the pack was Big Larry. Larry, our building superintendent so long ago, died a few years ago, 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. My dad had it tough in the European theater but even he admitted (he, too, is gone now) that the guys in the Pacific had it even tougher. As a kid listening to their Reingold-enhanced war stories, I figured 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 48th 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! As a sixth grader, what else did a boy need. We ate sandwiches on their Formica table without plates, we ate spaghetti until our stomachs burst.
We talked sports, which meant 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. Next to the posters of Mantle and Maris.
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 Ballantine's. 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 (and neither can I, truth be told) -- 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. 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.
Watching a game in the "new" Yankee Stadium is like being in a Vegas casino, tripping. The team itself is (a) in decline and (b) surrounded in a swirl of sideshow stench. But to the Yankees person, the current malaise is like wringing your hands over a bad month in the stock market. Over time, the Yankees will prevail, and that's important to us in a Bronx that has seen good days, and very bad ones.
So yes, the Yankees matter. And, hey, let's put things in perspective. Winter is still so very far away. The temperature has moderated from the scorching of mid-July. To the little kid here in New York, the Yankees are still baseball. And baseball is still life to many little kids.
Whenever I doubt that fact, I simply harken back to when Larry and I would come back from our games at Harris Field, filthy, and my mom would yell at me for tramping clods of mud through our old apartment. 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, bats and gloves out in the hall. Together, we cleaned up our mess.
Goodbye, Big Larry. Goodbye, Annie. I miss you. Rest in peace.
And, oh yes -- go Yankees.