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Numerology: A New York Memory

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In 1967, football jerseys were a teen fad in New York City High Schools. The world was decades away from maniacal sports marketing so the jerseys were bloodless: no team logo, no team colors, no superstar stranger's name along the upper back. Just white jerseys with striped shoulders and a sullen, boxy number. The fad seemed radiantly dull... until a trend emerged. The number -- The. Number. -- was the same on every jersey.

I was pre-teen and groping: Sixty-nine. Why sixty-nine? Why sixty-nine? Why sixty-nine?

My father had season tickets to the New York Giants so I was up on the NFL. Sixty-nine on the Giants was Willie Young, a left tackle notable for standing over a crumpled quarterback freshly mauled by the right defensive end -- Young's responsibility. During one game, in our bleacher seats at Yankee Stadium, a virtuoso alcoholic sitting behind us shouted, "Young, you're a fat shit." Shriveled in embarrassment at hearing such filth in the presence of my father, I nevertheless sensed the fad couldn't be centered around a fat shit.

Sixty-nine felt like it had nothing to do with football at all.

Confirmation came on a busy day at our neighborhood Davis Delicatessan on 188th Street and 73rd Avenue in Queens where some older kids fell out from hearing a counterman shout, "Sixty nine. Number Sixty-nine." Consciously oblivious adults fingered their cash or ogled the white fish hoping they'd jump out of their walleyed deaths and bite one of the snickering, premature ejaculators on the ass. If anything other than sex led kids to laugh and parents to play dumb, I wasn't aware of it. I started thinking sixty-nine could mean something really debauched.

At eleven years old, all mysteries were dark mysteries and all dark mysteries involved sex.

Actually, let me back off on that a bit: I'd recently heard the previous summer referred to as "The Summer of Love." The activities entailed in a "summer of love" were lost on me. It sounded groovy, maybe even out of sight, but it was no dark mystery: I was unaware of any connection between love and sex so I couldn't be bothered.

The cases that consumed me were breathier: A "psychedelic shop" called Bell, Book and Candle opened on Horace Harding Boulevard, just around the corner from where, a few months earlier, kids threw snowballs at Mayor John V. Lindsay in protest of the city's slow clean up after a blizzard. While looking at strobe lights, I heard one of the oppressively relevant deejays on WNEW, the legendary progressive rock station, talk about The Doors song Light My Fire: "It's great sex music. It has the long version for regular sex and the short version for a quickie. On these airwaves, we only play the long version."

Quickie. Now there was an intriguing term. I looked it up in a dictionary. KWIK-e: A book or movie produced in very little time.

You know who never got a lot of girls? Noah Webster. But at the time, if it didn't make the dictionary, it couldn't be too important.

Another fascination came in October when my classmate Eddie Clark peered down and to his right during during glee club and whispered, "Gail Morrisey has a great ass."

That one threw me for a solid two days: A great ass? Is that something I'm supposed to be looking at? Ultimately, I finessed my way around that one too: Okay, I'll look at asses, I'll talk about asses, I'll compliment asses. I can do that.

But sixty-nine was different. It couldn't be so easily dismissed. The number was the fad and it had to mean something specific. Again, this was decades before information became find-able.

The case would take years to crack.

Seeing as this was a sexual investigation, I ditched the Dragnet procedure of starting my search close to home then expanding outward. It wasn't like I could canvass my own household. I assumed recreational sex was new, something hatched around 1965 and my father -- working on 23rd Street in Manhattan -- and my mother -- at the office of PS 179 -- were too absorbed in making America great to possibly be up on the latest.

Although (although!) I should mention that my parents, after a Broadway show, did bring us to dinner at Max's Kansas City, the hottest New York restaurant among the burgeoning hippie scene. All the crazy long hair and off-smelling smoke was scary and thrilling.

Maybe my parents would know what 69 means...

No. I was an almost subversively conventional child, a studious angel who couldn't be known to explore such high-grade vulgarity. Confidential sources would have to be cultivated outside the home.

I carefully considered possible educators. The choices were dodgy:

The first was Kenny Kantrowitz. Despite doing his second tour of fifth grade, Kenny had an impressive grasp of all matters taboo. He didn't let his fixer-upper brain keep him from staying in touch with the ex-peers who had zoomed past him into sixth grade on schedule. Sixth graders at PS 26 knew stuff.

The plan was to sidle up to Kenny and mention that on a math test I'd gotten a grade of SIXTY-NINE, then hope he'd break into his Jurassic laugh and explain everything. On a Friday morning, I went up to Kenny in the auditorium as he labored over something he could just about identify as "a book." He seemed grateful for the interruption so I launched Part One of my plan. But when Kenny more or less congratulated me on my math score, I nodded and walked off toward the front of the auditorium. My friend Anthony Milano asked me what I talked to Kenny about. Math, I said. He gave me this faraway look, which was understandable as it had only been a few weeks since Anthony had convinced Kenny that Mount Rushmore was natural rock formation.

My second source was Gary Lauer, a perfect combination of older, friendly and pitiful. Due to his huge nose, Gary's nickname was "Face the Nation" -- so dubbed by his best friend Mike Bostick. (Mike had a flair in this area. He named his black cat "Willie McCovey.") Considering the blizzard of abuse Gary took for his prematurely grotesque profile, I hoped he'd be flattered anyone would seek him out for anything. I caught up with him as he watched pick-up basketball in the schoolyard of PS 26.

Gary never played sports, he just watched as if he were a season ticket holder to his friends' lives. On this day, three of the ten players were wearing sixty-nine jerseys. Perfect...

"Little Mehl, what's up?" Gary said pleasantly.

I opened with basketball talk, noting that Phil Schoenhaut couldn't dribble to his left. Gary said, "No, he has no left hand. He has a right hand and non-right hand." I laughed. Gary had the kind of lively sense of humor I'd associated with aesthetically tragic people. Pleased by my laugh, he made more jokes. I laughed more. Fun. We were having fun. So I threw it out there: "Boy, what's the big deal about sixty-nine?"

Gary's nervous system high-jumped, his face going all gargoyle as if he were seeing himself in the mirror for the first time. "What did you ask me?"

I backpeddled. "The shirts, with the numbers. Oh, forget it..."

Too late. Face The Nation bolted up and waded into the middle of a fast break --that's how much this couldn't wait-- grabbed Phil Schoenhaut and whispered to him with Cold War urgency. Phil's braces pitched forward. I noticed that he went to his right even to wave over other players who, one by one, buckled in viral laughs.

Sixty-nine is worse than I thought, I said to myself after blowing out a side exit of the schoolyard. I ran home, just ran full-tilt, my head baggy with questions bigger than me. Tearing through a path between two buildings -- the exact spot where Steven Squirsky told me the President had been shot -- I bumped into Teddy Scharf. Teddy was a month younger than me and yet, he was wearing a sixty-nine jersey.

"Where did you get that shirt?" I asked, all Perry Mason.

Teddy got nervous. Real nervous. "It's my brother's," he said. "I grabbed it out of his drawer. I thought, you know, everyone's wearing sixty-nine shirts. I don't even know why. I just looked up sixty-nine in the Giants Yearbook. It's Willie Young and he stinks. I don't get it. Does sixty-nine mean something? "

So, Teddy was also on the case.

His research was a day's behind mine but I decided we could partner up. I brought him up to speed, then warned him against questioning older kids of or even telling anyone we'd had this discussion. He nodded like a newly-deputized narc. We went silent for a few moments, contemplating the world over our heads.

On an ensuing weekend, I walked home after hanging out at Eddie Clark's house where'd he continued talking about Gail Morrissey's ass as if it were something hanging in the Guggenheim. I started home with upwards of a dollar in my pocket, so I decided to stop at Lorenzo's, a pizzeria next door to a bowling alley known as "The Hole." I was feeling cool around The Hole as I'd recently bowled my high game there, 104, with a ball so light the pins practically had to be bribed into falling. The sixteen lanes were downstairs from a non-descript doorway on Union Turnpike and the street outside the two establishments became a hang-out for older kids. I got two slices and a Coke and--

Information rides random currents. You gotta just stay open for business.

Two guys walked into Lorenzo's just as one said, "Believe me, I think he's full of it too but he swore up and down that he sixty-nined her in Cunningham Park. "

I grabbed my pizza and coke, ate on the move and ran to Teddy Sharf's house.

"I just learned something really big,"

"What?" Teddy whispered. "What?

A pause to let the moment gain weight, then:

"Sixty-nine is a verb."

Teddy's eyes widened as if to say, "Holy crap." This was confirmed seconds later when he said, "Holy crap." I nodded. Yeah, holy crap. We stood there processing. It was getting cold. Teddy looked up at me and said, "You're shivering." I thought he was going to ask me in his house but instead, he said, "Well, I still don't know what the hell sixty-nine is all about but I'll tell you this much: When 1969 rolls around, all hell's gonna break loose in this city."

Editor's Note: The names of Peter's pals have been changed

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