It was sometime in the mid-1980s. I was having dinner at Forlini’s restaurant at 93 Baxter Street in midtown Manhattan with my good friend Rudy Riska, who was the athletic director of the Downtown Athletic Club and was known as the King of Heisman Trophy. I grew up across the street from Forlini’s, in a tenement at 134 White Street, on the corner of Baxter Street in the Sixth Ward, across the street from the city jail called Tombs. Rudy had grown up on Madison Street in the adjacent Fourth Ward, just a 10-minute walk away.
The people of the Fourth and Sixth Districts 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 driven from their homes by the cruel eminent domain law. This was done to make way for the construction of the 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 middle-income co-ops at Chatham Towers.
Over dinner at Forlini’s, Rudy told me about the Fourth District of the 1940s and early 1950s. He mentioned streets that no longer existed; such as Roosevelt Street and Oak Street, and parts of Williams Street. And he mentioned a Catholic church that he had never heard of called St. Joachim’s, which was on Roosevelt Street. Then Rudy started talking about the boys 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), although 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 that they grew up on was a little different than the Lower East Side that I grew up on. Sure, we played stickball, stoopball, softball, hardball, basketball, and soccer, just like them, but we had real balls that we bought at a sporting goods store on Nassau Street, whose name escapes me (Spiegels?). In Victor’s era, they’d buy pink Spaldeen balls and, once in a while, a Clincher softball, like we did, but their footballs were made from wrapped newsprint 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 properly?)
Also, in the era of Rudy and Victor, 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 in my apartment, nor do I remember any of my friends not having TVs in their apartments. But this was in the mid to late 1950s; not from the mid to late 1940s, when Rudy and Victor grew up.
In “Between Two Bridges,” Victor talks about spending many wonderful evenings 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 money. Mazie also gave homeless people on the Bowery money so they could buy something to eat, or probably something to drink. I don’t remember the Venice Theatre, but I do remember Mazie, but the Chatham Theater in Chatham Square, under Third Avenue El, which was torn down when she 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 children played ball on “The Lots,” a strip of dirt under the Manhattan Bridge. I don’t remember “The Lots”, but I do remember Coleman Oval, which was built on the previous 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 St. James Little League team for the Two Bridges championship.
And then there were the nicknames, which almost everyone had.
Victor was Victor Star. My nickname in 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 the weight of it. After moving to Knickerbocker Village in the Fourth Ward in 1964, I met Pete the Lash, who was definitely an impressive physical specimen; Just in the mid-70s, the brick body of him had 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 such as Richie Igor, Nonnie, Paulie Knock Knock, Junior, Bunny, and Butch, all men I met in later years. But I don’t remember Goo-Goo, Bobo the Hippo, Hammerhead, Paulie Batman, Georgie Egg, Bopo or Bimbo. But I wish I had.
Growing up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side between the 1930s and 1960s was a unique experience; an experience that no longer exists for the youth of New York City. On the Lower East Side, we grew up with people of all denominations and religions. The Two Bridges Little Baseball League had teams from the Church of the Transfiguration, almost exclusively Italian and Chinese. St James was mostly Irish with some Italian. St. Joseph was mostly Italian with some Irish. The Mariners Temple team was Puerto Rican. Educational Alliance and LMRC were Jewish. And Sea and Land, sponsored by people from the neighborhood, were African American. And there were Polish kids, Spanish kids from Spain, and Czechoslovak kids scattered around the teams.
We had neither the time nor the 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; they beat you almost every day. Bullies invariably picked on the weakest kids, or the ones who didn’t fight back. But if you stood up for yourself, even if you took a beating or two, the bullies went on to pray more easily.
It was just the law of the jungle.
The Lower East Side produced mobsters of all nationalities. But it also produced doctors (Joe Fiorito), lawyers (Mathew J. Mari of the Fourth Ward is a leading criminal lawyer), politicians (Al Smith of James Street became governor of New York and lost the 1928 presidential election), various judges (Judge Piccariello), professional singers (Johnny Maestro, Luther Vandross) and professional athletes. Rudy Riska was a professional athlete from the Lower East Side (he played for the Triple A Yankees); his brother Steve his was another (the Cincinnati Reds farm system). There was also a guy named Vinnie Head (I never got his real name) from the Sixth Ward (New York Giants farm system), and Charlie Vellotta, also from the Sixth Ward (Dodgers farm system). Charlie lived on the same floor as 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 knock on my door frequently because he forgot his apartment key and had to use my bedroom window to get to the firescape to get into his apartment). Mikey, after being on the fringes of youth gangs as a teenager, became a lawyer and then a judge in the New York State Juvenile Court System. He is now the Executive Director and Founder of the New York Juvenile Justice Center.
Growing up on the Lower East Side in the mid-20th century couldn’t be better described than Victor Colaio in “Between Two Bridges.” I highly recommend this book to all New Yorkers, regardless of age group. And if you come from other parts of the country, you can’t help but enjoy this brilliant book as well. If people from outside of New York City can flock to see a ridiculous show like “Mob Wives,” they should read a book that is true to life, not a stereotype of the worst possible people in the area. New York City.
One more thing: if you don’t buy Between Two Bridges, I may have to send Pete the Lash to visit you.
And that can never be a very good thing.