Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Sunday Memory Drawer - Forced Friendships

In last week's post, I wrote about some birthday parties of the past.  A friend asked me how come my neighborhood buddies weren't at the party.

I don't know.

A grade school friend wondered why kids from my elementary school weren't at the party.

I don't know.

Yet, the kitchen table around a candle-laden strawberry shortcake was filled.   With my older cousins who didn't want to be there.   And a bunch of forced friends.  The children of my parents' chums.   Tossed together for afternoons of fun and frivolity.  Kids who I saw repeatedly for about five years.   And then never again.

Yeah, to this day, I don't know.   And they wonder why I would mope in a chair and stare blankly at the television set.

I've written about some of these people before.  But the photos from my childhood birthday gatherings bring all the memories to the forefront one more time.

What the hell was I doing with these kids?

Back in the day, Sundays were special.   You used the day to go visiting friends and relatives.  You were over this aunt's house or this cousin's place.  You might have a big meal and then, around five o'clock, a cold supper of delicatessen food.  

My parents cast a wide net when it came to visiting people.   It wasn't just relatives.   They seemed to have an endless array of friends from their workplaces, old neighborhoods, and the like.   For about five years, my mom and dad were virtual social butterflies.  Every Sunday was with some other family.  Out on Long Island.  Or in the Bronx.  Or maybe just around the corner.  Regardless of the locale, they were never home.

And I was always dragged along.  Thrown haphazardly together with the children of those friends.  

"Here, go play with them."

Like it or not.  

The adults would sit in the kitchen and gossip and smoke and drink and gossip a little more and smoke and drink a lot more.   Meanwhile, I was supposed to be best buddies with some stranger that I saw maybe six months ago.

Just a few block away from our house in Mount Vernon, New York, there was my mom's best friend, Ronnie, whose main claim to fame was that she was the spitting image of Susan Hayward.  Dad was pals with her husband, Larry, who owned the local gas station.   The four of them were as thick as thieves.   We even went on vacation to Atlantic City once.

Me?   I was saddled with the two daughters, Susan and Nancy.   And when you're on their home turf, you find yourself having to adapt to whatever games they are used to playing.  I'm surprised that I didn't grow up to become a character actor, since I was always forced to fit into some play-acting scenario with these gremlins.

With Susan and Nancy, it was "school."

"Okay, we're the teachers and you're the student."

Why do there have to be two teachers?

"Well, one teaches arithmetic and the other teaches social studies."


It was bad enough that I was forced to go to regular school.  Now I was stuck there on a Sunday afternoon and I had two whole subjects to boot.  Within five minutes, I'd fall into a coma.

"You didn't answer my question, Lenny."

Shut the F up.

There was a whole different kind of drama going on in Hartsdale, New York whenever my folks would go to see their friends, Nancy and Dan.  I still pass their house from time to time and get the shivers.  In that home, I was tossed in with their daughter Ellen, who was a little advanced for her age and a lot more advanced for my age.  

Ellen liked to play house with stark realism.  She was the mommy.  I was the daddy.  And some ragtag doll was our kid.  And it was a loving little family unit.  

Ellen, for some reason, was a little physical.  In this game, she liked to hug and kiss me.  Wow, where was she getting this?   What was going in this house when the lights are out?  

At one point, she pulled me into a corner of a dark hallway.

"Let's cuddle."


At some point, our moms passed by and asked what we were doing sitting in the dark.  Ellen piped right up.

"Go away, we're in love!"


For God's sake, I was six at the time!

I have no idea what became of Ellen.  Or what street corner she ultimately was working.

I've written before of my mother's rather high-falutin' pal, Marie, who may have been the ultimate version of little Ellen.  My mother looked up to Marie as a role model and frequently copied her actions.  I never could understand the attraction, but then again, I was only seven.

Of course, as Mom cultivated her friendship with Marie, she liked to plan outings between our two families.  Since Marie apparently thought we were living on Tobacco Road over there in lowly Mount Vernon, we'd almost always go over to visit them on their home field in Yonkers.  While the two women gabbed away, my dad and I were uneasily thrown together with our counterparts in Marie's world.  And they were not perfect fits to say the least.  For once, my dad could appreciate how I felt with these forced friendships.

My father and Rich seemed to have nothing in common.  I remember them talking briefly and then sitting in cold silence as the topic of weather was exhausted quickly.  Rich was big and brawny and probably had the brain of somebody from the Ozarks.  In comparison, he'd make Jethro Bodine look like cafe society.  I could tell that my dad certainly wanted to be any place but with anyone else but.  

Me?  I was stuck with their lummox of a son, Richie.

Hey, Mom, what am I supposed to do there all day?

"You can play with Richie in his room."


Richie was a few months older but light years behind in social graces.  Virtually every toy he had involved the military and some form of combat from World War II.    With game and play scenarios that might have been concocted in General Dwight D. Eisenhower's war room.

"Okay, you're the Kraut soldier and you have to hide under the bed until I invade and then kill you."

May I also add that his method of "killing" always included punching me in the arm.  Excessively.  The Nazis on Normandy Beach got off easier than I did in Richie's stalag of a bedroom.  Can we play something else, please?

"Okay, you're the Jap hiding on this beach.  Take your shirt off, hide under the bed until I land in my helicopter and then kill you."

Take my shirt off?  This was a request that kept turning up more and more in our games.   Years later, I am thinking that there were issues with Richie that ran a lot deeper than the blood shed on Midway Island.  I'd wait for the words from my mother that never came soon enough.

"We're going home."


"And why is your shirt off?"

I'm still waiting to hear one day that Richie has shot the President of the United States.

At one point, my parents must have been seeking some diversity in friends.  Mom became pals with a woman who lived in the eyesore of an apartment building across the street.  Her name was Marilyn, married to Abe, and mother to two clowns named Michael and Lori.  Almost overnight, my parents and them were inseparable.  I thought nothing of it at the time.  But, my ever watchful grandmother had something to say from her own distinctly different viewpoint where everybody that wasn't Lutheran was suspect.

"Are your mother and father going to become Jewish?"

Huh?  I didn't know what that meant.  So I decided to fact check with Mom.

"Yes, Michael and Lori are  Jewish."


"They're Jewish."

Whenever my mother's voice tailed off like that, she was trying to cover up some information.   She also did it with most religions that weren't Protestant and most nationalities except for Italians.

It was a different day and a different time.

We ended up actually spending a Passover dinner with them in their apartment.  My mother tried to give me the back story on it all.   But, I just stared at the food, which certainly didn't look like the Virginia Ham Grandma always cooked up for big holidays.   I was seated at a children's table with my new besties, Michael and Lori.  They started to talk in what I now assume was Hebrew or Yiddish.  I was totally in over my head.

Oddly enough, we never really saw much of them after that dinner.  One day, I asked what had happened.

"Your father didn't like the food."

Oh.  Thank you, Dad.

Marilyn and Abe were soon replaced in my parents' orbit by a couple of Greeks in the apartment building on First Street.   Eppie and Nick.   My mother had met Eppie at work and they clicked.   Once again, we were off to the races.   And I was presented with a couple more weird-ohs.  George and Effie.  Yes, you read that right.  Eppie's daughter was Effie.  Thank God they didn't name their son Rick.  

Anyway, one more time, I was thrust into some kids' play areas and forced to adapt myself to their favorite play scenarios.  George was into fish and aquariums.   He also spent way too much time watching Chiller Theater on Channel 11.   Every game turned out to be a knock-off of "The Creature from the Black Lagoon."  

Unlike with that asshole Richie, I always got to be the hero with George.  He liked to be the monster who I always got to kill.  Meanwhile, Effie was tied to a chair, sometimes literally.  The damsel in distress.  George particularly liked to pretend his death was by drowning.

"Glub, glub, glub, glub."  

Since he was the director of this drama, I was instructed that I had to "swim" over to save Effie.  


Across the linoleum floor, that is.  Meanwhile, I started to wonder why George was so preoccupied with his own demise.

Sadly, we didn't get rid of this bunch as quickly.   They moved out to Lake Ronkonkoma, which is somewhere either on Long Island or the Moon.  Nevertheless, we followed them out there for Sunday visits.   

Now in the equation was George and Effie's grandmother.  Somebody named "Ya Ya" who wore a net on her head and had been dressed in black since the days when Adlai Stevenson was considered Presidential timber.  "Ya Ya" comannded the part of the house that included the one TV and my undying connection to the Mets.  The only trouble was she claimed that her TV didn't pick up Channel 9 for the ballgames.

"Go play in the yard with George and Effie."


Now with a big house and an even bigger yard, George's imagination ran wild.

"Okay, you come and stab me in the heart with this branch."

"You kill me and then pull Effie down from the tree."

"You push me into the BBQ grill and I will burn to death."

Years later, I have no clue whatever happened to Susan, Nancy, Ellen, Michael, Lori, George, and Effie.   I guess I could look for them on the internet.

I don't want to.  That speaks volumes for the forced friendships of my childhood.   Indeed, even my parents eventually lost interest in these families.  I can't say I blamed them.

I had lost interest a long time before that.

Dinner last night:  Turkey burger at the Arclight.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very funny and a part of childhood that everyone endured.

Some of this should be in the movie, especially Ellen. Weird girl.