Monday, July 31, 2006

Winky Dink & Me and Miss Frances' Ding Dong School

In the early 1950’s, two TV shows surfaced that brought about a magical impression in my life. I used TV to escape from a bizarre childhood that no one else seemed to have. TV protected me from the loneliness, isolation and fear that seemed to fester in my family.
The first show was “Ding Dong School” with Miss Frances. Ding Dong School would start off with the lovely Miss Frances, who looked like everyone’s favorite aunt, smiling and ringing an old school bell. The clang clang clang of the old bell still resonates in my mind.
Children would be sitting on the floor while Miss Frances sat in a chair calling the class to order. This was far different than the reality of the nuns in grammar school making us march into the classroom in two steps like soldiers on a drill.
Miss Frances would gently address the class of children politely, intelligently and kindly.
Her questions to the children were sensitive and thoughtful. Questions like “Did you hang up your coats and hats like good girls and boys”? “Did you wipe your muddy feet on the mat before you came in”? Did you do all your chores your parents asked you to do”? “I am so proud of all you boys and girls”. And wonder of wonders, Miss Frances actually listened to their responses. This was a far cry from the recriminations put forth by the nuns. “Please raise your hands if you said the rosary out loud with your families last night”. “Those who didn’t please stand up and explain why”. It only took me once to realize that I would forever lie, in order not to be chastised for NOT saying the rosary out loud with my family.
Miss Frances showed the children how to finger-paint, and draw. She would also sing and read to us. She had 3 real goldfish that became everyone’s friend, Winken, Blynken and Nod.
Commandments of kindness were taught at Ding Dong School. In Catholic school, writing out the 10 commandments 50 times became a penalty for not being a good boy or girl.
But the best show by far, to stir the imagination and take me away from any danger, threat or sad place, was Winky Dink & Me.
Winky Dink & Me was a show about 2 cartoon characters, Winky Dink and his dog, Woofer. They would often get into trouble or situations where they would need help.
This help was up to me. They depended on me. Winky Dink & Me had a special kit, which was given to me for Christmas by Rose, my neighbor upstairs.
This kit contained a huge cellophane piece of red gel that would stick onto the TV screen by static electricity and special crayons that you could wash off. Whenever Winky Dink and Woofer got into trouble, Winky would ask you to “draw him” out of trouble. For example, if Winky Dink needed to cross from one mountain to the other, you could draw him a bridge. If he was swimming too deep, you could draw him a life preserver or a rope to help reel him in.
What a concept! What if I had that magical power today? What or who would I draw to get me out of my problems? That’s pretty easy. If I were stuck and needed someone to come and get me, I would draw my friends John & Jill, on their way to rescue me in their ’72 pristine Pontiac Lemans, riding with my head stuck out the window like my dogs. If I were in over my head, as it sometimes happens, I would draw Karen and Richard throwing me a rope or a life preserver (although at times I think they would opt for an anchor). Last but not least, I would draw my shrink, Dr. Lubin. I would draw her taking the bits and pieces from my mind and putting the chunks together, and putting the fragments of my life together in a jigsaw puzzle that could at last be solved

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Sweet Daddy Grace

Being born into an Italian family, and having been sent to Catholic grammar school and high school, elevated guilt levels to an all time high. I was sandwiched in between a religion that allowed no flexibility and a nationality that basically endorsed this principle.

In my case, both were recipes for disaster.

The Catholic Church was supposed to provide safety, sanctuary and guidance. So was my family. Both failed miserably.

Catholic school was strict and unkind, especially grammar school. Harsh discipline was handed out regardless of whether or not anyone deserved it. Slapping, spanking with yard sticks and verbal insults were part of the curriculum. Today, these nuns would be arrested for abuse.
Humiliation was the name of the game. The nuns were masters at attacking any dignity a student possessed. Denigration of the student just seemed to make the nuns stronger. It seemed to spark a tirade of “creative” insults that they themselves enjoyed.

Self esteem plummeted from the constant barrage of insults. Students were called “stupid”, and “dim-witted”.
In the 1950’s parents gladly welcomed any discipline the nuns dispensed, be it verbal or physical punishment.
The wedding ring on the nun’s fourth finger made its imprint on my face more than once. This is the same wedding band that the nuns received when they “took” Jesus Christ as their groom on the day of their vows. How happy would He have been to have an abusive “wife”?

Through all this confusion of my religion and nationality, the one religion I envied was in my neighborhood. I dare not mention this religion to anyone at school, or even my family, but I was envious of the compassion, feeling and pageantry that this “church” held.
The church was called The United House of Prayer for All People. It was situated in the black section of Dixwell Avenue, in New Haven around the corner from Henry Street. The building was a huge white stucco fortress with a huge red, white and blue oval banner on top that stated “Welcome All People”. Simple, true, accurate. No exclusions here.

Sweet Daddy Grace was the leader of this church. He was the Bishop, who founded this church. He was born in the Cape Verde Islands and came to the United States.
Daddy Grace was a flamboyant minister. He was said to have owned one of the largest fleets of Cadillac’s, had his own line of soaps and healing medicines, performed miracles, baptisms and referred to himself as “The Boyfriend of the World”.

Once a year Daddy Grace came to town and would parade for his followers.

I would squirm my way into the crowd and sit on the curb waiting for this Man of God to parade down the street.

Black children and adults would march down the street all dressed up, with batons, trumpets, banners and drums proclaiming the wonders and words of Daddy Grace.
Kids on bikes had banners of red, white and blue, flapping in the spokes of their wheels, with the words, “Welcome All People”.

Just before the float that held Daddy Grace appeared, there would be a small group of men, talking in gibberish. I soon learned that not only the Catholic Church staked the claim “talking in tongues to the Holy Spirit”, but Daddy Grace also held the Power of the Holy Ghost.

As Daddy Grace’s float came closer, there was a collected silence among the immediate crowd, and then it hit -boisterous cheering, weeping, clapping, singing and praising.
People were throwing money on the float. I wished I’d had some. I would have tossed it too.

As this old man came closer, I saw what I expected God to look like, except for his long red, white and blue fingernails. He looked resplendent with his pure white suit, long white flowing hair, and gold chains around his neck, as he blessed everyone in the crowd.

The white people in the neighborhood didn’t put much stock in Daddy Grace.
But I know what I saw, and I know what I felt.
Catholicism couldn’t hold a candle to Daddy Grace.

To me, this was what religion was all about, or should have been

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The White Tower Way

There was a specific technique for everything you did when you worked at the White Tower Restaurant.
Even though it was just an all night hamburger joint, the White Tower ran this business as carefully as you would run a military operation.
I remember the White Tower Way like I remember the Baltimore Catechism Q&A and the Ten Commandments from Catholic School.
Mandatory dress code included perfectly cleaned and pressed red polka dot uniforms and apron with a hairnet for the women,topped off with a combination comb/barrett for the hair and polished white shoes. The men's attire included a white shirt, black bow tie with black pants, a white half apron and a v-shaped cap with a hairnet top.

White Tower Coffee- 10 cups to a pot
Pie -8 slices
Eggs -60 to a crate
Ham -8 pieces to a pack
Hamburgers -5 to a pack
Take out Coffee Cups -60 to a plastic sleeve
Tomatoes -5 slices to each

These items, along with others, were inventoried every day and shortages or overages were tracked every day to a specific shift. Shortages were met with stern warnings and threats of a "pink slip" to follow if the shortages continued. Overages of course, were welcome.
The White Tower was like a fish bowl, open windows on 3 sides for all to see in. These windows also displayed, along with the glass pie cases, several bullet holes from drive by shootings. Luckily no one was ever harmed. I was once the proud bystander of a bullet literally whizzing by my head. Amazing sound.
Behind the counter, which separated the staff from the customers were stainless steel appliances. Beautiful, shining, pristine refrigerators, coffee maker, the Bun O'Matic, and windowed pie cases lined the floor and walls. Posters of "Whitey" adorned the porcelain enameled walls above the pie cases. "Whitey" was a comic figure composed of combining a W and a T with the W part being his torso and the T part becoming his arms and chest, with his arms outstretched holding a hamburger in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other and a stupid grin on his face.
How I hated this imbecilic figure.
Three sinks sat underneath the counter that separated the staff from the customers. One was for washing, one for rinsing and one for sterilizing the dishes. The rinsed dishes were placed in a wired basket and lowered into the third sink, heated from beneath with a gas flame and adding sterilizing tablets that turned the water blue. My mother prided herself on the fact that she could submerse her hands in the hottest of waters and not feel a thing. Not feeling was her forte.

My mother was a soldier in the White Tower army. She obeyed their commands, orders and requests as though it were her sworn duty to uphold some secret hamburger oath I visualized her pledging.

She "worked the grill" and was known for her speed. Like an army drill, she would toss the meat on the highly heated grill, grab a bun from the drawer, cut it, squirt ketchup and place two pickles on the bun, turn the hamburger over,slap a piece of cheese if warranted, wait a minute or so and then place the hamburger on the bun, whip around and hand it to the customer, wrapped if it was take out, on a plate, if it was to be eaten there.
Her movements were like the rhythmic beat of a drum.

Behind the counter, she would greet her customers with an official White Tower greeting, "How may I serve you today sir"? or ma'am. "Would you like this here or to go"? "Would you like onions on your hamburger"? "How would you like your coffee"?
After the meal was finished, "Would you like some pie ala mode for dessert"?
The same routine over and over. That is unless you were a "regular". She would have the coffee or drink ready at the counter with the hamburger already on the grill.
She was quick, intuitive and caring, often times telling a "regular" how she was looking forward to seeing them again and asking where they had been, and how they were doing.

Customers loved her. She was professional, polite, clean and at their service. Her care and concern over her customers was always a role model for new employees.
She never faltered in her service to White Tower, or to her customers, only to her family.

Mary was a company woman.

I watched in amazement. She thrived in this environment. She came alive. I almost didn't know her. This caring, ready to please, one step ahead of anyone's needs woman, had 2 different personalities, maybe even more. Customers would often tell me how lucky I was to have such a great mother. Little did they know this White Tower Warrior was forever on the warpath at home, taking no prisoners.

How I longed for any attention from her, any sign of acknowledgement that I existed and wasn't a plight or blunder in her life. I imagined she would smile at me and ask me how my day was or tell me that she missed me when she was at work.
But the White Tower was her family. No outsiders welcome.

She would arrive home late, smelling of the sweet sickening combination of Coty's Emeraude perfume, fried onions and grease, too tired to talk.

She had to regroup for the next day and her White Tower family.

No one was more important, no one.

Monday, July 24, 2006

755 Orchard

Around the corner from Henry Street was a big apartment house, 755 Orchard Street. It was commonly referred to as just 755. It housed about 12 apartments. The back yard of my house on Henry Street looked out at the back side of 755, with about 5 of the apartments being visible.

I came to know the residents either by playing baseball in the back yard, hitting the ball over the stockade fence and climbing over the fence to retrieve it, or by pulling my red wagon around the neighborhood to collect bottles for 2 cents on the bottle.

It was in this house I discovered that life could be lived happily or at the very least, joy, laughter and acceptance could flourish, among the strangest of us.

755 had some interesting tenants. It was a maze of oddballs. (the pot calling the kettle black here). There was Mr. & Mrs. Berle- back apartment, first floor, Anna and Clarence to the older people. Mr. Berle was an outside painter who always was dirty. Mrs. Berle was almost proud of the timeline in which Mr. Berle hadn’t taken a bath. “Clarence hasn’t taken a bath in 1 week. “Clarence hasn’t taken a bath in 10 days”. On and on. She was right. He hadn’t. He stunk.
I had broken their window many times, by swinging a bat and sending the wiffle ball (which wasn’t supposed to break things) soaring over the fence.
Although I desperately feared my mother’s painful tirades (physically and verbally) of any annoyances or disruptions regarding my behavior to her day, Mr. Berle was always good-natured about it.
He kept extra glass in the basement for my homeruns.

There was Martha, on the first floor front apartment, the tattooed wrestler, who proudly displayed tattoos of a rose and a crucifix on each arm and would regale me with stories of “being in the ring”. I heard stories of strong women with beards and men who dressed up like women (nothing new to me) just to be in the ring with Martha to see if they could win. She seemed to be proud of the women she gave head injuries to, and bragged how she could “take on any man in the ring.” She had well built muscles that she would proudly pump. I was in awe.

There was Shirley and Dave MacDonald who had 3 kids and named them, Danny, Dawn and Delynn. They were 8, 7 and 6 months. I always felt bad for Danny. Although Shirley and Jack loved him, they called him “stupid” all the time. Danny had some problems but he was sweet. Shirley was loud, smoked cigarettes, and cursed like a merchant marine. But you always knew how she felt and if she liked you. Straight, no nonsense. You could hear her yell across the yards, “DAAANNNNNYYYYYYYYYYY, get your stupid ass home.”
Their apartment was in shambles, sour milk always on the table, Shirley always talking on the phone complaining about her “goddamn kids”, and there were dishes in the sink that hadn’t seen a sponge in days. Dave would get home from the firehouse, and after hugging all 3 of his kids, he would kiss Shirley and lovingly ask her what she would like for dinner. He would then take off his Fireman’s uniform, hang it up in the closet, (which was the only item of clothing not left on a doorknob, chair or floor) and walk to the corner store with his 3 kids hanging off his legs laughing and giggling all the way.
Dave and Shirley were loving and kind to me. I was brought along to the beach, shopping, and general errand hopping. I was never once mistreated or yelled at.
Dave would often take me and Danny to the firehouse to sit on the fire trucks.
This messy, dysfunctional loud family had something I really envied.
They had love. Love transcended the yelling, screaming, name calling, sometime spankings. and the utter bedlam that existed in this house.

How I envied this boisterous family, this messy house, in contrast to my home, where the silence was toxic and the tidiness was a desperate grasp for control, over what I’m not sure.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Home Sweet Home

The 3 room Henry Street basement apartment consisted of my mother’s bedroom, a bedroom I shared with my brother, and the kitchen with a bathroom off to the side.

You entered my mother’s front bedroom from the front door of the hallway. It had 2 floor to ceiling windows from which hung plastic textured curtains, which were stained from all the cigarettes she smoked. The curtain motif was plants and leaves. In front of one window was a desk with an old black rotary telephone with the ringer bell inside. A blonde laminated double bed covered with a white chenille bedspread, lay against the opposite wall. Next to that was her matching dresser with mirror. A white plastic doily was placed across the dresser displaying her Coty Emeraude perfume, her White Tower comb/barrett and her box of bobby pins. A place for everything and everything in its place.
No doors separated these 3 rooms. It was one room right after the other- railroad rooms they were called, reminiscent of railroad cars.
No doors, no privacy.
At the back of the apartment was the kitchen, which looked out over the back yard, containing the same 2 floor to ceiling windows with the same nubby, cigarette stained plastic curtains, only this time the motif was strawberries.
A deep double porcelain sink sat by the back door leading out to the hallway which ran from the front of the house to the backyard. I spent many nights being punished in this hallway. I would be forced to sit in the dark, by myself in a chair crying for hours, for some alleged act of defiance. My mother’s words would ring out through the walls, “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about.” She stood fast on her promise.
A red Formica table stood between the 2 kitchen windows with 3 matching plastic covered chairs. Dinner time would find the 3 of us sitting there in our appointed seats.
My mother at one end of the table eating, smoking and reading a romance comic book, not speaking a word. No conversation was allowed at the table, the only sound was the turning of the comic book pages.
My brother’s choice of literature was the X Men Comic books while eating. Mine was Archie and Jughead and Richie Rich the Poor Little Rich Boy.

A huge stove sat on the other side of the room, a stove that was used like a carrot on a stick.
On my afternoon lunch hour from grammar school, I would get home, quietly tiptoe into the house, careful not to wake up my mother, who had worked all night.
There on the table sat a can of Campbell’s Soup- mostly chicken noodle.
Next to it was the can opener- a church key opener it was called. This was the kind of opener that was sharp on one end, so you would stick it in the can, press forward to make a v-shaped hole in the can. You would continue doing this around the perimeter of the can until the very last push. Then you would pry it back, being oh so careful not to get cut from all the jagged edges and presto, you had an open can of soup.
Only problem was, I wasn’t allowed to turn on the stove.
You needed matches for it.
It had to be eaten cold, with the grease floating on top.
The bathroom was off the kitchen, just a toilet and a bathtub, no sink. It was longer than wider, but perfect for another ritual of my mother’s- washing the yellowed Venetian blinds in the tub, and cutting her hands on the sharp aluminum ends.

The small bedroom I shared with my brother, was in the middle- between the kitchen and my mother’s room. On one side of the room was Frankie’s bureau of goodies, trophies, his dime banks, baseballs, glove, and baseball hats. The only closet in the apartment was in this room, housing clothes, the few toys we had, and of course, my mother’s White Tower uniforms. On the other side of the room were our bunk beds with Frankie's perch on top (of course) and me on the bottom.
The bunk beds provided shelter from my mother’s rages. I would throw myself under the bed, trying to escape from her beatings. My brother would jump on the top bunk and roll over as close as he could to the wall where she couldn’t reach with her perfect back hand wallop. I learned pretty quickly on to just lay on the floor and take the beatings. It was worse if she couldn’t get to you.
My brother always seemed to out maneuver her. I was either too small or too scared.
I honestly don’t know which was worse, getting yelled at, getting beaten or just not being spoken to for days and weeks on end. Total indifference or total hate?

There was one ray of light in this room, one bright shining light. My savior,my best friend, TV.
As my brother’s first foray into sexual abuse began, I learned to “disassociate.”
I would lay on the floor, propping my head on my hands, like any other kid watching TV, while he would lay on top on me, humping, humping, humping, until it hurt.

I would ask him to stop and in the bizarre guise of being kind, he would get me a pillow to lie on so my elbows didn’t hurt on the hard floor. Sweet boy. I watched TV as this scene repeated itself one too many times. I will always remember the shows, Superman, Howdy Doody, Roy Rogers. The gyrations would continue until I just couldn't stand it anymore.
He would then get up, go to his tin cup dime bank, and with a butter knife, tip the bank upside down until he could leverage out a dime. He would then hand it to me and say, “Don’t tell Mommy, she’ll think you stole my money.”

Some things don’t change. I still love Superman and I won’t to this day, eat soup.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Mr. Rose

I started 3rd grade at a catholic grammar school, St. Brendans’ when I was 10.
St. Brendan’s was about a mile and a half away from Henry Street, on the “good side of town”. My mother decided I needed the discipline of a Catholic School and took me out of the public school I had started in after the 2nd grade. I’m not quite sure what exactly I needed the discipline for, but you never asked questions. You just did what you were told. In retrospect, I always thought she wanted me as far away as possible. The public school was ½ block from my house. Frankie, my half brother, went to the Public School right down the street from Henry Street.

Mr. Rose was the church sacristan and school handyman. He was an older Irish gentleman who spoke with a brogue. He always wore a Stetson hat, white shirt rolled up to the elbows and tie.
The kids were crazy about him. Whenever anything needed done, the nuns and the priests would ask you to “go find Mr. Rose.” He was everybody’s friend.
If chairs needed to be set up in school or the church hall, find Mr. Rose.
If the nuns needed a ride to anywhere- 2 of them at all times- find Mr. Rose.
If anything was broken, find Mr. Rose.
If the church needed setting up for funerals, weddings or baptisms, find Mr. Rose.
He was a gem.
If he walked into the classroom to drop off some piece of equipment, the class would singsong in their happiest voice, “Good Morning Mr. Rose, Good Afternoon Mr. Rose.
Mr. Rose would then smile, and tip his brown Stetson hat to the class. What a guy.
I thought the best part of Mr. Rose’s job, the most sacred part of Mr. Rose’s job, was laying out of the Vestal garments for the priest before the 8 o’clock mass.
This was a ritual in itself. Only boys and men were allowed to do this.
The sacristy was at the front of the church, next to the altar, in a room that was hidden from the parishoner’s view. It was a secret entrance and exit. The priest with the altar boys would enter from the sacristy to the altar to begin Mass and then leave the altar and exit to the sacristy after Mass. Sacred, mysterious and exclusive and out of bounds to girls and women.
Except me.
Because St. Brendan’s was so far away my mother and my step father would drop me off at St. Brendan;s church before they left for work. This would have worked out fine, except for the fact that they dropped me off at 7:30am and school didn’t start until 8:50am.
I would wander the church and school grounds, just walking and thinking. In the warm weather it was ok. I could just stay outside. The cold weather was another story. Mass didn’t start until 8 am. On the cold days, I would take refuge from the cold by going to 8 o'clock mass. I could then avoid strange stares from people, wondering what a 10 year old girl, in a St. Brendan’s uniform, blue jumper, white (very) starched blouse, knee socks, and ugly leather oxford tie shoes, was doing walking around the street and hour and a half earlier than school started.
At least if I went to 8 o’clock Mass, they would think I was holy.
I would don my little blue beanie that matched the jumper, bobby pin it to my head, and walk in Church. In the 1950’s not only was Mass still being said in Latin, with the priest’s back facing the parishioners, but all women had to have their heads covered, hence the beanie. I would sit mid church, wishing time would pass quickly. It was lonely and I felt out of place.
On one particular day, Mr. Rose came over to the pew where I was sitting. In his lovely Irish brogue he asked me, “Girlie, how would you like to help me with the vestments for Mass this morning. The altar boy will be late,”
I couldn’t believe my ears. I think I might have even looked around to make sure he was speaking to me. He was. I got up from the pew and followed Mr Rose to the Holiest of Holy-the Sacristy! It was as beautiful as I thought. Shiny wooden floor, real wood paneling, not like the paper paneling my mother bought to stick on the walls of our Henry Street apartment to make believe we had real wood paneling.
There was a huge oak cabinet, longer than a car, higher than 2 six foot men, with cabinets that had gold handles and locks on them, containing the Chalice, the paten, that the host, the unleavened bread, is placed on during the offertory of the Mass, the cruets of wine and water and the most beautiful gold shining Cibroium, that is brought out at Benedictions that house the Consecrated particles for the communion of the people. This indeed was the treasure chest that only special people got to see up close.
It was then I learned how to set out the silk vestments the priest would wear for Mass with all the different colors of the Liturgical seasons.
White or Gold for innocence and celebratory events
Red for blood, and the Passion, the Holy Spirit, and Tongues of Fire
Purple for Penance and Lent and vigils
Black for death and mourning.
These symbols, vestments, colors, rituals, Sacred Vessesl are forever burned into my memory, like the 7 Sacraments of the Holy Ghost that are burned into your soul,and make an “indelible mark” on your soul, never to be erased by anyone or anything, Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Eucharist, Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders and Matrimony.
It was just like the indelible mark on my soul Mr. Rose made, after teaching me how to lay out the vestments in order. The alb, the white dress the priest wears, the cincture, the rope used as a belt to wrap around the alb, the maniple, the pieces of colored silk over the forearms, the colored silk stole worn around the neck and the chausable the outer colored vestment of the liturgical season, without arms, like a poncho.
After this ritual one morning, Mr. Rose, everyone’s favorite, changed my world.
Mr. Rose came to me, grabbed me by my two shoulders, drew me close and kissd me. He kissed me so hard, and so violently, my beanie fell off, and I remember thinking that I was committing a venial sin for not wearing a hat in church. As he continued pressing his tongue into my mouth, he began to tremble. He smelled of stale cigarettes. I felt something hard pressing against me. I tried to resist, but froze. Did he just want to thank me? What was going on? It seemed like forever until he stopped. When he stopped, he told me I was a “special girl” and this was our secret.
I tried hiding after that. It didn’t feel right. But Mr. Rose always found me. I would try and stay outside and not go to Mass. I would try and hide behind the bushes around the church or make myself less visible. But Mr. Rose always found me, with the excuse that Fr. Carlone or Fr. O’Neill wanted me to help in the sacristy or that the nuns didn’t want me hanging around outside before Mass.
So it continued for the school year. But Mr. Rose never ever talked to me outside of church or even acknowledged me when other people or kids were around. I was confused, sad and scared.
Wasn’t I special anymore?

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Bouncing Baby Girl

There are stories you remember so vividly, it’s like they happened yesterday.
There are also the stories that are told to you time and time again. Some stories get embellished with the retelling, much like the game Telephone, where you sit in a circle with a bunch of friends, and someone whispers a story in the first person’s ear. That person in turn repeats that story to the next, and so on until it reaches the first person who began the tale. The original story doesn't even come close to the story repeated at the end. This isn’t one of those stories. For as many times as I’ve heard it, it has never ever changed.

Scene 1
Suzy Pafka, aka Maria Meda Pafka, an 8 month old baby is being tossed up in the air by a drunken uncle. Tossed up in the air, over and over, until she is tossed so high, she hits her head on the ceiling, in the basement apartment on Henry Street and is knocked unconscious.

Scene 2
Uncle and mother scream.
Enter Johnny Farrell-from upstairs, the Farrell twin who lived upstairs and wore women’s dresses.
He takes Suzy, who by now has turned a lovely shade of blue, and has stopped breathing and gives her mouth to mouth resuscitation.

Scene 3
Suzy starts breathing, turns back to a natural color and is seemingly fine.
Johnny Farrell saves Suzy’s life.

End of Story? Almost. For a few years, it seems, no one knew whether Suzy had suffered any brain damage. They (mother, uncle, Johnny, etc) decided to wait and see. No sense bringing her to a doctor if everything seemed ok. No abuse here.

Dressing for Success

My mother, Mary Martino worked at the White Tower Restaurant, as a waitress for 38 years. As a child I remember her ritual for getting ready for work. The same drill, every day, same time. The uniform she wore was white with red polka dots. She would spend an inordinate amount of time, washing, and soaking them in Sta Flo Starch that she bought by the gallon. She would then dampen the uniform and the apron to make it easier to iron.
She used so much starch , the drying uniforms and apron on the clothesline in the back yard were so stiff, it looked like the invisible woman was hanging on the line inside them. When she ironed the creases had to be just so. She would first start by ironing the collar, then the front of the dress, then the short sleeves. She would then place it on a hanger attached to the bedroom door. God forbid you brushed by it or touched it. The polka dot uniform sustained its stiffness over time as much as the woman who wore them, both unyielding in their formation.
She would iron the apron with slow moving but firm strokes and then gently fold the ironed section as though she were swaddling a baby in a blanket.
Polishing the white shoes became a meditation in which she seemed to lovingly stroke the shoes with the sponged applicator that came inside the familiar blue box of Sani White Shoe Polish, with the nurse on the front. She was adept at never, ever, getting any shoe polish on the outside of the bottle. She was a master of detail. The shoes were left out overnight to dry, the laces having been washed the night before and wiped down with the Sani- White polish.
She would get ready for work first by putting on stockings, the kind that were held up by garters, rolling the nylons the exact # of times on each leg and then would slip on the starched uniform under her half slip. I can still recall the sound the graze of the starched uniform made against her skin. She would put on the “sani-white” shoes, but carry her apron. That could only be put on when she got to work. Can’t wrinkle it. God forbid something wasn’t neat and tidy.
The crowning touch was when she placed a hair net in her bobby pinned combed out hair and then positioned the White Tower comb/barrett on top of her head.
I think she thought she was some sort of fucking princess.

A Word to the Unwise (UNWISE=ME)

For the past couple of days that I had been posting blogs, I noticed that there were no comments. Hmmm. Immediately I began to worry- obsess. Had I offended someone- had I crossed that proverbial line in some way. Was my description/adjective of Black politically incorrect, should I have used Afro-American instead? Were my rantings about Mary Martino lacking any sense of compassion re: mothers? Were my stories so outrageous that people just felt it safer to keep their distance???? So much soul searching over something I had become so dependent on and safe with.
Nope. For some reason, I browsed over to the Edit Pane and selected "Moderate Comments". Yes, Sybil here, in some sort of fugue state had selected the radio button marked for, you guessed it, "Moderate Comments".
Yeh, I'm the computer person in IT that the university comes to for tech support.......

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Mary Martino

If Mary Martino (my mother) was as unhappy to “have me” as a daughter, which she has stated on numerous occasions, she would be pleased to know that I was just as unhappy to “have her” as a mother. I know that sounds cold, but cold is what describes Mary best.
She was the youngest of an Italian family with 5 other siblings. My guess is that she was spoiled rotten and expected that to last for the rest of her life. But who am I kidding?
I can’t even begin to understand what her core unhappiness was about.
There are conversations you have in life that you will always remember.
This particular day we were sitting on the front steps of our Henry Street home. My mother was getting ready for work- she was always getting ready for work- it was her asylum, no pun intended. I was no more than 6 or 7 and had been moved around to different homes while she sorted out life with my brother.
She would set her hair every single day, the same routine over and over. Her long Pall Mall cigarette would be lit, dangling out of her mouth and she would take a clump of hair in her left hand, wrap it around her right forefinger and thumb, to make a curl, and then hold the curl in place with her left hand. She would then take her right hand, pick up the bobby pin, pry it open with her teeth, and wedge it underneath and on top of the curl.
Two bobby pins per curl. Over and over and over while a conversation followed.
This conversation had to do with why no one wanted to adopt me, or in her words, “take me.” But she wasn’t really talking to me, she never did. She always looked away. She was really talking, explaining, justifying to herself all the reasons she “had to keep me”.
Things like, “I might as well take you back,” “I didn’t like the one woman who wanted you,” ‘I’ll try and make it work,” “No one understands how hard this is,” “Frankie’s different, it’s easier with a boy,”. Yeh. What she meant was that it was easier if you liked the child you gave birth to.
I learned to always listen and not react. Any reaction would have been taken as a “hostile move,” and that famous backhander would wing its way to my face again.
When the movie “Mommie Dearest” came out and the scandal of Joan Crawford as an abusive and ego maniacal mother made headlines, my mother, who (get ready for the irony of ironies here) first prided herself on the fact that people thought she looked like Joan Crawford, and was outraged that a daughter would dare print anything bad about her mother.

“Blood isn’t as thick as ketchup, stupid”

Those words still ring in my ears to this day. Henry Street has so many bizarre memories, some that defy explanation and description, but I will try.
From the basement apartment we lived in, as you walked out our basement door, on the right there was a small 6'x5' cement/grass front yard. To the left of this were the 26 steps going up to the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th floor of the house. Rose Farrell, lived and owned this row house. Rose occupied the 3 floors with her sons Jimmy & Johnny- twins who didn't even look like brothers,and were 8 years older than I was, Raymond, her oldest son, and Rose's two brothers, Uncle Nick and Uncle Mike.
Johnny would dress in women's clothing and stick oranges down his dress for make believe breasts. I loved Johnny. He was more like a girl friend than a boy who was a friend. I would often sit on his lap when he was dressed as a girl, and he would ask me to feel his breasts. He had stuffed oranges down his dress to give him that full bosom effect. I'm not sure what kind of abuse this falls under, but I'm sure it's somewhere right up there.
Jimmy was the bad boy of the family, always getting in fist fights with his 2 brothers or any other hoodlums in the neighborhood. Jimmy had been in jail. Jimmy would also beat up his girl friends. No one was immune, although he never laid a hand on me. Jimmy also had guns. Gun laws really didn't exist in the late 1950's, or if they did, I'm sure they were ignored.
Raymond the oldest son was pitiful. Even at my young age, I knew he wasn't like the others, nor was he liked as much as the others.
The description of Raymond today would include words like manic depressive, anxiety ridden, moody, and sadly, suicidal.
Raymond never quite got it right, always looking for the fast and easy buck, hanging around with bookies and gamblers and losing money that sometimes didn't belong to him. His twin brothers didn't like him and the feeling was mutual.
You knew to keep away from Raymond, especially when he was in one of his moods.

Rose was wonderful. She said she often wished she had a daughter like me. I wished she had me too. I lived with this family for a couple of years and loved them.
One of my many memories of Rose was watching her spend days on end, starching and ironing shirts from this horde of males that were her family.
There were 3 clothes racks, the kind you see in department stores, standing there with hangers ready for the deluge of shirts she was ironing. Shirts that belonged to these five men. She had one of those old Speed Queen sit down roller ironing machines, the ones where you could not only see the steam coming out the back, but also smell it.
Striped shirts, solid shirts, work shirts hung from these racks lined up like soldiers, first 5 buttons always buttoned, button down collar always buttoned and every single shirt facing the same way on the hangers.
Uncle Nick and Uncle Mike's shirts stood out like a sore thumb.
Uncle Mike and Uncle Nick were butchers at a meat market they owned down the street. Although the work shirts always had blood on them, from cutting up the meats and live chickens, Rose would wash and iron those shirts as if they were going in a display window at Macy's. I was envious of such devotion and attention to their needs.
On one particular afternoon I was downstairs watching TV. Jimmy called down to me from the second floor and asked me to come upstairs.
I went into Rose's living room and Jimmy and my brother Frankie were sitting there looking at one of Jimmy's hand guns. I knew this was wrong. Jimmy wasn't supposed to be showing me and Frankie the guns.
Frankie sat there handling the gun, turning over and over in his hands and singing the praises of how cool the gun was. I kept warning him to put it away, that mommy would get mad. He only laughed.
Jimmy then grabbed the gun from my brother, without warning, or so I thought, and as he yanked the gun away, it went off in my brother's direction. All I saw was something red on his shirt. My brother screamed, and fell to the floor. I screamed and cried. Jimmy shouted at me to SHUTUP and not tell anyone or be would beat me.
I ran downstairs, woke up my mother, (which I always seemed to do) and told her Jimmy had just shot Frankie.
She got up, dragged me by the shirt upstairs to the 2nd floor.
There were Jimmy and Frankie laughing hysterically.
It seems I was set up- it was all a joke. They had planned it.
What was my mother's response-?
You got it- she screamed at me, "blood isn't as thick as ketchup, stupid."
How sad was it, that some 15 years later, Raymond, the older brother would be the one to commit suicide with one of the guns from Henry Street, one of the guns used in a joke.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Frank Gunn & Willie Mae Smith

Having grown up in downtown New Haven and spending summers in an amusement park didn’t give me much time in the Henry Street neighborhood I was born in.
When I was home, the friends I made in my neighborhood were as diverse as the downtown New Haven street people. My friends were usually older than myself.
I’m sure I took refuge from my brother, his friends and my mother, with an array of the neighborhood predictable residents.

Mrs. Powell was an older black woman who owned the house next door and lived in the basement. She would feed her army of chickens in the front and back yards. On the 2nd floor were her tenants, two of my favorite people- Frank Gunn and Willie Mae Smith. Frank Gunn was a big black man who would don a fashionable straw hat in the summer, loud flashy shirts and white or peach pants, with white buck shoes. He was dapper. He had gold and silver initialed rings on 3 or 4 fingers and gold id bracelets hanging off his wrist. and smelled sweetly of Old Spice cologne and after shave. I can still remember the singing commercial, “Old Spice means quality says the captain to the boatman; ask for the package with the ship that sails the ocean”.
I was crazy about Frank Gunn. He was sharp. He drove a big black Cadillac that took up two parking spaces (which was a real no-no- you were only supposed to park “in front of your house”). But no one dared mention this to Frank Gunn. Frank Gunn the neighbors said was a bookie.
Frank Gunn’s Cadillac had white foam dice hanging from the rear view mirror, rich red leather upholstery, and Venetian blinds in the back window.
I don’t know what Frank spent more time polishing, the chrome spoke wheels or the Cadillac itself. It was absolutely pristine.
Frank Gunn lived with Willie Mae Smith. Willie Mae was one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen, she was tall with cocoa brown skin, and wore the brightest red lipstick. Her smile was radiant. Willie Mae was stunning. Willie Mae was important. She was the only black woman around that owned her own beauty salon.
I wasn’t sure of the arrangement, but every summer for 1 month, Willie Mae’s sons, Bunny and Mickey came from North Carolina to stay with her and Frank. Bunny and Mickey were 12 and 14. I was 8.
Bunny and Mickey were always well dressed, wearing short sleeve plaid shirts and khakis. It was difficult to tell them apart. Both were tall with long strides and their slow southern drawls made them almost twin-like,
I became close to Mickey and Bunny. Their politeness with, “yes ma’am and no ma’am to any adult was charming. They treated me like a little sister. Bunny and Mickey would spend most of the day in their house reading books for their summer school projects. They were disciplined and Willie Mae was very strict with them.
After their assignments were over, they would gently knock on the front basement door of my house and ask my mother if they could please walk with me to Kane’s drugstore for a soda or ice cream. I was the old timer in the neighborhood and even though I was 8, I knew my way around.
I also knew the looks we got walking down the street. It was in the late 1950’s when racism began to rear its ugly head in our neighborhood. Some neighbors would actually ask my mother what I was doing with “those 2 black boys”. Thankfully, she either didn’t care, or knew they were safe. I’m not sure which.
I would walk down the street walk in the middle of them, feeling protected and special. The three of us were outsiders in our own ways.
No one came near us or bothered us. We would talk about books, Superman (my favorite to this day) and the movies.
Once I even got to go to the drive in Frank Gunn’s Cadillac with him, Willie Mae, Bunny and Mickey.
Their summer stay was short but they would both write cards in the winter.
I don’t know what ever became of Bunny or Mickey. Frank Gunn and Willie Mae ended up buying a house in the suburbs and we never kept in touch.

In 1986 I did my last photography exhibit. I went back to Henry Street, knocked on the door of the house I grew up in and asked if I could take photographs.I explained I had lived there and just wanted to go back.
This was a fairly dangerous thing to do. It was not the safest neighborhood, but I wasn’t scared. I was treated with the utmost respect and taken to all the other row houses and introduced to the occupants there.
All the kind memories I have of growing up have nothing to do with my immediate family.
Maybe that’s when I realized that the family of choice would be the best and only choice for me.

Thursday, July 06, 2006


I lived at 139 Henry Street. Bobby Crowley lived at 143 Henry Street.
Bobby was the bully of the neighborhood. He was 11 and I was 10. Bobby was easy to ignore in the winter. We were in different grades in school and our paths rarely crossed.
The summer was another story. When I wasn’t in downtown New Haven for the day, I was left to my own devices at home and usually at the mercy of my brother.
Most summer days I would wander around outside, roller skating or riding my bike. If Bobby saw me, he would knock me off the skates and laugh, or if he saw me riding my bike, he would pretend to try and knock me off the seat. Most days I retreated to the back yard.
We lived in a brick row house, one of many that lined the streets. and the apartment had what you would call “railroad rooms”. A connection of 3 rooms, one right after the other. We lived in the basement. There were 2 windows to the backyard and two windows to the front yard.
The backyard was longer than the entire 3 room apartment. On the left side closest to the window in the kitchen was a burner dug about 4 feet into the ground. This was back in the day when you could burn your trash, unless the neighbors had their wash hanging on the line.
The yard made a pretty good baseball field. Completely barren of grass, but with great distance for batting and running.
On either side of our yard were backyards exactly alike, separated by a 3’ wire fence with a wooden rail on top, just right for grabbing hold with one hand and hopping over easily enough to fetch a stray ball.
Mrs. Powell lived on one side where she raised chickens. She was an older Afro American woman who knew everyone’s business, but she was harmless.
On the other side, was a little girl whose name was Puddin’. Yep, Puddin’. She lived with her Aunt Pearl.
Next to them was Bobby Crowley, nasty boy. Bobby Crowley thought he was Superman.
He wore a Superman type cape all the time.
This particular day I was throwing the wiffle ball against the brick wall of the house between the 2 kitchen windows.
I could see Bobby out of the corner out of my eye just staring at me. I knew I was in for it. He hopped over his fence, then mine. I figured he would just take the ball away and that would be the end of it. It was easier to give in to his demands than to fight.
But he continued on to Mrs. Powell’s fence and jumped over that, all with his Superman cape flowing behind him like a flag.
Without hesitation, Bobby Crowley grabbed one of Mrs. Powell’s live chickens. He then jumped the fence back to my yard.
Before I knew what was happening, I was down on the ground. Bobby “Superman” Crowley was on top of me, rubbing the live chicken into my face and screaming at me to admit that he was the “real Superman”.
After what seemed like 10 minutes of having a chicken ass stuck in my face, and feathers coming out of my mouth, and chicken feet scratches on my chest, I gave in.
Yes, Bobby, you are the real Superman.
I like Superman and I don’t think he would have done this, unless of course, you’re Lex Luther.

Screwy Louie

Screwy Louie was a "regular" at the White Tower. His job was getting coffee or whatever for the local store owners, parking lot attendants, hair dressers or whoever needed any kind of refreshments during the day.
They would give him a list of what they wanted to eat or drink and he would hand it to my mother or whomever was working the counter that day.
He lived on the tips he made for these errands.
He lived in a boarding house down the street from the White Tower along with other eccentric personalities whose life wasn't exactly main stream.
He was called Screwy Louie for several reasons.
He wore striped shirts and checkered pants.
He spoke quickly and sometimes incoherently and he would walk along the streets and talk to himself.
As I look back now, I understand why I liked Screwy Louie and understood him when he spoke. He spoke like a child, and was kind and gentle and caring.
He was probably in his 30's or 40's. It was hard to tell.
His curly head of hair, mismatched fashion statement, and his simplicity were easy to be around. He had no illusions as to who he was. My alternative for the summer was being at home with an abusive brother and his friends.
He was accepted in the downtown world. I would walk with him to the local bowling alley, Ned's , to deliver food to King Kong, the Afro American midget.
King Kong's job was to set up the bowling pins that the bowlers would knock down. There were no automated bowling alleys in those days.
It was amazing to see him shove his little, but muscular body, down into the pin alley, and reset the pins or take away the pins that were hindering a possible spare. His swiftness seemed record setting.
One particular afternoon, after the noon hour rush, I was in the White Tower, spinning myself on the backless orange stools, on my stomach, as kids would do when Screwy Louie ran in the door.
He was crying and stammering and screaming, all at the same time.
The words were distanced from each other, "...blood...gun...bad man...policeman..." Screwy Louie had been watching a movie at the Paramount Theatre, a movie house a block away on Temple Street. A man had robbed a jewelry store, was being chased by a Detective. The pursuit ended up in the Paramount Theatre where the gunman shot and killed the Detective, all happening right in front of Screwy Louie.
That was the very last day Screwy Louie ever made any sense at all to anyone.
Even me.
The trauma was so outrageous, that it left him just mumbling and unintelligible for the rest of his life from that day on. It was like he just left the planet once and for all.
As I got older, 14 or 15, I would see Screwey Louie on the streets and he would pass me by without even knowing me.
I realize that mental illness was not a priority in the early 1950's. Autism, ADD, ADHD, and mental retardation were swept under the rug and ignored.
But I still can't stop wishing that there was someone out there that should have helped Screwy Louie. It just wasn't fair.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Cast of characters...

I recently attended a wedding celebration for my best friend’s son. As I sat and looked around the table at my family of choice, I realized how blessed I am with this group of long time friends. My friend Richard of 25 years who is my soul mate, and his lover Gilles of 28 years, Karen and Sid who I have known for 30 years, and Bob and Merle, my friends for 15 years.
They are hairdressers, therapists, lawyers, doctors, teachers, etc.
Richard is known as “Hairdresser to the Stars” for which I tease him mercilessly, Gilles also a hairdresser,the kindest and most gentle-man I have ever known ( I refer to him as a “Hair Surgeon”. Karen, the love of my life, a therapist, and her husband Sid, a "Renaissance Man" in every sense of the word, a teacher in an inner city of troubled and tortured youths, Merle, a CEO of the United Way, and her husband Bob, a surgeon. We are all so different. But then I thought, everyone is just so well defined. Together. Exact. Except for me.
Well defined doesn’t quite do it for me.
As I sat there trying to figure out what words I could use to describe myself, the words hybrid, mongrel, and mutt came to mind. I certainly don’t find these words to be disparaging. I consider mutts to be the superior breed(s) of dogs. You know the type- they call them the “Heinz 57 Varieties”, traits and characteristics from many different cross breeds along the way, making them wiser and more resilient than the pure breds.
This stream of thought brought me back to another time and place.
I was 9 or so and grew up not having friends my own age. I had a step father and a mother with a different last name, and a brother with a different last name. So much for defined.
I was usually on the streets of downtown New Haven during the summer and after school. Most of the kids I went to school with had “normal” lives with normal parents.
My family of choice as a very young child included people that parents today would be horrified at.
The White Tower 24 Hour Hamburger Restaurant (where my mother worked) experience led me to friends like, Timmy the drag queen, who was more lovely in a dress than any woman you can imagine, Lonnie the gay Serbo-Croatian dancer, who knew 5 languages, and had the sense of humor I longed for, King Kong the Afro American midget who would walk with me on the streets of New Haven when it was dark, Helen the Lesbian who taught me baseball and bowling, Silent Sara, a gay deaf mute who introduced me to his world of silence, and who could communicate better than most.
These people were well defined. Together. Exact. They knew exactly who they were. I loved these people. They were real. They weren’t famous, and God knows they were far from wealthy.
But they were my family of choice then, and I loved them dearly. I was as blessed then as I am now.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Hip Hip (Hip) Hooray!

Today I celebate an anniversary. An anniversary where I learned about pain, prayer and letting go of anger. I didn’t do the anger and pain so well. The prayer was a healer and an old friend I have come to rely on.
It was one year ago today, that I drove to the dump with a friend and ceremoniously threw away my cane, crutches and walker.
For the 2 previous years before that, I had 3 hip replacements in the span of a year and a half. Yes I said 3. I know you’re sitting there thinking, “is she on crack or something?”
We only have 2 hips. Well, here’s the story..
1st Hip Replacement 3 weeks after surgery, therapist knocked it loose from aggressive treatment. The orthopedic surgeon said it also might have had a “design flaw”. What the hell, was it part of a car?

2nd Hip Replacement 5 months later, the same surgeon then replaced it with a different model, but one that had not quite gotten FDA approval. Swell.

3rd Hip Replacement 7 months later, still in pain and using a walker, the surgeon said I had some sort of fascia hernia- a hernia on the muscle near my hip and needed surgery. Ok, but not really.

I had not gone to a quack. This doctor is probably the best at Yale.

A friend who is a doctor intervened at this time and suggested I get a 2nd opinion. I did.
I went to the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York. A place where people go with botched up hips and knees, and where angels work.
I am convinced of this.

I was immediately told that I needed the 3rd hip replacement because the 2nd hip that was used was a “non standard” hip. Okay. What the hell does that mean?
That means the first surgeon used a device that was a prototype. Swell.

A very good friend, a VP from where I work, would drive me in to New York for 2 months every single week. I would drag my walker, undergo tests, give my own blood at the blood bank to prepare for the last hip replacement.

The pain was intense. I could feel the rod poking through my femur that was supposed to be holding it in place. The pain changed every aspect of my life- work, interaction with friends, basic mobility issues. I had no tolerance for anyone or anything.
I wasn’t brave, I was crabby.

I underwent the 3rd surgery. And as they say, the operation was a success, but the patient almost died. It seems that the 3rd hip device was so defective, they couldn’t get it out of me. I was on the table for 6 hours. They finally had to cut the device in little pieces and extricate it. While this was going on, my kidneys failed.

So after the surgery I was placed in intensive care for 6 days. I came very close to dialysis, but thankfully my kidneys began to rebound.

I remember quite vividly, in intensive care, feeling sorry for my friends. I was here by myself, because it was just going to be “another hip replacement”. No big deal. Having no family, friends calling could not be told what was actually going on. But they knew something was wrong. After a few days of non committal answers from the hospital, 2 friends did make the trip to New York and they were informed of the ongoing saga.

I recovered and stayed in New York for 10 days, then went to a rehab center in New Haven for 2 weeks and then home. Finally.

This experience has taught me so much and I am thankful for it.
I have so much more understanding of people with “real pain”- pain that won’t or can’t go away. Mine was minor compared to what others must endure.
I try and remember not to “sweat the small things” or even the big ones. Things do get resolved. It may not be in the time frame we expect, but we do receive resolution.

I was reconnected with my faith even stronger than I could have imagined. I was placed in a room with a woman named Tony Brown and we would pray together with her family every night. Her family became my family in the shortest of times.

The university where I work gave me the gift of taking whatever time I needed to heal for all 3 operations, and to them I will always be grateful.

I can make jokes about it now, but humor is my way of dealing with absurdity.

I learned this as a small child and it is the one survival tool I can call my own.

I learned what it is truly like to be alone, and that I can depend on myself.

I learned that my anger should be directed where it belonged, and then let go.

People make mistakes, Doctors make mistakes. No one was out to get me.

Things happen. That’s life.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Stick and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me.

Ok, here’s the story behind my name(s)
Try and stay with me here, it only took about 4 years in therapy
to try and figure this out…..and it still doesn’t make sense.
To begin with, my last name is Pafka- keep the “P” in mind.

My Mother’s maiden name Mary Lavorgna

Mary Lavorgna married Frank Kafka Sr. (Yes, it’s a “K”) from Poland

This happy couple gave birth to the perfect man child

Frank Kafka Jr,

Frank Kafka Sr cheated on wife Mary and caught Syphilis

Mary Kafka was pissed and decided to have her own affair and cheat on Frank Kafka Sr.

Mary Kafka had a one night stand with Stanley Pafka (no typo here- it is Pafka) at the White Tower Restaurant where they were both working.
What the hell was she thinking?

This crazed woman and clueless man gave birth to

Maria Meda Pafka


Mary didn’t think Maria “looked like a Maria” so she called her Suzy.

Mary realized that she didn’t want this baby girl and probably wouldn’t be
keeping her anyway, so let someone else name her.

Meanwhile, back at the Syphilis ranch,

Frank Kafka Sr dies

Mary Kafka throws out Stanley Pafka and tells him this girl child isn’t really his.

Stanley leaves forever thinking he doesn’t have a daughter.

Mary gives Maria Meda Suzy Pafka to neighbors, friends, or anyone who expresses any kind of interest in this baby.

Frank Kafka Jr, the perfect son, gets to live with his mother.

This is not the end.

6 years later, Mary marries Frank Martino only for convenience. No sex involved.
These words have echoed throughout my childhood.

Mary Martino decides to take Suzy back because, “no one really wants you and the only woman who does is crazy”. Yeh. How am I doing here?

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Big Frank

Big Frank was my stepfather. He remained in the family for 11 years until he died all alone in a boarding house. My mother didn't have much luck with men (nor they with her).
Big Frank worked in a parking lot, two doors down from the White Tower Restaurant where my mother worked. Big Frank could always be found either parking cars or sitting in the shack, a little house no bigger than 8'x 10' where you hid from the cold with an electric space heater, or used a fan for the summer, propped up against the ticket time stamp clock.
His family was strange. They were mafia wanna-bees. I had an Uncle Toughy, Uncle Nick and Aunt Margaret and Aunt Mary. Uncle Nick had a child with Aunt Margaret. Needless to say, the child was a little strange.
Big Frank's friends were kind of cool- all small time gangsters- Hotdog, PopCorn and Midge Renault, who's house I was at the day he was arrested for having a helicopter land in his backyard.
My mother married Big Frank for convenience. She twistedly decscribed their relationship as non-sexual. She seemed to be proud of this. Big Frank just seemed happy that someone liked him enough to take him in.
Big Frank always wore a baseball cap to cover his bald head. He had no teeth, but his gums were sharper than puppies' teeth. Having no more than a 6th grade education, he was a kind and gentle man- except for the one time when I was older and he threw a fork at my forehead. My head always seemed to be target for my family-having sustained a "lead injury" previously from my brother sticking a pencil in my head, but I digress.
The summers were interesting times with Big Frank. I was 7 and I would spend the day in downtown New Haven, going to movies, going bowling, shining shoes at the train station for 10 cents. I knew everyone. Everyone knew I was Mary and Frank's kid.
At 3Pm, Frank would be relieved at the parking lot and stop home to change clothes for his next job, the job I loved. He was the ticket taker at an amusement park called Savin Rock. He ran the best ride there- Laugh in the Dark.
At 3PM, Helen the Lesbian, which is what everyone called her, would come in to relieve Big Frank. She looked like a man, walked like a man, had a sharp crewcut. She was one of the most gentle women I have ever met.
We would play baseball until it was time for my next child care taker to show up-Melvin. Melvin drove the bus. I loved the bus. I loved Melvin.
Helen would walk me to the corner of Crown and College Streets, where the bus to West Haven would appear on that corner every single day with Melvin driving.
I would climb on board the bus, sit up front with Melvin and he would let me take his change belt and make change for any passengers who rode the bus.
I was in heaven. I felt safe and wanted, away from my brother and mother.

The bus would wind its way up College Steet, down Columbus Avenue, though Allingtown into West Haven, down Campbell Avenue right to Beach Street, where Frank would meet me at the bus stop and take me to Laugh in the Dark.
Laugh in the Dark was the scariest ride at Savin Rock. But I wasn't scared. I had done this ride so many times I knew it by heart. I would sit in the back car, the cars would fill up and slowly the track would move the cars through the dark and dingy tunnel
Skeletons popped out of nowhere- shrunken heads on sticks would fall from the ceiling almost touching you, maimed bodies would be thrown on the sides of the tracks, wolves would howl loudly. Maybe this is where I nutured my love of scary movies. Scary movies make me laugh- life scares me.
The best part when the ride was over was at the very end when the car stopped and the people got out. As they were exiting, a large gust of air would burst out of a pipe and make the ladies' dresses lift up and they would scream. God this was fun.
This short span of happiness only lasted 2 summers. I'm not sure why. It just stopped.
Big Frank died in July of 1966. No one was with him. He died alone.
My mother had thrown him out of the house in June. She said she just didn't want him around anymore. I visited him a couple of times. He was living in a boarding house over a rollerskating rink- The Roll-A-Round. When my mother found out I went to see him, she took the car away.
When he died, she played the grieving widow. No one believed it. It was guilt, nothing more nothing less. I was amazed she even had that emotion.