by Bonnie Lurie
Most of the kids who played afternoon hookey went to Radio City Music Hall or down to Figaro’s Coffee House in the village, not me. I headed straight up the block and crossed the street to the Fascination Arcade on 48th Street and Broadway. I could always drop the ball into the 30 point hole. The 50 point hole was a bit more difficult. It was in the way you flexed your elbow and snapped your wrist. I never walked away with fewer than 200 points and a small stuffed toy. My arm still twinges whenever I pass that block.
As I sat down to my morning coffee and Daily News, my eyes locked onto the picture halfway down the page. I started to get a sick ache in the pit of my stomach as I stared at the words. The page seemed out of focus. I squinted at least a half dozen times trying to read the article. They say a picture’s worth a thousand words. There it was; a piece of New York history staring me in the face. It was just a city block, but it was my city block, Broadway between 46th and 47th Street. I finally focused in on the title of the article; ‘Historical Howard Johnson’s is closing its doors’.
Hadn’t they done enough damage to my special old block? They had torn down almost everything, all that had remained was Howard Johnson’s, or as we fondly used to refer to it, Ho Jo’s. That restaurant was the last remaining vestige of fond remembrance of the neighborhood where I spent my ‘formative years’. First it was my high school; they turned it into a children’s library. Then they tore down all the arcade shops, and up went the electronics and video stores. The ladies of the night [or in their case, the ladies of the moment] left last, either by attrition, by force or they moved to another street corner.
I still couldn’t lift my eyes from the newspaper, they were glued to the print. All I could see in my minds eye was how the block looked when I was a part of it and it was a part of me. It was full of life and movement, teeming with people standing, talking, walking uptown or down. You could always tell where they were headed in how they paced and held themselves. Everyone was going about their business or their business was the street.
What I remember first as I walked up out of the subway was the phone booth. There were no cell phones back then; nobody looking like they should be hauled away for talking to themselves [at least not with an antenna attached to them]. I would always stop at the candy store mid block and pick up a pack of juicy fruit gum; prepared for the moment when I could place a well chewed wad of gum on the chair of our despised American History teacher. If I was a few minutes early I would also order a hot chocolate with whipped cream, Even if I was running late I’d order it and gulp it down and burn the roof of my mouth. We weren’t allowed drinks in home room class, but it was a necessary way to start off the school day. I swallowed the thick chocolate liquid, as it went down my throat it felt like I was coating my insides, protecting me from the days’ events.
We were the only high school in New York that didn’t house a lunchroom, so we would go down the block for a meatball hero at the deli or for an egg sandwich at Alan’s coffee shop. If I had a few extra quarters and some good company, we’d go to Howard Johnson’s. The fried clams always called out to me. My lunch menu at Ho Jo’s never varied; clams, fries, cherry coke with a lime and a mint chocolate chip ice cream cone for dessert. I still taste the breading and oil covering those clam tails. What a wonderful sweet tender taste going down my throat, followed by the thick sweet coke-a-cola washing it down and coating me.
No more Ho Jo’s, no more fried clams. The street no longer reeks of day old fried oil, sweat and cheap perfume. The block was taken over by a Marriott hotel, a six screen movie house, two electronic stores and two ‘jibber jabber’ tourist stores. Where were the ladies, the drug dealers and the three ante card sharks? Where’s the fascination?
It was in early fall, maybe two weeks into the new term of my last year. I hadn’t been to Ho Jo’s yet and I needed my fried clam fix. Nobody else came with me that day, so I sat alone at the counter. Half way through the ice cream cone I knew I wouldn’t be going back to class that afternoon. Being a senior had its rewards; academic classes in the morning and studio music classes in the afternoon, so it was easy to cut. Watching Mr.Lachman lecturing on music history while picking his nose was disgusting and listening to Pinky play his violin while Mr. Grossman ‘kvelled’ was equally unacceptable. Anyway my arm was starting to twitch, and it wasn’t for my fiddle. It was for the six balls you got to toss for a quarter and the possibility of a free game.
I was addicted; it called out to me. It wasn’t even about the prizes; it was how I felt as I racked up the points. I went somewhere in my body and my mind; today they call it entering the zone. I never could do that with the violin, but with ski ball, I made music. With ski ball I created a Mozart string quartet, a Vivaldi Duet for oboe and bassoon, a Lizst Piano Fugue [my fingers could never vibrato on my violin or press the ivories on the piano like I could move that ball]. I placed it in my hand, moved it around until it felt just right and with a flick of my fingers let it go and watched as it headed up the ramp of the ski ball machine. It falls into one of those circular holes 20 feet away. It never went foul; it hits one of the holes every time. As I would watch it pop in, a sense of accomplishment fell over me, like I had just aced the music exam. When it hit the center 50 point hole, I almost burst with delight. My whole being lighting up and smiling; one of those ‘broad, proud of me’ smiles, like Pinky had whenever he did his Vivaldi violin solo. Not too much could put a smile on my face back then.
I needed a bathroom break and I had to stretch my legs. My body had been locked in the toss position for so long I was totally stiff. I looked around as I stretched and noticed that the room had changed. It was smokier, smelling more stale and the lights had gone on. How long had I been shooting the ball? I looked at my watch and began to get a bit panicky. I spent too long hitting 50’s. I could always compose a note and forge my mom’s signature for the school secretary, but coming home late was unforgivable. My mom would give me the look and I knew what would be in store for me later that evening when my Dad came home. I could catch the N train on 46th and then the #7 to Flushing.
I called out to the guy giving out the prize coupons; he came over, looked at my score and handed over 54 coupons. I shoved them in my pocket, picked up my books, the two stuffed dogs I’d won, left the store and headed down Broadway toward the subway. As I looked up, I only noticed three of my ladies on the street corner; there were usually five of them hanging in front of Whelan’s. The one with the red hair smiled at me. She was the one I liked best. In another world I believed we could have been friends.
As I walked by, she called out to me, “Hey pigtails, you cut school again today?’
Her voice stopped me in my tracks; I had never heard her speak before. Not one of them had ever spoken to me before. Those were the rules; people you didn’t know, especially street people weren’t allowed to talk to you.
I was speechless, but managed to mumble, “Yea, I took the afternoon to myself. Are you guys watching me or something?”
“Honey, we’ve been watching you for years. You go to that school over there. That a special school or something?”
“That’s the High School for Performing Arts” I replied, “I go there for music. I play the violin.”
“So why you cut, you must be talented, you got a real opportunity to go somewhere. Why blow it?”
I just stood there, unable to reply; that’s what all my teachers said to me. But I wasn’t talented, I was technically proficient. That’s what my dad said; ‘no great talent, but technically you got the fingering’. I hated the violin because he made me play it and then play duets with him. If only the duets were just about music maybe I wouldn’t hate the instrument so much. All I could do was to hand her my two stuffed dogs, mumble something unintelligible, and continue in the direction of the subway.
I never knew their names, but their faces, especially hers were etched in my memory. They were the hookers of Ho Jo’s at 46th and Broadway. Probably, they weren’t more than a few years older than I was, but they looked worn and used. After that day, we never spoke another word. But when I passed them, our eyes would connect and our heads nod in camaraderie. Me, with my Performing Arts High School ‘pigtail look’ and them with their Broadway & 46th Street ‘life screwed me look’. I had no idea who they were and what life was like for them, What I realized years later was the only difference between them and me was I had Fascination and they didn’t.
This is hopefully my fourth and final career.I was born in the Bronx, NY to a fireman who was a frustrated violinist, so I became a frustrated violinist [my first career]. After too much frustration, I finished up my PhD coursework in Organizational Psychologist and became just that. I had knee surgery and returned to work the day the WTC was bombed [on the 61st floor] and afterwards needed a knee replacement. While recouping the MD's said lots of exercise, so I started to walk a lot and fell into my 3rd career, in real estate sales, a real walking profession. However my creative juices needed an outlet & I started to write. Contact Bonnie.