One Bronx Morning
When I was a kid, Leave it to Beaver was my favorite TV show. The black and white sitcom focused on the life a young boy whose nickname was Beaver. He and his family resided in an unspecified town somewhere in suburban America. The weekly episodes, set in the late 1950s and early 60s, totally captured my imagination. But, I never understood why I enjoyed the show so much. The only thing Beaver and I had in common was our age. We were both ten when I started watching the show. As a youngster growing up in a crowded south Bronx neighborhood, I used to dream of being raised in a home like Beaver’s. He owned a bike, lived in a nice house and every week his parents gave him a generous allowance. I guess I became a bit envious. Yet deep down, I knew the allowance deal and the cookie cutter house in suburbia were not going to happen in my world.
The earliest memory I have of making a few cents was when my friend Tony Biaggio and I collected empty bottles in vacant city lots for the deposit money. Tony was an only child and the only Italian kid I knew who didn’t go to Catholic school. He and his mother lived with her parents in a private house nestled between two five-story apartment buildings. Tony never spoke about his father and I never asked. His grandmother went to Mass and received Holy Communion every morning, but I never saw his mom or grandfather attend Church.
Although Tony was my age, most people took him to be younger because of his size. He may have been small, but Tony was a tough kid and a real hustler. He knew all the best places to search for empty beer and soda bottles. Most Saturdays, Tony and I would make the rounds scavenging in alleyways and litter-strewn lots for our treasure. I had an old rusty red wagon that I pulled behind me for hauling stuff. We got two cents for the twelve-ounce bottles and a nickel for the quart-sized ones. All the bottles were made of thick glass and the stores would only pay the deposit if they were clean. Tony’s grandpa let us use his garden hose to rinse the bottles near the curb in front of his house. That was about as close to Tony’s home as anyone ever got. None of the kids on the block were allowed to set foot on the front steps leading to his residence. His grandparents didn’t speak English and they preferred not to associate with anyone on the block.
One Saturday, morning while Tony and I were washing our collected bottles, Mr. Rosen, who lived on the first floor in the building adjacent to Tony’s, stuck his head out of his living room window and said, “How would you guys like to make a quarter each?”
“Wow,” I thought, “That’s a lot of money.”
Candy bars cost a nickel apiece, so I figured I could buy a big Hershey bar every day after school for a whole week. Tony turned off the water to the hose, brushed his black gypsy-like hair away from his eyes and said, “Yeah, what do we got to do for it?”
The old man pointed to a little red Volkswagen parked across the street and said, “Wash and dry my car and you’ll each get a quarter. But, you’ve got to do a real good job.”
Tony turned to me and said, “What do you think? Should we?”
I shrugged my shoulders and said, “Sure, why not?”
The arrangement turned out to be the start of a full-time Saturday business for Tony and me. We were a good team and it wasn’t long before some of the other car owners on the street asked us to wash their cars too. I remember making two dollars in one day that spring. I thought it was a fortune and so did my mom. She brought me to a bank on the Grand Concourse near Yankee Stadium and helped me to open my first savings account.
Tony’s grandpa would stand on his porch smoking a thin twisted cigar while we used his garden hose. You could tell he was proud of his grandson, and even though he never spoke a word to me, he nodded when he saw me on the street. Getting that little bit of recognition from him made me feel important.
Mr. Rosen and his red Volkswagen became our best customer. We washed his car every week. He could see exactly what we were doing from the living room window of his street-level apartment. I didn’t mind him watching us but Tony didn’t like it. If Mr. Rosen noticed a spot or some place that we missed, he’d poke his head out the window and holler something like, “I think the driver’s door still has a smudge.” Or he might say, “Hey guys, how about redoing the hood?”
I didn’t mind the criticism. I figured he just wanted his money’s worth.
Mr. Rosen and his wife were older than my parents and never had children. On weekdays, Mr. Rosen left for work about the same time I left for school, and as soon as he would leave his apartment building, Mrs. Rosen would call something out the window to him. In my mind, I still have a vision of her—half hanging herself out of the living room window in an oversized pink terry cloth robe and yelling, “Stanley, don’t you forget my cottage cheese. Do you hear me? Don’t you forget the cheese.”
Without slowing his stride, he’d cringe his shoulders, turn his head back towards her and say something like, “Yes Silvia, I won’t forget. I promise I won’t forget.”
Most evenings on his way home from work I would see Mr. Rosen carrying a package or two. If I saw him struggling with a couple of sacks of groceries, I would offer to assist him. If he let me help, I’d usually get a nickel.
I remember a time when he was having trouble trying to manage a grocery bag in one arm and some dry-cleaned garments on wire hangers in his other arm. I asked if I could help and he said no. As he entered his building, the thin plastic covering the garments got caught on the front door and when he tried to free it, the groceries spilled out all over the place. It was a mess and I kind of felt sorry for him.
On Fridays, when Mr. Rosen arrived home, he’d change clothes and then, he and his wife would get in the Volkswagen and drive away.
One morning, after I got to know Mr. Rosen and realized he was a fairly nice man, curiosity got the best of me. When we crossed paths on my way to school, I said, “Hey Mr. Rosen, where do you and Mrs. Rosen go on Friday nights when you and her get all dressed up?”
He stopped for a moment; put his hand on his chin like he might not want to tell me, and then his face turned into a big smile and he said, “We go out for dinner. Silvia loves Chinese food. She can’t get enough of it.” Then he gave me a quizzical look and said, “Why do you ask?”
A little disappointed, I looked up at him and said, “Oh, I told Tony you probably went dancing somewhere downtown.”
He shook his head and said, “No, we don’t dance anymore. Now, get going before you’re late for school.”
When the school year ended in June, I anticipated that the car washing business would take off—I was wrong. 1960 was a drought year in New York. That meant, during the summer, Tony and I could only wash cars on certain days. I remember the cops driving around the neighborhood making sure that none of the big guys or parents opened fire hydrants for kids to cool off and play in. Tony and I had to adjust our car washing schedule. It was inconceivable to even think that Tony’s grandfather would break the law by allowing us to use his garden hose on a forbidden day.
By the middle of July, we started getting plenty of rain, and by the beginning of August, the city reservoirs were almost full. The drought restrictions were lifted and Tony and I were almost back to our old schedule. But, there was a new problem. We were getting too much rain and most of our customers didn’t want us to wash their cars if it was supposed to rain that day or the next.
On Saturday morning, August 13, 1960, I got up early and listened to the weather forecast on my mother’s kitchen radio. They were predicting a hot muggy day with temperatures reaching the low 90s. They also mentioned a possibility of some afternoon thunderstorms.
I met Tony at 8 a.m. in front of his grandfather’s house. We decided we had better go knock on Mr. Rosen’s door and check with him before we started working on his car. It took a long time for Mr. Rosen to answer, but when he opened the door, he acted as if he was glad to see us. We explained our doubts about washing his car and he said, “Don’t worry about the rain. Just go ahead and do a good job.”
That was good news for us and we went straight to work washing his little red Volkswagen. We were about halfway finished when a police car came speeding up the wrong way of our one-way street. It stopped right where we were washing Mr. Rosen’s Volkswagen. Before the cops had time to get out of their patrol car, another squad car came racing down the street from the other direction with its siren blaring and its cherry red bubble light spinning. For a split second, Tony and I both thought they were after us. I figured, maybe I misunderstood the watering rules. When the police arrived, Tony’s grandfather was standing on his front porch with that thin stogie in his mouth. He casually walked down from his porch, looked around, rolled up his hose, and walked back up his steps. The four cops didn’t even glance at him. They went straight into Mr. Rosen’s building. Within minutes, several unmarked police cars arrived with detectives and the big brass. A crowd of people gathered on the street in front of Mr. Rosen’s building. Everyone was trying to figure out what was happening. Two police officers stationed themselves by the front entrance of the apartment building. The cops were polite but they wouldn’t answer any questions. After a while, I noticed a commotion going on in the building’s vestibule. We could tell something was up. Just then, two burly detectives emerged with Mr. Rosen wedged between them. He wasn’t cuffed. I heard one cop tell another that they were taking Mr. Rosen to the police station in order to get a statement.
When Mr. Rosen saw Tony and me standing by his car, he said to his escorts, “Hold on, I owe these two boys some money for washing my car.”
All of a sudden, everyone’s eyes were on Tony and me. Mr. Rosen reached into his pocket and pulled out his wallet. He ruffled through the billfold, withdrawing two bills. He handed a one dollar bill to each of us and said, “You guys deserve this. You do nice work.”
As soon as the two beefy detectives and the other patrol cars left with Mr. Rosen, the crowd outside the building disappeared. Tony and I noticed one of the unmarked cars remained parked near a fire hydrant. So we knew; at least a couple of detectives were still in the apartment with Mrs. Rosen. The Venetian blinds in the living room had been lowered, but there was a space on the bottom that didn’t touch the windowsill. Tony and I both wanted to peek under the blinds into the living room, but he wasn’t tall enough to look in without me giving him a boost, so I said, “I’ll look first and if there’s anything to see, I’ll hoist you up for a look.”
Tony said, “You promise?”
I said, “Yeah sure, I promise.”
I went to the window, stood on my tippy-toes and saw Mrs. Rosen sitting motionless in a large stuffed chair with about ten plastic dry cleaning bags wrapped around her head. Her mouth was wide open and she looked as if she was about to scream. Tony pulled the back of my shirt and said, “Hurry, there’s a police wagon coming down the block.”
I backed away from the window and Tony said, “What’s in there? What’d you see?”
I felt like puking but managed to say, “Nothing Tony. I didn’t see a thing.”
By the look he gave me, I knew he could tell I was lying.
The police wagon had the words “County Coroner” stenciled on the doors. As the two attendants were removing the body of Mrs. Rosen from the apartment, Tony heard one of them say to the other, “Yeah Scott, can you believe it? Her husband swears it was suicide.”