On many a warm, summer afternoon in 1959, I rolled out my trustworthy one-speed bicycle and pedaled to my first job. With each turn of the bicycle wheels, I was moving forward, transitioning from being “just a kid” of 14 years to a young man entering “the real world,” sort of like dipping my toe into the world of commerce, employment, and some unique social engagements. Back then, I was a city kid, and this job brought new exposure to the joys and challenges of city life.
Perhaps this job offered a much needed sense of freedom along with distancing from my immediate family. My mother, younger sister, and I were still reeling from the unexpected and tragic death of my father, Wilford, two years earlier, which created much despair and angst, not to mention collective trauma and financial instability.
During that summer of 1959, I worked at a well-known and popular if somewhat raucous restaurant called Boggiano’s Bar and Grill, which was in the heart of Rockaway in Queens, New York. Its setting was superb, for it was situated in the very heart of a vibrant, blue-collar Irish and Italian community dominated by hundreds of small bungalows in an area known as the Irish Riviera, at least by those locals who considered the bar and grill the local watering hole. Boggiano’s was directly across from the entrance to the Playland Amusement Park, which rivaled nearby Coney Island in neighboring Brooklyn as a summer attraction for the New York City masses. Playland, like Coney Island, was perched on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, so bathing suits were considered appropriate dress, not only during the day but on hot summer nights for summer guests who escaped to the Rockaways from the overheated five boroughs. Let it be said that no one would confuse Boggianno’s Bar and Grill with the Waldorf Astoria.
Although I was a shy and reserved 14-year-old kid, my 6-foot 3-inch skinny frame was an asset in making “connections,” connections that counted in hometown Rockaway. In fact, that summer my budding friendship with the Boggiano brothers helped to launch me into new challenges and adventures. Louie Boggiano, better known as Big Louie, was a senior at Far Rockaway High School and at 6 feet 5 inches of lanky but solid muscle, his claim to fame was his prowess on the varsity basketball team. Louie was a local hero even if his vocabulary was mostly limited to swear words surrounded by adjectives for those he did not like. Even though I was just a high school freshman, Big Louie took a shine to me as we battled during that spring at outdoor basketball courts in hotly contested neighborhood pick-up games. Losing a game on these courts was awful, if for no other reason that you often had to wait an hour or more to get another chance to prove your mettle because of the crowd of players and the fierce competition. Since Louie usually was one of the captains, he was selective in picking his team. It was a source of pride that he often took me over older players and even over his little brother Eddie, who was my age.
It was Big Louie who spoke to his family about me and set up an interview for a summer job. Frankly, I was taken by surprise when Louie said that he had already talked with his dad about me. I got a call from the bar’s manager a week or two later. Given my lack of experience, given my age, and given my means for transportation, an old bike, my bargaining power was shallow, actually non-existent. And frankly, the allure of making money was an attractive incentive. The very thought transcended any hesitation.
The work assignment was sort of vague. I was to be at work at Boggiano’s at four in the afternoon on Thursdays through Sundays. Initially I was a rover, ready to do a host of menial tasks that others rejected, such as cleaning the bathrooms and taking out the endless cans of trash along with discarded food. It was suggested that if I did a good job, I might work my way up to the hugely popular outside concession stand in front of the Boggiano building. The most unusual aspect of my job were the hours; it was presumed that I would work until closing time, which translated to well after midnight, every night unless it was raining. The manager, an imposing figure, gave me an offer I could not refuse — one dollar an hour plus tips. When he told me that I would be paid in cash every Sunday, it settled the deal. As visions of grandeur danced in my head, I even went out and splurged, sort of, buying an inexpensive wallet, one that appealed to me because it had a small pouch for coins.
Since I lived on 131st street in Rockaway and Boggiano’s was on 97th street, my commute had its challenges, not the least of which was traffic, summer crowds of revelers, and clouds of bus fumes that could knock you out. I was no scaredy-cat, but you would not mistake me, at that time of my adolescent life, for Charles Atlas, a well-known Italian-American bodybuilder who always, according to advertisements in the back of every popular comic book and matchbook cover, won the hand if not the heart of any number of beach bathing beauties while brushing aside any number of skinny marinks who from the cartoon-size drawings in the comics, hadn’t yet subscribed to the Charles Atlas body-building program.
I would not say that I was fearful, but my bike trips in the afternoon and then late at night caused me concern. For comfort if not protection, I carried on my bike a small backpack-type bag that my older cousin Ernie had given me. Inside my carrying case I always kept some small change in case I needed to use the phone; a lock for my bike, which worked only on occasion; and a small pocket knife.
If the trip to work had its challenges during the day, it was at night, well past midnight, that shadows and ghost-like figures seem to appear behind poorly lit walls and shuttered stores. And there were plenty of foggy nights when damp but cooling air drifted in from the ocean, further dimming and distorting visibility. Even though by midnight, the crowds usually had diminished and slowly dispersed, there were clusters of teenagers, usually tough-looking boys and young men, sometimes loud and crude, looking for trouble or for girls or both. My bike bag probably served as a security blanket as I pedaled along, first through the streets, and then onto the boardwalk that bordered the ocean for nearly a mile. I did have occasion several times to catch sight of a nearly full moon shining on the ocean waves as I whizzed along the nearly deserted boardwalk. Like some informal radar, I also detected any number of couples huddled in beach blankets or settled under the boardwalk. Various images came to mind, repressed desire was one, but I intently pedaled towards home and some well-needed sleep.
To be sure, I started work at the bottom of the pecking order. Happily, my bathroom and cleaning assignments lasted just a couple of weeks. Without giving me any notice or training, I was then assigned to the popular outdoor creemee stand. Things did not go so well at first. My veteran mentor, an older man with the distinct and frequent smell of liquor on his breath, told me what to do, which was distinctly different from showing me how to pour cones into a balanced mass. To add injury to insult, I only found out later in the summer that my frozen cone mentor was referred to as Mr. Feelgood, which explained why I sometimes found his hands touching my body while I tried to concentrate on making perfectly formed creemee cones.
Even now it is with shame I confess that during my first week more than a few of my original cones lost their poorly twisted creemee concoctions, which on occasion landed in a messy heap on the ground. When that happened, some sad, sometimes wailing little kid stood holding up an empty cone, accompanied by an angry parent who demanded a refill. I learned that summer that the customer was always right.
But I persevered and mastered the art and proved my mettle by never missing a day for the first month of work. Nothing riled the manager more than having older key staff call at the last minute with excuses for missing work. On one of those days, I was assigned to the ever-busy concession stand that fronted the bar and grill. At first, I was assigned to simply hand out orders of hamburgers, hotdogs, pizza slices, and corn on the cob. With relish, I would coat the corn, using a brush, with melted butter, which seemed to be a big hit and a messy endeavor. I was ever so pleased when one of the older teenage girls who worked the stand mentioned that my long basketball-reach arms were a valued asset in dispensing food in lines that were often six and seven deep. Clearly, I was moving up in the world. Besides, I liked the way this co-worker smiled at me when she talked and gave directions.
My favorite co-worker, however, was a cool guy named Ronnie. He owned a beat-up car, had an ever-present cigarette pack in his rolled sleeve, and sported meticulously coiffed wavy hair that probably was inspired by the ever-so-popular TV series, “77 Sunset Strip.” Ronnie could have been the character Kookie in that show, but alas his life prospects were less favorable, since he had dropped out of Far Rockaway High, had an intense Brooklyn accent, one breaking-and-entering charge, and he exhibited a tendency to hit the beer tap in the mid afternoon when other staff were engaged elsewhere. It was my buddy Ronnie who seemed to be a world class expert on the subject of . . . girls. I remember the day he pulled me aside after I had served two provocatively dressed “older women” and he suggested in crude terms that they were probably street walkers. Although I nodded in manly accord, the truth was I only had a vague idea of what he was talking about.
The famous wooden roller coaster at Playland, a five-story-high steeplechase, was in direct view of the Boggiano outdoor food stand. It clicked and clattered all afternoon and into the late evening amid screams of joy and screams of terror. Other rides, such as the Whip, elicited strong reactions, and many younger kids seem to favor the bumper car area. The funhouse was always busy and there were clowns, street performers, and dozens of games of chance. I wondered about the fortune tellers and what went on in their little shacks. On a Saturday night, as the hot summer sun lowered into the ocean, the noise, the clatter, the laughter, the endless gaggle of teenage girls in small and large giggling tribes, mixed like a steaming pot of stew, augmented by the aroma of cigarette smoke, spilled beer, suntan lotion, and sweat. It was truly a stimulant for the senses.
As August approached, I had become a small fixture in a larger menagerie of workers. I took pride in wearing my work-shirt, the one with the red insignia spelling out Boggiano’s in a script design. On a Thursday late afternoon when things were a little slow, Angelina, an older waitress, told me to check in with the manager. I was apprehensive. But despite being an imposing figure, the manager was direct and in his own way, friendly, telling me that he and the Boggiano family appreciated my hard work. He specifically told me that since I had been willing to stay till things closed up late, often very late, it would be perfectly fine, after 11:30 or so, if I helped myself to any food I wanted at the concession stand before closing it down as an assistant to the man who cleaned the kitchen area.
I was stunned. I was joyful. This was probably the best news I had all year. Given my considerable appetite, and this generous offer, it gave me hope that someday I might even replace muscle-bound and perfectly formed Charles Atlas, even if I was a spindly and gawky teen boy now. During my last month at Boggiano’s, as late evening approached, I would begin thinking about my probable late evening menu, sort of like setting the table of my imagination in anticipation. On many a night, I would cook up a couple of hamburgers, adding two layers of American cheese, fry up at least one hot dog and, when so inclined, add a slice or two of left-over pizza. To top it all off, I had free rein and command of the soda taps, the old-fashioned kind with big levers. Did I mention that this was heaven?
Of course, at age 14, I knew little of the world, but my lessons in life had surged during my summer at Boggiano’s. I certainly could see that hard work did have rewards. And for sure, I learned how pleasurable it was to have cash in my pocket. Yet it also occurred to me that there were any number of ways of being rewarded for hard work. It was not until years later that I came to recognize having added job benefits can be impactful. I may have been paid a dollar an hour in cash but I can tell you that my benefit package at Boggiano’s Bar and Grill, those late night meals, greatly enhanced my fortune many times over, at least during the summer of 1959.
Working with people like Ronnie and Angelina and the crew of characters at Boggiano’s provided me with assorted interactions, as we worked together in the summer heat. Not to be forgotten is that young lady, Tina, who although several years older, gave me chills when she smiled at me and made friendly overtures and comments during steamy, busy summer nights.
Sometime later in August, when I went around back to the shed where I kept my bike at work, I found that Cousin Ernie’s bookbag, which was kind of dorky anyway, was missing from my bike handle. I had been too lazy to use the lock, never used the change in my purse, and the penknife would not even scare the occasional mouse that scurried behind the barrels of garbage at the rear of the bar and grill. This loss, which might have hit me hard early in the summer, was now of little consequence. I had something more important, confidence and growing self-esteem.