Urchins and Gwumpkies

1956 BC (Before Cell phones)

I was born into a happy middle-class family with a WWII veteran dad, a stay-at-home mom and three older sisters. It was a generation called Baby-Boomers. Cars didn’t have seat belts, the milkman delivered milk in glass bottles at the side door, and kids could still play with plastic bags. It was a good time to be born.

We lived in Maplewood, New Jersey. How’s that for a storybook sounding name? Our house was on a suburban street lined with ash, chestnut, and of course, maple trees.

I was the baby and the only boy and got a lot of attention from my mother. Too much perhaps. I often faked being sick so I could stay home from school and be with her. She was always cooking something. If it wasn’t her mom’s recipes for polish dishes like gwumpkies and kapusta, it was Italian food like manicotti and braciole that my dad’s sister, Aunt Minnie taught her to make. We pronounced it man-e-gaut and bra-jole.

As a result of the age and gender gap with my sisters, I ended up spending a lot of time alone pursuing solitary interests. I seemed to have a natural affinity for drawing and spent many hours each day with pencil in hand copying animal photographs from books. Drawing developed into something I felt I could do better than the other kids in my school. This ability became a source of confidence in me and began to define my early identity as an artist.

In the second grade my teacher set aside a special bulletin board to display my drawings. When my mother came to school one afternoon I remember the joy in her face when she saw my artwork being recognized. I felt proud and continued to develop my drawing and painting skills. My artwork became a way of getting attention throughout my school years.

As my drawings improved an art teacher who circulated through the grammar schools in the area named Vincent Nardone, took me under his wing. He encouraged me, gave me art supplies, taught me various techniques, and became a life-long friend and mentor. Truth be told, as I got older I realized that Mr. Nardone befriended me mainly to try and date my sisters, one of whom competed in the Miss America pageant as Miss New Jersey. Nevertheless, he was an important part of my development as a young artist.

Steve was my first friend. He was a year older and lived down the block. He had a sadistic older brother and an agoraphobic, alcoholic mother who chain smoked. She sat at the kitchen table with a small portable TV on a stand in front of her. She kicked a slippered foot spasmodically. The walls and ceiling were stained nicotine brown all around her. It smelled acrid and strangely sweet like a barbecue grill doused in beer. On the table sat a large heavy square glass ashtray filled with an eight inch tall pyramid of neatly stacked cigarette butts. They were packed together sideways, like miniature logs. I imagined hordes of Lilliputian Egyptians dragging them into place with tiny strings.

When Steve’s mom cooked, which wasn’t too often, she would make what we affectionately referred to as “agita” stew. It was a tomato based concoction which was over-salted, over-spiced and completely repugnant to a child’s palate, but the only thing that could penetrate her moribund taste buds.

During those summers we spent the days getting into mischief while wandering the neighborhood. Our favorite thing to do was play pyros. This involved setting almost anything on fire. We threw lit matches into cups filled with gasoline. We poured out globs of rubber cement and watched the stuff go up like napalm. We cut off hundreds of match heads with scissors and stuffed them into a pipe to fashion a crude bazooka. Casualties of this game included a large round section of Steve’s mother’s living room rug, a sizable patch of grass in the backyard, a neighbor’s hedges, and on one occasion, my eyebrows, eyelashes and most of the hair on the front of my head.

Both our dads were always at work and Steve’s mom was too busy drinking and mine too busy cooking to pay much attention to what we did from morning till night. I don’t know how we survived the daily fray of dangerous pranks – climbing trees, jumping off roofs, running from the cops, (this was an actual thing – we would see a police car and start running to encourage pursuit), drinking the last few drops from liquor bottles we found in the trash, and throwing snowballs at moving cars in the winter. It was great.

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