I grew up on 53rd Avenue in Elmhurst, Queens. 53rd Avenue begins at Seabury Street where Ascension is located. This Catholic School was the learning place for most of the neighborhood children. Further up is Van Horn and then Haspel Street. My house was the fourth house in on a dead end street. As a child I recall the street had an ominous, intimidating sign, with a red light above it. On a square yellow piece of metal in black lettering the words DEAD END STREET stood out! The word ‘dead’ was enough to scare myself and the other children on the block.
Beyond the sign and down a long incline; where none of the neighborhood children ventured, lay untouched thick bushes and shrubs that led the way to the railroad tracks for the Long Island Railroad. These trains took commuters to and from their homes throughout Long Island and into Manhattan. I remember doing my homework at the dining room table as those trains passed by; causing the dishes that were so neatly placed in my family’s China closet to rattle as every car sped on by.
Across the tracks and up an equally dense piece of land are Saint Adalbert’s School and Church. Further up Grand Avenue were the famous Elmhurst Gas Tanks that the news helicopters used as a guide for giving the frequently bad news about the traffic on the Long Island Expressway. All of these sights were visible when I stood in front of my house. Once inside the two-story house our kitchen windows provided an even better view. One window looked out at the Manhattan skyline with the Empire State Building standing above all the other skyscrapers. The other window showed the southern tip of Manhattan and the World Trade Towers as they were being built. They grew taller and taller each season. By 1974 with both buildings completed; standing side by side, they stood as lighthouses watching over the entire island of Manhattan.
A Presbyterian in a Catholic Community
Growing up a Presbyterian meant my school would be P.S. 102 some five blocks away. I was in a small minority since most of the neighborhood kids were Catholic and attended Ascension. I learned early on that the difference between Catholics and Protestants is relatively minor. Catholics have a lot of Saints and more rituals to follow but basically I came to the realization that the best way to explain the disparity is that Protestant is the ‘generic’ form of Christianity! Protestantism has a lot less ‘fusses’ for the same basic beliefs.
My neighbors were a mix of immigrants from Ireland, Poland, Italy and Germany. I remember these people loved the country and respected its culture. They learned the English language and if they misspoke in a store or talking to a neighbor they appreciated being corrected. Their dedication and love of the country meant they would never speak that word the wrong way again. I saw my neighbors in front of their homes and at stores like the Grand Avenue Bakery, Bruno’s Delicatessen, Besser’s Store and Reich’s Pharmacy that was at the corner of Haspel Street and Grand Avenue. In the early 1940’s my father and his friends worked there as soda jerks. After World War II the store was renovated and making ice cream sodas became a thing of the past.
Directly across Grand Avenue from the pharmacy was the local A&P grocery store. It was a very quiet, gracious neighborhood where most families didn’t find the need to lock their front doors at night. I know my family did not. The times and the people were so much different in the 50’s and early 60’s. I don’t like to use the word better but I believe it is the best way to describe the people. It was a different generation where people had survived the Great Depression and World War II. Nothing came easy for them and they greatly treasured the good times. Respect and honor were characteristics they cherished. Yes; better is the right word.
Off to PS 102
My first day at P.S. 102 almost did not take place. I can still see my sister Lynn, three years older than me, waiting at the bottom of the four cement steps that led to and from our home. I was on the porch with my mother on one side of me and my grandmother, my father’s mother, on the other. They were both trying their best to reassure me that school would be fun. I would meet new friends and enter into a world where I would begin to learn everything. After ten minutes of pleading, and I would imagine some negotiating, I finally wore myself out and gave in. Very slowly I walked down those four steps and then took hold of my sister’s hand for the five-block walk. I was about to enter in to the New York City School System.
My nervous anxiety that day quickly changed into a feeling that was unfamiliar to me. As I settled into my Kindergarten class listening to my first teacher, Mrs. Weincrantz, I looked around several times trying to take in as much of the room as was possible. When I glanced at a girl wearing a light blue dress I felt butterflies circling in my stomach. At first I thought I was going to be sick, but it didn’t take long for me to realize the only time the butterflies could be felt was when I looked in the direction of my new classmate; who I would find out is Nancy Occhiogrosso. I remember she had a beautiful round face with blushing red cheeks and short wavy brown hair. She had a smile that was both sweet and mischievous. It was a face I knew I would never forget, and I never have.
During my school years at P.S. 102 my crush on Nancy by no means went away. I also didn’t do much to get to know her, which I desperately wanted to do. As a child I was always very quiet and extremely shy. To make matters worse I was the tallest one in the class. In Public School all things that required students to move started with the teacher calling out; ‘Will everyone get into size places and form a line.’ As for me, that meant going to the very end of the line. By the time I was in sixth grade I was already five feet nine inches tall. At fourteen I was six foot three. The growing finally stopped at six feet five inches tall when I was able to breathe a sigh of relief.
I spent seven years in P.S. 102. Every year I had a new teacher and some new classmates. The only thing that stayed the same was my wonder of Nancy Occhiogrosso. In fact the feeling got stronger and stronger over the years. I have many clear memories of P.S. 102; many of which include Nancy, but certainly not all. In second grade I recall our teacher showing us the ‘duck and cover maneuver’ because of the threat brought about by the Cuban Missile Crisis. Even at seven years old I thought it was a strange thing to do. I felt my tiny wooden and metal desk would do very little for me in the event of a nuclear attack. I later learned that our teachers were trying to instill some sense of control over what was a very terrifying situation.
I remember a spring dance that was held in our schoolyard each year. It taught me the only dance I know, the Maypole. Over the years some of the dances I heard of were the Cha-Cha, the Twist, and a Waltz. When Disco had its reign there was the Hustle. I knew none of those dances but if someone called out let’s do the Maypole; I was ready.
In third grade my class had a substitute teacher. She was a very attractive woman named Miss Lesk. At about 1:50 p.m. on November 22, 1963, I remember her being called out of the room. When she returned all she said was pick up your books because class was being let out early today. I had no idea why until I got to the bottom of the stairs where my sister Lynn, a door monitor, was standing. She told me the President had been shot in the head. At eight years old you don’t really react to those words. I walked home turned on the television only to find all my favorite shows had been cancelled. It was that way the entire weekend. I recall being annoyed by this; so I guess that is how an eight year old might react.
As far as my connection with Nancy progressed, little by little I began to learn some things about her. Nancy’s family was a group of entrepreneurs; very sharp business people. Nancy’s cousins owned the popular bakery on Grand Avenue in Maspeth. Its long name, ‘Occhiogrosso’s Bakery,’ took up a lot of space on the street sign above the front door of the store. Nancy’s parents owned Grosso’s Dry Cleaners also in Maspeth on Caldwell Avenue. They owned a dress factory as well, that was on a side street located on the Grand Avenue section of the Long Island Expressway. Her grandparents ran a Grocery Produce Store also on Grand Avenue. And perhaps the best fact of all was that Nancy’s Dad took her to Fairyland after Church every Sunday.
I remember passing Occhiogrosso’s Bakery many times on my way to Maurice Park where I played Little League baseball for the Police Athletic League. I rode my bicycle passed that store door every Saturday morning during the summer months. I peeked through the window at all the cakes and pastries. Most baseball players today have their last names on the back of their uniforms but back in the 1960’s we proudly wore the name of our teams sponsor. My first two years it was Thompson and Cavenaugh Lumber. The next two years, Fazio Oil was written above my uniform number fourteen. My parents gave me a dollar each Saturday. After the game my teammates and I headed straight for the Sabrett hot dog stand. One dollar went a long way. I was able to purchase four hot dogs at twenty cents a piece and a soda for fifteen cents, and I still had five cents left.
Elmhurst, Maspeth and Middle Village had many places for children to spend their days. In the winter months Saturday morning meant a trip to the unusually constructed, white round brick building Macy’s, on Queens Boulevard. All my friends and I agreed; Macy’s looked like a spaceship. Once inside, my friends and I watched cartoons on something we had never seen before—-Color Televisions. The pictures and colors were incredible. We stayed as long as we could but eventually we were asked to leave by a store employee. From there, if we had the money, we could go to the Elmwood Theater, or at the corner of Queens Boulevard and Woodhaven Boulevard was Fairyland. My favorite game was Skee Ball. I found the secret to the game. You don’t roll the wooden ball directly up and into the numbered holes. The best way to play is to have the wooden ball bank off the side of the alley before approaching the holes where points are totaled up. When lunchtime came White Castle was the place to go. For people who grew up in the area you can determine your age by remembering the cost of a single square White Castle hamburger. The price I can recall is twelve cents. If you can recollect a lower price then you’re older than me.
The spring and summer meant trips to parks like Juniper Valley, Woodhaven and 57th Avenue, or the schoolyard of P.S. 102. My friends and I played touch football, basketball and our favorite game of choice, stickball. All that was required for stickball was an old broomstick and a rubber ball. We pooled our money together and went to the local candy store where we purchased a brand new ball. Our two choices were a Spalding or a Penske Pinky. At the price of fifteen to twenty cents, we usually could afford one of each and hoped they wouldn’t get lost too quickly. Some lasted for months while a few didn’t make it through the day. The roof of P.S 102 must be the home of a thousand rubber balls. The worst way to lose a ball was in a neighbor’s yard. Some homeowners would come out of the house and with a smile they would throw the ball back over the fence. Unfortunately those types of people were in the minority. Most people picked the ball up, gave us a warning and a few choice words; and then took the ball back into their house. We were frustrated by their unsympathetic behavior. The act was cruel and callous. We never made loud noise when we played and kept our playing area clean. One thing we had was a good memory and on Halloween those houses may have gotten an egg tossed on their front steps or some chalk. I’m not quite sure but I think that was possible, well maybe!
Maspeth and JHS 73
In June of 1967 I finished up my stay at P.S. 102. By September of that year I was on my way to a new school, J.H.S. 73 in Maspeth. I walked the mile distance from my home every day whether it rained, snowed or the sun was bearing down on me. The walk to school along Grand Avenue was an uphill climb. The difference between the two schools was enormous. It seemed as if every nationality in the world was represented at J.H.S.73. The hallways were jammed packed with students. The school had some very strange rules. Down the center of the hallway was a thick red stripe. Even if your next class was directly across the hall all students had to walk to the end of the hallway, then turn around, and walk back to their classroom. Making matters worse were teachers who stood in front of their classrooms holding a wooden stick in their hand. If you walked on the red line or even got too close you could expect to feel a crack of the stick on your butt. The stairways had doors that read UP and DOWN. You could not walk up a down staircase or down an up staircase. If you did you were sent to the Principal’s office. What I remember most about J.H.S. 73 was a good amount of both physical and mental abuse given by teachers to their students; something I never understood. It was also a time when your elders were always right, even when they weren’t. A student’s voice, opinion and point of view carried very little weight back then.
On a lighter side, attending J.H.S. 73 was the first time I would not be in Nancy Occhiogrosso’s class. The only time we saw each other was when our path’s crossed in the hallway or the cafeteria. By this time I was a lot less shy but another problem confronted me when I attempted to speak with Nancy. Diane Klein was Nancy’s best friend and throughout the time we all spent in J.H.S. 73 Nancy and Diane were inseparable. If I approached Nancy I could feel Diane’s eyes watching over me; just waiting for me to get flustered and say the wrong thing. I’m not implying that Diane was a bad person whom she wasn’t; it is just the way things were at the time. Diane knew I had a crush on Nancy and she enjoyed watching me blush and stammer my way through a conversation.
My Crush on Nancy
On one occasion I got up the nerve to ask Nancy if I could walk her home from school. She said yes! I remember being nervous the whole day as I tried to come up with things to talk about. By the time the moment arrived and Nancy was standing all alone waiting for me it didn’t take long to feel at ease with her. We talked about anything and everything. We decided to join the school’s local bowling league that met once a week at the Maspeth Bowl just off Grand Avenue.
My crush on Nancy continued and I did get the opportunity to walk her home again, but being thirteen and fourteen years old can make a relationship difficult. To take Nancy on a date meant money and none of us back then had any. Maybe I had a dollar here or there, but certainly not enough to take a girl out. I also think children; even teenagers were a little more immature back then. I was interested in sports and spent a lot of time playing basketball and baseball. In addition I think both Nancy and I knew that after J.H.S. 73 we would be going our separate ways. In New York City where you lived determined the schools you would attend. From 1960 until 1970 I was lucky enough to go to school with Nancy. It was a time I will always cherish, but in September of 1970 Nancy attended Grover Cleveland High School while I was sent off to Newtown High School.
As a sophomore at Newtown I made the Varsity basketball team. My first game was at Grover Cleveland. I spent the entire warm-ups looking into the stands for Nancy’s face and smile to appear. I looked every time we played there but never saw her; however she was always on my mind. I know I could have looked her name up in the phonebook but for whatever reason I never did. Maybe I was lacking self-confidence. Whatever the reason; time just seemed to pass by very quickly. In September of 1973 I was on my way to Oakdale, Long Island where a basketball scholarship was waiting for me at Dowling College.
My years at Dowling College enabled me to outgrow my shyness. In fact during my stay there I was one of the more popular students. Time certainly has a way of changing things. When I finally finished school I took a job in Manhattan. I was now a commuter going to and from Manhattan. I didn’t enjoy the subway rides but thanks to my height I was able to stand above the crowd where the air was fresher and cleaner.
One day in March of 1980 my height once again proved to my advantage. As I was standing in the subway car one day, for some reason, I glanced around and looked over the crowd. It was something I rarely did. My head was usually buried in the newspaper trying my best to mind my own business. One face immediately stood out among all others. It had been ten years since we saw each other but I clearly made out the cute and playful smile that belonged to Nancy Occhiogrosso. The years that had passed only made her more beautiful. When the train stopped at the Grand Ave station I walked towards her. There was no need for an introduction; we both recognized each other instantly.
Nancy seemed very glad to see me but at the same time she was also a bit flustered. She was having boyfriend trouble and someone was picking her up at the station. I could tell she was distracted. We had a nice short talk and since we worked close together I just assumed we would see each other again. We never did! As much as I looked each and every day I never saw Nancy again. I guess my luck had run out!
As time passed by and Queens became more crowded I began to grow very tired of life in New York City so with nothing holding me back I picked up and moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida in 1992. After a few years there I settled in Palm City, Florida some 100 miles north of Fort Lauderdale. My luck with women got worse; I seemed to attract all the crazies of the fairer sex and was never lucky enough to be married. It’s a disappointment that I’m reminded of each day. Yet something out of the ordinary was about to happen to me. It proved to be a pleasant distraction.
One night in 2007 a story came to my mind and I couldn’t make it go away. I had no idea where this thought came from and what it took to write a book. To make matters worse I didn’t even own a computer. Since the inspiration refused to go away I gave in and bought loose-leaf paper and started to write the story that had been haunting me. I found a person who would type up my work. Two months passed by and I had written a 125,000 word book; on over one thousand hand written pages that I titled, ‘Finding Your Way Home.’ A few months after that I wrote its sequel, ‘Crossing Over The Line.’ On the advice of the woman, Nance Cox, who had been typing my work I purchased a computer in order to write my third book, and the last in the trilogy. The title is ‘The Gift Of Willoughby.’ The stories are about a couple brought together by an extremely talented and magical racehorse named Willoughby.
Reconnecting with Nancy
As I was writing ‘The Gift Of Willoughby’ an ad for classmates.com kept popping up on my computer. I was concentrating on my writing; so I ignored the message; yet it seemed to have a life of its own. Its persistence outlasted me; so I opened up the website and the only name that came to mind was Nancy Occhiogrosso. I had made a lot of friends in college but the first and only name that I chose to type in was Nancy’s. I was very fortunate since Occhiogrosso is a rather unusual name. Nancy Occhiogrosso’s name appeared but another name followed it, Furman. Yes, Nancy is married, and will be for thirty years in December of 2010.
I wrote her a short email and tried my best to jog her memory about a tall kid named Robert Henry. I really didn’t need to as she remembered me right away. I’m happy to say we email each other every weekend. Nancy lives in New Jersey. After almost fifty years, from that first day in Kindergarten class, Nancy and I have started to get to know each other really well. I can tell her anything and usually I do; it’s a great release for me. I find a great deal of joy and comfort in writing to her; I’m at peace with myself. She is smart, caring and one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. I’m very proud to call Nancy my friend.
Nancy has two grown sons who are thriving in the financial world. After her sons’ success, another gift came her way several months ago when Nancy and her husband became grandparents. The baby boy’s name is Liam. I’m pleased to hear that Nancy is happy, healthy and living a good life. But there are times when it is only natural for me to think of what could have happened.
What if I wasn’t so shy for such a long part of my life? What if Nancy and I met again on the subway weeks later back in 1980? What if we started to date? I certainly don’t dwell on these questions but they do hold a certain mystery to me.
All of this reminds me of a quote by John Greenleaf Whittier….. ‘Of All Sad Words Of Tongue and Pen, The Saddest of These, “IT MIGHT HAVE BEEN.”
We live life forwards and learn life backwards. Live and learn. By the time we know what choice to make the time to make it may very well have passed us by. Never betray your instincts and when the time arrives, you’ll know it; so trust yourself and don’t be afraid to take a chance! Life is too short!