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Thursday, July 2, 2009

Canarsie: Part I … 95th Street … 1971 flashback … 1505 …Where are they now?


Wikipedia says: Located in southeast Brooklyn, Canarsie takes its name from the Canarsee Indians of the Algonquin group who originally inhabited the area. All our land titles in the greater part of Brooklyn have come from the Canarsee Indians. They held what is now Kings County and the shore of Jamaica Bay. In 1626 a small band of Canarsee Indians were camping in New Amsterdam (Later named New York in 1664). Peter Minuit, who had become friendly with the Indians, offered to buy the land from them. The famous selling of Manhattan Island was actually a scam on the part of the Canarsee Indians. Although they did not own it, they accepted about twenty-four fazools (dollars) in payment for Manhattan Island.

“Canarsie” is a phonetic interpretation of a word in the Lenape language for “fenced land” or “fort.” The Native Americans who made the infamous sale of the island of Manhattan for 60 guilders were Lenape. Europeans would often refer to the indigenous people living in an area by the local place-name, and so reference may be found in contemporary documents to “Canarsee Indians.” The current neighborhood lies within the former town of Flatlands, one of the five original Dutch towns on Long Island.

I thought long and hard about this Canarsie article; how to write it, what to include, what to leave out. Frankly, it is an overwhelming task. There was no way to rely on memory (especially mine) and there’s been enough research to occupy a think tank fulltime, so there was no way to sift through all of that either. As it turns out, thirty plus years down the road (from when I used to live there), there’s a lot more to Canarsie than is possible to condense in anything less than an anthology. For sanity sake, I decided to divide this thing into parts and to use flashback stories throughout. I’ll sum up each part with a Where are they now?

What I remember best about our old neighborhood had to do with everything up to high school; when kids played all their sports outdoors from morning to night; when an empty beer or soda can could occupy a dozen boys on the corner of 95th Street and Avenue N where we used the four sewers to play kick in the can; where a schoolyard where we played stickball because it was walled in on three sides (Public School 115) was like Yankee Stadium; where epic two-hand-touch football games were periodically held up with “official time outs” because a car needed to pass, park or pull into a driveway; where the stairs leading to a school door served as the jail on Schenk Street across from Seaview Park when we played Ringolevio; where the trolley tracks running between two blocks (95th and 96th) served as anything from a baseball stadium to a war battlefield; where Teddy’s Ice Cream truck used to torture parents twice a day during the summer months because all of us knew the sound of that bell better than whatever music they had taught us in school the previous semester.

The Pier

The Canarsie Pier was a mainstay summer activity … when we were real young and our parents were afraid we’d take each others eyes out with fishhooks, they bought us crab cages … and when there was extra gelt around (or my mother’s father, Grandpa Pete), we’d get to take the $.25 boat ride. Families with big money rented row and/or motor boats.

East 95th Street

Our block was Italian heavy with the Cerami family taking up just about one end of it. Check out my scribble:

95th Street featured some pretty good athletes. John Cerami was one of the best athletes and toughest customers in the neighborhood. His older brother Joe was the brains of the neighborhood who would go on to graduate from West Point. Tom, the youngest Cerami brother, was a solid baseball player and the kid most of the guys my age looked up to. He would go on to join the marines and later climb a corporate ladder in a very big way. On the corner was Joe Cuccia (who tragically died in a car accident as an adult). Little Joe Cerami (one of a thousand Cerami cousins) was another terrific baseball player who would become the MVP of the Canarsie high school baseball team when he was a senior. Ralph Carusello was a little older and was an all-star catcher and linebacker who played in the City Championship baseball game at Yankee Stadium. His dad (Lou) managed our little league team (C-Vue Cleaners) until a heart attack sidelined him.

Tommy Vespa (technically was 94th Street but we’d adopted him on 95th) was also a terrific all around athlete (like his older brother Joe). One of my co-captains on the high school football team our senior year, Tommy was a great baseball and basketball player as well.

Although the Pacilio family moved off the block and headed west to California when I was still a kid, Mrs. Pacilio (Vivian) remains my mother’s best friend and the two talk over the phone at least once a week to this day. Her boys, Alfred and Edward, were great guys and I still have so many fond memories of Edward stealing my bicycle and hiding it in his garage that to this day whenever I lose something (anything), Edward immediately comes to mind. Mr. Pacilio (Al) died of cancer a few years back. He was a great guy and I still treasure getting to see him a dozen or so years ago when both families met in Las Vegas for a reunion/vacation.

That was something I miss today, how back in the day nobody’s father was Tom or Lou or Al or Frank. If he wasn’t a coach, he was a mister and the same went for mothers. If Mrs. Gaetani was at the field watching her son play little league baseball, she was MRS. Gaetani, not Angie.

Speaking of the little league: Our first year with C-Vue Cleaners we stunk pretty bad (0-16), but that had more to do with other teams being loaded with talent and ours being a bit skimpy. In the draft the following year (held at the high school), Mr. Carusello chose wisely when he picked Mike Maribito (who would throw a bunch of no-hitters and win the championship). Our team was loaded that year (Phil Green, Tom Cerami, Tommy Vespa, Hal Lippman and so on). After Mr. Carusello’s heart attack, Poppa Tommy (as our family now refers to my father), who was much more a boxing fan than a baseball fan, became the new skipper. A knockaround guy most his life, my old man knew more about boosting than bunting, so it was pretty much up to the raw talent on the team (the guys named above) for us to win. We were 15-1 that year with our only loss coming a night when it drizzled and Poppa Tommy decided he didn’t want us to have big heads … so he forfeited. The team (myself included) was pissed off, especially after going winless the season before. I asked him about that forfeit later in life.

“We wanted to go undefeated,” I said.

“Tough shit. Besides, it’s better yous didn’t.”

“Didn’t the league give you shit over that?”

“Fuck the league,” Poppa Tommy said.

I knew I got it from somebody.

Another Poppa Tommy baseball story goes like this: When our all-star catcher (Phil Green) broke his finger during a game, the “manager” looked to me at 2nd base (where my errors were usually hidden by Mike Maribito’s strikeout count) and said, “Put the equipment on.” I said, “Are you crazy?” The “manager” cracked me one.

I eventually grew into my new position (gaining a lot of weight) and somehow wound up on the all-star team along with the best catcher in the league. I wasn’t half as good as Sal DeMarco, who was a miniature Joe Torre (as you’ll read later on) and about the best catcher I’d ever seen; he had a cannon for an arm and a great bat. In an all-star game later that year, Sal was behind the plate and they moved me to 3rd base (where I made three errors before I knew what had happened; one between my legs, one I bobbled and the one I managed to field I threw over Tommy Vespa’s head at first base into Queens). Sal probably had the only hits in our 9-1 loss that day.

The truth of it was none of us could get enough baseball and we all usually played in three separate leagues (the Canarsie Little League, the CYO and the PAL). A couple of guys from 96th Street who played CYO baseball and were standouts were Tommy Mistretta (who tragically passed from a brain tumor way too young) and Mike Russo. I once had to pitch to Tommy and it was about the most frustrating thing in the world—there was nothing I could throw Tommy couldn’t hit over our outfielders heads. Mike was about the fastest guy in the league and when he got on base I didn’t even bother throwing down to second (from fear I’d overthrow and he’d wind up scoring). I was fortunate to catch a couple of Robert Gulie’s no hitters with St. Jude’s playing for Mr. (Joe) Zumo, but I stopped playing baseball when I began playing football and boy did I miss out on a Canarsie classic that took place up in Newburgh, New York … speaking of Sal DeMarco.

Thursday, August 12, 1971:

Straight from the Canarsie Courier article, the dramatics: The Canarsie Colt League All-Stars this past weekend won the Northeast Regional Championship in Newburgh, New York with a ninth-inning grand-slam thriller.

The victory was a dream-come-true for all concerned. The Colts, with the backs to the wall had to win a doubleheader after losing to Stratford, Ct., 6-3. Pete Shiavo pitched a two-hitter in the first game against Newburgh with hitting support from Joe DePaula (with home runs from Ricky Alvino and Sal DeMarco). In game two of the doubleheader, Dan Morogiello pitched a one-hit shutout for 7 innings. With the game deadlocked at 0-0, both starting pitches were removed. The Newburgh team scored 3 runs in the top of the eighth and the Canarsie Colts needed 4 to win.

Tom Cerami led with a single. The next batter was out. Then (Eddie) Burkhardt and (Lou) Montella drew walks. It was bases loaded for cleanup man, Rick Alvino, a standout performer throughout the tournament with 5 home runs. Rick walked, forcing in a run. Catcher Sal DeMarco who had been on base 6 previous times that day was up. DeMarco, with two strikes on him, leaned on a pitch and the next thing you know there was bedlam on the field. Sal had hit a grandslam home run to give Canarsie a 5-3 victory.

1505 East 95th Street

1505 was our address back in the day and our house featured a built-in wiffle ball stadium (the driveway was shaped like a “V” and we used one of the garage doors as a backstop). Tommy Mistretta lived almost directly across from our back yard (on the other side of the trolley tracks) on 96th Street. We used to play ball in the “pit” and one day after my 3rd grade teacher (Mrs. Craig) warned me about getting my conduct book signed (I had issues as a student that required my notebook be signed at the end of every week stating whether “Charles was good this week” or “Charles was bad this week”), Tommy and I were having a catch when at exactly 4:30 p.m. (when my old man came home), I heard my name being called: “Shit,” I said to Tommy. “I’m dead.”
It's not like she didn't warm me she'd call my old man.

My 4th grade teacher (Mrs. Skully) didn’t let up any and I had to have my notebooks signed that year, too. My parents weren’t about to take the chance on me going to public school again for 5th grade and transferred me to St. Jude’s school (where the nuns and priests could slap you silly). My father introduced himself and me to my 5th grade teacher, Miss DeSimone, like this: “He gives you any trouble, slap him across the face. Then call me and I’ll break his legs.”

A couple of years later, after I had proved my inability to behave “catholic school proof”, my parents (via turning our basement into a mini Macy’s with swag from the Brooklyn docks) bought a 2nd house directly across the street from the St. Jude Convent on Canarsie Road where I was under constant supervision.

Talk about cruel and unusual punishment, I was forced to become an altar boy. But, after learning some of the older teenagers not only drank wine, some of them actually paid for it, altar boy turned out to be a fairly profitable career move. It certainly paid better per hour than the $11.00 a week I made delivering the Long Island Press.

Part I ends here on the day we moved to Canarsie Road (2186); the same day Poppa Tommy was pinched unloading a truckload of Chivas Regal (you see a pattern here?) into the basement of our new house (yeah, the one directly across the street from the convent).

Chivas remains my preferred drink to this day.

For those interested in a terrific read about Canarsie, try Donald Westlake (writing as Richard Stark), The Hunter. I think it’s the first time I ever read anything referencing the L train and Westlake/Stark described the Rockaway Parkway train station in perfect detail as I like to remember it.

Canarsie Part II will pick up during our high school years (1971-1974). In Part two you’ll meet a couple of coaches that helped me stay in and graduate from high school … two sons of one of the coaches (the Morogiello Brothers), a construction guy who put me to work back-to-back summers, some school classmates and some of my high school teammates (a few who went on to Hollywood, one to major league baseball, another to the NBA and one (whom has since passed away) was the White House Chef under President Carter.

Part I: Where are they now?

Lou Montella
Louis M. Montella
Sr. Vice President Operations Worldwide
Amerijet International

Tom Cerami
Global Director for Sales Processes
Merchant Gases Division
Air Products and Chemicals
Tom has been with the company for 25 years and recently returned from a 3-year assignment as Managing Director of Bangkok Industrial Gases; Bangkok, Thailand.

Joe Cerami
Colonel, US Army-Retired.
Currently a Senior Lecturer in the George H.W. Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University (the Fightin' Texas Aggies and NOT the Longhorns)

Mike Russo
Stunt man/Coordinator ... worked on a ton of movies, including Goodfellas and The Sopranos series. I remember him setting himself on fire in his back yard ... forgetaboutit, the guy was crazy.


And the DOC says ...

Great story, Chaz,

It’s hard to understand how such a sophisticated guy like yourself could come from such humble beginnings.

Reminds me of my childhood on 60th Street in Manhattan, directly across from the 59th Street Bridge... long before it became fashionable. Back then we didn’t realize that the bridge could make you feel groovy. It was just a fun place to play.

Our fourth floor walkup shared the toilet with the apartment next door. It wasn’t a bathroom, because each apartment had their own bathtub. Where ? In the kitchen, of course, next to the icebox. And an icebox didn’t make ice, it used ice... big blocks that were delivered by the iceman every few days.

Chaz, I found some other interesting facts that you missed in your article.

From Doc-ipedia: CANARSIE: (kan-aw-see) An area of NYC established when the local residents sold something that they never in fact owned... a practice that still flourishes to this very day. The indigenous peoples are known as “Eye-talians” and are a warlike society. They are particularly hostile to people with names that don’t end in vowels, people with blonde hair, and people who buy tomato sauce (gravy) in a jar. In truth, they are hostile to damn near everybody who isn’t their cousin or doesn’t come from their block.

It has been reported that, in years past, the residents of Canarsie shared a common language with the other tribes of NYC, but there is no scientific data to substantiate that claim. (See Doc-ipedia Re: Charlie Stella)

In the recent presidential elections, the Canarsie residents bypassed both mainstream candidates and unanimously elected Al Martino.