There were four seven story apartment building surrounding my court, all filled with families of multiple children. It was a paradise for kids. Bushes, cellars, and hallways to play hide and seek in. Parking lots to play punchball and football. Stoops to hang out on and play stoop ball. Playgrounds with jungle gyms, slides, and see-saws, and sprinklers n the hot summers. And best of all, large squares of grass to run around on when the housing cops weren’t around. There was a small library and community center adjacent to the big playground at P.S. 201, where we went to grade school, and later, a bigger library on Jewel Avenue in Electchester.
And we had the famous Jack, the Ice Cream Man, who made so much money off us kids that he was able to retire early and move to Florida. Jack deserved every penny he earned because he was an entrepeneurial genius. Not only did he sell every kind of ice and ice cream known to man, but he sold baseball cards, tops, and yo-yos and set up contests in each court. Mr. Softie and Good Humor came around too, but neither inspired the excitement and anticipation that Jack did.
A perfect summer day in the late 1950s in Pomonok was getting up early and playing skelly or stoop ball with the first group of kids who appeared in the court. Then I’d walk over the library and wander through the bookcases to see if they got in any new Happy Hollister books. After lunch, I might read a Superman or Archie comic book and then, if it was hot enough, put on my bathing trunks and play the showers in the next court.
Before dinner and after after dinner there would always be a huge choose up game of punchball held in the parking lot. At least twice a day, I would get root beer or cola Italian ices from Jack. In the evening, our parents would return from work and sit out on the benches or their lawn chairs and gossip, while we played hide and seek or ringolevio. By dark, I’d be dirty, sweaty, and exhausted and ready to go upstairs to watch TV before bed.
Of course things weren’t always so wonderful. If you got caught on the grass, you would get a fine and then, on top of that, get smacked by your father. My parents sometimes forced me to go to the community center, where they had organized activities, but I didn’t like it much. The worst was taking clarinet lessons from Mr. Didario, who ran the community center. He was an heroic figure in Pomonok, a father figure to generations of kids, but he couldn’t get me to make a single squeak out of that clarinet and my mother had to return the instrument to the music store. One time, I broke a window in the apartment building across the court playing stickball. I ran upstairs and lied to my father about it, but to my misfortune, he had witnessed the whole thing. I think I spent the rest of that day hiding under my bed.
The families who lived in Pomonok, first and second generation immigrants, weren’t at all like Leave it to Beaver or Father Knows Best. Through the thin walls between apartments you could hear the blood-curdling screams of domestic turmoil. For entertainment, my sisters and I would sometimes put a cup to the wall to eavesdrop on the goings on of our neighbors. I envied my cousins who moved out to private houses out on Long Island, but when I look back on those days in the Pomonok housing project, I can’t imagine a better environment for kids.