The Summer of '59

Snapshots in Prose - The Summer of '59Every summer morning was a school day at three o’clock, the night before a day at Rockaway Beach, or the morning of Christmas Eve. I pulled the door shut, ran to the staircase, and never walked down the stairs. And my hand never touched the banister. I jumped over every other step, and like a gymnast, landed at the bottom on both feet. If a neighbor getting the mail was startled, I’d apologize.

“Sorry, Miss Bergson.”

Miss Bergson taught English in an exclusive private school on the West Side. She was a tall, dignified woman with silver hair down to her shoulders. She lived with her mother on my floor. Every year, she bought an entire book of school raffle tickets from me. One chance cost a dime, three for a quarter, and the book for a dollar. Each student had to sell five books for the Catholic missions around the world. I sold all my books to the neighbors.

“That’s all right, Jamie. That will be my exercise for the day, but I’m with you in spirit.”
She was off for the summer, too.

“My friends are waiting for me.”

“Well, that is important. Say hello to the boys.” I wasn’t sure if she was kidding. Miss Bergson didn’t know any of my friends.

“Okay…. Goodbye, Miss Bergson.”

Beyond the front door of the building was freedom. There were no parents or nuns out there. The block was ours. We were kids, but there were rules for everything. Our rules. In 1959, some of us drank Mission Grape or Mission Orange soda, and some of us drank Coke or Pepsi, and we were loyal. One of us drank Mission Cream Soda, because nobody ever wanted a slug or even a sip of cream soda—unless it was a very hot day. Archie was cheap.

There was a difference between a sip and a slug when you were sharing. If there were too many boys, you gave only sips. The lips couldn’t surround the rim; the top lip had to be inside. On those very hot days, you’d hold your bottle to make sure a lip didn’t slip out into a slug. If you saw a slug coming, you pulled the bottle down and away.

“I said a sip!”

There was never an argument. There were rules. A sip was not a slug, and there were witnesses.

Up the street, the guys were sitting on car fenders, ash cans, and Charlie’s stoop. Charlie’s mother was the janitor and let us sit there every day and night. And as long as we didn’t make noise or crush our cigarettes on the steps, she’d also let us sit inside the hallway on very hot and cold days.

After Charlie had shoveled out the furnace during the winter, we helped him carry the cans of ashes up the stairs to the street; and his mother appreciated that. Charlie’s father had had a heart attack and died three years ago. The cans were heavy, but they were great to sit on. You couldn’t tip over an ash can.

On those days in Charlie’s hallway, we drank our sodas, made lists, and argued:

Best centerfielder? Mantle, Mays, or Snider.

Sneakers? Keds or Converse.

Best candy bar? Mars Bar, Milky Way, or Baby Ruth.

Movie? The Mummy, Ben-Hur, or Some Like It Hot.

Cool actor? Steve McQueen or Clint Eastwood.

Elvis song? “All Shook Up” or “Jailhouse Rock.”

Song? “There Goes My Baby” or “A Teenager in Love.”

Group? Drifters, Coasters, or Dion and the Belmonts.

Piano player? Little Richard or Jerry Lee Lewis.

Television show? “Wanted: Dead or Alive” or “Rawhide.”

Worst soda? Cream.

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