If you grew up in the outer boroughs of metropolitan New York City in the postwar era of the ’50s and ’60s, there was nothing special about 63–89 Saunders Street–my childhood home. For anyone unfamiliar, though, a peek inside is like taking a ride through a time warp exposing stereotypes of the Honeymooners and Robert Klein’s depictions of urban living.
Located in the mostly white, middle class, predominantly Jewish neighborhood of Rego Park, Queens, it was a relatively typical six-story brick apartment building. The building was set slightly off the street, distanced from the curbside by a rather inelegant courtyard leading to two sets of building entrance doors that were separated by an alcove with an intercom system for visitors to alert residents of their arrival. The first set of doors was always unsecured, providing open access to anyone. The second set was accessible by a key or a “buzz” in.
Once inside, there was a grand lobby–large and spacious with an extraordinarily high ceiling. A single one door elevator sat across the other side. Off to the left rose the first flight of stairs. In between the elevator and this staircase, another wide alcove held a wall of mailboxes arranged like a series of safe deposit boxes. Woe be to anyone receiving mail larger than standard size, as the mailman would exercise little discretion finding ways to jam that envelope in and slam the door shut. But this alcove served a higher purpose. By extending the length of the lobby from wall to wall, it was the ideal location for we young boys to flip our baseball cards for distance.
For urban New York City children, mainly boys, growing up in the early ’60s, baseball was bigger than life. Baseball’s “golden era” was just behind us, where the three New York teams had annually battled for supremacy. A new era was dawning with the establishment of a replacement National League team, restoring New York to a two-team city. No less than five or six local newspapers provided in-depth daily coverage of the Yankees and Mets.
Baseball cards were sold in every candy store. With five or 10 cards in a pack, along with a rectangular piece of pink bubble gum, my friends and I collected, hoarded and traded these cards amongst ourselves. A boy never the left home without his pockets stuffed with baseball cards. Managing the collection was more serious than learning the multiplication table.
There were several different ways to “flip” cards, allowing us to win cards from each other. Flipping for heads, tails, or colors, took luck. Flipping for distance introduced a modicum of skill. It involved flicking a card with a wrist action so that it flew like a frisbee. The flipping area required a wall at the far end. Whoever flipped their card closest to the wall collected the flipped cards of the less fortunate. The lucky or skilled flipper created a “leaner” (a card that flew so low to the ground that it leaned up against the wall) earned winning bonus cards. Each player got three chances to flip a card and knock down the leaner.
The mailbox alcove extension provided the ideal back wall for distance flipping. We gathered across the lobby, sometimes three, four, or five of us but just as often, two, to flip for distance. The echoes of cheers and jeers reverberated through the lobby. We negotiated, schemed, reasoned, and took risks independent of parental intervention. The stakes were high with favored baseball cards being lost and won over an afternoon.
Now and then someone was buzzed in or entered with their key, but their path across the lobby to the elevator did not obstruct our flipping. It was the little old Jewish ladies with their hair tied in kerchiefs, dressed in housecoats, who did not appreciate our sport. Their deep sighs and tsks interrupted our flipping sessions. We had to stop and politely nod a greeting while the ladies shuffled to their mailbox. Incredibly, some remained in front of their mailbox to review, sort, and examine their mail. Couldn’t they wait to get back to their apartment and browse through postcards and Good Housekeeping? We had business to conduct!
For the most part, though, unless the little old ladies felt so disturbed as to call upon the “super” to evict us, the lobby was our prime stadium for distance flipping.
This article was written by Gary Solomon, my brother-in-law. Gary is an Information Technology expert and holds an MS in Government Information Leadership as a Distinguished Graduate from the US Dept. of Defense’s National Defense University. He is married to my sister, Mary, has three children (my wonderful nieces and nephew) and has been a lifelong New York Yankee diehard.
Stories from our childhood bind our past to our present. We reflect on the lessons learned, the joys and sorrows, the achievements and transgressions. The stories shape who are and may guide us on who we strive to be. During the month of February, I will feature stories of childhood play and revelations. If you would like to join in, email me and we can share the stories around the table. Please note; you do not have to be related to me. 🙂
Antoinette Truglio Martin is the author of Hug Everyone You Know: A Year of Community, Courage, and Cancer. The memoir is a wimpy patient’s journey through her first year of breast cancer treatment.