Life In Depression America Wasn’T As Bad As It Sounds

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It is Saturday afternoon on a sunny March day, the perfect day to climb Ward Hill, stand at the edge of the cliffs, release a brightly colored kite in a brisk wind, and watch it rise into the sky, soaring so high and growing so small above the streets below you can almost believe it’s over distant New York Harbor.

But not this Saturday. A perfect as the day may be for that new kite sitting on a shelf in the cellar, it will have to wait. In record time for an 8-year-old, you blast out the front door, zip across the front porch, and clatter down worn the wooden front steps to the cracked slate sidewalk.

You are late, and today is no day to be late! In your pocket are a dime and two pennies which are going to get you into the Victory Theater down the street for a double feature, buy you a box of honey-licorice cough drops, and leave change. You do not have a cold or cough, but you can suck on the cough drops, letting them slowly dissolve, and enjoy them for a long, long time.

You have to make the cough drops last today. You are going to watch the weekly news, the previews of coming attractions, a Three Stooges short, and a double feature the whole neighborhood has been waiting three weeks to see. And maybe ...?

If they put a cartoon on the kids will cheer. So will you.

Two cents for the ticket and a nickel for the cough drops leaves five cents to spend on penny candy later at the candy store across the street from the Victory Theater. And maybe you’ll be able to share it all with someone special. Maybe.

As you hit the slate sidewalk you hear a familiar voice. You turn and see that Junior Disarro, the kid next door, is headed the same way you are. He has a dime and a nickel he tells you as the two of you take off down the street, making tracks and rattling on about the two movies everyone has been waiting to see.

On the way down the street you catch up with Buddy McKinley and Kenny Fessler, headed in the same direction. The four of you reach the end of Brook Street and wait to cross Victory Boulevard. Lena Lombardi, Janet King and Eleanor Landis catch up with you. Eleanor quietly winks at you as the seven of you stand there waiting for a break in the traffic. You wink back, making sure no one but Eleanor sees it. And you smile. Mostly inside.

Eleanor is your girlfriend. You know it, she knows it, and the whole neighborhood knows it, but you can’t acknowledge it because the kids will never get done poking you in the ribs and ribbing you about it. Eleanor and her mother live right next door in the upstairs apartment rented to them by Mrs. Reed, an old lady who owns a two-story-plus-attic-with-a-room-in-it house that is the only freshly painted house in the neighborhood.

Mrs. Reed is rich. She owns her own house, but she’s a nice old lady. She is always asking you come into her house and take out her trash or dust the genuine Tiffany lamp hanging over her dining room table. The trash can is usually half empty, and that genuine Tiffany lamp is always spotless, like the rest of her house. You both know that she only asks you to do chores so she can give you a bowl of her homemade chocolate ice cream when she makes a new batch, but you each pretend it’s just a coincidence.

Mrs. Reed thinks you are a “nice little boy.” Mom told you so but put her finger up to her lips and said, “Sh-h-h-h!” when she said it. That means it’s secret. Mrs. Reed gives Eleanor ice cream for doing chores too. Mrs. Reed is a very nice rich old lady.

The traffic clears. Seven kids hurry into the street, too busy talking about two BIG movies to pay attention to much else. Eleanor leans over and whispers in your ear. “Let’s sit together.”

You nod your head, happy at the thought of sitting next to Eleanor. The two of you hang back, letting the others get in line first. You’re right behind Eleanor. You are one very happy kid.

It is a long line. Every kid in Tompkinsville, the part of Staten Island where you live, knows “those” two movies are showing today. The line crawls. You begin to worry that you may be late getting inside, but you decide it won’t be too bad if it happens. They’ll show the previews first. Previews are fun to watch — and they’re free — but you can do without them as long as you don’t miss any part of the double-feature.

At last you and Eleanor reach the window and get tickets. You can hear music inside as you rush in together. The other kids are nowhere in sight. It is dark in the theater. Only the flickering light of the black and white weekly newsreel lights up the aisle as you and Eleanor pick your way through the gloom, waiting for your eyes to accustom themselves to the dim light. Where the other kids are you do not know, but you and Eleanor find two seats right at the end of the seventh aisle. Wow! Right up front — and with Eleanor too. What a great day!

The newsreel ends. The previews start. Wow again! There’s a technicolor movie coming. And what a movie! A witch, a tin man, and a scarecrow who can walk and talk. And a wizard! All in color!

Something happens that distracts you and you forget all about the previews. Eleanor has reached down, taken your hand in hers, and squeezed it. You look at her and squeeze back, wishing you could kiss her, but the previously dark movie house is now as bright as day so you settle for another squeeze of a soft hand.

The previews end. The Three Stooges come on. Moe wreaks havoc with Larry and Curly as they work as carpenters. Noses and ears are pinched, hammers pound noggins, boards slap heads as they are carried, Larry tries to hammer a nail in the wrong wall and has to walk across the room with it so that the point is aimed in the right direction. The kids laugh, you laugh, Eleanor laughs.

Happy music. Bright colors. A cartoon! “Yay-y-y-y!” Bugs, Daffy, and Elmer do crazy things. The theater rocks with laughter, but it ceases the instant chilling music fills the air. All eyes are on the screen. For 1 hour and 40 minutes the only sound coming out of wide open mouths as Frankenstein rampages across the screen are screams of shock and surprise as Hollywood does its thing. At last the seemingly indestructible monster is trapped in a windmill, the doctor who made him grasped in his arms. Raging at the people below, the monster hurls his maker at them, but Dr. Frankenstein lands on the spinning wind vanes and is spared. The villagers, torches flaring in the night, set fire to the mill.

THE END. Just in time. Hearts could not have stood much more.

Oh my! Double-feature! There’s another one coming!

I guess we’ll have to wait till next week for it, Johnny.

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