The weather was gorgeous. Of course it was.
We were sitting up front in the Mykonos restaurant
in Great Neck. The windows were out so patrons could enjoy the traditional glorious weather of the holy days.
The Lubavitchers were walking to their Chabad
, the men in suits, some of them tropical white, the women in dresses. This was a week ago, the second evening of Rosh Hashanah.
A cluster of young people, boys and girls, stopped in front of our table. A young man, maybe 12 or 13, surveyed our table of four and asked the classic question, often posed by proselytizing men in the city: “You Jewish?”
We glanced at Mike, our DH (Designated Hebrew, to use Ron Blomberg’s felicitous book title.
“Have you heard the shofar yet today?” the young man asked.
(The shofar is the ram’s horn
, blown all over the world at the Jewish new year.)
Mike had been to temple in New York, but he was not about to spoil a good scene.
No, we all said.
The one adult in the group, I am assuming a rabbi, began to blow on the horn, for two or three minutes, his notes undoubtedly reaching the shopping mall across the street.
Then he led Mike in a Rosh Hashanah prayer, as all four of us joined in.
They wished us not only a good Rosh Hashanah but a sweet Rosh Hashanah
. A good Rosh Hashanah could sound like a root canal, the rabbi said. But Rosh Hashanah should also be sweet. The young people smiled sweetly and we thanked them, and then they were gone.
The manager brought our dinner, just perfect, like New York weather at the holy days.
Jean White Grenning and Jackie Forrestal
The link is Jamaica High School, built to last forever, high on a glacial hill.
The White family moved into the house in 1938. Jean White was our class president for 1956, a born leader. President for Life, we call her.
Jean was captain of the cheerleaders when her boy friend Eddie Grenning played for Brooklyn Tech against Jamaica, in the PSAL semifinals in 1955. Then she led the cheers for Alan Seiden and Artie Benoit as Jamaica won the title.
When Eddie passed, way too young, Jean sought out adventures, getting air-lifted onto a remote island in Alaska, where she spent a winter working as a community liaison. Now she lives on another island, called Manhattan.
A few weeks ago, Jean White Grenning was in the old neighborhood and decided to take a look at her childhood home, which the Whites had sold to the Forrestals in 1977. Jackie Forrestal sent her daughter Kathy to Jamaica High, where she worked on the school paper, the Hilltopper, and loved her time there.
On this spring day, Jackie and Kathy were both gardening in the front yard when Jean dropped by. So much history in that meeting. Jackie has become a leading activist, sticking up for the legacy of Jamaica High, as the city, in a fit of Pol Pot nihilism, has sought to destroy the landmark high schools. Jamaica High is being phased out, with the gorgeous indestructible building turned over to the new fad in education, boutique mini-schools.
In its time, Jamaica nurtured Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee
, Democrat from Houston, Letty Cottin Pogrebin
, Stephen Jay Gould
, Bob Beamon
, epic Olympic long-jumper, Paul Bowles, Sid Davidoff
and Herb London
. Four friends of mine, who lived a few blocks from each other, became doctors, some still working.
The last legal hopes for Jamaica High are stalled somewhere in the court system
; Jackie Forrestal goes to meetings, reminding people that her daughter Kathy had a great time in Jamaica not so long ago. Jackie has come to be the caretaker for bound issues of the Hilltopper, our school paper, and other treasures, just in case the school somehow emerges from this dark age.
A few weeks ago, Jean White Grenning and her brother Stuart White took the subway to Parsons Blvd and walked up 164th St., visiting their old church, the First Methodist Church of Jamaica. “The minister graciously showed us around the church and explained that he would be leaving for another church in South Jamaica. In general, he said, church attendance is down all over.”
They stopped in the old candy store, now a deli, and talked to new owner who has been there six years. Then they visited their old house, a few blocks from Jamaica High, and Jackie showed them around the house “which looks the same to us. We then walked to Union Turnpike stopped in another deli (now Korean) and peeked into the windows of Dante's which did not open until 4 o'clock.” (Back in the day, Dante’s was a mere pizzeria, where everybody went after the basketball games.)
Jean and her brother walked up 168th St. to Jamaica High, where they chatted with a few boys in one science-oriented mini-school. “They were unsure if they liked the smaller school and thought maybe they would like a bigger school,” she said.
The neighborhood has changed; there is a bustling mosque on 168th St. A few years ago, I had a great time visiting some classes at the old school; I felt Jamaica High was still producing strong people like the Whites and the Forrestals.
Larry Sills Visits the Farm Over his Office.....Photo by George Vecsey
Editing papers at Jamaica High and Dartmouth College, Larry Sills dreamed of working for The New York Times. Instead, he went into the family manufacturing business.
The next thing I heard, Sills was the focus of a terrific article in the Atlantic in January, about a company that still makes things right here in the United States.
If you want to jump immediately to the article by Adam Davidson, I would encourage you to do so. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/01/making-it-in-america/8844/
I was told about the article by the Hon. Walter Schwartz
, my lawyer and friend -- otherwise known as Chief -- the editor of the Hilltopper in our senior year at Jamaica. Sills was the sports editor who gave up his column and assigned me to take over. I hope I remembered to thank both of them for giving me a start.
Schwartz and I visited Standard Motor Products
the other day. The Sills family used to own the six-story factory on Northern Blvd., but now leases the airy top floor.
Sills told us how the recession has challenged his company, but he continues to produce things in Greenville, S.C. and elsewhere.
He paused and pointed to the ceiling.
“There’s a farm up there,” he said, telling us how the landlord arranged for the Brooklyn Grange
to run a one-acre farm on the roof.
Sills described how a crane lifted tons of dirt and a tractor onto what New Yorkers used to call Tar Beach. He winced as he recalled the concussion of the tractor spreading dirt a few inches above his curly head.
We climbed a flight of stairs to the farm, where four or five nimble college-age people were doing what farmers do. There was also a photo shoot going on, with an actual model; we tried to stay out of her way.
Sills pointed out the skyline of Manhattan, plus the tomato and pepper plants, and early shoots of sunflowers which, in a few weeks will reach our height. He pointed out several bee hives in one corner and laughed about how the bees took a ramble one day, blocking traffic on the busy street below. He showed us the chicken coop. Every Wednesday, he said, Brooklyn Grange holds a public market in the lobby, in front of the art display.
We took a short drive to Zenon Taverna
in nearby Astoria, for some excellent grilled fish, celebrating this ethnic borough. Sills and Schwartz and I discussed our college newspaper careers at Dartmouth, City College and Hofstra, respectively.
As it turns out, Larry and I both chose industries currently being challenged in this new economy. He did not display any remorse about heeding the tug of his family business. After all, he used to accompany his dad to work on Saturdays as a child, and he keeps photos of his ancestors in the board room.
The company has given him a livelihood that supports his family. He has been portrayed in what seems like a fair way by a good young journalist in a major magazine. Plus, the roof continues to support the farm right above him. A century ago, people built factories to last.
Four people from Corona: Marie, Carmela, Omar, Irene.
Mario Balotelli broke down Germany – Germany! – on Thursday.
It was compelling viewing at the center-of-the-Italian universe, Mama’s of Corona, Queens, surrounded by antipasto and cannolis and friends.
Three Italophiles – a local hero named Minaya plus a Blum and a Vecsey -- watched Balotelli grow in stature before our eyes.
As soon as the big dude blasted his second goal against what had been the strongest-looking team in the Euros, his inner knucklehead could not resist, and he whipped off his jersey, the worldwide macho gesture of goal-scorer pride.
Of course, by football regulations, that cost him a yellow card, making him vulnerable to suspension for Sunday’s final against Spain.
Still, Balotelli was an impressive sight, a son of Ghanaian immigrants
named Barwuah, adopted at 18 by an Italian family, displaying his rippling muscles.
“If he scores another goal, they’ll put up a statue of him in Florence,” somebody said.
“Il David Nero,” somebody added respectfully in Italian. The Black David.
The growth of Balotelli in this tournament has been impressive, a tribute to the man himself and also to Coach Cesare Prandelli, who seems to treat him with calm dignity, neither despairing nor fawning. In the quarterfinals, Prandelli sent Balotelli out first for the penalty kicks against England, and the big guy whacked one past his Man City teammate Joe Hart. If the coach thought he belonged out there….
On Thursday we gathered for the semifinal at Leo’s Latticini, also known as Mama’s, at 46-02 104th St., about a mile south and west of the ballpark I prefer to call New Shea.
Ron Blum is a football-soccer expert for the Associated Press; he takes his family to Verona and La Scala every year. I have been an Italy admirer since my first family trip decades ago. And Omar Minaya, son of the Dominican Republic, grew up in the traditionally Italian neighborhood of Corona, dropping into Mama’s
when he could afford a sandwich or a biscotto. Later he played two seasons of pro baseball in Italy, and loves to speak the language.
Minaya, who now lives in leafy New Jersey, and works in the front office of the San Diego Padres, was on a short home visit for his son's graduation. He remains the favorite son of Mama’s, which has two outlets in the Mets’ ballpark. When he worked nearby, he often ducked over to Mama’s for a snack, a chat, a World Cup match.
Anybody who still has a home neighborhood is a lucky person.
Although he left after the disastrous season of 2010, this is the kind of guy Omar Minaya is: last year he escorted his successor, Sandy Alderson, to Mama’s –“just to show him the neighborhood, you know,” Minaya explained on Thursday.
Mama’s remains the way it has for seven decades, with inevitable changes. The matriarch, Nancy DeBenedettis
, passed late in 2009 at the age of 90, but her name lives on.
Get this: the official city street sign on the block now says: Mama’s Way.
And get this: Public School 16, a few blocks away, has been officially renamed. The Nancy DeBenedettis School.
(Read more here about her inspiring American life.)
“I get tears in my eyes when I talk about it,” said Irene DeBenedettis, one of three sisters who operate the little empire on Mama’s Way.
She was showing me a montage in the window, photos of friends and celebrities who have visited Mama’s. (Half a decade ago, Mario Batali, the celebrity chef, paid the huge compliment of dropping in. (“Mama asked him, ‘Who does your hair?’” Irene said, referring to his iconic ponytail
Inside, we were fussed over by Marie DeBenedettis and Carmela Lamorgese, Mama’s two other daughters, and we saw Carmela’s daughter, Marie DiFeo, and her baby, Gina DiFeo, born last Sept. 23, and was wearing an Italia shirt for the Germany match. The staff, from far-flung provinces of Italy, bustled in with cheese, salami, olives, bread, plus pasta with absolutely delicious broccoli rabé, followed by roast beef and potatoes and salad. There might have been a bit of wine, too. Then came the desserts and the coffee.
Before the match, we stood and sang the Italian anthem, Il Canto degli Italiani
(The Song of the Italians), the most merry anthem in the world. Perhaps we were not as passionate as Gigi Buffon, the Azzurri portiere, who bellows the anthem with his eyes closed, but we tried. Then we remained standing for the German anthem. Oranzo Lamorgese, Gina’s grandfather, is originally from Bari but lived and worked in Hamburg and Dusseldorf for a decade and played semi-pro soccer there. He spoke with great respect for modern Germany – and its football squad.
At halftime, Marie DeBenedettis came back and said their deli next door just had a customer – Dwight Gooden himself, buying a hero sandwich. She had invited him to sit with us, but Doc said he was double-parked and didn’t want to get a ticket.
We watched as Prandelli wisely removed Balotelli, to protect him from a second yellow card, to preserve him for the final as the Azzurri outlasted Germany, 2-1,
to advance safely to the finals. Italy has long produced artful midfielders and defenders who specialize in the defensive catenaccio
, the bolt. But now it has a force up front, a striker who is growing in size and tactics, match by match.
The three sisters plied the Italophiles named Minaya, Blum and Vecsey with enough love and goodies to last us until Sunday’s final. Mille grazie, amiche mie.
Oranzo Lamorgese and Gina Watch Balotelli Photos by George Vecsey
And this is just the lobby. Photo by Marianne Vecsey
My high-school class (Jamaica High, Queens, 1956) is pretty tight. We have held reunions in the old gym and the pizza parlor we used to frequent on Friday nights.
The other day some of us got together in the theater of our dreams, the great Valencia
on Jamaica Avenue. Now it is the Tabernacle of Prayer for All People – as awesome as ever.
Our class leaders-for-life recently discovered that the Valencia still existed – 3500 seats surrounded by Spanish/Mexican artwork on the walls and ceiling.
The only difference, as Sister Forbes, our tour guide, told us, is that some of the statues have been clothed, for modesty’s sake.
This theater was one of five first-run emporiums in downtown Jamaica, once the shopping hub for Long Island in the 40’s and early ‘50’s. The Valencia had an orchestra pit and dressing rooms for live Vaudeville shows. My friends seemed to hear the throb of the massive organ.
We met on Jamaica Avenue, virtually unrecognizable in daylight. When we were young, the Jamaica El
ended at 168th St., but it has long since been torn down. My parents met at the Long Island Press, which went down in 1977. The building is now a Home Depot.
We all remembered the glory of downtown Jamaica – the department stores, the cafeterias and clothing stores, but the fondest memories were of the Valencia. Secret smiles indicated great things had happened as James Stewart or Doris Day flickered on the screen. Perhaps the first cigarette in the balcony. Perhaps a first kiss in the dark.
The years faded away as we sat in the first couple of rows and listened to Sister Forbes, who told us how the Valencia was opened in January of 1929, designed by the grandiose Loew’s architect, John Eberson.
For a New York Times article about the turnaround, please see:http://www.nytimes.com/1990/04/15/realestate/streetscapes-jamaica-s-valencia-theater-success-story-masks-landmarks-law-quirk.html
We all knew how movie theaters provided entertainment even during the Depression. And the glamour was there for us during the hope and security of post-war American, as we became old enough to go to the movies by ourselves.
For some reason, I could remember going to the Valencia only once – my parents took me to see South Pacific. I remember being out with them more than I remember the glory of the building. My friends supplied the awe and the nostalgia.
One of us remembered how a member of his group would hold their places in the ticket line during snowstorms – and how he would repair to an open upstairs room with a stove. Sister Forbes was impressed with his ingenuity.
Another of us remembered how one of his party would buy a ticket and then open a side door for his buddies. We didn’t tell Sister Forbes that, lest she cast us out of the tabernacle.
Jean White Grenning, our class president for life and captain of the cheerleaders, and Walter Schwartz, the editor of the school paper, recalled the victory rally for the 1955 New York City basketball champions from Jamaica, right there on the stage, as Jean Gollobin’s choir sang.
Sister Forbes told us how the Tabernacle was formed when the Valencia closed in 1977. The theater had been reduced to showing “black exploitation” films, she explained, and most of the African-American community wanted no part of that genre. The congregation was larger back in the day, she said. Nowadays around 300 members come to church on Sunday, but sometimes they hold regional services, and the old building rocks again.
The good part, she said, was that “things were built to last” in 1929. The congregation has surprisingly little maintenance and repair, she said -- a good thing, I sensed. The building looked great. The congregation does not rent out the building for secular music or other entertainment; we are Pentecostal, Sister Forbes explained. However, they do give tours for a donation, she said. Their number is 718-657-4210. They also welcome worshipers on Sunday -- but not cameras, she added.
After a tour of the lobby (some people think the building is gaudy, Sister Forbes said with a proud smile) we said good bye and returned to the bizarre daylight of modern-day Jamaica Avenue. We still expected the rumble of the El.
Then we headed toward lunch at a diner on what Walter Schwartz calls Re-Union Turnpike. Stanley Einbender, a star of the 1955-56 basketball team, drove us past Jamaica High, still gorgeous up on the hill.
I should add that New York City has cooked the books to come up with spurious excuses for phasing out Jamaica High itself. We are in mourning for a great city institution.
That glorious building will accommodate four boutique schools
of various or changing description. I have no idea
how the ambitious new minorities of Queens can possible navigate all these precious little creations to find a school they can attend.
Back then we had big schools, big theaters, big dreams. Our youth was reinforced by a visit to the Valencia, to the Tabernacle.
The interior/ Photo by Marianne Vecsey
When the El Rumbled Past
The exterior is a city landmark
For him, it worked
Is there a more foolish display by public officials than the mandatory Super Bowl wager between mayors or governors? Are they so craven that they need the attention?
Phil Taylor of Sports Illustrated, one of the most thoughtful voices among American sports columnists, has a great point this week.
He wishes politicians would butt out of sports, particularly those public figures who don’t know a thing about them.
Once again, Taylor has done his homework, citing ludicrous examples of politicians who were clearly pandering, out of their element. A rare example of bipartisanship: clearly, over-reaching knows no political boundary.
Yet my home town of New York has had two recent mayors who took diametrically opposite positions toward sports, and both worked, for them.
Rudy Giuliani made no secret of rooting for his Yankees, whereas Ed Koch had a visceral disinterest in anything sporty.
Giuliani wore his Yankee jacket and cap, was a frequent visitor to the Stadium, knew the players, and knew the game. He was delighted that his position as mayor could get him up close to the field. The Yankees won five pennants and four World Series during his regime.
He showed up for the sixth game in Arizona in early November of 2001. Given what he had been through back home in the two previous months, he had every right to follow his team. The next morning he was back in New York at the start of the Marathon – another statement that the city would endure, that nihilists and lunatics could not shut us down. Then he flew back to Phoenix
for the seventh game that night.
“You’re sick,” I said to him in the crush of the deflated clubhouse after the loss. Giuliani understands clubhouse talk. He smiled and shrugged. It was his team, and he was there, to whisper support to Mariano Rivera, to praise the winning team.
“''I appreciate the way we were treated,'' Giuliani said. ''And if you have to lose, it's better to lose to a city like this. These people sent us search-and-rescue crews.''
Giuliani would show up at Shea Stadium on opening days or other important moments, pay his respects to the Mets and their fans. But everybody understood. He was a Yankee fan. He had earned that right. Rudy Giuliani was never more appealing than when he rooted for his team.
Koch could care less, as we say in New York. He had no interest in sports. If his top aides say, Mr. Mayor, you have to go to opening day
, he would allow himself to be whisked out of Manhattan into one outer borough or another, where he would be introduced, endure the obligatory boos, and take a seat for an inning or two.
Hizzoner might have stayed longer if the ballparks had included an outpost for some Peking duck emporium
. But around the third inning, you would glance down at the box seats, and there would be a gap in the spectators.
While the teams changed sides, the mayor had bolted for the exit; the limo was taking him back to the safety and the aromas of downtown. But he never faked it, never talked manly jock talk, never pretended to know who played first base for the Yankees or Mets.
I think the estimable Phil Taylor would agree: (strictly in a sports context) if you can’t be Rudy Giuliani, then by all means be Ed Koch. And politicians: have you no dignity? Stop with the wagers.