The West Side Story
To see the pictures that go with this story
In House Magazine December 2002
Denis is the publisher of House Magazine
The neighborhood where I grew up was in the upper West Side. It was defined on the north by 110 Street, otherwise known as Cathedral Parkway. It was bordered on the east by Central Park, on the West by the Hudson River and on the South by 96th Street. It was also Known as the 24th Precinct, one of the highest crime districts in New York City. Except for swanky addresses on Riverside Drive and West End Avenue, the rest of the neighborhood was mostly tenements with some having cold water flats. That meant no heat.
In 1944 Ascension Grammar school graduated about 55 boys who went on to high school. Most of them were accepted in Catholic high schools such as Cardinal Hayes, Power Memorial or La Salle Academy on Second Street off Second Avenue where I went.
( The Prom- fits in here someplace )
Those who couldn’t afford that type of school went to public schools, such as Commerce or a trade school. It was in that Class of ’44 where lifelong friendships took shape. Starting in 1936 at the pits of the Great Depression this group of young boys shared memories that have lasted for more than 60 years. All of them are in their 70s and many are doing well. Most are retired but some still work. Lots of them have passed on. This little memoir is about this time in my life, the reunion I missed for about a half dozen who showed up at the house of Jack Cleary in Brooklyn on Sept. 12 and some have the photographs I’ve saved through the years. Most of the photographs were taken through High School and into our 20s. But the thing that held us together was having been schoolmates and playmates from 1936 until 1944.
Ascension was our parish and it had a grammar school that taught boys and girls. The school was on 108th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue. You could go to church on 107th Street through the back door. Boys and girls were taught together by nuns from the first grade through the third grade, but in fourth grade the Christian Brothers took over. It was a moment of truth and a new form of authority. My first grade teacher was Sister Francis and my fourth grade teacher was Brother Louis. Brother John was our 7th and 8th grade teacher who drove us insane trying to keep us quiet with his wooden clicker. Sometimes it looked like he was going to burst. I remember these teachers for the oddest reasons. It was the boys ( the members of the class of ’44) who are with me to this day.
What memories! Maybe it was the Depression blues that kept the stories intact. Maybe it was the future in 1944 which looked bleak with prospects that some of us would be invading Japan a few years later. There was a camaraderie and something like a badge of honor at having survived the West Side. Looking back, it’s as though the girls side of the school did not exist We knew they were there but that’s about all. If you had a sister in there (as I did) you might be given a note to talk to her.
It was an Irish American place, a school where the nuns and brothers dedicated their lives to boys and girls with as many as 60 pupils jammed into every class. I tend to smile now at “class size” of many schools. Can anyone imagine the discipline problem of 50-plus boys, ages 10 to 13 in one class? The brothers and nuns taught as best they could and only once in a while lost control and the punishment was memorable. Occasionally a note was sent home to a parent who was invited to view a child unobserved.. “That boy is an wild Indian,” said Brother Victor to one horrified mother. “Just look at him.”
However, Brother Victor could sometimes swing a right arm at anyone who showed disobedience. It was a good idea to play the little saint when he was around.
The parents were for the most part Irish immigrants and when the class of 1944 started in 1936 the great depression was at it’s depths. Discipline had to be left to the teachers. The sorrows of the depression touched everyone. In the late 1930s the lifting of Prohibition meant work in the breweries and in bars for many fathers who had no education. Those fathers who took those jobs and could stay away from alcohol were lucky. Many of the others who worked in that environment lived short lives. Still the father looked for work wherever they could. The mothers washed and ironed clothes and waited at home for the boys and girls to come home for lunch. A bowl of tomato soup would be fine. The only tuition at ascension was being catholic.
If you were late for school, Brother Victor, the principle for the boys would greet you on the second floor and rap the fingers of your non-writing hand until they were red and then he would send you to class. I don’t know what the girls side rendered for punishment. This was the type of school where you couldn’t flunk out and you were sent there to be a good catholic. Sparing the rod was never a factor. The Catechism was drummed into you. The weekly confessions to Father McDermott in Ascension Church were enough to receive communion on Sundays. Pictures of Mary ascending to heaven were everywhere. Blessing yourself was serious business. It prepared you for the confessional. How boring it must have been for priests to hear weekly confessions from boys and girls from 10 to 13.
And now here I am looking at photos of my old classmates and remembering what it was like growing up on the West Side.
Believe it or not we had our own football, softball and basketball teams and we called ourselves the “Shamrocks”. However neither the brothers nor the priests could help us with coaching and the father of one of the boys, Mr. Stevens, pulled us together and we practiced. Our opponents were from Holy Name parish on 96th Street or Chorpus Christi on 135th Street and a weak team from Blessed Sacrament on 82nd Street. We thought we were pretty good and played right through World War II and believe it or not the Shamrocks played the veterans from the war but lost a tough game in 1947. Stopping those guys who landed at Normandy was a pleasure. The games were played on the fields of Riverside Drive ( which had goal posts) and the fans were the parents who looked on. We had one player, Donny Leo who was a great runner. I remember one game we played in a stadium in Weehauken, New Jersey, where he took a kickoff and ran untouched for 96 yards. What a thrill! We were all about 19 or 20 years old at the time. Donny Leo was a hero to almost all of us. He was the biggest and the strongest. He was also the street fighter we all loved and one year he entered the heavyweight division of the Golden Gloves. He got to the semi-finals where he was badly beaten. That was a big surprise to all of us who watched the fight on television. He went to high school until he was sixteen, took a job as a laborer and married his child-hood sweetheart who promptly had a child. Donny Leo became a janitor and he died at an early age. He never had a chance. EDITORS NOTE: Donny is alive. We found him living in Arizona. He is struggling with diabetes.
He has a great sister-in-law who is helping him out.
Contact info- Ms Anita-Smyth Leo ’44, 7006 East Jensen St., Mesa AZ 85207 Tel# 480-396-6458
Most of us didn’t know one end of the city from another except to play a ball game at some other parish. Beyond our neighbor hood it was foreign country.
We didn’t know where the East Side was or the South ferry. We swam in the slimy Hudson River until the cops came and grabbed our clothes and told us it was too dangerous and polluted. We were forever looking for a sport to play. We played stickball on Sundays because there were no cars on the streets then. If you could hit a stickball three sewers you could hit third or fourth. We played
stoop-ball outside Toolan's Saloon in the summer until the sun went down. When we were old enough we left hanging around Clem’s candy store on 106th Street and Amsterdam Avenue and went across the street to Donaghy’s Sunset Bar and Grill which stayed open until 4:00 a.m.
One of the things you had to have was a part-time job. My first job was working for Milty Goldstein, a distributor of afternoon newspapers on 110th Street and Broadway. It paid $2.50 a week for working after school and I took it. Joey McClain, one of the members of the class of ’44 held the job and asked me if I wanted it since he had other plans. That job involved carrying on my shoulders such now long-gone afternoon newspapers as The Journal American, The World Telegram, The Sun and whatever else Goldstein was distributing. So I thank Joey McClain. He launched me on my newspaper career. I eventually worked on the World Telegram which merged with the Journal American and the Herald Tribune
But finding jobs for anyone in the neighborhood seemed a daunting task. Our fathers broke their backs looking for work at odd jobs. When we were old enough, looking beyond a neighborhood job meant taking a test for the cops, fireman or some other city- like job. The depression had warned us that a city job meant a steady job and something on which to build a family.
To the best of my knowledge, none of us from the class of ’44 sought the spotlight. No Hollywood. No theater or the arts. Not a hood in the crowd either. A few got to Wall Street and I’m told Jerry Bell held a seat on the stock exchange and sold it before it was worth a bundle. Most of the others took jobs where they could find them and some became fairly well-to-do. A lot of the others who didn’t show up for the reunion haven’t been heard from for years.
My own career began with a fluke thanks to Jack Cleary. The Korean war had just broken out and we were all subject to the draft. No one wanted voluntarily to go and fight the North Koreans and with older brothers telling us to find a less dangerous route than army life, we began to look around. Cleary had a friend who told him to join an Air Force reserve unit about to be reactivated at Mitcherll Field.
Cleary, Marty Barrett and I drove out to Mitchell Field and joined the reserve unit called Airways and Air Communications Service (AACS). It handled control towers, radar stations, sophisticated technology and even supervised the DEW line defense across the North Pole against possible attack from the Soviets. One of the first days after being activated, about 50 airmen were assembled in front of the headquarters when a sergeant stepped forward and asked: “ Can anyone draw?”
My two brothers had been in World War II and upon leaving for Mitchell Field both said earnestly: “Don’t volunteer for anything.
With that in mind, I kept my mouth shut.
But to my everlasting surprise – even to this day – Jack Cleary blurted out: “Denis can draw. He’s right here.” Cleary was always a do-gooder.
The sergeant had wanted signs for quartermaster and such. That night we drove back to the West Side and I told my brother, Kevin, what was being asked of me.
“No problem,” he said, and he proceeded to make up the signs based on his experiences from the war. The next day, we drove back, submitted the signs and the sergeant said: “You belong in Public Information School.” The school was my training for journalism and that was how I became a reporter and historian for the Air Force.
One last memory occurred when I met Brother Victor, the Principal, years later and about two days before I was to graduate from Columbia University.
“I’m graduating on Tuesday,” I told him on 110th Street and Broadway.
He looked at me with a grin and said:
“Denis. Graduating from Ascension was one miracle. Graduating from La Salle was another. And now you are graduating from Columbia.
“That’s three miracles,” he said. “Don’t ask HIM for any more.”
For pics again