Fish Cakes and Spaghetti - A Times Square Memory
A New Friend and a Plan
.I was pretending to be, pro wrestler of the day, Johnny Valentine and my friend and neighbor, Ken, was portraying the champion, Buddy Rogers. We would wrestle on my front lawn every day, after ninth grade, trying to mimic the moves of our favorite wrestling stars. We were tough guys in our 15 year old minds. Then John showed up. He walked up the hill every day, past my parents house, from the Catholic school on the east side of the small, suburban, North Jersey town where we lived, about ten miles outside of New York City. The Catholic school boys had to wear a tie and the girls had to wear a kilt and blouse. It was unusual to us back then because we were not exposed to anything other than what we learned in public school.
Ken and I were facing off when this kid who had this habit of tying his dark green tie around his waist shouted out to us! “What are you guys fighting about? Break it up!”
I stopped and turned to him and said, ‘We are not fighting over anything. We’re wrestling!”
“Why?” he asked. “What’s the problem?”
“What do you care?” I asked. “You wanna give it a shot?”
Before I had a chance to ask him why he wore his tie around his waist, this kid had me in a headlock on the ground and said, “You give or what? I will break your neck! Got it?”
Being that my choice was a broken neck or giving up, I had to yield to my newly found adversary.
“I give! I give!” I said.
I cannot describe the humiliation that I felt and it got even worse. This kid stole my girlfriend from me a week later. He also came from a family that was much more prosperous then my own. He had a horse, a built in pool, his own cabin in the wooded side yard and a mini bike, To this day, it still seems strange that this guy became, at least for a short while, my best friend.
Why would I befriend a kid that whipped my butt and stole my girl only to dump her a week later? Did I admire him? Or did I want to get even? I still do not know. I eventually was able to evade the deadly headlock and reverse it into a full Nelson and beat him. But he was still better looking than me and had a great line and continued to steal my girlfriends.
One day we were talking and John suggested that we skip school and take the Public Service 165 bus into New York. He spoke as if it was a common part of his lifestyle to just do whatever felt like adventure at any time that suited him. I felt intimidated yet anxious to explore the city that I had only seen with my father on an occasional trip to Yankee Stadium. I agreed to the suggestion.
“Can you get phony proof?” he asked..
“Yeah, my brother went into the Air Force and left his draft card home,” I said. “I have been using it all along.”
Back then the legal age to buy alcohol in New York was 18 so it was common for kids from Jersey to have fake ID’s to use across the border, either upstate or in the city.
Our Omnibus Odyssey
Two days later we were on the bus, heading for the Port Authority. Skipping school was no problem. You would just write yourself a note on real stationery by placing it over lined paper and writing along the lines that showed through. Only parents could write that neat. It was never questioned.
Our plans were to just hang out around Times Square. It would get better, later on, as we learned to buy fireworks on Mott Street for resale, but that is another story.
So here we are, two 15 year old boys with fake IDs stepping off the bus in the Port Authority in 1965. We follow the signs that say “street” and walk out into midtown. We might as well have stepped onto the moon. One small step for adolescents, one giant bait for predators. We were approached by every form of degenerate that we were warned about in the movies that we were not allowed to watch. There were hookers, pedophiles and transvestites, corner preachers and militant radicals handing out papers saying that America was falling. There were movie theaters with huge marquis touting XXX rated films. We walked down the street with yellow checker cabs everywhere, horns constantly blaring and steam coming up from below the sidewalk. The air was pungent from the smell of exhaust and cheap food stands. We found these strange peep shows, where you would sit down and peer into a viewer and drop in a quarter. A woman would appear in a black and white film and begin to remove her clothes. She would almost get her top off and the film would stop until you put in another quarter. At 15 I did not have many spare quarters so I never found out what came next.
There were these store fronts that displayed hundreds of cameras in twenty foot high display windows with huge price signs. Hungry people peered in the window of Tads restaurant as the cook flipped steaks on a flaming grill right in front of their feasting eyes. There were two for a quarter hamburgers sitting in liquid in one place and stores that displayed rings that looked like cobras and wolves with red crystal eyes, big black leather belts and stiletto knives for sale. That is where we stopped for a look and a instant business decision came into play.
“Look at these rings. Let’s buy a couple and show them off at school. I bet we could get orders and double our money.” John said with his usual selfish confidence.
“Not today,” I replied. “I only have five bucks on me and I am really hungry.”
“I have a twenty that I got for cleaning the basement.” He replied. “I will spot you.”
We each got a nice ring. I took the wolf head with the red eyes and he took the cobra head..
But now it was time to eat.
“I am starving,” I said. “Let’s get a hot dog or something.”
“No we came here to get a couple beers. Let’s try this place. Look! Fish cakes and spaghetti for a dollar.”
It was this little 8th Avenue bar with a hand written sign in the window that read “Lunch Special, Fish Cakes and Spaghetti. $1.00.”
We went inside, walked across the black and white tile floor, past the bar and took our place at a small table in the back. A waitress, with that hardened charm reserved for New Yorkers only, approached us and said, “What can I get you guys?”
“Two orders of fish cakes and spaghetti and two drafts please,” I replied.
“You guys got proof?” she asked.
“Yeah.” We handed them over, but she barely looked at them..
So here we were. Fifteen years old, sitting in a midtown New York bar with the yellow Checker cabs flying by, smelling the stale bar smoke and the deodorizer that wafted from the restrooms, We sipped our Ballantine drafts and enjoyed our fish cakes and spaghetti while discussing how much we would make on our new business venture, selling macho rings to the self proclaimed tough guys back in Jersey. No one was better than us at that moment.
It has been over 40 years since I lost my innocence to the perversion and stench that was Times Square back then, That was if I really ever had any innocence to begin with. I will never forget that time and my friend John, who unfortunately, despite his affluent upbringing, chose a tragic path of drugs and crime for his life.
I was fortunate to avoid that spiral that entrapped so many back then and eventually married a great woman who was raised in the same area as I and who shares similar memories of growing up. This Friday is Good Friday and it is a day where we refrain from eating meat. What are we having for dinner? Fish cakes and spaghetti. It is an odd combination designed to be a cheap meal to fill you up years ago. But it has, to me, the best flavor; It has the taste of nostalgia from Times Square in the 1960’s.. I would sincerely like to lift a glass of beer to you, John, for the great memories. I hope you are still living and living well.