Vic Giovanni is joined in Robert Weinberger’s pantheon of memorable characters by his Kindergarten teacher, Lily Regenbogen.
Here we see her through the words of the narrator’s older brother:
“Here’s your crayons, little bluebird,” he hisses, and the way he says little bluebird is a lot different than they way Miss Regenbogen says it.
Through acutely funny dialogue and deftly rendered gestures and descriptions Rob Weinberger recreates growing up in the the 60s and the rocky start to his education, which draws visits from concerned relatives:
“The poor parents,” they whisper. “What they must be going through.”
Today in gym, Lisa DeSilva fell off the ropes. At first they thought she lost her footing, but it turns out she had fainted. Luckily she was only about five feet up and there was a big mat underneath. They ask me to take her to the office so Gary can call her mother to come get her.
I wonder if she still lives in the same house. When we were in lower school, Lisa had a Halloween party in her basement. Her father or stepfather stood at the top of the stairs, making ghost noises through the door while everyone ran around screaming. The floor was sticky with apple juice and squashed candy corns. My cat tail fell off and got lost. Witches hats were mashed. Even Lisa, dressed as a blue fairy, seemed unsure of what would happen next.
I sit with her in Gary’s office. She’s lying on the couch under an International Year of the Child poster. Her hair is dark brown, almost eggplant. She used to be really cute but now she wears glasses with peach-tinted frames that make rest of her face seem small and indistinct. She looks defenseless in her gym clothes, tiny blue shorts and a decal shirt whose decal has been bleached out and is now just a white plastic shape.
“Feel my hands,” she says, laying one hand upon my arm. They are cold and clammy. I still remember the day we were huddled around her in gym, asking, “Does it hurt? Do you bleed a lot?” Lisa was our resident expert. She was the one with the experience. I want to thank her for telling us about it, to tell her that, three years later, I finally got my period, but it has been a while since we were friends.
Unhexed=Bites of Lunch that were cut from the final manuscript. As I slowly, slowly make my way towards creating a print version of the book I may include some of these cuts. Leave a comment and let me know what you think. In an effort to not confuse the reader with too many characters I cut out minor ones.
“He opens his mouth to say something but the train is picking up speed as we go under the river. We glance at each other without speaking. The empty cars of the CC train rattle through the tunnel. They are gray with yellow walls, dim light, dirty linoleum and slow electric fans. They are like someone’s kitchen in a long dream. When the train pulls into Broadway-Nassau Street, the car fills with miserable people in steaming trench coats. Harry pushes out against the tide of them to transfer to the Lexington Avenue IRT.”
I took this picture of an old CC train at the Transit Museum. Either the colors of the carriage walls had changed by the late 70s or I misremembered them by the time this scene was written. Also, the museum has used brighter lighting. The way I remember it, there was always at least one light flickering and it was darker. Underground was like being underwater. Note the porthole window in the door.
Read a little more of Lunch on Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood.
“The Gift of Tongues” combines the New Yorker’s love of rooftops with the middle schoolers love of the grotesque and overtly sexual.
And in the spirit of NYC 1970s autobiographical realness, here’s a picture of me in 7th grade, holding a light meter for my father, who was a photographer. New Yorkers will recognize the Fox Police locks.
Surrounded by the hulking gray and peach buildings, Downtown Brooklyn’s Family Court and the Metropolitan Transit Authority headquarters, the park feels like one of those abandoned places in a Planet of the Apes movie. It is not a park mothers would take children to. It was built over an underground parking garage. Six lanes of traffic stream by the Adams Street entrance. Inside the park is a playing field with bald dust spots, a row of cherry trees and a privet hedge along the side. We used to come here every day for recess in lower school. You could find treasures in the bushes: broken jewelry, metal watchstraps, chess pieces, screwcaps. There was a sweet smell down there, when you crouched along the edge of the field where the dust met the bushes, rotting cherries, Thunderbird.
Here is the wide subway platform with its white and green tile walls, the gray concrete floor they hose down with chlorine before the evening rush hour. Upstairs, the Transit Park heroin addicts are having breakfast at the donut and hot dog stand. The token booth squats toadlike in the darkness, breathing its hot exhaust, oblivious to the line of people as a mountain of change is meticulously counted. Metal tips of train pass holders tap against the glass, kids hollering “Pass!” as they plunge through the turnstile with enormous book bags and their noise. Jehovah’s Witnesses stand silently in the shadows, waiting, watching. Harry says they prowl the Heights, ringing doorbells, forcing themselves, smiling, into people’s homes and converting the children before their parents come home from work.
“Through the trees we can hear the crackle of the bonfire and the hum of another song. All around us is a pattern of chirping bugs and a scatter of bright stars. We go to Peter and Harry’s cabin. They aren’t even there. The rooms smell like ours, of candy and bug repellant, but they feel different, kind of risky. It is all boys’ socks on the floor. We spy several pairs of floppy white briefs on the floor. Monica catches one with her toe and flicks it at me. We think we hear someone. We are slithering around trying to hide in the sleeping bags. It is this incredible feeling of giddiness, frantically trying to hide when you know you will get caught, except, like in all those games of hide and go seek tag we used to play at her house, getting caught didn’t matter when we got caught, like in R.C.K. when you hope it will be the guy you have just started to like and are hoping he will like you back. Before it gets complicated. We are pretending to be piles of laundry when Mr. Nichols flicks on the light and tells us to scram.”
Read more on your Kindle. Get the book at Amazon.
Mr. Murphy took us to Windows on the World at the top of the World Trade Center. He let us drink one glass of champagne. The city was spread out all around us. We pressed up to the windows, trying not to annoy the other people too much; giggling in the bathrooms, where an attendant is there with towels and we spritz ourselves with cologne and hairspray.
Going back to Brooklyn, the bridge howls, making this terrific sound that is a combination of wind and wire strings and traffic, punctuated by the clank of wheels hitting the metal plates. When you walk across the bridge, you can see boats below, through the slats, like fallen wads of tissue.
Photo: Truman Moore
Tonight my parents put on their big band records. It is the last day of summer vacation, and this is the last summer of the 70s, and tomorrow I start eighth grade, my last year of middle school.
My mother tries to teach me to dance. She walks me through the steps. I follow her fuchsia toenails, her long tan feet, across the white wood floor. “Look, Fred,” she calls to my father, “Kate is doing the foxtrot.”
I’m a little worried. You always are. New year. Nice tan. Flat chest.
My father drinks a bourbon on the rocks, nodding his head slowly to the music, looking at the album covers. He squints at me. “Didn’t they teach you to dance at school?” he asks.
“No, Fred,” my mother says between counting beats for me, “that was the Robinsons’ daughter.”
My mother talks me through the steps. She is good at instructions, but I am bad at following them. There are certain things, she says, one should know how to do, like make a béchamel sauce, write a thank you note or iron velvet. According to her, I taught myself to walk, cruising around the perimeter of my room when I didn’t know she was watching, refusing to do anything but crawl in public. She says that on the day of my first birthday, in a new dress and the camera ready, I walked straight across the room. “You had a sense of occasion,” she said.
My father’s interpretation: “It was your birthday. There were presents.”
Everyone is always watching each other. Rumors travel faster than light. They speed up the stairs ahead of you to your next class, so that everyone always knows everything.
I can picture the long hallway of our old apartment, before we moved here, to the edge of the meatpacking district. I am a few days shy of my first birthday. My mother sings along with her Fifth Dimension record as she vacuums. I rise into the uncertain air. My room is at one end of the hallway, the room where my mother vacuums at the other. I am halfway there when the machine shuts off. I drop to my knees at the sound of her step.
“This is music,” my father says. “The stuff you listen to: bump, bump, bump. Don’t wanna dance no more with no big fat woman. Those aren’t lyrics.”
“A ten-minute song, containing eight words and two double-negatives.”
I am disappointed some of his songs don’t have any lyrics. “Take the A Train,” in particular. I would love a song about it: about the little old black lady with the rhinestone cat glasses and her immaculate clothes from the Sixties, and the VD posters, and the people who eat bananas out of paper bags, the people who commute in plaid shirts, and the grey polyester suit people of Chambers Street, the way you can learn Spanish from the ads. That’s my A train: 14th Street, Manhattan, to Borough Hall, Brooklyn. Six stops from here to school. Watch the closing doors. And it all starts tomorrow.
“I don’t even like disco,” I tell him.
“Beep-beep yeah, beep-beep,” he counters.
“No,” my mother pulls me back in time, “slow, slow, quick, quick.”
When my parents were growing up, there were more rules for how to do things. Even dancing. Even dating. They had report cards and letter grades. We get these paragraphs about our social development and attitudes to learning. In my mother’s mind, boys and girls can never just be friends, because there are signs, codes, lines not to be crossed. These days, the grown ups all want to be teenagers, what with their flared pants and their long hair and the unisex barbers and the pot they might be smoking. Parents are getting divorced like crazy and moms are going to law school, studying to be realtors or joining EST. So, clearly, the rules are being broken. But even so, I concentrate and try to find the pattern with my feet.