Tag Archives: Stuyvesant Town

The Bomb

I was reminiscing with my friend last night and she reminded me about what it was like during the time when a nuclear holocaust was a very real possibility. I guess today we worry about mass killings, terrorists, and ISSIS. But back in the early 60s, annihilation of our world as we knew it by the Bomb was the main cause of anxiety. Childhood should be a carefree time of innocence, but as children growing up in those days, the Bomb loomed large in our consciousness. During that time, everywhere you looked in Manhattan, was the ubiquitous bomb/fallout shelter. In Stuyvesant Town, where I grew up, each building was equipped with a carriage room where we kept bicycles, carriages, and things of that sort. However, during the paranoia of the Cold War, our carriage room doubled as the official fallout shelter, complete with the circular, yellow and black symbol promising survival; never mind that the walls were not designed to protect us from a nuclear attack and it was not equipped with any long-term survival gear or food and water. I guess this was the only place in our development that would at least semi-meet the requirement that all buildings have such a “safe place.” As a little girl, I remember being outside in the playground, or on the street, when suddenly the loud blare of air-raid sirens would usher us indoors to whatever building we were near. It became so “normal” for this to happen periodically that it was just an annoyance and nothing to be concerned about. Then an all-clear siren would signal us that we could come out of hiding and resume our activities. In school, we had “bomb drills” where we would huddle under our desks as protection from flying glass—not even thinking that we would all be incinerated. My brother and I played a game of “what would you do if?” We would ask, “What would you do if you found out that the USSR launched missiles and you knew you only had about 5 more minutes before they hit?” I would answer that I would hide in the bedroom closet, knowing full well that it would be over for all of us. These childhood games were born of pure FEAR about the future of our world—something that children should not have to think about. I vividly remember opening the front door to my best friend, Janet, during the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and seeing her worried face reflecting exactly what I felt—namely that we might all be doomed. That feeling of pure helplessness was something I’ll never forget and the fear I felt that day is still palpable for me

The fallout shelters provided people with a false sense of security because in actuality, the city would have been flattened and we’d be liquefied. If anybody were “lucky” enough to survive the initial attack, the radiation would slowly take its toll. But, as humans we wanted to believe we had some measure of control and these shelters met that need.

As the years rolled on and the Cold War lessened, those bomb shelters and signs gradually disappeared giving way to a tenuous sense of security. Unfortunately dangers still exist wherever we go and we cannot escape them. But what made that time period different from the world crises we currently face was that the very existence of the earth and our species was threatened—that life on this planet would cease to exist, and that horrible fate was in the hands of mere mortals.

The Mahjong Girls

Growing up in Stuyvesant Town—a large apartment complex on the Lower East Side of Manhattan—was more like Peyton Place than you would think. It seemed that everyone knew each other. The complex stretched from 14th Street to 21st Street and consisted of a multitude of 13 story buildings. Stuyvesant Town was built in 1948, and was geared for returning vets and their growing families. My parents and other young families moved in, creating a common bond—something you don’t find today. There was a sense of camaraderie and belonging among the new residents who were often either Jewish or Catholic that is absent today. My mom and a few of the Jewish ladies formed a ladies group that met once a week at each other’s apartment, to play Mahjong (a Chinese tile game) and they became known to us as The Mahjong Girls. When it was my mom’s turn to host, we were always in a frenzy—frantically vacuuming and dusting, putting out hors d’oeuvres, nuts, chocolate, drinks, etc. When the first doorbell rang, my older brother and I were exiled to the bedrooms. Since I did not have a room of my own, the evening was particularly magical because I got to watch TV in my parents’ bedroom and eat the goodies my mom would bring into me during a break. Mahjong seemed to be the exclusive domain of Jewish ladies and I don’t think the Christians played it. Now, each Mahjong girl had a distinct personality—and where we didn’t know much more about them, my brother and I invented personalities. There was Ethyl, Anita, my mom, Shirley and Sarah. Anita was chubby, and had a gravely voice, so my brother and I imagined her as someone obsessed with cookies and imitated her voice asking, “Do you have any cookies?” She had two sons, Jay and Steven, who my brother (Gordon) and I played with. Their son Steven was odd, and nobody could really put their finger on what was wrong with him. But, years later Gordon and I came to the conclusion that he was probably autistic. My brother and I could sometimes be pretty cruel, not directly, but looking back I see that our funny games were born of jealousy. On the surface, Anita seemed to have a charmed life, but one day, we found out that her husband, Sydney, was “visiting” somewhere for an extended period of time. Since Stuy Town was somewhat Peyton Place like, we found out through the grapevine that he was actually in jail for perjury. So, from then on, my bro and I referred to him as “the criminal” in our conversations (again, just between us). Unfortunately, their son Steven inexplicably was found dead one day—a real tragedy. Now Shirley, who also lived in our building, was a very stylish and refined beauty whose husband, Bill, was a commercial artist. Their apartment was impeccably decorated and she was the height of fashion. She had blond tresses that she wore in a tasteful upswept hairdo, which never looked out of place. However, Gordon and I had a theory that her hair was not real, and was, in fact a wig—that underneath her golden faux locks, she actually had “black, kinky, greasy hair.”

My family’s circle of friends went beyond our building too. And, just like Peyton Place, gossip abounded in Stuyvesant Town. Since we considered our family so imperfect (and it was, but probably not much more than some other families), we hated seeing seemingly perfect families. One such family was headed by the matriarch, Marion. She was a pillar of the community, always traveling on vacation, head of this or that committee, beautiful apartment, and seemed to live a “Father Knows Best” or “Leave it to Beaver” existence. But, one day, we heard through the gossip mill, that Marion and her husband were getting divorced. I remember sniggering with my brother about that, and being not so secretly thrilled that the perfect Marion was, indeed, human like the rest of us.

It’s so strange that although my memories of growing up in Stuy Town, with my very dysfunctional family, are not particularly great, I still have dreams every so often. I dream that I am somehow still living at 455 East 14th Street, in apartment MG, but I am my age now. Sometimes my parents are there too (the age they used to be) yet it seems perfectly natural. These dreams are never happy ones, but somehow I have them periodically—although less and less as I get older. My brother and friend Janet (who lived across from me) have these types of dreams too, which is so curious, since our childhoods were less than idealistic. But somehow, although there were many painful memories, there were actually some good ones too and, in spite of myself, I find reasons to laugh and reminisce about them. I guess these dreams somehow represent a time of innocence, although imperfect, innocence nevertheless.