Yorkville Summer 1965

by

10/06/2019

Neighborhood: Featured, Yorkville

 

 

83rd Street Gang


Summer 1965 in Yorkville, two street rides would begin to show up at night after dinner: the Bumper Cars and the Half Moon. 

Each ride sat on a flat-bed truck, whose driver doubled as the ride operator. He’d park at a hydrant opening. The admission for each ride was a dime. My daily allowance was three dimes. No ifs, ands, or buts. Three dimes. That was it. To get on these rides I gave up a lot of good stuff: Drake’s and Hostess cakes, records, comics, soda, balsam airplane gliders, wax candy, baseball cards. These rides forced me off the dole and drove me to get my first job at eight years old delivering newspapers. I needed my stuff and I needed these rides.

Often, Paddy McNamara and I would wait on the stoop for the rides. With our elbows on our knees and hands on our chins, we would stare down the block toward the river, waiting for that night’s ride to turn off East End Avenue.

The bumper cars were just like the bumper cars at an amusement park except they were smaller, and the circular track was the size of a tiny apartment. There were five cars and if you were fat it was worthless trying to squeeze yourself into one. When a kid got stuck in a bumper car, the operator got aggravated, so he eyed the chubby ones up and down and sometimes wouldn’t let them on. Time was money and he had other blocks to get to after ours. The good news for me was the small cars worked to the little kids’ advantage. The only problem was the track size. Once the five cars were occupied, the operator lined them up, stepped off the track, and switched on the electricity. Then the cars began moving, and he’d watch his watch. Seven minutes. Never longer, never shorter.

He did nothing if cars got tangled up, as they often did on the tiny track. “I ain’t no wrestling referee,” he’d say. So sometimes you spent seven minutes piled all together and yelling at each other, “Get moving, doofus!” or “Blockhead, you’re turning the wheel the wrong way,” or “Dummy, forward!”

It was also nearly impossible to put a good distance between my car and whomever I wanted to bump, making it difficult to get the proper speed or angle for a solid broadside or rear-ender. Ideally, I wanted to be the third man in, right after two of my rivals whacked each other. They’d be recovering from whiplash and yelling, completely ignorant of my proximity. This allowed stretched-out moments of glorious anticipation before I slammed them silly. There’s a talent in being able to post your vehicle toward the perfect impact point while simultaneously remaining deeply focused on your victim’s head, shoulders, and neck. My heart soared if, pre-impact, the victim flashed a look of terror, knowing it was me who would deliver fresh pain. The cherry on top was my victim shooting me a look of grudging respect. 

After the bumper car ride left, everybody would sit on a stoop, regroup, and check our injuries. No liniment was available or offered. All agreed it was a fine battle if everyone’s head lolled a little to the side after. At times, my head felt like a bowling ball on a pencil.

The Bumper Cars guy was in cahoots with the Half Moon guy. I knew it because they never showed up on the same night. The Half Moon was a vomit machine that resembled a baby’s cradle, a swing-style ride with four tiers of seats on each side. Each row had room for four kids and a broom-thin bar, a questionable source of protection.

The Half Moon was powered by the operator’s elbow grease. He would grab the side of the ride and begin rocking the kid-filled cradle. Once it was in motion, momentum would help the operator the same way it helps when you push a kid on a swing. The operator would send the ride higher and higher till it flirted with 90 degrees and many children feared it was going to flip over. I loved the roar of the kids’ “whoa’s” with every dip and rise as the Half Moon rocked back and forth.

Anyone who sat in the first row was considered a ”pussy.” Sitting in the second row, you avoided taunts. If you sat in the third row you were OK with everyone, even the nut cases and bullies. If you sat in the fourth row, at the very top, not only did you get a free pass with the bullies and nut cases (who usually sitting next to you), but you also earned points with the girls. Blind, hapless desperation for female adoration drove many a boy up the metal Everest to his sure doom. Put me in that group.

There was a rumor started by the older guys that in the late 1950s, a Half Moon operator despondent over a breakup with his longtime girlfriend forgot to evenly balance the weight and number of kids on each side of the ride. He sent the ride well past 90 degrees and it flipped over. Remarkably, no one was killed, but seven kids supposedly switched sides midway on the ride when they went airborne. The kids got off the ride a little loopy and bumped into hydrants, light poles and cars, but except for a few cuts and bruises everyone survived.

These rumor-mongering teenagers also told us that the City Council decided after careful deliberation to let the ride continue operation if a safety chain was installed across each row of the ride. This safety chain had the same thickness and strength as one of those plastic key chain things you’d weave on a boring rainy day down in the Pavilion in Carl Schurz Park. Depending on the mood of the kid nearest the hook end of the chain, it either stayed on or off. The majority of riders preferred riding bareback.

Unlike the Bumper Cars, where direct damage to a chum or foe was straightforward, the Half Moon presented subtle challenges. I could bump someone in mid-swing, or I could try to loosen their death grip on the safety bar. This was particularly attractive when I saw the blood drop from my neighbor’s face.

On the day the flying manhole cover went through the roof of Pete Salerno’s green convertible, Paddy and I heard a tire screech and saw the Half Moon guy racing through a yellow traffic light, turning his truck up 83rd Street with his loudspeaker blasting “Bits and Pieces” by the Dave Clark Five. (“I’m in pieces, bits and pieces, you say you love me, and you’ll always be mine…”) All the kids on the block started yelping, and cries of “Ma, throw out a dime!” filled the air. I had made a buck-twenty the previous day delivering newspapers for Joe’s Candy Store, so Paddy and I were good to go.

But a minute later, while everyone was scrambling as if an air-raid siren had sounded, I heard Frankie Valli’s falsetto (“Dawn, go away I’m no good for you…”)

“The Bumper Cars!” kids screamed.

“Holy shit! Both rides!” Paddy said, rubbing his hands together.

This was a first. Somebody had screwed up on the drivers’ alternating business arrangement, and both of them now were mad. It had rained the three previous days, and I guess that messed up their schedule memories. It was fun watching these red-faced guys in guinea T-shirts screaming and throwing their fat arms around like windmills. The mania was catching because the second ride’s arrival had put the block into a loopy frenzy, with kids now asking for two dimes and most windows being slammed shut by fed-up mothers.

Paddy and I watched and smiled. We knew we were going on both rides.

***

Thomas Pryor’s work has appeared in The New York Times and other periodicals. His memoir, “I Hate the Dallas Cowboys – tales of a scrappy New York boyhood,” was published in 2014 (YBK). His short stories are found in Thomas Beller’s, “Lost and Found: Stories from New York,” Three Rooms Press, “Have A NYC 2,” and Larry Canale’s, “Mickey Mantle – Memories and Memorabilia.” Pryor’s blog is: “Yorkville: Stoops to Nuts” 

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