Writing about my school's field trips when I lived in New York reminded me of the culture shock I felt when Mom and I moved to Hollywood in 1953. It didn't take me very long to make friends and soon I was accepted into a circle of nice young people my age.
In New York, I had been working at the telephone company for over a year. To get there I had to take the subway all by myself to "the City" with the rest of the working people who commuted. We never called it Manhattan. It was just the City. It was our City, and we loved it. When I got off the train at my stop it was still a long walk to my job. Every day I walked near a campus of Fordham University and looked at it wistfully, wishing I could go there instead of to my job. I tried to figure out why my mother said I didn't need to go to college because I'd be married before I knew it and then I'd be a housewife. It didn't compute; did she think the desire to learn disappeared when you said I do? Eventually I worked out a plan to attend Fordham without actually being a paying student. I didn't care about credits. I just had an insatiable desire to learn and still do. I found classes that were offered at the time I got off work and I signed up for the first one without telling my mom. I'm embarrassed to admit it, but when people asked where I went to school, I said, "I attend Fordham." Well, I didn't lie, even if I was only taking one course at that time. I was starting to feel grown up, doing new things a subway ride away from the family. I bought some new clothes with my first paycheck so I could dress the part of this grownup I felt like I was becoming. I loved the outfit below that I bought when I was seventeen. It was the first one I ever bought with money I earned.
When Mom left my Dad, we had been living in the upstairs apartment in my sister's house and Mom said we had to move. Not up for discussion. It was hard to find inexpensive places to rent, so we moved into the finished attic apartment of Fanny Gentile's house. She was Mom's friend and she let us stay there temporarily until we could find a place of our own. It was cute and had a bedroom, a tiny kitchen and a bathroom, but no tub or shower. We had to go to my sister's house to shower. I didn't mind because I missed Jean and it was a chance to see her more often. She was thirteen when I was born and was like a second mother to me. I adored her and kept her on a pedestal until the day she died. She married Pete Lomuto when I was seven. He told me later he wanted to get her away from our crazy family! Mom wasn't crazy, she was just unhappy and depressed a lot, but she hid it well. People loved her because she was the life of the party. She could break out in song on a moment's notice.
After awhile, Mom and I had enough money to rent a small apartment on Devoe Street. It had a bedroom and small kitchen, and a toilet in the hall. I haven't thought about this for many years. The only thing I remember was the water for the toilet was in a nicely finished walnut box high on the wall over the toilet and I had to pull a chain to release the water to flush. At work I wondered what kind of apartments the other girls lived in, but I never asked.
Please don't think I am reporting this as a poor-me-I-had-a-horrible-childhood anecdote. I'm not. At the time, I never thought about it much. I was so happy with my first boyfriend, Johnny Martin, and nothing else really mattered except that I missed seeing my dad every day. Johnny and I started dating when I was 14 and went steady until we got engaged on my 18th birthday. I wish this photo was in color. My new coat was a bright chartreuse, a very popular color in 1949!
My first real job wasn't my decision. Mom said Buddy's wife, the late Nancy Carovinci Normandy, had a good job at the telephone company and I should get a job there, too. So I did. Still the obedient child, I didn't argue about it. I didn't have a better idea and I knew I wouldn't have to work there very long. It was very strict at work. We weren't allowed to talk to the other girls during work hours, except during lunch and our 15-minute breaks. The supervisor was a nice middle-aged woman who sat in front of the room, like a teacher in a classroom. She made sure we stayed on task. Our office computed a portion of the Brooklyn telephone bills. "Computed" might be misleading. Computers weren't in our vocabulary yet and we had never seen one. Calculated would be a more descriptive term since we used calculators. In cities, phone calls were charged by message units. The longer you talked, the more message units you used, and the higher your bill would be. That was just for local calls. Long distance calls were separate and costly. I can still conjure up my mother's voice yelling, Priscilla, hang up the phone. You want to make the telephone company rich?
In History of Phone Billing by Hancock, he wrote:
In cities, message units were used to tally up local and suburban calls.In huge rooms we only heard about, there were mountains of meters with numbers constantly changing every time a person in North Brooklyn made a phone call. Meters were read once a month. People we never saw went into the meter rooms and took photos of all the meters. Every day, we each got an envelope of meter photos. Each one had the previous month's reading and the reading of the day for endless numbers of telephones. When Hancock wrote, The meters were photographed and the values processed and a single amount transferred to the bill, he had accurately described, in a few words, the job I did for eight hours a day. I figured out we had to calculate a certain number of them in a day to keep our jobs, but I don't recall them telling us what that secret number was. It was an effective manipulation tool, guaranteed to keep our noses to the grindstone. Manipulation might be too harsh a word. They probably thought of it as behavior modification.
There was a meter attached to each line which would increment for calls
and time of call. The meters were photographed and the values processed
and a single amount transferred to the bill. The use of message units
instead of itemized billing saved considerable paperwork.
There must have been at least thirty young women in our office. Our small desks were sparse and identical. There was a calculator and several pens on each. Nothing personal was allowed to distract us. When the meter photos were given to us, our job was to subtract one set of numbers from another, using the calculator. We recorded the answer in message units and moved on to the next one, and the next one, until break time, lunch time, or 5 o'clock.
One day the supervisor called me up to her desk. I was afraid I had done something wrong and thought she was going to fire me. Instead she asked me if I knew how many bills I had calculated the previous day. I had no idea, but I knew I had worked as fast as I could. She gave me the answer and I still had no idea if it was wonderful or terrible. Then she asked me how many bills I thought the average person did the day before. I still had no idea. She told me. Then she asked me if I knew what was wrong with that. I was afraid to guess, so I said no. The bottom line was that she told me I was working too fast and making the others look bad. She had worked hard to get them to the lowest possible number that would satisfy the bosses and I was messing up the average for everybody. With a sweet smile on her face, she added that if I wanted to keep my job I had to slow down or "they" would find a way to fire me. I didn't know who "they" were. I would have agreed with anything to keep my job but I really didn't understand the problem. I was taught to work hard and always do my best. That's the day I learned the concept of featherbedding. I guess I wasn't as grown up as I thought. Decades later, Gordon told me he had the same experience in a summer job when he was a teen. Seems he was sweeping the floor too fast and got the job done faster than the other boys. The boss explained that it wouldn't be good if the Union rep heard about it. It's amazing more children's minds don't get warped. Ours didn't and we both grew up to be overachievers, sometimes to our own detriment.
I was graduated from high school when I was still sixteen because back then there were no gifted classes and teachers could recommend that children skip a grade to challenge them more. I skipped 3rd grade and half of 5th. It was not all good. It worked intellectually, but not socially. The kids I met in Hollywood were my age and seniors at the high school in Hollywood. I think it was South Broward High. They seemed a little immature, but happy and welcoming. They told me where they hung out on Hollywood Beach and gave me an open invitation to join them. Finally, after countless beach days, I was hungry for some culture. I asked one of the boys where the nearest museum was in town and if I could get there by bus. I remember he looked at me like I was an alien or something and said, Museum? Museum? We don't have anything like that here. We have the beach and the whole Atlantic Ocean. What more could you want? Get over it, you're not in New York anymore. I guess he told me! Everyone laughed and a sweet girl that ended up being a bridesmaid at my first wedding said, Honey, don't feel bad. You'll get used to it. Heavy sigh. I didn't want to hear that and was afraid to ask if there was at least a library in town.
The photo above is a postcard picture taken on the beach by a roaming photographer. I think the boy is Bill Gloeckner, a new friend at the time. The other photo was taken on Christmas day in Florida. Our relatives in New York were complaining about the cold weather so Mom took this picture of me to entice them to join us in Hollywood. She didn't think my skimpy strapless top was appropriate so she camouflaged it with some foliage. :)
My new crowd also hung out at an ice cream parlor on U.S.1. The first time I went there I ordered an egg cream to drink. Heads turned to see who said that. A pretty girl with sun-bleached hair who worked there in the shortest shorts I had ever seen, said, in her sweetest Southern drawl, Are y'all from New Yo-wuck? We don't make them down here, honey. I knew people back home who pronounced it New Yawk, but that was a first for me, a two-syllable variation. They thought I talked funny because I didn't say y'all. I think they were surprised I didn't say "youse guys." I never met anyone in New York who said youse guys, though Mom did keep me on a short rope, so what do I know. I had a lot to learn about the South. I didn't realize how different Southern cooking was. No, I didn't want grits with my eggs because I didn't know what grits were, but they sounded gritty to me. They looked too much like the polenta my mother made on a meatless Friday, covered with gravy and Parmesan cheese and smelling of oregano and thyme. To me, polenta smelled like the inside of a pencil sharpener. I enjoy cheese grits now, but not polenta. Now I'm longing for a New York Egg Cream. Not any old egg cream, only Rocky Tricarico's Famous New York Egg Cream! He sent me his recipe in 2009 and when I find it, I'll add it to my story.Most of the kids I met were Jewish and invited me to their youth group at the synagogue. In my whole life, I had only been in one other church that wasn't Roman Catholic. A girl I worked with asked me to go with her to drop something off at her Baptist church. I went and hung back when she walked right up to the altar to talk to someone up there. (Was that a sacrilege then?) She invited me to join them but I still thought it was a sin to go to the altar like that, maybe not a Mortal Sin, but at least a venial sin (venial meaning a "forgivable" sin, which does not result in a complete separation from God.) I was still Catholic then and wasn't taking chances. I didn't even know what a synagogue looked like. I didn't find out at that time either because the youth group just met in one of the plain side rooms. I felt awkward and didn't know what was expected of me. Actually nothing, at first, so I went back the next week. The next week they were voting on new officers for the youth group, which sounded a little boring. I knew enough not to vote and was totally surprised when I was voted in as Treasurer. I was the only non-Jewish person in the room and they made me Treasurer. I never figured that one out. Some people clapped and one boy shouted, The shiksa won. How about that! And on that day I added a new word to my vocabulary.
This one's for you, Gordon ... xoxo