The city was different then. There’s one day in particular I’ll never forget. It was a Saturday morning, and I turned off the wireless – Mayor La Guardia was reading us the funnies during the newspaper strike – and bounded out of my tenement to pick up my two buddies, Hamill and Breslin (odd names for 11-year-old boys, but the city was different then), who duly bounded out of their respective tenements. We conferred on a stoop, striking sepia-toned poses, the pockets of our knickers bulging with Spaldeens because we never knew when we might be asked to join a class-transcending, ethnically diverse game of stickball that we could use as a poignant metaphor later in our professional lives. Downing egg creams served in real glasses by the memorably colorful character who owned the corner candy store, we then embarked on a grand tour of the boroughs, all five of which we’d all grown up in.
First stop, Coney Island, where a few thrilling rides on the Cyclone emboldened us to bet on the mechanical horses at Steeplechase Park. Then we took in a rare mid-morning ballgame at Ebbets Field (the Bums lost), and afterward hopped a trolley across two rivers (the trolleys ran everywhere in those days – transportation was different then) to the honorary borough of New Jersey, where we gawked at the freak-show tents at Palisades Amusement Park. Next, via the Staten Island Ferry (a hard-earned nickel then; we learned early that there was no such thing as a free ride – childhood was different then) and a complicated series of connections involving more trolleys and the Third Avenue el, it was over to Freedomland, the amusement park out by Orchard Beach.
Later, we enjoyed the matinee at Loew’s Paradise near Fordham Road (they were having a Leo Gorcey festival, if I recall), then rode our bikes down to 161st Street and got autographs from Frank Gifford and the Bambino right in front of the Concourse Plaza Hotel. It had started to snow – it really snowed in New York in those days – so we warmed up with an ice-cream soda at Addie Valens, then sat in the bleachers at the Stadium (DiMaggio nearly ran into one of the monuments, deep-center hazards in those days – baseball was different then). There was more crowd noise coming from beyond Macombs Dam Park, over in Manhattan – the Polo Grounds! – so we raced across the bridge, laughing and tripping over the cobblestones (that’s right, cobblestone bridges – the city’s infrastructure was different then), to watch the Giants play. By now it was past lunchtime, and time to think about heading “downtown” for a bite at the Automat; otherwise, we’d be late to meet our pal McCourt (who’d be arriving at Penn Station – Penn Station was different then – by train from Ireland – Ireland was different then) for our big night on the town: the Stork Club, the Copa, El Morocco, then maybe Billie’s late set on 52nd Street or possibly Dylan at Gerde’s (Dylan was the same then). But as we rose from our seats after the final out, a fedora-topped man in our section relayed a shocking bulletin that had just come over his pocket wireless: The Redcoats had attacked Pearl Harbor. Blanching (yet somehow retaining our sepia tones), we jumped the stadium turnstiles and, barely sidestepping a sailor bending back a young woman in a deep iconic kiss while a photographer snapped away, hit the streets of New York – a New York palpably and forever changed – all of us thinking exactly the same thing: Now is the then that the city will have been when, much later, we all remember how different it all was.