The following is a guest post from Bensonhurst native Marco Manfre, an author, editor and former public school teacher. He has written two novels set in the Bensonhurst of his childhood, following the quirky characters who define so much of the neighborhood’s fabric. Find out more about his stories at the end of this post.
When I was growing up in Bensonhurst, oh so many years ago, there was always something to do right in the neighborhood. My friends and I never had to plan with each other or arrange to have our parents drive us to places for entertainment or socializing. During the summer, the sidewalk, the street, and the local schoolyards were always filled with children and adolescents and adults, and something exciting was always in progress. At other times, we walked to the local movie theaters—the Marboro, the Highway, the Oriental, or the Benson, where, for pocket change, we could spend hours in temperature-controlled comfort. Of course, this was during the pre-Internet, pre-computer, pre-smartphone era, when people spent much of their time outdoors during nice weather actually interacting with each other. In fact, it was before any of us had air conditioning in our homes or even color televisions.
On Independence Day, the thing to do was to attend a backyard barbecue or go to the beach. While barbecues were nice, as far as I was concerned, nothing could compare to a trip to Coney Island or Brighton Beach, which were only a short subway ride away. Since we lived on 79th Street, between Bay Parkway and 23rd Avenue, my friends and I alternated between the N (which used to be called the Sea Beach Line) and the D train (which used to be called the BMT) to travel to the beach.This was before any of us knew about skin cancer, so, during those first few weeks of summer, we burned and peeled and burned and peeled over and over again. We thought of that as shedding our old wintertime skin and replacing it with the summertime version.
One Fourth of July in particular stands out in my memory for being that perfect example of always finding something exciting in the neighborhood, even when least expected. This is the story of one of the best Fourths of July of my life.
July 4, 1959.
I was 12 years old; actually, a bit closer to 13. It had rained and cleared up and rained over and over again all day. Now it was 2 p.m., and the skies still looked threatening, with a gentle drizzle coming down.
Nobody was barbecuing or heading off to the beach, and the older boys who would normally be setting off firecrackers of various sorts were nowhere to be found (I always wondered where they bought them; I was strictly forbidden to ever touch those dangerous objects). My friends and I, reluctantly accepting the fact that it was not going to be a beach day, decided to go to the movies to see Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
It was not how we wanted to spend the Fourth of July, but we figured it was better than sitting in someone’s house playing Monopoly.
As we walked to the Highway Theater, we heard, in the distance, the distinct sound of a bass drum.
Cue the high-pitched blare of screechy brass instruments.
As we looked down Stillwell Avenue, we could just make out, through the warm, misty, drizzly air, the tops of flags. After a minute or so, the music became louder and more distinct. It was a pounding, rhythmic marching band version of “Stars and Stripes Forever.” The steady percussion and trumpet bleats became louder and the music vibrated through the air and up from the sidewalk and energized us.
Finally, the band came into view.
Actually, it was two bands—a combined Boys Scouts and Sea Cadets ensemble proudly bearing dozens of American flags and pounding out their martial music as they smartly marched down the street.
As the parade approached where we were standing and as dozens of onlookers cheered, we saw that Mr. Petrosino, one of the teachers from our school, Seth Low Junior High, was leading it. We called out his name. He turned and waved at us to join the parade. As the line of marchers passed, my friends and I looked at each other, each one waiting for the others to make a move.
Aaron Levy dove in first. Then Vinnie Balducci ran to catch up to the procession. I joined them, followed by Jamie Maniscalco and Bruce Goldstein.
Even though we did not have flags or musical instruments, we marched in step at the end of that parade for miles in the light rain, eventually stopping at a park (the name of which is lost in the mists of time and memory). Dozens of people were there. The band played a few more songs. Some girls from the Lafayette High School Twirling Team put on an exciting, flawless performance. We all recited the Pledge of Allegiance and sang the National Anthem. Then, right after some man in a suit completed a speech about patriotism and the meaning of Independence Day, the skies cleared.
As the crowd broke up, we bought lemon ices.
Walking home in the late afternoon sunshine, my friends and I agreed it had been the best Fourth of July ever.
Marco Manfre is an author, editor and former teacher. His novels, set in the Bensonhurst of the 50s through the 70s, include The Outcast Prophet of Bensonhurst and Returning to the Lion’s Den: Life in an organized crime family. You can purchase his writing in paperback or e-book format, including his short stories, on Amazon.