East Orange Life - Money  © 2000 Pete Smith

          My kids are funny eaters. Nick (7) will closely examine each and every food particle; tiny fragments of an odd shape or color are highly suspect. Uncommon meats (if its not a hamburger it is classified "uncommon"), and all vegetables other than pop-corn are out. But he'll take a bite if it's uniform in color, shape, and texture. Max (3) has an even smaller menu, living basically on chicken nuggets and fries, cereal, pancakes, and pizza, period. An occasional plate of spaghetti with butter rounds out his diet. Adam (1), on the other hand, is still too young to understand that foods that look funny (multi-colored and textured) should be deemed dangerous, as they can make you gag and are for adults only. But I can't seem to make my kids sit at the table and eat the way my mom did.
     My mom used to make us sit...and sit...and, a little longer..., and we'd cry, and gag, and moan, and sit. "You're not getting up from that table until you eat!", really meant something. I mean, 20 minutes is a long time for a kid to sit at the table with a plate of stringbeans staring back at him. Poking at them and rolling them over with a fork; looking real sad with your head leaning on your hand and elbow. But I can remember having to sit there for 45 minutes, or even an hour! How did she do it? The determination! I tried it with my kids a few times and I gave-up after about 5 minutes.
     Well, money was real tight at that time. My mom was getting Social Security for the 7 of us, but that couldn't have lasted very long. The day the checks came we'd go to McDonalds in Belleville. Now THAT was fun! What a treat! My mouth would water just thinking about that vanilla shake. All 7 of us in the station wagon...I take Max to McDonalds nearly every day now. It's terrible.
     But anyway, I know mom used to clean houses just to make ends meet. Could you imagine? Here she was cooking, cleaning, and doing wash for the 7 of us, and then having to go clean someone else's house? Incredible. Funny too, she was always there for us. I mean, I don't remember being left alone or anything like that. Except maybe the times she'd really get so freaked-out by it all; where we'd be driving her so crazy that she'd finally scream, "I'm leaving!", and she'd walk out the door. And the younger ones--myself, Gene or Vin, would start crying. And someone would say, "See, thats it! She's really leaving and never coming back!" And then someone else would say, "She's not really leaving, she'll be right back." And we'd go on and on wondering whether we really did drive her over the edge this time or was she really coming back, (Joe REALLY WOULD be in charge then); and thank God, 5 minutes later she'd come back.
     We wore lots of "hand-me-downs". In catholic school we had to wear uniforms. Mine (as well as I'm sure all of my brother's) never seemed to fit right. When I say "mine" I mean the one I was wearing that day because most of our stuff was "community property". We had pretty much one draw for all of our socks and underwear, and the shirts and pants belonged to whoever they fit, or needed them, at the time. I always felt like my shirt was too big or my pants were too small or something. I got in a fight one day with Jimmy McNeal. I had slept over his house and must have left my belt there. One day he came into school wearing it. I went crazy, telling him, "That's my belt! Take it off NOW!" He was like, "I aint taking off this belt, what am I gonna wear?!" So, we started fighting and he practically kicked my ass, and I was crying my eyes out about my belt. I finally got it--I think the teacher worked it out--and everything was fine.
     But that belt meant so much to me. It FIT! And it was MY belt; the one piece of clothing that held all the other wacky-shit together.
     Still to this day I don't like dressing up. Every so often I'll have the bright idea to go out and buy a nice suit jacket and pants or something, and I'll wind-up in some dingy, old "Men's Store" trying on suits that are from 1976 or something. I then politely tell the salesperson, "I'm really interested in that one, and I'll probably stop back later", and leave never to return. I just can't get the hang of it.
     To save money my mom used to cut our hair. She must have really gotten to be one hell of a barber. The early years were easy...she'd just "buzz" our hair right off. We ALWAYS had crew-cuts. ( I'd like to thank her now, because from what I understand this makes your hair grow back thicker and stronger). But as the 60's progressed we all wanted to have long hair. We'd grab it and try to stretch it down over our eyes saying, "See, mines longer...look, it's in my eyes...wow, I'm cool, I'm a hippie!" So mom found this "device". It was kinda like a square comb...innocent enough? Except it had a razor blade tucked away in the back. Man, that thing used to hurt! She'd rake it through our heads. I'm sure it wasn't bad the first few times, but it probably got so dull that it just ripped the hair from our scalps rather than cut it. Oh, that's right. It was a "thinner". We'll sure, if you rip half the hair out of your head it WILL be thinner.
     Another place mom would take us when she got her checks was "Kresgies", right on the corner of Broad St. and Bloomfield Ave, in Bloomfield center. They had this great big counter with stools along the left side of the store. I can still smell the ice cream floats and french fries. They had colorful balloons pinned all over the wall behind the counter. When you were finished with your meal you got to pick one to break, hoping your check might be free. I was in love with the one of the waitresses, "Rosemary". "...Smile a little smile for me, Rosemary...", I'd sing to myself. She was a well-built, dark-haired beauty of about 20. I was 6. I'd try my hardest to impress her with my quick-wit and good looks. Not an easy task when you have 6 good-looking brothers, some of whom are as old as 10.
     I remember going to the library alot. It was a beautiful red-brick building on the corner of Colonial Terrace and Dodd St. (We had a painting of it hanging in our livingroom for quite a long time; I think my Uncle Ben has it now). Thank God for that library because it really was a nice, "free" place to go. It instilled in me an appreciation for Public Libraries and the learning within, and I love take my own kids to the one near us today. I would roam the shelves looking for "Encyclopedia Brown" books or venture into one of the other sections; there were at least 3 rooms on the upper level alone. I performed in a little play once, organized by Stephanie "Whatshername", who had a big crush on my brother Joe.
     I can also remember going to summer-school one year--not because I needed to--but because it got us out of mom's hair and gave us something to do.
     Cub Scouts was a really big thing back then also. Mom was a Den Mother along with Mrs. Kinney, and Mr. Kinney was a Scout Leader. We used to make all kinds of neat little crafts in Mrs. Kinney's basement. The Pinewood Derby was always something to look forward to, even though this was one area where I sort of wished I had had a dad to help-out. Building and painting those little cars was tricky. Mr. Troxel helped me out one year along with his son Chris. That damn car came-out like a showroom Porsche; complete with balancing weights, and greased wheels.
     Another great thing about mom was her fantastic Halloween costumes. We hadn't heard of "store-bought" costumes back then. She used to keep this big box filled with wigs,  cloaks, capes, and all kinds of weird things just for Halloween. Probably the best costume ever created was the "spirit of 76". She dressed three of us up just like the picture; a drummer, a flute player, and a guy holding the flag; right down to the tattered clothes and bandages. We paraded around the Holy Name gym floor and may have even won a prize. Another time I was a midget; squatting down with a shirt pulled over my knees and a big, old suit jacket over that. I had a large cigar dangling from my mouth. I know I won a prize that time. I try to keep a "Halloween Box" for the kids today, but it's not the same with a plastic Power Rangers mask.
     Our house was really not very big, especially in comparison to some of the others in that area of Fulton St. and Colonial Terr. It was a small colonial, with a livingroom, diningroom and kitchen, and maybe a small "sewingroom" off the dining room. I think it had three bedrooms and one bath. Not a lot of space for a mom and seven small boys, yet it seemed big enough back then. I'm not sure of the bedroom arrangements because it was always changing, but several to a bed was not uncommon. We also had an unfinished attic and basement. The living room ran the length of the front of the house and was great for playing "running bases" in our socks. There was also a small porch off the livingroom where I can remember we kept a lot of games. But we spent a great deal of time outside.
     When it would snow we had a great big "boot-box" which contained about 20 pairs of black-buckled books. I have no idea where they came from but they were all different sizes. You would just fish around in there until you got something close to a match, and be on your merry way. Our hats and gloves were kept in a pot-bellied stove, and again, you just reached in there to see what you could find. When Pea-coats became the rage mom managed to buy a bunch of them for us. I think she did a lot of shopping with Popular Club and the Sears "wishbook".
     Christmas was never dull and we always managed to get lots of toys.
I can remember asking for a magic set once and low and behold, I got it! One year mom brought us all new bicycles. It was incredible! How could she afford seven bikes!? And someone, I'm not sure who, maybe one of the husbands from the neighborhood, helped her put them all together on Christmas Eve. We would wake-up on Christmas morning at 6:00am. Mom would be so tired from the night before that she'd beg us to wait until seven. So we'd sit there. Waiting. Dying to go down stairs. But we'd wait. Someone would block the stairway with their arms and hold everyone back. By about six-thirty we would all be out of control and go racing down and attack the presents. It was a mad-house!
     One year we actually saw reindeer footprints and sleigh tracks up on our roof. No lie. They were there.
     But we got real good at making things too; like our own bikes. We used to cut-off the front forks of an old bike and make "extenders"; extra-long front forks with a small front wheel to give the bike the look of a "chopper". We had our share of "sissy-bars" and "banana seats" with purple speckles. We would also make our own "go-carts" out of baby carriage wheels, wood, and whatever else we could scrounge-up. We really had no clue what we were doing (for example, I once tried "welding" my front forks on with solder). I remember using lots and lots of nails because they were plentiful in Helmstetter's garage. Then we'd go flying down Kenmore Terrace at break-neck speed, having the time of our lives. Front wheels would fly-off regularly.
     The most memorable story as far as "money" and "Christmas" goes is the time mom and Joan Luenberger were out Christmas shopping. Having had a nice lunch, they  returned to the car, only to find that someone had stolen their packages. They say the Police responded to the scene and encountered a woman who was wailing, "The cookies, the cookies, they stole the cookies!" The cops couldn't figure out why this lady was so upset about having her cookies stolen. "But they were for Christmas", mom cried.
     You see, money REALLY WAS tight, and those cookies really were "for Christmas", And I can't ever remember having anything less than a wonderful one. Thanks mom.
     By the way, the Bloomfield Police, after learning that my mom was a widow with seven young boys, decided to take-up a collection. They came-up with about $200.00 and presented it to my mom. The picture, including the two cops, mom, Gene and Vinny wound-up in the star Ledger with the headline "Santa In Blue".
     Not surprisingly, I've always been a strong supporter of the Police.

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