The Block
Stories Of My Growing Up



Albert Vetere Lannon


 
© Copyright 2020 by Albert Vetere Lannon







(Third Avenue El at 14th Street Station, 1952)
 
I lived in many places as a kid, mostly in New York City: born in Brooklyn in 1938, then Upper West Side; East Bronx; Baltimore, Maryland; Elizabeth, New Jersey; Biloxi, Mississippi; and East 12th Street between Second and Third Avenues. That’s where I grew up, one-quarter block from the screeches and sparks of the Third Avenue El during the early 1950s. 

I lived with my parents and my kid sister Karen at 212 East 12th Street, a five-story walk-up across from a paper factory. We actually lived in three apartments on the second floor that had been renovated into a single unit. To help make the rent my folks rented out a room to comrades. Dad, an ex-seaman, was the maritime organizer for the Communist Party whose headquarters was several long blocks west of us. Mom was an office worker for Party-related lawyers and organizations.

The first tenant I remember was Dora Lipschitz, who was deported to Poland. Next were Gerhardt and Hilde Eisler; Gerhardt was the brother of composer Hans Eisler, and reported in the press to be the Comintern’s number one spy in the U.S. Hilde was a clothes hound stuck with one small closet in the large room they occupied. I remember Gerhardt as kind, always treating Karen and me to vanilla wafers until, facing prison, he secretly stowed away on a Polish ship to make his way to East Germany and become a government official. Hilde soon followed, becoming editor of a popular magazine which had an “art” photo of a naked woman in each issue. Then came an old Russian, Boris Sklar, brother of a close comrade of Dad’s from Chicago. He was quiet and unassuming and, to me, always smelled of the tobacco-like asthma medicine he used. He got a smaller room and I moved into the big rear room where I could keep some snakes and turtles.

Mom and Dad were busy with Party work as the McCarthy Era intensified; the top CP brass had been convicted under the Smith Act for “conspiracy to teach and advocate the overthrow of the US Government by force and violence.” My folks were too busy to have time for me as I entered adolescence, and I wanted attention. If I couldn’t get positive attention, I soon figured out how to attract negative attention, and catching and keeping reptiles was one way to do that.

Dad had set up a tropical fish tank, ostensibly for me, but he kept complete control of it. One day I exploded and demanded, “Do you like snakes?” He said, “No, I hate snakes!” I said, “I’m going to keep snakes!” And I did. We spent parts of summer at a party-friendly farm-turned-vacation-cabins place in Wallkill, New York, Briehl’s Farm. I caught garter, water and black racer snakes there and brought them home.

One day I was sitting on the stoop next door when an older boy from across the street, Carl Herrmann, came to join us. I thought I’d impress him, and said, “I’ve got a black racer.” Carl replied, “I’ve got a baby boa constrictor.” A baby boa! That was every wannabe herpetologist’s dream, and the beginning of Carl becoming my mentor, my surrogate big brother. The baby boa came from one of Carl’s regular visits to the United Fruit docks, where tarantulas and snakes sometimes stowed away among the bananas.

A snake story: On June 20, 1951, the day after Karen’s seventh birthday, a corn snake from South Jersey was loose and heading out the front window onto the fire escape. My Baltimore cousins, Judy and Frances, were in my room and saw it and hollered, and I caught it and put it back in its home-made cage. Judy and Frances were staying with us because the House Committee on Un-American Activities was issuing red-hunting subpoenas in Baltimore. Their father, Frank Pinter, was assumed to be on the list and the family wanted to spare them the trauma.

Shortly after recapturing the corn snake the FBI showed up at our door to arrest Dad, one of 17 “second string reds” arrested in New York for Smith Act violations that day.


(My sister Karen and I in front of 212 E. 12th St.)

Carl, my best friend Johnny-Boy De Maria (son of the last ice man on the Lower East Side) and I would hitch-hike to the Ramapo Mountains on the New York-New Jersey border across the Hudson River, or to the South Jersey pine barrens to look for snakes, lizards and turtles, and to get away from the mean streets, the impending trial, and our parents; to be the kids we were and desperately wanted to be. Sometimes other buddies -- Carlos and Albert Cabrera, Johnny Sepp -- came along. The nickname “Nature Boy,” after Nat ‘King’ Cole’s hit song, was hung on me. (For more on the amazing pine barrens, a semi-wilderness in the middle of the northeast megalopolis, see Walking the New Jersey Wilderness at http://www.storyhouse.org/albertl9.html.)

Carl, then 18, with neighbor Donnie Yurcak, 15, and me, 13, went snake-hunting in South Carolina over the 1951 Spring Break from school; Carl and I caught an 8’6’ diamond-back rattler, just three inches short of the known record length. That snake, along with the many others we captured and brought home, got Carl a job as a reptile keeper at the Staten Island Zoo, and I joined him as a volunteer that summer. (For more on Carl and that eventful excursion, see Snake-Hunting in South Carolina at http://www.storyhouse.org/albertl6.html)

Johnny-Boy lived down The Block on the other side of the street in what could be termed a tenement, in the same building with the older (and much cuter) half-Filipina Margie Aquino. We were a diverse neighborhood in flux, with Italians like Johnny-Boy and me (well, Dad’s half, anyway; Mom’s people came from Finland), Irish like our pal Bobby Burns, African American like Gene Gordon, Jr. – Rooster --, son of a CP newspaper writer, German like Carl, Jewish elders, others; there were a few Puerto Ricans from the US colony, but not yet in the numbers to come.

Johnny and I got together with two girls who had run away from home far out on Long Island and ended up on 12th Street. We were ultra-sympathetic to them, hoping to get lucky, but Bob, who ran the candy store, overheard our conversations and called the authorities to get the girls.

It was an era between gangs. The Sicily Boys and the Corner Boys had grown up, some entering the lowest ranks of the Mafia; others formed the Saturn’s Riders Motorcycle Club. New gangs were a couple of years behind us. The Jokers, who developed a fearsome reputation city-wide, were the kid brothers we pushed around and taught how to fight. A block over, on 13th Street, the Black Aces s.a.c (social athletic club) was formed of Italian, Puerto Rican, Irish, Jewish and African American teens, an anomaly in the racially and ethnically compartmentalized world of the New York streets. They didn’t last long, but not because of ethnic differences. The local cops, while tipping their hats to our local mobsters, broke the club up, raiding their clubhouse and taking their colorful green and black club jackets.

Across from Johnny and Margie’s building was a Jewish Home for the Aged with an awning. We used the cross-pole of the awning to chin ourselves, and a nearby bus stop sign with a heavy base as a weight for body-building. Around the corner was the third-run Stuyvesant movie theatre which had at one time been a Yiddish theatre. The Stuyvesant became the Phoenix Theatre in 1953, pioneering Off-Broadway plays and probably marking the start of the East Village. Often on Saturday mornings I was tasked with taking Karen to the Stuyvesant, which I resented. Her exuberant presence inhibited any chance of picking up a girl who might be there and willing to make out.

(For more on the Phoenix Theatre, see My First Theatre Experience at http://www.storyhouse.org/albertl10.html.)

For awhile a cross-dressing night club operated next to the theatre; sometimes they left a side door open and we stole cases of soda pop from “the queers.” I had taken on Dad’s hatred of homosexuals, not Gays in those days, but “fags” and “homos” and “queers.” They were fair game for beating up and robbing; indeed I attempted my first mugging with a friend in Central Park at age 13, but the man’s shouts scared us away. It was many years before I accepted that Gay was just another of the many variations of normal.

On the other corner was the candy store, run by Abie and later by Bob, a dour Italian. That was our hangout, sitting in the booths sipping cherry cokes or egg creams (no eggs, no cream) and dropping nickels in the juke box as “race music” became rhythm and blues became rock ‘n’ roll. White artists tried to co-opt black music, but Pat Boone singing Little Richard’s “wombombaloobombaboombamboomtuttifrutti!” was simply sacrilegious!

My first job was at the candy store; I was 13, underage and paid 32 & 1/2 cents an hour, half the minimum wage, but got free sodas and a tuna salad sandwich. A good part of my wages went into the juke box, and my parents insisted I pay them token rent. Although we had a sort-of rule that we didn’t steal from those as bad off as we were, I did steal cigarettes from the candy store and started smoking at 13. Lucky Strikes like Dad, and Chesterfields like Mom, but then Pall Mall because they were longer. Willy, a Puerto Rican who spoke little English, was the short order cook.

I learned to drive on The Block. New York had alternate sides of the street parking rules, so cars had to be moved every day except Sunday to avoid ticketing. On Jewish holy days when driving was not allowed for those who followed the faith, we kids would, for a quarter, move their cars to the other side of the street. That’s how I learned to drive, usually with stick shift. I don’t think I ever had an accident.


 
Street Fighting Boys

My first and last fights started in the candy store. I was thirteen years old, pudgy and nerdy, and had found a blue workman’s cap in the street. Mom washed it for me and I wore it regularly. In the candy store four sixteen-year-olds took the cap from my head and began playing Salugi, tossing it among themselves to keep me from getting it back. I cursed at them and they forced me outside, where I ran for home, three-quarters of a long block away. I hollered for help as I ran, but no one responded. Near home, I slipped in a pile of dog shit and went down.

They were on me in seconds, and stood me up against a car while waiting in line to take turns punching me, beating me bloody until they got tired and walked away. That changed me – I would never be beaten like that again. Over the next few months I went from pudgy nerd to hard rock, working out with weights, slimming down as I added muscle, taking lessons in street-fighting from all who offered. That included Dad, who advised me never to carry a knife; a can opener would work just as well, inflicting damage but not killing anyone, with the benefit that it was no loss if thrown away. I bought a switch-blade anyway. I grew my hair into a DA (duck’s ass), wore pegged pants or dungarees with a garrison belt whose buckle was sharpened to a razor’s edge for fighting. I didn’t wear a cap again for many, many years.

My new look and the rocky way I carried myself headed off some fights, and I won others. I was a competent street-fighter, going for the groin, the eyes, the nose to make a lot of blood. I never started a fight, until I did.

That was my next-to-last fight, and I deserved to get beat. I was fifteen and going steady with the red-headed daughter of an Irish cop who lived in Greenwich Village. I had been to a left-wing musical Hootenanny and took a teenage Village aspiring dancer, Margie, home, kissing in her hallway. At the next Hoot Marge brought Carol, a non-political girlfriend, to the concert to meet me. I was too much of a hood for Marge, and I took Carol home by subway that night. The kissing was great, and she clearly liked me, and soon we were going steady – my first real girl friend. It was with Carol that I finally lost my virginity, as did she, after months of my trying, begging, complaining about “blue balls.”

I’ve only hit a woman once in my life. Carol and I were making out in her hallway when she kneed me in the groin. Without thinking I struck out. When the dust and tears settled she told me she had always heard that boys were vulnerable there and wanted to find out for herself. My bad luck!

Carol loved to ice skate and went with friends to Wollman Skating Rink in Central Park. I didn’t go because I was a lousy skater and didn’t want to be seen in public doing things where I didn’t look good. One winter’s day she went with a small group and an old boyfriend from a Russian gang slapped her. I had heard about the ex-boyfriend Vlad’s rep, and it scared me, but I could not admit that. So instead of avenging my honor by going after Vlad, I took it out on a schoolmate at Stuyvesant High, who had been there and did not intervene. I put all the blame on Richie.

I goaded and cursed him for three days before he agreed to fight me, and we met in the park close to the school, with a small group of classmates who were, like me, part of the hoodlum minority at the elite school. Richie was 6’4” and a boxer; I was 5’8” and a streetfighter. I threw the first punch and he began boxing me, his reach keeping me from getting close enough to effectively fight back. At one point I was on the ground and Richie towered over me, saying “Have you had enough?” I aimed a kick up to his groin…and couldn’t reach it. A couple of punches later I gave up. My schoolmates promptly became Richie’s pals.

I was seriously considering giving up street-fighting after my defeat, complete with two black eyes, but I still had a fast mouth. I was in the candy store sitting across from Nick the Greek, and “sounding” on him, making clever but rude comments. He finally erupted, “Go ahead, burn my ass one more time!” I took out my cigarette lighter and reached under the table, and that was it. Outside we went, most of the kids in the booths following.

We threw some punches and wrestled each other to the sidewalk. My right arm was pinned, and Nick was hitting me in the ribs, so I went for his eyes with my left hand. That forced him off me, blinded, and ended the fight.

I broke up with Carol on her 16th birthday; my 16th was a month earlier. Her period was late, and I was ready to do the “right thing” and marry her. Then she called to say her “friend” had arrived. Relieved at my narrow escape I said it was time to call it off. She said bitterly into the phone, “Happy Sweet Sixteen to me,” and hung up. Many years later, in recovery from alcoholism, I tried to track Carol down to make amends; I think I found her, the widow of a NYPD detective, and wrote a sincere letter of amends. She never responded, as was her right.

One almost-fight was headed off by Johnny-Boy. We were at a Sweet Sixteen party uptown, invited by our pal Paddy Walsh. I had recently been hospitalized with mononucleosis with a secondary liver infection. The doctors said “No drinking for a year,” and I was honoring that. But there was a lot of drinking at this party, in a church basement. I wasn’t drinking, and Johnny-Boy didn’t drink, and as the evening wore on I found myself with a half-dozen drunken teenagers surrounding me claiming I had beaten one of them up and they wanted revenge.

I was sober and hadn’t beat anyone up, but things looked bad until Johnny came swashbuckling over, those ice-toned muscles rippling, to ask with a smile, “Whassup fellas?” The avengers faded away, and we headed for the subway to go home.

There was one other almost-fight after that, when Dad was in prison and Mom moved us to Washington Heights. A neighbor comrade’s son had gotten into a beef with some kids who called in their older brothers, members of the Egyptian Kings gang, and we got word that two Kings were down at the Riverside Drive wall waiting for Freddie. I offered to join him, two on two would be fair, but the Kings weren’t there to fight. They wanted to negotiate the terms of a gang fight – fists, knives, guns? I tried to goad them into settling the beef then and there, two on two, but no go. I threatened to bring up the Jokers from 12th Street, and they were impressed and seemed to back off.

The Egyptian Kings’ President and War Counselor left, and Freddie berated me for handling it all wrong, being a tough guy instead of conciliatory. A few days later he went looking for them to apologize. They kicked his ass. Some months later they made the papers by killing someone. Times were changing in the mean streets.

Meanwhile Freddie’s father, the good comrade who drove us to see Dad in prison in Petersburg, Virginia, every other month for two years, was displaying an inordinate fondness for adolescent girls, including my sister. But I didn’t find that out until much later…lucky for him.


 
School Daze

In rebellion at the government for arresting my father, and at my father for getting arrested, I worked at being a rock, a hard guy, a JD, a popular term for juvenile delinquents. The movie “Blackboard Jungle” was about us! Besides street-fighting and a bit of shoplifting – the big pockets on cargo pants made stealing 45 rpm records easy -- I cultivated an attitude against all authority, especially teachers. I was in the ninth grade at Junior High School 60 a couple of blocks away down 12th Street – fortunately on the opposite side of the street of the Youth Guidance Center; walking in front of that building sometimes invited real JDs to urinate out the windows.

We were preparing for high school and, being in one of the top-level ninth grade classes, a number of the kids were going to take the test for Stuyvesant, an all-boys school on 15th Street which emphasized pre-college academic work. Students came from all over the city to attend the elite public school. Our home room teacher, Mr. Goodman, was evaluating students’ chances of passing the Stuyvesant entrance exam. I had decided to take the Stuyvesant exam simply because it was closer to home than the general ed Seward Park High. When he came to me, Goodman said, “Lannon, maybe you’ll pass.” That guaranteed that I passed with flying colors, because I’ll show them!

I’ve always wondered that if I had gone to co-ed Seward I would have ended up as a veterinarian upstate New York someplace? Because in Stuyvesant my rebellion blossomed, and I soon fell in with a small minority of students who, like me, were street kids out of place among the decidedly upper middle class majority. The records show that I was enrolled in an algebra class, but I have no memory of ever attending it. I did well in history and English because I read a lot of historical novels and had some knowledge of different eras, and I wrote poetry and stories trying to make sense of my life.

I fell in with the Stuyvesant bad boys when I had a fight – with who or for what I don’t remember – and as I was winning his friend jumped in. Immediately a big guy I didn’t know jumped in against the helper, keeping it two on two, a fair fight. We won, and I met Big Ernie, a street-wise Italian from the lower Lower East Side. I joined up with his school mob and we had some fun.

We wise guys did things like, in the bathroom where we met for a smoke, carefully pull the toilet paper from a roll at one end of the stalls, loop it over the stalls to the other end, stuff that end into the toilet, and flush it, jamming the flush lever, and watching the roll sail across the top of the stalls until the roll ran out. Or in wood shop with a teacher who liked to cut up small pieces of wood and throw them at us when we weren’t looking. One day when he was turned away a bunch of us, sitting on a small platform, quickly lit cigarettes, took one big puff and let it out, creating an instant haze over us. Of course we put the cigarettes out immediately so no one was caught.

Yeah, there were teachers like that at Stuyvesant, easy targets for our generalized anger. Our mechanical drawing teacher loved to tell us, “Go defecate in your Stetson; that means go shit in your hat. Haw haw!” I cut that class a lot. And, of course, we had fights outside the school or in the nearby park.

Stuyvesant fielded a football team and DeWitt Clinton High was our arch enemy for reasons I never knew. With Big Ernie and his guys -- and with the support of some gym teachers – we would get bussed to the games and do our best to beat up Clinton and other opposing high school team supporters. One time, out in Far Rockaway, Big Ernie and I got separated from the rest of our guys and the Far Rock supporters literally kicked our asses back to the school bus.

The highlight was in my senior year, although I was about to be left back a semester having flunked chemistry five times and physics three. If you failed a course like Chem 1 with a grade near the pass mark, 65%, the school advanced you to Chem 2. If you passed that, you got credit for Chem 1 as well. Actually, a pretty good system, but it didn’t work for me. I failed Chem 2, took Chem 1 again in summer school, and flunked again….five times total.

The school was getting tired of our little group’s shenanigans, and a new principal was brought in to turn things around. He announced at a school assembly that, starting the next Monday, all students were required to wear a white shirt and a necktie. My home room class sat together in the balcony of the auditorium, directly opposite the principal. Without any conversation or planning, we stood up as one with our hands out and thumbs down, booing. The new principal’s face turned red and he stormed off the stage.

The principal’s edict ticked off a lot of the goody-goody students; we created an informal coalition for Monday, and most of the students came in as dressed down as they could be; torn tee shirts, dirty jeans. The next day the principal issued a retaliatory order cancelling the annual Senior Boat Ride up the Hudson, and the traditional end-of-semester Senior Day. That pissed everybody off, including some of the teachers. Some of them got together and organized a boat ride which turned out to be better-attended than the school-sponsored ones. My group, seeing that success, decided we would have a Senior Day as well. No school on Senior Day!

We set a date and distributed flyers announcing No School on Senior Day! That morning came and very few students went into the building, most milling around in front. The shop teacher we hated came out to intimidate us but someone threw a knish at him and he ducked back inside. A few minutes later we heard the wail of police sirens and we scattered. My group ended up on 42nd Street where old movies could be seen for 25 cents before 9 a.m. It was my first real organizing experience, and I learned that a plan needed to do more than just bolt. We should have had a common destination, or staged a sit-in – but we were young and inexperienced and just striking back, without politics or program. But it was a first.

After the summer when I didn’t graduate we moved to Washington Heights. I returned to opening day at Stuyvesant to get a free student subway pass, and quit school at 17. It wasn’t until age 51 and sober that I became teachable and obtained my high school GED.

 
Street Games

With a playground many blocks away and no organized recreation readily available, we played street games. Skellies was a starter, chalking a square on the sidewalk, with smaller, numbered squares inside the boundary. We shot bottle caps with middle fingers from number to number, attempting to land inside the smaller box and winning a point if we did. If you missed, the next player went. Johnny-Boy recalls playing Skellies with ceramic tiles, but it was bottle caps for me.

Hide and Seek was played often, with hiding out on rooftops allowed. A more complex variation was Ringalevio. Two teams were formed and one went off to hide. After counting to one hundred the other team begins a search. An area, usually a stoop, was designated as a jail and captured opposing team members – tagged while chanting “Ringalevio one-two-three,” were kept there. They could be freed by a member of their team getting to the jail without being captured and touching them while shouting “Ollyollyoxenfree.” Ringalevio could go on for hours.

Ball games were popular, including Stoopball, King and Stickball. All involved a pink Spaulding rubber ball that bounced well, known as Spaldeens and available at a toy store on 11th Street and Second Avenue for twenty-five cents. Stoopball had the player that was up bounce the Spaldeen off the stoop, trying to catch the edge of a step so the ball would go higher than the kids fielding it could reach and thus make a home run.


Stoopball

King was played against a smooth wall, like the front of Bobby Burns’s apartment building, or the telephone building at 11th Street and Second Avenue. The Spaldeen was slapped to hit the sidewalk and then the wall in front of the other player; The idea was to cause the other player to miss, so we learned to cut/slap the ball and put some “English” on it to make it curve and not go where expected. Punchball was another variation. But the biggest team ball game was Stickball, modeled on the Great American Pastime, Baseball.


Stickball

Two teams were formed, and in addition to the Spaldeen the game required a broomstick as a bat. Bases, like a baseball field, were chalked on the street, and there were innings. Sometimes there was a pitcher, and sometimes the batter bounced or tossed the ball to hit it. The rules were pretty similar to Baseball, with strikes and running for the bases. Because we blocked the street to play, sometimes the cops were called. They took the broomstick bat, but there was an unspoken rule that they did not take the Spaldeen, which cost a quarter to replace. We usually had a couple of bats stashed under a parked car. And sometimes a ball would break a window and the game would end as we scattered.
At one time a family of Gypsies lived briefly on The Block, and a Stickball game of older guys, with cash betting, was scheduled. The game progressed, with many onlookers, until some angry motorist who wasn’t allowed to drive down The Block while the game was on, called the cops. They came and took the bat, and, unforgivably, took the Spaldeen as well. Protests erupted and one of the Gypsy team members said something a cop objected to. They arrested him, stuffed him in the squad car, and drove away.

We were pissed! We decided to march on the police station some blocks away, but by the time we got there the Gypsy had been released without being booked. I don’t remember if that game ever resumed.

In the hot and humid summers someone with a stolen City wrench would open up a fire hydrant and the smaller kids went nuts splashing each other and themselves. Inevitably the cops came to turn it off, but they never tracked down the wrench. Other games involved wearing roller skates and grabbing onto the back of a truck to get pulled along, Johnny-Onna-Pony, Tag, and my favorite, Co-ed Touch Football.




The Big Split

When I was almost sixteen I came down with Infectious Mononucleosis; a secondary liver infection put me in Beth Israel hospital for almost two weeks, and the doctors ordered me not to drink alcohol for a year. During that time, after splitting with Carol, I hung out in the club room of the Saturn’s Riders Motorcycle Club. I was too young to drive, but they let me play the juke box and schmooze. The Riders were made up primarily of older Italian boys from 12th Street and 21st Street and many had paisans in the lower echelons of the Mafia.

Marlon Brando’s “Wild One” had a huge impact on us teens, and I threw a small fit to get my parents to buy me a black leather motorcycle jacket and a pair on black leather engineer boots. If I couldn’t drive a bike, I could at least look cool.

The one time I actually rode on a bike scared me off for life. I sat behind a Rider on his Harley-Davidson, and, showing off, he revved it up, threw it into gear, and almost did a somersault! I picked myself up from the street, bruised and bleeding. I was lucky. Sometime later a Rider had three girls on his bike and fatally crashed into a milk truck.

At some point in the mid-fifties Organized Crime split over the issue of dealing heroin in the white community. They had been distributing it in Harlem for years. It was a profitable trade, and some saw more money to be made by expanding the market. Others expressed concern that it could put their children at risk. The split turned violent at one point and I remember heavily-armed police teams in cars stationed throughout the neighborhood.

The 12th Streeters in the Saturn’s Riders stood with one faction and the 21st Streeters with the other, so the club split and disbanded. I was newly going steady with Fran, a tall blonde from 21st Street. The former Riders gave her a serious hard time over dating a 12th Streeter. I had to do something.

I went to the candy store and talked to some older guys. I explained the situation and said I needed a gun. New York has very tough gun laws. but Albie One-Eye said to come back at six o’clock with ten bucks. I did, and had a loaded .32 automatic to avenge my girls’ honor. Now what? I, grudgingly but with secret relief, let Johnny-Boy and Carl talk me out of going on a shooting spree.

I kept the gun and carried it around for awhile, but never fired it. I hid it in my room at home in a table drawer that had some reptile terrariums on top, sure it was safe from my parents’ prowling. But one day I came in and Mom brandished the gun demanding, “What’s this?” I lied, saying it was a blank pistol I had borrowed from Ray, a left-wing teenager whose parents they knew well. With all that was going on with them, my folks accepted the lie and I soon sold the gun.

Fran and I didn’t last long, but mainly because she refused me sex unless I did certain things to pleasure her. I had no knowledge of women’s pleasure in those days, and was unwilling to comply, even though she told me time and again that a former boyfriend, Joe Bop, had told her, “You ain’t a man until you do that.” I was man enough for me.

COMMIEBASTID – LEAVING THE BLOCK:

(New York “Second-String Reds” arrested in June,1951, for violating the Smith Act: “Conspiracy to teach and advocate the overthrow of the United States Government by force and violence.” My father, Al Lannon, is 4th from the right in the standing group, the only man not in a suit and tie.)

It was the day after my sister Karen’s seventh birthday. Mom shook me awake at six in the morning, saying, “Wake up, get up, they’re arresting Dad.” I was thirteen. Two burly FBI agents stood by while Dad dressed. No, he couldn’t go to the bathroom alone. No, he couldn’t shave. No, he couldn’t hug his family. But Mom insisted he be allowed to eat his morning milk toast because of his ulcers, and they relented. They took him away in handcuffs, one of three arrested on our block along with Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Israel Ampter. Mom told me, “Go to school. We’ll show them we’re not afraid.” But I was; I was freakin’ terrified.

In 9th Grade English Ira Slade brought a copy of the Daily News with the arrests and photos on the front page to the teacher, Mrs. Rosenfeld, whispering, “That’s Albert’s. Father!” The teacher declared bitingly to the students, “Albert should be happy he lives in America. If he wants to be like his father he has the freedom to do so, not like in Red Russia.” Later I challenged her definition of “hibernation” and I was right; I would find ways to fight back.

In the hallway between classes Mrs. Kaplan, a gym teacher caught me alone and whispered words of sympathy. A student turned the corner into her vision and she hastily ducked inside the gym door. It was the McCarthy Era when the Red Menace was all around us, and fear was heavy in the air. Red Diaper Baby Patricia Lynden wrote years later about the electric chair execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg as spies for the Soviets, “The system would kill us to contain us.”

Freddie Nelson was Jr. H.S. 60’s bully. He followed me through the halls at lunchtime chanting, “Commiebastid, commiebastid.” Having to stop at one point Freddy wiped the sole of his shoe on my dungarees. Something snapped, and I wiped my shoe bottom on his neon blue double-white saddle-stitched pegged pants. We fought and, swinging wildly, I landed a lucky punch that knocked his head into the wall and dazed him. The buzzer for the next class ended the fight, and after school Freddie caught up with me and offered to be friends. It was not long after my being beaten up by the four goons had propelled me on the path to tough guy, rock. Soon, Freddie and I were terrorizing the school together.

Many students kept their distance from me, but some, like Frankie Guerra, admitted that his old man was in prison too, not for politics, but, hey, prison was prison and thus we were buddies. The Communist Party’s youth arm, the Labor Youth League, became a haven for me, a refuge among like-minded kids on the left. Or so I thought. We all felt the fear.

I had lived with fear for a long time as my parents’ politics became more and more marginalized, more and more despised. I read historical novels and science-fiction to escape – the past and the future because the present was just too scary. But two weeks after Dad’s arrest I got drunk for the first time and knew immediately that I had found a quicker, better way to escape the fear. Some alcoholics talk about “crossing an invisible line;” I jumped it first time out, the beginning of over 30 years of drinking alcoholically until I hit bottom and sobered up at age 50.

My best buddy in the LYL was Richie Stein, son of Sid Stein (aka Sidney Steinberg). Richie’s father was one of the Party leaders who “went underground” to escape arrest. Richie adopted my rocky demeanor: low-slung jeans, garrison belt, cigarettes rolled up into a tee-shirt sleeve. We went to Hoots, LYL dances and meetings together. Richie and I fell out at the Coney Island beach when he and some other young comrades tried to de-pants me in the water. I flailed and kicked, chipping one of Richie’s teeth, and he got mad. T.S.

While Dad was in prison Mom moved us from The Block to Washington Heights, 652 West 160th Street, again on a block with several comrades close by. I was new blood for the uptown LYLers, and Phyllis, daughter of the CP’s public “expert” on the USSR, immediately grabbed me up. She had me call her boyfriend, and later husband, to tell him she was breaking up with him. We didn’t last long, mostly because she was a strong young woman whom I couldn’t control and I needed to control my out-of-control life.

Elaine lived two flights up and we began dating, eventually becoming engaged and then married for 33 years, raising two children. Her parents were fellow-traveling immigrants from Puerto Rico; while the CP did not often practice what it preached, being raised around the multi-racial, multi-ethnic comrades of my parents meant I had no issues with Elaine’s ethnicity. She was simply an attractive young woman who liked me, so I liked her back.

At a “gathering” – party was too cheerful a word in those perilous times – a discussion began over the use of ethnic and racial slurs. Richie Perry, son of an interracial couple whose Dad was a co-defendant of my father’s, objected to the clear racism of using those words, and I supported him. The “gathering” broke up when I smashed my fist through a wall to keep from really hurting a bunch of LYLers. For both Elaine and I that was the end of our LYL involvement. She had thought, as I did, that it was a safe place, a refuge from the daily racism she encountered, and was devastated.

I was working as an apprentice painter, where intense exposure to benzene for two years may well be the cause of the incurable multiple myeloma I suffer with today. When the new union contract provided for a first-ever coffee break, I was the only one of a half-dozen painters doing hallways to sit down. The foreman came by, asked if I was sick? I told him I was taking my break, the one in the new contract. When I returned to the shop at noon the superintendent told me that the contract said “coffee break” and you were not allowed to leave the work area. If I had coffee I could have a few minutes to drink it; if not, no break. They laid me off for a week as punishment and the corrupt union local backed the company.

Transferring my tough guy persona to left-wing youth politics meant, for me, being redder than the red. Like Dad. The LYL was defunct. The Communist Party was in crisis after the 1956 Hungarian Revolt and the Stalin Revelations. Like Dad – and always seeking his approval --I defended Stalin’s terror and suppression of the Hungarian workers. Fred Jerome, son of CP intellectual and Dad’s co-defendant V.J. Jerome, came to see me and recruited me into what became known as “The Call Group.” He had a manifesto of sorts for a new left outlook on youth that essentially called for a return to a hard-line Young Communist League.

A dozen of us New Yorkers, with comrades and contacts in several cities, signed “A Call To Youth” and it was published in the Party’s theoretical journal, Political Affairs. We garnered some attention, positive and negative, on the left and, flushed with success, called for a founding convention of FURY, Fraternal Union of Radical Youth. The CP’s top leadership called us in and read us the riot act – no YCL, no FURY. We demanded a vote of those present and carried it overwhelmingly. Then the tops told us that those who were CP members would be expelled if we went forward.

Fred and most of the others caved, and soon Elaine and I moved to San Francisco, following my parents when Dad couldn’t get work after two years in prison. The FBI would tell employers who he was and he’d be fired, and the CP leadership, with whom he was at odds, wouldn’t help; indeed, a CP bookstore job he was set to get was vetoed by the latest CP head, Gus Hall. His old comrades in the International Longshore & Warehouse Union would help him.

The rest of my story is far from The Block, except that I drifted away from the organized left and became a union activist. From what I saw, working-class Reds like Dad were generally better unionists than revolutionaries. Dad died in 1969 still ardently defending the Soviet Union against the “revisionist” US Party leadership. His eighth known heart attack took him; Mom died during open heart surgery in 1992 still believing that the CIA had bought off Soviet leader Gorbachev to destroy the USSR.

An active union steward in the ILWU’s Warehouse Local 6, I was selected as a rank-and-file Overseas Delegate in 1965, supposed to go to China with a Canadian and a Hawaiian ILWU member. ILWU President Harry Bridges wrote a column critical of the Chinese Communists and our invitation was withdrawn. We eventually went to England, Scotland and Wales instead, which I suspect was much more fun.

 I extended my ticket and added Berlin, Prague, Paris and New York to my itinerary, gone for five weeks with Elaine seven months pregnant in San Francisco. I fell in love with Prague; “socialism with a human face” was emerging, with open satire and criticism of the government in shows and conversation. Not to mention the great beer. When, in 1968, the Prague Spring was smashed with Soviet tanks my last emotional ties to communism were severed. I wrote a letter critical of the invasion to the Party’s paper, People’s World. It was published side-by-side with Dad’s letter praising the Soviet action. I was free to think my own thoughts without reservation. I was, and remain, a militant unionist, pragmatic but clear about which side I am on. I cannot abide true believers of the left or right, so-called vanguards who believe they are entitled to rule by any means necessary. Just a different set of bosses who want to perpetuate their power over the rest of us. Democracy – use it or lose it!

(For more on Albert’s later political and labor activity, see Busted at http://www.storyhouse.org/albertl8.html)

(For a look at how a later generation of communists’ destructive activity inside unions nearly destroyed ILWU Local 6, see Angela’s Children at http://www.storyhouse.org/albertl11.html)



John De Maria and me on 12th Street



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