Sunday, August 30, 2009

How You KNOW If Someone Grew Up In New Orleans

Here's my test for validating true New Orleanians:

Camelia Grill ... This was the mecca for late night dining when I was in high school. Behind the counter were Harry Sr., Marvin, Harry Jr. and Chef. The grill was known for making the ABSOLUTE best hamburgers in the world (and they are still open on Carollton Avenue.) Also .... Freezes, pecan pie and they used to have a "cannibal plate" with all raw meat.

The Zoo ... Okay, now they have the NEW Audubon Park Zoo that is spectacular but they will never have another Monkey Hill where kids could run up and down the tallest hill in New Orleans (about the height of a one story building) ... or Itema the elephant (a sickly old pachederm named after the newspaper) ... or Shoot the Bear game ... or "Wake up the birds!" when you were in high school and drove through the Park late at night screaming "Cawwwwwww"!

Mr. Bingle ... every year the giant Mr. Bingle (a snow-boy with an ice cream coned head) covered the giant Maison Blanche store downtown. His theme song was: "Jingle, jangle, jingle here comes Mr. Bingle..."

Morgus the Magnificent ... he was the New Orleans version of Dr. Paul Bearer. His sidekick Chopsley was always messing up an experiment or two during the commercial breaks of The House of Shock Theater.

Morning Call ... No Cafe Du Monde for the natives. We all used to hang out at Morning Call (now relocated to Metairie) where the French Market is today for coffee and donuts (cafe au lait and beignets).

The Raven ... best bar uptown with Percy the bartender and at least three good fights a night.


Ponchatrain Beach ... amusement park at the lakefront. Great rides like the Zephyr and funhouse Laff in the Dark. Theme song was: "At the beach, at the beach, at Ponchatrain Beach, you'll have fun, you'll have fun, every day of the week." (didn't even rhyme)

F&M Patio ... we used to have parties there and actually (in high School) produced concert/dances at this dive with great acts like Willie Tee and Deacon John. It is STILL there and STILL a dive. Our "company" was called "Hammercheck Productions" ... it's a name derived from what every guy growing up does as a stupid trick to other guys. Whispers something in their ear while hitting them right between the legs. We called it hammercheck (bet you did it too).

Fortier/ Warren Easton/ Newman/ Jesuit High School ... depending on your economic standing you would have gone to one of these or had lots of friends there. The last two are private. The Mannings went to Newman. Fortier was my school. There were two entrances ... the Nashville Avenue side (where you could only come and go if you were a "hood") and the Joseph Street side for everybody else. There were only two classes of kids there. If you chose Nashville and you were not a hood, you would be seriously killed.

Sno Balls ... not the kind you throw ... these are the kind you eat. We used to get them at Rendon Inn but there were famous places across the city for these creamy ice sculpted syrup laced treats.

The Blue Room ... at the Roosevelt Hotel was the nightclub for great entertainment.

Perlis ... the only place to get really cool clothes.

New Orleans Night People .... Great TV late night show that was live atop the TV studio in the Quarter. It was the original Mary Hartman type talk show with guests like Harry the Singing Mailman (who had a terrible voice) and Ruthie the Duck Lady ( famous as the old lady that walked through the Quarter with her pet duck trailing along.)

I got carried away .... sorry. I'll stop the trivia madness now.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Uncle Smitty and Mardi Gras

Uncle Smitty was the coolest man I ever knew.

In an earlier blog I mentioned that he owned Smith's Records on St. Charles Avenue. It was down the street from my grandmother's apartment, so when I took the streetcar to see her, I always dropped in to Uncle Smitty's store to listen to the records.

He also had a recording studio ... Instant Records (later called Minute Records). He recorded all the greats in New Orleans: Irma Thomas, Benny Spellman, Ernie (Mother-In-Law)K. Doe, Robert (Barefootin)Parker, The Nevilles ... even the early Kings (Benny and B.B). I got to meet many of them and even was backstage later in high school at a concert that Uncle Smitty produced for Janis Joplin.

Pretty cool, huh?

As cool as Uncle Smitty was in the record industry, he was as dorky as my dad was at home. His daughter Leslie and I used to have to get dressed up in these awful Mardi Gras costumes for the parades. One year we were bunnies ... I was blue and she was pink. Another year it was some kinda Chinese clown costumes ... got movies to prove it. And we weren't three years old ... more like seven.

Parades were great ... even dressed as dorks. Aaron Mintz was one of my parent's friends. I was never sure how he did it every year ... but he always rode a great big horse to lead off the Rex parade ... dressed as a Krewe knight. He would save me a big bag of beads that he'd hand off to me when I'd run up to his horse.

He rode in every parade I remember when I was growing up ... until he murdered his wife. Then they wouldn't let him ride any more.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Wayne

My brother Wayne was born 4 years after me.

He was the cute one ... blonde hair, big grin, always dancing and singing ... yes, he had the cheeks that all the moms wanted to pinch. Not that mine weren't pinch-able ... they were just so fat that you had to use two hands. Wayne was a crowd pleaser and a natural entertainer. My mom loved to get him cranked up in front of company and he loved to perform.

He was so much better with my parents than I was. I would disappear when other adults came over ... just when Wayne would start his third set. Funny ... now that I think of how much my personality has changed since that time. I really wasn't outgoing at all when I was younger. In fact my best friend in New Orleans (ironically his name is Wayne too) didn't even remember me in Elementary School and I sat next to him for six years.

High School was really the turning point for me. I got skinny, girls finally talked to me and I was finally not picked last for PE touch football games. Thank God there was a kid who was slower than me ... even in his wheelchair.

Anyway ... Wayne and I were typical brothers. I told him what to do and he had to listen because he was my slave. We used to play in the backyard, pretending that it was a jungle and I ... of course ... was Tarzan. Wayne was "Boy". He would hunt for food and bring it to me as I lounged in our Japanese plum tree. Although the tree seemed like it was 100 feet tall, it probably was about 3 feet to the first limb. Other days, we would turn the yard into the Ponderosa. I would alternately play Ben, Hoss, Adam and Little Joe. Wayne would be Hop Sing. He brought me food.

Later in life, Wayne became a talented actor and musician ... a great drummer. Unfortunately, he was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer when he was 39 years old. He underwent three brain surgeries, a bone marrow transplant and lived three years longer than anyone expected. He kept active for most of those years, taking the opportunity to talk to cancer survivor groups, travelling and working when he could.

He died in October of 1995 at 42 years old ... I called him Tarzan.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Hebrew School

There used to be a synagogue on St. Charles Avenue ... Beth Israel, where I went to Hebrew School in my formative years before my Bar Mitzvah. It was orthodox (the most religious) and so were we ... well my dad and my brother and I ... my mom's family was a mixture of Catholic and crazy. So she didn't participate.

The Hebrew School bus would pick me up three times a week after school. I was the only passenger from my school and I asked the bus driver, Higgins, to pick me up a few blocks away. I didn't really talk about my religion to the rest of the students ... ever since one of the guys in my gym class rubbed his hands on my head and told about a conversation with his parents: "They said, Jews were born with horns and if you ever saw one ,,, feel his head to see if he has nubs where they sanded them down."

Hebrew School was run by the rabbi. He wasn't child friendly ... of course if I were teaching us, I guess I wouldn't have been too child friendly either. Ira Middleberg sat in front of me. He always sat in front of me or was in line in front of me .... Middleberg and Momberg. We were arch enemies since elementary school. He would always try to get me in trouble. I remember once during "freeze" (that was when recess was over and the whistle blew. You had to literally freeze where you were ... no moving) he pushed me over the bike rack. I hit him, we fought ... and of course I'm the one whose parents had to come in. Then there was the time that Ira told me to look through the base of the venetian blinds that covered the windows at school. They were hollowed from one end to another. I stupidly did as he commanded and he slammed a pencil through his end into my eye. If you look at my eye today you can still see a dark spot right next to the pupil where it landed.

My favorite day that I will always remember didn't involve Ira. I think it was Lenny Pailet who got sick and raised his hand to go to the bathroom. The rabbi kept on talking. Lenny started to turn green and literally fell to the floor on his knees but the rabbi just told him to take a seat. Lenny then proceeded to throw up all over the girl who sat next to him. She got sick and threw up on Elliot Shushan's head ... then (I swear this part is true) he turned and threw up in Lenny's face. It was a mess. They kept getting sick and throwing up on each other. For some reason, I didn't throw up that day.

I think I was just laughing too hard.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Growing Up (Quickly) in New Orleans

New Orleans is an interesting place to spend one's childhood ... especially during the 50's and the 60's. The neighborhoods were melting pots of color, dialects and humidity. The drinking age was 18 ... which translated to "if you can reach the bar you'll get served a drink". In our neighborhood that meant the Raven (I'll save Raven stories for another time).

We lived in a lot of neighborhoods. In the early years, we lived in the Uptown area (General Pershing St., Octavia St., Belfast St., Jena St. ... for those who know the area). Dad worked for a furniture store in the French Quarter (Holtzman's ... not around anymore) as a salesman and bill collector. In those days, he used to go door to door to collect from customers. I remember as a little boy tagging along when he'd ring doorbells. We didn't have much more money than the customers that were late with their bills. In fact, I think there were a few times that bill collectors came to our door too. (Maybe that's why we moved around alot.)

My favorite neighborhood was Belfast St. I remember the Quinlans, Roger and Tommy ... Tommy had a double "ah hernya" operation one summer that he was proud of. The Fishman's across the street ... I was over at his house alot. Nobody visited me ... they were all afraid of my mother. Down the street were the Gumas. Paul Guma was a musician and arranger for Pete Fountain and I was friends with his daughter, Crystal.

A few blocks away were "the projects" and living in one of the shotgun houses on the periphery was Alan Toussaint. For those that are not aware, Toussaint is one of the premiere musicians/songwriters in the world and was just inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. My Uncle Smitty introduced me to him when I was about 7 years old. Uncle Smitty was Irvin Smith who owned Smith Records on St. Charles Ave. and Instant Records (a small recording studio that had artists like Irma Thomas and Benny Spellman).

I used to visit Alan Toussaint from time to time and he was kind enough to listen to my feeble attempts at songwriting at that age. He always had a couple of singers hanging out on his porch doing a cappella harmonies that ... to this day ... I can still hear.

We had an old upright piano in the basement of the house on General Pershing Street. The former owner of the house must have left it there. I stuck thumbtacks on the exposed hammers and got that honky tonk bluesy sound that Toussaint had when I'd listen to him play. The piano was probably way out of tune ... but I wailed out tunes and thought I was the best piano player that ever lived. Allan Toussaint taught me some great riffs and ... as I stumbled through them ... he used to say how great I sounded.

What a wonderful liar and a brilliant musician he was.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Sam

So here I am .... all of about 6 months old and somehow, one night, under the care of my dad. Not sure where Esther was ... but Sam was holding down the fort.

Those were the days that formula was put into the glass baby bottle and boiled on the stove to the right temperature before feeding. Anyone remember that? My first daughter was fed that way 30 years ago ... so most should remember.

The night that my dad did this (for the first time apparently). He brought the pan, boiling water and the bottle over to my crib. Now mind you ... my dad would never get a prize for innovation, catlike moves or even common sense ... so you can just imagine what happened next.

Boiling water all over my chest and arms ... a trip to the emergency room and thank God ...

... no more nights where Dad was in charge.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Esther

In biblical times, Esther was a queen. In modern times, Esther was a princess .... which in my household meant that Esther wielded a hell of a lot more power.

That was my mom.

Striking fear in the hearts of our friends and family, Esther .... all 4'10" of her ... was known throughout the city for her "antics". She once threw a plate of food at my dad's head in the middle of Ruth's Steak House (that was before Ruth took over Chris). I think she was upset about something he said. She was thrown out of no fewer that 5 hotels in my lifetime. Even rock stars catch a better break. An entire busload of passengers once applauded when she reached her destination.

Esther married my dad to escape her tyrannical father. According to her, they had very little in common and she didn't really like him but he had a job. At the time, Esther was finishing Newcombe College and was only 19 years old.

She held the highest GPA and was three years ahead of her classmates.

Unfortuntely (as she has told me since) she THEN had kids.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Bubbie and GM

I have great memories of my grandmothers.

Bubbie was my dad's mother. She was built like a bowling ball ... a real soft one. Never bothered to learn English but we always seemed to understand each other. Maybe I just thought we understood each other because she was always kissing my head and feeding me latkes. And smiling ... always smiling. Her early years in Poland and fleeing Nazi oppression showed on her face .... so beautiful but deeply lined ... and her gait. She walked like a duck, on stumpy legs wrapped in thick support hose. Limping and waddling through her kitchen, Bubbie always smiled, never complained (if she did, it was in yiddush and I never knew it). What a sweetheart.

My mom's mother was French Catholic. I called her GM (grandmother). What a character. She had a heavy New Orleans accent. On hot days she'd dress to the nines but would complain that the weather was "fee-yus" (fierce) and she would ask me (when I was all of 12) if I would grab her a "Bee-ya" (beer) from "da icebox" and to grab one for myself as well. She had an awful wig that would never sit straight on her head ... always cocked a little to the side.

Bubbie and Ruth are both long gone.

I miss them dearly.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Birth Story

I mentioned in my first post that I was born in New Orleans at the Hotel Dieu. Yes, it was a hospital ... at least that what I was told. It was a Catholic hospital and for a little Jewish baby it was a slight disadvantage.

Interesting fact one:
The doctor who delivered me was actually a famous jazz musician named Dr. Edmund Souchan.

Interesting fact two:
I was born on Mardi Gras Day ... March 1st.

Interesting fact three:
Dr. Souchan's daughter was Queen of Rex (the Krewe which parades on Mardi Gras day and to be chosen Queen is one of the highest honors in New Orleans) that morning.

Interesting fact four:
He missed the parade because I was being delivered.

Painful fact one (and this is why I was disadvantaged):
The nuns at the hospital (and the doctor) failed to "tag" me as a Jewish baby who would be circumsized on the seventh day. Who knows ... maybe Souchan was mad at me because he missed the parade.

Painful fact two:
They circumsized me right after birth.

VERY painful fact three:
My dad had me circumsized AGAIN on the seventh day. The Bris!

Okay, I know what you are thinking. How MUCH did they cut off the second time right? No one will tell me .... but I've used that for sympathy ever since.

All I ever got was laughs.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Speaking of Cribs

I used the thing that a crib with a top was for my own safety.

But then I thought ... you know, in pictures I looked like I must have weighed 150 pounds when I was a few months old. I really wasn't going anywhere. Plus ... I used to have a bar attached to my baby shoes. My mom told me that I was born with flat feet so she assumed that preventing me from walking would help.

I tried the same thing with my son. He was 17 at the time.

My First Time

This is my first time at this .... so be gentle with me.

Yes I'm a virgin at blogging. Blogging .... every time I think of that word I want to take a blood test to make sure that my arteries are in working order.

Oh well ... Let's start from the beginning. "I was born very young" was stolen from a great comedian years ago. I think the rest of the routine includes ... " I was born in a hospital so I could be close to my mother". Actually, I was born in New Orleans in the Hotel Dieu. That was a hospital, by the way. It was one of the things that my parents assured me of when I was old enough to ask the question "where did I come from?"
Funny thing about my parents, though, I never felt too connected to them. Although they were both short (mom was 4'11" and Dad was 5'7") and at the time I was 2'3", there were things that made me think that we had less in common.

And little things made me think that perhaps they were not really into me. There was the time that we had a burglar and they ran out of the house only carrying my baby brother. I probably was too heavy to hold back then. And now that I think about it ... my crib had a metal cover. I don't think that many other cribs had that ... did they?