Greek (Diner) Tragedy

Greek restaurant take-away coffee cup
A New York City icon!

I lived in New York City at a time when every intersection had a Greek diner. I don’t mean diners that sold only Greek food but corner joints run by Greeks. Their sticky, multi-paged, plastic-coated menus offered everything from sushi and spaghetti to souvlaki. And, all of it was on tap 24/7.

I was addicted to their toasted blueberry muffins that were the size of coconuts. A cup of coffee with a “toasted blue” was my snack of choice and, in hard times, my one meal of the day. So, I was saddened on a recent trip back home to discover that most of the Greek joints had gone. Some of the owners had made their money and happily returned to Greece but most had been priced out by the big coffee chains. (Another good reason to hate Starbucks though the brown piss they call coffee is reason enough!)    

Toasted blueberry muffin
Toasted ambrosia!

One blah night in the 1980s, I was sitting at the counter of my favorite Greek diner in the Village, reading the NY Post and cursing George Steinbrenner when I became aware that the man on the stool next to me was acting strangely. He was making little grunts and moving in a herky-jerky manner. I figured he was a junkie who’d missed his shot. So, I signaled to Nicos that I’d take my toasted blue further down the counter. Just then my counter colleague jerked into my arms in a way that forced me to hold him. As we fell backwards off our stools, he went into full spasm and I somehow knew I had an epileptic seizure on my hands. Literally!  

Classic NYC diner counter
Picture us wrestling in the middle of the floor.

I laid him out on the floor and looked up for help but the entire restaurant (customer and staff alike) had gone into catatonic shock. Those at the counter stared down at me like I was an annoying cockroach scurrying about their feet. Those in booths slowly leaned out until they were at a 90-degree angle with the floor and there they remained. Silent. Staring. Slightly inquisitive. Imagine the RCA Victor dog.  

Meanwhile, the epileptic was flopping around on the floor like a tuna that had been hauled on-board a Sheepshead Bay trawler. I knew less than nothing about the care and feeding of epileptics aside from the fact that you should never get your fingers in an epileptic’s mouth lest your fingers be chomped off. But, silly me, as I looked to my fellow diners for help and began to say something to the effect of, “Hey, does anybody wanna give me a fuckin’ hand here?” My fuckin’ hand got into the epileptic’s mouth.

Bloody hand dangling from alligator's mouth.
I had to act and fast!

As you can imagine, this dilemma increased the fervor of my calls for help. But, to no avail. I considered making like a coyote and chewing my hand off to escape the trap. I considered choking the epileptic to death to gain my freedom. I knew what I did next was risky but I was running out of time and about to be running out of fingers. I managed to get my other hand into the poor bastard’s mouth and pry his jaws apart before they snapped shut fracturing several bicuspids. 

Then, out of nowhere, a typically obese ambulance crew waddled in. I’m not sure if they’d been alerted and were waddling in to answer the call of “diner down” or if they were coincidentally waddling in for their moussaka with fries. I returned to the counter and Nicos gave me some ice for my fingers but the prick still charged me for my toasted blue! 

Fast forward maybe two years.

I’m watching an off-Broadway play in which one character delivers a show-stopping speech about the time he was in a Greek diner and a schmuck got his fingers stuck in an epileptic’s mouth. The actor brought the house down with his mime of the booth-sitters leaning out at a 90-degree angle and staring at the schmuck. That would be me. You guessed it. This playwright had been one of the selfish, frozen assholes who made not a move to help the epileptic or, more importantly, your reporter. Worse. This creep who had plagiarized my pain hadn’t given me an audition for his play.

As the quintessential Brooklyn boy, Ralph Kramden would say, “Bang! Zoom!”

Boy Outa Brooklyn a murder-memoir by Jack Antonio
Image: the smiling face of Steeplechase Park in Coney Island, Brooklyn
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Roadmap to Blog Outa Brooklyn

Thanks for visiting my blog. It is a sampler of my murder-memoir Boy Outa Brooklyn. The best way to enjoy it is to start at the first post and read chronologically. I hope you’ll find it both hilarious and horrifying.

I will also be posting about the best books, movies and songs about Brooklyn. And, sharing my practical and off-beat travel tips.

Welcome to my Brooklyn,

Jack Antonio

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Puttin’ on the Ritz

Poster for Putin on the Ritz with Fred  Astaire

Okay, so it was the mid-1970s and I was acting in a play in Indianapolis which is in mid-Indiana. Always looking to pick up some spare change, I auditioned for a commercial slated for local TV. Make that slated for “late-night TV.” Make that “low-budget TV.” Very low budget. The ad was for a local tuxedo rental joint. Let’s call it PUTTIN’ ON THE RITZ. All tuxedo rental joints in America are called PUTTIN’ ON THE RITZ, or TOP HAT. It’s the law. 

I got the gig coz I was a size 38 regular so any tux off the rack would fit me. And, funnily enough, the ad called for me to wear 38 different tuxedos while reciting the same spiel 38 times and using identical vocal inflections and identical hand gestures.

“Hey, come on down to PUTTIN‘ ON THE RITZ and we’ll put a ritzy tuxedo on you!”

Then thanks to “state of the art” circa-1975 video editing, it appeared that all 38 tuxes changed on my body as if by magic. (Stanley Kubrick eat your heart out!) 

1970s pink tuxedo
Right color, wrong fabric.

Now, mind you, this was the mid-1970s aka the decade style forgot. (Do you remember that unfortunate 1940s fashion revival, or the dreadful Liza Minnelli in Cabaret look? Or, how ‘bout those “street urchin, shoe shine boy” get-ups? What the fuck were people thinking?)  So, true to the fashion zeitgeist, all 38 tuxes were made of crushed velvet. (It gets worse.) Crushed velvet in lime green, shocking pink, powder blue, canary yellow and zebra stripes. (Wait, there’s more.) The cut of the jacket, ruffled shirt and massive bow tie suggested a Mississippi River boat gambler. Sort of Yancey Derringer on a bad day. 

1970s yellow tuxedo jacket
The cut is close but where’s the crushed velvet?
1970s plaid tuxedo jacket
Again, close but no cigar. No crushed velvet either!

The owner of the shop was nervously watching the shoot and the clock. But, I was a fast line learner and more importantly a fast clothes changer so he took a liking to me. While adjusting one especially vomitus jacket on my person, he confided in reverent, hushed tone, “Jackie Boy, this is our most popular cut. We call it the Tony Orlando.”    

album cover for The Best of Tony Orlando & Dawn
From Fred Astaire to Tony Orlando. And, you tell me, over and over and over again, you don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction.

Being seen on TV, even just late-night, local TV, made me a local celebrity. All the decrepit old ladies living in the decrepit old apartment building we actors called home treated me like I was a movie star and argued over whether I was more handsome in blushing peach or midnight purple. 

And, the married couples who made up most of our audiences were also ritzy dressers. They favored the matching he/she leisure suits that were then all the rage; matching leisure suits in lime green, shocking pink, powder blue, canary yellow, blushing peach, midnight purple and (yes) zebra stripes. Anytime I had to look directly at the audience, I put on welder’s goggles!

Vintage 1970s ad for leisure suits
The leisure suits came in crushed velvet, too.
Available at J.C. Penney and Sears.

Ahhh, the 1970s in America! ya had to be there!

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Moon Over Bensonhurst

Give Me The Moon Over Brooklyn by Jason Matthews and Terry Shand

During and just after World War Two, Brooklyn became America’s surrogate home town. In the war movies, every tank and submarine crew included a much-loved, wise-crackin’, skirt chasin’ guy from Flatbush. The comic Phil Foster carried this tradition into outer space as the most unlikely astronaut in history. In the 1955 low-budge flick Conquest of Space, “Flatbush Phil” stares out the space ship porthole as it circles the Earth and shouts, “Hey, deres Brooklyn. How ‘re da Dodgers doin’?”

Film poster for Conquest of Space (1955)

I think Brooklyn’s much loved and easily imitated Brooklynese accent helped make the borough a shared joke that bonded military units and the folks back home. Do you remember when anytime someone announced on a radio or TV program that they were from Brooklyn the audience would break into instant laughter and applause? I’m not sure anyone even knew why they did that. But, it might have been down to a shared folk memory. After all, this was a time when 1-in-4 Americans could trace their family back to Brooklyn! (Probably 3-in-4 wanted to chase them back there!)

Meanwhile, the tunesmiths of Tin Pan Alley, always on the lookout for a hit, mined the instant folksiness, humor and sentimentality of Brooklyn. Whipping out their “June – Moon” rhyming dictionary they produced delightful ditties like Give Me The Moon Over Brooklyn by Matthews & Shand. (Believe it or not, Guy Lombardo did a very catchy version of it.) And, Same Moon Shines In Brooklyn by Felsen & Peters.

Welcome to Brooklyn - 4th largest city in America.
Hey, whataya talkin’ about? It’s the THIRD largest!

Another sweet, nostalgic tune is In Brooklyn by John Benson Brooks and Stanley Adams. Benson Brooks later composed the brilliant jazz-blues piece Alabama Concerto. Adams wrote lyrics for Hoagy Carmichael and Visitor Herbert. All the songs mentioned were written in the midst or the shadow of WW2.

45rpm cover for Brooklyn Roads by Neil Diamond
The Brill Building does Brooklyn

The centre of pop music songwriting in New York moved uptown from Tin Pan Alley on W. 28th st. to midtown’s Brill Building. But, so many of the composers and lyricists who worked there were from Brooklyn that it should have been called the Brooklyn Building. Just read the list below and you’ll see that the “Sound of Brooklyn” became the “Sound of America.”

Neil Diamond, Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Hal David, Howard Greenfield, Neil Sedaka, Mort Shuman, Doc Pomus, Barry Mann.

Boy Outa Brooklyn a murder-memoir by Jack Antonio 
Image: the smiling face of Steeplechase Park in Coney Island, Brooklyn
Available as an eBook and paperback
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And as an eBook here
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It Happened In Brooklyn

Moby card for the film It Happened In Brooklyn
Sweet movie. Sweet tune.

Brooklyn and her bridge have been featured in countless movies, stories and songs. My favorite song about the bridge was written for Sinatra in the 1947 MGM musical It Happened In Brooklyn. It was penned by the legendary team of lyricist Sammy Cahn and composer June Styne.

Their lilting tune and snappy, slightly sentimental lyrics effortlessly capture the look and feel of the bridge and the city. Here’s a taste of Cahn’s lyrics :

If you’ve been a rover
Journey’s end lies over the Brooklyn Bridge
Don’t let no one tell you
I’ve been tryin’ to sell you the Brooklyn Bridge

Mel Tormé Sings Sunday In New York & other songs about New York
The Velvet Fog covers New York

My favorite recording of Brooklyn Bridge is by Mel Tormé. (It was later sampled for a duet with Barry Manilow!) I came to appreciate Mel Tormé late in life. I’d dismissed him as just another finger-snapping lounge-lizard. How wrong I was! The man was a musical genius. Don’t believe me? Listen to his arrangements and vocals with the Mel-Tones. Get a hold of his original California Suite and his several albums with the brilliant arranger Marty Paich. If you enjoy pop, jazz, Tin Pan Alley, show tunes, swinging jazz and vocal harmony groups then you are in for a treat.

A great place to start is Mel Tormé Sings Sunday In New York. Come to think of it, that’s another under-rated song about New York! Cute movie, too!

Boy Outa Brooklyn a murder-memoir by Jack Antonio 
Image: the smiling face of Steeplechase Park in Coney Island, Brooklyn
Available as an eBook and paperback
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And as an eBook here
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The Brooklyn Bridge

Vintage postcard of The Brooklyn Bridge

The Brooklyn Bridge is best experienced from a distance. Walking across it is a noisy, dangerous slog. As the cars speed over the traffic lanes made of metal grates, they make a helluva racket. And, the aggressive, gluten-free cyclists take no prisoners. But, viewed from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, especially at twilight, the Brooklyn Bridge is one of the most beautiful structures in the world.

Another great way to see the bridge is from below via the Wall Street Ferry which runs from the foot of Wall Street to Greenpoint, Red Hook and beyond. The ferry travels right below the bridge and affords a fantastic view of lower Manhattan. It costs the same as a subway ride!

Board the ferry headed to trendy Red Hook where you can find a few bars and shops worth a quick stop. Then cross busy Hamilton Avenue into bucolic Carroll Gardens famous for its brownstones with front gardens and Italian flavor. Then walk down Henry Street or Clinton Street thru Cobble Hill and into Brooklyn Heights. Check guide books for houses of note and restaurants en route. Sit and stroll on the Promenade and enjoy the spectacular view of the Brooklyn Bridge. Then catch a subway back to your hotel or home.

Be sure to meander up and down the streets of Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill and Brooklyn Heights. Follow your nose. You can’t get lost. They are among the most gorgeous neighborhoods in the world!

Vintage postcard of the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Beautiful but not as majestic as the Brooklyn Bridge

John A. Roebling who designed the Brooklyn Bridge built an earlier, similar version of it in Cincinnati. That bridge spans the Ohio River between the stadiums where the Reds and Bengals play. I had never heard about this bridge so when I first saw it in person, I felt as though I’d fallen into an alternate-universe, Brooklyn Bridge Twi-light Zone.

Boy Outa Brooklyn a murder-memoir by Jack Antonio 
Image: the smiling face of Steeplechase Park in Coney Island, Brooklyn
Available as a paperback and ebook
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And as an eBook here
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Famous Boys and Girls Outa Brooklyn

Al Capone
Al Capone became notorious in Chicago where he was really just a bagman for Meyer Lansky. He got his start breaking legs in Red Hook, South Brooklyn

Brooklyn has 2.6 million people. Were it an independent city (which it was until the late 19th century), Brooklyn would be the third largest city in America after L.A. and Chicago! So, it’s not surprising that a lot of famous folk in all walks of life come from Brooklyn.

You can see a more complete list of notable Brooklynites elsewhere. When I read those lists I wonder if there’s anyone who isn’t from Brooklyn. In fact, it’s said that 25% of Americans have roots in Brooklyn.

Anyway, in no particular order, here’s my list of, “Gee, I didn’t know he/she was from Brooklyn.”

BROOKLYN BOYS

Carl Sagan, Bugsy Siegel, Joe Paterno, Vince Lombardy, Sandy Koufax, Joe Torre, Wolfman Jack, Arlo Guthrie, Michael Jordan, Mickey Rooney, Harry Nilsson, Chuck Connors, Matt Damon, Danny DeVito, Bobby Fischer, Bob Guccione, Edward Everett Horton, Arthur Miller, Norman Mailer, Moe, Curly and Shemp Howard aka The 3 Stooges (Larry Fine was from Philly but I hearby pronounce him an Honorary Brooklyn Boy.)

Mae West
Mae West – the Queen of Quips
She and Henry Miller – two of America’s greatest sexual-taboo breakers were contemporaries in Brooklyn.

BROOKLYN GIRLS

Clara Bow – the It Girl of silent films. They say her thick Brooklyn accent made her move into talking pictures impossible. But, I’ve seen one of her talkies and she was terrific. Go know.

Margaret Dumont – the very un-Brooklyn seeming society matron in the Marx Brothers films. She and Edward Everett Horton are excellent examples of early 20th century posh-New York speech. They almost sound British.

Jennie Jerome – Winston Churchill’s mother. She lived in Cobble Hill.

Other Queens of Kings County include – Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Debbie Gibson, Rita Hayworth, Barbara Stanwyck, Lena Horne and Mary Tyler Moore.

Boy Outa Brooklyn a murder-memoir by Jack Antonio
Image: the smiling face of Steeplechase park in Coney Island, Brooklyn
Available as an ebook and paperback
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And as an eBook here
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Thanatopsis

Gravestones in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York
The view from my childhood bedroom and stoop

So many of those who shaped my life are dead – dead as the airline passengers who fell to earth one Brooklyn Christmas; dead as the woman I saw speared by a falling window pole on 42nd street. Dead. And, so many of the other souls who merely touched my life – they must also surely be dead. They could not have survived their fragile, reckless lives ’til now. I want to gather them all to me and bury them all in Green-Wood Cemetery – there to find eternal rest in a plot guarded by weeping Protestant angels, ivy-covered Civil War soldiers and by me. Their graves, a stone’s throw across the street from my boyhood stoop, will be dug in the sacred soil where Washington’s troops were slaughtered and the American Revolution saved.

I will spend my final days on that stoop staring into Green-Wood, staring into eternity. I will daily tend their graves while intoning Carrie’s poem – “What is death?” Maybe one of my dead will have the answer. 

Angle weeping on gravestone
I know just how she feels.
Drummer Boy atop grave in Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn
An earlier Boy Outa Brooklyn
Boy Outa Brooklyn a murder-memoir by Jack Antonio
Image: the smiling face of Steeplechase Park in Coney Island, Brooklyn
Available as a paperback and eBook
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And as an eBook here
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What is death?

Filing cabinets in a newspaper morgue
I searched through the microfilm and microfiche, too.

Forty-five years after Carrie’s murder, I search through the New York Library’s aptly named newspaper morgue. I read everything I can find about Carrie. I scan the New York and Indiana papers for months before and after her murder. The ephemera surrounding her death distracts me. Yankee scores. African famine. Watergate. Unimportant, long-ago-bullshit. 

I give all the info I find to Sergeant Tom, my photographer, and ask him to look into Carrie’s murder for me. He’s long retired but has friends in the Cold Case Squad. They owe him a favor so they look long and hard but Carrie’s case file is missing.

“Don’t worry, Tommy. It’s in there somewhere. It’s just misplaced.” 

Actress slain. File missing. Presumed misplaced. 

Not much of an ending. So, I can’t end here. 

Maybe this way – 

Still chasing her ghost, I look online for everything, anything about Carrie. I wander around her Indiana town via Google Maps. I lay a wreath on her tombstone via Find-A-Grave. (Her father was buried in that same cemetery a mere seven years after Carrie was – no doubt her killer’s second victim.)

From a Kokomo, Indiana newspaper I learn that a teenage poem of Carrie’s had been read aloud at her funeral. The title of her poem? “What Is Death?” I don’t have the answer to Carrie’s question. Maybe she does. Now. Maybe her question holds the answer to mine – “Why does her murder haunt me so?”

Online I find a long-abandoned “Question-and-Answer” thread begun by an Indiana college student who was writing a term paper about Carrie’s murder. The student posted some questions. Someone in Indiana, who claimed to have known Carrie, posted some answers.

They were all wrong. 

Boy Outa Brooklyn a murder-memoir by Jack Antonio
Image: the smiling face of Steeplechase Park in Coney Island, Brooklyn
Available as a paperback and eBook
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And as an eBook here https://books2read.com/The-Boy-Outa-Brooklyn
 

Not The Miracle On 34th Street

Vintage postcard of Macy's, New York
Even Santa told me to “Fuck off”

It takes two to make an unhappy marriage and my parents are those two. My father has just left my mother or been thrown out by her. (You can get even odds on either proposition.) With my older brother away at college, I am now the only male in the house – a house not favorably disposed toward males, especially males who look and act like our recently exiled father. When my mother looks at me, she sees him. She never tires of telling me this at length and at great volume. She hates him so my domestic situation is precarious at best.  

One day, in the latest skirmish of our long-running feud, I punch my older sister in the stomach. She tried to kill me years before but I am now a husky 12-year-old. Is she a surrogate for my mother? My mother certainly thinks so and she throws me out of the house. At age twelve. Throws me out into New York City. At night. In December. Gives me one subway token and nothing else. No money. No food. Just the clothes on my back. Tells me to go live with my father. Then with my four weeping sisters beside her, she slams the vestibule door in my face. Dickens in Brooklyn. 

I have no idea where my father is living but I know he is working nights in Macy’s for Christmas. (That Thanksgiving I spot him on TV holding one of the ropes to the Popeye balloon in Macy’s famous parade.) But, I don’t know if he is working tonight or in which department. And, Macy’s is “The World’s Largest Store.” That’s a lot of departments.  

Popeye balloon in Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade

Somehow, I get to 34thstreet on the subway. Once there, I follow the signs to Macy’s. I don’t know there is such a thing as a Personnel Department so I ask everyone who looks like they work for Macy’s if they know my father. Somehow, I learn that he is “in Linoleum.” During Christmas season, “Linoleum” is as lively as a funeral parlor. Still, I have trouble finding someone to help me and trouble finding the nerve to ask that someone if my father is there. I’m embarrassed and I’m sure that my father will be angry with me for embarrassing him at work. But, I hope that he’ll calm down and we’ll move into a swank bachelor pad and take in some Yankee games and maybe even act together. 

An elderly saleswoman wearing those “Frankenstein” orthopedic shoes tells me that my father isn’t working that night and she only has a daytime work number. “He should be here tomorrow night, sweetie. Ya know, Macy’s closes in ten minutes.” I hadn’t planned on this. My father isn’t there. Macy’s is closing. I can’t stay there. I can’t go home. I can’t roam the streets. I have no subway tokens or money to buy one so I can’t even sleep on the subway. 

Somehow, I have to get back to Brooklyn. Somehow, I have to get back in the house.  Somehow, she has to let me in. Doesn’t she?

I slink down into the 34th street subway station where to lessen my humiliation, I find a token booth far away from the eyes of the Christmas shoppers. I tell the clerk that I’ve lost my return token and plead to be let through the gate. Not a chance. So, I look for men with friendly faces and beg them for a token or even just a nickel to help buy one. (A nickel is nothing!) The men with friendly faces pretend not to see me. 

Boy Outa Brooklyn a murder-memoir by Jack Antonio
Image: the smiling face of Steeplechase Park in Coney Island, Brooklyn
Available as a paperback and eBook
amazon.com
amazon.co.uk
And as an eBook here https://books2read.com/The-Boy-Outa-Brooklyn