John Delach

On The Outside Looking In

Month: May, 2017

You Can Run But You Can’t Hide

Bad boys, bad boys,

what you gonna do,

what you gonna do

when they come for you?


The realization that I had a problem struck me almost two and a half hours into our gathering at Foley’s NY, a sports bar on 33rd Street opposite the Empire State Building.


Thirteen of us had gathered for our second spring luncheon to celebrate being part of a group of (mostly) guys who tailgate together before every New York Football Giants home game. We call ourselves, “Maramen Tailgaters,” and our name comes from the time when the Mara family owned 100% of the team. In that era, sports writers commonly referred to Giants players as “Maramen;”  hence our name.


For whatever reason, in the middle of having a good time, I reached into my pockets only to realize my IPhone was missing. “Damn.” I reached for my rain jacket only to find nothing but empty pockets. “Damn, damn, damn, I left my phone on the train.”


Within seconds of announcing my developing dilemma, Drew, my oldest grandson (17) asked, “Grandpa, do you know your Apple ID and password?”


In fact I did. The gal who set me up at the Apple Store when I bought my first device gave me a simple combination for my ID and password. Drew handed over a phone and asked me to enter both into the “Find My Phone” app. As if by wizardry it opened to reveal my phone was moving along Broadway toward Twenty-Six Street, about eight blocks from our location. My son swung into action and messaged my phone: “Lost my phone. Do you have it? Please call (his mobile number). Thank you.”


By then the phone had moved so Michael texted: “Checked it and see that the phone is at 24th and 7th. If you return it to Foley’s on 33rd I will buy you a beer.”


My son-in-law, Tom, pinged the phone at 2:27. This is a command that you can use if you know your phone’s location but can’t find it. It sets off an annoying beep every 15-seconds. Thinking this through, we decided to cancel this as the finder might it so annoying to just throw the phone away.


Drew sent follow-up messages at 2:32 and 2:49 so we learned that it had come to rest at Broadway and Twenty-Eighth Street. About an hour later it still hadn’t moved so Tom and Drew decided to go to that location. I yelled to them as they left, “Please stay safe and don’t do anything foolish.”


The words were hardly out of my mouth when a feeling of dread came over me and I thought to myself, this is a mistake. I later learned that Tom sent out this message when they reached the location, “We are on your block. Are you there? We are at 28 & Broadway walking to find you. Please call (his number) as we are trying to find you.”


No response, just as well as far as I was concerned. I was greatly relieved when they returned. Back in Foley’s, Drew noted that the phone was on the move again. Then it stopped and Drew reported that the map showed it was at Madison Square Garden. Then it died. Drew is obviously a smart teenager, but having grown up in Fairfield, CT, he knows squat about Manhattan.


“That’s great,” I exclaimed! Drew looked at me like I had two heads. “Drew, Madison Square Garden sits right on top of Penn Station. This means there is a chance whoever has the phone will turn it in to the LIRR’s Lost and Found.”


On my way home I went to L&F only to see that it was closed on weekends…and so it goes.


I rode home cut-off and phone free. Tuesday was the earliest I could attempt to retrieve my phone. Sure, I needed a mobile phone but I am not yet so addicted that not having one crippled me. What did bother me was the thought of re-programing all the stuff we park on our mobile devices to a new one. My daughter, Beth, assured me that Apple has most of it in the cloud that I could retrieve the same way we located my phone. I chose to doubt that but I know nothing.


On Tuesday, I rode the 10:11 out of Port Washington to retrieve my phone. The L&F office was its usual busy place but the clerks show patience and empathy that calms frantic riders. As I waited, I came across a chap who lost his designer sunglasses, a business man who left a Manila folder with important papers and two others looking for phones.


I explained that mine was a white IPhone 5C in a black Otterbox Case. The clerk produced the plastic bin dedicated to IPhones and began extracting them one by one for my inspection. I stopped him when I noticed a phone up against the side of the bin. A white 5C in a black Otterbox Case. “I think that’s it, I exclaimed”


Of course, it was dead. He put it in a charger but said, “This will take time.”


“Fair enough, I’ll be back in a half-hour.”  Tuesday was a perfect spring day, mid-60s, so I enjoyed my walk. When I returned, he held up the phone. He had opened it to the “go-to” page. Staring at me was a photo of Max, our Golden Retriever. “That’s my dog.” I exclaimed.


When I gave him my code to open the phone: Game set and match!


Of course, I was thrilled, but yet, I am left to wonder about the finder’s motives. Was this person a good Samaritan, a railroad employee on a lunch break or did our surveillance send the warning: You can run but you can’t hide.




Going Home Is Such a Ride

Perhaps true love does conquer all. Surely, in my case, it conquered geography.


I met Mary Ann Donlon at the New York World’s Fair on June 5, 1964 at The Red Garter, a banjo bar in the Wisconsin Pavilion. (The pavilion prized exhibit was the world’s largest wheel of cheddar cheese.)  Mary Ann gave me her phone number and after a few unlucky false starts, she agreed to a safe date; a Sunday afternoon return to the fair. Once she gave me her address and directions, I began to realize that we may have been geographically incompatible.


Did I mention that I didn’t have access to an automobile nor that it mattered as I didn’t have a driver’s license either?


We were separated by two bus lines. My first ride was on the B-58 bus that once upon a time had a more descriptive name, the Flushing – Ridgewood trolley. I rode the B-58 on a 45-minute journey to reach the junction of Main Street and Roosevelt Avenue, Flushing’s business and transportation center. Leaving Ridgewood, the bus meandered through Maspeth, Elmhurst, Corona and the World’s Fair before reaching Flushing and the end of the line.


I transferred to the Q-16, Q-14 or the Q-44 to arrive within proximity of the Donlon residence.


Being a city kid, public transit was in my DNA and I never considered this trek to be other than the way it was, much less a burden. No doubt, the early sparks of romance between us eliminated any possible negative thoughts. The girl was more important than any geographical inconvience.


We soon found ourselves dating regularly on most Saturday nights and many of these dates took us into Manhattan for dinner and/or a movie or a Broadway show. I didn’t consider going to the city on a Saturday night to be unusual even though it required extensive time on public transit to make the journey to a young lady’s house, escort her to Manhattan, enjoy a date, bring her home and return to Ridgewood.


On those early dates, a kiss or two or a short series of kisses was all I expected. Then it was good night, good bye until our next lengthy phone call. During this time the first inklings of love blossomed. As our relationship developed, I lingered longer and longer before beginning my journey home.


As my stays extended, those rides became more of an odyssey as Saturday melded into Sunday morning. At that hour, my only chance for a reasonable wait for a bus back to Flushing was the Q-44 stop. It was the only line that ran with any frequency at that time of night. The stop was outside a bagel store, but at that hour, even the bakers had yet to arrive. On arrival in Flushing I headed for an all-night news stand at the corner of Roosevelt and Main that carried the “bull-dog” (early edition) of Sunday’s The New York Herald Tribune, my favorite newspaper.


Sunday meant the Trib’s new magazine section: New York, with the good chance of featuring pieces by both Jimmy Breslin and Dick Schaap. I’ve written about Breslin many times but Schaap was also a good writer and commentator. He was the person who coined the term, “Fun City” to describe John Lindsay’s New York. He also did a stint on the local NBC nightly news program as a sportscaster only to get into trouble.  When the great Secretariat was retired to stud, reports spread that his sperm showed signs of immaturity. His early breeding attempts in December of 1973 with Appaloosa received inordinate publicity prompting Schaap to comment: “It would not be an exaggeration to note that Secretariat and Appaloosa have become the most famous stable mates since Mary and Joseph.”


After picking up the Trib I made my way to a drug store with an outside vestibule unblocked by a security fence, common in those days. Their vestibule sheltered me against wind, cold and on bad nights, rain. The showcase windows gave off enough light for me to sit and begin reading my paper. Several times I reached my nest after one am. That made for a long wait as the next B-58 had an hour and a half layover and didn’t leave until 2:30. After discharging his Flushing passengers, the driver shut his doors and took a passenger’s seat for a nap. I never asked the driver to let me on. I just asked him to wake me if I fell asleep. Fortunately, I never did as the Trib held my interest.


I disappointed Mary Ann by not asking her to be my wife the Christmas of 1965. In February, 1966, the National Guard shipped me to Fort Dix, NJ for basic training and my advanced training in my specialty, MS-311, a telephone lineman.


When I returned home late that summer, Mary Ann invited me to stay over finally ending my odyssey. I popped the question on Christmas Eve, 1966 and we wed on November 11, 1967.


The best decision I ever made was making that trek.

Once upon a Time in Middle Village

One morning in 1973 found Bill Christman and I riding the Q-29 Bus from a stop on Dry Harbor Road to the junction of Woodhaven Blvd and Queens Blvd where we’d pick up the subway to Manhattan and work. Bill opened his copy of The New York Times and whistled surprise. “Look at this, John; CBS sold the Yankees to a group led by somebody named Steinbrenner.”


I looked over at the paper and said, “Holy sh**, that’s George Steinbrenner. I know about him, he owns a Great Lakes fleet and shipyards. He has a big reputation for being a hard ass and a prick. Well, I guarantee that the Yankees will be a lot more interesting than they’ve been under CBS.” (On December 31, 1974, the Yankees signed Catfish Hunter as a free agent. Good times and the Steinbrenner three-ring circus were on their way!)


We lived at 65-33 77th Place in Middle Village from 1970 until 1977. I have a favorite photograph of my family standing on the stoop just outside the house. Beth looks to be about four, Michael, two. That would put it in 1973. Mary Ann stands in the doorway wearing a red blouse with white trim and blue slacks. The blouse has a Western look that would do Dale Evans proud. I have on my old army field jacket. My name, the US Army patch and the 42nd Rainbow Division patch on my left shoulder are all visible. My sideburns travel to the bottoms of my ears and I have on the loudest pair of grey, blue, red and white plaid pants that the decade produced. The photo stops just below my knees but I’ll bet I was wearing a pair of Frye high-heel boots. You have to love the 70s!


Middle Village is a real community with its own character. We lived in pre-war attached houses,   18-feet wide, two-stories with a basement. The main floor, back to front began with a small foyer with a closet off the front door. An inner door opened into the living room that was the only room that took advantage of the full width of the house. On the extreme right of the living room was the staircase that led to the second floor. The dining room occupied about 2/3rds of the back of the house and the kitchen the other third. This made for a narrow kitchen, only six-feet wide before being reduced by counters, sink, stove and refrigerator.


We had three bedrooms and the bathroom upstairs. A good sized master bedroom, a second smaller one that was our daughter Beth’s and one the equivalent to a solitary cell on Rikers Island that was Michael’s.


The basement was unfinished but had a utility sink and connections for a washing machine. It also had half-bath featuring a small sink and toilet: Rikers, the sequel. I decorated the white-washed walls with four posters: Farah Fawcett posed in a bathing suit, hair askew and her left nipple visible. The second, a mock headline from The Daily News showing the first moon landing with a photo of Neil Armstrong descending down the ladder to the surface. The headline screams: SO WHAT! The third was my favorite. A photograph of Frank Zappa in all his ugliness sitting on a toilet bowl with his pants around his ankles. Frank mugs for the camera and the headline reads: PHI ZAPPA CRAPPER. The fourth was the movie poster from Jaws featuring the shark closing in on the women swimming above. Scared my daughter Beth to death and still does.


The back door led to a small yard and a garage that fronted on a central alley serving all the houses on both sides. This is where our young children safely raced their Big Wheels and where we put out our garbage for collection. The inside of the garage was so small that even if completely empty, it could barely hold one car from that era. Before they moved to Ramsey, NJ, my cousin Helen and her husband, Don, garaged their full-sized 1973 Chevy station wagon in it for insurance purposes. Maneuvering this monster in and out was a nightmare akin to making a bed with fitted sheets.


Money was scarce in those days. One Sunday, I attended the 7:30 morning mass at St. Margaret’s, our local parish. A well-dressed couple entered late and sat in the pew behind me. They were both still dressed for last night’s activities in Manhattan and I had a distinct impression that these strangers were from parts unknown who found this church because she insisted on attending morning mass. When the time came for the collection, he placed a $20 in the basket. Wow, I thought to myself, that’s more money than I can get my hands on until the banks re-open at nine tomorrow morning.


Bill Christman reminded me that you can never go home. We have been cousins and friends forever. For a while both our families lived on 77 Place separated by only three houses. Years after we all moved on, Bill and his son, Tom, flew back to Long Island from Dallas to attend a family charity golf outing. This is Bill’s recollection: “We had time on our hands after we landed so we decided to visit the old homestead. Tom drove up 77th Place passed both ‘home’ and ‘Michael’s house’ as Tom called it, he commented to me: ‘How little it all is.”


I replied, “Tom, you were only about four feet tall then. Everything seemed and looked bigger.”


Let me end with a life-lesson I learned living in Middle Village. But before I go, this exercise has stirred other memories of Middle Village that I will share with you in the future.


The life-lesson is: Don’t be so sure of yourself that you’ve got it right no matter how successful you think you are and always be kind and genuine with every one you encounter.


On those Sunday’s when I went to the 10:30 mass at St. Margaret’s, I’d usually see the same usher always dressed in a sports jacket and tie. He made the collection on the side where I sat and he moved his basket with efficient motions. I never wore a jacket to Sunday mass much less a tie.


During the week, on those days I chose to walk in the morning to the Metropolitan elevated station, I would sometimes encounter this same fellow working on the street picking up garbage wearing his Sanitation Department uniform. My uniform was a suit and tie.


The irony wasn’t lost on me and I thought on more than one occasion: One of us has it right and one of us has it wrong.


To this day I believe,  he had it right.

One Strange Book

Over lunch, I misconstrued a friend’s comments about a book called, “The Sympathizer,” to be a recommendation. That was my first mistake.


I undertook a due diligence investigation to discover more about this book. “The Sympathizer,” by Viet Thanh Nguyen was the winner of a 2016 Pulitzer and the 2016 Edgar Award. The publisher’s description noted: “A profound, startling and beautifully crafted debut novel. The Sympathizer is the story of a man of two minds, someone whose political beliefs clash with his individual loyalties… A gripping spy novel, an astute exploration of extreme politics and a moving love story.” My second mistake, I bought into the description and acclaim.


I inquired about the novel from the national book wholesaler, Abe Books, who advertised a mint copy for $12 including shipping. On opening the package, I was surprised that I now possessed a brand new first edition. That’s when I realized something may be amiss. However, I had what I thought was a recommendation so I began to read it. One oddity became immediately apparent. Although written in a first person narrative with plenty of dialogue; the author completely ignored the use of quotation marks.


Imagine turning a page believing you are still following the narrative only to realize that someone else has been speaking, in some instances several people. Disconcerting to say the least! Several times I had to return to the point of departure just to understand what was going on.


Finally, I contacted my friend who I believed had recommended the book. “Not at all,” she exclaimed. “In fact, if you can figure out what is going on, would you please explain it to me?”


Too late to quit, I pressed on. I persevered and as I was wrapping it up I asked both of my book-trading buddies, Bill and Geoff, if they were interested. I explained, “It is dense, very dense. It follows a double agent from the fall of Saigon to America and back again. It has touches of “Catch 22” and some good writing but, I repeat, it is 372 pages of dense writing. Yes, it’s a good read but don’t expect to whiz through it.”


Bill declined. Geoff replied: “How on earth did you come across such a celebrated but apparently economically failed thing like that? I do have trouble sleeping at times so it could be Ambien in print.”


I replied, “In fact, I can testify that it is truly a useful tool to ease insomnia.”


Geoff sent his first impressions on April 17: “I began Sympathizer last night. This guy needs an editor more than any writer I’ve ever been exposed to. I found one sentence that was 18 lines long. He has to find out about periods. And he seems not to know about quotation marks…But I’ll plug along to see where it goes.”


Three days later Geoff transmitted the following: “This has to be the most obtuse book I’ve ever tried to read. Sometimes I’m looking at words without even trying to see how they fit in to whatever he was trying to say. It happened last night. He was writing of things he was reminded of by Lana’s (our hero’s love interest) singing…and the list seemed to be getting long. The count of commas and semi-colons grew as well…When I finally came across a period I paused to see if I knew what he meant and of course I had no idea. So I started working backwards to see exactly what he started out trying to explain. I counted lines and found the sentence, if it was a sentence had 25 lines. I decided to count the punctuation marks and there were 25 semi-colons, 6 commas, one colon and finally a period.”


This is a portion of the sentence in question:


We could not forget the caramel flavor of iced coffee with coarse sugar; the bowls of noodle soup eaten while squatting on the sidewalk; the refugees who slept on every sidewalk of every city; the sweetness of a mango plucked fresh from its tree; the streams where we swam naked and laughing; the shadows cast by candlelight on the walls of wattled huts; the stickiness of our situation; and while the list could go on and on and on, the point is this; the most important thing we could never forget was that we could never forget.


Geoff read on and reported on April 22: “… he produced a 37 line sentence, perhaps the modern record for verbosity. He also seems to have forgotten his love affair with semi-colons. This time it was 49 (counted them) commas and a surprisingly but welcome question mark…The mind numbs, at least mine does, trying to capture a thought that is 37 lines long.”


In case you are wondering, dear reader, the book has an open ending with our hero embarking on another long voyage sort of like Yossarian in “Catch 22” paddling off in search of Sweden. He is a man without a country completely rejected as unfit by his communist masters. We end with him adrift at sea.


One last problem the author chooses to ignore much less resolve, that he had our hero commit

two cold-blooded murders while in California so he has two Murder-One raps hanging over his head as the book ends…neat!

The Kosciuszko Bridge and Me

My neighborhood friends, like me, weren’t very adventurous. This prevented us from doing things that could lead us into serious trouble but it did limit our new experiences. An exception happened during our biking years roughly ten to twelve when we enjoyed a bit of freedom to ride outside our neighborhood. Usually we limited these trips to Hyland and Forest Parks both within reasonable range in fairly safe areas. But one day, a pal related an adventure he made with his older brother when they rode their bikes up to the top of the Kosciuszko Bridge and flew down the bridge and onto the local streets. His excitement was contagious.


The bridge was named after Tadeusz Kosciuszko, a Polish-Lithuanian military engineer and leader who fought for America during the revolution and oversaw construction of fortifications including those at West Point. Back then, we pronounced the general’s name: kos-ke-os-co, but today it is generally pronounced: Kos-Ku-Shoe, and you spit it rather than say it.

The Kosciuszko Bridge was located less than four miles from our homes in Ridgewood. The bridge spanned Newtown Creek connecting Greenpoint, Brooklyn to West Maspeth, Queens. But the difference in those four miles from our home was night and day. Ridgewood was a residential community consisting of multi-family two and three-story houses. Northern Greenpoint and West Maspeth were heavily industrialized at that time. Greenpoint even hosted a working Mobil refinery, gas flare stack and all. A large Phelps Dodge smelter was located in West Maspeth that stretched over a half mile along Newtown Creek. Maspeth was also home to Bohack Square, a large warehouse and distribution point for the Bohack supermarket chain. An annex of the Brooklyn Navy Yard was also located in Maspeth along Newtown Creek where launches, lifeboats, anchors and anchor chains were fabricated for the new ships being built in the main yard. Long Island Railroad yard engines shuttled freight cars to different industries along railroad tracks that radiated in every direction.


Newtown Creek was completely polluted with oil, chemicals, sewage and hazardous waste defying description and the whole area reeked of the pungent odors of heavy, dirty industry.


Our pal continued to re-tell his tale and excitement gradually trumped fear. Five of us decided to accompany him one afternoon as he led us deeper and deeper into this dark and dangerous realm of unfamiliar streets. We dodged dump trucks, cement mixers, box trucks, panel trucks and 40-foot trailers. We didn’t falter and rode next to the creek as the bridge rose above us towering 125-feet above the creek.


The bridge opened in August 1939 and less than one year later, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, renamed it after General Kosciuszko. Over 15,000 New Yorkers attended the festivities, mostly Polish residents from their strongholds of Greenpoint and Maspeth. LaGuardia noted in his remarks that Poland and been subjugated by the Nazis and Soviets the previous September, “I am confident that Poland will live again. Any land that breeds such lovers of freedom can never be enslaved. The Polish people may be captive, but the flaming spirit of Polish liberty will never be destroyed.”


We rode alongside the smelter- a scary site indeed. Just when it seemed the bridge would overwhelm us, our leader turned right and we followed peddling hard along a street uphill. This street paralleled the descending bridge and met it at an entrance to a walkway. We rode our bikes up the walkway to the center of the span where we stopped high over Newtown Creek. We could see Ridgewood in the distance. Two landmarks stood out, the rather large sandstone buildings of Grover Cleveland High School and the tall clock towers of St. Aloysius, my neighborhood parish.  The smelter looked just as scary from above as it did from street level.


Fear of an unpleasant encounter with local thugs began to poison the mood reminding us it was time to leave. Re-mounted, we were off increasing speed as we descended. “Don’t brake, don’t brake,” we shouted to each other as we tried hard not to brake. A U-turn at the end of the bridge taking us back on the city street required braking but we quickly regained speed as we rode downhill toward the creek. We were able to negotiate a sweeping left turn at speed and it was wonderful, a true joy. We were flying.


We were hooked on the experience and returned for as long as we biked. Speed increased as we grew more proficient and less fearful. Perhaps it was dumb luck but we never crashed or encountered trouble. We did remain cautious and never rode into Brooklyn and the streets of Greenpoint. That place was alien to us and would have forced us to bike through Williamsburg and Bushwick, both neighborhoods then in transition and not for the better.


Today, all that industry is long gone. Greenpoint, Williamsburg and Bushwick have been gentrified and Newtown Creek is as clean as it ever will be. The 1939 truss bridge wore out and a brand new cable-stayed span replaced it in late April. This is the first of two like spans that will constitute the new Kosciuszko Bridge. Late this summer, the old bridge will be dismantled and hauled away. The second span will rise in its place. When it opens in 2020, it will include a walkway. Unfortunately, I fear today’s safety regulations will probably prohibit flying bikes down the new bridge. But perhaps some boys will be daredevil enough to try their luck as we did so many years ago.