Once upon a Time in Middle Village
by John Delach
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.