A Sunday Outing with Mom
by John Delach
Written in 2004, first published in “The Big Orange Dog and Other Stories” in 2011 and revised in February of 2018
My excitement begins when the 8:45 a.m. mass at St. Aloysius Church ends. Outside, I line-up on the Onderdonk Avenue sidewalk with other kids to give a vendor a nickel for a salted pretzel that he selects from his wicker basket lined with a clean dishtowel. It is the first piece of food I eat today. This is 1951 and my Holy Communion fast began at midnight.
Mom told me before we left for mass that we would have an outing today. I still don’t know where we will go, and I must wait while she chats with friends and neighbors. I have learned to keep my mouth shut. I am sure my body language gives away my growing impatience as these women continue to talk aimlessly. But one time, I made the mistake of wising off and my Sunday outing ended right then and there. I am happy and relieved when my mother and her friends say their final good-byes. Walking home, Mom announces that we will be going to Canarsie today.
This is fine with me because that is one of the few places we travel to that is still served by trolley cars. Before Mom heads for our apartment to start our breakfast, she hands me seventy cents. I run to the bakery around the corner to buy 4 seeded rolls and 2 crumb buns for two quarters and to the candy store where I leave twenty cents in a plate on the counter for the Sunday News and Sunday Mirror.
It’s a four-block walk from our house to the DeKalb Avenue station. No clerk is on duty on Sundays forcing us to use the automated turnstile. I hate this machine; a steel enclosed cylinder with room for only one passenger at a time. I must push it around by myself and I fear becoming trapped. I’m sure if I do, I will wet my pants, but fortunately it does not jam.
I delight in this train ride. Being a kid, I imagine that I drive the train through the tunnel as I look out of the front window holding on to the doorframe as the subway car bucks and rocks as it travels with speed between stations. A marvelous combination of sensations, the swoosh of the train rushing forward, its lights bouncing off the concrete walls creates patterns of shapes and forms that disappear before I can even think what they could be. In front of us, the tracks glow until eaten away as the train devours them. The white light bulbs lining the tunnel walls are the stars in a galaxy; the blue emergency lights with their pink halos are its strange planets. Signal lights change from red to yellow or green as the motorman eases or increases his throttle to keep pace with them.
Every now and again, I look over my shoulder to make sure my mother remains in her seat reading a newspaper or magazine. Satisfied, I return to my own universe excited to be riding the train on this Sunday outing.
The day is ahead of us. Morning light fills the train as it emerges from the tunnel and onto the elevated structure. Apartment buildings, tenement houses, schools and small factories melt away with each station as the landscape becomes less crowded. We pass junkyards, rail sidings and even an occasional farm and farm house as the train descends to ground level before it reaches the end of the line. I abandon my post as the train eases into the last station and follow Mom to wait for the connecting trolley car that will take us to the Canarsie Pier.
“Will we go on a boat ride? Can I get ice cream, candy, a soda?” “How long can we stay?”
I don’t see that I am testing her patience until it is too late. “Stop it and be quiet.”
I sulk but the sound and sight of the trolley distracts me. Few streetcar lines still operate and, soon this one too will be replaced by buses. I have watched the ones that ran near my house all disappear, so this is a treat for me. Visions of ice cream and Pepsi vanish with its appearance, at least for a while.
We board the trolley, a double ender dating from the 1920s. So much more fun to ride than buses, trolleys have their own unique sounds and smells. The sound of the electric motor purring as the car waits to be engaged. The crackle and smell of the electric ozone when the trolley pole sparks as it crosses other wires. The clang-clang of the bell as the operator prepares to leave a stop. The sound and smell of steel on steel as the car crosses switches or makes tight turns.
Mom allows me to sit next to a window when a seat is available. She sits next to me. I am only allowed to open the window so long as the breeze doesn’t disturb other passengers. Five black iron horizontal bars block the opened window, but her sharp words of caution are enough to prevent me from sticking my fingers through the bars.