When I was a boy I saw a man playing the spoons on the stage in the Rugby Theater, on Utica Avenue between church Avenue and Linden Boulevard in Brooklyn. Saturday mornings the doors opened at 11 o’clock. But a line already formed by ten; and it usually extended to Linden Boulevard.
Every one brought lunch. Mine was a couple of salami sandwiches, sometimes ham sandwiches. But more often just a piece of black bread slathered with chicken fat.
The show began at eleven thirty. Three feature films were shown, either a Pathe or Movietone News short; and a vaudeville show; usually five acts that included a song and dance man, a magician, an animal act, acrobats and jugglers and a specialty act. But the most important part of the experience was the half-hour serials of Buck Rogers, The Lone Ranger, and Terry and the Pirates. Three or four cartoons followed these. A whole day of fantasy for fifteen cents!
In addition to the fifteen cents for ticket, my mother sometimes gave me a nickel to buy a drink, a small bottle of tepid soda. There were three choices; orange, lemon, and root beer. I always chose root beer.
Most Saturdays I would go to the movies with my friend, Peter Graubard. Peter and I were approximately the same age. I was born in February and he in April. Both of us were tall and thin. Peter was slightly taller than I.
Christmas was always a good time of the year for us. Schools were closed and that, as far as I was concerned, was always good. There were two other things that year that were also good: the Rugby Theater’ Christmas show, and that the show would be capped by a drawing for a set of American Flyer electric trains and I was determined to win them.
Peter wanted the American Flyer trains too. But he was more mathematical about it than I and figured out that our chances were one in a thousand because that was the number of seats in the theater. The coveted trains were on display in a glass case in the theater’s lobby.
The locomotive was a thing of beauty. Black, with realistic details, and a light that lit up in the front and, of course, a train whistle. There were three green box cars with UNION PACIFIC printed on each of the cars in white letters, a silver tank car with black lettering and the red caboose also with black lettering on it.
The smell of fresh hot coffee woke me. The light was on in the kitchen and the radiator, hot with steam, hissed. I left the bed, washed and dressed before I went into the kitchen.
My father was still there, seated at the head of the table. A stocky built man with a round face and gray hair. He looked tired. The cuffs and collar of his white shirt were frayed. He ate silently. There was a half a roll on the plate in front of him. He pushed the plate toward me and said, “Eat.”
My mother placed a mug of coffee in front of me. I put condensed milk in it, two spoons of sugar and stirred it.
“Eat the role, Sonny,” my mother said. She was at the gas range pouring coffee from a percolator into a mug. She was at least two inches taller than my father. She sat across from him and sipped her coffee. Like my father, she was old. Her hair was gray and pushed up into a bun on the back of her head.
Neither of them spoke until my father said, “I’ll be home late.”
“How late?” my mother asked.
He shrugged. “Maybe eight, nine o’clock. It’ll be that way until after Christmas.” He spoke slowly and tiredly, as if he were chained to whatever he was doing.
Aware something strange was happening, as only a ten year old can be, and at the same time oblivious to everything else except my individual needs, I asked for fifteen cents to go to the movies.
“You went last week,” my mother said, as if she were accusing me of doing something wrong.
“But this week is the drawing for the trains,” I answered. Before either of them could speak, I added, “I’m going to win them.”
“Sonny, you don’t know that,” my mother said.
I look to my father; he was stone faced.
My mother continued to sip her coffee.
“I’m going to win them,” I screamed. “I’m going to win them!”
“You want something to scream about? I’ll give you something to scream about,” my mother said slapping me across the face. On the first swing she caught me with the palm of her hand and with the other the back of her hand. Each blow was hard enough to jounce my head to one side and then to the other. The half of the roll landed on the floor. I started to cry.
“Pick up the role” my mother yelled, “pick up the role and eat it. Your father gave it to you.”
My father dug into the right pocket of his trousers and pulled out the change he had. “Here’s a dime,” he said and
put it on the table.
I took it and put it in my pocket
“Anna, have you got a nickel?” He asked looking at my mother.
“I’ll give him one,” she answered.
My father stood up. His pants were shiny. “Maybe I’ll sell a piece,” he said, meaning a diamond ring. He looked at me with neither love nor disdain.
I was still sniffling for my mother slaps.
“Don’t be a crybaby,” my father said. “A couple of slaps and you sound like you’re getting killed.”
“They hurt,” I said rubbing my cheeks.
My father shook his head and walked out of the kitchen. A few moments later, I heard the door to the apartment open and close.
“He gave you his carfare,” my mother said “He’ll have to walk to the subway.”
“A lot you care,” my mother said, “as long as you get your way.”
“I’m going to win those trains,” I answered “You’ll see. I’m going to win them.”
She made a face. “You’d have been a lot smarter to win the turkey. At least we have eaten it for a couple of days. But you ain’t smart.” Lapsing into Yiddish, she said, “Du bist ein nair.” You’re a fool. I heard it too many times not to know what it meant.
By the time Peter and I got to the line for the “Big Christmas Show,” it went from the doors of the theater to Linden Boulevard and down to fifty-First Street. The day was gray, roaring and cold with a feeling of snow in the air.
Because I didn’t have gloves, I kept my hands in the pockets of my corduroy knickers or in the pockets of my Mackinaw. For lunch, my mother put three rough-cut slices of black bread smeared with chicken fat in a brown paper bag. I had the bag in the right pocket of my Mackinaw. Some of the chicken fat leaked through the bag into my pocket and through the lining to create a large stain on my jacket.
“My mother’s going to kill me when she sees this,” I said.
“Didn’t she put wax paper around them?” Peter asked.
“We don’t have any wax paper,” I said taking the oily bag out of my pocket.
“Shit, throw it away!” He said.
“It’s my lunch.”
“I got two sandwiches: one peanut butter and the other, bologna. You could have one of them.”
“Okay,” I said and looked behind us there were ten more kids on the line.
“Get rid of it,” Peter urged.
But throwing food away was something I couldn’t do. It was a sin. My mother and father said so; it was also a sin not to eat all of the food on your plate. The biggest sin was to throw food away. I felt if I threw my lunch away, it would give me bad luck. And I wouldn’t win the trains.
“Jesus, throw the bag into the gutter,” Peter said impatiently.
Suddenly, I thought of a way out, a way to avoid bringing bad luck on myself. I turned to the boys behind me. “Any of you guys want black bread and chicken fat?” I called out.
Immediately, I had several takers. I passed the bag to the boy directly behind me. “You take what you want and give whatever is left to the other guys.” I looked at Peter. “That was better than just throwing it away.”
“Yeah,” he answered. “It was better.”
When the doors to the theater finally opened, the line snaked around Fifty-First Street, and we couldn’t see its end from where we were. The snow started earlier than expected. Small white flakes stuck to our clothing, the bare limbs of the trees and any other cold surface. I tried not to think about my father walking to the subway station on Nostrand Avenue. Maybe he reached the subway before it started to snow. Or maybe it wasn’t snowing where he was. Sometimes it snowed in one place and not in another, even though the two places were close to each other. But I knew he’d be proud of me when I brought home the trains I had won.
I wanted him and my mother to be proud of me. I knew they weren’t. They were called up to school so many times because of the things I did or didn’t do that my father refused to go the last time. My conduct was bad; my work was worse. Because I already repeated the first and second grade, I was the tallest boy in the third grade and in three-two B, the “dumbest” class. But winning the trains would make the difference. I’d be up on the stage, and all of the kids would want to be me.
“You all right?” Peter asked.
“You got a dopey look on your face,” he said.
“I’m thinking about the trains,” I explained.
“So is every kid here.”
“Yeah. But I’m the one who’s going to win them,” I confidently told him.
When Peter and I bought our tickets, we were given another ticket with three numbers stamped on it.
“There’s not going to be enough room for all the kids behind us,” I said.
“I’m here. You’re here. That’s all that matters,” Peter answered.
“Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
“Sure I am,” Peter said.
We picked our way to two seats in back of the theater. It was noisy. We yelled to friends we saw and they yelled back.
There were lots of the girls there too, some of them with their boyfriends. At ten girls weren’t much on my mind. I tried to avoid them as much as possible. But still they held a mysterious attraction. I knew which ones would let you look at their slits for three cents or touch it for a nickel, and maybe for the same nickel touch your dong.
Peter opened his lunch bag. “I’m going to have half a sandwich. You want half?”
“Peanut butter or bologna?” he asked.
“Peanut butter,” I said. I had never tasted peanut butter until Peter’s mother coated a slice of white bread with it and handed it to me.
Most the kids were eating their lunches and many shuffled in and out of the rows of seats to buy a drink or candy.
Soon the floor was littered with empty bags, pieces of wrapping paper, paper cups and scraps of food.
Suddenly the lights began to dim down until the theater was totally dark. An instant later the screen filled with a lion and his roaring exploded into the darkness.
I didn’t care about the movies. I was there to win the trains. Everything took too long.
Finally, the pictures, the shorts and cartoons were over. The theater went dark. The stage curtain opened up, a spot light came on and vaudeville show began. There was Tulip, the French poodle, who jumped through hoops, danced on her hind legs and rolled over and played dead, a talking bird and two yo-yo experts, and a singer who tried to get the kids to sing along with him. There was also a ventriloquist with a dummy dressed as a cowboy, complete with a miniature gun and holster.
“They’re not as good as Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy,” Peter said.
When the ventriloquist finished, the next act was introduced as, “A man doing the impossible; making music with just two spoons, and he’s here to play the spoons for you kids. Welcome the one and only Mr. Silver Spoons. Give him a big hand.”
There was some clapping but not much. All of us knew the drawing for the trains came next, and this was only delaying it.
The white spot lit a tall, thin Negro dressed in a black suit, white shirt and a red tie with black or blue circles on it.
“Shit,” Peter said, “we could do without this.”
“You can say that again,” I answered.
The tall man took the two spoons out of his jackets right pocket. He did a couple of dance steps that brought them to the center of the stage. His black forehead glistened in the bright white light of the spot. He held the two spoons between the fingers of his right hand and began to rhythmically click them together. Lifting them over his head, he danced around in a tight circle.
I noticed his hair, where it came close to his ears and along the sides of his face, it was gray. He wasn’t a young man, but he wasn’t as old as my father.
He opened his mouth and beat the spoons on the top of his head to make up clunking sound.
“Jesus he’s terrible,” Peter declared.
Someone several rows in front of us booed. The other kids picked it up; and from the balcony came, “Get that nigger off the fuckin’ stage. The stomping of the feet began and the kids yelled, “Nigger, nigger get off the fuckin’ stage.”
I joined in. I didn’t know what the word “fuckin” meant. But I knew it was something bad.
Suddenly, the man stopped moving, stopped playing the spoons. His face crinkled. He looked as if he were struggling with someone. He hunched his shoulders and slowly walked out of the spotlight. The noise stopped and the lights went out.
The silence and the darkness was something I could feel. The blackness seemed to be more than it was, seemed to last longer than it should have. Around me, feet shuffled and seats creaked.
I felt strange; my heart began to race. The way Mr. Spoons looked bothered me, I recognized it. I saw the same sad look on my father’s face when he gave me the dime that morning. I wanted to leave my seat, but I couldn’t. Even if I could have, where would I have gone?
Suddenly the lights came up. The darkness was gone the weight of it vanished. It was time for the drawing to begin. Everyone shouted and clapped long and hard, and so did I.
A fat man wearing a red bow tie stood behind a barrel-like contraption. The spotlight was on him; a microphone was in front of him. “Kids we have three wonderful prizes for the lucky winners of the Rugby’s holiday celebrations and a grand prize of a complete set of American Flyer trains.”
All of us began to shout and clap. The fat man held up his hands, and like ripples in a pond the sound dissolved into itself.
“There are three prizes and one extra prize, the mystery prize. The first prize is a pair of roller skates.”
There was another burst of shouting and clapping until the fat man held up his hands again.
“The second prize is Monopoly, the game that’s sweeping America. You too can be a Rockefeller and play with millions of dollars.”
This time the clapping and shouting stopped before the fat man held up his hands.
“And the third prize is turkey, a lovely turkey for Christmas dinner.”
There was some clapping and shouting but the fat man didn’t even have to raise his hands for it to stop.
“We will roll the drum four times,” he said, “and each time it stops my assistant will pick a number. If your number matches the number called, you come up here on the stage. When all four winners are on the stage, I will put the numbers in this special bag.” He held up a blue cloth bag. “I will add a green card. Each of the four winners will be given a chance to draw for the grand prize, the set of American Flyer electric trains. The boy or girl who picks the green card wins the trains.”
A young woman dressed like Johnny, the boy in the ads for “Call for Philip Morris cigarettes” came out on the stage.
There was more clapping and shouting.
“Are we ready?” The fat man asked.
“Ready,” we roared back.
“Alright spin the barrel,” the fat man said.”
“It’s slowing . . . Slowing . . . It stopped and this lovely young lady will pick a number.”
The young woman opened the door on the barrel, pulled out a stub and handed it to the fat man.
“Number six-two-three,” the fat man said.
“That’s me,” a girl yelled from the rights side of the theater. “That’s me!”
“We have a little lady is our first winner,” the fat man announced. He moved to the side of the stage and took hold of her outstretched hand to help her up the steps. “And what’s your name?” He asked holding the microphone close to her face.
“Melissa Forster,” she answered.
He repeated her name and asked us to give her a big hand. We did.
I turned to look at Peter. He was bent slightly forward in his seat waiting for the next number to be called.
A boy in the balcony had it.
“Only two more numbers to go,” I said.
It took a while for the boy to come down from the balcony and walk up to the stage. I immediately recognized him.
“I know him,” I said “that’s Anthony Zito. I had a fight with him two weeks ago in a schoolyard.”
“You beat the crap out of him. But today, he’s a winner,” Peter said.
“I’ll beat the crap out of him again if he tries to push me around,” I answered. I was angry and jealous that Anthony was one of the winners.
The next number was called. A boy in the front row had that one. He ran up the steps.
“And what’s your name?” The fat man asked.
“Ta…Ta.. Thomas …Crim…Crims…Thomas Crims.”
The fat man imitated him and everyone laughed. “Now for the last number for the winner of our mystery prize and may be, just maybe the wonderful set of American Flyer electric trains. But let the barrel roll!”
His assistant spun the barrel a couple of times. The fat man waited until the barrel stopped before he said, “and now the last number is – –“
I sucked in my breath.
“The number is two-two-nine,” the fat man said.
“That’s me,” I shouted. “That’s me!” I was out of my seat and pushing past a forest of legs on my way to the aisle.
I glanced back at Peter. He sat deep in his seat as I ran down the aisle, up the steps and onto the stage.
“And what’s your name, sonny?” He asked.
“Sonny,” I answered close up I saw the role of fat above his shirt collar, and his face glistened with sweat.
“Sonny Sonny,” he said with a big smile. He had one gold tooth.
“No, Sonny is my nickname. Everyone calls me Sonny.”
“Okay,” he said stretching out the okay. “Now it’s time for the big one. The grand prize, the wonderful set of American flyer trains.” He handed the bag back to his assistant. “Now all of you kids put your tickets into the bag.”
We dropped our tickets into the bag.
“Wait until I put the green card into the bag,” the fat man said he took the green card out of his pocket, held it up for all of us to see and then he put it into the blue bag; and handed it to his assistant. “Now shake the bag,” the fat man said. “Shake it real hard. Okay. Okay. Now it’s time for the drawing.” He took the bag from his assistant, opened it and again he held it out for us to see.
It seemed as if everyone of the theater held their breaths. All I could hear was a pounding in my ears. The first winner drew and came up with an ordinary stub. Anthony drew another stub. By the time the third winner drew, all of the kids in the theater were on the edge of their seats. But he too pulled another stub.
Suddenly the bag was in front of me, but I couldn’t move.
“It’s your turn, Sonny,” the fat man said. “Go ahead and draw.”
I looked at him. He was smiling. There were little bubbles around his gold tooth. I took a deep breath and plunged my hand into the bag. My hands touched one card. There should have been another one in the bag. But there wasn’t. I looked at the fat man.
“Draw the card, Sonny” the fat man said. He wasn’t smiling. He sounded like my teacher when she told me to do something I didn’t want to do.
I pulled another stub out of the bag.
The kids in the audience groaned.
“Sorry kids” the fat man said he put his chubby hand into the bag and pulled out the green card. “We’ll save the trains for next year,” he said “but all of you won something” he handed each of the first three winners their prizes. “And now we have the mystery prize that goes to Sonny.” He handed me a small box, longer than it was wide.
“What do you think it is?” He asked, making his eyes go wide.
“A fountain pen, maybe.” I answered. I didn’t feel much like speaking. I didn’t want to be on the stage anymore. But I was caught like a fish on a hook; and no matter how I wiggled, I wasn’t going to get free until he let go of me.
“A fountain pen – – well, why don’t you open it and find out what’s inside?” He looked at the audience. “Don’t you kids want to know what’s inside of the box?”
Everyone shouted, “Open it…Open it… Open it!”
I tore the Christmas paper off and opened the box. It wasn’t a fountain pen.
“Spoons,” fat man said, “two spoons . . . Maybe Mr. Silver Spoons will teach you how to play them.”
I didn’t answer him.
“Come on out here Mr. Silver Spoons,” the fat man called.
The spotlight found him, and he walked to the center of the stage where we were.
“Mr. Silver Spoons would you teach Sonny how to play the spoons?” The fat man asked.
“Sure enough, ifin he want ta larn,” he answered.
The fat man looked at me. “Well, Sonny, do you want to larn?”
Dumbly I nodded. By now, everyone is theater was laughing; Peter was laughing too. My father would laugh. My mother would laugh. But I couldn’t even cry.