“I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth.” That’s what Lou Gehrig said when he knew he was going to die.
I say, “God bless the bus that drove me to school.” It was the “40.” The “26” took my mother to work. If we wanted to go to Orchard Beach, we took the “26” to the “12”. Sometimes we stopped at the deli for a knish. This was the Bronx in the 1960s. We were rich beyond our means.
The “40” wasn’t a school bus, but a bus for the general public. We didn’t live in the district with the best school, so my mother used my grandmother’s address to register us for P.S. 102, which was just across the street. This was where Shari Lewis, the great puppeteer and television star went to school. It served a mix of Jews, Italians, Irish, Black and Puerto Ricans who came from the areas around Tremont Avenue, 180th Street, Parkchester and the Projects.
There was no school bus from where we lived, so when I was in the third through six grades, I took the public bus along with my younger sister. It cost ten or 20 cents each way. At first my mother took us, but we had the same driver, every day at the same time and he got to know us, so she thought we could go alone; me, 9 years old and my sister, 6; with our tin lunch boxes and school bags. The driver would ask us, “Why don’t you get a bus pass?” but we couldn’t tell him that we were going to the wrong school for where we lived. Such was life in the underground economy.
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After school, we stayed with my grandmother. We had snacks, did homework and watched television. I saw the Yankees lose the ’64 World Series. Jim Bouton’s cap fell off, every time he threw a fast ball. Sometimes we watched cartoons. There was this character called “Tobor the Eighth Man.” Tobor is robot spelled backwards. The theme song went, “There’s a prehistoric monster who’s come from outer space, created by the Martians, to destroy the human race. The FBI is helpless, He’s 20 stories tall. What should we do? Who should we call? Call Tobor, the Eighth Man!” We would sing this with friends.
My mother would pick us up after work, and walk us home, carrying groceries or food my grandmother had cooked. Once, I dropped the bag, and there was spaghetti sauce all over. We would stop at Frank’s Candy Store, where Mom would buy me a comic book for 12 cents. He called me Junior, and I even had an account there. I kept the comics by my bedside in the hollowed out chassis of a television set. I read them at night, by the light that streamed in from the house next door. My mother says this is why my eyes are bad. I liked Superman, Batman and the Green Lantern.
I also got old books from my cousin Bobby, who was my cousin because my grandmother had married Kaplan. Their respective children had agreed that they needed to take care of each other, and live in his apartment. Kaplan had a cigar stand in Penn station. He would bring me boxes of baseball cards to trade with my friends. Sometimes we got Sourballs. The books are where I learned the story of Lou Gehrig, the son of immigrant parents, whose dreams come true. Of course, not all of our dreams come true, but sometimes there’s enough.
John Wurzelmann is a physician who has lived in Chapel Hill for 25 years.