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It’s Good to Have a Hobby

Lou Charloff
October 11, 2011
by Lou Charloff The year was 1934. I was 13 and Bernie was 12. Like me, Bernie was short; he was also very smart and he was my best friend. We lived in the Hunts Point area, not far from Southern Boulevard, which was the prime shopping section of neighborhood. I am not referring to all of Southern Boulevard, just to the two blocks that ran from Westchester Avenue to Hunts Point Avenue and constituted the Rodeo Drive of the Bronx. Those two blocks contained three movie houses, two of which were part of the Loew’s chain. The major theater was the Boulevard, a magnificent structure, a genuine movie palace. It was considered a first-run house since it frequently showed films right after they had completed their run in Times Square. They charged twenty-five cents for kids and occasionally even had a vaudeville show performed between the films. They once had Sally Rand, the nude fan dancer, performing, but all I saw of her was her head. Down the street was the Burland theater, not quite as splendid a palace as the Boulevard. There the cost for kids was fifteen cents and the films often had been shown at the Boulevard a few weeks earlier. Across the street was the Star, which was frequently described as a dump. They charged kids only ten cents and they always had a triple feature program. Their films were usually a couple of years old and they had only very rarely been exhibited in Times Square. On those two blocks were restaurants and gift shops and jewelry stores. There were also stores that sold only men’s clothes or women’s clothes or children’s clothes. I remember too a store that sold only men’s hats. There was also a Davega’s sporting goods store which was very special because their window had once displayed a pair of roller skates that I pined for yearningly but was never allowed to buy. On the corner near Hunts Point Avenue, there were always six or seven bootblack kids. They charged ten cents a shine except for one brilliant boy who displayed a sign reading: “Ten cents for one shoe — the other shoe is free”. There was also a very old bearded man who, every morning, pushed a heavy scale on wheels from his apartment to his spot in front of the drug store. There he stood and offered to weigh passersby for a penny. We kids figured that he earned very little money but, since he was probably living with his children, his meager earnings helped him establish a sense of independence. The two Southern Boulevard blocks also contained three five-and- ten-cent stores: Kresge’s, Kress, and, of course, Woolworth’s. We were proud to have those two blocks in our neighborhood. Bernie always had a hobby, and his obsession then was stamp collecting. He was fascinated to have learned that there existed some rare and valuable stamps that were worth hundreds of dollars. I had absolutely no interest in his stamp collection. But Bernie was my best friend and I felt that meant that I ought to help him in every way possible. It was very exciting to Bernie to hear that Kresge’s had decided to use one of its counters to display postage stamps from various nations. They were shown in cellophane envelopes, each of which contained twelve stamps and cost only a dime. And Bernie figured that they would be an even better bargain if they were free. So we devised a plan. Bernie would stand at the counter, I would stand near him, looking innocent, but so positioned as to block him from the view of the store’s employees. The plan was only partially successful. I blocked the vision of the employees on the left side of the store. But those on the right side had a clear vision as Bernie transferred some of the envelopes from the counter to his pants pocket. The store manager hauled us into his office, where he gave us a tongue-lashing that was long and very loud and very very angry. At one point, he asked Bernie a question. He was not pleased with the answer and smacked my pal in the face. I spoke up, saying, “You have the right to have us arrested but you don’t have the right to hit us.” The manager glared at me. “What do we have here, the class orator?” I was rather pleased by the name he had given me, but he continued:”You better shut up, kid, or I’ll wallop you, too.” But I was glad to see that my words had had a effect and he did not hit me, and I was glad to see that he did not hit Bernie again, either. Instead, he continued his tirade until he finally let us go, warning us never to set foot in his store again.