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Book Review – Between Two Bridges by Victor Colaio
It was sometime in the mid-1980s. I was eating at Forlini’s restaurant at 93 Baxter Street in downtown Manhattan with my good friend Rudy Riska, who was the athletic director of the Downtown Athletic Club and was known as the King of the Heisman Trophy. I grew up across the street from Forlini, at 134 White Street, at the corner of Baxter Street in the Sixth Ward, across the street from a city jail called Tombs. Rudy grew up on Madison Street, in the nearby Fourth Ward, just 10 minutes away.
People from the fourth and sixth wards were friendly enemies, especially in sports. My first memory of the Fourth Ward was in 1958 when I went to play Little League baseball at Coleman Oval under the Manhattan Bridge. By then the neighborhood had completely changed and the brutal laws of eminent domain had driven thousands from their homes. This was done to pave the way for the construction of the Al Smith Low-Income Project and Chatham Green Middle-Income Cooperatives. The same thing happened in the Sixth Ward, on a smaller scale, to make way for the construction of Chatham Towers middle-income cooperatives.
Over dinner at Forlini’s, Rudy told me about the Fourth Ward in the 1940s and early 1950s. He mentioned roads that no longer exist; Like Roosevelt Street and parts of Oak Street and Williams Street. And he mentioned a Catholic church I’d never heard of called St. Joachim’s, which was on Roosevelt Street. Then Rudy started talking about the kids he grew up with.
“Do you remember Victor Starr?” Rudy asked me.
No, I didn’t, but after reading the wonderful book “Between Two Bridges” by Victor Colaio (Victor Starr), although I’ve never met the man, I know Victor Starr very well (we even went to the same high school – Cardinal Hayes in the Bronx). .
Victor and Rudy are both 10-12 years older than me. The Lower East Side in which he grew up was little different from the Lower East Side. I played stickball, stoopball, softball, hardball, basketball and football just like them, but we had real balls that we bought. A sporting goods store on Nassau Street, whose name escapes me (Spiegels?). During Victor’s time, they bought pink Spaldins and the occasional clincher softball like ours, but their footballs were made of rolled up newspaper and tape. Talk about roughing it. (I’m assuming they used an actual basketball, because if the ball wasn’t perfectly round, how could they pick it up correctly?)
Also, television was a new invention during Rudy and Victor’s time; Originally only bars were used to show sports events like baseball and boxing. However, I don’t remember not having a TV set in my apartment, nor do I remember any of my friends not having a TV set in their apartment. But this was in the mid to late 1950s; Not until the mid-1940s, when Rudy and Victor grew up.
In “Between Two Bridges”, Victor talks about spending many wonderful afternoons at a Venice theater owned by a wonderful woman named Mazie, who allowed children free admission to the theater if they had no money. Mazie also gave money to the bums on the Bowery, so they could buy something to eat or, more likely, something to drink. I don’t remember the Venice Theater, but I do remember Mazzy, but from the Chatham Theater on Chatham Square, under the Third Avenue L, which I knocked down when I was 9 or 10 years old. However, the Chatham Theater remained there for many years.
In “Between Two Bridges”, Victor regales the reader with stories about how he used to play ball in “The Lots”, an unsanitary strip of land under the Manhattan Bridge. I don’t remember “The Lots”, but I do remember Coleman Oval, which was built on the former site of “The Lots”. This is where the Two Bridges Little League Baseball Association played their games. In fact in 1960, my Transfiguration Little League team beat Victor’s St. James Little League team for the Two Bridges Championship.
And then there were nicknames, which almost everyone had.
Victor Victor was the star. My nickname in the Sixth Ward was Muni; People still call me Muni. Victor mentions childhood friends like Pete the Lash, who was built like a safe and wasn’t afraid to throw his weight around. After I moved to Knickerbocker, Fourth Ward, in 1964, I met Pete the Lash, who was certainly an impressive physical specimen; Only by the mid-70s did his brick-like body have a beer belly. Although Pete was basically a friendly, happy guy, woe betide those who got on the wrong side of Pete the Lash.
Victor mentions other nicknames such as Richie Igor, Nonnie, Polly Knock Knock, Junior, Bunny and Butch, which I came to know in later years. But I don’t remember Goo-Goo, Bobo the Hippo, Hammerhead, Paulie Batman, Georgie Egg, Bopo or Bimbo. But I want to.
Growing up in the Lower East Side of Manhattan from the 30s to the 60s was a unique experience; An experience that no longer exists for young people in New York City. In the Lower East Side, we grew up with people of all denominations and religions. The Two Bridges Little Baseball League had Transfiguration Church teams – almost exclusively Italian and Chinese. St. James was mostly Irish with a few Italians. St. Joseph’s was mostly Italian and some Irish. The Mariners Temple team was Puerto Rican. The Educational Alliance and the LMRC were Jewish. And Sea and Land, sponsored by neighbors, were African-American. And there were Polish, Spanish boys from Spain, and Czechoslovakian boys sprinkled throughout the teams.
We didn’t have time or energy to be racist or prejudiced. We all grew up together and we all respected each other. It was the only way to survive.
One thing Victor mentions in his book is very true. If you grew up on the Lower East Side, you grew up ball; you had to You had to fight almost every day and if you didn’t; You were beaten almost every day. Bullies always picked on weak kids or those who didn’t fight back. But if you fight back, even if you get a beating or two, the bullies simply pray.
It was just the law of the jungle.
The Lower East Side produced mobsters of all nationalities. But it also produced doctors (Joe Fiorito), lawyers (Matthew J. Marry, a prominent criminal lawyer in the Fourth Ward), politicians (Al Smith from James Street became governor of New York and lost the presidential election in 1928), many judges. (Judge Piccarillo), professional singers (Johnny Maestro, Luther Vandross), and professional athletes. Rudy Riska was a professional athlete from the Lower East Side (he played for the Triple A Yankees); His brother Steve was second (Cincinnati Reds farm system). A guy named Vinnie Head (I never knew his real name) from the Sixth Ward (NY Giants Farm System) and Charlie Velotta was also from the Sixth Ward (Dodgers Farm System). Charlie lived with me on the same floor at 134 White Street.
My neighbor at 134 White Street was Mickey Black; Real name Michael Corriero (we shared a firescape and Mikey would frequently knock on my door because he forgot his apartment key and had to use my bedroom window to get onto the firescape to get into his apartment). Mickey, after being on the periphery of teen gangs as a teenager, became a lawyer, then a judge in the New York State Juvenile Court system. He is now the Executive Director and Founder of the New York Center for Juvenile Justice.
Growing up on the Lower East Side in the mid-twentieth century couldn’t be better described than “between two bridges” by Victor Colaio. I recommend this book to all New Yorkers – of any age. And if you’re from another part of the country, you can’t help but enjoy this brilliant book. If people outside of New York City can flock to watch a show as ridiculous as “Mob Wives,” they should read a book that is true to life, not a stereotype of the worst people in New York City.
One more thing – if you don’t buy “Between Two Bridges”, I’m going to have to send Pete the Lash to meet you.
And that can never be a good thing.
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