The Early Years – 1948 to 1960
I took my first breath just after sundown on a bone-chilling February 10th in 1948. The big event took place on the upper-east side of Manhattan, the frigid East River a block away. Norma Gordon was nineteen years old, and I was her second.
It wasn’t exactly the smoothest of births. The umbilical chord had wrapped itself around my neck pretty tight. This little episode was the first of many close shaves to follow. Looking back, it’s a wonder I’m here at all.
Upon seeing the two cowlicks on the crown of my head, great grandma Fanny predicted I would become somebody famous. It was an old Hungarian myth – so much for old myths.
Norma and my biological father Sydney Scheiner divorced when I was four. Their agreement was for him to disappear from our lives forever in return for no alimony. He kept his word. I have no recollection of him whatsoever, nor does my sister Jackie.
Carl Thomas was serving customers breakfast in the Tearoom, a Brighton Beach restaurant in Brooklyn, when he met my mother. They fell for each other pretty hard and married within a year. From the pictures I’ve seen of Norma back then she was a real stunner and even with us two kids in tow Carl couldn’t resist. If he had only known what he was getting himself into.
Years later when I was twelve or so, I asked my mother for my birth certificate. Her face crumbled. She looked as though she’d seen a phantom. Reluctantly she explained that Thomas wasn’t my real name, Carl Thomas was not my real father, and there was someone else who came before.
Some how after the haze lifted, in that first moment of recognition all I could think of was how much I loved Carl, my dad, and none of the rest of it mattered. I wanted to give the guy a big hug, and later that day I did just that. As far as I could tell he always loved Jackie and I with the same intensity that he later showered on his own three kids.
With some difficulty I persuaded mom to tell me about Sydney. The short of it is, fresh out of the service he was writing stories in hopes of becoming a professional writer. To support us he worked in a liquor store. Having little or no luck at all in having his writing efforts published he became frustrated, started drinking, and became an abusive bitter young man. They’d had some nasty times and Norma wanted him gone. He acquiesced, end of story. Except it’s never really the end of the story.
I have a few sepia-toned photos of a guy with black curly-hair in his Armed services uniform, with mom, Jackie, and me at his sides. We’re posing in front of the Bronx Zoo. That’s it, nothing more. Mom stayed pretty tight-lipped about him, and I could sense negativity and embroiled emotions when I brought him up. So I didn’t often go there. The few times I did get her to speak about him she’d become deeply sad and brooding. She didn’t paint a pretty picture. I almost wished I hadn’t asked. Will I turn out like him I wondered?
I know there are two sides to every story, but for to him disassociate himself from his own flesh and blood is unthinkable to me, even now some fifty years later.
We all get thrown some curves in life. It’s what shapes us. Is his leaving a good thing, or a bad thing; was he a good man or a jerk? I’ll never know. I do know that there’s no point in questioning destiny. Somewhere along the way I realized this part of me would always remain shrouded in mystery, unresolved, and I moved on.
Luckily Carl Thomas was a good father, and he wasn’t one to raise his voice. He worked ten-hour days, six days a week, as a short-order cook serving customers behind the counter of a luncheonette or diner, yet he maintained his light-hearted demeanor when he came home. He’d kibitz with the customers all day long, and count his tips out of a paper sack after dinner over a Pabst Blue Ribbon and a Cigarillo. We lived on those tips.
A lot of guys wind up following their father’s footsteps, but I figured out pretty quick that I wasn’t one of them. I mean I respected him immensely for always providing us with a nice home and food on the table, but I just couldn’t envision myself in his well-worn shoes. As time went by he and Norma conceived my two brothers Richard and Fred, and my adorable sister Annette.
Carl was a very entertaining character, a real song and dance man. He told us of going to dance clubs up in Harlem when he was a kid, tearing it up all night. He loved seeing Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw play, and could imitate Al Jolson, or Fred Astair to a tee. It was good to have some levity in the house, especially when Norma was in one of her dark moods.
She hadn’t exactly had it easy as a child, and it reflected in the occasional storms of temper that would rain down on us. Not to say she wasn’t a caring, doting mother as well. In today’s world she would have been a good candidate for one of the many anti-depression pills available. Carl’s sense of humor buoyed us through quite a few turbulent moments.
I was a perfect nightmare as a child because I would get into all kinds of mischief, and wind up hurt nine times out of ten. At four years old I managed to get myself stuck on top of a chain-link fence. I was just trying to climb over the six-foot thing, get to the other side. At six, chasing after my sister in pre-school I broke my right ring finger when a heavy door slammed on it. But in 1956, when I was eight, I had the big doozy of them all.
The street was in a rural neighborhood in Long Island, with very little traffic, a few older houses scattered every few hundred yards or so. I was riding my new green and chrome Schwinn Phantom bike home from playing at Deer Lake in West Islip, Jackie trailing behind me. While riding “no hands ” – balancing the bike with my arms stretched out on my sides, like a bird – I abruptly stopped.
The fire department had used an old 1940’s derelict automobile for a practice drill. When they were finished they just left it there, half on the road, half on the roadside, its windows broken. My right arm had ripped across the jagged glass, cutting me open at the inside of my elbow.
I looked down and saw the joint of my arm bone, blood everywhere, and went right into shock. My sister panicked and started screaming, and I told her to go get mom, about a mile away. Norma didn’t drive and would be at home. I held my right arm at the wrist with my left hand and walked across the street to the nearest house and banged on the door leaving a bloody imprint. Nobody answered. Then I let out a howl for help that I’m sure could be heard for miles.
There has to be some kind of angel watching over me. A woman who lived a few hundred yards away, heard my cry and came running. How’s this for good luck following bad? Turns out she’s a registered nurse. This angel of mercy put a tourniquet on my arm, saving my life right then and there. If, like a cat I had nine lives that would have been my second. She then commandeered a car and rushed me to Southside Hospital. I remember lying with my head in her lap, her fingers stroking my hair, the car practically breaking the sound barrier and asking her if I was going to die. I don’t know how she could have been so sure, but she told me I would live.
It was a major operation that lasted five hours and required 65 stitches. Both artery and vein had been severed. According to my mother who first saw me before surgery, I was the color blue from lack of blood. Maybe that’s why I love the Blues.
After a while I was able to use my right arm and fingers again, but it was never the same. For the next twenty-five years I wore long sleeve shirts to hide the long uneven scar. I’d lost a lot of feeling in my right hand fingers, and had to learn how to print instead of using the cursive style. I began casting a fishing rod and throwing a football with my left hand. My right and left arms and hands grew at different rates, or maybe the blood flow was slower in the one, because they became two completely different beings, like they belonged to strangers.
But I’m just glad to be here. A brush with death carries it’s own weight in lessons. I learned how to get back up and keep going forward, and didn’t let my disability keep me from trying new things. This lesson came in handy later when I taught myself to play guitar, even though I couldn’t feel the strings one hundred percent.
According to Norma, I could sing ‘You Send Me’ with Sam Cooke on the car radio about this time.
She was thrilled because she had been a singer at a very early age as well, having once even sung on radio in New York City when she was ten. Of all the things on earth that can befall a young aspiring singer what could be worse than the onset of tumors of the throat? There were nasty scars down the entire right side of her neck from all the surgeries that followed. Self-conscious about the way her neck appeared, she never sang in public again. It was a shame because she was a beautiful girl with a sweet voice.
Consequently when I started singing in my early teenage years mom was behind me a hundred percent. I think, in some small way, she lived out her own dreams of a singing career through me. She was always trying to get me to learn the old ones, tunes like ‘Ain’t She Sweet’, and ‘I’m in Heaven’. Having a mother that sang and an ex-father who wrote was the writing on the wall.
When we lived in East Islip, Long Island – about 50 miles Northeast of Manhattan – I discovered the solitude of the woods. Glad to be out of the city, I’d walk to nearby Hecksher State Park, alone or with my cocker spaniel Buff – a wonderful companion – and find quiet secret places with brooks, spongy moss, and the smell of pines. I’d lie there for hours my mind drifting, watching the clouds roll by, content in my own world, the dreamer.
Buff and I loved hunting for Box turtles in the park. He’d help me find them, and I’d bring them home to a pen I’d made. I spent a lot of time climbing trees, once getting my hands torn to shreds when I tried to take a baby squirrel from it’s nest. I also caught chip monks – fast little devils – ribbon snakes, ducks, frogs, and even a bat. It got itself tangled up in my curly hair and Norma had a bitch of a time getting it out. I wanted it for a pet but it pretended death and I buried it in the backyard only to discover it gone the next morning, a gaping hole in the earth where the gravesite had been.
A friend and I trapped a muskrat in the swamp one time too. Afterwards we skinned and cured the pelt while wearing our coonskin caps and buckskin jackets as if we were Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett.
My mother frequently punished me for various infractions. Being late was a big one, so was stealing more than my ration of chocolate bars and not admitting to it. I was a hopeless sugar addict and a sneak to boot, and when backed up against the wall I’d flat-out lie. So I wound up having to spend a lot of time in my room. I didn’t mind it either, for there I could be in my own cocoon, away from my mother’s tantrums and the tumult of family life for a few hours or days. Eventually I learned to enjoy my time alone, a prerequisite for a songwriter.
Life with Norma was hard at times. I ran away when I was eight and ten years old. She was quick to use her hands, and I didn’t dig it at all. The first time I ran away I’d packed a shopping bag with some clothes and rode my bike all the way back to West Islip ten miles or so. She was relieved to get me back, and for a while was sorry for what she’d done. But it didn’t take long before the whole cycle repeated itself. I became wary of those hands.
It didn’t take much to set her off, and I wasn’t the only offender. Like an alcoholic, she’d apologize afterwards, but by then it was too late, the damage already done. It’s weird to say it, but true none-the-less, I hated her something fierce at times. Later, in my twenties, I forgave her all that bullshit and did my best to forget. Tried to dwell on the good times, remember her sweet side. Certain things you can’t erase though.
My family moved back and forth from Brooklyn to Long Island many times. Brooklyn was a rough-ass place. Street fights were a regular occurrence, and theses were serious fights.
I’d get a queasy feeling when I saw guys furiously banging each other’s heads into the pavement and onto lampposts. I don’t know why, but even though it was sickening to see, something in me would want to watch anyway. I wasn’t cut out to be a street brawler though.
While walking home from Shellbank Junior High in Sheepshead Bay a group of neighborhood toughs spotted me and yelled, “Get the Jew boy”. How did they even know I was Jewish? I was tired of this racism shit already and I was only twelve. Like storm clouds they raced towards me and I ran like hell. Sensing one of the fastest runners gaining on me, I stopped real quick, spun on my heels and stuck my foot into his gut. He dropped like a sac of cement, wheezing, cursing and holding his stomach. With the other kids in hot pursuit I raced to my apartment building and up the five flights of stairs. Winded but un-bowed I collapsed into the apartment. This little episode taught me to always keep my eyes open for any kind of trouble that might have my name on it. They call this street smarts, in the city.
However, street smarts didn’t prevent me from getting jumped by a gang as I walked home from Madison High School one afternoon. The rumor was that a rival gang from a nearby high school wanted to rumble with the thugs in my high school. But I paid it no mind, as there were always rumors of one kind or another flying around.
A popular article of clothing back then was black knee-length trench coats. They matched perfectly with our black pegged pants and black pointy shoes. Even if it was hot weather I loved sporting my trench coat.
I had just left school and was doing my imitation of a black hipster ditty-bopping down the street. You shuffled your feet as you walked, bopping your head and shoulders up and down, like a drunken Penguin or a seasick camel. We white kids thought we were cool, but we must have looked like chumps. Black guys always looked cool ditty-bopping. While bopping along with my hands in my trench coat pockets, four or five guys jumped me from behind and started punching and kicking me. I couldn’t get my hands out of the deep pockets. They knocked me to the ground and repeatedly kicked me about the head and body till they moved off like a pack of wolves to the next unsuspecting victim. I was real lucky not to have been hurt too bad.
Can’t say as I learned much from going to Madison High School, but I did learn to keep my damn hands out of my trench coat pockets when walking around Brooklyn!
I would go out on school nights to an elementary school a few blocks away that was made available to kids for night recreation, to keep us off the street and out of trouble. It was a place to hang out. We were able to play basketball in the gym, dance to the latest 45’s in the lunchroom, that kind of thing. Two things happened to me at that school which I’ll never forget, one really good the other not good at all.
Some kids were playing a serious game of basketball in the gym. When their ball went out of bounds I happened to be passing by and picked it up. I probably should have just thrown it back to them, but instead, acting cocky, I dribbled the ball for a while, and even went for an ill placed hoop. One of the players got angry. A heavy-set boy told me he was going to fuck me up after the game, but I just said something wise-assed to him, shrugged it off, and swaggered away.
I probably should have taken his warning seriously, slipped out of there and gone home, but I was oblivious. Besides he was just a fat kid so nothing to worry about. At the end of the evening I left the building to head home, fat boy’s threat totally forgotten. But he hadn’t forgotten anything. He walked up to me and straightaway punched me in the chest hard. One punch was all he threw, and that’s all it took. I doubled over, my breath a thing of the past. He didn’t have to do anything more because I was incapacitated with that one punch. I just couldn’t catch my breath. My eyes were watering as he walked away, crowing, “That’ll teach you!” leaving me like a fresh caught fish gasping for air.
I learned a couple of things that night. Fat boys have a lot of weight behind their punches, and a well-placed punch to the sternum will temporarily stop an opponent. I looked at heavier guys with a new set of eyes from then on.
My other memorable experience from night school was less catastrophic, but no less dramatic. I was sitting in the lavatory stall when I heard some guys start singing a cappella. Instant goose bumps. A doo-wop group had come into the bathroom to practice their harmonies and take advantage of the excellent echo from the tile walls and floors. They were a group of five black and Spanish guys who were called The Camelots and they were phenomenal.
There was something about those raw harmonies that resonated in me, a frequency that had found it’s mark. I knew right then and there that I had to be part of that sound somehow. Little did the singers know they’d set me on a course for the world of music.