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Book Review – Between Two Bridges by Victor Colaio
It was the mid-1980s. I was having dinner at Forlini’s restaurant at 93 Baxter Street in midtown Manhattan with my good friend Rudy Riska, who was the Athletic Director of the Downtown Athletic Club and was known as the Heisman Trophy King . I had grown up across from Forlini, in a building at 134 White Street, corner of Baxter Street in the Sixth Ward, across from the city jail called the Tombs. Rudy had grown up on Madison Street in the adjourned Fourth Ward, just a 10-minute walk away.
The residents of the Fourth and Sixth Wards were friendly enemies, especially in sports. My earliest memory of the Fourth Ward dates back to 1958 when I went to play Little League baseball at Coleman Oval under the Manhattan Bridge. By then, the neighborhood had completely transformed and tens of thousands of people had been driven from their homes by the cruel law of Eminent Domain. This was done to make way for the construction of the low-income Al Smith projects and middle-income Chatham Green co-ops. The same had happened in the Sixth Ward, albeit to a lesser extent, to make way for the construction of the middle-income Chatham Towers co-ops.
During dinner at Forlini, Rudy told me about the Fourth Ward in the 1940s and early 1950s. He mentioned streets that no longer existed; such as Roosevelt Street and Oak Street, and parts of Williams Street. And he mentioned a Catholic church that I had never heard of called St. Joachim’s, which was on Roosevelt Street. Then Rudy started talking about the guys he grew up with.
“Do you remember Victor Star? Rudy asked me.
No, I haven’t, but after reading the magnificent book “Between Two Bridges” by Victor Colaio (Victor Star), even though I’ve never met the man, I know Victor Star very well (we even went to the same high school – Cardinal Hayes in the Bronx).
Victor and Rudy are about 10-12 years older than me. The Lower East Side they grew up on was slightly different from the Lower East Side I grew up on. Of course, we played stickball, stoopball, softball, hardball, basketball and football, like them, but we had real balls which we bought at a sporting goods store on Nassau Street, whose the name escapes me (Spiegels?). In Victor’s day, they bought pink Spaldeens and occasionally Clincher softballs, like we did, but their footballs were made of wrapped newspaper and duct tape. Talk about roughness. (I guess they used real basketballs, because if the ball wasn’t perfectly round, how could they bounce it properly?)
Also, in Rudy and Victor’s time, television was a new invention; basically only bars had them to show sporting events like baseball and boxing. However, I don’t remember not having a TV in my apartment, nor do I remember any of my friends not having a TV in their apartment. But that was the mid to late 1950s; not from the mid to late 1940s when Rudy and Victor were growing up.
In “Between Two Bridges,” Victor recounts spending many wonderful afternoons at the theater in Venice, which was owned by a wonderful woman named Mazie, who let children into the theater for free if they had no money. Mazie also gave money to the bums in the Bowery, so they could buy something to eat, or most likely something to drink. I don’t remember the Venice theater, but I remember Mazie, but the Chatham theater on Chatham Square, under El Third Ave, which was demolished when I was about 9 or 10. However, the Chatham Theater remained there for many years.
In “Between Two Bridges”, Victor regales the reader with stories of how children played ball in “The Lots”, a dirty strip of dirt under the Manhattan Bridge. I don’t remember “The Lots”, but I do remember Coleman Oval, which was built on the old site of “The Lots”. This is where the Two Bridges Little League Baseball Association played its games. In fact, in 1960, my Transfiguration Little League team defeated Victor’s St. James Little League team for the Two Bridges Championship.
And then there were the nicknames, which almost everyone had.
Victor was Victor Star. My nickname in the Sixth Ward was Mooney; people still call me Mooney. Victor mentions childhood friends like Pete the Lash, who was built like a strongman and wasn’t afraid to shed his weight. After moving to Knickerbocker Village from the Fourth Ward in 1964, I met Pete the Lash, who was definitely an impressive physical specimen; it wasn’t until the mid-’70s that his brick-shaped body had a bit of a beer belly. Even though Pete was basically a friendly, jovial guy, woe betide anyone who got on Pete the Lash’s bad side.
Victor mentions other nicknames like Richie Igor, Nonnie, Paulie Knock Knock, Junior, Bunny and Butch, all men I later knew. But I don’t remember Goo-Goo, Bobo the Hippo, Hammerhead, Paulie Batman, Georgie Egg, Bopo or Bimbo. But I would like.
Growing up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the 1930s to 1960s was a unique experience. an experience that no longer exists for young people in New York. On the Lower East Side, we grew up with people of all faiths and denominations. The Two Bridges Little Baseball League had Transfiguration Church teams – almost exclusively Italians and Chinese. St James was mainly Irish with some Italians. St. Joseph was mostly Italians with a few Irish. The Mariners Temple team was Puerto Rican. Educational Alliance and LMRC were Jewish. And Sea and Land, sponsored by people from the neighborhood, were African Americans. And there were Polish children, Spanish children from Spain and Czechoslovakian children scattered throughout the teams.
We had neither the time nor the 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 that Victor points out in his book is very true. If you grew up on the Lower East Side, you grew bullets; you had to. You had to fight almost every day, and if you didn’t; you get beat up almost every day. Bullies invariably picked on weaker children or those who did not fight back. But if you fought back, even if you got beat up or two, the bullies moved on to easier prayer.
It was just the law of the jungle.
The Lower East Side has produced mobsters of all nationalities. But it also produced doctors (Joe Fiorito), lawyers (Mathew J. Mari of the Fourth Ward is a prominent criminal lawyer), politicians (Al Smith of James Street became governor of New York and lost the presidential election in 1928), several judges (Judge Piccariello), 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 another (the Cincinnati Reds farm system). There was also a guy named Vinnie Head (I never knew his real name) from the Sixth Ward (NY Giants Farm system), and Charlie Vellotta, also from the Sixth Ward (Dodgers Farm system). Charlie lived on the same floor as me at 134 White Street.
My next door neighbor at 134 White Street was Mikey Black; real name Michael Corriero (we shared a fireplace and Mikey frequently knocked on my door because he forgot his apartment key and had to use my bedroom window to access the fireplace to get into his apartment). Mikey, after being on the periphery of underage gangs as a teenager, became a lawyer and 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-20th century can’t be better described than Victor Colaio in “Between Two Bridges.” I highly recommend this book to all New Yorkers, regardless of age group. And if you’re from other parts of the country, you can’t help but enjoy this brilliant book, too. If people who aren’t from New York can flock to watch a ridiculous show like “Mob Wives,” they should be reading a true-to-life book, not a stereotype of the worst possible people in the New York area.
One more thing – if you don’t buy “Between Two Bridges”, I might have to send Pete the Lash to visit you.
And that can never be a very good thing.
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