Thursday, January 16, 2014

Back to School, NYC Part 2 - The Fun, Creepy, Cool 1970s

I ran into a friend on Columbus Avenue. We hadn't seen each other in over twenty years but we dropped into comfortable conversation after a few minutes the way people sometimes do when they have been linked through school, neighborhood and family for a lifetime. After catching up on each other's news he suggested I bring my family to Sunday mass at Blessed Sacrament. He would be reading the Liturgy. Afterwards he would take all of us on a tour of our old school.

For years I had walked by the catholic church on West 70th street without bothering to step inside. At first I was always in a hurry so I would put off visiting Blessed Sacrament the way I might postpone spending time with a relative who would forgive my neglect. Later, when business took me out of New York and often out of the U.S., a stop at Blessed Sacrament never seemed like a priority during Upper West Side visits. I had spent years marking every Sunday, holiday and special event in that church. A visit could wait another week, then another. Suddenly it was decades later and I was walking up the main steps of Blessed Sacrament for the first time since my eighth grade graduation. This time I was accompanied by my then 12 year-old son and his proud grandmother. My husband lingered over coffee and e-mails at a nearby cafe.

I'm almost certain the line of statues that stand to the left of the church steps (Philip Neri, Francis de Sales, John Vianney, John the Baptist de la Salle) shared a bemused glance with those that stand to the right (Alphonsus Ligouri, Francis of Assisi, Charles Borromeo and Vincent de Paul)when they saw this "bad Catholic" showing up at church for the first time in forever. Once inside, I'm pretty sure my old friends Thomas Aquinas and Catherine of Siena glanced my way with raised eyebrows. As a child I had gazed up at their stained glass images through many church services.

We walked down the center aisle toward our seats. The familiar creak of the pews, the thud of kneelers falling into place before mass, the scent of incense and warm canldewax and the glorious architecture that I had all but forgotten overwhelmed me with memories. Even as the service began I whispered to my son about these things but I stopped, remembering that at any moment, if this had been long ago, a nun would have stopped my rudeness with a poke on the shoulder and a glare that meant lunch detention. I straightened up, looked forward and let my mind drift just like in the old days.

I remember when we were children walking into Blessed Sacrament for mass each Wednesday morning. The rule had long been "no taps allowed" on shoes. The small metal pieces that mothers had attached to the soles of shoes to reduce wear were noisy and damaged floors but we loved the sound. The taps had come off only to be replaced by us children with flat, metal thumbtacks. The moment our shoes touched the terracotta tiles of the church each Wednesday we sounded like we were on our way to a tap class not confession. Teachers would stop lines of students to have them pull thumbtacks out of their soles. Most of them would find their way, face up, onto church pews instead.

Back at our desks we would take notes in class in the neat cursive of all Catholic school students while passing notes in graffitti-style bubble letters. "Do you like me? Yes. No." Despite being distracted, hormonal middle school-aged children, our teachers managed to suffuse our minds with ideas that mattered - about world history, classical literature, our roles in society. The undisputed heroes of that time were the ultimate teaching team, Mr. and Mrs. Gavila. They didn't lecture, they led discussions, brought passion to every lesson and encouraged informed debates about current events and politics. The respect they extended to us alerted us kids that we were on our way to adulthoods that could matter. We reciprocated their attention with worship.

But not all was serious study. There were bigger issues to contend with like what to wear to birthday parties and which sleepovers to attend. These events were always a little more special when classmates lived near celebrities. A sleepover on West 77th meant you might run into Henry "The Fonz" Winkler on his way in or out of his parent's building. A visit to a friend on West 73rd meant a possible brush with CHiPS star Erik Estrada. But the Holy Grail was an invitation to a playdate anywhere along West End Avenue in the West 60s - Robbie Benson territory!

Afternoon visits to a friend's apartment at The Dorilton on West 70th Street were memorable, even without celebrity sightings. Architecture historian Andrew Dolkart has described The Dorilton as possibly "the most flamboyant apartment house in New York" but I knew it then only as the best place in my neighborhood to play hide-and-seek. My friend was the daughter of a conductor who traveled with a symphony orchestra. The apartment where she lived was enormous - and it seemed so especially at the time. We would take turns hiding under heavy furniture in endless rooms. We counted to 10 draped in lace, crouched under a table that stretched the length of a formal dining room. We dressed up Barbies by towering windows that showcased the landmark building's "opulent Beaux-Arts style limestone and brick exterior, featuring monumental sculptures, richly balustraded balconies, and a three-story, copper and slate mansard roof." (Oh, if I'd only known then what I can Google now.) The Dorilton, with its elaborate decor and interiors thick with velvet and silence, impressed me only as peculiar.

The Dorilton may have been my favorite place to play hide-and-seek but The Danielle, a short building that shares a wall with Blessed Sacrament Church on West 70th Street, was my home-away-from-home. All of my best friends lived in The Danielle. We would thunder up and down its stairs and run through its hallways carrying board games and gossip between apartments. Our moms shared stories about child-rearing and rent control. The Danielle echoed with the sounds of families living their stories out loud in so many languages. Its architecture may not have left a mark on history but every one of its unremarkable details is etched in the memories of the children who grew up there during the 1970s.

The only time of year more thrilling than back to school at Blessed Sacrament was the week before summer break. We would bend over our books, foreheads moist with sweat, trying to focus on school work that already seemed too distant to matter. On the last day of school, West 70th street would come alive with the screeching of joyful children pouring out of the school for the last time that year. A final round of "Saluci!" might be played, one last run to Vinnie's Pizza for a slice might take place then the summer could begin.

That's as far as my memories went that day at mass. The church service was over quickly and soon our little group was on its way along the left side of the church toward the marble steps that lead into the school. On the way we passed an area where a statue of St. Lazarus used to stand. I remembered how one of its feet had been worn down by decades of reverent touch. An unblemished statue now stood in its place. That was the first sign that much of the Blessed Sacrament I was about to see would have changed but I had a feeling the original spirit of the school had endured.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Back to School, NYC - The Fun, Creepy, Cool 1970s

The School of the Blessed Sacrament began welcoming New York City children in the early 1900s when Manhattan's Upper West Side was still tranquil open country. The stretch of land between West 70th Street, where the school stands today, and the upper reaches of Broadway was so rural that Blessed Sacrament Church held its first Easter Sunday Mass in a stable that once stood on the corner of West 72nd Street. What a difference seven decades make.

By the time I entered first grade at Blessed Sacrament, the Upper West Side had long ago completed its transformation from countryside to residential area. At first glance it might have seemed that little of the past remained in the area or in the school but if one looked closely there were clues all around.

On the first day of school I stood on the sidewalk waiting with knocking knees for the school bell to ring. My mother stood at a distance catching my nervousness and curiosity on Super-8 film. I had plenty of time to look around and wonder why my school looked like a church. It's interesting to read now that both Blessed Sacrament church and school were designed by an architect who borrowed inspiration for his plans from Sainte Chapelle in Paris, a small gothic chapel built by Louis IX in the 1240s.

My years at Blessed Sacrament coincided with New York City's peak crisis years, the 1970s, so crime and mayhem had become part of the day-to-day experience of living on the Upper West Side. At times those tensions, sensed at home and experienced on the streets, burst at school, erupting in brutal fights and violent words, but those moments were always extinguished quickly. Strong teachers and tough-love nuns ensured that our days behind Blessed Sacrament's gothic facade would be ruled by order, learning, caring and discipline no matter what was going on outside.

Recess at Blessed Sacrament took the form of simple games on the sidewalk or dodge ball and basketball in the gymnasium. Our school didn't have room for a playground but we didn't need one. Just being away from our desks and books was enough to send us pouring out of the building each day after lunch eager to create fun out of just being in open space. On rainy days, rehearsing plays in the auditorium, working on macrame crafts or playing "7-Up" were favorite activities.

Another pasttime was more eerie. It involved sneaking into the school's "creepy basement" where chipped and otherwise damaged statues from Blessed Sacrament Church were housed. The basement was dim, low-ceilinged and seemed ancient to our eyes since its appearance hadn't changed since the school opened in 1919. The statues, with hands articulating emotion and eyes looking heavenward, seemed to come alive in the semi-darkness. We would take turns daring each other to see who could last the longest in the ghostly darkness before running up the stairs giggling and screaming.

As the years passed at Blessed Sacrament School, my interests changed along with those of my classmates. By fifth grade, going outside meant time to gossip, a chance to apply Bonne Bell lip gloss and talk about the latest cover of Tiger Beat magazine. We would style each others hair into flips or the Farrah. The boys were busy with Kung Fu moves, playing Star Trek and discussing the Knicks or they could be found making up songs about beating the Mets. All we really had in common was our fear of 8th graders and our shared fascination with things like Wacky Packages, the science behind Mood Rings (and Killer Bees, and the coming Ice Age and of course Big Foot) and being en pointe with the fashion trends of the era.

Even in uniform, green and plaid, we found ways to showcase our fashion savvy. Lucite "candy rings" were especially popular as were platform shoes with names like "Buffaloes" and "Marshmellows." That's where I failed miserably. In a fifth grade school picture I'm smiling through braces, hair hennaed bronze, aviator glasses tinted rose and I'm wearing a two-piece corduroy suit in rust. My turtleneck was a coppery shade.

Sixth graders at Blessed Sacrament enjoyed the privilege of moving between classes at each period. The windows of one classroom faced the back of West 71st apartment buildings and a portion of Blessed Sacrament Church. The other classrooms faced a seedy hotel on West 70th Street.

Classroom periods in the back of the building were peaceful, focused times. Open windows brought us sounds and aromas - choir practice, pigeon warble, conversations in echo, incense from morning mass. Classroom periods in the front of the building were punctuated by scenes and sounds far more distracting.

Before the Hotel Embassy became a magnet for shady characters and the eyes of curious children it was known as The Ormonde, an elegant residence designed in 1899 by Robert Nicke. It was once described as, "A soldier in the battle of Broadway, bringing substance and scale to the boulevard." By the time I reached the middle school years at Blessed Sacrament it was a hotel that offered us ringside seats to life on the fringe. Drug busts, arrests, attempted suicides were all part of the show accompanied by the whine of sirens. The Hotel Embassy is now rehabilitated and has settled into a proper old age as a doorman building with a roof deck and pet-friendly policies.

More recollections in Part II of Back to School in 1970s New York.