Monday, May 12, 2014

Tales of the Old Neighborhood: Our Candy Store, Cozy Corner

            The center of our neighborhood on the Old Lower East Side, at the intersection of Grand Street and Rivington, was the candy store, called Cozy Corner. Pat was the owner. He sold newspapers, magazines, and comic books, along with candy and ice cream bars. There was a soda fountain, but hardly anyone I knew ever ate there. Pat kept his old Army .45 under the counter, just in case. The Neighborhood wasn’t safe.
Once, when I was little, I was walking alongside my mother up Grand St., when I started to choke on a piece of Cracker Jack. I felt a burnt sensation in my mouth, and believed I had swallowed a piece of soot from the building incinerator chimneys that belched black smoke into the air at all hours of the day and night. My frightened mother schlepped me by the hand into Cozy, and bought me a fountain Coke for a dime; it came in a conical-shaped paper cup, in a metal stand. It was the first and only fountain Coke I ever drank there. I realized later that I had probably just greedily stuffed a slightly-burnt piece of Cracker Jack into my mouth, but the important thing was that my mother had bought me a fountain Coke from Cozy Corner: now, that was something. I bragged to all of my friends who kept kosher; Cozy was not, of course.
Cozy Corner’s central location made it the perfect hangout for young and old. Old men stood under its canopy light and discussed politics, sports, and religion; young boys and teens talked sports and cars. I never hung out there; I was always busy, going to school and later commuting to Yeshiva High School on the subway, coming and going at odd times and in all weathers. But I would jealously watch the groups out of the corner of my eye: who had all the time in the world to just stand and schmooze there at Cozy, day after day?
When I went to bed in spring and summer, before it got hot, there was an A Capella Group of singers that hung out at Cozy, too. They would sing the then-popular tunes that we heard on the AM band of the radio: WMCA, with Dandy Dan Daniel, and B. Mitchell Reed, “Two in a Row on Your BMR Show.” Later, WMCA was eclipsed by WABC, with Cousin Brucie (“Cousin BROO-cie!”)  and the others. FM radio didn’t become popular until the late ‘60s, and I was amazed at how clear and static-free the music sounded. But the early ‘60s were the heyday of AM Radio.
I didn’t know who the A Capella Boys were, but their voices were young, sweet and high, and the schmoozers at Cozy all got quiet—indeed, the whole neighborhood did—when they sang. They sang all the old songs, by the Penguins, the Platters, and the Moonglows, even some early Temptations, and a Jewish group called Jay and the Americans. There were no color lines in music, then: we white folks and the black folks listened to Little Eva doing “The Loco-motion”; some of us even knew that a couple from Brooklyn named Carole Klein, who changed her name to King, and her then-husband, Gerry Goffin, had written it for Eva, who was their then-babysitter. We didn’t know that Doc Pomus was Jewish, and that he would turn out to be one of the greatest songwriters to come out of the Brill Building, the ‘60s’ answer to Tin Pan Alley. We just loved the music, and the way the boys sang it, clear and sweet.
Then, Vietnam came to the Neighborhood: first, 1966, and then, the first big troop buildup ordered by LBJ, in 1967. I didn’t pay much attention; I was suffering through Sophomore Algebra, and my teacher, Dr. Rapaport, was a crazy Orthodox rabbi-Ph.D, stalking through the classroom while we struggled through one of his pop quizzes. But the Cozy Corner Schmoozers changed.
The A Capella Group was gone: Vietnam had snatched them away. They never came back. One boy did come back, though: he hadn’t been one of the singers, but he was a member of the group that leaned against the wall of Cozy Corner—indeed, he, like me, had graduated from the East Side Torah Center. His name was Steve Ginzberg. He had not been a good student; he had been a bit of a troublemaker—a redhead, acting out. His teachers hadn’t liked him; they had predicted that he would get into trouble.
He didn’t; he went to Vietnam, instead. And, when he got back, he was never the same. He had used to joke around, discussing the Yankees’ lineup, and whether they had a chance against their hated rivals, the Boston Red Sox. Now, he no longer stood and joked; he stood alone and apart from the crowd instead, with a dreamy, faraway look in his blue eyes.
After a while, he disappeared from the corner. I continued hurrying back and forth, school to subway to home, home to subway to school. But I watched the standers, and slowly realized that Steve, the redhead, the dreamer, was no longer there.
“What happened to Steve, that guy, the redhead?” I asked my parents at dinner one night.
They looked at each other, not knowing, or not wanting to answer.
Finally, my mother said, “He—he went away.”
“That’s not true,” I said, “You know, and you’re not telling.”
My father looked at me.
“He killed himself,” he said.
“Oh,” I said.

We went back to eating. The windows were open, and I could smell the cut grass. Early spring. But the A Capella group wasn’t singing. They weren’t there to sing, not anymore.