Tag Archives: Newsday

Senior Train Rides, Speonk, and Discrimination

My sister Margaret sent me a nice article by Newsday Guest Columnist, Tony Smolenski, who was reminiscing about commuting on the Long Island Railroad, and how his train was often delayed to allow the train from Speonk to “clear.”

Margaret sent me the article because it mentions the LIRR train station in Speonk, which figures prominently in an event that happened in June of 1970, which was when I graduated from Islip High School.

Even though everything was changing in the sixties, Islip tried to keep alive its long observed traditions. One that didn’t quite make it was Moving Up Day. Every spring we were marched onto the football field and corralled into separate class sections (freshmen, sophomores, etc.), where we were led in a goofy sort of Call and Response song, as each class Wove in and out the rows, physically Moving Up to the next class. I can imagine kids from the forties and fifties happily participating in such inspired silliness, but it was caput by nineteen sixty-seven or so.

By the time I was graduating, they were still sponsoring senior class trips. There was the winter daytrip to a Catskill resort (a separate caper), a trip to Washington D.C. (didn’t go), and as a final group activity, an entire train was let from the Long Island Railroad for an all–night excursion to and from Montauk Point.

We left at midnight, and it was widely known (and almost expected) that most passengers would already be fully intoxicated upon arrival. Furthermore, most were secreting enough contraband to last the night, which guaranteed there’d be a train full of drunken teenagers teetering between cars — which in those days were wide open.

The accommodations were impressive. There were club cars that were furnished with upholstered chairs, love seats and couches — but not what you would expect to see on a train; more like in a nicely appointed, though somewhat out of style house. There were cloth curtains on the windows, and tables were set up with a pretty decent buffet.

A freight car housed a live band, in which there was dancing.

My high school classmates were generally a nice group of kids who enjoyed having fun — but they weren’t particularly unruly or destructive. But soon after pulling out of Islip station, I had revealed to me a side of many that hitherto had gone unobserved.

Remember those curtains? Studious, college–bound kids from good families were ripping them off the walls. That nice furniture? Torn open, upended and I swear to God, literally getting its legs broken off!

This went on for a little while, maybe an hour, when the train slowed and finally stopped. A couple of Suffolk County Policemen came on board and after some hushed discussion with the chaperones, they walked through the train giving kids a suspicious onceover.

I figured they were just trying to scare everyone into behaving better, but if one of them had given me his badge and gun and put me in charge of keeping the peace, I would not have been more surprised than by what happened next.

The policemen came back to where me and a few other guys were sitting — and they didn’t look like they had good news. This was confirmed when we were told that we would have to leave!

Oh, God. How embarrassing! There must be a mistake. Did you say we have to leave? The train? Is there some reason for this? Did someone accuse us of something? Who? What did we do? Why are we being singled out?

The questions weren’t answered, but it was suggested that resisting wasn’t wise. I was sure we were being arrested—and for nothing! I hadn’t broken anything and I don’t think any of my comrades had either. Even so, seemed to me that further protestations would only prolong our humiliation. We stood and disembarked and alighted onto the tarmac of, yes, the Speonk train station. Here is what it looks like today:

1280px-Speonk_Trackside_Cafe

It was maybe one A.M., and the early summer night was getting pretty cool. As the train chugged merrily out of the station and I wondered how I was going to explain this to my father, I realized the policemen were starting for their car.

“Excuse me, Sir. Are you leaving?”

“Yeah.”

“You’re not taking us in?”

“For what?”

“But you took us off the train?”

“We had to take somebody off.”

“What are we supposed to do?”

“Take the first train home in the morning.”

“When’s that?”

“Five-thirty.”

Okay. So what had happened was that we had been made an example of for the rest of the senior class. You’re welcome Class of Seventy!

The police cruiser rolled off, leaving us utterly alone under the few dim lights that illuminated the exterior of the small, then desolate station, which was locked tight.

There were six or seven of us castaways, but we were no close-knit group. We were from the same side of the tracks (wrong), but I was tight with just a couple. In a nod to good old fashion racism, the only black member of our class was also ejected.

It was too chilly to sit outside all night, and we noticed that a couple of hundred yards up-track there were some rail sidings where a westbound train sat idling. We decided to go and see if we could get on and maybe ride it back in the morning.

We climbed a ladder near the front of the engine and crept along a catwalk toward the cabin. As we neared it, a very fearful and ready-to-fight trainman leapt out from around the corner. In his shaking hands he held a large, cast iron wrench, cocked over his shoulder like a baseball bat.

Our hands sprang up and we stepped backward, assuring him that we meant no harm. After some tense moments we explained our predicament and nice guy that he was, he agreed to let us sleep in the next car. Not long after laying down, I heard someone grunt in pain. At first it was somewhat soft, but it slowly grew in intensity. Who could it be?

It was our Black friend, and it became clear that this was no case of indigestion. Something had to be done, so we went back to the engineer (very carefully), who after checking out the patient, called an ambulance which came and carted him away. He was having an appendicitis attack.

The next morning, we were jarred awake by the train beginning its run to New York. I’m not sure why, but the conductor didn’t ask us for tickets. Within an hour, we were back in Islip. All of us were tired, dirty and angry over our unfair treatment. Still, we ended up with a good story which made the injustice a little easier to bear — but just a little. I’m pretty sure ours was the final Senior Train Trip.

Everything Reminds Me of Something Else

I once had a parish priest, Fr. Jim McKenna, whose sermons I found particularly engaging. One of them dealt with discrimination and he recounted that he never realized how painful it was until he found himself on the receiving end. While making the rounds of a hospital and wearing his collar, members of another religious group literally turned their backs to him.

He asked if anyone had ever felt the sting of discrimination, and without any introspection on my part, the Speonk debacle leapt to mind. I was surprised because by then it was ancient history and not something I ever felt too bothered by. I’d told the story without bitterness dozens of times and usually received plenty of laughs. Still, I guess it left a little scar; funny how things like that work.

When Fr. McKenna retired, the parish had a going-away tea that I attended. We chatted and he told me that in seminary school he’d learned a little trick for speaking to congregations. They told him to identify a few people in the audience that seemed to be interested and to talk to them like it’s just the two of you. He said that I had been one of his guys over the years and thanked me for playing that role.

I said that it was me who should be thanking him. Thoughtful, relevant sermons are rare enough, but getting them with eye contact is especially uncommon. He was a good priest and I miss him.

‘Till next time patient reader.

Joe

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Wild in the Streets

It’s fascinating how people who the gods smile upon sometimes reject the bounty the world is so eager to bestow.

Nineteen-sixties actor, Christopher Jones died this past January at the age of 72 from complications brought about by cancer. He bore a likeness to James Dean and is said to have been fascinated by him at an early age. I became aware of him when he starred in the movie Wild in the Streets, which is a low budge, bizarre film where the Jones character becomes President of the United States, after which he locks up everyone over thirty and forcefeeds them LSD — from water coolers! Here’s the trailer:

Shelley Winters, Hal Holbrook, Ed Begley and Richard Prior were in it. I didn’t realize it when I saw it, but the whole thing was more or less a total joke.

Christopher Jones was born in 1941 without any semblance of a silver spoon in his mouth. In Jackson, Tennessee, he lived above the grocery store where his father was a checkout clerk. His mother was a artist who was plagued by mental instability and ended up in a mental hospital when he was three — and lived there until she died in 1960.

He was sent to an aunt’s house, who later pawned him and his brother off to an orphanage in Memphis. He lived there until he was fifteen, at which time he took up with a married, eighteen year old woman with two kids. He said that he realized then that women liked him. What took him so long?

chris2

I realized women liked me

He deserted her after awhile, and joined the army — which lasted two days before he went AWOL. He stole a car and headed for New Orleans, and then New York to turn himself in. He spent six months in military prison on Governors Island off the tip of Manhattan.

When he got out, he took up with another married woman who’s husband was in jail for peddling marijuana. He began studying painting and sculpting with artist Edward Melcarth, who by then was a pretty notable artist and was almost certainly attracted to the younger man.

An actor friend introduced Christopher to Producer Frank Corsaro, who taught at the Actors Studio and had been a friend and mentor to James Dean. In 1961,Corsaro cast him in a minor role of a Broadway play he was producing, which initially starred Bette Davis, who was replaced by Shelley Winters, who also took a shine to Christopher.

Winters introduced him to Actor’s Studio Founder Lee Strasberg’s daughter, Susan, who he ultimately married, but it didn’t go well. He later admitted to hitting her — and then there was the accidental discharge of a shotgun in their apartment.

He got his first TV role in 1963, playing a member of a street gang in an episode of East Side, West Side, and by 1965, landed the starring role in the TV series The Legend of Jesse James. It lasted only one season because of ratings competition from The Lucy Show and Dr. Kildare.

Wild in the Streets (1968) was his breakout role, which led to another exploitation movie Three in the Attic. He did two movies in Europe before getting the lead in David Lean’s Ryan’s daughter, which began filming in March of 1969.

Filmed in Ireland, it took a year to make — which was twice as long as it was supposed to. There were reports of friction between Lean and Jones, and though it was panned by critics, it made money, which is all that matters in, well…everything.

At the top of his career, when he returned to Los Angels he quit pursuing movie roles. Except for a three minute cameo in 1996, he never got in front of the camera again. In later interviews, he revealed that he and Sharon Tate had had an affair prior to his leaving for Ireland, and her murder played a role in his having a nervous breakdown.

For awhile in the seventies, he lived in a hotel on Sunset Blvd. and could be seen slumming around the Sunset Strip. He had a house in the Hollywood Hills, and moved to the San Fernando Valley with another woman, with whom he had a child and devoted himself. He also refocused on his artwork.

In the 1980’s that relationship went south and he was set adrift. With his movie money gone, he was left to rely on his friends for living arrangements until he met Paula McKenna, with whom he had four kids. After ten years, he moved on once again.

Christopher Jones was one of those guys who got a lot of slack from everybody because he was one of those lucky, usually handsome and charismatic guys the world can’t get enough of — no matter what they do.

Everything Reminds me of Something Else

Me and a group of friends went to see Wild in Streets at the Bay Shore Theater (the one that was kitty-corner to Saint Patrick’s Church on Main Street). There used to be a guy who stood outside the theater and as people were leaving, he would ask them for a cigarette. I always thought that was an odd approach, since he probably would’ve done better if he asked for money.

Another thing I remember about this theater is a show that Newsday once put on there for all its paperboys, which I was for four or five years (girls were not yet granted the privilege of doing this crappy, mostly thankless work).

It was sort of a paperboy appreciation rally, where we could eat all the popcorn we wanted, and fill up on sodas and candy. They had a rock band, and the lead singer told us a joke that still comes to mind:

A guy is working behind the counter at a restaurant and a nasty woman patron keeps demanding, “Make me a hamburger. Make me a hamburger.” After awhile the guy — who unbeknownst to her has supernatural powers — gets fed up and says: “Poof, you’re a hamburger,” whereupon the woman is changed into a hamburger.

This joke was used to lead into the song Do you Believe in Magic, by the Lovin’ Spoonful.

At that time, Newsday cost a nickel each, and we only delivered it Mondays thru Fridays. They had a Saturday paper, but if you wanted one, you had to go buy it, probably because the carriers couldn’t handle the much thicker Saturday edition. Most of us had this kind of basket on our bikes:

bike basketWhen it was filled with papers, it wasn’t real easy to hold steady, and I remember falling over on many occasions, the worst being windy days when you had to get a hand on the papers before they blew all over the place.

It’s been said that doing this kind of work is good because you learn a lot about running a business. I don’t know about that, but I did learn one very important lesson and that is: Far too many people are no damned good.

How did I learn this? By the number of people willing to give me a quarter when I came to “Collect” for the week’s delivery. I mean, for Christ’s sake, I hand carried their paper to their front door five days a week! Isn’t that worth something extra?

Not to these soulless, pitiful mounds of flesh, who were only slightly more reprehensible than those willing to pry an extra nickel from their rusty purses and pay $.30. People who paid $.35 barely entered the realm of marginal acceptability. The truly admirable members of the human race were the ones who always paid fifty cents, usually with two fine looking quarters. They also usually gave me five bucks for Christmas.

May God have a special place in heaven for them.

Cheers!