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Thursday, June 23, 2011

Sir Harry Alfran (with a nod to Jack Greenland)

If you want a pack of gum or smokes or a newspaper you go to the only places really left here in the suburbs; the cookie cutter ""7 Eleven"'s of the world. Anyone my age or there abouts can attest to the subtle charm of the corner Sweet Shoppe or Luncheonette. Hell, sometimes they were called both, and most of them did have both, that is a cashier counter and a long counter with stools.
Every town here in Jersey had plenty of 'em, I had at least 3 that I remember within walking distance of my house. Some had better comic books than others and some would let you loiter for a few seconds longer than the others before you got the obligatory: "This ain't a library!" or "What''ll it be boys?". All in all they had pretty much the same things that I was interested in at the time and that was mainly Base Ball cards.
1962 was the year of the 'brown edges", at least thats what my best friend John and I called them. More than any other year, I remember these, I treasured them and collected them with an insane vigor that only a boy of 8 years could do. I earned .25 cents a week allowance and I divided it up 3 ways. As each pack of 10 cards (and a stick of rock hard gum) was .05 cents, I could buy 5 packs during the week. Sunday was the day I received my allowance and the corner stores all closed early so I had to wait til Monday. Monday after school I would race to the store and buy 1 pack. I never ripped open the pack, I always examined the cover art, yea, it felt like a good pack. I'd rub my hands over it like Aladdin's lamp and then I'd slowly open the back, taking care not to rip the cover waxed paper.  There was still one more step to take before the treasures were realized. The ancient rock hard stick of gum covered most of the back of the first card as well as sugar powder from the gum. You would have to work up a shit load of saliva to get that gum going in your mouth and once you had the spit, you chowed down. The gum always shattered into slivers before before you actually got it going.
For me, one of the toughest cards to get seemed to be the 1st checklist. 4 or 5 checklists tabulated the entire series of cards. There was even a check mark box on the checklist to check off that you HAD the checklist! Unless you started before opening day with your collecting you could kiss #1 Roger Maris goodbye, you weren't gonna see that...it was a real racket this company had and us kids were in it hook, line and sinker.

So, after the 1st pack of the week I divided it up this way: 2 packs on Wednesday (Wednesday madness!) and the final pack on Saturday...then the week started fresh again. This cycle went on for quite a few years and I would sometimes go to different neighborhood stores on the off chance they had a better box of cards.  At the store the packs were displayed in special display boxes from Topps. I NEVER took a pack off the top, I always dug down a bit to get a good one.

Base Ball cards were seasonal though, not to worry, Topps wasen't letting me off the hook that easy. They had all sorts of crap to collect. Monster cards, Mars Attacks, different TV show cards, Beatle cards (loved them) and one of the best during the Centennial years: Civil War Cards!
These particular cards were custom made for a boy of 8. Gory isn't even the word, obscenely, profoundly gory is more like it. Each card depicted a battle or event. They were hand drawn and probably had no relation to what happened on the field but who fucking cares, they were simply amazing!

The above is a tame selection but gives you a decent idea, the rear of the card was an historical account of the scene depicted and it came with gum AND  Confederate money.

Out of all the stores, the Grove Street Sweet Shoppe in Montclair was my favorite. The Lord of the Manor was a kindly gentlemen known to us as Sir Harry Alfran (Lord knows what that name meant). To an 8 year old he was a towering giant of a man, with jet black hair, a good sized paunch, thick black frame glasses with a stub of a cigar butt clenched in his teeth, a yellowed white shirt open at the collar and rolled sloppily up to his elbows and mean as a bear with a lanced boil on his ass. You're feet barely crossed the threshold before the usual "What'll it be boys" slammed you in the face like a hot kiss on the end of a wet fist. The place smelled like old cigars (naturally) and was long and narrow with old tired cracked black and white checked linoleum floors. About half way down was the lunch counter, I may have gotten that far once in my life. Usually there were a couple of hobo looking guys sipping coffee and gnawing on some sort of burger or donut or who the hell knows. I cared about the front of the store. The first part of the counter was a glass case filled with all kinds of cigars (naturally squared) and then the open area with step down like shelves that contained boxes of cards and tubs of wax lips, wax soda bottles and fairly racist candies like Black Crows and Chocolate Babies. A squeaky old carousel filled with comics completed my little slice of heaven on earth and I could walk away contented with any sort of cards or comics.

The beginning of this base ball season I went out and looked for a pack of cards just for the hell of it...no where, no where at all...I searched online...no luck. Base ball cards are now in the realm of the dumb ass yuppie for-profit collectors... fuck 'em.

Friday, June 17, 2011

BaseBall

I'm a National League fan. I'm a product of Dad's love of the old NY Giants and his heartbreak when they snuck out of town way back when. 1962 dawned with a new National League franchise: The New York Mets and I have been in love ever since. My Dad took me to games at the old Polo Grounds and then to beautiful spanking new Shea Stadium in 1964.

I was all of 10 years old in '64 and was as crazed about baseball then as I am now. We went to an afternoon game, Mets vs. Milwaukee (the Braves at that time) and had an elegant lunch in the Diamond Club during batting practice. As all folks say, I remember how green the grass actually was, how big the Diamond vision screen was, I couldn't wait to have my first glass of Rheingold Extra Dry beer (beer of the Mets). It was a time when you wore a jacket and tie to the ballgame, the business men all had on their snap fedoras and smoking was allowed and even encouraged with tons of advertising on billboards and even in the programs. Programs were .25 and you could just get a scorecard with pencil for .10....everyone kept a scorecard.
The Mets were lovable losers but no one seemed to give a damn, just to have National League baseball back was enough, for now. Casey was still at the helm, usually snoozing on the bench by the 4th ininng. Jim Hickman was my main man, later to be replaced by Ron Hunt. "Little" Al Jackson was pitching...Clarence "Choo Choo" Coleman was catching...."Marvelous" Marv Throneberry guarded the 1st base bag, all was as it should be.

Lunch at the Diamond Club was great as you could sit by a picture window and watch batting practice...my 1st game of the season and I was psyched. I had my cap on and my baseball glove, fully expecting to catch a foul. A very distinguished looking gentleman came up and said to me (being a cute little red headed boy) "Who's your favorite team?" "The Mets!" I shrieked. "And who's your favorite player?" "Jim Hickman!"..."How would you like to meet him?"....My jaw dropped and my eyes became wide as dinner plates. He introduced himself to my father, it was none other than M. Donald Grant, Chairman of the Board and a minority owner of the Mets. He asked Dad if it was ok to take me to the dugout, "Sure" was Dad's reply. Only later did I learn that my Dad wanted to go to, but didn't have the courage to ask.

My memory of how we actually arrived at the dugout is fuzzy at best, at any rate somehow I found myself standing in the dugout with every player of my dreams doing what they do before games...kidding each other, spitting huge wads of tobacco juice, scratching their balls...all the great things a kid needs to see. I stood there dumbfounded. "Hey, Casey...c'mere and meet Mr. Hofmann"...Casey looked around in a daze and prepared for his usual dog and pony show.."how ya doin, kid" old, crotchety, a fucking legend...here he was...every wrinkle on that weathered face visible...the smell of sweat, leather and neetsfoot oil all swirling through my nostrils. "Hi, Mr. Stengel"...I thrust my baseball at him with a pen, a crusty hand accepted the ball and he signed it. "Hey, Casey...where's Hickman?" Mr. Grant said, "HICKMAN! Get over here, will ya!?" Jim bounded down the stairs from the field. "What's up skipper?" "Sign this ball for the kid, k?" Jim Hickman was a young, talented, genuinely nice guy, in his early 20's. He seemed to get a bit of a thrill that a kid saw him as his favorite...it probably wasn't too long ago that he was in my shoes. He signed my ball, asked my name, and talked a bit about hitting curves, change ups etc. I sat on the dugout steps and was one with my heroes, I wanted to grind as much spit and dirt into the seat of my pants as possible.
47 years later, I still love my Mets, despite what kind of crap they unload on us fans over the years. Their 2 world series wins are to be treasured and that day in the dugout not only sealed my love for them, but for the game itself and all the boys who play it, love it and respect it.