Scattered Memories

by Ralph J. Chin


The Bike Shop

When I was attending grammar school there was a small bike repair store on Lyons Avenue next to Slonim’s drugstore across the way where my section of Clinton Place met Lyons Avenue. It was the messiest and dirtiest store you could ever encounter but it was owned and operated by a kindly old man who knew everything there was to know about bicycles. His hands and his work attire matched his store and they were always filthy with bicycle grease. His dirty calloused hands bore the marks of a hard working man who never caught a break in life and I always wondered if he ever made a decent living out of this small store. The store itself was so cluttered with broken bikes and their parts that he was forced to work on his current bike repair job outside on the sidewalk. I would imagine during bad weather he would clear a space in the clutter and work on them inside his store. Despite the disarray of his store he was quite a bike mechanic and there wasn’t a bicycle made, foreign or domestic, that he didn’t know the details of. If you needed a part, he had it. If you wanted to sell him parts from a discarded bike, he would buy it. No receipts and no paperwork were required in your business transactions with him. I would always see him working on something when I passed his store on my way home from school. My sister knew his daughter from high school and met the entire family. She said they were nice people who were very nice to her and I think she mentioned that their ethnic origin was of German descent which was quite unusual in a Jewish neighborhood! Many years later when I would work on my own car my hands would get dirty like his and I would always think of him when the job was finish and I was washing up. I never let the greasy dirt get into my pores like he did because Dad had some special soap that quickly dissolved this greasy dirt. When I was finished washing my hands it looked as though I never worked on my car. Later on when I became an industrial tool mechanic the company had a lotion you could rub into your hands at the beginning of the day and it would prevent the dirt from ever touching your skin. If it did manage to get through this barrier, it washed off very easily without any hard scrubbing. One of my fellow mechanic’s wouldn’t use the lotion and he ended up with dirty hands just like the old man that owned the bike store. I always wondered how they could eat their lunch sandwiches with those filthy hands! I know my current girlfriend wouldn’t let me touch her unless my hands were spotless down to my fingernails, enough said!!

Angie’s Sicilian Food

Angie was the wife of the neighborhood shoe repairman whose name was Jerry. He had serviced almost everyone’s shoe in the neighborhood at one time or another and he had a thriving business because he did an excellent job of putting new leather soles or heels onto your old leather shoes and made them almost new again. His shop was an impressive array of belted machines and mechanical wizardry that he used all day long to repair the shoes that were brought to him. He was another one of the true workers that avoided paperwork at all costs. His wife Angie worked in a factory and traveled by bus everyday to and from her workplace. She always came home tired but despite this she would always smile at me and say “Hello”. On the weekends she would sometimes look out from her third floor hall window and watch us kids play in the backyard. I would always wave to her and more than once she would call to me with her thick Italian accent and say “Heya Bingy, come on up. Mangia, I got some thing for you to eat!” and without hesitation I would run up to her house on the third floor and she would serve something Italian to me. It was already known to the neighborhood that Angie was an outstanding Sicilian cook and one of the things she used to make for me was Sicilian pizza that was to die for. This was long before the pizzerias of the day knew anything about Sicilian pizza or, in fact, before anyone knew about it! All I knew was that it was good!! Without even knowing it, she set the standard for Italian food on my palate. I loved her home made pizza sauce and the thick doughy bread of her pie. Our families got along famously well despite the slight language barrier and we did each other favors for as long as I could remember but my Dad would tell me not to expect anything in return for the favors he did Jerry and his family. I would always wonder if the food Angie cooked for me was their way of repaying my family for the various things we did for them.

The Haircut

Long before I became a long hair hippy rock musician my Dad would cut my hair for me since he had at one time attended a barber class at the same school his sister Ruth was attending to become a beautician. Dad didn’t really have the best tools to do the job and as a result, he would pull my neck hairs instead of cutting them with his manual clippers more than once causing me to cry out in pain. He just told me to “man up” and laughed at me. I was just a little kid and I remember the constant swishing of his scissors in between his cuts of my hair and I dreaded this sound because he would nick or stab me more than once with his scissors during this “free” haircut and they were sharp, so it hurt! When I needed another haircut I would ask my Mom for money to go to the neighborhood barbershop a half a block down from the house and she would smile at me when she gave me the money. I don’t think I ever asked my Dad to cut my hair again! At least at the barbershop I was never cut, stabbed or clipped and it made the experience a whole lot more pleasant. The only thing that irritated me was the small hair clippings that would find their way down into my shirt despite the cotton band and cape that the barber put around your neck to prevent this from happening. When I got home I would take my shirt off and shake it out but still some of the tiny hair clippings would stay embedded in my shirts so I changed my shirt and I was fine. Later on I found another barbershop up on Lyons Avenue just beyond the Shop Rite supermarket on the corner of the next block that didn’t let these small hairs fall into my shirt and I switched to them until I swore off barbershops entirely. The owner of this new barbershop was a one time magician and he would occasionally treat the kids to a mini performance of his magical talents while they waited to get their haircuts. All the barbers were a lot more personable than the old fuddy duddies in my old barbershop! Throughout the store there were mementoes of the owner’s career as a magician and he had a silver dollar cemented to the floor with numerous fingernails scratches on the floor from kids trying to pick it up off the floor with no success! It made for an interesting wait and taught me if I wasn’t satisfied with the service at one store then another store might have better service. I would always give my business to the store I thought was better and I still do!

The Hospital Adventure

When I was seven or eight years old my neighborhood friends and I were adventurous souls and we liked to do slightly outlandish things at night. By outlandish I mean that it was out of the ordinary for most of the other kids in the neighborhood but mostly it was just bike rides after dinner through the darken streets of the city and playing tag under the cover of darkness. At one time we were all fans of the TV show “Combat!” which showed us what it was like to be a soldier in World War II in Europe. We started to go on “missions” and on one night, I volunteered to scout out the “enemy” encampment which was actually Beth Israel Hospital down the street. This portion of the hospitable grounds had a steep hill that was nicely landscaped and it led down into the parking lot which surrounded the hospital on this side. There were always some people walking around down there and my mission was to count the number of people and get back to my squad who were waiting to “attack” the enemy. I sat hidden among the bushes waiting for people to appear so I could report back when I heard a sound and looked around. To my surprise there was a huge German shepherd dog staring at me from beyond the bushes. He was poised to attack with his ears pointing straight up until his owner told him to sit. It seemed like forever until the owner appeared and he told me not to move because I had a German shepherd that was trained to attack staring at me. Once he put the leash on the dog and told him to lie down, I felt some sense of relief. The owner asked me what I was doing down here and I told him about the games my friends and I were playing. Then he asked me if they were coming down here right now and I said “No, their waiting for me to report back” He laughed and said “Well, you better get going!” and with that I was off! I told my friends about what had happen and they all laughed. I laughed too but I never did this again nor would any of the other kids, our daring war adventures were now officially over!

The Indian Pizzeria

The Indian Pizzeria was across from the YMHA on Chancellor Avenue and down the street from Weequahic High School. It was more of a hangout for us high school kids than anything else but I’m sure the owner made a living from selling his pizzas. Most of the kids hanging out there in the store were not there for the pizza, they were there to brag about how manly they were and the place stunk of male hormones on the weekends! The macho man ego boosting antics always brought a smile to the owner and he allowed things like arm wrestling, drinking contests (soda mainly) and can crushing spectacles (the cans were made of steel rather than aluminum back then) all the way to the outright bull stinking about the various episodes they say they had with the opposite sex! It would always end with an outrageous statement which made everyone laugh! Even when you didn’t know anybody, you still felt you were part of this macho group of teenagers. The owner would promote this banter and encourage the guys to hangout while he worked behind the counter. I guess he figured that if people saw a lot people in the store, it would make them more inclined to patronize the store. Anyway, many a good time was had in this pizzeria and the owner even came outside to the sidewalk to get an out of city bully off of me when a disagreement blossomed into a fight. He never knew my name but I would always be thankful to him for his help. I do remember eating some pizza there since it was only twenty five cents a slice and a whole pie could be had for less than five dollars! Heck, back then that was a lot of money since you could fill your car up with gasoline for five bucks!

Auto Maintenance

As I got older and started to drive around the neighborhood in my own car, I was faced with the responsibility of taking care of it too. This meant learning how to change the oil, fill the tires with the proper air pressure and maintaining the battery water, brake fluid, transmission fluid and radiator antifreeze for their proper levels. I learned most of this maintenance by watching my Dad as he took care of his car and eventually, it all started to make sense to me. Over the years I would replaced my water pump, electric starter, universal joint, radiator hoses, air filter and, of course, my brakes in addition to my normal tune up procedures. Through all this was my local auto parts shop that sold me the supplies to do the job. It was run by an old car mechanic by the name of Phil and his store was located on Lyons Avenue on the corner across the street from the barber shop I patronized. Both of these businesses were across the street from St. Peter’s Catholic school. Phil’s auto store started as a small store but eventually he expanded into the store next to it as he became quite popular in the neighborhood as the place to get your car supplies. Many times I would ask Phil a question as to how to do a certain repair and he would always give me good advice. I went out and bought my own set of Craftsmen tools from Sears Roebucks. Of course being a young teenager I didn’t have unlimited funds for tool purchases so I picked my tools carefully. Most of the time Dad had the tool I needed and I could use his tools just as long as I cleaned them and put them back where they belonged! Phil became my go to guy for all my car supplies and he showed his appreciation by giving me a break on certain items when my cash was low.

Later on, I became a “factory trained” industrial tool mechanic where I learned to use different tools like an arbor press to install and uninstalled ball bearings, a varsol/mineral spirit tank to clean the tools, a spray booth to paint the tools and a hi pot tester to see if they were any breaks in the motor insulation. I also had assorted hand tools to take the motorized tools apart and a large paper catalog of the tools we repaired that contained all the details of each tool including an exploded diagram and part numbers so we could repair the tools with the proper parts. I enjoyed this job until electronics lured me away to a much more profitable career. I always prided myself in doing a good job as a mechanic and took no shortcuts to speed up my work output. The Regional Manager appreciated this and commended me on more than one occasion for this type of attitude towards my repair work. In fact, I received a bonus check for doing an outstanding job on one of our industrial customer’s account just before I quit this job to go back to school for electronics. I would always work hard and never let anything distract me from focusing on the job at hand. This work ethic would always serve me well in whatever job I held in life!


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