BY: PAUL THALER
Paul Wolfenthal is a peculiar thirteen-year-old kid grappling with the absurdities of his young Bronx life, circa 1960. He visits the dead, hears voices in his head, despises Richard Nixon, is infatuated with his Marilyn Monroe look-alike math teacher, and is a choice victim for the neighborhood’s sadistic bully. And then Paul really starts running into trouble.
Paul is, in fact, a kid in search of heroes, alive and otherwise, and finds them in John Kennedy and Harry Houdini, both of whom cross into his life. But these are strange and even dangerous times. Hovering in the shadows are “the demons” that haunt Paul’s young childhood dreams, only to come alive and shatter his world. One steals away a neighborhood child. And then his president.
Set against the turbulent history of the times, Bronxland tugs on a kaleidoscope of emotions as an uproarious and heartrending coming-of-age tale. It is also the story of a place, a Bronx long gone yet still vivid in the collective memory of those who once called these streets their home. A place of the heart known to each of us, with our own story to tell of growing up, of trying to make sense of our life, with everything that comes along.
Welcome to Bronxland.
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In Bronxland by Paul Thaler, Paul Wolfenthal is thirteen years old and growing up in the Bronx. Paul tells a hilarious tale of living in a close-knit neighborhood community, dealing with bullies, falling in lust with his beautiful teacher, and losing the love of his young life to his competition. Through his narration, we get a young teenager’s perspective on people like John Kennedy and Harry Houdini, as well as a first-hand account of Kennedy’s campaign in the Bronx and how his assassination affected his home town. We also get a look at how the cold war with Russia affected young Americans who were told to “duck and cover” under their desks in the event of an atomic bomb—as if that would help.
The story is well written and told in an autobiography format—a heart-warming, heart-breaking tale of a young boy in a unique neighborhood, doing his best to cope with things out of his control. A really great read.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: Bronxland by Paul Thaler is the story of Paul Wolfenthal, a thirteen-year-old boy living in the Bronx in the 1960s. Like any young boy, Paul needs heroes in his life and he finds them in his dad, his older brother Fred, and his teacher Mr. P, as well as in larger-than-life figures such as John Kennedy and Harry Houdini. But life isn’t all about heroes, and Paul had to deal with daily life as well. He takes us through his trials with the neighborhood bully, his first attempts at young love, his disastrous mishaps—such as the naked picture of his teacher he got caught drawing in art class, and the birthday party for his best friend where Paul became the victim of his friend’s sister and a game of spin the bottle—and his angst for another best friend who’s accused of a crime he didn’t commit. Then there were the horrible things Paul experienced, from the abduction of a neighborhood child and the boy’s mother’s mournful cries, to the assassination of John Kennedy, whose death was a serious blow to the Bronx, John’s hometown, giving us a close-up and personal look at some of our most turbulent times in history.
The author takes us to a simpler time and place where families and communities stuck together, and people felt a sense of pride in their neighborhoods. Told in a unique and refreshing voice, Bronxland is a story you will enjoy reading over and over and one that you won’t soon forget.
A Time and Place
I’m not sure just where to start my story. Or whether you’ll care about it anyway. After all, this story takes place a lifetime ago and, besides, who wants to read about some mixed-up kid growing up in the Bronx. Of all places. Maybe if I refer to my home by its original Native American name, Rananchqua, you’ll think of it differently. Then again, maybe not. So, stop here if you must, but then you’ll never know what happened to this boy in that time and place.
So much for trying to lure you in.
Well, let me begin at the beginning. I’d been a kid, a Bronx kid, back in the early ’60s, and the world was my own. No one would mistake my growing up for Tom Sawyer’s. No picket fences here. Just lots of gray cement and red bricks, not a tree or a wedge of grass in sight. And yet freedom was as natural as the five-story walk-ups that lined Tremont and Grand and Burnside avenues. It was a place where I could fly on my fire-engine-red Schwinn from day to night. And what could be better than pedaling over to the Stadium to visit the gods–the Mick, Yogi, Clete, Moose, Whitey? Nothing more to say.
We kids bumped into a few adults along the way but were mostly free of those grown-up types. Not much parent coddling for sure. My folks worked hard to make a better life for my brother and me and either didn’t have the energy to be on our backs or possessed the infinite wisdom to let us be. In any case our arrangement worked out just fine.
My neighborhood had its routine. Days were ruled by nonstop street games interrupted only by the dark of night or a mom’s call for dinner. And there was no escaping the sounds of street life. The smack of a Spalding against a stoop. The grating steel roller-skate wheels that made it seem as if the pavement was in pain. The shouts of kids in constant motion, shattering any possible silence that dared to take hold. In my neighborhood, quiet just didn’t stand a chance.
This is where I was born, spent my first sixteen years, great times, and some lousy ones. The Bronx wasn’t perfect, but nobody said it was. No rose-colored glasses here. We had our demons: the neighborhood bigots, bullies, creeps, crazies, and outright psychos. They had a way of ruining your day. I managed to get by, though little Benji Rosenberg didn’t have such luck, terrible luck in fact, I’m sorry to say.
It was also a time in which I woke up to discover the opposite sex. Not that I had any clue what to do next. There was this girl-of-my-dreams. That was Dee-Dee O’Hara, and then the other guy came along and that was that except for all the drama and torment. Anita “Bonita” also introduced me to matters of love–well, that’s not exactly what she did –but that’s way too embarrassing to get into here.
Was I a peculiar kid? Well, I liked to visit cemeteries and heard voices in my head. Did that make me strange? I’ll let that go for now. Enough to say that I was a kid in search of heroes, dead, alive, and otherwise. I believed in Superman, and not just the comic book guy.
There were others. Alan Shepard reaching for the stars. “Rajah” Maris reaching for the right-field porch at Yankee Stadium that unforgettable summer. And, of course, JFK. I can’t go back in time without thinking of him. He was special to me all right, but for a reason you might not expect. You see, John Kennedy had been a Bronx boy himself–that’s right. He’d been one of us, even if his neighborhood was on the other side of the tracks. I still think of him now these many years after that awful November day.
For a kid growing up here, no other place seemed to exist even if the outside world had a way of sneaking up on you. At school we practiced hiding under our desks should we get hit with a nuke by the big bad Commies. We also could be dumb about other things, unable to see past our skin color. A bad thing, since I had a real pal in Joe Bailey, who was black, and a terrific guy before the meanness took over.
I stuck around my Bronx home long enough to see the cracks in the neighborhood grow deeper. America itself was starting to fall apart and moving headlong into a major nervous breakdown. I wasn’t too happy about that either. By then I was no longer a kid, just one of so many young guys left to deal with the mess handed to us by some foolish grown-up types.
My family and relatives had their share of life’s worries and finally joined the diaspora from the Bronx that set its sights on places like Rockland County and Queens and Long Island. I don’t think my folks ever looked back, and perhaps there was no reason to. For them, Bronx life was about survival, taking care, responsibilities, getting by. They never led a kid’s life there or felt the invisible space in which we existed.
But I feel compelled to come back now. Maybe it’s nostalgia, or just the feeling that we all share that time in the flight and stumbles of childhood. It is where we all begin our life stories. And that’s worth remembering. It’s been said that you can’t go home again, but even if we can’t return to our past, we can visit, digging through the fog of time to rediscover those simple, complicated days.
Each of us has a story to tell of growing up, of trying to make sense of our life with everything that comes along. This is mine.
Tommy Branigan was born on the wrong side of crazy. Not that he’d mind being thought of in such a way.
Hunched, bony, and pockmarked, with dirty blond hair slicked back into pigeon wings, Tommy prided himself on being an all-American greaser. I got the feeling that he’d spent way too much time watching old repeats of Rebel Without a Cause, fantasizing about the guy who races his hot rod off a cliff in his duel with James Dean. It was just too bad Tommy never made his way out of the ’50s, or, for that matter, didn’t take up hot-rodding. I don’t mean to imply that I carried a death wish for Tommy. But would making the world safe for normal human beings really be considered such a bad thing?
Tommy was hard to miss in the neighborhood. It wasn’t just that he carried the sneer and swagger of a hood–or as much a hood that a fifteen-year-old could be. The guy was just whacked-out dangerous, radiating a punch-you-in-the face attitude if you dared to cross him. Which, for me, never once entered my mind. I was just fine keeping my distance and my face intact.
There were only two problems concerning my relationship with Tommy. First, he lived on Davidson Avenue, around the corner from my Tremont Avenue apartment building. Chance meetings in the neighborhood were inevitable. Worse, Tommy Branigan was about to become my new classmate in Miss Crouse’s seventh-grade class at Macombs Junior High School 82. I was an okay student, a decent enough kid. Tommy wasn’t on both counts. So you can understand why we were instantly enemies. Let me rephrase this: Tommy hated me. My only feeling about Tommy was an icy chill of fear. It would have made perfect sense to find a tall tree to hide out in when bumping into him on the block. Too bad not a single tree dared to grow on this side of the Bronx.
Tommy had already managed to get held back a grade–and given that he was more than two years older than the rest of us, we suspected that another part of his life must have been spent in juvie hall. This was Tommy’s second go-round in seventh grade–a stigma unimaginable to me. I came out of a working-class family where school was second only to synagogue. The idea that you could be “left back” carried a shame that was, simply, unspeakable. It’s safe to say that my friends and I shared a common scripture. That following the Sixth Commandment, Thou Shalt Not Kill, stood the Seventh Commandment–Thou Shalt Never, Ever, Get Left Back. It was understood that disobeying this Seventh Commandment automatically negated the Sixth, freeing your parents to wring your neck–from their view, a case of justifiable homicide.
So, no wonder that in looking at Tommy Branigan we did not just see a bad guy pissed off at the world. Tommy had committed the most egregious sin in our eyes. Being left back made him a leper in our midst. And he knew that we knew, which did not make him any happier.
I suppose it didn’t help matters that Tommy’s dad was said to have been an enforcer for the Irish mob. That was until the cops, fed up with dead bodies piling up on Bronx streets, put Brewster Branigan away for a good long time. At least that was the gossip that floated around the neighborhood and, I should add, considerably spiced Tommy’s own tough guy reputation–not that it needed an added boost. I didn’t totally believe the stories about his father. No gangster named Brewster could be a killer. President of Yale, maybe. Psychopathic killer, not likely. In any case, I wasn’t about to test my theory by bringing it up with his son.
I wasn’t sure what was worse as I stared at myself in the bathroom mirror–meeting up with Tommy later that morning or dealing with Rosie, my mom, prepping me for my very first day at JHS 82. Hovering on my shoulder, she fingered globs of Brylcream into my hair, transforming the top of my head into a glistening, hardened pompadour.
“Ma, ’nough already,” I growled.
“We’re almost done,” she chimed.
“You’re getting the stuff in my ear!”
Rosie gave me that look, the one that took pity on her imbecile second-born son who couldn’t quite fathom the importance of being well groomed. She kept this evaluation to herself as she carefully studied her work. I was making the big leap into junior high that day, and Rosie wasn’t about to throw her son into the lion’s den without his pompadour in place.
“What a good-looking boy!”
It was about this time that I felt like crawling back to bed. To think, four months earlier I had been bar mitzvahed and officially proclaimed “a man” by the rabbi. And here Mom thinking I was five, smothering my head with goop–naturally I would have asked God where He was in all of this, but I didn’t think even He had a chance understanding my mother.
Rosie finally detached herself from my head. My hair flipped into a small bun gave anyone interested a clear view of my face. I was certain that even a tornado striking the Bronx couldn’t possibly knock a single hair out of place. And Mom surely must have been comforted knowing that her son was properly coiffed should a natural disaster strike.
As for me, I was less than happy about the clean-cut image. Crew cuts were cool, even scraggly was okay. Pompadours, well, I might as well have hung a sign around my neck that read, “Jew Boy–Red Meat for Bullies.” And my neighborhood had more than its share of such psychos. Of course none was worse than Tommy. I could only hope that if he ever threw me on top of my head in his own bit of fun, my Brylcream-plastered hair would protect my brain from serious damage.
“Make a good impression,” Mom went on cheerfully, clearly not in tune with my inner angst.
Rosie gave me the once-over, nodding approvingly, as I bolted from the bathroom. I scuttled over to the kitchen to pick up my tin lunch box decorated with a soaring Superman–my hero whose godlike tales were told in treasured comic books stuffed in my bedroom drawer. I somehow doubted whether the Man would settle for the tuna fish on white bread, accompanied by a usual chocolate Entenmann’s doughnut, my lunch in a few hours, but what could you do.
“Bye, Ma,” I said as I reached for the doorknob.
“Bye, sweetheart, have a wonderful first day,” she chirped, beaming as if her son was going off to Harvard.
With my Superman lunch box in one hand, a marbled composition notebook and plastic bag carrying three number two lead pencils in another–and my pompadour solidly in place–I bounded out of apartment 3A onto Tremont Avenue and headed on the five-block journey over to JHS 82. I could only hope that I wouldn’t run into Tommy on the way, greeting me in his usual friendly, articulate way. Something like:
“Hey shithead, eat shit.”
At those times, I never thought it was a good idea to tell Tommy that he was being redundant.
© 2017 by Paul Thaler
We may be connected to the mainland, but to the rest of the world our home borough of the Bronx is to this day undiscovered territory. On that note Bronxland hits a Yankee home run. Paul Thaler draws a brutally-accurate portrayal of Bronx life for any kid who came of age in the early sixties, replete with a Bronx tour on a red Schwinn bike: the Grand Concourse and Tremont, Jahn’s, Krum’s, and the Loew’s Paradise, Woodlawn Cemetary, Freedomland, and of course the Stadium that was home to Mickey, Roger, Yogi, and Whitey. Along with the childhood joys of stickball, stoopball, and hoops, and the wonder of pubescent sexual discovery, Thaler’s Bronx is not always pleasant as Bronxland delves deep into the pain of coming of age in an often unforgiving place. But most of all, you’ll be thrilled with the detail, the sights, the sounds, and even the smells of our own, one-of-a-kind home. Bronxland indeed. ~ Gary Axelbank, host of BronxTalk on BronxNet and publisher of thisistheBronx