When I was growing up, our neighborhood was predominantly an Irish ghetto but there was a "DEW" line warning of things to come with the sprinkling of Puerto Rican newcomers finding apartments willing to let them stack up tenants like cordwood in shifts around the clock.
I was born somewhere up in the Harlem area which was a completely black bailiwick now and my grandfather's 15 room mansion was broken up into the same number of apartments for a booming rental business that was all profit and no expense. He had gone bankrupt in some unexplained economic catastrophe related to some shady dealing in copper futures.
We had moved further south after that financial earthquake and taken up residence temporarily in an apartment at the Bronx/Manhattan line that was the absolute pits. It was sort of a last line of defense in terms of rental property because of being directly on the same level as the elevated subway line that rumbled with irritating regularity every eight minutes going either north to the hinterlands of the Bronx or down into the bowels of the city and the chaos of millions jammed together in forced harmony.
Now my grandfather was working in City Hall in a job that was a bit of a mystery. All he had to do all day was sign dozens of official-looking documents that were written in confusing legalese. I would visit him some days when there was no school and my single mother was at her wits end to figure out what to do with me.
At first the violent shaking of the subway cars made me overly nervous and I was constantly looking for a place to hide like a soldier in the trenches when the artillery shells began to fall. My sister was just the opposite and she ignored the racket with a calmness that made me want to grab her by her hair and shout,
"Don't you hear the damn thing?"
Of course, I was far too afraid of getting my mouth washed out with the terrible laundry soap that my mother used sparingly to threaten us with dire consequences. Usually, just the verbal threat was enough to change our attitude without delay.
Then we moved much further south into the Chelsea area just above Greenwich Village and we were surrounded by longshoremen and mass transportation workers raising their little broods with their only interest in cheap beer and the sports-line. We were sort of outsiders because my mom had no man domiciled in the apartment and she spoke with a high-class tone due to being raised in a convent by French sisters with very strict rules on grammar and etiquette. My sister and I spoke in the "lingua franka" of any neighborhood in which we found ourselves situated.
I was, of course, a good little altar boy and a favorite of the priests, brothers and sisters of the parish. However, when my mother's deficiency in spousal distribution was common knowledge, I found that the two of us were "put in the back of the line" when it came to social amenities. In order to compensate for that subtle shunning, we gravitated to the Greenwich Village crowd with their strange peculiarities and odd proclivities. My sister excelled at dancing and I was good at remembering lines to spout on stage without really understanding what they actually meant.
Strangely, there was a non-parish Catholic competitor right in the middle of our traditional parish and diocese organization created to cater to the newly-arrived Spanish-speaking Puerto Ricans of the same faith. The clergy assembled was more targeted to missionary work and it was exceedingly disarming to see these usually remotely situated clerics working their well-intentioned mission in the middle of one of the most advance cities in the world. I somehow was offered up to that church as a sacrificial lamb in the form of a well-trained altar boy more because they didn't think I quite fit into their concept of a member of a "normal" family.
Everything in the new church was in Spanish and I soon acquired a conversation grasp of the language with an emphasis on religious matters. Eventually, all three of us attended the Spanish-speaking church even though our understanding of Spanish was limited. We stayed there until we moved from the area several years later.
It was probably my association with the Puerto Rican families that kept me from being considered "gang material" for one of the many gangs in the neighborhood. I was in many respects a man with no country friend to none and suspect to many. That was most likely the reason why I took up with the Kowalski sisters who helped their father and mother operate one of the many tugboats that plied their trade in the crowded harbor.
When I met the Kowalski sisters I was a lad of eighteen and had not yet managed to sweet talk any Irish or Puerto Rican females into introducing me into the promised land of their secrets hidden safely between their locked-tight legs. I was beginning to get a little desperate especially as I bombarded on a daily basis by the leotard clad friends of my sister dancing on their toes and displaying their "camel toes" with scornful confidence. I had managed to get my greedy fingers up some of the "good" girl's skirts in the back of the church when we thought no one was looking. It was a sorry compromise for the actual dirty deed but I was a beggar and not a chooser.
We were slated to move up to the Bronx the following month and I had already made arrangements to enter into military service because I didn't want to be a financial burden to my financially strapped mother any longer.
.... There is more of this story ...