Essay by Author
Diana Rubino

My Past Perfect Present


“The Heights” was a modern neighborhood. “Modern” because it was culturally integrated. The Irish, Polish, and Italian neighborhoods were shrinking and now there were Czechs, Greeks, and Germans thrown in with us refugees of Naples, Warsaw and County Sligo. We called it “The Heights” to distinguish it from the other zones of Jersey City, before zip codes, also appropriately named: “Bergen,” “Lafayette”, “Marion” and “Five Corners” to name a few, either after their founders or their physical appearance. Our “zone” was 7, before zip codes made it 07307. “Heights” is just as self-explanatory; it was built on the New Jersey Palisades overlooking Manhattan. Manhattan commanded fifty times the rents we paid in Hoboken and Jersey City, and we got breathtaking views of the river, the Manhattan skyline, and, leaning out the living room window, I could see Lady Liberty in New York Harbor. All for a pittance compared to what they paid over there to look at a row of Jersey apartment buildings and a huge clock outside Colgate’s. Go figure. Many a kid tumbled down that cliff for undisclosed reasons. The main topic on our stoop every summer was “Whose kid will topple over and why.”

I was the youngest kid in our building and I’d always had the most toys. I was an only child. Our family owned a trucking company and Rubino’s Tavern downtown on Wayne Street, and my father worked nights. He came home when it was light out and went right to bed. That’s why all the other kids used to pick on me; I was the youngest and had more dolls, including Patty Play Pal who was taller than I was, strollers, carriages, a Spell Well, Colorforms, and a Mr. Mixit malt maker, featured on Romper Room. I once put an Acme grocery bag over my head to hide my face when I went riding in my custom pedal car, but big Billy Wisniewski pushed me into a tree, creating Ogden Avenue’s first kiddie insurance claim. His parents never paid up, though. He put a big dent in it, too; the car, not the tree. His reason could’ve been that I owned—outright—a miniature Benz with gleaming chrome and sturdy rubber wheels while his father was still making payments on a beat-up Edsel.

The week before Christmas of 1961 all the kids in the building came down with chicken-pox. Except me. I was the only one in that entire apartment building, out of twenty some-odd kids (and some were odd!) that wasn’t covered with 3-D polka dots. Looking back, I still have no idea what my immune system had that theirs didn’t. The other kids spent Christmas confined to their beds and living room floors while I got prissied up in my Christmas outfit, torn away from my new finger-paints and hauled off to Grandma’s all the way in the Greenville section of the city. I would rather have gotten the chicken-pox. My cousins were all older than I and would deliberately exclude me from conversation and games. Then I’d go running into the dining room where my uncles and aunts sat eating cream donuts and talking about politics. Grandma spoke broken English, which meant she had a very thick Italian accent. I later learned it wasn’t even real Italian, but southern dialect. Her very own pidgin Italian.

Anyway, Dottie the Greek, our neighbor across the hall, came to our door (it must’ve been a day or two after Christmas, because none of my toys had broken or run out of batteries yet.) Mom wiped her hands on her apron, set the iron up on its side (something that Dad never did; one night Mom was at a card party and Dad was babysitting me and ironing his bowling shirt. The phone rang and he left the iron steaming away on his shirt, and when he came back, his bowling pin decal was an orange triangle), opened the door, and there was Dottie the Greek wearing a mu-mu with short sleeves. Grandmothers and old ladies wore no sleeves. I’d never seen my grandmother, or any old lady for that matter, with sleeves. When Mom opened the door and saw Dottie the Greek standing there, she had a conniption. “What are you doing out of the house!” she screamed at her. She’d come over to break the quarantine intentionally. She told Mom I should stay with her Jimmy until I caught the chicken-pox so we’d all have it at the same time. “She’s gonna get it anyway,” Dottie the Greek said. Mom must’ve been mad because she didn’t even ask Dottie the Greek in for a cup of coffee or the Ouzo she and Dad kept especially for them. Mom told Dottie the Greek she had some nerve wanting to expose me to the chicken-pox. Meanwhile, I was having the time of my life. I could drive my custom car, go on the swings in the playground, and sit on the stoop and color without anybody bullying me or swiping my crayons and color the steps. But that didn’t matter because it was January. Why couldn’t all the brats get sick in July or August?

Dad came home the next day and we made a snowman in front of the building to send to the WMCA snowman contest. WMCA was the ‘hip’ radio station, which was the first to play the Beatles. Cousin Brucie was the most popular DJ there. The snowman didn’t last very long, though. Mrs. Klein ran over it in her new Chevy Biscayne. Those Kleins were a funny family. Their two kids, Norma and Freida, were identical twins but they never wore identical clothes. Every time I’d see kids that were identical twins, they’d be dressed in identical playsuits, dresses or pedal-pushers. But not those Klein kids. I remember Mom and Dad saying that Mr. Klein was in the stock market. I had no idea what the stock market was. I thought it had something to do with clothes. I knew we had a fish market and a meat market and we’d always go to the flea market but where in hell was the stock market? I asked Mom where the stock market was and she said it’s on Wall Street, in New York. Then she took me to our living room window, pointed to the Battery and said, “That’s where the stock market is.”

One Saturday Dad took me on the tube to the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He was haggling with one of the storekeepers over a fake chinchilla coat for me. The store was called Fink’s. I piped up: “Oh forget it, Dad! Let’s just go to the stock market!” They both looked at me the way adults look at kids when they’ve said something they’re not supposed to have said. Boy, did that Fink give Dad a weird look. Only about 15 years later did I realize that Italians didn’t actively invest in the stock market back in the 50s and 60s. They bought bars, bakeries, beauty shops, rental property and U.S. Savings Bonds. Every birthday, every christening, every holiday, you’d get a savings bond, usually ten bucks. Dad really gave it to Mom for not explaining the stock market to me. She said it was because she didn’t know herself. So one night the Kleins came over with the Daltons and the Andersons. The Kleins never came over unless the Daltons and the Andersons were coming over. Mr. Klein explained to Mom what the stock market was, after Dad told Mr. Klein how to beat a royal flush in poker. The advantages of having a bedroom next to the parlor!

After the Kleins left, Mom would always pester Dad about a new car. “They have a new car, why don’t we have one?” she’d always say. He had a Chevy with fins that was always stalling, but the radio played without the ignition on. He’d always say something like, “Well, Barbara Klein’s car doesn’t have a radio that can play without the ignition on!” And she’d say “I don’t care, I want a new car!” So one day, Mom rushed me home from school and we sat in the kitchen window overlooking the parking lot, waiting for Dad to come home with the new car. Then a big white boat with blue windows and huge fins cruised through the lot and stopped. The door opened and who got out, but Dad! “Wow!” we said. We ran down and Dad showed us the new car. It even had air conditioning and push button windows! It was a 1960 Chrysler Imperial and had turk-oise windows. I later learned the word was “turquoise.” He parked it right next to the Kleins’ car. It looked even better. Dad and Harry O’Brien sat in the living room one night haggling over a fair price for Dad’s old Chevy. Harry O’Brien was thinking of buying it. The O’Briens didn’t have a car. But he didn’t buy it. I said, “Well, Dad, maybe you can take it to the stock market and sell it.”

My favorite T.V. show was Top Cat. I was in love with Top Cat until I dumped him for Paul McCartney. I used to comb my hair and fix myself up all pretty for when Top Cat came on. Top Cat was my hero. Now I believe Mom worried that this was a foreshadowing of things to come. He wasn’t exactly a Wall Street executive. He lived in a garbage can in Hell’s Kitchen, for God’s sakes! But I didn’t think of things like that. I liked his looks, that’s all. Mom would say, “But it’s only a cartoon! He doesn’t exist in real life!” I’d say, “He does so!” and sat pretty in front of the Sylvania set making goo-goo eyes at Top Cat. I liked Choo-Choo, too, but I didn’t like that white smock he wore. It reminded me of the dentist.

Mom discovered that I had a talent for writing stories and poems about people, after she’d gotten over her embarrassment over the song I made up about Mrs. Henderson in the basement. I didn’t know Mrs. Henderson was the owner of the building; I just thought she was a stuffy old lady who wore flowered mu-mu’s, carried a broom all the time and spent her life sweeping out the musty basement. They said her husband was the super. What’s so super about him? I wondered. Well, I’d made up a song about her and her super husband.

One day the fuses blew and there was no power for a few hours. The icebox defrosted and melted all my Fudgesickles and I couldn’t watch Captain Kangaroo. Thank God I hadn’t missed Top Cat that day. So we went down to the basement and about 8 of the tenants were standing around Mrs. Henderson’s fence. (She kept the basement apartment fenced in so the cats wouldn’t get in.) She told everyone her husband was fixing the fuse. I thought it was strange that he was the only man in the building during the day. All the other men were at work. I asked Mom why he didn’t work and she said because he was the super. Super what? Superman? So I got to see the last part of Captain Kangaroo, and all of Romper Room while I ate my Scooter Pies. I’d sung a song I’d made up about Mr. Henderson that embarrassed Mom to no end. So she thought she may as well make some good out of my talents, and tried to get me on Romper Room. They wrote back saying that the waiting list was so long, it would be years before I’d get on. I said, “So what? I can wait a few years.” She said, “But when you’re 18 years old, you won’t want to be on Romper Room.” I said “Yes, I will! I’ll always love Romper Room!” How did I know what I’d be doing at 18? So Mom and Dad talked that night after he’d brought home some Bird’s Eye frozen dinners and cans of orange juice, and she told him she wanted to bring me to a modeling agency. He didn’t care one way or the other, but when she told him that child models made $25 an hour, he asked her why the hell she was wasting all this time? Get on the horn and call a modeling agency! So one day I was happily playing with my Barbie dolls. I’d always had the most beautiful Barbie doll clothes on the block. All my friends envied them. They always wanted to play swapsies, and trade their dolls’ battered rags for my glittery Barbie gowns and velvet Barbie coats. I had a total of 11 Barbies, 2 Kens, 3 Skippers and 2 Midges. Midge was homely; she had freckles and a pug nose. I had all these Barbie dolls and clothes because Dad would bring them home almost every day. I had the only Barbie in Jersey City with her own couturier. So there I was playing Barbie when Mom took out the most expensive dress I owned (my grandmother bought it in Gimbel’s and paid THIRTY DOLLARS for it!) Wow! Thirty bucks for a dress for a 5-year-old kid! She made me wear it to school one day and the teachers flipped out. Anyway, Mom prissied me up, brushed my waist-length hair until I thought she’d brush it right out of my scalp, and whisked me off to “Marge McDermott Enterprises” (I had no idea what an enterprise was). It was a carpeted office on East 39th Street where a bunch of well-dressed, scrubbed kids my age and up sat around playing with dolls and trucks. It was a modeling agency. Mom wouldn’t let me play with them. “You’re a lady,” she said. “Just sit here with me till Marge McDermott comes out.” So I sat there and flipped through Harper’s Bazaar like a lady. I wished I had some Beechnut Fruit Stripe gum. Marge McDermott signed me up on the spot because she liked my ends. That was the ends of my long hair. Wow, what a reason to sign up a kid to be a model!

That night Mom and Dad took me to a photographer in Hoboken for my composite. I had no idea what a composite was at the time, and she said later I’d have a portfolio. She’d packed a suitcase with my clothes, and we climbed into the Chrysler Imperial and drove down the cliff to Hoboken. A really sweet guy who was very patient with me took about 500 pictures of me in my coat and hat, in my sundress, in my pedal pushers, in my shorts and tops, in my $30 Gimbel’s dress, in my pajamas with one of his props, a blue Teddy bear; in my bathing suits, and even in my ballerina costume. (I took tap and ballet and was in recitals all the time, although I faked the steps.) I was camera struck; I loved it. After that followed numerous trips to the city on the tube for interviews, more pictures, more interviews, fittings, changings, tryings-on, walks through Central Park Zoo with a balloon, Sabrett hot dogs, cab rides, lots of walking…one time I had to pee really bad, and the train’s next stop was 9th Street. Mom said, “I’m not stopping at 9th Street, it’s the worst street in the world!” I said “I don’t care, I have to peeeeee!” So we got off at 9th Street, went into the filthy bathroom (even then it was filthy) and I went. Mom yanked me out before I got a chance to wash my hands. “But why can’t I wash my hands?” I asked her. “Not at 9th Street,” she said. “You’ll wash your hands when we get to Park Avenue.”

This particular Park Avenue photographer was Milton Greene, who was a good friend of Marilyn Monroe’s. Mom was awe-struck at this guy and his brownstone, where Marilyn actually walked, Marilyn actually sat on this toilet, Marilyn actually stayed here! I didn’t give a hoot. Marilyn wasn’t there at the time, so we didn’t meet her. I just wanted to be home watching Top Cat.

Soon I was seeing my face in Simpson’s Sears and Penney’s catalogs, and a close-up of my legs appeared in an ad for Armstrong linoleum. I had to stand in one position for five hours for that ad, and Mom spent four hours the night before dyeing my shoes purple, but about 1/8 of one shoe got into the picture. It was hidden behind a balloon. I remember Mom telling Dad how much I’d made that day. “Your daughter made $125 today,” she said. It didn’t mean a thing to me. I had no conception of money; had no idea what an astonishing amount $125 was.

Mom wrote to the Danny Kaye show in Hollywood asking if they could use me, and they wrote back and said, “She’s very beautiful but has no talent…” I said “What do you mean, no talent? I can write songs about people!” She said, “No, dear, that’s not quite what they want for the Danny Kaye Show.” So she started searching for my talents. Shirley Temple I wasn’t, but I kept up the dancing lessons. I would watch the June Taylor Dancers on the Jackie Gleason Show and leap all over the living room, and say, “Who was better, them or me?” “You!” they’d always say, of course. I loved my dance costumes; they were all tulle and sequins; for one recital I wore a sequened mask over my eyes. I even made “The Column” in the Jersey Journal, for my dance recital debut. Again, it meant nothing. I just wanted to watch Top Cat and eat Scooter Pies. All this publicity and magazine spreads and posing for Marilyn Monroe’s photog and making $25 an hour didn’t faze me in the least. My mother was star-struck but I inherited none of that. She even went backstage after Camelot on Broadway to meet Richard Burton and get his autograph. I couldn’t care less about Richard Burton. I was in love with Top Cat. I liked my dancing teacher, Miss Faye. Dancing teachers always used Miss and their first names.

Once I got bored with the dancing, my grandparents bought me a piano. A white one. They put it in my bedroom, but Mom discouraged my playing when I started putting my poems about people to music and banging them out all summer with the windows open. I lost interest in the piano when the Beatles came over. By then we’d moved to a new house in the new development called “Country Village” at the ‘city line’ with Bayonne. I was transferred to P.S. #30 school. I was 6 years old and determined to go to England and marry Paul. My uncle bought me little 4-inch high Beatle dolls with real hair, and I took Paul with me wherever I went. Where I went, my Paul doll went. He was never out of my sight. I even abandoned Barbie, Ken, Skipper and Midge for Paul, Paris fashions and all. He got more attention than my Barbie with the blonde bubble hairdo, whom I’d dubbed Judy. I used to pull her head off and throw it around, because I was jealous of her. I thought she was prettier than I was. That head would turn up in the strangest places. One day when Mom was out and Dad was watching the Mets, I lost the head. I couldn’t find it anywhere. Dad got really mad. He started looking all over for the head. Then Harry O’Brien came over to watch the Mets and asked Dad what he was doing. “Looking for a Barbie doll head,” he answered. “Can’t you wait till the 7th inning stretch to do that?” Harry said. He finally found it in the clothes hamper.

Paul was my number one pastime until my grandmother bought me a tape recorder; a portable battery operated reel-to-reel with a clip-on mike. I had a ball with that tape recorder. Again, I was the only kid with anything that state of the art. The other kids were lucky if they had transistor radios. I always had it on when Mom and Dad were fighting, and I’d make up songs and sing them into the tape recorder. One day I made up a song about my uncle’s new girlfriend Rosemary. I was jealous of her. So I made up a “Rosemary has a mustache” song. I forgot to erase it, and they came over one night. I was playing with the tape recorder and what slipped out, but the “Rosemary has a mustache” song. Mom and Dad wanted to kill me. But they sent me to bed without my Bosco instead.

The day came when I finally made the big time. At age 8, I went on Wonderama, the kids’ show on Channel 5, Metromedia Television. Their studio was at 205 East 62nd Street. I modeled in a fashion show for Bergdorf Goodman’s and got paid for it. I even met the host Bob McAllister. I didn’t like him, though. I liked Sonny Fox better. Again, it meant nothing to me to be on live television. Everybody got up early Sunday morning to watch the show. I thought it was pretty cool that I was on TV, although I would rather have been on the show just as one of the kids in the peanut gallery. They played games and won prizes. I didn’t. I just got $25 an hour for working in the fashion show.

Now I’m an adult and a novelist. I read in one of my writing books, “If you want to be a genius, then be one.” So I be one.