Sunday, December 2, 2012

Bursting Bubbles of Childhood

Gilda and I are grandparents, as well as being a great (grand) aunt and great (grand) uncle, which means we’re not constricted or restricted by the strictures of parenthood. English translation—we can spoil little kids by letting them do what their parents deny them. No TV for little Finley? Not on our watch. No junk food for little Sophia and Dylan? Ha! Who better to introduce them to McDonald’s French fries? 

All this by way of saying when I grew up in the 1950s my parents had a few rules for me and my siblings that by today’s standards seem really quaint. Our father did not believe in long telephone conversations, whether incoming or outgoing. My sister Lee was particularly and repeatedly chastised, and in turn distraught and embarrassed by our father’s yelling for her to hang up, not because someone important might want to reach us, but rather to keep the telephone bill from being too high. Our mother fell victim to this restriction as well, which forced her to talk to her three sisters from the telephone in the dinette only late in the evening, after Dad had gone to bed. 

We also couldn’t walk around the house shoeless. If we dared trod in our socks or barefoot, Dad would casually walk near us to playfully, but with real intent, try to stomp on our exposed feet until we retreated to put shoes on. Naturally we’d complain, but our mother would explain going without shoes was a sign of mourning, an event from which our father wanted our household to be spared. 

I thought this Old World superstition was confined within our Brooklyn row house walls, but two weeks ago, as I listened to the end of a Jewish literature class given by the author Gloria Goldreich, I learned the practice of shunning shoeless sashaying around the house was quite common among first generation European immigrants. 

My parents also didn’t want us to chew gum, though the occasional peppermint Chiclet made its way from our mother’s purse into our mouths. They especially disdained our chewing bubble gum. A thin rectangle of pink bubble gum came with each packet of baseball cards I collected. I could keep the cards, but was expected to discard the gum. 

The one haven where we could chew bubble gum, chunks of Bazooka with the requisite three-panel Bazooka Joe comic strip inside the wrapper, was Paul’s Barber Shop on Avenue X between E. 21st and E. 22nd Streets. Paul’s (later Paul and Phil’s when the latter became a partner) was an old-fashioned barber shop, complete with swirling red, white and blue pole out on the sidewalk, scissors and combs soaking in a blue tincture of Barbicide disinfectant, a round stainless steel towel warmer for those getting a shave, and a trapdoor in the floor near a sink where cut hairs were swept into. With every kid’s haircut you got a packet of Bazooka.

I went to Paul’s until I moved away from Brooklyn after I landed my first job at The New Haven Register. I stayed with Paul’s even after Frankie’s opened on Ocean Avenue a block closer to our home when I was a teenager. I resisted Frankie’s razor-cuts that promised to straighten, for a while, my naturally kinky hair. Besides, Phil started giving razor cuts, and though they were more expensive ($10) than his regular trims, they still cost less than Frankie’s. 

The barber shop was a refuge to chew Bazooka—much preferred to Double Bubble—and read comic books (before ultimately matriculating to Playboy). Now, it seems, Bazooka is transforming itself. A new marketing campaign hopes to make the brand more appealing to chewers of all ages. Bazooka Joe, the eyepatch-wearing icon of the brand, along with his sidekick, the red-turtleneck-over-the-mouth clad Mort, no longer will be tickling funny bones as kids of all ages masticate their way to bubble heaven. Ah, well. Another reality of the past becomes just another memory (