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"Palisades Park" by Gary Alexander Azerier

The following is an excerpt from the upcoming collection of short stories to be published by Authorhouse, entitled "Nosebleeds From Washington Heights," by Gary Alexander. Gary has been a New York broadcaster since 1964. He has been heard on WINS, WNBC, CBS and in Boston on WHDH, WBZ and WRKO. He taught at Westchester Community College, Hunter College, Lehman College in New York, and Graham Jr. College in Boston. Mr. Alexander was raised in Washington Heights and now reside with wife Rose Ann in Manhattan and Hemlock Farms, PA.

Summer. Heat. Periodic emptiness and quiet afternoons. Sometimes going “downstairs” and stepping outside onto Cabrini Boulevard was like walking into the dry heat of the much spoken of oven. Together with the stillness and silence of the one way, nearly dead end street, (you could only turn east on 178th Street) there were few better comparisons. The noises, the people, the activity on hot July and August days seemed to be sucked away along with any semblance of comfortable temperatures or amenable air. On some late mornings and early afternoons the vacant sidewalks of the block between 177th and 178th Streets brought the Devil’s Anvil, or Frying Pan, or any number of implements, to mind. And when no friends were out, there were few diversions from the discomfort; few amusements. It was too hot to play. No breezes blew.gary

There were, however, occasional distractions. On long oppressively hot weekends during those days when air conditioning was not a commonplace feature in Washington Heights apartments, my father who was not a movie goer would offer to treat my mother and me to “an air-conditioned movie”. It did not matter what was playing. And the gleeful surprise of this was sustained, sometimes over an entire three day holiday weekend, when we saw not one or two, but three days of films. In the forties and fifties, with double features, this was no less than six films, not to mention newsreels and selected short subjects. Sometimes it was better than going away. It killed entire afternoons; certainly it was cheaper. But it simply occurred when my father got on a kick; that is, found something that worked.

In those pre-air-conditioned apartment days, when drives out of the city were not options because we did not own a car, some choices that required little travel, expense or arrangements, still remained as desperate attempts to escape the heat. One of these was an afternoon on the rooftop in hopes of catching a zephyr; another was a picnic along the Henry Hudson Parkway for which my father prepared a small cooler of his famous Tom Collins. I am confident he carried the gin separately but the elixir in the jug, no more than ice cubes and Canada Dry Tom Collins Mix, tasted special, forever to be associated with cool grassy picnics; the glory of the Hudson to the west, the great bridge to the north.

There were days when a walk over the entire span of the George Washington beckoned. The heat had to be a bit more moderate, for the walk was considerable, although there were the promises of breezes, watery vistas and the wonderful assurances of a little refreshment stand at the end of the bridge in Fort Lee, New Jersey. It was here you could get Coca-Cola in the small green glass bottle, and the unique foot-long hot-dog, boiled in oil; the reward of a summer day, the rainbow at the end of the bridge.

But looking west from the span of the great bridge revealed wonders greater than the little refreshment stand. From the north side of the bridge you could see the bright neon blue and red of Bill Miller’s Riviera; an oasis of adult festivity and gaiety, a night club, whose home was in the Garden State of New Jersey, embraced by space and a view of the river, not the grim, subway accessible crowdedness of downtown New York City. This place was more appealing, romantic and magical. It was fresher, but as yet, a mystery. Riviera!

Looking to the southwest, as we often could on clear days in our neighborhood, there was the wonderful visual whisper of fun, the suggestion of joy across the Hudson, as the top of the great cyclone teased our eye and imagination with Palisades Amusement Park. It was something far away, myth. Yet you could almost touch it as hopes brought it within reach.

Sometime just before the close of school, with the approach of summer, certain discount tickets for Palisades Park materialized in the neighborhood. They were printed to look like real tickets and bore the illusion of Free Ticket to Palisades Amusement Park. Of course, the tickets were themselves given away as free, but only provided a small discount with the general admission. And perhaps an additional discount was given on certain rides or attractions. I was very impressed with these attractive looking tickets and began to collect them until I had amassed what I thought to be a fortune in discounts. It took awhile before I realized the tickets didn’t amount to much and gave up the dream of somehow cashing in at the gate. But just the look of the Palisades logo and the graphics…the word “amusement”…; the holding of tickets to Palisades….

One summer day somehow I prevailed. My father, not especially a fan of amusement parks, took my mother and me to New Jersey and Palisades Amusement Park.

It was the kind of day you might expect at an amusement park. Rides, cotton candy and games of skill and chance. In retrospect, it seems sad trying to extract fun, joy and excitement out of a mini-trip in or on a machine that spins, lifts, or jolts you for a few minutes. But that’s what it was; that, and the excitement of waiting to see what was next.

What fascinated me most that day was what seemed like an inordinate number of kids toting about giant toys, stuffed pandas and other colorful kewpies. My father must have noticed my coveting stares and gravitated to a game of chance. It was a wheel of fortune type of device with matching numbers printed on the counter on which you placed your bet. Bets were a dime. Nickels were more the thing in those days. Dimes indicated a bit of excess cost. I didn’t anticipate a second wager after he had lost the first  but my father tried again. We lost again. I am sure we all had a sense of the old carnie rip-off but apparently determined to win the giant panda, my father bet again and again, graduating to wager several dimes on each spin…and then several dimes on each of several numbers.

It couldn’t have been that much money, but it sure seemed like it. My father changed dollar bills, and bet and bet again. I had heard him tell stories of how he and his father had visited a casino in Russia when he was a boy and how his father, who had died a very young man, had won. How close they had become that night; how they were winners. But no matter how many thin Mercury dimes my father placed on the counter, no matter on what numbers, he could not win. I watched the man in the booth sweep the dimes off the painted numbers into a trough and fistful them into his apron pockets. My father changed more dollar bills into dimes and put his money on the table with great purpose and little indecision; as if he had an inside tip as to how the wheel would go. I wondered at how many times anyone could lose consecutively without one win. That was all he wanted. It no longer had any connection to the giant panda. But we were on either the right or the left side of the winning number, or far from it. We never won.

When we left Palisades Amusement Park that afternoon I felt blue, certainly compared with what you might expect after an afternoon at an amusement park. But it was I who had brought my father to Palisades. He had spent countless dimes, amounting to dollars he could ill afford, because of me.

What had me feeling saddest of all was not our failure to win anything, but knowing the real reason my father wanted to win. He wanted to be a winner in the eyes of his son. But it was my knowledge that he felt he had failed in that. My father thought he was a loser. The fact is though, he really wasn’t.




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