1983 - Parental Separation, Mommy, and Norway

1983 - Parental Separation, Mommy, and Norway

In one sense, the year of 1983 started off with a bang. Mount Kilauea on Hawaii’s Big Island began erupting on January 3rd. A week later, a unique and inspiring children’s show premiered on the cable channel HBO (Home Box Office) called Fraggle Rock with Jim Henson’s Muppets. The spirit of the show was one of co-creating harmony with fellow living beings who were different from us. I preferred these type of good-natured TV shows much more than the typical good guys versus bad guys storylines so popular in other shows. 

Mom was not much interested in current events. She did not watch the news nor read the newspaper. Funny, considering her husband worked as a newspaper pressman and her Uncle John[1] in whose house she grew up in, watched the evening news every night. I remember the talking heads on the big screen television at Nana and Bampa’s house. As a two-year-old I did not understand what was going on for the most part, but I could sense vibrations. And the one vibration I did not like was anything to do with war, weapons, or battle. On March 23rd, US President Ronald Reagan made a special televised speech[2] regarding defense and national security. During this speech, he announced the Strategic Defense Initiative, a proposed missile defense system with the intention of protecting the US from Soviet nuclear missiles. While his charisma, charm and speech-giving skills were excellent and his paternal affect quite endearing, in the speech he indeed painted the picture of the Soviet Union as an active violent threat to be guarded against. Even as a toddler I recognized that atmosphere was not something I wanted to be around. I would inevitably leave the living room where Bampa was watching TV and sit in the kitchen with Nana. Maybe there she would let me watch something more friendly like a sitcom, or I could play with toys or draw a picture.

Mom turned 29 years-old on April 5th. This was a difficult time in her life. She was effectively living as a single mother and hustling to make ends meet without having to overly rely on my father financially with whom she was separated from at the time. After Mom and Dad separated Mom and I moved into Nana’s basement apartment on East 34th Street between Avenues T and S in Marine Park, Brooklyn. These were somewhat somber days as Mom and I lived alone with an uncertain future before us. Due to Dad’s night shift work schedule, I was already used to spending much of the day with him mostly in the periphery and not center stage like Mom or Nana was. He was usually sleeping, winding down from or preparing for work. In this new situation, I still saw Dad with some regularity, so I did not fully realize the complexity of the situation. I did feel however that something was amiss although nothing dreadful. Mom applied for and got a job at Manufacturers Hanover Bank located on the corner of Nostrand Avenue and Avenue U not too far from where we were living. On her workdays, her routine was to drop me off at my babysitter’s home two blocks away, then quickly walk two blocks down to catch the B3 (Avenue U) bus to work. She would generally pay the 75¢ bus fare with bus tokens purchased at the local train station although coins were accepted as well. 

For the job she was required to undergo 1-2 weeks of training which took place on roughly the 80th floor of one of Manhattan’s Twin Towers. One day while attending training and having caught herself in a daydream she thought to herself, “Good thing I don’t work here because all I can do is stare out the windows!” At Manufacturers Hanover her boss was Mister D who happened to be friendly with Mom’s Aunt Pat. It seems Aunt Pat had asked Mister D to go easy on Mom, having explained that she was a single mother recently separated from her husband and going through a lot. So, Mister D put Linda on the “night bags shift”. The bank had a drop off chute where customers could deposit money after hours. In the morning, she would collect deposited bags from the basement drop off chute and sit in a room counting money. If money was missing, the teller responsible for the shift would have to answer for it. She was still new, and her work speed was on the slow side as she adjusted to her new tasks. Sometimes a co-worker would come along and offer to count money to help speed things along, or so she thought. One day there was some money missing. Mom got in the hot seat and was mildly interrogated about it as she was the teller assigned to the night bag shift when the missing money occurred. Out of her innocence she was not intimidated and spoke straight about it. 

A manager came to her and said, “Excuse me Linda. There is money missing from one of the bags that you were assigned to count on your shift.” 

Mom answered, “Ok.”

“Well, we understand that you’re going through a rough time as a single mother and all…”

“I don’t take money that doesn’t belong to me” she promptly fired back.

The manager continued his mild interrogation.

“Give me a lie detector test if you want” Mom said matter of factly. 

A higher up came along, she told him the same thing that she told the manager, and she was left alone. Apparently, he was struck by her directness and sincerity, and she was not fired. It later became known that one employee was stealing from bags that were assigned to others in the guise of helping.

Her job at Manufacturers Hanover had its interesting moments. One time a handsome older gray-haired man, owner of a neighborhood sports store, took her out to lunch in appreciation for her honesty in calling him to report that he had left her with an extra $100. The guys who ran the pizza store down the block would come to deposit stacks of $1 bills covered in flour. The security guard did not carry a gun. Rather than intimidating, he was a friendly guy who knew everybody who walked into the bank and helped to make the atmosphere more cheerful.

After work, Mom would hop on the bus, pick me up from my babysitter Mary’s place and then we would likely drop by Nana and Bampa’s for a visit as it was on the same block. Often, we would have dinner there as well. Then it was back home for our little evening routine: a bath, watch a little TV, story time, and bed. Some nights she would talk to her close friend Eileen Galligan on the big, heavy black phone in our apartment.

The basement apartment on East 34th Street was about half-submerged. It had an entrance in the front of the house which could be accessed after walking down a few steps. The apartment itself consisted of a large main living room which had a sofa on one wall, my crib on the opposite wall and a TV in a corner across from the sofa. After passing a narrow hallway with closets on either side there was a small kitchen to the right, a bathroom straight ahead and a boiler room to the left with an exit door beyond it into the back alley if needed. The bathroom was interesting. It had no sink, just a toilet bowl and a shower head in the middle of the ceiling (not far from the ceiling light) and a drain on the floor. There were curtains that could be pulled to prevent the toilet and the bathroom door from getting too wet during showers. The kitchen sink was the place to wash hands after doing one’s bathroom business. My baths were in the sink or at Nana’s house.

One otherwise ordinary day at home, Mom and I were playing around, and I somehow locked her in one of the closets in the living room. Much to her shock and terror there was no way to unlock the door from her side and the two of us were alone. She tried to talk to me to keep me calm and to get me to unlock the door. As a toddler, I wasn’t clearly understanding her request. She shouted hoping the landlord would hear her. Panic was setting in. What if her baby boy hurt himself while she was locked in the closet!? Whether I unlocked the door, or the landlord came down to help, she somehow got out and all was well.

By May, spring was in full bloom and the air pleasantly warm. Mom enjoyed seeing the orange tiger lilies out in the backyard from the kitchen window as well as the flowers in the front garden sitting in a planter which was a tire painted white by our entrance. On May 24th an estimated 2.1 million people celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Brooklyn Bridge and the festive occasion reached its peak during a dazzling fireworks display.

This was an exciting month for fans of sci-fi and fantasy films. TV commercials would run trailers to build excitement for the much-anticipated third installment of the Star Wars trilogy. Return of the Jedi[3] hit theaters on May 25th and was a smash hit in opening week. Dad being a huge fan of sci-fi and fantasy himself, was excited about it. From his early teens Dad began collecting comic books. Once he started working at the New York Daily News and began to earn his own money, his comic book collecting became serious, to the point where each time he moved house he would have to transfer boxes upon boxes filled with comic books. 

Mom felt that working for the bank was strict and inflexible. Even though her manager was at least decent to her, she felt like a cog in the company machine or just a number (not a person). When she requested unpaid time off to visit her family in Norway over the summer, she was denied. She decided to go anyway and somehow managed to keep her job upon return.

As Mom and Dad were separated at this time, she begrudgingly asked Dad’s permission to take me to Norway. This must have irked her pride. I went to Norway with Mom, Nana, and Bampa around mid-June. Concurrently, history was being made when Sally Ride[4] became the first American female astronaut to go to space on June 18th. She did so aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger. I was making personal history as I took my first trip on an airplane and to another country where they spoke another language! While in Norway, I met cousins around my age, Mom’s cousins and Nana’s siblings plus other relatives and friends. It was truly a home away from home. Everyone seemed friendly and kind. It was lovely to be around so much grass, trees, and animals. I loved playing outdoors with many gentle young playmates under the loving supervision of several adults who enjoyed passing the time together unrushed. After the Norway trip sometime in the mid-summer, Dad drove Mom, Donny, and I up to the Sterling Renaissance Festival in upstate, NY. It featured music, comedy, and interactive theater performances. I loved the old-fashioned atmosphere and especially the knights, swords, and shields.

During the summer, a PBS television show began to air which was designed to encourage a love of reading in children. Presented by LeVar Burton, Reading Rainbow was a show that made reading seem natural and enjoyable. I grew up around books, so reading was natural in my family and this show only deepened that sense in me. On August 30th the space shuttle Challenger launched its third mission. Aboard it was the first African American astronaut to go to space, Guion Stewart Bluford Jr. Fittingly, this was just three days after the 20th anniversary commemorative civil rights march on Washington. Some 250,000 people took part, and the theme was “Jobs, Peace and Freedom”. On September 17th for the first time the Miss America beauty pageant was won by an African American woman, Vanessa Lynn Williams of Millwood, NY.

By the beginning of autumn, Quiet Riot’s “Cum on Feel the Noize” and Def Leppard’s “Foolin’” were among the tunes being blasted on boomboxes and radios throughout the country. There were some new and exciting arcade games becoming prevalent. Namely a spinoff of and effectively the third game in the Donkey Kong series, an odd game featuring two plumber brothers who battled with turtles and other creatures in a world of pipes called Mario Bros. And there was another fascinating game featuring a knight saving a princess from a dragon in an animated cartoon world, Dragon’s Lair. A little kid like me might have caught a glimpse of these while visiting a pizzeria or shopping mall.

Time spent at my babysitter’s place wasn’t too bad although I felt a bit uncomfortable if her sons were around, all of whom were older than me and of the rough and tumble sort. As a 2-year-old, I still needed my babysitter’s help to wipe my butt after pooping. One day I noticed something remarkable on the living room table, this special-looking black-brown boxy-thing. And a few smaller boxes with attractive and colorful artwork nearby. While I did not quite comprehend what it was that was intriguing me, this was my introduction to the Atari 2600 home entertainment video game console. I expressed curiosity about it, but was dismissed with “Oh, that’s for the older boys.” Most days Mom would be there to pick me up, but sometimes Dad came to get me in his unreliable stick-shift orange Volvo.

For Halloween, Mom made me a Spider-Man outfit. I happily dressed up as the web-slinging hero and went trick or treating in the vicinity with some friends who lived nearby. On the heels of this spooky holiday, heavy metal singer Ozzy Osbourne released the single “Bark at the Moon” a kind of amalgamated horror fantasy song with a dramatic and entertaining music video which would soon become very popular on the relatively new music television network MTV.

While Dad and Mom were on the outs, there was still a sense of us being a family unit although strained. For Christmas, Dad bought us a beautiful Colorado blue spruce to be our holiday tree. It was pricey, but he wanted to please Mom as she loved the tree. He got it home and set it up for us in our little apartment on East 34th Street where we still lived without him. After which he went back to his apartment on Bedford Avenue where he now lived alone in what had gone from being our family nest to now a messy bachelor pad.


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