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Book Review – Between Two Bridges by Victor Colaio
It was in the mid-1980s. I was having dinner at Forlini’s Restaurant at 93 Baxter Street in downtown Manhattan with my good friend Rudy Riska, who was the Athletic Director of the Downtown Athletic Club, and was known as the King of the Heisman Trophy. I grew up across the street from Forlini’s, in a house at 134 White Street, at the corner of Baxter Street in the Sixth Ward, across the street from the city jail called the Tomb. Rudy had grown up on Madison Street, in the Fourth Ward, which was only a 10-minute walk away.
Fourth and Sixth Ward people were friendly enemies, especially in sports. My first memory of the Fourth Ward was in 1958 when I went to Little League Baseball at Coleman Oval, under the Manhattan Bridge. By then, the neighborhood had been completely transformed and tens of thousands of people were evicted from their homes due to the brutal Eminent Domain law. This was done to pave the way for the construction of Al Smith’s low-income projects and Chatham Green’s middle-income cooperatives. The same thing happened in the Sixth Ward, albeit on a smaller scale, to make way for Chatham Towers middle-income co-ops.
Over dinner at Forlini’s, Rudy told me about the Fourth Ward in the 1940s and early 1950s. He spoke of streets that no longer existed; like Roosevelt Street and Oak Street, and parts of Williams Street. And he mentioned a Catholic church I had never heard of called St. Joachim’s, which was on Roosevelt Street. Then Rudy started talking about the guys he grew up with.
“Do you remember Victor Star?” Rudi asked me.
No, I didn’t, but after reading the wonderful book “Between Two Bridges” by Victor Colaio (Victor Star), although I never met the man, I know Victor Star very well (we even went to the same high school – Cardinal Hayes in the Bronx).
Both Victor and Rudy are about 10-12 years older than me. The Lower East Side they grew up in was a little different than the Lower East Side I grew up in. Of course, we played like them, we played stickball, stoopball, softball, hardball, basketball and soccer, but we had real balls that we played on. a sporting goods store on Nassau Street, the name of which escapes me (Spiegels?). In the Victor era, they bought pink Spaldeens like we did, and the occasional Clincher softball, but their footballs were made of newspaper and duct tape. Talk about it being brutal. (I’m assuming they used real basketballs, because if the ball wasn’t perfect, how could they shoot it properly?)
Also, during Rudy and Victor’s era, television was a new invention; basically they only had bars to show sporting events like baseball and boxing. However, I don’t remember that there was no television in my apartment, I remember that a friend of mine and I did not have a television in our apartments either. But this was the mid-1950s; not in the mid-1940s, when Rudy and Victor were growing up.
In “Between Two Bridges”, Victor talks about spending many wonderful afternoons at the Venice Theatre, owned by a wonderful woman named Mazie, whose children were allowed to go to the theater for free without any money. Mazie also gave money to the brides on the Bowery so they could buy something to eat, or more likely something to drink. I don’t remember the Venice Theater, but I do remember the Mazie, but from the Chatham Theater in Chatham Square, below Third Street El, which came down when I was 9 or 10 years old. However, the Chatham Theater remained there for many years.
In “Between Two Bridges,” Victor tells stories of how kids play soccer in “The Lots,” a dirty theater of dirty land under the Manhattan Bridge. I don’t remember “The Lots”, but I do remember Coleman Oval, which was built on the former site of “The Lots”. This is where the Little Two Bridges Baseball League played their games. In fact in 1960, my Transportation Little League team beat the Victor’s St. Louis Little League team for the Two Bridges Championship.
And then there were nicknames that almost everyone had.
Victor was Victor Star. My nickname in the Sixth Ward was Mooney; people still call me Mooney. Victor talks about childhood friends like Pete the Lash, who was like a made-up safety and wasn’t afraid to throw his weight around. After visiting the Fourth Ward’s Knickerbocker Village in 1964, I met Pete Lash, who was certainly an impressive physical specimen; only in his mid-70s did his brick-like body have a bit of a beer belly. Although Pete was basically a friendly, fun guy, woe betide those who got on the wrong side of Pete the Lash.
Victor goes by other nicknames like Richie Igor, Nonnie, Paulie Knock Knock, Junior, Bunny, and Butch, all men I’ve met over the years. But I don’t remember Goo-Goo, Bobo the Hippo, Hammerhead, Paulie Batman, Georgie Egg, Bopo, or Bimbo. But I wish I did.
Growing up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the 30s-60s was a unique experience; an experience that no longer exists for the youth of New York City. In the Lower East Side we grew up with people of all denominations and faiths. The Two Bridges Little Baseball League had teams from the Church of the Transfiguration – almost exclusively Italian and Chinese. St James was mostly Irish with a few Italians. St. The Temple Mariners team was Puerto Rican. The Educational Alliance and the LMRC were Jewish. And Sea and Land, supported by neighborhood people, were African-American. And Polish kids, Spanish kids from Spain, and Czechoslovakian kids sprinkled throughout the teams.
We didn’t have the time or energy to be racist and prejudiced. We all grew up together and we all respected each other. It was the only way to live.
Something that Victor points out in his book is very true. If you grew up on the Lower East Side, you raised balls; you had to You had to fight almost every day and if not; they beat you almost every day. Victims always choose the weak children, or the ones who didn’t fight back. But if you persevered, even if you took a hit or two, the oppressors were going to pray more easily.
It was just the law of the jungle.
From the Lower East Side, teachers of all nationalities were trained. But also a doctor (Joe Fiorito), a lawyer (Mathew J. Mari is a famous criminal lawyer from the Fourth Ward), a politician (Al Smith from James Street became Governor of New York and lost the Presidential Election in 1928) , produced many judges. (Judge Piccariello), professional singers (Johnny Maestro, Luther Vandross), and professional athletes. Rudy Riska was a professional athlete from the Lower East Side (he played for the Triple A Yankees); his brother Steve was another (Cincinnati Reds farm system). There was also a guy named Vinnie Head (I never knew his real name) from the Sixth Ward (NY Giants Farm system), and Charlie Vellotta, also from the Sixth Ward (Dodgers farm system). Charlie lived on the same floor with me at 134 White Street.
My next door neighbor at 134 White Street was Mikey Black; real name Michael Corriero (we shared a fire, and Mikey often knocked on my door because he forgot his apartment key and had to use my bedroom window to climb over the fire to get into his apartment) . Mikey became a lawyer, then a judge in the New York State Juvenile Court System after being on the edge of youth gangs as a teenager. He is currently the Director and Founder of the New York Center for Juvenile Justice.
That’s why there is.
Growing up in the Lower East Side in the mid-twentieth century is no better described than in Victor Colaio’s “Between Two Bridges.” I strongly recommend this book to all New Yorkers – no matter what age group. And if you come from other parts of the country, you cannot enjoy this wonderful book. If people who aren’t from New York City can tune in to a sleazy show like “Mob Wives,” they should read a book that’s true to life, not a stereotype of the worst people in the New York City area.
One more thing – if you don’t buy “Between Two Bridges”, I might have to send Pete Lash to visit you.
And that can never be a very good thing.
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