In 1956 I was eight years old, growing up extremely nervous on New York’s Lower East Side. A sense of fear seemed to follow me whether I was in my home or out on the street.
The mystifying lyrics and the throbbing rhythm filled me with joy and elevated me once again. Little Richard was singing about Tutti-Frutti and the vastness of the universe all at the same time. I witnessed this as a personal message about the nature of infinity—just for me. I lifted my head, I took a deep breath, and as the air of unity filled my lungs, I knew I was not alone.
When my friends and I were playing ball or running around the neighborhood, there was always someone who wanted a piece of us. The Catholic kids from around the corner at St. Joseph School carried a two thousand-year-old grudge against us and all our distant relatives. As we ran away from a hail of rocks thrown by young males dressed in dark blue blazers with illuminated gold crosses on their breast pockets, we often heard them screaming something about our families killing God’s only son. The most frightening part of this was that I had only a vague idea of who Jesus was. And why anyone in my family would have a desire to pound nails through this man’s hands and feet was far beyond my comprehension.
Inside our apartment on the ninth floor of a large red brick compound called Knickerbocker Village, life was edgy as well. My parents were Communists, and we were always boycotting various products because of their political affiliations.
You would never find Hunt’s ketchup, Welch’s grape juice, or Kraft American cheese in our home, and I was used to that. However, when The Wonderful World of Disney made my mother’s forbidden list, it hurt. When I asked her why, she said, “You should listen, because I know Disney is a big-time anti-Semite and we don’t watch television shows made by Jew haters in this house.” My mom was the Lower East Side’s version of Dickens’s Madame Defarge, always knitting the names of the condemned into her own private shrouds.
One of the many horror stories I grew up with was about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who had lived down the hall and were taken away by the FBI in the summer of 1950. My mother often repeated, “You used to play with their son Michael, and then one day they all disappeared, because they were Communists.” I didn’t remember Michael, but I spent many hours in my bed staring up at the ceiling wondering if someday the FBI would come for my parents as well. And then what would happen to my brother and me?
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg sitting in their respective electric chairs were two of the many ghosts that haunted my childhood. I once dreamt that I was waiting for the elevator, and when the door opened I saw the Rosenbergs, looking very dour. They were handcuffed with shiny steel bracelets to federal agents, who were dressed in black suits with large dark glasses covering their invisible faces.
I had always found the elevator in our building to be a nightmare in itself, as I got stuck in it a number of times. Following that dream, I was convinced that walking up and down nine flights of stairs was a much safer alternative.
The Rosenbergs, the Holocaust, and the new fear of nuclear annihilation were what I came to label the “big three” anxieties of life as an eight-year-old growing up in Lower Manhattan.
However, life changed for me on October 5, 1955. For the first and only time in their history my beloved Brooklyn Dodgers became the world baseball champions by defeating the New York Yankees in the World Series. Surely it was that feeling of elation and triumph that opened a spiritual portal in me and prepared me for the revelation that would soon occur just outside the doors of my favorite candy store.
The K & K Luncheonette sat comfortably on the corner of Monroe and Market Streets. It was a classic fifties neighborhood eatery and always a safe haven for me. There were a dozen revolving stools at the counter, where we would spin around with our cherry Cokes in hand and enjoy the combined effects of caffeine and sugar. The front wall was covered in newspapers, magazines, and comics, and music was always pouring out from the large AM radio. My friends and I would devour our malts and Cokes, talk about TV and baseball, and chum around. The K & K was located just across the street from our school, PS177.
The school looked foreboding, somewhat sad, and quite gothic. In a very real sense it was a cross between a neglected castle and a prison, one in which we were all sentenced to a minimum of six years. It was there on the corner, outside the K & K and across the street from 177, that the universe first spoke to me in a kind, loving, and revealing way.
I'd just left school and ducked into the K & K for a comic book and my favorite treat, a Tutti-Frutti. Tutti-Frutti was a candy bar made with walnuts, figs, vanilla, candied cherries, and pineapple, and in the center, bonbons and more nuts. My comic choice for the day was Baby Huey.
After exiting the K & K I decided I could walk no farther without taking at least a nibble of my joyous confection. I bit into my sweet delight and gazed down at the cover of Baby Huey, and within the next sixty seconds my young life was altered.
On the glossy cover was a picture of Baby Huey pulling a wagon carrying what appeared to be four little Baby Hueys. Baby Huey was either a goose or duck or some form of animal in between. He was looking at a comic, on the cover of which was a picture of him pulling a wagon with the same four little creatures, and on the cover of the comic within the comic was the same picture again, and on and on.
At that instant there were no bullies and no sense of fear. The thought of my parents being incarcerated for political beliefs was somewhere off in another reality. My shoulders relaxed, and I found myself breathing ever so slowly. I thought of nothing. Within that moment there was no frightening school, no K & K Luncheonette, no baseball, and no Lower East or West Side.
I experienced infinity for the first time in my eight years on the planet. I lifted my head and gazed at the sky, the new, glorious, blue sky that had no end.
My previous theory had been that there was a brick wall at the end of the universe, though I did indeed wonder what was on the other side of the brick wall, and, of course, what was on the other side of that. Those thoughts were now banished from my mind. There was no end . . . there was no end. I looked at my horrible school—it wasn’t so horrible after all, now that it was within the majesty of my newfound universe. As I walked down the street, my feet were a few inches above the asphalt. I saw some of my friends down in the schoolyard; I decided I must share my experience with them. Joey D’Agustino and Stu Goldman were flipping bubble gum cards. I told them of my revelation. They stared; they nodded their heads and said, “Huh” and “OK.” Though the beacons were shining bright all through the caverns of my brain, they shed not a speck of light on either of their faces.
I didn’t let their lack of understanding daunt my faith. I was eager to share my new experience with my family. My heart was pounding as I quickly bolted up nine flights of stairs. My brother was watching television with his finger in his ear. I ran into the bedroom and stood in front of the Dumont, held out my comic and said, “Billy, look, look at this, it’s amazing.” My brother did his best to wave me away from the tube, but recognizing my level of intensity he grunted, rose from the bed, took the comic from my hands, and sat back down.
After a few seconds of staring at the cover he lifted his head and said, “Why are you buying such a dumb comic? Why don’t you get something good like Batman or Blackhawk?” I leaned over and pointed to the picture of Baby Huey gazing into his infinite Baby Huey-ness. “You see, you see,” I said in a high-pitched voice, “he’s seeing himself, seeing himself, seeing himself, and it goes on forever.
“It’s like ... it’s like the sky—there’s no end to it, it just keeps going, the sky never ends, can you imagine that Billy, can you?” My brother handed me back the comic and told me to take my revelation elsewhere.
I waited until my parents came home and excitedly related to them my tale of being lifted to a higher level. They nodded and spoke to each other in Yiddish, and then my father said, “Try reading a book instead of a comic; you might learn more.”
My mother said, “You keep an eye on the universe. I’ll go cook a pot roast.”
My dispirited feet carried me back to my room, and I closed the door. The giant neon sign on the Jehovah’s Witness building across the East River was flashing into my window: Awake . . . Awake . . . Awake it said as traces of green and red danced on the glass.
I turned on my big brown Zenith radio to listen to the news. My parents had trained me to keep up with current events so we could discuss them at dinner. Egypt had seized the Suez Canal, Israel had invaded the Sinai Peninsula, the Soviets were suppressing a popular uprising in Hungary, and Fidel Castro was taking over Cuba. I was coming down hard, and my epiphany was coming down with me.
The broadcast ended, and I was at the end of my enlightenment rope. Following the news a wonderful young man by the name of Little Richard began to sing.
I had seen him perform on my parents’ television. He always seemed to be very excited and full of joy as he banged away on the piano and sang his songs. Much to my delight he was singing about Tutti-Frutti, and he belted out these words: “Womp-bomp-a-loom-op a-womp-bam-boom!”