Better days long gone in N.Y

Published 7:48 pm Saturday, August 20, 2016

I spent two years with the Jacksonville (N.C.) Daily News, half a century with the Virginian-Pilot and am now providing columns for five area newspapers, including this one, but there was one journalistic endeavor before all the others.

I spent six months with the long-defunct Sunnyside Tribune.

I was part-time reporter and editor — editor, because I owned the weird machine that published the thing. Circulation was about 100. It was a freebie, and we had advertisers paying the outlandish price of a nickel per ad. They included the neighborhood delicatessen and the drug store.

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Our reporters were in the 12-year-old bracket. We all had differing views on what made a news story.

We didn’t want to compete with the New York newspapers, so we kept everything local — local, being Sunnyside, Long Island, a sort of middle-class neighborhood about a 20-minute ride to Times Square.

Nesbit Garmendia, an Armenian better known as Nezzie, was our most ambitious news gatherer. We were never sure whether his contributions were fact or fiction. One of his gems concerned a kid who swiped some bubble gum.

Rudy Horak, a Polish accordionist who later joined the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, contributed one or two stories per issue. Eli Levinson was a Jewish guy who lived his dream, actually joining the Barnum & Bailey Circus. My best friend, Johnny Bucher, was gung-ho, delivering about five stories per issue.

Jackie O’Brien, the neighborhood bully, was an altar boy at St. Theresa’s Church who, later, recited poetry at a Lower Manhattan club, The Atheist Mother. His older brother, Bart, rightfully thought we were all a bunch of nuts.

Another reporter, whose name will not be mentioned, needed my editorial services. This character actually made up stories, admittedly a great way to fill space.

We were unsalaried, and we were given one day off , Christmas. The editor later became a radio announcer.

Other neighborhood kids included Danny McCarthy, one of my closest friends and Hal Schaeffer. He was a loner who preferred practicing the piano. He became one of the most important jazz pianists and was a close friend of Marilyn Monroe.

On summer weekends, some of us would get together for a trip to the 1939-’40 Worlds Fair, about four subway stops from our homes, or we would go for a 20-minute ride to Times Square to see a movie and a big-band stage show, or we would spend 90 minutes on the subway to go to Coney Island.

And there were trips to beaches (my mom usually driving). If we stayed home, we would play stickball in a large backyard or, sometimes, in the street, or we would play silly little games that would make kids snicker.

There were alternatives, and what alternatives. A few blocks away, there was the Sunnyside Pool. And if we were in the mood for shopping, Woolworth and McCrory were across the street from each other.

A few years ago I re-visited the old neighborhood. The theaters are history. As Duke Ellington once put it, “Things aren’t what they used to be.” We didn’t have barrels of money, but we did have barrels of enjoyment.

Bottom line? You couldn’t pay me to be a New Yorker today.

During a 60-year career spanning newspapers, radio and television, Frank Roberts has been there and done that. Today, he’s doing it in retirement from North Carolina, but he continues to keep an eye set on Suffolk and an ear cocked on country music. Email him at