90 years on, my memories are strong

There are so many memories of days gone past in my 90 years, like the time my old time “store boy,” Ira Bethea, then barely 7 years old, daringly shouted out to me, “Mister, I am on your side,” defying the chorus of boos that engulfed Lou Powsner, just back from City Hall where we had gone to seek more new housing and jobs for Coney Island.

We defied the city’s Coney Island prescription — they called it “Urban Renewal” — to move the unskilled and unemployed to quiet corners like Coney and Far Rockaway, layaway lairs far from Manhattan.

That mob outside was raging against the three store-owners and a doctor, trying to prevent us from returning to City Hall, where we again spoke against housing projects for newcomers to America — more homeless, skill-less, penniless.

Pickets were coming into style: Our city imported many from foreign lands; those un-American, unskilled, and uneducated who were already bathing in poverty, hunger and despair. Those who let their days idle by before working at night — looting, mugging, breaking-in and even … slaying.

Once such night shall forever remain in my now-90-year-old mind.

It was Christmas Eve, near the end of a busy day in the store. Three teenagers came in in just before closing. A Spanish kid called out, “Let me see your Kangols.”

“Did he want a hat or a cap,” we asked as his friend picked out two soft, fluffy velour hats, holding them aloft — one white, one black — triumphantly.

When his friend asked “Which one?” the buyer snared a white cap, curtly saying “I’ll take this and wear it. Put my ski cap in a bag.”

Those were his last words; the next morning, we saw him on the front page of the Daily News laying flat in the cold, black gutter … dead. The hat had been knocked off his head that Christmas Eve, and crushed by two kids driving a stolen car, who were celebrating with a couple of shots of holiday booze.

Back in the 1970s, we asked the Lindsay administration to seek federal funds for new crime-fighting Lucalox street lights to help win our battle against the poverty and crime bestowed upon Coney Island.

When City Hall announced that we’d get the lights, we invited Mayor Lindsay to the Dime Savings Bank ito celebrate “Lights On, Crime Off.” Ira cut classes and came with a suit and tie to see the mayor, “My ma said I could.”

So we introduced Little Ira to Big John Lindsay.

“Mr. Mayor would you have room in your limo for Ira Bethea? He’d like to go to Brooklyn College, your next stop, where my captain, Henry Feintuch, will interview you on Brooklyn College radio.”

They walked out clasping hands — a six-footer and this little guy, who confessed to me this weekend that he drove down from Montreal to help all who honored my 90th birthday.

Many years later, my number-one store aid, Henry Feintuch, handed me the phone telling me there was a call from a company in Schenectady.

Our Ira Bethea, now just past 20, had graduated from college upstate. He’d applied for a job and used us as a reference. I answered clearly: “If this man were running for president of the U.S.A., he has our endorsement.”

He got that job.

Later, he managed the campaign of a candidate for mayor in Albany and my great friend forever said, “I wonder where he learned politics.”

Thanks forever to our departed but never forgotten Irene, my wife of so many (56) years … but never enough.

Thank you, Carmine, for so much said, and also to the great Shavana Abruzzo — all on Graphic’s pages.

More to come, traveling down the lane of memories.

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