I live in a small town buried in a smoky city. Fordham Road is my southern boundary, north is Bedford Park Boulevard, east the Bronx Zoo and Botanical Gardens, and west, Jerome Avenue and the elevated subway. I know every street inside that perimeter, my friends and I run up and down the sidewalks, roller skate and bike, use our bus passes to shuttle from one end of our world to the other. We sunbath on the roofs of our apartment buildings and look at the far horizon, Manhattan like Camelot the distance. We spread bath towels out, rub our pale skin with baby oil, transistor radio playing rock and roll. Tiny dots of soot speckle our arms and legs, the tar of the roof bubbles in the heat of the sun, perfume of ashes and asphalt high above the rumble of cars and subways and sirens. We run chased by boys, chasing boys, we skip rope, bounce Spaulding rubber balls, chalk potsy squares on the cement and hop, drink eggcreams at the candy store, buy comic books, watch our mothers squeeze fruit at the outdoor produce stands and examine chickens at the kosher butcher. A small town full of little neat papas and clucking mamas and Polish supers drinking schnapps in the courtyards.
I am a mall rat in this small town before there are malls, a twelve year old sophisticate with training bra and pink lipstick, I spend every Saturday dawdling on Fordham Road, home to the Paradise movie theater, Alexander’s Department Store, shoe shops and Woolworth’s and pharmacies and dress establishments, bars and bakeries, you name it. I take the Paradise for granted, assume everyone goes to the movies in a place with a grand baroque lobby, 40 foot ceilings decorated with cherubs and clouds and scrolls and chandeliers, crimson velvet sofas and fainting couches and urns and ornate candelabra, huge stone troughs filled with fat splotchy gold and black carp, long stretches of maroon carpet and twisted satin rope partitions.
To me it’s all just a backdrop, I am there to meet boys, not admire the decor. I climb the sweeping gilt staircase to the balcony, slide down into the plush seat and light up a Kent from the pack I lifted from my mother’s purse, strike a match nonchalantly, the tiny burst of flame illuminating my face in the dark. I look around hopefully to see if there are any boys watching me, really the whole purpose of my adventure, the purpose of the plastic comb in my back pocket, all so that some James Dean boy can ask to borrow it and run it through his duck tail. I take a puff of my cigarette, lips pursed, collar turned up in the back, two dollar pointy shoes on my feet, hair in a ponytail.
I am not allowed to wear make up or smoke or kiss so I have to leave my house with bare face and then rush to the nearest ladies room or doorway to put on lipstick, roll up the waistband of my skirt, open another blouse button. Maybe I look a bit clownish to a critical eye when I finish but my friends appreciate style.
Sometimes I don’t bother with a movie, go roller skating instead at the big rink under the El at Jerome Avenue, and once try a bowling alley but they won’t let me in because I am under 16. Mostly though I’m at the Saturday matinee which costs 25 cents, and I load up on soda and jujubes and buttered popcorn and giggle with my friends and ignore the ushers, and apply more lipstick every few minutes. Every half hour or so I hang out in the lobby and feed the fish and admire the cute boys who never seem to reciprocate my interest. They are concentrating on the older girls who have breasts and hips, my figure being uncooperative in the man-hunting department, even with tissue stuffing help.