When I was young in the early 1940’s, A very large printing company was located on Mulberry St. and Houston St in Manhattan in NY State. The Logo of the company was a 30-foot statue of a jolly man with a top hat slanted on his head and waving a stalf.
The name of the building was and still is “The Puck Building” the statue was designed to represent “Puck” of Shakespeare’s writings.
My friends and I would always go to the end of Mulberry street which was called Houston St. just to see the other world, cause our ended there. The world as we knew it ended and what happened out there was what we were not allowed to explore. Looking up at the statue was like a dream cause we couldn’t understand how this big, big man stood there. It was only after growing up did I understand it’s meaning.
It was the street on it other side of the building, closer to our homes, we loved and played in. It was always very dark, even in broad daylight everywhere else, but it had great hiding places for kick the can and Hide and Seek! We called it “Jersey Alley” and our parents told us to never go into it, cause there were bad men there. They were referring to “The Bumbs” who would sleep anywhere they could and usually smelled very bad. If there were any, we just ignored them and played anyway. I was never worried cause these same bumbs would sleep in our building hallway when it rained or was cold in the winter. They got free meals in our church basement which was directly across the street from Jersey Alley. in that same basement was “The Catacombs”, where all the people of the original settlers had lived and died. We were allowed down there on “All Soul’s Day”, and boy it was scary and dark and smelly.
It started when the Viet Nam war was going strong and American men who left the USA to avoid the draft and wandered trying to live abroad.They claimed the war was wrong, so they just wouldn’t do there duty. However, to live abroad you needed to have a valid passport to travel, and so these same “WOL” young men, not being able to use their passport, knowing the US government would trace them and put them in prison tried to steal US passports in order to travel from place to place, or even travel back to America under a different name. A new business was started with crooked people stealing passports, and then selling them to these same young men.
This became a problem for American business travelers, because in many cases they were away from their hotel rooms just having dinner with customers, or local manufacturers. It just wasn’t smart to carry your passport with you at all times for just that reason, you were prone to being mugged, or worse. So, when I entered a country, I put my passport in a safe place in my room, and traveled with locals in each country I was in.
Thailand (SIAM) was a country with very lax laws and allowed these same young men to stay there, expecting them to spend American dollars while they remained. So, many locations in Bangkok catered to them while they had the money to do so. They couldn’t work to earn money, cause the local labor force was so cheap, they couldn’t compete.
On one trip, I brought my son Trey and he and I did my business together, and eventually travelling to a vacation city for a few days of fun. We were able to rent jet ski’s and run around with them, till I had to get back to business. Back to Bangkok to meet a manufacturer and to fly to my next country, usually Hong Kong. Some time while we did our thing, someone got into my room and stole my passport. It probably was a servant making money on the side, but no way for me to know. I complained to the manager who I knew pretty well, but he could nothing, knowing my passport was into the wind on a plane going back to America, or Canada.
So, I naturally went with Trey, who still has his passport, to the Local US consular office to tell them my problem and request a new passport. As we were entering the building we noticed a very, very large line going out into the street. Approaching the Guards at the entrance, I explained what had happened and want to enter to report my passport stolen and request a new one. They laughed as it wasn’t new to them, but they said I would have to wait on the long line. I laughed back at them and said look at my eyes and look at my son, do we look like locals. They said they couldn’t let me in and I said trey, show them your passport, which he did, and I said to trey “Am I your Father”? Naturally he laughed and said of course, we look alike, which we did. I then said This can’t be the first time you have heard of an Americans passport being stolen? With that I turned to Trey and we boldly walked into the building. he as an American and me as his father.
The problem was only just beginning, as we approached the desk, the person said I had to wait on that line. I looked at him and said listen, my passport was stolen and I need a new one, who do I speack to, or do I find a supervisor and start complaining as an American citizen who is being abused! Trey again showed his passport with his picture clearly on it, telling the man that I was his father and My passport was stolen. I was proud of the way Trey talked and finally the man sent us to another desk where we sat down told the whole story of why I was Bangkok, how we were staying at the ???? Hotel and how the manager could verify my many visits to Bangkok. I then said that I’m sure he knew of many of the same incidences happening all over the world, and could I please now get a new passport. You must remember in those days, the Internet and computers were in the future, so he said I had to fill out a long form, and I said whatever it will take, but I’m nor leaving here till I have my passport in hand. He realized I was not be played with, and knew trouble was in the wind, so He called over a Supervisor, and I met with him going through the story, but he was a man of action and knew he didn’t need bad press. Trey and I left both with passports!
The “Annual Burning” of Christmas trees on Mulberry St
It was when I was very young, and many, many years before and thereafter, our whole family always celebrated all our Christmas and New Year holidays together, as they did even before I was born. At the end of each year, the final get together would be at Grandpa and Grandma Bianco’s home on the third floor at 250 Mulberry St. in Manhattan, N. Y. and it was very exciting as the holidays wound down, but in those days’ holidays were for adults to enjoy, not for children, as it is today. It didn’t matter to kids because just being part of it and watching, was a wonder! Getting fruit and nuts was our Christmas presents, with maybe candy as a very special treat, if we were lucky.
At the intersection of Mulberry St and Prince St there was an empty lot which was directly across from St Patrick’s Old Cathedral’s red brick cemetery wall and diagonally across from our building. This lot seemed to belong to no one, as it was used for trash and was always littered. the local kids used it to play on but because it has broken glass and bricks, it was dangerous, so most parents would not allow their children to play on it. At that intersection, there was held each year at the very moment of the New Year, a gigantic Christmas tree burning. It began early on that same morning, with all the people living in the neighborhood bringing their dead and dry Christmas trees, with most having tinsel on them, which was a very popular decoration at that time. Because all the trees came from Canada and were cut many weeks to over a month before Christmas, by the time New Year’s Eve arrived, they were extremely dry and dangerous. ((I would like to mention here how my father would travel to Canada in late November and have his friend there, prepare a railroad car of Christmas trees for him, then to send it to New Jersey where he had all his partner/friends pick their portion of trees up and bring to their home areas to sell. It was these same friends who helped sell his grapes and thereafter his wine. So, each year the same people would wait for his call to pick their trees up at the railroad yards located on the Hudson River banks on the New Jersey side, and I would always go with him and help, but more for the fun of it, watching these men respect my father and what he did for them over the years.
So, every family in the neighborhood would bring their Christmas trees and leave them on the lot, with the pile growing and growing. On the morning of New Year’s Eve, a group of the local men would begin to bring the trees into the center of the intersection. never caring about traffic, as Mulberry street was no place to create a problem for the locals, especially from the police. The pile would grow higher and higher, because the men made certain that each tree put on the pile was perpendicular to the one under it to allow air to reach each tree at the same time as the flames grew. They seemed to be expert at it and probably were, as it was a major privilege to help on the this step. As they were doing this, many people were still bringing their trees, and before long the trees covered all four curbs of the intersection. So now the pile grew as the men kept throwing the trees higher and higher, as the day progressed, the pile was almost to a column. As it became darker and darker, the crowd got larger and larger. Our family had a bird’s eye view of it all, as we all watched from the third-floor corner window of our building that was facing that intersection.
At the same time, another traditional experience was about to happen, as all the windows on the buildings facing the Mulberry Street side were opened in anticipation for the beginning of the New Year. When it struck, from every window came flying out, last years garbage and at that very moment the fire was lit. and it was then that everyone could hear a gigantic “swoosh” sound and with it, a brightness that made it daylight for maybe four or five seconds. What followed was even more of a wonder, cause as the flames leaped into the sky, following right behind it was millions of bright star- like sparks floating up and up, and along with this was in one voice from all the people yelling through their open windows and garbage flying!… HAPPY NEW YEAR!!! At our house we had a special tradition, along with all the garbage all my uncles would pick up Uncle Tom, a very close friend of my grandfathers, and made ready to throw him out the window as well. Laughter would be wild and us kids would be screaming “Uncle TOM”… Uncle TOM”, and he laughing! Just then, everybody would grab a glass of red wine that was already poured to Salute in the New Year. No, not in Italian, as it was not allowed to be spoken in our family, as now we were Americans and English was what we yelled!!! “HAPPY NEW YEAR”