In early June of 1943, we were in a place we had always wanted to be: 34th Street and 11th Avenue, at the entrance to the elevated railroad in Chelsea, itching to go up high on the tracks, where freight trains rumbled back and forth for just over a mile between the north end of the railroad at 39th Street and 11th Avenue and its south end at Gansevoort and Greenwich Streets. Up there, we were told, you could hear the troops marching, with their “Hut, hut, left, right,” as they embarked from the Hudson River piers for war zones. Our safety guide was a young looking sailor of 19 named Bob Ilstrom, from Neche, ND, one of the guards on the tracks. He kept reminding us to walk slowly while on the three-foot-wide oak plank safety zone and to hold tightly to one of the iron guard rails on each side of the tracks. In the center of the tracks was another safety walkway that provided access for the track workers and military overseers who kept the giant trains running smoothly from one pickup point to another, following official orders from Uncle Sam.
So here we were: me — Jake Neidelle — and my two friends from PS. 33, Tommy Giacomelli and Vincent Ryan. After school that day, and after a year of hustling down below in the grimy street traffic, we got permission from Vincent’s father, Gerry, who was the head cowboy at the slaughter house at 39th and 11th, to move our attention up to the elevated freight line tracks “to see what’s goin’ on and see what provisions yiz can bring home. Know what I mean? Get to know the crowd. But watch your friggin’ footin’. I know yiz are eight-year-old monkeys, but things get rough and slippery up there. It’s no playground. Yeah. Answer me now, are yiz gonna play it safe? I know yiz think yiz know it all because of your money-making experiences down below in the streets with your traffic jam hustles sellin’ soda and beer to the angry, stuck drivers. I’ll admit that yiz are afther givin’ tidy sums to yer Mams fer family upkeep.”
Mr. Ryan was only stating his concerns for us, though I knew he was a guy who drank too much and beat his wife, Vincent’s mother. Then he stopped talking. He grinned and gave each of us a hug. We stood there, trying to look innocent but knowing that we were planning to do what we wanted to do. I felt a little guilty about our future plans for fun and adventures on the tracks, when we would undoubtedly violate all safety rules. Then Mr. Ryan was at it again: “Look at me now, boyos. I’m tellin’ yiz as a Da meself. Stay away from the madhouse below. Yiz’ll be serene enough here. Yeah. No hangin’ around on the piers, and stay far from the prossers. Yeah. Do not trust a soul down below, not even the cops, and for sure not the chiselers who’ll try to suck yiz into “innocent boys” activities like collectin’ ‘whore gelt.’ Talk to nobody on the street unless yiz know ‘em. Up here it’s family, so talk t’ everyone. Here’s your Navy man now. He’ll give yiz the lowdown on rules. Tonight yiz’ll be dreamin’ grand dreams.”
Our buddy, Bob the sailor, slowly led the way up the one track. Workers were all over the place, most welding and riveting steel beams onto the trestle to handle heavier loads. Sparks and smoke shot up from the groups of workers. Bob told us, “You can watch the welders all you like, but you’ll never figure out what they’re doin’ unless you wear a helmet with a special dark glass to see the weld spots as you go. My lady friend is a welder. She cuts eighth of an inch steel for safety railing.” Bob’s girlfriend, whom we got to know well, was “Toughie” Brasuhn, who became a star in the roller derby in the late ’40s and ’50s. “I’m bored stiff with this job,” she always said. I need some action.” We spent many a happy half-hour with Toughie, who often gave us pep talks about handling bullies in the roller derby: “See me? I’m four feet eleven inches, so I have to be tough. Ya gotta body check ‘em like in hockey. Trip ‘em when you can. Punch ‘em if the refs ain’t lookin’.” She smiled. “Then go back to bein’ nice fellas, courageous, kind and stouthearted. But don’t let no bully get you twiced, or they’ll want your tootsie rolls.” She chuckled.
Toughie was 18 years old and brash. She was thin and wiry, muscular, but also cocky, and her hair was like steel wool pads. For two months, she had a crush on Bob Ilstrom, who was very shy. But next thing you know, they’re kissing in the dark niches of the siding leading into the Morgan Annex Post Office. She was free as a bee but loved Bob and was protective of him. But they never got married. She got a military contract and itinerary to take her roller derby to entertain the troops at military bases for the duration of the war. She gathered 30 women skaters and added some “old” male skaters and was off. Her last week was a bittersweet parting of ways. I didn’t see her again until 1948, when roller derby was big time, and her team was at the Ninth Regiment Armory on 14th Street. Eventually I lost track of her, but always remembered that she had been like a big sister to me that summer.
I always had a strong desire to talk to people wherever I found myself, but Tommy and especially Vincent got bored with my conversations with the guards and workers from all over the country, like Liverpool, Texas, Cuddebackville, New York and Kit Carson, Colorado. “So what if I like to talk to folks? You never talk at all.” That made Vincent kind of sad.
Most of the male workers were older, serious, and very skilled as machinists, mechanics on heavy equipment, engineers, cooks, masons and iron workers. There were very skilled women as well, who had taken government-sponsored, intensive on-the-job training classes in welding, duct construction, as operators of monstrous, noisy cranes and riveters who installed new rivets into the structure so that those important trains could continue to rumble around the clock, seven days a week. Bob told us that most of the thousands of workers were on eight-hour shifts that changed weekly.
We were on the train tracks now, trying to feel at home. We were giddy for the first week or so, gaining our footing and watching out for the slow moving trains. We stepped onto the safe walkways or jumped into an open space or onto the iron rungs on the box cars. All the while, we were listening to the syncopated sounds coming from all kinds of machines cutting steel for rifle barrels or cannon and the loud horns of ships and cars on the streets and docks. Then there were the clickety-clacks of heavy duty sewing machines and singing voices on the radio: “There’ll be bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover …” When soldiers marched onto the docks, the streets quieted a bit and a bugler played. It could have been a bagpipe or tom-toms or fiddle, but I always got weak in the knees and felt that this was a solemn moment, so I started to cry for the boys leaving home and maybe not coming back. It was like the time in 1939 when I was five and my mother sent me to a farm in upstate New York near a camp where she was a cook. I missed her especially at night when distant trains blew their soulful whistles.
Tommy and I became better friends as we talked about our experiences. Vincent, we hoped, was learning to act more like a mensch, instead of the bully he had been. The days were warming. Vincent turned nine on June 19th. Tommy and I would hit nine in November. Tommy and I talked about growing up, but Vincent wasn’t interested in the subject, so he complained. “You guys are like my Uncle Sid and his buddies who sit around smokin’ cigars, fartin’ and talkin’ about nothin’.” That was Vincent.
About this time, in late 1943, many Puerto Rican families moved to New York City to work in the war effort. They were very outgoing and generous, but the Irish, Italians and Poles called them spics, and hearing those names hurt them. So us Chelsea Boys made it our mission to go on tours of work sites down below to warn the various gang bosses, especially the longshoremen’s thuggish union captain, to stop calling workers demeaning names like spic, kike, dago, mick or nigger. “It ain’t right,” Vincent piped up bravely. “Call ‘em ‘friend’ or ‘sir’ or ask for their name.”
Tommy and I were happy to see Vincent step up and take a stand against a bigot like this guy. Then this schmuck, Costigan by name, started in. “Oh, so you like kikes, niggers and dagos, little boy? Then you better go and live with them. They’ll smile, then kill you and cook you with beans and matzo balls. Go home and tell your mother to wipe your ass and give you dancing lessons. Now git.” We stood there, staring at Irish Jimmy as he walked away. Like a red hot rivet, Vincent was off, jumping the guy from behind onto his shoulders and pulling his ears, as he screamed in pain. A few of Costigan’s underlings called out to him, “Don’t hurt the kid, he’s Gerry Ryan’s son.” And Tommy also spoke up: “I’m Tommy Giacomelli. My father is captain of the 10th.” Then me, loudly, “My father is Mayor LaGuardia.” Costigan walked away into a pier followed by his lackeys, many of them Italian, who wouldn’t have minded dropping Costigan into a smokestack.
We spent a very warm summer exploring the ins and outs of train traffic, pickups and deliveries. In our time on the freight line, we became nimble and quick. We were helpful to the workers, running over to the military canteen at 25th Street and 10th Avenue to buy cigs, beers, ice cream and “sodie pop” — as the Southern workers called it. The canteen, a huge Quonset style building 300 feet long and 150 feet wide, was open not only to the soldiers and sailors, but also to government workers like Toughie. In fact, anybody who walked in was welcome. There were pool tables, gambling and all sorts of things on sale: clothing, magazines, prescription drugs, socks, belts, and candy. We had forged passes and certificates from Tommy’s father entitling us to the highest privileges. I bought Old Gold cigarettes for my sister and chocolate bars for my mother and grandmother, all practically free. It was fun to be accepted there like family members. We knew people’s names, got hugged and were given tips by guys who had us pick up reefers at particular dark corners close to the river. We saw pretty quickly that the basic canteen sales were just the innocent backdrop for the major wholesale business that involved truckloads of whiskey and beer, oysters, lobsters, Swiss chocolate, pears from Washington State, caviar and rugs from Persia and Cuban cigars.
There were also shady activities going on in our particular realm along the tracks. Tommy’s father knew all about them. He told us to observe but keep quiet about what we saw. We knew for sure that on occasion, the people in charge, especially Major General Fred Cousens, the big boss, who had many parties, ordered way too much. We thought that things would spoil. Nope! Thirty bushels of Chatham oysters were gone by sunrise, as were the 200 gross of goose down gloves — made just a hop, skip and a jump away at H. Lubin Gloves for Women of Taste, on 22d near 10th — wool caps, boxes of chocolate bars, blocks of Swiss fois gras, barrels of herring from Sweden. We kept our observations to ourselves — and did I ever enjoy the new foods. I say “I” because Vincent and Tommy only ate what looked and smelled familiar. No oysters for them!
Then there were the regular pickups at Nabisco on Thursdays at 4 p.m., our favorite part of the week. About 2000 five-pound boxes of Oreos, Lorna Doons, Arrowroots and Fig Newton’s were loaded into a boxcar on a siding connected to the main Nabisco bakeries, situated in a gigantic building that took up the whole block from Ninth Avenue to 10th and from 15th Street to 16th. Every week brought a different variety. Our ‘job’ was to pick up 50 ten-pound bags of broken cookies and irregulars — rejects — for distribution to the workers and cowboys, which we did from the ‘graham cracker car’ as the three or four carloads made their way back to 40th Street and 12th Avenue to hook up with the ‘big’ train. Every week the Chelsea Boys each got a five-pound bag of rejects.
What about all that meat in the refrigerated box cars? Most of it went to the fighting forces, but the specially wrapped packs of Porterhouse and Delmonico were for generals. The Chelsea Boys did do okay, though. We got shanks, tongues and tails. My mother was so happy that she went out and bought a very large, restaurant style stew pot, used, on The Bowery. All the workers got ten pounds of chuck steaks every two weeks. Everybody else connected to “beef” — butchers, cutters, packers, packing house owners, and, of course, the cowboys — would regularly take home lots of the tenderest cuts. Nobody said anything about it. Us boys once got to share a big box of skirt steaks. No complaints.
And the Fleers Dubbl Bubbl Gum with the cartoon — ah, that was heaven. Two truckloads from Philly every two weeks. The usual distribution: 99 percent for the fighting men, and one percent for the freight line family. We all chewed and gave some to people we knew.
By the end of the summer, Tommy, Vincent and I considered ourselves to be expert trackmen, engineers, welders, meat men and artful young heroes of the war effort. Nothing changed our love of adventure. What changed, sadly, was that, first, Vincent and his mother got passage on a freighter to Greenland, hoping to get from there to Scotland and then Ireland. Vincent’s mother, Moira, had suffered her drunkard husband’s abuse for too long. Tommy’s father, the police captain, who knew many people in many professions, helped her get away. Then Tommy’s parents quickly decided to pull him out of his ‘play land’ and send him to board at Silesian Academy for Boys in New Rochelle. We said our teary goodbyes. “Call me sometime, Jake, with news of Chelsea,” said Tommy.
Thus ended the Chelsea Boys’ adventures on the elevated freight tracks. As for me, I kept on living and learning in Chelsea, missing Tommy and Vincent but making new friends in my gregarious way. The war came to an end at last, and everyone adjusted to peacetime life. Eventually, the elevated freight operation ended, and the tracks were abandoned — only to be reimagined years later as the High Line, where kids and grown-ups, too, come from all over the world for fun and adventure.
Gordon Jacoby grew up in a rooming house in Greenwich Village, and his youthful adventures inspire his fiction. He teaches speech for the stage at professional acting schools, American pronunciation in the ESL program at the Princeton YWCA, and courses for the Evergreen Forum.