YOU COULD HUM THE TUNES THEN ...

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I wrote a column this winter for Crain's New York Business in which I recalled taking the subway (for a nickel) from Sheeps head Bay to Prospect Park in Brooklyn with my skis and poles as a boy, skiing all day on the Prospect Park hills, and returning home at dark, soaking wet and cold, nose running and ears frostbitten, and never being happier.

A friend told me on reading the piece that she felt slightly cheated. She is a generation younger than I am and she made the point that nothing these days is quite that simple. Or cheap. Or even innocent.

I think I know what she means.

And I sort of feel sorry for the young. They never knew how wonderful it was in this country, even in New York, when my generation was growing up. And I started to jot down some things that were better then. Or at least seemed better; maybe we were more easily pleased. Just arbitrarily I focused on the '50s. David Halberstam has written about the decade but, in all candor, he couldn't have known it quite as I did since, in 1950, I was 21 and graduating from college and going off to war, all in about 15 minutes.

And once the war in Korea was over, here is some of what we had. And did. And saw. And knew. And missed. And maybe there will never again be a time quite like it or nearly as wonderful.

Mine were the GI college years. They came home from winning the biggest war ever and started college in '46 on the GI Bill and graduated in '50. Bill Levitt was putting up houses on Long Island that had lawns and a GI could rent a three-bedroom house for $65 a month with an option to buy or buy for $6,900 with no down payment. A first-class stamp cost three cents and in big cities there were both morning and afternoon deliveries. A new Brooks Brothers suit cost $65 and you could get a new car, loaded, for under two thousand.

So money was part of why it was so good. But only part. Girls (it was OK to call them "girls") wore their hair softer and it somehow smelled better. The Yankees won the Series almost every year. There was no such thing as AIDS; there wasn't even herpes. The public schools were wonderful as were the city colleges of New York, which were free. You could go up to Harlem at night on the subway and listen to jazz and down to the Village and no one ever told you you weren't wanted there and didn't belong. And if you drank a bit too much and fell asleep on the subway going home the only risk was you might end up sleeping in the yards.

The Hotel Pennsylvania was a great place to drink or get your hair cut and had the best-ever phone number (Pennsylvania 6-5000) and you could dance at the Hotel Taft with no cover or minimum and if you had a certain amount of gall (and a few bucks) you could even get into the Stork or 21. Number One Fifth Avenue was about as good as bars get and there was the Monkey Bar and a place at 500 Madison for cocktails. I, for one, fell in love in all these places.

You could get Knicks tickets. They played half their games at the 69th Regiment Armory and had Dick McGuire and Carl Braun and Harry Gallatin and Bud Palmer and, oddly for the time, a wonderful black player named Sweetwater Clifton. The Rangers didn't win the Stanley Cup then, either, but Gump Worsley was in goal, playing without a mask, and he used to go down to Sheepshead Bay on the subway after the games and drink with some of the lads at the Barge and McKeon's.

Army was one of the best football teams every season and they would play Notre Dame at the Stadium and 80,000 people went. NYU and City College and Long Island University had three of the best basketball teams in the country and the NIT was much bigger than the NCAAs. No one ever used the expression "the final four." There was television but not everyone had it and on big fight nights it was usually Joe Louis against someone or Zale fighting Graziano or Willie Pep and you stood on the sidewalk outside appliance store windows and watched.

Radio was the thing. Bob Hope, Fred Allen, Crosby, the "Hit Parade," "Mr. First Nighter."

I got my first newspaper reporting job. A hundred a week. Men wore hats in those days, fedoras, they called them, and they were kind of fun. Pantyhose was unknown and sometimes you caught an erotic glimpse of thigh when a woman got out of a cab. This was enormously exciting. Everyone smoked and they hadn't yet invented lung cancer. You could find a good apartment and new houses were going up and even in town you could get a parking space on most streets. And no one stole your car radio or even thought of doing so. When people got shot it was usually one gangster shooting another. Like "Crazy Joey" Gallo. Or Anastasia who was bumped off in a barber chair with shaving foam all over his face while he smoked a cigar.

The movie stars were bigger. Gable and Tracy and Rita Hayworth and Ann Sheridan (she was "the oomph girl") and Betty Grable and Greer Garson and Coop. Al McGuire got out of St. John's and joined his brother on the Knicks and immediately announced, "I own Cousy."

Can anyone today tell you who "Cousy" was?

Serge Obolensky ran the Astor Hotel and could still tell stories of serving the czar and how young noblemen (Serge was a prince) serving in the Russian army all had a servant whose sole duty it was to help his master wriggle into his tight riding britches. Young men went to work at the ad agencies and wanted to be "Vic Norman" and made 60 or 80 bucks a week and dated the receptionist and the models and spent their evenings at P.J. Clarke's drinking beer and eating hamburgers. And Jersey Joe Walcott and Ezzard Charles came along and then Marciano, and the big fights weren't on parking lots in Vegas but at the Polo Grounds. And there was this new kid, Willie Mays, coming up with the Giants and Durocher said, "Watch this kid. You've never seen one like this one." And Mantle played for the Yanks and the Duke for Brooklyn. Ebbets Field was still there and Gil Hodges came to the ballpark on the trolley car. A Broadway show cost three-fifty.

And the music? Why, you could hum the tunes then; you could sing the words. Oh, how you could sing the words.

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