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Opinion

A special day with Mom in 1940s Manhattan

Reader Roger Ambruster of Stony Brook as a

Reader Roger Ambruster of Stony Brook as a child with his mother, Mary Contino, in around 1945. Photo Credit: Photo from Roger Ambruster

On an autumn day in 1947, Mary Contino, sporting a wide-brim Coty hat, and I, in a blue Robert Hall suit, exited the IRT subway train of wooden cars and straw seats at 42nd Street in Manhattan.

We made our way up a grimy staircase and emerged to bustling energy and sound worthy of a George Gershwin composition. We were in a canyon of European-inspired masonry buildings that are now gone, long replaced by monotonous glass towers.

Even though I was just 6, I recall that the zipper light bulbs ringing the top of the triangular tower at Times Square announced the important news of the day: The Brooklyn Dodgers had scored four runs in sixth inning and led the Yankees 8-5 in Game 6 of World Series. I grimaced and stomped my foot.

“Hungry, Mom!”

We made our way east through the crowd down 42nd Street, past ruddy-faced cops in knee-length blue coats with brass buttons, men in suits, ties and fedoras, women in skirts and paisley dresses. Then, everyone dressed when they went to the city.

We passed the great library on Fifth Avenue with stone lions flanking the steps, sentinels of the literary treasures within, to the Horn & Hardart automat under the rumbling elevated subway on Third Avenue.

Mom gave me a dollar bill, and I made my way to the cashier for change. A sour-faced woman with narrow, suspicious eyes took my dollar and dispensed 20 nickels down a slide.

At the wall of glass cubicles with food choices carouseling on small trays, I dropped a few nickels in a slot and opened a door for my selection — a little man in long pants left to make victual decisions: macaroni and cheese, baked beans in a small brown crock, a seeded kaiser roll, and cold milk mysteriously cascading from the mouth of a dolphin spigot on the wall.

“Get the creamed spinach, too,” Mom ordered over the din.

Mom sat at a table nursing her steaming coffee in a thick white mug. Nearby, a wrinkled, toothless man in a flop cap leaned forward, slurping soup from a bowl. A lady of a certain age with purple hair, a pill box hat and a silk scarf nibbled daintily on a sandwich.

“Finished, Mom!”

Back to the West Side to majestic Penn Station on 33rd Street and Seventh Avenue. A city-block of Roman columns ushered us into a space of gracefully arched steel lacework and Palladian windows catching the rays of the sun. A large Benrus clock hung prominently from the arch of the main entrance, the rendezvous of reunited families and lovesick couples.

That Penn Station is gone now, a singular piece of New York history and architecture.

Later, we walked up Sixth Avenue and peeked into the art deco splendor of the lobby of Radio City Music Hall. “The Yearling,” starring Gregory Peck and Jane Wyman, was featured.

“Mom, could we?” I begged.

“Maybe next time,” she answered, patting my head.

Back on Fifth Avenue and Rockefeller Center, a poised herculean statue spouted water. By hallowed St. Patrick’s Cathedral, solemnly reminding us of our moral obligations, green-cream double-decker buses of the Fifth Avenue line ferried waving passengers past the fountain in front of the Plaza Hotel, where F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald had cavorted.

“Tired, Mom!”

A fat yellow and red DeSoto taxi cab — 20 cents for the first quarter mile, 5 cents for each additional mile — headed north on Central Park West to the Museum of Natural History on 86th Street, where the immortal, solitary Eskimo fishes into eternity.

Later, as the autumn sun settled over Central Park, we took a cab back to 42nd Street and boarded the IRT elevated train, running past the Silvercup bread factory, back to our apartment in Corona, Queens.

This day was Mom’s gift, and the memory of it endures.

Reader Roger Armbruster lives in Stony Brook.

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