May 16, 2024, 06:30AM

White Socks and Loafers

I’m still a fan of American Chop Suey. What year is it (#494)?

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What immediately strikes me in the above mid-20th century photo (it’s suburbia, in this case Huntington, Long Island, but could be anywhere on the East Coast) is the kitschy lamp at the top. I wouldn’t be surprised if that object, if it wasn’t long ago discarded, could fetch $100 (maybe more from an acquisitive collector or young person with money to burn trying to add a whiff of nostalgia to a recently-purchased condo) at an on-the-street vintage store, or eBay. I wouldn’t touch it, mostly because when thinking about the house I grew up in a long time ago, that item is burned into my mind. Man, it’s ugly, although unlike today’s appliances and lamps, it was durable.

On top of the bookcase there’s also an ashtray, silver receptacle (which reminds me of how my mom insisted my brothers and I, when sick, carried a “barf bucket” around the house) and a non-descript vase, containing what I’m sure are plastic flowers. That’s no reflection on Mom (our father didn’t care one way or the other how the house was “decorated”—save the basement where his DeWalt power saw and other carpentry tools were located on a rummage-sale industrial desk), since real flowers were expensive and the garden at the side of the house had a short window for daffodils, although the pair of prickly rose bushes were more resilient.

My thumb isn’t green, and my only real experience in this area was in the spring of 1973, when I functioned as my brother Doug’s (he’d recently returned from the Peace Corps in Afghanistan) apprentice as he fashioned an elaborate garden at our house near Trenton, using ancient irrigation methods, that yielded hundreds of juicy, meaty Jersey beefsteak tomatoes. We’d listen to the Watergate hearings on the transistor while working. (I’ve recounted this anecdote previously, but it still cracks me up: once when Mom was admiring his effort, Doug suggested we buy a lamb for the backyard, who’d be a pet and chew the grass. “And this fall, we can butcher that critter and have a real feast,” he explained, and Mom, a bit upset, said, “Oh, honey, you’re going to far!” He was joking, I think, even though I heartily endorsed the plan. Doug knew his way around the kitchen.

Back to the photo: there’s my oldest brother in the center, cigarette in hand and grabbing his can of beer, which looks to me like a pre-flip top Rheingold, although it could’ve been Piels or Schlitz; maybe a reader with better eyesight than me can get the brand right. My brother Gary is on the right, wearing the uniform of a cool guy—nearly five years older than me, Gary was always atop my cool-meter—with an untucked button-down shirt (probably wash and wear) white trousers and loafers with white socks. It’s a sign of the times that white socks weren’t the object of scorn, as they were when I was in junior high school several years later. That kind of hosiery in the mod era would get kids razzed at recess, same as any shirt with a loop below the back collar, a “fag tag” in common parlance—but not homophobic, just an object of derision; if anyone if my sixth-grade circle even knew what “homophobic” meant, I’d be surprised.

I’m at the mid-left, with a crewcut, sweatshirt, occupying myself with something probably trivial, or, on higher plane, maybe Chinese checkers, above my cousin Bernadette Duncan, wearing a swell striped shirt and trying, I think, to open an indestructible box that likely contained nothing at all interesting for a three-year-old. There’s no sense of celebration in this picture, just another weekend day at the Smith household, probably a late-afternoon (tipped off by the beer) and maybe waiting for dinner call. Since my Uncle Pete and his family were there, Mom might’ve rolled out her American Chop Suey, which I loved. It sure beat breakfast sausages with instant mashed potatoes (my portion fed to our dog Scuttle under the table), Spam and beans or frozen salmon croquettes, which put me on a two-hour hunger strike, until later, when watching Perry Mason or Twilight Zone, I’d make a dent in large bag of Wise potato chips. Not incidentally, my mother made no bones about her indifference to cooking, but it wasn’t all bad: she was a pot-roast whiz, decent with fried chicken, fixed excellent club sandwiches and those fried chicken livers and onions was a winning dish. Oh, and the slices of baloney (from the local butcher) with cream cheese and a pickle spear in the middle pleased the whole family.

Take a look at the clues to figure out the year: A “Peanuts” comic strip lampooning school prayer causes controversy; Marvel’s Uncanny X-Men debuts; Unit 4+ 2 is formed; Miles Davis’ Seven Steps to Heaven is released; Allan Sherman’s “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh” is a novelty hit; George Harrison takes notes on the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine”; Jean-Luc Godard adapts Moravia in his first and last major motion picture; Thomas Pynchon publishes V.; indigenous Australians are allowed to drink alcohol in New South Wales; Buddy Rogers becomes first WWWF Champion; Kuwait becomes 111th member of the United Nations (whose headquarters are still wasting space in Manhattan); The Great Escape premiers in London; double-agent Kim Philby is given asylum in Moscow; David Thewlis is born and Dick Powell dies; and The New York Review of Books publishes its first issue.

—Follow Russ Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER2023


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