My two bit universe (first bit) by Vincent McCaffrey
It was possible to sell a blue crab or buy a paperback book for a quarter in 1956. And thus my reading career began.
We lived then in a modern (as in antiseptic and geometric) brick apartment complex in Beechhurst, just where the East River meets the Long Island Sound. Across the street, where a wonderful primal wood had lingered long beyond anything else of its kind in that densely populated suburb of New York City, was a place where I had watched bats twirl in the sky over the remains of a great estate while hidden in the enfolding roots of giant oaks, and held the fortress of a fallen gatehouse against the fury of thousands upon millions of snowballs.
One late summer day a phalanx of earthmovers and a battalion of workers came to that place, at the behest of a Mr. Levitt, whose sign was posted high at a new gate. The invincible Roman Guard, a black fence of iron spears more than twice my height, which was so easily penetrated by our slim bodies, disappeared into the back of gaping trucks.
In a single morning and afternoon the oaks fell. Within mere days the enormous and mysterious cellar hole that had served as a walled pond and bred a zillion tadpoles was dug deeper still, and another beyond it it, and another, and another, until the landscape was opened all the way to that small bay where other mysterious powers had already sunk footings for a monstrous bridge which would soon be marching across the waters.
The workers who had leveled the forest were Italian and Greek. Not by heritage, but by birth They spoke their unfathomable languages back and forth as they altered the earth. And I, with my mouth agape, watched them as closely as I could manage given the new chain link fences.
My recreation then, other than spying and hiding, and talking to anyone who would listen about what I imagined I had seen while hiding and spying, was to chase horseshoe crabs in the tidal shallows and collect the detritus that belched from the river into the Sound and to hang from the cross bracing at the pier and with a homemade net, crafted from a found orange sack and a borrowed coat hanger, to scoop up the blue crabs that nestled against the barnacles below where they themselves waited for the small black fish that darted there.
One day a workman, probably taking a break from the slaughtering of ancient trees, stood above me on the pier and watched. He spoke to me, but I could not understand. He gestured. He pointed, Finally he removed a dime from his pocket and held it between two fingers so that I could see it clearly.
It was a more innocent age than this, but I had been told not to take money from strangers, so I turned away and continued my effort to snag another crab.
The crabs, for their part, fiercely attacked my net with widened claws and if I turned my device at just the right moment, they snagged themselves.
“Bene! Bene! Bene!”
I looked up to a shadowed face and a gleeful smile. The worker’s hand went down into his pocket again and returned holding a quarter.
“Take. Please. Take.”
I had no mind for math but I was not completely stupid.
One thing quickly led to another.
For a couple of weeks, before school began, I had a small line of workers coming to the pier just before lunch with quarters in hand. At the work site they made small fires and boiled the crabs in buckets and ate them with olive oil and pieces of bread torn from long loaves.
I discovered this last part because one worker—the one I had first met—had taken me over the road one day and fed me a shred of crab on a piece of bread dripping with olive oil. I liked lobster better, but I didn’t tell him that. I couldn’t. I just said “Bene.”
All of this has much to do with learning to read. I’ll tell you why.