Morning after morning, while driving through Boston’s suburbs, I listened to the dire radio reports about the bed bug epidemic in New York City. Every mention of the words bed bugs had a way of transporting me momentarily to a different time and place, to the days of my youth when those two words were spoken at least once a week.
My father’s father, Benjamin Hemley, opened the doors of American Sea-Grass Company, Jobbers of Upholstering & Bedding Supplies, on Cooper Street, Brooklyn, in 1909 with two of his six brothers. Later, it would become the Hemley Supply Company and they’d relocate to Mesorole Street in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. Following my grandfather’s death in 1937 at age 54, the business was taken over by his eldest son, my Uncle Arnold. My father, David, who was only thirteen when his Dad passed away and the youngest in the family, had dreams of pursuing a professional career that didn’t include the family business. But his brother and mother had decided otherwise. After serving in the Philippines during WWII and then cashing in on his family’s promise that he could attend school at Brooklyn College before joining the family company, my father dutifully took his place as second-in-command immediately following college graduation.
My father often told my sister, Ellen, and I that he had come to peace with having his future decided for him. But at times, I doubted he really had. Every couple of years, he set up a projector and a movie screen in our basement and showed home movies. He always played the same old crackly 16 mm, the one of him at sixteen when he worked on a farm in Vermont for the summer. A young, strapping boy, with a full head of thick wavy hair, he could be seen chopping logs and loading barrels of hay onto a wheelbarrow. His sparkling brown eyes made him look like a movie star, or at least someone with a heavy dose of wanderlust, something hard-pressed to be fulfilled in a family business of bedding and mattress supplies.
There were many young Brooklyn men like him, sons in the bedding industry, who would toil for hours in their family’s business. Being first-generation American sons born to immigrants from mostly Eastern European countries, they were fulfilling their parents’ and grandparents’ dreams. Once they accepted their fate, they would need to find a way to add recreational experiences into their day-to-day lives overseeing large drafty warehouses and deliveries of mattress ticking, stuffing, and springs.
Eventually the sons would meet one another, and in the mid-1960s they would begin to see each other every Wednesday night at a bowling alley in Brooklyn where they wore matching blue and white shirts embroidered with the words, Bed Bugs, their team name, across their backs.
My father, not particularly a natural athlete or a sports fan for that matter, took to bowling. The game seemed to suit him like nothing else did. He was outgoing and gregarious and enjoyed his one night out. I listened to my dad’s stories and escapades with the same interest I had in my TV idols, Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble, who I watched religiously every week. Fred and Barney sought camaraderie in the Loyal Order of Water Buffaloes, and I imagined bowling served the same purpose for my father and his friends.
On Thursday mornings, when gurgles and hisses emanated from the coffee percolator and the refrigerator door slammed shut, I’d rush downstairs in my flannel pajamas with crusts of sleep still in my eyes. My father would already be dressed in a suit and tie, and clean-shaven. I’d get a whiff of his Canoe aftershave, and then climb in and sit beside him at the breakfast nook with our elbows practically touching. The table and bench, like the ones found in twenty-four hour diners along interstate highways in the heart of anywhere USA, took up three quarters of the kitchen of our split-level house.
Most days my father needed to leave our home in the suburbs by 7:30 a.m. and wouldn’t return from Brooklyn until almost twelve hours later. There never seemed to be enough time. My dad would be rushing out the door to get to the Van Wyck expressway before traffic would back-up and I’d have to finish getting dressed so I could walk to Mrs. Palladino’s first grade class at P.S. #6, down the block from our house.
On Thursday mornings, my father would linger a little longer over breakfast. He’d hold court and spin tales about last night’s game and the men on his team. I was captivated by the stories. Mr. Sunshine, who contrary to his last name was always grumpy. Tiny, who easily weighed over 300 pounds. And Clarence, born and raised in Selma, Alabama, whose southern drawl my father could remarkably imitate upon command. As he spoke, I listened intently, stirring the milk in my bowl of Cocoa Krispies until it turned a light chocolate brown.
My dad would describe the bowling plays like he was a radio sportscaster.
“Last up was Tiny. You should have seen him. Unbelievable. He just kind of waltzed down the lane. The form. The curve. Beautiful. And then he released the ball, heading straight for the 1-3 pocket.”
My father’s eyes would open wide. He’d stop just long enough to slurp the last of the milk off of his cereal spoon.
“Then, with everyone watching….”
“Then what?” I’d interrupt.
“Let me finish,” he’d say, raising his hand like one of the school crossing guards. “The pins dropped fast and furiously. You couldn’t tell at first whether it was a strike or not. No, they didn’t have a chance. Not with that kind of force behind them.”
“Was it a strike?”
“Was it a strike, she wants to know,” asking the question as if some invisible person at the table might answer. “You kiddin’ me? Not only was it a strike, it was a crushin’ strike, putting us ahead in the league once again.”
I could have sat and listened to dad all morning but within a few minutes I’d inevitably hear creaks on the floorboard upstairs, doors opening and shutting, and then the dreaded call out from my mom, “Debbie, are you dressed and getting ready for school?”
“Go on,” my father would say, shooing me upstairs. “To be continued.”
Thankfully, at some point the Bed Bugs joined a second league on Sunday mornings at Falcaro’s, a bowling alley a town over from our home. Now, I could tag along and watch them play to my heart’s content.
Each week we’d leave for the bowling alley early, before my mom and my sister were awake. I’d sit in the back of my father’s cluttered station wagon in-between ticking samples. The car often had a mattress tied to the top of the roof for a delivery to some neighbor or family member. From the back seat, I had a good view of the border, the place where my Dad’s little remaining hair met the top of his shiny head. And as our matching brown eyes met through the rearview mirror, I could see the lines on his forehead, the ones that became more pronounced when he laughed his signature deep belly laugh and ended with a brief nose snort. I can still remember what it felt like too, thrashing around from side to side, as my father took one turn after the other en route to Falcaro’s. With mandatory seat belt laws still a few decades away, some days it was survival of the fittest in the back of the wagon.
The air at Falcaro’s was filled with large clouds of cigarette and cigar smoke so much so that my throat would begin to hurt. The place smelled like a mixture of cheap leather, feet and sweat. But it didn’t matter. At the ripe old age of six, being with my dad at the bowling alley made me feel big and important.
A lot of my time was often spent taking orders and making deliveries. “Hey, Hemley’s kid,” Tiny would shout to me with his big hairy hand cupped in front of his mouth like he was speaking through a megaphone. “Bring us some peanuts, will ya’?” Mr. Sunshine would dig into his pockets, jingling the coins two or three times, and then throw me a couple of quarters like I was one of the orphans in Oliver. Without taking his eyes off the score sheet or the yellow mini-pencil, my father would extend his arm, feel for the crown of my head and rustle my short pixie hairstyle.
Delivery services were usually in high demand, and I was paid well with boxes of Red Hots, Good & Plenty and Juicyfruits. At the end of my rounds, the man at the bar with the blotchy face and red nose would ask, “Your usual?” I’d nod and he’d slide a cold frosted glass of Coca-Cola “on the rocks” down the long sleek bar. I was in sugar heaven.
I can’t recall the names of my dad’s other teammates all these years later but I can still see them, their varying-width backs—a panorama of the words, Bed Bugs, in a fancy scripted typeface with oversized, flourishing letter B’s—flicking their cigarettes into overflowing ashtrays. Someone would have his arm on another man’s shoulder. Someone else might playfully have a man in a headlock, and others would be hooting and hollering. But they’d always be perfectly still and silent by the time one of their teammates was up next.
One by one the Bed Bugs would take their turns, squinting their eyes as if they had just tasted a sour lemon. They would lift the ball up in front of their mouths, take a few carefully choreographed steps and then, swinging their arm and gliding the soles of their shoes across the shiny wooden floors, they’d release the ball into a thunderous roll. I’d immediately turn to watch the small lights on the wall at the end of the lane that kept track of how many of the ten pins had been knocked down.
After the game was over I’d look for the lightest ball, usually the black one with the turquoise star, and tried to copy the Bed Bug’s fancy footwork. I’d sneak a few balls down the lane while no one was looking. Even with all my shots at practicing, more times than not, my ball would roll mercilessly down the gutter.
My father, on the other hand, was a pretty decent bowler and a couple times a year he came home with a trophy won at a tournament. A growing collection of gold-plated men frozen in time and place, with three fingers planted inside a miniature black ball lined the shelves above the television in our family room. Sometimes I would take the little men off the shelf and with the sleeve of my sweater I’d shine their arms and the top of their heads, and run my fingers over the engraved etching, David Hemley, Bed Bug.
The time with my dad, and having the opportunity to get a glimpse into his life apart from our family, made me feel closer to him. Even though we weren’t alone, and I was more of a spectator than a participant, I cherished our routine.
For how long did I actually spend my Sunday mornings at Falcaro’s with the Bed Bugs? Truth be told, I don’t know at this point whether it was six months, one year, or two. But what I do know is that as certain childhood memories have faded from view, the days at the bowling alley have started to occupy more and more space in my memory banks with each passing year.
My father has been gone a long time now, 19 years to be precise. And the days of my childhood have started to feel like they happened another lifetime ago. Hell, they’re even part of another century!
Whether it was a weekday or weekend, spring or fall, I can no longer recall. But I can still remember hearing the telephone ringing in the house and my father speaking to someone with a hint of panic in his voice. Within moments, he called to us, “Carol, El, Deb, come quick. There’s been a fire.” Next thing I knew we had all piled into the wagon with my father racing down Peninsula Boulevard, across Rockaway Turnpike, to the streets leading to Falcaro’s where police had closed off the roads and dark smoke and red orange blazes were overtaking the sky. Crowds watched and cried as firefighters tried in vain to get the four-alarm fire under control.
It was just a bowling alley, I imagine some people said that day. At least no one was hurt, I’m sure others rightfully rationalized. Maybe they’ll rebuild it someday, others hoped. But for me, it marked the beginning of an end. Childhood into adolescence. The 1960s into the 70s and a departure from simple pleasures, when a bowling team like the Bed Bugs could reign in the heart and mind of a young girl.
And above all, a time when my dad was King.