To say I was born and raised in New York City would be a little misleading because in my memories of New York in the 40s and 50s, the city was a collection of small towns or villages. I was born in Woodside, a section of the borough of Queens, and the skyscrapers and streets of Manhattan were as remote to me as China would be to my grandchildren today.
Because of our insularity I can’t be sure if a Thanksgiving custom we had back then was unique to Woodside or whether it could have been found elsewhere throughout the great metropolis. Anyone else I’ve mentioned it to had never heard of it including my wife who was born a little bit north of the City in White Plains, the hub of Westchester county.
Anyway, on Thanksgiving morning the children in our neighborhood would dress up as bums or hobos. It didn’t take much since we would usually wear our clothes until they literally fell apart. We would take our most worn and tattered clothing and rip and tear them a little more. Then, we would blacken a cork over a candle and smear it over our faces to simulate dirt. I remember my grandmother giving me a little pouch with a drawstring, or was it a pillowcase, that we hobos could sling over our shoulders.
Then, we were ready to make the rounds of our neighbors to ask, “anything for thanksgiving.” Inevitably, they would answer our plea with some of the bounty from the meal they were preparing. Usually it would be apples, or walnuts, or sometimes a few pennies. Don’t laugh. Twenty pennies were enough to buy a Spalding (Spaldeen), the elite of bouncing rubber balls used by us in so many street games.
I don’t know where the “anything for thanksgiving” custom came from. We lived in a small neighborhood that seemed to have been mainly Irish with a mixture of Italians. In my nearby Catholic school the majority of the kids seemed to have Irish names. There were Ryans, Regans, Dunphys, Moylans, and Healys. However, A few blocks down busy 69th Street were the Napolitanos who ran the grocery store. In the other direction lived the dreaded Gallos whose kids were the toughest in the school.
But I’m not sure that “anything for thanksgiving” was an ethnic custom. We were a predominately Catholic neighborhood and the idea of thanksgiving was part of our religious heritage even though none of us knew that the word “Eucharist” meant “Thanksgiving.” On the other hand, it could have been a peculiarly American response to the end of the Great Depression and the Second World War. Nothing had marked the depression so much as homeless men on bread lines or riding the rails. These were the hobos that we children imitated. Even though most of us could be considered poor, at least we and our neighbors would be able to sit down that afternoon in our homes to the best meal of the year.
We did have a lot to be thankful for. The Depression was over, the men had returned from the terrible war, and the NY Yankees were on the verge of recovering their past glory.
Just one footnote. Halloween was practically nothing to us in Woodside, Queens. We did not trick or treat or dress ourselves up in costumes. For us it was All Hallows eve, or the eve of All Saints Day one of the great Holy Days of obligation. My only Halloween memory is filling stockings with baking or talcum powder and hitting each other with them.