A Flipper’s Paradise

If you grew up in the outer boroughs of metropolitan New York City in the postwar era of the 50’s and 60’s, then there was nothing special at all about 63–89 Saunders St. where I lived until the age of 13. For anyone unfamiliar with that environment, though, a peek inside is like taking a Disney ride through time exposing stereotypes from the Honeymooners, or from Woody Allen’s or Robert Klein’s depictions of urban living.

Located in the largely white, middle class, predominantly Jewish neighborhood of Rego Park, Queens, it was a fairly typical six story red-brown brick apartment building, complete with darkened metal fire escapes adorning its exterior. That last, lowest fire escape always had a ladder with but a few rungs extending downward, yet ending well above the ground level. That had suggested to me that for those who were lucky enough to escape a fire by crawling through their living room window and fleeing down the five or six of these external metal quasi-staircase flights, all they had to do remain alive was survive that last perilous leap to the cement sidewalk below.

The building itself was set slightly off the street, distanced from the curbside by a rather ordinary, inelegant courtyard leading to not one, but the more usual two sets of building entrance doors that were separated by an alcove with an intercom system for visitors to alert residents of their arrival. You see, that first set of doors was always unsecured, providing open access to anyone. It was that second set of doors, behind the intercom system, that protected the residents by requiring a key to unlock unless you were “buzzed” in.

Once inside, there was a grand lobby, large and spacious with an extraordinarily high ceiling. A single one door elevator sat across the other side. Off to the right, a few steps led up to a small hallway with a half dozen or so apartments, as if the sixty other apartments on the above five floors were not enough. Off to the left rose the first flight of the interior building stairs, so one could remain in full sight of the lobby as they ascended up to the second floor.

In between the elevator and this staircase, was set back another large, wide alcove, where all the apartments’ mailboxes resided, arranged on the far wall like a series of safe deposit boxes. Woe be anyone receiving mail larger than a regular size envelope, as the mailman would exercise little discretion finding ways to jam that mail in and slam its door shut. But this alcove served a higher purpose. By extending the length of the lobby from wall to wall, it was the ideal location for we young boys to flip our baseball cards for distance.

For urban New York City children, mainly boys, growing up in the early 60’s, baseball was bigger than life. Baseball’s “golden era” was just behind us, where the three New York teams had annually battled for a supremacy usually awarded to my beloved Yankees. A new era was dawning with the establishment of a replacement National League team, restoring New York to a two-team city. No less than five or six local newspapers provided in depth daily coverage. Television was further popularizing the game more than ever.

Baseball cards were sold in every candy store, almost on every corner. With five or 10 cards in a pack, along with a rectangular piece of pink bubble gum, we all collected, hoarded or traded these cards amongst ourselves. It was a rite of passage that you never the left the house without your pockets stuffed with baseball cards. Managing the collection was almost a full time job.

For better or worse, “flipping” baseball cards was for many of us, our first introduction to a sort of gambling. There were several different ways to “flip” cards, allowing us to win cards from each other. Flipping for heads or tails, or for colors, were totally luck based. Only flipping for distance introduced but a modicum of skill to the equation.

Flipping for distance involved flicking a card with your wrist so that if flew like a frisbee. The flipping area required a wall at the far end. Whomever flipped their card closest to the wall then collected the flipped cards of the less fortunate. For those lucky (or skilled?) enough to create a “leaner”, a card that flew so low to the ground that upon nudging the far wall, it actually leaned up against it, an opportunity to win three bonus cards was afforded as the competitors got three chances to try to flip a card to knock it down.

The lobby mailbox alcove extension provided the ideal back wall for distance flipping. We gathered across the lobby, sometimes three or four of five of us but just as often, two, to flip for distance. Every now and then someone got buzzed in or entered with their key from the main alcove, but their path across the lobby to the elevator did not obstruct our flipping. That was left to the sweet, little old Jewish ladies with their hair tied up in kerchiefs, dressed in housecoats, exiting into the lobby from the elevator, who looked forward to their daily trip to the mailbox like it was a long awaited Caribbean cruise. They did not appreciate the card flipping in or around the mailbox area in general, and especially not during their daily patronage to get their mail. Incredibly, some remained in front their mailbox, after emptying it, as if that were the ideal place to review, sort, and examine their pieces of mail. Couldn’t they wait one little elevator ride back upstairs to flip through the pages of Good Housekeeping? We had business to conduct.
For the most part, though, unless the little old ladies felt so disturbed as to call upon the “super” (city lingo for superintendent) to evict us, the lobby was our prime, indoor, weather free zone for distance flipping.

63–89 Saunders St., Rego Park, a Flipper’s Paradise.