My little brother started kindergarten in the fall of 1965, which allowed my mother to go back to work full-time. Our family needed the money. I was 8 years old and in third grade, and it was my job after school to walk my brother back to our Bronx apartment and look after him until our parents got home.
I had plenty of help. My mother’s friends in neighboring apartments would look in on us. I could reach both of my parents by telephone if I needed them. And there was Soupy Sales and his cast of zany characters on Channel 5, WNEW-TV in New York, every afternoon, to entertain us.
Soupy had a personal relationship with his young audience. His shows were done live. He played most of the live-action characters (like his girlfriend, Peaches) himself, while puppets made up the rest of the cast. He would speak directly to his viewers. Sometimes this got Soupy into trouble, like the time he told us kids to go through our parents’ wallets and mail him those funny green pieces of paper that had pictures of dead presidents.
One day I decided I wanted talk to Soupy. I got the number for WNEW from directory assistance (yes, we had 411 back then) and called the switchboard. A kind woman’s voice told me I was too late; Soupy left the studio by 4:30 each afternoon. The next afternoon I called back just after the show ended. A few minutes later Soupy picked up the phone.
I have no idea what I said to him, or what he said to me. But I remember being excited and proud that I had reached my friend Soupy. A few days later, an autographed picture arrived in the mail. It showed Soupy getting hit in the face with a pie, which was his trademark. Soupy later estimated that he took 25,000 pies to the face in the course of his career. I wish I could say I still have the picture, but it got lost with the other debris of my childhood.
Soupy Sales, whose legal name was Milton Supman, died last week at a hospital in The Bronx. Hearing of his death was a bit like learning that a long-lost friend had passed away. It also made me appreciate the way the world, with all its risks and opportunities, was so accessible in that long-ago time.
Soupy Sales had been a local TV personality in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, Los Angeles and finally New York by the time I called him. For several years his show was carried nationally on ABC. The season I called him was the apogee of his career, a year in which Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. would appear on his show and take the requisite pies to the face.
Yet Soupy Sales, at the end of his work day, found time to talk to an 8-year-old latchkey kid, jot down his address and send a picture. On one level this was a small gesture, a personal touch in a more-personal era than today’s. But on a different level Soupy Sales was teaching me to go after things that might seem out of reach. It was a valuable lesson.
A couple of years later I did a school project about India. Most kids would have gone to the library, but I looked up the Indian consulate in Manhattan and persuaded my mother to let me make my first unaccompanied trip on the subway downtown. I was 10 or 11 at the time. It helped that I had memorized the New York City subway map.
At the consulate I was greeted politely and ushered into a meeting room. A turbaned man entered, sat down and gravely spoke with me for a few minutes. I did not get the impression that I was being humored or patronized. About a week later, an amazingly thick envelope arrived, jammed with booklets and brochures about every part of India. I was delighted, and as I recall, so was my teacher.
An 8-year-old home alone with a kindergartner. A fifth- or sixth-grader alone on the subways and streets of New York. Parents who permit these things today might find themselves facing child endangerment charges, especially if anything bad happens. But my parents were not negligent or uncaring, or even unworried. Nor was my childhood unusual for that place and time. We rode bikes without helmets. We played ball in the streets. We got on the subways or buses when we needed to go somewhere, and we looked after younger kids when there was nobody else to do it.
Looking back, it was risky, even if it was necessary. A lot of things could go wrong. Occasionally they did. But most of the time, when we reached out to the grown-up world, it reached back, gently.