As a Bronx kid growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, I’d say that, generally speaking, parents were less concerned about their kids talking with strangers—and strange people as well—than are contemporary moms and dads. They didn’t automatically presume that every local oddball was a potential predator or axe murderer. So, we youngsters sometimes kibitzed with a few folks that—in retrospect—we might have been better off keeping our distance.
A family lived up the street from me that had been there for decades. Their home had considerably deteriorated with the passage of time. In fact, its ramshackle state was the nearest thing we had to a haunted house in the neighborhood. And the residents’ backstory was a horrific one to say the least, beginning with an alcoholic mother and father who physically and psychologically abused their two sons. While in a stupor, the father got run over by a train, and the mother thereafter became a recluse.
It was the youngest son whom the local kids got to know when he was a man in his early to mid-thirties, I’d guess. His given name was Mike, but known mostly as “Red,” because of his hair color no doubt. He also had a peculiar sub-nickname that endured for a spell, particularly among the younger set: “Cream Sam.” It seems that Red himself had coined the term, along with another, “Furter Sam,” which he claimed were real things. For all I know, he could have been talking about ice cream sandwiches and frankfurters.
Red, aka Cream Sam, was regarded as “simple,” but largely harmless by older neighbors familiar with his family history. During the Cream Sam Summers, we would sometimes ride our bicycles past his place, and if he was outside, stop by for a chat, knowing all the while that this mysterious mother figure lurked somewhere in the backdrop. I spotted her once out on the front porch. She was dressed in all black and ghostly pale, with a long shock of white hair styled like Grandmama Addams. I couldn’t have been more than ten years old at the time and, I will admit, the visual unnerved me.
One summer night, Red invited a bunch of us into his garage, which he had fixed up as a personal bedroom of sorts, while the living quarters above it fell into further disrepair along with his mother, who was still on the premises. Red said he had something really big to show us. It turned out to be a one hundred dollar bill, which was worth something back then, and not a piece of currency we laid eyes on very often. How he came to have this bill in his possession is in the unsolved mystery file alongside the true meaning of "Cream Sam."
Sitting on his stingray bicycle, my friend Frank snatched the bill from Red’s hand—an uncharacteristic act for him—and rode off into the night. With the bill raised high in the air, Frank pedaled furiously down the block and let out a few whoops and hollers for good measure. He returned it to Red after this brief exhibition. But the ordinarily genial Red was not amused and let us all know in no uncertain terms. Perhaps entering Cream Sam’s garage under the cover of night was unwise after all. Today’s more discerning parents might really be on to something.
After Red’s mother passed away several years later, the house was sold and he got an apartment not too far away. Huge pieces of the roof were missing, and the place had evidently no working plumbing for a very long time. For sure, it was a hardscrabble life for Red. His next-door neighbor on the block once suggested that we never again refer to Red as Red, but other colors like blue, yellow, and green when we encountered him on the street. I believe I said, “Hi, Purple” to him on one occasion. Still, Red will always be Cream Sam to me.