I was 14 the first time I saw 13-year-old Karyn Levine. It was love at first sight. My heart pounded, my knees buckled and I literally had trouble breathing when she came into view.
To say she was fine would be the understatement of the last century. Brown hair, hazel eyes and a face that rivaled Ilene Paritz: the reigning gold standard of our neighborhood. I won't bore you with the details of how Karyn had a boyfriend; how he was insecure about not being worthy of her and how I helped convince him he wasn't. That's all water under the bridge.
I wanted to marry her right away, but her father had a thing about her finishing junior high school … and high school … and college. OK, Pops, you want to play hardball? I can play hardball.
Fortunately for me, he was a liquor salesman and was out late most nights, frequenting the various Manhattan bars he serviced. On the weekends, he could be found golfing, biking or sunning himself at the Brighton Beach boardwalk solarium, all sans family. He was an extremely self-centered man with a really good tan.
Karyn's mother was a different story. Starved for the male attention she didn't get from hubby, she loved having me around. We would sit at the kitchen table where she'd talk nonstop, simultaneously eating sunflower seeds. If "America's Got Talent" had been around back then, I'm sure she would have made it to the finals.
My talent was being an attentive listener while dodging an occasional flying sunflower shell. When the lonely woman finally went off to her room, I went off to spend time with Karyn in the room she shared with her 7- year-old sister Diane. At first, the kid would get lost for a quarter but soon it was costing me a half pint of Carvel mint chocolate chip ice cream. Today, Diane is a top executive with Sotheby's International, and I like to think those early negotiations put her on that path.
On the rare night Daddy did come home at a decent hour, I was persona non grata.
"Is that boy here?" he would shout at his wife.
That was my cue to skedaddle and assume the position out on the street, directly below Karyn's fifth floor bedroom window. This was Brooklyn and some nights it was so cold the tip of my nose became numb, but once that window opened and she smiled down on me, I might as well have been in the Bahamas. Which is a great place to honeymoon but hold that thought.
My father had no problem with my precocious relationship with Karyn. In fact, nothing I did bothered him. Where other dads went ballistic if their sons were caught smoking cigarettes, mine would regularly bring me cartons of Newport Kings. I guess it was his misguided way of showing that he loved me. I would have preferred an occasional trip to Yankee Stadium but it was what it was.
Sadly, the only thing we had in common was some DNA and a ladder he left me when he died nine years later. I still have that ladder in my garage. My mother felt Karyn was way too good for me, but aside from that, she didn't have any other concerns so my house became our safe harbor.
Karyn taught my mother that in addition to keeping empty paper bags in the oven, it could also be used to bake and broil food. This was a tremendous revelation, since previously, mom cooked everything in a fry pan. Soon she was broiling lamb chops and baking everything from apple pie to lasagna. Cholesterol counting was not in vogue back then but I'm sure mine dropped a hundred points as a result of the pan to oven switch. Karyn not only had my heart, she helped save it too. Probably bought my dad a few more years, as well.
We had our first kiss in the balcony of the Oceana movie theatre. The feature that day was "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence," so obviously the kiss wasn't planned. It came right after James Stewart shot Liberty Valence; at least we thought he did, until John Wayne revealed that he had shot Liberty. As the townspeople up on the screen rejoiced, I gently turned Karyn's face towards me. This had been a long time coming and we were both ready. There is nothing like that first awkward kiss with the girl you're going to marry in seven years.
Karyn's father, however, remained an obstacle. He was relentless in his insistence that she see other boys besides "that one." In order to placate him, she would periodically go out with someone else, but assured me she was just going through the motions to get her daddy off her back. No one had a chance of stealing her heart.
No one but Eton Bialostotsky. Eton had dark hair, blue eyes and a mole on his cheek that all the girls thought was cute, even though there was a hair growing out of it. Throw in a charming Israeli accent and this interloper spelled trouble.
When Karyn said she was going out with him a second time, I was devastated. I went home and announced Karyn was leaving me, to which my mother replied, "I told you she was too good for you." My dad, who never ever agreed with anything she said, added, "Your mother has a point."
Luckily for me, the third time wasn't the charm and after date no. 3, Karyn said "shalom" to Eton.
During the next bunch of years, there were other occasional suitors but the number dwindled; by Karyn's Sweet 16, the word on the street was dating Karyn Levine was a dead end. So the countdown resumed and finally, in the summer of '68, I asked Karyn's father for her hand. I had fulfilled my end of the bargain and he had no choice but to fulfill his. Actually, he did have a choice. He could have said no. Instead, he uttered these words: "You've been around a long time, Gary. You must really love my daughter."
That was the first time he ever called me by my name. Well, not exactly. He used to call me Gary every Christmas, when he needed help carrying heavy cartons of liquor up from his car to be wrapped as presents for his clients. Come New Year's Day, it was right back to "that boy."
I proposed to Karyn in a restaurant on Flatbush Avenue, right near the Kings Plaza Shopping Center. The name of the place escapes me but not the moment. Right after dessert, I presented her with a one-carat pear-shaped engagement ring. Karyn loved it and more importantly still loved me after all those years.
We planned to marry right after graduation from Brooklyn College. Karyn was going to spend her days with little first-grade darlings while I was set to teach high school maniacs. My soon-to-be father-in-law gave me a "great deal" on his 1961 Plymouth Fury, although I found out years later that he had charged me over Blue Book value and I could have gotten a better price at Moe's Used Cars on Coney Island Avenue. Guess he was a bit of a sore loser.
Wedding plans are not without tension and our first real fight was over the choice of our wedding song. Karyn wanted "If Ever I Would Leave You" from "Camelot" and I wanted "Proud Mary" by Creedence Clearwater Revival. Guess who won? Happy wife: happy life.
On August 24, 1969, at the Hillside House in Queens N.Y., two childhood sweethearts from Brooklyn finally became husband and wife. Oh, and by the way, we honeymooned in the Bahamas. But you already knew that, didn't you?