Girl Scout Troop 44 met in the basement of Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrow, on the corner of Tremont and Vyse, every Tuesday afternoon at 3:30. We were all desperate for merit badges, but not out of any intrinsically noble motivation like knowledge or accomplishment — we just wanted the reward.
Some big-shot at scouting headquarters decided that the troop with the most badges would be treated to an outing at Jahn’s Ice Cream Parlor — the absolutely best place, in all the five boroughs, to satisfy a serious ice cream craving. The most popular item on their menu was “The Kitchen Sink,” and if Troop 44 won the Great Badge Race, the sink would be ours.
When “The Kitchen Sink” was brought to your table it filled your entire table. An enormous silver platter heaped high with scoops of ice cream in every flavor, chewy chunks of brownies with walnuts, at least three peeled bananas slit length-wise, generous handfuls of strawberries and pineapple, drippings of butterscotch and hot fudge and what seemed like an entire can of instant Cool Whip, to say nothing of the jimmies sprinkled all over and oh yes, the cherries on top. We wanted this. We wanted it in a big way. But to get it we needed those badges.
Alberta Cannelli had her heart set on a Puppetry Badge. She showed up at our scout meeting one Tuesday with green olives speared onto each one of her pudgy fingers. She’d prepared an original play for us with her olive-topped fingers as the characters, a different voice for each olive: a family saga, three generations of the squabbling Machetes, the grandpa and the father represented by her thumbs.
It was an energetic performance. When it was over, the entire troop applauded, genuinely impressed, and then waited for Alberta to share the olives with us, or at the very least to eat them herself. But she didn’t do this. In fact, when someone suggested it — I think it might have been me — the very thought seemed to repulse her.
“These are my friends,” she said, as though she’d been asked to nibble away on her pet parakeet. And then she got all twitchy and Miss Betty, our troop leader, asked her if she wanted to go home. And she did. Taking her olives with her.
By the following week the incident was forgotten. Until Alberta appeared, her fingertips once more adorned with green olives, and clearly they were not fresh. These were the same olives from the previous Tuesday. The entire Machete family was back, from Grandpa Joseph down to baby Peg. We knew this for a fact because baby Peg had a slight indentation near her base where her brother, Evil Eddie, had punched her during last week’s puppet show.
It was at this point that I started having a bad feeling about Alberta Cannelli. I had pretty good radar when it came to noticing signs of derangement and it seemed to me that Miss Betty should have taken Alberta off to one side and given her a good talking to, using phrases my own mother liked to introduce into our conversations, like “this is not appropriate” and “cut the nonsense right now.” But Miss Betty did no such thing. She only asked if anyone else had something to present to the group.
Phyllis Berkowitz raised her hand and announced she was working on a badge called Collecting, even though that was not one of the officially sanctioned badge categories in our Girl Scout handbook. She explained that the theme of her collection was shoelaces.
Then she opened a large cardboard box that had been dragged down to the basement of Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrow, undoubtedly breaking every imaginable sanitary code the city of New York had ever thought up, and started pulling out one shoelace after another. They looked and smelled like something you’d pick out of the garbage. Which she probably did. “I have three more boxes at home,” Phyllis announced proudly. “When I counted them last night there were 6,429 shoelaces, I’m going by ones, not pairs — not everything in life has to come in pairs.”
Phyllis’s parents had gotten divorced that winter and Mr. Berkowitz moved away, he wasn’t even living in the neighborhood anymore, he moved all the way to Queens. Phyllis and her two sisters were now called "the product of a broken home," (by some people's mothers, not mine).
When Phyllis finished her shoelace presentation, Rosie Sweet pretend-sneezed into her Girl Scout handkerchief, only it was just an excuse to cover her face and say DIVORCE. And then Antoinette Feeney pretended to say “God bless you” but she said it real fast, under her breath, and the way she pronounced it was DIVORCE.
Miss Betty, who was the scout leader after all, should have done something. But she didn’t. And that wasn't right. So I told my mother. I told her everything: about Alberta Cannelli and the olive puppets, and Phyllis and the cartons of shoelaces, and Rosie and Antoinette and the phony nose blowing incident, including a question about why some people say “God bless you” and others say “gesundheit.” And my mother decided to give Miss Betty a call.
If Miss Betty had been someone she knew, like the mom or aunt or even the neighbor of a girl in the troop, my mother might not have phoned her up. But Miss Betty was a stranger to us, she was just someone the Scouting authorities assigned to Troop 44 because there were no moms or aunts or neighbors who volunteered to do the job. In other words, Miss Betty was an Unknown Entity.
In case you’re curious, I was working on my Observation Skills badge and I had made Miss Betty the subject of my private investigation. I was convinced our leader had a shady past, I just hadn’t figured out what it was. There was a good chance she was a bloody murderess on the lam. The other possibility was that she was a former Rockette, which would have been preferable but, for a Girl Scout leader, not really “appropriate.”
My mother called Miss Betty on the phone and laid it all out for her. But Miss Betty wasn’t worried about the direction our quest for badges was going in. She told my mother just how much worse it could have been. She had a friend, she said, who was the leader for Troop 12, near Pelham Parkway, and they had a girl over there who was experimenting with poison — the genuine article baked into chocolate cupcakes. One of the scouts had already been rushed to the hospital to have her stomach pumped.
Miss Betty said the goings on at Troop 44 were mild by comparison. She told my mother there was nothing to be concerned about. She, Miss Betty, had it all under control. She called herself Miss Betty. That was her fatal error. If there's one thing my mother hated it was people who talked about themselves in the third person.
When she hung up the phone my mother said I didn’t have to go back to the basement of Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrow ever again. She explained that Miss Betty was seriously inclined toward the unbalanced side of life.
I said I wanted to go back, since I was so close to earning my Observation Skills badge and I didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity for “The Kitchen Sink.”
My mother said I already observed too much and she would take me to Jahn’s Ice Cream Parlor herself. Just her and dad and my sister and me. We could order “The Kitchen Sink” and there’d only be four people to share it with, instead of the fifteen in Troop 44.
My mother had amazing powers of persuasion. I quit Girl Scouts then and there, and took up Creative Expression at the Y, to be sure I wouldn't be bored on Tuesday afternoons at 3:30.