Brooklyn Heights childhood revisited: Alice Outwater’s 2nd volume of reminiscences
Alice Davidson Outwater has followed up her 2011 “82 Remsen Street” with a new collection on what it was like to grow up in Brooklyn Heights in the 1930s and early ‘40s. As with the first book, the stories in “Revisiting Remsen Street” (Wind Ridge Publishing, Shelburne, Vermont, 96 pages, $15.95) were originally published in the Brooklyn Heights Press in roughly monthly installments at the turn of the millennium.
Young Alice Davidson’s was not your average upbringing, since her family owned one of the wider houses on Remsen Street and had live-in Irish maids and a cook, as well as the laundress and seamstress who came in weekly. It was in many ways an enviable “upstairs, downstairs” existence in which the Davidson children were to a degree, but not entirely, insulated from what went on in the greater world outside. The new volume includes episodes in which that world begins to intrude on Alice’s awareness.
Not only is there the incident when 7-year-old Alice and her 5-year-old sister Louise come across blood on the sidewalk of Montague Street, “a big messy splotch that turned into a dried trickle as it approached the curb” – a sight that frightens them but that their parents refuse to discuss – but there are also later moments when Alice encounters words like “tryst” whose meanings she doesn’t fathom. Later still she begins to understand about prejudice and discrimination, after having been “blissfully blind to the behind-the-scenes exclusion” practiced at the dancing school and debutante parties she was privileged to attend.
“It was easy to be courteous and kind to the Irish maids, treat the shopkeepers on Montague Street fairly, and respect the service people who helped our household run smoothly,” regardless of their ethnicity or race, she writes; but it took a European trip with the Experiment in International Living when she was seventeen to really awaken her. A surprising eye opener had come when her sister Louise was invited to swim at the YWCA in Bay Ridge, but on filling in her religious affiliation as Unitarian, was denied use of the pool “because you are not a Christian.”
Alice’s father, the Wall Street lawyer Sidney W. Davidson, is portrayed as a man of strict routines who expected his children to handle their allowances prudently but was also capable of generosity. He displayed curious warmth toward a “distant cousin” from the South, who appeared one day with a floozy, not his wife, and Mr. Davidson treated both with full respect. Trying to get an explanation from her mother, Alice was told that the lady was probably “just a friend” but that it was better not to discuss her with other people.
In a chapter titled “Grace Court Alley Revisited,” the author recalls how she had once roller skated there with more speed than she could control and smashed into a garage door, breaking off part of her right front tooth. “For one of the first times in my life, no one was there to feel sorry for me,” she recalls. The hurt was all the more bitter because she counted herself a skilled roller skater. Indeed, in another chapter she writes of winning a roller skating competition, and tells of becoming familiar with almost all the cracks in Heights sidewalks. A particularly smooth ride could be had on the Pierrepont Street sidewalk next to the then new marble courthouse at Monroe Place (she should see the cracks there now!)
For the most part Dr. Outwater (who became a practicing psychologist and moved to Vermont) remembers the happy hours she spent with Louise, the two sometimes playing pranks together, as well as with the maids Bebe and Bessie, and the cook Nora. The girls felt an easy affection for them, which contrasted with the constraint they sometimes felt before their more formal parents.
The book contains several photographs of people and places, as well as illustrations of objects and equipment belonging to the period. On the cover is a charming black-and-white silhouette cutout of the six Davidson children, Alice and the baby Louise between two brothers and two sisters, all considerably older. A glow of memory suffuses the book.
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