Author of the iconic divorce Story The War of the Roses reminisces his youth in Brooklyn
It is remarkable that Brooklyn has become synonymous with cultural ferment, artistic innovation and an unstoppable surge of gentrification that is attracting a growing horde of super achievers. Although these two strains of environment changers are often in conflict with one another, both are prospering, radically changing the reputation of the borough from what was once an object of both pride and ridicule to one of the most culturally dynamic places in America.
The fact that I no longer recognize it as ‘my Brooklyn’ does not in any way impugn its current significance, but looking at it from the vantage point of the Brooklyn of my childhood and youth, roughly within a sixteen year span from 1932 to 1948, I can only conclude that the present, despite its glorious trappings of culture and prosperity does not come close to the wonder, excitement and exultation that captured my adolescent soul and never let go of it.
I have recapitulated those old Brooklyn days in a number of my novels like Funny Boys, Banquet Before Dawn and the New York Echoes short story collections, which offer the most details of that halcyon experience, but allow me to open the spigot of memory with some brief images of that bygone moment of urban joy.
My life in Brooklyn was lived betwixt two neighborhoods, Brownsville and Crown Heights, both Jewish enclaves then. Irish and Italian neighborhoods were contiguous. Of course, there were other Brooklyn neighborhoods for every ethnic group under the sun, racial, national and religious. There were also wide economic and class distinctions easily identified by house sizes and the usual trappings of wealth.
In my Brooklyn days these other places seemed to reside in another country, perhaps another planet. We were very aware of our boundaries by look, smell, dress, religion and customs and we knew that when we crossed those lines we had invaded a somewhat hostile foreign land.
When my father was employed, which was not often during the Depression, we lived in Crown Heights, four of us in a one-bedroom apartment. I shared a bed with my kid brother, six years younger. My parents slept in the living room. When my father was unemployed we were usually legally “dispossessed” which meant we couldn’t pay the rent and had to move to my grandparents’ small three-bedroom house in Brownsville, purchased for them by my uncles. The house became a family refuge, and at the height of the Depression it housed 11 members of my extended family. We all shared one small bathroom, a feature of which was a magnificent deep claw footed bathtub.
At the rear of the house was a small garden where my grandparents had trees that yielded cherries and pears and a grape vine for winemaking. Stewed fruit and compote was the invariable desert. Overlooking the garden was a back porch, which served as a family meeting place and dining room on mild days.
The house was less than half a block from the elevated portion of the IRT subway line, which snaked high over Brownsville and East New York. When the train rumbled past the lights in our house often blinked and the radio became temporarily inaudible. Around the corner, across from Rose Gold’s candy store under the El, also the headquarters of Murder, Inc. were two movie theaters, our Saturday afternoon ritual destination, The Blue Bird and the Ambassador.
Jewish religious ritual was taken seriously by my Orthodox grandparents, although the Saturday movie going was tolerated. Fridays would be busy getting ready for the Sabbath. Floors were scoured, waxed and covered with moisture absorbing newspapers, and food was prepared to last through Saturday night. No cooking was allowed, and the gas burners were kept on, covered by a metal sheet to warm leftovers. Toilet paper was torn and stockpiled for the Sabbath.
No carrying was allowed by adults so, as a young boy I was assigned to accompany my grandfather to “shul,” to carry his book and prayer shawl in his velvet bag. All rituals were observed to the letter and no lights could be turned on until Saturday night was pitch black. Living in my grandparents’ home we all followed the rules out of deep respect for them, for their religious adherence and their age.
Family love and loyalty, respect for elders, manners, traditions, charity and discipline was a given in that household. We thought everyone lived with those caveats. We often argued and mildly rebelled, but in the end forgiveness was achieved and life went on as usual. If there was disharmony it has flown from memory.
Religion was scary and mysterious. The language barriers of Yiddish and Hebrew made it difficult to fully understand the rituals, which were second nature to our grandparents and parents. Nevertheless, we knew who we were and where we belonged, and if we forgot, the entrenched anti-Semitism of the outside world quickly reminded us.
In Brownsville I walked the four blocks to PS183, and later, a similar distance to PS91 in Crown Heights. In those days, we came home for lunch where mother had it waiting. We were each given a penny for candy as we returned to school for the afternoon session. After regular school we would go to Hebrew School or hang out in the schoolyard or the neighborhood playing the popular street games of the day among them Stickball, using a sawed off broomstick, Punchball, Ringalevio, Johnny on the Pony, King of the Hill, and Hide and Seek. Girls played Potsy, Jacks and other sidewalk games. We spent most if not all of our playtime outdoors or in the neighborhood parks, Betsy Head and Lincoln Terrace, and when we lived in Crown Heights the magnificent Prospect Park.
Drugs were not even on our radar. Crime was something you read about or saw in gangster films. There was no fear about walking outside at night. The streets were lined with city planted Sycamore and Maple trees.
Movies played a significant part in our lives before television and we revolved our film going between the The Blue Bird and the Ambassador, which competed for our trade, the 11 cents admission. The Blue Bird would play three films, two “chapters,” a serial with a weekly cliffhanger, three cartoons, and a raffle for prizes. Once I once won a pair of roller skates.
Candy bars came out of a small vending machine and there was no popcorn then. The theaters smelled of chocolate. When any love scenes came on we became bored, made noises and threw spitballs. We cheered with intense excitement during chases, mostly with cowboys chasing bad guys and Indians, and cops chasing gangsters. There was always one usher with a flashlight and we kids drove him nuts.
My mother, an omnivorous reader and moviegoer, would take me to the movies in the middle of the week. Her hobby entitled her to free dishes that the movie moguls doled out to women patrons on a weekly basis. I can still name most actors and actresses in the black and white films that came out of the studio system in that era.
Mother got her latest novels from back of the store lending libraries for a few cents a day. Perhaps seeing my mother at her favorite pastime encouraged my own reading habits. I haunted the children’s library on Stone Avenue and must have cleared whole shelves of books for boys, mostly serials like the Boy Allies, the Hardy Boys, Bomba the Jungle Boy, The Rover Boys, and gobbled up the books of Robert Louis Stevenson. A much-thumbed set of My Bookhouse lingered on our bookshelves and followed us around when we moved.
There was no television in those days, but radio was a dominant factor in our lives. There were after school serials like ‘Billy and Betty’, ‘Little Orphan Annie’, ‘Jack Armstrong’ and many others. It never ceases to amaze me how the jingles and slogans from their commercials stick in my mind. ‘Billy and Betty’ was sponsored by Sheffield Farms, ‘Orphan Annie’ by Ovaltine, ‘Jack Armstrong’ by Wheaties.
Evenings, especially on Sundays, we would listen to the radio as a family. It was a ritual. Jack Benny, Fred Allen, Fibber McGee and Molly, Edgar Bergen and Charley McCarthy and the commercials and sound logos of those shows burned into our. Houses in those days were heated by coal chuted into basement bins. As soon as I could lift a shovel, I was recruited to shovel the coal into the furnace like other residents who “banked” the fire every night.
The streets were lined with pushcarts selling everything from clothes for all sizes and ages, both old and new, which we called “shmattas”, shoes, eyeglasses, fruit, vegetables, pickles, nuts and candy and “notions”, the various patented nostrums for the body, externally and internally. Peddlers roamed the streets buying old clothes or offering to sharpen knives.
There were a variety of horse drawn wagons driven by shouting peddlers hawking onions and potatoes, their horses soiling the streets with manure. Sweepers from the sanitation department periodically swept the streets. What they missed dried and was blown away by the breezes, but the persistent odor of manure remained.
There were no supermarkets in the neighborhood and storing food in small iceboxes meant daily shopping. Although the women shopped daily, children, like me, were often sent on errands to the grocers and bakeries. It was almost a daily chore for me to be sent out to buy bagels, butter, cream cheese, coffee, rye bread and such staples while mother and grandmother went to the butchers and other appetizing stores that dotted the area. Grocers toted up prices with mathematical certainty on the sides of brown paper bags with worn down pencils. They carved out butter from big tubs with great skill and accuracy, and the intoxicating aroma from big bags of coffee beans filled our nostrils.
I would often accompany my grandmother to the fish store, where the live fish on offer was carefully chosen by her and netted out of the tank and chopped to pieces on a platform above the tank. In the open air poultry market she chose live chickens by kneading their breasts, which were then slaughtered ritually before her eyes and plucked free of feathers by a professional chicken flicker. Processed foods were rare. Everything was fresh. Milk was delivered daily by horse drawn carts. Ice was delivered by exclusively Italian men who were all called Tony. Between deliveries I was often recruited to take my little wagon over to the icehouse for a block of ice when needed.
Although most of my friends were the first generation children of Jewish immigrants, all of us were enormously patriotic. Boy Scout troops were everywhere. My troop was 157 and we met in the finished basement of the Silverberg’s house on our street in Brownsville. We collected newspapers and silver foil for the war effort.
I was part of a Boy Scout drum and bugle corps that spent the years of WWII playing in parades and dedicating outdoor war exhibits mounting the names of those neighborhood boys who went off to war, all marked by a blue star. One of the great moments of my Boy Scout days was marching with our troops’ drum and bugle corps in the WWII victory parade down Fifth Avenue. Many of those stars however, had also turned from blue to gold, meaning killed in action.
Every school class began with the pledge of allegiance and every school assembly started with the Star Spangled Banner. We knew every word of God Bless America and America the Beautiful. Free speech was inbred and when challenged our traditional Brooklyn retort was: Getoutaheah. It’s a free country. I’ll say what ever I damned well please. Tough noogy. How typical of a Brooklynite of that era, so brassy and confrontational so “knock that off my shoulder” challenging. Anyone who still remembers the schoolyard culture of that time would immediately understand such a display of attitude.
Yes, we did have a signature language in those days and everybody made fun of it, especially the Hollywood guys, many of whom came from Brooklyn. If you asked a Brooklynite where “toity toid street and foist avenue” was or you ordered a pint of “earl” for your car, in the very rare case of your parents having one, no one corrected your elocution. Not everyone talked like that, but when you heard it you knew where the speaker was from. Very few, if any, boys used the “F” word. Our curses mostly had Yiddish derivations like schmuck, putz, nudnick, mamzer, tuchaslicker, mushugana, and many others.
There were lots of rituals that were specific to our Brooklyn neighborhoods. We “hung around” the candy store. There was one on almost every block. We drank egg creams, no eggs, just chocolate syrup, milk and soda. We ate Charlotte Russes, a little cake topped by whipped cream in a cardboard crown and we started smoking around fifteen. Cigarettes were a penny apiece.
When the sap rose, sexual victory from a teenage boy’s point of view was “everything but”. To be crudely specific, if a male teenager attained “bare tit” or “stinky pinky,” he was celebrated as a sexual athlete. Mothers were militant about protecting their daughter’s virginity. Masturbation was endemic and we were all peeping Toms.
We were mostly Brooklyn Dodger fans, and to this day I can still name most of the players of the 1930, and ‘40 rosters. We were all baseball fanatics, kept batting charts and most of us knew the statistics of every player on the New York teams. We went to Ebbets Field but could never afford any seats except those in the bleachers.
Our grandparents spoke only Yiddish and our parents were fluent in it as well, since it was the language of their early childhood. Because Jews were alleged teetotalers, there were no bars in our neighborhood. The drink of choice for older Jews was schnapps and shlivowitz, which went down like swallowing fire. There were poolrooms in every neighborhood but my parents cautioned me to stay out of them warning us that they were only for bums.
Our parents voted by Jewish name on the democratic line. My mother’s first comment when someone was reported to be a murderer or thief was “Jewish?” We were anything but what passes today as politically correct. Black people were Shvartzes. Asians were Chinks. Italians were Guineas or Wops, the Irish were Shikas meaning drunks. Anyone not Jewish was a Goy, a Shkutz or a Shiksa. We Jews were called Sheenies, Kikes, or more universally Jewbastards. Jews called lower class Jews, Mockies. Gay men were Fageles. Most women were Yentas.
These labels were not counted as visceral hate speech. They were more like identity markers, people outside our tribal circle. We lived with the memory of our grandparents’ reasons for exile from their mother countries. It was inborn. Today it would be characterized as part of our DNA. Science aside the imprint is there.
Chinese restaurants and kosher delicatessens were cheek to jowl in most neighborhoods. Even Chinese restaurants were called “Chinks”. Nobody ever called spaghetti “pasta,” and rarely was a kosher hotdog served in a roll without mustard, relish and sauerkraut. Schmaltz, pure chicken fat, was a liberal part of our diet.
On the inside of my grandparents’ kitchen doors, hanging on nails, were “pushkes” little coin banks for the support of yeshivas, hospitals, and the poor and needy. In the hot summers, Jews went either to the mountains, meaning the Catskills or to the Rockaways. We lived in tiny rooms in converted old mansions and shared iceboxes and tables with other families. These facilities were called “coochalanes.”
As first generation Americans our mantra was aspiration, ambition, education, getting ahead, making it. Scholarship was revered. A college degree was expected. Getting into the prestigious professions was extremely difficult, marked with anti-Semitism, and mined with quota systems. Advertisements for jobs and resorts were blatant with bigotry, proclaiming warnings like no ‘Jews or dogs allowed’.
Despite these barriers, Jews managed to skirt around these obstacles. If they were barred from a company, they started their own. Pushcart peddlers and traveling merchants founded their own retail outlets. Jews who became doctors through the quota systems started their own private practices, clinics and hospitals. Barred from manufacturing jobs, they established their own plants.
Believe me, I am not oblivious to the dissatisfaction and frustration. It did, indeed, exist in my world, but for some reason we kids were shielded from our parents’ trials and tribulations. Perhaps my memories have censored out the bad stuff. On the other hand, I do remember with absolute certainty the sense of being loved, cared for and protected by our mothers. A mother who was always with me in body and spirit, and a father who toiled for our welfare as best he could. There was no money, although we never thought of ourselves as poor people.
Many German Jews who came to America decades before the mass migration of Eastern European Jews had made their fortunes and were only grudgingly accepting of those who came afterwards. Although they looked down their noses at these wannabe newcomers like my parents and grandparents, they did out of tribal loyalty and obligation offer financial assistance, despite the class snobbery. These days there is less of a divide along these lines.
In front of Hoffman’s Cafeteria on Pitkin Avenue in Brownsville men stood around in perpetual argument about injustice and complaints about the rich, the bosses, inequality just as people do today, but in that era, before computers, it was a lot more face to face and person to person. Most Jews were democrats although many had socialist leanings thinking that such a system would put an end to prejudice and economic injustice. For us, Franklin Roosevelt was God. All Republicans lived on another planet and were often characterized as anti-Semites.
In our little plot of America in Brooklyn we never felt lesser. We bought into the proposition that hard work would yield economic stability. My parents never helped with my homework or participated in PTA work, but somehow they conveyed the message that you were supposed to get an education, that you were ordained to go to college, that you were going to be successful someday and in this great country everything was possible.
My Brooklyn was the land of hope and growing up on that turf was a privilege and a joy. For many of us who lived through it, it was very the best of times. I am not alone in that view. A half-century from now, contemporary Brooklynites will be bragging over their Brooklyn days and putting down what Brooklyn is like in its current incarnation just as I’m doing now.
That old Brooklyn, the one I knew in the thirties and forties, was a unique and glorious time, miraculously preserved in the mind reiterates the premise that my Brooklyn, at least to me, was a great gift of extraordinary satisfaction and celebration. In the summing up through the prism of youthful memories, one realizes that the natural symphony of life is plagued with lots of sour and dissonant notes, but despite that the orchestra manages to soar, and deliver its pulsating message of buoyant expectation before silence ensues.
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