500 Ocean Ave.
Someone lives upstairs from me now. I hate it. The last time I had such a situation, I was about six. This is the story of living at 500 Ocean Ave.
We had left Belle Harbor and moved back to 1 Saint Paul’s Court. Nothing in my memory bank tells me why the building was graced with such a name. I can only assume that since the building business in those days was heavily Italian and Italians were heavily Catholic and so on. It did however have a court between the sidewalk and the lobby. It was a low-rise brick building maybe two or three stories high. Close friends lived one block away in a cookie cutter look-a-like building. Coming off the sidewalk one walked into a courtyard to the front door. Thus, the Court part of the name always made sense to me.
To move, one needs a moving man. Of course, you need moving men and a moving company, but the phrase was always the moving man. My mother’s guy was Tom Bassknight. Why on earth would I remember that? Because the first time I saw his truck, which was the biggest thing I’d ever seen in my life, his name, which I couldn’t read, was emblazoned across it. Secondly my exposure to him and his crew was my first to black men, big ones. I remember being amazed. At what? That they were black.
So, Tom et al took us back to Brooklyn. Horizontally across the street from One St. Paul’s Court was a high-rise apartment building. It had notable features. One was a family, not Jewish, that had escaped from Germany. They had a son who was 3 years older than I and twice my size who wore lederhosen which was weird looking. He spoke with a heavy German accent, actually said that it was OK that I was a Jew (I told everyone anything, including during this time when I developed a fondness for dog biscuits…), and was far more adventurous than I. That streak led one day to the idea that brings in the building’s second notable feature, a big, dark, dank, furnace room which had many other big, dark, dank rooms to get through before on reached this fire-spewing, heat hurtling, metal monster that ate mountains of coal that clattered off a truck that showed up on the street every week or so.
In that room was reputed to be rats, lots of large ones. One day my Jew-loving, lederhosen draped friend decided we should gather up a few more boys, a few sticks and stones, and he would lead us on a rat-hunt. It was the first time I remember being gripped by that feeling I was going to have to do something I really didn’t want to do and that instinct that it would be something my mother would never let me do. With those two feelings weighing on me, through the door that should have been locked and down the steps we went.
I’d like to tell you that the rats were there. I’d like to tell you that we confronted them and had tales of conquers to recount years later to others at the great councils of kid-dom, and the field was left littered but thereafter rat free. I can’t tell you any of that. As we stealthily approached the furnace, me fighting this terrible urge to have to urinate, it went on. WHOOOOSH! It went as it took a deep breath, sucked in air, and exploded with fire so that Mrs. Bernstein in 7E could have warm radiators.
Me? That was it for me. At the sound of the “W” I turned tailed and was out of there so fast I’m not sure the “hooooosh” ever caught up to my ears. Leaving behind me were the words, “Well no rats here. Time for dinner. See ya!”
Up the stairs, I went, bolting through the still unlocked door, across the street—don’t remember if I looked both ways or not—round the corner, into the court, and up to the apartment I went, conceivably in Olympic record time, maybe even Guinness Book record time. I thought I could get away without giving up the secret even though I was probably hyperventilating. Whistling like Tom Sawyer was not in my repertoire. Then the all-seeing, all-knowing mother asked, “Billy—where did all that black soot come from? It looks like coal dust. Were you playing…..”
For years, I swore mothers had super powers.
And then time was time for Tom to show up again.
This time we were “movin’ on up,” literally and figuratively. We moved up one block over and up five stories into a recently built apartment building. Its newness was marked by the red of its bricks compared to the brownish red of the much older 1 St. Paul’s Court. 500 Ocean Avenue was a marvel. It had a balcony that looked down on a very busy street, Ocean Avenue, so there was always something to see. In the hallway it had this trapdoor in the wall called the incinerator and you could throw things down it to feed the furnace making that little door have a very ominous meaning to me. And before Tom would show up once again, 500 Ocean Avenue provided 3 very different stories.
At 5 or 6 and a balcony from which one can see the world below if standing on tippy-toes, one gets a totally different perspective on life. The world is seen now from below eye level than from above it. Ocean Avenue was always a-buzz with traffic on the two-way street and people on what always seems to be too narrow sidewalks, and one or twice, due to accidents, things went in reverse with cars on the sidewalk and people in the street skirting around them.
If I stretched my neck and looked out to the right, I could see the trolley cars on Church Avenue, watch, fascinated by the sparks that were thrown off the lines as the cars switched tracks, and be entranced by the ever-so-distinctive “clang, clang, clang” yes of the trolley car, so distinctive that those very words were a line in a popular song, “Clang, clang, clang went the trolley.”
At one particular time someone really special would show up, the organ grinder. He was a little man, dressed in the part, with a little monkey. I begged and begged, “Mommy, take me downstairs, take me downstairs.” Only once did I get the timing right with the man and monkey in sight, but yet to be on our block, my mother’s mood to do it, and the elevator with no one using it so no time was lost waiting.
And it was everything I hoped for. The man was from Italy; I’m assuming the monkey was not. It looked Chinese, which I thought was really funny. Later I learned it was a Capuchin monkey. He had on this little cap and excitedly ran too and froth on his leash jumping in one fell swoop from his master’s shoulder to the ground and back again. Then he ran up to me and held out his little paw. My mother had to be properly prepared with a coin. He took it from my hand, put it in his mouth and bit on it (the humor of which I didn’t understand ‘til years later), then hopped up on the man’s arm and dropped it—clink—into his cup. What fun! Of course, I wanted a monkey….
But not everything of interest was down below. Some nights there would be an unholy racket that came from above. My dad would look up at the ceiling and say, “Slapsie Maxie’s at it again.” Apparently a well-known boxer, well past his prime, nick-named “Slapsie Maxie” I think from being a little goofy from getting hit a lot, lived above us with his wife. In his day he was a middle weight of some championship caliber and an oddity because he was Jewish (Max Rosenbloom), boxing not being a sport that drew a lot of Jews into the ring. Betting yes. Owning fighters, yes. Gambling illegally, yes. Getting smashed around a ring, no.
Periodically he and Mrs. R. would have at it after one or the other of them would have a few and then a few more until it was a few too many. Then they would get into these screaming matches. Following the screaming came the noises, noises like someone was moving heavy furniture. It sounded like that because that’s what it was. When Maxie was mad enough he’d start pushing around the furniture. Why? Do I know? Probably to mess with his wife by re-arranging everything. The noise ceased being followed by a slamming door that rattled the walls, followed by the hum of the elevator followed by Mrs. Rosenbloom starting the noise up again by moving everything back. It made for some long nights, fortunately mostly on the weekends.
Then there was that aforementioned trap-door in the wall, the incinerator. Here we take a detour. So, we know a monkey was out of the question and Salty was gone. One of my aunts had given me as a present a life sized Persian cat. Here sadly, and never to be forgiven, came together the story of the cat and the incinerator.
The cat became for me what Linus’ blanket was for him. Unfortunately for me, the cat had joints that blankets don’t. After a year or more of carrying this poor, stuffed creature around, his neck crooked in my arm, he split a seam. In those days, stuffed animals were stuffed with straw and it wasn’t long before my mother began finding straw here and there, in the bed, on the rug, under the dining room table. She made a unilateral decision that the cat had to go. The decision wasn’t that the cat had to go to the seamstress to have its neck sewn up. The decision was the cat had to go into the fires of hell, be dropped down the incinerator. With me wailing at her heels, she marched my precious cat down the hall, opened the incinerator closet door, snatched down the handle protruding from the wall and with unceremonious dispatch dispatched my cat. Screaming as I was, I was lucky I didn’t follow it down the shute courtesy of my mother.
Murder it was and in the first degree. And as I said, a crime for which there never came forgiveness.
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