The New Years Eve parties that my Grandparents had at 399 East 4th were something else. For what seemed like days they would both prepare the food for the party. Turkey, ham, roast beef, cole slow, potato salad, black beans and white rice, fried bananas, along with many traditional dishes from Spain too complicated to mention. My Grandfather Paco was a true gentleman also. There he was alongside my Grandmother as usual in the kitchen helping prepare all the dishes that would be spread out on the dining room table by six o’clock on December 31st., including desserts all made by hand. You could usually expect upwards to fifty people at the house on New Years Eve. Cousins from as close as East 2nd street to as far as Patterson, New Jersey made the trek to Kensington for the “Big Bash”. Just packing the house like sardines in a tin can and usually spilling out onto the front porch too. But one problem that always faced the family was the lack of chairs. Sure there was the couch and Paco’s lazy boy along with the eight or so dining room chairs. But still they were all just a very small dent on the side of the big ship called 399, and simply not enough to support all the guests. So one year after Christmas my Uncle Manuel who lived on East 2nd street told my Grandfather Paco about the idea of renting chairs from Pitta’s on McDonald Avenue. “Pitta’s” was and still is a funeral home off Fort Hamilton Parkway, and according to my uncle Manuel, "never does New Years Eve funerals". So why not drive over there and ask about renting some chairs for a “good price” was his suggestion to my Grandfather. Now you have to understand that my Uncle Manual was always looking for a “good price”. He was tall and thin and had to be at least 6 feet 5. He had the most booming “Brooklyn” voice you could ever imagine, which was unusual for a Spaniard born in Cuba. He was a truck driver and sometimes brought boxes of things that “fell off the truck” to our house. So when it came to finding a “good price” or "no price" at all, you could always depend on my Uncle Manuel to find it. My grandfather Paco on the other hand was alot more reserved than my Uncle Manual and never really asked where the boxes "fell" from, but glady took anything my Uncle offered him. I guess they were just the "SAP" versions of "Oscar and Felix", but still, they both somehow managed to get along quite well as brother-in-laws. “Hey, you kids ready to help get the chairs?” said my Uncle Manuel. “Sure!” said my brother Joseph, Pete, and I in unison. “Now you know this place we’re going to is a funeral home, so I don’t want to hear any screaming when you see a stiff, ok?” said my Uncle Manuel. All of us shook our heads together, including me, too embarrassed to ask my older brother what a “stiff” was. So we walked down the stairs and piled into our 62 Rambler wagon and drove to Pittas on McDonald Avenue. We parked the Rambler in the back of the Funeral Parlor by the loading dock, where they bring in the new customers. My Uncle Manuel made the sign of the cross when he got out of the car, although I never remember seeing him in Church. “Now you children must not go into any of the other rooms, we must respect the property and only go where the man tells us to. We are here to pick up chairs and not to play,” said my Grandfather Paco. My uncle Manuel on the other hand just started laughing and told us not to look at the “stiffs” because we might have nightmares. We walked up the back steps into the funeral parlor, I immediately started smelling something sweet, and thought it must have been flowers. The carpet was a dark red and the place was really cold. As we walked up the hallway there were doors to the left and right of us, all closed. “Here are the chairs, how many do you need?’ said the owner. As my Grandfather Paco and Uncle Manuel worked out a deal on the chairs we started walking back down the hallway we just walked up from. All the doors had nameplates on them and all but one was closed shut. It was open about a half an inch and was completely dark inside. “You want to look?” said my brother Joseph to Pete and I. We just said nothing as he started to open the door; the smell of the flowers became stronger as the door opened more. We noticed a light coming from the front of the room but still couldn’t see anything. “Come on, just open it,” said my cousin Pete. We all slowly pushed the wooden door open with our eyes closed. Once it was fully open we all opened our eyes. Our screams could probably be heard in the subway tunnel deep below McDonald Avenue that day. There in the dark room below the glow of a single white lamp was an elderly bald man lying in a wooden casket. He had white hair on the sides of his head and wore glasses. Not knowing what do or where to run we just stood there screaming at the top of our little lungs. Before we could move the heavy hands of my Uncle Manuel and Grandfather Paco were on our shoulders pulling us backwards. As I looked at my Grandfather his face was red and he looked quite angry. My Uncle Manuel on the other hand was laughing at the top of his 6 foot 5 lungs. The man at the funeral parlor just smiled at my Grandfather and said “that’s OK it happens all the time. My Grandfather didn’t say much during the ride back to East 4th, but seemed to forget about it by the time we parked in the driveway. We all helped carry up the chairs and another New Years Eve Party at 399 East 4th was well underway. Just waiting for the "ball to drop" and scream "Happy New Year" at the top of our lungs in the Brooklyn of my youth, a long time ago.
The next time you’re walking from the subway on Church Avenue, make sure to make a left into the "Deal 99 Cent Store". Take out that two dollars you have in your pocket, and hand it to the lady in the ticket booth on the side where that guy sells all the hats and gloves.
She will probably not smile and give you a small "Admit One" ticket. You will then walk up the long entranceway that leads inside the Beverly and immediately start to smell stale popcorn. But not to worry because you see them popping it in the machine on the other side of the heavy wooden doors.
As you open the door to the go inside, a young man will be standing there to take your ticket. You hand it to him and he rips it in two, one half goes into a wooden box, the other you put in your pocket. Hey, how about some fresh popcorn and a Coke? You walk up to the concession stand and immediately notice a roach under the glass, walking upside down. You pass on the popcorn and opt for "Snow Caps" instead. You hand the woman a dollar and wait for your change, you think for a second about telling her you saw a roach.
But hey, this is the Beverly and Church Avenue isn't exactly Madison. So you just walk away and up the ramp that leads to the main theater. And there it is again, no matter how many times you've been to the Beverly the chandelier that’s bigger than a house is just beautiful as ever, hanging from the ceiling. It must have over a thousand lights, and hundreds and hundreds of crystals. It simply gleams like a star in the darkness, even though it's covered with dust.
The 70's have not been good to the Beverly and you wonder what that place was like when your Mom was young. Did the screen still have that giant stain on it? Was the floor always sticky? were the seats always torn?. Suddenly the lights dim to black, the screen awakens and the movie starts.
You just sit there staring at that big magnificent chandelier, its crystals still sparkling in the darkness, and you can't help but imagine a Beverly that you never knew, a long, long time ago.
Oh, the smell of a new Christmas tree at 399 East 4th. The fragrant pine just filled the living room with the "aroma of the wild". And with pine needles falling in my hair, along with an ornament or two shattering on my Lionel tracks. There I was, all 7 years of "little man Brooklyn" at the controls of my own little railroad running under the tree.
Oh, the smell of a new Christmas tree at 399 East 4th. The plastic pine tree just filled the living room with it's wonderful "freshly factory made smell". And there I was all 13 years of "little puberty man Brooklyn" trying to figure out how the heavy wire branches fit into the "broom-stick like" shaft of the "E.J. Korvettes" tree of the future.
Oh, the smell of a new Christmas tree at 399 East 4th. The chrome-like branches just filled the air with no smell at all. I only wonder what an electrical short would have looked like on my cousin Pete's silver chrome Christmas tree. From the sidewalk in front of the house it must have looked so beautiful and silver. The tree of the "space age", and 399 was it's "mission control center". And there I was all 18 years of "teenage Brooklyn", just happy my cousins still lived in my house.
Oh, the smell of a new Christmas tree at 399 East 4th. Actually after about 10 years of use, the plastic "E.J. Korvettes" tree didn't smell any more. And with my Mom's eyesight going she actually used one of the branches to clean the toilet with one day. Because I was 23 years old and out most of the time, I never realized until New Years Day that she and my sister Isabel assembled it upside down. Using short branches at the bottom and the long at the top.
Oh, the smell of a new Christmas tree at 399 East 4th. The fragrant pine just filling the living room with the "aroma of the wild". With pine needles falling in my graying hair along with a "shatterproof" ornament bouncing off my Lionel train tracks. There I am, all 49 years of "middle age man Brooklyn" at the controls of my own little railroad under the tree. Just making sure my kids don't cause a derailment!
Back when I was a kid growing up in Kensington you rarely saw a parent taking a kid on the subway at 8:AM. And if you did, is was probably for a doctor’s visit down on Clinton Street, or a day off to see the Christmas Tree at Rockefeller Center. No, no trains here, we just walked up our block and made the right on Avenue C. Our loyal institution of learning was just that close, and that was “too close”. Oh, public school 179, how I hated seeing you from my front window each and every day. With your two gigantic smoke stacks rising high in the sky there was no way I could miss you, even on the weekends. And on those dark winter mornings you were there too, the classroom lights just turning on before my little blue eyes. Flick, flick, flick, “yes we’re open for business”, “see you soon!”. Oh, and lets not forget to say the “Pledge of Allegiance” an hour and a half before we said it again in class. There was that little tiny figure again standing on the roof of the school, raising the “Stars and Stripes” on that tall white flag pole. Sometimes I even used my binoculars to see if it was one of my teachers trying to send me a message. But my best instincts told me it was just the maintenance man. Forget Pre-school, Pre-K, or Special-K, it was kindergarten when you were five years old and nothing else. “Pete let go of the pole”. My cousin Pete and brother Joseph were the first to fall victim to the giant “Monster of Grout” on Avenue C. But Pete’s first day had to be the most memorable. There he was just holding on to the dark green enamel pole in the gym for dear life. My Aunt Dolores and Uncle Pete trying to un-lock his tiny arms that were wrapped tightly around it. “No, no, no, I’m not going, noooooooo!” At some point according to history my Uncle lifted my cousin up by his "Buster Browns" and held him horizontally trying to pull him off the pole. My cousin did loose a valiant battle that day, his little hands succumbing to the strength of two massive adults. But not before he scratched off some lead based paint from the green pole. And me? well I had a whole year to absorb all the horror stories about your “first day”, and the nightmare called “kindergarten”. The strange kids, the white paste, ice cream sticks, and the dreaded colored construction paper. Yes, my “Castle of my discontentment” was right there before me, and I saw it every day. And forget any “gifted programs” at 179 back in 1963; no, you were just ranked by your class number. The low digits meant you were smart, i.e.; 4-1, 4-2. While the high numbers meant you better start learning how to mix concrete, because you weren’t going to law school any time soon. But kindergarten was still a mixed bag, where they proudly paired the lawyers and the plumbers of tomorrow all in the same room. “Hey kid, do you have any “Pez Candy?” “What do you mean?” I said. “Lopezzzzz, Pez Candy, Lopezzzzz!”. And that’s when I started to cry. My first day of kindergarten and I was already being mocked. I tried to stay calm but then suddenly I felt rage building inside of me, just wanting to glue that kids face with some construction paper and white paste. “Ronnie, just remember the first day is always the hardest”, said my Mom's voice from deep inside my head. So I put down the glue and just walked away. Well, the days turned to weeks, the weeks to months, the months to years. Junior High, High School, College. And the days at P.S. 179 just became a distant memory of my childhood. It’s strange but I still see the giant smoke stacks of P.S. 179 from my front window, and my son passes it almost every day on his way to school in Bay Ridge. I wish going to school for him was as easy as it was when I was a kid. Just a walk up the block and then a right on Avenue C. But that’s just another story for another day. But maybe some things really don’t change; every September when school starts my son Andres gets very nervous about the new school year. I just try to remind him that “the first day is always the hardest” and if he ever gets mad, just “put down the glue and walk away”.
The truth is my "Castle of Discontentment" actually became my "Castle of Enchantment". And I still smile like I did in my kindergarten class photo each and every day when I pass P.S. 179, never forgetting my first day. (I am second row, second from left)
Back in 2005 we had a 30 year reunion down at the Avenue F hockey court. This was a little something I gave out to the guys. The man who was in charge of the league back in the 70's and 80's was a fellow named Fred Allen. The get together was in his honor because he passed away earlier that year. Fred gave up so much of his time for us, making sure we always had a place to play hockey. I remember sometimes it was so cold ice cycles grew from the bottom of my goalie mask during a game. And there was Fred with his "Long Shoreman's" wool cap trying to blow the whistle for an off side pass. Except the ball inside the whistle was frozen to the metal so it made no sound. Oh, the little things in life that make me laugh after all these years.
Writers note: This was an e-mail I sent to the guys, my cousin Pete thought it was "Blog worthy". So you can blame him.
As I was skating through Central Park today a very strange but familiar smell entered my nose on the West Drive around 105th street. It was Horseradish!. Now for a second and just a very brief second the thought of a terrorist smog attack in the form of horseradish entered my mind. But it left soon enough, leaving me to think of no other place than my goalie crease at Avenue F. I closed my eyes for a second as I skated up the hill at around 95th street. And could only smile as the smell of Horseradish and a beautiful Mid-December day reminded my of the 70's and 80's at our old rink. There was Robert Brennan way across the court making some great stand-up kick saves, there was Pete Liria with his "Wolfman" beard yelling at Bill Webster (the referee) after I pulled his "goal" out of the net. You know Pete, that really was a goal, I'm sorry. But that full beard at 16 was really impressive never the less! And little Tommy Brennan with his head barely reaching the crossbar. Oh, and I know you guys were all there too, all smelling the same thing. Come on, you have to remember that Gold's Horseradish used to be behind the South end of the Avenue F Roller Hockey rink, don't you? They abandoned Brooklyn along with Glen Gruder to move to Long Island some years back. Even making a bogus attempt to name the street where the factory is on Long Island, "Brooklyn Avenue". But the truth is they left. And to dig even further into this fragrant odor, I believe it was strongest during the week vs. the weekend. They may have been closed on Saturdays and Sundays, but you still got a whiff of it anyway. Oh yes, slapshots from the point, glove saves, cheap goals and the smell of Gold's Horseradish. Life could never be better.
The blue flame suddenly roars to life, it rumbles deep in the belly of the dark basement below. Cold rusty pipes begin to warm as fire boils dirty brown water inside heavy iron coils. The radiator hisses and drools as hot steam begins its long journey through the highway of conduits that lead to silver valves above. They come alive and breathe a heavy breath, and like warriors they stand guard in the corners of your house. Then it starts again, the tapping of the pipes by the demons in the basement. With iron mallets they smash at the hot iron pipes, daring you to meet them in the dark caverns below. The cold air of your room begins to fade, replaced by a warm vapor of steam. The softness of your pillow, the comfort of your home, you close your eyes and fall asleep. Sweet dreams to you, oh Kensington homeowner, and try not to have nightmares about your next Keyspan bill.
The token booth was old and black and it was not very big at all. It's hard to say what it was made of; it may have even been wood. The booth stood in the middle of the station, quite far from Church Avenue and an equal distance to Albemarle Road. The North/South corridor is now closed for construction, but if it ever opens again you could still see the bolt threads that were cut flush to the concrete. I know because I saw them just a few years ago. I remember that my head barely reached the old wooden coin exchange when I would hand the clerk fifteen cents. And of course my Mom was standing right behind me when he gave me the token, which was about the size of a dime at the time. I just handed it to my Mom and then ducked under the large wooden turnstile, making sure not to hit my head. Forget the beeps, lights, and stainless steel that you passed through this morning on the way to work. It was old painted metal and worn out wood. And you had to be sure not to touch the turnstile; you may even get a splinter. Because the token booth was right in the middle of the station the distance to the nearest staircase was not that close either. So if you ever saw the lights of the F up at Ditmas Avenue from the corner of Church and McDonald chances are you would NEVER make that train. So the Church Avenue commuters of yesteryear certainly got a workout each and every day trying to catch the train. The Manhattan bound platform was never really pretty either; even as a five year old back in 63, it smelled like things I just didn't understand yet. "The lights, the lights", I would yell to my Mom, pointing up the black tunnel towards Avenue C. And that’s when it happened every time; she would take her very strong Polish arm and just lock it around my chest from behind. Giving me a close look at the gold and diamond ring she wore. I just said nothing as the very dark and dirty train roared into the station. With yellow lights shining from the inside it almost looked like a hotel rather than a train. My Mom would always grab my hand real tight too when walked inside the car. The seats were bamboo, the walls were a ugly green and there were gigantic oscillating fans spinning on the ceiling. So maybe on second thought it looked more like a bar on Miami Beach rather than a hotel. There was no constant hum of an air condioning system, LCD lights or whatever electronics that make today’s subway cars sound like your computer's hard drive. No, it was this low pitched chugging of compressor motors building up brake pressure, babies crying, people talking, laughing or coughing. And of course the squeaky sounds of the fans turning overhead. The doors just closed too, no bongs or PA system either to tell you to "watch out". There was also the odor of burning electric, grease and oil. I could only compare it to the "Eldorado" at Coney Island, an electric bumper car ride. We would usually find a seat and I'd watch the dark green doors slowly close. The train would slowly lurch forward, and we'd be on our way. With a low pitched "groan" that slowly built into a higher pitched "whine" you heard every single sound that the electric motors below your feet made. With the yellow tunnel lights passing the outside of each window like a stream of stars, the old train would creak and rattle and dance away on the rails below. The sweet sounds of the subway was all you heard, leaning against my Mom I would close my eyes and fall asleep.
I sometimes take my son to the Pavilion up by 15th Street; instead of driving we just take the train. “Hey Dad, why do you put your arm around my chest when the train comes?” "Oh, did I do that?". “I don’t know Son, I guess it’s just a habit”.
You know those subjects you can’t bring up at the dinner table, the ones that get some people mad. No, were not talking about politics or religion here, it’s something worse.
Back in the summer of 1956 my Grandmother and Grandfather decided to take a stab at the big fat cash cow called “Church Avenue”. Now, Church Avenue has always been excellent when it came to simple “foot traffic”, even back in the summer of 1956. Except for one slight problem according to my Grandfather “Paco”. The more affluent people with money in their pockets simply made the left from the F-Train and walked along Church to Ocean Parkway. They never looked towards Dahill Road or even bothered to give it a second thought.
The name of my Grandmothers store was “Isabel’s”; it was located at 90 Church Avenue. Basically the cash cows “tail”, which rarely moved to swat a fly no less. My Grandmother Isabel was always a working woman you see. And she usually held positions such as supervisor or “floor lady” wherever she worked. One of her specialties was hand-made lampshades, and she was proud of her position at Krasnours Lamp Shade Factory on Prince street in Manhattan. She was the floor lady there; basically supervising the workers to make sure the quality of the shades were up to standard. A job she held for many years until she decided to give her own business a shot one day. So with the knowledge of Kensington and a “store for rent” sign at 90 Church, my Grandparents took a plunge into owning their own business. The Grand Opening was sometime in the summer of 1956. They sold custom-made silk lampshades, imported plates, crystal, porcelain figurines and various other “high end “ knick-knacks. The entire family worked there and helped to keep it a float. My Mom, Dad, Aunt Dolores, and Uncle Pete helping out my Grandmother and Grandfather any way they could. Making deliveries, working the register or taking the F-Train to Canal street to buy the lamp shade skeletons that gave them their shapes.
I always remember my Grandfathers face getting red when he used to talk about “the store”. “What a waste of money, we should have invested in another property instead”. “God Dam store!”. Now you have to remember that as kids growing up we only heard about “the store”, because it closed down before my cousins and I were even born. Although we knew something had happened once, there was an entire room in the basement full of lampshade skeletons, rolls of silk material, plates and porcelain figurines. And a wonderful large old-fashioned gold cash register in the garage. A huge monster that just sat in the corner gathering dust. As kids we used to play with it, pushing hard down on the buttons to make a metal numeral flip up in a glass window. Or just hide Matchbox or Hotwheels cars in the coin slots.
“There they go, never walking this way” said my Grandfather Paco standing in front of the store at 90 Church Avenue. “This side of Church Avenue is invisible, this store may as well be in the middle of the woods up in the country”. “With all their money in their pockets, they just walk to their castles in the sky on Ocean Parkway”. “The people that walk past this store are the working class poor, who only look and never buy”. My Grandmother just looked at my Grandfather and said; “You mean just like us?” My Grandfather just shook his head and my Grandmother just kept working away, cutting patterns and sewing the beautiful silk shades and hoping for a miracle. Because she always believed that those who worked hard survived, and they both survived the Great Depression right here in New York City. My Grandfather Paco selling Good Humor ice cream off his back in Central Park and my Grandmother making hand made silk flowers from their apartment on Pearl street in downtown Brooklyn. Now the site of Metrotech. So there was going to be no giving up here, at least not without a fight.
I remember it was something like 1984 when we sold the cash register. I think my aunt listed it in the Buy Lines. And it must have weighed at least 100 pounds. My cousin Pete and I both helped the man carry it to his car. I think he gave us 25 dollars for it. He was opening up his own business somewhere here in Brooklyn, and he liked the old fashioned register. We tried selling the lampshade skeletons back in 1990, the man who looked at them thought they were beautiful, but the rust on them was too much and would only destroy the silk. When he was leaving we even offered them for free, he just smiled and said “no thanks”.
With rent being paid on time and little business coming in, the store closed about two years after it opened. There was no meat on this “cows tail”, and my grandfather Paco always had his reservations about that side of Church Avenue. And unfortunately he was right. My Dads 1957 Plymouth station wagon pulled up in front of 90 Church Avenue that day. All the contents of the store were hauled to our house at 399. The inventory was split between my aunt’s old room, the basement and the garage. A month later the store was for rent again.
The lamp shades made great props for parties when we wore them on our heads as teenagers. And not to mention there was always an endless supply of porcelain doll eyes for us to look into as kids, constantly worried that they would move, or blink. I spoke to my aunt Dolores the other day, and she said the basic story about her mothers store could be summed up as “wrong place in the wrong time”. I laughed and told her that Grandma would have made a killing in today’s Park Slope with a store like that. She said that Grandma would have loved to open the store in Manhattan, but just couldn’t afford the rent.
But not all family stories have crash landings like “Isabel’s”. About ten years after my Grandmothers store closed, her niece Dolores and husband Buzzy opened up another place you may have heard of. Its still called the “Buzzarama” and managed to survive over forty years on the “cows tail” of Church Avenue.
And my Grandfather Paco, well he always believed real estate was your best bet and bought two hundred acres of land in upstate New York. Right before the store fiasco and just five years after he bought 399 East 4th. So “Isabel’s” was just a bump in the road, a bad decision, and a “wrong place at the wrong time”. Sure they lost money with the store and it made my Grandfathers face turn red at the dinner table. But hell, that one hundred pound cash register was sure fun to play with along with those dozens of lampshades on New Years Eve.
And like they say, if you never try, you'll never know.
It's always hard to forget your first boat. Mine was about 18 feet long and a dark forest green. It had light tan captains chairs and a 350 Buick V8. And you had to be real careful when you backed it out of the dock too, not to sideswipe the house or scratch the freshly compounded paint on the bushes.
Then when you’re rolling down the river you gotta make sure to have your “Boston” 8-Track on full volume, and at least one hand on the wheel. Just washing the kids and the elderly into their front stoops from your powerful wake. Oh, and you better not have any small stones in-between your hubcaps and the whitewall tires, because that noise just ain’t cool. Ting, Ting, Ting.
And you never have to worry about getting lost at sea or Prospect Park either, because all you’d have to do is shoot up a flair and have the Coast Guard land right on your hood. Yeah, that hood was so dam big!
I think it was late October back in 1976 when I got the bug to buy my first car. I was 19 at the time and always imagined it to be something real cool too. Oh, lets see........70 Cuda, 68 AMX, 69 Dodge Charger. All the car models I built as a kid with my cousin Pete upstate in the Catskills, on those very rainy days. And now, I could own one all for myself!. Heck, my friend from work Peter LoBianco even had a Pontiac Astra lined up for me, nice two door with a small V8, but the deal fell through.
“You know Ronnie, my sister and Frank are thinking about selling their car” said my Mom. “Oh, I don’t know Mom, that’s not the kind of car I really had in mind”.
Now, let me tell you about my Aunt Beatrice and Uncle Frank’s Buick. It was only three years old but looked like it went through the mill. Although my Uncle Frank worked for "Wonder Bread" in Queens, by the look of the car you’d think he used it as a cab. It was constantly dirty and the interior was yellowed and smelled like cigarette smoke. There were scratches all over it and it had a big dent in the rear passengers side quarter panel from when my Uncle Frank sideswiped a Amish Buggy in Lancaster, PA. Oh, and buy the way don’t believe that crap that those people don’t go in cars, they chased my uncle and shook him down for 300 bucks. In a red pick-up truck no less. So you see the idea of buying that car and possibly being a marked man for the rest of my life in Amish Country wasn’t exactly something this Brooklyn boy had in mind.
“I think they want 2000 dollars for it” said my mom. The price wasn’t exactly a bargain, but then again the car did have low mileage and with some Clorox, compound and wax, you never know what you could come up with. “My sister said that if you don’t want it they would buy it back”.
Oh right, my aunt would send bogus letters to GE, saying all her light bulbs were defective just to get a box of free ones. So, I knew the car was “never” going to be returned. “So, what do you think Ronnie?” “Should I tell her OK?”. At that point I looked towards the heavens asking my Brother and Father what I should do. Hoping to hear some voice whisper in my ear. But, there was no voice, and all I could think about was the time we got stuck on route 17 near Monticello, in my Dad’s 63 Rambler on our way to Downsville. Thinking we were going to never be found and freeze to death just a few hundred feet from a Jewish bungalow colony. And then those two letters just came out of my mouth, there was no turning back now. “OK”.
So the next morning we went to see my next door neighbor Mr. Blank over at Nationwide on Church avenue for the insurance cards, and then Greater on McDonald Avenue to cut us a money order for 2000 dollars. It was down the subway stairs to the F-train, and a long ride to 179 street Jamaica, last stop.
Now at 19, I was an F-train veteran you know. From changing prices on hockey sticks at Mays on Jay street, when I was 12. To my daily ride to the High School of Art & Design on Lexington ave. until I was 17. I had it down. But today the ride was especially long, and forget about Queens. Anything after Lexington avenue should just as well be Kansas, because I never really go to Queens. Except of course to see Aunt Beatrice and Uncle Frank. But “Queens Village” is so close to Long Island, I never really considered it was part of the city anyway. As we walked up the stairway I could see my uncle Frank in his new 77 Olds Cutlass waiting by the curb. “So, you must be excited Ronnie” said my Uncle. I got inside the car, smiled and nodded to my uncle. As we got closer to their house I started to become more excited, and with a money order for 2000 dollars in my pocket, I knew I would be driving back to Brooklyn in my first car.
My uncle parked his car in front of his house and it was up the driveway we went to take a look at the Buick. “I didn’t get a chance to clean it or anything” said my Uncle. Knowing my Uncle never cleaned it anyway, I just said “that’s OK”. And everything was just like I remembered it, cigarette butts in the ashtray, the yellowed interior, the smell of stale smoke, and the dent from the Amish Buggy. Not to mention the scratches and the overall look as though it was waxed with sand and Brillo.
Well, we handed my aunt and uncle the money order and celebrated with coffee and cake on their kitchen table. It was congratulations, kisses and hugs and then it was on our way to Kensington, Brooklyn.
The ride on the Belt Parkway was smooth sailing, My poor Mom indured about an hours worth of WPLJ. “Meat Loaf” “that’s a real funny name” said my Mom. “In my day singers used their real names, like Tony Bennett and Bing Crosby”. “What a bunch of idiots today”.
And then finally I saw it, like a beacon in the night. Exit 7N, Ocean Parkway! We made the right off the Belt and on to the service road, another right onto Ocean Parkway and it wouldn’t be long now. As the alphabet got closer to C, I started to feel the excitement and reality of finally owning my own car. We made a big left hand turn onto Beverly Road and then another onto East 4th.
To this day I clearly remember the reflections of the trees above moving along the dark green hood as I got closer to my house. I just felt so damm proud finally driving my own car. Another big left and up the driveway we went. The guys were there too sitting on my front stoop, just watching. I guess word travels fast on my block. As I put it in park and started opening the drivers door to get out, Glen, Neil, and Pete opened up both back doors and got in. “Hey Lopez, what do you think you’re doing?” “Lets go for a ride” “I think Coney Island sounds good” “Don’t they have a Nathans there?”.
Well, from that day on the “Buick” became the car for the guys on the block. I cleaned her and polished all the scratches from her hood and fenders. I scrubbed the white walls and hung a cherry air freshener from the radio knob along with a disco ball from the rear view mirror. The “Buick” was nothing less than a Saturday night cruiser. We also had the latest in technology too, an 8-track and a CB, along with bowling balls in the trunk for a stable ride. But don’t read me wrong here, the “Buick” was also tough as a Hummer too. On one ill faded camping trip to Downsville NY, I drove her up our logging road on a Friday night. Too tired to carry all our backpacks and equipment, we just set up camp as an electrical fire from the starter motor almost sent her to “hubcap heaven”. But regardless the beat just went on and on for the Buick. Although sometimes it almost stopped for us as well.
One Sunday morning back in 1980 on the way to McCarren Park in the wasteland known as Williamsburg, we lost some valuable hockey equipment that was piled inside our hockey net strapped to the roof. I stupidly stopped the Buick on the other side of a curve, just East of the Brooklyn Bridge on the BQE. We almost became a newspaper headline that day, but thanks to an alert oil truck driver all we got was cursed at. And there were weddings, funerals and everything in-between for the Buick. All the time nourishing itself on an endless supply of Diehard batteries, alternators and tail pipes. Yes the late 70’s and 80’s were surely this dinosaurs heyday, but the "Ice Age" was coming soon. And the asteroid just hit the earth, and its name was “Monte Carlo”.
I don’t exactly remember how it happened but one day I woke up and the Buick just didn’t look the same anymore. She was looking old and worn out, her lacquer skin was cracking and peeling and the seats were all ripped. The 8-track was out dated and the cats sleeping in the back seats during cold weather wasn’t exactly impressive on a first date either. I tried my best to spruce her up with a new paint job and rubber mats. I even sealed up the hole in the floor so the cats couldn't get in anymore. But still, the feeling just wasn’t the same anymore. We were just growing apart.
So out came the automotive personals simply known as the “Buy Lines”. With other candidates being circled in red along with late night phone calls to “for sale by owners”. My quest for something young and new was making me restless. And all along she slept right outside my window, just leaking her tears of "Dextron transmission fluid" on the cold concrete floor. Unaware of my wandering feelings. Then one day I just saw her, the “Monte Carlo” of my dreams. With smooth lacquer paint, two perfect doors and a magnificent tail panel. I just couldn’t wait any more and had to do it. Well, it was another trip to the Greater on McDonald and 8,500 dollars less in my account. The cash was all I needed to bring her home from Seaford Long Island. And it was just a part of life you know.
I did try my best to keep them both, just bumper to bumper in my driveway. But the beauty of the new won over the memories of the old. And the insurance was too damm much anyway. A “Big Love” this was not, and the Buick had to leave. I tried hard not to get emotional when I took off the plates, just gently counting rotations as I backed off on the screws. Trying not to look into her GE headlights. But then without warning it suddenly all came back to me, the trip to Queens Village, the cigarette butts in the ashtray and the image of my uncle Frank sideswiping an Amish Buggy. The ride up my block, the trees reflecting on the hood, the guys watching me as I pulled up the driveway. No, I just couldn’t do it, No! I reversed the rotation of the screws and put the plates back on.
I think I kept the Buick for a few more years and finally just gave it away to a friend at work in 1990. She tried to offer me money for it more than once. But you know, like they say. Some Brooklyn memories you can buy, while others remain priceless forever. And that 73 Buick was nothing less than “Priceless” to me, in the Brooklyn of my youth.
I remember that day in my homeroom class at Ditmas Junior High School on Cortelyou Road. My friend Jayson Kerner was sitting next to me and crying uncontrollably. Just a few minutes before I arrived they announced over the load speaker that one of the students had died in a fire the night before. Her name was “Corrine Ramano”. When Jayson told me that Corrine died, I was in shock and just stared at the loudspeaker. Apparently she died along with her entire family in a fire on East 3rd street near Ditmas Avenue. I knew Corrine since kindergarten and used to talk to her quite a bit. She was slightly chubby with freckles, glasses and a “Dutch Boy” hair cut. She also wore green plaid dresses a lot to school. I guess green was her favorite color. Well, after the initial shock of this terrible news we all just continued on with our school day and tried not to think about it. Because these were the days before “grief counseling” you know. When school let out that afternoon we all decided to take a walk over to East 3rd street and see the house. I remember walking up Cortelyou Road towards Ocean Parkway and smelling something in the air. The closer we got to East 3rd street the stronger it became. Like a campfire in the Catskills, it was certainly the odor of burnt wood. We made a left on East 3rd street and continued towards Ditmas. Somewhere around the middle of the block there were police cars and a fire truck, with many people standing on the sidewalk and in the street just staring. As we walked closer to the house I immediately noticed a large gap between two buildings. Confused for a moment, I thought I may have been on the wrong street. But then I saw it, and I knew indeed this was where Corrine died. Still smoldering with steam rising from it . Just a pile of black burnt wood with pipes sticking out of it in awkward angles. The blackened mound must have been at least one story high and it filled the basement with its rubble. You could see the frames of dozens of windows throughout the destruction also. But the windows were all broken with shards of glass everywhere. And like snakes wrapping a dead corpse there were long lengths of scorched bx electrical cable twisting all around it too. Then I noticed an even stranger sight, towards the rear of the house all over the blackened mass were hundreds of orange bricks. They looked as though they were sprinkled on it from above. But then someone mentioned that the chimney collapsed, and now it made sense. We all just stood there in shock, and the smell was just overwhelming. The brown leafs of the nearby trees just fell on top of the charred wood. But now I remembered the house, it was almost like mine, with two porches, it stood three stories high. There were also painted concrete ducks in the front yard that looked like they were following each other. A mom and two ducklings. At that point I started to cry, thinking about Corrine, her mom and her little sister who all died the night before. We must have been there for a while because when I got home my mom was quite worried. I told her about what had happened and she cried too. I think she knew Corrine’s mom from when she waited outside school for me at PS 179. And I know that night I must have dreamt about Corrine, her family and the tragic fire that killed her.
Today a new building stands in the place of the house were Corrine died along with her family. And I doubt they know of the tragedy that happened there on a fall night in 1970 or of the schoolchildren that cried on their sidewalk that afternoon. Smelling that burnt wood, seeing broken glass,and just thinking about their friend and classmate Corrine Ramano.
You know I'm thankful that I got married again, because the ten years between marriages was just getting a little expensive and lonely. There were trips to Europe, countless dates, new cars, constant nights out in the city, and an infinite amount of spending money. Woops, Lets try that again Ron!
You know I'm thankful that I got married again, because the ten years between marriages was lonely and just about all I could take. So one spring day in 1997 my next door neighbor Joan Rudner asked me if I would be interested in meeting someone she worked with. Well, there was a lunch date in Rockefeller Center, love at first sight, and a wedding at City Hall a year and a half later. (My wife just couldn't deal with wedding plans you know.) We were lucky enough to have a wonderful two weeks together before my wife became pregnant. Nine months of constant vomiting surely earned her some purple hearts. Now some ten years and two beautiful children later, I'm thankful for my beautiful wife and wonderful life. All because of my next door neighbor Joan and her matchmaking skills. Not to mention my wife who has been able to tolerate me all this time and survive my countless stories about Brooklyn. (Still giving thanks after all these years)
I'm also thankful that my wife agreed to move to Kensington and the house I grew up in after we lived for five years in her Fort Greene Brownstone. A 2500 sf. garden duplex, with all original detail and marble fireplaces. And I still get an earful every time we visit her sister or check up on the house. Oh, that’s OK, that place is just way too cool now for an original like me, and hey at least I have a driveway! (Still giving thanks after all these years)
I'm also thankful that I grew up on such a wonderful block. And there was no better block than ours too. It had the energy of any playground that you would take your kid to on a sunny summer day. There were just dozens and dozens of children out on the sidewalk playing all the time. We made friends and lost friends, we fought with each other and then made up. We learned how to win and how to lose. All without our parents ever getting involved. So I'm thankful for our own little "Lord of the Flies" or present day "Kid Nation" we just called East 4th. (Still giving thanks after all these years)
And the friends you made were the friends you kept for life. After almost 50 years we all still keep in touch with one another, and still feel free to argue about almost everything from sports to politics. All without ever losing that strong bond of perpetual friendship. So I'm thankful for living on a block that harvested so many good souls that I can still proudly call my friends. (Still giving thanks after all these years)
Then there were all the Dads on the block who stepped up to the plate after my Dad died when I was seven. From Bob Brennan stinging my hand during hardball catch to my Uncle Pete teaching how to ride a bike and swim. All these men including my Grandfather Paco and my Uncle Manual filled in all the missing pieces that my Dad left me. So I'm thankful to have had them all in my life when I needed them the most. (Still giving thanks after all these years)
What about my Mom? Just a pillar of Polish strength that taught me how to cope with any situation that life deals you. From a husband dying at 39 to a son at 13 four years later. All with a downs syndrome daughter to cope with, who ended up becoming my Moms best friend and certainly taught me the meaning of patience and love. I'm thankful Isabel was never put up for adoption, and became such a big part of our family for 33 years. I am also fortunate to at least have a Father and Brother in my life, although it was short lived. Throughout all of her terrible storms, my Mom just survived each challenge and was still able to save a smile for my sister and I. So I'm thankful she was my Mom and taught me the true meaning of the words "Love and Cope” (Still giving thanks after all these years)
And what about Thanksgiving you ask? Well let me tell you about those Thanksgivings at 399. It all started early on Thanksgiving morning, my brother Joseph, little sister Isabel and my cousins Pete and Denise would all either walk up or down their respective flight of stairs to our grandparents apartment on the second floor. We would then camp out on the rug in front of the TV and wait for the start of the Macys Thanksgiving Day Parade. My grandfather Paco would be sitting on his "Lazy Boy" right behind us all waiting for the show to start. The turkey cooking in the oven usually started in the morning too, and you could just about smell it throughout the entire house. Later in the afternoon the whole family would be there sitting around the dinner table. The voices of my aunt and uncle, grandparents, cousins, brother, sister, mother and father could be heard throughout the hallows of the wooden stairway. Not to mention the dogs barking too. So, I'm thankful for living in an attic apartment with my Mom, Dad, Brother and sister. Being able to grow up with the entire family in one big house, on one great block, in the City of Brooklyn. And still have all those wonderful memories to write about for now and the years to come. And Hey, Still giving thanks after all these years!
He used to walk up my block when I was a kid. He was a short man maybe in his 50’s. He had black hair, a moustache and thick “Buddy Holly” style glasses. Sam usually wore a brown overcoat in the winter and a sports jacket in the summer. He could always be seen wearing a brown or black derby too.
Now Sam also walked with a cane, except most of the time it was never touching the sidewalk. Instead he used it to point at people. “Hey ya bum ya, you fuckin bum” those words were Sams trademark as he walked up East 4th. And he usually uttered them when he was drunk.
Now, we were never mean to Sam, and actually liked him. Even when he called us “fuckin bums”, because we may have been only five or six years old at the time and actually thought he was funny. So there he would stand with a newspaper under his arm, his face flushed red and a bottle sticking out of his coat pocket. His old cane right in our faces as we played in front of our house.
“Hey you know what you are?” “A FUCKIN BUM!”.
We would all start laughing at this point because Sam always had a smile on his face when he cursed at us.
“Thats Goldfeather, Sam Goldfeather”
And then he would slowly walk up the block towards Avenue C. Just pointing his cane at anyone he saw until he vanished around the corner.
And then there was Sam’s brother Irving Goldfeather” who looked strikingly similar to Sam. Except Irving was always seen walking in the opposite direction towards Beverly Road. Usually on his way to work in the morning. Yet, Sams brother was quiet and businesslike and would always tip his hat to my Mom and say:
“Good morning Mrs. Lopez, a beautiful day isn’t it?.
“Mom, why don’t Sam and Irving ever walk together?”
My mom would usually just say that “Maybe Sam sleeps late”.
Then one day Sam told us while waving his cane in our faces that he was moving to Florida and wouldn’t be around anymore. He said his brother Irving would be staying, and for us to be nice to him. Well, I guess I was pretty naive because I must have been in High School before I figured out that they were actually the same person. And Sam did a pretty good show holding a job during the day only to drink his problems away at the bars on Church Avenue, and then from his pocket before he got home. But truth is from that day on we only saw his brother Irving walking up and down the block. And he never cursed, always wished my Mom a good day, and only walked with his cane touching the sidewalk.
The only home I know always sleeps with one eye open. Spreading its massive body over the Western plains of Long Island, with blood flowing above and below its dirty old skin. Long and silver slithering like snakes, only to vanish into the darkness below. They carry hopes and dreams, and give it life. Late at night it startles you and wakes you up. It chatters and rumbles blowing hot air through sidewalk grates into empty streets above. And then it leaves, and now only silence. You close your eyes and fall back asleep. Good night to you and the F-train below.
Back in the 80’s there was a building on the south side of Church Avenue between East 5th and East 4th street. It was just called “SUPERMARKET” As far as I remember it only opened up when it was dark outside, and the hours of operation were very sporadic. Most of the food inside was usually covered with dust, and most everything was past it’s expiration date. The floors were pretty dirty and I didn’t think they were ever cleaned. It was a fairly big place, about the size of “Rite Aid”, yet there was only one employee. And he was only known to us as “Mike the Greaser”. Now Mike was about 40 years old at the time and stood about 5 foot 9. He had thinning black hair that he slicked back most of the time, and of course his favorite shirt was a “greaser style” t-shirt. Mike was also very hairy, thick black curly hair covered most of his body that normally would have just been reserved for flesh, for you and me. He also spoke with some type of accent that we could never figure out. It could have been anything, Italian, Russian, Greek, Turkish, Arab. We had no clue. And to this day, I still don’t know how he did it, but he used to park his 1978 Buick inside the store. Between the beer and the chips. There was probably a back gate to get it into the store with, but we never saw it and never asked. We would only buy food at Mikes when everything else was closed, and for us it usually meant buying beer and chips for a late night card game over at Glenn Gruder’s house. Mike never asked anyone for ID either, but then again my cousin Pete had a full beard when he was 15. So he was usually our “mule”, sort of speak. Mike’s prices varied depending on what day it was or what kind of mood he was in. And he usually charged us 5, 10, 15, or 20 dollars. His numbers were always in even dollar amounts, "no tax" he always said. I don’t think he even had a cash register in the store either. One night while we were hanging out on my porch at 399. There was a lot of commotion up on Church Avenue. Tons of cop cars, flashing lights and a few ambulances. The next morning when I woke up, word on the block was that Mike was shot something like 5 times the evening before. Some kind of an armed robbery. So all the cop cars the night before made sense. Thinking the worst, we all started reminiscing about Mike, figuring he was dead. Thinking about him in that dirty shirt, the stale chips, the expired milk and the Buick Skylark parked in aisle 5. And not to mention the rare occasions when he lost it, and threw us out of the store. But through it all we loved Mike and were surely going to miss him. So that same night we decided to take a walk to the avenue, and visit the scene of this horrorific crime. “Hey remember the time Mike threw that tuna fish can at you” “What about the time we rolled Mike’s car into the Ice Cream freezer” As we made the right onto Church Avenue from East 4th, we could see the store. Yet, there was no crime scene tape, and in fact the gate was up and the store was open. So we decided to go inside and see what was happening. As we walked into Mikes I noticed a few holes in the front window. They looked like bullet holes too, very round with tiny jagged edges on the inside of the hole. There was someone behind the counter, he was bending over and was fiddling with something on the ground. He had what looked like a white rag wrapped around his head too. And then, he stood up, and our jaws dropped. We couldn’t believe our eyes, it was like we were looking at a ghost. There he stood in all his “Greaser Glory”. With his head bandaged up, his arm in a cast, and a large stained gauze pad on his side, taped to his skin with silver duct tape. It was no one other than “Mike the Greaser” “Hey, you thought I was dead, huh?” “You think five bullets can kill me?” “Bullshit, that’s what I say” “I shot the guys eight times” “You see that blood?”, Mike was pointing to where he usually parked the Skylark, so it was hard to see the blood because of the oil on the floor. “That Fuck died right there”. At that point Mike motioned us around the counter to take a look at something. There inside a small pigeon hole shelf right under the cash box was the handle of a black pistol. “Dont’ta fuck with me, huh?” We all looked at Mike and smiled and then celebrated his survival by buying some expired chips and beer. "20 dollars, no tax". I gave him an awkward hug before I left, trying to stay clear of his blood stained gauze pad at the same time. And then just said our good nights and went on our way back home to East 4th. I think Mike eventually sold the property and today in its place are a nice row of clean stores. But along time ago there were stale chips, old beer and a Buick in aisle 5. And a man we once knew, a legend by no other name. And he was simply known to us as “Mike The Greaser”
On any given August night back in 1975 you could find me down the block on Freddie Shefferman’s stoop. But not just me you know, it was the rest of the guys too. Glen Gruder, Robert Brennan, Neil O’Callahan, Jimmy Spinner and my cousin Pete Liria. At the time I was seventeen and just graduated from The High School of Art & Design in Manhattan. My roller hockey team “Ryans Northstars” had just won the championship down at avenue F the previous June against my cousins team “The Terrance Cafe Rangers” So it certainly was a special time for me. Now most of us were anywhere from fifteen to twenty at the time, and Freddie was much older. Freddie could have easily passed for Jesus or Tommy Chong from “Cheech and Chong”. With long curly black hair, a beard and little round glasses. It was hard to imagine what Freddie really looked like too. Freddie may have been 35 years old at the time. His mother and father owned the house he lived in. And from the stories Freddie told us all the time, we were pretty sure that he grew up on the block also. I know Freddie graduated from Pratt in Brooklyn and did work “freelance” from time to time. Hey, he even owned a 68 Triumph Spitfire convertible, so he had to have some kind of dough. But most of the time Freddie just loved to “hang out” on the block. Just looking like “Jesus” in his bell bottoms, sandals, and yellow and white striped shirt. Leaning against the white picket fence of his house talking to anyone who wanted to “hang out” with him. Freddie did spend some time in Vietnam too, I think he told us he used to make maps there. But we never pushed it because who knew if he would “Freak out” about it. And Freddie knew just about everything you know, politics, art, religion, history, philosophy, and most important, Brooklyn. “You kids should have been around here when the Trolleys ran on Church avenue.You couldn’t imagine the shit we used to do with the Trolleys” Freddie did share many of his Church avenue Trolley stories with us. From squashing pennies on the rails to causing late night explosions on the high wires by throwing a metal pipe up at the lines, hoping to arc them both at once, and causing something to blow. I guess it did work sometimes, because Freddie told us many stories about being chased by the cops up our block too. “What the hell are you guys doing here with me?” you should be out getting laid somewhere, you guys are really schmucks!” Now we never asked Freddie the same question, because it was still a Saturday night, and the clock just struck midnight for him too. But we just took his insults in stride, and just listened to more of his stories. “Did you guys check out that new program “Saturday Night Live”, now that’s some funny shit. Hopefully NBC won’t cancel it next year like they always do. Bunch of schmucks!” Freddie was a Jewish 60’s flower child with an edge. “You guys are little assholes, didn’t you see that girl walk by and smile at you?” “Why don’t you talk to her and get her number?” “When I was your age I had a girl on each arm every night” No one ever dared to ask Freddie what happened, because we never saw him with anyone. Freddie hated the establishment too, every President sucked, every Govener sucked, every Mayor sucked. But then again Freddie said he never voted anyway. On very rare occasions Freddie would let us down into his basement to see all his photography equipment. Freddie knew all about mold making and casting too. In fact he made me my first fiberglass goalie mask that I still have today. We may have even seen “pot roaches” in empty cat food cans down there too. If Freddie did smoke pot, we never knew it, because he kept his personal life in the basement. Sometimes some of my friends dads would playfully rib Freddie about the fact that he seemed to be blissfully un-employed. Especially my friend Robert’s dad Bob Brennan. Now Bob worked on the World Trade Center and told us countless stories about being up on the tower crane some 110 stories up. About how it swayed back and forth and almost got him sick on windy days. “Hey get a job you bum” Freddie would just laugh with all of us sitting around him. Like 6’3” Santa’s elf’s around our spiritual leader. “Hey, I am working” “I’m teaching these kids about life, including your son” “I’ll send you the bill next week!” Sometimes another great Brooklyn philosopher and story teller, Freddie’s downstairs tenant “Bobby Wilson” would join in on the conversation. Bobby Wilson was stocky and stood about six feet tall, with a big square jaw, dark blue eyes and midnight black hair. Bobby always looked like he was on the verge of murdering someone. He drove a tow truck for “Al & Leo’s” collision on 36th street near Fort Hamilton. In fact the place is now called “36th Street Collision” and Al is still the owner. Bobby always wore a dark blue jump suit with red script letters “Bobby” on his left chest, With the police scanner blaring and the volume up high, you always knew when Bobby was on the block. And don't forget, he had his name painted on the truck also, so you just couldn't miss him. I think if Bobby didn’t know Freddie, he may have just beat him up because of his long hair. Bobby hated hippies, freaks, the un-employed, the protesters, the left wingers. I think you get the picture. Yet together they were our own "Curtis Sliwa and Ron Kuby" right on East 4th street. Just arguing about everything and taking opposite sides on any subject. And of course Bobby’s solution for everything if conversation and debate didn’t work was to just “kick their asses” Most of Bobby’s stories were about his adventures driving his tow truck for Al and Leo. And usually when he was the first person to get to some horrorific accident somewhere before the cops. “Now who has a weak stomach here?” “Because if you do, I don’t think you want to hear this one” “OK, I heard this call on the scanner about a roll-over on McDonald and avenue C. It was late at night and I’m just a couple of blocks away” “I get there and the cars totally in flames. It looked like a 69 Charger but I wasn’t sure.” “And the guys still in it because I see his head” “So I try to pull the guy out of the car and the only thing I can grab is his head” “So I’m on the ground squatting like this, just pulling and pulling. And them “Boom” I fall backwards and the guys head comes off right in my hands” “I’m on my back just looking at his head in my hands” “ I think he was even trying to talk to me too cause his lips were moving” At this point Freddie would be looking up at the sky above East 4th, just rolling his eyes. “Hey Freddie you think I’m bullshittin?” “Cause if you do I’ll go upstairs and show you the guys ear, I cut it off as a soulviner” Freddie would just shake his head. And the stories just went on and on, and the hot summer nights just rolled on by. I guess our parents were torn, on one hand they wanted us to be going out more, but then on the other all my mom had to do was poke her head out the window and see us all on Freddie’s stoop. But just like everything when you were young, you thought it would never end. Until one day our nightmare came true. Freddie told us he found a job and was going back to work. Well, back to work, that’s ok. Because I worked too, and went to college also. So maybe Freddie couldn’t hang out till 2 AM anymore. And then it hit us like a brick, my heart sunk, my world ended. Freddie told us his job was in Alaska, and he was leaving within a week, and would not be back for years. We left the stoop that night feeling very depressed, but still held out some hope that Freddy was full of shit. But then the day came that would be etched in my mind forever. Just afew days after Freddie told us the news I was sitting on my porch with some of the guys. Across the street was some guy walking with a clean white shirt and kacky pants. He crossed the street and started walking towards us. He had short black hair, clean smooth skin and a big bright smile. He also wore little round glasses. “do you guys know who I am?” We just looked at him perplexed and said “no” “you’re kidding, you don’t know who I am?” “sorry” we said “we have no idea” “You schmucks” the voice sounded familiar, yet the face wasn’t. “I’m Freddie, you assholes” Oh, my god, it was Freddie, he cut his beard, hair, and was wearing a white button down shirt and dress pants. We all just stared at him in shock. “I told you guys I got a job, what did you think. I was full of shit?” I don’t remember the day Freddie left, I may have been working or in college at the time. We tried to pick up the pieces with Bobby Wilson and his tow truck stories, but it wasn’t the same without Freddie. Then tragically Bobby’s son Bobby jr. got real sick and died of a brain tumor. And Bobby just wasn’t the same anymore. From what I heard he just stayed inside his apartment and did alot of crying. The stoop in front of Freddie’s house was empty, yet there was still hope that Bobby would be back someday. But then one day when I got home from work I remember seeing a NYC mourge truck in front of Freddie’s house. I figured it was Freddie’s mom that died because she was quite old. As the black body bag was being carried out of the house, Bobby’s wife Eileen was holding on to it and crying. It was Bobby Wilson. The doctors said it was an anurism, but we knew it was just a broken heart. Bobby just could not live without his son. I remember the funeral at Pitta’s on McDonald avenue. The whole block came that night, and there was Bobby in the casket. A cigar in his pocket, and still looking like he could kick someone’s ass even in death. So the stoop remained empty forever at 418 East 4th. And after Freddie’s parents died he sold the house. We moved on with our lives. Found girlfriends or got married. Some of us even moved away far from the block. I heard Freddie finished his work in Alaska and finally did get married. In fact rumor is he still lives in Brooklyn. But truth is I haven’t seen him in almost 30 years and neither has anyone else. And I hope that some of those late night stories about Brooklyn and life rubbed off on me too. Because I grew up with some of the greatest story tellers in Brooklyn, although at the time I don’t think they had a clue that they were just that, “story tellers”. And Freddie, wherever you are, thanks for all those great nights on your stoop, just hanging out and passing time.
There are some days in life that you just don’t forget. I must have been no more than eight years old when it happened. My brother Joseph and my cousin Pete were already across the street by the window of the “Mister Softee” truck as it played it’s mind numbing jingle. I remember running down from the stoop of my house, and NOT looking both ways before I crossed. Yes, I just ran into the street like the “street rat” I was. The awful sound of the car tires skidding was the first thing I heard. Like an animal being slaughtered, the sound was high pitched and deafening. Then suddenly there was the flash of yellow to my right, I closed my eyes when it hit me, and I just flew through the air. My world had just ended. The nuns never told us in “religious instructions” that Heaven was so hot. And from all the pictures they showed us, I would think it was cool and windy because of all the clouds there. Yet it was just dark and silent. So I opened my eyes to look for the gate and someone in a white robe, but instead all I saw were black wires, silver pipes and the inside of a Goodyear tire. I didn’t think this was Heaven at all. Then slowly they arrived, the shoes, ankles and pant legs, blocking out whatever sunlight I could see from the bottom of the car. Yes, they came to rescue me, and I wasn’t dead at all. Someone then pulled at my feet and gently started dragging me from under the car. The pipes and wires slowly passed by my eyes until there was sunlight again. There were at least ten heads in a circular pattern looking at me. They were the faces of my bother Joseph, cousin Pete and various adults including Mr. O’Callahan, my friend Neils Dad, who was holding onto my feet, because he just pulled me out. Most of the adults were telling me not to move and just stay still. I also noticed a man standing next to the cab crying hysterically. He was an old short man who looked something like Mickey Rooney. He was wearing a classic “cab drivers” hat. There were also some people yelling at him too, blaming him for what just happened. But I knew It wasn’t his fault at all, and I felt sorry for him. And then in a flash I made my move, I just sprang to my feet and ran to my front porch across the street. The first person there I saw was my cousin Pete’s grandmother “Lita” from Spain. Although she didn’t speak English, she motioned me to sit and stay still. Then what she did next I will never forget, she pulled a purple flower from a bush in our front yard and handed it to me. She motioned me to smell it. I just sat there holding the flower, it was shaking uncontrollably in my right hand. “Ronnie, Ronnie, my son”, my mom had just made it down the three flights of stairs and was now sitting next to me on our stoop. She just kissed my forehead. I was afraid to look at her because I knew the whole thing was my fault. She kissed me again and said it was OK. Then suddenly a police car and ambulance arrived, and now I knew I was really in trouble. I couldn’t look at anyone and just kept my head down when they took me inside the ambulance. Even though I knew I wasn’t hurt, they made me lay down on the stretcher in the back anyway. They took me to Mamanodies Hospital in Boro Park and checked me out, nothing but a cut on my right index finger. When I got home that afternoon and walked up our front stairs, I still didn’t have the courage to look at my friends. I knew all the trouble I caused that afternoon was because I never looked before I ran into the street. But what I remember most about that day was the image of the old man who drove that cab. The image of him crying against that yellow fender still haunts me today, and I never got to say I was sorry for what I did to him that afternoon. Because I’m certain thats a day he never forgot as well.
There was once a bagel store on McDonald Avenue off the corner of Church many years ago. It was on the East side of the street about one or two stores before the apartment buildings just South of Dennys. It may have been called "McDonald Bagels". I remember going there as a kid with my Dad. It had old wooden floors that were usually covered with sawdust. There must have been at least three large stainless steel ovens in the place. And it was always hot in there any time of the day. Now, all they sold in the store was bagels and baileys. I don't even think they sold milk or soda until many years later. The guys that worked in there always looked like they just got out of the joint too, and most of the time they never wore any shirts at all. With sweat dripping from their faces in the summertime, you just closed your eyes when it landed on the bagels. Pretending not to see it, because they would probably kill you if you said something about it anyway. And the roaches in the store knew better too, mother nature teaches bugs to keep away from hot bagels, and the bagels in there were always hot. Yeah, on any Saturday night in Kensington it was the early edition New York Times followed by a trip to McDonald Bagels. In the days when a dozen gave you fourteen, the heat of the bag you carried home warmed both your heart and your soul all at the same time.
As I sat in my third grade classroom in PS 179 I could hear them roaring towards us. From my desk I could look out the window and see their long yellow roofs. They parked in front of the school entranceway on Avenue C. With their diesel engines just clattering away, I knew it was my time to go. On every Wednesday at 2 o’clock my stomach would start to hurt. It was time for the public school Christians to leave our sanctuary of bliss and head North up East 3rd street to The Immaculate Heart of Mary school. It was time for “Religious Instructions”. As I gathered my books and headed out the door I looked back and said good bye to Miss Saltzman. She just smiled back at me looking as beautiful as ever in her white go go boots. As I started to walk down the battle ship gray stairs I really started to feel nauseas. But you see I wasn’t alone, about four other children followed me down. All of us silent, no words ever spoken. “Ronnie are you feeling OK” asked the school bus matron. A friend of my Mom’s whose name always escaped me. I tried to smile at her, but my lips always had a problem arcing up on the sides on a Wednesday afternoon. I always sat in the back of the bus too. Right under the “emergency exit” sign. Maybe hoping it would open up one day and I would just fall out. As the bus driver closed the doors, I closed my eyes. The bustling clatter of the diesel engine got louder as we pulled away and made a left onto East 3rd street. The ride up East 3rd street was the greatest torture. Especially as we passed Church Avenue, because everything I loved was right outside the school bus window, almost within reach. Kennys Toy Store, Lee’s Toy Store and a brand new Pizzeria called “Korner”. All the places I loved to visit with my Mom, yet here I am sitting on a cold school bus seat heading towards my doom. Church Avenue just vanished in the distance behind me. The bus made a left on Fort Hamilton Parkway and gently stopped in front of IHM School. We all silently gathered our belongings and filed out the bus. At this point I would really start to dread them. With my stomach feeling worse I was hoping to start throwing up this time before we got inside. One of them opened a heavy red metal door, dressed only in black, she just stared at us through her little round eyeglasses, not saying a word. The public school heathens had just arrived. We sat in the classroom, all silent. One of them stood in front of the chalk board, she too was dressed in black with something white around the top of her head. Some kind of hat. Right below her head was a large white disc that looked like it was sawed in two. She held a long wooden yardstick in her wrinkled old hand. She just stood there glaring at us. I could make out her bee bee eyes behind her glasses, they were dark blue. She started to speak, “Now who can tell me about Jesus......And then it happened like it always did. There she was standing in front of the class. She had to be the most beautiful teacher at 179. Miss Saltzman, with beautiful dark eyes and long silky black hair. She had to be a dream, because when she spoke to me I just melted. When I’m old enough I’m going to marry Miss Saltzman, my third grade teacher. And even when she handed me my test papers that usually scored no more than 65. I just stared at her beautiful milky white hands and then her beautiful face, then down her neck to her tight pink sweater and then at her two beautiful full......Wack!, Wack!, Wack!, the tip of the wooden yardstick slammed hard on my desk, just barely missing my little fingers and almost hitting my Timex Dumbo watch that my Mom just bought me for Christmas. “I said wake-up and pay attention young man!” “Don’t you care about Jesus?” At that point I was too scared to look up at her, I could only stare at the cross that was hanging on her waist with some sad looking skinny man with a long beard nailed to it. “I said look at me when I speak to you!” Now she was screaming at the top of her lungs. “I said look at meeeeeeeeeee.........and that’s when it happened. Without warning it just burst from my stomach, hot and steamy, with little pieces of the hot dog I just had for lunch. And it was all over her black dress, with some of it hitting the little man on the cross. I had just vomited like so many times before, and the “nerve medicine” my Mom gave me every Wednesday morning failed to work, again. I just sat there frozen and she just stood there silent. “Now go to the boys room and clean yourself up”. I got up from my desk, I could feel evey ones eyes staring at my back as I walked out the door and down to the Boys room. I tried my best to wash myself off and I must have been there for a while, because when I walked out I could see my Mom talking with the Nun outside the classroom. My little sister Isabel was there too, just sitting in her stroller staring at the Nun. We left early that day and as we walked along Fort Hamilton Parkway towards East 4th the Church bells started ringing. “Mom do I have to go back?” “You know what you have to do Ronnie” is all my Mom said. Well, I did somehow manage to survive “Religious Instructions” and even made my Communion and Conformation at IHM. All because I knew “What I had to do”, Something thats just in your blood when you’re from Brooklyn. But the truth is even today some 43 later, I still can’t help but feel a little nervous when I see a Nun. The memories of “Religious Instructions”, the bus rides and the vomiting just come back to me like a nightmare. Because you see, even at 50, Some Bad Habits” are just too hard to forget!
The steps of our lives are made of red brick and grey mortar and they are rough to the touch. Once they were new and strong, yet now they are old and cracked. In the dead of winter they are as cold as ice, and the summer as hot as the midday sun. These steps hold thousands of stories.
My grandfather first walked up these steps in 1948, to look at a wonderful house he had heard was for sale. It will be a place where he would raise his children and grandchildren. These steps will bring a family.
Simple brick and mortar will also hold the weight of mothers and their new born children. There will be first days at school being walked down these steps and last days of college too. These steps will bring much joy to this house but sometimes sorrow too. A thirteen year old boy walked down these steps and never returned. These steps hold thousands of stories.
And now the Great granchildren of my grandfather walk these same steps. Once again they bring a family.
So when you walk down the street take note of the steps, because they are the steps of our lives.
Once upon a time there were things to do on a Friday night in Kensington. You could walk over to Park Circle lanes, across from the Kensington Stables to bowl a few games. Skate at the Park Circle Roller Rink which was right next door to the Stables, and then have dinner at Scarollas Italian Restaurant, where Joe & Joe's Pizza is on Church Avenue. If you were really brave you could catch a midnight movie at the Beverly, where the fabulous "Deal 99 cent store" is now. But even with all we had back then in the way of entertainment, Kensington was never really first date material, that’s what Bay Ridge or Manhattan was for. We never really had a cool strip of Bars, restaurants or even the Discos that Bay Ridge or the City had to offer. Oh yes, but then again........we had something to offer that no one else had, a place that was actually known throughout New York City, the East Coast and even the globe. A place where the crowds were loud, the action was intense, the competition was first rate. And sorry Kevin, I'm not talking about Denny's here.....were talking about the Buzz-a-rama 500!
The Buzz-a-rama was (and is) located on Church Avenue just off of Dahill Road. It was one of the premier Slot Car racing establishments in New York City and the country back in the late 60’s and early 70’s. The Buzz-a-rama was owned by my cousins Dolores and Buzzy Perri. There were at least four large slot car tracks in the place, each one had to be over 40 feet long and could race at least 6 or 8 cars at once.
On any given Friday or Saturday night the Buzz-a-rama was packed! The crowds there were like nothing you could ever imagine. The smell of burning electric motors from the miniature slot cars that people raced there filled the air. Sometimes Buzzy would hold these 24 hour races too. And let me tell you, most of the serious racers were grown men, and they didn't fool around with this stuff!
The track used for the serious races must have been over 50 feet long, with a 90 degree banked curve at the end. Sometimes the cars would jump off the track at high speeds and fly through the air like missiles! It's amazing no one was ever impaled by one of those things. And If you were a kid going to school at PS130, 230, 179, Ditmas and Montauk, you would always see someone with a "Buzz-a-rama 500" sticker on their lunch box.
It was also a place where most of us school kids gathered after 3, just as crowded as a Saturday night, except a much younger crowd. It was just such an amazing place and everyone knew about it or had raced their slot cars there at one time or another. We were very proud of our cousins that they opened this place with such perfect timing, when the slot car fad was at it’s peak the Buzz-a-rama rode the same wave of popularity with great success. But sadly another fad soon caught on, it was the video game, and soon adults and kids alike were driving cars on a TV screen instead of a 50 foot track. This once great proud center of miniature slot car racing soon was falling victim to the joy stick. But just like any proud icon, it stood it’s ground and kept moving along into the 80’s and 90’s. Children’s birthday parties and curiosity seekers kept the doors open, along with some old timers who still kept their cars.
I have not seen the place for a while and I know my cousins still open it up on weekends. Last year they had the stone torn down from above the building while they were in the process of having it re-faced. I remember driving by and seeing the original white facade that was there many years ago. If you looked real close you could barely make out the lettering that said "Buzz-a-rama 500" only a difference in faded paint made the letters appear to the naked eye. For a brief moment I thought maybe they were going to re-open the place full time, but the next day I saw a brand new surface of stucco and I knew that was it for the Buzz-a-rama I once knew. But still at least they open it part-time.
You see Kensington was never Park Slope or even Bay Ridge, and the real grit and flavor of Church Avenue is really not much different from when I was a kid. Sure the stores are all different, but you still walk on the same gum stuck to the sidewalk that I spit out when I was seven. No one scrapes gum off the sidewalk on Church Avenue like they do in Park Slope. And in a way I feel bad for many of the new comers and kids, including my own. When you want to take them somewhere for something to do, it usually means driving somewhere out of Kensington. Sad to say, but its true.
So lets bang the drum slowly for Kensington’s lost Bowling alleys, Movie Theaters and Roller Rinks, places where we as kids could always find some thing to do on a Friday night. Places that are shamefully long gone, now replaced by 99 cent stores and new construction. Places that made Kensington just that much more livable in a time when most others were heading to the “Ridge” for a night of Disco at 2001. (Saturday Night Fever was filmed there). But most of all, remember the Buzz-a-rama 500, a place that brought magic to this neighborhood, a place that stands with most of the tracks still there. Like huge massive dinosaurs from another time, they lay in darkness, frozen in time, waiting for their moment to come back to life for an occasional birthday party or curiosity seeker, or some serious racer who still goes there to re-live their youth.
And hey, if you ever see my cousins, Buzzy and Lolly. Say hello, and thank them for creating such a wonderful, magical place so many years ago that put Kensington on the map for New York City and the World.