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.
It doesn’t matter how old you are or where you live. Someday someone will come out of nowhere to save your life. They may be a friend, relative, or a total stranger. They will just appear to be there for you for that split second, and then they will just disappear into the crowd, because the divide between life and death is just that, a split second. And you, well you may not even give it a second thought. The conversation you were just having on your cellphone was more important to you than the arm that just grabbed you from behind to prevent you from walking right into the path of the B35 bus. A little startled at first about what had just happened, you continue on with your day without even looking back to say thank you.
For me it was a hand that grabbed my foot when I was about two years old. I guess the view of East 4th street from our roof looked inviting. It was the hand of a young mother (my mom) that pulled me back inside our apartment just moments before I would become another dot on a NYC chart. For my cousin Pete, another son of Kensington and East 4th, it was the voice of a stranger screaming at him to run faster just before a piece of an airliner killed the person directly behind him on a sunny day in September 2001. It may have also been the“Brooklyn” in my cousins blood too that saved his life. When the loud speakers blared the instructions that “everything is OK and there is no need to evacuate at the present time”. My attorney cousin just said “bullshit” and left only to meet up with falling jet parts on the street below. Buy hey, he was back to work the next day up in Westchester, you got to love that Empire Blue Cross.They probably helped him forget 9/11 by making him work on 9/12.
But years before back in 1981 there was another person, someone I will never know who just appeared out of nowhere to change someone’s life. Just there for an instant to make a difference and then return to the crowd without ever knowing their name. I really didn’t think much about it that day back in 1981. It was unusual to see the Manhattan bound F express running at 5:30 in the afternoon. But as soon as I stepped out of the first car of the southbound F, I noticed a bunch of EMS guys, Cops and Fireman on the local track. Now, I’m not much for gore and just a couple of years before I saw an elderly woman get killed by a “Kings” concrete truck right before my eyes on East 2nd street in front of Carvel. And the thought of a train running someone over wasn’t exactly something I’d like to take to bed that night. So I just walked up the stairs and then down Beverly towards my house.
By the time I got to my block I noticed a Police car parked right in front of my house. And on the porch there were two Cops talking to my mom. By the look on her face something really bad had just happened.“Grandma had an accident on the subway” said my mom.“Is she ok?” I said. “They don’t know, they just took her to Methodist Hospital”. I looked at the two Cops and said, “what kind of accident?” “She fell onto the tracks on the Northbound side” one of them said....“that was my grandmother, that was my grandmother”! I yelled!
Well before you knew it I was in my 73 Buick and driving up the hill to Methodist Hospital in Park Slope. It was probably the first time I was there since I was born. I got there before any one in my family did and my grandma wasn’t a pretty sight. There she was still on the stretcher waiting to get into the ER. Her clothes were all bloody and the gash on the side of her head was so big you could probably put a candy bar in it. But even in her condition the doctors assured us all that she was going to be just fine, but should keep away from subway platforms for a while. And what about that stranger that came out of nowhere you ask? Well, we never got to thank the man that saved mygrandmothers life. The police told us that he didn’twant to give his his name or address. As soon as he saw her fall on to the tracks, he noticed theheadlights of an oncoming train entering the tunnel up by avenue C. He ran upstairs to tell the token clerk about what had just happened. They somehow stopped the train just before it entered the station, just a fewfeet from where my grandmother was sprawled across the rail. He stayed with her for a while until the Police came, and then got on the F express once it started running. Just like that without ever knowing his name, this guy saved my grandmothers life and then got on the train and left, simply amazing. My 80 year old grandmother healed up and got better,she gave us another fifteen years of her stories about growing up in Cuba, and was able to see her great grandchildren born before she died in 1996. All because of someone I will never know, a "Kensington Stranger" by no other name, and all I can say is “thank you” who ever you are.
Sure, the General Carton Company at 360 Furman Street near Atlantic Avenue and the East River wasn’t exactly a dream job for my grandfather Paco. But it sure beat the dark and deadly coal mines of West Virginia and Pennsylvania where he worked years before. And Miami, well, Paco’s specialty was plaster arches, and I am sure they still exist there in many of the Art Deco hotels he worked on while he labored there too. But as they say, only hard work fuels desire, and my grandfather Paco was an example for all of us to follow. And landing a job at General Carton was his dream come true. Now my Grandfather always had these wonderful stories to tell me when I was a kid. There was the one about the two crooked young trees and how a man tied a small piece of wood to one of them so it grew up straight. The other tree grew up crooked because no one used astick on it. I usually heard this story when I did something wrong…I guess I was one of the trees.
Then there was the story about the man who saved a penny a day and one day had enough money to buy a house for his family. Well, when it came to saving money my grandfather truly harvested the seeds that he sewed. The story goes that friends of my grandfather on East2nd knew a man that had to sell his house on East 4th. Apparently the man was a gambler who owed a lot of money to some local loan sharks. If he didn’t come up with some serious money very quickly, he would soon beat the bottom of the ocean getting to know the clams at Coney Island real well. As I said, “the story goes.”
In 1948, Kensington was a wonderful area where diversity lived. The diversity of Kensington protected those who were different, even back then. Including an immigrant from Spain who may have been the first Spaniard in the area to own a house. Well, my grandfather’s dream of buying a house for his family came true and before you knew it the entire clan was living in the house. Marriages were made and babies were born. Aunts and uncles became moms and dads and cousins became brothers and sisters. I don’t think we even knew what a babysitter was. All I knew was that there was always someone around to watch me if my mom had to go to the store. So what would my Grandfathers Brooklyn be today? Well, the parks sure are pretty. The people of Kensington and Windsor Terrace are as wonderful as before and those new kiddie playgrounds won’t find you picking a splinter out of your child’s leg at night—they’re made of plastic now. And The General Carton Company? Well, it closed its doors years ago and the building was recently sold to a developer. They are calling it “One Brooklyn Bridge Park” and I heard it's going Condo.
Just imagine a time in Brooklyn when an immigrant from Spain who passed through Ellis Island as a mere teenager and worked as a laborer his entire life would be able to save enough money to someday buy a house in Kensington to call his own. Imagine the dream of homeownership in Brooklyn being within reach of both a bank president and the man who painted the walls there at night. This was the Brooklyn that my grandfather knew so many years ago.
Long before Park Slope was pretty and “Little Things” was cute, we had Kensington, Church Avenue and Kennys toy store. Kennys toy store sat on the corner of East 3rd street and Church avenue. Just about where you would open the door to enter RiteAid, back in 1963 you would be walking into Kennys. And you would usually have a dollar in your pocket.
As you walked in the first thing you would notice is how dark it was. Mr. Kenny who looked something like Albert Einstein sat behind a small counter on the left as soon as you walked in. He had wavy grey hair and a thick mustache. He was short and stubby with a large stomach. “Good morning to you young man”. The wood floors would start squeaking uncontrollably as soon as you started walking around in Kennys. And the floors were dark and dull and looked like they were there forever. Mr. Kenny usually worked with Mrs. Kenny, she too was short like Mr. Kenny and had long grey wavy hair. The squeaking floor was probably a way the Kennys kept tabs on their customers, because no matter where you were in the store Mrs. Kenny always seemed to be watching you.
The aisles of Kennys were very narrow and the toys always seemed to be covered with dust. And as far as the selection, it seemed that the Kennys sold toys that were popular in the 50’s rather than the 60’s. But still when you were granted the opportunity to go to Kennys with a dollar in your pocket you never said no.
“Oh, do I have something for you” said Mrs. Kenny. “This is something that just arrived” Mrs. Kenny held up a cardboard package with something that looked like a red egg in it. It said “Silly Putty”. Now when you find a toy in Kennys without a layer of dust on it you knew it had to be something special. “Would you like this” said Mrs. Kenny holding the strange looking package with the red egg. I nodded my head in agreement as I walked to the counter. I reached into my pocket and pulled out my dollar bill, I handed it to Mr. Kenny.
Mr. Kenny had this thing for Scotch taping ripped dollar bills, even if they had the slightest tear in them Mr. Kenny would tape them in what seemed like slow motion. Today would be no exception. “Oh, we have a tear, so we must fix” Mr. Kenny usually looked at me as he said this, I guess he thought I ripped them for a hobby. His fixing of dollar bills was a surgical procedure, and his process was slow, deliberate and exact, every time. First, came the close examination of the dollar and the tear. Mr. Kenny would always pull down his eyeglasses at this point. Second, he would lay the dollar bill on the counter and hold it with one hand. Now ever so slowly he would reach towards the scotch tape dispenser pulling off the length he needed and gently tape the bill. And when he was finished with one side this whole routine would start all over again for the other side of the dollar. When it was over he would put the dollar in the register and hand you your change. But the torture was still not over. The toy was then put into a small brown paper bag, the bag was layed on the counter, the top was folded over twice, the receipt (usually hand written) was attached to the bag and then stapled. All this within what seemed like hours to the mind of a little boy. “Thank you young man” said Mr. Kenny.
As you opened the heavy wooden door the cowbell on the door would cling and the sunlight usually blinded you from being in the darkness of Kennys so long as the bill was being taped. But as you walked home along Church Avenue you knew it would not be long before you would be at home playing with a new toy from Kennys and also taping all your mother's dollar bills before you go there again.
I remember waking up in the middle of the night in my bunk bed. My heart was racing, my hands were sweaty. I ran from the tiny bedroom that I shared with my brother and down the hall to my mother and father’s room. I was crying. “Get them away from the house, get them away”. “Get who away” said my mom. “The Bulldozers, the Bulldozers”
I must have been no more than five years old when I saw them on East 4th and Beverly road. I remember standing about where the underground garage entrance is for 303 Beverly. At the time a row of wood frame houses stretched all the way from Church avenue to Beverly Road, Along with even bigger houses on the North side of Beverly Road. They pretty much mirrored the ones that are still there now on the South side of Beverly between E4th and E5th. But sometimes in the mind of a 5 year old, things just don't make sense. These beautiful Victorians would soon fall to the ground. Just an X on a developers building plan, and a new nightmare for a child.
The massive yellow monsters were billowing black smoke from their pipes. They had large high silver steel blades that pushed everything in their path away. I remember holding my moms hand watching as it started crushing the side of the house. The wall of the house started to buckle as a stained glass window slowly began folding outward, suddenly shattering into tiny pieces. Like confetti the colors fell to the ground. The sound of cracking wood and glass breaking filled the air. The house groaned an awful sound, its heavy wood beams struggling not to crack against the power of the bulldozer, and then without warning, the front porch collapsed. The pillars that held the porch up slid sideways and hit the ground,dancing for a moment until they were still. The house was just like the one I lived in . A massive three story wood frame with two large porches. I wondered if there were people living in it. Little children holding onto their moms, crying as the wood floors below their feet cracked and snapped. Windows that they must have looked out of suddenly shattering, walls falling. Holding on for dear life as the house twisted and contorted itself. Trying to stand as the monsters growl began to get louder and louder, both white and black smoke shooting through its nostrils. I cheered for the house to defeat the monster, hold on, please just hold on. But then my mom tugged on my arm and we started walking away, down east 4th street towards our house. I looked back towards Beverly Road, there was suddenly a loud crash followed by a cloud of dust that engulfed the entire corner, then only silence.
The next day on the way to the A&P (where Rite Aid is) we walked by the construction site. The house was gone, just a pile of broken wood, pipes, glass and dirt. The yellow bulldozer was working away, crushing the remains of the once beautiful house with it’s massive steel treads. There were other houses next to it which were still standing, soon to fall victim to the roaring machines. The day of conception was coming soon for the building now known as 415 Beverly.
Sometimes as parent you try to shield you children from things that you believe may give them nightmares, I don’t blame my mom for letting me watch the bulldozers tear down those houses. I don’t think she really knew that I would ever have such nightmares about it. Not knowing if they were going to start tearing down our house next, moving down East 4th like house eating monsters, flattening everything in their path. No, I can’t blame her. But one day a few weeks ago we were driving through Brooklyn, they were tearing down an old house on a block I cannot remember. My son asked “Dad, can we stop and watch?” I thought about it for a moment and then said, "No, how about we just go to Greenwood Park instead".
Steve McNally was the oldest of the East 4th Street boys I called my friends when I was about 7 years old. He was thin and lanky with jet-black hair parted tothe side, a little button nose, freckles and surprisingly thick Coke-bottle glasses. Steve always looked rather innocent,— a "Dennis the Menace" striped shirt suited him quite well,— but we learned at a very early age not to let the glasses and shirt fool you. For Stevie was our unofficial leader. Being two years older than the rest of us and knowing a bevy of cursewords certainly gave him the upper hand in our world of box ball and tricycles. If you never heard a curseword from your parents, you were sure to learn it from Stevie first.
One day found me playing in the dirt beneath the shrubs in front of my house on East 4th Street. The block was alive with children like it always was when I was 7 years old. Tricycles running down my driveway, metal roller skates clanking on the sidewalk, girls jumping rope. This was Brooklyn in the 60's, and our parents were nowhere to be found. "Hey Ronnie, come to the back of the driveway, I have a really good dirty word" Stevie said smiling. Stevie told the rest of the boys too; my brother Joseph, my cousin Pete and his own little brother Paul followed Stevie up the driveway to the garage. I left my little green army men in the mist of their battle and ran to the back of the house where everyone had gathered."OK, you guys got to promise that you didn't hear thisword from me." We all looked at Stevie and shook our heads in agreement.
The anticipation of a new "dirty word", there was nothing better. I tried to imagine what a dirty word looked like, grease and dirt all over it oozing with disgust. "OK, ready", said Stevie. We gathered in a small half circle around Stevie , looking at his mouth, waiting, waiting, waiting. Very slowly his two top teeth fell gently over his bottomlip. "F_ _ k" came out of Stevies mouth. He looked at all of us grinning. I looked at Stevie and said "what does it mean." Stevie and the guys looked at me and laughed. My brother Joey looked at me and shook his head in disgust. Being almost two years younger than my brother, I always felt pretty stupid about things I didn't know yet. "Ronnie, it means when a man and woman do it" said Stevie. "Do what, I said." My brother Joey and my cousin Pete looked at me and laughed. Feeling I had to leave before they startedmaking fun of me even more, I turned around and started heading back to my army men in the dirt.
The walk from the garage to the front of the house is about 75 feet. Because the houses are only 15 feet apart, the driveway is usually draped in the shadows of the massive behemeths we call our homes. But past the darkness of the driveway is always the light of the sun. As I walked from the shadows into the sun I started to feel better again. I looked under the shrubs, and my little army men were still there, a full-scale battle still raging amongst candy wrappers and red ants. The new word Stevie taught me couldn't leave my head. I kept repeating it over and over to myself. There was soon a shadow over me and my battlefield. I slowly looked up, it was my Mom."Ronnie, I need to speak to you." As I was led away holding my mothers hand, I turned around and looked atthe guys. Joey, Pete, Stevie and Paul all put their index fingers over their lips and mouthed "Shhhhh." I just looked at them and said "F _ _ k".
The boys from Windsor Terrace were tougher than us. With names like Jimbo Drudy, Bobby O’Shaughnessy and the dreaded Billy Powell, we had to watch our backs. Of course we saw them in church on a Saturday night or Sunday morning, but no words were ever exchanged. Just cold stares. The stories about the Irish boys up the hill were never good. And Greenwood Park? Well, you just better stay away from it if you knew what was good for you.
Now back in the late 60’s and early 70’s there was a roller hockey league at East 5th street and Ft. Hamilton playground. Most of the boys who played there were from Windsor Terrace. Sometimes after church on a Sunday morning me and the guys would watch a game from behind the fence near the Prospect Expressway. A lot of red hair and short tempers under those helmets we thought. The games were played in the coldest of weather too. With red faces bellowing puffs of white smoke my feet were cold and my hands numb clutching the hurricane fence. But somehow the sound of the steel wheels scraping rough concrete made a new music I had to learn. I wanted to play this game too.
Learning to skate at twelve was not very easy. And you had to make sure there were enough cars parked on your block to hold on to while you learned. Always making sure there were no cars crossing either since who knew where your heads going to land when you hit the ground. But not long after the first box of band aids was gone and my black and blues healed I soon found myself gliding down the pavement. No longer looking for a Caddilac fin to hold on to!
The games played on East 4th were hard fought, we used car doors to bank pucks off, body checked each other into Plymouth Duster hoods, broke taillights,windshields, mirrors and sometimes house windows. Yes,we were soon becoming a menace to the block. One day as we were skating on the street we saw two figures fast approaching us from way up East 4th. One, quite big, wearing a green and white hockey jersey and the other, kind of skinny, wearing a NY Rangers jersey. They had Hockey sticks in their hands and were fully dressed in hockey gear. They even hadreal hockey gloves. They were Windsor Terrace Boys!
As the figures became closer and crossed Beverly we stood our ground. Two of them and five of us, no need to retreat. The big one stopped right by our net, “hey where’s the puck?” Nunzio, one of our boys, skated and fished it out passing it to the this big kid with sandy blond hair. With a lighting like move and a snap off the stick the kid with the green and white jersey snapped the puck right through the netting. The puck left a black mark on a car trunk behind it. He looked at us and with a sheepish grin said “oh gez, sorry”. The skinny one with the Rangers jersey took a similar shot into our net, but this time the puck hit the netting and fell harmlessly inside the goal. “What the hell you guys playing here for? Why don’t you join the league down at Ave F?" "Playing on the streets is for kids” said the big one. “Here take this” the big one handed my cousin Pete a flyer, it said “70th pct. roller hockey league has moved to Ave F park.” “Thanks” said Pete. As the two players skated down East 4th towards Avenue C we read the backs of their jerseys..........O’Shaughnessy and Drudy.
The rest is just history and I played at Avenue F for years. O’Shaughnessy was my teammate on Ryans Northstars and Jimbo played with my cousin Pete forthe Terrace Cafe Rangers. We formed wonderful friendships with the Boys from Windsor Terrace and even cried together the day we heard Billy Powell was killed by a car on the way to a game by Prospect Park back in '71. Two years ago we had a 30th year reunion at The Billy Powell Memorial Rink. Many of the Windsor Terrace boys were there including Jimbo Drudy and RobertO’Shaughnessy. It was a wonderful experience seeing the guys after 30 years of going our separate ways. Our worries about mortgages, bills, and our children’s future left our minds that day. It was just like 1975 and we were still playing the sport we loved so much as kids growing up in Kensington and Windsor Terrace. After the game we all met at the “Gallery” a local watering hole under the El on McDonald Avenue where our coaches usually drank after the game back in the day.
Phone numbers and e-mail addresses were exchanged and promises to “keep in touch” rang in the air like the bells of Immaculate Heart of Mary on a Sunday morning. Outside the Gallery I made sure to give O’Shaughnessy a big hug before I left. As we said our goodbyes we both had tears in our eyes. I guess not seeing a friend for 30 years can do that to someone and saying goodbye even more. Walking away from the Gallery and all my old friends was hard. But the glory days of 1975 and our youth still remained in an old bar for a few more hours that day in old photos and stories. But as they say, every beginning must have an end. And when the Galleries metal gate came down that night, the Windsor Terrace Boys were just a memory once again.
The memories are faint and hard to recall. When I picture them it’s like watching an old black and white movie. I remember walking next to him and looking at the belt he wore, I remember holding his hand as we would walk up to Church and inside one of the small newsstands that dotted the Avenue.
There was one in particular that I recall, it was where the tiny shoe store is across from Golden Farm. It had a tiny counter and a few chrome plated stools. They were round at the top and you could spin them around. The tops of the stools were padded with either a black or dark red vinyl. When my dad waited for his change I would gently spin the seat tops while peering under the counter for a glimpse of the hundreds of pieces of dried gum people left behind. “Hey Dad can I see the Camel?” My father would usually hand me the pack of cigarettes to look at. I remember staring at the Camel with the two columns on each side of it. Back then there was no surgeon generals warning on the pack, so a kid could look at it without a parent fearing a question about why you smoke. My father would gently tug me out the door and we would start our journey back down East 4th to our house.
The trips to the candy stores or newsstands as we call them today were fairly frequent for my Dad. You see my father smoked at least two packs of cigarettes a day,and filter-less of course. The news stand next to the bank and the jewelry store was another destination for my Dad and I. I think it’s the only original news stand that I can still remember from the early 60’s. Sometimes my Dad would buy Chesterfield’s, he would always let me look at the pack which I closely studied of course. And sometimes on the way home we would stop by the Beverly Theater to see what was playing. The marquee always cast a huge shadow with it’s lights blinking like a Coney Island arcade. There was a long wide entrance which lead into the theater. It gently sloped up to old time wooden and glass doors. You could always see the concession stand from the sidewalk too, it was probably where the counter is for the “Deal 99 cent store”. And no matter what time of day it was or even if the place was closed you could always smell popcorn in the entrance way.
By the time we would reach East 2nd street my Dad would be puffing away. Billowing smoke like an incinerator from the apartment buildings on Ocean Parkway, out of his mouth, out of his nose and sometimes looking like his ears too. My father was always off to work too, and no matter what time of the day it was. And of course, he had to finish his cigarette before he left the house. “Your father works like a donkey” that’s all I heard my grandfather Paco say about his son. “Education is what will make you succeed in life”. “Your father refused an education and look at him now” I guess my grandfather was talking about college, because my Dad did go to High School. John Jay in Park Slope. But then again, I never knew if he ever graduated.
My Dad worked two jobs and sometimes three, he worked in a restaurant called McPherson’s down by Trinity Place in Manhattan by day, and by night at the Trinity Place post office as a “part timer”. He also did catering work on weekends and even co-owned a coffee shop atone time on Vanderbilt right off Atlantic. So I didn’t see my Dad much, and if I did he was usually sleeping between jobs on a Lazy Boy in the living room. For my brother and I there was no catch in front of the house and there was no playing tag at Greenwood Park. And we knew better not to even ask my father.
One day when my brother and I came home from PS 179 we heard my mom on the phone crying to her sister. We looked in their bedroom and my father was lying in the bed, he was crying too. In those days no one told a little kid what was going on and you dare not even ask. All I heard from my mom was “Daddy's not feeling well and won't be going to work for a while". You see, it all started my father was offered a full time position at the Trinity Place Post Office. There was a routine physical he was ordered to take before he could become a full-time employee. Problems breathing were followed by X-rays. A "spot on his lung" was detected and before you knew it there were tests followed by more tests. Doctors in those days didn't "beat around the bush" like today. Dr. Weisel on Plaza street in Prospect Heights told my Dad straight to his face that he would be "dead in three months". My Dad refused chemo, but did opt to have one lung removed, and I will always remember that scar. It went from his chest all the way around his back, it just looked like train tracks around a mountain through the eyes of a kid. But hey, at least he was home for my brother and I, and that's all that really mattered to us.
Eventually though death did arrive and on August 24th 1965 at the age of 39 my Father died. Just about three months after he was told he would, leaving a seven, nine and two year old without a father. Oh, sure, I know there are old photos of my brother and I together with my Dad building a snowman in our back yard at 399. There are also ones taken upstate at our country house with me on his shoulders. But the truth is nothing sticks in my mind more than those simple walks to Church Avenue holding my Dads hand and smelling stale popcorn by the Beverly. For there are no photos of those times, but just the memories of a seven year old boy who barely knew his father.