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.