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 would be alongside my Grandmother 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 Manuel was always looking for a “good price”.
At six feet five inches, he had the most booming “Brooklyn” voice you could ever imagine, and was also a truck driver who 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 Manuel. He never really wanted to know where the boxes "fell" from, but gladly took anything my Uncle offered him nevertheless. I guess they were just the "SAP" versions of "Oscar and Felix", and 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?”
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 63 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 remembered seeing him at IHM.
“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 Joseph.
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.
On any given August night back in 1975 you could find me down the block on Freddie Scheferman's stoop. But not just me you know, the rest of the boys also made Freddie's stoop their perpetual brick and mortar home. Glen Gruder, Robert Brennan, Neil O’Callahan, Jimmy Spinner and my cousin Pete Liria.
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 wavey 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 making 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 on the block.
No, instead of a beautiful girl on each side of his shoulders, Freddie had us instead. And let me tell you, we were far from being beautiful.
Freddie hated the establishment too, every President sucked, every Governor sucked, every Mayor sucked. But then again we never asked Freddie if he ever voted.
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 friend’s 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 overgrown 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 storyteller, 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 beaten him up because of his long hair. Bobby hated hippies, freaks, the un-employed, the protesters, and 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 horrible 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 car's 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 guy’s 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 souvenir”
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 a few 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 guess maybe for once Freddie wasn't full of shit, no he was really leaving the block, and wouldn't be back for years.
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 a lot of crying.
The stoop in front of Freddie’s house was empty, yet there was still hope that at least Bobby would be back someday.
But then one day when I got home from work I remember seeing a NYC morgue 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 aneurism, but we knew it was just a broken heart. Because Bobby just could not live without his son.
I remember the funeral at Pitta’s on McDonald Avenue. The whole block must have come that night.
And there was Bobby in the casket. With a cigar in his pocket, and still looking like he could kick someone’s ass, even in death.
Yeah, it was over. Everyone was gone.
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 storytellers 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, and giving me a "gift" I will never forget.
Like a bullet the black puck was coming right towards my head. You could hear the whizzing sound as it cut through the ice-cold Kensington air. I jerked my head to the side as it whistled by my left ear. I thought I felt something hit me, but it must have just been the breeze from the ice-cold “Scotch 88” puck. BAMM! It hit the boards right behind my goal, and deflected towards the corner.
My left shoulder started to feel unusually warm, but I paid little attention to it. No, there were players in the corner jamming for the puck along with Randy Reis from the Blackhawk’s standing right in front of me, ready to take a centering pass and snap it past my frozen goalie stick and body.
Well, before you knew it Bill Webster (the referee) blew his whistle and stopped the game. He quickly skated over to the player’s bench and grabbed a white towel.
And then to my surprise started skating right towards me.
“Ronnie, Ronnie, get on the ground, get on the ground”
Not knowing why, I just got down on one knee and waited for Bill to reach me.
He took the towel and placed it hard against my left ear. As Bill moved the white towel back and forth over my ear I saw the bright red blood that was making everyone’s face on the bench turn a pale shade of white.
“Ronnie, you’re bleeding, you’re bleeding bad”.
“From where Bill, I can’t feel a thing, my ears are totally frozen”
Well, after a couple of minutes of defrosting, my earlobe started to sting a little, yeah that puck did kind of cut it open pretty bad. But hell, we got a game to play so just tape the damn thing up and lets get going.
So there I was playing the rest of the game with a chunk of cotton and white hospital tape on my left earlobe. Just looking kind of funny when I was trying to be oh so cool.
You know when the air was ice cold in Kensington back in the 70’s we never thought about staying inside where it was warm and cozy. No, we were either down at the hockey court by Avenue F or right on our own block puffing white smoke from our mouths as we played the game we loved so much. Either getting cut by pucks without even knowing it because my ears were frozen numb or having a huge icicle hanging off the bottom of my goalie mask from my sweat.
And the rest of the guys "suffered" too, with frozen toes and hands they never complained. No, they just laughed and played the game they loved so much, and probably never knew it was cold anyway.
Paul McNally was and still is one of my best friends from the block. Although Paul moved from Kensington and Brooklyn many years ago, his mind is still chock full of memories from East 4th street. I recently filled Paul in on my blog about Kensington and he came back with a story of his own overnight.
Here is Paul's story simply called: Having a Ball in Brooklyn.
After reading some of the many stories on the pages of this blog, I feel compelled and inspired to add a few thoughts of my own. A day doesn’t go by that I don’t draw upon the fond memories of good ol’ E 4. So when I tried to think of what to write, I wanted to come up with something that anyone who lived in the melting pot that was Kensington, could remember and relate to. Unfortunately, most children today can’t understand how much fun a kid could have without a video game controller, but to the kids growing up in the neighborhood all you needed was a ball. Specifically, I am speaking about a Spalding Hi Bounce ball, or as they were commonly called, “Spaldeens”.
If you had a Spaldeen, you were set to play any one of about a dozen different games. From stoopball, to box ball and of course the old standard, stick ball, hours of play could be had with a single ball. A Spaldeen was every thing and more. Now for those of you reading this who are either too young to know these games, or maybe you were born somewhere other then Brooklyn, I will give you a few details about the games.
Stoopball was a game that had several different versions all based on the same concept of throwing a ball against a set of steps (called a stoop). The first game was loosely based on baseball were the guy throwing the ball attempted to gain runs or points by having his opponents in the out field miss the ball. The ball had to fly a minimum distance before it could be considered in play. If it fell short or went foul, it was a strike, and of course with three strikes, you were out. If the ball was caught on the fly that too was considered an out, but if the ball bounced, that was a hit. You took one base for every bounce before your opponent caught the ball and stopped your progress, so it wasn’t uncommon to have a 4 bounce “Homer”. You could also have an automatic homer by hitting the ball on the point of the stoop and have the ball fly high and far and “Outta Here”!
Another stoopball game was just throwing the ball and gaining points for catching it. Catching the ball on one bounce was worth 5 points, on the fly was 10 and catching it off the point of the step was worth 100. You had better keep you eye on the ball, cause those shots off the point could come right back at you fast and hard. You passed the ball when you either missed a catch or the ball bounced more than once. The games would usually score to either 500 or 1,000 points with the winner getting bragging rights till the next game.
When stoopball was done, you could use the same Spaldeen to play box ball. Box ball had several different incarnations that could keep you occupied for hours. This was a game that could be played on any sidewalk around. The boxes were the “flags” of cement found on every block of the neighborhood, so you didn’t have to go any further than your own front door to have a game. There was basic box ball, a game based on tennis.
The game would start when you designated two boxes as the court, and you served the ball to your opponent by throwing it into his box. Then the game was played by hitting a return shot with your hand. This led to many fancy maneuvers in an attempt to outplay your opponent. Slices, slams, backhand shots, knucklers and lobs, and almost anything else you could think of. One of my favorites was the “feint”. You know, were you wind up like you are going to slam the ball and the other guy backs up thinking you’re gonna put it down his throat, and you just tap it into a corner and then laugh at him for getting sucked in. This game usually played to 11 points. Another game was 5 boxes. 5 boxes was played on a longer “court”. You had to attempt to bounce your ball in each of the 5 boxes separating you and your opponent.
The game was easy at first when all you had to do was throw the ball to the box directly in front of your buddy. It became increasingly harder as you tried to make it bounce in two boxes and so on up to five. This game required a bit of skill since you had to apply backspin for some shots and top spin for others. And when you got to your shot at 5 boxes it would mean squatting down low to the ground so could make the ball stay low and almost skip across the playing field.
One of my personal favorite box ball games was the coin flip. Using 2 boxes, you place a coin on the crack between the boxes and toss the ball at the coin. You gained 1 point each time you hit the coin. If your hit resulted in the coin flipping over you got 2 points. This game was pretty easy, but became harder if the coin moved around the box after being hit and flipped so many times. If it moved towards you it was almost a “gimme” that you would win the game, but never underestimate the abilities of a skilled box baller bent on winning.
The King of all Spaldeen ball games was of course, stickball. Stickball was played either on the street or in the schoolyard of PS 179. On the street, the field was usually the distance between two manhole covers or sewers. Making the statement, “sewa ta sewa”, understood by everyone. We would pitch the ball at break neck speeds hoping to catch our opponent looking or whiffing at a blur of pink flying past their eyes. But if they connected good and hard, say good-bye, cause that ball was outta here. Those Spaldeens would fly like the wind. If they flew the distance of 2 sewers it was an automatic homer. Sometimes we would name bases like, the blue Chevy’s door was first, the sewer was second, and the lamppost was third with home being another sewer.
In the schoolyard we would use the brick wall of the school as both the strike box and the catcher, cause the ball would bounce off the wall back to the pitcher. Call strike arguments usually broke out but were quickly settled by the chalk mark of the strike box evidenced on the ball. These games usually involved fewer players so we used a system of automatic hits. One bounce; base hit. Two bounces; double, three bounces; triple, but you had to hit it out of the yard or get the ball stuck high on the schoolyard fence for a homer.
Sometimes if we had enough guys we would choose up sides and play a game, running the bases in the schoolyard. The automatic homer in these games usually ended the game when the ball was hit on to the roof over the auditorium at PS179. The roof was the resting place of many a Spaldeen ball. Occasionally some brave or stupid kid (it was hard to figure out which) would climb up to the roof to retrieve a lost ball. Shimmying up between the walls and gaining access to a place that often times had a dozen or more balls waiting to be liberated. Some guys would throw the balls down for everyone too smart to make the dangerous assent, while others would come down with 15-20 balls stuffed into their shirts looking like beer bellied old men, not wanting to share with anyone.
But what good is a ball if you don’t have someone to throw it to, right? Other games we played were punch ball and slap ball. Both games being played like baseball but using your hand instead of a bat.
So what’s the point of all this rambling you might ask? Its kind of a comparison between what me and my brother Steve, and Ronnie, and Petey and Robert and Nunzio and all the guys did every day with just a small rubber ball and a little imagination, and what the kids today are missing. Are the kids today going to remember their high score in Grand Theft Auto IV like we remember these games? And all that for about .39 cents.
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!
Jerry “Fish” was your basic “rink rat” down at the Avenue F hockey court in the 1970’s. I'm not sure how he got the name “Fish”, and we never asked him. Because no one really wanted to know anyway, and sometimes certain nicknames are better left alone.
At 14 years old Jerry stood about 5 foot 5 and was kind of skinny. He had straight dirty blonde shoulder length hair and blue eyes. Jerry usually wore an orange and white “Flyers” jersey that always looked quite dirty when he skated with us.
Now we were all at least 18 or 19 years old and much bigger than Jerry. But because this kid was so good, we would always let him join in our choose-up games during the week after school. He was just a real sweet kid that looked up to us older guys, and we in turn always made sure to keep an eye out for him on and off the court.
One day Jerry was real excited because he just got paid from his part time job at a supermarket on 18th avenue. He said he had about 20 bucks in his hockey pants and was looking forward to spending it on something he always wanted.
“Hey Ronnie, would you mind giving me a ride over to “Scotto’s” on 13th Avenue after the game?”
“Sure kid, what are you going to buy?”
“You know, I always had this dream about what I was going to do with my first paycheck and today it’s coming true”
I had no idea what Jerry was going to do, but gladly told him I’d give him a lift to Scotto’s on 13th Avenue.
So I took off all my goalie equipment and threw it in the trunk of my 73 Buick. "Fish” just kept his equipment on, including his skates and sat in the front seat of my car.
When we got to Scotto’s I was able to get a spot right in front.
“Hey Ronnie, can I get you something?”
“No thanks Jerry, I’ll just wait here”.
Jerry just opened the passenger’s side door and glided on his skates to the entrance of the bakery and opened up the door. About five minutes later Jerry appeared with a big white cake box tied with that red and white string. I guess he bought it for his mom. But then, without warning Jerry sat on the sidewalk in front of the bakery window. He put the box to his mouth and started breaking the string with his teeth. He then opened it up and stuck his hand inside. Before you knew it he had whipped cream and strawberries all over his face and hands.
Yeah, that was Jerry’s dream, to buy a strawberry shortcake and just eat it all by himself, even if he didn’t have a fork and knife.
After the league shut down in the mid 80's, I kind of lost track of “Jerry Fish”. From what I heard he wasn’t keeping the best of company down on Ditmas Avenue.
And I guess the off-duty cop that shot Jerry to death never saw the same kid I did eating that cake with his hands in front of Scotto’s bakery.
No, he just saw some teenage trouble maker trying to steal his car early one Saturday morning in the late 80’s. No one ever really knew if Jerry had a gun that day, although that was the cop’s version.
And from what I heard, he died right in the car.
An innocence lost is such a terrible waste, I sometimes look at my own son and worry about how fast his path could change. As a parent you just try to do your best and hope they keep with a good crowd. You try to give them their freedom and let them dream for themselves. Even if that dream is simply about eating a strawberry shortcake in front of Scotto’s with their first paycheck.
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.
For all you old timers like me, there are many faces here you might know. This picture was taken a few years ago at Avenue F and McDonald right after our 30 year reunion game. Thats me the green goalie with my son.
The candy store was no larger than your cubicle at work, or at least it seemed that small. It was right next to Dennys on the McDonald Avenue side off Church Avenue, just a few feet from the subway entrance. It may be a Bangladeshi hairdresser place now.
The two guys that ran it were simply known to us as “Izzy and Benny”. They may have even been brothers, but we never really asked them. Izzy was the older of the two; he was rather skinny with salt and pepper hair. He usually wore a baseball cap, no matter what the season. Benny was shorter and a little heavy; he had red hair and green eyes and always wore a “cab drivers” cap.
The inside of the store had a black and white linoleum tiled floor. The magazines and comics were directly to the left as you walked in. A small counter was to the right. It had chrome edges with a red Formica top. There were also about four stools by the counter where one could sit to get a quick bite to eat.
Izzy was usually there during the day, while Benny did the night shift. It was one of the few places where you could still buy a “Vanilla Egg Cream” all the way into the 1980’s. It was also one of the few candy stores where you were timed on how long you could read a magazine. And I’m sure being 16 years old didn’t help with the clock either.
“Hey Boys, come on, this isn’t a library, if you want to read go to the library, I heard they just built a new one on East 5th and Fort Hamilton". We usually heard this verse from either Izzy or Benny, and it really didn’t matter if you finished you egg cream or not. No, it was strictly business at Izzy and Benny's.
Izzy and Benny also had more than one thing in common. Besides running the store together, they must have shared a tragic past. Both men had numbers tattooed on their forearms and were Holocaust survivors.
Just sitting by that little glass window, sliding it open to collect your change for the morning paper. The numbers usually appeared from under their shirt sleeves when either one reached for your quarter. A quick smile and “thank you” and the numbers once again hid out of sight. It just seemed like they wanted to keep them hidden anyway.
I guess in some ways they both watched me grow up too. From the days I held my Moms hand as she walked me down the subway entrance by their store, to a six foot three longhaired teenager being told to find that new library up on East 5th.
“Why you all dressed up, a date?” “No Izzy I’m working in Manhattan now”. “Well, save your first dollar, and tape it to the wall like this”. Izzy pointed up to an old dollar bill above the grill. It was yellowed from cooking grease. “Why, a hair cut too?” “Yeah, sometimes things change you know” I said.
This morning, almost 35 years later I stopped by the store that was once known as Izzy and Benny's. I looked at the former site of the simple little newsstand. There inside the store were two or three barber chairs where the counter used to be, and a long wooden bench where the magazines racks were. Through the glass I could see the owner cleaning up and getting ready for the new day.
And you know what, I’m sure his simple barbershop will be the memory of some grown man someday. Thinking about someone he once knew when he was a kid. There will be a dollar taped on the wall, and talk of someone’s first day at work.
“Yeah Izzy, sometimes things change you know” I smiled and said goodbye and headed for the train.
“Hey, mister, can I help you?” There standing by the barbershop was the owner. “Can I help you with something?” I just looked at him and said, “you already have, you already have”.
Jimmy Spinner is a good friend of mine and writes some real nice stuff about about growing up in Brooklyn. The following is a story he wrote for his students up in New England. Yeah, my friends teaching our young? How scary is that?
First Crush by Jimmy Spinner
Sometimes we just have to write about certain things. Something just keeps bubbling to the surface of our consciousness and begs to be written about. How many of us remember our first real crush? The total innocence of it? The unrequited love? The hopeless romantic in me looks back fondly on a more innocent Jim Spinner and a more innocent time, Brooklyn in the 1970’s…
The scene is Brooklyn in 1973, I’m a ten year old strolling up East 4th Street, with my Mets t-shirt on, some cut-off jeans shorts and some no-name black and white sneakers. I don’t know what kissing is, yet. I do however know what it looks like. I know this from watching The Brady Bunch or seeing teenagers making out on the street corners of our Brooklyn neighborhood. I do however know who I want to kiss. Rose Yannone. Her name needs a sentence all its own. Here I sit as a 43 year old looking back and I still love her. That’s a testament to the strength of a young boy’s crush and the beauty of Rose Yannone.
Let me tell you about Rose. Obviously, she’s Italian. She has shiny, and I do mean shiny, black hair, a great smile a la Marie Osmond with a few crooked teeth which just made her a little more “human” otherwise she’d be too perfect. If I’m ten in this story, and in 5th grade that makes Rose 14 and an 8th grader at Ditmas the local junior high school.
I have the hugest crush on Rose and I tell her about it often. I simply want her to know how much I love her. I’ll prove it to you. The girls on our block play assorted jump rope games one of which is “Strawberry Shortcake.” Basically it goes like this, the person, usually a girl, jumps rope while the crowd circled around her chants with the rhythm of the skipping rope, “Straw-berry Short-cake, cream-on top, tell me-the name of your sweetheart, is it-A-B-C…” and the jumper would continue to jump as the alphabet is repeated until they “mess up” and whatever letter the girls are saying at that moment, say P, would prompt a guess from the crowd and the requisite, “Ohhhhh, P is for Paul, you like Paul Reilly…..”
The girls jump rope in front of John Tracy’s house because the sidewalk widens right there. Where they are jumping is right next to our stickball court which for the most part is in the middle of our block. Rose is in the crowd of girls so I saunter over, and ask, “Hey can I try?” The response of the girls varies, Helen McNally, my age and a friend of mine complains, “Come on Jimmy, you don’t like to jump rope.” Annoyance from Theresa Festa, “You better just let him do it or he’s never going to go away.” A dare from Joanne Yannone, Rose’s sister “Oh let him try, he won’t be able to do it.” Now the gauntlet has been dropped, it’s an athletic challenge. The girls swing the rope, I time the rhythm, my head bopping, swap-swap-swap…I jump into the circle. “Straw-berry Short-cake, cream-on top, tell me-the name of your sweetheart, is it-A-B-C…” …..I smoothly make it all the way to R and I plant my feet firmly, I stop jumping on purpose and the girls squeal, “Ohhhhhhhhhhhhh, R, it’s Rose, Jimmy likes Rose!!!!!” I shyly glance in her direction and walk back to our stickball game.
Remember that stage when you were still innocent enough that you didn’t care who knew if you had a crush on someone? You actually wanted them to know, you wanted the whole world to know? That’s the stage I’m at in this story.
When I’m by myself, tossing a spaldeen against the wooden steps of my front porch, I work on the assumption she is watching me from her second floor porch window a few doors down and across the street. You’ll have to excuse me but you remember that’s how egocentric we are at that age? With each grounder caroming off my stoop, I’m Buddy Harrelson, going deep in the hole to take a base hit away from a disappointed Johnny Bench. I’m Tommy Agee as I sprint to straight away center field to steal a sure home run away from Willie Stargell. I play these games in my head for hours, casually peaking over my shoulder occasionally, hoping Rose is sitting on her porch amazed at my athletic prowess. I realize now I was a 1970’s version of Tom Sawyer showing off for Becky Thatcher.
I’m aware of Rose’s outfits and I have my favorites. There’s a Seinfeld episode where Jerry describes a girl from his childhood who wore an amazing orange dress and to this day he tells Kramer he has “memory burn.” That’s what I have with Rose’s white turtleneck. I swear this shirt had special powers. Her breasts were amazing to begin with but you put them in this virginal white turtleneck they were positively magnetic. I witnessed this shirt make men walk into lamp posts and oncoming traffic. This shirt actually turned my dad into a flirt. I swear the one and only time I saw him flirt with a girl was because of Rose’s white top but that’s a story for another time. I don’t know what she wore with it, skirt, pants, shorts, who knows? That’s how amazing the top was.
So this is the Rose I was in love with. And who could blame a ten year old? I don’t know what she does to me, I just know that I act goofy when she’s around and as I said, I don’t care. I pine for Rose. I know where she is whenever I’m playing street games with my friends. I know who her friends are. I am vaguely aware of her schedule. Here in the year 2006 this might seem like stalking but this was a more innocent time for me and for the world. I have to be aware of her schedule to maximize my time, and that brings me to the crux of the story.
It’s Wednesday in mid June and Brooklyn is getting hot. Summer is hovering like the heat waves above the car roofs baking in the sun. We know it’s coming, the time when the heat radiates off of everything, when the asphalt of East 4th Street is so liquid it takes barely a few minutes to carve your initials into the street. And a breeze might be our only respite. But this summer the Yannone’s have a pool in their backyard. They share it with their next door neighbors, The Tracy’s, whose son John happens to be just about my best friend.
We called John Tweety, and Tweety as unrealistic as it seems to me, is not as smitten with Rose Yannone as I am. Incomprehensible I know. But he is a normal red blooded American boy and a good friend so he goes along with most of my plans and the various contrivances I use to get Rose’s attention. So this particular Wednesday my wheels are turning. I have a plan.
Wednesdays are half days for those of us who attend Immaculate Heart of Mary, the local Catholic school. We get out early so the kids of our neighborhood who attend public school can attend “religious instruction” or CCD. Given that, Tweety and I are home well before our public school counterparts. And as the bible says, idle minds are the devil’s playground or something like that. So I clue Tweety in on my plan…
“Tweety, hot enough to go swimming today?” “You bet, wanna get our suits on?” “Not yet I don’t.” “Not yet? What gives? It’s freakin’ hot, let’s go!” “Can’t, I have a plan.’ “A plan?” “Yeh, listen, this is the plan…”
We sit on Tweety’s stoop, a brick staircase leading to the second floor apartment the Tracy’s rent above Mr. and Mrs. Miller. Tweety and I are half-heartedly playing “stoop ball” where each player bounces the ball off of the brick steps and gathers points for each time a ball is caught but the game is as unimportant now, as it was to me then. I am glancing up the block, in the direction of Beverly Road, the direction we usually walk home from school, but today the kids of East 4th Street who take religious instruction at our school will be walking that route. Including Rose Yannone. I know it’s hot. And I know it’s been a long day for my sweetheart. She’s going to need a dip in her pool as soon as she gets home.
Nervously, John and I make small talk. John “Who are the Mets playing tonight?” Jimmy “Phillies.” John “Nah, they played the Phillies last night.” Jimmy “Phillies, I’m telling you.” John “You don’t know what you’re talking about, they already played three games at Shea against the Phillies. I think they’re on the road, at San Diego or something like that.” Jimmy “Maybe you’re right.” John “Course I am.” Jimmy “That means the game’s not on until 10 tonight.” John “Have to listen on the radio under the covers.”
I’m really not into the conversation, preoccupied as I am with Rose’s imminent arrival. I keep looking down the block. Tweety is absolutely destroying me in stoop ball and I don’t care which is rare as I can be a competitive little snit. Finally, I spy her coming up the block with Helen McNally, they stop to chat in front of the McNally’s house a few doors down. I pick up the ball and just sit there trying to look nonchalant. “Come on. What is taking so long?!” Paul McNally, who just happens to be Rose’s age, comes out of his house. This is not good, I think. Now they begin talking and I am about to burst. Finally, she says her good byes. A smile and a hair flip and she’s heading toward us. Slowly. I am trying to look busy, picking at an ant in the little mortar between the bricks. Looking up, Rose is in front of me. She gives Tweety and I cursory hello as she walks by. “Hi Rose.” We both say in unison, a little too loud and a little too friendly, but she doesn’t seem to notice. She knows I love her and she’s still sweet to me, she never toys with me and that makes me love her even more. She walks into the front gate of her house, up the steps to the porch, says hello to fat Aunt Anna in her house dress, enveloping a poor little old folding chair. Then she’s in the house.
Off we go. Up the stairs, two at a time, past the kitchen, the bathroom, down the hallway and into Tweety’s room, which I should add for those of you who are slow on the uptake happens to be right across the alley from Rose Yannone’s bedroom. And that’s my devious plan, a stakeout. The plan, as I explained to Tweety is, “It’s hot, Rose has had a hard day at school, she’s sweaty and she has a pool! What do you think she’s going to do when she gets home?” “No.” “Yes.” “We can’t.” “Oh yes we can. And we will.” “We’ll get in trouble.” “Who will know? Your mom’s not home? Your sister’s at my house.” “I don’t think we should.” “As long as we’re quiet, nobody will ever know.”
So, we’re sitting there, two ten year old boys, on either side of the narrow window, peering out between the window and the white shade. Both of us, whispering, eyes glued on Rose’s bedroom across the alleyway a mere 40 feet away. Watching, watching and whispering, as if she could hear us.
“Where is she?” “What do you think is taking so long? “Fuck if I know.” We liked to curse if no one else was around, trying out our new words. Suddenly, we spy Rose in the kitchen, talking to her mother, a much smaller version of Aunt Anna, but in the uniform of these Italian housewives, the nondescript flowered “housedress.’ Rose goes to the fridge, she grabs something to drink. “Come on already!” I complain. The suspense is killing me. And it’s hot. I decide to get something to drink, my Attention Deficit Disorder kicking in. The Tracy’s have just gotten one of those newfangled Fridges with the ice and ice water dispensed right from the door. It’s too much for me to resist. I scamper to the kitchen, grab a plastic cup from the cabinet and help myself to some of the best, coldest water I have ever had. “Ahhhhh.” I decide on a second cup when I hear Tweety, “Spinner, Spinner, get in here she’s fucking naked.” The cup and the water crash to the floor as I run through the ice water. I turn the corner quickly, scoot to my knees, burning them on the shag carpet and take up my place at the corner of the window. And there SHE is. Walking around her girly, pink room. Naked? Not quite, but all of the important stuff is there for an innocent ten year old boy. And we stare. Roundness. And Voluptuousness. And she looks at herself in the mirror. Who can blame her? I think, she’s amazing. She walks to her closet, she removes her bathing suit. She walks TOWARDS us. And places the bathing suit on the bed. And then she stops. She’s looking right at us. Panic! She’s paralyzed. And so are we. I still don’t know how she saw us. I imagine from her angle Tweety’s bedroom window was a white shade with two saucer-sized eyes on either side. Suddenly I feel bad, really bad for her. She’s stuck. Vulnerable. She wants to cover up. But has nothing handy. She can pull her blinds but in order to do that she actually has to walk toward the window. She has nothing handy. Finally, she yells, “Jimmy and John!” She lunges for her pillow, “Ahhhhh, I’m going to tell your mothers.” Eventually, she pulls the blinds. I imagine, she sat there on the bed, embarrassed, out of breath, maybe her mom came in from the kitchen to see what was wrong. I don’t know, we hightailed it out of there.
For the next few days, as painful as it was for me, I avoided Rose. I kept looking to see if she was coming to my house to tell my mother. Tweety and I watched, intensely, whenever Rose had conversations with his mom Rita, but nothing ever seemed to come of it. Eventually, after sweating it out for a week or so, we exhaled. We realized she wasn’t going to tell our moms.
About a week later in Tweety’s bedroom, sitting within close proximity to the guilty window the conversation goes something like this… “So, Tweety, why do you think she didn’t tell?” “She’s probably too embarrassed herself.” he muses. “Could be, or maybe she figured it was just harmless. Maybe she was flattered?” I venture, always the romantic. Either way, until now, Tweety, Rose and myself are the only one’s who knew about that fateful Wednesday.
Easy Street was the smoothest, widest blocks around when I was growing up in Brooklyn. And all the cars that parked on it had the biggest of tail fins and shiniest chrome bumpers ever made. With names like Chrysler, Dodge, Pontiac and American Motors, the tin monsters that lined its path left little room for anything else. And especially anything that wasn’t made here in America.
The fathers who all lived on Easy Street were real blue collar fellows you know. They were plumbers, oil truck drivers, postal workers and carpenters. They were transit workers, steel workers and laborers. They were real tough guys who would sometimes get into fistfights if someone touched their kid or scratched their car.
No don’t you challenge a dad from Easy Street, because you’ll probably loose.
Now the mothers who lived on Easy Street, well they never had to work you see. And there was no reason to, because back when I was a kid, all it took was a blue collar paycheck every couple of weeks to pay the rent and feed the kids. Maybe even go on vacation to the Catskills or buy a new car every few years.
No, in the Kensington and Windsor Terrace of the 60’s we never even knew what a baby sitter was. That’s because we always had our grandmother or grandfather to watch us anyway, just in case our parents wanted to be alone.
Struggle you ask? Yeah I’m sure we struggled. But at least we didn’t have to worry about dragging our kids on the train every morning to go to school. No, when you lived on Easy Street all you had to do was walk around the corner and get a good education at PS 179 or PS 230. Oh, and our parents, well the most involved they got with school was when they waved goodbye in the morning when we left. That’s because when you lived on Easy Street you never had to worry about school. Because that was the teacher’s job, not yours.
What about a "track" so we didn't end up with a "blue collar" around our necks too like our parents. Well, we all did go to college you know, but not Harvard or Yale. No, we went to Pace, Baruch, Brooklyn and even NYU. Traveling on the subway every morning and then having dinner with our parents at night. No, the kids from Easy Street didn't go "away" to college. No we all stayed home. And don't you question what Easy Street made, because I'll have one of my best friends "sue" you for harassment or perform your colonoscopy when he's angry.
Oh, but don't worry Easy Street did produce some guys to put that track back in order after your train derails. No we weren't just about being white collar you know.
So what happened to Easy Street?, well, it’s somewhere around you know. In the old photographs that I look at and the dreams that I sometimes have. In a Brooklyn that I knew so long ago when Easy Street was just about "Every Street".
The only American car you’ll get me to buy today would be the 2009 Dodge Challenger. And that’s because I love what it looks like and nothing else. It could stall in traffic, the wheels could fall off, the radio could burst into flames when you put it on.
And it all wouldn’t matter to me, because I think this car is so beautiful.
Ok, so it all may be because I own two 1970 Plymouth Barracuda’s which this car was designed after, along with the 1970 Dodge Challenger. So I guess my love of this car that Dodge introduced in 2008 is just skin deep. I do admit that when it comes to automobiles I can be very shallow.
Now when it comes to other American car companies and their cars, well, I’m not that sold on their beauty. And even more important I’m not sold on the prospect that they are going to be around in the next 10 years either.
And don't get me wrong, I have always been an American car kind of guy. A Buick Century, Chevy Monte Carlo, Ford Thunderbird Super Coupe, a couple of Plymouth Barracudas, and even an American Motors AMX.
Oh, I even bought a 77 Dodge Aspen to drive around when I was first dating my wife in Fort Greene. That place scared the hell out of me, and I didn't want to leave my brand new Thunderbird parked on Adelphi street.
It took me a while to figure out why people used to wave at me as I drove down Myrtle Avenue. They thought I was "car service". Oh my God, how embarrassing was that?
And my wife, well, she wasn't that happy about that move I made, and would always point out the more expensive cars that were parked on her block.
"Ronnie, you have a Jaguar behind you and a brand new Lexus in front of you. And you're worried about parking your Thunderbird on my block?"
If there was one mistake I made during our dating time, it was buying a "piece of crud" Dodge Aspen to drive to her house and park on the street in. Thats because I was worried someone would steal my new 94 Ford Thunderbird.
Putting a car before a woman can be a real mistake sometimes. That was a real "pussy" move on my behalf, and I will always regret it. "Ouch".
So now comes my opinion on this “bailout” for our automobile companies. Just a Brooklyn boys take on the whole thing.
Even if the government bails out GM, Chrysler and Ford. I have lost my confidence in their product.
Do I think someone who’s worried about their job is going to put a one hundred percent effort in what they do? No.
Do I think a dealer service center who should be servicing my car is going to do a great job in the face of closing down? No.
Am I confident that the car I'll be driving around is going to be the best product that a company facing massive layoffs could produce? No.
That’s why the people I talk to on the block, at home and at work all feel the same way about buying an American car in 2008.
Even if the government bails them out, there is ZERO confidence in what they are offering to the customer.
Now that’s something these American auto companies need to change faster than anything else. People’s perception of them, plain and simple. Because without feeling confident about who they are and what they produce, no money in the world will ever keep them alive.
And there just aren't enough people like me, who are sold on looks alone.
You know I was reading this article in the paper last week about how rats only live in the better areas of Brooklyn. Fort Greene, Park Slope, Bay Ridge. Hey, but not Kensington.
Well, that’s fine with me, because I've been living in these parts for fifty-one years, and have never seen a rat on East 4th in my entire life. Oh, but then there was “Vinny the Rat” from East 5th, but I don’t think he’d be worthy of a 311 call to the NYC health department. And besides he drove a Trans Am.
What got me thinking about rats anyway was my experience yesterday at the 50th street Rockefeller F train stop. So there I am minding my own business, and a freaking rats right by my God damn feet looking for food or something.
What the hell, aren’t those things afraid anymore? I was tempted to take my size twelve, (yes I wear size twelve) and squash the thing. But it would have probably got all over the place and made a mess.
Hey, you gotta hear this one guys, a few years ago my wife had a rat in her Brownstone in Fort Greene. The thing lived in the basement at night and would crawl under the bathtub while she was bathing. The rat would bang away under the tub like crazy and drive my wife nuts. You know the thing could have even been in the drain pipe, wouldn't that be a surprise while your in the tub, huh?
Boy was I glad to move back to Kensington. We may not have cool restaurants or a farmers market on a Saturday morning, or even a view of Manhattan from our bedroom window. But at least we don’t have rats.
The other day I was talking to my cousin Pete about the day we drove my mom and sister to see "KISS" at the Nassau Coliseum back in '78. Now you have to remember that my little sister Isabel was downs syndrome, and she loved music more than anything else. And my mom, well, she just went along with anything that her daughter wanted to do. And seeing "KISS" in concert was something my sister was asking me for months. So on the list of things Isabel wanted, that one was right on top.
And me, well, I certainly spoiled the hell out of my little sister and never regretted it for a moment. No, don’t ever tell me I spoiled my little sister, because I’ll kick your ass.
So one day I bought the tickets for the "KISS" concert through Ticketron. And my poor mom had no clue what she was in for. Because she had no idea who "KISS" was nor how loud the concert was going to be.
‘You know Ronnie, I don’t know if being with all those crazies is a good idea”
"I saw pictures of those people and they all look like they are out of their minds"
“Mom, you’re going to love it, and so is Isabel”.
So one Saturday afternoon Pete and I got in my old Buick, pulled out of my driveway at 399 East 4th and headed towards Long Island. My little sister Isabel was excited as can be, while my poor mom just stared out the window as we drove down Ocean Parkway towards the entrance to the Belt.
“Ronnie if I go deaf, it’s going to be all your fault”
“Mom, this is a day you will always remember as long as you live”
Well, we dropped them off at the concert and killed some time at my friend Peter’s out in Wantagh.
Later that afternoon we drove back to the Coliseum to pick them up.
“Ronnie I think the world’s coming to an end”. “You have all these people screaming for nuts like that wearing makeup and sticking out their tongues”.
I just looked at my little sister. She was wearing a "KISS" shirt and was as happy as can be.
It was a hot June night back in 1994 when my little sister passed away. Isabel was only thirty three years old and died suddenly in the early morning hours.
As I placed her favorite "KISS" shirt inside the casket at Pitta's, I smiled to myself, and remembered that day she went to the concert with my mom.
Yeah, I spoiled my little sister, and I couldn’t care less.
One of my very best friends sells cars for Lexus out on Northern Boulevard in Queens. Today we got to talking about business and especially how things are going for him with the state of the economy.
“Sales are down to a trickle” “Last month we sold half of what we usually do”
And let me tell you that’s not bad, it seems that the Caddie dealer down the block from them is totally dead. That’s because their not offering any type of lease deals on their cars. So in turn Lexus is getting a lot of “lifelong” Cadillac customers who are being shut out by GM.
“This week I did a couple lease deals with two old guys who said they never drove anything but a Cadillac in their entire lives”.
“These guys were both in their 70’s and are first time Japanese buyers”.
“I gotta feel bad for the guys at Caddie, but what can you do?”
Oh, well at least there’s some good news, but too bad it’s at the expense of someone else.
At one time they both stood, proud and mighty. Just daring the next to be better, without ever throwing a punch. With clean glass and stainless steel each was an awesome giant, forever protecting their good name and block.
Their weapons were soft and sweet, and known to many throughout Kensington. Come early Sunday at the break of dawn, you could smell their proud aroma along the deserted sidewalks of Church Avenue. Tempting those who were brave enough to wait outside their locked doors until they opened, hoping the pleasure would soon be all theirs to enjoy.
Next to the Beverly stood “Ebingers” and about a block and a half down by East 3rd street stood “N.E. Tells”. These two bakeries had to be the finest in the land, and they were all ours, right here in Kensington.
As a kid growing up you’d sometimes argue with your best friends about which one was better. And always hoped to see either one at a Birthday party on the block. Because when it came to great cakes, they were both truly the best. And it really didn’t matter which was was better, because they were both the most wonderful bakeries in Brooklyn.
Yeah, what a lucky bunch we were, In the days when giants roamed the land, all you’d have to do is walk up to Church Avenue and open their doors.
Ok, so you guys all know the old stories about Kensington and what is was like when I was growing up here as a kid. Church Avenue, the Beverly, Lees and Kenny’s toy stores. Korner Pizza when they first opened and charged 25 cents a slice, and all the tales about playing roller hockey on my block.
Well, for all you old timers who may be living far away from the streets that taught you well. There’s another blog you gotta check out. It is just called “Kensington Brooklyn” and here is the address: http://kensingtonbrooklynblog.com/index.html
It was kind of idle for a while due to the webmasters busy schedule, but has now come back to life under new leadership. And the best thing about it is they didn’t need to sit before congress to beg for any “bail-out” money to re-start it. No, just time, smarts, and a good keyboard to type into. The guys that work this blog, well, let’s just say their more “Kensington present” than me.
So please check out their blog, it’s some real good stuff from the new “young” minds who are moving into the old apartments and the houses you grew up in. Walking the same streets and avenues, and riding the same subway train to the city every day that you did so many years ago.
This is the “New” Kensington, and it’s certainly worth a look. http://kensingtonbrooklynblog.com/index.html
You know one day before I die I’m going to get to see those long lost pictures of Kensington from the 1800’s.
That’s because the O’Callaghan’s who all grew up across the street from me, claim to have all these pictures of Kensington when it was just farmland.
You see, the house they grew up in has been in their family, actually the Casey family since the 1800’s. And according to legend they were first Irish around. Well, at least on my block, East 4th street.
Do you know the “Margaret Court” the small apartment house on East 4th between Beverly Road and Avenue C. Well, according to the O’Callaghan’s it was actually a tennis court that belonged to their great, great, grandmother Margaret Casey. So thus the name “Margaret Court”.
One if the conditions when they sold the property was that the building be named after their great, great grandmother. Otherwise "no deal" as the story goes.
Yeah, the O’Callaghan’s house was the first house on the block, surrounded by pastures and grazing cows.
And one of the last things I’m ever going to do before I die is badger them long enough to get those pictures and post them on the blog.
I remember looking up at the train as it passed overhead. Like the sound of thunder on a clear Kensington morning, the dirty black subway cars slowly rumbled by. And as always the large shadows of the train made their way though the playground. Sheets of black silk gently moving over the swings, seesaws and then finally the small brick building where the bathrooms were.
I just stood there staring up at the train, it hissed, moaned and clattered until it was finally out of sight, just slithering away into the distance until there was silence.
I guess I was about four years old when my mom used to take me to that playground on Dahill and Cortelyou. At the time there was an elevated train that used to connect the Ditmas Avenue F station with the Ninth Avenue D train station by 39th street. I think it was called the “S” shuttle train. And although I never really traveled on it that much, I was certainly fascinated by it as a kid. That’s because the El that the train traveled on was almost directly above the playground my mom used to take me to all the time. And let me tell you, I was certainly one who loved anything that traveled on two rails. So when it came to going to the playground, I probably spent more time waiting for the next train to come rather than climbing the monkey bars.
And my mom, well, she was never really the type to chase me around the playground or slide down the slide alongside side me. No, my mom would always sit there on the concrete and wood bench, and watch me play instead. And that was perfectly fine with me you see, because I really never saw any other parents sliding down those slides either. No, when it came to the playground, our parents knew where their place was, and that place was usually on a hard bench in the corner somewhere.
But that all changed the day my mom decided to ride the seesaw with me.
Now I was always a skinny little kid, and my mom, well, let’s say she was always kind of “big” if you know what I mean. She was probably about five foot nine and well over 175 pounds at the time. While I was no more than 40 pounds or so, and skinny as the subway rails above the playground.
“Ok Ronnie, are you ready to try the see-saw with me?”
I remember sitting on the wooden plank of the seesaw and looking at my mom across from me. She was smiling at me and was telling me to “hold on to the handle”.
But just then another train started to rumble by overhead. I looked up at the subway cars as they thundered by and was fascinated once again by their wheels, windows, and noise.
And then without warning I remember feeling myself being thrown into the air. I was floating way above the seesaw and the playground. The train suddenly was not that “high” above me anymore.
“Wow, can this be heaven?”
And then I started falling towards earth.
I remember waking up and seeing my mom’s face above mine. There were other people too all staring at me. I guess I forgot to hold on to the handle along with my mom forgetting that she weighed almost four times as much as me. My mom told me that I hit the back of my head on the concrete so hard she thought she killed me.
But even though my head hurt real bad, at least I got a real good look at that train that day. Because that El was torn down some years later in the 1970's. And the rumble of that train can be heard no more.
And as for riding on a seesaw? Well, I've never been on one since, and never plan to ride one ever again.
The other night when I was walking home form the subway I couldn’t help but notice the metal gates that were fully open where the “Deal 99 cent store” used to be.
The inside of the place was totally bare, it was vast and empty except for a few guys welding in the back. I hear a new bank is moving in, so I guess they’re getting it ready for construction.
As I stood there staring I couldn’t help but think about the old Beverly Theater that used to be there when I was a kid. The area that the 99 cent store used up was basically the long hallway that lead to the doors you opened to go inside, along with where the concession stand used to be. I guess the rest of what was the main single theater is now the PS 230 annex behind it.
It was interesting seeing that area totally void of anything, so big and so empty before the construction starts for the new bank. I could just see the movie posters that used to line the walls as you walked up the long hallway before you entered the place. Along with the ticket booth and the young teenager waiting to collect your ticket standing by the front door.
It was a Kensington of yesteryear, just a distant memory that’s all.
But you know what, every time I walk by the PS 230 annex I hear children’s voices, sometimes laughing and yelling inside the school. And I can only hope they’re having as much fun as we did, in a time when the Beverly theater stood where their school is now.
When we laughed and yelled too. So many years ago in an old movie house in Kensington Brooklyn, that was simply known to us as the “Beverly”.
You know my dad, grandfather and uncle Manuel from East 2nd, were real big deer hunters when I was a kid. And for those who are familiar with the “Buzz-a-rama”, my uncle Manuel was Dolores Perri’s dad. He was a big man who stood about six feet five, and had a loud booming laugh and shoulders broader than the side of a barn.
He was certainly one of those uncles that you always wanted to come over and visit. Just laughing and telling stories and making you feel special, even if you were just eight years old.
And hunting was a real big deal for them. Every November when I was a kid, we would go upstate to our house for hunting season. As the men wandered off into the woods carrying their rifles. We were given specific instructions not to go outside, and also not to make too much noise, even inside the house.
Just a bunch of “hunter-gatherers” as the women and children stayed back in the den.
Now for whatever reason my brother Joseph, cousin Pete and I just never got into the whole “hunting thing”. I mean we certainly were exposed to it every year, and even traveled back to Kensington with a deer tied the roof of the Rambler more than once or twice. And if you want to talk about some strange looks from the Blanks next door, just hang the deer in your garage after you pull it off the roof of your car I tell you.
Yes, the men in my family certainly showed the “natives” of Kensington a thing or two about hunting. "New York Times editors" and "Ferry boat captains" had never seen the likes of the Lopez family, on a quiet street just known as East 4th.
Yeah, a large buck hanging inside the garage in the back of our driveway, and sawed off deer legs for all the kids to play with. These were the only Novembers that I knew as a child growing up here in Kensington Brooklyn.
In 1965, my grandfathers best hunting companion, my dad, died at 39. Leaving the tradition solely on the shoulders of my uncle Manuel and grandfather. And as the years rolled on Pete and I just never showed much interest in the sport my grandfather loved so much. No, for us it was hockey pucks and roller skates, and weekends down at a hockey court simply known as “Avenue F”.
And my uncle Manuel, well, he hunted less and less too, I think he just missed his best friend, that being my dad. And the times up in the Catskills just weren't the same as they were before, especially for my grandfather.
“So young man, would you like to go hunting with your grandfather this year?” I remember the day my grandfather asked me that question, I think I was about 15 at the time. And feeling that maybe that would be something “special” for him, especially after the death of his son ten years before. I reluctantly said yes.
It was always a dream for my grandfather to hunt with his grandchildren you see. And the fact that my dad was gone along with my brother put added pressure on my cousin Pete and I to just do the “right thing” for our grandfather Paco.
Now, we were never afraid of guns, and even used to shoot old cans of tomatoes for target practice once and a while. But the whole idea of shooting a 200-pound deer just wasn’t something I was really interested in. Dragging it through the woods and cleaning it with a knife and my bare hands like my dad? No, that just wasn’t for me, nor my hockey playing cousin Pete.
I remember my grandfather carefully explaining to us where to shoot the deer that day upstate. “It has to be somewhere above their front legs, this way it cannot run away from you”
We politely listened to my grandfather, and then went on our way into the snow-covered woods of the Catskill mountains. I know my grandfather must have been very proud that day. Seeing his two grandsons now hunting with him, just as his own son did so many times before.
I walked over the ridge and sat on a large rock that overlooks a valley. It is a beautiful view and is near where I built my own house back in 2003. I just stared at the snow-covered mountains in the distance, and dreamed about being back in Brooklyn playing hockey.
As my dad’s gun was resting across my lap, I slowly turned it sideways and emptied the bullets from the chamber. I put each one in my pocket and then gently laid my fathers gun on the ground beside me. I just stared at the mountains in the distance, and never saw a thing. After a few hours I returned to the house and met up with my cousin Pete. Never mentioning it to him, we all sat together and had our dinner.
I never told my grandfather what I did that day. Because I didn't want him to know how I really felt. No, hunting was something my father loved. And I just couldn't feel the same, no matter how I tried.
That was November of 1975, and the last time I ever went hunting.
I remember the phone call my mom got that morning. It was October 16, 1976. I was getting dressed in our apartment on the top floor of 399, getting ready for another day of college in the city.
“Oh my God, No, Oh my God, No”
My grandfather Paco died that morning. In our house upstate, a massive heart attack and 20 miles from the nearest hospital.
It was about a month before hunting season.
And as for my cousin Pete and I. Well, we never did go hunting again, no that all ended with my grandfather and the day I emptied the chamber of the rifle.
But at least my grandfather’s dream came true, even if it was for only one day.
It was years later when I heard my grandmother telling my mom the story. About how my grandfather never found the bullets in my dads gun that night when he was cleaning it. And about how he found them in the pockets of my hunting pants instead.
It made him laugh that night because he always knew I could never shoot a deer.
But most important, he was so proud to go hunting with his grandsons that day. About it being the last thing he’d like to see before he died. Even if it was for only one day.
When I was a kid, Thanksgiving night was usually spent on the road driving upstate to our house in the Catskills.
With the 63 Rambler station wagon chugging up the West Side highway. I always made sure to stay up long enough to see that big billboard-like truck that was somewhere near the Chinese embassy up by 42nd street.
Remember the lights it used to have on all it's wheels? They looked like they were rolling, although the thing just stood in one place for something like 50 years.
And there were always a lot of orange hats in our car too. Because it was hunting season upstate, and you never knew if someone would mistake us for some deer when we went sledding the next morning.
Yeah, there I was little mister Kensington Stories with a great big plastic orange hat over my little head. And the same punishment was doled out for my older brother Joseph too.
Oh, and my dog Skipper, well, because he was pitch black we never let him outside. No, he most certainly would have been mistaken for a sixty pound Black Bear.
Well, those post Thanksgiving weekends were sure fun. And thank God everyone knew where the house was once when the guns went off and the deer went down.
Yes, there was no one prouder than my dad or grandfather when they had a dead deer tied to the roof of our 63 Rambler. Just slowly driving down East 4th street so everyone could check it out.
Sometimes the damn thing would have it's tongue sticking out too! Wow, that really made people "stop and stare" if you know what I mean.
Well, these days are a little different, I don’t really hunt and neither does my wife. And she’s from Texas too, so that’s really shocking.
When we go upstate these days after Thanksgiving I still bring those orange hats though. We even blow an air horn before we go sledding down the hill in front of our house.
But the only thing we have tied to our roof on the way home may be a sled to use in Prospect Park. Just ready to scream and yell "without" our orange hats, when this snowy Catskill winter finally reaches the streets of Kensington Brooklyn.