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.