David and Russell Siegel had to be the two smartest and coolest kids at PS 179 back in the late 1960’s. While the rest of us were walking around with button down shirts, red bow ties and our hair short and slicked. The Siegel brothers wore tie die t-shirts, "earth shoes", and had long blonde wavy hair way past their shoulders. They were just a couple of “Park Slope” PS 321’ers way before their time. And their parents looked like real hippies too; with sandals and matching tie die t-shirts. They probably dragged the kids up to Woodstock back in 1969 in their Volkswagen bus they parked on Avenue C near East 3rd everyday.
Now, while the rest of us were mostly “low achievers” and branded by our high class numbers, 4-15, 5-15, 6-18, the Siegel’s were both “SP” students, which meant they were in the “smart kid” classes. These were always the 4-1, 5-1, 6-1, low digit classes. I guess in today’s world you would just call them the “gifted” classes that everyone wants their kids to be in.
Oh, God, maybe I was in “special ed” and never knew it?
And you know what? I don’t think the Siegel’s ever studied either. I never saw them reading or doing homework, and when they were in school, they were always laughing and fooling around in the hallways. So just like some of us are born to be tall or short, the Siegel’s were just born to be smarter than anyone else.
The Siegel’s also lived directly across the street from PS 179, on the first floor of an apartment building on East 3rd and Avenue C. Most of the time they never even wore coats to school, because all they’d have to do was run across the street to class.
Now you have to understand we hardly ever saw them in school, because they were always in the “SP” classes on a different floor at PS 179. But the Siegel’s were a kind bunch you know, and always made themselves available for us to hang out with after school. Which usually meant a “play date” in their apartment directly across the street from the school.
Now our “play dates” were a little different from the ones we have today. Sure we had the same kind of “fun” your kids may have today, we laughed, played games and told jokes to each other. But the biggest difference about our late 60’s Kensington version was that our parents were nowhere to be found. And that included Mr. and Mrs. Siegel.
So what kind of “play dates” did we have you ask? Well, forget water balloons out the window or shooting marbles with a slingshot at a city bus. Killing roaches with a hair dryer?, No, we’re talking about the 60’s here, that’s 70’s fun. And Russell and David would be way too advanced for that anyway, and besides they were “SP” students. So all of our suggestions were just kid stuff in their eyes. No, we just left it up to the Segals to run the “play date”.
And the Siegel’s had a special game; a game that only a PS 179 “SP” student was capable of making up. And it usually started with them handing out real Army helmets when we walked in their apartment. I guess the ones their parents must have used during Vietnam War protests at Washington Square Park.
So what do you think? playing Army men with toy guns? No, you better think again because these were the brightest PS 179 had to offer, and you could only expect the “best” from the Siegel boys when it came to a “play date”.
“Ok, everybody put on your helmets and get behind something fast”.
With that, we would all strap on our metal Army helmets and get behind a couch or wall. With a silver frying pan in his hand, David would place it on the stovetop, and light the gas. A few moments later he would take the box of 22 caliber bullets that he pulled out of a closet, and pour them into the pan. Quickly he would run away and hide either behind a wall, console TV, or just go into his bedroom. After a couple of minutes the shells would slowly start to fry and make a "sizzling sound", and then just like popcorn popping, they would start to snap and explode. "Hit the decks" said David. The bullets just flew through the apartment, breaking glass, hitting furniture, or embedding themselves in the heavy plaster walls. And we would never move until we got the "all clear" message from David. What do you think? we were stupid.
So like I told you, only the “best” from the Siegel’s.
And yes, I know what you’re thinking, what the hell were a bunch of “low achievers” doing with a couple of “SP” students who probably became Doctors or Lawyers twenty years later. Well, I don’t know either; and all I can think is they probably just found us “entertaining”, that’s all.
So the next time your 10 year is walking around with a frying pan on his “play date”, you better check his pockets and pat him down. Because somewhere in Kensington along time ago, kids were making more than just “popcorn” on their parents stove, and sure had "fun" on their “parent-less” play dates.
Back in 1990 when I bought my house from my Aunt and Uncle, I was faced with the daunting task of cleaning out my Grandmother’s apartment. In my Aunts old bedroom where she used to stay, there were rolls of silk, lamp shade skeletons along with boxes of nick knacks from my Grandmothers old lampshade store at 90 Church Avenue. Just one of those weeks where you sat in a pile of "stuff" and slowly went through every box, always trying to find something that your family never knew existed. The “Family Jewel” or that “Lost Photograph”, that’s all.
But interesting enough I came across a bunch of postcards from Havana, Cuba. These were cards sent to my Grandmother and Grandfather at 399 East 4th before Castro took over the place and made it into a perpetual “antique car show”. I have to tell you that side of present day Cuba fascinates the Hell out of me. All those 57 Plymouths running around in 2008, Wow!
But anyway, these cards were all sent from the resorts that my cousins must have stayed at while they were visiting my Great Grandfather there. They all contained loving messages to both my Grandparents here in Kensington, and were post marked from December of 1955.
So you can see I was real excited about this find and wanted let my aunt Dolores know as soon as I could. Maybe she’d want to frame them or read them to her Mother, who knows.
Now, there was always a special spot for the mail when it was delivered to my house, and it was usually placed on the sill under the stained glass window in the hallway. The mail placed there was usually for my Grandmother Isabel, who was now living with my family in Florida, New York. My Aunt Dolores believe it or not, still worked for doctor Sheps at 310 Beverley, and must have made the longest commute anyone has ever known at the time, 85 miles each way to East 3rd street. And on Fridays she would always pick up my Grandmothers mail from the windowsill before the weekend.
So what do I do that Friday morning without thinking? I just throw all the postcards on the windowsill along with the Con Edison and Keyspan bills; no big deal is all I thought.
And remember that “Family Jewel” or that “Lost Photograph” I was talking about? Well, my poor Aunt Dolores, she was just so excited to get that “lost” mail after all those years. Thinking it must have been under some ones desk over in the Kensington Post Office since 1955, and was finally found and delivered. Which wouldn't be too much of a stretch anyway considering our local post office.
Well, I just didn’t have the heart to tell her I put them there that morning without thinking twice. I meant to tell her, but probably forgot. And it’s been almost eighteen years now so why spoil a good thing?, and besides it makes great dinner conversation.
So the next time you get that postcard form some far away place. Just throw it in a box somewhere and pack it away. Because maybe someday it may be another “Kensington Story”, that was almost too good to be true.
With a bright flash of sunlight the huge Cadillac Coupe Deville slowly crossed Beverley Road. It’s enormous chrome bumper just reflecting off the Kensington midday Sun. As it slowly lumbered up East 4th street we could hear the sound of its big block V8, just a low pitched “purr” as it rumbled closer towards the open mouth of my driveway.
“Ok, when I say three, just roll it down, and push it as hard as you can”. With my dirty little hand on the top of the worn out tire, I could feel the dryness of the treads. I stared at the yellowed white wall and wondered why it was never white. Awaiting my “orders” I stood there frozen holding on to the smelly old tire.
“Ok, Ronnie, One, Two, Three...NOW!
I pushed the tire as hard as I could; it started to wobble but then straightened out as it picked up speed. It made a strange “crackling” sound as it rolled, picking up little pebbles inside the dry rotted treads.
“Run, run, run”. My brother Joseph yelled frantically.
I quickly turned around and ran as fast as I could up my driveway towards the back of my house. A quick left and into my back yard and to our ultimate hiding place, the one-foot gap between the two garages in my back yard.
The loud skidding sound of the car sounded like some animal being slaughtered, its vibration could be felt in my teeth. It was quickly followed by the “thump” of the car hitting the tire.
With our little bodies squeezed hard between the rough cinderblock walls of the garages, my brother and I just looked at each other and started to giggle.
But then there was trouble, and we knew it might happen, the sound of a car door opening, followed by footsteps running up my driveway. We just held our breath, and froze between the damp walls of the garages.
“Come out you little bastards, I know your there”.
The footsteps were very close now, he was in our backyard.
“I’ll be looking for you kids, don’t think I wont get you”.
The footsteps started to disappear as he walked down my driveway and to his car. We heard the “chunk” sound of his door closing, followed by the sound of his car driving off.
“Good job Ronnie, good job” my brother Joseph whispered in my ear.
Now, we never ever saw one of our tires actually hitting a car, and could only envision what it must have looked like from the hollows between the garage walls. Because if we just stood there at the top of my driveway at 399 East 4th, and waited to see the “show”, well, that’s just “childhood” suicide. And we were too smart for that.
I still can’t understand how no one in my house ever noticed what we were doing. I knew my Mom was home along with other adults throughout the day. And my Grandfather Paco would have sent us back to Spain to have “Franco” do a number on us if he had seen what we were doing.
And yes, it got worse as we got older. We became more creative, and I picked up some cool sewing tips from my Mom when I assembled our six-foot “dummies”. Pushing them off the fender of a parked car and into the path of a speeding taxi or truck. Gee, no wonder why the girls on the block never looked at us.
And still no screams from the windows of my house.
But then there was the highlight of my career.
One time we were at a Halloween party at my friend Timmy’s apartment building on the corner of Albemare Road and East 5th street. It may have been about 1977. Once again another masterpiece of sewing and paper stuffing I dragged through the streets of Kensington under the cover of darkness. Some time during the party we decided to open the fifth floor window and place the dummy on the windowsill. Loud screams of “don’t jump Ronnie” were used to prompt about a hundred windows to open up from all the surrounding apartment buildings. With our audience in place and the theater fully seated, I heard the voice of my deceased brother in my ear. One, Two, Three…NOW.
The screams of all the people watching could probably be heard as far as the Wonder Wheel in Coney Island that night. The dummy just fell from the window like a lead balloon and snapped in two as it hit a tree below on the sidewalk. Again more screams form our apartment house audience as its head, body and torso all separated from each other.
“Good job Ronnie” is all I heard.
I remember trying to pick up a girl at the party that night, and guess what? She didn’t want to have anything to do with me. Oh gee, I wonder why?
So what do you say? "Boys will be Boys?” "Children must Play". I have to tell you no matter what your thinking the "Drug Dealers" never made a penny of the East 4th street boys. No, we had other things to do in Kensington, like roll tires, or sew a pair of Levis to a shirt.
And as far as dating or getting a girl in "trouble" over at Plum Beach at twelve midnight? no, I was painting a face on an old volley ball and getting ready to "duct tape" it to my new twin brother stuffed with yesterdays Daily News.
But God forbid I ever see my son out there at the top of my driveway with an old tire from our Nissan Quest. You know what I'll do. I'll just run out there as fast as I could and grab that tire, look at him square in the eyes and say...
Not too long ago my daughter started stringing her words together. And yes we’re guilty, no videotaping or calls to close friends and relatives. No, Hennessey is the “second child”, and I’m sure we’ll get an earfull about it when she’s older.
So there we were driving down Church Avenue one day and she starts to utter a “chilling” warning to the family. “Red hand, White man”.
My wife and I just exchange looks of confusion sprinkled with a little horror.
“What did she say?” “It sounded like “Red hand, White man” said my wife. “Oh, Red Can, White Van, she’s just babbling that’s all” I said. Then it came from the back of the mini van again, “Rrred hand, Whhhite man”. This time more pronounced, it was almost like my daughter heard what I said, and was trying to correct me.
“What, what, you think she can see the future or something?, Why does she keep repeating that?” I said. I turned around to look at my daughter and she had the palm of her hand up so I could see it. "Red hand Daddy" is all she said.
Now, I love Steven King you know, and I couldn’t care less that his writing is never really recognized by “the literary critics”. And the “Shining”, well, it sure scared the living hell out of me back in the day, both the book and the movie. And the whole “Redrum” thing in the mirror that little kid kept repeating over and over. Hell, don’t tell me that didn’t scare you too. So when it comes to little kids talking about shit like this, it sure gives me the “willies”.
“What is she telling us, we’re going to be stabbed tonight by “Bill Gates” (your stereotypical looking white man in my opinion) and then he’s going to wipe the blood from his hands on the walls”, “we just painted too” I said.
“You know Ronnie, they say little children can also see ghosts” said my wife. Oh shit, that’s all I need, I’m sure my whole family still hangs out in my house too, I thought to myself. And no “Santeria” is going to get them out either.
We stopped for a light, “Gee, I was hoping the tornado we had in June would have ripped down that “Deal 99 cent store sign” instead of destroying about a hundred tress and cars. It’s amazing what….”RED HAND, WHITE MAN, RED HAND, WHITE MAN”, my daughter was now screaming the warning at the top of her little lungs and jumping up and down in her car seat at the same time. This time the “warning” was frantic!
“Should we stay at the Brooklyn Marriot tonight or what”? I said to my wife. This was even getting to me, “Mr. Non-Believer Brooklyn.”
“Hennessey, what do you see?” I said.
“Tell Daddy what you see?”
With that my daughter pointed her little finger at the electronic “Walk, Don’t Walk” sign by the side of the lamppost on McDonald Avenue. The little “White man” just lit up fully ablaze in its LCD light bulbs.
My wife and I just stared at it and started laughing together. We then drove off before the “Red hand” even appeared.
It’s amazing what little kids notice is all I thought.
And as for “Bill Gates”, well, he’ll just have to wait to kill us some other day.
In a time when ELO and Queen ruled the jukeboxes of our local Windsor Terrace and Kensington bars, we had the F-Express to Manhattan. It was our own European “Bullet Train”, and it stopped right here, at Church Avenue.
Now I was a pretty lucky kid you know. Back when all my friends were either getting mugged or beat up at Erasmus on Flatbush Avenue, I was going to the “High School of Art and Design” on Second Avenue and Fifty Seventh Street in Manhattan.
Talk about culture shock for a boy from Brooklyn. A school where kids of all races just got along with each other and never had a fight. A school where some of my best friends turned out to be “gay” without me ever even knowing or even caring. A school that had to have the best-looking girls in NYC hands down. It was such a wonderful place that was so different from anything you could have ever imagined, including Ditmas JHS, where I had just graduated from earlier that year.
The guys from the block just could not comprehend what I was telling them when I described the “Halloween” party there in October of 1975. Guys in drag, girls hardly dressed, and a walking condom squirting milk. Not to mention we actually "voted" not to have a prom. But then again what would you expect from the Alma Mater of Harvey Fierstein and Tony Bennett. We were just too cool. Oh, A&D, it was just the best school in the world, and so much more fun than "Commuter College."
But back to the F-Express, the train I took every day to High School.
The F-Express stopped at Church Avenue, 7th Avenue, and then Bergen Street. It was really a time when hardly anyone got on at Fort Hamilton Parkway or 15 Street Prospect Park. Maybe all the Moms were home and the Dads worked in Brooklyn, who knows. But bottom line, those stations were not very crowded back in the early 70’s. And I know because I was there every day if I missed the F-Express.
Next Stop Seventh Avenue, Methodist Hospital
Then there was Seventh Avenue. The “Park Slope Pioneers” just walking on to the F-Train with their New York Times. Why the hell would they all want to live in that “rat-hole” of a neighborhood for? A place where all the streets are on a slant and no one has a driveway? How many times this week did you get mugged? You can keep that joint, I’d rather stay here in Kensington. Imagine we actually had better schools than Park Slope in the 70’s.
Next Stop Bergen Street.
I remember the train used to barrel out of the 4th Avenue tunnel at speeds well over 55 mph. The F would pass the platform in less than 5 seconds. The local would look like a blur as we rocketed by it. Before you knew it you were passing Smith 9th street and going down the big curve. This is when I would be lucky enough to see the progress on the World Trade Center. Just a skeleton of a building getting higher every week. It was really history seeing that building go up on the way to High School every day. So sad what happened.
Forget Carroll, next stop Bergen Street.
Now the characters that got on at this stop, I don’t know. Just a bunch of tough guys either going to their construction site or maybe to my school to kick some “sensitive” artist's ass. All I can say is they all wore black leather jackets and did not look like "yuppies." Yeah, how ya doin, are you some kind of artist or something?
Next Stop Jay Street Boro Hall.
Ok, so that was it. Even though I still had over a dozen stops still ahead of me. But let me tell you, I was at Lexington Avenue and 53rd street from Church Avenue in about 45 minutes, no kidding.
So remember the F-Express and a time when ELO and Queen ruled the juke boxes in Kensington. A time when PS 179 was the "school" and PS 321 was not.
But hey, I bet you that Denny’s still has ELO and Queen on their jukebox. And how does that saying still go? Just a dollar and a dream, just a dollar and a dream.
Fred Cooper could never stand still when he spoke to you. With short black hair parted to the side, a polo shirt and gray polyester pants, Freddie had a voice that was oddly high pitched for a six foot sixteen year old. With his two pudgy hands tucked in his pants pockets, he would gently rock from side to side as he discussed last night’s Ranger game. Freddie always smiled when he spoke too.
Freddie also carried a black briefcase when he went to school, just swinging it by his side as he walked down our block. Freddie had a walk similar to a duck too; his two gigantic brown shoes practically took up the entire sidewalk as he strolled by. Yes, Freddie was sure a “fish out of water” when he walked down East 4th. But then again Freddie was a “Techie” or Brooklyn Tech Student, so that alone may have explained a lot back in 1975.
And we were the East 4th street boys, long hair, engineer boots and bell-bottoms. Just thinking we were “oh so cool”, and then there was Fred Cooper, a kid who looked more like our Grandfathers than us.
But Freddie was a good friend of Robert Brennan our “go to guy”. So no matter what Freddie looked like or sounded like, he was “in” when it came to our block. And besides, Freddie was a real nice kid who wouldn’t hurt a fly, and probably helped hundreds of Kensington Grandmothers cross the street on Church Avenue. A real sweet kid that Freddie Cooper.
Now, back in 1975 Bartell Pritchard Square was simply known to us as the “Circle” up by the Sanders Movie Theater. Forget Connecticut Muffin, The Pavilion, or any of the other Park Slope places up there now. No, the “Circle” was not a place where you would want to be walking around at nighttime, especially alone.
But knowing Freddie Cooper, I don’t think he thought about it twice, because the “Kind” rarely recognize the “Evil” that the city of Brooklyn breeds.
Freddie would have given his money to any one too. He was probably one of those people you see on the train that always sticks their hands in their pockets as soon as the panhandler walks on. So I know there was no reason why they should have hurt Freddie that night, no, none at all.
And I’m sure the “wolf pack” of kids that attacked Freddie never knew that he may have helped one of their Grandmothers cross Prospect Park West at one time. No, they just saw an innocent victim, a “Gentle Lamb” grazing in their “Lions Den” that night back in 1975.
The knife that stuck out of Freddie’s back just glistened in the Windsor Terrace moonlight. The lights of Bartell Prichard Square reflecting off the long silver blade that was buried deep inside his still warm body. The back of Freddie Cooper’s Blue Brooklyn Tech jacket turned to a horrible dark red. The blood of his body just dripped onto the dirty sidewalk by his side. Fred Cooper breathed his last breath as a sixteen year old that night, and died right there on the dirty sidewalk of Bartell Prichard Square.
A sad and lonely death for a son of Kensington, Brooklyn, A senseless killing of one of the sweetest kids you ever met. I guess Freddie was just in the “wrong place at the wrong time” that’s all. Yeah, how many times have you heard that?
So the next time your up by the Pavilion or having a “Latte” at Connecticut Muffin, say a prayer for Fred Cooper. Because he died on the cold concrete sidewalk of Bartell Pritchard Square so many years ago, in a time before Windsor Terrace was cute and Park Slope was pretty. Somewhere in the Brooklyn of my youth, so many years ago.
Now, close your eyes and imagine a Brooklyn from about 30 years ago. No, lets try that again, close your eyes and imagine a Church Avenue from about 30 years ago. You will be climbing the subway steps next to the Astoria Bank on McDonald Avenue. The darkness of the stairs will still bring you into the same sunlight that you know today. So far, so good.
Ok, you look at the bank and notice the name “The Greater New York Savings Bank”. Directly across the street form the bank on McDonald Avenue is a “Manufacturers Hanover Trust Bank”. Wow, you say, two banks right across from eachother. What a great neighborhood!
You make the left by the Greater and immediately notice the gigantic marquee from the Beverly Movie Theater. A “Planet of the Apes Marathon” Wow, I can’t wait! What a great place to spend nine to ten hours on a Saturday! But what do I see? right next to the candy store where Ebbingers Bakery used to be, a brand new Citibank! Wow, maybe I can get one of those New ATM cards they talk about all the time and take out ten bucks late at night! What a great neighborhood! Three banks all within “A day laborer's vomiting distance”. Wow, is this place great or what?
You continue walking on Church Avenue past the Beverly, Dutch Dairies, Saul’s Appetizing, Scarollas Italian Restaurant and then Edna’s Restaurant. Jewish and Italian side by side, no wonder they always marry each other. The “Hallmark” store sits right on the corner of East 2nd and Church Avenue. Don’t forget to get that “Valentines” day card for that special someone besides your wife. Directly across the street from the Hallmark store is a new Carvel, wow, I’m sure glad we now have “Cookie Puss and “Fuggy the Whale” right here on Church Avenue! The M&S butcher shop, Lees Toy Store, Kenny’s Toy Store, Keyfood, and Fairmart. How about a chocolate cake form NE Tells Bakery. Who needs drugs when you’re on a sugar high?
And on the corner of East 4th and Church is a new Record store run by a real “Hippie” too. I wonder what “else” he sells besides those “Tony Orlando and Dawn” 45’s.
Hey, someone give me a Tylenol, I think my head is going to explode! This is all too much, it must be a dream! Pinch me or kick me in the shins!
But the real treasure of Church Avenue sits on the corner of East 5th and Church Avenue.
As you walk closer the “Golden Crown” gets bigger and bigger. Welcome to “Royale Sporting Goods” folks. The “Crown Jewel” of Church Avenue! A “Mecca” of Hockey equipment, roller skates, wiffle ball bats and baseball gloves, right here on Church Avenue no less. You open the door and go inside. Man, “Paragon” in Manhattan is a “Rat hole” compare to this place! And actually back in the 70’s Paragon was a “Rat hole”.
As you stand there in Royale’s holding a brand new hockey stick you just can’t help but notice the chips on your red fingernails. A quick look in the mirror also shows the return of the dreaded “Brooklyn Uni-Brow”. My God, what are the guys going to think if I show up like this for the big game? Where do I get my nails done? And what about my eyebrows? I am a man dammit, and I have pride!
Ohhhhhh, right, 7th Avenue in Park Slope, where else, I hear that place is just full of “nail salons” and “cheap 99 cent stores”!
And then I woke up.
P.S. We actually did go to the “Planet of the Apes Marathon” at the Beverly. What a great place to spend ten hours on a Saturday!
Back in 1962 I don’t think there were many tests to determine if your baby was going to be “Downs Syndrome” or not. And if there were, I don’t think my mom would have taken one anyway. No, at 45 years old I think the doctors may told her she was taking a chance, but knowing my mom I don’t think she thought about it twice.
You see, I was the “second” boy, and it’s ok, I was already told years ago that I was supposed to be the “girl”. Yes, my arrival caused a little disappointment, and from what my mom told me they were going to name the girl ”Ronny” anyway. So there you go. Buy hey, all six foot three, 210 pounds of “Ronnie” can take it, and let me tell you, I’d make one hideous looking woman anyway.
So while I was sitting in my playpen, and staring through the bars at my parent’s bedroom door, they probably had other things on their minds. And I’m sure it was something “pink” after two “blues”.
So one day my mom told me she was going to have a baby. I was about five years old at the time and really excited. I remember drawing pictures in school of my new little brother or sister in my classroom at PS 179. I just couldn’t wait while my brother Joseph just couldn’t care less.
Then one day my Grandmother Isabel picked me up form school and told me that “mommy” had to go to the hospital to have the baby. Once again I drew more pictures while my brother Joseph started building a “cage”.
So the day finally came when my mom had the “new” baby, that was February 10, 1962. But something seemed to be wrong. I remember being downstairs in my grandparent’s apartment a lot while the baby was upstairs. Even a five year old noticed something was not right. A lot of grown-ups crying, a lot of closed doors. All I wanted was to see my little sister, that’s all. And I just couldn’t understand what was wrong.
I couldn’t imagine what went through my mom and dads minds when the doctors told them that their daughter was retarded or “Downs Syndrome” that February 10th back in 1962. What started as a day of excitement and happiness over at Methodist hospital in Park Slope ended up one of the biggest nightmares any new mother can have. Learning at delivery that there was something “wrong” with their child. Learning that the “odds” that were in your favor, had somehow turned against you. What have I done to deserve this?, is all you ask.
“You know these children don’t live very long either” one doctor told my mom. Maybe 12, 13, but not much longer. “A lifetime of commitment” was another line spoken many times that day on 7th Avenue in Park Slope. My moms world was turned upside down in an instant, and all she kept asking God was “what have I done to deserve this?”.
I was told years later that the reason why they didn’t bring her down to me sooner was that there was a great divide in the family about putting her up for adoption or not. I know that was never what my mom wanted, nor my grandmother Isabel Lopez. No one born into their family would ever be forsaken. And especially no one named after my grandmother either.
Then the day finally came. “Ronnie, I want you to meet your new little sister “Isabel”. To this day I still remember how tiny and beautiful she was, and her eyes. I just loved my sister’s eyes. They were the most wonderful big eyes I had ever seen.
I don’t think I ever really knew there was anything “special” or as you folks may say “wrong” with my sister. You see she was always quite “normal” to me. Well, she may have learned to walk at five and drank her bottle until she was seven, but other than that how was I supposed to know? No one ever really told me anyway.
Oh, right, the hugs. My little sister just loved to hug us all the time. And when it came to pure love and innocence, I don’t think you could have found anyone more innocent than my sister Isabel.
The laughter, oh right, the laughter. My little sister Isabel had the most wicked sense of humor and just made the family laugh all the time. So besides that, how was I supposed to know she was different?
And somehow she was just always the center of attention too. Even in her class at PS179, PS 230, PS130, PS10, PS so on and so on. You see back in the late 60’s through the 70’s there were really no schools dedicated to these children. Most of the time they just bounced around from public school to public school. But whatever class my sister was in the other kids would always kind of “gather around” her to hear what she had to say. So besides that, how was I supposed to know she was different?
I guess it was the looks from other people when my sister walked by that opened up my eyes to her being different. Plus the fact that she was extremely overweight as a teenager and young adult. Sometimes when we took the F-train from Church Avenue together I would notice people staring and laughing at my sister. Many times they never knew I was with them. One time on the F-train I whispered into a mans ear that I would “break his neck and kill him” if he laughed at my sister again. He got scared and walked into the next car. Gee, its amazing what an effect a 6’ 3” person could have on someone, especially with a long black leather coat, a beard and dark glasses. Boy, I miss those days.
And then there was the music, Isabel loved to stay up late and rock the house with her boom box on a Friday night. Just the thumping sound of the “beat” from the top floor of 399 East 4th till the wee hours of the morning. “Hey brother this is my apartment, go to your girlfriends house, sucker”. I could only laugh, as she’d scream these words in my ear after a late night out in the city with the guys. Too drunk or tired to answer her, I’d just go back to sleep. Only to be awoken by a glass of water being poured on my head by Isabel a few minutes later. You want to know why I can sleep through anything? I had a lot of training sleeping through “Michael Jackson, Air Supply, Kiss, and more, all cranked up to the highest level on her boom box. So besides that, how was I supposed to know she was different?
My sister was always sick a lot too. She used to sleep sitting up. “These kids have a lot of respitory issues,” Doctor Gilner once told my mom from his office at 303 Beverley. Plus the days missed from school, one year Isabel missed something like 225 days of school. I just couldn’t stop laughing when I read her report card.
And my mom?. Well, my mom was the luckiest mom on earth. She had a child that loved her to no end. A child whose mind and soul were as pure as a new fallen snow. A child who was her greatest companion for 32 years. Without my sister my mom would have most likely jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge after her husband and son died four years apart.
Now my sister was always getting sick, and that morning on June 17, 1994 seemed like no different from the rest. But what made me think was the words she said after she vomited for about the millionth time in her life. Instead of telling me to “leave her apartment” Isabel said; “Ronnie please don’t leave me”. So I stayed there next to her that night to make sure she was OK.
When my mom woke up that morning a quick call was made to my sister’s school “ACRMD” up by Bishop Ford in Windsor Terrace. Just another sick day for my sister is all we thought. So I helped my mom for a while and then went off to work. But the rest of the day went tragically wrong. Isabel couldn’t breathe, calls were made to 911, firemen, emts, and a hospital bed at Lutheran. When I got a call at work that afternoon it all sounded pretty grim.
I remember the looks on the doctor’s faces when they approached us in the waiting room. You could always tell when someone has “bad news”. The nurse just said she would light a candle for my sister that night. It all just started to unravel. And all along my friend Tommy Brennan was there with me while my mom just sat there in shock. I remember watching the “OJ Simpson low speed chase that night on the TV in the waiting room. It was the night of June 17th 1994. It’s funny the things in life that make you remember certain events.
It was just getting so late for my 77 year old mom, so we decided to take her home. We kissed Isabel on the forehead and told her we would be back in the morning. She gave us the “thumbs up” and said she loved us. That would be the last time I would see her alive.
Oh, those 2:00 AM phone calls, there never any good. My mom’s world ended on June 18th 1994, Isabel died at 1:44 AM.
He companion, her child, the love of her life was no longer with her. Another child was buried for my mom.
So the “beat” was silent and there were no dance parties coming from the top floor of 399 East 4th. The house lost its soul, my little sister was dead. My mom's daughter was gone, and she would grieve for what seemed an eternity. Things just weren't the same anymore at 399 without Isabel, and also at her school where her classmates cried every day.
I think my mom didn’t smile or laugh for about a year. I remember being home when I heard her laugh for the first time in almost twelve months; it was during the “Prairie Home Companion” show on NPR. I gave my mom a big hug and told her Isabel would want to her her laugh again too. My mom just smiled and told me she knew she would see her again when she died. “Of course you will” is all I said. I knew my mom had finally made it.
Whenever I see the parents of a “Downs Syndrome” child, I never feel bad for them. Because I know that child will show them more love than anyone “normal” ever could. The little things in life that most take for granted would all seem so glorious and wonderful with their child. My sister taught the entire family to appreciate the advances in life that we would have never even thought about without her. And boy, did she teach us how to hug.
Her “garbled” speech also gave me a gift. Isabel never really spoke that clearly and when my kids were learning to speak it helped me pick-up on words they were saying that most couldn’t understand. My wife called me the “baby whisperer” and also thought I was full of shit. But I’ll translate any “baby talk” to the finest English any day of the week, I kid you not.
So there you go, the story of something tragic that actually ended up being magical for everyone who knew my sister Isabel. Our greatest fear ended up becoming our most cherished joy. Why is it that what most think of as a “burden” to them, can actually be the greatest gift to someone else. I guess you can call it a big “misunderstanding”, nothing more.
And if you never met a person that couldn’t care less about his wife’s amniocentesis result you may actually know him after all. Because he had a "Downs Syndrome" sister, and he knew the truth about what most parents fear the most. A fear that can certainly be your greatest gift. Because we had ours you know, and her name was Isabel Lopez.
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”.
“Now Virginia, I’m telling you it’s going to be terrible, just make sure you don’t leave them in the same room together”. You have to watch him all the time and make sure he doesn’t push her or hit her. “One time Henry got so mad at her he knocked her over and she cut her head”. “Are you going to talk to him about it before “she comes?”
Now the “She” in this story is my son Andres’s little sister Hennessey. At the time my wife was about 7 months pregnant and many of her “boy/girl mother friends were offering her a lot of advice about the subject. Well, let’s not say “advice”, how about a “warning” instead. How there’s going to be jealously, envy, hate, resentment, etc. etc., once his little sister arrived. He was going to hit her, kick her, and knock her over just because she was “there” in “his world now”. So strap on the “goalie mask” and put on the padding and “let’s get ready to rumble”.
My aunt and uncle even offered advice, except their’s seemed to at least be a solution to a problem that hasn’t yet arrived. “Ronnie, make sure to tell Andres that his sister will bring him presents the day she is born. This way from the beginning he knows that she will only bring “good things” to his life. Now, we’re talking about my cousin Pete and his sister Denise here. Both grew up here at 399 East 4th with me, and I have to tell you, I never remember seeing them really fight. And Pete who was three years older than his sister was always a sweet older brother to her. Good advice, I’ll stick that one in my head before putting my goalie mask on Hennessey.
We also felt we were in a pretty good position because Andres actually “wished” for a little sister. So maybe all those tales of gloom and doom were just a lot of nonsense.
“Andres, today Mommy is going to the hospital to have your little sister Hennessey. “Oh, I can’t wait, I can’t wait” is all he said as he kissed us both goodbye.
Well, it all went perfect. Hennessey brought a bunch of “presents” the day she was born for Andres. He still asks me to this day how they “fit” inside Mommy’s tummy. All the photos show are a flash of “bright light” during the delivery and nothing else. I have to tell you I really don’t know either, maybe the “miracle of birth"
And all the horror tales that we heard from most other parents turned out to be un-true for us. He is eight and a half and she is now three and a half. We could have never imagined him being more kind and gentle to her. Holding her hand when they walk together, reading to her, drawing Pokemon characters for her and never complaining when she runs up to him and jumps on him. All I ever get from my son is an occasional mouthing of the word “HELP” while she’s doing an “octopus” on him while he’s trying to read. He even talks about “beating up” her boyfriends if they are mean to her when she’s older. So all is well as far as I’m concerned.
In fact this past year in school his class was asked to write an essay about something they really remember that made them happy.
Here is my son’s: “The Miracle of Henny"
I could see dried blood on my sister’s stomach. My mom was in pain. My Dad was about to cry. I heard my sister crying her guts out. My Mom was also crying. I could smell pretzels, blood, and fresh air. I could feel my baby sister in my arms as I sat next to my Mom. I could taste the pretzel I just had eaten. I couldn’t believe that I had a baby sister. I wished on a star and it came true. I wished for a baby sister. I wished for her because it was lonely being an only child. I was jealous of everyone else having a younger sibling. So two weeks later my Mom called my Dad and said she was pregnant! I basically lived with my babysitter. Her name was Silvia. She was very funny and pretty. But it was lonely without my parents. I made a picture of my future family and my baby sitter put up sheets with baby ducks coming out of their eggs, My Dad would go and visit my Mom from work and then come home and make me dinner and then we would camp out in the living room and watch TV. Then I would go to sleep. That went on for five weeks then the doctors called us at home and told us that the baby came out. My Dad came to me with tears in his eyes. He told me that the baby came out. I said “oh my God!” I told my Dad to get in the car. We went to Manhattan as fast as we could. When we finally got there I met my Mom in station 999. She was on the bed in a polka-dot nightgown, she said to give her a minute to get dressed and show us the baby. She was in the nursery asleep. I started to cry with happiness. I went back to the station and my Mom came in with her camera and gave me the baby and started to take pictures. The baby woke up and began to cry. We went home after that. I fell asleep in the car. I woke up the next day and thought it was all a dream, but then right next to me was my baby newborn sister.
Note: The following account is about our private struggle to get my son into a decent school. We started “public” and then looked “private”. We lived in Fort Greene Brooklyn at the time, so our options were not as varied as here. Please just try to laugh and not get depressed. Because like my Mom used to say; “at the end it will all work out”.
“You live where? and your kids going to PS 321?” I said. “Well, we used to live in Park Slope when he was in kindergarten and then we moved here”. “But you know the story about the schools here” she said. “Well, when I was a kid all you did was walk around the corner.” Just feeling as confident as ever about what I “didn’t” know what I was talking about. And let me tell you there’s nothing more powerful and strong than “Blind Brooklyn Confidence”. “You know, it’s not like before, and if I was you, I’d get the ball rolling soon,” she said.
And my wife got the “ball rolling” long before I ever knew it was even round. “I’m going to sign up Andres at the Dillon school on Washington Avenue tomorrow morning, I’m leaving at 6 am". “Why? do you really think there’s going to be a line?" “You know Ronnie, this isn’t 1962 with “little Ronnie” wearing his red bowtie and white shirt to PS 179. “Things are really different and you’ll find out.”
And there she was a Texan from San Antonio, telling me “Mr. Brooklyn” how things are. My City, My Brooklyn and a “newbie” telling me, “you’ll see”. How dare she! I bet you can’t even spell Korvettes or even tell me what block Lou Ferrigno’s gym was on. My wife left our apartment on Adelphi Street at 5:45 am to register our son at the “Dillon School”. I just laughed as she shut the front door, because they didn’t open until 8.
The phone rang at 6 am. “Hello Ronnie, this is Gina, I just wanted to let you know that there are about twenty-five people on line already.” The good ship “Blind Brooklyn Confidence" took a hard hit, with flames on the starboard bow, I could see a slight hole in its metal skin. “What”, why? I said. “You got to be serious about this Ronnie” is all she said. My son was registered by 10:30 am.
You know I’m serious about it and always have been. I really never planned on my son NOT going to school or growing up wild in Prospect Park, with that nature guy showing him which leaves and berries he should eat. But the whole “clock is ticking” thing just wasn’t me, and as my Mom always said, "it will all work out".
And then came the PS 8 story, and even Moms can be wrong.
“Your doing what?" I said. “I’m volunteering in the library at PS 8," said my wife. I’m going to try to see about getting a variance. And of course “Brooklyn” knows what the deal is on this. “Does that mean he’s in?” I said. “It’s not a guarantee, but Seth will do what he can," said my wife. Now Seth was the principal of this school, and whenever it came to any direct questions he was rather evasive. But my wife was going to do the best to “keep the ball rolling” while I was still looking at a square cube. and wondering how it could roll.
Rock Star Principal. The fundraiser at this school was a must do also. “Why do we have to go? Is all I asked my wife. “You know Ronnie, it’s important for Seth to know that we’re there to support the school. “Well, if it’s money they want why don’t we just give them a check? “are you crazy!” “that’s illegal!” said my wife. Oh right, now let me tell you something folks, I’ve been giving my garbage men a tip for years now. And they never question anything in the black bag unless there’s a foot sticking out of it. Don’t tell me about the power of the “Brooklyn handshake” with a 20 dollar bill cupped in your palm. I wasn’t born yesterday you know.
And there we were, The auditorium was packed to the gills. “you don’t know “Dan Zane” a woman asked me. “No, I don’t” I said. “Well, he’s playing here today for our fundraiser and I hope you enjoy the show. The noise, the screaming kids and my son crying all at once. Wow, I’m so excited because this is a total disaster.
And then he walked into the auditorium, like a rock star. People ran up to him to get his attention. Women had pens in their hands looking for an autograph. Grown men were in awe as he walked by. A small group of parents just hovered around him, slowly moving like the ring around Saturn. He was a “ROCK STAR”.
“Why does Dan Zane look so dorky? and where’s his guitar?” I asked my wife. “That’s not Dan Zane, that’s Seth the principal” said my wife. “Brooklyn rage" just consumed me, I couldn’t believe my eyes, it was all so sickening. And he was no Ric Ocasek anyway. We left the concert before the show even started and my wife quit the library committee a few weeks later. We were once again at square one, and I was in deep shit. The good ship “Blind Brooklyn Confidence” just hit an iceberg, and we talked about leaving Brooklyn.
Now my wife’s sister Mariadele had a lot to do with this. Her kids were anywhere from 5 to 10 years older than my son, and she has “been there” and “done that” with the whole school thing. And in Fort Greene no less, way before it was anywhere near being ‘gentrified”. So when it came to the subject of “school” my wife had a head start because of her sister’s experiences.
“So we’ll just send him to private school” I said. “I’m sure there are tons of open spots, because who wants to spend a thousand a month?” They both looked at me at the dinner table and started laughing. “When did you wake up?” Oh, don’t tell me, your name is Austin Powers and you’ve been in a time capsule frozen for the last 40 years”.
I really didn’t get that mad when they said that, because I thought Austin Powers was really cool.
But never the less, I still didn’t get it.
So my wife called “Packer” in downtown Brooklyn and they granted an “observation”, “test”, or “interview”. Just choose your poison kid.
My son Andres was not in a good mood the day he went to Packer for his “interview”. I wasn’t there, but when my wife came home she said it “didn’t go that well”. “You can bring him back again,” said the woman at the school, but my wife didn’t ever bother. So there we were, two down and only one to go. And again we thought about leaving Brooklyn.
One day I saw them when I got home from work, the books on “home schooling”. “Home schooling? Weren’t the kids from the show the “Walton’s” home schooled? Or was it Donnie and Marie Osmond? That whole idea just freaked me out. My wife all day at home in the house teaching? No other kids in the class to talk to?, no lunch box?, no notes being passed around? Having the same teacher year after year? How can a boy have a crush on his teacher if it’s his own Mom?
“Well whats your idea then?” asked my wife. “All you tell me is not to worry and everything’s going to be Ok. But you really haven’t brought any ideas to the table”. No, I really didn’t have any ideas, she was right, I sucked.
“Tim from Dillon gave me the number of this school in Bay Ridge, It’s called Bay Ridge Prep. I’m going to see if they have any spots open. So more calls were made, and another observation was granted.
“Say hello to Kate George Andres” said my wife. My son wasn’t in such a happy mood that day. Who knows maybe that freakin “Topham Hat” from Thomas the Train pissed him off today. Or maybe that goofy Dad from Rollie Pollie Ollie, God I hope he doesn’t think I’m like that. Oh, that God Dam TV!
The precious observation. Someone deciding if your kid can go to their school or not, all wrapped up in a fifteen-minute package. “Oh, that’s Ok, I know its all awkward” said Kate George. She must have noticed the anxiety in our faces; just hoping my son didn’t have a meltdown or anything, at least for now. Andres just walked around the classroom of kids he never met. Some small talk with a little girl, some looking at the art work on the walls. But still not as much interaction with the other kids as we hoped to as to impress the “observers”. We left the school feeling depressed, it just seemed like another failure.
My ship was taking on water fast, it was time to man the lifeboats. Once again we thought about leaving Brooklyn. This all just sucked so much. The shit you have to put your own kid through to get them into a decent school. I think he knew what we were doing and deep down I was hoping he would just call some “observer” an "asshole" one day. Just so we can finally put this all to rest and leave this “Rat hole” of a city. For the first time in my life I was starting to hate my homeland, “Brooklyn”. It was even getting to me.
The “Miricle ". I remember that day; I was off from work doing some home improvement stuff in the house. The phone rang. “Hello, yes this is she, oh really, oh that’s great, and when do you need a deposit?” “Ok thank you, bye”. My wife hung up the phone; she had tears in her eyes. “Ronnie, Andres was accepted at “Bay Ridge Prep”.
The game was over, no time on the clock, the ball finally stopped rolling. My son will be going to school in September. Praise the Lord, there is a God after all. and most important, we don’t have to leave Brooklyn.
I know what your thinking, and I feel the same way. It’s all kind of ridiculous and just should be easier. A subject that probably caused my Mom about as much stress as deciding what color “bow tie” I should wear to “Auditorium” when I was going to PS 179, now stresses the living hell out of parents to no end. It’s just so different than when I grew up here, but I hear you, I’ll shut up.
And yes, I learned to listen and take in every word my sister in law and wife utter about education in New York, even if they are from Texas. I just sit there with my ears and eyes wide open , and a big cork in my mouth.
And “Blind Brooklyn Confidence”, well I take it out once and a while, it’s great for ping pong or a game of roller hockey. But when it comes to the subject of "school" in the boro of my birth, its somewhere at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Coney Island. Just rusting away deep in the sea, with the words, “I told you so” scratched on the hull.