You know its funny, Sunday I was in Park Slope walking on 7th Avenue with the wife and kids. Trying to feel a little Spring in the cold Brooklyn air.
And it’s all just so perfect isn’t it? You know what I mean, right? The happy faces, the little kids on those wooden bicycles without the pedals. The cool coffee shops with people from other cities sitting outside on benches reading the Sunday Times. The “oh so feel good” atmosphere around there.
Isn’t it all enough to make you sick?
Are those people just so perfect or what?
Ok, Ok, I know what you’re thinking; Ron’s got a big old chip on his shoulder because he doesn’t live there. He’s just “stuck” in Kensington with the rest of us and will probably see his face taped to the cash register at “Golden Farm” before a Barnes and Nobles ever opens on Church Avenue.
The number “one” location in Brooklyn where people want to live, according to a recent study, Park Slope and all it’s pretty Brownstones. Oh, how precious.
Well, let me tell you, I just don’t get that wooden bike thing. What the hell is that all about? Every time I see a little kid in Park Slope with one of those things it looks like he’s struggling to find the pedals with his feet. Except they don’t have any, so he just keeps pushing with his little shoes hitting the blue stone sidewalks they got over there.
Am I missing something, or is that some kind of child abuse? How would you like it if I took the steering wheel out of your car one night. Not so "educational" now, huh?
Well my three and a half year old Kensington daughter has a steel bike with pedals, and although she can barely push them with her little legs. She’s never “fooled” by the lack of white plastic she rests her “Mary Jane’s” on. Not to mention she stays in the same spot all day because she keeps pressing backwards on the brakes. So we don't scuff our shoes here in Kensington, and although we hardly move, at least we have pedals.
So I say, Kensington 1, Park Slope 0.
Oh, those beautiful tree lined streets. Well, most of the blocks up there are on steep grades. Let’s see someone trying to play a decent game of street hockey over there like we did on East 4th. I don’t think anyone allows their kids to play with anything round between 7th and 8th Avenues either. No wonder those kids on the wooden bikes only travel East to West, and all those balls down on Court Street. Yes, now it all makes sense!
And we only lost our pucks and balls to Mr. Blank and our wives. So in my best alto, I say, Kensington 2, Park Slope 0.
Parking, Parking? Ha, ha, ha. We have driveways and you don’t.
Kensington 3, Park Slope 0.
Should I go on, this is a slaughter you know. There’s no comparison.
Schools, Schools? Well, ahhhh, daaaa, ummm. I spend almost 900 bucks a month, and you don’t. At least I’ll be prepared for when it’s 4000 a month for college. Writing checks every month for private school is a lot of fun and forces me to sell old car parts on EBay. My kids see me working all the time, even on a Sunday morning. So living in the wrong district in Kensington forces me to always figure out a new way to make a buck. And my kids will never think daddy is lazy.
Kensington 3, Park Slope 0.
Ron Lopez was born in Park Slope Brooklyn.
Ron Lopez was born in Park Slope Brooklyn.
You mean the home of real published authors and television comedy writers, Park Slope?
Where they actually try to help other areas of Brooklyn instead of throwing mud in their faces?
The place where my Mom grew up before she moved to Kensington?
Where my Dad went to school?
Where my sister Isabel went to school?
Oh well, now you got me feeling really awful.
And my wife wants to buy my daughter one of those wooden bikes too. She says there from Norway or something like that.
Aren't all those Norwegians suicidal or something?
And don’t they have that Norwegian Parade in Bay Ridge every year?
Did I mention that it was the number 2 location where people want to move after Park Slope.
Oh, don’t get me started on Bay Ridge. And let me rest this big chipped shoulder, Because it's starting to really hurt now.
I know you may think it’s silly, but the fact that a “Falafel” place opened on Church Avenue instead of another “Nail Salon” or “Medical Office” is big news in my little world. You see, I’ve been here for a while and have seen Church Avenue in all its “Full Regalia” back in the 70’s. No need to re-hash history again, but it was actually a real nice strip back in the days of “Kojak” and “Charlie’s Angles”.
Oh right, history, the "Falafel Fusion" place sits right where “Lee’s Toy Store” used to be. You know I bought my first “Match Box” and “Hot Wheels” cars there back in 1968. Lee used to wear a lot of gold chains and tight fitting polyester shirts and pants on his pudgy little body. He also sported a real dark tan and looked like he just came from Brighton Beach everyday. Lee worked side by side with his wife too, Mrs. Lee, at least that’s what we called her. She had bleached blonde hair that was teased quite high, and it always looked kind of sticky and smelled like hairspray.
But nevertheless, they were both very nice people and never treated us like “little criminals” when we walked in.
“Hey kid, did you ever see a car like this?” Lee held a golden Hot Wheels car in his hand; it looked like a Mustang, except the little engine was coming out of the hood. “They call it “The Boss Hoss”, it’s a special edition you know”. I remember looking at the little car and thought it was fascinating. It was a gleaming gold color and was very heavy as I held it in my dirty little hand. “It’s only 99 cents, and I won’t charge you tax”.
Without a moments hesitation I dug into my pocket and pulled out a rumpled old dollar bill, I handed it to Lee. “Here, you get a brand new one”, Lee reached next to the counter and pulled out a new car in an un-opened box. “Now don’t get it all scratched up, it maybe worth a lot of money some day”.
I just said “thank you”, as he put the car in a brown bag and gave me my penny back. “Remember to tell your Mom I didn’t charge you tax”. “Ok I will”, I said, as I walked out the door and made the right on Church heading towards East 4th.
Well, I never listened to Lee and used to play with that car all the time. Even when I was going to College, I still had it on the top of my dresser by my bed. With most of the paint either chipped or rubbed off, the car just sat there in all it’s 60’s glory. Forever enduring the strange looks of my girlfriends who wondered what a nineteen year old was still doing with a “little car” on his dresser.
Yes, the “Boss Hoss” and I just “survived” that’s all.
As for Lee’s Toy store, well, like the rest of “normal” Church Avenue it left sometime in the 80’s. Leaving us with more “fruit stands” and “nail salons” than Sunset Park in the 70’s.
Cheap fruit and nail salons, wow, how magnificent and thrilling to be "Church Avenue" in 2008.
But today there is hope, a tiny glimmer you know. Just a small little “brick” that was recently laid down on an old foundation.
The foundation, well, thats Church Avenue, and the hope is “Falafel Fusion”. Because its nice to see a new business thats not hawking cell phones or painting your nails. Checking your blood pressure or selling shrink wrapped 99 cent trash.
Yeah, I could just see Lee now, in a polyester shirt, with gold chains around his tanned neck. Holding a Falafel in one hand and a small gold "Hot Wheels" car in the other, thinking about a Church Avenue he once knew, and wondering if I still had that car.
Well I got to tell you, my bike riding days to Manhattan couldn’t have come at a better time. The once very reliable F-Train has recently become a “moving calamity on 64 wheels” almost every day.
Did anyone see the MTA workers switching the track by hand at Bergen Street a few months back? A three foot wrench and human muscle made sure the next stop was “Jay street Boro Hall”, but the back-up that day added a wonderful 45 minutes to my regular 45 minute trip to work. Then there was the crazy homeless guy at 34th street last week; he pulled two emergency brake cords on two separate trains that morning. Oh, right, one was my F and the other was the D everyone switched to across the platform. Then to add insult to injury he pulled the cord in the last car of my F on the way home that same day.
But one of my recent days to remember had to be the morning two “loud mouths” started fighting with each other on the train at 42nd street. Some real “in your face” action that only a couple of real Brooklyn guys were capable of. Yeah, some real fun, even the gun that one of the guys dropped on the floor right by my feet. Got to tell you, I've seen alot on the F for the past 37 years, but that was a "first" for me. I hope he bought a "holster", because keeping it in his underwear just didn't work.
Your right, I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore. I want my "own" schedule back again, and it's NOT going to include the F-train. No “sick passengers”, “switch or signal problems” at Bergen street. Forget fistfights, dropped guns and mental patients pulling the emergency brake.
There are going to be no “delays” on my trip anymore.
And today is the day!
This is my 5th year of riding my bike to work, starting in March and ending in late November. The trip takes my about 55 minutes door to bike rack every day. That’s from East 4th and Beverley to 1251 Avenue of the Americas at 50th street. That’s a 20-mile round trip, and a guaranteed 15-pound weight loss by July.
And let me tell you there’s nothing like riding a bike through the streets of the city. From the beauty of Prospect Park in the mornings, to the view of the City from atop the Brooklyn Bridge. And you know what? It's all FREE. Plus I save four bucks a day! Hey, every dollar counts in a “recession" you know.
So the next time your stuck on the F-Train, think about a bike. Because there's no better way to get to work and feel good about it each and every day.
And the "calamity on 64 wheels?" Well, you can just save the "delays" and the "break-downs" for someone else's very sad "Kensington Story". Because I'm going to spare myself the pleasure of the Subway and the F-train at least till late November.
I remember the walls of our apartment always seemed to be on very sharp angles. Like old trees in a forest they sometimes looked as though they were leaning on each other and ready to collapse. Just falling right on top of us and swallowing our little bodies inside their lathe and plaster bellies. Never to be found again, trapped inside the dirty dusty hallows above our ceiling.
And it all seemed quite normal to me too, especially the pitched wall above my bed in our bedroom. A wonderful angled wall that always gave me the opportunity to study my watercolor paintings and classroom drawings when I woke up each morning.
I always felt quite comfortable in our apartment too. It just offered this splendid sense of coziness that I could never find in the enormous square walled dwellings of my aunt and grandmother below us. No, our apartment was just “right”, and I was always glad get back to our “little cabin in the sky” each and every day.
You know you're sitting on the top of the world too. A bird’s eye view of every sunrise and sunset over Kensington Brooklyn. Those magnificent Ocean Parkway apartment buildings could have easily been the “Berkshires” if you squinted your eyes long enough. Old television antennas turned into pine trees and tiny yellow windows were wonderful little farmhouses that sprinkled the mountainside.
Oh, but those sunsets, they were just beautiful every day. And there was never any need to even imagine when it set. Just a magnificent orange ball setting over the house tops of East 3rd and East 2nd. Finally disappearing over the gigantic factory on 39th street in Boro Park. No, even from our attic apartment an old factory looked beautiful with the evening sun slowly fading behind it.
Then there were the storms, and let me tell you there could be nothing as breathtaking as a thunderstorm from our top floor apartment. When the Kensington winds howled loud and strong you could actually feel the house swaying and rocking back and forth. One hundred year old timber and nails never pretending to be stronger than Mother Nature. Like a tall oak in Prospect Park, she just let the gales wrap themselves around her old wooden body, and gently dance a tender waltz. As the torrid rain would beat hard against the large picture window that looked over the “sea of tar” below. We would just hold on to the couch for dear life as waves crashed against her sides. Sometimes being afraid, but always too excited to ever move from that big old picture window in our living room.
Yeah, sometimes you really felt like you were in the wheelhouse of some old freighter at sea from that apartment. The helm of the good ship 399, and we were lucky enough to live there each and every day.
It’s strange but I still can’t get used to having a lot of space. I don’t know why, maybe I feel as though I’m not worthy and don’t deserve it for some reason. Don’t get me wrong, I love the apartment I live in now, but there’s something about a lot of space and perfectly square walls that still seems odd to me after all these years. Not to mention the “coziness” of a much smaller apartment that I still miss.
But that’s Ok, I know someday the kids will move out and maybe my wife will banish me to the basement. And boy is there a wonderful room down there I already have my eyes on. And it may all just work out fine; well except for the boiler and water heater I’d have to live with. But still, there’s enough room for a bed. And how much room does one need anyway to feel happy? Sure no views of the sunrise and sunsets over Kensington, but at least I’d have my own fireplace.
So if you live in an attic apartment in Kensington, remember to watch those sunrises and sunsets every day, and never forget how lucky you really are. Because only the lucky live on top.
Long before people bought houses in the suburbs that were much too big for them, people lived in small apartments in the city. And most of those apartments were probably on my block too. They were families with sometimes, two, three, or four children, all squeezed into a thin “slice” of a Kensington house you simply called an ”apartment”.
Now, I know all you folks who already moved away are probably chuckling now at how small an apartment you grew up in as a kid. Yeah, I know it can probably fit into your living room of your new construction “McMansion” out in Jackson, New Jersey, but just hold off on the laughter for now, will you? You see, I grew up in one of those “apartments” and it still sits two floors above my head tonight as I write this story. And there’s no need to feel sorry for me either, because there were other families on East 4th that were just as “happy” as us too. All sharing the same fate of “smallness” that I only knew as being normal.
Let’s see, there were the “Compitello’s our “sister ship” family that lived down the block in a similar house as we did. Joe, Mary, and their three children, Nunzio, Peter, and Louise. Oh, lets not forget their dog Susie. All living in the same “slice” of house as we did.
And when my brother Joseph and Nunzio played together, I don’t think they ever complained about the size of their bedrooms. No, they were having too much fun performing science experiments with nine volt batteries to even care.
Then there were the “Briers”, now they lived on Beverley road between East 4th and East 5th. One of those “super-sized” Victorians that actually makes my house look tiny. And just like us, they lived in an “attic” apartment. Ten children and Mr. and Mrs. Brier, and once again I’m sure they were probably having too much fun to even care. All sharing one bathroom no less, in an apartment only slightly bigger than ours.
But my closest “attic” companions had to be the McNally’s next door to us. Clair, Mac, and their children, Paulie, Stevie and Helen. All squeezed into the same space as us.
“God, how could you live like that?” “And I thought the lower east side was bad”.
Well, I hate to disappoint you, but once again we were just too busy having fun to even care. With a string draped from window to window high above my driveway, my brother and I would pass toys to Stevie and Paul from our kitchen window. Just sweet children’s laughter, echoing throughout the concrete canyon between our houses.
And then there were the stories of my Mom and Clair McNally next door, talking about their pregnancies together. My Mom from her kitchen window, and Clair from her bathroom window. Just two young mothers wondering if their second child’s going to be a boy or a girl. And once again the sweet laughter of hopes and dreams filled the shadows of a Kensington Driveway.
You know I may be wrong, but I really feel that the closer you are to other people, the happier you are. Especially your own family. Oh, sure, there are times that you wish you could just get away and have your own space. And that big house you live in may make you happy now. But didn’t you still have more fun living in a crowded apartment in a crowded house?
You better think about your answer, and try to be truthful, Because if you say “no” I think you may be lying.
My cousin Denise in middle playing with her friends on our front porch. Note the milk boxes on the porch in the lower right, yes in the 60's we had our milk delivered by the "milk man". And yes, I look like my parents.
In in backyard of 399 East 4th with my cousin Pete. Pete on left, me on the right. Pete barely escaped Tower 2 on September 11.
My Grandmother Isabel Lopez (Late 1950's) Note that the apartment building on Beverley Road between East 4th and 5th was not built yet.
East 4th street scene (1968)
Ave F Roller Hockey 1970's. We were playing a challenge game against the 70th pct. Kings. They were older than us and whipped my team (Ryan's Northstars) 7-1. Ryans Bar is now Shananigins. Most of the (Kings) were from Windsor Terrace. I am the goalie looking the wrong way!
A Kensington Christmas (1961) My brother Joseph on left, me on right. Joseph died in 1969 at the age of 13.
My Mom and I, Jimmy Brier (NYPD ret.) , cousin Pete (Lawyer), and Timmy Slesarchek (MTA), who still lives on East 5th. (1980)
I remember driving my next-door neighbor Mrs. Michaels crazy when I put up the basketball hoop. As soon as I’d start to dribble there she was, banging on the window with a quarter, “tap, tap, tap”, “you know you should really go to the playground if you’re going to play basketball”. “The sound of that ball just goes right through my house.” And of course not being the type to start trouble, I’d just listen and carry the ball out of my driveway and sit on my front stoop. Leaving my plywood backboard and rusted hoop behind, all alone on my garage roof in the back of my driveway.
And then there was “box ball”; we’d hit a Spaulding against the side of my house trying to get it into someone else’s concrete box. Just a gentle tap with the palm of you hand is all you’d need. The sound of the ball was nothing compare to a basketball, but nevertheless ………“tap, tap, tap”, “you know you should really go to the playground if you’re going to play that game”. “The sound of that ball just goes right through my house.”
And again as my Mom always taught me, respect your elders, even if they’re "crazy".
Then there was ice hockey with a real rubber puck, we’d bank it off the sides of my house, 399 and Mr. Blank’s house 403 East 4th. Pieces of that fake “red brick” stuff would usually flake off with every shot that hit either house. Not to mention the basement windows that we occasionally shattered. “Hey Ronnie, you gotta be careful with my house, that pucks going break one of my windows” said Mr. Blank.
“Oh, I’ll be careful Mr. Blank, don’t worry”. After he went inside I made a snow bank with my foot against the shattered window, hoping he wouldn’t see it till spring.
But then in 1990 I bought my house from my Aunt, and my driveway became more “Me”.
Lets see, auto repair work, dead car storage, a place to safely sleep in my car when I was locked out. A place where my Mom’s Christmas tree landed when she chucked it out the window and hit the hood of my Buick. A place to keep a dumpster without the city being up you ass. Oh, right, and a place where the current tenant next door still screams at me when I start my 70 Cuda and smoke up the driveway. And yes, of course, a place where my daughter learned how to ride her tricycle.
Ok, Ok, I know what you’re going to say, I should be lucky to have a place to park my car at night. A guaranteed spot every day, an added 100,000 to the value of my house. Yes, I know, and It’s the only “bonus” that keeps my wife sane every day when she does her round trips to Bay Ridge to my kid’s schools. The “straw” that broke the camel’s back when we decided to move back here from Fort Greene. Yes, I know, you don't have to tell me, it's hell finding a parking spot on the street sometimes. I lived in Fort Greene for five years you know, and I share your pain. Because most Brownstones don't have driveways, including my wife's.
I have been reading all the RPP stuff too, and to me it’s just another way for the city to squeeze a buck out of us all. Sure it will make some folks happy, but it’s just going to be another “cost” associated with living here in New York. Yeah, 35 bucks today, but how about 10 years from now?
And as for my driveway? Well, I know the city’s going to catch up to me someday, some tax or fee probably. Just another “cost” on top of every other “cost” we have to pay. Because we all pay for everyone else in some way or another you know. So don’t think I’ll be getting away with my eight-car driveway forever while you folks pay 35 dollars a year for a spot on the street. No, don’t worry I’ll be paying along with everyone else too. And besides, like they say in Brooklyn “what comes around, goes around”. And that includes the broken basement window that I still see every day, and never paid for. Feeling guilty about it 30 years later, because I never told Mr. Blank, that I did it. And I know I'll have to pay for it someday, one way or another.
I was reading an article about this new Condo in Brooklyn Heights called “One Brooklyn Bridge Park. About how people from Manhattan are drooling over it, and selling their properties on the Upper East Side for a slice of Brooklyn.
“The views are incredible”, New York Bay, The Statue of Liberty, Lower Manhattan And the price tags are only in the “millions” for many of these apartments. But hey, what would you expect to pay for such fabulous views anyway?
Well, back in the 60’s there was a very “lucky” Spaniard. You see he was actually “paid” to look at the same views that people are plunking down millions for. But he couldn’t look for long, because he might get his fingers chopped off by a machine that sliced boxes of “Bayer aspirin”.
You see my grandfather “Paco” worked at 360 Furman Street for the General Carton Company, way before it was anything more than a factory. I remember driving there with my Dad in our 62 Rambler, and picking him up outside the entrance on our way to the Catskills on a Friday night.
“Good riddance you lousy factory” my Grandfather would say as we drove away up Atlantic Avenue and on to the BQE. “See you Monday”
Other times we would pick him up at “El Montero” a Spanish Bar not far from the factory. Although my Grandfather Paco never really drank, we met him there because many of his co-workers were from Spain and socialized together frequently. Thank God the Bar is still on Atlantic Avenue. Got to see the inside of that place before they turn it into a “Starbucks”, it’s been almost 45 years you know.
Yeah, Millions for an apartment in my Grandfather’s old factory. But let's not tell them the story my Grandfather told me, about the dead body that floated right through one of the factory's riverside windows during high tide. It might scare their millions away, and give me nightmares again!
I could just imagine what my Grandfather Paco would say today. “What a bunch of stupid stupids, if they wanted to pay all that money for a view of the city, I would have given them my job. All they’d have to pay me was the hundred dollars a week I made, nothing more”
Yeah Grandpa, how times have changed. Millions for someone to look at what you've seen for over 20 years.
Kensington hasn’t always been the “Melting Pot” of ethnicities that it is today, "The neighborhood of a thousand languages”, "The United Nations of Brooklyn", "The land of a hundred flags".
No, back in the 60’s and 70’s, Kensington was mostly Jewish, Jewish, Jewish, Irish, Italian, and then “Me”.
Yes, your not so typical Spanish/Polish “how did your parents meet again?” “Mutt”. Who knows, maybe I was sent here to send the natives a “message” about what was in store for Kensington. Maybe we where the first “seed” of our own future planted here in 1948. The year my Grandfather Paco bought 399 East 4th.
But Hell, if I knew there were any “seeds” planted on Church Avenue, in the form of "stores" that would have grown to their present day "beauty". I probably would have dug them up and smashed them with a hammer. Especially that dump next to the Deal 99 Cent store, where all the clothes are in cardboard boxes, what’s that all about? That place used to be a wonderful Jewish Deli back in the day. I bought my first "Kosher egg roll" there. Really.
And the rest of Church Avenue was actually a real nice strip of decent quality stores. No cheap 99 Cent Stores or Nail Salons. Take out Chinese? No, but we had a real “Chinese” Laundry right on the corner of Beverley and East 2nd street. You know, they actually used to wrap your clothes up in brown paper, and then tie them up with white string. Imagine that?
But back to the story,
So now sixty years later my son and daughter fit right in here. Lets see, Spanish, Mexican, Polish, Irish, German, Scottish, French and Wasp.
Wasp? Lopez? Shhh, Don't tell my wife's Dad "The "Preist" family came here on the "Mayflower" you know". "Well, my family came here with "sacks" of "flour".
And boy, did my "last name" twist his Texas underwear!
But still, so far, so good, and I thought I had it all down.
And then one day came my friend......“Oy Vey,”
So get this, I find out after 49 years of being raised a “Catholic”, that my Polish Grandmother, my Moms mother, was actually Jewish. “Davidwitz” that’s not exactly O’Malley you know. And she used to speak Yiddish and make homemade “Gefilte Fish”. Why the hell was I kept in the dark about this? No wonder I had no Irish friends and always hung out with all the Jewish kids at 179 and Ditmas. I used to love Jewish food too, and my Mom made it almost every day. Dam! It was probably "there" in me all the time.
Sure, and now it all makes sense! The nuns up at IHM must have known something too, because they pulled on my ears and hit me on the head more than the Irish and Italian kids!
So now I’m really really confused, and mad at those nuns again. And to top it off my son's first cousins are African American and he insists that he's part African American now too.