The next time you’re walking from the subway on Church Avenue, make sure to make a left into the "Deal 99 Cent Store".
Take out that two dollars you have in your pocket, and hand it to the lady in the ticket booth on the side where that guy sells all the hats and gloves.
She will probably not smile and give you a small "Admit One" ticket. You will then walk up the long entranceway that leads inside the Beverly and immediately start to smell stale popcorn. But not to worry, because you see them popping it in the machine on the other side of the heavy wooden doors.
As you open the door to the go inside, a young man will be standing there to take your ticket. You hand it to him and he rips it in two, one half goes into a wooden box, the other you put in your pocket.
Hey, how about some fresh popcorn and a Coke? You walk up to the concession stand and immediately notice a roach under the glass, walking upside down. You pass on the popcorn and opt for "Snow Caps" instead. You hand the woman a dollar and wait for your change, you think for a second about telling her you saw a roach.
But hey, this is the Beverly and Church Avenue isn't exactly Madison. So you just walk away and up the ramp that leads to the main theater. And there it is again, no matter how many times you've been to the Beverly the chandelier that’s bigger than a house is just beautiful as ever, hanging from the ceiling. It must have over a thousand lights, and hundreds and hundreds of crystals. It simply gleams like a star in the darkness, even though it's covered with dust.
The 70's have not been good to the Beverly and you wonder what that place was like when your Mom was young. Did the screen still have that giant stain on it? Was the floor always sticky? were the seats always torn?. Suddenly the lights dim to black, the screen awakens and the movie starts.
You just sit there staring at that big magnificent chandelier, its crystals still sparkling in the darkness, and you can't help but imagine a Beverly that you never knew, a long, long time ago.
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. So 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 are going to PS 321?”.
“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 to PS 179".
"No trains to school, no fake addresses, no parents ever really getting involved in anything except maybe when you got beat up by another kid".
So just feeling as confident as ever about what I “didn’t” know what I was talking about, I rambled on about Kensington in the 1960's. And felt ever so confident about finding a school for my son, even in 2003's Fort Greene.
And let me tell you there’s nothing more powerful and strong than “Blind Brooklyn Confidence” no matter what someone else is telling you.
“You know, it’s not like before, and if I was you, I’d get the ball rolling soon,” she said.
And my wife, well, she 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. And 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. Hey, where were you in the 77 blackout?, The Summer of Sam?, the day I got slapped by a nun at IHM?.
Yeah, thats right, NOT HERE IN BROOKLYN like me. Not here in Brooklyn!
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, 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 Damn 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 guess all I have to do now is figure out how I'm going to pay the ten thousand dollars a year for private school.
And as my mom used to say "neccesity is the mother of invention". And so far it's been four years at Bay Ridge Prep and I'm still "inventing" ways of paying the tuition without going to jail.
Yeah, mom, I'm still "inventing" don't worry.
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.
You know those subjects you can’t bring up at the dinner table, the ones that get some people mad. No, were not talking about politics or religion here, it’s something worse.
Back in the summer of 1956 my grandmother and grandfather decided to take a stab at the big fat cash cow called “Church Avenue”.
Now, Church Avenue has always been excellent when it came to simple “foot traffic”, even back in the summer of 1956. Except for one slight problem according to my grandfather “Paco”. The more affluent people with money in their pockets simply made the left from the F-Train and walked along Church to Ocean Parkway. They never looked towards Dahill Road or even bothered to give it a second thought.
The name of my grandmothers store was “Isabel’s”; it was located at 90 Church Avenue. Basically the cash cows “tail”, which rarely moved to swat a fly no less.
My grandmother Isabel was always a working woman you see. And she usually held positions such as supervisor or “floor lady” wherever she worked. One of her specialties was hand-made lampshades, and she was proud of her position at Krasnours Lamp Shade Factory on Prince street in Manhattan. She was the floor lady there; basically supervising the workers to make sure the quality of the shades were up to standard. A job she held for many years until she decided to give her own business a shot one day.
So with the knowledge of Kensington and a “store for rent” sign at 90 Church, my grandparents took a plunge into owning their own business.
The grand opening was sometime in the summer of 1956. They sold custom-made silk lampshades, imported plates, crystal, porcelain figurines and various other “high end “ knick-knacks. The entire family worked there and helped to keep it a float. My mom, dad, aunt Dolores, and uncle Pete helping out my grandmother and grandfather any way they could. Making deliveries, working the register or taking the F-Train to Canal street to buy the lamp shade skeletons that gave them their shapes.
I always remember my grandfathers face getting red when he used to talk about “the store”.
“What a waste of money, we should have invested in another property instead”. “God damn store!”.
Now you have to remember that as kids growing up we only heard about “the store”, because it closed down before my cousins and I were even born. Although we knew something had happened once, there was an entire room in the basement full of lampshade skeletons, rolls of silk material, plates and porcelain figurines. And a wonderful large old-fashioned gold cash register in the garage. A huge monster that just sat in the corner gathering dust. As kids we used to play with it, pushing hard down on the buttons to make a metal numeral flip up in a glass window. Or just hide Matchbox or Hotwheels cars in the coin slots.
“There they go, never walking this way” said my grandfather Paco standing in front of the store at 90 Church Avenue.
“This side of Church Avenue is invisible, this store may as well be in the middle of the woods up in the country”.
“With all their money in their pockets, they just walk to their castles in the sky on Ocean Parkway”.
“The people that walk past this store are the working class poor, who only look and never buy”.
My grandmother just looked at my grandfather and said; “You mean just like us?”
My grandfather just shook his head and my grandmother just kept working away, cutting patterns and sewing the beautiful silk shades and hoping for a miracle. Because she always believed that those who worked hard survived, and they both survived the great depression right here in New York City. My grandfather Paco selling Good Humor ice cream off his back in Central Park and my grandmother making hand made silk flowers from their apartment on Pearl street in downtown Brooklyn. Now the site of Metrotech.
So there was going to be no giving up here, at least not without a fight.
I remember it was something like 1984 when we sold the cash register. I think my aunt listed it in the Buy Lines. And it must have weighed at least 100 pounds. My cousin Pete and I both helped the man carry it to his car. I think he gave us 25 dollars for it. He was opening up his own business somewhere here in Brooklyn, and he liked the old fashioned register. We tried selling the lampshade skeletons back in 1990, the man who looked at them thought they were beautiful, but the rust on them was too much and would only destroy the silk. When he was leaving we even offered them for free, he just smiled and said “no thanks”.
With rent being paid on time and little business coming in, the store closed about two years after it opened. There was no meat on this “cows tail”, and my grandfather Paco always had his reservations about that side of Church Avenue. And unfortunately he was right.
My Dads 1957 Plymouth station wagon pulled up in front of 90 Church Avenue that day. All the contents of the store were hauled to our house at 399. The inventory was split between my aunt’s old room, the basement and the garage.
A month later the store was for rent again.
The lamp shades made great props for parties when we wore them on our heads as teenagers. And not to mention there was always an endless supply of porcelain doll eyes for us to look into as kids, constantly worried that they would move, or blink.
I spoke to my aunt Dolores the other day, and she said the basic story about her mothers store could be summed up as “wrong place in the wrong time”. I laughed and told her that grandma would have made a killing in today’s Park Slope with a store like that. She said that grandma would have loved to open the store in Manhattan, but just couldn’t afford the rent.
But not all family stories have crash landings like “Isabel’s”. About ten years after my grandmothers store closed, her niece Dolores and husband Buzzy opened up another place you may have heard of. Its still called the “Buzzarama” and managed to survive over forty years on the “cows tail” of Church Avenue.
And my grandfather Paco, well he always believed real estate was your best bet and bought two hundred acres of land in upstate New York. Right before the store fiasco and just five years after he bought 399 East 4th. So “Isabel’s” was just a bump in the road, a bad decision, and a “wrong place at the wrong time”. Sure they lost money with the store and it made my grandfathers face turn red at the dinner table. But hell, that one hundred pound cash register was sure fun to play with along with those dozens of lampshades on New Years Eve.
And like they say, if you never try, you'll never know.
Back in the 80’s there was a building on the south side of Church Avenue between East 5th and East 4th street. It was just called “SUPERMARKET”
As far as I remember it only opened up when it was dark outside, and the hours of operation were very sporadic.
Most of the food inside was usually covered with dust, and most everything was past it’s expiration date. The floors were pretty dirty and I didn’t think they were ever cleaned. It was a fairly big place, about the size of “Rite Aid”, yet there was only one employee. And he was only known to us as “Mike the Greaser”.
Now Mike was about 40 years old at the time and stood about 5 foot 9. He had thinning black hair that he slicked back most of the time, and of course his favorite shirt was a “greaser style” t-shirt. Mike was also very hairy, thick black curly hair covered most of his body that normally would have just been reserved for flesh for you and me. He also spoke with some type of accent that we could never figure out. It could have been anything, Italian, Russian, Greek, Turkish, Arab. We had no clue.
And to this day, I still don’t know how he did it, but he used to park his 1978 Buick inside the store. Between the beer and the chips. There was probably a back gate to get it into the store with, but we never saw it and never asked. We would only buy food at Mikes when everything else was closed, and for us it usually meant buying beer and chips for a late night card game over at Glenn Gruder’s house.
Mike never asked anyone for ID either, but then again my cousin Pete had a full beard when he was 15. So he was usually our “mule”, sort of speak. Mike’s prices varied depending on what day it was or what kind of mood he was in. And he usually charged us 5, 10, 15, or 20 dollars. His numbers were always in even dollar amounts, "no tax" he always said. I don’t think he even had a cash register in the store either.
One night while we were hanging out on my porch at 399. There was a lot of commotion up on Church Avenue. Tons of cop cars, flashing lights and a few ambulances. The next morning when I woke up, word on the block was that Mike was shot something like 5 times the evening before. Some kind of an armed robbery. So all the cop cars the night before made sense. Thinking the worst, we all started reminiscing about Mike, figuring he was dead. Thinking about him in that dirty shirt, the stale chips, the expired milk and the Buick Skylark parked in aisle 5. And not to mention the rare occasions when he lost it, and threw us out of the store. But through it all we loved Mike and were surely going to miss him.
So that same night we decided to take a walk to the avenue, and visit the scene of this horrorific crime. “Hey remember the time Mike threw that tuna fish can at you” “What about the time we rolled Mike’s car into the Ice Cream freezer” As we made the right onto Church Avenue from East 4th, we could see the store. Yet, there was no crime scene tape, and in fact the gate was up and the store was open. So we decided to go inside and see what was happening.
As we walked into Mikes I noticed a few holes in the front window. They looked like bullet holes too, very round with tiny jagged edges on the inside of the hole. There was someone behind the counter, he was bending over and was fiddling with something on the ground. He had what looked like a white rag wrapped around his head too. And then, he stood up, and our jaws dropped. We couldn’t believe our eyes, it was like we were looking at a ghost. There he stood in all his “Greaser Glory”. With his head bandaged up, his arm in a cast, and a large stained gauze pad on his side, taped to his skin with silver duct tape. It was no one other than “Mike the Greaser”
“Hey, you thought I was dead, huh?” “You think five bullets can kill me?” “Bullshit, that’s what I say” “I shot the guys eight times” “You see that blood?”,
Mike was pointing to where he usually parked the Skylark, so it was hard to see the blood because of the oil on the floor. “That Fuck died right there”. At that point Mike motioned us around the counter to take a look at something. There inside a small pigeon hole shelf right under the cash box was the handle of a black pistol.
“Dont’ta fuck with me, huh?”
We all looked at Mike and smiled and then celebrated his survival by buying some expired chips and beer.
"20 dollars, no tax".
I gave him an awkward hug before I left, trying to stay clear of his blood stained gauze pad at the same time. And then just said our good nights and went on our way back home to East 4th.
I think Mike eventually sold the property and today in its place are a nice row of clean stores.
But along time ago there were stale chips, old beer and a Buick in aisle 5. And a man we once knew, a legend by no other name. And he was simply known to us as “Mike The Greaser”
Long before Park Slope was pretty and “Little Things” was cute, we had Kensington, Church Avenue and Kenny's toy store. Kenny's 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 Kenny's. 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 Kenny's 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 Kenny's 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 Kenny's 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 Kenny's and also taping all your mother's dollar bills before you go there again.
The memories are faint and hard to recall. When I picture them it’s like watching an old black and white movie. I remember walking next to him and looking at the belt he wore, I remember holding his hand as we would walk up to Church and inside one of the small newsstands that dotted the Avenue.
There was one in particular that I recall, it was where the tiny shoe store is across from Golden Farm. It had a tiny counter and a few chrome plated stools. They were round at the top and you could spin them around. The tops of the stools were padded with either a black or dark red vinyl. When my dad waited for his change I would gently spin the seat tops while peering under the counter for a glimpse of the hundreds of pieces of dried gum people left behind. “Hey Dad can I see the Camel?” My father would usually hand me the pack of cigarettes to look at. I remember staring at the Camel with the two columns on each side of it. Back then there was no surgeon generals warning on the pack, so a kid could look at it without a parent fearing a question about why you smoke. My father would gently tug me out the door and we would start our journey back down East 4th to our house.
The trips to the candy stores or newsstands as we call them today were fairly frequent for my Dad. You see my father smoked at least two packs of cigarettes a day,and filter-less of course. The news stand next to the bank and the jewelry store was another destination for my Dad and I. I think it’s the only original news stand that I can still remember from the early 60’s. Sometimes my Dad would buy Chesterfield’s, he would always let me look at the pack which I closely studied of course. And sometimes on the way home we would stop by the Beverly Theater to see what was playing. The marquee always cast a huge shadow with it’s lights blinking like a Coney Island arcade. There was a long wide entrance which lead into the theater. It gently sloped up to old time wooden and glass doors. You could always see the concession stand from the sidewalk too, it was probably where the counter is for the “Deal 99 cent store”. And no matter what time of day it was or even if the place was closed you could always smell popcorn in the entrance way.
By the time we would reach East 2nd street my Dad would be puffing away. Billowing smoke like an incinerator from the apartment buildings on Ocean Parkway, out of his mouth, out of his nose and sometimes looking like his ears too. My father was always off to work too, and no matter what time of the day it was. And of course, he had to finish his cigarette before he left the house. “Your father works like a donkey” that’s all I heard my grandfather Paco say about his son. “Education is what will make you succeed in life”. “Your father refused an education and look at him now” I guess my grandfather was talking about college, because my Dad did go to High School. John Jay in Park Slope. But then again, I never knew if he ever graduated.
My Dad worked two jobs and sometimes three, he worked in a restaurant called McPherson’s down by Trinity Place in Manhattan by day, and by night at the Trinity Place post office as a “part timer”. He also did catering work on weekends and even co-owned a coffee shop atone time on Vanderbilt right off Atlantic. So I didn’t see my Dad much, and if I did he was usually sleeping between jobs on a Lazy Boy in the living room. For my brother and I there was no catch in front of the house and there was no playing tag at Greenwood Park. And we knew better not to even ask my father.
One day when my brother and I came home from PS 179 we heard my mom on the phone crying to her sister. We looked in their bedroom and my father was lying in the bed, he was crying too. In those days no one told a little kid what was going on and you dare not even ask. All I heard from my mom was “Daddy's not feeling well and won't be going to work for a while". You see, it all started my father was offered a full time position at the Trinity Place Post Office. There was a routine physical he was ordered to take before he could become a full-time employee. Problems breathing were followed by X-rays. A "spot on his lung" was detected and before you knew it there were tests followed by more tests. Doctors in those days didn't "beat around the bush" like today. Dr. Weisel on Plaza street in Prospect Heights told my Dad straight to his face that he would be "dead in three months". My Dad refused chemo, but did opt to have one lung removed, and I will always remember that scar. It went from his chest all the way around his back, it just looked like train tracks around a mountain through the eyes of a kid. But hey, at least he was home for my brother and I, and that's all that really mattered to us.
Eventually though death did arrive and on August 24th 1965 at the age of 39 my Father died. Just about three months after he was told he would, leaving a seven, nine and two year old without a father. Oh, sure, I know there are old photos of my brother and I together with my Dad building a snowman in our back yard at 399. There are also ones taken upstate at our country house with me on his shoulders. But the truth is nothing sticks in my mind more than those simple walks to Church Avenue holding my Dads hand and smelling stale popcorn by the Beverly. For there are no photos of those times, but just the memories of a seven year old boy who barely knew his father.
It's always hard to forget your first boat. Mine was about 18 feet long and a dark forest green. It had light tan captains chairs and a 350 Buick V8. And you had to be real careful when you backed it out of the dock too, not to sideswipe the house or scratch the freshly compounded paint on the bushes.
Then when you’re rolling down the river you gotta make sure to have your “Boston” 8-Track on full volume, and at least one hand on the wheel. Just washing the kids and the elderly into their front stoops from your powerful wake. Oh, and you better not have any small stones in-between your hubcaps and the whitewall tires, because that noise just ain’t cool. Ting, Ting, Ting.
And you never have to worry about getting lost at sea or Prospect Park either, because all you’d have to do is shoot up a flair and have the Coast Guard land right on your hood. Yeah, that hood was so dam big!
I think it was late October back in 1976 when I got the bug to buy my first car. I was 19 at the time and always imagined it to be something real cool too. Oh, lets see........70 Cuda, 68 AMX, 69 Dodge Charger. All the car models I built as a kid with my cousin Pete upstate in the Catskills, on those very rainy days. And now, I could own one all for myself!. Heck, my friend from work Peter LoBianco even had a Pontiac Astra lined up for me, nice two door with a small V8, but the deal fell through.
“You know Ronnie, my sister and Frank are thinking about selling their car” said my Mom. “Oh, I don’t know Mom, that’s not the kind of car I really had in mind”.
Now, let me tell you about my Aunt Beatrice and Uncle Frank’s Buick. It was only three years old but looked like it went through the mill. Although my Uncle Frank worked for "Wonder Bread" in Queens, by the look of the car you’d think he used it as a cab. It was constantly dirty and the interior was yellowed and smelled like cigarette smoke. There were scratches all over it and it had a big dent in the rear passengers side quarter panel from when my Uncle Frank sideswiped a Amish Buggy in Lancaster, PA. Oh, and buy the way don’t believe that crap that those people don’t go in cars, they chased my uncle and shook him down for 300 bucks. In a red pick-up truck no less. So you see the idea of buying that car and possibly being a marked man for the rest of my life in Amish Country wasn’t exactly something this Brooklyn boy had in mind.
“I think they want 2000 dollars for it” said my mom. The price wasn’t exactly a bargain, but then again the car did have low mileage and with some Clorox, compound and wax, you never know what you could come up with. “My sister said that if you don’t want it they would buy it back”.
Oh right, my aunt would send bogus letters to GE, saying all her light bulbs were defective just to get a box of free ones. So, I knew the car was “never” going to be returned. “So, what do you think Ronnie?” “Should I tell her OK?”. At that point I looked towards the heavens asking my Brother and Father what I should do. Hoping to hear some voice whisper in my ear. But, there was no voice, and all I could think about was the time we got stuck on route 17 near Monticello, in my Dad’s 63 Rambler on our way to Downsville. Thinking we were going to never be found and freeze to death just a few hundred feet from a Jewish bungalow colony. And then those two letters just came out of my mouth, there was no turning back now. “OK”.
So the next morning we went to see my next door neighbor Mr. Blank over at Nationwide on Church avenue for the insurance cards, and then Greater on McDonald Avenue to cut us a money order for 2000 dollars. It was down the subway stairs to the F-train, and a long ride to 179 street Jamaica, last stop.
Now at 19, I was an F-train veteran you know. From changing prices on hockey sticks at Mays on Jay street, when I was 12. To my daily ride to the High School of Art & Design on Lexington ave. until I was 17. I had it down. But today the ride was especially long, and forget about Queens. Anything after Lexington avenue should just as well be Kansas, because I never really go to Queens. Except of course to see Aunt Beatrice and Uncle Frank. But “Queens Village” is so close to Long Island, I never really considered it was part of the city anyway. As we walked up the stairway I could see my uncle Frank in his new 77 Olds Cutlass waiting by the curb. “So, you must be excited Ronnie” said my Uncle. I got inside the car, smiled and nodded to my uncle. As we got closer to their house I started to become more excited, and with a money order for 2000 dollars in my pocket, I knew I would be driving back to Brooklyn in my first car.
My uncle parked his car in front of his house and it was up the driveway we went to take a look at the Buick. “I didn’t get a chance to clean it or anything” said my Uncle. Knowing my Uncle never cleaned it anyway, I just said “that’s OK”. And everything was just like I remembered it, cigarette butts in the ashtray, the yellowed interior, the smell of stale smoke, and the dent from the Amish Buggy. Not to mention the scratches and the overall look as though it was waxed with sand and Brillo.
Well, we handed my aunt and uncle the money order and celebrated with coffee and cake on their kitchen table. It was congratulations, kisses and hugs and then it was on our way to Kensington, Brooklyn.
The ride on the Belt Parkway was smooth sailing, My poor Mom indured about an hours worth of WPLJ. “Meat Loaf” “that’s a real funny name” said my Mom. “In my day singers used their real names, like Tony Bennett and Bing Crosby”. “What a bunch of idiots today”.
And then finally I saw it, like a beacon in the night. Exit 7N, Ocean Parkway! We made the right off the Belt and on to the service road, another right onto Ocean Parkway and it wouldn’t be long now. As the alphabet got closer to C, I started to feel the excitement and reality of finally owning my own car. We made a big left hand turn onto Beverly Road and then another onto East 4th.
To this day I clearly remember the reflections of the trees above moving along the dark green hood as I got closer to my house. I just felt so damm proud finally driving my own car. Another big left and up the driveway we went. The guys were there too sitting on my front stoop, just watching. I guess word travels fast on my block. As I put it in park and started opening the drivers door to get out, Glen, Neil, and Pete opened up both back doors and got in. “Hey Lopez, what do you think you’re doing?” “Lets go for a ride” “I think Coney Island sounds good” “Don’t they have a Nathans there?”.
Well, from that day on the “Buick” became the car for the guys on the block. I cleaned her and polished all the scratches from her hood and fenders. I scrubbed the white walls and hung a cherry air freshener from the radio knob along with a disco ball from the rear view mirror. The “Buick” was nothing less than a Saturday night cruiser. We also had the latest in technology too, an 8-track and a CB, along with bowling balls in the trunk for a stable ride. But don’t read me wrong here, the “Buick” was also tough as a Hummer too. On one ill faded camping trip to Downsville NY, I drove her up our logging road on a Friday night. Too tired to carry all our backpacks and equipment, we just set up camp as an electrical fire from the starter motor almost sent her to “hubcap heaven”. But regardless the beat just went on and on for the Buick. Although sometimes it almost stopped for us as well.
One Sunday morning back in 1980 on the way to McCarren Park in the wasteland known as Williamsburg, we lost some valuable hockey equipment that was piled inside our hockey net strapped to the roof. I stupidly stopped the Buick on the other side of a curve, just East of the Brooklyn Bridge on the BQE. We almost became a newspaper headline that day, but thanks to an alert oil truck driver all we got was cursed at. And there were weddings, funerals and everything in-between for the Buick. All the time nourishing itself on an endless supply of Diehard batteries, alternators and tail pipes. Yes the late 70’s and 80’s were surely this dinosaurs heyday, but the "Ice Age" was coming soon. And the asteroid just hit the earth, and its name was “Monte Carlo”.
I don’t exactly remember how it happened but one day I woke up and the Buick just didn’t look the same anymore. She was looking old and worn out, her lacquer skin was cracking and peeling and the seats were all ripped. The 8-track was out dated and the cats sleeping in the back seats during cold weather wasn’t exactly impressive on a first date either. I tried my best to spruce her up with a new paint job and rubber mats. I even sealed up the hole in the floor so the cats couldn't get in anymore. But still, the feeling just wasn’t the same anymore. We were just growing apart.
So out came the automotive personals simply known as the “Buy Lines”. With other candidates being circled in red along with late night phone calls to “for sale by owners”. My quest for something young and new was making me restless. And all along she slept right outside my window, just leaking her tears of "Dextron transmission fluid" on the cold concrete floor. Unaware of my wandering feelings. Then one day I just saw her, the “Monte Carlo” of my dreams. With smooth lacquer paint, two perfect doors and a magnificent tail panel. I just couldn’t wait any more and had to do it. Well, it was another trip to the Greater on McDonald and 8,500 dollars less in my account. The cash was all I needed to bring her home from Seaford Long Island. And it was just a part of life you know.
I did try my best to keep them both, just bumper to bumper in my driveway. But the beauty of the new won over the memories of the old. And the insurance was too damm much anyway. A “Big Love” this was not, and the Buick had to leave. I tried hard not to get emotional when I took off the plates, just gently counting rotations as I backed off on the screws. Trying not to look into her GE headlights. But then without warning it suddenly all came back to me, the trip to Queens Village, the cigarette butts in the ashtray and the image of my uncle Frank sideswiping an Amish Buggy. The ride up my block, the trees reflecting on the hood, the guys watching me as I pulled up the driveway. No, I just couldn’t do it, No! I reversed the rotation of the screws and put the plates back on.
I think I kept the Buick for a few more years and finally just gave it away to a friend at work in 1990. She tried to offer me money for it more than once. But you know, like they say. Some Brooklyn memories you can buy, while others remain priceless forever. And that 73 Buick was nothing less than “Priceless” to me, in the Brooklyn of my youth.
It doesn’t matter how old you are or where you live. Someday someone will come out of nowhere to save your life. They may be a friend, relative, or a total stranger. They will just appear to be there for you for that split second, and then they will just disappear into the crowd, because the divide between life and death is just that, a split second. And you, well you may not even give it a second thought. The conversation you were just having on your cellphone was more important to you than the arm that just grabbed you from behind to prevent you from walking right into the path of the B35 bus. A little startled at first about what had just happened, you continue on with your day without even looking back to say thank you.
For me it was a hand that grabbed my foot when I was about two years old. I guess the view of East 4th street from our roof looked inviting. It was the hand of a young mother (my mom) that pulled me back inside our apartment just moments before I would become another dot on a NYC chart. For my cousin Pete, another son of Kensington and East 4th, it was the voice of a stranger screaming at him to run faster just before a piece of an airliner killed the person directly behind him on a sunny day in September 2001. It may have also been the“Brooklyn” in my cousins blood too that saved his life. When the loud speakers blared the instructions that “everything is OK and there is no need to evacuate at the present time”. My attorney cousin just said “bullshit” and left only to meet up with falling jet parts on the street below. Buy hey, he was back to work the next day up in Westchester, you got to love that Empire Blue Cross.They probably helped him forget 9/11 by making him work on 9/12.
But years before back in 1981 there was another person, someone I will never know who just appeared out of nowhere to change someone’s life. Just there for an instant to make a difference and then return to the crowd without ever knowing their name. I really didn’t think much about it that day back in 1981. It was unusual to see the Manhattan bound F express running at 5:30 in the afternoon. But as soon as I stepped out of the first car of the southbound F, I noticed a bunch of EMS guys, Cops and Fireman on the local track. Now, I’m not much for gore and just a couple of years before I saw an elderly woman get killed by a “Kings” concrete truck right before my eyes on East 2nd street in front of Carvel. And the thought of a train running someone over wasn’t exactly something I’d like to take to bed that night. So I just walked up the stairs and then down Beverly towards my house.
By the time I got to my block I noticed a Police car parked right in front of my house. And on the porch there were two Cops talking to my mom. By the look on her face something really bad had just happened.“Grandma had an accident on the subway” said my mom.“Is she ok?” I said. “They don’t know, they just took her to Methodist Hospital”. I looked at the two Cops and said, “what kind of accident?” “She fell onto the tracks on the Northbound side” one of them said....“that was my grandmother, that was my grandmother”! I yelled!
Well before you knew it I was in my 73 Buick and driving up the hill to Methodist Hospital in Park Slope. It was probably the first time I was there since I was born. I got there before any one in my family did and my grandma wasn’t a pretty sight. There she was still on the stretcher waiting to get into the ER. Her clothes were all bloody and the gash on the side of her head was so big you could probably put a candy bar in it. But even in her condition the doctors assured us all that she was going to be just fine, but should keep away from subway platforms for a while. And what about that stranger that came out of nowhere you ask? Well, we never got to thank the man that saved mygrandmothers life. The police told us that he didn’twant to give his his name or address. As soon as he saw her fall on to the tracks, he noticed theheadlights of an oncoming train entering the tunnel up by avenue C. He ran upstairs to tell the token clerk about what had just happened. They somehow stopped the train just before it entered the station, just a fewfeet from where my grandmother was sprawled across the rail. He stayed with her for a while until the Police came, and then got on the F express once it started running. Just like that without ever knowing his name, this guy saved my grandmothers life and then got on the train and left, simply amazing. My 80 year old grandmother healed up and got better,she gave us another fifteen years of her stories about growing up in Cuba, and was able to see her great grandchildren born before she died in 1996. All because of someone I will never know, a "Kensington Stranger" by no other name, and all I can say is “thank you” who ever you are.
On any given August night back in 1975 you could find me down the block on Freddie Shefferman’s stoop. But not just me you know, it was the rest of the guys too. Glen Gruder, Robert Brennan, Neil O’Callahan, Jimmy Spinner and my cousin Pete Liria.
At the time I was seventeen and just graduated from The High School of Art & Design in Manhattan. My roller hockey team “Ryan’s Northstars” had just won the championship down at avenue F the previous June against my cousins team “The Terrance Cafe Rangers” So it certainly was a special time for me.
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 curly 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.
Freddie hated the establishment too, every President sucked, every Governor sucked, every Mayor sucked. But then again Freddie never voted anyway.
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.
10. Those extra three stops on the F-Train give you more time to write stupid things on your blog.
9. No one’s ever asking me if they can use my address, so they can send their kid to PS 179.
8. No matter how much money I owe, or how bad things get, I can simply stick my head out my side window and feel better again looking at my seven-car driveway. How big is that space between those fancy Brownstones? an inch? Hard to park the car there isn’t it?
7. Kensington is closer to the Prospect Park Lake, which makes replacing the real ducks with plastic ones easier.
6. Because we don't have to live right next door to that stupid Atlantic Yards project. Yeah, those “Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn” people were right, that’s going to suck big time. I’ll tell Bruce Ratner he can’t park in my driveway anymore, what was I thinking anyway?
5. There aren’t any local bars like Kensington’s Denny’s in Park Slope. A place where you can still relax and have a drink with a PS 179 classmate while comparing GPS’s that you just stole from all those cars on 3rd street in Park Slope.
4. Like Avis, we just learn to “try harder”, and learn to be happy living with less. Even if it means convincing yourself that Golden Farms is better than having a Barnes and Noble.
3. When a contractor does lousy work on your house and won’t refund you your money in Kensington, all we have to do is walk next door to slash his tires. While in Park Slope you have to get in your car and drive all the way down here, not to mention loose your parking spot all at the same time.
2. If you’re a Kensington native like me, you can still run into an old friend or classmate on Church Avenue. Usually pushing a shopping cart full of scrap metal or carrying a big bag full of cans. And no matter how dirty we both look, we can still talk about our first day at PS 179 and laugh. When was the last time you met a kindergarten classmate in Park Slope? Huh?
1. Because most of the people moving here now ARE from Park Slope. And boy do I love them!
When I was growing up in Brooklyn, you would always hear “pop” “pop” “pop”, and it was always nothing more than someone blowing off some fireworks. Yeah, some kid or teenager throwing some Fourth of July leftovers in the street or in-between an ally way somewhere on Ocean Parkway.
No, nothing to ever be concerned about, because people didn’t shoot off guns in Kensington back in 1967.
And even up in the Catskills where I spent every July and August until I was about eighteen years old. You would sometimes hear “pop” “pop” “pop”. But once again nothing to be afraid of, or concerned about. Because the Laidlaw boys down the hollow were probably just target shooting with their 22’s. Maybe blowing apart some of their grandmother’s old botcholism laden canned tomatoes or something like that.
No, nothing to ever be concerned about, because people didn’t shoot off guns on Huntley Hollow to hurt anyone back in 1969.
But then it started to change, and it all happened one Sunday morning back in 1974 when we were playing roller hockey up by the PS 130 schoolyard. I remember my cousin Pete just finished scoring on me, and while I was passing the puck back towards him with my goalie stick, I heard it.
“Pop” “pop” “pop”
Fireworks in January maybe?
“Pop” “pop” “pop”
The two uniformed cops running from the Fort Hamilton subway entrance on East Fifth were shooting at two teenage boys they were chasing. You could see the blue smoke from their guns as they fired at the two teenagers.
We just “hit the deck” and hid between two parked cars on East Fifth.
And now “pop” “pop” “pop” was starting to mean something different, even in Brooklyn.
No, it wasn’t just fireworks anymore.
My wife was smart enough to buy a Brownstone in Fort Greene back in 1997, before the neighborhood became “gentrified”. But wasn’t smart enough to realize that the “pop” “pop” “pop” we heard from in front of her house on Adelphi Street, wasn’t just “fireworks” on a cold March night back in 1998. No, just like a “yahoo” from San Antonio, Texas, she runs to the window to see what’s going on, while I’m yelling at her to “hit the deck” so she doesn’t get shot.
Yeah, what would have been just “fireworks” in Kensington back in 1967 ended up being some guy lying in a pool of blood with gold shell casings around him in 1998’s Fort Greene.
No, we’re not in Kansas anymore Toto. No, we’re in Fort Greene Brooklyn, before it’s “gentrified”.
“You know this kind of stuff never happens in Kensington” “Why the hell did I move here?”
But then it all changed about four years ago, even in Kensington. I remember I was cleaning up the downstairs apartment one night at 399 when I heard it.
“Pop” “pop” “pop”
Fireworks in September?
“Pop” “pop” “pop”
Then I started to feel sick, because my wife and kids were just one floor above me.
No, that wasn’t fireworks, that was a gun.
So not being so smart just like my wife, I peeked out the window. And there right across the street in front of the Margaret Court was some teenage kid shooting away up towards Beverley Road. You could see tiny flames coming out of the handgun.
“What the hell? This is Kensington not Fort Greene”
And now “pop” “pop” “pop” really meant something different, even in Kensington.
So there were cops, there were detectives, and finally arrests. And “pop” “pop” “pop” was gone from East Fourth.
But still, it shattered everything I always felt “safe” about on my block.
And even last night I heard a “pop” “pop” “pop” on my block. So I politely asked my wife and son to go into the back of the house until I could find out what happened.
No, not to worry, it was just some leftover fireworks on East Third Street. And others actually saw it too.
But still, I have to tell you “pop” “pop” “pop” doesn’t have the same feeling as it did back when I was a kid. No, even here in Kensington, when it was always fireworks and nothing more.
I see them all the time and boy do they annoy me. They run under my arms or scamper like bunnies between my feet. They quickly dash towards a subway seat before that elderly woman or lady. They are the most annoying people around.
Yes they are “men” who run for a seat on the subway.
I’m sorry you’ll never find me running for anything, especially a subway seat. It just makes you look like a wimp, and not a man. And when you’re tall like me, it even makes you look worse.
I’ll never forget this guy that used to get on the F-Train at 15th street in Park Slope. He had to be my size and used to push his way through everyone to get a seat on the F-Train. One time he even sat right below where I was standing and I couldn’t keep it in, I just had to say “you asshole”.
And of course he just kept reading his New York Times. No, there was no plastic or steel leg, no, there was nothing wrong with this guy folks.
Call me old fashioned or maybe just pure "Brooklyn", but I'll teach my son the same.
Always hold a door for the next person, even if they don't say "thank you".
Always let a woman in or out before you.
Always give your seat to a pregnant woman.
And most important, NEVER run for a seat on the train.
So do yourselves a favor guys, walk like Clint Eastwood onto the train instead of a little bunny rabbit.
Because real men don’t run for subway seats on the F-train and always let women sit first
While UFT President Albert Shanker lived on East Fourth in Kensington, he had a young woman living in his illegal basement apartment. Her name was Randy Weingarten and apparently she learned a lot from Shanker. And this was all due to the fact that there was terrible soundproofing between the floors and Shanker yelled a lot at Mayor Lindsey while speaking on the phone. True or False
Long before the Pavilion was a multiplex, it was a single screen theater known as the Sanders. And I remember going there one Friday night back in the mid-70’s to see “Death Wish” starring Charles Bronson with the guys from my block. As the audience cheered and yelled Bronson on, there was one guy in particular that I just couldn’t forget. He was sitting in the front row and kept jumping up from his seat screaming the words: “Kill the mother fuckers” “Kill the mother fuckers”. He had to be escorted out by the police before the movie even ended. And was later identified as being one of Park Slope’s first “gentrification” residents, who felt it was still safe to “act out” in public before the rest of the neighborhood became “gentrified.” True or False
Long before there were Hybrid cars in Park Slope and Kensington. There were electric trucks in Windsor Terrace. And I know this is true because my grandfather used to work at the “Pilgrim Laundry” up on Prospect Avenue. He worked nights and had to re-charge and maintain their batteries before the morning deliveries. But what makes this story even stranger is the dog that lived in the garage. He only used to urinate on the tires of American cars, and was simply known as “Prius” the hybrid dog. True or False
The Dutch only named Church Avenue “Church” Avenue because “Deal 99 Cent Store” Avenue was cost prohibitive and would have blown their “silk screening” and metal sign budget. True or False
Before I got re-married at 40, I actually had a long term relationship in the 80’s with a woman who lived in Park Slope”. And although the relationship didn’t work out, I at least was able to find parts for my Monte Carlo in Prospect Park while waiting for her everyday. True or False
The “Atlantic Yards” project was originally supposed to be built on Church Avenue in Kensington. But our strong “nail salon” and “fruit store” coalition quickly pushed Bruce Ratner far away into Prospect Heights, where there aren't any good fruit stores or nail salons anyway. True or False
As I sat in my third grade classroom in PS 179 I could hear them roaring towards us. From my desk I could look out the window and see their long yellow roofs. They parked in front of the school entranceway on Avenue C. With their diesel engines just clattering away, I knew it was my time to go. On every Wednesday at 2 o’clock my stomach would start to hurt. It was time for the public school Christians to leave our sanctuary of bliss and head North up East 3rd street to The Immaculate Heart of Mary school. It was time for “Religious Instructions”.
As I gathered my books and headed out the door I looked back and said good bye to Miss Saltzman. She just smiled back at me looking as beautiful as ever in her white go go boots. As I started to walk down the battle ship gray stairs I really started to feel nauseas. But you see I wasn’t alone, about four other children followed me down. All of us silent, no words ever spoken. “Ronnie are you feeling OK” asked the school bus matron. A friend of my Mom’s whose name always escaped me. I tried to smile at her, but my lips always had a problem arcing up on the sides on a Wednesday afternoon. I always sat in the back of the bus too. Right under the “emergency exit” sign. Maybe hoping it would open up one day and I would just fall out. As the bus driver closed the doors, I closed my eyes.
The bustling clatter of the diesel engine got louder as we pulled away and made a left onto East 3rd street. The ride up East 3rd street was the greatest torture. Especially as we passed Church Avenue, because everything I loved was right outside the school bus window, almost within reach. Kennys Toy Store, Lee’s Toy Store and a brand new Pizzeria called “Korner”. All the places I loved to visit with my Mom, yet here I am sitting on a cold school bus seat heading towards my doom. Church Avenue just vanished in the distance behind me. The bus made a left on Fort Hamilton Parkway and gently stopped in front of IHM School. We all silently gathered our belongings and filed out the bus. At this point I would really start to dread them. With my stomach feeling worse I was hoping to start throwing up this time before we got inside. One of them opened a heavy red metal door, dressed only in black, she just stared at us through her little round eyeglasses, not saying a word. The public school heathens had just arrived.
We sat in the classroom, all silent. One of them stood in front of the chalk board, she too was dressed in black with something white around the top of her head. Some kind of hat. Right below her head was a large white disc that looked like it was sawed in two. She held a long wooden yardstick in her wrinkled old hand. She just stood there glaring at us. I could make out her bee bee eyes behind her glasses, they were dark blue. She started to speak, “Now who can tell me about Jesus......And then it happened like it always did. There she was standing in front of the class. She had to be the most beautiful teacher at 179. Miss Saltzman, with beautiful dark eyes and long silky black hair. She had to be a dream, because when she spoke to me I just melted. When I’m old enough I’m going to marry Miss Saltzman, my third grade teacher. And even when she handed me my test papers that usually scored no more than 65. I just stared at her beautiful milky white hands and then her beautiful face, then down her neck to her tight pink sweater and then at her two beautiful full......Wack!, Wack!, Wack!, the tip of the wooden yardstick slammed hard on my desk, just barely missing my little fingers and almost hitting my Timex Dumbo watch that my Mom just bought me for Christmas. “I said wake-up and pay attention young man!” “Don’t you care about Jesus?”
At that point I was too scared to look up at her, I could only stare at the cross that was hanging on her waist with some sad looking skinny man with a long beard nailed to it. “I said look at me when I speak to you!” Now she was screaming at the top of her lungs. “I said look at meeeeeeeeeee.........and that’s when it happened. Without warning it just burst from my stomach, hot and steamy, with little pieces of the hot dog I just had for lunch. And it was all over her black dress, with some of it hitting the little man on the cross. I had just vomited like so many times before, and the “nerve medicine” my Mom gave me every Wednesday morning failed to work, again. I just sat there frozen and she just stood there silent. “Now go to the boys room and clean yourself up”.
I got up from my desk, I could feel evey ones eyes staring at my back as I walked out the door and down to the Boys room. I tried my best to wash myself off and I must have been there for a while, because when I walked out I could see my Mom talking with the Nun outside the classroom. My little sister Isabel was there too, just sitting in her stroller staring at the Nun. We left early that day and as we walked along Fort Hamilton Parkway towards East 4th the Church bells started ringing.
“Mom do I have to go back?” “You know what you have to do Ronnie” is all my Mom said.
Well, I did somehow manage to survive “Religious Instructions” and even made my Communion and Conformation at IHM. All because I knew “What I had to do”, Something thats just in your blood when you’re from Brooklyn. But the truth is even today some 43 later, I still can’t help but feel a little nervous when I see a Nun. The memories of “Religious Instructions”, the bus rides and the vomiting just come back to me like a nightmare. Because you see, even at 50, Some Bad Habits” are just too hard to forget!
This picture is a picture of my mom and my older brother Joseph taken in front of 399 East 4th. It was probably the spring before I was born.
Notice the man in the back ringing the midde doorbell? Well, he was mister Gorden our downstairs tenant. And I think he knew something about the future, and was probably trying to warn my dad about me and my blog.
Mike leaned against the fence in front of the Margaret Court on East Fourth Street. With bloodshot eyes and a cigarette burning away between his fingers, Mike just stared up towards Beverly Road without any expression.
Wearing white shorts, and an old polo shirt, Mike looked a litte out of place in 1975. Black socks and brown sandals also made Mike as different as can be in a time when most guys had long hair and wore platform shoes.
I guess Mike was about thirty-five then, he stood about five foot nine and had a hard looking potbelly. With a touch of gray in his red hair Mike also sported a rough looking mustache. And all “Crazy Mike” did everyday was just hang out in front of the Margaret Court on East Fourth. Oh, and Mike also lived with his Mom too, and she was about seventy years old.
Whenever Mike spoke to you, he kind of shouted as he put his face right up against yours. I mean it wasn’t that he was trying to be aggressive or anything like that. No, it was just the way Mike spoke to you, and nothing more. And because Mike had that unusual habit, it always gave one a clear view of his eyes. Which were usually red and bloodshot.
“Hey come here Ronnie, I want to ask you something” “Does your Mother drive you fucking crazy too?”
Mike’s face was right in mine, all his nose hairs were "countable" and his breath smelled like alcohol.
“Yeah, you know sometimes, but what you gonna do” I said
If there was one thing I learned about Mike, it was always to agree with him no matter what he said. No, don’t ever disagree with Mike or get him angry, because you’ll never know what he’ll do. Just always agree, all right?
And then there was the horrific screaming that used to come out of their apartment at the Margaret Court. And it was always Mike and his mother fighting about something, and yes they never whispered. they both just screamed at the top of their lungs.
“I’m going to kill you ma, I’m going to kill you” “Don’t you dare touch me or I’ll call the police, get away, get away!” “I said I’m going to kill you” “Put down the knife Mike, put down the knife” “Ahhhhhhhh, Ahhhhhhh"
But don’t worry this was normal, and someone else already called the police. And there was usually a patrol car in front of the Margaret Court almost every day.
Yeah, Mike and his mom surely had an open relationship and never kept anything inside that festered into hate.
I remember the night the City coroner’s truck and a bunch of police cars were parked in front on the Margaret Court. And for some reason that night there was no screaming coming out of the second floor window. No, tonight it was silent, no screaming at all.
Mike’s mom was holding on to the arm of a cop as they carried a long black body bag on a stretcher.
No, no more screaming at the Margaret Court, because Mike was dead.
We never really knew how Mike died. Some said it was drugs, others said he just had a heart attack.
But the strange thing is ever since the day Mike died we never saw his mom.
And maybe never really knew "who" was holding the knife.