The New Years Eve parties that my Grandparents had at 399 East 4th were something else. For what seemed like days they would both prepare the food for the party. Turkey, ham, roast beef, cole slow, potato salad, black beans and white rice, fried bananas, along with many traditional dishes from Spain too complicated to mention.
And my Grandfather Paco was a true gentleman also. There he would be alongside my Grandmother helping prepare all the dishes that would be spread out on the dining room table by six o’clock on December 31st., including desserts all made by hand.
You could usually expect upwards to fifty people at the house on New Years Eve. Cousins from as close as East 2nd street to as far as Patterson, New Jersey made the trek to Kensington for the “Big Bash”. Just packing the house like sardines in a tin can and usually spilling out onto the front porch too.
But one problem that always faced the family was the lack of chairs. Sure there was the couch and Paco’s lazy boy along with the eight or so dining room chairs. But still they were all just a very small dent on the side of the big ship called 399, and simply not enough to support all the guests.
So one year after Christmas my Uncle Manuel, who lived on East 2nd street, told my Grandfather Paco about the idea of renting chairs from Pitta’s on McDonald Avenue. “Pitta’s” was and still is a funeral home off Fort Hamilton Parkway, and according to my uncle Manuel, "never does New Years Eve funerals". So why not drive over there and ask about renting some chairs for a “good price” was his suggestion to my Grandfather.
Now you have to understand that my Uncle Manuel was always looking for a “good price”.
At six feet five inches, he had the most booming “Brooklyn” voice you could ever imagine, and was also a truck driver who sometimes brought boxes of things that “fell off the truck” to our house. So when it came to finding a “good price” or "no price" at all, you could always depend on my Uncle Manuel to find it.
My grandfather Paco on the other hand was alot more reserved than my Uncle Manuel. He never really wanted to know where the boxes "fell" from, but gladly took anything my Uncle offered him nevertheless. I guess they were just the "SAP" versions of "Oscar and Felix", and somehow managed to get along quite well as brother-in-laws.
“Hey, you kids ready to help get the chairs?” said my Uncle Manuel.
“Sure!” said my brother Joseph, Pete, and I in unison.
“Now you know this place we’re going to is a funeral home, so I don’t want to hear any screaming when you see a stiff, ok?”
All of us shook our heads together, including me, too embarrassed to ask my older brother what a “stiff” was.
So we walked down the stairs and piled into our 63 Rambler wagon and drove to Pittas on McDonald Avenue. We parked the Rambler in the back of the funeral parlor by the loading dock where they bring in the new customers. My Uncle Manuel made the sign of the cross when he got out of the car, although I never remembered seeing him at IHM.
“Now you children must not go into any of the other rooms, we must respect the property and only go where the man tells us to. We are here to pick up chairs and not to play,” said my Grandfather Paco.
My uncle Manuel on the other hand just started laughing and told us not to look at the “stiffs” because we might have nightmares.
We walked up the back steps into the funeral parlor, I immediately started smelling something sweet and thought it must have been flowers. The carpet was a dark red and the place was really cold. As we walked up the hallway there were doors to the left and right of us, all closed.
“Here are the chairs, how many do you need?’ said the owner.
As my Grandfather Paco and Uncle Manuel worked out a deal on the chairs we started walking back down the hallway we just walked up from. All the doors had nameplates on them and all but one was closed shut. It was open about a half an inch and was completely dark inside.
“You want to look?” said Joseph.
We just said nothing as he started to open the door; the smell of the flowers became stronger as the door opened more. We noticed a light coming from the front of the room but still couldn’t see anything.
“Come on, just open it,” said my cousin Pete.
We all slowly pushed the wooden door open with our eyes closed. Once it was fully open we all opened our eyes. Our screams could probably be heard in the subway tunnel deep below McDonald Avenue that day. There in the dark room below the glow of a single white lamp was an elderly bald man lying in a wooden casket. He had white hair on the sides of his head and wore glasses. Not knowing what do or where to run we just stood there screaming at the top of our little lungs.
Before we could move the heavy hands of my Uncle Manuel and Grandfather Paco were on our shoulders pulling us backwards. As I looked at my Grandfather his face was red and he looked quite angry. My Uncle Manuel on the other hand was laughing at the top of his 6 foot 5 lungs. The man at the funeral parlor just smiled at my Grandfather and said “that’s OK it happens all the time.
My Grandfather didn’t say much during the ride back to East 4th, but seemed to forget about it by the time we parked in the driveway. We all helped carry up the chairs and another New Years Eve Party at 399 East 4th was well underway. Just waiting for the "ball to drop" and scream "Happy New Year" at the top of our lungs in the Brooklyn of my youth, a long time ago.
He was tall and thin and carried a black garbage bag onto the subway car. His skin was dark and his face unshaven.
I remember looking at another homeless man that day on the F. He walked on to the train at the 14th street station by Union Square, and just stood there across from where I was standing.
And people gave him his “room” too, because that’s what you do when the homeless walk onto your train, you just give them their space, and hope they don’t bother you.
I just stared at him and looked at his eyes, because the eyes never change, even when you’re homeless.
He looked back at me, his eyes were as dark as coal, he said nothing.
I know he felt strange when I saw him too. So he just walked away and sat down on a seat facing the opposite direction so I couldn’t notice who he was.
The people sitting next to him all got up and found other seats in the subway car.
I walked towards him though, and sat beside him.
“Hey Donald, remember me? it’s Ronnie from Art & Design”
He turned his head towards me, but didn’t look in my eyes this time.
“How you doin man?” is all he said
“I’m fine Don, I’m fine”
“Yeah, well, you know since High School things have been a little rough for me” “I’m ok, but things are just not that good”
I remember my first day of high school back in 1972, Donald was one of the first people I sat with at the lunch table in the back of the cafeteria.
Donald always wore these really cool tinted sunglasses and had a small goatee. While most other kids weren’t even shaving yet, including me, Don looked like he may have been about 20 years old.
Along with Donald, I also sat with Ernest and Sandy. Donald and Ernest were black, while Sandy was Jewish. We were certainly a cross section of New York, but hey. That’s what made the High School of Art and Design so cool back in 1972.
Yeah, the High School of Art and Design. I never knew some of my best friends were gay until my senior year. And to tell you the truth it never really mattered either. Because we were all such good friends, and all artists anyway. All going to a school were nobody cared about “what” you were. And no one felt they were better than anyone else.
We all just loved that school so much, including my friend Donald.
“Hey man I’m getting off here”
I reached into by jacket and gave Donald a twenty-dollar bill.
Donald just looked at me and said “thanks”.
That was about 25 years ago and I haven’t seen Donald since.
So the next time you see someone riding the F-train with a bundle of sorrow. Think about my friend Donald, and never ever feel that you’re better than anyone else. Because someday that person just might be you.
I have seen a few posts so far about insulation, window replacement and so on. And I’m sure it’s all in an effort to save fuel this winter. Now I’m not an expert on this stuff but I can tell you what I did to lower the cost of my National Grid and old Keyspan bills.
My house has over sixty-five windows and kills me every winter when it comes to amount of money I have to spend to heat its old body. It’s a large wood frame and lacks the proper insulation between the walls that much newer houses have.
Well the first thing I did over a period of time was replace all the old windows with modern double insulated windows. And made sure to have the windows “capped” properly and caulked. This was an instant success when it came to saving money, probably a few thousand dollars the first winter.
And let me give you some real numbers on this so you can understand the importance of windows. My house is over 4000 square feet and my gas bill is about four thousand dollars a year with new windows. My good friend down the block owns a house that's about 2800 square feet. He pays about six thousand dollars a year for his gas because he still has the old windows from 1963. I keep telling him to change his windows, but still he hasn't.
Then we looked into having insulation blown into the attic crawl space above the third floor ceiling. This was also an instant money saver and helped keep the house cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter. The cost also was much less than having insulation blown between the walls of the entire house. Maybe 1500 dollars about five years ago.
My wife also read about these really thick insulated drapes that cover the windows, they are very and heavy and really keep the cold out during those 10 degree days. And in the summer they really help in keeping the hot sun out of the apartment. Once again a smart move and I have seen my gas bills go down once again.
Also make sure that there is nothing blocking the area where your boiler pipe goes into the chimney. Every fall I make sure to “ShopVac” this area clean, because your boiler needs to breathe properly or otherwise it will choke itself.
I still have other things in mind but once again it all costs money. For instance I can either have insulation blown between the walls, which is about ten thousand dollars. Or remove all my vinyl siding, attach those 2-inch thick insulation boards and then put my siding back on. That would be the ultimate, but once again a big expense.
These are just some ideas and I hope they can save you some money this winter.
On any given August night back in 1975 you could find me down the block on Freddie Schefferman's stoop. But not just me you know, the rest of the boys also made Freddie's stoop their perpetual brick and mortar home. Glen Gruder, Robert Brennan, Neil O’Callahan, Jimmy Spinner and my cousin Pete Liria.
Now most of us were anywhere from fifteen to twenty at the time, and Freddie was much older. Freddie could have easily passed for Jesus or Tommy Chong from “Cheech and Chong”. With long wavey black hair, a beard and little round glasses. It was hard to imagine what Freddie really looked like too.
Freddie may have been 35 years old at the time. His mother and father owned the house he lived in. And from the stories Freddie told us all the time, we were pretty sure that he grew up on the block too. I know Freddie graduated from Pratt in Brooklyn and did work “freelance” from time to time. Hey, he even owned a 68 Triumph Spitfire convertible, so he had to have some kind of dough. But most of the time Freddie just loved to “hang out” on the block. Just looking like “Jesus” in his bell-bottoms, sandals, and yellow and white striped shirt. Leaning against the white picket fence of his house talking to anyone who wanted to “hang out” with him.
Freddie did spend some time in Vietnam too; I think he told us he used to make maps there. But we never pushed it because who knew if he would “Freak out” about it. And Freddie knew just about everything you know, politics, art, religion, history, philosophy, and most important, Brooklyn.
“You kids should have been around here when the Trolleys ran on Church Avenue. You couldn’t imagine the shit we used to do with the Trolleys”
Freddie did share many of his Church Avenue Trolley stories with us. From squashing pennies on the rails to making late night explosions on the high wires by throwing a metal pipe up at the lines, hoping to arc them both at once, and causing something to blow. I guess it did work sometimes, because Freddie told us many stories about being chased by the cops up our block too.
“What the hell are you guys doing here with me?” “you should be out getting laid somewhere, you guys are really schmucks!”
Now we never asked Freddie the same question, because it was still a Saturday night, and the clock just struck midnight for him too. But we just took his insults in stride, and just listened to more of his stories.
“Did you guys check out that new program “Saturday Night Live”, now that’s some funny shit. Hopefully NBC won’t cancel it next year like they always do. Bunch of schmucks!”
Freddie was a Jewish 60’s flower child with an edge.
“You guys are little assholes, didn’t you see that girl walk by and smile at you?”
“Why don’t you talk to her and get her number?” “When I was your age I had a girl on each arm every night”
No one ever dared to ask Freddie what happened, because we never saw him with anyone on the block.
No, instead of a beautiful girl on each side of his shoulders, Freddie had us instead. And let me tell you, we were far from being beautiful.
Freddie hated the establishment too, every President sucked, every Governor sucked, every Mayor sucked. But then again we never asked Freddie if he ever voted.
On very rare occasions Freddie would let us down into his basement to see all his photography equipment. Freddie knew all about mold making and casting too. In fact he made me my first fiberglass goalie mask that I still have today. We may have even seen “pot roaches” in empty cat food cans down there too. If Freddie did smoke pot, we never knew it, because he kept his personal life in the basement.
Sometimes some of my friend’s dads would playfully rib Freddie about the fact that he seemed to be blissfully un-employed. Especially my friend Robert’s dad Bob Brennan.
Now Bob worked on the World Trade Center and told us countless stories about being up on the tower crane some 110 stories up. About how it swayed back and forth and almost got him sick on windy days.
“Hey get a job you bum”
Freddie would just laugh with all of us sitting around him. Like overgrown Santa’s elf’s around our spiritual leader.
“Hey, I am working” “I’m teaching these kids about life, including your son” “I’ll send you the bill next week!”
Sometimes another great Brooklyn philosopher and storyteller, Freddie’s downstairs tenant “Bobby Wilson” would join in on the conversation. Bobby Wilson was stocky and stood about six feet tall, with a big square jaw, dark blue eyes and midnight black hair. Bobby always looked like he was on the verge of murdering someone. He drove a tow truck for “Al & Leo’s” collision on 36th street near Fort Hamilton. In fact the place is now called “36th Street Collision” and Al is still the owner. Bobby always wore a dark blue jump suit with red script letters “Bobby” on his left chest, With the police scanner blaring and the volume up high, you always knew when Bobby was on the block. And don't forget, he had his name painted on the truck also, so you just couldn't miss him.
I think if Bobby didn’t know Freddie, he may have just beaten him up because of his long hair. Bobby hated hippies, freaks, the un-employed, the protesters, and the left-wingers. I think you get the picture. Yet together they were our own "Curtis Sliwa and Ron Kuby" right on East 4th street. Just arguing about everything and taking opposite sides on any subject. And of course Bobby’s solution for everything if conversation and debate didn’t work was to just “kick their asses” Most of Bobby’s stories were about his adventures driving his tow truck for Al and Leo. And usually when he was the first person to get to some horrible accident somewhere before the cops.
“Now who has a weak stomach here?” “Because if you do, I don’t think you want to hear this one”
“OK, I heard this call on the scanner about a roll-over on McDonald and avenue C. It was late at night and I’m just a couple of blocks away. I get there and the car's totally in flames. It looked like a 69 Charger but I wasn’t sure. And the guys still in it because I see his head. So I try to pull the guy out of the car and the only thing I can grab is his head. So I’m on the ground squatting like this, just pulling and pulling. And them “Boom”, I fall backwards and the guy’s head comes off right in my hands. I’m on my back just looking at his head in my hands. I think he was even trying to talk to me too cause his lips were moving”.
At this point Freddie would be looking up at the sky above East 4th, just rolling his eyes.
“Hey Freddie you think I’m bullshittin?” “Cause if you do I’ll go upstairs and show you the guys ear, I cut it off as a souvenir”
Freddie would just shake his head.
And the stories just went on and on, and the hot summer nights just rolled on by. I guess our parents were torn, on one hand they wanted us to be going out more, but then on the other all my mom had to do was poke her head out the window and see us all on Freddie’s stoop.
But just like everything when you were young, you thought it would never end. Until one day our nightmare came true.
Freddie told us he found a job and was going back to work.
Well, back to work, that’s ok. Because I worked too, and went to college also. So maybe Freddie couldn’t hang out till 2 AM anymore.
And then it hit us like a brick, my heart sunk, my world ended. Freddie told us his job was in Alaska, and he was leaving within a week, and would not be back for years.
We left the stoop that night feeling very depressed, but still held out some hope that Freddy was full of shit.
But then the day came that would be etched in my mind forever. Just a few days after Freddie told us the news I was sitting on my porch with some of the guys. Across the street was some guy walking with a clean white shirt and kacky pants. He crossed the street and started walking towards us. He had short black hair, clean smooth skin and a big bright smile. He also wore little round glasses.
“Do you guys know who I am?” We just looked at him perplexed and said “no” “You’re kidding, you don’t know who I am?” “Sorry” we said, “we have no idea” “You schmucks” the voice sounded familiar, yet the face wasn’t. “I’m Freddie, you assholes”
Oh, my god, it was Freddie, he cut his beard, hair, and was wearing a white button down shirt and dress pants.
We all just stared at him in shock.
“I told you guys I got a job, what did you think, I was full of shit?”
I guess maybe for once Freddie wasn't full of shit, no he was really leaving the block, and wouldn't be back for years.
I don’t remember the day Freddie left, I may have been working or in college at the time.
We tried to pick up the pieces with Bobby Wilson and his tow truck stories, but it wasn’t the same without Freddie. Then tragically Bobby’s son Bobby jr. got real sick and died of a brain tumor. And Bobby just wasn’t the same anymore.
From what I heard he just stayed inside his apartment and did a lot of crying.
The stoop in front of Freddie’s house was empty, yet there was still hope that at least Bobby would be back someday.
But then one day when I got home from work I remember seeing a NYC morgue truck in front of Freddie’s house. I figured it was Freddie’s mom that died because she was quite old. As the black body bag was being carried out of the house, Bobby’s wife Eileen was holding on to it and crying. It was Bobby Wilson.
The doctors said it was an aneurism, but we knew it was just a broken heart. Because Bobby just could not live without his son.
I remember the funeral at Pitta’s on McDonald Avenue. The whole block must have come that night.
And there was Bobby in the casket. With a cigar in his pocket, and still looking like he could kick someone’s ass, even in death.
Yeah, it was over. Everyone was gone.
So the stoop remained empty forever at 418 East 4th. And after Freddie’s parents died he sold the house.
We moved on with our lives. Found girlfriends or got married. Some of us even moved away far from the block.
I heard Freddie finished his work in Alaska and finally did get married.
In fact, rumor is he still lives in Brooklyn.
But truth is, I haven’t seen him in almost 30 years, and neither has anyone else.
And I hope that some of those late night stories about Brooklyn and life rubbed off on me too. Because I grew up with some of the greatest storytellers in Brooklyn, although at the time I don’t think they had a clue that they were just that, “story tellers”.
And Freddie, wherever you are. Thanks for all those great nights on your stoop. Just hanging out and passing time, and giving me a "gift" I will never forget.
I think my earliest recollection of Park Circle Lanes was when my cousin Tony took us there on a snowy winter’s day. I must have been no more than seven years old and it was the first time in my life that I had ever seen a bowling alley.
And the walk to the bowling alley was real simple too. Just straight up East Fourth and then a right on Caton Avenue. Follow the horse crap from Kensington Stables and then you're there! You see the bowling alley was right across from the horse stables and also the Park Circle roller rink. Just a little wonderland of things to do when it was snowing outside.
So with cold toes and snow on our feet we opened the doors and walked into the warm air of the bowling alley. The long dark maple planks that made up the alleys along with bright lights shinning on the bowling pins were the first thing I noticed. There was a concession stand that sold hot dogs and popcorn along with soda machines lining the back wall. And of course there was cigarette smoke in the air, because back in the 60’s everyone smoked at bowling alleys. So smelling like smoke when you got home was no big deal, no, just change your shirt and it will all be fine.
Now cousin Tony was always so nice to us little kids when we were growing up on East Fourth. He must have been at least fifteen years older than us and I’m sure could have been having much more fun with his friends down by Avenue M where he lived. But for whatever reason Tony always made sure to show us all a good time, either riding sleds in Prospect Park or ice-skating at Wollman Rink. Yeah we all loved Tony, and were always excited when we heard he was coming over.
“Ok guys, we’re going to have to get each one of you a pair of bowling shoes”.
I remember being very confused because I was told to take off one shoe and give it to the lady behind the counter.
“What size is he?”
“He looks like a size five to me”
“Here, just make sure you return them with the laces UN-DONE!
The women behind the counter handed me a pair of strange looking red and white shoes. I walked over to a plastic bench and proceeded to put them on.
There were also racks and racks of bowling balls all over the place too, mostly black bowling balls with a few red ones scattered around.
“Ok Pete, Ronnie and Joseph, I am going to get each one of you a bowling ball and I want you all to be very careful with them. They are very heavy and if you drop it on your foot your parents aren’t going to be very happy with me.”
Tony walked over to the racks and lifted various balls with his right hand. After a couple of minutes he started bringing over the black balls and gently placed them on the rack right behind the ball return
“Now Ronnie this is how you throw the ball”
I remember watching Tony as he rolled the black ball smoothly down the long dark alley. Within seconds the pins exploded and the ball disappeared into darkness. Tony looked at us and smiled.
“See guys that’s how you do it”
When it was my turn I remember picking up the heavy ball with both my hands, I slowly walked up to the alley and rolled it with all my might. Within moments the ball slid sideways into the gutter. I walked back feeling somewhat dejected but Tony made sure to cheer me up by telling me I did a great job. He also did his best to encourage me too.
"Ronnie, try to roll it straight down the lane next time, I know you can do it".
So the second time I rolled the ball it did go straight down the lane, it hit about three pins and I felt like a millionaire!
That was 1965 on a snowy winter's day in Kensington Brooklyn.
It’s funny how you just remember certain things in life, and if there’s one thing I will always remember it’s the first time I rolled a bowling ball down at Park Circle Lanes. The agony of seeing it fall into the gutter, along with the joy of seeing the ball knock down a pin or two. The smell of popcorn and hotdogs along with cigarette smoke on your clothes. The walk home through the snow filled sidewalks of Kensington with Tony, Joseph and Pete. Feeling so proud of myself that I got a twenty-five, and so excited to tell my mom about the bowling alley and the fun I had there.
I still remember that day, isn’t that something?
So whatever happened to Kensington’s Park Circle Lanes?
Well sometime back in the late 80’s or early 90’s it closed down like many other bowling alleys in Brooklyn and just became another memory for a child of Brooklyn. Now replaced by a gigantic church right across the street form Kensington Stables where it once was.
Oh, but don't you worry, some things never change. One snowy Saturday a few weeks ago I took my kids over to Melody Lanes in Sunset Park. When the lady behind the counter handed us our shoes she made sure to remind us to return them with the laces UN-DONE!
And both my kids had the time of their lives, and maybe someday will think of it too.