The last snowstorm we had was a “snow day” for me as well, that’s because Avon Products, (where I work at Rockefeller Center) was closed for the day. Yes, today I’ll be home along with the entire family, and enjoy the latest 19 inches of freshly fallen Kensington, Brooklyn snow.
And I don’t know what it is about a snowstorm, but somehow it just reminds me of being a kid again. Building a snowman with my dad and uncle in our back yard, icing over Neil O’Callaghan’s back yard with a garden hose and playing hockey, or maybe just having a good old snowball fight and getting my left ear hit by Steve McNally. Oh, and when Stevie hit my ear, red blood just started gushing down my jacket and onto the virgin white snow. A real nice sight for the Blanks who were probably watching from the porch of 403 East Fourth, even though it was the middle of winter back in 1969. But hey, Mister and Mrs. Blank were always on their porch, no matter what the weather.
And the funny thing is I can stand on every single spot where these things took place. A 53 year old man can just walk down his front stoop and find the spot where he built that snowman with his dad 50 years ago, got hit by Steve 43 years ago, or played hockey in Neil’s back yard 35 years ago. No, no long flight back to New York, no long drive from Long Island, Staten Island, or the Virgin Islands. No, tears welling up in my eyes because I’m "coming home" to the house I grew up in as a kid and “it will all be so wonderful to see it again” kind of stuff.
No, none of that’s ever going to happen, because I just never left, and I still live in the same house that my mom carried me into a few days after I was born at Methodist in Park Slope back in 1957.
Is it sad? Is it odd? Is it wonderful?
Or am I just one of those people who just can’t conform to any type of change whatsoever?
Oh right, I’ve been with the same company for 27 years. Have the same friends for 53 years. Call my cousin Pete almost every since I learned how to use a phone. And I even have the same wife for the past 12 years. And that’s a real accomplishment for me because I was never very good with having the same wife or girlfriend for an extended period of time you know.
So what gives here? Is it that I just love Brooklyn so much and would never think of living anywhere else? Is it that I would hate everything else? Or was it a “genius” real estate move that I made in 1990 when I bought my house from my aunt and uncle that would keep me here for good?
Well, what is it I ask?
Ok, I'm waiting
Waiting, waiting, waiting...
And the answer is...
I HATE CHANGE
I think that’s it. Nothing else, nothing genius, nothing to read between the lines.
I just hate change, period.
Same friends, Same block, Same house, Same kids, Same wife, Same cars, Same job, Same hockey stick and goalie mask.
Oh, and same Brooklyn.
So the other day during the snowstorm I was helping my friend of 53 years, “The Prophet” or “The Rev” as I know him, shovel out his car from a four-foot snow bank, compliments of NYC Sanitation plow that just rolled on by. The “Rev” is now something like 81 years old you know and he was telling my next-door neighbor about how long he has known me.
And for anyone who doesn't know "The Rev" he has been a fixture on my block ever since I was a little baby. He stands about six foot three, only wears white, and can be seen cleaning and polishing his long Caddie or Lincoln every day. He looks something like Jeffery Holder who used to do those "Cola Nut" commercials back in the 70's and has the loudest booming voice you have ever heard. Yes, the Rev or the Prophet Allen is straight out of "Central Casting" and could probably have been in the movies if he ever lived in Hollywood.
“You see this man? I know this man since he was a little baby, a little boy playing here on the street with his brother” "Holding his mommy's hand while walking down the block"
At this point the “Prophet” was on a roll and screaming at the top of his lungs like he usually does on East Fourth Street in front of the Margaret Court on any given day.
And me, well I was just smiling and feeling lucky. Felling like the “Luckiest man on the face of the Earth” Knowing the "Rev" all these years and still seeing him every single day. And hoping that he lives forever, because East Fourth would never be the same if he wasn't there in front of the Margaret Court polishing his car. And neither would I.
Still living on the block I grew up on, still driving by PS 179 every day and remembering my first day of kindergarten. Walking by the very same spot where my uncle taught me how to ride a bike in front of 396 East Fourth. Or my backyard where I built that snowman back in 1963. Yes a collection of memories that are all still here right in front of my eyes every day, some beautiful, some tragic, some sad and some glorious.
All without a flight from the West Coast or a drive up from Florida.
No, just open my front curtains from my apartment and they are all there to see.
Yes, some things just never change you know. And sometimes the lack of change is just beautiful, wonderful, and glorious.
And I would never want it any other way, as long as I live here in Brooklyn, the only home I have ever known.
I think Joe Mirada’s pet store was somewhere way down Church Avenue near 36th street. And from what I remember as a kid, the place was a very, very long walk from East Fourth.
A small, smelly pet store that may have been in “Gods Country” for a reason you know, far removed from all the grocery stores and fruit stores that lined the heart of our Church Avenue. And for anyone who grew up in Kensington, the “Heart” of Church Avenue was anywhere between McDonald Avenue and Ocean Parkway.
So here was this pet store way the hell down Church Avenue and almost in Boro Park. Yeah, maybe because it smelled so much the rest of the merchants told old Joe Mirada to stay as far away as possible.
But still when you’re a kid you’re going to find a pet store no matter where it is.
And even if it's practically in Boro Park
“Hey Joey, did you hear that Joe Mirada’s selling hamsters for a dollar?”
I remember that day quite well; I was playing on my front porch with my cousin Pete, my brother Joseph and Johnny Reilly from the Margaret Court across the street.
“Here, take a look at the one Kevin and I just bought”
There inside a cardboard milk container with the top sliced off was this small brown looking thing that looked something like a rat. It seemed to be sniffing around with barely any room to turn it’s little body in the confines of the sour smelling Borden’s milk carton. There was also a bed of shredded paper underneath it as well; it’s tiny teeth just chewing away at the remains of yesterday’s Daily News.
“So guys, what do you think?” “There only a dollar and Joe Mirada said he just has a a few left”.
Now when I was growing up my older brother always made the “corporate” decisions, not me. And maybe it was because he was almost two years older than me, I don’t know. So when it came to things like when we were going to ride our bikes, or roll tires down our driveway and hit a car, it was always Joseph who made the decisions.
“Ronnie, go upstairs and see if mom can give you a dollar, tell her it’s for ice cream from Morris. But DO NOT tell her it’s because we want to buy a hamster. You understand?
“But Joey, you know mom hates mice”
“It’s not a mouse you idiot, it’s a hamster”.
“Now just go upstairs and ask mommy for a dollar”
Well, I asked my mom for a dollar, came back downstairs and we were on our way to Joe Mirada’s pet store. I remember it was a very hot summer’s day as we rode our bikes there. A caravan of bicycles on two wheels and training wheels, making their way down the hot gum dotted sidewalks of Church Avenue to the “End of the Earth”. Well, almost Boro Park, but that might as well have been the end of the earth to us.
“Oh I see we have more customers, I bet you kids are here for the hamsters right?”
Now from what I remember Joe Mirada was this short little Italian man who always wore checkered shirts. The store like I mentioned earlier smelled to high heaven, and given it was a hot summer’s day in Kensington Brooklyn, the smell today was worse than it usually was.
Joe Mirada stuck his hand inside a cage and pulled out this little brown thing that looked something like a rat. He quickly put it inside another Borden’s quart milk container and handed it to my brother Joseph.
“Here you go kid, that will be one dollar”
My brother handed Joe Mirada the dollar, and in return Joseph was handed a smelly Borden’s milk container with something inside of it that looked very much like a rat. I was sure my mom was going to have a fit when she saw it. But I would never tell my brother, because it was his decision to buy it. And that was that.
So we got on our bikes and slowly moved Eastward towards East Fourth. Spoke wheels, and solid silver wheels just spinning away until we finally made it back to the concrete confines of our front porch with our little hamster and the smelly milk carton.
Now, we may have even been trying to play with it somehow, I can’t quite remember. And just like Johnny Reilly’s hamster, it had the hardest time trying to turn its little body inside the bottom of the empty quart of milk barely able to move.
"Hey Joey, see if it wants to play with this stick"
Johnny Reilly handed my brother a small twig from our front bushes and he threw it into the carton.
The hamster just looked at it and did nothing.
"Oh well, maybe it's tired"
But then suddenly we saw our mom walking up the block, and unlike my brother, I knew it was all going to be over real soon.
“What are you boys doing with those milk containers?” “Is there something inside”?
Now this is one of those moments you always remember and tell your kids about.
My mom slowly leaning over to look inside the carton, and then her loud blood curdling screams.
I think my mother’s screams could be heard all the way from Church Avenue on that warm summer’s day. The hamster just spun in circles at the bottom of the carton as she screamed and screamed. The milk container bellowing outwards at the bottom from the hamster's attempted escape.
You see I knew my mom hated mice, yet my brother wanted to buy the hamster and I was powerless.
“GET IT AWAY, GET IT AWAY!”
My brother Joseph put his hand over the top of the carton trying to shield the hamster from my mom’s screaming. Yet you can still hear it scurrying around in circles on top of it’s bed of shredded Daily News.
“But mom, it was only a dollar at Joe….”
“TAKE IT BACK NOW!!!!” “TAKE IT BACK NOW!!!!”
“I don’t want to see that thing in my house, you understand!”
Well, the rest is history folks, we went back to Joe Mirada’s and returned the hamster, and I’m sure he gave my brother the dollar back as well.
But I never dared to tell my brother "I told you so". Because he'd kick my ass you know.
Yes, Joe Mirada’s pet store, the hamster, and my mother’s screams. Just another day in the Kensington of my youth, so many years ago.
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!
Can anyone guess the location of this Kensington photo? It is a photo from 1980 actually, now it's much nicer! Betty has tons of great Brooklyn photos new and old, and many of Kensington from way back when. http://www.flickr.com/photos/bettyblade/