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40th Anniversary

Brooklyn Revisited


But back then there were block parties on V-E Day and V-J Day, kegs of free beer outside the many saloons (all of them gone now) and parties when the first young men returned on the troop ships and parties when they married the girls they’d left behind. Then they started moving away, using their veterans’ benefits to buy small homes with backyards. We never saw them again. But on summer evenings after the war, right here, on this sidewalk in front of 378, the people of the block would sit around in folding chairs bought from the funeral parlor, and sip cold tea or beer, and gossip, and joke, and sing. There was no television yet. The radio brought the Dodger games, day and night, and someone always had a big portable where we could find out “da scaw” and whether “dey” were winning. They were always the Dodgers, of course.

I plant my feet on that piece of sidewalk, staring at the door to 378. It’s a Friday evening in August, and my mind is full of proper nouns. I can see Mrs. Caputo, and my mother, and Carrie Woods, and Mae Erwin and Anne Sharkey, and my father’s friend Duke. My father is across the street in Rattigan’s, singing “Paddy McGinty’s Goat” or “My Ould Scalera Hat” and we kids are planning the next day’s games. Stickball, of course. The most beautiful game. A broom-handle bat. A pink spaldeen. We played on 12th Street and the outfield was over the avenue.

As I stand there, hoping someone will enter or someone will leave, and allow me to see the place where I lived so vividly, long ago. Nobody does. There’s a New York Times in a blue wrapper at the foot of the locked door. When I lived there we were Daily News readers and Brooklyn Eagle readers and readers of the Journal-American. Nobody read the Times. And I remember when no door in that building (or on that block) was ever locked. Why would they be? There was nothing there worth stealing. The locks came in the mid-fifties, when heroin arrived in the neighborhood.

Brooklyn is not Frank Gehry. It’s Edward Hopper.

Now one evening I am watching the new people walk on my old Seventh Avenue, a steady stream coming home from the subway. All are in their twenties, most of them gym-thin. Shoulder bags hang from their shoulders while other bags form humps on their backs. Their thumbs flick across tiny keyboards. They talk into cell phones. They never make eye contact with anyone, as if adhering to some paranoid manual of New York behavior. Instead, they glance into restaurants, hurry past art-supply stores, dress shops, delicatessens, heading to places that are provisional, not permanent, parts of their narrative. They rent. Perhaps they will decide to stay, later on, and buy. For now, most have roommates to share the costs of apartments. “They’re kids from dorms,” said one old resident. “My day, they came from barracks.”

Still, in any number of conversations, I’ve never heard any of the older people use phrases like “yuppie scum.” They remember the time of the junkies. And while there have been complaints for years now about gentrification (the sense of entitlement, the Hummer-like strollers, $3,200 a month to live in a tenement!), one thing is certain: Gentrification is better than junkies.

Meanwhile, here now are African-American families, or mixed-race couples; here are Puerto Ricans and Dominicans; here are gay couples. All move casually along the avenue, without a head turning or a bad word muttered. New York, including its most populated borough, remains the city of people who are not like you.

I look across the street at the huge redbrick condominium now called Ansonia Court. It was once the Ansonia Clock Factory, built in the nineteenth century, and after the war my father worked on the third floor. His workplace was the Globe Lighting Company, and he worked on an assembly line, putting together fluorescent-lighting fixtures. Billy Hamill had lost his leg in 1927, playing soccer in the immigrant leagues in a year before penicillin could ward off gangrene. During brutal August days, working the line in a factory without air-conditioning, his stump would blister in the socket of his artificial leg. Sometimes he would awake in the night, gasping in pain, and my mother would soothe him with ice and words of love. In the morning, he would rise again and go to work. There was rent to pay and children to feed. Not once did I hear words of self-pity. Not from him. Not from anyone in that neighborhood. So Billy Hamill worked in what we simply called The Factory. My mother worked part-time at the Methodist Hospital and then as a cashier at the RKO Prospect on Ninth Street. They would go on working, until they couldn’t work at anything anymore.

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