“When am I going to see your ugly face?” She is 83 and lives in Brooklyn, my ancestral home.
“One of these days, Mom. Soon.” I was just there last week, visiting, having dinner, playing gin, eating a bagel, taking walks with her.
“I’ll check the calendar and see when I can get there. Maybe for Louis’ son’s bar mitzvah next month.” I should just be flattered she looks forward to my future visit as the past hangs on tattered threads. She sleeps with my father’s bathrobe covering her feet. The last time he wore it was many years past, yet he is still comforting her.
Imagine, if you will, as Rod Serling fades into a black-and-white world. Go back. Go all the way back. Go home. You can go home again. Time traveling is possible. But, you need to reconfigure your thinking. The world you are familiar with, through the fragile veil of memory is left best undisturbed with modern tools. It doesn’t exist, searching is an exercise in futility. Leave your video cam home. Take the junkiest, ugliest, can’t-get-film for this anymore camera you can find and start at the beginning. Look for a camera with a name like Lubitel, Banner, Holga or Diana-bad quality, but forgiving. I will offer my odyssey as a road map for yours. Use what you like; take what you want. “Imagine, if you will…”
Brooklyn in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s was the hub of the universe. The Dodgers were where they belonged, at Ebbets Field and Los Angeles as a world away. Sometimes in visiting the pas and feeling a need to document, there is simply nothing or no one left. Duke Snider moved to Fallbrook, big Number 14, Carl Furillo, hands as big as a shovel, is buried and Ebbets Field, home of legendary battles for the pennant with the Giants, series battles with the Yankees are gone. Ebbets Field is a housing project. They paved paradise and put in a parking lot. Pavko at third, Reese at Short, Junior Gilliam at second, Furillo at first, Snider, Robinson, Gomez in the outfield and a battery of Newcombe and Campanella are gone.
Dad was the N.Y.C. cop whose beat frequently included the field. When I was between the ages of 5 and 11, I was his frequent undercover companion. My first stop is not as much as marked by a bronze plaque. The weekends of my childhood are replaced by the brick and uniformity of a housing project. L.A. got the team and Brooklyn got the shaft.
Down the street a bit is the Brooklyn is the Brooklyn Museum, one of the best museums in the city, far from mainstream Manhattan, with more security guards than visitors. Its semicircular driveway opening onto Empire Boulevard. It’s the cultural queen of the borough of kings. Gratefully, the main display areas are being remodeled to re-create the design of elegance 100-years old.
I take a walk up Flatbush Avenue, past Winthrop where Bruce Bobiner lived, past Maple where Greenberg was, up to Hawthorne where I stand in a courtyard and look up at a window where my mother would wrap 15 cents in a tissue when I shouted up to the second floor “Maaa, Good Humor is here….throw down some money.” Where California looks across a landscape, New York is always looking up at windows or down to a street.
A large man approaches me and asks “Whaddyadoinghere?” I explain, “I used to live there……in 2D.”
“That must have been a long, long time ago.” With subtly and grace, he describes the changing demographics of city neighborhoods. The doorway entrance is now protected by heavy metal signaling both security and danger. The courtyard where boxball was king is circumnavigated by concertina wire.
Father down Flatbush is Erasmus Hall High School. Home of over 8,000 adolescents. The school now boasts a security system to keep “dangerous elements” out. An earlier generation was more casual. The major danger was spring fever, senior-itis, and the vitriolic nature of the clique.
The “D” train stops at Avenue P. Home to the most eclectic handball (blackball) games ever invented. This is the land that spawned Bobby Riggs. On any given day, you can see teen-age Puerto Rican boys and 60-year-old Jewish men playing on the same courts. Handicaps are established with a player carrying a beach chair or a bucket of water. Onlookers are major participants in the verbal supports and attacks. These games have changed the least, the tournaments seem continuous, fluid competitions from the 50s.
From here the journey continues on the subway. A misnomer as it rises above ground and forms the “El” or elevated to Brighton Beach. The former green Dutch-door lockers that were shared by my father and his six brothers, is closed and beyond normal winter disrepair. They await demolition and rebirth as “luxury beachfront apartments.” The influx of Russians has led to the renaming of Brighton as “Odessa by the Sea.” Mrs. Stahl’s knishes are still the culinary highlight of the day.
Walking to the end of the street, to the Boardwalk, turn east toward Coney Island. Only three subway stops (Elevated) or a 45-minute walk through crowds of strollers, wheelchairs, domino, chess and card players. I walk toward the inert parachute jump that defines the skyline—The iron edifice that acts as the Eiffel Tower of Brooklyn. It stands silent, overlooking the ghosts of Steeplechase Park. Long since gone, the amusement park that replaced it, and the ones that replace that are long since past. Nathan’s still dominates its shrinking amusement world. “From a Hot Dog to a National Habit…..since 1914.” The hot dog teeters on shaky financial ground. The world is more fat conscious and Nathan’s had its quintessential American experience of going public with its stock, rising, franchising and falling into the wreckage of its own dreams and frankfurters. This is where I took my wife on our first date 38 years past. “Chez Nathaniels”…where an adjacent diner, standing near us asked if my date was going to finish her bun.
Turning back toward Mom’s apartment, I wait for an F train to Caton Avenue, a subway stop where I would walk down and wait for my Dad coming home from work. He hasn’t been here for 25 years, but I still smell the Old Spice aftershave as I photograph at the turnstile….a block and a half and I am looking up to the sixth floor (6H) where my Mother would rest her elbows on the sill and quietly watch traffic flowing by, waiting patiently for me to come home. Early dates, the Dick Clark Show with Rosalind, bowling with Phyllis dinner with Cissy. Mom would watch from vigilantly from the shadows to avoid appearing overprotective, anxious. I would wave to the darkness, showing I knew I was worried over and loved.
When going on a journey like this, I love my farsightedness, my astigmatism. It helps me see things the way they were, rater than the way they are. I celebrate my hearing loss; I don’t have to listen to the resounding rap that creates sound corridors through the streets that embraced the days of my childhood.
Finally, I look down and I am at the manhole cover, home plate for stickball. I pace out the distance where I once hit two sewer lengths. I run the patterns of football where plays would be constructed to “go out to the blue Chevy and cut in front”….A fender here, a bumper here becomes your blockers. The play always good for ten yards.
When you travel back to your old neighborhood, take a cheap camera. Taste and smell your youth. To search too deeply for physicals landmarks is to invite futility. It is a form of traveling that is mostly internal. To know who you were helps you appreciate the person that makes the journey now. Trying to “capture” images the way they existed on film or digitally, with crisp equipment is senseless. The more detail you capture, the father you are from the truths that exist only in your mind, in your memory. These truths are real, tangible, physical and all yours.
You CAN go home again. It is a journey you have to make alone. And after 50+ years may I simply say, “Thank you Brooklyn, the heart of the Universe and….I love you Mom and Dad.”
IF YOU GO
Marriott in Brooklyn is too New and too discordant but—
Park South Hotel www.parksouthhotel.com
Chelsea Hotel www.hotelchelsea.com
Trump Hotel www.trumpintl.com
Broadway Bed and Breakfast www.broadway-bed-breakfast.com
Roosevelt Hotel www.theroosevelthotel.com
Hotel Larchmont www.larchmonthotel.com
Vincent’s http://02de1be.netsolhost.com/ (Italian Seafood)
Nathan’s Coney Island www.nathansfamous.com