A Year for Dreaming

The year 1949 was a year for dreaming. To escape the boundaries of our tiny apartment on East Third Street in Brooklyn, the family routinely strolled over to the posh Ocean Parkway, a few blocks away to choose the home that we would buy. Certainly, it was clear to my parents that there was no chance that we could afford a single-family home, especially on “The Parkway.” But to an eleven year-old, it was important to make a list of contenders, and then sort the whole thing out. It was a process that started as a realistic vision.

On summer Sundays, we would march briskly along Avenue M to the east side of Ocean Parkway and amble north; that’s where the better homes were, in our opinion. My father talked about narrowing it down to three and he would then walk up to their front door, knock, and say in a his matter-of-fact British manner, “We want to buy your house, you see,” and that would be that. We quibbled about using the word “house” versus “home” so that the current owner wouldn’t get too sentimental about selling. Who could say no to my father? Surely, I couldn’t.

In late August, we had it narrowed down to a special house near Avenue J. It had everything that we wanted: a place where I could build things, a private room for my father to call an office and a place that my mother could plant roses. Now, we didn’t know anything about what was inside, we just conjectured. We circled the block of this house many times waiting for the right moment to knock on the door and tell then to move – we are buying it. But the time never came. Bit by bit, it became apparent to me that my father was playing a game, an exercise that I had no intention of partaking. The disappointment grew to the point that I no longer wanted to stroll to the Parkway on Sundays.

Everything changed in September. I thought about a plan all day in school and how it would work. As soon as I got home that day, I flew down the stairs of our apartment house and walked quickly to Ocean Parkway and Avenue J. I stood in front of our future home and pictured our family walking up the front steps and into our vast living room. I took a deep breath and marched up the stairs and stood for a moment with my hand a few inches from the doorbell. I let my finger go and pushed the button. My feet wanted to run away, but my heart kept firm.

A woman about my mother’s age opened the door and calmly said, “Yes?” With a quiet enthusiasm, I said, “My father wants to buy your house and so do I.” There was a long silence and then the woman stepped outside and sat down on the steps. “My husband was born in this house and has lived here all his life. My family lives here. We plan to stay here for a long time. But, I am happy that you admire it. That is quite a compliment. Tell you father that he has good taste, but should look elsewhere.” I swallowed hard and wistfully replied, “But we picked this house. There aren’t any others. My mother wants to grow roses.” The woman put her hand on my shoulders and ended the affair with, “I’m sorry.” I walked home kicking the dirt on the sidewalk ahead of me and stood outside my apartment house for a bit. The game had ended forever.

Many years later, when I bought my first house, as I entered the door for the first time the exciting feeling returned of walking up to the door on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn. Only this time it was my home. I wish my father could have lived long enough to be there with me. In my mind, I hear him say, “This is the house we wanted and now it’s our home, you see.” And then I planted roses.

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Polio Panic at Bay 8, Coney Island

Mom packed the lunch, salami and baloney sandwiches on rye, a bag of fruit, a jar of freshly made lemonade and we were off to Coney Island for a summer picnic on the beach. Dad carried the bag of towels and my brother toted the blanket and other beach accessories as we marched to the trolley and the half-hour ride.

I was ten years old and on this hot August day in 1949 our family joined countless others on the beach at Bay 8 of Coney Island. With no home air conditioning, this is where Brooklyn went to cool off in the summer. Blankets were packed so close on the sand that it was not uncommon to roll off your own territory and onto a neighbor’s. When you went to the water it was essential to remember landmarks on the beach, such as a distinctive blanket, so that you could find your spot when you returned. There were always people wandering after they drifted an unknown distance in the surf and lost their landmark. To compare the scene to the masses that crowd the Ganges was no exaggeration.

Beneath the scene of thousands noisily playing on the beach, there was a silent undercurrent, like a volcano set to erupt. Amidst the pastoral scene, the scourge of that time, polio, was in the back of every parent’s mind. It was a time when no single word instilled terror more than hearing someone cry out “polio.” It was no less cause to bolt than the shout of “fire” in a packed theater.

The results of the disease were in the newspapers showing children imprisoned in a metal chamber called the iron lung. Life — real life — and polio did not coexist. And worse yet, it was imagined to be so communicable that merely looking at an infected person plagued you.

I wandered to the water’s edge to dig in the wet sand, carefully counting the blankets that I passed taking special note of the final landmark so, on return, I could find our spot. After a short time playing at the water’s edge, with my pants full of sand, I lost track of the time. I built my sandcastle with wet sand dripping between my fingers. The air was filled with sounds that nearly drowned out the surf; people playing, laughing and yelling. The roar was so constant that it became the baseline for beach enjoyment. And then, suddenly, there was an eerie silence. It seemed to last for a long time. Swimmers rushed out of the water searching for their families. People dashed in every direction.

Suddenly, everything changed from untroubled to alarming. As if to justify the panic, the word spread quickly and loudly; “Polio!” No one knew or cared how it started or whether the terror was justified. Frightened, with faces conveying dread, they ran. Blankets were quickly rolled up and dragged off the beach. Bay 8 was being abandoned to flee the dreaded scourge. With my landmarks gone, I had little to go on and I froze. The word “polio” kept being repeated as if it were the devil’s mantra; polio, polio polio. Looking down the beach, far in the distance, I could see the wave of panic spreading as people started a mass migration towards the boardwalk and off the beach. Not knowing where to go, I stood my ground at the water’s edge to protect my sand castle from the stampede.

But watching everyone rush to the exit under the boardwalk, I eventually felt the need to join. I was torn between staying where I would find my family and rushing with the crowd that might include my parents. Meanwhile, in hushed voices, I heard “polio, polio.” In a very short time the beach became sparsely populated, a dramatic change from the tightly packed mob minutes before. I gave in to the urge and ran with the last of the crowd toward the exit of Bay 8. There, I heard my Dad’s voice, “Arthur, Arthur, here,” and I stopped short. He ran over to me and scooped me off the sand and onto his back. We trotted back towards the water where Mom was standing next to our blanket looking down the beach with her hands shielding her eyes from the sun. My brother was looking in the other direction. As we regrouped, my mother said, “Now that everyone is gone, it’s safe to stay. Baloney or Salami?”

For more honest memories of mid-century Brooklyn seen through the eyes of a 10-12 year old (that would be me), go to http://ArthurJLevy.com

Jewish and Italian Grandmothers

Nonna and Bubbeh

Nonna was Anthony’s Italian grandmother. As a traditional Italian family, they often parked Nonna out in front of their home next door to our apartment house in a cushioned wooden chair, like a houseplant set out to get some sun. Nonna was always dressed in black wearing sturdy shoes clamped to her feet giving the appearance of a gothic Daisy Duck. She rarely moved as if in a euphoric hypnotic state.

Many years ago, my Jewish grandma, Bubbeh, started to visit us regularly in Brooklyn. Mom would go down to the front of our apartment house so that she could chat with her friends and Bubbeh might be exposed to local sidewalk society. Although Bubbeh remained silent, she seemed to enjoy hearing the chatter.

While Mom went down to the basement to fetch chairs, Bubbeh stood in her dark blue dress, red kerchief and sensible shoes, motionless, peacefully staring into the distance. She always seemed content. Once, seeking to avert boredom, I watched from across the street.

Mom immediately dove into the local chitchat with her friends. Bubbeh appeared attached, but uninvolved. After a while Bubbeh slowly turned her head and spied Nonna sitting about 20 yards away. Then, Bubbeh turned her head back and resumed her gaze into the distance. As if Bubbeh’s glance had reverberated a shock wave, Nonna leisurely turned her head slowly and looked back. Then she resumed her own silent fixation into space. This interchange was repeated several times until Mom noticed the interaction. Mom picked up one folding chair and escorted Bubbeh over to Nonna. Mom talked and gestured a bit and then put down the chair next to Nonna. Bubbeh slowly sat down and the two were left alone. They sat together looking forward like nuns with the oath of silence. About an hour later I noticed that their sidewalk roost was empty.

Two weeks later, Bubbeh was brought to visit again and Mom took her downstairs to sit outside. This time, Bubbeh stood in front of her chair for a few moments and then slowly walked straight over to Nonna. Next to Nonna there was an empty cushioned chair waiting for a guest. Bubbeh silently accepted the invitation. I saw them sit together in their contented silent state. They could have been figures in a wax museum.

Some time passed as they took pleasure in each other’s proximity. Soon, Sheila, from down the street, wearing a tight pink sweater and a short grey skirt swayed past them confidently balanced on precariously high platform shoes. I heard Bubbeh gargle “Oy” and from Nonna, a soft “Oooh, Madonna.” As Sheila approached the two, she wobbled on the uneven sidewalk and twisted one shoe nearly off her foot as she squealed in a piccolo voice. For the first time in years, I saw Bubbeh smile broadly. Nonna saw it too and snorted her retort. Like a snowflake starting an avalanche, the both of them became immersed in laughter. I’d never seen Bubbeh, or for that matter, Nonna, giggle before.

Bubbeh grabbed Nonna’s hand and bobbed in her chair. Nonna raised the ante and threw her arms around Bubbeh while she cackled loudly. Bubbeh said something. Nonna nodded her head solidly in agreement and loudly whispered something back to Bubbeh. The retort tickled them both and now they were rolling in their chairs. After the moment passed, the two sat quietly, dearly holding hands. I was unaware at the time that in an instant, a friendship was cemented.

A while later Mom returned to the street and when Bubbeh saw her, she got up and said something to Nonna. Nonna swayed her head knowingly and rambled on a bit while Bubbeh smiled. Nonna took Bubbehs arm and then reluctantly let it slide away as Bubbeh left.

As I spied on the stoic pair, I witnessed something that I could have never imagined. Bubbeh, whose humor was never more than a closed-lipped smile got up from her chair and as she walked, burst with comedy. Without turning around, she wiggled her tush with a flair mocking Sheila. Nonna, whose grin never displayed teeth opened her mouth and screamed with an unrelenting hilarity. It was like the cork had been pried loose from a shaken musty bottle of champagne. Bubbeh didn’t give up. She sporadically stomped her heavy black trussed up sensible shoe in a wide stance to swing it further. When Bubbeh returned to Mom she was again the tranquil, dignified Bubbeh. Nonna was still bubbling over with a loud cackle. Without the slightest smile, Bubbeh turned back and looked at Nonna as if to see what was disrupting the neighborhood.

The next day, Anthony saw me in the street and said that the whole family had never seen Nonna so joyfully giddy. She spoke about her best friend — my Bubbeh — and couldn’t wait for them to get together again. Nonna knew Bubbeh was my grandmother and when I played near their house she waved her arms and enthusiastically yelled to me in Italian. In the past, she sometimes shrieked Italian bursts in anger when I played ball too close to their house. This time it was different – sweet and engaging. Anthony said she was asking when Bubbeh would visit again.

Bubbeh didn’t visit her pal Nonna again for several weeks. Mom mentioned that she asked about Nonna, in several telephone conversations. They never met again. Nonna died in her sleep a few weeks after they had cemented their friendship and become confidents. Near the end of the summer, Bubbeh once again sat silently in front of the apartment house with Mom, turning occasionally to the spot where Nonna had always sat. I think I saw her smile.

And, by the way, Nonna spoke only Italian. Bubbeh spoke only a Yiddish-Russian dialect. Neither spoke English.

The Fountains of Flatbush, Brooklyn

August in my Flatbush section of Brooklyn is as hot and steamy as it is in the Hamptons. In 1946, getting a cool ocean breeze and a dip at the beach was a rare and distant treat if you lived on East 3rd Street. But we had another option; the gushing cool water from the fire hydrant across the street from our apartment house transformed our street into a perfectly fine beachfront. It sprayed and flooded the streets, washing away dust and dirt so that the little kids could jump in the stream and get knocked over by the gush into a shallow lake in the street.
The hydrant season usually started on the fourth of July, weather permitting. Mr. Provula, a former city worker whose house fronted the hydrant, managed to snag the hefty hydrant wrench as a retirement souvenir. On that opening day of the season, he would sit on his front steps flaunting the wrench, followed by a slow teasing march back and forth around the hydrant. This man had the power of the Pied Piper of Hamelin and like those rats, we scurried for bathing suits (or not) and got ready for the water party. There was a prologue; a lengthy speech, at least for the attention span of an eight-year old, explaining of his civic duty to purge the rust from the pipes. We never saw any rust.
One day, in August of that year, it was so hot and sticky that you could feel your eyelids hesitantly opening, peeling away from your cheek when you blinked. We needed the hydrant man badly. When we learned Mr. Provula was on vacation and would not be back for weeks. My friend David and I swung around the hydrant reminiscing January when we warned that it was too cold to touch it with your tongue. Now the cool water lurked inside, less than an inch away. Not particularly wanting to lead anyone into trouble, but feeling the restlessness of defeat, I suggested that we didn’t need Provula; we needed his wrench locked inside his garage.
Although there was a ponderous padlock on the garage door, people were not so obsessed with security in those days, often leaving a window unlocked. Pretending to be on a nature walk, David and I slipped down Provula’s driveway and behind his garage. David propped a crate up to a window and I slipped in. The tools were orderly and it was easy to spot the big wrench. I tossed it to David and we were on our way to be the hydrant deputies.
David placed the wrench over the top of the hydrant and I tugged at the end, a good two feet away. I yanked and heaved with no movement whatsoever. David moved from his post at the hub and pushed the end while I jerked. Like bursting of the Hoover Dam, water flowed over the street, actually more than Mr. Provula ever let loose. Kids from everywhere on the block poured toward the fountain and danced in the cool water. We were the heroes of East 3rd Street. Water snaked down the street towards the sewer on the corner attracting more and more kids. We played for hours. Suddenly, breaking into the cacophony of fun, we heard an abrasive screeching voice coming from a third-floor window, “Daaaaavid.” David obediently followed his mother’s voice and went inside.
It was getting close to dinnertime and the kids, one by one, vanished. It was time to shut down the surging flow and return the wrench. I tugged at the wrench without it budging. I pleaded with the few kids remaining to help, but suddenly aware that we might be in trouble, they fled leaving me alone on the street with Niagara Falls as an accusing companion. I tugged, swung my body round holding onto the wrench, but the water stubbornly gushed.
Eventually, my Father marched out of the apartment house entrance and across the street to see why I wasn’t home for dinner. Without a word, he grabbed the bar and turned the hydrant off. He handed me the wrench and said in a slow, even voice, “Return it.” I ran down Mr. Provula‘s driveway, tossed the wrench into the open garage window and ran back to my father. I sheepishly muttered, “Are you going tell Mom?” He said nothing, but kept walking back into the building. When we climbed up to our apartment, Mom asked, “What were you doing?” and Dad intervened, “He was playing.” Mom responded with that knowing twang, “That bad?” and we sat down to dinner in our tiny kitchen with the stove blasting to add to the August heat.
There always seemed to be ample opportunities for TROUBLE IN FLATBUSH.

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Danger in Meeting Dad Halfway

The reflection of what I did in June of 1948 frightens me today, as it should have back then. It started when, out of the blue, my father said, “Tomorrow, when I come home from work, I’m going to bring you a surprise.” It was such an uncommon statement coming from this British disciplinarian that I fantasized all night and most of the next day about what kind of surprise would accompany my father.
Around 4 o’clock the next day, I decided that, under the circumstances, it was inappropriate to sit around waiting for “it” to come to me; I would have to meet “it” half way. Perhaps it would be too large for Dad to carry alone. Like clockwork, Dad arrived every day at ten to six with meticulous precision, meaning that his train pulled into the elevated line station at 5:35. An inescapable impulse came over me to meet him on the station platform when the subway car doors opened. But the el (as we called the Culver Line subway when it came to our elevated Avenue N station) was unattended at that time of day making it impossible to slither through the turnstile under the cloak of innocence. A ten-year-old, caught by the attendant sneaking through in those days, would be punished with merely a cluck of the tongue. I could handle that. However, with the station deserted and gated, that was not a choice.
Knowing that an unattended station was impenetrable, I lackadaisically stood at the bottom of the stairs that climbed two stories to the fortress-like turnstile that we called the Iron Lady and then up another story to the platform. Hanging on the outside edge of the steps, I thoughtlessly ascended step-by-step, hanging onto the outside of the banister railing, until I reached the first landing. An alert mind would have been terrified; I was ten feet above the sidewalk. I hung there for a bit and swung around the outside of the landing and slowly and aimlessly kept ascending like a monkey on a jungle-gym. Steel bars and a cyclone-type fence blocked access to the platform. I was 20 feet above ground and just hanging around. I noticed a 15-inch gap in the fencing to the side, about four feet away; there was no foothold below that point and a long way down. I knew that I was doing something dreadfully wrong, but somehow that made it right and pulled me farther. How else could I express my appreciation for Dad’s exciting generosity?
Clinging to the bars with my shoes barely penetrating through the fencing, I migrated slowly to the gap, crawled through finally plopping onto a steel beam. I had to slither through another gap amidst skuzzy left-over cables, souvenirs of pigeons and scattered metal debris invisible to public view. Every few minutes an arriving train shook the members that I clung to as I looked for any possible move forward. There was no possibility of going backwards; what flops safely in doesn’t always plop safely out. My childhood sense of invulnerability was quickly eroding as I examined the abandoned detritus and realized that no one would ever find me here. This could have been a lonely and horror-filled dead end, but luckily I noticed a stretch of cyclone fence that shook loosely with each passing train. I was able to slip through the loose flap in the fence to the stairs that ascended to the platform. I was streaked with an oily grime.
I waited on the platform for Dad to emerge with each arriving swarm that spewed from the train. The fourth train brought Dad and I rushed to meet him and see what surprise he brought with him. Knowing that I didn’t have the nickel to enter the platform legally, and realizing that I had climbed three stories to the platform, Dad looked red with fury. He grabbed me by the back of my dirty shirt and with a muted roaring anger, dragged me down the platform and down to the street. Meekly, I asked, “Did you bring something for me?” Without looking at me, he rumbled, “Forget about that,” and kept dragging me home. The worst punishment was that he had forgotten.
Thankfully, Dad never told Mom, which averted a week of Yiddish epithets preceded with the whimpering, “Oy,” followed by the usual predictions of how her life would fall apart. The next day, Dad came home and presented me with a small potted petunia, accompanied by a quiet, “Surprise.” I set it on the fire escape and tried to stop thinking about the potential catastrophe to which I exposed myself. But, when you are ten years old, youthful immortality trumps physical vulnerability. While I remember the incident with amazing detail, I cannot imagine having the courage to do what I did. But, on second thought, if the consequences were unimaginable, I guess it wasn’t courage at all.

For more honest memories of mid-century Brooklyn seen through the eyes of a 10-12 year old (that would be me), go to http://www.ArthurJLevy.com
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Groped on the New York Subway

Breaking away from Flatbush, Brooklyn to attend high school in Manhattan was an amazing event. It marked the transition from child to, well, not yet man, but something in-between. Sex was often on my mind and references and innuendos slipped into every encounter. I had graduated from  TROUBLE IN FLATBUSH to a whole new venue of dilemmas. It’s important to remember that this was the early 50s, when strangers were generally trusted. I was a beginning high-school freshman.
It wasn’t long before I had a strange confrontation that introduced me to the rich variety of strangers that I would meet on the subway of New York. My ride home was long and I was generally tired from a busy day at school. Getting a seat was an imperative and a window seat that enabled a restful snooze was a luxury. Coming home at roughly the same time every day allowed me to get familiar with the faces in the crowd. Knowing their stops enabled me to frequently snag a window seat. It wasn’t long before I daydreamed my way to a restful snooze.
One day while I was deep in daydream at a window seat, the seat next to me became empty. It was quickly taken by a good-looking man in a stylish suit. He fiddled with his New York Times opening the large sheets and starting to read. In a semi-daze, my eyes opened and closed, sometimes reading, sometimes just staring at his newspaper. It was hard to avoid since the newspaper was so large it covered part of my lap like a tent.
That’s when it started. My thigh nearest the stranger started to feel warm. It took me a few seconds to realize that he was only holding the paper with one hand. The other hard was exploring new territory; mine. My first instinct was to pretend that I was sleeping with my mind in a different place. Perhaps my mind was, but my thigh was right there, trapped under the New York Times. As his leg pressed against mine, I shrunk closer to the window. The car was packed tight with a rush-hour crowd and under cover of the New York Times I was being groped.
My first sensation was an uncertain fear, followed by excitement of the stimulation, but followed again by a chill that curled my toes and made my hair tingle. Afraid of insulting the well-dressed man, I tucked my books under my arm and excused myself. As I glanced back, he winked with a friendly smile. In a pretense of nonchalance, I got off the train. I could still feel an impression of a strange hand moving inward from my thigh. That feeling doesn’t go away so easily.

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Brooklyn’s Dill Pickle Farmer

Before I tell you what happened, you have to know how the subway in my section of Brooklyn works. When my line made its way well into Brooklyn, it crept out from the dark tunnels into the daylight and slowly climbed to be an elevated line. After riding home from high school in upper Manhattan in the dank bowels of the subterranean city for the better part of an hour, seeing the daylight was a catharsis. Relieved from the tedium of flashing bare light bulbs in black tunnels, it was a relief to study the landscape while the train was at surface level.
In the 50s, there was a pickle “farm” in close vicinity to where the train emerged. This was the landmark that I waited for. The farm consisted of enormous vats of floating cucumbers on their journey to becoming dill pickles. Although the vats appeared to be no more than two feet deep, they each seemed to be about forty yards in diameter. They didn’t need to be deep; pickles float. With the exception of a deep freeze in winter, there was always a man in hip boots skimming a rake over the surface. I later learned that he was nudging the saddest cucs to the edge of the pond to be dropouts and turn to pickle relish. The sight of pickles and the hunger of late afternoon gave me a prescient desire for a savory dill. I often stopped at the local grocery store, Cornick’s, to buy a couple to have with dinner.
But, I digress. It eventually became a challenge to spot the pickle farmer trudging through one of the vats in the 20 seconds when the train was close. Like Pavlov’s dogs, I eventually got the urge to splurge for some half-sour pickles even before daylight struck my window. One day, the whole affair ended. As my train entered the fading daylight, I spotted the pickle farmer in his hip boots at the center of the closest vat. While I was taming my urge to splurge, the farmer was giving in to the urge to purge. The setting sun sparkled through the graceful stream like the Fountains of Rome. He was peeing in a graceful arc out into the air and down into the pickles. Admittedly, trudging through 20 yards of knee-high liquid to answer a call from Mother Nature was a bummer. But on the other hand, the joy of salivating at the thought of a delicious half-sour kosher dill plucked straight from the vat was blunted forever.
Visit my web-site for the book, TROUBLE IN FLATBUSH., to learn more about Brooklyn in the early 50s. You’ll love it. At Amazon.com.